CHAPTER V. THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT

1603-1815

National independence and popular self-government, although they were intimately associated as the two cardinal dogmas of nineteenth-century liberalism, are very different things; and the achievement of complete national independence under the Tudors did not in the least involve any solution of the question of popular self-government. Still, that achievement had been largely the work of the nation itself, and a nation which had braved the spiritual thunders of the papacy and the temporal arms of Philip II would not be naturally submissive under domestic tyranny. Perhaps the fact that James I was an alien hastened the admonition, which parliament addressed to him in the first session of the reign, to the effect that it was not prepared to tolerate in him many things which, on account of her age and sex, it had overlooked in Elizabeth.

Parliament began the constitutional conflict thus foreshadowed with no clear constitutional theory; and its views only crystallized under pressure of James I's pretensions. James possessed an aptitude for political speculation, which was rendered all the more dangerous by the facilities he enjoyed for putting his theories into practice. He tried to reduce monarchy to a logical system, and to enforce that system as practical politics. He had succeeded to the English throne in spite of Henry VIII's will, which had been given the force of a parliamentary statute, and in spite of the common law which disabled an alien from inheriting English land. His only claim was by heredity, which had never been legally recognized to the exclusion of other principles of succession. James was not content to ascribe his accession to such mundane circumstances as the personal unfitness of his rivals and the obvious advantages of a union of the English and Scottish crowns; and he was led to attribute a supernatural virtue to the hereditary principle which had overcome obstacles so tremendous. Hence his theory of divine hereditary right. It must be distinguished from the divine right which the Tudors claimed; that was a right which was not necessarily hereditary, but might be varied by the God of battles, as at Bosworth. It must also be distinguished from the Catholic theory, which gave the church a voice in the election and deposition of kings. According to James's view, Providence had not merely ordained the king de facto, but had pre-ordained the kings that were to be, by selecting heredity as the principle by which the succession was to be determined for ever and ever. This ordinance, being divine, was beyond the power of man to alter. The fitness of the king to rule, the justice or efficiency of his government, were irrelevant details. Parliament could no more alter the succession, depose a sovereign, or limit his authority than it could amend the constitution of the universe. From this premiss James deduced a number of conclusions. Royal power was absolute; the king could do no wrong for which his subjects could call him to account; he was responsible to God but not to man - a doctrine which the Reformation had encouraged by proclaiming the Royal Supremacy over the church. He might, if he chose, make concessions to his people, and a wise sovereign like himself would respect the concessions of his predecessors. But parliamentary and popular privileges existed by royal grace; they could not be claimed as rights.

This dogmatic assurance, to which the Tudors had never resorted, embittered parliamentary opposition and obscured the historical justification for many of James's claims. Historically, there was much more to be said for the contention that parliament existed by grace of the monarchy than for the counterclaim that the monarchy existed by grace of parliament; and for the plea that parliament only possessed such powers as the crown had granted, than for the counter-assertion that the crown only enjoyed such rights as parliament had conceded. Few of James's arbitrary acts could not be justified by precedent, and not a little of his unpopularity was due to his efforts to exact from local gentry the performance of duties which had been imposed upon them by earlier parliaments. The main cause of dissatisfaction was the growing popular conviction that constitutional weapons, used by the Tudors for national purposes, were now being used by the Stuarts in the interests of the monarchy against those of the nation; and as the breach widened, the more the Stuarts were led to rely on these weapons and on their theory of the divine right of kings, and the more parliament was driven to insist upon its privileges and upon an alternative theory to that of James I.

This alternative theory was difficult to elaborate. There was no idea of democracy. Complete popular self-government is, indeed, impossible; for the mass of men cannot rule, and the actual administration must always be in the hands of a comparatively few experts. The problem was and is how to control them and where to limit their authority; and this is a question of degree. In 1603 no one claimed that ministers were responsible to any one but the king; administration was his exclusive function. It was, however, claimed that parliamentary sanction must be obtained for the general principles upon which the people were to be governed - that is to say, for legislation. The crown might appoint what bishops it pleased, but it could not repeal the Act of Uniformity; it might make war or peace, but could not impose direct and general taxation; it selected judges, but they could only condemn men to death or imprisonment for offences recognized by the law. The subject was not at the mercy of the king except when he placed himself outside the law.