OSWALD, James (1715-69), of Dunnikier, Fife.

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



1741 - 1747
1747 - 1754
1751 - 1768

Family and Education

b. 1715, 1st s. of Capt. James Oswald, M.P., of Dunnikier, provost of Kirkcaldy.  educ. Kirkcaldy burgh sch.; Edin Univ.; L. Inn 1733; Leyden 1733; Grand Tour; adv. 1738.  m. 19 Jan. 1747, Elizabeth, da. of Joseph Townsend, M.P., London brewer, wid. of Abraham Reynardson, and cos. of Chauncy Townsend, 1s.  suc. fa. c.1725.

Offices Held

Commr. of the navy Jan. 1745-June 1747; ld. of Trade 1751-59; ld. of the Treasury 1759-63; P.C. 20 Apr. 1763; joint vice-treasurer of Ireland 1763-7.


Oswald’s father, a wealthy merchant, purchased Dunnikier in 1703, and established an independent interest in Dysart Burghs. Oswald early made his reputation as a man of business, and in 1751 joined the Pelham Administration. On Pelham’s death in 1754 Newcastle tried to secure him by additional favours, but Oswald avoided being involved in Newcastle’s intrigues against Argyll, and, maintaining his independence in Scottish affairs, joined Gilbert Elliot in opposing the sheriff-deputes bill of February 1755.1 In the crisis over the subsidy treaties Pitt believed that Oswald would join Legge in opposition;2 but when Newcastle, on 27 Sept., gave him early notice of Fox’s appointment as secretary of state, Oswald pledged his support, ‘not only from a sense of obligation which your Grace has laid me under, but also from a persuasion in so doing I serve my country’. Still, when Parliament met he was closely watched. ‘Mr. Legge and Mr. Oswald sat together at the upper end of the House’, reported West to Newcastle on 21 Nov.3 But though no friend of Fox, Oswald adhered to the Government, and when sent for by Bute, refused to go; took a leading part over the long disputed linen bill; and acted as principal spokesman for the Board of Trade in the Commons.4 Horace Walpole ranked him among the 30 best speakers in the House. ‘Oswald overflowed with a torrent of sense and logic.’5 His attendance at the Board averaged 75%; in 1756 he attended 92 out of 102 meetings.

On 10 Oct. 1756 Newcastle wrote to Hardwicke:6

I have had a very long, a very friendly, and a very wise conversation with Mr. Oswald. I put the red hot question to him, whether he could or would be ours singly; and on that foot come into the Treasury. He was very explicit as to his declarations as to persons, but said that if he came into the Treasury it was to take a more considerable part. And he wished to know upon what foot things stood in the House of Commons ... That he wished we could hebetate (a Scotch or rather a Latin word) the Opposition and he thought that might be done, and that this reconciliation in the royal family [over the establishment of the Prince of Wales] furnished probable means for it ... But upon the whole declared that if he remained where he was, he was determined to act a thorough part of defence and support.

During the Devonshire–Pitt administration Oswald remained at the Board of Trade and continued to manage its business in the House. He had now served five years under Halifax, and a friendship and habits of co-operation had grown up between them. When early in April 1757, during the interregnum, Devonshire offered Oswald a place at the Treasury Board ‘to assist in doing the business of this session’, and be there against the time of Newcastle’s return, Oswald refused office without Halifax. They had both a share in Legge’s subsequent dealings with Newcastle; were offered office by Fox; and stood together during the fluctuating negotiations of the summer of 1757. In the end they resumed their places at the Board of Trade—Halifax stipulating that provision be made for Oswald ‘such as should make him amends for the seat at the Treasury Board which he declined on account of his friendship to Lord Halifax’:7 the reversion of the secretary-ship of the Leeward Islands was given to Oswald’s son. ‘Without you’, wrote Halifax to Oswald, ‘... I never would have come back to public office again, and now we return to it together.’8

In March 1758 Oswald opposed the habeas corpus bill sponsored by Pratt and Pitt, who in his speech of 24 Apr. ‘chiefly took notice of what Mr. Oswald had said’.9 ‘When Treasury difficulties occur’, wrote Legge to Newcastle10 (both were harassed by problems of war finance and disputes with Pitt), ‘my thoughts always turn towards Oswald.’ If he could be brought in ‘our Board would be firm, self-supported, and able to maintain our business with dignity contra quoscunque. I know you hold this opinion as well as myself.’ But when a vacancy occurred in April 1759 Bute, hating Legge, ‘showed his resentment by excluding Oswald, though a Scot, from the Treasury, because recommended by Legge’.11 Not till November 1759 was Oswald appointed to the Treasury. In March 1760 he joined Gilbert Elliot in promoting the Scottish militia bill, much to the annoyance of Newcastle, who managed to have it defeated. Oswald and Elliot were publicly thanked by the convention of royal burghs for their efforts.

In the new reign Bute pressed to have Oswald replaced at the Treasury Board by Elliot; Newcastle thought of accommodating both Oswald and Elliot; but Hardwicke warned him against having two Scotsmen at his Board—although rivals ‘they would hang together in all national points and be running races to make their court to their great countryman’. Nor should Newcastle make an issue of it. ‘Your Grace sees that Mr. Oswald is the person Lord Bute has in his head to make the vacancy by ... I cannot think that gentleman (though I allow his merit) is of so much use and importance to you as to engage you to withstand it.’12

In the end Oswald saved himself by seeking an interview with Bute, at which he apparently made his peace.13 During the ministerial changes in March 1761 both Elliot and Oswald were placed at the Treasury Board but it was made clear that Oswald’s reappointment was by Bute’s favour. Fitzmaurice wrote to Bute, 13 Mar. 1761:14 ‘I saw Oswald this morning, to whom I told what your Lordship desired me relative to himself ... He said he then supposed he was to look upon himself placed in the Treasury now by the King himself and no other person, meaning the first lord, which was the footing he wished for and was ambitious of, and seemed to me much pleased with.’ Oswald now became a member of the Bute circle. Shelburne consulted him and passed on to Bute his views of the situation arising from Pitt’s resignation.15 But Oswald still showed considerable independence. To Bute’s surprise and Hardwicke’s gratification, he supported Newcastle’s views against laying the Spanish papers before the House. But on the German war he shared the views of Bute’s supporters. ‘He had always been against this measure; he was for it now for no single reason but that we were engaged, and he hoped it would be known abroad that it was duty and not interest that made us pursue it.’16 In the conflict of May 1762 over war finance Oswald took the side of Bute and Grenville against Newcastle, who, deserted by half his Board, resigned.

When Bute was planning his Treasury the idea was considered of making Oswald secretary. The King wrote to Bute: ‘The scheme for Oswald would please me much, but I cannot conceive that any man who has been a principal could [in] honour become a secretary; perhaps Elliot’s jealousy of him makes him think this expedient feasible.’ And on 19 May:17 ‘If he [Bute] can’t point out to me a good chancellor of the Exchequer, he should see for an honest quiet man, and put his chief confidence in Oswald as to Treasury matters.’ He did so, and Oswald was of the ‘real council whom he consults upon everything’18—even on the replacing of George Grenville by Fox as leader of the House of Commons. Writing to Bute on 8 Oct. 1762, Oswald described Fox ‘as a personage absolutely necessary on the present occasion’—but ‘he alone would not do’; Bute should not expose himself to the assertion ‘that the peace is Lord Bute’s peace and Mr. Fox his lieutenant in the House of Commons to defend it’.19 During the difficult days of December 1762 Oswald co-operated with Fox.20 When Bute, having declared his intention to retire, consulted Fox about the composition of the new Government, Fox wrote, 11 Mar., professing to wish that Bute should continue:21

I do with the greatest confidence advise that Mr. Oswald be made chancellor of the Exchequer. His abilities are so great ... that nobody will think he was made because he is a Scotchman ... I would have all business, the whole system of this next session, settled between you and Mr. Oswald before Parliament meets ... I do not propose Mr. Oswald to have a levee and manage, as it is called, the Members of the House ... but Oswald will on all occasions take the lead and will be supposed to speak your sense ... The House of Commons will ... gain great credit by the ability with which business will be planned and the steadiness with which it will be pursued.

Bute and the King valued Oswald’s abilities but feared that ‘his being born on the other side of the Tweed might cause some more abuse’.22 On 17 Mar.23 Fox, in a scheme with Grenville at the head of the Treasury, suggested Oswald for the Board of Trade—‘between Lord Shelburne [as secretary of state for the southern department] and Oswald, that greatest and most necessary of all schemes, the settlement of America, may be effected’. And Shelburne writing to Bute on 29 Mar. thought that in view of the ‘coldness and inanimation of Grenville and Egremont’, it was essential to have Oswald in the Cabinet, ‘for composed as it will be we shall have need of his ability and good heart, both to connect and direct us, and of his reputation in both lights with all men of business’.24

When Charles Townshend embarrassed Bute by his request to be left at the Board of Trade, already offered to Shelburne, Bute, ‘bewildered’, appealed for advice to Oswald, who in the interests of ‘the settlement of America’, strongly supported Shelburne’s claim.25 Oswald himself apparently expressed no disappointment, when of all the high offices proposed for him, including the Pay Office and the Wardrobe,26 he was appointed in the end to the lucrative but sinecure post of vice-treasurer of Ireland.

His vast knowledge and experience brought him great reputation and many friends. Shelburne consulted him on American affairs.27 James Murray, governor of Canada, ‘esteemed him his father, his protector, his everything’. Eglintoun sought practical advice on the settlement of Cape Breton Island. Adam Smith his fellow townsman, David Hume,28 and Lord Kames valued his opinions on economics, philosophy, history, and law. In Scottish affairs his parliamentary interest was sought for a wide variety of projects affecting trade, banking, manufactures, communications, and the Church.

Oswald now became one of that group of quasi-civil servants—‘King’s friends’—who considered that their allegiance was to the Crown and not to any group of politicians. He was ‘excepted’ by Pitt ‘out of the general removal’ in the plan of Government which he submitted to the King at the end of August 1763;29 and continued under the reconstructed Grenville Government, speaking on their side in almost every major debate on Wilkes and general warrants. When the Rockinghams were forming their Government, his removal was not demanded; while the King wrote to Lord Egmont on 8 July:

I wish you would contrive as soon as possible to see Elliot and Oswald, and to point out to them in my name how necessary it is for them if they have any duty and attachment to me to support that Administration that I have been able to form. Let them know how sorry I am for any people that suffer on this occasion but that the fatality of the times are alone the cause of it.

Egmont replied on the 9th:

Mr. Oswald is now with me, and I have the pleasure to assure your Majesty that no man living can express himself more (as your Majesty could wish your most faithful servants to do) determined to support the plan which your affairs oblige you to pursue. Nor do I think any man to be more depended upon for acting a proper, and an honest part at this conjuncture.30

On 18 Dec. 1765, on an Opposition motion for American papers, Oswald was mentioned by Conway to the King among those who distinguished themselves against it. But on the Anstruther election petition, he spoke and voted against the Government;31 and in a letter to the King his name was put by Conway at the head of those ‘who were particularly remarked’ as doing so.32 On 17 Feb., over American policy, Oswald again voted against the Government.33 He was also one of the most active opponents of the repeal of the Stamp Act; voted against the Government, 7 Feb., on Grenville’s motion for ‘enforcing laws in America’;34 and on 24 Feb. moved, ‘more warmly than well’, the recommitment of the resolution of 21 Feb., in a speech highly critical of the Americans and their debts.35

On Grafton’s resignation the King wrote to Bute, 3 May 1766:36

Many attempts have been made at a distance by the Duke of Newcastle and Lord Rockingham to find out what I thought Elliot and Oswald would do. I constantly waived giving my opinion and am heartily happy I have taken that part for my dear friend will see they want to lay their not going on at your door and that of your friends; this day they named their surprise at those gentlemen not having spoke in support of Administration on the new tax; on that I said I was not surprised, for whilst they were barely tolerated it could not be expected they would with ardour step forward to support the ministers.

‘Lord Rockingham is to talk with you concerning Oswald’, wrote George III to Egmont, 2 May. Egmont replied after his talk with Rockingham, 4 May:37

I understood his plan to be that he would insist upon a declaration from your Majesty (but in the most respectful terms) that Mr. Elliot, Oswald etc. should absolutely, and actively on all occasions, without any reserve, exert themselves in support of the present Ministry, and that he would make this measure the sine qua non of his holding the employment an hour longer.

Rockingham seemed struck when Egmont pointed out to him how strange such a step would be ‘before he had himself had any conversation with those gentlemen to be assured of their real intentions’. The Rockinghams chose to treat Oswald and his friends as directed by Bute and the King far beyond what they were in reality.

On the formation of the Chatham Administration Oswald was continued in office, and supported the Government to the end of the Parliament, voting with them on the land tax in In 1767 ‘he was attacked by a grievous malady, the consequence of too intense an application to public business’.38 No longer an important parliamentary figure, he was removed from office in December 1767 when the Bedford party joined the Administration. In an apologetic letter Grafton wrote, 19 Dec.:39

Mr. Rigby having been in the office of vice-treasurer before, the King means to place him again into one of them, ordering me at the same time to acquaint you, that it is his Majesty’s intention to grant to your son the reversion of any reasonable office, and to make him such an allowance in the mean time as you shall yourself wish for him ... I am not well versed in the knowledge of offices in Scotland ... if one in that part of the kingdom does not present itself it must be my business to find one out in this.

Although his son’s future was provided for by the grant of the reversion of Scottish auditor general, Oswald’s own circumstances were straitened by the loss of his vice-treasurer’s income. He was to some extent dependent upon John Oswald, bishop of Raphoe, his ‘brute of a brother’, whose insulting behaviour to David Hume Oswald was too dispirited to resent or apologize for.40 At the general election of 1768 he stood down in favour of his son. He ‘retired from public life with an exhausted frame and an impaired fortune’, fell into ‘a sort of second childhood’,41 and died 24 Mar. 1769.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 17-18.
  • 2. Dodington, Diary, 374.
  • 3. Add. 32859, ff. 244, 301; 32861, f. 55.
  • 4. Mems. Jas. Oswald, 210; Add. 32868, ff. 165-6.
  • 5. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 144, 146.
  • 6. Add. 32868, ff. 165-6.
  • 7. Barrington to Newcastle, 26 Sept. 1757, Add. 32874, f. 302.
  • 8. Halifax to Oswald, 11 Nov. 1757, Oswald mss.
  • 9. West to Newcastle, 24 Apr. 1758, Add. 32879, f. 276.
  • 10. Add. 32881, ff. 327-8.
  • 11. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 183-4; Dodington, Diary, 414.
  • 12. Add. 32918, ff. 465-6, 513; Add. 35420, ff. 191-2.
  • 13. Add. 32919, ff. 514-17.
  • 14. Bute mss.
  • 15. Shelburne to Bute, 6 Oct. 1761, Lansdowne mss.
  • 16. Add. 35421, ff. 139-40; 32931, ff. 7-8, 45; 32932, ff. 235-6.
  • 17. Sedgwick, 105, 109.
  • 18. Add. 32943, ff. 143-4.
  • 19. Bute mss.
  • 20. Fox to Bute, 2, 14 Dec., ibid.
  • 21. Fitzmaurice, Life of Shelburne, i. 142-6.
  • 22. Sedgwick, 199.
  • 23. Fitzmaurice, i. 148-9.
  • 24. Fitzmaurice transcripts among the Lansdowne mss at Bowood.
  • 25. Oswald Mems. 410-19.
  • 26. Sedgwick, 206.
  • 27. Oswald mss.
  • 28. Oswald Mems. 346-73; Letters of David Hume, i. 178-9, 305-6.
  • 29. Grenville Pprs. ii. 200.
  • 30. Fortescue, i. 146, 148.
  • 31. Add. 32973, f. 32.
  • 32. Fortescue, i. 249.
  • 33. Add. 32974, f. 25.
  • 34. Fortescue, i. 268.
  • 35. G. Onslow to Newcastle, 24 Feb. 1766, Add. 32974, f. 79; Newdigate mss; Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 36. Sedgwick, 247.
  • 37. Fortescue, i. 301, 303.
  • 38. Oswald Mems. p. xx.
  • 39. Oswald mss.
  • 40. Letters of David Hume, ii. 142-3, 163.
  • 41. Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen, i. 364.