“James was absurd enough to imagine that there was a more speedy and efficacious remedy. He could, he conceived, at once extricate himself from his financial difficulties by the simple process of calling a farthing a shilling. The right of coining was undoubtedly a flower of the prerogative; and, in his view, the right of coining included the right of debasing the coin. Pots, pans, knockers of doors, pieces of ordnance which had long been past use, were carried to the mint. In a short time lumps of base metal, nominally worth near a million sterling, intrinsically worth about a sixtieth part of that sum, were in circulation. A royal edict declared these pieces to be legal tender in all cases whatever. A mortgage for a thousand pounds was cleared off by a bag of counters made out of old kettles. The creditors who complained to the Court of Chancery were told by Fitton to take their money and be gone.”
“There can be no question that James, in thus altering, by his own authority, the terms of all the contracts in the kingdom, assumed a power which belonged only to the whole legislature. Yet the Commons (Ireland) did not remonstrate. There was no power, however unconstitutional, which they were not willing to concede to him, as long as he used it to crush and plunder the English population.”
The History of England, from the Accession of James II — Volume 3
Thomas Babington Macaulay
For the longest time I reasoned that it was Babington Macaulay’s exquisite literary skills which attracted me like an addict to The History of England. What however has developed today with sudden significance is the continuous theme of constitutional law which inhabits the tomes. Foremost law has always been an allure to me. Though I quip I studied law because there was nothing apart from getting a doctorate and becoming a professor that I might have done with my undergraduate degree in philosophy, it proved an awakening in my first year of law school to recognize that philosophy is as much an element of law as anything else. Specifically law embraces the rules of logic. It was perhaps this signal feature which in turn drew me in particular to constitutional law which to me was as fundamental as, “If A = B, and B = C then A = C”, not exactly axiomatic but passably close and most certainly persuasive and maybe even inarguable. Constitutional law is as close as it gets to elemental reasoning; that is, constitutional law is fundamental to legal entitlement. It is partly for this reason that basic rights – that is, constitutional rights – are so often a feature of consideration by the Supreme Court. The buck stops there in all questions of controversy.
Quite literally, the term “philosophy” means, “love of wisdom.” In a broad sense, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other. As an academic discipline philosophy is much the same. Those who study philosophy are perpetually engaged in asking, answering, and arguing for their answers to life’s most basic questions.
The problem with King James’ re-coining scheme wasn’t that it abused his prerogative; rather that it indirectly re-wrote the laws of contract governing debt surety and recovery – an area of civil law solely within the domaine of the elected legislators of the House of Commons.
This particular example of constitutional abuse is but one of many in Macaulay’s history. Seemingly the British royalty and nobility were consumed by constitutional violation. Their excuse as always was the effort to meet their own objectives by whatever route.
Currently in the United States of America the constitutional significance of “all men are created equal “ has triggered a lot of thoughts and related movements.
On a more immediate front it is useful to remember when addressing a problem first to ask not what is the argument against the problem; rather by what authority the problem sustains itself in the first place. It forces one to question how the initial thesis arose; and does it possibly contaminate any other authority. Certainly further debate surrounding paramountcy isn’t out of the question. One of the most compelling answers to all these questions is “You cannot do indirectly what cannot be done directly”. Because no formula from the Magna Carta on down is perfect, it bears noting that in the end wisdom is the best justice. Coincidentally the Court of Chancery existed for the purpose of providing equitable resolution to those matters mired in relentless back and forth without success.
“Quando aliquid prohibetur ex directo, prohibetur et per obliquum”
“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.31