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Significant Scots
Thomas Erskine


ERSKINE, THOMAS, lord Erskine, was the youngest son of David Henry, tenth earl of Buchan. He was born in the year 1750, and, after having passed through the high school classes at Edinburgh, was sent to the university of St Andrews to finish his education. At a very early age he had imbibed a strong predilection for a naval life; and the limited means of his family rendering an early adoption of some profession necessary, he was allowed to enter the service as a midshipman, under Sir John Lindsay, nephew to the celebrated earl of Mansfield. Young Erskine embarked at Leith, and did not put foot again on his native soil until a few years before his death. He never, it is believed, held the commission of lieutenant, although he acted for some time in that capacity by the special appointment of his captain, whose kindness in this instance ultimately led to his eleve’s abandoning the service altogether, when required to resume the inferior station of a midshipman. After a service of four years, he quitted the navy, and entered the army as an ensign, in the royals, or first regiment of foot, in 1768. In 1770, he married an amiable and accomplished woman, and shortly afterwards went with his regiment to Minorca, where he spent three years. While in the army, he acquired great reputation for the versatility and acuteness of his conversational powers. Boswell, who met with the young officer in a mixed company in London, mentions the pleasure which Dr Johnson condescended to express on hearing him,—an approbation which assures us that the young Scotsman’s colloquial talents were of no ordinary kind, and possessed something more than mere brilliancy or fluency, even at that early period of life. It was the knowledge of these qualities of mind, probably, which induced his mother—a lady whose uncommon acquirements we have already had occasion to eulogise in a memoir of another son—to urge him to devote the great energies of his mind to the study of the law and jurisprudence of his country. Her advice, seconded by the counsel of a few judicious friends, was adopted; and, in his 27th year, Thomas Erskine renounced the glittering profession of arms for the graver studies of law.

He entered as a fellow-commoner, at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the year 1777, merely to obtain a degree, to which he was entitled as the son of a nobleman, and thereby shorten his passage to the bar; and, at the same time, he inserted his name in the books of Lincoln’s inn, as a student at law. One of his college declamations is still extant, as it was delivered in Trinity college chapel. The thesis was the revolution of 1688, and the first prize was awarded to its author; but, with that nobleness of feeling which always characterized the subject of our memoir, he refused to accept of the reward, alleging as an excuse, that he had merely declaimed in conformity with the rules of college, and, not being a resident student, was not entitled to any honorary distinction. A burlesque parody of Gray’s Bard which appeared about this time in the Monthly Magazine, was generally attributed to Mr Erskine. The origin of this production was a circumstance of a humorous nature. The author had been prevented from taking his place at dinner in the college hall, by the neglect of his barber, who failed to present himself in proper time. In the moment of supposed disappointment, hunger, and irritation, the bard pours forth a violent malediction against the whole tribe of hair-dressers, and, in a strain of prophetic denunciation, foretells the overthrow of their craft in the future taste for cropped hair and unpowdered heads. The ode is little remarkable for poetical excellence, but displays a lively fancy and keen perception of the ludicrous. In order to acquire that knowledge of the technical part of his profession, without which a barrister finds himself hampered at every step, Mr Erskine became a pupil of Mr, afterwards judge Buller, then an eminent special pleader, and discharged his laborious and servile avocation at the desk with all the persevering industry of a common attorney’s clerk. Upon the promotion of his preceptor to the bench, he entered into the office of Mr, afterwards baron Wood, where he continued for some months after he had obtained considerable business at the bar.

At this time, his evenings were often spent in a celebrated debating association then held in Coach-maker’s hall. These spouting clubs, at the period of which we speak, were regarded with a jealous eye by the government; and it was considered discreditable, or at least prejudicial to the interests of any young man, who looked forward to patronage at the bar, to be connected with them. The subjects usually discussed were of a political nature, and the harangues delivered in a motley assembly of men of all ranks and principles, were often highly inflammatory in sentiment, and unguarded in expression. But it was in such schools as these, that the talents of a Burke and a Pitt, and an Erskine, were nursed into that surpassing strength and activity which afterwards enabled them to ‘wield at will’ not the ‘fierce democracy’ but even the senate of Great Britain. While engaged in these preparatory studies, Mr Erskine was obliged to adhere to the most rigid economy in the use of his very limited finances,.......a privation which the unvarying cheerfulness and strong good sense of his amiable consort enabled him to bear with comparative ease.

Mr Erskine, having completed the probationary period allotted to his attendance in the Inns of court, was called to the bar in 1778; and in the very outset of his legal career, while yet of only one term’s standing, made a most brilliant display of professional talent, in the case of captain Baillie, against whom the attorney general had moved for leave to file a criminal information in the court of king’s bench, for a libel on the earl of Sandwich. In the course of this his first speech, Mr Erskine displayed the same undaunted spirit which marked his whole career. He attacked the noble earl in a strain of severe invective; Lord Mansfield, observing the young counsel heated with his subject, and growing personal on the first lord of the admiralty, told him that lord Sandwich was not before the court: "I know," replied the undaunted orator, "that he is not formally before the court; but for that very reason I will bring him before the court. He has placed there men in the front of the battle, in hopes to escape under their shelter; but I will not join in 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 assort 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."

Mr Erskine’s next speech was for Mr Carnan, a bookseller, at the bar of the house of commons, against the monopoly of the two universities, in printing almanacs. Lord North, then prime minister, and chancellor of Oxford, had introduced a bill into the house of commons, for re-vesting the universities in their monopoly, which had fallen to the ground by certain judgments which Carnan had obtained in the courts of law; the opposition to the premier’s measure was considered a desperate attempt, but, to the honour of the house, the bill was rejected by a majority of 45 votes.

But long after having gained their original triumph, Mr Erskine made a most splendid appearance for the man of the people, lord George Gordon, at the Old Bailey. This great speech, and the acquittal which it secured to the object of it, have been pronounced by a competent judge, the deathblow of the tremendous doctrine of constructive treason. The monster, indeed, manifested symptoms of returning life at an after period; but we shall see with what noble indignation its extirpator launched a second irresistible shaft at the reviving reptile. Lord George’s impeachment arose out of the following circumstances. Sir George Saville had introduced a bill into parliament for the relief of the Roman catholics of England from some of the penalties they were subject to by the test laws. The good effects of this measure, which only applied to England, were immediately felt, and in the next session it was proposed to extend the operation of similar measures to Scotland. This produced many popular tumults in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh, where the mob destroyed some popish chapels. The irritation of the public mind in Scotland soon extended itself to England, and produced a reaction of feeling in that country also. A number of protestant societies were formed in both parts of the kingdom for the purpose of obtaining the repeal of Saville’s act, as a measure fraught with danger to the constitution, both of church and state. In November, 1779, lord George Gordon, the younger brother of the duke of Gordon, and at that time a member of the house of commons, became president of the associated protestants of London; and on the memorable 2d of June, 1780, while proceeding to present a petition against concession to Roman catholics, signed by 44,000 protestants, was attended by a mob so numerous, and who conducted themselves so outrageously, as for a moment to extinguish all police and government in the city of London. For this indignity offered to the person of royalty itself, lord George and several others were committed to the tower. Upon his trial, Mr Erskine delivered a speech less remarkable, perhaps, for dazzling eloquence, than for the clear texture of the whole argument maintained in it. A singularly daring passage occurs in this speech, which the feeling of the moment alone could prompt the orator to utter; after reciting a variety of circumstances in lord George Gordon’s conduct, which tended to prove that the idea of resorting to absolute force and compulsion by armed violence, never was contemplated by the prisoner, he breaks out with this extraordinary exclamation: "I say, BY GOD, that man is a ruffian who shall, after this, presume to build upon such honest, artless conduct as an evidence of guilt!" But for the sympathy which the orator must have felt to exist at the moment, between himself and his audience, this singular effort must have been fatal to the cause it was designed to support; as it was, however, the sensation produced by these words, and the look, voice, gesture, and whole manner of the speaker, were tremendous. The result is well known; but it may not be equally well known that Dr Johnson himself, notwithstanding his hostility to the test laws, was highly gratified by the verdict which was obtained: "I am glad," said he, "that lord George Gordon has escaped, rather than a precedent should be established of hanging a man for constructive treason."

In 1783, Mr Erskine received the honour of a silk gown: his majesty’s letter of precedency being conferred upon him at the suggestion of the venerable lord Mansfield. In the same year he was elected member of parliament for Portsmouth.

The defence of John Stockdale, who was tried for publishing a libel against the commons house of parliament, has been pronounced the first in oratorical talent, and is certainly not the last in importance of Mr Erskine’s speeches. This trial may be termed the case of libels, and the doctrine maintained and expounded in it by Stockdale’s counsel is the foundation of that liberty which the press enjoys in this country. When the house of commons ordered the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the articles were drawn up by Mr Burke, who infused into them all that fervour of thought and expression which ever characterized his compositions. The articles, so prepared, instead of being confined to the records of the house until they were carried up to the lords for trial, were printed and allowed to be sold in every bookseller’s shop in the kingdom, before the accused was placed upon his trial; and undoubtedly, from the style and manner of their composition, made a deep and general impression upon the public mind against Mr Hastings. To repel or neutralize the effect of the publication of the charges, Mr Logan, one of the ministers of Leith, wrote a pamphlet, which Stockdale published, containing several severe and unguarded reflections upon the conduct of the managers of the impeachments, which the house of commons deemed highly contemptuous and libellous. The publisher was accordingly tried, on an information filed by the attorney-general. In the speech delivered by Mr Erskine upon this occasion, the very highest efforts of the orator and the rhetorician were united to all the coolness and precision of the nici prius lawyer. It was this rare faculty of combining the highest genius with the minutest attention to whatever might put his case in the safest position, which rendered Mr Erskine the most consummate advocate of the age. To estimate the mightiness of that effort by which he defeated his powerful antagonists in this case, we must remember the imposing circumstances of Mr Hastings’ trial,—the "terrible, unceasing, exhaustless artillery of warm zeal, matchless vigour of understanding, consuming and devouring eloquence, united with the highest dignity,"—to use the orator’s own language—which was then daily pouring forth upon the man, in whose defence Logan had written and Stockdale published. It was "amidst the blaze of passion and prejudice," that Mr Erskine extorted that verdict, which rescued his client from the punishment which a whole people seemed interested in awarding against the reviler of its collective majesty. And be it remembered, that in defending Stockdale, the advocate by no means identified his cause with a defence of Hastings. He did not attempt to palliate the enormities of the governor-general’s administration; he avowed that he was neither his counsel, nor desired to have any thing to do with his guilt or innocence; although in the collateral defence of his client, he was driven to state matters which might be considered by many as hostile to the impeachment. Our gifted countryman never perverted his transcendant talents by devoting them to screen villany from justice, or to the support of any cause which he did not conscientiously approve. His speech for the defendant at the trial of a case of adultery in the court of king’s bench, may be considered as an exception to this remark. It must not be forgotten that it was delivered in behalf of a gentleman of high family who had been attached to a young lady, his equal in years and birth, but was prevented from marrying her by the sordid interference of her relatives, who induced or rather constrained her to an alliance with a nobler house. The marriage was, as might have been anticipated, a most unhappy one, and the original attachment seems never to have been replaced by any other, and ultimately produced the elopement which occasioned the action. Mr Erskine does not affect to palliate the crime of seduction; on the contrary, he dwells at length on the miserable consequences occasioned by this crime; but, after having adverted with exquisite delicacy to the sacrifice of affection and enjoyment which had been made in this case, he charges the plaintiff with being the original seducer of a woman, whose affections he knew to be irretrievably bestowed upon and pledged to another.

In 1807, Mr Erskine was exalted to the peerage by the title of lord Erskine of Restormal castle, in Cornwall, and accepted of the seals as lord high chancellor; but resigned them on the dissolution of the short lived administration of that period, and retired upon a pension of 4000 per annum. From that time to the period of his death, his lordship steadily devoted himself to his duties in parliament, and never ceased to support, in his high station, those measures and principles which he had advocated in his younger years. It is deeply to be regretted, that, by an unhappy second marriage and some eccentricities of conduct, very incompatible with his years and honours, this nobleman should have at once embittered the declining years of his own life, and tarnished that high and unsullied character which he had formerly borne in public estimation. His death was produced by an inflammation of the chest, with which he was seized while on the voyage betwixt London and Edinburgh. He was landed at Scarborough, and proceeded to Scotland by short stages, but died on the 17th of November, 1823, at Ammondell house. Mr Erskine’s peculiar sphere seems to have been oratorical advocacy; his appearance as a senator never equalled that which he made at the bar. Nor is he entitled, as a political writer, to much distinction. His pamphlet, entitled "A View of the causes and Consequences of the War with France," which he published in support of Mr Fox’s principles, indeed, ran through forty-eight editions; but owed its unprecedented sale more to the spirit of the times and the celebrity of its author’s name, than to its own intrinsic merit. The preface to Mr Fox’s collected speeches was also written by him, as well as a singular political romance, entitled "Asmaba," and some spirited pamphlets in support of the Greek cause.

By his first wife, lord Erskine had three sons and five daughters. The eldest of his sons, David Montague, now lord Erskine, was for some time member plenipotentiary to the United States, and afterwards president at the court of Wirtemberg.


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