Independence Hall Home Search Contents Indexes Help

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1

Document 19

St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries 1:App. 208--15


I. The constituent parts of the British parliament, are, the house of commons, the house of lords, and the king, sitting there in his royal political capacity, in the union of which three estates the body politic of the kingdom consists. Analogous to which, though very differently constituted, we have seen the house of representatives and senate of the United States, and sub modo the president of the United States forming the general congress, or the supreme political legislature of the federal government. Thus far the great outlines of both governments appear to run parallel: they will however upon a nearer scrutiny be found frequently to diverge. We shall begin with the house of commons, which forms the democractical part of the British constitution.

"In a free state" says the author of the commentaries "every man who is supposed a free agent, ought to be in some measure his own governor, and therefore a branch at least of the legislative power should reside in the whole body of the people. In so large a state as Britain, therefore, it is very wisely contrived that the people should do that by their representatives, which it is impracticable to perform in person; representatives, chosen by a number of minute and separate districts, wherein all the voters are, or easily may be, distinguished. He adds, elsewhere, "In a democracy there can be no exercise of sovereignty, but by suffrage, which is the declaration of the people's will. In all democracies, therefore, it is of the utmost importance to regulate by whom and in what manner the suffrages are to be collected. In England where the people do not debate in a collective body, but by representation, the exercise of their sovereignty consists in the choice of representatives"

Such are the principles laid down by this distinguished writer, from whence one would be led to conclude that the elections for members of the house of commons were regulated in a manner as conformable thereto as possible. That where there was an equality of right, an equality of representation would also be found; and that the right of suffrage would be regulated by some uniform standard, so that the same class of men should not possess privileges in one place, which they are denied in another.

1. By equality of representation, it will be understood, that I mean the right which any given number of citizens possessing equal qualifications in respect to the right of suffrage, have, to an equal share in the councils of the nation by their representatives, as an equal number of their fellow citizens in any other part of the state enjoy.

In England and in Wales there are fifty-two counties, represented by knights, elected by the proprietors of lands; the cities and boroughs are represented by citizens and burgesses, chosen by the mercantile part, or supposed trading part of the nation. . . . The whole number of English representatives, is 513 and of Scots, 45. The members of boroughs now bear above a quadruple proportion to those for counties; from whence one would, at first, be apt to conclude, that the population or at least the number of electors in the counties were equal; and, that the boroughs were at least four times as populous as the counties, collectively. The former of these suppositions would be perfectly unfounded in truth; the latter perhaps may approach nearer to it. In truth, were the latter supposition well founded, the equality of representation would not be much advanced by it. . . . In London which is supposed to contain near a seventh part of the number of the inhabitants of all England, they are entitled to four members only in parliament. The inconsiderable borough of Melcomb Regis in Dorsetshire sends as many. Manchester and Birmingham, two large populous, flourishing, manufacturing towns have no representative, whilst the depopulated borough of Old Sarum, without a house or an inhabitant, is the vehicle through which two members obtain their seats in parliament; a representation equal to that of the most populous county.

Many other corresponding instances might be adduced to prove the inequality of representation; but they are unnecessary. . . . In America the representation is in exact proportion to the inhabitants. Every part of the states is therefore equally represented, and consequently has an equal share in the government. Here the principle that the whole body of the people should have a share in the legislature, and every individual entitled to vote, possess an equal voice, is practically enforced. . . . In England it is a mere illusion.

It is but justice to acknowledge that attempts have repeatedly been made, to effect a reform in this part of the British constitution: the voice of the nation has more than once loudly demanded it . . . but their rulers, like the God Baal, have been otherwise employed; or deaf, or peradventure asleep, and could not be awaked.

2. As to the right of suffrage in the individual, nearly the same principle seems to prevail in respect to the qualification in lands, in both countries; and the different manner of ascertaining it, is not sufficient to require any remark. I shall only observe that copy-holders, whose interest, in almost every other respect in their lands, seem to be equal to that of a free-holder, (at least, such as have inheritances in them) are not admitted to the right of suffrage. The proportion of copy-holders for life, or of inheritance, to the freehold tenants of the counties, I have never heard estimated: it is, however, very considerable.

"The right of voting in boroughs is various," says Blackstone, "depending entirely on the several charters, customs, and constitutions of the respective places, which has occasioned infinite disputes." It may vary no less perhaps in the different states of America, but there is this advantage, that however various, there can be little room for doubts, or disputes on the subject. In Virginia the qualification to vote in boroughs, is as fixed and invariable as in the counties. One principle however must not be lost sight of, which perhaps should have come under the last head. No borough can ever be entitled to a representative, whenever the number of inhabitants shall, for the space of seven years together, be less than half the number of the inhabitants of any county in Virginia. In England the boroughs retain the right of representation, as we have seen, even after they have lost their inhabitants. Another circumstance respecting them is no less notorious; though the right of suffrage is in the burgher, the power of sending the member to parliament is in the lord of the soil; a number of the boroughs being private property, and the burghers, who are tenants, bound to vote as their lord shall direct: the shadow of the right of suffrage is all these burghers possess . . . to the exercise of that right they are as much strangers, as to the pyramids of Egypt, or the ruins of Palmyra. It is scarcely possible that the electors of America should ever be degraded to a similar state of political mechanism.

3. The qualification of the members is the next object of our comparison. In England a knight of the shire must possess an estate in lands of the value of 600l. sterling, per annum, and a member for a borough of one half that value, except the eldest sons of peers; and of persons qualified to be knights of shires, and members of the two universities.

This at first view appears to be a proper and necessary precaution, as far as it extends, to secure the independence of the members of that branch of the legislature. But this argument is neither conclusive in fact, nor even in theory. Neither of these sums is an adequate support for a man moving in the rank of a member of the British parliament. Luxury has taken too deep root in the nation to authorize the supposition generally; and if it fails in general, it is of little avail that a few instances may be found of persons in that sphere, whose expences do not exceed the requisite qualification in point of fortune. But if the principle be admitted that an independent fortune be necessary to secure the independence of the member in his legislative conduct, it would seem that the measure ought to be the same to all the members, since, according to the doctrine laid down by our author, a member though chosen by a particular district, when elected, serves the whole realm, the end of his election not being particular, but general. An equality of qualification should then have taken place; and if 600l. is necessary to secure the independence of the member, those who possess but half as much ought to be excluded; on the other hand, if 300l. be a competent sum for that purpose, how injurious must that law be to the rights of the citizen, which requires the qualification which is acknowledged to be sufficient for every good purpose, to be doubled. But a qualification in respect to estate is neither equally nor uniformly required; if the member elected should happen to be the eldest son of a peer, or of a person qualified to be knight of the shire; in either of these cases it is altogether dispensed with. The effect of this, as it respects the former of these classes of men, we shall speak of hereafter. As to the latter, it is sufficient to say, that presumption is allowed to supply the place of evidence; and both the exceptions prove the deviation from the general principle to have originated in the influence of the aristocratical interest of the nation.

In America no qualification in point of estate is required in the representative in congress by the constitution; and perhaps we may with some propriety insist that any such qualification would be not only unnecessary, but contrary to the true interests of their constituents. In England the interests of the crown, of the nobles, and of the people, are confessedly distinct and often diametrically opposite. In America all are citizens possessing equal rights in their civil capacities and relations; there are no distinct orders among us, except while in the actual exercise of their several political functions. When the member quits his seat, or the magistrate descends from the bench, he is instantly one of the people. The pageantry of office reaches not beyond the threshold of the place where it is exercised; and civil distinctions privileges or emoluments independent of the office are interdicted by the principles of our government. To secure the independence of the members conduct, perhaps no previous qualification, in point of estate may be requisite; though such a qualification might for another reason have been not improper: that by sharing in the burthens of government, he might be restrained from an undue imposition of them upon his constituents. The law of the state indeed requires that the representative should be a freeholder, as well as a resident in the district; but both these provisions, as they require qualifications which the constitution does not, may possibly be found to be nugatory, should any man possess a sufficient influence in a district in which he neither resides nor is a freeholder, to obtain a majority of the suffrages in his favor. But how strong soever the reasons in favour of a qualification in point of estate might have been, on the grounds last spoken of, they were overbalanced probably by two considerations.

First, that in a representative government, the people have an undoubted right to judge for themselves of the qualification of their delegate, and if their opinion of the integrity of their representative will supply the want of estate, there can be no reason for the government to interfere, by saying, that the latter must and shall overbalance the former.

Secondly; by requiring a qualification in estate it may often happen, that men the best qualified in other respects might be incapacitated from serving their country. To which we may add, that the compensation which the members receive for their services, is probably such an equivalent, as must secure them from undue influence, or concessions from motives of interest.

A second qualification required by the British constitution is, that the person elected shall be of the age of twenty-one years at the time of his election: ours with more caution and perhaps with better reason, requires that he shall have attained to the age of twenty-five years.

These are all the positive qualifications, in which there appears to be any very material difference worth remarking. Of negative ones, those which relate to the incapacity of certain descriptions of placemen and pensioners in England, are limited to a very small part of the host of the former who depend upon the crown for support; and in respect to the latter only such pensioners as hold during the pleasure of the crown, are excluded. A list of placemen and pensioners in either the present or last parliament of England was published some years ago. . . . I do not recollect their exact number, but I can be positive that it exceeded two hundred. A number sufficient to secure the most unlimited influence in the crown: to these let us add the eldest sons of peers, and ask whether in a question between the commons and the nobility, it would be probable, that they would give an independent vote, against the order in which they soon hoped to obtain a permanent rank and station.

Lastly, let me ask, if the conduct of those borough members who hold their seats by the appointment of members of the other house, or perhaps of their own, may reasonably be expected to be uninfluenced by the nod of their patrons? Can a house thus constituted be said to represent the people, the democratic part of the government? Can they be said to form a check upon the proceedings of the nobility, or the measures of the crown? The question only requires to be understood, to be answered decidedly in the negative.

We have seen that no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office; and that no member of congress shall during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments thereof increased during such time. These provisions appear to be more effectual to secure the independence of the members, than any qualification in respect to estate: but, they seem not to have been carried quite far enough.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 19
The University of Chicago Press

Tucker, St. George. Blackstone's Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1803. Reprint. South Hackensack, N.J.: Rothman Reprints, 1969.

Easy to print version.

Home | Search | Contents | Indexes | Help

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000