1902 Encyclopedia > Lord Mansfield

Lord Mansfield
British lawyer
(1705-93)




WILLIAM MURRAY, EARL OF MANSFIELD, (1705-1793), was born at Scone, in Perthshire, on 2d March 1705. Ho was the eleventh child and fourth son of David, fifth Viscount Storrnont, a nobleman whose family possessions had shrunk within so narrow limits that he had to bring up his numerous family with exceedingly strict economy. The family was Jacobite in its politics, and the second son, being apparently mixed up in some of the plots of the time, joined the court of the Pretender at the accession of George I., and was created by him earl of Dunbar. William Murray was sent first to the grammar school at Perth, where he remained until he was thirteen, and at that age was sent to Westminster at the suggestion of his exiled brother, who had been in close relation with Atterbury (then dean of Westminster), and probably desired to bring the boy under his influence. He was elected a king's scholar a year after his entrance, and in 1723 was first on the list of scholars sent on the foundation to Christ Church, where he remained for nearly four years. It had been originally intended that he should enter the English church, as, although his own inclination while at school pointed strongly' towards the bar, the circumstances of his family seemed to forbid the expense of a legal education. But this obstacle was removed by the kindness of the father of one of his school-fellows, and he was entered at Lincoln's Inn. Soon after he went to Oxford. In 1727 he took chambers in Lincoln's Inn, and in 1730 was called to the bar. His studies from the time he left Westminster seem to have been steadily directed towards his future profession, but in a manner far more liberal than was then usual among lawyers. He had made himself at Westminster and Oxford an admirable classical scholar ; he paid particular attention to English composition and to the art of debate; his historical studies were extensive, and in the more strictly professional sphere his wide view of the education necessary for a lawyer was shown by the knowledge he acquired of Roman law and of the juridical writers of Scotland and France. At the same time he enjoyed the advantage of mixing extensively with the best literary society. He had early become an intimate friend of Pope, and his own ability and accomplishments soon made him everywhere a man of mark.

For two or three years he made little or no progress at the bar, but at length his appearance in some important Scotch appeal cases brought him into notice, and in Scotland at least he acquired an immense reputation by his appearance for the city of Edinburgh when it was. threatened with disfranchisement for the affair of the Porteous mob. His English business had as yet been scanty, but in 1737 a single speech in a jury trial of note may be said to have placed him at the head of the bar, and from this time he enjoyed a great business. In 1738 he married Lady Elizabeth Finch, daughter of the earl of Winchelsea. His political career commenced in 1742 with his appointment as solicitor-general. Probably his politi-cal opinions were not of a marked party character ; he had been bred a Jacobite, and many of his earlier associates belonged to the high Tory camp, but his calm sense and temper disinclined him to extreme factions, and indeed his interest in politics seems at all times to have been sub-ordinate to the love of his profession. He had kept entirely aloof during the struggles which preceded the fall of Sir Robert Walpole ; he refused any purely political appoint-ment, and only took office as solicitor when he felt assured of the permanence of the new administration. During the next fourteen years Murray was one of the most conspicuous figures in the parliamentary history of the time. Although holding an office of subordinate rank, and not sharing, nominally at least, in the councils of the adminis-tration, he was the chief defender of their measures in the House of Commons, and during the time that Pitt was in opposition had to bear the brunt of his attacks. He was especially conspicuous in the great debates on the employ-ment of the Hanoverian troops, the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, and the Regency Bill. In 1754 he became attorney-general, and for the next two years acted as leader of the House of Commons under the administration of the duke of Newcastle. During these years he had to defend a weak Government against the incessant, vehe-ment assaults of Pitt, and, according to the testimony of contemporaries, acquitted himself brilliantly in the contest. But in 1756, when the Government was evidently ap-proaching its fall, an unexpected vacancy occurred in the chief justiceship of the king's bench, and he claimed the office. Newcastle made every effort to retain him in the House of Commons, feeling as he did that his departure would hasten the fall of the Government, but Murray was inexorable. He seems to have been thoroughly tired of his parliamentary life, and to have long looked forward to the bench as the proper sphere of his work. He was at the same time raised to the peerage as Baron Mansfield.

From this time the chief interest of his career lies in his judicial work, but he did not wholly dissever himself from politics. He became by a singular arrangement, only once repeated subsequently in the case of Lord Ellenborough, a member of the cabinet, and remained in that position through various changes of administration for nearly fifteen years, and, although he persistently refused the chancellorship, he acted as speaker of the House of Lords while the great seal was in commission. During the time of Pitt's ascendency he took but little part in politics, but while Lord Bute was in power his influence was very considerable, and seems mostly to have been exerted in favour of a more moderate line of policy. He wa3 on the whole a supporter of the prerogative, but within definite limits. Macaulay terms him, justly enough, "the father of modern Toryism, of Toryism modified to suit an order of things in which the House of Commons is the most power-ful body in the state." In this spirit he continued to act a conspicuous though not a foremost part in political life during the rest of his career. During the stormy session of 1770 he came into violent collision with Lord Chatham and Lord Camden in the questions that arose out of the Middlesex election and the trials for political libel, and in the subsequent years he wa3 made the subject of the bitter attacks of Junius, in which his early Jacobite connexions, and his apparent leanings to arbitrary power, were used against him with extraordinary ability and virulence.' In 1776 he was created earl of Mansfield. In 1783, although he declined to re-enter the cabinet, he acted as speaker of the House of Lords during the coalition ministry, and with this his political career may be said to have closed. He continued to act as chief justice until his resignation in June 1788, and after five years spent in quiet retirement died peacefully on 20th March 1793. He left no family, but his title had been re-granted (in 1792) with a direct remainder to his nephew, Lord Stormont.

Lord Mansfield's great reputation rests chiefly on his judicial career. The political trials in which he presided, although they gave rise to numerous accusations against him, were conducted with singular fairness and propriety. He was accused with especial bitterness of favouring arbi-trary power by the law which he laid down in the trials for libel which arose out of the publications of Junius and Home Tooke. and which at a later time he reaffirmed in the case of the dean of St Asaph (see LIBEL). But, although his political opinions led him to look with disfavour on the popular view, and although it was unquestionably unfor-tunate that in some of these instances he was a member of the cabinet which directed the proceedings, we must remember that his view of the law was concurred in by the great majority of the judges and lawyers of that time, and was supported by undoubted precedents. In other instances, when the Government were equally concerned, he was wholly free from suspicion. He supported Lord Camden's decision against general warrants, and reversed the outlawry of Wilkes. While on the whole he leaned in opinion to a view of the law which we should now call oppressive, there is no instance in which he can justly be accused of wresting it, and in every instance he treated the accused with a fairness and decency which had not always been shown by his predecessors. In another way he came into conflict with popular prejudices. He was always ready to protect the rights of conscience, whether they were claimed by Dissenters or Catholics, and the popular fury which led to the destruction of his house during the Gordon riots was directed against him very much because a Catholic priest, who was accused of saying mass, had escaped the penal laws by his charge to the jury. His chief celebrity, however, is founded upon the con-summate ability with which he discharged the civil duties of his office. He has always been recognized as the founder of English mercantile law. The common law as it existed before his time was wholly inadequate to cope with the new cases and customs which arose with the increasing development of commerce. The facts were left to the jury to decide as best they might, and no principle was ever extracted from them which might serve as a guide in subsequent cases. Lord Mansfield found the law in this chaotic state, and left it in a form that was almost equivalent to a code. Working patiently with the guild-hall juries, whom he trained to act in thorough understand-ing with him, he defined almost every principle that governed commercial transactions in such a manner that his successors had only to apply the rules he had laid down. His knowledge of Roman and foreign law, and the general width of his education, freed him from the danger of rely-ing too exclusively upon narrow precedents, and afforded him a storehouse of principles and illustrations, while the grasp and acuteness of his intellect enabled him to put his judgments in a form which almost always commanded assent. A similar influence was exerted by him in other branches of the common law; and although, after his retirement, a reaction took place, and he was regarded for a while as one who had corrupted the ancient principles of English law, these prejudices passed rapidly away, and the value of his work in bringing the older law in harmony with the needs of modem society has long been fully recognized.

The chief defect of Lord Mansfield's character was a certain coldness and want of moral courage. He had no very warm attachment either to persons or opinions, although invariably kindly and considerate in his demeanour. Even his greatest speeches owe their impressiveness to a certain intellectual nobleness and breadth of view. His attachment to justice was not impassioned, but of the type which is bred from highest professional custom, and from the kind of intellectual taste which led him so frequently to the ethical writings of Cicero. He could not always face the enthusiasm of Chatham, and we cannot feel certain that his courage would have sustained him through any very perilous stand for righteousness. But in the sphere in which he was chiefly famous these defects were scarcely disadvantages. His sense of duty and of personal dignity was amply sufficient to bear him perfectly unstained through life. No suitor had ever to complain of delay or neglect. His want of strong feeling only permitted him to use his magnificent intellect with greater impartiality ; and, if at any time he was affected by personal prejudice, no trace of it was ever allowed to appear. Nothing ever disturbed the perfect dignity and propriety of his judicial conduct, which is apparent in every trial at which he presided. He impressed himself on the mind of his contemporaries as one of the best examples of what a great judge ought to be, and from that estimate a closer examination of his claims will scarcely lead us to differ. (A. OI.)








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