Obtuse Observer

November 16, 2010

Two Edwards and a Charles Were in a Boat

Once upon a time there was an Edward.  Edward was a King and he wanted some boats.  Edward fought many wars and wars can be very expensive.  At this point in the development of England’s constitutional monarchy Commons had emerged as the only body that could issue bills for the collection of taxes.  As such, English kings relied on Commons to finance their wars.  During the reign of Edward I and again during the reign of his grandson Edward III a statute was issued which obligated coastal towns to provide the Crown with either a number of ships or their equivalent value to fund and supply a navy used to protect those towns, ports and coasts during times of war. 

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Let us skip ahead 350 years to Charles I.  He’s the guy with the pointy beard.  Charles had a poor relationship with Parliament and, as noted, only Commons has the power to tax.  No taxes, no money, no money no way for Charles to pay for a war and Parliament wasn’t going to solve his cash flow problem for him.  In an effort to circumvent Commons Charles dismissed Parliament and began reviving long abandoned feudal obligations in order to raise money.  Amongst these resuscitated obligations was the ship obligation.  Charles now attempted to collect this tax not only in peace time but from non-coastal cities.  

As one might imagine, the people of England (Scotland, Ireland and Wales too) were not happy about this.  Not only was the King taking money out of their pockets but in their view he was using archaic statutes and customs in novel ways to avoid what had been established as a check on monarchical power to wage war.  Long story short, England sank into Civil War, Oliver Cromwell emerged as Lord Protector and Charles lost his head to the ax.

Despite what many may think of Niccolò Machiavelli we find the subject of checks and balances explored in his Discourses on Livy.  

John Locke, whose father served as a cavalry captain for the Parliamentary forces during the war, was seventeen when Charles was executed.  It is easy to presume these events played an important role in his life and in his political philosophy.  

Our framers, educated men that they were, would have been familiar with the history of England, the development of its constitution, the writings of Locke, Machiavelli and many others.  

This is important to you and me because James Madison borrowed from these writers and his understanding of history when he designed our government.  He designed a government with checks and balances but he did not do so out of whole cloth.  Amongst those checks on executive power (analogous to the king) was the power of the purse residing in the legislative branch of government (analogous to Parliament).  Even further, as in Commons, spending bills in the United States must arise from the House of Representatives per Art. 1 § 7 cl. 2 of the Constitution.  The power to declare or rescind war does not check or compel the executive to either engage in war nor to discontinue it. The historical development and the political philosophy that built our government as expressed in our constitution provides Congress a more powerful check on executive power; the power of the purse.  Over the past seven hundred years of Anglo-American Constitutional government it has served its purpose well despite those who are unaware of its existence, purpose or effectiveness.

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  1. Of course in current times (and perhaps even in the past as well) if the House decides to exercise the power of the purse to curtail military excursions they will be branded as unpatriotic and against the troops.

    Even when the demand (and the ability) to end the current wars were at their highest the House could not muster the votes or the courage to defund.

    Comment by JBS — November 17, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

  2. True.

    But you are illustrating how politics influences the choice to exercise or not exercise that power, not the fact that the choice is available to them.

    If, for example, Congress defunds the executive and his military operations and the electorate are pissed we can say that Congress is on the wrong side of public opinion on the issue and vice versa.

    Comment by Obtuse Observer — November 18, 2010 @ 10:35 am

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