Sources of English Constitutional History: Section 12


The scope of the present section, approximately the latter half of the period between the Revolution of 1689 and the great legislative changes of the 1830's, is the classic age of aristocratic government under the unreformed house of commons; the fact that it includes the reigns of two kings is less important. Yet there is a certain convenience in setting as chronological limits the accession of George III and the death of George IV. In the years before 1760 the British aristocracy, controlling both parliament and cabinet through a party system based on family alliance, had gained the dominance of the state. After 1760 this dominance was continuously challenged: first by George III's attempt to pack his councils with "friends" of his own choosing; later by the less direct influences of the French Revolution and the new industrial society. Largely in consequence of foreign war, however, the parliamentary aristocracy survived all such threats in the eighteenth century and, when George IV died in 1830, was still ruling the kingdom in the ancient way.

The bulk of the documents that are here brought together emanate from the long reign of George III. Under no. 126 will be found seventeen of his more important statutes. Three of them (J, k, l) were temporary enactments inspired by the French war. Three (O, p, q) were regulations of industry necessitated by the growth of factories. Three may be classified as reforms of a more traditional sort: Burke's Place Act, Fox's Libel Act, and the Poor Relief Act of 1795. The remaining eight were all concerned with imperial affairs. The two affecting Ireland (no. 126 g, n), however troublesome they were to prove for British statesmen, are in themselves very simple documents that require no comment here. Of the acts dealing with the colonies, four (a, b, c, e) are included because they illustrate constitutional issues raised by the American Revolution. The Quebec Act deserves a place as the first great statute for the government of a conquered territory. The Canadian Constitution Act of 1791 provided a

basis for all the significant experiments in colonial administration made during the next century.

A variety of other parliamentary records are given under no. 128 — among them characteristic debates and resolutions on the personal influence of George III and the conduct of his ministers, on the taxation of the colonies, and on the privileges of parliament. Such materials are supplemented by abstracts of several famous trials, particularly those numbered 129A, B, and D. The rest of the cases in the same group turned upon questions of martial law (F, G, H), libel (E, I), and slavery (C). It remains to be noted that the three statutes of George IV (no. 127) anticipated the reform movement that was to achieve noteworthy results in the next generation.

The outstanding discussion of the eighteenth-century constitution, as it was then understood, is that of Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England; but his treatment is legalistic rather than historical, and his views were criticized in his own day by the great political philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Modern works dealing with the whole subject or parts of it are T. E. May, The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George III; L. B. Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III; R. L. Schuyler, Parliament and the British Empire; E. and A. Porritt, The Unreformed House of Commons; G. S. Veitch, The Genesis of Parliamentary Reform; and E. Halèvy, History of the English People in 1815.

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