ADAM, William (1751-1839), of Woodstone, Kincardine and Blair Adam, Kinross.

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



27 Dec. 1774 - 1780
1780 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - Apr. 1794
1806 - 1 Feb. 1812

Family and Education

b. 2 Aug. 1751, o. surv. s. of John Adam of Blair Adam, architect and master mason to Board of Ordnance [S], by Jean, da. and h. of John Ramsay of Woodstone. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1759-64; Edinburgh Univ.; Christ Church, Oxf. 1769; L. Inn 1769; adv. 1773; called to English bar 1782. m. 7 May 1777, Hon. Eleanora Elphinstone, da. of Charles, 10th Lord Elphinstone [S], 5s. 1da. suc. fa. 1792.

Offices Held

KC 20 Mar. 1796; bencher, L. Inn 1796, treasurer 1808.

Treasurer of Ordnance Sept. 1780-May 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783; counsel to E.I. Co. 1802-14; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales 1802-5, attorney-gen. 1805-6; chancellor of duchy of Cornwall 1806-15, baron of Exchequer [S] 1814-19; PC 17 Mar. 1815; ld. chief commr. of jury ct. [S] 1815-30.

Ld. lt. Kinross 1802-d.; lt.-col. commdt. Kinross vols. 1803.


By December 1788, when he was asked to undertake the office of secretary to the Treasury if the Whigs came to power, Adam, who had joined the Whig Club in 1785 and Brooks’s in 1788, was established as the leading man of business on the opposition side of the House. He had the Duke of Portland’s confidence, was on increasingly intimate terms with Fox, was close to the Prince of Wales and was genuinely popular in Whig society. His large family and the precarious financial situation created by his father’s involvement in his uncle’s speculative building ventures put his political career under constant threat of disruption; and he naturally welcomed the prospect of being paid nearly £4,000 a year for devoting all his attention to congenial work, which in any case would almost certainly have been required of him in an unofficial capacity to the detriment of his financially vital but increasingly irksome legal practice. Although the King’s recovery dashed his hopes of financial reward and of ‘securing to my family such sinecures as I was well entitled to from labouring in the office and quitting a profession’, he continued his political labours over the next 18 months in preparation for the general election. He sought to regulate the party’s finances and to give some central direction to the exploitation of propaganda and publicity. As the main link between Whig activists in Scotland and London, he had overall responsibility for the opposition election campaign north of the Tweed. Nationally, he and Portland managed to impose a modicum of order and cohesion on the opposition’s disparate electoral resources. For all this, exaggerated claims have probably been made for both the immediate and long-term significance of these activities, which have the unmistakable stamp of the ad hoc and the results of which, judged in terms of Whig activity and performance in the 1790 general election, were unimpressive. Much of the apparatus they created seems to have disintegrated on the Whig split in 1794, and it is hard to detect convincing evidence of organizational continuity between 1788 and 1830.1

In 1790 Adam, forced to abandon Elgin Burghs as a result of Lord Findlater’s defection to government under the terms of Henry’s Dundas’s ‘pacification’ of north-east Scotland, was returned unopposed for Ross-shire by his friend Francis Mackenzie of Seaforth. He was unwell during the election campaign, but recovered in time to attend the opening of Parliament and act as opposition teller in the divisions against the Spanish Convention, 13 and 14 Dec. 1790. On 22 Dec. he spoke for Burke’s motion for the resumption of Hastings’s impeachment and subsequently negotiated with Dundas, a political opponent but a personal friend, to ensure support for its continuation in the Lords. He was one of the managers of the impeachment appointed on 14 Feb. 1791. Adam, who acted as unofficial party whip during the parliamentary session, made only one reported speech in 1791, against the mutiny bill, 10 Mar., but he was teller for the minorites who divided against the Russian armament, 12 and 15 Apr. He voted for the relief of Scotsmen from the Test Act, 10 May. In the summer he had some success in re-ordering the party’s finances, but his attempts to clear debts outstanding to newspapers were coolly received by Earl Fitzwilliam and by Portland, who was critical of his failure to prevent the publication of inflammatory material in party organs.2

On 20 Jan. 1791 Adam told his father that although much was required to bring him to ‘a steady and good gain’ from his legal work, ‘things are improving and my reputation is certainly much extended and extending as a professional man’. Yet he continued to seek an avenue of escape from the ‘uncertain and fatiguing branches’ of his practice. Through Fox, Lord Robert Spencer and the Duke of York, for the settlement of whose debts, in addition to those of the Prince of Wales, he assumed responsibility towards the end of the year, he staked a claim to take over management of the 5th Duke of Bedford’s affairs whenever a vacancy arose. He confided the news to his father, 29 Nov. 1791:

It will be a great thing if politics do not change because it is a certainty ... Were it to take place I should probably withdraw myself from the quarter sessions and all the circuit but the Surrey part, adhering to the House of Lords and the Guildhall, and attending the courts so as to entitle me to any situation hereafter in a professional line. The only other person to whom I shall communicate this is the Duke of Portland, both because I owe him every confidence, and that it may suggest the same idea to him and the Duke of Devonshire ... If I could thus possess our three Dukes it would be wealth, power and occupation and leave no fear behind for a good ushering of the boys into the world.3

Adam was a teller for the minority on Grey’s motion for papers on Russo-Turkish hostilities, 20 Feb., voted against government on Oczakov, 1 Mar., and supported Fox’s call for the repeal of penal statutes concerning religious views, 11 May 1792. As his position within the party depended much on his close and amicable relations with influential men of all shades of opinion, he had much to lose by its disintegration under the impact of events in France and their domestic consequences. He disapproved of the extreme responses of both the Friends of the People and the alarmists, and did his utmost to further the cause of unity from the middle ground. In the debate on the address in answer to the royal proclamation, 25 May 1792, he declared his aversion to parliamentary reform, but also denounced the proclamation and address as productive of unnecessary alarm. Two days later he pressed Portland to arrange ‘one general meeting and division on a topic of real action, to show the world that the declarations of mutual attachment that were reciprocally expressed were not mere declarations’.4 He voted for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec. 1792, and in debate the following day stated his unswerving loyalty to Fox and his hostility to ministerial war-mongering. He denied the existence of a widespread insurrectionary spirit in Scotland, but came out in support of an extension of the franchise in the Scottish counties ‘upon principles acknowledged in the Scotch law’. Seaforth’s support for the war prompted Adam to offer to surrender his seat in February 1793, but he was assured that there was no need for him to do so.5 He spoke in support of Fox’s motion against the war, 18 Feb., and was prominent in the opposition to the traitorous correspondence bill, but spoke and voted against Grey’s reform motion, 7 May. Entrusted with the task of raising money for the fund to relieve Fox’s debts, he evidently did much to overcome Portland’s reservations about the scheme, but was embarrassed as well as flattered to be publicly thanked for his efforts by the committee in July 1793.6

Adam’s attempts to clear debts on the party’s funds led him into some conflict with Fitzwilliam and Portland, who strongly objected to subsidizing ‘republican’ propaganda in the party press, and the best he could achieve was to persuade them to pay their contributions for the current year on condition that none of the money was to be used for newspaper purposes. Disturbed by this and other evidence of the extent of the rift in the party, he seized on Fox’s half-hearted conjecture as to the possibility of securing the co-operation of their ‘old friends’ in an attack on the conduct of the war and put the notion to Fitzwilliam, who emphatically ruled it out. He subsequently tried to persuade Fitzwilliam and Portland to seek a frank exchange of views with Fox, insisting that he had not, as they supposed, committed himself irrevocably to the extremists. His initiative was unsuccessful and Portland, while recognizing his good intentions, thought he had gone too far. He agreed to drop the matter and to make no mention to Fox of his overtures, beyond intimating the strength of Portland and Fitzwilliam’s conviction that Fox had chosen to adhere to the advanced wing of the party, ‘as an antidote to any such election, which from all I have heard him say, I cannot yet conceive to exist’. For the future, he pinned his hopes on a reunification of the opposition after the war.7

During these exchanges Adam was busy with the Duke of York’s affairs, settlement of which was reached, after negotiations with Dundas and Pitt, in December 1793. While Adam considered the arrangement ‘mortifying but convenient’, the King was critical of the ‘strange’ line he had taken in the business, which he thought the ‘goodwill shown him’ by ministers might lead him to regret. No sooner was this matter settled, than he found himself charged with the unpleasant task of approaching certain individuals for second contributions to bring the subscription for Fox to the required level.8

At the close of the previous session he had given notice of his intention to introduce a bill to reform the Scottish criminal law, in particular to provide the right of appeal to the Lords from the Scottish courts. The harsh sentences imposed on Muir and Palmer in the interim outraged him and led him to combine his proposals for judicial reform with an attempt to provide them with the means of seeking redress. His motion of 4 Feb. 1794 to refer his appeal bill to a committee of the whole House, when he planned to move a retrospective instruction which would give Muir and Palmer the right of appeal, was defeated by 126 Votes to 31, and he turned to a motion for an account of their trial, initially fixed for 24 Feb., but subsequently postponed until Palmer’s petition had been considered. Meanwhile Adam, increasingly uncomfortable in the Ross-shire seat, had arranged to hand it over to Seaforth, in the confident expectation of securing an unopposed return for Banbury on the interest of Lord Guilford, son of his old leader Lord North. The Banbury corporation rebelled and forced Guilford to retreat, and Adam had to countermand his application for the Chiltern Hundreds and obtain from Mackenzie a stay of execution until he had brought his motion before the House. It was lost by 171 Votes to 32 on 10 Mar., when he was on his feet for over three hours. In his final act before vacating his seat he called for a select committee of inquiry into the Scottish criminal law, 25 Mar., but mustered only 24 votes against 77. On the junction of the Portland Whigs with Pitt in July 1794 he wrote to the duke formally severing their political connexion.9

For the next 12 years Adam, who took silk in 1796, sought to advance his legal career. On the formation of Addington’s administration he commented to his son, 18 Feb. 1801:

The law arrangements do me no harm. Now Grant is made master of the rolls I have the House of Lords all to myself—and a very clear bar at the House of Commons—with the moves in the King’s bench rather beneficial to me.10

His activities in the general elections of 1796 and 1802 were on a vastly reduced scale from those of 1790, and such mediation and management as he was called on to undertake was mainly confined to Scotland. At the same time, he maintained his contacts with the Foxite opposition and kept his services as a patient and versatile man of business available to all who had need of them, from royal dukes to distressed party hacks.

Late in 1801 Adam, who had been struggling with a ‘load of debt’ since his father’s death, received a severe blow when his uncle, who owed him about £25,000, went bankrupt. He was faced with the prospect of ‘devoting such years of health as remain to me to hard labour and rigid economy’, and his need for remunerative employment became even more urgent. Some relief was forthcoming in April 1802 when, in response to the dying request of the 5th Duke of Bedford, he became auditor to his successor at a salary of £1,200 per annum. He was subsequently appointed solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, a useful feather in his cap, and, after a hard fought election, counsel to the East India Company. Over the next few years his income from his legal practice at the bar of both Houses improved in size and steadiness; and in May 1804, when Pitt considered asking him to become solicitor-general in his new government, Rose thought his acceptance unlikely in view of his attachment to Fox and ‘his dislike to entering again into politics so late in life, and giving up great gains in the House of Commons business’.11 No approach seems actually to have been made. The following year he was appointed attorney-general to the Prince of Wales.

When his friends came to power in 1806 Adam considered himself entitled to at least the offer of an appointment although, by his own admission, it was far from certain that he would have risked sacrificing his professional income for the precarious tenure of political office. No offer being made, he confronted Fox, who explained that his own overriding obligation to Piggott and the Prince’s absolute insistence that Romilly be catered for had left no room for Adam, to whose exclusion, moreover, he had ‘assented on a thorough conviction that such an arrangement was most advantageous to Mr Adam’s interest’. While Adam conceded Piggott’s superior claim to the attorney-generalship, he confessed that it was ‘a very mortifying result to him’; but he was satisfied by Fox’s ‘declarations and affectionate demeanour’ during their conversation, when he was encouraged to expect an eventual succession to Scottish legal office as lord privy seal or lord clerk register. His immediate compensation was to be made chancellor of the duchy of Cornwall, chief legal adviser to the Prince; but the impression persisted in some quarters that he was dissatisfied at his treatment by his old associates.12

Adam was preoccupied during the early months of 1806 with preparations for the impeachment of Lord Melville, whose retention of him as defence counsel was not without its share of political awkwardness. He was also recruited by Lord Grenville to assist in the formulation of the government’s proposed measure of Scottish judicial reform. His fitness for the task was seriously questioned in private by his fellow-countryman Francis Horner:

Adam is a man of business and dispatch; that is, he knows the value (in pounds sterling) of getting through business speedily even if it should not be very nicely finished, and accordingly there will be no delay in his share of the deliberation. But to those who have seen Adam in legal business it is thoroughly ridiculous ... He has neither knowledge, nor speculation, nor ingenuity; and though a man whom I respect very much for his worth and like for his good dispositions, I would not trust his understanding an inch out of the common road, first because he believes it to be fit for all things, and secondly because I believe it to be fit for nothing difficult or delicate.13

Early in 1806 he had produced a survey of the Scottish electoral scene for ministerial use, and on 30 Sept. he was summoned by Grenville to consider the subject in detail. He laid before Grenville ‘the effects of his giving decided support to the Scotch Foxites’ and stressed the importance of executing some ‘overt acts which would go decidedly to convince Scotland of the extinction of Melville’s power’, which had become the more pressing as a result of Melville’s acquittal and the consequent junketings, during which Adam’s own health had been toasted by political enemies. He received satisfactory assurances on this head and immediately put his Edinburgh contact James Gibson on the alert. No allusion was made to his personal position and on 2 Oct. he informed Lord Holland of his wish for at least a reasonable prospect of some material compensation for undertaking work of this nature, which interfered with his professional activities. These he was willing to abandon for a more congenial source of income, ‘as the honours attached to them are now no longer in my contemplation’. Holland told him to forget his idea of seeking the reversion to a sinecure, but arranged an interview with Grenville for 9 Oct. when Adam, declining an offer of professional advancement at the first vacancy, declared his intention of coming into Parliament again ‘without any fixed stipulation’, in order publicly to demonstrate his ‘attachment’, as a loyal Foxite, to the administration. He commented to Bedford:

The effect ... may possibly be good in a public point of view. A person so much connected with Fox ... in the situation which I hold about the Prince, cannot after so long a secession from Parliament come back without some observation. And as far as it goes it will be a type of all of you being thoroughly satisfied with Lord Grenville’s integrity and public views.

He did not conceal the pecuniary sacrifice involved—about £1,500 a year from work before both Houses which a Member could not do—and informed Grenville of the encouragement he had received from Fox regarding Scottish legal office. Though entirely agreeable in principle, Grenville declined to pledge himself to specifics. Adam professed complete satisfaction with his attitude, but did not neglect to ask Bedford to put in a strong word with the premier whose response, while still non-committal, was warm enough.14

Adam had planned to return himself for his native county of Kinross at the opening of the next session and to transfer to Kincardine, where he also possessed a substantial interest, at the next general election, when Kinross did not return. In the longer view, he envisaged retirement at the general election after that, when he hoped to have two seats available for his sons, the four eldest of whom were progressing well in their careers and were no longer a serious financial burden to him. This plan was scotched by the snap decision to dissolve, which threw him back on Kincardine, where complications arose as a result of the sudden mortal illness of the prospective ministerial candidate, whom Adam had intended to persuade to stand down for him at the dissolution. Sir Alexander Ramsay, the leading independent proprietor, put himself forward before Adam and showed great reluctance to withdraw, despite the intercession of Grenville and the Prince. Adam’s prospects were so bleak at one stage that there was talk of an attempt on Melville’s stronghold of Edinburgh and, more realistically, a return for Dysart Burghs on Lord Rosslyn’s interest; but Ramsay eventually gave way, and Adam was elected unopposed.15

He left for Scotland on 20 Oct., having been enjoined by Grenville to take over command of the government’s campaign from the lord advocate, Henry Erskine, who was gout-ridden at Buxton. He spent a hectic, peripatetic month grappling with the ceaseless demands on his services as mediator and co-ordinator, seldom sleeping ‘two nights successively in the same bed’. At the end of the day he concluded that he had ‘not been unsuccessfully employed’, but actual results were disappointing. Adam blamed lack of time for the ministry’s failure to reduce the Melvillites to a rump of blood relations. As it was, he had to reckon 14 of the Scottish Members as men ‘upon whom Lord Melville may absolutely depend’. Four others were relatives of his who professed to support government, four were ‘doubtful’, and a number of the 23 ‘friends of government’ could only be considered as fair-weather allies. At the same time, he boasted that ‘the chief good I have done has been undeceiving the people as to the continuance of Dundas’s power or the belief of his return to it’. While his attack on the Melville regime was rather less bold than this in practice, partly perhaps because he was of a less sanguine temperament than the more rabid Scottish Whigs and still had a personal and professional regard for Melville which was politically inhibiting, Adam cannot fairly be blamed for the poor showing of the ‘Talents’ in Scotland in 1806. The false reports, during his absence, that he was to be proposed as Speaker in opposition to Charles Abbot when Parliament met, seem to have had their origin in the efforts of opposition observers to find an intelligible motive for his decision to re-enter the House at the expense of his professional income.16

In the course of considering the plan for Scottish judicial reform, which occupied much of his time at the turn of the year, Adam hit on the idea of offering his services as president of the proposed second chamber of the court of session. Grenville, fearing accusations of jobbery and perhaps thinking Adam guilty of an unbecoming anxiety to find himself a comfortable niche, was unenthusiastic and encouraged him instead to contemplate a future role in the House as an experienced lieutenant to whoever succeeded Lord Howick as leader when his father died. Adam insisted that, as the only Scottish advocate with long experience at the English bar still eligible for promotion, he was uniquely qualified to undertake the task of establishing the reformed system in the face of the hostility to and ignorance of trial by jury which prevailed among the senior Scottish legal fraternity. To Grenville’s specific points he replied:

I should neither diminish my labour nor increase my emolument ... I must consider Lord Grey to have more years of life in him, than I have of work in me ... The consideration therefore seems to be whether I should not do more essential service, by devoting the years of labour which remain to me, in promoting the success of the new judicature ... than by any other course of exertion.

Further consideration of the matter was presumably terminated by the fall of the government.17

Adam spoke against the motion to refer the Hampshire election petition to a committee of privileges, 13 Feb. 1807, and acted as government teller in the subsequent division, but was otherwise inconspicuous in the House in the last months of the ‘Talents’. Deeply ‘disquieted’ by the Prince’s desertion of the fallen ministers on the Catholic question, he had no hesitation in making his own views known at Carlton House and in voting for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr. He had overall responsibility for the opposition campaign in Scotland at the general election, when he was forced by the early dissolution to stand for both Kincardine and Kinross, where he had originally planned to put up his son. Despite his known willingness, if successful in both, to hand over Kinross to a supporter of government, he encountered vexatious opposition instigated by Melville and the seriousness of the threat compelled him to leave his sick-bed and go north. He was returned unopposed for Kinross, carried Kincardine by six votes after a contest and later vacated Kinross for a ministerialist. His personal victory over Melville gave him immense pleasure, but overall he calculated that opposition could count on the support of only 12 Scottish Members, while five seats had unexpectedly slipped through their grasp. After dividing against the address, 26 June, he spoke briefly for Whitbread’s state of the nation motion, 6 July, and voted for Cochrane’s motion on places and pensions, 7 July 1807. On 2 July he defended the late government’s proposal to confer a life pension on his friend Lord Cullen, for whom he had acted as broker in his pursuit of financial relief.18

Adam began the 1808 session vigorously, making a ‘very good reply’ to Canning’s objection to the production of papers concerning Portugal, 15 Feb., and moving a censure of the minister, 4 Mar., for his ‘flagrant violation’ of law and procedure in his parliamentary handling of official documents, which was defeated by 168 votes to 67. He spoke and voted for Whitbread’s third peace resolution, 29 Feb., and for the reception of Liverpool petitions against the orders in council, 3 and 4 Mar. He fell ill in April and it was not until a late hour on 24 June that he was able to air his views on the Scottish judicature bill, the progress of which he had monitored from his sick-bed. The ‘very thin’ House rapidly became even thinner as soon as he opened his mouth, but his protests at the exodus prompted the Speaker to intervene with an order to count the House, and enough Members were arrested in their flight to provide him with an indifferent audience of 43. He was particularly critical of the measure’s ‘tame’ compromise on the introduction of trial by jury into civil cases. His amendment to the proposals concerning the reporting and collecting of decisions was negatived. He subsequently published a revised version of his speech, to fix the attention of Scotland on the subject, but later in the year found the Scottish public ‘quite dead’ to it.19

In 1809 Adam, who was one of the Whigs who met to endorse Ponsonby’s leadership, 18 Jan., took a leading part in defence of the Duke of York against the allegations of his abuse of army patronage. He was prominent in general debate and in the committee of inquiry, where he performed both as witness and examiner. On 27 Jan. he cited his long familiarity with the duke’s financial affairs as the reason for his conviction of his innocence, but on 7 Feb. he modified his claim to the extent of confessing that he had had no dealings with the duke’s private expenditure. Personal attacks on him by Folkestone, 15 Feb. and 10 Mar., had him on his feet in angry response and he flatly denied charges that his son Frederick had obtained his commission by corrupt means. At least one witness was prepared to vouchsafe in private that Adam knew more of the duke’s private financial transactions than he admitted; and friends as well as enemies thought that he had lowered his public stock by his conduct during the business.20 Adam, whose only recorded opposition vote in the 1809 session was on Cintra, 21 Feb., had nothing to do with the campaign for economical and parliamentary reform, but when he declared his objections to Curwen’s reform bill as modified, 12 June, he outlined proposals to remedy defects in the law covering election petitions, with a view to bringing them forward next session.

He was said in January 1810 to be ‘vehement’ against Ponsonby, but he subsequently acquiesced in the confirmation of his leadership and participated fully in the attack on government over the Scheldt expedition, supporting Whitbread’s censure of Lord Chatham, 5 Mar., with a lengthy lawyer’s set-piece. The Burdett affair provoked his most intense spasm of parliamentary activity since his return to the House. Although he voted against government in the divisions of 5 and 16 Apr., he spoke frequently and vigorously in uncompromising defence of parliamentary privilege. When Burdett brought an action against the Speaker, Adam, having given Grenville his opinion that ‘without joining with ministers every effort must be made to sustain the privileges thus assailed’, reluctantly acquiesced in the appointment of a select committee, 7 May, after registering his protest against it as a feeble abrogation of privilege. He refused to recognize the committee’s brief to report opinions and, though nominated to it in his absence, did not attend its sittings. On 11 May he condemned the proposed mode of pleading to the action and stressed the importance of punishing Burdett’s solicitor and recording an unequivocal assertion of Commons privilege in writing. Feeling that ministers had mishandled the affair, he sought Grenville’s permission to initiate proceedings to secure the passage of a ‘declaratory and protecting law’, but the idea was vetoed. He restated his personal views, 23 May, and, as a last gesture, was one of the 14 who voted for Williams Wynn’s resolutions, 8 June, when he dwelt on the ‘imperative sense of duty, in support of an ancient, a necessary, and most salutary power’, which had led him to clash with friends and uphold a doctrine which had helped save an odious administration from defeat. While he continued to ‘see and feel very great difficulties’ about the ‘general question of reform’ and did not vote for Brand’s motion, 21 May 1810, he approved ‘the principle of making corruption work out a local reform’, as enshrined in Grenville’s proposal, submitted to him in April 1810, to make Curwen’s measure a really effective curb on the sale of seats. He also turned his mind once more to a scheme for reform of the Scottish county franchise, and expressed a willingness to take charge of it, but he had apparently lost interest in the plan by the end of the session.21

Adam had been forced in 1808 to borrow from Coutts on landed security to deal with debts incurred by his eldest son in India, a setback to his progress towards financial stability. As he entered his sixtieth year he began to plan seriously for his withdrawal from politics and spent the autumn of 1810 putting his affairs in train to ensure ‘a timely and happy retirement’. His Kincardine property was earmarked for eventual sale, but he made fresh purchases for investment, which were paid for by ‘temporary aid’ to the tune of £10,000 from Devonshire, Fitzwilliam, Thanet and Lord George Cavendish. These pursuits were interrupted in early November by the King’s illness, which brought urgent requests from McMahon and Tierney for his attendance in London, where his connexion with the Prince and his unrivalled knowledge of proceedings during the Regency crisis of 1788 made his presence vital.22

He voted for the first two-week adjournment, 15 Nov., but refused to accept the second, 29 Nov., and backed Ponsonby’s call for a committee to examine the royal physicians. He was a member of the committee appointed on 13 Dec. Outraged by Perceval’s ‘wickedness’ and ‘impudence’, Adam was a leading spokesman for an unrestricted Regency in debate and took a prominent role in party consultations. As the Prince’s ‘first officer’, he was principal intermediary between Carlton House and the opposition leaders in the negotiations of January 1811. He appears to have acted with complete probity, although he earned a passing rebuke from Grey for failing to prevent Sheridan’s meddling. He had considerable difficulty in establishing his own claim to office if the Whigs came to power. Immediate provision was imperative in view of his age and, refusing to be fobbed off with long-term promises, he rejected the revival of his Scottish judicial scheme of 1807 because the prospect of a further instalment of reform which would open the way for its implementation was too distant and uncertain. In the face of objections from Grey, who had another claimant in mind and created difficulties regarding the provision of a pension for the incumbent, Adam managed to stake his claim to the Irish chancellorship with a peerage when the Regency restrictions expired, as ‘the only practicable means by which I can be included’. At the same time he expressed a willingness to take on the office of Speaker in the Lords, to be responsible for its judicial business, should Grenville decide to create such a post in his projected reorganization of the equity and appellate courts, though it would be inferior in ‘rank, patronage and emolument’.23

At an early stage Adam told the Prince that if he decided, in view of the uncertainty surrounding the King’s condition, to retain the services of his present ministers, he would be awkwardly placed: abstention from Parliament appeared to be the only feasible solution for himself, but even that would be taken as a sign that the Regent had no real confidence in his ministers. Asked by the Prince to consider a way out of the dilemma, he later suggested the idea of informing Perceval that if he and his colleagues did not resign, they were to consider themselves as mere caretakers, as Pitt had been in 1801 before Addington formally took control. The notion appealed to the Prince and contributed towards his final decision, communicated by Adam himself to Grenville and Grey while they were in the act of cabinet-making, to make no change for the time being. The Regent evidently felt genuine sympathy for the disappointment of Adam’s personal hopes, but his offered consolation prize of elevation to the Privy Council was turned down for sound financial reasons.24

Adam voted against Wellesley Pole’s circular letter, 22 Feb., for Williams Wynn’s election bribery bill, 25 Mar., for Shaw’s motion on the petition of Irish newspaper proprietors, 16 May, but against Milton’s motion deploring the reappointment of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief, 6 June 1811. In debate he answered Creevey’s attacks on the East India Company and increased India Board salaries, 4 Mar. and 27 May, spoke against the distilleries bill, 3 Apr., and raised the problem of delays in Chancery, 7 Mar. and 5 June. As doubts grew over the Regent’s loyalty to the Whigs, Adam found his position increasingly uncomfortable. Whitbread’s censure of ministers for their advice in recommending the Regent’s answer to the Commons address on behalf of John Palmer* of the Post Office, whose case he had always supported, embarrassed him, but in the event he voted for it, 30 May, and was said to be annoyed that Tyrwhitt and McMahon had been sent from Carlton House to oppose it. To the disgust of Brougham he avoided the debates and divisions of July on the gold coin and bank-note bill, ostentatiously supported by the Prince, although he was reported to have a ‘very strong opinion’ against it.25

Adam experienced a disappointment in the protracted negotiations for the re-allocation of senior Scottish judicial offices which followed the death of the lord president, Blair, in May 1811. His first reaction was to intervene with the Regent on behalf of Henry Erskine, but he subsequently learnt from Lauderdale of the ministers’ plan to offer the presidency to Robert Dundas of Arniston and to replace him as chief baron with the current lord advocate, Archibald Colquhoun, which would be ‘the means of shutting me for ever out’ of his object of eventually becoming chief baron himself. On Lauderdale’s advice he consulted the Prince, who warmly took his part and, brushing aside his protests against interference on his behalf, put his case to ministers. Both Perceval and the 2nd Lord Melville were willing to comply with the Regent’s request, but Robert Dundas havered throughout the summer about accepting the presidency. Adam’s outburst of righteous indignation at Dundas’s late bid to secure an English peerage as the price of his acceptance, Perceval’s rejection of which decisively dished the arrangement, was probably provoked by its having ended any lingering hopes he may have had of achieving his object. Yet he was wise enough to decline the Regent’s consequent offer of the presidency, for his acceptance would have caused Perceval to step in with a veto and Melville to have resigned from the government in protest. Melville thought his renewed attempt to secure the presidency for Erskine, whose exclusion Adam attributed to political rancour, ‘foolish in him as well as improper’.26

Lord Auckland was probably correct in seeing in Adam’s final decision to vacate his seat ‘some mixture of well-founded resentment’ at missing out in this reshuffle, but there were more compelling reasons for his resolution, which he reached in mid August 1811. Beyond the fact that he had reached the age of 60, when he had always anticipated retirement from politics, the increasing likelihood that the Regent would retain the existing government when the restrictions expired brought home to him the real prospect of being placed in an impossible political situation, and it had become financially imperative for him to sell his property in Kincardineshire, where he faced the certainty of a contest at the next election. He was confirmed in his decision by his soreness at the inclination of many Whigs, including Bedford and the Hollands, to believe the rumours of early August that his recent visit to Lord Moira had been on a treacherous political errand for the Prince. He contemplated retirement no later than the next general election, probably earlier, and looked in the long term to some sort of judicial appointment in Scotland, in the short to the continuation of his official work for Bedford, the Prince and the Company, and to a retreat from London to his Richmond Park cottage, in order to escape the ‘endless inroads that are made upon my time (and on my temper too)’ by a host of casual clients.27

He still faced considerable financial problems, but was optimistic that he could overcome them without encumbering his son’s inheritance. These hopes were dashed in November 1811 when the North Esk burst its banks and destroyed his salmon fishery, worth at least £1,000 a year. He immediately told Grey that he must renounce all pretensions to a peerage, vacate his seat as soon as possible and resume his practice at the bar of the Commons in an effort to make good the loss. Grey advised him to mark time, on the very slim chance that the Regent would call the Whigs to power, but Adam saw no alternative but to quit the House regardless of political ‘change or no change’. His decision was generally seen both as a decisive indication of the Regent’s intentions when he had a free hand and as Adam’s only means of avoiding the appalling political dilemma in which he would have been placed. Grenville’s verdict was:

He will be a loss in the House of Commons, for (except when he exhibited himself as agent for his royal patrons) he was a man of weight there such as are much wanted, and of good principles and honourable mind.

From a sense of obligation to the Prince, Adam, who was privy to the back-stage political manoeuvres of early 1812, stayed on in the House until the legislation dealing with financial arrangements for the unrestricted Regency was safely through. In his last reported speech, in support of the King’s household bill, 27 Jan. 1812, he declared that he was ‘closing a long political life, with the reflection that I have honestly discharged my duty’.28

In 1815 Adam secured the office of president of the newly created Scottish jury court and withdrew to Scotland. The arrangement inspired a riddle, commonly attributed to Erskine: ‘Why is the Jury Court like the Garden of Eden? Because it was created for Adam.’ His immense pleasure in the appointment was marred only by Grey’s receptivity to Brougham’s denunciations of it as a ‘glaring job’, and a blight fell over their relationship thereafter. In Cockburn’s view, Adam’s lack of ‘learning or general ability’ and his ‘obscurity of judicial speech’ were defects for which his ‘industry, practical sense, agreeable deportment, and a conscientious ambition to secure the success of the Jury Court experiment’ failed to compensate, though he conceded that no one else could have steered the scheme through its difficult early period.29 A similar judgment may be passed on his political career. He never shone in the House and had neither the ability nor the drive to achieve true eminence, but he was no lightweight and his appetite for work, reliability as a mediator and talent for business gave him a useful role to play. Sydney Smith hardly exaggerated when he wrote that ‘whoever wants a job done goes to Adam’.30 A less scrupulous and conscientious man might easily have made great capital out of the popularity, trust and connexions which Adam built up, but by the standards of the day his ambitions were modest, he was prepared to put personal loyalty and political consistency before his own material interests, and he responded to repeated financial crises with admirable fortitude. He died 17 Feb. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ginter, Whig Organization, 22-25, passim; Ginter, ‘Financing of Whig Party Organization, 1783-1793’, Am.HR, lxxi (1965-6), 421-40; F. O’Gorman, Whig Party and French Revolution, 12-31; R. Willis, ‘Nature of Foxite Opposition, 1794-1801’, Albion, viii (1976), 236-54.
  • 2. Whig Organization, 198, 202; Moore, Sheridan, ii. 116; Burke Corresp. vi. 197-9; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F115/67, 68; Blair Adam mss, Fitzwilliam to Adam, 8 Sept., Portland to same, 10 Sept. 1791; O’Gorman, 79.
  • 3. Blair Adam mss.
  • 4. Ibid. Adam to Portland, 27 May; Add. 51705, Pelham to Lady Webster, 28 May 1792.
  • 5. Blair Adam mss, Mackenzie to Adam, 28 Jan., 3, 12, 26 Feb., Adam to Mackenzie, 12 Feb. 1793.
  • 6. Add. 47569, f. 8; Portland mss PwF46, 47; Add. 50829, Portland to Adair, 4 May; 53804, Adam to same, 19 July 1793.
  • 7. Fitzwilliam mss, box 45, Adam to Fitzwilliam, 4, 26 July, 19, 20 Sept., 3, 31 Oct., 27 Nov., Portland to same, 23 Sept., 11 Nov., 3 Dec.; Blair Adam mss, Fitzwilliam to Adam, 2 Aug., 28 Sept., 15 Nov., Fox to same, 18 Sept. 1793; Add. 33629, f. 4.
  • 8. Add. 33629, f. 2; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 983; Fitzwilliam mss, box 45, Adam to Fitzwilliam, 27 Nov., Bedford to same [8], 13 Dec. 1793.
  • 9. PRO 30/8/107, ff. 92, 110; NLS mss 11138, f. 63; Blair Adam mss, Guilford to Adam, 26 Feb., Adam to Mackenzie, 4 Mar., to Portland, 7 July 1794.
  • 10. Blair Adam mss.
  • 11. Ibid. Adam to F. Adam, 11 Dec. 1801, to J. Adam, 23 Jan., to Bedford, 27 Apr. 1802, 3 Jan. 1803, Bedford to Adam, 25 Apr., Erskine to same, 1 May, Lauderdale to same [Dec.]; The Times, 25 June 1802; Rose Diaries, ii. 120.
  • 12. Blair Adam mss, memo., 31 Jan., enc. in Adam to Fox, 3 Feb., Coutts to Adam, 4 Feb.; Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 12 Oct. 1806; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2135; Horner mss. 8, f. 9.
  • 13. Blair Adam mss, Adam to Ld. R. Spencer, 1 Feb., reply [2] Feb. 1806; Horner mss 3, f. 38.
  • 14. Blair Adam mss, Adam to Gibson, 1 Oct., to Holland (draft), 2 Oct., to Bedford, 13 Oct., Holland to Adam [12 Oct.], Bedford to Grenville, 27 Oct., reply 6 Nov.; Add. 51595, Adam to Holland [2 Oct.]; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 12 Oct.; Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 12 Oct. 1806.
  • 16. Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 13 Oct., 28 Nov., Grenville to Abbot, 18 Nov.; Blair Adam mss, Grenville to Adam, 18 Oct.; Add. 34457, f. 149; Lonsdale mss, Rose to Lowther, 16 Nov.; Add. 51595, Adam to Holland, 28 Nov. 1806.
  • 17. Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 27 Dec. 1806, 31 Jan.; Blair Adam mss, Wilson to Adam, Clerk to same [Jan.] 1807.
  • 18. Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2376; Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 3 Apr.; Blair Adam mss, McMahon to Adam, 5 Apr.; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 30 May 1807.
  • 19. Add. 51724, Ponsonby to Lady Holland [15 Feb.]; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 14 Apr., 25 May, 23 Sept., 15 Nov.; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Grattan, 23 May 1808.
  • 20. Grey mss, Petty to Grey, 3 Feb.; Add. 51847, Stair to Lady Holland, 11 Feb. [1809]; Farington, v. 114, 148, 180.
  • 21. HMC Fortescue, x. 5; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 9, 18 Apr., 5, 12 May; Blair Adam mss, Grenville to Adam, 16 Apr., 13, 15 May, Loch to same, 21 Apr. 1810; Colchester, ii. 273; Add. 41858, f. 101; Add. 52172, Allen to Lady Holland, 27 July 1810.
  • 22. Blair Adam mss, Adam to Coutts, 3 Sept. 1808, to McMahon, 4 Nov., to C. Adam, 13 Dec., McMahon to Adam, 29 Oct., Tierney to same, 2 Nov.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F109/2, 3; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 28 Oct. 1810.
  • 23. Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 22, 24, 25, 30 Dec.; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Ponsonby, 18 Dec. 1810; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 5, 11, Jan., Adam to same, 25 Jan. 1811; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 372-3; HMC Fortescue, x. 94, 100-4, 118; Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2801, 2811; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 283.
  • 24. Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2801, 2826, 2841; Phipps, i. 383; P. H. Fitzgerald, Geo. IV, ii. 39; Blair Adam mss, memo, 10 Feb. 1811.
  • 25. Colchester, ii. 335; Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 3050, 3054; Add. 51585, Tierney to Lady Holland [1 June]; 52178, Brougham to Allen [19 July]; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey [23 July] 1811.
  • 26. Blair Adam mss, Adam to Clerk, 27 May, to J. Adam, 1 Sept., to Moira, 8 Oct., Hope to same, 13 July, 21 Oct., Melville to Adam, 15 Aug., Moira to same, 22, 26 Sept., 6, 11, 16, 25 Oct. 1811; Perceval (Holland) mss F37, 38, 57, 58, 62, 66, 68, 69; NLS mss 9, f. 189; Prince of Wales Corresp. viii. 3179-80.
  • 27. HMC Fortescue, x. 186; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Bedford, 6 Aug., 2 Sept., to W. G. Adam, 20 Aug., to Grey, 23 Aug., to J. Adam, 1 Sept., Bedford to Adam, 2 Aug., Lauderdale and Grey to same, 16 Aug. 1811.
  • 28. Blair Adam mss, Adam to Lauderdale, 30 Nov., Grey to Adam, 7 Dec. 1811, memo, 23 Jan. 1812; Grey mss, Adam to Grey, 7, 23 Dec. 1811; Add. 34458, ff. 309, 311, 318; 35650, f. 49; Prince of Wales Corresp. viii. 3344; HMC Fortescue, x. 205, 217.
  • 29. Add. 51595, Adam to Holland, 31 Jan. 1815, 22 June 1817; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 262-7, 272; Cockburn, Memorials ed. Miller, 284-5.
  • 30. Sydney Smith Letters ed. N.C. Smith, i. 177.