Amendment I (Petition and Assembly)

[Volume 5, Page 198]

Document 11

William Blackstone, Commentaries 4:146--47


6. Riots, routs, and unlawful assemblies must have three persons at least to constitute them. An unlawful assembly is when three, or more, do assemble themselves together to do an unlawful act, as to pull down inclosures, to destroy a warren or the game therein; and part without doing it, or making any motion towards it. A rout is where three or more meet to do an unlawful act upon a common quarrel, as forcibly breaking down fences upon a right claimed of common, or of way; and make some advances towards it. A riot is where three or more actually do an unlawful act of violence, either with or without a common cause or quarrel: as if they beat a man; or hunt and kill game in another's park, chase, warren, or liberty; or do any other unlawful act with force and violence; or even do a lawful act, as removing a nusance, in a violent and tumultuous manner. The punishment of unlawful assemblies, if to the number of twelve, we have just now seen may be capital, according to the circumstances that attend it; but, from the number of three to eleven, is by fine and imprisonment only. The same is the case in riots and routs by the common law; to which the pillory in very enormous cases has been sometimes superadded. And by the statute 13 Hen. IV. c. 7. any two justices, together with the sheriff or under-sheriff of the county, may come with the posse comitatus, if need be, and suppress any such riot, assembly, or rout, arrest the rioters, and record upon the spot the nature and circumstances of the whole transaction; which record alone shall be a sufficient conviction of the offenders. In the interpretation of which statute it hath been holden, that all persons, noblemen and others, except women, clergymen, persons decrepit, and infants under fifteen, are bound to attend the justices in suppressing a riot, upon pain of fine and imprisonment; and that any battery, wounding, or killing the rioters, that may happen in suppressing the riot, is justifiable. So that our antient law, previous to the modern riot act, seems pretty well to have guarded against any violent breach of the public peace; especially as any riotous assembly on a public or general account, as to redress grievances or pull down all inclosures, and also resisting the king's forces if sent to keep the peace, may amount to overt acts of high treason, by levying war against the king.

7. Nearly related to this head of riots is the offence of tumultuous petitioning; which was carried to an enormous height in the times preceding the grand rebellion. Wherefore by statute 13 Car. II. st. 1. c. 5. it is enacted, that not more than twenty names shall be signed to any petition to the king or either house of parliament, for any alteration of matters established by law in church or state; unless the contents thereof be previously approved, in the country, by three justices, or the majority of the grand jury at the [Volume 5, Page 199] assises or quarter sessions; and, in London, by the lord mayor, aldermen, and common council: and that no petition shall be delivered by a company of more than ten persons: on pain in either case of incurring a penalty not exceeding 100 l, and three months imprisonment.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Petition and Assembly), Document 11
The University of Chicago Press

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765--1769. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.