Stephen, Henry John (DNB00)

STEPHEN, HENRY JOHN (1787–1864), serjeant-at-law, born at St. Christopher's in the West Indies on 18 Jan. 1787, was the second son of James Stephen (1758–1832) [q. v.] He was for a time at St. John's College, Cambridge, but did not graduate. He was called to the bar on 24 Nov. 1815. He had in 1814 married his cousin, Mary Morison, and, after his stepmother's death, from 1815 till 1832, kept house for his father in Kensington Gore. He was a man of nervous and retiring disposition, and, though an accomplished lawyer, obtained no great professional success. He became known, however, by a treatise on pleading, published in 1824. There was no want of practical treatises on the subject. The aim of Stephen's book was to develop systematically the principles of the ‘science’ and exhibit them as part of a general scheme (Preface). ‘Stephen,’ says Professor Dicey, ‘by a stroke of something like genius, at once and precisely accomplished his aim; he exhibited the whole theory in scientific form, arranged the principles in logical order, and expressed them in a series of rules of unequalled clearness and brevity. Though the law has become obsolete, the book is still interesting as a model of lucid exposition. The attempt to reduce an intricate branch of law to a series of well-digested principles was then to a great extent a novelty. Stephen founded a school, but none of his many followers have surpassed him in mastery of the subject, logical power, and terseness of expression.’ The merits of the treatise were recognised both in England and America, and gave him a claim to promotion. Stephen became a serjeant-at-law in 1828, and was a member of the common-law commission appointed in that year. His fellow-commissioners all became judges; and it is said, upon doubtful authority, that a judgeship was offered to Stephen by Lyndhurst, and declined upon the ground that he could never bear to pass a capital sentence (Sir G. Stephen, Life of James Stephen, p. 46). In 1834 he published a ‘Summary of the Criminal Law,’ which was translated into German. In 1841 appeared the first edition of his ‘Commentaries.’ It was described on the title-page as ‘partly founded upon Blackstone,’ and contains much of his predecessor's work, with large interpolations and additions of his own, the distinction being clearly indicated in the text.

‘In reality,’ says Professor Dicey, ‘it was an original production, differing essentially in character and in merit from his predecessor. Blackstone was a consummate man of letters. Stephen showed the qualities in which Blackstone was comparatively deficient—consummate logical power and singular precision and accuracy of style. Had the work been published as an original treatise, it would have stood upon a level with Blackstone's work.’ In later editions the name of Blackstone is dropped, as larger additions became necessary in order to keep up with the alterations in the law. The book enjoyed a high reputation from the first, and became, as it still is, the standard work of the kind; new editions have been published at regular intervals. In 1842 Stephen was placed on a commission for inquiring into the forgery of exchequer bills, and in the same year became commissioner of bankruptcy at Bristol; Matthew Davenport Hill [q. v.] was his colleague. He lived at Cleevewood, near Bristol, till his retirement from this post in 1854, and afterwards lived at Clifton until his death on 28 Nov. 1864. He amused his later years by speculating on the prophecies and the theory of music, and, though courteous and kindly, saw little at any time of society. His diffidence prevented him from obtaining the reputation as a writer or the position in his profession which he might have fairly claimed.

His wife and a daughter died before him. He left two children. His daughter Sarah, born 28 June 1816, was author of a religious story called ‘Anna; or the Daughter at Home,’ which went through several editions, and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Association for befriending Young Servants. She died, aged 79, on 5 Jan. 1895. His son James, born 116 Sept. 1820, was recorder of Poole, professor of law in King's College, London, and afterwards judge of the county court at Lincoln. He edited later editions of the ‘Commentaries’ and ‘Questions for Law Students’ upon the same. He died 25 Nov. 1894.

Stephen's works are: 1. ‘A Treatise on the Principles of Pleading in Civil Actions: comprising a Summary of the whole Proceedings in a Suit of Law,’ 1824, 1827, 1834, 1838, 1843, 1860 (by J. Stephen and F. F. Pender); and 1866 (by F. F. Pender); eight American editions from 1824 to 1859. 2. ‘Summary of the Criminal Law,’ 1834; translated as ‘Handbuch des englischen Strafrechts,’ &c., by E. Mühry, 1843. 3. ‘New Commentaries on the Laws of England’ (partly founded on Blackstone), 1841–5, 4 vols. 8vo; later editions, edited by his son, James Stephen, and his grandson, H. St. James Stephen; the tenth appeared in 1895. The book was reprinted in America in 1843–1846.

[Life of Sir J. F. Stephen, by L. Stephen; family papers.]

L. S.