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HILE engaged in preparing these biographical
sketches for the press, I have frequently called whes to remembrance an evening I spent, many years ago, in company with the eminent and well-known jurist, the late Mr. John Austin. I saw him under very favourable circumstances, when none were present but his intimate friends and connections, and he was drawn into a long and deeply interesting talk. On returning home I took notes of what he had said, and as some of his observations had reference to the subject of jurisprudence, I have determined to give them here.
After he had been speaking at some length on the subject of languages and dialects, the conversation took a different turn. My father was desirous to obtain Mr. Austin's opinion respecting the question of law as relating to the Christian economy—to the religion of the New Testament. On this point he stated it to be his opinion that the sanctions of the gospel are drawn from a higher source—that, in fact, there is no such thing as statute or law laid down in the New Testament. The appeal is made to another and higher principle, superior to all the sanctions of law, and having its source from within ;-in which sense he understood the passage in the Romans, “Being a law to themselves," as he said this was a metaphorical expression, and could not be literally taken; it being impossible for a man to make laws for himself, the fact being evident that he could at any time abrogate a self-imposed rule. He further went on to observe, respecting the much contested subject of the freedom of the will, that, in his opinion, there could be no such thing, for that it resolved itself into a question of choice or object—the bondage of the will to sin and evil being exchanged for a subjection of the will to higher influences.
He said, in reference to Christianity, that it is decidedly the most original thing that has ever been presented to view in our world; that its character is entirely unique; and that any man deeply acquainted with history, and able to go back along the records it gives, must feel that the influence of Christianity has done more to humanize than any other cause. Anybody looking into the laws of the more excellent among the emperors—of the Antonines and Adrians, and those called models of piety and goodness—will be at once convinced of the truth of this. The slave is put beyond the pale of humanity; the influence of the principle, “Do to others as you would that they should do to you," is unknown, unfelt; nor is such a sanction anywhere to be found, taken in its true extent, but in the Christian religion. “Christianity,” said he, “is humanizing; and in this, its distinguishing characteristic, is found its infinite superiority. ..."
This is a striking testimony to the peculiar, the blessed “humanizing” influence of Christianity; an influence which of necessity affects both the formation and the execution of the laws wherever it has sway, although, alas! so partially has its leaven been permitted to operate, that, even in our happy land, the life and liberty of men have not been secure from outrage under legal sanction. Within the last half century, in the heart of the venerable city I inhabit, a terrible tragedy was enacted. Two fine young men, farmers' servants, were hanged on the top of the Castle Hill, in the sight of hundreds of their fellows, for the sole crime of having stolen a lamb!
The assembled multitude gazed with feelings of aversion and terror, for it was felt to be nothing short of a legal murder. Vox populi—that irresistible voice, when uttered in the cause of humanity and right-pronounced it such. Since that fatal day there has been no such horror enacted; it was the last example of the kind.
We owe hearty thanks to those noble-minded advocates who have lifted up their cry in remonstrance against the harsh and bloody laws which but recently disgraced our statute books. Among those illustrious names, that of Sir Samuel Romilly ranks high. Undoubtedly there is no profession in this country which exerts so important an influence upon our social and political relations as that of the Law, and it has accordingly been always a road to the highest stations in the land. Upon the whole. the history of our nation tells much in favour of those
who have distinguished themselves at the bar and on the bench, many of whom, in the worst and darkest times, have nobly vindicated the rights of the people and the prerogatives of the crown. In how many instances have the liberties of England been preserved by the intrepidity and independence of the judges of the land! Thus, for example, in alluding to the unconstitutional attempts of the Stuarts to subvert our privileges, Mr. Godwin says, “It is impossible to review these proceedings without feeling that for these liberties we are to no man so deeply indebted as to Sir Edward Coke.” That great man, so learned a lawyer and eminent a judge, was also a devoted patriot, zealously attached to the law, satisfied that it afforded the best guarantee for the liberties of the subject and the rights of the crown.
Accordingly, it was well observed of him that “he lost his advantage in the same way he got it—by his tongue.” “And,” adds the quaint historian, “long lived he in the retirement to which court indignation had remitted him ; yet was not his recess inglorious, for, at improving a disgrace to the best advantage, he was so excellent as King James said of him, “He was like a cat, throw him which way you will he will light upon his feet!'”
It is unhappily true that all our judges have not walked in the steps of this illustrious personage, and history has registered the misdeeds and unblushing corruption of but too many of their number. Lord Bacon, in his history of the reign of Henry VII., writes in words of burning indignation concerning those rapacious judges who enriched themselves and the king by their exactions and preying, as he says, “like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves.” It is a