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Parliament, English

The Teutonic Witenagemot or assembly of the wise, the noble, and the great men of the nation was the origin of parliament. Coke declared that the term parliament was used in the time of Edward the Confessor, A. D. 1041. The first regular parliament, according to many historians, was that of Edward I. in 1294. The first speaker of the House of Commons, Peter De La Mare, was elected in 1377. The powers and jurisdiction of Parliament are absolute, and cannot be confined either by causes or persons within bounds. It has sovereign and uncontrollable authority in making and repealing laws; it can regulate and new-model the succession to the crown; it can alter and establish the religion of the country.

The first act of the British Parliament relating to the American colonies was passed in 1548, and prohibited the exaction of any reward by an officer of the English admiralty from English fishermen and mariners going on the service of the fishery at Newfoundland. The next of importance, and the first that elicited debate, was in 1621, when the House of Commons denounced the new charter given to the Plymouth Company (q. v.) as a “grievance.” The King, angered by what he regarded as an attack upon his prerogative, had Sir Edward Coke, Pym, and other members imprisoned, or virtually so, for what he called “factious conduct.” The debates involved the declaration of the right of Parliament to absolutely rule colonial affairs and a flat denial of the right—the course of debate followed before the War of the Revolution began. At that session King James took high-handed measures against the representatives of the people. He declared the proceedings of the House of Commons the work of “fiery, popular, and turbulent spirits,” to which they replied by inserting in their journals a declaration that they had the right of discussing all subjects in such order as they might think proper, and asserting that they were not responsible to the King for their conduct. James sent for the book, tore out the obnoxious entry with his own hand, and suspended their sittings.

In 1763 the extent of the powers of Parliament over the colonies began to be seriously questioned. A certain supremacy was admitted. For a long time the colonies, especially of New England, had carried on a struggle with Parliament concerning its interference with colonial manufactures, trade, and commerce. It had interfered with their currency, with joint-stock companies, the collection of debts, laws of naturalization, assumed to legislate concerning the administration of oaths, and to extend the operations of the mutiny act to the colonies. Against these and other interferences in their local affairs the colonists had protested. Parliament had persisted, and, by a sort of forced, though partial, acquiescence, these interferences came to be regarded as [71] vested rights. The Parliament had never ventured to impose direct taxes on the colonies—a supereminent power—but the indirect taxation, by means of custom-house officers, was regarded as an equivalent by the colonists, and watched with jealous vigilance. When, in 1765, schemes of indirect taxation were put in operation to increase the imperial revenue, and not for the mere regulation of trade, the colonists rebelled.

The second Parliament of George III. opened in December, 1768. All the papers relating to the American colonies were laid before it. The House of Lords severely denounced the public proceedings in Massachusetts. Approving the conduct of the ministry, they recommended instructions to the governor of Massachusetts to obtain full information “of all treasons,” and to send the offenders to England for trial, under an unrepealed statute of Henry VIII. for the punishment of treason committed out of the kingdom. These recommendations met powerful opposition in the House of Commons, in which Barre Burke, and Pownall took the lead. But Parliament, as a body, considered the proceedings in the colonies as indicative of a factious and rebellious spirit, and the recommendations of the House of Lords were adopted by a very decided majority; for each member seemed to consider himself insulted by the independent spirit of the Americans. “Every man in England,” wrote Franklin, “regards himself as a piece of a sovereign over America—seems to jostle himself into the throne with the King, and talks of our subjects in the colonies.”

The election for members of a new Parliament that took place in November, 1774, resulted in a large ministerial majority, which boded no good for the American colonies. The King, in his opening speech (Nov. 30), spoke of the “daring spirit of resistance in the colonies,” and assured the legislature that he had taken measures and given orders for the restoration of peace and order, which he hoped would be effectual. A large majority of both Houses were ready to support the King and his ministers in coercive measures; but there was a minority of able men, in and out of Parliament, utterly opposed to subduing the colonies by force of arms, and anxious to promote an amicable adjustment. The mercantile and trading interests of every kind, whose business was seriously menaced by the American Association, formed a powerful class of outside opponents of the ministers. The English Dissenters, also, were inclined, by religious sympathies, to favor the Americans. In the House of Commons, the papers referring to America were referred to a committee of the whole; while in the House of Lords, Chatllam (William Pitt), after long absence, appeared and proposed an address to the King advising a recall of the troops from Boston. This proposition was rejected by a decisive majority. Petitions for conciliation, which flowed into the House of Commons from all the trading and manufacturing towns in the kingdom, were referred to another committee, which the opposition called the “committee of oblivion.” Among the petitions to the King was that of the Continental Congress, presented by Franklin, Bollan, and Lee, three colonial agents, who asked to be heard upon it, by counsel, at the bar of the House. Their request was refused on the ground that the Congress was an illegal assembly and the alleged grievances only pretended.

On Feb. 1, Chatham brought forward a bill for settling the troubles in America, which provided for a full acknowledgment on the part of the colonies of the supremacy and superintending power of Parliament, but that no tax should ever be levied except by consent of the colonial assemblies. It provided for a congress of the colonies to make the acknowledgment, and to vote, at the same time, a free grant to the King of a certain perpetual revenue to be placed at the disposal of Parliament. His bill was refused the courtesy of lying on the table, and was rejected by a vote of two to one at the first reading. The ministry, feeling strong in their large majority of supporters, presented a bill in the House of Commons (Feb. 3) for cutting off the trade of New England elsewhere than to Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies. This was intended to offset the American Association. It also provided for the suspension of these colonies from the prosecution of the Newfoundland fisheries, a principal branch of their trade and industry. In an address to the throne proposed by ministers (Feb. [72] 7), it was declared that rebellion existed in Massachusetts, countenanced and fomented by unlawful combinations in other colonies. Effectual measures were recommended for suppressing the rebellion. The support of Parliament was pledged to the King.

Then Lord North astonished his party and the nation by proposing a scheme for conciliation, not much unlike that of Chatham. It proposed that when any colony should offer to make a provision for raising a sum of money disposable by Parliament for the common defence, and should provide for the support of civil government and the administration of justice within its own limits, and such offer should be approved by the King, Parliament should forbear the levy of any duties or taxes within such colony, so long as it should be faithful to its promises, excepting such as might be required for the regulation of trade. The bill was warmly opposed by the ultra advocates of parliamentary supremacy, until North explained that he did not believe it would be acceptable to all the colonies, and that it was intended to divide and weaken them. Then the bill passed. With a similar design, a bill with the features of the New England “restraining bill” was passed, after hearing of the general support given by the colonial assemblies to the proceedings of the Congress. It extended similar restrictions to all the colonies excepting New York, North Carolina, and Georgia, the first and last named having declined to adopt the American Association, and the ministers entertaining hope of similar action by the Assembly of North Carolina.

Finally Burke offered a series of resolutions to abandon all attempts at parliamentary taxation and to return to the old method of raising American supplies by the free grant of the colonial assemblies. His motion was voted down. Soon afterwards John Wilkes (then Lord Mayor of London, as well as member of the House of Commons), whom the ministry had tried to crush, and whom they regarded as their mortal enemy, presented to the King, in his official capacity, a remonstrance from the City authorities expressing “abhorrence” of the measures in progress for “the oppression of their fellow-subjects in the colonies,” and entreating the King, as a first step towards the redress of grievances, to dismiss his present ministry. In these debates the speakers exhibited various phases of statesmanship, from the sagacious reasoner to the flippant optimist, who, believing in the omnipotence of Great Britain and the cowardice and weakness of the Americans, felt very little concern. Charles James Fox advised the administration to place the Americans where they stood in 1763, and to repeal every act passed since that time which affected either their freedom or their commerce. Lord North said if such a scheme should be effected there would be an end to the dispute. His plan was to send an armament to America, accompanied by commissioners to offer mercy upon a proper submission, for he believed the Americans were aiming at independence. This belief and its conclusion were denied by General Conway, who asked, “Did the Americans set up a claim for independence previous to 1763?” and answered, “No, they were then dutiful and peaceable subjects, and they are still dutiful.” He declared that the obnoxious acts of Parliament had forced them into acts of resistance. “Taxes have been levied upon them,” he said; “their charters have been violated, nay, taken away; administration has attempted to overawe them by the most cruel and oppressive laws.” Edmund Burke condemned the use of discretionary power made by General Gage at Boston. James Grenville deprecated the use of force against the Americans, because they did not aim at independence; while Mr. Adam thought it absolutely necessary to reduce them to submission by force, because, if they should be successful in their opposition, they would certainly “proceed to independence.” He attempted to show that their subjugation would be easy, because there would be no settled form of government in America, and all must be anarchy and confusion.

Mr. Burke asked leave to bring in a bill for composing the troubles in America, and for quieting the minds of the colonists. He believed concession to be the true path to pursue to reach the happy result. He proposed a renunciation of the exercise of taxation, but not the right; to preserve the power of laying duties for [73] the regulation of commerce, but the money raised was to be at the disposal of the several general assemblies. He proposed to repeal the tea duty of 1767, and to proclaim a general amnesty. His speech on that occasion embraced every consideration of justice and expediency, and warned ministers that if they persisted in vexing the colonies they would drive the Americans to a separation from the mother-country. The plan was rejected. Mr. Luttrell proposed to ask the King to authorize commissioners to receive proposals for conciliation from any general convention of Americans, or their Congress, as the most effectual means for preventing the effusion of blood. It was rejected. In the House of Lords the Duke of Grafton proposed to bring in a bill for repealing every act which had been passed by Parliament relative to America since 1763. It was not acted upon. Lord Lyttelton severely condemned the measures of the administration, and united with the Duke of Grafton in his proposition for a repeal of the obnoxious acts. He, with others, had believed that a show of determination to reduce the colonies to submission would cause them to quail. He now knew he was mistaken. The valiant declaration went forth, backed by 10,000 men, but it had not intimidated a single colony. Notwithstanding the strong reasons given by the opposition for ministers to be conciliatory towards the Americans, the majority of Parliament were in favor of attempting coercion with a strong hand. Towards the end of the session Burke asked leave to lay before the Commons the remonstrance lately voted by the Assembly of New York. The ministry and their friends had counted largely on the defection of that province; and they were so sorely disappointed when they found the document so emphatic in its claims of the rights of Englishmen that Lord North opposed and prevented its reception by the House. The acts of that session of Parliament greatly widened the breach between Great Britain and her American colonies.

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