Commentaries on the Laws of England: Book 1 The Rights of Persons

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The rights of things ; with the means alfo of acquiring and lofing them. Private wrongs, or civil injuries ; with the means of redreffing them by law. Public wrongs, or crimes and mifdemefnors ; with the means of prevention and punifhment. WE are now, firft, to confider the rights of perfons ; with the means of acquiring and lofing them.


Both may indeed be comprized in this latter divifion ; for, as all focial duties are of a relative nature, at the fame time that they are due from one man, or fet of men, they muft alfo be due to another. But I apprehend it will be more clear and eafy, to confider many of them as duties required from, rather than as rights belonging to, particular perfons.

Thus, for inftance, allegiance is ufually, and therefore as the duty of the magiftrate ; and yet they are, reciprocally, the rights as well as duties of each other.

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Now, as municipal law is a rule of civil conduct, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong; or, as Cicero, 1 and after him our Bracton, 2 has expressed it, sanctio justa, jubens honesta et prohibens contraria ; it follows, that the primary and principal objects of the law are rights, and wrongs. But if a man be lawfully imprisoned, and either to procure his discharge, or on any other fair account, seals a bond or a deed, this is not by duress of imprisonment, and he is not at liberty to avoid it. The law is in this respect so benignly and liberally construed for the benefit of the subject, that, though within the realm the king may command the attendance and service of all his liegemen, yet he cannot send any man out of the realm, even upon the public service, excepting sailors and soldiers, the nature of whose employment necessarily implies an exception: he cannot even constitute a man lord deputy of lieutenant of Ireland against his will, nor make him a foreign ambassador. On October 10, , Charles Finney decided to head into the woods near his home and pray to the God of the Bible, saying:. The civil death commences if any man be banished the realm 24 by the process of the common law, or enters into religion; that is, goes into a monastery, and becomes there a monk professed: in which cases he is absolutely dead in law, and his next heir shall have his estate. Finney saw so many references to Bible verses in Blackstone's Law Commentaries that he bought a Bible and began reading it. And we have seen that these rights consist, primarily, in the free enjoyment of personal security, of personal liberty, and of private property.

Allegiance is the right of the magiftrate, and protection the right of the people. Natural perfons are fuch as the God of nature formed us : artificial are fuch as created and devifed by human laws for the purpofes of fociety and government ; which are called corporations or bodies politic.

THE rights of perfons confidered in their natural capacities are alfo of two forts, abfolute, and relative. Abfolue, which are fuch as appertain and belong to particular men, merely as individuals or fingle perfons : relative, which are incident to them as members of fociety, and ftanding in various relations to each other. The firft, that is, abfolute rights, will be the fubject of the prefent chapter.

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BY the abfolute rights of individuals we mean thofe which are fo in their primary and ftricteft fenfe; fuch as would belong to their perfons merely in a ftate of nature, and which every man is intitled to enjoy whether out of fociety or in it. But with regard to the abfolute duties, which man is bound to perform con-. For the end and intent of fuch laws being only to regulate the behaviour of mankind, as they are members of fociety, and ftand in various relations to each other, they have confequently no bufinefs or concern with any but focial or relative duties.

Let a man therefore be ever fo abandoned in his principles, or vitious in his practice, provided he keeps his wickednefs to himfelf, and does not offend againft the rules of public decency, he is out of the reach of human laws. But if he makes his vices public, though they be fuch as feem principally to affect himfelf, as drunkennefs, or the like they then become, by the bad example they fet, of pernicious effects to fociety ; and therefore it is then the bufinefs of human laws to correct them.

Public fobriety is a relative duty, and therefore enjoined by our laws : private fobriety is an abfolute duty, which, whether it be performed or not, human tribunals can never know; and therefore they can never enforce it by any civil fanction.

Human laws define and enforce as well thofe rights which belong to a man confidered as an individual, as thofe which belong to him confidered as related to others. FOR the principal aim of fociety is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of thofe abfolute rights, which were vefted in them by the immutable laws of nature ; but which could not be preferved in peace without that mutual affiftance and intercourfe, which is gained by the inftitution of friendly and focial communities. Hence it follows, that the firft and primary end of human laws is to formation of ftates and focieties : fo that to maintain and regulate thefe, is clearly a fubfequent confideration.

And therefore the principal view of human laws is, or ought always to be, to explain, protect, and enforce fuch rights as are. Thefe will take up a greater fpace in any code of laws, and hence may appear to be more attended to, though in reality they are not, than the rights of the former kind. Let us therefore proceed to examine how far all laws ought, and how far the laws of England actually do, take notice of thefe abfolute rights, and provide for their lafting fecurity.

THE abfolute righs of man, confidered as a free agent, endowed with difcernment to known good from evil, and with power of choofing thofe meafures which appear to him to be moft defirable, are ufually fumed up on one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind.


This natural liberty confifts properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any reftraint or control, unlefs by the law of nature : being a right inherent in a us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of freewill. But every man, when he enters into fociety, gives, up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of fo valuable a purchafe ; and, in confideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himfelf to conform to thofe laws, which the community has tough proper to eftablifh.

And this fpecies of legal obedience and conformity is infinitely more defirable, than that wild and favage liberty which is facrificed to obtain it. For no man, that confiders a moment, would wifh to retain the abfolute and uncontrolled power of doing whatever he pleafes; the confequence of which is, that every other man would alfo have the fame power ; and then there would be no fecurity to individuals in any of the enjoyments of life.

Political therefore, or civil, liberty, which is that of a member of fociety, is no other than natural liberty fo far reftrained by human laws and no farther as is neceffary and expedient for the general advantage of the publick c. Hence we may collect that the law, which reftrains a. Nay, that even laws themfelves, whether made with or without our confent, if they regulate and conftrain our conduct in matters of mere indifference, without any good end in view, are laws deftructive of liberty : whereas if any public advantage can arife from obferving fuch precepts, the control of our private inclinations, in one or two particular points, will conduce to preferve our general freedom in others of more importance ; by fupporting that ftate, of fociety, which alone can fecure our independence.

Thus the ftatute of king Edward IV d , which forbad the fine gentlemen of thofe times under the degree of a lord to wear pikes upon their fhoes or boots of more than two inches in length, was a law that favoured of oppreffion ; becaufe, however ridiculous the fafhion then in ufe might appear, the reftraining it by pecuniary penalties could ferve no purpofe of common utility.

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But the ftatute of king Charles II e , which prefcribes a thing feemingly as indifferent ; viz. So that laws, wen prudently framed, are by no means fubverfive but rather introductive of liberty ; for as Mr Locke has well obferved f where there is no law, there is no freedom. But then, on the other hand, that conftitution or frame of government, that fyftem of laws, is alone calculated to maintain civil liberty, which leaves the fubject entire mafter of his own conduct, except in thofe points wherein the public good requires fome direction or reftraint.

THE idea and practice of this political or civil liberty flourifh in their higheft vigour in thefe kingdoms, where it falls little. Very different from the modern conftitutions of other ftates, on the continent of Europe, and from the genius of the imperial law ; which in general are calculated to veft an arbitrary and defpotic power of controlling the actions of the fubject in the prince, or in a few grandees.

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And this fpirit of liberty is fo deeply implanted in our conftitution, and rooted even in our very foil, that a flave or a negro, the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws, and with regard to all natural rights becomes eo inftanti a freeman g. THE abfolute rights of every Englifhman which, taken in a political and extenfive fenfe, are ufually called their liberties as they are founded on nature and reafon, fo they are coeval with our form of government ; though fubject at times to fluctuate and change : their eftablifhment excellent as it is being ftill human.

At fome times we have feen them depreffed by overbearing and tyrannical princes; at others fo luxuriant as even to tend to anarchy, a worfe ftate than tyranny itfelf, as any government is better than none at all.

follow site But the vigour of our free conftitution has always delivered the nation from thefe embaraffments, and, as foon as the convulfions confequent on the ftruggle have been over, the balance of our rights and liberties has fettled to it's proper level; and their fundamental articles have been from time to time afferted in parliament, as often as they were thought to be in danger.

FIRST, by the great charter of liberties, which was obtained, fword in hand, from king John ; and afterwards, with fome alterations, confirmed in parliament by king Henry the third, his fon.

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Which charter contained very few new grants ; but, as fir Edward Coke h obferves, was for the moft part declaratory of the. Afterwards by the ftatute called confirmatio cartarum I , whereby the great charter is directed to be allowed as the common law ; all judgments contrary to it are declared void ; copies of it are ordered to be fent to all cathedral churches, and read twice a year to the people ; and fentence of excommunication is directed to be as conftantly denounced againft all thofe that by word, deed, or counfel act contrary thereto, or in any degree infringe it.

Next by a multitude of fubfequent corroborating ftatutes, fir Edward Coke, I think, reckons thirty two k , from the firft Edward to Henry the foruth. Then, after a long interval, by the petition of right ; which was a parliamentary declaration of the liberties of the people , affented to by king Charles the firft in the beginning of his reign. Which was clofely followed by the ftill more ample conceffions made by that unhappy prince to his parliament, before the fatal rupture between them ; and by the many falutary laws, particularly the habeas corpus act, paffed under Charles the fecund.

THUS much for the declaration of our rights and liberties.

William Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England ()

The rights themfelves thus defined by thefe feveral ftatutes , confift in a number of private immunities ; which will appear, from what has been premifed, to be indeed no other, than either that refiduum of natural liberty, which is not required by the laws of fociety to be facrificed to public convenience ; or elfe thofe civil privileges, which fociety hath engaged to provide, in lieu of the natural liberties fo given up by individuals. Thefe therefore were formerly, either by inheritance or purchafe, the rights of all mankind ; but, in moft other countries of the world being now more or lefs debafed and deftroyed, they at prefent may be faid to remain, in a peculiar and emphatical manner, the rights of the people of England.

And thefe may be reduced to three principal or primary articles ; the right of perfonal fecurity, the right of perfonal liberty ; and the right of private property : becaufe as there is no other known method of compulfion, or of abridging man's natural free will, but by an infringment or diminution of one or other of thefe important righs, the prefervation of thefe, inviolate, may juftly be faid to include the prefervation of our civil immunities in their largeft and moft extenfive fenfe. THE right of perfonal fecurity confifts in a perfon's legal and uninterrupted enjoyment of his life, his limbs, his body, his health, and his reputation.

LIFE is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual ; and it begins in contemplation of law as foon as an infant is able to ftir in the mother's womb.

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For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwife, killeth it in her womb ; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and fhe is delivered of a dead child ; this, though not murder, was by the antient law homicide or manflaughter o. But at prefent it is not looked upon in quite fo.

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AN infant in ventre ftatute mere, or in the mother's womb, is fuppofed in law to be born for many purpofes. It is capable of having a legacy, or a furrender of a copyhold eftate made to it. It may have a guardian affigned to it q ; and it is enabled to have an eftate limited to it's ufe, and to take afterwards by fuch limitation, as if it were then actually born r. And in this point the civil law agrees with ours s.

A MAN'S limbs, by which for the prefent we only underftand thofe members which may be ufeful to him in fight, and the lofs of which only amounts to mayhem by the common law are alfo the gift of the wife creator ; to enable man to protect himfelf from external injuries in a ftate of nature. To thefe therefore he has a natural inherent right ; and they cannot be wantonly deftroyed or difabled without a manifeft breach of civil liberty.

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The Commentaries on the Laws of England [1] are an influential 18th-century treatise on the common law of England by Sir William Blackstone , originally published by the Clarendon Press at Oxford , — The work is divided into four volumes, on the rights of persons, the rights of things, of private wrongs and of public wrongs. The Commentaries were long regarded as the leading work on the development of English law and played a role in the development of the American legal system. They were in fact the first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages.

The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law , developed from the Roman law , to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.

The Commentaries are often quoted as the definitive pre- Revolutionary source of common law by United States courts.

The Rights of Persons is the first volume in the four part series that is the Commentaries. Divided into 18 chapters, it is largely concerned with the rights of individuals; the rights of Parliament ; the rights and title of the King ; the royal family ; the councils belonging to the King; kingly duties; the royal prerogative ; the King's revenue; subordinate magistrates; the people aliens, denizens, and natives ; the rights of the clergy; the civil state; the military and maritime states; the relationship between master and servant in modern-day terminology, employer and employee , husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward ; and finally corporates.

The Rights of Things, Blackstone's longest volume, deals with property.