1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir James Mackintosh

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:29-33.



SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH, an eminent lawyer, statesman, and historian, was born at Aldowrie, on the banks of Loch Ness, within seven miles of Inverness, October 24, 1765. He was the son of Captain John Mackintosh of Kellachie, who during the seven years' war in Germany, served in Campbell's Highlanders, and was severely wounded at the battle of Felinghausen in July 1761. His mother was Marjory, daughter of Mr. Alexander Macgillivray of Carolina, by Anne Fraser, sister of Brigadier-general Fraser, who was killed in General Burgoyne's army in 1777; and of Dr. Fraser, physician in London, and of Mrs. Fraser Tytler, wife of Lord Woodhouselee, one of the lords of session. Major Mercer, the friend of Beattie and the author of a small volume of Lyric Poems, who held a lieutenant's commission in the same regiment, (and a memoir of whom is given subsequently in its place) in a letter to Lord Glenbervie, thus speaks of Sir James' father and uncle: "John Macintosh was one of the most lively, good humoured, gallant lads I ever knew; and he had an elder brother of the name of Angus, who served in the regiment (Col. afterwards Sir R. M. Keith's) that constantly encamped next to ours, who was a most intelligent man, and a most accomplished gentleman. Mr. M.'s grandfather saw his two sons return home, at the end of the seven years' war, one with a shattered leg, and the other with the loss of an eye." His father was afterwards captain in the 68th regiment, in which he served at Gibraltar, during the famous siege of that place.

He received the first part of his education at the school of Fortrose, in Ross-shire, to which he was sent in the summer of 1775, and he remained there till he went to King's College, Old Aberdeen, in October 1780. His passion for reading, in his boyhood, was so great that his father often complained that he would become "a mere pedant." he read at all times and in all places, and would frequently sit up the greater part of the night over his books. Whilst at school so great was his proficiency that he was employed by the usher, whose name was Stalker, to teach the younger boys, and "that boy, that Jamie Mackintosh," was known all over the country as a prodigy of learning. He also made some attempts at writing verses, which, for the four winters he continued at Aberdeen, gained him the name of "the poet." His companion at King's College was the afterwards celebrated Robert Hall of Leicester. They lived in the same house, and read and studied together. They were both fond of argument, and had almost daily discussions on most topics of enquiry, particularly in morals and metaphysics. In their joint studies, we are told in Gregory's Memoir of Robert Hall, (page 22) they read much of Xenophon and Herodotus, and more of Plato; and so well was all this known, exciting admiration in some, in others envy, that it was not unusual, "they went along, for their class-fellows to point at them, and say, 'there goes Plato and Herodotus!'" Under the auspices of these two highly gifted young men, a debating society was formed in King's College, which was jocularly termed "the Hall and Mackintosh Club."

In March 1784, Mr. Mackintosh took his degree of master of arts, and the next thing to be considered was the choice of a profession. He himself wished to become an advocate at the Scottish bar, but his friends preferred that he should be a doctor of medicine, and in October of the same year he went to Edinburgh, where for three years he attended the medical classes. While at the university of that city, he became a member of the Speculative Society, which met for the discussion of subjects in general literature and science, and at its meetings he soon distinguished himself as a keen and eloquent debater. At this time its leaders were Charles Hope, afterwards lord president of the court of session; Baron Constant de Rebecque, the subsequently celebrated Benjamin Constant; Malcolm Laing, the historian; and Thomas Addis Emmett. He attended the lectures of Dr. Brown, the founder of the Brunonian system, and for a time was one of his most enthusiastic disciples. He was also a member of the royal medical and royal physical societies. In 1787 be took his degree of M.D., his thesis on the occasion being "De motu musculari."

In the beginning of the following spring he went to London, accompanied by one of his college friends, Lewis Grant, the eldest son of Sir James Grant of Grant, then M.P. for Morayshire, and afterwards earl of Seafield and Findlater. His mind had an early bias towards politics, and as his principles were of the most liberal kind, he soon became a member of the Society for Constitutional information, one of the numerous political societies of that exciting period. He seems at this time to have contemplated settling in St. Petersburg as a physician, but the plan was not carried into effect. On the death of his father, the same year, he succeeded to the family estate of Kellachie, in Inverness-shire, worth about 900 a year, but burdened by an annuity to the widow of a former proprietor, who still survived. In the course of a year or two he was compelled to dispose of it, from pecuniary difficulties, for 9,000. The malady which attacked George III., in the autumn of 1788, caused Mr. Mackintosh to advertise a work on insanity, but though a considerable portion of it was written, it was never published. Early in the following year he issued a pamphlet on the Regency Question, in support of the claims of the prince of Wales, which attracted little notice. Subsequently he attempted to settle himself in practice as a physician in Bath, at Salisbury, and afterwards at Weymouth, but without success. He had previously married, at the age of 24, Catherine Stewart, sister of the Messrs. Stewart, proprietors of the Morning Post, and soon after he went on a tour, with his wife, through the Low Countries, to Brussels, where he resided for some time. On his return to London, he became a contributor to The Oracle newspaper, at a fixed salary, of articles on the affairs of Belgium and France. He now relinquished the medical profession, and resolved to devote himself to the study of the law.

The publication of Mr. Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, in 1790, called forth numerous replies, and among other opponents Mr. Mackintosh stepped forth, in the spring of 1791, with his Vindicia Gallicae, or a Defence of the French Revolution against the Accusations of Edmund Burke, which at once acquired for him a high reputation. He had sold the work, when only partly written, for 30, but its sale was so great, three editions of it having gone off within six months, that the publisher, Mr. George Robinson, liberally paid him several times the original price. The great talent displayed in it obtained for the author the acquaintance of Fox, Grey, Sheridan, Whitbread, and other leading whigs. On the formation, under their auspices, of the celebrated association of the "Friends of the People," in the following year, he was appointed its honorary Secretary, and as such had a principal hand in the authorship of their Declaration, which exercised so powerful an influence over the public feeling of the time. In answer to a proclamation of government against such societies, he published A Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt, London, 1792, defending the principles of the association, on which occasion he received the public thanks of the association for the ability and vigour displayed in its service.

The same year he entered himself of Lincoln's Inn, to study law, and in Michaelmas term, 1796, he was called to the bar by that society. At this time he contributed various articles to the British Critic and Monthly Review, then the only literary periodicals of any note. To the latter he sent reviews of Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, Mr. Roscoe's Life of Lorenzo de Medicis, and Mr. Burke's Letter to the Duke of Bedford, and also his Thoughts on a Regicide Peace. His article on the latter led to a correspondence with Burke, who invited him to his residence at Beaconsfield, and he spent a few days with that celebrated statesman a short time previous to his death.

His practice as a barrister was at first extremely limited, and with the view of adding to his income, he delivered, in 1799, a course of lectures in Lincoln's Inn Hall, on The Law of Nature and Nations. The use of the hall he had obtained with some difficulty, owing to a suspicion entertained by some, that politics would be introduced into his lectures. To indicate precisely his plan and the manner in which it was his intention to treat it, he published an Introductory Discourse, which gained the approbation of the then lord chancellor, Lord Loughborough, as well as of both Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox, and the whole course was attended by large audiences, including some of the most distinguished men of the day. The reputation which he acquired from these lectures, 39 in all, was incidentally of much use to his general professional advancement. He was often retained as counsel in cases in committees of the House of Commons, regarding constitutional law and contested elections, and in those before the privy council. On the Norfolk circuit, which, after trying the home circuit, he had joined, he soon found himself in possession of a considerable share of the little business it supplies. In 1801, he was asked to assist in a project, then under the consideration of the emperor Alexander, of digesting the ukases which governed Russia into something of a code of law. The Russian minister in London, we are informed by his son, was instructed to apply, with that view, to "jurisconsults Anglais qui, comme Mackintosh, jouissent d'une reputation distinguee." Family ties forbade, what otherwise he confessed that he should not have been averse from — the means "of giving more effectual aid, by a personal residence for some time in Russia." It was an odd coincidence that an opportunity should now offer of going, as a jurist, to the same country for which he was once designed as a physician. He was also, about the same time, invited by a body of London publishers, to superintend a new edition of Johnson's Poets, but the project never came to anything.

Among the crowds of British subjects who hastened to Paris, on the peace of Amiens in autumn 1802, were Mr. and Mrs. Mackintosh, who remained in that capital a month, when he was presented to the First Consul. The terrible events of the reign of terror in France had long ere this modified very considerably many of the opinions he had expressed in the Vindiciae Gallicae. On the trial, February 21, 1803, of M. Peltier, a French refugee, editor of a French journal published in London, entitled L'Ambigu, for a libel on Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul of France, Mr. Mackintosh appeared as sole counsel for the defendant, while the case for the prosecution was conducted by Mr. Perceval, afterwards prime minister, then attorney general, and Mr. Abbott, afterwards Lord Tenterden. His address to the jury on the occasion was declared by Lord Ellenborough, the presiding judge; to be "the most eloquent oration he ever had heard in Westminster Hall." A translation of this speech was made by Madame de Stael, and circulated throughout Europe. No less a personage than Louis Philippe, duc d'Orleans, afterwards king of the French, had partly translated his Vindiciae Gallicae, and a speech subsequently delivered by him in the cause of Poland received the same honour from the patriotic princess Jablonowska.

A short time thereafter he was appointed recorder, or criminal judge of Bombay, when he was knighted, December 21, 1803. He arrived at Bombay 26th May, 1804, and on the institution, in that year, of a court of vice-admiralty there, for the trial and adjudication of all prize and maritime cases, he was appointed judge of that court. He remained in India for seven years, distinguishing himself by his fearlessness in the discharge of his official duties, and his exertions in the amelioration of the criminal law. He founded the Literary society of Bombay, and contributed various valuable communications to the Asiatic Register. He left Bombay in November 1811, retiring from the recordership with a pension of 1,200 from the East India Company. Previous to his departure the grand jury presented a complimentary address, requesting that he would sit for his portrait, to be hung in the hall of the court. The Literary Society of Bombay elected him, on his departure, their honorary president, and requested him to sit for a bust to be placed in their library; and with both requests he complied.

On his arrival in England, he received a communication from Mr. Perceval, then first lord of the Treasury, offering him a seat in parliament, but he declined it, as he could not agree with government on the subject of the Roman Catholic disabilities, being in favour of their removal. His answer, dated May 11, 1812, was ready to be sent the very day that Perceval was shot by Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Lord Liverpool, who succeeded Perceval, offered him the office of a commissioner for India, but that also he declined. He was elected M.P. for the county of Nairn in July 1813. The following year, on the restoration of the Bourbons, he again visited Paris, and on his return, while the impressions which the aspect of affairs in the French capital had created were still fresh in his memory, he communicated to the Edinburgh Review (vol. xxiv. p. 505) some Reflections on the subject.

In 1818, he became, by appointment of the court of Directors, professor of law and general politics in the East India Company's college at Haileybury. The same year, on the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, he was offered the professorship of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, but declined it, a determination which he afterwards greatly regretted, as he had always been desirous of an academic career.

Through the influence of the duke of Devonshire, he was elected for Knaresborough, in the parliament which met in January 1819, and was rechosen for that place at four subsequent elections. He took a prominent part on all questions of foreign policy and international law, and was a principal speaker on most of the more important measures that came before parliament. He chiefly distinguished himself, however, by his efforts to improve the criminal code, a task which had been commenced by Sir Samuel Romilly. In 1819 he was chairman of a committee of the House of Commons on the subject, some bills relative to which be introduced into parliament. He was one of the earliest and most zealous advocates for the emancipation of the West Indian slaves. He rejoiced at the passing of the Roman Catholic emancipation bill in 1829; and he was a warm supporter of the Reform bill, though be did not live to see it passed into a law. Subjoined is his portrait, from a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

In 1822, Sir James was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow, and again in 1893. In 1828, he was sworn a member of the privy Council, and in December 1830, on the formation of earl Grey's administration, he was appointed one of the commissioners for the affairs of India, the office he had refused eighteen years before. He died at London, May 30th, 1832, in the 66th year of his age, and was buried at Hampstead. He had for some time been declining in strength, and a short time previous to his death, whilst at dinner, he swallowed a small fragment of a chicken bone, which, though removed, occasioned a slight laceration in the trachea, that subsequently extended to the vertebrae of the neck, and ultimately proved fatal.

He was twice married. His first wife, already mentioned, died in 1797. By her he had a son, who died in infancy, and three daughters. He took for his second wife, in 1798, a daughter of J. B. Allen, Esq. of Cressella, Pembrokeshire, and by her he had one son, Robert James Mackintosh, Esq. B.A., fellow of New College, Oxford, who published Memoirs of his father, in 2 vols., 8vo, London, 1835, and a daughter, Frances, married to H. Wedgwood, Staffordshire. His three eldest daughters were, Mary, the wife of Claudius James Rich, Esq., British resident at Bagdad; Maitland, Mrs. Erskine; and Catherine, married to Sir William Wiseman, baronet, but divorced in 1825, by act of parliament. Her second son, Sir William Saltonstall Wiseman, became the eighth baronet of that name.