PERSONAL or civil liberty is that boon which man values most among the inestimable gifts of God, his Creator. In the proper enjoyment of it, he stands forth in the image of his Maker, self-reliant and strong. Take from him this inherent natural right — through the forms of government or law — by subjugation or force — by tyranny or prerogative and he is a mere machine, worked by the hand of power.
It is equally true that the prosperity and superiority of the State or Nation having the elements of personal or civil liberty or freedom incorporated in the formation of the society which constitutes it, is in proportion to the extent of the civil privileges, immunities, and franchises. When a State properly enjoys liberty, its progress is the more rapid and stable. When the liberties of the people are abused and degraded, the State retrogrades.
The proper uses of liberty, in a free government where emulation receives encouragement and support, stimulate the citizen, and produce culture, refinement, art, science, invention, learning, eloquence, oratory, statesmanship, and religion, in the highest degree. No other form of government advances the virtues and interests of the people to such superiority and pre-eminence. It invites competition — it is the lever of progress — it is the friend of ambition. Hence, when the whole people — like the individual man — are inspired with a pure, patriotic, and instinctive love of liberty, the State becomes great, illustrious, and mighty.
The Constitution is the chart by which every Administration ought to be guided; but I regret to say — both for the reputation and stability of our Government — it has, of late, been a "dead letter". "He that takes, Deep in his soft credulity the stamp Designed by loud declaimers on the part Of liberty, themselves the slaves of lust, Incurs derision for his easy faith And lack of knowledge, and with cause enough: For when was public virtue to be found Where private was naught? Can he love the whole Who loves no part? He be a nation's friend Who is in truth the friend of no man there, Can he be strenuous in his country's cause Who slights the charities, for whose dear sake That country, if at all, must be beloved?" It is to be hoped that the men in power, who have abused the confidence of the people, will soon be displaced. Retributive justice will follow him who robs the citizen of his liberty, even unto the very precincts of the cold and silent grave; conscience will smite him on earth, and he will exclaim: "The thorns that I have reaped, are of the tree I planted. They have torn me, and I bleed!"
The citizen of a free State has no superior, in point of liberty or in point of law. The humblest citizen is entitled lo the same rights and privileges, and the same protection, to which the highest magistrate is entitled. The law in a free government is no respecter of persons, nor does it make any distinction, in so far as liberty is concerned.
In a free government, the Constitution throws around the citizen certain safeguards or protections to his liberty. It gives him the right to trial by jury. It secures him against unreasonable searches and seizures. It protects him against arrest, except on oath made by a responsible person. If maliciously arrested or falsely imprisoned, he has his redress or action against the informant or magistrate for trespass or false imprisonment. “Every restraint upon a man’s liberty” says Kent, “is, in the eye of the law, an imprisonment, wherever may be the place, or whatever may be the manner in which the restraint is effected.” Even words may constitute an imprisonment, if they impose a restraint upon a person, and he submits.
He, then, who, possessing the power, robs the citizen of his liberty, even for an hour—yea, for a moment—without the sanction of law, or deprives him of the right to all the immunities of the law, commits a crime against the interests of the State, which time cannot expiate. By his example, the people are made reckless of their liberties and their allegiance to the State.
Blackstone says: “Of so great importance to the public is the preservation of personal liberty, that, if once it wore left in the power of any, the highest magistrate, to imprison arbitrarily whoever he or his officers thought proper, there would soon be an end of all other rights and immunities. To bereave a man of his life, or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole kingdom; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary power.”
The highest aim of the magistrate in a free government should be to protect and defend, and not destroy, the liberty of the citizen. Even when the State is in danger, it is the province of the Legislature, and not of the magistrate, to protect it against external or internal foes.
In a free or elective system of government, as in the United States, where a written Constitution has been adopted, the different branches of government are so well marked out and defined, and the duties and offices of each are so independent and distinct, that under no possible circumstances can usurpations in any, or the encroachments of one upon the other, be excused. Any usurpation whatever, in either branch, leads to anarchy, demoralization, and finally disruption. The blow may not be aimed at, but it strikes into the very heart of liberty.
Hence the absolute necessity of keeping the liberties of the people pure and immaculate, and free from infringement, by the makers, the administrators, and the expounders of the laws.
In order to protect and increase the power and prolong the independence of the State, the liberties of the people must be fostered, guarded, and secured. “It ” (liberty), says Burke, “is not only a private blessing of the first order, but the vital spring or energy of the State itself, which has just so much life and vigor as there is liberty in it.”
To protect liberty, the streams of legislation, administration, and justice must be kept clear, from the fountain-head even unto the mouth. Usurpation’s and encroachments upon the rights and liberties of the citizen are as deleterious to the tranquility and welfare of the State as the unbridled, unrestrained, and licentious abuse of them by the citizen.
These prefatory remarks are made merely to remind the general reader of his constitutional rights. Of late, the civic rights of the citizen have been abridged. It remains to be seen whether he will maintain them. The permanence and stability of the government rest entirely with the citizen. It is for him to say how long free government will exist in our country.
Although free government may be traced back to a period of about three thousand years, it is not my intention to allude to the experiments in establishing it beyond the adoption of Magna Charta, in which may be found the vital principles on which it is based. The political rights which we enjoy under our Constitution may be said to be derived directly from that document.
Yet, it is proper to say here, that the principles of liberty enunciated and the privileges granted by the Magna Charta, many of which had been digested in a code of laws by Alfred, were not confined exclusively to the Anglo-Saxons; for almost at the same era, upon the election of King Christopher II. of Denmark, he was obliged to sign a charter grant, ing nearly the same privileges and immunities as were contained in the Magna Charta, among which were that no man should be imprisoned, or deprived of life, liberty, or property, without public trial and conviction according to law; and that no law should be made or altered without the consent of the Parliament, composed of the best men of the kingdom, to be held annually at Wyborg.
And it may be said, that in Northern Europe, as well as in England, at the time of the granting of the Great Charter, the German tribes generally, and the Danes, were inspired by the same spirit of liberty which was kindled in the hearts of the Anglo-Saxons, their descendants.
From the time of the granting of the municipal privileges and personal rights, as contained in Magna Charta, signed by King John on the 15th of June, 1215, but which was not really established until “after the contests of near a whole century,” for during that time, “it is computed,” says Hume, “that about thirty confirmations of the charter were at different times required of several kings, and granted by them in full Parliament,” the people of England have been jealous of their personal liberties and watchful of their civic rights.’
Since that period, the genius of the English people has been strongly and invariably in favor of liberty, while royal prerogative, until the accession of William and Mary, inclined as violently towards arbitrary power.
The Magna Charta laid the foundation for a Constitution, which has engrafted in it all the attributes and security of personal liberty, and stands a monument of enlightened statesmanship, worthy the pride and admiration of the English people; while the Great Charter itself denotes an epoch between despotism and liberty—semi-barbarism and civilization—rudeness and refinement.
The struggles to maintain the chartered rights of the people against the encroachments and usurpations of kingly prerogative, have been many, great, and even revolutionary. It has only been by an unconquerable will, and severe contests, that they have again and again been reasserted and re-established, enlarged and secured.
The Magna Charta secured personal freedom, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed it, and the Constitution guaranteed it! When you allow the FIRST FREEDOM protected by the FIRST AMENDMENT to the Constitution to be consistently attacked and taken away by man, the Liberty; that of RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION, then all the other Liberties and Freedoms given to man by God, all other freedoms and liberties enumerated in the Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will SOON to follow! How far, then, will politicians abuse our patience? How long, too, will their frantic wickedness of baffle our efforts? To what extent will their unbridled audacity insolently display itself? Liberty, in the better days of our Republic, was the birthright of the American citizen. What guarantee has he that he will be protected in this fireside right in the future, if we may judge the future by the past. When the Constitution is despoiled of the altar of Liberty, in what Temple can Freedom Worship? With us Liberty has no protective guarantees. Mr. Seward may again ring his "little bell," and secretly hurry the citizen from the family circle to the loathsome prison by the strong arm of arbitrary power, and what redress has he? What becomes of the old English maxim, "Every man's house is his castle?" Our bureaucracy is filled by people with skulls that cannot teach, and will not learn.
Encroachments upon the rights and liberties of the people by Charles I., who caused the arbitrary imprisonment of his subjects, gave birth to the enactment of the Petition of Right, and also brought the head of that unhappy monarch to the block.
To enforce the provisions contained in the Magna Charta and Petition of Right, for securing the subject in his personal rights and personal liberty, against arbitrary imprisonments by command of the King or the Privy Council, the Habeas Corpus Act was passed, in the 31st Charles II. It may be called the bulwark of English liberty.
For nearly five centuries, the contests between sovereign and people, the one for royal prerogative, the other for the rights of personal liberty, were many and violent.’
If the King would threaten with the Star Chamber, the people would point to the Magna Charta. If the King would commit by the High Commission Court, the people would unfold the Petition of Right. If the King would imprison by the Privy Council, the people would release through the Habeas Corpus.
In our own country, there was a time when the proudest appellation a man could bear was that of American citizen. “I am an American citizen,” implied liberty and safety — protection and justice. Then, the national shield was, indeed, a shield with arms — a shield which defended the citizen against every act of tyranny and usurpation — a shield which guarded him on land and sea„at home and abroad. Then, personal liberty was a citizen’s birthright. Then, free speech was unshackled. Then, Mr. ‘Webster could exclaim: “It” (free speech) ” if a homebred right — a fireside privilege. It has ever been enjoyed in every house, cottage, and cabin in the nation. It ‘s not to be drowned in controversy It is as undoubted as the right of breathing the air and walking on the earth. It is a right to be maintained in peace and in war. It is a right which cannot be invaded without destroying constitutional liberty. Hence, this right should be guarded and protected by the freemen of this country with a jealous care, unless they are prepared for chains and anarchy.”
What are the protections of the law now?
When the arteries which convey the life-blood from the heart of the constitution to all parts of its body once become paralyzed, the most skilful treatment can never restore it to its original vigor and healthful condition. A partial recovery may be effected, but the disease remains.
Oppressive and illegal acts by one Administration may be adopted as established precedents for similar encroachments by succeeding ones ; and who can gainsay the right? Surely, not the people, when they not only encourage, but are accessories in the wrong. Therefore, without a proper and conscientious regard for the majesty of the law, and the observance of personal rights, there is no security for permanence in free government.