Tucker's Blackstone

Volume 1 — Appendix
Note D

[Section 12 — Restraints on Powers of Congress]

The restraints imposed on the legislative powers of the federal government, are briefly comprised in the ninth section of the first article of the constitution, or in the amendments, proposed by the first congress, and since ratified in the mode prescribed by the constitution. Of these we shall take a brief survey, in the order in which they occur.

1. The migration, or importation of such persons, as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 9.

This article, at the time the constitution was framed, was deemed necessary to prevent an opposition, on that ground, to it's adoption in those states which still permitted the importation of slaves from Africa, and other foreign parts. A more liberal policy has since prevailed, so far as to render it probable that congress will never have occasion to exert the right of prohibiting the importation of slaves, such being now prohibited by the laws of all the states in the union. But should any of them shew an inclination to rescind the present prohibitions, congress, after the year 1898, will be able to interpose it's authority to prevent it, and impose some partial restraint upon the farther extension of the miseries of mankind. How to remove the calamities of slavery from among us, is left to the wisdom of the state government; the federal government can only prevent the further importation of slaves after the period limited.

2. The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 9.

The writ of habeas corpus, is the great and efficacious remedy provided for all cases of illegal confinement; and is directed to the person detaining another, commanding him to produce the body of the prisoner, with the day and cause of his option and detention, to do, submit to, and receive whatsoever the judge or court awarding such writ shall consider in that behalf. In England this is a high prerogative writ, and issues out of the court of king's-bench, not only in term time, but during the vacation, by a fiat from the chief justice, or any other of the judges, and running into all parts of the king's dominions. In Virginia it may issue of the high court of chancery, the general court, or the court of the district in which the person is confined, and may be awarded by any judge of either of those courts in vacation: and if any judge in vacation, upon view of the copy of the warrant of commitment or detainer, or upon affidavit made, that such copy was denied, shall refuse any writ of habeas corpus, required to be granted by law, such judge shall be liable to the action of the party aggrieved 233. And by the laws of the United States 234, all the courts of the United States, and either of the justices of the supreme court, as well as judges of the district courts, have power to grant writs of habeas corpus for the purpose of an enquiry into the cause of commitment .... Provided that writs of habeas corpus shall in no case extend to prisoners in goal, unless they are in custody under or by colour of the authority of the United States, or are committed for trial before some court of the same, or are necessary to be brought into court to testify 235.

Here a question naturally occurs: if a person be illegally committed to prison in any state, under, or by colour of the authority of the United States, can any judge, or court of the state in which he is confined, award a writ of habeas corpus, for the purpose of an enquiry into the cause of his commitment? To which, I answer, that if he be committed or detained for a crime, unless it be for treason or felony, plainly expressed in the warrant of commitment, and be neither convicted thereof, nor in execution by legal process, the writ (due requisites being observed) can not be refused him 236: for the act is imperative, as to awarding the writ. The court or judge, before whom the prisoner is brought, must judge from the return made to the writ, what course he ought to pursue: whether, to discharge him from his imprisonment; or bail him, or remand him again to the custody of the person from whom he may be brought.

In England the benefit of this important writ can only be suspended by authority of parliament. It has been done several times of late years, both in England and in Ireland, to the great oppression of the subject, as hath been said. In the United States, it can be suspended, only, by the authority of congress; but not whenever congress may think proper; for it cannot be suspended, unless in cases of actual rebellion or invasion. A suspension under any other circumstances, whatever might be the pretext, would be unconstitutional, and consequently must be disregarded by those whose duty it is to grant the writ. The legislatures of the respective states are left, I presume, to judge of the causes which may induce a suspension within any particular state. This is the case, at least, in Virginia.

3. No bill of attainder, or ex post facto law, shall be passed by congress, or by any state. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 9. 10.

Bills of attainder are legislative acts passed for the special purpose of attainting particular individuals of treason, of felony, or to inflict pains and penalties beyond, or contrary to the common law. They are state-engines of oppression in the last resort, and of the most powerful and extensive operation, reaching to the absent and the dead, as well as to the present and the living 237. They supply the want of legal forms, legal evidence 238, and of every other barrier which the laws provide against tyranny and injustice in ordinary cases: being a legislative declaration of the guilt of the party, without trial, without a hearing, and often without the examination of witnesses, and subjecting his person to condign punishment, and his estate to confiscation and forfeiture. Instances of their application to these nefarious purposes occur in almost every page of the English history for a very considerable period: and very few reigns have passed in which the power has not been exercised, though, to the honour of the nation, I believe, no instance of the kind has occurred for more than half a century.

In May, 1778, an act passed in Virginia, to attaint one Josiah Philips, unless he should render himself to justice, within a limited time: he was taken, after the time had expired, and was brought before the general court to receive sentence of execution pursuant to the directions of the act. But the court refused to pass the sentence, and he was put upon his trial, according to the ordinary course of law .... This is a decisive proof of the importance of the separation of the powers of government, and of the independence of the judiciary; a dependent judiciary might have executed the law, whilst they execrated the principles upon which it was founded.

If any thing yet more formidable, or more odious than a bill of attainder can be found in the catalogue of state-enginery, it is what the constitution prohibits in the same clause, by the name of ex post facto laws: whereby an action indifferent in itself, and not prohibited by any law at the time it is committed, is declared by the legislature to, have been a crime, and punishment in consequence thereof, is inflicted on the person committing it. Happily, for the people of Virginia, I can not cite any case of an ex post facto law, (according to this definition, which I have borrowed from Judge Blackstone 239,) that has been made in this commonwealth, nor have I heard of any such, in any other of the United States, that I recollect.

4. To check any possible disposition in congress towards partiality in the imposition of burthens, it is further provided, that no capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census, or enumeration, by the constitution directed to be taken. [C. U. S. Art. 1. § 9.] And the fifth article of the constitution declares, that no amendment made prior to the year 1808, shall in any manner affect this, and the first clause of the ninth section, above noticed.

The acts of 3 Cong. c. 45, and 4 Cong. c. 37, laying duties upon carriages for the conveyance of persons, were thought to be infringements of this article, it being supposed, that such a tax was a direct tax, and ought to have been apportioned among the states. The question was tried in this state, in the case of the United States, against Hylton, and the court being divided in opinion, was carried to the supreme court of the United States, by consent. It was there argued by the proposer of it, (the first secretary of the treasury,) on behalf of the United States, and by the present chief justice of the United States, on behalf of the defendant. Each of those gentlemen was supposed to have defended his own private opinion. That of the secretary of the treasury prevailed, and the tax was afterwards submitted to, universally, in Virginia 240.

6. Upon similar principles of equity, and impartiality, the succeeding clause declares, that no tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state. No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce, or revenue, to the ports of one state, over those of another; nor shall vessels bound to, or from one state, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay duties, in another .... And the fourth article of the constitution, Sec. 3, further provides, that nothing in the constitution of the United States shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular state. The reasons of these several restrictions and explanations having been already noticed, I shall add nothing more to the subject here; they being mentioned in this place only for the sake of method.

6. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States, or any state: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States, shall, without consent of congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state. C. U. S. Art. 1. Sec. 9, 10.

The first of these prohibitions was indispensably necessary to preserve the several states in their democratic form, tone, and vigour. Distinctions between the citizens of the same state, are utterly incompatible with the principles of such governments. Their admission, therefore, can not be too cautiously guarded against: and their total exclusion seems to be the only mode by which this caution can operate effectually. We have already noticed, that the several acts passed for establishing an uniform rule of naturalization, require of every alien becoming a citizen, of the United States, an absolute renunciation, on oath, of any title of nobility, which he might have borne under any other prince or state. Without this wise provision, this clause of the constitution might have failed of some of those salutary effects which it was intended to produce. The second prohibition is not less important. Corruption is too subtle a poison to be approached, without injury. Nothing can be more dangerous to any state, than influence from without, because it must be invariably bottomed upon corruption within. Presents, pensions, titles and offices are alluring things. In the reign of Charles the second of England, that prince, and almost all his officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause. The reign of that monarch has been, accordingly, proverbially disgraceful to his memory. The economy which ought to prevail in republican governments, with respect to salaries and other emoluments of office, might encourage the offer of presents from abroad, if the constitution and laws did not reprobate their acceptance. Congress, with great propriety, refused their assent to one of their ministers to a foreign court, accepting, what was called the usual presents, upon taking his leave: a precedent which we may reasonably hope will be remembered by all future ministers, and ensure a proper respect to this clause of the constitution, which on a former occasion is said to have been overlooked.

Thus far the restrictions contained in the constitution extend: "The conventions of a number of the states having, at the time of adopting the constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction, or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added; and as extending the ground of public confidence in the government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution 241." The following articles were proposed by congress, as amendments to the constitution, which having been duly ratified by the several states, now form a part thereof.

7. Congress shalt make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 3.

On the first of these subjects, our state bill of rights contains, what, if prejudice were not incapable of perceiving truth, might he deemed an axiom, concerning the human mind. That "religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be dictated only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." In vain, therefore, may the civil magistrate interpose the authority of human laws, to prescribe that belief, or produce that conviction, which human reason rejects: in vain may the secular arm be extended, the rack stretched, and the flames kindled, to realize the tortures denounced against unbelievers by all the various sects of the various denominations of fanatics and enthusiasts throughout the globe. The martyr at the stake, glories in his tortures, and proves that human laws may punish, but cannot convince. The pretext of religion, and the pretences of sanctity and humility, have been employed throughout the world, as the most direct means of gaining influence and power. Hence the numberless martyrdoms and massacres which have drenched the whole earth with blood, from the first moment that civil and religious institutions were blended together. To separate them by mounds which can never be overleaped, is the only means by which our duty to God, the peace of mankind, and the genuine fruits of charity and fraternal love, can be preserved or properly discharged. This prohibition, therefore, may be regarded as the most powerful cement of, the federal government, or rather, the violation of it will prove the most powerful engine of separation. Those who prize the union of the states will never think of touching this article with unhallowed hands. The ministry of the unsanctified sons of Aaron scarcely produced a flame, more sudden, more violent, or more destructive, than such an attempt would inevitably excite .... I forbear to say more, in this place, upon this subject, having treated of it somewhat at large in a succeeding note.

The second part of this clause provides, against any law, abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

It being one of the great, fundamental principles of the American governments, that the people are the sovereign, and those who administer the government their agents, and servants, not their kings and masters, it would have been a political solecism to have permitted the smallest restraint upon the right of the people to enquire into, censure, approve, punish or reward their agents according to their merit, or demerit. The constitution, therefore, secures to them the unlimited right to do this, either by speaking, writing, printing, or by any other mode of publishing, which they may think proper. This being the only mode by which the responsibility of the agents of the public can be secured, and practically enforced, the smallest infringement of the rights guaranteed by this article, must threaten the total subversion of the government. For a representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents; and this happens whenever the constituent can be restrained in any manner from speaking, writing, or publishing his opinions upon any public measure, or upon the conduct of those who may advise or execute it.

Our state bill of rights declares, that the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never he restrained but by despotic governments. The constitutions of most of the other states in the union contain articles to the same effect. When the constitution of the United States was adopted by the convention of Virginia, they inserted the following declaration in the instrument of ratification: "that among other essential rights, the liberty of conscience, and of the press, cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified by any authority of the United States."

An ingenious foreigner seems to have been a good deal puzzled to discover the law which establishes the freedom of the press in England: after many vain researches, he concludes, (very rightly, as it relates to that government,) that the liberty of the press there, is grounded on its not being prohibited 242. But with us, there is a visible solid foundation to be met with in the constitutional declarations which we have noticed. The English doctrine, therefore, that the liberty of the press consists only in this, that there shall be no previous restraint laid upon the publication of any thing which any person may think proper, as was formerly the case in that country, is not applicable to the nature of our government, and still less to the express tenor of the constitution. That this necessary and invaluable liberty has been sometimes abused, and "carried to excess; that it has sometimes degenerated into licentiousness, is seen and lamented; but the remedy has not been discovered. Perhaps it is an evil inseparable from the good to which it is allied: perhaps it is a shoot which cannot be stripped from the stalk, without wounding vitally the plant from which it is torn. However desirable those measures might be which correct without enslaving the press, they have never yet been devised in America 243."

It may be asked; is there no protection for any man in America from the wanton, malicious, and unfounded attacks of envenomed calumny? Is there no security for his good name? Is there no value put upon reputation? No reparation for an injury done to it?

To this we may answer with confidence, that the judicial courts of the respective states are open to all persons alike, for the redress of injuries of this nature; there, no distinction is made between one individual and another; the farmer, and the man in authority, stand upon the same ground: both are equally entitled to redress for any false aspersion on their respective characters, nor is there any thing in our laws or constitution which abridges this right. But the genius of our government will not permit the federal legislature to interfere with the subject; and the federal courts are, I presume, equally restrained by the principles of the constitution, and the amendments which have since been adopted.

Such, I contend, is the true interpretation of the constitution of the United States: it has received a very different interpretation both in congress and in the federal courts. This will form a subject for a discussion on the freedom of the press, which the student will find more at large in another place.

The same article secures to the people the right of assembling peaceably; and of petitioning the government for the redress of grievances. The convention of Virginia proposed an article expressed in terms more consonant with the nature of our representative democracy, declaring, that the people have a right, peaceably to assemble together to consult for their common good, or to instruct their representatives: that every freeman has a right to petition, or apply to the legislature, for the redress of grievances. This is the language of a free people asserting their rights: the other savours of that stile of condescension, in which favours are supposed to be granted. In England, no petition to the king, or either house of parliament for any alteration in church or state, shall be signed by above twenty persons, unless the matter thereof be approved by three justices of the peace, or a major part of the grand-jury in the county; nor be presented by more than ten persons. In America, there is no such restraint.

8. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep, and bear arms, shall not be infringed. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 4.

This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty .... The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty.

9. No soldier shall in time of peace be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner; nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 5.

Our state bill of rights, conforming to the experience of all nations, declares, that standing armies in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; this article of the constitution, seems by a kind of side wind, to countenance, or at least, not to prohibit them. The billeting of soldiers upon the citizens of a state, has been generally found burthensome to the people, and so far as this article may prevent that evil it may be deemed valuable, but it certainly adds nothing to the national security.

10. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by oath, or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 6, and herewith agrees the tenth article of our state bill of rights.

The case of general warrants; under which term all warrants not comprehended within the description of the preceding article, may be included, was warmly contested in England about thirty or thirty-five years ago, and after much altercation they were finally pronounced to be illegal by the common law 244. The constitutional sanction here given to the same doctrine, and the test which it affords for trying the legality of any warrant by which a man may be deprived of his liberty, or disturbed in the enjoyment of his property, can not be too highly valued by a free people.

But, notwithstanding this constitutional sanction, and the security which it promises to all persons, an act passed during the second session of the fifth congress, entitled an act concerning aliens, which was supposed to violate this article of the constitution, in the most flagrant and unjustifiable degree: by authorising the president of the United States to order all such aliens as he should judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or have reasonable grounds to suspect of any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States within a limited time; and in case of disobedience, every alien so ordered was liable on conviction to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding three years. And any alien so ordered to depart, and remaining in the United States without a licence from the president might be arrested, and sent out of them, by his order: and, in case of his voluntary return, might be imprisoned so long, as in the opinion of the president, the public safety might require. Alien friends, only, were the objects of this act, another act being passed at the same session, respecting alien enemies .... The general assembly of Virginia at their session in 1798, "protested against the palpable, and alarming infractions of the constitution in this act; which exercises a power no where delegated to the federal government; and which, by uniting legislative and judicial powers to those of executive, subverts the general principles of a free government, as well as the particular organization, and positive provisions of the federal constitution." Kentucky had before adopted a similar conduct.

Among the arguments used by the general assembly of Virginia in their strictures upon this act, the following seem to be more peculiarly apposite to the subject of this article.

In the administration of preventive justice, the following principles have been held sacred; that some probable ground of suspicion be exhibited before some judicial authority; that it be supported by oath or affirmation; that the party may avoid being thrown into confinement, by finding pledges or securities for his legal conduct, sufficient in the judgement of some judicial authority; that he may have the benefit of a writ of habeas corpus, and thus obtain his release, if wrongfully confined; and that he may at any time be discharged from his recognizance, or his confinement, and restored to his former liberty and rights, on the order of the proper judicial authority; if it shall see sufficient cause 245.

Let the student diligently compare these principles of the only preventive justice known to American jurisprudence, and he will probably find that they are all violated by the alien act. The ground of suspicion is to be judged of, not by any judicial authority, but by the executive magistrate, alone; no oath, or affirmation is required; if the suspicion be held reasonable by the president, (whatever be the grounds of it) he may order the suspected alien to depart, without the opportunity of avoiding the sentence by finding pledges for his future good conduct, as the president may limit the time of departure as he pleases, the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus may he suspended with respect to the party, although the constitution ordains, that it shall not be suspended, unless when the public safety may require it, in case of rebellion, or invasion, neither of which existed at the passage of that act: and the party being, under the sentence of the president, either removed from the United States, or punished by imprisonment, or disqualification ever to become a citizen on conviction of his not obeying the order of removal, or on returning without the leave of the president, he can not be discharged from the proceedings against him, and restored to the benefits of his former situation, although the highest judicial authority should see the most sufficient cause for it 246.

Among the reasons alledged by a committee of congress, in support of the constitutionality of the alien law, one was; "that the constitution was made for citizens, not for aliens, who of consequence have no rights under it, but remain in the country, and enjoy the benefit of the laws, not as matter of right, but merely as matter of favour and permission; which may be withdrawn whenever the government may judge their further continuance dangerous 247."

To this it was answered; that, "although aliens are not parties to the constitution, it does not follow that the constitution has vested in Congress an absolute right over them; or that whilst they actually conform to it, they have no right to it's protection. That if they had no rights under it, they might not only be banished, but even capitally punished, without a jury, or other incidents to a fair trial 248." A doctrine so far from being sound, that a jury, one half of which shall be aliens, is allowed, it is believed, by the laws of every state, except in cases of treason. To which we may add that the word "persons" in this, and the subsequent articles of the amendments to the constitution, most clearly designate, that aliens, as persons, must be entitled to the benefits therein secured to all persons alike. ... As we shall have occasion to mention the subject of this interesting controversy, again, in another place, I shall only add here, that the act was permitted to expire at the end of two years, without any attempt, I believe, to continue it.


233. L. V. Edi. 1704. c. 118.

234. L. U. S. 1 Cong. 1 Sess. c. 20. §. 14.

235. Of the nature and efficacy of the writ of habeas corpus the student may be informed. Blacks. Com. 1. 135. 3. 135. 4. 438.

236. L. V. Edi. 1794. c. 118.

237. 1. Hale's Hist. P. C. 82, 342, &c.

238. Sir John Fenwicke was attainted for treason, by act of parliament, because he could not be convicted in the ordinary course of trials; the law requiring two witnesses in cases of treason, and there being but one, who could be had, to give testimony against him. Stat. 8 W 3. c. 6.

239. Blacks Com. 46.

240. The president of the court of appeals in Virginia was one of those who refused to pay the tax, until the question was judicially determined. The opinion of the author of this essay, with the reasons of it have been shewn before, page 197.

241. Preamble to the amendments proposed by the 1 Cong. 1 Sess.

242. De Lolme on the English constitution. 317. Phila. printed.

243. Letter from the American envoys to the French minister of foreign affairs. This nervous passage bespeaks its author; a gentleman who now fills the highest judicial office under the federal government.

244. See 3 Burrows Rep. 1743. 1 Blacks. Reports, 555. 4 Blacks Com. 291.

245. Report of the committee of the general assembly of Virginia on the alien and sedition laws, January 20, 1800.

246. Report of the committee of the general assembly of Virginia, &c.

247. Report of the committee of congress, on the petitions for the repeal of the alien and sedition laws; February 25, 1799.

248. Report of the Virginia assembly .... ut supra.


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