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Adam Smith argues that the Habeas Corpus Act is a great security against the tyranny of the king (1763)

In his lectures on jurisprudence Smith notes the importance of the law of habeas corpus in protecting the liberty of subjects against oppression by the king:

The Habeas Corpus Act is also a great security against oppression, as by it any one can procure triall at Westminster within 40 days who can afford to transport himself thither. Before this Act the Privy Councill could put any one they pleased into prison and detain him at pleasure without bringing him to triall. Now no one can be imprisoned anywhere but in the county gaol or the nearest to it where the crime is said to have been committed; he cant be sent out of Britain to Jersey, | Guernsey, or the plantations, that is, alway<s> within the extent of the Hab. Corp. Act.—This sufficiently secures the liberty of the people; for tho many could not afford the expense, yet it is not such who will be in greatest danger from the king. The rich and powerfull are most obnoxious to his displeasure; tis rich and not poor folk who are sent to the Bastile in France. No judge can oppose the Habeas Corpus Act; infamy and a high penalty are the punishment which attend it. No influence of the king could ever induce them to make any such attem<p>t. And so strict is this Act that in the time of rebellions or other exigencies of the state, when it is necessary to imprison without such speedy triall, it is commonly taken off for 6 months. But it will never be allowed to be reppealed, as that would destroy in a great measure the liberty of the subject.

Liberty thus established has been since confirmed by many Acts of Parliament and clauses of Acts. The system of government now supposes a system of liberty as a foundation. Every one would be shocked at any attempt to alter this system, and such a change would be attended with the greatest difficulties. The chief danger is from the Civill List and the standing army (as above). One security for liberty is that all judges hold their office[r]s for life and are intirely independent of the king. Every one therefore is tried by a free and independent judge, who are als<o> accountable for their conduct. Nothing therefore will influ<en>ce them to act unfairly to the subject, and endang<er> the loss of a profitable office and their reputation also; nothing the king could bestow would be an equivalent. The judge and jury have no dependance on the crown.—The sheriffs indeed in many counties of England as well as in Scotland are appointed by the king, but this office is also for life, and is not attended with great dignity and no profit, so that many pay a fine of 500£ to be excused from it. | The disposall of it can give no influence to the king, nor can he greatly over rule them, or act contrary to law and justice. One who levied any tax which was not authorised by Parliament may be tried of robbery, and that too in the way of appeal, which the king can not pardon, tho he can those on indictment or information. So that no one will readily be influenced by the king, his protection or orders not being able to screen one from justice. Another article which secures the liberty of the subjects is the power which the Commons have of impeaching the kings ministers of mal–administration, and that tho it had not visibly encroached on liberty. This power still remains, tho it has not been exercised since the time of William 3d. This priviledge as well as many others favourable to liberty we owe to that tyrannical prince, Henry 8th. The ordinary method which they took to get free of any of his ministers of whom he had become jealous was to get him impeached by his servile House of Commons, and from this time they have still retaind it. The king can not pardon an | appeal, that is, a prosecution at the instance of a private person; he has that power only with regard to indictments, that is, when the grand jury finds the bill to be true, or what we call the relevancie, and afterwards delegates the particular case to the committee or lesser jury. These he can pardon as well as ordinary informations, but not appeals; nor for the same reason can he pardon impeachments, as they are at the interest of another body.—The fear of disgrace and loss of reputation, as well as this of capitall punishment, from which they can not appeal or be pardoned, serves to intimidate the ministers from attempting any <?> against the commonwealth, and secures the liberty of the subjects and establishes those great rights which they have now obtained. The Habeas Corpus Act is also a great security against oppression, as by it any one can procure triall at Westminster within 40 days who can afford to transport himself thither. Before this Act the Privy Councill could put any one they pleased into prison and detain him at pleasure without bringing him to triall. Now no one can be imprisoned anywhere but in the county gaol or the nearest to it where the crime is said to have been committed; he cant be sent out of Britain to Jersey, | Guernsey, or the plantations, that is, alway<s> within the extent of the Hab. Corp. Act.—This sufficiently secures the liberty of the people; for tho many could not afford the expense, yet it is not such who will be in greatest danger from the king. The rich and powerfull are most obnoxious to his displeasure; tis rich and not poor folk who are sent to the Bastile in France. No judge can oppose the Habeas Corpus Act; infamy and a high penalty are the punishment which attend it. No influence of the king could ever induce them to make any such attem<p>t. And so strict is this Act that in the time of rebellions or other exigencies of the state, when it is necessary to imprison without such speedy triall, it is commonly taken off for 6 months. But it will never be allowed to be reppealed, as that would destroy in a great measure the liberty of the subject.

About this Quotation:

On Wednesday, March 9th, 1763 Adam Smith lectured his students at the University of Glasgow on the importance of the Habeas Corpus Act. He argued that the right to appear before a court in person, to have the charges against one read out in a public court, to have legal representation, and the chance to refute the charges, is a key defence against any potential tyranny of the King. He concluded confidently that this legal right “sufficiently secures the liberty of the people.” Smith was not the only classical liberal to ardently support this right. We would also recommend the writings of Coke and Voltaire in this regard.

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