« FöregåendeFortsätt »
Charles the First and King John. Of the English Constitution it may be said that its most notable bulwarks have resulted from its most flagrant violations.
Duris ut Ilex tonsa bipennibus,
Ducit opes, animumque ferro.
It may avoid ambiguity as to the purport of the present inquiry to state, that it will embrace the public law in force in the reign of Charles II., and not exclusively the statutes passed at that era. Thus, to the credit side of constitutional perfection in the reign of Charles II. may be carried any revivals, in that reign, under the designation of statutes, of any ordinances of Barebones ; just as the Commonwealth man-of-war, the Naseby, took, at the Restoration, the name of the Royal Charles. And, in like manner, there may be carried to the opposite side of the account a law for hanging and eviscerating alive Roman Catholic Priests, made, indeed, by Elizabeth, but kept, and, in numerous instances, enforced under Charles II., as Dryden expresses himself concerning that same law :
O let their crime in long oblivion sleep !
Further, it is not intended, in the present inquiry, to follow Sir William Blackstone in a review of laws not contributing to the vigour of the Constitution, with whatever other vigour they may be endowed. The statutes of Frauds, Distributions, Jeofails, and the laws for the improvement of navigation and foreign commerce, which he adduces, may appear irrelevant to the perfection of the Constitution, to which point they are applied by him. Many of them are, moreover, diametrically opposed to received principles of political economy, a science which had not its birth in the reign of Charles II. And as regards the generality of them, it may be confidently maintained that the Legislatures which have repealed or extensively modified them, have not, during the space of two hundred years, been pursuing altogether a downward course, nor been employed in gilding refined gold, painting lilies and perfuming violets. Whether we turn our attention to civil or criminal laws, those of foreign or domestic commerce, of landed or personal property, we shall, probably, agree with one of the brightest ornaments of the reign of Charles II., Sir Matthew Hale, that, however wise may have been our legislators two hundred years ago, “ Time is the wisest thing under heaven.”
With regard to Blackstone's opinion of the temporary felicity of the country arising from an exemption in the reign of Charles II. from taxes and armies, it may appear as irrelevant to a question concerning the vigour of the Constitution, as if its imbecility were to be inferred from the great Plague of 1665, or the Fire of London. Nevertheless, a brief examination of Blackstone's remarks upon these topics may serve to remove prejudice from the threshold of this investigation, by making it plain, that, where optimism is at issue, the reflections of the great Commentator who first drew down English Law from the clouds, are to be perused with grains of allowance.
Were Blackstone's statements concerning taxes and armies in the reign of Charles II. nearer the truth than they may be found, there would have to be considered, in the opposite scale, that, by the ancient Constitution, the demands of the public service were supplied not merely by taxes, but, in a great measure, from the royal domains, and confiscations, with multifarious items of casual revenue. These sources are now almost dried
up, and their places supplied by taxes. Neither did it redound to the honour or happiness of a nation, that its king may have sometimes postponed the taxing of his subjects, because it would have necessitated the holding of a Parliament, to which course he preferred being the pensioner of a foreign monarch, shutting
the exchequer in violation of public credit, chaffering away Dunkirk, a trophy of national valour, tarnishing the flag of England, by a piratical attempt on the Dutch Smyrna fleet. And although Charles II. had not burthened his subjects with an army, he would have owned the soft impeachment of a navy from the Muse of Waller:
His club Alcides, Phoebus has his bow,
But Blackstone's statements as to freedom from taxes and armies in the reign of Charles II. are contradicted by the statutes, by parliamentary debates, and by contemporary historians. As to taxes,—Mr Hallam writes that “it appears, that, in the first seven years of Charles II., the nation paid a greater sum in taxes than in any preceding period of the same duration.” The first parliamentary imposition known in England of hearth-money payable equally for every hearth, however unequal the tenement it warmed, was by a statute of Charles II. At the Revolution this tax was a grievance of which the nation made early and loud complaints. Accordingly, by the statute 1 William and Mary, Stat. 1, c. 10, hearth-money was declared to be “not only a great oppression to the poorer sort, but a badge of slavery upon the whole people, exposing every man's house to be entered into, and searched at pleasure by persons unknown to him; and, therefore, to erect a lasting monument of their majesties' goodness in every house of this kingdom, the duty of hearth-money was taken away, and abolished 1.”
The Excise was an invention of the Commonwealth, but was revived and made hereditary in the reign of Charles II. ; the maxim holding in fiscal impositions, fas est et ab hoste doceri. Blackstone writes that the “very name of Excise, from its first original to the present time, has been odious to the people of England.”
1 See Mr Macaulay's tableau of hearth-money, in the third volume of his History.
It appears from the writings of Marvell, that in the time of Charles II. the Excise was not less hateful than in that of Sir Robert Walpole, or when Dr Johnson inveighed against it in his Dictionary. Marvell writes of Excise :
A thousand hands she has, a thousand eyes,
A speaker of the House of Commons, in the year 1666, thus explains one of the several Poll-taxes imposed in the reign of Charles II. “Because the greater part of taxes for the previous twenty-six years have been laid upon lands ; but a little weight lying always upon one shoulder, will, at length, become uneasy, though, being shifted sometimes to the other, there will be some refreshment." It
may be observed that, in the Poll-tax Acts of Charles II., the tax is demandable for persons above the age sixteen, the very age and provision, which, by an indecent examination into the age of a female, occasioned the famous insurrection of Wat Tyler. Southey, who has dramatised the polltax and its insurrection, makes his hero designate it as a tax
“ Forsooth for liberty to wear my head.”
Without attempting to detail all the new taxes imposed in the reign of Charles II., it may be noticed that, in his reign, we read of taxes upon new buildings, upon the wages of domestic servants, and the first erection of turnpikes. What might have been thought likely to have struck the attention of Blackstone, there is an act of Charles II. (sometimes called the first stamp act), which is entitled “ An Act for laying impositions on proceedings at law.”
As regards Armies, we read, in 1673, of the House of Commons voting “A standing army a grievance;" besides complaints, about the same time, of billeting contrary to the Petition of Right, pressing for soldiers, and martial law. In 1677 Charles II. suddenly raised an army consisting of between twenty and thirty thousand men, under pretence of employing them against France. We find subsequent statutes for granting supplies nicely calculated for the specific purpose of paying off and disbanding the army levied in and since 1677. A treasurer of the navy was impeached for lending a sum of £90,000 specifically appropriated to the use of the navy, for the use of the army. Several of the present regiments of our army were coeval or contemporary with the reign of Charles II., as the Coldstream Guards, the Life Guards, the Oxford Blues, the Royals, the King's own, the Queen's own, the Buffs, the Fusileers?. A conversation touching the feasibility of surprising the King's Guards, was the corner-stone of Lord Russell's imputed treason. Evelyn in his Diary, under the date of the 29th of June, 1678, writes : "Returned by Hounslow Heath, where we saw the new raised army encamped, designed against France, in pretence at least; but which gave umbrage to the Parliament. His Majesty and a world of company were in the field, and the whole army in battalia, a very glorious sight."
It is more important than to accumulate proofs of a reign of taxes and armies, as regards the present inquiry, to consider, how far the “ practical oppression" and the “many iniquitous proceedings contrary to all law,” which Blackstone admits to have disgraced the reign of Charles II., and which Fox contrasts with the alleged theoretical perfection of the Constitution in that reign, were, in any way, consequences of the Constitution being deficient in the perfection attributed to it. It will, probably, appear in the course of this work, that grievous oppression
i The Coldstream foot-guards were formed in 1660, when two regiments were added to one raised ten years previously at Coldstream, by Monk. The Scotch Royals were brought over from France at the Restoration ; the Oxford Blues, so called from their first commander, Aubrey, Earl of Oxford, were raised in 1661. The buffalo-leathered 3rd, in 1665; the 21st foot, armed with fusils, in 1678. Evelyn mentions the introduction of grenadiers.