The redoubtable (but flawed) F.E. Smith (1872-1930) was the subject of a few biographies: FE (hagiography, by his son); Lord Birkenhead by ‘Ephesian’ (Bechofer Roberts); The Glittering Prizes by William Camp – distinctly not hagiography. Incidentally, the phrase ‘the glittering prizes’ is a quotation from F.E. Smith, who said in a Rectorial address in Glascow in November 1923:
The world continues to offer glittering prizes to those with stout hearts and strong swords.
Incidentally, in 1976 ‘The Glittering Prizes’ was the name of a 6-part TV mini-series with Tom Conti. That is, arguably, the best form of quotation, although I do not think the author of the expression was identified: possibly because it was set in Cambridge, and Smith went to Oxford.
The most recent biography of F.E Smith is by John Campbell, published in 1991.
Given that our trade is words, lawyers are significantly under-represented in the matter of quotations. Perhaps the best remembered is the exchange between Judge Willis and F.E. Smith in a case in which the Plaintiff, a young boy, had been blinded because of the alleged negligence of the tramways company, for whom Smith was acting. When the judge heard that the boy had been blinded he suggested that the boy stand up, so the jury could see him better. Smith did not like the idea. This exchange followed:
FE: Perhaps Your Honour would like to have the boy passed around the jury box.
Judge: That is a most improper suggestion.
FE: It was provoked by a most improper suggestion.
Judge: Mr. Smith, have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon – the great Bacon – that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?
FE: Indeed I have, Your Honour; and has Your Honour ever heard of a saying by Bacon – the great Bacon – that a much talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?
Judge: You are extremely offensive, young man .
FE: As a matter of fact we both are; the only difference between us is·that I am trying to be and you can’t help it …
It is hard to know whether the exchange has been polished up after the event, but it appears in substantially identical form in the biographies by Bechofer Roberts (1926) and Campbell (1991)
In a later case, Judge Willis and FE had this shattering exchange:
Judge: Whatever do you suppose I am on the bench for, Mr Smith?
FE: It is not for me, M’lud, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence
My favourite legal quotation of all times was made by John Clerk. He was a very bright barrister from Edinburgh later appointed to the Supreme Court as Lord Eldin – Eldin not Eldon, although Lord Eldon’s name before he was elevated to the peerage was John Scott).
Anyway, he was so bright that he was sent to London, as junior counsel, to argue a House of Lords appeal by himself – not led by a silk.
It was an appeal which involved the Water Act, so he used the word water quite a lot, and fairly distinctively because of his Scottish accent.
At one point, one of the Law Lords (who should have known better) said to him
“Tell me Mr Clerk, in Scotland do you spell water with two t’s?”
His reply was quick and dangerous, but brilliant:
“No my Lord, we do not. But we still spell manners with two n’s”
It’s the sort of reply which might only occur to most people a couple of weeks later.
But it is also the sort of reply which most of us would be proud to think up on the spot and have the courage to say it.
There are very few advocates who are the subject of biographies published decades after their death. The only other who comes to mind is the dazzling, but imperfect, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) who was also the subject of a few biographies, the first in 1943 and the latest in 1980. It was Darrow who devised and ran the famous Scopes case, also known as the Monkey Trial, and he acted for Dickie Loeb and Nathan Leopold in their famous death penalty case in Chicago in 1924. Darrow once said:
I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure – that is all that agnosticism means.
Darrow was famous for his opposition to the death penalty. He is, for obvious reasons, referred to extensively in Life Plus Ninety-nine Years by Nathan Leopold (Greenwood Press 1957). He is quoted as saying:
I have never wanted to see anybody die, but there are a few obituary notices I have read with pleasure.
There are many books of quotations. My favourites include: The Book of Insults and Irreverent Quotations (Hook and Kahn); The Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Wordsworth Library); The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Watson); Cassell’s Book of Humourous Quotations ; Collins Dictionary of Literary Quotations ; Magill’s Quotations in Context; The Thesaurus of Quotations (Fuller); Brewer’s Famous Quotations (Rees); History in Quotations (Cohen and Major); The International Thesaurus of Quotations (Tripp); The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (ed. Knowles); The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (4th ed) ; Simpsons Contemporary Quotations (Simpson and Boorshin); The Dictionary of Australian Quotations (Murray-Smith); The Dictionary of Biographical Quotations (Winke & Kenin); The Dictionary of Insulting Quotations (Green).
It is not easy to find quotations by lawyers. In the books noted above, there are a few quotes by F.E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead), but in 1985 The Quotable Lawyer by Shrager and Frost was published by New England Publishing. And books of anecdotes are common enough in the legal profession (I have 47 of them). If a lawyer is important enough to be the subject of a biography, that book will inevitably include some quotations by the subject of the biography. Even then, it’s thin pickings.
This lengthy nod to clever quotations from lawyers is by way of introducing one of the most famous quotations of all time: not by a lawyer, but by the famous physicist Isaac Newton. In a letter to Robert Hooke on 5 February 1676:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”
The quotation is so famous that the phrase ’the shoulders of giants’ was recently inscribed on the English 2 pound coin.
But there is more to it. Isaac Newton is arguably the most famous scientist of all time. He published the laws of motion and universal gravitation in his famous book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687), which is generally referred to simply as “Principia Mathematica”.
Much of Newton’s adult life was spent pursuing what would now be considered mysticism.
What is less commonly known in connection with Newton’s famous observation is that Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was a very famous scientific rival of Newton (1643-1726) and, like Newton, had developed many significant scientific principles. He was a polymath (like Newton) and in 1996 was described by Alan Chapman as ‘England’s Leonardo’. He built the earliest Gregorian telescope, and observed the rotations of the planets Mars and Jupiter. In 1665 published Micrographia, which prompted microscopic investigations. His observations of microscopic fossils led him to endorse biological evolution: several centuries ahead of Charles Darwin.
Hooke proposed that gravity heeds an inverse square law, and first hypothesised such a relation in planetary motion, too: a principle which Newton propounded in his law of universal gravitation. That was the underlying cause of the rivalry between Newton and Hooke.
In addition to their notorious scientific rivalry, Robert Hooke was very short, so he could not have been considered a ‘giant’.
It has always struck me as odd that a comment, so famous that it was inscribed on an English coin, was originally intended as an insult. At least John Clerk did not try to hide his purpose.
Quotations by Hooke are hard to find. That said, quotations by Newton are relatively rare (apart from the ‘shoulders of giants’ quote), and most books of quotations ignore some of the best observations by lawyers.
(For those who are interested in gathering quotations by lawyers R.E. Megarry wrote Miscellany At Law (1955), A Second Miscellany At Law (1973) and A New Miscellany At Law (2005). Although they do not contain any of the quotations above, they contain many excellent legal stories, across hundreds of years.)