STEPHEN, James (1758-1832), of Kensington Gore, Mdx.

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



25 Feb. 1808 - 1812
1812 - 14 Apr. 1815

Family and Education

b. 30 June 1758, 2nd s. of James Stephen, dealer, of Poole, Dorset and Stoke Newington, Mdx. by Sibella, da. of William Milner of Poole. educ. Annet’s sch. Vauxhall 1764-7; Dr Howell’s, Poole 1767; Borough sch. 1770; Kensington Green sch. 1772; Winchester 1773; Marischal Coll. Aberdeen 1775-7; L. Inn 1775, called 1782. m. (1) June 1783, Anne (d. Dec. 1796), da. of (?Henry) Stent, stockbroker, of Walnut Tree Walk, Kennington, Surr., 4s. 2da., (2) 15 May 1800, Sarah, da. of Robert Wilberforce, wid. of Rev. Thomas Clarke, DD, both of Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks., s.p.

Offices Held

Master in Chancery 1811-31.


Stephen’s son Sir James, who had abandoned the idea of a biography of his father, explained to Lord Brougham in 1859 that it was not a story for publication.1 Sir James revealed that his paternal grandfather, an Aberdonian, ‘was the supercargo and (I think) part owner of a ship that traded between Scotland and the south of Spain for wine, which was sold in Aberdeen not in a counting house, but in a shop and by the bottle’. In one of his outward voyages he was wrecked off Poole, where his life was saved by the collector of customs, and ‘he became first the guest, and then the son-in-law of his preserver’. He subsequently entered into a partnership with a Dorset landowner to mine coal on the latter’s property, but the venture failed. ‘A violent quarrel and lawsuits between the partners followed.’ The Scotsman was arrested and imprisoned in the King’s Bench for debt in 1770.2 While there, he studied the law and

persuaded himself and tried in vain afterwards to persuade Lord Mansfield, that to imprison a man for debt was an infraction of Magna Carta. When at length he was restored to freedom, he made the law his profession3 and turned a little as a conveyancer.

He died in 1779 aged about 40, leaving six children of whom James Stephen, the subject of this biography, was the second and ‘inherited from him nothing but the care of his three daughters and of his younger son. These wants determined the whole course of his future life.’ He lived near the King’s Bench prison with his mother.

Towards her he had an attachment which was only not idolatrous, and from her he learnt the little she had to teach. But sorrow, and confinement to that wretched part of London, brought on her a consumption, during the whole of which [he] was her nurse. He caught the disease from her and though he regained his health at last, the effects of it never left him: after his death it was ascertained that he had lost no inconsiderable portion of his lungs on that occasion.

[He was] under 20 when he thus found himself, an uneducated orphan, responsible for the support of four younger children. But after a while an uncle rescued him from that burden, or rather from part of it, and placed him at the College at Aberdeen. He did not remain there long, and he certainly did not learn much there; but came to London, when by the aid of Perry (a fellow collegian at Aberdeen) he was able to earn, by reporting and writing for the Morning Chronicle, as much as was necessary to pay for keeping terms at Lincoln’s Inn, and for his admission to the bar. But for the other expenses of the bar, such as circuits, chambers etc. he could not pay. He therefore gladly accepted a proposal to go to the West Indies in quest of a professional income and there he readily earned all the credit and all the emoluments which were to be won in such a field. Eleven years of exile in a land of slavery wrung from him the exclamation ‘Woe is me that I am compelled to dwell with Mesech and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar’. Yet it was among them that he learnt the great lesson of his life—to abhor, with the utmost energy of his soul all that had to do with slavery and the slave trade. From the first he never would own a slave and surrounded himself with domestic servants only by purchasing the enfranchisement of such slaves as he afterwards owned.

Sir James thought his father was 36 years old when he returned to England.

He was then the father of four children and the husband of a wife whom he loved with all the passionate vehemence of his nature. She died not long afterwards and the agonies he then endured were too much like those of poor Romilly: though mercifully he was able, but only just able, to subdue the same disposition.

Quite apart from his unfortunate background, Stephen found much to reproach himself with in an autobiographical memoir up to the time of his joining his elder brother in St. Kitts in 1783, a remarkable psychological document in confessional style4 written from the vantage point of ‘an improved and improving character’ (as William Wilberforce described him in 1800): ‘One of those whom religion has transformed, and in whom it has triumphed by conquering some strong natural infirmities. He has talent, great sensibility and generosity.’5

On furlough in England (1788-9) Stephen contacted Wilberforce, who was then beginning his agitation against the slave trade. On his return to St. Kitts he became Wilberforce’s chief source of private information to strengthen his arguments. In 1794, after a bout of yellow fever, he returned to England for good and formed a lucrative practice in the prize appeal court of the Privy Council (the Cockpit). He continued to associate with Wilberforce, writing anonymously for the Morning Chronicle as an abolitionist. Residing at Clapham, he adopted the views of the Clapham sect and in 1800 married Wilberforce’s sister, who was ‘often to be seen parading Clapham in rags and tatters’, having devoted her income to the poor. Of her he recalled that she ‘told me frankly all my faults’. His conversion from a free thinker and a Whig to ‘an eminently religious man’ of conservative views was thus completed: though his son doubted if he was an orthodox Christian. He became Wilberforce’s lifelong lieutenant, as well as his neighbour at Kensington Gore.6

In 1802 Stephen’s pamphlet The crisis in the sugar colonies, calling for a ban on the slave trade to Trinidad, was well received. In 1804 Wilberforce induced him to draft an order in council for Pitt’s approval to stop the Guiana slave trade. Stephen later recalled:

I was a stranger and an enemy to Mr Pitt, because he was wanting in his duty to that cause. I kept at a distance from Mr Fox, though true to it, because I would not spoil my chance of usefulness to it by incurring the imputation of revolutionary views: yet I walked after his remains to the grave and wept at it, because however wrong in his general politics, he had been a true and zealous abolitionist.

He had in fact suggested to Wilberforce a plan ‘that we should send a deputation to the new ministry, to make a sort of contract that we would befriend them as we did Pitt, i.e. give them the turn of the scale etc. if they would promise us to support the abolition as a government measure’. He had, moreover, written secretly to Lord Holland as Fox lay dying to suggest that Fox might bequeath abolition to his ‘political friends’ as a last legacy. He also approached Lord Grenville on the subject, and in November 1806 sought the assistance of William Adam* to succeed him as counsel to the East India Company, if Adam gave it up. He soon abandoned this for want of support among the directors.7

It was only indirectly that the slave trade brought Stephen into Parliament. In August 1805 he sent Sir William Scott* a treatise on the abuse of neutrality by trading nations during the war which Scott advised him to publish rather than submit to the government. It was entitled War in disguise or the frauds of the neutral flags. ‘Fearing if he mentioned the slave trade, that the effect of his arguments might be diminished by a suspicion of his motives, he confined himself entirely to the general question’, but from ‘the abstract principles he was thus led to lay down’, the pamphlet ‘rendered its author a valuable auxiliary to government’ when they introduced the blockade of the Continent by the orders in council in 1807. Stephen was described by Henry Brougham (in debate, 16 June 1812) as ‘the learned father of the system’, of which Stephen had convinced the chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval. They had met in March 1807 to discuss the plight of the sugar colonies and Stephen soon entered into regular correspondence with Perceval, on the orders in council and also on further safeguards for the Slave Trade Abolition Act of that year, to promote which he patronized the African Institution. In his pamphlet On the dangers of the country (1807), he attributed the tribulations of England at war to divine displeasure, incurred by the traffic in slaves. On 9 Feb. 1808 Wilberforce reported:

Stephen again offered a seat in Parliament by Perceval in the most handsome way. I am on the whole for his accepting it; it comes to him a second time, not of his own seeking. He agrees with Perceval, passim; and with the government as to their grand scheme of policy—order in council; indeed it is his measure. If there should be any reason for his giving up his seat, Perceval and he would not misunderstand each other. He truly conscientious about it.8

Perceval secured Stephen’s return for Tralee two weeks later. Privately he tried to induce Perceval to stop the Brazil slave trade, to barter Trinidad for the abolition of the slave trade by Spain (July 1808), and induced him to prevent illicit slaving by a naval patrol of the West African coast (1809). In the House, however, his first duty was to assist Perceval in the production and examination of evidence on the orders in council, assailed by opposition. He also spoke up for ministers on other matters. Francis Horner* reported, 12 Apr. 1808, of the debate on the reversions bill: ‘St. Stephen, whose animation as well as incoherence seem[s] to border upon insanity disposed of four or five matters of constitutional doctrine like the most servile ministerial lawyer and with great ignorance and vulgarity’. But Horner also reported that Stephen went away with Wilberforce rather than vote with ministers in endorsement of Patrick Duigenan’s* appointment to the Irish privy council, 11 May 1808. He further joined the ‘Saints’ in their objection to unnecessary oaths in the local militia bill, 30 May. He was despondent about events in the Peninsula late in 1808 and informed Perceval that he would vote (but not speak) against the Duke of York in March 1809, but did not do so.9

It was Stephen who replied to Whitbread’s motion of 6 Mar. 1809 blaming the orders in council for the prospect of war with the United States. Speaking for four hours, ‘for three hours he commanded attention’. He ‘fatigued everyone’, but published the speech, which was far stronger in tone than a conciliatory letter he had addressed to Perceval on the subject on 19 Jan. In fact, he was for war with the States, rather than abandoning the blockade of Europe. He suggested to Lord Henry Petty in debate, 13 June 1809, that ‘discussions ... could not tend at the present crisis to promote amity between the countries’. In October when Perceval became premier, Wilberforce wondered whether Stephen could not procure him Lord Grenville as an ally. On 26 Jan. 1810 Stephen defended the orders in council against Tierney. The same day he defended the Walcheren expedition, voting steadily with ministers on that question, though he wished to see Wilberforce added to the select committee, 5 Feb. The Whigs listed him among Perceval’s squad in March. He opposed the discharge of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr. He nevertheless informed Perceval, 19 Apr., that he would resign his seat unless the cabinet sponsored a slave registry bill, and on 15 June, in defence of Brougham’s motion against the slave traffic, he claimed:

I would as soon affiance myself in bonds of friendship with a man who had strangled my infant child, as lend my feeble support to an administration disposed to violate the sacred duty of adhering to and enforcing the abolition of the slave trade.

But Perceval disappointed him and discountenanced his proposal that some of the ‘Saints’ should be appointed to a commission proposed in September 1810 to consider the Abolition Act.10

The part he had taken in defence of the orders in council had lost him business at the Cockpit and late in 1810 he obtained compensation for this when Perceval, lobbied by Stephen’s friend Zachary Macaulay, procured Lord Eldon’s promise of a mastership in Chancery for him. Stephen was not tempted by suggestions that he might look to a puisne judgeship, or the office of attorney-general. Meanwhile he assisted ministers in the Regency debates. Eldon dallied seven months before making the appointment, of which Sir Samuel Romilly observed that Stephen

had never practised in that court and though a man of very considerable talents, he had not the character of being a lawyer, and his services in Parliament were understood to be his only recommendation. The chancellor was said to disapprove of such a political appointment to so important a judicial office, but, after a very long delay, he most deliberately made it.11

When on 9 Jan. 1812 Thomas Creevey referred in the House to his appointment as a reward for ‘his political conduct’, Stephen rose ‘under evident feelings of agitation’ to protest that he was not a placeman and that ‘no situation could influence him in his conduct as a Member of Parliament’. Creevey knew what he was doing: on 3 May 1811 Stephen had labelled Whitbread a Buonapartist in the heat of debate. As Tierney put it: ‘The Saints got into a sad disgrace in the person of their great orator Mr Stephen who was outrageously foul-mouthed and was at one time in a fair way to spend the night in the custody of the serjeant’. He was, however, a match for Lord Cochrane whose attacks on the prize courts he repeatedly repelled, 19 Feb., 13 June 1810, 7 July 1811. He had also successfully opposed the attempt by the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn to refuse the bar to journalists, confessing that he himself had been one before his call, 23 Mar. 1810.12

In February and March 1812 Stephen was in the forefront against the opposition campaign to rescind the orders in council. His pamphlet Coup d’oeil on an American War was written at Perceval’s request to counter criticism out of doors. He was cross-examining Brougham’s witnesses in the House, 11 May, when the unwelcome news of Perceval’s assassination diverted him into an attempt to convert the assassin, who had virtually destroyed his own public career. He lost the ear of administration. He was absent when ministers abandoned the orders in council, 16 June 1812, being, according to Brougham ‘unwilling to express the contempt which he professed to feel for their conduct’. Subsequently, although he was prepared to stand by the orders in council in debate, 18 Feb. 1813, he ‘at last admitted’ that the orders had been ‘an error, though an error in which he was countenanced by the judgment of many who in those days enjoyed the highest authority’. So his son informed Brougham in 1859.13

Stephen was returned for East Grinstead, as a Treasury supporter, by the dowager Duchess of Dorset in 1812. While dining with the electors he recalled his only previous visit there some 30 years before with his pregnant mistress ‘Maria Rivers’, in quest of privacy for her confinement:

The poor necessitous reporter for the Morning Post, the emigrant for bread, the dependent on a brother’s purse, had become a man of property, a master in Chancery, a Member of Parliament, and in so much consideration with the government for the support of his tongue and his pen that if he had aspired to much higher professional preferment he might have attained it, and indeed had it then in his choice ... Great must have been my insensibility, if, while presiding at my parliamentary dinner, my thoughts had not dwelt much on these strange reverses, and if I had not repeatedly said to myself with humble gratitude and admiration ‘This hath God done’.14

Apart from a long speech in justification of the vice-chancellor bill, 18 Feb. 1813, Stephen was subdued in the ensuing Parliament. Unlike Wilberforce, he was neutral on the question of Catholic relief. He was a select committeeman on India and a keen supporter of Christian missions there, June-July 1813. He supported the Admiralty registrars bill, which involved Perceval’s brother, 18 May 1813. He voted for Romilly’s bid to abolish corruption of the blood, 25 Apr. 1814, just as he had on 1 May 1810 supported his attempt to reduce capital punishment for theft and had supported legislation against cruelty to animals, 13 June 1809. On 23 May 1814 he voted against the corn exportation bill. What really exercised him all the while, however, was his failure to enlist ministerial support for a bill to register slaves in the British West Indies and thus curb the slave trade until it was abolished internationally. The bill had been approved by the ‘Saints’ at Stephen’s house as long ago as 6 Jan. 1812; but the ministry deferred it and on 29 June 1814 Stephen warned them in the House that he would not spare them if they defaulted. In February 1815, finding them still recalcitrant, he resolved to resign his seat on principle. After an interview with Liverpool on 1 Mar., he wrote to him next day to announce, ‘I have done with political life’; but he did not post the letter until he had made a final appeal to Castlereagh, 13 Mar. On 14 Mar. he wrote to Nicholas Vansittart, the cabinet minister most sympathetic to his views, that

it being at length plain to me that government would not support a register bill, I felt that it would be to sacrifice the great object of my public life, and to violate my own avowed principles of public conduct, if I were any longer to sit in Parliament as a friend and supporter of the present administration. But to sit there in any other character, in a seat given to me by that administration, would be indelicate and wrong ... I might go further, but will only add that in no one instance of my life have I subordinated this sacred principle to any other; and by God’s grace I never will.

In meeting possible objections to the bill, Stephen poured scorn on the views of the white settlers, the ‘idle contentiousness’ of whose lives evidently irritated him, together with their ‘ludicrous pigmy model of a British constitution’. Vansittart begged him to reconsider his decision, but after much soul-searching, to which Wilberforce was privy, he decided to adhere to his intention. He informed the latter, ‘I pray to God to accept it as a sacrifice and bless the event’. To Vansittart he wrote, 31 Mar., of ‘the satisfactory conclusion of my own conscience, that I could not under any circumstances continue to sit in Parliament as an adherent of ministers who had refused to support a register bill’.15

After his retirement Stephen turned to writing pamphlets again: in 1816 his Reasons for establishing a registry of slaves, in the form of letters to Wilberforce, appeared; in September 1818 he sent Castlereagh an address on the slave trade intended for the allied congress at Aix; about 1821 he wrote Strictures on the charge of cannibalism on the African race, and in 1826 England enslaved by her own slave colonies, but his masterpiece was Slavery in the British West Indian Colonies delineated (2 vols. 1824 and 1830), in which he drew on his extensive knowledge of colonial law and slavery in practice. His close association with Wilberforce and with the African Institution, with the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society, continued until his death at Bath 10 Oct. 1832, shortly before his dream of abolition was completely realized throughout the empire. This was Brougham’s verdict on Stephen:

He was a man of very considerable powers, combined with great firmness of purpose and unquenchable ardour. Strong in body as well as mind, he was capable of undergoing any amount of labour, and, wedded to his opinions, he resisted all attacks with a firmness that amounted to obstinacy ... As a speaker he certainly had considerable success, but yet neither as a debater nor as a speaker could he be classed as of a high order. He had not the correct taste.

This was admitted by his son, who added that ‘he had no gifts of talk or of humour, or of gay or graceful letter writing. His letters were often extraordinary exhibitions of power and eloquence, but they were too grave, too long and not seldom too vehement for publication’. He concluded:

The real greatness of my father’s public life was his devotedness to the cause of abolition of slave trading and of slavery ... It was never absent from his heart or from his lips, or his pen, or his prayers. I have no memory of a day at home, scarcely of a discourse there, in which it did not form his chosen subject. It occupied his solitary walks and I verily believe, his nightly dreams. He would gladly have died to accomplish that object.

In short, Stephen was the kind of ‘do-gooder’ reviled by colonial planters as their bogeyman; and his memory was kept alive by his descendants, eminent in the legal and intellectual world of England and Australia.16

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Brougham mss 13531.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1770), 592.
  • 3. Admitted at the M. Temple, 20 May 1771, as 3rd s. of James Stephen of Aberdeen.
  • 4. Mems. of James Stephen ed. Bevington (from Add. 46443-4), summarized by Stephen’s grandson Leslie in his Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1-24, and in the DNB. Stephen’s Life by his son Sir George (1875) was not considered reliable in its details by Leslie Stephen.
  • 5. Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 367.
  • 6. Ibid. i. 202-3; ii. 255-9; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 105; Brougham mss 13531; Gent. Mag. (1832), ii. 476; E. M. Howse, Saints in Politics, passim; Wilberforce Pprs. 166.
  • 7. Life of Wilberforce, iii. 43, 257; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 332; ii. 86-87; Add. 31231, f. 238; 51823, Stephen to Holland, 13 Sept.; Blair Adam mss, Stephen to Adam, 14 Nov. [22 Nov.] 1806.
  • 8. PRO 30/8/176, f. 185; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 234, 358; Add. 49183, passim; D. Gray, Perceval, 25, 26, 169.
  • 9. Gray 26, 171, 201-2; Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen, Tues. [22 Dec. 1807]; Horner mss 3, ff. 234, 246; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 417.
  • 10. Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope, i. 171; Brougham mss 413; Gray, 26-27, 450; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 169; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 1 Apr. 1810.
  • 11. Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey, Thurs. [14 Apr. 1808]; Brougham, i. 399; Perceval (Holland) mss 25, f. 65; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 7 June 1815; Romilly, Mems. iii. 187.
  • 12. Add. 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland, Sat. [1 June 1811]; Colchester, ii. 240; Wilberforce Pprs. 225.
  • 13. Gray, 451, 453; Brougham, ii. 20; Life of Wilberforce, iv. 26-27; Brougham mss 13531.
  • 14. Mems. ed. Bevington, 376. William, his child by ‘Maria Rivers’, born 1781, was brought up as Stephen’s eldest son and became vicar of Bledlow, Bucks.
  • 15. Romilly, iii. 1; Add. 31231, ff. 238, 251; 38261, f. 81; Life of Wilberforce, iv. 249, 253.
  • 16. Brougham, ii. 5; Brougham mss 13531; Mems. ed. Bevington, 429-34; Noel Annan, ‘The Intellectual Aristocracy’ in Studies in Social History presented to G. M. Trevelyan.