Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Henry Parker on Parliament’s role in limiting the power of Kings (1642)

The English lawyer and pamphleteer Henry Parker (1604-1652) justified the taking up of arms against Charles I’s “unbounded & unconditionate royalty” because Parliament ruled with the consent of the people and acted as a “guard against the guardians”:

It was soon therefore provided that lawes agreeable to the dictates of reason should be ratified by common consent, and that the execution and interpretation of those Lawes should be intrusted to some magistrate, for the preventing of common injuries betwixt Subject and Subject, but when it after appeared that man was yet subject to unnaturall destruction, by the Tyranny of intrusted magistrates, a mischiefe almost as fatall as to be without all magistracie, how to provide a wholsome remedy therefore, was not so easie to be invented. ’T was not difficult to invent Lawes, for the limitting of supreme governors, but to invent how those Lawes should be executed or by whom interpreted, was almost impossible, nam quis custodiat ipsos custodes.

So much for the ends of Parliamentary power. I come now to the true nature of it, publike consent: we see consent as well as counsell is requisite and due in Parliament and that being the proper foundation of all power (for omnis Potestas fundata est in voluntate) we cannot imagine that publique consent should be any where more vigorous or more orderly than it is in Parliament. Man being depraved by the fall of Adam grew so untame and uncivill a creature, that the Law of God written in his brest was not sufficient to restrayne him from mischiefe, or to make him sociable, and therefore without some magistracy to provide new orders, and to judge of old, and to execute according to justice, no society could be upheld. Without society men could not live, and without lawes men could not be sociable, and without authority somewhere invested, to judge according to Law, and execute according to judgement, Law was a vaine and void thing.

It was soon therefore provided that lawes agreeable to the dictates of reason should be ratified by common consent, and that the execution and interpretation of those Lawes should be intrusted to some magistrate, for the preventing of common injuries betwixt Subject and Subject, but when it after appeared that man was yet subject to unnaturall destruction, by the Tyranny of intrusted magistrates, a mischiefe almost as fatall as to be without all magistracie, how to provide a wholsome remedy therefore, was not so easie to be invented. ’T was not difficult to invent Lawes, for the limitting of supreme governors, but to invent how those Lawes should be executed or by whom interpreted, was almost impossible, nam quis custodiat ipsos custodes; To place a superiour above a supreme, was held unnaturall, yet what a livelesse fond thing would Law be, without any judge to determine it, or power to enforce it; and how could humaine consociation be preserved, without some such Law? besides, if it be agreed upon, that limits should be prefixed to Princes, and judges appointed to decree according to those limits, yet an other great inconvenience will presently affront us; for we cannot restraine Princes too far, but we shall disable them from some good, as well as inhibit them from some evill, and to be disabled from doing good in some things, may be as mischievous, as to be inabled for all evils at meere discretion.

Long it was ere the world could extricate it selfe out of all these extremities, or finde out an orderly meanes whereby to avoid the danger of unbounded prerogative on this hand, and too excessive liberty on the other: and scarce has long experience yet fully satisfied the mindes of all men in it. In the infancy of the world, when man was not so actificiall and obdurate in cruelty and oppression as now, and when policy was more rude, most Nations did chuse rather to submit themselves to the meer discretion of their Lords, then to rely upon any limits: and to be ruled by Arbitrary edicts, then written Statutes. But since, Tyranny being growne more exquifite, and policy more perfect, (especially in Countreys where Learning and Religion flourish) few Nations will indure that thraldome which uses to accompany unbounded & unconditionate royalty, yet long it was ere the bounds and conditions of supreme Lords were so wisely determined or quietly conserved as now they are, for at first when Ephori, Tribuni, Curatores &c. were erected to poyze against the scale of Soveraignty, much bloud was shed about them, and, states were put into new broyles by them, and in some places the remedy proved worse then the disease.

In all great distresses the body of the people was ever constrained to rise, and by the force of a Major party to put an end to all intestine strifes, and make a redresse of all publique grievances, but many times calamities grew to a strange height, before so combersome a body could be raised; and when it was raised, the motions of it were so distracted and irregular, that after much spoile and effution of bloud, sometimes onely one Tyranny was exchanged for another: till some way was invented to regulate the motions of the peoples moliminous body, I think arbitrary rule was most safe for the world, but now since most Countries have found out an Art and peaceable Order for Publique Assemblies, whereby the people may assume its owne power to do itselfe right without disturbance to it selfe, or injury to Princes, he is very unjust that will oppose this Art and order.

About this Quotation:

The lawyer and political theorist Henry Parker (1604-1652) took up his pen to defend the right of “the people”, or at least those represented in Parliament, against the growing claims of King Charles I to rule without limits placed on his power. The conflict escalated during the summer of 1642 when violence broke out between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists which began the first phase of the English Civil War. What is interesting about Parker’s pamphlet “Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses” (July 1642) is the way he grounds the right of Parliament’s actions in “consent theory”, in other words that political power should be exercised with the consent of the governed. This was written 45 years before John Locke made similar arguments in Two Treatises of Government (1688) and over 100 years before the North American colonists began challenging the British government on the same grounds in the mid-18th century. Another interesting point is his reference to the classic problem of any political system, how do you guard against the misuse of power by the very people who wield that power (quis custodiat ipsos custodes)? His answer was that Parliament or other “Publique Assemblies” had now emerged which could allow the people to “assume its owne power to do itselfe right without disturbance to it selfe, or injury to Princes”.

More Quotations