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The Author has been prompted to compile this little book by the conviction that the subject of which it treats, despite its great importance, is very much neglected and very little known, and, consequently, that a work which can lay some claims to the title of a concise and com
prehensible introduction to it will not be an
unwelcome contribution to useful literature.
It is of course needless to assert that the Government and Constitution of England, as they exist at the present time, have been from the beginning equally complete and perfect. Their elaborate and finished construction can no more be identified with the character of the barbarous laws and customs that prevailed in times of the so-called Druids and ancient Britons, than the polished condition of present society with the rude social habits that characterized bygone ages. Upon our Political Law, as upon all our other national institutions, time has exercised its influence, and every succeeding year has helped to mould the English Constitution into its present shape.
“ Through what bloody struggles," writes Montalembert, through what long eclipses, through what cruel misgivings has not England passed, before arriving at that full and peaceful position of hers!”
The information handed down to us respecting our Constitution in early times is very slight and untrustworthy. The frequent invasions of the country seem of necessity to have involved the destruction of the existing forms of government. Under successive conquering armies of Romans, Picts and Scots, Saxons and Danes, the customs of diverse nations were introduced into England, and so modified the laws and customs previously in force in the country as to form a system, the individual features of which we are altogether unable to trace to their respective sources. It is true we can gather from the accounts which Cæsar has given us of the ancient Britons, a few points that bear a faint resemblance to some of the modern doctrines of our law; yet it is impossible to trace out clearly the origin of many of the leading features of our jurisprudence, or to attribute this custom or law to the Britons or Romans, or that to the Saxons or Danes. It must suffice to say that at the time of the Norman invasion a number of those grand principles upon which the British Constitution of the present day is based were already in force.
With the arrival, however, of such a highly enlightened and civilized people as the Normans in our island extensive improvements and alterations were naturally introduced. According to Macaulay, the Normans were the most chivalrous and polished nation of their time. Yet during the early years of their rule in England their influence had no very favourable effect upon the institutions in which the people were most nearly concerned. The sacred cause of National Liberty was not upheld with very fervent devotion by the Conqueror, whose prerogative carried the weight of unlimited authority everywhere. Nevertheless, the sovereign's oppression itself planted the roots from which the tree of Liberty was destined to spring. As time wore on quarrels sprang up between the kings and their powerful barons, and as these perceived that their cause would be advanced by obtaining the assistance of the people, they invited the citizens to share the dangers of their struggle with the chief power of the State, and the rewards which might flow from such a contest in the event of success. Of course we have instances, as in the case of the early Jameses of Scotland, in which the king and the people were occasionally found ranked on one side against the nobles on the other; but in most civil struggles between the Crown and the aristocracy the latter are found leagued with the commonalty. It was by the influence of such leagues that the great charters of John and Henry III. were extorted, and that the people gradually came to acquire a position in the State which afterwards became more and more important, till they were allowed to represent themselves in Parliament.
Since the institution of the parliament of the three estates, King, Lords, and Commons, there have been many dissensions between overbearing sovereigns on the one hand and oppressed subjects on the other; and the execution of Charles I., and the enforced abdication of James II., bear ample evidence of the strength of people when they contend with the crown in the cause of Liberty and Justice.