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AND OTHER POLITICAL ESSAYS.
LATEST REVISED EDITION.
“THE English Constitution," by Mr. Walter Bagehot, has already attracted some attention in this country, but it is a work that deserves to be much more widely and familiarly known. Its title, however, is so little suggestive of its real character, and is so certain to repel and mislead American readers, that, in bringing out a new and cheaper edition of it, at this time, some prefatory words may be useful for the correction of erroneous impressions.
It is well known that the term “ Constitution," in its political sense, has very different significations in England and in this country. With us it means a written instrument, decreed at a certain time to be the supreme law of the land. Hence, when a book appears upon the American Constitution, if not a history of its adoption, it will probably be a commentary upon its meanings; that is, some kind of a law-treatise, dealing with the technical interpretations of a legal instrument. The English, on the contrary, have no such written document. By the national Constitution they mean their actual social and political order — the whole body of laws, usages, and precedents, which have been inherited from former generations, and by which the practice of government is regulated. A work upon the English Constitution, therefore, brings us naturally to the direct consideration of the structure and practical working of English political institutions and social life.
The American Constitution was “framed” by a convention; the English Constitution is a growth of centuries. Books written upon the two Constitutions are, therefore,
likely to differ, much as a manual of carpentry differs from a hand-book of physiology; the former belonging rather to the province of constructive art, and the latter to that of natural science. While in the study of the American Constitution we are occupied with the “intentions of the framers,
s," the “rules of construction," and the lore of lawyers, to get at the sense of a printed tract, the study of the English Constitution introduces us more directly to facts and phenomena, or the laws of political activity, social change, and national growth. , These objects of inquiry obviously lend themselves to the scientific method of treatment, which aims to trace out the working of natural causes and inherent principles, and hence has interest for all students of political philosophy. Mr. Bagehot's work is written virtually, if not formally, from this point of view; it is pervaded by the scientific spirit, without taking on the technical forms of scientific exposition,
With the author's inclination and capacity to regard public questions in their scientific aspects, many readers are already familiar through his suggestive volume entitled “Physics and Politics.” “The English Constitution” is a work of the same quality, and treats its subjects very much with reference to the principles of human nature and the natural laws of human society. It is a free disquisition on English political experience; an acute, critical, and dispassionate discussion of English institutions, designed to show how they operate, and to point out their defects and advantages. The writer is not so much a partisan or an advocate, as a cool, philosophical inquirer, with large knowledge, clear insight, independent opinions, and great freedom from the bias of what he terms that “territorial sectarianism called patriotism.” His criticism of the faults of the English system is searching and trenchant, and his appreciation of its benefits and usefulness is cordial, discriminating, and wise. He discusses old traditions
and modern innovations, aristocratic privileges and democratic tendencies, with an absence of prejudice that comes from a predominant scientific temper of mind. Taking up in succession the Cabinet, the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, he considers them in what may be called their dynamical interactions, and in relation to the habits, traditions, culture, and character of the English people. The book, indeed, is full of instructive episodes, and sagacious reflections on the springs of action in human nature, the exercise of power by individuals or political bodies, the adaptation of institutions to the qualities and circumstances of the different classes who live under them, and numerous points of political philosophy, which are applicable everywhere, and have an interest for all students of political and social affairs.
There is much in Mr. Bagehot's volume that bears very suggestively upon the state of things in this country. His comparison, in various points, of the working of Cabinet government with that of Presidential government raises questions regarding our own system which are forced into greater prominence by every decade of our national experience. But the book should be read by Americans not only for the interesting information it contains, and the brilliant light it throws upon the internal polity of a great nation from which we have derived so much of our own institutions, but because it will exert a widening and liberalizing influence upon the minds of our people, who are too apt to look upon all other governments with a kind of bigoted contempt. Our intense politics, chiefly occupied with selfish and sordid interests, and bitter personal rivalries, tend to exclude from this sphere of thought everything like science, or the large and liberal study of political principles. Narrow views lead to a depreciation of everything foreign that differs from our own system and practice. A distinguished professor in one of our leading col