« PreviousContinue »
1771. LORD THURLOW. 307
which can make better use of minutes than common minds of hours. By short but vigorous snatches of study he effectually explored the most hidden nooks and bypaths of the rugged land of Jurisprudence. He had been entered at the Inner Temple, and in 1754, being then twenty-two years of age, he was called to the Bar. For several years did he languish without business. He first attracted notice by the spirit and success with which he maintained the rights of the Junior Bar against the arrogance of an overbearing leader, Sir Fletcher Norton. At the General Election of 1768 he was returned for the borough of Tamworth, but his first speech was not delivered until the great political crisis of January 1770. Almost immediately afterwards, Lord North becoming Prime Minister and Dunning having resigned, Thurlow was appointed one of the Law Officers of the Crown. The principles of Thurlow, at least until his final fall from office, were those of the brave old Cavaliers, – for Church and King. It must be owned, however, that his private life by no means eminently qualified him to stand forth as the champion of any Church or creed. He was licentious in his morals, and though never married he used in his later years to take about with him to the houses of his friends three young ladies, his daughters. His conversation even beyond his convivial hours abounded with profane oaths. And as immorality thus dimmed and tarnished his Church principles, so did inconsistency his politics. There is no doubt, as I believe, that he was sincerely and truly attached to those high Monarchical tenets which he professed. Yet on one memorable occasion in 1788 it was clear that he did not love them or conscience and honour so well as office; while four years later he showed that even office itself was not so dear to him as spleen and the indulgence of his froward and resentful humour. With all his faults and shortcomings, however, there was that in Thurlow which overawed and daunted his contemporaries, and of which the impression is not wholly lost even on posterity. It was a saying of Mr. Fox that no man ever yet was so wise as Thurlow looked. His countenance was . fraught with sense; his aspect stately and commanding, his brow broad, massy, and armed with terrors like that of the Olympian Jove, to which indeed it was often compared. His voice loud, sonorous, and as rolling thunder in the distance, augmented the effect of his fierce and terrible invective. Few indeed were they who did not quail before his frown; fewer still who would abide his onset in debate. Perhaps no modern English statesman, in the House of Lords at least, was ever so much dreaded. In Parliament, as at the Bar, his speeches were home-thrusts, conveying the strongest arguments or keenest reproofs in the plainest and clearest words. His enemies might accuse his style of being coarse and sometimes even ungrammatical, but they could never deny its energy or its effect. In private life Thurlow was remarkable for his thorough knowledge of the Greek and Latin writers; and no less for his skill in argument and brilliant powers of conversation. While yet at the Bar Dr. Johnson said of him to Boswell: “I honour Thurlow, Sir; Thurlow is a fine fellow; he fairly “puts his mind to yours.” And after he became Chancellor the same high authority added: “I would prepare myself for “no man in England but Lord Thurlow. When I am to meet “him I should wish to know a day before.” Unless with ladies his manner was always uncouth, and his voice a constant growl. But beneath that rugged rind there appears to have lurked much warmth of affection and kindliness of heart. Many acts of generous aid and unsolicited bounty are recorded of him. Men of merit and learning seldom needed any other recommendation to his favour. Thus on reading Horsley's Letters to Dr. Priestley he at once obtained for the author a Stall at Gloucester, saying (what I earnestly wish all other Chancellors had borne in mind) that “those who supported the Church should be supported by it.” Nevertheless his temper, even when in some measure sobered down by age, was always liable to violent and un
1772, MR. wedderBURN (Lord Loughborough). 309
reasonable starts of passion. It is related by a gentleman who dined with him at Brighton only a few months before his death (for I must ever hold that great characters are best portrayed by little circumstances), that a plateful of peaches being brought in, the ex-Chancellor incensed at their illappearance ordered the window to be opened, and not only the peaches but the whole desert to be thrown out!” Apart from any such sallies or passing gusts of anger, strong shrewd sense was the especial characteristic of Lord Thurlow. As a judge he was acute, vigilant, and fearless; above all taint or suspicion of corruption. And on the whole of his career it may be said that rising as he did from an humble station to the highest, he owed his rise solely to his own talents and exertions, and in no degree, however slight, to any suppleness or subserviency or mean compliances, either as a flatterer of the great or as a demagogue among the people. Alexander Wedderburn, afterwards Lord Loughborough, and later still Earl of Rosslyn, was born in 1733. His father was an advocate at Edinburgh, and a small landowner in East Lothian. Young Alexander having completed his legal studies commenced his practice at the Scottish Bar. But fired with ambition for a loftier sphere, and engaging in a quarrel with the Dean of Faculty, he stripped off and flung aside his gown in open Court, bid his country farewell for ever, and sought his fortune in London. His main difficulty in his new career lay in overcoming a stubborn Northern accent, but by great resolution and perseverance he succeeded in that object. Not a trace of its origin could hereafter be detected in his language or his tones during the long and vigorous prime of his manhood, but it is alleged that in the last few years of his life as his energies declined his Scottish speech returned. As a barrister, with chambers at the Temple, he had at first but moderate success. In politics his rise was more rapid. At the beginning of the new reign he attached himself to his countryman Lord Bute, whose star was then in the ascendant. By Lord Bute's influence was he brought into Parliament, and with Lord Bute's body-guard was he numbered. As such he was lashed by Churchill in one of his satires.” He adhered to Lord Bute most faithfully while the Earl was still in office, or while there seemed a reasonable prospect that the Earl would return to office. But these hopes gradually fading away, Wedderburn deemed it best to plunge headlong into hot Opposition. He took part against the Government with eagerness on all the leading questions of the day. One speech and one vote of his in the case of Wilkes gave offence to Sir Lawrence Dundas, the patron of the borough of Richmond, which Wedderburn at that time represented. Wedderburn thereupon resigned his seat, and was forthwith hailed as a martyr by his new allies. His health was drunk at the Thatched House Tavern as “the Steward of the Chiltern “Hundreds” amidst thunders of applause; yet his martyrdom proved light and easy; a new seat being without delay provided for him by Lord Clive at Bishop's Castle. Lord Clive, – with a liberal spirit frequently found under the old close borough system, - assured him in writing that he left him altogether free and uncontrolled as to his future course in politics. Wedderburn, even amidst all the sound and rage of opposition, had ever kept office in his view. As the Ministers by degrees grew stronger and firmer he felt his objections to them ooze away; and when at last Lord North proposed to him to become Solicitor General the pleasing offer was readily accepted.* For this desertion Wedderburn was soon afterwards taunted by Colonel Barré in the House of # “A pert prim prater of the Northern race, “Guilt in his heart, and famine in his face l “Mute at the Bar, and in the Senate loud,” &c. ** “This must be confessed,” says Lord Campbell, “to be one of the “most flagrant cases of ratting recorded in our party annals.” (Lives of the Chancellors, vol. vi. p. 87.) This biography of Wedderburn has been 1772. MR, WEDDERBURN (LoRD Loughborough). 311
* MS. Diary of Mr. Creevey, 1805, as cited by Lord Campbell in his Lives of the Chancellors, vol. v. p. 628.
of especial service to me, abounding as it does with new and valuable information derived from the Rosslyn MSS.
Commons. He defended himself by saying that his ties had been with Mr. Grenville, and were dissolved by Mr. Grenville's death. This, however, was in great measure an after-thought; his pretext rather than his motive. During the whole preceding Session of 1770 it will be found on examination that his course in politics considerably differed from Grenville's. In the ranks of Lord North the new Solicitor General inspired at first but little confidence. At that period Junius sums up as follows the character of the rising champions, as he deems them, of Prerogative: “Charles Fox is yet in “blossom; and as for Mr. Wedderburn, there is something “about him which even treachery cannot trust!” “ — But he speedily made himself most useful, and as useful prized. Without ever attempting the higher flights of oratory, he was on all occasions a most able and dexterous debater, seldom at loss for an illustration, and never for an argument. Unlike most lawyers he shone alike at the Bar and in the Senate; and when raised to the judicial Bench as Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor, the dignity and grace of his manner were no less justly admired. He had the rare gift of speaking speciously on any side of any question; his stock of learning, if not vast, was at least sufficient and ever at command; and he would have been upon the whole a great man were it possible to be so without some share of public virtue. But public virtue was in him altogether wanting. In political affairs, such at least is my own firm belief, he looked not to the merits of the question, but solely and singly to his prospect of deriving from it some personal advantage. Nor can it with truth be pleaded that Wedderburn sought high office merely as affording a wider scope of public usefulness. On the contrary, he might be charged with a love of ostentatious splendour. He told the Earl of Haddington that on the very day he became Solicitor General he had ordered a service of plate which cost him 8,000l. He appears * To the Duke of Grafton, June 22. 1771.