Puslapio vaizdai


and yet all of them are daily disregarded, in a greater or less degree, in every civil community.

There are circumstances, however, connected with the subject we are considering, which tend, in some respects, to diminish the force of obligation which would otherwise be created by an oath. Among these, we must again advert to their frequency, and the want of a due solemnity in administering them.

The constitutional tendency of the human mind to pass with slight observation the common occurrences of life, needs not to be illustrated. Every day bears witness to the fact; actions seem to become involuntary by habit. Danger even grows familiar; and the siege or the pestilence, which at its commencement struck terror through a community, is, after a little time, and even in the midst of its desolation, regarded almost with apathy by the multitude. No wonder that the same thing occurs in regard to an oath. Men take an oath almost without knowing it. The words pass over their minds without impression. The ceremony becomes a mere form, which hardly engages their attention; and after it is passed, they are left without any strong sense of the condition in which they stand. An oath, indeed, never imposes a new obligation. Its power is only to add a new motive to the performance of an existing obligation, by annexing a new penalty to its violation. Where an obligation is already perfect, it cannot be increased. Now the obligation to speak the truth on grave and solemn occasions, is a perfect one by all the principles of morality. An oath is intended to place the speaker under a strong and imposing sense of this obligation ; to awaken his conscience by a solemnity that cannot be evaded; to bring before him the consequences of his conduct, and the force of the rules by which it should be governed. As the confidence to be placed in the speaker, by those who hear, is proportioned to their conviction of the force which he allows to his obligation, the further object of an oath is not only to awaken this sense of obligation in him, but to satisfy others that it is awake, and is active and effectual; — it is to lead them to the certainty that he considers it a serious and solemn thing, and that the form to which he has submitted, the appeal he has made to the Supreme Being, the religious and moral sentiment which is thus recognised, will control his language, and compel the utterance of truth.

Now an oath, if it is so common in its occurrence, so trifling as to its objects, and so simple in its form, that it passes with little or no observation ; if, in fact, it fails to rouse the attention of him who takes it, and to satisfy those who are to gain confidence from its power, that it is efficient for its object, is to all intents as no oath to the conscience, and fails of the purposes for which it was designed. Even where an oath may not be treated as a mere nullity, yet, if it fail in such impression on the mind that its force is not realized, not only its proper office for the time is circumscribed, but its power on future occasions is thereby sensibly diminished. This is found to be fact; and to this insensibility, or negligence, or want of suitable excitement, no small part of the disrespect which seems to be paid to an oath, is justly to be attributed, rather than to any deliberate moral dilinquency.

We are indulging in no mere theory on this matter. The course of judicial investigation will amply confirm, to a careful observer, the truth of this remark. We do not depend on any trite maxim to prove it; though, being trite, it may be taken by common consent to be true. Every day's practice shows, that when oaths become common things, they are, like other common things, of little estimation. No matter how valuable, or how indispensable, or how serious such common things may be, their power over the mind is weakened even by the very circumstance which ought to increase it.

If there is force in these remarks, they point directly to valuable and practical conclusions. The occasions for administering an oath should be diminished. The act should be more rare, that the observance may be more cred; and the almost innumerable petty instances in which oaths are now exacted by law, should no longer be tolerated for such purpose.

Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus. The rule is as true in morals and manners, as in taste. But if there is a propriety, and, as we have endeavoured to show, a strong necessity for curtailing the number of these asseverations required by law, there is a greater need of preventing all such as the law itself does not demand. If judicial oaths should, for the security of the great ends of public justice and pure morals, be limited in their number, extrajudicial oaths, a fortiori, ought to be, in a great degree, if not



wholly, restrained. If the solemnity of an oath, by its frequency, even under the eye of the law, loses much of its due reverence, still more will be detracted from its imposing and controlling efficiency, if it may be administered where there is no force of law to restrain the rashness or the folly of the parties who are concerned in it.

We advert to this branch of the subject with no reference to the discussions of the day, but as a necessary corollary from the principles we have stated, and to secure the more general observance of high and solemn duties, which ought not rashly to be assumed. Extra-judicial oaths, more than any others, are liable to be violated. Men of loose principles infringe them without dread of any human power. Men

. of better principles become their own judges, under what circumstances they may infringe them without guilt; and this high and sacred appeal to the Deity, which on the face of it carries the appearance of resistless obligation, is, as convenience, or inclination, or even worse motives dictate, set at nought in the face of the community, to the great diminution of the public regard to its sanctions, and an evil example to all others upon whom the law has imposed a like formality. An oath, judicial or extra-judicial, taken in a court of justice or a private assembly, before a commissioned magistrate or a private citizen, is a solemn appeal to the Deity, an awful imprecation of his vengeance, a pledge in the face of man of all that religious and moral feeling which forms the cement of civil society. To have this feeling disregarded is offensive to the moral sense of an educated and enlightened people. A man must have a character of the most pure and polish ed brightness, on whom such a construction of his duty will not leave a stain; and the community in which he dwells, if it does not loathe the baseness of such degeneracy, must be itself less worthy than it would be willing to allow.

But where extra-judicial oaths are permitted, they will be administered on light occasions, or possibly for improper and dangerous objects. Men will afterwards revolt at them, and break them, and avow their act. Some may do this, who, but for such equivocal morality, might stand well with their fellow-citizens. Hence it is, that their good character is put into one scale, and this indescribable conduct in the other, to weigh out the future estimation that is due to them. It is not possible to behold such a state of things without deep regret. It



N. S. VOL. VII. NO. I.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

is not possible to see those, who find themselves in such a situation, earnestly endeavouring to bring others into the same condition, who may have scruples of conscience that should be tenderly treated, without a sorrowful feeling at the consequences that may follow.

It is not possible not to perceive, that the contagion will be communicated beyond the class in which the disease first appeared; and that if an extra-judicial oath may be treated with levity, those which the law ordains, will, with some minds, receive slight regard.

If occasions may arise in which the obligation of an oath should cease, the interest of society demands that they should be as few in number as possible, and under such plain and convincing circumstances as to carry justification on their face. When oaths are not permitted, except by decree of law, such occasions can rarely arise ; and the necessity of a breach of them being judicially decided, leaves no stain on private or public character. Bad example would thus be checked, and a most important instrument of civil security be preserved in its proper energy.

There can be no hardship in this. A voluntary association, or a private object, that needs higher security than the honor or the interest of those connected with it, becomes thereby of doubtful utility. Its advantages to individuals or the state must be very great and very apparent, before the state ought to part with a prerogative essential to its security, and chiefly available by being exclusive.

We deem this subject of great importance to the moral character of the community, and to the proper administration of justice; and we think there is demanded, by the force of circumstances, a regard to it, which no local, social, or conventional arrangements ought to obstruct. An amendment is required in the laws of the land to restrain the administering of extra-judicial oaths. We have heard, indeed, and the suggestion came from high authority, that such oaths are already against the law, and that the parties concerned in administering or in taking them are now liable to punishment; but we cannot agree to such a dictum. Certainly, there is no statute law that renders the act criminal, and no practice in this country which supports such an opinion at common law. An oath, like any other act, may be indicative of treasonable, seditious, or other unlawful purpose, and thereby

[ocr errors]


the parties imposing or taking it, be punishable. But the offence would not consist in the oath simply, but the design of which the oath was evidence ; and such design, though provable by the fact of the oath, might be punishable where there was no oath, if it could be proved by other evidence. We object not to the perpose for which the oath is taken, but to the ceremony and solemnity itself. It is a sacred and important obligation, not wanted for private purposes of life, but required for the great public duties of the citizen, and materially weakened in its efficacy when too generally used.

An oath is a sanction by which the public are assured of the proper administration of their bighest interests ; and it cannot be affixed to inferior concerns without diminishing by its commonness the weight of its authority.

The diminution of the number and frequency of oaths would of itself magnify the solemnity of the occasion which still required them; but this should be further increased by a proper regard to the manner in which they are administered.

The form of an oath is no inconsiderable thing. If, as we have before remarked, the obligation to speak the truth is already perfect, an oath can in no case increase the obligation, and its whole use is to bring this obligation strongly, forcibly, and irresistibly to the mind, under a deep sense of the religious and civil responsibility which the duty supposes. An oath is a solemn admonition of this duty. Now, if the form passes over the mind without awakening its attention and sensibilities, or without sufficiently exciting them to the task, it vainly essays to perform its office. It is worse than vain; it wickedly trifles with the name and attributes of Deity.

A suitable occasion, a magistrate, and a set form of words are recognised by our laws as the necessary appendages to an oath. Of the first we have sufficiently expressed our opinion. A magistrate is no otherwise indispensable than to comply with the law. No doubt a solemn oath may be taken by a man's own act, the validity of which is as truly registered in heaven, as if recorded by a human tribunal. But our law wisely requires the intervention of a magistrate, not only because his discretion may properly regulate the time, the place, the occasion, and decide on the competency of the party taking an oath, but because the dignity of an official person and the temporary superiority he possesses are

« AnkstesnisTęsti »