The Last Political Law Lord: Lord Sumner (1859-1934)
2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of John Andrew Hamilton, Viscount Sumner (1859-1934), one of the greatest of English judges. His trenchant rulings, characterized by deep learning, wisdom and lucidity, and delivered with rare literary distinction and wit, are cited with respect and admiration as classics of the Common Law.
Sumner’s personality, assured, articulate, dominating -'an amazingly powerful person' (Harold Laski)—also marked his controversial interventions in British public life. Uniquely for a law lord, he was appointed a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where he strenuously advocated and helped to frame the much criticized reparation chapter of the Treaty of Versailles.
As one of the `most formidable gladiators’ on the 'Diehard' wing of the Conservative Party, Sumner aspired—unsuccessfully—to the Woolsack. He defied the growing convention that law-lords should remain silent on political issues, speaking out forcefully on such sensitive topics as the Amritsar 'massacre', the Irish settlement and the General Strike. He resigned from the Bench in 1930 to campaign, as president of the Indian Empire Society, against moves towards Indian independence, and he was a leading activist in the cause of House of Lords reform.
With the abolition in 2009 of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (the law lords), Sumner stands out in sharp historical relief as an outstanding judge, a remarkable individual and as 'the last political law lord'.
Antony Lentin, formerly a Professor of History at The Open University, is a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and the author of two books on Lloyd George and the Paris Peace Conference, Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the Pre-History of Appeasement (1985) and Lloyd George and the Lost Peace: From Versailles to Hitler (2001). A Barrister and former law tutor, he has contributed entries on lawyers, including Lords Sumner, Bowen, Loreburn, Reading and Maugham, to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). Professor Lentin has also published widely on eighteenth-century Russia. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
“It does not take the reader very long to realise that it is more detailed and more thoughtful than most judicial biographies. It combines an analysis of personality with the twin themes of law and politics …In respect of law, politics and character the manuscript builds to a convincing and rounded conclusion…This book has the capacity to be both useful and provocative to legal specialists. In general I think it is referenced to a level which will give it a lively and useful role in debates between legal historians.”
—Professor Ray Cocks, Professor of Law, Keele University.
“An excellent biography of one of the most interesting legal minds of his day. Professor Lentin explains, in each step of Sumner’s life, the astute, perceptive mind which cut to the core of issues, making enemies along the way, but leaving a legacy which has lasted for 90 years. The writing-style is precise, yet has a wry humour which makes it both informative and entertaining….Lentin clearly demonstrates the characteristics that made Sumner stand apart from so many of his contemporaries; his unwillingness to compromise made him a figure to be respected and admired, but not particularly liked. It is perhaps at the Paris Peace Conference where Sumner’s formidable traits were most clearly demonstrated, and where enemies were made. The challenge of writing an absorbing biography of a man whom he has described as 'cutting, acerbic, cynical and contemptuous', whilst retaining sympathy and respect for the man, is one to which Professor Lentin has risen admirably. There is something here for everyone: law, history, politics, and a well-written and accessible account of his life and times of a fascinating character”
—Dr Carolyn J. Kitching, Reader in British International History, University of Teesside.
'A legal and literary Genius': such is the picture of Lord Sumner that emerges from this very scholarly, as well as readable and thought provoking biography. This biography by Cambridge Scholars Publishing is a welcome addition to the legal biographies library. It's an extremely meticulous work which presents John Hamilton, Lord Sumner, in a sympathetic light which will delight historians, politicians and lawyers, as it sums him up brilliantly. Phillip Taylor, MBE "Antony Lentin, a historian and barrister, tells Sumner's story with brio and empathy, offering flashes of insight into wider Edwardian and inter-war politics as well as uncovering his subject's personal motivations, achievements and failures ... Lentin is a loyal and truthful biographer of Sumner, showing his flaws of arrogance and rancour as well as his courage, strength of personality, and commitment to ideals ... this elegantly written and thoughtful book deserves to be read. The author captures the main outlines of Sumner's legal contributions, and he has a sensitive understanding of Sumner's diehard brand of Toryism, and helps the reader penetrate into this now-extinct political mentality. Lentin's study of Sumner shows how much our understanding of the common law can be enhanced by the biographer and historian."
-Joshua Getzler, Law Quarterly Review 2009, 125(Oct), 702-709
"Lentin's biography provides a well-researched, nuanced portrait of a complex man, suitable for a wide audience. The discussion of Lord Sumner's cases should prove useful to legal scholars, especially since his judgements continue to be cited in myriad national courts. Historians will benefit from the analysis of Lord Sumner's participation in events such as the Paris Peace Conference, and the examples of Lord Sumner's colonialist ideology will interest postcolonial scholars. Finally, the book may appeal to more general readers as it describes early-twentieth century debates about currently topical issues, including how a state should deal with terrorism, the desirability of judicial activism, and the appropriate balance of powers between executive, legislative and judicial authorities."
Wendy A. Matlock, Kansas State University in Law and Society Review, 44, 1 (2010, 198-200)
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