Stephen, James (1789-1859) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54
Stephen, James (1789-1859)

by Leslie Stephen
The subject was the father of the article's author

STEPHEN, Sir JAMES (1789–1859), colonial under-secretary, born at Lambeth on 3 Jan. 1789, was third son of James Stephen (1758-1832) [q. v.] An attack of small-pox during his infancy caused a permanent weakness of eyesight. He was under various schoolmasters, including John Prior Estlin [q. v.] and the Rev. Henry Jowett of Little Dunham, Norfolk. In 1806 he entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he learnt as little as if he had passed the time 'at the Clarendon Hotel in Bond Street.' He took the LL.B. degree in 1812, having been called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 11 Nov. 1811. His father, who was just leaving the bar, transferred some practice to his son, who also began to make a digest of colonial laws. The third Lord Bathurst, who was in sympathy with the 'Clapham Sect,' allowed him to inspect official records for the digest, and in 1813 appointed him counsel to the colonial department. His duty was to report upon all acts of the colonial legislatures. The work increased, but he was also allowed to practise privately, and in a few years was making 3,000l. a year, and in a fair way to the honours of the profession.

On 22 Dec. 1814 he married Jane Catherine, daughter of John Venn, rector of Clapham, one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. In 1822 Stephen had a severe illness caused by overwork. As he was now a father, he decided in 1825 to accept the offer of the post of permanent counsel to the colonial office and to the board of trade, abandoning his private practice. In 1834 he was appointed assistant under-secretary of state for the colonies, and in 1836 under-secretary, giving up his position in the board of trade. The duties became exceedingly onerous, and he devoted himself to them unstintedly. For many years he never left London for a month, and, though afterwards forced to make longer absences, he took a clerk into the country and did business as regularly as in town. He had a very high reputation for his wide knowledge of constitutional law, and was a rapid and decided administrator. His energy gave him great influence with his superiors, and his colleague, Sir Henry Taylor, says that for many years he 'literally ruled the colonial empire.' The impression of his influence gained him the nicknames of 'King Stephen' and 'Mr. Over-secretary Stephen;' and he was frequently made the scapegoat for real and supposed errors of the colonial office. He had accepted his position partly with a hope of influencing the slavery question. His success in this endeavour raised, according to Taylor, the 'first outcry' against him. When abolition became inevitable, he was called upon to prepare the measure passed in 1833. Unless it could be drawn at once the abolition might be postponed for a year. He therefore on this occasion (and on one other only) broke the Sabbath; and between the noons of Saturday and Monday dictated an elaborate bill of sixty-six sections. At this time he would often dictate as much as ten pages of the 'Edinburgh Review' before breakfast. This effort, however, cost him a severe nervous illness. In later years he was especially concerned in the establishment of responsible government in Canada; and his views are said to have been more liberal than those of the government. He was highly esteemed by his official superiors, but incurred unpopularity in other quarters. A hard worker, he tried to exact hard work from others. He covered a sensitive nature by a formality which kept others at a distance. He was as shy, says Taylor, 'as a wild duck,' but often showed it oddly by talking so continuously as to leave no opening for an answer. In private, as Taylor testifies, his conversation was equally abundant and singularly rich and forcible. Though living in London for many years, he went little into society. The delicacy of his youngest son induced him in 1840 to take a house at Brighton for his family, to which he could make only weekly visits. From 1842 to 1846 he lived at Windsor, in order to send his sons to Eton. The daily journeys to his office made an additional strain. In 1846 he was summoned to Dresden by the illness of his eldest son, who died before his parents could reach him. The shock had serious effects upon his health; and a bad attack in 1847 induced him to resign his office. He was made a K.C.B. and a privy councillor.

Stephen had meanwhile become known as a writer by a series of articles in the 'Edinburgh Review,' the first of which (upon Wilberforce) appeared in April 1838. They were written in the intervals of his official work, generally in the early morning. He carefully disavowed any pretence to profound research. The articles had, however, shown considerable historical knowledge as well as literary power. He had partly recovered strength, and was anxious for employment. In June 1849 he was appointed to the regius professorship of modern history at Cambridge, vacant by the death of William Smyth (1765–1849) [q. v.] He delivered a course of lectures upon the history of France during the summers of 1850 and 1851, which were published in 1852, and were warmly praised by De Tocqueville and other competent persons. Another severe illness in the summer of 1850 had forced him to spend a winter abroad; and these lectures were the last work to which he could apply his full power. From 1855 to 1857 he held a professorship at the East India College, Haileybury, which had been sentenced to extinction. He continued to lecture at Cambridge, but the history school then held a very low position; and residence was superfluous. He passed the last years of his life chiefly in London. In 1859 his health showed serious symptoms, and he was ordered to Homburg. Becoming worse, he started homewards, but died at Coblentz on 14 Sept. 1859. He was buried at Kensal Green. Sir James Stephen's widow died in 1875. They had five children: Herbert Venn (1822–1846), Frances Wilberforce (1824–1825), Sir James Fitzjames [q. v.], Leslie, and Caroline Emelia.

Stephen spent his best years and highest powers in work of which it is impossible that any estimate should be formed. He was a most conscientious and energetic official, but the credit or discredit of the policy which he carried out belongs to those whom he advised. In domestic life he impressed all who knew him by his loftiness of principle. He was a man of the strongest family affections. He sacrificed his own comforts for the benefit of his children, and set before them a constant example of absolute devotion to duty. He began life as a strong evangelical, and never avowedly changed; but his experience of the world, his sympathy with other forms of belief, and his interest in the great churchmen of the middle ages led to his holding the inherited doctrine in a latitudinarian sense. He was accused of heresy, when appointed professor at Cambridge, for an 'Epilogue' to his 'Essays,' in which he suggested doubts as to the eternity of hell-fire. The 'Essays' are the work by which he is best known, and show a literary faculty to which he could never give full play. The autobiography of Sir Henry Taylor gives an interesting account of his personal character. Taylor, James Spedding, Mr. Aubrey de Vere, and Nassau Senior were his most intimate friends; but he led a recluse and rather ascetic life, and seldom went into society, A bust by Marochetti is in the National Portrait Gallery.

His works are:

  1. 'Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography,' 1849, 2 vols. 8vo; 5th edit, in 1 vol. 1867 (with life, by his son, J. F. Stephen).
  2. 'Lectures on the History of France,' 1852, 2 vols. 8vo.

[Family papers; Life by James Fitzjames Stephen prefixed to later editions of Essays; Life of Sir J. F. Stephen, by Leslie Stephen. See also Sir H. Taylor's Autobiography, 1885; Taylor's Correspondence, 1888, ed. Dowden; Macvey Napier's Correspondence, 1879.]

L. S.