Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephen, James (1758-1832)

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STEPHEN, JAMES (1758–1832), master in chancery, born on 30 June 1758 at Poole in Dorset, was the son of James Stephen, born about 1733. The elder Stephen came from Aberdeenshire, and was supercargo of a ship wrecked about 1752 on Purbeck Island. Stephen was hospitably received by Mr. Milner, collector of customs at Poole, and soon afterwards privately married to Milner's youngest daughter, Sibella. He was reconciled to her family and taken into partnership by her brother, but, after some unfortunate speculations at Poole, got into the king's bench prison. He there obtained some notoriety by writing pamphlets to show that imprisonment for debt was contrary to Magna Charta and by organising an agitation in the prison. The benchers of the Middle Temple refused afterwards to call him to the bar, and he was employed in the business of a solicitor. He fell into difficulties, lost his wife in 1775, and died in poverty in 1779.

The younger James had a desultory education during his father's struggles. He was a precocious lad, and when fourteen fell in love with Anne Stent, sister of a schoolfellow. Their correspondence was forbidden, and, with the help of an uncle, he was in 1773 sent for a short time to Winchester school. The help of other relatives enabled him to pass two sessions, in 1775–6 and 1777–8, at Marischal College, Aberdeen. He returned to London, helped his father's last struggles, and supported himself for a time as reporter to the ‘Morning Post.’ He now persuaded Miss Stent to accept him and throw over another engagement, in spite of her father's disapproval. A simultaneous love affair with another girl brought him into serious perplexities, which caused a breach with Miss Stent. Meanwhile a brother of his father, who was settled as a physician and planter at St. Christopher's, had taken his elder brother, William, into partnership. The uncle died in 1781, leaving all his property to William. William hereupon sent funds which enabled James to be called to the bar (26 Jan. 1782), and next year to sail for St. Christopher's. Miss Stent had finally relented, in spite of the other young woman, and married him before his departure.

Stephen touched at Barbados on his way out, and was shocked at the brutality shown to some negroes on their trial for murder. He made and kept a vow that he would have nothing to do with slavery. Later incidents strengthened the impression. At St. Christopher's he practised at the bar. There was a good deal of legal business arising from the regulation of the trade between the West Indies and the United States. He earned enough to be able to visit England in the winter of 1788–9. He put himself in communication with Wilberforce, who was starting the agitation against the slave trade, and, after returning to the West Indies, sent private information to support the cause. In 1794 he returned to England and obtained practice at the prize appeal court of the privy council, where for some years he had a large share of the leading business.

Stephen had upon his return openly identified himself with the agitation against the slave trade. His wife died in 1796; and Wilberforce's kindness upon the occasion brought the two into closer familiarity, which was increased by Stephen's marriage in 1800 to Wilberforce's sister, widow of the Rev. Dr. Clarke of Hull. Stephen had also accepted the religious views of his allies, and was henceforward one of the most active of Wilberforce's supporters. His ardent temperament led him to regard the abolition of the slave trade as the one great aim of his life, and he was inclined to reproach his leader for attending to anything else. He made his chief mark, however, by a pamphlet called ‘War in Disguise,’ published in 1805, to denounce the evasions of our regulations by neutral traders. His experience at the English and colonial bar had made him familiar with the facts. The pamphlet produced a great effect, and was supposed to have suggested the orders in council, the first of which were made in 1807. Brougham calls him the ‘father’ of the system thus adopted. Perceval, with whom he sympathised on religious and political grounds, wished to bring him into parliament to support the government policy. He was elected for Tralee on 21 Feb. 1808, and in the parliament of 1812 sat for East Grinstead.

In parliament Stephen was chiefly known as defender of the orders in council. His want of education and his fiery temper prevented him from doing justice to considerable natural powers of eloquence. He spoke, however, occasionally with much effect, especially (12 March 1810) upon a proposal which had been made by the benchers of Lincoln's Inn to exclude from the bar any one who had written in a newspaper. Stephen excited admiration by frankly confessing that he had himself been guilty of journalism, and the rule was withdrawn. He steadily defended the government against Brougham's attack in the matter of the orders in council. He never lost sight of the slavery question, and spoke with great energy upon various points which arose after the abolition of the slave trade. The refusal of government to take up a measure for the registration of slaves induced him to retire from parliament; and, in spite of many entreaties, he accepted the Chiltern Hundreds on 14 April 1815.

Stephen had been appointed master in chancery in 1811, having, it was said, a claim in consequence of the diminution of his practice due to the orders in council. He lived for many years in Kensington Gore, where Wilberforce was his neighbour; and from 1819 had a small house at Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where the name ‘Wilberforce's Walk’ commemorates the visits of his brother-in-law. The second Mrs. Stephen died in 1816. Her widower and brother kept up their intimacy to the end; and Stephen to the last took a prominent part in the agitation for the abolition of slavery. He wrote an elaborate treatise upon West Indian laws and practice, and was a leading member of the society which carried on the agitation. Failure of health forced him to resign his mastership in 1831, and he died at Bath on 10 Oct. 1832. He was buried at Newington Green, by the side of his parents and his first wife. Wilberforce had promised to be buried there too, but was claimed by Westminster Abbey.

Stephen was a handsome man, and a very active worker till his last years. In early years he had been a liberal, and thought of joining Washington. In later life he became a tory and an evangelical; and he was one of the most ardent and devoted adherents of the party which became known as the ‘Clapham Sect.’ He left six children by his first wife: William, for nearly sixty years vicar of Bledlow, Buckinghamshire, who died on 8 Jan. 1867; Henry John [q. v.]; Sir James (1789–1859) [q. v.]; Sibella (1792–1869), who married W. A. Garratt, barrister; Sir George [q. v.]; and Anne Mary (1796–1878), who married Thomas Edward Dicey, and was mother of Mr. Edward Dicey and Professor Albert Venn Dicey.

James Stephen's chief works are ‘War in Disguise’ (1805, several editions) and ‘Slavery in the British West India Colonies delineated’ (vol. i. 1824, and vol. ii. 1830). He wrote also a number of pamphlets, the first of which, called ‘The Crisis of the Sugar Colonies,’ appeared in 1802. In 1815 he published ‘Reasons for establishing a Registry of Slaves …,’ a report drawn by him of a committee of the African Institution, and, it is said, three other pamphlets. A series of letters addressed to the allied sovereigns at Aix-la-Chapelle, and published in the ‘New Times,’ was translated into French and published in 1818. Another pamphlet (n.d.) about 1821 is ‘Strictures on the Charge of Cannibalism on the African Race,’ and in 1826 he published ‘England enslaved by her own Slave Colonies.’ Others were apparently anonymous, and cannot now be identified. [Family papers; L. Stephen's Life of Sir J. F. Stephen, pp. 1-24; Life of the late James Stephen, by his son, Sir George Stephen, 1875; Jottings from Memory,, by Sir Alfred Stephen (printed privately, 1880 and 1891); Wilberforce's Life and Letters, and Colquhoun's Wilberforce: his Friends and his Times, 1880, pp. 180-96; Robert's Hannah Hare (letters); Brougham's Speeches, 1838, i. 402—14. quoted also in Sir J. Stephen's essay 'The Clapham Sect;' Henry Adams's History of the United States, 1891, iii. 50-2, &c.; Walpole's Life of Perceval.]

L. S.