Essay on the Trial by Jury

Author: Lysander Spooner

Section I

The History of Magna Carta.

In order to judge of the object and meaning of that chapter of Magna Carta which secures the trial by jury, it is to be borne in mind that, at the time of Magna Carta, the king (with exceptions immaterial to this discussion, but which will appear hereafter) was, constitutionally, the entire government; the sole legislative, judicial, and executive power of the nation. The executive and judicial officers were merely his servants, appointed by him, and removable at his pleasure. In addition to this, "the king himself often sat in his court, which always attended his person. He there heard causes, and pronounced judgment; and though he was assisted by the advice of other members, it is not to be imagined that a decision could be obtained contrary to his inclination or opinion."[1] Judges were in those days, and afterwards, such abject servants of the king, that "we find that King Edward I. (1272 to 1307) fined and imprisoned his judges, in the same manner as Alfred the Great, among the Saxons, had done before him, by the sole exercise of his authority."[2]

Parliament, so far as there was a parliament, was a mere council of the king.[3] It assembled only at the pleasure of the king; sat only during his pleasure; and when sitting had no power, so far as general legislation was concerned, beyond that of simply advising the king. The only legislation to which their assent was constitutionally necessary, was demands for money and military services for extraordinary occasions. Even Magna Carta itself makes no provisions whatever for any parliaments, except when the king should want means to carry on war, or to meet some other extraordinary necessity.[4] He had no need of parliaments to raise taxes for the ordinary purposes of government; for his revenues from the rents of the crown lands and other sources, were ample for all except extraordinary occasions. Parliaments, too, when assembled, consisted only of bishops, barons, and other great men of the kingdom, unless the king chose to invite others.[5] There was no House of Commons at that time, and the people had no right to be heard, unless as petitioners.[6]

Even when laws were made at the time of a parliament, they were made in the name of the king alone. Sometimes it was inserted in the laws, that they were made with the consent or advice of the bishops, barons, and others assembled; but often this was omitted. Their consent or advice was evidently a matter of no legal importance to the enactment or validity of the laws, but only inserted, when inserted at all, with a view of obtaining a more willing submission to them on the part of the people. The style of enactment generally was, either "The King wills and commands," or some other form significant of the sole legislative authority of the king. The king could pass laws at any time when it pleased him. The presence of a parliament was wholly unnecessary. Hume says, "It is asserted by Sir Harry Spelman, as an undoubted fact, that, during the reigns of the Norman princes, every order of the king, issued with the consent of his privy council, had the full force of law."[7] And other authorities abundantly corroborate this assertion.[8]The king was, therefore, constitutionally the government; and the only legal limitation upon his power seems to have been simply the Common Law, usually called "the law of the land," which he was bound by oath to maintain; (which oath had about the same practical value as similar oaths have always had.) This "law of the land" seems not to have been regarded at all by many of the kings, except so far as they found it convenient to do so, or were constrained to observe it by the fear of arousing resistance. But as all people are slow in making resistance, oppression and usurpation often reached a great height; and, in the case of John, they had become so intolerable as to enlist the nation almost universally against him; and he was reduced to the necessity of complying with any terms the barons saw fit to dictate to him.

It was under these circumstances, that the Great Charter of Englsh Liberties was granted.

The barons of England, sustained by the common people, having their king in their power, compelled him, as the price of his throne, to pledge himself that he would punish no freeman for a violation of any of his laws, unless with the consent of the peers that is, the equals of the accused.

The question here arises, Whether the barons and people intended that those peers (the jury) should be mere puppets in the hands of the king, exercising no opinion of their own as to the intrinsic merits of the accusations they should try, or the justice of the laws they should be called on to enforce? Whether those haughty and victorious barons, when they had their tyrant king at their feet, gave back to him his throne, with full power to enact any tyrannical laws he might please, reserving only to a jury (" the country") the contemptible and servile privilege of ascertaining, (under the dictation of the king, or his judges, as to the laws of evidence), the simple fact whether those laws had been transgressed? Was this the only restraint, which, when they had all power in their hands, they placed upon the tyranny of a king, whose oppressions they had risen in arms to resist? Was it to obtain such a charter as that, that the whole nation had united, as it were, like one man, against their king? Was it on such a charter that they intended to rely, for all future time, for the security of their liberties? No. They were engaged in no such senseless work as that. On the contrary, when they required him to renounce forever the power to punish any freeman, unless by the consent of his peers, they intended those powers should judge of, and try, the whole case on its merits, independently of all arbitrary legislation, or judicial authority, on the part of the king. In this way they took the liberties of each individual and thus the liberties of the whole people entirely out of the hands of the king, and out of the power of his laws, and placed them in the keeping of the people themselves. And this itwas that made the trial b jury the palladium of their liberties.

The trial by jury, be it observed, was the only real barrier interposed by them against absolute despotism. Could this trial, then, have been such an entire farce as it necessarily must have been, if the jury had had no power to judge of the justice of the laws the people were required to obey? Did it not rather imply that the jury were to judge independently and fearlessly as to everything involved in the charge, and especially as to its intrinsic justice, and thereon give their decision, (unbiased by any legislation of the king,) whether the accused might be punished? The reason of the thing, no less than the historical celebrity of the events, as securing the liberties of the people, and the veneration with which the trial by jury has continued to be regarded, notwithstanding its essence and vitality have been almost entirely extracted from it in practice, would settle the question, if other evidences had left the matter in doubt.

Besides, if his laws were to be authoritative with the jury, why should John indignantly refuse, as at first he did, to grant the charter, (and finally grant it only when brought to the last extremity,) on the ground that it deprived him of all power, and left him only the name of a king? He evidently understood that the juries were to veto his laws, and paralyze his power, at discretion, by forming their own opinions as to the true character of the offences they were to try, and the laws they were to be called on to enforce; and that "the king wills and commands" was to have no weight with them contrary to their own judgments of what was intrinsically right.[9]

The barons and people having obtained by the charter all the liberties they had demanded of the king, it was further provided by the charter itself that twenty-fie barons should be appointed by the barons, out of their number, to keep special vigilance in the kingdom to see that the charter was observed, with authority to make war upon the king in case of its violation. The king also, by the charter, so far absolved all the people of the kingdom from their allegiance to him, as to authorize and require them to swear to obey the twenty-five barons, in case they should make war upon the king for infringement of the charter. It was then thought by the barons and people, that something substantial had been done for the security of their liberties.

This charter, in its most essential features, and without any abatement as to the trial by jury, has since been confirmed more than thirty times; and the people of England have always had a traditionary idea that it was of some value as a guaranty against oppression. Yet that idea has been an entire delusion, unless the jury have had the right to judge of the justice of the laws they were called on to enforce.


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Chicago: Lysander Spooner, "Section I," Essay on the Trial by Jury in Essay on the Trial by Jury Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Spooner, Lysander. "Section I." Essay on the Trial by Jury, in Essay on the Trial by Jury, Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Spooner, L, 'Section I' in Essay on the Trial by Jury. cited in , Essay on the Trial by Jury. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from