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LECTURE 21 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Of petitions during the early times of representative government. ~ Regulations on the subject. ~ Transformation of the right of petition possessed by the Houses of Parliament into the right of proposition and initiative. ~ Petitions ceased to be addressed to the king, and are presented to Parliament. ~ Origin of the right of inquiry. ~ Necessity for representative government to be complete. ~ Artifices and abuses engendered by the right of petition.
The circumstances which occur at the origin of an institution are well calculated to make us acquainted with its nature. At such periods, events are simple, and produce themselves spontaneously. No effort has yet been made either to evade them or to change their nature, and the state of society is not sufficiently complicated to render it impossible to attain the object aimed at by any but subtle and indirect means.
To say truth, in what does the right of petition consist? It is the right to demand the reparation of an injury, or to give expression to a desire. Such a demand must naturally be addressed to the power which is capable of satisfying the desire or repairing the injury—which has authority, and power enough to grant the prayer of the petition.
Accordingly, in the fourteenth century, all petitions, whether they emanated from the two Houses of Parliament, or from individuals unconnected with those Houses, whether they had reference to general or private interests, were addressed to the king. No one had any idea of petitioning the Houses themselves; the king governed; in him resided both the right and the power to redress public or private grievances, and to satisfy the requirements of the nation. To him the barons, commons, corporations, and citizens applied whenever they had need.
The king governed in his council: and of all his councils, the Parliament was the most eminent and the most extensive. In certain cases, the advice and acquiescence of the Parliament, as a whole or in part, were necessary to the exercise of the royal authority. The meeting of Parliament was, therefore, the natural opportunity for the presentation of all petitions. It was, as it were, the moment at which the nation and the government met face to face, either to transact in common those affairs which required their concurrence, or to make those reciprocal demands of which they mutually stood in need. Private citizens naturally availed themselves of this opportunity for presenting their own petitions, either because the co-operation of the great powers of the State was necessary to grant their prayers, or because they referred to demands upon which the king was competent to decide alone, but to which his attention would then be more effectually directed, as they might receive support from the patronage of the barons or deputies met in council with the king.
In all cases, it was to the king in his council, that is to say, to the government itself, that petitions were addressed; and far from the Houses of Parliament, after having received and examined them, referring them to the government for decision, it was the king who, by officers specially appointed for the purpose, received and examined them, and afterwards called the attention of both Houses to those with whose prayers he could not comply without their sanction. All complaints and demands were thus forwarded directly to the power entrusted with the duty of coming to a definitive decision regarding them; and the Houses of Parliament interfered subsequently only in certain cases, and then as a necessary council.
Such was the primitive and natural fact. The progress of the representative system, however, completely changed its course and character.
We have seen that, in the fourteenth century, petitions were of two kinds; first, those drawn up or presented to the king, by one or both Houses, and relating to grievances of a more or less general character; secondly, those addressed to the king by corporations or citizens, and relating to collective or private interests. We have now nothing further to do with the first class of these petitions. As far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned, they have become transformed into a right of initiative, more or less efficacious and more or less direct. This right, its importance and its forms, give rise to questions of an entirely distinct character. At the present day, the complaints or demands addressed by private citizens to the legislative authorities, are alone called by the name of petitions.
There is now no further question about the right of addressing such demands to the executive power itself—to the government properly so called. No one thinks of contesting the right of citizens to seek in this manner the redress of their grievances, or the satisfaction of their desires. Nor that this right, in itself so simple and incontestable, has not sometimes assumed great political importance, and thereby occasioned animated discussions. In 1680, Charles II., having ceased for several years to convoke a Parliament, a great number of petitions were addressed to him demanding its convocation. The king, by proc lamation, declared them seditious, and refused to receive them; but the Parliament having met at last, the House of Commons enacted, on the 27th of October, 1680; “ 1. That it is, and ever hath been, the undoubted right of the subjects of England to petition the king for the calling and sitting of Parliaments, and redressing of grievances. 2. That to traduce such petitioning as a violation of duty, and to represent it to his Majesty as tumultuous or seditious, is to betray the liberty of the subject, and contribute to the design of subverting the ancient legal constitution of this kingdom, and introducing arbitrary power. 3. That a committee be appointed to enquire after all such persons, that have offended against the right of the subject.”*
A state of crisis could alone lead to such an attempt to destroy the most natural of the right of citizens—the right of addressing the government itself in order to make known to it their desires—and the Charter, reasonably, neither sanctioned nor limited it. The right to which it gave sanction, and which alone now bears the name of the right of petition, is the right of applying to the two Houses of Parliament to urge their interference, either in some matter of general legislation, or for the redress of private grievances. To this right the question which we have now under consideration is restricted. We must enquire how it became introduced into the representative system of government and in what respects the various forms which it has successively assumed correspond to the various stages of the development of that system.
In fact, this right did not exist in the fourteenth century; that is to say, nobody thought either of exercising or of demanding it. The Houses of Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, were themselves the great public petitioner. They had quite enough to do to present and obtain the reception of their own demands, without incurring the labour of interfering on behalf of private interests, which at that time were treated generally with much less consideration. They were, moreover, too slightly connected with the government thus to meddle with the details of its action. They were neither the seat nor the centre of power. Their assembly lasted only for a short period. The king’s answers to their own demands were ordinarily given only during the next session. In such a state of things, it was natural that all private petitions should go directly to the king in council, for from that source alone could redress be expected.
When the Houses had acquired greater importance, sat for a longer period, and interfered in all great public affairs—when, in full and secure possession of their fundamental rights, they began to apply them to practice instead of limiting their efforts to defend their existence—when, in a word, they had acquired, in public opinion and in reality the consistency of public powers associated in the government of the State, it became natural that petitions should be presented to them against the abuses or errors of the government which they were appointed to control. The right of petition to the Houses of Parliament was then regarded as a natural consequence of the right of petition to the king. The Parliament was always considered and called the great council of the king. This council, it is true, was habitually in opposition and conflict with the government of the king, which still remained exterior to it, and endeavoured to free itself from its control: but ancient traditions retained their sway; complaint was made to one part of the government against the injuries committed by the other part. The new mode of petitioning did not, therefore, appear extraordinary, and no attempt was made either to authorize or prohibit it. It was brought into use without opposition.*
But when this practice was introduced, the Houses of Parliament themselves had undergone great change of form, and received considerable development, as regarded their internal constitution, their proceedings, and their privileges. Instead of those petitions which, at the outset, they had been accustomed to present to the king, the right of initiative had been substituted, and this right belonged to every member of either of the two Houses of Parliament who might exercise it by bringing forward, with such formalities and delays as were required by usage, any motion with which he thought it fitting to occupy the assembly. With the right of initiative was connected the right of enquiry into all such facts or acts as appeared to the House of sufficient importance to induce it to desire a thorough knowledge of them and afterwards to adopt a resolution regarding them, either of prosecution or of censure, or simply to declare its opinion. On coming before Houses invested with such rights, petition necessarily took another course than would have been the case had those rights been wanting. And in the first place it passed into a custom that they must be presented by a member; this custom was not, originally, a precaution against the abuse of the right of petition, but the natural form of its exercise. As every member enjoyed the right to call the attention of the House, by motion, to any particular subject it was natural that he should make use of this right when ever he became the exponent, to the House, of the demand of his constituents or his friends. By this means, they acquired an authority which they could not otherwise have obtained; the House was thus made to deliberate, not upon the petition, but upon the motion of the member who has presented it, and who had based upon it a proposition either for an enquiry, or for an address, or for a prosecution, or for a law, or for any other act which the House was entitled to accomplish. And whatever this motion might be, it was subjected to all the formalities and all the delays which, on every occasion, regulated the debates and deliberations of the assembly.
Thus invested with all the rights necessary for exercising over the government, by one mode or another, the influence which properly belonged to them, the English Houses of Parliament regarded the petitions which were presented to them merely as an opportunity for exercising this influence in virtue of these rights. They did not act as a sort of patron placed between the petitioners and the government from which the redress of the grievance was definitively demanded; nor did they refer the petition to the government, with a postscript of their own to request the passing of any act of which they were unable to superintend or compel the execution. After its presentation, they no longer had anything whatever to do with the petition; if the motion to which it had given rise were adopted, then began an act of the House itself, accomplished with all the usual formalities and terminated by a resolution which specially belonged to it, and which placed the government in presence of the thoroughly-discussed and clearly-expressed opinion or will of the assembly which shared with it in the exercise of the supreme power in the nation.
When, by a further progress, the government found itself at last obliged to fix its seat within the Houses of Parliament, when they had become once more the great national council, discussing and deciding public affairs in public, petitions also were restored to their natural state, to their primary condition—that is to say, being addressed to the Houses of Parliament, they were addressed to the king in council, to the government itself, which consisted in the royal power, surrounded by the parliamentary majority, and compelled to justify its wishes and acts against the attacks of the opposition, which sat in the same council, by virtue of the same title, and with the same rights. What has been the consequence of this? Every petition, when converted into a motion by a member of the House, gives rise to a regular combat, conducted according to the usual formalities, between the ministry and the opposition. The issue of this conflict fully decides the fate of the petition, that is to say, the result at which it aims; it has not to go elsewhere in search of a solution; the House has neither compromised itself frivolously, nor given its verdict inconsiderately; and, with the exception of the case of appeal to a new House after a dissolution, all its acts, after having been accomplished in obedience to those formalities which give pledge of their maturity, directly attain their object.
Such has been the course of the right of petition in England. Closely connected with the whole system of representative government, it has kept pace with the progress of that system, adapting itself to its various successive stages, and holding the same rank with the other rights of deliberative assemblies. It has thus been brought back to its true nature, which is incessantly to proclaim and assert, in the centre of the government itself, the grievances and the requirements of citizens, so as to ensure, after mature deliberation, the redress of the former and the satisfaction of the latter.
I do not say that this result is always attained in England; other causes have, in certain respects, neutralized the natural virtue of representative government, and prevented it from producing all its legitimate results. I merely say that the right of petition has there assumed its reasonable form, and that, but for the action of causes which effect a general change of the system, it would by that form attain the object which its advocates should propose to themselves.
Let us now enquire what must happen in a different state of things, when representative government, though perhaps less changed in certain particulars, is nevertheless much more incomplete. It will be seen how the right of petition may introduce disorder among the public powers of a State and yet remain almost illusory.
This is the hypothesis upon which I stand. I suppose the Houses of Parliament invested, by right, with great power, associated in the legislation of the country, voting taxes, receiving accounts of the administration of the revenue of the State, carrying on their discussions in public, and enjoying a large amount of liberty in these debates. It is beyond a doubt that, in the public opinion, they will be held to possess the mission and the power to obtain the redress of all grievances, and the satisfaction of all legitimate requirements, and to compel the executive power to act, on all occasions, in accordance with justice, the laws, and the general interests of the country. It is from the action of the Houses of Parliament that the public and the citizen will expect all that they desire or hope; and towards them they will turn their eyes to obtain it.
Such being the disposition of the public mind, if these same Houses do not possess the right of initiative, or the right of enquiry, or any positive external jurisdiction—if it is not in their power to set themselves in motion and to pursue their own objects—in a word, if their means of direct action are far below their written mission and the public expectation, what will be the consequence?
Evidently both the Houses and the public will seek for indirect means of exercising that influence which rightfully belongs to them, and which is actually imputed to them. And if the right of petition had been solemnly sanctioned, to it will resort be made to supply the place of deficient rights, and by it will members of the Houses strive to obtain that control over the whole government, of which it has been tempted to deprive them.
Who cannot perceive, for example, that the right of petition is a real right of initiative, since its effect is to introduce, into the Houses of Parliament, questions which the government has not brought forward, and to give rise to discussions which the government has not originated? Thus, the right of initiative, though denied to members of the Houses, belongs to all citizens, to the first comer, even to a fictitious name. The elect of a large number of citizens may not provoke his colleagues to discuss with him a solemnly propounded question: but if he leave the House, if he cast aside his character of representative and assume that of petitioner, he has the power to do so, and the humblest citizen possesses it finally with himself. Thus, instead of an initiative, the utility and propriety of which would be guaranteed by the character and position of the members of the Houses, an initiative is substituted which is guarded by no guarantee, and which imposes no moral obligation upon the man who exercises it, since he is not a part of the public power which he sets in motion.
And as this power holds a very lofty position in the public opinion, as it is supposed to possess the mission and the power to remedy every evil, its interference will be solicited in matters of all kinds; it will be called upon to deliberate upon affairs most foreign to its attributes; and its petitioners will afterwards be astonished to find its actual power so limited in comparison with the immensity of the rights which it is supposed to enjoy.
It will soon be felt that there is disorder in such a state of things, and attempts will be made to remedy it. Restrictions will be imposed, if possible, upon this universal initiative. The remedy would present itself spontaneously, if every member of the legislative assemblies had the right to propose such motions as he judged fitting. It would then come to pass, as it did in England, that every petition must be presented by a member, and must become, on his part, the subject of a motion. Thus the members themselves would exercise over petitions that kind of censorship from which it is impossible to liberate them. In the absence of this censorship, another kind is invented; the petitions are referred to a committee ad hoc, appointed to examine them beforehand, and to call the attention of the House to those which appear to deserve its notice; but to whom does this censorship belong? to the parliamentary majority which names the committee. This is the reverse of the natural order of things. Petitions almost always belong to the minority. The minority presents and supports them. The minority is, consequently, placed, in this respect, at the discretion of the majority, whose censorship may become a means of tyranny; whereas, if the right of initiative belonged to all the members, a legitimate censorship would be established, which would refuse to bring forward a multitude of unsuitable petitions, and would neither reject nor postpone any of those which were possessed of real importance.
After the first step in the exercise of the right, that is to say, after the presentation of petitions, comes their discussion. If they could be introduced by a member only, this discussion would be subject to all the delays and formalities required for the due regulation of legislative debates. A first motion, for instance, would suggest that the petition should be read; a second, that it be printed; a third, that it form the subject of an enquiry, or of an address to the crown, or of a law. During this process, facts would be cleared up, and opinions would be formed; and a conflict would occur between the minority and the majority, only if the latter should formally refuse to grant the justice demanded, or to comply with the wish expressed. In the other system, on the contrary, the debate must be precipitate and confused; the House and the government must adopt their resolution in a few moments, often without thoroughly understanding what they demand of, or refuse to, one another. Petitions succeed and fall upon one another with a rapidity that produces sometimes violence, and sometimes in difference; and the right of petition itself thus becomes an occasion of disorder, or is treated with a sort of levity and disdain which compromises it in the legislative chambers, and also compromises the Chambers in the opinion of the public.
The manner in which petitions are introduced into the Chambers is not the only cause of so vicious a mode of deliberation, but the absence of the right of enquiry also contributes greatly towards it. Every petition received by one of the Chambers calls for a resolution on its part; there is therefore something more than mere singularity in depriving it of the means of adopting that resolution with a full knowledge of the cause. It is a great defect of representative government that, leading as it necessarily does to the systematic organization and permanent conflict of parties, it habitually divides the truth into two parts, and induces men never to consider questions on more than one side, and to see only half the ideas or facts in reliance upon which their decision must be made. It is, without doubt, a system of exaggeration and partiality; and this evil is, to a certain point, inevitable. All means of diminishing it are, therefore, of great importance. Now, the most effectual, indisputably, is to compel opposing opinions to unite, on certain occasions, in a common search after truth. This is the effect of the right of enquiry. When these opinions reach the moment of decision, without having been brought into contact or made acquainted with each other, without having been constrained mutually to communicate motives and facts, their resolution will chiefly be dictated by party spirit, and by anterior engagements which have experienced no necessity to modify it. Everything, on the other hand, that brings the minority and the majority into presence, before the moment when they must appear in public and pronounce their decision, draws them for a time out of their habitual sphere, and leads them to extend or to correct their ideas. This is especially the case in reference to facts. It is immensely inconvenient if all communications of this kind can only be made at the rostrum, and in the midst of the decisive combat; for they are then rejected, and scarcely ever influence the decision. Thus, as the absence of the right of enquiry leaves parties in their natural ignorance and primitive crudity, it is injurious not only to the goodness of the special resolutions of deliberative assemblies, but also to the wisdom of their general arrangements.
Besides, when the right of enquiry is wanting, its absence is supplied in the same way as that of the right of initiative by the right of petition. As it is impossible to undertake a serious and complete investigation of any particular kind of abuse which appears to have introduced itself into the government, special complaints are suggested and multiplied. Now, the right of petition is no more competent to supply the place of the right of enquiry than that of the right of initiative. The revelation of abuses or grievances which it occasions is, by the very nature of things, full of confusion and error; matters are seldom presented without prejudice and with generality. And yet, from the very fact that there are no means of going into the details, and examining them in all their bearings, men are involuntarily led to put confidence in these complaints. Never were the demands presented by the House of Commons itself for the redress of grievances so numerous and violent as in those times when it was allowed to address them to the king only, and was permitted neither to have them thoroughly investigated by its own members, nor to sum them up in a body of facts accompanied by satisfactory proofs.
Finally, when the representative system of government is complete, and provided with all the rights and all the means of action which it needs in order to accomplish its ends, the right of petition is nothing but the right of calling the attention of the Houses of Parliament, by means of one of their members, to any particular question, or act of the governing power. When once this first provocation has taken place by way of petition, the petition has attained its object; nothing more is necessary but a discussion and resolution of the House itself, which takes place according to the ordinary formalities, as if it had originated within the assembly itself, and independently of all relations with the external world. Thus the exercise of a right which should belong to all citizens is reconciled with the dignity of the public power of the nation, and with the maturity befitting their acts. Thus all grievances may solicit redress, all desires may be expressed, without giving rise to any disorder, any precipitation, or any subversion of the procedure of the great deliberative bodies. When, on the contrary, these deliberative bodies themselves are deprived of the rights and means of action which are necessary to them for the fulfilment of their destination, the right of petition becomes an irregular and often violent means by which the public and the legislative chambers endeavour to supply their deficiencies. And then this right, by all the practices to which it lends itself, and by the vicious mode of deliberation which it entails, creates, in its turn, new disorders which men undertake to remedy by imposing upon the right itself restrictions or trammels which would be completely useless if the legislative chambers were invested with all the means of action which are their due. Political liberty has this in common with science generally; it is most dangerous when it is incomplete. The history of the British Parliament proves this at every step.
[* ]Parliamentary History, vol. iv. p. 1174.
[* ]Mr. Hallam is of opinion that the interference of the Commons in regard to petitions relating to matters of private interest originated solely in this desire to repress the encroachments of the Privy Council. “From the first years of Henry V.,” he says, “though not, I think, earlier, the Commons began to concern themselves with the petitions of individuals to the Lords or Council.... Many of the requests preferred to them were such as could not be granted without transcending the boundaries of law. A just inquietude as to the encroachments of the king’s council had long been manifested by the Commons: and finding remonstrances ineffectual, they took measures for preventing such usurpations of legislative power, by introducing their own consent to private petitions. These were now presented by the hands of the Commons, and in very many instances passed in the form of statutes with the express assent of all parts of the legislature. Such was the origin of private bills, which occupy the greater part of the rolls in Henry V. and VI.’s Parliament.” (Hallam’s Middle Ages, vol. ii. p. 224.)