STRAHAN, William (1715-85), of Little New St., London
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Family and Education
b. 24 Mar. 1715, o.s. of George Strachan, writer to the signet, and subsequently clerk of the customs at Leith, by his w. Anne Smeiton. educ. Edinburgh h.s.; apprenticed to an Edinburgh printer. m. 20 July 1738, Margaret Penelope, da. of Rev. William Elphinston, Episcopalian clergyman of Edinburgh, 3 surv. s. 2 surv. da.
Freeman of the City of London 19 July and freeman of the Stationers’ Co. 3 Oct. 1738.
By 1739 Strahan1 (he dropped the c from his surname after coming to London) was a master printer, and in 1754 he was entrusted with the printing of Johnson’s Dictionary. By 1760 he was ‘in such a way as to lay up £1,000 every year from the profits of his business, after maintaining his family and paying all charges’.2‘I quickly saw’, wrote Strahan in 1771, ‘that if I confined myself to mere printing for booksellers I might be able to live, but very little more than live. I therefore soon determined to launch out into other branches.’3 In 1749 he began printing the Monthly Review, and in 1757 bought a share in the London Chronicle. He became a publisher, and the authors he published, usually in conjunction with Andrew Millar and later Thomas Cadell, included Johnson, Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Adam Smith, Blackstone, Blair, Beattie, Mackenzie, Macpherson, and Hawkesworth. In 1762 he acquired a half share in the patent for law printing; and in 1767 bought a third share in the reversion of the patent of King’s printer, which became operative in 1770. He also acted as export agent for David Hall, a fellow Scot who first was partner in Benjamin Franklin’s printing business in Philadelphia (including the Pennsylvania Gazette), and later its sole owner, supplying him with books, materials, etc.—one shipment of books to Hall in 1771 was worth over £1,700.
‘As I have now the liberty of the House of Commons ex officio, I have been present at all the principal debates this session,’ he wrote to Hall in 1770; but his interest in politics and his attendance at the House were of earlier date. In 1763-4 he sent extensive reports of parliamentary debates to Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath;4 similarly for years to David Hume;5 and to David Hall (who died in 1772) he regularly sent paragraphs of political news for his Pennsylvania Gazette. ‘I have in the enclosed sheet’, Strahan wrote to him on 11 Apr. 1767, ‘sent you all the politics at present in my power. Such as they are, you certainly have an exclusive right to them.’ And on 29 Jan. 1768 Governor William Franklin wrote to Strahan: ‘Your letters of political intelligence, which Mr. Hall generally publishes in his paper, afford me, from time to time, the best information we receive of what is doing in Parliament.’6
Material thus abounds for Strahan’s politics before he entered the House—‘When you ceased to be a speculative politician and became a practical one’, wrote Hume to him on 26 Oct. 1775, ‘I could no longer expect you would be so communicative or impartial as formerly.’7 Strahan could be called ‘impartial’ by Hume, who held very similar views, even more passionately: both were Scots, authoritarian and dour, with little understanding or patience for English politics and an Opposition which, starting with ‘anti-Butism’, never quite lost its anti-Scottish colouring; least of all, for that ‘seditious and profligate fellow’ Wilkes—at no time does Strahan distinguish between his person and the principles involved. What he wants is to see the authority of Government re-established, and ‘the great and important business of the nation at last ... attended to’ (25 Oct. 1763)—‘it hurts me exceedingly to see the Great Council of the nation so uselessly and so factiously employed’, he wrote on 20 Feb. 1764, after the debate on general warrants. ‘Mr. Pitt’s behaviour more particularly disgusted me’. The Rockinghams are ‘weak, timid, and unequal to their important stations’; ‘the persons, characters, and views of the Members of the House of Commons’ such that one can only wonder they do ‘no more mischief’ (7 Apr. 1766).8 He writes about ‘the factious disposition of this country, under a good-natured Prince unable to keep parties within proper bounds’ (11 June 1766); ‘to give you ... even a very moderate idea of our political inefficiency ...’ (30 Dec. 1768). And on 6 Feb. 1769: ‘I am quite sick of politics, which is become so futile a subject in this country, that there is no thinking on it with any degree of patience.’ In February 1770: ‘Parliament ... squabbling about the Middlesex election ... that thread-bare subject ... This is a most shameful and inexcusable neglect of public business.’
Of North and his Administration Strahan writes with growing appreciation, only criticizing them for timidity. Thus in a letter on 26 June 1770, which concludes with an account of the Scottish attitude:
Since the Parliament separated, we have been in a state of perfect tranquillity here, and ... are likely to continue so ... this superstructure of faction has been raised by a few incendiaries ... They are now by no means likely to increase ... During the last session the present ministry, by merely keeping their ground, have well nigh ruined their opponents. Had they had courage enough to go a step farther—to make a few examples—it would have entirely completed the business ... In Scotland they make a national cause of it, and are quite unanimous in favour of Government: and their union upon this occasion is easily accounted for, as the Jacobite Party, now their old cause is extinguished, from the very nature of their principles, remain firm friends of monarchy in opposition equally to anarchy and republicanism.
And in March 1771:
Lord North still continues to conduct himself with integrity, ability and firmness. He is not to be shaken by ... popular clamour ... nor will he ... by a timid and ill-timed resignation leave his master a prey to the most virulent, unruly, profligate, and unprovoked faction that ever disgraced this country.
On 2 Dec. 1772: ‘No change in the ministry so much as thought of; the Opposition having gradually melted away.’
It was thus as a thoroughgoing supporter of Administration that Strahan entered the House of Commons in 1774, having purchased a seat at Malmesbury, a borough with which he had no previous connexion; similarly at Wootton Bassett in 1780. His views on America underwent an even more marked evolution between 1765 and 1775: originally his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, connexion with Hall, and other personal and commercial ties with the colonies, seem to have influenced his attitude—he disapproved of the Stamp Act, and the animosity which Grenville displayed against America over its repeal; he wrote admiringly about Franklin’s activities to have the repeal carried; printed in the London Chronicle his ‘Causes of the American Discontents before 1768’; and hoped for a full and cordial reconciliation between the mother country and the colonies. He himself favoured ‘an incorporating union’ which would allow the colonies representation at Westminster, as ‘the most satisfactory and most honourable for both sides’, and ‘the most salutary, safe, and beneficial for the whole British Dominion’ (11 Jan. 1766). With his usual incomprehension of constitutional principles he treated ‘the matter now in dispute between us as a mere bagatelle’ (24 Aug. 1770), and repeatedly insisted that ‘neither party should stand out upon trifles and punctilios’ (7 Apr. 1770). But on 7 Nov.:
It required no great penetration to foresee the ruin of Great Britain ... if ever the doctrine of no taxation in America should be established by law ... it is ... unreasonable that the mother country, already drained of her blood and treasure in supporting, defending, and enlarging her colonies should bear the whole expense of the British navy.
His views began to diverge more and more from those of Franklin and Hall. He still co-operated enthusiastically with Franklin over the Ohio scheme, whose failure broke perhaps the last of Franklin’s ties with this country. Strahan’s views on America after he had entered Parliament appear from a letter to an unknown correspondent, 22 July 1775:9
My opinion has long been fixed, that no total change of ministry will take place during the present reign ... At the same time I cannot allow myself to imagine that our public measures would admit of much alteration, into whatever hands unforseen accidents may throw the reins of Government. To look back is fruitless and unnecessary. The question now is, shall America remain a part of the British Empire, or not? It is in vain for the colonists to say ‘Set us down as we were in 1762 and we shall be satisfied’—that is, repeal every Act relating to us since that time, and presume not to make any more. Terms so disgraceful, and on their part so arrogant, that I trust no ministry will ever dare to listen to, were we even reduced to the last extremity ... As for our success in America, I have little doubt but by perseverance, and a proper exertion of our naval force, we shall at last bring them to reason ... of our final triumphing over their insolence I entertain no manner of doubt.
And to Hume on 30 Oct. 1775: ‘I am entirely for coercive methods with these obstinate madmen. Why should we suffer the Empire to be so dismembered without the utmost exertions on our part? ... Not that I wish to enslave the colonists ... but I am for keeping them subordinate to the British legislature.’
The ‘Parliamentary Characters’ of Members published by the Public Ledger in 1779 and the English Chronicle in 1780-81, Strahan pasted into a book of cuttings, but unfortunately did not annotate. All the Ledger had to say about him was: ‘Bought his seat, and votes constantly with ministry.’ The Chronicle, in a long and disparaging note, suggested that Strahan had been directed by North to buy a seat in return for the valuable offices he held, and that in the House, generally sitting two or three rows behind the Treasury Bench, he was at the beck and call ‘of his superior ... Sir Grey Cooper’, going errands for him, but otherwise silent till ‘called upon for the mechanical monosyllable in the division’. In fact during his ten years in Parliament, though a regular attender, only two interventions in debate are recorded: on 6 Apr. 1781 when a tax on almanacs was discussed, and on 2 June 1783, to inform the House how long the printing of certain evidence would take—a great politician all his life, in the House he was the printer.
After the fall of the North Administration, Strahan wrote to Benjamin Franklin,10 then at Passy, on 27 May 1782, rejoicing
in the present prospect that public circumstances will not much longer divide us. That event I long for, I will own, with no small degree of impatience; sincerely hoping that no success on either side however flattering will induce us to protract this unnatural war, which tends only to strengthen the hands of our mutual enemies ... Of the good disposition of his Majesty’s present ministers, you have already had ample testimony.
None the less he voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783; was classed by Robinson in March 1783 as a follower of North; but was absent from the divisions on Fox’s East India bill; and in Stockdale’s list of 19 Mar. 1784 was included among Pitt’s supporters. ‘Strahan has always been, and it is believed always would be, steady [in adhering to any Government in power]’, wrote Robinson in his survey preparatory to the general election of 1784;11 but he did not stand again.
Strahan died 9 July 1785. The Scots Magazine (1785, p. 373) wrote about him:
One motive of his not wishing a seat in the present Parliament was a feeling of some decline in his health, which had rather suffered from the long sittings and late hours with which the political warfare in the last had been attended.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. This biography is largely based on two papers by Peter Cochrane.
- 2. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings, ed. van Doren.
- 3. Pennsylvania Mag. of Hist. Biog. xii. 117.
- 4. R. E. M. Peach, Life Times of Ralph Allen.
- 5. Birkbeck Hill, Letters to David Hume; J. Y. T. Greig, Letters of David Hume.
- 6. Peach, 189-91, 199.
- 7. Greig, ii. 299.
- 8. This and the further quotations, unless otherwise marked, are from Strahan’s letters to Hall, Pennsylvania Mag. x-xii.
- 9. Rylands Eng. ms. 537/8.
- 10. In possession of Miss S. Madeline Hodge, Princeton, N.J.
- 11. Laprade, 113.