Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adolphus, John (1768-1845)

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ADOLPHUS, JOHN (1768–1845), barrister-at-law, historical and miscellaneous writer, born 7 Aug. 1768, was of German extraction. His grandfather had been domestic physician to Frederick the Great, and wrote a French romance, ‘Histoire des Diables Modernes,’ which is in Watt's ‘Bibliotheca Britannica’ wrongly ascribed to the grandson. His father lived for a time in London on the liberality of a wealthy uncle, who provided the son with education, and sent him at the age of fifteen to be placed in the office of his agent for some estates in St. Kitts. Adolphus's chief occupation was attendance at the sittings of the one law court of the island, and in little more than a year he returned to London. His great-uncle was dead, having left him a sum which would not support him while studying for the law, but enabled him to be articled to an attorney. He was admitted an attorney in 1790, but after a few years abandoned his profession for literature. In 1793 he married Miss Leycester, a lady ‘of good family and little fortune.’ He acquired the friendship of Archdeacon Coxe by helping him in the ‘Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole.’ In 1799 appeared his first acknowledged work, ‘Biographical Memoirs of the French Revolution,’ strongly anti-Jacobin in tone, and in this, as in other points, differing widely from the ‘Biographical Anecdotes of the Founders of the French Republic,’ published anonymously in 1797, and often but erroneously ascribed to Adolphus. He wrote the memoirs in the ‘British Cabinet’ (1799), a series of portraits of more or less distinguished Englishmen and Englishwomen, from Margaret of Richmond to the second Lord Hardwicke. In 1802 appeared his chief work, the ‘History of England from the Accession of George III to the Conclusion of Peace in 1783.’ It conveyed in a vigorous and perspicuous, if sometimes rather inflated style, the results of considerable industry; and though avowedly written in what would now be called a conservative spirit, Adolphus was praised in No. 2 of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ ‘for perfect impartiality in narrating events and in collecting information.’ Among its merits was the excellence of its summaries of parliamentary debates. The papers of Lord Melcombe (Bubb Dodington) had been placed at Adolphus's disposal in the preparation of his history, and they enabled him to throw light on the conduct of Lord Bute, and on the political transactions of the earlier years of the reign of George III, who, in conversation, expressed his surprise at the accuracy with which some of the first measures taken after his accession had been described (George Rose's Diaries and Correspondence (1860), ii. 189).

The success of the history and the friendly offices of Archdeacon Coxe brought Adolphus into close connection with Addington, then prime minister, who gave him (Henderson's Recollections, p. 98) ‘a handsome salary’ for political services which included energetic electioneering and occasional pamphleteering. In 1803 Adolphus published a ‘History of France’ from 1790 to the abortive peace of Amiens, and a pamphlet, ‘Reflections on the Causes of the present Rupture with France,’ in vindication of the policy of the English government. On the authority of his son is to be assigned to him ‘A Letter to Robert’ [Plumer] ‘Ward, Esq., M.P.,’ occasioned by his pamphlet entitled ‘A View of the relative Situations of Mr. Pitt and Mr. Addington,’ issued in 1804, a defence of Addington when Pitt had gone into opposition. Adolphus had meanwhile entered himself at the Inner Temple, and in 1807 he was called to the bar. He joined the home circuit, and devoted himself specially to the criminal branch of the law. At the Old Bailey he worked his way to the leadership, which he retained for many years. The first of his more notable forensic successes was his very able defence in 1820 of Thistlewood and the other Cato Street conspirators. Among the cases in which he subsequently distinguished himself were the trials of Thurtell, Greenacre, and Courvoisier. In 1818 he published, in four volumes, ‘The Political State of the British Empire, containing a general view of the domestic and foreign possessions of the crown, the laws, commerce, revenue, offices, and other establishments, civil and military;’ in 1824, ‘Observations on the Vagrant Act and some other Statutes, and on the Powers and Duties of Justices of the Peace,’ in the main a protest against some ‘grandmotherly’ legislation of the time; and in 1839 ‘Memoirs of John Banister,’ the comedian, with whom he had been personally intimate. His history had gone through four editions when, in his seventieth year, Adolphus began the task of continuing it to the death of George III. Vol. I. was re-issued in 1840, ‘printed for the author,’ and with a long list of subscribers from the queen and members of the royal family downwards. Vol. VII., closing with the fall of the Addington administration, appeared in 1845, and Adolphus was working at the eighth volume when, within a few weeks of entering his seventy-eighth year, he died on 16 July 1845. Besides the works already mentioned he wrote several chapters of Rivington's ‘Annual Register’ and papers for the ‘British Critic.’ His latest contributions to periodical literature were biographical sketches of Barons Garrow and Gurney for the ‘Law Magazine.’ The anonymous ‘Memoirs of Queen Caroline’ (London, 2 vols., 1824) have been ascribed to him (Notes and Queries, 5th series, iv. 283–4).

[Recollections of the Public Career and Private Life of J. A., with extracts from his diaries, by his daughter, Emily Henderson (1871); The late John Adolphus, a letter from his son, John Leycester Adolphus, to the editor of Fraser's Magazine (July 1862) (being a commentary on the Sketch of Adolphus in the number for May 1862, by An Old Apprentice of the Law; Editors and Newspaper and Periodical Writers of the Last Generation); Memoir in Gentleman's Magazine for Sept. 1845; Law Magazine (1846), xxxiv. 54, &c., Mr. Adolphus and his Contemporaries at the Old Bailey.]

F. E.