ADAM, William (1751-1839), of Woodstone, Kincardine, and Blair-Adam, Kinross.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



27 Dec. 1774 - 1780
1780 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - Apr. 1794
1806 - 1 Feb. 1812

Family and Education

b. 2 Aug. 1751, o. surv. s. of John Adam of Blair-Adam, architect and master mason to the Board of Ordnance in Scotland, by Jean, da. and h. of John Ramsay of Woodstone.  educ. Edinburgh Univ.; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1769. L. Inn 1769; ?Grand Tour.1 Adv. 1773; called to the English bar 1782.  m. 7 May 1777, Eleanora, da. of Charles, 10th Lord Elphinstone, sis. of George Keith Elphinstone, 5s. 1 da.  suc. fa. June 1792.

Offices Held

Treasurer of the Ordnance Sept. 1780-May 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783; solicitor-gen. 1802-5, attorney-gen. 1805-6 to the Prince of Wales; chancellor of Duchy of Cornwall 1806-15; baron of the Scottish ct. of Exchequer 1814-19; P.C. 17 Mar. 1815 lord chief commr. of the Scottish jury ct. 1815-d. Ld. lt. Kinross 1802-d.


From his youth Adam, brought up among the Edinburgh literati, experienced recurring reverses in his family fortunes. In 1764 his father lost heavily by the failure of Fairholme’s bank,2 but by 1769 had recovered sufficiently to give his sons an English education, and ‘incur more hazards’ in the Adelphi project.3 After the 1772 crash the Blair estate was mortgaged, but William’s own small Kincardineshire estate was not apparently involved. He abandoned the Scottish bar in 1774 when brought in for Gatton by Sir William Mayne, a family friend.

He soon made his mark as a forceful speaker of independent views; on 6 Feb. 1775 he advocated strong measures against America; opposed North’s conciliation proposal as ‘waiving Britain’s supremacy’, yet voted with the Opposition on Wilkes, 22 Feb. 1775. On 27 Oct., supporting the Address, he praised North’s ability, but lectured him on his indolence. North’s deference to his ‘candour’ aroused suspicions that Adam was the mouthpiece of discontented ministerial Scots; but he pursued his independent course, attacked Government mismanagement, supported Fox’s demand, 20 Feb. 1776, for an inquiry into the ill success of British arms, but remained adamant against conciliation. He supported Government on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, 17 Feb. 1777, as a necessary measure long overdue; and on 16 Apr. justified with specious arguments the payment of the civil list debts. Walpole wrote: ‘Young Adam, on this occasion, made a foolish speech of impudent paradoxes which the House received with every mark of ridicule and contempt.’ Having opposed on 21 Nov. 1777 any negotiation with rebels still in arms, in February 1778 he acquiesced reluctantly in the conciliation mission, whose failure he predicted.4

In April 1778 Adam accepted a lieutenant’s commission in Buccleuch’s Southern Fencibles. Experience of the weakness of home defence convinced him of the Government’s incapacity to make war against both America and France. On 27 Nov. 1778 he urged priority for the French war ‘leaving America at rest’, and strongly supported the Opposition’s demand for an inquiry into ministerial mismanagement. Adam now began to vote with the Opposition; was listed ‘contra, absent’ on the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779; but in the March debates on Keppel he withheld his vote, maintaining that although he believed the Admiralty culpable, there was insufficient evidence for a vote of censure.5

During the recess Adam convinced himself that incompetent commanders were probably more to blame than ministers for the ill success of the war. On 25 Nov. 1779 he ‘apprized the House of his intention to abandon the minority’ and to vote against the motion for the removal of the ministry, who were at least preferable to an Opposition pledged to ‘abject concessions’ to the Americans.6 Ridiculed by Fox and lampooned in the newspapers, Adam challenged Fox to a duel in which, with a pistol borrowed from William Fullarton, he slightly wounded his adversary.

From now on he spoke and voted for the Government, while still professing independence. On 22 Mar. 1780, after Fullarton’s duel with Shelburne, he rose to defend his friend and to repudiate newspaper abuse of his own motives in challenging Fox:7

He declared to God he had no motive whatever but [defence of his honour]. So far from being guilty of the base servility of hoping to please a minister by what he had done, he disclaimed any connexion whatever with the minister; he thanked God he could say he had never crossed the threshold of that minister’s door, he had never asked him a favour, nor had he any favour to ask him.

Despite the efforts of his friend Charles Jenkinson, Adam had no promise of a seat in the next Parliament.8 North and Robinson opened negotiations with Lord Stair to secure Wigtown Burghs for Adam, who, before leaving for Scotland in September, was unexpectedly offered a place as lord of Trade.9 When the appointment was not gazetted, Jenkinson wrote to Adam, 20 Sept.:10

Lord Lisburne was to have been comptroller of the Household which he has declined. This has prevented a removal from the Board of Trade which would have made a vacancy for you. I have reason to believe that they are endeavouring to contrive this in some other way.

When these endeavours failed, North nominated Adam treasurer of the Ordnance, and wrote to the King, 24 Sept.:11

Mr. Adam does not know of this appointment and Lord North is afraid will not much like it as he expected to be a lord of Trade but ... Lord North imagines he will prefer the treasurer of the Ordnance to remaining out of place.

‘Curious’ but not offended at the change, Adam accepted.12

Returned for Wigtown Burghs after a hard bargain with Stair,13 he immediately went into action against the Opposition. On 13 Nov. he attacked the Westminster Association’s pledge to guard Fox’s life as an insinuation against himself. Repudiating newspaper vilification of his own character, Adam ridiculed Fox as ‘the King of Westminster’ whose dissipation he contrasted with his own ‘private and retired’ family life and ‘strict domestic economy’.14 Adam now became North’s intimate friend and defender, frequently singled out for Opposition attack. On 26 Mar. 1781, in the debate on the Government loan, he denied he was the William Adam listed among the subscribers and protested his integrity:15

He first came into that House ... perfectly independent and unconnected. He opposed the minister as long as he thought the American war was pursued for unjust purposes; but when the question changed, when the sole object was the maintaining the rights of the British legislature and preventing the independence of America, the question met with his entire approbation ... But even now, if the noble lord’s measures should appear to him more likely to do more harm than good, or adopt ideas of altering the British constitution, or listen to any visionary project of innovation, he would as steadily oppose as he now supported him ... The place he held ... was bestowed upon him unasked and unsought for. He had neither directly or indirectly a share in the loan.

He loyally supported North to the end.

Deprived of his place by North’s resignation, Adam was also harassed by yet another crisis in his father’s financial affairs. He decided to seek a career at the English bar, and for a while took little part in parliamentary debates. In October 1782 Shelburne, having already gained Dundas, sent for Adam who ignored his hints of preferment, being resolved to remain attached solely to North.16 But when, over the peace, North and his friends were obliged to declare themselves, Adam and Jenkinson strongly favoured a conditional alliance with the ministry.17 When Dundas insisted that, to placate Pitt, North must accept humiliating terms, Adam, ‘incensed and provoked’, concurred in the view that the only way to prevent the ruin of the North party was an immediate alliance with Fox. Adam thus bore a major responsibility for the Fox-North Coalition.18 In the debate of 17-18 Feb. 1783 Adam accordingly spoke and voted against the peace,19 and on the formation of the Portland Administration in April was restored to his place in the Ordnance.

Adam resented Dundas’s retention of the lord advocate’s office and control of Scottish patronage which he hoped to secure for himself, and on Dundas’s removal sought to undermine his interest in Midlothian.20

Although now a successful barrister, ‘overwhelmed with briefs’,21 Adam was still in financial difficulties. Early in November 1783 he sought permission to exchange places with John Anstruther, receiver of bishops’ rents in Scotland—an appointment not so valuable as his treasurership but ‘less in the hurricane latitudes’.22 But before anything was done the Coalition was dismissed.

On 19 Dec. 1783 Adam spoke against a dissolution, eulogizing North and his union with Fox. With no chance of re-election in Wigtown Burghs, he transferred to Elgin Burghs on the Elphinstone interest, and immediately after the general election prepared a list of the new Parliament, indicating the political alignment of all its members. He immediately attacked the Government on the Address; opposed Pitt’s East India bill, constituted himself the champion of reduced officers, and of Scottish grievances under the Distillery Act, and took a prominent part in the debates on Fox’s Westminster election.23

From the spring of 1785 Adam was obliged to devote himself almost exclusively to his bar practice. The Adam brothers’ partnership was now on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Blair estate had again to be mortgaged. Deeply distressed by ‘this afflicting business’ Adam wrote to his brother-in-law George Loch, 30 Apr. 1785:24

My father’s fortune is deeply involved in the concerns of my uncles ... there is much embarrassment and difficulty ... As for myself and Elie, we consider it only as a diminution of income for the time, which we must accommodate ourselves to, till by additional exertion of industry I can make it more.

Adam’s concern with parliamentary affairs in the 1785-6 session was therefore perfunctory. Consistently opposed to innovation, he resisted proposals for the reform of Scottish burghs,25 was a manager of the impeachment both of Hastings and of Impey, and acquired a great knowledge of Indian affairs. He was active throughout the Regency crisis in party management, organizing a comprehensive collection of confidential information on the electoral interests in the Scottish counties and the political affiliations of every freeholder, for use in the event of a change of Government.26

A warm hearted, popular man, exceptionally able in business management, he was a close personal friend of the Prince of Wales, and in later years of Sir Walter Scott. Despite financial stringency he sacrificed preferment to his political principles and personal loyalties. Comparatively late in life he was rewarded with high legal office in his native country, where he died 17 Feb. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Adam to Mountstuart, 12 Nov. 1781, Add. 38774, f. 74, where he refers to M. Jacque (sec. to Lord Mountstuart in Turin) as an old friend and excellent tutor.
  • 2. David Hume to Hugh Blair, 26 Apr. 1764, Greig, Letters of Hume, i. 436; Hume to James Edmonstone, Apr. 1764, Klibansky and Mossner, New Letters of Hume, 82.
  • 3. Hume to Adam Smith, 27 June 1772, Letters of Hume, ii. 263.
  • 4. Almon, i. 158, 207; iii. 58-59, 332; iv. 260-2; vii. 85-88; viii. 31; xi. 66-68; Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 529; ii. 21.
  • 5. Almon, xi. 66-68; xii. 81-82.
  • 6. Almon, xvi. 9-12.
  • 7. Almon, xvii. 408.
  • 8. Adam to Jenkinson,? July 1780, Add. 38215, f. 70, and 4 Aug., Add. 38214, f. 126.
  • 9. Adam to Jenkinson, 10 and 19 Sept. 1780, Add. 38214, ff. 169, 182; North to the King, 4 Sept. 1780, Fortescue, v. 114. 28 Sept. 1780, Add. 38214, f. 194.
  • 10. Add. 38308, f. 8b.
  • 11. Fortescue, v. 132.
  • 12. Adam to Jenkinson, 28 Sept. 1780, Add. 38214, f. 194.
  • 13. Corresp. between Adam and Jenkinson, 9, 12 Dec. 1780, 13, 16 Jan. 1781, Add. 38215, ff. 23, 111, and 38308, ff. 50, 68.
  • 14. Debrett, i. 82-84.
  • 15. Ibid. ii. 335, 340.
  • 16. Mems. C.J. Fox, ii. 31.
  • 17. Adam to Jenkinson, 3 Jan. 1783, Add. 38218, f. 154; Jenkinson to Adam, 4 Jan., Add. 38309, f. 77.
  • 18. Mems. C.J. Fox, ii. 28-39.
  • 19. Debrett, ix. 289.
  • 20. Adam to Portland, 24 July, 16 and 23 Sept. 1783, Portland mss; Alex Carlyle, Autobiog. 308.
  • 21. Adam to W. Eden, 25 Sept. 1783, Add. 34419, f. 271.
  • 22. Adam to Portland, 7 Nov. 1783, Portland mss.
  • 23. Debrett, xii. 457; xv. 33-35; xvii. 30, 31, 35, 213, 366-7; Stockdale, iii. 188; vi. 494.
  • 24. Add. 40885, f. 221.
  • 25. Stockdale, xii. 177.
  • 26. Pol. State Scotland 1788 (pub. by his descendant Sir C. Elphinstone Adam, 1889).