Article abstract: Bentham’s lifelong analysis of English law laid the foundations for the early nineteenth century political reforms which saved England from violent social revolution.
Jeremy Bentham was born in London on February 15, 1748, the son of a prosperous English lawyer named Jeremiah Bentham. The elder Bentham wanted his son to have advantages which he had missed, so the father was delighted at his precocious son’s ability to read at the age of three. Young Bentham accordingly was packed off to the Westminster School and then on to Oxford University by the time he was twelve. Because of his youth and small stature, this “dwarfish phenomenon,” as Bentham called himself, never engaged in the normal activities of the boys his age. While his peers may have played cricket, he contented himself with badminton. His world was contained within the boundaries of books and ideas.
At Westminster School, Bentham encountered his first acknowledged intellectual battle with the English law. All the students at the school were required to sign an oath supporting the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Already an advocate of logical thinking, the young prodigy privately believed that the Articles were so irrational and contrary to the Scriptures that the Church was forcing perjury on those required to sign them. In this instance, and throughout his entire life, however, Bentham obeyed the law and did the expected but privately agonized over what he had done, vowing silently to battle for the reform of the English legal system, not to mention the Church of England.
Perhaps no other scholar in English history spent so much time studying and writing about the law and the legal system but practically no time practicing it. Once the brilliant youngster finished his course of study at Westminster, he entered Oxford University. Toward the middle of his third year at Oxford, he attended a lecture by the most famous English legal scholar of his day, William Blackstone, the first of whose Commentaries on the Laws of England would be published beginning in 1765. The fifteen-year-old student eagerly attended the presentation given by the forty-year-old jurist, the first professor of English law at Oxford. Diligently, Bentham attempted to follow the lecture by recording its essentials in notes, but he could not. There were so many internal fallacies and illogical premises in what Blackstone pronounced that Bentham gave up his attempts at note taking.
In this incident may be seen the beginnings of Bentham’s lifelong battle against English law and the legal system which supported it. While Blackstone might marvel at the “glorious inconsistency” of the English law, Bentham denounced it as an abhorrent mass of confusion, designed to be manipulated by those with the money and patience sufficient to retain the proper attorneys.
Most repugnant to Bentham throughout his lifetime of intellectual jousting was falsehood. At Westminster School, he had despised being forced to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; he believed not only that the statements were lies but also that his signature compounded the prevarication. Subsequently, in his attendance at Blackstone’s lecture, he encountered English law as an even greater fabric of falsification. Especially frustrating to him was the notion of fiction in law, a method by which legal entities might be created or destroyed at the whim of the court and its attorneys. Appalled at this practice, Bentham declared that “in English law, fiction is a syphilis, which runs in every vein, and carries into every part of the system the principle of rottenness.”
Although Bentham read law at Lincoln’s Inn after he took his M.A. from Oxford in 1766 and was called to the bar in the following year, he was never a successful practicing lawyer. Instead, he spent each day in his rooms reading and writing about the law or conversing with the other law students who came to call. He set himself the daily task of writing more than fifteen folio practice pages of commentary on English law or society. These trial pages, or drafts, dealt with numerous subjects of interest to him. The dedication and intensity with which Bentham labored were so consuming that he suffered bouts of psychosomatic blindness. Only the loving attendance of his friends brought him through these extremely depressing periods.
In the course of his long life, many thousands of pages were written, many on subjects he never fully developed and many of which were never published. His first publication was a critique of Blackstone, printed anonymously in 1776 under the title A Fragment on Government. So brilliant and masterful was this work that it was attributed to many great minds of the time. Ironically, when his proud father accidentally revealed the true authorship of the essay, the headline-hungry public no longer was interested.
Bentham’s accomplishment did, however, bring him to the attention of William Petty, Lord Shelburne, who introduced him to the world of the nobility by extending his patronage to the young intellectual. Perhaps most important, Shelburne helped broaden Jeremy Bentham’s criticisms of English law to include constitutional law along with his ongoing considerations of civil and penal law. Although Shelburne could never provide Bentham an office of political power, he did afford him an insight into the functions of the enlightened minority within the English political establishment.
In what Bentham thought, said, and wrote for the next seventy years, he did what few Englishmen had ever dared, and did so successfully. As his intellectual godson, John Stuart Mill, explained: “Bentham broke the spell. . . . Who, before Bentham, dared to speak disrespectfully in express terms, of the British Constitution, or the English Law?” He was not, however, merely a “negative philosopher,” wrote Mill, but a person of questioning spirit who demanded the “why” of everything and then applied his “essentially...