ERSKINE, Hon. Thomas (1750-1823), of Hampstead, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 10 Jan. 1750, 3rd s. of Henry David, 10th Earl of Buchan [S], by Agnes, da. of Sir James Steuart, 1st Bt. of Goodtrees. educ. St. Andrews g.s.; St. Andrews Univ. 1762-3; Trinity, Camb. 1776; L. Inn 1775, called 1778. m. (1) 29 Mar. 1770, Frances (d. 26 Dec. 1805), da. of Daniel Moore, 4s. 4da.; (2) 12 Oct. 1818, Sarah Buck (sep. 1821), 1s. cr. Baron Erskine, 10 Feb. 1806; K.T. 23 Feb. 1815.
R.N. 1764-8; ensign 1 Ft. 1768, lt. 1773, ret. 1775.
K.C. 1783, attorney-gen. to the Prince of Wales 1783-92; chancellor, duchy of Cornwall 1802-6, ld. chancellor Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807.
Erskine’s parents, after providing for their elder sons, were too poor to afford either the university education Erskine desired, or the purchase price of an army commission.1 He therefore reluctantly joined the navy but, disappointed of promotion, left it in 1768, and with the legacy bequeathed him by his father purchased a commission in the army. He further embarrassed his finances by a runaway match at the age of twenty. He served in Minorca from 1770 to 1772, when he obtained six months’ leave, became a popular member of London literary circles, and published a pamphlet on ‘abuses in the British army’, protesting against low pay and promotion by purchase and influence.
In 1775, after consulting Mansfield, he decided to sell his commission and read for the bar. Three years of industrious penury were rewarded by spectacular success. As counsel in a series of celebrated cases involving attacks upon the ministry, he won the admiration of Sheridan, Fox and other Opposition leaders, through whom he became an intimate of the Prince of Wales.
Everybody says that Erskine will be solicitor-general ... whether he is or not he will have had the most rapid rise that has been known at the bar ... he has cleared £8,000 or £9,000 besides paying his debts—got a silk gown and business of at least £3,000 a year—a seat in Parliament—and over and above has made his brother lord advocate ... I have great doubts whether his coming into Parliament was a wise thing. He sacrificed his House of Commons business ... He has several of Burke’s defects ... and the expectation from him will be too great to be satisfied. We expect a match between him and Pitt.
Erskine’s maiden speech on 20 Nov. on Fox’s East India bill was a failure; and he was mortified by Pitt’s contempt. He spoke with better effect on 27 Nov., pledging himself to stand or fall with Fox. Inveighing against ‘secret influence’ and the change of administration, he moved the motion of 17 Dec. and the address to the King, 22 Dec., against a dissolution. After the recess he concentrated his satire on Pitt, sneered at Dundas’s ‘mysterious conversion’, and repudiated allegations of bribery made against his brother, the ex-lord advocate. Attacking Pitt’s East India measure on 23 Jan. as a ‘mere piece of patchwork’, he took a prominent part on 16 Feb. in defence of the Commons resolution limiting the payment of East India bills, and condemned the ‘tricks’ of the ministry in procuring popular addresses vilifying the Coalition.4
At the general election he unsuccessfully contested Truro on the interest of Sir Francis Basset. Resuming his parliamentary legal practice, he was Fox’s counsel on the Westminster scrutiny, and was censured by the House for his insolent language. During the Regency crisis the Opposition intended him for the attorney-generalship in a new Administration. He differed from his friends over Hastings’s impeachment, but remained a devoted adherent of Fox, to whom he owed his appointment as lord chancellor in 1806.
He died 17 Nov. 1823.