STEWART, John I (?1758-1825), of Ballygawley Park, co. Tyrone.
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Family and Education
b. ?1758, 1st s. of Rev. Hugh Stewart, rector of Termon, by Sarah, da. of Ven. Andrew Hamilton, DD, archdeacon of Raphoe, sis. and coh. of Sir Henry Hamilton 1st Bt., MP [I], of Castle Conyngham, co. Donegal. educ. by Rev. R. Norris, Drogheda; Trinity, Dublin 1 Nov. 1774, aged 16; L. Inn 1779, called [I] 1781. m. June 1789, Mary (d. 28 May 1795), da. of Mervyn Archdall I*, 2s. 1da. suc. fa. 1800; cr. Bt. 21 June 1803.
MP [I] 1794-1800.
KC [I] 1795; counsel to commrs. of revenue [I] 1797; bencher, King’s Inn 1798; solicitor-gen. [I] July 1798-1800, attorney-gen. [I] Dec. 1800-May 1803; PC [I] 23 Dec. 1800.
Sheriff, co. Tyrone 1809-10.
Trustee, linen board [I] 1802.
Commdt. Omagh vols.
Stewart was distantly related to James Stewart* of Killymoon, but his family interest was much more modest and their politics were poles apart. His professional career was promoted by his friendship with Lord Clare. His parliamentary patron was Lord Abercorn, who valued his services and encouraged his professional ambitions. In the last Irish parliament he became solicitor-general and helped prosecute the rebels and draft the articles of Union. On the eve of its accomplishment, he became attorney-general, though George III subsequently alleged that he was ‘one of the legal gentlemen advanced at the Union more for parliamentary considerations than for knowledge of his profession’. Nevertheless to become chief justice of the King’s bench was his next ambition: it was not to be realized.1
Stewart was returned to Westminster for Tyrone in 1802 under the aeg2is of Lord Abercorn and with government’s blessing. He came in unopposed on a vacancy, but had already advertised his intention of offering for the county and of giving up his legal office if it were thought unsuitable for a county Member. On leaving his legal duties to attend Parliament that winter, he informed the Castle that he felt the two duties were incompatible and thought he might be more useful to government in Parliament. When he first gave proof of this in a speech in favour of Irish militia recruitment by bounty, 15 Mar. 1803, he was already negotiating his retreat from legal office, which was delayed by government’s difficulties over his successor and over his terms of resignation. The Castle wished him to act as a legal adviser on Irish revenue bills, but he declined payment for this as it was unfavourably remarked upon (through Stewart’s own indiscreet talk, according to the viceroy) and settled for the promise of a place at the treasury board when vacant, to be resigned in turn on security of a reversion (worth about £1,200 p.a.) of second remembrancer of the exchequer to his two sons on Lord Donoughmore’s death. As an afterthought Stewart, who was already assured of compensation of £2,586 5s.9d. p.a. for loss of fees while in office, asked for a baronetcy. These terms involved him in an unpleasant interview with Under-Secretary Marsden at the Castle, but after seeing Lord Hardwicke en route for England, 10 May 1803, he wrote to him four days later to say that if his request for his sons were thought ‘unacceptable’, he would wish something to be done for his second son and for his brother in the church. He then resigned and received the baronetcy. The Home secretary informed the King that he could not understand why Stewart should resign in his prime, but the King put it down to the state of his health and his inability to cope as a law officer. The chief secretary described it as a ‘retreat’.2
Stewart eventually supported Pitt’s second ministry, though he was critical of the Irish election bill, 6 June 1804, disliking the alteration of Irish freehold leases it entailed, and opposed the additional force bill, requesting the postponement of the Irish version of it, 29 June. His claim for a Treasury place was acknowledged, but in January 1805 government took advantage of his offer to waive it conditionally in order to reward George Knox* and Sir Lawrence Parsons*; the condition being that the reversion of Donoughmore’s sinecure should be guaranteed to his sons. In March 1805 the viceroy guaranteed it and undertook to satisfy Stewart completely by providing for his brother in the church.3 Meanwhile, he had been a leading spokesman and teller for the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland, 8 Feb. 1805. He went on to vote with the government minority on Melville’s conduct, 8 Apr., a question in which he took a keen interest,4 and against Catholic relief, 14 May. He was chairman of the committee on Sir Home Popham* that month. Like his patron, he went into opposition to the Grenville ministry, voting against them, by one account, on their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., if not subsequently, and being on their black list as far as the next election was concerned.
Stewart, who expected at any time to make way for Lord Abercorn’s son, declined a contest in which the odds were against him in 1806, and despite a canvass in 1807, when he was favourable to the Portland ministry, he did not go to a poll. He complained of a coalition of his opponents against him on both occasions, but the state of his patron’s registry was weak and Stewart himself, according to one critic, George Knox, too ‘vain of his cunning’ to give up the attempt.5 In 1812 he recaptured the seat, after a sustained campaign during which he was at times so discouraged that he contemplated purchasing a borough seat.
Lord Liverpool’s government welcomed his return as a gain. He duly supported administration and voted against Catholic relief. He explained on 26 Feb 1813 that, without securities, he could not support it. On 23 Feb. 1815 he was a spokesman for the Irish agricultural interest in defence of the Corn Laws and on 22 May 1816 for the gentry of the north against Newport’s allegation that they connived at illicit distillation, on which occasion he delivered a most vehement peroration against the district fines system as a violation of constitutional rights and of the Union. The viceroy merely commented, ‘I conclude we are not to consider Lord Belmore as a friend’. On the same subject, 7 May 1819, he lamented that the system in question had originated in the Irish parliament and on 20 May indicated that while he wished to see illicit distillation suppressed, he could not condone the current method. He had welcomed Horner’s Irish grand juries bill, 14 Feb. 1816, but could not swallow later versions of it proposed by government: at times, in fact, the Castle resented his independence. The chief secretary grumbled that Stewart ‘had his scruples’ about the renewal of the property tax, 2 Mar. 1816, and reported on 29 Apr. that he sometimes affected to be Belmore’s Member and sometimes to be independent, ‘just as it suits his purpose. As far as independence depends on not giving effectual support to government he is very independent certainly.’ This penchant for independence was encouraged by Belmore, whose interest in the county tended to surpass that of Abercorn after 1806, as long as government denied him the representative peerage he craved with Stewart as his advocate; but his bargaining power was damaged by the opposition politics of his colleague Knox in the Parliament of 1812 and scarcely improved by a fresh alignment in the election of 1818, in which his new colleague likewise turned out to be an oppositionist.6 He died after being thrown from his phaeton, 22 June 1825.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: P. J. Jupp
- 1. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2748; PRO NI, Abercorn mss IB2/3/4; IK17/31-2.
- 2. Dublin Evening Post, 19 Jan. 1802; Add. 35717, f. 64; 35739, f. 70; 35772, ff. 163, 172; 40298, f. 40; Abercorn mss IB2/4/1, 11-13; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2746, 2748; Sidmouth mss, Wickham to Addington, 29 Aug. 1803.
- 3. Add. 35709, f. 222; 35710, f. 36; 35746, f. 129; 35750, f. 102.
- 4. Colchester, ii. 4-5.
- 5. Add. 47569, f. 283; NLS mss 12910, p. 169, Elliot to Newport, 4 June; 12917, Newport to Elliot, 1 June; 12920, Vincent to Elliot, 3 May 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 258; Abercorn mss IB3/13/26.
- 6. Add. 40192, f. 123; 40290, ff. 116, 224; PRO NI, Belmore mss H/2/6, Stewart to Belmore, 30 Apr. 1816.