The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Scanned and proofread by Stuart E. Thiel, Chicago, January 2000 Conventions: Numbers in square brackets (e.g. ) refer to original page numbers. Original footnotes were numbered page-by-page, and are collected at the end of the text. In the text, numbers in slashes (e.g./1/) refer to original footnote numbers. In the footnote section, a number such
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Scanned and proofread by Stuart E. Thiel, Chicago, January 2000


Numbers in square brackets (e.g. [245]) refer to original page numbers. Original footnotes were numbered page-by-page, and are collected at the end of the text. In the text, numbers in slashes (e.g./1/) refer to original footnote numbers. In the footnote section, a number such as 245/1 refers to (original) page 245, footnote 1. The footnotes are mostly citations to old English law reporters and to commentaries by writers such as Ihering, Bracton and Blackstone. I cannot give a source for decrypting the notation.

There is quite a little Latin and some Greek in the original text. I have reproduced the Latin. The Greek text is omitted; its place is marked by the expression [Greek characters]. Italics and diacritical marks such as accents and cedillas are omitted and unmarked.

Lecture X has two subheads – Successions After Death and Successions Inter Vivos. Lecture XI is also titled Successions Inter Vivos. This conforms to the original.





[1] The object of this book is to present a general view of the Common Law. To accomplish the task, other tools are needed besides logic. It is something to show that the consistency of a system requires a particular result, but it is not all. The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. In order to know what it is, we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become. We must alternately consult history and existing theories of legislation. But the most difficult labor will be to understand the combination of the two into new products at every stage. The substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly [2] corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient; but its form and machinery, and the degree to which it is able to work out desired results, depend very much upon its past.

In Massachusetts today, while, on the one hand, there are a great many rules which are quite sufficiently accounted for by their manifest good sense, on the other, there are some which can only be understood by reference to the infancy of procedure among the German tribes, or to the social condition of Rome under the Decemvirs.

I shall use the history of our law so far as it is necessary to explain a conception or to interpret a rule, but no further. In doing so there are two errors equally to be avoided both by writer and reader. One is that of supposing, because an idea seems very familiar and natural to us, that it has always been so. Many things which we take for granted have had to be laboriously fought out or thought out in past times. The other mistake is the opposite one of asking too much of history. We start with man full grown. It may be assumed that the earliest barbarian whose practices are to be considered, had a good many of the same feelings and passions as ourselves.

The first subject to be discussed is the general theory of liability civil and criminal. The Common Law has changed a good deal since the beginning of our series of reports, and the search after a theory which may now be said to prevail is very much a study of tendencies. I believe that it will be instructive to go back to the early forms of liability, and to start from them.

It is commonly known that the early forms of legal procedure were grounded in vengeance. Modern writers [3] have thought that the Roman law started from the blood feud, and all the authorities agree that the German law begun in that way. The feud led to the composition, at first optional, then compulsory, by which the feud was bought off. The gradual encroachment of the composition may be traced in the Anglo-Saxon laws, /1/ and the feud was pretty well broken up, though not extinguished, by the time of William the Conqueror. The killings and house-burnings of an earlier day became the appeals of mayhem and arson. The appeals de pace et plagis and of mayhem became, or rather were in substance, the action of trespass which is still familiar to lawyers. /2/ But as the compensation recovered in the appeal was the alternative of vengeance, we might expect to find its scope limited to the scope of vengeance. Vengeance imports a feeling of blame, and an opinion, however distorted by passion, that a wrong has been done. It can hardly go very far beyond the case of a harm intentionally inflicted: even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.

Whether for this cause or another, the early English appeals for personal violence seem to have been confined to intentional wrongs. Glanvill /3/ mentions melees, blows, and wounds,–all forms of intentional violence. In the fuller description of such appeals given by Bracton /4/ it is made quite clear that they were based on intentional assaults. The appeal de pace et plagis laid an intentional assault, described the nature of the arms used, and the length and depth of the wound. The appellor also had [4] to show that he immediately raised the hue and cry. So when Bracton speaks of the lesser offences, which were not sued by way of appeal, he instances only intentional wrongs, such as blows with the fist, flogging, wounding, insults, and so forth. /1/ The cause of action in the cases of trespass reported in the earlier Year Books and in the Abbreviatio Plaeitorum is always an intentional wrong. It was only at a later day, and after argument, that trespass was extended so as to embrace harms which were foreseen, but which were not the intended consequence of the defendant’s act. /2/ Thence again it extended to unforeseen injuries. /3/

It will be seen that this order of development is not quite consistent with an opinion which has been held, that it was a characteristic of early law not to penetrate beyond the external visible fact, the damnum corpore corpori datum. It has been thought that an inquiry into the internal condition of the defendant, his culpability or innocence, implies a refinement of juridical conception equally foreign to Rome before the Lex Aquilia, and to England when trespass took its shape. I do not know any very satisfactory evidence that a man was generally held liable either in Rome /4/ or England for the accidental consequences even of his own act. But whatever may have been the early law, the foregoing account shows the starting-point of the system with which we have to deal. Our system of private liability for the consequences of a man’s own acts, that is, for his trespasses, started from the notion of actual intent and actual personal culpability.

The original principles of liability for harm inflicted by [5] another person or thing have been less carefully considered hitherto than those which governed trespass, and I shall therefore devote the rest of this Lecture to discussing them. I shall try to show that this liability also had its root in the passion of revenge, and to point out the changes by which it reached its present form. But I shall not confine myself strictly to what is needful for that purpose, because it is not only most interesting to trace the transformation throughout its whole extent, but the story will also afford an instructive example of the mode in which the law has grown, without a break, from barbarism to civilization. Furthermore, it will throw much light upon some important and peculiar doctrines which cannot be returned to later.

A very common phenomenon, and one very familiar to the student of history, is this. The customs, beliefs, or needs of a primitive time establish a rule or a formula. In the course of centuries the custom, belief, or necessity disappears, but the rule remains. The reason which gave rise to the rule has been forgotten, and ingenious minds set themselves to inquire how it is to be accounted for. Some ground of policy is thought of, which seems to explain it and to reconcile it with the present state of things; and then the rule adapts itself to the new reasons which have been found for it, and enters on a new career. The old form receives a new content, and in time even the form modifies itself to fit the meaning which it has received. The subject under consideration illustrates this course of events very clearly.

I will begin by taking a medley of examples embodying as many distinct rules, each with its plausible and seemingly sufficient ground of policy to explain it.

[6] A man has an animal of known ferocious habits, which escapes and does his neighbor damage. He can prove that the animal escaped through no negligence of his, but still he is held liable. Why? It is, says the analytical jurist, because, although he was not negligent at the moment of escape, he was guilty of remote heedlessness, or negligence, or fault, in having such a creature at all. And one by whose fault damage is done ought to pay for it.

A baker’s man, while driving his master’s cart to deliver hot rolls of a morning, runs another man down. The master has to pay for it. And when he has asked why he should have to pay for the wrongful act of an independent and responsible being, he has been answered from the time of Ulpian to that of Austin, that it is because he was to blame for employing an improper person. If he answers, that he used the greatest possible care in choosing his driver, he is told that that is no excuse; and then perhaps the reason is shifted, and it is said that there ought to be a remedy against some one who can pay the damages, or that such wrongful acts as by ordinary human laws are likely to happen in the course of the service are imputable to the service.

Next, take a case where a limit has been set to liability which had previously been unlimited. In 1851, Congress passed a law, which is still in force, and by which the owners of ships in all the more common cases of maritime loss can surrender the vessel and her freight then pending to the losers; and it is provided that, thereupon, further proceedings against the owners shall cease. The legislators to whom we owe this act argued that, if a merchant embark a portion of his property upon a hazardous venture, it is reasonable that his stake should be confined to what [7] he puts at risk,–a principle similar to that on which corporations have been so largely created in America during the last fifty years.

It has been a rule of criminal pleading in England down into the present century, that an indictment for homicide must set forth the value of the instrument causing the death, in order that the king or his grantee might claim forfeiture of the deodand, “as an accursed thing,” in the language of Blackstone.

I might go on multiplying examples; but these are enough to show the remoteness of the points to be brought together.– As a first step towards a generalization, it will be necessary to consider what is to be found in ancient and independent systems of law.

There is a well-known passage in Exodus, /1/ which we shall have to remember later: “If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shah not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.” When we turn from the Jews to the Greeks, we find the principle of the passage just quoted erected into a system. Plutarch, in his Solon, tells us that a dog that had bitten a man was to be delivered up bound to a log four cubits long. Plato made elaborate provisions in his Laws for many such cases. If a slave killed a man, he was to be given up to the relatives of the deceased. /2/ If he wounded a man, he was to be given up to the injured party to use him as he pleased. /3/ So if he did damage to which the injured party did not contribute as a joint cause. In either case, if the owner [8] failed to surrender the slave, he was bound to make good the loss. /1/ If a beast killed a man, it was to be slain and cast beyond the borders. If an inanimate thing caused death, it was to be cast beyond the borders in like manner, and expiation was to be made. /2/ Nor was all this an ideal creation of merely imagined law, for it was said in one of the speeches of Aeschines, that “we banish beyond our borders stocks and stones and steel, voiceless and mindless things, if they chance to kill a man; and if a man commits suicide, bury the hand that struck the blow afar from its body.” This is mentioned quite as an every-day matter, evidently without thinking it at all extraordinary, only to point an antithesis to the honors heaped upon Demosthenes. /3/ As late as the second century after Christ the traveller Pausanias observed with some surprise that they still sat in judgment on inanimate things in the Prytaneum. /4/ Plutarch attributes the institution to Draco. /5/

In the Roman law we find the similar principles of the noxoe deditio gradually leading to further results. The Twelve Tables (451 B.C.) provided that, if an animal had done damage, either the animal was to be surrendered or the damage paid for. /6/ We learn from Gains that the same rule was applied to the torts of children or slaves, /7/ and there is some trace of it with regard to inanimate things.

The Roman lawyers, not looking beyond their own [9] system or their own time, drew on their wits for an explanation which would show that the law as they found it was reasonable. Gaius said that it was unjust that the fault of children or slaves should be a source of loss to their parents or owners beyond their own bodies, and Ulpian reasoned that a fortiori this was true of things devoid of life, and therefore incapable of fault. /1/ This way of approaching the question seems to deal with the right of surrender as if it were a limitation of a liability incurred by a parent or owner, which would naturally and in the first instance be unlimited. But if that is what was meant, it puts the cart before the horse. The right of surrender was not introduced as a limitation of liability, but, in Rome and Greece alike, payment was introduced as the alternative of a failure to surrender.

The action was not based, as it would be nowadays, on the fault of the parent or owner. If it had been, it would always have been brought against the person who had control of the slave or animal at the time it did the harm complained of, and who, if any one, was to blame for not preventing the injury. So far from this being the course, the person to be sued was the owner at the time of suing. The action followed the guilty thing into whosesoever hands it came. /2/ And in curious contrast with the principle as inverted to meet still more modern views of public policy, if the animal was of a wild nature, that is, in the very case of the most ferocious animals, the owner ceased to be liable the moment it escaped, because at that moment he ceased to be owner. /3/ There [10] seems to have been no other or more extensive liability by the old law, even where a slave was guilty with his master’s knowledge, unless perhaps he was a mere tool in his master’s hands. /1/ Gains and Ulpian showed an inclination to cut the noxoe deditio down to a privilege of the owner in case of misdeeds committed without his knowledge; but Ulpian is obliged to admit, that by the ancient law, according to Celsus, the action was noxal where a slave was guilty even with the privity of his master. /2/

All this shows very clearly that the liability of the owner was merely a way of getting at the slave or animal which was the immediate cause of offence. In other words, vengeance on the immediate offender was the object of the Greek and early Roman process, not indemnity from the master or owner. The liability of the owner was simply a liability of the offending thing. In the primitive customs of Greece it was enforced by a judicial process expressly directed against the object, animate or inanimate. The Roman Twelve Tables made the owner, instead of the thing itself, the defendant, but did not in any way change the ground of liability, or affect its limit. The change was simply a device to allow the owner to protect his interest. /3/

But it may be asked how inanimate objects came to be [11] pursued in this way, if the object of the procedure was to gratify the passion of revenge. Learned men have been ready to find a reason in the personification of inanimate nature common to savages and children, and there is much to confirm this view. Without such a personification, anger towards lifeless things would have been transitory, at most. It is noticeable that the commonest example in the most primitive customs and laws is that of a tree which falls upon a man, or from which he falls and is killed. We can conceive with comparative ease how a tree might have been put on the same footing with animals. It certainly was treated like them, and was delivered to the relatives, or chopped to pieces for the gratification of a real or simulated passion. /1/

In the Athenian process there is also, no doubt, to be traced a different thought. Expiation is one of the ends most insisted on by Plato, and appears to have been the purpose of the procedure mentioned by Aeschines. Some passages in the Roman historians which will be mentioned again seem to point in the same direction. /2/

Another peculiarity to be noticed is, that the liability seems to have been regarded as attached to the body doing the damage, in an almost physical sense. An untrained intelligence only imperfectly performs the analysis by which jurists carry responsibility back to the beginning of a chain of causation. The hatred for anything giving us pain, which wreaks itself on the manifest cause, and which leads even civilized man to kick a door when it pinches his finger, is embodied in the noxoe deditio and [12] other kindred doctrines of early Roman law. There is a defective passage in Gaius, which seems to say that liability may sometimes be escaped by giving up even the dead body of the offender. /1/ So Livy relates that, Brutulus Papins having caused a breach of truce with the Romans, the Samnites determined to surrender him, and that, upon his avoiding disgrace and punishment by suicide, they sent his lifeless body. It is noticeable that the surrender seems to be regarded as the natural expiation for the breach of treaty, /2/ and that it is equally a matter of course to send the body when the wrong-doer has perished. /3/

The most curious examples of this sort occur in the region of what we should now call contract. Livy again furnishes an example, if, indeed, the last is not one. The Roman Consul Postumius concluded the disgraceful peace of the Caudine Forks (per sponsionem, as Livy says, denying the common story that it was per feedus), and he was sent to Rome to obtain the sanction of the people. When there however, he proposed that the persons who had made the [13] contract, including himself, should be given up in satisfaction of it. For, he said, the Roman people not having sanctioned the agreement, who is so ignorant of the jus fetialium as not to know that they are released from obligation by surrendering us? The formula of surrender seems to bring the case within the noxoe deditio. /1/ Cicero narrates a similar surrender of Mancinus by the pater-patratus to the Numantines, who, however, like the Samnites in the former case, refused to receive him. /2/

It might be asked what analogy could have been found between a breach of contract and those wrongs which excite the desire for vengeance. But it must be remembered that the distinction between tort and breaches of contract, and especially between the remedies for the two, is not found ready made. It is conceivable that a procedure adapted to redress for violence was extended to other cases as they arose. Slaves were surrendered for theft as well as [14] for assault; /1/ and it is said that a debtor who did not pay his debts, or a seller who failed to deliver an article for which he had been paid, was dealt with on the same footing as a thief. /2/ This line of thought, together with the quasi material conception of legal obligations as binding the offending body, which has been noticed, would perhaps explain the well-known law of the Twelve Tables as to insolvent debtors. According to that law, if a man was indebted to several creditors and insolvent, after certain formalities they might cut up his body and divide it among them. If there was a single creditor, he might put his debtor to death or sell him as a slave. /3/

If no other right were given but to reduce a debtor to slavery, the law might be taken to look only to compensation, and to be modelled on the natural working of self-redress. /4/ The principle of our own law, that taking a man’s body on execution satisfies the debt, although he is not detained an hour, seems to be explained in that way. But the right to put to death looks like vengeance, and the division of the body shows that the debt was conceived very literally to inhere in or bind the body with a vinculum juris.

Whatever may be the true explanation of surrender in connection with contracts, for the present purpose we need not go further than the common case of noxoe deditio for wrongs. Neither is the seeming adhesion of liability to the very body which did the harm of the first importance. [15] The Roman law dealt mainly with living creatures,– with animals and slaves. If a man was run over, it did not surrender the wagon which crushed him, but the ox which drew the wagon. /1/ At this stage the notion is easy to understand. The desire for vengeance may be felt as strongly against a slave as against a freeman, and it is not without example nowadays that a like passion should be felt against an animal. The surrender of the slave or beast empowered the injured party to do his will upon them. Payment by the owner was merely a privilege in case he wanted to buy the vengeance off.

It will readily be imagined that such a system as has been described could not last when civilization had advanced to any considerable height. What had been the privilege of buying off vengeance by agreement, of paying the damage instead of surrendering the body of the offender, no doubt became a general custom. The Aquilian law, passed about a couple of centuries later than the date of the Twelve Tables, enlarged the sphere of compensation for bodily injuries. Interpretation enlarged the Aquilian law. Masters became personally liable for certain wrongs committed by their slaves with their knowledge, where previously they were only bound to surrender the slave. /2/ If a pack-mule threw off his burden upon a passer-by because he had been improperly overloaded, or a dog which might have been restrained escaped from his master and bit any one, the old noxal action, as it was called, gave way to an action under the new law to enforce a general personal liability. /3/ Still later, ship-owners and innkeepers were made liable [16] as if they were wrong-doers for wrongs committed by those in their employ on board ship or in the tavern, although of course committed without their knowledge. The true reason for this exceptional responsibility was the exceptional confidence which was necessarily reposed in carriers and innkeepers. /1/ But some of the jurists, who regarded the surrender of children and slaves as a privilege intended to limit liability, explained this new liability on the ground that the innkeeper or ship-owner was to a certain degree guilty of negligence in having employed the services of bad men? This was the first instance of a master being made unconditionally liable for the wrongs of his servant. The reason given for it was of general application, and the principle expanded to the scope of the reason.

The law as to ship-owners and innkeepers introduced another and more startling innovation. It made them responsible when those whom they employed were free, as well as when they were slaves. /3/ For the first time one man was made answerable for the wrongs of another who was also answerable himself, and who had a standing before the law. This was a great change from the bare permission to ransom one’s slave as a privilege. But here we have the history of the whole modern doctrine of master and servant, and principal and agent. All servants are now as free and as liable to a suit as their masters. Yet the principle introduced on special grounds in a special case, when servants were slaves, is now the general law of this country and England, and under it men daily have to pay large sums for other people’s acts, in which they had no part and [17] for which they are in no sense to blame. And to this day the reason offered by the Roman jurists for an exceptional rule is made to justify this universal and unlimited responsibility. /1/

So much for one of the parents of our common law. Now let us turn for a moment to the Teutonic side. The Salic Law embodies usages which in all probability are of too early a date to have been influenced either by Rome or the Old Testament. The thirty-sixth chapter of the ancient text provides that, if a man is killed by a domestic animal, the owner of the animal shall pay half the composition (which he would have had to pay to buy off the blood feud had he killed the man himself), and for the other half give up the beast to the complainant. /2/ So, by chapter thirty-five, if a slave killed a freeman, he was to be surrendered for one half of the composition to the relatives of the slain man, and the master was to pay the other half. But according to the gloss, if the slave or his master had been maltreated by the slain man or his relatives, the master had only to surrender the slave. /3/ It is interesting to notice that those Northern sources which Wilda takes to represent a more primitive stage of German law confine liability for animals to surrender alone. /4/ There is also a trace of the master’s having been able to free himself in some cases, at a later date, by showing that the slave was no longer in [18] his possession. /1/ There are later provisions making a master liable for the wrongs committed by his slave by his command. /2/ In the laws adapted by the Thuringians from the earlier sources, it is provided in terms that the master is to pay for all damage done by his slaves. /4/

In short, so far as I am able to trace the order of development in the customs of the German tribes, it seems to have been entirely similar to that which we have already followed in the growth of Roman law. The earlier liability for slaves and animals was mainly confined to surrender; the later became personal, as at Rome.

The reader may begin to ask for the proof that all this has any bearing on our law of today. So far as concerns the influence of the Roman law upon our own, especially the Roman law of master and servant, the evidence of it is to be found in every book which has been written for the last five hundred years. It has been stated already that we still repeat the reasoning of the Roman lawyers, empty as it is, to the present day. It will be seen directly whether the German folk-laws can also be followed into England.

In the Kentish laws of Hlothhaere and Eadrie (A.D. 680) [19] it is said, “If any one’s slave slay a freeman, whoever it be, let the owner pay with a hundred shillings, give up the slayer,” &c. /1/ There are several other similar provisions. In the nearly contemporaneous laws of Ine, the surrender and payment are simple alternatives. “If a Wessex slave slay an Englishman, then shall he who owns him deliver him up to the lord and the kindred, or give sixty shillings for his life.” /2/ Alfred’s laws (A.D. 871-901) have a like provision as to cattle. “If a neat wound a man, let the neat be delivered up or compounded for.” /3/ And Alfred, although two hundred years later than the first English lawgivers who have been quoted, seems to have gone back to more primitive notions than we find before his time. For the same principle is extended to the case of a tree by which a man is killed. “If, at their common work, one man slay another unwilfully, let the tree be given to the kindred, and let them have it off the land within thirty nights. Or let him take possession of it who owns the wood.” /4/

It is not inapposite to compare what Mr. Tylor has mentioned concerning the rude Kukis of Southern Asia. “If a tiger killed a Kuki, his family were in disgrace till they had retaliated by killing and eating this tiger, or another; but further, if a man was killed by a fall from a tree, his relatives would take their revenge by cutting the tree down, and scattering it in chips.” /5/

To return to the English, the later laws, from about a hundred years after Alfred down to the collection known as the laws of Henry I, compiled long after the Conquest, [20] increase the lord’s liability for his household, and make him surety for his men’s good conduct. If they incur a fine to the king and run away, the lord has to pay it unless he can clear himself of complicity. But I cannot say that I find until a later period the unlimited liability of master for servant which was worked out on the Continent, both by the German tribes and at Rome. Whether the principle when established was an indigenous growth, or whether the last step was taken under the influence of the Roman law, of which Bracton made great use, I cannot say. It is enough that the soil was ready for it, and that it took root at an early day. /1/ This is all that need be said here with regard to the liability of a master for the misdeeds of his servants.

It is next to be shown what became of the principle as applied to animals. Nowadays a man is bound at his peril to keep his cattle from trespassing, and he is liable for damage done by his dog or by any fierce animal, if he has notice of a tendency in the brute to do the harm complained of. The question is whether any connection can be established between these very sensible and intelligible rules of modern law and the surrender directed by King Alfred.

Let us turn to one of the old books of the Scotch law, where the old principle still appears in full force and is stated with its reasons as then understood, /2/

“Gif ane wylde or head-strang horse, carries ane man [21] against his will over an craig, or heuch, or to the water, and the man happin to drowne, the horse sall perteine to the king as escheit.

“Bot it is otherwise of ane tame and dantoned horse; gif any man fulishlie rides, and be sharp spurres compelles his horse to take the water, and the man drownes, the horse sould not be escheit, for that comes be the mans fault or trespasse, and not of the horse, and the man has receaved his punishment, in sa farre as he is perished and dead; and the horse quha did na fault, sould not be escheit.

“The like reason is of all other beastes, quhilk slayes anie man, [it is added in a later work, “of the quhilk slaughter they haue gilt,”] for all these beasts sould be escheit.” /1/

“The Forme and Maner of Baron Courts” continues as follows: —

“It is to witt, that this question is asked in the law, Gif ane lord hes ane milne, and any man fall in the damne, and be borne down with the water quhill he comes to the quheill, and there be slaine to death with the quheill; quhither aught the milne to be eseheir or not? The law sayes thereto nay, and be this reason, For it is ane dead thing, and ane dead thing may do na fellony, nor be made escheit throw their gilt. Swa the milne in this case is not culpable, and in the law it is lawfull to the lord of the land to haue ane mylne on his awin water quhere best likes him.” /2/

The reader will see in this passage, as has been remarked already of the Roman law, that a distinction is taken between things which are capable of guilt and those which [22] are not,–between living and dead things; but he will also see that no difficulty was felt in treating animals as guilty.

Take next an early passage of the English law, a report of what was laid down by one of the English judges. In 1333 it was stated for law, that, “if my dog kills your sheep, and I, freshly after the fact, tender you the dog, you are without recovery against me.” /l / More than three centuries later, in 1676, it was said by Twisden, J. that, “if one hath kept a tame fox, which gets loose and grows wild, he that hath kept him before shall not answer for the damage the fox doth after he hath lost him, and he hath resumed his wild nature.” /2/ It is at least doubtful whether that sentence ever would have been written but for the lingering influence of the notion that the ground of the owner’s liability was his ownership of the offending: thing and his failure to surrender it. When the fox escaped, by another principle of law the ownership was at an end. In fact, that very consideration was seriously pressed in England as late as 1846, with regard to a monkey which escaped and bit the plaintiff, /3/ So it seems to be a reasonable conjecture, that it was this way of thinking which 1ed Lord Holt, near the beginning of the last century, to intimate that one ground on which a man is bound at his peril to restrain cattle from trespassing is that he has valuable property in such animals, whereas he has not dogs, for which his responsibility is less. /4/ To this day, in fact, cautious judges state the law as to cattle to be, that, “if I am the owner of an animal in which by law the [23] right of property can exist, I am bound to take care that it does not stray into the land of my neighbor.” /1/

I do not mean that our modern law on this subject is only a survival, and that the only change from primitive notions was to substitute the owner for the offending animal. For although it is probable that the early law was one of the causes which led to the modern doctrine, there has been too much good sense in every stage of our law to adopt any such sweeping consequences as would follow from the wholesale transfer of liability supposed. An owner is not bound at his peril to keep his cattle from harming his neighbor’s person. /2/ And in some of the earliest instances of personal liability, even for trespass on a neighbor’s land, the ground seems to have been the owner’s negligence. /3/

It is the nature of those animals which the common law recognizes as the subject of ownership to stray, and when straying to do damage by trampling down and eating crops. At the same time it is usual and easy to restrain them. On the other hand, a dog, which is not the subject of property, does no harm by simply crossing the land of others than its owner. Hence to this extent the new law might have followed the old. The right of property in the [24] offending animal, which was the ancient ground of responsibility, might have been adopted safely enough as the test of a liability based on the fault of the owner. But the responsibility for damage of a kind not to be expected from such animals is determined on grounds of policy comparatively little disturbed by tradition. The development of personal liability for fierce wild animals at Rome has been explained. Our law seems to have followed the Roman.

We will now follow the history of that branch of the primitive notion which was least likely to survive,–the liability of inanimate things.

It will be remembered that King Alfred ordained the surrender of a tree, but that the later Scotch law refused it because a dead thing could not have guilt. It will be remembered, also, that the animals which the Scotch law forfeited were escheat to the king. The same thing has remained true in England until well into this century, with regard even to inanimate objects. As long ago as Bracton, /1/ in case a man was slain, the coroner was to value the object causing the death, and that was to be forfeited sa deodand “pro rege.” It was to be given to God, that is to say to the Church, for the king, to be expended for the good of his soul. A man’s death had ceased to be the private affair of his friends as in the time of the barbarian folk-laws. The king, who furnished the court, now sued for the penalty. He supplanted the family in the claim on the guilty thing, and the Church supplanted him.

In Edward the First’s time some of the cases remind of the barbarian laws at their rudest stage. If a man fell from a tree, the tree was deodand. /2/ If he drowned in a [25] well, the well was to be filled up. /1/ It did not matter that the forfeited instrument belonged to an innocent person.” Where a man killeth another with the sword of John at Stile, the sword shall be forfeit as deodand, and yet no default is in the owner.” /2/ That is from a book written in the reign of Henry VIII., about 1530. And it has been repeated from Queen Elizabeth’s time /3/ to within one hundred years, /4/ that if my horse strikes a man, and afterwards I sell my horse, and after that the man dies, the horse shall be forfeited. Hence it is, that, in all indictments for homicide, until very lately it has been necessary to state the instrument causing the death and its value, as that the stroke was given by a certain penknife, value sixpence, so as to secure the forfeiture. It is said that a steam-engine has been forfeited in this way.

I now come to what I regard as the most remarkable transformation of this principle, and one which is a most important factor in our law as it is today. I must for the moment leave the common law and take up the doctrines of the Admiralty. In the early books which have just been referred to, and long afterwards, the fact of motion is adverted to as of much importance. A maxim of Henry Spigurnel, a judge in the time of Edward I., is reported, that “where a man is killed by a cart, or by the fall of a house, or in other like manner, and the thing in motion is the cause of the death, it shall be deodand.” /5/ So it was [26] said in the next reign that “oinne illud quod mover cum eo quod occidit homines deodandum domino Regi erit, vel feodo clerici.” /l / The reader sees how motion gives life to the object forfeited.

The most striking example of this sort is a ship. And accordingly the old books say that, if a man falls from a ship and is drowned, the motion of the ship must be taken to cause the death, and the ship is forfeited, — provided, however, that this happens in fresh water. /2/ For if the death took place on the high seas, that was outside the ordinary jurisdiction. This proviso has been supposed to mean that ships at sea were not forfeited; /3/ but there is a long series of petitions to the king in Parliament that such forfeitures may be done away with, which tell a different story. /4/ The truth seems to be that the forfeiture took place, but in a different court. A manuscript of the reign of Henry VI., only recently printed, discloses the fact that, if a man was killed or drowned at sea by the motion of the ship, the vessel was forfeited to the admiral upon a proceeding in the admiral’s court, and subject to release by favor of the admiral or the king. /5/

A ship is the most living of inanimate things. Servants sometimes say “she” of a clock, but every one gives a gender to vessels. And we need not be surprised, therefore, to find a mode of dealing which has shown such extraordinary vitality in the criminal law applied with even more striking thoroughness in the Admiralty. It is only by supposing [27] the ship to have been treated as if endowed with personality, that the arbitrary seeming peculiarities of the maritime law can be made intelligible, and on that supposition they at once become consistent and logical.

By way of seeing what those peculiarities are, take first a case of collision at sea. A collision takes place between two vessels, the Ticonderoga and the Melampus, through the fault of the Ticonderoga alone. That ship is under a lease at the time, the lessee has his own master in charge, and the owner of the vessel has no manner of control over it. The owner, therefore, is not to blame, and he cannot even be charged on the ground that the damage was done by his servants. He is free from personal liability on elementary principles. Yet it is perfectly settled that there is a lien on his vessel for the amount of the damage done, /1/ and this means that that vessel may be arrested and sold to pay the loss in any admiralty court whose process will reach her. If a livery-stable keeper lets a horse and wagon to a customer, who runs a man down by careless driving, no one would think of claiming a right to seize the horse and wagon. It would be seen that the only property which could be sold to pay for a wrong was the property of the wrong-doer.

But, again, suppose that the vessel, instead of being under lease, is in charge of a pilot whose employment is made compulsory by the laws of the port which she is just entering. The Supreme Court of the United States holds the ship liable in this instance also. /2/ The English courts would probably have decided otherwise, and the matter is settled in England by legislation. But there the court of appeal, the Privy Council, has been largely composed of common-law [28]lawyers, and it has shown a marked tendency to assimilate common-law doctrine. At common law one who could not impose a personal liability on the owner could not bind a particular chattel to answer for a wrong of which it had been the instrument. But our Supreme Court has long recognized that a person may bind a ship, when he could not bind the owners personally, because he was not the agent.

It may be admitted that, if this doctrine were not supported by an appearance of good sense, it would not have survived. The ship is the only security available in dealing with foreigners, and rather than send one’s own citizens to search for a remedy abroad in strange courts, it is easy to seize the vessel and satisfy the claim at home, leaving the foreign owners to get their indemnity as they may be able. I dare say some such thought has helped to keep the practice alive, but I believe the true historic foundation is elsewhere. The ship no doubt, like a sword would have been forfeited for causing death, in whosesoever hands it might have been. So, if the master and mariners of a ship, furnished with letters of reprisal, committed piracy against a friend of the king, the owner lost his ship by the admiralty law, although the crime was committed without his knowledge or assent. /2/ It seems most likely that the principle by which the ship was forfeited to the king for causing death, or for piracy, was the same as that by which it was bound to private sufferers for other damage, in whose hands soever it might have been when it did the harm.

If we should say to an uneducated man today, “She did it and she ought to pay for it,” it may be doubted [29] whether he would see the fallacy, or be ready to explain that the ship was only property, and that to say, “The ship has to pay for it,” /1/ was simply a dramatic way of saying that somebody’s property was to be sold, and the proceeds applied to pay for a wrong committed by somebody else.

It would seem that a similar form of words has been enough to satisfy the minds of great lawyers. The following is a passage from a judgment by Chief Justice Marshall, which is quoted with approval by Judge Story in giving the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States: “This is not a proceeding against the owner; it is a proceeding against the vessel for an offence committed by the vessel; which is not the less an offence, and does not the less subject her to forfeiture, because it was committed without the authority and against the will of the owner. It is true that inanimate matter can commit no offence. But this body is animated and put in action by the crew, who are guided by the master. The vessel acts and speaks by the master. She reports herself by the master. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that the vessel should be affected by this report.” And again Judge Story quotes from another case: “The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is primarily attached to the thing.” /2/

In other words, those great judges, although of course aware that a ship is no more alive than a mill-wheel, thought that not only the law did in fact deal with it as if it were alive, but that it was reasonable that the law should do so. The reader will observe that they do not say simply that it is reasonable on grounds of policy to [30] sacrifice justice to the owner to security for somebody else but that it is reasonable to deal with the vessel as an offending thing. Whatever the hidden ground of policy may be, their thought still clothes itself in personifying language.

Let us now go on to follow the peculiarities of the maritime law in other directions. For the cases which have been stated are only parts of a larger whole.

By the maritime law of the Middle Ages the ship was not only the source, but the limit, of liability. The rule already prevailed, which has been borrowed and adopted by the English statutes and by our own act of Congress of 1851, according to which the owner is discharged from responsibility for wrongful acts of a master appointed by himself upon surrendering his interest in the vessel and the freight which she had earned. By the doctrines of agency he would be personally liable for the whole damage. If the origin of the system of limited liability which is believed to be so essential to modern commerce is be attributed to those considerations of public policy on which it would now be sustained, that system has nothing to do with the law of collision. But if the limit of liability here stands on the same ground as the noxoe deditio, confirms the explanation already given of the liability of the ship for wrongs done by it while out of the owner’s hands, and conversely existence of that liability confirms the argument here.

Let us now take another rule, for which, as usual, there is a plausible explanation of policy. Freight, it is said, the mother of wages; for, we are told, “if the ship perished, [31] if the mariners were to have their wages in such cases, they would not use their endeavors, nor hazard their lives, for the safety of the ship.” /1/ The best commentary on this reasoning is, that the law has recently been changed by statute. But even by the old law there was an exception inconsistent with the supposed reason. In case of shipwreck, which was the usual case of a failure to earn freight, so long as any portion of the ship was saved, the lien of the mariners remained. I suppose it would have been said, because it was sound policy to encourage them to save all they could. If we consider that the sailors were regarded as employed by the ship, we shall under- stand very readily both the rule and the exception. “The ship is the debtor,” as was said in arguing a case decided in the time of William III. /2/ If the debtor perished, there was an end of the matter. If a part came ashore, that might be proceeded against.

Even the rule in its modern form, that freight is the mother of wages, is shown by the explanation commonly given to have reference to the question whether the ship is lost or arrive safe. In the most ancient source of the maritime law now extant, which has anything about the matter, so far as I have been able to discover, the statement is that the mariners will lose their wages when the ship is lost. /3/ In like manner, in what is said by its English [32] editor, Sir Travers Twiss, to be the oldest part of the Consulate of the Sea, /1/ we read that “whoever the freighter may be who runs away or dies, the ship is bound to pay: the mariners.” /2/ I think we may assume that the vessel was bound by the contract with the sailors, much in the same way as it was by the wrongs for which it was answerable, just as the debtor’s body was answerable for his debts, as well as for his crimes, under the ancient law of Rome.

The same thing is true of other maritime dealings with the vessel, whether by way of contract or otherwise. If salvage service is rendered to a vessel, the admiralty court will hold the vessel, although it has been doubted whether an action of contract would lie, if the owners were sued at law. So the ship is bound by the master’s contract to carry cargo, just as in case of collision, although she was under lease at the time. In such cases, also, according to our Supreme Court, the master may bind the vessel when he cannot bind the general owners. /4/ “By custom the ship is bound to the merchandise, and the merchandise to the ship.” /5/ “By the maritime law every contract of the master implies an hypothecation.” /6/ It might be urged, no doubt, with force, that, so far as the usual maritime contracts are concerned, the dealing must be on the security of the ship or merchandise in many cases, and therefore [33] that it is policy to give this security in all cases; that the risk to which it subjects ship-owners is calculable, and that they must take it into account when they let their vessels. Again, in many cases, when a party asserts a maritime lien by way of contract, he has improved the condition of the thing upon which the lien is claimed, and this has been recognized as a ground for such a lien in some systems. But this is not true universally, nor in the most important cases. It must be left to the reader to decide whether ground has not been shown for believing that the same metaphysical confusion which naturally arose as to the ship’s wrongful acts, affected the way of thinking as to her contracts. The whole manner of dealing with vessels obviously took the form which prevailed in the eases first mentioned. Pardessus, a high authority, says that the lien for freight prevails even against the owner of stolen goods, “as the master deals less with the person than the thing.” /2/ So it was said in the argument of a famous English case, that “the ship is instead of the owner, and therefore is answerable.” /3/ In many cases of contract, as well as tort, the vessel was not only the security for the debt, but the limit of the owner’s liability.

The principles of the admiralty are embodied in its form of procedure. A suit may be brought there against a vessel by name, any person interested in it being at liberty to come in and defend, but the suit, if successful, ending in a sale of the vessel and a payment of the plaintiff’s claim out of the proceeds. As long ago as the time of James I. it was said that “the libel ought to be only [34] against the ship and goods, and not against the party.” /1/ And authority for the statement was cited from the reign of Henry VI., the same reign when, as we have seen, the Admiral claimed a forfeiture of ships for causing death. I am bound to say, however, that I cannot find such an authority of that date.

We have now followed the development of the chief forms of liability in modern law for anything other than the immediate and manifest consequences of a man’s own acts. We have seen the parallel course of events in the two parents,–the Roman law and the German customs, and in the offspring of those two on English soil with regard to servants, animals, and inanimate things. We have seen a single germ multiplying and branching into products as different from each other as the flower from the root. It hardly remains to ask what that germ was. We have seen that it was the desire of retaliation against the offending thing itself. Undoubtedly, it might be argued that many of the rules stated were derived from a seizure of the offending thing as security for reparation, at first, perhaps, outside the law. That explanation, as well as the one offered here; would show that modern views of responsibility had not yet been attained, as the owner of the thing might very well not have been the person in fault. But such has not been the view of those most competent to judge. A consideration of the earliest instances will show, as might have been expected, that vengeance, not compensation, and vengeance on the offending thing, was the original object. The ox in Exodus was to be stoned. The axe in the Athenian law was to be banished. The tree, in Mr. Tylor’s instance, was to be chopped to pieces. The [35] slave under all the systems was to be surrendered to the relatives of the slain man, that they might do with him what they liked. /1/ The deodand was an accursed thing. The original limitation of liability to surrender, when the owner was before the court, could not be accounted for if it was his liability, and not that of his property, which was in question. Even where, as in some of the cases, expiation seems to be intended rather than vengeance, the object is equally remote from an extrajudicial distress.

The foregoing history, apart from the purposes for which it has been given, well illustrates the paradox of form and substance in the development of law. In form its growth is logical. The official theory is that each new decision follows syllogistically from existing precedents. But just as the clavicle in the cat only tells of the existence of some earlier creature to which a collar-bone was useful, precedents survive in the law long after the use they once served is at an end and the reason for them has been forgotten. The result of following them must often be failure and confusion from the merely logical point of view.

On the other hand, in substance the growth of the law is legislative. And this in a deeper sense than that what the courts declare to have always been the law is in fact new. It is legislative in its grounds. The very considerations which judges most rarely mention, and always with an apology, are the secret root from which the law draws all the juices of life. I mean, of course, considerations of what is expedient for the community concerned. Every important principle which is developed by litigation is in fact and at bottom the result of more or less definitely understood views of public policy; most generally, to be sure, [36] under our practice and traditions, the unconscious result of instinctive preferences and inarticulate convictions, but none the less traceable to views of public policy in the last analysis. And as the law is administered by able and experienced men, who know too much to sacrifice good sense to a syllogism, it will be found that, when ancient rules maintain themselves in the way that has been and will be shown in this book, new reasons more fitted to the time have been found for them, and that they gradually receive a new content, and at last a new form, from the grounds to which they have been transplanted.

But hitherto this process has been largely unconscious. It is important, on that account, to bring to mind what the actual course of events has been. If it were only to insist on a more conscious recognition of the legislative function of the courts, as just explained, it would be useful, as we shall see more clearly further on. /1/

What has been said will explain the failure of all theories which consider the law only from its formal side; whether they attempt to deduce the corpus from a priori postulates, or fall into the humbler error of supposing the science of the law to reside in the elegantia juris, or logical cohesion of part with part. The truth is, that the law always approaching, and never reaching, consistency. It is forever adopting new principles from life at one end, and it always retains old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off. It will be come entirely consistent only when it ceases to grow.

The study upon which we have been engaged is necessary both for the knowledge and for the revision of the law. [37] However much we may codify the law into a series of seemingly self-sufficient propositions, those propositions will be but a phase in a continuous growth. To understand their scope fully, to know how they will be dealt with by judges trained in the past which the law embodies, we must ourselves know something of that past. The history of what the law has been is necessary to the knowledge of what the law is.

Again, the process which I have described has involved the attempt to follow precedents, as well as to give a good reason for them. When we find that in large and important branches of the law the various grounds of policy on which the various rules have been justified are later inventions to account for what are in fact survivals from more primitive times, we have a right to reconsider the popular reasons, and, taking a broader view of the field, to decide anew whether those reasons are satisfactory. They may be, notwithstanding the manner of their appearance. If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.

But none of the foregoing considerations, nor the purpose of showing the materials for anthropology contained in the history of the law, are the immediate object here. My aim and purpose have been to show that the various forms of liability known to modern law spring from the common ground of revenge. In the sphere of contract the fact will hardly be material outside the cases which have been stated in this Lecture. But in the criminal law and the law of torts it is of the first importance. It shows that they have started from a moral basis, from the thought that some one was to blame.

[38] It remains to be proved that, while the terminology of morals is still retained, and while the law does still and always, in a certain sense, measure legal liability by moral standards, it nevertheless, by the very necessity of its nature, is continually transmuting those moral standards into external or objective ones, from which the actual guilt of the party concerned is wholly eliminated.



In the beginning of the first Lecture it was shown that the appeals of the early law were directed only to intentional wrongs. The appeal was a far older form of procedure than the indictment, and may be said to have had a criminal as well as a civil aspect. It had the double object of satisfying the private party for his loss, and the king for the breach of his peace. On its civil side it was rooted in vengeance. It was a proceeding to recover those compositions, at first optional, afterwards compulsory, by which a wrong-doer bought the spear from his side. Whether, so far as concerned the king, it had the same object of vengeance, or was more particularly directed to revenue, does not matter, since the claim of the king did not enlarge the scope of the action.

It would seem to be a fair inference that indictable offences were originally limited in the same way as those which gave rise to an appeal. For whether the indictment arose by a splitting up of the appeal, or in some other way, the two were closely connected.

An acquittal of the appellee on the merits was a bar to an indictment; and, on the other hand, when an appeal was fairly started, although the appellor might fail to prosecute, or might be defeated by plea, the cause might still be proceeded with on behalf of the king. /1/

[40] The presentment, which is the other parent of our criminal procedure, had an origin distinct from the appeal. If, as has been thought, it was merely the successor of fresh suit and lynch law, /1/ this also is the child of vengeance, even more clearly than the other.

The desire for vengeance imports an opinion that its object is actually and personally to blame. It takes an internal standard, not an objective or external one, and condemns its victim by that. The question is whether such a standard is still accepted either in this primitive form, or in some more refined development, as is commonly supposed, and as seems not impossible, considering the relative slowness with which the criminal law has improved.

It certainly may be argued, with some force, that it has never ceased to be one object of punishment to satisfy the desire for vengeance. The argument will be made plain by considering those instances in which, for one reason or another, compensation for a wrong is out of the question.

Thus an act may be of such a kind as to make indemnity impossible by putting an end to the principal sufferer, as in the case of murder or manslaughter.

Again, these and other crimes, like forgery, although directed against an individual, tend to make others feel unsafe, and this general insecurity does not admit of being paid for.

Again, there are cases where there are no means of enforcing indemnity. In Macaulay’s draft of the Indian Penal Code, breaches of contract for the carriage of passengers, were made criminal. The palanquin-bearers of India were too poor to pay damages, and yet had to be [41] trusted to carry unprotected women and children through wild and desolate tracts, where their desertion would have placed those under their charge in great danger.

In all these cases punishment remains as an alternative. A pain can be inflicted upon the wrong-doer, of a sort which does not restore the injured party to his former situation, or to another equally good, but which is inflicted for the very purpose of causing pain. And so far as this punishment takes the place of compensation, whether on account of the death of the person to whom the wrong was done, the indefinite number of persons affected, the impossibility of estimating the worth of the suffering in money, or the poverty of the criminal, it may be said that one of its objects is to gratify the desire for vengeance. The prisoner pays with his body.

The statement may be made stronger still, and it may be said, not only that the law does, but that it ought to, make the gratification of revenge an object. This is the opinion, at any rate, of two authorities so great, and so opposed in other views, as Bishop Butler and Jeremy Bentham. /1/ Sir James Stephen says, “The criminal law stands to the passion of revenge in much the same relation as marriage to the sexual appetite.” /2/

The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong. If people would gratify the passion of revenge outside of the law, if the law did not help them, the law has no choice but to satisfy the craving itself, and thus avoid the greater evil of private [42] retribution. At the same time, this passion is not one which we encourage, either as private individuals or as lawmakers. Moreover, it does not cover the whole ground. There are crimes which do not excite it, and we should naturally expect that the most important purposes of punishment would be coextensive with the whole field of its application. It remains to be discovered whether such a general purpose exists, and if so what it is. Different theories still divide opinion upon the subject.

It has been thought that the purpose of punishment is to reform the criminal; that it is to deter the criminal and others from committing similar crimes; and that it is retribution. Few would now maintain that the first of these purposes was the only one. If it were, every prisoner should be released as soon as it appears clear that he will never repeat his offence, and if he is incurable he should not be punished at all. Of course it would be hard to reconcile the punishment of death with this doctrine.

The main struggle lies between the other two. On the one side is the notion that there is a mystic bond between wrong and punishment; on the other, that the infliction of pain is only a means to an end. Hegel, one of the great expounders of the former view, puts it, in his quasi mathematical form, that, wrong being the negation of right, punishment is the negation of that negation, or retribution. Thus the punishment must be equal, in the sense of proportionate to the crime, because its only function is to destroy it. Others, without this logical apparatus, are content to rely upon a felt necessity that suffering should follow wrong-doing.

It is objected that the preventive theory is immoral, because it overlooks the ill-desert of wrong-doing, and furnishes [43] no measure of the amount of punishment, except the lawgiver’s subjective opinion in regard to the sufficiency of the amount of preventive suffering. /1/ In the language of Kant, it treats man as a thing, not as a person; as a means, not as an end in himself. It is said to conflict with the sense of justice, and to violate the fundamental principle of all free communities, that the members of such communities have equal rights to life, liberty, and personal security. /2/

In spite of all this, probably most English-speaking lawyers would accept the preventive theory without hesitation. As to the violation of equal rights which is charged, it may be replied that the dogma of equality makes an equation between individuals only, not between an individual and the community. No society has ever admitted that it could not sacrifice individual welfare to its own existence. If conscripts are necessary for its army, it seizes them, and marches them, with bayonets in their rear, to death. It runs highways and railroads through old family places in spite of the owner’s protest, paying in this instance the market value, to be sure, because no civilized government sacrifices the citizen more than it can help, but still sacrificing his will and his welfare to that of the rest. /3/

If it were necessary to trench further upon the field of morals, it might be suggested that the dogma of equality applied even to individuals only within the limits of ordinary dealings in the common run of affairs. You cannot argue with your neighbor, except on the admission for the [44] moment that he is as wise as you, although you may by no means believe it. In the same way, you cannot deal with him, where both are free to choose, except on the footing of equal treatment, and the same rules for both. The ever-growing value set upon peace and the social relations tends to give the law of social being the appearance of the law of all being. But it seems to me clear that the ultima ratio, not only regum, but of private persons, is force, and that at the bottom of all private relations, however tempered by sympathy and all the social feelings, is a justifiable self-preference. If a man is on a plank in the deep sea which will only float one, and a stranger lays hold of it, he will thrust him off if he can. When the state finds itself in a similar position, it does the same thing.

The considerations which answer the argument of equal rights also answer the objections to treating man as a thing, and the like. If a man lives in society, he is liable to find himself so treated. The degree of civilization which a people has reached, no doubt, is marked by their anxiety to do as they would be done by. It may be the destiny of man that the social instincts shall grow to control his actions absolutely, even in anti-social situations. But they have not yet done so, and as the rules of law are or should be based upon a morality which is generally accepted, no rule founded on a theory of absolute unselfishness can be laid down without a breach between law and working beliefs.

If it be true, as I shall presently try to show, that the general principles of criminal and civil liability are the same, it will follow from that alone that theory and fact agree in frequently punishing those who have been guilty [45] of no moral wrong, and who could not be condemned by any standard that did not avowedly disregard the personal peculiarities of the individuals concerned. If punishment stood on the moral grounds which are proposed for it, the first thing to be considered would be those limitations in the capacity for choosing rightly which arise from abnormal instincts, want of education, lack of intelligence, and all the other defects which are most marked in the criminal classes. I do not say that they should not be, or at least I do not need to for my argument. I do not say that the criminal law does more good than harm. I only say that it is not enacted or administered on that theory.

There remains to be mentioned the affirmative argument in favor of the theory of retribution, to the effect that the fitness of punishment following wrong-doing is axiomatic, and is instinctively recognized by unperverted minds. I think that it will be seen, on self-inspection, that this feeling of fitness is absolute and unconditional only in the case of our neighbors. It docs not seem to me that any one who has satisfied himself that an act of his was wrong, and that he will never do it again, would feel the least need or propriety, as between himself and an earthly punishing power alone, of his being made to suffer for what he had done, although, when third persons were introduced, he might, as a philosopher, admit the necessity of hurting him to frighten others. But when our neighbors do wrong, we sometimes feel the fitness of making them smart for it, whether they have repented or not. The feeling of fitness seems to me to be only vengeance in disguise, and I have already admitted that vengeance was an element, though not the chief element, of punishment.

[46] But, again, the supposed intuition of fitness does not seem to me to be coextensive with the thing to be accounted for. The lesser punishments are just as fit for the lesser crimes as the greater for the greater. The demand that crime should be followed by its punishment should therefore be equal and absolute in both. Again, a malum prohibitum is just as much a crime as a malum in se. If there is any general ground for punishment, it must apply to one case as much as to the other. But it will hardly be said that, if the wrong in the case just supposed consisted of a breach of the revenue laws, and the government had been indemnified for the loss, we should feel any internal necessity that a man who had thoroughly repented of his wrong should be punished for it, except on the ground that his act was known to others. If it was known, the law would have to verify its threats in order that others might believe and tremble. But if the fact was a secret between the sovereign and the subject, the sovereign, if wholly free from passion, would undoubtedly see that punishment in such a case was wholly without justification.

On the other hand, there can be no case in which the law-maker makes certain conduct criminal without his thereby showing a wish and purpose to prevent that conduct. Prevention would accordingly seem to be the chief and only universal purpose of punishment. The law threatens certain pains if you do certain things, intending thereby to give you a new motive for not doing them. If you persist in doing them, it has to inflict the pains in order that its threats may continue to be believed.

If this is a true account of the law as it stands, the law does undoubtedly treat the individual as a means to an [47] end, and uses him as a tool to increase the general welfare at his own expense. It has been suggested above, that this course is perfectly proper; but even if it is wrong, our criminal law follows it, and the theory of our criminal law must be shaped accordingly.

Further evidence that our law exceeds the limits of retribution, and subordinates consideration of the individual to that of the public well-being, will be found in some doctrines which cannot be satisfactorily explained on any other ground.

The first of these is, that even the deliberate taking of life will not be punished when it is the only way of saving one’s own. This principle is not so clearly established as that next to be mentioned; but it has the support of very great authority. /1/ If that is the law, it must go on one of two grounds, either that self-preference is proper in the case supposed, or that, even if it is improper, the law cannot prevent it by punishment, because a threat of death at some future time can never be a sufficiently powerful motive to make a man choose death now in order to avoid the threat. If the former ground is adopted, it admits that a single person may sacrifice another to himself, and a fortiori that a people may. If the latter view is taken, by abandoning punishment when it can no longer be expected to prevent an act, the law abandons the retributive and adopts the preventive theory.

The next doctrine leads to still clearer conclusions. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. This substantive principle is sometimes put in the form of a rule of evidence, that every one is presumed to know the [48] law. It has accordingly been defended by Austin and others, on the ground of difficulty of proof. If justice requires the fact to be ascertained, the difficulty of doing so is no ground for refusing to try. But every one must feel that ignorance of the law could never be admitted as an excuse, even if the fact could be proved by sight and hearing in every case. Furthermore, now that parties can testify, it may be doubted whether a man’s knowledge of the law is any harder to investigate than many questions which are gone into. The difficulty, such as it is, would be met by throwing the burden of proving ignorance on the lawbreaker.

The principle cannot be explained by saying that we are not only commanded to abstain from certain acts, but also to find out that we are commanded. For if there were such a second command, it is very clear that the guilt of failing to obey it would bear no proportion to that of disobeying the principal command if known, yet the failure to know would receive the same punishment as the failure to obey the principal law.

The true explanation of the rule is the same as that which accounts for the law’s indifference to a man’s particular temperament, faculties, and so forth. Public policy sacrifices the individual to the general good. It is desirable that the burden of all should be equal, but it is still more desirable to put an end to robbery and murder. It is no doubt true that there are many cases in which the criminal could not have known that he was breaking the law, but to admit the excuse at all would be to encourage ignorance where the law-maker has determined to make men know and obey, and justice to the individual is rightly outweighed by the larger interests on the other side of the scales.

[49] If the foregoing arguments are sound, it is already manifest that liability to punishment cannot be finally and absolutely determined by considering the actual personal unworthiness of the criminal alone. That consideration will govern only so far as the public welfare permits or demands. And if we take into account the general result which the criminal law is intended to bring about, we shall see that the actual state of mind accompanying a criminal act plays a different part from what is commonly supposed.

For the most part, the purpose of the criminal law is only to induce external conformity to rule. All law is directed to conditions of things manifest to the senses. And whether it brings those conditions to pass immediately by the use of force, as when it protects a house from a mob by soldiers, or appropriates private property to public use, or hangs a man in pursuance of a judicial sentence, or whether it brings them about mediately through men’s fears, its object is equally an external result. In directing itself against robbery or murder, for instance, its purpose is to put a stop to the actual physical taking and keeping of other men’s goods, or the actual poisoning, shooting, stabbing, and otherwise putting to death of other men. If those things are not done, the law forbidding them is equally satisfied, whatever the motive.

Considering this purely external purpose of the law together with the fact that it is ready to sacrifice the individual so far as necessary in order to accomplish that purpose, we can see more readily than before that the actual degree of personal guilt involved in any particular transgression cannot be the only element, if it is an element at all, in the liability incurred. So far from its [5O] being true, as is often assumed, that the condition of a man’s heart or conscience ought to be more considered in determining criminal than civil liability, it might almost be said that it is the very opposite of truth. For civil liability, in its immediate working, is simply a redistribution of an existing loss between two individuals; and it will be argued in the next Lecture that sound policy lets losses lie where they fall, except where a special reason can be shown for interference. The most frequent of such reasons is, that the party who is charged has been to blame.

It is not intended to deny that criminal liability, as well as civil, is founded on blameworthiness. Such a denial would shock the moral sense of any civilized community; or, to put it another way, a law which punished conduct which would not be blameworthy in the average member of the community would be too severe for that community to bear. It is only intended to point out that, when we are dealing with that part of the law which aims more directly than any other at establishing standards of conduct, we should expect there more than elsewhere to find that the tests of liability are external, and independent of the degree of evil in the particular person’s motives or intentions. The conclusion follows directly from the nature of the standards to which conformity is required. These are not only external, as was shown above, but they are of general application. They do not merely require that every man should get as near as he can to the best conduct possible for him. They require him at his own peril to come up to a certain height. They take no account of incapacities, unless the weakness is so marked as to fall into well-known exceptions, such as infancy or madness. [51] They assume that every man is as able as every other to behave as they command. If they fall on any one class harder than on another, it is on the weakest. For it is precisely to those who are most likely to err by temperament, ignorance, or folly, that the threats of the law are the most dangerous.

The reconciliation of the doctrine that liability is founded on blameworthiness with the existence of liability where the party is not to blame, will be worked out more fully in the next Lecture. It is found in the conception of the average man, the man of ordinary intelligence and reasonable prudence. Liability is said to arise out of such conduct as would be blameworthy in him. But he is an ideal being, represented by the jury when they are appealed to, and his conduct is an external or objective standard when applied to any given individual. That individual may be morally without stain, because he has less than ordinary intelligence or prudence. But he is required to have those qualities at his peril. If he has them, he will not, as a general rule, incur liability without blameworthiness.

The next step is to take up some crimes in detail, and to discover what analysis will teach with regard to them.

I will begin with murder. Murder is defined by Sir James Stephen, in his Digest of Criminal Law, /1/ as unlawful homicide with malice aforethought. In his earlier work, /2/ he explained that malice meant wickedness, and that the law had determined what states of mind were wicked in the necessary degree. Without the same preliminary he continues in his Digest as follows :–

[52] “Malice aforethought means any one or more of the following states of mind ….. “(a.) An intention to cause the death of, or grievous bodily harm to, any person, whether such person is the person actually killed or not; “(b.) Knowledge that the act which causes death will probably cause the death of, or grievous bodily harm to, some person, whether such person is the person actually killed or not, although such knowledge is accompanied by indifference whether death or grievous bodily harm is caused or not, or by a wish that it may not be caused; “(c.) An intent to commit any felony whatever; “(d.) An intent to oppose by force any officer of justice on his way to, in, or returning from the execution of the duty of arresting, keeping in custody, or imprisoning any person whom he is lawfully entitled to arrest, keep in custody, or imprison, or the duty of keeping the peace or dispersing an unlawful assembly, provided that the offender has notice that the person killed is such an officer so employed.”

Malice, as used in common speech, includes intent, and something more. When an act is said to be done with an intent to do harm, it is meant that a wish for the harm is the motive of the act. Intent, however, is perfectly consistent with the harm being regretted as such, and being wished only as a means to something else. But when an act is said to be done maliciously, it is meant, not only that a wish for the harmful effect is the motive, but also that the harm is wished for its own sake, or, as Austin would say with more accuracy, for the sake of the pleasurable feeling which knowledge of the suffering caused by the act would excite. Now it is apparent from Sir James [53] Stephen’s enumeration, that of these two elements of malice the intent alone is material to murder. It is just as much murder to shoot a sentry for the purpose of releasing a friend, as to shoot him because you hate him. Malice, in the definition of murder, has not the same meaning as in common speech, and, in view of the considerations just mentioned, it has been thought to mean criminal intention. /1/

But intent again will be found to resolve itself into two things; foresight that certain consequences will follow from an act, and the wish for those consequences working as a motive which induces the act. The question then is, whether intent, in its turn, cannot be reduced to a lower term. Sir James Stephen’s statement shows that it can be, and that knowledge that the act will probably cause death, that is, foresight of the consequences of the act, is enough in murder as in tort.

For instance, a newly born child is laid naked out of doors, where it must perish as a matter of course. This is none the less murder, that the guilty party would have been very glad to have a stranger find the child and save it. /2/

But again, What is foresight of consequences? It is a picture of a future state of things called up by knowledge of the present state of things, the future being viewed as standing to the present in the relation of effect to cause. Again, we must seek a reduction to lower terms. If the known present state of things is such that the act done will very certainly cause death, and the probability is a matter of common knowledge, one who does the act, [54] knowing the present state of things, is guilty of murder, and the law will not inquire whether he did actually foresee the consequences or not. The test of foresight is not what this very criminal foresaw, but what a man of reasonable prudence would have foreseen.

On the other hand, there must be actual present knowledge of the present facts which make an act dangerous. The act is not enough by itself. An act, it is true, imports intention in a certain sense. It is a muscular contraction, and something more. A spasm is not an act. The contraction of the muscles must be willed. And as an adult who is master of himself foresees with mysterious accuracy the outward adjustment which will follow his inward effort, that adjustment may be said to be intended. But the intent necessarily accompanying the act ends there. Nothing would follow from the act except for the environment. All acts, taken apart from their surrounding circumstances, are indifferent to the law. For instance, to crook the forefinger with a certain force is the same act whether the trigger of a pistol is next to it or not. It is only the surrounding circumstances of a pistol loaded and cocked, and of a human being in such relation to it, as to be manifestly likely to be hit, that make the act a wrong. Hence, it is no sufficient foundation for liability, on any sound principle, that the proximate cause of loss was an act.

The reason for requiring an act is, that an act implies a choice, and that it is felt to be impolitic and unjust to make a man answerable for harm, unless he might have chosen otherwise. But the choice must be made with a chance of contemplating the consequence complained of, or else it has no bearing on responsibility for that consequence. [55] If this were not true, a man might be held answerable for everything which would not have happened but for his choice at some past time. For instance, for having in a fit fallen on a man, which he would not have done had he not chosen to come to the city where he was taken ill.

All foresight of the future, all choice with regard to any possible consequence of action, depends on what is known at the moment of choosing. An act cannot be wrong, even when done under circumstances in which it will be hurtful, unless those circumstances are or ought to be known. A fear of punishment for causing harm cannot work as a motive, unless the possibility of harm may be foreseen. So far, then, as criminal liability is founded upon wrong-doing in any sense, and so far as the threats and punishments of the law are intended to deter men from bringing about various harmful results, they must be confined to cases where circumstances making the conduct dangerous were known.

Still, in a more limited way, the same principle applies to knowledge that applies to foresight. It is enough that such circumstances were actually known as would have led a man of common understanding to infer from them the rest of the group making up the present state of things. For instance, if a workman on a house-top at mid-day knows that the space below him is a street in a great city, he knows facts from which a man of common understanding would infer that there were people passing below. He is therefore bound to draw that inference, or, in other words, is chargeable with knowledge of that fact also, whether he draws the inference or not. If then, he throws down a heavy beam into the street, he does an act [56] which a person of ordinary prudence would foresee is likely to cause death, or grievous bodily harm, and he is dealt with as if he foresaw it, whether he does so in fact or not. If a death is caused by the act, he is guilty of murder. /1/ But if the workman has reasonable cause to believe that the space below is a private yard from which every one is excluded, and which is used as a rubbish heap, his act is not blameworthy, and the homicide is a mere misadventure.

To make an act which causes death murder, then, the actor ought, on principle, to know, or have notice of the facts which make the act dangerous. There are certain exceptions to this principle which will be stated presently, but they have less application to murder than to some smaller statutory crimes. The general rule prevails for the most part in murder.

But furthermore, on the same principle, the danger which in fact exists under the known circumstances ought to be of a class which a man of reasonable prudence could foresee. Ignorance of a fact and inability to foresee a consequence have the same effect on blameworthiness. If a consequence cannot be foreseen, it cannot be avoided. But there is this practical difference, that whereas, in most cases, the question of knowledge is a question of the actual condition of the defendant’s consciousness, the question of what he might have foreseen is determined by the standard of the prudent man, that is, by general experience. For it is to be remembered that the object of the law is to prevent human life being endangered or taken; and that, although it so far considers blameworthiness in punishing as not to hold a man responsible for consequences which [57] no one, or only some exceptional specialist, could have foreseen, still the reason for this limitation is simply to make a rule which is not too hard for the average member of the community. As the purpose is to compel men to abstain from dangerous conduct, and not merely to restrain them from evil inclinations, the law requires them at their peril to know the teachings of common experience, just as it requires them to know the law. Subject to these explanations, it may be said that the test of murder is the degree of danger to life attending the act under the known circumstances of the case. /1/

It needs no further explanation to show that, when the particular defendant does for any reason foresee what an ordinary man of reasonable prudence would not have foreseen, the ground of exemption no longer applies. A harmful act is only excused on the ground that the party neither did foresee, nor could with proper care have foreseen harm.

It would seem, at first sight, that the above analysis ought to exhaust the whole subject of murder. But it does not without some further explanation. If a man forcibly resists an officer lawfully making an arrest, and kills him, knowing him to be an officer, it may be murder, although no act is done which, but for his official function, would be criminal at all. So, if a man does an act with intent to commit a felony, and thereby accidentally kills another; for instance, if he fires at chickens, intending to steal them, and accidentally kills the owner, whom he does not see. Such a case as this last seems hardly to be reconcilable with the general principles which have been laid down. It has been argued somewhat as [58] follows:–The only blameworthy act is firing at the chickens, knowing them to belong to another. It is neither more nor less so because an accident happens afterwards; and hitting a man, whose presence could not have been suspected, is an accident. The fact that the shooting is felonious docs not make it any more likely to kill people. If the object of the rule is to prevent such accidents, it should make accidental killing with firearms murder, not accidental killing in the effort to steal; while, if its object is to prevent stealing, it would do better to hang one thief in every thousand by lot.

Still, the law is intelligible as it stands. The general test of murder is the degree of danger attending the acts under the known state of facts. If certain acts are regarded as peculiarly dangerous under certain circumstances, a legislator may make them punishable if done under these circumstances, although the danger was not generally known. The law often takes this step, although it does not nowadays often inflict death in such cases. It sometimes goes even further, and requires a man to find out present facts, as well as to foresee future harm, at his peril, although they are not such as would necessarily be inferred from the facts known.

Thus it is a statutory offence in England to abduct a girl under sixteen from the possession of the person having lawful charge of her. If a man docs acts which induce a girl under sixteen to leave her parents, he is not chargeable, if he had no reason to know that she was under the lawful charge of her parents, /1/ and it may be presumed that he would not be, if he had reasonable cause to believe that she was a boy. But if he knowingly abducts a girl from [59] her parents, he must find out her age at his peril. It is no defence that he had every reason to think her over sixteen. /1/ So, under a prohibitory liquor law, it has been held that, if a man sells “Plantation Bitters,” it is no defence that he does not know them to be intoxicating. /2/ And there are other examples of the same kind.

Now, if experience shows, or is deemed by the law-maker to show, that somehow or other deaths which the evidence makes accidental happen disproportionately often in connection with other felonies, or with resistance to officers, or if on any other ground of policy it is deemed desirable to make special efforts for the prevention of such deaths, the lawmaker may consistently treat acts which, under the known circumstances, are felonious, or constitute resistance to officers, as having a sufficiently dangerous tendency to be put under a special ban. The law may, therefore, throw on the actor the peril, not only of the consequences foreseen by him, but also of consequences which, although not predicted by common experience, the legislator apprehends. I do not, however, mean to argue that the rules under discussion arose on the above reasoning, any more than that they are right, or would be generally applied in this country.

Returning to the main line of thought it will be instructive to consider the relation of manslaughter to murder. One great difference between the two will be found to lie in the degree of danger attaching to the act in the given state of facts. If a man strikes another with a small stick which is not likely to kill, and which he has no reason to suppose will do more than slight bodily harm, but which [6O] does kill the other, he commits manslaughter, not murder. /1/ But if the blow is struck as hard as possible with an iron bar an inch thick, it is murder. /2/ So if, at the time of striking with a switch, the party knows an additional fact, by reason of which he foresees that death will be the consequence of a slight blow, as, for instance, that the other has heart disease, the offence is equally murder. /3/ To explode a barrel of gunpowder in a crowded street, and kill people, is murder, although the actor hopes that no such harm will be done. /4/ But to kill a man by careless riding in the same street would commonly be manslaughter. /5/ Perhaps, however, a case could be put where the riding was so manifestly dangerous that it would be murder.

To recur to an example which has been used already for another purpose: “When a workman flings down a stone or piece of timber into the street, and kills a man; this may be either misadventure, manslaughter, or murder, according to the circumstances under which the original act was done: if it were in a country village, where few passengers are, and he calls out to all people to have a care, it is misadventure only; but if it were in London, or other populous town, where people are continually passing, it is manslaughter, though he gives loud warning; and murder, if he knows of their passing, and gives no warning at all.” /6/

The law of manslaughter contains another doctrine [61] which should be referred to in order to complete the understanding of the general principles of the criminal law. This doctrine is, that provocation may reduce an offence which would otherwise have been murder to manslaughter. According to current morality, a man is not so much to blame for an act done under the disturbance of great excitement, caused by a wrong done to himself, as when he is calm. The law is made to govern men through their motives, and it must, therefore, take their mental constitution into account.

It might be urged, on the other side, that, if the object of punishment is prevention, the heaviest punishment should be threatened where the strongest motive is needed to restrain; and primitive legislation seems sometimes to have gone on that principle. But if any threat will restrain a man in a passion, a threat of less than death will be sufficient, and therefore the extreme penalty has been thought excessive.

At the same time the objective nature of legal standards is shown even here. The mitigation does not come from the fact that the defendant was beside himself with rage. It is not enough that he had grounds which would have had the same effect on every man of his standing and education. The most insulting words are not provocation, although to this day, and still more when the law was established, many people would rather die than suffer them without action. There must be provocation sufficient to justify the passion, and the law decides on general considerations what provocations are sufficient.

It is said that even what the law admits to be “provocation does not extenuate the guilt of homicide, unless the person provoked is at the time when he does the deed [62] deprived of the power of self-control by the provocation which he has received.” /1/ There are obvious reasons for taking the actual state of the defendant’s consciousness into account to this extent. The only ground for not applying the general rule is, that the defendant was in such a state that he could not be expected to remember or be influenced by the fear of punishment; if he could be, the ground of exception disappears. Yet even here, rightly or wrongly, the law has gone far in the direction of adopting external tests. The courts seem to have decided between murder and manslaughter on such grounds as the nature of the weapon used, /2/ or the length of time between the provocation and the act. /3/ But in other cases the question whether the prisoner was deprived of self-control by passion has been left to the jury. /4/

As the object of this Lecture is not to give an outline of the criminal law, but to explain its general theory, I shall only consider such offences as throw some special light upon the subject, and shall treat of those in such order as seems best fitted for that purpose. It will now be useful to take up malicious mischief, and to compare the malice required to constitute that offence with the malice aforethought of murder.

The charge of malice aforethought in an indictment for murder has been shown not to mean a state of the defendant’s mind, as is often thought, except in the sense that he knew circumstances which did in fact make his conduct dangerous. It is, in truth, an allegation like that of negligence, which asserts that the party accused did not [63] come up to the legal standard of action under the circumstances in which he found himself, and also that there was no exceptional fact or excuse present which took the case out of the general rule. It is an averment of a conclusion of law which is permitted to abridge the facts (positive and negative) on which it is founded.

When a statute punishes the “wilfully and maliciously” injuring another’s property, it is arguable, if not clear, that something more is meant. The presumption that the second word was not added without some meaning is seconded by the unreasonableness of making every wilful trespass criminal. /1/ If this reasoning prevails, maliciously is here used in its popular sense, and imports that the motive for the defendant’s act was a wish to harm the owner of the property, or the thing itself, if living, as an end, and for the sake of the harm. Malice in this sense has nothing in common with the malice of murder.

Statutory law need not profess to be consistent with itself, or with the theory adopted by judicial decisions. Hence there is strictly no need to reconcile such a statute with the principles which have been explained. But there is no inconsistency. Although punishment must be confined to compelling external conformity to a rule of conduct, so far that it can always be avoided by avoiding or doing certain acts as required, with whatever intent or for whatever motive, still the prohibited conduct may not be hurtful unless it is accompanied by a particular state of feeling.

Common disputes about property are satisfactorily settled by compensation. But every one knows that sometimes secret harm is done by neighbor to neighbor out of [64] pure malice and spite. The damage can be paid for, but the malignity calls for revenge, and the difficulty of detecting the authors of such wrongs, which are always done secretly, affords a ground for punishment, even if revenge is thought insufficient.

How far the law will go in this direction it is hard to say. The crime of arson is defined to be the malicious and wilful burning of the house of another man, and is generally discussed in close connection with malicious mischief. It has been thought that the burning was not malicious where a prisoner set fire to his prison, not from a desire to consume the building, but solely to effect his escape. But it seems to be the better opinion that this is arson, /1/ in which case an intentional burning is malicious within the meaning of the rule. When we remember that arson was the subject of one of the old appeals which take us far back into the early law, /2/ we may readily understand that only intentional burnings were redressed in that way. /3/ The appeal of arson was brother to the appeal de pace et plagis. As the latter was founded on a warlike assault, the former supposed a house-firing for robbery or revenge, /4/ such as that by which Njal perished in the Icelandic Saga. But this crime seems to have had the same history as others. As soon as intent is admitted to be sufficient, the law is on the high-road to an external standard. A man who intentionally sets fire to his own house, which is so near to other houses that the fire will manifestly endanger them, is guilty of arson if one of the other houses is burned in consequence. /5/ In this case, an act which would not [65] have been arson, taking only its immediate consequences into account, becomes arson by reason of more remote consequences which were manifestly likely to follow, whether they were actually intended or not. If that may be the effect of setting fire to things which a man has a right to burn, so far as they alone are concerned, why, on principle, should it not be the effect of any other act which is equally likely under the surrounding circumstances to cause the same harm. /1/ Cases may easily be imagined where firing a gun, or making a chemical mixture, or piling up oiled rags, or twenty other things, might be manifestly dangerous in the highest degree and actually lead to a conflagration. If, in such cases, the crime is held to have been committed, an external standard is reached, and the analysis which has been made of murder applies here.

There is another class of cases in which intent plays an important part, for quite different reasons from those which have been offered to account for the law of malicious mischief. The most obvious examples of this class are criminal attempts. Attempt and intent, of course, are two distinct things. Intent to commit a crime is not itself criminal. There is no law against a man’s intending to commit a murder the day after tomorrow. The law only deals with conduct. An attempt is an overt act. It differs from the attempted crime in this, that the act has failed to bring about the result which would have given it the character of the principal crime. If an attempt to murder results in death within a year and a day, it is murder. If an attempt to steal results in carrying off the owner’s goods, it is larceny.

If an act is done of which the natural and probable [66] effect under the circumstances is the accomplishment of a substantive crime, the criminal law, while it may properly enough moderate the severity of punishment if the act has not that effect in the particular case, can hardly abstain altogether from punishing it, on any theory. It has been argued that an actual intent is all that can give the act a criminal character in such instances. /1/ But if the views which I have advanced as to murder and manslaughter are sound, the same principles ought logically to determine the criminality of acts in general. Acts should be judged by their tendency under the known circumstances, not by the actual intent which accompanies them.

It may be true that in the region of attempts, as elsewhere, the law began with cases of actual intent, as those cases are the most obvious ones. But it cannot stop with them, unless it attaches more importance to the etymological meaning of the word attempt than to the general principles of punishment. Accordingly there is at least color of authority for the proposition that an act is punishable as an attempt, if, supposing it to have produced its natural and probable effect, it would have amounted to a substantive crime. /2/

But such acts are not the only punishable attempts. There is another class in which actual intent is clearly necessary, and the existence of this class as well as the name (attempt) no doubt tends to affect the whole doctrine. Some acts may be attempts or misdemeanors which [67] could not have effected the crime unless followed by other acts on the part of the wrong-doer. For instance, lighting a match with intent to set fire to a haystack has been held to amount to a criminal attempt to burn it, although the defendant blew out the match on seeing that he was watched. /1/ So the purchase of dies for making counterfeit coin is a misdemeanor, although of course the coin would not be counterfeited unless the dies were used. /2/

In such cases the law goes on a new principle, different from that governing most substantive crimes. The reason for punishing any act must generally be to prevent some harm which is foreseen as likely to follow that act under the circumstances in which it is done. In most substantive crimes the ground on which that likelihood stands is the common working of natural causes as shown by experience. But when an act is punished the natural effect of which is not harmful under the circumstances, that ground alone will not suffice. The probability does not exist unless there are grounds for expecting that the act done will be followed by other acts in connection with which its effect will be harmful, although not so otherwise. But as in fact no such acts have followed, it cannot, in general, be assumed, from the mere doing of what has been done, that they would have followed if the actor had not been interrupted. They would not have followed it unless the actor had chosen, and the only way generally available to show that he would have chosen to do them is by showing that he intended to do them when he did what he did. The accompanying intent in that case renders the otherwise [68] innocent act harmful, because it raises a probability that it will be followed by such other acts and events as will all together result in harm. The importance of the intent is not to show that the act was wicked, but to show that it was likely to be followed by hurtful consequences.

It will be readily seen that there are limits to this kind of liability. The law does not punish every act which is done with the intent to bring about a crime. If a man starts from Boston to Cambridge for the purpose of committing a murder when he gets there, but is stopped by the draw and goes home, he is no more punishable than if he had sat in his chair and resolved to shoot somebody, but on second thoughts had given up the notion. On the other hand, a slave who ran after a white woman, but desisted before he caught her, has been convicted of an attempt to commit rape. /1/ We have seen what amounts to an attempt to burn a haystack; but it was said in the same case, that, if the defendant had gone no further than to buy a box of matches for the purpose, he would not have been liable.

Eminent judges have been puzzled where to draw the line, or even to state the principle on which it should be drawn, between the two sets of cases. But the principle is believed to be similar to that on which all other lines are drawn by the law. Public policy, that is to say, legislative considerations, are at the bottom of the matter; the considerations being, in this case, the nearness of the danger, the greatness of the harm, and the degree of apprehension felt. When a man buys matches to fire a haystack, or starts on a journey meaning to murder at the end of it, there is still a considerable chance that he will [69] change his mind before he comes to the point. But when he has struck the match, or cocked and aimed the pistol, there is very little chance that he will not persist to the end, and the danger becomes so great that the law steps in. With an object which could not be used innocently, the point of intervention might be put further back, as in the case of the purchase of a die for coining.

The degree of apprehension may affect the decision, as well as the degree of probability that the crime will be accomplished. No doubt the fears peculiar to a slaveowning community had their share in the conviction which has just been mentioned.

There is one doubtful point which should not be passed over. It has been thought that to shoot at a block of wood thinking it to be a man is not an attempt to murder, /1/ and that to put a hand into an empty pocket, intending to pick it, is not an attempt to commit larceny, although on the latter question there is a difference of opinion. /2/ The reason given is, that an act which could not have effected the crime if the actor had been allowed to follow it up to all results to which in the nature of things it could have led, cannot be an attempt to commit that crime when interrupted. At some point or other, of course, the law must adopt this conclusion, unless it goes on the theory of retribution for guilt, and not of prevention of harm.

But even to prevent harm effectually it will not do to be too exact. I do not suppose that firing a pistol at a man with intent to kill him is any the less an attempt to murder because the bullet misses its aim. Yet there the act has produced the whole effect possible to it in the [7O] course of nature. It is just as impossible that that bullet under those circumstances should hit that man, as to pick an empty pocket. But there is no difficulty in saying that such an act under such circumstances is so dangerous, so far as the possibility of human foresight is concerned, that it should be punished. No one can absolutely know, though many would be pretty sure, exactly where the bullet will strike; and if the harm is done, it is a very great harm. If a man fires at a block, no harm can possibly ensue, and no theft can be committed in an empty pocket, besides that the harm of successful theft is less than that of murder. Yet it might be said that even such things as these should be punished, in order to make discouragement broad enough and easy to understand.

There remain to be considered certain substantive crimes, which differ in very important ways from murder and the like, and for the explanation of which the foregoing analysis of intent in criminal attempts and analogous misdemeanors will be found of service.