Parliament in 17th Century England and Why America Does Not Have a King
When Americans speak of the Civil War, we of course have our own conflict (1861-1865) in mind. However, the term “civil war” does not name one conflict in world history. It categorizes a certain kind of conflict. Many political communities have suffered from civil wars. Such conflicts pit one portion of a country against another in armed battle.
Human beings often turn civil wars into the worst of conflicts. They do so because of why civil wars occur. People will invade other countries for money, for glory, for responding to a slight, perceived or real. Civil wars nearly always become conflicts about what a country is. Combatants spar over what principles truly define the country and who rightfully belongs as citizens within it. Our civil war centered those questions around the issue of slavery.
England had its own civil war two centuries before America’s. From 1642 to 1651, with little respite, Englishmen formed armies and killed each other in ugly, pitched battles. They did so over competing visions of England. These competing visions divided along two lines. The first was political, a battle over the English constitution regarding who should rule the country and through what kinds of institutions, especially the institutions of the king and the Parliament. The second was religious. Devoutly Christian persons on both sides, and those caught in-between, desired that England adhere in true fashion to the true God. But, as with the constitution, they did not come to the same answers. In this essay, we will examine the political differences and compare them to America’s constitutional system. In the following, we will take up the religious question of the English Civil War in relation to the American experiment.
To understand the political question of England, we must delve into the history and development of how countries organized themselves politically. In ancient and medieval times, political thinkers divided all good forms of political rule into three camps: the rule of the one (monarchy), the rule of the few (aristocracy), and the rule of the many (polity). Many of the same men extolled the good of a fourth option they referred to as the “mixed regime.” This form of government involved sharing powers among some combination of the one, the few, and the many. They intended this mixture to ensure that a country would receive the good qualities of each pure governmental form and suppress potential vices that could turn monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to a wealth-obsessed oligarchy, or a polity into a mob-terrorizing democracy (democracy was a negative term at the time).
The English system in the 17th century had developed into one that shared power between the king and the parliament. In so doing, it incorporated the rule of all three groups. The monarch represented the rule of one, Parliament’s House of Lords the rule of the few, and Parliament’s House of Commons the rule of the people.
Such a system is impossible under our form of government. It first is so because of our principles. Kingship and aristocracy, in their pure form, begin with human inequality as the basis for ordering a political society. So, the sharing of rule comes between equals and un-equals within the country. However, our Declaration of Independence states as a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” This equality means no person can rule another without consent. No person can rule another unless the ruled can set limits on the ruler and even remove and replace him from time to time.
We legalized our commitment to equality in several places in the United States Constitution. Most notably for this issue, Article I, Sections 9 and 10 deny both the state and the national government from bestowing a “title of nobility.” The Constitution thus forbids the creation of a legal caste, a codified aristocracy who then receives special treatment by the law. Therefore, we cannot have a “House of Lords” because no lords, or dukes, or any other such legally titled persons reside among us. We cannot have a king because no hereditary right to such a position can exist for us. Our system of elections reinforced this point. Our Congress and our president both come into office by means of elections. These elections prove that “We, the People” exercise the ultimate or sovereign power through these officers, not act as subjects under their independent fiat. Our rejection of a king was of particular vehemence on this point, not wishing to elevate one man in such a way above his fellow citizens.
But the British system has evolved dramatically from this earlier setup. The English Civil War pitted Parliament against the English King, each with an army fighting for its claims. Instead of sharing power, both sought to rule outright, with the other subservient. They thus sought to make easier the exercise of the worst vices of each system. During this time, for example, we continued to see English monarchs claim their rule based in some form of divine right. God placed them on the throne and that meant something akin to absolute power in relation to parliament and English subjects.
America’s system, again, rejected these kinds of arguments. For one, we rejected the divine right of kings because of our commitment, discussed above, to human equality. Thomas Jefferson famously said that no person was born with spurs or with a saddle, the former then knowing he had a natural right to ride the latter. Human equality meant no legally born kings to subjects. Instead, the people, again, created offices to which they delegated their sovereign power to rule. That difference is why, in American history, persons often called presidents “kings” to disparage them (Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln are two examples).
For another, Americans intentionally divided power among its political institutions in a way different from that which enveloped the English in the 17th century. They did not divide by who ruled, since the people ruled entirely. They divided by governmental function. They divided these functions and thus institutions into three, not England’s two: a Congress to make laws, a president to enforce them, and a judicial system to decide disputes based on the law. This separation of powers has proven far more consistent and effective over its history.
The English system, in fact, partly followed America’s route even before America existed. Parliament more and more took the lead for making laws—the legislative power. The monarch still possessed the power to veto legislation parliament passed, keeping such bills from becoming law. However, the monarch took the lead on matters we now would call executive and judicial. The king enforced the laws. He did so through ministers and other officers who arrested and restrained persons or collected taxes. The king enforced the law through his judges. Thus, England has had one court named The King’s Bench. During the commonwealth period (1649-1660), England acted as a government without a king. But they failed to truly form a government of, by, and for the people, succumbing to a de facto king in Oliver Cromwell. By 1660, England returned to a mixed regime of sharing power between Parliament and monarchy.
Over time, our president fared much better than England’s monarch. Our president only has grown in power over the centuries. He has done so as each officeholder has cultivated his role as representative of the people. As the legitimacy of rule by kings faded, though, so did the real political powers of the monarch. Vetoing legislation, for instance, is now virtually unthinkable. The British courts occupy a firmly independence existence. Parliament eventually gained total supremacy, a fate made nearly certain by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Due to that dominance, the English system lacks a true separation of powers. The Prime Minister in the House of Commons occupies the real role of executive head. Meanwhile, the British king or queen now occupies a figurehead position. TV shows like “The Crown” argue for the virtues of this circumstance. They claim it allows for the monarchy to represent the country as a whole, to reside above partisanship, and to guide softly by manner, gesture, and example. But this mostly covers up a loss of political power near total in scope.
Thus, the modern British government has moved nearly all real political power, not just into Parliament, but into its House of Commons. Legislative and executive power both reside therein, with the Prime Minister doing both. Our system maintained its separation by keeping a strong executive with real powers distinguished firmly from the legislative branch. In doing so, we built a system both popular in basis and workable in execution. We maintained our independent executive power by making him not a creation of divine right but of the sovereign people. And that will continue, so long as the Constitution continues to rule the United States of America.
Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.
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