Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXXVII. On the natural Tendency of making Judges and Crown Lawyers, Peers; of translating Bishops and annexing Preferments to Bishoprics, in, what is called Commendam. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXXVII. On the natural Tendency of making Judges and Crown Lawyers, Peers; of translating Bishops and annexing Preferments to Bishoprics, in, what is called Commendam. - 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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On the natural Tendency of making Judges and Crown Lawyers, Peers; of translating Bishops and annexing Preferments to Bishoprics, in, what is called Commendam.
If there is any part of the constitution of England, in the praise of which eloquence may employ her most glowing colours, without entrenching upon the confines of truth, it is the judicial part of it. The purity of public justice in England is unequalled in any country which the sun illuminates in his diurnal progress. The reason is obvious. The verdict is given by juries of men usually beyond the reach of corruption. No ministerial influence can descend to all the individuals, in middle and humble life, who may be called upon to sit in judgment, and ultimately decide, as jurors, on the property, the fame, and the life, of their fellow-citizens. We have lately had a most glorious instance of the virtue of private citizens, exercising this most important office. The verdicts given in the state trials, in one thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, do more honour to the British character, than all the military exploits in the reign of George the Third. Such verdicts make our constitution truly enviable to the nations of Europe. Twelve honest men, on each of these trials, proved to the world, that no power, no authority, no terror, not even the factitious rage of aristocratical principles, which had been artfully fostered, could lead them to swerve from the right line of justice. They feared God, but not man; and posterity will honour them, when the names of subtle politicians, clothed with a brief but lucrative authority, if mentioned at all, shall be mentioned with detestation. It was well observed by a zealous and honest advocate on the occasion, that he could not despair of the case, when it was brought from the corrupt to the uncorrupt part of the constitution. The days of acquittal were the jubilees of truth, the triumphs of virtue; and, in a time of dejection, revived the hopes of patriotism and philanthropy.
Official judges, not having the final determination of the cause, but feeling the check of the juries, commonly conduct themselves, even in state trials, with some degree of candour and moderation. Indeed, we are so happy as to see men appointed to this office, in our time, whose tried integrity gives reason to believe, that, if they were not thus wisely checked, they would, with few exceptions, preserve impartiality.
Nevertheless, though much has been said on the independence of judges, yet it must be confessed, that there still remain temptations, which might have great influence on men less virtuous than our present judges are. It is observed, that peerages, in modern times, have been bestowed, with peculiar bounty, on lawyers, and that puisne judges have frequently been made chiefs; and some have ventured to say, that the expectation of these splendid rewards may frustrate all endeavours to secure, especially in state trials, perfect independence. It is not enough that judges do not fear removal from their dignified office. Their hopes may influence, more than their fears. They may look forward to increased opulence, an extensive patronage, the dignity of family distinction, and hereditary seats in the legislature. If themselves have seen too much of the vanity and folly of worldly pomp to admire it, (which, however, is not often the case with men who may be great lawyers, without any philosophy or religion,) yet they may have sons, wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, to whom the splendour of life, (as they have, possibly, little solid merit,) is valuable in the highest degree. Promotion is therefore, for the most part, a very powerful allurement, I will not say, to disguise the truth or pervert the law, but obsequiously to seek ministerial favour.
When peerages are lavished on lawyers high in place, and judges advanced, they are circumstances viewed with some degree of jealousy by those who are willing to guard constitutional liberty with unwinking vigilance. Perhaps it might afford satisfaction to such men, if judges were by law excluded from all higher elevation; if they were indeed most amply paid and most respectfully revered; but, for the sake of preventing the possibility of a wrong bias, where the happiness of the people is most intimately concerned, were prevented from viewing a brilliant dazzling coronet, suspended as their reward, over the scales of justice.
But here an objector will urge, with serious solicitude, that, as the house of lords is a court of judicature, in the last resort, a court of appeal from every court in the kingdom, it is necessary that it should be well supplied with lawyers of eminence.
On this subject Paley says; “There appears to be nothing in the constitution of the house of lords; in the education, habits, character, or professions of the members who compose it; in the mode of their appointment, or the right by which they succeed to their places in it, that should qualify them for their arduous office; except, perhaps, that the elevation of their rank and fortune affords a security against the offer and influence of small bribes. Officers of the army and navy, courtiers, ecclesiastics; young men who have just attained the age of twenty-one, and who have passed their youth in the dissipation and pursuits which commonly accompany the possession or inheritance of great fortunes; country gentlemen, occupied in the management of their estates, or in the care of their domestic concerns and family interests; the greater part of the assembly born to their station, that is, placed in it by chance; most of the rest advanced to the peerage for services and from motives utterly unconnected with legal erudition;—these men compose the tribunal to which the constitution intrusts the interpretation of her laws, and the ultimate decision of every dispute between her subjects!”
From this very degrading representation of the house of lords, the writer proceeds to justify the practice of constantly placing in it, some of the most eminent and experienced lawyers in the kingdom. He would, I think, with more propriety have argued against rendering one part of the legislature a court of justice, designed both to make and execute the laws; because every solid politician has agreed in the propriety of keeping the legislative and judicial powers as separate and as distinct from each other as it is possible.
I leave this point for the discussion of future political writers, and satisfy myself with suggesting that it is necessary to the perfect contentment of a people jealous of their liberty and the purity of judicial proceedings, that all temptations whatever should be removed from the sight of frail human beings, sitting in the seat of judgment, which may lead them to court the favour of ruling powers at the expense of justice. It is not money alone which bribes. Title, rank, and patronage, which is power in its most agreeable form, have more influence on the universal passion, vanity; especially when avarice has been already gratified with ample salaries and the emoluments of a lucrative profession.
The consideration of the possible rewards which may diminish the independence of judges, naturally leads to the consideration of those which may secularize the bishops, and injure the cause of religion, for which alone episcopacy itself could be established.
But, as this is a subject of some delicacy, I shall use the authority and words of Dr. Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, who ventured to speak the whole truth, with that sound sense, which was his characteristic, and with that freedom which becomes an honest man in every rank, and is particularly expected from a Christian bishop.
“I know,” says the Bishop, “that many will be startled, I beg them not to be offended, at the surmise of the bishops not being independent in the house of lords; and it would be easy enough to weave a logical cobweb, large enough and strong enough to cover and protect the conduct of the Right Reverend Bench from the attacks of those who dislike episcopacy. This, I say, would be an easy task; but it is far above my ability to eradicate from the minds of others (who are, notwithstanding, as well attached to the church establishment as ourselves,) a suspicion that the prospect of being translated influences the minds of the bishops too powerfully, and induces them to pay too great an attention to the beck of a minister. The suspicion, whether well or ill founded, is disreputable to our order; and, what is of worse consequence, it hinders us from doing that good which we otherwise might do; for the laity, while they entertain such a suspicion concerning us, will accuse us of avarice and ambition, of making a gain of godliness, of bartering the dignity of our office for the chance of a translation.
“Instead then,” proceeds the Bishop, “of quibbling and disputing against the existence of ministers influence over us, or recriminating and retorting the petulance of those who accuse us on that account, let us endeavour to remove the evil; or, if it must not be admitted that this evil has any real existence, let us endeavour to remove the appearance of it.
“The disparity of income and patronage might be made so small, or so apportioned to the labours, that few bishops would be disposed to wish for translations; and consequently the bishops would, in appearance as well as in reality, be independent.
“But, in rendering the bishops independent, you will reduce the power of the crown in the house of lords.—I do not mean to deny this charge; nay, I am willing to admit it in its full extent.—The influence of the crown, when exerted by the cabinet over the public counsellors of the king, is a circumstance so far from being to be wished by his true friends, that it is as dangerous to the real interests and honour of the crown itself, as it is odious to the people, and destructive of public liberty.
“It may contribute to keep a prime minister in his place, contrary to the sense of the wisest and best part of the community; it may contribute to keep the king himself unacquainted with his people's wishes, but it cannot do the king or the state any service. To maintain the contrary is to satirise his majesty's government; it is to insinuate, that his views and interests are so disjoined from those of his people, that they cannot be effectuated by the uninfluenced concurrence of honest men.
“I cannot admit the circumstance of the bishops being rendered independent in the house of lords, as any real objection to the plan proposed; on the contrary, I think it a very strong argument in its favour; so strong an one that, if there was no other, it would be sufficient to sanctify the measure.”
The corruption of the church for the purpose of corrupting the legislature, is an offence far more injurious to the general happiness of mankind and the interests of a Christian community, than any of those which have banished the offenders to Botany Bay, or confined them for years within the walls of the prison-house. Both the corruptors and the corrupted, in this case, are more injurious to Christianity than all the tribe of sceptics and infidels; than Tindal, Toland, Bolingbroke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Gibbon. The common people do not read them, and perhaps could scarcely understand them. But the common people do read the newspapers daily, and see the names and qualities of those who divide in the senate-house, on questions of the last importance. They must therefore entertain a suspicion, as the Bishop of Llandaff expresses it, that religion itself, as well as its official, opulent, dignified supporters, is but an instrument of state, a tool in the hand of a minister. They must naturally consider venality as doubly base, when clothed in the sanctified robes of religion. What has happened in France, in consequence of the corruptions of the church by the state, ought to afford a striking admonition.
I wish to point out, in these times, writings of living bishops in favour of Christianity, because they would be opposed with the best grace against the writings of living infidels. But, to the reproach of my want of intelligence, I know not the names of the majority, till I find them in the Court Calendar. The printed works of even this majority I cannot find, either in the shops or the libraries: the few I do find, even of the minority, are not adapted to the wants of the people at large. Their occasional sermons, after they have served their day, become, like almanacs, out of date: a collection of old court calendars would be nearly as edifying and more entertaining to the multitude.
It is indeed certain, that the archiepiscopal mitres received more lustre than they gave, from the sermons of Dr. Tillotson and Dr. Secker. It would give me pleasure to place the sermons of living archbishops by their side; and I would mention them had they come to my knowledge. The sermons, however, of the few living bishops who are known at all to the public will, I hope, prove to mankind, that some among the bishops, in this happy isle, do not think it a sufficient return for princely revenues, to vote always with a minister, or to increase, with lawn sleeves, the pageantry of a birthday. To perform the occasional duties of ordination, confirmation, and visitation, cannot satisfy the minds of men who receive the honours and emoluments of Durham, Winchester, York, or Canterbury. That it is so, is happy; for if ever the prelatical clergy should be suspected of becoming merely ministerial instruments; if, for instance, they should ever be supposed so far secularized, as to concede to the minister that made them bishops, the right of nominating to all the most valuable preferments in their gift, in order to enable him the better to corrupt that parliament in which themselves also have engaged to give a venal vote; from that time, they would contribute more to the downfal of the church, than all the writings of all the unbelievers, from Frederick, late King of Prussia, to the republican, Thomas Paine. The sin of simony in a private man, who pays a fair price for a profitable appointment, with his own money, honestly earned by virtuous industry, and does the duties of it, is as nothing when compared to the simony of him who buys a high and important station, greatly lucrative, with a corrupt vote and a base dereliction of those rights of patronage, which were intended to encourage merit only, and to prevent that very corruption which he feeds and cherishes, to gratify his own sordid avarice and childish vanity.
The bishops, in their charges, are sounding an alarm. They very justly affirm, that the existence of Christianity is now in danger. They wisely urge the inferior clergy to the most vigilant activity. Thus far they certainly do honour to the episcopal function. But still, while the public suspects the bare possibility of the bench being, as Bishop Watson says, at the beck of the minister, they will consider all this zeal as little better than that of Demetrius, who made silver shrines for Diana.
When indeed we add to the probable effect of translations from a poorer to a richer bishopric, the holding of rich pluralities with bishoprics, under the name of commendams, it is difficult not to think with Bishop Watson, that episcopal independence is endangered, and that we must look rather in cathedrals, than in the house of lords, for episcopal integrity. Conscientious dissenters are shocked, and libertines and infidels laugh, when they view the bench, as if they were spectators of a solemn mummery, or a mock-heroic farce. All this danger, offence, and reproach, might possibly be prevented, if translations and commendams were utterly prohibited.
But, setting aside the effect of translations and commendams on the state of religion, let us seriously consider them as they operate on the increase of prerogative and the spirit of despotism. These things influence not only those who have attained mitres, but a numerous tribe of expectants; and those expectants possess the ear of the people. Is it reasonable to suppose that the doctrines of the pulpit will not, under these circumstances, be fashioned to the inclinations of the minister? What can contribute more to diffuse the spirit of despotism, than the employment of many thousand pulpits, at least once in each week, in obliquely preaching doctrines, that favour its prevalence, under the sanction of divine authority?