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Significant Scots
Sir James MacKintosh


Sir James MacKintosh MACKINTOSH, (SIR) JAMES, a distinguished historian and statesman, was born on the 24th of October, 1765, at Alldowrie, the residence of his grandmother, situated on the banks of Loch Ness, about seven miles from Inverness. He was in his own person, being the eldest of three children, the representative of the Killochy branch of the family of Mackintosh, (a property which they acquired in the fifteenth century.) and was the eleventh in descent from Allan, third son of Malcolm, the tenth chief of the clan, who was one of the leaders in the celebrated battle of Harlaw, fought in 1411. The lairds of Killochy, as the eldest branch of the Mackintoshes extant, were always captains of the watch (a feudal military appointment) to the chief of the clan, and acted in this capacity in all the hostilities in which he happened to be engaged.

John Mackintosh of Killochy, father to the subject of this memoir, held a commission for several years in Campbell’s Highlanders, and was wounded in the Seven Years’ War in Germany. He was afterwards a captain in the 68th regiment, and served with this corps for a considerable time in Gibraltar, and other places abroad. He was a man of amiable manners and disposition, and much esteemed by all who knew him, amongst the most remarkable of whom was major Mercer, the author of a volume of pleasing poetry, who thus speaks of him, sixteen years after his death, in a letter to lord Glenbervie:—"We lived together," says this gentleman, "for two years in the same tent, without one unkind word or look. John Mackintosh was one of the liveliest, most good-humoured, gallant lads I ever knew."

Sir James’s mother, Marjory Macgilivray, who died at Gibraltar, while he was yet a child, was a daughter of Alexander Macgilivray, Esq. of the state of Carolina.

From a very early period of life the subject of this memoir discovered a singular propensity to reading; a passion which his father, who had been himself accustomed to an active life, and who desired that his son’s pursuits should be of a more stirring kind, endeavoured, but in vain, to subdue. Little foreseeing the eminence to which this studious disposition was one day to raise him, he twitted the boy with his sedentary and monotonous life; telling him, with the view of rousing him to an interest in what was passing around him, and of directing his inclinations into a livelier channel, that he would become a mere pedant. His attachment to books, however, was too deeply seated in his nature to be removed by such sarcasms, and his father’s opposition had the effect only of driving him to do that by stealth and in secret which he had done before openly. He rose at midnight when the family had retired to rest, lighted his candle, and pursued his solitary studies unmolested till the approach of morning.

In consequence of his father’s being much abroad, the care of young Mackintosh devolved chiefly upon his grandmother, a woman of superior endowments, and to whom he was in a great measure indebted for the early discipline which his mind received. When of sufficient age to leave home, the future historian and statesman was sent to the academy of Fortrose, then the most distinguished seminary in that part of Scotland, and placed under the tuition of Mr Stalker, one of the masters. Here young Mackintosh rapidly acquired, and continued to maintain, a marked superiority over all his schoolfellows for ability and application. In this remote corner of the world, and at the early period of his life, his future fame was shadowed forth in a local reputation which gave to "Jamie Mackintosh" the character of a prodigy of learning and talent. His master entertained a similar opinion of him, and, as a proof of his confidence in his acquirements and abilities, devolved upon him, while yet a mere boy, nearly the entire management of the classical department of the school. At this period, too, he began to discover that talent for oratory and declamation by which he so eminently distinguished himself in after life. The eloquence, however, on which latterly "listening senates hung" was at this period poured out from the top of the grave stones in the churchyard of Fortrose, on which the young orator used to mount in moments of enthusiasm, and declaim from Shakspeare and Milton to a wondering, gaping, and admiring audience of his schoolfellows. The political opinions which distinguished Mr Mackintosh throughout his life were also very early formed. He was said by a lady, a relative of his own, to have been "born a whig," but he certainly was not this by inheritance, for his friends and connexions were all staunch tories and Jacobites; and they did not view without regret and sorrow the apostasy of this scion of the house of Killochy. The youthful fancy, however, of the young heir to that venerable title had been captivated by the fluency and sentimental descriptions of the democracies of Greece and Rome, which he found in his favourite classics, and he formed opinions of his own on the subject of political freedom with but little reference to the creed of his family. Pym, Hampden, and Algernon Sidney, were the objects of his idolatry; their example excited his imagination, and their writings imbued him with those political principles which "grew with his growth, and strengthened with his strength." The utopian notions, however, which so often mislead men of weak minds, had no such effect on Mr Mackintosh. He saw the necessity of sobering down all such fanciful theories to the level of real life, and of pruning and adapting them to the passions and weaknesses of human nature. He was above all impressed with the necessity of circumscribing his ideas of political freedom, which had before run wild, by the great outlines of the British constitution. In his own impressive and figurative language, he desired, that the light which might break in on England should be, "through well-contrived, and well-disposed windows, and not through flaws and breaches, the yawning chasms of our ruin."

The singular talents which young Mackintosh discovered while at Fortrose, and the extraordinary proficiency which he made in his studies, determined his friends to bestow upon him a university education, and he was accordingly, through the kindness of a relative, placed in King’s college, Aberdeen, under Mr Leslie. He here also attended the lectures of James Dunbar, LL.D., professor of moral philosophy, and Mr William Ogilvie, professor of humanity.

While at Aberdeen he formed an acquaintance and intimacy with the late Rev. Robert Hall of Leicester, which continued throughout their future lives. They were inseparable while at college, and a biographical sketch of his deceased friend was amongst the last literary efforts of Mackintosh. It was intended for the new edition of Mr Hall’s works published by Dr Gregory.

Having acquired a complete knowledge of Greek and mathematics, Mr Mackintosh, who had now determined on adopting the medical profession, repaired to Edinburgh to complete his education at the university of that city. Here he attended the lectures of Dr Cullen and professor Black, preparatory to his taking the degree of doctor of medicine, and applying himself to regular practice in that profession. He also joined the well known literary club called the Speculative Society, instituted in 1764, in which he became a keen debater, and distinguished himself by the boldness of his opinions, and the ability and eloquence with which he expounded and maintained them. Amongst his associates at this period were Mr, afterwards lord Gillies, Mr, afterwards lord Moncrieff, and the late earl of Lauderdale, and amongst the number of his friends, the illustrious author of the "Wealth of Nations," who early discovered, and warmly encouraged, the promising talents of the young orator.

It was at this period that Mr Mackintosh’s mind became seriously directed towards general literature, and to moral, political, and speculative philosophy, the result of his studying, which he did with the most serious attention, the works of Robertson, Smith, Clark, and Brown, who were then in the zenith of their fame. Having received his medical degree, although he had now determined to abandon that profession, to which, indeed, he had never been attached, he set out for London in the year 1787, in company with the eldest son of Sir James Grant of Grant, who had, about this period, become knight of the shire for the county of Moray. Undetermined as to his future pursuits, he lingered idly about the metropolis for some time, made a short visit to the continent, and finally returned to study law, having fairly parted with physic. In the year following, viz. 1788, he succeeded, by the death of his father, to the estate of Killochy, now worth about 900 per annum. Method and economy, however, were not, at this period, amongst the number of Mr Mackintosh’s virtues, and the consequence was, that notwithstanding this handsome accession to his means, he soon found himself involved in pecuniary difficulties of so extensive and urgent a kind as compelled him to part with his patrimonial inheritance for the very inadequate sum of 9000. Still but loosely attached to his professional studies, he now permitted his attention to be diverted to the science of politics, and in 1789, published a pamphlet on the Regency Question, in which he asserted the constitutional right of the heir-apparent to supply his father’s place in the circumstances which then gave rise to the discussion. Pitt’s theory, however, prevailed, and thus the first published literary essay of Mr Mackintosh was found upon the losing side. Hitherto he had attracted but little public notice, and had been foiled in his attempt to obtain political celebrity. Both of these, however, were awaiting him, and on no distant day. In 1791, he published his celebrated work entitled "Vindiciae Gallicae, or a defence of the French Revolution and its English admirers, against the accusations of the right honourable Edmund Burke; including some strictures on the late production of Monsieur de Calonne," an octavo volume of 379 pages. This work he sold, while yet but partly written, for a trifling sum; but the merits and success of the production induced the publisher to depart from the original contract, and to give its author triple the sum stipulated for. The first two editions were disposed of within four months; and a third appeared in the end of August, 1791. The extraordinary talent which this work displayed, procured Mr Mackintosh an extensive and illustrious circle of acquaintances, in which were, amongst others, Sheridan, Grey, Whitbread, Fox, the duke of Bedford, and his celebrated antagonist, Burke himself, who soon after the appearance of the "Vindiciae," opened a correspondence with him, and it is said succeeded in changing and modifying to a considerable extent many of the opinions of its author.

Mr Mackintosh now (1792) entered himself as a student of Lincoln’s Inn, and in 1795, was called to the bar by that society; but did not, for several years thereafter, attain any considerable practice. He attended the courts, however, and went the Norfolk circuits, but without much improvement to his business.

With the view of enlarging his income, which the want of professional success kept within narrow bounds, he, in the year 1798, announced his intention of delivering a course of lectures on "The Law of Nature and of Nations." A suspicion of his motives in a political point of view raised some obstacles in the way of this attempt; but these being effectually removed by his Introductory Lecture, which was printed under the title of "A Discourse on the Law of Nature and of Nations," and which drew the most flattering eulogiums from both Mr Fox and Mr Pitt, he was permitted to proceed, and delivered his course in Lincoln’s Inn hall to a large and respectable audience. These "Discourses" are allowed by all to comprehend nearly every excellency which human sagacity and human intelligence can bring to bear on such subjects; profundity and felicity of thought, high intellectual power, and chaste and elegant language.

After the general election of 1802, Mr Mackintosh was retained as counsel in several controverted cases, and acquitted himself with great ability before committees of the house of commons, but still without attracting much public notice as a barrister. Next year, however, a case was put into his hands which at once gained him the highest professional reputation. This was the defence of M. Peltier, editor of "The Ambigu," a French journal, for a libel against Bonaparte, then first consul of France, and at that time at peace with this country. The trial took place on the 21st of February, 1803, in the court of King’s Bench. Mr Mackintosh stood alone and unsupported in the defence of Peltier, against an array of talent on the opposite side which would have appalled any man of less resolution, and which nothing but a strong confidence in his own abilities and intellectual researches could have enabled him to encounter. His principal antagonists in this case were Mr Perceval, at that period attorney general, afterwards prime minister, and Mr Abbot, afterwards lord Tenterden. Mr Mackintosh’s pleading on this celebrated trial was one of the most masterly efforts of the kind which had ever been witnessed. It was one continued strain of powerful, impressive, and classical eloquence. His whole energies were concentrated in the effort, and the whole stores of his vast and retentive memory, and of his elegant and felicitous fancy were brought forth and mingled with the current of his eloquence, imparting to it a richness and splendour of tint, which great and original minds only can produce. His speech on this occasion was declared by lord Ellenborough to be "the most eloquent oration he had ever heard in Westminster Hall." A still more flattering compliment was paid the orator by Madame de Stael, who translated the speech into French, in which shape it was circulated throughout Europe.

Mr Mackintosh was at this period professor of general polity and the laws in the East India college at Hertford, an appointment which the reputation he had acquired from his "Lectures on the Law of Nature and of Nations" had obtained for him; but the splendid display of talent which he had exhibited in his defence of Peltier procured him much more powerful patronage, and opened up to him prospects more commensurate to his deserts. He now attracted the notice of the government, by which he was considered a person who might be profitably employed in some official situation connected with the state, and he was accordingly offered in the same year the recordership of Bombay. This appointment he accepted, though not without some hesitation, and before setting out he received the honour of knighthood. He remained in Bombay for seven years, discharging the grave and important duties of a chief judge with an uprightness, integrity, and ability unsurpassed in the annals of criminal jurisprudence. Faithful to the high trust reposed in him, he yet tempered the severity of the laws by mingling, whenever it was possible to do so, some drops of mercy in the cups of bitterness, which duty to his country and to society compelled him to administer. A well judged and discriminate lenity, that lenity which makes the laws not an object of contempt and ridicule, but of love and reverence, and which leaves no room for grudge or reflection at their awards, formed one of the most prominent and god-like features in the judicial character of Sir James Mackintosh. A remarkable and beautiful instance of his application of this principle occurred during his recordership in Bombay. Two young natives were brought before him, tried, and convicted of having conspired to waylay and murder a Dutchman from Cochin. The penalty attached to the crime by the law was death. Some circumstances in the case, however, afforded Sir James an opportunity of extending mercy to them so far as to save their lives, and he availed himself of it. The prisoners were in the mean time withdrawn from the bar, and during this interval came to a resolution, between themselves, of murdering their judge when they should be called up to receive, as they expected, sentence of death, and for this purpose they provided themselves with knives. The design of the ruffians was most providentially discovered in sufficient time to prevent its being carried into effect. The sequel, a story worthy of the best days of Rome, and of the noblest and best of her citizens, will be best told in the language which Sir James himself addressed to the culprits, when they were brought again before him to receive the commuted sentence which his lenity had procured for them. "I was employed," he said, addressing the prisoners, "in considering the mildest judgment which public duty would allow me to pronounce on you, when I learned from undoubted authority, that your thoughts towards me were not of the same nature. I was credibly, or rather certainly informed, that you had admitted into your minds the desperate project of destroying your own lives at the bar where you stand, and of signalizing your suicide by the previous destruction of at least one of your judges. If that murderous project had been executed, I should have been the first British magistrate who ever stained with his blood the bench on which he sat to administer justice. But I could never have died better than in the discharge of my duty. When I accepted the office of a minister of justice, I knew that I ought to despise unpopularity and slander, and even death itself. Thank God I do despise them; and I solemnly assure you, that I feel more compassion for the gloomy and desperate state of mind which could harbour such projects, than resentment for that part of them which was directed against myself. I should consider myself as indelibly disgraced, if a thought of your projects against me were to influence my judgment." He then passed sentence on them to be imprisoned for twelve months, the exact amount of punishment he had originally proposed.

During his residence in India, Sir James contributed a number of valuable papers to the "Asiatic Register," and supplied the late Dr Buchanan with a large quantity of material for his voluminous works on India. His return to England was hastened by a severe illness. He left Bombay in November 1811, retiring from the Recordership with a pension of 1200 per annum.

In July 1813, a little more than twelvemonths after his arrival in his native country, he was elected, through the interest of lord Cawdor, as representative for the county of Nairn; an occasion which called him to visit the friends and the scenes of his youth; and no man could enjoy the happiness, or be more feelingly alive to all the romantic, endearing, and delightful recollections and associations, which the contemplation of objects familiar to our boyhood, and from which we have been long absent, is calculated to produce. He was, as all men of noble and generous minds are, an enthusiastic admirer of the external beauties of nature, and his native district afforded ample inducements to the indulgence of this pure and exalted taste; a taste which he himself has beautifully said, "preserves those habits of reflection and sensibility which receive so many rude shocks in the coarse contests of the world."

In 1818, he was elected for Knaresborough in Yorkshire, through the influence of the duke of Devonshire, and was re-chosen at the subsequent elections of 1820, 1826, 1830, and 1831. He was also elected Lord Rector of the university of Glasgow in 1822, and again in 1823. Sir James was now become a person to whom a national importance and consideration were attached, one of the marked and elevated characters of the country, who had acquired a conventional right from the soundness and capacity of his judgment, and the extraordinary splendour of his abilities, to take an active and prominent part in the management of her affairs, and a conviction of this truth prevailing in those high quarters where it could be acted upon, he was appointed in 1828, one of his majesty’s privy council, and on the formation of the Earl Grey administration in 1830, he was made on the 1st December a commissioner for Indian affairs.

In parliament Sir James took a prominent part in all questions connected with foreign policy, and international law; but more especially distinguished himself in the discussions on the alien bill, the liberty of the press, religious toleration, the slave trade, the settlement of Greece, reform in parliament, and on the right of our colonies to self-government. But a question still more congenial to his philanthropic disposition and benevolent nature, than any of these, devolved upon him on the death of Sir Samuel Romilly. This was the consideration of the best means of amending the criminal law—a code which he had always thought much too sanguinary, and, therefore, but ill adapted for the ends to which all laws ought to be directed. He thought with Goldsmith, that "a man might see his last crime without dying for it; and that very little blood would serve to cement our security."

His speeches on this subject are full of the most enlightened and statesmanlike views, and combine, in a wonderful degree, all the beauties of eloquence with profound reasoning, and just and noble sentiment. So beautiful, indeed, are his orations on this subject, and so powerful the arguments which form their frame-work, that it excites a feeling of surprise in the reader to find, that they did not instantly accomplish the object for whose attainment they were constructed. They appear irresistible, and seem to comprehend every argument on the point at issue which human ingenuity could devise. As chairman of a committee of the house of commons, on the criminal law, in 1819, Sir James Mackintosh introduced six bills in the course of May, 1820. But three only of these were at the time persisted in, and in the commutation of punishment bill, seven of the eleven offences which it was intended to commute, were expunged in the house of lords, four only being suffered to remain.

Sir James Mackintosh, as already noticed, was in politics a whig, and all his votes and speeches in parliament were in favour of the opinions and sentiments of that party; but he was, perhaps, one of the most moderate and tolerant politicians that ever existed, as the natural mildness and benevolence of his disposition never failed to mingle largely in whatever character he assumed, whether author, statesman, or judge. In all he was the same—amiable, forbearing, and conciliating.

One of Sir James’s last speeches in parliament, was on the bill relating to anatomical dissections, in which he strenuously advocated the propriety, nay, necessity of affording to the profession every facility for obtaining subjects for the dissecting table. His speech, on this occasion, was remarkable for all that elegance of diction, and cogency of argument which distinguished his rhetorical effusions; and indicated, besides, a love of science on the part of the speaker, and a zeal for the welfare of mankind, worthy of a great statesman and of a great philanthropist.

Great as Sir James Mackintosh certainly was as an orator, he was yet greater as an author, and the fame which he derives from the latter character, stands on still higher and firmer ground than that on which the former is rested. The Vindiciae Gallicae, published when the author was only in the twenty-sixth year of his age, is an eloquent and powerful political treatise. On all the grand points on which he meets Mr Burke—the expediency and necessity of a revolution in France—the character of the national assembly—the popular excesses which attended the revolution, &c.—it may be safely assumed, that he obtains the mastery in truth and cogency of argument. It ought to be remembered, that the French Revolution had not, at this time, put on its worst aspect. The great change which had taken place, promised to regenerate France, and to renovate civil society; and Sir James Mackintosh, like his master Fox, in his exultation at the dawn of so bright a prospect, could not foresee that it would terminate in bloodshed and tyranny.

Both works are written in a style too ornate and artificial. The rich and fertile genius of Burke, and his vast and multifarious stores of learning, crowded his pages with illustrations from all sources—from history, philosophy, and poetry—and he was not over-solicitous as to their being apposite and correct. On the other hand, Sir James Mackintosh, fresh from his books and burning with zeal, was also ambitious of display, and chastity and purity of diction were neglected by both. Such a contest, however--so splendid a specimen of the literary duello, on so magnificent an arena, may not again occur for a considerable length of time. The defence of Peltier is also a masterly performance; but the dissertation in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and his life of Sir Thomas More, in Dr Lardner’s Cyclopaedia, are perhaps the most finished of the acknowledged productions of Sir James Mackintosh. The two volumes of his abridged History of England, serve rather to show the views he took of certain points of English history, and the philosophy he was able to bring to the task, with his habitual carelessness in minor details, than his talent at composing a connected, consecutive work. These two little volumes, [The greater part of a third volume was written by Sir James; he breaks off at the era of the Bartholomew massacre.]however, contain some striking passages and disquisitions. But in the opinion of Mr Campbell, who knew Sir James Mackintosh intimately, they were merely the expansion of the prefatory matter which he intended for a great historical work on the affairs of England since the Revolution, and which he had contemplated for several years, and in part written, but was too much impeded in his progress, both by his parliamentary duties and the infirm state of his health, to bring to a conclusion. His labours were, nevertheless, given to the world in 1834, in the form of a disquisition on the causes of the Revolution of 1688, exemplifying in its style an excellent dogma of the author, that history ought to be written with feeling, but without passion. He also contributed to the Edinburgh Review in its earlier days. An edition of his works, in three volumes, (with the exception of the History of England,) was published in 1846, containing his ethical and historical dissertations, a number of essays on political and literary topics, reviews, and other contributions to periodical publications, and speeches on a variety of subjects delivered at the bar and in parliament.

After what has been said of Sir James Mackintosh’s public life and character, it is almost unnecessary to add, that in private life, he displayed all the domestic virtues, and all the better qualities of human nature. He was mild, benevolent, generous, humane, and unaffected. Ready at all times to succour the unfortunate and the distressed, he bestowed on all who sought it, that assistance which their circumstances required; whether it was his time, his purse, or his advice; and to all three, if desired, the applicant was welcome. The most pleasing characteristic of Hume—that almost infantine simplicity which his friends remarked in his intercourse with them—mingled also in the character of Mackintosh, contrasting finely with its nobler parts. His conversational powers were of the very first order, and never failed to delight all who had the good fortune to enjoy his society. His person was well formed, and above the middle stature. His countenance was intelligent, and exhibited a pleasing compound of grave and gay expression, indicative of a readiness to sympathize with either of these feelings, as chance might direct their appeals to him.

Sir James was in an indifferent state ofhealth for some time previous to his death, but that melancholy event was finally brought on by an accident. While at dinner, about the beginning of March, 1832, a portion of the breast of a fowl, with a fragment of bone in it, which he had attempted to swallow, stuck in his throat, and, though afterwards extracted without producing any immediate serious consequences, the accident completely unsettled his general health. His debility from that hour daily increased, till the 30th of May, when he died in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at his house in Langham Place, having anticipated and met the hour of his dissolution with a firmness and resignation worthy of his past life. He was buried at Hampstead.

Sir James Mackintosh was twice married; first in 1789, to Miss Catherine Stewart of Gerrard Street, Soho, sister to the Messieurs Stewart, formerly proprietors of the "Morning Post," by whom he had issue a son, who died in infancy, and three daughters viz.., Mary, married to Claudius James Rich, Esq., of Bombay—Maitland, married to to W. Erskine, Esq.—and Catherine, married to Sir W. Wiseman, Bart. Mrs Mackintosh died in 1797.—He was afterwards married to Catharine, daughter of J. B. Allen, Esq. of Cressella, in Pembrokeshire. By this lady, who died at Chesne, near Genoa, on the 6th May, 1830, he had one son and a daughter; viz, Robert Mackintosh, Esq., B.A., fellow of New College, Oxford; and Frances, married to H. Wedgewood, Esq., Staffordshire.

For further reading...

An article about him can be downloaded here

A review of the publication below by the Edinburgh Review can be downloaded here

Memoirs of the Life or The Right Honourable Sr James Mackintosh, Esq.
Edited by his son Robert James Mackintosh in two volumes

Volume 1  |  Volume 2


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