Classic History Books

The History of England by A. E. Pollard

because there are no fundamental laws and no written constitution in this country; and when people
loosely speak of an Act being unconstitutional, all that they mean is that they do not agree with it. Other

countries, like the United States, have drawn up a written constitution and established a Supreme Court

of Judicature to guard it; and if the American legislature violates this constitution by any Act, the

Supreme Court may declare that Act unconstitutional, in which case it is void. But there is no such

limitation in England upon the sovereignty of parliament.

This sovereignty has been gradually evolved. At first it was royal and personal, but not parliamentary or
representative; and medieval kings had to struggle with the rival claims of the barons and the church. By

calling in the assistance of the people assembled and represented in parliament, the monarchy triumphed

over both the barons and the church; but when, in the seventeenth century, the two partners to this victory

quarrelled over the spoils, parliament and not the crown established its claim to be the real representative

of the state; and in the cases of Strafford, Danby, and others it even asserted that loyalty to the king might

be treason to the state. The church, vanquished at the Reformation, dropped more and more out of the

struggle for sovereignty, because, while the state grew more comprehensive, the church grew more

exclusive. It was not that, after 1662, it seriously narrowed its formulas or doctrines, but it failed to

enlarge them, and a larger and larger proportion of Englishmen thus found themselves outside its pale.

The state, on the other hand, embraced an ever-widening circle of dissent; and by degrees Protestant

Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Atheists, Mohammedans, believers, misbelievers, and

unbelievers of all sorts, were admitted to the fullest rights of citizenship. State and church ceased to

correspond; one became the whole, the other only a part, and there could be no serious rivalry between

the two.

The state had to contend, however, with more subtle and serious attacks. This great Leviathan, as Hobbes
called it, was not at first a popular institution; and it frightened many people. The American colonists, for

instance, thought that its absolute sovereignty was too dangerous a thing to be left loose, and they put

sovereignty under a triple lock and key, giving one to the judicature, one to the legislature, and a third to

the executive. Only by the co-operation of these three keepers can the American people loose their

sovereignty and use it to amend their constitution; and so jealously is sovereignty confined that anarchy

often seems to reign in its stead. There was, indeed, some excuse for distrusting a sovereignty claimed by

George III and the unreformed British parliament; and it was natural enough that people should deny its

necessity and set up in its place Declarations of the Rights of Man. Sovereignty of Hobbes's type was a

somewhat novel conception; men had not grasped its possibilities as an engine of popular will, because

they were only familiar with its exploitation by kings and oligarchs; and so closely did they identify the

thing with its abuses that they preferred to do without it altogether, or at least to confine it to the

narrowest possible limits. Government and the people were antagonistic: the less government there was,

the less harm would be done to the people, and so a general body of individualistic, laissez-faire

theory developed, which was expressed in various Declarations of the Rights of Man, and set up against

the "paternal despotism" of the eighteenth century.

These Rights of Man helped to produce alike the anarchy of the first French Revolution and the remedial
despotism of the Jacobins and their successor Napoleon; and the oscillation between under-government

and over-government, between individualism and socialism has continued to this day. Each coincides

with obvious human interests: the blessed in possession prefer a policy of laissez faire; they are

all for Liberty and Property, enjoying sufficient means for doing whatsoever they like with what they are

pleased to call their own. But those who have little to call their own, and much that they would like,

prefer strong government if they can control it; and the strength of government has steadily grown with


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