Atelier SAB ProcBENTHAM
Dr. Chris Riley (Bentham Project, UCL) will speak on the theme "Jeremy Bentham and the Historical Development of English Law"
Bentham’s uniquely vehement critique of the English legal system is well known. He argued that it was chaotic, complex, esoteric, incognoscible, and even—regarding the common law in particular—non-existent, owing to its unwritten nature. The present paper will complement the existing literature concerning Bentham’s attack on English law, and refute the accepted view that he ignored history in general and legal history in particular. In so doing, it will be demonstrated that Bentham advanced an account of the historical development of English law that, perhaps, was as original as his critique. Attention will be paid to his explanation of how the king’s inability to remunerate his justices gave rise to a system founded upon self-interest, why the people of the past were categorically ill-equipped to devise a sophisticated system of law, and how the whole apparatus developed as a series of ‘splinters’ from the curia regis, before evolving through a series of ‘devices’ to become costly, confused, and inaccessible. Bentham’s response to several major figures of the common law tradition, including Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) and Sir Matthew Hale (1609–76), will also be discussed, as will his own use of a form of ‘conjectural’ legal history, and his preference, expressed in analysing John Reeves’s History of the English Law (1783–4), for ‘censorial’ rather than ‘expository’ legal history.
Tim Causer, Senior Research Fellow (Bentham Project, UCL Laws) will speak on the theme "The evacuation of that scene of wickedness and wretchedness’: Jeremy Bentham and the panopticon penitentiary versus New South Wales, 1802-3"
By January 1802 the philosopher Jeremy Bentham had, more or less, come to accept that his long attempt to persuade the British government to build a panopticon penitentiary was doomed to fail. Even though the construction of a panopticon had twice been authorised by statute, after a decade of lobbying beset by delays and obstructions, Bentham had come to the view that he and the panopticon had been the victims of a conspiracy between ministers and their underlings at the Home Office and the Treasury. Bentham was particularly exercised that one of the professed reasons for the abandonment of the panopticon was the ministry’s preference for transportation to New South Wales, a punishment which Bentham had long believed to be unjust, anachronistic, expensive, and corrosive. One of Bentham’s responses to the impending demise of the panopticon scheme was to begin drafting ‘A Picture of the Treasury’, his massive, unpublished near-contemporary history of the government’s dealings with him over the panopticon. It was while writing and researching the ‘Picture’ that Bentham was led to discuss the penal colony of New South Wales in two ‘Letters to Lord Pelham’ and ‘A Plea for the Constitution’, which he wrote and had privately printed in 1802-3, but which were not published until 1812 in a single volume entitled Panopticon versus New South Wales. Bentham’s writings on New South Wales constitute the first detailed critique of transportation to the colony. While the ‘Letters to Lord Pelham’ and ‘A Plea for the Constitution’ undeniably gave form to his anger at his treatment by the government in regard to the panopticon, less well-recognised is the practical purpose behind the writing of these works. This paper intends to discuss that purpose, namely that they constituted Bentham’s tools in his attempt to pressure the government into finally proceeding with the establishment of the panopticon by exposing, in his view the awfulness and illegality of New South Wales. As Bentham himself put it, if the government failed to comply he would ‘have it known in every ginshop’ that New South Wales was ‘the true Bastile’.
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