CAMPBELL, John II (1779-1861), of 9 New Street, Spring Gardens and 14 Paper Buildings, Temple, Mdx.

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



1830 - 1832
1832 - Feb. 1834
2 June 1834 - 1841

Family and Education

b. 15 Sept. 1779, 2nd s. of Rev. George Campbell, DD (d. 1824), minister of Cupar, Fife and Magdalene, da. of John Hallyburton of Fodderance. educ. Cupar g.s.; St. Andrews Univ. 1790-8; L. Inn 1800, called 1806. m. 8 Sept. 1821, Mary Elizabeth, da. of James Scarlett*, 3s. 4da. kntd. 3 Dec. 1832; cr. Bar. Campbell 30 June 1841. d. 23 June 1861.

Offices Held

KC 12 June 1827; bencher, L. Inn 1827; chairman, commns. on real property law 1828; solicitor-gen. Nov. 1832-Feb. 1834; att.-gen. Feb.-Dec. 1834, Apr. 1835-June 1841; PC [GB] 23 June 1841 and [I] 5 July 1841; ld. chan. [I] June-Sept. 1841; member, jud. cttee. of PC 1841; chan. of duchy of Lancaster July 1846-Mar. 1850; l.c.j.q.b. 1850-9; sjt.-at-law 5 Mar. 1850; chairman, commns. on divorce laws 1850, common law 1856, chancery evidence 1859; ld. chan. June 1859-d.

Volunteer, Bloomsbury and Inns of Court Assoc. 1803.


Campbell, in his own words, was ‘born in obscurity, and had to struggle against penury and neglect’. His family somewhat dubiously claimed descent from a younger son of the 2nd earl of Argyll. Campbell’s great-great-grandfather George Campbell was ruined when his lands were judicially sold after he had joined in a bond as surety for the 1st marquess of Argyll, who was executed for treason in 1661. He settled in Fifeshire, where he acquired a small estate at Balmullo and a house in St. Andrews. His eldest son John Campbell was educated at the university there. He in turn had a son George Campbell, who got into such serious financial difficulty that he was forced to sell Balmullo and the town house; he died almost insolvent when his son and namesake (this Member’s father) was still at the university, training for the ministry. Having done well academically, he was recommended by his college heads as a private tutor to John, the son of Colin Campbell of Carwhin, and heir presumptive to the earldom of Breadalbane, to which he succeeded in 1782. George Campbell became second minister of Cupar in 1773, married an heiress with £1,500 and fathered seven children, of whom John Campbell was the third born. He was appointed to the more lucrative first living of Cupar in 1791, but, as his son recalled, ‘though keeping clear of debt, he had a constant struggle with the severe evils of penury, and it was only by great self-denial and good management that he was able to educate his children’. A popular preacher and a man of literary tastes, he continued as minister of Cupar until his death in 1824.

Campbell, a weedy swot as a boy, was destined for the kirk. He was educated at Cupar and St. Andrews with his elder brother George, who trained in medicine and joined the East India Company in 1800. They suffered the trauma of their mother’s early death in 1793, after which their father moved their home to Carslogie House, just over a mile from Cupar. Campbell, who later wrote that he compensated in diligence and application for the deficiencies of his formal education, received in 1798 a tutorship to the son of David Webster, a partner in the London West Indian mercantile house of Wedderburn and Webster. He went to London that spring, but soon tired of his situation. He sought distraction in literary pursuits, writing articles for the Annual Register and the Oracle; but he was dispirited by the pawkiness of his first efforts, as he told his father, 28 Nov. 1798:

My opinion of myself becomes lower and lower every day. I have no longer the most distant hope of ever composing with elegance, or making any figure in the literary world. I can only wish for some retreat where I might employ myself in writing sermons and fattening pigs, where I might live and die unknown.

In fact, he had grown increasingly averse to a clerical life and, stirred by a vague ambition to make a mark in the world, he eventually persuaded his very reluctant father to allow him to read for the bar, initially on a trial basis. Three months before he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in November 1800 he wrote to his sister:

I am convinced that I cannot devote myself to the church, and I feel strongly that I ought on that account to abandon all thoughts of entering it. Respect for the opinion and wishes of my father alone restrains me from renouncing all claim to the clerical dignity. Upon mature, sober, deliberate, dispassionate and cool consideration, I am firmly convinced that I ought to turn my sole and undivided attention to the law ... I have scarcely a doubt that I should rise at the English bar ... In about six years after I am called ... I expect to have distinguished myself so much as to be in possession of a silk gown and a seat in Parliament. I shall not have been long in the House of Commons before I interest the minister in my favour and am made solicitor-general. The steps then, though high, are easy, and, after being a short time attorney-general and master of the rolls, I shall get the seals with the title of Earl Auld-Kirk Yard.

The facetious tone of the second part of this prescient letter does not disguise Campbell’s ambition, will to succeed and belief in his own abilities.

His progress and rise as a lawyer were steady, though sometimes painful. To help sustain himself through the years of study he worked as a reporter of the law courts and Parliament, and as a drama critic for the Whig Morning Chronicle, whose joint-owner Robert Spankie he had known at university. He was also substantially subsidized by his brother, who was already prospering in India and gave him the means to pay the fee necessary to become in January 1804 a pupil of the eminent special pleader William Tidd. Although periodically jealous of his fellow-pupils, who were mostly rich and idle, he was content to keep his nose to the grindstone, as he told his brother, 5 Mar. 1804:

I have nothing to torment me, I have nothing to do but improve and amuse myself, and I am allowed in a sanguine hour to hope for all the sweets of gratified ambition ... In six years ... I ought to have acquired some reputation at the bar. I cannot undertake to promise a sufficient degree of spirit, but my failure shall not arise from a want of perseverance and industry.

He remained with Tidd, to whom he became more of an assistant than a pupil, for two years longer than originally intended, and gave up his work for the Chronicle at the end of 1805. His politics were liberal, as they had been since his university days, but nothing came of his bid to obtain a commissionership of bankrupts from the Grenville ministry, to whose lord chancellor Lord Erskine both Tidd and his father applied on his behalf.

After his call to the bar in November 1806 Campbell went the home circuit. He struggled at first, but assured his brother, 26 Oct. 1807, that he would not ‘relax in my endeavours from despondence. My patience and perseverance are unconquerable. I have got expedients in store, and I still anticipate final success’. One of these ‘expedients’ was the contract which he signed with Butterworth a month later to report nisi prius cases: ‘the chief advantage of the scheme is gaining a little notoriety’, he explained. The project, which he published in four volumes before laying it aside in 1816, did precisely that, as well as extending his contacts among the London attorneys. On 7 Apr. 1808 he addressed the House of Lords as counsel for a petition against a bill prohibiting the export of quinine. Although ‘very far indeed from acquitting myself to my own satisfaction’, he did not think he had disgraced himself, and surmised that ‘no human tribunal need now greatly daunt me as an advocate’. To his father he explained his advancement ‘by slow degrees’, 8 Jan. 1810:

From my steady attendance at court and in chambers I am considered by a certain set of my acquaintances as a plodder, and only fit for professional drudgery. Now although I have resolutely submitted to drudgery as my only chance of success in my profession and my only road to elevation, I conceive there are not many to whose dispositions it is less congenial. Shall I ever be able to show that I make myself a slave for the sake of power and distinction?

He seized an opportunity to transfer to the Oxford circuit in March 1810, from which point his fortunes steadily improved: he got more business in king’s bench than any other man of his standing, and by 1812 was making over £1,000 a year. He had increased his income to almost £2,000 by 1814, though he still bridled at being forced to ‘enslave and devote myself in a manner which I very much dislike’.

In the late summer of 1815 he visited Paris. At the close of the year he declined, for the moment, his brother’s offer to buy him into Parliament:

There is no balance of parties, and speaking and voting both go for very little. The only way in which a man could advance himself in the House of Commons would be by becoming a devoted tool of Carlton House ... This line of politics, however, is not only exceedingly degrading, but is pretty well preoccupied. As to a man getting on by speaking on the popular side, it is now quite out of the question. From a great combination of causes the power of the crown is at present transcendent, and is long likely to continue so. But though I have little wish to be in Parliament just at present, I by no means renounce the thought. On the contrary, if I do not marry (which becomes most highly improbable), I calculate with certainty on some day or another being a Member ... The time would be when I may aspire to a silk gown, and by then I shall be able easily to afford the expense, without the generous sacrifice which you propose.

Campbell, whose income in 1816, when he was for a time unwell, was ‘very little less than £3,000 a year’, had an offer of a seat, possibly for Leominster, for £4,000 in 1818, but he considered the price extortionate. He continued to waver in his attitude towards a parliamentary career and was forcibly struck by the ‘jokes and sarcasms’ directed at John Singleton Copley* (later Lord Lyndhurst), the leading common lawyer, who was supposed to have abandoned liberal principles for a seat in the House and promotion under the Liverpool ministry: ‘I am not wholly without principle, and in the Commons I should be more apt (without even going into regular opposition) to breed enmity than to conciliate favour’. (Campbell himself did much to propagate the stories of Copley’s radical past.) In 1819, he staked his future claim to a silk gown, though he knew that his time was not yet ripe. Early in 1820 he met and took a fancy to marry the daughter of James Scarlett, the prominent Whig lawyer and Member for Peterborough. He told his brother, 2 Feb. 1820, that if nothing came of this, he would ‘go into the House of Commons at every risk’. With his matrimonial hopes still intact, he accordingly rejected three separate offers of seats ‘for about £3,000’ at the general election; but, to his extreme chagrin, Mary Scarlett turned down his proposal in July 1820, when he moaned that ‘my last chance of enjoying the charities of domestic life is fled’. On his return from a trip to Paris in September he took ‘a very lively interest’ in the trial of Queen Caroline, which he at first thought would bring about an early change of government:

There is more than an equal chance of [Lord] Grey being prime minister before Christmas. This would lead to an immediate dissolution ... I have made up my mind to get into the House ... Even if things go on as at present, I think I will buy a seat and join the Whigs. Ministers have behaved so foolishly and sordidly in this affair ... that I should oppose them with passion. Should they go out, Scarlett would be attorney-general, some say chancellor ... I continue on the most friendly footing with him, and I make no doubt that he would be disposed to serve me. But I still feel as if no sort of success or promotion could give me any satisfaction. With few intervals, life appears to me as desolate as ever.

Although he soon perceived that there was little chance of the Whigs coming to power in the near future, he decided to throw in his lot with them, and he got Scarlett and Lord Duncannon* to nominate him for Brooks’s Club, despite its long waiting list. He told his brother, 24 Oct. 1820: ‘To be a member of this club is ’listing in the Whig party with a vengeance. But I cannot go on shilly-shallying in politics any longer’. In February 1821 he fell in with his brother’s suggestion that he buy a superiority in Fifeshire, but warned him that if he was in Parliament ‘there is no project I should support more earnestly than the reformation of the representation of Scotland’. To his delight, he persuaded Mary Scarlett to change her mind, and they were married in September 1821. He was unperturbed at not obtaining silk three months later, for, as he told his brother, ‘on the circuit I shall be on velvet - sure of a brief in every cause, with an occasional lead’. He was at last elected to Brooks’s on 21 Feb. 1822. By 1824 he had the lead of his circuit, but he rightly discounted the assurances of Henry Brougham* that he was on the verge of promotion. His professional commitments made it impossible for him to attend his father’s funeral in November 1824.

In July 1825 he received an invitation to stand at the next general election for the open and venal borough of Stafford, where he was known through his circuit work. (He had privately described it in 1819 as ‘the dullest and vilest town in all England’.) He eventually declined on account of the potentially ‘enormous’ cost; but when a deputation assured him in September that most of his likely supporters were willing to forego the traditional voting money, he decided to make an exploratory canvass. His declaration of support for Catholic relief provoked some disapprobation, but he appeased his critics by denouncing the ‘mummeries’ of Catholicism and ‘the power which it confers on the priesthood, and the subjection and degradation to which it reduces the human mind where it rules in full vigour’. He advocated free trade in corn and praised the liberal commercial policy adopted by the government since 1823: ‘The times of Sidmouth and Vansittart had passed away’.1 He stood for the borough at the 1826 general election, even though the king was thought to be dying and ‘a vote in the House of Commons is of no value’ as ‘ministers have annihilated opposition by the liberal system they have pursued’. He was ‘defeated but not disgraced’ by his two rivals, and blamed his failure partly on the sudden illness of his principal agent, but largely on bribery and the admission of previously excluded non-resident votes.2 He told his brother that ‘at this moment I think I would not again go through such a week of toil and anxiety, if I were sure to be elected’, though he did ‘not yet despair of being in the House of Commons’. The death of one of the successful candidates before the summer was out did not tempt him to try again, nor did he pursue the notion of petitioning: ‘In the event of another election, I should have no chance to be returned without a serious contest, in which I am resolved I will not again involve myself’. He claimed the credit for sending Thomas Beaumont to Stafford to bribe his way to victory in the by-election of December 1826, when he observed to his brother that ‘I have no more prospect of getting into the House ... than of being made a prince of the blood’.

Campbell looked on the ministerial upheaval of April 1827 as ‘the crisis of my fortunes’, anticipating that if Scarlett became lord chancellor under Canning ‘everything is open to me’. More specifically, he had hopes of the solicitor-generalship; but Copley’s appointment to the woolsack and Scarlett’s as attorney-general left him with nothing to expect in the short term except his silk gown, which he duly received in June. He was annoyed by Grey’s ‘very atrocious conduct’ in refusing to support Canning’s ministry. The inclusion of Canningites in the duke of Wellington’s ministry in January 1828, when he was pleased to see his father-in-law out of the mess, presented him with

exactly the combination of circumstances which I dreaded ... A pure Protestant and ultra-Tory administration I should have been very well pleased to see. This would have led to a combination among all the liberals, who would ere long have been again in office, with power to carry their measures into effect.

He had no hesitation in accepting the home secretary Peel’s invitation, issued after Edward Sugden* had declined, to chair the commission of inquiry into the law of real property in May 1828, though he was aware that it must for a time stifle his parliamentary ambitions. He considered it ‘a considerable distinction’, especially as he was the only common lawyer on the commission, and relished ‘the notion of being Solon’. He wrote the introduction to its first report and the section on prescription (March 1829), and had a ‘general superintendence’ over the three subsequent reports. He declined Lyndhurst’s offer of a judgeship in November 1829, preferring to continue taking his chance at the bar, though what he ‘should like above all things’, as he told his brother, 14 Mar. 1830, ‘would be to be in the House of Commons, and to bring in the bills for the improvement of the [real property] law’. He was far from overwhelmed when Lady Holland invited him to her levees in May 1830, having ‘never been a "tuft-hunter"’ and considering it better to ‘grub obscurely at chambers in the Temple’ than become a hanger-on at Devonshire or Lansdowne Houses.

On the death of the king in late June 1830 Campbell, whose father-in-law had been attorney-general for a year, again turned his thoughts to Parliament. Given the current cost of seats, he initially saw ‘no chance for myself’ unless he should ‘come in ingloriously for a government borough’, a prospect which was ‘very doubtful’ and probably not ‘desirable’, for all his sympathy with the general tone and conduct of the ministry since 1829. He ‘closed with the terms offered’ for ‘an independent seat’, but this plan fell through; and he turned down one ‘savouring of fraud and not of favour’ from the marquess of Cleveland. He wrote to his brother, 3 July 1830:

All the arrangements of prudence are against my coming into Parliament altogether. With my heavy business, I know not how I am to get through it, and to sit up until two or three in the morning in the House ... But there can be no glory without difficulty and danger. For God’s sake, do not become radical. Why should you wish the duke to be forced out? That he should acquire fresh strength is indispensable. But what cause of complaint has he as yet given to the public, or to any liberal-minded man?

A renewed invitation from Stafford was very tempting and, after declaring his ‘approbation’ of the government and his wish, as an ‘independent’, to ‘conciliate all parties’, he went to another poll. He was returned in second place, having ‘gone through horrors innumerable’ to secure a ‘dear bought victory’.3

Ministers’ initial inclusion of Campbell in a list of the ‘friends’ was subsequently queried. For his own part, he at first had ‘no plan’ of campaign and, so he told his brother, 19 Aug. 1830, thought it ‘very likely [I] may not open my lips during the first session’:

You may depend upon it I shall show myself quite independent, and this I should do from policy as well as principle. My great comfort is that I can attend or stay away as I please. A treasury borough would have been the death of me.

As the opening of Parliament drew nearer, he conceived the idea of bringing in a bill for the establishment of a general register of deeds for land transactions, and sought to interest ministers in his plan to promote bills to reform the law of real property in accordance with the recommendations of the commission: ‘I should like first to make myself known in the House as a reformer of the law, and if I were to succeed I might try my hand at politics’. On the eve of the session he asked the government whips ‘not to send their circulars to me or ask me to attend’, and ‘they allowed that they have no claim on me’. When he attended for the election of the Speaker he took a seat ‘on the neutral ground, the cross bench on the left hand on entering the House’. He presented a petition from Protestant Dissenters of Stafford for the abolition of slavery, 3 Nov. 1830. He opposed the Sussex juries bill, 8, 9, 22 Nov., and welcomed the government measure to amend the Statute of Frauds, 9 Nov., but persuaded them not to include wills within its scope until the law commissioners had reported. He voiced ‘serious objections’ to Brougham’s scheme to create local jurisdictions, 10 Nov. On the 12th he urged ministers to extend their proposed reform of the Irish Subletting Act to England, where the law was ‘defective’; but he complained to his brother that ‘I am so languid, and heart-broken, I may say, that I am quite incapable of doing myself any credit, even if I had in me wherewithal’. The cause of his unease lay in the anticipated showdown over parliamentary reform. He had earlier told his brother that he was willing to support a transfer of seats from nomination boroughs to the large unrepresented towns and reform of the Scottish system as the only measure which could be ‘prudently hazarded’ without effecting ‘a complete bouleversement, and making the ... Commons greatly too strong for the other branches of the legislature’. However, he was shocked by the intransigent tone of the king’s speech, Wellington’s declaration against all reform and ministers’ cancellation of the king’s visit to the City:

As far as politics are concerned nothing can be more calamitous than my situation, or more melancholy than my prospects. The duke of Wellington seems disposed to establish an ultra-Tory government which I cannot support with honour, and the leaders of opposition are hurrying the country to confusion and ruin.

Assured by Brougham, of whose ‘petulance and personalities and inconsistencies’ he was critically aware, that his reform motion would be ‘very moderate’, he decided to vote for it, disregarding Scarlett’s advice that he should keep his head down. He was taken unawares by the government’s defeat on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, when he was at his chambers. His initial reaction to the change of ministry was to comment that ‘the liberals are in a terrible scrape’, for it would be ‘utterly impossible for them to satisfy the expectations they have raised’.

Campbell could not help listening to stories that he was to be appointed solicitor-general, but he can hardly have been in serious contention, especially as Scarlettt was turned out for Thomas Denman*. More realistically, he coveted the post of solicitor-general to the queen, and he blamed lord chancellor Brougham’s hostility to Scarlett for his failure to get it. He was worried by the disordered state of the country, which made him ‘tremble for the fate of our children’. In the House, 19 Nov. 1830, he recommended postponement of the bill to deal with the attestation of instruments. He welcomed the judgement and execution bill, 30 Nov., and the measure to amend the Scottish law of enfeoffments in heritable property, 2 Dec. That day he presented and had printed Cupar petitions for the abolition of slavery, having stayed away two days earlier to avoid the risk of being balloted for an election committee. He made technical suggestions for improvement of the regency bill, 9, 10, 13 Dec. He thwarted an attempt by Brougham to hijack his planned real property law bills, and after giving notice of them for next session felt that he had ‘now appropriated’ the subject. On 16 Dec., in a House thinned by the dinner exodus, he secured leave to introduce his general register bill, for which Scarlett promised support, but which was threatened with opposition by the Tories Sugden and Wetherell. He reported to his brother:

I have not lost my character, I believe, although I have not gained anything beyond a little notoriety, which, if without disgrace, is an advantage ... I did not break down, and the whole went off as well as I could expect ... I have the satisfaction to think that for the rest of life there is nothing, in civil life at least ... which can put me into such a funk ... If my blood was up I would care no more about speaking in the House than before a jury. But the genus demonstativum dicendi has always been disagreeable to me before all audiences.

He later found that he had gained ‘a little more credit, though probably not much more’, than he had thought. He presented the bill and had it printed, 21 Dec. He disputed Sugden’s contention, aimed at Brougham, that common lawyers were not qualified for the chancellorship, 20 Dec. He presented a petition from the Catholic merchants of Galway for equality with Protestants in the local parliamentary franchise, 23 Dec. 1830. Soon afterwards he was sent to Reading on a special commission for the prosecution of arrested ‘Swing’ rioters, none of which ‘poor devils’ he thought deserved to hang.

Campbell speculated in January 1831 that the anticipated ministerial reform scheme, of which he could learn nothing, would be thrown out by the Commons, thus precipitating a ‘tremendous crisis - dissolution or change of ministry, either leading to revolution’. He presented and endorsed a St. Andrews petition for reform of the Scottish representation, 3 Feb. Having been assured by Brougham that ministers would support his general register bill, he ruminated that ‘it would be a great glory for me if I could carry it, in my small way’; but he had to postpone its second reading to make way for the English reform bill. He dismissed a hostile petition as misguided, 9 Feb. He subscribed to calls for a commutation of tithes, 16 Feb., but stressed the importance of recognizing that they were legitimate ‘sacred property’. His attack on Lord Chandos’s Evesham disfranchisement bill as ‘a manoeuvre against reform’, 18 Feb., earned him a public compliment from Daniel O’Connell*, as he told his brother from court, 22 Feb.:

This is a little alarming, but I do not regret my ebullition. At present ... I can hardly give any time to the House ... My notion of perfect happiness is having nothing but politics to attend to, a good cause, and associates entitled to perfect confidence. Unfortunately for me, my time is wasted by professional drudgery. I have no cause, and no associates. You may think it pusillanimous to sacrifice Parliament to nisi prius, but ... a man cannot take a portion of business and no more. He must play the whole game or give it up entirely. Then my station in the House of Commons depends very much on my station at the bar. Many, there, look with a foolish respect to an eminent counsel.

He presented a Bothwell petition for reform, 26 Feb., but opposed one from Cupar for the ballot, which he said would be ‘productive of fraud and hypocrisy’, 28 Feb. He was at first ‘quite appalled’ by the scope of the English reform bill, as he admitted to his brother, 2 Mar.:

There is not the remotest chance of such a bill being carried by this or any other House of Commons ... I am again in a very embarrassing situation ... I was prepared to support any moderate measure, but this really is a revolution ipso facto. It is unquestionably a new constitution. I am quite in despair, and shall take no part in the discussion. I could not do so advantageously or creditably. Had the measure been practicable, I would have supported it totis viribus. Going so far, it does not go far enough. The old constitution being gone, we might have had something much more perfect ... As far as Scotland is concerned I highly approve ... There is no leader with whom I can associate myself, and I care not how soon I am hors de combat.

Yet the following day, even though he expected ‘anarchy’ after the bill’s seemingly inevitable defeat, he felt ‘inclined as a choice of evils to support, and even to speak in favour’ of it. Campbell, who was lucky enough to be balloted onto the mercifully short-lived Grantham election committee, went to the House that evening ‘fully resolved’ to speak, to the effect that the measure ‘is the old constitution of old England, and would be restoration, not innovation’; but ‘circumstances arose which altered my resolution’. Another brief change of mind led him to conclude that ‘after all, the measure is a new constitution and ... the revolution is begun’; but he decided to return without fail from the circuit, for which he departed on 7 Mar., to vote for the second reading: ‘I still consider the bill dangerously violent, but I apprehend less danger from passing than rejecting it’. He discovered on his travels that ‘ministers certainly have the country with them’ and, sacrificing ‘a bag of briefs’ at Shrewsbury, he went up to vote silently for the bill, 22 Mar. 1831, having failed in seven attempts to catch the Speaker’s eye. As the second reading was secured by one vote he was able to flatter himself, before returning immediately to the circuit at Hereford, that he had ‘carried the bill by going up’; he was feted at Monmouth on this basis.4 He now thought that ministers, despite their ‘blunders’ over the budget, which might easily have seen them turned ‘out with ineffable disgrace’, were ‘secure’ and that ‘reform has been a grand coup d’etat for them’. Campbell, whose father-in-law opposed reform, spoke in defence of the bill, 13 Apr., when he welcomed the recent modifications made to it, particularly the decision to preserve the voting rights of resident freemen by birth and apprenticeship, a point of great concern to many electors of Stafford. He also denied Hunt’s assertion that the people at large were hostile to the bill and next day he questioned Hunt’s ‘rather suspicious’ role in orchestrating petitions against the measure and vouched for its popularity in Fifeshire. On 19 Apr. he spoke and voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, confining himself to that issue and keeping to himself some ‘good remarks’ on the ‘general merits of the bill’, though he did observe that it offered a ‘medium’ between the ‘very great inconvenience, ruin, and destruction’ of universal suffrage and the evils of nomination. He had moved on 14 Apr. 1831 for leave to introduce five bills to amend the laws of inheritance, dower, courtesy, fines and recoveries and limitation of right, but they were overtaken by the dissolution, as was his general register bill. He thought that ministers ‘go to the country on very bad grounds’ and that those who had voted with Gascoyne would have ‘a rather plausible case to make out’. There was talk of his standing for Monmouth but, ‘against all prudence’, he offered for Stafford, where his reception was not enthusiastic. He claimed the credit for salvaging the voting rights of the existing children and apprentices of resident freemen and promised to campaign to preserve those of the former ‘in perpetuity’. He also boasted of his self-sacrifice in declining promotion to the bench and praised the reform bill as a ‘great measure’. He topped the poll after a contest involving two other reformers, in which bribery seems to have played a large part.5

Campbell’s experiences at Stafford convinced him that unless legislative action was taken there would be ‘more corruption than ever’ there and at similar open boroughs in a reformed system, and he resolved to raise the matter with ministers. After consultations with Brougham and Lord John Russell* in mid-May 1831, he was directed to prepare either a separate bribery prevention bill or clauses to be added to the reform bill. His preference for the former was acceptable to ministers, but he initially asked Russell ‘not to mention my name publicly as connected with putting down bribery, as it might be my ruin at Stafford’. As he told his brother, ‘I must make my election between any éclat and advantage there might be in bringing in the bill, and the odium I should incur with my constituents’. In the event it was decided that ‘nothing beyond an intimation’ would be given on the subject until the English reform bill had passed; but Campbell assured Brougham, whom he did not trust, that his ‘scruples about offending a certain class of my constituents ... have vanished’ and that he was ready to act openly as required, as well as to prepare legislation with the assistance of a colleague on the circuit.6

On 30 June 1831 Campbell got leave to reintroduce his general register bill, complaining of the conduct of those who had tried to ‘excite a prejudice in the minds of the landed proprietors’ against it, and his five law reform bills. Speaking earlier than he had intended, from Russell’s usual spot on the treasury front bench, and suffering from influenza and a lack of sleep, he supported the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July. He warned that if this rational remedy for ‘practical grievances’ was rejected, ‘the affections of the people will be alienated’. He informed his brother the following day:

The novelty of my position at first appalled me ... My mouth became parched, and I was in great jeopardy, but I rallied and got through without disgrace. I spoke about an hour without breaking down or being coughed down. I can say no more, but this is something, and better than if I had not spoken.

He voted and protested against the opposition attempts to force an adjournment, 12 July, and said that the boroughs in schedule A were nothing more than ‘the abstract right of particular individuals to nominate Members’, 15 July. After three weeks on the circuit, he attended assiduously to give general support to the details of the bill in committee, where he made a number of technical comments on various clauses. He supported an unsuccessful amendment to restrict the 40s. freeholder franchise to men seised of an inheritance, 19 Aug. He was consulted by Russell and the law officers on his proposed amendment to exclude weekly tenants and lodgers from the borough franchise, but he confessed to his brother that ‘I find my position very irksome: I can neither attack nor defend. The embarrassment of Scarlett’s opposition is likewise very distressing to me’. When he moved his amendment, as ‘a most sincere friend to reform’, 25 Aug., a restless House rejected it by 210-142; but ministers were ‘very civil’ to him about the episode. He claimed in a letter to his brother that he had taken refuge in the smoking room to avoid the division on a proposal to preserve the voting rights of all freemen, 30 Aug., which he felt unable to support but had ‘not the courage’ to oppose ‘lest I should give offence to the virtuous and independent electors of Stafford’. He was, however, listed in the published majority against it. He was in the minority for the disfranchisement of Aldborough, 14 Sept. He voted for the third reading, 19 Sept., and passage of the bill, 21 Sept. Next day he attended a meeting of ministerial Scottish Members and made ‘a little speech’ on the right of Scotland to ‘an additional number of representatives’, though he thought it signified little, for the present at least, as he expected the Lords to throw out the English bill. He supported a petition for Scottish university representation, 23 Sept., when he voted for the second reading of the Scottish bill. He deplored a Scottish petition for compensation for loss of the ‘right of selling votes’, 27 Sept. Having agreed with the Commons leader Lord Althorp that the Scottish measure should be printed and recommitted, he felt obliged ‘reluctantly’ to oppose the Tory Sir George Murray’s amendment for an increase in the county representation, 4 Oct. 1831. While he conceded that Murray had made out a strong case, ‘not entirely answered’ by ministers, he argued that ‘we ought not to consider what we are strictly entitled to, but what, under all the circumstances, we may reasonably ask’. He admitted to his brother that Croker had ‘had much the best’ of their ‘great squabble’, which was not reported, but vowed to take revenge.

Campbell voted with ministers for the prosecution of those found guilty of giving bribes at the Dublin election, 23 Aug. 1831, but was not in their majority against the subsequent opposition censure motion. He opposed delaying the Liverpool writ on account of bribery and corruption at the last election, 5 Sept., 12 Oct., and was against suspending the Pembrokeshire writ because of the conduct of the sheriff, 26 Sept. He generally approved of the game bill, but he seconded an amendment to protect innocent trespassers, 2 Sept. He warned against ‘legislating on the spur of the moment’ to regulate steam boats, 3, 20 Sept. He supported the right of the Irish master of the rolls to appoint his own secretary, 16 Sept. He formally presented his registry bill, 11 Oct., announced that he had decided not to exempt Yorkshire, which was up in arms against it, and complained of the ‘ignorance’ of the hostile campaign. He secured second readings for the interpleader and arbitration bills, down from the Lords, 29 Sept. He opposed a government amendment to the bill to open select vestries, stating that closed ones were ‘detestable’, 30 Sept.; and he was a teller for the majority for its third reading, 5 Oct., as he was for the ecclesiastical contempts bill, 14 Oct. He approved the bill to reform the Scottish exchequer court, 6 Oct., and expressed general support for Brougham’s bill to reorganize bankruptcy administration, 17 Oct. On 11 Oct. 1831 he observed that comments made on Sadler’s proposed measure to improve the condition of the labouring poor might encourage them to break the law by giving the false impression that they were routinely ‘oppressed by their superiors’ in matters of enclosure.

After witnessing at first hand the defeat of the reform bill in the Lords, Campbell initially feared for the future. As for himself, he told his brother that in the highly unlikely event of the return to power of the Tories

my part is taken. I cannot think of another contested election for Stafford, and the Whigs will either bring me in for a close borough, or I retire from Parliament. No offer of any sort from the other side, however tempting or however specious, would make me hesitate for one moment. My political career is likely to be very obscure and very brief, but it shall be steady and consistent.

The success of Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, for which he silently voted, 10 Oct. 1831, convinced him that the government was safe and that ‘the reform bill will be carried’. Although he professed to be temporarily ‘sick of the House of Commons’, he attended until the prorogation. He agreed with Hume that in threatening to withhold payment of rates and taxes the householders of St. James’s were not in breach of privilege, 13 Oct. He regretted the presentation of a petition calling for the bishops to be banished from the Lords, 18 Oct. 1831, when he also said that ‘the attempts which are making in the metropolis to dictate to ministers are at least very indiscreet’ and called on the people to trust the government. At the height of the provincial reform riots, he privately fretted that ‘we are verging fast to a state of anarchy’, and he was resolved that if ministers gave ‘the least countenance to armed association, I leave them’.

He was one of the lawyers used privately by Althorp to act as devil’s advocate to prepare him for defence of the revised reform bill in the House; Edward Littleton* was told that Campbell was ‘its acutest attacker’.7 Yet he could ‘augur nothing good’, his sense that ‘the world were coming to an end and the destinies of the human race were accomplished’ being heightened by the encroaching peril of cholera. He voted for the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, though he observed to his brother that he would have been ‘better pleased had there been any prospect of conciliation and compromise’. Le Marchant, however, got the impression that Campbell, ‘a shrewd Scotsman’, was pleased with it.8 At all events, he was sure that the measure was as good as passed, not least because some Tories told him that they could support it, considering it now to be in ‘a great measure their own’.9 Shortly before the opening of Parliament he had written to Brougham approving the cabinet’s decision to make bribery prevention the subject of a separate bill, but expressing regret that they did not intend to bring one forward at an early stage as part of the reform package: at the very least, he thought a timely indication of their intentions might persuade the bishops to drop their resistance to reform.10 He reintroduced his register and law reform bills, 7 Dec., though he feared that the country attorneys’ opposition to the former would prove irresistible. He again recommended the extension of the proposed reform of Irish subletting practice to England, 14 Dec. 1831.

After going to Bristol early in the new year to defend (successfully) a man accused of murdering a boy during the autumn riots, Campbell attended to see the reform bill through committee. He was, so he told his brother, ‘sick’ of the subject, as well as ‘hampered by Scarlett’s taking an active part’ against it, which made him reluctant to be too conspicuous in debate. As ‘an unflinching reformer’, he supported and was a minority teller for an amendment against the ‘mischievous’ and ‘unnecessary’ division of counties, 27 Jan. 1832. He was pleased with his speech of 3 Feb. arguing that barristers were best qualified to adjudicate on claims to the £10 householder franchise: ‘I was loudly cheered in the first two sentences, which gave me courage’. He continued to make occasional technical comments on details of the bill, supported the disfranchisement of Appleby, 21 Feb., and voted for the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., but he was on the circuit when the bill passed its third reading, 22 Mar. He voted for the vestry bill, 23 Jan. He divided with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., relations with Portugal, 8 Feb., and against the production of information on army flogging, 16 Feb., but he was in the largely Scottish minority against the malt drawback bill, 29 Feb. He carried on his hopeless battle against the torrent of petitions hostile to the register bill, complaining on 27 Jan. for example, that the ‘petty statesmen of the north’ had misled the public. He carried its referral to a select committee by 81-31, 22 Feb.; he gave evidence before it, 1, 2 Mar.11 He made painfully slow progress with his law reform bills, which did not much interest the reporters. He opposed the Scottish cholera prevention bill as a ‘curse’ on his native land, 15 Feb. He called for further assimilation of Irish and English law and approved the Irish master of the rolls bill, 22 Feb., and presented petitions in favour of the factories regulation bill, 2 Mar. He complained to his brother from the circuit, 1 Apr., that largely because of Scarlett’s secession from the Whigs, which had ‘unnerved me in the House’, the ‘political cards’ had ‘turned out badly’ for him. He was present to vote for the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr., defended the remuneration of the Irish registrar of deeds, 9 Apr, urged the speedy passage of the Scottish exchequer court bill, 10 Apr., and supported the anatomy bill, 11, 18 Apr. He was a teller for the minority against the coroners bill, 7 May. He supported Hunt’s motion for papers on the London court of requests, advocated wholesale reform of the laws of debtor and creditor and backed Hume’s call for information on church pluralities, 8 May. Even though he had expected in mid-April that the reform bill would pass its second reading in the Lords, he had also been aware of ‘a strong notion’ that ministers ‘cannot long survive’. ‘I shall be true to them and never leave the Whig party’, he assured his brother, ‘unless they commit greater blunders than they have hitherto done, which I hold to be impossible’. During the crisis of May, the events of which he reported daily to his brother, he was determined to ‘remain true to my colours’, and he accordingly divided for the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May. Once the Grey ministry was reinstated he considered ‘the revolution pretty well effected’. He voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He later claimed to have assisted Jeffrey, the lord advocate, in framing and steering through the Scottish bill, for which he voted, 1 June. On 4 June he argued that Scottish Members should be required to furnish a property qualification and dismissed superiorities as ‘moonshine’. He secured an amendment to allow Scottish judges to vote and opposed an attempt to disfranchise clergymen, 6 June. He was a teller for the minority against the Liverpool disfranchisement bill, 23 May 1832.

Campbell declared his wish to see the death penalty restricted to violent crimes which ‘excite the general indignation of mankind’, 17, 30 May 1832. He opposed Nugent’s bill for the registration of births, which he thought would create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, 18 May, 20 June. He spoke in support of the proposed new system of Irish education, 23 May, and pressed for steps to be taken to aid the suffering Poles, 24 May. He favoured inquiry into the laws governing the performance of drama, 31 May, and welcomed the bill to transfer Norfolk assizes from Thetford to Norwich, 4 June. On 6 June he expressed approval of the principle of Baring’s bill to prevent insolvent debtors from taking refuge in the House. He saw nothing objectionable in the boundary commissioners’ treatment of Stafford, 7 June, but he presented petitions against the proposal to remove the polling place for North Staffordshire from the borough, 13 June. He supported a motion for repeal of the taxes on knowledge, 14 June. Later that day he questioned the need to reform admission procedures to the Inns of Court, as Harvey proposed, though he conceded that there should be a right of appeal from the decision of the benchers. He voted to have the matter investigated by the law commissioners, 17 July, but insisted that ‘there must be some authorities to determine who shall practise at the bar. It is not merely putting on a wig and gown that should entitle a man to act in that capacity, but some sort of moral control should be exercised’. He had only a minor quibble against the tithes prescription bill, 5 July, and he endorsed the government’s Irish tithes commutation scheme, 13 July. On 20 July he moved an amendment to the sheriffs’ expenses bill to put an end to the custom of processing to meet judges on their approach to an assize town; it was defeated by 31-16. He divided with ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16 (when he also spoke), 20 July 1832.

On three matters close to his heart, Campbell got little or no satisfaction this session. He pressed on with his law reform bills, but lost the dower bill, 8 June 1832, when his father-in-law divided the House against proceeding further with it. Although he secured third readings for the other four in the early hours of 16 June, he was accused not only by Sugden and Wetherell but by the solicitor-general Horne, who all formally protested to Brougham, of smuggling them through without due consideration. Campbell replied in the House, 20 June, and, after consulting Lyndhurst, he wrote to Brougham to state his case that ‘no measures for the improvement of the law of England ever proceeded with so much deliberation’ and to correct Lyndhurst’s mistaken impression that government was hostile to them.12 None of the measures made any progress in the Lords before the dissolution; but those dealing with dower, fines, inheritance and limitations did reach the state book the following year. As for the general register bill, Campbell gave it up for the session, 16 July, although he was able to inform the House that the select committee had reported in favour of the principle of a register, provided that the costs for small transactions could be kept within reasonable bounds.13 On 5 July he told his brother that ‘the only subject about which I now much care’ at the fag end of the Parliament was the bribery bill. He had been disappointed to learn from Russell, 14 June, that it did not include his own pet scheme for an oath attesting to innocence of bribery to be administered to Members before they took their seats. He again aired this plan, 4 July, when he opposed the Liverpool franchise bill as ‘a most unnecessary piece of legislation’ and pointed out that in the past the House had ‘connived at’ and even encouraged acts of bribery. Responding to Hunt’s allusion to the venality of Stafford electors, 18 July, he said they were no less respectable than those of Preston, but agreed that the Reform Act was likely to offer great temptations for candidates to bribe, for example by the payment of electors’ rates. He had already complained to his brother that he could not get ministers to bring on the bill for a second reading before he was due to leave for the circuit. It passed the Commons in an emasculated form in his absence, but was thrown out by the Lords, 13 Aug. On his return to London Campbell, though he could hardly shed too many tears over the loss of so feeble a measure, told Brougham that he felt ‘deeply aggrieved by the manner in which I was used with respect to the bill’:

As originally framed ... if it had been properly explained and defended it might have passed to the credit of all concerned ... and to the great benefit of parliamentary reform ... When it was at last brought on ... not the smallest communication was made to me respecting the objections urged against it or the alterations it ought to undergo. I should have been perfectly willing to have left the circuit for the purpose of assisting in carrying it through; and without this sacrifice, I might by letter have furnished some explanations worth attending to upon a subject to which I had devoted so much consideration. But ... the measure is lost, and ... notwithstanding the assurances given in both Houses ... a general election will take place without anything to counteract the increased temptation to bribery in the open boroughs under the new system ... I hope your Lordship will not be offended by the freedom of these observations, but I must say that the line of conduct pursued by ... government with regard to the bribery bill does not appear to me to be calculated to confirm the attachment of individuals or to fix the confidence of the public.14

This episode did not prevent Campbell’s appointment as solicitor-general in November 1832. Indeed, had ministers been able to ‘dispose otherwise’ of the poorly regarded Horne, Campbell rather than he would have become attorney-general. As it was, Horne’s was widely regarded as a temporary appointment, to which Campbell would succeed as soon as was practicable and seemly.15 Writing to his brother the day after being sworn in, Campbell predicted that the government would survive in the new Parliament, ‘assuming only common prudence’:

Most moderate and sensible men see that this affords the best chance of preserving the monarchy. No new-born zeal on my part, for I have often said that I thought it exceedingly desirable for the public tranquillity that the Whigs should remain in office a few years after the passing of the reform bill.

He had washed his hands of Stafford and in June accepted an invitation to stand for the newly enfranchised borough of Dudley, where he comfortably beat a Conservative at the 1832 general election.16 On returning to London after holding court there ‘like a Roman patrician among his clients’, and preparing to tackle his official business, he commented to his brother, 29 Dec. 1832, ‘I cannot complain that life stagnates’.

Campbell had to wait only 15 months before being promoted to attorney-general, but he failed in his re-election for Dudley. He later found a refuge at Edinburgh. While he was useful to the Liberals in the Commons, he had higher ambitions. Twice passed over for the mastership of the rolls, he tendered his resignation on the second occasion in 1836, but was placated by his wife’s being created Baroness Stratheden. He effected a number of important legal reforms and played a major role in the preparation and passage of the municipal corporations bill. His brief tenure of the Irish lord chancellorship in the dying days of the Melbourne ministry was a blatant job intended to provide him with a peerage, but he at least had the grace to forego the retirement pension. He held cabinet office in Russell’s first ministry before being made lord chief justice in 1850. As such, in Greville’s view, he was extremely impressive: ‘He is not popular, and he is wanting in taste and refinement, but he is an able man and a great lawyer’.17 Never happy with inactivity, Campbell wrote his Lives of the Chancellors, published in seven volumes between 1845 and 1847. They were racy and interesting and enjoyed considerable initial success; but they were soon perceived to be meretricious, plagiaristic, careless and distorted. He followed them with his Lives of the Chief Justices in three volumes, 1849-57. His reputation was badly damaged by his posthumously published (1869) volume of the Chancellors dealing with Lyndhurst and Brougham, flawed men both, but his superiors in talent and intellect, whom he biliously and maliciously denigrated.18 Campbell reached the pinnacle of his profession as a compromise choice under Lord Palmerston in June 1859, when he was just short of his eightieth birthday. His naked ambition, which he never tried to conceal, and his enormous self-regard made him an unattractive man; but his accomplishments as a legislator and judge were significant. He was found dead in his chair at his London home, Stratheden Lodge, Kensington, on the morning of 23 June 1861, having been seen in apparently good health late the previous evening after a day spent in court, at the cabinet and hosting a dinner party. By his will, dated 29 Mar. 1860, and proved under £120,000, 25 July 1861, he left most of his property, which included considerable real estate in England, Scotland and Ireland, to his eldest son William Frederick Campbell (1824-93), Liberal Member for Cambridge, 1847-52, and Harwich, 1859-60, when he succeeded his mother as 2nd Baron Stratheden.19 On his death he was succeeded as 3rd baron by Campbell’s second son Hallyburton George Campbell (1829-1918).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


Based, unless otherwise stated, on Life of Lord Campbell ed. his da. Mary Scarlett Hardcastle, 2 vols. (1881), which is composed of extracts from his autobiography, begun in 1842, his letters to his father and brother from 1798 and his journal, 1847-61.

  • 1. The Times, 16 Sept. 1825.
  • 2. Ibid. 29, 31 May, 13 June; Birmingham Jnl. 3 June 1826; Derbys. RO, Gresley of Drakelow mss D77/36/4.
  • 3. Lichfield Mercury, 16, 30 July; Birmingham Jnl. 24, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 4. Staffs. Advertiser, 9 Apr. 1831.
  • 5. Ibid. 23, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 6. Brougham mss, Campbell to Brougham, 2 June [1831].
  • 7. Hatherton diary, 1 Dec. 1831.
  • 8. Three Diaries, 169.
  • 9. NLS mss 24762, f. 49.
  • 10. Brougham mss, Campbell to Brougham, 4 Dec. 1831.
  • 11. PP (1831-2), xviii. 377-402.
  • 12. Brougham mss, Campbell to Brougham, 30 Aug. 1832.
  • 13. PP (1831-2), xviii. 367-75.
  • 14. Brougham mss, Campbell to Brougham, 30 Aug. 1832.
  • 15. Greville Mems. ii. 332-3; Three Diaries, 283.
  • 16. The Times, 24, 29 Oct., 11, 12 Dec. 1832.
  • 17. Greville Mems. vi. 214.
  • 18. Oxford DNB.
  • 19. Gent. Mag. (1861), ii. 204-6; The Times, 3 Aug. 1861.