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INTRO D U CTO R Y.
THERE are few studies more interesting to the historical inquirer than to watch the slow but gradual evolutions of civilization which result in political freedom. How a people emerges from its native barbarism, first fencing itself round with those safeguards which society demands for its protection; then, when physical security has been established, turning its thoughts to the advancement of education, and with such advancement releasing itself from those disabilities which hamper its political progress—inquiries of this nature are ever fraught with some useful purpose. They prove, if nothing else, that if “freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent,” the constitutional liberties of a nation are never fixed on such a firm basis as when they have been acquired by the tardy yet cautious triumph of toleration and compromise over the restrictions of prejudice and bigotry. The constitutional history of our own country—the model of all constitutional governments in Europe— is the most complete testimony we possess to the truth of this remark. Slow and calculating as has been our development from barbarism into feudalism, from feudalism into the exclusiveness of prerogative, and from prerogative into the enlightened toleration of parliamentary government, there is yet no nation where the liberty of the subject is more jealously protected, WOL. I.
the laws of the land more justly administered, and the evils arising from a civil or military despotism more crushingly controlled, than among the English people. Yet the acquisition of these privileges was no sudden or fleeting triumph snatched from an oppressive oligarchy or from the tyranny of prerogative, but was the slow and gradual outcome of the opposition to all high-handed proceedings, which century after century had been raised by the representatives of the people. The liberties of England are the proud rewards gained by the House of Commons. True it is that in the earlier stages of our history it was to the barons that we are indebted for Magna Charta and its successive confirmations, and that it was to the active co-operation of the peers we owe the clauses of the Petition of Right and the independent position occupied by the judicial bench; yet it is the House of Commons, battling reign after reign against tyranny, oppression, and political slavery, which has been the chief conqueror in the struggle, and it is to its efforts that the rights and privileges which we now enjoy must be attributed. From the days when the haughty Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, first gave a decisive direction to the early development of parliamentary government in England —by issuing, in the winter of 1264, the memorable writs summoning the first 1