MACKINNON, William Alexander (1784-1870), of Portswood House, nr. Southampton, Hants.

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



20 Feb. 1819 - 1820
1831 - 1832
1835 - 1852
23 May 1853 - 1865

Family and Education

b. 2 Aug. 1784,1 1st s. of William Mackinnon of Antigua and Harriet, da. of Francis Frye of Antigua. educ. St. John’s, Camb. 1799; L. Inn 1802. m. 3 Aug. 1812, Emma Mary, da. and h. of Joseph Budworth Palmer of Palmerston, co. Mayo, 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da. suc. grandfa. William Mackinnon 1809. d. 30 Apr. 1870.

Offices Held

Colonisation commr. for S. Australia 1835; chairman, UK Insurance Office and chairman, Society Against Cruelty 1842.

Capt. Eling troop, S. Hants yeoman cav. 1821-5;2 Lymington yeoman cav. 1834.


Mackinnon, who had sat briefly before 1820, was spoken of as a local candidate for Southampton at that year’s general election, but declined to stand.3 Thereafter he was out of the House for eleven years, during which he wrote his pioneering treatise On the Rise, Progress and Present State of Public Opinion in Great Britain and Other Parts of the World (1828). Passages of this ambitious work revealed his essentially Tory outlook. The ‘organ of the public opinion of the community’ was Parliament as presently constituted, whereas an assembly elected by universal suffrage ‘could only represent the lower class, and not follow public opinion, which ... depends chiefly on the middle class’. While uneducated ‘popular clamour’ might welcome such an assembly, he was sure that informed, middle class ‘public opinion’ would countenance nothing more than a return to triennial parliaments. The Gentleman’s Magazine, to which he was an occasional contributor, applauded his view that the civilizing influence of public opinion had been impeded by the priesthood in Catholic states, so leading, in France, to revolution.4 The book’s kudos probably assisted his eventual return to politics, though on meeting him in May 1832, Benjamin Disraeli† judged him ‘an ass’.5 At the 1826 general election he was narrowly defeated at St. Ives, from where a petition in his favour was lodged but not pursued. In 1830 he unsuccessfully contested Boroughbridge, where he was billed as ‘the author’, in opposition to the interest of the Ultra Tory 4th duke of Newcastle, who supposed that he had been sent by the Wellington government.6 His petition against the return failed. His high standing with the former ministry was made plain at the 1831 dissolution, when Sir Harry Neale* sought Sir Robert Peel’s* recommendation for a vacancy at Lymington:

It has been suggested that Mr. Mackinnon’s return would be very acceptable to Sir Robert. Should this choice be confirmed, Sir H. would feel much pleasure in putting him in nomination.7

Peel evidently approved and Mackinnon was returned unopposed for the borough, which lay some twelve miles from his residence.

He voted against the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831. On 19 July he moved an amendment for using the latest population figures to determine the disfranchisement schedules instead of the 1821 data, which would produce legislation based ‘on an ex post facto principle’. As he had anticipated, Lord John Russell replied that the 1821 census was more impartial than that gathered under the shadow of the reform bill, and his amendment was defeated by 224-169. He divided against the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, and considered it a ‘peculiar hardship’ that Lymington should also lose one Member, 29 July. He warned that political impartiality would be compromised by giving county sheriffs the right of selecting returning officers for some newly enfranchised boroughs, 10 Aug., and complained of having received no answer to this, 19 Aug. On 25 Aug. he opposed the introduction of a uniform borough franchise, noting that the ‘respectability’ of a £10 householder depended on the size of the town, and proposed to raise the minimum qualification to £15 in towns with between 500 and 1,000 houses and to £20 in those with more. Though negatived without a division, 26 Aug., his amendment received some verbal support, unlike his proposal that day to deny the vote to all tenants paying less than £20 per annum who sublet their houses, which he quietly withdrew. He voted against the issue of the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept., and presented a petition from London merchants against an increase in duty on Cape wine, 7 Sept. He divided against the third reading of the reform bill, 19 Sept., and its passage, 21 Sept. 1831.

Mackinnon voted against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and going into committee on it, 26 Jan. 1832. Noting with approval the new bill’s adoption of most of his proposals on the census and appointment of returning officers, 3 Feb., he resubmitted his motion for a graded household qualification based on the size of towns, but without success; he did not redeem his promise to try again. He refuted assertions that signatures on a Hertfordshire anti-reform address had been obtained fraudulently, 10 Feb. On 23 Feb. he supported Chelmsford’s claim for inclusion in schedule C and, harking back to his contest at St. Ives, testified to its ‘thriving condition’, notwithstanding its position in schedule B. He divided against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb. Speaking at length in terms reminiscent of his book, 20 Mar., he conceded the necessity of reform but denounced the bill as a product of ‘popular clamour’ rather than ‘public opinion’, objected to reducing the number of English and Welsh Members, and protested that the disfranchisement schedules and the criteria that determined them were destructive of the influence of property and wealth. His privately printed version of the speech concluded with a metaphoric vision of Parliament in flames, which was seized on by cartoonists.8 He voted against the bill’s third reading, 22 Mar., and moved an amendment for a £20 household franchise for all boroughs in schedule C and for Liverpool, which was negatived without a division, 23 Mar. He divided for Sibthorp’s amendment to the proposed division of Lincolnshire that day, and presented two petitions from Lymington against a further boundary extension, 31 May 1832.

Mackinnon supplied a point of information concerning the fees paid by Irish magistrates on renewal of their commissions, 17 Jan. 1832. He presented a petition for improving the laws against cruelty to animals, 20 Jan., introduced a bill to that effect, 18 Apr., and secured and was appointed to a select committee, 30 May. He presented their report, 1 Aug., but there was no time for the bill to progress further. (He subsequently revived it in the reformed House.) On 23 Jan. he denounced the Vestry Act amendment bill as an ‘attack on the church’ and complained that its provisions for broadening the franchise were ‘quite the prototype of the reform bill’, which would encourage ‘ever more popular measures, leading to universal suffrage and ballot’. He presented Marylebone petitions against the metropolis cemetery bill, 9 Apr., 8 May. That day he obtained leave to introduce a bill to reform the usury laws, which was given a first reading, 24 May, but lost out to other business thereafter. He voted against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July 1832.

From a passage in his published speech on the reform bill, it is clear that Mackinnon expected to be returned for the reformed constituency of Lymington at the next general election. Writing in similar terms to Neale, 23 Oct., he observed that ‘the impression in my mind was that your influence was sufficient to retain a seat or to transfer it, and that you might give me the preference’, but in the event the patron had other ideas.9 On 10 Dec. Lord Stuart de Rothesay, former ambassador to France, advised the duke of Wellington that ‘after consultation’ with Francis Bonham*, Mackinnon’s candidacy for Newry had been suggested to Lord Londonderry and William Holmes* and that he had agreed to ‘pay £2,000 towards expenses if elected’.10 Nothing came of this, however, and he was out of Parliament until 1835, when he was returned unopposed for Lymington on Neale’s retirement. At about this time he adopted nearby Newton Park as his main residence. In his subsequent career he supported first Peel, then Lord Palmerston*, and according to a family historian, refused a peerage from both.11 Latterly he was classed as a Liberal and won renown for his legislative efforts in the fields of public health and industrial relations.12 In 1846 he published the modestly entitled History of Civilization, a substantial revision of his previous work, which went through several editions and was translated into French, German and Italian.

Mackinnon died intestate at Broadstairs in April 1870.13 His Kent estates at Acryse Park and Belvedere, Broadstairs passed to his eldest son William Alexander Mackinnon (1818-1903), Liberal Member for Rye, 1852-3, and Lymington, 1857-68, to whom adminstration was granted. (His second son Lauchlan Bellingham Mackinnon (1815-77) sat for Rye as a Liberal, 1865-8.) Mackinnon never realised his ambition, conceived on a visit in 1812 to the Scottish Isles in the company of Sir Walter Scott, to repurchase his clan’s lands. There are indications that his failure to do so may have caused some resentment among some native clansmen. A genealogy published in 1883 cast doubt on the ancestry of the Antiguan branch of the family, and so called into question Mackinnon’s right to the title of 33rd head of the clan. The authors were reluctant to do so, for they had never known ‘a man who had a higher sense of honour or a more correct appreciation of right than he’. The dispute was settled at the inauguration of the Clan Mackinnon Society in 1892, when William Alexander Mackinnon junior was acknowledged as the undisputed chief.14

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Authors: Howard Spencer / Philip Salmon


  • 1. See Admissions to St. John's, Camb. iv. 369 and V.L. Oliver, Hist. Antigua, ii. 226. Burke LG and other sources give 2 Aug. 1789, which is clearly erroneous. D. Mackinnon, Mem. Clan Fingon (1899), 118 states that he was born 'about the year 1782'.
  • 2. Wellington mss WP1/663/7; 823/1.
  • 3. Hants Chron. 14, 21 Feb. 1820.
  • 4. Mackinnon, Public Opinion, 17-18, 40, 143, 184-200, 230-1; Gent. Mag. (1828), ii. 248-50; Nichols File of Gent. Mag. ed. J.M. Kuist, 90.
  • 5. Disraeli Letters, i. 188.
  • 6. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Newcastle mss Ne2 F3/1/248; The Times, 3 Aug. 1830.
  • 7. Hants RO 27M74/F102, Neale to Peel [Apr. 1831].
  • 8. Speech of W.A. Mackinnon ... on Third Reading of Reform Bill; D. Mackinnon, Mem. Clan Fingon (1884), 82.
  • 9. Hants RO 27M74/F93.
  • 10. Wellington mss WP1/1239/19, 27.
  • 11. Mem. Clan Fingon (1899), 121-9, 210.
  • 12. G.S. Butler, Mackinnon ... A Sketch (1863), passim.
  • 13. The Times, 3 May 1870.
  • 14. A.M. Downie and A. D. Mackinnon, Mackinnon Fam. (1883), pp. iii, xi-xii; Mem. Clan Fingon (1884), 81; (1899), 66-67, 118-21.