The Politics of Libel: Thomas Erskine, Freedom of the Press and Transatlantic Legal Culture, c. 1780-1830

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article reveals how the multidirectional movement of legal and popular printed texts, newspapers, letters, and citizens, contributed to the political and legal influence of individual lawyers across the Atlantic. It is based on a case study of leading Common Law barrister and Whig MP Thomas Erskine (1750-1823). It examines the dissemination of Erskine’s legal and political arguments, and other publications in support of freedom of the press and the constitutional importance of trial by jury in libel trials. Erskine’s Country Whig politics, key role in the passage of the 1792 Libel Act and support for American independence were admired by American lawyers, diplomats, and politicians. His disinterested public service as an advocate, meant he personified the ideal of a patriot lawyer that underpinned the classical republican model of law, citizenship and politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Erskine’s powerful, often emotive forensic rhetoric was equally admired as part of a shared transatlantic legal culture, linking law politics and literature. The speeches were reprinted and widely circulated in edited collections, texts on oratory, trial reports, newspapers and periodicals; key arguments were also referenced in legal treatises on libel. Hence, parts of his most significant speeches in English libel trials came to be regarded as ‘usable’ legal texts studied by students and re-cited by American defense lawyers in court.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalLaw and History Review
Early online date13 Jun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jun 2023

Cite this