1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jeffrey, Francis Jeffrey, Lord
JEFFREY, FRANCIS JEFFREY, Lord (1773–1850), Scottish judge and literary critic, son of a depute-clerk in the Court of Session, was born at Edinburgh on the 23rd of October 1773. After attending the high school for six years, he studied at the university of Glasgow from 1787 to May 1789, and at Queen’s College, Oxford, from September 1791 to June 1792. He had begun the study of law at Edinburgh before going to Oxford, and now resumed his studies there. He became a member of the speculative society, where he measured himself in debate with Scott, Brougham, Francis Horner, the marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Kinnaird and others. He was admitted to the Scotch bar in December 1794, but, having abandoned the Tory principles in which he had been educated, he found that his Whig politics seriously prejudiced his legal prospects. In consequence of his lack of success at the bar he went to London in 1798 to try his fortune as a journalist, but without success; he also made more than one vain attempt to obtain an office which would have secured him the advantage of a small but fixed salary. His marriage with Catherine Wilson in 1801 made the question of a settled income even more pressing. A project for a new review was brought forward by Sydney Smith in Jeffrey’s flat in the presence of H. P. Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham), Francis Horner and others; and the scheme resulted in the appearance on the 10th of October 1802 of the first number of the Edinburgh Review. At the outset the Review was not under the charge of any special editor. The first three numbers were, however, practically edited by Sydney Smith, and on his leaving for England the work devolved chiefly on Jeffrey, who, by an arrangement with Constable, the publisher, was eventually appointed editor at a fixed salary. Most of those associated in the undertaking were Whigs; but, although the general bias of the Review was towards social and political reforms, it was at first so little of a party organ that for a time it numbered Sir Walter Scott among its contributors; and no distinct emphasis was given to its political leanings until the publication in 1808 of an article by Jeffrey himself on the work of Don Pedro Cevallos on the French Usurpation of Spain. This article expressed despair of the success of the British arms in Spain, and Scott at once withdrew his subscription, the Quarterly being soon afterwards started in opposition. According to Lord Cockburn the effect of the first number of the Edinburgh Review was “electrical.” The English reviews were at that time practically publishers’ organs, the articles in which were written by hackwriters instructed to praise or blame according to the publishers’ interests. Few men of any standing consented to write for them. The Edinburgh Review, on the other hand, enlisted a brilliant and independent staff of contributors, guided by the editor, not the publisher. They received sixteen guineas a sheet (sixteen printed pages), increased subsequently to twenty-five guineas in many cases, instead of the two guineas which formed the ordinary London reviewer’s fee. Further, the review was not limited to literary criticism. It constituted itself the accredited organ of moderate Whig public opinion. The particular work which provided the starting-point of an article was in many cases merely the occasion for the exposition, always brilliant and incisive, of the author’s views on politics, social subjects, ethics or literature. These general principles and the novelty of the method ensured the success of the undertaking even after the original circle of exceptionally able men who founded it had been dispersed. It had a circulation, great for those days, of 12,000 copies. The period of Jeffrey’s editorship extended to about twenty-six years, ceasing with the ninety-eighth number, published in June 1829, when he resigned in favour of Macvey Napier.
Jeffrey’s own contributions, according to a list which has the sanction of his authority, numbered two hundred, all except six being written before his resignation of the editorship. Jeffrey wrote with great rapidity, at odd moments of leisure and with little special preparation. Great fluency and ease of diction, considerable warmth of imagination and moral sentiment, and a sharp eye to discover any oddity of style or violation of the accepted canons of good taste, made his criticisms pungent and effective. But the essential narrowness and timidity of his general outlook prevented him from detecting and estimating latent forces, either in politics or in matters strictly intellectual and moral; and this lack of understanding and sympathy accounts for his distrust and dislike of the passion and fancy of Shelley and Keats, and for his praise of the half-hearted and elegant romanticism of Rogers and Campbell. (For his treatment of the lake poets see Wordsworth, William.)
A criticism in the fifteenth number of the Review on the morality of Moore’s poems led in 1806 to a duel between the two authors at Chalk Farm. The proceedings were stopped by the police, and Jeffrey’s pistol was found to contain no bullet. The affair led to a warm friendship, however, and Moore contributed to the Review, while Jeffrey made ample amends in a later article on Lalla Rookh (1817).
Jeffrey’s wife had died in 1805, and in 1810 he became acquainted with Charlotte, daughter of Charles Wilkes of New York, and great-niece of John Wilkes. When she returned to America, Jeffrey followed her, and they were married in 1813. Before returning to England they visited several of the chief American cities, and his experience strengthened Jeffrey in the conciliatory policy he had before advocated towards the States. Notwithstanding the increasing success of the Review, Jeffrey always continued to look to the bar as the chief field of his ambition. As a matter of fact, his literary reputation helped his professional advancement. His practice extended rapidly in the civil and criminal courts, and he regularly appeared before the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, where his work, though not financially profitable, increased his reputation. As an advocate his sharpness and rapidity of insight gave him a formidable advantage in the detection of the weaknesses of a witness and the vulnerable points of his opponent’s case, while he grouped his own arguments with an admirable eye to effect, especially excelling in eloquent closing appeals to a jury. Jeffrey was twice, in 1820 and 1822, elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow. In 1829 he was chosen dean of the faculty of advocates. On the return of the Whigs to power in 1830 he became lord advocate, and entered parliament as member for the Perth burghs. He was unseated, and afterwards returned for Malton, a borough in the interest of Lord Fitzwilliam. After the passing of the Scottish Reform Bill, which he introduced in parliament, he was returned for Edinburgh in December 1832. His parliamentary career, which, though not brilliantly successful, had won him high general esteem, was terminated by his elevation to the judicial bench as Lord Jeffrey in May 1834. In 1842 he was moved to the first division of the Court of Session. On the disruption of the Scottish Church he took the side of the seceders, giving a judicial opinion in their favour, afterwards reversed by the house of lords. He died at Edinburgh on the 26th of January 1850.
Some of his contributions to the Edinburgh Review appeared in four volumes in 1844 and 1845. This selection includes the essay on “Beauty” contributed to the Ency. Brit. The Life of Lord Jeffrey, with a Selection from his Correspondence, by Lord Cockburn, appeared in 1852 in 2 vols. See also the Selected Correspondence of Macvey Napier (1877); the sketch of Jeffrey in Carlyle’s Reminiscences, vol. ii. (1881); and an essay by Lewis E. Gates in Three Studies in Literature (New York, 1899).