Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V.: OBJECTIONS ANSWERED. - An Essay on the Trial by Jury
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER V.: OBJECTIONS ANSWERED. - Lysander Spooner, An Essay on the Trial by Jury 
An Essay on the Trial by Jury (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The following objections will be made to the doctrines and the evidence presented in the preceding chapters.
1. That it is a maxim of the law, that the judges respond to the question of law, and juries only to the question of fact.
The answer to this objection is, that, since Magna Carta, judges have had more than six centuries in which to invent and promulgate pretended maxims to suit themselves; and this is one of them. Instead of expressing the law, it expresses nothing but the ambitious and lawless will of the judges themselves, and of those whose instruments they are.*
2. It will be asked, Of what use are the justices, if the jurors judge both of law and fact?
The answer is, that they are of use, 1. To assist and enlighten the jurors, if they can, by their advice and information; such advice and information to be received only for what they may chance to be worth in the estimation of the jurors. 2. To do anything that may be necessary in regard to granting appeals and new trials.
3. It is said that it would be absurd that twelve ignorant men should have power to judge of the law, while justices learned in the law should be compelled to sit by and see the law decided erroneously.
One answer to this objection is, that the powers of juries are not granted to them on the supposition that they know the law better than the justices; but on the ground that the justices are untrustworthy, that they are exposed to bribes, are themselves fond of power and authority, and are also the dependent and subservient creatures of the legislature; and that to allow them to dictate the law, would not only expose the rights of parties to be sold for money, but would be equivalent to surrendering all the property, liberty, and rights of the people, unreservedly into the hands of arbitrary power, (the legislature,) to be disposed of at its pleasure. The powers of juries, therefore, not only place a curb upon the powers of legislators and judges, but imply also an imputation upon their integrity and trustworthiness; and these are the reasons why legislators and judges have formerly entertained the intensest hatred of juries, and, so fast as they could do it without alarming the people for their liberties, have, by indirection, denied, undermined, and practically destroyed their power. And it is only since all the real power of juries has been destroyed, and they have become mere tools in the hands of legislators and judges, that they have become favorites with them.
Legislators and judges are necessarily exposed to all the temptations of money, fame, and power, to induce them to disregard justice between parties, and sell the rights, and violate the liberties of the people. Jurors, on the other hand, are exposed to none of these temptations. They are not liable to bribery, for they are unknown to the parties until they come into the jury-box. They can rarely gain either fame, power, or money, by giving erroneous decisions. Their offices are temporary, and they know that when they shall have executed them, they must return to the people, to hold all their own rights in life subject to the liability of such judgments, by their successors, as they themselves have given an example for. The laws of human nature do not permit the supposition that twelve men, taken by lot from the mass of the people, and acting under such circumstances, will all prove dishonest. It is a supposable case that they may not be sufficiently enlightened to know and do their whole duty, in all cases whatsoever; but that they should all prove dishonest, is not within the range of probability. A jury, therefore, insures to us—what no other court does—that first and indispensable requisite in a judicial tribunal, integrity.
4. It is alleged that if juries are allowed to judge of the law, they decide the law absolutely; that their decision must necessarily stand, be it right or wrong; and that this power of absolute decision would be dangerous in their hands, by reason of their ignorance of the law.
One answer is, that this power, which juries have of judging of the law, is not a power of absolute decision in all cases. For example, it is a power to declare imperatively that a man’s property, liberty, or life, shall not be taken from him; but it is not a power to declare imperatively that they shall be taken from him.
Magna Carta does not provide that the judgments of the peers shall be executed; but only that no other than their judgments shall ever be executed, so far as to take a party’s goods, rights, or person, thereon.
A judgment of the peers may be reviewed, and invalidated, and a new trial granted. So that practically a jury has no absolute power to take a party’s goods, rights, or person. They have only an absolute veto upon their being taken by the government. The government is not bound to do everything that a jury may adjudge. It is only prohibited from doing anything—(that is, from taking a party’s goods, rights, or person)—unless a jury have first adjudged it to be done.
But it will, perhaps, be said, that if an erroneous judgment of one jury should be reäffirmed by another, on a new trial, it must then be executed. But Magna Carta does not command even this—although it might, perhaps, have been reasonably safe for it to have done so—for if two juries unanimously affirm the same thing, after all the light and aid that judges and lawyers can afford them, that fact probably furnishes as strong a presumption in favor of the correctness of their opinion, as can ordinarily be obtained in favor of a judgment, by any measures of a practical character for the administration of justice. Still, there is nothing in Magna Carta that compels the execution of even a second judgment of a jury. The only injunction of Magna Carta upon the government, as to what it shall do, on this point, is that it shall “do justice and right,” without sale, denial, or delay. But this leaves the government all power of determining what is justice and right, except that it shall not consider anything as justice and right—so far as to carry it into execution against the goods, rights, or person of a party—unless it be something which a jury have sanctioned.
If the government had no alternative but to execute all judgments of a jury indiscriminately, the power of juries would unquestionably be dangerous; for there is no doubt that they may sometimes give hasty and erroneous judgments. But when it is considered that their judgments can be reviewed, and new trials granted, this danger is, for all practical purposes, obviated.
If it be said that juries may successively give erroneous judgments, and that new trials cannot be granted indefinitely, the answer is, that so far as Magna Carta is concerned, there is nothing to prevent the granting of new trials indefinitely, if the judgments of juries are contrary to “justice and right.” So that Magna Carta does not require any judgment whatever to be executed—so far as to take a party’s goods, rights, or person, thereon—unless it be concurred in by both court and jury.
Nevertheless, we may, for the sake of the argument, suppose the existence of a practical, if not legal, necessity, for executing some judgment or other, in cases where juries persist in disagreeing with the courts. In such cases, the principle of Magna Carta unquestionably is, that the uniform judgments of successive juries shall prevail over the opinion of the court. And the reason of this principle is obvious, viz., that it is the will of the country, and not the will of the court, or the government, that must determine what laws shall be established and enforced; that the concurrent judgments of successive juries, given in opposition to all the reasoning which judges and lawyers can offer to the contrary, must necessarily be presumed to be a truer exposition of the will of the country, than are the opinions of the judges.
But it may be said that, unless jurors submit to the control of the court, in matters of law, they may disagree among themselves, and never come to any judgment; and thus justice fail to be done.
Such a case is perhaps possible; but, if possible, it can occur but rarely; because, although one jury may disagree, a succession of juries are not likely to disagree—that is, on matters of natural law, or abstract justice.* If such a thing should occur, it would almost certainly be owing to the attempt of the court to mislead them. It is hardly possible that any other cause should be adequate to produce such an effect; because justice comes very near to being a self-evident principle. The mind perceives it almost intuitively. If, in addition to this, the court be uniformly on the side of justice, it is not a reasonable supposition that a succession of juries should disagree about it. If, therefore, a succession of juries do disagree on the law of any case, the presumption is, not that justice fails of being done, but that injustice is prevented—that injustice, which would be done, if the opinion of the court were suffered to control the jury.
For the sake of the argument, however, it may be admitted to be possible that justice should sometimes fail of being done through the disagreements of jurors, notwithstanding all the light which judges and lawyers can throw upon the question in issue. If it be asked what provision the trial by jury makes for such cases, the answer is, it makes none; and justice must fail of being done, from the want of its being made sufficiently intelligible.
Under the trial by jury, justice can never be done—that is, by a judgment that shall take a party’s goods, rights, or person—until that justice can be made intelligible or perceptible to the minds of all the jurors; or, at least, until it obtain the voluntary assent of all—an assent, which ought not to be given until the justice itself shall have become perceptible to all.
The principles of the trial by jury, then, are these:
1. That, in criminal cases, the accused is presumed innocent.
2. That, in civil cases, possession is presumptive proof of property; or, in other words, every man is presumed to be the rightful proprietor of whatever he has in his possession.
3. That these presumptions shall be overcome, in a court of justice, only by evidence, the sufficiency of which, and by law, the justice of which, are satisfactory to the understanding and consciences of all the jurors.
These are the bases on which the trial by jury places the property, liberty, and rights of every individual.
But some one will say, if these are the principles of the trial by jury, then it is plain that justice must often fail to be done. Admitting, for the sake of the argument, that this may be true, the compensation for it is, that positive injustice will also often fail to be done; whereas otherwise it would be done frequently. The very precautions used to prevent injustice being done, may often have the effect to prevent justice being done. But are we, therefore, to take no precautions against injustice? By no means, all will agree. The question then arises—Does the trial by jury, as here explained, involve such extreme and unnecessary precautions against injustice, as to interpose unnecessary obstacles to the doing of justice? Men of different minds may very likely answer this question differently, according as they have more or less confidence in the wisdom and justice of legislators, the integrity and independence of judges, and the intelligence of jurors. This much, however, may be said in favor of these precautions, viz., that the history of the past, as well as our constant present experience, prove how much injustice may, and certainly will, be done, systematically and continually, for the want of these precautions—that is, while the law is authoritatively made and expounded by legislators and judges. On the other hand, we have no such evidence of how much justice may fail to be done, by reason of these precautions—that is, by reason of the law being left to the judgments and consciences of jurors. We can determine the former point—that is, how much positive injustice is done under the first of these two systems—because the system is in full operation; but we cannot determine how much justice would fail to be done under the latter system, because we have, in modern times, had no experience of the use of the precautions themselves. In ancient times, when these precautions were nominally in force, such was the tyranny of kings, and such the poverty, ignorance, and the inability of concert and resistance, on the part of the people, that the system had no full or fair operation. It, nevertheless, under all these disadvantages, impressed itself upon the understandings, and imbedded itself in the hearts, of the people, so as no other system of civil liberty has ever done.
But this view of the two systems compares only the injustice done, and the justice omitted to be done, in the individual cases adjudged, without looking beyond them. And some persons might, on first thought, argue that, if justice failed of being done under the one system, oftener than positive injustice were done under the other, the balance was in favor of the latter system. But such a weighing of the two systems against each other gives no true idea of their comparative merits or demerits; for, possibly, in this view alone, the balance would not be very great in favor of either. To compare, or rather to contrast, the two, we must consider that, under the jury system, the failures to do justice would be only rare and exceptional cases; and would be owing either to the intrinsic difficulty of the questions, or to the fact that the parties had transacted their business in a manner unintelligible to the jury, and the effects would be confined to the individual or individuals interested in the particular suits. No permanent law would be established thereby destructive of the rights of the people in other like cases. And the people at large would continue to enjoy all their natural rights as before. But under the other system, whenever an unjust law is enacted by the legislature, and the judge imposes it upon the jury as authoritative, and they give a judgment in accordance therewith, the authority of the law is thereby established, and the whole people are thus brought under the yoke of that law; because they then understand that the law will be enforced against them in future, if they presume to exercise their rights, or refuse to comply with the exactions of the law. In this manner all unjust laws are established, and made operative against the rights of the people.
The difference, then, between the two systems is this: Under the one system, a jury, at distant intervals, would (not enforce any positive injustice, but only) fail of enforcing justice, in a dark and difficult case, or in consequence of the parties not having transacted their business in a manner intelligible to a jury; and the plaintiff would thus fail of obtaining what was rightfully due him. And there the matter would end, for evil, though not for good; for thenceforth parties, warned of the danger of losing their rights, would be careful to transact their business in a more clear and intelligible manner. Under the other system—the system of legislative and judicial authority—positive injustice is not only done in every suit arising under unjust laws,—that is, men’s property, liberty, or lives are not only unjustly taken on those particular judgments,—but the rights of the whole people are struck down by the authority of the laws thus enforced, and a wide-sweeping tyranny at once put in operation.
But there is another ample and conclusive answer to the argument that justice would often fail to be done, if jurors were allowed to be governed by their own consciences, instead of the direction of the justices, in matters of law. That answer is this:
Legitimate government can be formed only by the voluntary association of all who contribute to its support. As a voluntary association, it can have for its objects only those things in which the members of the association are all agreed. If, therefore, there be any justice, in regard to which all the parties to the government are not agreed, the objects of the association do not extend to it.*
If any of the members wish more than this,—if they claim to have acquired a more extended knowledge of justice than is common to all, and wish to have their pretended discoveries carried into effect, in reference to themselves,—they must either form a separate association for that purpose, or be content to wait until they can make their views intelligible to the people at large. They cannot claim or expect that the whole people shall practise the folly of taking on trust their pretended superior knowledge, and of committing blindly into their hands all their own interests, liberties, and rights, to be disposed of on principles, the justness of which the people themselves cannot comprehend.
A government of the whole, therefore, must necessarily confine itself to the administration of such principles of law as all the people, who contribute to the support of the government, can comprehend and see the justice of. And it can be confined within those limits only by allowing the jurors, who represent all the parties to the compact, to judge of the law, and the justice of the law, in all cases whatsoever. And if any justice be left undone, under these circumstances, it is a justice for which the nature of the association does not provide, which the association does not undertake to do, and which, as an association, it is under no obligation to do.
The people at large, the unlearned and common people, have certainly an indisputable right to associate for the establishment and maintenance of such a government as they themselves see the justice of, and feel the need of, for the promotion of their own interests, and the safety of their own rights, without at the same time surrendering all their property, liberty, and rights into the hands of men, who, under the pretence of a superior and incomprehensible knowledge of justice, may dispose of such property, liberties, and rights, in a manner to suit their own selfish and dishonest purposes.
If a government were to be established and supported solely by that portion of the people who lay claim to superior knowledge, there would be some consistency in their saying that the common people should not be received as jurors, with power to judge of the justice of the laws. But so long as the whole people (or all the male adults) are presumed to be voluntary parties to the government, and voluntary contributors to its support, there is no consistency in refusing to any one of them more than to another the right to sit as juror, with full power to decide for himself whether any law that is proposed to be enforced in any particular case, be within the objects of the association.
The conclusion, therefore, is, that, in a government formed by voluntary association, or on the theory of voluntary association, and voluntary support, (as all the North American governments are,) no law can rightfully be enforced by the association in its corporate capacity, against the goods, rights, or person of any individual, except it be such as all the members of the association agree that it may enforce. To enforce any other law, to the extent of taking a man’s goods, rights, or person, would be making some of the parties to the association accomplices in what they regard as acts of injustice. It would also be making them consent to what they regard as the destruction of their own rights. These are things which no legitimate system or theory of government can require of any of the parties to it.
The mode adopted, by the trial by jury, for ascertaining whether all the parties to the government do approve of a particular law, is to take twelve men at random from the whole people, and accept their unanimous decision as representing the opinions of the whole. Even this mode is not theoretically accurate; for theoretical accuracy would require that every man, who was a party to the government, should individually give his consent to the enforcement of every law in every separate case. But such a thing would be impossible in practice. The consent of twelve men is therefore taken instead; with the privilege of appeal, and (in case of error found by the the appeal court) a new trial, to guard against possible mistakes. This system, it is assumed, will ascertain the sense of the whole people—“the country”—with sufficient accuracy for all practical purposes, and with as much accuracy as is practicable without too great inconvenience and expense.
5. Another objection that will perhaps be made to allowing jurors to judge of the law, and the justice of the law, is, that the law would be uncertain.
If, by this objection, it be meant that the law would be uncertain to the minds of the people at large, so that they would not know what the juries would sanction and what condemn, and would not therefore know practically what their own rights and liberties were under the law, the objection is thoroughly baseless and false. No system of law that was ever devised could be so entirely intelligible and certain to the minds of the people at large as this. Compared with it, the complicated systems of law that are compounded of the law of nature, of constitutional grants, of innumerable and incessantly changing legislative enactments, and of countless and contradictory judicial decisions, with no uniform principle of reason or justice running through them, are among the blindest of all the mazes in which unsophisticated minds were ever bewildered and lost. The uncertainty of the law under these systems has become a proverb. So great is this uncertainty, that nearly all men, learned as well as unlearned, shun the law as their enemy, instead of resorting to it for protection. They usually go into courts of justice, so called, only as men go into battle—when there is no alternative left for them. And even then they go into them as men go into dark labyrinths and caverns—with no knowledge of their own, but trusting wholly to their guides. Yet, less fortunate than other adventurers, they can have little confidence even in their guides, for the reason that the guides themselves know little of the mazes they are threading. They know the mode and place of entrance; but what they will meet with on their way, and what will be the time, mode, place, or condition of their exit; whether they will emerge into a prison, or not; whether wholly naked and destitute, or not; whether with their reputations left to them, or not; and whether in time or eternity; experienced and honest guides rarely venture to predict. Was there ever such fatuity as that of a nation of men madly bent on building up such labyrinths as these, for no other purpose than that of exposing all their rights of reputation, property, liberty, and life, to the hazards of being lost in them, instead of being content to live in the light of the open day of their own understandings?
What honest, unsophisticated man ever found himself involved in a lawsuit, that he did not desire, of all things, that his cause might be judged of on principles of natural justice, as those principles were understood by plain men like himself? He would then feel that he could foresee the result. These plain men are the men who pay the taxes, and support the government. Why should they not have such an administration of justice as they desire, and can understand?
If the jurors were to judge of the law, and the justice of the law, there would be something like certainty in the administration of justice, and in the popular knowledge of the law, and men would govern themselves accordingly. There would be something like certainty, because every man has himself something like definite and clear opinions, and also knows something of the opinions of his neighbors, on matters of justice. And he would know that no statute, unless it were so clearly just as to command the unanimous assent of twelve men, who should be taken at random from the whole community, could be enforced so as to take from him his reputation, property, liberty, or life. What greater certainty can men require or need, as to the laws under which they are to live? If a statute were enacted by a legislature, a man, in order to know what was its true interpretation, whether it were constitutional, and whether it would be enforced, would not be under the necessity of waiting for years until some suit had arisen and been carried through all the stages of judicial proceeding, to a final decision. He would need only to use his own reason as to its meaning and its justice, and then talk with his neighbors on the same points. Unless he found them nearly unanimous in their interpretation and approbation of it, he would conclude that juries would not unite in enforcing it, and that it would consequently be a dead letter. And he would be safe in coming to this conclusion.
There would be something like certainty in the administration of justice, and in the popular knowledge of the law, for the further reason that there would be little legislation, and men’s rights would be left to stand almost solely upon the law of nature, or what was once called in England “the common law,” (before so much legislation and usurpation had become incorporated into the common law,)—in other words, upon the principles of natural justice.
Of the certainty of this law of nature, or the ancient English common law, I may be excused for repeating here what I have said on another occasion.
“Natural law, so far from being uncertain, when compared with statutory and constitutional law, is the only thing that gives any certainty at all to a very large portion of our statutory and constitutional law. The reason is this. The words in which statutes and constitutions are written are susceptible of so many different meanings,—meanings widely different from, often directly opposite to, each other, in their bearing upon men’s rights,—that, unless there were some rule of interpretation for determining which of these various and opposite meanings are the true ones, there could be no certainty at all as to the meaning of the statutes and constitutions themselves. Judges could make almost anything they should please out of them. Hence the necessity of a rule of interpretation. And this rule is, that the language of statutes and constitutions shall be construed, as nearly as possible, consistently with natural law.
The rule assumes, what is true, that natural law is a thing certain in itself; also that it is capable of being learned. It assumes, furthermore, that it actually is understood by the legislators and judges who make and interpret the written law. Of necessity, therefore, it assumes further, that they (the legislators and judges) are incompetent to make and interpret the written law, unless they previously understand the natural law applicable to the same subject. It also assumes that the people must understand the natural law, before they can understand the written law.
It is a principle perfectly familiar to lawyers, and one that must be perfectly obvious to every other man that will reflect a moment, that, as a general rule, no one can know what the written law is, until he knows what it ought to be; that men are liable to be constantly misled by the various and conflicting senses of the same words, unless they perceive the true legal sense in which the words ought to be taken. And this true legal sense is the sense that is most nearly consistent with natural law of any that the words can be made to bear, consistently with the laws of language, and appropriately to the subjects to which they are applied.
Though the words contain the law, the words themselves are not the law. Were the words themselves the law, each single written law would be liable to embrace many different laws, to wit, as many different laws as there were different senses, and different combinations of senses, in which each and all the words were capable of being taken.
Take, for example, the Constitution of the United States. By adopting one or another sense of the single word “free,” the whole instrument is changed. Yet the word free is capable of some ten or twenty different senses. So that, by changing the sense of that single word, some ten or twenty different constitutions could be made out of the same written instrument. But there are, we will suppose, a thousand other words in the constitution, each of which is capable of from two to ten different senses. So that, by changing the sense of only a single word at a time, several thousands of different constitutions would be made. But this is not all. Variations could also be made by changing the senses of two or more words at a time, and these variations could be run through all the changes and combinations of senses that these thousand words are capable of. We see, then, that it is no more than a literal truth, that out of that single instrument, as it now stands, without altering the location of a single word, might be formed, by construction and interpretation, more different constitutions than figures can well estimate.
But each written law, in order to be a law, must be taken only in some one definite and distinct sense; and that definite and distinct sense must be selected from the almost infinite variety of senses which its words are capable of. How is this selection to be made? It can be only by the aid of that perception of natural law, or natural justice, which men naturally possess.
Such, then, is the comparative certainty of the natural and the written law. Nearly all the certainty there is in the latter, so far as it relates to principles, is based upon, and derived from, the still greater certainty of the former. In fact, nearly all the uncertainty of the laws under which we live,—which are a mixture of natural and written laws,—arises from the difficulty of construing, or, rather, from the facility of misconstruing, the written law; while natural law has nearly or quite the same certainty as mathematics. On this point, Sir William Jones, one of the most learned judges that have ever lived, learned in Asiatic as well as European law, says,—and the fact should be kept forever in mind, as one of the most important of all truths:—“It is pleasing to remark the similarity, or, rather, the identity of those conclusions which pure, unbiassed reason, in all ages and nations, seldom fails to draw, in such juridical inquiries as are not fettered and manacled by positive institutions.”* In short, the simple fact that the written law must be interpreted by the natural, is, of itself, a sufficient confession of the superior certainty of the latter.
The written law, then, even where it can be construed consistently with the natural, introduces labor and obscurity, instead of shutting them out. And this must always be the case, because words do not create ideas, but only recall them; and the same word may recall many different ideas. For this reason, nearly all abstract principles can be seen by the single mind more clearly than they can be expressed by words to another. This is owing to the imperfection of language, and the different senses, meanings, and shades of meaning, which different individuals attach to the same words, in the same circumstances.†
Where the written law cannot be construed consistently with the natural, there is no reason why it should ever be enacted at all. It may, indeed, be sufficiently plain and certain to be easily understood; but its certainty and plainness are but a poor compensation for its injustice. Doubtless a law forbidding men to drink water, on pain of death, might be made so intelligible as to cut off all discussion as to its meaning; but would the intelligibleness of such a law be any equivalent for the right to drink water? The principle is the same in regard to all unjust laws. Few persons could reasonably feel compensated for the arbitary destruction of their rights, by having the order for their destruction made known beforehand, in terms so distinct and unequivocal as to admit of neither mistake nor evasion. Yet this is all the compensation that such laws offer.
Whether, therefore, written laws correspond with, or differ from, the natural, they are to be condemned. In the first case, they are useless repetitions, introducing labor and obscurity. In the latter case, they are positive violations of men’s rights.
There would be substantially the same reason in enacting mathematics by statute, that there is in enacting natural law. Whenever the natural law is sufficiently certain to all men’s minds to justify its being enacted, it is sufficiently certain to need no enactment. On the other hand, until it be thus certain, there is danger of doing injustice by enacting it; it should, therefore, be left open to be discussed by anybody who may be disposed to question it, and to be judged of by the proper tribunal, the judiciary.*
It is not necessary that legislators should enact natural law in order that it may be known to the people, because that would be presuming that the legislators already understand it better than the people,—a fact of which I am not aware that they have ever heretofore given any very satisfactory evidence. The same sources of knowledge on the subject are open to the people that are open to the legislators, and the people must be presumed to know it as well as they.
The objections made to natural law, on the ground of obscurity, are wholly unfounded. It is true, it must be learned, like any other science; but it is equally true that it is very easily learned. Although as illimitable in its applications as the infinite relations of men to each other, it is, nevertheless, made up of simple elementary principles, of the truth and justice of which every ordinary mind has an almost intuitive perception. It is the science of justice,—and almost all men have the same perceptions of what constitutes justice, or of what justice requires, when they understand alike the facts from which their inferences are to be drawn. Men living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, cannot avoid learning natural law, to a very great extent, even if they would. The dealings of men with men, their separate possessions, and their individual wants, are continually forcing upon their minds the questions,—Is this act just? or is it unjust? Is this thing mine? or is it his? And these are questions of natural law; questions, which, in regard to the great mass of cases, are answered alike by the human mind everywhere.
Children learn many principles of natural law at a very early age. For example: they learn that when one child has picked up an apple or a flower, it is his, and that his associates must not take it from him against his will. They also learn that if he voluntarily exchange his apple or flower with a playmate, for some other article of desire, he has thereby surrendered his right to it, and must not reclaim it. These are fundamental principles of natural law, which govern most of the greatest interests of individuals and society; yet children learn them earlier than they learn that three and three are six, or five and five, ten. Talk of enacting natural law by statute, that it may be known! It would hardly be extravagant to say, that, in nine cases in ten, men learn it before they have learned the language by which we describe it. Nevertheless, numerous treatises are written on it, as on other sciences. The decisions of courts, containing their opinions upon the almost endless variety of cases that have come before them, are reported; and these reports are condensed, codified, and digested, so as to give, in a small compass, the facts, and the opinions of the courts as to the law resulting from them. And these treatises, codes, and digests are open to be read of all men. And a man has the same excuse for being ignorant of arithmetic, or any other science, that he has for being ignorant of natural law. He can learn it as well, if he will, without its being enacted, as he could if it were.
If our governments would but themselves adhere to natural law, there would be little occasion to complain of the ignorance of the people in regard to it. The popular ignorance of law is attributable mainly to the innovations that have been made upon natural law by legislation; whereby our system has become an incongruous mixture of natural and statute law, with no uniform principle pervading it. To learn such a system,—if system it can be called, and if learned it can be,—is a matter of very similar difficulty to what it would be to learn a system of mathematics, which should consist of the mathematics of nature, interspersed with such other mathematics as might be created by legislation, in violation of all the natural principles of numbers and quantities.
But whether the difficulties of learning natural law be greater or less than here represented, they exist in the nature of things, and cannot be removed. Legislation, instead of removing, only increases them. This it does by innovating upon natural truths and principles, and introducing jargon and contradiction, in the place of order, analogy, consistency, and uniformity.
Further than this; legislation does not even profess to remove the obscurity of natural law. That is no part of its object. It only professes to substitute something arbitrary in the place of natural law. Legislators generally have the sense to see that legislation will not make natural law any clearer than it is. Neither is it the object of legislation to establish the authority of natural law. Legislators have the sense to see that they can add nothing to the authority of natural law, and that it will stand on its own authority, unless they overturn it.
The whole object of legislation, excepting that legislation which merely makes regulations, and provides instrumentalities for carrying other laws into effect, is to overturn natural law, and substitute for it the arbitrary will of power. In other words, the whole object of it is to destroy men’s rights. At least, such is its only effect; and its designs must be inferred from its effect. Taking all the statutes in the country, there probably is not one in a hundred,—except the auxiliary ones just mentioned,—that does not violate natural law; that does not invade some right or other.
Yet the advocates of arbitrary legislation are continually practising the fraud of pretending that unless the legislature make the laws, the laws will not be known. The whole object of the fraud is to secure to the government the authority of making laws that never ought to be known.”
In addition to the authority already cited, of Sir William Jones, as to the certainty of natural law, and the uniformity of men’s opinions in regard to it, I may add the following:
“There is that great simplicity and plainness in the Common Law, that Lord Coke has gone so far as to assert, (and Lord Bacon nearly seconds him in observing,) that ‘he never knew two questions arise merely upon common law; but that they were mostly owing to statutes ill-penned and overladen with provisos.’ ”
—3 Eunomus, 157-8.
If it still be said that juries would disagree, as to what was natural justice, and that one jury would decide one way, and another jury another; the answer is, that such a thing is hardly credible, as that twelve men, taken at random from the people at large, should unanimously decide a question of natural justice one way, and that twelve other men, selected in the same manner, should unanimously decide the same question the other way, unless they were misled by the justices. If, however, such things should sometimes happen, from any cause whatever, the remedy is by appeal, and new trial.
[* ] Judges do not even live up to that part of their own maxim, which requires jurors to try the matter of fact. By dictating to them the laws of evidence,—that is, by dictating what evidence they may hear, and what they may not hear, and also by dictating to them rules for weighing such evidence as they permit them to hear,—they of necessity dictate the conclusion to which they shall arrive. And thus the court really tries the question of fact, as well as the question of law, in every cause. It is clearly impossible, in the nature of things, for a jury to try a question of fact, without trying every question of law on which the fact depends.
[* ] Most disagreements of juries are on matters of fact, which are admitted to be within their province. We have little or no evidence of their disagreements on matters of natural justice. The disagreements of courts on matters of law, afford little or no evidence that juries would also disagree on matters of law—that is, of justice; because the disagreements of courts are generally on matters of legislation, and not on those principles of abstract justice, by which juries would be governed, and in regard to which the minds of men are nearly unanimous.
[* ] This is the principle of all voluntary associations whatsoever. No voluntary association was ever formed, and in the nature of things there never can be one formed, for the accomplishment of any objects except those in which all the parties to the association are agreed. Government, therefore, must be kept within these limits, or it is no longer a voluntary association of all who contribute to its support, but a mere tyranny established by a part over the rest.
All, or nearly all, voluntary associations give to a majority, or to some other portion of the members less than the whole, the right to use some limited discretion as to the means to be used to accomplish the ends in view; but the ends themselves to be accomplished are always precisely defined, and are such as every member necessarily agrees to, else he would not voluntarily join the association.
Justice is the object of government, and those who support the government, must be agreed as to the justice to be executed by it, or they cannot rightfully unite in maintaining the government itself.
[* ] Jones on Bailments, 133.
[† ] Kent, describing the difficulty of construing the written law, says:
“Such is the imperfection of language, and the want of technical skill in the makers of the law, that statutes often give occasion to the most perplexing and distressing doubts and discussions, arising from the ambiguity that attends them. It requires great experience, as well as the command of a perspicuous diction, to frame a law in such clear and precise terms, as to secure it from ambiguous expressions, and from all doubts and criticisms upon its meaning.”—Kent, 460.
The following extract from a speech of Lord Brougham, in the House of Lords, confesses the same difficulty:
“There was another subject, well worthy of the consideration of government during the recess,—the expediency, or rather the absolute necessity, of some arrangement for the preparation of bills, not merely private, but public bills, in order that legislation might be consistent and systematic, and that the courts might not have so large a portion of their time occupied in endeavoring to construe acts of Parliament, in many cases unconstruable, and in most cases difficult to be construed.”—Law Reporter, 1848, p. 525.
[* ] This condemnation of written laws must, of course, be understood as applying only to cases where principles and rights are involved, and not as condemning any governmental arrangements, or instrumentalities, that are consistent with natural right, and which must be agreed upon for the purpose of carrying natural law into effect. These things may be valied, as expediency may dictate, so only that they be allowed to infringe no principle of justice. And they must, of course, be written, because they do not exist as fixed principles, or laws in nature.