Sir William Jones

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:387-89.

WILLIAM JONES, the son of an eminent mathematician, was born in London, in the year 1746. Losing his father, when only three years of age, he was left to the entire care of his mother, a woman of strong mind and good sense, and from whom he imbibed an early taste for literature. In 1753, he was sent to Harrow School, where he soon attracted the attention of the masters, and the admiration of his associates, by his extraordinary diligence and superior talents. Among his school-fellows were Dr. Parr, and Bennett, afterwards Bishop of Cloyne, who, in speaking of young Jones, at the age of eight or nine, says, he was even then "an uncommon boy." Describing his subsequent progress at Harrow, he says, "great abilities, great particularity of thinking, fondness for writing verses and plays of various kinds, and a degree of integrity and manly courage, distinguished him even at that period. I loved him and revered him, and, though one or two years older than he was, was always instructed by him from my earliest age." Such was his devotion to study, that he used to pass whole nights over his books, until his eyesight became affected; and Dr. Thackeray, the master of Harrow, said, "so active was the mind of Jones, that if he were left, naked and friendless, on Salisbury Plain, he would, nevertheless, find the road to fame and riches."

In l764, he was entered at University College, Oxford, in opposition to the wishes of his friends, who advised his mother to place him under the superintendence of some special pleader, as at that early age he had made such a voluntary progress in legal acquirements, as to be able to put cases from an abridgment of Coke's Institutes. At the university, instead of confining himself to the usual discipline, he continued the course of classical reading which he had commenced at Harrow, and devoted a considerable portion of his time to the study of the oriental languages. During his vacations, which he generally spent in London, he learnt riding and fencing; and at home he occupied himself in the perusal of the best Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese authors. In 1765, he became private tutor to Lord Althorpe, the son of Earl Spencer; and shortly afterwards he was elected fellow on the foundation of Sir Simon Bennett.

In 1767, he accompanied the Spencer family to Germany; and whilst at Spa, he learnt dancing, the broad-sword exercise, music, besides the art of playing on the Welsh harp; "thus," to transcribe an observation of his own, "with the fortune of a peasant, giving himself the education of a prince!" On his return, he resided with his pupil at Harrow, and, during his abode there, he translated into French the life of Nadir Shah from the Persian, at the request of the King of Denmark. After making another tour, he gave up his tutorship, and, in September, 1770, entered himself a student of the Temple, for the purpose of studying for the bar. He took this step in compliance with the earnest solicitations of his friends. "Their advice," he says, in a letter to his friend Reviczki, was conformable to my own inclinations; for the only road to the highest stations in this country, is that of the law; and I need not add how ambitious and laborious I am." The mode in which he occupied himself in chambers is best described by his own pen, in a letter to his friend, Dr. Bennett: — "I have learned so much," he says; "seen so much, written so much, said so much, and thought so much, since I conversed with you, that were I to attempt to tell half what I have learned, seen, writ, said, and thought, my letter would have no end. I spend the whole winter in attending the public speeches of our greatest lawyers and senators, and in studying our own admirable laws. I give up my leisure hours to a Political Treatise on the Turks, from which I expect some reputation; and I have several objects of ambition which I cannot trust to a letter, but will impart to you when we meet." In the midst of all these engagements he found time to attend Dr. William Hunter's lectures on anatomy, and to read Newton's Principia; and in 1772, he published a collection of poems, consisting, principally, of translations from the Asiatic languages. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and, in 1774, appeared his celebrated commentaries De Poesi Asiatica, which procured him great reputation both at home and abroad.

Being now called to the bar, he suspended all literary pursuits, and devoted himself, with intense earnestness, to the study of his profession. In 1775, he became a regular attendant at Westminster Hall, and went the circuit and sessions at Oxford; and in the following year he was, without solicitation, made a commissioner of bankrupt, by Lord chancellor Bathurst. It would seem, from the correspondence of our author, that soon after his call to the bar, he acquired considerable practice, as he says, in a letter to Mr. Schultens, dated July, 1777, "My law employments, attendance in the courts, incessant studies, the arrangement of pleadings, trials of causes, and opinions to clients, scarcely allow me a few moments for eating and sleeping." In 1778, he published his Translation of the Orations of Isaeus, with a Prefatory Discourse, Notes, and Commentary, which displayed profound critical and historical research, and excited much admiration. In March, 1780, he published a Latin Ode in favour of American Freedom; and, shortly afterwards, on the resignation of Sir Roger Newdigate, he was induced to become a candidate for the representation of the University of Oxford; but the liberality of his political principles rendering his success hopeless, he declined a poll. The tumults of this year induced him to write a pamphlet, entitled An Inquiry into the Legal Mode of suppressing Riots, with a Constitutional Plan of Future Defence; and about the same period he published his celebrated Essay on the Law of Bailments, in which he treated his subject, says Mr. Roscoe, with an accuracy of method hitherto seldom exhibited by our legal writers. In 1782, he spoke at a public meeting in favour of parliamentary reform, and also became a member of the Society for Constitutional Reformation. In a letter to the Dean of St. Asaph, this year, he says it is "his wish to become as great a lawyer as Sulpicius;" and hints at giving up politics, to the resignation of which he was the more inclined in consequence of a bill of indictment being preferred against the divine above-mentioned, for publishing a tract, composed by Jones, entitled, A Dialogue between a Farmer and a Country Gentlemen, on the Principles of Government. Of this our author immediately avowed himself the writer, by a letter addressed to Lord Kenyon, in which he defended his positions, and contended that they were conformable to the laws of England.

His political principles had for some time prevented him obtaining the grand object of his ambition, — an Indian judgeship; but he was at length, in March, 1783, appointed judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature in Bengal, through the influence of Lord Ashburton. Previous to his departure he received the honour of knighthood, and married Miss Shipley, daughter to the Bishop of St. Asaph, with whom he arrived in Calcutta, in September, and entered upon his judicial functions in the following December. Law, literature, and philosophy, now engrossed his attention to such a degree, that his health, on which the climate also had a prejudicial influence, was quickly impaired. In a letter to Dr. Patrick Russell, dated March, 1784, he says, "I do not expect, as long as I stay in India, to be free from a bad digestion, the 'morbus literatorum,' for which there is hardly any remedy but abstinence from too much food, literary and culinary. I rise before the sun, and bathe after a gentle ride; my diet is light and sparing, and I go early to rest; yet the activity of my mind is too strong for my constitution, though naturally not infirm, and I must be satisfied with a valetudinarian state of health." Soon after his arrival he projected the scheme of the Asiatic Society, of which he became the first president, and contributed many papers to its memoirs. With a view to rendering himself a proficient in the science of Sanscrit and Hindu laws, he studied the Sanscrit and Arabic languages with great ardour; and whilst on a tour through the district of Benares, for the recovery of his health, he composed a tale, in verse, called The Enchanted Fruit, and A Treatise on the Gods of Greece, Italy, and India. In 1790, he appears to have received an offer of some augmentation of his salary, as, in a letter of that year to Sir James Macpherson, he says, "really I want no addition to my fortune, which is enough for me; and if the whole legislature of Britain were to offer me a station different from that I now fill, I should most gratefully and respectfully decline it." He continued, with indefatigable zeal, his compilation of the Hindoo and Mahometan Digest; on the completion of which he was to have followed his wife to England, who had proceeded thither, for the recovery of her health, in the December of 1793. This intention, however, he did not live to carry into effect, being shortly afterwards attacked with an inflammation of the liver, which terminated his existence on the 27th of April, 1794. His epitaph, written by himself, is equally admirable for its truth and its elegance:—

Here was deposited
the mortal part of a man
who feared God, but not death;
and maintained independence,
but sought not riches;
who thought none below him
but the base and unjust,
none above him but the wire and virtuous;
who loved his parents, kindred, friends, and country;
and having devoted his life to their service,
and the improvement of his mind,
resigned it calmly, giving glory to his Creator
wishing peace on earth,
and good-will to all his creatures.

His character was, indeed, truly estimable in every respect. "To exquisite taste and learning quite unparalleled," says Dr. Parr, "Sir William Jones is known to have united the most benevolent temper and the purest morals." His whole life was one unceasing struggle for the interests of his fellow creatures, and, unconnected with this object, he knew no ambition. He was a sincere and pious Christian; and in one of his latest discourses to the Asiatic Society, he has done more to give validity to the Mosaic account of the creation, than the researches of any contemporary writers. His acquirements as a linguist were absolutely wonderful: he understood, critically, English, Latin, French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Sanscrit; he could translate, with the aid of a dictionary, the Spanish, Portuguese, German, Runic, Hebrew, Bengalee, Hindu, and Turkish; and he had bestowed considerable attention on the Russian, Swedish, Coptic, Welsh, Chinese, Dutch, Syriac, and several other languages. In addition to his vast stock of literary information, he possessed extensive legal knowledge; and, as far as we may judge from his translations, had sufficient capacity and taste for a first-rate original poet. His indefatigable application and industry have, perhaps, never been equalled; even when in ill health he rose at three in the morning, and what were called his hours of relaxation, were devoted to studies, which would have appalled the most vigorous minds. In 1799, his widow published a splendid edition of his works, in six volumes, folio, and placed, at her own expense, a marble statue of him, executed by Flaxman, in the anti-chamber of University College, Oxford; and, among other public testimonies of respect to his memory, the directors of the East India Company voted him a monument in St. Paul's Cathedral, and a statue in Bengal.