BOSWELL, Alexander (1775-1822), of Auchinleck, Ayr

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



12 July 1816 - 7 Feb. 1821

Family and Education

b. 9 Oct. 1775, 1st s. of James Boswell of Auchinleck and his cos. Margaret, da. of David Montgomerie of Lainshaw. educ. Soho acad. 1786;1 Eton 1789-92; Edinburgh Univ. 1792; Leipzig 1795. m. 23 Nov. 1799, Grizel, da. of Thomas Cuming, banker, of Edinburgh, 1s. 3da. suc. fa. 1795; cr. bt. 16 Aug. 1821. d. 27 Mar. 1822.

Offices Held

Capt. Ayr yeomanry 1803, maj. 1815, lt.-col. commdt. 1816.


Boswell, the son of Dr. Johnson’s leash-holder, was a man of many parts, who made up in zeal what he lacked in discretion. As a poet, bibliophile and private publisher, he was one of Sir Walter Scott’s circle of literary friends. He was a keen sportsman and agricultural improver, but a rash purchaser of land on borrowed money. Politically, he was a rabid partisan, utterly contemptuous of the Whigs and implacably opposed to any constitutional change. Early in 1820 he was conspicuous at the head of his yeomanry in the quelling of disturbances in Ayrshire, though he used reason as well as force.2 At the general election that year he was again returned for Plympton Erle as a paying guest on the Treby interest.

He voted with Lord Liverpool’s ministry against Hume’s motion for economies in revenue collection, 4 July, but next day gave qualified support to Hamilton’s denunciation of the recent equalization of the English and Scottish malt duties, thinking it ‘extremely necessary’ that the latter should be reduced ‘to some extent’. He presented an Ayrshire ship owners’ petition against the Cork harbour bill, seen as a threat to the local coastal trade, 12 June, and secured the reference of this and other hostile petitions to the committee on the measure. He drew attention to the ‘very great hardship’ caused in Scotland by ‘strained interpretation’ of the laws imposing a duty on carriages used for the conveyance of passengers, 13 July, and successfully moved for details of Scottish prosecutions under these laws, with a view to bringing in a bill to end the penalization of individuals who gave casual lifts to travellers.3 In November he reported from Auchinleck to the home secretary Lord Sidmouth:

I have made it my business to enquire into the temper of the people of this county ... The radical notions seem to be for the present forgotten and although there may be no change in the inclinations of some radically bad men ... they do not see the practicability of any success. The queen’s trial and the seditious speeches of her counsel ... have certainly had their evil effects, coupled with the abominable effusions of her radical satellites ... It was with much and repeated exertion that I prevailed upon the well affected persons in Kilmarnock to form a volunteer association. I at length succeeded and ... happen what will, I shall be answerable for the peace of Kilmarnock.

Regarding the Queen Caroline affair, he observed:

I never knew a subject on which there [were] more discordant opinions amongst those attached to government ... To reason is in vain: she was an ill-used woman is the impression and ... proof seems of no avail ... There is, too, talk of popular tumult ... but it is not properly speaking from popular tumult that there can be any danger. In the country in general it can have no direction and in London means may be taken to disappoint it, if the respectable part of the community are true to themselves. I am one of those who condemn popular tumult. We are growing too much men of abstract reasoning; we are all philosophising political economists and, nauseous to me, political puritans. I scarcely see a statesman now who ventures to utter a right sentiment of just feeling without a temporizing apology.4

He attended the Ayrshire meeting to vote a loyal address to the king, 30 Dec. 1820, when he maintained that ‘the great body of the people were sound and ... sincerely attached to the king and constitution’, but warned that there were ‘desperate and designing men who exerted themselves ... to ... mislead the ignorant and unwary’ and that ‘the seeds of disaffection had been widely sown’. Speaking at the Edinburgh Pitt Club, 12 Jan. 1821, he explained that he was ‘not a Tory, according to the old meaning of that term’, but ‘I cannot be a Whig. I am a Tory of the modern school. I maintain that constitution which preserves the throne in its proper position and guards to the people their just and inalienable rights’.5

Boswell harboured a personal grudge against ministers for what he considered their underestimation of his services, and particularly for Liverpool’s well-publicized refusal of his request for a baronetcy. By November 1820 he had told the Trebys that he wished to give up his seat, although Sidmouth’s hint that Liverpool was now inclined to look favourably on his pretensions caused him to pause. Nevertheless, he finally concluded that his financial problems, caused mainly by ill-advised land purchases and aggravated by declining rental income, plus the expense of equipping his yeomanry, made it more difficult for him to take the contemplated step of ‘borrow[ing] money for the desirable object of remaining one session more in Parliament’, which at Plympton Erle meant ‘not ... less than £1,000’. He assured Sidmouth that

if I can get this matter arranged I shall remain ... At all events I shall know my successor before I vacate, and lest a vote may be wanting on the first meeting of Parliament I shall be present if I can so arrange it with those connected with the borough.6

He found no way out of these difficulties and, having voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. 1821, he vacated his seat. That summer he obtained the coveted baronetcy, conferred in recognition of his ‘principles of loyalty’ and the ‘important services ... under circumstances the most critical ... rendered in that part of the kingdom in which you reside’.7 However, his relish for expressing his party rancour in terms of vulgar personal ridicule soon proved his undoing. Two scurrilous Scottish newspapers, the Beacon and the Sentinel, published a series of violent pasquinades against the Whig James Stuart of Dunearn, who was vilified as a bully and a coward. An unedifying squabble arose between the Sentinel’s proprietors, Robert Alexander and William Murray Borthwick, who was imprisoned for debt. Stuart was able to exploit this dispute to gain access to office documents which revealed Boswell as the author of the squibs. Challenged by Stuart, Boswell refused either to deny authorship or to apologize, and on 26 Mar. 1822 the pair met at Auchtertool, near Kirkcaldy. Boswell deliberately fired wide, but in seeking to do likewise Stuart, who had never before handled a gun, shattered his opponent’s collar bone. Boswell was removed to Balmuto, where he died the next day. Stuart was tried for murder but unanimously acquitted.8 Whereas the Whig Henry Edward Fox* thought Boswell had got the just deserts of ‘a libeller and a coward’, another political opponent, Henry Cockburn, was not blind to his redeeming qualities when he reflected on the tragedy:

Boswell was able and literary; and when in the humour of being quiet, he was agreeable and kind. But in general he was boisterous and overbearing, and addicted to coarse personal ridicule. With many respectable friends, his natural place was at the head of a jovial board, where everyone laughed at his exhaustless spirits, but each trembled lest he should be the subject of the next story or song. The fact of a person of his rank writing anonymous libels, for a blackguard newspaper, against an acquaintance, in a disguised hand, affords a humiliating example of the extent to which faction and bad taste may corrupt men even of bold temperament, and accustomed to the society of gentlemen.9

His affairs were left in a state of considerable disarray, and he apparently left debts of £72,000 with assets of only £10,000.10

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. F. Brady, Boswell: The Later Years, 343.
  • 2. F.A. Pottle, Pride and Negligence, 18, 39; Poetical Works of Sir A. Boswell ed. R.H. Smith, pp. xl-xliv.
  • 3. The Times, 14 July 1820.
  • 4. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Boswell to Sidmouth, 8 Nov. 1820.
  • 5. Glasgow Herald, 5, 15 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. Sidmouth mss, Boswell to Sidmouth, 19, 30 Nov. 1820.
  • 7. Poetical Works, p. xliv.
  • 8. Add. 40315, ff. 16-54; True Account of Fatal Duel [1822]; D. Buchanan, Treasure of Auchinleck, 15-16; Pottle, 38.
  • 9. Fox Jnl. 108; Cockburn Mems. 373-4.
  • 10. Buchanan, 204.