DUNDAS, Henry (1742-1811), of Melville Castle, Edinburgh.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



16 Sept. - Dec. 1782
2 Jan. 1783 - 1790
1790 - 24 Dec. 1802

Family and Education

b. 28 Apr. 1742, 2nd surv. s. of Robert Dundas M.P., of Arniston, Edinburgh, by his 2nd w. Anne, da. of Sir William Gordon, 1st Bt., of Invergordon; half-bro. of Robert Dundas. educ. Dalkeith g.s.; Edinburgh h.s.; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1763. m. (1) 16 Aug. 1765 Elizabeth (div. 1778), da. of David Rennie of Melville, 1s. 3da.; (2) 2 Apr. 1793, Lady Jean Hope, da. of John, 2nd Earl of Hopetoun [S], s.p.  cr. Visct. Melville 24 Dec. 1802.

Offices Held

Solicitor-gen. [S] Apr. 1766-May 1775; ld. advocate May 1775-Aug. 1783; jt. keeper of the signet [S] Mar. 1777-June 1779, sole keeper June 1779-1800; P.C. 31 July 1782; treasurer of the navy Aug. 1782-Apr. 1783, Dec. 1783-June 1800; ld. of Trade Mar. 1784-Aug. 1786; commr. of Board of Control Sept. 1784-June 1793; Home sec. June 1791-July 1794; pres. of Board of Control June 1793-May 1801; sec. for war July 1794-Mar. 1801; privy seal [S] June 1800-d.; 1st ld. of Admiralty May 1804-Apr. 1805.


Henry Dundas came from a distinguished legal family, his father and half-brother having been president of the court of session. He began to practise law in 1763, and three years later was appointed solicitor-general for Scotland. ‘Harry Dundas’, wrote George Dempster to William Carlyle, 7 June 1766, ‘is a great acquisition ... he appears to me to have an exceeding good capacity and a very good heart.’1 In 1770 Dundas warned Sir Alexander Gilmour, the sitting Member, that he intended to offer himself for Edinburghshire at the next general election,2 and on 2 Nov. 1771 wrote to Lord North:3

Before the expiry of the present Parliament I shall have been nine years in his Majesty’s service, and shall be glad if, by being in Parliament, I can be more extensively useful in the service of my country. I flatter myself that none who are acquainted with the principles I hold with regard to government ... will entertain any doubt what will be the line I shall pursue.

Supported by the Duke of Buccleuch, Dundas defeated Gilmour in 1774 without difficulty.

In the House of Commons, Dundas revealed himself at once as a most effective debater. His speech was broad Scots; his manner, like that of his friends Rigby and Thurlow, vigorous and forthright. Wraxall wrote of him:4

His figure tall, manly, and advantageous, his countenance, open, cheerful, and pleasingly expressive, though tinged with convivial purple, prejudiced in his favour ... His voice, strong, clear, and sonorous, enabled him to surmount the noise of a popular assembly, and almost to enforce attention at moments of the greatest clamour or impatience. Far from shunning the post of danger, he always seemed to court it; and was never deterred from stepping forward to the assistance of ministers by the violence of Opposition, by the unpopularity of the measure to be defended, or by the difficulty of the attempt. His speeches, able, animated, and argumentative, were delivered without hesitation and unembarrassed by any timidity.

In his first speech, delivered in the debate of 20 Feb. 1775 on North’s conciliation proposals, he declared that ‘he could never accede to any concessions whatever ... until the Americans did, in direct terms, acknowledge the absolute supremacy of this country’, and he maintained this uncompromising attitude until after Yorktown. On 27 Oct. 1775 he told the House:

It would be ridiculous in Administration to recede, or to listen, at present, to conciliatory measures, whilst America was making so effectual a resistance; that all Europe would say we had felt our inability to enforce our rights ... it was not uncommon for Great Britain to be unsuccessful in the beginning, and victorious in the progress and conclusion of her wars.5

His abilities were soon recognized and after less than a year in the House he was appointed lord advocate. Well aware of the value of his support, he pressed hard for reward. In March 1777 he was made joint keeper of the signet with Andrew Stuart, but held aloof from the ministry, spending much of his time on legal business in Scotland, and intervening only occasionally in debate. On 20 Feb. 1778 Dundas spoke against North’s proposal to send commissioners to treat with the Americans: ‘everything, he feared, was mismanaged, and the present measure would complete all’.6 The King was full of indignation:7

The more I think on the conduct of the advocate of Scotland the more I am incensed against him; more favours have been heaped on the shoulders of that man than ever was bestowed on any Scotch lawyer, and he seems studiously to embrace an opportunity to create difficulties; but men of talents when not accompanied with integrity are pests instead of blessings to society, and true wisdom ought to crush them rather than nourish them.

But Dundas was too useful to be crushed. The elevation of Thurlow to the Lords in the summer of 1778 removed one of North’s legal watchdogs from the Commons, and the other, Wedderburn, was discontented and unreliable. On 21 Apr. 1779, the King wrote to North: ‘Let the lord advocate be gained to attend the whole session’, and in June Dundas was appointed sole keeper of the signet. ‘The arrangement’, wrote the King, ‘arose that Lord North might be certain of an able debater at all times in the House of Commons.’8 During the remainder of the Parliament Dundas spoke frequently, particularly in support of the American war: ‘We ought to go on with spirit’, he declared, 11 June 1779, ‘and be reduced to the last resource, before we submit to acknowledge the independency of America.’ On 8 Mar. 1780 he opposed economical reform: ‘If the influence of the Crown was so excessive, why did the minister carry his questions by so small majorities?’, and on 6 Apr. he condemned Dunning’s motion as ‘a mere naked, unconnected, abstract proposition’.9 By the end of his first Parliament he had established himself in the front rank as a parliamentary speaker: ‘My friend the advocate had made a very brilliant figure’, wrote Sir William Gordon in June 1780; ‘he is really a fine, manly fellow, and I like a decided character. He speaks out and is afraid of nobody.’10

The next step Dundas had set himself was to have the signet for life. North assured him that the King had a rule against making life appointments. Dundas was greatly irritated when he discovered that one of Loughborough’s nephews had been given a life appointment, and complained of North’s disingenuousness: ‘It seems ... that mine is the only Scotch office—or rather I am the only Scotch person—to which this rule is to be applied.’ North had to coax him back to take his part in the House in February 1781. In April he was appointed chairman of the committee to investigate the war in the Carnatic, and began his long connexion with Indian affairs. But he was by no means satisfied, and chose the occasion of Yorktown to make another demonstration. He was now convinced, he told his brother, 29 Nov. 1781, that any further attempt to recover America was doomed:

I for one should certainly oppose it [even] if the consequence should be a forfeiture of all the favour I have hitherto enjoyed, and of all the views of ambition I may have looked to in future. If I voted for such a proposition, I should not lay my head any night upon my pillow, without thinking that I had sent an army of my fellow subjects to be massacred ... I spoke in a manner last night in the House of Commons which must soon compel Administration to take their ground one way or another. I believe they felt it as the severest bomb ever thrown among them. I was happy they did, as I meant they should.

This declaration, coming from one who had been such a strenuous supporter of the war, made a great impression on the House. Horace Walpole interpreted it as aimed against Lord George Germain, whom Dundas was urging North to remove as an obstacle to peace. When Germain was given a peerage in February 1782, North considered appointing Dundas his successor: ‘Ability, spirit, eloquence he has in perfection’, he wrote to the King, 21 Jan. 1782, ‘but there are great difficulties in placing him in such a situation as to enable me to draw from him the support I want.’ Dundas brought up his grievance about the signet, writing to his brother:

The present bustle has enabled me to hold the language I do, which is, that if his Majesty does not choose I should have the signet for life, I take it for granted he considers my aid in public life to be of no material service to him, and that for the future I may confine myself to my professional line.

The King was willing to offer him the treasurership of the navy, but not the signet for life:

I am clear that the trouble he has given this winter is not a reason for my rendering him independent, and great as his desires seem to be, the best English House of Commons office and one of two thousand per annum in Scotland during pleasure are no small recompenses.

Though Dundas refused the treasurership on these terms, he continued to speak in support of North until the end: after the debate of 8 Mar. 1782, when the ministry’s majority dropped to nine, North, according to Dundas, ‘was all gratitude, and even attributes to me the small majority he had’. When North resigned, he made one more attempt to induce the King to grant Dundas the signet for life. When the King refused, Dundas talked of resigning, but was dissuaded by Thurlow: ‘I had nothing to do but coolly and temperately to lay by, and that within a month I would be courted by both parties.’11

When the Rockinghams took office, Dundas continued as advocate. Fox had already gone out of the way to flatter him, declaring in the House that ‘he should think it strange indeed if anybody should think of forming a new Administration without taking the aid of the great talents he possesses’, and Dundas’s sister wrote: ‘From what I hear he may be in when he pleases.’ Most of the summer Dundas was occupied with Indian affairs, particularly with the charges against Sir Thomas Rumbold; and on 28 May he moved to recall Warren Hastings. On the formation of the Shelburne ministry, he was offered the treasurership and the signet for life, and accepted. To enable his re-election to go through as quickly as possible, he was brought in for Newtown, though he soon resumed his seat for Edinburghshire. At the beginning of 1783 he sought to bring about an understanding between North and Shelburne, but a meeting with North in the first week of February led to a quarrel. When the peace preliminaries came up for debate on 17 Feb. 1783, Dundas denounced the Coalition’s opposition as factious:

Let them remember that the noble lord in the blue ribband [North] had said, early in this session, that peace was much to be desired; let them remember that the honourable gentleman in his eye [Fox] had urged the necessity of peace still more strongly.

Though he anticipated defeat, he was not unduly alarmed about his own future. To his brother, he confided: ‘with the signet and my profession I feel myself very much upon velvet’. When Shelburne resigned, Dundas tried hard to persuade Pitt to take power as first lord of the Treasury. When that failed, and the Coalition came in, Dundas resigned his treasurership, though he continued as lord advocate until August, when he was dismissed.12

Dundas was now a key figure in the Opposition. On 1 Dec. 1783 he spoke against Fox’s India bill as creating ‘a new, inordinate, and unexampled influence, which it placed in the hands of the minister of the present day, and his party, for five years together’. ‘I am apt to believe that my speech against the India bill was the best I ever made in Parliament’, he wrote later.13 In December 1783 Pitt, Robinson and Richard Atkinson met at his house to concert plans for the overthrow of the Coalition, and when Pitt took office Dundas resumed his post as treasurer of the navy. During the spring of 1784 he shared with Pitt the brunt of the Opposition’s attack in the House of Commons, maintaining that the King had an undoubted right to choose his ministers. When the general election came he was in charge of the Government’s arrangements for Scotland.

Dundas’s political eminence was now established. He was second man on the Government side in the House of Commons, on the closest terms, public and private, with Pitt, and could look forward with confidence to a seat in the Cabinet. In addition, he was virtually minister for Scotland, and soon took complete command of Indian affairs. His position was the result of his ability in the House. On 5 Feb. 1784, in answer to the accusation that he and Pitt were undermining the constitution by remaining in office, Dundas replied:14

Those who know what I was, and what I am, will never think that I, of all men, could ever entertain a design to lessen the dignity of this House; for whatever little consequence and distinction I have, if I have any, I derive entirely from this House; and I know that if the House of Commons was to cease to be what it is now, a branch of the legislature, and a check and control upon the executive power, I must again return to the obscurity of a dull and laborious profession.

For the next twenty years Dundas held high office almost continuously, with particular responsibility for the conduct of the war against revolutionary France.

He died 2 May 1811.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Letters Geo. Dempster, 221.
  • 2. Arniston Mems. ed. Omond, 183.
  • 3. H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 190-1.
  • 4. Mems. i. 425.
  • 5. Almon. i. 207; iii. 54.
  • 6. Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 23 Feb. 1778.
  • 7. Fortescue, iv. 41.
  • 8. Ibid. 328, 384.
  • 9. Almon, xii. 369; xvii. 268, 465.
  • 10. C. Matheson, Hen. Dundas, 65.
  • 11. Ibid. 66, 74, 77, 79, 80; Fortescue, v. 336.
  • 12. Matheson, 78, 82, 90; Debrett, ix. 265.
  • 13. Debrett, xii. 282; Matheson, 102.
  • 14. Debrett, xiii. 79.