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[a great and necessary security to private property; the statute for distribution of intestates' estates; and that of amendments and jeofails, which cut off many of those superfluous niceties which so long had disgraced our courts; together with many wholesome Acts that were passed in this reign, for the benefit of navigation and the improvement of foreign commerce: and the whole, when we likewise consider the freedom from taxes and armies which the subject then enjoyed, will be sufficient to demonstrate this truth, “that the constitution of England “ had arrived to its full vigour, and the true balance “ between liberty and prerogative was happily established “ by law, in the reign of Charles the second” (r).
It is by no means intended to palliate or defend many very iniquitous proceedings, contrary to all law, in that reign, through the artifice of wicked politicians, both in and out of employment. What seems incontestable is this, that by the law, as it then stood, notwithstanding some invidious, nay dangerous, branches of the prerogative have since been lopped off, and the rest more clearly defined, the people had a larger portion of real liberty than they had enjoyed in this country since the Norman conquest; and sufficient power residing in their own hands, to assert and preserve that liberty, if invaded by the royal prerogative: for which we need but appeal to the memorable catastrophe of the next reign. For when King Charles's deluded brother attempted to enslave the nation, he found it was beyond his power: the people both could and did resist him; and, in conse
[quence of such resistance, obliged him to quit his enterprise and his throne together.] And this introduces us to the last period of our legal history, viz.
VI. From the revolution in 1688, to the present time. And in the first place we will refer to the many important measures which became law about the period of that event; as [the Bill of Rights, the Toleration Act, the Act of Settlement with its conditions, the Act for uniting England with Scotland, and some others. These statutes asserted our liberties in more clear and emphatical terms; regulated the succession of the Crown by Parliament, as the exigencies of religious and civil freedom required; confirmed and exemplified the doctrine of resistance, when the executive magistrate endeavours to subvert the constitution; maintained the superiority of the laws above the king, by pronouncing his dispensing power to be illegal; indulged tender consciences in several points relating to religion ; established triennial, (since turned into septennial,) elections of members to serve in parliament; excluded certain officers from the house of commons; restrained the king's pardon from obstructing parliamentary impeachments ; imparted to all the lords an equal right of trying their fellow peers; regulated trials for high treason ; set bounds to the civil list; placed the administration of that revenue in hands that are accountable to parliament; and made the judges completely independent of the sovereign, his ministers, and his successors. Yet, though these provisions, in appearance and nominally, reduced the strength of the executive power to a much lower ebb than in the preceding period, if, on the other hand, we throw into the opposite scale, (what perhaps the immoderate reduction of the antient prerogative may have rendered in some degree necessary,) the vast acquisition of force arising from the Riot Act, the annual expedient of a standing army, the [vast acquisition of personal attachment arising from the magnitude of the national debt, and the manner of levying those yearly millions that are appropriated to pay the interest,-it will be found that the Crown, gradually and imperceptibly, gained almost as much in influence, as it apparently lost in prerogative.
Such being the provisions passed for the assertion of our liberties, the chief alterations of moment in other directions during the earlier part of the period following the Revolution, were the solemn recognition of the law of nations with respect to the rights of ambassadors; the cutting off, by a statute for the amendment of the law, a vast number of excrescences, that in process of time had sprung out of the practical part of it; the protection of corporate rights by the improvements in writs of mandamus and informations in nature of quo warranto; the regulation of trials by jury, and the admitting witnesses for prisoners, upon oath ; further restraints upon alienation of lands in mortmain; the annihilation of the terrible judgment of peine forte et dure; the extension of the benefit of clergy, by abolishing the pedantic criterion of reading ; the counterbalance to this mercy, by the vast increase of capital punishment; new and effectual methods for the speedy recovery of rents: the improvements which were made in ejectments for the trying of titles; the introduction and establishment of paper credit, by indorsements upon
bills and notes, which have shown the legal possibility and convenience, which our ancestors so long doubted, of assigning a chose in action ; the translation of all legal proceedings into the English language; the establishment of the great system of marine jurisprudence, of which the foundations were laid by clearly developing the principles on which policies of insurance are founded, and by happily applying those principles to particular cases; and, lastly, the enlargement of view which introduced into our courts of common law, in some instances where
(narrower doctrines once prevailed, (particularly in the law of mortgage and of landlord and tenant,) the same principles of redress as were already established in our courts of equity.]
To come nearer our own time,—the most conspicuous event in our legislative annals has been the Act for the union of Great Britain and Ireland, at the commencement of the present century; a measure recommended by the wisest and most unquestionable policy, to two nations so nearly connected by their geographical position and their common subjection to the same Crown, and so long already united in language, in civil institutions, and in arms. We may also single out for particular enumeration, the Reform Act of 1832, the statute by which municipal corporations were regulated, and the Act further to amend the representation of the people, which was passed in the year 1867: all statutes of transcendent importance, as having been designed to abate the indirect influence immemorially exercised by wealth and power, in our general and local institutions—while to these we may add the renewed efforts made in recent statutes to secure the purity of our parliamentary and municipal elections.
Of other measures of importance passed in the present century, those relating to the Church may next attract our attention; and here we may notice those by which protestant dissenters of all denominations, and such persons as profess the Jewish religion, or the faith of the Church of Rome, have been in general relieved from all restraints which before excluded them from free participation with their fellow subjects in political rights, as well as from all forfeitures and penalties in respect of their religious tenets: the Acts for commutation of tithes; for reform of the law relative to pluralities and residence ; for the better application of cathedral revenues ; and those measures which have been devised for the extension of the places of worship belonging to the established Church, and the general increase of her efficiency as regards the cure of souls.
On the merits of many of these changes, indeed, opinions have been much divided, as will always be the case upon questions connected with politics or religion ; but a more unmixed applause may reasonably be claimed for the abolition of the slave-trade, and of slavery in the colonies, and for the improvements that have been introduced in relation to our social economy, particularly in relation to trade and navigation, to the sanitary condition of the people, to banking, to registration, to lunatic asylums, to gaols, to the law of marriage, to education, to copyright and patent right, to charitable trusts and benevolent institutions, and to the general relief of.
It is however in regard to the rights of property and the administration of justice, that the genius of reform has latterly displayed its chief activity, and where its achievements have been, upon the whole, the most triumphant. It would be impossible, without a tedious minuteness of detail, to do more than glance at these. But under the first head, our notice is particularly due to the improvements which have taken place in the law of inheritance, of prescription, of dower, and of the limitation of actions; to the better regulation of wills and testaments; to the deliverance of entails and the estates of married women from the thraldom of expensive and cumbrous forms of conveyance, and the substitution of better methods; to the introduction of greater simplicity and uniformity in several other particulars, and greater freedom of disposition, into that part of our legal system which relates to the alienation of land; and to the provisions for facilitating the conversion of copyhold estates into freehold, and thus emancipating them from the burthens of an oppressive tenure.