The Theory of Social Revolutions/Chapter 2

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The Theory of Social Revolutions
by Brooks Adams
Chapter 2: The Limitations of the Judicial Function
(1913)

Taking the human race collectively, its ideal of a court of justice has been the omniscient and inexorable judgment seat of God. Individually, on the contrary, they have dearly loved favor. Hence the doctrine of the Intercession of the Saints, which many devout persons have sincerely believed could be bought by them for money. The whole development of civilization may be followed in the oscillation of any given society between these two extremes, the many always striving to so restrain the judiciary that it shall be unable to work the will of the favored few. On the whole, success in attaining to ideal justice has not been quite commensurate with the time and effort devoted to solving the problem, but, until our constitutional experiment was tried in America, I think it had been pretty generally admitted that the first prerequisite to success was that judges should be removed from political influences. For the main difficulty has been that every dominant class, as it has arisen, has done its best to use the machinery of justice for its own benefit.

No argument ever has convinced like a parable, and a very famous story in the Bible will illustrate the great truth, which is the first lesson that a primitive people learns, that unless the judge can be separated from the sovereign, and be strictly limited in the performance of his functions by a recognized code of procedure, the public, as against the dominant class, has, in substance, no civil rights. The kings of Israel were judges of last resort. Solomon earned his reputation for wisdom in the cause in which two mothers claimed the same child. They were indeed both judge and jury. Also they were prosecuting officers. Also they were sheriffs. In fine they exercised unlimited judicial power, save in so far as they were checked by the divine interference usually signified through some prophet.

Now David was, admittedly, one of the best sovereigns and judges who ever held office in Jerusalem, and, in the days of David, Nathan was the leading prophet of the dominant political party. "And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; ... and she returned unto her house."

Uriah was serving in the army under Joab. David sent for Uriah, and told him to go home to his wife, but Uriah refused. Then David wrote a letter to Joab and dismissed Uriah, ordering him to give the letter to Joab. And David "wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten and die....

"And the men of the city went out and fought with Joab; and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.... But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

"And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:

"But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

"And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock, ... but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

"And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: ...

"And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel ... Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou has despised me ... Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbor." Here, as the heading to the Twelfth Chapter of Second Book of Samuel says, "Nathan's parable of the ewe lamb causeth David to be his own judge," but the significant part of the story is that Nathan, with all his influence, could not force David to surrender his prey. David begged very hard to have his sentence remitted, but, for all that, "David sent and fetched [Bathsheba] to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son." Indeed, she bore him Solomon. As against David or David's important supporters men like Uriah had no civil rights that could be enforced.

Even after the judicial function is nominally severed from the executive function, so that the sovereign himself does not, like David and Solomon, personally administer justice, the same result is reached through agents, as long as the judge holds his office at the will of the chief of a political party.

To go no farther afield, every page of English history blazons this record. Long after the law had taken an almost modern shape, Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, sat on the bench at Westminster and intimidated the judges into deciding for suitors who had secured her services. The chief revenue of the rival factions during the War of the Roses was derived from attainders, indictments for treason, and forfeitures, avowedly partisan. Henry VII used the Star Chamber to ruin the remnants of the feudal aristocracy. Henry VIII exterminated as vagrants the wretched monks whom he had evicted. The prosecutions under Charles I largely induced the Great Rebellion; and finally the limit of endurance was reached when Charles II made Jeffreys Chief Justice of England in order to kill those who were prominent in opposition. Charles knew what he was doing. "That man," said he of Jeffreys, "has no learning, no sense, no manners, and more impudence than ten carted street-walkers." The first object was to convict Algernon Sidney of treason. Jeffreys used simple means. Usually drunk, his court resembled the den of a wild beast. He poured forth on "plaintiffs and defendants, barristers and attorneys, witnesses and jurymen, torrents of frantic abuse, intermixed with oaths and curses." The law required proof of an overt act of treason. Many years before Sidney had written a philosophical treatise touching resistance by the subject to the sovereign, as a constitutional principle. But, though the fragment contained nothing more than the doctrines of Locke, Sidney had cautiously shown it to no one, and it had only been found by searching his study. Jeffreys told the jury that if they believed the book to be Sidney's book, written by him, they must convict for scribere est agere, to write is to commit an overt act.

A revolution followed upon this and other like convictions, as revolutions have usually followed such uses of the judicial power. In that revolution the principle of the limitation of the judicial function was recognized, and the English people seriously addressed themselves to the task of separating their courts from political influences, of protecting their judges by making their tenure and their pay permanent, and of punishing them by removal if they behaved corruptly, or with prejudice, or transcended the limits within which their duty confined them. Jeffreys had legislated when he ruled it to be the law that, to write words secretly in one's closet, is to commit an overt act of treason, and he did it to kill a man whom the king who employed him wished to destroy. This was to transcend the duty of a judge, which is to expound and not to legislate. The judge may develop a principle, he may admit evidence of a custom in order to explain the intentions of the parties to a suit, as Lord Mansfield admitted evidence of the customs of merchants, but he should not legislate. To do so, as Jeffreys did in Sidney's case, is tantamount to murder. Jeffreys never was duly punished for his crimes. He died the year after the Revolution, in the Tower, maintaining to the last that he was innocent in the sight of God and man because "all the blood he had shed fell short of the King's command."

And Jeffreys was perfectly logical and consistent in his attitude. A judiciary is either an end in itself or a means to an end. If it be designed to protect the civil rights of citizens indifferently, it must be free from pressure which will deflect it from this path, and it can only be protected from the severest possible pressure by being removed from politics, because politics is the struggle for ascendancy of a class or a majority. If, on the other hand, the judiciary is to serve as an instrument for advancing the fortunes of a majority or a dominant class, as David used the Jewish judiciary, or as the Stuarts used the English judiciary, then the judicial power must be embodied either in a military or political leader, like David, who does the work himself, or in an agent, more or less like Jeffreys, who will obey his orders. In the colonies the subserviency of the judges to the Crown had been a standing grievance, and the result of this long and terrible experience, stretching through centuries both in Europe and America, had been to inspire Americans with a fear of intrusting power to any man or body of men. They sought to limit everything by written restrictions. Setting aside the objection that such a system is mechanically vicious because it involves excessive friction and therefore waste of energy, it is obviously futile unless the written restrictions can be enforced, and enforced in the spirit in which they are drawn. Hamilton, whose instinct for law resembled genius, saw the difficulty and pointed out in the Federalist that it is not a writing which can give protection, but only the intelligence and the sense of justice of the community itself.

"The truth is, that the general genius of a Government is all that can be substantially relied upon for permanent effects. Particular provisions, though not altogether useless, have far less virtue and efficiency than are commonly ascribed to them; and the want of them will never be, with men of sound discernment, a decisive objection to any plan which exhibits the leading characters of a good Government." After an experience of nearly a century and a quarter we must admit, I think, that Hamilton was right. In the United States we have carried bills of right and constitutional limitations to an extreme, and yet, I suppose that few would care to maintain that, during the nineteenth century, life and property were safer in America, or crime better dealt with, than in England, France, or Germany. The contrary, indeed, I take to be the truth, and I think one chief cause of this imperfection in the administration of justice will be found to have been the operation of the written Constitution. For, under the American system, the Constitution, or fundamental law, is expounded by judges, and this function, which, in essence, is political, has brought precisely that quality of pressure on the bench which it has been the labor of a hundred generations of our ancestors to remove. On the whole the result has been not to elevate politics, but to lower the courts toward the political level, a result which conforms to the a priori theory.

The abstract virtue of the written Constitution was not, however, a question in issue when Washington and his contemporaries set themselves to reorganize the Confederation. Those men had no choice but to draft some kind of a platform on which the states could agree to unite, if they were to unite peacefully at all, and accordingly they met in convention and drew the best form of agreement they could; but I more than suspect that a good many very able Federalists were quite alive to the defects in the plan which they adopted.

Hamilton was outspoken in preferring the English model, and I am not aware that Washington ever expressed a preference for the theory that, because of a written fundamental law, the court should nullify legislation. Nor is it unworthy of remark that all foreigners, after a prolonged and attentive observation of our experiment, have avoided it. Since 1789, every highly civilized Western people have readjusted their institutions at least once, yet not one has in this respect imitated us, though all have borrowed freely from the parliamentary system of England.[6]

Even our neighbor, Canada, with no adverse traditions and a population similar to ours, has been no exception to the rule. The Canadian courts indeed define the limits of provincial and federal jurisdiction as fixed under an act of Parliament, but they do not pretend to limit the exercise of power when the seat of power has been established. I take the cause of this distrust to be obvious. Although our written Constitution was successful in its primary purpose of facilitating the consolidation of the Confederation, it has not otherwise inspired confidence as a practical administrative device. Not only has constant judicial interference dislocated scientific legislation, but casting the judiciary into the vortex of civil faction has degraded it in the popular esteem. In fine, from the outset, the American bench, because it deals with the most fiercely contested of political issues, has been an instrument necessary to political success. Consequently, political parties have striven to control it, and therefore the bench has always had an avowed partisan bias. This avowed political or social bias has, I infer, bred among the American people the conviction that justice is not administered indifferently to all men, wherefore the bench is not respected with us as, for instance, it is in Great Britain, where law and politics are sundered. Nor has the dissatisfaction engendered by these causes been concealed. On the contrary, it has found expression through a series of famous popular leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt.

The Constitution could hardly have been adopted or the government organized but for the personal influence of Washington, whose power lay in his genius for dealing with men. He lost no time or strength in speculation, but, taking the Constitution as the best implement at hand, he went to the work of administration by including the representatives of the antagonistic extremes in his Cabinet. He might as well have expected fire and water to mingle as Jefferson and Hamilton to harmonize. Probably he had no delusions on that head when he chose them for his ministers, and he accomplished his object. He paralyzed opposition until the new mechanism began to operate pretty regularly, but he had not an hour to spare. Soon the French Revolution heated passions so hot that long before Washington's successor was elected the United States was rent by faction.

The question which underlay all other questions, down to the Civil War, was the determination of the seat of sovereignty. Hamilton and the Federalists held it to be axiomatic that, if the federal government were to be more than a shadow, it must interpret the meaning of the instrument which created it, and, if so, that it must signify its decisions through the courts. Only in this way, they argued, could written limitations on legislative power be made effective. Only in this way could statutes which contravened the Constitution be set aside.[7]

Jefferson was abroad when Hamilton wrote The Federalist, but his views have since been so universally accepted as embodying the opposition to Hamilton, that they may be conveniently taken as if they had been published while the Constitution was under discussion. Substantially the same arguments were advanced by others during the actual debate, if not quite so lucidly or connectedly then, as afterward by him.

Very well, said Jefferson, in answer to Hamilton, admitting, for the moment, that the central government shall define its own powers, and that the courts shall be the organ through which the exposition shall be made, both of which propositions I vehemently deny, you have this result: The judges who will be called upon to pass upon the validity of national and state legislation will be plunged in the most heated of controversies, and in those controversies they cannot fail to be influenced by the same passions and prejudices which sway other men. In a word they must decide like legislators, though they will be exempt from the responsibility to the public which controls other legislators. Such conditions you can only meet by making the judicial tenure of office ephemeral, as all legislative tenure is ephemeral.

It is vain to pretend, continued he, in support of fixity of tenure, that the greater the pressure on the judge is likely to be, the more need there is to make him secure. This may be true of judges clothed with ordinary attributes, like English judges, for, should these try to nullify the popular will by construing away statutes, Parliament can instantly correct them, or if Parliament fail in its duty, the constituencies, at the next election, can intervene. But no one will be able to correct the American judge who may decline to recognize the law which would constrain him. Nothing can shake him save impeachment for what is tantamount to crime, or being overruled by a constitutional amendment which you have purposely made too hard to obtain to be a remedy. He is to be judge in his own case without an appeal.

Nowhere in all his long and masterly defence of the Constitution did Hamilton show so much embarrassment as here, and because, probably, he did not himself believe in his own brief. He really had faith in the English principle of an absolute parliament, restrained, if needful, by a conservative chamber, like the House of Lords, but not in the total suspension of sovereignty subject to judicial illumination. Consequently he fell back on platitudes about judicial high-mindedness, and how judges could be trusted not to allow political influences to weigh with them when deciding political questions. Pushed to its logical end, concluded he, the Jeffersonian argument would prove that there should be no judges distinct from legislatures.[8]

Now, at length, exclaimed the Jeffersonian in triumph, you admit our thesis. You propose to clothe judges with the highest legislative functions, since you give them an absolute negative on legislation, and yet you decline to impose on them the responsibility to a constituency, which constrains other legislators. Clearly you thus make them autocratic, and in the worst sense, for you permit small bodies of irresponsible men under pretence of dispensing justice, but really in a spirit of hypocrisy, to annul the will of the majority of the people, even though the right of the people to exercise their will, in the matters at issue, be clearly granted them in the Constitution.

No, rejoined Hamilton, thus driven to the wall, judges never will so abuse their trust. The duty of the judge requires him to suppress his will, and exercise his judgment only. The Constitution will be before him, and he will have only to say whether authority to legislate on a given subject is granted in that instrument. If it be, the character of the legislation must remain a matter of legislative discretion. Besides, you must repose confidence somewhere, and judges, on the whole, are more trustworthy than legislators. How can you say that, retorted the opposition, when you, better than most men, know the line of despotic legal precedents from the Ship Money down to the Writs of Assistance?

Looking back upon this initial controversy touching judicial functions under the Constitution, we can hardly suppose that Hamilton did not perceive that, in substance, Jefferson was right, and that a bench purposely constructed to pass upon political questions must be politically partisan. He knew very well that, if the Federalists prevailed in the elections, a Federalist President would only appoint magistrates who could be relied on to favor consolidation. And so the event proved. General Washington chose John Jay for the first Chief Justice, who in some important respects was more Federalist than Hamilton, while John Adams selected John Marshall, who, though one of the greatest jurists who ever lived, was hated by Jefferson with a bitter hatred, because of his political bias. As time went on matters grew worse. Before Marshall died slavery had become a burning issue, and the slave-owners controlled the appointing power. General Jackson appointed Taney to sustain the expansion of slavery, and when the anti-slavery party carried the country with Lincoln, Lincoln supplanted Taney with Chase, in order that Chase might stand by him in his struggle to destroy slavery. And as it has been, so must it always be. As long as the power to enact laws shall hinge on the complexion of benches of judges, so long will the ability to control a majority of the bench be as crucial a political necessity as the ability to control a majority in avowedly representative assemblies.

Hamilton was one of the few great jurists and administrators whom America has ever produced, and it is inconceivable that he did not understand what he was doing. He knew perfectly well that, other things being equal, the simplest administrative mechanism is the best, and he knew also that he was helping to make an extremely complicated mechanism. Not only so, but at the heart of this complexity lay the gigantic cog of the judiciary, which was obviously devised to stop movement. He must have had a reason, beyond the reason he gave, for not only insisting on clothing the judiciary with these unusual political and legislative attributes, but for giving the judiciary an unprecedented fixity of tenure. I suspect that he was actuated by some such considerations as these:

The Federalists, having pretty good cause to suppose themselves in a popular minority, purposed to consolidate the thirteen states under a new sovereign. There were but two methods by which they could prevail; they could use force, or, to secure assent, they could propose some system of arbitration. To escape war the Federalists convened the constitutional convention, and by so doing pledged themselves to arbitration. But if their plan of consolidation were to succeed, it was plain that the arbitrator must arbitrate in their favor, for if he arbitrated as Mr. Jefferson would have wished, the United States under the Constitution would have differed little from the United States under the Confederation. The Federalists, therefore, must control the arbitrator. If the Constitution were to be adopted, Hamilton and every one else knew that Washington would be the first President, and Washington could be relied on to appoint a strong Federalist bench. Hence, whatever might happen subsequently, when the new plan first should go into operation, and when the danger from insubordination among the states would probably be most acute, the judiciary would be made to throw its weight in favor of consolidation, and against disintegration, and, if it did so, it was essential that it should be protected against anything short of a revolutionary attack.

In the convention, indeed, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina suggested that Congress should be empowered to negative state legislation, but such an alternative, for obvious reasons, would have been less palatable to Hamilton, since Congress would be only too likely to fall under the control of the Jeffersonian party, while a bench of judges, if once well chosen, might prove to be for many years an "excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body."[9]

I infer that Hamilton and many other Federalists reasoned somewhat thus, not only from what they wrote, but from the temper of their minds, and, if they did, events largely justified them. John Jay, Oliver Ellsworth, and John Marshall were successively appointed to the office of Chief Justice, nor did the complexion of the Supreme Court change until after 1830.

What interests us, however, is not so much what the Federalists thought, or the motives which actuated them, as the effect which the clothing of the judiciary with political functions has had upon the development of the American republic, more especially as that extreme measure might have been avoided, had Pinckney's plan been adopted. Nor, looking back upon the actual course of events, can I perceive that, so far as the movement toward consolidation was concerned, the final result would have varied materially whether Congress or the Supreme Court had exercised control over state legislation. Marshall might just as well, in the one case as the other, have formulated his theory of a semi-centralized administration. He would only have had uniformly to sustain Congress, as an English judge sustains Parliament. Nor could either Congress or the Court have reached a definite result without an appeal to force. Either chamber might expound a theory, but nothing save an army could establish it.

For two generations statesmen and jurists debated the relation of the central to the local sovereignties with no result, for words alone could decide no such issue. In America, as elsewhere, sovereignty is determined by physical force. Marshall could not conquer Jefferson, he could at most controvert Jefferson's theory. This he did, but, in doing so, I doubt if he were quite true to himself. Jefferson contended that every state might nullify national legislation, as conversely Pinckney wished Congress to be given explicitly the power to nullify state legislation; and Marshall, very sensibly, pointed out that, were Jefferson's claim carried into practice, it would create "a hydra in government,"[10] yet I am confident that Marshall did not appreciate whither his own assertion of authority must lead. In view of the victory of centralization in the Civil War, I will agree that the Supreme Court might have successfully maintained a position as arbitrator touching conflicting jurisdictions, as between the nation and the states, but that is a different matter from assuming to examine into the wisdom of the legislation itself. The one function might, possibly, pass by courtesy as judicial; the other is clearly legislative.

This distinction only developed after Marshall's death, but the resentment which impelled Marshall to annul an act of Congress was roused by the political conflict which preceded the election of 1800, in which Marshall took a chief part. Apparently he could not resist the temptation of measuring himself with his old adversary, especially as he seems to have thought that he could discredit that adversary without giving him an opportunity to retaliate.

In 1798 a Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, whose constitutionality no Federalist judge ever doubted, but which Jefferson considered as clearly a violation of the fundamental compact, since they tended to drive certain states, as he thought, into "revolution and blood." Under this provocation Jefferson proclaimed that it was both the right and the duty of any state, which felt itself aggrieved, to intervene to arrest "the progress of the evil," within her territory, by declining to execute, or by "nullifying," the objectionable statutes. As Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions in 1798 and was elected President in 1800, the people at least appeared to have sustained him in his exposition of the Constitution, before he entered into office.

At this distance of time we find it hard to realize what the election of 1800 seemed to portend to those who participated therein. Mr. Jefferson always described it as amounting to a revolution as profound as, if less bloody than, the revolution of 1776, and though we maybe disposed to imagine that Jefferson valued his own advent to power at its full worth, it must be admitted that his enemies regarded it almost as seriously. Nor were they without some justification, for Jefferson certainly represented the party of disintegration. "Nullification" would have been tantamount to a return to the condition of the Confederation. Besides, Jefferson not so many years before had written, in defence of Shays's rebellion, that the tree of Liberty could never flourish unless refreshed occasionally with the blood of patriots and tyrants. To most Federalists Jefferson seemed a bloodthirsty demagogue. In 1796 Oliver Ellsworth had been appointed Chief Justice by General Washington in the place of Jay, who resigned, and in 1799 John Adams sent Ellsworth as an envoy to France to try to negotiate a treaty which should reëstablish peace between the two countries. Ellsworth succeeded in his mission, but the hardships of his journey injured his health, and he, in turn, resigned in the autumn of 1800. Then Adams offered the Chief Justiceship to Jay, but Jay would not return to office, and after this the President selected his Secretary of State, John Marshall, one of the greatest of the great Virginians, but one of Jefferson's most irreconcilable enemies. Perhaps at no moment in his life did John Adams demonstrate his legal genius more convincingly than in this remarkable nomination. Yet it must be conceded that, in making John Marshall Chief Justice, John Adams deliberately chose the man whom, of all his countrymen, he thought to be the most formidable champion of those views which he himself entertained, and which he conceived that he had been elected President to advance. Nor was John Adams deceived. For thirty-four years John Marshall labored ceaselessly to counteract Jefferson's constitutional principles, while Jefferson always denounced the political partiality of the federal courts, and above all the "rancorous hatred which Marshall bears to the government of his country, and ... the cunning and sophistry within which he is able to enshroud himself."[11]

No one, at this day, would be disposed to dispute that the Constitution, as a device to postpone war among the states, at least for a period, was successful, and that, as I have already pointed out, during the tentative interval which extended until Appomattox, the Supreme Court served perhaps as well, in ordinary times, as an arbiter between the states and the general government, as any which could have been suggested. So much may be conceded, and yet it remains true, as the record will show, that when it passed this point and entered into factional strife, the Supreme Court somewhat lamentably failed, probably injuring itself and popular respect for law, far more by its errors, than it aided the Union by its political adjudications.

Although John Marshall, by common consent, ranks as one of the greatest and purest of Americans, yet even Marshall had human weaknesses, one of which was a really unreasonable antipathy to Thomas Jefferson; an antipathy which, I surmise, must, when Jefferson was inaugurated, have verged upon contempt. At least Marshall did what cautious men seldom do when they respect an adversary, he took the first opportunity to pick a quarrel with a man who had the advantage of him in position.

In the last days of his presidency John Adams appointed one William Marbury a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed the appointment, and the President signed, and John Marshall, as Secretary of State, sealed Marbury's commission; but in the hurry of surrendering office the commission was not delivered, and Jefferson found it in the State Department when he took possession. Resenting violently these "midnight" appointments, as he called them, Jefferson directed Mr. Madison, his Secretary of State, to withhold the commission; and, at the next December term of the Supreme Court, Marbury moved for a rule to Madison to show cause why he should not be commanded to deliver to the plaintiff the property to which Marbury pretended to be entitled. Of course Jefferson declined to appear before Marshall, through his Secretary of State, and finally, in February, 1803, Marshall gave judgment, in what was, without any doubt, the most anomalous opinion he ever delivered, in that it violated all judicial conventions, for, apparently, no object, save to humiliate a political opponent.

Marshall had no intention of commanding Madison to surrender the commission to Marbury. He was too adroit a politician for that. Marshall knew that he could not compel Jefferson to obey such a writ against his will, and that in issuing the order he would only bring himself and his court into contempt. What he seems to have wished to do was to give Jefferson a lesson in deportment. Accordingly, instead of dismissing Marbury's suit upon any convenient pretext, as, according to legal etiquette, he should have done if he had made up his mind to decide against the plaintiff, and yet thought it inexpedient to explain his view of the law, he began his opinion with a long and extra-judicial homily, first on Marbury's title to ownership in the commission, and then on civil liberty. Having affirmed that Marbury's right to his office vested when the President had signed, and the Secretary of State had sealed the instrument, he pointed out that withholding the property thus vested was a violation of civil rights which could be examined in a court of justice. Were it otherwise, the Chief Justice insisted, the government of the United States could not be termed a government of laws and not of men.

All this elaborate introduction was in the nature of a solemn lecture by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the President of the United States upon his faulty discharge of his official duties. Having eased his mind on this head, Marshall went on, very dexterously indeed, but also very palpably, to elude the consequences of his temerity. He continued: The right of property being established, and the violation of that right clear, it is plain that a wrong has been committed, and it only remains to determine whether that wrong can be redressed under this form of procedure. We are of opinion that it cannot, because Congress has no constitutional power to confer upon the Supreme Court original jurisdiction in this class of litigation. In the lower courts alone can the relief prayed for be obtained.

Of all the events of Marshall's life this controversy with Jefferson seems to me the most equivocal, and it was a direct effect of a constitutional system which has permitted the courts to become the censor of the political departments of the government. Marshall, probably, felt exasperated by Jefferson's virulence against these final appointments made by John Adams, while Marshall was Secretary of State, and for which he may have felt himself, in part, responsible. Possibly, even, he may have taken some of Jefferson's strictures as aimed at himself. At all events he went to extreme lengths in retaliation. He might have dismissed the litigation in a few words by stating that, whatever the abstract rights of the parties might have been, the Supreme Court had no power to constrain the President in his official functions; but he yielded to political animosity. Then, having taken a position practically untenable, he had to find an avenue of retreat, and he found it by asserting a supervisory jurisdiction over Congress, a step which, even at that early period, was most hazardous.[12]

In reality Jefferson's temper, far from being vindictive and revolutionary, as his enemies believed, was rather gentle and timid, but he would have been more than mortal had he endured such an insult in silence. Nor could he, perhaps, have done so without risking the respect of his followers. So he decided on reprisals, and a scheme was matured among influential Virginians, like John Randolph and Senator William Giles, to purge the Supreme Court of Federalists. Among the associate justices of this court was Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an able lawyer, but an arrogant and indiscreet partisan. Chase had made himself obnoxious on various public occasions and so was considered to be the best subject to impeach; but if they succeeded with him the Jeffersonians proclaimed their intention of removing all his brethren seriatim, including the chief offender of all, John Marshall. One day in December, 1804, Senator Giles, of Virginia, in a conversation which John Quincy Adams has reported in his diary, discussed the issue at large, and that conversation is most apposite now, since it shows how early the inevitable tendency was developed to make judges who participate in political and social controversies responsible to the popular will. The conversation is too long to extract in full, but a few sentences will convey its purport:—

"He treated with the utmost contempt the idea of an independent judiciary.... And if the judges of the Supreme Court should dare, as they had done, to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional, or to send a mandamus to the Secretary of State, as they had done, it was the undoubted right of the: House of Representatives to impeach them, and of the Senate to remove them, for giving such opinions, however honest or sincere they may have been in entertaining them. * * * And a removal by impeachment was nothing more than a declaration by Congress to this effect: You hold dangerous opinions, and if you are suffered to carry them into effect you will work the destruction of the nation. We want your offices, for the purpose of giving them to men who will fill them better."[13]

Jefferson, though he controlled a majority in the Senate, failed by a narrow margin to obtain the two-thirds vote necessary to convict Chase. Nevertheless, he accomplished his object. Chase never recovered his old assurance, and Marshall never again committed a solecism in judicial manners. On his side, after the impeachment, Jefferson showed moderation. He might, if he had been malevolent, without doubt, have obtained an act of Congress increasing the membership of the Supreme Court enough to have put Marshall in a minority. Then by appointing men like Giles he could have compelled Marshall to resign. He did nothing of the kind. He spared the Supreme Court, which he might have overthrown, and contented himself with waiting until time should give him the opportunity to correct the political tendencies of a body of men whom he sincerely regarded as a menace to, what he considered, popular institutions. Thus the ebullition caused by Marshall's acrimony toward Jefferson, because of Jefferson's strictures on the appointments made by his predecessor subsided, leaving no very serious immediate mischief behind, save the precedent of the nullification of an act of Congress by the Supreme Court. That precedent, however, was followed by Marshall's Democratic successor. And nothing can better illustrate the inherent vice of the American constitutional system than that it should have been possible, in 1853, to devise and afterward present to a tribunal, whose primary purpose was to administer the municipal law, a set of facts for adjudication, on purpose to force it to pass upon the validity of such a statute as the Missouri Compromise, which had been enacted by Congress in 1820, as a sort of treaty of peace between the North and South, and whose object was the limitation of the spread of slavery. Whichever way the Court decided, it must have fallen into opprobrium with one-half the country. In fact, having been organized by the slaveholders to sustain slavery, it decided against the North, and therefore lost repute with the party destined to be victorious. I need not pause to criticise the animus of the Court, nor yet the quality of the law which the Chief Justice there laid down. It suffices that in the decade which preceded hostilities no event, in all probability, so exasperated passions, and so shook the faith of the people of the northern states in the judiciary, as this decision. Faith, whether in the priest or the magistrate, is of slow growth, and if once impaired is seldom fully restored. I doubt whether the Supreme Court has ever recovered from the shock it then received, and, considered from this point of view, the careless attitude of the American people toward General Grant's administration, when in 1871 it obtained the reversal of Hepburn v. Griswold by appointments to the bench, assumes a sombre aspect.

Of late some sensitiveness has been shown in regard to this transaction, and a disposition has appeared to defend General Grant and his Attorney-General against the charge of manipulating the membership of the bench to suit their own views. At the outset, therefore, I wish to disclaim any intention of entering into this discussion. To me it is immaterial whether General Grant and Mr. Hoar did or did not nominate judges with a view to obtaining a particular judgment. I am concerned not with what men thought, but with what they did, and with the effect of their acts at the moment, upon their fellow-citizens.

Hepburn v. Griswold was decided in conference on November 27, 1869, when eight justices were on the bench. On February 1, following, Justice Grier resigned, and, on February 7, judgment was entered, the court then being divided four to three, but Grier having been with the majority, the vote in reality stood five to three. Two vacancies therefore existed on February 7, one caused by the resignation of Grier, the other by an act of Congress which had enlarged the court by one member, and which had taken effect in the previous December.

Chief Justice Chase held that the clause of the currency laws of 1862 and 1863 which made depreciated paper a legal tender for preëxisting debts was unconstitutional. No sooner had the judgment been recorded than all the world perceived that, if both vacancies should be filled with men who would uphold the acts, Hepburn v. Griswold might be reversed by a majority of one.

The Republican party had full control of the government and was united in vehement support of the laws. On March 21, the second of the two new judges received his commission, and precisely ten days afterward the Attorney-General moved for a rehearing, taunting the Chief Justice with having changed his opinion on this point, and intimating that the issue was in reality political, and not judicial at all.

In the December Term following Knox v. Lee was argued by the Attorney-General, and, on May 1, 1871, judgment was entered reversing Hepburn v. Griswold, both the new judges voting with the former minority, thus creating the necessary majority of one. No one has ever doubted that what General Grant did coincided with the drift of opinion, and that the Republican party supported him without inquiring how he had achieved success.[14] After this it is difficult to suppose that much respect could remain among the American people for the sanctity of judicial political decisions, or that a President, at the head of a popular majority, would incur much odium for intervening to correct them, as a party measure.

The last example of judicial interference which I shall mention was the nullification, in 1895, of a statute of Congress which imposed an income tax. The states have since set this decision aside by constitutional amendment, and I should suppose that few would now dispute that the Court when it so decided made a serious political and social error. As Mr. Justice White pointed out, the judges undertook to deprive the people, in their corporate capacity, of a power conceded to Congress "by universal consensus for one hundred years."[15] These words were used in the first argument, but on the rehearing the present Chief Justice waxed warm in remonstrating against the unfortunate position in which his brethren placed the Court before the nation, protesting with almost passionate earnestness against the reversal by half-a-dozen judges of what had been the universally accepted legal, political, and economic policy of the country solely in order that "invested wealth" might be read "into the constitution" as a favored and protected class of property. Mr. Justice White closed by saying that by this act the Supreme Court had "deprived [the Government] of an inherent attribute of its being."[16] I might go on into endless detail, but I apprehend that these cases, which are the most important which have ever arisen on this issue, suffice for my purpose.[17] I contend that no court can, because of the nature of its being, effectively check a popular majority acting through a coordinate legislative assembly, and I submit that the precedents which I have cited prove this contention. The only result of an attempt and failure is to bring courts of justice into odium or contempt, and, in any event, to make them objects of attack by a dominant social force in order to use them as an instrument, much as Charles II used Jeffreys.

The moment we consider the situation philosophically we perceive why using a court to control a coordinate legislature must, nearly inevitably, be sooner or later fatal to the court, if it asserts its prerogative. A court to be a fit tribunal to administer the municipal law impartially, or even relatively impartially, must be a small body of men, holding by a permanent and secure tenure, guarded from all pressure which may unduly influence them. Also they should be men of much experience and learned in the precedents which should make the rules which they apply stable and consistent. In short, a court should be rigid and emotionless. It follows that it must be conservative, for its members should long have passed that period of youth when the mind is sensitive to new impressions. Were it otherwise, law would cease to be cohesive. A legislature is nearly the antithesis of a court. It is designed to reflect the passions of the voters, and the majority of voters are apt to be young. Hence in periods of change, when alone serious clashes between legislatures and courts are likely to occur, as the social equilibrium shifts the legislature almost certainly will reflect the rising, the court the sinking power. I take the Dred Scott Case as an illustration. In 1857 the slaveholding interest had passed the zenith of high fortune, and was hastening toward its decline. In the elections of 1858 the Democratic party, which represented slavery, was defeated. But the Supreme Court had been organized by Democrats who had been dominant for many years, and it adhered, on the principle laid down by Jeffreys, to the master which created it.

Occasionally, it is true, a court has been constructed by a rising energy, as was the Supreme Court in 1789, but then it is equally tenacious to the instinct which created it. The history of the Supreme Court is, in this point of view, eminently suggestive. The Federalist instinct was constructive, not destructive, and accordingly Marshall's fame rests on a series of constructive decisions like M'Culloch v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, and Gibbons v. Odgen. In these decisions he either upheld actual national legislation, or else the power of the nation to legislate. Conversely, whenever Marshall or his successors have sought to obstruct social movement they have not prospered. Marbury v. Madison is not an episode on which any admirer of Marshall can linger with satisfaction. In theory it may be true, as Hamilton contended, that, given the fact that a written constitution is inevitable, a bench of judges is the best tribunal to interpret its meaning, since the duty of the judge has ever been and is now to interpret the meaning of written instruments; but it does not follow from this premise that the judges who should exercise this office should be the judges who administer the municipal law. In point of fact experience has proved that, so far as Congress is concerned, the results of judicial interference have been negative. And it would be well if in other spheres of American constitutional development, judicial activity had been always negative. Unfortunately, as I believe, it has extended into the domain of legislation. I will take the Dred Scott Case once more to illustrate my meaning. The North found it bad enough for the Supreme Court to hold that, under the Constitution, Congress could not exclude slavery from the national territory beyond a certain boundary which had been fixed by compromise between the North and South. But the North would have found it intolerable if the Court, while fully conceding that Congress might so legislate, if the character of the legislation commended itself to the judges, had held the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional because they thought it unreasonable. Yet this, in substance, is what our courts have done. And this brings me to the consideration of American courts as legislative chambers.


Footnotes[edit]

[6] The relation of courts to legislation in European countries has been pretty fully considered by Brinton Coxe, in Judicial Power and Constitutional Legislation.

[7] Federalist No. LXXVIII.

[8] The Federalist, No. LXXVIII.

[9] The Federalist, No. LXXVIII.

[10] Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheaton 415.

[11] To Madison, Ford, 9, 275.

[12] Marshall's constitutional doctrine was not universally accepted, even in the courts of the northern states, until long afterward. As eminent a jurist as Chief Justice Gibson of Pennsylvania, as late as 1825, gave a very able dissenting opinion in opposition in Eakin v. Raub, 12 S.&R., 344.

[13] Memoirs, I, 322.

[14] Hepburn v. Griswold, 8 Wallace 603. Decided in conference on Nov. 27, 1869, more than a month before Grier's resignation. Knox v. Lee, 12 Wallace 457.

[15] 157 U.S. 608.

[16] Pollock v. The Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., 158 U.S. 715.

[17] In 1889 Mr. J.C. Bancroft Davis compiled a table of the acts of Congress which up to that time had been held to be unconstitutional. It is to be found in the Appendix to volume 131 U.S. Reports, page CCXXXV. Mr. Davis has, however, omitted from his list the Dred Scott Case, probably for the technical reason that, in 1857, when the cause was decided, the Missouri Compromise had been repealed. Nevertheless, though this is true, Tansy's decision hinged upon the invalidity of the law.

Besides the statutes which I have mentioned in the test, the two most important, I suppose, which have been annulled, have to me no little interest. These are the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Employers' Liability Act of 1906. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 grew rapidly unpopular, and the decision which overturned it coincided with the strong drift of opinion. The Civil Rights Cases were decided in October, 1883, and Mr. Cleveland was elected President in 1884. Doubtless the law would have been repealed had the judiciary supported it. Therefore this adjudication stood.

On the other hand, the Employers' Liability Act of 1906 was held bad because Congress undertook to deal with commerce conducted wholly within the states, and therefore beyond the national jurisdiction. The Court, consequently, in the Employers' Liability Cases, simply defined the limits of sovereignty, as a Canadian Court might do; it did not question the existence of sovereignty itself. In 1908 Congress passed a statute free from this objection, and the Court, in the Second Employers' Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1, sustained the legislation in the most thoroughgoing manner. I know not where to look for two better illustrations of my theory.