1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Camden, Charles Pratt, 1st Earl
|←Cambyses||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 5
Camden, Charles Pratt, 1st Earl
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CAMDEN, CHARLES PRATT, 1st Earl (1714-1794), lord chancellor of England, was born in Kensington in 1714. He was a descendant of an old Devonshire family of high standing, the third son of Sir John Pratt, chief-justice of the king’s bench in the reign of George I. He received his early education at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. In 1734 he became a fellow of his college, and in the following year obtained his degree of B.A. Having adopted his father’s profession, he had entered the Middle Temple in 1728, and ten years later he was called to the bar. He practised at first in the courts of common law, travelling also the western circuit. For some years his practice was so limited, and he became so much discouraged, that he seriously thought of turning his back on the law and entering the church. He listened, however, to the advice of his friend Sir Robert Henley, a brother barrister, afterwards known as Lord Chancellor Northington, and persevered, working on and waiting for success. The first case which brought him prominently into notice and gave him assurance of ultimate success was the government prosecution, in 1752, of a bookseller, William Owen, for a libel on the House of Commons.
His speech for the defence contributed much to the verdict for the defendant. In 1757, through the influence of William Pitt (afterwards earl of Chatham), with whom he had formed an intimate friendship while at Eton, he received the appointment of attorney-general. The same year he entered the House of Commons as member for the borough of Downton in Wiltshire. He sat in parliament four years, but did not distinguish himself as a debater. His professional practice now largely increased. One of the most noticeable incidents of his tenure of office as attorney-general was the prosecution of Dr. J. Shebbeare (1709-1788), a violent party writer of the day, for a libel against the government contained in his notorious Letters to the People of England, which were published in the years 1756-1758. As a proof of Pratt’s moderation in a period of passionate party warfare and frequent state trials, it is noted that this was the only official prosecution for libel which he set on foot. In January 1762 Pratt was raised to the bench as chief-justice of the common pleas. He was at the same time knighted. Soon after his elevation the nation was thrown into great excitement about the prosecution of John Wilkes, and the question involved in it of the legality of “general warrants.” Chief-Justice Pratt pronounced, with decisive and almost passionate energy, against their legality, thus giving voice to the strong feeling of the nation and winning for himself an extraordinary degree of popularity as one of the “maintainers of English constitutional liberty.” Honours fell thick upon him in the form of addresses from the city of London and many large towns, and of presentations of freedom from various corporate bodies. In July 1765 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Camden, of Camden Place, in the county of Kent; and in the following year he was removed from the court of common pleas to take his seat as lord chancellor (July 30, 1766). This seat he retained less than four years; for although he discharged its duties in so efficient a manner that, with one exception, his decisions were never reversed on appeal, he took up a position of such uncompromising hostility to the governments of the day, the Grafton and North administrations, on the greatest and most exciting matters, the treatment of the American colonies and the proceedings against John Wilkes, that the government had no choice but to require of him the surrender of the great seal. He retired from the court of chancery in January 1770, but he continued to take a warm interest in the political affairs and discussions of the time. He continued steadfastly to oppose the taxation of the American colonists, and signed, in 1778, the protest of the Lords in favour of an address to the king on the subject of the manifesto of the commissioners to America. In 1782 he was appointed president of the council under the Rockingham administration, but retired in the following year. Within a few months he was reinstated in this office under the Pitt administration, and held it till his death. Lord Camden was a strenuous opponent of Fox’s India Bill, took an animated part in the debates on important public matters till within two years of his death, introduced in 1786 the scheme of a regency on occasion of the king’s insanity, and to the last zealously defended his early views on the functions of juries, especially of their right to decide on all questions of libel. He was raised to the dignity of an earl in May 1786, and was at the same time created Viscount Bayham. Earl Camden died in London on the 18th of April 1794. His remains were interred in Seale church in Kent.