“There is . . . in the world (one nation) that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty.” With these words, Charles de Montesquieu differentiated the purpose, the object, the end of the English constitution from those of other nations. Rome sought expansion, Sparta sought war, religion drove the Jewish laws, and commerce that of Marseilles. When this French nobleman wrote his Spirit of the Laws in 1748, he admitted France’s ages-old enemy, England, had the freest people on earth.1
In words that resonate today, he defined political liberty as the “tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has for his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.” He wasn’t speaking so much of safe travel or safety in one’s home. The liberty he spoke of was safety against majoritarian tyranny, was one in which the citizen needn’t fear elections, elections that might put people in government armed with arbitrary power to do him harm.2
Not only were Englishmen free, they were rich and getting richer. Thanks to their balanced constitution, the middle-class was large and getting larger as the kingdom’s achievements in commerce and war dwarfed those of other European nations. There was no mystery to England’s constitution; its three components, the King, Lords, and Commons, combined the ancient forms of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, while avoiding the degenerate forms of totalitarianism, oligarchy and mob rule. Preserve the balance, and English liberty could extend indefinitely into the future.
This popular regard for the constitution extended from the late 17th century to the mid-1760s. So, what happened during this time, in particular between Montesquieu’s Spirit in 1748 and 1776? British-American colonials were even freer and more prosperous than their UK brethren. Why revolt?
Here is what Englishmen won in the Glorious Revolution. In their amended constitution, the king agreed:
To govern per the statutes of Parliament.
To not veto statutes.
To give up the right to create courts by fiat, or dismiss judges without formal impeachment.
To convene Parliament at least once every three years.
To call for elections at least once every seven years.
Not to levy taxes without Parliamentary grant.
Not to maintain a standing army in time of peace.
Not to wage foreign war without consent of Parliament.
To not require subjects to join the Church of England.
This Settlement of great questions was reinforced by the passage of time and subsequent stability of the kingdom in the 18th century. All well and good, and the Parliament/Monarchy Settlement worked as hoped in England, where the king didn’t dare upset or violate its strictures. But, that wasn’t the case in his thirteen colonies.
Recall the one indictment of George III among the twenty-seven in our Declaration of Independence that sums up most of the remaining twenty-six: “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their Acts of pretended legislation.” In other words, the Founders viewed their legislatures as equivalent to Parliament and charged the king with revoking the English constitution and its protections. Through his royal governors, he upset the balance of the English constitution in his colonies. He prorogued or dissolved colonial legislatures. He explored creating an artificial aristocratic estate designed to be isolated from the people. His Royal Navy set fire to Portland, Maine and Norfolk, Virginia. The cherished balance as practiced in England didn’t exist in America, where the king ruled through prerogatives as if the Glorious Revolution never happened. Acts that he wouldn’t dare in England earned him a revolution in America.
Such was our disgust, near the closing of the Declaration, we saw in George III a “Tyrant . . . unfit to be the Ruler of a free people.” Amidst his growing tyranny, we were prepared to fight to preserve the rights of Englishmen. At its core, the years leading to our revolution had less to do with non-representation in Parliament and far more to do with resistance, armed and otherwise, against the corruption of the English constitution. We revolted as much against what we envisioned in the future as we did for the there and then.
The British constitution, so abused by George III, ultimately failed in America. After just a few years under the Articles of Confederation, leading men convened in Philadelphia and crafted a new Constitution for what they hoped would once again be the freest people on earth. In Part II, we’ll look at the continuum and corruption of lofty ideals and first principles from the Glorious Revolution to the Constitution. We’ll find that unless constantly protected, constitutions invariably crumble, wither and die.
1. Montesquieu, C. d. (2010). The Spirit of the Laws Translated by Thomas Nugent. Digireads.com.
2. Thank the 17th Amendment, which a hundred years later gave us a government to fear.