WEDDERBURN, Alexander (1733-1805).
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Family and Education
b. 13 Feb. 1733, 1st s. of Peter Wedderburn of Chesterhall, Haddington (Lord Chesterhall, S.C.J.), by Janet, da. of David Ogilvie. educ. Dalkeith; Edinburgh Univ. 1746; adv. 1754; I. Temple 1753, called 1757. m. (1) 31 Dec. 1767, Betty Anne (d. 15 Feb. 1781), da. and h. of John Dawson of Morley, Yorks., s.p.; (2) 12 Sept. 1782, Hon. Charlotte Courtenay, da. of William, 1st Visct. Courtenay, 1s. d.v.p. suc. fa. 11 Aug. 1756; cr. Baron Loughborough 14 June 1780; Baron Loughborough, co. Surrey, with sp. rem. to his nephew, 31 Oct. 1795; Earl of Rosslyn, with sp. rem. to his nephew, 21 Apr. 1801.
K.C. and bencher L. Inn 1763; solicitor-gen. Jan. 1771-June 1778; chancellor to the Queen 1771-80; attorney-gen. June 1778-June 1780; P.C. 9 June 1780; l.c.j. common pleas June 1780-June 1793; 1st commr. of the great seal Apr.-Dec. 1783; ld. chancellor June 1793-Apr. 1801.
Wedderburn came of a distinguished Scottish legal family. He quickly made a reputation at the Scottish bar and in the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, and in social life belonged to a group of Edinburgh intellectuals which included David Hume, Adam Smith, and William Robertson. In 1757, after a quarrel with the lord president of the court of session, he left Scotland and was called to the English bar. His sister’s marriage in May 1761 to Sir Henry Erskine, the favourite of Lord Bute, was followed by Wedderburn’s entry into Parliament. In December 1761, at Erskine’s recomendation, he was returned unopposed on Bute’s interest for Ayr Burghs.
Wedderburn supported the Bute and Grenville Administrations, and in July 1765 followed Grenville into opposition. He was a frequent speaker in the House, but rather slow to make his mark. James Harris records fifteen speeches by Wedderburn between 1761 and 1765 without reporting any in more than a few words. Still, he must have been of some consequence in the House, for he was present at the meeting of men of business, 29 Jan. 1765, to consider the question of general warrants. It was under the Rockingham Administration, however, that Wedderburn rose to the fore as a debater. On 17 Jan. 1766 ‘with great wit and humour he attacked the ministry for their servility to Pitt’; on 24 Feb. ‘spoke well’ against the repeal of the Stamp Act; and in March 1766 pressed in several speeches for a committee to consider the excise laws.1 Perhaps his animosity against the Rockinghams was sharpened by their opposition to the Erskine interest at the Anstruther Burghs by-election of January 1766.
Wedderburn followed Grenville in opposition to Chatham. He ‘held a very hostile language to the present Administration’, records the Grenville diary on 5 Nov. 1766; and on 25 Nov. he supported Grenville ‘ably and roundly’ in the debate on the East India inquiry.2 ‘Wedderburn does better than ever in the House of Commons’, wrote Lord March to George Selwyn in December 1766; and Whately to Grenville, 5 Feb. 1767: ‘I have set Wedderburn’s inventive genius to work to consider of good questions for a division.’3 Wedderburn kept on friendly relations with Bute; through Burke forged new links with Rockingham; became closely connected with Sir Lawrence Dundas; and, after Clive’s return from Bengal in July 1767, became his principal legal adviser. It was an impressive list of friends, and no wonder Wedderburn could tell Bute in July 1767 that he had received several offers of a seat in the next Parliament.4 In the event he was returned for Richmond on Dundas’s interest.
In October 1768 Wedderburn was sounded (probably by Rigby) about taking the solicitor-general’s place in case of a vacancy: ‘his answer was that no man in his senses could think of engaging in the present system’.5 But on 3 Feb. 1769 he voted with Government (and against his friend Grenville) on the expulsion of Wilkes. During the debates of the next three months on the Wilkes case Wedderburn maintained a discreet silence on the issues involved. His only speech, 17 Mar., was a plea to maintain the honour and dignity of the House,6 and he did not vote in the division on the seating of Luttrell, 15 Apr. His reasons for keeping quiet are obvious: his patron Dundas was a strong supporter of Government and in hopes of a peerage. It was Grenville who induced Wedderburn to come down off the fence. On 27 Apr. Whately wrote to Grenville:7
I have explained the subject which Mr. Wedderburn had misunderstood entirely to his satisfaction. I have also given him your reasons for wishing he would take a part in the present question, which he said were very strong, and I have told him of Lord Clive’s offer. He had heard of it before ... but rather wishes he might still be supposed not to know it.
Clive’s offer was of a seat in Parliament in the event of Wedderburn voting against Government and being asked by Dundas to vacate his seat for Richmond. Thus fortified, Wedderburn came out on the side of the Opposition. In the debate of 8 May, on the Middlesex petition against Luttrell’s return, he said:8
I could have wished it had never been necessary to pronounce such an opinion upon this very important matter. So long as it remained a question of expediency, it was my intention to have remained silent; it now compels every gentleman to form his opinion, and having formed, to deliver it, and by such an opinion and by no other ground or motive to act.
The speech which followed was largely a survey of the legal precedents and ignored the political issues involved. Wedderburn could hardly be said to have embraced the cause with enthusiasm. Still, it had the expected result: reproached by Dundas, Wedderburn vacated his seat and achieved the martyr’s crown. At the Opposition dinner on 9 May ‘Beckford and Trecothick offered him the freedom of the City in a gold box’, and Lord George Cavendish proposed the toast of ‘the steward of the Chiltern Hundreds’.9 Rockingham, unaware of the assurance from Clive, offered to bring Wedderburn into Parliament, which laid Wedderburn ‘under the necessity of assigning a reason for declining by telling him that he was already secure’.10 In January 1770 he was returned for Clive’s borough of Bishop’s Castle. From 1774 to 1778 he sat on the Clive interest at Okehampton, and from 1778 to 1780 again at Bishop’s Castle.
He remained with Opposition until Grenville’s death, and in January 1771, in common with most of Grenville’s followers, made his bargain with the court and was appointed solicitor-general. For this he has been severely criticized by historians, not without justification; Wedderburn was a lawyer on the make and, like many eighteenth century lawyers, regarded Parliament as primarily a means of rising in his profession. When on 22 Feb. 1775 he insisted on speaking for Wilkes’s motion to expunge from the journals the resolutions on the Middlesex election, George III wrote to North:11
I do not comprehend the reason of Mr. Solicitor-General’s choosing to speak, unless he thinks upon that question being consistent is a veil over that duplicity that often appears in his political deportment.
Yet Wedderburn could plead in his defence that he was faithful to Grenville to the end; indeed, loyalty to his friends was a redeeming feature in his character. When Clive was attacked in the House of Commons in 1773 Wedderburn ably conducted his defence. Charles Steuart, a Liverpool merchant, wrote to his American correspondents on 29 May:12
His character as a man is by no means high, and I considered him when he got up, though in his place as a Member of the House, as rising to speak for a fee; but such torrent of eloquence was enough to overpower the judgment of most men, and, contrary to all expectation, he brought him off with flying colours.
Gibbon, too, had reason to be grateful for Wedderburn’s friendship and advice, to which he pays tribute in a footnote of the Decline and Fall:13
For the intelligence of this obscure and obsolete jurisprudence [the law of judicial combats], I am deeply indebted to the friendship of a learned lord, who, with an accurate and discerning eye, has surveyed the philosophic history of law. By his studies, posterity might be enriched; the merit of the orator and the judge can be felt only by his contemporaries.
Wedderburn had no doubt of the justice of the British cause in the conflict with America. On 2 Feb. 1775 he told the House that the colonies were ‘in actual and open rebellion’, and, in reply to Burke, that ‘there were points of greater importance to be settled ... than those of commerce and manufacture’.14 Yet he favoured conciliation, and helped to draw up the proposals of 1776 and 1778. He wrote to Edward, 2nd Lord Clive, on 2 July 1776, just before Howe sailed for America:15
I have never been a desponding politician upon the subject of America, though often very doubtful whether the means employed were sufficient to accomplish so great an object as the proper correction and government of that country. I now entertain very eager expectations that such an impression will be made abroad as to make it impossible either for the Americans to resist the just authority of Britain, or for any misconduct in the Administration to permit the contest to subside without a full establishment of the rights of this country.
But Wedderburn became increasingly dissatisfied with North’s conduct of the war, and tried to make advantage for himself out of North’s difficulties in Administration.
When in March 1778 it was decided to appoint Thurlow lord chancellor, Wedderburn bullied North into a promise that he should become chief justice of the common pleas and a peer. Then in May, with Thurlow’s promotion imminent, North tried to back out; he represented that Wedderburn was essential to him in the House of Commons, and hinted that some preferment might be found for him not incompatible with a seat in Parliament. Wedderburn took his disappointment well, and agreed to waive his pretensions. His conduct was ‘judicious, as well as very handsome’, wrote the King, ‘and must make a deep impression on my mind to his advantage’; while North declared that ‘he never saw any man more willing to sacrifice his own private interest and views to the public service’. Various expedients were proposed: a pension, a reversion, the Speaker’s chair, the rolls, the duchy of Lancaster for life, etc.; but none proved acceptable to Wedderburn. In the end he accepted the office of attorney-general. North wrote to the King on 7 June 1778:
Lord North has seen the attorney-general this morning ... who seems a good deal hurt at what has lately passed ... He ... desires to be understood to have offered his services as attorney-general for the present moment because he thought that his refusal would in this crisis have distressed his Majesty’s affairs, but he does not conceive himself to have desisted from his pretensions in the least degree, but that he still is entitled to the promise made to him whenever he shall call for the performance of it. He appears to Lord North to feel too deeply the distance which the late preferments have placed between him and Lord Thurlow ... The attorney-general is not much swayed by interest, but he is very sensible to attention and confidence.16
Early in 1779 Wedderburn, in concert with his friend William Eden, began again to press his claims. On 7 Mar. Lord Suffolk, his patron in the Cabinet, died, and, fearful that the ministry was on the brink of dissolution, Wedderburn sharpened his importunities. He objected to the appointment of Lord Hillsborough as secretary of state and demanded the fulfilment of North’s promise of the common pleas and a peerage; in any case, he told Robinson, he would no longer remain attorney-general. North in turn threatened to resign if Wedderburn left the Commons, but the King refused categorically Wedderburn’s demand.17 On 6 June Henry Dundas told Robinson that Wedderburn seemed determined to overturn the Administration if he could not carry his point, and North was sick of him. Almost from day to day Wedderburn alternated between threats and promises. On 1 July he spoke of resignation; on 4 July was for carrying on Administration ‘with vigour and effect’; on 16 Aug. hinted he might oppose North and Sandwich in the House of Commons. In October Robinson was convinced that Wedderburn would go into opposition: ‘He has rancour and malice in his heart’, he wrote to Jenkinson on 30 Oct., ‘or he is the most deceitful man in the world ... He will not suffer Lord North to treat him well and civilly, he will not come near him or communicate with him.’ He refused to attend to Government papers, saying he ‘wished to avoid public business and keep to his profession’.18
It is difficult to believe, reading the letters of the King and his ministers at this time, that Britain had reached the crisis of a great war and was threatened with rebellion in Ireland as well as in America. The attention of North and the King seemed almost wholly occupied with the discontents and jealousies of subordinate ministers, and Wedderburn’s conduct at this time resembled that of a temperamental prima donna. On 4 Nov. 1779 he told Jenkinson he had taken two resolutions: ‘the one was not to resign, the other was not to have any personal intercourse with Lord North’. On 15 Nov. he again demanded the fulfilment of North’s promise. ‘I pay but little credit to Lord North’s apprehensions about the attorney’, wrote Jenkinson to the King on 20 Nov. ‘If he threatens at present, it is with a view to obtain some security against the storm which he sees arising.’ The King talked to Wedderburn and smoothed him down, and when Parliament met, North was able to report favourably about him:
He has upon every occasion since the opening of Parliament opposed the faction against Government in the frankest, steadiest, and ablest manner. He says he will continue to do it for the sake of his Majesty’s service and of Government in general, but he feels as much as ever the personal ill usage he has met with from Lord North.19
In June 1780 he was appointed chief justice of the common pleas and created Lord Loughborough. After 1782 he adhered to Fox, but left him over the French war and obtained the great seal from the younger Pitt.
He died 2 Jan. 1805.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 2. Grenville Pprs. iii. 378, 389.
- 3. Jesse, Selwyn, ii. 95; Grenville mss (JM).
- 4. Grenville Pprs. iv. 120.
- 5. Whately to Grenville, 28 Oct. 1768, ibid. 391-2, 404.
- 6. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 352-4.
- 7. Grenville mss (JM).
- 8. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 418-22.
- 9. Temple to Lady Chatham, 10 May 1769, Chatham Corresp. iv. 359-360.
- 10. Whately to Grenville, 13 May 1769, Grenville mss (JM).
- 11. Fortescue, iii. 181.
- 12. Steuart mss, Liverpool RO.
- 13. Note 148 to chap. lviii.
- 14. Parl. Hist. xviii. 233.
- 15. Powis mss.
- 16. Fortescue, iv. 87, 114, 115-17, 147, 149, 158-60, 161, 163, 167, 169.
- 17. Add. 37834, ff. 74-75; Robinson to Wedderburn, 12 May 1779, Abergavenny mss; Fortescue, iv. 298, 327-30, 340.
- 18. Ibid. 349, 384, 410, 455; Add. 38212, ff. 204-5; Robinson to Sandwich, 27 Oct. 1779, Sandwich mss.
- 19. Add. 38212, ff. 227-32; Fortescue, iv. 471, 486-7, 492-3, 511, 531.