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Hugh McCalmont Cairns in United Kingdom


From the book “Studies in Contemporary Biography”, by James Bryce:

Hugh M’Calmont Cairns, afterwards Earl Cairns (born 1819, died 1885), was one of three remarkable Scoto-Irishmen whom the north-east corner of Ulster gave to the United Kingdom in one generation, and each of whom was foremost in the career he entered. Lord Lawrence was the strongest of Indian or Colonial administrators, and did more than any other man to save India for England in the crisis of the great Mutiny of 1857. (…)

After Lord Derby’s death, Cairns led the Tory party in the House of Lords for a time (replacing the Duke of Richmond when the latter quitted the leadership), but his very pronounced Low-Church proclivities, coupled perhaps with a certain jealousy felt toward him as a newcomer, prevented him from becoming popular there, so that ultimately the leadership of that House settled itself in the hands of Lord Salisbury, a statesman not superior to Cairns in political judgment or argumentative power, but without the disadvantage of being a lawyer, possessing a wider range of political experience, and in closer sympathy with the feelings and habits of the titled order. There were, however, some peers who, when Lord Beaconsfield died in 1881, desired to see Cairns chosen to succeed him in the leadership of the Tory party, then in opposition, in the Upper Chamber.

Whether in opposition or in power, Cairns took a prominent part in all “full-dress” political debates in the House of Lords and in the discussion of legal measures, and was indeed so absolutely master of the Chamber when such measures came under discussion, that the 187 Liberal Government, during the years from 1868 to 1874, and again from 1880 till 1885, could carry no legal reforms through the House of Lords except by his permission, which, of course, was never given when such reforms could seem to affect any political issue. Yet the vehemence of his party feeling did not overcast his judgment. It was mainly through his interposition (aided by that of Archbishop Tait) that the House of Lords consented to pass the Irish Church Bill of 1869, a measure which Cairns, of course heartily disliking it, accepted for the sake of saving to the disestablished Church a part of her funds, since these might have been lost had the Bill been rejected then and passed next year by an angrier House of Commons. Of all the members of Disraeli’s two Cabinets, he was the one whom Disraeli himself had been wont most to trust and most to rely on. (…)

In the field of law, where passion has no place, and even imagination must be content to move with clipped wings along the ground, the merits of Lord Cairns’s intellect showed to the best advantage. At the Chancery bar he was one of a trio who had not been surpassed, if ever equalled, during the nineteenth century, and whom none of our now practising advocates rivals. The other two were Mr., afterwards Lord Justice, Rolt, and Mr. Roundell Palmer, afterwards Lord Chancellor Selborne. All were admirable lawyers, but, of the three, Rolt excelled in his spirited presentation of a case and in the lively vigour of his arguments. Palmer was conspicuous for exhaustless ingenuity, and for a subtlety which sometimes led him away into reasonings too fine for the court to follow. Cairns was broad, massive, convincing, with a robust urgency of logic which seemed to grasp and fix you, so that while he spoke you could fancy no conclusion possible save that toward which he moved. His habit was to 192 seize upon what he deemed the central and vital point of the case, throwing the whole force of his argument upon that one point, and holding the judge’s mind fast to it.

All these famous men were raised to the judicial bench. Rolt remained there for a few months only, so his time was too short to permit him to enrich our jurisprudence and leave a memory of himself in the Reports. Palmer sat in the House of Lords from his accession to the Chancellorship in 1872 till his death in 1896, and, while fully sustaining his reputation as a man of eminent legal capacity, was, on the whole, less brilliant as a judge than he had been as an advocate, because a tendency to over-refinement is more dangerous in the judicial than in the forensic mind. He made an admirable Chancellor, and showed himself more industrious and more zealous for law reform than did Cairns. But Cairns was the greater judge, and became to the generation which argued before him a model of judicial excellence. In hearing a cause he was singularly patient, rarely interrupting counsel, and then only to put some pertinent question.

His figure was so still, his countenance so impassive, that people sometimes doubted whether he was really attending to all that was urged at the bar. But when the time came for him to deliver judgment, which in the House of Lords is done in the form of a speech addressed to the House in moving 193 or supporting a motion that is to become the judgment of the tribunal, it was seen how fully he had apprehended the case in all its bearings. His deliverances were never lengthy, but they were exhaustive. They went straight to the vital principles on which the question turned, stated these in the most luminous way, and applied them with unerring exactitude to the particular facts. It is as a storehouse of fundamental doctrines that his judgments are so valuable. They disclose less knowledge of case-law than do those of some other judges; but Cairns was not one of the men who love cases for their own sake, and he never cared to draw upon, still less to display, more learning than was needed for the matter in hand. It was in the grasp of the principles involved, in the breadth of view which enabled him to see these principles in their relation to one another, in the precision of the logic which drew conclusions from the principles, in the perfectly lucid language in which the principles were expounded and applied, that his strength lay. Herein he surpassed the most eminent of contemporary judges, the then Master of the Rolls, for while Jessel had perhaps a quicker mind than Cairns, he had not so wide a mind, nor one so thoroughly philosophical in the methods by which it moved.

Outside the spheres of law and politics, Cairns’s only interest was in religion. He did not seem, although a good classical scholar and a competent 194 mathematician, to care either for letters or for science. But he was a Sunday-school teacher nearly all his life. Prayer-meetings were held at his house, at which barristers, not otherwise known for their piety, but believed to desire county court judgeships, were sometimes seen. He used to take the chair at missionary and other philanthropic meetings. He was surrounded by evangelisers and clergymen. But nothing softened the austerity or melted the ice of his manners. Neither did the great position he had won seem to give a higher and broader quality to his statesmanship. It is true that in law he was wholly free from the partisanship which tinged his politics.

No one was more perfectly fair upon the bench; no one more honestly anxious to arrive at a right decision. And as a law reformer, although he effected less than might have been hoped from his abilities or expected from the absolute sway which he exercised while Chancellor in Lord Beaconsfield’s Government from 1874 to 1880, he was free from prejudice, and willing to sweep away antiquated rules or usages if they seemed to block the channel of speedy justice. But in politics this impartiality and elevation vanished even after he had risen so high that he did not need to humour the passions or confirm the loyalty of his own associates. He seemed to be not merely a party man, which an English politician is forced to be, 195 because if he stands outside party he cannot effect anything, but a partisan—that is, a man wholly devoted to his party, who sees everything through its eyes, and argues every question in its interests.

He gave the impression of being either unwilling or unable to rise to a higher and more truly national view, and sometimes condescended to arguments whose unsoundness his penetrating intellect could hardly have failed to detect. His professional tone had been blameless, but at the bar the path of rectitude is plain and smooth, and a scrupulous mind finds fewer cases of conscience present themselves in a year than in Parliament within a month. Yet if in this respect Cairns failed to reach a level worthy of his splendid intellect, the defect was due not to any selfish view of his own interest, but rather to the narrowness of the groove into which his mind had fallen, and to the atmosphere of Orange sentiment in which he had grown up. As a politician he is already beginning to be forgotten; but as a judge he will be held in honourable remembrance as one of the five or six most brilliant luminaries that have adorned the English bench since those remote days[29] in which the beginning of legal memory is placed.

Life and Work

Hugh McCalmont Cairns, 1st Earl (1819-1885), Irish statesman, and lord chancellor of England, was born at Cultra, Co. Down, Ireland, on the 27th of December 1819. His father, William Cairns, formerly a captain in the 47th regiment, came of a family [See History of the family of Cairnes or Cairns, by H.C. Lawlor (1907)] of Scottish origin, which migrated to Ireland in the time of James I. Hugh Cairns was his second son, and was educated at Belfast academy and at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a senior moderatorship in classics in 1838. In 1844 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, to which he had migrated from Lincoln’s Inn. During his first years at the chancery bar, Cairns showed little promise of the eloquence which afterwards distinguished him. Never a rapid speaker, he was then so slow and diffident, that he feared that this defect might interfere with his legal career. Fortunately he was soon able to rid himself of the idea that he was only fit for practice as a conveyancer. In 1852 he entered parliament as member for Belfast, and his Inn, on his becoming a Q.C. in 1856, made him a bencher.

In 1858 Cairns was appointed solicitor-general, and was knighted, and in May of that year made two of his most brilliant and best-remembered speeches in the House of Commons. In the first, he defended the action of Lord Ellenborough, who, as president of the board of control, had not only censured Lord Canning for a proclamation issued by him as governor-general of India but had made public the despatch in which the censure was conveyed. On the other occasion referred to, Sir Hugh Cairns spoke in opposition to Lord John Russell’s amendment to the motion for the second reading of the government Reform Bill, winning the most cordial commendation of Disraeli.

Disraeli’s appreciation found an opportunity for displaying itself some years later, when in 1868 he invited him to be lord chancellor in the brief Conservative administration which followed Lord Derby’s resignation of the leadership of his party. Meanwhile, Cairns had maintained his reputation in many other debates, both when his party was in power and when it was in opposition. In 1866 Lord Derby, returning to office, had made him attorney-general, and in the same year he had availed himself of a vacancy to seek the comparative rest of the court of appeal. While a lord justice he had been offered a peerage, and though at first unable to accept it, he had finally done so on a relative, a member of the wealthy family of McCalmont, providing the means necessary for the endowment of a title.

The appointment of Baron Cairns of Garmoyle as lord chancellor in 1868 involved the superseding of Lord Chelmsford, an act which apparently was carried out by Disraeli with less tact than might have been expected of him. Lord Chelmsford bitterly declared that he had been sent away with less courtesy than if he had been a butler, but the testimony of Lord Malmesbury is strong that the affair was the result of an understanding arrived at when Lord Chelmsford took office. Disraeli held office on this occasion for a few months only, and when Lord Derby died in 1869, Lord Cairns became the leader of the Conservative opposition in the House of Lords. He had distinguished himself in the Commons by his resistance to the Roman Catholics’ Oath Bill brought in in 1865; in the Lords, his efforts on behalf of the Irish Church were equally strenuous.

His speech on Gladstone’s Suspensory Bill was afterwards published as a pamphlet, but the attitude which he and the peers who followed him had taken up, in insisting on their amendments to the preamble of the bill, was one difficult to maintain, and Lord Cairns made terms with Lord Granville in circumstances which precluded his consulting his party first. He issued a circular to explain his action in taking a course for which many blamed him. Viewed dispassionately, the incident appears to have exhibited his statesmanlike qualities in a marked degree, for he secured concessions which would have been irretrievably lost by continued opposition. Not long after this, Lord Cairns resigned the leadership of his party in the upper house, but he had to resume it in 1870 and took a strong part in opposing the Irish Land Bill in that year.

On the Conservatives coming into power in 1874, he again became lord chancellor; in 1878 he was made Viscount Garmoyle and Earl Cairns; and in 1880 his party went out of office. In opposition he did not take as prominent a part as previously, but when Lord Beaconsfield died in 1881, there were some Conservatives who considered that his title to lead the party was better than that of Lord Salisbury. His health, however, never robust, had for many years shown intermittent signs of failing. He had periodically made enforced retirements to the Riviera, and for many years had had a house at Bournemouth, and it was here that he died on the 2nd of April 1885.

Cairns was a great lawyer, with an immense grasp of first principles and the power to express them; his judgments taking the form of luminous expositions or treatises upon the law governing the case before him, rather than of controversial discussions of the arguments adduced by counsel or of analysis of his own reasons. Lucidity and logic were the leading characteristics of his speeches in his professional capacity and in the political arena. In an eloquent tribute to his memory in the House of Lords, Lord Chief Justice Coleridge expressed the high opinion of the legal profession upon his merits and upon the severe integrity and single-minded desire to do his duty, which animated him in his selections for the bench. His piety was reflected by that of his great opponent, rival and friend, Lord Selborne.

Like Lord Selborne and Lord Hatherley, Cairns found leisure at his busiest for teaching in the Sunday-school, but it is not recorded of them (as of him) that they refused to undertake work at the bar on Saturdays, in order to devote that day to hunting. He used to say that his great incentive to hard work at his profession in early days was his desire to keep hunters, and he retained his keenness as a sportsman as long as he was able to indulge it. Of his personal characteristics, it may be said that he was a spare man, with a Scottish, not an Irish, cast of countenance. He was scrupulously neat in his personal appearance, faultless in bands and necktie, and fond of wearing a flower in his button-hole. His chilly manner, coupled with his somewhat austere religious principles, had no doubt much to do with the fact that he was never a popular man. His friends claimed for him a keen sense of humour, but it was not to be detected by those whose knowledge of him was professional rather than personal. Probably he thought the exhibition of humour incompatible with the dignity of high judicial position. Of his legal attainments there can be no doubt.

His influence upon the legislation of the day was largely felt where questions affecting religion and the Church were involved and in matters peculiarly affecting his own profession. His power was felt, as has been said, both when he was in office and when his party was in opposition. He had been chairman of the committee on judicature reform, and although he was not in office when the Judicature Act was passed, all the reforms in the legal procedure of his day owed much to him. He took part, when out of office, in the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, and was directly responsible for the Conveyancing Acts of 1881-1882, and [v.04 p.0953]for the Settled Land Act. Many other statutes in which he was largely concerned might be quoted. His judgments are to be found in the Law Reports and those who wish to consider his oratory should read the speeches above referred to, or that delivered in the House of Lords on the Compensation for Disturbance Bill in 1880, and his memorable criticism of Mr Gladstone’s policy in the Transvaal, after Majuba Hill. (See Hansard and The Times, 1st of April 1881.)

His style of delivery was, as a rule, cold to a marked degree. The term “frozen oratory” has been applied to his speeches, and it has been said of them that they flowed “like water from a glacier…. The several stages of his speech are like steps cut out in ice, as sharply defined, as smooth and as cold.” Lord Caims married in 1856 Mary Harriet, eldest daughter of John McNeill, of Parkmount, Co. Antrim, by whom he had issue five sons and two daughters. He was succeeded in the earldom by his second but eldest surviving son, Arthur William (1861-1890), who left one daughter, and from whom the title passed to his two next younger brothers in succession, Herbert John, third earl (1863-1905), and Wilfrid Dallas, fourth earl (b. 1865).

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)


See Also

Further Reading

The Times, 3rd and 14th of April 1885; Law Journal, Law Times, Solicitors’ Journal, 11th of April 1885; the Law Magazine, vol. xi. p. 133; the Law Quarterly, vol. i. p. 365; Earl Russell’s Recollections; Memoirs of Lord Malmesbury; Sir Theodore Martin, The Life of the Prince Consort; E. Manson, Builders of our Law; J.B. Atlay, Victorian Chancellors, vol. ii.

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  • Article Name: Hugh McCalmont Cairns
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