COUTTS, James (1733-78), of Hampton, Mdx. and Whitsome Hill, Berwicks.
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Family and Education
b. 10 Mar. 1733, 3rd s. of John Coutts, merchant and banker of Edinburgh, by Jean, da. of Sir John Stuart, 2nd Bt., of Allanbank, Berwicks. educ. Edinburgh h.s. m. Apr. 1755, Mary, da. of John Peagrim or Peagrum of Elmstead, nr. Colchester, niece and h. of George Campbell, London banker, 1 surv. da.
When John Coutts, ‘Patriot’ lord provost of Edinburgh 1742-44, died in 1750, his four sons continued his banking and corn business; and in 1752 opened a London office under Patrick and Thomas, the eldest and youngest brothers, while John and James remained in Edinburgh. According to Sir William Forbes, an apprentice in the Edinburgh firm, James Coutts gave ‘close application to business’, but was not of an altogether amiable character: unpolished in manners, passionate, and resentful.1 And in 1762 he himself wrote to David Hume:2
With all pleasures there are great mixtures of mortification and every instant my limited education stares me more and more in the face. I have hardly looked on any but manuscript folios since I was 14. You’ll say from idleness or want of taste. I say no, but from too much business and bad health. My constitution will probably be always unfit for deep study; but pray is there no remedying this great defect a little without much study? ... seriously I wish you would give me some advice on this head, what abridgements to read, etc.
On his marriage James Coutts was taken into partnership by George Campbell, head of the ‘Whig’ bank in the Strand (whose customers included Lord Bute); and on Campbell’s death in 1761, James took into partnership his brother Thomas. The same year Patrick became insane, John died, and the Edinburgh and London branches of the old family business were reorganized, under, among others, John Hunter Blair and Robert Herries, and Sir William Forbes.
Bute, as privy purse to George III, placed the royal account at Coutts’s bank. In the very profitable loan of 1762-3 Coutts received an allotment of £76,000,3 and Bute’s patronage secured his return for Edinburgh. At first he ‘dipped little into politics’; but, a devoted supporter of Bute, he thought the peace ‘good and honourable’;4 and on 5 Feb. 1763 he offered Bute advice on financial policy;5 and was distressed by his resignation.
That same year he was involved in a violent dispute which had arisen in Edinburgh over the council’s claim to ‘present’ ministers to city churches.6 To William Mure’s proposal that he should visit Edinburgh and influence the council elections he replied, 9 Aug. 1763:7
My affairs will require my closest attention till the sitting of Parliament, when the burden must again fall chiefly on my brother ... Indeed independent of this it would be very improper for me to visit Edinburgh on any political errand without being desired by my Lord Bute or Mr. Mackenzie ... and I am determined on no consideration to think of it otherwise ... I do not believe there can be the least occasion for my presence ... I know my own little consequence in politics, but if my not asking anything for myself, a considerable necessary expense by my being in Parliament, and a very great avocation [sic] from business, can plead anything in my friends’ favour, they ought in this case.
In the end Coutts reluctantly agreed to the demand of Mure and Lord Milton that he should ‘lay his commands’ on his business associates, Forbes and Hunter Blair, to accept nomination for the council, but on 9 Sept. confided to Mure, his ‘father confessor in politics’:8
Notwithstanding I was so much obliged to Mr. Mackenzie for bringing me into Parliament, I do not think ... that he has that opinion and confidence in me he ought ... I have sometimes thought that his prejudices against, or want of attention to me ... have arisen from some insidious suggestions of Lord Milton; as, though his Lordship expressed a very strong regard for me at my being proposed Member by my Lord Bute, he has constantly since behaved in a very different manner.
Coutts supported the Grenville Administration on Wilkes and general warrants. On 8 Mar. 1764 he spoke for the motion to limit parliamentary privilege by making merchant M.P.s liable to bankruptcy proceedings;9 and on 19 Mar. on a motion to regulate Scottish banks he opposed any immediate change in the ‘optional clause’ in Scottish bank notes. But his language in the House was sometimes ‘strange and incoherent’,10 and so occasionally was his behaviour.11His friends sent him an anonymous letter, whose draft is preserved in Caleb Whitefoord’s papers:12
I am going to offer you my advice on a delicate point, I mean speaking in the House ... It was with great concern that I saw you rise up to speak several times during the last session—the first time you spoke it was in some degree necessary—Would to Heaven you had stopped there, for indeed my dear Sir you are by no means qualified for speaking ... If you regard your own peace and quiet, if you regard your political interest, if you regard the opinion of many eminent and worthy persons you will give up all thought of speaking in the House ... The fair character you bore with everybody and your very becoming deportment in business and in every other situation of life made me feel the most sensible concern to see you appear so unlike yourself.
Coutts continued to attend the House and its committees, but there is no record of any further speech by him. Listed ‘pro, doubtful’ by Rockingham in July 1765, he voted with Administration in the division on America, 7 Feb. 1766, but against the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. He voted with Chatham’s Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768.
Coutts consistently declined to allow political interest to influence his recommendations of the best qualified candidates for appointments.13 Disliking intrigue and local power politics, he would not direct the opinions and votes of his friends, even when they had been ‘plotted into the council’ to strengthen his party.14 He proved no match for the unscrupulous intrigues of Sir Lawrence Dundas when he made his bid for Edinburgh. In the autumn of 1767 Coutts went there to canvass for his re-election, supported by his business associate, Hunter Blair, ‘a useful partisan’. Thomas Coutts still thought that if only James’s health was good, matters ‘will go there as he would wish as he is very strongly supported by the Duke of Grafton’. But Dundas, having won over the trades representatives, secured a majority on the council, and Coutts withdrew.
Next, he thought of standing for Morpeth on Lord Carlisle’s interest. Sir William Musgrave, who was fixing candidates with the Duke of Grafton, reported on 29 Oct. to Carlisle, then in Paris, that Coutts ‘will certainly be one ... there can be no other objection to him than his being a Scotsman’; and on 10 Nov. that his being ‘known to be worth £100,000’ will deter others from giving disturbance. But after arrangements had been made for starting the canvass, Coutts, in one of his fits of ‘flighty humour’, retracted ‘his most solemn promises’. Musgrave, indignant at ‘Coutts’s duplicity, folly and absurdity’, felt obliged ‘to put an end to every transaction with him and desire the Duke of Grafton to recommend some other person’.15
This was also the end of Coutts’s parliamentary career; and as his fits of madness became more frequent, his brother Thomas, in 1774, on the expiry of the 12 years’ partnership agreement, took steps to protect the bank’s credit from James’s irresponsible actions. Bute, Stuart Mackenzie, Sir John Pringle (the physician), and family friends signed a declaration that James was ‘an improper person to be connected with such a business’; terms of a financial settlement were imposed by Bute and Rochford as arbitrators; James protested bitterly but in June 1775 was forced to sever his connexion with the bank. ‘Ashamed of being treated like a madman’, he went abroad in July 1775.16 Next he toured English watering places and Scotland; and in November 1776 set out on another tour of the continent. At Turin in 1777-8 he became so violent that he was confined under military guard17 and sent home by sea in the charge of keepers; but he died at Gibraltar, 15 Feb. 1778.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. Forbes, Mems. of a Banking House, II.
- 2. Letters of D. Hume to Wm. Straham, ed. Hill, 93.
- 3. List in Bute mss.
- 4. Coutts to Mure, 12 Oct. 1762, Caldwell mss.
- 5. Bute mss.
- 6. Memorandum on Edinburgh city affairs, July 1763, prepared by Provost G. Drummond or James Coutts, Caldwell Pprs. ii (I), p. 182.
- 7. Caldwell mss.
- 8. Caldwell Pprs, ii (1), p. 192.
- 9. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 10. See the pamphlet, The Earl of Dundonald’s answer to the Misstatements contained in the life of Thomas Coutts 1822.
- 11. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 22 Mar. 1764.
- 12. Add. 36595, f. 283.
- 13. Coutts to Mure, 17 Dec. 1764, Caldwell Pprs. ii (I), p. 278; and to Provost Stewart, 13 May 1766, HMC Laing, ii. 450.
- 14. Coutts to Mure, 17 Dec. 1764.
- 15. HMC Carlisle, 217, 220-1.
- 16. See J. Macdonald, Mems. of an 18th Cent. Footman.
- 17. For an account of his last years, see Add. 37848, ff. 9-48.