Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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Oath - Zollverein




OATH. Oaths have been in use in all countries of which we have any exact information, and it is probable that there is no nation which has any clear notion of a Supreme Being, or of superior beings, that does not make use of oaths on certain solemn occasions. An oath may be described generally as an appeal or address to a superior being, by which the person making it engages to declare the truth on the occasion on which he takes the oath, or by which he promises to do something hereafter. The person who imposes or receives the oath, imposes or receives it on the supposition that the person making it apprehends some evil consequences to himself from the superior being, if he should violate the oath. The person taking the oath may or may not fear such consequences, but the value of the oath in the eyes of him who receives or imposes it consists in the opinion which he has of its influence over the person who takes it. An oath may be taken voluntarily, or it may be imposed on a person under certain circumstances by a political superior; or it may be the only condition on which the assertion or declaration of a person shall be admitted as evidence of any fact.


—The form of taking the oath has varied greatly in different countries. Among the Greeks a person sometimes placed his hand on the altar of the deity by whom he swore; but the forms of oaths were almost as various as the occasions. Oaths were often used in judicial proceedings among the Greeks. The Dicastæ, who were judges and jurymen, gave their verdict upon oath. The Heliastic oath is stated at length in the speech of Demosthenes against Timocrates (c. 36). It does not appear that the oath was always imposed on witnesses in judicial proceedings; and yet it appears that sometimes witnesses gave their evidence on oath: perhaps the oath on the part of witnesses was generally voluntary. (Demosth., Greek Greek, c. 16; Greek, c. 10; and Meier and Schömann, Att. Process., p. 675.)


—In the Roman jurisprudence an oath was required in some cases from the plaintiff, or the defendant, or both. Thus the oath of calumny was required from the plaintiff, which was a solemn declaration that he did not prosecute his suit for any fraudulent or malicious purpose. The offense of false swearing was perjurium, perjury; but it was considered a less offense in a party to a suit when the oath was imposed by a judex than when it was voluntary. It does not appear that in civil proceedings witnesses were necessarily examined on oath; but witnesses appear to have been examined on oath in the judicia publica, which were criminal proceedings. The title in the Digest, "De Testibus" (22, tit. 5), makes no mention of the oath, though it speaks of punishment being inflicted on witnesses who bore false testimony.


—The law in America and England, as a rule, requires evidence or testimony for judicial purposes to be given on oath. A Jew, a Mohammedan and a Hindoo may be sworn as witnesses, but they must severally take the oath in that form which is sanctioned by the usage of their country or nation, and which they severally consider to be binding. The offense of declaring what is false when a witness is examined upon oath, constitutes perjury.


—Declarations made by a person under the apprehension of immediate death are generally admitted as evidence in judicial proceedings, when properly verified; for it is considered that the circumstances in which the person is placed at the time of making the declaration furnish as strong motives for veracity as the obligation of an oath. Quakers also, in all civil cases, were allowed by the statute 7 & 8 Wm. III., c. 34, to give their evidence on affirmation; and now the affirmation of Quakers and Moravians is admissible in all judicial proceedings, both civil and criminal.


—As oaths may be either voluntary or may be imposed by a political superior, so they may be imposed either on extrajudicial or on judicial occasions. Oaths which are imposed on occasion of judicial proceedings are the most frequent, and the occasions are the most important to the interests of society. The principle on which an oath is administered on judicial occasions is this it is supposed that an additional security is thereby acquired for the veracity of him who takes the oath. Bentham, in his "Rationale of Evidence," on the contrary, affirms that, "whether principle or experience be regarded, the oath will be found, in the hands of justice, an altogether useless instrument; in the hands of injustice, a deplorably serviceable one," "that it is inefficacious to all good purposes," and "that it is by no means inefficacious to bad ones."


—The three great sanctions or securities for veracity in a witness, or, to speak perhaps more correctly, the three great sanctions against mendacity in a witness, are, the punishment legally imposed on a person who is convicted of false swearing, the punishment inflicted by public opinion or the positive morality of society, and the fear of punishment from the Deity, in this world or the next, or in both. The common opinion is, that all the three sanctions operate on a witness, though they operate on different witnesses in very different degrees. A man who does not believe that the Deity will punish false swearing can only be under the influence of the first two sanctions; and if his character is such that it can not be made worse than it is, he may be under the influence of the first sanction only. Bentham affirms that the third sanction only appears to exercise an influence in any case, because it acts in conjunction with "the two real and efficient sanctions," "the political sanction and the moral or popular sanction;" and that if it is stripped of those accompaniments, its impotence will appear immediately.


—Bentham's chief argument is as follows. "that the supposition of the efficiency of an oath is absurd in principle. It ascribes to man a power over his Maker. It supposes the Almighty to stand engaged, no matter how, but absolutely engaged, to inflict on every individual by whom the ceremony, after having been performed, has been profaned, a punishment (no matter what) which, but for the ceremony and the profanation, he would not have inflicted. It supposes him thus prepared to inflict, at command, and at all times, a punishment, which, being at all times the same, at no time bears any proportion to the offense." Again: "either the ceremony causes punishment to be inflicted by the Deity in cases where otherwise it would not have been inflicted; or it does not. In the former case the same sort of authority is exercised by man over the Deity, as that which, in English law, is exercised over the judge by the legislator, or over the sheriff by the judge. In the latter case the ceremony is a mere form without any useful effect whatever."


—The absurdity of this argument hardly needs to be exposed. He who administers the oath, by virtue of the power which he has to administer it and the political superior who imposes the oath, may either believe or not believe that the Deity will punish false swearing, and it is quite immaterial to the question which of the two opinions they entertain. That which gives the oath a value in the eyes of him who administers it, or of that political superior who imposes it, is the opinion of the person who takes the oath; and if the individual who takes the oath believes that the Deity, in case it is profaned, will inflict a punishment which otherwise he would not inflict, the object of him who enforces the oath is accomplished, and an additional sanction against mendacity is secured. It matters not whether the Deity will punish or not, or whether he who enforces the oath believes that he will punish or not, if he who takes the oath believes that the Deity will punish false swearing, that is sufficient to show that the oath is of itself a sanction.


—The fear of legal punishment is admitted by Bentham to be a sanction against mendacity. But the legal punishment may or may not overtake the offender. Legal punishment may follow detection, but the perjury may not be detected, and therefore not punished. Is the oath, or would a declaration without oath be, "a mere form without any useful effect whatever," because the legal punishment may not, and frequently does not, overtake the offender? When a Greek or a Roman swore by his gods, in whose existence he believed, and who, being mere imaginations, could not punish him for his perjury, was not his belief in their existence and their power and willingness to punish perjury a sanction against mendacity? All antiquity at least thought so.


—There are occasions on which oaths are treated lightly, on which he who imposes the oath, he who takes it, and the community who are witnesses to it, treat the violation of it as a trivial matter. Such occasions as these furnish Bentham with arguments against the efficacy of oaths on all occasions. Suppose we admit, with Bentham, as we do merely for the sake of the argument, that "on some occasions oaths go with the English clergy for nothing;" and this, notwithstanding the fact, which nobody can doubt, "that among the English clergy believers are more abundant than unbelievers." The kind of oaths "which go for nothing" are not mentioned by Bentham, but they may be conjectured. Now, if all oaths went for nothing with the clergy, or with any other body of men, the dispute would be settled. But this is not the fact. If in any way it has become the positive morality of any body of men that a certain kind of oath should go for nothing, each individual of that body, with respect to that kind of oath, has the opinion of his body. He does not believe that such oath, if broken, will bring on him divine punishment, and therefore such oath is an idle ceremony. But if there is any oath the violation of which he thinks will bring on him divine punishment, his opinion as to that kind of oath is not at all affected by his opinion as to the other kind of oath. Now, oaths taken on judicial occasions are by the mass of mankind considered to be oaths the violation of which will bring some punishment some time, and therefore they have an influence on the great majority of those who take them. Whether society will in time so far improve as to render it safe to dispense with this ceremony in judicial proceedings, can not be affirmed or denied; but a legislator who knows what man now is, will require better reasons for the abolition of judicial oaths than Bentham has given.


—How far the requisition of an oath may be injurious in excluding testimony in certain cases, and how far oaths on solemn and important occasions may be made most efficacious, and in what cases it may be advisable to substitute declarations in lieu of oaths, are not matters of consideration here. It is enough here to show that an oath is a sanction or security to some extent, if the person who takes it fears divine punishment in case he should violate it; and that this, and no other, is the ground on which the oath is imposed.


—There is some difficulty in stating accurately how far oaths were required from witnesses in Roman procedure under the republic and the earlier emperors. In addition to what has been stated, the reader may refer to Cicero, Pro Q. Rose. Comœd., c. 15, etc.; and Noodt, Op. Omn., ii., 479, "De Testibus." By a constitution of Constantine, all witnesses were required to give their testimony on oath; and this was again declared by a constitution of Justinian. (Cod. 4, tit. 20, s. 9, 16, 19.)


—Many persons conscientiously object to the taking of an oath on religious grounds, and particularly with reference to the prohibition in Matthew v., 33. On the subject of oaths in general the reader may consult Grotius, De Jure, B. & P., lib. ii., c. 13; Paley's Moral Philosophy; Tyler's Origin and History of Oaths; the Law Magazine, vol. xii.; and the work of Bentham already referred to.*1.


Notes for this chapter

In the United States a witness may be sworn in any manner considered binding on his conscience. Quakers and others having conscientious scruples against the taking of an oath under any circumstance, may affirm instead. In some of the states the witness, whoever he be, may elect between the taking of an oath and judicial affirmation. The penalty for the affirmation of what is false by a witness in a civil or criminal case, is the same as for perjury.

—Besides the judicial and professional oath, there is what the French call the "political oath," which in part corresponds to the oath taken, in countries like the United States, to support the constitution. Of this latter oath, C. Lavollée says: "In feudal times, when political society was made up of suzerains, vassals and serfs, the oath of fealty was but the necessary or at least logical consecration of the bonds of submission which united the inferior to his superior. Subsequently, when absolute monarchy, basing itself on divine right, had survived feudalism, the oath of fealty was retained; and it could not but be retained, since the sovereign represented both God, whose delegate he was, and the nation all of whose rights he absorbed into his own person. The political oath was then as logical as it was under the feudal system.

—The external ceremonies and formulas of the oath were in keeping with the principle of submission, or rather of subjection, which bent the subject at the feet of his master. The master had all the rights; the subject had only duties. By the oath the subject solemnly pledged himself to maintain a condition of things which he had not brought about, and which he could not do away with. He fulfilled his chief duty by promising fidelity to the person whom he recognized as his superior and master. Nothing simpler or more rational.

—The modern law regulating the forms of government of a people, in the greater number of civilized states, rests on a totally different principle. Divine right has joined feudalism in the ruins of history, and has been replaced by the right of the people. Dynasties no longer force themselves on a people: they have to be accepted; the prince is the delegate, the mandatory of national sovereignty; in such a manner, that by the overthrow of the old order of things, logically speaking, the prince owes the oath of fealty to the people, and not the people to the prince. It is so in certain republics, in which the principle of popular sovereignty has been established from the beginning, and is not perverted by traditional formalities which had their origin in the old right of kings. In several constitutional states the king takes the oath of fealty to the constitution.

—Hence in countries which profess the dogma of popular sovereignty, the political oath can not be what it was under the old regime. We might even say that not only has it no raison d'étre, no reason why it should exist, but that there are reasons why it should not exist. An oath, with the forms of solemnity which surround it, represents in the eyes of men the idea of an indissoluble and perpetual engagement. But should the citizen swear to be always faithful to a sovereign whose rights, created by the national will, may be destroyed by that same will? Should he swear always to obey and support a constitution which the nation may modify or abrogate at any moment? We can understand an oath made to a superior and immutable being, to God, or to a sovereign consecrated by divine right; we can understand an oath to the great principles of truth, probity, honor, duty, principles universally accepted and respected, implanted by God in the human conscience, whence they dominate time, circumstances and laws. But it is very difficult to define the character and value of an oath given to a removable sovereign, to precarious institutions, made by the very persons in whom resides the right to change the sovereign and modify the institutions. In such an act we can see only a conditional oath, limited by restrictions and hedged in by reservations; but such an act is not an oath. * * * Not only is the political oath useless, since it never strengthened or saved a constitution or a sovereign, but, moreover, it is sometimes only an instrument of tyranny or violence. * * * The political oath has not, in the eyes of the people of our day, the authority which belongs to so solemn an act. It has not the character of inviolability; it is commented on and discussed. It is not of rare occurrence, that the person who takes it harbors, in his innermost soul, a faith different from that to which he has just sworn; public opinion no longer grows indignant at this, nor is it even surprised at it: sometimes it is an accomplice to the wrong, requiring the official or other person who takes the oath to remember, at the moment he takes it, an oath he had previously taken. This is a deplorable confusion of ideas; for just as there is but one conscience and one morality, there can be but one oath: it matters not what we call it, judicial, professional or political: all oaths impose the same duties and should be kept with the same fidelity * * *. But we must not lose sight of the fact that, according to modern law, the constitution of a country may be indefinitely modified by the national will, so that an oath can be no obstacle in the way of the desires or of the proposals of reform which it is the right of every citizen to express in a legal way. The oath itself would be opposed to the constitution if it held the person taking it within bounds which would prevent him from exercising that right. With the oath as governments have always wished to interpret it, it would be possible to confiscate the national will for all time. Revolution has too frequently undertaken the task of answering that pretense. * * Says M. Odilon Barrot, 'Oaths are taken or refused, but not discussed. The sanction of the oath being entirely in the conscience, the strength of the oath is entirely in the morality of the person who takes it.' In political matters, more than in any other, it is the character of the man which gives authority to the oath. * * Let the politician, functionary or civil magistrate take an oath to the law, the soldier to his flag, and every citizen to what to him is duty: such, in our opinion, is the simple and easy solution of this much debated question. In politics everything is variable, uncertain and precarious. In the midst of the crumbling of thrones and constitutions which our generation has witnessed, we should like to have pointed out to us a form of government or a dynasty certain to grow old with its oaths. But duty is, and will always subsist. Let men take an oath of fealty to it." The "political oath" here spoken of is very intimately related on one side to the oath of allegiance.—ED


End of Notes

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