from An Essay Concerning Self-Murther

Born in London, the son of a Lisbon merchant, John Adams was educated at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, earning bachelor’s, master’s, and divinity degrees. He traveled to France, Italy, Spain, and Ireland. In 1687, he was appointed to the parish of Higham in Leicestershire. In London, he was lecturer of St. Clement’s, rector of St. Alban, on Wood Street, and rector of St. Bartholomew. He was also made prebendary of Canterbury, and in 1708, became canon of Windsor. He served as chaplain to William III and also to Queen Anne. In 1712, he was elected provost of King’s College, a post that he held until his death.

Adams was recognized as an eloquent preacher and accomplished linguist, and he often spoke on public occasions. At least 15 of his sermons were published during his life. The selection here is taken from An Essay Concerning Self-Murther (1700). Here, Adams bases his argument against self-murder, or suicide, on obligations and duties persons have as members of civil society. For if suicide were condoned and the proper authority given to those who would take their own lives, it must be universally so; and that, to Adams, would cause a severe weakening of civil society. Further, Adams also considers the difference between putting oneself at great risk and self-murder, concluding that only the former is justified because, if death results, it was not the intent of the act, but only a foreseen consequence. Reminiscent of Aquinas’s argument that murder in self-defense is justifiable as long as it is not intended, Adams’s consideration of double effect applies specifically to actions that may result in one’s own death.


John Adams, An Essay Concerning Self-Murther wherein is endeavour’d to prove that it is unlawful according to natural principles: with some considerations upon what is pretended from the said principles, by the author of a treatise intituled, Biathanatos, and others. London: Printed for Tho. Bennet, at the Half-Moon, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1700, pp. 23-30, 94-130, spelling modernized.


CHAP. III. Man Considered as a Member of Civil Society. Self-Murther proved by several Argument’s to be Destructive to Civil Society; from which, and what was said before, concluded to be an Act of the greatest Injustice and therefore unlawful.

Hitherto we have considered Man as Single and Independent from Humane Laws, and showed that as he is so, Self-Murther is an Act of Injustice towards God, by destroying that which is his alone; and also both towards God and towards a Mans own self, by the positive and willful refusal of performing that end for which he received Life, and in which his happiness truly consists. Let us in the next place, for a further confirmation of the unlawfulness of this Act, consider Man as a Member of Civil Society.

And this we ought to do with the greater attention, because, though it may be convenient in some respects to consider him in the individual, and in the state of Nature, yet this is only Notional; he cannot be so as to any part of the World which we have to do withal, nor can he be so at any time but to his great Misfortune, for as ’tis necessary for his Security, that he should be under some Government, so is it likewise necessary, for the Perfection of his Nature: for his having a larger and a nobler compass for his Reason and his Virtue; there being several Virtues which cannot be exercised by Man when alone, but which owe their being to Society.

If then we consider Man in this manner, his Obligations to preserve Life are still more; both as the end of Life is enlarged, (the good of others, as well as his own being concerned in it) and as he has then less to do with his Life, (the use of it being more at others disposal) than when he was considered in the state of Nature: Because he has not then the same Authority to defend himself which he had before, but is bound in most Cases to have recourse to the Magistrate for this purpose. Besides, by enjoying the benefit of Protection in any Government, he must be supposed either tacitly or expressly to have consented in a mutual Agreement of Offence and Defense for the maintaining of the same Protection; which being chiefly for the preservation of Life, as Self-Murther must be unlawful, so it must be absurd. But that which is most considerable and sufficient of it self to prove Self-Murther to be unlawful, is, that this may prove destructive to the very Being of Society, as will appear if we consider the Reasons following.

1. Because this wholly destroys the best Measure of mutual Kindness and Justice, that which is generally confessed to be one of the chiefest and plainest Laws of Nature; namely the doing to others as we would be done to our selves: The greatest injury that can be done to another is the Murthering of him; now if a Man has the liberty to Murther himself, the measure of Justice in the most important Concerns towards others is broken; nor can it signify any thing to say, that this is done out of love to ones self, because it may be pretended that it may be done out of love to another too, yet no one sure will ever allow this as a reasonable pretence for the Murther of his Neighbor.

2. This would utterly destroy the force of Humane Laws; Man’s having a right or power to kill himself, when he thinks fitting, would make void all Obligation to Humane Laws, as to the threats of Punishment, without a dread of which no Law would signify any thing: The greatest Punishment that Humane Laws can threaten is Death; now if Men have Authority to kill themselves, and be taught and persuaded that they have so, and be encouraged by the Examples of others, which will not be wanting, when Men are so persuaded; the threats of Death will be despised as to the disgrace or torment of it when public, because they may bring it upon themselves with ease and privacy at home, and therefore they will not be obliged to any Duty, by the fear of this, much less by the fear of any thing else; but would Rob, Ravish, Murther, &c.

3. Whatever the Reasons are, in relation to Civil Society, for which the Murther of another is forbidden; the same hold and perhaps with greater force, as to the Murthering of ones self; those Reasons are chiefly the having no Authority, the depriving the Public of a Subject, the impossibility of making any Equivalent Satisfaction. The two first of these are of the same force as to the Murthering of ones self, the third seems to be of much greater; for he that Murthers another may make some satisfaction as to public Justice, by the forfeiture of his own Life, and he that forfeits his Life publicly upon this Account makes some amends to the State, under which he lives, by deterring others from committing the same Crime by the Example of his Punishment; whereas on the contrary, he that Murthers himself, not only evades all satisfaction to the Public as to the paying Personal and Sensible Punishment; but in so doing gives encouragement to others to commit the same: Wherefore Self-Murther may be a greater Crime in regard of the Public, especially if it be a public Person, than the Murthering of another Man; and if so is undoubtedly forbidden by that Law of Nature, Thou shalt not kill: otherwise that Law would be very imperfect, and reach only to the lesser Crime, and permit the greater.

Lastly, For a Man to have a right to kill himself when ever he pleases, must be destructive to Civil Government; because this Right must be Universal: One Man may exercise it as well as another; and since no public rule can be given to show when, in what circumstances of Adversity, (which are more or less felt by different Men, according to their different Portions of Reason or Virtue, their Courage or Constitution) since, I say, no public rule can be given to all Men to prescribe the Case exactly wherein it shall be reasonable and lawful to put this Right in Execution; every Man must be left to judge for himself, that is, to be led as his own Passions or Appetites guide him. After this rate great numbers may make themselves away, which by Example and Custom may grow still greater and greater, till the Public is weakened not only by the loss of several of its Members, but also by the check and stop which there must be upon all Business, and Trade, Trust in one another; since the strictest Obligations to this purpose may be thus evaded.

Add to this the misery of the Family particularly concerned, the horrid sense which such an Act imprints upon the best Men’s Minds, the general Aversion which it causes, and consequently the shame of the Relations and Acquaintance of the Self-Murtherer, and very often too the Confusion and Desolation of the forsaken Widow or Orphans; all which must be of ill Consequence to any State, especially if the Fact is frequently committed.

But lest this should give any color for the plausible pretence of Compassion which is commonly made use of by those who are concerned in the Coroner’s Inquest upon such Occasions, I cannot but observe by the way, that all Kindness or Generosity towards particular Persons, though they be nearest Relations, is unwarrantable, which is prejudicial to that Love and Duty which is owing to the Public, especially when People are actually entrusted by the Public, and sworn to report impartially, without being moved by any Passion whatsoever, what their judgment is concerning a matter of Fact. It may be as injurious to our Country to elude the Design of a Law out of Pity as out of Revenge; and as to Perjury, if we consider it in it self, ’tis as absurd to be guilty of it through Generosity as Bribery, though it may too justly be suspected, that in these Cases the latter generally has a greater Influence than the former. But of this more hereafter.

These are the Reasons which make me conclude that Self-Murther is unlawful, if Man be considered as a Member of any Civil State; which are all of them of greater force, if it be also positively forbidden by the Laws of the State, which I take to be of great Consideration in this part of the Argument. As for the Exceptions or Objections, that are made to this third Division, they also shall be considered in their turn.

CHAP. VIII. Examination of such Objections as are brought to invalidate what was said above concerning Man’s being a Member of Civil Society, and the unlawfulness of Self-murther in this regard also: Application of what has been said to the Coroners Inquest in this Case.

Hitherto I have endeavored to Answer those Objections, which might seem to oppose what I had said to prove Self-murther Unlawful; as Man was considered in the State of Nature: I come now to examine some others which are brought against what has been said to confirm the same, as he is a Member of Civil Society.

First, I must say something to that which was above mentioned, as an Instance of deserting ones self Lawfully.

Self-preservation doth not so rigorously, and urgently, and illimitedly bind, but that by the Law of Nature it self, things may, yea must, neglect themselves for others, of which the Pelican is an Instance. Another Instance he gives of Bees too, from whence he infers, That as this natural Instinct in Beasts, so rectified Reason belonging only to us, instructs us often to prefer public and necessary Persons, by exposing our selves to inevitable Destruction.

We may Lawfully dispossess our selves of that, without which we can have no hopes to sustain our Lives; as in a Shipwreck a private Man may give his Plank to a Magistrate, and the Examples of Codrus, Curtius and the Decij, and the Approbation of the greatest and the wisest Nations, in the Honors which they paid to their Memory, are usually brought in upon this occasion; this is to prove that the Law of Self-preservation may be dispensed withal in regard of serving the Public; and therefore that it may be so as reasonably in any Man’s private Concern, even to the degree of Killing himself: Or thus, there is no difference (as to Self-preservation) between a Man’s Killing himself upon account of the Public, or his own account; now he that dispossesses himself upon the public Account, to save a public Person: Of that, without which he can have no hopes of saving his own Life, Kills himself.

To this may be Answered,

1. That the use of Instinct in Beasts is to Preserve them. It was given them to this End alone, instead of Reason; therefore it is a Contradiction to affirm, that any Beast, Bird, or Insect destroys it self by Instinct, and the Instances here brought to prove this are Fabulous.

2. That the more Reason is rectify in Man, the more he will understand to what End he received Life, and how little Authority he has to dispose of it; and therefore the more carefully will he obey the Law of Self-preservation, and this particularly upon the Consideration of what he owes the Public.

3. That the Law of Self-preservation may not be willfully broken, even upon the Account of the Public. No Man has naturally any Authority to destroy himself for his Country, designedly and positively; but to hazard his Life only.

As to the Instances of Codrus, Curtius, and the Decij, what they did was grounded upon a Religious or Superstitious Persuasion; which they obeyed as Supernatural, and therefore cannot be used to prove what is Naturally Lawful.

The Instance of giving a Magistrate a Plank in a Shipwreck, implies only great hazard of Life, not positive Destruction of it; because there is a possibility of escaping left; and because the intention is not to die, to abandon all care of ones self, but to take care of another first: To make this more plain I will show,

1. What Authority the Public Power, where-ever ’tis placed, has to require any Person to hazard his Life, and what Warrant that Person has to hazard it accordingly.

2. The difference between extreme Hazard and Self-murther.

3. What Authority, &c. In this Consideration I shall have no regard to any one particular State, but only enquire into the End of Government or Civil Society in General, and this with all Submission imaginable. The end of Civil Government is, I suppose, the promoting the same things for many Men together, upon which their true Happiness depended, as considered singly in the State of Nature: this is usually called the Public Good, that is, each Man’s Private Good as he is Man, considered collectively, and with regard to the General Welfare. Private Good being twofold, as hath been shown, Moral and Sensitive; the object of humane Laws must be twofold also, Virtue and Propriety, and the promoting and securing these in Peace from all Enemies, either from without or within any Political Body seems to be the true natural end of Civil Society.

Now as there is Public Good to be secured, so in order to this, there must be Public Power over every particular Subject, lodged in one or more Persons, according as the Form of the Government is; and lest this Power should be either Dangerous or to no Purpose, there must be also Public Judgment, the Result of the Debates of Wise and Upright Men, to limit it and direct it.

Furthermore, whereas every particular State must be considered as one Political Person; in which respect the being of any State is to be looked upon as the Public Life, and the Well-being of the same State, the Public Health: So it must be supposed that the Public Power must be such, as is proper and requisite to defend these, and consequently that it must extend to Particular Life, whenever the Public Life is any ways in danger.

Now this may be endangered two ways, either 1st. By Enemies within the State, Corrupt and Vicious Men, who obstruct and break the Laws, and infect others; in which Case the Public Power extends to the actual Destruction of such particular Mens Lives, as being necessary for the Preservation of all the rest. Or 2dly. It may be endangered from outward Enemies; other Governments that would Enslave or Destroy it: In which Case the Public Power extends to the obliging such as it thinks fitting to hazard their Lives, when ’tis necessary for the Public Preservation: To hazard, I say, not positively destroy themselves, (as when a blow is made at a Man’s Head, he may lift up his Arm to defend it, venture the breaking of it, not positively break it, which he has no right to do) and necessary it may be supposed, sufficiently to warrant any Man’s Obedience, when the Public Judgment declares that it is so.

But the chief Question is, from whence this Power is derived to the Public, by whom it was granted.

Some suppose it to be granted by Man himself, upon a kind of compact for Protection; but though protection may be one great End of this Power; yet it is generally agreed, that this Power cannot be conferred on the Public by every particular Man; because God alone has the absolute Propriety of humane Life: Man has no such Power himself, and what he has not, he cannot make over to another. Mr. Hobbs will have it to come from Man, but then to decline this Objection, and secure his darling Principle of Self-preservation, he says, This is not done by Man’s transferring any right of his own, but by laying down the right which he has to hurt others. His own Words are these, The Subjects did not give their Sovereign that Right; but only in laying down theirs, strengthened him to use his own as he should think fit for the Preservation of them all; so that it was not given but left to him: If I take this right, this is a very odd distinction; for if a Man has any right to hurt others for his own Preservation; then as he is bound to Preserve himself, so he is bound to retain that Right; and yet if he lays it down, he parts with it as much as if he actually gave it away.

He told us just before, That in the making of a Commonwealth every Man gives away the Right of defending another, but not of defending himself. In several Places he repeats and inculcates this, that no Man can ever part with the right of defending himself; no, not after Lawful Trial and Condemnation: If this be so, How can he lay down the right which he has to hurt others, since by so doing he must be left in a great measure defenseless, and liable, by his own Consent, not only to be hurt, but to be actually destroyed, as in all Capital Punishments.

Wherefore, not withstanding Men choose to struggle thus, rather than have any thing to do with God, while they frame their Political Systems: Yet it seems plain that such a Power as we are speaking of can be derived from no other but God, who alone having the absolute Propriety of all humane Life, can alone have the right to give some Men Power over the Lives of others; and who having framed Man in such a manner, that Civil Society is necessary for his Security and Improvement, and yet such Society not to be preserved without such a Power, must upon these Considerations, and also as he is a wife and just Being; and as he who wills the End must will the Means necessary to that End; must, I say, be supposed to grant to the Magistrate such a Power; a Power to hazard Life himself, and to oblige others to do so, in defense of the Public.

From what has been said may appear, that the Power or Authority which any Government has to require Men to hazard their Lives for the Public Good is derived from God himself, that the time and manner of doing this depends upon the Public Judgment; and that Man is thus warranted for hazarding his Life accordingly.

To return then to the Instance above-mentioned, of a Man’s giving a Magistrate his Plank in a Shipwreck: If a Man may hazard his Life for the Public Good, then if there be some particular Person, in whom the Public Power and Public Judgment is lodged, from whom all the Springs of Action derive their Motion, who is in effect the Life, the Soul of the whole Body, and in whom the Liberty and Property (as we love to speak) of many Millions centers and may be lost; and among the rest his Life also, who shall be concerned for this Public Persons safety; then we may conclude, that any Man may hazard his Life even to the utmost danger to preserve such a Person; yet in these Cases we are to remember Life is only hazarded not abandoned, much less positively destroyed; and that for such extreme hazard Men may justly suppose that they have Authority from God himself, as they are Members of any Civil Government.

And though the danger be great, yet ’tis very seldom that Men fall into certain Death upon these Accounts, as might be shown easily.

But suppose it should be so, yet in this Case an honest good Man does not mind any thing but to do his Duty, to pursue faithfully the End for which Life was given; and if Life should be lost in this pursuit, this is not his desire, nor his fault; ’twas not his aim to die, but to do as he ought; nay gladly would he have lived had Life been consistent with his Virtue; but when this came in Question, both Death and Life became indifferent, and though he Chooses neither, he accepts readily of either, as they offer themselves in his way to his Duty.

This I find confirmed by the Schoolmen in a harder Case than any above-mentioned. Suppose a powerful Tyrant should bring the last City of any State to the greatest Extremity, by all the sad Consequences of a long and prosperous Siege; as loss and weariness of Men, Famine, Contention, Corruption; and no hopes of Succor should be left; suppose that after this, he should refuse all Articles of Submission, and should threaten Destruction by Fire and Sword, unless they delivered up to him some one particular innocent Person. This City (say they) may not only deliver him up, though they know him to be Innocent; but that very Person may deliver up himself, and yet without being guilty of destroying himself, because, as above said, his chief end is the doing so much Good, not the Dying; his particular intention, his design that he had in view continually was to save his Country; and this being the only means which was left, he resolves to incur the greatest danger to this purpose; and yet in all this is positive only as to the doing of his Duty, and far from being positive as to the destroying of his Life. To complete this Argument let us now see,

1. How great the difference is between this and Self-murther, and consequently how unreasonably the one is made a plea for the other.

He that hazards Life for the Public does this in obedience to the Laws both of God and Man; he that destroys his own Life does this in disobedience to the Laws of both; the first by observing the true End of Life, does what God and Nature primarily designed as most proper to preserve Life, and if he loses it ’tis by the violence of others; the latter neglecting the true End of Life destroys it willfully by the most positive act of injustice to God, his Country and himself; the first only hazards Life, the latter chooses Death; if the first happens to die ’tis against his will, if the latter lives ’tis against his; and as to the Public, the one dies for it, the other dies against it; not only by deserting it, but by breaking its Laws, and encouraging others to do so, and also by enervating the strictness ties of Kindness, Trust and Justice, which may end at last in the total dissolution of any Government; the Comparison might be carried further, but this may be sufficient to show the unreasonableness of this Conclusion, That because a Man may give a Magistrate his Plank in a Shipwreck therefore he may Murther himself.

The next Objection is to this purpose, That if Self-murther is unjust in regard of the Public, ’tis because it loses a Member; but this may as well be said of all those who retiring themselves from Functions in the Commonwealth, defraud the State of their Assistance, and attend only their own Ends. If the Person be of necessary use to the State, there are in it some degrees of Injustice, but yet no more than if a General of much use should retire into a Monastery. To this may be Answered.

1. That one of the Reasons why Self-murther is unjust to the Public, but not the only one; is its losing a Member.

2. The Instance here given does not come up to the point; for a General may not lay down his Commission without leave, when he is necessary for his Countries Service; but he may justly be punished if he refuses to Act. Yet suppose a Man may retire from Public Affairs to attend his own Ends; Is this as much damage to the Public as Selfmurther? He that attends his own Ends, (if by this be meant his particular Interest as to his Family) contributes to the Public Good, and may do so very considerably, though never so much retired: However the causes of his Retirement may alter, and then he may serve the Public again upon Necessity; or should he not, he may serve and assist his particular Friends and Relations, improve his Knowledge and his Fortune, be an Example of Virtue, and in many other respects observe the end for which Life was given; and this sure cannot be the same with the putting a Man’s self into an unalterable incapacity of doing any good at all, by the willful and positive destruction of Life.

To this it may perhaps be replied, That here Strength and Vigor is required, Health of Body and Activity of Mind; but suppose a Man by extreme Age or Infirmity, by loss some Sense or some Limb, should be made incapable of serving the Public, had not he as good be gone as stay to no purpose, may not he leave the World if he pleases when he is become good for nothing.

This Supposition seems to be grounded upon a very gross sense of serving the Public; as if States-men were to be chosen by the breadth of their Shoulders, and strong and sizeable Men were as necessary for the Council Table as the Guard Room; for if Men be past Reason the Dispute is at an end, but if they are capable of using it, why should old Age be objected, unless Maturity and Experience should be disadvantages? When Reason is lost, no Man can be accountable for Self-murther, or any other Action, yet even then we preserve Life carefully in Idiots and Madmen at the Public Expense; either in hopes of their recovery, or to learn to value Reason as we ought, or to praise the giver of it, so that there is scarce any Wretch but may be some way or other beneficial to the Public, even by his being alive alone; how much more may he be so when Reason remains, and that too so highly valued and well understood, that Men will choose sooner to part with Life than remain deprived of the glorious advantage of it? Or if this should not be allowed, what Rule can be given? What degree of Age or Infirmity can be fixed, when Men shall be judged to be good for nothing, and permitted to Murther themselves accordingly? Such a thing (if possible) might prevent it indeed, since Men would be apt to live in despite of all their Miseries, rather than buy the privilege of Self-murther at so dear a rate, as to be judged by others, and be obliged to acknowledge themselves, that they are good for nothing.

But while Reason remains, as I said before, this is impossible, and many Instances may be given of Persons who have done their Country the most considerable Service under all these Calamities above-mentioned, nay at the very time of Death it self. The whole Senate of Rome had once so basely degenerated as to surrender up tamely their Liberty and their Glory, in that dishonorable Peace which they had unanimously resolved to conclude with Pyrrhus: When Appius Claudius who had been absent from Public Affairs, through extreme Age, Blindness and Lameness, for many Years, as soon as he heard of it, caused himself to be carried to the House, and bravely upbraided them with their Cowardice and Perfidiousness to their Country: What Man had ever such appearances of being past serving the Public, or being good for nothing; and yet how vigorous was his Soul in so decrepit a Body? One would think the Genius of Rome, chased out from the degenerate Senate, had retired for shelter under the Ruins of this great old Man. ‘Tis certain that if he had not had so many Infirmities he would have been less regarded, but the fight of these made his Zeal surprising; raised their Attention with their Admiration, and gave every Word a peculiar force to restore them to their Courage and their Reason as unanimously as they had rebelled against both before: This made his Infirmities numbered in after Ages among his Trophies, and Coecus a more glorious distinction than Asiaticus, Africanus, &c. for they who had those Titles, only added Vast and Luxurious Provinces to their Country, which proved the Destruction of it at last; but Appius conquered its most dreadful Enemy, and saved it, for that time, from it self. The great Father Paul a few Minutes before his Death, after he had been long weakened by Age and Sickness, had three Cases of very great Importance sent to him, by the Senate of Venice, to each of which he gave his Opinions, and that wise Assembly followed them accordingly. In these Instances there was not only a complication of Calamities, but Death it self, had almost taken Possession, and yet neither, made them past serving of the Public.

What shall be pretended then for the loss of any one Sense? as the Stoics do; Shall this be taken for a certain Sign of being past doing good? And consequently a reasonable Plea for Self-murther; and shall that be acted accordingly? Had it been so always, how much Instruction and Delight would Mankind have been deprived of, had Homer —-Nay had Milton done so, the World had lost that admirable Poem? Oh, had he made but as good use of his Eyes!

‘Tis true few Persons are qualified for such great Performances, but these Instances may show that such Calamities, as above-mentioned, do not make all Men past serving of their Country, or good for nothing; and that if such Pretences were allowed for Self-murther in one Person, they must be so in another; and if so, that this may prove very hurtful to any State, nay possibly to the whole World.

But after all, it may be further Objected, If a Man has leave from the Public to Murther himself, he does it no Injury; this leave has frequently been granted by the Roman Senate, and at Marseilles a Vessel of Poison was kept ready at the Public Charge, for those to whom they gave Permission to Murther themselves. This Custom may be of use to us so far in this Argument as to prove that these People thought that no Man who lived in a Civil State had right over his own Life, but the Public had a claim to it, which is very true in its proper Limitation; but then this was not such a claim as is grounded upon absolute Propriety; such as gives a Power to dispose of any thing when and how it pleases; because the right which the Public has over particular Life is only for security of Public Life, grounded upon Self-defense, and never to be made use of but in extreme Necessity; as for the cutting off a corrupted part, or for the opposing open Violence: Wherefore this Right being grounded only upon this Foundation, for any Political Body to pretend to give leave to any Innocent Person to kill himself, is as absurd as for any Man to give his right Hand leave to cut off his left when it ails nothing, or to wound himself in any other sound part. In a Word; this would be both Folly and Usurpation, for had the Public this absolute Right, all Complaints of Tyranny and Oppression would be very unreasonable?

But after all what do such Instances as these signify to Us, or to any Nation which does not grant the same Permission: If the Matter were to be determined by Humane Laws; we of this Nation (not to mention others) are forbid it under the strictest Penalties.

But here our Author tells us again, If our Law be severe in punishing of it, and that this Argument has the more strength, because more Nations concur in such Laws: It may well from hence be retorted, that every where Men are inclinable to it, which establishes much our Opinion, says he, considering that none of those Laws, which prescribe Civil restraints from doing it, can make it Sin; and that Act is not much discredited if it be therefore Evil, because it is so forbidden, and binds the Conscience no further but under the general Precept of obedience to the Law or the Forfeiture.—Here are three things advanced;

1. That the General Concurrence of Nations in any Law proves a General Inclination in Mankind to the committing of the thing forbidden; and therefore that that thing is Natural. This I think is very strange! All Nations concur in severe Laws against Murthering of Princes, Husbands, Fathers, against betraying Forts, Ships, &c. Now does this prove a General Inclination of People to these Crimes? No certainly; but it proves a general abhorrence and detestation of them, and the ill Consequences of them to Mankind; and therefore is an undeniable Argument of such things being unnatural.

2. We are told that none of those Laws which prescribe Civil Restraints from doing it (i.e. Self-Murther) can make it Sin, and the Act is not much discredited if it be therefore Evil because it is so forbidden.

The Law of any Land does not make Self-murther to be a Sin or Evil, but found it so, ’tis really so by the Law of Nature, as I hope has been shown; ’tis declared to be so by positive Laws, to put Men in mind of it, to save them the trouble of reasoning it out, and to deter them from committing it, by the threats of immediate Punishment; and that which was thus founded in Nature, and afterwards commanded by Man’s Law brings a new obligation upon the Conscience, for if humane Laws concerning things indifferent in their own Nature (which forbid an Action which a Man might be otherwise free to do, or command one which he might be otherwise free to omit) do oblige us, as every one allows, then how much more must they do so when they forbid a thing which is not indifferent but naturally unlawful, and which a Man was obliged to forbear before; and so on the contrary: If this be so, that must also be a mistake which is affirmed.

3. That humane Laws which forbid Self-murther bind the Conscience no further, but under the General Precept of Obedience to the Law, or else to the Forfeiture.

When a Civil Punishment is affix to that which is a Natural Evil, a Man is not left at liberty to choose to suffer the one for acting the other; particularly in the Case of Self-murther; because a Man was obliged in Conscience before the humane Law was made, and because the Punishment (in this Case especially, of all others) is by no means adequate to the Crime; besides if a Man may choose the Punishment, then the Law of Man instead of enforcing the Law of Nature, would only be the convenience of evading it. Wherefore as this distinction is unjust, so is it most pernicious to all Civil Governments.

Yet after all; supposing that it should be lawful to choose the Civil Punishment, for the committing that which is Naturally Evil: How shall this reach the Offender, as to Self-murther? This can affect him no otherwise, than as to his Dead Body, or his Posterity; and therefore how false is this Pretence at the Bottom? And how base is this detestable Action? whereby a Wretch breaks the Laws of God and his Country, and exposes his best and dearest Friends, his next Relations, nay his Children often, to suffer the Punishment due to his Crime. If in excuse for this it should be said, That such People may be supposed to satisfy themselves with hopes of the Punishments being escaped by their Heirs, either through Friendship, Compassion, Bribery, &c. If, I say, this should be alleged, then certainly it is very well worthy of Consideration, whether the putting of those Laws duly and constantly in Execution, which are provided in this Case, would not be of very great force to put a stop to this Evil? The Consideration of shame alone did this heretofore in the Case of the Milesians, and the Romans also under Tarquinius Priscus: Our Laws then may do this more effectually; which allowing but the same Burial which other Felons have, and requiring the Forfeiture of the Personal Estate, have not only the Natural tye of shame, but a much stronger, that of tenderness to their Posterity, to restrain such Rash and Melancholy Creatures by.

And this leads me to apply my self particularly to the Coroner and his Inquest upon these sad Occasions. For although somewhat of this kind has been done lately by an ingenious Author; yet the Nature of his Design (I suppose) not suffering him to enlarge upon it, there seems to be room left for something to be added.

I will first then give some Account of the Duty of the Coroner and his Jury, and what the Law directs, and upon what Grounds, (as I have been informed) in this Case: And afterwards show the unreasonable of those Prejudices or Pretences which Men are apt to be swayed by, notwithstanding these great Obligations.

As to the first, When the Coroner has notice, that any one is come to a violent and untimely Death; he is to Summon and Impanel a Jury out of the Neighborhood, and administer this Oath to them.

You shall Swear, that you shall well and truly inquire, and true Presentment make of all such matters and things as shall be given you in Charge, on the behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King, touching the Death of A. B. So Help you God.

As to the Matters and Things here mentioned, these are Explained farther to them by the Coroner in his Charge; Then they are to find out the manner of the Persons Death, whether by Drowning, Strangling, Wounds received, or otherwise; whether by another or himself, if by himself, whether he was Felo de se, or non Compos mentis.

And to this End they are to be directed and assisted by the Depositions of those whom the Coroner Summons to give Evidence, or by the hearing of the Council, which is sometimes brought upon these Occasions. What is meant by being non Compos; the Law informs them, that it is the deprivation of Reason or Understanding: Such a state of the Mind wherein there is a Cessation from Exercising the Discursive Faculty. That there are four sorts of Persons which the Law looks upon to be non Compos. 1. An Idiot or Natural Fool. 2. One that has been of Good and Sound Memory, but by the Visitation of God has lost it. 3. A Lunatic who has Intervals. 4. One who becomes Mad, by his own Act, through Excessive Drinking. Upon the Verdict of non Compos the Goods and Chattels of the Deceased are to be enquired after, valued immediately, as if they were to be sold and delivered to the Kings use; and the Body refused Christian Burial. The reason of which Punishment is said to be, because Self-murther is an Offence against Nature, it being the Property of every thing to preserve it self; against God, for that it offends his Commandment; against the King, for that he loses a Subject, and an ill Example is given to the rest. All which have been explained and enforced in the former part of this Treatise.

We may see here the Authority, by which the Coroner and his Jury Act, the Nature of their Duty, and the great Trust reposed in them, as also the Laws Interpretation of non Compos, the Punishment that is threatened, and the Ground and Intent of the Law: All Which every one of the Jury is obliged to observe by the sacred Bond of a Solemn Oath; and this one would suppose might be sufficient to cause any honest Man to make true Presentment, deliver in his Verdict in such a Case Impartially; yet it is found to be otherwise by Experience. Wherefore.

1. I come to show the unreasonableness of those Prejudices and Pretences by which Men are usually swayed in this Matter; and in so doing I shall not look upon my self (being to talk with another sort of People now) to be confined to Natural Principles only.

2. Is a General Supposition that every one who kills himself is non Compos, and that no body would do such an Action unless he were Distracted; this will be found unreasonable if we consider,

3. That if this were really so, then it would be to no purpose for the Law to appoint any enquiry to be made in such Cases: If a Man may not be supposed to be in his Wits when he lays violent Hands upon himself, to what intent is the Summoning in of so many Men, the giving them a Solemn Oath, examining Witnesses, hearing Council; all this supposes the Case doubtful; but according to that Opinion all this is vain and impertinent, because they have nothing left to judge of.

4. If this were so, then our Laws are not only Impertinent but Unjust, by affixing a Punishment to such an Act, as the Person that commits it cannot help: He that is Distracted knows not what he does, and therefore is not Accountable for this or any other Deed; since then the Laws of this Nation, and of many others of great Reputation for Wisdom and Justice (as shall be shown immediately) have ordained a Punishment for this Action, it is plain that they thought it might possibly be committed Willfully, and Advisedly; and if so, ’tis Confidence and Presumption for any private Person to suppose the contrary.

5. This will appear farther if we consider the several Explications of the Words Non Compos above-mentioned, particularly the third concerning Lunatics: If a Person known to be Lunatic several Years, be also known to have had several Intervals, he shall be liable to the Law, unless it be plainly proved that he was distempered at the very time of killing himself: How much more if a Man has never been known to have been Lunatic at all. As to the 4th sort of Madness above-mentioned, the Law does not look upon this as an Excuse for any Crime committed in that Condition; because it was the Parties own voluntary Act to bring himself into it. However this may be of Use to judge of other kinds of Madness by: Which People may be supposed to be affected withal in this Case; it very seldom appears that they who destroy themselves have had the same or as great signs of Distraction, as are frequently caused by excessive Drinking, or supposing they may have had so, yet let the Juror consider whether this may not be caused as much through the Parties own fault as the other; whether he did not bring upon himself, or give way to the beginning of his Discontent; whether he did not willfully foment and increase it, and at last stubbornly persist in it. Let him also consider whether he would have excused the same Person for killing another Man, upon those very signs of Madness which move him now to excuse him for killing himself: I believe this may be one good Rule for an honest Juror to walk by, especially since the killing of ones self has been shown above, to be rather worse in regard of the Public, than the killing of another Man.

Yet after all, how oft does it appear in these Cases, that the Person concerned did give plain and certain Signs of a good Understanding (I mean Naturally, not Morally so) by some Circumstances of his Death or other: Some have enquired what was the easiest way of Dying, or where to place the Weapon best; others have used much cunning and contrivance to procure the Instrument, have kept it long by them, and warily chosen a proper Time and Place to make use of it; others again have made their Wills, or settled their Affairs otherways; taken leave of their Friendssolemnly, sent those out of the way that might have hindered them; these and such like Circumstances are Arguments of Deliberation and Advisedness, and prove sufficiently that such a Person was Compos Mentis.

If it be Moral and not Natural Madness that is here meant, not only he that commits any other great Crime, but he that subverts a Lawful Government, by a long train of well laid Designs, though he cannot be suspected of any Natural defect of Understanding, yet is as much Mad in this sense as any one that kills himself can be supposed to be; and yet sure this would not be allowed as an Excuse for so doing. But this sort of Madness does not fall under the Coroners Inquest in the present Case: Moral Madness is the misapplication of the Understanding, not the total Deprivation of it, and the Question here is not whether the Understanding was misapplied, but whether there was any Understanding left at all: This brings me to some other kind of Pretences, which are caused chiefly,

1. By mistaking the Subject of their enquiry, and making themselves Judges of that which does not belong to them; their Duty consists in enquiring well and truly how the Person came by his Death, if by himself, whether he was felo de se, or non Compos, and in making true Presentment accordingly. This is what they are Sworn to do; but instead of this they are apt to run out beyond their Bounds, and consider what the Event of their Verdict will be, either as to the Forfeiture, or the Person Deceased.

2. As to the Forfeiture, they are sometimes mightily concerned about this; What will become of it? Upon whom shall it be bestowed? Upon such perhaps as do not want it, or among so many that it will do them little or no Good; whereas in the lump it might be of great advantage to the next Heirs: Why is not Charity due to them as much as mere Strangers, &c. To this may be replied,

3. That which is thus forfeited devolves to the Lord Almoner, the distributor of His Majesties Alms, according to his Direction; and therefore they ought to be satisfied that it will be disposed of Judiciously and Faithfully.

4. Supposing the worst, what is this to the Coroner or any of his Jury; the Law has not made them Judges in this matter, or given them Authority to consider what will be most convenient and proper to be done with that which is Forfeited, or who are the best Objects of Charity: They are called to Judge of matter of Fact by what they see and hear. Let them remember their Oaths, they are not Sworn to be Charitable but to be Just, to enquire well and truly, diligently and impartially concerning the Fact, and to give their Judgment according to their Conscience; and therefore a good Man ought to be upon his Guard against such Insinuations as these, and to take care lest his Charity should absurdly corrupt his Justice; absurdly I say, for he that is Just, (in Criminal Causes especially,) is Charitable in the Noblest way; for whilst his Impartial Sentence deters others from committing the same Crime, his Charity extends not only to all the Innocent and Virtuous of the Present Age, but to late Posterity.

Again some run out beyond their Limits and fall into Mistakes, by considering the Event of their Judgment as to the Parties Reputation, and their being Guilty of Uncharitableness in this regard; they think that to bring him in Felo de se, would be to pronounce him damned, therefore that they ought to Judge Charitably, especially, since they could not see into his Heart, or discover his last thoughts.

This would not need an Answer, but that Ignorant, though well meaning People are often concerned upon these Occasions, and apt to receive such Scruples from Cunning Solicitors, that are always busy about them, if the Chattels are worth the saving: Therefore something must be said to it.

1. Then the Jurors bringing in the Deceased Felo de se, does not pronounce him damned at all, this he leaves to God alone; whatever his Judgment of the Fact is, it can be neither the better nor the worse for him in the next World; his Impartial Verdict does not alter the Nature of the Fact: If he thinks him Guilty, yet he does not contribute to his being so, and what he thinks; he is obliged to declare by Lawful Authority; and if he does not so, is Guilty himself of Breach of Trust towards his Country, and of Perjury towards his God.

2. As to the seeing into his Thoughts, the difficulty of doing so, and the Judging Charitably upon this Account: This seems very little to the purpose: In indifferent Actions, or such as will bear a double Interpretation; we ought to beware how we Judge to the disadvantage of our Neighbor, especially when not called by Lawful Authority; but where a Man is so called; where there is a Notorious Transgression of the Law, as in the present Case, the Fact is so evidently Evil, that there needs no weighing of the thoughts, or searching of what kind they were; especially since, when a Person is found to have killed himself, the Question is not what his Thoughts were, but whether he had any Thought at all, that is whether he was Mad or no?

Yet after all, though I have hitherto applied my self to the Jury, ’tis certain that their Verdict depends much upon the Coroner, and ’tis his fault chiefly if the Laws which provide against Self-murther, are eluded; ’tis he that Summons whom he pleases to be of the Jury, and to these he gives what Charge he pleases; the Examination of the Witnesses, the Summing up the Evidence is done by him: So that unless there happen to be upon the Jury Men of Conscience, Courage and Understanding (which may easily be avoided if the Coroner thinks fitting) they will be apt to be led by him implicitly. And there being no Fee allowed upon Felo de se, the Verdicts being for the King; and a Gratuity seldom wanting when it is for the Heirs; ’tis no wonder that the Return is generally Non Compos.

But if these Papers should ever fall into the Hands of any of these Gentlemen; I entreat them to Consider seriously the trust that is reposed in them, they being Chosen by the Freeholders of their several Counties, as Parliament Men are; and what the Consequence will be (even to after Ages) of the breach of such Trust: And to themselves especially, if they believe any thing of another World: For to omit the Suspicions of Corruption which I am very loath to improve; whatever the Motive is, through which the Design of any Law is Eluded; the Consequence will be much the same: If a Law be made to restrain a dreadful Sin, which is withal very pernicious to the State, and such or such a Punishment is appointed to this End; if this Law becomes of no force by that very Persons Preventing the Punishment, who is entrusted by his Country to see the Law Executed: Let this be done out of Compassion, Generosity, or what you please; all the increase of the Sin forbidden, so heinous in its own Nature, and so pernicious to the Public, he will have a share in; and if he be guilty of Perjury, if he betray his Country, not only in the Present Age, but is false to Posterity also: What will it signify that this was done out of Charity or Generosity to one or two Persons, who perhaps did not need it: Or if they did never so much, how preposterous must that Charity be, which to assist a few, as to Temporal Conveniences, shall contribute to the Damnation of many Souls, and make a Man venture through Treachery and Perjury to hazard his own.

If these Considerations, and others of the like kind, should not prevail with these Persons so much as immediate Punishment: The Lord Chief Justice of the Kings Bench, for the time being, is, as I am told, the chief Coroner of England, enquiries into Failures of this kind, may be made in that Court, and this Consideration ought to terrify every one who shall be thus concerned, especially at this time, since that Important Trust was never discharged with more profound Knowledge of our Laws, and with greater Integrity than at Present.

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Filed under Adams, John, Europe, Protestantism, Selections, The Early Modern Period

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