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Of the Nature of Laws in General (abridged)
 By Sir William Blackstone


[Blackstone, Sir William. "Of the Nature of Laws in General." In Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1893. Volume 1, Introduction, Section II. The Online Library of Liberty. The Liberty Fund. Used with permission of the Liberty Fund.]


Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action; and is applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action, whether animate, or inanimate, rational or irrational. Thus we say, the laws of motion, of gravitation, of optics, or mechanics, as well as the laws of nature and of nations. And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.

Thus when the supreme being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be. When he put that matter into mo­tion, he established certain laws of motion, to which all move­able bodies must conform. And, to descend from the greatest operations to the smallest, when a workman forms a clock, or other piece of mechanism, he establishes at his own pleasure cer­tain arbitrary laws for its direction; as that the hand shall describe a given space in a given time; to which law as long as the work conforms, so long it continues in perfection, and answers the end of its formation.

If we farther advance, from mere inactive matter to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws; more numerous indeed, but equally fixed and invariable. The whole progress of plants, from the seed to the root, and from thence to the seed again — the method of animal nutrition, digestion, secretion, and all other branches of vital economy; — are not left to chance, or the will of the creature itself, but are perform­ed in a wondrous involuntary manner, and guided by unerring rules laid down by the great creator.

This then is the general signification of law, a rule of ac­tion dictated by some superior being; and in those creatures that have neither the power to think, nor to will, such laws must be invariably obeyed, so long as the creature itself subsists, for its existence depends on that obedience. But laws, in their more confined sense, and in which it is our present business to consider them, denote the rules, not of action in general, but of human action or conduct: that is, the precepts by which man, the noblest of all sublunary beings, a creature endowed with both reason and freewill, is commanded to make use of those faculties in the general regulation of his behavior.

Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. A being, independent of any other, has no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself; but a state of dependence will in­evitably oblige the inferior to take the will of him, on whom, he depends, as the rule of his conduct: not indeed in every particular, but in all those points wherein his dependence consists. This principle therefore has more or less extent and effect, in proportion as the superiority of the one and the dependence of the other is greater or less, absolute or limited. And consequently as man depends absolutely upon his maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker's will.

This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down cer­tain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws.

Considering the creator only as a being of infinite power, he was able unquestionably to have prescribed whatever laws he pleased to his creature, man, however unjust or severe. But as he is also a being of infinite wisdom, he has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of justice, that existed in the nature of things antecedent to any positive precept. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone its due; to which three general precepts Justinian[1] has reduced the whole doctrine of law.

But if the discovery of these first principles of the law of nature depended only upon the due exertion of right reason, and could not otherwise be attained than by a chain of metaphysical disquisitions, mankind would have wanted some inducement to have quickened their inquiries, and the greater part of the world would have rested content in mental indolence, and ignorance it's [sic] inseparable companion. As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness,  he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to enquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately con­nected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not per­plexed the law of nature with a multitude, of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. For the several articles into which it is branched in our systems, amount to no more than demonstrating, that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destructive of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.

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.

But in order to apply this to the particular exigencies of each individual, it is still necessary to have recourse to reason; whose office it is to discover, as was before observed, what the law of nature directs in every circumstance of life; by considering, what method will tend the most effectually to our own substantial happiness. And if our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or in­temperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.

This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doc­trines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man's felicity. But we are not from thence to conclude that the knowledge of these truths was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state; since we find that, until they were revealed, they were hid from the wisdom of ages. As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the same original with those of the law of nature, so their intrinsic obligation is of equal strength and perpetuity. Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is (humanly speaking) of infinitely more authority than what we generally call the natural law. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these. There is, it is true, a great number of indifferent points, in which both the divine law and the natural leave a man at his own liberty; but which are found necessary for the benefit of society to be restrained within certain limits. And herein it is that human laws have their greatest force and efficacy for, with regard to such points as are not indifferent, human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to, the former. To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arises the true unlawfulness of this crime. Those human laws, that annex a punishment to it, do not at all increase its moral guilt, or super-add any fresh obligation in foro conscientiae 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. But with re­gard to matters that are in themselves indifferent, and are not com­manded or forbidden by those superior laws; such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries; here the inferior legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose, and to make that action unlawful which before was not so.

If man were to live in a state of nature, unconnected with other individuals, there would be no occasion for any other laws, than the law of nature, and the law of God. Neither could any other law possibly exist for a law always supposes some superior who is to make it; and in a state of nature we are all equal, without any other superior but him who is the author of our be­ing. But man was formed for society; and, as is demonstrated by the writers on this subject[2], is neither capable of living alone, nor indeed has the courage to do it. However, as it is impossible for the whole race of mankind to be united in one great society, they must necessarily divide into many; and form separate states, commonwealths, and nations; entirely independent of each other, and yet liable to a mutual intercourse. Hence arises a third kind of law to regulate this mutual intercourse, called “the law of nations;” which, as none of these states will acknowledge a superiority in the other, cannot be dictated by either; but 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 being the only one to which both communities are equally subject: and therefore the civil law very justly observes, that quod naturalis ratio inter omnes homines constituit, vocatur jus gentium.[3]

Thus much I thought it necessary to premise concerning the law of nature, the revealed law, and the law of nations, before I proceeded to treat more fully of the principal subject of this section, municipal or civil law; that is, the rule by which particular districts, communities, or nations are governed; being thus defined by Justinian, “jus ci5vile est quod quisque sibi populus constituit.”[4] I call it municipal law, in compliance with common speech; for, though strictly that expression denotes the particular customs of one single municipium or free town, yet it may with sufficient propriety be applied to any one state or nation, which is governed by the same laws and customs.

Municipal law, thus understood, is properly defined to be “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in “a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong.” Let us endeavour to explain its several properties, as they arise out of this definition.

And, first, it is a rule; not a transient sudden order from a superior to or concerning a particular person; but something permanent, uniform, and universal. Therefore a particular act of the legislature to confiscate the goods of Titius, or to attaint him of high treason, does not enter into the idea of a municipal law: for the operation of this act is spent upon Titius only, and has no relation to the community in general; it is rather a sentence than a law. But an act to declare that the crime of which Titius is accused shall be deemed high treason; this has permanency, uniformity, and universality, and therefore is properly a rule. It is also called a rule, to distinguish it from advice or counsel, which we are at liberty to follow or not, as we see proper; and to judge upon the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the thing advised. Whereas our obedience to the law depends not upon our approbation, but upon the maker's will. Counsel is only matter of persuasion, law is matter of injunction; counsel acts only upon the willing, law upon the unwilling also.

It is also called a rule, to distinguish it from a compact or agreement; for a compact is a promise proceeding from us, law a command directed to us. The language of a compact is, “I will, or will not, do this;” that of a law is, “thou shalt, or shalt not, do it.” It is true there is an obligation which a compact carries with it, equal in point of conscience to that of a law; but then the original of the obligation is different. In compacts, we ourselves determine and promise what shall be done, before we are obliged to do it; in laws, we are obliged to act, without ourselves determining or promising anything at all. Upon these accounts law is defined to be “a rule.”

Municipal law is also “a rule of civil conduct.” This distinguishes municipal law from the natural, or revealed; the former of which is the rule of moral conduct, and the latter not only the rule of moral conduct, but also the rule of faith. These regard man as a creature, and point out his duty to God, to himself, and to his neighbor, considered in the light of an individual. But municipal or civil law regards him also as a citizen, and bound to other duties towards him neighbor, than those of mere nature and religion: duties, which he has engaged in by enjoying the benefits of the common union; and which amount to no more, than that he do contribute, on his part, to the subsistence and peace of the society.

It is likewise “a rule prescribed.” Because a bare resolution, confined in the breast of the legislator, without manifesting itself by some external sign, can never be properly a law. It is requisite that this resolution be notified to the people who are to obey it. But the manner in which this notification is to be made, is matter of very great indifference. It may be notified by universal tradition and long practice, which supposes a previous publication, and is the case of the common law of England. It may be notified, viva voce, by officers appointed for that purpose, as is done with regard to proclamations, and such acts of parliament as are appointed to be publicly read in churches and other assemblies. It may lastly be notified by writing, printing, or the like; which is the general course taken with all our acts of parliament. Yet, whatever way is made use of, it is incumbent on the promulgators to do it in the soft public and perspicuous manner; not like Caligula, who (according to Dio Cassius) wrote his laws in a very small character, and hung them up upon high pillars, the more effectually to ensnare the people. There is still a more unreasonable method than this, which is called making of laws ex post facto; when after an action is committed, the legislator then for the first time declares it to have been a crime, and inflicts a punishment upon the person who has committed it; here it is impossible that the party could foresee that an action, innocent when it was done, should be afterwards converted to guilt by a subsequent law; he had therefore no cause to abstain from it; and all punishment for not abstaining must of consequence be cruel and unjust[5]. All laws should be therefore made to commence in futuro, and be notified before their commencement; which is implied in the term “prescribed.” But when this rule is in the usual manner notified, or prescribed, it is then the subject's business to be thoroughly acquainted therewith; for if ignorance, of what he might know, were admitted as a legitimate excuse, the laws would be of no effect, but might always be eluded with impunity.

But farther: municipal law is “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state.” For legislature, as was before observed, is the greatest act of superiority that can be exercised by one being over another. Wherefore it is requisite to the very essence of a law, that it be made by the supreme power. Sovereignty and legislature are indeed convertible terms; one cannot subsist without the other.

This will naturally lead us into a short enquiry concerning the nature of society and civil government; and the natural, inherent right that belongs to the sovereignty of a state, wherever that sovereignty be lodged, of making and enforcing laws.

The only true and natural foundations of society are the wants and the fears individuals. Not that we can believe, with some theoretical writers, that there ever was a time when there was no such thing as society; and that, from the impulse of reason, and through a sense of their wants and weaknesses, individuals met together in a large plain, entered into an original contract, and chose the tallest man present to be their governor. This notion, of an actually existing unconnected state of nature, is too wild to be seriously admitted; and besides it is plainly contradictory to the revealed accounts of the primitive origin of mankind, and their preservation two thousand years afterwards; both which were effected by the means of single families. These formed the first society, among themselves; which every day extended its limits, and when it grew too large to subsist with convenience in that pastoral state, wherein the patriarchs appear to have lived, it necessarily subdivided itself by various migrations into more. Afterwards, as agriculture increased, which employs and can maintain a much greater number of hands, migrations became less frequent; and various tribes, which had formerly separated, reunited again; sometimes by compulsion and conquest, sometimes by accident and sometimes perhaps by compact. But though society had not its formal beginning from any convention of individuals, actuated by their wants and their fears; yet it is the sense of their weakness and imperfection that keeps mankind together; that demonstrates the necessity of this union; and that therefore is the solid and natural foundation, as well as the cement, of society. And this is what we mean by the original contract of society; which, though perhaps in no instance it has ever been formally expressed at the first institution of a state, yet in nature and reason must always be understood and implied, in the very act of associating together: namely, that the whole should protect all its parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole; or, in other words, that the community should guards the rights of each individual member, and that (in return for this protection) each individual should submit to the laws of the community; without which submission of all it was impossible that protection could be certainly extended to any.

For when society is once formed, government results of course, as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order. Unless some superior were constituted, whose commands and decisions all the members are bound to obey, they would still remain as in a state of nature, without any judge upon earth to define their several rights, and redress their several wrongs. But, as all the members of society are naturally equal, it may be asked, in whose hands are the reins of government to be entrusted? To this the general answer is easy; but the application of it to particular cases has occasioned one half of those mischiefs which are apt to proceed from misguided political zeal. In general, all mankind will agree that government should be reposed in such persons, in whom those qualities are most likely to be found, the perfection of which are among the attributes of him who is emphatically styled the supreme being; the three grand requisites, I mean, of wisdom, of goodness, and of power: wisdom, to discern the real interest of the community; goodness, to endeavour always to pursue that real interest; and strength, or power, to carry this knowledge and intention into action. These are the natural foundations of sovereignty, and these are the requisites that ought to be found in every well constituted frame of government.

How the several forms of government we now see in the world at first actually began, is matter of great uncertainty, and has occasioned infinite disputes. It is not my business or intention to enter into any of them. However they began, or by what right so ever they subsist, there is and must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty, reside. And this authority is placed in those hands, wherein (according to the opinion of the founders of such respective states, either expressly given, or collected from their tacit approbation) the qualities requisite for supremacy, wisdom, goodness, and power, are the most likely to be found.

The political writers of antiquity will not allow more than three regular forms of government; the first, when the sovereign power is lodged in an aggregate assembly consisting of all the members of a community, which is called a democracy; the second, when it is lodged in a council, composed of select members, and then it is styled an aristocracy; the last, when it is entrusted in the hands of a single person, and then it takes the name of a monarchy. All other species of government, they say, are either corruptions of, or reducible to, these three.

. . .

From what has been advanced, the truth of the former branch of our definition, is (I trust) sufficiently evident; that “municipal law is a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state.” I proceed now to the latter branch of it; that it is a rule so prescribed, “commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong.”

Now in order to do this completely, it is first of all necessary that the boundaries of right and wrong be established and ascertained by law. And when this is once done, it will follow of course that it is likewise the business of the law, considered as a rule of civil conduct, to enforce these rights and to restrain or redress these wrongs. It remains therefore only to consider in what manner the law is said to ascertain the boundaries of rights and wrong; and the methods which it takes to command the one and prohibit the other.

For this purpose every law may be said to consist of several parts: one, declaratory; whereby the rights to be observed, and the wrongs to be eschewed, are clearly defined and laid down: another, directory; whereby the subject is instructed and enjoined to observe those rights, and to abstain from the commission of those wrongs: a third, remedial; whereby a method is pointed out to recover a man's private rights, or redress his private wrongs: to which may be added a fourth, usually termed the sanction, or indicatory branch of the law; whereby it is signified what evil or penalty shall be incurred by such as commit any public wrongs, and transgress or neglect their duty.

With regard to the first of these, the declaratory part of the municipal law, this depends not so much upon the law of revelation or of nature, as upon the wisdom and will of the legislator. This doctrine, which before was slightly touched, deserves a more particular explication. 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. Neither do divine or natural duties (such as, for instance, the worship of God, the maintenance of children, and the like) receive any stronger sanction from being also declared to be duties by the law of the land. The case is the same as to crimes and misdemeanors, that are forbidden by the superior laws, and therefore styled mala in se, such as murder, theft, and perjury; which contract no additional turpitude from being declared unlawful by the inferior legislature. For that legislature in all these cases acts only, as was before observed, in subordination to the great lawgiver, transcribing and publishing his precepts. So that, upon the whole, the declaratory part of the municipal law has no force or operation at all, with regard to actions that are naturally and intrinsically right or wrong.

But with regard to things in themselves indifferent, the case is entirely altered. These become either right or wrong, just or unjust, duties or misdemeanors, according as the municipal legislator sees proper, for promoting the welfare of the society, and more effectually carrying on the purposes of civil life. Thus our own common law has declared, that the goods of the wife do instantly upon marriage become the property and right of the husband; and our statute law declared all monopolies a public offence: yet that right, and this offence, have no foundation in nature; but are merely created by the law, for the purposes of civil society. And sometimes, where the thing itself has its rise from the law of nature, the particular circumstances and mode of doing it become right or wrong, as the laws of the land shall direct. Thus, for instance, in civil duties; obedience to superiors is the doctrine of revealed as well as natural religion: but who those superiors shall be, and in what circumstances, or to what degrees they shall be obeyed, is the province of human laws to determine. And so, as to injuries or crimes, it must be left to our own legislature to decide, in what cases the seizing another's cattle shall amount to the crime of robbery; and where it shall be a justifiable action, as when a landlord takes them by way of distress for rent.

Thus much for the declaratory part of the municipal law: and the directory stands much upon the same footing; for this virtually includes the former, the declaration being usually collected from the direction. The law that says, “thou shalt not steal,” implies a declaration that stealing is a crime. And we have seen that, in things naturally indifferent, the very essence of right and wrong depends upon the direction of the laws to do or to omit it.

The remedial part of a law is so necessary a consequence of the former two, that laws must be very vague and imperfect without it. For in vain would rights be declared, in vain directed to be observed, if there were no method of recovering and asserting those rights, when wrongfully withheld or invaded. This is what we mean properly, when we speak of the protection of the law. . . .

With regard to the sanction of laws, or the evil that may attend the breach of public duties; it is observed, that human legislators have for the most part chosen to make the sanction of their laws rather vindicatory than remuneratory, or to consist rather in punishments, than in actual particular rewards. Because, in the first place, the quiet enjoyment and protection of all our civil rights and liberties, which are the sure and general consequence of obedience to the municipal law, are in themselves the best and most valuable of all rewards. Because also, were the exercise of every virtue to be enforced by the proposal of particular rewards, it were impossible for any state to furnish stock enough for so profuse a bounty. And farther, because the dread of evil is a much more forcible principle of human actions than the prospect of good.[6]. . .

Of all the parts of a law the most effectual is the vindicatory. For it is but lost labour to say, “do this, or avoid that,” unless we also declare, “this shall be the consequence of your noncompliance.” We must therefore observe, that the main strength and force of a law consists in the penalty annexed to it. Herein is to be found the principal obligation of human laws.

Legislators and their laws are said to compel and oblige; not that by any natural violence they so constrain a man, as to render it impossible for him to act otherwise than as they direct, which is the strict sense of obligation: but because, by declaring and exhibiting a penalty against offenders, they bring it to pass that no man can easily choose to transgress the law; since, by reason of the impending correction, compliance is in a high degree preferable to disobedience. And, even where rewards are proposed as well as punishments threatened, the obligation of the law seems chiefly to consist in the penalty: for rewards, in their nature, can only persuade and allure; nothing is compulsory but punishment.

It is held, it is true, and very justly, by the principal of our ethical writers, that human laws are binding upon men’s consciences. But if that were the only, or most forcible obligation, the good only would regard the laws, and the bad would set them at defiance. And, true as this principle is, it must still be understood with some restriction. It holds, I apprehend, as to rights; and that, when the law has determined the field to belong to Titius, it is matter of conscience no longer to withhold or to invade it. So also in regard to natural duties, and such offences as are mala in se: here we are bound in conscience, because we are bound by superior laws, before those human laws were in being, to perform the one and abstain from the other. But in relation to those laws which enjoin only positive duties, and forbid only such things as are not mala in se but mala prohibita merely, annexing a penalty to noncompliance, here I apprehend conscience is no farther concerned, than by directing a submission to the penalty, in case of our breach of those laws: for otherwise the multitude of penal laws in a state would not only be looked upon as an impolitic, but would also be a very wicked thing; if every such law were a snare for the conscience of the subject. But in these cases the alternative is offered to every man; “either abstain from this, or submit to such a penalty;” and his conscience will be clear, whichever side of the alternative he thinks proper to embrace. Thus, by the statutes for preserving the game, a penalty is denounced against every unqualified person that kills a hare. Now this prohibitory law does not make the transgression a moral offence: the only obligation in conscience is to submit to the penalty if levied.

I have now gone through the definition laid down of a municipal law; and have shown that it is “a rule…of civil conduct…prescribed…by the supreme power in state…commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong:” in the explication of which I have endeavoured to interweave a few useful principles, concerning the nature of civil government, and the obligation of human laws. . . .


[1] Juris praecepta sunt haec, honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere. [The precepts of the law are these, to live honestly, not to injure another, and to give to everyone his due.] Justinian, Institutes, Book I, I.3.

[2] Puffendorf, The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature, Book 2, chaper 1, compared with Barbeyrac’s commentary.

[3] “That which natural reason has established among all men, . . . is called the law of nations.” Justinian, Digests (Pandects), Book I, Tit. 1, no. 9, quoting Gaius, Institutes, Book I. Compare Justinian, Institutes, Book I, II.1

[4] “The civil law is that which every nation has established for its own government.” Justinian, Institutes, Book I, II.1.

[5] Such laws among the Romans were denominated privilegia, or private laws, of which Cicero (In his Oratio pro domo, section 43; compare Cicero, De Legibus, Book 3, XIX[44]) thus speaks: “Vetant leges sacratae vetant duodecim tabulae, leges privates hominibus inogari; id enim est privelegium. Nemo unquam tulit, nihil est crudelius, nihil perniciosius, nihil quod minus haec civitas serre possit.” [“The sacred laws forbid, the twelve tables forbid, that the interest of private individuals should be affected by special laws; for that is a privilege. There has never been an instance of it: nothing could be more cruel, nothing more injurious, nothing to which this nation could be less tolerable.”]

[6] Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, book 2, chapter 21 ("Of Power"), sections 31–45.


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Lectures on Law, Chapters 1–4, 7, 9


By James Wilson

[James Wilson. "Lectures on Law." Collected Works of James Wilson. Volume 1. Edited by Mark David Hall and Kermit L. Hall. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Liberty Fund. 2007. Chapters 1–4, 7, 9. Online Library of Liberty. Used with permission of the Liberty Fund.]


Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter II: Of the General Principles of Law and Obligation
Chapter III: Of the Law of Nature
Chapter IV: Of the Law of Nations
Chapter V: Of Municipal Law [OMITTED]
Chapter VI: Of Man, As an Individual [OMITTED]
Chapter VII: Of Man, As a Member of Society
Chapter VIII: Of Man, As a Member of a Confederation [OMITTED]
Chapter IX: Of Man, As a Member of the Great Commonwealth of Nations (Excerpt)
Chapter X: Of Government [OMITTED]
Chapter XI: Comparison of the Constitution of the United States with That of Great Britain [OMITTED]





Introductory Lecture. Of the Study of the Law in the United States.

. . .

Were I called upon for my reasons why I deem so highly of the American character, I would assign them in a very few words—That character has been eminently distinguished by the love of liberty, and the love of law.

. . .

. . . But law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge. The same course of study, properly directed, will lead us to the knowledge of both. Indeed, neither of them can be known, because neither of them can exist, without the other. Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness. In denominating, therefore, that science, by which the knowledge of both is acquired, it is unnecessary to preserve, in terms, the distinction between them. That science may be named, as it has been named, the science of law.

The science of law should, in some measure, and in some degree, be the study of every free citizen, and of every free man. Every free citizen and every free man has duties to perform and rights to claim. Unless, in some measure, and in some degree, he knows those duties and those rights, he can never act a just and an independent part.

. . .


. . .

I begin with the general principles of law and obligation. These I shall investigate fully and minutely; because they are the basis of every legal system; and because they have been much misrepresented, or much misunderstood.

Next, I shall proceed to give you a concise and very general view of the law of nature, of the law of nations, and of municipal law.

I shall then consider man, who is the subject of all, and is the author as well as the subject of the last, and part of the second of these species of law. This great title of my plan, dignified and interesting as it is, must be treated in a very cursory manner in this course. I will, however, select some of the great truths which seem best adapted to a system of law. I will view man as an individual, as a member of society, as a member of a confederation, and as a part of the great commonwealth of nations.

. . .


Of the General Principles of Law and Obligation

Order, proportion, and fitness pervade the universe. Around us, we see; within us, we feel; above us, we admire a rule, from which a deviation cannot, or should not, or will not be made. On the inanimate part of the creation, are impressed the continued energies of motion and of attraction, and other energies, varied and yet uniform, all designated and ascertained. Animated nature is under a government suited to every genus, to every species, and to every individual, of which it consists. Man, the nexus utriusque mundi [“the joining point of the two worlds,” that is, of the material and the immaterial worlds], composed of a body and a soul, possessed of faculties intellectual and moral, finds or makes a system of regulations, by which his various and important nature, in every period of his existence, and in every situation, in which he can be placed, may be preserved, improved, and perfected. The celestial as well as the terrestrial world knows its exalted but prescribed course. This angels and the spirits of the just, made perfect, do “clearly behold, and without any swerving observe.” Let humble reverence attend us as we proceed. The great and incomprehensible Author, and Preserver, and Ruler of all things—he himself works not without an eternal decree.

Such—and so universal is law. “Her seat,” to use the sublime language of the excellent Hooker, “is the bosom of God; her voice, the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage; the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power. Angels and men, creatures of every condition, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy.” Before we descend to the consideration of the several kinds and parts of this science, so dignified and so diversified, it will be proper, and it will be useful, to contemplate it in one general and comprehensive view; and to select some of its leading and luminous properties, which will serve to guide and enlighten us in that long and arduous journey, which we now undertake.

. . .

. . . I hesitate, at present, to give a definition of law. My hesitation is increased by the fate of the far greatest number of those, who have hitherto attempted it. Many, as it is natural to suppose, and labored have been the efforts to infold law within this scientific circle; but little satisfaction—little instruction has been the result. Almost every writer, sensible of the defects, the inaccuracies, or the improprieties of the definitions that have gone before him, has endeavored to supply their place with something, in his own opinion, more proper, more accurate, and more complete. He has been treated by his successors, as his predecessors have been treated by him: and his definition has had only the effect of adding one more to the lengthy languid list. . . .

Some of them, indeed, have a claim to attention: one, in particular, will demand it, for reasons striking and powerful—I mean that given by the Commentator [Sir William Blackstone] on the laws of England.

. . .

“Law,” says he, “in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action.”[1] In its proper signification, a rule is an instrument; by which a [straight] line—the shortest and truest of all—may be drawn from one point to another. In its moral or figurative sense, it denotes a principle or power, that directs a man surely and concisely to attain the end, which he proposes.

Law is called a rule, in order to distinguish it from a sudden, a transient, or a particular order: uniformity, permanency, stability, characterize a law. Again; law is called a rule, to denote that it carries along with it a power and principle of obligation. Concerning the nature and the cause of obligation, much ingenious disputation has been held by philosophers and writers on jurisprudence. . . .

This interesting subject will claim and obtain our attention, next after what we have to say concerning law in general.

When we speak of a rule with regard to human conduct, we imply two things. 1. That we are susceptible of direction. 2. That, in our conduct, we propose an end. The brute creation act not from design. They eat, they drink, they retreat from the inclemencies of the weather, without considering what their actions will ultimately produce. But we have faculties, which enable us to trace the connection between actions and their effects; and our actions are nothing else but the steps which we take, or the means which we employ, to carry into execution the effects which we intend.

Hooker, I think, conveys a fuller and stronger conception of law, when he tells us, that “it assigns unto each thing the kind, that it moderates the force and power, that it appoints the form and measure of working.”[2] Not the direction merely, but the kind also, the energy; and the proportion of actions is suggested in this description.

Some are of opinion, that law should be defined “a rule of acting or not acting;”[3] because actions may be forbidden as well as commanded. But the same excellent writer, whom I have just now cited, gives a very proper answer to this opinion, and shows the addition to be unnecessary, by finely pursuing the metaphor, which we have already mentioned. “We must not suppose that there needeth one rule to know the good, and another to know the evil by. For he that knoweth what is straight, doth even thereby discern what is crooked. Goodness in actions is like unto straightness; wherefore that which is well done, we term right.”[4]

. . .

. . . Law is a rule “prescribed.” A simple resolution, confined within the bosom of the legislator, without being notified, in some fit manner, to those for whose conduct it is to form a rule, can never, with propriety, be termed a law.

There are many ways by which laws may be made sufficiently known. They may be printed and published. Written copies of them may be deposited in publick libraries, or other places, where every one interested may have an opportunity of perusing them. They may be proclaimed in general meetings of the people. The knowledge of them may be disseminated by long and universal practice. “Confirmed custom,” says a writer on Roman jurisprudence, “is deservedly considered as a law. For since written laws bind us for no other reason than because they are received by the judgment of the people; those laws, which the people have approved, without writing, are also justly obligatory on all. For where is the difference, whether the people declare their will by their suffrage, or by their conduct? This kind of law is said to be established by manners.”

Of all yet suggested, the mode for the promulgation of human laws by custom seems the most significant, and the most effectual. It involves in it internal evidence, of the strongest kind, that the law has been introduced by common consent; and that this consent rests upon the most solid basis—experience as well as opinion. This mode of promulgation points to the strongest characteristic of liberty, as well as of law. For a consent thus practically given, must have been given in the freest and most unbiased manner.

. . .

Laws may be promulgated by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us. They are thus known as effectually, as by words or by writing: indeed they are thus known in a manner more noble and exalted. For, in this manner, they may be said to be engraven by God on the hearts of men: in this manner, he is the promulgator as well as the author of natural law. If a simple resolution cannot have the force of a law before it be promulgated; we may certainly hazard the position—that it cannot have the force of a law, before it be made: in other words, that ex post facto instruments, claiming the title and character of laws, are impostors.

. . .

The definition of law in the Commentaries proceeds in this manner. “Law is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.”[5] A superior! Let us make a solemn pause—Can there be no law without a superior? Is it essential to law, that inferiority should be involved in the obligation to obey it? Are these distinctions at the root of all legislation?

There is a law, indeed, which flows from the Supreme of being—a law, more distinguished by the goodness, than by the power of its allgracious Author. But there are laws also that are human; and does it follow, that, in these, a character of superiority is inseparably attached to him, who makes them; and that a character of inferiority is, in the same manner, inseparably attached to him, for whom they are made? What is this superiority? Who is this superior? By whom is he constituted? Whence is his superiority derived? Does it flow from a source that is human? Or does it flow from a source that is divine? From a human source it cannot flow; for no stream issuing from thence can rise higher than the fountain.

If the prince, who makes laws for a people, is superior, in the terms of the definition, to the people, who are to obey; how comes he to be vested with the superiority over them?

If I mistake not, this notion of superiority, which is introduced as an essential part in the definition of a law—for we are told that a law always[6] supposes some superior, who is to make it—this notion of superiority contains the germ of the divine right—a prerogative impiously attempted to be established—of princes, arbitrarily to rule; and of the corresponding obligation—a servitude tyrannically attempted to be imposed—on the people, implicitly to obey. Despotism, by an artful use of “superiority” in politics; and skepticism, by an artful use of “ideas” in metaphysics, have endeavored—and their endeavors have frequently been attended with too much success—to destroy all true liberty and sound philosophy. By their baneful effects, the science of man and the science of government have been poisoned to their very fountains. But those destroyers of others have met, or must meet, with their own destruction.

. . .

. . . [L]et us receive instruction from a well informed and a well experienced master— . . . from the late [King] Frederick of Prussia:

. . .

“Here is the error of the greatest part of princes. They believe that God has expressly, and from a particular attention to their grandeur, their happiness, and their pride, formed their subjects for no other purpose, than to be the ministers and instruments of their unbridled passions. As the principle, from which they set out, is false; the consequences cannot be otherwise than infinitely pernicious. Hence the unregulated passion for false glory—hence the inflamed desire of conquest—hence the oppressions laid upon the people—hence the indolence and dissipation of princes—hence their ambition, their injustice, their inhumanity, their tyranny—hence, in short, all those vices, which degrade the nature of man.

“If they would disrobe themselves of these erroneous opinions; if they would ascend to the true origin of their appointment; they would see, that their elevation and rank, of which they are so jealous, are, indeed, nothing else than the work of the people; they would see, that the myriads of men, placed under their care, have not made themselves the slaves of one single man, with a view to render him more powerful and more formidable; have not submitted themselves to a fellow citizen, in order to become the sport of his fancies, and the martyrs of his caprice; but have chosen, from among themselves, the man, whom they believed to be the most just, that he might govern them; the best, that he might supply the place of a father; the most humane, that he might compassionate and relieve their misfortunes; the most valiant, that he might defend them against their enemies; the most wise, that he might not engage them inconsiderately in ruinous and destructive wars; in one word, the man the most proper to represent the body of the state, and in whom the sovereign power might become a bulwark to justice and to the laws, and not an engine, by the force of which tyranny might be exercised, and crimes might be committed with impunity.

This principle being once established, princes would avoid the two rocks, which, in all ages, have produced the ruin of empires, and distraction in the political world—“ungoverned ambition, and a listless inattention to affairs.”[7] “They would often reflect that they are men, as well as the least of their subjects—that if they are the first judges, the first generals, the first financiers, the first ministers of society; they are so, for the purpose of fulfilling the duties, which those names import. They will reflect, that they are only the first servants of the state, bound to act with the same integrity, the same caution, and the same entire disinterestedness, as if, at every moment, they were to render an account of their administration to the citizens.”[8]

. . .

Now that the will of a superiour is discarded, as an improper principle of obligation in human laws, it is natural to ask—What principle shall be introduced in its place? In its place I introduce—the consent of those whose obedience the law requires. This I conceive to be the true origin of the obligation of human laws. . . .

Of law there are different kinds. All, however, may be arranged in two different classes. 1. Divine. 2. Human laws. The descriptive epithets employed denote, that the former have God, the latter, man, for their author.

The laws of God may be divided into the following species.

I. That law, the book of which we are neither able nor worthy to open. Of this law, the author and observer is God. He is a law to himself, as well as to all created things. This law we may name the “law eternal.”

II. That law, which is made for angels and the spirits of the just made perfect. This may be called the “law celestial.” This law, and the glorious state for which it is adapted, we see, at present, but darkly and as through a glass: but hereafter we shall see even as we are seen; and shall know even as we are known. From the wisdom and the goodness of the adorable Author and Preserver of the universe, we are justified in concluding, that the celestial and perfect state is governed, as all other things are, by his established laws. What those laws are, it is not yet given us to know; but on one truth we may rely with sure and certain confidence—those laws are wise and good. For another truth we have infallible authority—those laws are strictly obeyed: “In heaven his will is done.”

III. That law, by which the irrational and inanimate parts of the creation are governed. The great Creator of all things has established general and fixed rules, according to which all the phenomena of the material universe are produced and regulated. These rules are usually denominated laws of nature. The science, which has those laws for its object, is distinguished by the name of natural philosophy. It is sometimes called, the philosophy of body. Of this science, there are numerous branches.

IV. That law, which God has made for man in his present state; that law, which is communicated to us by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us, and by the sacred oracles, the divine monitors without us. This law has undergone several subdivisions, and has been known by distinct appellations, according to the different ways in which it has been promulgated, and the different objects which it respects.

As promulgated by reason and the moral sense, it has been called natural; as promulgated by the holy scriptures, it has been called revealed law.

As addressed to men, it has been denominated the law of nature; as addressed to political societies, it has been denominated the law of nations.b

But it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same divine source: it is the law of God.

Nature, or, to speak more properly, the Author of nature, has done much for us; but it is his gracious appointment and will, that we should also do much for ourselves. What we do, indeed, must be founded on what he has done; and the deficiencies of our laws must be supplied by the perfections of his. Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine.

Of that law, the following are maxims—that no injury should be done—that a lawful engagement, voluntarily made, should be faithfully fulfilled. We now see the deep and the solid foundations of human law.

It is of two species. 1. That which a political society makes for itself. This is municipal law. 2. That which two or more political societies make for themselves. This is the voluntary law of nations.

In all these species of law—the law eternal—the law celestial—the law natural—the divine law, as it respects men and nations—the human law, as it also respects men and nations—man is deeply and intimately concerned. Of all these species of law, therefore, the knowledge must be most important to man.

Those parts of natural philosophy, which more immediately relate to the human body, are appropriated to the profession of [medicine].

The law eternal, the law celestial, and the law divine, as they are disclosed by that revelation, which has brought life and immortality to light, are the more peculiar objects of the profession of divinity.

The law of nature, the law of nations, and the municipal law form the objects of the profession of law.

From this short, but plain and, I hope, just statement of things, we perceive a principle of connection between all the learned professions; but especially between the two last mentioned. Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other. The divine law, as discovered by reason and the moral sense, forms an essential part of both.

From this statement of things, we also perceive how important and dignified the profession of the law is, when traced to its sources, and viewed in its just extent. The immediate objects of our attention are, the law of nature, the law of nations, and the municipal law of the United States, and of the several states which compose the Union. It will not be forgotten, that the constitutions of the United States, and of the individual states, form a capital part of their municipal law. On the two first of these three great heads, I shall be very general. On the last, especially on those parts of it, which comprehend the constitutions and publick law, I shall be more particular and minute.


Of the Law of Nature

In every period of our existence, in every situation, in which we can be placed, much is to be known, much is to be done, much is to be enjoyed. But all that is to be known, all that is to be done, all that is to be enjoyed, depends upon the proper exertion and direction of our numerous powers. In this immense ocean of intelligence and action, are we left without a compass and without a chart? Is there no pole star, by which we may regulate our course? Has the all-gracious and all-wise Author of our existence formed us for such great and such good ends; and has he left us without a conductor to lead us in the way, by which those ends may be attained? Has he made us capable of observing a rule, and has he furnished us with no rule, which we ought to observe? Let us examine these questions—for they are important ones—with patience and with attention. Our labors will, in all probability, be amply repaid. We shall probably find that, to direct the more important parts of our conduct, the bountiful Governor of the universe has been graciously pleased to provide us with a law; and that, to direct the less important parts of it, he has made us capable of providing a law for ourselves.

That our Creator has a supreme right to prescribe a law for our conduct, and that we are under the most perfect obligation to obey that law, are truths established on the clearest and most solid principles.

In the course of our remarks on that part of Sir William Blackstone’s definition of law, which includes the idea of a superior as essential to it, we remarked, with particular care, that it was only with regard to human laws that we controverted the justness or propriety of that idea. It was incumbent on us to mark this distinction particularly; for with regard to laws which are divine, they truly come from a superior—from Him who is supreme.

Between beings, who, in their nature, powers, and situation, are so perfectly equal, that nothing can be ascribed to one, which is not applicable to the other, there can be neither superiority nor dependence. With regard to such beings, no reason can be assigned, why anyone should assume authority over others, which may not, with equal propriety, be assigned, why each of those others should assume authority over that one. To constitute superiority and dependence, there must be an essential difference of qualities, on which those relations may be founded.[9]

Some allege, that the sole superiority of strength, or, as they express it, an irresistible power, is the true foundation of the right of prescribing laws. “This superiority of power gives,” say they, “a right of reigning, by the impossibility, in which it places others, of resisting him, who has so great an advantage over them.”[10]

Others derive the right of prescribing laws and imposing obligations from superiour excellence of nature. “This,” say they, “not only renders a being independent of those, who are of a nature inferiour to it; but leads us to believe, that the latter were made for the sake of the former.” For a proof of this, they appeal to the constitution of man. “Here,” they tell us, “the soul governs, as being the noblest part.” “On the same foundation,” they add, “the empire of man over the brute creation is built.”[11]

Others, again, say, that “properly speaking, there is only one general source of superiority and obligation. God is our creator: in him we live, and move, and have our being: from him we have received our intellectual and our moral powers: he, as master of his own work, can prescribe to it whatever rules to him shall seem meet. Hence our dependence on our Creator: hence his absolute power over us. This is the true source of all authority.”[12]

With regard to the first hypothesis, it is totally insufficient; nay, it is absolutely false. Because I cannot resist, am I obliged to obey? Because another is possessed of superiour force, am I bound to acknowledge his will as the rule of my conduct? Every obligation supposes motives that influence the conscience and determine the will, so that we should think it wrong not to obey, even if resistance was in our power. But a person, who alleges only the law of the strongest, proposes no motive to influence the conscience, or to determine the will. Superiour force may reside with predominant malevolence. Has force, exerted for the purposes of malevolence, a right to command? Can it impose an obligation to obey? No. Resistance to such force is a right; and, if resistance can prove effectual, it is a duty also. On some occasions, all our efforts may, indeed, be useless; and an attempt to resist would frustrate its own aim: but, on such occasions, the exercise of resistance only is suspended; the right of resistance is not extinguished: we may continue, for a time, under a constraint; but we come not under an obligation: we may suffer all the external effects of superiour force; but we feel not the internal influence of superiour authority?[13]

The second hypothesis has in it something plausible; but, on examination, it will not be found to be accurate. Wherever a being of superiour excellence is found, his excellence, as well as every other truth, ought, on proper occasions, to be acknowledged; we will go farther; it ought, as every thing excellent ought, to be esteemed. But must we go farther still? Is obedience the necessary consequence of honest acknowledgment and just esteem? Here we must make a pause: we must make some inquiries before we go forward. In what manner is this being of superiour excellence connected with us? What are his dispositions with regard to us? By what effects, if by any, will his superiour excellence be displayed? Will it be exerted for our happiness; or, as to us, will it not be exerted at all? We acknowledge—we esteem excellence; but till these questions are answered, we feel not ourselves under an obligation to obey it.[14] If the opinion of Epicurus concerning his divinities—that they were absolutely indifferent to the happiness and interests of men—was admitted for a moment;g the inference would unquestionably be—that they were not entitled to human obedience.

The third hypothesis contains a solemn truth, which ought to be examined with reverence and awe. It resolves the supreme right of prescribing laws for our conduct, and our indispensable duty of obeying those laws, into the omnipotence of the Divinity. This omnipotence let us humbly adore. Were we to suppose—but the supposition cannot be made—that infinite goodness could be disjoined from almighty power—but we cannot—must not proceed to the inference. No, it never can be drawn; for from almighty power infinite goodness can never be disjoined. Let us join, in our weak conceptions, what are inseparable in their incomprehensible Archetype—infinite power—infinite wisdom—infinite goodness; and then we shall see, in its resplendent glory, the supreme right to rule: we shall feel the conscious sense of the perfect obligation to obey.

His infinite power enforces his laws, and carries them into full and effectual execution. His infinite wisdom knows and chooses the fittest means for accomplishing the ends which he proposes. His infinite goodness proposes such ends only as promote our felicity. By his power, he is able to remove whatever may possibly injure us, and to provide whatever is conducive to our happiness. By his wisdom, he knows our nature, our faculties, and our interests: he cannot be mistaken in the designs, which he proposes, nor in the means, which he employs to accomplish them. By his goodness, he proposes our happiness: and to that end directs the operations of his power and wisdom. Indeed, to his goodness alone we may trace the principle of his laws. Being infinitely and eternally happy in himself, his goodness alone could move him to create us, and give us the means of happiness. The same principle, that moved his creating, moves his governing power. The rule of his government we shall find to be reduced to this one paternal command—Let man pursue his own perfection and happiness.

What an enrapturing view of the moral government of the universe! Over all, goodness infinite reigns, guided by unerring wisdom, and supported by almighty power. What an instructive lesson to those who think, and are encouraged by their flatterers to think, that a portion of divine right is communicated to their rule. If this really was the case; their power ought to be subservient to their goodness, and their goodness should be employed in promoting the happiness of those, who are intrusted to their care. But princes, and the flatterers of princes, are guilty, in two respects, of the grossest errour and presumption. They claim to govern by divine institution and right. The principles of their government are repugnant to the principles of that government, which is divine. The principle of the divine government is goodness: they plume themselves with the gaudy insignia of power.

. . .

Where a supreme right to give laws exists, on one side, and a perfect obligation to obey them exists, on the other side; this relation, of itself, suggests the probability that laws will be made.

When we view the inanimate and irrational creation around and above us, and contemplate the beautiful order observed in all its motions and appearances; is not the supposition unnatural and improbable—that the rational and moral world should be abandoned to the frolicks of chance, or to the ravage of disorder? What would be the fate of man and of society, was every one at full liberty to do as he listed, without any fixed rule or principle of conduct, without a helm to steer him—a sport of the fierce gusts of passion, and the fluctuating billows of caprice?

To be without law is not agreeable to our nature; because, if we were without law, we should find many of our talents and powers hanging upon us like useless incumbrances. Why should we be illuminated by reason, were we only made to obey the impulse of irrational instinct? Why should we have the power of deliberating, and of balancing our determinations, if we were made to yield implicitly and unavoidably to the influence of the first impressions? Of what service to us would reflection be, if, after reflection, we were to be carried away irresistibly by the force of blind and impetuous appetites?

Without laws, what would be the state of society? The more ingenious and artful the twolegged animal, man, is, the more dangerous he would become to his equals: his ingenuity would degenerate into cunning; and his art would be employed for the purposes of malice. He would be deprived of all the benefits and pleasures of peaceful and social life: he would become a prey to all the distractions of licentiousness and war.

Is it probable—we repeat the question—is it probable that the Creator, infinitely wise and good, would leave his moral world in this chaos and disorder?

If we enter into ourselves, and view with attention what passes in our own breasts, we shall find, that what, at first, appeared probable, is proved, on closer examination, to be certain; we shall find, that God has not left himself without a witness, nor us without a guide.

We have already observed, that, concerning the nature and cause of obligation, many different opinions have been entertained, and much ingenious disputation has been held, by philosophers and writers on jurisprudence. It will not be improper to take a summary view of those opinions.

Some philosophers maintain, that all obligation arises from the relations of things;[15] from a certain proportion or disproportion, a certain fitness or unfitness, between objects and actions, which give a beauty to some, and a deformity to others. They say, that the rules of morality are founded on the nature of things; and are agreeable to the order necessary for the beauty of the universe.[16]

Others allege, that every rule whatever of human actions carries with it a moral necessity of conforming to it; and consequently produces a sort of obligation. Every rule, say they, implies a design, and the will of attaining a certain end. He, therefore, who proposes a particular end, and knows the rule by which alone he can accomplish it, finds himself under a moral necessity of observing that rule. If he did not observe it, he would act a contradictory part; he would propose the end, and neglect the only means, by which he could obtain it. There is a reasonable necessity, therefore, to prefer one manner of acting before another; and every reasonable man finds himself engaged to this, and prevented from acting in a contrary manner. In other words, he is obliged: for obligation is nothing more than a restriction of liberty produced by reason. Reason, then, independent of law, is sufficient to impose some obligation on man, and to establish a system of morality and duty.[17]

But, according to others, the idea of obligation necessarily implies a being, who obliges, and must be distinct from him, who is obliged. If the person, on whom the obligation is imposed, is the same as he who imposes it; he can disengage himself from it whenever he pleases: or, rather, there is no obligation. Obligation and duty depend on the intervention of a superiour, whose will is manifested by law. If we abstract from all law, and consequently from a legislator; we shall have no such thing as right, obligation, duty, or morality.[18]

Others, again, think it necessary to join the last two principles together, in order to render the obligation perfect.[19] Reason, say they, is the first rule of man, the first principle of morality, and the immediate cause of all primitive obligation. But man being necessarily dependent on his Creator, who has formed him with wisdom and design, and who, in creating him, has proposed some particular ends; the will of God is another rule of human actions, another principle of morality, obligation, and duty. On this distinction, the kinds of obligation, external and internal, are founded. These two principles must be united, in order to form a complete system of morality, really founded on the nature and state of man. As a rational being, he is subject to reason: as a creature of God, to his supreme will. Thus, reason and the divine will are perfectly reconciled, are naturally connected, and are strengthened by their junction.[20]

The cause of obligation is laid, by some philosophers, in utility.[21] Actions, they tell us, are to be estimated by their tendency to promote happiness. Whatever is expedient, is right. It is the utility, alone, of any moral rule, which constitutes its obligation.

Congenial with this principle, is another, which has received the sanction of some writers—that sociability, or the care of maintaining society properly, is the fountain of obligation and right: for to every right, there must be a corresponding obligation. From this principle the inference is drawn, that every one is born, not for himself alone, but for the whole human kind.[22]

Further&emdash;many philosophers derive our obligation to observe the law of nature from instinctive affections, or an innate moral sense.[23] This is the sense, they tell us, by which we perceive the qualities of right and wrong, and the other moral qualities in actions.

With regard, then, both to the meaning and the cause of obligation, much diversity of sentiment, much ambiguity, and much obscurity have, it appears, prevailed. It is a subject of inquiry, however, that well deserves to be investigated, explained, illustrated, and placed in its native splendour and dignity. In order to do this, it will be proper to ascertain the precise state of the question before us. It is this—what is the efficient cause of moral obligation—of the eminent distinction between right and wrong? This has been often and injudiciously blended with another question, connected indeed with it, but from which it ought to be preserved separate and distinct. That other question is—how shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the eminent distinction, which we have just now mentioned? The first question points to the principle of obligation: the second points to the means by which our obligation to perform a specified action, or a series of specified actions, may be deduced. The first has been called by philosophers—principium essendi—the principle of existence; the principle which constitutes obligation. The second has been called by them—principium cognoscendi—the principle of knowing it; the principle by which it may be proved or perceived. In a commonwealth, the distinction between these two questions is familiar and easy. If the question is put—what is the efficient cause of the obligation upon the citizens to obey the laws of the state?—the answer is ready—the will of those, by whose authority the laws are made. If the other question is put—how shall we, in a particular instance, or in a series of particular instances, ascertain the laws, which the citizens ought to obey?—reference is immediately made to the code of laws.

Having thus stated the question—what is the efficient cause of moral obligation?—I give it this answer—the will of God. This is the supreme law.[24] His just and full right of imposing laws, and our duty in obeying them, are the sources of our moral obligations. If I am asked—why do you obey the will of God? I answer—because it is my duty so to do. If I am asked again—how do you know this to be your duty? I answer again—because I am told so by my moral sense or conscience. If I am asked a third time—how do you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop; reasoning can go no farther. The science of morals, as well as other sciences, is founded on truths, that cannot be discovered or proved by reasoning. Reason is confined to the investigation of unknown truths by the means of such as are known. We cannot, therefore, begin to reason, till we are furnished, otherwise than by reason, with some truths, on which we can found our arguments. Even in mathematicks, we must be provided with axioms perceived intuitively to be true, before our demonstrations can commence. Morality, like mathematicks, has its intuitive truths, without which we cannot make a single step in our reasonings upon the subject.[25] Such an intuitive truth is that, with which we just now closed our investigation. If a person was not possessed of the feeling before mentioned; it would not be in the power of arguments, to give him any conception of the distinction between right and wrong. These terms would be to him equally unintelligible, as the term colour to one who was born and has continued blind. But that there is, in human nature, such a moral principle, has been felt and acknowledged in all ages and nations.

Now that we have stated and answered the first question; let us proceed to the consideration of the second—how shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is—to discover the will of God—and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.

I. The power of moral perception is, indeed, a most important part of our constitution. It is an original power—a power of its own kind; and totally distinct from the ideas of utility and agreeableness. By that power, we have conceptions of merit and demerit, of duty and moral obligation. By that power, we perceive some things in human conduct to be right, and others to be wrong. We have the same reason to rely on the dictates of this faculty, as upon the determinations of our senses, or of our other natural powers. When an action is represented to us, flowing from love, humanity, gratitude, an ultimate desire of the good of others; though it happened in a country far distant, or in an age long past, we admire the lovely exhibition, and praise its author. The contrary conduct, when represented to us, raises our abhorrence and aversion. But whence this secret chain betwixt each person and mankind? If there is no moral sense, which makes benevolence appear beautiful; if all approbation be from the interest of the approver;

     “What’s Hecuba to us, or we to Hecuba?” (Hamlet, paraphrase)

The mind, which reflects on itself, and is a spectator of other minds, sees and feels the soft and the harsh, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the foul and the fair, the harmonious and the dissonant, as really and truly in the affections and actions, as in any musical numbers, or the outward forms or representations of sensible things. It cannot withhold its approbation or aversion in what relates to the former, any more than in what relates to the latter, of those subjects. To deny the sense of a sublime and beautiful and of their contraries in actions and things, will appear an affectation merely to one who duly considers and traces the subject. Even he who indulges this affectation cannot avoid the discovery of those very sentiments, which he pretends not to feel. A Lucretius[26] or a Hobbes cannot discard the sentiments of praise and admiration respecting some moral forms, nor the sentiments of censure and detestation concerning others. Has a man gratitude, or resentment, or pride, or shame? If he has and avows it; he must have and acknowledge a sense of something benevolent, of something unjust, of something worthy, and of something mean. Thus, so long as we find men pleased or angry, proud or ashamed; we may appeal to the reality of the moral sense. A right and a wrong, an honourable and a dishonourable is plainly conceived. About these there may be mistakes; but this destroys not the inference, that the things are, and are universally acknowledged—that they are of nature’s impression, and by no art can be obliterated.

This sense or apprehension of right and wrong appears early, and exists in different degrees. The qualities of love, gratitude, sympathy unfold themselves, in the first stages of life, and the approbation of those qualities accompanies the first dawn of reflection. Young people, who think the least about the distant influences of actions, are, more than others, moved with moral forms. Hence that strong inclination in children to hear such stories as paint the characters and fortunes of men. Hence that joy in the prosperity of the kind and faithful, and that sorrow upon the success of the treacherous and cruel, with which we often see infant minds strongly agitated.

There is a natural beauty in figures; and is there not a beauty as natural in actions? When the eye opens upon forms, and the ear to sounds; the beautiful is seen, and harmony is heard and acknowledged. When actions are viewed and affections are discerned, the inward eye distinguishes the beautiful, the amiable, the admirable, from the despicable, the odious, and the deformed. How is it possible not to own, that as these distinctions have their foundation in nature, so this power of discerning them is natural also?

The universality of an opinion or sentiment may be evinced by the structure of languages. Languages were not invented by philosophers, to countenance or support any artificial system. They were contrived by men in general, to express common sentiments and perceptions. The inference is satisfactory, that where all languages make a distinction, there must be a similar distinction in universal opinion or sentiment. For language is the picture of human thoughts; and, from this faithful picture, we may draw certain conclusions concerning the original. Now, a universal effect must have a universal cause. No universal cause can, with propriety, be assigned for this universal opinion, except that intuitive perception of things, which is distinguished by the name of common sense.

All languages speak of a beautiful and a deformed, a right and a wrong, an agreeable and disagreeable, a good and ill, in actions, affections, and characters. All languages, therefore, suppose a moral sense, by which those qualities are perceived and distinguished.

The whole circle of the arts of imitation proves the reality of the moral sense. They suppose, in human conduct, a sublimity, a beauty, a greatness, an excellence, independent of advantage or disadvantage, profit or loss. On him, whose heart is indelicate or hard; on him, who has no admiration of what is truly noble; on him, who has no sympathetick sense of what is melting and tender, the highest beauty of the mimick arts must make indeed, but a very faint and transient impression. If we were void of a relish for moral excellence, how frigid and uninteresting would the finest descriptions of life and manners appear! How indifferent are the finest strains of harmony, to him who has not a musical ear!

The force of the moral sense is diffused through every part of life. The luxury of the table derives its principal charms from some mixture of moral enjoyments, from communicating pleasures, and from sentiments honourable and just as well as elegant— “The feast of reason, and the flow of soul.”

The chief pleasures of history, and poetry, and eloquence, and musick, and sculpture, and painting are derived from the same source. Beside the pleasures they afford by imitation, they receive a stronger charm from something moral insinuated into the performances. The principal beauties of behaviour, and even of countenance, arise from the indication of affections or qualities morally estimable.

Never was there any of the human species above the condition of an idiot, to whom all actions appeared indifferent. All feel that a certain temper, certain affections, and certain actions produce a sentiment of approbation; and that a sentiment of disapprobation is produced by the contrary temper, affections, and actions. This power is capable of culture and improvement by habit, and by frequent and extensive exercise. A high sense of moral excellence is approved above all other intellectual talents. This high sense of excellence is accompanied with a strong desire after it, and a keen relish for it. This desire and this relish are approved as the most amiable affections, and the highest virtues.

This moral sense, from its very nature, is intended to regulate and control all our other powers. It governs our passions as well as our actions. Other principles may solicit and allure; but the conscience assumes authority, it must be obeyed. Of this dignity and commanding nature we are immediately conscious, as we are of the power itself. It estimates what it enjoins, not merely as superiour in degree, but as superiour likewise in kind, to what is recommended by our other perceptive powers. Without this controlling faculty, endowed as we are with such a variety of senses and interfering desires, we should appear a fabrick destitute of order: but possessed of it, all our powers may be harmonious and consistent; they may all combine in one uniform and regular direction.

In short; if we had not the faculty of perceiving certain things in conduct to be right, and others to be wrong; and of perceiving our obligation to do what is right, and not to do what is wrong; we should not be moral and accountable beings. If we be, as, I hope, I have shown we are, endowed with this faculty; there must be some things, which are immediately discerned by it to be right, and others to be wrong. There must, consequently, be in morals, as in other sciences, first principles, which derive not their evidence from any antecedent principles, but which may be said to be intuitively discerned.

Moral truths may be divided into two classes; such as are selfevident, and such as, from the selfevident ones, are deduced by reasoning. If the first be not discerned without reasoning, reasoning can never discern the last. The cases that require reasoning are few, compared with those that require none; and a man may be very honest and virtuous, who cannot reason, and who knows not what demonstration means. If the rules of virtue were left to be discovered by reasoning, even by demonstrative reasoning, unhappy would be the condition of the far greater part of men, who have not the means of cultivating the power of reasoning to any high degree. As virtue is the business of all men, the first principles of it are written on their hearts, in characters so legible, that no man can pretend ignorance of them, or of his obligation to practise them. Reason, even with experience, is too often overpowered by passion; to restrain whose impetuosity, nothing less is requisite than the vigorous and commanding principle of duty.

II. The first principles of morals, into which all moral argumentation may be resolved, are discovered in a manner more analogous to the perceptions of sense than to the conclusions of reasoning. In morality, however, as well as in other sciences, reason is usefully introduced, and performs many important services. In many instances she regulates our belief; and in many instances she regulates our conduct. She determines the proper means to any end; and she decides the preference of one end over another. She may exhibit an object to the mind, though the perception which the mind has, when once the object is exhibited, may properly belong to a sense. She may be necessary to ascertain the circumstances and determine the motives to an action; though it be the moral sense that perceives the action to be either virtuous or vicious, after its motive and its circumstances have been discovered. She discerns the tendencies of the several senses, affections, and actions, and the comparative value of objects and gratifications. She judges concerning subordinate ends; but concerning ultimate ends she is not employed. These we prosecute by some immediate determination of the mind, which, in the order of action, is prior to all reasoning; for no opinion or judgment can move to action, where there is not a previous desire of some end.—This power of comparing the several enjoyments, of which our nature is susceptible, in order to discover which are most important to our happiness, is of the highest consequence and necessity to corroborate our moral faculty, and to preserve our affections in just rank and regular order.

A magistrate knows that it is his duty to promote the good of the commonwealth, which has intrusted him with authority. But whether one particular plan or another particular plan of conduct in office, may best promote the good of the commonwealth, may, in many cases, be doubtful. His conscience or moral sense determines the end, which he ought to pursue; and he has intuitive evidence that his end is good: but the means of attaining this end must be determined by reason. To select and ascertain those means, is often a matter of very considerable difficulty. Doubts may arise; opposite interests may occur; and a preference must be given to one side from a small over-balance, and from very nice views. This is particularly the case in questions with regard to justice. If every single instance of justice, like every single instance of benevolence, were pleasing and useful to society, the case would be more simple, and would be seldom liable to great controversy. But as single instances of justice are often pernicious in their first and immediate tendency; and as the advantage to society results only from the observance of the general rule, and from the concurrence and combination of several persons in the same equitable conduct; the case here becomes more intricate and involved. The various circumstances of society, the various consequences of any practice, the various interests which may be proposed, are all, on many occasions, doubtful, and subject to much discussion and inquiry. The design of municipal law (for let us still, from every direction, open a view to our principal object) the design of municipal law is to fix all the questions which regard justice. A very accurate reason or judgment is often requisite, to give the true determination amidst intricate doubts, arising from obscure or opposite utilities. Thus, though good and ill, right and wrong are ultimately perceived by the moral sense, yet reason assists its operations, and, in many instances, strengthens and extends its influence. We may argue concerning propriety of conduct: just reasonings on the subject will establish principles for judging of what deserves praise: but, at the same time, these reasonings must always, in the last resort, appeal to the moral sense.

Farther; reason serves to illustrate, to prove, to extend, to apply what our moral sense has already suggested to us, concerning just and unjust, proper and improper, right and wrong. A father feels that paternal tenderness is refined and confirmed, by reflecting how consonant that feeling is to the relation between a parent and his child; how conducive it is to the happiness, not only of a single family, but, in its extension, to that of all mankind. We feel the beauty and excellence of virtue; but this sense is strengthened and improved by the lessons, which reason gives us concerning the foundations, the motives, the relations, the particular and the universal advantages flowing from this virtue, which, at first sight, appeared so beautiful.

Taste is a faculty, common, in some degree, to all men. But study, attention, comparison operate most powerfully towards its refinement. In the same manner, reason contributes to ascertain the exactness, and to discover and correct the mistakes, of the moral sense. A prejudice of education may be misapprehended for a determination of morality. ’Tis reason’s province to compare and discriminate.

Reason performs an excellent service to the moral sense in another respect. It considers the relations of actions, and traces them to the remotest consequences. We often see men, with the most honest hearts and most pure intentions, embarrassed and puzzled, when a case, delicate and complicated, comes before them. They feel what is right; they are unshaken in their general principles; but they are unaccustomed to pursue them through their different ramifications, to make the necessary distinctions and exceptions, or to modify them according to the circumstances of time and place. ’Tis the business of reason to discharge this duty; and it will discharge it the better in proportion to the care which has been employed in exercising and improving it.

The existence of the moral sense has been denied by some philosophers of high fame: its authority has been attacked by others: the certainty and uniformity of its decisions have been arraigned by a third class.[27] We are told, that, without education, we should have been in a state of perfect indifference as to virtue and vice; that an education, opposite to that which we have received, would have taught us to regard as virtue that which we now dislike as vice, and to despise as vice that which we now esteem as virtue. In support of these observations, it is farther said, that moral sentiment is different in different countries, in different ages, and under different forms of government and religion; in a word, that it is as much the effect of custom, fashion, and artifice, as our taste in dress, furniture, and the modes of conversation. Facts and narratives have been assembled and accumulated, to evince the great diversity and even contrariety that subsists concerning moral opinions. And it has been gravely asked, whether the wild boy, who was caught in the woods of Hanover, would feel a sentiment of disapprobation upon being told of the conduct of a parricide. An investigation of those facts and narratives cannot find a place in these lectures; though the time bestowed on it might be well employed. It may, however, be proper to observe, that it is but candid to consider human nature in her improved, and not in her most rude or depraved forms. “The good experienced man,” says Aristotle, “is the last measure of all things.”[28] To ascertain moral principles, we appeal not to the common sense of savages, but of men in their most perfect state.

Epicurus, as well as some modern advocates of the same philosophy, seem to have taken their estimates of human nature from its meanest and most degrading exhibitions; but the noblest and most respectable philosophers of antiquity have chosen, for a much wiser and better purpose, to view it on the brightest and most advantageous side. “It is impossible,” says the incomparable Addison,[29] “to read a passage in Plato or Tully, and a thousand other ancient moralists, without being a greater and a better man for it. On the contrary, I could never read some modish modern authors, without being, for some time, out of humour with myself, and at every thing about me. Their business is to depreciate human nature, and consider it under its worst appearances. They give mean interpretation and base motives to the worthiest actions—in short, they endeavour to make no distinction between man and man, or between the species of men and that of brutes.” True it is, that some men and some nations are savage and brutish; but is that a reason why their manners and their practices should be generally and reproachfully charged to the account of human nature? It may, perhaps, be somewhat to our purpose to observe, that in many of these representations, the picture, if compared with the original, will be found to be overcharged. For, in truth, between mankind, considered even in their rudest state, and the mutum et turpe pecus (dumb and base herd), a very wide difference will be easily discovered. In the most uninformed savages, we find the communes notitiae, the common notions and practical principles of virtue, though the application of them is often extremely unnatural and absurd. These same savages have in them the seeds of the logician, the man of taste, the orator, the statesman, the man of virtue, and the saint. These seeds are planted in their minds by nature, though, for want of culture and exercise, they lie unnoticed, and are hardly perceived by themselves or by others. Besides, some nations that have been supposed stupid and barbarous by nature, have, upon fuller acquaintance with their history, been found to have been rendered barbarous and depraved by institution. When, by the power of some leading members, erroneous laws are once established, and it has become the interest of subordinate tyrants to support a corrupt system; errour and iniquity become sacred. Under such a system, the multitude are fettered by the prejudices of education, and awed by the dread of power, from the free exercise of their reason. These principles will account for the many absurd and execrable tenets and practices with regard to government, morals, and religion, which have been invented and established in opposition to the unbiassed sentiments, and in derogation of the natural rights of mankind. But, after making all the exceptions and abatements, of which these facts and narratives, if admitted in their fullest extent, would justify the claim, still it cannot be denied, but is even acknowledged, that some sorts of actions command and receive the esteem of mankind more than others; and that the approbation of them is general, though not universal. It will certainly be sufficient for our purpose to observe, that the dictates of reason are neither more general, nor more uniform, nor more certain, nor more commanding, than the dictates of the moral sense. Nay, farther; perhaps, upon inquiry, we shall find, that those obliquities, extravagancies, and inconsistencies of conduct, that are produced as proofs of the nonexistence or inutility of the moral sense, are, in fact, chargeable to that faculty, which is meant to be substituted in its place. We shall find that men always approve upon an opinion—true or false, but still an opinion—that the actions approved have the qualities and tendencies, which are the proper objects of approbation. They suppose that such actions will promote their own interest; or will be conducive to the publick good; or are required by the Deity; when, in truth, they have all the contrary properties—may be forbidden by the Deity, and may be detrimental both to publick and to private good. But when all this happens, to what cause is it to be traced? Does it prove the nonexistence of a moral sense, or does it prove, in such instances, the weakness or perversion of reason? The just solution is, that, in such instances, it is our reason, which presents false appearances to our moral sense.

It is with much reluctance, that the power of our instinctive or intuitive faculties is acknowledged by some philosophers. That the brutes are governed by instinct, but that man is governed by reason, is their favourite position. But fortunately for man, this position is not founded on truth. Our instincts, as well as our rational powers, are far superiour, both in number and in dignity, to those, which the brutes enjoy; and it were well for us, on many occasions, if we laid our reasoning systems aside, and were more attentive in observing the genuine impulses of nature. In this enlarged and elevated meaning, the sentiment of Pope receives a double portion of force and sublimity.

      “And reason raise o’er instinct as you can,
     In this, ’tis God directs, in that, ’tis man.”[30]

This sentiment is not dictated merely in the fervid glow of enraptured poetry; it is affirmed by the deliberate judgment of calm, sedate philosophy. Our instincts are no other than the oracles of eternal wisdom; our conscience, in particular, is the voice of God within us: it teaches, it commands, it punishes, it rewards. The testimony of a good conscience is the purest and the noblest of human enjoyments.

It will be proper to examine a little more minutely the opinions of those, who allege reason to be the sole directress of human conduct. Reason may, indeed, instruct us in the pernicious or useful tendency of qualities and actions: but reason alone is not sufficient to produce any moral approbation or blame. Utility is only a tendency to a certain end; and if the end be totally indifferent to us, we shall feel the same indifference towards the means. It is requisite that sentiment should intervene, in order to give a preference to the useful above the pernicious tendencies.

Reason judges either of relations or of matters of fact. Let us consider some particular virtue or vice under both views. Let us take the instance of ingratitude. This has place, when good will is expressed and good offices are performed on one side, and ill will or indifference is shown on the other. The first question is—what is that matter of fact, which is here called a vice? Indifference or ill will. But ill will is not always, nor in all circumstances a crime: and indifference may, on some occasions, be the result of the most philosophick fortitude. The vice of ingratitude, then, consists not in matter of fact.

Let us next inquire into the relations, which reason can discover, among the materials, of which ingratitude is composed. She discovers good will and good offices on one side, and ill will or indifference on the other. This is the relation of contrariety. Does ingratitude consist in this? To which side of the contrary relation is it to be placed? For this relation of contrariety is formed as much by good will and good offices, as by ill will or indifference. And yet the former deserves praise as much as the latter deserves blame.

If it shall be said, that the morality of an action does not consist in the relation of its different parts to one another, but in the relation of the whole actions to the rule; and that actions are denominated good or ill, as they agree or disagree with that rule; another question occurs—What is this rule of right? by what is it discovered or determined? By reason, it is said. How does reason discover or determine this rule? It must be by examining facts or the relations of things. But by the analysis which has been given of the particular instance under our consideration, it has appeared that the vice of ingratitude consists neither in the matter of fact, nor in the relation of the parts, of which the fact is composed. Objects in the animal world, nay inanimate objects, may have to each other all the same relations, which we observe in moral agents; but such objects are never supposed to be susceptible of merit or demerit, of virtue or vice.

The ultimate ends of human actions, can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason. They recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of men, without dependence on the intellectual faculties. Why do you take exercise? Because you desire health. Why do you desire health? Because sickness is painful. Why do you hate pain? No answer is heard. Can one be given? No. This is an ultimate end, and is not referred to any farther object.

To the second question, you may, perhaps, answer, that you desire health, because it is necessary for your improvement in your profession. Why are you anxious to make this improvement? You may, perhaps, answer again, because you wish to get money by it. Why do you wish to get money? Because, among other reasons, it is the instrument of pleasure. But why do you love pleasure? Can a reason be given for loving pleasure, any more than for hating pain? They are both ultimate objects. ’Tis impossible there can be a progress in infinitum; and that one thing can always be a reason, why another is hated or desired. Something must be hateful or desirable on its own account, and because of its immediate agreement or disagreement with human sentiment and affection. Virtue and vice are ends; and are hateful or desirable on their own account. It is requisite, therefore, that, there should be some sentiment, which they touch—some internal taste or sense, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces one, and rejects the other. Thus are the offices of reason and of the moral sense at last ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the latter, the sentiment of beauty and deformity, of vice and virtue. The standard of one, founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible. The standard of the other is ultimately derived from that supreme will, which bestowed on us our peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and orders of existence. In this manner, we return to the great principle, from which we set out. It is necessary that reason should be fortified by the moral sense: without the moral sense, a man may be prudent, but he cannot be virtuous.

Philosophers have degraded our senses below their real importance. They represent them as powers, by which we have sensations and ideas only. But this is not the whole of their office; they judge as well as inform. Not confined to the mere office of conveying impressions, they are exalted to the function of judging of the nature and evidence of the impressions they convey. If this be admitted, our moral faculty may, without impropriety, be called the moral sense. Its testimony, like that of the external senses, is the immediate testimony of nature, and on it we have the same reason to rely. In its dignity, it is, without doubt, far superiour to every other power of the mind.

The moral sense, like all our other powers, comes to maturity by insensible degrees. It is peculiar to human nature. It is both intellectual and active. It is evidently intended, by nature, to be the immediate guide and director of our conduct, after we arrive at the years of understanding.

III. Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.

On some important subjects, those in particular, which relate to the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state, our natural knowledge is greatly improved, refined, and exalted by that which is revealed. On these subjects, one who has had the advantage of a common education in a christian country, knows more, and with more certainty, than was known by the wisest of the ancient philosophers.

One superiour advantage the precepts delivered in the sacred oracles clearly possess. They are, of all, the most explicit and the most certain. A publick minister, judging from what he knows of the interests, views, and designs of the state, which he represents, may take his resolutions and measures, in many cases, with confidence and safety; and may presume, with great probability, how the state itself would act. But if, besides this general knowledge, and these presumptions highly probable, he was furnished also with particular instructions for the regulation of his conduct; would he not naturally observe and govern himself by both rules? In cases, where his instructions are clear and positive, there would be an end of all farther deliberation. In other cases, where his instructions are silent, he would supply them by his general knowledge, and by the information, which he could collect from other quarters, concerning the counsels and systems of the commonwealth. Thus it is with regard to reason, conscience, and the holy scriptures. Where the latter give instructions, those instructions are supereminently authentick. But whoever expects to find, in them, particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good.

We have traced, with some minuteness, the efficient principle of obligation, and the several means, by which our duty may be known. It will be proper to turn our attention back to the opinions that have been held, in philosophy and jurisprudence, concerning this subject. On a review of them, we shall now find that, in general, they are defective rather than erroneous; that they have fallen short of the mark, rather than deviated from the proper course.

The fitness of things denotes their fitness to produce our happiness: their nature means that actual constitution of the world, by which some things produce happiness, and others misery. Reason is one of the means, by which we discern between those things, which produce the former, and those things, which produce the latter. The moral sense feels and operates to promote the same essential discriminations. Whatever promotes the greatest happiness of the whole, is congenial to the principles of utility and sociability: and whatever unites in it all the foregoing properties, must be agreeable to the will of God: for, as has been said once, and as ought to be said again, his will is graciously comprised in this one paternal precept—Let man pursue his happiness and perfection.

The law of nature is immutable; not by the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but because it has its foundation in the nature, constitution, and mutual relations of men and things. While these continue to be the same, it must continue to be the same also. This immutability of nature’s laws has nothing in it repugnant to the supreme power of an all-perfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution; he cannot but command or forbid such things as are necessarily agreeable or disagreeable to this very constitution. He is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself. This necessity, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out their excellency.

The law of nature is universal. For it is true, not only that all men are equally subject to the command of their Maker; but it is true also, that the law of nature, having its foundation in the constitution and state of man, has an essential fitness for all mankind, and binds them without distinction.

This law, or right reason, as Cicero calls it, is thus beautifully described by that eloquent philosopher. “It is, indeed,” says he, “a true law, conformable to nature, diffused among all men, unchangeable, eternal. By its commands, it calls men to their duty: by its prohibitions, it deters them from vice. To diminish, to alter, much more to abolish this law, is a vain attempt. Neither by the senate, nor by the people, can its powerful obligation be dissolved. It requires no interpreter or commentator. It is not one law at Rome, another at Athens; one law now, another hereafter: it is the same eternal and immutable law, given at all times and to all nations: for God, who is its author and promulgator, is always the sole master and sovereign of mankind.”[31]

“Man never is,” says the poet, in a seeming tone of complaint, “but always to be blest.” The sentiment would certainly be more consolatory, and, I think, it would be likewise more just, if we were to say—man ever is; for always to be blest. That we should have more and better things before us, than all that we have yet acquired or enjoyed, is unquestionably a most desirable state. The reflection on this circumstance, far from diminishing our sense or the importance of our present attainments and advantages, produces the contrary effects. The present is gilded by the prospect of the future.

When Alexander had conquered a world, and had nothing left to conquer; what did he do? He sat down and wept. A well directed ambition that has conquered worlds, is exempted from the fate of that of Alexander the Great: it still sees before it more and better worlds as the objects of conquest.

It is the glorious destiny of man to be always progressive. Forgetting those things that are behind, it is his duty, and it is his happiness, to press on towards those that are before. In the order of Providence, as has been observed on another occasion, the progress of societies towards perfection resembles that of an individual. This progress has hitherto been but slow: by many unpropitious events, it has often been interrupted: but may we not indulge the pleasing expectation, that, in future, it will be accelerated; and will meet with fewer and less considerable interruptions.

Many circumstances seem—at least to a mind anxious to see it, and apt to believe what it is anxious to see—many circumstances seem to indicate the opening of such a glorious prospect. The principles and the practice of liberty are gaining ground, in more than one section of the world. Where liberty prevails, the arts and sciences lift up their heads and flourish. Where the arts and sciences flourish, political and moral improvements will likewise be made. All will receive from each, and each will receive from all, mutual support and assistance: mutually supported and assisted, all may be carried to a degree of perfection hitherto unknown; perhaps, hitherto not believed. “Men,” says the sagacious Hooker, “if we view them in their spring, are, at the first, without understanding or knowledge at all. Nevertheless, from this utter vacuity, they grow by degrees, till they become at length to be even as the angels themselves are. That which agreeth to the one now, the other shall attain to in the end: they are not so far disjoined and severed, but that they come at length to meet.”[32]

Our progress in virtue should certainly bear a just proportion to our progress in knowledge. Morals are undoubtedly capable of being carried to a much higher degree of excellence than the sciences, excellent as they are. Hence we may infer, that the law of nature, though immutable in its principles, will be progressive in its operations and effects. Indeed, the same immutable principles will direct this progression. In every period of his existence, the law, which the divine wisdom has approved for man, will not only be fitted, to the cotemporary degree, but will be calculated to produce, in future, a still higher degree of perfection.

A delineation of the laws of nature, has been often attempted. Books, under the appellations of institutes and systems of that law, have been often published. From what has been said concerning it, the most finished performances executed by human hands cannot be perfect. But most of them have been rude and imperfect to a very unnecessary, some, to a shameful degree.

A more perfect work than has yet appeared upon this great subject, would be a most valuable present to mankind. Even the most general outlines of it cannot, at least in these lectures, be expected from me.


Of the Law of Nations

The law of nature, when applied to states or political societies, receives a new name, that of the law of nations. This law, important in all states, is of peculiar importance in free ones. The States of America are certainly entitled to this dignified appellation. A weighty part of the publick business is transacted by the citizens at large. They appoint the legislature, and, either mediately or immediately, the executive servants of the publick. As the conduct of a state, both with regard to itself and others, must greatly depend upon the character, the talents, and the principles of those, to whom the direction of that conduct is intrusted; it is highly necessary that those who are to protect the rights, and to perform the duties of the commonwealth, should be men of proper principles, talents, and characters: if so, it is highly necessary that those who appoint them should be able, in some degree at least, to distinguish and select those men, whose principles, talents, and characters are proper. In order to do this, it is greatly useful that they have, at least, some just and general knowledge of those rights that are to be protected, and of those duties that are to be performed. Without this, they will be unable to form a rational conjecture, concerning the future conduct of those whom they are to elect. Nay, what is more; without some such general and just knowledge, they will be unable to form a rational judgment, concerning the past and present conduct of those whom they have already elected; and, consequently, will be unable to form a rational determination whether, at the next election, they should reappoint them, or substitute others in their place. As the practice of the law of nations, therefore, must, in a free government, depend very considerably on the acts of the citizens, it is of high import that, among those citizens, its knowledge be generally diffused.

But, if the knowledge of the law of nations is greatly useful to those who appoint, it must surely be highly necessary to those who are appointed, the publick servants and stewards of the commonwealth. Can its interests be properly managed, can its character be properly supported, can its happiness be properly consulted, by those who know not what it owes to others, what it owes to itself, what it has a right to claim from others, and what it has a right to provide for itself? In a free commonwealth, the path to publick service and to publick honour is open to all. Should not all, therefore, sedulously endeavour to become masters of such qualifications, as will enable them to tread this path with credit to themselves, and with advantage to their country?

In the United States, a system of republicks, the law of nations acquires an importance still more peculiar and distinguished. In the United States, the law of nations, operates upon peculiar relations, and upon those relations with peculiar energy. Well am I justified, on every account, in announcing the dignity and greatness of the subject, upon which I am now to enter.

On all occasions, let us beware of being misled by names. Though the law, which I am now to consider, receives a new appellation; it retains, unimpaired, its qualities and its power. The law of nations, as well as the law of nature, is of obligation indispensable: the law of nations, as well as the law of nature, is of origin divine. The opinions of many concerning the law of nations have been very vague and unsatisfactory; and if such have been the opinions, we have little reason to be surprised, that the conduct of nations has too often been diametrically opposite to the law, by which it ought to have been regulated. In the judgment of some writers, it would seem, for instance, that neither the state which commences an unjust war, nor the chief who conducts it, derogates from the general sanctity of their respective characters. An ardent love of their country they seem to have thought a passion too heroick, to be restrained within the narrow limits of systematick morality; and those have been too often considered as the greatest patriots, who have contributed most to gratify the publick passion for conquest and power. States, as well as monarchs, have too frequently been blinded by ambition. Of this there is scarcely a page in ancient or in modern history, relating to national contentions, but will furnish the most glaring proofs. The melancholy truth is, that the law of nations, though founded on the most solid principles of natural obligation, has been but imperfectly viewed in theory, and has been too much disregarded in practice.

The profound and penetrating Bacon was not inattentive to the imperfect state, in which he found the science of the law of nations. As, in another science, that enlightened philosophical guide pointed to the discoveries of a Newton; so in this, in all probability, he laid a foundation for the researches of a Grotius. For we have reason to believe, as we are told by Barbeyrac,[33] that it was the study of the works of Lord Bacon, that first inspired Grotius with the design of writing a system concerning the law of nations. In this science Grotius did much; for he was well qualified to do much. Extensive knowledge, prodigious reading, indefatigable application to study, all these were certainly his. Yet with all these, he was far from being as successful in law, as Sir Isaac Newton was in philosophy. He was unfortunate in not setting out on right and solid principles. His celebrated book of the Rights of War and Peace is indeed useful; but it ought not to be read without a due degree of caution: nor ought all his doctrines to be received, without the necessary grains of allowance. At this we ought not to wonder, when we consider the extent, the variety, and the importance of his subject, and that, before his time, it was little known, and much neglected. His opinion concerning the source and the obligation of the law of nations is very defective. He separates that law from the law of nature, and assigns to it a different origin. “When many men,” says he,“at different times and places, unanimously affirm the same thing for truth; this should be ascribed to a general cause. In the subjects treated of by us, this cause can be no other than either a just inference drawn from the principles of nature, or a universal consent. The first discovers to us the law of nature, the second the law of nations.”[34] The law of nations, we see, he traces from the principle of universal consent. The consequence of this is, that the law of nations would be obligatory only upon those by whom the consent was given, and only by reason of that consent. The farther consequence would be, that the law of nations would lose a part, and the greatest part, of its obligatory force, and would also be restrained as to the sphere of its operations. That it would lose the greatest part of its obligatory force, sufficiently appears from what we have said at large concerning the origin and obligation of natural law, evincing it to be the will of God. That it would be restrained as to the sphere of its operations, appears from what Grotius himself says, when he explains his meaning in another place. He qualifies the universality of his expression by adding these words, “at least the most civilized nations;” and he afterwards says that this addition is made “with reason.”[35] On the least civilized nations, therefore, the law of nations would not, according to his account of it, be obligatory.

I admit that there are laws of nations—perhaps it is to be wished that they were designated by an appropriate name; for names, after all, will have their influence on operations—I freely admit that there are laws of nations, which are founded altogether upon consent. National treaties are laws of nations, obligatory solely by consent. The customs of nations become laws solely by consent. Both kinds are certainly voluntary. But the municipal laws of a state are not more different from the law of nature, than those voluntary laws of nations are, in their source and power, different from the law of nations, properly so called. Indeed, those voluntary laws of nations are as much under the control of the law of nations, properly so called, as municipal laws are under the control of the law of nature. The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of nature applied to states and sovereigns. The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of states and sovereigns, obligatory upon them in the same manner, and for the same reasons, as the law of nature is obligatory upon individuals. Universal, indispensable, and unchangeable is the obligation of both.

But it will naturally be asked, if the law of nations bears, as from this account it bears, the same relation to states, which the law of nature bears to individuals; if the law of nature and the law of nations are accompanied with the same obligatory power, and are derived from the same common source; why should the law of nations have a distinct name? Why should it be considered as a separate science? Some have thought that the difference was only in name; and if only in name, there could surely be no solid reason for establishing even that difference. Of those, who thought so, Puffendorff was one. “Many,” says he, “assert the law of nature and of nations to be the very same thing, differing no otherwise than in external denomination. Thus Mr. Hobbes divides natural law, into the natural law of men, and the natural law of states, commonly called the law of nations. He observes, that the precepts of both are the same; but that as states, when once instituted, assume the personal properties of men, what we call the law of nature, when we speak of particular men, we denominate the law of nations, when we apply it to whole states, nations, or people. This opinion,” continues Puffendorff, “we, for our part, readily subscribe to; nor do we conceive, that there is any other voluntary or positive law of nations, properly vested with a true and legal force, and obliging as the ordinance of a superiour power.”[36] By the way, we may here observe, that, with regard to the law of nations, Grotius and Puffendorff seem to have run into contrary extremes. The former was of opinion, that the whole law of nations took its origin and authority from consent. The latter was of opinion, that every part of the law of nations was the same with the law of nature, that no part of it could receive its obligatory force from consent; because, according to his favourite notion of law, no such thing could exist without the intervention of a superiour power. The truth seems to lie between the two great philosophers. The law of nations, properly so called, or, as it may be termed, the natural law of nations, is a part, and an important part, of the law of nature. The voluntary law of nations falls under the class of laws that are positive. If a particular name had been appropriated to this last species of law, it is probable that much confusion and ambiguity, on this subject, would have been avoided; and the distinction between the different parts of that law, comprehended, at present, under the name of the law of nations, would have been as clearly marked, as uniformly preserved, and as familiarly taken, as the well known and well founded distinction between natural and municipal law. But to return.

As Puffendorff thought that the law of nature and the law of nations were precisely the same, he has not, in his book on these subjects, treated of the law of nations separately; but has every where joined it with the law of nature, properly so called. His example has been followed by the greatest part of succeeding writers. But the imitation of it has produced a confusion of two objects, which ought to have been viewed and studied distinctly and apart. Though the law of nations, properly so called, be a part of the law of nature; though it spring from the same source; and though it is attended with the same obligatory power; yet it must be remembered that its application is made to very different objects. The law of nature is applied to individuals: the law of nations is applied to states. The important difference between the objects, will occasion a proportioned difference in the application of the law.[37] This difference in the application renders it fit that the law of nature, when applied to states, should receive an appropriate name, and should be taught and studied as a separate science.

Though states or nations are considered as moral persons; yet the nature and essence of these moral persons differ necessarily, in many respects, from the nature and essence of the individuals, of whom they are composed. The application of a law must be made in a manner suitable to its object. The application, therefore, of the law of nature to nations must be made in a manner suitable to nations: its application to individuals must be made in a manner suitable to individuals. But as nations differ from individuals; the application of the law suitable to the former, must be different from its application suitable to the latter. To nations this different application cannot be made with accuracy, with justness, and with perspicuity, without the aid of new and discriminating rules. These rules will evince, that, on the principles themselves of the law of nature, that law, when applied to nations, will prescribe decisions different from those which it would prescribe, when applied to individuals. To investigate those rules; to deduce, from the same great and leading principles, applications differing in proportion to the difference of the persons to which they are applied, is the object of the law of nations, considered as a science distinct and separate from that of the law of nature.

Having given you this general idea and description of the law of nations; need I expatiate on its dignity and importance? The law of nations is the law of sovereigns. In free states, such as ours, the sovereign or supreme power resides in the people. In free states, therefore, such as ours, the law of nations is the law of the people. Let us again beware of being misled by an ambiguity, sometimes, such is the structure of language, unavoidable. When I say that, in free states, the law of nations is the law of the people; I mean not that it is a law made by the people, or by virtue of their delegated authority; as, in free states, all municipal laws are. But when I say that, in free states, the law of nations is the law of the people; I mean that, as the law of nature, in other words, as the will of nature’s God, it is indispensably binding upon the people, in whom the sovereign power resides; and who are, consequently, under the most sacred obligations to exercise that power, or to delegate it to such as will exercise it, in a manner agreeable to those rules and maxims, which the law of nature prescribes to every state, for the happiness of each, and for the happiness of all. How vast—how important—how interesting are these truths! They announce to a free people how exalted their rights; but, at the same time, they announce to a free people how solemn their duties are. If a practical knowledge and a just sense of these rights and these duties were diffused among the citizens, and properly impressed upon their hearts and minds; how great, how beneficial, how lasting would be their fruits! But, unfortunately, as there have been and there are, in arbitrary governments, flatterers of princes; so there have been and there are, in free governments, flatterers of the people. One distinction, indeed, is to be taken between them. The latter herd of flatterers persuade the people to make an improper use of the power, which of right they have: the former herd persuade princes to make an improper use of power, which of right they have not. In other respects, both herds are equally pernicious. Both flatter to promote their private interests: both betray the interests of those whom they flatter.

It is of the highest, and, in free states, it is of the most general importance, that the sacred obligation of the law of nations should be accurately known and deeply felt. Of all subjects, it is agreeable and useful to form just and adequate conceptions; but of those especially, which have an influence on the practice and morality of states. For it is a serious truth, however much it has been unattended to in practice, that the laws of morality are equally strict with regard to societies, as to the individuals of whom the societies are composed. It must be owing either to ignorance, or to a very unjustifiable disregard to this great truth, that some transactions of publick bodies have often escaped censure, nay, sometimes have received applause, though those transactions have been such, as none of the individuals composing those bodies would have dared to introduce into the management of his private affairs; because the person introducing them would have been branded with the most reproachful of names and characters. It has been long admitted, by those who have been the best judges of private life and manners, that integrity and sound policy go hand in hand. It is high time that this maxim should find an establishment in the councils of states, and in the cabinets of princes. Its establishment there would diffuse far and wide the most salutary and benign effects.

Opinions concerning the extent of the law of nations have not been less defective and inadequate, than those concerning its origin and obligatory force. Some seem to have thought, that this law respects and regulates the conduct of nations only in their intercourse with each other. A very important branch of this law—that containing the duties which a nation owes itself—seems to have escaped their attention. “The general principle,” says Burlamaqui, “of the law of nations, is nothing more than the general law of sociability, which obliges nations to the same duties as are prescribed to individuals. Thus the law of natural equality, which prohibits injury and commands the reparation of damage done; the law of beneficence, and of fidelity to our engagements, are laws respecting nations, and imposing, both on the people and on their respective sovereigns, the same duties as are prescribed to individuals.”[38] Several other writers concerning the law of nations appear to have formed the same imperfect conceptions with regard to its extent. Let us recur to what the law of nature dictates to an individual. Are there not duties which he owes to himself? Is he not obliged to consult and promote his preservation, his freedom, his reputation, his improvement, his perfection, his happiness? Now that we have seen the law of nature as it respects the duties of individuals, let us see the law of nations as it respects the duties of states, to themselves: for we must recollect that the law of nations is only the law of nature judiciously applied to the conduct of states. From the duties of states, as well as of individuals, to themselves; a number of corresponding rights will be found to arise.

A state ought to attend to the preservation of its own existence. In what does the existence of a state consist? It consists in the association of the individuals, of which it is composed. In what consists the preservation of this existence? It consists in the duration of that association. When this association is dissolved, the state ceases to exist; though all the members, of whom it was composed, may still remain. It is the duty of a state, therefore, to preserve this association undissolved and unimpaired. But in this, as in many other instances, a difference between the nature of states and the nature of individuals will occasion, for the reasons already mentioned, a proportioned difference in the application of the law of nature. Nations, as well as men, are taught by the law of nature, gracious in its precepts, to consider their happiness as the great end of their existence. But without existence there can be no happiness: the means, therefore, must be secured, in order to secure the end. But yet, between the duty of self-preservation required from a state, and the duty of self-preservation required from a man, there is a most material difference; and this difference is founded on the law of nature itself. A nation has a right to assign to its existence a voluntary termination: a man has not. What can be the reasons of this difference? Several may be given. By the voluntary act of the individuals forming the nation, the nation was called into existence: they who bind, can also untie: by the voluntary act, therefore, of the individuals forming the nation, the nation may be reduced to its original nothing. But it was not by his own voluntary act that the man made his appearance upon the theatre of life; he cannot, therefore, plead the right of the nation, by his own voluntary act to make his exit. He did not make; therefore, he has no right to destroy himself. He alone, whose gift this state of existence is, has the right to say when and how it shall receive its termination.

Again; though nations are considered as moral persons, and, in that character, as entitled, in many respects, to claim the rights, and as obliged, in many respects, to perform the duties of natural persons; yet we must always remember that of natural persons those moral persons are composed; that for the sake of natural persons those moral persons were formed; and that while we suppose those moral persons to live, and think, and act, we know that they are natural persons alone, who really exist or feel, who really deliberate, resolve, and execute. Now none of these observations resulting from the nature and essence of the nation, can be applied, with any degree of propriety, to the nature and essence of the man: and, therefore, the inferences drawn from these observations, with regard to the case of the nation, are wholly inapplicable to the case of the man.

One of these inferences is, that as it was for the happiness of the members that the moral existence of the nation was produced; so the happiness of the members may require this moral existence to be annihilated. Can this inference be applied to the man?

Further; there may be a moral certainty, that, of the voluntary dissolution of the nation, the necessary consequence will be an increase of happiness. Can such a consequence be predicted, with moral certainty, concerning the voluntary death of the man?

This instance shows, in a striking manner, how, on some occasions, the law of nature, when applied to a nation, may dictate or authorize a measure of conduct very different from that, which it would authorize and dictate with regard to a man. As it is, in general, the duty of a state to preserve itself; so it is, in general, its duty to preserve its members. This is a duty which it owes to them, and to itself. It owes it to them, because their advantage was the final cause of their joining in the association, and engaging to support it; and they ought not to be deprived of this advantage, while they fulfil the conditions, on which it was stipulated. This duty the nation owes to itself, because the loss of its members is a proportionable loss of its strength; and the loss of its strength is proportionably injurious both to its security, and to its preservation. The result of these principles is, that the body of a nation should not abandon a country, a city, or even an individual, who has not forfeited his rights in the society.

The right and duty of a state to preserve its members are subject to the same limitations and conditions, as its right and duty to preserve itself. As, for some reasons, the society may be dissolved; so, for others, it may be dismembered. A part may be separated from the other parts; and that part may either become a new state, or may associate with another state already formed. An illustration of this doctrine may be drawn from a recent instance, which has happened in the commonwealth of Virginia. The district of Kentucky has, by an amicable agreement, been disjoined from the rest of the commonwealth, and has been formed into a separate state. It is a pleasure, perhaps I may add it is a laudable pride, to be able to furnish, to the world, the first examples of carrying into practice the most sublime parts of the most sublime theories of government and law.

When a nation has a right, and is under an obligation to preserve itself and its members; it has, by a necessary consequence, a right to do every thing, which, without injuring others, it can do, in order to accomplish and secure those objects. The law of nature prescribes not impossibilities: it imposes not an obligation, without giving a right to the necessary means of fulfilling it. The same principles, which evince the right of a nation to do every thing, which it lawfully may, for the preservation of itself and of its members, evince its right, also, to avoid and prevent, as much as it lawfully may, every thing which would load it with injuries, or threaten it with danger.

It is the right, and generally it is the duty, of a state, to form a constitution, to institute civil government, and to establish laws. If the constitution formed, or the government instituted, or the laws established shall, on experience, be found weak, or inconvenient, or pernicious; it is the right, and it is the duty of the state to strengthen, or alter, or abolish them. These subjects will be fully treated in another place.

A nation ought to know itself. It ought to form a just estimate of its own situation, both with regard to itself and to its neighbours. It ought to learn the excellencies, and the blemishes likewise of its own constitution. It ought to review the instances in which it has already attained, and it ought to ascertain those in which it falls short of, a practicable degree of perfection. It ought to find out what improvements are peculiarly necessary to be promoted, and what faults it is peculiarly necessary to avoid. Without a discriminating sagacity of this kind, the principle of imitation, intended for the wisest purposes in states as well as in individuals, would be always an uncertain, sometimes a dangerous guide. A measure extremely salutary to one state, might be extremely injurious to another. What, in one situation, would be productive of peace and happiness, might, in another, be the unfortunate cause of infelicity and war. Above all things, the genius and manners of the people ought to be carefully consulted. The government ought to be administered agreeably to this genius and these manners; but how can this be done, if this genius and these manners are unknown? This duty of self-knowledge is of vast extent and of vast importance, in nations as well as in men.

To love and to deserve honest fame, is another duty of a people, as well as of an individual. The reputation of a state is not only a pleasant, it is also a valuable possession. It attracts the esteem, it represses the unfriendly inclinations of its neighbours. This reputation is acquired by virtue, and by the conduct which virtue inspires. It is founded on the publick transactions of the state, and on the private behaviour of its members.

A state should avoid ostentation, but it should support its dignity. This should never be suffered to be degraded among other nations. In transactions between states, an attention to this object is of much greater importance than is generally imagined. Even the marks and titles of respect, to which a nation, and those who represent a nation, are entitled, ought not to be considered as trivial: they should be claimed with firmness: they should be given with alacrity. The dignity, the equality, the mutual independence, and the frequent intercourse of nations render such a tenour of conduct altogether indispensable.

It is the duty of a nation to intrust the management of its affairs only to its wisest and best citizens. The immense importance of this duty is easily seen; but it is not sufficiently regarded. The meanest menial of a family will not be received without examination and cautious inquiry. The most important servants of the publick will be voted in without consideration and without care. In electioneering, as it is called, we frequently find warm recommendations and active intrigues in favour of candidates for the highest offices, to whom the recommenders and intriguers would not, if put to the test, intrust the management of the smallest part of their own private interest. An election ground, the great theatre of original sovereignty, on which nothing but inviolable integrity and independent virtue should be exhibited, is often and lamentably transformed into a scene of the vilest and lowest debauchery and deception. An election maneuvre, an election story, are names appropriated to a conduct, which, in other and inferiour transactions, would be branded, and justly branded, with the most opprobrious appellations. Even those, who may be safely trusted every where else, will play false at elections. The remarks, which I have made concerning general elections, may be too often made, with equal truth, concerning other appointments to offices. But these things ought not to be. When the obligation and the importance of the great national duty required at elections—a duty prescribed by him who made us free—a duty prescribed that we may continue free—when all this shall be sufficiently diffused, and known, and felt; these things will not be. The people will then elect conscientiously; and will require conscientious conduct from those whom they elect.

A nation ought to encourage true patriotism in its members. The first step towards this encouragement is to distinguish between its real and its pretended friends. The discrimination, it is true, is often difficult, sometimes impracticable: but it is equally true, that it may frequently be made. Let the same care be employed, let the same pains be taken, to ascertain the marks of deceit and the marks of sincerity in publick life, and in intriguing for publick office, which are usually taken and employed in private life, and in solicitations for acts of private friendship. The care and pains will sometimes, indeed, be fruitless; but they will sometimes, too, be successful; at all times, they will be faithful witnesses, that those, who have employed them, have discharged their duty.

If a nation establish itself, or extend its establishment in a country already inhabited by others; it ought to observe strict justice, in both instances, with the former inhabitants. This is a part of the law of nations, that very nearly concerns the United States. It ought, therefore, to be well understood. The whole earth is allotted for the nourishment of its inhabitants; but it is not sufficient for this purpose, unless they aid it by labour and culture. The cultivation of the earth, therefore, is a duty incumbent on man by the order of nature. Those nations that live by hunting, and have more land than is necessary even for the purposes of hunting, should transfer it to those who will make a more advantageous use of it: those who will make this use of it ought to pay, for they can afford to pay, a reasonable equivalent. Even when the lands are no more than sufficient for the purposes of hunting, it is the duty of the new inhabitants, if advanced in society, to teach, and it is the duty of the original inhabitants, if less advanced in society, to learn, the arts and uses of agriculture. This will enable the latter gradually to contract, and the former gradually to extend their settlements, till the science of agriculture is equally improved in both. By these means, the intentions of nature will be fulfilled; the old and the new inhabitants will be reciprocally useful; peace will be preserved, and justice will be done.

It is the duty of a nation to augment its numbers. The performance of this duty will naturally result from the discharge of its other duties: by discharging them, the number of persons born in the society will be increased; and strangers will be incited to wish a participation in its blessings. Among other means of increasing the number of citizens, there are three of peculiar efficacy. The first is, easily to receive all strangers of good character, and to communicate to them the advantages of liberty. The state will be thus filled with citizens, who will bring with them commerce and the arts, and a rich variety of manners and characters. Another means conducive to the same end is, to encourage marriages. These are the pledges of the state. A third means for augmenting the number of inhabitants is, to preserve the rights of conscience inviolate. The right of private judgment is one of the greatest advantages of mankind; and is always considered as such. To be deprived of it is insufferable. To enjoy it lays a foundation for that peace of mind, which the laws cannot give, and for the loss of which the laws can offer no compensation.

A nation should aim at its perfection. The advantage and improvement of the citizens are the ends proposed by the social union. Whatever will render that union more perfect will promote these ends. The same principles, therefore, which show that a man ought to pursue the perfection of his nature, will show, likewise, that the citizens ought to contribute every thing in their power towards the perfection of the state. This right involves the right of preventing and avoiding every thing, which would interrupt or retard the progress of the state towards its perfection. It also involves the right of acquiring every thing, without which its perfection cannot be promoted or obtained.

Happiness is the centre, to which men and nations are attracted: it is, therefore, the duty of a nation to consult its happiness. In order to do this, it is necessary that the nation be instructed to search for happiness where happiness is to be found. The impressions that are made first, sink deepest; they frequently continue through life. That seed, which is sown in the tender minds of youth, will produce abundance of good, or abundance of evil. The education of youth, therefore, is of prime importance to the happiness of the state. The arts, the sciences, philosophy, virtue, and religion, all contribute to the happiness, all, therefore, ought to receive the encouragement, of the nation. In this manner, publick and private felicity will go hand in hand, and mutually assist each other in their progress.

When men have formed themselves into a state or nation, they may reciprocally enter into particular engagements, and, in this manner, contract new obligations in favour of the members of the community; but they cannot, by this union, discharge themselves from any duties which they previously owed to those, who form no part of the union. They continue under all the obligations required by the universal society of the human race—the great society of nations. The law of that great and universal society requires, that each nation should contribute to the perfection and happiness of the others. It is, therefore, a duty which every nation owes to itself, to acquire those qualifications, which will fit and enable it to discharge those duties which it owes to others. What those duties are, we shall now very concisely and summarily inquire. The first and most necessary duty of nations, as well as of men, is to do no wrong or injury. Justice is a sacred law of nations. If the law of the great society of nations requires, as we have seen it to require, that each should contribute to the perfection and happiness of others; the first degree of this duty surely is, that each should abstain from every thing, which would positively impair that perfection and happiness. This great principle prohibits one nation from exciting disturbances in another, from seducing its citizens, from depriving it of its natural advantages, from calumniating its reputation, from debauching the attachment of its allies, from fomenting or encouraging the hatred of its enemies. If, however, a nation, in the necessary prosecution of its own duties and rights, does what is disagreeable or even inconvenient to another, this is not to be considered as an injury; it ought to be viewed as the unavoidable result, and not as the governing principle of its conduct. If, at such conduct, offence is taken, it is the fault of that nation, which takes, not of that nation, which occasions it.

But nations are not only forbidden to do evil; they are also commanded to do good to one another. The duties of humanity are incumbent upon nations as well as upon individuals. An individual cannot subsist, at least he cannot subsist comfortably, by himself. What is true concerning one, is true concerning all. Without mutual good offices and assistance, therefore, happiness could not be procured, perhaps existence could not be preserved. Hence the necessity of the duties of humanity among individuals. Every one is obliged, in the first place, to do what he can for himself; in the next, to do what he can for others; beginning with those with whom he is most intimately connected. The consequence is, that each man is obliged to give to others every assistance, for which they have a real occasion, and which he can give without being wanting to himself. What each is obliged to perform for others, from others he is entitled to receive. Hence the advantage as well as the duty of humanity. These principles receive an application to states as well as to men. Each nation owes to every other the duties of humanity. It is true, there may be some difference in the application, in this as well as in other instances: but the principles of the application are the same. A nation can subsist by itself more securely and more comfortably than an individual can; therefore the duty of mutual assistance will not, at all periods, be equally indispensable, or return with equal frequency. But when it becomes, as it may become, equally indispensable; and when it returns, as it may return, with equal frequency; it ought, in either case, to be equally performed. One individual may attack another daily: a longer time is necessary for the aggression of one nation upon another. The assistance, therefore, which ought to be given to the individual daily, will be necessary for the nation only at more distant intervals of time. But between nations, what the duties of humanity lose in point of frequency, they gain in point of importance, in proportion, perhaps, to the difference between a single individual, and all those individuals of whom the nation is composed. One nation ought to give to another, not only the assistance necessary to its preservation, but that also which is necessary to its perfection, whenever it is wanted, and whenever, consistently with other superiour duties, it can be given. The cases in which assistance ought to be demanded, and those in which it ought to be given, must be decided respectively by that nation which demands, and by that of which the demand is made. It is incumbent on each to decide properly; not to demand, and not to refuse, without strong and reasonable cause.

It may, perhaps, be uncommon, but it is certainly just, to say that nations ought to love one another. The offices of humanity ought to flow from this pure source. When this happily is the case, then the principles of affection and of friendship prevail among states as among individuals: then nations will mutually support and assist each other with zeal and ardour; lasting peace will be the result of unshaken confidence; and kind and generous principles, of a nature far opposite to mean jealously, crooked policy, or cold prudence, will govern and prosper the affairs of men. And why should not this be the case? When a number of individuals, by the social union, become fellow citizens, can they, by that union, devest themselves of that relation, which subsists between them and the other—the far greater—part of the human species? With regard to those, can they cease to be men?

The love of mankind is an important duty and an exalted virtue. Much has been written, much has been said concerning the power of intellectual abstraction, which man possesses, and which distinguishes him so eminently from the inferiour orders of animals. But little has been said, and little has been written, concerning another power of the human mind, still more dignified, and, beyond all comparison, more amiable—I may call it the power of moral abstraction.

All things in nature are individuals. But when a number of individuals have a near and striking resemblance, we, in our minds, class them together, and refer them to a species, to which we assign a name. Again; when a number of species have a resemblance, though not so near and striking, we, in the same manner, class them also together, and refer them to a genus, to which we likewise assign a name. Different genera may have a resemblance, though still less close and striking; we refer them to a higher genus, till we arrive at being, the highest genus of all. This is the progress of intellectual abstraction.

We are possessed of a moral power, similar in its nature and in its progress—a principle of good will as well as of knowledge. This principle of benevolence is indeed primarily and chiefly directed towards individuals, those especially, with whom we are or wish to be most intimately connected. But this principle, as well as the other, is capable of abstraction, and of embracing general objects. The culture, the improvement, and the extension of this principle ought to have made, in the estimation of philosophers, as important a figure among the moral, as the other has made among the intellectual powers and operations of the mind; for it is susceptible of equal culture, of equal improvement, and of equal extension.

“After having,” says the illustrious Neckar, in his book concerning the importance of religious opinions, “proved myself a citizen of France, by my administration, as well as my writings, I wish to unite myself to a fraternity still more extended, that of the whole human race. Thus, without dispersing our sentiments, we may be able to communicate ourselves a great way off, and enlarge, in some measure, the limits of our circle. Glory be to our thinking faculties for it! to that spiritual portion of ourselves, which can take in the past, dart into futurity, and intimately associate itself with the destiny of men of all countries and of all ages!”[39]

To the same purpose is the sentiment of Cicero, in his beautiful treatise on the nature and offices of friendship. “In tracing the social laws of nature,” says he, “it seems evident, that man, by the frame of his moral constitution, is supposed to consider himself as standing in some degree of social relation to the whole species in general; and that this principle acts with more or less vigour, according to the distance at which he is placed with respect to any particular community or individual of his kind.”[40]

This principle of benevolence and sociability, which is not confined to one sect or to one state, but ranges excursive through the whole expanded theatre of men and nations, instead of being always acknowledged and always recommended, as it ought to have been, has been altogether omitted by some philosophers: by some, its existence seems to have been doubted or denied.

“Some sort of union,” says Rutherforth, in his institutes of natural law, “there is between all nations: they are all included in the collective idea of mankind, and are frequently spoken of under this general name. But this is not a social union: the several parts of the collective idea, whether we consider the great body of mankind as made up of individuals or of nations, are not connected, as the several parts of a civil society are, by compact among themselves: the connexion is merely notional, and is only made by the mind, for its own convenience.”[41]

The very enlarged active power, concerning which I speak, is, to this day, so far as I know, without an appropriated name. The term philanthropy approaches near, but does not reach it. We sometimes call it patriotism, by a figurative extension of that term, which, in its proper meaning, denotes a circle of benevolence limited by the state, of which one is a member. When we speak of the most exalted of all characters, of the man who possesses this virtue, we generally describe him, by a metaphor, a “citizen of the world.” A “man of the world,” which would be the more natural expression, though it is in common use, is used to convey a very different idea.

If the general observations, which I have before made concerning the nature, the structure, and the evidence of language, be well founded, the particular remarks I have now made will appear to be striking and just.

This power of moral abstraction should be exercised and cultivated with the highest degree of attention and zeal. It is as necessary to the progress of exalted virtue, as the power of intellectual abstraction is to the progress of extensive knowledge. The progress of the former will be accompanied with a degree of pleasure, of utility, and of excellence, far superiour to any degree of those qualities, which can accompany the latter. The purest pleasures of mathematical learning spring from the source of accurate and extended intellectual abstraction. But those pleasures, pure as they are, must yield the palm to those, which arise from abstraction of the moral kind. By this power, exerted in different proportions, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the empire of the United States, the civilized and commercial part of the world, the inhabitants of the whole earth, become objects of a benevolence the warmest, and of a spirit the most patriotick; for custom, the arbitress of language, has not yet authorized a more appropriate epithet. By this power, a number of individuals, who, considered separately, may be so minute, so unknown, or so distant, as to elude the operations of our benevolence, yet, comprehended under one important and distinguished aspect, may become a general and complex object, which will warm and dilate the soul. By this power the capacity of our nature is enlarged; men, otherwise invisible, are rendered conspicuous; and become known to the heart as well as to the understanding. This enlarged and elevated virtue ought to be cultivated by nations with peculiar assiduity and ardour. The sphere of exertion, to which an individual is confined, is frequently narrow, however enlarged his disposition may be. But the sphere, to the extent of which a state may exert herself, is often comparatively boundless. By exhibiting a glorious example in her constitution, in her laws, in the administration of her constitution and laws, she may diffuse reformation, she may diffuse instruction, she may diffuse happiness over this whole terrestrial globe.

How often and how fatally are expressions and sentiments perverted! How often and how fatally is perverted conduct the unavoidable and inveterate effect of perverted sentiment and expression! What immense treasures have been exhausted, what oceans of human blood have been shed, in France and England, by force of the expression “natural enemy!” ’Tis an unnatural expression. The antithesis is truly in the thought: for natural enmity forms no title in the genuine law of nations, part of the law of nature. It is adopted from a spurious code.

The foregoing rules and maxims of national law, though they are the sacred, the inviolable, and the exalted precepts of nature, and of nature’s Author, have been long unknown and unacknowledged among nations. Even where they have been known and acknowledged, their calm still voice has been drowned by the solicitations of interest, the clamours of ambition, and the thunder of war. Many of the ancient nations conceived themselves to be under no obligations whatever to other states or the citizens of other states, unless they could produce in their favour a connexion formed and cemented by a treaty of amity.

At last, however, the voice of nature, intelligible and persuasive, has been heard by nations that are civilized: at last it is acknowledged that mankind are all brothers: the happy time is, we hope, approaching, when the acknowledgment will be substantiated by a uniform corresponding conduct.

How beautiful and energetick are the sentiments of Cicero on this subject. “It is more consonant to nature,” that is, as he said a little before, to the law of nations, “to undertake the greatest labours, and to undergo the severest trouble, for the preservation and advantage of all nations, if such a thing could be accomplished, than to live in solitary repose, not only without pain, but surrounded with all the allurements of pleasure and wealth. Every one of a good and great mind, would prefer the first greatly before the second situation in life.” “It is highly absurd to say, as some have said, that no one ought to injure a parent or a brother, for the sake of his own advantage; but that another rule may be observed concerning the rest of the citizens: such persons determine that there is no law, no bonds of society among the citizens, for the common benefit of the commonwealth. This sentiment tends to dissolve the union of the state. Others, again, admit that a social regard is to be paid to the citizens, but deny that this regard ought to be extended in favour of foreigners: such persons would destroy the common society of the human race; and if this common society were destroyed, the destruction would involve, in it, the fate also of beneficence, liberality, goodness, justice. Which last virtue is the mistress and the queen of all the other virtues.”[42] By justice here, Cicero clearly means that universal justice, which is the complete accomplishment of the law of nature.

It has been already observed, that there is one part of the law of nations, called their voluntary law, which is founded on the principle of consent: of this part, publick compacts and customs received and observed by civilized states form the most considerable articles.

Publick compacts are divided into two kinds—treaties and sponsions. Treaties are made by those who are empowered, by the constitution of a state, to represent it in its transactions with other nations. Sponsions are made by an inferiour magistrate or officer, on behalf of the state, but without authority from it. Such compacts, therefore, do not bind the state, unless it confirms them after they are made. These take place chiefly in negotiations and transactions between commanding officers, during a war.

Though the power of making treaties is usually, it is not necessarily annexed to sovereign power. Some of the princes and free cities of Germany, though they hold of the emperour and the empire, have nevertheless the right of making treaties with foreign nations: this right, as well as several other rights of sovereignty, the constitution of the empire has secured to them.

With a policy, wiser and more profound, because it shuts the door against foreign intrigues with the members of the union, no state comprehended within our national government, can enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation.[43] It is in the constitution or fundamental laws of every nation, that we must search, in order to discover what power it is, which has sufficient authority to contract, with validity, in the name of the state.

A treaty is valid, if there has been no essential defect in the manner, in which it has been made; and, in order to guard against essential defects, it is only necessary that there be sufficient power in the contracting parties, that their mutual consent be given, and that that consent be properly declared.

It is a truth certain in the law of nature, that he who has made a promise to another, has given to that other a perfect right to demand the performance of the promise. Nations and the representatives of nations, therefore, ought to preserve inviolably their treaties and engagements: by not preserving them, they subject themselves to all the consequences of violating the perfect right of those, to whom they were made. This great truth is generally acknowledged; but too frequently an irreligious disregard is shown to it in the conduct of princes and states. But such a disregard is weak as well as wicked. In publick as in private life, among sovereigns as among individuals, honesty is the best policy, as well as the soundest morality. Among merchants, credit is wealth; among states and princes, good faith is both respectability and power.

A state, which violates the sacred faith of treaties, violates not only the voluntary, but also the natural and necessary law of nations; for we have seen that, by the law of nature, the fulfilment of promises is a duty as much incumbent upon states as upon men. Indeed it is more incumbent on the former than on the latter; for the consequences both of performing and of violating the engagements of the former, are generally more important and more lasting, than any which can flow from engagements performed or violated by individuals. Hence the strict propriety, as well as the uncommon beauty of the sentiment—that if good faith were banished from every other place, she should find an inviolable sanctuary at least in the bosoms of princes. Every treaty should be illuminated by perspicuity and candour. A tricking minister is, in real infamy, degraded as much below a vulgar cheat, as the dignity of states is raised above that of private persons. Ability and address in negotiation may be used to avoid, never to accomplish a surprise.

Fraud in the subsequent interpretation, is equally base and dishonourable as fraud in the original structure of treaties. In the scale of turpitude, it weighs equally with the most flagrant and notorious perfidy.

Treaties and alliances are either personal or real. The first relate only to the contracting parties, and expire with those who contract. The second relate to the state, in whose name and by whose authority the contract was made, and are permanent as the state itself, unless they determine, at another period, by their own limitation. Every treaty or alliance made with a commonwealth is, in its own nature, real; for it has reference solely to the body of the state. When a free people make an engagement, it is the nation which contracts. Its stipulations depend not on the lives of those, who have been the instruments in forming the treaty: nor even on the lives of those citizens, who were alive when the treaty was formed. They change; but the commonwealth continues the same.

Hence the stability and the security of treaties made with commonwealths. By the faithful observance of their treaties, the Cantons of Switzerland have rendered themselves respectable and respected over all Europe. Let it be mentioned to the honour of the parliament of Great Britain, that it has frequently thanked its king for his zeal and attachment to the treaties, in which he has engaged the nation. The corruption of the best things and institutions, however, always degenerates into the worst. The citizens of Carthage prostituted the character of their republick to such a degree, that, if we may believe the testimony of an enemy, Punica fides (Carthaginian faith) became proverbial, over the ancient world, to denote the extreme of perfidy. As the United States have surpassed others, even other commonwealths, in the excellence of their constitution and government; it is reasonably to be hoped, that they will surpass them, likewise, in the stability of their laws, and in their fidelity to their engagements.

In the great chart of the globe of credit, we hope to see American placed as the very antipode of Carthaginian faith.


Of Municipal Law



Of Man, as an Individual



Of Man, as a Member of Society

“It is not fit that man should be alone,” said the all-wise and all-gracious Author of our frame, who knew it, because he made it; and who looked with compassion on the first solitary state of the work of his hands. Society is the powerful magnet, which, by its unceasing though silent operation, attracts and influences our dispositions, our desires, our passions, and our enjoyments. That we should be anxious to share, and, by sharing, to divide our afflictions, may, to some, appear by no means strange, because a certain turn of thinking will lead them to ascribe this propensity to the selfish rather than to the social part of our nature. But will this interested solution account for another propensity, equally uniform and equally strong? We are no less impatient to communicate our pleasures than our woes. Does self-interest predominate here? No. Our social affection acts here unmixed and uncontrolled.

     There’s not a blessing individuals find,
     But some way leans and hearkens to the kind.
     No bandit fierce, no tyrant mad with pride,
     No caverned hermit rests self-satisfied.
     Who most to shun or hate mankind pretend,
     Seek an admirer, or would fix a friend.
     Abstract what others feel, what others think,
     All pleasures sicken, and all glories sink.[44]

In all our pictures of happiness, which, at certain gay and disengaged moments, appear, in soft and alluring colours, to our fancy, does not a partner of our bliss always occupy a conspicuous place? When, on the other hand, phantoms of misery haunt our disturbed imaginations, do not solitary wanderings frequently form a principal part of the gloomy scenes? It is not an uncommon opinion, and, in this instance, our opinions must be vouched by our feelings, that the most exquisite punishment, which human nature could suffer, would be, in total solitude, to languish out a lengthened life.

. . .

How various and how unwearied are the workings of the social aim! Deprived of one support, it lays hold on another: deprived of that other, it lays hold on another still. While an intelligent, or even an animate being can be found, it will find an object for its unremitted pursuit and attachment.

We may extract sweet lessons of liberty and sociability from the prison of barbarous and despotick power. A French nobleman was long immured in a dreary and solitary apartment. When he had uttered many an unavailing sigh after society, he, at last, was fortunate enough to discover a spider, who had taken up his abode in the same room. Delighted with the acquisition, he immediately formed a social intercourse with the joint inhabitant of his sequestered mansion. He enjoyed, without molestation, this society for a considerable time. But the correspondence was, at last, discovered by his keeper, long tutored and accustomed to all the ingenious inventions and refinements of barbarity. By an effort, which evinced him a consummate master of his art, he killed the spider, and reduced his prisoner again to absolute solitude. The nobleman, after his release, used frequently to declare, that he had seldom experienced more poignant distress, than what he had suffered from the loss of his companion in confinement.

Some philosophers, however, have alleged, that society is not natural, but is only adventitious to us; that it is the mere consequence of direful necessity; that, by nature, men are wolves to men; not wolves to wolves; for between them union and society have a place; but as wolves to sheep, destroyers and devourers. Men, say they, are made for rapine; they are destined to prey upon one another: each is to fight for victory, and to subdue and enslave as many of his fellow creatures, as he possibly can, by treachery or by force. According to these philosophers, the only natural principles of man are selfishness, and an insatiable desire of tyranny and dominion. Their conclusion is, that a state of nature, instead of being a state of kindness, society, and peace, is a state of selfishness, discord, and war. By a strange perversion of things, they would so explain all the social passions and natural affections, as to denominate them of the selfish species. Humanity and hospitality towards strangers or those in distress are represented as selfishness, only of a more deliberate kind. An honest heart is only a cunning one; and good nature is a well regulated self-love. The love of posterity, of kindred, of country, and of mankind—all these are only so many different modifications of this universal self-love.

But if we attend to our nature and our state; if we listen to the operations of our own minds, to our dispositions, our sensations, and our propensities; we shall be fully and agreeably convinced, that the narrow and hideous representation of these philosophers is not founded on the truth of things; but, on the contrary, is totally repugnant to all human sentiment, and all human experience. Indeed, an appeal to themselves will evince, that their philosophy is not consistent even with the instinctive principles of their own hearts—principles, of which the native lustre will, at some times, beam forth, notwithstanding all the care employed to cover or extinguish it. The celebrated Sage of Malmesbury,[45] savage and unsociable as he would make himself and all mankind appear, took the utmost pains that, during his life, and even after his death, others might be kindly rescued from the unhappy delusions, by which they were prevented from discovering the truth.b He told us “that both in religion and in morals, we were imposed on by our governours; that there is nothing, which, by nature, inclines us either way; and that nothing naturally draws us to the love of what is without or beyond ourselves.”[46] And yet he was the most laborious of all men in composing and publishing systems of this kind—for our use.

To such philosophers, animated with this preposterous zeal, this answer, in the spirit of their own doctrines, is plain and easy. If there is nothing to carry you without yourselves; what are we to you? From what motives do you give yourselves all this concern about us? What can induce you to trim your midnight lamp, and waste your spirits in laborious vigils, for our instruction? You disclaim all social connexion with your species; what, then, we say again, are we to you?

But a subject, in itself so material to the sciences of philosophy and of law, merits a serious, a full, and a patient discussion. For it is of high practical importance, that the principles of society should be properly explained and well understood. It has been one of the happy characteristicks of the present age, both on this and on the other side of the Atlantick, that the spirit of philosophy has been wisely directed to the just investigation of those principles; and that the spirit of patriotism has been vigorously exerted in their support.

In a very early part of these lectures, it was observed, concerning definitions and divisions, that by them we are in danger of circumscribing nature within the limits of our own notions, formed frequently on partial and defective views. A very remarkable instance of this occurs in the subject, on the examination of which we now enter.

The intellectual powers of the mind have been commonly divided into simple apprehension, judgment, and reasoning. This division has received the sanction of high antiquity, and of a very extensive adoption; yet it is far from being complete. From it many of the operations of the understanding are excluded, such as consciousness, moral perception, taste, memory, and our perception of objects by means of our external senses. But, besides all these, there is a whole class, and a very important one too, of our intellectual operations, which, because they were not fortunate enough to be included within the foregoing division, have been overlooked by philosophers, and have not even yet been distinguished by a name. Some operations of the mind may take place in a solitary state: others, from their very nature, are social; and necessarily suppose a communication with some other intelligent being. In a state of absolute solitude, one may apprehend, and judge, and reason. But when he bears or hears testimony; when he gives or receives a command; when he enters into an engagement by a promise or a contract; these acts imply necessarily something more than apprehension, judgment, and reasoning; they imply necessarily a society with other beings, social as well as intelligent.

Simple apprehension is unaccompanied with any judgment or belief, concerning the object apprehended. Judgment is formed, as these philosophers say, by comparing ideas, and by perceiving their agreements and disagreements. Reasoning is an operation, by which, from two or more judgments, we deduce a conclusion. Now, from this account of these three operations of the mind, it appears unquestionably, that testimony is neither apprehension, nor judgment, nor reasoning. The same observation will apply, with the same propriety, to a promise, to an agreement, to a contract. Testimony, agreements, contracts, promises form very distinguished titles in that law, which it is the object of these lectures to delineate: perhaps it has already been evinced to your satisfaction, that some of them form its very basis.

That system of human nature must, indeed, appear extremely inadequate and defective, by which articles of such vast importance, both in theory and in the business of life, are left without a place, and without a name.

The attempts of some philosophers to reduce the social operations under the common philosophical divisions, resemble very much the attempts of others, to reduce all our social affections to certain modifications of self love. The Author of our existence intended us to be social beings; and has, for that end, given us social intellectual powers. They are original parts of our constitution; and their exertions are no less natural than the exertions of those powers, which are solitary and selfish.

Our social intellectual operations appear early in life, and before we are capable of reasoning; yet they suppose a conviction of the existence of other intelligent and social beings. A child asks a question of his nurse, and waits for her answer: this implies a conviction that she is intelligent and social; that she can receive and return a communication of thoughts and sentiments.

All languages are fitted to express the social as well as the solitary operations of the mind. To express the former is indeed the primary and the direct intention of language. A man, who had no interchange of sentiments with other social and intelligent beings, would be as mute as the irrational animals that surround him. By language, we communicate to others that, which we know: by language, we learn from others that, of which we are ignorant: by language, we advise, persuade, console, encourage, sooth, restrain: in consequence of language, we are united by political societies, government, and laws: by means of language, we are raised from a situation, in which we should be as rude and as savage as the beasts of the woods.

In the more imperfect societies of mankind, such as those composed of colonies scarcely settled in their new seats, it might pass for sufficient good fortune, if the people proved only so far masters of language, as to be able to understand one another, to confer about their wants, and to provide for their common necessities. Their exposed and indigent state would not afford them either that leisure or that easy disposition, which is requisite for the cultivation of the fine arts. They, who were neither safe from violence, nor secure from want, would not be likely to engage in unnecessary pursuits. It could not be expected that they would turn their attention towards the numbers of their language, or to its best and most perfect application and arrangement. But when, in process of time, the affairs of the society were settled on an easy and secure foundation; when debates and discourses, on the subjects of common interest and of publick good, were become familiar; when the speeches of distinguished characters were considered and compared; then there would be observed, between one speaker and another, a difference, not only with regard to a more agreeable measure of sound, but to a happier and more easy arrangement of sentiment.

The attention paid to language is one distinguishing mark of the progress of society towards its most refined period: as society improves, influence is acquired by the means of reasoning and discourse: in proportion as that influence is felt to increase, in proportion will be the care bestowed upon the methods of expressing conceptions with propriety and elegance. In every polished community, this study has been considered as highly important, and has possessed a place in every plan of liberal education.

In all languages, a question, a promise, a contract, which are social acts, can be expressed as easily and as properly, as a judgment, which is a solitary act. The expression of a judgment has been dignified with a particular appellation; it has been denominated a proposition. It has been analyzed, with great logical parade, into its several parts: its elements of subject, predicate, and copula have been exhibited in ostentatious arrangement: their various modifications have been traced and examined in laborious and voluminous tracts. The expression of a question, of a covenant, or of a promise is as susceptible of analysis as the expression of a judgment: but this has not been attempted; these operations of the mind have not been honoured even with a distinct and appropriate name. Why has so much pains been taken, why has so much labour been bestowed in analyzing, and assigning appropriate names to the solitary operations, and the expression of the solitary operations of the understanding; while so little attention has been allotted to such of its operations as are social? Perhaps it will be difficult to assign any other reason than this: in the divisions, which have been made of the operations of the mind, the social ones have been omitted; and, consequently, have not been introduced to notice or regard.

Our moral perceptions, as well as the other powers of our understanding, indicate, in the strongest manner, our designation for society. Veracity, and its corresponding quality, confidence, show this, in a very striking point of view. If we were intended for solitude, those qualities could have neither operation nor use. On the other hand, without those qualities, society could not be supported. Without the latter, the former would be useless: without the former, the latter would be dangerous. Without confidence in promises, for instance, we must, in the greatest part of our conduct, proceed entirely upon the calculations of chance: but there could be no confidence in promises, if there was no principle, from which their performance might be reasonably expected.

Some may imagine, that though this principle did not exist, yet human affairs might, perhaps, be carried on as well; for that general caution and mutual distrust would be the necessary result; and where no confidence would be reposed, no breach of it could happen. But, not to mention the uneasiness and anxiety which would unavoidably attend such a situation, it is not considered how much, in every hour of our lives, we trust to others; and how difficult, if not entirely impracticable, it would be to perform the most common as well as the most important business of human life, without such trust. The conclusion is, that the performance of promises is essential to society.

Deeply laid in human nature, we now behold the basis of one of the principal pillars of private municipal law; that, which enforces the obligation of promises, agreements, and covenants.

Again; the moral sense restrains us from harming the innocent: it teaches us, that the innocent have a right to be secure from harm. These are two great principles, which prepare us for society; and, with regard to them, the moral sense discovers peculiar inflexibility: it dictates, that we should submit to any distress or danger, rather than procure our safety and relief by violence upon an innocent person. Similar to the restraint, respecting personal safety and security, is the restraint, which the moral sense imposes on us, with regard to property. Robbery and theft are indulged by no society: from a society even of robbers, they are strictly excluded. The necessity of the social law, with regard to personal security, is so evident, as to require no explanation. Its necessity, with regard to property, will be explained and made evident by the following remarks.

Man has a natural propensity to store up the means of his subsistence: this propensity is essential, in order to incite us to provide comfortably for ourselves, and for those who depend on us. But this propensity would be rendered ineffectual, if we were not secured in the possession of those stores which we collect; for no one would toil to accumulate what he could not possess in security. This security is afforded by the moral sense, which dictates to all men, that goods collected by the labour and industry of individuals are their property; and that property ought to be inviolable.

We beheld, a little while ago, one of the principal pillars of civil law founded deeply in our nature: we now perceive the great principles of criminal law laid equally deep in the human frame. Violations of property and of personal security are, as we shall afterwards show particularly, the objects of that law. To punish, and, by punishing, to prevent them, is or ought to be the great end of that law, as shall also be particularly shown.

That we are fitted and intended for society, and that society is fitted and intended for us, will become evident by considering our passions and affections, as well as by considering our moral perceptions, and the other operations of our understandings. We have all the emotions, which are necessary in order that society may be formed and maintained: we have tenderness for the fair sex: we have affection for our children, for our parents, and for our other relations: we have attachment to our friends: we have a regard for reputation and esteem: we possess gratitude and compassion: we enjoy pleasure in the happiness of others, especially when we have been instrumental in procuring it: we entertain for our country an animated and vigorous zeal: we feel delight in the agreeable conception of the improvement and happiness of mankind.

     The centre mov’d, a circle straight succeeds,
     Another still, and still another spreads.
     Friend, parent, neighbour first it will embrace,
     His country next, and next all human race;
     Wide and more wide, th’ o’erflowings of the mind
     Take ev’ry creature in, of ev’ry kind;
     Earth smiles around, with boundless bounty blest,
     And heav’n beholds its image in his breast.[47]

How naturally, and sometimes how strongly, are our passions communicated from one to another, without even the least knowledge of the cause, by which they were originally produced! They are conveyed by aspect: the very countenance is infectious: the emotion flies from face to face: it is no sooner seen than experienced: like the electrick shock, it is felt instantaneously by a whole multitude; though, perhaps, only one of them knows from whence it proceeds. Such is the force of society in the passions.

This sympathy is an important quality of many of our passions: in particular, it invites and produces a communication of joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Spirits, the most generous and the most susceptible of strong impressions, are the most social and combining. They delight most to move in concert; and feel, in the strongest manner, the force of the confederating charm.

The social powers and dispositions of our minds discover themselves in the earliest periods of life. So soon as a child can speak, he can ask, and he can answer a question: before he can speak, he shows signs of love, of resentment, and of other affections necessarily pointed to society. He is capable of social intercourse long before he is capable of reasoning. We behold this charming intercourse between his mother and him, before he is a year old. He can, by signs, ask and refuse, threaten and supplicate. In danger, he clings to his mother—for I will not, on this occasion, distinguish between the mother and the nurse—he enters into her joy and grief, is happy in her caresses, and is unhappy in her displeasure.

As sociability attends us in our infancy; she continues to be our companion through all the variegated scenes of our riper years. By an irresistible charm, she insinuates herself into the hearts of every rank and class of men, and mixes in all the various modes and arrangements of human life. Let us suppose a man of so morose and acrimonious a disposition, as to shun . . . all communication with his species; even such a misanthropist would wish for at least one associate, into whose bosom he might discharge the rancour and virulence of his own heart.

Society is necessary as well as natural to us. To support life, to satisfy our natural appetites, to obtain those agreeable enjoyments of which our nature is susceptible, many external things are indispensable. In order to live with any degree of comfort, we must have food, clothing, habitations, furniture, and utensils of some sort. These cannot be procured without much art and labour; nor without the friendly assistance of our fellows in society.

Let us suppose a man of full strength, and well instructed in all our arts of life, to be reduced suddenly to solitude, even in one of the best of soils and climates: could he procure the grateful conveniences of life? It will not be pretended. Could he procure even its simple necessaries? In an ingenious and excellent romance, we are told this has been done. But it will be remembered, that the foundation of Robinson Crusoe’s future subsistence, and of all the comforts which he afterwards provided and collected, was laid in the useful instruments and machines, which he saved from his shipwreck. These were the productions of society.

Could one, uninstructed in our arts of life, and unfurnished with the productions of society, subsist in solitude, though he were of full age, and possessed of health and strength? the probabilities would run strong against him.

Could one subsist in solitude during the weak, uninformed, and inexperienced period of his infancy? This he could not do, unless, like another Romulus and Remus, he owed his subsistence to the social aid of the wolves.

But let us, for a moment, suppose, that food, raiment, and shelter were supplied even by a miracle; a solitary life must be continually harassed by dangers and fears. Suppose those dangers and fears to be removed; could he find employment for the most excellent powers and instincts of his mind? Could he indulge affection or social joy? could he communicate, or could he receive social pleasure or social regard? Dispositions very different indeed—sour discontentment, sullen melancholy, listless languor—must prey upon his soul.

The reciprocal assistance of those, who compose a single family, may procure many of the necessaries of life; and may diminish its dangers. In this state some room will be afforded for social enjoyments, and for the finer operations of the mind. Still greater pleasures and advantages would be obtained by the union of a few families in the same neighbourhood. They would undertake and execute laborious works for the common good of all; and social emotions would operate in a less contracted circuit. Associations, still larger, will enlarge the sphere of pleasure and enjoyment; and will furnish more diversified and delightful exercise to our powers of every kind. Knowledge is increased: inventions are discovered: experience improves them: and the inventions, with their improvements, are spread over the whole community. Designs of durable and extensive advantage are boldly formed, and vigorously carried into effect. The social and benevolent affections range in an ample sphere; and attain an eminent degree of strength and refinement.

On what does our security—on what do our enjoyments depend? On our mutual services and sympathetick pleasures. Other animals have strength or speed sufficient for their preservation and defence. Man is, in all states, encompassed with weakness and dangers: but the strength and safety, which he wants by himself, he finds, when he is united with his equals. Nature has endowed him with a principle, which gives him force and superiority, where otherwise he would be helpless and inferiour. By sociability, they, who separately could make no effectual resistance, conquer and tame the various kinds of the brute creation. Society is the cause, that, not satisfied with the element on which he was born, man extends his dominion over the sea. Society supplies him with remedies in his diseases, with comfort in his afflictions, and with assistance in his old age. Take away society, and you destroy the basis, on which the preservation and happiness of human life are laid.

“There is nothing more certain,” says Cicero, “than the excellent maxim of Plato—that we are not intended solely for ourselves; but that our friends and our country claim a portion of our birth. Since, according to the doctrine of the stoicks, the productions of the earth are designed for men, and men are designed for the mutual aid of one another; we should certainly pursue the design of Nature, and promote her benign intention, by contributing our proportion to the general interest, by mutually performing and receiving good offices, and by employing our care, our industry, and even our fortune, in order to strengthen the love and friendship, which should always predominate in human society.”[48]

In point of dignity, the social operations and emotions of the mind rise to a most respectable height. The excellency of man is chiefly discerned in the great improvements, of which he is susceptible in society: these, by perseverance and vigour, may be carried on progressively to degrees higher and higher, above any limits which we can now assign.

Our social affections and operations acquire still greater importance, in another point of view: they promote and are necessary to our happiness. “If we could suppose ourselves,” says Cicero, who knew so well how to illustrate law by philosophy—“if we could suppose ourselves transported by some divinity into a solitude, replete with all the delicacies which the heart of man could desire, but excluded, at the same time, from every possible intercourse with our kind, there is not a person in the world of so unsocial and savage a temper, as to be capable, in these forlorn circumstances, of relishing any enjoyment.” “Nothing,” continues he, “is more true, than what the philosopher Archytas is reported to have said: If a man were to be carried up into heaven, and see the beauties of universal nature displayed before him, he would receive but little pleasure from the wonderful scenes, unless there was some person, to whom he could relate the glories, which he had viewed. Human nature is so constituted, as to be incapable of solitary satisfactions. Man, like those plants which are formed to embrace others, is led, by an instinctive impulse, to recline on those of his own kind.”[49]

     Man, like the gen’rous vine, supported lives;
     The strength he gains is from th’ embrace he gives.[50]

The observations, which we make in common life, vouch the justness of these sentiments. We see those persons possess the greatest share of happiness, who have about them many objects of love and endearment. To the want of these objects, may be ascribed the moroseness of monks, and of those who, without entering into any religious order, lead the lives of monks.

Of the same nature with the indulgence of domestick affections, and equally refreshing to the spirit, is the pleasure, which flows from acts of beneficence, either in bestowing pecuniary favours, or in imparting, to those who want it, the benefit of our advice, or the assistance of our professional skill. The last consideration is urged, with peculiar propriety, by the professor of law. Innumerable instances occur, in which gentlemen of the bar, who possess abilities and character, can bestow what may be called favours, even on those, who are both able and willing to pay well for their services. When a client has an important business depending, entire confidence in the integrity and talents of his counsel diffuses over his mind a degree of composure and serenity, against which a fee, weighed in the balance, would be found wanting. This is particularly the case, when the life or the reputation of the client is at stake.

The foregoing observations may also be applied to publick services done for the state, by assisting her in her councils, or by defending or prosecuting her interests. Even if no suitable return, as it sometimes happens, should be received from the state for such services; yet a mind, nurtured to the refined and enlarged exercise of the social passion, will find no trivial pleasure in the reflection that it has performed them, and that those, for whom they were performed, enjoy the advantages resulting from them. Virtue, in such an instance, will prove herself her own reward. A man, whose soul vibrates in unison with the benevolent affections, will always find within him an encouragement, and a compensation too, for discharging his duty—an encouragement and a compensation, of which ingratitude itself cannot deprive him.

I will not appeal to vanity, and ask, if any thing can be more flattering, than to obtain the praises and acclamations of others. But I will appeal to conscious rectitude, and ask, whether any thing can be more satisfactory, than to deserve their regard and esteem. The possession of science is always attended with pleasure: but science, believe me, acquires an increased relish, when we have an opportunity of pouring it into the bosoms of others. We receive a redoubled satisfaction from the agreeable, though, perhaps, the flattering opinion, that we communicate entertainment and instruction; and from the opinion, better founded, that even weak attempts to communicate entertainment and instruction are received with reflected social emotions.

What can be more productive of happiness than even those wants, which are the foundations of so many blessings—love and friendship, generosity and reliance, kindness and gratitude? The gratifications even of sense lose their relish, if not heightened by the “spes mutui credula animi”[51]—corresponding social emotions.

Our esteem of others, too, arising from the approbation of their conduct, is a most pleasing affection. The contemplation of a great and good character warms the heart, and invigorates the whole frame.

The wisest and most benign constitution of a rational and moral system is that, in which the degree of private affection, most useful to the individual, is, at the same time, consistent with the greatest interest of the system; and in which the degree of social affection, most useful to the system, is, at the same time, productive of the greatest happiness to the individual. Thus it is in the system of society. In that system, he who acts on such principles, and is governed by such affections, as sever him from the common good and publick interest, works, in reality, towards his own misery: while he, on the other hand, who operates for the good of the whole, as is by nature and by nature’s God appointed him, pursues, in truth, and at the same time, his own felicity.

Regulated by this standard, extensive, unerring, and sublime, self-love and social are the same.

To a state of society, then, we are invited from every quarter. It is natural; it is necessary; it is pleasing; it is profitable to us. The result of all is, that for a state of society we are designated by Him, who is all-wise and all-good.

Society may be distinguished into two kinds, natural and civil. This distinction has not been marked with the accuracy, which it well merits. Indeed some writers have given little or no attention to the latter kind; others have expressly denied it, and said, that there can be no civil society without civil government. But this is certainly not the case. A state of civil society must have existed, and such a state, in all our reasonings on this subject, must be supposed, before civil government could be regularly formed and established. Nay, ’tis for the security and improvement of such a state, that the adventitious one of civil government has been instituted. To civil society, indeed, without including in its description the idea of civil government, the name of state may be assigned, by way of excellence. It is in this sense that Cicero seems to use it, in the following beautiful passage. “Nothing, which is exhibited on our globe, is more acceptable to that divinity, which governs the whole universe, than those communities and assemblages of men, which, lawfully associated,—jure sociati—are denominated states.”[52]

How often has the end been sacrificed to the means! Government was instituted for the happiness of society: how often has the happiness of society been offered as a victim to the idol of government! But this is not agreeable to the true order of things: it is not consistent with the orthodox political creed. Let government—let even the constitution be, as they ought to be, the handmaids; let them not be, for they ought not to be, the mistresses of the state.

A state may be described—a complete body of free persons, united together for their common benefit, to enjoy peaceably what is their own, and to do justice to others. It is an artificial person: it has an understanding and a will peculiar to itself: it has its affairs and its interests: it deliberates and resolves: it has its rules; it has its obligations; and it has its rights. It may acquire property, distinct from that of its members: it may incur debts, to be discharged out of the publick stock, not out of the private fortunes of individuals: it may be bound by contracts, and for damages arising quasi ex contractu (as though from contract). In order to constitute a state, it is indispensably necessary, that the wills and the power of all the members be united in such a manner, that they shall never act nor desire but one and the same thing, in whatever relates to the end, for which the society is established. It is from this union of wills and of strength, that the state or body politick results. The only rational and natural method, therefore, of constituting a civil society, is by the convention or consent of the members, who compose it. For by a civil society we properly understand, the voluntary union of persons in the same end, and in the same means requisite to obtain that end. This union is a benefit, not a sacrifice: civil is an addition to natural order.

This union may rationally be supposed to be formed in the following manner: if a number of people, who had hitherto lived independent of each other, wished to form a civil society, it would be necessary to enter into an engagement to associate together in one body, and to regulate, with one common consent, whatever regards their preservation, their security, their improvement, their happiness.

In the social compact, each individual engages with the whole collectively, and the whole collectively engage with each individual. These engagements are obligatory, because they are mutual. The individuals who are not parties to them, are not members of the society. Smaller societies may be formed within a state by a part of its members. These societies also are deemed to be moral persons; but not in a state of natural liberty: their actions are cognizable by the superiour power of the state, and are regulated by its laws. To these societies the name of corporations is generally appropriated, though somewhat improperly; for the term is strictly applicable to supreme as well as to inferiour bodies politick. The foregoing account of the formation of civil society, which refers it to original engagements; and consequently resolves the duty of submission to the laws of the society, into the universal obligation of fidelity in the performance of promises, is warmly attacked by a sensible and ingenious writer.[53] He represents it, as founded on a supposition, false in fact; as insufficient, if it was true, for the purposes, for which it is produced; and as leading to dangerous consequences. He acknowledges, however, that, in the United States, transactions have happened, which bear the nearest resemblance to this political idea, of any, of which history has preserved the account or the memory. This subject has already received some; it will afterwards receive more attention and examination. At present, it is sufficient, and it is proper, to intimate to you the point of discussion; for it is a very important one in the science of government.

In civil society, previously to the institution of civil government, all men are equal. Of one blood all nations are made; from one source the whole human race has sprung. When we say, that all men are equal; we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues, their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements. In all these respects, there is, and it is fit for the great purposes of society that there should be, great inequality among men. In the moral and political as well as in the natural world, diversity forms an important part of beauty; and as of beauty, so of utility likewise. That social happiness, which arises from the friendly intercourse of good offices, could not be enjoyed, unless men were so framed and so disposed, as mutually to afford and to stand in need of service and assistance. Hence the necessity not only of great variety, but even of great inequality in the talents of men, bodily as well as mental. Society supposes mutual dependence: mutual dependence supposes mutual wants: all the social exercises and enjoyments may be reduced to two heads—that of giving, and that of receiving: but these imply different aptitudes to give and to receive.

Many are the degrees, many are the varieties of human genius, human dispositions, and human characters. One man has a turn for mechanicks; another, for architecture; one paints; a second makes poems: this excels in the arts of a military; the other, in those of civil life. To account for these varieties of taste and character, is not easy; is, perhaps, impossible. But though their efficient cause it may be difficult to explain; their final cause, that is, the intention of Providence in appointing them, we can see and admire. These varieties of taste and character induce different persons to choose different professions and employments in life: these varieties render mankind mutually beneficial to each other, and prevent too violent oppositions of interest in the same pursuit. Hence we enjoy a variety of conveniences; hence the numerous arts and sciences have been invented and improved; hence the sources of commerce and friendly intercourse between different nations have been opened; hence the circulation of truth has been quickened and promoted; hence the operations of social virtue have been multiplied and enlarged.

     Heaven, forming each on other to depend,
     Bids each on other for assistance call,
     ’Till one man’s weakness grows the strength of all.
     Wants, frailties, passions closer still ally
     The common interest, or endear the tie:
     To these we owe true friendship, love sincere,
     Each home-felt joy, that life inherits here.[54]

How insipidly uniform would human life and manners be, without the beautiful variety of colours, reflected upon them by different tastes, different tempers, and different characters!

But however great the variety and inequality of men may be with regard to virtue, talents, taste, and acquirements; there is still one aspect, in which all men in society, previous to civil government, are equal. With regard to all, there is an equality in rights and in obligations; there is that “jus aequum,” that equal law, in which the Romans placed true freedom. The natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all. Each forms a part of that great system, whose greatest interest and happiness are intended by all the laws of God and nature. These laws prohibit the wisest and the most powerful from inflicting misery on the meanest and most ignorant; and from depriving them of their rights or just acquisitions. By these laws, rights, natural or acquired, are confirmed, in the same manner, to all; to the weak and artless, their small acquisitions, as well as to the strong and artful, their large ones. If much labour employed entitles the active to great possessions, the indolent have a right, equally sacred, to the little possessions, which they occupy and improve.

As in civil society, previous to civil government, all men are equal; so, in the same state, all men are free. In such a state, no one can claim, in preference to another, superiour right: in the same state, no one can claim over another superiour authority. Nature has implanted in man the desire of his own happiness; she has inspired him with many tender affections towards others, especially in the near relations of life; she has endowed him with intellectual and with active powers; she has furnished him with a natural impulse to exercise his powers for his own happiness, and the happiness of those, for whom he entertains such tender affections. If all this be true, the undeniable consequence is, that he has a right to exert those powers for the accomplishment of those purposes, in such a manner, and upon such objects, as his inclination and judgment shall direct; provided he does no injury to others; and provided some publick interests do not demand his labours. This right is natural liberty. Every man has a sense of this right. Every man has a sense of the impropriety of restraining or interrupting it. Those who judge wisely, will use this liberty virtuously and honourably: those, who are less wise, will employ it in meaner pursuits: others, again, may, perhaps, indulge it in what may be justly censured as vicious and dishonourable. Yet, with regard even to these last, while they are not injurious to others; and while no human institution has placed them under the control of magistrates or laws, the sense of liberty is so strong, and its loss is so deeply resented, that, upon the whole, more unhappiness would result from depriving them of their liberty on account of their imprudence, than could be reasonably apprehended from the imprudent use of their liberty.

The right of natural liberty is suggested to us not only by the selfish parts of our constitution, but by our generous affections; and especially by our moral sense, which intimates to us, that in our voluntary actions consist our dignity and perfection. The laws of nature are the measure and the rule; they ascertain the limits and the extent of natural liberty.

In society, when the sentiments of the members are not unanimous, the voice of the majority must be deemed the will of the whole. That the majority, by any vote, should bind not only themselves, but those also who dissent from that vote, seems, at first, to be inconsistent with the well known rules—that all men are naturally equal; and that all men are naturally free. From these rules, it may be alleged, that no one can be bound by the act of another, without his own consent. But it is to be remembered, that society is constituted for a certain purpose; and that each member of it consents that this purpose shall be carried on; and, consequently, that every thing necessary for carrying it on shall be done. Now a number of persons can jointly do business only in three ways—by the decision of the whole, by the decision of the majority, or by the decision of the minority. The first case is not here supposed, nor is there occasion to make a question concerning it. The only remaining question, then, which can be proposed, is, which is most reasonable and equitable—that the minority should bind the majority—or that the majority should bind the minority? The latter, certainly. It is most reasonable; because it is not so probable, that a greater number, as that a smaller number, concurring in judgment, should be mistaken. It is most equitable; because the greater number are presumed to have an interest in the society proportioned to that number. Besides; though, in the case supposed, the minority are bound without their immediate consent; they are bound by their consent originally given to the establishment of the society, for the purposes which it was intended to accomplish. For it has been already observed, that those, who enter not into the original engagement forming the society, are not to be considered as members: all the members, therefore, must have originally given their consent.

The rule, which we have mentioned, may be altered and modified by positive institution. In some cases, the consent of a number larger than a mere majority: in others, even unanimity may be required.

This is the proper place for considering a question of very considerable importance in civil society, and concerning which there has been much diversity in the sentiments of writers, and in the laws and practice of states: has a state a right to prohibit the emigration of its members? may a citizen dissolve the connexion between him and his country? On the principles of the compact of association, which I have already stated, there seems to be but little doubt that one article of it may be, that each individual binds himself indissolubly to the society, while the society performs, on its part, the stipulated conditions. This engagement each individual may make for himself: . . . but can he make it for his children and his posterity? must they be and continue bound by the act of their father and ancestor?

The notion of natural, perpetual, and unalienable allegiance from the citizen to the society, or to the head of the society, of which he was born a member, has, by some writers and in some countries, been carried very far indeed: and their practice has been equally rigorous with their principles. The well known maxim, which the writers upon the law of England have adopted and applied to this case is, “Nemo potest exuere patriam” (No one can case of his country). It is not, therefore, as is holden by that law, in the power of any private subject to shake off his allegiance, and to transfer it to a foreign prince. Nor is it in the power of any foreign prince, by naturalizing or employing a subject of Great Britain, to dissolve the bond of allegiance between that subject and the crown. . . .

The reasons in favour of the position, that a citizen cannot dissolve the political connexion between him and his country, may be stated in the following manner. Every citizen, as soon as he is born, is under the protection of the state, and is entitled to all the advantages arising from that protection: he, therefore, owes obedience to that power, from which the protection, which he enjoys, is derived. But while he continues in infancy and nonage, he cannot perform the duties of obedience. The performance of them must be respited, till he arrive at the years of discretion and maturity. When he arrives at those years, he owes obedience, not only for the protection, which he then enjoys, but also for that, which, from his birth, he has enjoyed. Obedience now becomes a duty founded upon principles of gratitude, as well as upon principles of interest: it becomes a debt, which nothing but the performance of the duties of citizenship, during a whole life, will discharge.[55]

But, notwithstanding this train of thought and reasoning, there are certainly cases, in which a citizen has an unquestionable right to renounce his country, and go in quest of a settlement in some other part of the world. One of these cases is, when, in his own country, he cannot procure a subsistence. Another is, when the society neglects to fulfil its obligations to the citizen. A third is, when the society would establish laws, on things, to which the original social compact cannot oblige the citizen to submit.[56]

In answer to the inferences drawn from principles of gratitude, it may be observed, that every man being born free, a native citizen, when he arrives at the age of discretion, may examine whether it be convenient for him to join in the society, for which he was destined by his birth. If, on examination, he finds, that it will be more advantageous to him to remove into another country, he has a right to go, making to that which he leaves a proper return for what it has done in his favour, and preserving for it, as far as it shall be consistent with the engagements, which his new situation and connexions may require, the sentiments of respect and attachment.

The sentiments of Mr. Locke on this subject go much further. “’Tis plain,” says he, “by the law of right reason, that a child is born a subject of no country or government. He is under his father’s tuition and authority, till he comes to the age of discretion; and then he is a freeman, at liberty what government he will put himself under; what body politick he will unite himself to.”[57]

“O glorious regulations!” says Cicero, “originally established for us by our ancestors of Roman name; that no one of us should be obliged to belong to more than one society, since a dissimilitude of societies must produce a proportioned variety of laws; that no one, contrary to his inclination, should be deprived of his right of citizenship; and that no one, contrary to his inclinations, should be obliged to continue in that relation. The power of retaining and of renouncing our rights of citizenship, is the most stable foundation of our liberties.”[58]

In the digest of the Roman law, it is laid down as a rule, that every one is at liberty to choose the state, of which he wishes to be a member.[59] Indeed, excepting in some very particular cases, every one ought to be at liberty to leave the state. This general liberty is not only just, but may be productive of much generous emulation among states, and of extensive advantages to their citizens. Those states, which manage their affairs best, will offer the strongest inducements to their own citizens to remain, and to others to incorporate among them. On the other hand, it is both inhuman and unjust to convert the state into a prison for its citizens, by preventing them from leaving it on a prospect of advantage to themselves. True it is, that they ought to make compensation for any advantages, which they have derived from the state at its expense: but equally true it is, that this compensation is generally made, by their having contributed annually, during their past residence, towards the publick revenue, by paying taxes on property, as all men, even minors, do; and by consuming goods, on which imposts or duties have been levied.

Emigration may arise from various causes. It may be occasioned by the population of a country. In this case, great numbers may be constantly leaving the state, and yet the state may be increasing in population. It has been suggested by some writers, that the right of exposing children has been one cause of the populousness of China. Surely the prospect that they will be comfortably provided for, if not in their own, yet in another country, must be a much more powerful, as well as more humane incentive to marriages.

Insecurity, hardships, oppression may be the causes of emigration. A nation whose inhabitants are in a predicament so disagreeable, may be in declining circumstances; but those circumstances, indicating a decline, are not the effects of emigration; they are the effects of the evils and calamities which occasion it. Two things, which are commonly considered as cause and effect, are often no more than two collateral effects of the same cause.

Independently, therefore, of the question of right, there can be but few cases, in which emigration could be prohibited on the sound principles of policy. Emigration, it is true, may be a symptom of languor and decay; but it may also be an evidence and a consequence of the overflowing vigour and prosperity of the state.

Permit me to suggest a still further reason—to me it appears a strong one—in favour of unrestrained emigration. In a free state, the consent of every citizen to its institution and government ought to be evinced either by express declarations, or by the strongest and justest presumptions. When a state is formed, the residence of a citizen is presumed a sufficient evidence of his assent and acquiescence in its institutions: to reside in any country is universally deemed a submission to its authority. But that these presumptions may be fairly drawn, we must be understood as speaking of a state, from which the citizens have liberty to depart with their effects at pleasure. Where this liberty is not enjoyed, the considerations of family, of property, and many other considerations that are without a name, may detain a man, much against his inclination, in a country, in which he finds himself trammelled. In such case, his residence is no reasonable evidence of his consent to the formation, the constitution, the government, or the laws of the state.

Upon the whole it appears, that the right of emigration is a right, advantageous to the citizen, and generally useful even to the state. . . .


Of Man, as a Member of a Confederation.



Of Man, as a Member of the Great Commonwealth of Nations

Every civil society, under whatever form it appears, whether governed merely by the natural laws of such a society, or by them and civil institutions superadded—every such society, not subordinate to another, is a sovereign state.

Those, who unite in society, lived, before their union, in a state of nature: a state of nature is a state of equality and liberty. That liberty and that equality, belonging to the individuals, before the union, belong, after the union, to the society, which those individuals compose. The consequence is, that a society is subjected to no power or authority without it; that it may do what is necessary for its preservation; that it may exercise all its rights, and is obliged to give an account of its conduct to no one. But these things constitute what is called sovereignty. Every state, therefore, composed of individuals, free and equal, is a state sovereign and independent. The aggregate body possesses all the rights of the individuals, of whom it is formed.

Another consequence is, that the rights of any one state are naturally the same as those of every other. States are moral persons, who live together in a natural society, under the law of nations. To give a state a right to make an immediate figure in the great society of nations, it is sufficient, if it be really sovereign and independent; that is, it must govern itself by its own authority.[60] Thus, when the United Colonies found it necessary to dissolve the political bonds, which had connected them with Great Britain, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitled them; they had a right to publish and declare, as, in fact, they did publish and declare, that “they were free and independent states; and that, as free and independent states, they had full power to levy war, to conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things, which independent states may of right do”; though, at that time, no articles of confederation were agreed upon; nor was any form of civil government instituted by them.

A number of individuals, who have formed themselves into a society or state, are, with regard to the purposes of the society, bound to consider themselves as one moral person. But the rest of mankind, who are not parties to this social compact, are under no obligation to take notice of it; and may still consider the society as a large number of unconnected persons. This personality—I know no better expression for it—of a state must, as to other nations, be derived from their consent and agreement. But when a society have once associated, and considered and announced themselves to other nations as a moral person, this consent and agreement ought not to be refused, without solid and special reasons, which will justify the refusal. On this consent and agreement, the mutual and mutually beneficial intercourse of nations is founded: whatever, therefore, promotes this intercourse, should be zealously encouraged; whatever prevents or interrupts it, should be cautiously avoided. Though one state has, by an unequal alliance, formed a connexion with another state more powerful; still the weaker state is to be reckoned in the class of sovereigns. To the weaker state, the unequal alliance may secure the most assistance; on the stronger, it may reflect the most honour; but it leaves both the same rank among the society of nations.

We may go further; if a state, in order to provide for its own safety, finds it necessary to place itself under the protection of another; and, in consideration of that protection, stipulates to perform equivalent offices, without devesting itself of the right of self-government; such a state ceases not to preserve its place among sovereigns. The payment even of tribute, though it may diminish the dignity of the society, by no means destroys or impairs its sovereignty or its rights.

Two sovereign states may employ the same executive magistrate, or bear allegiance to the same prince, without any dependence on each other; and each may retain all its national rights, free and undiminished. This last, under the house of Stuart, was the case of England and Scotland, before the nation of Great Britain was formed by their union. This last, also, as shall be hereafter shown at large, was the case of Great Britain and the American colonies, before the political connexion between them was declared to be dissolved.

But one people who have passed under the dominion of another, can no longer form a state: they can no longer retain a place in the great society of nations. Of that great society, equality is the basis and the rule. To this equality, the inferiority of subjection and the superiority of command are, alike, repugnant.

This equality of nations is the great and general foundation of national rights. In this matter, no regard is had to names. On the great theatre of the world, empires, kingdoms, commonwealths, principalities, dukedoms, free towns, are all equally imperial. A society, which, without subordination to any other, exercises within itself all the essential powers of society, is sovereign, and has all the rights of a sovereign and independent state; however narrow its territories; however small its numbers may be.

Every nation deserves consideration and respect; because it makes an immediate figure in the grandest society of the human race; because it is independent of all earthly power; and because it is an assemblage of a number of men, who, doubtless, are more considerable than any individual.

With regard to precedency, or the first place among equals, power and antiquity are grounds, upon which it is claimed or allowed. Into this question, the forms of government do not enter.

. . .


Of Government



Comparison of the Constitution of the United States, with that of Great Britain.





1.     William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, §38.

2.     Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 1, ch. 2.

3.     Daws. Orig. Laws, 4. 14.

4.     Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 1, ch. 11.  

5.     Blackstone, Commentaries, Book 1, §38.

6.     Blackstone, Commentaries, Book 1, §43.

7.     Frederick II ("Frederick the Great"), King of Prussia. Works. Vol. 6, p. 48, 50. (Editor: Probably a quotation of the essay "The Anti-Macchiavel," which Frederick II published, in close collabortion with Voltaire, in 1740.)

8.     Frederick II, King of Prussia. Works. Vol. 6, pp. 83, 84.

9.     Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748). (Translated into English by Nugent. Cambridge, 1752). Volume 1, Part 1, Ch. 9 ("Of the foundation of sovereignty, or the right of commanding"), section II.

10.   Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural Law, Vol. 1, Part 1, ch. 9, section III.1. (Editor: The whole paragraph is lifted verbatim from Burlamaqui. The portion in quotation marks is Burlamaqui's own quote of Thomas Hobbes's De Cive, ch. 15, section 5.)

11.   Ibid.

12.   Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural Law, Vol. 1, Part 1, ch. 9, section III.2.

13.   Ibid., IV.1.

14.   Ibid., V.2.

15.   Thomas Rutherforth (Rutherford), Institutes of Natural Law, Volume 1, Ch. 1, section VI.

16.   Hugo Grotius, "Preliminary Discourse Concerning the Certainty of Right," in The Rights of War and Peace, Volume 1,  Book 1, Chapter 1, section X.2, footnote 3. (Editor: This is actually a quotation of a footnote by the early editor of this text, Jean Barbeyrac, who is here commenting on Grotius's text).

17.   Hein. 63; Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural and Politic Law, Vol. 1, Part 2, Ch. 7, Sections VI, VIII, X (pages 207, 210, 212); Samuel von Pufendorf (Puffendorf), The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature, Book 1, chapter 2, sections 5 and 6.

18.   Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural and Politic Law, Vol. 1, Part 2, Ch. 7, Sections VIII, X, I (pages 210, 212, 202); Hein. 10.

19.   Thomas Rutherforth, Institutes of Natural Law, Volume 1, section 9.

20.   Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural and Politic Law, Vol. 1, Part 2, Ch. 7, Section 13.1–3,7; Ch. 8, Section 1 (pages 214, 216; 219, 220).  

21.   William Paley, The Principles of Moral Philosophy (1785), Book 2, Ch. 6 [82 in Wilson's numbering]; Hein., 51.

22.   Hein., 50; Grotius, Preliminary Discourse Concerning the Certainty of Right, section 17; Pufendorf, The Whole Duty of Man, Book 2, chapter 3, section 15 [Book I, ch. 3, section IX in the edition linked here].

23.   Thomas Rutherforth, Institutes of Natural Law, Volume 1, section 9.

24.  "Principem legem illam et ultimam, mentem esse dicebant, omnia ratione aut cogentis, aut vetantis dei." ("They [the wisest men] said that the primary and ultimate law was the mind of God who either compels or forbids all things by reason.") Cicero, De Legibus Book 2, section 8.

25.  "Quae est gens, aut quod genus hominum, quod non habeat sine doctrina antecipationem quandam [deorum? . . . ], id est, anteceptam animo rei quandam informationem, sine qua nec intelligi quidquam, nec quaeri, nec disputari potest." ("What nation is there, or what race of men is there, that does not have, [and] without instruction, some preconception [of the gods? . . .]—that is, some information of the reality already taken into one's soul, without which nothing can be understood, sought, or debated.") Cicero, De Natura Deorum, Book 1, Ch. 16. Wilson's text omits the portion of the original represented here by [deorum? . . .].

26.  Titus Lucretius Carus (99–55 BC) was a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher who wrote De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). [Comment of the Online Library of Liberty]

27.  William Paley, Principles of Moral Philosophy, Book I, Ch. 5; Henry Home, Lord Kames, Principles of Equity (1760), Ch. 1, page 8.

28.  Francis Hutcheson, An Essay on the Nature anc Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, 237, 121.

29.  Joseph Addison (1672–1719) was an English writer and politician who founded The Spectator. [Comment of the Online Library of Liberty]

30.  Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 3, verse 99.

31.  Cicero, De Republica, Book 3, Section 33.

32.  Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 1, section 6, page 8.

33.  Barbeyrac, Preface to Pufendorf, The Whole Duty of Man, section 29, page 79.

34.  Hugo Grotius, Preliminary Discourse Concerning the Certainty of Right, section 41.

35.  Ibid., section 14.

36.  Pufendorf, The Whole Duty of Man, page 149. Book 2, chapter 3, section 23.

37.  Emer (Emmerich) de Vattel, The Law of Nations, Preface.

38.  Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural and Politic Law, Volume 1, Part 2, Ch. 6, Section 7; Burlamaqui, 196.

39.  Jacques Necker, On the Importance of Religious Opinions. Preface, 19.

40.  Cicero, De Amicitia, section 5[16].

41.  Thomas Rutherforth (Rutherford), Institutes of Natural Law, Volume 2, 463, 464.

42.  Cicero, De Officiis, book 3, section 5[183] and section 6[184].

43.  U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 10.

44.  Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 4, verse 39.

45.  William of Malmesbury (c. 1090–c. 1143) was a great English historian who lived much of his life as a monk at Malmesbury Abbey. [Comment of the Online Library of Liberty]

46.  William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella, The Shaftsbury Charter, 90.

47.  Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 4, verse 365.

48.  Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1, section 22.

49.  Cicero, De Amicitia, section 23[87, 88].

50.  Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 3, verse 311.

51.  Literally, “the trusting hope of mutual feeling,” but a clearer sense of the tone is “the naive hope that love will be requited.” The phrase is from Horace, Odes, 4.1.29. [Comment of the Online Library of Liberty]

52.  Cicero , "The Dream of Scipio," De Republica, Book 6, ch. 3[section 13].

53.  William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Book 6, Ch. 3 ("The Duty of Submission to Civil Government Explained").

54.  Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 2, verse 249.

55.  2 P. Williams, 123, 124.

56.  Vattel, The Law of Nations. Book 1, Ch. 19, sections 223–25.

57.  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Section 118.

58.  Cicero, Pro Balbo, ch. 13[31].

59.  The Digest/Pandects of Justinian [of Roman Law], book 49, t. 15.

60.  Vattel, The Law of Nations, book 1, Preliminaries, section 4.

Chisholm v. Georgia

By The Supreme Court of the United States of America


[The Supreme Court of the United States of America. Chisholm v. Georgia. 1793. 2  U.S. 2 Dall. 419 (1793). In the Public Domain.]


Wilson, Justice—This is a case of uncommon magnitude. One of the parties to it is a State, certainly respectable, claiming to be sovereign. The question to be determined is, whether this state, so respectable, and whose claim soars so high, is amenable to the jurisdiction of the supreme court of the United States? This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more important still. . . .


. . .


I. I am first to examine this question by the principles of general jurisprudence. What I shall say upon this head, I introduce, by the observation of an original and profound writer, who, on the philosophy of mind, and all the sciences attendant on this prime one, has formed an era not less remarkable, and far more illustrious, than that formed by the justly celebrated Bacon, in another science, not prosecuted with less ability, but less dignified as to its object; I mean the philosophy of nature. Dr. Reid, in his excellent inquiry into the human mind, on the principles of common sense, speaking of the sceptical and illiberal philosophy, which, under bold, but false, pretensions to liberality, prevailed in many parts of Europe before he wrote, makes the following judicious remark: “The language of philosophers, with regard to the original faculties of the mind, is so adapted to the prevailing system, that it cannot fit any other; like the coat that fits the man for whom it was made, and shows him to advantage, which yet will fit very awkward upon one of a different make, although as handsome and well proportioned. It is hardly possible to make any innovation in our philosophy concerning the mind and its operations, without using new words and phrases, or giving a different meaning to those that are received.” With equal propriety, may this solid remark be applied to the great subject, on the principles of which the decision of this court is to be founded. The perverted use of genus and species in logic, and of impressions and ideas in metaphysics, have never done mischief so extensive or so practically pernicious, as has been done by states and sovereigns, in politics and jurisprudence; in the politics and jurisprudence even of those who wished and meant to be free. . . .


. . .


[I]t is now proper, that I should disclose the meaning which I assign to [the terms state and sovereign], and the application which I make of the latter. In doing this, I shall have occasion incidentally to evince, how true it is, that states and governments were made for man; and at the same time, how true it is, that his creatures and servants have first deceived, next vilified, and at last, oppressed their master and maker.


Man, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all-perfect Creator: a state, useful and valuable as the contrivance is, is the inferior contrivance of man and from his native dignity, derives all its acquired importance. . . .


Let a state be considered as subordinate to the People: but let everything else be subordinate to the state. The latter part of this position is equally necessary with the former. For in the practice, and even, at length, in the science of politics, there has very frequently been a strong current against the natural order of things, and an inconsiderate or an interested disposition to sacrifice the end to the means. As the state has claimed precedence of the people; so, in the same inverted course of things, the government has often claimed precedence of the state; and to this perversion in the second degree, many of the volumes of confusion concerning sovereignty owe their existence. . . . By a state, I mean, a complete body of free persons united together for their common benefit, to enjoy peaceably what is their own, and to do justice to others. It is an artificial person. It has its affairs and its interests: it has its rules: it has its rights: and it has its obligations. It may acquire property, distinct from that of its members: it may incur debts, to be discharged, out of the public stock, not out of the private fortunes of individuals. It may be bound by contracts; and for damages arising from the breach of those contracts. In all our contemplations, however, concerning this feigned and artificial person, we should never forget, that, in truth and nature, those who think and speak and act, are men.


Is the foregoing description of a state, a true description? It will not be questioned, but it is. Is there any part of this description, which intimates, in the remotest manner, that a state, any more than the men who compose it, ought not to do justice and fulfil engagements? It will not be pretended, that there is. If justice is not done; if engagements are not fulfilled; is it, upon general principles of right, less proper, in the case of a great number, than in the case of an individual, to secure, by compulsion, that which will not be voluntarily performed? Less proper, it surely cannot be. The only reason, I believe, why a free man is bound by human laws, is, that he binds himself. Upon the same principles, upon which he becomes bound by the laws, he becomes amenable to the courts of justice, which are formed and authorised by those laws. If one free man, an original sovereign, may do all this, why may not an aggregate of free men, a collection of original sovereigns, do this likewise? If the dignity of each, singly, is undiminished; the dignity of all, jointly, must be unimpaired. A state, like a merchant, makes a contract. A dishonest state, like a dishonest merchant, wilfully refuses to discharge it: the latter is amenable to a court of justice: upon general principles of right, shall the former, when summoned to answer the fair demands of its creditor, be permitted, Proteus-like, to assume a new appearance, and to insult him and justice, by declaring I am a sovereign state? Surely not. Before a claim, so contrary, in its first appearance, to the general principles of right and equality, be sustained by a just and impartial tribunal, the person, natural or artificial, entitled to make such claim, should certainly be well known and authenticated. Who, or what, is a sovereignty? What is his or its sovereignty? . . . . In one sense, the term sovereign has for its correlative, subject. In this sense, the term can receive no application; for it has no object in the constitution of the United States. Under that constitution, there are citizens, but no subjects. . . .


In another sense, according to some writers, every state, which governs itself, without any dependence on another power, is a sovereign state. . . . As a citizen [of the Union], I know, the government of [Georgia] to be republican; and my short definition of such a government is--one constructed on this principle, that the supreme power resides in the body of the people. As a judge of this court, I know, and can decide, upon the knowledge, that the citizens of Georgia, when they acted upon the large scale of the Union, as a part of the “People of the United States,” did not surrender the supreme or sovereign power to that state; but, as to the purposes of the Union, retained it to themselves. As to the purposes of the Union, therefore, Georgia is not a sovereign state. . . .


There is third sense, in which the term sovereign is frequently used, and which it is very material to trace and explain, as it furnishes a basis for what, I presume, to be one of the principal objections against the jurisdiction of this court over the State of Georgia. In this sense, sovereignty is derived from a feudal source. . . . [At one] time, the feudal system was extended over . . . almost all the . . . nations of Europe; and every kingdom became, in fact, a large fief. . . . But in the case of the King, the sovereignty had a double operation. While it vested him with jurisdiction over others, it excluded all others from jurisdiction over him. With regard to him, there was no superior power; and consequently, on feudal principles, no right of jurisdiction. “The law,” says Sir William Blackstone, “ascribes to the King, the attribute of sovereignty: he is sovereign and independent, within his own dominions; and owes no kind of subjection to any other potentate upon earth. Hence it is, that no suit or action can be brought against the King, even in civil matters; because no court can have jurisdiction over him: for all jurisdiction implies superiority of power.” This last position is only a branch of a much more extensive principle. . . . The principle is, that all human law must be prescribed by a superior: this principle I mean not now to examine: suffice it, at present, to say, that another principle, very different in its nature and operations, forms, in my judgment, the basis of sound and genuine jurisprudence; laws derived from the pure source of equality and justice must be founded on the consent of those whose obedience they require. The sovereign, when traced to his source, must be found in the man.


I have now fixed, in the scale of things, the grade of a state; and have described its composure: I have considered the nature of sovereignty; and pointed its application to the proper object. I have examined the question before us, by the principles of general jurisprudence. In those principles, I find nothing, which tends to evince an exemption of the State of Georgia, from the jurisdiction of the court. I find everything to have a contrary tendency.

Calder v. Bull

By The Supreme Court of the United States of America


[The Supreme Court of the United States of America. Calder et Ux. v. Bull et Ux. 1798. 3 U.S. 3 Dall. 386 (August Term, 1798). In the Public Domain.]


Chase, Justice:. . . .


. . .


The counsel for the plaintiffs in error contend, that the said resolution or law of the legislature of Connecticut . . . is an ex post facto law, prohibited by the constitution of the United States. . . .


. . .


. . . The sole inquiry is, whether this resolution or law of Connecticut . . . is an ex post facto law, within the prohibition of the federal constitution?


. . . I cannot subscribe to the omnipotence of a state legislature, or that it is absolute and without control; although its authority should not be expressly restrained by the constitution, or fundamental law of the state. The people of the United States erected their constitutions or forms of government, to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty, and to protect their persons and property from violence. The purposes for which men enter into society will determine the nature and terms of the social compact; and as they are the foundation of the legislative power, they will decide what are the proper objects of it. The nature, and ends of legislative power will limit the exercise of it. This fundamental principle flows from the very nature of our free republican governments, that no man should be compelled to do what the laws do not require; nor to refrain from acts which the laws permit. There are acts which the federal, or state legislature cannot do, without exceeding their authority. There are certain vital principles in our free republican governments, which will determine and overrule an apparent and flagrant abuse of legislative power; as to authorize manifest injustice by positive law; or to take away that security for personal liberty, or private property, for the protection whereof the government was established. An act of the legislature (for I cannot call it a law), contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a righful exercise of legislative authority. The obligation of a law, in governments established on express compact, and on republican principles, must be determined by the nature of the power on which it is founded.


A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean. A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys or impairs the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B.: it is against all reason and justice, for a people to intrust a legislature with such powers; and therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. The genius, the nature and the spirit of our state governments, amount to a prohibition of such acts of legislation; and the general principles of law and reason forbid them. The legislature may enjoin, permit, forbid and punish; they may declare new crimes; and establish rules of conduct for all its citizens in future cases; they may command what is right, and prohibit what is wrong; but they cannot change innocence into guilt; or punish innocence as a crime; or violate the right of an antecedent lawful private contract; or the right of private property. To maintain that our federal, or state legislature possesses such powers, if they had not been expressly restrained; would, in my opinion, be a political heresy, altogether inadmissible in our free republican governments.


All the restrictions contained in the constitution of the United States on the power of the state legislatures, were provided in favor of the authority of the federal government. The prohibition against their making any ex post facto laws was introduced for greater caution, and very probably arose from the knowledge, that the parliament of Great Britain claimed and exercised a power to pass such laws, under the denomination of bills of attainder, or bills of pains and penalties; the first inflicting capital, and the other less punishment. These acts were legislative judgments; and an exercise of judicial power. Sometimes, they respected the crime, by declaring acts to be treason, which were not treason, when committed; at other times, they violated the rules of evidence (to supply a deficiency of legal proof) by admitting one witness, when the existing law required two; by receiving evidence without oath; or the oath of the wife against the husband; or other testimony, which the courts of justice would not admit; at other times, they inflicted punishments, where the party was not, by law, liable to any punishment; and in other cases, they inflicted greater punishment, than the law annexed to the offence. The ground for the exercise of such legislative power was this, that the safety of the kingdom depended on the death, or other punishment, of the offender: as if traitors, when discovered, could be so formidable, or the government so insecure! With very few exceptions, the advocates of such laws were stimulated by ambition, or personal resentment and vindictive malice. To prevent such and similar acts of violence and injustice, I believe, the federal and state legislatures were prohibited from passing any bill of attainder, or any ex post facto law.


. . .

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Hepburn v. Griswold, abridged
(The Legal Tender Cases)

By The Supreme Court of the United States of America

Dec. 1869

[Supreme Court of the United States of America. Hepburn v. Griswold 75 U.S. 8 Wallace, 603 (1869). 1869. In the Public Domain.]



1. Construed by the plain import of their terms and the manifest intent of the legislature, the statutes of 1862 and 1863, which make United States notes a legal tender in payment of debts, public and private, apply to debts contracted before as well as to debts contracted after enactment.

2. The cases of Lane County v. Oregon, Branson v. Bodes, and Butler v. Horwitz (7 Wallace 71, 229, and 258), in which it was held that, upon a sound construction of those statutes, neither taxes imposed by State legislation nor dues upon contracts for the payment or delivery of coin or bullion are included, by legislative intent, under the description of “debts, public and private,” are approved and reaffirmed. 

3. When a case arises for judicial determination, and the decision depends on the alleged inconsistency of a legislative provision with the Consti­tution, it is the plain duty of the Supreme Court to compare the act with the fundamental law, and if the former cannot, upon a fair con­struction, be reconciled with the latter, to give effect to the Constitution rather than the statute.

4. There is in the Constitution no express grant of legislative power to make any description of credit currency a legal tender in payment of debts.

5. The words “all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution” powers expressly granted or vested have, in the Constitution, a sense equivalent to that of the words, laws, not absolutely necessary indeed, but appropriate, plainly adapted to constitutional and legitimate ends, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution; laws really calculated to effect objects intrusted to the government.

6. Among means appropriate, plainly adapted, not inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, nor prohibited by its terms, the legislature has unrestricted choice; but no power can be derived by implication from any express power to enact laws as means for carrying it into execution unless such laws come within this description.

7. The making of notes or bills of credit a legal tender in payment of pre-existing debts is not a means appropriate, plainly adapted, or really cal­culated to carry into effect any express power vested in Congress, is in­consistent with, the spirit of the Constitution, and is prohibited by the Constitution.

8. The clause in the acts of 1862 and 1863 which makes United States notes a legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private, is, so far as it applies to debts contracted before the passage of those acts, unwarranted by the Constitution.

9. Prior to the 25th of February, 1862, all contracts for the payment of money, not expressly stipulating otherwise, were, in legal effect and universal understanding, contracts for the payment of coin, and, under the Constitution, the parties to such contracts are respectively entitled to demand and bound to pay the sums due, according to their terms, in coin, notwithstanding the clause in that act, and the subsequent acts of like tenor, which make United States notes a legal tender in payment of such debts.


Error to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, the case being this:

On the 20th of June, 1860, a certain Mrs. Hepburn made a promissory note, by which she promised to pay to Henry Griswold on the 20th of February, 1862, eleven thousand two hundred and fifty “dollars.”

At the time when the note was made, as also at the time when it fell due, there was, confessedly, no lawful money of the United States, or money which could lawfully be ten­dered in payment of private debts, but gold and silver coin.

Five days after the day when the note by its terms fell due, that is to say, on the 25th of February, 1862, in an exi­gent crisis of the nation, in which the government was en­gaged in putting down an armed rebellion of vast magnitude, Congress passed an act authorizing the issue of $150,000,000 of its own notes,[1] and enacted in regard to them, by one clause in the first section of the act, as follows:

“And such notes, herein authorized, shall be receivable in payment of all taxes, internal duties, excises, debts, and demands of every kind due to the United States, except duties on imports, and of all claims and demands against the United States of every kind whatsoever, except for interest upon bonds and notes, which shall be paid in coin; and shall also be lawful money and a legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private, within the United States, except duties on imports and interest as aforesaid."

The note given by Mrs. Hepburn not being paid at matu­rity, interest accrued on it. And in March, 1864, suit having been brought on the note in the Louisville Chancery Court, she tendered in United States notes issued under the act mentioned, $12,720, the amount of principal of the note with the interest accrued to the date of tender, and some costs, in satisfaction of the plaintiff's claim. The tender was re­fused. The notes were then tendered and paid into court; and the chancellor, “resolving all doubts in favor of the Congress,” declared the tender good and adjudged the debt, interest and costs to be satisfied accordingly.

The case was then taken by Griswold to the Court of Errors of Kentucky, which reversed the chancellor's judg­ment, and remanded the case with instructions to enter a contrary judgment.

From the judgment of the Court of Errors of Kentucky, the case was brought by Mrs. Hepburn here.

. . .


The CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the court.

The question presented for our determination by the record in this case is, whether or not the payee or assignee of a note, made before the 25th of February, 1862, is obliged by law to accept in payment United States notes, equal in nominal amount to the sum due according to its terms, when tendered by the maker or other party bound to pay it? And this re­quires, in the first place, a construction of that clause of the first section of the act of Congress passed on that day, which declares the United States notes, the issue of which was authorized by the statute, to be a legal tender in payment of debts. The clause has already received much considera­tion here, and this court has held that, upon a sound con­struction, neither taxes imposed by State legislation[2], nor demands upon contracts which stipulate in terms for the payment or delivery of coin or bullion[3], are included by legislative intention under the description of debts public and private. . . .

. . .

We are thus brought to the question, whether Congress has power to make notes issued under its authority a legal tender in payment of debts, which, when contracted, were payable by law in gold and silver coin.

The delicacy and importance of this question has not been overstated in the argument. This court always approaches the consideration of questions of this nature reluctantly; and its constant rule of decision has been, and is, that acts of Congress must be regarded as constitutional, unless clearly shown to be otherwise.

But the Constitution is the fundamental law of the United States. By it the people have created a government, de­fined its powers, prescribed their limits, distributed them among the different departments, and directed, in general, the manner of their exercise. No department of the government has any other powers than those thus delegated to it by the people. All the legislative power granted by the Constitution belongs to Congress; but it has no legislative power which is not thus granted. And the same observa­tion is equally true in its application to the executive and judicial powers granted respectively to the President and the courts. All these powers differ in kind, but not in source or in limitation. They all arise from the Constitu­tion, and are limited by its terms.

It is the function of the judiciary to interpret and apply the law to cases between parties as they arise for judgment. It can only declare what the law is, and enforce, by proper process, the law thus declared. But, in ascertaining the respective rights of parties, it frequently becomes necessary to consult the Constitution. For there can be no law in­consistent with the fundamental law. No enactment not in pursuance of the authority conferred by it can create obliga­tions or confer rights. For such is the express declaration of the Constitution itself in these words:

“The Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof and all treaties made, or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges of every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

. . .

When, therefore, a case arises for judicial determination, and the decision depends on the alleged inconsistency of a legislative provision with the fundamental law, it is the plain duty of the court to compare the act with the Constitution, and if the former cannot, upon a fair construction, be recon­ciled with the latter, to give effect to the Constitution rather than the statute. . . .

The case before us is one of private right. The plaintiff in the court below sought to recover of the defendants a certain sum expressed on the face of a promissory note. The defendants insisted on the right, under the act of Feb­ruary 25th, 1862, to acquit themselves of their obligation by tendering in payment a sum nominally equal in United States notes. But the note had been executed before the passage of the act, and the plaintiff insisted on his right under the Constitution to be paid the amount due in gold and silver. And it has not been, and cannot be, denied that the plaintiff was entitled to judgment according to his claim, unless bound by a constitutional law to accept the notes as coin.

Thus two questions were directly presented: Were the defendants relieved by the act from the obligation assumed in the contract? Could the plaintiff be compelled, by a judgment of the court, to receive in payment a currency of different nature and value from that which was in the contemplation of the parties when the contract was made?

. . .

We have already said, and it is generally, if not univer­sally, conceded, that the government of the United States is one of limited powers, and that no department possesses any authority not granted by the Constitution.

It is not necessary, however, in order to prove the exist­ence of a particular authority to show a particular and ex­press grant. The design of the Constitution was to establish a government competent to the direction and administration of the affairs of a great nation, and, at the same time, to mark, by sufficiently definite lines, the sphere of its operations. To this end it was needful only to make express grants of gen­eral powers, coupled with a further grant of such incidental and auxiliary powers as might be required for the exercise of the powers expressly granted. These powers are necessarily extensive. It has been found, indeed, in the practical administration of the government, that a very large part, if not the largest part, of its functions have been performed in the exercise of powers thus implied.

But the extension of power by implication was regarded with some apprehension by the wise men who framed, and by the intelligent citizens who adopted, the Constitution. This apprehension is manifest in the terms by which the grant of incidental and auxiliary powers is made. All powers of this nature are included under the description of “power to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the powers expressly granted to Congress or vested by the Constitution in the government or in any of its departments or officers.”

The same apprehension is equally apparent in the tenth article of the amendments, which declares that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or the people.”

We do not mean to say that either of these constitutional provisions is to be taken as restricting any exercise of power fairly warranted by legitimate derivation from one of the enumerated or express powers. The first was undoubtedly introduced to exclude all doubt in respect to the existence of implied powers; while the words “necessary and proper” were intended to have a “sense,” to use the words of Mr. Justice Story, “at once admonitory and directory,” and to require that the means used in the execution of an express power “should be bona fide, appropriate to the end.”[4] The second provision was intended to have a like admonitory and directory sense, and to restrain the limited government established under the Constitution from the exercise of powers not clearly delegated or derived by just inference from powers so delegated.

It has not been maintained in argument, nor, indeed, would anyone, however slightly conversant with constitu­tional law, think of maintaining that there is in the Consti­tution any express grant of legislative power to make any description of credit currency a legal tender in payment of debts.

We must inquire then whether this can be done in the exercise of an implied power.

The rule for determining whether a legislative enactment can be supported as an exercise of an implied power was stated by Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for the whole court, in the case of McCulloch v. The Stale of Maryland[5]; and the statement then made has ever since been accepted as a correct exposition of the Constitution. His words were these: “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not pro­hibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Con­stitution, are constitutional.”   And in another part of the same opinion the practical application of this rule was thus illustrated: “Should Congress, in the execution of its powers, adopt measures which are prohibited by the Con­stitution, or should Congress, under the pretext of executing its powers, pass laws for the accomplishment of objects not intrusted to the government, it would be the painful duty of this tribunal, should a case requiring such a decision come before it, to say that such an act was not the law of the land. But where the law is not prohibited, and is really calculated to effect any of the objects intrusted to the govern­ment, to undertake here to inquire into the degree of its necessity would be to pass the line which circumscribes the judicial department, and tread on legislative ground.”[6]

It must be taken then as finally settled, so far as judicial decisions can settle anything, that the words “all laws neces­sary and proper for carrying into execution” powers ex­pressly granted or vested, have, in the Constitution, a sense equivalent to that of the words, laws, not absolutely neces­sary indeed, but appropriate, plainly adapted to constitu­tional and legitimate ends; laws not prohibited, but con­sistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution; laws really calculated to effect objects intrusted to the govern­ment.

The question before us, then, resolves itself into this: “Is the clause which makes United States notes a legal tender for debts contracted prior to its enactment, a law of the de­scription stated in the rule?”

It is not doubted that the power to establish a standard of value by which all other values may be measured, or, in other words, to determine what shall be lawful money and a legal tender, is in its nature, and of necessity, a governmental power. It is in all countries exercised by the government. In the United States, so far as it relates to the precious metals, it is vested in Congress by the grant of the power to coin money. But can a power to impart these qualities to notes, or promises to pay money, when offered in discharge of pre-existing debts, be derived from the coinage power, or from any other power expressly given?

It is certainly not the same power as the power to coin money. Nor is it in any reasonable or satisfactory sense an appropriate or plainly adapted means to the exercise of that power. Nor is there more reason for saying that it is im­plied in, or incidental to, the power to regulate the value of coined money of the United States, or of foreign coins. This power of regulation is a power to determine the weight, pu­rity, form, impression, and denomination of the several coins, and their relation to each other, and the relations of foreign coins to the monetary unit of the United States.

Nor is the power to make notes a legal tender the same as the power to issue notes to be used as currency. The old Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, was clothed by express grant with the power to emit bills of credit, which are in fact notes for circulation as currency; and yet that Congress was not clothed with the power to make these bills a legal tender in payment. And this court has recently held that the Congress, under the Constitution, possesses, as inci­dental to other powers, the same power as the old Congress to emit bills or notes; but it was expressly declared at the same time that this decision concluded nothing on the ques­tion of legal tender. Indeed, we are not aware that it has ever been claimed that the power to issue bills or notes has any identity with the power to make them a legal tender. On the contrary, the whole history of the country refutes that notion. The States have always been held to possess the power to authorize and regulate the issue of bills for circu­lation by banks or individuals, subject, as has been lately de­termined, to the control of Congress, for the purpose of estab­lishing and securing a National currency; and yet the States are expressly prohibited by the Constitution from making anything but gold and silver coin a legal tender. This seems decisive on the point that the power to issue notes and the power to make them a legal tender are not the same power, and that they have no necessary connection with each other.

But it has been maintained in argument that the power to make United States notes a legal tender in payment of all debts is a means appropriate and plainly adapted to the exe­cution of the power to carry on war, of the power to regulate commerce, and of the power to borrow money. If it is, and is not prohibited, nor inconsistent with the letter or spirit of the Constitution, then the act which makes them such legal tender must be held to be constitutional.

Let us, then, first inquire whether it is an appropriate and plainly adapted means for carrying on war? The affirmative argument may be thus stated: Congress has power to de­clare and provide for carrying on war; Congress has also power to emit bills of credit, or circulating notes receivable for government dues and payable, so far at least as parties are willing to receive them, in discharge of government obliga­tions; it will facilitate the use of such notes in disbursements to make them a legal tender in payment of existing debts; therefore Congress may make such notes a legal tender.

It is difficult to say to what express power the authority to make notes a legal tender in payment of pre-existing debts may not be upheld as incidental, upon the principles of this argument. Is there any power which does not involve the use of money? And is there any doubt that Congress may issue and use bills of credit as money in the execution of any power? The power to establish post-offices and post-roads, for example, involves the collection and disbursement of a great revenue. Is not the power to make notes a legal ten­der as clearly incidental to this power as to the war power?

The answer to this question does not appear to us doubtful. The argument, therefore, seems to prove too much. It car­ries the doctrine of implied powers very far beyond any ex­tent hitherto given to it. It asserts that whatever in any degree promotes an end within the scope of a general power, whether, in the correct sense of the word, appropriate or not, may be done in the exercise of an implied power.

Can this proposition be maintained?

It is said that this is not a question for the court deciding a cause, but for Congress exercising the power. But the decisive answer to this is that the admission of a legislative power to determine finally what powers have the described relation as means to the execution of other powers plainly granted, and, then, to exercise absolutely and without liabil­ity to question, in cases involving private rights, the powers thus determined to have that relation, would completely change the nature of American government. It would con­vert the government, which the people ordained as a govern­ment of limited powers, into a government of unlimited powers. It would confuse the boundaries which separate the executive and judicial from the legislative authority. It would obliterate every criterion which this court, speaking through the venerated Chief Justice in the case already cited, established for the determination of the question whether legislative acts are constitutional or unconstitutional.

Undoubtedly among means appropriate, plainly adapted, really calculated, the legislature has unrestricted choice. But there can be no implied power to use means not within the description.

. . .

We recur, then, to the question under consideration. No one questions the general constitutionality, and not very many, perhaps, the general expediency of the legislation by which a note currency has been authorized in recent years. The doubt is as to the power to declare a particular class of these notes to be a legal tender in payment of pre-existing debts.

The only ground upon which this power is asserted is, not that the issue of notes was an appropriate and plainly adapted means for carrying on the war, for that is admitted; but that the making of them a legal tender to the extent mentioned was such a means.

Now, we have seen that of all the notes issued those not declared a legal tender at all constituted a very large pro­portion, and that they circulated freely and without dis­count.

It may be said that their equality in circulation and credit was due to the provision made by law for the redemption of this paper in legal tender notes. But this provision, if at all useful in this respect, was of trifling importance com­pared with that which made them receivable for government dues. All modern history testifies that, in time of war espe­cially, when taxes are augmented, large loans negotiated, and heavy disbursements made, notes issued by the author­ity of the government, and made receivable for dues of the government, always obtain at first a ready circulation; and even when not redeemable in coin, on demand, are as little and usually less subject to depreciation than any other de­scription of notes, for the redemption of which no better provision is made. And the history of the legislation under consideration is, that it was upon this quality of receivability, and not upon the quality of legal tender, that reliance for circulation was originally placed; for the receivability clause appears to have been in the original draft of the bill, while the legal tender clause seems to have been introduced at a later stage of its progress.

These facts certainly are not without weight as evidence that all the useful purposes of the notes would have been fully answered without making them a legal tender for pre­existing debts. It is denied, indeed, by eminent writers, that the quality of legal tender adds anything at all to the credit or usefulness of government notes. They insist, on the contrary, that it impairs both. However this may be, it must be remembered that it is as a means to an end to be attained by the action of the government, that the implied power of making notes a legal tender in all payments is claimed under the Constitution. Now, how far is the gov­ernment helped by this means? Certainly it cannot obtain new supplies or services at a cheaper rate, for no one will take the notes for more than they are worth at the time of the new contract. The price will rise in the ratio of the depreciation, and this is all that could happen if the notes were not made a legal tender. But it may be said that the depreciation will be less to him who takes them from the government, if the government will pledge to him its power to compel his creditors to receive them at par in payments. This is, as we have seen, by no means certain. If the quan­tity issued be excessive, and redemption uncertain and re­mote, great depreciation will take place; if, on the other hand, the quantity is only adequate to the demands of busi­ness, and confidence in early redemption is strong, the notes will circulate freely, whether made a legal tender or not.

But if it be admitted that some increase of availability is derived from making the notes a legal tender under new contracts, it by no means follows that any appreciable ad­vantage is gained by compelling creditors to receive them in satisfaction of pre-existing debts. And there is abundant evi­dence, that whatever benefit is possible from that compulsion to some individuals or to the government, is far more than outweighed by the losses of property, the derangement of business, the fluctuations of currency and values, and the increase of prices to the people and the government, and the long train of evils which flow from the use of irredeemable paper money. It is true that these evils are not to be at­tributed altogether to making it a legal tender. But this increases these evils. It certainly widens their extent and protracts their continuance.

We are unable to persuade ourselves that an expedient of this sort is an appropriate and plainly adapted means for the execution of the power to declare and carry on war. If it adds nothing to the utility of the notes, it cannot be upheld as a means to the end in furtherance of which the notes are issued. Nor can it, in our judgment, be upheld as such, if, while facilitating in some degree the circulation of the notes, it debases and injures the currency in its proper use to a much greater degree. And these considerations seem to us equally applicable to the powers to regulate commerce and to borrow money. Both powers necessarily involve the use of money by the people and by the government, but neither, as we think, carries with it as an appropriate and plainly adapted means to its exercise, the power of making circu­lating notes a legal tender in payment of pre-existing debts.

But there is another view, which seems to us decisive, to whatever express power the supposed implied power in question may be referred. In the rule stated by Chief Jus­tice Marshall, the words appropriate, plainly adapted, really calculated, are qualified by the limitation that the means must be not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Nothing so prohibited or incon­sistent can be regarded as appropriate, or plainly adapted, or really calculated means to any end.

Let us inquire, then, first, whether making bills of credit a legal tender, to the extent indicated, is consistent with the spirit of the Constitution.

Among the great cardinal principles of that instrument, no one is more conspicuous or more venerable than the establish­ment of justice. And what was intended by the establish­ment of justice in the minds of the people who ordained it is, happily, not a matter of disputation. It is not left to in­ference or conjecture, especially in its relations to contracts.

When the Constitution was undergoing discussion in the Convention, the Congress of the Confederation was engaged in the consideration of the ordinance for the government of the territory northwest of the Ohio, the only territory subject at that time to its regulation and control. By this ordinance certain fundamental articles of compact were established be­tween the original States and the people and States of the territory, for the purpose, to use its own language, “of ex­tending the fundamental principles of civil and religious lib­erty, whereon these republics” (the States united under the Confederation), “their laws, and constitutions are erected.”

Among these fundamental principles was this: “And in the just preservation of rights and property it is understood and declared that no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall in any manner whatever interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements bona fide and without fraud previously formed.”

The same principle found more condensed expression in that most valuable provision of the Constitution of the United States, ever recognized as an efficient safeguard against injustice, that “no State shall pass any law impair­ing the obligation of contracts.”

It is true that this prohibition is not applied in terms to the government of the United States. Congress has express power to enact bankrupt laws, and we do not say that a law made in the execution of any other express power, which, incidentally only, impairs the obligation of a contract, can be held to be unconstitutional for that reason.

But we think it clear that those who framed and those who adopted the Constitution, intended that the spirit of this prohibition should pervade the entire body of legisla­tion, and that the justice which the Constitution was or­dained to establish was not thought by them to be compati­ble with legislation of an opposite tendency. In other words, we cannot doubt that a law not made in pursuance of an express power, which necessarily and in its direct operation impairs the obligation of contracts, is inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution.

Another provision, found in the fifth amendment, must be considered in this connection. We refer to that which ordains that private property shall not be taken for public use without compensation. This provision is kindred in spirit to that which forbids legislation impairing the obliga­tion of contracts; but, unlike that, it is addressed directly and solely to the National government. It does not, in terms, prohibit legislation which appropriates the private property of one class of citizens to the use of another class; but if such property cannot be taken for the benefit of all, without compensation, it is difficult to understand how it can be so taken for the benefit of a part without violating the spirit of the prohibition.

But there is another provision in the same amendment, which, in our judgment, cannot have its full and intended effect unless construed as a direct prohibition of the legis­lation which we have been considering. It is that which declares that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

It is not doubted that all the provisions of this amend­ment operate directly in limitation and restraint of the legislative powers conferred by the Constitution. The only question is, whether an act which compels all those who hold contracts for the payment of gold and silver money to accept in payment a currency of inferior value deprives such persons of property without due process of law.

It is quite clear, that whatever may be the operation of such an act, due process of law makes no part of it. Does it deprive any person of property? A very large proportion of the property of civilized men exists in the form of con­tracts. These contracts almost invariably stipulate for the payment of money. And we have already seen that con­tracts in the United States, prior to the act under considera­tion, for the payment of money, were contracts to pay the sums specified in gold and silver coin. And it is beyond doubt that the holders of these contracts were and are as fully entitled to the protection of this constitutional pro­vision as the holders of any other description of property.

But it may be said that the holders of no description of property are protected by it from legislation which inci­dentally only impairs its value. And it may be urged in illustration that the holders of stock in a turnpike, a bridge, or a manufacturing corporation, or an insurance company, or a bank, cannot invoke its protection against legislation which, by authorizing similar works or corporations, reduces its price in the market. But all this does not appear to meet the real difficulty. In the cases mentioned the injury is purely contingent and incidental. In the case we are con­sidering it is direct and inevitable.

If in the cases mentioned the holders of the stock were required by law to convey it on demand to anyone who should think fit to offer half its value for it, the analogy would be more obvious. No one probably could be found to contend that an act enforcing the acceptance of fifty or seventy-five acres of land in satisfaction of a contract to con­vey a hundred would not come within the prohibition against arbitrary privation of property.

We confess ourselves unable to perceive any solid distinc­tion between such an act and an act compelling all citizens to accept, in satisfaction of all contracts for money, half or three-quarters or any other proportion less than the whole of the value actually due, according to their terms. It is difficult to conceive what act would take private property without process of law if such an act would not.

We are obliged to conclude that an act making mere promises to pay dollars a legal tender in payment of debts previously contracted, is not a means appropriate, plainly adapted, really calculated to carry into effect any express power vested in Congress; that such an act is inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution; and that it is prohibited by the Constitution.

It is not surprising that amid the tumult of the late civil war, and under the influence of apprehensions for the safety of the Republic almost universal, different views, never before entertained by American statesmen or jurists, were adopted by many. The time was not favorable to considerate reflec­tion upon the constitutional limits of legislative or executive authority. If power was assumed from patriotic motives, the assumption found ready justification in patriotic hearts. Many who doubted yielded their doubts; many who did not doubt were silent. Some who were strongly averse to making government notes a legal tender felt themselves constrained to acquiesce in the views of the advocates of the measure. Not a few who then insisted upon its necessity, or acquiesced in that view, have, since the return of peace, and under the influence of the calmer time, reconsidered their conclusions, and now concur in those which we have just announced. These conclusions seem to us to be fully sanctioned by the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

We are obliged, therefore, to hold that the defendant in error was not bound to receive from the plaintiffs the cur­rency tendered to him in payment of their note, made before the passage of the act of February 25th, 1862. It follows that the judgment of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky must be affirmed.

It is proper to say that Mr. Justice Grier, who was a mem­ber of the court when this cause was decided in conference,[7] and when this opinion was directed to be read,[8] stated his judgment to be that the legal tender clause, properly con­strued, has no application to debts contracted prior to its enactment; but that upon the construction given to the act by the other judges he concurred in the opinion that the clause, so far as it makes United States notes a legal tender for such debts, is not warranted by the Constitution.

Judgment affirmed.



Mr. Justice Miller (with whom concurred Swayne and Davis, JJ.), dissenting.

The provisions of the Constitution of the United States which have direct reference to the function of legislation may be divided into three primary classes:

1. Those which confer legislative powers on Congress.

2. Those which prohibit the exercise of legislative powers by Congress.

3. Those which prohibit the States from exercising cer­tain legislative powers.

The powers conferred on Congress may be subdivided into the positive and the auxiliary, or, as they are more com­monly called, the express and the implied powers.

As instances of the former class may be mentioned the power to borrow money, to raise and support armies, and to coin money and regulate the value thereof.

The implied or auxiliary powers of legislation are founded largely on that general provision which closes the enumera­tion of powers granted in express terms, by the declaration that Congress shall also “have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”

The question which this court is called upon to consider, is whether the authority to make the notes of the United States a lawful tender in payment of debts, is to be found in Congress under either of these classes of legislative powers.

As one of the elements of this question, and in order to negative any idea that the exercise of such a power would be an invasion of the rights reserved to the States, it may be as well to say at the outset, that this is among the subjects of legislation forbidden to the States by the Constitution. Among the unequivocal utterances of that instrument on this subject of legal tender, is that which declares that “no State shall coin money, emit bills of credit, or make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts;” thus removing the whole matter from the domain of State legis­lation.

No such prohibition is placed upon the power of Congress on this subject, though there are, as I have already said, matters expressly forbidden to Congress; but neither this of legal tender, nor of the power to emit bills of credit, or to impair the obligation of contracts, is among them. On the contrary, Congress is expressly authorized to coin money and to regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coins, and to punish the counterfeiting of such coin and of the securi­ties of the United States. It has been strongly argued by many able jurists that these latter clauses, fairly construed, confer the power to make the securities of the United States a lawful tender in payment of debts.

While I am not able to see in them standing alone a suffi­cient warrant for the exercise of this power, they are not without decided weight when we come to consider the question of the existence of this power, as one necessary and proper for carrying into execution other admitted powers of the government. For they show that so far as the framers of the Constitution did go in granting express power over the lawful money of the country, it was confided to Congress and forbidden to the States; and it is no unreasonable in­ference, that if it should be found necessary in carrying into effect some of the powers of the government essential to its successful operation, to make its securities perform the office of money in the payment of debts, such legislation would be in harmony with the power over money granted in express terms.

It being conceded, then, that the power under considera­tion would not, if exercised by Congress, be an invasion of any right reserved to the States, but one which they are for­bidden to employ, and that it is not one in terms either granted or denied to Congress, can it be sustained as a law necessary and proper, at the time it was enacted, for carrying into execution any of these powers that are expressly granted either to Congress, or to the government, or to any depart­ment thereof?

From the organization of the government under the pres­ent Constitution, there have been from time to time attempts to limit the powers granted by that instrument, by a narrow and literal rule of construction, and these have been specially directed to the general clause which we have cited as the foundation of the auxiliary powers of the government. It has been said that this clause, so far from authorizing the use of any means which could not have been used without it, is a restriction upon the powers necessarily implied by an instrument so general in its language.

The doctrine is, that when an act of Congress is brought to the test of this clause of the Constitution, its necessity must be absolute, and its adaptation to the conceded purpose unquestionable.

Nowhere has this principle been met with more emphatic denial, and more satisfactory refutation, than in this court. That eminent jurist and statesman, whose official career of over thirty years as Chief Justice commenced very soon after the Constitution was adopted, and whose opinions have done as much to fix its meaning as those of any man living or dead, has given this particular clause the benefit of his fullest consideration.

In the case of The United States v. Fisher[9] decided in 1804, the point in issue was the priority claimed for the United States as a creditor of a bankrupt over all other creditors. It was argued mainly on the construction of the statutes; but the power of Congress to pass such a law was also denied. Chief Justice Marshall said: “It is claimed under the author­ity to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to carry into execution the powers vested by the Constitution in the government, or in any department thereof. In con­struing this clause, it would be incorrect, and would produce endless difficulties, if the opinion should be maintained, that no law was authorized which was not indispensably neces­sary to give effect to a specified power. Where various systems might be adopted for that purpose, it might be said with respect to each that it was not necessary, because the end might be attained by other means. Congress must possess the choice of means, and must be empowered to use any means which are in fact conducive to the exercise of the power granted by the Constitution.”

It was accordingly held that, under the authority to pay the debts of the Union, it could pass a law giving priority for its own debts in cases of bankruptcy.

But in the memorable case of McCulloch v. The State of Maryland[10] the most exhaustive discussion of this clause is found in the opinion of the court by the same eminent ex­pounder of the Constitution. That case involved, it is well known, the right of Congress to establish the Bank of the United States, and to authorize it to issue notes for circula­tion. It was conceded that the right to incorporate or create such a bank had no specific grant in any clause of the Con­stitution, still less the right to authorize it to issue notes for circulation as money. But it was argued, that as a means necessary to enable the government to collect, transfer, and pay out its revenues, the organization of a bank with this function was within the power of Congress. In speaking of the true meaning of the word “necessary” in this clause of the Constitution, he says: “Does it always import an absolute physical necessity so strong, that one thing to which another maybe termed necessary cannot exist without it? We think it does not. If reference be had to its use, in the common affairs of the world, or in approved authors, we find that it frequently imports no more than that one thing is convenient or useful, or essential to another. To employ means necessary to an end, is generally understood as em­ploying any means calculated to produce the end, and not as being confined to those single means without which the end would be entirely unattainable.”

The word necessary admits, he says, of all degrees of comparison. “A thing may be necessary, very necessary, absolutely or indispensably necessary…This word, then, like others, is used in various senses, and in its construction the subject, the context, the intention of the person using them are all to be taken into view. Let this be done in the case under consideration. The subject is the execution of those great powers on which the welfare of a nation es­sentially depends. It must have been the intention of those who gave these powers to insure, as far as human prudence could insure, their beneficial execution. This could not be done by confining the choice of means to such narrow limits as not to leave it in the power of Congress to adopt any which might be appropriate, and which were conducive to the end. This provision is made in a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to various crises of human affairs. To have prescribed the means by which the government should in all future time execute its powers, would have been to change entirely the character of the instrument, and give it the properties of a legal code. It would have been an unwise attempt to pro­vide by immutable rules for exigencies which, if foreseen at all, must have been but dimly, and which can best be pro­vided for as they occur. To have declared that the best means shall not be used but those alone without which the power given would be nugatory, would have been to deprive the legislature of the capacity to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances.”

I have cited at unusual length these remarks of Chief Justice Marshall, because though made half a century ago, their applicability to the circumstances under which Con­gress called to its aid the power of making the securities of the government a legal tender, as a means of successfully prosecuting a war, which without such aid seemed likely to terminate its existence, and to borrow money which could in no other manner be borrowed, and to pay the debt of mil­lions due to its soldiers in the field, which could by no other means be paid, seems to be almost prophetic. If he had had clearly before his mind the future history of his country, he could not have better characterized a principle which would in this very case have rendered the power to carry on war nugatory, which would have deprived Congress of the capa­city to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances, by the use of the most appropriate means of supporting the government in the crisis of its fate.

But it is said that the clause under consideration is ad­monitory as to the use of implied powers, and adds nothing to what would have been authorized without it.

The idea is not new, and is probably intended for the same which was urged in the case of McCulloch v. The State of Mary­land, namely, that instead of enlarging the powers conferred on Congress, or providing for a more liberal use of them, it was designed as a restriction upon the ancillary powers incidental to every express grant of power in general terms. I have already cited so fully from that case, that I can only refer to it to say that this proposition is there clearly stated and refuted.

Does there exist, then, any power in Congress or in the government, by express grant, in the execution of which this legal tender act was necessary and proper, in the sense here defined, and under the circumstances of its passage?

The power to declare war, to suppress insurrection, to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, to borrow money on the credit of the United States, to pay the debts of the Union, and to provide for the common de­fence and general welfare, are each and all distinctly and specifically granted in separate clauses of the Constitution.

We were in the midst of a war which called all these powers into exercise and taxed them severely. A war which, if we take into account the increased capacity for destruc­tion introduced by modern science, and the corresponding increase of its cost, brought into operation powers of bel­ligerency more potent and more expensive than any that the world has ever known.

All the ordinary means of rendering efficient the several powers of Congress above-mentioned had been employed to their utmost capacity, and with the spirit of the rebellion unbroken, with large armies in the field unpaid, with a cur­rent expenditure of over a million of dollars per day, the credit of the government nearly exhausted, and the re­sources of taxation inadequate to pay even the interest on the public debt, Congress was called on to devise some new means of borrowing money on the credit of the nation; for the result of the war was conceded by all thoughtful men to depend on the capacity of the government to raise money in amounts previously unknown. The banks had already loaned their means to the treasury. They had been com­pelled to suspend the payment of specie on their own notes. The coin in the country, if it could all have been placed within the control of the Secretary of the Treasury, would not have made a circulation sufficient to answer army pur­chases and army payments, to say nothing of the ordinary business of the country. A general collapse of credit, of payment, and of business seemed inevitable, in which faith in the ability of the government would have been destroyed, the rebellion would have triumphed, the States would have been left divided, and the people impoverished. The Na­tional government would have perished, and, with it, the Constitution which we are now called upon to construe with such nice and critical accuracy.

That the legal tender act prevented these disastrous re­sults, and that the tender clause was necessary to prevent them, I entertain no doubt.

It furnished instantly a means of paying the soldiers in the field, and filled the coffers of the commissary and quar­termaster. It furnished a medium for the payment of pri­vate debts, as well as public, at a time when gold was being rapidly withdrawn from circulation, and the State bank cur­rency was becoming worthless. It furnished the means to the capitalist of buying the bonds of the government. It stimulated trade, revived the drooping energies of the coun­try, and restored confidence to the public mind.

The results which followed the adoption of this measure are beyond dispute. No other adequate cause has ever been assigned for the revival of government credit, the renewed activity of trade, and the facility with which the government borrowed, in two or three years, at reasonable rates of in­terest, mainly from its own citizens, double the amount of money there was in the country, including coin, bank notes, and the notes issued under the legal tender acts.

It is now said, however, in the calm retrospect of these events, that treasury notes suitable for circulation as money, bearing on their face the pledge of the United States for their ultimate payment in coin, would, if not equally effi­cient, have answered the requirement of the occasion with­out being made a lawful tender for debts. But what was needed was something more than the credit of the government. That had been stretched to its utmost tension, and was clearly no longer sufficient in the simple form of borrowing money. Is there any reason to believe that the mere change in the form of the security given would have revived this sinking credit? On the contrary, all ex­perience shows that a currency not redeemable promptly in coin, but dependent on the credit of a promissor whose resources are rapidly diminishing, while his liabilities are increasing, soon sinks to the dead level of worthless paper. As no man would have been compelled to take it in pay­ment of debts, as it bore no interest, as its period of redemp­tion would have been remote and uncertain, this must have been the inevitable fate of any extensive issue of such notes.

But when by law they were made to discharge the function of paying debts, they had a perpetual credit or value, equal to the amount of all the debts, public and private, in the country. If they were never redeemed, as they never have been, they still paid debts at their par value, and for this purpose were then, and always have been, eagerly sought by the people. To say, then, that this quality of legal tender was not necessary to their usefulness, seems to be unsup­ported by any sound view of the situation.

Nor can any just inference of that proposition arise from a comparison of the legal tender notes with the bonds issued by the government about the same time. These bonds had a fixed period for their payment, and the Secretary of the Treasury declared that they were payable in gold. They bore interest, which was payable semi-annually in gold, by express terms on their face, and the customs duties, which by law could be paid in nothing but gold, were sacredly pledged to the payment of this interest. They can afford no means of determining what would have been the fate of treasury notes designed to circulate as money, but which bore no interest, and had no fixed time of redemption, and by law could pay no debts, and had no fund pledged for their payment.

The legal tender clauses of the statutes under consideration were placed emphatically by those who enacted them, upon their necessity to the further borrowing of money and main­taining the army and navy. It was done reluctantly and with hesitation, and only after the necessity had been de­monstrated and had become imperative. Our statesmen had been trained in a school which looked upon such legislation with something more than distrust. The debates of the two houses of Congress show, that on this necessity alone could this clause of the bill have been carried, and they also prove, as I think, very clearly the existence of that necessity. The history of that gloomy time, not to be readily forgotten by the lover of his country, will forever remain, the full, clear, and ample vindication of the exercise of this power by Con­gress, as its results have demonstrated the sagacity of those who originated and carried through this measure.

Certainly it seems to the best judgment that I can bring to bear upon the subject that this law was a necessity in the most stringent sense in which that word can be used. But if we adopt the construction of Chief Justice Marshall and the full court over which he presided, a construction which has never to this day been overruled or questioned in this court, how can we avoid this conclusion? Can it be said that this provision did not conduce towards the purpose of borrowing money, of paying debts, of raising armies, of sup­pressing insurrection? or that it was not calculated to effect these objects? or that it was not useful and essential to that end? Can it be said that this was not among the choice of means, if not the only means, which were left to Congress to carry on this war for national existence?

Let us compare the present with other cases decided in this court.

If we can say judicially that to declare, as in the case of The United States v. Fisher, that the debt which a bankrupt owes the government shall have priority of payment over all other debts, is a necessary and proper law to enable the government to pay its own debts, how can we say that the legal tender clause was not necessary and proper to enable the govern­ment to borrow money to carry on the war?

The creation of the United States Bank, and especially the power granted to it to issue notes for circulation as money, was strenuously resisted as without constitutional authority; but this court held that a bank of issue was neces­sary, in the sense of that word as used in the Constitution, to enable the government to collect, to transfer, and to pay out its revenues.

It was never claimed that the government could find no other means to do this. It could not then be denied, nor has it ever been, that other means more clearly within the competency of Congress existed, nor that a bank of deposit might possibly have answered without a circulation. But because that was the most fitting, useful, and efficient mode of doing what Congress was authorized to do, it was held to be necessary by this court. The necessity in that case is much less apparent to me than in the adoption of the legal tender clause.

. . .

But it is said that the law is in conflict with the spirit, if not the letter, of several provisions of the Constitution. Un­doubtedly it is a law impairing the obligation of contracts made before its passage. But while the Constitution forbids the States to pass such laws it does not forbid Congress. On the contrary, Congress is expressly authorized to establish a uniform system of bankruptcy, the essence of which is to discharge debtors from the obligation of their contracts; and in pursuance of this power Congress has three times passed such a law, which in every instance operated on contracts made before it was passed. Such a law is now in force, yet its constitutionality has never been questioned. How it can be in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution to destroy directly the creditor's contract for the sake of the individual debtor, but contrary to its spirit to affect remotely its value for the safety of the nation, it is difficult to perceive.

So it is said that the provisions, that private property shall not be taken for public use without due compensation, and that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due course of law, are opposed to the acts under consideration.

The argument is too vague for my perception, by which the indirect effect of a great public measure, in depreciating the value of lands, stocks, bonds, and other contracts, renders such a law invalid as taking private property for public use, or as depriving the owner of it without due course of law.

A declaration of war with a maritime power would thus be unconstitutional, because the value of every ship abroad is lessened twenty-five or thirty per cent, and those at home almost as much. The abolition of the tariff on iron or sugar would in like manner destroy the furnaces, and sink the capital employed in the manufacture of these articles. Yet no statesman, however warm an advocate of high tariff, has claimed that to abolish such duties would be unconstitutional as taking private property.

If the principle be sound, every successive issue of government bonds during the war was void, because by increas­ing the public debt it made those already in private hands less valuable.

This whole argument of the injustice of the law, an in­justice which if it ever existed will be repeated by now holding it wholly void; and of its opposition to the spirit of the Constitution, is too abstract and intangible for appli­cation to courts of justice, and is, above all, dangerous as a ground on which to declare the legislation of Congress void by the decision of a court. It would authorize this court to enforce theoretical views of the genius of the government, or vague notions of the spirit of the Constitution and of abstract justice, by declaring void laws which did not square with those views. It substitutes our ideas of policy for ju­dicial construction, an undefined code of ethics for the Con­stitution, and a court of justice for the National legislature.

Upon the enactment of these legal tender laws they were received with almost universal acquiescence as valid. Pay­ments were made in the legal tender notes for debts in existence when the law was passed, to the amount of thou­sands of millions of dollars, though gold was the only lawful tender when the debts were contracted. A great if not larger amount is now due under contracts made since their passage, under the belief that these legal tenders would be valid payment.

The two houses of Congress, the President who signed the bill, and fifteen State courts, being all but one that has passed upon the question, have expressed their belief in the consti­tutionality of these laws.

With all this great weight of authority, this strong con­currence of opinion among those who have passed upon the question, before we have been called to decide it, whose duty it was as much as it is ours to pass upon it in the light of the Constitution, are we to reverse their action, to disturb contracts, to declare the law void, because the necessity for its enactment does not appear so strong to us as it did to Congress, or so clear as it was to other courts?

Such is not my idea of the relative functions of the legislative and judicial departments of the government. Where there is a choice of means the selection is with Congress, not the court. If the act to be considered is in any sense essential to the execution of an acknowledged power, the degree of that necessity is for the legislature and not for the court to determine. In the case in Wheaton, from which I have already quoted so fully, the court says that “where the law is not prohibited, and is really calculated to effect any of the objects intrusted to the government, to undertake here to inquire into the degree of its necessity, would be to pass the line which circumscribes the judicial department, and to tread on legislative ground. This court disclaims all pretences to such a power.” This sound exposition of the duties of the court in this class of cases, relieves me from any embarrassment or hesitation in the case before me. If I had entertained doubts of the constitutionality of the law, I must have held the law valid until those doubts became convictions. But as I have a very decided opinion that Con­gress acted within the scope of its authority, I must hold the law to be constitutional, and dissent from the opinion of the court.


At the same time with the decision of the preceding case was decided a case in error to the Supreme Court of Cali­fornia, argued some time before it;—the case, namely, of Broderick’s Executor v. Magraw, in which the principles of the preceding case of Hepburn v. Griswold were affirmed.

The case was this:

Magraw preferred a claim by petition in the Probate Court of the city of San Francisco, upon a note made by Broderick to the petitioner at New York, on the 1st of July, 1858. Broderick dying, his executor defended the suit.


[1] For the general form of the notes, see 7 Wallace, 26.

[2] Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wallace, 71.

[3] Bronson v. Bodes, 7 Wallace, 229; Butler v. Horwitz, Ib. 258.

[4] 2 Story on the Constitution, p. 142, 1253.

[5] 4 Wheaton, 421.

[6] 4 Wheaton, 423.

[7] November 27th, 1869.

[8] January 29th, 1870.

[9] 2 Cranch, 358.

[10] 4 Wheaton, 316.

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The Slaughterhouse Cases, abridged
(The Butchers’ Benevolent Association of New Orleans

v. The Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter-House Company)

 By The Supreme Court of the United States of America

Argued December, 1872
Decided April, 1873

[Supreme Court of the United States of America. The Butchers’ Benevolent Association of New Orleans v. The Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter-House Company. 83 U.S. 16 Wallace 36. 1873. In the Public Domain.]  

Figures in brackets of the form [83 U. S. #] refer to pages in the records of the U.S. Supreme Court. –Editor

1. The Majority’s Opinion
2. Justice Field’s Dissent
3. Justice Bradley’s Dissent
4. Justice Swayne’s Dissent



. . .

Mr. Justice MILLER . . . delivered the opinion of the court.

These cases . . . arise out of the efforts of the butchers of New Orleans to resist the Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughter-House Company in the exercise of certain powers conferred by the charter which created it, and which was granted by the legislature of that State. [The charter granted a monopoly to a particular slaughter-house company of New Orleans, thus restricting its competitors and affecting meat-suppliers generally. –Editor]

The cases . . . were all decided by the Supreme Court of Louisiana in favor of the Slaughter-House Company, as we shall hereafter call it for the sake of brevity, and these writs are brought to reverse those decisions.

. . .

The records show that the plaintiffs in error relied upon, and asserted throughout the entire course of the litigation in the State courts, that the grant of privileges in the charter of defendant, which they were contesting, was a violation of the most important provisions of the thirteenth and fourteenth articles of amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The jurisdiction and the duty of this court 83 U. S. 59] to review the judgment of the State court on those questions is clear, and is imperative.

The statute thus assailed as unconstitutional was passed March 8th, 1869, and is entitled

“An act to protect the health of the city of New Orleans, to locate the stock landings and slaughterhouses, and to incorporate the Crescent City Livestock Landing aud Slaughter-House Company.”

The first section forbids the landing or slaughtering of animals whose flesh is intended for food within the city of New Orleans and other parishes and boundaries named and defined, or the keeping or establishing any slaughterhouses or abattoirs within those limits except by the corporation thereby created, which is also limited to certain places afterwards mentioned.

Suitable penalties are enacted for violations of this prohibition.

. . .

Section five orders the closing up of all other stock landings [83 U. S. 60] and slaughterhouses after the first day of June, in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard, and makes it the duty of the company to permit any person to slaughter animals in their slaughterhouses under a heavy penalty for each refusal. Another section fixes a limit to the charges to be made by the company for each animal so slaughtered in their building, and another provides for an inspection of all animals intended to be so slaughtered by an officer appointed by the governor of the State for that purpose.

These are the principal features of the statute, and are all that have any bearing upon the questions to be decided by us.

. . .

[83 U. S. 66]

. . .

The plaintiffs in error . . . allege that the statute is a violation of the Constitution of the United States in these several particulars:

That it creates an involuntary servitude forbidden by the thirteenth article of amendment;

That it abridges the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States;

That it denies to the plaintiffs the equal protection of the laws; and,

That it deprives them of their property without due process of law, contrary to the provisions of the first section of the fourteenth article of amendment.

[83 U. S. 67]

This court is thus called upon for the first time to give construction to these [amendments].

We do not conceal from ourselves the great responsibility which this duty devolves upon us. No questions so far-reaching and pervading in their consequences, so profoundly interesting to the people of this country, and so important in their bearing upon the relations of the United States, of the several States to each other, and to the citizens of the States and of the United States, have been before this court during the official life of any of its present members. . . .

Twelve articles of amendment were added to the Federal Constitution soon after the original organization of the government under it in 1789. Of these, all but the last were adopted so soon afterwards as to justify the statement that they were practically contemporaneous with the adoption of the original; and the twelfth, adopted in eighteen hundred and three, was so nearly so as to have become, like all the others, historical and of another age. But within the [last] eight years, three other articles of amendment [the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments] of vast importance have been added by the voice of the people to that now venerable instrument.

The most cursory glance at these articles discloses a unity of purpose, when taken in connection with the history of the times, which cannot fail to have an important bearing on any question of doubt concerning their true meaning. Nor can such doubts, when any reasonably exist, be safely and rationally solved without a reference to that history, for in it is found the occasion and the necessity for recurring again to the great source of power in this country, the people of the States, for additional guarantees of human rights, [83 U. S. 68] additional powers to the Federal government; additional restraints upon those of the States. Fortunately, that history is fresh within the memory of us all, and its leading features, as they bear upon the matter before us, free from doubt.

The institution of African slavery, as it existed in about half the States of the Union, and the contests pervading the public mind for many years between those who desired its curtailment and ultimate extinction and those who desired additional safeguards for its security and perpetuation, culminated in the effort, on the part of most of the States in which slavery existed, to separate from the Federal government and to resist its authority. This constituted the war of the rebellion [the Civil War], and whatever auxiliary causes may have contributed to bring about this war, undoubtedly the overshadowing and efficient cause was African slavery.

[The opinion then recounts the history of how the Thirteenth Amendment came to be ratified to abolish involuntary servitude or slavery permanently in the United States after the Civil War; how the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified to protect all U.S. citizens’ rights of life, liberty, and property in response to the oppressive restrictions that many state and local governments placed on the now free black population; and how the Fifteenth Amendment extended these protections by also forbidding abridgement of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”]

. . .

[83 U. S. 71]

. . .

We repeat, then, in the light of this recapitulation of events, almost too recent to be called history, but which are familiar to us all, and on the most casual examination of the language of these amendments, no one can fail to be impressed with the one pervading purpose found in them all, lying at the foundation of each, and without which none of them would have been even suggested; we mean the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly made freeman and citizen from the oppressions of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him. . . . [83 U. S. 72]

. . .

We do not say that no one else but the negro can share in this protection. Both the language and spirit of these articles are to have their fair and just weight in any question of construction. . . . But what we do say, and what we wish to be understood, is that, in any fair and just construction of any section or phrase of these amendments, it is necessary to look to the purpose which we have said was the pervading spirit of them all, the evil which they were designed to remedy, and the process of continued addition to the Constitution, until that purpose was supposed to be accomplished as far as constitutional law can accomplish it.

The first section of the fourteenth article to which our attention is more specially invited opens with a definition of citizenship—not only citizenship of the United States, but citizenship of the States. No such definition was previously found in the Constitution, nor had any attempt been made to define it by act of Congress. It had been the occasion of much discussion in the courts, by the executive departments, and in the public journals. It had been said by eminent judges that no man was a citizen of the United States except as he was a citizen of one of the States composing the Union. . . . [Page 83 U. S. 73] . . . [I]t had been held by this court, in the celebrated Dred Scott case, only a few years before the outbreak of the civil war, that a man of African descent, whether a slave or not, was not and could not be a citizen of a State or of the United States. . . .

To remove this difficulty primarily, and to establish clear and comprehensive definition of citizenship which should declare what should constitute citizenship of the United States and also citizenship of a State, the first clause of the first section [of the Fourteenth Amendment] was framed.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

The first observation we have to make on this clause is that it puts at rest both the questions which we stated to have been the subject of differences of opinion. It declares that persons may be citizens of the United States without regard to their citizenship of a particular State, and it overturns the Dred Scott decision by making all persons born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction citizens of the United States. . . .

The next observation is more important in view of the arguments of counsel in the present case. It is that the distinction between citizenship of the United States and citizenship of a State is clearly recognized and established. [83 U.S. 74] Not only may a man be a citizen of the United States without being a citizen of a State, but an important element is necessary to convert the former into the latter. He must reside within the State to make him a citizen of it, but it is only necessary that he should be born or naturalized in the United States to be a citizen of the Union.

It is quite clear, then, that there is a citizenship of the United States, and a citizenship of a State, which are distinct from each other, and which depend upon different characteristics or circumstances in the individual.

We think this distinction and its explicit recognition in this amendment of great weight in this argument, because the next paragraph of this same section, which is the one mainly relied on by the plaintiffs in error, speaks only of privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, and does not speak of those of citizens of the several States. The argument, however, in favor of the plaintiffs rests wholly on the assumption that the citizenship is the same, and the privileges and immunities guaranteed by the clause are the same.

The language is, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” It is a little remarkable, if this clause was intended as a protection to the citizen of a State against the legislative power of his own State, that the word citizen of the State should be left out when it is so carefully used, and used in contradistinction to citizens of the United States in the very sentence which precedes it. It is too clear for argument that the change in phraseology was adopted understandingly and, with a purpose.

Of the privileges and immunities of the citizen of the United States, and of the privileges and immunities of the citizen of the State, and what they respectively are, we will presently consider; but we wish to state here that it is only the former which are placed by this clause under the protection of the Federal Constitution, and that the latter, whatever they may be, are not intended to have any additional protection by this paragraph of the amendment. [83 U. S. 75] If, then, there is a difference between the privileges and immunities belonging to a citizen of the United States as such and those belonging to the citizen of the State as such, the latter must rest for their security and protection where they have heretofore rested, for they are not embraced by this paragraph of the amendment.

. . .

In the Constitution of the United States, which superseded the Articles of Confederation, the corresponding provision is found in section two of the fourth article, in the following words: “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several States.”

. . .

Fortunately, we are not without judicial construction of this clause of the Constitution. The first and the leading case on the subject is that of Corfield v. Coryell, decided by Mr. Justice Washington in the Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania in 1823. (4 Washington’s Circuit Court 371) [83 U. S. 76] “The inquiry,” he says,

“is what are the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several States? We feel no hesitation in confining these expressions to those privileges and immunities which are fundamental; which belong of right to the citizens of all free governments, and which have at all times been enjoyed by citizens of the several States which compose this Union, from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign. What these fundamental principles are it would be more tedious than difficult to enumerate. They may all, however, be comprehended under the following general heads: protection by the government, with the right to acquire and possess property of every kind and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety, subject, nevertheless, to such restraints as the government may prescribe for the general good of the whole.”

. . .

[83 U. S. 77]

. . .

The constitutional provision there alluded to did not create those rights, which it called privileges and immunities of citizens of the States. It threw around them in that clause no security for the citizen of the State in which they were claimed or exercised. Nor did it profess to control the power of the State governments over the rights of its own citizens.

Its sole purpose was to declare to the several States that, whatever those rights, as you grant or establish them to your own citizens, or as you limit or qualify or impose restrictions on their exercise, the same, neither more nor less, shall be the measure of the rights of citizens of other States within your jurisdiction.

It would be the vainest show of learning to attempt to prove by citations of authority that, up to the adoption of the recent amendments, no claim or pretence was set up that those rights depended on the Federal government for their existence or protection beyond the very few express limitations which the Federal Constitution imposed upon the States -- such, for instance, as the prohibition against ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts. But, with the exception of these and a few other restrictions, the entire domain of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the States, as above defined, lay within the constitutional and legislative power of the States, and without that of the Federal government. Was it the purpose of the fourteenth amendment, by the simple declaration that no State should make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, to transfer the security and protection of all the civil rights which we have mentioned, from the States to the Federal government? And where it is declared that Congress Shall have the power to enforce that article, was it intended to bring within the power of Congress the entire domain of civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the States?

All this and more must follow if the proposition of the [83 U. S. 78] plaintiffs in error be sound. For not only are these rights subject to the control of Congress whenever, in its discretion, any of them are supposed to be abridged by State legislation, but that body may also pass laws in advance, limiting and restricting the exercise of legislative power by the States, in their most ordinary and usual functions, as in its judgment it may think proper on all such subjects. And still further, such a construction followed by the reversal of the judgments of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in these cases, would constitute this court a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the States, on the civil rights of their own citizens, with authority to nullify such as it did not approve as consistent with those rights, as they existed at the time of the adoption of this amendment. The argument, we admit, is not always the most conclusive which is drawn from the consequences urged against the adoption of a particular construction of an instrument. But when, as in the case before us, these consequences are so serious, so far-reaching and pervading, so great a departure from the structure and spirit of our institutions; when the effect is to fetter and degrade the State governments by subjecting them to the control of Congress in the exercise of powers heretofore universally conceded to them of the most ordinary and fundamental character; when, in fact, it radically changes the whole theory of the relations of the State and Federal governments to each other and of both these governments to the people, the argument has a force that is irresistible in the absence of language which expresses such a purpose too clearly to admit of doubt.

We are convinced that no such results were intended by the Congress which proposed these amendments, nor by the legislatures of the States which ratified them.

Having shown that the privileges and immunities relied on in the argument are those which belong to citizens of the States as such, and that they are left to the State governments for security and protection, and not by this article placed under the special care of the Federal government, we may hold ourselves excused from defining the privileges [83 U. S. 79] and immunities of citizens of the United States which no State can abridge until some case involving those privileges may make it necessary to do so.

But lest it should be said that no such privileges and immunities are to be found if those we have been considering are excluded, we venture to suggest some which owe their existence to the Federal government, its national character, its Constitution, or its laws.

One of these is well described in the case of Crandall v. Nevada. (73 U.S. 6 Wallace 36) It is said to be the right of the citizen of this great country, protected by implied guarantees of its Constitution,

“to come to the seat of government to assert any claim he may have upon that government, to transact any business he may have with it, to seek its protection, to share its offices, to engage in administering its functions. He has the right of free access to its seaports, through which operations of foreign commerce are conducted, to the sub-treasuries, land offices, and courts of justice in the several States.”

And quoting from the language of Chief Justice Taney in another case, it is said

“that, for all the great purposes for which the Federal government was established, we are one people, with one common country, we are all citizens of the United States;

and it is, as such citizens, that their rights are supported in this court in Crandall v. Nevada.

Another privilege of a citizen of the United States is to demand the care and protection of the Federal government over his life, liberty, and property when on the high seas or within the jurisdiction of a foreign government. Of this there can be no doubt, nor that the right depends upon his character as a citizen of the United States. The right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, are rights of the citizen guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. The right to use the navigable waters of the United States, however they may penetrate the territory of the several States, all rights secured to our citizens by treaties with foreign nations, [83 U. S. 80] are dependent upon citizenship of the United States, and not citizenship of a State. One of these privileges is conferred by the very article under consideration. It is that a citizen of the United States can, of his own volition, become a citizen of any State of the Union by a bona fide residence therein, with the same rights as other citizens of that State. To these may be added the rights secured by the thirteenth and fifteenth articles of amendment, and by the other clause of the fourteenth, next to be considered.

But it is useless to pursue this branch of the inquiry, since we are of opinion that the rights claimed by these plaintiffs in error, if they have any existence, are not privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States within the meaning of the clause of the fourteenth amendment under consideration.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.”

The argument has not been much pressed in these cases that the defendant’s charter deprives the plaintiffs of their property without due process of law, or that it denies to them the equal protection of the law. The first of these paragraphs has been in the Constitution since the adoption of the Fifth Amendment, as a restraint upon the Federal power. It is also to be found in some form of expression in the constitutions of nearly all the States as a restraint upon the power of the States. This law, then, has practically been the same as it now is during the existence of the government, except so far as the present amendment may place the restraining power over the States in this matter in the hands of the Federal government.

We are not without judicial interpretation, therefore, both State and National, of the meaning of this clause. And it [83 U. S. 81] is sufficient to say that under no construction of that provision that we have ever seen, or any that we deem admissible, can the restraint imposed by the State of Louisiana upon the exercise of their trade by the butchers of New Orleans be held to be a deprivation of property within the meaning of that provision.

“Nor shall any State deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In the light of the history of these amendments, and the pervading purpose of them, which we have already discussed, it is not difficult to give a meaning to this clause. The existence of laws in the States where the newly emancipated negroes resided, which discriminated with gross injustice and hardship against them as a class, was the evil to be remedied by this clause, and by it such laws are forbidden.

If, however, the States did not conform their laws to its requirements, then by the fifth section of the article of amendment Congress was authorized to enforce it by suitable legislation. We doubt very much whether any action of a State not directed by way of discrimination against the negroes as a class, or on account of their race, will ever be held to come within the purview of this provision. It is so clearly a provision for that race and that emergency that a strong case would be necessary for its application to any other. But as it is a State that is to be dealt with, and not alone the validity of its laws, we may safely leave that matter until Congress shall have exercised its power, or some case of State oppression, by denial of equal justice in its courts, shall have claimed a decision at our hands. We find no such case in the one before us, and do not deem it necessary to go over the argument again, as it may have relation to this particular clause of the amendment.

In the early history of the organization of the government, its statesmen seem to have divided on the line which should separate the powers of the National government from those of the State governments, and though this line has [83 U. S. 82] never been very well defined in public opinion, such a division has continued from that day to this.

The adoption of the first eleven amendments to the Constitution so soon after the original instrument was accepted shows a prevailing sense of danger at that time from the Federal power. And it cannot be denied that such a jealousy continued to exist with many patriotic men until the breaking out of the late civil war. It was then discovered that the true danger to the perpetuity of the Union was in the capacity of the State organizations to combine and concentrate all the powers of the State, and of contiguous States, for a determined resistance to the General Government.

Unquestionably this has given great force to the argument, and added largely to the number of those who believe in the necessity of a strong National government.

But, however pervading this sentiment, and however it may have contributed to the adoption of the amendments we have been considering, we do not see in those amendments any purpose to destroy the main features of the general system. Under the pressure of all the excited feeling growing out of the war, our statesmen have still believed that the existence of the State with powers for domestic and local government, including the regulation of civil rights the rights of person and of property was essential to the perfect working of our complex form of government, though they have thought proper to impose additional limitations on the States, and to confer additional power on that of the Nation.

But whatever fluctuations may be seen in the history of public opinion on this subject during the period of our national existence, we think it will be found that this court, so far as its functions required, has always held with a steady and an even hand the balance between State and Federal power, and we trust that such may continue to be the history of its relation to that subject so long as it shall have duties to perform which demand of it a construction of the Constitution or of any of its parts.

[83 U. S. 83]

The judgments of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in these cases are


. . .

Mr. Justice FIELD, dissenting.

I am unable to agree with the majority of the court in these cases, and will proceed to state the reasons of my dissent from their judgment.

. . .

[83 U. S. 85]

. . .

The plaintiffs in error deny the validity of the act in question so far as it confers the special and exclusive privileges mentioned. . . .

The substance of the averments of the plaintiffs in error [83 U.S. 86] is this: that, prior to the passage of the act in question, they were engaged in the lawful and necessary business of procuring and bringing to the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard animals suitable for human food, and in preparing such food for market; that, in the prosecution of this business, they had provided in these parishes suitable establishments for landing, sheltering, keeping, and slaughtering cattle and the sale of meat; that, with their association about four hundred persons were connected, and that, in the parishes named, about a thousand persons were thus engaged in procuring, preparing, and selling animal food. And they complain that the business of landing, yarding, and keeping, within the parishes named, cattle intended for sale or slaughter, which was lawful for them to pursue before the first day of June, 1869, is made by that act unlawful for anyone except the corporation named, and that the business of slaughtering cattle and preparing animal food for market, which it was lawful for them to pursue in these parishes before that day, is made by that act unlawful for them to pursue afterwards except in the buildings of the company, and upon payment of certain prescribed fees, and a surrender of a valuable portion of each animal slaughtered. And they contend that the lawful business of landing, yarding, sheltering, and keeping cattle intended for sale or slaughter, which they in common with every individual in the community of the three parishes had a right to follow, cannot be thus taken from them and given over for a period of twenty-five years to the sole and exclusive enjoyment of a corporation of seventeen persons or of anybody else. And they also contend that the lawful and necessary business of slaughtering cattle and preparing animal food for market, which they and all other individuals had a right to follow, cannot be thus restricted within this territory of 1154 square miles to the buildings of this corporation, or be subjected to tribute for the emolument of that body.

No one will deny the abstract justice which lies in the position of the plaintiffs in error, and I shall endeavor to [83 U. S. 87] show that the position has some support in the fundamental law of the country.

It is contended in justification for the act in question that it was adopted in the interest of the city, to promote its cleanliness and protect its health, and was the legitimate exercise of what is termed the police power of the State. That power undoubtedly extends to all regulations affecting the health, good order, morals, peace, and safety of society, and is exercised on a great variety of subjects, and in almost numberless ways. All sorts of restrictions and burdens are imposed under it, and, when these are not in conflict with any constitutional prohibitions or fundamental principles, they cannot be successfully assailed in a judicial tribunal. With this power of the State and its legitimate exercise I shall not differ from the majority of the court. But under the pretence of prescribing a police regulation, the State cannot be permitted to encroach upon any of the just rights of the citizen, which the Constitution intended to secure against abridgment.

. . .

[83 U. S. 88]

. . .

It is also sought to justify the act in question on the same principle that exclusive grants for ferries, bridges, and turnpikes are sanctioned. But it can find no support there. . . .

Nor is there any analogy between this act of Louisiana and the legislation which confers upon the inventor of a new and useful improvement an exclusive right to make and sell to others his invention. . . .

The act of Louisiana presents the naked case, unaccompanied by any public considerations, where a right to pursue a lawful and necessary calling, previously enjoyed by every citizen, and in connection with which a thousand persons were daily employed, is taken away and vested exclusively [83 U. S. 89] for twenty-five years, for an extensive district and a large population, in a single corporation, or its exercise is for that period restricted to the establishments of the corporation, and there allowed only upon onerous conditions.

If exclusive privileges of this character can be granted to a corporation of seventeen persons, they may, in the discretion of the legislature, be equally granted to a single individual. If they may be granted for twenty-five years, they may be equally granted for a century, and in perpetuity. If they may be granted for the landing and keeping of animals intended for sale or slaughter, they may be equally granted for the landing and storing of grain and other products of the earth, or for any article of commerce. If they may be granted for structures in which animal food is prepared for market, they may be equally granted for structures in which farinaceous or vegetable food is prepared. They may be granted for any of the pursuits of human industry, even in its most simple and common forms. Indeed, upon the theory on which the exclusive privileges granted by the act in question are sustained, there is no monopoly, in the most odious form, which may not be upheld.

The question presented is, therefore, one of the gravest importance not merely to the parties here, but to the whole country. It is nothing less than the question whether the recent amendments to the Federal Constitution protect the citizens of the United States against the deprivation of their common rights by State legislation. In my judgment, the fourteenth amendment does afford such protection, and was so intended by the Congress which framed and the States which adopted it.

The counsel for the plaintiffs in error have contended with great force that the act in question is also inhibited by the thirteenth amendment.

That amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. . . .

. . .

[83 U. S. 93]

. . .

It is not necessary, however, . . . to rest my objections to the act in question upon the terms and meaning of the thirteenth amendment. The provisions of the fourteenth amendment, which is properly a supplement to the thirteenth, cover, in my judgment, the case before us, and inhibit any legislation which confers special and exclusive privileges like these under consideration. The amendment was adopted to obviate objections which had been raised and pressed with great force to the validity of the Civil Rights Act, and to place the common rights of American citizens under the protection of the National government. It first declares that

“all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

It then declares that

“no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due [83 U. S. 94] process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The first clause of this amendment determines who are citizens of the United States, and how their citizenship is created. Before its enactment, there was much diversity of opinion among jurists and statesmen whether there was any such citizenship independent of that of the State, and, if any existed, as to the manner in which it originated. With a great number, the opinion prevailed that there was no such citizenship independent of the citizenship of the State. Such was the opinion of [Senator John C.] Calhoun and the class represented by him. . . .

[83 U. S. 95]

. . .

The first clause of the fourteenth amendment changes this whole subject, and removes it from the region of discussion and doubt. It recognizes in express terms, if it does not create, citizens of the United States, and it makes their citizenship dependent upon the place of their birth, or the fact of their adoption, and not upon the constitution or laws of any State or the condition of their ancestry. A citizen of a State is now only a citizen of the United States residing in that State. The fundamental rights, privileges, and immunities which belong to him as a free man and a free citizen now belong to him as a citizen of the United States, and are not dependent upon his citizenship of any State. The exercise of these rights and privileges, and the degree of enjoyment received from such exercise, are always more or less affected by the condition and the local institutions of the State, or city, or town where he resides. They are thus affected in a State by the wisdom of its laws, the ability of its officers, the efficiency of its magistrates, the education and morals of its people, and by many other considerations. This is a result which follows from the constitution of society, and can never be avoided, but in no other way can they be affected by the action of the State, or by the residence of the citizen therein. They do not derive [83 U. S. 96] their existence from its legislation, and cannot be destroyed by its power.

The amendment does not attempt to confer any new privileges or immunities upon citizens, or to enumerate or define those already existing. It assumes that there are such privileges and immunities which belong of right to citizens as such, and ordains that they shall not be abridged by State legislation. If this inhibition has no reference to privileges and immunities of this character, but only refers, as held by the majority of the court in their opinion, to such privileges and immunities as were before its adoption specially designated in the Constitution or necessarily implied as belonging to citizens of the United States, it was a vain and idle enactment, which accomplished nothing and most unnecessarily excited Congress and the people on its passage. With privileges and immunities thus designated or implied no State could ever have interfered by its laws, and no new constitutional provision was required to inhibit such interference. The supremacy of the Constitution and the laws of the United States always controlled any State legislation of that character. But if the amendment refers to the natural and inalienable rights which belong to all citizens, the inhibition has a profound significance and consequence.

What, then, are the privileges and immunities which are secured against abridgment by State legislation?

In the first section of the Civil Rights Act, Congress has given its interpretation to these terms, or at least has stated some of the rights which, in its judgment, these terms include; it has there declared that they include the right

“to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

That act, it is true, was passed before the fourteenth amendment, but the amendment was adopted, as I have already said, to obviate objections to the act, or, speaking more accurately, I should say, to obviate objections to legislation [83 U. S. 97] of a similar character, extending the protection of the National government over the common rights of all citizens of the United States. Accordingly, after its ratification, Congress reenacted the act under the belief that whatever doubts may have previously existed of its validity, they were removed by the amendment.

The terms “privileges” and “immunities” are not new in the amendment; they were in the Constitution before the amendment was adopted. They are found in the second section of the fourth article, which declares that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States,” and they have been the subject of frequent consideration in judicial decisions. In Corfield v. Coryell, (4 Washington’s Circuit Court 380) Mr. Justice Washington said he had

“no hesitation in confining these expressions to those privileges and immunities which were, in their nature, fundamental, which belong of right to citizens of all free governments, and which have at all times been enjoyed by the citizens of the several States which compose the Union, from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign;”

and, in considering what those fundamental privileges were, he said that perhaps it would be more tedious than difficult to enumerate them, but that they might be

“all comprehended under the following general heads: protection by the government; the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right to acquire and possess property of every kind, and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety, subject, nevertheless, to such restraints as the government may justly prescribe for the general good of the whole.”

This appears to me to be a sound construction of the clause in question. The privileges and immunities designated are those which of right belong to the citizens of all free governments. Clearly among these must be placed the right to pursue a lawful employment in a lawful manner, without other restraint than such as equally affects all persons. In the discussions [83 U. S. 98] in Congress upon the passage of the Civil Rights Act, repeated reference was made to this language of Mr. Justice Washington. It was cited by Senator Trumbull with the observation that it enumerated the very rights belonging to a citizen of the United States set forth in the first section of the act, and with the statement that all persons born in the United States, being declared by the act citizens of the United States, would thenceforth be entitled to the rights of citizens, and that these were the great fundamental rights set forth in the act; and that they were set forth “as appertaining to every freeman.”

The privileges and immunities designated in the second section of the fourth article of the Constitution are, then, according to the decision cited, those which of right belong to the citizens of all free governments, and they can be enjoyed under that clause by the citizens of each State in the several States upon the same terms and conditions as they are enjoyed by the citizens of the latter States. No discrimination can be made by one State against the citizens of other States in their enjoyment, nor can any greater imposition be levied than such as is laid upon its own citizens. It is a clause which insures equality in the enjoyment of these rights between citizens of the several States whilst in the same State.

[83 U. S. 101]

. . . If, under the fourth article of the Constitution, equality of privileges and immunities is secured between citizens of different States, under the fourteenth amendment, the same equality is secured between citizens of the United States.

. . .

Now what the clause in question does for the protection of citizens of one State against the creation of monopolies in favor of citizens of other States, the fourteenth amendment does for the protection of every citizen of the United States against the creation of any monopoly whatever. The privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, of every one of them, is secured against abridgment in any form by any State. The fourteenth amendment places them under the guardianship of the National authority. All monopolies in any known trade or manufacture are an invasion of these privileges, for they encroach upon the liberty of citizens to acquire property and pursue happiness, and were [83 U. S. 102] held void at common law in the great Case of Monopolies, decided during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

A monopoly is defined

“to be an institution or allowance from the sovereign power of the State by grant, commission, or otherwise, to any person or corporation, for the sole buying, selling, making, working, or using of anything, whereby any person or persons, bodies politic or corporate, are sought to be restrained of any freedom or liberty they had before, or hindered in their lawful trade.”

All such grants relating to any known trade or manufacture have been held by all the judges of England, whenever they have come up for consideration, to be void at common law as destroying the freedom of trade, discouraging labor and industry, restraining persons from getting an honest livelihood, and putting it into the power of the grantees to enhance the price of commodities. The definition embraces, it will be observed, not merely the sole privilege of buying and selling particular articles, or of engaging in their manufacture, but also the sole privilege of using anything by which others may be restrained of the freedom or liberty they previously had in any lawful trade, or hindered in such trade. It thus covers in every particular the possession and use of suitable yards, stables, and buildings for keeping and protecting cattle and other animals, and for their slaughter. Such establishments are essential to the free and successful prosecution by any butcher of the lawful trade of preparing animal food for market. The exclusive privilege of supplying such yards, buildings, and other conveniences for the prosecution of this business in a large district of country, granted by the act of Louisiana to seventeen persons, is as much a monopoly as though the act had granted to the company the exclusive privilege of buying and selling the animals themselves. It equally restrains the butchers in the freedom and liberty they previously had and hinders them in their lawful trade.

. . .

[83 U. S. 104]

. . .

The common law of England . . . condemned all monopolies in any known trade or manufacture, and declared void all grants of special privileges whereby others could be deprived of any liberty which they previously had, or be hindered in their lawful trade. . . .

The common law of England is the basis of the jurisprudence of the United States. It was brought to this country by the colonists, together with the English statutes, and was established here so far as it was applicable to their condition. That law and the benefit of such of the English statutes as existed at the time of their colonization, and which they had by experience found to be applicable to their circumstances, were claimed by the Congress of the United Colonies in 1774 as a part of their “indubitable rights and liberties.” (Journals of Congress, Volume 1, pp. 28–30)

[83 U. S. 105]

. . . [W]hen the Colonies separated from the mother country, no privilege was more fully recognized or more completely incorporated into the fundamental law of the country than that every free subject in the British empire was entitled to pursue his happiness by following any of the known established trades and occupations of the country, subject only to such restraints as equally affected all others. The immortal document which proclaimed the independence of the country declared as self-evident truths that the Creator had endowed all men

“with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

. . .

[83 U. S. 106]

. . .

So fundamental has this privilege of every citizen to be free from disparaging and unequal enactments in the pursuit of the ordinary avocations of life been regarded that few instances have arisen where the principle has been so far violated as to call for the interposition of the courts. But whenever this has occurred, with the exception of the present cases from Louisiana, which are the most barefaced and flagrant of all, the enactment interfering with the privilege of the citizen has been pronounced illegal and void. When a case under the same law under which the present cases have arisen came before the Circuit Court of the United States in the District of Louisiana, there was no hesitation on the part of the court in declaring the law, in its exclusive features, to be an invasion of one of the fundamental privileges of the citizen. (1 Abbott’s United States Reports, 398) The presiding justice, in delivering the opinion of the court, observed that it might be difficult to enumerate or define what were the essential privileges of a citizen of the United States, which a State could not by its laws invade, but that, so far as the question under consideration was concerned, it might be safely said that

“it is one of the privileges of every American citizen to adopt and follow such lawful industrial pursuit, not injurious to the community, as he may see fit, without unreasonable regulation or molestation and without being restricted by any of those unjust, oppressive, and odious monopolies or exclusive privileges which have been condemned by all free governments.”

And again:

“There is no more sacred right of citizenship than the right to pursue unmolested a lawful employment in a lawful manner. It is nothing more nor less than the sacred right of labor.”

. . .

[83 U. S. 109]

. . .

This equality of right, with exemption from all disparaging and partial enactments, in the lawful pursuits of life, [83 U. S. 110] throughout the whole country, is the distinguishing privilege of citizens of the United States. To them, everywhere, all pursuits, all professions, all avocations are open without other restrictions than such as are imposed equally upon all others of the same age, sex, and condition. The State may prescribe such regulations for every pursuit and calling of life as will promote the public health, secure the good order and advance the general prosperity of society, but, when once prescribed, the pursuit or calling must be free to be followed by every citizen who is within the conditions designated, and will conform to the regulations. This is the fundamental idea upon which our institutions rest, and, unless adhered to in the legislation of the country, our government will be a republic only in name. The fourteenth amendment, in my judgment, makes it essential to the validity of the legislation of every State that this equality of right should be respected. How widely this equality has been departed from, how entirely rejected and trampled upon by the act of Louisiana, I have already shown. And it is to me a matter of profound regret that its validity is recognized by a majority of this court, for by it the right of free labor, one of the most sacred and imprescriptible rights of man, is violated.[1] . . .

[83 U. S. 111]

. . . [G]rants of exclusive privileges, such as is made by the act in question, are opposed to the whole theory of free government, and it requires no aid from any bill of rights to render them void. That only is a free government, in the American sense of the term, under which the inalienable right of every citizen to pursue his happiness is unrestrained, except by just, equal, and impartial laws.[2]

I am authorized by the CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice SWAYNE, and Mr. Justice BRADLEY to state that they concur with me in this dissenting opinion.

. . .


Mr. Justice BRADLEY, also dissenting.

I concur in the opinion which has just been read by Mr. Justice Field, but desire to add a few observations for the purpose of more fully illustrating my views on the important question decided in these cases, and the special grounds on which they rest.

. . .

[83 U. S. 112]

. . .

It is contended that this [law] abridges the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, especially of the plaintiffs in error, who were particularly affected thereby, and whether it does so or not is the simple question in this case. And the solution of this question depends upon the solution of two other questions, to-wit:

First. Is it one of the rights and privileges of a citizen of the United States to pursue such civil employment as he may choose to adopt, subject to such reasonable regulations as may be prescribed by law?

Secondly. Is a monopoly, or exclusive right, given to one person to the exclusion of all others, to keep slaughterhouses, in a district of nearly twelve hundred square miles, for the supply of meat for a large city, a reasonable regulation of that employment which the legislature has a right to impose?

The first of these questions is one of vast importance, and lies at the very foundations of our government. The question is now settled by the fourteenth amendment itself, that citizenship of the United States is the primary citizenship in this country, and that State citizenship is secondary and derivative, depending upon citizenship of the United States and the citizen's place of residence. . . .

[83 U. S. 113]

. . .

Every citizen, then, being primarily a citizen of the United States, and, secondarily, a citizen of the State where he resides, what, in general, are the privileges and immunities of a citizen of the United States? Is the right, liberty, or privilege of choosing any lawful employment one of them?

If a State legislature should pass a law prohibiting the inhabitants of a particular township, county, or city, from tanning leather or making shoes, would such a law violate any privileges or immunities of those inhabitants as citizens of the United States, or only their privileges and immunities as citizens of that particular State? Or if a State legislature should pass a law of caste, making all trades and professions, or certain enumerated trades and professions, hereditary, so that no one could follow any such trades or professions except that which was pursued by his father, would such a law violate the privileges and immunities of the people of that State as citizens of the United States, or only as citizens of the State? Would they have no redress but to appeal to the courts of that particular State?

This seems to me to be the essential question before us for consideration. And, in my judgment, the right of any citizen to follow whatever lawful employment he chooses to adopt (submitting himself to all lawful regulations) is one of [83 U. S. 114] his most valuable rights, and one which the legislature of a State cannot invade, whether restrained by its own constitution or not.

The right of a State to regulate the conduct of its citizens is undoubtedly a very broad and extensive one, and not to be lightly restricted. But there are certain fundamental rights which this right of regulation cannot infringe. It may prescribe the manner of their exercise, but it cannot subvert the rights themselves. I speak now of the rights of citizens of any free government. Granting for the present that the citizens of one government cannot claim the privileges of citizens in another government, that, prior to the union of our North American States, the citizens of one State could not claim the privileges of citizens in another State, or that, after the union was formed, the citizens of the United States, as such, could not claim the privileges of citizens in any particular State, yet the citizens of each of the States and the citizens of the United States would be entitled to certain privileges and immunities as citizens at the hands of their own government—privileges and immunities which their own governments respectively would be bound to respect and maintain. In this free country, the people of which inherited certain traditionary rights and privileges from their ancestors, citizenship means something. It has certain privileges and immunities attached to it which the government, whether restricted by express or implied limitations, cannot take away or impair. It may do so temporarily by force, but it cannot do so by right. And these privileges and immunities attach as well to citizenship of the United States as to citizenship of the States.

The people of this country brought with them to its shores the rights of Englishmen, the rights which had been wrested from English sovereigns at various periods of the nation's history. One of these fundamental rights was expressed in these words, found in Magna Charta:

“No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his freehold or liberties or free customs, or be outlawed or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him or condemn [83 U. S. 115] him but by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

English constitutional writers expound this article as rendering life, liberty, and property inviolable except by due process of law. This is the very right which the plaintiffs in error claim in this case. Another of these rights was that of habeas corpus, or the right of having any invasion of personal liberty judicially examined into, at once, by a competent judicial magistrate. Blackstone classifies these fundamental rights under three heads, as the absolute rights of individuals, to-wit: the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property. And, of the last, he says:

“The third absolute right, inherent in every Englishman, is that of property, which consists in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all his acquisitions, without any control or diminution save only by the laws of the land.”

The privileges and immunities of Englishmen were established and secured by long usage and by various acts of Parliament. But it may be said that the Parliament of England has unlimited authority, and might repeal the laws which have from time to time been enacted. Theoretically, this is so, but practically it is not. England has no written constitution, it is true, but it has an unwritten one, resting in the acknowledged, and frequently declared, privileges of Parliament and the people, to violate which in any material respect would produce a revolution in an hour. A violation of one of the fundamental principles of that constitution in the Colonies, namely, the principle that recognizes the property of the people as their own, and which, therefore, regards all taxes for the support of government as gifts of the people through their representatives, and regards taxation without representation as subversive of free government, was the origin of our own revolution.

This, it is true, was the violation of a political right, but personal rights were deemed equally sacred, and were claimed by the very first Congress of the Colonies, assembled in 1774, as the undoubted inheritance of the people of this country; and the Declaration of Independence, which [83 U. S. 116] was the first political act of the American people in their independent sovereign capacity, lays the foundation of our National existence upon this broad proposition:

“That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Here again we have the great three-fold division of the rights of freemen, asserted as the rights of man. Rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are equivalent to the rights of life, liberty, and property. These are the fundamental rights which can only be taken away by due process of law, and which can only be interfered with, or the enjoyment of which can only be modified, by lawful regulations necessary or proper for the mutual good of all; and these rights, I contend, belong to the citizens of every free government.

For the preservation, exercise, and enjoyment of these rights the individual citizen, as a necessity, must be left free to adopt such calling, profession, or trade as may seem to him most conducive to that end. Without this right, he cannot be a freeman. This right to choose one's calling is an essential part of that liberty which it is the object of government to protect, and a calling, when chosen, is a man's property and right. Liberty and property are not protected where these rights are arbitrarily assailed.

I think sufficient has been said to show that citizenship is not an empty name, but that, in this country, at least, it has connected with it certain incidental rights, privileges, and immunities of the greatest importance. And to say that these rights and immunities attach only to State citizenship, and not to citizenship of the United States, appears to me to evince a very narrow and insufficient estimate of constitutional history and the rights of men, not to say the rights of the American people.

On this point, the often-quoted language of Mr. Justice Washington, in Corfield v. Coryell (4 Washington’s Circuit Court 380), is very instructive. Being [83 U. S. 117] called upon to expound that clause in the fourth article of the Constitution which declares that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States,” he says:

“The inquiry is what are the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States? We feel no hesitation in confining these expressions to those privileges and immunities which are, in their nature, fundamental, which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments, and which have at all times been enjoyed by the citizens of the several States which compose this Union from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign. What these fundamental privileges are it would perhaps be more tedious than difficult to enumerate. They may, however, be all comprehended under the following general heads: protection by the government; the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right to acquire and possess property of every kind, and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety, subject, nevertheless, to such restraints as the government may justly prescribe for the general good of the whole; the right of a citizen of one State to pass through, or to reside in, any other State for purposes of trade, agriculture, professional pursuits, or otherwise; to claim the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus; to institute and maintain actions of any kind in the courts of the State; to take, hold, and dispose of property, either real or personal; and an exemption from higher taxes or impositions than are paid by the other citizens of the State, may be mentioned as some of the particular privileges and immunities of citizens which are clearly embraced by the general description of privileges deemed to be fundamental.”

It is pertinent to observe that both the clause of the Constitution referred to and Justice Washington, in his comment on it, speak of the privileges and immunities of citizens in a State, not of citizens of a State. It is the privileges and immunities of citizens, that is, of citizens as such, that are to be accorded to citizens of other States when they are found in any State; or, as Justice Washington says,

“privileges and immunities which are, in their nature, fundamental; [83 U. S. 118] which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments.”

It is true the courts have usually regarded the clause referred to as securing only an equality of privileges with the citizens of the State in which the parties are found. Equality before the law is undoubtedly one of the privileges and immunities of every citizen. I am not aware that any case has arisen in which it became necessary to vindicate any other fundamental privilege of citizenship; although rights have been claimed which were not deemed fundamental, and have been rejected as not within the protection of this clause. Be this, however, as it may, the language of the clause is as I have stated it, and seems fairly susceptible of a broader interpretation than that which makes it a guarantee of mere equality of privileges with other citizens.

But we are not bound to resort to implication, or to the constitutional history of England, to find an authoritative declaration of some of the most important privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. It is in the Constitution itself. The Constitution, it is true, as it stood prior to the recent amendments, specifies, in terms, only a few of the personal privileges and immunities of citizens, but they are very comprehensive in their character. The States were merely prohibited from passing bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, laws impairing the obligation of contracts, and perhaps one or two more. But others of the greatest consequence were enumerated, although they were only secured, in express terms, from invasion by the Federal government; such as the right of habeas corpus, the right of trial by jury, of free exercise of religious worship, the right of free speech and a free press, the right peaceably to assemble for the discussion of public measures, the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and above all, and including almost all the rest, the right of not being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. These and still others are specified in the original Constitution, or in the early amendments of it, as among the privileges and immunities [83 U. S. 119] of citizens of the United States, or, what is still stronger for the force of the argument, the rights of all persons, whether citizens or not.

But even if the Constitution were silent, the fundamental privileges and immunities of citizens, as such, would be no less real and no less inviolable than they now are. It was not necessary to say in words that the citizens of the United States should have and exercise all the privileges of citizens; the privilege of buying, selling, and enjoying property; the privilege of engaging in any lawful employment for a livelihood; the privilege of resorting to the laws for redress of injuries, and the like. Their very citizenship conferred these privileges, if they did not possess them before. And these privileges they would enjoy whether they were citizens of any State or not. Inhabitants of Federal territories and new citizens, made such by annexation of territory or naturalization, though without any status as citizens of a State, could, nevertheless, as citizens of the United States, lay claim to every one of the privileges and immunities which have been enumerated, and among these none is more essential and fundamental than the right to follow such profession or employment as each one may choose, subject only to uniform regulations equally applicable to all.

. . .

[83 U. S. 122]

. . . In my judgment, it was the intention of the people of this country in adopting that amendment to provide National security against violation by the States of the fundamental rights of the citizen.

The first section of this amendment, after declaring that all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to its jurisdiction, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside, proceeds to declare further that

“no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws;”

and that Congress shall have power to enforce by appropriate legislation the provisions of this article.

Now here is a clear prohibition on the States against making or enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

If my views are correct with regard to what are the privileges and immunities of citizens, it follows conclusively that any law which establishes a sheer monopoly, depriving a large class of citizens of the privilege of pursuing a lawful employment, does abridge the privileges of those citizens.

The amendment also prohibits any State from depriving any person (citizen or otherwise) of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

In my view, a law which prohibits a large class of citizens from adopting a lawful employment, or from following a lawful employment previously adopted, does deprive them of liberty as well as property, without due process of law. Their right of choice is a portion of their liberty; their occupation is their property. Such a law also deprives those citizens of the equal protection of the laws, contrary to the last clause of the section.

The constitutional question is distinctly raised in these cases; the constitutional right is expressly claimed; it was [83 U. S. 123] violated by State law, which was sustained by the State court, and we are called upon in a legitimate and proper way to afford redress. Our jurisdiction and our duty are plain and imperative.

It is futile to argue that none but persons of the African race are intended to be benefited by this amendment. They may have been the primary cause of the amendment, but its language is general, embracing all citizens, and I think it was purposely so expressed.

The mischief to be remedied was not merely slavery and its incidents and consequences, but that spirit of insubordination and disloyalty to the National government which had troubled the country for so many years in some of the States, and that intolerance of free speech and free discussion which often rendered life and property insecure, and led to much unequal legislation. The amendment was an attempt to give voice to the strong National yearning for that time and that condition of things, in which American citizenship should be a sure guaranty of safety, and in which every citizen of the United States might stand erect on every portion of its soil, in the full enjoyment of every right and privilege belonging to a freeman, without fear of violence or molestation.

But great fears are expressed that this construction of the amendment will lead to enactments by Congress interfering with the internal affairs of the States, and establishing therein civil and criminal codes of law for the government of the citizens, and thus abolishing the State governments in everything but name; or else, that it will lead the Federal courts to draw to their cognizance the supervision of State tribunals on every subject of judicial inquiry, on the plea of ascertaining whether the privileges and immunities of citizens have not been abridged.

In my judgment, no such practical inconveniences would arise. Very little, if any, legislation on the part of Congress would be required to carry the amendment into effect. Like the prohibition against passing a law impairing the obligation of a contract, it would execute itself. The point would [83 U. S. 124] be regularly raised in a suit at law, and settled by final reference to the Federal court. As the privileges and immunities protected are only those fundamental ones which belong to every citizen, they would soon become so far defined as to cause but a slight accumulation of business in the Federal courts. Besides, the recognized existence of the law would prevent its frequent violation. But even if the business of the National courts should be increased, Congress could easily supply the remedy by increasing their number and efficiency. The great question is what is the true construction of the amendment? When once we find that, we shall find the means of giving it effect. The argument from inconvenience ought not to have a very controlling influence in questions of this sort. The National will and National interest are of far greater importance.

In my opinion the judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana ought to be reversed.


Mr. Justice SWAYNE, dissenting.

I concur in the dissent in these cases and in the views expressed by my brethren, Mr. Justice Field and Mr. Justice Bradley. I desire, however, to submit a few additional remarks.

. . .

[83 U. S. 125]

. . .

Fairly construed, [the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth] amendments may be said to rise to the dignity of a new Magna Charta. The thirteenth blotted out slavery and forbade forever its restoration. It struck the fetters from four millions of human beings, and raised them at once to the sphere of freemen. This was an act of grace and justice performed by the Nation. Before the war, it could have been done only by the States where the institution existed, acting severally and separately from each other. The power then rested wholly with them. In that way, apparently, such a result could never have occurred. The power of Congress did not extend to the subject, except in the Territories.

. . .

[83 U. S. 126]

. . .

The first section of the fourteenth amendment is alone involved in the consideration of these cases. No searching analysis is necessary to eliminate its meaning. Its language is intelligible and direct. Nothing can be more transparent. Every word employed has an established signification. There is no room for construction. There is nothing to construe. Elaboration may obscure, but cannot make clearer, the intent and purpose sought to be carried out.

(1) Citizens of the States and of the United States are defined.

(2) It is declared that no State shall, by law, abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

(3) That no State shall deprive any person, whether a citizen or not, of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

A citizen of a State is ipso facto a citizen of the United States. No one can be the former without being also the latter; but the latter, by losing his residence in one State without acquiring it in another, although he continues to be the latter, ceases for the time to be the former. “The privileges and immunities” of a citizen of the United States include, among other things, the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property, and also the rights which pertain to him by reason of his membership of the Nation. The citizen of a State has the same fundamental rights as a citizen of the United States, and also certain others, local in their character, arising from his relation to the State, and, in addition, those which belong to the citizen of the United States, he being in that relation also. There may thus be a double citizenship, each having some rights peculiar to itself. It is only over those which belong to the citizen of the United States that the category here in question throws the shield of its protection. All those which belong to the citizen of a State, except as a bills of attainder, ex post facto [83 U. S. 127] laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are left to the guardianship of the bills of rights, constitutions, and laws of the States respectively. Those rights may all be enjoyed in every State by the citizens of every other State by virtue of clause 2, section 4, article 1, of the Constitution of the United States as it was originally framed. This section does not in anywise affect them; such was not its purpose.

In the next category, obviously ex industria, to prevent, as far as may be, the possibility of misinterpretation, either as to persons or things, the phrases “citizens of the United States” and “privileges and immunities” are dropped, and more simple and comprehensive terms are substituted. The substitutes are “any person,” and “life,” “liberty,” and “property,” and “the equal protection of the laws.” Life, liberty, and property are forbidden to be taken “without due process of law,” and “equal protection of the laws” is guaranteed to all. Life is the gift of God, and the right to preserve it is the most sacred of the rights of man. Liberty is freedom from all restraints but such as are justly imposed by law. Beyond that line lies the domain of usurpation and tyranny. Property is everything which has an exchangeable value, and the right of property includes the power to dispose of it according to the will of the owner. Labor is property, and as such merits protection. The right to make it available is next in importance to the rights of life and liberty. It lies to a large extent at the foundation of most other forms of property, and of all solid individual and national prosperity. “Due process of law” is the application of the law as it exists in the fair and regular course of administrative procedure. “The equal protection of the laws” places all upon a footing of legal equality and gives the same protection to all for the preservation of life, liberty, and property, and the pursuit of happiness.

[83 U. S. 128]

It is admitted that the plaintiffs in error are citizens of the United States, and persons within the jurisdiction of Louisiana. The cases before us, therefore, present but two questions.

(1) Does the act of the legislature creating the monopoly in question abridge the privileges and immunities of the plaintiffs in error as citizens of the United States?

(2) Does it deprive them of liberty or property without due process of law, or deny them the equal protection of the laws of the State, they being persons “within its jurisdiction?”

Both these inquiries I remit for their answer as to the facts to the opinions of my brethren, Mr. Justice Field and Mr. Justice Bradley. They are full and conclusive upon the subject. A more flagrant and indefensible invasion of the rights of many for the benefit of a few has not occurred in the legislative history of the country. The response to both inquiries should be in the affirmative. In my opinion, the cases, as presented in the record, are clearly within the letter and meaning of both the negative categories of the sixth section. The judgments before us should, therefore, be reversed.

These amendments are all consequences of the late civil war. The prejudices and apprehension as to the central government which prevailed when the Constitution was adopted were dispelled by the light of experience. The public mind became satisfied that there was less danger of tyranny in the head than of anarchy and tyranny in the members. The provisions of this section are all eminently conservative in their character. They are a bulwark of defence, and can never be made an engine of oppression. The language employed is unqualified in its scope. There is no exception in its terms, and there can be properly none in their application. By the language “citizens of the United States” was meant all such citizens; and by “any person” [83 U. S. 129] was meant all persons within the jurisdiction of the State. No distinction is intimated on account of race or color. This court has no authority to interpolate a limitation that is neither expressed nor implied. Our duty is to execute the law, not to make it. The protection provided was not intended to be confined to those of any particular race or class, but to embrace equally all races, classes, and conditions of men. It is objected that the power conferred is novel and large. The answer is that the novelty was known, and the measure deliberately adopted. The power is beneficent in its nature, and cannot be abused. It is such as should exist in every well-ordered system of polity. Where could it be more appropriately lodged than in the hands to which it is confided? It is necessary to enable the government of the nation to secure to everyone within its jurisdiction the rights and privileges enumerated, which, according to the plainest considerations of reason and justice and the fundamental principles of the social compact all are entitled to enjoy. Without such authority, any government claiming to be national is glaringly defective. The construction adopted by the majority of my brethren is, in my judgment, much too narrow. It defeats, by a limitation not anticipated, the intent of those by whom the instrument was framed and of those by whom it was adopted. To the extent of that limitation, it turns, as it were, what was meant for bread into a stone. By the Constitution as it stood before the war, ample protection was given against oppression by the Union, but little was given against wrong and oppression by the States. That want was intended to be supplied by this amendment. Against the former, this court has been called upon more than once to interpose. Authority of the same amplitude was intended to be conferred as to the latter. But this arm of our jurisdiction is, in these cases, stricken down by the judgment just given. Nowhere than in this court ought the will of the nation, as thus expressed, to be more liberally construed or more cordially executed. This determination of the majority seems to me to lie far in the other direction.

[83 U. S. 130]

I earnestly hope that the consequences to follow may prove less serious and far-reaching than the minority fear they will be.



1.   “The property which every man has in his own labor,” says Adam Smith,

“as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of the poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his own hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper, without injury to his neighbor, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the others from employing whom they think proper.” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, ch. 10, part 2)

In the edict of Louis XVI, in 1776, giving freedom to trades and professions, prepared by his minister, Turgot, he recites the contributions that had been made by the guilds and trade companies, and says:

“It was the allurement of these fiscal advantages, undoubtedly, that prolonged the illusion and concealed the immense injury they did to industry and their infraction of natural right. This illusion had extended so far that some persons asserted that the right to work was a royal privilege which the king might sell, and that his subjects were bound to purchase from him. We hasten to correct this error, and to repel the conclusion. God, in giving to man wants and desires rendering labor necessary for their satisfaction, conferred the right to labor upon all men, and this property is the first, most sacred, and imprescriptible of all.”

He, therefore, regards it

“as the first duty of his justice, and the worthiest act of benevolence, to free his subjects from any restriction upon this inalienable right of humanity.”


2.   “Civil liberty, the great end of all human society and government, is that state in which each individual has the power to pursue his own happiness according to his own views of his interest, and the dictates of his conscience, unrestrained, except by equal, just, and impartial laws.” (William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter 1 (“Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals”) [127], note 8.)

Griswold v. Connecticut

By the Supreme Court of the United States

Argued March 29-30, 1965.
Decided June 7, 1965.

[The Supreme Court of the United States of America. Griswold v. Connecticut. 381 U.S. 479 (1965). 1965. In the Public Domain.]’



MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.


Appellant Griswold is Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. Appellant Buxton is a licensed physician and a professor at the Yale Medical School who served as Medical Director for the League at its Center in New Haven—a center open and operating from November 1 to November 10, 1961, when appellants were arrested.


They gave information, instruction, and medical advice to married persons as to the means of preventing conception. They examined the wife and prescribed the best contraceptive device or material for her use. Fees were usually charged, although some couples were serviced free.


The statutes whose constitutionality is involved in this appeal are 53-32 and 54-196 of the General Statutes of Connecticut (1958 rev.). The former provides:

“Any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.”


Section 54-196 provides:

“Any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender.”


The appellants were found guilty as accessories and fined $100 each, against the claim that the accessory statute as so applied violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Appellate Division of the Circuit Court affirmed. The Supreme Court of Errors affirmed that judgment. 151 Conn. 544, 200 A. 2d 479. We noted probable jurisdiction.  

We think that appellants have standing to raise the constitutional rights of the married people with whom they had a professional relationship. . . .


. . .


Coming to the merits, we are met with a wide range of questions that implicate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Overtones of some arguments suggest that Lochner v. New York, should be our guide. But we decline that invitation. . . . We do not sit as a super-legislature to determine the wisdom, need, and propriety of laws that touch economic problems, business affairs, or social conditions. This law, however, operates directly on an intimate relation of husband and wife and their physician’s role in one aspect of that relation.


The association of people is not mentioned in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights. The right to educate a child in a school of the parents’ choice—whether public or private or parochial - is also not mentioned. Nor is the right to study any particular subject or any foreign language. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include certain of those rights.


By Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the right to educate one’s children as one chooses is made applicable to the States by the force of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. By Meyer v. Nebraska, the same dignity is given the right to study the German language in a private school. In other words, the State may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge. The right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach - indeed the freedom of the entire university community. Without those peripheral rights the specific rights would be less secure. And so we reaffirm the principle of the Pierce and the Meyer cases.


In NAACP v. Alabama, we protected the “freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations,” noting that freedom of association was a peripheral First Amendment right. Disclosure of membership lists of a constitutionally valid association, we held, was invalid “as entailing the likelihood of a substantial restraint upon the exercise by petitioner’s members of their right to freedom of association.” In other words, the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion. . . .


Those cases involved more than the “right of assembly”—a right that extends to all irrespective of their race or ideology. The right of “association,” like the right of belief, is more than the right to attend a meeting; it includes the right to express one’s attitudes or philosophies by membership in a group or by affiliation with it or by other lawful means. Association in that context is a form of expression of opinion; and while it is not expressly included in the First Amendment its existence is necessary in making the express guarantees fully meaningful.  


The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. Various guarantees create zones of privacy. The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen. The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers “in any house” in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of that privacy. The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fifth Amendment in its Self-Incrimination Clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment. The Ninth Amendment provides: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”


. . .


We have had many controversies over these penumbral rights of “privacy and repose.” These cases bear witness that the right of privacy which presses for recognition here is a legitimate one.


The present case, then, concerns a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees. And it concerns a law which, in forbidding the use of contraceptives rather than regulating their manufacture or sale, seeks to achieve its goals by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship. Such a law cannot stand in light of the familiar principle, so often applied by this Court, that a “governmental purpose to control or prevent activities constitutionally subject to state regulation may not be achieved by means which sweep unnecessarily broadly and thereby invade the area of protected freedoms.” Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.


We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights - older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.





I agree with the Court that Connecticut’s birth-control law unconstitutionally intrudes upon the right of marital privacy, and I join in its opinion and judgment. Although I have not accepted the view that “due process” as used in the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates all of the first eight Amendments, I do agree that the concept of liberty protects those personal rights that are fundamental, and is not confined to the specific terms of the Bill of Rights. My conclusion that the concept of liberty is not so restricted and that it embraces the right of marital privacy though that right is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution is supported both by numerous decisions of this Court, referred to in the Court’s opinion, and by the language and history of the Ninth Amendment. . . .


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The Ninth Amendment reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”


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A dissenting opinion suggests that my interpretation of the Ninth Amendment somehow “broaden[s] the powers of this Court.” With all due respect, I believe that it misses the import of what I am saying. . . . The Ninth Amendment simply shows the intent of the Constitution’s authors that other fundamental personal rights should not be denied such protection or disparaged in any other way simply because they are not specifically listed in the first eight constitutional amendments. . . .


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In determining which rights are fundamental, judges are not left at large to decide cases in light of their personal and private notions. Rather, they must look to the “traditions and [collective] conscience of our people” to determine whether a principle is “so rooted [there] . . . as to be ranked as fundamental.” The inquiry is whether a right involved “is of such a character that it cannot be denied without violating those `fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions’ . . . .” (Powell v. Alabama). “Liberty” also “gains content from the emanations of . . . specific [constitutional] guarantees” and “from experience with the requirements of a free society.” (Poe v. Ullman). 


I agree fully with the Court that, applying these tests, the right of privacy is a fundamental personal right, emanating “from the totality of the constitutional scheme under which we live.” Mr. Justice Brandeis, dissenting in Olmstead v. United States, comprehensively summarized the principles underlying the Constitution’s guarantees of privacy:


“The protection guaranteed by the [Fourth and Fifth] Amendments is much broader in scope. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” 


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Although the Constitution does not speak in so many words of the right of privacy in marriage, I cannot believe that it offers these fundamental rights no protection. . . .


My Brother STEWART, while characterizing the Connecticut birth control law as “an uncommonly silly law,” would nevertheless let it stand on the ground that it is not for the courts to “`substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to pass laws.’” . . .


The logic of the dissents would sanction federal or state legislation that seems to me even more plainly unconstitutional than the statute before us. Surely the Government, absent a showing of a compelling subordinating state interest, could not decree that all husbands and wives must be sterilized after two children have been born to them. Yet by their reasoning such an invasion of marital privacy would not be subject to constitutional challenge because, while it might be “silly,” no provision of the Constitution specifically prevents the Government from curtailing the marital right to bear children and raise a family. While it may shock some of my Brethren that the Court today holds that the Constitution protects the right of marital privacy, in my view it is far more shocking to believe that the personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution does not include protection against such totalitarian limitation of family size, which is at complete variance with our constitutional concepts. Yet, if upon a showing of a slender basis of rationality, a law outlawing voluntary birth control by married persons is valid, then, by the same reasoning, a law requiring compulsory birth control also would seem to be valid. In my view, however, both types of law would unjustifiably intrude upon rights of marital privacy which are constitutionally protected.


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Although the Connecticut birth-control law obviously encroaches upon a fundamental personal liberty, the State does not show that the law serves any “subordinating [state] interest which is compelling” or that it is “necessary . . . to the accomplishment of a permissible state policy.” The State, at most, argues that there is some rational relation between this statute and what is admittedly a legitimate subject of state concern - the discouraging of extra-marital relations. It says that preventing the use of birth-control devices by married persons helps prevent the indulgence by some in such extramarital relations. The rationality of this justification is dubious. . . . But, in any event, it is clear that the state interest in safeguarding marital fidelity can be served by a more discriminately tailored statute. . . .


MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concurring in the judgment.


I fully agree with the judgment of reversal, but find myself unable to join the Court’s opinion. The reason is that it seems to me to evince an approach to this case very much like that taken by my Brothers BLACK and STEWART in dissent, namely: the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not touch this Connecticut statute unless the enactment is found to violate some right assured by the letter or penumbra of the Bill of Rights.  


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A further observation seems in order respecting the justification of my Brothers BLACK and STEWART for their “incorporation” approach to this case. Their approach does not rest on historical reasons, which are of course wholly lacking, but on the thesis that by limiting the content of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the protection of rights which can be found elsewhere in the Constitution, in this instance in the Bill of Rights, judges will thus be confined to “interpretation” of specific constitutional provisions, and will thereby be restrained from introducing their own notions of constitutional right and wrong into the “vague contours of the Due Process Clause.”


While I could not more heartily agree that judicial “self restraint” is an indispensable ingredient of sound constitutional adjudication, I do submit that the formula suggested for achieving it is more hollow than real. “Specific” provisions of the Constitution, no less than “due process,” lend themselves as readily to “personal” interpretations by judges whose constitutional outlook is simply to keep the Constitution in supposed “tune with the times.”. . .


Judicial self-restraint will not, I suggest, be brought about in the “due process” area by the historically unfounded incorporation formula long advanced by my Brother BLACK, and now in part espoused by my Brother STEWART. It will be achieved in this area, as in other constitutional areas, only by continual insistence upon respect for the teachings of history, solid recognition of the basic values that underlie our society, and wise appreciation of the great roles that the doctrines of federalism and separation of powers have played in establishing and preserving American freedoms. Adherence to these principles will not, of course, obviate all constitutional differences of opinion among judges, nor should it. Their continued recognition will, however, go farther toward keeping most judges from roaming at large in the constitutional field than will the interpolation into the Constitution of an artificial and largely illusory restriction on the content of the Due Process Clause.




MR. JUSTICE BLACK, with whom MR. JUSTICE STEWART joins, dissenting.

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The Court talks about a constitutional “right of privacy” as though there is some constitutional provision or provisions forbidding any law ever to be passed which might abridge the “privacy” of individuals. But there is not. There are, of course, guarantees in certain specific constitutional provisions which are designed in part to protect privacy at certain times and places with respect to certain activities. . . .

One of the most effective ways of diluting or expanding a constitutionally guaranteed right is to substitute for the crucial word or words of a constitutional guarantee another word or words, more or less flexible and more or less restricted in meaning. This fact is well illustrated by the use of the term “right of privacy” as a comprehensive substitute for the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” “Privacy” is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept which can easily be shrunken in meaning but which can also, on the other hand, easily be interpreted as a constitutional ban against many things other than searches and seizures. . . . I like my privacy as well as the next one, but I am nevertheless compelled to admit that government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision. For these reasons I cannot agree with the Court’s judgment and the reasons it gives for holding this Connecticut law unconstitutional.

. . . I think that if properly construed neither the Due Process Clause nor the Ninth Amendment, nor both together, could under any circumstances be a proper basis for invalidating the Connecticut law. I discuss the due process and Ninth Amendment arguments together because on analysis they turn out to be the same thing - merely using different words to claim for this Court and the federal judiciary power to invalidate any legislative act which the judges find irrational, unreasonable or offensive.

The due process argument which my Brothers HARLAN and WHITE adopt here is based, as their opinions indicate, on the premise that this Court is vested with power to invalidate all state laws that it considers to be arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, or oppressive, or on this Court’s belief that a particular state law under scrutiny has no “rational or justifying” purpose, or is offensive to a “sense of fairness and justice.” If these formulas based on “natural justice,” or others which mean the same thing, are to prevail, they require judges to determine what is or is not constitutional on the basis of their own appraisal of what laws are unwise or unnecessary. The power to make such decisions is of course that of a legislative body. Surely it has to be admitted that no provision of the Constitution specifically gives such blanket power to courts to exercise such a supervisory veto over the wisdom and value of legislative policies and to hold unconstitutional those laws which they believe unwise or dangerous. I readily admit that no legislative body, state or national, should pass laws that can justly be given any of the invidious labels invoked as constitutional excuses to strike down state laws. But perhaps it is not too much to say that no legislative body ever does pass laws without believing that they will accomplish a sane, rational, wise and justifiable purpose. While I completely subscribe to the holding of Marbury v. Madison, and subsequent cases, that our Court has constitutional power to strike down statutes, state or federal, that violate commands of the Federal Constitution, I do not believe that we are granted power by the Due Process Clause or any other constitutional provision or provisions to measure constitutionality by our belief that legislation is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or accomplishes no justifiable purpose, or is offensive to our own notions of “civilized standards of conduct.” Such an appraisal of the wisdom of legislation is an attribute of the power to make laws, not of the power to interpret them. . . .

Of the cases on which my Brothers WHITE and GOLDBERG rely so heavily, . . . I merely point out that the reasoning stated in Meyer and Pierce was the same natural law due process philosophy which many later opinions repudiated, and which I cannot accept. . . .

My Brother GOLDBERG has adopted the recent discovery that the Ninth Amendment as well as the Due Process Clause can be used by this Court as authority to strike down all state legislation which this Court thinks violates “fundamental principles of liberty and justice,” or is contrary to the “traditions and [collective] conscience of our people.” He also states, without proof satisfactory to me, that in making decisions on this basis judges will not consider “their personal and private notions.” One may ask how they can avoid considering them. Our Court certainly has no machinery with which to take a Gallup Poll. And the scientific miracles of this age have not yet produced a gadget which the Court can use to determine what traditions are rooted in the “[collective] conscience of our people.” Moreover, one would certainly have to look far beyond the language of the Ninth Amendment to find that the Framers vested in this Court any such awesome veto powers over lawmaking, either by the States or by the Congress. Nor does anything in the history of the Amendment offer any support for such a shocking doctrine. . . . That Amendment was passed, not to broaden the powers of this Court or any other department of “the General Government,” but, as every student of history knows, to assure the people that the Constitution in all its provisions was intended to limit the Federal Government to the powers granted expressly or by necessary implication. If any broad, unlimited power to hold laws unconstitutional because they offend what this Court conceives to be the “[collective] conscience of our people” is vested in this Court by the Ninth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, or any other provision of the Constitution, it was not given by the Framers, but rather has been bestowed on the Court by the Court. This fact is perhaps responsible for the peculiar phenomenon that for a period of a century and a half no serious suggestion was ever made that the Ninth Amendment, enacted to protect state powers against federal invasion, could be used as a weapon of federal power to prevent state legislatures from passing laws they consider appropriate to govern local affairs. Use of any such broad, unbounded judicial authority would make of this Court’s members a day-to-day constitutional convention.

I repeat so as not to be misunderstood that this Court does have power, which it should exercise, to hold laws unconstitutional where they are forbidden by the Federal Constitution. My point is that there is no provision of the Constitution which either expressly or impliedly vests power in this Court to sit as a supervisory agency over acts of duly constituted legislative bodies and set aside their laws because of the Court’s belief that the legislative policies adopted are unreasonable, unwise, arbitrary, capricious or irrational. The adoption of such a loose, flexible, uncontrolled standard for holding laws unconstitutional, if ever it is finally achieved, will amount to a great unconstitutional shift of power to the courts which I believe and am constrained to say will be bad for the courts and worse for the country. Subjecting federal and state laws to such an unrestrained and unrestrainable judicial control as to the wisdom of legislative enactments would, I fear, jeopardize the separation of governmental powers that the Framers set up and at the same time threaten to take away much of the power of States to govern themselves which the Constitution plainly intended them to have.

I realize that many good and able men have eloquently spoken and written, sometimes in rhapsodical strains, about the duty of this Court to keep the Constitution in tune with the times. The idea is that the Constitution must be changed from time to time and that this Court is charged with a duty to make those changes. For myself, I must with all deference reject that philosophy. The Constitution makers knew the need for change and provided for it. Amendments suggested by the people’s elected representatives can be submitted to the people or their selected agents for ratification. That method of change was good for our Fathers, and being somewhat old-fashioned I must add it is good enough for me. And so, I cannot rely on the Due Process Clause or the Ninth Amendment or any mysterious and uncertain natural law concept as a reason for striking down this state law. The Due Process Clause with an “arbitrary and capricious” or “shocking to the conscience” formula was liberally used by this Court to strike down economic legislation in the early decades of this century, threatening, many people thought, the tranquility and stability of the Nation. See, e. g., Lochner v. New York. That formula, based on subjective considerations of “natural justice,” is no less dangerous when used to enforce this Court’s views about personal rights than those about economic rights. . . .

 In Ferguson v. Skrupa, this Court two years ago said in an opinion joined by all the Justices but one that “The doctrine that prevailed in Lochner, . . . and like cases - that due process authorizes courts to hold laws unconstitutional when they believe the legislature has acted unwisely - has long since been discarded. We have returned to the original constitutional proposition that courts do not substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to pass laws.” . . .

In 1798, when this Court was asked to hold another Connecticut law unconstitutional, Justice Iredell said: “[I]t has been the policy of all the American states, which have, individually, framed their state constitutions since the revolution, and of the people of the United States, when they framed the Federal Constitution, to define with precision the objects of the legislative power, and to restrain its exercise within marked and settled boundaries. If any act of Congress, or of the Legislature of a state, violates those constitutional provisions, it is unquestionably void; though, I admit, that as the authority to declare it void is of a delicate and awful nature, the Court will never resort to that authority, but in a clear and urgent case. If, on the other hand, the Legislature of the Union, or the Legislature of any member of the Union, shall pass a law, within the general scope of their constitutional power, the Court cannot pronounce it to be void, merely because it is, in their judgment, contrary to the principles of natural justice. The ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard: the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject; and all that the Court could properly say, in such an event, would be, that the Legislature (possessed of an equal right of opinion) had passed an act which, in the opinion of the judges, was inconsistent with the abstract principles of natural justice.” (Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386, 399).

I would adhere to that constitutional philosophy in passing on this Connecticut law today. I am not persuaded to deviate from the view which I stated in 1947 in Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 90-92 (dissenting opinion):

“Since Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, was decided, the practice has been firmly established, for better or worse, that courts can strike down legislative enactments which violate the Constitution. This process, of course, involves interpretation, and since words can have many meanings, interpretation obviously may result in contraction or extension of the original purpose of a constitutional provision, thereby affecting policy. But to pass upon the constitutionality of statutes by looking to the particular standards enumerated in the Bill of Rights and other parts of the Constitution is one thing; to invalidate statutes because of application of ‘natural law’ deemed to be above and undefined by the Constitution is another. ‘In the one instance, courts proceeding within clearly marked constitutional boundaries seek to execute policies written into the Constitution; in the other, they roam at will in the limitless area of their own beliefs as to reasonableness and actually select policies, a responsibility which the Constitution entrusts to the legislative representatives of the people.’ Federal Power Commission v. Pipeline Co., 315 U.S. 575, 599 , 601, n. 4.”


The late Judge Learned Hand, after emphasizing his view that judges should not use the due process formula suggested in the concurring opinions today or any other formula like it to invalidate legislation offensive to their “personal preferences,” made the statement, with which I fully agree, that: “For myself it would be most irksome to be ruled by a bevy of Platonic Guardians, even if I knew how to choose them, which I assuredly do not.” (Hand, The Bill of Rights [1958] 70) So far as I am concerned, Connecticut’s law as applied here is not forbidden by any provision of the Federal Constitution as that Constitution was written, and I would therefore affirm.


MR. JUSTICE STEWART, whom MR. JUSTICE BLACK joins, dissenting.


Since 1879 Connecticut has had on its books a law which forbids the use of contraceptives by anyone. I think this is an uncommonly silly law. As a practical matter, the law is obviously unenforceable, except in the oblique context of the present case. As a philosophical matter, I believe the use of contraceptives in the relationship of marriage should be left to personal and private choice, based upon each individual’s moral, ethical, and religious beliefs. As a matter of social policy, I think professional counsel about methods of birth control should be available to all, so that each individual’s choice can be meaningfully made. But we are not asked in this case to say whether we think this law is unwise, or even asinine. We are asked to hold that it violates the United States Constitution. And that I cannot do.


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