Citation. 20 N.J.L. 368, 1845 N.J. Sup. Ct. 14.
Brief Fact Summary. In 1844, New Jersey amended its constitution to read that all men are by nature free and have certain inalienable rights such as to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. Abolitionists argued that slavery was thereby made illegal.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Laws must be read in accordance with the nature, the condition and laws of the society in which they are made.
The language of the New Jersey constitutional amendment regarding slavery must be interpreted in light of the nature, the conditions and laws of the society of the times in which the language was adopted.
Had the New Jersey constitutional convention intended to end an institution such as slavery well known to exist in the State and established by law, it undoubtedly would have used some clear and definite language to this effect.
Moreover, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution (Constitution) proclaims that the people have formed to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves, yet by express language the Constitution also recognizes slavery, thereby showing the Framers did not regard their general declarations regarding liberty to be inconsistent with the institution of slavery. The judiciary has never held slavery to have been abolished by those documents either.
Discussion. This case begs the question whether the author of the opinion was bound to reach the decision he did and whether judges should have done more to end slavery. The author is obviously persuaded by the fact that the effect of the act of 1804 was the continued existence of slavery in 1844, the date of the constitutional amendment. Could it be argued that a strict reading of the constitutional amendment and the “nature, the condition and the laws of the society” at the time of the amendment compelled a different conclusion? For example, the author could have given greater weight to the fact that slavery was almost phased out in New Jersey at the time of the constitutional amendment.