The Westminster Origins of the United States Congress

Despite my earlier criticism of the American form of government, I believe that its institutional origins rest fundamentally in a British mould – but from an earlier time that predates the entrenchment of responsible government. The American Congressional-Presidential system of government draws directly upon the principles that governed Westminster between the Restoration in 1661 and the coronation of George III in 1760, not from a blank, all-American slate in 1776 or 1787. This crucial century in England witnessed the shift from absolute monarchy to parliamentary sovereignty and real parliamentary power, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the Act of Settlement under the Stuarts, and the nascent origins of cabinet government under the Hanoverian Kings George I and George II. Britain’s first de facto prime minister Sir Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Elder exercised real power during the reigns of George I and II, and cabinet government and Whiggish constitutional principles made great strides under these first two Hanoverian kings.

English constitutional historian David Starkey explains in his comprehensive documentary series Monarchy that “Britain in the 18th century witnessed a major political development: the rise of a second, parallel monarchy, the premiership. It was leaders of this new kind who created the First British Empire, and the old monarchy which presided over the loss of it. The holders of this new position of “prime minister”, as it became known, increasingly took control of the running of the country from the King and began to establish the pattern of modern government that we know today.”

Then came George III. He sought to reverse some of the constitutional development that had taken place during the reigns of his two predecessors and reassert regal authority. I am therefore sympathetic to the American patriots and believe that they were justified in taking up arms against George III’s conception of the British constitution. The American founders like Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison knew full well of this constitutional legacy that George III had violated. And this Whiggish argument did not find refuge exclusively in the United States. While a Member of Parliament, the great Whig Edmund Burke supported the cause of the American colonists because he believed that George III had violated their rights as free-born Englishmen. He referred to Americans as “the sons of liberty”, and Samuel Adams, cousin of John Adams, subsequently adopted the label for his own group that advocated American independence.

In the construction of their constitution of 1787, the Americans drew upon Westminster as it existed from 1661 to 1760. Westminster operates on a tripartite Crown-in-Parliament composed of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Crown – all of which must pass and approve a bill become it becomes law. In the American system, a bill must pass the House of Representatives and the Senate, after which the President must sign into law. However, during this crucial century of development of the Westminster system, the monarchs did sometimes invoke the now-defunct reserve power on royal assent, effectively vetoing a bill passed by both houses. The Americans adopted the reserve powers to summon parliament and refuse royal assent and incorporated them into the powers of the President, who can summon Congress and veto bills passed by both Houses. The Senate of the United States originally consisted of appointees chosen by the state legislatures and thus mimicked the role of the Lords as a counter-weight to the Commons. Where the House of Lords included the Law Lords, the American framers vested the power to convict presidents and judges in the Senate. According to Responsibility In the Constitution, before the development of responsible government, the Commons could impeach ministers as a check against the executive and the crown. Where the British sovereign can only address the Lords at the annual State Opening of Parliament (the British PMs use prorogation differently), the American President must also be formally invited to speak before Congress in order to deliver his annual State of the Union Address.

Bruce Hicks explains in “The Crown’s Democratic Reserve Powers” that the reserve power of the monarch that when the British sovereign still wielded the reserve power to withhold Royal Assent (essentially a veto), Westminster had the habit of passing supply encased in large omnibus bills so that the sovereign could not withhold Royal Assent without bringing the government to a standstill. Today, the American Congress suffers from the profligacy of over-spending and endless riders attached to appropriations bills, thus effectively forcing the President to sanction Congressional over-spending and pork-barrelling in order to avoid vetoing the budget and shutting down the entire federal government, as once happened under President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich.

Essentially, I seek to reintegrate the United States into the liberal-Whiggish and fundamentally English political history and radicalism that made the American Revolution possible. Without the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the English Bill of Rights, the American Revolution (itself another English Civil War) could never have happened. Drawing on the Hartz-Horowitz thesis, I view the United States the fulfillment of Whiggish liberalism, which the United Kingdom has long since rejected. In order to secure that great Whiggish contribution to history and political philosophy, the United States adopted the fundamentals of British institutions and justified its independence with the radical Whiggish elements of English political thought.

Related Posts


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in History of British North America, Whigs v Tories. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Westminster Origins of the United States Congress

  1. Pingback: The State of the Union Address and Loyal Opposition in the United States | By James W.J. Bowden

  2. Pingback: “Irresponsible Government” and the American System | Parliamentum, by James W.J. Bowden

  3. Pingback: Irresponsible Government and the American System | Parliamentum, by James W.J. Bowden

  4. Pingback: Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism in The West Wing | Parliamentum

  5. Pingback: Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism | Parliamentum

  6. Pingback: The Westminster Origins of the United States Congress: On Parliamentary Privilege | Parliamentum

  7. Pingback: Crowned Maces in South Carolina and Virginia | Parliamentum

  8. Pingback: George III and the Loss of the American Colonies | Parliamentum

  9. Pingback: 1774: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of Responsible Government and of the Commonwealth Realms | Parliamentum

I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s