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For these reasons Blackstone's Commentaries are but ill adapted to the purpose of those who have not leisure or inclination, to study the whole system of our public and private law, yet wish to acquire, within a comparatively small compass of time, a knowledge of the fundamental principles and more important details of the English constitution. That class of readers is very important, especially at the present time; since a more urgent necessity never existed for placing within the reach of all persons of education that knowledge of constitutional principles without which no honest man can exercise political functions and franchises with a safe conscience.
Such is the object I have principally had in view.
I have therefore brought together within a single volume the whole substance of the chapters of Blackstone's first book relating to constitutional law, and also those parts of his writings bearing directly on the same subject which lie interspersed in his third and fourth books. .1 have added all the new law under each head, and many things which Blackstone has either only hinted at or omitted altogether. The reader will also find in their proper places the more valuable theories of De Lolme, and a good deal of important matter from various other sources.
With regard to the mode of executing this work, I have been scrupulous to say nothing without the sanction of some sufficient authority, and, in general, to insert no mere opinions or ideas of my own, excepting occasionally in the form of doubts or suggestions. The consequence is, that the reader will find references in almost every page, directing him to sources whence he may derive either further knowledge, or, at least, the means of testing the accuracy of what I have said. And this is very important; for mere superficial theories of constitutional law, not based on the solid ground of experience and the authority of the sages of the common law, can scarcely lead to results whereby the conduct of public men may be fairly judged, or political privileges and franchises safely exercised. Some, indeed, of the references in the course of this Commentary may perhaps seem unnecessary; but an industrious reader will, I trust, not find them useless. In accordance with the same principles, I have been careful (wherever it was possible) to use the very words of the author cited. Brevity has also been much studied. Care has been taken to avoid all reflections, disquisitions, or phrases, which did not seem absolutely requisite. In some places the style may consequently appear dry, and the transitions somewhat abrupt; but the reader will, it is hoped, attribute this to a desire of not occupying his time a moment longer than necessary. For the same reason some matters have been thrown into the notes, and there treated in the form of a mere summary of authorities and arguments.
Nothing has been a greater object of solicitude to me than the propounding of what I believe to be the only sound principles on which the doctrine of the connexion of Church and State can be grounded. It has been too much the practice of lawyers to speak and write as if they considered the Church visible, or at least its hierarchy, as a mere creature of the temporal law. Even Blackstone (to whom every Englishman owes so great reverence) is not entirely free from this Erastian spirit, which was a stain upon the times in which he lived. To counteract these erroneous and dangerous views, I have introduced a good deal of ecclesiastical law, that the reader may acquire some notion of the constitution of the Church, and its independence of human sanctions.
In some places I may be accused of dealing with matters appertaining rather to divinity than to law; but it will perhaps appear, on reflection, that this was necessary, in those particular instances, to convey a correct notion of the Church and its constitution. For how can we form an accurate idea of the connexion between Church and State without knowing something of the intrinsic nature of the polity of the Church? If the Church were formed and erected by the State, it would be otherwise; but the Church is something pre-existing, and must therefore be considered in itself, as well as in alliance with the State.
And, on careful consideration, these higher principles will be found far more compatible with toleration and true civil and religious liberty, than the merely political and worldly theory of Church and State, which makes the Church rely upon penal statutes and political disabilities, instead of asserting her own independence and authority, and claiming the duty and affection of her children as her inheritance by Divine right.
It must be admitted, that a legal book written on ecclesiastical principles is somewhat new, and may perhaps meet with serious objections on the part of those who are averse from any thing out of the four comers of a record, or the literal construction of an act of parliament. How far this experiment may prove successful, time only can shew.
It has been my endeavour to avoid all allusions to party-politics and public men now living. I have propounded what I believe to be the true principles of the constitution. Whether those principles be agreeable to the tenets or interests of Tories, Conservatives, Whigs, or Radicals, I have never for a moment thought; and those who may do me the honour of looking into the following pages will find nothing to ruffle their composure, whatever may be their party, or however much the doctrines here set forth may be at variance with their political opinions. A writer on public law should, indeed, endeavour to preserve an almost judicial impartiality, and avoid every expression calculated to excite prejudice or produce irritation.
I will not detain the reader with professions of my great diffidence and anxiety in the accomplishment of this task, nor of the profound humility with which it is now brought before the tribunal of public opinion. Such declarations are, I trust, superfluous.