Erskine, Henry (1746-1817) (DNB00)

From Wikisource
 
Jump to: navigation, search

ERSKINE, HENRY (1746–1817), lord advocate, second son of Henry, tenth earl of Buchan, by his wife, Agnes, second daughter of Sir James Steuart of Goodtrees, bart., was born in Gray's Close, Edinburgh, on 1 Nov. 1746. After receiving some instruction in Latin at Richard Dick's school at St. Andrews, he matriculated as a student of the united college of St. Salvator and St. Leonard on 20 Feb. 1760. In 1763 he proceeded to Glasgow University, and subsequently went to Edinburgh University, where in 1766 he attended the classes of Professors Wallace, Hugh Blair, and Adam Ferguson. While studying for the bar Erskine became a member of the Forum Debating Society in Edinburgh, where he ‘acquired the power of extempore speaking which was the foundation of his future success as a pleader.’ At this time he also wrote several poetical pieces of considerable merit, one of which, entitled ‘The Nettle and the Sensitive Plant,’ has been printed. He was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates on 20 Feb. 1768. His first triumphs as a pleader were obtained in the debates of the general assembly of the church of Scotland, of which at an early age he had been elected an elder. When he had been called to the bar a little more than ten years, he was proposed as a candidate for the procuratorship. Erskine, who had identified himself with the ‘Highflyer’ or evangelical section, was, however, defeated by William (afterwards Lord) Robertson, the representative of the ‘Moderate’ or tory party. In August 1783 he was appointed lord advocate in the coalition ministry, in the place of Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville. It is related that on the morning of his appointment he met Dundas, who had already resumed his stuff gown. After chatting with him for a short time Erskine gaily observed, ‘I must leave off talking to go and order my silk gown’ (the official costume of the lord advocate). ‘It is hardly worth while,’ replied Dundas dryly, ‘for the time you will want it; you had better borrow mine.’ Upon this Erskine, who was never at loss for a reply, wittily observed, ‘From the readiness with which you make the offer, Mr. Dundas, I have no doubt that the gown is a gown made to fit any party; but, however short my time in office may be, it shall never be said of Henry Erskine that he put on the abandoned habits of his predecessor.’ Before Erskine could obtain a seat in the House of Commons Fox's East India Bill was thrown out in the lords. The coalition ministry was thereupon summarily dismissed by the king in December 1783, and Erskine was succeeded by Sir Ilay Campbell [q. v.], afterwards lord presi- dent of the court of session. Somewhat earlier in this year Erskine had been appointed advocate, and state councillor to the Prince of Wales in Scotland. In the debate in the House of Commons on 14 Jan. 1784, concerning the charges of bribery made against the former ministry, Dundas thus vindicated the political integrity of the late lord advocate: ‘He said he [Erskine] was incapable of being prostituted into the character of a distributor of the wages of corruption, and he was convinced that such description of him had originated in misinformation’ (Parl. Hist. xxiv. 341). In December 1785 Dundas resigned the post of dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and at the anniversary meeting on the 24th of that month Erskine was elected in his place by a decided majority, in spite of the influence of the government, which was exerted against him. In 1795 Erskine, who, though he had always been in favour of reform, had hitherto endeavoured to restrain the zeal of the more revolutionary reformers, became greatly alarmed at the introduction of the ‘sedition’ and ‘treason’ bills; and at a public meeting held in Edinburgh on 28 Nov. 1795 he moved a series of resolutions which, while expressing horror at the late outrages on the king, condemned the bills as striking ‘at the very existence of the British constitution.’ Erskine had been annually re-elected dean of the faculty since 1785, but in consequence of the prominent part which he had taken at this meeting it was determined by the ministerial party to oppose his re-election, and at the anniversary meeting on 12 Jan. 1796 Robert Dundas of Arniston, then lord advocate, was chosen dean by a majority of eighty-five, only thirty-eight members voting for Erskine. Lord Cockburn, in commenting on this unjustifiable proceeding, says: ‘This dismissal was perfectly natural at a time when all intemperance was natural. But it was the Faculty of Advocates alone that suffered. Erskine had long honoured his brethren by his character and reputation, and certainly he lost nothing by being removed from the official chair’ (Life of Lord Jeffrey, 1852, i. 94). For many years afterwards ‘The Independence of the Bar and Henry Erskine’ was a favourite toast among the whigs, and at the public dinner at Edinburgh, given to Lord Erskine on 21 Feb. 1820, the health was drunk of ‘the remaining individuals of that virtuous number of thirty-eight, the small but manly band of true patriots within the bosom of the Faculty of Advocates who stood firm in the support of the Hon. Henry Erskine when he had opposed the unconstitutional and oppressive measures of the ministers of the day.’

On the death of Lord Eskgrove in October 1804 the office of lord clerk register was offered through Charles Hope to Erskine, who, however, declined it, refusing to separate his fortunes from those of his party. In the early part of 1806 the ministry of ‘All the Talents’ was formed, Thomas Erskine was made lord chancellor, while his elder brother Henry once more became lord advocate. At a bye election in April he was elected for the Haddington district of burghs, and took his seat in parliament for the first time. At the general election in November 1806 he was returned for the Dumfries district of burghs, but the downfall of the ministry in March 1807 deprived him of office, and the dissolution in the following month put an end to his parliamentary career. Though Lord Campbell's statement that Erskine ‘never opened his mouth in the House of Commons, so that the oft debated question how he was qualified to succeed there remained unsolved’ (Lives of the Lord Chancellors [1847], vi. 705), is clearly erroneous, it does not appear that he took any conspicuous part in the debates (Parl. Debates, vi–ix.). This was probably owing to the fact that the only important Scottish question which came before parliament at that time was the bill ‘for the better regulation of the courts of justice in Scotland,’ which was introduced into the lords by Lord Grenville and never reached the House of Commons. Erskine was succeeded as lord advocate by Archibald Campbell-Colquhoun [q. v.], with whom he engaged in a sharp controversy on the respective merits of Lord Grenville's and Lord Eldon's bills for the reform of legal procedure (Scots Mag. for 1808, pp. 70–2, 149–52). On 2 Nov. 1808 he was appointed on the commission to inquire into the administration of justice in Scotland (Parl. Papers, 1809, vol. iv.). Upon the death of Robert Blair [q. v.] in May 1811 it was expected that Erskine would have been appointed president of the court of session, but Charles Hope, the lord justice clerk, who was some fifteen years junior at the bar to Erskine, eventually received the appointment. Though Erskine's mind was still clear and active, his health had already begun to fail him. Being deprived of preferment, which was justly his due, he resolved to give up his practice at the bar, and thereupon retired to his country house of Ammondell in Linlithgowshire. Here he amused himself with his garden and his violin until his death on 8 Oct. 1817, when he was in the seventy-first year of his age. He was buried in the family vault adjoining Uphall Church. Erskine was a man of many brilliant gifts. Not only was he endowed with a handsome presence, a fascinating manner, and a sparkling wit, but he was by far the most eloquent speaker at the Scotch bar in his time. Lord Brougham bears the following remarkable testimony to Erskine's powers of advocacy: ‘If I were,’ he says, ‘to name the most consummate exhibition of forensic talent that I ever witnessed, whether in the skilful conduct of the argument, the felicity of the copious illustrations, the cogency of the reasoning, or the dexterous appeal to the prejudices of the court, I should without hesitation at once point to his address (hearing in presence) on Maitland's case; and were my friend Lauderdale alive, to him I should appeal, for he heard it with me, and came away declaring that his brother Thomas (Lord Erskine) never surpassed—nay, he thought never equalled it’ (Life and Times, 1871, i. 231). While Lord Jeffrey, in his article in the ‘Scots Magazine’ (1817, new ser. i. 292), records that Erskine ‘could not only make the most repulsive subjects agreeable, but the most abstruse easy and intelligible. In his profession, indeed, all his wit was argument, and each of his delightful illustrations a material step in his reasoning.’ Though he possessed strong political opinions, and never swerved from his allegiance to the whig party, he was popular in all classes of society, for ‘nothing,’ says Lord Cockburn, ‘was so sour as not to be sweetened by the glance, the voice, the gaiety, the beauty of Henry Erskine’ (Life of Lord Jeffrey, i. 93). But perhaps there is no better testimony to his worth than the well-known story, to which reference is made in the inscription on the tablet lately affixed to his birthplace: ‘No poor man wanted a friend while Harry Erskine lived.’

Erskine, on 30 March 1772, married Christian, the only child of George Fullerton of Broughton Hall, near Edinburgh, comptroller of the customs at Leith. She died on 9 May 1804, and on 7 Jan. 1805 he married, secondly, Erskine, widow of James Turnbull, advocate, and daughter of Alexander Munro of Glasgow. By his first wife Erskine had several children, one of whom, viz. Henry David Erskine, succeeded as twelfth earl of Buchan on the death of his uncle in 1829. There were no children by the second marriage. The present Earl of Buchan is Erskine's grandson. A portrait of Erskine by Sir Henry Raeburn was exhibited in the Raeburn collection at Edinburgh in 1876 (Cat. No. 166), and has been engraved by James Ward (see frontispiece to Fergusson's Henry Erskine). Several etchings of Erskine will be found in Kay (Nos. 30, 58, 187, and 320). In an ‘Extempore in the Court of Session’ Burns contrasts the style of his friend Erskine with that of Ilay Campbell (Kilmarnock edit. 1876, p. 274). According to Watt, Erskine published an anonymous pamphlet entitled ‘Expediency of Reform in the Court of Session in Scotland,’ London, 1807, 8vo. It consists, however, only of a reprint of two earlier tracts and an introduction. Erskine's ‘Emigrant, an Eclogue occasioned by the late numerous Emigrations from the Highlands of Scotland. Written in 1773,’ attained great popularity, and in 1793 was published as a chapbook. A copy of this poem was reprinted in 1879 for private circulation by the late Mrs. Dunmore-Napier, one of Erskine's grandchildren. Few men have enjoyed in their lifetime a wider reputation either for their oratory or their wit than Erskine, and it is much to be regretted that neither have his speeches been preserved nor a complete collection of his poems and witticisms made. Some of his verses appeared in Maria Riddell's ‘Metrical Miscellany,’ the first edition of which was published in 1802, and several of his pieces and many of his witticisms will be found in Fergusson. The Faculty of Advocates possesses a volume of manuscripts containing ‘a Collection of Mr. Erskine's Poems, transcribed about the year 1780. They consist of “Love Elegies dedicated to Amanda,” 1770; pastoral eclogues and fables; “The Emigrant,” a poem (with a few corrections in the hand of the author), along with some epigrams and miscellaneous pieces, including translations and imitations of ancient classical writers, partly dated between the years 1769 and 1776.’

[Fergusson's Henry Erskine (1882); Omond's Lord Advocates of Scotland (1883), ii. 163–74; Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen (1868), i. 547–8; Kay's Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings (1877), i. 124–8; Anderson's Scottish Nation (1865), ii. 166–71; The Georgian Era (1833), ii. 542–3; Foster's Peerage (1883), p. 102; pamphlet without title containing the resolutions moved by Erskine at the meeting in Edinburgh on 28 Nov. 1795, and the correspondence concerning the election of the dean for 1796 (Reports, Faculty of Advocates, vol. ii., in Brit. Mus.); Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vii. 41–2, x. 9–10, 62, 218, 4th ser. iii. 296–7, 5th ser. xi. 369, 6th ser. x. 20; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. 226, 238.]

G. F. R. B.