ELLIOT, Gilbert (1722-77), of Minto, Roxburgh.
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Family and Education
b. Sept. 1722, 1st s. of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 2nd Bt., M.P. of Minto, S.C.J. (Lord Minto), by Helen, da. of Sir Robert Steuart, 1st Bt., of Allanbank, Berwick, and bro. of John Elliot. educ. Dalkeith 1732; Edinburgh Univ. 1735; adv. 1743; Leyden; tour in Holland and Germany 1744-5. m. 15 Dec. 1746 Agnes, da. and h. of Hugh Dalrymple Murray Kynynmound of Melgund, Forfar, and Lochgelly and Kynynmound, Fife, 4s. 2da. suc. fa. as 3rd Bt. 16 Apr. 1766.
Sheriff-depute Roxburghshire Mar. 1748-Nov. 1753; ld. of Admiralty Nov. 1756-Apr. 1757, June 1757-61; ld. of Treasury Mar. 1761-May 1762; treasurer of the chamber May 1762-Mar. 1770; P.C. 14 July 1762; keeper of the signet [S] Dec. 1766- d.; treasurer of the navy Mar. 1770- d.
Elliot’s father and grandfather, staunch ‘Revolution Whigs’, both owed their promotion to the bench to their close friendship with John, Duke of Argyll. Gilbert, after a frugally restricted European tour, returned to Edinburgh in June 1745, ‘a fine gentleman and polite scholar’ with a taste for poetry, history, and philosophy, but little zest for the Scottish bar. ‘Nature’, he wrote, ‘never meant me for a lawyer.’1 Nevertheless he soon gained a great reputation, and attracted the notice of Archibald, Duke of Argyll.
When in London he attended Commons debates, conceived an admiration for Pitt, an ambition to join his friends William Mure, James St. Clair, George and Charles Townshend, in Parliament, and particularly to emulate James Oswald.2 Possessed through his marriage of an independent income, he became a leader of Edinburgh literary society, and an intimate of David Hume.
Argyll encouraged his hopes of a parliamentary seat and on a vacancy in Selkirkshire gave him his interest and obliged John Murray to retire. Argyll wrote to Pelham, 4 Sept. 1753:3
Mr. Elliot ... is sure of his election. I believe this young gentleman will be above the common run; he has more of an English manner at the bar than any I see in Scotland.
Elliot made no attempt to speak in the House until the new Parliament, when he confidently intervened in November on the Stirlingshire election, in which Argyll’s interest was concerned.4 A protagonist of Scottish constitutional rights, he strongly opposed the Government bill to perpetuate the system of appointing sheriffs-depute during pleasure, and insisted that, under the terms of the Act of 1747, they should now be appointed for life. His brilliant speech on 20 Feb. 1755 created a parliamentary sensation.5 He wrote to his wife, 22 Feb.:
I impute the notice I have met with very much to its being a thing a little uncommon, from Scotland, for a young man, supported by none of the great, to take up a point of the constitution upon as high a key as any English Member of Parliament.
Backed by Pitt and the Townshends, Elliot eventually obliged Administration to concede appointment for life after an interval of 15 years. ‘So’ wrote Eliot on 4 Mar., ‘we had the triumph of preventing their being declared for ever during pleasure, which is called saving the Revolution principle.’6
During the winter Elliot had formed an ‘affectionate attachment’ for Bute, who now sought his mediation in effecting an alliance with Pitt,7 henceforward Elliot’s chief political aim. Argyll, at odds with Newcastle who was scheming with Robert Dundas to undermine his ‘viceroyalty’, supported Elliot’s nominee as sheriff of Selkirk against Dundas’s uncle; but when a crisis arose over the subsidy treaties, Newcastle dropped his intrigues and informed Dundas: ‘Mr. Elliot must be obliged.’ Argyll wrote to Newcastle, 5 Oct. 1755: ‘Mr. Elliot is a rising young man and I was very desirous of fixing him under your Grace’s protection.’8 Nevertheless, while Argyll and Oswald adhered to the Newcastle-Fox Administration, Elliot joined Pitt and Bute’s friends in opposition and in the new session ‘shone’ as a speaker against the treaties.9
On the formation of the Devonshire-Pitt Administration Elliot was offered a choice of appointments. While Argyll and Bute advised a seat on the Board of Trade, Pitt and Temple persuaded him to accept higher rank as a lord of the Admiralty. ‘I mean to make a business of it more than I ever did of a profession’, he wrote to his wife.10 On the dismissal of Temple and Pitt he at once resigned; declined offers made to him by Fox;11 and voted 2 May 1757, against the former Newcastle-Fox Administration over Minorca. Throughout the negotiations Elliot, while loyal to Pitt, acted as confidential adviser to Bute,12 his influence strengthened by the appointment of his friends John Home as Bute’s secretary and William Mure as the manager of his Scottish interests. Nevertheless, when in June 1757 Elliot was restored to his Admiralty place, Bute described him as ‘entirely Pitt for parliamentary and public considerations’.13
Since autumn 1755 Elliot had been resentful of Oswald, against whose nomination to the Treasury Board in 1759 Bute unsuccessfully protested to Newcastle.14 The Prince and Bute were at odds with the ‘old court’, and with Argyll in Scottish affairs. Charles Townshend, fishing in troubled waters, was aiming at the future management of Scotland and intriguing against Elliot.15 But the three rivals sank their differences when in March 1760 Elliot moved for a Scottish militia bill, was seconded by Oswald, and ‘thirded’ by Townshend. Elliot wrote to his father, 15 Mar.:16
I find several persons in power not satisfied with the part I have already taken in this affair ... I do not trouble myself about consequences, and I must hope you will never disapprove of my holding the same conduct in Parliament upon which I set out and upon which I must either act or not act at all.
At the second reading on 15 Apr. Elliot’s bill was overwhelmingly defeated, but his well-reasoned, impassioned speeches brought him immense prestige in Scotland.17
Elliot was deeply concerned over Pitt’s bad relations with Bute, who in April 1760 unsuccessfully employed him to seek a reconciliation.18 Although privy to Bute’s attempts to ‘raise the Prince’s standard in Scotland’, Elliot made no open appearance in the dispute with Argyll, on whom his own election largely depended, and left Bute’s electoral affairs to Mure and Sir Harry Erskine.
On the accession of George III, Elliot on personal and constitutional grounds regretted Bute’s decision to ‘remain behind the curtain’,19 and was delighted when in March 1761 he accepted office as secretary of state.20 In February Bute reproached Newcastle for not promoting Elliot, and proposed that either Oswald or some other be displaced from the Treasury Board to make room for him. Newcastle, incensed, complained to Hardwicke: ‘To impose upon me a creature of his own at my Board, that is not a pleasant circumstance.’ In the event Elliot attained his goal, but did not succeed in ousting Oswald.21
On Argyll’s death on 15 Apr. 1761, Newcastle and Hardwicke were convinced that ‘Elliot would be the man’ for the management of Scotland. Bute, however, aware that a writer’s grandson would be unacceptable to the Scottish nobility,22: dismissed the suggestion on the ground that, as a lord of the Treasury, Elliot would be fully occupied; but employed him in negotiations over the disposal of Argyll’s offices23 and, from May, as acting Scottish manager until the return of Stuart Mackenzie from Turin in August when, without apparent reluctance, Elliot surrendered his function.24 He was probably by temperament unsuited for the distribution of patronage. In office he gradually developed a cool reserve towards place-hunters and strangers, which was interpreted as pride and selfishness in Scotland where ‘the higher he rose the less was he liked by his countrymen’.25
Grieved by Pitt’s resignation, Elliot wrote to Bute, 2 Oct. 1761:
It is the last pang of a favourite system, the final separation of your Lordship and Mr. Pitt, whose union ... while it seemed at all practicable, I ever most earnestly cherished as the surest ground of the tranquillity of his Majesty’s Government.
To Pitt he wrote: ‘It will be the greatest happiness of my life to recollect that I made a part ... of your Administration’; but, after a moving farewell interview, gave his undivided devotion to Bute; he was rewarded with the reversion of Lord Milton’s place as keeper of the signet. He spoke against Pitt on 9 and 11 Dec. on the German war and the Spanish papers, ‘with great freedom ... but decent and parliamentary’. In March 1762 he urged Bute to sponsor a Scottish militia bill: ‘People must comply if you desire it’. Bute rebuked him for this ‘very improper language’: ‘Whether I could force your bill down the throats of a powerful party is one consideration, whether it would be prudent ... is another; of that I will be the judge.’ In consequence the scheme came to nothing.26
When Bute took the Treasury Elliot, disappointed of Cabinet office, was given the lucrative treasurership of the chamber which, he said, he preferred, as leaving him free for Commons business and ‘attendance on the King’.27 During the crisis over Grenville’s attitude to the peace negotiations, Elliot was one of Bute’s ‘real council’ with Halifax, Oswald, and Stuart Mackenzie;28 reluctantly concurred in the alliance with Fox; but when the peace had been secured was one of his critics in March in the debate on public accounts.29Long aware of Bute’s intention to resign, he was commissioned to communicate to Grenville Bute’s ‘final determination’ to choose him for successor.30 Elliot received no preferment for himself but the reversion of the office of lord justice clerk for his father.
Loyally supporting Grenville’s Administration, he was shocked by Bute’s negotiation with Pitt in August 1763. He wrote to his father, 30 Aug.:31
I knew not the least syllable of this transaction till the Saturday when Mr. Pitt was with the King ... When I heard what the propositions were ... I immediately declared (though I had some reason to believe I was not comprehended in the general sweep) I should certainly resign my situation and retire from a government where I must contradict, if I stayed, all my professions for two years past, and besides be charged with privity to what I disclaimed.
Elliot and Jenkinson went to see Bute at Kew on Sunday, 28 Aug., when ‘they terrified him so much upon the consequences of the step he had persuaded the King to take, that he determined to depart from it and to advise his Majesty to send for Mr. Grenville’.32 Elliot wrote to his father:
As I have acquitted myself in a public light ... so I pay what duty I can to private friendship and am much with Lord Bute and shall be so till he leaves this place. My friendship with Mr. Grenville is confirmed and if Mr. Pitt has any candour he has no right to complain of me; but that is more than I expect or indeed desire as I find our ideas of the public so very opposite.
This transaction marks a stage in Elliot’s disillusionment with politics and detachment from party connexion except as a ‘King’s friend’. Having escorted Bute to ‘absolute retirement’ in Bedfordshire, and temporarily disarmed Grenville’s suspicions, Elliot was a prominent supporter of Administration over Wilkes and general warrants. In July 1764 he rebuked David Hume for his bitterness at English antagonism to the Scots:
We are both Englishmen; that is true British subjects. Am I not a Member of Parliament with as much liberty to abuse ministers ... as if I had been born in Wapping? ... Had it not been for the clamour of ‘a Scot’, perhaps indeed I might have been in some more active but not more honourable or lucrative situation. This clamour ... will in time give way to some other equally absurd.
Nevertheless Elliot and Bute’s friends were accused of ‘caballing’—not always unjustly. When Grenville, having insisted upon Stuart Mackenzie’s dismissal, resumed office, Elliot categorically refused his demand for firm guarantees of loyalty in any future crisis, asserting the ‘right of the Crown to name its own officers’ and his own duty to ‘oppose improper measures in a parliamentary way’.33
In June Elliot transferred from Selkirk to Roxburghshire, where the principal Minto estates lay. On the formation of the Rockingham Administration in July, Elliot was retained in office, but gave no explicit assurances of support. He wrote to Jenkinson, 26 Aug. 1765:34
I think I love the public and I am sure I love my friends ... but as for that partial spirit which gave so much energy to business ... it is by me totally irrecoverable. I will never be angry with ministers because they are incapable of a true confidential friendship.
The ministry were disturbed by Elliot’s attitude: while affirming support in general, he reserved judgment over American affairs. Consulted by Conway on the Address, he insisted upon some reference to parliamentary authority over the colonies, but in the debate on 17 Dec. spoke against the violent terms of Grenville’s amendment.35 After his vote on 31 Jan. 1766 against Administration on the Anstruther election, Conway complained that it might have been attributed to local connexion but for ‘a previous appearance of separation’ from Government.36 In the debates on the repeal of the Stamp Act Elliot was extremely critical of Pitt, favoured modification, and, when this was rejected, strongly opposed repeal.37 He wrote to his father, 1 Mar. 1766:38
I spoke and voted in the minority agreeably to the plan I have followed and the explanation I early made ... In other matters I have, supported Government, and in some instances with effect ... I hear we’ll also have the old questions on general warrants and the cider bill, in which case I shall also act consistently with my former opinions.
On Grafton’s resignation, Rockingham and Newcastle tried to sound the King on what Elliot and Oswald would do, and to insist that unless ‘those two’ gave ‘absolute and active support on all occasions’ the ministry would resign.39 The King wrote to Bute, 3 May 1766:40
They mean to lay their not going on at your door and that of your friends; this day they named their surprise at those gentlemen not having spoke ... I said I was not surprised for whilst they were barely tolerated it could not be expected they would with ardour step forward, unasked, to support the ministers.
When Chatham’s Administration was formed Elliot was in Scotland on business consequent upon his father’s death. He retained his place, but, ‘cool and indifferent’, remained at home41 until the autumn session, when he challenged the legality of a recent corn embargo proclaimed without parliamentary sanction; but agreed to an indemnity bill,42 and otherwise supported Administration; voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767; and spoke ‘admirably’ in the East India debate, 9 Mar.43 He voted with Administration on nullum tempos, 17 Feb. 1768.
Returned unopposed at the general election, he early took a strong line on Wilkes and the Middlesex election; on 12 May 1768 at a meeting of the Government men of business he ‘insisted’ that he would move for Wilkes’s expulsion and reluctantly agreed to postponement. In the new session he repudiated on 23 Nov. Beckford’s strictures on the previous Parliament’s proceedings on Wilkes; advocated a union of parties against ‘licentious men’; spoke, 3 Feb. 1769, for Wilkes’s expulsion, and consistently voted with Administration; but according to Grenville ‘was idle and not very strongly affected to them’. Critical of Grafton’s ‘weakness’, and finding himself ‘much neglected’, he now seldom spoke except ‘on occasions of emergency’.44
On Grafton’s resignation Elliot, summoned to a meeting with North on 29 Jan. 1770, promised support to his Administration; spoke 31 Jan. in the debate on Wilkes and was offered the treasurership of the navy, which ‘though hazardous’ he accepted at the King’s desire. During 1770-1 he was a leading Government speaker on the Falkland Islands question, on East India military forces, and the printers’ case; and pressed North to take rigorous action against the city and Brass Crosby. Elliot’s relations with North deteriorated; he began ‘to act the part of discontent’, but continued to vote with Administration. In February 1772 he was bitterly offended when the King concurred with North and Barrington in refusing his son Hugh a captain-lieutenancy in the Guards on the ground that the nominal commission obtained, illicitly, for him in 1762, when aged 10, gave no claim to rank. The presence of the first minister in the House of Commons made Elliot of less consequence in the House.45
In American affairs he remained a protagonist of the authority of Parliament and its right to impose colonial taxes; these principles being conceded, he favoured lenity. He spoke, 19 Apr. 1774, against the repeal of the tea duty, but on 22 Apr. in supporting the Massachusetts bill was no extremist.46 In the new Parliament he continued to favour a firm American policy; but when, on 20 Feb. 1775, North’s conciliatory proposals aroused violent controversy, Elliot, by his argument that the motion was complementary and not contradictory to the repressive terms of the Address, persuaded the ministerial dissidents to ‘rally under their proper standards’.47 Henceforward Elliot in his rare speeches upheld North’s prestige; refuted on 27 Oct. 1775 William Adam’s criticisms of his indolence,48 although privately thinking him ‘fat and lazy as ever’ and Government mismanagement ‘terrible’;49 and supported him in the army debate, 1 Nov. 1775, and on 20 Feb. 1776 over the demand for the inquiry into the ill-success of British arms.
Elliot’s last major speeches were made in March 1776, in support of Mountstuart’s Scottish militia bill, on which he argued with something of his old fire, but was again disappointed.
After assisting at his son’s Morpeth election, Elliot fell ill, did not return for the autumn session, and died in France 11 Jan. 1777.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
This biography is based upon research by Rosemary Mitchison.
- 1. Ramsay of Ochtertyre, i. 364-5; Elliot to Mure, June 1745 (misdated 1742), Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 29.
- 2. G. F. S. Elliot, Border Elliots, 331-2; Mems., James Oswald, 289.
- 3. Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
- 4. Border Elliots, 337.
- 5. Ibid. 337-8; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 4-5.
- 6. Minto mss.
- 7. Border Elliots, 342.
- 8. Add. 32854, f. 93; 32857, f. 390; 32859, ff. 240, 396.
- 9. Walpole to G. Montagu, 20 Dec. 1755; Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 110.
- 10. Border Elliots, 352, 353, 354.
- 11. Ibid. 357; Add. 32870, f. 377.
- 12. Elliot to Bute, June 1757, Bute mss.
- 13. Bute to Stuart Mackenzie, July 1757, Bute mss.
- 14. Dodington, Diary, 413-14.
- 15. John Dalrymple to Townshend, 5 Oct. 1759, Buccleuch mss.
- 16. Border Elliots, 360.
- 17. Hume to Minto, 1 May 1760, Letters, i. 525.
- 18. Namier, England in Age of American Rev. 104-9.
- 19. Dodington to Bute, 25 Dec. 1760, Bute mss.
- 20. Elliot to Bute, March 1761, ibid.
- 21. Add. 32918, ff. 465-6, 500-13; 32919, ff. 402-4.
- 22. Geo. Middleton to Bute, 24 Apr.,? July 1761, Bute mss.
- 23. Add. 32922, ff. 3-6, 15-24, 108-10, 131, 168-9.
- 24. Elliot to Bute, 30 Aug. 1761, Bute mss.
- 25. Ramsay, i. 368; T. Somerville, Life Times, 121.
- 26. Minto mss; Patrick Craufurd to Mure, 17 Dec. 1761, Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 152.
- 27. Border Elliots, 374; Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 152.
- 28. Newcastle to Devonshire, 10 Oct. 1762, Add. 32943, f. 144.
- 29. The King to Bute, c.5 Mar. 1763, Sedgwick, 197.
- 30. Border Elliots, 375.
- 31. Ibid. 378.
- 32. Grenville Pprs. ii. 197.
- 33. Border Elliots, 387, 393.
- 34. Jenkinson Pprs. 383.
- 35. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 36. Conway to the King, 1 Feb. 1766, Fortescue, i. 249.
- 37. Caldwell Pprs. ii(2), p. 72; Fortescue, i. 267-8.
- 38. Minto mss.
- 39. Egmont to the King, 4 May 1766, Fortescue, i. 303-6.
- 40. Sedgwick, 247.
- 41. Dyson to Elliot, 10 Oct. 1766, Minto mss.
- 42. Border Elliots, 401; Grenville Pprs. iii. 384; Fortescue, i. 422.
- 43. Hume, Letters, ii. 127.
- 44. Brooke, Chatham Admin. 359; Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iii. 182-3, 198.
- 45. Border Elliots, 406-8; Fortescue, ii. 128, 316.
- 46. Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 337.
- 47. Almon, i. 207; Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 436.
- 48. Almon, iii. 68.
- 49. Elliot to his s. Hugh, 31 Aug. 1775, Lady Minto, Mem. Hugh Elliot, 78.