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History Of Jury Essay, Research Paper



Section I

For more than six hundred years-that is, since Magna Carta, in 1215–there has been no clearer principle of

English or American constitutional law, than that, in criminal cases, it is not only the right and duty of juries

to judge what are the facts, what is the law, and what was the moral intent of the accused; but that it is also

their light, and their primary and paramount duty, to judge the justice of the law, and to hold all

laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or

resisting the execution of, such law.

Unless such be the right and duty of jurors, it is plain that, instead of juries being a “palladium of liberty”-a

barrier against the tyranny and oppression of the government-they are really mere tools in its hands, for

carrying into execution any injustice and oppression it may desire to have executed.

But for their right to judge the law, and the justice of the law, juries would be no protection to an accused

person, even as to matters Of fact; for, if the government can dictate to a jury any law whatever, in a

criminal case, it can certainly dictate to them the laws of evidence. That is, it can dictate what evidence is

admissible, and what inadmissible, and also what force or weight is to be given to the evidence

admitted. And if the government can thus dictate to a jury the laws of evidence, it can not only make it

necessary for them to convict on a partial exhibition of the evidence rightfully pertaining to the case, but it can

even require them to convict on any evidence whatever that it pleases to offer them.

That the rights and duties of jurors must necessarily be such as are here claimed for them, will be evident

when it is considered what the trial by jury is, and what is its object.

“The trial by jury,” then, is a “trial by the country”-that is, by the people- as distinguished from a trial

by the government.

It was anciently called “trial per pais”-that is, “trial by the country.” And now, in every criminal trial, the

jury are told that the accused “has, for trial, put himself upon the country; which country you (the jury)


The object of this trial “by the country,” or by the people, in preference to a trial by the government, is to

guard against every species of oppression by the government. In order to effect this end, it is indispensable

that the people, or “the country,” judge and determine their own liberties against the government; instead of

the government’s judging of and determining its own powers over the people.

If the government may decide who may, and who may not, be jurors, it will of course select only its

partisans, and those friendly to its measures. It may not only prescribe who may, and who may not, be

eligible to be drawn as jurors; but is may also question each person drawn as a juror, as to his sentiments in

regard to the particular law involved in each trial, before suffering him to be sworn on the panel; and exclude

him if he be found unfavorable to the maintenance of such a law.

So, also, if the government may dictate to the jury what laws they are to enforce, it is no longer a “trial

by the country,” but a trial by the government; because the jury then try the accused, not by any standard of

their own-not by their own judgments of their rightful liberties-but by a standard dictated to them by the

government. And the standard, thus dictated by the government, becomes the measure of the people’s

liberties. If the government dictate the standard of trial, it of course dictates the results of the trial. And such a

trial is no trial by the country, but only a trial by the government; and in it the government determines what

are its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining what are their own liberties against

the government. In short, if the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government, they

plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no

oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.

The jury are also to judge whether the laws are rightly expounded to them by the court. Unless they judge on

this point, they do nothing to protect their liberties against the oppressions that are capable of being practiced

under cover of a corrupt exposition of the laws. If the judiciary can authoritatively dictate to a jury any

exposition of the law, they can dictate to them the law itself, and such laws as they please; because laws are,

in practice, one thing or another, according as they are expounded.

They must also judge whether there really be any such law, (be it good or bad,) as the accused is charged

with having transgressed. Unless they judge on this point, the people are liable to have their liberties taken

from them by brute force, without any law at all.

The jury must also judge of the laws of evidence. If the government can dictate to the jury the laws of

evidence, it can not only shut out any evidence it pleases, tending to vindicate the accused, but it can require

that any evidence whatever, that it pleases to offer, be held as conclusive proof of any offense whatever

which the government chooses to allege.

It is manifest, therefore, that the jury must judge of and try the whole case, and every part and parcel of the

case, free of any dictation or authority on the part of the government. They must judge of the existence of the

law; of the true exposition of the law; of the justice of the law; and of the admissibility of and weight of

all the evidence offered; otherwise the government will have everything its own way; the jury will be mere

puppets in the hands of the government; and the trial will be, in reality, a trial by the government, and not a

“trial by the country.” By such trials the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead

of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk,

as for centuries we have done, of the trial by the jury, as a “palladium of liberty,” or as any protection to the

people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.

The question, then, between trial by jury, as thus described, and trial by the government, is simply a question

between liberty and despotism. The authority to judge what are the powers of the government, and what are

the liberties of the people, must necessarily be vested in one or the other of the parties themselves-the

government, or the people; because there is no third party to whom it can be entrusted. If the authority be

vested in the government, the government is absolute, and the people have no liberties except such as the

government sees fit to indulge them with. If, on the other hand, that authority be vested in the people, then

the people have all liberties, (as against the government,) except such as substantially the whole people

(through a jury) choose to disclaim; and the government can exercise no power except such as substantially

the whole people (through a jury) consent that it may exercise.

* To show that this supposition is not an extravagant one, it may be mentioned that courts have repeatedly

questioned jurors to ascertain whether they were prejudiced against the government-that is, whether they

were in favor of, or opposed to, such laws of the government as were to be put in issue in the then pending

trial. This was done (in 1851) in the United States District Court of- the District of Massachusetts, by Peleg

Sprague, the United Slates district judge, in impaneling three several juries for the trials of Scott, Hayden,

and Morris, charged with having aided in the rescue of fugitive slave from the custody of the United States

deputy Marshall. This judge caused the following question to be propounded to all the jurors separately; and

those who answered unfavorably for- the purposes of government, were excluded from the panel. “Do you

hold any opinions upon the subject of the Fugitive Slave Law, so called, which will induce you to refuse to

convict a person indicted under it, if the facts set forth in the indictment, and contesting the offense, are

proved against him, and the court direct you that the law is constitutional!”

The reason of this question was, that “the Fugitive Slave Law, so called,” was so obnoxious to a large

portion of the people, as to render a conviction under it hopeless, if the jurors were taken indiscriminately

from among the people.

A similar was soon afterwards propounded to the persons drawn as jurors in the United States District

Court for the District of Massachusetts, by Benjamin R. Curtis, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of

the United States, in impaneling a jury for the trial of the aforesaid Morris on the charge before mentioned;

and those who did not answer the question favorably for the government were again excluded from the panel.

It has also been an habitual practice with the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in impaneling juries for the

trial of capital offenses, to inquire of the persons drawn as jurors whether they had any conscientious

scruples against finding verdicts of guilty in such cases; that is, whether they had any conscientious scruples

against sustaining the law prescribing death as the punishment of the crime to be tried; and to exclude from

the panel all who answered in the affirmative.

The only principle upon which these questions arc asked, is this-that no man shall be allowed to serve as

juror, unless he be ready to enforce any enactment of the government, however cruel or tyrannical it may be.

What is such a jury good for, as a protection against the tyranny of the government! A jury like that is

palpably nothing but a mere tool of oppression in the hands of the government. A trial by such a jury is really

a trial by the government itself-and not a trial by the country-because it is a trial only by men specially selected

by the government for their readiness to enforce its own tyrannical measures.

If that be the true principle of the trial by jury, the trial is utterly worthless as a security to liberty. The Czar

might, with perfect safety to his authority, introduce the trial by jury into Russia, if he could but be

permitted(i to select his jurors from those whomever ready to maintain his laws, without regard to their


The example is sufficient to show that the very pith of the trial by jury, as a safeguard to liberty, consists in

the jurors being taken indiscriminately from the whole people, and in their- right to hold invalid all laws

which they think unjust.

Section 2

The force and justice of the preceding argument cannot be evaded by saying that the government is chosen by

the people; that, in theory, it represents the people; that it is designed to do the will of the people; that its

members are all sworn to observe the fundamental or constitutional law instituted by the people; that its acts

are therefore entitled to be considered the acts of the people; and that to allow a jury, representing the people,

to invalidate the acts of government, would therefore be arraying the people against themselves.

There are two answers to such an argument.

One answer is, that, in a representative government, there is no absurdity or contradiction, nor any arraying

of the people against themselves, in requiring that the statutes or enactments of the government shall pass the

ordeal of any number of separate tribunals, before it shall be determined that they are to have the force of


Our American constitutions have provided five of these separate tribunals, to wit, representatives, senate,

executive, jury, and judges; and have made it necessary that each enactment shall pass the ordeal of all these

separate tribunals, before its authority can be established by the punishment of those who choose to

transgress it. And there is no more absurdity or inconsistency in making a jury one of these several tribunals,

than there is in making the representatives, or ~t ~e senate, or the executive, or the judges, one of them. There

is no more absurdity in giving a jury the veto upon the laws, than there is in giving a veto to each of these

other tribunals. The people are no more arrayed against themselves, when a jury puts its veto upon a statute,

which the other tribunals have sanctioned, than they are when the same veto is exercised by the

representatives, the senate, the executive, or the judges.

But another answer to the argument that the people are arrayed against themselves, when a jury hold an

enactment of the government invalid, is, that the government, and all the departments of government, are

merely the servants and agents of the people; not interested with arbitrary or absolute authority to bind the

people, but required to submit all their enactments to the judgment of a tribunal more fairly representing the

whole people, before they carry them into execution, by punishing any individual for transgressing them. If

the government were not thus required to submit their enactments to the judgment of “the country,” before

executing them upon individuals-if, in other words, the people had reserved to themselves no veto upon the

acts of government, the government, instead of being a mere servant and agent of the people, would be an

absolute despot over the people. It would have all power in its own hands; because the power to punish

carries all other powers with it. A power that can, of itself, and by its own authority, punish disobedience,

can compel obedience and submission, and is above all responsibility for the character of its laws. In short, it

is a despotism.

And it is of no consequence to inquire how a government came by this power to punish, whether by

prescription, by inheritance, by usurpation, or by delegation of the people? If it have now but got it, the

government is absolute.

* – The executive has a qualified veto upon the passage of laws, in most of our governments, and an absolute veto, in all of

them, upon the execution of any laws which he deems unconstitutional; because his oath to support the constitution (as he

understands it) forbids him to execute any law that he deems unconstitutional.

It is plain, therefore, that if the people have invested the government with power to make laws that absolutely

bind the people, and to punish the people for transgressing those laws, the people have surrendered their

liberties unreservedly into the hands of the government.

It is of no avail to say, in answer to this view of the case, that in surrendering their liberties into the hands of

government, the people took an oath from the government, that it would exercise its power within certain

constitutional limits; for when did oaths ever restrain a government that was otherwise unrestrained? Or when

did a government fail to determine that all its acts were within the constitutional and authorized limits of its

power, if it were permitted to determine that question for itself.

Neither is it of any avail to say, that, if the government abuse its power, and enact unjust and oppressive

laws, the government may be changed by the influence of discussion, and the exercise of the right of suffrage

(voting). Discussion can do nothing to prevent the enactment, or procure the repeal, of unjust laws, unless it

be understood that the discussion is to be followed by resistance. Tyrants care nothing for discussions that

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