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Bentham the reformer: an 8-page letter

BENTHAM, JEREMY. Outstanding autograph letter to Francis Horner

Q[ueen’s] Sq[uare] Pl[ace], 24 May 1808

4to. 8 pages, densely written in Bentham’s small script, not signed and perhaps incomplete. Some age-toning, but generally in very good condition.

In this remarkable letter Jeremy Bentham presents the case for a significant reform in English legal procedure. He begins by thanking Horner, a leading MP, for sending the report of the Committee for Searching the Lord’s Journals concerning the “causes that retard the decision of suits in the High Court of Chancery.“

Bentham attacks the routine abuse of sham writs of error in which officials and lawyers lined their pockets by entertaining bogus writs of error. He observes, “The number [and] relations of the sham writs of error (brought for the mere purpose of delay) which was the main, if not sole, object of our motion, is not given: and the circumstances are such as afford a sorry confirmation of the intentional supposition suspected before.”

Bentham goes on, for eight pages and hundreds of words, to meticulously analyze the reports, pointing out the “curious circumstances” he has uncovered. He demonstrates that the journals and the Lords’ proceedings have been manipulated to conceal the extent of the use of writs of error. Bentham’s investigations resulted in the exposure of enormous fees and emoluments inappropriately received by the Lord High Chancellor, Lord Eldon.

Bentham is one of the great thinkers and reformers in the history of English law and politics. “Bentham attacked what he called the ‘technical’ system of evidence and adjective law which was employed in England, and which, in his opinion, led to obscurity in the law and unnecessary expense, delay, and corruption. Bentham recommended the ‘natural’ system of procedure where all parties were heard, all evidence admitted, cross-examination encouraged, and increased powers given to courts to obtain evidence” (ODNB).

“To re-read Bentham now is to realize how much practical good he has done, as well as how much he advanced social and political thinking. Typically, his range is too great to be easily classified (he has left no school or followers) but much of what he taught has become part of the common thought not only of his own but of subsequent time: truths which had not found expression before they were pointed out by Bentham are now so universally accepted as to be thought common-place. Take ‘Utilitarianism’ for example; although the concept was not wholly original, only Bentham could have summed it up in the succinct aphorism ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and only he could have coined the word ‘utilitarianism” to label it. (Bentham was a lively neologist: ‘utilitarian’, ‘international’, ‘codification’, all were invented by him” (Printing and the Mind of Man).

The recipient of the letter, Francis Horner, M.P. (1778-1817), was a leading figure in economics and finance in Parliament in the 1810s. In 1810 the House of Commons named him to chair the Committee on the High Price of Gold Bullion to investigate why the price had risen during the Napoleonic Wars. Horner “maintained a close relationship with Jeremy Bentham. He first met Bentham in 1805 and afterwards corresponded with him on he subject of Scots judicature. … Horner apparently called on Bentham frequently” (The Horner Papers). This important, lengthy letter is apparently unpublished.