Eyre, James

, lord chief justice of the court of common pleas, a native of Wiltshire, was born in 1734, and educated, if we mistake not, at Winchester, and afterwards at Merton college, Oxford, where he took his degree of M. A. in 1739, but before that had begun to study Jaw in London. His first professional appearance was as one of the four common pleaders belonging to the city of London, who purchase their situations, and are usually called the city counsel. He is said to have been at this time decent in his manners, grave in his appearance, and regular in his attendance, but was not known beyond the practice of the lord mayor’s and sheriff’s courts, and had displayed no particular tokens of future eminence. An accidental event, however, brought him forward into unexpected notice, and subsequent circumstances led him to distinction. At this period sir William Morton was | recorder of London. He had quitted the practice of the bar, and confined himself to the duties of that station. He had been brought into parliament by the influence of the duke of Bedford, and had looked with a natural expectation to a seat in one of the courts of law; but at length, disappointed, and growing old, he applied to the court of aldermen for leave to appoint a deputy to assist him in his official duties.

The common serjeant, the second law-officer in the corporation of London, had an evident claim to such an appointment. Mr. iNugent, an amiable and excellent man, though of no great professional name, and fully equal to any employment connected with the city of London, in whose service he had spent the greater part of his life, now filled that situation. These gentlemen, however, having differed in some points of legal discussion, that had been officially proposed to their consideration, such a coolness had taken place between them, that Mr. Eyre, who had gained the favour of sir William Morton, was proposed by him to be deputy recorder, and his influence in the court of aldermen being superior to that of Mr. Nugent, be obtained the appointment. It soon appeared that he possessed knowledge and abilities fully adequate to his station, and as the recorder’s duty now devolved, in a great measure, upon Mr. Eyre, he had an opportunity of proving his qualifications in such a manner, that on the death of sir William Morton in 176'2, he was elected by the court of aldermen to succeed him. As recorder of London he now enjoyed an office of great honour, as well as emolument, and it also gave him the distinction of a silk gown in Westminster-hall, and precedency after the Serjeants at law.

He had not, however, proceeded long in the calm exercise of his duties, when he was called upon to encounter difficulties, and to be involved in circumstances, which had. not encumbered any of his predecessors. We allude to the period when the wild delusion of “Wilkes and Liberty” had in some degree influenced the whole kingdom; and whose epidemic rage had, in a peculiar manner, infected the metropolis. A very large majority of the livery espoused every measure that was brought forward in opposition to government. The lower classes, too fond of uproar, supported the same principle; and the corporation itself became at length subject to the predominating influence. The sheriffs were selected from among those | citizens who were the most violent in support of opposition measures; and men totally unconnected by their situations and characters with the city, purchased their freedom, and took up their livery, in order to take upon themselves these troublesome and expensive offices. The ordinary rotation of the court of aldermen was infringed, to elect such of its members to the chief magistracy as were the partizans and supporters of Mr. Wilkes and his cause.

In this state of civil discord, the recorder gave his opinion with firmness and understanding; but he could only give his counsel, and passively submit tto the majority of the corporation. At length, a remonstrance to the throne was proposed and carried in a court of common council, which contained such opinions, that the recorder peremptorily refused to exercise his official functions on the occasion. He represented it as enforcing doctrines which he should ever oppose, and expressed in a language unfit for the sovereign to hear. He was therefore determined not to be the organ by which his majesty should receive such an insult. Sir James Hodges, the town clerk, supplied the place of the recorder on this occasion. He was a sensible conceited man, who had been a bookseller on London Bridge, and whose oratory in the common council had raised him to his situation. The office gratified his vanity, and has secured to him a renown, Which few booksellers have derived from works not published by themselves: it has caused his name to be recorded in the Letters of Junius.

The resolution of the recorder was, however, attended with considerable mortification and some danger. He was summoned to justify his conduct before the common council, and his speech on that occasion was not calculated to avert the vote of censure which followed it. He was not only treated with great acrimony, but it was in the view of the powerful party to deprive him of his office. They, however, contented themselves with holding him forth, not only in their speeches, but in publications and caricatures, as an offensive character, and a city mob at that time was a very unpleasant enemy. In the temper and disposition of administration at this period, such conduct was certain of a reward; and the recorder was, in 1772, appointed a baron of his majesty’s exchequer. In a short time subsequent to his possession of the ermine, on a question proposed to the twelve judges by the house of lords, baron Eyre was distinguished by his argument on that occasion. | That he conducted himself with honour and ability in his judicial station, appears from his successive advancements. In 1787 he succeeded that able lawyer and excellent man sir John Skynner, as chief baron of his own court. On the resignation of lord Thurlow in 1792; he was appointed first commissioner of the great seal; and on the removal of lord Loughborough, in the succeeding year, to the chancery bench, he succeeded that noble judge as chief justice of the common pleas, in which situation he continued until his death, at his seat, Ruscombe, in Berkshire, July 6, 1799, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.

As his judicial life was one sober series of official employment, in which no extraordinary events called forth an extraordinary application of mind or knowledge, his reputation is confined to the regular scene of public duty. It may, perhaps, be thought that his appointment to preside at the state trials in London in 1794 is an exception to the foregoing observation. It was indeed a very important charge; nor do we mean to disparage his useful qualities or acknowledged integrity, by expressing our opinion concerning it. Whether it arose from his superior view of the case, an harassed mind, or what he conceived to be a discreet accommodation to the circumstances of the moment, we do not pretend to determine; but it appeared to us that he did not resist the bold irregularities of Home Tooke as sir Michael Foster would have resisted them.

In private life, lord chief justice Eyre displayed the qualities which rendered him estimable among his friends, nor was he less respected by his brethren in public life. In him was exhibited a rare union of judicial qualities; and his talents and disposition were such as peculiarly adapted him to the bench. To great sagacity he added great candour. Though he soon discerned the merits, and foresaw the issue of a cause, he never betrayed any impatience, nor relaxed in his attention during its progress; and in this as in other respects, resembled the venerable Hale; it was scarcely possible to discover the opinion which he had formed before the moment when he was called upon to deliver it publicly. He was not only impartial in the ordinary sense of the word, but anxious to prevent his judgment in the case before him from being biassed by his indignation at any illiberal or dishonest conduct. Such indeed was the temper and ability with which he sifted every question, as commonly to extort an acknowledgment | even from the unsuccessful party, that his case had been fairly, fully, and dispassionately heard and determined.

His knowledge of the law consisted in a familiar acquaintance with those principles which extensive reading and long experience had impressed upon his mind, rather than in a ready recollection of decided cases. But his application of principles was seldom erroneous; for, as his apprehension was clear, and his judgment strong, he embraced the most complicated variety of facts, and discerned the bearings of the most intricate question. As he comprehended with precision, he explained Vith perspicuity; and, perhaps, no man ever performed the delicate and arduous task of commenting upon evidence to ajury, more usefully to the jury themselves, more satisfactorily to the parties concerned, or more to the advancement of the ends of justice. From his own opinions he was ever ready to recede, when convinced by mature reflection, or the arguments of counsel, that they were ill-founded; and in doing so, he willingly avowed the error he had committed. His judgments displayed great learning, employed by a vigorous understanding; the reasoning cogent, the illustration apposite, the language manly, and not unfrequently eloquent. Perhaps, in no purt of his public duty was he more eminent, though none was more repugnant to his feelings, than in the administration of criminal justice. In this department, though the mildness of his disposition inclined him to mercy, he yielded not to indiscriminate lenity, because he remembered that he was the guardian of the public safety. He was convinced that the observance of solemnity in the courts of justice contributed to excite veneration for their proceedings. His judicial deportment, therefore, was calculated to convey un impression of awe and respect But though his manner was grave and punctilious, it was marked witU great courtesy, for it was not dictated by pride, but by a conscientious regard for the dignity of the court. That this was the case, those who had the happiness to know him in private life could testify, where it seemed as much his aim to draw closer round him by social ease and unaffected pleasantry the circle of his friends, as it was in public to maintain the distance that his situation required. Nor, amidst the amiable qualities which distinguished his private life, should be unrecorded his warm and affectionate attachment to his relations and friends, his prompt and active zeal to promote the welfare | of many who were little known to him but by their want of his assistance, his affability and tenderness towards all his dependants and domestics, and the support given to his elevated station by an hospitable and liberal establishment. 1


European and —Gent. Mag. for 1799.