MACKINTOSH, Sir James (1765-1832), of Weedon Lodge, nr. Aylesbury, Bucks.

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



25 June 1813 - 1818
1818 - 30 May 1832

Family and Education

b. 24 Oct. 1765, o.s. of Capt. John Mackintosh of Kyllachie, Inverness by Marjory, da. of Alexander Macgillivray. educ. Fortrose acad. 1775; King’s Coll. Aberdeen 1780; Edinburgh Univ. 1784, MD 1787; L. Inn 1790, called 1795. m. (1) 8 Apr. 1789, Catherine (d. 8 Apr. 1797), sis. of Daniel Stuart, editor of the Morning Post, 3da.; (2) 10 Apr. 1798, Catherine, da. of John Bartlett Allen of Cresselly, Pemb., sis. of John Hensleigh Allen*, 1s. 2da. suc. fa. 1788; kntd. 21 Dec. 1803.

Offices Held

Recorder, Bombay Nov. 1803-11, judge of vice Admiralty ct. Bombay 1806-11; professor of law, Haileybury Coll. Feb. 1818-24; rector, Glasgow Univ. 1823; PC 16 Nov. 1827; commr. Board of Control Dec. 1830-d.


‘An indolent, thoughtless, innocent sort of man that will be continually in scrapes, and that will not get forward with all his extraordinary talents, unless somebody take him up and push him on.’1 This was what Thomas Creevey was told in 1803 of Mackintosh, the brilliant but erratic son of an impecunious army officer, who had wished to study law, but for want of means was forced to read medicine instead. At Edinburgh he was a president of the Speculative Society and became friendly with Charles Hope* of Granton and Malcolm Laing*. Just before his father’s death he settled in London, later selling his encumbered property in Scotland. He attempted to practise medicine, but abandoned it in favour of law, joining the home circuit in 1795.

Mackintosh had meanwhile developed his literary and political faculties. His first pamphlet was on the Regency in 1788 and his first wife’s family drew him into journalism. He frequented the Society for Constitutional Information and supported John Horne Tooke in the Westminster election of 1790. In the following year he came to public notice with his Vindiciae Gallicae, the most effective reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. He thereupon declined a Whig subsidy, but was introduced to Fox. He joined the Friends of the Liberty of the Press and in 1792 sympathized with the aims of the Friends of the People, as he indicated in an open Letter to Pitt, reproaching him for giving up the cause of parliamentary reform. Subsequent events in France, of which he was a witness in the summer of 1792, forced him to modify his views, though he assisted William Adam* in defence of the Scottish radicals in 1794. After being previously blackballed, he was admitted to the Whig Club, 13 Jan. 1795, and took a moderate line in his contributions to the Monthly Review. He declared himself in sympathy with Burke’s Thoughts on a Regicide Peace. On 22 Dec. 1796 he wrote to Burke recanting his former views and received his absolution.

His friend French Laurence* reported, 24 Feb. 1797, ‘Mr Mackintosh has candidly said to me, that when he wrote his vindication of the French revolution, he really was not acquainted with his facts; he has described the revolution in the character which it deserves in writings known to be his though not bearing his name ...’. Having dispelled the impression that he was a radical, he delivered highly successful lectures on the laws of nature and nations at Lincoln’s Inn in 1799 and 1800. Fox had complimented him on his Vindiciae in debate on 26 May 1797, but by now Mackintosh spoke of Burke ‘with rapture’ and believed ‘that form of government ... best, which placed the efficient sovereignty in the hands of the natural aristocracy of a country, subjecting them in its exercise to the control of the people at large’. He praised ‘our plan of representation ... uncouth and anomalous as it may in many instances appear’ and aimed to

extinguish a false, wretched and fanatical philosophy, which if we did not destroy, would assuredly destroy us; and then to revive and rekindle that ancient genuine spirit of British liberty, which an alarm, partly just and partly abused, had smothered for the present, but which, combined with a providential succession of fortunate occurrences, had rendered us, in better times, incomparably the freest, wisest, and happiest nation under heaven.

In 1799 Lady Holland, who had refused to receive him at Holland House two years before lest it be thought she was creating ‘a foyer of Jacobinism’, welcomed him as a friend of Canning and as a man who had ‘regained his character’. The veteran Whig Dr Samuel Parr had years before credited him with ‘the sternness of a republican, without his acrimony, and the ardour of a reformer, without his impetuosity’.2

Mackintosh had some success as a barrister, transferring to the Norfolk circuit, but he had little business acumen. He preferred the Crown and Rolls debating society and the ‘King of Clubs’, started at his house. He still sought financial independence to devote his energies to intellectual and literary endeavour. He was an early contributor to the Edinburgh Review, a characteristic product, like himself, of the Scottish enlightenment. In June 1801 he was earmarked for professorial employment at the college at Fort William proposed by the Marquess Wellesley. On 10 Sept. he wrote to the premier Addington to suggest that by accepting £2,000 for ‘the four professorships of which I offer to undertake the duties’, making £5,000 per annum in all, he would save the East India Company £10,000 a year. All he asked in exchange was a complimentary title, such as solicitor-general. The company refused to meet the bill and in March 1802 Mackintosh was pursuing an appointment in Madras. Sir William Scott* had meanwhile offered him the West Indian admiralty court, but it was the recordership of Bombay, a pensionable employment with £5,000 per annum, that he subsequently obtained. He was knighted and sailed for India on 14 Feb. 1804, not before he had acted as a scrutineer at the Norfolk election, figured as one of the Paris lions during the peace of Amiens, defended Peltier, Buonaparte’s libeller, and become ‘an intellectual master’ to Francis Horner*. His Indian appointment proved unfortunate. He was ‘incapable of drudgery’; he found himself divorced from the social and literary ties he relished and soon became frustrated with colonial life.3

Despite a project of 1806 to take over the biography of Burke from French Laurence, his habitual indolence got the upper hand, except in the promotion of the Bombay Literary Society. In July 1808 he was anxious to give notice of resignation the following May after he would have completed five years’ service, but, urged by William Adam, agreed to stay on. His ambition was for a seat in Parliament, but Adam doubted if it was practicable. His wife, who came home early, begged Spencer Perceval in July 1810 to appoint a successor so that he could leave India in May 1811. He arrived home on 25 Apr. 1812, with a pension of £1,200 per annum, having left India ‘with the diseases, but without the wealth of the East’. He had, however, promoted a milder administration of criminal justice in Bombay. He had a plan to continue David Hume’s and Fox’s history of Great Britain from 1688 to 1789, but his was a ‘life of projects’.4

Mackintosh had maintained his moderate Whig views, but as he had accepted office from Lord Sidmouth (as Addington now was), there was some doubt at home as to his politics. Within two weeks Perceval offered him a seat in Parliament and Sidmouth encouraged his pretensions to join the government. He ignored Sidmouth and was on the point of declining the seat, in order to preserve his independence on the Catholic question, when news came of Perceval’s assassination. Through James Scarlett he obtained Lord Cawdor’s support as candidate for Nairnshire; he could be useful to Cawdor by guaranteeing him his second wife’s family interest in the contest for Pembrokeshire. (Indeed it had been suggested that he might become Member for Pembroke Boroughs if a compromise was reached.)5 In June 1812 he was thought of either as a commissioner of the Board of Control (which he did not want) or as judge advocate general in Lord Wellesley’s projected administration, at Canning’s instigation. At the same time he was offered £5,000 for the continuation of Hume’s history. His election for Nairnshire, whence he was described to Lord Melville as ‘an alien without an acre of land ... a man who may become a great political enemy’, was delayed because he was not properly qualified at the dissolution. Of his locum, Hugh Rose, George Rose informed the Treasury:

Rose is only in for a year till Sir James Mackintosh shall be qualified to sit. What the politics of the latter are I do not know, but he is not to be restrained by Lord Cawdor, to whom he gave his interest in Pembrokeshire for this seat.

Mackintosh himself wrote sturdily to the Whig leader Earl Grey:

My present politics are vigorous. War against the Bank of England, the Protestant Ascendancy, allow me to add the French in the Peninsula and the East India Company. Conciliation with America—and a declaration through Russia and Austria of our desire to negotiate a general peace ... What I call good can only come from the Whigs.

Nothing came of the Prince Regent’s and ministerial attempts to win him over.6

In Parliament Mackintosh at first disappointed the high hopes of his friends, as had Robert Percy Smith, his contemporary in India. Unlike Smith he supported, in his first known vote, Christian missions to India. John William Ward* predicted ‘Mackintosh will not succeed in a popular assembly. He must look to literature exclusively as the foundation of his fame.’ It was, in any case, a mistake ‘to begin the House of Commons at fifty, with a liver complaint’. But the temptation of public life had proved too much for him; that and his penchant for conversation prevented him from concentrating on his historical project. His maiden speech on the new constitution in Holland, critical of the role assumed by the Prince of Orange, was received ‘without interest and almost without patience’.7 His second, on 20 Dec., against a long adjournment was ‘a long dissertation upon continental politics’ and it was ‘very coldly received’. He had written beforehand to Earl Grey, to whom he professed personal allegiance, doubting whether his health would allow him to do justice to himself in debate and hoping that the party would ‘act in concert and boldly’, suggesting even that they should support the war against Buonaparte, ‘on the express condition that no reasonable opportunity for peace is suffered to pass’. But his speeches, concerted with Lord Holland, were unanswered by ministers and criticized by Whitbread, giving prominence to the rift among the Whigs. Henry Brougham*, who would not hear of Mackintosh’s taking charge of the Edinburgh Review at this time, complained to Grey that he indulged in the House in ‘a sort of preaching or lecturing of a very unbusinesslike and inefficient nature’. It was ‘often eloquent, but generally too studied and much too learned for his audience; and he was not sufficiently free from a national accent; his voice too was deficient in strength’, recalled Samuel Egerton Brydges.8

His defects emerged most clearly on the questions of international law which arose so often during the pacification of Europe after the Napoleonic wars. The blockade of Norway, 12 May 1814, the transfer of Genoa, 21 Feb., 27 Apr. 1815, and the peace treaties, 11 Apr. 1815, 19 Feb. 1816, were his pretexts for veritable lectures on history, law and morality. He opposed the resumption of hostilities with Buonaparte in April 1815, but was silenced in May by a liver attack and by January 1816 was anxious to see the opposition swallow the outlines of the peace settlement, lest they alienate the Grenvillites and enter into ‘opposition against all Europe’. He had voted against altering the Corn Laws and went on to give steady support to opposition motions for retrenchment. In February 1816 he assisted Tierney in drawing up an amendment to the address, and by the end of that session his ‘ultra-Whiggism’ was remarked on.9 Meanwhile he had been endeavouring to secure public accountability for the reparations paid by France since 1814. A widely travelled man with many friends on the Continent, where he had returned in the autumn of 1814 to draw on French historical archives, he also strongly opposed the aliens bills, 10 May 1816, 19 May, 5 June 1818, as unnecessary in time of peace and as being undue extensions of the royal prerogative. On other matters he defended parliamentary privilege, questioning the right of ministers to sign a treaty involving military expenditure, 25 Apr. 1815, and the right of the crown to dispose of the French indemnity without the consent of Parliament, 15 May 1816.

A great admirer of Wilberforce’s achievement, Mackintosh held a ‘deep conviction that the abolition of the slave trade was the most important question which could be discussed in the House of Commons’.10 He drew up the address calling for international abolition presented to the House on 3 May 1814 and was among those responsible for demanding its inclusion in the terms of the peace treaties with other European states, 26 July 1814, 5 May 1815. He later supported Romilly’s motion for an inquiry into cases of hardship in Dominica and Nevis, 22 Apr. 1818. As early as 1810 he had expressed sympathy with Romilly’s campaign for criminal law reform,11 and in Parliament he upheld all measures designed to mitigate the excessive severity which in his view rendered much of the penal code ineffective. After Romilly’s death he continued the struggle and on 2 Mar. 1819 successfully moved for a committee on capital punishment for felonies, whose seminal report he presented on 6 July. During the years 1818-19, he demanded and obtained a thorough inquiry into the forgery of bank-notes and the punishment of this offence. He was a member of the secret committee on the Bank appointed on 3 Feb. 1819, having voted steadily for a resumption of cash payments. He was an opponent of state lotteries.

A supporter of moderate parliamentary reform, Mackintosh paired in favour of Burdett’s motion of 20 May 1817 and voted for the repeal of the Septennial Act, 19 May 1818, on which he had intended to deliver ‘an elaborate speech’. He preferred quinquennial to triennial parliaments. He spoke on particular cases, notably Penryn, Barnstaple and the Scottish royal burghs in 1819, having already stated his criticisms of universal suffrage and the ballot in the Edinburgh Review.12

He gave a silent but steady vote in support of Catholic relief. Some of his more effective and popular speeches were against individual measures such as the property tax, 27 Feb., the retention of a large standing army, 28 Feb. 1816, and the foreign enlistment bill, 13 May 1819. He made a moving plea on behalf of Mary Ryan, the wife of a condemned felon, which he himself considered his best speech for nearly two years, 7 May 1817. A member of the committees which recommended the purchase of Dr Burney’s library, 4 May 1818, and the revision of the Copyright Acts, 5 June 1818, he defended the freedom of the press in the debates on the stamp duties and blasphemous libel bills, 21-23 Dec. 1819.

Fascinated as he was by political life, Mackintosh paradoxically observed in 1815, ‘How exclusive and uniform the life of a politician is’. He became increasingly certain that his true vocation was literary. In March 1816 his doctor had declared him ‘unequal to parliamentary contest’, yet he insisted on staying in London at least until after the debates on the property tax. In an attempt to avoid the social life of the capital, he bought a house in Buckinghamshire, but insisted on remaining a Member after his appointment as professor at Haileybury; nor would he give up Parliament to become professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1820. Nairnshire was unrepresented in 1818 and although his friends the Hollands had been looking out for another seat for him since 1814, it seemed likely that Mackintosh would go out of Parliament, which in his case, said Tierney, meant going out of the country. Tierney assured Earl Grey:

It is most important to him not to be out of Parliament as you know, and now that his health is restored it is a great thing to us to have him there. I need not tell you what it is to have near one in the House of Commons a person who is always tractable, ready, and full of information on all subjects.13

Accordingly Tierney and Brougham arranged with Lord Darlington that he should come in for Winchelsea, expected to be left vacant by Brougham’s candidature for Westmorland. In fact Brougham was defeated and resumed his old seat, while Mackintosh was brought in for Knaresborough, the Duke of Devonshire’s borough, through the negotiations of Lord and Lady Holland.14

Mackintosh, who signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whigs in the Parliament of 1818, made such an impression in debate that his friends thought he might be a fit successor to Tierney; others noted that he lacked ‘superior energy of character’ and aptitude for the management of business. Besides, he had acrise de conscience in the last session. He had hitherto opposed coercive measures against radical agitation, but after Peterloo he joined the more conservative Whigs in deprecating county meetings. He did not wish to give up reform and on 14 Oct. 1819 wrote to Lord John Russell urging him to take the initiative on that question, adding ‘I believe I am less disposed to resist restrictive measures, and more anxious to declare for reform than many of our friends’. He nevertheless helped to frame the opposition amendment and on 23 Nov., in debate, deplored the dismissal of Earl Fitzwilliam from local office. He voted with opposition until 6 Dec., when he supported limited duration for the seditious meetings bill, and not again until 21-23 Dec. Even so, he thereby displeased both the radicals, who labelled him ‘apostate Jemmy’, and the more conservative Whigs, one of whom, James Abercromby, had predicted to Lord Morpeth:

I fear that Mackintosh will make too great sacrifices to permit co-operation, which if not cordial, had better not exist. His motives, as I tell you in confidence, I believe to be, that he would not remain in Parliament if he differed from Lord Holland. This motive added to his own character, will I fear nullify the best person we had to depend upon.

Morpeth, however, claimed in February 1820 that Mackintosh and Canning were the only Members worth listening to in the House.15

Throughout his political life Mackintosh wrote a considerable number of articles and essays as well as his history of the revolution of 1688 and an unfinished history of England, but he satisfied the expectations of his friends as little in letters as in politics. His temperament, his social gifts and, after his return from India, his recurrent ill health made him incapable of sustained effort. Lytton Bulwer, a harsh but perspicacious critic, declared that ‘no man doing so little ever went through a long life continually creating the belief that he would ultimately do so much’. ‘With all his extraordinary talents and acquirements he was, practically, quite useless’, wrote Lord Grey who, in 1830, found it ‘impossible’ to place him in a higher office than that of commissioner of the India Board.16

Mackintosh died 30 May 1832, of an inflammation caused by swallowing a chicken bone.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Winifred Stokes / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Creevey’s Life and Times, 13.
  • 2. Mackintosh Mems. passim (based on his papers, Add. 52436-51); DNB; Jane L. Rendall, ‘The Political Ideas and Activities of Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832): a study in Whiggism between 1789 and 1832’, (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1972); Burke Corresp. ix. 192; Fitzwilliam mss, box 51, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 24 Feb. 1797; T. Green, Diary of a Lover of Literature, 139-40; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 251; Field, Mems. Samuel Parr, i. 312.
  • 3. Two Views of British India ed. Ingram, 283; Sidmouth mss, Mackintosh to Addington, 10 Sept., 25 Dec. 1801; Pellew, Sidmouth, ii. 239; Blair Adam mss, Mackintosh to Adam, Mon. [Apr.], 27 May, 10 June, 22 July, 20 Aug. 1802; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 5-7; Horner Mems. i. 216, 218, 244; Add. 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 19 Apr. [1803]; Farington, iii. 92.
  • 4. Blair Adam mss, Mackintosh to Adam, 10 July, 6 Oct. 1808, 13 July, 16 Oct. 1809; Perceval (Holland) mss E27, 29, 30; Rendall, 176; Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 279; Mackintosh Mems. i. 395; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 219.
  • 5. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 280; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 4 Jan. 1814.
  • 6. SRO GD51/1/198/18; Edinburgh Advertiser, 26 June, 13 Oct.; NLW mss 6108, address by ‘A Friend to Peace’, 25 Feb.; T.64/261, Rose to ?Arbuthnot, 8 Nov.; Grey mss, Mackintosh to Grey, 25 Dec. 1812; Geo. IV Letters, i. 172, 211-12; Add. 52452, Street to Mackintosh, 10 Mar. 1813.
  • 7. NLS mss 11149, f. 68; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 165, 167, 228, 233; Add. 51574, Abercromby to Holland, 23 Aug., 20 Oct. 1813.
  • 8. Colchester, ii. 464; Romilly, Mems. iii. 124; Whitbread mss W1/413; Grey mss, Mackintosh to Grey, 10 June, 1, 18 Oct., 4, 28 Dec.; Add. 52181, Jeffrey to Allen, 23 June 1813; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 179; Brydges, Autobiog. i. 200.
  • 9. Add. 52182, Mackintosh to Allen, 9 June 1815; Lansdowne mss, same to Lansdowne, 19 Jan.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 10 Feb. 1816; Ward, Letters to Bp. of Llandaff, 145.
  • 10. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 302; Parl. Deb. xxxvii. 250; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 275; Colchester, ii. 497.
  • 11. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 34.
  • 12. Horner mss 7, f. 299; Add. 52182, Mackintosh to Allen, Tues. [1819]; 56540, f. 114; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 318, 320.
  • 13. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 338, 341; Add. 51658, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 24 July; 51691, Lauderdale to Holland, 1 July, 27 Aug. 1817; Pope of Holland House 63; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 31 Jan., 3 Feb. 1818.
  • 14. Grey mss, same to same, 6 Feb.; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey, 22 Feb.; Chatsworth mss, Holland to Devonshire, 7 Feb., Mackintosh to same, 3 Mar.; Add. 51545, Holland to Grey, 31 Jan.; 51829, Devonshire to Holland, 3 Mar. 1818.
  • 15. Losh Diaries (Surtees Soc. clxxi), 95; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iii. 177; Early Corresp. Ld. John Russell, i. 205; Grey mss, Ld. to Lady Grey, 20 Nov. 1819; Carlisle mss, Abercromby to Morpeth, n.d., Morpeth to Lady Morpeth, 8 Feb. 1820.
  • 16. Hist. Characters (1868), ii. 93; Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 2 Nov. 1835.