On 11 November 1766, Parliament listened to a speech by George III that dealt mainly with a severe grain shortage then gripping Britain, and the embargo that the ministry consequently imposed to keep wheat and wheat-flour in the country. Lords Chatham (William Pitt) and Camden (Charles Pratt) strenuously defended the embargo, in the face of widespread opposition in the Lords and Commons, as “the right and duty of the crown to suspend the execution of a law, for the safety of the people.” Camden stated “The crown is the sole executive power, and is therefore intrusted by the constitution to take upon itself whatever the safety of the state may require, during the recess of parliament, which is at most but a forty days tyranny.” Opposition leaders, such as Lords Mansfield (William Murray), Temple (Richard Grenville-Temple), and Lyttleton (George Lyttleton), made the counterpoint that the effect was to “…establish a dispensing power, and you cannot be sure of either liberty or law for forty minutes.”  They invoked the preamble of the 1689 bill of rights which “expressly mentions the evils resulting to the kingdom from the practice adopted by James II, of assuming a power to dispense with, and suspend, the execution of laws without the consent of parliament.”

Chatham’s support for an exercise of executive authority that ran counter to established Whig tenets seriously weakened his influence in parliament and the strength of his entire ministry. His arguments, along with those of Camden, are also interesting for the light they shed on the development of patriot constitutional thought in America, providing at least anecdotal evidence for Thomas Jefferson’s presumptions in his Summary View of the Rights of British America that the Crown possessed more constitutional authority than it could actually exercise.

[Source: John Adolphus’ The History of England, from the Accession of King George the Third, to the Conclusion of Peace in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty-Three (1805), a fascinating multi-volume work that contains parliamentary speeches one cannot easily find elsewhere.]

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