The Seventeenth Century: The Sources of Legislative Power

The Seventeenth Century: The Sources of Legislative Power

The Seventeenth Century: The Sources of Legislative Power

The Seventeenth Century: The Sources of Legislative Power

Excerpt

In the early seventeenth century, when the first representative assembly was called to meet on American soil, the English monarchy was believed, by its incumbent, to rule by a divine right that rendered it superior to any popular power. By the end of the century, English kingship had been subordinated to constitutional government. England in the latter part of the sixteenth century had mercifully avoided the civil wars that afflicted France, but no one looking at both France and England at the time when Henri IV and James I were their kings could have predicted that in the one country the government would tend toward royal absolutism while in the other it would take its authority from representative institutions. Henri IV himself was a more pragmatic ruler, a shrewder politician, and a better king than either James I or Charles I. Under his rule, royal authority was steadily extended, but royal absolutism had not yet become a fully articulated principle.Even when that principal was asserted in its extreme form by Louis XIV, it was often to be observed as a form rather than a fact.All French monarchs and their ministers had to contend with the truth that the nobilities of the provinces had considerable ability to delay, to fail to comply, and in devious ways to frustrate the commands of a royal master.So that "absolutism" should never be taken at the face value of its own claims.Yet the claim was made. No Estates-General met in France between 1614 and 1789; government descended from the king himself.Even if royal authority were subject, as critics sometimes suggested, to the conditioning of other principles, it certainly brooked no rival in its claim to be the source of all legitimate power in the French kingdom.The same assertion was made as a result of the gathering up of power and the geographical extension of the king's suzerainty by the Great Elector, Frederick William II of Brandenburg-Prussia.On the Continent, in countries as far apart and as difficult of comparison as Sweden, Russia, and Spain, the same tendency toward the consolidation of power had advanced by the end of the seventeenth century to the point where "absolutism" could reasonably be thought of as a prevalent, if not as a definitive, constitutional principle.

Nothing in this state of affairs would have given any affront to the early Stuart kings of England.To them, as to those on the Continent, it was English history that deviated from its true and divinely sanctioned course; England rejected the divine right of kings; it even curtailed the divine right of parliaments (which perhaps was a more subtle precaution), and it made the royal prerogative the servant, not the master, of the state.

None of this could be foreseen when the first settlements were begun in North America.Still less would anyone have supposed that those settlements would prove to be testing grounds for principles of political representation which, at that time, could make only a vague and partial claim to authority in England. The high level of participation in the processes of government in the colonies which developed at an early stage of settlement were due to a variety of circumstances, the most important of which were the motives and interests that brought the colonies into existence in the first place, combined with the practical needs of organization and self-defense that they encountered from the very beginning of their enterprise.

But the early colonial governments, including their representative elements, grew up at the very period of tribulation for the representative elements in English government.The most . . .

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