Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, James (1746-1820)

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HARRIS, JAMES, first Earl of Malmesbury (1746–1820), diplomatist, of a Wiltshire family long settled at Orcheston St. George, eldest son of James Harris [q. v.], author of ‘Hermes,’ by his wife, Elizabeth Clarke, was born at his father's house in the Close, Salisbury, 21 April 1746. At four years of age he went to a dame's school, and after three years to the Salisbury grammar school. Thence he went to Winchester College, where he remained until September 1762. After some time spent in London with his father, then a lord of the treasury, he went in June 1763 to Merton College, Oxford, where he idled away two years as a gentleman-commoner, in the company of Charles James Fox and William Eden. At the end of the summer term 1765 he left Oxford and went in September to Leyden, where he spent a year in serious study, and in mastering the Dutch language. Here he began the ‘Diary,’ which he kept very fully for the greater part of his life. In 1766 he returned to England for a few months, and in 1767 travelled in Holland, Prussia, Poland, and France. He was then, through the influence of Lord Shelburne, appointed secretary of embassy at Madrid, with a salary of 800l., and in the absence of the ambassador, Sir James Grey, was left in August 1769 chargé d'affaires. In August 1770 he heard of the expedition fitting out at Buenos Ayres against the Falkland Islands, and ventured, on his own responsibility, to take so high a tone with the Spanish minister, the Marquis Grimaldi, that the attempt was abandoned. In December, however, war seemed so nearly inevitable that he had actually been recalled, and had left Madrid, when at twenty leagues' distance he met a courier with the news that the Spanish government had yielded, and that he might return. His conduct in this affair gained him great credit. He was nominated minister plenipotentiary on 22 Feb. 1771, and, returning to England in the summer, was appointed to Berlin, where he arrived in February 1772. In Sept. 1776 he gave up his mission, and returned to England. In 1777 he became ambassador to the court of Catherine II at St. Petersburg, where he struggled against the hostility of Prussia and the duplicity of the empress. In December 1778 he was made a knight of the Bath, and received his knighthood from the empress on 20 March 1779. The climate injured his health (1782). From 1770 to 1774 and from 1780 until he was summoned to the upper house in 1788 he was M.P. for Christchurch. He was a strong whig and a great admirer of Fox, and was appointed by the Rockingham ministry (in April 1783) to the ministry at the Hague, an inferior but a very responsible position. Harris accepted, and left Russia in August. The dismissal of the ministry suspended his appointment, and, in spite of his support of Fox in the House of Commons, after his fall from December 1783 to February 1784, Pitt renewed the offer, in recognition of his great diplomatic abilities, and in December 1784 he proceeded to Holland, with the rank of minister, but with the salary and appointments of an ambassador. At the time of leaving Russia he had expended 20,000l. out of his private fortune. At the Hague he found the Bourbons encouraging the Dutch democratic party, and holding out hopes of the creation of a Dutch republic. He used his influence on the side of the stadtholder so successfully that ‘he may be said to have created, fostered, and matured a counter-revolution, which restored to the stadtholder his power.’ ‘Ce rusé et audacieux Harris,’ as Mirabeau calls him (Cour de Berlin, ii. 13), often resorted to extreme expedients to gain information. On one occasion he bribed a royal valet to exclude a rival for twenty-four hours from the king's closet, and on another he arranged a series of disguises for a messenger whom he sent from the Hague (September 1785) to deliver a message to Cornwallis in Berlin (Cornwallis Correspondence, i. 193). From March to July 1785 he was in England on leave, and carried an overture from Pitt to the Prince of Wales in regard to the settlement of the prince's debts. He formed the design of an alliance of England with Holland and Prussia, and, having obtained some support for it in Berlin, and opened it to Lord Carmarthen, he, on 29 May 1787, visited England, and was present at two cabinet meetings to urge it on the ministry. He received 20,000l. of secret service money with which to promote it in Holland. Eventually he succeeded, and having been appointed ambassador on 14 March 1788, he signed the treaty on 15 April. On 19 Sept. he was created Baron Malmesbury, and also received the Prussian order of the Black Eagle.

After a short visit to Switzerland he returned to England in the autumn of 1788, and constantly voted against Pitt in the divisions upon the regency restrictions. Lord Sidney (ib. i. 409) alleges that he had previously made a private offer of his support to Pitt, but the charge seems groundless. Till 1793, except for a short visit to Italy in 1792, he remained in England in close connection with Fox and his political friends, and also in the intimacy of the Prince of Wales, whom, at two interviews, 4 and 7 June 1792, he succeeded in dissuading from his scheme of annoying his father by retiring to the continent. In 1793 he, with the ‘old whigs,’ left Fox, and on 30 Nov. of the same year Pitt sent him to Berlin to impress on King Frederick William his treaty obligations to England in the French war. Although he procured another treaty in 1794 for Prussian aid in men to the allies in return for English payments of money, he failed to keep the Prussian king to his engagements, and was recalled on 24 Oct. He was then employed to solicit for the Prince of Wales the hand of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, acted as the prince's proxy at the ceremony in Germany, and escorted the princess to England. The prince never forgave him even this official share in bringing about the match. At the end of October 1796 he was sent to Paris to negotiate terms of peace, but being instructed to insist on the restoration of the Low Countries to the emperor, he was unsuccessful. The attempt was, however, renewed in 1797, and on 3 July he was sent to Lille, but the occurrences of the 18th Fructidor removed all hopes of peace, and on 18 Sept. he left for England. With this mission, although Pitt offered him another in 1800 which never took place, his public life closed. At that time he was undoubtedly at the head of the diplomatic service, but he considered himself incapacitated by his great and increasing deafness. On 29 Dec. 1800 he was created Earl of Malmesbury and Viscount Fitzharris. He continued in close intimacy with Canning and Pitt, and was often engaged as a negotiator in the political transactions of his time. He was also frequently consulted on questions of foreign policy by them and by the Duke of Portland. He warmly supported and assisted Canning in his plan for requesting Addington in 1802 to give way to Pitt, but on 21 Nov. Pitt came to him at Bath and put an end to the project. In July 1803 he was sounded about entering the cabinet, but he refused to join Addington. There was afterwards some prospect of his succeeding Lord Harrowby at the foreign office. He is said to have encouraged the king in his resistance to Lord Howick's catholic policy, but he now withdrew more and more into private life. In July 1807 he refused the governorship of the Isle of Wight, but accepted the lieutenancy of Hampshire, and was sworn in 12 Aug. From this year until his death he passed his time between London and Park Place, Henley. He died in Hill Street, Mayfair, on 21 Nov. 1820, of old age, and was buried in Salisbury Cathedral, where a monument by Chantrey was subsequently erected. Talleyrand said of him: ‘Je crois que Lord Malmesbury était le plus habile Ministre que vous aviez de son temps; c'était inutile de le devancer; il falloit le suivre de près.’ When young he was very handsome, and his brilliant eyes and white hair gained him in old age the name of ‘The Lion.’ There are portraits of him by Reynolds in middle life, and by Lawrence in 1815, both engraved in the edition of his letters and diaries published by his grandson in 1844, which forms one of the most valuable memoirs of his time. His letters to his family were published in 1870. He himself published an edition of his father's works, with a prefatory memoir in 1801. He married, 28 July 1777, Harriet Mary, youngest daughter of Sir George Amyand, bart., by whom he had two sons, James Edward, second earl (father of James Howard Harris [q. v.], third earl, and of Charles Amyand Harris [q. v.], bishop of Gibraltar), and Thomas Alfred, prebendary of York, and two daughters.

[Lord Malmesbury's Diaries and Correspondence and Letters to his Family; Diaries of Lord Auckland and Lord Colchester; Stanhope's Life of Pitt.]

J. A. H.