chapter  10
19 Pages

Thomas Erskine and the Performance of Moral Sentiments

The Emotional Reportage of Trials for ‘Criminal Conversation’ and Treason in the 1790s
ByDavid Lemmings

Thomas Erskine, barrister and later lord chancellor, was at the height of his fame in the 1790s. This chapter argues that the conflicted reportage of Erskine’s appearances in trials for adultery and for treason constituted a ‘crisis of moral sentiments’. On the one hand, Erskine constructed sentimental stories about morally deviant threats to nation and family to persuade sympathetic juries and the public that the foundations of British society and the constitution were in danger. This theatre of sympathy was becoming politically problematic, however, in the context of the French Revolution, with its emphasis on universal rights and the communication of sentiment as the foundations of the good society. Erskine’s sentimental rhetoric attracted occasional sarcasm and ridicule among his political opponents, and was sometimes openly challenged as meretricious, inauthentic, and potentially subversive. Indeed, in addition to substantive political differences, the legal politics of the 1790s evidenced a fundamental clash between sentimental and authoritarian emotional cultures that was represented in contemporary newspapers by selective reporting and differential commentary. The chapter compares the different forms and assesses the relative weight of theatricality and anti-theatricality in newspaper representations of Erskine’s performances in ‘crim. con.’ cases and state trials during the 1790s.