Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Maine, Henry James Sumner

MAINE, Sir HENRY JAMES SUMNER (1822–1888), jurist, son of Dr. James Maine, a native of Kelso, N.B., by Eliza, fourth daughter of David Fell of Caversham Grove, Reading, was born 15 Aug. 1822. His infancy was passed in Jersey. Family difficulties arose and he was for a time in the exclusive charge of his mother, who lived chiefly at Henley-on-Thames. He was a delicate child, and his mother and a ‘devoted aunt’ nearly poisoned him with an overdose of opium. He was sent to a school kept by a Mrs. Lamb in the Fair Mile at Henley, but in 1829 his godfather, Dr. Sumner, then bishop of Chester, and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, obtained a nomination for him to Christ's Hospital. He showed great promise, and in 1840 he won an exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was the best classical scholar of his year. In 1841 he was elected to a foundation scholarship at Pembroke, and in 1843 to the Craven university scholarship. He won the Browne medal for a Latin ode in 1842, and in 1843 the Browne medals both for a Latin ode and for epigrams. In 1842 he also won the chancellor's medal for English verse, the subject being the birth of the Prince of Wales. He sent in a poem upon ‘Plato’ in 1843, but was defeated by Mr. W. Johnson of King's College. Great interest was taken by his contemporaries in the competition between Maine and W. G. Clark [q. v.], afterwards public orator, the most distinguished and popular Trinity man of the time. In the classical tripos of 1844 Maine was senior classic and Clark second. A copy of Latin elegiacs (printed by Bristed) was said to have decided the contest. Maine, who had succeeded in gaining a place as senior optime, was also first chancellor's medallist, Clark being again second. Maine's health was always delicate, while his great nervous energy led him to overtax his strength. Though member of a small college he became well known to the most intellectual of his contemporaries, and belonged to the famous ‘Apostles’ Club. Tom Taylor and Henry Fitzmaurice Hallam were among his friends and contemporaries. He contributed a memoir of Hallam to the ‘Remains.’ His delicacy disqualified him for athletic games, and he did not speak at the Union. The clearness of his voice and brightness of manner were remarked in his recitation of his prize competitions.

No fellowship was vacant at Pembroke, and in 1845 Maine accepted the junior tutorship at Trinity Hall, then at the lowest ebb in point of numbers. He could not hold the fellowship usually associated with the tutorship, for which he must have qualified by taking orders. The income was very small, and he took some private pupils, the first being C. A. Bristed, who has described him in his ‘Five Years at an English University,’ 1852. In 1847 Maine resigned the tutorship on becoming regius professor of civil law. He held this office till 1854. The position of legal studies at that time in Cambridge was such as to give very little scope for the energies of a man of ability, but his office probably turned his attention to the studies by which he was to distinguish himself. He married his cousin, Miss Jane Maine, in 1847, and was called to the bar in 1850. Although he retained rooms in college, and discharged his professorial duties, Maine resided chiefly in London and the neighbourhood, and began to write for the papers. He was contributing in 1851 to the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ edited by John Douglas Cook [q. v.], and an organ of the Peelites. He wrote especially upon foreign and American questions, his sympathies being with the liberal-conservatives. In 1852 the Inns of Court founded five readerships, and instituted a system of examination. Maine became the first reader on Roman law and jurisprudence. His lectures very soon attracted the attention of all the other students. His voice and manner gave full effect to his keen thought and incisive style. Although he was for a time upon the Norfolk circuit, and afterwards joined the equity bar, he never obtained much practice, and at this time suffered from many serious illnesses. He was, however, rapidly gaining a high reputation as a philosophical jurist.

In November 1855 the ‘Saturday Review’ was started, under the editorship of Cook, and Maine became one of the foremost among a singularly able band of contributors. Cook used to say that Maine and one other writer were the only two men he had ever known who wrote as well from the first as they ever wrote afterwards. For some years the ‘Saturday Review’ received Maine's principal writings. Sir M. E. Grant Duff mentions especially the articles which he wrote in 1857 against the impending extinction of the East India Company.

Maine had contributed to the ‘Cambridge Essays’ in 1856 an able paper upon ‘Roman Law and Legal Education,’ and in 1861 he justified his reputation by the publication of his ‘Ancient Law,’ a work which made an epoch in the studies with which it is concerned. By the end of the year Sir Charles Wood, afterwards Lord Halifax, offered him the appointment of legal member of council in India. Maine, upon consulting a medical authority, was told that his life would not be worth three months' purchase in Calcutta. He declined, though bitterly disappointed by the necessity. The appointment was then given to William Ritchie, a cousin of W. M. Thackeray, but upon Ritchie's death, on 22 March 1862, was again offered to Maine, who now decided to run the risk. He left for India in 1862, having been shortly before elected member of the Athenæum Club by the committee. In the event the climate of India proved to be congenial to his health, and he returned apparently a much stronger man than he had been at his departure.

Maine held his post for seven years, two more than the ordinary period, serving during the last years of Lord Elgin's viceroyalty, the whole of Lord Lawrence's, and the first years of Lord Mayo's. A great number of acts were passed during his tenure of office, of which the principal are enumerated by Sir M. E. Grant Duff (Memoir, p. 24). Maine's health disqualified him for laborious application to details, and in drafting bills he depended greatly upon Mr. Whitley Stokes, formerly his pupil and afterwards one of his successors. His ability was shown in determining what legislation was needed, obtaining the ablest assistance, and carrying his measures through the council. Many of his speeches and minutes are reprinted in the volume published in 1892 by Sir M. E. Grant Duff and Mr. Whitley Stokes. He took an important part in the discussion of many affairs lying outside his special department, and Sir Alfred Lyall has spoken in the highest terms of his singular penetration and the influence of his opinions upon the minds of his contemporaries. Maine was appointed vice-chancellor of the university of Calcutta, and delivered four remarkable addresses to the graduates. His wife was prevented by her health from accompanying him to India, and he therefore lived as a bachelor, entertaining hospitably and seeing many distinguished men. Upon his departure the highest opinion was expressed of his services by his colleagues, and he reached England in 1869 with an established reputation.

He was appointed in the same year to the Corpus professorship of jurisprudence just founded at Oxford. His first course of lectures was published in 1871 as ‘Village Communities.’ The book was founded partly upon the researches of Nasse and G. L. von Maurer, and contained also much information acquired in India during his own legislative experience, and from the conversation of Lord Lawrence. His statements as to India were also verified by Sir George Campbell, then lieutenant-governor of Bengal. Another course of lectures formed the substance of the ‘Early History of Institutions,’ published in 1875, in which his Indian experience was again made to throw light upon old institutions, as illustrated by the translations of treatises on Brehon law recently published or shown to him in manuscript. In May 1871 Maine was gazetted K.C.S.I., and in November of the same year appointed by the Duke of Argyll to a seat upon the Indian council. He did not speak frequently, but, as Sir M. E. Grant Duff tells us, ‘an able man, who spoke rarely and always voted right, was a great treasure.’ The same authority assures us that the work is not so light as is sometimes imagined. Maine was chiefly interested in the judicial department, but he also expressed opinions upon other matters, such as the selection and training of candidates for the Indian civil service.

In 1877 Maine was elected master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The duties of that position were not absorbing, and Maine did not give up his house in London. He resided, however, frequently in the college, and was warmly welcomed as a useful and eminent member of university society. He was twice invited to stand for the university in the conservative interest, but on both occasions declined. He resigned his Oxford professorship in the following year. A book published in 1883, ‘Dissertations on Early Law and Custom,’ contained the last product of his Oxford lecturing, with considerable modifications, and concluded the series begun by ‘Ancient Law.’

In 1885 he published ‘Popular Government,’ four essays which had previously appeared in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ It was an attempt to apply the historical method to political institutions. It has perhaps been given to no man to attain to a purely philosophical attitude in regard to contemporary politics, and although Maine preserved the tone of calm perspicacity, democrats naturally regarded his ostensible impartiality as a mask for distrust of popular impulses. John (Viscount) Morley and E. L. Godkin, of the New York ‘Nation,’ were among his critics, and he replied to the last (in 1886) in the ‘Nineteenth Century.’ The book is at least a very acute and noteworthy criticism of some of the tenets of believers in the virtues of democracy. Maine frequently contributed in later years to the ‘St. James's Gazette,’ and sympathised with its anti-Jacobin principles.

In 1887 Maine succeeded Sir William Harcourt as Whewell professor of international law at Cambridge. The founder had laid down the condition that the professor should suggest measures tending towards the extinction of war. Maine had written a book on international law before his departure for India, but the manuscript had been lost. He now lectured upon the growth of the conception of international law, upon some points of law which had been recently discussed, and upon the possibility of introducing a system of arbitration. The lectures were not revised for press by the author, and represent a fragment of a larger scheme. They were edited after his death by Mr. Frederic Harrison and Sir Frederick Pollock. Maine's health, never strong, had gradually declined. In the winter he went to Cannes, and died there on 3 Feb. 1888, the immediate cause of his death being apoplexy.

Maine left a widow and two sons, the eldest of whom, Charles, was clerk of assize on the South Wales circuit, and died soon after his father. A portrait of Maine by Mr. Lowes Dickinson is at Trinity Hall (an engraving is prefixed to ‘Memoir’), and an unsatisfactory medallion by Sir Edgar Boehm was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Maine received many honours. He declined offers of the chief justiceship of Bengal, of the permanent under-secretaryships at the home and the foreign office, and of the principal clerkship of the House of Commons. Among honorary distinctions he was made a member of the American Academy in 1866, of the Dutch Institute about 1876, of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1877, of the Madrid Academy in 1878, of the Royal Irish Academy in 1882, of the Washington Anthropological Society in 1883, and of the Juridical Society of Moscow in 1884. He became corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1881, and foreign member, in place of Emerson, in 1883. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and was elected an honorary fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1887.

The delicacy of Maine's constitution must be remembered in all estimates of his career. It disqualified him from taking a part in the rougher warfare of life. He often appeared to be rather a spectator than an actor in affairs, and a certain reserve was the natural guard of an acute sensibility. To casual observers he might appear as somewhat cold and sarcastic, but closer friends recognised both the sweetness of his temper and the tenderness of his nature. His refinement of understanding made him alive to the weak side of many popular opinions, and he neither shared nor encouraged any unqualified enthusiasm. His inability for drudgery shows itself by one weakness of his books, the almost complete absence of any reference to authorities. He extracted the pith of a large book, it is said, as rapidly as another man could read one hundred pages, and the singular accuracy of his judgments was often admitted by the most thorough students; but he gave his conclusions without producing, or perhaps remembering, the evidence upon which they rested. It is a proof of the astonishing quickness, as well as of the clearness and concentration of his intellect, that, in spite of physical feebleness, he did so much work of such high qualities. He succeeded conspicuously in everything that he undertook. He was among the ablest journalists of his day, though his works in that department, except a few reprinted articles, are inevitably forgotten. He took a very important part in Indian legislation, and his experience of actual business gave much value to his later writings. But full appreciation of such official work is necessarily confined to colleagues, and undoubtedly Maine's chief claim to general remembrance rests upon the ‘Ancient Law’ and succeeding works in a similar vein. They were among the first examples of the application of the genuine historical method to such inquiries. Coming soon after the publication of Darwin's great book, which had made the theory of evolution a great force in natural philosophy, it introduced a correlative method into the philosophy of institutions. A scientific writer is liable to be superseded in proportion to the fruitfulness of his own discoveries. But Maine's admirable style and skill in exposition will make his works models of investigation even if their statements of fact require modification.

Maine's works are:

  1. ‘Ancient Law: its Connection with the Early History of Society and its Relation to Modern Ideas,’ 1861.
  2. ‘Village Communities,’ 1871.
  3. ‘Early History of Institutions,’ 1875.
  4. ‘Dissertations on Early Law and Custom,’ 1883.
  5. ‘Popular Government,’ 1885. 6. ‘International Law’ (Whewell lectures, 1887), 1888.

Papers on ‘Roman Law and Legal Education’ (from ‘Cambridge Essays,’ 1856); the Rede lecture, delivered at Cambridge in 1875, ‘On the Effects of the Observation of India on Modern European Thought;’ a review of Sir J. F. Stephen's ‘Introduction to the Indian Evidence Act;’ three addresses to the university of Calcutta; and other papers, are appended to the third edition of ‘Village Communities,’ 1876. Maine contributed a review of Sir W. Hunter's ‘Indian Mussulmans’ to the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ in 1871; gave lectures (separately published) upon ‘Early History of the Property of Married Women,’ at Manchester in 1873, and ‘The King and his Relation to Early Civil Justice,’ at the Royal Institution in 1881; and contributed an article upon India to the ‘Reign of Queen Victoria,’ edited by Mr. Humphry Ward, in 1887. An article in the ‘Quarterly Review’ of January 1886 upon Mr. Donald MacLennan's ‘Patriarchal Theory’ gives Maine's reply to criticisms made by Mr. MacLennan and his brother, J. F. MacLennan [q. v.], then dead, upon a theory of the primitive family given in ‘Ancient Law.’

Maine's books have been frequently translated and republished. The ‘Ancient Law’ was translated into French by M. Courcille Seneuil, with an introduction, and into Hungarian, and the ‘Village Communities’ into Russian.

[Sir Henry Maine: a Brief Memoir of his Life, by Sir M. E. Grant Duff, G.C.S.I., with some of his Indian Speeches and Minutes, selected and edited by Whitley Stokes, D.C.L., 1892; Times, 6 Feb. 1858; Saturday Review, 11 Feb. 1858; Sir F. Pollock's Oxford Lectures and other Discourses, 1890, pp. 147–68; Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, 1891, pp. 143–58 (by M. Darette); Sir A. C. Lyall's Asiatic Studies, p. 213; Bristed's Five Years at an English University, 1852, i. 174, 234, 237, 268–70.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.190
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
345 i 2 f.e. Maine, Sir Henry J. S.: for Frederick read Edgar