SINCLAIR, George (1790-1868), of Ulbster and Thurso Castle, Caithness.
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Family and Education
b. 28 Aug. 1790,1 1st s. of Sir John Sinclair, 1st Bt.*, by 2nd w. Hon. Diana Jane Elizabeth Macdonald, da. of Alexander, 1st Baron Macdonald [I]. educ. Harrow 1802; Göttingen Univ. 1806. m. 1 May 1816, Catherine Camilla, da. of Sir William Manners, 1st Bt., 3s. 3da. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 21 Dec. 1835.
Sinclair, a serious, scholarly and somewhat priggish youth, was the contemporary at Harrow of Peel and Byron, who recalled him as ‘the prodigy of our schooldays’. In October 1806 he was detained by French troops near Jena on suspicion of espionage and was only released after a rigorous interrogation by Buonaparte himself. The evasive answer which he gave to his father’s attempt in 1809 to saddle him with the task of completing his projected ‘Code of Useful Knowledge’ showed him to be astute as well as academically accomplished.2
In 1810 Sir John tried unsuccessfully to engage Lord Calthorpe to provide an opening for his son at Hindon or Bramber. When his father vacated Caithness for financial reasons in 1811 George, who was two days under age at the time, was elected without opposition. Within three months his father asked Perceval to make him under-secretary at the Home Office on hearing that the incumbent had had an accident. According to his biographer, Sinclair was invited by Perceval to move the address in 1812, but the offer, if made, must have been declined and his first reported speech was a brief comment on the distillery bill, 22 Jan. On 28 Jan. he presented a Caithness petition for parliamentary reform, having previously assured Perceval that, in his desire for reform, ‘nothing is further from my thoughts or from my wishes than to support any measure calculated to produce any wanton or dangerous innovation’.3 He showed a marked degree of independence. He voted against government on the state of Ireland, 4 Feb.; the reversions bill, 7 Feb.; the sinecure paymastership, 24 Feb.; the barrack estimates, 13 Apr.; the call for a remodelling of administration, 21 May; and the Admiralty registrars bill, 19 June; but supported, as a temporary expedient, the bill imposing capital punishment for frame-breaking, 20 Feb. He voted for Catholic relief, 24 Apr., and was in the minority on the proposal to establish a penitentiary, 1 July 1812. On 20 July he promised to revive next session the question of general enclosures, which his father had aired in 1796. Caithness did not return a Member in 1812 and Sir John Sinclair again turned, but in vain, to Calthorpe:
during the time my son has sat in Parliament no young man could be more assiduous in his attendance nor could act with more propriety in very critical conjunctures. During the last session he had declined, from modesty, attempting to make any figure in the House as a speaker.4
During the next six years Sinclair married, pursued his religious, literary and scientific studies and revisited Germany, where he and his wife became friendly with Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Coburg Meiningen. He was instrumental in persuading the Duke of Clarence to marry her, thereby forming a close friendship with the duke and showing more ability and discretion as a match-maker than his father did in his attempt to provide Sir Walter Scott with a second wife.
When returning thanks for his unopposed election for Caithness in 1818 Sinclair, who had meanwhile become friendly with the radical Joseph Hume*, defined his notion of ‘independence’ and rejected identification of the term with partisan opposition to ministers: ‘any public man who acts from dispassionate conviction, and without being biased by any selfish motive, is an independent Member of Parliament, be his politics what they may’. He advocated ‘a well-regulated system of economy’, but deplored indiscriminate retrenchment; questioned the wisdom of a resumption of cash payments; and welcomed current efforts to promote the moral improvement of the lower classes. He denounced radical ‘incendiaries’, but reaffirmed his support for ‘moderate’ reform, explicitly excluding annual parliaments and universal suffrage, and retrospectively congratulated the government on the defeat of Buonaparte.5
In his contributions to debate in 1819 he showed more confidence than in his first period in the House. Stung by Macdonald’s attack on ministers on the address, 21 Jan., he replied extempore in their defence,6 and explained his idea of the role of the independent Member:
neither to withhold entirely ... confidence from government, nor implicitly to sanction their proceedings; sometimes to oppose their measures, but never to impeach their motives—to combine political candour with constitutional vigilance—rather predisposed to approve than predetermined to condemn: resolved to favour, but not to flatter; to control, but not to embarrass.
Sinclair, who presented Henry Hunt’s† petition against the Westminster hustings bill, 29 Jan., but did not divide against the measure on 3 Feb., voted against government on the Windsor establishment, 22 and 25 Feb.; Admiralty economies, 18 Mar.; Taylor’s motion for a revision of Chancery procedure, which he seconded, 20 May; the cash payments bill, 14 June, and Brougham’s call for inquiry into charitable foundations, 23 June. He had voted for inquiry into the criminal code, 2 Mar., and described it on 8 Mar. as ‘in theory, the most severe, and, in practice, the most inefficient’ in Europe. He voted for Scottish burgh reform, 1 Apr. and 6 May, and sat on the select committee of inquiry. He divided with the pro-reform minorities on the cases of Camelford, 8 Apr., Barnstaple, 17 May, and Penryn, 22 June, and voted for Burdett’s parliamentary reform motion, 1 July 1819.
His conduct evidently raised questions in ministerial quarters and on 15 Apr. Lord Melville wrote to Sir John Sinclair:
I am glad to find ... that any communication which gives you satisfaction has taken place between you and Mr Sinclair ... I disclaim any right to interfere in regard to whatever line of political conduct he may feel it is his duty to adopt. All I ever wished to ascertain, was the fact as to whether he was friendly or unfriendly to the present administration.7
Sinclair probably supported government on most routine questions and certainly rallied to them in the face of major party attacks by the Whigs. He defended the Aliens Act, 2 Apr., and before voting against Tierney’s motion on the state of the nation, 18 May, remarked:
The present proposition has, from time immemorial, been looked upon as a mere party question ... Whoever draws the sword against ministers on such an occasion, must be considered as throwing away the scabbard. I am not one of those who are anxious to take the cabinet by storm.
In May 1819 he acted as intermediary with Lord Liverpool in an attempt to settle the problem of Clarence’s marriage provision. In October the Duke of Gordon, approving his plan to attend the House during the forthcoming emergency session, agreed with him that it was ‘high time that the Radicals should meet with a proper check’.8 He presumably supported the government’s repressive legislation, but was one of the minority of 16 who voted for inquiry into Robert Owen’s scheme for ameliorating the situation of the lower classes, 16 Dec. 1819.
With Caithness not returning a Member in 1820 and his defeat at the polls in 1826, it was 11 years before Sinclair re-entered the House. In 1823 he explained his current political stance to his father:
I am still friendly to a moderate reformation of the abuses which attend the system of election ... This is now my only point of difference with ministers ... I regret that I should be classed among the enemies of government, which I have always been anxious to support ... and have never voted against them without feelings of deep regret. But I considered it my duty to oppose them on a few occasions, not with a view of bringing in their Whig opponents ... but from a painful conviction that I could not with a safe conscience, do otherwise. I thought that a complete exclusion from any personal emolument or advancement would be the consequence of my occasional votes against them; this I thought highly reasonable.9
Given his father’s standing and example, and his own intellectual capacity and seriousness, Sinclair might have been expected to cut an important figure as a back-bench politician, but he lacked the health, confidence and, it seems, the ambition to do so. He died 9 Oct. 1868.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Confirmed by Lord Fife and his Factor, 216.
- 2. Byron Letters ed. Prothero, v. 454; see Sinclair’s Narrative (Edinburgh, 1826); R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John, 218-19.
- 3. Sinclair mss, Calthorpe to Sinclair, 11 July 1810; D. Gray, Spencer Perceval, 125; J. Grant, Sir George Sinclair, 47-49.
- 4. Sinclair mss, Sinclair to Calthorpe, 23 Aug. 1812.
- 5. Grant, 68-70; The Late Elections (1818), 434-41.
- 6. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 21 Jan. 1819.
- 7. SRO GD1/5/749/1, p. 48.
- 8. Add. 38276, ff. 366, 375, 384; Grant, 135.
- 9. SRO GD51/1/198/6/19.