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Fraser's Scottish Annual
Scotland's Ancient Constitution


THE ancient constitution and government of Scotland has been highly applauded, as excellently adapted for the preservation of civil liberty; it is certain that the power of the king was greatly limited, and that the constitution provided many checks to prevent his assuming or exercising a despotic authority. But the Scottish constitution was too much of the aristocratic kind to secure the liberties of the common people; for, though the monarch's power was sufficiently restrained, the nobles, chieftains, and great land proprietors had it too much in their power to tyrannize over and oppress their tenants and the lower ranks of the people.

The ancient Kings of Scotland, at their coronation, took the following oath: "In the name of Christ, I promise these three things to the Christian people, my subjects: first, that I shall give order, and employ my force and assistance, that the Church of God and the Christian people may enjoy true peace during our time, under our government; secondly, I shall prohibit and hinder all persons, of whatever degree, from violence and injustice; thirdly, in all judgments, I shall follow the prescription of justice and mercy, to the end that our clement and merciful God may show mercy unto me, and unto you." The parliament of Scotland anciently consisted of all who held, any portion of land, however small, of the crown, by military service. This parliament appointed the time of its own meetings and adjournments, and committees to superintend the administration during the intervals, or while parliament was not sitting. Its powers were not only deliberative, but also executive; it had a commanding power in all matters of government; it appropriated the public money, appointed the treasurers of the exchequer, and examined all the accounts; it had the nomination of the commanders, and the calling out of the armies; ambassadors to other states were commissioned by the parliament; the judges and courts of judicature were appointed by parliament, as well as the officers of state and privy counsellors; parliament could alienate the regal demesne, and restrain grants from the crown; it also assumed the right of granting pardons to criminals. The king had no veto in the proceedings of parliament; nor could he declare war, make peace, or conclude any important business, without the advice and concurrence of that assembly. He was not even entrusted with the executive part of the government; and the parliament, so late as the reign of James IV., by an Act still extant, pointed out to that monarch his duty, as the first servant of his people. In short, the constitution of Scotland was rather aristocratical than a limited monarchy.

The abuse of power by the lords and great landholders gave the monarch a very considerable interest among the burgesses and lower ranks; and a king who had address to retain the affections of the people, was generally able to humble the most powerful aristocratical faction, and in this they were zealously assisted by the clergy, whose revenues were immense, and were always jealous of the power of the nobility. This was done by establishing a select body of members, who were called "the lords of the articles," chosen out of the clergy, nobility, knights, and burgesses. The bishops chose eight peers, and the nobility elected eight bishops; these sixteen nominated jointly eight barons, or knights of the shires, and eight commissioners of royal burghs, and to all these were added eight great officers of state, the lord chancellor being president of the whole. Their business was to prepare all questions, bills, and other matters to be brought before parliament; so that in fact, though the king possessed no veto, yet, by the clergy and the places he had to bestow, he could command the lords of the articles, and nothing could come before parliament which could require his negative. This institution seems to have been introduced by stealth, and never was brought to a regular plan; and the best-informed writers on law are not agreed upon the time when it took place. The Scots, however, never lost sight of their original principles; and though Charles I. wanted to form the lords of the articles into mere machines for his own despotic purposes, he found it impracticable; and the melancholy consequences are well known. At the revolution, they gave a fresh instance of how well they understood the principle of civil liberty, by omitting all disputes about abdication, and declared at once that King James had forfeited his title to the British crown.


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