The Eight Honourable Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville
and Baron Duneira, was second son of Eobert Dundas of Arniston, Lord
President of the Court of Session, by Anne, daughter of Sir William
Gordon of Invergordon, his lordship's second wife, and was born on the
28th April, 1742.
any misconception, it may be right to mention that there were two
Presidents of the Coiirt of Session bearing the name of Robert Dundas.
The first, who was born on the 9th December, 1685, and died on the 26th
August, 1753, was the father of Lord Viscount Melville. The second, who
was born on the 18th July, 1713, and died, in the 75th year of his age,
on the 13th December, 1787, was the eldest son of the preceding judge by
his first marriage with Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Watson, Esq. of
Muirhoiise, and in this way was the "half-brother" (to use a Scoticism)
of Lord Melville.
After completing his education at
the University of Edinburgh with the usual course of legal study, he was
admitted a Member of the Faculty of Advocates in the year 1763.
At this period it has been said, that, after paying the expense of his
education and admission to the Faculty, Mr. Dundas had just sixty pounds
remaining of his patrimony.
Mr. Dundas began his
splendid public career in the comparatively humble capacity of an
assessor to the Magistrates of Edinburgh. The office of one of his
Majesty's Depute-Advocates was then conferred upon bim; and subsequently
be was appointed Solicitor-General for Scotland.
these situations he recommended himself by his superior talents, which
were early displayed, and which obtained for him the highest
consideration of the Bench and Bar. But the ambition of Mr. Dundas was
directed to higher objects than were to be attained even by the most
brilliant success at the Scotch bar, where the only honour that would
follow the most successful exertion of talent, would be a seat on the
bench. He accordingly resolved to try his fortunes in the sister
kingdom, and with this view, in the year 1774, successfully contested
the county of Mid-Lothian with the Ministerial candidate. He, however,
afterwards joined the party then in power—became a zealous and able
supporter of Lord North's Administration—and was, as a reward for his
services, appointed Lord Advocate of Scotland in 1775. Two years
afterwards, he obtained the appointment of Keeper of his Majesty's
Signet for Scotland.
Mr. Dundas had now obtained a
high reputation as a statesman; and from his knowledge of public
business, and intimate acquaintance with the condition of the country,
was considered so desirable an auxiliary by those in power, that no
change of Ministry seriously interfered with his advancement, every new
Administration being equally anxious with its predecessors to secure his
services. Thus, on the promotion of Lord Shelburne to the Premiership
(1782), Mr. Dundas was appointed Treasurer of the Navy. This situation,
however, he resigned on the formation of the celebrated Coalition
Administration. He was again restored to office by Mr. Pitt, of whom he
was latterly one of the steadiest and ablest supporters.
During this interval, Mr. Dundas had rendered himself remarkable in
Parliament for his intimate acquaintance with the affairs of India, and
was twice appointed chairman of committees appointed for the purpose of
legislating for this immense territory. But it was as Treasurer of the
Navy that Mr. Dundas's services were of the greatest benefit to his
country. In this department he effected a total reformation;
substituting order and economy for perplexity and profusion— securing
greater promptitude in the payment of the seamen's wages— carrying
through Parliament various measures calculated to improve their
condition and to increase their comforts—and removing a fruitful source
of fraud against the families of sailors, by procuring an Act for
preventing the successful use of forged instruments. He it was, also,
who introduced the bill which empowers seamen to make over their
half-pay to their wives and families. Such were some of the benevolent
and judicious improvements which Mr. Dundas introduced. He held the
office of Treasurer of the Navy till 1800. In the Session of 1784, Mr.
Dundas introduced a bill for restoring the estates forfeited on account
of the Rebellion of 1745—a measure not less remarkable for its policy
than for its liberal and generous spirit.
In 1791, Mr.
Dundas was appointed Principal Secretary of State for the Home
Department, having been previously nominated President of the Board of
Amongst the public measures that originated
with Mr. Dundas about this period of his career, was the formation of
the Fencible regiments, the Supplementary Militia, the Volunteer Corps,
and the Provisional Cavalry. With him also originated the improved
system of distributing the army throughout the country in barracks and
garrisons. The singular ability and judgment which marked Mr. Dundas's
superintendence on military affairs, suggested the propriety of
appointing him Secretary of State for the War Department, and he was
nominated to this office accordingly, in the year 1794. In 1800, he was
appointed Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland, and his son succeeded
him as Keeper of the Signet. He held the offices of Secretary of State,
and President of the Board of Control, till his resignation along with
Mr. Pitt in 1801.
While in the House of Commons, Mr.
Dundas represented first the county, and afterwards the city, of
Edinburgh. For the former he sat from 1774 till 1787, and for the latter
from 1787 till 1802, when he was elevated to the Peerage by patent dated
December 21st of that year, by the title of Viscount Melville of
Melville, in the county of Edinburgh, and Baron Duneira, in the county
Neither the important services which Lord
Melville had rendered his country, nor his well-known disinterested and
generous nature, could protect him from a prosecution—persecution we had
nearly said —instituted ostensibly on the grounds of public justice, but
which was carried on with a spirit of bitterness, that, to say the least
of it, was calculated to create serious doubts as to the purity of the
motives of those with whom it originated.
On the 8th
of April, 1805, his lordship, who had previously held for a short time
the appointment of First Lord of the Treasury, was accused in the House
of Commons, by Mr. Whitbread, of having misapplied or misdirected
certain snms of public money, with a view to his own private advantage
and emolument. Articles of impeachment having been preferred, his
lordship was brought to trial before his Peers in Westminster Hall, on
the 29th of April, 1806. The result was a triumphant acquittal (12th
June following) from all the charges. In truth, the utmost extent of any
blame imputable to him was-, that he had placed too much confidence in
some of the subordinates in his office.
acquittal, Lord Melville was restored to his place in the Privy Council,
from which he had been removed pending his trial, but he did not again
take office. From this period he lived chiefly in retirement,
participating only occasionally in the debates of the House of Lords.
His lordship died very unexpectedly in the house of his nephew, Lord
Chief Baron Dundas, in George Square, on the 29th May, 1811; having come
to Edinburgh, it is believed, to attend the funeral of his old friend
Lord President Blair, who had died suddenly a few days before, and was
at the moment lying in the house adjoining that in which Lord Melville
His lordship was distinguished iu his public
life by a singular capacity for business, by unwearied diligence in the
discharge of his numerous and important duties, and, as a speaker, by
the force and acuteness of his reasoning. In private life his manners
were affable and unaffected, his disposition amiable and affectionate. A
striking instance of the kindliness of his nature is to be found in the
fact, that to the latest period of his life, whenever he came to
Edinburgh, he made a point of visiting all the old ladies with whom he
had been acquainted in his early days, patiently and perseveringly
climbing. for this purpose, some of the most formidable turnpike-stairs
in the Old Town. In his person he was tall and well-formed, while his
countenance was expressive of high intellectual endowments.
The city of Edinburgh contains two public monuments to Lord Melville's
memory. The one a marble statue by Chantrey, which stands in the large
hall of the Parliament House; the other a handsome column, one hundred
and thirty-five feet high, situated in the centre of St. Andrew's
Square. This noble pillar is surmounted by a statue of his lordship,
fifteen feet in height.
Lord Melville married first,
Elizabeth, daughter of David Rennie, Esq., of Melville Castle, and by
her had one son (the present Viscount) and three daughters. This
marriage having been dissolved in 1793, he married, secondly, Jane,
sister to James Hope, third Earl of Hopetoun, but by her (who remarried,
in 1814, Thomas Lord Wallace) he had no issue.