The Fundamentals of Just Government

by Eyler Coates    

In an essay reviewing the book, History of the Revolution in England, in 1688, by Sir James Mackintosh, Macaulay presented an outline and analysis of the vast changes that were made in the government of Great Britain as a result of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Before that event, England was a country ruled more or less despotically by a series of essentially absolute monarchs. After that event, England developed into a nation governed by a limited monarchy in which the consent of Parliament gradually acquired the leading governing role. It became a nation in which the rights of the citizens were respected, members of the parliamentary opposition were not subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and the English people enjoyed a much greater degree of freedom, prosperity, and happiness.

Because this single event turned a whole nation from one in which tyranny was rampant at every level, into one of internal liberty and peace, it would seem profitable to examine this change in detail for the use it might serve for other nations seeking changes in government that might result in more freedom and prosperity. In the course of reviewing the changes brought about by the "Glorious Revolution," Macaulay made just such an analysis. Unfortunately, his outline of events were not so focused as to allow a simple quotation from his review of this analysis. Therefore, in order to extract his ideas and present them as a kind of primer for establishing basic, just government, this essay will excerpt the relevant portions, and make them more readily available for this understanding. Whereas Macaulay was principally interested in this revolution from an historical perspective, the focus here will be on the principles involved. Therefore, those changes that were peculiar to the situation in Britain and are without general significance will not be part of the analysis here. All quotations have been selected from the essay, "Sir James Mackintosh."

As Macaulay points out, "Before a man begins to make improvements on his estate, he must know its boundaries. Before a legislature sits down to reform a constitution, it is fit to ascertain what that constitution really is." This was the purpose of the Declaration of Right. It was "declaratory, and not remedial. It was never meant to be a measure of reform." This was a statement of "their undoubted rights and liberties." "The authors of the Revolution... were perfectly aware that the English institutions stood in need of reform." But their first step was to establish those matters that had been in contention between Parliament and the Crown, and they therefore avoided controversies over what ought to be the law by starting out with a statement of what was the law.

One of the questions the Declaration established was "the illegality of the dispensing power and of taxation imposed by the royal prerogative." Thus was established a fundamental limitation on the power of the Crown. This was something all factions could agree upon. If a complete revision of the constitution had been attempted, differences would have emerged, and "months would have been lost in disputes." As Macaulay observed, "We have seen nation after nation enslaved, because the friends of liberty wasted in discussions upon abstract questions the time which ought to have been employed in preparing for vigorous national defence." These men were not mere visionaries, but had the good sense to establish the basic foundation first.

The next step was to establish a new head of state. "There could be no security for good government without a change of dynasty." If the previous head of state were restored, the nation would quickly fall back into its old habits of thinking and doing. Moreover, there was one other related element that needed establishment. "It had become indispensable to have a sovereign whose title to his throne was strictly bound up with the title of the nation to its liberties." It was necessary that the new head of state clearly recognize that his power was derived, not through his own right or that of his inheritance, but through the representative body of the nation. Thus, with the Glorious Revolution, the new monarch, William III, "had no claim to the throne except the choice of Parliament, and no means of maintaining himself on the throne but the support of Parliament." The next step is one to establish internal peace on a question that affects every citizen. Toleration for the rights of conscience enabled "almost every Protestant Nonconformist to follow the dictates of his own conscience without molestation." As a result, Macaulay wrote, "we question whether in the whole of that vast mass of legislation, from the Great Charter downwards, there be a single law which has so much diminished the sum of human suffering, which has done so much to allay bad passions, which has put an end to so much petty tyranny and vexation, which has brought gladness, peace, and a sense of security to so many private dwellings." Instead of settling on a new monarch, "at the commencement of his reign, the produce of certain taxes which, it was supposed, would yield a sum sufficient to defray the ordinary expenses of government" -- a practice that resulted in an annual produce far in excess of needs after a long reign and the increase of wealth that a society naturally experiences -- "The authors of the Revolution applied a remedy to this great abuse. They settled on the King, not the fluctuating produce of certain fixed taxes, but a fixed sum sufficient for the support of his own royal state. They established it as a rule that all the expenses of the army, the navy, and the ordnance, should be brought annually under the review of the House of Commons, and that every sum voted should be applied to the service specified in the vote." The result of this was, "From that time the House of Commons has been really the paramount power in the state. It has, in truth, appointed and removed ministers, declared war, and concluded peace." "The next great blessing which we owe to the Revolution is the purification of the administration of justice in political cases." Before this, there were "villainies as black as ever were imputed to any prisoner at any bar daily committed on the bench and in the jury-box... The abandoned judges of our country committed murder with their eyes open." These corrupt practices resulted because "the King could not, by a mere act of his prerogative, rid himself of a troublesome politician. He was forced to remove those who thwarted him by means of perjured witnesses, packed juries, and corrupt, hard-hearted, brow-beating judges. The Opposition naturally retaliated whenever they had the upper hand. Every time that the power passed from one party to the other, there was a proscription and a massacre, thinly disguised under the forms of judicial procedure... The trial by jury afforded little or no protection to the innocent." As Macaulay states, "The tribunals ought to be sacred places of refuge, where, in all the vicissitudes of public affairs, the innocent of all parties may find shelter... The law which secured to the judges their seats during life or good behavior did something. The law subsequently passed for regulating trials in cases of treason did much more... It is not framed on the principle of securing the innocent, but on the principle of giving a great chance of escape to the accused, whether innocent or guilty. This, however, is decidedly a fault on the right side. The evil produced by the occasional escape of a bad citizen is not to be compared with the evils of that Reign of Terror, for such it was, which preceded the Revolution. Since the passing of this law, scarcely one single person has suffered death in England as a traitor, who had not been convicted on overwhelming evidence, to the satisfaction of all parties, of the highest crime against the State." The result of this purification of the administration of justice in political cases was that "During a hundred and forty years no statesman, while engaged in constitutional opposition to a government, has had the axe before his eyes. The smallest minorities, struggling against the most powerful majorities, in the most agitated times, have felt themselves perfectly secure." "But of all the reforms produced by the Revolution, perhaps the most important was the full establishment of the liberty of unlicensed printing." These fundamental changes in the laws "were not more important than the change which it indirectly produced in the public mind." The fundamental changes outlined above established in the public mind "that power is a trust for the people; that it is given to magistrates, not for their own, but for the public advantage; that, where it is abused by magistrates, even by the highest of all, it may lawfully be withdrawn." And it was starting with these basic and fundamental changes, that a more democratic government was established and evolved in the British isles.

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