ANSTRUTHER, John (1753-1811), of Anstruther, Fife.
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Family and Education
b. 27 Mar. 1753, 2nd s. of Sir John Anstruther, 2nd Bt. [S]*, by Janet, da. of James Fall†. educ. ?St. Andrews 1766; Glasgow Univ. 1772; adv. 1774; L. Inn 1774, called 1779. m. 14 Aug. 1784, Maria Jane, da. of Edward Brice of Berners Street, Marylebone, Mdx., 2s. surv. 1da. Kntd. 4 Oct. 1797; cr. Bt. [GB] 18 May 1798; suc. bro. Sir Philip Anstruther† as 4th Bt. [S] 5 Jan. 1808.
Receiver-gen. bishops’ rents [S] 1780-d.; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales Jan. 1793-5; patent of precedence 7 Feb. 1793; c.j. N. Wales circuit June 1793-7; bencher L. Inn 1793, treasurer 1807; counsel to Board of Control 1794-7; c.j. Bengal 1797-1806; PC 19 Nov. 1806; heritable carver to the King [S] 1808-d.
Anstruther had made his reputation as a powerful opposition speaker in the House, specializing in Indian affairs and legal issues. He joined the Whig Club, 17 Jan. 1785, and Brooks’s, 5 Mar. 1788. He attacked Henry Dundas at every opportunity, both in and out of the House, which made his seat for the family burghs precarious, his father having had to ally himself with Dundas to overpower opposition. His parents had hoped that this alliance would lead to professional promotion for Anstruther, who was reported to be going out to India; but nothing came of it and in 1789 Dundas refused to countenance Sir John Anstruther’s returning his son at the next election. To avoid martyrdom, as Anstruther called it, he looked for a seat elsewhere. After an unsuccessful application to the Duke of Queensberry, and an equally unsuccessful contest at Pontefract, he obtained a seat, by Lord Loughborough’s mediation, for Cockermouth, where Lord Lowther, the patron, gave him preference over a friend of his own.1
Anstruther continued to act with opposition until 1792. As a manager of Warren Hastings’s impeachment, he supported its continuation, 17 Dec. 1790, a line of which he never repented subsequently. He was a critic of the armament against Russia, 15 Apr. 1791, and both then and on 1 Mar. 1792 voted against Pitt’s policy. He predictably supported the exemption of Scotland from the Test Act, 10 May 1791. He deprecated Burke’s alarm about French revolutionary principles, 6 May 1791, though, consistently with his previous views, he opposed Scottish burgh reform, 27 May 1791, 5 and 18 Apr. 1792. On the latter occasion he
professed himself entirely against the motion, as a point of vain, vague and speculative theory, that could not be reduced to practice. He was convinced that the more the practice of the constitution of England was looked into and compared with the visionary theory of other people, the more would it be admired.
Anstruther was a critic of the war against Tipu in India 15 Mar. 1792, and was about to make a motion against the breach of faith with the nawab of the Carnatic—regarded as a possible rallying point for the divided opposition—when the need for action against sedition in May drew him into the camp of the Whig alarmists. On 25 May he accepted the royal proclamation as a bulwark against ‘levelling’ principles and rallied to the protection of the constitution. In November he was one of the conservative Whig junta. To his friend William Adam, who preferred Fox’s political line, he wrote:
I trust in God that any political difference can be but temporary and that in all events upon other points our friendship will continue what it ever was. We do not differ, I am sure, on principle; we differ upon a fact: the danger of the country. This necessarily leads to difference on the means of averting it. Both, I am sure, equally actuated by good motives.
To the like-minded William Windham he wrote, 30 Nov., that he was reconciled to a ‘decided difference with Fox’, not being able to stomach a ‘violent and hostile opposition’. On the address, 13 Dec., he argued that ministers, ‘so far from exciting a premature or groundless alarm, had rather been too late in adopting their measures of precaution’, and on 1 Feb. 1793, viewing the execution of Louis XVI ‘with the utmost horror’, he was prepared for war owing to ‘the infinite danger to be apprehended from the propagation of French principles’. That month he was a conspicuous member of the ‘third party’ meeting at Windham’s house which resolved to support the government in time of war, and he seceded from the Whig Club.2 In the House he repeatedly defended ministerial measures against subversive activities and he opposed Adam’s bill to authorize appeals from Scottish courts to the House of Lords, 27 Jan. 1794, because it was intended to secure a retrospective reprieve for the radicals Muir and Palmer: ‘nothing ... could be more clear than the legality of the sentences in question’. Anstruther, who henceforward frequently acted as teller for the majority, was placed on the committee of secrecy, 14 May 1794. He went on to support the legislation against sedition in November 1795.
Anstruther’s political volte face had gained him, apart from a Welsh judgeship and the unsalaried post of counsel to the Board of Control, the appointment of solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales. As such he helped draft, and vindicated in the House, the bill for the redemption of the Prince’s debts in 1795. By insisting, however, that the duchy of Cornwall revenues were not the Prince’s by right, he incurred the latter’s displeasure and, after a public rebuke by Sheridan on behalf of the Prince, he was dropped by him.3 He voted against the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796.
Anstruther was restored to his seat for the family burghs with Dundas’s blessing in 1796. He disliked the pacific tone of the new Parliament, advising Dundas to promote a scheme of home defence to revive a warlike stance towards France. He attended until June 1797 when he was appointed chief justice of Bengal, a post he had hoped for seven years before. In March 1795 he had applied to Dundas to become governor-general of Madras. Pitt acquiesced in his proposal to stay five years, instead of the usual seven, but this was frustrated by a Lords’ amendment. So, at first, was Dundas’s bid to get him a baronetcy, which the King refused: but he subsequently relented.4 The evidence on Anstruther’s performance in India is conflicting. Hickey disparaged him as ‘the Scotch jobbing chief justice’ and dismissed him as ‘an intriguing political character, almost always influenced by some interested or disgraceful motive, extending even to his judicial decisions’. Anstruther himself was ready to leave India by 1802, but had his pension to safeguard. He hoped for a peerage and was confident that he had improved the standards of justice in Bengal. Lord Wellesley, whom he befriended, assured the prime minister, 23 Feb. 1803, in a testimonial endorsing Anstruther’s application to come home in 1805 with due acknowledgment of his services:
Since his arrival, British justice has really appeared in genuine purity and lustre in this quarter of the globe, and a degree of respect and confidence has attended the character of his Majesty’s judges in all their decisions, which has greatly elevated the national honour in this settlement ... it is my conscientious opinion that no judge ever sat upon the bench in any country with more honour to the authority represented, or with more advantage to the public.5
Anstruther secured his pension by William Adam’s mediation with Pitt’s second ministry, and arrived home in July 1806 to find Lord Grenville in power.
Anstruther was at once courted by the Grenville ministry, Wellesley assuring the premier that he was ‘very well disposed, and you will find his conduct very satisfactory’. The bait was the offer of undertaking the judicial business of the Privy Council in the absence of the master of the rolls, offered by Grenville through Wellesley. Anstruther, after some hesitation, elected to accept the management in the Commons of Privy Council business. He was made a Councillor and came into Parliament again on the family interest, though he maintained that, given a little more time, he might have come in for the county of Fife.6 He duly supported ministers, was listed ‘friendly’ to the abolition of the slave trade and, just before their dismissal, was offered a place at the India Board, though nothing came of it. He voted with the minority for Brand’s motion, 9 Apr. 1807, and while he felt unable to compliment Lord Howick with his seat at the ensuing election allied himself for the future with Grenville.7
Anstruther’s most conspicuous parliamentary activity at this time was the defence of Wellesley against charges of misconduct in India: between January 1807 and March 1808 he made a series of speeches in Wellesley’s favour, carrying his exoneration on the Oudh charge, 15 Mar. 1808. He was also a member of the East India committee in 1808, 1809 and 1811 and made it clear there and in debate that he did not wish to see Company rule undermined. (Francis Horner indignantly described his role as that of ‘a commonplace jobber and Scotchman’.)8 While this line put him at odds with one opposition clique, Anstruther was content to vote with them on many issues: on the address in 1807 and 1810; on Whitbread’s censure motion, 6 July 1807; on the droits of Admiralty and the orders in council, 11 Feb. and 3 Mar. 1808 and 30 May 1810; for Catholic relief in 1808, though not subsequently, and against the Duke of York on Perceval’s resolution, 17 Mar. 1809. He was also critical of the Peninsular war. On the other hand he opposed Folkestone’s motion for a general inquiry into abuses, 17 Apr. 1809, and Madocks’s motions accusing ministers of corruption, 5, 11 May. He remained unfriendly to parliamentary reform, though he was prepared to swallow Curwen’s amended bill on the subject, 1 June. He was opposed to Ponsonby’s leadership of the opposition at the outset and critical subsequently, but not insistent on his removal.9
In June 1809 the Portland administration offered Anstruther the chair of the India Board. He refused, but was reported to have regretted this decision. On 14 July he assured Robert Saunders Dundas that he was at the call of government ‘upon Indian subjects’. By 25 Sept., however, he doubted whether he could serve the government as then constituted, by 1 Oct. despaired of them, and feared by 5 Oct. that ‘the Jacobins will overset us all’. When Wellesley took office under Perceval that month, he pressed for a place for Anstruther, ‘if he should be desirous as I trust he will be of supporting the King on the present occasion’. But Anstruther had already refused Perceval’s offer of the India Board, explaining to Grenville, whose refusal to parley with ministers he approved, that he would prefer to see a union of ‘all the talents’ and ‘all the respectability of character’ of the country in power. He added that it was only on Catholic relief, to which he was indifferent, that he appeared to differ from Grenville; as for Wellesley, in parting company with Grenville, he had broken ‘the closest possible intimacy’ with Anstruther. Wellesley failed to induce Anstruther to change his mind and rally to government.10 In February 1810 he voted against the pension awarded Wellesley’s brother Wellington and, as chairman of the inquiry into the Scheldt expedition, 2 Feb.-30 Mar., voted against the ministry. That his political position was then somewhat tricky is indicated by his line on the question of (Sir) Francis Burdett* in April 1810. He voted against his imprisonment but spoke against his conduct, whereupon the mob attacked his house. His speech had been conciliatory to government in general, but not to this government in particular, ‘men unfit to conduct it in times of difficulty and danger’. On 16 Apr. he supported the discharge of Gale Jones the radical, but he subsequently took his stand with the Grenvillites for the privileges of the House.11
When Grenville was cabinet making at the outset of the Regency, Anstruther declined a place at the Board of Control, pointing out that he had grown accustomed to refusing the chair, but added ‘if without office I can execute the office of president of the Board of Trade or vice-president you may command my services’. He had voted staunchly with opposition during the Regency debates and also appeared in the minority against the Irish chief secretary’s anti-Catholic circular, 22 Feb. 1811, but could not bring himself to support the opposition censure of the chief secretary on 8 Mar.12 Nor could he bring himself to support the election bribery bill, 25 Mar., but he acquiesced in Romilly’s dwelling house robbery bill on 29 Mar. Anstruther last spoke in the House on 11 June. He died 26 June 1811.