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The Scottish Nation

JEFFREY, FRANCIS, the greatest of British critics, as he is styled by his biographer, Lord Cockburn, and eminent also as an orator and judge, was born in 7 Charles Street, George Square, Edinburgh, on 23d October 1773. He was the elder of two sons of George Jeffrey, a depute-clerk in the court of session, by his wife, Henrietta, daughter of John Louden, a farmer near Lanark, who had been educated for the church. Besides his brother, John, a merchant at Boston in America, his parents had also three daughters. In October 1781, he was sent to the High school of his native city, where he continued for six years. At this period he is described as “a little, clever, anxious boy, always near the top of his class, and who never lost a place without shedding tears.”

      In the beginning of the winter of 1787, when in his fourteenth year, he was sent to the university of Glasgow. His biographer thinks that Glasgow was preferred, with a view to the Oxford exhibitions or bursaries on the Snell foundation, which that university possesses, none of the other Scotch colleges having such rich academic prizes; but if his father had any such intention, it was soon abandoned. He remained at Glasgow for two sessions, going home during the intervening summers. Though remarkable for his quickness of apprehension, “he was,” says Lord Cockburn, “not only a diligent, but a very systematic student; and, in particular, he got very early into the invaluable habit of accompanying all his pursuits by collateral composition; never for the sake of display, but solely for his own culture. And it is now interesting to observe how very soon he fell into that line of criticism which afterwards was the business of his life. Nearly the whole of his early original prose writings are of a critical character; and this inclination towards analysis and appreciation was son strong, that almost every one of his compositions closes by a criticism on himself.” At this time he is said to have been subject to what he deemed superstitious fears, to cure himself of which he used to walk alone at midnight round the High church or Cathedral burying-ground.

      On leaving Glasgow, in May 1789, he returned to Edinburgh, where he remained till September 1791, when he went to Oxford. Before this period his father appears to have removed his residence to the Lawnmarket of his native city. In the Edinburgh college, he attended a course of Scotch law, in the session of 1789-90, and of civil law in that of 1790-91. Towards the end of September of the latter year he went to Oxford, and entered Queen’s college; but did not remain there longer than the following July. During his residence there he failed to obtain, what was his great ambition, a pure English accent. He succeeded, indeed, in abandoning his vernacular Scotch, without acquiring an English voice in its place.

      During the winter session of 1792-3 he again attended the Scots law lectures of Professor Hume, and those on the civil law, and on history. On the 11th December 1792 he became a member of the Speculative Society, the most famous of the literary associations, or debating clubs, connected with the university of Edinburgh. Among its members during the period that he attended its meetings were Walter Scott, with whom he first became acquainted there; Henry Brougham; Francis Horner; David Boyle, afterwards lord-justice-general; Lord Henry Petty, afterwards marquis of Lansdowne; John Archibald Murray and James Moncrieff, both afterwards lords of session; and others who, in after-life, distinguished themselves in literature, philosophy, science, law, or politics. In this society he read five papers; on Nobility; on the effects derived to Europe from the discovery of America; on the authenticity of Ossian’s Poems; on Metrical Harmony; and on the character of commercial nations. In the discussions of the Society, his speeches were almost as much marked by brilliancy of imagination, and felicity of expression, as even the more mature orations of his middle age. In the quick detection of fallacy, and readiness of debate, he had scarcely a competitor, whilst in conversational qualities he even excelled, more than in the formal delivery of well-arranged arguments or set harangues. At one period he seems to have been ambitious of poetical renown, and in his college days wrote a great deal of rhyme, besides a completed poem on ‘Dreaming,’ in blank verse, about 1,800 lines long; composed between May 4 and June 25, 1791. He also wrote two plays, one a tragedy. His closing remarks on all his youthful writings, prose as well as poetry, are seldom complimentary to himself; but it was thus, by the application of the severest rules of criticism to his own compositions, and to all the works which he read, that he was trained for his after post of editor of the most critical literary journal in Europe. None of his poetical attempts, which from the opinion passed upon them by his biographer, do not seem to have risen above mediocrity, were ever published.

      Mr. Jeffrey was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates, on the 16th December 1794. In Scotland at that period, political differences were carried to extreme. Reformers and Whigs were marked men in society, and their opinions presented an obstacle to progress in life in all professions, but especially that of the bar, which was not easily overcome. Notwithstanding this, and that his father was a high Tory of the old intolerant school, Mr. Jeffrey attached himself to the liberal party, and his adoption of the persecuted creed, under the circumstances of the time, evinced strength of mind, self-reliance, and great independence of spirit. At the commencement of his professional career, and for some years after, his success as an advocate was not very promising. His political opinions and an unpleasing manner were against him. “People,” says Lord Cockburn, “did not like his English, nor his style of smart sarcastic disputation, nor his loquacity, nor what they supposed to be an air of affectation. These peculiarities gradually faded, and people got accustomed to them; but they operated against him throughout several of his early years.” At this period he employed his leisure in translating old Greek poetry, and copying the stye of all our different poets. He seems to have had an intention of publishing a classical translation, but soon abandoned it. On a visit to London in September 1798, he had some thoughts of settling there, and endeavouring to support himself by literature, but he met with little encouragement. He, also, had an idea of trying his fortune in India. On his return to Edinburgh, he, for a short time, studied medicine, as well as chemistry, of both of which he had a general acquaintance, which was afterwards very useful to him in his professional career. He was a member of a sort of scientific or philosophical society, formed of the rising young men then in Edinburgh, called ‘’The Academy of Physicks,’ an account of which is given in Welsh’s Life of Brown.

      During part of the winter session of 1800-1 he attended the second course of lectures delivered by Dugald Stewart on Political Economy, of which he left five small volumes of notes. The year 1802 was rendered remarkable by the appearance of the Edinburgh Review, which originated with Jeffrey, Brougham, Horner, Brown, Sidney Smith, an English clergyman, then residing in Edinburgh, as tutor to Lord Webb Seymour, brother of the duke of Somerset, and a few others their associates. The merit of having first suggested the work is due to Mr. Smith, who conducted it during the first year of its existence. The first number appeared on the 10th October 1802; and from its liberal tone, its independent spirit, and the great and unexpected talent displayed in its pages, it created an unexampled sensation throughout the kingdom. Jeffrey contributed five articles, one of which, upon Mourier on the influence of the French Revolution, began the number. On Mr. Smith’s return to England in 1803, Mr. Jeffrey became the editor, and during more than a quarter of a century that he conducted it, he acquired a literary reputation unique of its kind, besides exercising an extraordinary influence on contemporaneous literature, and on public opinion, that was productive of results never dreamed of at the beginning of the century. He came, in fact, to be acknowledged as the great master of criticism of his time, and the arbiter of the destinies of all the young authors of the day. To the pages of the Review he was always a large contributor, and among the articles furnished by him are profound and original disquisitions on many of the most difficult subjects, including metaphysics, poetry, politics, biography, morals, travels, political economy, physical science, and history. His writings are remarkable for their variety, acute analysis, and sparkling style. Under his auspices the Edinburgh Review was the principal means of a revolution which, in a few years, extended to every department of intellect. To counteract its great influence, both in literature and politics, the Quarterly Review was, in 1809, organised by Sir Walter Scott, who, though a keen Tory, had occasionally contributed to the pages of the Review, excusing himself by saying that he did so from his personal liking for its editor, with whom he continued friends till his death.

      In the 16th number of the Review a criticism appeared by Jeffrey, on the ‘Epistles, Odes, and other Poems’ of Thomas Moore, containing a severe condemnation of these productions, on the ground of their immorality. This Moore chose to view in a personal light, and on Jeffrey visiting London, soon after, in the summer of 1806, he sent him a challenge. The parties met at Chalk Farm on the 11th August of that year, when Horner acted as Jeffrey’s second, but the interference of the police prevented the duel from taking place. They were bound over to keep the peace in this country, and contemplated proceeding to Hamburg, to settle the matter hostilely there. But happily this was prevented by Jeffrey declaring that he had meant his imputations to be literary and not personal, on which Moore withdrew his challenge, and they were ever after good friends. In 1819, when Moore was in some temporary pecuniary difficulties, Jeffrey wrote to Mr. Samuel Rogers, offering, in the most delicate way, to assist him with what money he had, and in 1825, Moore spent some time on a visit to him at Craigcrook. The affair of the duel is referred to in Byron’s ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ with a sneer at “Little’s leadless pistol,” which, however, had the bullet in it, although that in Jeffrey’s had dropped out, on being seized by the police. In the 22d number, published in January 1808, appeared the celebrated criticism of Lord Byron’s ‘Hours of Idleness,’ which drove his lordship to retaliate by the publication, in March 1809, of his famous satire, ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.’ That criticism is supposed to have been written by Lord Brougham, although Byron, believing Jeffrey to have been the author, assailed him with all the bitterness of his wrath. Byron had the nobleness, afterwards, to do justice to Jeffrey, both as a man and a critic, saying in a well-known passage in Don Juan, (canto 10, stanza 16):

                        “I do not know you, and may never know
                        Your face – but you have acted, on the whole,
                        Most nobly, and I own it from my soul.”

His professional employment kept pace with his literary celebrity, and at this time his practice was steadily increasing at the bar.

      Mr. Jeffrey had married, on 1st November 1801, Catherine, one of the daughters of the Rev. Dr. Wilson, professor of church history at St. Andrews, a second cousin of his own. He had a son, born in September 1802, who only lived a few weeks. Mrs. Jeffrey died on 8th August, 1805. In 1810 he became acquainted with a young American lady, then on a visit to Edinburgh, who afterwards became his second wife, Miss Charlotte Wilkes, daughter of Charles Wilkes, Esq., banker in New York, and grand-niece of the famous demagogue, John Wilkes. In August 1813 he sailed for New York, and his marriage with that lady took place in the following November. He continued in America till the 22d January 1814, visiting a few of the principal cities of the union. War then subsisted betwixt this country and the States, and in two curious interviews which he had, one with Mr. Munroe the secretary, and the other with Mr. Maddison, the president, he ably defended the right claimed by Britain to search American vessels for the recovery of British subjects. To the former gentleman he had gone to obtain a cartel for his return to Britain, and the same day (18th November, 1813) he had the honour of dining with the president.

      In the spring of 1815, he first went to reside, for the autumn months, at the villa of Craigcrook, on the eastern slope of Corstorphine hill, about three miles from Edinburgh, which henceforth became his country seat, his town house being for a long time in George Street, and afterwards in Moray Place of that city. In the autumn of the same year (1815) he visited the continent for the first time, and spent nearly a fortnight in Paris. On the introduction of juries for the trial of facts in civil causes into Scotland, on 22d January 1816, his practice increased to an enormous amount. Lord Cockburn says: “He instantly took up one side of almost every trial in what was then called the Jury Court, as if it had been a sort of right, and held this position as long as he was at the bar;” Cockburn, himself, being frequently the opposing counsel. In 1816, he wrote the article ‘Beauty’ for the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Of all the treatises,” says his biographer, “that have been published on the theory of taste, it is the most complete in its philosophy, and the most delightful in its writing; and it is as sound as the subject admits of.”

      In November 1820, Mr. Jeffrey was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow. This officer is chosen annually by the professors and the matriculated students. For may years the latter had left the election pretty much in the hands of the professors; but they now actively interfered, and their first choice fell upon Jeffrey. He was re-elected in the following year, and on retiring in November, 1822, he founded a prize, being a gold medal, to be given, by the votes of his class-fellows, to the most distinguished student in the Greek class. In all the political meetings of the period held at Edinburgh he took an active part, speaking at every one of them. At a public dinner given to Joseph Hume on 18th November 1825, he made a speech on the combination laws, showing the dangers and follies of unions and strikes by workmen, which was published as a pamphlet, and in two or three days above 8,000 copies were sold. The last public meeting that he ever attended, besides those connected with his elections, was the great meeting in the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, on 14th March, 1829, to petition parliament in favour of the removal of the Roman Catholic disabilities, which was effected the same year. On this occasion the two most impressive speeches were made by Jeffrey and Dr. Chalmers.

      Soon after, he was unanimously chosen dean of the faculty of advocates, an office then vacant, by the elevation of Lord Moncrieff to the bench. On his election, he relinquished the editorship of the Edinburgh Review, feeling, as he himself has recorded, “that it was not quite fitting that the official head of a great law corporation should continue to be the conductor of what might fairly enough be represented as, in many respects, a party journal.” The Review was then intrusted to Mr. Macvey Napier. The 98th number, published in June 1829, was the last Mr. Jeffrey edited, and excepting three or four papers which he wrote long afterwards, the one on the Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, published in October of the same year, was the last he ever furnished as a regular contributor. In all, his contributions to that periodical amounted to 200. These were collected and published in 1843, in four volumes, 8vo. His last article in the Review, was an able and elaborate paper on the claims of Watt and Cavendish to the discovery of the composition of water, published in January 1848. In this article he assigned the palm to Watt.

      The four volumes which he published of his contributions to the Edinburgh Review do not contain all that he wrote for that periodical. Some of the most original of his writings are not included in them; and in his preface he gives the following reason for omitting many of what had been considered his best articles. “I have honestly endeavoured,” he says, “to select from the great mass, – not those articles which I might think most likely still to attract notice by boldness of view, severity of remark, or vivacity of expression, – but those, much rather, which, by enforcing what appeared to me just principles and useful opinions, I really thought had a tendency to make men happier and better.” Indeed, he constantly upheld a high moral tone in the pages of the Review, his aim being, as he says himself, “to combine ethical precepts with literary criticism,” and he ever earnestly sought “to impress his readers with a sense both of the close connexion between sound intellectual attainments and the higher elements of duty and enjoyment, and of the just and ultimate subordination of the former to the latter.” It was this high aim, and the independence, fearlessness and originality of its tone that gave the writers in the Review the power to effect that improvement in periodical literature, and to exercise that beneficent influence on the progress of opinion, and the intellectual development of the age, which marked its career, and were among its greatest triumphs. Jeffrey has been blamed for the severity of his criticisms on some of our greatest poets, and particularly those of the Lake school, and it must be confessed that the world had, in many instances, reversed the judgments so authoritatively pronounced by him. In the short notices he has introduced into the acknowledged edition of his Essays, he has thus recorded his feelings towards Southey and Wordsworth, the two principal poets of that school. Of the former he says: “I have in my time said petulant and provoking things of Mr. Southey, and such as I would not say now. But I am not conscious that I was ever unfair to his poetry; and if I have noted what I thought its faults in too arrogant and derisive a spirit, I think I have never failed to give hearty and cordial praise to its beauties, and generally dwelt much more largely on the latter than on the former.” Of Wordsworth he speaks even more touchingly: “I have,” he says, “spoken in many places rather too bitterly and confidently of the faults of Mr. Wordsworth’s poetry; and forgetting that even on my own view of them they were but faults of taste or venial self-partiality, I have sometimes visited them, I fear, with an asperity which should be reserved for objects of moral reprobation. If I were now to deal with the whole question of his poetical merits, though my judgment might not be substantially different, I hope I should repress the greater part of these vivacité of expression; and, indeed, so strong has been my feeling in this way, that, considering how much I have always loved many of the attributes of his genius, and how entirely I respect his character, it did at first occur to me whether it was quite fitting that, in my old age and his, I should include in this publication any of those critiques which may have formerly given pain or offence to him or his admirers. But when I reflected that the mischief, if there really was any, was long ago done, and that I still retain in substance the opinions which I should now like to have seen more gently expressed, I felt that to omit all notice of them on the present occasion, might be held to imply a retractation,” &c. To Byron’s poetry he did ample justice, although he strongly animadverted on what he conceived to be the immoral tendency of his writings; and on his part, the noble poet has, besides the lines already quoted, in various passages of his Diary, expressed his high opinion of his conduct and character.

      In December, 1830, the Whig party came into power, and Mr. Jeffrey was appointed lord advocate. In January following he was returned to parliament for the Forfar district of burghs, by the vote of the Dundee delegate, but this burgh having been previously disfranchised, he was unseated, on petition, on the 17th March. On the 4th of that month he made his first speech in parliament, in favour of the English Reform Bill. This speech was published immediately afterwards, at the special request of government, and made a strong sensation at the time, though dealing only with the general question. On the 6th of April, he was elected for Earl Fitzwilliam’s pocket burgh of Malton, in Yorkshire, but within a fortnight after, parliament was dissolved. At the general election, May 3, 1831, he stood as a candidate for the city of Edinburgh, in opposition to Mr. R. A. Dundas of Arniston, afterwards Right Hon. R. C. Nisbet Hamilton. The choice was then in the hands of the town council, and in spite of the most strenuous exertions in his favour, on the part of the principal liberal inhabitants and public bodies, Mr. Jeffrey was defeated by three votes, 17 having voted for Dundas and 14 for Jeffrey. The result led to a serious riot in the city, when the military were called out, and order was with difficulty restored. Towards the beginning of June he was again chosen for Malton. On the 1st July he brought in the Scotch Reform Bill, throwing open the franchise to the ten-pound electors, which, after going through all the requisite stages, in both houses, was passed by the Lords on 12th July 1832, and soon after received the royal assent.

      Parliament having been dissolved in December 1832, he was, with the Hon. Mr. Abercromby, afterwards Lord Dunfermline, elected for his native city, by a large majority over the tory candidate; both gentlemen being returned free of expense. For a seat in parliament previously, it cost him between December 1830 and May 1832, Lord Cockburn informs us, about £10,000. On 12th March 1833, he moved the Scotch Burgh Reform Bill, which ultimately passed. Notwithstanding his great eloquence, his style of oratory was not quite suited for the House of Commons, being too subtle and refined, and not personal or practical enough, for that assembly. During his residence in London, he was much engaged in appeal cases before the House of Lords, and went a good deal into society.

      In May 1834, he was nominated a lord of session, succeeding Lord Craigie on the bench, when he took his seat as Lord Jeffrey. Before leaving London, he received a farewell banquet from the Scotch members, as an acknowledgment of his official conduct. As a judge, he discharged his duties with attention, uprightness, and ability.

      In 1840, he wrote the appropriate and elegant inscription for the monument to Sir Walter Scott in Prince’s Street, Edinburgh, being requested by the committee to furnish it. On 5th July 1841, he fainted in court, and in August he went to his son-in-law’s at Haileybury, in Hertfordshire, where he was attacked severely by bronchitis, and did not resume his duties in the court of session till May 1842. He took a strong interest in the disputes in the Established church which led to the disruption in May 1843, and wen he saw the great number of ministers, and the large body of its members, who then seceded and formed the Free church of Scotland, he declared that he was “proud of his country – in no other country could the same have been done.”

      Lord Jeffrey died at his town residence in Moray Place, Edinburgh, on the evening of Saturday, January 26th, 1850, in his 77th year. He had appeared on the bench in his usual health on the Tuesday preceding, and though confined to the house for a few days by an attack of cold, no apprehension had been entertained of the fatal nature of the complaint. The symptoms were those of bronchitis, with which he had been frequently troubled for several years, but on this occasion it was accompanied with fever. He was buried in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, in a spot which had been selected by himself.

      By his second wife he had an only child, a daughter, married to the Rev. Mr. Empson, professor of civil law at the East India college of Haileybury, near Hertford, who succeeded Macvey Napier, as editor of the Edinburgh Review. His lordship’s widow survived her husband only to the following May, dying on the 18th of that month, at her son-in-law’s, Haileybury.

      A portrait of this eminent critic and judge, from a painting by Mr. Colvin Smith, is subjoined:

[portrait of Francis Jeffrey]

Soon after his death a subscription was entered into for a marble statue of him, by Steell, which has been erected in the Outer House of the Court of Session. A marble bust of him also stands in the Historical room of the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh. His Life, by Lord Cockburn, with a selection from his Correspondence, was published at Edinburgh, in 1852, in 2 vols. 8vo.

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