Merry Christmas

Jessie Allen, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

Book the first.  Of the RIGHTS of PERSONS.  Chapter the first.  Of the absolute RIGHTS of INDIVIDUALS.

Black Stone Weekly is taking this week off to celebrate the holidays.  Just one quick note first.  In this section Blackstone lays out his tripartite structure of individual rights:  security, liberty and property.  I doubt that it’s accidental that there are three.  Three is a magic number, not just in Chritistianity, but in all sorts of contexts.   There’s the old saying, “the third time’s the charm,” and the superstition that unlucky things come in threes, and the good fairy’s traditional grant of three wishes.  (And yes, I wanted to provide exactly three examples.)  There seems to be some kind of almost rhythmic attunement in Western culture, anyway, to three-part schemes.  When there are three of something, we tend to feel that we’ve got it covered, we’ve come to the end of a beat, the picture is complete.  Vaudevillians construct skits according to the rule “three times, and it’s funny.”   But I digress.  Actually I wanted to point out what seems like an oddly anomolous claim in Blackstone’s exposition of individual rights.  According to Blackstone, through the right of “security” English law provides its subjects with “every thing necessary for their support.”    Under “several statutes enacted for the relief of the poor,”  the “indigent or wretched,” may “demand a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life, from the more oppulent part of the community.”  Without knowing the specific 18th century laws referenced here, it’s pretty clear that this must be an overstatement.  Otherwise, the redistribution of property that Blackstone seems to be describing would hardly support the third and most famous of his holy trinity of liberal personal rights:  private property.   On the other hand, a little bit of redistribution goes a long way toward legitimating laws that lock in the original distribution.  One of my great pleasures around Christmas is singing carols with my daughter — now eight.  A favorite is Good King Wenceslas — the story of the pious monarch who ventures out into the snow, bearing provisions for a peasant — and whose saintly charity magically melts the snow where he walks.   Singing this song, you can still  feel okay about all those presents under the tree, as long as you’ve remembered to put something into the Operation Santa box in the school’s lobby.   As the final verse instructs, “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” So, in Blackstone’s common law, the absolute prerogative of ownership is blessed with a pinch of security for those who own nothing.