MORTON, John (?1714-80), of Tackley, nr. Woodstock, Oxon.
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Family and Education
b. ?1714, 1st s. of John Morton of Tackley. educ. Abingdon; Trinity, Oxf. 28 May 1730, aged 15; I. Temple 1732, called 1740. m. bef. June 1751, Elizabeth, da. of Paul Jodrell of Duffield, Derbys., sis. of Paul Jodrell, M.P., solicitor-gen. to Frederick, Prince of Wales.
Recorder of Woodstock 1743; bencher, I. Temple 1758, reader 1765, treasurer 1766; c.j. of Chester Dec. 1762- d.; attorney-gen. to the Queen, Mar. 1770- d.; dep. high steward, Oxf. Univ. 1770- d.
Morton was possibly of the Mortons of Kidlington, a family long connected with the law and the Inner Temple.1 In Parliament he acted from the outset with Leicester House,2 and had no connexion with the Pelhams. When in 1753 the Duke of Bedford was approached by Abingdon voters to nominate a candidate against Morton, Richard Neville Aldworth wrote to the Duke:3
He is disposed to attach himself to your Grace, is no Tory, and by the least additional strength would be sure of success. He in my humble opinion would be a proper person to support upon the occasion.
Lord Dupplin, in his first analysis of the new House in May 1754, placed Morton in the column ‘Against’ which covered both Tories and Opposition Whigs, but a month later, when separating them, included him in the Whig column of the ‘doubtful’.4 In the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Morton voted for the Tory candidates, and during the hearing of the petition spoke on their side.5 Altogether he acted with the Opposition, but whether as a Whig or as a Tory will remain a moot point: evidence of how threadbare these designations had become.
On 13 Nov. 1755 Morton voted with the dissident Whigs against the Address. On 16 June 1756 Legge wrote to Pitt:6
Two or three days ago, I received a message from [Morton] by [Samuel] Martin to desire I would use what interest I could, to get him recommended for solicitor-general to the Princess of Wales ... At the same time I was informed, that the Duke of Newcastle had offered him a silk gown, and made strong love to him ... but that he had flatly refused the offer, and all connexion with his Grace ...
This behaviour certainly ought to recommend him. I have, therefore, wrote to Lord Bute, stated the case, and desired him to confer with you upon the subject. Pray, what think you of him? Sure, he is as good as Henley or Charles Yorke any day in the week; and if Pratt is attorney ... and Morton solicitor, we shall out-lawyer them upon the whole ...
Charles Pratt became attorney-general to the Prince, but without Morton for junior colleague. On 8 Dec. 1757, Martin wrote to Bute7 about a conversation with Morton:
He would have been best pleased to be received immediately into her Royal Highness’s service, but since that cannot be, he embraces with pleasure the expedient offered by your lordship. Only instead of an appointment to be a King’s Counsel, he would choose a patent of precedence, as being equally useful with the other in his profession, and not subjecting him to the necessity of a re-election into Parliament. He commissions me to assure your lordship that this instance of your and Mr. Pitt’s acceptance of him will be considered in his thoughts as a lasting tie upon his conduct: not for the greatness of the obligation; because he hath long had it in his power to obtain the same favour through other channels; but because the obligation will be contracted in the place where he chooses to be obliged.
He would have wished, but was not permitted, to say that the honour was offered him by the Princess of Wales.8 He received his patent 27 Jan. 1758.
In the new reign Morton was, first and foremost, a Bute man; was classed as such in Bute’s parliamentary list of December 1761; and received through him his judicial appointment. When in October 1761 a new Speaker had to be found, Grenville, according to Newcastle,9
was very positive and determined for Mr. Morton. I objected most strongly to it; that I could not be for Mr. Morton; that he was a Tory, and besides a very low and inconsiderable man.
Although Bute supported Grenville, Newcastle for once had his way, and Morton was dropped.
Morton did not speak on the peace preliminaries, a subject beyond his range which was pre-eminently legal; but on 13 Mar. 1763 spoke in favour of the cider tax. He adhered to Grenville as the King’s and Bute’s choice, and was catechized after the crisis of August 1763—his friend Charles Townshend wrote to Temple on 21 Oct.:10
Morton is returned from consultation: he was sent for to hear a manifesto read, in which every step and expression in the late negotiation is represented: Mr. Grenville illustrated it with comments and anecdotes, and it was declared to have been prepared and communicated by the King’s order. The enclosed letter contains the matter of this manifesto [presumably Grenville’s circular of early September, shown to the King only after it had been sent out broadcast].
Before the opening of the autumn session of 1763, Morton was summoned to the meetings at Grenville’s house on 5 and 13 Nov.: not by right of his office but as an eminent lawyer requested to take part in debates on Wilkes and general warrants.11 This Morton did, repeatedly seconding Lord North’s motions; that No. 45 of the North Briton was a seditious libel; that privilege did not extend to such libels; and on Wilkes’s expulsion. He also spoke, and was teller, on 6 Feb., when Meredith moved for the warrant on which Wilkes had been arrested—a veritable field-day for lawyers.
In September-November Morton acted as intermediary between Grenville and Charles Townshend in an attempt to add the latter’s ‘strength and sincere support to Government’.12 It is difficult to say whether the intermediaries—John Bindley was another—exaggerated to either side the eagerness of the other for an agreement, or whether the two principals misled the intermediaries, first encouraging and next disavowing them.13 In a letter to Townshend on 29 Oct., Morton stated his attitude to Grenville and Bute:
’Tis the gratitude I shall ever bear the King that made me attentive to what I observed was the wish of his present minister. ’Tis to a past, but perhaps at present your invisible minister, that I stand indebted for my present fair lot of freehold. With that I am perfectly contented, and am only desirous that on all right and honest occasions I may be known to be mindful of the obligations I owe my King and of the good will I bear my country.
Perhaps the most memorable of Morton’s interventions in the House was on 9 May 1765, after the Grenville Government had contrived in the Lords the exclusion of the Princess of Wales from the Regency bill:14
Had this bill come down from the other House agreeable to his Majesty’s Speech, it would have met with an almost general concurrence; but altered as it now is, I think it necessary to propose an amendment. His Majesty’s Speech comprehended all his royal family. One is now excluded and if that exclusion is with her own consent, it is an instance of magnanimity which makes the propriety of inserting her name the greater.
In July 1765 Rockingham classed Morton as an opponent; he opposed the repeal of the Stamp Act, speaking against the Government on 17 Jan. and 6 and 27 Feb., and voting against them on 7 and 22 Feb. In January 1767 his friend Townshend listed him as ‘Government’; but he divided against them over the land tax, 27 Feb.; and was charged with ingratitude by Walpole who, without explaining the transaction, says that in Morton’s favour ‘Lord Chatham had lately quashed an opposition at Abingdon’15—a most unusual thing for Chatham, who never concerned himself with elections. In 1768 Morton carried his election by two votes only; his opponent, Nathaniel Bayly, petitioned; and Morton’s case was reputedly weak. In January 1770 Grafton, while still at the Treasury, attempted an accommodation by suggesting to Lord Irwin that he should return his brother-in-law Bayly on a vacancy impending in his borough of Horsham. Bayly refused, and Morton at first hesitated to accept Irwin’s offer to return him instead. Then on 7 Feb. Bayly wrote to Irwin:16
Mr. Morton has this day agreed to give up the contest at Abingdon [on my agreeing to cease prosecuting him in three actions of bribery]. After it was agreed, Lord North came in and asked me if I knew whether your Lordship would have any objection to bring Mr. Morton in for Horsham. I replied I did not know upon which he said he should desire the Duke of Grafton to write your Lordship upon it. Now as it was certain I should have beaten Mr. Morton and that he knew it ... I therefore think your Lordship is under no kind of obligation to bring Morton in for Horsham on my account.
It might obviously have been embarrassing for a judge to have bribery proved against him, and he gave up his seat by allowing his counsel to agree to three of his voters being disqualified on innocuous grounds. The same day Grafton wrote to Irwin that Morton ‘gives up Abingdon, trusting to your Lordship’s patronage of him at Horsham’. But Irwin felt under no obligation to Morton ‘for resigning pretensions ... which he found at best very doubtful’ and after he had not accepted the offer when made.17 Within a month, however, a vacancy was made for Morton in a borough at the disposal of Government; and he was appointed attorney-general to the Queen. Offers of high judicial office incompatible with a seat in Parliament he invariably refused.18
On 25 Apr. 1768, before the opening of the new Parliament, Morton was invited to a meeting of Cabinet ministers and lawyers to consider what action to take about Wilkes; and he took a share in debates against him.19 As in previous Parliaments he spoke on a great variety of subjects but almost invariably on points of a legal character. He voted with the Government in six out of seven listed divisions, and only over the naval captains’ petition, 9 Feb. 1773, did he give a ‘conscientious’ vote against them.
No seat seems to have been assigned to him by Government in 1774, nor does he seem to have stood on his own. But he soon returned to the House on a most extraordinary deal. In May 1775 the place of a baron of the Exchequer was about to fall vacant; and Beaumont Hotham, a friend of the Duke of Portland, returned by him for Wigan and regularly voting with the Opposition, was appointed to it in exchange for Morton being returned in his place. The King wrote to Lord North, 15 May:20
I thoroughly approve of the arrangement in consequence of the declining state of Baron Perrott; Mr. Hotham’s character qualifies for this promotion; and Mr. Morton will prove a more agreeable attender in his room.
And Lord Camden to Lord Shelburne:21 ‘Hotham is the new judge, and the Duke of Portland is gone to Wigan to choose Morton. Is not this curious?’ Lord Chancellor Bathurst, who presumably recommended Hotham for the bench, was a close friend of both Portland and Morton; even so, it seems remarkable that, at that date, Portland should have returned a staunch supporter of the Government’s American policy.
For Morton can be classed as such although no vote of his appears in this Parliament: the division lists 1775-9 give only the names of the minority; over the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, Robinson classed him as ‘pro, absent’; and he was similarly absent from the divisions March 1779-April 1780 because of ‘bad state of health’. But on 24 Nov. 1775 he affirmed the legality of introducing foreign troops into British dominions, because done in time of war; and over Lord North’s conciliatory bills of February 1778, he declared ‘an insuperable objection’ to empowering the commissioners ‘to treat on the independence of America: the very idea of such a thing would encourage them to demand it. There should be a clause in the bill to oblige the Americans to make a formal renunciation of that claim.’ And on 2 Mar. he proceeded to argue with great ingenuity the illegality of exempting Americans from British taxation, and ‘the danger of raising money in America by requisitions from the Crown’, which revenue might enable the King ‘to govern this country without Parliament’.22 Nevertheless he is alleged to have again voted with the Government. The Public Ledger wrote about him in 1779:
A sensible man, of Tory principles, and of an arbitrary turn of mind. He affects to have a will of his own, but has in fact none, which he instanced by voting for Lord North’s conciliatory propositions against his own, positive, declared opinion.
It was only toward the end of his life that he is seen co-operating with the Opposition: quasi-Tory which Morton was, he sympathized with the schemes of economical reform, and wrote a letter on the subject to Portland referred to by Burke when writing to the Duke on 16 Jan. 1780:
I am very happy to find that the main lines of my plan are approved by an old Member of his experience, ability, and learning, and shall think myself much honoured by his advice and assistance.
In a further letter to Portland, 25 Jan., Morton discussed various aspects of the proposed reform, and ‘great sinecure offices’ which ‘call for the pruning knife in the hands of an experienced operator’; also ‘the great waste of public revenue in the present mode of collecting the land tax’; but regretted not to be ‘now in health enough’ to attend the House. Similarly in three letters to Burke (15 and 20 Feb. and 17 Mar.): while deploring his inability to attend the House, he dealt at great length with Burke’s proposals, and specially urged him to insist on ‘a full disclosure of the ... enormous emoluments of officers of the Exchequer and Treasury’, ‘these State harpies’.
He died 25 July 1780.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. Mrs. B. Stapleton, Hist. Kidlington (Oxf. Hist. Soc. xxiv) 93-98.
- 2. Recs. Cust. Fam. iii. 128, 133, 137.
- 3. Bedford mss 29, f. 39.
- 4. Add. 33034, ff. 177-9, 183.
- 5. Poll Bk.; R. J. Robson, Oxfordshire Election of 1754, p. 166.
- 6. Chatham Corresp. i. 166-7.
- 7. Bute mss.
- 8. Martin to Bute, 15 Dec., Bute mss.
- 9. Add. 32929, ff. 252-60.
- 10. Grenville Pprs. ii. 143.
- 11. Jas. Harris’s memorandum, 5 Nov. 1763, Malmesbury mss.
- 12. Morton to Townshend, 29 Oct., Townshend mss in possession of the Duke of Buccleuch.
- 13. For the negotiations see TOWNSHEND, Hon. Charles.
- 14. Grenville Pprs. iii. 29.
- 15. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 301.
- 16. The above text is taken from W. Albery, Partly. Hist. Horsham, 109, where, however, two passages are discreetly suppressed. The first gap is here filled in from a very brief summary of the letter in HMC Var. viii. 187: it is not certain that the words are a literal quotation. The original is missing from the Irwin mss, Temple Newsam, Leeds.
- 17. Albery, 110-11.
- 18. John Wilmot, Mem. Life of Sir J. E. Wilmot, 40, 46-47; Chatham Corresp. iv. 65; Morton to Edmund Burke, 15 Feb. 1780.
- 19. Brooke, Chatham Admin. 354-6; Cavendish’s Debates, i. 423.
- 20. Fortescue, iii. 209.
- 21. Lansdowne mss, n.d.
- 22. Almon, iii. 213; viii. 399, 420.