Thomas Erskine and Animal Rights
by John Hostettler
From Justice of the Peace -- a UK weekly journal for those using the Courts. Reproduced with the permission of the publishers.
The items in square brackets [ ] are added by the contributor as clarification for those unfamiliar with the English legal system.
Regard for Animals
Whilst a practising barrister [lawyer], before being appointed Lord Chancellor [head of the judiciary in England] in April 1806, Thomas Erskine had with him at all his consultations in Chambers [offices] a favourite large Newfoundland dog called "Toss". He taught it to sit upon a chair in chambers with his paws placed before him on the table. Erskine would put an open book before him, a wig upon his head and one of his advocate's bands around his neck. What his clients thought of this exhibition we do not know, but it is unlikely that they would have forsaken him for another counsel [lawyer].
Another dog he kept by him was one he had rescued from some boys in the street when they were about to kill it. Later, on March 2, 1811, he sent a bitch to a fellow peer [Lord] with a note to say that, "her name is Lucky and may all good luck attend your Lordship".
He also had a pet goose which followed him about in his grounds, a macaw and a great many other dumb friends. He even had two special leeches which he believed had saved his life when he was ill and which he called his "bottle conjurors". These he kept in a glass and, he said, he gave them fresh water every day and had formed a friendship with them. He would often argue the likely result of a case on how they swam or crawled.
Erskine said he was sure they both knew him and were grateful to him. They were called "Home" and "Cline" after two celebrated surgeons with quite different dispositions. He amassed the company at a party given at his villa in Hampstead, near "The Spaniard's Inn", by talking about his regard for animals and, in particular, those to whom he was attached. He then produced the leeches in their glass which he placed upon the table. It was impossible, however, wrote Samuel Romilly who was present, "without the vivacity, the tones, the details, and the gestures of Lord Erskine, to give an adequate idea of this singular scene".
When Erskine became a member of the House of Lords, he not only continued to speak in the Whig [political party] interest as he had in the Commons but began to devote himself to the welare of animals. He introduced into the Lords a Bill for the prevention of malicious and wanton cruelty to animals, saying that it was a subject very near to his heart. Disgusting outrages, which he said were too painful to describe, were being perpetrated upon animals whilst the law did nothing. This was because animals were considered only as property. They were entirely without protection from cruelty and they had no rights. Yet man's dominion over them was not given by God for their torture but as a moral trust.
Nature had provided the same organs and feelings for enjoyment and happiness to animals as to man -- seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, the sensations of pain and pleasure, love, anger and sensibility to kindness. Such creatures might have been created for man's use but not for his abuse. Towards them, as in all other things, men's duties and interests were inseparable. Extending humanity to animals would have a most powerful effect on men's moral sense and upon their feelings and sympathies for each other.
When the speech was published as a pamphlet, its editor suggested in the Preface that it should be introduced to families and schools and deserved to be circulated "among the lower classes of society by the clergy, and by all moral and pious persons'.
When the Bill was in its Committee stage, Erskine pointed out that during his 30 years of Parliamentary life he had never before proposed any alteration in the law. He still had no wish, he said, to link a statute with his name; he had a better motive. If the Bill were enacted, it would not only be an honour to the country but would mark an era in the history of the world.
The Lords found no difficulty in accepting the Bill but it received a different reception in the Commons, particularly with the speech of William Windham, a turncoat in politics and bitter opponent of any mitigation of the cruel penal code of the time. What a figure of fun they would all be, said Windham, with some logic, if they endorsed a string of commitments under the Cruelty to Animals Bill and then read of statesmen and princes attending a race in which only five out of 50 horses survived, and when the "rights" of foxes were violated with impunity. He then alleged that Erskine was thinking of himself and not the interests of the community at all. And he sneered, that for Erskine to be the first who stood up as the champion of the rights of brutes was, indeed, a marked distinction. In the event, the Commons proved not to be ready for animal rights and the Bill was defeated.
Refusing to be discouraged, Erskine re-introduced his Bill in the next session of the Lords with some amendments. Learning, however, that when it reached the Commons it was likely to be defeated again, he withdrew it after it had passed in Committee, Later, to his great satisfaction, it was introduced in the Commons itself where, with Windham no longer present, it was accepted and after passing through the Lords was enacted as statute 3 Geo.4. c.71. In the climate of the times, it signalled Erskine's courage and was a great achievement.
[This law, and others that followed, only protected domestic animals. A Bill to protect wild mammals from cruelty was introduced to the British Parliament in 1995 and has since become law.]
from Cruelty to Animals, the speech of Lord Erskine in the House of Peers on the second reading of the Bill for preventing malicious and wanton cruelty to animals, 1809:
Animals are considered as property only. To destroy or to abuse them, from malice to the proprietor, or with an intention injurious to his interest in them, is criminal. But the animals themselves are without protection. The law regards them not substantively. They have no RIGHTS!
... I am to ask your Lordships, in the name of that God who gave to Man his dominion over the lower world, to acknowledge and recognize that dominion to be A MORAL TRUST.
... For every animal which comes in contact with Man, and whose powers, and qualities, and instincts, are obviously constructed for his use, Nature has taken the same care to provide, and as carefully and bountifully as for man himself, organs and feelings for its own elijoyment and happiness. Almost every sense bestowed upon Man is equally bestowed upon them - seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, the sense of pain and pleasure, and passions of love and anger, sensibility to kindness, and pangs from unkindness and neglect, are inseparable characteristics of their natures as much as of our own.