Sir Henry James Sumner Maine, KCSI (15 August 1822 – 3 February 1888), was a British comparative jurist and historian. He is famous for the thesis outlined in his book Ancient Law that law and society developed “from status to contract.” According to the thesis, in the ancient world individuals were tightly bound by status to traditional groups, while in the modern one, in which individuals are viewed as autonomous agents, they are free to make contracts and form associations with whomever they choose. Because of this thesis, Maine can be seen as one of the forefathers of modern sociology of law.
Maine was the son of Dr. James Maine, of Kelso, Roxburghshire. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital, where a boarding house was named after him in 1902. From there he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1840. At Cambridge, he was noted as a classical scholar and also won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1842. He won a Craven scholarship and graduated as senior classic in 1844, being also senior chancellor’s medallist in classics. He was a Cambridge Apostle.
Shortly afterwards, he accepted a tutorship at Trinity Hall. In 1847, he was appointed regius professor of civil law, and he was called to the bar three years later; he held this chair till 1854. Meanwhile, in 1852 he had become one of the readers appointed by the Inns of Court.
The post of legal member of council in India was offered to Maine; he declined it once, on grounds of health. The following year Maine was persuaded to accept, and it turned out that India suited him much better than Cambridge or London. He was asked to prolong his services beyond the regular term of five years, and he returned to England in 1869.
The subjects on which it was Maine’s duty to advise the government of India were as much political as legal. They ranged from such problems as the land settlement of the Punjab, or the introduction of civil marriage to provide for the needs of unorthodox Hindus, to the question of how far the study of Persian should be required or encouraged among European civil servants. Plans of codification were prepared, and largely shaped, under Maine’s direction, which were implemented by his successors, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen and Dr Whitley Stokes.
Maine became a member of the secretary of state’s council in 1871, and remained so for the rest of his life. In the same year he was gazetted a K.C.S.I.