Born 1705 Died 1793
William Murray was born at Scone in Perthshire, on the 2nd of March 1705. He was a younger son of David Murray, 5th Viscount Stormont (c.1665-1731), the dignity having been granted in 1621 by James I to his friend and helper, Sir David Murray (d.1631), a Scottish politician of some note. Lord Stormont's family was Jacobite in its politics, and his second son James (c.1690-1728), being apparently mixed up in some of the plots of the time, joined the court of the exiled Stuarts and in 1721 was created Earl of Dunbar, by James Edward, the Old Pretender.
William Murray was educated at Perth grammar school and Westminster School, of which he was a king's scholar. Entering Christ Church, Oxford, he graduated in 1727. A friend of the family, Lord Foley, provided the funds for his legal training, and he became a member of Lincoln's Inn on his departure from Oxford, being called to the bar in 1730. He was a good scholar and mixed with the best literary society, being an intimate friend of Alexander Pope. His appearance in. some important Scottish appeal cases brought him into notice, and in Scotland at least he acquired an immense reputation by his appearance for the city of Edinburgh when it was threatened with disfranchisement for the affair of the Porteous mob. His English practice had as yet been scanty, but in 1737 a single speech in a jury trial of note placed him at the head of the bar, and from this time he had all he could attend to. In 1738 he married Lady Elizabeth Finch, daughter of the Earl of Winchelsea.
His political career began in 1742 with his appointment as solicitor-general. During the next fourteen years he was one of the most conspicuous figures in the par1iamentary history of the time. By birth a Jacobite, by association a Tory, he was nevertheless a moderate, and his politics were really dominated by his legal interests. Although holding an office of subordinate rank, he was the chief defender of the government in the House of Commons, and during the time that Pitt was in opposition had to bear the brunt of his attacks. In 1754 he became attorney-general, and for the next two years acted as Leader of the House of Commons under the administration of the Duke of Newcastle. But in 1756, when the government was evidently approaching its fall, an unexpected vacancy occurred in the chief justiceship of the kings bench, and he claimed the office, being at the same time raised to the peerage as Baron Mansfield.
From this time the chief interest of his career lies in his judicial work, but he did not wholly dissever himself from politics. He became by a singular arrangement, only repeated in the case of Lord Ellenborough, a member of the cabinet, and remained in that position through various changes of administration for nearly fifteen years, and, although he persistently refused the chancellorship, he acted as Speaker of the House of Lords while the Great Seal was in commission.
During the time of Pitt's ascendancy he took but little part in politics, but while Lord Bute was in power his influence was very considerable, and seems mostly to have been exerted in favour of a more moderate line of policy. He was on the whole a supporter of the prerogative, but within definite limits. Macaulay terms him, justly enough, the father of modern Toryism, of Toryism modified to suit an order of things in which the House of Commons is the most powerful body in the state. During the stormy session of 1770 he came into violent collision, with Chatham and Camden in the questions that arose out of the Middlesex election and the trials for political libel; and in the subsequent years he was made the subject of the bitter attacks of Junius, in which his early Jacobite connections, and his apparent leanings to arbitrary power, were used against him with extraordinary ability and virulence. In 1776 he was created Earl of Mansfield. In 1783, although he declined to re-enter the cabinet, he acted as Speaker of the House of Lords during the coalition ministry, and with this his political career may be said to have closed. He continued to act as chief justice until his resignation in June 1788, and after five years spent in retirement died on the 20th of March 1793.
He left no family but his title had been re-granted in 1792 with a direct remainder to his nephew David Murray, 7th Viscount Stormont. (1727-1796). The 2nd earl was ambassador to Vienna and then to Paris;, be was Secretary of State for the southern department from 1779 to 1782, and lord president of the council in 1783, and again from 1794 until his death. In 1906 his descendant Alan David Murray (b. 1864) became 6th Earl of Mansfield.
Lord Mansfield's great reputation rests chiefly on his judicial career. The political trials over which he presided, although they gave rise to numerous accusations against him, were conducted with singular fairness and propriety. He was accused with especial bitterness of favouring arbitrary power by the law which he laid down in the trials for libel which arose out of the publications of Junius and Home Tooke, and which at a later time he reaffirmed in the case of the dean of St Asaph (see Libel). But we must remember that his view of the law was concurred in by the great majority of the judges and lawyers of that time, and was supported by undoubted precedents.
In other instances, when the government was equally concerned, he was wholly free from suspicion. He supported Lord Camden's decision against general warrants, and reversed the outlawry of Wilkes. He was always ready to protect the rights of conscience, whether they were claimed by Dissenters or Catholics, and the popular fury which led to the destruction of his house during the Gordon riots was mainly due to the fact that a Catholic priest, who was accused of saying Mass, had escaped the penal laws by his charge to the jury.
His chief celebrity, however, is founded upon the consummate ability with which he discharged the civil duties of his office. He has always been recognized as the founder of English mercantile law. The common law as it existed before his time was wholly inadequate to cope with the new cases and customs which arose with the increasing development of commerce. The facts were left to the jury to decide as best they might, and no principle was ever extracted from them which might serve as a guide in subsequent cases. Mansfield found the law in this chaotic state, and left it in a form that was almost equivalent to a code. He defined almost every principle that governed commercial transactions in such a manner that his successors had only to apply the rules he had laid down. His knowledge of Roman and foreign law, and the general width of his education, freed him from the danger of relying too exclusively upon narrow precedents, and afforded him a storehouse of principles and illustrations, while the grasp and acuteness of his intellect enabled him to put his judgments in a form which almost always commanded assent. A similar influence was exerted by him in other branches of the common law; and although, after his retirement, a reaction took place, and he was regarded for a while as one who had corrupted the ancient principles of English law, these prejudices passed rapidly away, and the value of his work in bringing the older law into harmony with the needs of modern society has long been fully recognized.
See Holiday's Life (1797); Campbell's Chief Justices; Foss's Judges; Greville's Memoirs, passim; Horace Walpole's Letters; and other memoirs and works on the period.
Being the entry for MANSFIELD, WILLIAM MURRAY, 1ST EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.