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EDINBURGH REVIEW .
Art. I.- The Biographical Treasury : containing Memoirs,
Sketches, or Brief Notices of the Lives of Eminent Persons. 8vo. London : 1839.
E have upon two former occasions walked through the
mighty gallery of Portraits which the reigns of the last two Georges furnished out. The figures which we there contemplated were, for the most part, those of the greater men of their age;-men whose genius has raised or adorned their country, and whose superiority, not merely to the bulk of mankind, but to the men whose names sound in the mouths of the multitude, is at once confessed as soon as they are mentioned. History, however, performs but half her office, nor perhaps the most useful portion of it, if she commemorates only those lights of the world, and preserves no lineaments of men whose place is less ambitious, whose merits are more unpretending, but whose virtues, for that very reason, are the more easily emulated, and thus may produce a wider and more salutary influence upon the fortunes of future times. The habit of looking down upon useful mediocrity is not founded in any reason, and is apt to produce hurtful consequences. It is fitting, no doubt, that the oratorical efforts of a Fox, a Pitt, a Burke, be held up to admiration--that the ancient virtue and brilliant talents of a Romilly should be handed down to posterity—and that other ages, as well as his own, should know how justice was distributed by Mansfield, as well as what thunders from Chatham shook the senate and awed the meaner natures of grovelling contemporaries. Justice to those great men, is thus consulted, while the natural curiosity of
VOL, LXIX. NO. CXXXIX,
mankind is gratified by the exhibition of their genius; but although the spectacle may kindle in a few congenial minds the desire of emulating their renown, the wonder which it is calculated to excite is all the effect that it can produce upon the great bulk of mankind. They will find it more permanently useful to have displayed before them merits of a less unapproachable elevation—to have their eyes pointed towards heights of excellence, the ascent to which may seem a less hopeless task. An incident which actually happened may illustrate this position : -- A young person of good capacity, and who had laboured hard to acquire the knowledge and the habits of composition which oratory requires, and was entering upon a profession where it is to a certain degree essential, never having been present at any display of debating powers, was taken by a friend to witness a great and, as it proved, a very successful exhibition of practised eloquence upon a subject of extraordinary interest. He came away as soon as the speech was closed, and thus addressed his adviser: • I give the whole thing up. This • is quite out of the question—for I cannot even form any notion • how such things are done.' Had he heard a good third-rate speaker, he would not, in all probability, have arrived at the position in which Gibbon found himself, when the bad speakers filled him
with terror, and the great ones with despair.
There is only one consideration which makes us hesitate about making this addition to our Gallery. The dislike of mediocrity is great in proportion as the contempt, or affected contempt, for it is universal. The giddy multitude, composing the great vulgar rather than the more natural and rational class of the little vulgar, seem to think that they raise themselves by adopting an extravagant standard of excellence which they use to measure men's pretensions to fame, and consider that, by despising many whom they never can even approach, they exalt themselves to the higher levels of merit. With this insignificant rabble, virtue is its own reward : a strictly honest man in public life passes for little if he be of a middling genius, and have not the faculty of making his name much heard in the world. Hence we are apprehensive that the being ranked in this our second list, will mortify the friends of the parties, when we are sure it would not have offended themselves. But, beside this general censure which we have given to such fancies, we may remark, that some will also find their places here whose excellence is of the very highest order ; -men who would have infallibly shone amongst the brightest lights of their age, had not their pursuits accidentally led them into the lines of exertion which do not conduct to the pinnacles of fame. It is also to be observed that accidentally some have been omitted in the former series of sketches, to whom we must now render a tardy justice; while some have found their places in that series who can in no respect be deemed to have pretensions above the ordinary run of those whom we are about to describe, and very inferior to some of them. The one with whom we shall begin is an example, and we purposely pitch on it for the first sketch.
Mr Justice Holroyd was one of the most able, most learned, and most virtuous men that ever in any age adorned the profession of the Law. Endowed with feeble spirits, and having never cultivated the gifts of fancy, and probably not possessing any range of imagination, he chose for his study the severer branches of forensic exertion; and by assiduous labour long bestowed upon that dry study, became possessed of all the knowledge of our jurisprudence which industry can acquire, and the greatest natural sagacity marshal. Until the Practice is added to the Study of the law, the most diligent student cannot be said to have made himself a good lawyer; nor can he even ascertain whether or not he is destined ever to attain that eminence. After he began to plead below the bar, which is the particular branch of the profession that tends more directly than any other to unfold and to improve the faculties leading to this most desirable station, he soon became known for the conscientious application of his powers and his knowledge to the business he was entrusted with ; and both his pupils benefited largely by his instructions, and his clients were comforted with a full and ready assistance in all their difficulties. When he had attained considerable reputation in this walk, he entered Westminster Hall; and soon rose to the first eminence upon that great circuit which distributes the streams of justice from the centre of the judicial system, through the vast counties of York and Lancaster, and the four northern provinces.
It was soon found that this distinguished person was far indeed from being a mere special pleader. He possessed a clearness and quickness of apprehension, a vigour and firmness of understanding, a just and becoming confidence in his own opinion, that shone through his natural modesty-a modesty singularly graceful, and allied to a most amiable and gentle nature, which neither the contentions of the forum could roughen, nor the severest of studies harden. To whatever branch of investigation he had devoted his life, in that he would have eminently excelled; and as in the stricter sciences he would have been a great discoverer, so he might be truly said to have a genius for law. His views were profound, and they were original. He saw points in a light that was unexpected and felicitous. But he reasoned, and he decided upon no affected conceits, such as Westminster Hall terms crotchets, or fancies, or whims. His admirable judgment always maintained its sway; and his opinion upon all matters submitted to him was still more remarkable for being sound than his reasonings were for being learned and ingenious. A result of all this great merit, which did more honour to him than to the other branch of his profession, was, that although no one enjoyed so high a legal reputation, few gained their professional income with harder labour. Whenever a difficult and important question arose, Mr Holroyd's opinion was eagerly sought upon all the cases which grew out of it, or became connected with it; and when ordinary matters of easy solution came into dispute, or where opinions upon questions of course were to be taken in point of form, or where causes were coming into court of which any one could settle the pleadings, or conduct the minor departments of the suit after it came into court, others were selected to perform the easy, every-day, lucrative work; the love of a little patronage operating on the attorney's mind more than a sense of justice. Nothing was more common, therefore, than to see this eat lawyer answer eight or ten questions upon the construction of a cramp and obscure will; or the course of action fit to be pursued in seeking for the establishment of complicated rights; or the course of pleading most safe in defending nice positions ; while ordinary men were in the same time reaping the golden harvest of ordinary business, presenting no kind of difficulty, and level to the most humble capacity.
In Court, he of course shone less than in Chambers. His figure was low, but his voice was pleasing; until interrupted by an affection of the trachea, which gave him a kind of constant cough for many years, and at last terminated his valuable life. His delivery was, if not striking or commanding, perfectly correct and natural. His style of argument was of the very highest order, although somewhat less venturous in topics than it ought to have been with so great a jurisconsult, or rather steering too near the defined and bold coast of authority. But his language was choice ; his order lucid ; his argumentation close; his discussion of cases, and his application of them, masterly ;-showing an easy familiarity with all principles and all points, whether recondite or of common occurrence; and a profound judgment in weighing differences and resemblances, and tracing analogies and consequences, which was in vain sought for elsewhere. His famous argument in the case of Parliamentary Privilege * is truly a masterpiece. The history of the law is there traced through the stream of cases with a superior hand, while the bearings of all authority in favour of the argument are given, with a felicity only equalled by the dexterity with which the adverse cases are
* See Burdett v. Albot, East, 14.