CHAPTER 16 | Document 24

Vanhorne's Lessee v. Dorrance

2 Dall. 304, 310--13 1795

[Paterson, J.] Having made these preliminary observations, we shall proceed to contemplate the quieting and confirming act, and to bring its validity to the test of the Constitution.

In the course of argument, the counsel on both sides relied upon certain parts of the late Bill of Rights and Constitution of Pennsylvania, which I shall now read, and then refer to them occasionally in the sequel of the charge.

(The Judge then read the 1st. 8th. and 11th articles of the Declaration of Rights; and the 9th. and 46th sections of the Constitution of Pennsylvania. See 1 Vol. Dall. Edit. Penn. Laws p. 55. 6. 60. in the Appendix.)

From these passages it is evident; that the right of acquiring and possessing property, and having it protected, is one of the natural, inherent, and unalienable rights of man. Men have a sense of property: Property is necessary to their subsistence, and correspondent to their natural wants and desires; its security was one of the objects, that induced them to unite in society. No man would become a member of a community, in which he could not enjoy the fruits of his honest labour and industry. The preservation of property then is a primary object of the social compact, and, by the late Constitution of Pennsylvania, was made a fundamental law. Every person ought to contribute his proportion for public purposes and public exigencies; but no one can be called upon to surrender or sacrifice his whole property, real and personal, for the good of the community, without receiving a recompence in value. This would be laying a burden upon an individual, which ought to be sustained by the society at large. The English history does not furnish an instance of the kind; the Parliament, with all their boasted omnipotence, never committed such an outrage on private property; and if they had, it would have served only to display the dangerous nature of unlimited authority; it would have been an exercise of power and not of right. Such an act would be a monster in legislation, and shock all mankind. The legislature, therefore, had no authority to make an act divesting one citizen of his freehold, and vesting it in another, without a just compensation. It is inconsistent with the principles of reason, justice, and moral rectitude; it is incompatible with the comfort, peace, and happiness of mankind; it is contrary to the principles of social alliance in every free government; and lastly, it is contrary both to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. In short, it is what every one would think unreasonable and unjust in his own case. The next step in the line of progression is, whether the Legislature had authority to make an act, divesting one citizen of his freehold and vesting it in another, even with compensation. That the Legislature, on certain emergencies, had authority to exercise this high power, has been urged from the nature of the social compact, and from the words of the Constitution, which says, that the House of Representatives shall have all other powers necessary for the Legislature of a free state or commonwealth; but they shall have no power to add to, alter, abolish, or infringe any part of this Constitution. The course of reasoning, on the part of the defendant, may be comprized in a few words. The despotic power, as it is aptly called by some writers, of taking private property, when state necessity requires, exists in every government; the existence of such power is necessary; government could not subsist without it; and if this be the case, it cannot be lodged any where with so much safety as with the Legislature. The presumption is, that they will not call it into exercise except in urgent cases, or cases of the first necessity. There is force in this reasoning. It is, however, difficult to form a case, in which the necessity of a state can be of such a nature, as to authorize or excuse the seizing of landed property belonging to one citizen, and giving it to another citizen. It is immaterial to the state, in which of its citizens the land is vested; but it is of primary importance, that, when vested, it should be secured, and the proprietor protected in the enjoyment of it. The constitution encircles, and renders it an holy thing. We must, gentlemen, bear constantly in mind, that the present is a case of landed property; vested by law in one set of citizens, attempted to be divested, for the purpose of vesting the same property in another set of citizens. It cannot be assimilated to the case of personal property taken or used in time of war or famine, or other extreme necessity; it cannot be assimilated to the temporary possession of land itself, on a pressing public emergency, or the spur of the occasion. In the latter case there is no change of property, no divestment of right; the title remains, and the proprietor, though out of possession for a while, is still proprietor and lord of the soil. The possession grew out of the occasion and ceases with it: Then the right of necessity is satisfied and at an end; it does not affect the title, is temporary in its nature, and cannot exist forever. The constitution expressly declares, that the right of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property is natural, inherent, and unalienable. It is a right not ex gratia from the legislature, but ex debito from the constitution. It is sacred; for, it is further declared, that the legislature shall have no power to add to, alter, abolish, or infringe any part of, the constitution. The constitution is the origin and measure of legislative authority. It says to legislators, thus far ye shall go and no further. Not a particle of it should be shaken; not a pebble of it should be removed. Innovation is dangerous. One incroachment leads to another; precedent gives birth to precedent; what has been done may be done again; thus radical principles are generally broken in upon, and the constitution eventually destroyed. Where is the security, where the inviolability of property, if the legislature, by a private act, affecting particular persons only, can take land from one citizen, who acquired it legally, and vest it in another? The rights of private property are regulated, protected, and governed by general, known, and established laws; and decided upon, by general, known, and established tribunals; laws and tribunals not made and created on an instant exigency, on an urgent emergency, to serve a present turn, or the interest of a moment. Their operation and influence are equal and universal; they press alike on all. Hence security and safety, tranquillity and peace. One man is not afraid of another, and no man afraid of the legislature. It is infinitely wiser and safer to risk some possible mischiefs, than to vest in the legislature so unnecessary, dangerous, and enormous a power as that which has been exercised on the present occasion; a power, that, according to the full extent of the argument, is boundless and omnipotent: For, the legislature judged of the necessity of the case, and also of the nature and value of the equivalent.

Such a case of necessity, and judging too of the compensation, can never occur in any nation. Singular, indeed, and untoward must be the state of things, that would induce the Legislature, supposing they had the power, to divest one individual of his landed estate merely for the purpose of vesting it in another, even upon full indemnification; unless that indemnification be ascertained in the manner which I shall mention hereafter.

But admitting, that the Legislature can take the real estate of A. and give it to B. on making compensation, the principle and reasoning upon it go no further than to shew, that the Legislature are the sole and exclusive judges of the necessity of the case, in which this despotic power should be called into action. It cannot, on, the principles of the social alliance, or of the Constitution, be extended beyond the point of judging upon every existing case of necessity. The Legislature declare and enact, that such are the public exigencies, or necessities of the State, as to authorise them to take the land of A. and give it to B.; the dictates of reason and the eternal principles of justice, as well as the sacred principles of the social contract, and the Constitution, direct, and they accordingly declare and ordain, that A. shall receive compensation for the land. But here the Legislature must stop; they have run the full length of their authority, and can go no further: they cannot constitutionally determine upon the amount of the compensation, or value of the land. Public exigencies do not require, necessity does not demand, that the Legislature should, of themselves, without the participation of the proprietor, or intervention of a jury, assess the value of the thing, or ascertain the amount of the compensation to be paid for it.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 16, Document 24
The University of Chicago Press

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