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A Brief History of Opinion-Writing Practices from Hale and Blackstone to the 20th Century

In American History, Britain, History, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on August 9, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone explained that judicial opinions in England traditionally were a source of unwritten law, or lex non scripta, derived from custom and read from the bench but not transcribed in official reports or indexed in a formal corpus.  Judicial opinions began as an oral medium, not a written record.  They were considered evidence of what the law was, but not the law itself.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, opinions were often written down, in French, and compiled in Year Books.  Lawyers began citing opinions—some written, some unwritten—in their arguments before the courts, although there was no systematized mode of citation.  As early as the fifteenth century, lawyers produced abridgements, or digests, to review the state of the law across England.  These sketchy compilations summarized and classified opinions and could be referenced in the courtroom as authority for particular propositions.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a comprehensive scheme of methodical and widespread adherence to written precedent emerged gradually by slow degrees.  However, not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did judges and litigants treat opinions as authoritative and binding in a manner that resembled the modern sense of precedent.  The publication of Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England over the course of nearly two decades during the early seventeenth century provided direction for both jurists and attorneys who wished to substantiate their arguments with concrete holdings.  Still there were no certified court reporters or verbatim transcriptions; the enterprise of publishing reports or digests was often personal and selective, insofar as reporters often chose to record only cases they liked and to disregard cases they disliked.

From approximately 1600 to 1800, the British House of Lords enjoyed supreme appellate jurisdiction over cases in common-law and equity courts.  During that time, the House of Lords did not publish reports of its decisions, seriatim or otherwise.  Most cases were ultimately determined by intermediate appellate courts, including the Exchequer Chamber, the Court of Common Pleas, and the King’s Bench, which regularly issued seriatim opinions that were transcribed by reporters.  Prior to American independence from Great Britain, appeals from colonial courts went before the Privy Council in England.  The Privy Council reached decisions by majority vote but issued those decisions as unified pronouncements, regardless of dissenting views.  Because all decisions of the Privy Council were subject to the King’s review, and the King, the site and symbol of the law or body politic, could not articulate simultaneous, contradictory positions, the appearance of unanimity within the Privy Council was paramount.

In its early years, after the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the United States Supreme Court (“the Court”), following the practice of English common-law courts—specifically the King’s Bench—typically rendered decisions in the form of per curiam and seriatim opinions.  The near obligatory practice of rendering written opinions was an American innovation and a departure from the English custom of residual orality.  The fact that the United States Constitution was written perhaps necessitated the textual documentation of judicial opinions in books, digests, and reports.

During the tenure of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1796–1800), the third Chief Justice of the Court, seriatim opinions became less common and were abandoned during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), who orchestrated consolidated opinions among the justices, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson.  Justices who concurred with the prevailing rationale no longer authored a separate opinion to express their agreement.  Justice William Johnson, a Jeffersonian Republican, was the notable exception, authoring nearly half of the dissents that were produced by members of the Court during his tenure on the bench.  Chief Justice Marshall, for his part, authored most of the Court’s majority opinions, which were issued with the phrase “opinion of the Court” to lend the impression that the justices spoke with one voice.  Collegiality and consensus-building must have been a high priority because, after work hours, the justices resided and dined together in a small boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, away from their families, where court conflicts could have incited personal quarrels.  Abandoning the seriatim mode and dissenting opinions also quickened the publication process; over a quarter of the cases decided by opinion between 1815 and 1835 were published in no more than five days.

The period late in Chief Justice Marshall’s tenure to approximately 1905 involved the rise of dissenting justices.  Chief Justice Marshall himself began to author dissents as the Court increasingly decided cases through majority rather than unanimous opinions.  Dissents proliferated during the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  Justice John McLean and Justice Benjamin Curtis authored memorable dissents in Dred Scott v. Sandford.  Forty-eight years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s three-paragraph dissent in Lochner v. New York became one of the most influential legal writings in American history.  Blackstone’s conviction that opinions were evidence of law but not actually law continued to some extent throughout the nineteenth century, yet it had been diminishing since the mid-eighteenth century.  The notion of “caselaw,” or the idea that judicial opinions constituted law, did not gain currency until the twentieth century.  Today it is mostly accepted without question or qualification.

The twentieth century ushered in the era of the “Great Dissenter,” a label that has been conferred on Justice Holmes and Justice John Marshall Harlan.  By the 1940s, most cases involved separate opinions.  Dissents and separate writings are now common.  A jurist’s reasoning and argument typically enjoy precedential effect, but historically, under the English tradition of the common law, the judgment of the opinion was authoritative, and later courts could disregard the analysis from which that judgment followed.  The results of an opinion, in other words, took priority over its reasoning.

The Moral Case for Property Rights

In Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Philosophy, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on March 9, 2016 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here at the Library of Law and Liberty.

The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University has become a hub of conservative constitutionalism and natural law theory, a forum where mostly likeminded scholars and public intellectuals can come together for constructive dialogue and critique. Directed by Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, the program has hosted established and emerging scholars alike. Adam MacLeod is one of the latter—a figure to watch, a fresh and tempered voice in the increasingly ideological field of jurisprudence and legal theory. During his James Madison fellowship, with the support and advice of his colleagues, MacLeod wrote Property and Practical Reason, his first book.

MacLeod frames his normative claims and pleas within the common law context. And he gives us his thesis in his crisp opening sentence: “This book makes a moral case for private property.” He adds that “institutions of private ownership are justified.”

That institutions of private ownership are now jeopardized is upsetting. Before the 18th century, it was simply taken for granted in most Western societies that private property rights incentivized both work and custodianship and served moral ends. Leaders of advanced nations understood that the opportunity to own land or goods motivated people to work; that work, in turn, contributed to the aggregate health of the community; and that once ownership was attained, owners preserved the fruits of their labor and likewise respected the fruits of others’ labor as having been dutifully earned. There were, of course, violations of these principles in Western societies, which is why the law protected and promoted private ownership.

Even absolute monarchs across Europe centuries ago understood the instinctual drive for personal ownership and, consequently, allowed their subjects to obtain at least qualified possession of land and real property. During the Enlightenment, however, philosophers such as John Locke awakened the Western intellect to the stark reality that private property rights were routinely violated or compromised by monarchs and sovereigns at the expense of morality and at odds with the natural law. Because humans own their bodies, Locke maintained, any object or land they removed or procured from nature, which God had provided humanity in common, was joined to those people, who, so long as no one else had a legitimate claim to such object or land, could freely enjoy a right of possession exclusive of the common rights of others.

It’s surprising that Locke isn’t mentioned in MacLeod’s defense of reason and private property, since Locke more than any other figure in the Western tradition—let alone the British tradition in which the common law emerged—made the reason-based case for the morality of private property ownership. “God,” Locke said, “who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.” On this score MacLeod echoes Locke without giving him attention.

MacLeod advocates the type of mediated dominion of private ownership that, he says, existed at common law. Under the common law, he argues, dominion was mediated because it was restrained by the normative guides of “practical reasonableness.” He does not fully delineate what unmediated dominion looks like. But presumably it has something to do with “many contemporary accounts” that, he claims, “view property as an individual right” and facilitate an “atomization of private property” that’s “unnecessary and unhelpful.” An example might have polished off this point, since in the opening chapters it’s not always obvious to which property arrangement mediated dominion is allegedly superior.

He does, however, supply helpful examples of mediating private institutions under the common law: families and family businesses, religious associations such as churches or synagogues, civic associations, and other such cooperative forms that exercise modest control or otherwise influence a person’s claim to outright ownership. For instance, one’s community may reasonably insist that my absolute ownership of a weapon does not permit one’s use of that weapon to threaten or injure another except in self-defense. It may likewise restrict the profligate use of scarce resources, or the reckless use of intrinsically dangerous resources to the manifest detriment of one’s immediate neighbors.

The author submits that, under the common law, which illustrates constructive administration of property rights, private ownership is never total or unqualified but always subject to reasonable restraint as prescribed by custom and community. He intimates that one thing that makes private ownership reasonable is its promotion of reasonable behavior; the very reasonableness of private property is self-perpetuating. The owner of property who’s confident his ownership is legally honored and enforced will pursue future gain; as the number of such owners multiplies, the corporate prosperity of society increases.

MacLeod rejects consequentialist arguments for private property and seeks to justify private ownership on the basis of morality. He shows that private ownership is not just optimal by utilitarian standards but is practically reasonable and morally good.

In so arguing, he navigates around two anticipated criticisms: first that his defense of private property and promotion of common law standards and conditions are remedies in search of an illness, and second that beneath his proposed remedy is the sickness he wants to cure.

By discussing the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jeremy Waldron, J. E. Penner, and Larissa Katz, among others, MacLeod proves he’s not remonstrating against straw men but engaging actual thinkers with real influence on our working perceptions of property rights. The problems he confronts are palpable: regulatory takings, trespass, taxation, riparian-right disputes, adverse possession, and waste, among others.

In depicting mediated dominion as a form of voluntary “plural ownership” that excludes state coercion, moreover, he reassures readers that a common law property regime does not contravene private ordering, despite the fact that the common law dates back to periods when English monarchs retained total and ultimate control of the land within their jurisdiction under the Doctrine of the Crown; forced owners to hold property rights in socage; confiscated property from rivals and dissidents; redistributed property in exchange for loyalty and political favors; and permitted and at times approved of slavery and villainy.

These unreasonable elements of the common law tradition do not square with the case that MacLeod makes for practical reasonableness; yet the common law tradition he invokes is sufficiently flexible and adaptive to modify or eradicate rules that perpetuate unreasonable practices and behaviors. He reminds us, too, that “slavery was for a long time unknown at common law, and its rise in positive law derogated common law rights and duties.” In other words, the rise of the English slave trade “is a story of lawmakers first departing from, then returning to, common law norms.”

Following if not synthesizing John Finnis and Joseph Raz, MacLeod recommends in the property-law context something akin to perfectionist liberalism and value pluralism. The pluralism championed by MacLeod involves multiplying the options for deliberating agents: the more room there is for rational choice, the more diverse and numerous are the opportunities to exercise human reason. These opportunities may be circumscribed by the morality of the community that is inherent in the rules that reflect basic values. The law is by nature coercive, but it is good to the extent it enables practical reason and restricts bad behavior, as determined by the net, collaborative efforts of non-state actors. MacLeod calls these combined actors members of “intermediary communities.”

The trope of individualism and community is for MacLeod a framing device for advocating mediated dominion as an incentivizing force for moral action. He skillfully and meticulously affirms that private ownership, which is conditional on the reasonable limitations established by collective norms, is reasonable not only for instrumental purposes (because it works well and facilitates constructive social relations) but also because it is good in itself. Summoning the commentary of Thomas Aquinas, William Blackstone, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Joseph Story, Georg Friedrich Hegel, F.A. Hayek, Neil MacCormick, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Epstein, and Robert P. George, MacLeod also manages to work in unexpected references to writers who do not immediately spring to mind as jurisprudents: Richard Weaver, Wendell Berry, Charles Murray, John Tomasi, and Milton Friedman. This range demonstrates the importance of property law across disciplines and in broad contexts.

To profit from this book you must, I think, hold in abeyance any assumptions or readymade generalizations you have about the nature and function of private property. You’d benefit as well from a prior familiarity with the field and discourse of property jurisprudence, not to mention the new natural law theories. I make this observation as an outsider myself. If you can’t immediately define terms like “usufruct,” either because you’ve never heard of them or because it’s been too long since you studied for a bar examination, you’ll likely need Black’s Law Dictionary and other resources close at hand as you piece through MacLeod’s rationale. Readers in other disciplines might find that the chapters presuppose an awareness of, say, the essentialist debate over whether exclusion or use defines property norms, or might question the meaning and import of “personalist” approaches to private property that emphasize the doctrines of positive liberty and personal autonomy.

Such disciplinary specificity isn’t a bad thing. One hopes, in fact, that it would motivate curious readers to undertake further study and inquiry. Yet specialization limits what a book can accomplish.

MacLeod exhibits a disposition to be philosophical rather than sociological, adopting as he does a neutral, academic tone free of animus and personal pique, arguing from logical deduction rather than concrete data or statistics. Whether this approach redounds to his advantage depends on what he wants to achieve. If he’s writing only for an academic audience of philosophers and political theorists, he’s succeeded admirably, but if his goal is to reach beyond the narrow confines of the academy, spreading his influence as widely as possible, he has fallen short. The prose is accessible to scholars and advanced graduate students, but the average lawyer will find no practical instruction in the book and might even question the at times challenging syntax and vocabulary that can obscure basic points. If economists ignore the book for its rejection of consequentialist arguments, however, it’s to their disadvantage.

No common reader, I’m afraid, will read this book from cover to cover, and that’s a pity because the subject is important, especially given the spread of eminent-domain abuse and the general embrace of egalitarianism, redistributivism, and Rawlsian notions of social justice by Americans today. The desire for private ownership is a primordial fact. We need more books and treatises that examine at a fundamental level how and why we alienate, possess, and exchange property. At around $100, Property and Practical Reason is prohibitively expensive for curious undergraduates, and also for courses in graduate studies. Moreover, the law schools may well ignore it due to its focus on abstract jurisprudence.

All that said, this book should be read—and will be, by the people who know about and are sympathetic to the work of the James Madison Program. Unfortunately, that’s not many people. Not enough, anyway. There’s no cottage industry for the philosophy of practical reasonableness. Yet there ought to be, and the reception of MacLeod’s work might tell us whether there can be. Those of a philosophical bent will delight not just in the conclusions MacLeod reaches, but in the way he reaches them: framing and reframing his sinuous arguments until his central theses become refrains. This reviewer found it a delightfully industrious, hard-won defense of private property, and well worth the high sticker price.

The American Founders and Natural Law Jurisprudence

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Christianity, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Literature, Philosophy, Slavery, Southern History, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 9, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

The American founders, many of them, validated their political cause and secession from Britain by resorting to natural law theories and paradigms.[i] Thomas Jefferson memorialized these theories and paradigms in the Declaration of Independence.[ii] While studying nature and the physical world, Jefferson extended natural law jurisprudence while revising it to fit the needs and settings of the New World.[iii] Rather than looking to divine or moral prescription to ground his natural law theories, Jefferson looked to nature. He borrowed from Newtonian ideas about the laws of the universe and applied them to the laws of man.[iv] A human law was, by this logic, akin to the law of gravity.

The American insistence on natural law was a reaction to the analytical positivism gaining credence in Britain.[v] This school of jurisprudence found its fullest expression in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. These men treated laws as linguistic constructs: commands that attained the status of law because people followed them, not because they reflected a priori or transcendent rules of the cosmos. American founders such as Jefferson saw natural law as a way to distinguish themselves from their British counterparts and to define what it meant to be American. William Blackstone, one of the few British jurists still clinging to natural law principles,[vi] enjoyed vast success from American purchases of Commentaries on the Laws of England.[vii] The popularity of this treatise in America had to do with Blackstone’s support for ideals that, from the colonials’ perspective, affirmed Revolutionary rhetoric and philosophical principles.[viii] Blackstone died in 1780. His death ushered in the age of positive law jurisprudence in England.[ix]

In America, however, natural law picked up momentum in the wake of the Revolution and American independence.[x] That ideas of natural law flourished during the Enlightenment, especially in America where institutions were supposed to reflect—indeed embody—Enlightenment principles, is curious because the Enlightenment glorified reason and humanism: progressive concepts seemingly incongruous with a moral theory derived from ancient church teachings and philosophical orthodoxies. This disjuncture reveals the extent to which colonials sought to divorce their culture and communities from the British. Á la Blackstone, colonials would go great lengths to “prove” their natural law theories through application of the scientific method and appeals to reason.[xi] Natural law jurisprudence did, in fact, fit within a scientific and rational framework in many important respects. For instance, natural law, like laws of the natural world putatively discoverable by reason, logic, and experiment, were by definition universal. Just as truths about the external world allegedly were deduced through sustained study of specimens and species, so truths about the human condition were, natural theorists argued, deduced through sustained study of human behavior and the history of the races.[xii] In this sense, colonial jurists viewed natural law not as retrograde, superstitious, or religious, but as cutting-edge and scientific. Americans were not alone in their attention to the scientific elements of law. In Western and Central Europe during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, rulers and leaders “sought to rationalize their legal systems, to make law scientific, to extend it in a vernacular language evenly over their territories, and to put an end to the earlier jumble of customs, privileges, and local rights.”[xiii] Save for Blackstone’s efforts, however, this scientific trend did not gain much traction in England.[xiv]

Early Americans, particularly northerners[xv] but also Virginians such as Jefferson and George Mason, celebrated the ideals of natural law and natural rights appearing in the Declaration, but they found those ideals difficult to implement in everyday practice. Although staunchly committed to the principles of natural law, the colonials, at least those with representation or voice in the political sphere, discovered that abstract philosophy did not readily translate into workaday rules and regulations.[xvi] “It was one thing,” submits David Brion Davis, “to state abstract propositions, and quite another to decide how the law applied to a particular case.”[xvii] Above all, the “peculiar institution” of American slavery called into question the Enlightenment values upon which American natural law jurisprudence depended. Cries of freedom and liberty rang hollow once Americans were no longer up against an oppressive British Empire. These cries began to sound hypocritical—if they did not seem so already—as the institution of slavery became a mainstay of the economy of the fledgling nation.[xviii] How could colonists extol freedom, liberty, and equality yet enslave masses of people? This American philosophical “inconsistency pinched harder when slaves began to speak the language of natural rights.”[xix] As Samuel Johnson, the eminent British Tory and man of letters, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”[xx]



[i] “The American Revolution, as it ran its course from 1764 to 1776—from the first beginnings of resistance down to the Declaration of Independence and the creation of new colonial constitutions—was inspired by the doctrines of Natural Law.” Ernest Baker, in Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500-1800, ed. Otto Gierke (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1934) at I, xlvi. See generally Clarence Manion, “The Natural Law Philosophy of the Founding Fathers,” University of Notre Dame Natural Law Institute Proceedings (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1949). See also Raymond Whiting, “The American Interpretation of Natural Law,” A Natural Right to Die: Twenty-Three Centuries of Debate (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 109-118.

[ii] “[T]he argument of the Declaration is a subtle, if ambiguous, blending of empirical historical analysis and the metaphysics of Natural Law. To prove its central contention—that the revolution was made necessary by British policies—the document enumerates twenty-seven specific events in recent history which reveal precisely how Britain acted to establish despotism. […] But the revolutionaries meant to transcend arguments of expediency, for such arguments were always subject to the vicissitudes of opinion and opinion might lead one to conclude that a revolution was in fact unnecessary and therefore unjustifiable. To remove their claims from the arena of opinion and to ground them with certainty, the revolutionaries felt constrained to found the argument for justification on the principle of Natural Rights which was rooted in the theory of Natural Law as applied to politics and society. Thus the grievances enumerated in the Declaration, weighty in themselves for some readers, were for others concrete examples of how one nation attempted to subordinate another to an ‘absolute despotism.’ The grievances, taken together, demonstrated that British policies had violated the fundamental principles of Natural Law itself.” Lester H. Cohen, “The American Revolution and Natural Law Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1978) at 491-92.

[iii] See generally Allen Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s ‘Laws of Nature’: Newtonian Influence and the Dual Valence of Jurisprudence and Science,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2010).

[iv] See generally Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s Laws of Nature.”

[v] See generally David Lieberman, “Mapping criminal law: Blackstone and the categories of English jurisprudence,” in Law, Crime and English Society, 1660-1830, ed. Norma Landau(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002 ) at 159-162. See also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 343-385. Davis explains this English phenomenon as follows: “In England there was no ‘fundamental shift in values’ that mobilized the society into revolution. There was no counterpart to the American need for self-justification. No new hopes or obligations arose from an attempt to build a virtuous republic. Such phrases as ‘created equal,’ ‘inalienable rights,’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’—all of which appeared in classic liberal texts—were qualified by a reverent constitutionalism that looked to Saxon precedent to legitimize ideals of freedom. The notion of man’s inherent rights, when assimilated to the historical concept of British ‘liberty,’ implied little challenge to traditional laws and authorities. And by the 1790s the very idea of inherent rights was giving way to radical and conservative forms Utilitarianism.” Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution at 343.

[vi] In short, Blackstone believed that the common law reflected natural law principles and that any law contradicting natural law was invalid. Consider, e.g., the following quotation: “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 all over 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. […] 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.” Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I at 41-42.

[vii] See Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1993) 36-40.

[viii] See Albert W. Alschuler, “Rediscovering Blackstone,” 145 University of Pennsylvania L. Rev. (1996) at 4-19. See also David Schultz, “Political Theory and Legal History: Conflicting Depictions of Property in the American Political Founding,” 37 American Journal of Legal History (1993) at 483-486.

[ix] The jurisprudential split between Blackstone and Bentham, while stark, was not as hostile as some first considered: “Until recently Bentham’s claim to have made a sharp break with Blackstone has won wide acceptance, and that fact, combined with Bentham’s ascendancy, was chiefly responsible for consigning Blackstone to obscurity. […] No doubt this outcome resulted in part from Bentham’s mastery of invective, and in part from the fact that the elderly Blackstone did not deign to notice the attacks of an upstart critic, much less reply to them. Even the strongest partisans of Bentham have conceded that much of his criticism directed at Blackstone was misplaced[…]. In spite of Bentham’s efforts, most historians of the relationship have acknowledged that Bentham, despite his implacable hostility, combined relentless criticism with passages of praise that became as famous as some of his barbs.” Richard A. Cosgrove, Scholars of the Law: English Jurisprudence from Blackstone to Hart (New York University Press, 1996) at 52.

[x] See generally George W. Casey, “Natural Rights, Equality, and the Declaration of Independence,” 3 Ave Maria Law Review 45 (2005). See also Philip A. Hamburger, “Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions,” 102 Yale Law Journal 907 (1993). See also James Lanshe, “Morality and the Rule of Law in American Jurisprudence,” 11 Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion 1 (2009) at 11-15. See also Kevin F. Ryan, “We Hold These Truths,” 31-WTR Vermont Bar Journal 9 (2005-06) at 11-16.

[xi] “[Blackstone] presented law as a science, a ‘rational science,’ that included an extensive discussion of natural law. To Blackstone, the principles of natural law are universal and superior to positive law, including the common law. […] Natural law, according to Blackstone, is either revealed by God or discoverable through human reason. […] American jurisprudents readily accepted Blackstone’s natural law orientation. […] [N]atural law provided a convenient and useful justification for the adoption of English common law in the various states of the burgeoning nation. Especially in the decades following soon after the Revolutionary War, if the common law had been understood merely as an English institution distinctive to Britain itself, then an American reliance on the common law would have seemed impolitic or even treasonous. If, however, the common law arose from universal principles of the law of nature, which were revealed by God or discovered through human reason, then the common law would be legitimate everywhere, including in America.” Stephen M. Feldman, “From Premodern to Modern American Jurisprudence: The Onset of Positivism,” 50 Vanderbilt Law Review 1387 (1997) at 1396-97.

[xii] Thomas R. R. Cobb, a jurist from Georgia and an expert on slave laws, took pains to show how science validated the idea of slaves as naturally inferior and in need of white supervision. Consider this quote by Cobb: “The history of the negro race then confirms the conclusion to which an inquiry into the negro character had brought us: that a state of bondage, so far from doing violence to the law of his nature, develops and perfects it; and that, in that state, he enjoys the greatest amount of happiness, and arrives at the greatest degree of perfection of which his nature is capable. And, consequently, that negro slaver, as it exists in the United States, is not contrary to the law of nature.” Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1858) at 51.

[xiii] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 403.

[xiv] Ibid. at 403-404.

[xv] “Southerners considered themselves law-abiding and considered northerners lawless. After all, southerners did not assert higher-law doctrines and broad interpretations of the Constitution. Rather, as Charles S. Sydnor has argued, they understood the law in a much different way and professed to see no contradiction between their code of honor, with its appeal to extralegal personal force, and a respect for the law itself.” Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974) at 44.

[xvi] See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 405-408.

[xvii] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 470.

[xviii] See generally David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966) at 3-28. For a synthesis of the historical scholarship on this point, see Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993) at 63-92.

[xix] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 276.

[xx] See James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York: George Dearborn, 1833) at 132.

The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: Part Two

In Arts & Letters, Britain, Conservatism, Eastern Civilizaton, Fiction, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics on April 16, 2012 at 7:55 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following originally appeared here at Libertarian Papers.  Full Works Cited to appear in Part Three.

The Role of District Collector

Partly because of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s codes, and partly because of the British need to establish powerful offices that would entice colonizers to remain in India rather than return to England, collectors gained extraordinary powers between 1857 and 1909 (Arora and Goyal 243). “In him [the Collector] was created a ‘little Napoleon,’” Ramesh Kumar Arora and Rajni Goyal explain, “who, being part and parcel of the steel-frame, made it possible for the British to govern and control the vast subcontinent” (244). It is fair to say that Mr. Turton is one of these little Napoleons—an official forced to countenance Indian interests while pledging ultimate allegiance to the British sovereign. In fact, Forster goes so far as to call Mr. and Mrs. Turton “little gods” (20).[1] Thus cast, Mr. Turton is problematic—for like other collectors he “had to adjust his autocratic rule and at times benevolent administration to a climate of representative politics” (Tummala 126).[2] In other words, he had to straddle two societies and to pander to multiple interests; but his loyalties were to remain unchanged. Turton is a conflicted, ambivalent character in part because his occupation is itself conflicted. He is a site and symbol of British power but also of British mercy and tolerance. As such, he is the perfect character through which to critique colonial programs in general and utilitarian jurisprudence in particular. Forster uses Turton to show that British rule of law is either a myth or a pretext for nation-building, and that Brahman Hindu philosophy is a jurisprudentially sound alternative to rule of law.

The district collector was a major locus of power in the centrally planned Indian Civil Service. Arora and Goyal describe the current office of district collector as “the kingpin of district administration in India” (243). “The office,” Arora and Goyal continue, “is the result of a long process of evolution of about two hundred years of the British rule” (243). Forster’s productions came about during the late stages of this British rule. Although the “administration of revenue, civil justice and magistracy was united in the office of District Collector,” thus making the District Collector “the executive machinery in the district,” District Collectors did not become “the symbol of imperial rule” until after the 1857 revolt (Sarkar 117). Before the revolt, also known as the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence, the district collector signified an “extremely powerful civil servant running the executive machinery in the district” (Sarkar 117). The causes of the Indian Rebellion are disputed,[3] but the ramifications seem to have been, in one contemporary’s words, “a persistent attempt to force Western ideas,” including Benthamite utilitarianism, “upon an Eastern people” (Malleson G. B. 412).

By the time Forster visited India,[4] the office of district collector would entail “powers of the magistrate and the judge too” (Tummala 126), the former power being limited to small claims and ceremonial rights (Brimnes 222). During Forster’s visit, district collectors would have spent “more time on the office desk and less on tours which provided [them] an opportunity to come in direct contact with people,” including tourists like Forster (Parashar 83). The prepositional phrase “on the office desk” seems suggestive of any number of activities (some sexual) besides simply work. Anyhow, district Collectors worked closely with District Magistrates (represented by the character Ronny in Passage) and District Police Superintendents (represented by McBryde) to keep local populations under constant surveillance as required by Macaulay’s legal codes (Kumar and Verma 66–67).

Macaulay was a British statesman and a man of letters who participated on the Supreme Council of India in the early 19th century. In this position, Macaulay advised George Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, regarding the laws of India. The best known of these efforts is probably the Indian Penal Code, the introductory footnote to which proclaims, “These papers […] are by no means merely of Indian interest, for, while they were the commencement of a new system of law for India, they chiefly relate to general principles of jurisprudence which are of universal application” (Macaulay, The Complete Works 551). This short footnote exemplifies the extent to which doctrinaire utilitarian paternalism had come to mark British administration in India. Indeed, Macaulay’s codes pivot on the assumption that British utilitarian jurisprudence is so enlightened as to be universal. By this logic, anything at odds with this jurisprudence would be unenlightened and backward and thus would require replacement.

Depicting Ronny as foolish and Turton as misguided, Forster rejects British utilitarianism and its assertion of consequentialism and legalism. Forster constantly refers to India as a muddle; he celebrates the chaos and confusion of the Gokul Astami festival, a rapturous Hindu “muddle” that is not only “the approaching triumph of India” but also “a frustration of reason and form” (258). During this festival, Godbole, a Brahman Hindu who teaches with Fielding, detaches “the tiny reverberation that was his soul” (258, 260). This scene reveals “a positive attitude toward chaos,” which is “completely un-Western” (Singh 272). It shows that the seemingly disordered is really spontaneously ordered. Chaos, here, recalls Brahman Hindu philosophy, which blends dualities into a single state and renders all things inclusive or unified. Forster portrays Hindu as organizing despite its inherent anarchy. It is the ultimate reality and thus the ultimate law. Forster, then, reverses the British utilitarian’s assumption about the universality of his jurisprudence. The truly universal system is Indian and, paradoxically, ordered by chaos. Read the rest of this entry »

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