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The present work is intended to convey to the reader an account of the various fundamental laws, usages, offices, and institutions, which have arisen in this country in the course of ages, and which form what is called THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION. This timehonoured” fabric has been more frequently the theme of admiration than of exposition. It was therefore conceived that a work intended to explain, in a full and candid manner, the essential parts of its construction, would have many claims on the attention of the public, both in point of interest and utility. The mixed character of the British constitution renders a proper understanding of it more difficult than that of any other government. In its composition, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are blended; and it differs from other governments in two important points; first, that much of the power which usually centres in the crown, in Britain remains in the hands of the nation; and, secondly, that the disposition of the executive officers to encroach on the rights of the people, is checked by the constitutional responsibility of each officer. To foreigners, it has long been an object of admiration: and a reflection on its many excellencies, so far as the rights and personal liberties of the subject are concerned, cannot fail, in this country, to excite a feeling of honourable pride.
The British constitution has grown out of occasions and emergency. It has gradually accommodated itself to change of circumstances and of national sentiment; to the fluctuating policy of different ages, and to the contentions and interests of various orders and parties in the state. “ By the constitution of a country,” says archdeacon Paley, “is meant so much of its law as relates to the designation and form of the legislature; the rights and functions of the several parts of the legislative body; and the constitution, office, and jurisdiction of courts of justice. Accordingly,” says he, “the constitution is one principal division, section, or title of the code of public laws, distinguished from the rest by the superior importance of the subject of which it treats. The terms, therefore, constitutional and unconstitutional, just mean legal and illegal. In Great Britain the system of public jurisdiction is composed of acts of parliament, of decisions of courts of law, and of immemorial usage.” The benefit of laws and government is reaped by all. Few, however, consider the origin and fountain whence that benefit and those laws proceed. Paley observes, “that government was at first either parental or military.” “ Paternal authority,” says he, “and the order of domestic life supplied the foundation of civil government.
The condition of human infancy prepares men for Society, by combining individuals into small societies, and by placing them from the beginning under direction and control. A small family contains the rudiments of an empire. The authority of one over many, and the disposition to govern and be governed, are in this way incidental to the very nature, and co-eval with the existence of the human species. A parent would naturally,” continues he, “ retain a considerable portion of his authority after his children were grown up and had formed families of their own. This is the second stage in the progress of dominion. The first was that of a parent over his young children. The second that of an ancestor presiding over his adult children.”
In the following pages several important acts of parliament will be found at full length. Others are abridged: but those which have tended to improve the laws, or protect persons or property, are given under the title “ Rise, Progress, and Improvement of the Laws of England.” The reform acts for the three kingdoms, and the burgh reform act for Scotland are given complete. The laws and institutions of Scotland are here exhibited more fully than they have hitherto been shown in any single publication. I have offered no opinions of my own on any of the subjects treated of. The prerogatives of the
crown, and the privileges of parliament are detailed in the language of Judge Blackstone and others.
To the politician, and every one, indeed, who takes an interest in public matters, the present work, it is presumed, must be highly acceptable. And even in the ordinary transactions of mankind, it must often prove of great utility, by explaining the legal rights of individuals, the limits of jurisdiction, and the power of courts, civil, military and ecclesiastical.