HEARN, William Edward (1826-1888)


HEARN, William Edward (1826-1888)
jurist and economist
son of the Rev. W. E. Hearn, was born at Belturbet, Cavan, Ireland, on 21 April 1826. He was educated at the Royal School of Enniskillen and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated as first senior moderator in classics. He studied law, was admitted to the Irish bar, and subsequently obtained the degree of LL.D. of Trinity College. In 1849 he became professor of Greek at Queen's College, Galway, and in 1854 was appointed professor of modern history, modern literature, logic and political economy, in the newly established university of Melbourne. He had already published, in 1851, The Cassell Prize Essay on the Condition of Ireland. It was one of the conditions of the competition that the social conditions of Ireland must be discussed, and as Hearn was only 25 when he won the prize of 200 guineas, his studies for it may have had no little influence in forming the bent of his mind. He arrived in Melbourne early in 1855. The title of his professorship suggests an impossible task, but for many years the students were few in number, and before the numbers increased to any extent the title had been altered to professor of history and political economy. In 1859 he was a candidate for a seat in the Victorian legislative assembly and was defeated. There was nothing in the conditions of his appointment to prevent him from standing, and there were several precedents in Great Britain. But the council of the university became alarmed, probably because it was principally dependent for its existence on its government grant, and feared that Hearn's political activities might prejudice the interests of the university. A statute was then passed providing that professors could not sit in parliament or become members of a political association. Hearn accepted the position in the meantime, and in 1863 published an important work, Plutology: or the Theory of the Efforts to Satisfy Human Wants, which was reprinted in 1878 and 1889. His next volume The Government of England, its Structure and its Development was published in 1867. Of this book Hearn said, "It is no part of my present design to inquire whether on grounds of political convenience or otherwise any alteration in our constitutional system should be adopted . . . I seek only to ascertain what the constitution of England now is, and how it became what it is."
In 1873 it was decided to establish a law school at the university and Hearn was appointed dean of the faculty of law. The wording of the statute provided that the dean if not a professor should be a member of the professorial board, and should hold the office by the same tenure and receive the same emoluments as a professor. Hearn then resigned his professorship of history, and was henceforth known as Dr Hearn. At the general election held in 1874 he again stood for parliament and was again defeated. However, in 1878 he was elected a member of the legislative council for the Central Province by a large majority and held this seat until his death. In the same year he published The Aryan Household, its Structure and its Development. An Introduction to Comparative Jurisprudence, in which his wide knowledge and reading had full scope. He was busy in many directions, writing frequently for the Melbourne Argus and Australasian, and interesting himself in the government of the Church of England in which he was chancellor of the diocese. He took a full share in the administration of the university, he was warden of the senate from 1868 to 1875, and a member of the council from 1881 to 1886, in May of which year he was elected chancellor. He had been an able fighter both on committees and on the council, and when his tenure as a councillor expired in November his opponents organized and succeeded in defeating him at the election by a few votes, and he automatically ceased to be chancellor. In the legislative council Hearn was elected unofficial leader of the house and did much work in examining the various bills brought forward, and also in preparing a draft code of the Victorian statutes, which was brought before parliament in 1885 and referred to a joint committee of both houses. It was submitted to various legal authorities who gave varying views on it, but the result was that codification was abandoned for consolidation of the statutes. Hearn's last book The Theory of Legal Duties and Rights an Introduction to Analytical Jurisprudence was published in 1885, and he was made a Q.C. in 1886, but he practised little. His health began to fail in 1887 and he died at Melbourne on 23 April 1888. He was twice married (1) to Rose, daughter of the Rev. W. J. H. Lefanu and (2) to Isabel, daughter of Major W. G. St Clair who survived him. He also left a son and three daughters. In addition to the books mentioned he published a few pamphlets.
Hearn was a genial, friendly man much liked by his students. When lecturing he would bring in comic illustrations and humorous anecdotes which helped to lighten difficult subjects; but the atmosphere was one of hard work, and the lecturer was so evidently devoted to intellectual truth, and so brimful of knowledge, that he could not fail to have a great influence on his students. There was a classical clearness of style in his writings which helped to carry on the tradition; one of the greatest jurists in Australia, who was a student at Melbourne long afterwards, has testified that "the influence of his teachings in Australia has been immense" (Sir Owen Dixon quoted by Copland). If Hearn had been a professor in England rather than in Australia, he would no doubt have had a wider reputation, but to have influenced economists like Marshall and Jevons, and to have been praised by historians such as Sir John Marriott and Professor Dicey is a sufficient reward, and no one can say how much his influence has been further extended by the work of men like these who have so freely acknowledged their debt to him.
The Argus, Melbourne, 24 April 1888; The Age, Melbourne, 24 April 1888; D. B. Copland, W. E. Hearn: First Australian Economist; Sir Ernest Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne; Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy, vol. II; Journal of Comparative Legislation, 1934, pp. 184-5.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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