Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

11. John Scott: Power to the People

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

11. John Scott: Power to the People

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1794, the treason trial of Thomas Hardy, cobbler and leader of the radical London Corresponding Society, attracted all eyes. To the multitude, Hardy shone in epic glory, a humble hero who had dared battle the forces of unmitigated evil with his bare hands. The visible form of that evil was his prosecutor, Attorney General Sir John Scott, himself risen from humble birth to become the best-hated man in England. One evening midway through the nine-day trial, as Scott left for home, a howling mob surrounded his carriage shouting, "Drag him out!" Another mob surrounded Hardy's aristocratic defense counsel, Thomas Erskine, trying to unhitch his horses so they could haul his carriage themselves. "Stop!" shouted Erskine, "I will not go home without the Attorney General"--thus saving Scott from the wrath of the people (Twiss 271). On Guy Fawkes Day, delivering the verdict for Hardy's acquittal, the jury foreman fainted from excitement as the mob formed a triumphal procession to haul Hardy home to his humble shop where he would live out a life of impoverished obscurity while Sir John Scott would go on to accumulate political power virtually absolute over the next thirty years.

John Scott rose from the people by pluck and luck. Youngest of a Newcastle coal-fitter's three sons, destined to follow his father's trade, he went to Oxford on the strength of his elder brother's luck, for William Scott had luckily been born in Durham while his mother sought refuge there from high water at home. Finishing at the local grammar school, William was able to go on to Oxford with a scholarship set aside for natives of Durham. When John came of age, he was able to follow on the strength of William's influence, for his brother's brilliance had won him influential friends and a fellowship. John lacked his brother's brilliance but amply repaid his confidence by winning the English essay prize in his senior year and then a fellowship in his own right that would have opened up for him a comfortable career in the Church if he so chose. But one autumn evening in 1772, by the light of a waning Newcastle moon, John Scott eloped with Bessie Surtees, eighteen-year-old heiress of a local banking family that considered his prospects less than promising. "I have married rashly," he realized, "and I have neither house nor home to offer my wife; but it is my determination to work hard to provide for the woman I love" (Twiss 86). This was a determinadon not lighdy made, for the elopement would cost him his fellowship and the hope of a promising career in the clergy. Even though married, however, he could enjoy the fellowship one more year, and, with his lovely young wife on his arm, he returned to Oxford to study law.

He sallied into law with single-minded devotion that sapped his prenuptial sprightliness. He would rise at 4:00 A.M., eat only light meals, and study late into the night with a towel wrapped round his head to ward off sleep--leaving Oxford only long enough to attend his wife in the country cottage as she gave birth to their first son. Friends urged him to moderation, but he would reply, "I must either do as I am doing now, or starve" (Twiss 95). Yet thanks to his brother William's continuing influence, the young couple lived well enough in those work-worn years, dwelling in the apartment of an absent don while John Scott served as Deputy-Professor of Law even though he knew little law. His duties consisted of merely reading the lectures prepared by the Professor--who, according to Scott's account, was something of a wag: "The law professor sent me the first lecture, which I had to read immediately to the students, and which I began without knowing a single word that was in it. It was upon the statute of young men running away with maidens" (Twiss 91). Except for this chore and some tutoring, he was able to dedicate every waking hour to reading law until he passed the bar in 1775.

He emerged with a bear-trap grasp of civil law that soon caught the fancy of judges. …

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