Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter IX

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LETTER IX.

ON THE

Government.

THAT mixture in the English government, that harmony between King, Lords and Commons, did not always subsist. England was enslav'd for a long series of years by the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, and the French successively. William the conqueror particularly rul'd them with a rod of iron. He dispos'd as absolutely of the lives and fortunes of his conquer'd subjects as an eastern Monarch; and forbid, upon pain of death, the English both fire or candle in their houses after eight a clock; whether he did this to prevent their nocturnal meetings, or only to try, by this odd and whimsical prohibition, how far it was possible for one Man to extend his power over his fellow Creatures. 'Tis true indeed that the English had Parliaments before and after William the Conqueror; and they boast of them, as tho' these assemblies then call'd Parliaments, compos'd of ecclesiastical Tyrants, and of plunderers entitled Barons, had been the guardians of the publick liberty and happiness.

The Barbarians who came from the shores of the Baltick, and settled in the rest of Europe, brought with them the form of government call'd States or Parliaments, about which so much noise is made, and which are so little understood. Kings indeed were not absolute in those days, but then the people were more wretched upon that very account, and more completely enslav'd. The Chiefs of these savages who had laid waste France, Italy, Spain and England, made themselves Monarchs. Their generals divided among themselves the several countries they had conquer'd, whence sprung those Margraves, those Peers, those Barons, those petty Tyrants, who often contested with their Sovereigns for the spoils of whole nations. These were birds of prey, fighting with an Eagle for Doves, whose blood the Victorious was to suck. Every nation, instead of being govern'd by one Master, was trampled upon by an hundred Tyrants. The priests soon play'd a part among them. Before this, it had been the fate of the Gauls, the Germans and the Britons, to be always govern'd by their Druids, and the Chiefs of their villages, an ancient kind of Barons, not so tyrannical as their successors. These Druids pretended to be mediators between God and man. They enacted laws, they fulminated their excommunications, and sentenc'd to death. The Bishops succeeded, by insensible degrees, to their temporal authority in the Goth and Vandal government. The Popes set themselves at their head, and arm'd with their Briefs, their Bulls, and reinforc'd by Monks, they made even Kings tremble; depos'd and assassinated them at pleasure, and employ'd every artifice to draw into their own purses monies from all parts of Europe. The weak Ina, one of the tyrants of the Saxon Heptarchy in England, was the first Monarch that submitted, in his pilgrimage to Rome, to pay St. Peter's penny (equivalent very near to a French crown) for every house in his dominions. The whole Island soon follow'd his example; England became insensibly one of the Pope's provinces, and the holy Father us'd to send from time to time his Legates thither to levy exorbitant taxes. At last King John deliver'd up by a public instrument, the Kingdom of England to the Pope, who had excommunicated him; but the Barons not finding their account in this resignation, dethron'd the wretched King John and seated Lewis, father to St. Lewis King of France in his place. However they were soon weary of their new Monarch, and accordingly oblig'd him to return back to France.

Whilst that the Barons, the Bishops, and the Popes, all laid waste England, where all were for ruling; the most numerous, the most useful, even the most virtuous, and consequently the most venerable part of mankind, consisting of those who study the laws and the sciences; of traders, of artificers, in a word, of all who were not tyrants; that is, those who are call'd the people; these, I say, were by them look'd upon as so many animals beneath the dignity of the human species. The Commons in those ages were far from sharing in the government, they being Villains or Peasants whose labour, whose blood were the property of their Masters who entitled themselves the Nobility. The major part of men in Europe were at that time what they are to this day in several parts of the world, they were Villains or Bondsmen of Lords, that is, a kind of cattle bought and sold with the land. Many ages past away before justice cou'd be done to human nature; before mankind were conscious, that 'twas abominable numbers should sow, and but few reap: And was not France very happy, when the power and authority of those petty Robbers was abolish'd by the lawful authority of Kings and of the People?

Happily in the violent shocks which the divisions between Kings and the Nobles gave to empires, the chains of Nations were more or less heavy. Liberty, in England, sprung from the quarrels of Tyrants. The Barons forc'd King John and King Henry the third, to grant the famous Magna Charta, the chief design of which was indeed to make Kings dependant on the Lords, but then the rest of the nation were a little favour'd in it, in order that they might join, on proper occasions, with their pretended Masters. This great Charter which is consider'd as the sacred origin of the English Liberties, shews in it self how little Liberty was known.

The Title alone proves, that the King thought he had a just right to be absolute; and that the Barons, and even the Clergy forc'd him to give up the pretended right, for no other reason but because they were the most powerful.

Magna Charta begins in this stile, We grant, of our own free will, the following Privileges to the Archbishops, Bishops, Priors and Barons of our Kingdom, &c.

The House of Commons is not once mention'd in the Articles of this Charter, a Proof that it did not yet exist, or that it existed without Power. Mention is therein made, by name, of the Freemen of England, a melancholy Proof that some were not so. It appears by the thirty second Article, that these pretended Freemen ow'd Service to their Lords. Such a Liberty as this, was not many removes from Slavery.

By article XXI, the King ordains that his Officers shall not henceforward seize upon, unless they pay for them, the Horses and Carts of Freemen. The People consider'd this Ordinance as a real Liberty, tho' it was a greater Tyranny. Henry the seventh, that happy Usurper and great Politician, who pretended to love the Barons, tho he in reality hated and fear'd them, got their Lands alienated. By this means the Villains, afterwards acquiring Riches by their Industry, purchas'd the Estates and Country-Seats of the illustrious Peers who had ruin'd themselves by their Folly and Extravagance, and all the Lands got by insensible Degrees into other Hands.

The Power of the House of Commons increas'd every Day. The Families of the ancient Peers were at last extinct; and as Peers only are properly noble in England, there would be no such thing in strict:ness of Law, as Nobility in that Island, had not the Kings created new Barons from Time to Time, and preserv'd the Body of Peers, once a Terror to them, to oppose them to the Commons since become so formidable.

All these new Peers who compose the higher House, receive nothing but their Titles from the King, and very few of them have Estates in those Places whence they take their Titles. One shall be Duke of D—— tho' he has not a Foot of Land in Dorsetshire; and another is Earl of a Village, tho' he scarce knows where it is situated. The Peers have Power, but 'tis only in the arliament House.

There is no such thing here, as [1]haute, moyenne, & basse justice, that is, a Power to judge in all Matters civil and criminal; nor a Right or Privilege of Hunting in the Grounds of a Citizen, who at the same time is not permitted to fire a Gun in his own Field.

No one is exempted in this Country from paying certain Taxes, because he is a Nobleman or a Priest. All Duties and Taxes are settled by the House of Commons, whose Power is greater than that of the Peers, tho' inferiour to it in dignity. The spiritual as well as temporal Lords have the Liberty to reject a Money Bill brought in by the Commons, but they are not allow'd to alter any thing in it, and must either pass or throw it out without Restriction. When the Bill has pass'd the Lords and is sign'd by the King, then the whole Nation pays, every Man in proportion to his Revenue or Estate, not according to his Title, which would be absurd. There is no such thing as an arbitrary Subsidy or Poll-Tax, but a real Tax on the Lands, of all which an Estimate was made in the Reign of the famous King William the Third.

The Land-Tax continues still upon the same foot, tho' the Revenue of the Lands is increas'd. Thus no one is tyranniz'd over, and every one is easy. The Feet of the Peasants are not bruis'd by wooden Shoes; they eat white Bread, are well cloath'd, and are not afraid of increasing their Stock of Cattle, nor of tiling their Houses, from any Apprehensions that their Taxes will be rais'd the Year following. The annual Income of the Estates of a great many Commoners in England, amounts to two hundred thousand Livres; and yet these don't think it beneath them to plough the Lands which enrich them, and on which they enjoy their Liberty.

  1. La haute justice, is that of a Lord, who has Power to sentence capitally, and to judge of all Causes civil and criminal, those of the Crown excepted. La moyenne justice, is empower'd to judge of Actions relating to Guardianships, and Offences. La basse justice takes Cognizance of the Fees due to the Lord, of the Havock of Beasts, and of Offences. The moyenne justice is imaginary, and there is perhaps no Instance of its ever being put in Execution.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.