Commentaries on the Laws of England - Book the First
by William Blackstone
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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 every one it's due; to which three general precepts Justinian[a] has reduced the whole doctrine of law.

[Footnote a: Juris praecepta sunt haec, honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere. Inst. 1. 1. 3.]

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 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 co-eval 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 companion 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 it's 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 knowlege of these truths was attainable by reason, in it's 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 it's moral guilt, or superadd any fresh obligation in foro conscientiae to abstain from it's perpetration. Nay, if any human law should allow or injoin 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[b], 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 acknowlege 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[c] very justly observes, that quod naturalis ratio inter omnes homines constituit, vocatur jus gentium.

[Footnote b: Puffendorf, l. 7. c. 1. compared with Barbeyrac's commentary.]

[Footnote c: Ff. 1. 1. 9.]

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[d], "jus civile est quod quisque sibi populus constituit." I call it municipal law, in compliance with common speech; for, tho' 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.

[Footnote d: Inst. 1. 2. 1.]

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 it's 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 is 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 any thing 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 neighbour, considered in the light of an individual. But municipal or civil law regards him also as a citizen, and bound to other duties towards his neighbour, 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 most 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[e]. 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.

[Footnote e: Such laws among the Romans were denominated privilegia, or private laws, of which Cicero de leg. 3. 19. and in his oration pro domo, 17. thus speaks; "Vetant leges sacratae, vetant duodecim tabulae, leges privatis hominibus irrogari; id enim est privilegium. Nemo unquam tulit, nihil est crudelius, nihil perniciosius, nihil quod minus haec civitas ferre possit."]

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 of 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 it's 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, re-united again; sometimes by compulsion and conquest, sometimes by accident, and sometimes perhaps by compact. But though society had not it's 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 it's parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole; or, in other words, that the community should guard 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 stiled 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 knowlege 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 soever 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 stiled 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.

BY the sovereign power, as was before observed, is meant the making of laws; for wherever that power resides, all others must conform to, and be directed by it, whatever appearance the outward form and administration of the government may put on. For it is at any time in the option of the legislature to alter that form and administration by a new edict or rule, and to put the execution of the laws into whatever hands it pleases: and all the other powers of the state must obey the legislative power in the execution of their several functions, or else the constitution is at an end.

IN a democracy, where the right of making laws resides in the people at large, public virtue, or goodness of intention, is more likely to be found, than either of the other qualities of government. Popular assemblies are frequently foolish in their contrivance, and weak in their execution; but generally mean to do the thing that is right and just, and have always a degree of patriotism or public spirit. In aristocracies there is more wisdom to be found, than in the other frames of government; being composed, or intended to be composed, of the most experienced citizens; but there is less honesty than in a republic, and less strength than in a monarchy. A monarchy is indeed the most powerful of any, all the sinews of government being knit together, and united in the hand of the prince; but then there is imminent danger of his employing that strength to improvident or oppressive purposes.

THUS these three species of government have, all of them, their several perfections and imperfections. Democracies are usually the best calculated to direct the end of a law; aristocracies to invent the means by which that end shall be obtained; and monarchies to carry those means into execution. And the antients, as was observed, had in general no idea of any other permanent form of government but these three; for though Cicero[f] declares himself of opinion, "esse optime constitutam rempublicam, quae ex tribus generibus illis, regali, optimo, et populari, sit modice confusa;" yet Tacitus treats this notion of a mixed government, formed out of them all, and partaking of the advantages of each, as a visionary whim; and one that, if effected, could never be lasting or secure[g].

[Footnote f: In his fragments de rep. l. 2.]

[Footnote g: "Cunctas nationes et urbes populus, aut primores, aut singuli regunt: delecta ex his, et constituta reipublicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel, si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest." Ann. l. 4.]

BUT happily for us of this island, the British constitution has long remained, and I trust will long continue, a standing exception to the truth of this observation. For, as with us the executive power of the laws is lodged in a single person, they have all the advantages of strength and dispatch, that are to be found in the most absolute monarchy; and, as the legislature of the kingdom is entrusted to three distinct powers, entirely independent of each other; first, the king; secondly, the lords spiritual and temporal, which is an aristocratical assembly of persons selected for their piety, their birth, their wisdom, their valour, or their property; and, thirdly, the house of commons, freely chosen by the people from among themselves, which makes it a kind of democracy; as this aggregate body, actuated by different springs, and attentive to different interests, composes the British parliament, and has the supreme disposal of every thing; there can no inconvenience be attempted by either of the three branches, but will be withstood by one of the other two; each branch being armed with a negative power, sufficient to repel any innovation which it shall think inexpedient or dangerous.

HERE then is lodged the sovereignty of the British constitution; and lodged as beneficially as is possible for society. For in no other shape could we be so certain of finding the three great qualities of government so well and so happily united. If the supreme power were lodged in any one of the three branches separately, we must be exposed to the inconveniences of either absolute monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; and so want two of the three principal ingredients of good polity, either virtue, wisdom, or power. If it were lodged in any two of the branches; for instance, in the king and house of lords, our laws might be providently made, and well executed, but they might not always have the good of the people in view: if lodged in the king and commons, we should want that circumspection and mediatory caution, which the wisdom of the peers is to afford: if the supreme rights of legislature were lodged in the two houses only, and the king had no negative upon their proceedings, they might be tempted to encroach upon the royal prerogative, or perhaps to abolish the kingly office, and thereby weaken (if not totally destroy) the strength of the executive power. But the constitutional government of this island is so admirably tempered and compounded, that nothing can endanger or hurt it, but destroying the equilibrium of power between one branch of the legislature and the rest. For if ever it should happen that the independence of any one of the three should be lost, or that it should become subservient to the views of either of the other two, there would soon be an end of our constitution. The legislature would be changed from that, which was originally set up by the general consent and fundamental act of the society; and such a change, however effected, is according to Mr Locke[h] (who perhaps carries his theory too far) at once an entire dissolution of the bands of government; and the people would be reduced to a state of anarchy, with liberty to constitute to themselves a new legislative power.

[Footnote h: On government, part 2. Sec. 212.]

HAVING thus cursorily considered the three usual species of government, and our own singular constitution, selected and compounded from them all, I proceed to observe, that, as the power of making laws constitutes the supreme authority, so wherever the supreme authority in any state resides, it is the right of that authority to make laws; that is, in the words of our definition, to prescribe the rule of civil action. And this may be discovered from the very end and institution of civil states. For a state is a collective body, composed of a multitude of individuals, united for their safety and convenience, and intending to act together as one man. If it therefore is to act as one man, it ought to act by one uniform will. But, inasmuch as political communities are made up of many natural persons, each of whom has his particular will and inclination, these several wills cannot by any natural union be joined together, or tempered and disposed into a lasting harmony, so as to constitute and produce that one uniform will of the whole. It can therefore be no otherwise produced than by a political union; by the consent of all persons to submit their own private wills to the will of one man, or of one or more assemblies of men, to whom the supreme authority is entrusted: and this will of that one man, or assemblage of men, is in different states, according to their different constitutions, understood to be law.

THUS far as to the right of the supreme power to make laws; but farther, it is it's duty likewise. For since the respective members are bound to conform themselves to the will of the state, it is expedient that they receive directions from the state declaratory of that it's will. But since it is impossible, in so great a multitude, to give injunctions to every particular man, relative to each particular action, therefore the state establishes general rules, for the perpetual information and direction of all persons in all points, whether of positive or negative duty. And this, in order that every man may know what to look upon as his own, what as another's; what absolute and what relative duties are required at his hands; what is to be esteemed honest, dishonest, or indifferent; what degree every man retains of his natural liberty; what he has given up as the price of the benefits of society; and after what manner each person is to moderate the use and exercise of those rights which the state assigns him, in order to promote and secure the public tranquillity.

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 right 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 vindicatory 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 misdemesnors, that are forbidden by the superior laws, and therefore stiled 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 misdemesnors, 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 has 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 it's 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 seising 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. When, for instance, the declaratory part of the law has said "that the field or inheritance, which belonged to Titius's father, is vested by his death in Titius;" and the directory part has "forbidden any one to enter on another's property without the leave of the owner;" if Gaius after this will presume to take possession of the land, the remedial part of the law will then interpose it's office; will make Gaius restore the possession to Titius, and also pay him damages for the invasion.

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[i]. For which reasons, though a prudent bestowing of rewards is sometimes of exquisite use, yet we find that those civil laws, which enforce and enjoin our duty, do seldom, if ever, propose any privilege or gift to such as obey the law; but do constantly come armed with a penalty denounced against transgressors, either expressly defining the nature and quantity of the punishment, or else leaving it to the discretion of the judges, and those who are entrusted with the care of putting the laws in execution.

[Footnote i: Locke, Hum. Und. b. 2. c. 21.]

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 mens 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 shewn that it is "a rule—of civil conduct—prescribed—by the supreme power in a 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. Before I conclude this section, it may not be amiss to add a few observations concerning the interpretation of laws.

WHEN any doubt arose upon the construction of the Roman laws, the usage was to state the case to the emperor in writing, and take his opinion upon it. This was certainly a bad method of interpretation. To interrogate the legislature to decide particular disputes, is not only endless, but affords great room for partiality and oppression. The answers of the emperor were called his rescripts, and these had in succeeding cases the force of perpetual laws; though they ought to be carefully distinguished, by every rational civilian, from those general constitutions, which had only the nature of things for their guide. The emperor Macrinus, as his historian Capitolinus informs us, had once resolved to abolish these rescripts, and retain only the general edicts; he could not bear that the hasty and crude answers of such princes as Commodus and Caracalla should be reverenced as laws. But Justinian thought otherwise[k], and he has preserved them all. In like manner the canon laws, or decretal epistles of the popes, are all of them rescripts in the strictest sense. Contrary to all true forms of reasoning, they argue from particulars to generals.

[Footnote k: Inst. 1. 2. 6.]

THE fairest and most rational method to interpret the will of the legislator, is by exploring his intentions at the time when the law was made, by signs the most natural and probable. And these signs are either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law. Let us take a short view of them all.

1. WORDS are generally to be understood in their usual and most known signification; not so much regarding the propriety of grammar, as their general and popular use. Thus the law mentioned by Puffendorf[l], which forbad a layman to lay hands on a priest, was adjudged to extend to him, who had hurt a priest with a weapon. Again; terms of art, or technical terms, must be taken according to the acceptation of the learned in each art, trade, and science. So in the act of settlement, where the crown of England is limited "to the princess Sophia, and the heirs of her body, being protestants," it becomes necessary to call in the assistance of lawyers, to ascertain the precise idea of the words "heirs of her body;" which in a legal sense comprize only certain of her lineal descendants. Lastly, where words are clearly repugnant in two laws, the later law takes place of the elder: leges posteriores priores contrarias abrogant is a maxim of universal law, as well as of our own constitutions. And accordingly it was laid down by a law of the twelve tables at Rome, quod populus postremum jussit, id jus ratum esto.

[Footnote l: L. of N. and N. 5. 12. 3.]

2. IF words happen to be still dubious, we may establish their meaning from the context; with which it may be of singular use to compare a word, or a sentence, whenever they are ambiguous, equivocal, or intricate. Thus the proeme, or preamble, is often called in to help the construction of an act of parliament. Of the same nature and use is the comparison of a law with other laws, that are made by the same legislator, that have some affinity with the subject, or that expressly relate to the same point. Thus, when the law of England declares murder to be felony without benefit of clergy, we must resort to the same law of England to learn what the benefit of clergy is: and, when the common law censures simoniacal contracts, it affords great light to the subject to consider what the canon law has adjudged to be simony.

3. AS to the subject matter, words are always to be understood as having a regard thereto; for that is always supposed to be in the eye of the legislator, and all his expressions directed to that end. Thus, when a law of our Edward III. forbids all ecclesiastical persons to purchase provisions at Rome, it might seem to prohibit the buying of grain and other victual; but when we consider that the statute was made to repress the usurpations of the papal see, and that the nominations to vacant benefices by the pope were called provisions, we shall see that the restraint is intended to be laid upon such provisions only.

4. AS to the effects and consequence, the rule is, where words bear either none, or a very absurd signification, if literally understood, we must a little deviate from the received sense of them. Therefore the Bolognian law, mentioned by Puffendorf[m], which enacted "that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity," was held after long debate not to extend to the surgeon, who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street with a fit.

[Footnote m: l. 5. c. 12. Sec. 8.]

5. BUT, lastly, the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it. For when this reason ceases, the law itself ought likewise to cease with it. An instance of this is given in a case put by Cicero, or whoever was the author of the rhetorical treatise inscribed to Herennius[n]. There was a law, that those who in a storm forsook the ship should forfeit all property therein; and the ship and lading should belong entirely to those who staid in it. In a dangerous tempest all the mariners forsook the ship, except only one sick passenger, who by reason of his disease was unable to get out and escape. By chance the ship came safe to port. The sick man kept possession and claimed the benefit of the law. Now here all the learned agree, that the sick man is not within the reason of the law; for the reason of making it was, to give encouragement to such as should venture their lives to save the vessel: but this is a merit, which he could never pretend to, who neither staid in the ship upon that account, nor contributed any thing to it's preservation.

[Footnote n: l. 1. c. 11.]

FROM this method of interpreting laws, by the reason of them, arises what we call equity; which is thus defined by Grotius[o], "the correction of that, wherein the law (by reason of its universality) is deficient." For since in laws all cases cannot be foreseen or expressed, it is necessary, that when the general decrees of the law come to be applied to particular cases, there should be somewhere a power vested of excepting those circumstances, which (had they been foreseen) the legislator himself would have excepted. And these are the cases, which, as Grotius expresses it, "lex non exacte definit, sed arbitrio boni viri permittit."

[Footnote o: de aequitate.]

EQUITY thus depending, essentially, upon the particular circumstances of each individual case, there can be no established rules and fixed precepts of equity laid down, without destroying it's very essence, and reducing it to a positive law. And, on the other hand, the liberty of considering all cases in an equitable light must not be indulged too far, lest thereby we destroy all law, and leave the decision of every question entirely in the breast of the judge. And law, without equity, tho' hard and disagreeable, is much more desirable for the public good, than equity without law; which would make every judge a legislator, and introduce most infinite confusion; as there would then be almost as many different rules of action laid down in our courts, as there are differences of capacity and sentiment in the human mind.



THE municipal law of England, or the rule of civil conduct prescribed to the inhabitants of this kingdom, may with sufficient propriety be divided into two kinds; the lex non scripta, the unwritten, or common law; and the lex scripta, the written, or statute law.

THE lex non scripta, or unwritten law, includes not only general customs, or the common law properly so called; but also the particular customs of certain parts of the kingdom; and likewise those particular laws, that are by custom observed only in certain courts and jurisdictions.

WHEN I call these parts of our law leges non scriptae, I would not be understood as if all those laws were at present merely oral, or communicated from the former ages to the present solely by word of mouth. It is true indeed that, in the profound ignorance of letters which formerly overspread the whole western world, all laws were intirely traditional, for this plain reason, that the nations among which they prevailed had but little idea of writing. Thus the British as well as the Gallic druids committed all their laws as well as learning to memory[a]; and it is said of the primitive Saxons here, as well as their brethren on the continent, that leges sola memoria et usu retinebant[b]. But with us at present the monuments and evidences of our legal customs are contained in the records of the several courts of justice, in books of reports and judicial decisions, and in the treatises of learned sages of the profession, preserved and handed down to us from the times of highest antiquity. However I therefore stile these parts of our law leges non scriptae, because their original institution and authority are not set down in writing, as acts of parliament are, but they receive their binding power, and the force of laws, by long and immemorial usage, and by their universal reception throughout the kingdom. In like manner as Aulus Gellius defines the jus non scriptum to be that, which is "tacito et illiterato hominum consensu et moribus expressum."

[Footnote a: Caes. de b. G. lib. 6. c. 13.]

[Footnote b: Spelm. Gl. 362.]

OUR antient lawyers, and particularly Fortescue[c], insist with abundance of warmth, that these customs are as old as the primitive Britons, and continued down, through the several mutations of government and inhabitants, to the present time, unchanged and unadulterated. This may be the case as to some; but in general, as Mr Selden in his notes observes, this assertion must be understood with many grains of allowance; and ought only to signify, as the truth seems to be, that there never was any formal exchange of one system of laws for another: though doubtless by the intermixture of adventitious nations, the Romans, the Picts, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans, they must have insensibly introduced and incorporated many of their own customs with those that were before established: thereby in all probability improving the texture and wisdom of the whole, by the accumulated wisdom of divers particular countries. Our laws, saith lord Bacon[d], are mixed as our language: and as our language is so much the richer, the laws are the more complete.

[Footnote c: c. 17.]

[Footnote d: See his proposals for a digest.]

AND indeed our antiquarians and first historians do all positively assure us, that our body of laws is of this compounded nature. For they tell us, that in the time of Alfred the local customs of the several provinces of the kingdom were grown so various, that he found it expedient to compile his dome-book or liber judicialis, for the general use of the whole kingdom. This book is said to have been extant so late as the reign of king Edward the fourth, but is now unfortunately lost. It contained, we may probably suppose, the principal maxims of the common law, the penalties for misdemesnors, and the forms of judicial proceedings. Thus much may at least be collected from that injunction to observe it, which we find in the laws of king Edward the elder, the son of Alfred[e]. "Omnibus qui reipublicae praesunt, etiam atque etiam mando, ut omnibus aequos se praebeant judices, perinde ac in judiciali libro (Saxonice, [Anglo-Saxon: dom-bec]) scriptum habetur; nec quicquam formident quin jus commune (Saxonice, [Anglo-Saxon: folcrihte]) audacter libereque dicant."

[Footnote e: c. 1.]

BUT the irruption and establishment of the Danes in England which followed soon after, introduced new customs and caused this code of Alfred in many provinces to fall into disuse; or at least to be mixed and debased with other laws of a coarser alloy. So that about the beginning of the eleventh century there were three principal systems of laws prevailing in different districts. 1. The Mercen-Lage, or Mercian laws, which were observed in many of the midland counties, and those bordering on the principality of Wales; the retreat of the antient Britons; and therefore very probably intermixed with the British or Druidical customs. 2. The West-Saxon-Lage, or laws of the west Saxons, which obtained in the counties to the south and west of the island, from Kent to Devonshire. These were probably much the same with the laws of Alfred abovementioned, being the municipal law of the far most considerable part of his dominions, and particularly including Berkshire, the seat of his peculiar residence. 3. The Dane-Lage, or Danish law, the very name of which speaks it's original and composition. This was principally maintained in the rest of the midland counties, and also on the eastern coast, the seat of that piratical people. As for the very northern provinces, they were at that time under a distinct government[f].

[Footnote f: Hal. Hist. 55.]

OUT of these three laws, Roger Hoveden[g] and Ranulphus Cestrensis[h] inform us, king Edward the confessor extracted one uniform law or digest of laws, to be observed throughout the whole kingdom; though Hoveden and the author of an old manuscript chronicle[i] assure us likewise, that this work was projected and begun by his grandfather king Edgar. And indeed a general digest of the same nature has been constantly found expedient, and therefore put in practice by other great nations, formed from an assemblage of little provinces, governed by peculiar customs. As in Portugal, under king Edward, about the beginning of the fifteenth century[k]. In Spain under Alonzo X, who about the year 1250 executed the plan of his father St. Ferdinand, and collected all the provincial customs into one uniform law, in the celebrated code entitled las partidas[l]. And in Sweden about the same aera, a universal body of common law was compiled out of the particular customs established by the laghman of every province, and intitled the land's lagh, being analogous to the common law of England[m].

[Footnote g: in Hen. II.]

[Footnote h: in Edw. Confessor.]

[Footnote i: in Seld. ad Eadmer. 6.]

[Footnote k: Mod. Un. Hist. xxii. 135.]

[Footnote l: Ibid. xx. 211.]

[Footnote m: Ibid. xxxiii. 21, 58.]

BOTH these undertakings, of king Edgar and Edward the confessor, seem to have been no more than a new edition, or fresh promulgation, of Alfred's code or dome-book, with such additions and improvements as the experience of a century and an half had suggested. For Alfred is generally stiled by the same historians the legum Anglicanarum conditor, as Edward the confessor is the restitutor. These however are the laws which our histories so often mention under the name of the laws of Edward the confessor; which our ancestors struggled so hardly to maintain, under the first princes of the Norman line; and which subsequent princes so frequently promised to keep and to restore, as the most popular act they could do, when pressed by foreign emergencies or domestic discontents. These are the laws, that so vigorously withstood the repeated attacks of the civil law; which established in the twelfth century a new Roman empire over most of the states on the continent: states that have lost, and perhaps upon that account, their political liberties; while the free constitution of England, perhaps upon the same account, has been rather improved than debased. These, in short, are the laws which gave rise and original to that collection of maxims and customs, which is now known by the name of the common law. A name either given to it, in contradistinction to other laws, as the statute law, the civil law, the law merchant, and the like; or, more probably, as a law common to all the realm, the jus commune or folcright mentioned by king Edward the elder, after the abolition of the several provincial customs and particular laws beforementioned.

BUT though this is the most likely foundation of this collection of maxims and customs, yet the maxims and customs, so collected, are of higher antiquity than memory or history can reach: nothing being more difficult than to ascertain the precise beginning and first spring of an antient and long established custom. Whence it is that in our law the goodness of a custom depends upon it's having been used time out of mind; or, in the solemnity of our legal phrase, time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. This it is that gives it it's weight and authority; and of this nature are the maxims and customs which compose the common law, or lex non scripta, of this kingdom.

THIS unwritten, or common, law is properly distinguishable into three kinds: 1. General customs; which are the universal rule of the whole kingdom, and form the common law, in it's stricter and more usual signification. 2. Particular customs; which for the most part affect only the inhabitants of particular districts. 3. Certain particular laws; which by custom are adopted and used by some particular courts, of pretty general and extensive jurisdiction.

I. AS to general customs, or the common law, properly so called; this is that law, by which proceedings and determinations in the king's ordinary courts of justice are guided and directed. This, for the most part, settles the course in which lands descend by inheritance; the manner and form of acquiring and transferring property; the solemnities and obligation of contracts; the rules of expounding wills, deeds, and acts of parliament; the respective remedies of civil injuries; the several species of temporal offences, with the manner and degree of punishment; and an infinite number of minuter particulars, which diffuse themselves as extensively as the ordinary distribution of common justice requires. Thus, for example, that there shall be four superior courts of record, the chancery, the king's bench, the common pleas, and the exchequer;—that the eldest son alone is heir to his ancestor;—that property may be acquired and transferred by writing;—that a deed is of no validity unless sealed;—that wills shall be construed more favorably, and deeds more strictly;—that money lent upon bond is recoverable by action of debt;—that breaking the public peace is an offence, and punishable by fine and imprisonment;—all these are doctrines that are not set down in any written statute or ordinance, but depend merely upon immemorial usage, that is, upon common law, for their support.

SOME have divided the common law into two principal grounds or foundations: 1. established customs; such as that where there are three brothers, the eldest brother shall be heir to the second, in exclusion of the youngest: and 2. established rules and maxims; as, "that the king can do no wrong, that no man shall be bound to accuse himself," and the like. But I take these to be one and the same thing. For the authority of these maxims rests entirely upon general reception and usage; and the only method of proving, that this or that maxim is a rule of the common law, is by shewing that it hath been always the custom to observe it.

BUT here a very natural, and very material, question arises: how are these customs or maxims to be known, and by whom is their validity to be determined? The answer is, by the judges in the several courts of justice. They are the depositary of the laws; the living oracles, who must decide in all cases of doubt, and who are bound by an oath to decide according to the law of the land. Their knowlege of that law is derived from experience and study; from the "viginti annorum lucubrationes," which Fortescue[n] mentions; and from being long personally accustomed to the judicial decisions of their predecessors. And indeed these judicial decisions are the principal and most authoritative evidence, that can be given, of the existence of such a custom as shall form a part of the common law. The judgment itself, and all the proceedings previous thereto, are carefully registered and preserved, under the name of records, in publick repositories set apart for that particular purpose; and to them frequent recourse is had, when any critical question arises, in the determination of which former precedents may give light or assistance. And therefore, even so early as the conquest, we find the "praeteritorum memoria eventorum" reckoned up as one of the chief qualifications of those who were held to be "legibus patriae optime instituti[o]." For it is an established rule to abide by former precedents, where the same points come again in litigation; as well to keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge's opinion; as also because the law in that case being solemnly declared and determined, what before was uncertain, and perhaps indifferent, is now become a permanent rule, which it is not in the breast of any subsequent judge to alter or vary from, according to his private sentiments: he being sworn to determine, not according to his own private judgment, but according to the known laws and customs of the land; not delegated to pronounce a new law, but to maintain and expound the old one. Yet this rule admits of exception, where the former determination is most evidently contrary to reason; much more if it be contrary to the divine law. But even in such cases the subsequent judges do not pretend to make a new law, but to vindicate the old one from misrepresentation. For if it be found that the former decision is manifestly absurd or unjust, it is declared, not that such a sentence was bad law, but that it was not law; that is, that it is not the established custom of the realm, as has been erroneously determined. And hence it is that our lawyers are with justice so copious in their encomiums on the reason of the common law; that they tell us, that the law is the perfection of reason, that it always intends to conform thereto, and that what is not reason is not law. Not that the particular reason of every rule in the law can at this distance of time be always precisely assigned; but it is sufficient that there be nothing in the rule flatly contradictory to reason, and then the law will presume it to be well founded[p]. And it hath been an antient observation in the laws of England, that whenever a standing rule of law, of which the reason perhaps could not be remembered or discerned, hath been wantonly broke in upon by statutes or new resolutions, the wisdom of the rule hath in the end appeared from the inconveniences that have followed the innovation.

[Footnote n: cap. 8.]

[Footnote o: Seld. review of Tith. c. 8.]

[Footnote p: Herein agreeing with the civil law, Ff. 1. 3. 20, 21. "Non omnium, quae a majoribus nostris constituta sunt, ratio reddi potest. Et ideo rationes eorum quae constituuntur, inquiri non oportet: alioquin multa ex his, quae certa sunt, subvertuntur."]

THE doctrine of the law then is this: that precedents and rules must be followed, unless flatly absurd or unjust: for though their reason be not obvious at first view, yet we owe such a deference to former times as not to suppose they acted wholly without consideration. To illustrate this doctrine by examples. It has been determined, time out of mind, that a brother of the half blood (i.e. where they have only one parent the same, and the other different) shall never succeed as heir to the estate of his half brother, but it shall rather escheat to the king, or other superior lord. Now this is a positive law, fixed and established by custom, which custom is evidenced by judicial decisions; and therefore can never be departed from by any modern judge without a breach of his oath and the law. For herein there is nothing repugnant to natural justice; though the reason of it, drawn from the feodal law, may not be quite obvious to every body. And therefore, on account of a supposed hardship upon the half brother, a modern judge might wish it had been otherwise settled; yet it is not in his power to alter it. But if any court were now to determine, that an elder brother of the half blood might enter upon and seise any lands that were purchased by his younger brother, no subsequent judges would scruple to declare that such prior determination was unjust, was unreasonable, and therefore was not law. So that the law, and the opinion of the judge are not always convertible terms, or one and the same thing; since it sometimes may happen that the judge may mistake the law. Upon the whole however, we may take it as a general rule, "that the decisions of courts of justice are the evidence of what is common law:" in the same manner as, in the civil law, what the emperor had once determined was to serve for a guide for the future[q].

[Footnote q: "Si imperialis majestas causam cognitionaliter examinaverit, et partibus cominus constitutis sententiam dixerit, omnes omnino judices, qui sub nostro imperio sunt, sciant hanc esse legem, non solum illi causae pro qua producta est, sed et in omnibus similibus." C. 1. 14. 12.]

THE decisions therefore of courts are held in the highest regard, and are not only preserved as authentic records in the treasuries of the several courts, but are handed out to public view in the numerous volumes of reports which furnish the lawyer's library. These reports are histories of the several cases, with a short summary of the proceedings, which are preserved at large in the record; the arguments on both sides; and the reasons the court gave for their judgment; taken down in short notes by persons present at the determination. And these serve as indexes to, and also to explain, the records; which always, in matters of consequence and nicety, the judges direct to be searched. The reports are extant in a regular series from the reign of king Edward the second inclusive; and from his time to that of Henry the eighth were taken by the prothonotaries, or chief scribes of the court, at the expence of the crown, and published annually, whence they are known under the denomination of the year books. And it is much to be wished that this beneficial custom had, under proper regulations, been continued to this day: for, though king James the first at the instance of lord Bacon appointed two reporters with a handsome stipend for this purpose, yet that wise institution was soon neglected, and from the reign of Henry the eighth to the present time this task has been executed by many private and cotemporary hands; who sometimes through haste and inaccuracy, sometimes through mistake and want of skill, have published very crude and imperfect (perhaps contradictory) accounts of one and the same determination. Some of the most valuable of the antient reports are those published by lord chief justice Coke; a man of infinite learning in his profession, though not a little infected with the pedantry and quaintness of the times he lived in, which appear strongly in all his works. However his writings are so highly esteemed, that they are generally cited without the author's name[r].

[Footnote r: His reports, for instance, are stiled, [Greek: kat' exochen], the reports; and in quoting them we usually say, 1 or 2 Rep. not 1 or 2 Coke's Rep. as in citing other authors. The reports of judge Croke are also cited in a peculiar manner, by the name of those princes, in whose reigns the cases reported in his three volumes were determined; viz. Qu. Elizabeth, K. James, and K. Charles the first; as well as by the number of each volume. For sometimes we call them, 1, 2, and 3 Cro. but more commonly Cro. Eliz. Cro. Jac. and Cro. Car.]

BESIDES these reporters, there are also other authors, to whom great veneration and respect is paid by the students of the common law. Such are Glanvil and Bracton, Britton and Fleta, Littleton and Fitzherbert, with some others of antient date, whose treatises are cited as authority; and are evidence that cases have formerly happened in which such and such points were determined, which are now become settled and first principles. One of the last of these methodical writers in point of time, whose works are of any intrinsic authority in the courts of justice, and do not entirely depend on the strength of their quotations from older authors, is the same learned judge we have just mentioned, sir Edward Coke; who hath written four volumes of institutes, as he is pleased to call them, though they have little of the institutional method to warrant such a title. The first volume is a very extensive comment upon a little excellent treatise of tenures, compiled by judge Littleton in the reign of Edward the fourth. This comment is a rich mine of valuable common law learning, collected and heaped together from the antient reports and year books, but greatly defective in method[s]. The second volume is a comment upon many old acts of parliament, without any systematical order; the third a more methodical treatise of the pleas of the crown; and the fourth an account of the several species of courts[t].

[Footnote s: It is usually cited either by the name of Co. Litt. or as 1 Inst.]

[Footnote t: These are cited as 2, 3, or 4 Inst. without any author's name. An honorary distinction, which, we observed, was paid to the works of no other writer; the generality of reports and other tracts being quoted in the name of the compiler, as 2 Ventris, 4 Leonard, 1 Siderfin, and the like.]

AND thus much for the first ground and chief corner stone of the laws of England, which is, general immemorial custom, or common law, from time to time declared in the decisions of the courts of justice; which decisions are preserved among our public records, explained in our reports, and digested for general use in the authoritative writings of the venerable sages of the law.

THE Roman law, as practised in the times of it's liberty, paid also a great regard to custom; but not so much as our law: it only then adopting it, when the written law is deficient. Though the reasons alleged in the digest[u] will fully justify our practice, in making it of equal authority with, when it is not contradicted by, the written law. "For since, says Julianus, the written law binds us for no other reason but because it is approved by the judgment of the people, therefore those laws which the people hath approved without writing ought also to bind every body. For where is the difference, whether the people declare their assent to a law by suffrage, or by a uniform course of acting accordingly?" Thus did they reason while Rome had some remains of her freedom; but when the imperial tyranny came to be fully established, the civil laws speak a very different language. "Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem, cum populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestatem conferat," says Ulpian[w]. "Imperator solus et conditor et interpres legis existimatur," says the code[x]. And again, "sacrilegii instar est rescripto principis obviare[y]." And indeed it is one of the characteristic marks of English liberty, that our common law depends upon custom; which carries this internal evidence of freedom along with it, that it probably was introduced by the voluntary consent of the people.

[Footnote u: Ff. 1. 3. 32.]

[Footnote w: Ff. 1. 4. 1.]

[Footnote x: C. 1. 14. 12.]

[Footnote y: C. 1. 23. 5.]

II. THE second branch of the unwritten laws of England are particular customs, or laws which affect only the inhabitants of particular districts.

THESE particular customs, or some of them, are without doubt the remains of that multitude of local customs before mentioned, out of which the common law, as it now stands, was collected at first by king Alfred, and afterwards by king Edgar and Edward the confessor: each district mutually sacrificing some of it's own special usages, in order that the whole kingdom might enjoy the benefit of one uniform and universal system of laws. But, for reasons that have been now long forgotten, particular counties, cities, towns, manors, and lordships, were very early indulged with the privilege of abiding by their own customs, in contradistinction to the rest of the nation at large: which privilege is confirmed to them by several acts of parliament[z].

[Footnote z: Mag. Cart. c. 9.—1 Edw. III. st. 2. c. 9.—14 Edw. III. st. 1. c. 1.—and 2 Hen. IV. c. 1.]

SUCH is the custom of gavelkind in Kent and some other parts of the kingdom (though perhaps it was also general till the Norman conquest) which ordains, among other things, that not the eldest son only of the father shall succeed to his inheritance, but all the sons alike: and that, though the ancestor be attainted and hanged, yet the heir shall succeed to his estate, without any escheat to the lord.—Such is the custom that prevails in divers antient boroughs, and therefore called borough-english, that the youngest son shall inherit the estate, in preference to all his elder brothers.—Such is the custom in other boroughs that a widow shall be intitled, for her dower, to all her husband's lands; whereas at the common law she shall be endowed of one third part only.—Such also are the special and particular customs of manors, of which every one has more or less, and which bind all the copyhold-tenants that hold of the said manors.—Such likewise is the custom of holding divers inferior courts, with power of trying causes, in cities and trading towns; the right of holding which, when no royal grant can be shewn, depends entirely upon immemorial and established usage.—Such, lastly, are many particular customs within the city of London, with regard to trade, apprentices, widows, orphans, and a variety of other matters; which are all contrary to the general law of the land, and are good only by special custom, though those of London are also confirmed by act of parliament[a].

[Footnote a: 8 Rep. 126. Cro. Car. 347.]

TO this head may most properly be referred a particular system of customs used only among one set of the king's subjects, called the custom of merchants or lex mercatoria; which, however different from the common law, is allowed for the benefit of trade, to be of the utmost validity in all commercial transactions; the maxim of law being, that "cuilibet in sua arte credendum est."

THE rules relating to particular customs regard either the proof of their existence; their legality when proved; or their usual method of allowance. And first we will consider the rules of proof.

AS to gavelkind, and borough-english, the law takes particular notice of them[b], and there is no occasion to prove that such customs actually exist, but only that the lands in question are subject thereto. All other private customs must be particularly pleaded[c], and as well the existence of such customs must be shewn, as that the thing in dispute is within the custom alleged. The trial in both cases (both to shew the existence of the custom, as, "that in the manor of Dale lands shall descend only to the heirs male, and never to the heirs female;" and also to shew that the lands in question are within that manor) is by a jury of twelve men, and not by the judges, except the same particular custom has been before tried, determined, and recorded in the same court[d].

[Footnote b: Co. Litt. 175 b.]

[Footnote c: Litt. Sec. 265.]

[Footnote d: Dr and St. 1. 10.]

THE customs of London differ from all others in point of trial: for, if the existence of the custom be brought in question, it shall not be tried by a jury, but by certificate from the lord mayor and aldermen by the mouth of their recorder[e]; unless it be such a custom as the corporation is itself interested in, as a right of taking toll, &c, for then the law permits them not to certify on their own behalf[f].

[Footnote e: Cro. Car. 516.]

[Footnote f: Hob. 85.]

WHEN a custom is actually proved to exist, the next enquiry is into the legality of it; for if it is not a good custom it ought to be no longer used. "Malus usus abolendus est" is an established maxim of the law[g]. To make a particular custom good, the following are necessary requisites.

[Footnote g: Litt. Sec. 212. 4 Inst. 274.]

1. THAT it have been used so long, that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. So that if any one can shew the beginning of it, it is no good custom. For which reason no custom can prevail against an express act of parliament; since the statute itself is a proof of a time when such a custom did not exist[h].

[Footnote h: Co. Litt. 113 b.]

2. IT must have been continued. Any interruption would cause a temporary ceasing: the revival gives it a new beginning, which will be within time of memory, and thereupon the custom will be void. But this must be understood with regard to an interruption of the right; for an interruption of the possession only, for ten or twenty years, will not destroy the custom[i]. As if I have a right of way by custom over another's field, the custom is not destroyed, though I do not pass over it for ten years; it only becomes more difficult to prove: but if the right be any how discontinued for a day, the custom is quite at an end.

[Footnote i: Co. Litt. 114 b.]

3. IT must have been peaceable, and acquiesced in; not subject to contention and dispute[k]. For as customs owe their original to common consent, their being immemorially disputed either at law or otherwise is a proof that such consent was wanting.

[Footnote k: Co. Litt. 114.]

4. CUSTOMS must be reasonable[l]; or rather, taken negatively, they must not be unreasonable. Which is not always, as sir Edward Coke says[m], to be understood of every unlearned man's reason, but of artificial and legal reason, warranted by authority of law. Upon which account a custom may be good, though the particular reason of it cannot be assigned; for it sufficeth, if no good legal reason can be assigned against it. Thus a custom in a parish, that no man shall put his beasts into the common till the third of october, would be good; and yet it would be hard to shew the reason why that day in particular is fixed upon, rather than the day before or after. But a custom that no cattle shall be put in till the lord of the manor has first put in his, is unreasonable, and therefore bad: for peradventure the lord will never put in his; and then the tenants will lose all their profits[n].

[Footnote l: Litt. Sec. 212.]

[Footnote m: 1 Inst. 62.]

[Footnote n: Co. Copyh. Sec. 33.]

5. CUSTOMS ought to be certain. A custom, that lands shall descend to the most worthy of the owner's blood, is void; for how shall this worth be determined? But a custom to descend to the next male of the blood, exclusive of females, is certain, and therefore good[o]. A custom, to pay two pence an acre in lieu of tythes, is good; but to pay sometimes two pence and sometimes three pence, as the occupier of the land pleases, is bad for it's uncertainty. Yet a custom, to pay a year's improved value for a fine on a copyhold estate, is good: though the value is a thing uncertain. For the value may at any time be ascertained; and the maxim of law is, id certum est, quod certum reddi potest.

[Footnote o: 1 Roll. Abr. 565.]

6. CUSTOMS, though established by consent, must be (when established) compulsory; and not left to the option of every man, whether he will use them or no. Therefore a custom, that all the inhabitants shall be rated toward the maintenance of a bridge, will be good; but a custom, that every man is to contribute thereto at his own pleasure, is idle and absurd, and, indeed, no custom at all.

7. LASTLY, customs must be consistent with each other: one custom cannot be set up in opposition to another. For if both are really customs, then both are of equal antiquity, and both established by mutual consent: which to say of contradictory customs is absurd. Therefore, if one man prescribes that by custom he has a right to have windows looking into another's garden; the other cannot claim a right by custom to stop up or obstruct those windows: for these two contradictory customs cannot both be good, nor both stand together. He ought rather to deny the existence of the former custom[p].

[Footnote p: 9 Rep. 58.]

NEXT, as to the allowance of special customs. Customs, in derogation of the common law, must be construed strictly. Thus, by the custom of gavelkind, an infant of fifteen years may by one species of conveyance (called a deed of feoffment) convey away his lands in fee simple, or for ever. Yet this custom does not impower him to use any other conveyance, or even to lease them for seven years: for the custom must be strictly pursued[q]. And, moreover, all special customs must submit to the king's prerogative. Therefore, if the king purchases lands of the nature of gavelkind, where all the sons inherit equally; yet, upon the king's demise, his eldest son shall succeed to those lands alone[r]. And thus much for the second part of the leges non scriptae, or those particular customs which affect particular persons or districts only.

[Footnote q: Co. Cop. Sec. 33.]

[Footnote r: Co. Litt. 15 b.]

III. THE third branch of them are those peculiar laws, which by custom are adopted and used only in certain peculiar courts and jurisdictions. And by these I understand the civil and canon laws.

IT may seem a little improper at first view to rank these laws under the head of leges non scriptae, or unwritten laws, seeing they are set forth by authority in their pandects, their codes, and their institutions; their councils, decrees, and decretals; and enforced by an immense number of expositions, decisions, and treatises of the learned in both branches of the law. But I do this, after the example of sir Matthew Hale[s], because it is most plain, that it is not on account of their being written laws, that either the canon law, or the civil law, have any obligation within this kingdom; neither do their force and efficacy depend upon their own intrinsic authority; which is the case of our written laws, or acts of parliament. They bind not the subjects of England, because their materials were collected from popes or emperors; were digested by Justinian, or declared to be authentic by Gregory. These considerations give them no authority here: for the legislature of England doth not, nor ever did, recognize any foreign power, as superior or equal to it in this kingdom; or as having the right to give law to any, the meanest, of it's subjects. But all the strength that either the papal or imperial laws have obtained in this realm, or indeed in any other kingdom in Europe, is only because they have been admitted and received by immemorial usage and custom in some particular cases, and some particular courts; and then they form a branch of the leges non scriptae, or customary law: or else, because they are in some other cases introduced by consent of parliament, and then they owe their validity to the leges scriptae, or statute law. This is expressly declared in those remarkable words of the statute 25 Hen. VIII. c. 21. addressed to the king's royal majesty.—"This your grace's realm, recognizing no superior under God but only your grace, hath been and is free from subjection to any man's laws, but only to such as have been devised, made, and ordained within this realm for the wealth of the same; or to such other, as by sufferance of your grace and your progenitors, the people of this your realm, have taken at their free liberty, by their own consent, to be used among them; and have bound themselves by long use and custom to the observance of the same: not as to the observance of the laws of any foreign prince, potentate, or prelate; but as to the customed and antient laws of this realm, originally established as laws of the same, by the said sufferance, consents, and custom; and none otherwise."

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