Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sinclair, John (1754-1835)

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SINCLAIR, Sir JOHN (1754–1835), first president of the board of agriculture, was born on 10 May 1754 at Thurso Castle, Caithness. He was the third but eldest surviving son of George Sinclair of Ulbster, whose ancestors had held the earldoms of Caithness and Orkney (see Morrison's History of the Sinclair Family in Europe and America, 8vo, Boston, Mass., 1896). John's mother was Lady Janet Sutherland, sister of William, earl of Sutherland.

John was educated at the high school of Edinburgh, and at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Oxford, where he matriculated as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College on 26 Jan. 1775. He read for the law, though with no intention of practising, and in the same year became a member of the faculty of advocates at Edinburgh. In November 1774 he entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1782 he was called to the English bar.

At the age of sixteen he inherited by his father's death extensive estates in Caithness, part of the domains of the old earldom of Caithness. He at once began improvements, the chief of which was the construction, in one day, of a road across the mountain of Ben Cheilt, hitherto supposed impassable. For a boy of eighteen this was ‘a striking example of courage and energy,’ but tinged with a love of empty display, characteristic of all his achievements. As he himself admits, ‘a road made so rapidly could not be durable’ (Corresp. i. xx).

On 26 March 1776 Sinclair married Sarah, daughter of Alexander Maitland; and in 1780 he became member of parliament for Caithness. Almost his first political action was to volunteer to second the address at the opening of the session of 1781, an offer politely refused by Lord North. Sinclair then made an abortive attempt to form a clique of his own. He devoted considerable attention to naval affairs, which formed the subject of his maiden speech and of one of his earliest pamphlets. The even balance of parties towards the close of North's administration gave considerable influence to independent members, and in 1782 Sinclair obtained a grant of 15,000l. towards the relief of a serious famine in the north of Scotland. Although his attitude as a party politician was never very decisive, he was through life an ardent advocate of parliamentary reform (Lucubrations during a Short Recess, 1782; Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1831), and he was so strongly in favour of peace with America and France as to suggest the expediency of surrendering Gibraltar (Propriety of retaining Gibraltar considered, 1783). Caithness having only alternate representation with Bute, Sinclair contested Kirkwall unsuccessfully against Fox at the election of 1784; but he secured the seat for Lostwithiel in Cornwall.

In 1785 Sinclair lost his first wife, and, abandoning public life for a time, started on a foreign tour, in the course of which he met Necker and Buffon. Next year he made a seven months' journey through the north of Europe. He visited the courts of most of the northern states, and had audiences with Gustavus III of Sweden, the Empress Catherine of Russia, Stanislaus, king of Poland, and the Emperor Joseph. Shortly after his return Sinclair married (6 March 1788) Diana, the daughter of Lord Macdonald, by whom he had a numerous family.

On 14 Feb. 1786 his attachment to Pitt had been rewarded by a baronetcy, together with the almost unique privilege that the patent should include the male posterity of his daughters in case of his dying without an heir (Mem. i. 130). But disagreements with the minister followed. Sinclair disapproved of Pitt's plan for a commercial union with Ireland and of some points in his East India Bill, and he regarded several of the taxes for defraying the interest of the funded debt as ill-advised and impolitic. On the impeachnent of Warren Hastings, and subsequently on the regency question, he openly opposed Pitt, and attempted to form a third party. Of this party, known at the time as the ‘armed neutrality,’ the chief members were, besides Sinclair, Lord Rawdon, John (afterwards Baron) Rolle [q. v.], and Sir John Macpherson [q. v.], formerly governor-general of India.

Meanwhile, as president of a special committee of the Highland Society, Sinclair had been investigating the comparative merits of the wool of different breeds of sheep, and especially of the Shetland flocks. He went further, and inaugurated the British Wool Society at a grand sheep-shearing festival held on 1 July 1791 at Newhalls Inn, Queensferry. To Sinclair belongs the credit of initiating those sheep-shearings which were developed by Francis Russell, fifth duke of Bedford, Coke of Holkham, Lord Somerville, and Curwen of Workington. The collection of statistics was another subject to which Sinclair devoted much energy. He was one of our earliest statisticians, and it was he who first introduced into the language the words ‘statistics’ and ‘statistical.’ In 1790, following to some extent on the track already marked out by Sir Robert Sibbald, Lord Kames, Dr. Webster, Dr. John Campbell, William Smellie [q. v.], and others (Public Characters, i. 40), he designed a ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ He memorialised all the parish ministers of Scotland for information on the natural history, population, and productions of their parishes. The result of these inquiries was published at various periods during the next ten years, and the value of the work was recognised by Jeremy Bentham, Malthus, and Washington. It seems to have encouraged, if not suggested, the idea of a general census. ‘While we smile at his harmless egotism,’ says a writer in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ ‘we are free to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe him, who, from men of various qualifications, sometimes indisposed, oftener inert, extracted a really unparalleled mass of statistical information’ (see Quarterly Review, 1847, lxxxii. 355–6).

Despite his public engagements, Sinclair contrived to give much time and trouble to the improvement of his extensive estates in Caithness. The land there was still to a large extent cultivated on the primitive ‘open-field’ system, known in the highlands of Scotland as the ‘rig and rennel’ method. Many of the feudal services, and even the name of thirlage (thraldom), still survived. These were abolished by Sinclair, and an improved method of tillage was introduced by him, founded on a regular rotation of crops and the cultivation of turnips, clover, and rye-grass. He also improved the breeds of live stock, encouraged sheep-farming, and introduced Cheviot sheep into Caithness. He planted trees, began to rebuild Thurso, founded the herring-fishery at Wick, and established manufactures in both these towns (see the Account of the Improvements carried on by Sir John Sinclair on his Estates in Scotland, London, 1812). One of his chief schemes was a general enclosure bill, a favourite toast being ‘May a common become an uncommon spectacle in Caithness.’ In 1796 Sinclair secured the passage of a general enclosure bill through the commons, but it was rejected by the lords. In the financial crisis which occurred at the outbreak of the French war, Sinclair's advice and support were of great assistance to the government. It was he who proposed the formation of a select committee on commercial credit and the issue of exchequer bills to the amount of 5,000,000l. Partly in consequence of this Pitt acceded to Sinclair's request, which he had previously refused, for the establishment of a board of agriculture. The idea of a board did not originate with Sir John (Young, Annals of Agriculture, 1793, xxi. 129; Somerville, System followed by the Board of Agriculture, p. 3); but to him belongs the credit of having by his importunity forced the question on the government. The scheme was carried through parliament, in spite of the opposition of Lord Hawkesbury, Sheridan, Grey, and Fox, who even suggested, as Marshall (Review of Agric. Reports, Introd. p. 23) did later, that the establishment of the board was a ‘job’ organised to put more patronage into the hands of the government. On 23 Aug. 1793 the board's charter was sealed, and Sinclair was appointed president. He at once attempted an account of England by parishes, on the plan of his ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ But this was abandoned, largely owing to the opposition of Archbishop Moore of Canterbury. The system substituted was that of county reports for the whole of Great Britain, a rough draft being first printed for distribution among the most intelligent inhabitants of the county, from whose corrected copies the final report was to be compiled. Such an arrangement was of course expensive. Arthur Young [q. v.], who had been appointed secretary of the board by the charter, is said in the ‘Memoirs of Sir John Sinclair’ (ii. 65) to have expressed himself in admiring terms at Sinclair's ‘courage’ in undertaking so ‘stupendous an experiment’ with the small sums at the disposal of the board. Privately Young complained of the president's ‘sole object of incessant printing,’ and described himself as ‘mortified to the quick’ at the publication of such a ‘wretched mass of erroneous and insufficient information’ (Memorandum of 1806, quoted in Journal of Roy. Agric. Soc. 1897, p. 6).

In 1794 Sinclair, at the request of Pitt, raised a regiment of fencibles, six hundred strong, called the ‘Rothesay and Caithness fencibles,’ of which he was appointed colonel. Subsequently he raised another regiment of a thousand men, called the ‘Caithness highlanders,’ for service in Ireland. In 1796 he suggested to Pitt the idea of a loyalty loan. But their relations subsequently became strained once more. Their point of difference is summed up in ‘Public Characters,’ apparently without any ironical intent, as being that Sinclair found ‘that Mr. Pitt valued his simple assent more than his advice’ (i. 47). Sir John was anxious for peace, and officiously corresponded on the subject with Barthelemy. He opposed Pitt in the house on the question, and in February 1798 attacked the ministry in two pamphlets, ‘Letters on the State of the Nation’ and ‘Hints on the Present Alarming Crisis,’ 1798. Whether in consequence of this, or because he considered that Sinclair was not making the best use of the money of the board of agriculture, Pitt, at the annual election of the president in 1798, set up Lord Somerville [see Somerville, John Southey] in opposition to him. According to a familiar anecdote, Sinclair represented to Pitt that the president ought to be a peer. Pitt assented, and nominated Lord Somerville. Somerville was supported by the official members, and gained the presidency by a majority of one, thirteen votes being recorded for Somerville and twelve for Sinclair. Many letters of sympathy and indignation reached Sinclair from (among others) Archbishop Markham, Warren Hastings, the Marquis of Lansdowne, and the Duke of Clarence. But Sinclair's colossal schemes had seriously embarrassed the board during the five years of his presidency, and he left it considerably in debt. In 1806 he resumed the office of president, which he held till 1813.

In 1810 Sinclair was appointed a member of the privy council. He subsequently published extracts from the congratulatory letters of many men of repute, including Dr. Adam Smith, William Wilberforce, the Duke of Northumberland, Arthur Young, and Sir Humphry Davy, ‘explanatory,’ he says, ‘of the feelings of the public on that occasion.’ That this feeling, however, was not universal is shown by two articles in the ‘Quarterly’ (vol. iv. 1810, p. 518; vol. v. 1811, p. 120), in which Sir John and his new honours were mercilessly ridiculed. The immediate cause of this attack was the publication by Sir John of two papers on the then burning question of the respective advantages of bullion and paper money, entitled ‘Observations on the Report of the Bullion Committee’ and ‘Remarks on a Pamphlet entitled “The Question concerning the Depreciation of our Currency,”’ 1810 (cf. Alison, Europe, ix. 645).

A few months later Sinclair was appointed to the post of commissioner of excise, a sinecure of considerable value, although the salary was reduced from the 6,000l. which had been paid to Sir James Grant, the former holder of the office. Sir Walter Scott wrote of these events: ‘Sir John Sinclair has gotten the Golden Fleece at last. Dogberry would not desire a richer reward for having been written down an ass. 6,000l. a year! Good faith, the whole reviews in Britain should rail at me with my free consent, better cheap by at least a cypher’ (Lockhart, Life of Scott, Edinburgh, 1845, p. 215). The acceptance of this office in July 1811 made it necessary for Sinclair to resign his seat in parliament, after being a member for thirty years. Two years later he retired from the presidency of the board of agriculture. Withdrawing into private life, he continued to reside in Edinburgh for the greater part of his time, writing incessantly. He died on 21 Dec. 1835, and was buried on the 30th in Holyrood chapel. He was succeeded in his estates and titles by his son, Sir George Sinclair (1790–1868) [q. v.] Two other sons, John Sinclair (1797–1875) and William (1804–1878), and a daughter Catherine are also separately noticed.

Among other polemics, Sinclair engaged in a literary controversy which attracted wide attention. In 1796 James Macpherson [q. v.] had died, leaving to the Highland Society of London those Gaelic versions of the poems of Ossian, the refusal to produce which had been the chief argument against the genuineness of Macpherson's translation. A committee, under the presidency of Sir John Sinclair, was appointed to superintend their publication (see Letters, i. 327–36). In 1807 they appeared, accompanied by a parallel Latin translation, and by a dissertation in favour of the authenticity of the poems by Sinclair, who claimed to settle the question. As a matter of fact Sinclair's volume left Macpherson's position more dubious than it was before; for Gaelic scholars consider that the Ossianic transcripts which he printed differ in style, versification, and language from such genuine specimens of old Gaelic verse as have been preserved.

Sinclair's successes were chiefly due to his energy and industry. He used to rise at seven in summer and eight in winter, and dictate for two hours to his clerk; then work after breakfast till two or three, and, after dinner and a walk, again till ten. The Abbé Grégoire, formerly bishop of Blois (Mem. i. 191), described him as ‘the most indefatigable man in Britain.’ He seems to have been actuated by a genuine philanthropic desire for rural and financial reform, and many instances of his generous benevolence might be quoted. But, owing to a lack of humour and unbounded self-conceit, he viewed all his achievements with a somewhat ludicrous complacency.

Many portraits of Sinclair are extant, three of which are by Raeburn. In one of these, painted about 1794, Sir John is represented as a man of exceptionally fine features and commanding presence, dressed in his uniform as colonel of the Rothesay and Caithness fencibles. The original is in the possession of the family at Thurso Castle. Engravings of this portrait have appeared in the ‘Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England,’ 1896 (iii. 7), and Chambers's ‘Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen.’ In the second portrait by Raeburn, purchased in 1877 by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, he is shown in civilian attire, with a snuff-box in his right hand and papers in his left, surrounded by selections from his works. The third portrait by Raeburn was long in possession of the Raeburn family. Sir John prefixed to his more important writings engravings of his portrait, after Raeburn, Plimer, Lawrence, and Robertson.

Sinclair was a voluminous writer.

  1. Of ‘The Statistical Account of Scotland,’ the first volume appeared in 1791, two further volumes in 1792, five in 1793, four in 1794, three in 1795, two in 1796, one in 1797, one in 1798, and the last in 1799. The entire work consists of twenty-one octavo volumes, each containing on the average between six and seven hundred pages.

Besides this he wrote:

  1. ‘Observations on the Scottish Dialect,’ 1782.
  2. ‘History of the Public Revenue of the British Empire,’ a standard treatise, which was long one of the chief authorities on the subject, 2 vols. 1784; reissued in three parts 1789–90.
  3. ‘General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties and Islands of Scotland,’ 1795.
  4. ‘Essays on Miscellaneous Subjects,’ 1802.
  5. ‘Account of the Systems of Husbandry adopted in the more improved Districts of Scotland,’ 2 vols. 1812.
  6. ‘Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian,’ 1807.
  7. ‘Analysis of the Statistical Account of Scotland’ (2 parts), 1825.

Sinclair devoted much of his time in his later years to the composition of what he called the ‘Codean System of Literature,’ in which all knowledge was to be summarised in four departments, comprising agriculture, health, political economy, and religion. The code of health was published in 4 vols. in 1807, and the code of agriculture in 1817; the other two were never completed, though materials were collected and a plan drawn up. The code of agriculture received much praise, especially abroad, but Sinclair's excursion into medicine brought upon him considerable ridicule. It was, as he himself tells us, ‘undertaken in opposition to the opinions of some most respectable friends’ (Correspondence, i. 297). Sinclair published his correspondence in two volumes in 1831. These volumes also contain numerous notes concerning the countries he had visited and the famous characters he had met during his travels.

Besides these books, his son John gives in the ‘Memoirs’ a list, ‘probably incomplete,’ of 367 tracts and pamphlets written by Sir John. These are of a most varied character—political, naval, military, critical, poetical, agricultural, financial, medical, and educational.

[Several notices of Sinclair appeared during his life—one in Public Characters 1798–9, vol. i. (couched in a spirit of adulation exemplified by the statement that Sir John had ‘created a science of agriculture which before his time had scarcely an existence’); another in the Agricultural Magazine, No. 49, July 1811; and in the (American) Farmers' Register, 1833, p. 286. Sinclair also prefixed some autobiographical details to his correspondence, 1831. Obituary notices appeared in the Annual Register, 1836, p. 184 (cf. also Annual Reg. 1793, p. 168); Gent. Mag. 1836, i. 431–3; Farmers' Magazine, 1836, iv. 124; Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, 1836 (a long biography running through several numbers), March p. 569, June p. 1, September p. 111, December p. 269. In 1837 appeared the Memoirs of his son, the Rev. John Sinclair, from which succeeding biographies, from the life in Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen (v. 520) to that by Archdeacon Sinclair, Journal R.A.S.E. (1896, vol. vii.), have been largely derived. See also Athenæum, 1837, p. 244; Edinburgh Review, 1814, xxiv. 80, 1846, lxxxiv. 417; the Georgian Era, 1834, iv. 53. All these notices are couched in terms of panegyric; the other side of the question may be seen in various hints in biographies of contemporaries—Lockhart's Life of Scott, quoted above; Trevelyan's Macaulay, 1876, ii. 197, and especially in two articles in the Quarterly Review, 1810 iv. 518, 1811 v. 120. A more discriminating notice appeared in the Quarterly, 1847, lxxxii. 354.]

E. C.-e.