A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Browsing: Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 3

This note contained in document ADMS-05-03-02-0001-0004-0016
41. The paragraphs printed following the asterisk below appear as a footnote in the Wemms Trial 164–165. They were clearly based on JA's research in Rex v. Corbet, No. 56; citations for all the authorities may be found in the documentary text of that case.
* The distinction between Murder and Manslaughter, is more easily confounded than many other distinctions of Law relative to Homicide. And many persons among us seem to think that the punishment of Death ought to be inflicted upon all voluntary killing one private man by another, whether done suddenly or deliberately, cooly or in anger. These received notions may have originated partly from a false construction of the general precept to Noah, whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. But may not some of these mistaken notions have been derived from law books. We find the distinction between Murder and Manslaughter, sometimes attributed to the peculiar benignity of the English law, and it is sometimes represented that the particular fact which the law of England calls Manslaughter, and indulges with Clergy, is punished with death in all other laws.
Vide Observations on the Statutes page 54. By the law of Scotland, there is no such thing as Manslaughter, nor by the civil law; and therefore a criminal indicted for Murder under the Statute of Henry the Eighth, where the Judges proceed by the rules of the civil law, must either be found guilty of the Murder or acquitted—and in another place, Observations on the Statutes 422. Note (z.) I have before observed that by the civil law, as well as the law of Scotland, there is no such offence, as what is, with us termed Manslaughter: Sir Michael Foster 288. If taking general verdicts of acquittal, in plain cases of death, Per Infortunium, &c. deserveth the name of a deviation, it is far short of what is constantly practiced at an Admiralty sessions, under 28. H. 8. with regard to offences not ousted of Clergy by particular statutes, which had they been committed at land would have been intituled to Clergy. In these cases the Jury is constantly directed to acquit the prisoner; because the marine law doth not allow of Clergy in any case, and therefore in an indictment for murder on the high seas, if the fact cometh out upon evidence to be no more than Manslaughter, supposing it to have been committed at land, the prisoner is constantly acquitted.
II. Lord Raymond 1496. His Lordship says, “From these cases it appears, that though the law of England, is so far peculiarly favourable (I use the word peculiarly because I know of no other law, that makes such a distinction between Murder and Manslaughter) as to permit the excess of anger and passion (which a man ought to keep under and govern) in some instances to extenuate the greatest of private injuries, as the taking away a man's life is; yet in these cases, it must be such a passion, as for the time deprives him of his reasoning faculties.[”]
I shall not enter into any enquiry, how far the Admiralty sessions in England, or a Special Court of Admiralty in America ought to proceed by the rules of civil law, though it is a question of immense importance to Americans. But must beg leave to observe that though the distinction between Murder and Manslaughter is not found in words in the civil law, yet the distinction between homicide, with deliberation and without deliberation, and on a sudden provocation is well known in that law, and the former is punished with death, the lat[t]>er, with some inferior corporal punishment at the discretion of the Judges.
Indeed the civil law is more favourable, and indulgent to sudden anger and resentment than the common law, and allows many things to be a provocation sufficient to exempt the person killing from the Poena ordinaria, which is death, which the common law considers as a slight provocation or none at all.
Cod. Lib. 9. Tit. 16, Note 46. Gail, page 503. Maranta, page 49. Par. 4. Dist. 1. 77.
It should seem from these authorities, that the lenity and indulgence of the laws of England, is not unnatural, extraordinary, or peculiar, and instead of being unknown in the civil law, that it is carried much further in many respects than in the common law. And indeed it seems that the like indulgence, was permitted in the Jewish law—though it has been so often represented as peculiar to the English law, that many persons seem to think it unwarrantable, and tending to leave the guilt of blood upon the land.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2018.