One of my favorite eighteenth-century quotes that made it into my master’s thesis came from a 1757 pamphlet entitled, “A Candid Examination of the Resolutions and Sentence of the Court-Martial On the Trial of Admiral Byng; As founded on the Principles of Law, Evidence, and Discipline.” Yes, the Brits loved long titles back then. The author, though anonymous, made a few references to the law as it pertained to the trial and sentencing of Admiral John Byng.

I bring up this quote because of something Professor Ronald Hutton stated in his book, Debates in Stuart History (2004). My mind works that way, continuously making links, connecting dots, drawing lines (Oh, look… a sailboat with monkey pirates), referencing what I know to something new; an old habit of mine and I won’t apologize for it. In Hutton’s introduction he reminded us that, “historiographical surveys tend to explain what scholars write and when, rather than why they hold particular views at particular times.”

Let me just state emphatically that this could come in rather handy. So, rather than join a league of “guilty-as-charged historians” that do not divulge why they are writing history, I intend to divulge my historical infatuations pronto. Yes, dear readers, by the end of this blog you will understand why it is I want to study eighteenth-century Atlantic cultural history and earn a doctorate in the process.

But first, that 1757 quote from that long-titled pamphlet:

“I remember, that Court-Martials in my younger Days were held to be Courts of Honour and Conscience; and, by these rules only, was the Conduct of our Commanders to be tried…. If the Party appeared innocent in point of Fact, they never dreamt of pronouncing him guilty in Point of Law…”

1756 engraving of Admiral John Byng behind bars.

So there it is, really, the very reason I am so smitten with the Byng Affair. By stating that one can be “innocent in point in fact,” but yet found “guilty in point of law,” certainly separates law from fact, or looked at in another way, points to the tenuous nature of law – which is nothing more than an artifice of mankind, and if an artifice, more than subject to the shortcomings of us all.

Of note is a Latin phrase on the front cover of the pamphlet, “Summum jus, summa injuria,” or “The rigor of the law is the height of oppression” (a Cicero saying). Now those are fighting words in a land which gave birth to something many in this country regurgitate in their sleep: the rule of law. In other words, the law is supposed to protect everyone, check everyone, and equally condemn all those that break the law no matter their position in society.

Right, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you. I hold the deed.

Justice, plain and simple, I like to see it done. I’d like for the law to be applied to all people equally. Even the laws of capitalism, so that big corporations do not obtain any advantage over a mom and pop, so that tax laws are not made in their favor, so that when Wall Street goes rogue, taxpayers don’t foot the bill. Ooops, sorry. I vented. Excuse me.

But there it is. I’m an equal opportunity law applier. When I look backwards, I’m looking for the reasons, for the precedence, for the stirring and dirty contingents of how life became – as my nine year old put it – so unfair. The Byng story calls to me like a beacon, like a lighthouse, a place where John Lennon’s chilling lyrics “but first you must learn how to smile when you kill / if you want to be like the folks on the hill” begin to resonate. OK, so Byng was one of those that sat fat and happy upon his little place on the hill – which makes this story ever more remarkable because his other hill-residing neighbors most certainly grinned wide grins as they led the admiral through “the points of law.”

The rigor of the law is the height of oppression. The ancient Roman philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero (160 BC – 43 BC) said that. Many years have traveled since, and though we are – in my opinion – much closer than ever in attempting to ensure that the rigor of the law extends horizontally across society, Admiral John Byng’s plight reminds us we still have a ways to go.

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