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Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769)
- 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.
- Introduction, Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General
- Man was formed for society.
- Introduction, Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General
- The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of freewill. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish.
- Book I, ch. 1: Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals.
- In this distinct and separate existence of the judicial power, in a peculiar body of men, nominated indeed, but not removable at pleasure, by the crown, consists one main preservative of the public liberty; which cannot subsist long in any state, unless the administration of common justice be in some degree separated both from the legislative and the also from the executive power. Were it joined with the legislative, the life, liberty, and property of the subject would be in the hands of arbitrary judges, whose decisions would be then regulated only by their own opinions, and not by any fundamental principles of law; which, though legislators may depart from, yet judges are bound to observe. Were it joined with the executive, this union might soon be an overbalance for the legislative. For which reason... effectual care is taken to remove all judicial power out of the hands of the king's privy council; who, as then was evident from recent instances might soon be inclined to pronounce that for law, which was most agreeable to the prince or his officers. Nothing therefore is to be more avoided, in a free constitution, than uniting the provinces of a judge and a minister of state.
- Book I, ch. 7: Of the King's Prerogative.
- The royal navy of England hath ever been its greatest defense and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of our island.
- Book I, ch. 13: Of the Military and Maritime States.
- Time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.
- Book I, ch. 18: Of Corporations.
- There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. And yet there are very few, that will give themselves the trouble to consider the original and foundation of this right.
- Book II, ch. 1: Of Property in General.
- That the king can do no wrong, is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution.
- Book III, ch. 17: Of Injuries Proceeding from, or Affecting, the Crown.
- All the several pleas and excuses, which protect the committer of a forbidden act from the punishment which is otherwise annexed thereto, may be reduced to this single consideration, the want or defect of will. An involuntary act, as it has no claim to merit, so neither can it induce any guilt: the concurrence of the will, when it has its choice either to do or to avoid the fact in question, being the only thing that renders human actions either praiseworthy or culpable. Indeed, to make a complete crime, cognizable by human laws, there must be both a will and an act.
- Book IV, ch. 2: Of the Persons Capable of Committing Crimes.
- Of crimes injurious to the persons of private subjects, the most principal and important is the offense of taking away that life, which is the immediate gift of the great creator; and which therefore no man can be entitled to deprive himself or another of, but in some manner either expressly commanded in, or evidently deducible from, those laws which the creator has given us; the divine laws, I mean, of either nature or revelation.
- Book IV, ch. 14: Of Homicide.
- The founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived, that no man should be called to answer to the king for any capital crime, unless upon the preparatory accusation of twelve or more of his fellow subjects, the grand jury: and that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion. So that the liberties of England cannot but subsist, so long as this palladium remains sacred and inviolate, not only from all open attacks, (which none will be so hardy as to make) but also from all secret machinations, which may sap and undermine it; by introducing new and arbitrary methods of trial, by justices of the peace, commissioners of the revenue, and courts of conscience. And however convenient these may appear at first, (as doubtless all arbitrary powers, well executed, are the most convenient) yet let it be again remembered, that delays, and little inconveniences in the forms of justice, are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters; that these inroads upon this sacred bulwark of the nation are fundamentally opposite to the spirit of our constitution; and that, though begun in trifles, the precedent may gradually increase and spread, to the utter disuse of juries in questions of the most momentous concern.
- Book IV, ch. 27: Of Trial, And Conviction.
- It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.
- Book IV, ch. 27.