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“As an advocate in the forum, I hold him to be without an equal in ancient or modern times." This is the judgment of the author of “The Lives of the Lord Chancellors," in regard to Thomas, Lord Erskine. But for the modern student, Erskine was not merely the most powerful advocate that ever appealed to a court or a jury, but what is more important, he was, in a very definite sense, so closely identified with the establishment of certain great principles that lie at the foundation of modern social life, that a knowledge, at least, of some of his speeches is of no little importance. The rights of juries, the liberty of the press, and the law of treason were discussed by him not only with a depth of learning and a power of reasoning which were absolutely conclusive, but
at the same time with a warmth and a brilliancy of genius which throw a peculiar charm over the whole of the subjects presented.
Thomas Erskine was the youngest son of the Earl of Buchan, the representative of an old Scotch house, whose ample fortune had wasted away until the family was reduced to actual poverty. Just before the birth of the future Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Buchan abandoned his ancient seat, and with wife and children took up his abode in an upper flat of a lofty house in the old town of Edinburgh. Here Erskine was born on the roth of January, 1750. The poverty of the family made it impossible for him to acquire the early education he craved. Some years at the schools in Edinburgh, and a few months in the University of St. Andrews, completed his academic days. He gained a very superficial knowledge of Latin, and, if we may believe Lord Campbell, “ little of Greek beyond the alphabet.” In the rudiments of English literature, however, he was well instructed; and he seems, even while
at the university, to have acquired something of that freedom and nobleness of manner which so much distinguished him in after-life.
The condition of the family, however, made it impossible for him to complete the course of studies at the University; and accordingly, at fourteen, he was placed as a midshipman in the navy. Here he remained four years, during which time he visited different parts of the globe, including the Indies and the English colonies in North America. At the end of his term he determined, like the elder Pitt, to enter the army; and, taking the whole of his small patrimony for the purpose, he bought an ensign's commission in the Royals or First Regiment of Foot. Here he remained from the time he was eighteen till he was twenty-five. At twenty he was married to a lady of respectability, though without fortune. But this step, which, with most persons, would have been the sure precursor of poverty and obscurity, turned out in the case of Erskine to be a means of inspiration and assistance. His mind was bal
anced, and his vivacity was reduced to earnestness. As the regiment was in garrison, he had abundant leisure, and he applied himself in the society of his wife to the systematic study of the masterpieces of English literature. The best parts of Milton and Shakspeare he acquired such mastery of that he continued to know them by heart throughout life. It is evident that his attainments were beginning to attract attention ; for, in April of 1772, Boswell speaks of him as dining with Johnson, and characterizes him as “ a young officer in the regimentals of the Scotch Royals, who talked with a vivacity, Auency, and precision which attracted particular attention.”
It was not until two years after this time that we find Erskine interested in the proceedings of the courts. He subsequently declared that, while a witness of judicial proceedings, it often occurred to him in the course of the argument on both sides how much more clearly and forcibly he could have presented the points and urged them on the minds of the jury. It was this consciousness that led him one day, while dining with Lord Mansfield, to ask: “ Is it impossible for me to become a lawyer ?” The answer of the Lord Chancellor did not utterly discourage him; and he became a student of Lincoln's Inn at the age of twenty-five. In order to abridge his term of study, he determined to take a degree at one of the universities, as, being a nobleman's son, he was entitled to do on examination and without residence. In fulfilment of this design, he became a member of Trinity College, at Cambridge, in 1776, while he was prosecuting his legal studies in London, and still holding his commission in the army as a means of support. In July of 1778, when in his twenty-ninth year, he was called to the bar.
A singular combination of circumstances almost immediately brought him forward into great prominence. He had been retained as junior counsel with four eminent advocates for the defence of one Captain Bailie, who had disclosed certain important corruptions of the government officials in charge of Greenwich