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Henry Dundas


DUNDAS, the right honourable Henry, viscount Melville and baron Dunira, was born in the year 1741. He was the son of the first, and brother to the second, Robert Dundas of Arniston, each of whom held the high office of lord president of the court of session. His father’s family, as has been mentioned in the notice of Sir James Dundas of Arniston, derived their origin from the very ancient family of Dundas of Dundas; his mother was the daughter of Sir Robert Gordon of Invergordon, Bart. After receiving the preliminary branches of education at the high school and university of Edinburgh, and having gone through the usual course of legal study, Mr Dundas was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates in the year 1763. It is related of him that after paying the expenses of his education and his admission to the faculty, he had just sixty pounds of his patrimony remaining. He commenced his professional career in chambers situated at the head of the Flesh-market close of Edinburgh; and such was the moderate accommodation of Scottish lawyers in those days, that his rooms did not even front the High street. The meanness of his apartments, however, is to be attributed rather to the habits of the times, and the state of Edinburgh, than to pecuniary obstacles, or to any distrust of success; for the member of a family so well connected in the country, and so highly distinguished in the courts before which Mr Dundas proposed to practise, enjoyed every advantage which a young lawyer could have desired as an introduction to his profession. In Mr Dundas these recommendations were happily combined with great talents and persevering application to business; so that, although he did not resist the temptations to gaiety and dissipation which beset him, he on no occasion allowed the pursuit of pleasure or amusement, to interfere with the due discharge of his professional duties. Nor did he lose any opportunity which presented itself of cultivating his oratorical powers. With that view he early availed himself of the opening afforded for that species of display, in the annual sittings of the general assembly of the church of Scotland. As a lay member of that venerable body, Mr Dundas gave a foretaste of that manly eloquence and address, which in after life rendered him the able coadjutor of Mr Pitt in the management of the house of commons during a period of unexampled difficulty.

The first official appointment which Mr Dundas held, was that of one of the assessors to the magistrates of the city of Edinburgh. He was afterwards depute-advocate, that is, one of the three or four barristers who, by delegation from the lord advocate, prepare indictments, attend criminal trials, both in Edinburgh and on the circuits of the high court of judiciary; and in general, discharge, under the lord advocate, his function of public prosecutor. The office of solicitor general for Scotland, was the next step in Mr Dundas’ promotion; and with regard to this part of his career it is sufficient to observe, that his sound judgment, sagacity, and prompt discernment as a lawyer, obtained for his pleadings the respect and attention of the ablest judges on the bench, (no small praise, considering the manner in which the bench of the court of session was at that time occupied,) and held out to him the certainty of the highest honours of the profession in Scotland, had he limited his ambition to that object.

To the high estimation in which Mr Dundas was held, at a period comparatively early in life, lord Kames bears flattering testimony in the dedication to his "Elucidations of the common and statute law of Scotland." That dedication is dated in 1777, and the following are the terms in which this distinguished lawyer and philosopher addresses Mr Dundas:—"Though law has been my chief employment in a long and laborious life, I can, however, address my young friend without even a blush, requesting his patronage to this little work. As in some instances it pretends to dissent from established practice, I know few men, young or old, who have your candour to make truth welcome against their own prepossessions; still fewer who have your talents to make it triumph over the prepossession of others." Mr Boswell, the biographer of Johnson, furnishes another contemporary account of Mr Dundas as a Scottish barrister, which is equally laudatory. In reference to the celebrated case of Knight, the negro, who claimed his freedom as a consequence of setting his foot on the soil of Scotland, Mr Boswell, writing also under the date of 1777, mentions that Mr Dundas had volunteered his aid to Knight. The leading lawyers were retained on both sides, and exerted themselves to the uttermost, and the following is Mr Boswell’s account of the impression made on him by Mr Dundas’ eloquence: "Mr Dundas’ Scottish accent, which has been so often in vain obtruded as an objection to his powerful abilities in parliament, was no disadvantage to him in his own country. And I do declare, that upon this memorable question, he impressed me, and I believe all his audience, with such feelings as were produced by some of the most eminent orations of antiquity. This testimony I liberally give to the excellence of an old friend, with whom it has been my lot to differ very widely upon many political topics; yet I persuade myself, without malice, a great majority of the lords of session decided for the Negro." —Boswell’s Johnson.

We have now reached a stage of Mr Dundas’ life, at which he may be almost said to have taken leave of the Scottish bar, and of law as a profession, and to have entered on a scene where objects of still higher ambition presented themselves. In 1774, he stood candidate for the county of Edinburgh in the general election of that year, and was returned in opposition to the ministerial influence. But he soon joined the party then in power, and became a strenuous supporter of lord North’s administration. He frequently spoke in the house of commons, and notwithstanding the disadvantages of an ungraceful manner, and a provincial accent, he was always listened to with attention, on account of the clearness of his statements and the weight of his arguments. As a reward for his services, he was, in 1775, appointed lord advocate of Scotland, on the elevation of Sir James Montgomery to the office of lord chief baron; and in 1777, he obtained the sinecure appointment of keeper of the king’s signet for Scotland.

The lord advocate holds the highest political office in Scotland, and is always expected to have a seat in parliament, where he discharges something resembling the duties of secretary of state for that quarter of the kingdom. And Mr Dundas, from the time of his obtaining this appointment, appears to have devoted his chief attention to public business and party politics. The contentions among political parties ran very high towards the close of lord North’s administration; but supported by the king, that nobleman was long enabled to hold out against the unpopularity occasioned by the disastrous progress of the American war, aggravated by the eloquent invectives of an opposition, perhaps the most talented which any British ministry ever encountered. The result of the unfortunate campaign of 1781, however, compelled lord North to resign. Mr Dundas had supported his administration; but at the same time, by maintaining a cautious forbearance during this arduous struggle for power, he ingratiated himself with all parties. Nor is it uninteresting to observe the manner in which at this period he met the opposition of Mr Pitt, then a young man, in his twenty-first year; but who, even at that early age, was so remarkably gifted, that a man of Mr Dundas’ penetration was at no loss to foresee and to predict his speedy rise to the highest political distinction. We quote from Tomline’s life of that great statesman. "The lord advocate, (Mr Dundas) who had been a uniform supporter of the American war, and was one of the ablest debaters in favour of the administration, replied to Mr Pitt. After adverting, in general terms, to several persons who had taken part in the debate, he proceeded thus, with a sort of prophetic eulogy—‘The honourable gentleman who spoke last, claims my particular approbation. I am unwilling to say to that honourable gentleman’s face, what truth would exact from me were he absent; but even now, however unusual it may be, I must declare, that I find myself impelled to rejoice in the good fortune of my country, and my fellow subjects, who are destined, at some future day, to derive the most important services from so happy a union of first-rate abilities, high integrity, bold and honest independency of conduct, and the most persuasive eloquence.’"

When the fall of lord North’s administration became certain, Mr Dundas’ knowledge of public business, and his intimate acquaintance with the state of the nation, rendered him a most valuable accession to the new administration. He held no office, however, except that of lord advocate under the Rockingham ministry; but the dissensions in the cabinet which followed the death of lord Rockingham, and the promotion of lord Shelburne to the premiership, made way for Mr Dundas, who, in 1782, was appointed treasurer of the Navy. The administration under which he thus accepted office was however speedily displaced by the celebrated coalition administration; on the formation of which Mr Dundas resigned, and became the able coadjutor of Mr Pitt, in his opposition to the measures proposed by Mr Fox and lord North. At that time public attention was turned very much to India, in the hope apparently, that in that quarter of the globe the country might find something to counterbalance the loss of our American colonies. The complaints of misgovernment in India were very loud. The British conquests in that country were at the same time rapidly extending; and, at last, the dissensions in the supreme council of Bengal rendered it necessary to bring the subject before parliament. In April, 1782, on the motion of lord North, a secret committee was appointed to inquire into the causes of the war in India, and the unfavourable state of the company’s affairs. Of this committee Mr Dundas (who had previously rendered himself remarkable in parliament for his intimate acquaintance with the affairs of India) was appointed chairman. His reports, extending to several folio volumes, were drawn up with great ability and precision, and contained a mass of authentic and important information concerning the transactions of the company and their servants, both at home and abroad, of the very highest value. These reports Mr Dundas followed up by a "Bill for the better regulation and government of the British possessions in India, and for the preservation and security thereof." But the ministry having intimated their intention to oppose this measure, and to introduce one of their own, Mr Dundas did not attempt to carry it through the House; and in November, 1783, the ministerial pledge was redeemed by the introduction of Mr Fox’s famous East India bill.

It is foreign to the purpose of the present memoir to inquire into the merits or demerits of this celebrated bill. It met, as is well known, the uncompromising opposition of Mr Pitt and Mr Dundas. Nevertheless it passed the house of commons, by large majorities, and would also have been carried through the house of lords, but for the firmness of the king, which led, of course, to the resignation of lord North and Mr Fox; when Mr Pitt was called to the helm of affairs. On first taking office this great statesman had to contend against a majority of the house of commons, and in this arduous struggle he was most powerfully aided by Mr Dundas, who led the ministerial party in the house of commons during the temporary absence of Mr Pitt prior to his re-election, after his acceptance of the chancellorship of the exchequer. This extraordinary contest between the ministers and parliament was terminated by the general election of 1784. In the new parliament Mr Pitt had a decided majority; and very soon after its meeting he introduced his India bill. The introduction of that measure was also preceded by a select committee, of which Mr Dundas was chairman; and although the new bill was not liable to the strong objections which had been urged against that of Mr Fox, it nevertheless encountered a very serious opposition, and might have been greatly obstructed or mutilated in its progress, but, for the assistance of Mr Dundas. His intimate acquaintance with Indian affairs, and his skill and dexterity as a debater, were invaluable to government, and contributed, in no inconsiderable degree, to neutralize, or overcome, the opposition of the East India Company, and ultimately to carry the bill triumphantly through parliament.

We have Dr Tomline’s testimony to the valuable assistance rendered by Mr Dundas at that time. "Though the whole business of the nation," (says he, talking of Mr Pitt), "rested upon him, as the sole minister in the house of commons, it would be injustice not to mention, that he had a most able adviser and supporter in Mr Dundas, who had been accustomed to take an active part in parliament during lord North’s administration, and who now exerted his vigorous understanding and manly powers of debate, in a manner highly useful to Mr Pitt. On him he could always rely as ready to argue judiciously, and with effect, any point which might be brought into discussion; and the particular attention which Mr Dundas had for many years given to the affairs of India, enabled him to render Mr Pitt the most essential service, in arranging and carrying through parliament his plan for the future government of that important part of the British empire."—Life of Mr Pitt, vol. i. p. 567.

Mr Dundas had been restored to his office of treasurer of the navy, immediately on the formation of Mr Pitt’s administration; and on the passing of the East India bill he was also appointed president of the board of control As treasurer of the navy Mr Dundas’ services were in the highest degree beneficial. His arrangements for the disbursement of the money appropriated to this branch of the public service, substituted order and economy in the place of perplexity and profusion. He, at the same time, provided for greater promptitude in the payment of the seamen’s wages; and, in order to render the service still more attractive, he introduced and carried through parliament, various measures calculated to improve the condition and increase the comforts of the seamen in the royal navy. In particular, he got an act passed for preventing the passing of forged instruments. By this act, the wills and powers of attorney, executed by seamen, were required to be counter-signed by the officers of the port at which they were dated, and thus a check was given to numerous frauds against the families of sailors who were either absent or who had fallen in the service of their country. He also introduced a bill which was afterwards passed, empowering seamen to make over half their pay to their wives and families. By these and other reforms which he effected in the naval department, Mr Dundas, while he greatly increased the efficacy of the navy, showed a humane consideration for those engaged in the service, which is at this day gratefully remembered by many members of that profession, who can speak from their own experience of their obligations to one who was most justly called "the sailor’s friend." Among the measures introduced by Mr Dundas while he held the treasurership of the navy, was the act for the regulation of the money destined for the service of the navy. Previously the salary of the treasurer of the navy was 2000 per annum; but the perquisites attached to the office, and particularly the command of the public money, added greatly to the emoluments. In order to prevent the risk, profusion, and irregularity inseparable from such a system, Mr Dundas’ bill fixed the salary at 4000, and prohibited the treasurer from making any private or individual use of the public money. It was in consequence of a supposed violation of this statute, that Mr Dundas, at a later period of his life, was exposed to much unmerited obloquy, and made the subject of a public inquiry, to which we shall have occasion more particularly to advert in the sequel.

In the session of 1784, Mr Dundas introduced his bill for restoring the estates in Scotland, forfeited on account of the rebellion of 1745. The expediency of this measure as a means of conciliating the inhabitants of the northern part of the island, and reconciling them to the reigning family was manifest; still it was necessary, for obvious reasons, so far to cover the true motive, and to represent the boon as a reward to the people of Scotland for the services which they had rendered in the armies of the country, during the recent wars. And such accordingly was the tone taken by the supporters of the measure. [It was in the course of the debates on this bill that Mr Dundas introduced a passage from a speech of the great lord Chatham, which may not seem altogether out of place here, not only on account of its intrinsic merit and pertinency, but also as indicative of the superiority of that great man’s mind to those national prejudices which are happily now wearing out, but which, in those days, were openly avowed in very high quarters. "I am," said lord Chatham, "above all local prejudices, and care not whether a man has been rocked in a cradle in this, or on the other side of the Tweed: I sought only for merit, and I found it in the mountains of the north. I there found a hardy race of men, able to do their country service; but labouring under a proscription. I called them forth to her aid, and sent them to fight her battles. They did not disappoint my expectations; for their fidelity could only be equalled by their valour, which signalized their own and their country’s renown, all over the world."]

As president of the board of control, Mr Dundas’ services were no less beneficial to the country. His sound judgment and remarkable business talents, combined with his intimate acquaintance with the complicated and multifarious details of the East India company’s affairs, enabled him to simplify and reduce to order what had been previously an absolute chaos. Hence, also, in parliament, he was at all times prepared to give the requisite explanations, and to furnish full information concerning Indian matters; while it was his constant endeavour to collect, and to avail himself of the information and suggestions which his situation placed at his command, in order to introduce those reforms in the company’s administration which the rapid extension of their possessions in that quarter of the world rendered necessary. It was with this view, that, in the session of 1786, Mr Dundas carried a bill through parliament for effecting certain modifications and improvements in Mr Pitt’s India bill. In the same session Mr Burke originated those discussions which terminated in the impeachment of Mr Hastings. It is now well known that, on that occasion, the exuberant and inexhaustible eloquence of Mr Burke, was, without his being aware of it, to a certain extent made subservient, not only to party purposes, but to the gratification of the private animosity of Mr Francis. We can now look back dispassionately and with sympathy to the unmerited and protracted suffering to which Mr Hastings was subjected; but, during the progress of the investigation, truth as well as justice were lost sight of, amidst the splendid declamation of some of the greatest orators who ever appeared in parliament. Even Mr Dundas seems to have yielded to the prevailing delusion; for although he uniformly opposed himself to the spirit of persecution which characterized the proceedings of the accusers, and ultimately defeated their object, he made no attempt to vindicate Mr Hastings from those charges, which, when stript of rhetorical and oriental embellishments, were found to be either entirely groundless, or such as admitted of explanations not only reconcileable with Mr Hastings’ innocence, but which actually exhibited him as at once the benefactor of the natives, and as one who, by the vigour and wisdom of his administration, had contributed more than any of his predecessors to the extension and consolidation of the company’s possessions in India.

After taking part with Mr Pitt in the debates on the regency question, during the king’s illness in 1788, the next prominent feature in Mr Dundas’ public life, was his steady and determined opposition to the pernicious principles of the French revolution. In that memorable struggle in which the salvation of this country was attributable chiefly to the energy and firmness of Mr Pitt, the minister, as usual, found in Mr Dundas his most able and cordial coadjutor. In 1791, he was appointed principal secretary of state for the home department, and thus became a member of the cabinet. He, at the same time, retained his other appointments; and yet, such was his aptitude for business, and his unwearied application to his official duties, that the three important departments committed to him, never were in a state of greater efficiency. Many of the most approved public measures originated with, or were directly promoted by him. Among those were the formation of the fencible regiments, the supplementary militia, the volunteer corps, and the provisional cavalry. The whole, in short, of that domestic military force which, during the war, consequent on the French revolution, was raised and kept in readiness as a defence at once against foreign invasion and internal disturbance, was projected and organized under the direction of Mr Dundas. To him also we owe the improved system of distributing the army throughout the country in barracks and garrisons, by which, in times of commercial distress and political agitation, the most prompt protection to the lives and property of the inhabitants might be afforded. On the accession of the duke of Portland and his party to the ministry, in 1793, it was thought advisable to appoint a third secretary of state, rather than remove Mr Dundas from the superintendence of the military system which he had brought into operation. Accordingly, while the duke of Portland took the home secretaryship, Mr Dundas, in 1794, was nominated secretary of state for the war department. At this time he also held the office of keeper of the privy seal of Scotland, and governor of the bank of Scotland; still retaining the presidency of the board of control and the treasurership of the navy,—which last office he continued to hold until May, 1800; his other political offices he held until 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. He sat for the county from 1774 to 1787, and for the city, from the latter year, until 1602, when he was raised to the peerage. And during the whole course of his official life he was considered as virtually the minister of Scotland. He had what is called the political patronage of that quarter of the kingdom; and so acted, as well in the discharge of his various public duties, as in the distribution of the favours of government, that he attached to himself, and to the administration of which he formed a part, the great majority of the men of rank, property, and influence in that country. It has been objected to him, that in the exercise of this patronage he looked too exclusively to his own political partisans; but in justice to him, it must never be forgotten, that he held office in times when the acrimony of his opponents (to say nothing of the dangerous principles avowed by some of them) put conciliation entirely out of the question; and besides, the charge is to a great extent unjust; for on his trial it was admitted, even by his bitterest enemies, that in disposing of appointments in the navy and army he was remarkable for his impartiality and indifference to party distinctions. Nor is it possible to overlook the fact, that the political party by whom this charge was brought against Mr Dundas, had always been proverbial for their own adherence to the practice they were so ready to condemn in him.

When Mr Pitt retired from office in 1801, previous to the peace of Amiens, Mr. Dundas followed his example. On that occasion he laid before parliament a very favourable statement of the condition in which the East India company’s affairs then were; and although his opponents did not fail to cavil at his views, yet all parties concurred in expressing the highest approbation of the manner in which Mr Dundas had discharged his duty as president of the board of control. The court of directors were disposed to award him more substantial marks of their gratitude; but finding that he had resolved to decline any pecuniary remuneration, they conferred a pension of 2000 per annum, on Mrs Dundas. About the same time the town council of Edinburgh testified their sense of his merit, by resolving, at an extraordinary meeting called for the purpose, that a subscription should be opened for the erection of a statue of him as a tribute of gratitude for his lengthened and eminent public services.

In the year 1802, the Addington administration raised Mr Dundas to the peerage by the titles of viscount of Melville, in the county of Edinburgh, and baron of Dunira, in the county of Perth. On this event, the town council of Edinburgh again came forward, and in a letter addressed to him by the lord provost, in the name of the council, expressed their attachment to him and his family; their admiration of his talents; and their gratitude for the many services which he had rendered to his country, and particularly to the city of Edinburgh. This address lord Melville answered in person, taking occasion, in a speech delivered at a meeting of the town council, to touch on various interesting topics, and, in particular, to bring under their notice one of the practical blessings of the British constitution, of which his own life afforded a very striking example. "Having mentioned the constitution under which we have the happiness to live," said his lordship, "I trust I shall not be thought to deviate very far from the object of my present address, if I presume to trouble you with one observation, resulting from the situation in which I am now placed. I will not trouble you with any of the particulars of the outset of my life; they are too well known to need any detail from me. I content myself with barely alluding to them. It has pleased Providence to bless my family with success beyond my most sanguine expectations: while we, therefore, continue to resist the pernicious effects of these frantic principles of ideal equality, incompatible with the government of the world, and the just order of human society, let us rejoice in those substantial blessings, the result of real freedom and of equal laws, which open to the fair ambition of every British subject the means of pursuing with success those objects of honour, and those situations of power, the attainment of which, in other countries, rest solely upon a partial participation of personal favour, and the enjoyment of which rests upon the precarious tenure of arbitrary power. It is impossible to look round to any quarter without seeing splendid examples of the truth of this remark."

On Mr Pitt resuming the premiership in 1804, lord Melville was appointed first lord of the admiralty; but this important office he did not long enjoy. The earl of St Vincent, his predecessor at the head of the admiralty, had obtained the appointment of a commission of inquiry to investigate certain suspected abuses in the naval department of the public service. That commission, in their tenth report, implicated lord Melville, while he held the treasurership of the navy, in a breach of the statute which he had himself introduced in 1785; whereby the treasurer of the navy was prohibited from converting to his own use or emolument, any part of the public money voted for the service of the navy. This report led to an unsatisfactory correspondence between lord Melville and the commissioners; and on the 8th of April, 1805, Mr Whitbread brought the matter under the notice of the house of commons. After a speech full of violent invective, that gentleman moved thirteen resolutions, to the effect generally, that lord Melville had been guilty of gross malversation, and breach of duty, in so far as he had misapplied or misdirected certain sums of public money, and had also in violation of the act of parliament, retained in his possession, or authorized his confidential agent, Mr Alexander Trotter, who held the office of paymaster of the navy, to retain, and to speculate in the funds, and discount private bills with the balances of the public money, voted for the service of the navy, in the profits of which transactions lord Melville had participated. Mr Pitt, after an eloquent and able defence of lord Melville, concluded by moving as an amendment, that the tenth report be referred to a select committee of the house. He was replied to by lord Henry Petty, now lord Lansdowne, Mr Fox, and other leading members of the whig party; and the result was, that in a very full house (433), the original resolutions were carried by the speaker’s casting vote.

The debate was then adjourned to the 10th of April, 1805, on which day Mr Pitt announced to the house on its meeting, that in consequence of the vote of the former evening, lord Melville had resigned the office of first lord of the admiralty. Mr Whitbread then delivered another vituperative speech, and concluded by moving that an address should be presented to the king, praying that lord Melville might be dismissed "from all offices held by him during pleasure, and from his majesty’s council and presence for ever." Mr Canning, who at that time held the office of treasurer of the navy, deprecated the rancour with which the whig party were proceeding.—He contrasted their conduct with that of lord Melville himself, when lord Grey and the earl of St Vincent were on their trial before the house, under similar circumstances, upon which occasion, lord Melville, although the political opponent of these noblemen, had strenuously defended them; while he, "so far from experiencing equal generosity, was now persecuted and hunted down; and by whom? by the friends of lord Grey and earl St Vincent! He congratulated the gentlemen on their sense, true spirit, and virtue; and prayed God Almighty to forbid that he should ever imitate their example." The debate concluded by a vote that a copy of the resolutions of the 8th of April should be laid before his majesty by the whole house. Some discussion afterwards took place as to the ulterior measures to be adopted against lord Melville and Mr Trotter, in the course of which, the same extraordinary acrimony was displayed; and on the 6th of May, Mr Pitt intimated that his majesty had been advised, in deference to the prevailing sense of the house, to strike the name of lord Melville out of the list of the privy council, and that accordingly, it would be erased, on the first day on which a council should be held. In making this communication, Mr Pitt appeared to be deeply affected; but no sympathy was shown on the opposition benches. On the contrary, it is impossible to deny, that relentless exultation over the expected downfall of an illustrious public servant, and a total disregard for the feelings of his friend the premier, were too prominently manifested by the whig party, on that, as on every other occasion on which this painful subject was before the house.

On the 11th of June, the speaker stated that he had received a letter from lord Melville, announcing his readiness to attend and be examined relative to the tenth report. He was thereupon admitted, and a chair placed for him within the bar; when he entered upon a concise vindication of his conduct; declaring his entire ignorance of Mr Trotter’s speculations with the public money, either in the funds, or as a private banker; denied all connivance at the violation of the statute 25th George III., relative to the money voted to the navy; and solemnly asserted, that on no occasion whatever, had he authorized Mr Trotter to draw money from the bank for his own private emolument;— the only object in allowing him to lodge money with private bankers having been to facilitate the public payments. In short, lord Melville gave those explanations of his conduct which were afterwards triumphantly established on his trial, by evidence. But, as may be easily believed, they did not, at this time, satisfy his opponents; and after a protracted debate, and more than one division adverse to the whig party, it was at last resolved, that the mode of procedure should be by impeaching his lordship at the bar of the house of lords, of high crimes and misdemeanours. On the 26th of June, a committee of twenty-one members was appointed to prepare articles of impeachment:—Mr Whitbread’s name being placed at the head. Among the members of this committee were Mr Fox, Mr Grey (late earl Grey), Mr Sheridan, lord Archibald Hamilton, and other leaders of the party. The committee on the 4th of March, 1806, made a report to the house, of certain new information which had come to their knowledge; and the result of the debate which ensued, was an additional article of impeachment. To this new article lord Melville was of course allowed to put in a replication; and the preliminaries being at length adjusted, the house of lords fixed the 29th of April, 1806, for the trial.

This imposing exhibition was conducted with the customary pomp and solemnity. Westminster hall was, as usual, fitted up for the occasion; and the nobility, including the princes of the blood, having taken their places in the full robes of their respective ranks, this tribunal, the most august and venerable in the world, proceeded to the discharge of their high duty. The articles of impeachment resolved into ten charges, of which the following is the substance.—1. That lord Melville, while treasurer of the navy, prior to January, 1786, fraudulently applied to his own use, or at least mis-directed, and would not explain how, 10,000, of the money which came into his hands as treasurer of the navy.—2. That, in violation of the act of parliament already mentioned, he permitted Mr Trotter to draw large sums from the money issued to the treasurer for the use of the navy, and to place it in the banking house of Messrs Coutts and Co. in his (Mr Trotter’s) own name.—3. That while he held the office of treasurer of the navy, and after the passing of the foresaid act, he permitted Mr Trotter to draw large sums of money from the treasurer’s public account, kept with the bank of England, under the said statute, and to place those sums in Mr Trotter’s individual account with Coutts and Co., for purposes of private emolument.—4. That after the 10th of January, 1786, and while treasurer of the navy, he fraudulently, and illegally, and for his own private advantage, or emolument, took from the public money, set apart for the use of the navy, 10,000; and that he and Mr Trotter, by mutual agreement, destroyed the vouchers of an account current kept between them, in order to conceal the advances of money made by Mr Trotter to him, and the account or considerations on which such advances were made.—5. That whilst Mr Trotter was thus illegally using the public money, he made, in part there from, several large advances to lord Melville, and destroyed the vouchers, as aforesaid, in order to conceal the fact.—6. That in particular, he received an advance of 22,000, without interest, partly from the public money, illegally in Mr Trotter’s hands, and partly from Mr Trotter’s own money in the hands of Messrs Coutts, and destroyed the vouchers as aforesaid.—7. That he received an advance of 22,000 from Mr Trotter, for which, as alleged by himself, he was to pay interest; for concealing which transaction the vouchers were destroyed as aforesaid.—8. That during all, or the greater part of the time that he was treasurer, and Mr Trotter paymaster of the navy, Mr Trotter gratuitously transacted his (lord Melville’s) private business, as his agent, and from time to time advanced him from 10,000, to 20,000, taken partly from the public money, and partly from Mr Trotter’s own money, lying mixed together indiscriminately in Messrs Coutts’ hands; whereby lord Melville derived profit from Mr Trotter’s illegal acts.—9. That Mr Trotter so acted gratuitously as lord Melville’s agent, in consideration of his connivance at the foresaid illegal appropriations of the public money; nor could Mr Trotter, as lord Melville knew, have made such advances otherwise than from the public money at his disposal by his lordship’s connivance, and with his permission.—10. That lord Melville, while treasurer of the navy, at divers times between the years 1782 and 1786, took from the moneys paid to him as treasurer of the navy, 27,000, or thereabouts, which sum he illegally applied to his own use, or to some purpose other than the service of the navy; and continued this fraudulent and illegal conversion of the public money, after the passing of the act for regulating the office of treasurer of the navy.

The charges, of which the above is an abstract, having been read, Mr Whitbread, as leading manager for the house of commons, opened the case in an elaborate speech, in which he detailed, and commented on, the evidence which the managers proposed to adduce. This was followed by the examination of witnesses in support of the several charges; the chief witness being Mr Trotter himself, in whose favour an act of indemnity had been passed, in order to qualify him to give his testimony with safety. The examination of the witnesses in support of the charges occupied nearly nine days. On the tenth day of the trial, Sir Samuel Romilly, one of the managers, gave a summary of what, as maintained, had been proved. He was followed by Mr Plomer, the leading counsel for lord Melville, who opened the defence in a speech of distinguished ability, the delivery of which occupied two days. The substance of the defence was, that lord Melville, so far from being accessory to, or conniving at, Mr Trotter’s appropriation of the public money, was entirely ignorant of these irregular practices. As to the 10,000, it was admitted to have been diverted from the service of the navy, and used in another department of the public service, but this was prior to the passing of the foresaid act, when such a proceeding was perfectly lawful and customary; and at any rate, no part of that sum was applied either directly or indirectly to the individual profit or advantage of lord Melville. Mr Plomer farther showed, that lord Melville had been remarkable during his whole life for his carelessness about money, and for his superiority to all mercenary motives—that while he held the office of treasurer of the navy, he had voluntarily relinquished the salary attached to the office of secretary of state, to the aggregate amount of 34,730, being a sum exceeding the whole of the public money which he was said to have misapplied—that if there had been any irregularity at all, it was imputable solely to Mr Trotter, and perhaps, to a slight degree of laxity on the part of lord Melville, whose attention was distracted by many engrossing and more important public duties. Witnesses were then called to prove that lord Melville had voluntarily relinquished, for the benefit of the public, 8,648, 13s. 2d., in the home department, and 26,081, 7s. 5d. in the war department, making a total of 34,730, 0s. 7d.; and the case on the part of the defendant was then concluded by a very able speech from Mr Adam, afterwards lord chief commissioner of the jury court in Scotland. Sir Arthur Piggot, on the part of the managers of the house of commons, replied at some length to the legal arguments of Messrs Plomer and Adam, and Mr Whitbread closed the case by a reply upon the evidence, in the course of which he resumed the invective and sarcasm against lord Melville, which had distinguished his opening speech, as well as all his speeches on this subject in the house of commons. It would seem, however, if we are to judge from the result, that either his sarcasm or his arguments had by this time lost their efficacy. After a few words from Mr Plomer, the peers adjourned, and having met again, after an interval of nearly a month, on the 10th of June, to determine on lord Melville’s guilt or innocence, he was acquitted of every charge by triumphant majorities. On the 4th charge in particular, which concerned the sum of 10,000, alleged to have been applied by lord Melville for his own advantage or emolument, their lordships were unanimous in their acquittal; and in general the majorities were very large on all the charges which imputed corrupt or fraudulent intentions to lord Melville. The votes on the several charges were as follow:-

  Guilty Not Guilty Majority
First charge 16 119 103
Second charge 56 79 23
Third charge 52 83 31
Fourth charge None All  
Fifth charge 4 131 127
Sixth charge 48 87 39
Seventh charge 50 85 35
Eighth charge 14 121 107
Ninth charge 10 119 103
Tenth charge 12 123 111

The dukes of York, Cumberland, and Cambridge, generally voted not guilty. The dukes of Clarence, Kent, and Sussex, guilty, except of the 4th charge. The lord chancellor, Erskine, generally voted with the dukes of Clarence, Kent, and Sussex. The prince of Wales was not present.

On looking back dispassionately to the whole of this proceeding, it is impossible not to be struck with the rancour with which it was characterized. Had lord Melville been a rapacious and mercenary peculator, enriching himself at the public expense; or a vindictive political partisan, and otherwise undistinguished, we might have found some excuse for the uncompromising course adopted. But the reverse of all that was the fact. He was confessedly a generous and high-minded competitor in the great game of politics; incapable of pecuniary meanness—impoverished rather than enriched by his connexion with the state, and the consequent expense in which it involved him;—and above all, he was, by the admission even of his enemies, a most meritorious public servant, who, during a long and laborious official career, had conferred great and lasting benefits on his country. On this last point we can have no better testimony than that of Mr Whitbread himself, who, on this very trial, was constrained, in common justice, to admit,—"that, during the time lord Melville was treasurer of the navy, several most beneficial regulations took place in his office, and several acts were passed for the protection and defence of those who were before unprotected and defenceless. The widows and orphans of those gallant sons of the empire, who were fighting the battles of their country, were the objects of his peculiar care, and a number of lives were preserved by his prudent and generous interposition. However detestable the crime may be, it had been a common practice to forge the wills of those who fell in the defence of the state, and this atrocious conduct, and its pernicious consequences, have been, in a great degree, prevented by the salutary plans recommended by the defendant; for which he deserves the thanks of the British people." Mr Whitbread might easily have extended his eulogy to the defendant’s public conduct as president of the board of control, as home secretary, as secretary of state for the war department, and finally to his patriotic exertions for the improvement of his native country of Scotland.

Yet such was the man, who, after having been held up to popular execration, in vague and declamatory speeches in parliament, was brought to his trial labouring not only under the odium and prejudice thus excited, but actually punished before trial; for it never can be forgotten, that his accusers, before attempting to prove the charges, in the proof of which they ultimately failed, and even before putting him on his trial, had declared him incapable of public trust, and had succeeded in getting his name erased from the list of the privy council. In such circumstances of degradation and obloquy, with his cause to a certain extent prejudged, and almost overwhelmed by the weight and influence of his adversaries, his acquittal was indeed the triumph of justice, and a memorable encomium on the impartiality of the august tribunal before which the trial proceeded. Nor is it necessary for lord Melville’s vindication from the graver charges to deny that he was guilty of a certain degree of negligence. Undoubtedly, amidst his multifarious public avocations, he was not so vigilant in scrutinizing Mr Trotter’s money transactions, as in strictness he ought to have been. But such oversights are comparatively venial, and, in this instance, they were natural; for, even before lord Melville became treasurer of the navy, Mr Trotter was in a confidential public office. He afterwards rose by his own merits to a place of higher trust, and throughout, nothing had occurred to excite suspicion. Indeed, it is not the least remarkable feature of this prosecution, that it was never attempted to be shown, that the public had lost one farthing by the supposed delinquencies of lord Melville, or even by the admitted irregularities of Mr Trotter. To assert, however, that the investigation originated merely in factious or party motives, would be going beyond the truth; but perhaps it may be now said without offence, that the many disclamations of personal hostility, and the anxious professions of disinterested zeal by the public service, which the accusers were in the daily habit of repeating during the whole progress of the discussion, were found to be necessary, in order to counteract the growing suspicion, that their zeal was stimulated by the prospect of supplanting, or at least displacing, a powerful and able political opponent, and perhaps paralyzing the administration, of which he was so conspicuous a member.

The proceedings against lord Melville made a deep impression on Mr Pitt, who unfortunately did not survive to congratulate him on his acquittal. According to the author of the article "Great Britain" in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mr Pitt was thus deprived "of his only efficient coadjutor, at a time when, from the magnitude of his public cares, he was more than ever in want of support. The consequent fatigue and anxiety made severe inroads on a constitution naturally not strong. His indisposition became apparent in the early part of the winter, and, on the meeting of parliament, it was understood to have reached a dangerous height. His (Mr Pitt’s) death took place on the 23d January, 1806."

Soon after his acquittal, lord Melville was restored to his place in the privy council; but although the whig administration which was in power at the end of the trial, resigned within a few months, he never returned to office. The loss of his friend, Mr Pitt, and his own advanced age, rendered him little anxious to resume public life; and thenceforward he lived chiefly in retirement; taking part only occasionally in the debates of the house of lords. One of his last appearances was made in the year 1810, when he brought forward a motion recommending the employment of armed vessels, instead of hired transports, for the conveyance of troops. His death, which was very sudden, took place in Edinburgh, on the 27th of May, 1811. He died in the house of his nephew, lord chief baron Dundas, in George Square; having come to Edinburgh, it is believed, to attend the funeral of his old friend, lord president Blair, who had been himself cut off no less suddenly, a few days before, and who lay dead in the house adjoining that in which lord Melville expired.

Lord Melville’s person was tall, muscular, and well formed. His features were strongly marked, and the general expression of his face indicated high intellectual endowments, and great acuteness and sagacity. In public life, he was distinguished by his wonderful capacity for business; by unwearied attention to his numerous official duties; and by the manliness and straightforwardness of his character. He was capable of great fatigue; and, being an early riser, he was enabled to get through a great deal of business before he was interrupted by the bustle of official details, or the duties of private society. As a public speaker he was clear, acute, and argumentative; with the manner of one thoroughly master of his subject, and desirous to convince the understanding without the aid of the ornamental parts of oratory; which he seemed, in some sort, to despise.

In private life his manner was winning, agreeable, and friendly, with great frankness and ease. He was convivial in his habits, and, in the intercourse of private life, he never permitted party distinctions to interfere with the cordiality and kindness of his disposition; hence, it has been truly said, that whig and tory agreed in loving him; and that he was always happy to oblige those in common with whom he had any recollections of good humoured festivity. But perhaps the most remarkable peculiarity in his character, was his intimate and familiar acquaintance with the actual state of Scotland, and its inhabitants, and all their affairs. In Edinburgh, in particular, there was no person of consideration whose connections and concerns were not known to him. Amongst the anecdotes told of him, there is one which strikingly illustrates the natural kindness of his disposition, while, at the same time, it discloses one of the sources of his popularity. It is said, 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; climbing, for this purpose, with unwearying steps some of the tallest staircases in the old town He was sagacious in the discernment of merit, and on many occasions showed a disinterested anxiety to promote the success of those he thought deserving. His public duties left him little time for the cultivation of literary pursuits, even had he been so inclined; he frequently, however, proved himself a sincere but unostentatious patron of learning. In the earlier part of his life he enjoyed the esteem and friendship of Dr Robertson; and lived on habits of great intimacy with Dr Hugh Blair, on whom he conferred several preferments. On the death of Dr Robertson, he obtained the office of historiographer for Scotland for Dr Gillies, the historian of Greece, whose merit he fully appreciated. He also increased the number of the royal chaplains in Scotland from six to ten, thus adding one or two additional prizes to the scantily endowed church establishment of Scotland.

But lord Melville’s great claim on the affection and gratitude of Scotsmen is founded on the truly national spirit with which he promoted their interest, and the improvement of their country, whenever opportunities presented themselves. We have seen of late a disposition to provincialize Scotland, (if we may so express ourselves,) and a sort of timidity amongst our public men, lest they should be suspected of showing any national predilections. Lord Melville laboured under no such infirmity. Caeteris paribus he preferred his own countrymen; and the number of Scotsmen who owed appointments in India and elsewhere to him, and afterwards returned to spend their fortunes at home, have contributed in no inconsiderable degree to the marked improvement on the face of the country which has taken place during the last fifty years. Neither did he overlook the interest of those who remained at home. The abolition of the public boards, courts, and other memorials, of the former independence of Scotland, had not occurred to the economists of lord Melville’s day. He acted, therefore, on the exploded, although by no means irrational notion, that the community, generally, would derive benefit from the expenditure of the various resident functionaries, at that time connected with our national establishments. In all this he may have been wrong, although there are many who are still at a loss to perceive the error; but however that may be, he must be but an indifferent Scotsman, be his political principles what they may, who can talk lightly of the debt which his country owes to lord Melville. Indeed it is well known, that during his life, the services which he had rendered to this part of the island, were readily acknowledged even by those who differed most widely from him on the general system of public policy in which he took so active a part.

The city of Edinburgh contains two public monuments to lord Melville’s memory—the first, a marble statue, by Chantrey, which stands on a pedestal at the north end of the large hall of the parliament house. This statue, which is a remarkably fine specimen of the artist’s skill, was erected at the expense of gentlemen of the Scottish bar, in testimony of their respect for one who had in early life, been so distinguished a member of their body. Among the subscribers are to be found the names of many gentlemen who differed in politics from lord Melville, but who esteemed him as a benefactor to his native country. The other monument is the column surmounted by a statue of his lordship, which adorns the centre of St Andrew Square. This fine pillar is copied from Trajan’s column at Rome; with this difference, that the shaft, in place of being ornamented with sculpture, is fluted. The entire height of the column and pedestal is 136 feet 4 inches. The statue, which is of free-stone, and the work of the late Mr Forrest, the well-known sculptor, about 15 feet in height, giving a total altitude of about 150 feet. The expense of this erection was defrayed by subscription, chiefly among gentlemen connected with the navy. The foundation stone was laid in April, 1821; the scaffolding removed in August, 1822, on the occasion of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, and the statue was put up in 1827. The architect was Mr William Burn of Edinburgh. Lord Melville was twice married; first to Miss Rannie, daughter of Captain Rannie of Melville, with whom he is said to have got a fortune of 100,000. Another of Captain Rannie’s daughters was the wife of Mr Baron Cockburn of the Scottish court of exchequer, and mother to the late Henry Cockburn, Esq., one of the lords of session. Lord Melville’s second wife was lady Jane Hope, daughter of John and sister to James, earl of Hopetoun. Of his first marriage there were three daughters and one son; of the second no issue. Lord Melville’s landed property in Scotland consisted of Melville Castle in MidLothian and Dunira in Perthshjre. He was succeeded in his titles and estates by his only son, the right honourable Robert Dundas, the present lord Melville, who held the office of first lord of the admiralty under the administrations of the earl of Liverpool and of the duke of Wellington.

Lord Melville can hardly be said to have been an author, but he published the three subjoined political pamphlets, each of which was distinguished by his usual good sense and knowledge of business. [The substance of a speech in the house of commons, on the British government and trade in the East Indies, April 23, 1793, London, 1813, 8vo. – Letter to the chairmen of the court of directors of the East India Company, upon an open trade to India, London, 1813, 8vo. – Letters to the right honourable Spenser Percival, relative to the establishment of a Naval Arsenal at Northfleet, London, 1810, 4to.]


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