1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Campbell, John Campbell, Baron

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CAMPBELL, JOHN CAMPBELL, Baron (1779–1861), lord chancellor of England, the second son of the Rev. George Campbell, D.D., was born on the 17th of September 1779 at Cupar, Fife, where his father was for fifty years parish minister. For a few years Campbell studied at the United College, St Andrews. In 1800 he was entered as a student at Lincoln’s Inn, and, after a short connexion with the Morning Chronicle, was called to the bar in 1806, and at once began to report cases decided at nisi prius (i.e. on jury trial). Of these Reports he published altogether four volumes, with learned notes; they extend from Michaelmas 1807 to Hilary 1816. Campbell also devoted himself a good deal to criminal business, but in spite of his unceasing industry he failed to attract much attention behind the bar; he had changed his circuit from the home to the Oxford, but briefs came in slowly, and it was not till 1827 that he obtained a silk gown and found himself in that “front rank” who are permitted to have political aspirations. He unsuccessfully contested the borough of Stafford in 1826, but was elected for it in 1830 and again in 1831. In the House he showed an extraordinary, sometimes an excessive zeal for public business, speaking on all subjects with practical sense, but on none with eloquence or spirit. His main object, however, like that of Brougham, was the amelioration of the law, more by the abolition of cumbrous technicalities than by the assertion of new and striking principles.

Thus his name is associated with the Fines and Recoveries Abolition Act 1833; the Inheritance Act 1833; the Dower Act 1833; the Real Property Limitation Act 1833; the Wills Act 1837; one of the Copyhold Tenure Acts 1841; and the Judgments Act 1838. All these measures were important and were carefully drawn; but their merits cannot be explained in a biographical notice. The second was called for by the preference which the common law gave to a distant collateral over the brother of the half-blood of the first purchaser; the fourth conferred an indefeasible title on adverse possession for twenty years (a term shortened by Lord Cairns in 1875 to twelve years); the fifth reduced the number of witnesses required by law to attest wills, and removed the vexatious distinction which existed in this respect between freeholds and copyholds; the last freed an innocent debtor from imprisonment only before final judgment (or on what was termed mesne process), but the principle stated by Campbell that only fraudulent debtors should be imprisoned was ultimately given effect to for England and Wales in 1869.[1] In one of his most cherished objects, however, that of Land Registration (q.v.), which formed the theme of his maiden speech in parliament, Campbell was doomed to disappointment. His most important appearance as member for Stafford was in defence of Lord John Russell’s first Reform Bill (1831). In a temperate and learned speech, based on Fox’s declaration against constitution-mongering, he supported both the enfranchising and the disfranchising clauses, and easily disposed of the cries of “corporation robbery,” “nabob representation,” “opening for young men of talent,” &c. The following year (1832) found Campbell solicitor-general, a knight and member for Dudley, which he represented till 1834. In that year he became attorney-general and was returned by Edinburgh, for which he sat till 1841.[2]

His political creed declared upon the hustings there was that of a moderate Whig. He maintained the connexion of church and state, and opposed triennial parliaments and the ballot. In parliament he continued to lend the most effective help to the Liberal party. His speech in 1835 in support of the motion for inquiry into the Irish Church temporalities with a view to their partial appropriation for national purposes (for disestablishment was not then dreamed of as possible) contains much terse argument, and no doubt contributed to the fall of Peel and the formation of the Melbourne cabinet. The next year Campbell had a fierce encounter with Lord Stanley in the debate which followed the motion of T. Spring Rice (afterwards Lord Monteagle) on the repair and maintenance of parochial churches and chapels. The legal point in the dispute (which Campbell afterwards made the subject of a separate pamphlet) was whether the church-wardens of the parish, in the absence of the vestry, had any means of enforcing a rate except the antiquated interdict or ecclesiastical censure. It was not on legal technicalities, however, but on the broad principle of religious equality, that Campbell supported the abolition of church rates, in which he included the Edinburgh annuity-tax.

In the same year he spoke for Lord Melbourne, in the action (thought by some to be a political conspiracy[3]) which the Hon. G.C. Norton brought against the Whig premier for criminal conversation with his wife. At this time also he exerted himself for the reform of justice in the ecclesiastical courts, for the uniformity of the law of marriage (which he held should be a purely civil contract) and for giving prisoners charged with felony the benefit of counsel. His defence of The Times newspaper, which had accused Sir John Conroy, equerry to the duchess of Kent, of misappropriation of money (1838), is chiefly remarkable for the Confession—“I despair of any definition of libel which shall exclude no publications which ought to be suppressed, and include none which ought to be permitted.” His own definition of blasphemous libel was enforced in the prosecution which, as attorney-general, he raised against the bookseller H. Hetherington, and which he justified on the singular ground that “the vast bulk of the population believe that morality depends entirely on revelation; and if a doubt could be raised among them that the ten commandments were given by God from Mount Sinai, men would think they were at liberty to steal, and women would consider themselves absolved from the restraints of chastity.” But his most distinguished effort at the bar was undoubtedly the speech for the House of Commons in the famous case of Stockdale v. Hansard, 1837, 7 C. and P. 731. The Commons had ordered to be printed, among other papers, a report of the inspectors of prisons on Newgate, which stated that an obscene book, published by Stockdale, was given to the prisoners to read. Stockdale sued the Commons’ publisher, and was met by the plea of parliamentary privilege, to which, however, the judges did not give effect, on the ground that they were entitled to define the privileges of the Commons, and that publication of papers was not essential to the functions of parliament. The matter was settled by an act of 1840.

In 1840 Campbell conducted the prosecution against John Frost, one of the three Chartist leaders who attacked the town of Newport, all of whom were found guilty of high treason. We may also mention, as matter of historical interest, the case before the high steward and the House of Lords which arose out of the duel fought on Wimbledon Common between the earl of Cardigan and Captain Harvey Tuckett. The law of course was clear that the “punctilio which swordsmen falsely do call honour” was no excuse for wilful murder. To the astonishment of everybody, Lord Cardigan escaped from a capital charge of felony because the full name of his antagonist (Harvey Garnett Phipps Tuckett) was not legally proved. It is difficult to suppose that such a blunder was not preconcerted. Campbell himself made the extraordinary declaration that to engage in a duel which could not be declined without infamy (i.e. social disgrace) was “an act free from moral turpitude,” although the law properly held it to be wilful murder. Next year, as the Melbourne administration was near its close, Plunkett, the venerable chancellor of Ireland, was forced by discreditable pressure to resign, and the Whig attorney-general, who had never practised in equity, became chancellor of Ireland, and was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Campbell of St Andrews, in the county of Fife. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Campbell, the eldest daughter of the first Baron Abinger by one of the Campbells of Kilmorey, Argyllshire, whom he had married in 1821, had in 1836 been created Baroness Stratheden in recognition of the withdrawal of his claim to the mastership of the rolls. The post of chancellor Campbell held for only sixteen days, and then resigned it to his successor Sir Edward Sugden (Lord St Leonards). The circumstances of his appointment and the erroneous belief that he was receiving a pension of £4000 per annum for his few days’ court work brought Campbell much unmerited obloquy.[4] It was during the period 1841–1849, when he had no legal duty, except the self-imposed one of occasionally hearing Scottish appeals in the House of Lords, that the unlucky dream of literary fame troubled Lord Campbell’s leisure.[5]

Following in the path struck out by Miss Strickland in her Lives of the Queens of England, and by Lord Brougham’s Lives of Eminent Statesmen, he at last produced, in 1849, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, from the earliest times till the reign of King George IV., 7 vols. 8vo. The conception of this work is magnificent; its execution wretched. Intended to evolve a history of jurisprudence from the truthful portraits of England’s greatest lawyers, it merely exhibits the ill-digested results of desultory learning, without a trace of scientific symmetry or literary taste, without a spark of that divine imaginative sympathy which alone can give flesh and spirit to the dead bones of the past, and without which the present becomes an unintelligible maze of mean and selfish ideas. A charming style, a vivid fancy, exhaustive research, were not to be expected from a hard-worked barrister; but he must certainly be held responsible for the frequent plagiarisms, the still more frequent inaccuracies of detail, the colossal vanity which obtrudes on almost every page, the hasty insinuations against the memory of the great departed who were to him as giants, and the petty sneers which he condescends to print against his own contemporaries, with whom he was living from day to day on terms of apparently sincere friendship.

These faults are painfully apparent in the lives of Hardwicke, Eldon, Lyndhurst and Brougham, and they have been pointed out by the biographers of Eldon and by Lord St Leonards.[6] And yet the book is an invaluable repertory of facts, and must endure until it is superseded by something better. It was followed by the Lives of the Chief Justices of England, from the Norman Conquest till the death of Lord Mansfield, 8vo, 2 vols., a book of similar construction but inferior merit.

It must not be supposed that during this period the literary lawyer was silent in the House of Lords. He spoke frequently. The 3rd volume of the Protests of the Lords, edited by Thorold Rogers (1875), contains no less than ten protests by Campbell, entered in the years 1842–1845. He protests against Peel’s Income Tax Bill of 1842; against the Aberdeen Act 1843, as conferring undue power on church courts; against the perpetuation of diocesan courts for probate and administration; against Lord Stanley’s absurd bill providing compensation for the destruction of fences to dispossessed Irish tenants; and against the Parliamentary Proceedings Bill, which proposed that all bills, except money bills, having reached a certain stage or having passed one House, should be continued to next session. The last he opposed because the proper remedy lay in resolutions and orders of the House. He protests in favour of Lord Monteagle’s motion for inquiry into the sliding scale of corn duties; of Lord Normanby’s motion on the queen’s speech in 1843, for inquiry into the state of Ireland (then wholly under military occupation); of Lord Radnor’s bill to define the constitutional powers of the home secretary, when Sir James Graham opened Mazzini’s letters. In 1844 he records a solitary protest against the judgment of the House of Lords in R. v. Millis, 1844, 10 Cla. and Fin. 534, which affirmed that a man regularly married according to the rites of the Irish Presbyterian Church, and afterwards regularly married to another woman by an episcopally ordained clergyman, could not be convicted of bigamy, because the English law required for the validity of a marriage that it should be performed by an ordained priest.

On the resignation of Lord Denman in 1850, Campbell was appointed chief justice of the queen’s bench. For this post he was well fitted by his knowledge of common law, his habitual attention to the pleadings in court and his power of clear statement. On the other hand, at nisi prius and on the criminal circuit, he was accused of frequently attempting unduly to influence juries in their estimate of the credibility of evidence. It is also certain that he liked to excite applause in the galleries by some platitude about the “glorious Revolution” or the “Protestant succession.” He assisted in the reforms of special pleading at Westminster, and had a recognized place with Brougham and Lyndhurst in legal discussions in the House of Lords. But he had neither the generous temperament nor the breadth of view which is required in the composition of even a mediocre statesman. In 1859 he was made lord chancellor of Great Britain, probably on the understanding that Bethell should succeed as soon as he could be spared from the House of Commons. His short tenure of this office calls for no remark. In the same year he published in the form of a letter to Payne Collier an amusing and extremely inconclusive essay on Shakespeare’s legal acquirements. One passage will show the conjectural process which runs through the book: “If Shakespeare was really articled to a Stratford attorney, in all probability, during the five years of his clerkship, he visited London several times on his master’s business, and he may then have been introduced to the green-room at Blackfriars by one of his countrymen connected with that theatre.” The only positive piece of evidence produced is the passage from Thomas Nash’s “Epistle to the Gentlemen of the Two Universities,” prefixed to Greene’s Arcadia, 1859, in which he upbraids somebody (not known to be Shakespeare) with having left the “trade of Noverint” and busied himself with “whole Hamlets” and “handfuls of tragical speeches.” The knowledge of law shown in the plays is very much what a universal observer must have picked up. Lawyers always underestimate the legal knowledge of an intelligent layman. Campbell died on the 23rd of June 1861. It has been well said of him in explanation of his success, that he lived eighty years and preserved his digestion unimpaired. He had a hard head, a splendid constitution, tireless industry, a generally judicious temper. He was a learned, though not a scientific lawyer, a faithful political adherent, thoroughly honest as a judge, dutiful and happy as a husband. But there was nothing admirable or heroic in his nature. On no great subject did his principles rise above the commonplace of party, nor had he the magnanimity which excuses rather than aggravates the faults of others. His life was the triumph of steady determination unaided by a single brilliant or attractive quality.

Authorities.—Life of Lord Campbell, a Selection from his Autobiography, Diary and Letters, ed. by Hon. Mrs Hardcastle (1881); E. Foss, The Judges of England (1848–1864); W.H. Bennet, Select Biographical Sketches from Note-books of a Law Reporter (1867); E. Manson, Builders of our Law (ed. 1904); J. B. Atlay, The Victorian Chancellors, vol. ii. (1908).

  1. Two of his later acts, allowing the defendant in an action for libel to prove veritas, and giving a right of action to the representatives of persons killed through negligence, also deserve mention.
  2. Greville in his Memoirs says that Campbell got this post on condition that he should not expect the ordinary promotion to the bench; a condition which, it if were so, he immediately violated by claiming the vice-chancellorship on the death of Sir John Leach. Pepys (Lord Cottenham) and Bickersteth (Lord Langdale) were both promoted to the bench in preference to Campbell.
  3. “There can be no doubt that old Wynton was at the bottom of it all, and persuaded Lord Grantley to urge it on for mere political purposes.”—Greville, iii. 351.
  4. See thereon J. B. Atlay, The Victorian Chancellors (1908), vol. ii. p. 174.
  5. In 1842 he published the Speeches of Lord Campbell at the Bar and in the Home of Commons, with an Address to the Irish Bar as Lord Chancellor of Ireland (Edin., Black).
  6. It was of this book that Sir Charles Wetherell said, referring to its author, “and then there is my noble and biographical friend who has added a new terror to death.” See Misrepresentations in Campbell’s “Lives of Lyndhurst and Brougham” corrected by St Leonards (London, 1869).