English People in the Eighteenth Century

By Dorothy E. Marshall | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
CONSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS

ENGLISH constitutional arrangements mirrored very accurately the structure of eighteenth-century society. Like it, they too were based on the unquestioned assumptions of a class system in which the most effective power lay in the hands of the landowner and the merchant. Control over the central government and, therefore, over the broad outlines of policy, both domestic and foreign, was, for all practical purposes, confined to these two sets of men, though in local affairs, and more particularly in that local business which was considered to be tedious and burdensome, there was some place for the middle class. For the rest, to be propertyless was to be without political rights.

At the time when the central government had evolved, the power of the landed classes was not merely dominant, it could better be described as monopolistic. All political power as a consequence was by tradition dependent on the possession of land. As Defoe wrote, 'Tis in the power of the Gentry of England to reform the whole Kingdom without either Laws Proclamations or Informers; and without their Concurrence, all the Laws Proclamations and Declarations in the world will have no Effect; the Vigour of the Laws consists in their Executive Power'.1 Between them the Crown and the landowners controlled all aspects of government, local and central. It is true that over the centuries the balance between these elements altered, as first the Crown, by building up a class of professional administrators, filched power from the feudal lords, and as in turn the new landed families of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shook themselves free from the bureaucratic control of the prerogative courts and seized the initiative in the Houses of Parliament.

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1
D. Defoe: The Poor Man's Plea Concerning the Reformation of Manners ( 1703), p. 129.

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