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This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1888
Thomas Denman, lord chief justice, was of a family probably settled in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire since the time of Edward III, but not certainly traceable beyond Thomas Denman of Bevercotes, Nottinghamshire, who died in 1740. His son was a doctor at Bakewell, and had two sons, the elder his successor in practice, the younger, Thomas, born in 1733, first a surgeon in the navy, then in practice in the Haymarket, and lastly the first accoucheur in London. He married, on 1 November 1770, Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Brodie, an army accoutrement maker, of good Scotch family, by whom he had two daughters and one son, the youngest child, Thomas, who was born in Queen Street (now Denman Street), Golden Square, 23 February 1779.
The parents sent the child at the age of three and a half to Mrs. Barbauld's school at Palgrave, Norfolk. He began Latin at five and became thoroughly grounded in knowledge of the Bible, partly under Mrs. Barbauld, for whom he always preserved a strong affection, partly under his mother, a woman of good parts, wide reading, and some poetical gifts. At the age of seven he went to Dr. Thomson's at Kensington, and to Eton in September 1788, where he remained till the summer of 1795, professing ultra-liberal opinions and acquiring some note as a debater. While a fag he was branded with a hot poker for refusing to make a speech for the amusement of the older boys. A fever when he was sixteen led to his removal to the care of his maternal uncle, the Rev. Peter Brodie, rector of Winterslow, in Wiltshire, whence in October 1796 he went to St. John's College, Cambridge.
Here he became a good scholar and contributed English translations to Bland's ‘Collections from the Greek Anthology.’ He was unable to take the mathematical honours, then a preliminary to classical honours, and took the ordinary degree. In opinion he was, like his father and uncle, a strong Foxite; he entertained a passion for the theatre and for literature; admired Wordsworth, and made walking tours in North Wales in 1797, ascending Snowdon, and in Dovedale in 1798. He came to London to read law in February 1800, gifted with a handsome face, a winning, though shy, manner, an exquisite voice of great compass and flexibility, and a tall and active figure. He read real property law in the chambers of Charles Butler in 1800, was a pupil of Dampier, afterwards a judge of the king's bench, in 1801, and of Tidd in 1802; and began in the end of 1803 to practise as a special pleader.
He fell in love with a sister of his college friend, Richard William Vevers, Theodosia, daughter of the Rev. Richard Vevers, rector of Saxby, Melton Mowbray, a beautiful and accomplished but dowerless woman, and married her 18 October 1804, on an allowance from his father of £400 a year. To this income he added by occasional contributions to the then leading whig organ, the ‘Monthly Review.’ On 9 May 1806 he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, and joined the midland circuit and Lincolnshire sessions, where he became intimate with Copley (Lord Lyndhurst), Horner, and Empson, afterwards editor of the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and soon acquired a fair practice.
His first London employment was in May 1807, when he acted for Lord Cochrane in his successful contest for Westminster in conjunction with Sir F. Burdett. On the trial of Lord Cochrane and others in 1814 he appeared for some of the parties; he was engaged in Lindsey v. Colyear; at the summer assizes of 1817 he defended at Derby (October 14), against Copley leading for the crown, ‘Captain’ Jerry Brandreth, leader of the Luddite riot of 9 June, and on 25 October Turner and Ludlam, his accomplices. All were convicted and hanged. A report of this trial, by Gurney and Butterworth, was published in 1819.
During this period Denman's private affairs were embarrassed in spite of his writing for the ‘Critical Review’ various political articles, beginning with a review of Pitt's speeches and including a review of Washington's life in 1808. He was sanguine, careless, and fond of society, and his family was fast increasing. In 1812 his paternal uncle, Dr. Joseph Denman of Buxton, died, leaving him the reversion to the bulk of his estate, including Stony Middleton, Derbyshire (afterwards his country seat), and an estate at Lynn in Norfolk. About 1818 he moved to No. 50 Russell Square, then the most fashionable region for leading lawyers. Through the influence of Lord Holland he was appointed deputy-recorder of Nottingham, and having unsuccessfully contested the borough was brought in with Calcraft, free of expense, by the Duke of Devonshire and the Marquis of Lansdowne for the close borough of Wareham, Dorsetshire, at the general election of 1818. He took his seat 14 January 1819, but though the whigs were short of leaders, Denman made but an inconsiderable figure. He spoke in favour of various projects of reform; 10 February in favour of a bill to abolish wager of battle; 25 February against an allowance of £10,000 a year to the Duke of York as the king's guardian; 3 June, against the foreign enlistment bill; and against the six acts in the autumn session, 26 and 30 November and 8 and 23 December. He also introduced a bill to expedite the business of the king's bench. At the general election in 1820 he accepted the invitation brought him by a deputation from Nottingham, and after a twelve days' poll he and Mr. Birch were returned by a majority of only thirty-three in a poll of eighteen hundred and sixty. Upon this he resigned his deputy-recordership and held his last sessions 14 April 1820. The cost of the contest tried him severely. In spite of large subscriptions from various whig noblemen and friends his share of the expenses was some £1,500, and his savings were only £300 or £400.
At the end of 1819, Brougham, his close friend, had told him he would have a general retainer for the Princess of Wales, and on the accession of George IV the queen appointed him her solicitor-general. Denman was enthusiastic in her cause, believing her (as Brougham did not), to use his own simile, pure as unsunned snow; but when the queen arrived neither of them allowed his wife to call upon her. Both now made application to the chancellor for the customary precedence given to the queen's law officers, but this was refused; but upon the motion of Sir William Grant they were called to the bench by Lincoln's Inn. On 6 June the queen arrived in London, and negotiations began with the king. On 22 June, Wilberforce introduced a motion in the commons that the queen, ‘by forbearing to press further points in the then negotiations, would not be understood to be shirking inquiry, but to be deferring to the wishes of the house.’ Denman on this made a powerful speech, in the course of which he declared that, though her name was excluded from the liturgy, she still came under the petition for ‘those who are desolate and oppressed.’ This attempt at mediation failed. On 26 June he was heard at the bar of the lords to urge the select committee to delay their report until the witnesses called by the Milan commission could be brought to England. This was refused.
On 4 July the committee reported that the charges justified an inquiry, and on 5 July Lord Liverpool introduced a bill of pains and penalties. Counsel were heard on the 17th. Brougham, Denman, Williams, Tindal, Lushington, and Wilde, all subsequently judges, were for the queen. On the 18th, Denman made a speech against the principle of the bill; evidence was taken from 21 August to 7 September, and the house adjourned. Denman, overworked and ill of jaundice, went to Cheltenham; the crowd took out his horses, dragged his carriage into the town, and threatened the life of a German whom they took for Bergami. The house met again on 3 October, and on 24th and 25th, in a speech lasting ten hours, Denman summed up the queen's case. Unfortunately he worked up his peroration to the story of the woman taken in adultery, and on this was founded the epigram:
Most gracious queen, we thee implore
To go away and sin no more;
Or, if that effort be too great,
To go away at any rate.
Addressing himself to the rumours put about by the Duke of Clarence, although he was present in the house, he apostrophised him in the words ‘Come forth, thou slanderer!’ and his supposed comparison of George IV to Nero procured for Carlton Palace the name of Nerot's Hotel. His splendid acting caused this speech at the time to be thought finer than Brougham's, though as printed it appears inferior. Denman continued to act for and advise the queen after the withdrawal of the bill; it was against his advice that she made her notification to the ministry, before any offer was made to her, that she would accept no money, and against his advice that she attempted to appear at the coronation 19 July 1821. He saw to the preparation of her will, but was not an executor or in attendance at her death or funeral.
The popularity of Brougham and Denman after the trial was immense. A vote of thanks and the freedom of the city was voted them 7 December 1820, and presented 7 June 1821, and in 1822 Denman was invited to stand for the vacancy in the common serjeantship caused by Knowlys's promotion to be recorder, against Mr. Bolland, and elected by 131 votes to 119. The salary, increased with fees to some £1,300 or £1,400 a year, was of importance to him, as his London practice was not of the first class, for want of promotion to the rank of king's counsel. This was of course known to be refused owing to the part he took in defence of the queen, and in 1827, at a banquet of the Fishmongers' Company, he declared that he would not explain away anything he had then said. But on 27 May 1828 he formally applied for silk through the chancellor, Lyndhurst, who sounded the king and found him inflexible. Denman pressed his application, and Lyndhurst was compelled to inform Denman that his predecessor, Lord Eldon, as well as himself, had been ordered never to name him to the king. In preparing his speech for the queen in 1820 Denman had applied to Dr. Parr for classical illustrations, and from among those supplied him had made use of the story of Octavia, the wife of Nero. Though Parr probably intended them for the king, Denman, aiming only at the discredited witnesses Majocchi and Sacchi, employed the words put by Dio Cassius into the mouth of Octavia's maid and used against Tigellinus. He now learnt that the king had taken them to himself. On Lyndhurst's suggestion Denman prepared a humble memorial (24 July) protesting against any such intention. He entrusted this to Lyndhurst, who delayed the presentation, and Denman then became impatient and suspicious and appealed to the good offices of the Duke of Wellington.
In October the king yielded, and endorsed an order for a patent of precedence upon the memorial itself, which he ordered to be preserved in the treasury. The duke told Denman of his success (1 December), adding, ‘but, by G—, it was the toughest job I ever had.’ The king, however, was by no means pacified. In November 1829, the recorder of London being ill, it became Denman's duty as common serjeant to attend the council at Windsor and present the report of the sessions at the Old Bailey. The king declared that he would never admit Denman into his presence. After what Wellington described to Greville as a fearful scene, it was arranged that the council should be put off, and at the next council the recorder contrived to attend. More magnanimous than his brother, William IV did not make the epithet ‘slanderer’ a ground for refusing to receive Denman as his principal law officer.
Denman had remained in parliament till 1826, advocating most of the measures of legal reform introduced from time to time. He visited Scotland with Brougham in 1823, and a banquet was given in Glasgow in their honour. He spoke frequently in favour of whig principles and for measures of legal reform, such as the abolition of the death penalty for forgery and the allowance of counsel to persons charged with felony. He brought forward a motion in favour of negro emancipation (1 March 1826), and supported Brougham's motion for an inquiry into slavery in the West Indies (19 May 1826). He also presented petitions in individual cases of hardship — Thomas Davison's, tried for a blasphemous libel (23 Feb. 1821); Richard Carlile's (8 May 1823); and the Walsall mechanics', petitioning against the Combination Laws. His success, however, was not very conspicuous. His delivery was too histrionic to suit the taste of the House of Commons, and at times he was dull. At the general election of 1826 he contested Leinster in Ireland unsuccessfully, and then withdrew from electoral strife. Anxious to attend to his practice, he refused offer of a borough of the Duke of Norfolk's which Brougham procured him. His pen, however, had been active in the cause of law reform during this period, and continued to be so. His review of Dumont's ‘Traité de Législation’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ March 1824, attracted public attention to the defects in the law of evidence; he gave evidence (14 November 1828) before the commission on actions at law, and published a pamphlet embodying his suggestions. He also (24 April 1828) delivered an inaugural discourse on the opening of the theatre of the City of London Literary and Scientific Institute, which was published by the committee.
He re-entered public life in 1830. At the general election he received a requisition from Nottingham, and, his opponent withdrawing, he was triumphantly returned. The day after the new parliament met (3 November) he spoke regretting the duke's declaration against reform, and again on 8 November denouncing the mob violence which had been offered to him. On the 16th Wellington resigned, and on the 19th Denman became attorney-general, and was subsequently knighted. On his consequent resignation of the common serjeantship he received the thanks of the common council. He had discharged its duties exceedingly well.
On 16 December he spoke on Campbell's motion for leave to bring in a bill to establish a register of deeds, and was afterwards officially engaged in the crown prosecutions of the Hampshire and Dorsetshire rioters before special commissions at Winchester and Salisbury. Unpopular as the task was, he discharged it with conspicuous humanity. Next year (8 February 1831) he spoke against Hunt's motion for an address praying for their pardon, which was rejected by 269 to 2; and having ascertained that Cobbett and Carlile had by their writings directly encouraged the rioters, he filed ex officio informations against them — against Carlile for his ‘Address to the Insurgent Agricultural Labourers,’ 27 November 1830, and against Cobbett for the ‘Register’ of 11 December. Carlile was tried 11 January 1831, convicted, and heavily sentenced; Cobbett was tried in July, and, the jury disagreeing, Denman was glad to enter a nolle prosequi. The king, who had been in close communication with him during the rioters' trial, urged him on several occasions to file other informations ex officio, but, convinced by the popularity of Cobbett after his trial of their unwisdom, he declined to do so, stating his reasons in a full memorial, 24 May 1832.
He spoke (15 April 1831) on Buxton's resolution in favour of negro emancipation; and having, under instructions from the cabinet committee, drafted the Reform Bill, he defended its legal details on 2 and 22 March, and spoke (19 April) on Gascoigne's motion against diminishing the number of members for England and Wales. Beaten on this by 299 to 291, the ministry dissolved on 22 April. Denman's re-election was not opposed. In the new parliament, in the midst of his official duties and private practice, he fought the battle of the bill all through the discussions on the schedules, speaking forty times in committee between 12 July and 7 September. On 28 September. Brougham's Bankruptcy Bill was sent down from the House of Lords, and Denman took charge of it. Unfamiliar, however, with details of chancery practice or bankruptcy procedure, and opposed by Wetherell and Sugden, he was not particularly successful. Althorp said of his speech on 30 September, ‘It was ill-opened, both as to the plan of the speech and its execution.’
The bill passed 18 Oct. At the special commission at Bristol in January 1832 he conducted the prosecution of the persons engaged in the riots which followed the rejection of the bill by the House of Lords; 24 were indicted, 21 convicted, and 4 executed. The crisis which followed the defeat of the ministry on Lyndhurst's motion to postpone the consideration of the first part of the bill to that of the disfranchising clauses was a serious one for Denman. To take office he had resigned his circuit practice and his common serjeantship; to lose office would make him a poor man. There was some suggestion of making him speaker, but to that and to a judgeship he was averse. Perhaps this anxiety and the judicial example of Brougham excuse, if they do not account for, what he himself calls his ‘horribly undignified’ conduct in making sneers and allusions to Lyndhurst's alleged change of political adherence, in a case in which he was counsel and Lyndhurst sitting on the bench. He was hard at work, too, during this period upon questions connected with the Russian Dutch loan, defending the government's conduct in continuing to pay interest under the treaty of 1815, after Belgium had been separated from the kingdom of the Netherlands.
During the remainder of the session he carried through the commons a bill abolishing the punishment of death for forgery, had charge of Brougham's bill for the abolition of sinecures in the court of chancery, and supported Ewart's proposal to abolish the punishment of death for horse-stealing, and Warburton's for holding coroner's inquests in public. For the vacation he retired to Stony Middleton in Derbyshire, which since 1830 he had been planting and improving. He found himself so unpopular in Nottingham through the official part he had played in the government prosecutions that his constituents mobbed him, and accordingly he thought of accepting the requisition which was presented to him to stand for Derbyshire at the approaching general election. He decided, however, to try his fortune in Nottingham, but his prospects were poor indeed, for on 27 October 1832 the trial came on at the bar of the king's bench of the mayor of Bristol for neglect of duty during the riots, and he as attorney-general led for the crown.
On 3 November Lord Tenterden, chief justice of the king's bench, died. Brougham at once urged Grey to propose Denman's name to the king, who ‘after a short struggle’ assented. Denman was sworn of the privy council as lord chief justice on 9 November 1832. The salary of the office was then £10,000, which had been fixed by the act of 1825. A committee of the House of Commons had, however, in 1830 reported in favour of its reduction, and Denman accepted the office on the understanding that it should be reduced to £8,000. Brougham, however, omitted to introduce a bill for that purpose, but Denman never during his tenure drew more than £8,000., though parliament was annually voting £10,000. The salary was not reduced by statute till 1851.
Although not erudite in case-law, he was a good criminal lawyer, and had had much judicial experience, and his appointment was popular. The common pleas being then a closed court, and the exchequer only beginning to recover prestige under Lyndhurst, Parke, and Alderson, the king's bench was the busiest common law court, and the cause-lists were much in arrear. By severe efforts Denman reduced the arrears. In 1834 Brougham, who stood in need of legal assistance in the House of Lords, procured him a peerage, and he was gazetted Baron Denman of Dovedale 22 March. He now removed to 38 Portland Place; but he had no fortune, and his family was large. He never had made a large income at the bar, and it was thought that it would have been better to terminate in his person the custom of raising chief justices to the peerage. As chief justice he held the great seal from 28 November to 10 December 1834, between the dismissal of Melbourne and the return of Peel, and during the session of 1835, while the great seal was in commission, he was speaker of the House of Lords. On 27 August, Lord Lyndhurst made a speech censuring as corrupt some of the appointments of commissioners upon municipalities, and Denman in reply twitted him severely for having quitted his liberal opinions to take office with the tories. Lyndhurst strenuously contradicting this, Denman could only refer in proof of his charges to the general belief prevailing at the bar that Lyndhurst's opinions were liberal, and scarcely came well out of the controversy. Sir T. Martin adds that he subsequently asked and obtained favours of Lyndhurst.
In 1837 began the legal proceedings which formed the chief event of Denman's life, ‘on which,’ he himself wrote, ‘my future reputation must depend.’ One Stockdale brought an action against Messrs. Hansard for a libel contained in a report of the inspector of prisons printed and sold by them, which described one of his publications as ‘obscene.’ The cause came on for trial before Denman at Westminster 7 February 1837. The defence relied on was simply that the report was published for and by the authority of the House of Commons. Denman held the plea bad on the ground that the house could not authorise a libel or create by its resolutions any such privilege for papers published by its authority. In this view the attorney-general, Campbell, who led for the defendant, at the time concurred; subsequently he took the lead in those proceedings which impugned Denman's view of the law. A committee of the house having reported (8 May) that the house alone could judge of its privileges, the house resolved, 31 May, that ‘for any court or tribunal to decide upon matters of privilege is ... a breach and contempt of the privileges of parliament.’ The sale of the report continuing, Stockdale brought a second action, to which privilege was the defendant's sole plea. This plea was demurred to. Upon the argument of the demurrer Denman was prepared to have given judgment against the plea at once. The court, however, took time to consider, and upheld the demurrer on 31 May 1839. Judgment thereupon went by default, and a third action being brought with like result, Evans and Wheelton, sheriffs of Middlesex, levied execution upon Hansard for the sum at which the damages were assessed, £600, 16 December 1839. The day after parliament met the House of Commons sent Stockdale to Newgate (17 January 1840), and the sheriffs refusing to refund the amount for which they had levied, they were committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms on 21 January On 24 January they sued out their writ of habeas corpus. By Campbell's advice the serjeant-at-arms made a return that he held them in custody by virtue of the speaker's warrant committing them for contempt. This Denman held, as undoubtedly was the case, to be a good return, but he reiterated his former opinion. They were remitted to custody, nor was the second of them, Evans, liberated until 5 March.
The controversy was finally concluded by the passing of the Printed Papers Act, 3 & 4 Victoria c. 9. On its second reading in the House of Lords (6 April), Denman made a great speech, vindicating himself and his view, and the amendments which he proposed were accepted. Campbell, both in his ‘Lives of the Chief Justices,’ ii. 134, 148-64, 166 (life of Holt), and ‘Lives of the Chancellors,’ i. 373, insinuated that Denman had been prompted in taking the view he did by a desire to pose as the champion of popular liberty. Lord Abinger, however, declared in the House of Lords, 28 March 1843, that the opinion of the profession supported Denman's judgment. Mr. Justice Story warmly supported it, and the action of the House of Commons seems in the end tacitly to have admitted its correctness. Denman's research into the whole law and literature of privilege was very extensive, and he published in support of his view during the controversy, ‘Observations on the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons’ (anonymous), 1837; the ‘Case of Ashby v. White, and Paty's Case,’ from Lord Holt's manuscript in 1837; and in March 1840 an article on ‘Privilege’ in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ vol. lxv., and an article in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ No. 167.
Meantime Denman had made some progress with his projects of legislative reform. In the summer session of 1837 he carried two bills abolishing the punishment of death for forgery and for a variety of other offences, in which, though obsolete, it still existed. In the session after the queen's accession he supported, 3 Deember, Lord Cottenham's bill to abolish arrest on mesne process. In 1838, having previously consulted all the judges, he brought in a bill to permit persons of tender conscience to affirm in lieu of taking the oath in courts of law; but the substantial portion of the measure was lost by thirty-two to sixteen, 14 July. He successfully supported the proposal to hold sittings in banc at other times than during the brief legal terms, and so important a reform did he think it that he directed the fact to be recorded on his tombstone, which was done.
In 1839 he supported the Custody of Infants Bill, giving access to her children to a wife separated from her husband (18 July), and on 15 August he began his long efforts for the extinction of the slave trade by a speech on the bill for the suppression of the slave trade, which was carried by thirty-nine to twenty-eight. On 17 February 1840 he introduced a bill, afterwards passed, to deprive a plaintiff in an action for libel or slander of costs upon a verdict of less than forty shillings, and spoke (1 June) in favour of the bill for the better administration of justice in chancery, advocating the appointment of more judges. On 29 March 1841 he made a personal explanation in the House of Lords, successfully clearing himself of the charge which the newspapers had brought against him of having ordered the prosecution of Lord Waldegrave and Captain Duff Gordon to be bought off. On 2 June he reintroduced his bill to substitute an affirmation for the oath, but withdrew it on 27 June. His speech of this date in moving the second reading was published in 1842. On 1 April 1844 he spoke on the third reading of Lyndhurst's Ecclesiastical Courts Bill, on 13 May in favour of Brougham's bill for the consolidation of the criminal law, and on 17 and 23 June upon Graham's conduct in opening Mazzini's letters in the post office. He doubted whether as an individual minister the home secretary had any right to do so on his own responsibility, and on 30 May 1845 he supported Lord Radnor's bill limiting the right, but it was thrown out.
His name is connected during these years with several great trials. The chancellor being ill, he presided, at Lord Melbourne's request, as lord high steward on the trial of Lord Cardigan before the House of Lords, 16 Feb. 1841. In the same year he tried the prosecution of Moxon for blasphemy, committed in publishing a complete edition of Shelley, including ‘Queen Mab.’ Moxon was convicted, but was never called up for judgment. In 1842 Denman tried at the summer assizes at York the chartist rioters, whose riots are described in ‘Sybil’ and ‘Shirley.’ The task was exceedingly laborious, and the assizes lasted half through the long vacation. He pronounced an exceedingly elaborate judgment on the validity of a presbyterian marriage in the House of Lords, 11 August 1843, in the case of Regina v. Millis. Judgment was given in the House of Lords on 4 September 1844 in favour of O'Connell upon his appeal from his conviction in Dublin in February 1844. It was in his speech on this occasion that Denman, speaking of the effect upon trial by jury, if such proceedings should be upheld, fell upon the since proverbial phrase, ‘a mockery, a delusion, and a snare.’ ‘Ah!’ he said afterwards, ‘I am sorry I used those words; they were not judicial.’
But his energies were from 1843 chiefly occupied with the extinction of the slave trade, as to which he thought he saw in the public mind a growing levity and indifference. His efforts undermined his health. He published anonymously in 1847 a pamphlet called ‘The Slave Trade and the Press,’ and in 1848 and 1849 two ‘Letters to Lord Brougham on the Extinction of the Trade.’ In August 1846 he opposed Lord John Russell's Sugar Duties Bill, which proposed to equalise the duties on colonial and foreign sugar, on the ground that it would tend to encourage slave labour in the Brazils. He spoke, 22 February 1848, on Lord Aberdeen's motion for a return of the number of slaves intercepted by British cruisers between 1845 and 1847, and in a speech, the finest he ever delivered in parliament, gave notice of a motion for 22 August for an address to the crown praying that the slave squadron might be retained on the west coast of Africa. This speech turned the tide of public opinion, which had been much influenced by the report of a committee of the House of Commons that the slave trade never could be extinguished, and secured the retention of the squadron. Meantime, on 1 February 1848, he had given judgment discharging the rule for a mandamus which had been applied for by those who opposed the appointment of Bishop Hampden, to enable them to resist his confirmation. On 13 April he spoke on the government's Removal of Aliens Bill, and on 19 April on the bill for the security of the crown and government.
His strength was being sapped by all these efforts. The heavy work and frequent twelve-hour sittings of the spring assizes, 1849, on the western circuit tried him severely. On 14 April, the day before Easter term, he had a stroke of paralysis, and before long another. His cousin, Sir Benjamin Brodie, ordered rest, but he insisted on continuing to work. He sat all through Trinity term, 22 May to 13 June, spoke on 13 June on the suppression of the slave trade, and again on 22 June moved the second reading of the bill to allow affirmations in lieu of the oath. It was rejected by thirty-four to ten, but was embodied in the Common Law Procedure Act of 1854. He could now barely sign his name, and by Christmas his doctors, Brodie and Watson, and his friends from Brougham downwards, urged resignation. But he found that if he did so, Campbell, whose attacks on him he resented, would be his successor, and he was loth to resign. A newspaper controversy now began, very painful to Campbell, comparing the merits of the two men, much to Denman's advantage. The ‘Spectator’ accused Campbell of trying to ‘assassinate’ the chief justice by spreading reports that he was incapacitated from continuing at his post.
Brougham, however, told Campbell that the real danger was of a third stroke incapacitating Denman from resigning, in which case an act of parliament would have to be passed. At length, on 28 February 1850, the resignation was sent in and was accepted next day. Addresses of condolence now poured in upon him from his colleagues of the queen's bench, from the bars of Westminster Hall and the home and midland circuits, from the corporations of London and Nottingham, and from the grand juries of nearly all the midland counties. With rest his health improved, and he resumed his activity. He contributed an important letter on the reform of the law of evidence to the ‘Law Review,’ 1851, and revised the draft bill, which Brougham took charge of and passed (14 & 15 Vict. c. 99). In 1852 he published a pamphlet in favour of legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister, and also nine letters to the lord chancellor on various points connected with the Common Law Procedure Bill, upon the third reading of which he made his last speech, 27 May 1852. In the following autumn ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ came out, and he was prevailed on to write in the ‘Standard’ in September and October, and afterwards to republish seven articles, in which he bitterly attacked Dickens, long his intimate friend, for the character of Mrs. Jellyby in ‘Bleak House.’ He looked on it as retarding the completion of negro emancipation. This excitement overcame him. His final stroke occurred at Nice, 2 December 1852, and though his brain remained clear and he could copy letters placed before him, he could never speak or originate any writing again. In April 1853 he returned to England, and lingered on until 22 September 1854, when he died and was buried in Stoke Albany churchyard.
Never a great lawyer, he was ardent in the cause of law reform, even making private suggestions to the home office when points struck him in the course of his practice. By comparison with his four great predecessors in the chief justiceship he appeared a weak judge, yet by his judgment he did much to secure individual liberties, notably in Stockdale's and O'Connell's cases. As a politician he was, though occasionally violent, honourable and completely consistent; as a philanthropist he was ardent and untiring. He was witty and agreeable; a good French and an excellent classical scholar. His eloquence is of a rather stilted and artificial character, and his delivery, though imposing, was histrionic. But it was for his high moral character and his attractive personality that he was most esteemed. Sir Francis Doyle says he was ‘beloved by every one who knew him.’ His lifelong friend Rogers in 1853, seeing some of the verses Denman still could copy and send to his friends as a remembrance of himself, kissed the handwriting. ‘To have seen him on the bench,’ wrote his friend, Charles Sumner, ‘in the administration of justice, was to have a new idea of the elevation of the judicial character.’
His family was large: Thomas, who succeeded him; George, the fourth son, a judge of the queen's bench division, and three others, and six daughters.
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