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Lord High Chancellor Loughborough, afterwards Earl of Rosslyn


His lordship was the first Scotsman who ever sat on the bench as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, or held the appointment of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.

Alexander Wedderburn was born at Chesterhall, in East Lothian, in 1733. His father, Peter "Wedderburn, Esq. of Chesterhall, was a Senator of the College of Justice ; and his great-grandfather, Sir Peter Wedderburn of Gosford, had held a similar appointment in the reign of Charles II. He received the first rudiments of education at the village school of Dalkeith, where his conduct was such as to merit the unqualified approbation of his teacher.

Young Wedderburn subsequently studied, at the University of Edinburgh ; and so rapid was his progress in the various academical acquirements, that he was admitted to the bar at the precocious age of nineteen. Even at this early period he was fast rising into practice, when an incident occurred, which altogether changed his views and sphere of action. "He had gained the cause of a client," says his biographer, "in opposition to the celebrated Lockhart (Lord Covington), when the defeated veteran, unable to conceal his chagrin, took occasion, from something in the manner of Mr. Wedderburn, to call him a 'presumptuous boy. The sarcastic severity of the young barrister's reply drew upon him so illiberal a rebuke from one of the judges, that he immediately unrobed, and, bowing to the Court, declared that he would never more plead where he was subjected to insult."

Following up this resolution, Wedderburn instantly proceeded to London, where that respect is invariably shown to the members of the bar to which they are justly entitled. He enrolled himself a member of the Inner Temple, and was admitted to the bar in 1757. The step thus taken was certainly a hazardous one for an individual without friends or patronage, and comparatively without fortune. His talents, however, soon made way for him; and he very speedily attained to eminence. Among the first cases of any note in which he was employed, was that of Lord Olive (many years Governor-General of India), who, after nearly sixteen years' residence at home, was arraigned before Parliament upon charges of undue appropriation. He was eminently successful in the vindication of Lord Olive, and obtained a verdict of acquittal. His appearance in the House of Lords, as one of the counsel in the great Douglas cause, tended greatly to increase his professional reputation, and secured for him the friendship of the premier, Lord Bute. Shortly after the decision of this appeal, Mr. Wedderburn was brought into Parliament for the Inverary district of burghs, which he represented for several years; and, in 1774, having been chosen for two English boroughs, he became member for Oakhampton. In the House of Commous he proved himself an able debater, and was one of the chief defenders of the Grafton administration, in opposition to Burke, who had thrown all the force of his eloquence into the Rockingham interest.

The ready talent, and acute and logical reasoning of Wedderburn, were fully appreciated by the party with which he was associated. His rise was accordingly rapid. In 1771, he was promoted to the office of Solicitor-General; and, in 1773, succeeded Thurlow as Attorney-General. While holding this appointment, in 1774, he appeared, in opposition to the famous Dr. Franklin, before the Privy Council in favour of the Governors of Massachusetts Bay, whom the Americans and Franklin, as their representative, were petitioning to depose. The speech of Wedderburn before the Council has been censured for its "sweeping bitterness" towards the philosopher; but it is at the same time an excellent specimen of his eloquence; and quite in keeping with his known sentiments relative to the unhappy American disputes.

Much praise is conceded to the Attorney-General for the promptness and decision of character which he manifested during the memorable riots in London of 1780. All the municipal force of the city had been overpowered, and the capital was in the hands of a lawless mob. In this emergency, the King summoned a meeting of the Privy Council; and the question was—whether military force could be constitutionally employed without the delay and forms necessaiy in common cases of riot ? Wedderburn at once gave his opinion in tho affirmative. "Is that your declaration as Attorney-General?" inquired the King. "Yes, Sire, decidedly so." "Then let it be," said his Majesty. Wedderburn instantly drew up the order of Council accordingly; and, in a few hours, the riots were quelled, and the capital, already partially in flames, saved from inevitable destruction.

Immediately after this event Mr. Wedderburn was appointed Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, in the room of Lord Walsingham, and created a Peer by the title of Baron Loughborough of Loughborough, in the county of Leicester. In the capacity of Chief Justice his lordship presided at the trial of the rioters, of whom twenty-six were condemned and executed. His charge to the jurors on this occasion has been eulogised by some as replete with "reasoned eloquence;" while others beheld in it au extent and latitude of principle inconsistent with the letter of the law. "The precipitate and indiscriminate severity of the sentences passed in his judicial capacity, by this magistrate, upon the rioters," says one writer, "far exceeded anything known in this country since the days of Judge Jeffries; such, indeed, as left the memory of these transactions impressed upon the public mind in indelible characters of blood." This to a certain extent maybe true; but while we consider the amount of punishment, the magnitude of the crime ought not to be overlooked.

If the conduct of the Chief Justice is liable to any degree of censure in this instance, it must be admitted, even by the most iuveterate of his political adversaries, that, on the bench, his decisions were characterised by an uprightness and independence sufficiently illustrative of his integrity, and the deep veneration in which he held the liberty of the subject. We may instance a case of false imprisonment—Burgess v. Addington, (the former, an obscure publican; the latter, one of the Justices of Bow Street.) In palliation of the conduct of Justice Addington, it was contended, that it was the usual practice to commit for farther examination, owing to the extent of business which the Justice had to transact. Lord Loughborough expressed himself with great energy and warmth :—

"The law," said his lordship, "would not endure such practices. It was an abominable practice, when men were taken up only on suspicion, to commit them to gaol and load them with irons, and this before any evidence was given against them. Here the commitment stated no offence, but a suspicion of an offence; and a man was thrown into gaol for five days, for the purpose of farther examination, because the magistrate had not time to do justice. It was a mode of proceeding pregnant with all the evils of an ex post facto law; the constitution abhorred it; and from him it should ever meet with reprobation. He knew the abominable purposes to which such proceedings might be perverted. No man was safe if justices were permitted to keep back evidence on the part of the accused. It was not in his power to punish the Justice, that authority lay with another court; but he would not allow such a defence to be set up before him as a legal one. The commitment stated a lie; for, though there had been an accusation upon suspicion, there had been no information taken upon oath. Men who had not time to do justice should not dare to act as magistrates. This man should not be permitted to act. The liberty of the subject was in question. It was a practice from which more evil must result than could be cured even by the suppression of offences. The purpose of committing for farther examination, was clearly to increase the business of the office, at the expense of men's characters, and every valuable privilege and consideration."

In 1783, Lord Loughborough formed one of the short-lived Coalition Ministry, by being appointed First Commissioner of the Great Seal. The fate of this administration is well known; and, from the period of its disruption, which speedily followed that of its formation, his lordship remained out of office till 1793. In the course of the ten years which intervened, the important question of the Regency had been agitated with all the zeal of contending factions. Lord Loughborough at once espoused the cause of the Prince of Wales; and from his knowledge of law, and the constitution, gave a weight and authority to that side of the question which all the eloquence of Pitt, and sound sterling sense of Dundas, would have been unable much longer to have withstood, when the recovery of the King happily removed them from their difficulties.

The Chief Justice stood opposed to the administration of Pitt; until the violent nature of the Revolution in France induced him and other individuals of his party to join the ministerial ranks. He was almost immediately invested with the high office of Lord Chancellor; and to the influence which he thus acquired in the councils of his Majesty, are to be attributed many of those vigorous and decisive measures which were subsequently adopted by the Government.'

Lord Loughborough held the Chancellorship till 1801, when he was created Earl of Rosslyn, with a remainder to his two nephews; and, nearly worn out with the fatigues of a long and active career, he retired altogether from public life, carrying with him the highest esteem of his sovereign, by whom he continued to be honoured with every mark of respect. "During the brief interval allowed to him between the theatre of public business and the grave, he paid a visit to Edinburgh, from which he had been habitually absent for nearly fifty years. With a feeling quite natural, perhaps, but yet hardly to be expected in one who had passed through so many of the more elevated of the artificial scenes of life, he caused himself to be carried in a chair to an obscure part of the Old Town, where he had resided during the most of his early years. He expressed a particular anxiety to know if a set of holes in a paved court before his father's house, which he had used for some youthful sport, continued in existence; and, on finding them still there, it was said that the aged statesman was moved almost to tears."

His lordship died on the 2nd January, 1805. His demise is thus announced in the journals of the period:—

"At his seat at Baylis, near Salthill, in Berkshire, aged seventy-two, the Right Hon. Alexander Wedderburn, Earl of Rosslyn, Baron of Loughborough, in Leicestershire, and Baron Loughborough, in Surrey. His lordship had been long subject to the gout; but for some weeks past he was so much recovered as to visit round the neighbourhood; and on Tuesday night, January 1, accompanied the Countess to her Majesty's fete at Frogmore.

"Next morning his lordship rode on horseback to visit several of the neighbouring gentlemen ; and, after his return to Baylis, went in his carriage to Bulstrode to visit the Duke of Portland, and returned home apparently in perfect health. At six o'clock, as his lordship sat at table, he was suddenly seized with a fit of the appoplectic kind, and fell speechless in his chair. At twelve o'clock he expired.

"His lordship married, 31st December, 1767, Betty Anne, only daughter and sole heiress of John Dawson, Esq., of Morley, in Yorkshire, who died 15th February, 1781. He had no issue. His second lady whom he married, 12th September, 1782, was the youngest daughter of "William Viscount Courtenay, by whom he had a son, born 2nd October, 1798, and since dead. By a second patent, October 31, 1795, he was created Baron Loughborough, in the county of Surrey, with remainders severally and successively to Sir James St. Clair Erskine, Bart., and to John Erskine, his brother; and, by a patent, April 21, 1801, Earl of Rosslyn, in the county of Mid-Lothian, to him and his heirs-male, with remainder to the heirs-male of Dame Janet Erskine, deceased, his sister. He is succeeded in the title by his nephew, Sir James St. Clair Erskine, Bart. The remains of the Earl were interred in St. Paul's Cathedral."

In private life, Lord Loughborough was esteemed a most agreeable companion. The early friendships which he formed during his connection with the Select Society of Edinburgh, among whom were Robertson, Blair, Smith, and Hume, he continued to cherish with fondness throughout the bustle of his after life.

The only literary productions of his lordship were—Critiques on Barclay's Greek Grammar, the Decisions of the Supreme Court, and the Abridgement of the Public Statutes, which appeared in the Edinburgh Review, 1755. In 1793, he published a Treatise on the Management of Prisons ; and subsequently a Treatise on the English Poor Laws, addressed to a clergyman. [Only two numbers of the Edinburgh Review were published. The editors were Blair, Robertson, &c]

The public character of his lordship has been variously represented, according to the political sentiments and prejudices of his contemporaries. Few statesmen, during the "chopping and changing" of last century, escaped the satirical lash of the Opposition ; and with such men as the "wary Wethlerburn," in the absence of other topics, national reflections were found a never-failing resource for the wits of the day; hence he is described by Churchill as—

"A pert, prim prater, of the northern race; Guilt in his heart, and famine in his face."

Wraxall, who cannot be charged with too much partiality for the "northern race," in the Memoirs of his own Times, thus sums up the character of the statesman:—"Loughborough unquestionably was one of the most able lawyers, accomplished parliamentary orators, and dexterous courtiers, who flourished under the reign of George the Third; yet, with the qualities here enumerated, he never approved himself a wise, judicious, or enlightened statesman. His counsels, throughout the whole period of the King's malady, were, if not unconstitutional, at least repugnant to the general sense of Parliament, and of the country—violent, imprudent, and injurious to the cause that he espoused. In 1793, when he held the Great Seal, and sat in cabinet, it was universally believed that the siege of Dunkirk—one of the most fatal measures ever embraced by the allies—originated with Lord Loughborough. Nevertheless, his legal knowledge, experience, and versatile talents, seemed eminently to qualify him for guiding the heir-apparent at a juncture when, if the King should not speedily recover, constitutional questions of the most novel, difficult, and important nature must necessarily present themselves."

Here we find all that can be plausibly urged against the public character of Lord Loughborough, while a great deal is admitted in his favour. The imprudence attributed to his counsels is hypothetical, and might be urged with as much propriety against any other public man of equal genius and decision of character.


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