British Constitution

Author:John M. Murrin

Page 245

Most eighteenth-century Englishmen believed that they were the freest people in the world. Foreign observers, such as MONTESQUIEU and Voltaire from France or Jean-Louis De Lolme from Geneva, concurred. Great Britain had somehow created and protected a unique heritage?a CONSTITUTION?that combined liberty with stability. This constitution was no single document nor even a collection of basic texts, although MAGNA CARTA, the BILL OF RIGHTS of 1689, and other prominent documents were fundamental to the tradition. It depended as much upon a series of informal understandings within the ruling class as upon the written word. And it worked. It "insures, not only the liberty, but the general satisfaction in all respects, of those who are subject to it," affirmed De Lolme. This "consideration alone affords sufficient ground to conclude without looking farther," he believed, "that it is also much more likely to be preserved from ruin." Not everyone agreed. English radicals insisted by the 1770s that only electoral reform and a reduction of royal patronage could preserve British liberty much longer. A vigorous press, the most open in Europe, subjected ministers to constant and often scathing criticism, which a literate and growing public thoroughly enjoyed. Yet until late in the prerevolutionary crisis of 1763?1775, North Americans shared the general awe for the British constitution and frequently insisted that their provincial governments displayed the same virtues.

Apologists explained Britain's constitutional achievement in both legal and humanistic terms. The role of "mixed government" in preserving liberty appealed to a broad audience. Even lawyers used this theme to organize a bewildering mass of otherwise disparate information drawn from the COMMON LAW, parliamentary statutes, and administrative practice. "And herein indeed consists the true excellence of the English government, that all parts of it form a mutual check upon each other," proclaimed Britain's foremost jurist, Sir WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, in 1765. "In the legislature, the people are a check upon the nobility, and the nobility a check upon the people; ? while the king is a check upon both, which preserves the executive power from encroachment. And this very executive power is again checked, and kept within due bounds by the two houses.?"

To work properly, mixed government (or a "mixed and balanced constitution") had to embody the basic elements of the social...

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