Essay on the Trial by Jury

Author: Lysander Spooner

Chapter XI. Authority of Magna Carta

PROBABLY no political compact between king and people was ever entered into in a manner to settle more authoritatively the fundamental law of a nation, than was Magna Carta. Probably no people were ever more united and resolute in demanding from their king a definite and unambiguous acknowledgment of their rights and liberties, than were the English at that time. Probably no king was ever more completely stripped of all power to maintain his throne, and at the same time resist the demands of his people, than was John on the 15th day of June, 1215. Probably no king every consented, more deliberately or explicitly, to hold his throne subject to specific and enumerated limitations upon his power, than did John when he put his seal to the Great Charter of the Liberties of England. And if any political compact between king and people was ever valid to settle the liberties of the people, or to limit the power of the crown, that compact is now to be found in Magna Carta. If, therefore, the constitutional authority of Magna Carta had rested solely upon the compact of John with his people, that authority would have been entitled to stand forever as the supreme law of the land, unless revoked by the will of the people themselves.

But the authority of Magna Carta does not rest alone upon the compact with John. When, in the next year, (1216,) his son, Henry III., came to the throne, the charter was ratified by him, and again in 1217, and again in 1225, in substantially the same form, and especially without allowing any new powers, legislative, judicial, or executive, to the king or his judges, and without detracting in the least from the powers of the jury. And from the latter date to this, the charter has remained unchanged.

In the course of two hundred years the charter was confirmed by Henry and his successors more than thirty times. And although they were guilty of numerous and almost continual breaches of it, and were constantly seeking to evade it, yet such were the spirit, vigilance and courage of the nation, that the kings held their thrones only on the condition of their renewed and solemn promises of observance. And it was not until 1429, (as will be more fully shown hereafter,) when a truce between themselves, and a formal combination against the mass of the people, had been entered into, by the king, the nobility, and the "forty shilling freeholders," (a class whom Mackintosh designates as "a few freeholders then accounted wealthy," [1]) by the exclusion of all others than such freeholders from all voice in the election of knights to represent the counties in the House of Commons, that a repetition of these confirmations of Magna Carta ceased to be demanded. and obtained. [2]

The terms and the formalities of some of these "confirmations" make them worthy of insertion at length.

Hume thus describes one which took place in the 38th year of Henry III. (1253):

" But as they (the barons) had experienced his (the king’s) frequent breach of promise, they required that he should ratify the Great Charter in a manner still more authentic and solemn than any which he had hitherto employed. All the prelates and abbots were assembled. They held burning tapers in their hands. The Great Charter was read before them. They denounced the sentence of excommunication against every one who should thenceforth violate that fundamental law. They threw their tapers on the ground, and exclaimed, May the soul of every one who incurs this sentence so stink and corrupt in hell! The king bore a part in this ceremony, and subjoined, ’ So help me God! I will keep all these articles inviolate, as I am a man, as I am a Christian, as I am a knight, and as I am a king crowned and anointed.’ " Hume, ch. 12. See also Blackstone’s Introd. to the Charters. Black. Law Tracts, Oxford ed., p. 332. Makintosh’s Hist. of Eng., ch. 3. Lardner’s Cab. Cyc., vol. 45, p. 233 4.

The following is the form of "the sentence of excommunication" referred to by Hume:

"The Sentence of Curse, Given by the Bishops, against the Breakers of the Charters.

"The year of our Lord a thousand two hundred and fifty-three, the third day of May, in the great Hall of the King at Westminster, in the presence, and by the assent, of the Lord Henry, by the Grace of God King of England, and the Lords Richard, Earl of Cornwall, his brother, Roger (Bigot) Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk;, marshal of England, Humphrey, Earl of Hereford, Henry, Earl of Oxford, John, Earl of Warwick, and other estates of the Realm of England: We, Boniface, by the mercy of God Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, F. of London, H. of Ely, S. of Worcester, F. of Lincoln, W. of Norwich, P. of Hereford, W. of Salisbury, W. of Durham, R. of Exeter, M. of Carlisle, W. of Bath, E. of Rochester, T. of Saint David’s, Bishops, appareled in Pontificals, with tapers burning, against the breakers of the Church’s Liberties, and of the Liberties or free customs of the Realm of England, and especially of those which are contained in the Charter of the Common Liberties of the Realm, and the Charter of the Forest, have solemnly denounced the sentence of Excommunication in this form. By the authority of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and of the glorious Mother of God, and perpetual Virgin Mary, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of all apostles, of the blessed Thomas, Archbishop and Martyr, and of all martyrs, of blessed Edward of England, and of all Confessors and virgins, and of all the saints of heaven: We excommunicate, accurse, and from the thresholds (liminibus) of our Holy Mother the Church, We sequester, all those that hereafter willingly and maliciously deprive or spoil the Church of her right: And all those that by any craft or wiliness do violate, break, diminish, or change the Church’s Liberties, or the ancient approved customs of the Realm, and especially the Liberties and free Customs contained in the Charters of the Common Liberties, and of the Forest, conceded by our Lord the King, to Archbishops, Bishops, and other Prelates of England and likewise to the Earls, Barons, Knights, and other Freeholders of the Realm: And all that secretly, or openly, by deed, word, or counsel, do make statutes, or observe them being made, and that bring in Customs, or keep them when they be brought in, against the said Liberties, or any of them, the Writers and Counselors of said statutes, and the Executors of them, and a11 those that shall presume to judge according to them. All and every which persons before mentioned, that wittingly shall commit anything of the premises, let them well know that they incur the aforesaid sentence, ipso facto, (i. e.. upon the deed being done.) And those that ignorantly do so, and be admonished, except they reform themselves within fifteen days after the time of the admonition, and make full satisfaction for that they have done, at the will of the ordinary, shall be from that time forth included in the same sentence. And with the same sentence we burden all those that presume to perturb the peace of our sovereign Lord the King, and of the Realm. To the perpetual memory of which thing, We, the aforesaid Prelates, have put our seals to these presents." Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, p. 6. Ruffhead’s Statutes, vol. 1, p. 20.

One of the Confirmations of the Charters, by Edward I., was by statute, in the 25th year of his reign, (1297,) in the following terms. The statute is usually entitled. "Confirmatio Cartarum,"(Confirmation of the Charters.)

Ch. 1. "Edward, by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, and Duke of Guyan, To all those that these presents shall hear or see, Greeting. Know ye, that We, to the honor of Cod, and of Holy Church, and to the profit of our Realm, have granted, for us and our heirs, that the Charter of Liberties, and the Charter of the Forest, which were made by common assent of all the Realm, in the time of King Henry our Father, shall be kept in every point without breach. And we will that the same Charters shall be sent under our seal, as well to our justices of the Forest, as to others, and to all Sheriff’s of shires, and to all our other officers, and to all our cities throughout the Realm, together with our writs, in the which it shall he contained, that they cause the aforesaid Charters to be published, and to declare to the people that We have confirmed them at all points; and to our Justices, Sheriffs, mayors, and other ministers, which under us have the Laws of our Land to guide, that they allow the same Charters, in all their points, in pleas before them, and in judgment; that is, to wit, the Great Charter as the Common Law, and the Charter of the Forest for the wealth of our Realm.

Ch. 2. "And we will that if any judgment be given from henceforth contrary to the points of the charters aforesaid by the justices, or by any others our ministers that hold plea before them, against the points of the Charters, it shall be undone and holden for naught.

Ch. 3. "And we will, that the same Charters shall be sent, under our seal, to Cathedral Churches throughout our Realms there to remain, and shall be read before the people two times in the year.

Ch. 4. "And that all Archbishops and Bishops shall pronounce the sentence of excommunication against all those that by word, deed, or counsel, do contrary to the foresaid charters, or that in any point break or undo them. And that the said Curses be twice a year denounced and published by the prelates aforesaid. And if the same prelates, or any of them, be remiss in the denunciation of the said sentences, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York-, for the time being, shall compel and distrain them to make the denunciation in the form aforesaid." St. 25 Edward I., (1297.). Statutes of the Realm, vol. l, p. 123.

It is unnecessary to repeat the terms of the various confirmations, most of which were less formal than those that have been given, though of course equally authoritative. Most of them are brief, and in the form of a simple statute, or promise, to the effect that "The Great Charter, and the Charter of the Forest, shall be firmly kept and maintained in all points." They are to be found printed with the other statutes of the realm. One of them, after having "again granted, renewed and confirmed" the charters, requires as follows:

"That the Charters be delivered to every sheriff of England under the king’s seal, to be read four times in the year before the people in the full county," (that is, at the county court,) "that is, to wit, the next county (court) after the feast of Saint Michael, and the next county (court) after Christmas, and at the next county (court) after Easter, and at the next county (court) after the feast of Saint John " 28 Edward I., ch. 1, (1300.) v

Lingard says, "The Charter was ratified four times by Henry III., twice by Edward I., fifteen times by Edward III., seven times by Richard II., six times by Henry IV., and once by Henry V.;" making thirty-five times in all. 3 Lingard, 50, note, Philad. ed.

Coke says Magna Carta was confirmed thirty-two times. Preface to 2 Inst., p. 6.

Lingard calls these "thirty-five successive ratifications" of the charter, "a sufficient proof how much its provisions were abhorred by the sovereign, and how highly they were prized by the nation." 3 Lingard, 50.

Mackintosh says, "For almost five centuries (that is, until 1688) it (Magna Carta) was appealed to as the decisive authority on behalf of the people, though commonly so far only as the necessities of each case demanded." Mackintosh’s Hist. of Eng. ch. 3. 45 Lardner’s Cab. Cyc., 221.

Coke, who has labored so hard to overthrow the most vital principles of Magna Carta, and who, therefore, ought to be considered good authority when he speaks in its favor, [3] says:

"It is called Magna Carta, not that it is great in quantity, for there be many voluminous charters commonly passed, specially in these later times, longer than this is; nor comparatively in respect that it is greater than Charta de Foresta, but in respect of the great importance and weightiness of the matter, as hereafter shall appear; and likewise for the same cause Charta de Foresta; and both of them are called Magnae Chartae Libertatum Angliae, (The Great Charters of the Liberties of England.)

"And it is also called Charta Libertatum regni, (Charter of the liberties of the kingdom;) and upon great reason it is so called of the effect, quia liberos facit, (because it makes men free.) Sometime for the same cause (it is called) communis libertas, (common liberty,) and le chartre des franchises, (the charter of franchises.)

"It was for the most part declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws of England, and for the residue it is additional to supply some defects of the common law.

"Also, by the said act of 25 Edward I., (called Confirmatio Chartarum,) it is adjudged in parliament that the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest shall be taken as the common law.

"They (Magna Carta and Carta de Foresta) were, for the most part, but declarations of the ancient common laws of England, to the observation and keeping whereof, the king was bound and sworn.

"After the making of Magna Charta, and Charta de Foresta, divers learned men in the laws, that I may use the words of the record, kept schools of the law in the city of London, and taught such as resorted to them the laws of the realm, taking their foundation of Magna Charta and Charta de Foresta.

"And the said two charters have been confirmed, established, and commanded to be put in execution by thirty-two several acts of parliament in all.

"This appeareth partly by that which hath been said, for that it hath so often been confirmed by the wise providence of so many acts of parliament.

"And albeit judgments in the king’s courts are of high regard in law, and judicia (judgments) are accounted as jurisdicta, (the speech of the law itself,) yet it is provided by act of parliament, that if any judgment be given contrary to any of the points of the Great Charter and Charta de Foresta, by the justices, or by any other of the king’s ministers, &c;., it shall be undone, and holden for naught.

"And that both the said charters shall be sent under the great seal to all cathedral churches throughout the realm, there to remain, and shall be read to the people twice every year.

"The highest and most binding laws are the statutes which are established by parliament; and by authority of that highest court it is enacted (only to show their tender care of Magna Carta and Carta de Foresta) that if any statute be made contrary to the Great Charter, or the Charter of the Forest, that shall be holden for none; by which words all former statutes made against either of those charters are now repealed; and the nobles and great officers were to be sworn to the observation of Magna Charta and Charta de Foresta.

"Magna fuit quondam magnae reverentia chartae." (Great was formerly the reverence for Magna Carta.) Coke’s Proem to 2 Inst., p. 1 to 7.

Coke also says, "All pretence of prerogative against Magna Charta is taken away." 2 Inst., 36.

He also says, "That after this parliament (52 Henry III., in 1267) neither Magna Carta nor Carta de Foresta was ever attempted to be impugned or questioned." 2 Inst., 102. [4]

To give all the evidence of the authority of Magna Carta, it would be necessary to give the constitutional history of England since the year 1215. This history would show that Magna Carta, although continually violated and evaded, was still acknowledged as law by the government, and was held up by the people as the great standard and proof of their rights and liberties. It would show also that the judicial tribunals, whenever it suited their purposes to do so, were in the habit of referring to Magna Carta as authority, in the same manner, and with the same real or pretended veneration, with which American courts now refer to the constitution of the United States, or the constitutions of the states. And, what is equally to the point, it would show that these same tribunals, the mere tools of kings and parliaments, would resort to the same artifices of assumption, precedent, construction, and false interpretation, to evade the requirements of Magna Carta, and to emasculate it of all its power for the preservation of liberty, that are resorted to by American courts to accomplish the same work on our American constitutions.

I take it for granted, therefore, that if the authority of Magna Carta had rested simply upon its character as a compact between the king and the people, it would have been forever binding upon the king, (that is, upon the government, for the king was the government,) in his legislative, judicial, and executive character; and that there was no constitutional possibility of his escaping from its restraints, unless the people themselves should freely discharge him from them.

But the authority of Magna Carta does not rest, either wholly or mainly, upon its character as a compact. For centuries before the charter was granted, its main principles constituted "the Law of the Land," the fundamental and constitutional law of the realm, which the kings were sworn to maintain. And the principal benefit of the charter was, that it contained a written description and acknowledgment, by the king himself, of what the constitutional law of the kingdom was, which his coronation oath bound him to observe. Previous to Magna Carta, this constitutional law rested mainly in precedents, customs, and the memories of the people. And if the king could but make one innovation upon this law, without arousing resistance, and being compelled to retreat from his usurpation, he would cite that innovation as a precedent for another act of the same kind; next, assert a custom; and, finally, raise a controversy as to what the Law of the Land really was. The great object of the barons and people, in demanding from the king a written description and acknowledgment of the Law of the Land, was to put an end to all disputes of this kind, and to put it out of the power of the king to plead any misunderstanding of the constitutional law of the kingdom. And the charter, no doubt, accomplished very much in this way. After Magna Carta, it required much more audacity, cunning, or strength, on the part of the king, than it had before, to invade the people’s liberties with impunity. Still, Magna Carta, like all other written constitutions, proved inadequate to the full accomplishment of its purpose; for when did a parchment ever have power adequately to restrain a government, that had either cunning to evade its requirements, or strength to overcome those who attempted its defence? The work of usurpation, therefore, though seriously checked, still went on, to a great extent, after Magna Carta. Innovations upon the Law of the Land are still made by the government. One innovation was cited as a precedent; precedents made customs; and customs became laws, so far as practice was concerned; until the government, composed of the king, the high functionaries of the church, the nobility, a House of Commons representing the "forty shilling freeholders," and a dependent and servile judiciary, all acting in conspiracy against the mass of the people, became practically absolute, as it is at this day.

As proof that Magna Carta embraced little else than what was previously recognized as the common law, or Law of the Land, I repeat some authorities that have been already cited. Crabbe says, "It is admitted on all hands that it (Magna Carta) contains nothing but what was confirmatory of the common law and the ancient usages of the realm; and is, properly speaking, only an enlargement of the charter of Henry I. and his successors." Crabbe’s Hist. of the Eng. Law, p. 127.

Blackstone says, "It is agreed by all our historians that the Great Charter of King John was, for the most part, compiled from the ancient customs of the realm, or the laws of Edward the Confessor; by which they mean the old common law which was established under our Saxon princes." Blackstone’s Introd. to the Charters. See Blackstone’s Law Tracts, Oxford ed., p. 289.

Coke says, " The common law is the most general and ancient law of the realm... The common law appeareth in the statute of Magna Carta, and other ancient statutes, (which for the most part are affirmations of the common law,) in the original writs, in judicial records, and in our books of terms and years." 1 Inst., 115 b.

Coke also says, "It (Magna Carta) was for the most part declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws of England, and for the residue it was additional to supply some defects of the common law... They (Magna Carta and Carta de Foresta) were, for the most part, but declarations of the ancient common laws of England, to the observation and keeping whereof the king was bound and sworn." Preface to 2 Inst., p. 3 and 5.

Hume says, "We may now, from the tenor of this charter, (Magna Carta,) conjecture what those laws were of King Edward, (the Confessor,) which the English nation during so many generations still desired, with such an obstinate perseverance, to have recalled and established. They were chiefly these latter articles of Magna Carta; and the barons who, at the beginning of these commotions, demanded the revival of the Saxon laws, undoubtedly thought that they had sufficiently satisfied the people, by procuring them this concession, which comprehended the principal objects to which they had so long aspired." Hume, ch. 11.

Edward the First confessed that the Great Charter was substantially identical with the common law, as far as it went, when he commanded his justices to allow "the Great Charter as the Common Law," " in pleas before them, and in judgment," as has been already cited in this chapter. 25 Edward I., ch. 1, (1297.)

In conclusion of this chapter, it may be safely asserted that the veneration, attachment, and pride, which the English nation, for more than six centuries, have felt towards Magna Carta, are in their nature among the most irrefragable of all proofs that it was the fundamental law of the land, and constitutionally binding upon the government; for, otherwise, it would have been, in their eyes, an unimportant and worthless thing. What those sentiments were I will use the words of others to describe, the words, too, of men, who, like all modern authors who have written on the same topic, had utterly inadequate ideas of the true character of the instrument on which they lavished their eulogiums.

Hume, speaking of the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, as they were confirmed by Henry III., in 1217, says:"Thus these famous charters were brought nearly to the shape in which they have ever since stood; and they were, during many generations, the peculiar favorites of the English nation, and esteemed the most sacred rampart to national liberty and independence. As they secured the rights of all orders of men, they were anxiously defended by all, and became the basis, in a manner, of the English monarchy, and a kind of original contract, which both limited the authority of the king and ensured the conditional allegiance of his subjects. Though often violated, they were still claimed by the nobility and people; and, as no precedents were supposed valid that infringed them, they rather acquired than lost authority, from the frequent attempts made against them in several ages, by regal and arbitrary power." Hume, ch. 12.

Mackintosh says, "It was understood by the simplest of the unlettered age for whom it was intended. It was remembered by them... For almost five centuries it was appealed to as the decisive authority on behalf of the people... To have produced it, to have preserved it, to have matured it, constitute the immortal claim of England on the esteem of mankind. Her Bacons arid Shakspeares, her Miltons and Newtons, with all the truth which they have revealed, and all the generous virtues which they have inspired, are of inferior value when compared with the subjection of men and their rulers to the principles of justice; if, indeed, it be not more true that these mighty spirits could not have been formed except under equal laws, nor roused to full activity without the influence of that spirit which the Great Charter breathed over their forefathers." Mackintosh’s Hist. of Eng., ch. 3, [8]

Of the Great Charter, the trial by jury is the vital part, and the only part that places the liberties of the people in their own keeping. Of this Blackstone says:

"The trial by jury, or the country, per patriam, is also that trial by the peers of every Englishman, which, as the grand bulwark of his liberties, is secured to him by the Great Charter; nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nisi per legale judicial parium suorum, vel per legem terrae.

The liberties of England cannot but subsist so long as this palladium remains sacred and inviolate, not only from all open, attacks, which none will be so hardy as to make, but also from all secret machinations which may sap and undermine it." [9]

"The trial by jury ever has been, and I trust ever will be, looked upon as the glory of the English law... It is the most transcendent privilege which any subject can enjoy or wish for, that he cannot be affected in his property, his liberty, or his person, but by the unanimous consent of twelve of his neighbors and equals."[10]

Hume calls the Trial by Jury "An institution admirable in itself, and the best calculated for the preservation of liberty and the administration of justice, that ever was devised by the wit of man." [11]

An old book, called "English Liberties," says:"English Parliaments have all along been most zealous for preserving this Great Jewel of Liberty, Trials by Juries having no less than fifty-eight several times, since the Norman Conquest, been established and confirmed by the legislative power, no one privilege besides having been ever so often remembered in parliament."{12]

[1] Mackintosh’s Hist. of Eng., ch. 3. 45 Lardner’s Cab. Cyc., 354.

[2] "Forty shilling freeholders" were those "people dwelling and resident in the same counties, whereof every one of them shall have free land or tenement to the value of forty shillings by the year at the least above all charges." By statute 8 Henry 6, ch. 7, (1429,) these freeholders only were allowed to vote for members of Parliament from the counties.

[3] He probably speaks in its favor only to blind the eyes of the people to the frauds he has attempted upon its true meaning.

[4] It will be noticed that Coke calls these confirmations of the charter "acts of parliament," instead of acts of the king alone. This needs explanation.

It was one of Coke’s ridiculous pretences, that laws anciently enacted by the king, at the request, or with the consent, or by the advice, of his parliament, was "an act of parliament," instead of the act of the king. And in the extracts cited, he carries this idea so far as to pretend that the various confirmations of the Great Charter were "acts of parliament," instead of the acts of the kings. He might as well have pretended that the original grant of the Charter was an "act of parliament; "because it was not only granted at the request, and with the consent, and by the advice, but on the compulsion even, of those who commonly constituted his parliaments. Yet this did not make the grant of the charter "an act of parliament." It was simply an act of the king.

The object of Coke, in this pretence, was to furnish some color for the palpable falsehood that the legislative authority, which parliament was trying to assume in his own day, and which it finally succeeded in obtaining, had a precedent in the ancient constitution of the kingdom.

There would be as much reason in saying that, because the ancient kings were in the habit of passing laws in special answer to the petitions of their subjects, therefore those petitioners were a part of the legislative power of the kingdom.

One great objection to this argument of Coke, for the legislative authority of the ancient parliaments, is that a very large probably much the larger number of legislative acts were done without the advice, consent, request, or even presence, of a parliament. Not only were many formal statutes passed without any mention of the consent or advice of parliament, but a simple order of the king in council, or a simple proclamation, writ, or letter under seal, issued by his command, had the same force as what Coke calls "an act of parliament." And this practice continued, to a considerable extent at least, down to Coke’s own time.

The kings were always in the habit of consulting their parliaments, more or less, in regard to matters of legislation, not because their consent was constitutionally necessary, but in order to make influence in favor of their laws, and thus induce the people to observe them, and the juries to enforce them. The general duties of the ancient parliaments were not legislative, but judicial, as will be shown more fully hereafter. The people were not represented in the parliaments at the time of Magna Carta, but only the archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, and knights; so that little or nothing would have been gained for liberty by Coke’s idea that parliament had a legislative power. He would only have substituted an aristocracy for a king. Even after the Commons were represented in parliament, they for some centuries appeared only as petitioners, except in the matter of taxation, when their consent was asked. And almost the only source of their influence on legislation was this: that they would sometimes refuse their consent to the taxation, unless the king would pass such laws as they petitioned for; or, as would seem to have been much more frequently the case, unless he would abolish such laws and practices as they remonstrated against. The influence, or power of parliament, and especially of the Commons, in the general legislation of the country, was a thing of slow growth, having its origin in a device of the king to get money contrary to law, (as will be seen in the next volume,) and not at all a part of the constitution of the kingdom, nor having its foundation in the consent of the people. The power, as at present exercised, was not fully established until 1688, (near five hundred years after Magna Carta,) when the House of Commons (falsely so called) had acquired such influence as the representative, not of the people, but of the wealth, of the nation, that they compelled, the king to discard the oath fixed by the constitution of the kingdom; (which oath has been already given in a former chapter, [5] and was, in substance, to preserve and execute the Common Law, the Law of the Land, or, in the words of the oath, "the just laws and customs which the common people had chosen;") and to swear that he would "govern the people of this kingdom of England, and the dominions thereto belonging, accordingto the statutes in parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same." [6]

The passage and enforcement of this statute, and the assumption of this oath by the king, were plain violations of the English constitution, inasmuch as they abolished, so far as such an oath could abolish, the legislative power of the king, and also "those just laws and customs which the common people (through their juries) had chosen," and substituted the will of parliament in their stead.

Coke was a great advocate for the legislative power of parliament, as a means of restraining the power of the king. As he denied all power to juries to decide upon the obligation of laws, and as he held that the legislative power was "so transcendent and absolute as (that) it cannot be confined, either for causes or persons, within any bounds," [7] he was perhaps honest in holding that it was safer to trust this terrific power in the hands of parliament, than in the hands of the king. His error consisted in holding that either the king or parliament had any such power, or that they had any power at all to pass laws that should be binding upon a jury.

These declarations of Coke, that the charter was confirmed by thirty-two "acts of parliament," have a mischievous bearing in another respect. They tend to weaken the authority of the charter, by conveying the impression that the charter itself might be abolished by "act of parliament." Coke himself admits that it could not be revoked or rescinded by the king; for he says, "All pretence of prerogative against Magna Carta is taken away." (2 Inst., 36.)

He knew perfectly well, and the whole English nation knew, that the king could not lawfully infringe Magna Carta. Magna Carta, therefore, made it impossible that absolute power could ever be practically established in England, in the hands of the king. Hence, as Coke was an advocate for absolute power, that is, for a legislative power "so transcendent and absolute as (that) it cannot, be confined, either for causes or persons, within any bounds," there was no alternative for him but to vest this absolute power in parliament. Had he not vested it in parliament, he would have been obliged to abjure it altogether, and to confess that the people, through their juries, had the right to judge of the obligation of all legislation whatsoever; in other words, that they had the right to confine the government within the limits of "those just laws and customs which the common people (acting as jurors) had chosen." True to his instincts, as a judge, and as a tyrant, he assumed that this absolute power was vested in the hands of parliament.

But the truth was that, as by the English constitution parliament had no authority at all for general legislation, it could no more confirm, than it could abolish, Magna Carta.

These thirty-two confirmations of Magna Carta, which Coke speaks of as "acts of parliament," were merely acts of the king. The parliaments, indeed, by refusing to grant him money, except, on that condition, and otherwise, had contributed to oblige him to make the confirmations; just as they had helped to oblige him by arms to grant the charter in the first place. But the confirmations themselves were nevertheless constitutionally, as well as formally, the acts of the king alone.

[5] See page 103.

[6]St. 1.William and Mary, ch. 6, (1688)

[7]4. Inst., 36.

[8] Under the head of "John."

[9] 4 Blackstone, 849-50.

[10] 3 Blackstone, 379.

[11] Hume, ch. 2.

[12] Page 203, 5th edition, 1721.

CHAPTER XII. Limitations Imposed Upon The Majority By The Trial By Jury

The principal objection, that will be made to the doctrine of this essay, is, that under it, a jury would paralyze the power of the majority, and veto all legislation that was not in accordance with the will of the whole, or nearly the whole, people.

The answer to this objection is, that the limitation, which would be thus imposed upon the legislative power, (whether that power be vested in the majority, or minority, of the people,) is the crowning merit of the trial by jury. It has other merits; but, though important in themselves, they are utterly insignificant and worthless in comparison with this.

It is this power of vetoing all partial and oppressive legislation, and of restricting the government to the maintenance of such laws as the whole, or substantially the whole, people are agreed in, that makes the trial by jury "the palladium of liberty." Without this power it would never have deserved that name.

The will, or the pretended will, of the majority, is the last lurking place of tyranny at the present day. The dogma, that certain individuals and families have a divine appointment to govern the rest of mankind, is fast giving place to the one that the larger number have a right to govern the smaller; a dogma, which may, or may not, be less oppressive in its practical operation, but which certainly is no less false or tyrannical in principle, than the one it is so rapidly supplanting. Obviously there is nothing in the nature of majorities, that insures justice at their hands. They have the same passions as minorities, and they have no qualities whatever that should be expected to prevent them from practising the same tyranny as minorities, if they think it will be for their interest to do so.

There is no particle of truth in the notion that the majority have a right to rule, or to exercise arbitrary power over, the minority, simply because the former are more numerous than the latter. Two men have no more natural right to rule one, than one has to rule two. Any single man, or any body of men, many or few, have a natural right to maintain justice for themselves, and for any others who may need their assistance against the injustice of any and all other men, without regard to their numbers; and majorities have no right to do any more than this. The relative numbers of the opposing parties have nothing to do with the question of right. And no more tyrannical principle was ever avowed, than that the will of the majority ought to have the force of law, without regard to its justice; or, what is the same thing, that the will of the majority ought always to be presumed to be in accordance with justice. Such a doctrine is only another form of the doctrine that might makes right.

When two men meet one upon the highway, or in the wilderness, have they a right to dispose of his life, liberty, or property at their pleasure, simply because they are the more numerous party? Or is he bound to submit to lose his life, liberty, or property, if they demand it, merely because he is the less numerous party? Or, because they are more numerous than he, is he bound to presume that they are governed only by superior wisdom, and the principles of justice, and by no selfish passion that can lead them to do him a wrong? Yet this is the principle, which it is claimed should govern men in all their civil relations to each other. Mankind fall in company with each other on the highway or in the wilderness of life, and it is claimed that the more numerous party, simply by virtue of their superior numbers, have the right arbitrarily to dispose of the life, liberty, and property of the minority; and that the minority are bound, by reason of their inferior numbers, to practise abject submission, and consent to hold their natural rights, any, all, or none, as the case may be, at the mere will and pleasure of the majority; as if all a man’s natural rights expired, or were suspended by the operation of a paramount law, the moment he came into the presence of superior numbers.

If such be the true nature of the relations men hold to each other in this world, it puts an end to all such things as crimes, unless they be perpetrated upon those who are equal or superior, in number, to the actors. All acts committed against persons inferior in number to the aggressors, become but the exercise at rightful authority. And consistency with their own principles requires that all governments, founded on the will of the majority, should recognize this plea as a sufficient justification for all crimes whatsoever.

If it be said that the majority should be allowed to rule, not because they are stronger than the minority, but because their superior numbers furnish a probability that they are in the right; one answer is, that the lives, liberties, and properties of men are too valuable to them, and the natural presumptions are too strong in their favor, to justify the destruction of them by their fellow-men on a mere balancing of probabilities, or on any ground whatever short of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. This last is the moral rule universally recognized to be binding upon single individuals. And in the forum of conscience the same rule is equally binding upon governments, for governments are mere associations of individuals. This is the rule on which the trial by jury is based. And it is plainly the only rule that ought to induce a man to submit his rights to the adjudication of his fellow-men, or dissuade him from a forcible defence of them.

Another answer is, that if two opposing parties could be supposed to have no personal interests or passions involved, to warp their judgments, or corrupt their motives, the fact that one of the parties was more numerous than the other, (a fact that leaves the comparative intellectual competency of the two parties entirely out of consideration,) might, perhaps, furnish a slight, but at best only a very slight, probability that such party was on the side of justice. But when it is considered that the parties are liable to differ in their intellectual capacities, and that one, or the other, or both, are undoubtedly under the influence of such passions as rivalry, hatred, avarice, and ambition. passions that are nearly certain to pervert their judgments, and very likely to corrupt their motives, all probabilities founded upon a mere numerical majority, in one party, or the other, vanish at once; and the decision of the majority becomes, to all practical purposes, a mere decision of chance. And to dispose of men’s properties, liberties, and lives, by the mere process of enumerating such parties, is not only as palpable gambling as was ever practised, but it is also the most atrocious that was ever practised, except in matters of government. And where government is instituted on this principle, (as in the United States, for example,) the nation is at once converted into one great gambling establishment; where all the rights of men are the stakes; a few bold bad men throw the dice (dice loaded with all the hopes, fears, interests, and passions which rage in the breasts of ambitious and desperate men,) and all the people, from the interests they have depending, become enlisted, excited, agitated, and generally corrupted, by the hazards of the game.

The trial by jury disavows the majority principle altogether; and proceeds upon the ground that every man should be presumed to be entitled to life, liberty, and such property as he has in his possession; and that the government should lay its hand upon none of them, (except for the purpose of bringing them before a tribunal for adjudication,) unless it be first ascertained., beyond a reasonable doubt, in every individual case, that justice requires it.

To ascertain whether there be such reasonable doubt, it takes twelve men by lot from the whole body of mature men. If any of these twelve are proved to be under the influence of any special interest or passion, that may either pervert their judgments, or corrupt their motives, they are set aside as unsuitable for the performance of a duty requiring such absolute impartiality and integrity; and others substituted in their stead. When the utmost practicable impartiality is attained on the part of the whole twelve, they are sworn to the observance of justice; and their unanimous concurrence is then held to be necessary to remove that reasonable doubt, which, unremoved, would forbid the government to lay its hand on its victim.

Such is the caution which the trial by jury both practises and inculcates, against the violation of justice, on the part of the government, towards the humblest individual, in the smallest matter affecting his civil rights, his property, liberty, or life. And such is the contrast, which the trial by jury presents, to that gambler’s and robber’s rule, that the majority have a right, by virtue of their superior numbers, and without regard to justice, to dispose at pleasure of the property and persons of all bodies of men less numerous than themselves.

The difference, in short, between the two systems, is this. The trial by jury protects person and property, inviolate to their possessors, from the hand of the law, unless justice, beyond a reasonable doubt, require them to be taken. The majority principle takes person and property from their possessors, at the mere arbitrary will of a majority, who are liable and likely to be influenced, in taking them, by motives of oppression, avarice, and ambition.

If the relative numbers of opposing parties afforded sufficient evidence of the comparative justice of their claims the government should carry the principle into its courts of justice; and instead of referring controversies to impartial and disinterested men, to judges and jurors, sworn to do justice, and bound patiently to hear and weigh all the evidence and arguments that can be offered on either side, it should simply count the plaintiff’s and defendants in each case, (where there were more than one of either,) and then give the case to the majority; after ample opportunity had been given to the plaintiffs and defendants to reason with, flatter, cheat, threaten, and bribe each other, by way of inducing them to change sides. Such a. process would be just as rational in courts of justice, as in halls of legislation; for it is of no importance to a man, who has his rights taken from him, whether it be done by a legislative enactment, or a judicial decision.

In legislation, the people are all arranged as plaintiff’s and defendants in their own causes; (those who are in favor of a particular law, standing as plaintiff’s, and those who are opposed to the same law, standing as defendants); and to allow these causes to be decided by majorities, is plainly as absurd as it would be to allow judicial decisions to be determined by the relative number of plaintiffs and defendants.

If this mode of decision were introduced into courts of justice, we should see a parallel, and only a parallel, to that system of legislation which we witness daily. We should see large bodies of men conspiring to bring perfectly groundless suits, against other bodies of men, for large sums of money, and to carry them by sheer force of numbers; just as we now continually see large bodies of men conspiring to carry, by mere force of numbers, some scheme of legislation that will, directly or indirectly, take money out of other men’s pockets, and put it into their own. And we should also see distinct bodies of men, parties in separate suits, combining and agreeing all to appear and be counted as plaintiffs or defendants in each other’s suits, for the purpose of ekeing out the necessary majority; just as we now see distinct bodies of men, interested in separate schemes of ambition or plunder, conspiring to carry through a batch of legislative enactments, that shall accomplish their several purposes.

This system of combination and conspiracy would go on, until at length whole states and a whole nation would become divided into two great litigating parties, each party composed of several smaller bodies, having their separate suits, but all confederating for the purpose of making up the necessary majority in each case. The individuals composing each of these two great parties, would at length become so accustomed to acting together, and so well acquainted with each others’ schemes, and so mutually dependent upon each others’ fidelity for success, that they would become organized as permanent associations; bound together by that kind of honor that prevails among thieves; and pledged by all their interests, sympathies, and animosities, to mutual fidelity, and to unceasing hostility to their opponents; and exerting all their arts and all their resources of threats, injuries, promises, and bribes, to drive or seduce from the other party enough to enable their own to retain or acquire such a majority as would be necessary to gain their own suits, and defeat the suits of their opponents. All the wealth and talent of the country would become enlisted in the service of these rival associations; and both would at length become so compact, so well organized, so powerful, and yet always so much in need of recruits, that a private person would be nearly or quite unable to obtain justice in the most paltry suit with his neighbor, except on the condition of joining one of these great litigating associations, who would agree to carry through his cause, on condition of his assisting them to carry through all the others, good and bad, which they had already undertaken. If he refused this, they would threaten to make a similar offer to his antagonist, and suffer their whole numbers to be counted against him.

Now this picture is no caricature, but a true and honest likeness. And such a system of administering justice, would be no more false, absurd, or atrocious, than that system of working by majorities, which seeks to accomplish, by legislation, the same ends which, in the case supposed, would be accomplished by judicial decisions.

Again, the doctrine that the minority ought to submit to the will of the majority, proceeds, not upon the principle that government is formed by voluntary association, and for an agreed purpose, on the part of all who contribute to its support, but upon the presumption that all government must be practically a state of war and plunder between opposing parties; and that in order to save blood, and prevent mutual extermination, the parties come to an agreement that they will count their respective numbers periodically, and the one party shall then be permitted quietly to rule and plunder, (restrained only by their own discretion,) and the other submit quietly to be ruled and plundered, until the time of the next enumeration.

Such an agreement may possibly be wiser than unceasing and deadly conflict; it nevertheless partakes too much of the ludicrous to deserve to be seriously considered as an expedient for the maintenance of civil society. It would certainly seem that mankind might agree upon a cessation of hostilities, upon more rational and equitable terms than that of unconditional submission on the part of the less numerous body. Unconditional submission is usually the last act of one who confesses himself subdued and enslaved. How any one ever came to imagine that condition to be one of freedom, has never been explained. And as for the system being adapted to the maintenance of justice among men, it is a mystery that any human mind could ever have been visited with an insanity wild enough to originate the idea.

If it be said that other corporations, than governments, surrender their affairs into the hands of the majority, the answer is, that they allow majorities to determine only trifling matters, that are in their nature mere questions of discretion, and where there is no natural presumption of justice or right on one side rather than the other. They never surrender to the majority the power to dispose of; or, what is practically the same thing, to determine, the rights of any individual member. The rights of every member are determined by the written compact, to which all the members have voluntarily agreed.

For example. A banking corporation allows a majority to determine such questions of discretion as whether the note of A or of B shall be discounted; whether notes shall be discounted on one, two, or six days in the week; how many hours in a day their banking-house shall be kept open; how many clerks shall be employed; what salaries they shall receive, and such like matters, which are in their nature mere subjects of discretion, and where there are no natural presumptions of justice or right in favor of one course over the other. But no banking corporation allows a majority, or any other number of its members less than the whole, to divert the funds of the corporation to any other purpose than the one to which every member of the corporation has legally agreed that they may be devoted; nor to take the stock of one member and give it to another; nor to distribute the dividends among the stockholders otherwise than to each one the proportion which he has agreed to accept, and all the others have agreed that he shall receive. Nor does any banking corporation allow a majority to impose taxes upon the members for the payment of the corporate expenses, except in such proportions as every member has consented that they may be imposed. All these questions, involving the rights of the members as against each other, are fixed by the articles of the association, that is, by the agreement to which every member has personally assented.

What is also specially to be noticed, and what constitutes a vital difference between the banking corporation and the political corporation, or government, is, that in case of controversy among the members of the banking corporation, as to the rights of any member, the question is determined, not by any number, either majority, or minority, of the corporation itself, but by persons out of the corporation; by twelve men acting as jurors, or by other tribunals of justice, of which no member of the corporation is allowed to be a part. But in the case of the political corporation, controversies among the parties to it, as to the rights of individual members, must of necessity be settled by members of the corporation itself, because there are no persons out of the corporation to whom the question can be referred.

Since, then, all questions as to the rights of the members of the political corporation, must be determined by members of the corporation itself, the trial by jury says that no man’s rights, neither his right to his life, his liberty, nor his property, shall be determined by any such standard as the mere will and pleasure of majorities; but only by the unanimous verdict of a tribunal fairly representing the whole people, that is, a tribunal of twelve men, taken at random from the whole body, and ascertained to be as impartial as the nature of the case will admit, and sworn to the observance of justice. Such is the difference in the two kinds of corporations; and the custom of managing by majorities the mere discretionary matters of business corporations, (the majority having no power to determine the rights of any member,) furnishes no analogy to the practice, adopted by political corporations, of disposing of all the rightsof their members by the arbitrary will of majorities.

But further. The doctrine that the majority have a right to rule, proceeds upon the principle that minorities have no rights in the government; for certainly the minority cannot be said to have any rights in a government, so long as the majority alone determine what their rights shall be. They hold everything, or nothing, as the case may be, at the mere will of the majority.

It is indispensable to a "free government," (in the political sense of that term,) that the minority, the weaker party, have a veto upon the acts of the majority. Political liberty is liberty for the weaker party in a nation. It is only the weaker party that lose their liberties, when a government becomes oppressive. The stronger party, in all governments, are free by virtue of their superior strength. They never oppress themselves.

Legislation is the work of this stronger party; and if, in addition to the sole power of legislating, they have the sole power of determining what legislation shall be enforced, they have all power in their hands, and the weaker party are the subjects of an absolute government.

Unless the weaker party have a veto, either upon the making, or the enforcement of laws, they have no power whatever in the government, and can of course have no liberties except such as the stronger party, in their arbitrary discretion, see fit to permit them to enjoy.

In England and the United States, the trial by jury is the only institution that gives the weaker party any veto upon the power of the stronger. Consequently it is the only institution, that gives them any effective voice in the government, or any guaranty against oppression.

Suffrage, however free, is of no avail for this purpose; because the suffrage of the minority is overborne by the suffrage of the majority, and is thus rendered powerless for purposes of legislation. The responsibility of officers can be made of no avail, because they are responsible only to the majority. The minority, therefore, are wholly without rights in the government, wholly at the mercy of the majority, unless, through the trial by jury, they have a veto upon such legislation as they think unjust.

Government is established for the protection of the weak against the strong. This is the principal, if not the sole, motive for the establishment of all legitimate government. Laws, that are sufficient for the protection of the weaker party, are of course sufficient for the protection of the stronger party; because the strong can certainly need no more protection than the weak. It is, therefore, right that the weaker party should be represented in the tribunal which is finally to determine what legislation may be enforced; and that no legislation shall be enforced against their consent. They being presumed to be competent judges of what kind of legislation makes for their safety, and what for their injury, it must be presumed that any legislation, which they object to enforcing, tends to their oppression, and not to their security.

There is still another reason why the weaker party, or the minority, should have a veto upon all legislation which they disapprove. That reason is, that that is the only means by which the government can be kept within the limits of the contract, compact, or constitution, by which the whole people agree to establish government. If the majority were allowed to interpret the compact for themselves, and enforce it according to their own interpretation, they would, of course, make it authorize them to do whatever they wish to do.

The theory of free government is that it is formed by the voluntary contract of the people individually with each other. This is the theory, (although it is not, as it ought to be, the fact,) in all the governments in the United States, as also in the government of England. The theory assumes that each man, who is a party to the government, and contributes to its support, has individually and freely consented to it. Otherwise the government would have no right to tax him for its support, for taxation without consent is robbery. This theory, then, necessarily supposes that this government, which is formed by the free consent of all, has no powers except such as all the parties to it have individually agreed that it shall have: and especially that it has no power to pass any laws, except such as all the parties have agreed that it may pass.

This theory supposes that there may be certain laws that will be beneficial to all, so beneficial that all consent to be taxed for their maintenance. For the maintenance of these specific laws, in which all are interested, all associate. And they associate for the maintenance of those laws only, in which allare interested. It would be absurd to suppose that all would associate, and consent to be taxed, for purposes which were beneficial only to a part; and especially for purposes that were injurious to any. A government of the whole, therefore, can have no powers except such as all the parties consent that it may have. It can do nothing except what all have consented that it may do. And if any portion of the people, no matter how large their number, if it be less than the whole, desire a government for any purposes other than those that are common to all, and desired by all, they must form a separate association for those purposes. They have no right, by perverting this government of the whole, to the accomplishment of purposes desired only by a part, to compel any one to contribute to purposes that are either useless or injurious to himself.

Such being the principles on which the government is formed, the question arises, how shall this government, where formed, be kept within the limits of the contract by which it was established? How shall this government, instituted by the whole people, agreed to by the whole people, supported by the contributions of the whole people, be confined to the accomplishment of those purposes alone, which the whole people desire? How shall it be preserved from degeneration into a mere government for the benefit of a part only of those who established, and who support it? How shall it be prevented from even injuring a part of its own members, for the aggrandizement of the rest? Its laws must be, (or at least now are,) passed, and most of its other acts performed, by mere agents, agents chosen by a part of the people, and not by the whole. How can these agents be restrained from seeking their own interests, and the interests of those who elected them, at the expense of the rights of the remainder of the people, by the passage and enforcement of laws that shall be partial, unequal, and unjust in their operation? That is the great question. And the trial by jury answers it. And how does the trial by jury answer it? It answers it, as has already been shown throughout this volume, by saying that these mere agents and attorneys, who are chosen by a part only of the people, and are liable to be influenced by partial and unequal purposes, shall not have unlimited authority in the enactment and enforcement of laws; that they shall not exercise all the functions of government. It says that they shall never exercise that ultimate power of compelling obedience to the laws by punishing for disobedience, or of executing the laws against the person or property of any man, without first getting the consent of the people, through a tribunal that may fairly be presumed to represent the whole, or substantially the whole, people. It says that if the power to make laws, and the power also to enforce them, were committed to these agents, they would have all power, would be absolute masters of the people, and could deprive them of their rights at pleasure. It says, therefore, that the people themselves will hold a veto upon the enforcement of any and every law, which these agents may enact, and that whenever the occasion arises for them to give or withhold their consent, inasmuch as the whole people cannot assemble, or devote the time and attention necessary to the investigation of each case, twelve of their number shall be taken by lot, or otherwise at random, from the whole body; that they shall not be chosen by majorities, (the same majorities that elected the agents who enacted the laws to be put in issue,) nor by any interested or suspected party; that they shall not be appointed by, or be in any way dependent upon, those who enacted the law; that their opinions, whether for or against the law that is in issue, shall not be inquired of beforehand; and that if these twelve men give their consent to the enforcement of the law, their consent shall stand for the consent of the whole.

This is the mode, which the trial by jury provides, for keeping the government within the limits designed by the whole people, who have associated for its establishment. And it is the only mode, provided either by the English or American constitutions, for the accomplishment of that object.

But it will, perhaps, be said that if the minority can defeat the will of the majority, then the minority rule the majority. But this is not true in any unjust sense. The minority enact no laws of their own. They simply refuse their assent to such laws of the majority as they do not approve. The minority assume no authority over the majority; they simply defend themselves. They do not interfere with the right of the majority to seek their own happiness in their own way, so long as they (the majority) do not interfere with the minority. They claim simply not to be oppressed, and not to be compelled to assist in doing anything which they do not approve. They say to the majority, " We will unite with you, if you desire it, for the accomplishment of all those purposes, in which we have a common interest with you. You can certainly expect us to do nothing more. If you do not choose to associate with us on those terms, there must be two separate associations. You must associate for the accomplishment of your purposes; we for the accomplishment of ours."

In this case, the minority assume no authority over the majority; they simply refuse to surrender their own liberties into the hands of the majority. They propose a union; but decline submission. The majority are still at liberty to refuse the connection, and to seek their own happiness in their own way, except that they cannot be gratified in their desire to become absolute masters of the minority.

But, it may be asked, how can the minority be trusted to enforce even such legislation as is equal and just? The answer is, that they are as reliable for that purpose as are the majority; they are as much presumed to have associated, and are as likely to have associated, for that object, as are the majority; and they have as much interest in such legislation as have the majority. They have even more interest in it; for, being the weaker party, they must rely on it for their security, having no other security on which they can rely. Hence their consent to the establishment of government, and to the taxation required for its support, is presumed, (although it ought not to be presumed,) without any express consent being given. This presumption of their consent to be taxed for the maintenance of laws, would be absurd, if they could not themselves be trusted to act in good faith in enforcing those laws. And hence they cannot be presumed to have consented to be taxed for the maintenance of any laws, except such as they are themselves ready to aid in enforcing. It is therefore unjust to tax them, unless they are eligible to seats in a jury, with power to judge of the justice of the laws. Taxing them for the support of the laws, on the assumption that they are in favor of the laws, and at the same time refusing them the right, as jurors, to judge of the justice of the laws, on the assumption that they are opposed to the laws, are flat contradictions.

But, it will be asked, what motive have the majority, when they have all power in their own hands, to submit their will to the veto of the minority?

One answer is, that they have the motive of justice. It would be unjust to compel the minority to contribute, by taxation, to the support of any laws which they did not approve.

Another answer is, that if the stronger party wish to use their power only for purposes of justice, they have no occasion to fear the veto of the weaker party; for the latter have as strong motives for the maintenance of just government, as have the former.

Another answer is, that if the stronger party use their power unjustly, they will hold it by an uncertain tenure, especially in a community where knowledge is diffused; for knowledge will enable the weaker party to make itself in time the stronger party. It also enables the weaker party, even while it remains the weaker party, perpetually to annoy, alarm, and injure their oppressors. Unjust power, or rather power that is grossly unjust, and that is known to be so by the minority, can be sustained only at the expense of standing armies, and all the other machinery of force; for the oppressed party are always ready to risk their lives for purposes of vengeance, and the acquisition of their rights, whenever there is any tolerable chance of success. Peace, safety, and quiet for all, can be enjoyed only under laws that obtain the consent of all. Hence tyrants frequently yield to the demands of justice from those weaker than themselves, as a means of buying peace and safety.

Still another answer is, that those who are in the majority on one law, will be in the minority on another. All, therefore, need the benefit of the veto, at some time or other, to protect themselves from injustice.

That the limits, within which legislation would, by this process, be confined, would be exceedingly narrow, in comparison with those it at present occupies, there can be no doubt. All monopolies, all special privileges, all sumptuary laws, all restraints upon any traffic, bargain, or contract, that was naturally lawful, [1] all restraints upon men’s natural rights, the whole catalogue of mala prohibita, and all taxation to which the taxed parties had not individually, severally, and freely consented, would be at an end; because all such legislation implies a violation of the rights of a greater or less minority. This minority would disregard, trample upon, or resist, the execution of such legislation, and then throw themselves upon a jury of the whole people for justification and protection. In this way all legislation would be nullified, except the legislation of that general nature which impartially protected the rights, and subserved the interests, of all. The only legislation that could be sustained, would probably be such as tended directly to the maintenance of justice and liberty; such, for example, as should contribute to the enforcement of contracts, the protection of property, and the prevention and punishment of acts intrinsically criminal. In short, government in practice would be brought to the necessity of a strict adherence to natural law, and natural justice, instead of being, as it now is, a great battle, in which avarice and ambition are constantly fighting for and obtaining advantages over the natural rights of mankind.

[1] Such as restraints upon banking, upon the rates of interest, upon traffic with foreigners, ., &c;.


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Chicago: Lysander Spooner, "Chapter XI. Authority of Magna Carta," Essay on the Trial by Jury in Essay on the Trial by Jury Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Spooner, Lysander. "Chapter XI. Authority of Magna Carta." Essay on the Trial by Jury, in Essay on the Trial by Jury, Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Spooner, L, 'Chapter XI. Authority of Magna Carta' in Essay on the Trial by Jury. cited in , Essay on the Trial by Jury. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from