ELLIOT, Gilbert (1751-1814), of Minto, Roxburgh.
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Family and Education
b. 23 Apr. 1751, 1st s. of Gilbert Elliot. educ. La Pension Militaire, Fontainebleau 1764-6; Edinburgh Univ. 1766-8; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1768; L. Inn 1769, called 1774. m. 3 Jan. 1777, Anna Maria, 1st da. of Sir George Amyand, 1st Bt., 4s. 3da. suc. fa. as 4th Bt. 11 Jan. 1777; mother in her Fife and Forfarshire estates 28 Dec. 1778, and assumed add. names of Murray Kynynmound; cr. Baron Minto 20 Oct. 1797; Earl of Minto 24 Feb. 1813.
Civil commr. to Toulon and P.C. 25 Sept. 1793; minister to the Italian States Mar.-May 1794; viceroy of Corsica 1794-6; envoy to Vienna 1799-1801; pres. of Board of Control Feb.-July 1806; gov. gen. India 1806-13.
Elliot inherited his father’s temperament and ability, without his brilliance, and, always diffident of his own oratorical powers, aimed at a legal rather than a political career. Having gained considerable reputation, in July 1776 he was offered a seat at Morpeth by Lord Carlisle. Returned unopposed, Elliot never sat in Parliament with his father, on whose death he disconcerted Carlisle by transferring to Roxburghshire.1 He made his maiden speech on 18 Nov. 1777 when, though ‘vastly terrified’, he ably seconded the Address.2 But he did not follow up his initial success as a speaker. His mother wrote of him in January 1778:3 ‘Nothing can exceed the excellence of his heart and head; all he wants is a further stimulus to exertion ... He is in a degree independent and I am sure very much unconnected except with the King and Lord Suffolk.’
He was a friend but no admirer of North, and was closely attached to his brother-in-law William Eden. By the spring of 1778 he had become convinced that ‘the prospect of recovering America by war was certainly at an end’, but that ‘if new exertions have but a chance of recovering any part of our authority ... and redeeming the honour of our country it is our duty to make them’.4 On the outbreak of the French war he resisted his first impulse to join Buccleuch’s regiment: ‘It would at once knock up my law.’5 He wrote on 5 Oct. 1778 to Eden, then in America as a member of the conciliation commission:
I am glad I do not second the Address this year and perhaps you are not sorry you do not pen it; I think we want a dictator, a master mind, to rectify these disjointed times. The nation certainly does not want spirit and I hope has resource still. But it is natural to be wearied of seeing both these wasted.
Despising the Opposition for openly rejoicing at British defeats, he remained a silent supporter of Administration; occupied himself mainly with a bill for prison reform; and became increasingly detached from party.6
Carried away by Burke’s eloquence he voted for an account of pensions, 21 Feb. 1780, but recanted and on 8 Mar. voted with Administration on economical reform, and on 13 Mar. against the abolition of the Board of Trade. He had decided that he could not in conscience join Opposition in forcing reforms, however admirable, upon a harassed Government, which still retained popular confidence, and whose efforts to restore British prestige he was resolved to support. Nevertheless he remained warmly attached to Burke, admired his liberal principles, and though the son of a ‘King’s friend’, voted with Opposition on Dunning’s motion, 6 Apr. 1780. He voted with Administration on the prorogation, 24 Apr., and at the end of the Parliament was counted ‘pro’ by Robinson.
In the new Parliament he remained a silent, unenthusiastic Government supporter; continued his interest in penal reform, and was appointed one of the three supervisors of the new penitentiaries.7 Nominated, 14 Feb. 1781, to the select committee on the Bengal judiciary, Elliot was an active Member, assiduous in attendance. Over Indian affairs he was faced with conflicting loyalties: his brother Alexander (d.1778) had been the beloved private secretary of Hastings, whom both he and his father as East India proprietors had supported during the 1776 controversies,8 and for whom he still expressed ‘regard ... founded not less on public than on private considerations’.9 In consequence, while actively co-operating with Burke on the select committee, he took no part in the secret committee appointed to investigate the causes of the Carnatic war with which Alexander, as Hastings’s negotiator, had been concerned in 1778.
From extensive travels abroad during the recess Elliot brought back an impression that ‘all Europe favoured the independency of America and looked to the chance of some advantage from such a revolution’.10 In the new session he voted, 12 Dec., with Government on Lowther’s motion against the war; and also with them, 20 Feb. 1782, on the censure of the Admiralty. But he was now convinced that the American war was impracticable and, differing from almost all his family and friends, voted with Opposition on Conway’s motion to end the war, 22 Feb.; and on 27 Feb. broke a long silence to support Conway’s second motion:11 ‘He now plainly saw that the nation, the House of Commons, and the ministers had been for a long time in the wrong and he could no longer with justice to his constituents support their measures.’ Loughborough wrote to Eden, 1 Mar.:12
Sir Gilbert got up professing himself unsatisfied, though a hearty friend in general to Administration ... The effect ... was to fix all the wavering well-wishers in the same line with Sir Gilbert. I have no patience with him.
Now that ‘the grand principle of ... separation between parties’ over America had been removed, he hoped for a coalition—‘all the ability of the country united to direct all the resources of the country to one good end’; he could not bring himself to censure a ministry whose ‘principles respecting America’ had so long been ‘agreeable to the people and those of the Opposition offensive to them’; and voted with Administration on Cavendish’s censure motion of 8 Mar. When Elliot voted, 15 Mar., with the Opposition on Rous’s motion of no confidence, Loughborough dismissed such fine distinctions as mere inconsistency.13
On the formation of the Rockingham Administration Elliot wrote to his brother Hugh, envoy at Berlin, 22 Apr. 1782:
I shall support the present ministry with more cordiality and therefore I hope with more exertion than ever I could the last. The reforms with which their Government opens, you know I formerly approved ... and I like them the better for the facility with which they may now be carried without those convulsions which could have alone produced them as the measures of Opposition, and which naturally, and I think deservedly, gave great scandal when they were attempted to be forced on Parliament by the means of popular distraction during a war which rendered all distractions fatal.
He neither expected nor received reward. When Fox recalled Hugh and did not fulfil his promises of alternative employment, Gilbert repudiated his brother’s suspicions:
I cannot bring myself to suspect Mr. Fox’s sincerity ... it would be contrary to his general character and ... why should he use any art with me whom he certainly cannot fear? ... To importunity I have myself an insurmountable aversion and if the business is to be decided on those principles I fear I shall be an unsuccessful agent.
Eden wrote to Hugh:
[Gilbert’s] politics are so pure that no individual interests can exist in their atmosphere ... The world may misjudge him; but his conduct at the close of Lord North’s Government was in its appearance most unsteady and in its effects most unkind to his natural and old friends and connexions. His subsequent conduct has been inefficient; for whether he had acted right or wrong he certainly was entitled to expect from the Rockingham ministry immediate, and solid protection both for you and for Mr. Elliot of New York.
Gilbert, however, ‘was not disposed to think anything wrong that Charles Fox could do’; he knew little personally of Shelburne, but that little, ‘added to the voice of the world’, he disliked, and on the formation of the new ministry wrote to his wife, 8 July:
I have declared myself to Charles Fox ... I am thoroughly satisfied with my choice and am sure I have done right, not for myself and children, but for the sake of my precious soul and my poor country.14
He refused offers of preferment from Shelburne, who had suggested him for the Admiralty Board.15 ‘I told him frankly that I preferred his rivals.’16 Nevertheless Shelburne gave the Copenhagen embassy to Hugh, who was amazed at his brother’s continuing devotion to Fox, ‘the demi-god of the blackguards’.17
Shortly afterwards Elliot fell gravely ill, left for France in October, and did not return until early August 1783. Reunited with his friends Eden and Loughborough in support of the Fox-North Coalition, he was consulted by Burke and Fox over the East India bill under which he was named one of the seven parliamentary commissioners. Astonished at the change of Administration in December and angered at the constitutional implications, Elliot despised Pitt’s Government as ‘a set of children playing at ministers’, but nevertheless was too diffident to intervene in the debates. ‘If’, wrote Eden, ‘his passions were equal to his abilities, he would play a leading part.’18
At the general election Elliot lost Roxburghshire and failed to secure another seat: he tried Leominster, Bridgwater, Berwickshire, and Forfarshire, and (at a by-election in August) Newtown. ‘My philosophy or my indolence’, he wrote, ‘makes me well satisfied with the prospect of some leisure for self improvement.’19
By 1785 he was in acute financial difficulties by Treasury demands for immediate repayment of his father’s balances, totalling some £10,000. He obtained a deferment with the assistance of Eden, who was now contemplating an accommodation with Pitt, in which Elliot could not concur. He wrote to Eden, 16 Oct. 1785:
There are points so fundamental ... that though hopeless they must be stuck to ... Of this sort I consider the great constitutional questions in which Mr. Pitt is so implicated and where the mischief he has done is so deadly that the ... talents ... which may atone for common crimes ... are inadmissible in his case ... I do not know how many even of our friends may ... carry it so far; but this is my own creed at present in which however I am not such a bigot as to want charity for other persuasions.20
In September 1786 Elliot, though still financially embarrassed, successfully contested Berwick to the delight of Burke, who urged him to undertake the management of a charge in the proceedings against Hastings. ‘You must be less modest ... You must be all you can be, and you can be everything.’ Elliot declined the offer, but agreed to ‘move and conduct the impeachment’ of Sir Elijah Impey. On 12 Dec. 1787 he moved the impeachment in a speech which despite his acute nervousness was a brilliant success. During the next months he subordinated all his activities to attendance at Hastings’s trial and the preparation of the case against Impey. At the hearing of the first charge on the trial and execution of Nuncomar, Elliot’s opponents embarrassed him by producing documents, indicating that Impey’s conduct had been approved by Alexander Elliot who, according to Sir Gilbert, had acted only as interpreter at the trial. In the debate of 28 Apr. 1788, Elliot in a 4½ hour speech defended his brother and justified his own changed opinion of Hastings; he resumed his attack on Impey on 7 and 9 May in equally long speeches, which exhausted the House and himself, but failed to carry the Nuncomar charge by 73 to 55. He wrote to his wife, 10 May: ‘Our defeat is very like a victory ... Pitt never exposed himself and his profligacy in so great a degree before.’ He was chagrined when on 27 May the second charge against Impey was postponed.21
During the Regency crisis he was frequently consulted by Portland, at whose request he drafted the Duke’s letter to the Prince, restoring good relations, strained during the dispute in 1787 over the Prince’s debts. Although his legal knowledge and facility of expression were frequently employed by the Opposition leaders, Elliot did not speak in the Regency debates. On Cornwall’s death he was nominated, 5 Jan. 1789, for the Chair, but was defeated 213-144. In the Opposition plan for a new ministry, Elliot was proposed as a possible chancellor of the Exchequer. During the attempts to effect a reconciliation between the Prince and the King, Elliot prepared the Prince’s memorial justifying his conduct, but his draft of the accompanying letter, although approved by the Prince, was rejected on 25 June by the Whig leaders as likely to exacerbate the dispute.22
On 8 June 1789 he was again the Opposition candidate for the Chair but was again defeated. Meanwhile he had continued active in India affairs; spoke 4 May 1789 against the censure motion against Burke, and was so disgusted with the decision of the House that he resolved to ‘drop Impey entirely’.23
During the recess Elliot, having already declined to seek re-election at Berwick,24 decided for family and financial reasons to retire from active parliamentary life, but was persuaded by Portland to change his mind. His career as diplomat and administrator, on which his fame rests, was still before him.
He died 21 June 1814.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. HMC Carlisle, 319.
- 2. His sis. Isabella to Hugh Elliot, 28 Nov. 1777, Lady Minto, Mem. Hugh Elliot, 130.
- 3. Ibid. 137.
- 4. Elliot to Hugh, 10 Feb. 1778, ibid. 142.
- 5. Same to same, 31 Mar. 1778, ibid. 143.
- 6. Add. 34416, ff. 39, 301.
- 7. Add. 34417, f. 336.
- 8. L. S. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 306; S. Weitzmann, Warren Hastings and Philip Francis, 261, 265.
- 9. Elliot to Hastings, 31 May 1781, Add. 38871, f. 10.
- 10. Elliot to Jas. Harris, 5 Mar. 1782, Minto mss.
- 11. Debrett, vi. 329.
- 12. Add. 34418, f. 337.
- 13. Add. 34418, f. 361; Mem. Hugh Elliot, 233-8.
- 14. Mem. Hugh Elliot, 238-9, 242, 248- 9, 254; Life and Letters, i. 81.
- 15. Fortescue, vi. 78.
- 16. Elliot to Hugh, 8 Aug. 1782, Mem. Hugh Elliot, 249.
- 17. Ibid. 250.
- 18. Ibid. 283, 284; Life and Letters, i. 89-91.
- 19. Mem. Hugh Elliot, 284.
- 20. Add. 34420, ff. 108, 129.
- 21. Life and Letters, i. 114, 175-84, 199-200, 201; Stockdale, xiii. 105-8, 151-2, 180, 209; xiv. 158-68; Wraxall, v. 49, 100.
- 22. Life and Letters, i. 162, 241-2, 260, 323, 332-4.
- 23. Stockdale, xvii. 144; Life and Letters, i. 306.
- 24. Life and Letters, 168, 355-6.