Thomas Erksine, 1st Baron Erskine of Restormel and a Lord Chancellor, was born on the 10th of January, 1750.
Thomas, Lord Erskine, was a famous lawyer and politician who was, in his day, Britain's foremost advocate. He wasn’t much shakes as a politician, despite becoming Lord Chancellor, but he certainly shook up the legal fraternity with that in which he got involved. His speciality was the defence of people accused of treason and corruption and he was engaged in all the famous, political trials of his time. In addition, he is known as the first defender of animal rights. Thomas Erskine first won renown as an advocate by his defence of Lord Keppel and, in 1781, of his cousin, Lord George Gordon, in whose defence Erskine delivered a remarkable speech, which ‘blew out of the water’ the doctrine of constructive treason. Lord George, in his role as head of the Protestant Association, formed to secure the repeal of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, was accused of high treason for instigating the so-called ‘Gordon Riots’ in 1780. Erskine got him acquitted on the grounds that he had no treasonable intent.
Erskine was also responsible for the introduction of the Libel Act in 1792, something which is overdue for an overhaul, by the way, but revolutionary in its day. The Libel Act, which laid down the principle that it is for the jury and not the judge to decide whether or not a publication is a libel, stemmed from Erskine’s first ‘special retainer’ in successful defence of Dr. William Davies Shipley, the Dean of St. Asaph, accused of seditious libel in 1784. Erskine obviously felt strongly about libel cases as, in 1789, he also defended a bookseller called John Stockdale, who was also charged with seditious libel after publishing a pamphlet in favour of Warren Hastings, a former Governor-General of India famously accused of corruption. Erskine’s speech in that trial is regarded as his greatest effort and a consummate specimen of the art of addressing a jury.
In 1794, Erskine defended John Thelwall, who was tried for treason with his fellow radicals, John Horne Tooke and Thomas Hardy, such that all three men were acquitted. More famously, Erskine also defended Thomas Paine, who was accused of high treason for his work, ‘The Rights of Man’. That case brought Erskine the opposition of both friend and foe, and cost him his position as Attorney General to the Prince of Wales, but Erskine defended his action by pronouncing that an advocate has no right, by refusing a brief, to convert himself into a judge. Paine’s book put forward the idea that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights, and their national interests. By associating himself with Paine and the like, Erskine became regarded as the chief legal defender of popular liberties and constitutional rights.
Lord Russell once said of Erskine that he possessed “the tongue of Cicero and the soul of Hampden” and Erskine’s vanity was apparently so ridiculous that he was caricatured as ‘Baron Ego of Eye’ and otherwise known as ‘Clackmanan’. However, there is no doubt that Erskine was an unrivalled speaker in the law courts and considered to have been the greatest legal orator of his time. His speeches are said to have been “masterpieces of forensic eloquence”. Similarly, his speech in the House of Lords on the second reading of the 1808 Bill for preventing malicious and wanton cruelty to animals, Erskine famously stated, “I am to ask your Lordships, in the name of that God who gave to man his dominion over the lower world, to acknowledge and recognise that dominion to be a moral trust.”
Erskine was a strong Whig, the forerunners of today’s Liberal Democrat Party, but it is for his advocacy, rather than his politicking, that he deserves to be remembered. He sat in Parliament as M.P. for Portsmouth in 1783-4 and again from 1790-1806. Between 1806 and 1807, after he was raised to a peerage, Erskine served as Lord Chancellor in Baron Grenville’s ‘Ministry of All the Talents’. That was a ‘government of national unity’ not dissimilar to that which served during the Second World War, but despite its intention to form the strongest possible government of leading politicians from amongst all factions, it had comparatively little success. It failed to bring about peace with France, but it did manage to abolish the slave trade in Britain, which was a good thing.
Thomas Erskine was born in Edinburgh, the youngest son of the 10th Earl of Buchan. Thomas gained an education at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and the Grammar School of St. Andrews, before joining the Navy, in 1764, and serving as a midshipman. Four years later, after service in North America and the West Indies, he returned to the UK to discover that there was little immediate chance of moving on from his rank of acting Lieutenant. As a consequence, he quit the Navy and purchased a commission in with the 1st Royals. However, he fared no better in the Army, but thankfully for all those later charged with libel and treason, it did present Erskine with an opportunity to converse with fellow countryman, Judge William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, famous as a Scotsman who reformed English Law. That interview resulted in Erskine resolving to quit the army and study law, and his admission as a student of Lincolns Inn, in 1775. On the 13th of January, 1776, Erskine entered himself as a ‘gentleman commoner’ on the books of Trinity College, Cambridge, in order to expedite his call to the bar by two years, merely on account of graduating. Thus, he was called to the bar on the 3rd of July, 1778.
In 1783, Erskine received a patent of precedence, which was a grant to an individual, by letters patent, of a higher social or professional position than the precedence to which his ordinary rank entitles him. In the context of Erskine’s legal profession, that was significant as formerly, the rank of King’s Counsel not only precluded a Barrister from appearing against the Crown, but if he was a Member of Parliament, it meant that he had to give up his seat. The patent granted to Erskine as distinguished counsel, conferred upon him a rank similar to that of King’s Counsel, but without the penalty or preclusion. In 1802, Thomas Erskine was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall and, in 1806, created Baron Erskine of Restormel Castle, Cornwall. Thomas Erksine, 1st Baron Erskine of Restormel, died of pneumonia, caught on his way to Scotland to stay with his brother, the Earl of Buchan, at Almondell, in Linlithgowshire, on the 17th of November, 1823. He was buried in the family burial place at Uphall, in Linlithgow.