1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brougham and Vaux, Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron
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Brougham and Vaux, Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron
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BROUGHAM AND VAUX, HENRY PETER BROUGHAM, 1ST BARON (1778-1868), lord chancellor of England, was born at Edinburgh on the 19th of September 1778. He was the eldest son of Henry Brougham and Eleanora, daughter of the Rev. James Syme. In his later years he was wont to trace his paternal descent to Uduardus de Broham, in the reign of Henry II., but no real connexion has been established between the ancient lords of Brougham castle, whose inheritance passed by marriage from the Viponts into the family of the De Cliffords, and the Broughams of Scales Hall, from whom the chancellor was really descended. Entering the high school of Edinburgh when barely seven, he left, having risen to be head of the school, in 1791. He entered the university of Edinburgh in 1792, and devoted himself chiefly to the study of natural science and mathematics, contributing in 1795 a paper to the Royal Society on some new phenomenon of light and colours, which was printed in the Transactions of that body. A paper on porisms was published in the same manner in 1798, and in 1803 his scientific reputation was so far established that he was elected F.R.S., But in spite of his taste for mathematical reasoning, Brougham's mind was not an accurate or exact one; and his pursuit of physical science was rather a favourite recreation than a solid advantage to him.
For two years of his university career he had attended lectures in civil law, and having adopted law as a profession he was admitted to the faculty of advocates in 1800. It does not appear that he ever held a brief in the court of session, but he went a circuit or two, where he defended or prosecuted a few prisoners, and played a series of tricks on the presiding judge, Lord Eskgrove, which almost drove that learned person to distraction. The Scottish bar, however, as he soon perceived, offered no field sufficiently ample for his talents and his ambition. He resolved to go to London, where he had already appeared as junior counsel in a Scottish appeal to the House of Lords. In 1803 he entered at Lincoln's Inn, and in 1808 he was called to the English bar. In the meantime he had turned to literature as a means of subsistence. When in 1802 the Edinburgh Review was founded by the young and aspiring lights of the northern metropolis, Brougham was the most ready, the most versatile and the most satirical of all its contributors. To the first twenty numbers he contributed eighty articles, wandering through every imaginable subject,—science, politics, colonial policy, literature, poetry, surgery, mathematics and the fine arts. The prodigious success of the Review, and the power he was known to wield in it, made him a man of mark from his first arrival in London. He obtained the friendship of Lord Grey and the leading Whig politicians. His wit and gaiety made him an ornament of society, and he sought to extend his literary and political reputation by the publication of an elaborate work on the colonial policy of the empire. In 1806, Fox being then in office, he was appointed secretary to a mission of Lord Rosslyn and Lord St Vincent to the court of Lisbon, with a view to counteract the anticipated French invasion of Portugal. The mission lasted two or three months; Brougham came home out of humour and out of pocket; and meantime the death of Fox put an end to the hopes of the Whigs.
Brougham was disappointed by the abrupt fall of the ministry, and piqued that his Whig friends had not provided him with a seat in parliament. Nevertheless, he exerted his pen with prodigious activity during the election of 1809; and Lord Holland declared that he had filled the booksellers' shops with articles and pamphlets. The result was small. No seat was placed at his disposal, and he was too poor to contest a borough. He was fortunate at this time to ally himself with the movement for the abolition of the slave-trade, and he remained through life not only faithful, but passionately attached to the cause. Indeed, one of the first measures he carried in the House of Commons was a bill to make the slave-trade felony, and he had the happiness, as chancellor of England, to take a part in the final measure of negro emancipation throughout the colonies.
Previous to his entering on practice at the English bar, Brougham had acquired some knowledge of international law, and some experience of the prize courts. This circumstance probably led to his being retained as counsel for the Liverpool merchants who had petitioned both Houses of Parliament against the Orders in Council. Brougham conducted the lengthened inquiry which took place at the bar of the House, and he displayed on this occasion a mastery over the principles of political economy and international law which at that time was rare. Nevertheless, he was unsuccessful, and it was not until 1812, when he was himself in parliament, that he resumed his attack on the Orders in Council, and ultimately conquered. It was considered inexpedient and impossible that a man so gifted, and so popular as Brougham had now become, should remain out of parliament, and by the influence of Lord Holland the duke of Bedford was induced to return him to the House of Commons for the borough of Camelford. He took his seat early in 1810, having made a vow that he would not open his mouth for a month. The vow was kept, but kept for that month only. He spoke in March in condemnation of the conduct of Lord Chatham at Walcheren, and he went on speaking for the rest of his life. In four months, such was the position he had acquired in the House that he was regarded as a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal party, then in the feeble hands of George Ponsonby. However, the Tories continued in power. Parliament was dissolved. Camelford passed into other hands. Brougham was induced to stand for Liverpool, with Thomas Creevey against Canning and General Gascoyne. The Liberals were defeated by a large majority, and what made the sting of defeat more keen was that Creevey retained his old seat for Thetford, while Brougham was left out in the cold.
He remained out of parliament during the four eventful years from 1812 to 1816, which witnessed the termination of the war, and he did not conceal his resentment against the Whigs. But in the years he spent out of parliament occurrences took place which gave ample employment to his bustling activity, and led the way to one of the most important passages of his life. He had been introduced in 1809 to the princess of Wales (afterwards Queen Caroline). But it was not till 1812 that the princess consulted him on her private affairs, after the rupture between the prince regent and the Whigs had become more decided. From that time, Brougham, in conjunction with Samuel Whitbread, became one of the princess's chief advisers; he was attached to her service, not so much from any great liking or respect for herself, as from an indignant sense of the wrongs and insults inflicted upon her by her husband. Brougham strongly opposed her departure from England in 1814, as well as her return in 1820 on the accession of George IV.
In 1816 he had again been returned to parliament for Winchelsea, a borough of the earl of Darlington, and he instantly resumed a commanding position in the House of Commons. He succeeded in defeating the continuance of the income-tax; he distinguished himself as an advocate for the education of the people; and on the death of Romilly he took up with ardour the great work of the reform of the law. Nothing exasperated the Tory party more than the select committee which sat, with Brougham in the chair, in 1816 and the three following years, to investigate the state of education of the poor in the metropolis. But he was as far as ever from obtaining the leadership of the party to which he aspired. Indeed, as was pointed out by Lord Lansdowne in 1817, the opposition had no recognized efficient leaders; their warfare was carried on in separate courses, indulging their own tastes and tempers, without combined action. Nor was Brougham much more successful at the bar. The death of George III. suddenly changed this state of things. Queen Caroline at once, in April 1820, appointed Brougham her attorney-general, and Denman her solicitor-general; and they immediately took their rank in court accordingly; this was indeed the sole act of royal authority on the part of the unhappy queen. In July Queen Caroline came from St Omer to England; ministers sent down to both Houses of Parliament the secret evidence which they had long been collecting against her; and a bill was brought into the House of Lords for the deposition of the queen, and the dissolution of the king's marriage. The defence of the queen was conducted by Brougham, assisted by Denman, Lushington and Wilde, with equal courage and ability. His conduct of the defence was most able, and he wound up the proceedings with a speech of extraordinary power and effect. The peroration was said to have been written and rewritten by him seventeen times. At moments of great excitement such declamation may be of value, and in 1820 it was both heard and read with enthusiasm. But to the calmer judgment of later generations this celebrated oration seems turgid and overstrained. Such immense popular sympathy prevailed on the queen's behalf, that the ministry did not proceed with the bill in the Commons, and the result was a virtual triumph for the queen.
This victory over the court and the ministry raised Henry Brougham at once to the pinnacle of fame. He shared the triumph of the queen. His portrait was in every shop window. A piece of plate was presented to him, paid for by a penny subscription of peasants and mechanics. He refused to accept a sum of £4000 which the queen herself placed at his disposal; he took no more than the usual fees of counsel, while his salary as Her Majesty's attorney-general remained unpaid, until it was discharged by the treasury after her death. But from that moment his fortune was made at the bar. His practice on the northern circuit quintupled. One of his finest speeches was a defence of a Durham newspaper which had attacked the clergy for refusing to allow the bells of churches to be tolled on the queen's death; and by the admission of Lord Campbell, a rival advocate and an unfriendly critic, he rose suddenly to a position unexampled in the profession. The meanness of George IV. and of Lord Eldon refused him the silk gown to which his position at the bar entitled him, and for some years he led the circuit as an outer barrister, to the great loss of the senior members of the circuit, who could only be employed against him. His practice rose to about £7000 a year, but it was again falling off before he became chancellor.
It may here be mentioned that in 1825 the first steps were taken, under the auspices of Brougham, for the establishment of a university in London, absolutely free from all religious or sectarian distinctions. In 1827 he contributed to found the "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge"—an association which gave an immense impulse to sound popular literature. Its first publication was an essay on the "Pleasures and Advantages of Science" written by himself. In the following year (1828) he delivered his great speech on law reform, which lasted six hours, in a thin and exhausted House,—a marvellous effort, embracing every part of the existing system of judicature.
The death of Canning, the failure of Lord Goderich, and the accession of the duke of Wellington to power, again changed the aspect of affairs. The progress of the movement for parliamentary reform had numbered the days of the Tory government. At the general election of 1830 the county of York spontaneously returned Brougham to the new House of Commons as their representative. The parliament met in November. Brougham's first act was to move for leave to bring in a bill to amend the representation of the people; but before the debate came on the government was defeated on another question; the duke resigned, and Earl Grey was commanded by William IV. to form an administration.
Amongst the difficulties of the new premier and the Whig party were the position and attitude of Brougham. He was not the leader of any party, and had no personal following in the House of Commons. Moreover, he himself had repeatedly declared that nothing would induce him to exchange his position as an independent member of parliament for any office, however great. On the day following the resignation of the Tory government, he reluctantly consented to postpone for one week his motion on parliamentary reform. The attorney-generalship was offered to him and indignantly refused. He himself affirms that he desired to be master of the rolls, which would have left him free to sit in the House of Commons. But this was positively interdicted by the king, and objected to by Lord Althorp, who declared that he could not undertake to lead the House with so insubordinate a follower behind him. But as it was impossible to leave Brougham out of the ministry, it was determined to offer him the chancellorship. Brougham himself hesitated, or affected to hesitate, but finally yielded to the representations of Lord Grey and Lord Althorp. On the 22nd of November the great seal was delivered to him by the king, and he was raised to the peerage as Baron Brougham and Vaux. His chancellorship lasted exactly four years.
Lord Brougham took a most active and prominent part in all the great measures promoted by Grey's government, and the passing of the Reform Bill was due in a great measure to the vigour with which he defended it. But success developed traits which had hitherto been kept in the background. His manner became dictatorial and he exhibited a restless eccentricity, and a passion for interfering with every department of state, which alarmed the king. By his insatiable activity he had contrived to monopolize the authority and popularity of the government, and notwithstanding the immense majority by which it was supported in the reformed parliament, a crisis was not long in arriving. Lord Grey resigned, but very much by Brougham's exertions the cabinet was reconstructed under Lord Melbourne, and he appeared to think that his own influence in it would be increased. But the irritability of his temper and the egotism of his character made it impossible for his colleagues to work with him, and the extreme mental excitement under which he laboured at this time culminated during a journey to Scotland in a behaviour so extravagant, that it gave the final stroke to the confidence of the king. At Lancaster he joined the bar-mess, and spent the night in an orgy. In a country house he lost the great seal, and found it again in a game of blindman's-buff. At Edinburgh, in spite of the coldness which had sprung up between himself and the Grey family, he was present at a banquet given to the late premier, and delivered a harangue on his own services and his public virtue. All this time he continued to correspond with the king in a strain which created the utmost irritation and amazement at Windsor.
Shortly after the meeting of parliament in November the king dismissed his ministers. The chancellor, who had dined at Holland House, called on Lord Melbourne on his way home, and learned the intelligence. Melbourne made him promise that he would keep it a secret until the morrow, but the moment he quitted the ex-premier he sent a paragraph to The Times relating the occurrence, and adding that "the queen had done it all." That statement, which was totally unfounded, was the last act of his official life. The Peel ministry, prematurely and rashly summoned to power, was of no long duration, and Brougham naturally took an active part in overthrowing it. Lord Melbourne was called upon in April 1835 to reconstruct the Whig government with his former colleagues. But, formidable as he might be as an opponent, the Whigs had learned by experience that Brougham was even more dangerous to them as an ally, and with one accord they resolved that he should not hold the great seal or any other office. The great seal was put in commission, to divert for a time his resentment, and leave him, if he chose, to entertain hopes of recovering it. These hopes, however, were soon dissipated; and although the late chancellor assumed an independent position in the House of Lords, and even affected to protect the government, his resentment against his "noble friends" soon broke out with uncontrolled vehemence. Throughout the session of 1835 his activity was undiminished. Bills for every imaginable purpose were thrown by him on the table of the House, and it stands recorded in Hansard that he made no less than 221 reported speeches in parliament in that year. But in the course of the vacation a heavier blow was struck: Lord Cottenham was made lord chancellor. Brougham's daring and arrogant spirit sank for a time under the shock, and during the year 1836 he never spoke in parliament. Among the numerous expedients resorted to in order to keep his name before the public, was a false report of his death by a carriage accident, sent up from Westmorland in 1839. He was accused, with great probability, of being himself the author of the report. Such credence did it obtain that all the newspapers of October 22, excepting The Times, had obituary notices. However, for more than thirty years after his fall he continued to take an active part in the judicial business of the House of Lords, and in its debates; but it would have been better for his reputation if he had died earlier. His reappearance in parliament on the accession of Queen Victoria was marked by sneers at the court, and violent attacks on the Whigs for their loyal and enthusiastic attachment to their young sovereign; and upon the outbreak of the insurrection in Canada, and the miscarriage of Lord Durham's mission, he overwhelmed his former colleagues, and especially Lord Glenelg, with a torrent of invective and sarcasm, equal in point of oratory to the greatest of his earlier speeches. Indeed, without avowedly relinquishing his political principles, Brougham estranged himself from the whole party by which those principles were defended; and his conduct in general during the years following his loss of office revealed his character in a very unfavourable light. He continued, however, to render judicial services in the privy council, and the House of Lords. The privy council, especially when hearing appeals from the colonies, India, and the courts maritime and ecclesiastical was his favourite tribunal; its vast range of jurisdiction, varied by questions of foreign and international law, suited his discursive genius. He had remodelled the judicial committee in 1833, and it still remains one of the most useful of his creations.
In the year 1860 a second patent was conferred upon him by Queen Victoria, with a reversion of his peerage to his youngest brother, William Brougham (d. 1886). The preamble of this patent stated that this unusual mark of honour was conferred upon him by the crown as an acknowledgment of the great services he had rendered, more especially in promoting the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of the negro race. The peerage was thus perpetuated in a junior branch of the family, Lord Brougham himself being without an heir. He had married in 1821 Mrs Spalding (d. 1865), daughter of Thomas Eden, and had two daughters, the survivor of whom died in 1839. Brougham's last days were passed at Cannes, in the south of France. An accident having attracted his attention to the spot about the year 1838, when it was little more than a fishing village on a picturesque coast, he bought there a tract of land and built on it. His choice and his example made it the sanatorium of Europe. He died there on the 7th of May 1868, in the ninetieth year of his age.
The verdict of the time has proved that there was nothing of permanence, and little of originality in the prodigious efforts of Brougham's genius. He filled the office of chancellor during times burning with excitement, and he himself embodied and expressed the fervour of the times. He affected at first to treat the business of the court of chancery as a light affair, though in truth he had to work hard to master the principles of equity, of which he had no experience. His manner in court was desultory and dictatorial. Sometimes he would crouch in his chair, muffled in his wig and robes, like a man asleep; at other times he would burst into restless activity, writing letters, working problems, interrupting counsel. But upon the whole Brougham was a just and able judge, though few of his decisions are cited as landmarks of the law.
As a parliamentary figure Brougham's personality excited for many years an immense amount of public interest, now somewhat hard to comprehend. His boundless command of language, his animal spirits and social powers, his audacity and well-stored memory enabled him to dominate the situation. His striking and almost grotesque personal appearance, added to the effect of his voice and manner—a tall disjointed frame, with strong bony limbs and hands, that seemed to interpret the power of his address; strange angular motions of the arms; the incessant jerk of his harsh but expressive features; the modulations of his voice, now thundering in the loudest tones of indignation, now subdued to a whisper—all contributed to give him the magical influence such as is excited by a great actor. But his eccentricity rose at times to the verge of insanity; and with all his powers he lacked the moral elevation which inspires confidence and wins respect.
The activity of Lord Brougham's pen was only second to the volubility of his tongue. He carried on a vast and incessant correspondence of incredible extent. For thirty years he contributed largely to the Edinburgh Review, and he continued to write in that journal even after he held the great seal. The best of his writings, entitled "Sketches of the Statesmen of the time of George III.", first appeared in the Review. These were followed by the "Lives of Men of Letters and Science," of the same period. Later in life he edited Paley's Natural Theology; and he published a work on political philosophy, besides innumerable pamphlets and letters to public men on the events of the day. He published an incorrect translation of Demosthenes' De Corona. A novel entitled Albert Lunel was attributed to him. A fragment of the History of England under the House of Lancaster employed his retirement. In 1838 was published an edition of his speeches in four volumes, elaborately corrected by himself. The last of his works was his posthumous Autobiography. Ambitious as he was of literary fame, and jealous of the success of other authors, he has failed to obtain any lasting place in English literature. His style was slovenly, involved and incorrect; and his composition bore marks of haste and carelessness, and nowhere shows any genuine originality of thought. The collected edition of his works and speeches carefully revised by himself (Edinburgh, 1857 and 1872) is the best. His Autobiography is of some value from the original letters with which it is interspersed. But Lord Brougham's memory was so much impaired when he began to write his recollections that no reliance can be placed on his statements, and the work abounds in manifest errors. Nor was his regard for truth at any time unimpeachable, and the accounts which he gave of more than one transaction in which he played a prominent part were found on investigation to be unfounded.
The best modern account of Brougham is J.B. Atlay's, in his Victorian Chancellors (1906); Lord Campbell's, in Lives of the Chancellors, is spiteful, and by an unfriendly though well-informed critic; the Rev. W. Hunt's judicious and careful biography in the D.N.B. is somewhat lacking in colour; Henry Reeve's article in the 9th ed. of the Ency. Brit., which is frequently drawn upon above, now requires a good many corrections in points of fact and perspective, but gives a brilliant picture by an appreciative critic, much "behind the scenes." See also references in the Greville Memoirs and Creevey Papers; S. Walpole, History of England (1890); J.A. Roebuck, History of the Whig Ministry (1852); Lord Holland, Memoirs of the Whig Party (1854); Brougham and his Early Friends: Letters to James Loch, 1798-1809 (3 vols., London, 1908, privately printed).