« PreviousContinue »
by no means in all cases successful; and it wants not only the freedom, but sometimes the force, which dis« tinguish all the speeches. The first twenty pages will be found an excellent introduction to the speeches on the cases of high treason in 1794. The origin and progress of the societies for reform are there clearly though briefly detailed; and while the excesses of some are admitted, the legality of their general object is maintained and defended.
In a letter addressed to Dr. Parr soon after the pube lication of the above pamphlet, Mr. Erskine says, I cannot say how mưch I thank you for remarking the negligence with which it cannot but be filled. I wonder it is not nonsense from beginning to end, for I wrote it amidst constant interruption, great part of it in open court, during the trial of causes. Fifteen thousand copies have been sold in England, besides editions printed at Dublin and Edinburgh, where the sale has been unusual.
In the speeches of Mr. Erskine already noticed there? are none, with the exception of that on the trial of Lord George Gordon, exhibiting, in any prominent manner, those skilful observations upon evidence which form the chief part of our forensic oratory. The cases of libel afforded no opportunity of the kind; and in the great trials for high treason in 1794, the evidence, though most voluminous, was of a nature that admitted of nothing but general comments. It might be supposed, from the perusal of those speeches, that, however successful Mr. Erskine might be in selecting and arguing upon the principle of a defence, it was yet very possible that in cases depending upon the nice and skilful weighing of doubtful or contradictory evidence, and in the delicate task of presenting it in a proper light to the jury, he might be found not to possess the same admirable qualities which he displayed in cases involving general argument and observation. That such, however, was not the fact appeared almost daily in the course of
• Parr's Works, vol. vii. p. 628.
в в 4
his large professional practice at Guildhall ; and though so few cases are to be found amongst his printed speeches in corroboration of this assertion, there is one which affords full and sufficient evidence of its correctness. In the year 1799 Lord Thanet, Mr. Fergusson a barrister, and some other gentlemen, were indicted for a misdemeanor in attempting to rescue Arthur O'Connor on his acquittal on a trial for high treason, and before he was discharged by the court. The case rested entirely on the nicest construction of evidence, it being necessary for the crown to prove the motives of the defendants from their conduct in the midst of a most sudden and alarming tumult. The judges who presided at the trial and many other honourable persons were called by the crown; and to explain away the evidence of those witnesses, to clear up the ambiguity it occasioned, and to reconcile it with the supposition of his clients' innocence, and with the evidence of other pere sons equally high in character, who appeared for the defendants, required talents of a very peculiar and admirable order. Yet this task was accomplished by Mr. Erskine with a degree of skill which proves him to have been an advocate highly accomplished in this very difficult branch of his profession. Notwithstanding the great ingenuity displayed on behalf of the defendants, and the real strength of their case, the jury found a verdict of guilty, which was probably very greatly owing to the bold and skilful cross-examination of Mr. Sheridan, one of the witnesses for the defence, by Mr. Law, afterwards Lord Ellenborough.
Upon the trial of Hadfield, in April, 1800, for high treason, in shooting at the king in the theatre of Drurylane, Mr. Erskine appeared as counsel for the prisoner ; and notwithstanding the apparent leaning of the court, at the commencement of the trial, to a contrary opinion, succeeded in establishing the derangement of the pri
There cannot, perhaps, be any where found a more clear and accurate commentary on insanity, as connected with the criminal law, than is contained in
this speech. The principle for which Mr. Erskine contended, and within which he successfully attempted to bring the case of his client, was, that where the act in question is the immediate unqualified offspring of the disease, and in such case only, the perpetrator of that act is not exposed to the penalties of criminal justice. Such, undoubtedly, was the crime attempted by the prisoner, who acted under the morbid delusion that he was called upon to perish for the benefit of mankind, and who, in pursuance of that delusion, purposely exposed himself to the vengeance of the law. It has been said that the counsel for the crown were dissatisfied with the view of the case ultimately taken by the court.
In the year 1802, Mr. Erskine, in common with many other distinguished Englishmen, taking advantage of the peace, visited Paris.
He was presented to the first consul on the same day with Mr. Fox; but the fame of the latter seemed totally to eclipse that of all his countrymen in the estimation of Napoleon, who did not appear to be duly sensible of Mr. Erskine's great celebrity and singular merit, passing him with the simple question, Etes-vous légiste ? *
During the administration of Mr. Addington, Mr. Erskine, ted by the example of Lord Moira, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Tierney, and others of the friends with whom he had usually acted, manifested a willingness to support the new minister, and was even on the point of accepting the office of attorney-general. Overtures to that effect having been transmitted to him by Mr. Addington, he thought it his duty to lay them before the Prince of Wales, whose service, in case of an acceptance of the office, it would be necessary for him to relinquish, In his answer, conveyed through Mr. Sheridan, the prince, while he expressed the most friendly feelings towards Mr. Erskine, declined at the same time giving any opinion, as to either his aeceptance or refusal of the office of attorney-general, if offered to him unde- the present circumstances. His royal highness also added
• Trotter's Memoirs of Fox, p. 268.
the expression of his sincere regret, that a proposal of this nature should have been submitted to his consideration by one of whose attachment and fidelity to himself he was well convinced, but who ought to have felt, from the line of conduct adopted and persevered in by his royal highness, that he was the very last person who should have been applied to for either his opinion or countenance respecting the political conduct or connections of any public character, especially of one so intimately connected with him, and belonging to his
Upon this expression of the prince's sentiments, the offer was of course declined.
In the negotiations which took place about this time between Mr. Fox and the Grenville-Windhamites, as they were termed, Mr. Erskine adhered to the party of the old opposition. He formed one of those who met at Norfolk House for the purpose of presenting a friendly remonstrance to Mr. Fox, stating the various reasons which offered themselves against the formation of the contemplated alliance. The remonstrance was said to have been drawn up by Mr. Erskine. +
At length, on the formation of the Whig ministry in 1806, the consistency and integrity of Mr. Erskine were rewarded by the gift of the highest dignity which his profession could confer. Although his practice had been confined altogether to the courts of common law, his character and reputation were such, that the great seal was, without hesitation, confided to his hands, and he was immediately created a peer, by the title of Baron Erskine of Restormel Castle, in the county of Cornwall, on the suggestion, as it appears by his own narration, of the Prince of Wales. In a letter to Mr. Howell I, referring to his conduct with regard to his loss of office, in consequence of his defence of Paine, he says, “I have troubled you with this short history, because it may remind some who are but too apt to think that unprincipled subserviency is the surest road to prefere * Moore's Life of Sheridan, vol. ii. p. 323. | Id.p.324.
$ State Trials, vol. xxvi. p. 716.
ment, that honesty is the best policy; since, when the great seal was afterwards vacant, his royal highness, in conjunction with my revered friend Charles Fox, considered my succession as indispensable to the formation of the new administration, presented me with a seal with
my initial and a coronet engraved on it, and desired me to take Restormel Castle as the designation of my title, as belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall, and the seat of the most ancient Dukes of Cornwall.” * On the breaking up of the administration in 1807, Lord Erskine accompanied the friends with whom he had so long acted, and resigned the great seal.
From the period of his retirement from office, Lord Erskine seldom appeared in public life. In the year 1809, however, he came forward in a cause which can never fail to engage the sympathies of every person of common feeling - the repression of wanton and malicious cruelty to animals. With this view he introduced a bill into the house of lords, which, upon the second reading, he supported in a speech which, if not glowing with the splendour of his former eloquence, was full of the most amiable and at the same time the most elevated senti.
The bill, after passing the lords, was lost in the commons, by the influence of the false and frivolous argument to which Lord Erskine adverted in his speech. “ As to the tendency of barbarous sports,” said he, "of any kind or description whatsoever, to nourish the national characteristics of manliness and courage (the only shadow of argument I ever heard on such occasions), all I can say is this, that from the mercenary battles of the lowest of beasts (viz. human boxers) up to those of the highest and noblest that are tormented by man for his degrading pastime, I enter this public protest against it. I never knew a man remarkable for heroic bravery whose very aspect was not lighted up by gentleness and humanity, nor a kill-and-eat-him countenance, that did not cover the heart of a bully or a poltroon.” Lord Erskine had the satisfaction before he died of seeing a
* Printed Speech, p. 11.