1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Durham, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of
DURHAM, JOHN GEORGE LAMBTON, 1st Earl of (1792–1840), English statesman, son of William Henry Lambton of Lambton Castle, Durham, was born in London on the 12th of April 1792. His mother was Anne Barbara Villiers, daughter of the 4th earl of Jersey. Lambton was only five years old when by his father’s death at Pisa (1797) he succeeded to large estates in the north of England which had been in the uninterrupted possession of his family since the 12th century. In 1805 he went to Eton, and in 1809 obtained a commission in the 10th Hussars. In 1812, while still a minor, he made a runaway match with Henrietta, natural daughter of Lord Cholmondeley, whom he married at Gretna Green, and who died in 1815. In 1813 he was elected to the House of Commons as member for the county of Durham. Whig principles of a pronounced type were traditional in Lambton’s family. His grandfather, General John Lambton, had refused a peerage in 1793 out of loyalty to Fox, and his father was not only one of Pitt’s keenest opponents, but was chairman of “The Friends of the People” and author of that society’s address to the nation in 1792. Lambton adhered to this tradition, and soon developed opinions of an extremely Radical type, which he fearlessly put forward in parliament and in the country with marked ability. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was directed against the foreign policy of Lord Liverpool’s government, who had sanctioned, and helped to enforce, the annexation of Norway by Sweden. In 1815 he vehemently opposed the corn tax, and in general began to take a prominent part in opposition to the Tories. In 1816 he made the acquaintance of Lafayette in Paris, and narrowly escaped arrest for alleged complicity in his escape. In 1817 he began to speak on every opportunity in favour of parliamentary reform.
His political position was strengthened by his marriage in December 1816 to Louisa Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Lord Grey, and as early as 1818 he was taken into the political confidence of his father-in-law and other leaders of the Whigs in matters touching the leadership and policy of the party. But from the first Lambton belonged to the avowedly Radical wing of the party, with whose aims Grey had little sympathy; and when he gave notice of a resolution in 1819 in favour of shortening the duration of parliaments, and of a wide extension of the franchise, he found himself discountenanced by old Whigs like Grey, Holland and Fitzwilliam. Having warmly espoused the cause of Queen Caroline, Lambton ably seconded Lord Tavistock’s resolution in February 1821 censuring the government for their conduct towards the queen; and in April he made his first great speech in the House of Commons on parliamentary reform, when he proposed a scheme for the extension of the suffrage to all holders of property, the division of the country into electoral districts and the disfranchisement of rotten boroughs. He was now one of the recognized leaders of the advanced Liberals, forming a connecting link between the aristocratic Whig leaders and the irresponsible and often violent politicians of the great towns. His opposition to those members of his party who in 1825 were prepared for compromise on the question of Catholic emancipation led to his first conflict with Brougham, with whom he had been on terms of close friendship. While supporting the candidature of his brother-in-law, Lord Howick, for Northumberland in the elections of 1826, Lambton fought a duel with T. W. Beaumont, the Tory candidate, but without bloodshed on either side. Unlike his father-in-law, Lambton supported the ministry of Canning, though he had some grounds for personal grievance against the new prime minister, and after Canning’s death that of Lord Goderich. On the advice of the latter Lambton was raised to the peerage in 1828 with the title of Baron Durham. Owing to his Liberal principles Lord Durham was on terms of friendship with the duke of Sussex, and also with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who sought his advice in the difficult crisis in 1829 when he was offered the throne of Greece, and who, after he became king of the Belgians as Leopold I., continued to correspond with Durham as a trusted confidant; the same confidential relations also existed between Durham and Leopold’s sister, the duchess of Kent, and her daughter, afterwards Queen Victoria.
In November 1830 when Grey became prime minister in succession to the duke of Wellington, Lord Durham entered the cabinet as lord privy seal. Parliamentary reform was in the forefront of the new government’s policy, and with this question no statesman except Lord Grey himself was more closely indentified than Durham. To ardent reformers in the country the presence in the cabinet of “Radical Jack,” the name by which Lambton had been popularly known in the north of England, was a pledge that thorough-going reform would not be shirked by the Whigs, now in office for the first time for twenty years. And it was to his son-in-law that Lord Grey confided the task of preparing a scheme to serve as the basis of the proposed legislation. Full justice has not generally been done to the leading part played by Lord Durham in preparing the great Reform Act. He was the chief author of the proposals which, after being defeated in 1831, became law with little alteration in 1832. He was chairman of the famous committee of four, which met at his house in Cleveland Row and drew up the scheme submitted by the government to parliament. His colleagues, who were appointed rather as his assistants than as his equals, were Lord John Russell, Sir James Graham and Lord Duncannon; and it was Durham who selected Lord John Russell, not then in the cabinet, to introduce the bill in the House of Commons; a selection that was hotly opposed by Brougham, whose later vindictive animosity against Durham is to be traced to his having been passed over in the selection of the committee of four. Durham was present with Grey at an audience of the king which led to the sudden dissolution of parliament in March 1831; and when the deadlock between the two Houses occurred over the second Reform Bill, he was the most eager in pressing on the prime minister the necessity for a creation of peers to overcome the resistance of the house of Lords.
After the passing of the Reform Act, Durham, whose health was bad and who had suffered the loss of two of his children, accepted a special and difficult diplomatic mission to Russia, which he carried out with much tact and ability, though without accomplishing its main purpose. On his return he resigned office in March 1833, ostensibly for reasons of health, but in reality owing to his disagreement with the government’s Irish policy as conducted by Lord Stanley; in the same month he was created earl of Durham and Viscount Lambton. His advanced opinions, in the assertion of which he was too little disposed to consider the convictions of others, gradually alienated the more moderate of his late colleagues, such as Melbourne and Palmerston, and even Lord Grey often found his son-in-law intractable and self-assertive; but the growing hostility of the treacherous Brougham was mainly due to Durham’s undoubted popularity in the country, where he was regarded by many, including J. S. Mill, as Grey’s probable successor in the leadership of the Liberal party. Durham was at this time courted by the youthful Disraeli, who, when Melbourne became prime minister in succession to Grey in 1834, declared that the Whigs could not exist as a party without Lord Durham. Brougham’s animosity became undisguised at the great banquet given to Lord Grey at Edinburgh in September 1834, where he made a venomous attack on Durham, repeated shortly afterwards at Salisbury, and anonymously in the Edinburgh Review. On the other hand the strength of Durham’s position in the country was shown on the occasion of his visit to Glasgow in October to receive the freedom of the city, when a concourse of more than a hundred thousand persons assembled to hear him speak at Glasgow Green, and where he replied to Brougham’s attacks at a great banquet held in his honour. Brougham had over-reached himself; and although Durham was no favourite with William IV., the king’s disgust with the lord chancellor was one of the principal reasons for his summary dismissal of the Whig ministry in 1834. When Melbourne returned to power after Peel’s short administration, Durham’s radicalism and impatient temper excluded him from the cabinet; and again in 1837, on his return from an appointment as ambassador extraordinary in St Petersburg (1835-1837), when there was some idea of his joining the ministry, Lord John Russell wrote: “Everybody, after the experience we have had, must doubt whether there can be peace or harmony in a cabinet of which Lord Durham is a member.”
In July 1837 he resisted the entreaty of Lord Melbourne that he should undertake the government of Canada, where the condition of affairs had become alarming; but a few months later, giving way to the urgent insistence of the prime minister who promised him “the firmest and most unflinching support” of the government, he accepted the post of governor-general and lord high commissioner, with the almost dictatorial powers conferred on him by an act passed in February 1838, by which the constitution of Lower Canada was suspended for two years. Having secured the services of Charles Buller (q.v.) as first secretary, and having with more doubtful wisdom appointed Thomas Turton and Edward Gibbon Wakefield (q.v.) to be his unofficial assistants, Durham arrived at Quebec on the 28th of May 1838. Papineau’s rebellion had been quelled, but the French Canadians were sullen, the attitude of the United States equivocal, and the general situation dangerous, especially in the Lower Province where government was practically in abeyance. Durham at once issued a conciliatory proclamation. His next step was to dismiss the executive council of his predecessor and to appoint a new one consisting of men uncommitted to any existing faction, a step much criticized at home but generally commended on the spot. On the 28th of June, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, he issued a proclamation of amnesty, from the benefit of which eight persons only of those who had taken part in the rebellion were excepted; while an accompanying ordinance provided for the transference of these eight excepted persons from Montreal to Bermuda, where they were to be imprisoned without trial. Papineau and fifteen other fugitives were forbidden on pain of death to return to Canada. In a letter of congratulation to the queen, Durham took credit for the clemency of his policy towards the rebels, and it was defended on the same ground by Charles Buller and by public opinion in the colony.
In England, however, as soon as these proceedings became known, Brougham seized the opportunity for venting his malice against both Durham and the ministry. He had already raised objections to the appointment of Turton and Wakefield; he now attacked the ordinance in the House of Lords, challenging the legality of the clause transporting prisoners to Bermuda, where Durham had no jurisdiction. Melbourne and his colleagues, with the honourable exception of Lord John Russell, made little effort to defend the public servant to whom they had promised “the most unflinching support”; and, although both the prime minister and the colonial secretary when first fully informed of the governor-general’s proceedings had hastened to assure him of their “entire approval,” three weeks later, cowed by Brougham’s malignant invective, they disallowed the ordinance, and carried an Act of Indemnity the terms of which were insulting to Durham. The latter immediately resigned; but before returning to England he put himself in the wrong by issuing a proclamation in which he not only justified his own conduct in detail, but made public complaint of his grievances against the ministers of the Crown, a step that alienated much sympathy which his unjust treatment by the government would otherwise have called forth, though it was defended by men like Charles Buller and J. S. Mill. The usual official honours given to a returning plenipotentiary were not accorded to Durham on his arrival at Plymouth on the 30th of November 1838, but the populace received him with acclamation. He immediately set about preparing his memorable “Report on the Affairs of British North America,” which was laid before parliament on the 31st of January 1839. This report, one of the greatest state papers in the English language, laid down the principles, then unrecognized, which have guided British colonial policy ever since. It was not written or composed by Charles Buller, as Brougham was the first to suggest, and the credit for the statesmanship it exhibits is Lord Durham’s alone, though he warmly acknowledged the assistance he had derived from Buller, Wakefield and others in preparing the materials on which it was based. With regard to the future government of British North America, Durham had at first inclined towards a federation of all the colonies on that continent, and this aim, afterwards achieved, remained in his eyes an ideal to be striven for; but as a more immediately practical policy he advised the legislative union of Upper and Lower Canada, his avowed aim being to organize a single state in which the British inhabitants would be in a majority. He further urged the creation of an executive council responsible to the colonial legislature; he advised state-aided emigration on the broadest possible scale, and the formation of an intercolonial railway for the development of the whole country. Meantime Durham, who almost alone among the statesmen of his time saw the importance of imperial expansion, interested himself in the emigration schemes of Gibbon Wakefield (q.v.); he became chairman of the New Zealand Company, and was thus concerned in the enterprise which forestalled France in asserting sovereignty over the islands of New Zealand in September 1839. His health, however, had long been failing, and he died at Cowes on the 28th of July 1840, just five days after the royal assent had been given to the bill giving effect to his project for uniting Upper and Lower Canada.
Lord Durham filled a larger place in the eyes of his contemporaries than many statesmen who have been better remembered. He was in his lifetime regarded as a great popular leader; and his accession to supreme political power was for some years considered probable by many; his opinions were, however, too extreme to command the confidence of any considerable party in parliament before 1840. That Brougham hated him and Melbourne feared him, is a tribute to his abilities; and in the first Reform Act, of which he was the chief author, and in the famous Report on the principles of colonial policy, he left an indelible mark on English history. His personal defects of character did much to mar the success of a career, which, it must be remembered, terminated at the age of forty-eight. He was impatient, hot-tempered, hypersensitive to criticism, vain and prone to take offence at fancied slights; but he was also generous and unvindictive, and while personally ambitious his care for the public interest was genuine and untiring.
By his first wife Durham had three daughters; by his second, who was a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria but resigned on her husband’s return from Canada, he had two sons and three daughters. The eldest son, Charles William, the “Master Lambton” of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s celebrated picture, died in 1831; the second, George Frederick d’Arcy (1828-1879), succeeded his father as 2nd earl of Durham. The latter’s son, John George Lambton (b. 1855), became 3rd earl in 1879.