Essay on the Trial by Jury

Author: Lysander Spooner

Section III. The Oaths of Jurors.

The oaths that have been administered to jurors, in England, and which are their legal guide to their duty, all (so far as I have ascertained them) corroborate the idea that the jurors are to try all cases on their intrinsic merits, independently of any laws that they deem unjust or oppressive. It is probable that an oath was never administered to a jury in England, either in a civil or criminal case, to try it according to law.

The earliest oath that I have found prescribed by law to be administered to jurors is in the laws of Ethelred, (about the year 1015,) which require that the jurors "shall swear, with their hands upon a holy thing, that they will condemn no man that is innocent, nor acquit any that is guilty." 4 Blackstone, 302.
2 Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons, 155 Wilkins’ Laws of the Anglo-Saxons, 117. Spelman’s Glossary, word Jurata.

Blackstone assumes that this was the oath of the grand jury 4 Blackstone, 302); but there was but one jury at the time this oath was ordained. The institution of two juries, grand and petit, took place after the Norman Conquest.

Hume, speaking of the administration of justice in the time of Alfred, says that, in every hundred,

"Twelve freeholders were chosen, who, having sworn, together with the hundreder, or presiding magistrate of that division, to administer impartial justice, proceeded to the examination of that cause which was submitted to their jurisdiction." Hume, ch. 2.

By a law of Henry II., in 1164, it was directed that the sheriff "faciet jurare duodecim legales homines de vicineto seu de villa, quod inde veritatem secundum conscientiam suam manifestabunt," (shall make twelve, legal men from the neighborhood to swear that they will make known the truth according to their conscience.) Crabbe’s History of the English Law, 119. 1 Reeves, 87. Wilkins, 321 323.

Glanville, who wrote within the half century previous to Magna Carta, says;

"Each of the knights summoned far this purpose (as jurors) ought to swear that he will neither utter that which is false, nor knowingly conceal the truth." Beames’ Glanville, 65.

Reeve calls the trial by jury "the trial by twelve men sworn to speak the truth." 1 Reeve’s History of the English Law, 87.

Henry says that the jurors "took a solemn oath, that they would faithfully discharge the duties of their office, and not suffer an innocent man to be condemned, nor any guilty person to be acquitted." 3 Henry’s Hist. of Great Britain, 346.

The Mirror of Justices, (written within a century after Magna Carta,) in the chapter on the abuses of the Common law, says:"It is abuse to use the words, to their knowledge, in their oaths, to make the jurors speak upon thoughts, since the chief words of their oaths be that they speak the truth." p. 249.

Smith, writing in the time of Elizabeth, says that, in civil suits, the jury "be sworn to declare the truth of that issue according to the evidence, and their conscience." Smith’s Commonwealth of England. edition of 1621, p. 73.

In criminal trials, he says:

"The clerk giveth the juror an oath to go uprightly betwixt the prince and the prisoner." Ditto, p. 90. [24]

Hale says:

"Then twelve, and no less, of such as are indifferent and are returned upon the principal panel, or the tales, are sworn to try the same according to the evidence." 2 Hale’s History of the Common Law, 141.

It appears from Blackstone that, even at this day, neither in civil nor criminal cases, are jurors in England sworn to try causes according to law. He says tht in civil suits the jury are "Sworn well and truly to try the issue between the parties; and a true verdict to give according to the evidence." 3 Blackstone, 365.

"The issue" to be tried is whether A owes B anything and if so, how much? or whether A has in his possession anything that belongs to B; or whether A has wronged B, and ought to make compensation; and if so, how much?

No statute passed by a legislature, simply as a legislature, can alter either of these "issues" in hardly any conceivable case, perhaps in none. No unjust law could ever alter them in any. They are all mere questions of natural justice, which legislatures have no power to alter, and with which they have no right to interfere, further than to provide for having them settled by the most competent and impartial tribunal that it is practicable to have, and then for having all just decisions enforced. And any tribunal, whether judge or jury, that attempts to try these issues, has no more moral right to be swerved from the line of justice, by the will of a legislature, than by the will of any other body of men whatever. And this oath does not require or permit a jury to be so swerved.

In criminal cases, Blackstone says the oath of the jury in England is:

"Well and truly to try, and true deliverance make, between our sovereign lord, the king, and the prisoner whom they have in charge, and a true verdict to give according to the evidence." 4 Blackstone, 355.

"The issue" to be tried, in a criminal case, is "guilty," or "not guilty." The laws passed by a legislature can rarely, if ever, have anything to do with this issue. "Guilt" is an intrinsic quality of actions, and can neither be created, destroyed, nor changed by legislation. And no tribunal that attempts to try this issue can have any moral right to declare a man guilty, for an act that is intrinsically innocent, at the bidding of a legislature, any more than at the bidding of anybody else. And this oath does not require or permit a jury to do so.

The words, "according to the evidence," have doubtless been introduced into the above oaths in modern times. They are unquestionably in violation of the Common Law, and of Magna Carta, if by them be meant such evidence only as the government sees fit ft allow to go to the jury. If the government can dictate the evidence, and require the jury to decide according to that evidence, it necessarily dictates the conclusion to which they must arrive. In that case the trial is really a trial by the government, and not by the jury. The jury cannot try an issue, unless they determine what evidence shall be admitted. The ancient oaths, it will be observed, say nothing about "according to the evidence." They obviously take it for granted that the jury try the whole case; and of course that they decide what evidence shall be admitted. It would be intrinsically an immoral and criminal act for a jury to declare a man guilty, or to declare that one man owed. money to another, unless all the evidence were admitted, which they thought ought to be admitted, for ascertaining the truth. [25]

Grand Jury. If jurors are bound to enforce all laws passed by the legislature, it is a very remarkable fact than the oath of grand juries does not require them to be governed by the laws in finding indictments. There have been various forms of oath administered to grand jurors; but by none of them that I recollect ever to have seen, except those of the States of Connecticut and Vermont, are they sworn to present men according to law.

The English form, as given in the essay on Grand Juries, written near two hundred years ago, and supposed to have been written by Lord Somers, is as follows:

"You shall diligently inquire, and true presentment make, of all such articles, matters, and things, as shall be given you in charge, and of all other matters and things as shall come to your knowledge touching this present service. The king’s council, your fellows, and your own, you shall keep secret. You shall present no person for hatred or malice; neither shall you leave any one unpresented for favor, or affection, for love or gain, or any hopes thereof; but in all things you shall present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to the best of your knowledge. So help you God."

This form of oath is doubtless quite ancient, for the essay says "our ancestors appointed" it. See Essay, p. 33 34.

On the obligations of this oath, the essay says:"If it be asked how, or in what manner, the (grand) juries shall inquire, the answer is ready, according to the best of their understandings. They only, not the judges, are sworn to search diligently to find out all treasons, &c;., within their charge, and they must and ought to use their own discretion in the way and manner of their inquiry. No directions can legally be imposed upon there by any court or judges; an honest jury will thankfully accept good advice from judges, as their assistants; but they are bound by their oaths to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to the best of their own, not the judge’s, knowledge. Neither can they, without breach of that oath, resign their consciences, or blindly submit to the dictates of others; and therefore ought to receive or reject such advices, as they judge them good or bad. * *Nothing can be more plain and express than the words of the oath are to this purpose. The jurors need not search the law books, nor tumble over heaps of old records, for the explanation of them. Our greatest lawyers may from hence learn more certainly our ancient law in this case, than from all the books in their studies. The language wherein the oath is penned is known and understood by every man, and the words in it have the same signification as they have wheresoever else they are used. The judges, without assuming to themselves a legislative power, cannot put a new sense upon them, other than according to their genuine, common meaning. They cannot magisterially impose their opinions upon the jury, and make them forsake the direct words of their oath, to pursue their glosses. The grand inquest are bound to observe alike strictly every part of their oath, and to use all just and proper ways which may enable them to perform it; otherwise it were to say, that after men had sworn to inquire diligently after the truth, according to the best of their knowledge, they were bound to forsake all the natural and proper means which their understandings suggest for the discovery of it, if it be commanded by the judges." Lord Somers’ Essay on Grand Juries, p. 88.

What is here said so plainly and forcibly of the oath and obligations of grand juries, is equally applicable to the oath and obligations of petit juries. In both cases the simple oaths of the jurors, and not the instructions of the judges, nor the statutes of kings nor legislatures, are their legal guides to their duties. [26]


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Chicago: Lysander Spooner, "Section III. The Oaths of Jurors.," Essay on the Trial by Jury in Essay on the Trial by Jury Original Sources, accessed August 15, 2022,

MLA: Spooner, Lysander. "Section III. The Oaths of Jurors." Essay on the Trial by Jury, in Essay on the Trial by Jury, Original Sources. 15 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Spooner, L, 'Section III. The Oaths of Jurors.' in Essay on the Trial by Jury. cited in , Essay on the Trial by Jury. Original Sources, retrieved 15 August 2022, from