ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POLITICAL AND NATURAL LAWS.
I call natural laws, those which nature dictates in all ages to all men, for the maintenance of that justice which she (say what they will of her) hath implanted in our hearts. Theft, violence, homicide, ingratitude to beneficent parents, perjury against innocence, conspiracies against one’s country, are crimes that are universally and justly punished, though with more or less severity.
I call political laws, those that are made in compliance with present necessity, whether it be to give stability to the government, or to prevent misfortune. For example; being apprehensive that the enemy may receive intelligence from the inhabitants of the city, you shut the gates, and forbid any one to pass the ramparts on pain of death.
Or, fearful of a new sect of people, who publicly disclaim all obedience to their sovereign, and secretly consult of means to divest themselves of that obedience; who preach, that all men are equal, and that obedience is due to God alone; who, accusing the reigning sect of superstition, mean to destroy that which is consecrated by the state; you denounce death against those who, in publicly dogmatizing in favour of this sect, may instigate the people to revolt.
Or, two ambitious princes contend for a crown: the strongest gains the prize, and punishes with death the partizans of the weaker. The judges become the instruments of vengeance of the new sovereign, and the supports of his authority.
When Richard the Third, the murderer of his two nephews, was acknowledged king of England, the jury found Sir William Collinburn guilty of having written to a friend of the Duke of Richmond, who was at that time raising an army, and who afterwards reigned by the name of Henry VII. They found two ridiculous lines of Sir William’s writing, which were sufficient to condemn him to a horrible death. History abounds with such examples of justice.
The right of reprisal is also a law adopted by nations. For example, your enemy has hanged one of your brave captains, for having defended an old ruined castle against a whole army. One of his captains falls into your hands; he is a worthy man, and you esteem him; nevertheless you hang him by way of reprisal. You say it is the law: that is to say, because your enemy has been guilty of an enormous crime, you must be guilty of another.
These political sanguinary laws exist but for a time; they are temporary, because they are not founded in truth. They resemble the necessity which, in cases of extreme famine, obliges people to eat each other: they cease to eat men as soon as bread is to be had.
SOURCE: MODIFIED FROM “AN ESSAY ON CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS”-1872 EDITION -M. De VOLTAIRE.