Every Man is born with an imprescriptible Claim to a Portion of the Elements.
From Barlow's Advice to the Privileged Orders.
IT is a truth, I believe, not to be called in question, that every man is born with an imprescriptible claim to a portion of the elements, which portion is termed his birth-right. Society may vary this right, as to its form, but never can destroy it in sub∣stance. She has no controul over the man till he is born; and the right being born with him, and being necessary to his existence, she can no more annihilate the one than the other, though she has the power of new-modelling both. But on coming into the world, he finds that the ground which nature had promised him is taken up, and in the occupancy of others; society has changed the form of his birth-right; the general stock of elements, from which the lives of men are to be supported, has undergone a new modi∣fication; and his portion among the rest. He is told, that he cannot claim it in its present form, as an in∣dependent inheritance; that he must draw on the stock of society, instead of the stock of nature; that he is banished from the mother and must cleave to the nurse. In this unexpected occurrence he is un∣prepared to act; but knowledge is a part of the stock of society: and an indispensible part to be allotted to the portion of the claimant, is instruction relative to the new arrangement of natural right. To with∣hold this instruction, therefore, would be not merely the omission of a duty, but the commission of a crime; and society in this case would sin against the man, before the man could sin against society.
I should hope to meet the assent of all unprejudiced readers, in carrying this idea still further. In cases where a person is born of poor parents, or finds himself brought into the community of men, without the means of sub∣sistence, society is bound in duty to furnish him with the means. She ought not only to instruct him in the arti∣ficial laws by which property is secured, but in the arti∣ficial industry by which it is obtained. She is bound in Page 61justice as well as policy, to give him some art or trade. For the reason of his incapacity is, that she has usurped his birth-right; and this restoring it to him in another form, more convenient to both parties. The failure of society in this branch of her duty, is the occasion of much the greater part of the evils that call for criminal jurisprudence. The indi∣vidual feels that he is robbed of his natural right; he cannot bring his process to reclaim it from the great community by which he is overpowered; he there∣fore feels authorized in reprisal; in taking another's goods to replace his own. And it must be confessed, that in numberless instances the conduct of society justifies him in this proceeding, she has seized his pro∣perty and commenced the war against him.
Some, who perceive these truths, say that it is unsafe for society to publish them; but I say it is unsafe not to publish them. For the party from which the mischief is expected to arise, has the knowledge of them already, and has acted upon them in all ages. It is the wise who are ignorant of these things, and not the foolish. They are truths of na∣ture; and in them the teachers of mankind are the only party that remains to be taught: It is a subject on which the logic of indigence is much clearer than that of opulence. The latter reasons from contri∣vance, the former from feeling; and God has not endowed us with false feelings, in things that so weightily concern our happiness.
None can deny that the obligation is much stronger on me to support my life, than to support the claim that my neighbour has to his property. Nature commands the first, society the second:—In one I obey the laws of God, which are universal and eter∣nal; in the other the laws of man, which are local and temporary.
It has been the folly of old governments to begin every thing at the wrong end, and to erect their in∣stitutions on an inversion of principle. This is more Page 62sadly the case in their systems of jurisprudence, than is commonly imagined. Compelling justice is always mistaken for rendering justice. But this important branch of administration consists not merely in com∣pelling men to be just to each other, and individuals to society,—this is not the whole, nor is it the prin∣cipal part, nor even the beginning, of the operation. The source of power is said to be the source of justice; but it does not answer this description, as long as it contents itself with compulsion. Justice must begin by flowing from its source; and the first, as well as the most important object is, to open its channels from society to all the individual members. This part of the administration being well devised and diligently executed, the other parts would lessen away by de∣grees to matters of inferior consideration.
It is an undoubted truth, that our duty is insepa∣rably connected with our happiness; and why should we despair of convincing every member of society of a truth so important for him to know? Should any person object, by saying, that nothing like this has ever been tried. Society has hitherto been curst with governments whose existence depended on the ex∣tinction of truth. Every moral light has been smo∣thered under the bushel of perpetual imposition; from whence it emits but faint and glimmering rays, al∣ways insufficient to form any luminous system on any of the civil concerns of men. But these covers are crumbling to the dust, with the governments which they support; and the probability becomes more ap∣parent, the more it is considered, that society is capable of curing all the evils to which it has given birth.