Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adam, William (1751-1839)
ADAM, WILLIAM (1751–1839), politician and lord chief commissioner of the Scottish jury court, son of John Adam, architect, of Maryburgh, Kinross, who died in 1792, and nephew of Robert and James Adam [see Adam, James, (d. 1794), and Adam, Robert, 1728–1792], was born 2 Aug. 1751. He was called to the Scottish bar in 1773, and at the general election in the following year, before he had begun to practise, was returned to parliament for the now disfranchised borough of Gatton, in Surrey. For some time he was careful to mark his independence of both political parties; but at the beginning of the session of 1779 he definitely pledged his allegiance to Lord North, declaring that ‘although the ministers were not very competent, no persons more competent were to be found among their opponents.’ At the beginning of the November session in the year just named, Fox, in the course of his speech on the address, said he could imagine the prime minister turning round on his new defender and saying to him, ‘Begone! begone, wretch! who delightest in libelling mankind, confounding virtue with vice, and insulting the man whom thou pretendest to defend by saying to his face that he certainly is infamous, but that there are others still more infamous.’ The result of this hyperbole was a duel in Hyde Park (29 Nov.), when a good deal of courtesy and two pistol-shots were exchanged. Fox was slightly wounded, and his friends said that he might be thankful that Adam had only used government powder. It was insinuated out of doors that a deliberate attempt had been made to get rid of the whig leader, who about this time was at the height of his popularity. The idea was jocosely embodied in a doggerel poem, printed a few months later under the title of ‘Paradise Regain'd,’ where Satan, disguised as Cerberus, is represented as tempting Adam to remove his enemy the Fox, who had begun to encroach upon his domain. The poem concludes with ‘the joy of the Israelites’ at the survival of Fox:
The annu'tant fervent,
The broker not less joyful; nor was Brookes,
Kenny, or Goostree less in thanksgiving.
In the course of the following year Adam was appointed treasurer of the ordnance, and at the general election of 1780, transferring his candidature to the Wigton burghs, he was returned by that constituency as a supporter of Lord North. After their duel Fox and Adam became intimate friends; and Earl Russell, referring to this fact in his ‘Life and Times of C. J. Fox,’ says: ‘Mr. Adam had that openness of temper and cordiality of disposition which peculiarly suited Mr. Fox.’ Other testimony exists as to the urbanity and probity of Adam's character. During Lord Shelburne's administration (1782–3) he took a leading part in negotiating the coalition between North and Fox, and Shelburne, though he knew of this, came to him on one occasion as to a man ‘beloved by all parties.’ In the ‘Rolliad’ Dundas writes in his hypothetical journal: ‘Our lawyers somehow don't answer—Adam and Anstruther worth them all—can't they be bought?—Scotchmen!—damned strange if they can't.—Mem. to tell Rose to sound them. Adam severe on me and the rest that have betrayed Lord North.’ The fact is that Adam was almost alone in maintaining his allegiance to North and Fox. When the French revolution converted most of his friends into supporters of Pitt, and Fox was more and more isolated every year, Adam was one of the staunchest followers of the man to whom his bullet had been so nearly fatal. Meanwhile, he had been called to the English bar in 1782, and family reasons soon compelled him to devote much of his time to the practice of his profession. He had a wife and children; his uncles, whose wealth and influence had assisted him at the outset of his career, were now involved in misfortunes; his father, owing to the same cause, could do little or nothing for him. The treasurership which had been conferred on him by North was forfeited when North quitted office; and, though he regained it for a few months in 1783, the fall of the coalition again deprived him of it. Under these circumstances Adam's legal knowledge and acumen, aided by tact and industry, stood him in good stead. He figured henceforth chiefly as a legal member of parliament. In 1788 (having in the meantime been returned for the Elgin burghs) he was appointed one of the managers of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and on 15 April he opened the second charge—that relating to the Begams of Oude—in an exhaustive and ornate speech before the House of Lords. In the course of his peroration he said: ‘My lords, I accuse Warren Hastings of nothing but what the law in every man's breast condemns, what the light of nature condemns, the light of common reason and the light of common society, those principles that pervade the globe, those principles that must influence the actions of all created beings, those principles that never can vary in any clime or in any latitude.’ In 1790 he found a fourth seat in parliament as member for Ross-shire, and took a somewhat active part in the opposition to Pitt. In 1794 he moved an address to the throne praying it to interpose the royal justice and clemency in behalf of Thomas Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, a barrister and a clergyman, who had been convicted of ‘leasing making,’ and sentenced to fourteen and seven years' penal servitude respectively. The Scottish law allowed no appeal from the court of justiciary, and Adam's motion was unsuccessful. Shortly after this he retired from parliament, having been appointed auditor to the Duke of Bedford; and in 1796 he took silk. In 1803 he was asked by the duke to obtain the withdrawal of certain unfounded charges made against the former duke in a pamphlet by John Bowles; and a correspondence is extant between Adam and Bowles on this subject—the letters of the former being dated from Lincoln's Inn, and subsequently from Woburn Abbey. In the year 1806 Adam (who was now attorney-general to the Prince of Wales, and keeper of the great seal for the Duchy of Cornwall) was again returned to parliament as member for Kincardineshire; and in 1807 for the county of Kinross. He was engaged to act as a trustee for the Duke of York in certain private matters; and in 1809 he made a speech in the house defending his conduct in the course of an inquiry relative to the duke's connection with Mrs. Clarke. Two years later he spoke frequently during the debates on Burdett's famous letter to his constituents, which the house declared libellous and scandalous. When Burdett brought his actions against the speaker and the sergeant, Adam was appointed in his absence on a select committee to consider the proceedings which should be taken, but he refused to attend the meetings. He had previously been defeated in moving that Burdett should be summoned to attend in his place and receive the reprimand of the speaker for his letter, as an amendment to the motion for committal; and he was again in a minority on a motion that it should be ‘a high breach of the privileges of the House of Commons’ to bring an action against any of its officers for ‘proceedings taken in obedience to the directions of the house.’ This was his last transaction of any importance in parliament. He was appointed a privy councillor in 1815, and lord chief commissioner of the Scottish jury court in 1816; and he also held the appointments of lord lieutenant of Kinross-shire, counsellor of state to the prince regent in Scotland, and counsel to the East India Company. He was an intimate friend of Sir Walter Scott. He died at the age of 87, on 17 Feb. 1839.
Adam had married, in 1776, Eleanora, daughter of the tenth Lord Elphinstone, by whom he had four sons. The eldest, John Adam, became acting governor-general of India, and died in 1825, soon after the expiration of his term of office. The second, Sir Charles Adam, was the admiral already noticed. The third, William George, succeeded his father as auditor to the Duke of Bedford. The fourth, Lieutenant-general the right hon. Sir Frederick Adam, G.C.B., was lord high commissioner of the Ionian Isles. Chief Commissioner Adam published, in addition to the speeches and letters mentioned above, ‘A Description and Representation of the Mural Monument in Calcutta Cathedral to the memory of John Adam, designed and executed by Richard Westmacott, R.A.’ (1827); ‘Remarks on the Blair Adam Estate,’ 1834; ‘The Ragman's Rolls’ (edited, in conjunction with Sir Samuel Shepherd, for the Bannatyne Club, 1834); and a volume on the Scottish jury system.[Earl Russell's Life and Times of C. J. Fox; Paradise Regain'd, or the Battle of Adam and the Fox (1780); The Rolliad; Bond's Speeches of the Managers and Counsel in the Trial of Warren Hastings, vol. i.; Correspondence between Mr. Adam and Mr. Bowles, respecting the attack of the latter on the character of the late Duke of Bedford (1803); Gent. Mag., May 1839; Life by G. L. Craik in the Dictionary of the S. D. U. K. (based on information specially communicated); Lockhart's Life of Scott, ch. 50; and various speeches published by Adam in his lifetime.]