LORD CAMDEN showed his sincere and unabated attachment to his early political principles by his zealous support of Mr. Fox's Libel Bill, which otherwise never would have passed the House of Lords. Near the close of the session of 1791 Thurlow threw it out, under pretence that there was not time to consider it, but not before Lord Camden had made an admirable speech in its favour, showing that the jury were the proper judges of the seditious tendency of any writing called a seditious libel. He said, "I have long endeavoured to define what is a seditious libel, but have not been able to find any definition which either meets the approbation of my own mind, or ought to be satisfactory to others. Some judges have laid down that any censure of the government is a libel. Others say, that it is only groundless calumnies on government that are to be considered libels; but is the judge to decide as a matter of law whether the accusation be well or ill founded? You must place the press under the power of judges or juries, and I think your Lordships will have no doubt which to prefer."d
In the following year the bill again came up from the Commons, and Thurlow did his best to defeat it. He summoned the judges, and obtained from them an unanimous opinion that the question of "libel or no libel?" was one of pure law, for the Court alone, and two law Lords, Lord Bathurst, an ex-Chancellor, and Lord Kenyon, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench, combined with him to extinguish the rights of juries. But the veteran champion of those rights was undaunted. "Nothing can be more refreshing to the lovers of liberty, or more gratifying to those who venerate the judicial character, than to contemplate the glorious struggle for his long-cherished principles with which Lord Camden's illustrious life closed. The fire of his youth seemed to kindle in the bosom of one touching on fourscore, as he was impelled to destroy the servile and inconsistent doctrines of others slaves to mere technical lore, but void of the sound and discriminating judgment which mainly constitutes a legal, and above all a judicial mind."e
In the memorable debate which decided the fate of the bill, rising in his place slowly and with difficulty, still leaning on his staff, he thus began: "I thought never to have troubled your Lordships more. The hand of age is upon me, and I have for some time felt myself unable to take an active part in your deliberations. On the present occasion, however, I consider myself as particularly, or rather as personally, bound to address you and probably for the last time. My opinion on this subject has been long known; it is upon record; it lies on your Lordships' table; I shall retain it, and I trust I have yet strength to demonstrate that it is consonant to law and the constitution." His voice, which had been at first low and tremulous, grew firm and loud, and all his physical as well as mental powers seemed animated and revived. He then stated, with his wonted precision, what the true question was, and he argued it with greater spirit than ever. Alluding to his favourite illustration, from a trial for murder, he said, "A man may kill another in his own defence, or under various circumstances, which render the killing no murder. How are these things to be explained? by the circumstances of the case. What is the ruling principle? The intention of the party. Who decides on the intention of the party? The judge? No! the jury. So the jury are allowed to judge of the intention upon an indictment for murder, and not upon an indictment for a libel!!! The jury might as well be deprived of the power of judging of the fact of publication, for that, likewise, depends upon the intention. What is the oath of the jury? Well and truly to try the issue joined which is the plea of not guilty to the whole charge." In going over the cases, when he came to Rex v. Owen, in which he gained such distinction as counsel for the defendant, he explained how he had been allowed to address the jury, to show the innocence of the alleged libel. "Then," said he, "came Rex v. Shebbeare, where, as Attorney-General, I conducted the prosecution. I went into court predetermined to insist on the jury taking the whole case into their consideration; and so little did I attend to the authority of the judges, that, in arguing the character of the libel, I turned my back upon them, directing all I had to say to the jury-box. In the days of the Charleses and Jameses, the doctrine now contended for would have been most precious; it would have served as an admirable footstool for tyranny. So clear is it that the jury are to decide the question of 'libel or no libel?' that if all the bench, and all the bar, and the unanimous voice of Parliament, were to declare it to be otherwise, I could not change my opinion. I ask your Lordships to say, who shall have the care of the liberty of the press? The judges, or the people of England? The jury are the people of England. The judges are independent men! Be it so. But are they totally beyond the possibility of corruption from the Crown? Is it impossible to show them favour in any way whatever? The truth is, they possibly may be corrupted juries never can! What would be the effect of giving judges the whole control of the press? Nothing would appear that could be disagreeable to the Government. As well might an act of parliament pass, that nothing shall be printed or published but panegyrics on ministers. Such doctrines being acted upon, we should soon lose every thought of freedom. If it is not law, it should be made law that in prosecutions for libel, the jury shall decide upon the whole case. In the full catalogue of crimes, there is not one so fit to be determined by a jury as libel." Before he concluded, he took an opportunity to pay a just tribute of respect to his old rival, Lord Mansfield, now almost in the tomb, into which he himself was so soon to follow him. "Though so often opposed to him," said he, "I ever honoured his learning and his genius; and, if he could be present, he would bear witness that personal rancour or animosity never mixed with our controversies. When, after this last effort, I shall disappear, I hope that I, too, may have credit for good intentions with those who differ from my opinions, and that perhaps it may be said, 'through a long life he was consistent in the desire to serve his country.'" This speech was warmly complimented by all who followed, on both sides, in a two-nights' debate, and gained a majority of 57 to 32 for the second reading of the bill.
The general expectation was, that it would be allowed to pass silently through its subsequent stages; but Thurlow trying to damage it in committee by a nullifying amendment, Lord Camden was again called up, saying, that "he would contend for the truth of his position, as to the right of juries in cases of libel, to the last hour of his existence, manibus pedibusque." When he had reiterated his argument, the amendment was rejected.
Lord Chancellor. "I trust the noble and learned Lord will agree to a clause being added to the bill, which he will see is indispensably necessary to do equal justice between the public and those prosecuted for libels. This clause will authorise the granting of a new trial, if the Court should be dissatisfied with a verdict given for the defendant."
Earl Camden. "What! after a verdict of acquittal?"
Lord Chancellor. "Yes!"
Earl Camden. "No, I THANK YOU!!!"f
These were the last words he ever uttered in public. The bill, in its declaratory form, was then suffered to pass through the committee, and to be read a third time; Lords Thurlow, Bathurst, and Kenyon, signing a strong protest against it. This is to be honoured as a great example of a law Lord boldly declaring and acting upon his own deliberate and conscientious conviction upon a question of law, contrary to the unanimous opinion of the judges when asked their advice for the assistance of the House. Now that the mist of prejudice has cleared away, I believe that English lawyers almost unanimously think that Lord Camden's view of the question was correct on strict legal principles; and that the act was properly made to declare the right of the jury to determine upon the character of the alleged libel, instead of enacting it as an innovation.
No law ever operated more beneficially than that which had been so long and so violently opposed by legal dignitaries. It put an end to the indecent struggle, in trials for libel, between the judge and the jury, which had agitated courts of justice near a century; it placed the liberty of the press on a secure basis; all the predictions that it would encourage seditious publications and attacks on private character have been falsified; and we have now the best definition of a libel "a publication which, in the opinion of twelve honest, independent, and intelligent men, is mischievous and ought to be punished." The bill bears the name of Mr. Fox, because he introduced it into the House of Commons, while the merit of it is claimed by the admirers of Erskine on account of his glorious fight for the rights of juries in the case of the Dean of St. Asaph; but Pratt had struggled successfully for its principle long before these names were ever heard of, and to him we must ascribe its final triumph.g His perseverance is the more meritorious, as he might have had a plausible pretext for taking a contrary course, from the multiplication of seditious writings, and the democratic movement then supposed to threaten the public tranquillity; but he wisely thought that the vessel of the state is best prepared to encounter a storm by making a jettison of abuses.
Lord Camden survived two years. Although his mental faculties remained unimpaired, he did not again appear before the public. He would have been glad to resign his office, but it was not convenient that a vacancy should be made in the Cabinet, and "the King claimed a continuation of his services while he was so well able to perform them." Every possible indulgence was shown him. Cabinets were often held at his house; and draughts of deliberation were sent to him into the country, where he now for the most part resided.
His private friendships continued to be cherished with unabated ardour. Thus, a few weeks before his death, he addressed the Duke of Grafton:
"I am more restored than I ever expected to be, and, if I can combat this winter, perhaps may recover so much strength as to pass the remainder of my days with cheerfulness: but I do not believe it possible ever for me to return to business, and I think your Grace will never see me again at the head of the Council Board. It is high time for me to become a private man and retire. But, whatever may be my future condition, whether in or out of office, I shall remain with the same respect and attention,
"Your Grace's most faithful friend," &c.
He then made a short excursion to Bath, to try the benefit of the waters; but the stamina of life were gone, and his spirits were broken by bodily debility. While there, he met his old political antagonist, Welbore Ellis, now Lord Mendip, who, although his senior, had a constitution still unbroken. Meeting in the pump-room, the courtier said to the patriot, "I hope you are well, and in the enjoyment of a happy old age." "Happy!" said Lord Camden, in a fit of temporary despondency, "how can a man be happy who has survived all his passions and all his enjoyments?" "Oh, my dear Lord," was the reply, "do not talk so: while God is pleased to enable me to read my Homer in my ordinary hours, and my Bible at my better times, I cannot but be thankful and happy."
He saw that he must now only look for happiness in a better world, and to meet his end in the midst of his family and his friends, he soon after removed to his town residence in Hill Street, Berkeley Square. Here he gradually sunk, more through the gentle pressure of time than any particular disorder. He quietly breathed his last on the 13th of April, 1794, in the eighty-first year of his age, exactly thirteen months after the decease of his great rival, Lord Mansfield, who had attained the more venerable age of eighty-nine.
His remains were deposited in the family vault, in the parish church of Seal, in Kent. A monument has there been erected to his memory, with an epitaph, which, after stating his age, and the various offices he held, thus concludes in language which, though dictated by the piety of an affectionate son, posterity will repeat:
"Endowed with abilities of the highest order, with learning deep and extensive, with taste discriminating and correct, with talents in society most instructive and agreeable, and with integrity universally acknowledged, he lived beloved by his family and friends, respected and venerated by his country, and died universally regretted by all good men."
Among all the Chancellors whose lives I have written, or who are yet in prospect before me, there is no one whose virtues have been more highly estimated than Lord Camden's. We may conceive how he was regarded in his own age, from the character of him by Horace Walpole, ever anxious, by sarcasms and sneers, to lower even those whom he professed to exalt: "Mansfield had a bitter antagonist in Pratt, who was steady, warm, sullen, stained with no reproach, and a uniform Whig. Nor should we deem less highly of him because private motives stirred him on to the contest. Alas! how cold would public virtue be if it never glowed but with public heat! So seldom, too, it is that any considerations can bias a man to run counter to the colour of his office, and the interests of his profession, that the world should not be too scrupulous about accepting the service as a merit, but should honour it at least for the sake of the precedent."
A contemporary writer says: "He was blessed by nature with a clear, persuasive, and satisfactory manner of conveying his ideas. In the midst of politeness and facility, he kept up the true dignity of his important office: in the midst of exemplary patience, (foreign to his natural temper, and therefore the more commendable,) his understanding was always vigilant. His memory was prodigious in readiness and comprehension; but, above all, there appeared a kind of benevolent solicitude for the discovery of truth, that won the suitors to a thorough and implicit confidence in him.''
I find nothing hinted against him as a judge, except "that he was a little too prolix in the reason of his decrees, by taking notice even of inferior circumstances, and viewing the question in every conceivable light." The same objector adds: "This, however, was an error on the right side, and arose from his wish to satisfy the bar, and his own mind, which was, perhaps to a weakness, dissatisfied with its first impressions, however strong." Both as an Equity and Common Law Judge, his authority continues to be held in reverence by the profession.
As a politician, he is to be held up as a bright example of consistency and true patriotism to all future generations of English lawyers, and the high honours which he reached should counteract the demoralizing effect of the success which has too often attended tergiversation and profligacy, when these calculations are aided by the recollection that such success, however brilliant, will neither secure permanent admiration nor real happiness.
Lord Camden's eloquence is not free from tinsel but still it is characterised by sterling vigour of thought, richness of imagery, and felicity of diction. Like most great English lawyers, and unlike most great French and Scotch lawyers, he never aimed at literary distinction. His only known printed production was "An Inquiry into the Process of Latitat in Wales." But he had a great taste for reading, which did not confine itself to legal and antiquarian lore. It is said that throughout life he was a devourer of romances, including the interminable tomes of Scuderi, and that the "Grand Cyrus" and "Philidaspes" furnished him many an evening's repast, for which his appetite was sharpened by the juridical labours which had occupied the morning. Late in life he learned Spanish, to read the romances in that language; having exhausted those written in English, French, and Italian.i Although he never pretended to be a poet, he would sometimes goodnaturedly pen vers de société. Giving a party on Twelfth Night to a number of young persons, he required that all the company in turn must produce four lines on the character they should respectively draw. He himself drew a young barrister in wig and gown, and thus addressed him:
"Lawyer, attend to me, and I'll unfold
How brass and silver shall make sterling gold;
My nostrum shall all alchemy surpass,
If your tongue's silver, and your forehead brass."
In his youth, he followed the example of Lord Chancellor North in devoting himself, as a relaxation from study, to music, in which he seems to have made great proficiency, for, his friend Davies planning an opera to be set to music by Handel, we find him offering to assist with his advice respecting the genius of musical verse, the length of the performance, the numbers and talent of the singers, and the position of the choruses in the language of an accomplished adept in the science of harmony.
He was not a member (I should have been glad to record that he was) of "the Literary Club," and he never seems to have been intimate with Johnson or Goldsmith, or any of the distinguished authors of his day. "Goldsmith, in his diverting simplicity, complained one day, in a mixed company, of Lord Camden. 'I met him,' said he, 'at Lord Clare's house in the country, and he took no more notice of me than if I had been an ordinary man.' The company having laughed heartily, Johnson stood forth in defence of his friend. 'Nay, gentlemen,' said he, 'Dr. Goldsmith is in the right. A nobleman ought to have made up to such a man as Goldsmith, and I think it is much against Lord Camden that he neglected him.'"k However, we learn likewise from the inimitable Boswell, that Lord Camden was on a footing of great familiarity with him "whose death eclipsed the gaiety of nations." "I told him," says this prince of biographers, "that one morning when I went to breakfast with Garrick, who was very vain of his intimacy with Lord Camden, he accosted me thus: 'Pray now did you did you meet a little lawyer turning the corner, eh?' 'No, sir,' said I. 'Pray what do you mean by the question? ' 'Why,'' replied Garrick, with an affected indifference, yet as standing on tip-toe, 'Lord Camden has this moment left me. We have had a long walk together.' JOHNSON: 'Well, sir, Garrick talked very properly. Lord Camden was a LITTLE LAWYER to be associating so familiarly with a player.'"m But in another mood Johnson would have highly and deservedly praised the LITTLE LAWYER for relishing the society of a man who was a most agreeable companion, and of high intellectual accomplishments, as well as the greatest actor who ever trod the English stage.
Lord Camden is said to have been somewhat of an epicurean indisposed towards exertion, bodily or mental, unless when roused to it by the necessity of business, or the excitement of strong feeling; and to have taken considerable pains in supplying his larder and his cellar with all that could best furnish forth an exquisite banquet. It is certain that he was himself always extremely temperate, forming a contrast in this and other particulars with his immediate predecessor on the woolsack, for his conversation was ever polished and decorous. He seems to have been most amiable in private life, and to have had in a distinguished degree "that which should accompany old age Honour, love, obedience, troops of friends."
With many political opponents, he was without a personal enemy.
Lord Camden was in stature below the middle size, but well proportioned and active. We have several exquisite portraits of him. That painted for the City of London, by Reynolds, is one of the finest specimens of the English school. Judging from these, his physiognomy, without marked features or deep lines, was more expressive of gentleness of disposition and frank good-humour than of profound thoughtfulness or stern resolution.
With the exception of an occasional slight fit of the gout, he enjoyed uninterrupted health. He had never had the smallpox, and it is related of him, as a weakness, that he was always much afraid of taking that disorder his terrors being greatly aggravated when his friend Lord Waldegrave died of it at the age of fifty."
He left a son, John Jeffreys, who, in 1812, was created Marquess Camden and Earl of Brecknock, and who was not only distinguished for his public services, but for the disinterested renunciation of the legal profits of his tellership beyond a very limited amount, to the great benefit of the public revenue.
Lord Chancellor Camden is now represented by his grandson, the present Marquess, who, out of respect for his own virtues, and for the memory of his ancestors, has been decorated with the garter which his father wore.o
d 29 Parl. Hist. 731.
e Lord Brougham's Lives of Statesmen. iii. 178.
f 29 Parl. Hist 1404-1534.
g It is said that Lord Camden had prepared the draught of Mr. Fox's Libel Bill many years before, but kept it back till he saw there was a chance of carrying it. Europ. Map Aug. 1794, p. 93.
h Almon's Anecdotes, vol. i. p. 384.
i Pursuits of Literature, p. 61.
k Boswell's Life of Johnson, iii. 336.
n Nich Lit An. viii. 533.
o Grandeur of the Law. 27
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