William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-1793) established a body of rules regarding commercial transactions that became the foundation of British commercial law.
An English Chief Justice of the King's Bench for over three decades, Scottish jurist William Murray, Lord Mansfield is noted for devising the foundational rules and regulations that established equity in the British system of business law, including rules regarding bills of exchanges, promissory notes, and bank checks. Among Murray's most lasting contributions are the creation of the marine insurance system and the concept of restitution, in which an injured party is made whole through the restoration of damaged or stolen property or its equivalent.
Murray was born March 2, 1705, at Scone, a town in the former Scottish county of Perthshire. His father, David Murray, Fifth Viscount Stormont, was a defender of the Stuart line of succession to the English throne. As the fourth son of the viscount, William Murray was not in line to inherit the family title or fortune. Fortunately, he showed an aptitude for learning. He was admitted as a king's scholar at Westminster School in 1719, then entered Christ Church, Oxford. Graduating from Oxford with a master of arts degree in June 1727, Murray embarked on a career in law under the patronage of a family friend, Lord Foley.
Murray was called to the bar in 1731. He was affiliated with the Tory party, which supported the Stuart claim to the throne and the preservation of traditional and social institutions against the expansion in parliamentary power advocated by the opposition Whig party. An educated, well-spoken young man, he took a trip to continental Europe in 1730. He traveled in social circles that included poet Alexander Pope.
Murray's legal reputation became established after his appearance in several significant Scottish appeal cases. He represented the City of Edinburgh during its legal battle following the so-called "Porteous Riot" of April 1736, during which the city's guard fired on a mob. Murray's successful defense of the city gained him public attention throughout Scotland. His reputation was cemented in England in 1737 when he gave a stirring speech before the House of Commons on behalf of a merchant who was petitioning the crown to end the widespread piracy of English trading ships by Spanish nationals. In 1738, with his law practice thriving, Murray married Lady Elizabeth Finch, daughter of the earl of Winchelsea.
The England of Murray's day was experiencing the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Amid growing consumerism and prosperity were signs that society was polarizing into a working class and an affluent elite. The reign of Hanoverian King George II also saw an ever-increasing national debt due to involvement in foreign wars, as well as widespread political corruption and an increase in petty crime and lawlessness. Sir Robert Walpole, who had dominated the government under the German-speaking King George I, continued his efforts, following the succession of George II in 1727, to create the small, exclusive political group that evolved into the modern-day cabinet, while he assumed a role tantamount to prime minister and led the Whig party in the House of Lords.
In 1742, amid English involvement in the unpopular War of Austrian Succession, Walpole fell from power, although the Whig-led government continued to promote his agenda. That same year Murray was appointed to the position of solicitor-general, where he remained for 14 years while also serving as a member of the House of Commons for Boroughbridge. A political moderate despite his Tory affiliation, he gained a reputation for keeping his personal politics aside when dealing with legal issues. He led the prosecution of the Jacobite lords Balmerino (Arthur Elphinstone), Lovat (Simon Fraser), and Kilmarnock who, as supporters of the Scottish pretender prince Charles Edward Stuart, fought against England during the 1746 battle of Culloden Field. They were beheaded on London's Tower Hill. As chief spokesman for the government in the House of Commons, Murray was frequently opposed by opposition leader William Pitt the elder, an influential Whig known for his barbed oratory.
In 1754 Murray became attorney-general and for the next two years was leader of the House of Commons. When a vacancy occurred in the chief justiceship of the King's Bench in 1756, Murray was granted the post. He was also raised to a member of the cabinet and made Baron Mansfield.
As chief justice, Murray concentrated his efforts on law rather than on politics. The ruling Tory government was fast losing its supremacy. In the new Whig government, Pitt became secretary of state, propelling England into the Seven Years' War with France, a war that Murray did not support. Five years later, in 1761, Tory leader Lord Bute successfully curtailed Whig efforts to spread the war to Spain. When Pitt resigned from government, Murray returned to the political realm.
A leading member of the Tory party, Murray was a staunch advocate of moderation in his nation's foreign and domestic policies. He drew upon his vast learning and his understanding of law as the basis for his political stance. Despite this evenhanded approach to politics, in 1770 he was drawn into a hot debate on the issue of political libel and became the focus of satirical essays penned by the pseudonymous "Junius" (Sir Philip Francis). Junius accused Murray of using the law in an arbitrary fashion while overseeing a series of libel cases—one of which involved Junius himself.
Murray remained a member of the cabinet for 14 years, surviving several changes in political leadership. When asked to serve as chancellor in 1765, Murray declined.
In his day, Murray was well known by the English public as a member of the House of Commons, but his lasting fame came from his tenure as England's chief justice. He had a distinguished career and was respected for his vast learning and his fairness and propriety. A rationalist, he reduced costly delays in the legal system, renovated outdated property laws used by courts since medieval times, and protected the right to freedom of conscience for Catholics and other non-Anglicans.
Murray's evenhandedness was notable. In one case of alleged witchcraft in which an elderly woman was accused of flying through the air, Murray ruled that the woman should be allowed to return home, and if she did so by flying, no law prevented that. In another case, Murray acquitted the leader of an anti-Catholic mob that set fire to his own house and library during the 1780 Gordon riots. Not all of his rulings gained Murray public approval. His libel ruling in favor of the government against John Wilkes, a publisher and member of Parliament, drew criticism for limiting freedom of speech.
Murray's major contributions were his development of contract theory and his creation of regulations establishing precedents for commercial case law. Before Murray's tenure as chief justice, English common law was the only source of guidance in business matters. When cases regarding trade and other commercial matters came to trial, juries had to rely on their wits. Murray established clear-cut guidelines for business litigation. Basing his work on Roman law and contemporary laws in other nations, he set forth basic principles governing business transactions that brought English law in line with international practices. His introduction of the concept of restitution, in particular, helped to make litigation between merchants and consumers more equitable.
Murray's efforts came at a crucial point in England's economic history. Industrial manufacture, particularly of textiles, was replacing agriculture as the greatest area of employment, and the increase in spending on manufactured consumer goods created a wealth of new industries throughout England. The country's newly created turnpike system allowed businessmen to expand their markets, while England's overseas colonies provided both markets and raw materials.
Murray applied the same learning and logic to other branches of English law, though with less overall success. During debates over constitutional issues, he was frequently opposed by Charles Pratt, Lord Camden, who argued for more liberal approaches to libel, warrants, and the role of juries. Pratt also fought Murray's advocacy of taxing the American colonies despite their lack of Parliamentary representation.
Murray's 1772 ruling in the case of James Somerset vs. His Master, Mr. Stewart of Virginia effectively ended the institution of slavery in England, if not in British colonies. "The state of slavery is … so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it," Murray wrote in his opinion.
Some contemporaries resented Murray's efforts as corrupting the traditions of the legal system, but more recent scholars have recognized him for his efforts to adapt these traditions to a changing society. Among jurists heavily influenced by his work was Sir William Blackstone, author of the highly influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769).
Although he refrained from involving himself in public office later in his life, in 1783 Murray briefly assumed the duties of speaker of the House of Lords. His term as chief justice ended with his resignation in June 1788. Murray was made earl of Mansfield in July 1792. On March 20, 1793, he died at his home in London. With no family members alive at Murray's death, the title of Lord Mansfield went to his nephew David Murray, 7th Viscount Stormont.
Campbell, John Lord, The Lives of the Chief Justices of England, from the Norman Conquest to the Death of Lord Tenterden, Ayer Company Publishers, 1977.
Holiday, John, The Life of William the Late Earl of Mansfield, 1797.
Oldham, James, The Mansfield Manuscripts and the Growth of English Law, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
International Monthly Magazine of Literature, Science, and Art, August-November 1850.
"William Murray," Significant Scots, http://www.electricscotland.com/history/men/murray-william.htm (May 27, 2003).