1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander Wedderburn

Alexander Wedderburn
Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain

ALEXANDER WEDDERBURN (1733-1805), Baron Loughborough in 1780, earl of Rosslyn in 1801, lord high chancellor of Great Britain, was the eldest son of Peter Wedderburn (a lord of session as Lord Chesterhall), and was born in East Lothian on 13th February 1733. He acquired the rudiments of his education at Dalkeith, and in his fourteenth year was sent to the university of Edin-burgh, where he matriculated on 18th March 1746. It was from the first his desire to practise at the English bar, though in deference to his father's wishes he qualified as an advocate at Edinburgh on 29th June 1754, and he did not neglect to enter himself at the Inner Temple on 8th May 1753, so that he might keep the Easter and Trinity terms in that year. His father was called to the bench in 1755, and for the next three years Wedderburn stuck to his practice in Edinburgh, during which period he zealously, with an eye to the main chance, employed his oratorical powers in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and passed his evenings in the social and argumentative clubs which abound in its capital. In 1755 a short-lived precursor of the more famous Edinburgh Review of a later generation was started in Edinburgh, and it is chiefly remembered now from the circumstance that in its pages Adam Smith criticized the dictionary of Dr Johnson, and that the contents of its two numbers were edited by Wedderburn. The dean of faculty at this time, Lockhart, afterwards Lord Covington, a lawyer notorious for his harsh demeanour, in the autumn of 1757 assailed Wedder-burn with more than ordinary insolence. His victim re-torted with extraordinary powers of invective, and on being rebuked by the bench declined to retract or apologize, but placed his gown upon the table, and with a low bow left the court for ever. It was long supposed that this step was unpremeditated, but it is now believed that the alter-cation only made him act upon his previous decision of quitting the Scottish for the English courts. Through his prudence in having taken the preliminary steps some years previously he was called to the English bar at the Inner Temple on 25th November 1757. In his new position he acted with characteristic energy. To shake off his native accent and to acquire the graces of oratorical action, he en-gaged the services of Sheridan and Macklin. To secure business and to conduct his cases with adequate knowledge, he diligently studied the forms of English law, he solicited Strahan, the printer, "to get him employed in city causes," and he entered into social intercourse (as is noted in Alexander Carlyle's autobiography) with busy London solicitors, such as the brothers Dagge. His local connex-ions and the incidents of his previous career introduced him to the notice of his countrymen Lords Bute and Mansfield. When Bute was prime minister this legal satellite used, says Dr Johnson, to go on errands for him, and it is to Wedderburn's credit that he first suggested to the premier the propriety of granting Johnson a pension. Through the favour of the royal favourite he was returned to parliament (28th December 1761) for the Ayr burghs, and in consequence of the same patronage he was introduced into Churchill's Rosciadas"a pert prim prater," conspicuous for "guilt in his heart and famine in his face." In 1763 he became king's counsel and bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and for a short time went the northern circuits, but was more successful in obtaining business in the Court of Chancery. He obtained a considerable addition to his resources (Carlyle puts the amount at £10,000) on his marriage (31st December 1767) to Betty Anne, sole child and heiress of John Dawson of Marly in Yorkshire. When George Grenville, whose principles leaned to Toryism, quarrelled with the court, Wedderburn affected to regard him as his leader in politics. At the dissolution in the spring of 1768 he was returned by Sir Lawrence Dundas for Richmond as a Tory, but in the struggles over Wilkes he took the popular side of "Wilkes and liberty," and resigned his seat (May 1769). In the opinion of the people he was now regarded as the embodiment of all legal virtue; his health was toaster! at the dinners of the Whigs amid rounds of applause, and, in recompense for the loss of his seat in parliament, he was returned by Lord Clive for his pocket-borough of Bishop's Castle, in Shropshire (January 1770). During the next session he acted vigorously in opposition, but his conduct was always viewed with distrust by his new associates, and his attacks on the ministry of Lord North grew less and less animated in proportion to its apparent fixity of tenure. In January 1771 he was offered and accepted the prize of solicitor-general. The high road to the woolsack was now open to his steps, but his defection from his former path has stamped his character with general infamy. Junius wrote of him—"As for Mr Wedderburn, there is something about him which even treachery cannot trust," and Colonel Barre attacked him in the House of Commons. The new law officer defended his conduct with the assertion that his alliance in politics had been with Mr George Grenville, and that the connexion had been severed on his death. In his new position his services were warmly appreciated. He was cool and ready in debate, and when his advice was sought for the deliberation of the cabinet it was given with promptness and energy. The expression of Gibbon that Lord North " was upholden on either hand by the majestic sense of Thurlow and the skilful eloquence of Wedderburn" was not overstrained. All through the lengthened folly of the American War his declamation was consistently employed against the cause of the colonies, but one incident in his conduct is indelibly written in history. Dr Franklin obtained in 1773, by means of some unknown member of parliament, certain letters from crown officials in Massachusetts, written before the outbreak of hostilities, and recommending the employment of a military force for the suppression of the discontent which prevailed in America. These letters he sent to the speaker of the house of assembly, and that body thereupon prayed for the recall of the officials. The application came before a committee of the privy council, when Wedderburn, amid the unrestrained applause of the majority of the judges, denounced Franklin in unmeasured terms, comparing " the coolness and apathy of the wily New Englander " with the "revengeful temper of the negro Zanga " in Dr Young's play of the Revenge. His victim preserved an impassive demeanour, but was cut to the quick. Years afterwards, on the termination of the war, when articles of peace were signed at Versailles—this is the usually accepted version of a story on which some doubt has been cast—Franklin wore the same clothes which he had worn when exposed to this invective. In June 1778 Wedderburn was promoted to the post of attorney-general, and in the same year he refused the dignity of chief baron of the exchequer because the offer was not accom-panied by the promise of a peerage. At the dissolution in 1774 he had been returned for Okehampton in Devonshire, and for Castle Rising in Norfolk, and selected the former constituency; on his promotion as leading law officer of the crown he returned to his old love of Bishop's Castle. The coveted peerage was not long delayed. In June 1780 he was created chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and he was at the same time gratified by the title of Baron Loughborough. For thirteen years he presided over this court, and, although his knowledge of the principles and precedents of law was always deficient, his skill in marshal-ling his facts and his clearness of diction made his appoint-ment generally acceptable.
During the existence of the coalition ministry of North and Fox, the great seal was in commission (April to December 1783), and Lord Loughborough held

the leading place among the commissioners. For some time after its fall he was considered as the leader of the Whig party in the House of Lords, and, had the illness of the king brought about the return of the Whigs to power, the great seal would have been placed in his hands. The king's restoration to health secured Pitt's continuance in office, and disappointed the expectations of the Whigs. In 1792, during the period of the French Revolution, Lord Loughborough seceded from Fox, and on the 28th January 1793 he received the great seal in the Tory cabinet of Pitt. In legal knowledge he was exceeded by many of his predecessors, but his judgments were always remarkable for their perspicuity, and in the appeal cases to the House of Lords, where it was his function to criticize and elucidate the opinions of others, he shone pre-eminent. All the political acts of the administration in which he served met with his zealous support, and he re-mained faithful to his leader until the question of Catholic emancipation became of urgent importance, when he is supposed to have influenced by unfair means the mind of his sovereign. It was probably through his advice that George III. refused his assent to Pitt's proposals, and that the removal of the disabilities under which the Catholics groaned was delayed for another quarter of a century. When the prime minister found that he could not carry out his compact with his Catholic fellow-subjects he re-signed, and Addington succeeded to his place. Much to Lord Loughborough's surprise, no place was found for him in Addington's cabinet, and he was obliged to resign his post of lord chancellor (14th April 1801). His first wife died 15th February 1781 without leaving issue, and he married in the following year (12th September) Charlotte, youngest daughter of William, Viscount Courtenay, but her only son died in childhood. Lord Loughborough accordingly obtained in 1795 a re-grant of his barony with remainder to his nephew, Sir James St Clair Erskine. His fall in 1801 was softened by the grant of an earldom (he w-as created earl of Rosslyn 21st April 1801, with remainder to his nephew), and by a pension of ¿£4000 per annum. After this date he rarely appeared in public, but he was a constant figure at all the royal festivities. He attended one of those gatherings at Frogmore, 31st December 1804. On the following day he was seized with an attack of gout in the stomach, and on 2d January 1805 he died at his seat, Baylis, near Salt Hill, Windsor. His remains were buried in St Paul's Cathedral on the 11th January.
At the bar AVedderburn was the most elegant speaker of his time,
but in legal erudition he was excelled by many of his contempor-
aries, and he is said to have been markedly afraid of Dunning's
forensic powers. For cool and sustained declamation he stood un-
rivalled in parliament, and his readiness in debate was universally
acknowledged. In social life, in the company of the wits and writers
of his day, his faculties seemed to desert him. He was not only
dull but the cause of dulness in others, and even Alexander
Carlyle confesses that in conversation his illustrious countryman
was "stiff and pompous." In Wedderburn's character ambition
banished all rectitude of principle, but the love of money for
money's sake was not among his faults. (W. P. C.)

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