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SECTION THE FIRST
ON THE STUDY OF THE LAW*
VICE-CHANCELLOR, AND GENTLEMEN OF
HE general expectation of fo numerous and refpectable an audience, the novelty, and (I may add) the importance of the duty required from this chair, muft unavoidably be productive of great diffidence and apprehenfions in him who has the honour to be placed in it. He must be fenfible how much will depend upon his conduct in the infancy of a study, which is now firft adopted by public academical authority; which has generally been reputed (however unjustly) of a dry and unfruitful nature; and of which the theoretical, elementary parts have hitherto received a very moderate share of cultivation. He cannot but re-. flect that, if either his plan of inftruction be crude and injudicious, or the execution of it lame and fuperficial, it will caft a damp upon the farther progress of this most useful and most rational branch of learning; and may defeat for a time the publicA 2
* Read in Oxford at the opening of the Vinerian lectures; 25 Oct. 1758.
fpirited defign of our wife and munificent benefactor. And this he muft more cfpecially dread, when he feels by experience how unequal his abilities are (unaffifted by preceding examples) to complete, in the manner he could wifh, fo extenfive and arduous a task; fince he freely confeffes, that his former more private attempts have fallen very short of his own ideas of perfection. And yet the candour he has already experienced, and this last tranfcendent mark of regard, his present nomination by the free and unanimous fuffrage of a great and learned university, (an honour to be ever remembered with the deepest and most affectionate gratitude) thefe teftimonies of your public judgment must entirely fuperfede his own, and forbid him to believe himself totally infufficient for the labour at leaft of this employment. One thing he will venture to hope for, and it certainly shall be his conftant aim, by diligence and attention to atone for his other defects; efteeming, that the beft return, which he can poffibly make for your favourable opinion of his capacity, will be his unwearied endeavours in iome little degree to deserve it.
THE science thus committed to his charge, to be cultivated, methodized, and explained in a courfe of academical lectures, is that of the laws and conftitution of our own country: a fpecies of knowledge, in which the gentlemen of England have been more remarkably deficient than thofe of all Europe befides. In most of the nations on the continent, where the civil or imperial law, under different modifications, is clofely interwoven with the municipal laws of the land, no gentleman, or at least no scholar, thinks his education is completed, till he has attended a course or two of lectures, both upon the inftitutes of Juftinian and the local conftitutions of his native foil, under the very eminent profeffors that abound in their feveral univerfities. And in the northern parts of our own ifland, where alfo the municipal laws are frequently connected with the civil, it is difficult to meet with a perfon of liberal education, who is deftitute of a competent knowledge in that fcience, which is to be the guardian of his natural rights and the rule of his civil conduct.
NOR have the imperial laws been totally neglected even in the English nation. A general acquaintance with their decisions has ever been deservedly confidered as no fmall accomplishment of a gentleman; and a fashion has prevailed, efpecially of late, to transport the growing hopes of this island to foreign univerfities in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; which, though infinitely inferior to our own in every other confideration, have been looked upon as better nurseries of the civil, or (which is nearly the fame) of their own municipal law. In the mean time, it has been the peculiar lot of our admirable fyftem of laws, to be neglected, and even unknown, by all but one practical profeflion; though built upon the foundest foundations, and approved by the experience of ages.
FAR be it from me to derogate from the ftudy of the civil law, confidered (apart from any binding authority) as a collection. of written reason. No man is more thoroughly perfuaded of the general excellence of its rules, and the usual equity of its decifions, nor is better convinced of its use as well as ornament to the scholar, the divine, the statefinan, and even the common lawyer. But we must not carry our veneration fo far as to facrifice our Alfred and Edward to the manes of Theodofius and Juftinian: we must not prefer the edict of the practor, or the refcript of the Roman emperor, to our own immemorial cuftoms, or the fanctions of an English parliament; unless we can also prefer the defpotic monarchy of Rome and Byzantium, for whofe meridians the former were calculated, to the free conftitution of Britain, which the latter are adapted to perpetuate.
WITHOUT detracting therefore from the real merit which abounds in the imperial law, I hope I may have leave to affert, that if an Englishman must be ignorant of either the one or the other, he had better be a ftranger to the Roman than the English inftitutions. For I think it an undeniable pofition, that a competent knowledge of the laws of that fociety, in which we live,