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The public and private life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with selections from his correspondence (Volume 2) online

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while he was chancellor, he took a hackney coach to convey him from
some place where he had been transacting business, to his own resi-
dence ; and, having a pressing appointment, he alighted hastily from
the vehicle, leaving papers of value behind him. Some hours after,
the driver discovered the packages, and took them to Hamilton Place ;
when his lordship desired to see the coachman, and after a short inter-
view, told him to call again. The man called a few days afterwards,
and was then informed that he was no longer a servant, but the owner
of a hackney coach, which his lordship had, in the mean time, given
directions should be purchased and presented to him, together with
three horses, as a reward for his honour and promptitude in restoring:
the papers.

See an example of his munificence to an old attorney, Chap. XL.


Lord Eldon's conversation, though it could not well be called bril-
liant, was pleasant and gay. " It was usual," says Lord Brougham,*
"to observe that, except Sir William Scott, no man was so agreeable
as Lord Eldon." Not that he set himself forth for the making of jokes,
after the manner of "diners out:" but he had a flowing vein of sly
good humour, which seasoned his whole talk. About the time when
he became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, he was rallying Sir
William Scott, "As to you, William," said Lord Eldon, "you are
an old-fashioned fellow, and must not compare yourself with me."
"And what makes you so much more of a modern than I am?" said
Sir William. " Why, my birth, to be sure !" replied Lord Eldon : " You
came into the world in forty-five, but I not till fifty-one : so I am a
man of this half century whereas you are a man of the last."

He did not dislike a play upon words. The present earl gives
these, among other instances: " Walking with him one day at En-
combe, I observed to him that many of the fine old ash trees ' grew
double,' meaning where two trunks came from one root. 'Yes,' he
replied, ' we all grow double as we grow old.' I remember that once
while Lord Eldon was suffering from the gout in both feet, where
though painful, it is not dangerous, he said he did not mind it when
there, or when coming up as far as his knee, provided it were ' ne plus

He was dexterous in a jocular avoidance of any question which it
was not convenient to him to answer. " When he was chancellor,"
says Mr. Farrer, "it was a question in the Court of King's Bench,
whether grouse was a bird of warren. Lord Eldon, whilst we, the
masters, were in attendance in the House of Lords, came to us, and
entered into conversation. Being much interested in this question,
I said to Lord Eldon, ' Do you know, my lord, whether grouse is a
bird of warren?' He looked a look of good-humoured rebuke, for
questioning him in so off-hand a manner upon a point then under
judicial consideration, and upon which he might have to give judg-
ment on appeal, and replied, c I know grouse is an excellent bird on
the table.' "

But his great forte lay in telling a story ; which he did in a rich
low tone, with a demure smile, a quiet gleam of his eye, and a seduc-
tive humour that no gravity could resist. The greater part of his
anecdotes are in a book which has been so often cited, and of which
the contents have almost all been given in these pages; but then
there is hardly a story here set down, which does not lose much for
want of his manner of telling it. One, which the Anecdote Book
does not contain, was related by him to the writer of this memoir, as
follows :

When Lord Chancellor Talbot died, which was in the February of
1736-7, Sir Robert Walpole offered the great seal to Lord Hard-
wicke, then Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, who hesitated
a long time about accepting it. Walpole at last, out of patience,

* Second Series of Historical Sketches of Statesmen (1839,) p. 72.


wrote to him on a certain morning, that, if he did not accept the seal
before eight that evening, it would be given to Fazakerley.* This
brought Lord Hardwicke in a hurry to Walpole. " Really, Sir Ro-
bert," said he, in a remonstrating tone, " you should allow me a little
time in such an affair: and at any rate, why Fazakerley? Of all
men, surely Fazakerley should be most out of the question a person
unfit on so many accounts and besides, you know, a Tory and a
Jacobite !" " Never mind that," said Walpole, pulling out his watch
and laying it on the table, (which action Lord Eldon followed as he
came to this part of the story,) "it is now exactly noon: if you do
not let me know that you have closed with my offer before eight this
evening, I can only tell you, that, by twelve, Fazakerley will be as
good a Whig as any man in his majesty's dominions." Lord Hard-
wicke accepted the office.

To fashion or refinement Lord Eldon made no pretence, though
his right understanding and kind nature preserved him from any sole-
cism in good taste. His disposition was festive, but not luxurious.
He liked plain port: the stronger the better. One of his favourite
dishes was liver and bacon: and when he dined with George the
Fourth, it was one of the entrees.

Accomplishments he had none. His Oxford education, though it
had made him sufficiently a scholar, had not given him a literary
turn. He continued to cherish an affection for the old associations
of the university, and a respect for the classical lore he had acquired
there ; but he had no great relish for poetry or other liter & humaniores,
and did not, for their sakes, withdraw much of his time from the en-
grossing pursuits of law and politics. He is saidf to have, on one
occasion, "rather astonished his court, by declaring that he had in
the course of the last long vacation, inter solicita? jucunda oblivia
vitse, read the 'Paradise Lost' from beginning to end."

Few excesses of appetite or of passion deranged the long and
equable tenour of Lord Eldon's life. The high noon of power did
not elate his temperament, nor the shadow of declining years depress
it. He had been wont to say of Lord Thurlow, " What a giant that
man would have been but for his temper:" and he was careful that
his own should not betray him into violence or indecorum, whether
in the worry of business and politics, or under the provocation of the
many personal libels that were aimed at him. His only serious slip
seems to have been in Mr. Abercromby's case, of which, however, a
good deal more was made than it deserved. With this one excep-
tion, his utmost outbreaks were little more than occasional private
expressions of annoyance at the reiterated attacks made in Parliament
and by the press, upon his judicial character. He indicated, how-
ever, in his old age, a tendency toward an over-sensitive or jealous
feeling, which gave him now and then the appearance of suspecting
the affection of some of his family, particularly if there appeared to
be any deficiency in their attentions; but this dissatisfaction was not

An eminent counsel of that day. | Law Magazine, XLI.


so much evidenced by him in express words or by any act of unkind-
ness, as indicated by a passing cloud, that occasionally overcast the
general cordiality and cheerfulness of his manner. Nor was his gra-
ciousness reserved only for his family, friends, and favourites: it was
with him an habitual benevolence, extending to all who came in con-
tact with him. There was no fawning upon royal and noble persons,
nor ostentation of condescension to private men : he talked as frankly
and as courteously with a tenant, a clerk, a servant, a stranger, ac-
cording to their respective relations to him, as with a prince of the
blood : preserving always a demeanour, which was free alike from
affectation and from assumption, and in which natural dignity was
tempered with unfailing good humour.

Of all his endeavours, public and private, the spring and guide was
religion, which he cherished not as an engine of state, but as the
rule of life and the earnest of immortality. His was the memorable
apophthegm, that the union of the state with the church was not to
make the church political, but to make the state religious. It is true,
perhaps, that he was not sufficiently attentive to external observances ;
indeed, for many months in each year, during the pressure of official
business, his devotions were almost wholly private. It may be some
apology that he had begun life at a time when the duty of public wor-
ship was not so generally regarded as it is now ; but it is said that
"Sir Samuel Romilly, who attended the parish church at which the
chancellor ought to have been, used to comment with no slight seve-
rity, on never seeing him there."* On an occasion when his merits
were in discussion among some lawyers, one of them, a warm parti-
san of the chancellor, called him one of the pillars of the church.
" No," said another; "he may be one of its buttresses, but certainly
not one of its pillars, for he is never found within it." At Encombe,
however, where he had some intermission from the harassing de-
mands which usurped his time in London, he was a regular attendant
on public worship ; and when Kingston church, (a chapel of ease to
that of Corfe Castle, the parish in which Encombe is situate,) had
fallen into decay, Lord Eld on rebuilt it at his own cost. Mr. A.
Bell, says he one day expressed a wish that he had never, during his
life, employed himself in any business on a Sunday ; and within two
years before his death, conversing with Mr. Farrer on the obligation
of attending public worship, he said, "If you wish to know my deli-
berate opinion on that subject, I w r ill tell you that I think it is every
man's bounden duty." He added, "It was too much the custom to
neglect it when I was a young man it was found very convenient,
and no doubt it is so now, to have the Sunday to work up arrears of
business, and to prepare for the work of the coming week: so church
was neglected. We used to think that the pressure of business jus-
tified us, and a great deal may be said, at least, has been said, on
that head." But, however he may, at different seasons, have been
remiss in the celebrations of the church, and although there may

* Law Magazine, XLIV., p. 356.


have been moments of his life, when, lapsing amid the whirl of am-
bition and politics into greater or lesser transgressions, he exemplified
that the possession of more than the common strength of our nature
is not an exemption from its weaknesses, yet, habitually and prac-
tically, the influences of religion were present, and operative, and
paramount within him, whether amid the perplexities of law, the
struggles of power, or the sorrows of domestic bereavement, alike
in his health and in his sickness, in his youth and in his age. With
him religion was matter of feeling, as well us of conviction : it was
the stock on which his virtues grew : his standard in action, and his
refuge in suffering.


It remains only to consider him in his political relations : and here
it is probable that much difference of opinion will long continue to

The leading principle of his political life was attachment to the
establishments of the country, especially in the church. He opposed
the Dissenters and the Roman Catholics, not because he looked at
them through any jaundice of theological dislike, but simply because he
believed that the church establishment would be undermined by their
admission to the functions of the state. He endeavoured to restrain
the eagerness with which the advocates of the Negroes, in 1804
and in 1806, were pressing the abolition of the slave trade, not be-
cause he was friendly to tyranny or oppression, but because he doubted
the efficacy of the measure even for its own objects, and held it un-
just precipitately to unsettle the great masses of property which had
been invested on the faith of the then existing law.

In his own judicature, as already has been observed, he introduced
reforms himself, and sanctioned reforms introduced by others ; but the
changes thus made were few, and would probably have been yet
fewer, but that, on legal matters, his thorough practical knowledge
counteracted his usual apprehension of unknown consequences. To
changes in other departments he was, for the most part, adverse ;
but if a statute on any subject became necessaray, he always desired
to have it so well considered, that it might be enacted for the whole
period during which it was deemed likely to be necessary, and not
passed as a mere temporary act,* to be renewed in another session as
carelessly as it had, perhaps, been originated in the first. He was
more especially indisposed to hazardous disturbances of any of the
laws respecting crime or property. Humane as he was, arid ever
anxious in each individual case to temper justice with the utmost
measure of mercy consistent with the opinions and feelings which
regulated society in his day, he contended strenuously against any
sweeping reform of the criminal law : and when, at length, he admit-
ted some modification of it, he made the concession not to specula-
tive reformers, but to Mr. Peel, who was then the minister regularly

See Parl. Deb., March 5th, 1804 July 8th, 1814, &c.


presiding over the department of legal administration, and who had
digested the whole subject both comprehensively and practically.
Against the sudden growth, too, of those joint-stock companies, which,
at one time, were over-spreading and blistering the country, he
strongly set his face ; watching and preventing the enactment of pri-
vate bills, in these as in many other instances w r here attempts were
made to break in upon the general law by partial exceptions. He
was careful, likewise, in checking divorce bills, which he believed,
and, as it should seem, upon very sufficient data, to be founded too
often on verdicts assessing damages to the husband by collusion with
the defendant, upon judgment by default. In short there was hardly
any innovation which could be attended with danger (and some dan-
ger is involved in almost every innovation) which was not regarded
with jealousy by the chancellor, whose ascendant in the House of
Lords made his veto almost absolute during a period of five-and-
twenty years. In the earlier part of that time, his over-cautious
aversion from change, excluding, as it necessarily did, some real im-
provements, brought upon him a good deal of obloquy, in the shape
both of invective and of ridicule ; and in his case, as in that of Mr.
Perceval, unwillingness to hazard what might be evil was set down
as incapacity to discern what was good. But Lord Eldon was hap-
pier than his colleague in this, that Mr. Perceval died before the age
was ripe for doing justice to his views: whereas Lord Eldon lived
to enjoy the reputation of his conservative principles, and to become
the favourite and the guide of that great body* of the English people,
who still, to use the beautiful language of Southey, " walk in the
ways of their fathers, and hold fast to that church for which Laud
and his king suffered on the scaffold, and the noble army of our earlier
martyrs at the stake." After his struggles against the Roman Catholic
Relief Bill, and against the Reform Bill, this popularity was at its
height. The people's

" gratitude and affection were conveyed to their faithful champion in every variety of
form, overflowing in addresses of approbation from almost every quarter, several
of them accompanied with costly presents. But the testimonials of which the old
peer spoke in the highest glee, were of a simple nature the cheese from the dairy
of ' some gude wife,' in Cheshire, or the snuff-box from the hand of some poor me-
chanic, who hailed him as the defender of the church he revered but deemed in

There have not been wanting politicians to insinuate that all this
adhesion to venerable institutions in church and state was mere
hypocrisy in their skilful defender. Lord Brougham's vindication
of him from this charge is complete, according to its kind:

" With all these apparent discrepancies between Lord Eldon's outward and inward
man, nothing could be more incorrect than to represent him as tainted with hypo-
crisy, in the ordinary sense of the word. He had imbibed, from his youth, and in
the orthodox bowers which Isis waters, the dogmas of the Tory creed in all their
purity and rigour. By these dogmas he abided through his whole life, with a stead-
fastness, and even to a sacrifice of power, which sets at defiance all attempts to ques-
tion their perfect sincerity. Such as he was when he left Oxford, such he continued
above sixty years after, to the close of his long and prosperous life ; the enemy of

* Law Magazine, No. XLIV. f Ibid.


all reform, the champion of the throne and the altar, and confounding every abuse
that surrounded the one, or jjrew up within the precincts of the other, with the insti-
tutions themselves; alike the determined enemy of all who would either invade the
institution or extirpate the abuse."*

His firmness was not the least important point of his character. He
had exhibited it early in life, when he took his stand upon the ques-
tion of his precedence at the bar; and if it sometimes appeared, not-
withstanding his habitual gentleness, to partake of pertinacity or pre-
judice, it was certainly among the principal of those qualities which
rooted him so deeply in public confidence.

His political ascendency was, in some respects, yet more remark-
able than his supremacy in the law. The prizes of political life have
in general been won by some or other of the arts or forces of parlia-
mentary warfare, particularly as waged in the House of Commons
by nervous declamation, by argumentative vehemence, by formidable
sarcasm, by captivating style. Of none of these was Lord Eldon a
master ; yet all, and more than all, the influence usually earned by
them for their possessors, became his without their aid, and even
without his own original purpose. For his early plans of life were
wholly professional. He entered Parliament unpledged to any poli-
tical party: and when he decided to join Mr. Pitt, and even when
he successively undertook the offices of attorney and solicitor-general,
it was with a view to no ultimate distinctions but those of the law.
The unusual responsibilities, which, by the events then passing in
Europe, were cast upon the law officers of his time, obliged him,
indeed, to address himself to divers matters of state ; but, on arriving
at the chief justiceship of the Common Pleas, he gladly quitted the
sphere of politics, and only returned to it when called by George III.
to enter the cabinet as chancellor, under circumstances of somewhat
peculiar and personal relation to the king. From that time, of
course, he was mixed in the chief affairs of government ; and he
then made it early evident, that if he wanted some of the popular
talents by which political distinction is commonly attained, he was
strong in all the higher qualities by which it is best preserved. These
qualities, prudence, knowledge, temper, consistency, firmness, and
above all, judgment, made ample compensation for his deficiency
in imagination and in the forces and graces of style. Perhaps it is
hardly a paradox to say, that in the stations he was eventually called
to fulfil, his want of imagination was one of his advantages : for the
judgment, the highest of the intellectual powers and in public affairs
worth all the rest, was thus left to exercise, undivided and undis-
turbed, its empire in his mind and its influence in the councils of his
sovereign. Being, however, well aware, that the scanty intervals of
legal duty make it impracticable for a chancellor to engage with
advantage in the miscellaneous business of a ministry, he endea-
voured, except upon urgent occasions and great questions of public
policy, to confine his political province, as nearly as he could, to
matters connected with law or its administration ; though he was

* Statesmen of George III., Second Series, p. 61.


sometimes obliged to employ himself in the consideration of more
general questions, when the government called upon him to come
forward as their expounder or defender in the House of Lords. To
that assembly, rather than to the more boisterous ranks of the House
of Commons, his talents and tone were adapted. Making no pre-
tension to oratory of any sort, he spoke in the House of Lords, as he
did on the judgment seat, and as in earlier life he had done at the
bar, with fluency, with ease to himself, and generally with satisfac-
tion to those of his hearers who, regardless of language and popular
effect, sought only what his speeches were sure to contain, strong
sense and accurate learning. His language, no doubt, was inconve-
niently parenthetical : and, sometimes, from his over-anxious caution
to "guard his meaning," the path of his argument became so choked
with qualifications, that an almost painful attention was necessary to
track its windings. The same defect has already been acknowledged
to exist in some of his most accurately reported judgments. It is
more or less prevalent too in his correspondence ; and it detracted
most materially, with the majority of auditors, from the admiration
due to the reach of mind and the store of knowledge which his
parliamentary speeches disclosed. The House of Lords, however,
regarded but little these deficiencies of style, in a person otherwise
so eminently gifted, and so peculiarly fitted for all the higher func-
tions of his station. What they desiderated, and what in him they
found and recognized, was a man whom, throughout all the varieties
of their business, whether judicial or legislative, they could look up
to and rely upon as their guide profound in principles, accurate in
forms, always accessible, universally courteous, a trusted leader
of their political majorities, and a meet representative of their aggre-
gate dignity.

Such were the qualities, habits and primary characteristics of him
who held, for a longer time than any of his predecessors, the highest
civil office in these kingdoms, and during a quarter of a century exer-
cised an influence almost unprecedented in the cabinets of successive

Nor has his reputation any thing to fear even from the final and
often dangerous test of events. During all but about fourteen months
of the most momentous period in the whole of this country's foreign
annals, that of her struggle with Bonaparte, Lord Eldon was one
of her ministers ; and from the return of the Tories to power in 1807,
Mr. Pitt being then no more, the most potential voice in the cabi-
net was probably Lord Eldon's. Many a time, in that tedious course
of years, the hearts of the multitude failed them, and weariness and
despondency yawned for present peace, however unstable and brief.
But the cabinet saw farther, and stood firmer. As Mr. Pitt had
thought, so thought Lord Eldon and his colleagues (and here the
chancellor had the full support of Mr. Canning, so long as the latter
continued in the councils of the war), that peace would then only be
expedient when it should be safe and durable : and that it was easier
to continue the nation's efforts, than it would be to resume them once


abandoned. With this conviction, they resolutely braved the unpo-
pularity of occasional disappointments and reverses, and the still
greater odium of unremitted, nay increasing, taxation, rather than
yield to weak though violent clamours, or compromise that great
object of security, for which, from the first, Great Britain had com-
bated. Their constancy attained its reward. They saved and
enlarged those main sources of prosperity, naval, commercial and
colonial, which it had been the engrossing passion of their terrible
enemy to annihilate : they hunted him from the seas they profited
by his frenzy, and by the reaction of outraged Europe, to dislodge
him from his continental usurpations : until finally, by the prowess
of the greatest man who ever combined a warrior's with a statesman's
genius, they accomplished the utter extinction of the aggressor, and
the permanent pacification of their country.

VOL. ii. 28


THE only speeches of Lord Eldon which were published under his own supervision
were that of Nov. 2d, 1820, upon the evidence in Queen Caroline's case, and that of
17lh April, 1821, upon the Catholic question. Of the former, those portions which
retain any interest have already been given, in Chap. XLII. The latter is noticed in

Online LibraryHorace TwissThe public and private life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with selections from his correspondence (Volume 2) → online text (page 62 of 65)