JEFFREY, Francis (1773-1850), of 24 Moray Place and Craigcrook, Costorphine, Edinburgh.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



13 Jan. 1831 - 28 Mar. 1831
6 Apr. 1831 - 1831
1831 - 1832
1832 - 31 May 1834

Family and Education

b. 23 Oct. 1773, 1st s. of George Jeffrey (d. 1812) of Charles Street, Edinburgh, depute clerk of session, and Henrietta, da. of John Louden, farmer, of Lanark. educ. John Cockburn’s sch., Edinburgh; Edinburgh h.s. 1781-7; Glasgow Univ. 1787-9; Edinburgh Univ. 1789-90, 1792-3; Queen’s, Oxf. 1791-2; adv. 1794, dean of faculty 1829-30. m. (1) 1 Nov. 1801, Catherine (d. 8 Aug. 1805), da. of Prof. Charles Wilson of St. Andrews Univ., 1s. d.v.p.; (2) 1 Oct. 1813, in New York, Charlotte, da. of Charles Wilkes, banker, of New York, 1 da. d. 26 Jan. 1850.

Offices Held

Ld. advocate Dec. 1830-May 1834; ld. of session (Lord Jeffrey) 1834-d.

Ld. rect. Glasgow Univ. 1820-22.


In 1843 Tom Macaulay* described Jeffrey as ‘more nearly an universal genius than any man of our time’; and his old friend Sydney Smith referred to him as ‘the maximus minimus’.1 Carlyle, who first met him when he was 50, at the pinnacle of his fame as a critic, advocate and orator, recalled him as ‘a delicate, attractive, dainty little figure’ (‘perhaps hardly five feet four in height’), with ‘uncommonly bright black eyes, instinct with vivacity, intelligence and kindly fire’.2 When Lord Webb Seymour encountered him in 1814 he was entranced by the ‘extraordinary little man’, who ‘in brilliancy of conversation ... is inferior to none’; but John William Ward*, who had known him since their Edinburgh University days, could not acquit him of ‘affectation’, the ‘crying sin’ of most Scottish ‘men of talents’, though he considered ‘his coxcombry ... quite delightful’ and ‘would not for the world that he was natural’.3 On first acquaintance in 1821 John Cam Hobhouse* dismissed him as ‘a little, black eyed, smart, ill tempered, mannered man, not attentive to any’.4 In 1828 Macaulay, who thought his ‘talk has no very intellectual power’, wrote of him:

He has twenty faces ... As soon as he is interested ... there is a flash in his glance, a violent contortion in his frown, an exquisite humour in his sneer, and a sweetness and brilliancy in his smile beyond anything that ever I saw ... He possesses considerable powers of mimicry ... His familiar tone, his declamatory tone and his pathetic tone are quite different ... Sometimes his utterance is snappish and quick ... Sometimes it is remarkable for rotundity and mellowness ... His conversation is ... of immense variety ... He is a very shrewd observer ... Though not altogether free from affectation himself, he has a peculiar loathing for it in other people, and a great talent for discovering and exposing it.5

Jeffrey’s mighty reputation raised great hopes of him when he belatedly entered Parliament, but his style of oratory did not take there and the routine drudgery of office ground him down.

The eldest son of a joyless Tory clerk in the court of session, he lost his mother when he was 12. His brother John became a partner in the mercantile business in Boston, Massachusetts, of their uncle, who had married a sister of John Wilkes† of North Briton notoriety. He was educated initially in his native city, studied at Glasgow University in the sessions of 1787-8 and 1788-9, and took law classes at Edinburgh University, 1789-90. He matriculated at Oxford in September 1791, but hated its domination by ‘young men without any feeling, vivacity or passion’, and left the following summer; he had shed his Scottish brogue and replaced it with what Carlyle described as ‘a strange, swift, sharp-sounding, fitful modulation’, which Henry Fox* thought ‘absurd’.6 He resumed his training for the Scottish bar, attended Dugald Stewart’s lectures on moral philosophy and in December 1792 became a member of the Speculative Society, where he met Walter Scott, Francis Horner† and the brothers Charles* and Robert Grant*. He continued to write essays, verse and plays, as he had since his boyhood. Called to the bar in 1794, he faced an uncertain future, not least because, influenced by Stewart and his uncle William Morehead, he had espoused Whig politics, which in a Scotland then dominated by Henry Dundas† and his labyrinthine Tory connections, were a significant impediment to professional advancement. During the following six years he established himself as one of the coterie of Whig Edinburgh lawyers, doctors and literary men which included John Allen, Henry Brougham*, Henry Cockburn (his close and indulgent friend for life), Henry Erskine† and James Moncrieff, as well as Horner and Smith. A year after his call he wrote to his brother:

I have been considering ... the probability of my success at the bar, and have but little comfort ... for all the employment which I have has come entirely through my father, or those with whom I am otherwise connected. I have also been trying to consider some other occupation ... but find the prospect still more perplexing and obscure. I am determined, however, that I will not linger away the years of my youth and activity in an unprofitable and hopeless hanging about on our courts.7

In 1798 he made an abortive attempt to find an opening in London journalism. Back in Edinburgh he was encouraged by the advocate George Bell and his anatomist brother Charles, but the ‘tinge of melancholy’ which was never far beneath the surface of his social vivacity sometimes got the better of him, as he told his cousin Robert Morehead, 6 July 1800:

I have had fits of discontent and self-condemnation pretty severely ... My ambition, and my prudence, and indolence, will have a pitched battle, and I shall either devote myself to contention and toil, or lay quietly down in obscurity and mediocrity of attainment ... The unaspiring life, I believe, has the least positive wretchedness. I have often thought of going to India, but I do not know for what station I should be qualified, or could qualify myself, and I have almost as little talent for solicitation as you have.8

In 1801 he married his distant kinswoman Catherine Wilson, who brought him no money. Their only child, a boy, was born in September 1802 but lived for only a few weeks.9 Jeffrey transformed his life by joining Smith and Horner (who met for the purpose at his flat in Buccleuch Place) in deciding to start an independent quarterly review of literature, economics, science and politics. Allen and Brougham gave support, and the first number of the Edinburgh Review appeared on 10 Oct. 1802. To Jeffrey’s great surprise, it was an immediate success and went from strength to strength: by 1814 it was selling about 13,000 copies per issue. After a few months of cumbersome management by committee, Jeffrey was made the responsible editor in January 1803. The following year, when Allen, Brougham, Horner and Smith had left Edinburgh, he became the sole controller of the magazine, which he fashioned into the leading organ of liberal opinion.10 Between 1802 and 1829 he wrote some 220 articles for the Edinburgh, which under his editorship became the most feared arbiter of critical opinion. His prejudice against romanticism and mysticism in literature often betrayed him into unfairness: he was unduly harsh on Wordsworth and the Lakes poets, for example. In 1806 he and Tom Moore met at Chalk Farm, London, to fight a duel over the Edinburgh’s condemnation of his Epistles. They were arrested and bound over to keep the peace, and it was discovered that Jeffrey’s pistol had been unloaded. (He and Moore soon afterwards became cordial friends.)11 The Edinburgh’s political line was at first moderate, but by 1808, when Scott and other Tories, disgusted by the partisan line of Jeffrey and Brougham’s ‘Don Cevallos’ article against British involvement in Spain (xiii. 215-34), decided to establish the rival Quarterly Review, it was emphatically a Whig journal, with Brougham as its chief political contributor. While Jeffrey’s Whiggism was genuine, he never joined Brooks’s, was anything but an enthusiast, being pragmatic and desponding by temperament, and shied from extremes. He put out an article of his own in favour of parliamentary reform in July 1809 (xiv. 277-306), and at the end of the year told Allen, now an inmate of Holland House:

Something must be yielded to the democratic party ... If the Whigs do not make some sort of coalition with the democrats, they are nobody, and the nation is ruined ... It is the duty of the Whigs to ... strengthen themselves by the alliance of those who will otherwise overwhelm both them and their antagonists.

His object was to convince the Whigs, whom he considered to be too aristocratic in composition and outlook, to regain control of and moderate the popular reform movement.12 In January 1810 he published his own piece on ‘The State of Parties’ (xv. 504-21), in which he advocated retrenchment and the abolition of sinecures as well as concessions to the demand for parliamentary reform. Ward thought it typically ‘ingenious and striking’, but characteristically ‘pert and hasty’ and ‘utterly mistaken ... in supposing that the whole population is divided into three parties’.13 Jeffrey’s connection with Allen gave him the entrée to Holland House, where he became a favourite: Lady Holland described him in 1814 as ‘that dear little man, who has the best heart and temper, although the authors of the day consider him as their greatest scourge ... he is full of wit, anecdote and lively sallies’.14

He had persevered at the bar and begun to make his way, but the death of his wife ‘in my arms’, 8 Aug. 1805, following hard on that of his married sister Mary Napier in May 1804, made him ‘inwardly sick of life’.15 Yet he stuck to his profession, established a reputation as a very able advocate and secured a monopoly of one side before the general assembly for 20 years from 1807. In late 1810 he entertained the French refugee M. Simond and his wife, a sister of his kinsman Charles Wilkes, a New York banker. Wilkes’s daughter Charlotte was with them, and Jeffrey fell in love with her before their return to America. In 1813 he resolved to pursue her, sailed from Liverpool on 29 Aug., arrived in New York on 7 Oct. and married Charlotte Wilkes soon afterwards. Armed with letters of introduction from Lord Holland, he saw President Madison and James Monroe, the secretary of state, with whom he had ‘much conversation on the subject of our present differences’. He and his bride, who suffered from ‘St. Vitus dance in her nose and chin’ and was deemed by Henry Fox ‘a poor creature ... not worth crossing the Atlantic for’, though Macaulay liked her, landed back in Liverpool on 10 Feb. 1814.16 Despite his former misgivings about the war, he welcomed the crushing of Buonaparte, who seemed ‘the cause of my paying income tax, and having my friends killed by dysentery and gunshot wounds, and making my country unpopular, bragging and servile’. Shortly before Waterloo he took a lease of the old keep of Craigcrook, three miles north-west of Edinburgh, where he renovated and improved the house and garden and spent all his remaining summers, entertaining friends and guests with ‘the finest pleasures of the head and of the heart’. The ‘prevailing free-and-easy tone’ and ‘boisterous mirth’ did not, however, suit Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus.17 In the autumn of 1815 he visited France and Holland for the first time. The introduction of jury trial in Scottish civil cases in 1816 gave him a new sphere in which to display his flashy skills to great effect. But according to John Whishaw, who thought his taste in literature was ‘very much perverted’ and that he was essentially a sophist, he ‘did not add to his English reputation’ on his sallies into London society in March 1817, when he was attending the Lords on a Scottish appeal case: ‘though he showed great talents, neither his public nor private exhibitions were considered as successful’.18 A year later Jeffrey told his father-in-law:

I am rather impatient to make a little money now ... My gains are in some degree precarious, and ... though I please myself with views of retirement and leisure, and travelling and reading, I am by no means perfectly convinced that I should be much happier in that state than my present one. Having long set my standard of human felicity at a very moderate pitch, and persuaded myself that men are considerably lower than the angels, I am not much given to discontent, and am sufficiently sensible that many things that appear and are irksome and vexatious, are necessary to help life along ... It is a foolish little thing this human life at the best; and it is half ridiculous and half pitiful to see what importance we ascribe to it, and to its little ornaments and distinctions.19

Although he had more or less given up political journalism by 1812, he became active as a rousing speaker at public meetings in Edinburgh. He delivered the main speech in favour of abolition of the property tax, 24 Feb. 1816. He made able but unsuccessful defences of prisoners charged with sedition in 1817 and 1820.20 Immediately after Peterloo he told Wilkes that ‘some reform’ had become essential ‘if it were only to convince and conciliate the people’, for ‘if they are met only with menaces and violence we shall be drenched in blood’. At an Edinburghshire county meeting to vote a loyal address to the regent, 15 Nov. 1819, he proposed ‘an addition’ to it intended to ‘show that the higher classes were not indifferent to the distresses of the people’; this ‘sophistry’, as one Tory called it, was rejected by 87-18.21 On 19 Dec. 1820, atoning, as he said, for ‘his far too long supineness and want of sensibility to the public cause’, he took the lead at the Edinburgh Pantheon meeting to address the king to dismiss ministers on account of their conduct towards Queen Caroline, arguing that ‘the present system could not be continued without either the destruction of the public peace or of public liberty’.22 At the Edinburgh Fox birthday dinner in January 1821 he toasted Brougham’s work for the diffusion of knowledge with the observation that ‘the general instruction of the people was at the bottom of all our glory and respectability’; and in January 1823 he saluted ‘the cause of parliamentary reform’, asserting that ‘we require something better than a House of Commons only capable of putting down rebellion’.23 In January 1822 he informed Wilkes that he had ‘given a peremptory refusal, from taste as well as prudence’, to ‘two overtures to take a seat in Parliament’: ‘I am not in the least ambitious, and feel no desire to enter upon public life at such a moment as the present’.24 He was involved with Cockburn and James Abercromby* in the promotion of a popular campaign for extension of the Edinburgh franchise to the resident householders in 1823 and 1824.25 At the Edinburgh dinner in honour of Brougham, 5 Apr. 1825, he toasted Sir James Mackintosh* and spoke warmly of the United States. At that for Joseph Hume*, 18 Nov. 1825, he advocated support for the Spanish liberals and, in a speech subsequently published as a pamphlet, dealt with the combination laws, urging workmen to respect the rights of others while enjoying the right to strike. Scott sourly remarked in private that ‘it takes only the hand of a Lilliputian to light a fire, but would require the diuretic powers of Gulliver to extinguish it’.26 In August 1825, when a dissolution was expected, Brougham urged the duke of Norfolk to return Jeffrey for half the first session of the new Parliament so that he could ‘give us a thundering speech on the Catholic question’. Jeffrey had apparently earlier declined to take part in this absurd scheme, and nothing came of it.27 On the formation of Canning’s ministry in April 1827 there was unfounded speculation that the Tory Sir William Rae* might be removed as lord advocate, and Cockburn told Thomas Francis Kennedy* that if this occurred he would ‘decidedly force’ Jeffrey to take the office, however unappealing it was to a working lawyer. Canning’s early death prompted Jeffrey to observe that it marked ‘an end ... for the present of this new and bold experiment of a liberal or rational government’.28 That autumn, partly under the influence of some English friends, he developed ‘a hankering’ for a seat on the bench, having ‘lately begun to feel that the more laborious parts of my professional duty may ... become burdensome’. He made his views known to Lord Landsdowne, home secretary in the Goderich ministry, but its collapse in January 1828 brought the duke of Wellington and Peel back to power.29 Soon afterwards Jeffrey moved into a ‘magnificent’ new Edinburgh town house in Moray Place.30 His speech at the Edinburgh meeting in support of Catholic emancipation, 14 Mar. 1829, was one of his most inspired efforts, full of ‘fire and eloquence’.31 On 2 July 1829 he was unanimously elected dean of the faculty of advocates when John Hope, the Scottish solicitor-general, withdrew in deference to his great popularity. He handed over the editorship of the Edinburgh to Macvey Napier, and thereafter contributed only five articles to it. Cockburn thought that ‘the Scottish millennium’ had arrived, and at the end of the year Smith quipped that when he was ‘fairly on the bench, his robes ... will cost him little; one buck rabbit will clothe him to his heels’.32 Jeffrey, who spoke at an Edinburgh meeting for the abolition of slavery in 1830, told Wilkes in March that ‘I never have had so much hard work as this last session; and although I never made so much money, I should willingly have compounded for less of both’.33

On the formation of Lord Grey’s administration in November 1830 Jeffrey and Cockburn were the obvious candidates for the office of lord advocate, which paid about £2,500 a year but ‘nearly ruins the practice of any counsel’ and entailed the considerable cost of obtaining a parliamentary seat. Cockburn was determined not to take it, and told Kennedy that while Jeffrey ‘has a little of the same repugnance’, it was ‘not by a hundred degrees so much’, and that ‘he is rich, and if asked, will accept’. It was rumoured that ministers were inclined to appoint James Archibald Murray†, but they were warned by James Aytoun that if Jeffrey was slighted there would be ‘universal disgust in Scotland’ and the administration would ‘at its commencement receive a shock in public opinion which it will perhaps ... find it impossible to recover’; and Murray himself urged Lansdowne to appoint Jeffrey, whose ‘knowledge, eloquence and readiness in debate is so great that he may, though late in life to enter the House of Commons, make a distinguished figure there on questions of general interest’.34 Jeffrey was offered the place (Cockburn was made solicitor-general) and took it with great misgivings, telling a niece that ‘good reason I have for being sincerely sick and sorry at an elevation for which so many people are envying me’. Carlyle later recalled Jeffrey’s ‘considerable misgivings and gloomy forecasts’, which proved all ‘too true’.35 Jeffrey resigned the deanship. Cockburn informed Kennedy, with whom he had drafted a plan of Scottish reform which they had given to ministers:

I have no doubt of Jeffrey’s doing well ... and I anticipate much good to Scotland from him and you, acting under a fair government and a strong public opinion. He requires in the conduct of business to be managed, but he is easily managed. He will probably not originate much, and he is very helpless in details. But expound to him what is wanted, and give him help in the manipulation, and you will find him an effective and able associate, and in the more difficult things a sagacious guide.

Jeffrey of course needed a seat, and in late December 1830 he began a canvass of the venal Perth district of burghs, where the last election had been declared void. He was opposed by the Tory William Ogilvy*, who secured Cupar and Forfar. Jeffrey had Perth, St. Andrews and Dundee, but the last was currently disfranchised. At a dinner there, 7 Jan. 1831, he portrayed himself as ‘one of the signs of the times’:

A lord advocate ... not merely professing liberal and popular opinions, not merely avowing ... his love of economy and reform, but ... who has been promoted to that station for no other cause ... except that the whole of his past life has been spent in supporting those great objects.

He denounced the ‘kind of hocus pocus’ on which the Scottish electoral system rested and said that ‘economy and reform’ were ‘the cardinal principles on which the government rests its claims’. At the election at Forfar, 13 Jan., when Jeffrey was jostled in the street by a hostile mob (Smith joked that he ‘would have been killed had he been more visible’), the returning officer, on legal advice, received the disputed vote of the Dundee delegate and declared Jeffrey returned.36 It was thought unlikely that he would survive his opponent’s petition, and Cockburn, who incidentally warned Kennedy not to ‘despair when you find him always wasting time at first, pouring out what may be said against you and not listening’, as Jeffrey would ‘always come right at last after his spare steam is let off’, commented:

He will probably have in his first two months of office spent a whole year’s salary in attempting to get a seat, to say nothing of nearly the utter ruin of his professional practice. The condition of the lord advocate’s office in relation to Parliament must be changed ... In the course of his canvass he has made many good speeches, but still I fear for him in Parliament. Nearly sixty years of age [in fact 57], a bad trachea, inexperience and a great reputation, are bad foundations for success in the House of Commons.

Jeffrey, ‘not very well’, set out for London on 28 Jan. 1831 with a ‘shattered carcass and ... reluctant and half-desponding spirit’, as he told a friend:

There is not much fair weather before us ... politically ... and the only comfort is that we are honest and mean well ... Our other advantage, and our only one, is that the only party that can now turn us out must be mad ... to risk the experiment ... The real battle ... is ... between property and no property, Swing and the law. In that battle all our Tory opponents must be on the same side as us ... I am not very robustious, and have had a long and weakening cold.37

On 18 Feb. 1831 Jeffrey presented ten reform petitions from Scotland and one from Scots resident in Dublin, who, he remarked had ‘not lost their nationality’. When Daniel O’Connell commented that they had ‘acquired very little Irish nationality’, Jeffrey retorted, ‘I should be sorry if they had’. A ministerial backbencher reported next day that ‘judging from ... [his] face and manner I would say that he finds himself much out of his element, and indeed a Scotch county Member told me ... that Jeffrey seemed at a loss about the House of Commons and not to know what to make of it’.38 Cockburn was ‘surprised’ that Jeffrey was given sole responsibility for the Scottish reform bill, without the anticipated assistance of the lawyer John Richardson and Kennedy, to whom he wrote:

The failing which you mention ... has been his great failing always. He is too pure himself to suspect others. But he is very docile, and grateful to every teacher; so ... be quite plain ... [and] tell him to distrust words and villains.39

On 26 Feb. Jeffrey defended the Edinburgh reform petition, which he had signed before taking office, and said that there had been countless converts to the cause in Scotland. He made his eagerly anticipated full debut, which Macaulay, who hoped he ‘must succeed’, perceived that he was ‘nervous’ about, 4 Mar., when he defended the ministerial reform scheme in a speech of an hour and twenty minutes and declared his wish to ‘unite all those who have property, and ... render the large body of the people interested in obeying the law and zealous in defending the institutions of the country’. The general reaction was one of disappointment.40 The Tory Lord Ellenborough thought he spoke ‘very indifferently’, but this was too harsh.41 Greville reckoned the speech was ‘very able, but somewhat tedious’; Hobhouse admired ‘his fluency and argumentative powers’, but thought him ‘too quick and too close for a popular assembly’; John Campbell II* decided that he ‘got off very well ... but rather showed himself to be a very clever man than a very great orator’; and the Scot James Hope Vere* deemed it ‘a tolerably successful hit, but by no means what I could have wished’.42 Macaulay did not accept that it had been ‘a complete failure’, and told Napier that Jeffrey

did wonders. His manner is not as yet suited to the House. But he fully sustained his character for talent; and that he should do so was extraordinary ... There were some beautiful passages in his speech.43

The patronage secretary Ellice assured Brougham next day that Jeffrey had ‘distinguished himself, even more than I was prepared for. I had a little doubt as to his manner serving for the House, but his debut was eminently successful’.44 On 9 Mar. he secured leave to introduce the Scottish reform bill and laid out its details. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery, amendment of the Scottish grain purchase regulations, reform and repeal of the duties on solicitors’ certificates, and against the East India Company’s monopoly, 14 Mar. On the 19th he brought up about 40 Scottish reform petitions and one from Edinburgh for abolition of the death penalty for offences against property. At this time Maria Edgeworth reported him to be ‘much broken’ in bodily health.45 He endorsed the Edinburgh householders’ reform petition, 21 Mar., and next day voted silently for the second reading of the English reform bill. He defended the scheme as one of ‘just and proper conciliation’, 24 Mar. On the 28th he was unseated, as he had expected, by the decision of the Perth Burghs election committee, but nine days later he was brought in on a vacancy for Lord Fitzwilliam’s borough of Malton. He ‘called at 635 doors and shook 494 men by the hand’ and spent about £500 on treating.46 In the House, 14 Apr., he dismissed the Dunbartonshire anti-reform petition as unrepresentative of majority opinion. He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the English bill, 19 Apr., and privately denounced the ‘unspeakable baseness’ of the Scottish Members who divided in the hostile majority. He wrote to a friend the following day:

It was a beautiful, rosy, dead calm morning when we broke up a little before five ... and I took three pensive turns along the solitude of Westminster Bridge, admiring the sharp clearness of St. Paul’s, and all the city spires soaring up in a cloudless sky, the orange and red light that was beginning to play on the trees of the Abbey, and the old windows of the Speaker’s house, and the flat green mist of the river floating upon a few lazy hulks on the tide, and moving low under the arches. It was a curious contrast with the long previous imprisonment in the stifling roaring House, amidst dying candles, and every sort of exhalation.47

At the ensuing general election he stood for Edinburgh, but with so little hope of success that at the suggestion of ministers he asked Fitzwilliam’s son Lord Milton* to return him again for Malton, which he readily agreed to do. He also stood again for the Perth district.48 Since mid-March Cockburn had been worried by his apparent willingness to make changes to the Scottish reform bill in response to the plausible representations of interested parties and had urged Kennedy to keep him straight. He was ‘very much disturbed’ when Jeffrey’s ‘criminal candour and narrow minded liberality’ led him at the time of the dissolution to hint that the Scottish county franchise qualification might be raised.49 While in Edinburgh for the election, he told George Traill, Member for Orkney, that there was not ‘the slightest hope’ of his achieving his object of separate representation from Orkney.50 At the election, 3 May, when he was defeated by an anti-reformer kinsman of Lord Melville (he was returned in absentia for Malton the same day), he declared that the measure was open to ‘considerable modification’ and that ministers were reviewing the possibility of changing the qualification from £10 to a higher figure. Cockburn and Kennedy were horrified and sought clarification from senior ministers: Lord Durham, one of the framers of the English reform bill, assured Kennedy that ‘no alteration of the qualification is under the consideration of the government’ and suggested that Jeffrey ‘must have been misunderstood’. Cockburn had already ‘sent an express to Perth’ to ‘warn him to correct’ the impression his words had given, and Jeffrey did so in a speech at Perth, 7 May, claiming that he had been ‘misrepresented’. Cockburn, who observed to Kennedy that ‘our risks from that quarter are very distressing’ but that Jeffrey ‘must be upheld’, was not quite satisfied. He talked with Abercromby, who thought Jeffrey’s ‘provoking’ gaffe showed ‘either that he does not understand the effect of what he says or does not attend to the wishes of others’, about ‘the best mode of repairing the mischiefs of the late lapsus’ and persuaded Jeffrey to consult ‘the chiefs’. A Scottish Tory noted that in Edinburgh Jeffrey had ‘seemed ... very alarmed at his own plaything’, but that his Perth speech ‘was rather inclined to encourage it’. On 16 May the Caledonian Mercury published Jeffrey’s letter of the 14th explaining what he had meant to say and stressing that the qualification would certainly be ‘very low’.51 At his unopposed return for the Burghs at Perth, 23 May 1831, Jeffrey asserted that the principal benefit of reform, which was supported by ‘all the rank ... intelligence and ... opulence of the country’, would be its ‘tendency ... to knit together ... the higher and lower orders’.52 He opted to sit for the Scottish seat.

In early June 1831 Abercromby suggested to Grey the appointment to junior office of a Scottish Member to advise on Scottish patronage requests and otherwise ‘materially relieve the advocate from labour not necessarily connected with his office, such as taking charge of bills connected with Scotland’.53 Nothing came of this, and Jeffrey’s burden remained a heavy one. Two weeks later Cockburn wrote to Kennedy:

I trust that there will be a good understanding established between Jeffrey and the new Whiggery which Scotland has lately sent to Parliament ... And still more earnestly do I trust that no past or even future mistakes will occasion any want of cordiality between him and you. I can easily understand how you should be annoyed and disappointed that ... [Jeffrey] has not ... turned out what all the wise would wish ... But we must all remember what, in other respects, the man is, and what he has done; and it is not only our public duty, but due to private friendship, that we should uphold him the more, the more he needs it ... Keep yourself in constant communication with him, upon all points of the bill especially, on which there ought not to be a misunderstood or unsettled word between you ... I don’t hold out ... the hope that anything you may do will save you from the agony of his habits or defects. But I am clear that while we curse his failings, we must patiently and good naturedly manage them to the best advantage.54

To Cockburn’s ‘hints as to my infirmities’ Jeffrey replied, 23 June:

I am rather afraid to promise amendment, but I boldly promise never to be moved to anything but gratitude for having the course of amendment pointed out to me ... When the decision rests with myself, I ought probably to be more prompt and decided. But when I have in substance only to propose and report for others, I rather think that I ought to hear all, and discuss with all ... Many people have complained that I do not discuss enough, and that I am too peremptory and intractable ... It is very well for you ... to say that you adhere to the original arrangement of the bill, and that all the objections to it are nonsense. I must hear and discuss all these objections, and I cannot say to the minority that they are nonsense, for they are very much moved by them, and want me to obviate them by more decisive arguments than can always be produced.55

He went over the details of the bill with Lord Althorp, Lord John Russell, Sir James Graham, Brougham and Kennedy a few days later.56 In the House, 27 June, he answered a question from his opponent at Edinburgh about prosecution of those involved in the riots which had marred a number of Scottish elections. He would not commit himself on the prayer of a Perth petition for the city to have separate representation, 30 June, when he presented a dozen Scottish reform petitions. Securing leave to reintroduce the Scottish reform bill, 1 July, he briefly stated the few changes which had been made to its details. He of course voted for the second reading of the English bill, 6 July, when he informed Cockburn that he had given up his plan to speak in the debate. Two days later he told Mrs. Laing that he pined for Craigcrook:

I have money enough to live there in independent idleness ... and the world would go on about as well, I dare say, although I passed my days in reading and gardening, and my nights in unbroken slumbers. Why, then, should I vex my worn and shattered frame with toils and efforts, and disturb the last sands in my hour-glass with the shaking of a foolish ambition?57

He was steady in his attendance in committee on the details of the reform bill, apart from a brief lapse in the second week of August, but it wore him down. On 15 July he opposed Agnew’s amendment to group the doomed schedule A boroughs on the Scottish model; but next day, complaining to Cockburn that the home secretary Lord Melbourne had ‘maliciously’ fixed their ‘conference’ for four o’clock, so forcing him to ‘give up the refreshment of a rural day at Greenwich’, he said that

my voice was too weak for so full and stirring a House. I have always said that I was most afraid of that infirmity, and unless they are unusually quiet I am aware that I cannot make myself heard, which is very provoking.58

He gave sparse details of the fatal clash between Orangemen and police at Girvan and called for a ban on Irish processions in Scotland, 18 July. He was beginning to cut a forlorn figure, as Kennedy evidently reported to Cockburn, who replied:

What you say, and what from others I hear, of the advocate, sinks me to the ground. My love of the man, my admiration of his powers, my sorrow for his situation, have not even the consolation of thinking that his official failure is unjust. It is my conviction of the truth of what I hear that chiefly vexes me ... It is nothing to the disparagement of any man that at his age he has not succeeded in Parliament or in public official life. But it is very bad for the cause, and terrible to me to hear him slightingly thought of. But we must make the most of it.59

Carlyle recalled finding him ‘much preoccupied and bothered’ in London in August:

He lived in Jermyn Street, wife and daughter with him; in lodgings at £11 a week ... On the ground floor, in a room of fair size, was a kind of secretary, a blear-eyed, tacit Scotch figure ... On the first floor were the apartments of the family ... If I called in the morning ... I would find the family still at breakfast, ten a.m. or later; and have seen poor Jeffrey emerge in flowered dressing gown, with a most boiled and suffering expression of face: like one who had slept miserably, and now awoke mainly to paltry misery and bother, - poor official man! ‘I am made a mere post office of!’ I heard him once grumble, after tearing open several packets, not one of which was internally for himself.60

Jeffrey thought ‘things look ominously for the Lords’, who he expected to return the reform bill ‘mutilated with amendments’, and was ‘in terror at the new war on the continent’.61 He voted with his colleagues on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug., but was in a minority of 20 against the quarantine duties, 6 Sept., having presented a hostile Dundee ship owners’ petition, 11 Aug. He denied that there had been any ‘incaution’ in the granting of a charter to the National Bank of Scotland, 6 Sept. He voted for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept. On the 23rd he moved the second reading of the Scottish bill, which he defended in detail and principle; it was carried by 209-94. Hobhouse observed that ‘at last Jeffrey made a good speech’; and Campbell, who did ‘not know why Scotland should be dissatisfied with Jeffrey’, as ‘he does all he can for his native country’, thought it ‘excellent’. At Jeffrey’s request, he got Althorp to change the intended ‘mode of conducting ... the bill’.62 Soon afterwards Jeffrey fell ill and had to undergo a painful and debilitating operation on his trachea. He told Cockburn, 3 Oct., that he had ‘lost quantities of blood and a good deal of flesh’ and had ‘come to the creed that continued pain is a far worse evil than a bad conscience, a bad character ... disappointment in love ... a bad government, a bad climate or an empty purse’.63 After the English bill’s defeat in the Lords, he advised Cockburn that it was essential that the country should express ‘its adherence to the bill and the ministry in all firm and lawful ways’; and he personally wrote ‘edifying letters to the sheriffs of the [Scottish] manufacturing counties’, as well as arranging for ‘additional troops’ to be deployed.64 He was unable to attend for the division on Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. He was still ‘suffering more pain than I could wish on an anti-reformer’ and had ‘a second cut’, which relieved him but left him too weak to go to Scotland during the recess; he recuperated at Wimbledon. By 29 Nov. 1831, when he began to rally the attendance of Scottish reformers for the opening of the impending session and reckoned that he could thwart a scheme to restore the alternating system of election for Cromartyshire and Nairnshire, he claimed to be ‘well, being perfectly free from pain [and] able to walk three or four miles’.65

He had contemplated introducing ‘a plan for a general police through Scotland’, but ‘suspended his operations in consequence of the announcement of a measure of the same kind in the king’s speech’.66 On 15 Dec. 1831 he got leave to bring in a bill to abolish the Scottish exchequer court and appoint an additional judge to do its business. He saw it through the House and it became law on 23 June 1832 (2 Gul. IV, c. 54). Still ‘sound’, he told Napier, 16 Dec. 1831, that ‘we are just going into battle in good spirits but not very full ranks, on either side’;67 he was in the majority for the second reading of the revised English reform bill next day. He spoke against Mackworth Praed’s amendment to exclude freeholders of parliamentary boroughs from county electorates, 1 Feb. 1832. He got leave to introduce the slightly altered Scottish reform bill, 19 Jan. On the 29th he informed Holland, for the benefit of his cabinet colleagues, that if ‘reform were again to miscarry ... there would be a rebellion in Scotland, which it would require an army ten times as great as that the duke of Cumberland marched into that country in 1745 to subdue’:

Though the great body of the people is at this moment unusually quiet ... the desire for reform is much more deep and intense than ever ... The reports of all my informers concur in expressing their thorough conviction that a second rejection of the reform bills would be the signal, all over the populous and manufacturing districts, for a general defiance of authority and for scenes of violence and outrage ... The political unions (which I have endeavoured to discourage ... without exasperating them ...) have contributed greatly to preserve peace and good order ... but have also given a confidence and consciousness of strength to the reformers ... It is impossible ... to look to this new feature in the state of our society without much anxiety; but I feel the strongest assurance that, if the reform bills were once passed, the greater part of these associations would silently expire and the rest become quite insignificant.

He had given the same message to Grey and Melbourne during the recess to draw their attention to ‘the inadequacy of the military force now stationed in Scotland in the event of disorder’.68 He informed Napier, 7 Feb., that ‘we are not yet on velvet in politics’; but a fortnight later he thought that on the problem of the Lords and the possible creation of peers, ‘things are firmer and safer’.69 He expressed willingness to apply the cholera prevention bill to Scotland if legally feasible, 15 Feb., but this proved not to be the case, and later that evening he brought in a separate measure to authorize assessments of rates according to local Police Acts. Next day he proposed and carried by 55-10 an amendment remedying his own oversight in omitting reference to Providence in the preamble. The measure received royal assent on 20 Feb. (2 Gul. IV, c. 11); but some defects in it (which made Cockburn lament ‘the effect of unpractical habits on the highest intellect and the purest nature’) forced Jeffrey on 10 Mar. to bring in an amendment bill, which became law on 9 Apr. (2 Gul. IV, c. 27).70 After recovering from an illness which prevented him from attending the committee on the Dorset by-election petition, 3 Mar., he was said to have behaved ‘more like a hired counsel than a member sworn to impartiality’ in his unsuccessful attempts to secure the unseating of the Tory Lord Ashley.71 On 21 Mar., the day before he voted for the third reading of the English reform bill, he told Cockburn’s daughter of his ‘life of late’:

Getting up (with difficulty) at a little before ten, I usually found ten or fifteen letters to read; and before I had got half through them, was obliged to run down to a committee, where I was shut up till after four, when the House met, and seldom got finally home till after two o’clock in the morning.72

Even after the triumphant division, his ‘anticipations’ were ‘anything but comfortable’, and he thought that ‘the odds seem to be heavily rising against us’.73 He dismissed the notion of compensating the owners of Scottish voting superiorities for their abolition, 2 Apr., when he was one of the four Scottish Members present who abstained from the division on the malt drawback bill. He watched the ‘excessively interesting’ Lords debate on the English reform bill, 14 Apr., and at Easter took a week off to visit Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Hastings, though he felt ‘more dyspeptical than when I was in the Dorset committee all day, and in the ... House all night’.74 On 5 May Cockburn told Kennedy:

Jeffrey once, about a month ago, wrote one word implying that he was making or had made great sacrifices, thanklessly. With this solitary exception ... he has never disclosed anything from which I could even guess that he felt any uneasiness. But if he thinks that endurance is his duty, I know him enough to know that he will endure long before he murmurs. I grieve for him more than I can describe. I perfectly agree with you about the absolute necessity of a Scottish secretary.75

When he called on Althorp to voice his ‘dark apprehensions’ about the political situation, 9 May, he was told, ‘You need not be anxious about your Scottish bills tonight, as I have the pleasure to tell you, we are no longer His Majesty’s ministers’. He was reported to be ‘very tranquil’ about this, but he wrote to Cockburn later that day:

So ends the first act of our comedy. God grant that it may not fall too soon into the tragic vein ... Do what you can to keep peace, and ... conjure lovers of liberty to be lovers of order and tolerance. I tremble for Scotland, and think there is greater hazard there than in any other quarter.76

He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry reform unimpaired, 10 May. Back in office with his colleagues, he presented Cupar and Perth petitions endorsing the government’s Irish education scheme, 17 May, and said that ‘a large portion of the laity favoured it’. He voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He moved and carried without a division the second reading of the Scottish bill and presented five belated Scottish petitions for supplies to be withheld until reform was secured, 21 May. On the 23rd, as Cockburn had wished, he presented and endorsed the monster Edinburgh petition for ‘unmutilated’ reform.77 On 1 June he defended the decision to throw the burghs of Peebles and Selkirk into their counties and opposed and defeated by 168-61 Murray’s attempt to secure additional Scottish county Members. He gave a somewhat muddled explanation of the recent abandonment of the proposed property qualification for Scottish Members and denied that the £10 county franchise would encourage the multiplication of fictitious votes (which it did), 4 June. On 15 June he got rid of an amendment against the annexation of a portion of Perthshire to Kinross-shire, justified the junction of Elginshire and Nairnshire and successfully resisted various changes to the make-up of some of the burgh districts. After the third reading of the bill, 27 June, he wrote to Cockburn:

It is odd how strangely I felt as I walked home last night after all was over. Instead of being elated or relieved, I could not help feeling a deep depression and sadness ... A sense of the littleness and vanity even of those great contentions was uppermost in my mind. I have ever since had a most intense longing to get home, and ... it seems peculiarly hard on me to be chained for two or three weeks longer.78

He was in a minority with Hume and O’Connell against Baring’s bill to exclude insolvent debtors from Parliament, 6 June. He defended the extension of the forgery punishment mitigation bill to Scotland, 31 July. On 8 Aug. 1832 he told Cockburn:

For my comfort, there are still more flaws and awkwardnesses in the English [Reform] Act ... The torpor and apathy of voters to register, or to make the qualifying payments of votes and taxes is altogether astounding and disgusting ... In London I do not believe one-fourth of those substantially qualified will be found to have come forward, and in the counties, I believe, there will be nearly a half who have hung back out of mere laziness. This makes me a little anxious about Edinburgh after all.79

Before returning to Scotland he had an interview with Grey, who, heeding his complaints, promised to ‘save the lord advocate from such ruinous attendance in future, by reducing his office in practice to its proper legal character, and devolving a great part of its political functions on another’.80 Nothing material was done, however, though Kennedy was appointed to the treasury board with a Scottish brief towards the end of the year.

After initial doubts, Jeffrey stood for Edinburgh at the 1832 general election and was returned triumphantly with Abercromby.81 He soldiered on as lord advocate, adding to his achievement by carrying a measure to reform the municipal government of the Scottish burghs, until May 1834, when he was released from his ‘vexation’ by being appointed to a vacant lordship of the court of session.82 If he failed as a parliamentary speaker it was because, as Macaulay judged, his audience’s ‘expectations were extravagant’; and Brougham reckoned that ‘he only failed by speaking too well for his audience - his shot went over their head’.83 As a popular if sometimes voluble judge, he set aside his party allegiance. He died unexpectedly at Craigcrook in January 1850 after a brief bronchial illness. Cockburn wrote that Edinburgh would never seem the same without him, and that ‘head and heart included, his was the finest nature I have ever known’.84

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Macaulay Letters, iv. 167; Smith Letters, ii. 784.
  • 2. T. Carlyle, Reminiscences (1887), ii. 230.
  • 3. Two Brothers, 131; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 243-4.
  • 4. Broughton, Recollections, ii. 143.
  • 5. Macaulay Letters, i. 237-9.
  • 6. Cockburn, i. 1-47; Carlyle, ii. 262; Fox Jnl. 118.
  • 7. Cockburn, i. 51-54, 73, 77, 81, 97.
  • 8. J. Taylor, Lord Jeffrey and Craigcrook, 30; Cockburn, i. 101-7.
  • 9. Cockburn, i. 117-18, 144.
  • 10. Ibid. i. 124-31; Cockburn Mems. 159; Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, i. 416-19.
  • 11. See Jeffrey’s Criticism ed. P.F. Morgan; Cockburn, i. 171-4; Oxford DNB.
  • 12. Cockburn, i. 195-7; ii. 126-7; Flynn, 95, 98, 121-6.
  • 13. Ward, 92-93; Flynn, 126-9.
  • 14. L.G. Mitchell, Holland House, 185-91; Creevey Pprs. i. 205.
  • 15. Cockburn, i. 161, 163-8.
  • 16. Ibid. i. 212, 215-31; Add. 51644, Jeffrey to Holland, 10 Feb. 1814; Broughton, ii. 143; Fox Jnl. 118; Macaulay Letters, i. 238.
  • 17. Cockburn, i. 234-8; Cockburn Jnl. ii. 145; Highland Lady, 334-5; Taylor, 4.
  • 18. Cockburn, i. 240; The ‘Pope’ of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 175.
  • 19. Cockburn, ii. 177.
  • 20. Ibid. i. 252-3, 259; Flynn, 131.
  • 21. Cockburn, ii. 189; The Times, 16 Nov. 1819; NLS mss 1496, f. 148.
  • 22. Cockburn, i. 261-2; Add. 51831, Gibson to Holland, 20 Dec.; The Times, 22 Dec. 1820.
  • 23. Cockburn, i. 267-8; ii. 192-3; The Times, 17 Jan. 1821, 18 Jan. 1823.
  • 24. Cockburn, ii. 196-7.
  • 25. NLS mss 24749, f. 28; 24770, f. 4.
  • 26. The Times, 9 Apr., 22 Nov. 1825; Cockburn, i. 269; Cockburn Letters, 132; Scott Jnl. 14.
  • 27. HMC Var. Coll. ii. 346-7.
  • 28. Cockburn Letters, 170; Cockburn, ii. 223-4.
  • 29. NLS mss 24749, f. 37; Cockburn, i. 279; Lansdowne mss, Jeffrey to Lansdowne, 2 Nov. 1827.
  • 30. Macaulay Letters, i. 240.
  • 31. The Times, 18 Mar. 1829; Cockburn, i. 281; Cockburn Letters, 210; Taylor, 38.
  • 32. Cockburn, i. 282-5; Cockburn Letters, 218; Scott Jnl. 646; Smith Letters, ii. 511.
  • 33. Buxton Mems. 247-8; Cockburn, ii. 230.
  • 34. Cockburn Letters, 255-7; Lansdowne mss, Aytoun to ?Lansdowne, 22 Nov., Murray to Lansdowne, 26 Nov. 1830.
  • 35. Cockburn, i. 306-7; Carlyle, ii. 257.
  • 36. Stair mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Murray to Sir J. Dalrymple, 22 Dec. 1830; Caledonian Mercury, 13, 17, 20 Jan 1831; G.W.T. Ormond, Lord Advocates (1883), ii. 308-9; Smith Letters, ii. 527.
  • 37. Cockburn Jnl. i. 2-3; Cockburn Letters, 287; Cockburn, ii. 232-3.
  • 38. Hopetoun mss 167, f. 218.
  • 39. Cockburn Letters, 294-5.
  • 40. Macaulay Letters, i. 317, 319; [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Commons (1837), 184-6.
  • 41. Three Diaries, 63.
  • 42. Greville Mems. ii. 125; Broughton, iv. 90; Life of Campbell, i. 506; Hopetoun mss 167, f. 227.
  • 43. Macaulay Letters, ii. 7.
  • 44. Brougham mss.
  • 45. Edgeworth Letters, 488.
  • 46. Cockburn, i. 315-16; ii. 234-6; The Times, 4 Apr.; Fitzwilliam mss, Allen to Milton, 29 Mar., Cayley to same, 9 Apr. 1831.
  • 47. Cockburn, i. 317.
  • 48. The Times, 11 Apr.; Fitzwilliam mss, Jeffrey to Milton [22 Apr. 1831]; 732, p. 27; Cockburn Jnl. i. 6.
  • 49. Cockburn, i. 300, 305, 309, 314, 315-16.
  • 50. Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/3/14, Traill to J. Balfour, 13 May 1831.
  • 51. Caledonian Mercury, 5, 14, 16 May; The Times, 7 May; Cockburn Jnl. i. 13-14; Cockburn Letters, 318-19, 321; Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 1 May 1831; NAS GD40/9/327/6.
  • 52. Caledonian Mercury, 28 May 1831.
  • 53. Grey mss, Abercromby to Grey, 6 June 1831.
  • 54. Cockburn Letters, 324-5.
  • 55. Cockburn, i. 319.
  • 56. Cockburn Letters, 326.
  • 57. Cockburn, ii. 237.
  • 58. Ibid. i. 323.
  • 59. Cockburn Letters, 334.
  • 60. Carlyle, ii. 258-9.
  • 61. Add. 34615, f. 116.
  • 62. Wilts. RO, Hobhouse mss 145/2/b, Hobhouse to wife, 24 [Sept. 1831]; Life of Campbell, i. 521.
  • 63. Ward, 375; Cockburn, i. 323-4.
  • 64. Cockburn, i. 324; ii. 239.
  • 65. Ibid. ii. 240; Cockburn Letters, 354; NAS GD46/4/135/5.
  • 66. Cockburn Letters, 360, 363, 364.
  • 67. Add. 34615, f. 221.
  • 68. Add. 51644.
  • 69. Add. 34615, ff. 268, 278.
  • 70. Cockburn Letters, 391.
  • 71. CJ, lxxxvii. 162; Add. 51601, Lady Cowper to Lady Holland [9 Mar. 1832].
  • 72. Cockburn, ii. 245.
  • 73. Add. 34615, f. 298.
  • 74. Parker, Graham, i. 284; Cockburn, ii. 251-3.
  • 75. Cockburn Letters, 403.
  • 76. Le Marchant, Althorp, 421; Life of Campbell, ii. 9; Cockburn, i. 330-1.
  • 77. Cockburn Letters, 407.
  • 78. Cockburn, i. 334-5.
  • 79. Ibid. ii. 254.
  • 80. Ibid. i. 310; Cockburn Jnl. i. 35.
  • 81. Cockburn Letters, 411; Cockburn, i. 337-9; ii. 255-8; Cockburn Jnl. i. 40-42; Caledonian Mercury, 8, 10, 13, 17, 20 Dec. 1832.
  • 82. Cockburn Jnl. i. 59.
  • 83. Macaulay Letters, iv. 167; Brougham mss, autobiog. fragment.
  • 84. Gent. Mag. (1850), i. 313-15; Cockburn Letters, 535; Cockburn Jnl. ii. 253-4.