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John Campbell, first Baron Campbell (1779-1861)

This article was written by George Paul Macdonell and was published in 1886

CampbellJohn Campbell, first Baron Campbell 1779-1861, legal biographer, lord chief justice, and lord chancellor, traced his descent on his father's side from Archibald, the second earl of Argyll, who fell at Flodden, and through his mother, who was a Hallyburton, from Robert, duke of Albany, the regent of Scotland. As a Hallyburton he could thus claim a remote kinship with Sir Walter Scott. His father was the Rev. George Campbell, for more than fifty years parish minister of Cupar in Fifeshire, a friend of Robertson and Blair, a popular preacher, and the writer of the article on Cupar in the old ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ There John Campbell was born on 15 September 1779. With his elder brother, George, afterwards Sir George Campbell of Edenwood, he was educated at the Cupar grammar school, and in 1790, when he was only eleven years old, they went together to St. Andrews University. It was an early age even for a Scottish university, but the case was not unique, Dr. Chalmers, for instance, becoming a student at St. Andrews in 1791 before he was twelve years old.

At fifteen Campbell had finished the arts curriculum, though he did not take the degree of M.A. until some years afterwards, when he discovered that it would be of use to him in England. As a boy his health was weak, and he grew up an eager and miscellaneous reader with little love of games. Golf, of course, he played occasionally, but without any enthusiasm, though he considered it ‘superior to the English cricket, which is too violent and gives no opportunity for conversation.’ Being destined for the ministry, he entered St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, where he remained for three years, studying theology and Hebrew, writing exercise sermons, and looking forward to life in a parish kirk. Gradually, however, he became convinced that he would never be famous as a divine, and he eagerly accepted a tutorship in London. Thither he went in 1798, not yet abandoning thoughts of the church, but with the possibility of some more brilliant career dimly present to his mind. He held the post for nearly two years, employing his leisure time in casual literary work, writing a few of the historical passages in the ‘Annual Register,’ and reviewing books and translating French newspapers for the ‘Oracle.’

Towards the end of 1799 he wrung from his father an unwilling consent that he should exchange the church for the bar. ‘I have little doubt,’ he wrote to his sister before the final decision, ‘that I myself should pass my days much more happily as a parish parson than as an eminent lawyer; but I think that when the path to wealth and fame is open for any man he is bound for his own sake, but much more for the sake of his friends, to enter it without hesitation, although it should be steep, rugged, and strewn with thorns. I declare to you most seriously that I have scarcely a doubt that I should rise at the English bar’ — even to the chancellorship, he added with equal seriousness. He entered Lincoln's Inn on 3 November 1800, and maintained himself by reporting in the House of Commons and in the law courts for the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ The reporting was done without a knowledge of shorthand, which he had no desire to learn, having convinced himself that by rewriting a speech from notes its spoken effect can be more truthfully reproduced than by setting down the exact words. With his dramatic criticism he took great pains. ‘I not only read carefully,’ he said, ‘all the pieces usually acted, but I made myself master of the history of our stage from Shakespeare downwards, and became fairly acquainted with French, German, and Spanish literature.’ For a year or two his time was fully occupied with this work, varied by the reading of law and by his experiences as an energetic volunteer during the Bonaparte scare.

He did not give himself up seriously to law till the beginning of 1804, when he entered the chambers of Tidd, the great special pleader. He remained with Tidd nearly three years, taking up rather the position of an assistant than of a pupil, and was called to the bar on 15 November 1806. From the first he started with a clear lead. He had by zealous work acquired more than a beginner's knowledge of law; he had a wider store of experience, gathered from variety of occupation and miscellaneous reading, than most men of his years; and he had a sturdy faith in himself, which hardly ever drooped, and a firm belief in his own ultimate success. Immediately after his call he was engaged for several months in preparing the second edition of Watson's ‘Treatise on the Law of Partnership,’ which he seems to have in great part rewritten (published 1807; his name does not appear in the book). The ample leisure that was now forced upon him made him try a venture of his own. In 1807 he began his reports of cases at nisi prius. ‘Although the judgment of the courts in banco,’ he says in his ‘Autobiography’, ‘had been regularly reported from the time of Edward II, with the exception of a few rulings of C. J. Holt and C. J. Lee to be found in Lord Raymond and Strange, nisi prius reporting was not attempted till the time of Lord Kenyon, when nisi prius cases were published by Peake and by Espinasse.’ The reports of Espinasse were very inaccurate, and as Peake, who was held in higher esteem, had almost given up the work by Campbell's time, the field was practically unoccupied, while the period of the Napoleonic war, with novel commercial questions daily cropping up, was rich in legal interest. Campbell reported Lord Ellenborough's decisions with great care and tact, revising them and publishing only such as he considered sound on authority and principle. ‘When I arrived,’ he said afterwards, ‘at the end of my fourth and last volume, I had a whole drawer full of “bad Ellenborough law.”’ The reports accordingly have since been treated as of high authority. ‘On all occasions,’ said Lord Cranworth, ‘I have found that they really do, in the fewest possible words, lay down the law, very often more distinctly and more accurately than it is to be found in many lengthened reports. An innovation which attracted attention, criticism, and a recognition of Campbell's shrewdness, and which subsequent reporters have adopted, consisted in appending to the report of each case the names of the attorneys engaged in it, in order that any one who doubted the accuracy of a report might at once know where he could inspect the briefs in the case. For some years Campbell's life was that of a struggling barrister who had to make his own way, and whose chief advantages were his power of work and his alertness to push his way through every opening. His reputation, especially in matters of mercantile law, grew very rapidly. In his fourth year he made over £500, and in his fifth double that sum. In 1816 his business had increased so greatly that he had to give up his reports. In 1819 he was in a position to justify him in applying for a silk gown, though not till 1827, when Copley became chancellor, was the dignity granted to him. In 1821 he married Miss Scarlett, daughter of the future Lord Abinger.

His thoughts had already turned towards parliament, though he showed no great eagerness to enter it. ‘It is amazing,’ he said, ‘how little parliamentary distinction does for a man nowadays at the bar.’ He made his first attempt in 1826 at Stafford, a borough of singular corruption even in those corrupt days; and though unsuccessful, he proved so popular a candidate, that at the general election after George IV's death his supporters invited him to stand again, and he was returned in time to take part in the reform debates. At no period in his life did he have politics much at heart, nor were his opinions very decided. He cast in his lot with the liberal party, and on the great questions of catholic emancipation, the repeal of the Test Act, the suppression of slavery, and parliamentary reform he was on the side of freedom; but his strong conservative instincts, and his comparatively slight interest in such matters, prevented him from taking a leading part. The advice which he gave to his brother is a perfect summary of his opinions: ‘For God's sake do not become radical.’

The Reform Bill of 1831 astounded him at first. ‘I was prepared,’ he said, ‘to support any moderate measure, but this really is a revolution ipso facto.’ Upon consideration, however, he came to regard it as a safe and prudent reform, a restoration of the constitution, not an innovation, and he voted for the second reading, which was thus carried by a majority of one. His real interest was in law reform.

In 1828, as a consequence of Brougham's famous speech, two commissions were appointed, one to inquire into common law procedure, the other to inquire into the law of real property ‘and the various interests therein, and the methods and forms of alienating, conveying, and transferring the same, and of assuring the titles thereto,’ and to suggest means of improvement. Sugden having declined to serve, Campbell was put at the head of the Real Property Commission. He was the only common lawyer who sat on it, and hitherto he had not been familiar with the subject of inquiry; indeed, it was said at the time that there were not half a dozen men in England who understood the law of real property. The general conclusion of the commission was that very few essential alterations were required; the law relating to the transfer of land was exceedingly defective, but in other respects ‘the law of England, except in a few comparatively unimportant particulars, appears to come almost as near to perfection as can be expected in any human institutions’. In the first report, which appeared in 1829, Campbell wrote the introduction and the section on prescription, and the statutes of limitation. Over the second report (1830), proposing a scheme for a general register of deeds and instruments relating to land, the third (1832) dealing with tenures, &c., and the fourth (1833) on amendments in the law of wills, he exercised only a general superintendence. The first speech which he delivered in parliament (1830) was in moving for leave to bring in a bill for the establishment of a general register of deeds affecting real property. The bill was introduced again in the following session, but although a select committee reported in favour of it, the opposition was so strong that it had to be abandoned. Twenty years later he succeeded in carrying a similar bill through the lords, but there it ended. The other recommendations of the commission had a better fortune.

In 1833 Campbell, who had been made solicitor-general in the previous year, helped to carry through several measures of such importance as to mark a distinct period in the history of the law of real property: the statutes of limitation (3 & 4 Wm. IV. cc. 27 and 42); the Fines and Recoveries Act (c. 74) — almost entirely the work of Mr. Brodie, the conveyancer, and described by Sugden as ‘a masterly performance’; an act to render freehold and copyhold estates assets for the payment of simple contract debts (c. 104); the Dower Act (c. 105); and an act for the amendment of the law of inheritance (c. 106). Never had so clean a sweep been made of worn-out rules of law as was done by this group of statutes. ‘They quietly passed through both houses of parliament,’ says Campbell, ‘without one single syllable being altered in any of them. This is the only way of legislating on such a subject. They had been drawn by the real property commissioners, printed and extensively circulated, and repeatedly revised, with the advantage of the observations of skilful men studying them in their closet. A mixed and numerous deliberative assembly is wholly unfit for such work’. A further step on the lines of the commission was taken four years later in the Wills Amendment Act (1 Vict. c. 26), which placed real property and personal property in the same position as regards the formalities necessary for the validity of wills.

Campbell became attorney-general in 1834, but he failed to be re-elected at Dudley, and remained for three months without a seat, finding refuge at last in Edinburgh, where he was returned by a large majority. It was in a speech to his new constituents that he characteristically described himself as ‘plain John Campbell,’ a happy designation which he has never lost. With two brief intervals of opposition, in 1834-5 and in 1839, he remained attorney-general till 1841. He was felt at the time to be invaluable to the whigs in parliament, as indeed the government testified by refusing to make him a judge, though he pressed his claims with a good deal of pertinacity. Twice he asked in vain to be made master of the rolls, first on the death of Leach in 1834, and next when Pepys became lord chancellor in 1836. On the second occasion Campbell felt that his dignity was compromised, for though not an equity lawyer, he considered himself entitled to the office almost as a matter of right. He resolved to resign, and in fact carried his letter of resignation to Lord Melbourne; but he was induced to give way by a promise that in recognition of the value of his services his wife should be raised to the peerage. She was created Baroness Stratheden. In 1838 and in 1839, when vacancies occurred in the court of common pleas, he had still serious thoughts of accepting a puisne judgeship, but he was again dissuaded from abandoning the government. After the Real Property Acts, his chief legislative work during this period was the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, in the preparation of which he had a chief part, and which he carried through the House of Commons. He had much at heart the carrying of a measure for abolishing imprisonment for debt, except in certain cases of fraud, and for giving creditors greater powers over their debtors' property, but he was only partially successful. An act of 1836 (1 & 2 Vict. c. 110) extended the remedies of judgment creditors, and abolished imprisonment for debt on mesne process; but imprisonment for ordinary debts after judgment was not done away with till 1869. Yet another abuse he swept away by the Prisoners' Counsel Act (6 & 7 Wm. IV, c. 114), which gave to a person charged with felony, or to his counsel, the same rights of addressing the jury on the merits of the case as if he were charged with treason or misdemeanor, and allowed all persons on trial to have copies of, and to inspect, depositions taken against them. Strange to say, nearly all the judges were opposed to this change, Mr. Justice Allan Park, in fact, threatening to resign if the bill were carried. Among the famous cases in which Campbell took part while he was at the head of the bar were the trial of Lord Melbourne in 1836, the second action of Stockdale v. Hansard in 1839, the trial of Frost the chartist in 1840, and the trial of Lord Cardigan in 1841 for wounding Captain Tuckett in a duel. In 1842 he published a selection of his speeches delivered at the bar and in the House of Commons; and with a lack of good feeling, for which he was very justly condemned, he included his defence of Lord Melbourne. The only part of the volume that has any permanent value is his argument in Stockdale v. Hansard. He had devoted a great part of two long vacations to preparing it. ‘I had read everything,’ he says, ‘that had the smallest bearing on the subject, from the earliest year-book to the latest pamphlet — not confining myself to mere legal authorities, but diligently examining historians, antiquaries, and general jurists, both English and foreign’. He printed much in later years, but nothing that showed more careful labour than the full account which this speech contains of the history and the reason of parliamentary privilege. The court, over which Lord Denman presided, decided against him; and the excitement and the difficulties caused by their ‘ill-considered and intemperate judgment,’ as Campbell unreasonably calls it in his ‘Autobiography,’ were ended only by the passing of an act to give summary protection to persons employed in the publication of parliamentary papers (3 Vict. c. 9.). Another elaborate argument was delivered by him in the great Sergeant's case, but he did not include it in his published speeches.

In 1841, when the dissolution was resolved on which ended in the fall of the whigs, it was felt that Campbell's services should receive recognition. Pressure was brought to bear on Lord Plunket, the Irish lord chancellor, to induce him to resign, which he did unwillingly, protesting against the arrangement, and Campbell was appointed and raised to the peerage. As the appointment was so unpopular in Dublin, and as it had been freely called a job, he publicly declared that he would forego the usual pension of £4,000 a year which attached to the Irish chancellorship. When the subject had been first mooted, he appears to have thought that Lord Plunket's consent had been obtained, and when he learned the real state of matters, the delay had put in danger his Edinburgh seat. His own account of the transaction shows that he himself saw nothing discreditable in the part which he played. He held the office only for six weeks, and sat in court only a few days. His lack of experience as an equity lawyer did not prevent him from forming large schemes for the reform of equity procedure, which he sketched out in an address to the Irish bar; but they were cut short by the resignation of the Melbourne ministry, and he was replaced in the chancellorship by Sugden.

He returned to England, and, according to his bargain, without a pension. Judicial business in the House of Lords (where he took part in the O'Connell case) and on the judicial committee of the privy council left him plenty of leisure, which his ambitious industry speedily found means of turning to account. He published his speeches; he wrote his autobiography (completed at various times in later years); and in his sixty-third year he set himself to write the lives of the chancellors from the earliest times downwards. The difficulty and magnitude of the task discouraged him at first, and for a time he abandoned it; but he returned to it with such vigour, that in one year and ten months he had in print the first three volumes, down to the revolution of 1688. ‘Assuming it,’ he wrote afterwards with no misgivings, ‘to be a “standard work,” as it is at present denominated, I doubt whether any other of the same bulk was ever finished off more rapidly.’ The first series of ‘Lives’ appeared in 1845, the second (to Lord Thurlow's death) in 1846, and the third (to Lord Eldon's death) in 1847. The work had great success. Within a month a second edition of the first series was called for, and 2,050 copies of the second series were sold on the day of publication. The literary honours which were showered upon him inspired him to seek another subject. His ambition was ‘to produce a specimen of just historical composition.’ He thought, it seems, of writing the ‘History of the Long Parliament,’ but eventually decided to continue working on his old field. His first intention was to take up the Irish chancellors. He was afraid, however, that in spite of some interesting names, ‘as a body they would appear very dull,’ so he determined to postpone them till he had completed the ‘Lives of the Chief Justices.’ Working as rapidly as ever, by 1849 he had brought down his narrative to the death of Lord Mansfield, and published the first two volumes. The third volume, containing the lives of Kenyon, Ellenborough, and Tenterden, appeared in 1857.

The merits of his ‘Lives’ are very considerable. They are eminently readable. The style is lively, though rough, careless, and incorrect; every incident is presented effectively; they are full of good stories, and they contain a great deal of information about the history of law and lawyers which is not easily to be found elsewhere. The later volumes, moreover, both of the ‘Chancellors’ and the ‘Chief Justices,’ have the freshness and interest of personal memoirs. For all these qualities Campbell has received due and sufficient recognition. Nor has time worn away the merits of his books; they still find many readers, and there is little probability that they will be displaced by anything more entertaining written on the same subject. None the less are they among the most censurable publications in our literature. ‘As an historical production,’ says a careful critic, speaking of the ‘Chancellors,’ ‘the whole work is wanting in a due sense of the obligations imposed by such a task, is disfigured by unblushing plagiarisms, and, as the writer approaches his own times, by much unscrupulous misrepresentation’. This judgment is not too severe. The tone of laborious research which pervades every volume is delusive. No writer ever owed so much to the labours of others who acknowledged so little. Literary morality in its other form, the love of historical truth and accuracy, he hardly understood. No one who has ever followed him to the sources of his information will trust him more; for not only was he too hurried and careless to sift such evidence as he gathered, but even plain statements of fact are perverted, and his authorities are constantly misquoted.

The concluding volume of the ‘Chancellors,’ published after his death, and containing the lives of Lyndhurst and Brougham, is even more lamentable, and has done more than anything else to lower the reputation of Campbell. Lyndhurst's prediction came true. ‘I predict,’ so he is reported to have said to Brougham, with reference to a judicial appointment of which Campbell was disappointed, ‘that he will take his revenge on you by describing you with all the gall of his nature. He will write of you, and perhaps of me too, with envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, for such is his nature’. The conversation, which is said to have taken place in 1835, is obviously misreported, for there is a reference in it to the ‘Lives of the Chancellors’ and to Wetherell's remark that they had added a new sting to death; but if the prediction was not Lyndhurst's it was Brougham's. The book is a marvel of inaccuracy and misrepresentation, and, if not written with actual malice, it exhibits a discreditable absence of generosity and good feeling. The only possible excuse for such a work is one suggested by Lyndhurst himself, that Campbell was not always aware of the effect of the expressions which he used; ‘he has been so accustomed to relate degrading anecdotes of his predecessors in office, that I am afraid his feelings upon these subjects have become somewhat blunted’. No sooner had it appeared than Lord St. Leonards, who incidentally suffered from the biographer's inaccuracy, published an indignant pamphlet in his own defence, ‘Misrepresentations in Campbell's Lives of Lyndhurst and Brougham, corrected by St. Leonards.’ Brougham's story, as told by himself, has since been published (1871); and the life of Lyndhurst has been rewritten by Sir Theodore Martin (1883).

In 1846, when the whigs returned, Campbell had hopes of being restored to the Irish chancellorship; but in deference to Irish feeling it was decided that the office should be held, as it has ever since been held, by an Irishman, and Campbell was made instead chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with a seat in the cabinet. He had meanwhile been playing a leading part in the House of Lords. ‘Edinburgh,’ said Brougham, with his usual exaggeration, ‘is now celebrated for having given us the two greatest bores that have ever yet been known in London, for Jack Campbell in the House of Lords is just what Tom Macaulay is in private society.’ He had certainly very little oratorical fervour, and, as one may judge from ‘Hansard,’ he was often tedious; but the opinions of a man so shrewd and experienced always commanded attention. The passing of several important measures during this period was greatly owing to his exertions, the most important of them being the Copyright Act of 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 45); the Libel Act of 1843 (6 & 7 Vict. c. 96), known as Lord Campbell's Act, and drafted by himself with the assistance of Starkie, the well-known text writer on the law of libel and slander; and an act of 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c. 93), also known as Lord Campbell's Act, which did away with the rule that where a person was killed by the wrongful act, neglect or default of another, no action for damages could be brought by his representatives. Lord Denman's health breaking down in 1849, Campbell received assurances that he would be made chief justice, and he applied himself to the study of the recent changes in legal procedure. Much delay occurred; Denman, resenting several uncomplimentary references to himself in Campbell's ‘Lives,’ was unwilling to resign in his favour; and it was not till March 1850 that the appointment was actually made. His judicial labours mainly filled up his subsequent life; but he still took a share in legal debates and in legislation. In 1851 he succeeded at length in passing the Registration Bill through the lords, a measure which, he says in his journal, ‘ought to immortalise me,’ but it came to grief in the commons. He joined in the opposition to the Wensleydale life peerage, preparing himself for the debate as usual by reading ‘all that had been written on the subject.’ He presided over the committee to inquire into the question of divorce, and saw their recommendations carried into effect by the Divorce and Matrimonial Act of 1857. And he left yet another Lord Campbell's Act on the statute-book, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 (20 & 21 Vict. c. 83). His literary schemes had to be abandoned; but he spent the autumn of 1858 at Hartrigge, an estate in Roxburghshire, which he had purchased some years before, in reading through Shakespeare to see ‘whether the bard of Avon, before he left Stratford, had not been an attorney's clerk.’ The pamphlet in which he discusses the question convinced Macaulay that Shakespeare had some legal training, Campbell himself inclining to the same belief, though he declined to give a decided opinion.

Lord Campbell the judge is a more pleasing figure than Lord Campbell the author. He had his failings, it would seem, even on the bench, showing, for example, somewhat too openly an unworthy love of applause. But he did not debase his talents by hurried work. He was ambitious to leave behind him the reputation of a sound lawyer, and by aid of his wide knowledge, his long experience, his untiring industry, and his natural strength of intellect, he succeeded. Though changes in procedure have rendered obsolete many of the cases in which he took part, there remains a solid body of law connected with his name. His decisions, some of them in ‘leading cases’ (such as Humphries v. Brogden), are constantly cited, and his opinion still carries weight.

When the liberal party regained power in 1859, great difficulty was experienced in deciding who should be chancellor. There were several rivals for the honour, each with strong supporters; and, unable to decide between their claims, Lord Palmerston gave the great seal to Campbell, acting, it is said, on the advice of Lord Lyndhurst. Campbell was now in his eightieth year, and no one, as he took pains to find out, had ever been appointed to, or had even held, the office at so advanced an age. About two years of life remained to him, which were marked by little that is noteworthy. He made a respectable equity judge, and prided himself on his rapid despatch of business; but his rather overbearing nature caused some friction with the other judges. The chief political incident of the time was the outbreak of the American war, and it was by Campbell's advice that the government agreed to recognise the belligerent rights of the Southern states. Had he lived a few weeks longer, his chancellorship would have been distinguished by the passing of the Criminal Law Consolidation Acts, in the preparation of which he had taken a great interest. He died on the night of 22 June 1861, having sat in court and attended a cabinet council during the day.

Lord Campbell possessed in a supreme degree the art of getting on. ‘If Campbell,’ said Perry of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ ‘had engaged as an opera-dancer, I do not say he would have danced as well as Deshayes, but I feel confident he would have got a higher salary.’ He was full of ambition, and though he did not lack public spirit, he judged most things by their bearing on his personal fortunes. Perhaps nothing paints his mind more clearly than a phrase which he lets drop in a letter to his brother in recommending the study of the best English classics; ‘they bear reading very well,’ he writes, ‘and you can always make them tell.’ He had no false modesty, rather an exalted self-confidence, which he concealed neither from himself nor from others; he had patience to wait for his opportunities, yet he never let himself be forgotten; and his enormous industry and power of getting rapidly through work stood him in stead of abilities of the highest kind. He fell far short of greatness, intellectual or moral. Not even as the term is applied to the great rivals of his later life, Brougham and Lyndhurst, can he be described as a man of genius. On its moral side his nature was lowered by ambition. His private life, indeed, was rich in fine traits. In no man was the sense of family union more strong, and few have won for themselves and maintained through a busy life a deeper devotion and affection. His public career is less attractive. While his abilities compelled admiration, he did not in any high degree inspire feelings of enthusiasm or confidence. Some of his contemporaries have even represented him as essentially ungrateful and ungenerous. But this is exaggeration. His were simply the defects of a man of pushing character, whose eagerness to succeed made itself too plainly felt. But whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the spirit in which he served his country, there is none as to the value of the services themselves. As a legislator and a judge he left a name which can never be passed over when the history of our law is written.

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