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LORD ERSKINE.

Thomas ERSKINE, youngest son of the Earl of Buchan, was born at Edinburgh, on the 10th day of January, 1750. The family had once been eminent for rank and wealth ; but their ample patrimony being gradually wasted, the income of their estates was at last reduced to two hundred pounds a year. To conceal their poverty, they removed to the capital from an old castle, which was all that was left of their wide domains ; and “in a small and ill-furnished room in an upper flat, or story, of a lofty house in the old town of Edinburgh, first saw the light the Honorable Thomas Erskine, the future defender of Stockdale, and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain."

Young Erskine displayed in very early life that quickness of intellect and joyous hilarity of spirits for which he was so remarkable throughout his professional career. He was kept for some years at the High School of Edinburgh, and then removed to the University of St. Andrew's, where he spent less than two years. His early education was, therefore, extremely limited. He had but little knowledge of Latin, and none of Greek. In the rudiments of English literature, however, he was uncommonly well instructed for one of his age. He profited greatly by conversation with his mother, who was a woman of uncommon strength of mind, and owed much of the daring energy of his character to her example and instructions. Being accustomed, notwithstanding the poverty of the family, to associate from childhood with persons of high rank and breeding, he early acquired that freedom and nobleness of manner for which he was so much distinguished in after life. He was the favorite of all who knew him—of his masters, his school-mates, and the families in which he visited. Full of fun and frolic, with a lively fancy, ready wit, and unbounded self-reliance, he found his chief delight in society; and probably laid the foundation, at this early period, of those extraordinary powers of conversation to which he was greatly indebted for his subsequent success. He was one of the few who seem to have gained by being left chiefly to themselves in their early years. If he had less learning, he had more freedom and boldness; and when the time arrived for his entering into the conflicts of the bar, it is not surprising that, with high native talent, extraordinary capacity for application, and a self-confidence amounting to absolute egotism, he was able to put forth his powers, under the impulse of strong motive, with prodigious effect, and to make himself, without any preparatory training, one of the most ready and eloquent speakers of the age.

He showed a great desire from boyhood to be fitted for one of the learned professions, and had even then his dreams of distinction in eloquence; but the poverty of his father forbade the attempt. At the age of fourteen, he was placed as a midshipman in the navy, and was commended to the particular care of his captain by Lord Mansfield, who took a lively interest in the Buchan family.

He now spent four years in visiting various parts of the globe, particularly the West Indies and the coast of North America. He was often on shore ; and it was probably on one of

1 Lord Brougham speaks of him as having " hardly any access to the beauties of Attic eloquence, whether in prose or verse;" but Lord Campbell goes farther, and says, " he learned little of Greek beyond the alphabet.

these occasions that he witnessed that meeting of an Indian chief with the governor of a British colony, which he described so graphically in his defense of Stockdale, and made the starting point of one of the noblest bursts of eloquence in our language.

At the end of four years he returned to England ; the ship was paid off, and he was cast without employment on the world. At this moment of deep perplexity his father died, leaving him but a scanty pittance for his support. After consulting with his friends, he saw no course but to try his fortune in the army; and accordingly he spent the whole of his little patrimony in purchasing an ensign's commission in the Royals, or First Regiment of Foot. The regiment remained for some years at home, and was quartered, from time to time, in different provincial towns. Erskine, with his habitual buoyancy of spirits, mingled in the best society of the places where he was stationed, and attracted great attention by the elegance of his manners and the brilliancy of his conversation. He at last became entangled with an affair of the heart; and was married in April, 1770, at the age of twenty, to a lady of respectable family, though without fortune—the daughter of Daniel Moore, Esq., member of Parliament for Marlow.

This rash step would to most persons have been the certain precursor of poverty and ruin ; but in his case it was a fortunate one. It served to balance his mind, to check his natural volatility, to impress him with a sense of new obligations and higher duties. The regiment was ordered to Minorca, where he spent two years in almost uninterrupted leisure. In the society of his wife, he now entered on the systematic study of English literature, and probably no two years were ever better spent for the purposes of mental culture. As a preparation for his future efforts in oratory, they were invaluable. In addition to his reading in prose, he devoted himself with great ardor to the study of Milton and Shakspeare. A large part of the former he committed to memory, and became so familiar with the latter, that "he could almost, like Porson, have held conversations on all subjects for days together in the phrases of the great English dramatist.” Here he acquired that fine choice of words, that rich and varied imagery, that sense of harmony in the structure of his sentences, that boldness of thought and magnificence of expression, for which he was afterward so much distinguished. It may also be remarked, that there are passages in both these writers which are the exact counterpart of the finest eloquence of the ancients. The speeches, in the second book of the Paradise Lost, have all the condensed energy and burning force of expression which belong to the great Athenian orator. The speech of Brutus, in Shakspeare's Julius Cæsar, has all the stern majesty of Roman eloquence. That of Anthony over the dead body of Cæsar is a matchless exhibition of the art and dexterity of insinuation which characterized the genius of the Greeks. It is not in regard to poetry alone that we may say of these great masters,

Hither, as to a fountain,
Other suns repair, and in their urns

Draw golden light.
In respect to eloquence, also, to use the words of Johnson, slightly varied, he who
would excel in this noblest of arts must give his days and nights to the study of
Milton and Shakspeare.

In the year 1772 the regiment returned to England, and the young ensign obtained a furlough of six months. Most of this time he spent in the best society of London ; and Boswell speaks of Johnson and himself as dining, April 6, 1772, with “ a young officer in the regimentals of the Scots Royals, who talked with a vivacity, fluency, and precision which attracted particular attention." It was Erskine, who, with his characteristic boldness, entered at once into a literary discussion with Johnson, disputing his views on the comparative merits of Fielding and Richardson in a manner which rather gained him the favor of the great English moralist.

At the end of six years from his entering the army, when he had reached the rank of Lieutenant, the attention of Erskine was by mere accident directed to the bar. Being stationed, during the summer of 1774, in a country town where the Assizes were held, he rambled one day into court; and Lord Mansfield, who presided, having noticed his uniform, was led to inquire his name. Finding that it was the boy whom he had aided ten years before in going to sea, he invited him to a seat on the bench, briefly stating the principal points of the case, and showing him other civilities which were peculiarly gratifying under such circumstances. Erskine listened with the liveliest interest. The counsel were considered skillful and eloquent; but it often occurred to him, in the course of the argument on both sides, how much more clearly and forcibly he could have presented certain points and urged them on the minds of the jury. “And why not be a lawyer ?" was the thought which instantly forced itself on his mind. “Why not carry out the early aspirations of boyhood ?" Any one of a less sanguine temperament would have felt the attempt to be hopeless, burdened as he was with a young and growing family, and wholly destitute of any means of subsistence except his commission, which must, of course, be relinquished if he entered on the study of the law. But Erskine's whole life was one of daring enterprise. The very difficulty of an undertaking seemed only to impel him forward with greater eagerness. Being invited to dinner by Lord Mansfield, who was delighted with his conversational powers, he brought out at the close of the evening the question which was already beating at his heart, “ Is it impossible for me to become a lawyer ?" Mansfield, who admired his talents and spirit, did not utterly discourage him, and this was enough for one of his sanguine temperament. He consulted his mother, who had the same habit of looking on the bright side of things, and who perfectly understood the force of his character, and found to his delight that she was almost as eager as he was to see him enter on the undertaking. He accordingly became a member of Lincoln's Inn, about the middle of 1775. His term of legal study might be materially abridged by his taking a degree at one of the universities, and to this he was entitled, as son of a nobleman, without passing an examination, if he kept his regular terms. He therefore became a member of Trinity College, Cambridge, early in 1776, paying no attention whatever to the studies of the place, and contriving, at the same time, to keep his terms at Lincoln's Inn. He still retained his office in the army as a means of support, having obtained leave of absence for six months, and at the end of this time sold out his commission and husbanded his resources to the utmost. He lived in a small village just out of London; and Reynolds, the comic writer, says, in his “Life and Times," The young student resided in small lodgings near my father's villa at Hampstead, and openly avowed that he lived on cow-beef, because he could not afford any of a superior quality; he dressed shabbily, and expressed the greatest gratitude to Mr. Harris for occasional free admissions to Covent Garden, and used boastingly to exclaim to my father, “Thank fortune, out of my own family, I don't know a Lord.” In July, 1778, he was called to the bar, and according to all ordinary experience of the profession in London, he had reason to expect a delay of some years before his business would support his family.

But the early life of Erskine was full of singular adventure. Not long after his call to the bar, he was dining with a friend, and happened to speak of a Captain Baillie, whose case at that time awakened great interest in the public mind. As Lieutenant Governor of Greenwich Hospital, Baillie had discovered enormous abuses in the management of the institution (which was used for political purposes), and had publicly charged them on Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. For this he was prosecuted on a charge of a libel, at the instance of Sandwich, who kept, however, behind the scenes to avoid any opportunity of bringing him before the court on the merits of the case. As the trial was soon to come on, Erskine remarked on this conduct at table with great severity, not knowing that Baillie was present as one of the guests. The captain was delighted with what he heard ; and learning that his volunteer advocate was a young lawyer, as yet without business, who had himself been a sailor, declared to a friend that he should at least have one brief. Accordingly, Erskine's first retainer of a guinea was put into his hands the next day, and it never occurred to him but that he was the only counsel in the case. As the trial approached, however, he found there were four distinguished advocates before him, and he also found they had so little hope of success, that they advised Baillie, at a consultation, to pay the costs, and in this way escape trial, as the prosecutors had kindly proposed. Erskine alone dissented. “My advice, gentlemen," said he, "may savor more of my former profession than my present, but I am against consenting.” " You are the man for me,” said Baillie, hugging the young advocate in his arms;“ I will never give up."

The case came on before Lord Mansfield in the afternoon of November 23d, 1778. The senior counsel of Baillie consumed the time till late in the evening, in showing cause why the rule should be dismissed ; and no one expecting Erskine to come forward, the case was adjourned until the next day. The court was crowded in the morning, as the Solicitor General was expected to speak in support of the rule, and, just as Lord Mansfield was about to call upon him to proceed, Erskine rose, unknown to nearly every individual in the room except his Lordship, and said, in a mild but firm tone, “ My Lord, I am likewise counsel for the author of this supposed libel, * * * and when a British subject is brought before a court of justice only for having ventured to attack abuses which owe their continuance to the danger of attacking them, * * * I can not relinquish the privilege of doing justice to such merit, I will not give up even my share of the honor of repelling and exposing so odious a prosecution.” The whole audience was hushed into a pin-fall silence, and he then went on to ask in regard to his client, “Who is he? What was his duty ? What has he written? To whom has he written? and what motive induced him to write ?Taking these inquiries as the heads of his speech, he went on, in brief but eloquent terms, to show that Baillie, as Lieutenant Governor of the Hospital, was bound in duty to expose the abuses of the institution—that he had written nothing on the subject but what was undeniably true that he had written it for the information of the Governors of the Hospital, who ought to be informed on such a subject—and that his only motive in writing had been the protection of those who had lost their limbs and periled their lives in fighting the battles of their country. In closing, he turned from Captain Baillie to the First Lord of the Admiralty, “ Indeed, Lord Sandwich," said he, “has in my mind—” (Mansfield here reminded him that Lord Sandwich was not before the court, when Erskine, borne away by his feelings, instantly broke forth],“ I know he is not formally before the court, but for that very reason I will bring him before the court! He has placed these men (the prosecutors) in the front of the battle, in hopes to escape under their shelter ; but I will not join in the battle with them; their vices, though screwed up to the highest pitch of human depravity, are not of dignity enough to vindicate the combat with me. I will drag him to light, who is the dark mover behind this scene of iniquity. I assert, that the Earl of Sandwich has but one road to escape out of this business without pollution and disgrace, and that is, by publicly disavowing the acts of the prosecutors, and restoring Captain Baillie to his command. If he does this, then his offense will be no more than the too common one of having suffered his own personal interest to prevail over his public duty, in placing his voters in the hospital. But if, on the contrary, he continues to protect the prosecutors, in spite of the evidence of their guilt, which has excited the abhorrence of the numerous audience that crowd this

court; if he keeps this injured man suspended, or dares to turn that suspension into a removal, I shall then not scruple to declare him an accomplice in their guilt, a shameless oppressor, a disgrace to his rank, and a traitor to his trust." “FINE AND IMPRISONMENT! The man deserves a palace instead of a prison who prevents the palace, built by the public bounty of his country, from being converted into a dungeon, and who sacrifices his own security to the interests of humanity and virtue.” Considering all the circumstances of the case, it is not surprising that Lord Campbell should pronounce this “the most wonderful forensic effort which we have in our annals.” It is hardly necessary to say that the decision was for the defendant; the rule was dismissed with costs.

Never did a single case so completely make the fortune of any individual. Erskine entered Westminster Hall that morning not only in extreme poverty, but with no reasonable prospect of an adequate subsistence for years. He left it a rich man. He received thirty retainers from attorneys who were present, it is said, while retiring from the hall. Not only was his ambition gratified, but the comfort and independence of those whose happiness he had staked on his success as a lawyer were secured for life. Some one asked him, at a later period, how he dared to face Lord Mansfield so boldly on a point where he was clearly out of order, when he beautifully replied, "I thought of my children as plucking me by the robe, and saying, ‘Now, father, is the time to get us bread.'” His business went on rapidly increasing, until he had an annual income of £12,000.

The next year he added to his reputation by a masterly defense of Admiral Keppel before a court-martial at Portsmouth. His experience in naval affairs recommend. ed him for this service, and he performed it with unabated zeal for thirteen days, which were spent in examining witnesses and arguing points of order, after which he wrote out the speech which the Admiral read to the court. This was followed by a unanimous verdict of acquittal ; and so strongly did Keppel feel the value of the young advocate's services, that he addressed him a note in token of his gratitude containing a present of a thousand pounds, adding, "I shall ever rejoice in this commencement of a friendship which I hope daily to improve." Erskine, with the boy. ish hilarity which always marked his character, hastened to the villa of the Reynoldses, and, displaying his bank-notes, exclaimed, "Voilà the non-suit of cow-beef, my good friends."

He came into the House five years after, in November, 1783, as a supporter of the Coalition ministry of Mr. Fox and Lord North. Nearly all the lawyers being on the other side, great reliance was placed on his services by the friends of the new government. But they were sorely disappointed. His habits were not suited to parliamentary debate. His understanding was eminently a legal one; he wanted the stimulus and encouragement of a listening court and jury; and was embarrassed by the presence of sneering opponents ready to treat him with personal indignity. His vanity now turned to his disadvantage, and put him in the power of his antagonists. When he commenced his maiden speech, says Mr. Croly, in his Life of George IV., "Mr. Pitt, evidently intending to reply, sat with pen and paper in his hand, prepared to catch the arguments of his formidable adversary. He wrote a word or two. Erskine proceeded; but, with every additional sentence, Pitt's attention to the paper relaxed, his look became more careless, and he obviously began to think the orator less and less worthy of his attention. At length, while every eye in the House was fixed upon him, with a contemptuous smile he dashed the pen through the paper, and flung them on the floor. Erskine never recovered from this expression of disdain ; his voice faltered, he struggled through the remainder of his speech, and sank into his seat dispirited and shorn of his fame." Sheridan remarked to him at a later period, “I'll tell you how it happens, Erskine ; you are afraid of Pitt, and that is the

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