Bacon, Sir Francis

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Bacon, Sir Francis

Sir Francis Bacon. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Sir Francis Bacon.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Sir Francis Bacon was an English lawyer and statesman whose philosophical theories and writings influenced the development of scientific and legal thought in Great Britain and the United States.

Bacon was born in 1561, the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the lord keeper of the great seal, and Lady Ann, whose brother-in-law was Baron Burghley (William Cecil), the first minister to Queen Elizabeth I. Bacon, like his father, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he enrolled at the age of twelve. In 1576 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London, which were institutions established for Legal Education. He also spent time in France as a member of the English ambassador's staff, before his father's sudden death required him to return to England and resume his legal education so that he could support his family. After completing his studies, Bacon became a barrister in 1582 and then attained the posts of reader (lecturer at the Inn) and bencher (senior member of the Inn).

In 1584, at the age of twenty-three, Bacon was elected to the House of Commons, representing Taunton, Liverpool, the county of Middlesex, Southampton, Ipswich, and the University of Cambridge. In 1594, he argued his first major case, Chudleigh's Case (1 Co. Rep. 1136, 76 Eng. Rep. 261 [K.B. 1594]), which involved the interpretation of complex inheritance statutes. He also began writing about science and philosophy and started work on his first major volume, Temporis Partus Maximus (The greatest part of time), though the book, along with many of his earliest works, was never published and so disappeared.

Through his friendship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Bacon became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth I and he eventually became her counsel around 1600. As counsel, Bacon later took part in the prosecution of Essex, from whom he had become estranged, for Treason, and for these efforts Bacon was knighted in 1603. In 1605, he published his first book, The Advancement of Learning, a collection of essays on philosophy that he dedicated to King James I. Later the same year, he married Alice Barnham, the daughter of a wealthy London politician.

Bacon continued to curry the king's favor by assisting James in his plans to unite Scotland with England, and was named to the post of Solicitor General in 1607. He also continued to write, publishing in 1609 The Wisdom of the Ancients, in which he analyzed the meaning of ancient myths. Seeking promotion to attorney general, Bacon advised the king concerning affairs of state and the relationship between the Crown and Parliament. He successfully engineered the ouster of the chief justice of the Common Pleas, Sir Edward Coke, a longtime rival who had earlier occupied solicitor and attorney general posts that Bacon had sought. Bacon finally became attorney general in 1613, which enabled him to continue his feud with Coke. He eventually prosecuted Coke for his role in the case of Edmond Peacham, a clergyman charged with treason for advocating rebellion against oppression in an unpublished treatise, leading to Coke's dismissal in 1616. Bacon continued his service to the king and was appointed lord keeper of the great seal in 1617. A year later, he became lord chancellor of England, a post he held until 1621.

"Judges must be aware of hard constructions and strained inferences, for there is no worse torture than the torture of laws."
—Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon, a man of great intellect and energy, was often torn between his ambitions for higher office and his keen interest in science and philosophy. Though he was primarily concerned with his service to the Crown during most of his adult life, he did devote time to the study of philosophy. He was an early proponent of inductive reasoning, the theory that by analyzing observed facts, one can establish general laws or principles about how the world works. This theory is the opposite of deductive reasoning, which holds that one can draw specific conclusions by reasoning from more general premises. Bacon believed inductive reasoning to be more useful because it permitted the development of new theories that could be more generally and widely applied to a variety of situations. The legal systems of many countries, including the United States, were eventually grounded on the application of general laws derived from specific fact situations to govern conduct.

Bacon was likewise a strong believer in empiricism, the belief that experience is the most important source of knowledge. According to Bacon, scientists should try to learn about the world by using information gathered through the senses rather than by using reason or rules set forth by religious or political authority. Empiricism, like inductive reasoning, also influenced the development of later legal philosophies, in this case theories that viewed the law and justice as emerging from social life and experience.

Bacon was a prolific writer throughout his life, authoring a number of works expounding his theories. The Novum Organum, his most well known and widely read philosophical work, was published in 1620. The Instauratio Magna (Great instauration, from the Latin word instaurare, "to renew or begin afresh") was a comprehensive plan in which Bacon attempted to reorganize and redefine the sciences; it also contained his views concerning logic and scientific experimentation. In his philosophical writings, Bacon argued that the mind should be purged of what he termed idols, or tendencies to err. These idols, he maintained, arose from human nature, individual experience, and language. In addition, Bacon kept an extensive diary, which was discovered after his death. The notebook, known as the Commentarius Solutus (Loose commentary), contained his notes about, among other things, his debts, his garden, and his health.

Later in his life, Bacon began to fall out of favor with the Crown. In 1618, the king criticized him for interfering in the marriage of Coke's daughter. In 1621, Bacon was charged with accepting a bribe concerning a grievance committee over which he had presided. Bacon admitted in a full confession that he had received gifts, but denied that they had influenced his judgment. Though he begged for mercy, Bacon found the king unsympathetic to his case and was forced to resign his office. Bacon was sentenced to a stiff fine (which was later suspended), imprisonment in the Tower of London (which actually lasted only four days), exclusion from holding any state office, and prohibition from coming within the vicinity of the Court of King's Bench.

Following his ouster from the court, Bacon returned to his large estate at Gorhambury, in rural England, to devote all of his energies to research and writing. He prepared digests of the laws and wrote a history of Great Britain and its monarchs. He planned to write six separate natural histories, but only two were completed: Historia Ventorum (History of the winds), which was published in 1622, and Historia Vitae et Mortis (History of life and death), which appeared the following year. He also wrote the History of Henry VII, published in 1622. In 1621, he enlarged his volume of Essays, which he had first published in 1597, and in 1627, he published The New Atlantis. He also corresponded with Italian philosophers and sent his work to them. Over the years, some writers have suggested that Bacon may have been the true author of William Shakespeare's plays, but because no concrete proof has been offered, the theory has been discounted by most scholars.

Sometime around 1623, Bacon, in ill health, was finally granted an audience with the king, but he was not granted a pardon for his offenses. In London, on April 9, 1626, he died of bronchitis he contracted while conducting experiments on the effects of refrigeration on poultry.

Further readings

Bowen, Catherine D. 1963. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hogan, John C., and Mortimer D. Schwartz. 1985. "A Translation of Bacon's Maxims of the Common Law." Law Library Journal 77 (fall): 707–18.

Whitney, Charles. 1986. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Zagorin, Perez. 1998. Francis Bacon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Cross-references

Coke, Sir Edward; Inns of Court.

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