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Browsing: Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 2

This foot note contained in document ADMS-05-02-02-0006-0004-0002
49. According to “A Journal of the Times,” on 24 Feb. “The advocates for Mr. Hancock, offered evidence to prove that a witness, who had been before examined for the proponent, was a fugitive from his native country, to avoid the punishment due to a very heinous crime. The advocates for the crown objected to this evidence as improper, urging that by common law, nothing could be proved against a witness but his general character for falsehood. The advocates for the respondent replied, that the Court of Admiralty proceeded according to the civil law, whereby a witnesses whole life and conversation ought to be examined. And they insisted upon knowing by what law their client was to be tried.” Dickerson, Boston under Military Rule 68. The passage continues with a close paraphrase of the text here, adding a few phrases from JA 's earlier notes on the civil law. The English common-law rule at this time was basically that asserted by the Crown. A witness' general moral character and character for truth were admissible to impeach, but evidence of specific misconduct could be admitted only in the form of a record of criminal conviction. See Wood, Institute of the Laws of England 597; 2 Bacon, Abridgment 288, 296; Gilbert, Evidence 157–158. The distinction was doubtless due to the fact that those guilty of felony and other crimes involving falsehood were altogether excluded as witnesses. Id. at 142–145.