Title to Desert Land by Occupancy, Possession, Prescription.July 20, 2022
Why Usucaption or Prescription cannot subsist between independent States, and Sovereigns—Long possession alleged as a ground of right—Inquiry into the intentions of men, which are not to be judged of by words alone—Intention to be judged of by acts
Intentions also to be judged of by omissions—How far length of time, silence, and non-possession, may confirm the conjecture of an abandoned right—Time immemorial generally thought to bar any claim—What constitutes time immemorial—Objections to a presumed desertion of property, considered without any conjecture, time immemorial appears to transfer and constitute a property—Inquiry whether persons yet unborn may thus be deprived of their right—Rules of civil law respecting Usucaption and Prescription as applied to the case of Sovereign Princes, explained.
A great difficulty arises here respecting the right to property by uninterrupted possession for any certain time.
Time is the great agent, by whose motion all legal concerns and rights may be measured and determined.
Yet it has no effectual power of itself to create an express title to any property. Now those rights were introduced by the civil law; and it is not their long continuance, but the express provisions of the municipal law, which gives them their validity. They are of no force therefore, in the opinion of Vasquez, between two independent nations or sovereigns, or between a free nation and a sovereign: between a sovereign and an individual who is not his subject, or between two subjects belonging to different kings or nations. Which indeed seems true; and is actually the case; for such points relating to persons and things, are not left to the law of nature, but are settled by the respective laws of each country. As the unqualified admission of this principle would lead to great inconvenience, and prevent the disputes of kings and nations respecting the bounds of territory from ever being adjusted; in order to eradicate the seeds of perpetual warfare and confusion, so repugnant to the interests and feelings of every people; the settlement of such boundaries is not left to the claims110 of prescriptive right; but the territories of each contending party are, in general, expressly defined by certain treaties.
To disturb any one in the actual and long possession of territory, has in all ages been considered as repugnant to the general interests and feelings of mankind. For we find in holy writ, that when the King of the Ammonites demanded the lands situated between the rivers Arnon and Jabok, and those extending from the deserts of Arabia to the Jordan, Jepthah opposed his pretentious by proving his own possession of the same for three hundred years, and asked why he and his ancestors had for so long a period neglected to make their claim. And the Lacedaemonians, we are informed by Isocrates, laid it down for a certain rule admitted among all nations, that the right to public territory as well as to private property was so firmly established by length of time, that it could not be disturbed; and upon this ground they rejected the claim of those who demanded the restoration of Messena.
Resting upon a right like this, Philip the Second was induced to declare to Titus Quintius, “that he would restore the dominions which he had subdued himself, but would upon no consideration give up the possessions which he had derived from his ancestors by a just and hereditary title. Sulpitius, speaking against Antiochus, proved how unjust it was in him to pretend, that because the Greek Nations in Asia had once been under the subjection of his forefathers, he had a right to revive those claims, and to reduce them again to a state of servitude. And upon this subject two historians, Tacitus and Diodorus may be referred to; the former of whom calls such obsolete pretensions, empty talking, and the latter treats them as idle tales and fables. With these opinions Cicero, in his 2nd book of Offices, agrees, asking “what justice there can be in depriving an owner of the land, which he has for many ages quietly possessed?”
Can it be said, in order to justify the disturbance of long enjoyed possessions, that the rightful owner INTENDED to assert his claim, when he never manifested such intention by any outward visible act? The effect of right which depends upon a man’s intentions can never follow from a bare conjecture of his will, unless he has declared and proved it by some express and visible act. For actions being the only evidence of intentions,111 intentions can never of themselves alone without such acts be the object of human laws. No conjectures indeed respecting the acts of the mind can be reduced to mathematical certainty, but only to the evidence of probability at the utmost.
For men by their words may express intentions different from their real ones, and by their acts counterfeit intentions which they have not. The nature of human society, however, requires that all acts of the mind, when sufficiently indicated, should be followed by their due effects. Therefore the intention, which has been sufficiently indicated, is taken for granted against him who gave such indication.
But to proceed to proofs derived from actions. A thing is understood to be abandoned, when it is cast away; except it be under particular circumstances, as throwing goods overboard in a storm to lighten a ship, where the owner is not supposed to have abandoned all intention of recovery, should it ever be in his power. Again, by giving up or cancelling a promissory note, a debt is deemed to be discharged. Paulus the Lawyer, says, a right to property may be renounced not only by words, but also by actions, or any other indication of the will. Thus, if an owner knowingly make a contract with any one who is in possession, treating him as if he were the rightful proprietor, he is naturally supposed to have relinquished his own pretensions. Nor is there any reason, why the same rule may not take place between sovereign princes, and independent states, as between individuals. In the same manner, a Lord by granting certain privileges to his Vassal, which he could not legally enjoy without a release from his former obligations, was supposed by such act to have given him his freedom. A power derived not from the civil law only, but from the law of nature, which allows every man to relinquish what is his own, and from a natural presumption that a person designed to do the act which he has given manifest proofs of his intention to do. In this sense, Ulpian may be rightly understood, where he says, that ACCEPTILATION or the verbal discharge of a debt is founded upon the law of nations.
V. Even omissions, taking all proper circumstances into consideration, come under the cognizance of the law. Thus the person, who knowing of an act, and being present at the commission of it, passes it over in silence, seems to give his consent to it; this was admitted by the Mosaic Law. Unless indeed it can be shewn that the112 same person was hindered from speaking either by fear or some other pressing circumstance. Thus a thing is accounted as lost when all hope of recovering it is given up; as for instance, if a tame animal, which was in our possession, be seized and carried off by a wild beast. Goods too lost by shipwreck, Ulpian says, cease to be considered as our own, not immediately, but when they are lost beyond all possibility of being reclaimed, and when no proofs of the owner’s intention to reclaim them can be discovered.
Now the case is altered, if persons were sent to inquire after the lost goods, or property, and a reward was promised to the finder. But if a person knows his property to be in the possession of another, and allows it to remain so for a length of time, without asserting his claim, unless there appear sufficient reasons for his silence, he is construed to have entirely abandoned all pretensions to the same. And to the same purpose he has said elsewhere, that a house is looked upon to be abandoned on account of the long silence of the proprietor.
The Emperor Antoninus Pius, in one of his rescripts, said there was but little justice in claiming interest upon money after a long period; for the length of time elapsed was an indication that the debtor had been excused from payment, from some motive of kindness.
There appears something similar to this in the nature of custom. For apart from the authority of civil laws, which regulate the time and manner of custom, and its introduction, it may arise from the indulgence of a sovereign to a conquered people. But the length of time from which custom derives the force of right, is not defined, but left to the arbitrary decision of what is sufficient to indicate general consent. But for silence to be taken as a valid presumption that property is deserted, two things are requisite: it must be a silence with a knowledge of the fact, and with a perfect freedom of will in the person concerned. For a silence founded in ignorance can have no weight; and where any other reason appears, the presumption of free consent must fail.
VI. Although the two requisites already named may be produced, yet other reasons have their weight; among which length of time is not the least important. For in the first place, it can scarcely happen, that for a great length of time a thing belonging to any one should not some way or other come to his knowledge, as time might113 supply many opportunities. Even if the civil law did not interpose to bar remote pretensions, the very nature of things would shew the reasonableness of a shorter period of limitation being allowed to present than to absent claimants. If impressions of fear were pleaded by any one in excuse, yet their influence would not be of perpetual duration, and length of time would unfold various means of security against such fears, either from resources within himself, or from the assistance of others. Escaping beyond the reach of him he dreaded, he might protest against his oppression, by appealing to proper judges and arbitrators.
VII. Now as time immemorial, considered in a moral light, seems to have no bounds, silence for such a length of time appears sufficient to establish the presumption that all claim to a thing is abandoned, unless the strongest proofs to the contrary can be produced. The most able Lawyers have properly observed, that time according to the memory of man is not an hundred years, though probably it may not fall far short of that space. For a hundred years are the term beyond which human existence seldom reaches; a space, which in general completes three ages or generations of men. The Romans made this objection to Antiochus, that he claimed cities, which neither he himself, his father, nor his grandfather had ever possessed.
VIII. From the natural affection which all men have for themselves, and their property, an objection may be taken against the presumption of any one’s abandoning a thing which belongs to him, and consequently negative acts, even though confirmed by a long period of time, are not sufficient to establish the above named conjecture.
Now considering the great importance deservedly attached to the settlement of CROWNS, all conjectures favourable to the possessors ought to be allowed. For if Aratus of Sicyon thought it a hard case, that PRIVATE possessions of fifty years’ standing should be disturbed, how much weightier is that maxim of Augustus, that it is the character of a good man and a good subject to wish for no change in the present government, and, in the words, which Thucydides has assigned to Alcibiades, to support the constitution, under which he has been born? But if no such rules in favour of possession could be adduced, yet a more weighty objection might114 be found against the presumption, drawn from the inclination of every one to preserve his own right, which is the improbability of one man’s allowing another to usurp his property for any length of time, without declaring and asserting his own right.
IX. Perhaps it may reasonably be said, that this matter does not rest upon presumption only, but that it is a rule, introduced by the voluntary law of Nations, that uninterrupted possession, against which no claim has been asserted, will entirely transfer such property to the actual possessor. For it is most likely that all nations by consent gave their sanction to such a practice, as conducive to their common peace. The term uninterrupted possession therefore has been very properly used to signify, as Sulpitius says in Livy, “that which has been held by one uniform tenour of right, without intermission.” Or as the same author, in another place, calls it, “perpetual possession, that has never been called in question.” For a transitory possession creates no title. And it was this exception which the Numidians had urged against the Carthaginians, alleging that as opportunity offered, sometimes the Kings of the Numidians had appropriated to themselves the disputed possessions, which had always remained in the hands of the stronger party.
X. But here another question, and that of considerable difficulty, arises, which is, to decide, whether, by this desertion, persons yet unborn may be deprived of their rights. If we maintain that they MAY NOT, the rule already established would be of no avail towards settling the tranquillity of kingdoms, and security of property. For in most things some thing is due to the interests of posterity. But if we affirm that they MAY, it then seems wonderful that silence should prejudice the rights of those, who were unable to speak, before they had any existence, and that the act of OTHERS should operate to their injury. To clear up this point, we must observe that no rights can belong to a person before he has any existence, as, in the language of the schools, there can be no accident without a substance. Wherefore if a Prince, from urgent motives of policy, and for the advantage of his own native dominions, and subjects, should decline to accept an additional sovereignty, or for the same reasons, should relinquish that, which he had already accepted, he would not be charged with injuring115 his heirs and successors, then unborn, who could have no rights before they had a natural existence.
Now as a sovereign may EXPRESSLY declare a change of his will respecting such dominions, so that change may, in certain cases, be implied without such declaration.
In consequence of such a change either expressed or implied, before the rights of heirs and successors can be supposed to have any existence, the possession may be considered as entirely abandoned. The case here has been considered according to the LAW OF NATURE: for the civil law, among other fictions, introduced that of the law’s personating those, who are not yet in being, and so preventing any occupancy from taking place to their prejudice; a regulation of law established upon no slight grounds in order to preserve estates in families, although every means of PERPETUATING property to individuals, which prevents its transfer from hand to hand, may in some measure be detrimental to the public interest. From whence it is a received opinion, that length of time will give a property in those fees, which were originally conveyed, not by right of succession, but by virtue of primitive investiture. Covarruvias, a lawyer of great judgment, supports this opinion with the strongest arguments in favour of primogeniture, and applies it to estates left in trust. For nothing can prevent the civil law from instituting a right, which, though it cannot be lawfully alienated by the act of one party without consent of the other, yet, to avoid uncertainty in the tenure of present proprietors, may be lost by neglect of claim for a length of time. Still the parties thus deprived may maintain a personal action against those, or their heirs, through whose neglect their right has been forfeited.
XI. It is an inquiry of importance whether the law of usucaption and prescription, if it prevail in a prince’s dominions, can be applied to the tenure of the crown, and all its prerogatives. Many legal writers, who have treated of the nature of sovereign power according to the principles of the Roman civil law, seem to affirm that it may be so applied. But this is an opinion to which we cannot accede in its full extent. For to make a law binding upon any one, it is requisite that the legislator should possess both power and will. A legislator is not bound by his law, as by the irrevocable and unchangeable controul of a superior. But occasions may arise that116 will demand an alteration or even a repeal of the law which he has made. Yet a legislator may be bound by his own law, not directly as a legislator, but as an individual forming part of the community: and that too according to natural equity, which requires that all the component parts should bear a reference to the whole. We find in holy writ, this rule observed by Saul in the beginning of his reign.
Now that rule does not take place here. For we are considering the lawgiver, not as a part but as the REPRESENTATIVE and SOVEREIGN of the whole community. Nor indeed can any such intention in the lawgiver be presumed to have existed. For legislators are not supposed to comprehend themselves within the rule of the law, except where the nature and subject of it are general. But sovereignty is not to be compared with other things; it so far surpasses them in the nobleness of its end, and the dignity of its nature. Nor is any civil law to be found which either does, or designs to comprehend sovereign power within the rules of prescription.