'Lord Mansfield': The Enlightenment's overachiever

Norman Poser examines a great legal mind in late 18th century England, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield

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William Murray, the fourth son of a Scottish nobleman in the 18th century, had little prospects as a younger son. He could not inherit the title, lands or money of his father, so he did what any self-respecting 13-year-old would do: He rode a horse all the way to London, entered into a prestigious school, made friends, studied law and was one of the greatest legal minds while becoming the first Earl of Mansfield.

Sounds great doesn't it? A real fairy tale in real life or so it seems anyway. In "Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason," Norman Poser takes us through the life and legacy of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, but along the way we get lost in all the trimmings and lace.


By Norman S. Poser
McGill-Queen's University Press ($39.95).

We learn that Lord Mansfield had to overcome a lot to achieve what he did. Many of his accomplishments have had long-lasting effect and that his greatest legacy is that many of his legal rulings are still in place today in multiple legal systems.

Throughout the book there are too many archived records, letters and anecdotes. Where one or two details would do, we are given five, six or seven; the effectiveness is lost.

In the early life of a young William Murray we are shown that education and hard work were important to him. We learn that his networking opened doors at an early age and enabled him to succeed.

During this time in England, the Jacobite rebellion occurs and embroils the Murray family as supporters of the deposed king. This association taints young William. During his schooling, Murray finds a love in law and is able to, through patronage, continue his education at Christ Church, Oxford University. Murray set up a lucrative practice and was able to network with members of the nobility through acting on their behalf in legal matters.

Mr. Poser illustrates that many conditions in 18th-century English politics are still alive in many places today: It is all about whom you are related to or who you know. Murray developed powerful connections and allies very early in his career and used his political connections and affiliations throughout to further his own interests and those of friends and family.

When advising others or speaking on an issue, Murray would carefully deliberate and then talk plainly and directly. He considered all angles and approached them with the eye of a lawyer. It appears that he gave great thought to what he wished to achieve, how to behave in a manner fit with what he believed and in principle to how a legal system should work.

Murray also used his connections to rise to the level of chief justice and attain his title while at the same time enjoying a seat in the House of Commons. At the height of his career he was not only chief justice, he was also in the House of Lords and in the king's cabinet, so clearly he was not terribly interested in division of power. In all three capacities he always found a way to promote the interests of friends and family in their personal and professional lives.

One thing he believed in as chief justice was in speedy trials as a way to better serve the people who could not afford waiting through months of delays. Lord Mansfield was also a supporter of the weak and the poor. His rulings in many cases regarding trade and commercial law helped form the basis of laws in Australia, Canada and the United States.

As a scholar, Murray's words and actions are often cited more than 250 years after he became a judge. Lord Mansfield retired after 32 years as chief justice and died five years later. He was buried in Westminster Abbey ironically next to the grave of his political nemesis William Pitt.

Although his career is noteworthy, this book is overly long. Too much detail bogs things down, but also confuses the issues. The writing and organization are reminiscent of spring cleaning -- something we all do to tidy a mess and bring order to clutter. I wish the author had done so more effectively.


Robert Ursin is a freelance writer from Bethel Park.


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