'The Power to Govern Men and Things': Patriarchal Origins of the Police Power in American Law

66 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2004

See all articles by Markus D. Dubber

Markus D. Dubber

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law; University of Toronto - Centre for Ethics


This article explores the genealogy of the most expansive, and yet least scrutinized, of governmental powers: the police power. The power to police, as "the power to govern men and things," is invoked in support of a vast expanse of legislation and regulation at all levels of governance, from the national government through the states and down to the smallest municipalities, including American criminal law in its entirety. At the same time it is a commonplace of American constitutional law that the police power "is, and must be from its very nature, incapable of any very exact definition or limitation."

"The Power to Govern Men and Things" argues that the essential limitlessness of the police power reflects its origins in the householder's patriarchal authority over his household, including "men" (animate household resources such as wives, children, servants, slaves, and animals) and "things" (inanimate resources such as buildings, tools, and land). In the words of Blackstone's much-quoted definition, the power to police is the power of the "pater patriae" to maintain "the domestic order of the kingdom: whereby the individuals of the state, like members of a well-governed family, are bound to conform their general behaviour to the rules of propriety, good neighbourhood, and good manners: and to be decent, industrious, and inoffensive in their respective stations."

Keywords: criminal law, legal theory, political theory, legal history, police power, police science

JEL Classification: K14, K30, B10

Suggested Citation

Dubber, Markus D., 'The Power to Govern Men and Things': Patriarchal Origins of the Police Power in American Law. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=629882

Markus D. Dubber (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

78 and 84 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.utoronto.ca/faculty-staff/full-time-faculty/markus-dubber

University of Toronto - Centre for Ethics ( email )

6 Hoskin Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1H8

HOME PAGE: http://ethics.utoronto.ca

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