John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell

John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell

John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell, PC (17 September 1779 – 24 June 1861) was a British Liberal politician, lawyer, and man of letters.

Legal career and Parliament

The second son of the Rev. George Campbell, D.D., he was born at Cupar, Fife, Scotland, where his father was for fifty years parish minister. For a few years Campbell studied at the United College, St Andrews. In 1800 he was entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn, and, after working briefly for the "Morning Chronicle", was called to the bar in 1806, and at once began to report cases decided at "nisi prius" (ie. on jury trial). Of these reports he published four volumes; they extend from Michaelmas 1807 to Hilary 1816. Campbell also devoted himself to criminal business, but failed to attract much attention behind the bar.

It was not till 1827 that Campbell took silk and began to develop political aspirations. He had unsuccessfully contested the borough of Stafford in 1826, but was returned for it in 1830 and again in 1831. In the House of Commons he showed an excessive zeal for public business, speaking frequently but apparently without eloquence or spirit. He stood as a moderate Whig, in favor of the connection of church and state and opposed to triennial parliaments and the secret ballot. His main object, like Lord Brougham, was the amelioration of the law by the abolition of cumbrous technicalities rather than the assertion of new principles.

To this end his name is associated with the Fines and Recoveries Abolition Act 1833; the Inheritance Act 1833; the Dower Act 1833; the Real Property Limitation Act 1833; the Wills Act 1837; the Copyhold Tenure Act 1841; and the Judgments Act 1838. The second was called for by the preference which the common law gave to a distant collateral over the brother of the half-blood of the first purchaser; the fourth conferred an indefeasible title on adverse possession for twenty years (a term shortened by Lord Cairns in 1875 to twelve years); the fifth reduced the number of witnesses required by law to attest wills, and removed the distinction which existed in this respect between freeholds and copyholds; the last freed an innocent debtor from imprisonment only before final judgment (or on what was termed mesne process), but the principle stated by Campbell that only fraudulent debtors should be imprisoned was ultimately given effect to for England and Wales in 1869.

Perhaps his most important appearance as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Stafford was in defence of Lord John Russell's first Reform Bill (1831). In a speech, based on Charles James Fox's declaration against constitution-mongering, he supported both the enfranchising and the disfranchising clauses. The following year (1832) found Campbell Solicitor General, a knight and member for Dudley, which he represented until 1834. In that year he became Attorney General and was returned by Edinburgh, for which he sat until his ennoblement in 1841.

In 1840 Campbell conducted the prosecution against John Frost, one of the three Chartist leaders who attacked the town of Newport, all of whom were found guilty of high treason. Next year, as the Melbourne administration was near its close, Plunkett, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was forced to resign, and was succeeded by Campbell, who was raised to the peerage as Baron Campbell, of St Andrews in the County of Fife. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Campbell, the eldest daughter of the first Baron Abinger, whom he had married in 1821, had in 1836 been created Baroness Stratheden in recognition of the withdrawal of his claim to the mastership of the rolls.

The post of chancellor Campbell held for only sixteen days, and then resigned it to his successor Sir Edward Sugden. It was during the period 1841–1849, when he had no legal duty, except the self-imposed one of occasionally hearing Scottish appeals in the House of Lords, that Lord Campbell turned to literary pursuits. However, he did take up the cause of the families of railway accident victims in introducing and stearing through the Commons, the Fatal Accidents Act 1846, known as Lord Campbell's Act.

Literary endeavours

Following in the path struck out by Strickland in her "Lives of the Queens of England", and by Lord Brougham's "Lives of Eminent Statesmen", Campbell produced, in 1849, "The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, from the earliest times till the reign of King George IV", in seven voloumes. Intended to evolve a history of jurisprudence from the truthful portraits of England's greatest lawyers, it exhibits the results of desultory learning, without trace of scientific symmetry or literary taste. While charming style, vivid fancy, and exhaustive research were not to be expected from a hard-worked barrister; he must be held responsible for frequent plagiarisms, more frequent inaccuracies of detail, the colossal vanity which obtrudes on almost every page, the hasty insinuations against the memory of the great departed who were to him as giants, and the petty sneers which he condescends to print against his own contemporaries, with whom he was living from day to day on terms of apparently sincere friendship.

These faults are apparent in the lives of Lord Hardwicke, Lord Eldon, Lord Lyndhurst and Lord Brougham, several of whom were still alive at the time of publication. Campbell followed it with "Lives of the Chief Justices of England, from the Norman Conquest till the death of Lord Mansfield", which was similar in both construction and lack of merit.

In the House of Lords

While composing his Key to all Mythologies Campbell remained active in the House of Lords and spoke frequently against legislation proposed by Sir Robert Peel's government. On the resignation of Lord Denman in 1850, Campbell was appointed Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench. Although well versed in common law, Campbell was criticized for attempting to influence juries in their estimate of the credibility of evidence. He assisted in the reforms of special pleading at Westminster, and had a recognized place with Brougham and Lyndhurst in legal discussions in the House of Lords. In 1859 he was made Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, possibly on the understanding that Bethell should succeed as soon as he could be spared from the House of Commons. His short tenure was undistinguished, and he died in 1861.



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