A DIGEST OF THE LAW OF EVIDENCE, IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CASES, AND A TREATISE ON BILLS OF EXCHANGE, AND PROMISSORY NOTES – the first American treatise on evidence
Hartford: published by Oliver D. Cooke, 1810., Octavo (9″ x 5-1/2″).
“Zephaniah Swift was a pioneer in development of an American common law distinct from England.” Wesley W. Horton, Connecticut Constitutional History 1776 – 1988, 64 Connecticut Bar Journal 358 (1990)
According to Swift, the best method to diffuse this knowledge was to “simplify” and “fyftematize” (systematize) the laws. In the introduction to his Digest of the Law of Evidence Swift wrote that “No object is more important in society, than a code of laws founded on principles of justice, and promulgated with such perspicuity, and precision, that they may be easily understood, and uniformly administered.” He further explained that doing so “furnishes to the people more effective security for their liberty, than mere forms of government” and “checks their tendency to despotism, and restrains the baneful influence of party spirit.”
Swift was an early proponent of judicial independence, which may have been the ultimate reason why he was not reappointed to the bench in 1818. He was outspoken in denouncing legislative interference with the courts, including the power to grant new trials and the setting aside of judgments. When the Legislature intervened to reverse a criminal conviction in Lung’s Case, a case in which Justice Swift had presided, he did not hesitate to express his displeasure with the Legislature. In a pamphlet entitled “Vindication etc.”, Justice Swift explained that the Legislature should “never encroach on the jurisdiction of the Judiciary.” After expressing this opinion, he was not reappointed to the bench. Nevertheless, Swift’s views regarding the importance of protecting judicial independence was validated with the adoption of the 1818 Constitution. Historians have recognized that Swift was a “moving force” in convening the convention of 1818 to draft Connecticut’s first constitution.
Swift was an outspoken critic of slavery, which he described as a “practice which has long been a dishonor to human nature.” He was an active member of the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage. An address he delivered in 1791 in Hartford to the Society is credited as one of the reasons that Connecticut adopted a statute in 1792 to encourage emancipation by relieving former owners from liability to support their freed slaves. A bill was subsequently passed by the Connecticut House of Representatives to abolish slavery, but it failed to receive assent of the upper house.
Swift supported softening criminal laws by making prisons more comfortable and by lessening the number of offenses punishable by the death penalty. In Swift’s day it was not considered proper for a judge to give instructions on the law to a jury. He argued against this limitation, which is now a widely accepted and necessary judicial function.
pics coming soon