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News

Yale Center for Parliamentary History presents records to British Government

Yale University : 27 February, 2006  (New Product)
On March 7, at a formal ceremony in London, the Yale Center for Parliamentary History will present to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the government of the United Kingdom the definitive scholarly editions it has prepared of records of the 17th-century parliaments preceding the English civil wars and revolution.
On March 7, at a formal ceremony in London, the Yale Center for Parliamentary History will present to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the government of the United Kingdom the definitive scholarly editions it has prepared of records of the 17th-century parliaments preceding the English civil wars and revolution.

Representing 40 years of unparalleled scholarship, the 18 leather-bound volumes cover the parliaments of 1625, 1626, 1628 and the opening year of the Long Parliament, 1640–1641. It was in these critical parliamentary sessions that some of the central principles of political liberty that continue to resonate in our own day were initially formulated. The political struggles fought out in those years transformed Parliament from an occasional advisory and legislative body into the central institution of English government. The momentous events recorded in these editions are therefore vital to any understanding of the genesis of modern conceptions of political freedom, popular sovereignty, the rights of citizens, the rule of law, constitutionalism and representative government.

The books contain eyewitness accounts of the historical speeches in Parliament compiled from diaries, reports, petitions and personal letters. Most of this source material was widely dispersed and largely inaccessible before the establishment of the Center in 1965. Working from microfilmed copies of these original documents, a team of scholars transcribed barely legible texts hand-written in 17th-century script, many combining short-hand and code and punctuated with the language of law, often Old French.

The dramatic unfolding of events as members of Parliament parried with King Charles I is revealed in the modernized transcriptions of these disparate texts. The narrative that emerges from a variety of perspectives and a range of voices is supplemented with useful notes on the individuals involved and the issues with which they grappled.

Critics and historians have heralded the previously published volumes in this on-going series as an invaluable feat of research and scholarship.

These records bear witness to the long evolving struggle to set limits on the power of the monarchy. In effect, these parliaments laid the foundations of modern representative democracy. In the Parliament of 1628, the Petition of Right forbade such abuses of royal power as levying taxes without consent of Parliament, arrest of any citizen without a warrant, forcing the billeting of soldiers on private citizens and imposing martial law during peacetime. The resolutions on liberty in the same session resolved that no man who is committed or detained in prison, or otherwise restrained can be denied habeas corpus. All of these principles provide the framework for the future Bill of Rights of the United States.

'In the Stuart parliaments the prerogative powers of the crown were tested while the rights of individuals were strengthened by law,' says Maija Jansson, director of the Center, who has been involved with the project since its inception.

The seven volumes covering the opening session of the Long Parliament, 1640-41, the most recently completed work of the Center, contain debates and arguments about the nature of the monarchy, the relationship of Church and State, taxation and representation, the place of the judiciary, the functioning of a legislative committee system and the division of power between local and central government—all ideas central to the thought of the framers of the American Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a manual on parliamentary procedure based on the 17th-century records that were available to him, stated that the rules of parliamentary proceeding operated as a 'check and control' on the majority and a protection of the minority, notes Jansson.

The Center's most recently edited works now provide scholars with their first opportunity to take a systematic, comprehensive look at the words and actions of members of Parliament at the beginning of this crucial period in history.

In 1810, Jefferson acknowledged that knowing this chapter of British history was important to understanding our own national identity: 'Our laws, language, religion, politics and manners are so deeply laid in English foundations that we shall never cease to consider their history as a part of ours, and to study ours in that as its origins.'

You can download background information on the history of England relevant to the parliaments of 1625–1641 and a timeline of the history of the Yale Center for Parliamentary History.
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