GORDON, Lord George (1751-93).
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Family and Education
b. 26 Dec. 1751, 3rd s. of Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon [S], by Lady Catherine Gordon, da. of William, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen [S], and bro. of Lord William Gordon. educ. Eton 1758-65. unm.
Entered R.N. 1766; lt. 1772; ret. 1777.
Lord George Gordon was given the rank of ensign in his stepfather’s regiment, the 89 Foot, in 1759, but on leaving Eton joined the navy. From 1766 to 1769 he was in the American colonies. For some years before the general election of 1774 he cultivated an interest in Inverness-shire. The sitting Member, General Fraser, bought him off with a seat at Ludgershall, George Selwyn’s pocket borough.1
From the first Gordon attended regularly and voted with Opposition. He did not speak, however, until after he had resigned his commission, which he did in 1777. Sir James Douglas, writing to Sandwich, 5 Feb. 1777, offered the following explanation:2
Mr. Stephens informed me that Lord George Gordon had desired to quit the service, which perhaps may be owing to what passed one evening in my house, where there was a gentleman from Maryland, who had last year been drove from his house in a barbarous manner by the rebels, for which he did not spare to give them the epithets they deserved. Lord George said so much in their defence that the gentleman said he was a good deal surprised at hearing a King’s officer, who wore his uniform, say anything in their favour, and that he ought to take it off first.
He neither spoke nor voted against Sir George Savile’s bill, 14 May 1778, to release Roman Catholics from certain penalties, though this was the immediate cause of the anti-Catholic agitation which followed. His first reported intervention in debate was on 13 Apr. 1778, and was a characteristic mixture of violence and piety: he appealed to North to ‘call off his butchers and ravagers from the colonies—to turn from his wickedness and live; it was not yet too late to repent’. He made several more speeches in 1778, all of them extravagant, incoherent, and irrelevant, but shot through with flashes of genuine debating skill. He was still capable of some effort to control himself: on 26 Nov. 1778, warning the House of the danger of a revolt at home, he continued: ‘I am afraid, Sir, I speak too loud, as that may give an appearance of passion to what I assure the House are my most deliberate sentiments.’3
In the course of 1779 he went to Scotland, where he was hailed with enthusiasm by the various Protestant Associations that had sprung up to oppose Savile’s bill. From this time onwards, alarming tendencies began to reveal themselves in his parliamentary utterances. In May 1779 he told the House that the Scots were ripe for rebellion: ‘they would prefer death to slavery, and perish with arms in their hands, or prevail in the contest’. In the debate on the King’s speech, 25 Nov. 1779, he boasted that he had ‘one hundred and twenty thousand at his back’: the Scots, he declared, ‘are convinced in their own minds that the King is a papist’.4
His interruptions in debate were now tediously frequent. On 24 Jan. 1780 he insisted on reading the whole of a long pamphlet, ‘much to the dislike of the House, which, from near 200 Members, soon thinned to less than fifty’. The following day he attempted to read the pamphlet again, explaining that it was ‘really so excellent that it ought to be read every day in the week’: frustrated in this design, he contented himself with quoting copiously from newspapers, and was engaged in reading, for the second time, the Declaratory Act of 1718, when the Members all left the chamber. On 15 Feb. he was dissuaded from another harangue by his friends, who told him that the Speaker was too ill to bear it. By this time, his remarks were blood-curdling: on 8 Mar. 1780 ‘he told the House he had 160,000 men in Scotland at his command, and that if the King did not keep his coronation oath, they would do more than take away his civil list revenue, they were determined to cut off his head’.5 It was clear to most people that his mind was deranged, but the House, out of consideration for his rank and concern for the freedom of debate, was reluctant to restrain him. The King, too, was remarkably indulgent. In January 1780, Gordon had insisted on an audience, and began reading a pamphlet: according to Horace Walpole,
The King had the patience to hear him do so for above an hour, till it was so dark that the lecturer could not see. His Majesty then desired to be excused, and said he would finish the piece himself. ‘Well’, said the lunatic apostle, ‘but you must give me your honour that you will read it out.’ The King promised, but was forced to pledge his honour. It is to be hoped this man is so mad that it will soon come to perfection.6
In the debate of 11 Apr. 1780 he was in the middle of a description of popery in Ireland in 1626 when Charles Turner interrupted him:
He could not sit still and hear the noble lord run on at that rate. The noble lord was perpetually interrupting business and introducing matters directly personal. The noble lord had got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which ran away with him if anything relative to religion was mentioned, and made him expose himself perpetually ... He could not bear to see the noble lord render himself a laughing stock, and become the make game of the whole House. He respected the noble lord, and the House ought to respect him on account of his noble family.
Gordon then continued by reading yet another newspaper, and assured the House that his supporters ‘had not yet determined to murder the King and put him to death: they only considered they were absolved from their allegiance’.7
In November 1779 the committee of the Protestant Association in London had invited Gordon to become its president, and on 26 May 1780 he gave notice that he would present their petition to Parliament. On 2 June a crowd of 60,000 gathered to accompany him to Westminister: many of them broke into the lobby of the House of Commons, and defied all attempts to get them to leave. Gordon kept up a running commentary for their benefit, telling them who was speaking in the debate, and whether in support of the petition. One witness described Gordon’s behaviour when le Fleming begged him to leave the lobby:8
As soon as Lord George Gordon turned round and saw who it was, he called out to the people, ‘This is Sir Michael le Fleming, he has just been speaking for you.’ His Lordship seemed to me remarkably pleased with Sir Michael, he patted or stroked his shoulder, and expressed a kind of joy in his countenance which I hardly know how to describe: it seemed to me extravagant, and, if I may use the expression, childish.
Events were now beyond Gordon’s control. That evening rioting and looting broke out, and for six days London was in the hands of the mob. The Protestant Association hastily issued an appeal to its supporters to ‘refrain from unconstitutional proceedings’, and Gordon himself offered North his services in restoring law and order. More than 450 persons were killed or injured. On Friday, 9 June, Lord George was arrested and sent to the Tower, charged with high treason.9
The trial came on in February 1781. Gordon was fortunate in having the services of two excellent lawyers, Lloyd Kenyon and Thomas Erskine. His defence was that he had made every effort to ensure that the meeting would be properly conducted, but that criminal elements, in no way connected with the Protestant Association, had seized their chance to begin plundering. Sir Philip Jennings Clerke testified that the original petitioners had been ‘the better sort of tradesmen: they were all well dressed, decent sort of people’, and Sir James Lowther told the court that he had heard Gordon shout to the mob outside: ‘go home, be quiet, make no riot nor noise’. Kenyon, in a masterly cross-examination, exposed the prosecution’s first witness as a rascal, while Erskine’s closing speech was acclaimed on all sides as brilliant. In reply to the argument that Gordon should have realized that the crowd would get out of hand, he explained:
Gentlemen, we are not trying whether he might or ought to have foreseen mischief, but whether he wickedly and traitorously preconcerted and designed it.
After a retirement of half an hour, the jury found Gordon not guilty.10
Though out of Parliament, he continued to hover on the sidelines of political life. In the autumn of 1781 he announced his intention of standing for the City of London, but soon withdrew. He pestered the King, North, Shelburne, and Pitt with letters and requests for interviews. The megalomaniac strain in his character was more apparent than ever. In August 1783 he published a grandiose letter to the Jews of Portugal and Germany beginning:11
The eyes of all Israel are upon you. America is in confusion. No wise man wonders at it. There is no prospect of a peace. The peace was ratified. The definitive treaty was ratified. The preliminary articles were ratified. The whole negotiation was ratified. The negotiators themselves are ratified. Shemah Israel! All Europe is in confusion ...
In May 1785, convinced that the Pope had sent two Jesuits to poison him, he wrote to Lord Carmarthen, the foreign secretary, to demand protection.12 Three months later he wrote to Joseph II of Austria to point out that ‘if you had paid due attention to the remarks I made on your ordinance against the Jews on the 14th of March 1782 ... you and your subjects would not have been in such a state of distraction and plague as at this hour’.13
Early in 1788 he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for a libellous pamphlet entitled ‘A petition to Lord George Gordon from the prisoners at Newgate’ and two paragraphs which he had had inserted in the Public Advertiser attacking the Queen of France and the French ambassador. The rest of his life was spent in Newgate, where he observed the Jewish faith. He was allowed visitors, entertained well, and was regarded as the most distinguished inmate. This was perhaps the happiest period of his life. Although his sentence expired in January 1793, he was unable to secure guarantors, and died in prison, 1 Nov. 1793.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: J. A. Cannon
- 1. Morning Post, 18 July 1780.
- 2. Sandwich mss.
- 3. Stockdale, viii. 247; xi. 14.
- 4. Ibid. xii. 400; xvi. 17.
- 5. Ibid. xvii. 62, 66, 128, 236.
- 6. Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 29 Jan. 1780.
- 7. Almon, xvii. 490, 527; Morning Post, 15 Apr. 1780.
- 8. State Trials, xxi. 525.
- 9. Add. 42129, Ld. Geo. Gordon’s Narrative.
- 10. State Trials, xxi. 485-652.
- 11. P. Colson, Hist. Ld. Geo. Gordon, 157.
- 12. Add. 27915, f. 9.
- 13. Colson, 142.