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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Lord Mansfield

  • [William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, a British lawyer and orator; born at Perth, Scotland, 1704; educated at Oxford; called to the bar, 1731; solicitor-general, 1743, and entered Parliament; attorney-general, 1754; chief-justice of the King’s Bench for more than thirty years from 1756; raised to the peerage in that year; died 1793.]
  • The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it.

  • In the case of James Somersett, a negro, who was carried from Africa to Jamaica, and sold there. Being brought by his master to England, he claimed his freedom by a writ of habeas corpus; and, after a hearing before the lord chief justice, was discharged. “Every man,” said Mansfield, “who comes into England, is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may heretofore have suffered, and whatever may be the color of his skin:—
  • ‘Quamvis ille niger, quamvis tu candidus.’”
  • 20 State Trials, 1.
  • Cowper versified the decision:—
  • “Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
  • Receive our air, that moment they are free;
  • They touch our country, and their shackles fall.”
  • The Task, II. 40.
  • Chief-Justice Taney, of the Supreme Court of the United States, giving the opinion of the court adverse to the petition of Dred Scott, a slave who had been carried by his master from Missouri into Illinois, thence to the Territory of Wisconsin, and back to Missouri, asserted that “for more than a century before the Declaration of Independence, the negroes had been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
  • The greater the truth, the greater the libel.

  • A maxim of the law in vogue at the time of the English trials for malicious libel, while Mansfield presided over the King’s Bench, but not to be found ipsissimis verbis in any of his published decisions. Mr. Christian, in a note to “Blackstone’s Commentaries,” IV. 150, says, “The words of Lord Mansfield, ‘The greater truth, the greater libel,’ which his enemies wished with much eagerness to convert to the prejudice of that noble peer’s reputation as a judge, were founded in principle and supported by very ancient authority.” The maxim is said to have originated in the Star Chamber. Chancellor Kent, in People v. Creswell, 3 Johnson, 363, says, “The prohibition to the defendant, in criminal proceedings, to give the truth of an alleged libel in evidence, first received authoritative sanction in a court of common law by the nisi prius decision of Lord Raymond in 1731, in Francklyn’s case, 17 State Trials, 626. The doctrine never extended in its scope beyond criminal cases.” In the report of the nisi prius case of The King v. Woodhull, 20 State Trials, 902, Lord Mansfield said to the jury, “My brother Glynn has admitted that the truth or falsehood of a libel, whether public or private, however prosecuted, is out of the question.” “At this assertion of Lord Mansfield,” the report adds, “every man in court was shocked. Serjeant Glynn was astonished, and, on application made to him instantly by several of the counsel and his friends to contradict Lord Mansfield’s assertion, Mr. Glynn, with that honest diffidence natural to him, asked them, ‘Good God! did I admit any thing like what Lord Mansfield says? Did I, in any incorrectness in the expression, or by any mistake, use words that could be so misunderstood or misinterpreted?’” From the lord chief justice’s words in this or in some other and unreported nisi prius case, the doctrine of that day may have become attached to his name, as a doggerel verse shows to have been the case:—
  • “old Mansfield, who writes like the Bible,
  • Says, ‘The more ’tis a truth, sir, the more ’tis a libel.’”
  • Lord Campbell, in his “Life of Mansfield,” reviewing the celebrated criminal libel trials of this time, says, “For half a century longer the maxim prevailed, ‘The greater the truth, the greater the libel,’ until the passage of Campbell’s Libel Bill, 1845, permitting the truth to be given in evidence, and referring it to the jury to decide whether the defendant was actuated by malice or not.”
  • Justitia fiat, ruat cœlum.

  • In the case of John Wilkes, 1768, Lord Mansfield, reversing the sentence of outlawry passed upon Wilkes in his absence, for writing and publishing No. 45 of “The North Briton” in 1764, said, “The constitution does not allow reasons of state to influence our judgment. God forbid it should! We must not regard political consequences, however formidable they might be; if rebellion was the certain consequence, we are bound to say, ‘Justitia fiat, ruat cœlum.’” These words are placed in quotation marks in the printed report of the case; but their origin is unknown. Wherever used, even before Mansfield’s time, they appear without the sanction of a name. The Emperor Ferdinand I., brother and successor of Charles V., had a motto, the authorship of which contemporaries attributed to him,—“Fiat justitia, pereat mundus,”—which, like Mansfield’s quotation, may be translated, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall;” and Luther had a maxim, “Law must take its course, though the heavens fall” (Das Recht muss seinen Gang haben, und sollte die Welt darüber zu Grunde gehen). “Do well and right, and let the world sink,” says George Herbert (“Country Parson,” chap. xxix.). A line of Corneille has been already quoted (see Antoine Barnave),—
  • “Tombe que moi le ciel,” etc.
  • Joseph Jekyll, the witty barrister, declined an invitation to dine at Lansdowne House, because he was engaged to meet the judges. During dinner, part of the ceiling of the dining-room of Lansdowne House fell down: Jekyll, when explaining his absence, said, “I was asked to ruat cœlum, but dined instead with fiat justitia.”—Oddities of the Law.
  • In the same case of The King v. Wilkes, Mansfield said, “But it is that popularity which follows, not that which is run after; it is that popularity which, sooner or later, never fails to do justice to the pursuit of noble ends by noble means.”
  • Abaft the binnacle.

  • During the trial of a case of collision between two ships at sea, a sailor testified that at the time specified he was standing “abaft the binnacle.” Mansfield asked him where the binnacle was; at which the witness, who had been taking a large share of grog before coming into court, exclaimed, loud enough to be heard by all present, “A pretty fellow to be a judge, who does not know where abaft the binnacle is!” Lord Mansfield replied, without threatening to commit him for contempt, “Well, my friend, fit me for my office by telling me where abaft the binnacle is: you have already shown me the meaning of ‘half-seas over.’”—CAMPBELL: Life.
  • When Sir Fletcher Norton, who was noted for his want of courtesy, said in a case before the Chief Justice, “My lord, I can illustrate the point in my own person: I myself have two little manors,” “We all know that, Sir Fletcher,” interrupted Mansfield.
  • He translated numine salus, which a quack had put upon his carriage, “God bless the patient.”
  • To an army officer, appointed governor of a West India island, and obliged to administer justice, Lord Mansfield gave the following advice: “Decide promptly, but never give any reasons. Your decisions may be right, but your reasons are sure to be wrong.”
  • Dr. Johnson said of Mansfield, that it was wonderful “with how little real superiority of mind men can make an eminent figure in public life.” He accounted for the success of the polished Murray, who “drank champagne with the wits,” to his English education. Pope gives him a flattering line:—
  • “How sweet an Ovid, Murray was our boast!”
  • Dunciad, IV. 169.