Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden

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Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden (1714-18 April 1794), Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, was a leading proponent of civil liberties in eighteenth century England.

Contents

Early life

Born in Kensington in 1714, he was a descendant of an old Devonshire family of high standing, the third son of Sir John Pratt, Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the reign of George I. He received his early education at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge. In 1734 he became a fellow of his college, and in the following year obtained his degree of BA. Having adopted his father's profession, he had entered the Middle Temple in 1728, and ten years later he was called to the bar.

Early years at the bar

He practised at first in the courts of common law, travelling also the western circuit. For some years his practice was so limited, and he became so much discourared that he seriously thought of turning his back on the law and entering the church. He listened, however, to the advice of his friend Sir Robert Henley, a brother barrister, and persevered, working on and waiting for success. The first case which brought him prominently into notice and gave him assurance of ultimate success was the government prosecution, in 1752, of a bookseller, William Owen, for a libel on the House of Commons. His speech for the defence contributed much to the verdict for the defendant.

Political career

In 1757, through the influence of William Pitt, with whom he had formed a close friendship while at Eton, he received the appointment of Attorney-General. The same year he entered the House of Commons as member for the borough of Downton in Wiltshire. He sat in parliament four years, but did not distinguish himself as a debater. His professional practice now largely increased. One of the most noticeable incidents of his tenure of office as Attorney-General was the prosecution of Dr. J. Shebbeare (1709-1788), a violent party writer of the day, for a libel against the government contained in his Letters to the People of England, which were published in the years 1756-1758. As a proof of Pratt's moderation in a period of passionate party warfare and frequent state trials, it is noted that this was the only official prosecution for libel which he set on foot.

Entick and Wilkes

In January 1762 Pratt was raised to the bench as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He was at the same time knighted. Soon after his elevation he presided over two cases of fundamental constitutional importance in English law. In 1762, the home of John Entick had been raided by officers of the Crown, searching for evidence of sedition. In the case of Entick v. Carrington, Pratt held that the raids were unlawful as they were without authority in statute or in common law. In 1769, the nation was thrown into great excitement about the prosecution of John Wilkes, and the question involved in it of the legality of general warrants. Chief-Justice Pratt pronounced, with decisive and almost passionate energy, against their legality, thus giving voice to the strong feeling of the nation and winning for himself an extraordinary degree of popularity as one of the maintainers of English civil liberties. Honors fell thick upon him in the form of addresses from the City of London and many large towns, and of presentations of freedom from various corporate bodies.

Lord Chancellor

In July 1765 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Camden, of Camden Place, in the county of Kent and in the following year he was removed from the court of common pleas to take his seat as Lord Chancellor (July 30, 1766). This seat he retained less than four years. Although he discharged its duties in so efficient a manner that, with one exception, his decisions were never reversed on appeal, he took up a position of such uncompromising hostility to the governments of the day, the Grafton and North administrations, on the greatest and most exciting matters, the treatment of the American colonies and the proceedings against John Wilkes, that the government had no choice but to require of him the surrender of the great seal. He retired from the court of chancery in January 1770, but he continued to take a warm interest in the political affairs and discussions of the time.

Later years

He continued steadfastly to oppose the taxation of the American colonists, and signed, in 1778, the protest of the Lords in favor of an address to the King on the subject of the manifesto of the commissioners to America. In 1782 he was appointed Lord President of the Council under the Rockingham administration, but retired in the following year. Within a few months he was reinstated in this office under the Pitt administration, and held it till his death.

Lord Camden was a strenuous opponent of Fox's India Bill, took an animated part in the debates on important public matters till within two years of his death, introduced in 1786 the scheme of a regency on occasion of the king's insanity, and to the last zealously defended his early views on the functions of juries, especially of their right to decide on all questions of libel. He was raised to the dignity of Earl Camden in May 1786, and was at the same time created Viscount Bayham. The Earl Camden died in London on 18 April 1794. His remains were interred in Scale church in Kent.


Preceded by:
The Earl of Northington
Lord Chancellor
1766–1770
Succeeded by:
Charles Yorke
Preceded by:
The Earl Bathurst
Lord President of the Council
1782–1783
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Stormont
Preceded by:
The Earl Gower
Lord President of the Council
1784–1794
Succeeded by:
The Earl Fitzwilliam

Template:End box

Preceded by:
New Creation
Earl Camden
Succeeded by:
John Jeffreys Pratt

Template:End box

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