The New International Encyclopædia/Austin, John
AUSTIN, John (1790–1859). The most distinguished of English writers on jurisprudence. He was born at Creeting Mill, in Suffolk, England, on March 3, 1790. At the age of 16 he entered the army and served as a subaltern in Sicily and elsewhere for five years. Resigning his commission, he returned to London and took up the study of law, and in 1818 was called to the bar. In 1820 he married Miss Sarah Taylor, of Norwich, a gifted woman, to whose devotion, courage, and steadiness of purpose he was indebted for the few but remarkable achievements of his life. In the same year he went to live in Westminster and was a welcome member of the circle to which belonged Jeremy Bentham and James and John Stuart Mill, and many others of the foremost minds and characters in England. But his great social and conversational gifts did not bring him success at the bar, a natural infirmity of will and deficiency of courage being aggravated by weakness of constitution and frequent attacks of fever and debility. Accordingly, he retired from practice in 1825, and the following year, upon the establishment of the University of London, he received the appointment of professor of jurisprudence in that institution.
This was before the period of the scientific study of the law in England, and her lawyers had not yet become aware of the existence of the science of jurisprudence. Hence his unrivaled powers of analysis and classification received scant recognition, and his work resulted in disappointment and apparent failure. To prepare himself for his task, he went to Bonn, then the principal seat of juristic learning in Europe, and spent the winter reading and studying under Niebuhr, Brandis, Schlegel, Arndt, Welcker, and Mackeldey. Returning in the spring of 1828, he began his lectures at University College. His earnestness and enthusiasm were not adequate to render his precise and accurate definitions and his profound and refined reasoning attractive to the professional students of law, and it soon became evident that there was no demand for the scientific teaching of jurisprudence. The number of his students dwindled to a mere handful. Unfortunately, no provision was made for the chair of jurisprudence beyond class fees; and in the absence of students, Austin, in 1832, was reluctantly compelled to resign his appointment. In the same year, he published his Province of Jurisprudence Determined, a work at the time little appreciated by the general public, so that the slight success it met with did not encourage him to undertake other publications on the subject. In the estimation of competent judges, however, it placed its author in the highest rank among writers on jurisprudence. In 1833, he was appointed by Lord Brougham a member of the criminal law commission. The post was not much to his taste, as he did not believe that the public received any advantage from such bodies, in the efficacy of which for constructive purposes he put no faith.
In 1836, he and his friend and pupil, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, were appointed commissioners to inquire into the laws and usages, the administration and state of government of the island of Malta, a congenial task which was performed with remarkable ability and thoroughness. But again his health broke down, and in 1838 he returned to England, only to be ordered abroad by his physicians. The next ten years were spent on the Continent, but the Revolution of 1848 drove him back to England. He then settled at Weybridge, in Surrey, where he lived until his death in December, 1859. His lectures on the principles of jurisprudence had remained in manuscript and were left by him in a fragmentary and imperfect state. It is due to the intelligence and zeal of his widow that they were subsequently collected and arranged for publication and in 1863 given to the world under the title Lectures on Jurisprudence, Being the Sequel to “The Province of Jurisprudence Determined,” of which latter she had published a second edition in 1861. On this work his fame now rests.
Austin's great merit consists in the remarkable clearness and penetration of his analysis of legal conceptions. He was the first English writer to attach precise and intelligible meaning to legal terms, as well as the first systematic writer on law in the English language. With an adequate knowledge of the principles and methods of Roman and English law, he combined an extraordinary talent for classification and definition. Fragmentary and incomplete as it was, his work revolutionized the science of jurisprudence and became the text-book of the school of analytical jurists, which has dominated the legal thought of the Nineteenth Century in England and America. His doctrines have had but little influence elsewhere, however, the Continental jurists adhering with singular unanimity to the classification and conceptions of the Roman law. Indeed, even in the Anglo-Saxon world, a reaction has lately set in against the Austinian conceptions of law and politics, owing to the enlarged knowledge of human society and the historical spirit which have so profoundly modified the thought of our generation. Austin's limitation of the conception of positive law to the commands of a sovereign, and his restriction of sovereignty to an external political authority, have been especially subjected to criticism. They are, however, reasserted and strongly defended by his most distinguished disciple, Prof. Thomas E. Holland, in the latest edition (1900) of his Elements of Jurisprudence. For the opposite view Sir Henry S. Maine's works may be consulted, especially Early Law and Custom (London, 1883), and Early History of Institutions (London, 1875). The pathetic story of Austin's life is related by his widow in her introduction to the second edition of his Province of Jurisprudence Determined (London, 1861); and John Stuart Mill has included a sympathetic but just and discriminating criticism of the man and his work in his volume Dissertations and Discussions (4 vols., London, 1875). See Jurisprudence; Law; Sovereignty.