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Charles Pratt, first Earl Camden (1714-1794)

This article was written by James McMullen Rigg and was published in 1896

Camden, the lord chancellor, was the third son of Sir John Pratt by his second wife. Camden was born at Kensington, where he was baptised on 21 March 1714. He was educated at Eton, having for his contemporaries William Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, his lifelong friend; George Lyttelton, afterwards first Baron Lyttelton; Sneyd Davies, and Horace Walpole.

roceeding to King's College, Cambridge, he was elected on to the foundation in October 1731, and three years later became fellow. Being already designed for the legal profession, he had been entered at the Inner Temple on 5 June 1728, and at college he applied himself to the study of law and constitutional history. He graduated B.A. in 1736 (M.A. in 1740), and was called to the bar at the Middle Temple on 17 June 1738. He paced Westminster Hall and rode the Western circuit for some years without a brief, and began to think of abandoning the profession. His melancholy condition drew from Sneyd Davies in 1743 an ode in which he sought to animate him by the example of the illustrious who, before him, had from obscurity ‘pleaded their way to glory's chair supreme’. Some years afterwards a lucky chance proved the turning-point in his fortunes. He was briefed as junior to his friend Robert Henley, afterwards Lord-chancellor Northington, who fell or feigned to fall ill, and left him the entire conduct of the case, in which he showed such conspicuous ability as to establish his reputation. A whig in politics, he maintained, as counsel for William Owen, tried, on 6 July 1752, as the publisher of The Case of the Hon. Alexander Murray, the then novel principle of the competence of juries to determine by general verdict the entire question (law as well as facts) in cases of seditious libel, with the result that the defendant was acquitted.

In 1755 he was made king's counsel and attorney-general to the Prince of Wales. In 1757 he succeeded Henley as attorney-general on the accession of Pitt to power on 1 July. During his tenure of this office he represented Downton in parliament. Office made no change in either his principles or his practice, and in conducting the ex-officio prosecution of John Shebbeare in November 1758 he emphasised his adhesion to the principle for which he had contended in Owen's case, by addressing himself exclusively to the jury. The same year he drafted and carried through the House of Commons a bill for extending the Habeas Corpus Act to civil cases, a measure the defeat of which by the House of Lords postponed a needful reform for half a century. In 1759 he was appointed recorder of Bath. The only state trials in which he figured during his attorney-generalship were those of the spy Florence Hensey and Laurence Shirley, fourth earl Ferrers.

On the death of Sir John Willes, Pratt was appointed chief justice of the court of common pleas, and knighted on 28 December 1761. He took his seat in court on 23 January 1762, being coifed the same day, and was sworn of the privy council on 15 February following. On 30 April 1763 the arrest of John Wilkes under a general warrant issued by the secretary of state for the apprehension of the author of North Briton, No. 45, raised the question of the legality of such warrants. Pratt had no doubt of their illegality, and, on Wilkes's application, granted a habeas corpus returnable the same day. On Wilkes's subsequent committal to the Tower under a particular warrant, the chief justice ordered his release on the ground of privilege of parliament (6 May). Of this decision parliament took cognisance on its reassembling in the following November, when resolutions were passed by both houses excepting cases of seditious libel from privilege, though a minority of the peers entered a protest in the journal of the house against this restriction of their ancient immunity. The question of general warrants being again brought before him in the case of Wilkes v. Wood on 6 December 1763, Pratt, in his charge to the jury, laid down the broad principle that they were contrary to the fundamental principles of the constitution; and in that of Leach v. Money, four days later, refused the defendants, who had arrested the plaintiff under a general warrant, the benefit of the Constables Indemnity Act, 24 George II, c. 4. In 1765 a bill of exceptions to this ruling was dismissed by the court of king's bench.

In another case, that of Entick v. Carrington, argued before him upon a special verdict in Easter term 1764, and again in Michaelmas term 1765, he decided, after an exhaustive review of precedents, that the issuing of general warrants by secretaries of state was a usurpation which no prescription could justify. During the contest on the regency bill of 1765 he decided in the affirmative the much-controverted question whether the queen was naturalised by her marriage. Meanwhile Pratt had become almost as great a popular idol as Wilkes himself. The mayor and corporation of the city of London presented him with the freedom of the city in a gold box, and commissioned Reynolds to paint his portrait, which was hung in the Guildhall on 22 February 1764. His portrait, full length, by Hudson, was hung in the Guildhall, Exeter, in February 1768. He also received gold boxes containing the freedom of the cities of Exeter and Norwich, and of the guild of merchants of the city of Dublin, besides the thanks of the sheriffs and commons and the freedom of the corporation of Barber-Surgeons of that city and of the corporation of Bath. In April 1766 the House of Commons passed resolutions condemnatory of the practice of issuing general warrants.

Meanwhile Pratt had been raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Camden of Camden Place in the county of Kent, 17 July 1765. He took his seat on 17 December following, and made his maiden speech on the manifestations of disaffection which had been evoked in America by the passing of the Stamp Act, which statute he did not shrink from denouncing as a breach of the constitution. In a subsequent speech against the declaratory bill (which affirmed the absolute supremacy of parliament), he maintained that taxation without representation was sheer robbery. On both occasions, as afterwards on most political questions, he encountered the vehement opposition of Lord Mansfield.

On the formation of Chatham's second administration, Camden succeeded Northington on the woolsack, on 30 July 1766, receiving by way of compensation for the surrender of the chief-justiceship an allowance of £1,500 over and above his salary, and the reversion of a tellership in the exchequer for his son. By the irony of fate, this great constitutionalist had only been a few weeks in office when he became responsible for a breach of the constitution of a kind peculiarly odious to the country, by reason of its association with the Stuart régime. The harvest failed almost entirely; and, to prevent a famine, the government, acting on Camden's advice, issued during the recess an order in council laying an embargo on the exportation of corn. This involved the suspension of the Corn Act, 11 George II, c. 22. On the meeting of parliament in the following November the ministry introduced, in the House of Commons, the bill of indemnity usual in such cases, but limited it in the first instance to their subordinates, nor did they frankly and fully acknowledge the illegality of the embargo in the preamble. In both respects the bill was amended, and, the amendments being made the subject of animated debate in both houses of parliament, the ministers took the high prerogatival line of defence. Camden in particular asserted the strict legality of the embargo, which he lightly characterised as ‘but forty days' tyranny at the outside.’ The manifest inconsistency of such an assumption of the tone of despotism by one who had distinguished himself as the asserter of popular rights was turned to excellent account by the opposition, led by Lord Mansfield; and even Junius, though ordinarily partial to Camden, admitted that on this occasion he had ‘overshot himself’ (Letters lix. and lx.).

No less inconsistent was Camden's retention of office notwithstanding his disapproval of the subsequent policy of his colleagues, both in regard to America and in the case of Wilkes. Finding them determined to proceed with the tea duties bill and the expulsion of the obnoxious demagogue from the House of Commons, he sought, after vainly protesting against these measures, to wash his hands of responsibility for them by absenting himself from the cabinet, and observing strict silence in the House of Lords while they were under discussion; nor did he throw off this reserve until Chatham's return to parliament. He then mustered up courage to support the vote of censure on the proceedings of the House of Commons in regard to Wilkes moved by Chatham as an amendment to the address on 9 January 1770, but retained the great seal until (17 January) it was taken from him and transferred to Charles Yorke. Freed from office, he at once resumed his former rôle of vigilant guardian of the constitution, supported Chatham's bill for restoring Wilkes to the House of Commons (1 May), and his subsequent resolution declaring eligibility for parliament an inherent right of the subject (5 Dec.); and in the debate on the decision of the court of king's bench in Rex v. Woodfall, unanimously affirming the incompetence of juries to determine the question of law in cases of libel (10 December), gained a signal triumph over Lord Mansfield by the latter's evasion of his challenge to answer six interrogatories raising the several issues involved in the judgment. Gout, and disgust at the futility of opposition, however, combined to paralyse his energies; and, except to protest against the wide extension of the prerogative by the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, 12 George III, c. 11, to deliver judgment against the existence at common law of copyright in published works in the great case of Donaldson v. Becket, on appeal to the House of Lords in February 1774, and to oppose the Booksellers' Copyright Bill in the following June, he took for the time little part in public affairs. But in the following session he seconded the efforts made by Chatham to avert the outbreak of hostilities in America, and introduced, on 17 May 1775, a bill (which did not pass) for the repeal of the recent act remodelling the constitution of the province of Quebec.

During the obstinate struggle which followed he concurred in the attacks made on ministers for garrisoning Gibraltar and Port Mahon with Hanoverians, and raising troops by subscription, without consent of parliament; and he supported the several motions for a suspension of hostilities made by the Dukes of Richmond and Grafton, and finally, on 30 May 1777, by Chatham.

After the death of Chatham, on whom he pronounced a noble eulogy in the debate on the bill for pensioning his posterity, on 2 June 1778, Camden, though continuing to act with the opposition, gradually lost heart; and, after delivering, on 25 January 1781, his protest against the policy which culminated in the war with Holland, withdrew from public life. Lord North's fall, however, soon recalled him, and he entered the second Rockingham administration as president of the council on 27 March 1782. He was thus a party — and by no means a reluctant party — to the concession of legislative independence to Ireland. Upon the reconstruction of the cabinet which followed Rockingham's death (July) he retained office, but resigned during the negotiations for the formation of the coalition administration in March 1783. Having contributed to the defeat of the coalition on Fox's East India Bill in the following December, he took no further part in politics until, on 1 December 1784, he resumed the presidency of the council, which he retained until his death.

During this final phase of his career he distinguished himself by the ability with which he defended Pitt's policy against the opposition, led by Lord Loughborough. On 13 May 1786 he was created Viscount Bayham of Bayham Abbey, Sussex, and Earl Camden.

During the king's alienation of mind, in the winter of 1788, Camden devised the expedient, the issuing of letters patent under the great seal, by which, had the king's illness become chronic, the resumption of the regency by the heir-apparent would have been avoided. His last speeches in the House of Lords, 16 May and 1 June 1792, were on the same topic which had elicited his early enthusiasm, the competence of juries to determine the entire issue in cases of libel, and secured the passing of the measure known as Fox's Libel Act. Though in failing health, he continued, by the express desire of the king, to preside at the council board until his death, at his town house, Hill Street, Berkeley Square, on 18 April 1794. His remains were interred in the parish church, Seal, Kent.

By nature and habit Camden was an indolent dilettante and a temperate epicure. He was an omnivorous reader of romances, an engaging conversationalist, and fond of music and the play. To men of letters he paid no court, and was in consequence blackballed on seeking election into the Literary Club. A languid politician, he approved himself in evil times a pillar of the state. If inferior as a constitutionalist to Lord Somers, in mastery of the common law to Lord Mansfield, in grasp of the subtler principles of equity to Lord Hardwicke, he combined their several qualities in a remarkable degree. The only stain on his public character is his retention of office notwithstanding his disapproval of the policy of the cabinet in 1768-1769.

Camden's person, though small, was handsome, and a genial smile animated his regular features and fine grey eyes. Camden married, on 5 October 1749, Elizabeth, daughter of Nicholas Jeffreys of the Priory, Brecknock, by whom he had issue John Jeffreys, his successor in title and estates, and three daughters, of whom the eldest, Frances, married, on 7 June 1775, Robert Stewart, second marquis of Londonderry.

Besides the tract on the habeas corpus mentioned above, Camden is the reputed author of A Discourse against the Jurisdiction of the King's Bench over Wales by Process of Latitat’ written about 1745, and edited by Francis Hargrave in A Collection of Tracts relative to the Law of England, Dublin, 1787.

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