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LENGTH OF TERMS
PARLIAMENT in the thirty-five years after 1295 (when it reached the form we now understand by that name) was summoned forty-four times. So there was nothing of novelty in the statute 4 Edw. III, c. 14, saying, "It is accorded that Parliament shall be holden every year once, (and) (or) more often if need be.” Of the next thirty years there were but three without a Parliament. Even these omissions, however, were so irksome that in 26 Edw. III, c. 10, it was granted, "for redress of divers mischiefs and grievances which daily happen, a Parliament shall be holden or be the Parliament holden every year, as another time was ordained by statute." Yet the practice by no means suited everybody. Each session involved a fresh election, and the wages of the members, met by the localities, proved no slight burden. Every session meant more money or some favor for the King. Thus frequent sessions came to signify frequent taxation, so that there was no unanimity of complaint if the King now and then disregarded the law on the subject. He found an excuse in the wording of the statute by averring that the words "if need be" modified the whole of the rest of the sentence, instead of only "more often.” In the next century omissions became more frequent, and intervals longer. In the sixteenth century there were but twenty-four Parliaments and in the first half of the seventeenth only ten. No Parliament sat between 1604 and 1614, or between 1628 and 1640 — a fact worth remembering for its probable influence on the colonists who were then laying the foundations of American institutions.
Up to the time of Henry VIII Parliaments lived, as a rule, through but one session, being dissolved as soon as the single important piece of business for which they met had been finished. Then the work came to be more diversified and sessions were prolonged. The Reformation Parliament of Henry VIII lasted seven years. It was, however, not yet established that Parliament was an essential part of the government machine. In the forty-five years of the reign of Elizabeth, the thirteen sessions of ten Parliaments covered less than three years all told, with an average of little more than three weeks a year. Sir J. R. Seeley thinks that in describing the government of Elizabeth's reign, it would not have been natural to mention Parliament at all. “Not exactly that Parliament was subservient, but that in general, Parliament was not there.” 1
Under James I Parliament began to assert itself, and, of course, it is commonplace to say that the story of the reign of Charles I is the story of the struggle between Parliament and the Crown. When the Long Parliament met, in 1640, after there had been no summons for eleven years, one of its earliest measures was aimed at such an abuse, and early in 1641 was passed, almost unanimously, the first of the Triennial Acts. At the end of three years any Parliament should be automatically dissolved, and then within three years the Chancellor or Keeper of the Seal was to issue writs for a new Parliament, under pain of disability to hold his office and of further punishment. The King gave unwilling consent to the act, but the nation welcomed it with bonfires and joyous acclaim. Yet the very Parliament that passed it sat for thirteen years before it was dissolved by Cromwell.
When the throne was restored to the Stuarts, the second Charles was restless under the three-year provision, and in 1664 he openly revolted. He said he loved Parliaments, but "would never suffer a Parliament to come together by the means prescribed by that bill.” Thereupon the compliant Houses promptly repealed the statute as "in derogation of His Majesty's just rights and prerogative,” yet with a clause in the repealing act saying that Parliaments should not in future be intermitted above three years at the most. This left it possible for any one Parliament to sit as long as the King chose, and he saw fit to keep the sitting Parliament in existence until January of 1679, its life of nearly eighteen years being the longest in English annals.
In 1677 Shaftesbury moved an address for dissolution. On the strength of the statute of Edward III he urged that by reason of the recent prorogation of a year and a half the Parliament had ceased legally to exist. His rival Danby represented the address as a contempt of the House, and the Lords at his bidding threw Shaftesbury and some of his supporters into the Tower. The episode won strength for the principle, and when a dozen years later William of Orange was sent for, that principle found a place in the Bill of Rights. The thirteenth clause of the memorable declaration reads: "For redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening, and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently."
1 Introduction to Political Science, 256.
In 1693 Shrewsbury revived the triennial idea, presenting to the Lords a bill providing that the Parliament then sitting should expire in 1694, and that no future Parliament should last longer than three years. The Lords passed it almost unanimously, in spite of the opposition of William, to whom the notion was almost as obnoxious as it had been to both the first and second Charles. In the House of Commons there was a sharp contest. Macaulay tells 1 us that old Titus, who had been a politician in the days of the Commonwealth, entertained the House with a speech after the pattern fashionable in Puritan days. Parliaments, Titus said, resembled the manna which God bestowed on the chosen people. They were excellent while they were fresh; but if kept too long they became noisome; and foul words were engendered by the corruption of that which had been sweeter than honey. Most of the Whigs supported the bill; the Tories opposed. The House yielded to the pressure of public opinion, but not without a pang and a struggle.
Following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 came a further change of the term. It was alleged that there seemed great probability of a renewal of the contest over the throne, or at any rate of very serious riots at the election due to be held in 1717. So the ministers proposed that the existing Parliament should have its term extended to seven years. Steele (he of "The Tatler') in the House of Commons warmly advocated the change. He declared that ever since the enactment of the Triennial Act the nation had been in a series of contentions. “The first year of a Triennial Parliament has been spent in vindictive decisions and animosities about the late elections. The second session has entered into business, but rather with a spirit of contradiction to what the prevailing set of men in former Parliaments had brought to pass than for a disinterested zeal for the common good. The third session has languished in the pursuit of what little was intended to be done in the second; and the approach of an ensuing election has terrified the members into a servile management, according as their respective principals were disposed toward the question before them in the House. Thus the state of England has been like that of a vessel in distress at sea; the pilot and mariners have been wholly employed in keeping the ship from sinking; the art of navigation was useless, and they never pretended to make sail." Lord Somers, who died on the day the Septennial Bill was passed, was reported to have said of it, in his last moments, “I think it will be the greatest support possible to the liberty of the country.”
1 History of England, chap. XIX.
The preamble of the bill alleged that the Triennial Act had been found “very grievous and burdensome, by occasioning much greater and more continued expenses in order to elections of members to serve in Parliament, and more violent and lasting heats and animosities among the subjects of this realm, than were ever known before.” This matter of expense is believed to have been the real motive behind the bill, the Jacobite excitements being only the pretext. With the increased importance of the House of Commons and the greater desire for seats, the cost of elections had grown rapidly. As but three years of tenure were possible, members confronted by the early prospect of another contest naturally wanted a higher subsidy than would be the case with a seven-year tenure.
Many attempts were made to repeal the Septennial Act. Hallam doubted whether, if any of them had succeeded, with a return to triennial Parliaments, there would have been much perceptible difference in the course of government. Said he: "It will be found, I believe, on a retrospect of the last hundred years, that the House of Commons would have acted, in the main, on the same principles had the elections been more frequent; and certainly the effects of a dissolution, when it has occurred in the regular order, have seldom been very important."
One of the five points of the “People's Charter" of 1848 was restriction of the duration of Parliaments to one year. With the other radical demands of the programme, it failed of accept
No change came until 1911, when a subsidiary feature of the Parliament Act that emasculated the House of Lords was a provision for a five-year term of the Commons. By reason of the World War the operation of this provision was suspended. For the Irish Free State, which may be presumed to have profited somewhat by English example, the term of the Chamber of Deputies was made (1922) four years.
France has experimented much in the matter. In 1791 the term of the Chamber was made two years; in 1795, three years; in 1799, five. The Constitutional Charter granted by Louis XVIII in 1814 provided that one fifth of the Chamber should be renewed' each year, but this lasted only a decade, for the success of the reactionaries in 1824 was followed by a law extending the life of the Chamber to seven years, with entire change at the end of that period. In 1848 the term was made three years; in 1852, six; in 1875, four. Yet end of discussion was not reached. Once at least, in 1902, the Deputies passed a resolution changing the term to six years, but the Senate did not concur. The Briand Ministry in 1910 proposed the sixyear term, with one third of the members to retire every two years.
In Germany the Reichstag, at first not to live more than three years, had its term extended in 1888 to.five. The Constitution framed for the German Commonwealth in 1919 said the National Assembly should be elected for four years. In Italy the Chamber of Deputies is to be dissolved at the end of five years, but earlier dissolutions seem to be practically inevitable. In Belgium the term is four years, in Norway three; in Sweden and Switzerland, three for members of the lower House. The Canadian House of Commons sits for five years unless sooner dissolved; the terms of some of the Provincial Legislatures are five years; of others, four. The duration of the Parliaments of the Australian Commonwealth, its six States, and New Zealand is limited to three years; of the Parliament of the Union of South Africa, to five years. The lower branches in Brazil and Chile are to be elected for three years; in the Netherlands for four; in Egypt for five. Argentina alone, as far as I have observed, secures continuous existence by having both branches renewed by portions, the Senators one third every three years and the Deputies one half every two years. Constitutions following the World War prescribed in Poland a five-year term, for both branches; in Jugoslavia, Austria, and Rumania, four years; in Esthonia, three years, and that term, established in the Organic Law of Finland in 1906, was not changed by its Constitution of 1919. Deputies in CzechoSlovakia are to be chosen for six years. Austria has the unusual