Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
English Justice
By Sydney Smith (1771–1845)
From Sermons

THE MOST obvious and important use of this perfect justice is, that it makes nations safe: under common circumstances, the institutions of justice seem to have little or no bearing upon the safety and security of a country, but in periods of real danger, when a nation surrounded by foreign enemies contends, not for the boundaries of empire, but for the very being and existence of empire; then it is that the advantage of just institutions are discovered. Every man feels that he has a country, that he has something worth preserving, and worth contending for. Instances are remembered where the weak prevail over the strong: one man recalls to mind when a just and upright judge protected him from unlawful violence, gave him back his vineyard, rebuked his oppressor, restored to him his rights, published, condemned, and rectified the wrong. This is what is called country. Equal rights to unequal possessions, equal justice to the rich and poor: this is what men come out to fight for, and to defend. Such a country has no legal injuries to remember, no legal murders to revenge, no legal robbery to redress; it is strong in its justice: it is then that the use and object of all this assemblage of gentlemen and arrangement of juries, and the deserved veneration in which we hold the character of English judges, is understood in all its bearings, and its fullest effects: men die for such things—they cannot be subdued by foreign force where such just practices prevail. The sword of ambition is shivered to pieces against such a bulwark. Nations fall where judges are unjust, because there is nothing which the multitude think worth defending; but nations do not fall which are treated as we are treated, but they rise as we have risen, and they shine as we have shone, and die as we have died, too much used to justice, and too much used to freedom, to care for that life which is not just and free. I call you all to witness if there be any exaggerated picture in this: the sword is just sheathed, the flag is just furled, the last sound of the trumpet has just died away. You all remember what a spectacle this country exhibited: one heart, one voice—one weapon, one purpose. And why? Because this country is a country of the law; because the judge is a judge for the peasant as well as for the palace; because every man’s happiness is guarded by fixed rules from tyranny and caprice. This town this week, the business of the next few days, would explain to any enlightened European why other nations did fall in the storms of the world, and why we did not fall. The Christian patience you may witness, the impartiality of the judgment-seat, the disrespect of persons, the disregard of consequences. These attributes of justice do not end with arranging your conflicting rights, and mine; they give strength to the English people, duration to the English name; they turn the animal courage of this people into moral and religious courage, and present to the lowest of mankind plain reasons and strong motives why they should resist aggression from without, and bind themselves a living rampart round the land of their birth.
  There is another reason why every wise man is so scrupulously jealous of the character of English justice. It puts an end to civil dissension. What other countries obtain by bloody wars, is here obtained by the decisions of our own tribunals: unchristian passions are laid to rest by these tribunals; brothers are brothers again; the Gospel resumes its empire, and because all confide in the presiding magistrate, and because a few plain men are allowed to decide upon their own conscientious impression of facts, civil discord, years of convulsion, endless crimes, are spared; the storm is laid, and those who came in clamouring for revenge, go back together in peace from the hall of judgment to the loom and the plough, to the senate and the church.  2
  The whole tone and tenor of public morals is affected by the state of supreme justice; it extinguishes revenge, it communicates a spirit of purity and uprightness to inferior magistrates: it makes the great good, by taking away impunity; it banishes fraud, obliquity, and solicitation, and teaches men that the law is their right. Truth is its handmaid, freedom is its child, peace is its companion; safety walks in its steps, victory follows in its train: it is the brightest emanation of the Gospel, it is the greatest attribute of God; it is that centre round which human motives and passions turn: and justice, sitting on high, sees genius and power, and wealth and birth, revolving round her throne; and teaches their paths and marks out their orbits, and warns with a loud voice, and rules with a strong arm, and carries order and discipline into a world, which, but for her, would only be a wild waste of passions. Look what we are, and what just laws have done for us—a land of piety and charity; a land of churches, and hospitals, and altars; a nation of good Samaritans; a people of universal compassion. All lands, all seas, have heard we are brave. We have just sheathed that sword which defended the world; we have just laid down that buckler which covered the nations of the earth. God blesses the soil with fertility; English looms labour for every climate. All the waters of the globe are covered with English ships. We are softened by fine art, civilised by human literature, instructed by deep science; and every people, as they break their feudal chains, look to the founders and fathers of freedom for examples which may animate, and rules which may guide. If ever a nation was happy, if ever a nation was visibly blessed by God, if ever a nation was honoured abroad, and left at home under a government (which we can now conscientiously call a liberal government) to the full career of talent, industry, and vigour, we are at this moment that people—and this is our happy lot. First the Gospel has done it, and then justice has done it; and he who thinks it his duty to labour that this happy condition of existence may remain, must guard the piety of these times, and he must watch over the spirit of justice which exists in these times. First he must take care that the altars of God are not polluted, that the Christian faith is retained in purity and in perfection; and then, turning to human affairs, let him strive for spotless, incorruptible justice;—praising, honouring, and loving the just judge, and abhorring, as the worst enemy of mankind, him who is placed there to “judge after the law, and who smites contrary to the law.”  3

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