In July 1957, the American Bar Association came to London for their 80th annual meeting. They had commissioned a monument to the Magna Carta at Runnymede, and before formally conducting its’ opening, were addressed by David Maxwell Fyfe, then Lord Chancellor, in Westminster Great Hall. Excerpts from that speech are reproduced below.
In 1924 a young lawyer such as I thought of the rule of law as something unassailable: we imagined that the horrors and sacrifices of the First World War had not been futile, and that mankind had at last learnt its lesson and would henceforth live in accordance with reason and with that need for harmony and peace which is instinctive in us all.
What happened to these fond imaginings? Every single belief which we held was furiously assailed : every hope that we nursed was disappointed; reason was once more dethroned; one brutalising dogma after another was propagated and bore dreadful fruit. In those times, many felt with the great Irish poet that :
The best lacked all conviction, whilst the worst Are full of passionate intensityW B Yeats, The Second Coming
In this situation some lost their nerve and in the years of tyranny that seemed to have been unloosed upon the world, took comfort in doctrines that exalted authority. They lost confidence in the free legal and political systems which are the heritage and pride… of the Western world.
However as it turned out there was no need to have been so alarmed, or so doubtful about democracy’s power to survive. One fact that has been made abundantly clear during the terrible period of trial … through which we have been passing, is that (to put it at its’ lowest) a tyrannical society is much less efficient than a society that is free…
History has taught us time and time again that no society can long endure which is not based on morality and order. But it takes time to build a free society and a sound system of justice…
Yet there is a doctrine which we both share, … which has for various reasons become a little dusty and old fashioned in recent years and which I myself should like to see refurbished and restored to the position that it used to occupy. I refer to the doctrine of the law of nature, one of the noblest conceptions in the history of jurisprudence. Lord Bryce, once British ambassador to Washington… described the doctrine as it appeared to Roman jurists thus :
‘… the Law of Nature represented to the Romans that which is conformable to Reason, to the best side of Human Nature, to an elevated morality, to practical good sense, to general convenience. It is Simple and Rational, as opposed to that which is Artificial or Arbitrary. It is Universal as opposed to that which is Local or National. It is superior to all other law because it belongs to mankind as mankind, and is the expression of the purpose of the Deity or of the highest reason of man. It is therefore Natural, not so much in the sense of belonging to man in his primitive and uncultured condition, but rather as corresponding to and regulating his fullest and most perfect social development in communities, where they have ripened through the teachings of Reason.’Bryce Studies in History & Jurisprudence Volume II page 589
Our two nations, socially and legally are highly evolved … (but) we need always to remind ourselves that the law cannot stand still, that it must in Bryce’s words always be ‘conformable to Reason, to the best side of Human Nature, to an elevated morality, to practical good sense, to general convenience.’ There lies our duties as lawyers.
And there is another side to the Law of Nature that we must not forget.
“You may throw out Nature with a pitchfork,” said a Latin poet who was also a good gardener, “But she will always come back.” What we are seeing now in some parts of the world where it was least expected is, I am convinced, a timeless longing, inseparable from the human condition, for justice, for the acceptance and fulfilment of the requirements of natural law…
Therefore let us be of good heart. The ideals which underlie the laws of our two countries have outlasted many tyrannies and have seen the decay and death of many specious theories. The reason why this anvil has broken many hammers is that these ideals are comfortable with the best side of human nature and an expression of the highest reason of mankind. Moreover our laws are not static any more than society or human nature is static. Their roots, well grounded in history and watered by wisdom, are constantly putting out fresh branches and leaves for the comfort of mankind.
Listen to Sue Casson’s setting of words from Magna Carta interspersed with Maxwell Fyfe’s speech on SoundCloud here.
Find out more about the American Bar Association – www.americanbar.org
The speech in full is printed in the American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 43, No. 10 (October 1957) pp. 883 – 893 (11 pages) “The London Meeting : Opening Ceremony in Westminster Hall.” Transcript available at www.jstor.org.