Sir Henry James Sumner Maine

Sir Henry James Sumner Maine (1822-1888) was an English legal historian and historical anthropologist and a leading Victorian antidemocrat.

Born on Aug. 15, 1822, Henry Maine received his schooling at Christ's Hospital and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He received his degree in 1844 and the following year was appointed junior tutor at Trinity College, Cambridge, which position he held until appointed regius professor of civil law at Cambridge in 1847. In 1850 he was called to the bar and 2 years later accepted appointment as first reader in Roman law and jurisprudence at the Inns of Court. He steadily gained in reputation as a philosopher of law and a brilliant legal antiquary until, with the publication of his first work, Ancient Law (1861), he emerged on the Victorian scene as a leading scholar-intellectual.

Maine was a legal member of the Council in India (1863-1869) and served for a time as vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta. He formulated a general scheme for the codification of Indian law and organized the legislative department of the Indian government. He was corpus professor of jurisprudence at Oxford from 1869 until 1877, when he assumed the mastership of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Maine continued to write extensively on the theme that the history of law illustrated a course of development which he did not entirely approve. He contended that the whole idea that material improvement was linked with political democracy was a mistaken conception of some of his contemporaries. Unlike the historical-anthropological school, which thought of liberty as having originated in primitive communes, Maine believed that the legal relationships of most primitive societies were based upon long-established historical customs deriving from the patriarchal family system. Under such a system, land and goods were held in common by all members of the family and individual private property was unknown. Gradually the family was absorbed in the larger tribal unit and then, with the passage of time and the growth of trade, evolved into an urbanized, economically sophisticated society.

Meanwhile, property holding in common gave way to property holding in severalty, so that men, in a famous Maine phrase, moved "from status to contract" in their legal relations. Common ownership in the family-organized society was thus transformed into private ownership in an individual-organized society, and, by implication, a larger measure of political freedom became possible.

Some critics have seen Maine as an antagonist of late Victorian mass democracy and a defender of laissez-faire economic individualism. Others have regarded him as a brilliant innovator in the fields of anthropology and comparative history. He has also been defined as an evolutionary determinist, although he explicitly rejected the belief that "human society went everywhere through the same series of changes." Maine was not a systematic thinker and could not always perceive some of his own intellectual contradictions. Undoubtedly his major contribution lay in the interest he stimulated and the arguments he raised among his contemporaries.

Maine's most important works (in addition to Ancient Law) were Village Communities (1871), Early History of Institutions (1876), Dissertations on Early Law and Custom (1883), Popular Government (1885), and International Law (1888). He died on Feb. 3, 1888, in Cannes, France.


Further Reading on Sir Henry James Sumner Maine

Two accounts of Maine's life are Sir M. E. Grant Duff, Sir Henry Maine: A Brief Memoir of His Life (1892), and George Feaver, From Status to Contract: A Biography of Sir Henry Maine, 1822-1888 (1969).