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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Lysander Spooner was one of the most radical legal theorists of the 19th century. At one stage he argued that the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Amendments to the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) clearly prohibited slavery as a matter of principle and equal rights before nature and the law. When this proved to be a losing proposition in the 1850s he turned to arguing that the U.S. Constitution had no authority over free men and that it should be ignored or undermined. One powerful way to do this was “jury nullification”, i.e. the ancient right of juries going back to Magna Carta to determine the justice of any law which might be applied to a case, to determine the rules of evidence, and to thus act as brake on central government power. He wrote this tract in 1852 arguing along these lines. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful in changing the course of the growth of government power but his arguments linger on.

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31 August, 2009

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Lysander Spooner on Jury Nullification as the "palladium of liberty" against the tyranny of government (1852)

Read the full quote in context here.

Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) argued in Trial by Jury (1852) that juries had the right and the duty to judge the justice of the law and to thereby act as a "palladium of liberty" against the tyranny of government:

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 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 jury, as a “palladium of liberty,” or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

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 practised 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.

The jury 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 a 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 offence 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 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 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 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.

[More works by Lysander Spooner (1808 – 1887)]