Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXXV. The Permission of Lawyers by Profession, aspiring to Honours in the Gift of the Crown, to have the greatest Influence in the Legislature, a Circumstance unfavourable to Liberty. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXXV. The Permission of Lawyers by Profession, aspiring to Honours in the Gift of the Crown, to have the greatest Influence in the Legislature, a Circumstance unfavourable to Liberty. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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The Permission of Lawyers by Profession, aspiring to Honours in the Gift of the Crown, to have the greatest Influence in the Legislature, a Circumstance unfavourable to Liberty.
When advocates address each other at the bar, they adopt the appellation of “learned brother.” There certainly is a necessity for great learning in the profession of the long robe. But of what kind is the learning required? It is undoubtedly of a kind very little connected with philosophy or enlargement of the mind. It is confined to local customs, judicial decisions, the statutes of a single nation, and the practice of the courts. It pores upon the letter of the law, and scarcely dares to contemplate the spirit. It is for the most part employed in minute disquisitions, in finding exceptions, in seeking subterfuges, and often in making the great eternal rules of equity give way to the literal meaning of a narrow and unjust statute, or the principles of some former determination, made by unenlightened men in times little removed from barbarism, and certainly both slavish and superstitious.
Is the education of professional and practising lawyers particularly calculated to expand the intellect, or to fill the heart with sentiments of peculiar honour and generosity; such sentiments as alone can constitute a worthy lawgiver, and an all-accomplished statesman? Is it not confined to particular and minute objects, instead of taking in the whole horizon of human concernments? Some of those who have risen to the first honours and emoluments, have had a truly liberal education; but many have been trained either in the office of an attorney, or special pleader in exercises that contribute no more to liberalize or improve the heart, than the copying of instruments, the studying of precedents, the perusal of statutes, and the knowledge of forms. The finest faculties of the human constitution, the imagination and sentimental affections, have little room for play, where the eye and memory are chiefly concerned; and where the mind is obliged to labour in the trammels of dismal formalities, like the horse in harness, dragging a heavy vehicle in the wheel-ruts made by those who have gone before, without the liberty of deviation. A hard head, a cold heart, with a tenacious memory and firm nerves, are likely to succeed best in such toil, which requires less of speed than of patient plodding perseverance.
A dull man, trained in this dull manner, may become a very useful lawyer, and certainly deserving of all the fees and emoluments of his profession. But does it follow that he must be a statesman, a senator, a cabinet counsellor, fitted to determine on questions of peace and war, and to consult and promote the happiness of human nature? A lawyer, by singular felicity of genius and disposition, may be fit for the momentous task; and I only ask whether his education, and the studies and employments of his profession, are such as to render him preeminently a statesman, and director of the measures of government? Because he may, for a fee, plead successfully on any side, cunningly conduct a trial, or skilfully expound a statute, is he therefore more likely than all others to frame laws of the most beneficent kind, having a view, not to particular cases only, but to the general welfare? All his studies of jurisprudence have been merely for the sake of lucre, and not free and disinterested, like those of the general scholar, the philosopher, and philanthropist.
The lawyer has, however, better opportunities for displaying his knowledge and abilities than the members of other professions. Men have recourse to him on matters very dear to their hearts; matters of property. With the sagacity of a very moderate intellect, and a knowledge acquired by dint of mere labour and long practice, he may be able to transact their pecuniary business with skill and success. He becomes, therefore, a favourite with men of property in the nation, which, whenever corruption prevails, will contribute much to push any aspirant up the ladder of promotion. He soon pants for rewards extraneous to his profession. It is not enough to be a member of parliament or a judge, he must be a peer of the realm, a counsellor of state, a chief director in the upper house. It is painful to behold all the old nobility, educated, as they have been, at the greatest expense, improved by private tutors and by travel, crouching to a man, who has acquired effrontery in the courts below, and whose unblushing audacity has been the chief cause of the elevation, at which himself is surprised.
Men like these, emboldened by success, and accustomed, from their earliest entrance into active life, to browbeat and overbear, assume a right to guide the opinions of the senate and the council in the most important measures of state. They become, in fact, the rulers of the nation; but owing their elevation to the favour of a court, and placing all their expectations of farther honours on its continuance, they become devoted to its purposes. They are, in fact, still attornies and solicitors, ready to exert all their powers of sophistry, and to exhaust all their stores of chicanery, to defend the measures of the minister, by rendering law, as far as they can, a leaden rule. The old peers sit in silent admiration; while men, furnished with all the subtleties of practising lawyers, long hacknied and hardened in the paltry business of private individuals, presume to dictate peace or war, to impede or prevent salutary reform, and keep the church, the army, and the navy, under their supreme controul. Such is their habitual volubility and confirmed assurance, that men of more liberal minds, but of less self-conceit and less notoriety, stand in awe of them, and suffer them, with abject acquiescence, to domineer. But however they may oppose the people's right, and the happiness of the public, they are sure to espouse the cause of those from whom comes their promotion. They therefore contribute to diffuse the spirit of despotism, more than any other profession.
“But,” says the minister, “their assistance in the lower house is not sufficient, we must have able men in the house of lords; therefore we must have new men; and they must be selected from a profession accustomed to public business, and which gives those who belong to it opportunities of making an open display of their abilities.” This is a sad compliment to the hereditary nobility; as it seems to argue that they are totally unfit to conduct the business that comes before them, without attornies and solicitors from below, who are ennobled merely to save the credit of the peerage. But the truth is, the minister wishes to have some sharp and tractable tools, by which he may do his dirty work, uninterrupted by the interference of those who, possessing a constitutional right to examine it, would perhaps often censure it, if they were not overawed and overborne by those who pretend to be initiated in the mysteries of law.
In consequence of this management, a whole profession (always happily, with a few splendid exceptions,) extremely busy both with tongue and pen, is constantly enlisted in the service of a minister. A great number of attornies and solicitors, besides the gentlemen officially honoured with those names, are constantly retained on the side of the court, and consequently lean, for their own sakes, and with a hope of making their families, to the extension of crown influence and prerogative. A set of men, so subtle, so active, so attentive to interest, must serve any cause which they choose to espouse; and there is no doubt but that they greatly serve (in the hope of serving themselves) the cause of despotism.
Let any one who is unacquainted with the pains taken by modern ministers to retain the lawyers on the side of prerogative, inspect the court calendar, and remark how great a portion of the modern peers have owed their coronets entirely to their profession as lawyers, to their qualifications as mere men of business in detail, with very scanty knowledge of any thing else, and with small claims to excellence as patriots, philosophers, or philanthropists. Mere men of business commonly fix their eyes on objects of private lucre or temporal elevation alone. They are apt to laugh at the names of patriotism, liberty, and disinterested virtue. They have commonly been too long hacknied among the lowest of mankind, not perhaps in rank only, but in spirit, knowledge, liberality, to retain any very scrupulous delicacy in their own bosoms, or to believe its existence in others. They consider the good things of the world as a scramble, where every man is to get what he can by address, and bold pretension, since the law will not allow the use of violence. Certainly there can be no hope of reform, while men so versed in corruption, so enriched by it, and so well pleased with it, bear sway in senates, and direct the councils of princes.