Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I.: The History of Magna Carta. - An Essay on the Trial by Jury
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SECTION I.: The History of Magna Carta. - Lysander Spooner, An Essay on the Trial by Jury 
An Essay on the Trial by Jury (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852).
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The History of Magna Carta.
In order to judge of the object and meaning of that chapter of Magna Carta which secures the trial by jury, it is to be borne in mind that, at the time of Magna Carta, the king (with exceptions immaterial to this discussion, but which will appear hereafter) was, constitutionally, the entire government; the sole legislative, judicial, and executive power of the nation. The executive and judicial officers were merely his servants, appointed by him, and removable at his pleasure. In addition to this, “the king himself often sat in his court, which always attended his person. He there heard causes, and pronounced judgment; and though he was assisted by the advice of other members, it is not to be imagined that a decision could be obtained contrary to his inclination or opinion.”* Judges were in those days, and afterwards, such abject servants of the king, that “we find that King Edward I. (1272 to 1307) fined and imprisoned his judges, in the same manner as Alfred the Great, among the Saxons, had done before him, by the sole exercise of his authority.”†
Parliament, so far as there was a parliament, was a mere council of the king.* It assembled only at the pleasure of the king; sat only during his pleasure; and when sitting had no power, so far as general legislation was concerned, beyond that of simply advising the king. The only legislation to which their assent was constitutionally necessary, was demands for money and military services for extraordinary occasions. Even Magna Carta itself makes no provisions whatever for any parliaments, except when the king should want means to carry on war, or to meet some other extraordinary necessity.† He had no need of parliaments to raise taxes for the ordinary purposes of government; for his revenues from the rents of the crown lands and other sources, were ample for all except extraordinary occasions. Parliaments, too, when assembled, consisted only of bishops, barons, and other great men of the kingdom, unless the king chose to invite others.‡ There was no House of Commons at that time, and the people had no right to be heard, unless as petitioners.§
Even when laws were made at the time of a parliament, they were made in the name of the king alone. Sometimes it was inserted in the laws, that they were made with the consent or advice of the bishops, barons, and others assembled; but often this was omitted. Their consent or advice was evidently a matter of no legal importance to the enactment or validity of the laws, but only inserted, when inserted at all, with a view of obtaining a more willing submission to them on the part of the people. The style of enactment generally was, either “The King wills and commands,” or some other form significant of the sole legislative authority of the king. The king could pass laws at any time when it pleased him. The presence of a parliament was wholly unnecessary. Hume says, “It is asserted by Sir Harry Spelman, as an undoubted fact, that, during the reigns of the Norman princes, every order of the king, issued with the consent of his privy council, had the full force of law.”* And other authorities abundantly corroborate this assertion.†
The king was, therefore, constitutionally the government; and the only legal limitation upon his power seems to have been simply the Common Law, usually called “the law of the land,” which he was bound by oath to maintain; (which oath had about the same practical value as similar oaths have always had.) This “law of the land” seems not to have been regarded at all by many of the kings, except so far as they found it convenient to do so, or were constrained to observe it by the fear of arousing resistance. But as all people are slow in making resistance, oppression and usurpation often reached a great height; and, in the case of John, they had become so intolerable as to enlist the nation almost universally against him; and he was reduced to the necessity of complying with any terms the barons saw fit to dictate to him.
It was under these circumstances, that the Great Charter of English Liberties was granted. The barons of England, sustained by the common people, having their king in their power, compelled him, as the price of his throne, to pledge himself that he would punish no freeman for a violation of any of his laws, unless with the consent of the peers—that is, the equals—of the accused.
The question here arises, Whether the barons and people intended that those peers (the jury) should be mere puppets in the hands of the king, exercising no opinion of their own as to the intrinsic merits of the accusations they should try, or the justice of the laws they should be called on to enforce? Whether those haughty and victorious barons, when they had their tyrant king at their feet, gave back to him his throne, with full power to enact any tyrannical laws he might please, reserving only to a jury (“the country”) the contemptible and servile privilege of ascertaining, (under the dictation of the king, or his judges, as to the laws of evidence), the simple fact whether those laws had been transgressed? Was this the only restraint, which, when they had all power in their hands, they placed upon the tyranny of a king, whose oppressions they had risen in arms to resist? Was it to obtain such a charter as that, that the whole nation had united, as it were, like one man, against their king? Was it on such a charter that they intended to rely, for all future time, for the security of their liberties? No. They were engaged in no such senseless work as that. On the contrary, when they required him to renounce forever the power to punish any freeman, unless by the consent of his peers, they intended those peers should judge of, and try, the whole case on its merits, independently of all arbitrary legislation, or judicial authority, on the part of the king. In this way they took the liberties of each individual—and thus the liberties of the whole people—entirely out of the hands of the king, and out of the power of his laws, and placed them in the keeping of the people themselves. And this it was that made the trial by jury the palladium of their liberties.
The trial by jury, be it observed, was the only real barrier interposed by them against absolute despotism. Could this trial, then, have been such an entire farce as it necessarily must have been, if the jury had had no power to judge of the justice of the laws the people were required to obey? Did it not rather imply that the jury were to judge independently and fearlessly as to everything involved in the charge, and especially as to its intrinsic justice, and thereon give their decision, (unbiased by any legislation of the king,) whether the accused might be punished? The reason of the thing, no less than the historical celebrity of the events, as securing the liberties of the people, and the veneration with which the trial by jury has continued to be regarded, notwithstanding its essence and vitality have been almost entirely extracted from it in practice, would settle the question, if other evidences had left the matter in doubt.
Besides, if his laws were to be authoritative with the jury, why should John indignantly refuse, as at first he did, to grant the charter, (and finally grant it only when brought to the last extremity,) on the ground that it deprived him of all power, and left him only the name of a king? He evidently understood that the juries were to veto his laws, and paralyze his power, at discretion, by forming their own opinions as to the true character of the offences they were to try, and the laws they were to be called on to enforce; and that “the king wills and commands” was to have no weight with them contrary to their own judgments of what was intrinsically right.*
The barons and people having obtained by the charter all the liberties they had demanded of the king, it was further provided by the charter itself that twenty-five barons should be appointed by the barons, out of their number, to keep special vigilance in the kingdom to see that the charter was observed, with authority to make war upon the king in case of its violation. The king also, by the charter, so far absolved all the people of the kingdom from their allegiance to him, as to authorize and require them to swear to obey the twenty-five barons, in case they should make war upon the king for infringement of the charter. It was then thought by the barons and people, that something substantial had been done for the security of their liberties.
This charter, in its most essential features, and without any abatement as to the trial by jury, has since been confirmed more than thirty times; and the people of England have always had a traditionary idea that it was of some value as a guaranty against oppression. Yet that idea has been an entire delusion, unless the jury have had the right to judge of the justice of the laws they were called on to enforce.
[* ] 1 Home, Appendix 2.
[† ] Crabbe’s History of the English Law, 236.
[* ]Coke says, “The king of England is armed with divers councils, one whereof is called commune concilium, (the common council,) and that is the court of parliament, and so it is legally called in writs and judicial proceedings commune concilium regni Angliæ, (the common council of the kingdom of England.) And another is called magnum concilium, (great council;) this is sometimes applied to the upper house of parliament, and sometimes, out of parliament time, to the peers of the realm, lords of parliament, who are called magnum concilium regis, (the great council of the king;) * * Thirdly, (as every man knoweth,) the king hath a privy council for matters of state. * * The fourth council of the king are his judges for law matters.”
1 Coke’s Institutes, 110 a.
[† ] The Great Charter of Henry III., (1216 and 1225,) confirmed by Edward I., (1297,) makes no provision whatever for, or mention of, a parliament, unless the provision, (Ch. 37,) that “Escuage, (a military contribution,) from henceforth shall be taken like as it was wont to be in the time of King Henry our grandfather,” mean that a parliament shall be summoned for that purpose.
[‡ ] The Magna Carta of John, (Ch. 17 and 18,) defines those who were entitled to be summoned to parliament, to wit, “The Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls, and Great Barons of the Realm, * * and all others who hold of us in chief.” Those who held land of the king in chief included none below the rank of knights.
[§ ] The parliaments of that time were, doubtless, such as Carlyle describes them, when he says, “The parliament was at first a most simple assemblage, quite cognate to the situation; that Red William, or whoever had taken on him the terrible task of being King of England, was wont to invite, oftenest about Christmas time, his subordinate Kinglets, Barons as he called them, to give him the pleasure of their company for a week or two; there, in earnest conference all morning, in freer talk over Christmas cheer all evening, in some big royal hall of Westminster, Winchester, or wherever it might be, with log fires, huge rounds of roast and boiled, not lacking malmsey and other generous liquor, they took counsel concerning the arduous matters of the kingdom.”
[* ] Hume, Appendix 2.
[† ] This point will be more fully established hereafter.
[* ] It is plain that the king and all his partisans looked upon the charter as utterly prostrating the king’s legislative supremacy before the discretion of juries. When the schedule of liberties demanded by the barons was shown to him, (of which the trial by jury was the most important, because it was the only one that protected all the rest,) “the king, falling into a violent passion, asked, Why the barons did not with these exactions demand his kingdom? * * and with a solemn oath protested, that he would never grant such liberties as would make himself a slave.” * * But afterwards, “seeing himself deserted, and fearing they would seize his castles, he sent the Earl of Pembroke and other faithful messengers to them, to let them know he would grant them the laws and liberties they desired.” * * But after the charter had been granted, “the king’s mercenary soldiers, desiring war more than peace, were by their leaders continually whispering in his ears, that he was now no longer king, but the scorn of other princes; and that it was more eligible to be no king, than such a one as he.” * * He applied “to the Pope, that he might by his apostolic authority make void what the barons had done. * * At Rome he met with what success he could desire, where all the transactions with the barons were fully represented to the Pope, and the Charter of Liberties shown to him, in writing; which, when be had carefully perused, he, with a furious look, cried out, What! Do the barons of England endeavor to dethrone a king, who has taken upon him the Holy Cross, and is under the protection of the Apostolic See; and would they force him to transfer the dominions of the Roman Church to others? By St. Peter, this injury must not pass unpunished. Then debating the matter with the cardinals, he, by a definitive sentence, damned and cassated forever the Charter of Liberties, and sent the king a bull containing that sentence at large.”—Echard’s History of England, p. 106-7.
These things show that the nature and effect of the charter were well understood by the king and his friends; that they all agreed that he was effectually stripped of power. Yet the legislative power had not been taken from him; but only the power to enforce his laws, unless juries should freely consent to their enforcement.