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(William Murray)


William Murray, whose genius elevated him to the peerage under the title of Lord Mansfield, and who was the greatest jurist of the eighteenth century, if not the greatest who ever sat upon the English bench, was a Scotchman, born at Scone in 1705. As he died in 1793, his life just covered the eighteenth century, whose greatest legal luminary he became. His talents were apparent from the first; he was not a flower that bloomed late, but he was a born scholar, and seemed to suck in learning with his mother's milk. His progress in the line of public preferment was rapid and steady, and there were no reverses in his career; he made no mistakes, and his services were so invaluable that there was no danger of his being superseded by any rival. He had become familiar with Greek and #. long before most boys are out of the dame-school; and we are told that he was wont to amuse himself, in his boyish days, by setting over the Greek and Roman orators into English and back again; he had classic poetry by heart, and conversed in the tongue of Cicero as readily as in his own. He must have foreseen his career from the first; for he early began a systematic study of eloquence, and never pretermitted it, so that when he was called to the bar he was already a past master of all those arts and refinements which other men learn laboriously by practice in the courts, and before juries and assemblies. There was no man of his time who had such a thorough and available familiarity with history as he; he knew whatever man had done or thought in the past, and was therefore the more easily master of what was most expedient to be done in the present. Such breadth and command of knowledge bred a calmness and judicial temper in him which peculiarly fitted him for the great functions he was destined to perform; and would naturally be discouraging to an opponent who must take his information from Mansfield in regard to whatever subject might come up for argument. He was appointed solicitor-general in 1742, and his duties in this office brought him in contact with William Pitt, who was his only worthy antagonist. In debate he was almost invincible, as might be expected from his ready and accurate erudition; but all his accomplishments did not betray him into any neglect in the matter of specially preparing himself for whatever matter might be under discussion; he worked with just as much assiduity as if he had been a novice. The fruits of this application were magnificent; while in the court of the King's Bench he was called upon to decide many thousands of cases; and of them all there were but two in which his associate justices failed to support his opinions. The best panegyric upon him was pronounced by an American, }. Story; and inasmuch as Mansfield, by his official position, was necessarily opposed to the American colonies in their struggles for independence, the praise of this great American gains added weight. “England and America,” declares Story, “and the civilized world lie under the deepest obligations to him. Wherever commerce shall extend its social influences; wherever contracts shall be expounded upon the eternal principles of right and wrong; wherever moral delicacy and judicial refinement shall be infused into the municipal code to persuade men to be honest and to keep them so; wherever the intercourse of mankind shall aim at something more elevated than the grovelling spirit of barter, in which meanness and avarice and fraud strive for mastery over ignorance, credulity, and folly: the name of Lord Mansfield will be held in reverence by the good and the wise, by the honest merchant, the enlightened lawyer, the just statesman, and the conscientious judge. His judgments should not be referred to on the spur of particular occasions, but should be studied as models of judicial reasoning and eloquence.” Since the time of Lord Bacon, there has been no man of whom such a eulogy could be truthfully spoken; and Bacon, though supreme in intellect even over Mansfield, was his inferior in the moral qualities which make a man's memory honored after he is gone. His style of oratory was different in principle from that of Chatham; it was tranquil and unemotional, and sought no sensational effects or victories of surprise. He saw his subject from beginning to end at a single view; he noted its various features, and selected those which it was most expedient to enforce. He then proceeded by calm reasonings, not appearing to force the assent, but rendering it inevitable by appeal to man's recognition of unquestionable facts and inevitable deductions. It seemed to his hearers as if they were judges passing upon evidence, and that there could be but one verdict; but it was the verdict which Mansfield desired. He carefully avoided all oratorical flights, as prone to alarm his auditors into fancying that their judgment was to be won over by artifice; he adopted a tone of dispassionate conversation, dignified, limpid, and cogent. He was the most formidable and the fairest foe with which the colonies had to contend; if there were anything irrational or unjust in their attitude or claims, Mansfield was certain to put his finger quietly and immovably upon the very spot. At the time of his appointment to the King's Bench, in 1756, he entered the Cabinet, and was one of its most effective members, whose word few cared to dispute. Apart from his relation to the War of the Revolution, he applied himself chiefly to expounding the principles of equity with regard to commerce; and his work in this direction won him the title of “Founder of English Commercial Law.” He died in 1793 at the ripe age of eighty-eight; an almost perfect type of all that a great judge should be, and seldom is.

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