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CHAPTER I.: WHAT IS LAW? - Lysander Spooner, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery 
The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1860).
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WHAT IS LAW?
Before examining the language of the Constitution, in regard to Slavery, let us obtain a view of the principles, by virtue of which law arises out of those constitutions and compacts, by which people agree to establish government.
To do this it is necessary to define the term law. Popular opinions are very loose and indefinite, both as to the true definition of law, and also as to the principle, by virtue of which law results from the compacts or contracts of mankind with each other.
What then is Law? That law, I mean, which, and which only, judicial tribunals are morally bound, under all circumstances, to declare and sustain?
In answering this question, I shall attempt to show that law is an intelligible principle of right, necessarily resulting from the nature of man; and not an arbitrary rule, that can be established by mere will, numbers or power.
To determine whether this proposition be correct, we must look at the general signification of the term law.
The true and general meaning of it, is that natural, permanent, unalterable principle, which governs any particular thing or class of things. The principle is strictly a natural one; and the term applies to every natural principle, whether mental, moral or physical. Thus we speak of the laws of mind; meaning thereby those natural, universal and necessary principles, according to which mind acts, or by which it is governed. We speak too of the moral law; which is merely an universal principle of moral obligation, that arises out of the nature of men, and their relations to each other, and to other things—and is consequently as unalterable as the nature of men. And it is solely because it is unalterable in its nature, and universal in its application, that it is denominated law. If it were changeable, partial or arbitrary, it would be no law. Thus we speak of physical laws; of the laws, for instance, that govern the solar system; of the laws of motion, the laws of gravitation, the laws of light, &c., &c.—Also the laws that govern the vegetable and animal kingdoms, in all their various departments: among which laws may be named, for example, the one that like produces like. Unless the operation of this principle were uniform, universal and necessary, it would be no law.
Law, then, applied to any object or thing whatever, signifies a natural, unalterable, universal principle, governing such object or thing. Any rule, not existing in the nature of things, or that is not permanent, universal and inflexible in its application, is no law, according to any correct definition of the term law.
What, then, is that natural, universal, impartial and inflexible principle, which, under all circumstances, necessarily fixes, determines, defines and governs the civil rights of men? Those rights of person, property, &c., which one human being has, as against other human beings?
I shall define it to be simply the rule, principle, obligation or requirement of natural justice.
This rule, principle, obligation or requirement of natural justice, has its origin in the natural rights of individuals, results necessarily from them, keeps them ever in view as its end and purpose, secures their enjoyment, and forbids their violation. It also secures all those acquisitions of property, privilege and claim, which men have a natural right to make by labor and contract.
Such is the true meaning of the term law, as applied to the civil rights of men. And I doubt if any other definition of law can be given, that will prove correct in every, or necessarily in any possible case. The very idea of law originates in men’s natural rights. There is no other standard, than natural rights, by which civil law can be measured. Law has always been the name of that rule or principle of justice, which protects those rights. Thus we speak of natural law. Natural law, in fact, constitutes the great body of the law that is professedly administered by judicial tribunals: and it always necessarily must be—for it is impossible to anticipate a thousandth part of the cases that arise, so as to enact a special law for them. Wherever the cases have not been thus anticipated, the natural law prevails. We thus politically and judicially recognize the principle of law as originating in the nature and rights of men. By recognizing it as originating in the nature of men, we recognize it as a principle, that is necessarily as immutable, and as indestructible as the nature of man. We also, in the same way, recognize the impartiality and universality of its application.
If, then, law be a natural principle—one necessarily resulting from the very nature of man, and capable of being destroyed or changed only by destroying or changing the nature of man—it necessarily follows that it must be of higher and more inflexible obligation than any other rule of conduct, which the arbitrary will of any man, or combination of men, may attempt to establish. Certainly no rule can be of such high, universal and inflexible obligation, as that, which, if observed, secures the rights, the safety and liberty of all.
Natural law, then, is the paramount law. And, being the paramount law, it is necessarily the only law: for, being applicable to every possible case that can arise touching the rights of men, any other principle or rule, that should arbitrarily be applied to those rights, would necessarily conflict with it. And, as a merely arbitrary, partial and temporary rule must, of necessity, be of less obligation than a natural, permanent, equal and universal one, the arbitrary one becomes, in reality, of no obligation at all, when the two come in collision. Consequently there is, and can be, correctly speaking, no law but natural law. There is no other principle or rule, applicable to the rights of men, that is obligatory in comparison with this, in any case whatever. And this natural law is no other than that rule of natural justice, which results either directly from men’s natural rights, or from such acquisitions as they have a natural right to make, or from such contracts as they have a natural right to enter into.
Natural law recognizes the validity of all contracts which men have a natural right to make, and which justice requires to be fulfilled: such, for example, as contracts that render equivalent for equivalent, and are at the same time consistent with morality, the natural rights of men, and those rights of property, privilege, &c., which men have a natural right to acquire by labor and contract.
Natural law, therefore, inasmuch as it recognizes the natural right of men to enter into obligatory contracts, permits the formation of government, founded on contract, as all our governments profess to be. But in order that the contract of government may be valid and lawful, it must purport to authorize nothing inconsistent with natural justice, and men’s natural rights. It cannot lawfully authorize government to destroy or take from men their natural rights: for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government—which is but an association or individuals—than to a single individual. They are a necessary attribute of man’s nature; and he can no more part with them—to government or anybody else—than with his nature itself. But the contract of government may lawfully authorize the adoption of means—not inconsistent with natural justice—for the better protection of men’s natural rights. And this is the legitimate and true object of government. And rules and statutes, not inconsistent with natural justice and men’s natural rights, if enacted by such government, are binding, on the ground of contract, upon those who are parties to the contract, which creates the government, and authorizes it to pass rules and statutes to carry out its objects.*
But natural law tries the contract of government, and declares it lawful or unlawful, obligatory or invalid, by the same rules by which it tries all other contracts between man and man. A contract for the establishment of government, being nothing but a voluntary contract between individuals for their mutual benefit, differs, in nothing that is essential to its validity from any other contract between man and man, or between nation and nation. If two individuals enter into a contract to commit trespass, theft, robbery or murder upon a third, the contract is unlawful and void, simply because it is a contract to violate natural justice, or men’s natural rights. If two nations enter into a treaty, that they will unite in plundering, enslaving or destroying a third, the treaty is unlawful, void and of no obligation, simply because it is contrary to justice and men’s natural rights. On the same principle, if the majority, however large, of the people of a country, enter into a contract of government, called a constitution, by which they agree to aid, abet or accomplish any kind of injustice, or to destroy or invade the natural rights of any person or persons whatsoever, whether such persons be parties to the compact or not, this contract of government is unlawful and void—and for the same reason that a treaty between two nations for a similar purpose, or a contract of the same nature between two individuals, is unlawful and void. Such a contract of government has no moral sanction. It confers no rightful authority upon those appointed to administer it. It confers no legal or moral rights, and imposes no legal or moral obligation upon the people who are parties to it. The only duties, which any one can owe to it, or to the government established under color of its authority, are disobedience, resistance, destruction.
Judicial tribunals, sitting under the authority of this unlawful contract or constitution, are bound, equally with other men, to declare it, and all unjust enactments passed by the government in pursuance of it, unlawful and void. These judicial tribunals cannot, by accepting office under a government, rid themselves of that paramount obligation, that all men are under, to declare, if they declare anything, that justice is law; that government can have no lawful powers, except those with which it has been invested by lawful contract; and that an unlawful contract for the establishment of government, is as unlawful and void as any other contract to do injustice.
No oaths, which judicial or other officers may take, to carry out and support an unlawful contract or constitution of government, are of any moral obligation. It is immoral to take such oaths, and it is criminal to fulfil them. They are, both in morals and law, like the oaths which individual pirates, thieves and bandits give to their confederates, as an assurance of their fidelity to the purposes for which they are associated. No man has any moral right to assume such oaths; they impose no obligation upon those who do assume them; they afford no moral justification for official acts, in themselves unjust, done in pursuance of them.
If these doctrines are correct, then those contracts of government, state and national, which we call constitutions, are void, and unlawful, so far as they purport to authorize, (if any of them do authorize,) anything in violation of natural justice, or the natural rights of any man or class of men whatsoever. And all judicial tribunals are bound, by the highest obligations that can rest upon them, to declare that these contracts, in all such particulars, (if any such there be,) are void, and not law. And all agents, legislative, executive, judicial and popular, who voluntarily lend their aid to the execution of any of the unlawful purposes of the government, are as much personally guilty, according to all the moral and legal principles, by which crime, in its essential character, is measured, as though they performed the same acts independently, and of their own volition.
Such is the true character and definition of law. Yet, instead of being allowed to signify, as it in reality does, that natural, universal and inflexible principle, which has its origin in the nature of man, keeps pace everywhere with the rights of man, as their shield and protector, binds alike governments and men, weighs by the same standard the acts of communities and individuals, and is paramount in its obligation to any other requirement which can be imposed upon men—instead, I say, of the term law being allowed to signify, as it really does, this immutable and overruling principle of natural justice, it has come to be applied to mere arbitrary rules of conduct, prescribed by individuals, or combinations of individuals, self-styled governments, who have no other title to the prerogative of establishing such rules, than is given them by the possession or command of sufficient physical power to coerce submission to them.
The injustice of these rules, however palpable and atrocious it may be, has not deterred their authors from dignifying them with the name of law. And, what is much more to be deplored, such has been the superstition of the people, and such their blind veneration for physical power, that this injustice has not opened their eyes to the distinction between law and force, between the sacred requirements of natural justice, and the criminal exactions of unrestrained selfishness and power. They have thus not only suffered the name of law to be stolen, and applied to crime as a cloak to conceal its true nature, but they have rendered homage and obedience to crime, under the name of law, until the very name of law, instead of signifying, in their minds, an immutable principle of right, has come to signify little more than an arbitrary command of power, without reference to its justice or its injustice, its innocence or its criminality. And now, commands the most criminal, if christened with the name of law, obtain nearly as ready an obedience, oftentimes a more ready obedience, than law and justice itself. This superstition, on the part of the people, which has thus allowed force and crime to usurp the name and occupy the throne of justice and law, is hardly paralleled in its grossness, even by that superstition, which, in darker ages of the world, has allowed falsehood, absurdity and cruelty to usurp the name and the throne of religion.
But I am aware that other definitions of law, widely different from that I have given, have been attempted—definitions too, which practically obtain, to a great extent, in our judicial tribunals, and in all the departments of government. But these other definitions are nevertheless, all, in themselves, uncertain, indefinite, mutable; and therefore incapable of being standards, by a reference to which the question of law, or no law, can be determined. Law, as defined by them, is capricious, arbitrary, unstable; is based upon no fixed principle; results from no established fact; is susceptible of only a limited, partial and arbitrary application; possesses no intrinsic authority; does not, in itself, recognize any moral principle; does not necessarily confer upon, or even acknowledge in individuals, any moral or civil rights; or impose upon them any moral obligation.
For example. One of these definitions—one that probably embraces the essence of all the rest—is this:
That “law is a rule of civil conduct, prescribed by the supreme power of a state, commanding what its subjects are to do, and prohibiting what they are to forbear.”—Noah Webster.
In this definition, hardly anything, that is essential to the idea of law, is made certain. Let us see. It says that,
“Law is a rule of civil conduct, prescribed by the supreme power of a state.”
What is the “supreme power,” that is here spoken of, as the fountain of law? Is it the supreme physical power? Or the largest concentration of physical power, whether it exist in one man or in a combination of men? Such is undoubtedly its meaning. And if such be its meaning, then the law is uncertain; for it is oftentimes uncertain where, or in what man, or body of men, in a state, the greatest amount of physical power is concentrated. Whenever a state should be divided into factions, no one having the supremacy of all the rest, law would not merely be inefficient, but the very principle of law itself would be actually extinguished. And men would have no “rule of civil conduct.” This result alone is sufficient to condemn this definition.
Again. If physical power be the fountain of law, then law and force are synonymous terms. Or, perhaps, rather, law would be the result of a combination of will and force; of will, united with a physical power sufficient to compel obedience to it, but not necessarily having any moral character whatever.
Are we prepared to admit the principle, that there is no real distinction between law and force? If not, we must reject this definition.
It is true that law may, in many cases, depend upon force as the means of its practical efficiency. But are law and force therefore identical in their essence?
According to this definition, too, a command to do injustice, is as much law, as a command to do justice. All that is necessary, according to this definition, to make the command a law, is that it issue from a will that is supported by physical force sufficient to coerce obedience.
Again. If mere will and power are sufficient, of themselves, to establish law—legitimate law—such law as judicial tribunals are morally bound, or even have a moral right to enforce—then it follows that wherever will and power are united, and continue united until they are successful in the accomplishment of any particular object, to which they are directed, they constitute the only legitimate law of that case, and judicial tribunals can take cognizance of no other.
And it makes no difference, on this principle, whether this combination of will and power be found in a single individual, or in a community of an hundred millions of individuals.—The numbers concerned do not alter the rule—otherwise law would be the result of numbers, instead of “supreme power.” It is therefore sufficient to comply with this definition, that the power be equal to the accomplishment of the object. And the will and power of one man are therefore as competent to make the law relative to any acts which he is able to execute, as the will and power of millions of men are to make the law relative to any acts which they are able to accomplish.
On this principle, then—that mere will and power are competent to establish the law that is to govern an act, without reference to the justice or injustice of the act itself, the will and power of any single individual to commit theft, would be sufficient to make theft lawful, as lawful as is any other act of injustice, which the will and power of communities, or large bodies of men, may be united to accomplish. And judicial tribunals are as much bound to recognize, as lawful, any act of injustice or crime, which the will and power of a single individual may have succeeded in accomplishing, as they are to recognize as lawful any act of injustice, which large and organized bodies of men, self-styled governments, may accomplish.
But, perhaps it will be said that the soundness of this definition depends upon the use of the word “state”—and that it therefore makes a distinction between “the supreme power of a state,” over a particular act, and the power of an individual over the same act.
But this addition of the word “state,” in reality leaves the definition just where it would have been without it. For what is “a state?” It is just what, and only what, the will and power of individuals may arbitrarily establish.
There is nothing fixed in the nature, character or boundaries of “a state.” Will and power may alter them at pleasure. The will and power of Nicholas, and that will and power which he has concentrated around, or rather within himself, establishes all Russia, both in Europe and Asia, as “a state.” By the same rule, the will and power of the owner of an acre of ground, may establish that acre as a state, and make his will and power, for the time being, supreme and lawful within it.
The will and power, also, that established “a state” yesterday, may be overcome to-day by an adverse will and power, that shall abolish that state, and incorporate it into another, over which this latter will and power shall to-day be “supreme.” And this latter will and power may also to-morrow be overcome by still another will and power mightier than they.
“A state,” then, is nothing fixed, permanent or certain in its nature. It is simply the boundaries, within which any single combination or concentration of will and power are efficient, or irresistible, for the time being.
This is the only true definition that can be given of “a state.” It is merely an arbitrary name given to the territorial limits of power. And if such be its true character, then it would follow, that the boundaries, though but two feet square, within which the will and power of a single individual are, for the time being, supreme, or irresistible, are, for all legal purposes, “a state”—and his will and power constitute, for the time being, the law within those limits; and his acts are, therefore, for the time being, as necessarily lawful, without respect to their intrinsic justice or injustice, as are the acts of larger bodies of men, within those limits where their will and power are supreme and irresistible.
If, then, law really be what this definition would make it, merely “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power of a state”—it would follow, as a necessary consequence, that law is synonymous merely with will and force, wherever they are combined and in successful operation, for the present moment.
Under this definition, law offers no permanent guaranty for the safety, liberty, rights or happiness of any one. It licenses all possible crime, violence and wrong, both by governments and individuals. The definition was obviously invented by, and is suited merely to gloss over the purposes of, arbitrary power. We are therefore compelled to reject it, and to seek another, that shall make law less capricious, less uncertain, less arbitrary, more just, more safe to the rights of all, more permanent. And if we seek another, where shall we find it, unless we adopt the one first given, viz., that law is the rule, principle, obligation or requirement of natural justice?
Adopt this definition, and law becomes simple, intelligible, scientific; always consistent with itself; always harmonizing with morals, reason and truth. Reject this definition, and law is no longer a science: but a chaos of crude, conflicting and arbitrary edicts, unknown perchance to either morals, justice, reason or truth, and fleeting and capricious as the impulses of will, interest and power.
If, then, law really be nothing other than the rule, principle obligation or requirement of natural justice, it follows that government can have no powers except such as individuals may rightfully delegate to it: that no law, inconsistent with men’s natural rights, can arise out of any contract or compact of government: that constitutional law, under any form of government, consists only of those principles of the written constitution, that are consistent with natural law, and man’s natural rights; and that any other principles, that may be expressed by the letter of any constitution, are void and not law, and all judicial tribunals are bound to declare them so.
Though this doctrine may make sad havoc with constitutions and statute books, it is nevertheless law. It fixes and determines the real rights of all men; and its demands are as imperious as any that can exist under the name of law.
It is possible, perhaps, that this doctrine would spare enough of our existing constitutions, to save our governments from the necessity of a new organization. But whatever else it might spare, one thing it would not spare. It would spare no vestige of that system of human slavery, which now claims to exist by authority of law.*
[* ] It is obvious that legislation can have, in this country, no higher or other authority, than that which results from natural law, and the obligation of contracts; for our constitutions are but contracts, and the legislation they authorize can of course have no other or higher authority than the constitutions themselves. The stream cannot rise higher than the fountain. The idea, therefore, of any inherent authority or sovereignty in our governments, as governments, or of any inherent right in the majority to restrain individuals, by arbitrary enactments, from the exercise of any of their natural rights, is as sheer an imposture as the idea of the divine right of kings to reign, or any other of the doctrines on which arbitrary governments have been founded. And the idea of any necessary or inherent authority in legislation, as such, is, of course, equally an imposture. If legislation be consistent with natural justice, and the natural or intrinsic obligation of the contract of government, it is obligatory: if not, not.
[* ] The mass of men are so much accustomed to regard law as an arbitrary command of those who administer political power, that the idea of its being a natural, fixed, and immutable principle, may perhaps want some other support than that of the reasoning already given, to commend it to their adoption. I therefore give them the following corroborations from sources of the highest authority.
“Jurisprudence is the science of what is just and unjust.”—Justinian.
“The primary and principal objects of the law are rights and wrongs.”—Blackstone.
“Justice is the constant and perpetual disposition to render to every man his due.”—Justinian.
“The precepts of the law are to live honestly; to hurt no one; to give to every one his due.”—Justinian & Blackstone.
“Law. The rule and bond of men’s actions; or it is a rule for the well governing of civil society, to give to every man that which doth belong to him.”—Jacob’s Law Dictionary.
“Laws are arbitrary or positive, and natural; the last of which are essentially just and good, and bind everywhere, and in all places where they are observed. * * * * Those which are natural laws, are from God; but those which are arbitrary, are properly human and positive institutions.”—Selden on Fortescue, C. 17, also Jacob’s Law Dictionary.
“The law of nature is that which God, at man’s creation, infused into him, for his preservation and direction; and this is an eternal law, and may not be changed.”—2 Shep. Abr. 356, also Jac. Law Dict.
“All laws derive their force from the law of nature; and those which do not, are accounted as no laws.”—Fortescue, Jac. Law Dict.
“No law will make a construction to do wrong; and there are some things which the law favors, and some it dislikes; it favoreth those things that come from the order of nature.”—1 Inst. 183, 197.—Jac. Law Dict.
“Of law no less can be acknowledged, than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world. All things in heaven and earth do her homage; the least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power.”—Hooker.
Blackstone speaks of law as “A science, which distinguishes the criterions of right and wrong; which teaches to establish the one, and prevent, punish or redress the other; which employs in its theory the noblest faculties of the soul, and exerts in its practice the cardinal virtues of the heart; a science, which is universal in its use and extent, accommodated to each individual, yet comprehending the whole community.”—Blackstone’s Lecture on the Study of the Law.
“This law of nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their force, and all their authority mediately or immediately, from this original.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 41.
Mr. Christian, one of Blackstone’s editors, in a note to the above passage, says:
“Lord Chief Justice Hobart has also advanced, that even an act of Parliament made against natural justice, as to make a man judge in his own cause, is void in itself, for jura naturæ sunt immutabilia, and they are leges legum”—(the laws of nature are immutable—they are the laws of laws.)—Hob. 87.
Mr. Christian then adds:
“With deference to these high authorities, (Blackstone and Hobart,) I should conceive that in no case whatever can a judge oppose his own opinion and authority to the clear will and declaration of the legislature. His province is to interpret and obey the mandates of the supreme power of the state. And if an act of Parliament, if we could suppose such a case, should, like the edict of Herod, command all the children under a certain age to be slain, the judge ought to resign his office rather than be auxiliary to its execution; but it could only be declared void by the same legislative power by which it was ordained. If the judicial power were competent to decide that an act of parliament was void because it was contrary to natural justice, upon an appeal to the House of Lords this inconsistency would be the consequence, that as judges they must declare void, what as legislators they had enacted should be valid.
“The learned judge himself (Blackstone) declares in p. 91, if the Parliament will positively enact a thing to be done which is unreasonable, I know of no power in the ordinary forms of the constitution, that is vested with authority to control it.”
It will be seen from this note of Mr. Christian, that he concurs in the opinion that an enactment contrary to natural justice is intrinsically void, and not law; and that the principal, if not the only difficulty, which he sees in carrying out that doctrine, is one that is peculiar to the British constitution, and does not exist in the United States. That difficulty is, the “inconsistency” there would be, if the House of Lords, (which is the highest law court in England, and at the same time one branch of the legislature,) were to declare, in their capacity as judges, that an act was void, which, as legislators, they had declared should be valid. And this is probably the reason why Blackstone admitted that he knew of no power in the ordinary forms of the (British) constitution, that was vested with authority to control an act of Parliament that was unreasonable, (against natural justice.) But in the United States, where the judicial and legislative powers are vested in different bodies, and where they are so vested for the very purpose of having the former act as a check upon the latter, no such inconsistency would occur.
The constitutions that have been established in the United States, and the discussions had on the formation of them, all attest the importance which our ancestors attached to a separation of the judicial, from the executive and legislative departments of the government. And yet the benefits, which they had promised to liberty and justice from this separation, have in slight only, if any degree, been realized.—Although the legislation of the country generally has exhibited little less than an entire recklessness both of natural justice and constitutional authority, the records of the judiciary nevertheless furnish hardly an instance where an act of a legislature has, for either of these reasons, been declared void by its co-ordinate judicial department. There have been cases, few and far between, in which the United States courts have declared acts of state legislatures unconstitutional. But the history of the co-ordinate departments of the same governments has been, that the judicial sanction followed the legislative act with nearly the same unerring certainty, that the shadow follows the substance. Judicial decisions have consequently had the same effects in restraining the actions of legislatures, that shadows have in restraining the motions of bodies.
Why this uniform concurrence of the judiciary with the legislature? It is because the separation between them is nominal, not real. The judiciary receive their offices and salaries at the hands of the executive and the legislature, and are amenable only to the legislature for their official character. They are made entirely independent of the people at large, (whose highest interests are liberty and justice,) and entirely dependent upon those who have too many interests inconsistent with liberty and justice. Could a real and entire separation of the judiciary from the other departments take place, we might then hope that their decisions would, in some measure, restrain the usurpations of the legislature, and promote progress in the science of law and of government.
Whether any of our present judges would, (as Mr. Christian suggests they ought,) “resign their offices” rather than be auxiliary to the execution of an act of legislation, that, like the edict of Herod, should require all the children under a certain age to be slain, we cannot certainly know. But this we do know—that our judges have hitherto manifested no intention of resigning their offices to avoid declaring it to be law, that “children of two years old and under,” may be wrested forever from that parental protection which is their birthright, and subjected for life to outrages which all civilized men must regard as worse than death.
To proceed with our authorities:—
“Those human laws that annex a punishment to murder, do not at all increase its moral guilt, or superadd any fresh obligation in the forum of conscience to abstain from its perpetration. Nay, if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 42, 43.
“The law of nations depends entirely upon the rules of natural law, or upon mutual compacts, treaties, leagues and agreements between these several communities; in the construction also of which compacts, we have no other rule to resort to but the law of nature: (that) being the only one to which all the communities are equally subject.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 43.
“Those rights then which God and nature have established, and are therefore called natural rights, such as are life and liberty, need not the aid of human laws to be more effectually invested in every man than they are; neither do they receive any additional strength when declared by the municipal laws to be inviolable. On the contrary, no human legislature has power to abridge or destroy them, unless the owner shall himself commit some act that amounts to a forfeiture.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 54.
“By the absolute rights of individuals, we mean those which are so in their primary and strictest sense; such as would belong to their persons merely in a state of nature, and which every man is entitled to enjoy, whether out of society, or in it.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 123.
“The principal aim of society (government) is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; but which could not be preserved in peace without that mutual assistance and intercourse, which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals. Such rights as are social and relative result from, and are posterior to, the formation of states and societies; so that to maintain and regulate these, is clearly a subsequent consideration. And therefore the principal view of human law is, or ought always to be, to explain, protect, and enforce such rights as are absolute; which, in themselves, are few and simple: and then such rights as are relative, which, arising from a variety of connexions, will be far more numerous and more complicated. These will take up a greater space in any code of laws, and hence may appear to be more attended to, though in reality they are not, than the rights of the former kind.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 124.
“The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature, being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of free will.”—Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 125.
“Moral or natural liberty, (in the words of Burlamaqui, ch. 3, s. 15,) is the right, which nature gives to all mankind of disposing of their persons and property after the manner they judge most consonant to their happiness, on condition of their acting within the limits of the law of nature, and that they do not any way abuse it to the prejudice of any other men.”—Christian’s note, Blackstone, Vol. 1, p. 126.
“The law of Nature is antecedent and paramount to all human governments. * * * Every individual of the human race comes into the world with rights, which, if the whole aggregate of human power were concentrated in one arm, it could not take away. * * * The Declaration of Independence recognizes no despotism, monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic. It declares that individual man is possessed of rights of which no government can deprive him.”—John Quincy Adams.
All the foregoing definitions of law, rights and natural liberty, although some of them are expressed in somewhat vague and indefinite terms, nevertheless recognize he primary idea, that law is a fixed principle, resulting from men’s natural rights: and that therefore the acknowledgment and security of the natural rights of individuals constitute the whole basis of law as a science, and a sine qua non of government as a legitimate institution.
And yet writers generally, who acknowledge the true theory of government and law, will nevertheless, when discussing matters of legislation, violate continually the fundamental principles with which they set out. On some pretext of promoting a great public good, the violation of individual rights will be justified in particular cases; and the guardian principle being once broken down, nothing can then stay the irruption of the whole horde of pretexts for doing injustice; and government and legislation thenceforth become contests between factions for power and plunder, instead of instruments for the preservation of liberty and justice equally to all.
The current doctrine that private rights must yield to the public good, amounts, in reality, to nothing more nor less than this, that an individual or the minority must consent to have less than their rights, in order that other individuals, or the majority, may have more than their rights. On this principle no honest government could ever be formed by voluntary contract, (as our governments purport to be;) because no man of common sense would consent to be one of the plundered minority, and no honest man could wish to be one of the plundering majority.
The apology, that is constantly put forth for the injustice of government, viz., that a man must consent to give up some of his rights, in order to have his other rights protected—involves a palpable absurdity, both legally and politically. It is an absurdity in law, because it says that the law must be violated in some cases, in order that it may be maintained in others. It is an absurdity politically, because a man’s giving up one of his rights has no tendency whatever to promote the protection of others. On the contrary, it only renders him less capable of defending himself, and consequently makes the task of his protection more burdensome to the government. At the same time it places him in the situation of one who has conceded a part of his rights, and thus cheapened the character of all his rights in the eyes of those of whom he asks assistance. There would be as much reason in saying that a man must consent to have one of his hands tied behind him, in order that his friends might protect the rest of his body against an enemy, as there is in saying that a man must give up some of his rights in order that government may protect the remainder. Let a man have the use of both of his hands, and the enjoyment of all his rights, and he will then be more competent to his own defence; his rights will be more respected by those who might otherwise be disposed to invade them; he will want less the assistance and protection of others; and we shall need much less government than we now have.
If individuals choose to form an association or government, for the mutual protection of each other’s rights, why bargain for the protection of an indefinite portion of them, at the price of giving to the association itself liberty to violate the equally indefinite remainder? By such a contract, a man really surrenders everything, and secures nothing. Such a contract of government would be a burlesque on the wisdom of asses. Such a contract never was, nor ever will be voluntarily formed. Yet all our governments act on that principle; and so far as they act upon it, they are as essentially usurping and tyrannical as any governments can be. If a man pay his proportion of the aggregate cost of protecting all the rights of each of the members of the association, he thereby acquires a claim upon the association to have his own rights protected without diminution.
The ultimate truth on this subject is, that man has an inalienable right to so much personal liberty as he will use without invading the rights of others. This liberty is an inherent right of his nature and his faculties. It is an inherent right of his nature and his faculties to develope themselves freely, and without restraint from other natures and faculties, that have no superior prerogatives to his own. And this right has only this limit, viz., that he do not carry the exercise of his own liberty so far as to restrain or infringe the equally free development of the natures and faculties of others. The dividing line between the equal liberties of each must never be transgressed by either. This principle is the foundation and essence of law and of civil right. And legitimate government is formed by the voluntary association of individuals, for the mutual protection of each of them in the enjoyment of this natural liberty, against those who may be disposed to invade it. Each individual being secured in the enjoyment of this liberty, must then take the responsibility of his own happiness and well-being. If his necessities require more than his faculties will supply, he must depend upon the voluntary kindness of his fellow-men; unless he be reduced to that extremity where the necessity of self-preservation over-rides all abstract rules of conduct, and makes a law for the occasion—an extremity, that would probably never occur but for some antecedent injustice.