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Thomas Erskine in United Kingdom

Erskine Thomas 1st Baron Erskine of Restormel

Introduction to Thomas Erskine

Thomas Erskine (1750-1823), British statesman and noted advocate, who at various times successfully defended the principles of freedom of the press, trial by jury, and the right to select one’s own counsel.

Erskine was born in Edinburgh on January 10, 1750. He was educated at the University of Saint Andrews and at Trinity College, the University of Cambridge. He was called to the bar in England in 1778 and won immediate success because of his remarkable eloquence and skill.

In 1781 Erskine conducted a notable defense of Lord George Gordon, who was accused of treason for leading the struggle to compel Parliament to reestablish the disabilities on Roman Catholics. In this case, Erskine gave the death-blow to the doctrine of constructive treason, by which any effort to alter the constitutional status of the sovereign had been construed as an attempt to bring about the ruler’s death.

In defending William Davies Shipley, the dean of Saint Asaph, accused in 1784 of seditious libel, Erskine contended unsuccessfully for recognition of the doctrine that juries, not judges, are the proper parties to determine when published statements are libelous; his view prevailed, however, when it was embodied in the Libel Act of 1792.

In 1789 he was appointed attorney general to the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, but lost the office in 1791, when he committed himself to appear as the advocate of the Anglo-American political philosopher Thomas Paine, who was accused of sedition following the publication of his Rights of Man. In 1800 he defended James Hadfield, a madman who had made an unsuccessful attempt to shoot King George III. Erskine saved his client from a sentence of death, obtaining instead a sentence of life imprisonment on the ground of insanity and thereby modifying the legal attitude toward criminal responsibility.

He was created 1st Baron Erskine of Restormel in 1806. In the same year he was appointed lord chancellor of England, but resigned one year later. Throughout his career Erskine used his exceptional talents in defense of people accused of crimes under oppressive laws, and he was influential in modifying judicial views in a liberal direction. He is considered the greatest advocate ever to appear before the English bar. Erskine died in West Lothian, Scotland, on November 17, 1823.” (1)

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  • Information about Thomas Erskine in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
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    • Article Name: Thomas Erskine
    • Author: Danny W.
    • Description: Erskine Thomas 1st Baron Erskine of Restormel Introduction to Thomas Erskine Thomas Erskine (1750-1823), British statesman [...]

    This entry was last updated: August 24, 2014

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