Biography

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Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818)

This article was written by James McMullen Rigg and was published in 1897


Sir Samuek Romilly as a law reformer; he was the youngest son of Peter Romilly, a jeweller, of Frith Street, Soho, by Margaret, daughter of Aimé Garnault. He was born in Westminster on 1 March 1757. His father was a younger son of Etienne Romilly, a Huguenot of good family and estate, who fled from Montpellier to England on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, by Judith, second daughter of François de Montsallier, merchant, of Shoreditch. He was an upright and religious man, not without a taste for the fine arts, and, thrown on his own resources at an early age, realised a competent fortune by his business. He died on 29 August 1784, leaving, besides Samuel, an elder son, Thomas Peter (d. 1828), who married his cousin, Jane Anne, second daughter of Isaac Romilly, and was by her father of Joseph Romilly, and a daughter Catherine, who married John Roget, pastor of the French protestant church, London, and was mother of Peter Mark Roget.

When Samuel Romilly was born, his mother, who died 30 April 1796, was already a confirmed invalid; and he was accordingly brought up by a female relative — who taught him to read from the Bible, the Spectator, and an English translation of Télémaque — and a methodist maid-servant, who stuffed his head with stories of the supernatural. The morbid bias thus given to his mind was aggravated by much poring over an immense martyrology and a copy of the Newgate Calendar; and, though his home surroundings were otherwise cheerful, the gloom inspired by these early impressions haunted him at intervals throughout life. At school — a private school kept by a preceptor more familiar with the use of the cane than the Latin grammar — he learned little beyond the three R's.

It was the rule to speak French every Sunday at home, and to attend the French reformed church once a fortnight. He early lost all faith in Christianity, but embraced with ardour the gospel of Rousseau, which was brought to his notice by John Roget. At sixteen he began the study of Latin under a private tutor. He read hard, and in the course of a few years had mastered most of the authors of the golden age. During the same period he familiarised himself with the masterpieces of English literature, assiduously practised verse and prose composition in both languages, and began to contribute to the press. Greek literature he knew only through translations. He also attended lectures on natural philosophy, and the Royal Academy courses on the fine arts and anatomy, and acquired a knowledge of accounts by keeping his father's books.

After some years spent in the office of William Michael Lally, one of the six clerks in chancery, he was admitted on 5 May 1778 a member of Gray's Inn, where he was called to the bar on 2 June 1783, and was elected treasurer in 1803. When the Inn was menaced during the Gordon riots in June 1780, he gallantly got under arms, did sentry duty at the Holborn gate, and fell ill from excitement and exposure. During his convalescence he learned Italian, and was soon deep in Machiavelli and Beccaria. The latter author doubtless helped to give his mind the strong bent towards law reform which became manifest in later years.

During a vacation tour on the continent in 1781 he laid the basis of a lifelong friendship with the Genevese preacher and publicist Dumont, the friend of Mirabeau, and afterwards editor of Jeremy Bentham's works. At Paris he met Diderot and D'Alembert, and, on a subsequent visit, Dr. Franklin and the Abbé Raynal. In London in 1784 he made the acquaintance of Mirabeau, and translated his pamphlet on the American order of the Cincinnati. In the same year he wrote, in reference to the case of the dean of St. Asaph, A Fragment on the Constitutional Power and Duty of Juries upon Trials for Libels, which was published anonymously by the Society for Constitutional Information. It was much admired by Jeremy Bentham and Lord Lansdowne, with both of whom Romilly became intimate.

In 1786 he exposed not a few of the anomalies of the criminal law in his anonymous 'Observations on a late Publication [by Martin Madan] entitled “Thoughts on Executive Justice,”’. The long vacations of 1788 and 1789 he spent with Dumont at Versailles and Paris, which he revisited in 1802 and 1815. In 1788 he furnished Mirabeau with the matter for his ‘Lettre d'un Voyageur Anglois sur la Maison de Force de Bicêtre,’ which was suppressed by the police. The English original, however, found a place in the ‘Repository,’ ii. 9*. Romilly's sympathies were at this time wholly with the radical party; and on the assembling of the States-General he drafted for their use a précis of the procedure of the House of Commons, which was translated by Mirabeau, published at Paris under the title ‘Règlemens observés dans la Chambre des Communes pour débattre les matières et pour voter,’ and entirely ignored by the deputies.

On his return to England he published a sanguine pamphlet, ‘Thoughts on the probable Influence of the French Revolution on Great Britain,’ and induced his friend, James Scarlett, afterwards Lord Abinger, to complete a translation (begun by himself) of a series of letters by Dumont descriptive of the events of 1789, to which he added a few letters of his own embodying very free criticisms from a republican point of view of English political, legal, and social institutions. The whole appeared under the title ‘Letters containing an Account of the late Revolution in France, and Observations on the Laws, Manners, and Institutions of the English; written during the author's residence at Paris and Versailles in the years 1789 and 1790; translated from the German of Henry Frederic Groenvelt’. His enthusiasm was, however, soon sobered by the course of events, and perhaps by the influence of Bentham and Scarlett; and with the exception of a single copy, which he retained in his own hands, and which, after his death, passed into Scarlett's possession, he caused the entire unsold remainder of the Groenvelt letters to be burned. About the same period his admiration of Rousseau began to decline, though he remained a deist to the end of his life.

Romilly's rise in his profession, slow at first, was then for a time extremely rapid; later on it was retarded by political influences. He went the midland circuit, practising at sessions as well as the assizes, and he also gradually acquired a practice in the court of chancery. At Warwick, on 15 August 1797, he successfully defended a delegate of the London Corresponding Society, John Binns, on a prosecution for sedition. Next year he married. On 6 November 1800 he took silk; in 1802 he was one of the recognised leaders of the chancery bar; in 1805 Bishop Barrington gave him the chancellorship of the county palatine of Durham, which he held until 1815. On 12 February 1806 he was sworn in as solicitor-general to the administration of ‘All the Talents,’ and knighted. He took his seat as member for Queenborough on 24 March, and was placed on the committee for the impeachment of Lord Melville, on whose trial in Westminster Hall he summed up the evidence (10 May) in a speech of much power and pungency. He also examined witnesses before the royal commission of inquiry into the conduct of the Princess of Wales, and represented the prince in the proceedings relating to the guardianship of Mary Seymour. On the dissolution of 24 October 1806 he was again returned (29 October) for Queenborough. Though his term of office was of the briefest — the government went out on 25 March 1807 — Romilly carried in 1806 a material amendment of the law of bankruptcy (stat. 46 Geo. III, c. 135), which he supplemented in the following year by a measure making the freehold property of traders assets for the payment of simple contract debts (stat. 47 Geo. III, c. 74; cf. stat. 49 Geo. III, c. 121). But he failed in his persistent efforts to carry a measure making the same principle apply to the freehold estates of persons not in trade.

On the change of administration in 1807, Romilly delivered a weighty speech on the constitutional question involved in it, viz. the competence of ministers to pledge themselves to the sovereign not to tender him certain advice in any emergency (9 April). At the general election which followed he was returned, 12 May, for Horsham, Sussex; but being unseated on petition, 26 February 1808, he purchased for £3,000 the representation of Wareham, Dorset, for which he was returned on 20 April. This compliance with a bad but then common practice Romilly justified to himself as, in view of the universal rottenness of the representative system, the best means of securing his own independence, for the sake of which he had twice declined the offer of a seat, once from Lord Lansdowne, and once from the Prince of Wales. Defeated at Bristol in October 1812, he was returned on 21 December for the Duke of Norfolk's borough of Arundel. On 4 July 1818 he was returned for Westminster.

As a law reformer Romilly, though much stimulated by Bentham, drew his original inspiration from Rousseau and Beccaria. His early pamphlets show the direction in which his thoughts were tending, and already in 1807 he began to give serious attention to the problem of the amendment of the criminal law, which then in theory — in practice it was by no means rigorously administered — punished with death a variety of altogether trifling offences. He had taken, however, too exact a measure of the strength and temper of the opposition he was certain to encounter to dream of proposing a comprehensive scheme; and the labours of detail to which he gave himself were out of all proportion to their results. He succeeded in abolishing the penalty of death in cases of private stealing from the person (1808, stat. 48 Geo. III, c. 129), but failed to carry a similar reform in regard to shoplifting, stealing in dwelling houses, and on navigable rivers. In 1811 he substituted transportation for death in cases of stealing from bleaching grounds (stat. 54 Geo. III, c. 39), and in the following year repealed the statute (39 Eliz. c. 1) which made it capital for soldiers or seamen to be found vagrant without their passes. To his motion was also due the parliamentary committee which in this year reported against the utility of transportation and confinement in the hulks. In 1814 he mitigated the harshness of the law of treason and attainder (stat. 54 Geo. III, cc. 145, 146). Romilly lent a certain support to Sir Francis Burdett in his struggle with the House of Commons, and on 16 April moved for the release of John Gale Jones. During the regency he acted with the extreme section of the opposition.

In 1815 he voted against the Corn Bill, 3 March, and for Whitbread's motion for an address deprecating the resumption of hostilities against Napoleon, 28 April. In the following year, 20 February, he censured as a breach of faith with the French people the part taken by the British government in the restoration of Louis XVIII. In 1817 he was the life and soul of the opposition to the policy of governing by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act and the suppression of public meetings, and on 20 May supported Sir Francis Burdett's motion for an inquiry into the state of the representation. On the reassembling of parliament in the following year he opposed the ministerial Bill of Indemnity and the renewal of the Alien Act, by which ministers were empowered to banish foreigners suspected of hostile intrigue. He favoured the emancipation of catholics and negro slaves, and took an active part in other philanthropic movements. A vast scheme of reform, planned in anticipation of his elevation to the woolsack on the return of his party to power, was frustrated by his own act.

On the death (29 October 1818) of his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached, he shut himself up in his house in Russell Square, and on 2 November cut his throat with a razor. He survived little more than an hour. At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of suicide during temporary derangement. His remains were interred by the side of his wife in the vault belonging to her family at Knill, Herefordshire. Romilly's death was recognised as a public calamity by men of all shades of political opinion, and affected Lord Eldon to tears. At the Athénée Royal at Paris on 26 December Benjamin Constant pronounced his éloge as ‘d'un étranger illustre qui appartient à tous les pays, parce qu'il a bien mérité de tous les pays en défendant la cause de l'humanité, de la liberté et de la justice,’ a tribute justly due to a lofty ideal of public duty illustrated by a singularly consistent course.

As a speaker, Romilly habitually addressed himself rather to the reason than the passions, though he by no means lacked eloquence. He marshalled his premises, and deduced his conclusions with mathematical precision, and his diction was as chaste as his logic was cogent. The unerring instinct with which he detected and the unfailing felicity with which he exposed a fallacy, united to no small powers of sarcasm and invective, made him formidable in reply, while the effect of his easy and impressive elocution was enhanced by a tall and graceful figure, a melodious voice, and features of classical regularity. As an adept not only in the art of the advocate, but in the whole mystery of law and equity, he was without a superior, perhaps without a rival, in his day. He was also throughout life a voracious and omnivorous reader, and seized and retained the substance of what he read with unusual rapidity and tenacity. He was an indefatigable worker, rising very early and going to bed late. His favourite relaxation was a long walk. From intensity of conviction, aided perhaps by the melancholy of his temperament, he carried political antagonism to extreme lengths, even to the abandonment of a friendship with Perceval, which had been formed on circuit, and cemented by constant and confidential intercourse. His principles were austere to the verge of puritanism, and in general society he was somewhat cold and reserved; but he did not lack sympathy, and among his intimate friends, especially on literary topics, he conversed freely and with spirit. His leisure he spent in retirement during middle life in a cottage in the Vale of Health, Hampstead; later on at his villa, Tanhurst, Leith Hill, Surrey, where he had for neighbour his old friend Scarlett. Other friends were Dr. Samuel Parr, Francis Horner, Basil Montagu, Sir James Mackintosh, Dugald Stewart and William Wilberforce. With Lord Lansdowne and Bentham he maintained close and cordial relations to the end, his last visits being to Bowood Park and Ford Abbey.

By his wife Anne, eldest daughter of Francis Garbett of Knill Court, Herefordshire, whom he first met at Bowood Park in 1796, and married on 3 January 1798, Romilly had issue, with a daughter Sophia, married in 1820 to Thomas Francis Kennedy, six sons, viz. (1) William (1799-1855). (2) John, created Lord Romilly. (3) Edward, of Porthkerry, Glamorganshire (1804-1870), M.P. for Ludlow in the first reformed parliament, member 1837-1866, and from 1855 chairman, of the board of audit, against the abolition of which he protested in a ‘Letter to the Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli, M.P.,’. (4) Henry (1805-1884), a merchant of Liverpool, and author of ‘Public Responsibility and Vote by Ballot,’ (5) Charles (1808-1887), clerk to the crown in chancery. (6) Frederick (1810-1887), M.P. for Canterbury 1850-2, member 1864-9, and from 1873 to 1887 deputy chairman, of the board of customs.


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