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Significant Scots
John Stuart


STUART, JOHN, third earl of Bute, and prime minister of Great Britain, was the eldest son of the second earl of Bute, by lady Anne Campbell, daughter of Archibald, first duke of Argyle. He was born in the Parliament Square, Edinburgh, May 25, 1713, and succeeded to the title, on the death, of his father, in January, 1723. In April, 1737, on a vacancy occurring in the representation of the Scottish peerage, the earl of Bute was chosen to fill it: he was re-chosen at the general elections of 1761, 1768, and 1774. His lordship married, August 24, 1736, Mary, only daughter of the celebrated lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by whom he had a numerous family. In his first introduction to court life, lord Bute had the good fortune to ingratiate himself with the princess of Wales, mother of George III., who admitted him to that close superintendence of the education of her son, which was the foundatiton of all his historical importance. In 1750, he was appointed one of the lords of the bed-chamber to Frederick, prince of Wales; and on the settlement or the household of the heir apparent, in 1756, the earl of Bute was appointed his groom of the stole. His lordship acquired the full confidence and friendship of the young prince; and is believed to have been chiefly instrumental in training and informing his mind. Before the prince’s accession to the throne in 1760, Lord Bute was continued in his situation as groom of the stole; and in March, next year, on the dismissal of the Whig ministry, was appointed one of the principal secretaries of state. His lordship was in the same year appointed keeper and ranger of Richmond park, on the resignation of the princess Amelia; and invested with the order of the garter,--an honour, as is well known, rarely bestowed, except upon persons who have rendered important services to the state.

The elevation of a nobleman, only known heretofore as the royal preceptor, and who was also obnoxious to vulgar prejudices on account of his country, to such high place and honour, naturally excited much irritation in England. This feeling was greatly increased, when, in May, 1762, his lordship was constituted first lord of the treasury. It reached its acme, on his lordship taking measures for concluding a war with France, in which the British arms had been singularly successful, and which the nation in general wished to see carried on, till that country should be completely humbled. The great Whig oligarchy, which, after swaying the state from the accession of the house of Hanover, had now seen the last days of its dominancy, was still powerful, and it received an effective, though ignoble aid, from a popular party, headed by the infamous Wilkes, and inflamed by other unprincipled demagogues, chiefly through the medium of the press. A newspaper, called the Briton, had been started for the purpose of defending the new administration. It was met by one called the North Briton, conducted by Wilkes, and which, in scurrility and party violence, exceeded all that went before it. Wilkes, it is said, might at one time have been bribed to silence by lord Bute; he now took up the pen with the determined purpose, as he himself expressed it, of writing his lordship out of office. Neither the personal character of the minister, nor his political proceedings furnishing much matter for satire, this low-minded, though clever and versatile man, set up his country and countrymen as a medium through which to assail him. The earl, seeing it in vain to contend against prejudices so firmly rooted, lost no time, after concluding the peace of Paris, in resigning; he gave up office on the 16th of April, 1763, to the great surprise of his enemies, who, calculating his motives by their own, expected him, under all circumstances, to adhere to the so-called good things which were in his grasp.

The Bute administration, brief as it was, is memorable for the patronage which it extended to literature. The minister, himself a man of letters and of science, wished that the new reign should be the commencement of an Augustan era; and he accordingly was the means of directing the attention of the young monarch to a number of objects, which had hitherto languished for want of the crown patronage. One of the most remarkable effects of the spirit infused by his lordship into the royal mind was, the rescuing of the majestic mind of Johnson from the distresses of a dependence on letters for subsistence; a transaction, for which many bosoms, yet to be animated with the breath of life, will expand in gratitude at the mentlon of the name of George III.

The ministerial character of lord Bute has been thus drawn by an impartial writer: "Few ministers have been more hated than lord Bute was by the English nation; yet, if we estimate his conduct from facts, without being influenced by local or temporary prejudices, we can by no means find just grounds for the odium which he incurred. As a war minister, though his plans discovered little of original genius, and naturally proceeded from the measures of his predecessor, the general state of our resources, the conquests achieved, and the dispositions of our fleets and armies, yet they were judicious; the agents appointed to carry them on were selected with discernment, and the whole result was successful. His desire of peace, after so long and burdensome a war, was laudable, but perhaps too eagerly manifested. As a negotiator, he did not procure the best terms, which, from our superiority, might have been obtained. His project of finance, in itself unobjectionable, derived its impolicy from the unpopularity of his administration. Exposed from unfounded prejudices to calumny, he deserved and earned dislike by his haughty deportment. The manners which custom might have sanctioned from an imperious chieftain to his servile retainers in a remote corner of the island, did not suit the independent spirit of the English metropolis. The respectable mediocrity of his talents, suitable attainments, and his decent moral character, deserved an esteem which his manners precluded. Since he could not, like Pitt, command genius, he ought, like the duke of Newcastle, to have conciliated by affable demeanour. His partizans have praised the tenacity of lord Bute in his purposes; a quality which, guided by wisdom in the pursuit of right, and combined with the power to render success ultimately probable, is magnanimous but, without these requisites, is stubborn obstinacy. No charge has been more frequently made against lord Bute, than that he was a promoter of arbitrary principles and measures. This is an accusation for which its supporters can find no grounds in his particular acts; they endeavoured therefore to establish their assertion by circuitous arguments. Lord Bute had been the means of dispossessing the Whig connection of power, and had given Scotsmen appointments which were formerly held by the friends of the duke of Newcastle. To an impartial investigation, however, it appears evident, that lord Bute preferred himself as minister to the duke of Newcastle. If we examine his particular nominations, we shall find that he neither exalted the friends of liberty nor despotism, but his own friends. It would probably have been better for the country if lord Bute had never been minister; but all the evils that may be traced to that period did not necessarily proceed from his measures, as many of them flowed from circumstances over which he had no control. Candour must allow that the comprehensive principle on which his majesty resolved to govern was liberal and meritorious, though patriotism may regret that he was not more successful in his first choice. The administration of Bute teaches an instructive lesson, that no man can be long an effectual minister of this country, who will not occasionally attend, not only to the well-founded judgment, but also to the prejudices, of Englishmen."

The earl of Bute spent the most of the remainder of his life in retirement, at his seat of Luton in Bedfordshire, but not without the suspicion of still maintaining a secret influence over the royal counsels. "The spirit of the Favourite," says Junius, "had some apparent influence over every administration; and every set of ministers preserved an appearance of duration, as long as they submitted to that influence." The chief employment, however, of the ex-minister was the cultivation of literature and science. He was more fond of books of information than of imagination. His favourite study was botany, with which he acquainted himself to such an extent, that the first botanists in Europe were in the habit of consulting his lordship. He composed a work on English plants, in nine quarto volumes, of which only sixteen copies were thrown off; the text as well as the figures of the plants being engraved on copper-plates, and these plates, it is said, immediately cancelled, though the work cost upwards of one thousand pounds. He presented to the Winchester college a bronze statue of their founder, William of Wykham, supposed to have been the work of some great artist in the fourteenth century. It is a full figure in the episcopal habit, sixteen inches high, and executed with remarkable elegance. His lordship was elected one of the trustees of the British Museum in 1765, held the office of chancellor of the Marischal college and, on the institution of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland (1780) was elected president. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh, and to him the university of that city was indebted for its useful appendage, the Botanic Garden.

Part of his lordship’s time in his latter years was spent at a marine villa which he built on the edge of the cliff at Christ Church, in Hampshire, overlooking the Needles and the Isle of Wight. Here his principal delight was to listen to the melancholy roar of the sea; of which the plaintive sounds were probably congenial to a spirit soured with what he believed to be the ingratitude of mankind. His lordship died at his house in South Audley Street, London, March 10, 1792, in the seventy-ninth year of his age. Of his private character and manners, which may now properly be touched upon, an acute observer has written as follows:—"I never knew a man with whom one could be so long tÍte a tÍte without being tired. His knowledge was so extensive, and consequently his conversation so varied, that one thought one’s self in the company of several persons, with the advantage of being sure of an even temper in a man whose goodness, politeness, and attention, were never wanting to those who lived with him." [Memoirs of a Traveller now in Retirement, iv. 177.]

We also have a small book about him which you can download below...

John Stuart, Earl of Bute (pdf)
By J A Lovat-Fraser (1912)


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