We now come to speak of the influence of time on the expediency of a law, or set of laws. The question on this head divides itself into two: the laws that are the best possible for a given place, at the time present being found; would the same laws, had they happened to be found in time past, have been the best possible for that time past? and the like, with relation to the time future. This, we see, when considered with a view to any direct influence it can have, is a mere question of speculation: nobody can transfer our present laws to time past; we cannot transfer them to time future. Nevertheless as a right way of thinking on this head may contribute, perhaps, in a manner more or less remote, to guard us against mistakes in practice, a few words on this head may not be altogether thrown away.
Time, as we have already had occasion to observe, is nothing of itself. To learn what influence it possesses, we must inquire, what influence may be exercised by those causes of a superior order into which that influence is resolvable. In regard to causes purely physical, the field of variation, at least as to any correspondent variation of influence, cannot be very considerable: as to the nature of the soil, lands once marshy may be drained; lands once dry may be overflowed; rivers which formerly flowed into the sea, may, in very particular situations, be intercepted and dissipated in their course; from lakes, communication may be opened to the sea; peninsulas may, by nature or by industry, be converted into islands; and continents may be intersected, in various directions, by canals. The higher parts of mountains may crumble down by their own weight, or be washed down by rivers: at the mouths of rivers, islands may be formed, or the continents lengthened by deposition in the sea. Volcanoes, when constant, may tend to reduce mountains to a level; when occasional, they may raise plains into hills, sink beds in them for lakes, or throw up islands in the sea. Ports may be deserted, or new ones hollowed out by the caprices of the ocean. All these alterations may give occasion for correspondent changes, in regard to the individual places that are the objects of certain laws; principally those laws to which semi-public offences, offences against the public force, offences against the public wealth, respectively owe their birth. But the general nature of those offences, and the general nature of those laws, will be still the same, whatever modifications on this head are made requisite by time, will be such, and such only, as are made requisite by place.
It is the same with regard to climate, an those peculiarities in respect of animal and vegetable produce, which are the consequences, partly of this circumstance and partly of the former. Partly by means of cultivation, an partly by other causes, of which the operation is less known, the quantity of sensible heat diffused over the surface of the earth appears to have a tendency, by slow degrees, to verge towards an equilibrium: hot climates become, perhaps, a little cooler; more certainly, cold climates become a little warmer. The productions of one country are, in course of time, transplanted to another: and the course of cultivation may, in consequence, be changed; but if any change is in consequence required in the laws, it arises from the blindness or indolence of the legislator of former times. If, in his enactments, he have employed specific terms, he must alter and add to them: but if he have employed generic terms, it is the nature of these to open up and let in the specific ones, as fast as they are formed.
So far, then, as the texture of the soil and the nature of its productions are concerned, a succession of time may give occasion to a demand for some of the alterations to which a change of place may give occasion : but this change will not extend to those variations, which are consequences of climate, in the moral qualities of men. The changes which time may bring on in respect of heat and cold, will never be considerable enough to give to one zone the temperature of another.It seems to be a common notion, that those laws, which are the best with reference to the circumstances of a civilized nation, would not have been.so with reference to the circumstances of a rude and ignorant nation: on the contrary, that rude nations must have rude and simple, that is, imperfect laws: I mean not only that in point of fact the laws of a rude nation will have been rude, but that in point of expediency it was proper they should be so. The former of these propositions is undeniable: the latter, I deny. Let us examine the time past, and look forward to the future. [Back to:]