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OF POLITICAL CONSTITUTIONS IN GENERAL, OF THE NATURE OF COLONIAL GOVERNMENTS, AND OF THE BRITISH COLONIES IN NORTH AMERICA.
By a constitution we mean the principles on which a government is formed and conducted.
On the voluntary association of men in sufficient numbers to form a political community, the first step to be taken for their own security and happiness, is to agree on the terms on which they are to be united and to act. They form a constitution, or plan of government suited to their character, their exigencies, and their future prospects. They agree that it shall be the supreme rule of obligation among them.
This is the pure and genuine source of a constitution in the republican form. In other governments the origin of constitutions is not always the same.
A successful conqueror establishes such a form of government as he thinks proper. If he deigns to give it the name of a constitution, the people are instructed to consider it as a donation from him ; but the danger to his power, generally
induces him to withhold an appellation, of which, in his own apprehension, an improper use might be made.
In governments purely despotic, we never hear of a constitution. The people are sometimes, however, roused to vindicate their rights, and when their discontents and their power become so great as to prove the necessity of relaxation on the part of the government, or when a favourable juncture happens, of which they prudently avail themselves, a constitution may be exacted, and the government compelled to recognise principles and concede rights in favour of the people.
The duration of this relief is wholly dependent upon political events. In some countries the people are able to retain what is thus conceded; in others, the concession is swept away by some abrupt revolution in favour of absolute power, and the country relapses into its former condition.
To rectify abuses, without altering the general frame of government, is a task, which though found more difficult, yet is of less dignity and utility, than the formation of a complete constitution.
To alter and amend, to introduce new parts into the ancient texture, and particularly new principles of a different and contrary nature, often produces an irregular and discordant composition, which its own confusion renders difficult of execution. The formation of a constitution founded on a single principle, is the more practicable from its greater simplicity.
Whether this principle is pure monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, if it be steadily kept in view, the parts may be all conformable and homogeneous.
In a pure monarchy all the power is vested in a single head. He
may be authorized to make and expound, and execute the
laws. If this be the result of general consent, such countries possess a constitution. The same may be said of an aristocracy--if the people agree to deposit all power in the hands of a select number; and of a democracy, in which they retain, in such manner as they hold most conducive to their own safety, all sovereignty within their own control. The difficulty in either case is to regulate the divisions of the authority granted, so that no portion of it, vested in one branch or one body of men, shall bear an undue relation to the others. Each must be sufficient to support itself, yet all must be made to harmonize and co-operate.
A constitution may combine two of the foregoing principles, like those of ancient Rome, some of the Grecian Republics, and in modern times, Geneva and some of the small communities of Italy: or, like the present government of England, it may combine the three principles.
The high authority which has been often quoted* in favour of the last mentioned form, may be allowed its full weight, without impugning the obvious position, that the whole power which is conceded to an hereditary monarch, may be vested by a democratic republic in an elective magistrate, and all the benefits derived from it, enjoyed without the dangers attending hereditary succession.
If an hereditary monarch abuses his power, the people seldom obtain relief without insurrection; and thus, between the ambition of princes on the one side, and the sense of injury on the other, the peace of the country is constantly endangered. If the monarch be elected for life, a young aspiring prince may
* Cicero de Republica.
continue the grievances of the state for a long time, and unless there be an express provision for deposing him, the choice of another in his place, would involve the whole body in tumult and disorder.
The power of choosing another supreme magistrate at the end of a reasonable time, obviates these objections. The substantial difference between a mixed monarchy and a republic formed on a proper distribution of powers, is therefore confined to the term of service of the supreme magistrate.
The powers of every government are only of three kinds; the legislative, executive, and judicial. This natural division, founded upon moral order, must be preserved by a careful separation or distinction of the powers vested in different branches. If the three powers are injudiciously blended; if for instance, the legislative and executive, or the executive and judicial powers are united in the same body, great dangers may ensue, and the effect would be the same, whether such powers are devolved on a single magistrate or on several. In the wise distribution of these powers, in the application of suitable aids and checks to each, we may attain the optimè constituta respublica, which is the object of general desire and admiration.
It has been reserved for modern times and for this side of the Atlantic, fully to appreciate and soundly to apply the principle of representation in government. The advantages, which occasionally arise to an individual, of being able to commit his cares and concerns to another, who in the exercise of such authority is considered as the principal himself, are elevated and ennobled by being transferred to the concerns of an entire community. Without the representative principle,
one of two consequences must follow ; either the whole body must be assembled and act together, or a few, who may have possessed themselves of sufficient force, will undertake to dictate and give laws to the whole. But a wise people sees and dreads its own danger in large assemblies. Experience tells them that they cannot trust themselves when thus collected together; that sudden bursts of feeling are likely to predominate over their own judgment; that facts and causes are often misrepresented or misunderstood, and the deliberate judgment, which alone ought to be solely exercised, is overpowered by unaccountable excitement and precipitate impulse. It was forcibly said in reference to the popular assemblies of Athens, that if every Athenian were a Socrates, still every Athenian assembly would be a mob.
A people sagacious enough to discover this imperfection in itself, avoids the danger by selecting a suitable number to act for it, upon full consideration and with due caution ; and while it authorizes them to express what are to be considered its own sentiments, it gives to that expression the same effect as if it proceeded immediately from itself. The virtue of this salutary principle is impaired if it be divided. If it extend only to a part of the government; if there are other component parts which have an equal or superior power, independent of the representative principle, the benefit is partial.
In England, of three co-ordinate parts, one only is supposed by the constitution to represent the authority of the people, and at what time this representation was introduced among them, is not clearly settled by their own jurists and antiquarians. That it existed before the Norman Conquest in some form, now not exactly ascertained, is indeed agreed; but on the