DAWSON, Alexander (1771-1831), of Riverstown and Ardee, co. Louth

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

Constituency

Dates

1826 - 28 Aug. 1831

Family and Education

b. 1771, 1st s. of John Dawson of Castle Street, Dublin and w. Jane Pepper. educ. Trinity, Dublin 1790; I. Temple 1791, called [I] 1793. unm. suc. fa. 1801. d. 28 Aug. 1831.

Offices Held

Biography

Dawson’s father, a Dublin merchant and a remote kinsman of Thomas Dawson, 1st Viscount Cremorne, died 24 Jan. 1801, leaving him ‘by no means opulent’, but with lands at Cookstown, Rahanna and Ardee, in county Louth and Prospect in county Monaghan, which were of ‘sufficient fortune’ for him to have ‘no occasion to exercise his profession’ as a lawyer.1 Described by the Dublin Evening Post as occupying ‘a middle station between the aristocracy and the people’, and reported to have an income that ‘even on an Irish estimate does not exceed £700 per annum’, Dawson readily acknowledged that ‘his fortune was not, in his opinion, extensive enough to entitle him to the honour of a seat in Parliament, especially if it were necessary that he should contest the election’.2 Shortly before the 1826 general election, however, he was persuaded by the ‘Radical Catholic interest’ of Louth to come out of ‘peaceful retirement’ on his farm and stand in opposition to the dominant Foster and Jocelyn interests as an emancipationist, in the hope that the Catholic freeholders would ‘imitate the illustrious electors of Westminster’ and return him ‘free of expense’. After a violent seven-day contest, which was ‘decidedly Papist against Protestant’, he was returned in first place, backed by a locally raised subscription fund of £2,173 and the professional assistance of Richard Sheil* of the Catholic Association, whose leader, Daniel O’Connell*, regarded him as ‘a man of principles well calculated to do honour and service to Ireland’.3 His arrival at the hustings ‘seated in an old gig’ accompanied by a ‘vast multitude’ evidently made an impression on Sheil, who recalled:

He wore an frock coat covered with dust, and a broad-brimmed weather-beaten hat, which surmounted a head that streamed with profuse perspiration; his face was ruddy with heat, but notwithstanding the excitement of the scene preserved its habitual character of sagacious quietism and tranquil intelligence.4

In his maiden speech, which ‘caused a strong sensation in his favour’ and ended with loud cheering, 21 Nov. 1826, Dawson deplored the omission of Ireland from the king’s speech and argued that by giving the Catholics ‘equality with their Protestant brethren’ and making them ‘contented with their institutions’, the government ‘might get rid of at least 15,000 troops’.5 James Abercromby* described it as the ‘event of the night’, adding that ‘Brougham and Macdonald agree that it was a speech of the highest order, and allowing for the favour shown to a new candidate ... the praise it received was deserved’.6 It was ‘much better than those who know him had expected’, agreed Lord Lansdowne.7 Sheil later claimed that it had been ‘admired almost beyond any other by Mr. Canning, who was struck with the intellectual bonhommie of the plain, unvarnished agricultural delegate from an Irish county, who told the truth with a strenuous frankness’.8 A steady supporter of economy, retrenchment and reduced taxation, Dawson was one of 24 Members who voted for Hume’s amendment to the address later that day. He presented petitions from Athlone against the manner of collecting Irish tolls and from Roscommon for the assimilation of Irish corporation laws to those of England, 24 Nov.9 He presented petitions challenging the elections for Kilkenny City and Athlone, and one from Thomas Flanagan of Sligo complaining of the ‘deplorable situation of corporate towns in Ireland’, 1 Dec. He presented petitions for Catholic relief from Louth, 7 Dec. 1826, 16 Mar. 1827, and from Cork and Monaghan, 6 Mar. 1827, and voted accordingly that day.10 He condemned the proposed sale of Canadian clergy reserves, 20 Feb. 1827, and defended the tactics of the Catholic Association, 2 Mar. He welcomed the criminal laws consolidation bill, which he hoped to see extended to Ireland, 13 Mar. He voted for information on the Barrackpoor mutiny, 22 Mar., and the Lisburn Orange procession, 29 Mar. He presented Dundalk petitions for reform of its corporation and repeal of the Irish leather duties, 30 Mar.11 He warned against including ‘ruinous’ securities in the writ of right bill, 2 Apr., spoke and voted for inquiry into chancery delays, 5 Apr., and voted for separate bankruptcy jurisdiction, 22 May. On 3 May he cautioned against ‘supposing that the Catholic question would be immediately carried’ by the new Canning ministry and rebutted claims that emancipation would amount to a ‘breach of the constitution’. He divided for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May. He was one of ten ‘irreconcilable’ radicals who divided against the ministry for repeal of the Blasphemy Acts, 31 May, and spoke and voted against the grant for Canadian water defences, 12 June.12 On 14 June he argued that there was ‘no reason why an Englishman voting by ballot should not declare for whom he voted’ and cited the success of paper ballots in America, ‘where every man voted according to his conscience, without bribery, alehouses, or the £120,000 which was lately spent upon an election in Yorkshire’. Speaking later that month at an anniversary dinner to celebrate the ‘free’ election of Lord Nugent for Aylesbury in 1826, he explained that ‘he himself was returned in Ireland upon the same principles’ and called for more electors to follow ‘the glorious example which the electors of Westminster had set’.13 He attended similar dinners the following year at Westminster, where he described himself as ‘an old friend’ of Sir Benjamin Hobhouse, the father of John Cam Hobhouse*, and again at Aylesbury, where he urged the necessity of Catholic emancipation and dismissed ‘the bugbear of the pope’, whose ‘power in Ireland is merely nominal’.14 He was a minority teller against the committal of Flanagan to Newgate for his forgery of names on an Athlone petition, 19 June 1827.

Dawson presented and endorsed petitions for Catholic relief from Louth and Westmeath, renewed his call for greater attention to Ireland and condemned the ‘injustice of dictating to men’s consciences in matters of religion’, 5 Feb. 1828. Declaring that England ‘would be a happy country if it were a more liberal one’, he presented petitions in favour of Dissenters’ claims, 14 Feb., 26 Feb., when he voted for repeal of the Test Acts. He voiced ‘strong objections to many of the clauses’ of the Irish Subletting Act and presented a petition for its repeal, 20 Feb. He remonstrated against increasing the armed forces ‘without reflecting whether we shall have the means to pay them’ and before ‘inquiries by the finance committee’, 22 Feb. He seconded a motion requesting copies of all Acts regulating colonies, 27 Feb. He denied that Catholic Members had ever formed a majority of any Irish Parliament after the Treaty of Limerick, 6 Mar. The following day he spoke in favour of hearing the evidence of William Leadbeater in the East Retford trial, warning that ‘it was a dangerous precedent to commit any man to prison until he had the fullest opportunity of being heard’. He objected to the Kilkenny chapel bill and the ‘erection of a second church’, 14 Mar. He complained that the Irish Vestries Act had led to ‘great abuses’ with expenditure being controlled by ‘a vestry consisting of only five or six Protestants’ over whom there existed ‘no control’, 20 Mar., and presented petitions for its repeal from Kilbeggan and Athlone, 21 Mar. He voted against extending the franchise of East Retford to Bassetlaw, 21 Mar., and to transfer its seats to Birmingham, 27 June. He demanded measures to regulate the payment of wages and ‘put an end to those differences ... which so frequently occur between masters and men’, 21 Apr., and presented petitions to that effect from the weavers of Macclesfield, 1 Apr., Rochdale, 1 May, and Whitworth, 11 July. Commenting on the ‘considerable difficulty’ which he had experienced in the Irish county courts, 2 Apr., he recommended legislation to allow barristers to practice in all civil and ecclesiastical courts and welcomed a bill to ‘remove the difficulty and uncertainty which at present existed’ among testators and executors. He presented petitions for Catholic claims, 15 Apr., 7 May, and voted thus, 12 May. He condemned the Callan inclosure bill, warning that ‘if, in the present distressed state of Ireland, the rich landlords ... were allowed to expel the poor people from their holdings, the greatest misery must ensue’, 22 Apr., and thereafter opposed it steadily in committee, where the following year George Agar Ellis* complained that he and Hume ‘were particularly pig-headed and stupid’.15 He hoped that the Scottish alehouses certificates bill would end the system of granting licenses ‘through motives of favouritism or corruption’, 4 June. On 6 June he berated the Wellington ministry for refusing more money to Ireland while it was ‘freely expended for the purpose of propagating particular doctrines’ abroad. He presented and endorsed petitions from Kilkenny for inquiry into the management of its charitable institutions, 20 June, and from Dundalk for reform of the butter trade and repeal of the Irish coal duties, which he argued would also be ‘advantageous to England’, 8 July 1828.

Dawson presented multiple petitions for emancipation and repeal of the Irish Vestry and Subletting Acts, 3 Mar. 1829, when he refuted allegations that ‘undue influence’ was exercised by the Catholic priests over the electors of Louth. He, of course, divided for the Wellington ministry’s concession of emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. He had been listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as ‘opposed to securities’, but on 13 Feb. he reluctantly agreed to the suppression of the Catholic Association, hoping that magistrates would permit bona fide meetings ‘not convened for a party or faction purpose’ and that they would ‘transmit a minute of the evidence in every case to the lord lieutenant’. He voted against the disfranchisement of Irish 40s. freeholders, 19, 20 Mar., however, and on 25 Mar. presented and endorsed a hostile petition from Armagh, demanding exemptions for freeholders who held ‘a small estate of their own ... in fee simple’ and had ‘no landlords over them’. Later that year he applied successfully to government for his brother James ‘who resides at Kingstown, to be made a commissioner of the harbour there’. Explaining the decision to Archdeacon Singleton, 12 May, the Irish secretary Lord Francis Leveson Gower observed:

As Mr. Dawson is generally known only as a Member of Parliament who obtained his seat by the 40s. freeholders, and usually votes in opposition, I must explain that I consider him throughout the late transactions to have rendered positive service to the government, and to have given a degree of assistance in the most difficult and delicate parts of our discussions, which under his peculiar circumstances I could not have expected. On these grounds ... I should feel every inclination to grant it. I entertain a very strong respect for the whole tone and tenor of his proceedings in Parliament.16

He believed that the auction duties bill would be ‘productive of great benefit’, 31 Mar. He was appointed to the select committee on the Irish estimates, 9 Apr. He complained that the Irish clerk of pleas bill would ‘inflict gross injustice on the individuals whose rights were going to be sacrificed to the exchequer’, 4 May. The following day he again voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham. He moved the second reading of the Irish fisheries bill, 11 May, and presented and endorsed a petition from the Irish Grand Canal Company against the termination of their grant and the delay to work ‘for the employment of the poor’, 13 May. He divided for O’Connell to be allowed to take his seat unimpeded, 18 May. He was a minority teller with Hume against the ecclesiastical courts bill, which did ‘not go far enough’ in reducing the courts’ ‘enormously expensive’ proceedings, 21 May, and pressed for more to be done to cleanse ‘the Augean stable of ecclesiastical law’, 3, 12 June. He presented a petition from Athlone Liberal Club for the disfranchisement of non-resident freemen, 5 June 1829.

Dawson was one of 28 opposition Members who voted in favour of the address, 4 Feb. 1830. He repeated his votes for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., 5 Mar., and was in O’Connell’s minority for the adoption of the secret ballot, 15 Mar. He welcomed amendments to the Irish Subletting Act, 16 Feb., but warned that the Union would ‘never be complete, nor its tranquillity fully established, until the statute law of one country, shall become that of another’. He divided for parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., 28 May, and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. The following day he praised the illusory appointments bill for its removal of ‘certain doubts that have long existed’ among equity lawyers. He divided for Members to be prevented from voting in committee on bills in which they had a personal interest, 26 Feb. On 11 Mar. he denied that the yearly ‘influx of 50,000 men from Ireland to England’ was mainly composed of paupers, urged ministers to ‘mark the difference between labourers and beggars’ and demanded greater attention to the drainage of bogs in Ireland. He complained that ‘great inconveniences’ arose from leaving the appointment of Irish constables in the hands of the magistracy, 30 Mar. He presented a petition from the Jews of West London for removal of their disabilities and voted accordingly, 5 Apr., 17 May. He denounced the ‘enormous expense’ of the Dundalk roads bill and with O’Connell was a minority teller against it, 30 Apr. He seconded the motion for the examination of Sir Jonah Barrington regarding the Irish admiralty court, 22 May. He voted for the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 24 May, 7 June, and against the Lords’ amendments to it, 20 July. He condemned plans to remove Scottish and Irish paupers from England, pointing out that by giving ‘the poor employment in Scotland and Ireland, there would be an immediate remedy for the evil now complained of’ for a much ‘smaller expenditure’, 26 May. He voted for repeal of the Irish Vestries Acts, 10 June 1830.

At the 1830 general election Dawson stood again, explaining that he would have retired ‘if the maintenance of that independence which was won by so many sacrifices was not alarmingly endangered’ by the candidature of two other ‘belligerent’ Catholic candidates, towards whom he stressed his ‘amicable neutrality’. He was returned at the head of the poll.17 He was of course listed by ministers as one of their ‘foes’, and he divided against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. He presented petitions from the inhabitants of Dundalk for an extension of their franchise, 4 Nov., and from the Catholics of Tuam against the grant to the Society for the Education of the Poor of Ireland, 10 Nov. He resumed his campaign against the Irish Subletting Act the following day, protesting that it was a ‘glaring violation of all principle to pass a law regulating the intercourse between landlord and tenant which shall be applicable to Ireland and not to England’, and voting for its repeal. He voted for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s English reform bill, 22 Mar., presented and endorsed favourable petitions from Louth and Antrim, 15 Apr., and divided against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he came forward again, citing his support for the ‘great principle of parliamentary reform’ which would ‘restore the people to their long lost rights and liberties’, and was returned unopposed.18 He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and against the adjournment, 12 July, and gave steady support to its detailed provisions, though he was in the minority for the disfranchisement of Saltash, 26 July. He divided against disqualification of the Dublin election committee, 29 July, and in favour of printing the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug. In his last known speech, he attacked the ‘illiberality’ of the grant to Ireland and the ‘condition of its being repaid in full within 25 years’, 15 Aug. 1831.

Dawson died suddenly ‘at his lodgings in Downing Street’ later that month, allegedly a ‘victim to the excitement and fatigue of the reform debates’.19 According to Hudson Gurney*, ‘poor Dawson was killed by his attendance; apparently a strong man, he fell into a low fever, they bled him and he never rallied again’.20 ‘He will be a loss’, remarked the Irish secretary Smith Stanley, ‘for he really was a moderate and honest representative’.21 Although ‘the notice was extremely short’, his funeral was attended by a ‘large assemblage’ of Members before his remains were conveyed to Ireland.22

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Philip Salmon

Notes

  • 1. A. Malcomson, John Foster, 143; Dublin Abstracts of Wills, 1785-1832 ed. E. Ellis and P. Eustace, iii. 156; The Times, 5 Sept. 1831.
  • 2. Dublin Evening Post, 29 June 1826; Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 12 July 1826; The Times, 27 May 1828.
  • 3. Drogheda Jnl. 14, 24 June, 5 July; Dublin Evening Post, 15, 27 June, 1 July 1826; PRO NI, Redhall mss MIC 582/1/43; O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1452.
  • 4. Sketches, Legal and Political ed. M. Savage, i.169-70.
  • 5. PRO NI, Leslie of Glaslough mss MIC 606/3/J/7/14/90-91.
  • 6. Castle Howard mss, Abercromby to Carlisle, 22 Nov. 1826.
  • 7. Add. 51687, Lansdowne to Holland, 25 Nov. 1826.
  • 8. Sketches, ii. 343.
  • 9. The Times, 25 Nov. 1826.
  • 10. Ibid. 2, 8 Dec. 1826, 7 Mar. 1827.
  • 11. Ibid. 31 Mar. 1827.
  • 12. W. Harris, Radical Party, 199.
  • 13. The Times, 26 June 1827.
  • 14. Ibid. 27, 30 May 1828.
  • 15. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 6 May 1828, 7 May 1829.
  • 16. NAI, Leveson Gower letterbks. 7. B.3. 31, Leveson Gower to Singleton, 12 May, to Dawson, 16 May 1829.
  • 17. Drogheda Jnl. 17 July, 14, 17 Aug.; Dublin Evening Post, 12, 14, 17 Aug. 1830.
  • 18. Drogheda Jnl. 30 Apr., 17, 21, 24 May; Dublin Evening Post, 7, 17 May 1831.
  • 19. The Times, 30 Aug.; Guardian, 2 Sept. 1831; Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 282.
  • 20. Gurney diary, 31 Aug. 1831.
  • 21. PRO NI, Anglesey mss D.619/31D/58, Smith Stanley to Anglesey, 27 Aug. 1831.
  • 22. The Times, 5 Sept. 1831.

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