Scott, John (1739-1798) (DNB00)
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Scott, John (1739-1798)
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SCOTT, JOHN, Earl of Clonmell (1739–1798), chief justice of the king's bench in Ireland, born on 8 June 1739, was the son of Thomas Scott of Urlings, co. Kilkenny, afterwards of Modeshill and Mohubber, co. Tipperary, and Rachel, eldest daughter of Mark Prim of Johnswell, co. Kilkenny. Another account makes Thomas of Mohubber his elder brother, and gives as his father Michael Scott, and his mother a daughter of Michael Purcell, titular baron of Loughmore (cf. Burke, Peerage; Fitzpatrick, Ireland before the Union, p. 206). Both accounts, however, agree that his grandfather, the founder of the family, was a captain in King William's army and was killed during the wars in Ireland. After receiving an elementary education, probably at Clonmel school, where he contracted a friendship with Hugh Carleton, afterwards Viscount Carleton and chief justice of the common pleas, Scott was enabled through the generosity of Carleton's father, known from his opulence as ‘King of Cork,’ to enter Trinity College, Dublin, on 26 April 1756, and subsequently to pursue his studies at the Middle Temple. He never forgot the kindness thus shown to him, and afterwards, when Carleton's bankruptcy threatened to impair his son's prospects, he repaid his obligations in as generous a fashion as his position allowed. Still it was noticeable that even at this time his unblushing effrontery, coupled with his somewhat bronzed visage, gained for him the sobriquet, which stuck to him through life, of ‘Copper-Faced Jack.’ He was called to the Irish bar in 1765, and his diligence and aptitude for business soon procured him a considerable practice. In 1767 he married the widow of Philip Roe, a daughter of Thomas Mathew of Thomastown, who, in addition to her personal attractions, possessed an annual income of 300l.
At this time the dominant star in the Irish political firmament was that of Dr. Charles Lucas [q. v.], and among Lucas's professed followers there was none more devoted than Scott. He is said to have taken a very active part on the popular side at one of the early college elections, and in 1769 he was himself elected M.P. for the borough of Mullingar. His ability and determination to rise attracted the attention of the lord chancellor, Lord Lifford, and, at his suggestion, Lord Townshend threw out to him the bait of office. The bait was swallowed with the cynical remark, ‘My lord, you have spoiled a good patriot.’ In the following year he obtained his silk gown, and in 1772 was appointed to the lucrative post of counsel to the revenue board. So far as government was concerned the bargain was not a bad one. Night after night, with a courage and versatility which none could gainsay, he withstood the attacks on administration of Flood and the ‘patriots’ at a time when those attacks were most violent and pertinacious. His services did not pass unrewarded. In December 1774 he succeeded Godfrey Lill as solicitor-general, and on the death of Philip Tisdall [q. v.] he became attorney-general on 1 Nov. 1777, and a privy councillor. Shortly after his promotion, it is said that, encountering Flood in front of the House of Commons at the beginning of the session, he addressed him, ‘Well, Flood, I suppose you will be abusing me this session, as usual?’ ‘When I began to abuse you,’ replied Flood, ‘you were a briefless barrister; by abuse I made you counsel to the revenue; by abuse I got you a silk gown; by abuse I made you solicitor-general; by abuse I made you attorney-general, by abuse I may make you chief-justice. No, Scott, I'll praise you.’ Scott, however, had his revenge during the debate on the perpetual mutiny bill in November 1781, and the inimitable way in which he related his parable of ‘Harry Plantagenet’ (Parl. Register, i. 123), while it convulsed the house with laughter, must have wounded Flood deeply. ‘The character,’ wrote William Eden, describing the scene to Lord Loughborough, ‘painted in great detail and mixed with many humorous but coarse and awkward allusions, was that of a malevolent outcast from all social intercourse of life, driven to madness by spleen and vanity, forlorn in reputation, and sunk in abilities’ (Auckland Corresp. i. 322).
Still, it would be unfair to suppose that Scott's acceptance of office blinded him, any more than it did Flood, to the higher claims of country. At any rate, he was shrewd enough to recognise that without some extension of trade privileges the country was doomed to bankruptcy and discontent (cf. Beresford Corresp. i. 39, 64). His attitude was naturally misinterpreted by the public, and during the trade riots in November 1779 he narrowly escaped being murdered. As it was, every pane of glass in his house in Harcourt Street was smashed by the mob. He obtained compensation from parliament; though some remarks of Yelverton, tending to exonerate the mob, so inflamed him that the house was obliged to interfere to prevent a duel. But his personal feelings did not influence his political opinions, and to his colleague in London he wrote: ‘Send us two men, or one man of ability and spirit; send him with the promise of extension of commerce in his mouth as he enters the harbour, unconnected with this contemptible tail of English opposition, meaning well to the king, to his servants, and to the country, and he will rule us with ease; but if you procrastinate and send us a timid and popular trickster, this kingdom will cost you more than America; it will cost you your existence and ours’ (ib. i. 81). The appointment of Lord Buckinghamshire was little to his taste, and he inveighed strongly against the way in which he and his secretary, Sir Richard Heron, ‘bungled’ the business of government. His sentiments in regard to the claims of the Roman catholics were liberal, and on 17 July 1781 he remonstrated at length on the practice of appointing none but Englishmen to the chancellorship (Addit. MS. 34417, f. 394). He refused to be badgered into any premature expression of opinion as to the right of England to bind Ireland by acts of parliament, but astounded the house on 4 May 1782 by announcing ‘in the most unqualified, unlimited, and explicit manner … as a lawyer, a faithful servant to the crown, a well-wisher to both countries, and an honest Irishman,’ that Great Britain possessed no such right, and that if the parliament of that kingdom was determined to be the lords of Ireland, ‘he for his part was determined not to be their villain in contributing to it’ (Parl. Register, i. 351).
The declaration came perhaps a little too late to save his reputation for sincerity, but it was early enough to enrage the government against him; and, without receiving one word of explanation, he was at once dismissed from office by the Duke of Portland. The blow was wholly unexpected, and, in the general opinion, wholly unjustifiable. Overcome with mortification and prostrated by rheumatic fever and other family misfortunes, he deserved the pity accorded to him. In a letter to Fitzpatrick, written with a good deal of dignity, he remonstrated against the injustice done him (Auckland MS. 34419, f. 96). But fortunately the administration of the Duke of Portland was short-lived, and on 31 Dec. 1783 he was created, though not without a word of warning on the part of Fox (Grattan, Life of Grattan, iii. 112), prime serjeant by Lord Northington. He made a fast friend of Northington's successor, the Duke of Rutland, who recommended him for the post of chief justice of the king's bench whenever it should become vacant (Rutland MSS. iii. 77, 80), which it presently did by the death of John Gore, lord Annaly [q. v.] He was promoted on 10 May 1784, and at the same time raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Earlsfort of Lisson Earl. Only one thing was wanting, Beresford jocosely remarked, to complete his happiness—‘the satisfaction of sitting in judgment on his grace of Portland’ (Beresford Corresp. i. 256). And in thanking Eden for his assistance, Scott poured out the vials of his wrath on the duke and his ‘Dutch system,’ promising to ‘see whether it may not be possible to stop the torrent of favouritism and brutal oppression which has covered this country with dirt since we have been overflowed by the politics of republicans and Low Country folks’ (Auckland MSS. 34419, f. 207). He was specially consulted in November 1784 by the lord lieutenant on the subject of a parliamentary reform, and his opinion, which is merely recorded to have contained ‘sentiments very freely stated,’ was transmitted to Pitt, and seems to have carried great weight with government (Rutland MSS. iii. 148). On the question of the amended commercial propositions of 1785 he was strongly opposed to any attempt to force them through parliament, and predicted their rejection (ib. iii. 231). And hearing him speak on the subject of holdings of leases of low value in August that year, Woodfall, the reporter, declared that though it might be true that he had been lucky, yet he had ‘abilities enough to countenance good fortune’ (Auckland Corresp. i. 83). His severe illness in the spring of the ensuing year caused Rutland much anxiety, partly on his account, but chiefly because it threatened to deprive him of Fitzgibbon's services in the lower house (Rutland MSS. iii. 300, 302). Fortunately he recovered, and it was largely due to his ‘very able conduct’ that the magistracy bill of 1787 was carried through parliament; but in the following year he found it necessary for his health to go to Tunbridge Wells. His annual income at this time appears to have amounted to 15,000l., and on 18 Aug. 1789 he was created Viscount Clonmell.
Early, however, in this year he committed the one great blunder of his official career. John Magee [q. v.], the spirited proprietor and editor of the ‘Dublin Evening Post,’ had been sued for libel by Francis Higgins (1746–1802) [q. v.], called the ‘Sham Squire,’ a friend of Scott's in his convivial hours. The chief justice, influenced by personal and political motives, caused a capias ad respondendum marked 4,000l. to issue against Magee. It was a tyrannical act, but in the state of the law perfectly legal, and would, as Scott intended it should, have utterly ruined Magee had not the matter been brought before parliament by George Ponsonby [q. v.] in March 1790. A motion censuring such practices was adroitly got rid of by government, and a similar motion in the following year met a like fate. But in consequence of the severe comments made on his conduct in parliament and by the press (cf. Scott to Auckland, Auckland MS. 34429, f. 451), an act was passed, directed specially against him, regulating the law of fiats. The discussion greatly damaged his judicial character, and Magee, during his temporary release in September 1789, revenged himself by hiring a plot of land which he appropriately called Fiat Hill, adjoining Temple Hill, the residence of the lord justice, and inviting the rabble of Dublin to partake of some amusements, terminating with a ‘grand Olympic pig-hunt.’ Much damage was done to Scott's grounds. The ‘detested administration,’ as Scott with reason called it, of Lord Westmorland came to an end on 5 May 1791, and his successor, sympathising with his sufferings, advanced him to the dignity of Earl of Clonmell on 20 Dec. 1793. If subserviency ever merited reward, Scott certainly deserved his. But his arrogant manner on the bench was sometimes resented by the bar, and, in consequence of his gross rudeness to a barrister of the name of Hackett, it was resolved ‘that until the chief justice publicly apologised no barrister would hold a brief, appear in the king's bench, or sign any pleadings in court.’ He was compelled to submit, and published a very ample apology in the newspapers, which, with much tact, he antedated as though it had been written voluntarily and without the censure of the bar. Nevertheless Scott was not deficient in ability, and could, when he liked, behave with great dignity on the bench. His summing up in Archibald Hamilton Rowan's case was as admirable as his behaviour to the publisher of the trial, Byrne, was the reverse. Although his tendency was to make his position subservient to government and his own advancement, he ‘never indulged in attacks on his country,’ and never sought ‘to raise himself by depressing her.’ His reluctance to support the arbitrary measures that marked the course of Earl Camden's administration caused him to lose favour at the castle, and as time went on his opinion was less consulted and considered. ‘I think,’ he wrote, in his diary on 13 Feb. 1798, ‘my best game is to play the invalid and be silent; the government hate me, and are driving things to extremities; the country is disaffected and savage, the parliament corrupt and despised.’
He died on the very day the rebellion broke out, 23 May 1798. He left no surviving issue by his first wife, Catherine Anne Maria Mathew, the sister of Francis, first earl of Llandaff, who died in 1771; but by his second wife, Margaret, daughter and heiress of Patrick Lawless of Dublin, whom he married on 23 June 1779, he had a son Thomas (1783–1858), who succeeded him, and a daughter Charlotte, who married, in 1814, John Reginald, earl of Beauchamp. Scott has been treated with scant justice by his biographers. His diary (published by Fitzpatrick in his ‘Ireland before the Union’), which ought to have been destroyed with his other papers, and was surely not intended for public or indiscriminate inspection, has been treated too seriously, and used mainly to emphasise his weaknesses and indiscretions. It is true that he was unscrupulous, passionate, and greedy, that his language was vulgar and his manner overbearing; but his chief offence in the eyes of whig aristocrats like Charlemont and the Ponsonbys was that he was a novus homo or upstart. His letters, on the other hand, reveal him as a man of considerable education and independent views, which he supported with no little ability.[Burke's Peerage; Gent. Mag. 1798, i. 538, ii. 622, 651; Fitzpatrick's Ireland before the Union; Grattan's Life of Henry Grattan, ii. 141–7, iii. 112, iv. 349; Wills's Irish Nation, iii. 669–79; Official Returns of Members of Parliament; Flood's Memoirs of Henry Flood, p. 135; Auckland Corresp.; Beresford Corresp.; M'Dougall's Sketches of Political Characters, p. 13; Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries, pp. 35–9; Barrington's Personal Recollections, i. 171, 222; O'Regan's Memoirs of the Life of Curran, pp. 57–9; Hardy's Life of Charlemont, i. 268–71; Seward's Collectanea Politica; Parl. Register, i. 243, 344, 351, ii. 14, 15, 207, 208; Sheil's Sketches, Legal and Political; Rutland MSS. iii. passim; Charlemont MSS. ii. 178; Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. (Stopford Sackville's MSS.), p. 60; Pelham Papers in Addit. MS. 33101, f. 87; Auckland Papers in Addit. MS. 34417, ff. 394, 408; ib. 34418 ff. 211, 284, 34419 ff. 96, 117, 207, 395, 34420 f. 257, 34425 f. 219, 34429 f. 451, 34461 f. 106.]