Civil Liberty.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  Of personal liberty we say nothing, because its full possession is in compatible with the existence of society. All government supposes the relinquishment of a portion of personal liberty.

  Civil liberty may however be fully enjoyed. It is enjoyed where the principles of political truth and rectitude are applied in practice, because there the people are deprived of that portion only of liberty which it would be pernicious to themselves to possess. If political power is possessed by consent of the community,—if it is exercised only for their good,—and if this welfare is consulted by Christian means, the people are free. No man can define the particular enjoyments or exemptions which constitute civil liberty, because they are contingent upon the circumstances of the respective nations. A degree of restraint may be necessary for the general welfare of one community, which would be wholly unnecessary in another. Yet the first would have no reason to complain of their want of civil liberty. The complaint, if any be made, should be of the evils which make the restraint necessary, The single question is, whether any given degree of restraint is necessary or not. If it is, though the restraint may be painful, the civil liberty of the community may be said to be complete. It is useless to say that it is less complete than that of another nation; for complete civil liberty is a relative and not a positive enjoyment. Were it otherwise, no people enjoy, or are likely for ages to enjoy, full civil liberty; because none enjoy so much that they could not, in a more virtuous state of mankind, enjoy more. “It is not the rigour, but the inexpediency, of laws and acts of authority, which makes them tyrannical.”1

  Civil liberty (so far as its present enjoyment goes) does not necessarily depend upon forms of government. All communities enjoy it who are properly governed. It may be enjoyed under an absolute monarch; as we know it may not be enjoyed under a republic. Actual, existing liberty depends upon the actual, existing administration.

  One great cause of diminutions of civil liberty is war: and if no other motive induced a people jealously to scrutinize the grounds of a war, this might be sufficient. The increased loss of personal freedom to a military man is manifest; and it is considerable to other men. The man who now pays twenty pounds a year in taxes would probably have paid but two if there had been no war during the past century. If he now gets a hundred and fifty pounds a year by his exertions, he is obliged to labour six weeks out of the fifty-two, to pay the taxes which war has entailed. That is to say, he is compelled to work two hours every day longer than he himself wishes, or than is needful for his support. This is a material deduction from personal liberty; and a man would feel it as such if the coercion were directly applied,—if an officer came to his house every afternoon at four o’clock, when he had finished his business, and obliged him under penalty of a distraint to work till six. It is some loss of liberty again to a man to be unable to open as many windows in his house as he pleases,—or to be forbidden to acknowledge the receipt of a debt without going to the next town for a stamp,—or to be obliged to ride in an uneasy carriage unless he will pay for springs. It were to no purpose to say he may pay for windows and springs if he will, and if he can. A slave may, by the same reasoning be shown to be free; because, if he will and if he can, he may purchase his freedom. There is a loss of liberty in being obliged to submit to the alternative; and we should feel it as a loss if such things were not habitual, and if we had not receded so considerably from the liberty of nature. A housewife on the Ohio would think it a strange invasion of her liberty, if she were told that henceforth the police would be sent to her house to seize her goods if she made any more soap to wash her clothes.

  Now, indeed, that war has created a large public debt, it is necessary to the general good that its interest should be paid: and in this view a man’s civil liberty is not encroached upon, though his personal liberty is diminished. The public welfare is consulted by the diminution. I may deplore the cause without complaining of the law. It may upon emergency be for the public good to suspend the habeas corpus act. I should lament that such a state of things existed, but I should not complain that civil liberty was invaded. The lesson which such considerations teach is jealous watchfulness against wars for the future.

  There are many other acts of governments by which civil liberty is needlessly curtailed, among which may be reckoned the number of laws. Every law implies restriction. To be destitute of laws is to be absolutely free; to multiply laws is to multiply restrictions, or, which is the same thing, to diminish liberty. A great number of penal statutes lately existed in this country by which the reasonable proceedings of a prosecutor were cramped, and impeded, and thwarted. A statesman to whom England is much indebted has supplied their place by one which is more rational and more simple; and prosecutors now find that they are so much more able to consult their own understandings in their proceedings, that it may, without extravagance, be said that our civil liberty is increased.

  “A law being found to produce no sensible good effects is a sufficient reason for repealing it.”2 It is not therefore sufficient to ask in reply, What harm does the law occasion? for you must prove that it does good: because all laws which do no good do harm. They encroach upon or restrain the liberty of the community, without that reason which only can make the deduction of any portion of liberty right—the public good. If this rule were sufficiently attended to, perhaps more than a few of the laws of England would quickly be repealed.

1 Paley: Mor. and Pol. Phil. p.3, b.6, e.5.
2 Paley: Mor. and Pol. Phil. p.3, b.6, e.5.

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