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Is regard to be had to such changes, subsequent, as well as prior, to the establishment of the Constitution ?
Is regard to be had to future, as well as past changes ?
Is the law to be different in every state, as differently modified by its code; or are the modifications of any particular state to be applied to all ?
And on the latter supposition, which among the state codes would form the standard ?
Questions of this sort might be multiplied with as much ease, as there would be difficulty in answering them.
The consequences flowing from the proposed construction, furnish other objections equally conclusive ; unless the text were peremptory in its mean. ing, and consistent with other parts of the instrument.
These consequences may be in relation to the legislative authority of the United States; to the executive authority; to the judicial authority; and to the governments of the several states.
If it be understood, that the common law is established by the Constituition, it follows that no part of the law can be altered by the legislature; such of the statutes already passed, as may be repugnant thereto would be nullified; particularly the “ sedition-act” itself, which boasts of being a melioration of the common law; and the whole code, with all its incon. gruities, barbarisms, and bloody maxims, would be inviolably saddled on the good people of the United States.
Should this consequence be rejected, and the common law be held, like other laws, liable to revision and alteration, by the authority of Congress, it then follows, that the authority of Congress is co-extensive with the objects of common law; that is to say, with every object of legislation : for to every such object does some branch or other of the common law extend. The authority of Congress would, therefore, be no longer under the limitations marked out in the Constitution. They would be authorized to legislate in all cases whatsoever.
In the next place, as the President possesses the executive powers of the Constitution, and is to see that the laws be faithfully executed, bis authority also must be coextensive with every branch of the common law. The additions which this would make to his power, though not readily to be estimated, claim the most serious attention.
This is not all; it will merit the most profound consideration, how far an indefinite admission of the common law, with a latitude in construing it, equal to the construction by which it is deduced from the Constitution, might draw after it the various prerogatives making part of the unwritten law of England. The English constitution itself is nothing more than a composition of unwritten laws and maxims.
In the third place, whether the common law be admitted as of legal or of constitutional obligation, it would confer on the judicial department a discretion little short of a legislative power.
On the supposition of its having a constitutional obligation, this power in the judges would be permanent and irremediable by the legislature. On the other supposition, the power would not expire, until the legislature should have introduced a full system of statutory provisions. Let it be
observed, too, that besides all the uncertainties above enumerated, and which present an immense field for judicial discretion, it would remain with the same department to decide what parts of the common law would, and what would not, be properly applicable to the circumstances of the United States.
A discretion of this sort has always been lamented as incongruous and dangerous, even in the colonial and state courts; although so much nar. rowed by positive provisions in the local codes on all the principal subjects embraced by the common law. Under the United States, where so few laws exist on those subjects, and where so great a lapse of time must happen before the vast chasm could be supplied, it is manifest that the power of the judges over the law would, in fact, erect them into legislators; and that, for a long time, it would be impossible for the citizens to conjecture, either what was, or would be law.
In the last place, the consequence of admitting the common law as the law of the United States, on the authority of the individual states, is as obvious as it would be fatal. As this law relates to every subject of legislation, and would be paramount to the constitutions and laws of the states, the admission of it would overwhelm the residuary sovereignty of the states, and by one constructive operation, new-model the whole politi. cal fabric of the country.
From the review thus taken of the situation of the American colonies prior to their independence; of the effect of this event on their situation ; of the nature and import of the articles of confederation; of the true meaning of the passage in the existing Constitution from which the com. mon law has been deduced ; of the difficulties and uncertainties incident to the doctrine; and of its vast consequences in extending the powers of the Federal Government, and in superseding the authorities of the state governments; the committee feel the utmost confidence in concluding, that the common law never was, nor, by any fair construction, ever can be, deemed a law for the American people as one community; and they indulge the strongest expectation that the same conclusion will finally be drawn, by all candid and accurate inquirers into the subject. It is indeed distressing to reflect, that it ever should have been made a question, whether the Constitution, on the whole face of which is seen so much labour to enumerate and define the several objects of federal power, could intend to introduce in the lump, in an indirect manner, and by a forced construction of a few phrases, the vast and multisarious jurisdiction involved in the common law; a law filling so many ample volumes ; a law overspreading the entire field of legislation ; and a law that would sap the foundation of the Constitution as a system of limited and specified powers. A severer reproach could not, in the opinion of the committee, be thrown on the Constitution, on those who framed, or on those who established it, than such a supposition would throw on them.
The argument, then, drawn from the common law, on the ground of its being adopted or recognised by the Constitution, being inapplicable to the sedition-act, the committee will proceed to examine the other arguments which have been founded on the Constitution.
They will waste but little time on the attempt to cover the act by the
preamble to the Constitution; it being contrary to every acknowledged rule of construction, to set up this part of an instrument, in opposition tothe plain meaning expressed in the body of the instrument. A preamble usually contains the general motives or reasons, for the particular regulations or measures which follow it; and is always understood to be explained and limited by them. In the present instance, a contrary interpretation would have the inadmissible effect, of rendering nugatory or improper every part of the Constitution which succeeds the preamble.
The paragraph in Art. I. sect. 8, which contains the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excise ; to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare, having been already examined, will also require no particular attention in this place. It will have been seen that in its fair and consistent meaning, it cannot enlarge the enumerated powers vested in Congress.
The part of the Constitution which seems most to be recurred to, in defence of the “ sedition-act," is the last clause of the above section, em. powering Congress “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."
The plain import of this clause is, that Congress shall have all the inci. dental or instrumental powers necessary and proper for carrying into execution all the express powers; whether they be vested in the go. vernment of the United States, more collectively, or in the several de. partments or officers thereof. It is not a grant of new powers to Congress, but merely a declaration, for the removal of all uncertainty, that the means of carrying into execution, those otherwise granted, are included in the grant.
Whenever, therefore, a question arises concerning the constitutionality of a particular power, the first question is, whether the power be expressed in the Constitution. If it be, the question is decided. If it be not ex. pressed, the next inquiry must be, whether it is properly an incident to an express power, and necessary to its execution. If it be, it may be exer. cised by Congress. If it be not, Congress cannot exercise it.
Let the question be asked, then, whether the power over the press, exer. cised in the “ sedition-act," be found among the powers expressly vested in the Congress? This is not pretended.
Is there any express power, for executing which it is a necessary and proper power ?
The power which has been selected, as least remote, in answer to this question, is that of "suppressing insurrections;" which is said to imply a power to prevent insurrections, by punishing whatever may lead or tend to them. But, it surely cannot, with the least plausibility, be said, that a regulation of the press, and a punishment of libels, are exercises of a power to suppress insurrections. The most that could be said, would be, that the punishment of libels, if it had the tendency ascribed to it, might prevent the occasion of passing or executing laws necessary and proper for the suppression of insurrections,
Has the Federal Government no power, then, to prevent as well as to punish resistance to the laws?
They have the power, which the Constitution deemed most proper, in their hands for the purpose. The Congress has power before it happens, to pass laws for punishing it; and the executive and judiciary have power to enforce those laws when it does happen.
It must be recollected by many, and could be shown to the satisfaction of all, that the construction here put on the terms “necessary and proper,” is precisely the construction which prevailed during the discussions and ratifica. tions of the Constitution. It may be added, and cannot too often be repeated, that it is a construction absolutely necessary to maintain their consistency with the peculiar character of the government, as possessed of particular and defined powers only; not of the general and indefinite powers vested in ordinary governments. For, if the power to suppress insurrection, includes a power to punish libels; or if the power to punish, includes a power to prevent, by all the means that may have that tendency; such is the relation and influence among the most remote subjecis of legislation, that a power over very few, would carry with it a power over all. And it niust be wholly immaterial, whether unlimited powers be exercised under the name of unlimited powers, or be exercised under the name of unlimited means of carrying into execution limited powers.
This branch of the subject will be closed with a reflection which must have weight with all ; but more especially with those who place peculiar reliance on the judicial exposition of the Constitution, as the bulwark provided against undue extensions of the legislative power. If it be understood that the powers implied in the specified powers, have an imme. diate and appropriate relation to them, as means, necessary
proper for carrying them into execution, questions on the constitutionality of laws passed for this purpose, will be of a nature sufficiently precise and determinate for judicial cognizance and control! If, on the other hand, Con. gress are not limited in the choice of means by any such appropriate relation of them to the specified powers; but may employ all such means as they may deem fitted to prevent, as well as to punish, crimes subjected to their authority ; such as may have a tendency only to promote an object for which they are authorized to provide; every one must perceive, that questions relating to means of this sort, must be questions of mere policy and expediency, on which legislative discretion alone can decide, and from which the judicial interposition and control are completely excluded.
2. The next point which the resolution requires to be proved, is, that the power over the press exercised by the sedition-act, is positively forbid. den by one of the amendments to the Constitution.
The amendment stands in these words—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
In the attempts to vindicate the “ sedition-act,” it has been contended, 1. That the “ freedom of the press" is to be determined by the meaning
of these terms in the common law. 2. That the article supposes the power over the press to be in Congress, and prohibits them only from abridging the freedom allowed to it by the common law.
Although it will be shown, in examining the second of these positions, that the amendment is a denial to Congress of all power over the press, it may not be useless to make the following observations on the first of them.
It is deemed to be a sound opinion, that the sedition-act, in its definition of some of the crimes created, is an abridgment of the freedom of publication, recognised by principles of the common law in England.
The freedom of the press under the common law, is, in the defences of the sedition-act, made to consist in an exemption from all previous restraint on printed publications, by persons authorized to inspect and prohibit them. It appears to the committee, that this idea of the freedom of the press, can never be admitted to be the American idea of it: since a law inflicting penalties on printed publications, would have a similar effect with a law authorizing a previous restraint on them. It would seem a mockery to say, that no law should be passed, preventing publications from being made, but that laws might be passed for punishing them in case they should be made.
The essential difference between the British government, and the American constitutions, will place this subject in the clearest light.
In the British government, the danger of encroachments on the rights of the people, is understood to be confined to the executive magistrate. The representatives of the people in the legislature, are not only exempt themselves, from distrust, but are considered as sufficient guardians of the rights of their constituents against the danger from the executive. Hence it is a principle, that the parliament is unlimited in its power; or, in their own language, is omnipotent. Hence, too, all the ramparts for protecting the rights of the people, such as their magna charta, their bill of rights, &c., are not reared against the parliament, but against the royal preroga. tive. They are merely legislative precautions against executive usurpa. tions. Under such a government as this, an exemption of the press from previous restraint by licensers appointed by the king, is all the freedom that can be secured to it.
In the United States, the case is altogether different. The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty. The legislature, no less than the executive, is under limitations of power. Encroachments are regarded as possible from the one, as well as from the other. Hence, in the United States, the great and essential rights of the people are secured against legislative, as well as against executive ambition. They are secured, not by laws paramount to prerogative, but by constitutions paramount to laws. This security of the freedom of the press requires, that it should be exempt, not only from previous restraint by the execu. tive, as in Great Britain, but from legislative restraint also; and this exemption, to be effectual, must be an exemption not only from the previous inspection of licensers, but from the subsequent penalty of laws.
The state of the press, therefore, under the common law, cannot, in this point of view, be the standard of its freedom in the United States.