Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 01.djvu/42

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Abbott
Abbott
28

shire. He had four children, two sons and two daughters, John Henry, Mary, Catherine Alice, and Charles (Gentleman's Magazine, 1832, ii. 571). His success as a special pleader induced him to go to the bar, or, to use his own characteristic words, to take that ‘leap into the turbid stream of forensic practice in which so many sink, while a few—“rari nantes in gurgite vasto”—are carried successfully along to riches and honour.’ Called to the bar by the Inner Temple in Hilary term 1796, he joined the Oxford circuit, and, notwithstanding his lack of most of the qualities of an advocate, he obtained a large practice. Appointed junior counsel to the treasury, he drew the indictments and was employed as counsel in several important state trials. In 1801 he was made recorder of Oxford. In 1802 he published his work on the ‘Law relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen,’ a subject which had been suggested to him by Lord Eldon. The choice was fortunate. Malynes's work on mercantile law had been published as far back as 1622, and considerably more than a century had elapsed since the appearance of Molloy's book, almost the only work on maritime or mercantile law to be found at the beginning of this century in an English lawyer's library. Abbott drew upon materials which had hitherto been neglected by most writers and judges. The civil law, the maritime codes of foreign countries, the ‘Notabilia’ of Roccus, and the treatises of Pothier and Emerigon were consulted. It may appear strange that so important a work as the ‘Consolato del Mare’ had never been seen by Abbott, which he admits was the case. But the book displayed much learning. His treatment of legal questions was novel. To appreciate the value of his work, one must know the character of English law books at the time of its appearance. They were, with scarcely an exception, crude compilations of cases. A writer who sought to illustrate principles rather than to collect the decisions of courts and the acts of the legislature justly earned high praise. The book was successful to an extent not often realised by a legal author. It brought Abbott, tradition says, many briefs in commercial cases. It has passed through twelve editions. In this country it was edited by Mr. Justice Shee, and in the United States by Mr. Justice Story; and it is still quoted as a book of authority by lawyers, who regard it as unsurpassed in its clear and simple enunciation of principles. In 1807 Abbott's practice had so grown that he returned his income as 8,026l. 5s. His success was not won by the display of brilliant forensic abilities. ‘He had no striking talents,’ says Lord Brougham. ‘He never was a leader at the bar.’ ‘I believe,’ says Lord Campbell, ‘he never addressed a jury in London in the whole course of his life.’ Lord Campbell adds that on the few occasions when Abbott had to address a jury on circuit he showed ‘the most marvellous inaptitude for the functions of an advocate, and almost always lost the verdict.’ He was offered in 1808 a seat on the bench, but his practice was so lucrative that he declined it. Aware of his deficiencies as a leader, he did not take silk. Owing to bad health he seems at one time to have thought of quitting his profession; but on the death of Mr. Justice Heath, in February 1816, he accepted a puisne judgeship in the court of Common Pleas. As a serjeant he gave rings with the characteristic motto labore. He remained for a short time in that court, which was uncongenial to a man of his quiet demeanour. On the death of Mr. Justice Le Blanc, in May of the last year, he was moved into the King's Bench. There his rise was rapid. Admonished by the decay of his faculties, Lord Ellenborough resigned the office of chief justice in September 1818. There was a difficulty in choosing a successor. Sir Samuel Shepherd, the attorney-general, was unpopular and in bad health; Gifford, the solicitor-general, was too young. In these circumstances Abbott was selected, though with some misgiving. ‘We endeavoured to do the best we could,’ wrote Lord Eldon to Lord Kenyon after the appointment was made. ‘We could not do what would have been really unexceptionable. It was impossible’ (Twiss, Life of Eldon, ii. 324). On 4 Nov. 1818 Sir Charles Abbott was made chief justice. He had the good fortune to be supported by puisne judges of rare ability, such as Bayley J., Holroyd J., and Littledale J. Speaking of the King's Bench in that period, Lord Campbell observes: ‘Before such a tribunal the advocate becomes dearer to himself by preserving his own esteem, and finds himself to be a minister of justice instead of a declaimer, a trickster, or a bully. I do not believe that so much important business was ever done so rapidly and so well before any other court that ever sat in any age or country.’ Abbott's judgments, which are for the most part reported in Maule and Selwyn's, Barnewall and Alderson's, and Barnewall and Cresswell's Reports, are distinguished by their perspicuity and moderation, clearness of reasoning, and absence of futile subtleties. Among the many judgments which he delivered in cases of importance may be mentioned ‘The King against Burdett’ (4 B. & Ald. 95), a leading case in the law of libel as to what constitutes pub-