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There is a certain common polity, or germ of polity, which we find in all the rude nations that have attained civilisation. These nations seem to begin in what I may call a consultative and tentative absolutism. The king of early days, in vigorous nations, was not absolute as despots now are; there was then no standing army to repress rebellion, no organised espionage to spy out discontent, no skilled bureaucracy to smooth the ruts of obedient life. The early king was indeed consecrated by a religious sanction; he was essentially a man apart, a man above others, divinely anointed, or even God-begotten. But in nations capable of freedom this religious domination was never despotic. There was indeed
There was indeed no legal limit; the very words could not be translated into the dialect of those times. The notion of law as we have it-of a rule imposed by human authority, capable of being altered by that authority when it likes, and in fact, so altered habitually-could not be conveyed to early nations, who regarded law half as an invincible prescription, and half as a Divine revelation. Law "came out of the king's mouth;" he gave it as Solomon gave judgment-embedded in the particular case, and upon the authority of Heaven as well as his own. A Divine limit to the Divine revealer was impossible, and there was no other source of law. But though there was no legal limit, there was a practical limit to subjection in (what may be called) the pagan part of human nature,—the inseparable obstinacy of freemen. They never would do exactly what they were told.
To early royalty, as Homer describes it in Greece ani)
as we may well imagine it elsewhere, there were always two adjuncts: one the "old men,” the men of weight, the council, the Bovdý, of which the king asked advice, from the debates in which the king tried to learn what he could do and what he ought to do. Besides this there was the ayopá, the purely listening assembly, as some have called it, but the tentative assembly, as I think it might best be called. The king came down to his assembled people in form to announce his will, but in reality, speaking in very modern words, to "feel his way." He was sacred, no doubt; and popular, very likely; still he was half like a popular premier speaking to a high-spirited chamber; there were limits to his authority and power-limits which he would discover by trying whether eager cheers received his mandate, or only hollow murmurs and a thinking silence.
This polity is a good one for its era and its place, but there is a fatal defect in it. The reverential associations upon which the government is built are transmitted according to one law, and the capacity needful to work the government is transmitted according to another law. The popular homage clings to the line of god-descended kings; it is transmitted by inheritance. But very soon that line comes to a child or an idiot, or one by some defect or other incapable. Then we find everywhere the truth of the old saying, that liberty thrives under weak princes; then the listening assembly begins not only to murmur, but to speak; then the grave council begins not so much to suggest as to inculcate, not so much to advise as to enjoin.
Mr. Grote has told at length how out of these appendages of the original kingdom the free States of Greece derived their origin, and how they gradually grew—the oligarchical States expanding the council, and the democratical expanding the assembly. The history has as many varieties in detail as there were Greek cities, but the essence is the same everywhere. The political characteristic of the early Greeks, and of the early Romans, too, is that out of the tentacula of a monarchy they developed the organs of a republic.
English history has been in substance the same, though its form is different, and its growth far slower and longer. The scale was larger, and the elements more various. A Greek city soon got rid of its kings, for the political sacredness of the monarch would not bear the daily inspection and constant criticism of an eager and talking multitude. Everywhere in Greece the slave population--the most ignorant, and therefore the most unsusceptible of intellectual influences—was struck out of the account. But England began as a kingdom of considerable size, inhabited by distinct races, none of them fit for prosaic criticism, and all subject to the superstition of royalty. In early England, too, royalty was much more than a superstition. A very strong executive was needed to keep down a divided, an armed, and an impatient country; and therefore the problem of political development was delicate. A formed free government in a homogeneous nation may have a strong executive; but during the transition state, while the republic is in course of development and the monarchy
in course of decay, the executive is of necessity weak. The polity is divided, and its action feeble and failing. The different orders of English people have progressed, too, at different rates. The change in the state of the higher classes since the Middle Ages is enormous, and it is all improvement; but the lower have varied little, and many argue that in some important respects they have got worse, even if in others they have got better. The development of the English Constitution was of necessity slow, because a quick one would have destroyed the executive and killed the State, and because the most numerous classes, who changed very little, were not prepared for any catastrophic change in our institutions.
I cannot presume to speak of the time before the Conquest, and the exact nature even of all Anglo-Norman institutions is perhaps dubious : at least, in nearly all cases there have been many controversies. Political zeal, whether Whig or Tory, has wanted to find a model in the past; and the whole state of society being confused, the precedents altering with the caprice of men and the chance of events, ingenious advocacy has had a happy field. But all that I need speak of is quite plain. There was a great "council ” of the realm, to which the king summoned the most considerable persons in England, the persons he most wanted to advise him, and the persons whose tempers he was most anxious to ascertain. Exactly who came to it at first is obscure and unimportant. I need not distinguish between the " magnum concilium in Parliament" and the “magnum concilium out of Parliament." Gradually the principal assemblies summoned by the English sovereign took the precise and definite form of Lords and Commons, as in their outside we now see them. But their real nature was very different. The Parliament of to-day is a ruling body; the mediæval Parliament was, if I may so say, an expressive body. Its function was to tell the executive—the king -what the nation wished he should do; to some extent, to guide him by new wisdom, and, to a very great extent, to guide him by new facts. These facts were their own feelings, which were the feelings of the people, because they were part and parcel of the people. From thence the king learned, or had the means to learn, what the nation would endure, and what it would not endure; --what he might do, and what he might not do. If he much mistook this, there was a rebellion.
There are, as is well known, three great periods in the English Constitution. The first of these is the anteTudor period. The English Parliament then seemed to be gaining extraordinary strength and power. The title to the crown was uncertain; some monarchs were imbecile. Many ambitious men wanted to "take the people into partnership.” Certain precedents of that time were cited with grave authority centuries after, when the time of freedom had really arrived. But the causes of this rapid growth soon produced an even more sudden decline. Confusion fostered it, and confusion destroyed it. The structure of society then was feudal; the towns were only an adjunct and a make-weight. The principal popular force was an aristocratic force, acting with the co-operation of the gentry and yeomanry, and resting on