Before His Time: Lord Erskine in 1809

By on May 13, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

On Friday of this week, we’ll mark the 200th anniversary of Lord Thomas Erskine’s speech on cruelty to animals in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. Although his specific goal failed—to pass an “Act to Prevent Malicious and Wanton Cruelty to Animals”—you can draw a straight line from his speech to the passage of the first nationwide anti-cruelty law in the U.K. more than a decade later. It is a stirring piece of rhetoric, and a remarkable speechmaking artifact. I’m delighted to say that it’s available online, and to be able to share a new profile of Erskine on The HSUS website.

Portrait of Lord Thomas Erskine
© Sir Joshua Reynolds/John Jones
Lord Thomas Erskine (1750-1823)

For me, it’s simply extraordinary to contemplate the lines of reasoning Erskine advanced, both for his prescience, and also because I know all too well how this debate is still not settled, though the weight of popular opinion has moved decidedly in favor of these principles in all industrialized western nations. Our political opponents quarrel with the application of anti-cruelty principles, but typically not with the basic tenets of the value system.

An intellectual pioneer of the animal protection movement, Erskine was trying to address the abuse of animals at a time in history when not a single organization had been formed to advocate for animals. He understood that the status of animals as “property” would be a significant impediment to securing legal protection. Nevertheless, he assured his colleagues, he thought it feasible to provide basic safeguards for animals without infringement upon the rights of property. The property right, he asserted, is limited to use, not abuse. On the foundation of such thinking, great progress has been made in the years since Erskine’s speech and there is a robust debate about whether animals should be treated as mere property.

He also addressed the question of how the law might be enforced by courts and magistrates, “without investing them with a new and arbitrary discretion.” Reasoning from analogy with cases of cruelty to servants, Erskine pointed out that judges and juries alike had rarely had trouble distinguishing between appropriate treatment and abject cruelty. Any viable indictment before a magistrate, he predicted, “must charge the offense to be committed maliciously and with wanton cruelty, and the proof must correspond with the charge.”

Erskine was greatly concerned that owners could elude responsibility for the cruelty by instructing hirelings to carry it out. This dilemma confounds us today in cases of institutional cruelty, like those involving factory farms or slaughter plants. Just as Erskine foresaw, the owner or manager of a facility can shift the blame for cruelties onto lower-level employees, as we saw with our investigation of the Hallmark/Westland slaughter facility in Chino, Calif.

Most of the specific cruelties Erskine mentioned are no longer around, but he built the case for his bill upon concepts familiar and in currency today: the responsibilities of human dominion, the demoralizing effect of cruelty upon the perpetrator, and the offense of animal mistreatment on the larger community, and the strong self-interest of humans in establishing high standards of animal care and welfare. Today, two centuries later, it’s common to find legislators at every level of government speaking up for animals, and pressing the case for their legal protection. But someone had to be first, and it’s a blessing to the cause that it turned out to be an individual capable of delivering a speech for the ages.


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