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Significant Scots
Alexander Wedderburn


WEDDERBURN, ALEXANDER, first earl of Rosslyn, was born, February 13, 1733, in the city of Edinburgh. His father was Peter Wedderburn, of Chesterhall, Esquire, an eminent advocate, who became, in 1755, a judge of the court of session, with the designation of lord Chesterhall. The grandfather of the latter was Sir Peter Wedderburn of Gosford, an eminent lawyer, and subsequently a judge, during the reign of Charles II.; of whom Sir George Mackenzie speaks in terms of the highest panegyric, in his Characters of Scottish Lawyers. Sir Peter was descended from an old landed family in Forfarshire, which had produced several learned persons of considerable eminence.

The subject of this memoir was bred to the profession in which his father and great-grandfather had so highly distinguished themselves; and so soon were his natural and acquired powers brought into exercise, that he was admitted to the bar at the unusually early age of nineteen. He was rapidly gaining ground as a junior counsel, when an accident put a sudden stop to his practice in his native courts. He had gained the cause of a client in opposition to the celebrated Lockhart, 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, but would seek a wider field for his professional exertions. He accordingly removed to London, in May, 1753, and enrolled himself a member of the Inner Temple. A love of letters which distinguished him at this early period of life, placed him, (1754,) in the chair at the first meeting of a literary society, of which Hume, Smith, and other eminent men, greatly his seniors, were members. Professional pursuits, however, left him little leisure for the exercise of his pen; which is to be the more regretted, as the few specimens of his composition which have reached us, display a distinctness of conception, and a nervous precision of language, such as might have secured the public approbation for much more elaborate efforts. It is related, to his honour, that he retained to the close of his life, amidst the dignities and cares of his elevated station, a most affectionate attachment to all the literary friends of his youth.

Mr Wedderburn was called to the English bar in 1757, and became a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in 1763. He early acquired considerable reputation and practice, which he greatly increased by becoming the advocate of lord Clive, in whose cause he was triumphantly successful. He pleaded on the great Douglas cause in 1768-9, when his acute reasoning, his deep reading, and his irresistible eloquence, attracted the favourable notice of lord Camden, and secured him ever after the protection and friendship of lords Bute and Mansfield. If the squibs of his political opponents in after life are to be trusted, his endeavours at the commencement of his career to forget his national accent were not very successful; while his friends asserted, perhaps truly, that he only retained enough of it to give increased effect to his oratory.

After having been called to the degree of sergeant-at-law, with the rank of king’s counsel, he was promoted in January 1771, to the office of solicitor-general, and in June, 1773, to that of attorney-general: the duties of these posts he is said to have discharged with a mildness and moderation which procured him universal approbation; though his inveterate hostility to Franklin, and the overwhelming bitterness of his language before the privy council in 1774, are justly held to detract considerably from his merit. Mr Wedderburn first sat in parliament for the Inverary district of burghs, and in 1774, being chosen simultaneously for Castle Rising and Oakhampton, made his election for the latter; in 1778, he was elected for Bishop’s Castle. Throughout his career in the house of commons, he was a powerful support to the ministry of lord North, not only by his eloquence, but by the great extent of his legal, jurisprudential, and parliamentary knowledge. His merits as a statesman are of course estimated very differently by contemporary party writers. Churchill has embalmed him in time well-known quatrain

"Mute at the bar, and in the senate loud,
Dull ‘mongst the dullest, proudest of the proud,
A pert, prim prater, of the northern race,
Guilt in his heart, and famine in his face."

Yet even Junius has allowed that his character was respected, and that he possessed the esteem of society. Sir Egerton Bridges says: "Lord Rosslyn appeared to be a man of subtle and plausible, rather than solid talents. His ambition was great, and his desire of office unlimited. He could argue with great ingenuity on either side, so that it was difficult to anticipate his future by his past opinions. These qualities made him a valuable partizan, and an useful and efficient member of any administration." One public service of high value is always allowed to Mr Wedderburn. During the celebrated metropolitan riots in 1780, when the municipal power had proved so inadequate to the occasion, and the conflagration of the whole capital seemed to be threatened, a privy council was held by the king, who asked Mr Wedderburn for his official opinion. Mr Wedderburn stated in the most precise terms, that any such assemblage of depredators might be dispersed by military force, without waiting for forms or reading the riot act. "Is that your declaration of the law as attorney-general?" asked the king; Mr Wedderburn answering directly in the affirmative, "Then let it so be done," replied his majesty; and the attorney-general immediately drew up the order by which the rioters were in a few hours dispersed, and the metropolis saved.

In June of the year last mentioned, Mr Wedderburn was called to the privy council, raised to the bench as lord chief justice of the court of Common Pleas, and to the peerage as lord Loughborough, baron of Loughborough in the county of Leicester. He had occasion in his judicial character to charge the jury sitting under the commission for the trial of the rioters; and it is allowed that the address was one of the finest specimens of reasoned eloquence that had ever been delivered in that situation; though some here objected that, both on this and on other occasions, his Scottish education inclined him too much towards the principles and modes of the civil law, inculcating greater latitude than by the precision of the English law was warranted.

In April, 1783, lord Loughborough united with his friend lord North in forming the celebrated Coalition ministry, in which he held the appointment of first commissioner for keeping the great seal but the reflections so justly levelled at many of the coalesced leaders did not apply to the "wary Wedderburn," for he had never uttered any opinion depreciatory of the talents or character of Mr Fox. From the breaking up of this ministry, his lordship remained out of office till the alarm of the French revolution separated the heterogeneous opposition which its remnants had formed for nearly ten years against Mr Pitt, under whom he accepted office, January 27, 1793, as lord high chancellor. He filled that important station for eight years "not perhaps," says Brydges, "in a manner perfectly satisfactory to the suitors of his Court, nor always with the highest degree of dignity as speaker of the upper house, but always with that pliancy, readiness, ingenuity, and knowledge, of which political leaders must have felt the convenience, and the public duly appreciated the talent. Yet his slender and flexible eloquence," continues this elegant writer, "his minuter person, and the comparative feebleness of his bodily organs, were by no means a match for the direct, sonorous, and energetic oratory, the powerful voice, dignified figure, and bold manner of Thurlow; of whom he always seemed to stand in awe, and to whose superior judgment he often bowed against his will."

Lord Loughborough having been twice married without issue, and his first patent having been limited to heirs-male, a new patent was granted to him in 1795, by which his nephew Sir James Sinclair Erskine of Alva, was entitled to succeed him. On resigning the chancellorship in April, 1801, his lordship was created earl of Rosslyn, in the county of Mid Lothian, with the same remainders. He now retired from public life, but continued to be a frequent guest of his sovereign, who never ceased to regard him with the highest esteem. 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 the 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 is said that the aged statesman was moved almost to tears. [The house was situated in Gray’s close, opposite to the ancient Mint.]The earl of Rosslyn died at Bayles in Berkshire, January 3, 1805, and was interred in St Paul’s cathedral. A portrait of his lordship, painted by Reynolds, was engraved by Bartolozzi. He wrote, in early life, critiques on Barclay’s Greek grammar, the Decisions of the Supreme Court, and the Abridgment 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 in Yorkshire.


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