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Erskine, the leader of the English bar, and its pride and glory at that time, came not unfrequently amongst us, to enjoy an hour or two, stolen from his immense and overflowing business.
It is a pardonable digression, if it can be deemed a digression, to say a little of this great man; for such he must be esteemed by every one who is capable of taking a full length view of a most singular and gifted mind -a mind, to whose endowments, and a character, to whose good qualities, there has been of late a growing insensibility. For I am afraid, that the “ extinctus amabitur, the posthumous affection which sometimes repays with usury the neglect of living reputation, that even this pittance is denied to Lord Erskine. Certainly, his closing day fell in mists and in cloudiness, and was ill-suited to the promise of his early, and the radiance of his meridian greatness. But that his unequalled forensic talents, his unfaltering, adamantine integrity amid all the lures and temptations under which the ambition of meaner minds has sunk for ever; his delightful playfulness in the social circle ; his zeal for human happiness, and human
freedom,—that these should be forgotten in an age, that sets up such high pretensions to correct and impartial estimates of those who adorn it, is a mournful paradox.
The truth is, that the mere idolaters of fortune have too much sway over our opinions of the great and good. They are a numerous and a powerful faction, and they have had a sensible influence in the depreciation of Lord Erskine. The last days of this eminent man clouded by penury and its cares,
a sufficient signal for the whole tribe of flatteries, that were wont to greet him from a thousand tongues, when his very name was pronounced, to glide by on the other side, and to leave him unsaluted. Then walked forth the whole brood of crawling and envious passions; long buried emulations, and the cherished recollections of his former masteries over the mean and the little; and many took ample vengeance upon one, who overshadowed them in his hour of might, and, from the glance of whose eye, they would formerly have shrunk with affright.
Those who recollect the King's-Bench bar in the best days of Erskine—have they since witnessed an advocate similar, or even second to him ? Is there one leader in. Westminster-Hall, whom either good luck, or talent, or the attorneys have raised to that pre-eminence, that can show so many sound and unequivocal titles to it? The late Lord Kenyon was as strongly opposed to Erskine's politics as a man could be. The colour and complexion of their minds were wholly different. They came often into collision at the period to which I refer, which was about thirty years ago; and their sentiments upon the judicial questions, which so frequently arose in cases of libel and sedition (and it was a time of bitter intestine division), were as far asunder as the poles. It was the age, too, of petulant and intemperate Attorney-Generals, for no one considered himself fit for his situation if he did not file a due portion of ex-officio informations. But even in those bad-humoured times, that excellent and venerable lawyer spoke and deemed well of Erskine; and if any one could rightiy take offence at his tone and manner, which were sometimes indignant even to vehemence, in those
causes of high concernment, into which Erskine was accustomed to infuse his whole soul-it was Lord Kenyon, for I have seen the tears start from his eyes, after some little bickering had arisen between them.
I had been on a short visit to Richmond, and was returning to town on foot, a conveyance not inconvenient to a poor barrister, briefless and speechless in the back rows of the Court. An old coach came rumbling along and overtook me. It was one of those vehicles that reminded me of a Duke or Marquis under the old règime of France, retaining, in indigence and want, the faded finery of his wardrobe. Its coronet was scarcely discernible, and its gildings were mouldy; yet it seemed tenacious of what little remained of its dignity, and unwilling to subside into a mere hackney-coach. I believe I might have looked rather wistfully at it, for it was a sultry day, when I perceived a head with a red night-cap suddenly pop out from the window, and heard myself addressed by name, with the offer of a cast to London.
It was Lord Kenyon, who was returning from
his house at Marsh-gate, and I gladly accepted the invitation. He made the little journey quite delightful to me, by an abundance of most characteristic anecdotes of the bar in his own time; of Jack Lee, Wallace, Bower, Mingay, Howarth,* the last of whom, he said, was drowned in the Thames on a Sunday water-excursion. The good old man was evidently affected by the regrets which his name awakened, and they seemed the more poignant, because his friend was called to his account in an act of profanation. But it was the sin of a good man,” he observed," and Sunday was the only day which a lawyer in full business could spare for his recreations."
Insensibly the conversation turned on. Mr. Erskine. I know not what perversity of feeling came across me, nor do I recollect precisely what I objected to that eminent man, but it was a repetition of some of the ill-tempered animadversions of Westminster-Hall, that were then current. Young man,” said the Chief Justice,
* He was a King's Counsel. At his death, Mingay obtained the temporary lead of the King's-Bench, but was soon afterwards thrust out from it by Erskine.