Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The 5th Ammendment and Respect for the Truth

A random thought:

The 5th Ammendment to our Constitution in the United States reads in part, "...nor shall [any person] be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself..."

One of the very interesting things about this, it strikes me, is that it implicitly assumes that a certain, perhaps significant, portion of defendants would not simply lie under oath if asked questions that could incriminate themselves. That is, of course, the modern assumption. But it seems to me that the fact that this was included in the 5th Ammendment shows the Framers actually thought that, under oath, people would feel compelled to tell the truth, even if it hurt them.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I had always assumed that the reason the Founding Fathers put that bit in was that the physical coercion was was not unknown and they wanted to bypass that whole thing.

Der Wolfanwalt said...

The 5th Amendment is actually far more comprehensive than self-incrimination on the witness stand. One may invoke it in virtually any context dealing with law enforcement, and it may be well to do so more often than you'd think.

I do agree with you,'s interesting that the supposition is that someone put in the position of lying under oath would incriminate himself rather than commit perjury.

LogEyed Roman said...


I can confirm that the 5th Amendment covers far more than just protecting the accused from their own integrity. A central element is that refusing to answer under oath is normally contempt of court and is punishable by jail time. The 5th Amendment means that this cannot be used to coerce a defendent to testify against himself. For even if he does lie, he can still incriminate himself. For instance, if he cannot give a story which will hold up in terms of independent investigation, it can hurt his credibility.

That being said--and not very clearly, I fear--I also agree that there was a strong belief that testimony under oath is exceptionally reliable. I have a biography of Joan of Arc, exhaustively researched, and written, interestingly, by Mark Twain. His greatest interest is in her astonishing character, though he is open to the supernatural. He found that there was a huge amount of SWORN TESTIMONY giving details of her amazing life, and remarked that she was possibly the best-documented of all saints, since so much of the evidence for her life was given UNDER OATH. He said this in his introduction in a way that clearly implied that that was all he had to say to prove the exceptional reliability of the information.

Confirmation that, even in the 19th Century, it was taken for granted that evidence given under oath would be highly reliable.


LogEyed Roman