Popular Basis of Political Authority

CHAPTER 2 | Document 6

James Burgh, Political Disquisitions 1:3--4, 186--89, 190, 190--93, 201--2


All lawful authority, legislative, and executive, originates from the people. Power in the people is like light in the sun, native, original, inherent and unlimited by any thing human. In governors, it may be compared to the reflected light of the moon; for it is only borrowed, delegated, and limited by the intention of the people, whose it is, and to whom governors are to consider themselves as responsible, while the people are answerable only to God, themselves being the losers, if they pursue a false scheme of politics. Of which more hereafter.

As the people are the fountain of power, so are they the object of government, in such manner, that where the people are safe, the ends of government are answered, and where the people are sufferers by their governors, those governors have failed of the main design of the institution, and it is of no importance what other ends they may have answered.

As the people are the fountain of power, and object of government, so are they the last resource, when governors betray their trust. And happy is that people, who have originally so principled their constitution, that they themselves can without violence to it, lay hold of its power, wield it as they please, and turn it, when necessary, against those to whom it was entrusted, and who have exerted it to the prejudice of its original proprietors. Of all which more copiously hereafter.

. . . . .

The doctrine so much preached of late, by our speechmakers and courtly writers, that members of parliament are not obliged to regard the instructions of their constituents, is a mere innovation. In former times their receiving wages supposed an obligation to do the business of those who paid them, and that they were to do it in the manner their employers chose it should be done. And their constant language in the house is, "We dare not grant any more subsidies. Who sent us hither? Whose business are we doing? How shall we answer this to the people? What will the people of England say to this? &c."

"The very nature of the house of commons is changed," (says the duke of Buckingham in the house of peers, A.D. 1677.) "They do not now think they are an assembly of men, that are to return to their own homes, and become private men again (as by the laws of the land and constitution of parliaments, they ought to be) but look upon themselves as a standing senate, as men picked out to be legislators for the rest of their lives."

Our ancestors shewed themselves to be constituents, by fining, imprisoning, and incapacitating their members, when they acted contrary to their intention. Absentees were fined 20 l. a large sum in those days. Our members are our masters, and insist on a dictatorial independency on us for 7 years, and to give no account of their conduct at the 7 years end, nor have we any power over them, but that of not re-electing them to a new parliament, if they have betrayed us in the last. Nay, the majority of the members command their own election, and sit in parliament, as the peers, for life. And yet we are a free people. Well may the neighbouring nations admire so mysterious a system.

The abbé Reynel thinks, the antient custom of the king's giving out, in the summonses to parliament, the business, for which it was to meet, was very useful, because the constitutents could then instruct their members how to vote; whereas now, says he, "the people are obliged to give their representatives an unlimited power, which they use as they think proper." The knights hesitated about granting Edw. III. supplies, till they had the consent of their constituents. The barons agreed. There is no mention of the burgesses. They desired, that there might be a new parliament summoned, which might come prepared with authority from their constituents. The commons did not presume to grant Edw. III. any tax, till they consulted their constituents. The commons, in the time of Rich. II. being desired to grant a subsidy, soon after Tyler's insurrection, answered, that by reason of the "evil heats and rancour of the people throughout the whole realm, they neither durst, nor would grant any manner of tallage." Here the sense of the responsibility to the people operated properly. Elsynge says, "When the commons gave their answer touching the subsidy demanded for the wars, they desired leave to return into the country to confer with their neighbours, promising their endeavours for the same at next parliament."

"Some of our principal law-books tell us, that in antient times, this house has often refused to agree to propositions made by the court for this reason only, That they could not, till they went home, and consulted with their constituents." The words of Mr. Plummer's speech on the motion for repealing the septennial act, A.D. 1734.

"We shall have little thanks for our labour, when we go home," said Wentworth, in the debate in parliament about a saving clause in the petition of right. In those days, the members considered what thanks they were likely to have from their constituents. In ours they consider what thanks they are likely to have from the treasury.

It was enacted I Hen. V. at the petition of the commons, that none, but residents in the places they represented, should be chosen knights, citizens or burgesses. They had not then invented the refinements of our times, that the members are representatives for the whole kingdom, and from the moment of their election, are alike independent on their particular constituents, and on the whole body of electors, through the kingdom.

. . . . .

The style of former times was, "the commons desired certain lords to confer with them about their charge." In those days the commons thought they had a charge, for which they were answerable.

. . . . .

The following phrases in Cromwel's summonses to sheriffs for parliament elections, shew, that responsibility was in those days thought the duty of members.--"So that the said knights severally may have full and sufficient power for themselves, and the people of that county, to do and consent unto those things which then and there by common consent of the said parliament shall be ordered," &c.

By the strain of the Remonstrance of the Commons of England to the house of commons, in the republican times, we see how this matter appeared to our ancestors of last century.

"We must desire you to call to your remembrance, that we are still the body of the commons of England, you but the representatives; that we have not so delegated the power to you, as to make you the governors of us and our estates. You are in truth but our procurators to speak for us in the great council. That of right we ought to have access to those, whom we have thus chosen, and to the house, as there shall be cause to impart our desires to you, and you ought not to refuse us. That by involving our votes in yours, we had no purpose to make you perpetual dictators."

Members of parliament, says the excellent Sidney, do not act by a power derived from kings, but from those who choose them. And those, who give power, do not give an unreserved power. Members of parliament are therefore accountable to their constituents. It is true, the constituents do not call them to an account, otherwise than by not electing them again, if they have disapproved of their conduct. [This proves in fact a very inadequate punishment, because the right of election comes so seldom into the hands of the people, and because (in all, but the present incorrupt times) by far the greatest part of the members have been imposed upon their constituents by power or by bribery.] "Many members, he says afterwards, in all ages, and sometimes the whole body of the commons, have refused to vote, till they consulted those who sent them. The houses have been often adjourned, to give them time to do this; and if this were done more frequently, or if towns, cities, and counties, had on some occasions, given instructions to their deputies, matters would probably have gone better in parliament than they have often done."

That stern old patriot, in his XLIVth sect. overthrows the doctrine of absolute power delegated to the members of the house of commons by their constituents. He considers members of parliament as the servants of the public. "I take, says he, what servant I please, and when I have taken him, I must, according to this doctrine, suffer him to do what he pleases. But from whence should this necessity arise? Why may I not take one to be my groom, another to be my cook, and keep them both to the offices, for which I took them? And if I am free, in my private capacity, to regulate my particular affairs according to my own discretion, and to allot to each servant his proper work, why have not I, with my associates the freemen of England, the like liberty of directing and limiting the powers of the servants we employ in our public affairs?"

Milton and Locke bring very substantial arguments for calling even kings, with all their sacred majesty, their jure divino, and their impeccability (kings can do no wrong) to account, if they govern in any manner inconsistent with the good of the people. How much more lords, or commons, who have never even challenged to themselves any divine attributes? Jam. I. owned himself to be the great servant of the state.

"Who, says Locke, shall be judge, whether his trustee, or his deputy" [are not members of the house of commons trustees and deputies in the strictest sense of the word?] "acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he, who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still power to discard him, when he fails in his trust? If this be reason in particular cases of private men, why should it be otherwise in cases of the greatest moment, where the welfare of millions is concerned!"

. . . . .

No single man, or set of men, ought to be trusted with power without account to the people, the original proprietors of power. "There is not upon earth" (says the excellent Gordon) "a nation, which having had unaccountable magistrates, has not felt them to be crying and consuming mischiefs. In truth, where they are most limited, it has been often as much as a whole people could do to restrain them to their trust, and to keep them from violence; and such frequently has been their propensity to be lawless, that nothing but a violent death could cure them of their violence. This evil has its root in human nature; men will never think they have enough, whilst they can take more; nor be content with a part, when they can seize the whole."

The history of mankind for two or three thousand years backwards (which is as far backwards as history goes) is a sermon upon this text, Nothing more dangerous than power without responsibility. But the species resembles an individual. As the father's experience does not make the son wiser, so neither does the history of the sufferings of former generations teach the succeeding to secure themselves against the mischiefs of unaccountable power.

"When we elect persons to represent us in parliament (says a judicious writer) we must not be supposed to depart from the smallest right which we have deposited with them. We make a lodgment, not a gift; we entrust, but part with nothing. And, were it possible, that they should attempt to destroy that constitution which we had appointed them to maintain, they can no more be held in the rank of representatives than a factor, turned pirate, can continue to be called the factor of those merchants whose goods he had plundered, and whose confidence he had betrayed. The men, whom we thus depute to parliament, are not the bare likeness or reflexion of us their constituents; they actually contain our powers and privileges, and are, as it were, the very persons of the people they represent. We are the parliament in them; we speak and act by them. We have, therefore, a right to know what they are saying and doing. And should they contradict our sense, or swerve from our interests, we have a right to remonstrate, inform, and direct them. By which means, we become the regulators of our own conduct, and the institutors of our own laws, and nothing material can be done but by our authority and consent."

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 2, Document 6
The University of Chicago Press

[Burgh, James.] Political Disquisitions: or, An Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses. . . . 3 vols. London, 1774--75.

Easy to print version.