- Law, Crime and English Society 1660–1830
This work is offered as a tribute to John Beattie, whose writings have focused principally on eighteenth-century criminal law. In her introduction editor Norma Landau credits Beattie with having both spurred and reshaped the scholarship in this burgeoning field from what it had been when icons like Sir Leon Radzinowicz and Sir Lewis Namier dominated the terrain. The present work consists of eleven essays, each by a recognized scholar and often on themes which Beattie himself initiated. They are organized conveniently under law, crime, and society.
Douglas Hay and Norma Landau’s examination of the legal system of eighteenth-century England leads them neither to adulate nor castigate; rather they appear to chide. Hay addresses magisterial misconduct in “Dread of the Crown Office: the English Magistracy and King’s Bench 1740–1800”. Treating the Court of King’s Bench power to review justice of the peace behavior, he [End Page 1086] concludes that misbehaving rural justices were rarely constrained when they abused their power. Whether the costs of litigation were simply too great for the poor to bear or because KB justices and JPs were kindred class souls, it did not matter: the result was justice denied. In “The Trading Justice’s Trade” Norma Landau also challenges the heroic image of magistrates. They were, as a matter of fact, often corrupt, dispensing justice for a few chickens. Yet litigants appeared reluctant to do without their services and utilize those of “freebie” stipendiaries provided by Parliamentary legislation in 1792. There was an inherent fear that these justices might be less reliable than even corrupt ones for redressing wrongs. The last essay under “Law” is Nicholas Rogers’ “Impressment and the Law in Eighteenth-century Britain”, which deals with the legal dimensions of impressment. As in the case of victims of magistrate misbehavior and corruption, the impressed sailor was at a disadvantage in challenging the Admiralty. While he could avail himself of habeas corpus, he generally possessed neither the financial means nor social/political clout for winning his case.
Under the rubric of “Crime” Peter King argues in “War as a Judicial Resource: Press Gangs and Prosecution Rates, 1740–1830” that press gangs did the work of magistrates by reducing crime in time of war. Randall McGowen tackles the problem of the “Bloody Code”—the multiplicity of capital offences in eighteenth-century England—by examining forgery, the one producing the most litigation. The worry about forgery, he concludes, was precipitated by the multitudinous public finance documents—the forgery of which might endanger State credit. Legislators, he contends, added capital crimes in piecemeal fashion, not with any grand scheme in mind. Rather reformers who denounced a Bloody Code created the myth. The final essay on crime is David Lieberman’s “Mapping Criminal Law: Blackstone and the Categories of English Jurisprudence”. He shows how Enlightenment attitudes toward crime and criminal law called for a new legal structure and vocabulary. Blackstone obliged by elegantly “mapping” these innovations—distinctions between “public” and “civil” law—in his Commentaries.
The final segment, four essays, covers such diverse topics as slavery, religion, the media, and factory acts. Ruth Paley in “After Somerset: Mansfield, Slavery and the Law in England, 1772–1830” asserts that Mansfield’s freeing James Somerset, a slave, did not abolish slavery in England; nevertheless, there was an impact in America where the mistaken assumption furnished fodder for the contentious fugitive slave debate. This is a classic instance of perception’s trumping reality. In “Religion and the Law: Evidence, Proof and ‘Matter of Fact’, 1660–1830” Barbara Shapiro contends that legal reasoning could and did transcend the law. She cites its use in religious discourse and how the method was employed to shore up the established Church. Donna T. Andrew’s “The Press and Public Apologies in Eighteenth-century London” explores an overlooked procedure which passed for conflict resolution. The newspaper apology, invariably offered by a subordinate to his superior, not only healed a breach but avoided insubordination and preserved hierarchy. As Andrews observes, it...