Edward Litton, Esq., Q.C., Member of Parliament for Colerain (Coleraine)

From The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 16, Number 94, October 1840

WE present our readers in this number with an etching of Edward Litton, Esq. M. P. Q. C., a profound lawyer and an eloquent advocate--one who is as much distinguished for the qualities which adorn the domestic and social circle, as for the manly boldness and consistency of his course in public life.

Mr. Edward Litton is descended from the ancient family of Litton in England, a branch of which has been settled in this country for nearly two centuries. His grandfather, Thomas Litton, Esq., was called to the bar in 1742; but upon inheriting the paternal property, he withdrew from professional life, and gave himself up to the pursuits of literary retirement. In the same year he married a daughter of Ralph Leland, Esq. and niece of Doctor John Leland, whose learned theological writings, particularly the work entitled "View of the Deistical Writers," claim for him a high rank among the ornaments of the Church. Edward Litton, Esq., the father of the subject of this sketch, was a younger son. He entered the army, and served with considerable credit in the American war. At his elder brother's death he came into possession of the family property, upon which he left the service and returned to Ireland. Here he married Charlotte, daughter of the Very Rev. Daniel Letablere, Dean of Tuam, a descendant of one of the Huguenot families, who, after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, were compelled to retire from their native country. Of this union Mr. Edward Litton is the third son.

It is probable that Mr. Litton's ardent attachment to the principles of Protestantism is derived mainly from his mother's side; in the possession of whose family are the original documents which detail the sufferings and exile of their French ancestor. The family of La Douespe had since the beginning of the sixteenth century been settled in the province of Picardy, where they possessed the feudal inheritance of L'Establère. As is now the case in Scotland, they were usually designated by the name of the property. They embraced the Protestant faith, but continued in the unmolested enjoyment of their possessions; and, upon the execution of the edict of Nantes, fondly expected, in common with their Protestant brethren, to enjoy the blessings of religious liberty. But the perfidy of the French monarch blasted their hopes. The edict of Nantes was revoked; and hundreds of families, whose only crime was a conscientious adherence to the religion in which they had been brought up, and which they cherished as their most precious birthright, were driven from their country and homes. René de la Douespe, the representative of the L'Establere family, remained upon the inheritance of his fathers, until the French troops had forcibly effected an entrance into the family mansion. He fled in the year 1685, in the first instance into Holland; but he soon afterwards passed over to Ireland, where the civil war was then raging. He was naturalized, and obtained a commission in King William's army, at that time under the command of General Ginkell. After remaining some years in the service, in which he rose with rapidity, he settled at the conclusion of the war in Dublin, where he died in 1727. The foregoing brief account is extracted from the manuscripts of his son, Dean L'Establère.

After the usual course of classical education, Mr. Litton graduated at Trinity College, and soon afterwards entered upon his legal studies. While an undergraduate, and in the interval between taking his degree, and being called to the bar, he devoted much of his time and attention to the acquisition of public speaking. At that time the Historical Society was at its highest pitch of reputation. A difference of opinion may exist as to the utility of such institutions in general:--it may, with some reason, be urged, that, however valuable as schools of oratory, they yet tend to produce a habit of vague declamation, unsupported by solid knowledge; and that they often lead the youthful student, amidst the excitement of the debating room, to neglect those academical studies, a sedulous attention to which is necessary for forming the taste, and developing the reasoning powers; but however this may be, it is certain that the Historical Society numbered many among its members, who are now the ornaments of their respective professions. Mr. Litton took a prominent part in the debates, and gained several medals for elocution, poetry, and history. In 1808, he was elected auditor of the society.

Mr. Litton was called to the bar in the year 1811. He was one of a crowd of youthful aspirants to wealth and fame, each of whom probably entertained as sanguine expectations as he did of attaining eminence in their profession. How often are such hopes frustrated! The bar has proved to many a treacherous mistress, who after alluring her votaries by fair promises, and keeping them long in suspense, dismisses them at length to mourn over lost time and disappointed prospects. Mr. Litton is not to be numbered among these unhappy wights. His success was as rapid as it was brilliant. His family connections were influential, and he possessed many natural advantages. To a sound knowledge of law, he added equanimity of temper, which nothing could disturb, and a graciousness of manner which was eminently fitted to conciliate a jury. Besides these lighter qualities, he possessed habits of indefatigable application, and a punctuality in the discharge of his duties, which gained the good will of all who transacted business with him.

The north-west circuit was selected by Mr. Litton as the scene of his first labours. In a short time he became the leading counsel upon it, a situation which he held for nearly ten years. Meanwhile, his business in Dublin, particularly in the equity courts, was rapidly increasing: and finding at length that circuit was incompatible with a due attention to his Chancery business, he relinquished the former in the year 1833, and began to confine himself almost exclusively to the latter. Upon this occasion it was that he received a testimony to his merits, as unprecedented as it was flattering. His brethren of the northwest bar unanimously agreed that an address, accompanied with a splendid gold snuff-box, should be presented to him, expressive of their regret at his secession from the circuit, of their respect for his character, and of their sense of the urbanity and kindness, which, during their mutual intercourse, had always characterised him. Unwilling to be outdone in their expressions of regard, the attornies and solicitors of the circuit prepared a similar address, which they accompanied with the presentation of a magnificent silver vase and bason.

From this period, Mr. Litton's practice at the bar steadily increased, until at length he attained that high station in the court of Chancery which he has ever since held. The Nisi Prius courts he has relinquished altogether, except when retained specially.

The characteristics of Mr. Litton's forensic oratory are well known to the public. His speeches are distinguished by an antithetical condensation of thought without quaintness, and an energy of delivery which never degenerates into boisterousness. When he chooses, he can powerfully affect the feelings, as in the case of "Head v. Purdon," perhaps his most successful effort at Nisi Prius, which has been reported by Mr. O'Dowd, and upon which the present Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, no mean critic, passed the following encomium:--"I agree with the Learned Counsel (the advocate opposed to Mr. Litton), that never, in a court of justice, has there been pronounced a more impressive speech." But, in general, his addresses are aimed rather at the understanding, than at the imagination:--he labours to convince rather than to persuade. Argument is his chosen weapon. By trains of powerful reasoning, he impresses his positions upon the minds of the jury; and they remain there long after the flowery effusions of more brilliant orators have been forgotten.

Upon the dissolution of Parliament, in 1837, Mr. Litton was solicited, by a numerous and influential body of the electors of Colerain, to become a candidate for the representation of that borough. Previously to the Reform Bill, Colerain was almost a close borough:--the representation was in the hands of a few of the leading electors; and, as might be supposed, a Conservative Member was always returned. By the operation of the Reform Bill, Colerain, among other boroughs of the same description, was thrown open, and free scope was given to the expression of popular opinion. The re-action was at first great: notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts of the Conservatives, Liberal candidates were returned on the three elections previous to that of 1837; but the ancient Protestant spirit of the borough was not extinct; and, after the momentary excitement caused by the novel exercise of political power had ceased, it began to shew itself in a manner not to be mistaken. The Conservative electors determined to make one more effort; and they fixed upon Mr. Litton as the man most likely to succeed. His political principles had been long known as highly Conservative: he had reached the highest eminence in his profession; and his character was without a stain. Besides this, he had, in the course of his professional practice, been brought into contact with men of all shades of politics; and by his kindness, and urbanity of manner, had made himself extremely popular, even among those most opposed to him on public questions. Mr. Litton complied with this requisition, though fully aware of the great sacrifices it would entail upon him. Parliamentary life is not now what it was before the Reform Bill, when the Irish Members never thought of appearing personally, except on a few important occasions. The excitement of the public mind on political topics, together with the evenly balanced state of parties in the House of Commons, now renders it imperative upon every public man to be at his post continually: hence professional men suffer severely by absence from the courts of law during the most important period of the year. But Mr. Litton thought that the circumstances of the times demanded that every man, who professed attachment to our Church and Constitution, should prove the sincerity of his profession, by actual personal exertion and sacrifice. He offered himself, therefore, as a candidate for the representation of Colerain; and, though opposed by a gentleman of large property in the tow n and neighbourhood, and of estimable character, whilst he himself was a comparative stranger, he was returned by the decisive majority of 52 votes.

Mr. Litton's career in Parliament has been too short to develope fully his powers of debate. Parliamentary eminence is the growth of experience and practice, Already, however, he has amply fulfilled the expectations of his friends. He has avoided two mistakes into which inexperienced Members often fall;--speaking too frequently, and speaking on too great a variety of subjects. He wisely confines himself to a class of topics with which his studies and experience have made him profoundly conversant--questions of law, and questions relating to Irish politics. Subjects of this kind he treats like a master. His lucid expositions of the differences, with the reasons of them, between English and Irish law, have often drawn forth the acknowledgments of his political opponents.

As might be expected, Mr. Litton has ever opposed himself to that revolutionary spirit, which, under pretence of reform, would sap the foundations of the constitution, and destroy the efficiency of the church; especially on the great question of national education, he has always stood forth the champion of scriptural instruction, and insisted upon the duty of giving to the people the word of God, pure and unmutilated. Imbued as he has been from his earliest years with the warmest attachment to the Protestant religion, and fully acquainted as he is with the encroaching spirit of Romanism, some of his earlier displays in the House of Commons are distinguished by a warmth of sentiment and expression, which might seem to some to indicate the existence of a spirit of intolerance or bigotry. Such a conclusion would, however, be very far from the truth. No man is more anxious for the welfare of his Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen--no man more anxious that they should enjoy all the rights and privileges which are not inconsistent with the maintenance and welfare of our Protestant establishment. In Mr. Litton's later speeches, the natural equity and moderation of his mind come more prominently forward.

On one occasion, Mr. Litton's consistent principle compelled him to vote against the great body of his own party on the question of the Municipal Bill for Ireland. We shall not now go into the history of a supposed agreement or compact with the ministry, which led the majority of the Conservative party to conceive that they were bound in honour to give their support to the ministerial measure. As regards Mr. Litton, at least, no such compact could have existed, he not having been in the former parliament. He looked upon the corporations of Ireland as having been founded expressly for the support and defence of Protestantism: and it was his conviction, that if these bulwarks of our faith should be surrendered, the Protestants of this country, already a persecuted minority, would be placed in a serious disadvantage for contending against the bigotry and superstition of their opponents. From this conviction he opposed the Bill in every stage; nor was any argument ever able to over-come his aversion to its manifest tendencies.

Of Mr. Litton's personal character we shall say nothing. His affability, his kindness to the distressed, his generosity and disinterestedness, as well in his professional intercourse as in private life, are too well known to need our notice; and, besides, delicacy forbids enumerating the excellencies of one who is still amongst us.

In 1812 Mr. Litton married Sophia, daughter of the Rev. Doctor Stewart, Rector of Loughgilly, and niece of the late Right Honorable Sir John Stewart, Bart., who for many parliaments represented the county Tyrone. He has a numerous family.

We now take leave of Mr. Litton with unfeigned respect, trusting that the time is not distant when he will occupy that high station, for which, by character, talents, and knowledge, he is so eminently qualified.