G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) hardly needs an introduction to the typical reader of Catholic literature. Author of more than sixty books of essays, fiction, poetry. Biography and drama, Chesterton’s hundreds of essays are sprinkled among scores of books. This fact presents a problem of difficult accessibility, remedied at last by an intelligent collection of the best of G.K.’s short and eminently readable essays, sixty-seven altogether, into one volume of nearly four hundred pages. In Defense of Sanity (edited by Chesterton scholars Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey) is a masterpiece anthology that surely would have pleased Chesterton. Pearce notes, in his preface to the book, that Chesterton was, and remains, “one of the finest essayists ever to grace the English language.” And as Ahlquist suggests in the book’s introduction, anyone in search of the perfect essay by G.K. might very well start with “The Twelve Men.”
The Twelve Men
This essay of barely four pages, originally published in a 1909 volume titled Tremendous Trifles, concerns the jury system of England and why it exists as it does. Chesterton speaks of himself as recruited to serve on the jury of twelve because his surname begins with a C, along with the names of all the other jurors in Battersea alphabetically chosen for that trial. The character of the person on trial and the crime for which he is held Chesterton does not mention. He is more concerned to comment on the reason for twelve random jurors rather than persons who specializes in jury duty. The specialist, Chesterton reasons, can hardly be counted upon to be the one most reliable and objective witness to the evidence presented in a case. It should be remembered that the policeman, the prosecutor, and the judge are all specialists. It is for this very reason they cannot be trusted; they have a dog in the fight. This is, Chesterton reminds us, a paradox: that the people who know the most about the law ought least to be trusted to administer it, except in the special roles they play … which most certainly do not qualify them to judge all the evidence presented for and against the defendant. But twelve people who do not know the defendant can in fact be trusted, more likely than not, to be objective at least most of the time.