ABERCROMBY, Hon. James (1776-1858), of Spring Gardens, Westminster.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1807 - 1812
1812 - 1830
1832 - May 1839

Family and Education

b. 7 Nov. 1776, 3rd s. of Gen. Sir Ralph Abercromby*, and bro. of Hons. Alexander Abercromby*, George Abercromby* and Sir John Abercromby*. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1788-91; Christ Church, Oxf. 1794; L. Inn 1794, called 1800. m. 14 June 1802, Mary Anne, da. of Egerton Leigh of High Leigh, Cheshire, 1s. cr. Baron Dunfermline 7 June 1839.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts 1801-27; PC 23 May 1827; judge adv.-gen. 1827-8; chief baron of Exchequer [S] 1830-2; master of Mint (with seat in cabinet) July-Dec. 1834.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1798-1800.

Speaker of House of Commons 1835-9.

Biography

Abercromby wrote of himself in 1820: ‘As to my own fortune it is that of a younger brother and consists mainly in the fruits of my own industry’. He had the asset of being ‘singularly intelligent’. A contemporary of Francis Horner and Henry Brougham at Edinburgh high school, he completed his education in England. Soon after his call to the bar he was admired for ‘his spirit and independence’ at a legal club at the Crown and Anchor tavern in London. He practised in Chancery, becoming, through his father’s friendship with Lord Loughborough, a commissioner of bankrupts. He was probably the ‘Mr Abercromby’ suggested to Lord Grenville by Lord Henry Petty in May 1806 as fit to be a commissioner of accounts. He broke with his family’s politics by joining the Whig Club on 5 May 1807 and four days later was returned to Parliament, by his sister-in-law’s brother-in-law Lord Carrington, for Midhurst. He went on to join Brooks’s Club on 26 Apr. 1808. Thus in his first Parliament he was a committed member of the Whig opposition. Sir Samuel Romilly wrote of him, 15 June 1808:

I have the highest opinion of Abercromby and I think him likely to render most essential service to the country. He has a very enlightened mind, an excellent understanding, very just principles of political economy, an independent spirit and a warm love of liberty and he has the more merit, because all his connexions are Tories. If I do not mistake, his brother married a daughter of Lord Melville.1

Abercromby first spoke against the Irish insurrection bill, 24 July 1807. On 15 Feb. 1808 his motion for particulars of the negotiation with Portugal in 1806 was objected to in part by Canning, who carried his point by 142 votes to 82. Abercromby voted for Whitbread’s peace resolution, 29 Feb., and deplored the Copenhagen expedition, 21 Mar. He invariably supported Irish Catholic relief. He opposed the Scottish judges’ pensions, 4 May, particularly their award to barons of the Exchequer, 2 June 1808, and objected to the copyright bill, 17, 22 June. The first subject that appealed to him, however, was the problem of penal reform; in this he was a coadjutor of Romilly. On 15 June 1808 he expressed his hostility to transportation to Botany Bay for limited periods and promised to move for inquiry next session: in fact he postponed it again, 26 May 1809, on the understanding that ministers were reviewing the situation. On 18 Jan. 1809 he was one of the Whigs meeting to endorse Ponsonby’s leadership. He was an interrogator in the Duke of York’s case and voted against Perceval on 17 Mar. In the debate on the Bankruptcy Laws he suggested from his own experience that the bankruptcy commissioners should be given sufficient remuneration to spare them from other legal pursuits, 29 Mar. On 27 Apr. he failed in a bid to secure information for the purpose of clearing the name of Sir John Moore, by 62 to 37. He voted for Hamilton’s motion on ministerial corruption on 25 Apr., but not for Madocks’s on 11 May; he explained this, 12 June, by reference to his hopes of the House ‘purging itself’ through Curwen’s reform bill. He opposed that bill as amended, but did not vote for Burdett’s reform motion on 15 June. He took an interest in the Scottish judicature bill and complained of the delay in implementing it, 13 June. Later that year Creevey, a more rebellious Whig who found him unwilling to talk politics with him, reported Abercromby as prophesying that ‘the present reign will end quietly from the popularity of the King, but that when it ends the profligacy and unpopularity of all the Princes, with the situation of the country as to financial difficulties, and the rapidly and widely extended growth of Methodism will produce a storm’.2

Abercromby was commended by Lord Henry Petty to Lord Holland, 4 Oct. 1809, as being ‘admirably fitted for any of the secondary departments, and to be relied upon in every sense’, if opposition took office. He assisted Lord Grenville in his canvass to become chancellor of Oxford University. He was one of the young Whigs eager for a coalition with Canning, whose conduct he did not wish to see indicted in the Edinburgh Review. Despite reports to the contrary, he favoured a continuation of Ponsonby’s leadership.3 In December Tierney (‘Old Cole’) decided to coach him as a future secretary to the Treasury in place of Fremantle (which was why Abercromby was nicknamed Young Cole). He was one of the Whig calculators who compiled the survey of the House in March 1810 to estimate their strength as the Scheldt debates began to go against ministers. (The list was betrayed to a ministerial periodical The Satirist.)4 He himself headed the alphabetical list of ‘thick and thin’ Whigs. He voted for the release of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr. 1810, and on 2 May advocated the reception of the Middlesex petition on Burdett’s behalf. He voted for parliamentary reform, 21 May, as also for sinecure reform on 17 May. On 5 June he warmly supported Romilly’s motion in favour of penitentiary houses as opposed to transportation for offenders. At the end of that session, noting ministerial weakness, he expected feelers to opposition, but felt they were just as weak and needed an alliance with Canning. During the Regency debates he and James Macdonald acted as Whig whippers-in. Office was predicted for him if the Whigs came to power, as secretary of the Treasury.5 He was becoming interested in procedural points in the House and playing a more regular role in debate. He secured a limitation of the Scottish creditors bill, 21 Feb. 1811; opposed the foreign ministers pension bill, 4 Mar., 1 Apr.; eulogized Romilly’s efforts for penal reform, 29 Mar.; raised questions about the administration of justice in the colonies, 8 Apr., and insisted on the futility of the House’s public acknowledgment of individual acts of valour in the Peninsula, 7 June. He no longer contented himself with a silent vote on behalf of the Irish Catholics, 25 Mar., 11 June 1811, voicing his preference for tithe reform; and had his say about Scottish affairs 3 May, 11 June. On the bullion report, he took sides, as a select committeeman, with Horner, with whom he thought alike ‘upon almost all subjects’ (except alliance with Canning) and on 9 July expressed his opposition to the bank-note bill.6 He was named to the committee on the night watch of the metropolis, after advocating inquiry into the state of the police, 18 Jan. 1812. He defended Bentham’s model for a penitentiary, 21 Jan., referring to the inadequacy of Newgate prison, which he had visited as one of a committee appointed two years before. He complimented Brougham on his assault on the droits of Admiralty the same day, having previously voted for Burdett’s and Tierney’s motions on the subject, but disagreed with Brougham’s argument. In February he voted for Bankes’s campaign against sinecures. He also opposed legislation against the machine breakers, 17 Feb. He was appointed to the committee to inquire into delays in Chancery, 26 Feb. He opposed the expulsion of Benjamin Walsh*, 5 Mar. On 11 Mar. he brought in a motion against the wholesale enlistment of convicts in the army, which was rejected, but made its point. He did not agree to a debate on flogging in the army, preferring to leave the question to the officers’ discretion, 13 Mar., but supported Bennet’s motion for statistics on the subject, 15 Apr., and on 7 July 1813 justified the House’s investigating the floggings carried out by one officer. He objected to the unlawful oaths bill, 5 May 1812, to the nightly watch regulation bill, 8 July, and to the preservation of the peace bill, 14, 16 July. In the same month he championed the Channel Islands in debate. He had voted for Stuart Wortley’s motion for a more efficient administration, 21 May 1812.

Since September 1811 Abercromby had known that it was certainly not convenient and probably not congenial to Carrington to return him again for Midhurst, and had taken advantage of the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne’s offer to return him for Calne. As Romilly was not sure of a seat, Whig gossip accounted for the preference through Abercromby’s father’s ‘old connection’ or through the likelihood that the Duke of Norfolk would accommodate Romilly rather than Abercromby. Lansdowne’s moderate Whig views were very like Abercromby’s, which were already not advanced enough for his friend Brougham, with whom he had not seen eye to eye on the likelihood of war with the United States, believing the repeal of the orders in council sufficient to remove grievances. They further disagreed as to Brougham’s championship of the Princess of Wales, in which Abercromby would have no part.7

Abercromby resumed his opposition to the banknote bill in debate, 14 Dec. 1812, alleging that it was proving an obstacle to the financing of the Peninsular war, though designed to further it. He was a critic of the creation of a vice-chancellor to Eldon, 15 Feb. 1813, and wished to be sure of the new officer’s exclusion from the House. He complained of the obstruction met with by the committee inquiring into delays in Chancery, 11 Mar., and championed Romilly’s privately stealing bill, 26 Mar. Admitting that he was ‘no very zealous advocate for parliamentary reform’, he nevertheless wished for a proper investigation of improper influence (the Duke of Cumberland’s) in the Weymouth election, 1, 7 Apr. He objected to the substitution of a £10 for a 40s. franchise if Helston were reformed, 30 June, and the same day opposed the reception of a printed petition in favour of reform. He was in the chair at the committee stage of the Catholic relief bill. He opposed the Admiralty registrars bill because of a faulty clause which, he claimed, would defeat its intention, 21 May, 8 June. The state of New South Wales continued to exercise him, 23 June. On 30 June he approved Whitbread’s call for peace negotiations. He supported the stipendiary curates bill, 5, 8 July, and attempted to safeguard the parity of presbyterian ministers in India, 8 July.

Abercromby supported Morpeth’s proceedings against the Speaker, 8 Nov, 1813. He joined with Horner in opposing the continuation of legislation against machine breakers, 29 Nov. and 6 Dec., which prompted Lord Grey to remark ‘there are no two men whose success in the H[ouse] of Commons would give me greater pleasure’.8 He supported an inquiry into conditions at Newgate prison, 7 Dec. On 20 Dec., opposing the adjournment, he warned ministers against interference in the internal affairs of other countries and went on to vote accordingly. As on 21 June 1813, he opposed any alteration in the Corn Laws, 16 May 1814, and subsequently voted in that sense. He was a spokesman for De Berenger, a victim of the Aliens Act, 20, 23 May, and a critic of the Act itself, 14 July 1814. He supported inquiry into the fees of the courts of justice, 28 June; criticized commissioners chosen, 23 Nov. 1814, and wished them to have further powers, 21 Feb. 1815. He deprecated the Irish preservation of the peace bill, 8, 13 July 1814. (His acceptance of the auditorship of the young Duke of Devonshire’s estates necessarily increased his interest in Irish affairs.) On 1 Dec. 1814 he opposed the adjournment: ‘ministers did not deserve the confidence they asked for’. He joined Romilly’s attack on the continuation of the militia in peacetime, 28 Feb. 1815. He approved the Scotch trial by jury bill, 9 Mar. On 7 Apr. he was in the opposition rump which supported Whitbread’s amendment deprecating precipitate resumption of hostilities with Buonaparte, and on 20 Apr. indicted ministers for negligence in allowing the French emperor to escape from Elba, at the same time blaming their ill-treatment of him. His motion was lost by 149 votes to 65. He defended the London petition against war and heavy taxation, 1 May, and again voted against war, 28 Apr. and 25 May. As a Buonapartist he was ‘factious and violent’ at that juncture and, after Waterloo, reported to be ‘in tears and prophesies the end of the world on account of the restoration of the Bourbons’. He nevertheless visited Paris.9

In January 1816 Abercromby assisted Tierney in mustering the opposition during their leader Ponsonby’s absence.10 His speeches that session were mostly in favour of retrenchment. He had assailed the increased salary of the Irish master of the rolls in June 1815, and in April 1816 campaigned against the office of clerk of the pleas in Ireland, earmarked for abolition. He presented petitions against the property tax, 4, Mar., and criticized the army estimates, 11, 13 Mar., 5 Apr. He queried the grant of £60,000 p.a. to the Princess Charlotte on her marriage, 9 Apr., having voted regularly with opposition on civil list questions. On the legal side, he was a critic of various bids to legislate on insolvent debtors; called for further diminution of transportation of offenders, 26 Mar.; tried to hold up the aliens bill, 29 Apr.; cautiously approved the repeal of the usury laws, 22 May; and was an advocate of the reform of the Irish grand jury system, 10 June 1816, as well as on subsequent occasions. He was a silent opponent of public lotteries.

Abercromby attended the pre-sessional meeting of the Whigs at Ponsonby’s house in January 1817 and was one of those who were cautious about parliamentary reform. He suggested that the subject should be confined that session to the Scottish burghs. Nevertheless, he did not object to Burdett’s presentation of a reform petition from Halifax, 31 Jan.: he objected only to disrespectful petitions, 12 Mar. He opposed the seditious meetings bill, 28 Mar., and on 23 June denounced the renewed suspension of habeas corpus. On 6 May he was in the minority against Canning’s Lisbon embassy, but indicated that he exonerated Canning himself. On Ponsonby’s death he could not think of any replacement for him as leader: ‘Those who are fit will not accept the honour, and those who would accept it are not fit’. His relations with Brougham were particularly uneasy at this time; it was largely on his account that he declined being one of two Members to monitor the newly launched Whig evening paper. Brougham was bitter because he regarded Abercromby as the ringleader of a squad of Lansdowne Whigs prepared to counter his activities in Parliament, who ‘grumble at everything’ and ‘plainly wish several of us ... at the devil that they may get into office’.11

Abercromby was teller against the secret committee on sedition revived on 5 Feb. 1818. He supported inquiry into the Scottish burghs, 13 Feb., but without reference to parliamentary reform. In March he and his colleague Macdonald were reported to be staying away from the House.12 He and Brougham were drawn together by his support for the latter’s campaign to inquire into popular education, 5 Mar. 1818, and he supported a commission on the subject, to include all charitable foundations, 3 June. On 13 Apr. 1818 he supported the amendment to the royal dukes’ marriage grants.

After the election of 1818 Abercromby pressed Tierney to accept the leadership of the opposition:

The public requires not only character but commanding and efficient talents. In truth you are the only person capable of taking the lead. If you decline no other person can be proposed who would have any chance of succeeding. ... The opposition is always an essential part of the government of this country, and at this time they may be considered as having a more important and difficult part to perform than the ministers. The public feeling is clearly very strong and it is not fixed upon any definite object. It seems to me to result from the diffusion of knowledge and wealth among the middling classes of society who are determined to assert their power and to have some share in the government of the country. If a proper direction is not given to this floating mass of activity, there will be a great danger of its producing mischief. It therefore belongs to the opposition to take the lead in giving a tone to this great body of the people, and if they do not erect a standard around which people may rally, they will lose not only a favourable opportunity of adding greatly to their own might and power, but they will be in danger of falling into contempt and of being considered as an incapable and useless body. What the standard should be I am not competent to say, but I know no one so sure of hitting off what will suit the feelings of the new and wavering members of Parliament as yourself, and although it is very difficult to please the people out of doors you will be the most likely person to convince and attach a great mass of the more reasonable and sober people. Much good could be done if the people could be convinced that the measures of which they complain have been entirely produced by the ministers and are not to be computed to any defect in the constitution. I wish they could be persuaded that the constitution is free enough for any rational purpose, and that the real object of contention is to resist the invasion of ministers and to administer it as it ought to be administered, upon free and liberal principles. If we involve ourselves in any projects of extensive improvement we shall do no good whatever. I have seen enough since I have been in Parliament to teach me not to be sanguine as to the effect of any measures that may be prepared either for controlling our own heterogeneous body, or for attaching the public to our cause ... I shall be most impatient to know your decision for I consider your acceptance as the only measure that can revive my interest in our proceedings and I am sure that there are very many other persons who feel as I do.13

Tierney’s acceptance was offset by Romilly’s suicide: ‘I have never been more affected by any event’, wrote Abercromby. He supported the pretensions of George Lamb as Romilly’s successor in the Westminster constituency.

On 3 Feb. 1819 he was named to the secret committee on the Bank. On 25 May he informed the House that he had always supported the resumption of cash payments and regretted that it had not been adopted in 1816. He saw eye to eye with Lansdowne, rather than Tierney, on the question.14 He advised the government to stabilize the currency that year and postpone fresh taxes until the next, 8 June. He remained a cautious reformer. He called for a fair hearing for the petitioner against the Limerick election, 5 Mar. 1819, and presented the Edinburgh guilds’ petition for burgh reform, 15 Mar. On 1 Apr. he voted for burgh reform. On 22 June he supported the extension of the franchise at Penryn, though he thought the bill should be postponed: it was ‘temperate and gradual’ in intention. He took a more prominent part in the bid to legislate for insolvent debtors, proposing the cessio bonorum of Scottish and Dutch law as the best principle, 19 Feb., 16 Mar., 7 July 1819.

‘I hate anything done at Manchester, and in consequence, by both sides, and for nothing do I hate it more than for being the cause of Parliament meeting’, Abercromby informed Lord Holland, 18 Oct. 1819. He disliked county meetings on the subject, preferring to have it discussed in the House. He had been in the midlands and thought that the unrest was being underestimated in the south. As to the amenability of the Yorkshire radicals to Whig grandee leadership:

If the Whig lords and radicals can successfully reform the state, they will do a great service. The attempt is not without danger. I wish them success, but is the experiment not without examples in history? I hope that they may be able to avert the fate which has more than once arrested their predecessors in such a career.15

To John Allen he confided a week later that he saw no prospects for a plan of reform now. ‘In truth it appears to me that for the present there is nothing left to the Whigs but to endeavour to moderate the measures of ministers.’ For his part, in the face of violence, he must take sides ‘with those who are disposed to defend the constitution as it has been and is’. He was understood, therefore, before Parliament met, to be prepared not to oppose a reasonable restriction on public meetings and to be at one with Lansdowne on this: but he voted with opposition on the address and urged his young employer the Duke of Devonshire to do the same.16 He also voted for Althorp’s motion on 30 Nov. On 2 Dec. he informed the House that he was of that third party which thought some restrictions were necessary, although they should be temporary and local. He therefore voted for the committal of the seditious meetings bill, but on 6 Dec. voted to limit it to three years’ duration. He voted against the seizure of arms bill on 14 Dec., and on 20 Dec. denounced the newspaper duties bill, ‘an arbitrary and severe enactment, supported by no necessity, and justified by no plea of sound policy’. He also voted for the postponement of the blasphemous libel bill, 21 Dec., and for a limited duration to the newspaper bill a day later. He afterwards admitted that opposition had been more prudent that session than he expected, but ‘I could not go all lengths with them, and of course by the intolerant I am considered as a false friend.’17

Abercromby remained a Lansdowne Whig and gave up his employments on taking office in 1827. His subsequent relations with the orthodox Whigs were strained; by 1834 Lord Grey regarded him as a ‘perfect humbug’. The solution of making him Speaker, for which his ‘peculiar solemnity’ seemed to fit him, proved a failure.18 He died 17 Apr. 1858.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 11 Jan. 1820; NLS mss 13335, W. to G. Elliot, 10 Dec. 1812; Brougham and his Early Friends, i. 105; HMC Fortescue, viii. 159; Romilly, Mems. ii. 251.
  • 2. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 113.
  • 3. Add. 51686; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 177; HMC Fortescue, x. 9; Grey mss, Grey to Whitbread, 15 Jan. 1810.
  • 4. HMC Fortescue, ix. 426; Loch mss, Abercromby to Loch, 4 June, [July 1810]; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, p. 293.
  • 5. Loch mss, Abercromby to Loch, 7 June, 11 July, 16 Oct. 1810; Lansdowne mss, Horner to Lansdowne, 3 Aug. 1812; Blair Adam mss, Tyrwhitt to Adam, 16 Jan. [1811]; Horner mss 5, f. 15; Sydney Smith Letters, i. 203; Rose Diaries, ii. 475.
  • 6. Horner mss 5, ff. 2, 11.
  • 7. Lansdowne mss, Abercromby to Lansdowne, 20 Sept. 1811; Creevey mss, Creevey to his wife, Wed. morning half past seven [?14 Oct. 1812]; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 174; Brougham mss 194, 31460; Creevey’s Life and Times, 67.
  • 8. Grey mss, Grey to Lady Holland, 15 Dec. 1813.
  • 9. Creevey Pprs. i. 217; Creevey’s Life and Times, 83; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 22 Aug. [1815].
  • 10. Add. 51585, Tierney to Holland, 7 Jan.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 29 Jan, 1816.
  • 11. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 20 Jan.; Horner mss 7, f. 258; Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 8 July; Add. 51565, Brougham to Lady Holland, 1 Aug.; 51574, Abercromby to Holland, Tues. evening; Brougham mss 352; Brougham to Lambton, Sat. [28 June, 10 July 1817].
  • 12. Buckingham, Regency, ii. 237.
  • 13. Hants RO, Tierney mss 1a.
  • 14. Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 3 Nov. [1818], 16 Feb., 14 Feb., 14 Apr.; Add. 51574, same to Holland, 8 Apr. [1819].
  • 15. Add. 51574, Abercromby to Holland, 14 Sept., 11, 18 Oct.; 51584, Tierney to same, 15 Sept. [1819].
  • 16. Add. 52182; Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 208; Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 20 Nov.; Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth [24 Dec. 1819].
  • 17. Corresp. of Miss Berry, iii. 189.
  • 18. Creevey Pprs. ii. 148, 296, 331; Creevey’s Life and Times, 253, 404.

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