ROBERTSON, Alexander (1779-1856), of 38 Broad Street Buildings, London and Hoe Bridge Place, Woking, Surr.

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

Constituency

Dates

1818 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 14 Feb. 1779, 4th but 3rd surv. s. of Rev. James Robertson, minister of Ratho, nr. Edinburgh and Jean, da. of Rev. Alexander Robertson, minister of Eddleston, Peebles.1 (?)m. 1da.2 d. 17 Dec. 1856.

Offices Held

Biography

Robertson told the House of Lords foreign trade committee, 20 June 1820, that he was involved in the China trade and had been to Canton nine times between his first visit in 1795 and his last in 1812. As a ship owner, he emphasized the importance of fully opening that market to private enterprise.3 At the general election earlier that year he had came in again for the venal borough of Grampound, which was under sentence of death for corruption, but was granted a temporary reprieve by the intervention of the Lords.4

He was a regular attender who gave general support to Lord Liverpool’s ministry, but he opposed them on specific issues and expressed strong views on commercial and financial questions. He was named to the foreign trade committee, 5 June 1820, and in the next four sessions. He divided against economies in revenue collection, 4 July 1820. He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards Queen Caroline, 6 Feb. 1821. He divided against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He was in the minorities for army reductions, 14, 15 Mar., on the Baltic timber duties, 5 Apr., and the composition of the Irish revenue commission, 15 June, and against the grant for the aliens office, 29 June. On the other hand, he voted with government against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., for the barracks grant, 28 May, and against Hume’s economy and retrenchment motion, 27 June. He divided against parliamentary reform, 9 May 1821. He voted against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., but was against government on the time limit for conversion of the navy five per cents, 8 Mar., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar. 1822. He opposed repeal of the house and window taxes, 2 July, but thought ‘it was impossible the country could go on under the present [financial] system’ and said he ‘looked with much apprehension to the consequences of some of the measures which had been adopted’. He presented a London merchants’ petition for ‘freer commercial intercourse’ with India, 2 Apr.5 On the government’s corn law proposals, 9 May, he urged them to ‘protect and advance commerce as the best mode of securing the welfare of all classes, and of giving the farmer a remunerating price’. He called on agricultural and commercial Members to unite to resist the navigation bill, which would hand the eastern trade on a plate to the Dutch, 23 May, 4 June.6 He recommended repeal of the duty on foreign wool, which he considered to be prejudicial to British exports, 30 May.7 He opposed currency reform, 10 July.8 He divided against removal of Catholic peers’ disabilities, 30 Apr., the Irish constables bill, 7 June, and investigation of the Calcutta bankers’ grievances, 4 July 1822.

On 14 Feb. 1823 Robertson asserted that the ‘one great cause’ of distress was ‘the system of credit’ adopted during the French wars, when vast sums had been borrowed ‘on ruinous terms’. The country was therefore ‘completely in the hands of a great monied body in [the] metropolis’ who could keep interest rates ‘as high ... as they chose’. He stressed the need to support the landed interest, ‘upon which ... the government must principally rely for its resources’, 21 Feb. He traced and deplored successive governments’ departure from the original principle and practice of the sinking fund, 3 Mar., and maintained that ‘the system was an entire delusion, which threatened the ruin of the country and the subversion of the throne, for ... if the aristocracy ... were destroyed the other institutions ... could not stand’. However, he concluded that low interest rates were ‘perhaps the only thing that could enable our merchants and manufacturers to cope with the markets and productions of other countries’, and resolved to support the government’s proposals for regulation of the fund, while urging the importance of securing ‘just’ rates of interest and a fixed amount of capital debt for repayment, in order to ‘do away with stock-jobbing’; he duly voted with ministers later that day. He divided with them against repeal of the assessed taxes, 18 Mar., but spoke and voted against the naval and military pensions bill, 11, 14, 18 Apr. He approved the principle of the warehousing bill, 17 Mar., but complained that it exhibited ‘unnecessary caution’, 21 Mar.9 He opposed interference with the law merchant, 15 May. He argued that the ‘vested interests’ of West India proprietors deserved preference over the ‘interested attempts’ of East India agents in respect to the sugar duties, 22 May, and pointed out ‘several defects in the present commercial intercourse with India and the system carried on in our eastern colonies’, 3 July.10 He was a determined opponent of the reciprocity bill, protesting, 6 June, that it sacrificed the principle of protection for the sake of free trade dogma and would aggravate the distress of the shipping interest. He urged agriculturists to resist it, 23 June, 4 July, when he claimed that as a result of recent commercial measures, ‘which had been acquiesced in by Parliament almost without deliberation’, Britain’s overseas trade had ‘diminished within the last three years to the extent of 150,000 tons and 8,000 seamen’; he was a minority teller that day against the third reading. He voted in the minority on the silk manufacture bill, 9 June, and supported a petition for reduction of the hemp duties, 12 June.11 He emphasized the ‘high importance’ of conciliating and cultivating the new South American states for the sake of potentially ‘boundless trade’, 8 July, and objected to ‘the manner in which ministers had accommodated themselves to the unjust and injurious demands’ of the European powers.12 He divided against inquiry into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and reform in Scotland, 2 June. He voted against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., but criticized the government’s feebleness in the face of French aggression against Spain, 29 Apr. He divided against inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. Surprisingly, in view of his previous votes, he endorsed a petition from Irish Catholics for repeal of the penal laws preventing them from endowing religious institutions, 9 May.13 Three days later he went further by supporting the Whig amendment for inquiry into the state of Ireland, declaring that ‘all the troubles of Ireland arose from the persecution of the Catholic religion’ and that renewal of the Insurrection Act was ‘only throwing a firebrand amongst the already inflamed population’. He voted in the same sense, 24 June, when he recommended Catholic emancipation, the payment of priests and an equitable adjustment of tithes. He divided against inquiry into delays in chancery, 5 June. On 20 June 1823 he voted against treasury control over the appointment of the London Bridge engineer and in the Tory minority against the Scottish juries bill.

He voted for information on Catholic burials, 6 Feb., and spoke and voted for inquiry into the Irish church establishment, 6 May 1824. Next day, claiming that he ‘belonged to no party’, he complained of misrepresentation of his speech in the Globe, but, harried by the Speaker, he let the matter drop.14 He divided for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 11 May, and voted in the minority (where he was listed as ‘A. Robinson’) against the insurrection bill, 14 June, after deploring ‘the brutalizing policy of successive governments’. Yet he was averse to any ‘concessions’ to Protestant Dissenters, whom he stigmatized as ‘sectarians’, 17 June, declaring that ‘it was necessary, for the safety of the established church, to withstand their growing influence’.15 He reiterated his ‘decided disapprobation of the whole system of reciprocity’, which ‘would be the ruin of the shipping interest’, 13 Feb. He endorsed a London merchants’ petition for repeal of the duty on foreign wool, 20 Feb., but voted in the minority against removing the prohibition on the export of long wool, 21 May. On the budget statement, 23 Feb., he welcomed the proposed tax remissions and ministers’ professed determination to protect the sinking fund, and criticized the opposition, who ‘talked as if they had never looked beyond the present hour’. He defended the planned reduction of silk duties, 4 Mar., but argued that no immediate relief would accrue to West Indian proprietors from remission of the duties on rum because of the ‘great quantity now in bond’, 8 Mar. He voiced his ‘utter dissent’ from the Westminster petition for the surplus on the sinking fund to be used for tax reductions, 12 Mar., and exhorted ministers to stick to a ‘simple and straightforward measure’, 7 May. He objected to the law merchant bill, which was backed by ‘the monied men who were in the habit of making advances on goods’, 17 May. He denounced the marine insurance bill as a greater threat to national interests than Fox’s East India bill, 28 May, when the Speaker cut short his intemperate attack on the government’s ‘disastrous’ commercial policy.16 He was a minority teller against going into committee on the bill, 3 June, after defending Lloyd’s and arguing that the measure, ‘so far from breaking down monopoly ... would more than ever promote it, by condensing the power of money capital and placing the public interest at the entire disposal of the wealthy’. He condemned the surrender of Bencoolen to the Dutch as a severe blow to British trade, 17 June. He opposed the usury laws repeal bill with a tedious historical review of the subject, 27 Feb., and moved a wrecking amendment, which was defeated by 43-34; he again attacked the ‘superficial’ measure, 8 Apr. In his guise as ‘A. Robinson’ he voted to limit the aliens bill to one year, 12 Apr. He endorsed a Falmouth petition against the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 10 June, but divided in the ministerial majority next day. He spoke and voted in the minority for inquiry into naval impressment, 10 June 1824, though he doubted if it could be dispensed with.

He earned cheers when he attacked the Irish unlawful societies bill, 15 Feb. 1825, observing that ‘the Catholic peasantry had been deserted by the landed gentry, Protestant as well as Catholic, and left unprotected against the oppressions of partial magistrates and all the exactions of unfeeling tithe collectors’. He believed that ‘the only advisable measure by which they could put down the violence and discontent which now raged in Ireland would be by concession, not by coercion’; he again voted against the bill, 21 Feb. He divided silently for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., but confessed, 19 Apr., that ‘in a political point of view’ he was less inclined to indulge English and Scottish Catholics. While he voted for the principle of the relief bill, 21 Apr., he tried to insert a clause to prohibit Catholics from representing English and Scottish constituencies, 6 May. He divided for the bill’s third reading, 10 May, but remarked that if it was to be ‘coupled’ with the disfranchisement of Irish 40s. freeholders, ‘it was a question with him how far its supporters ... were bound to advocate it’. He remained hostile to Dissenters’ claims, 25 Mar., 2 May, 21 June, as ‘the Church of England was essential to the safety of the throne’. He again opposed repeal of the usury laws, 17 Feb. He defended the navy estimates against Hume’s strictures, 21 Feb., but saw no valid reason for ‘any augmentation of the army’, 11 Mar., and spoke and voted with the minority for information on the Indian army, 24 Mar. He supported Hume’s unsuccessful attempt to debar Members from voting on questions in which they had a direct pecuniary interest, 10 Mar. He approved the Canadian waste lands bill, 15 Mar. Next day he opposed the Peruvian Mining Company bill, arguing that ‘all the speculations that were at present afloat ... particularly the mining speculations, afforded little chance of being successful’. He spoke and was a minority teller against the third reading of the Equitable Loan Company bill, ‘an undue interference with the pawnbrokers’, 24 Mar.17 He welcomed Moore’s proposal to legislate on joint-stock companies, 29 Mar., contending that the public were ‘quite as much entitled to protection as any of the princes of the blood or the archbishop of Canterbury’. He suggested that ‘the most effectual relief to be afforded to our colonies’ would come from ‘a total emancipation of the slaves’, 18 Mar. Yet he supported the West India Company bill, 29 Mar., and attacked Fowell Buxton, ‘the great champion of joint-stock companies’, for opposing it ‘on the ground of his ... excessive sympathy for the Negro population’. The Speaker intervened to end their recriminatory exchanges the following day. On 5 May he ‘deprecated any reduction of the sinking fund in the present state of the world, when both France and the United States of America were endeavouring to reduce the public debt’. He considered the Indian judges bill to be ‘unnecessary’, 13 May. He was in the majority against the Leith docks bill, 20 May. Supporting Hume’s call for the abolition of flogging in the navy, 9 June, he maintained that ‘the want of discipline in the naval service more often arose from a want of qualification in the officers than from misconduct in the men’. Next day he voted with government for the duke of Cumberland’s annuity bill. He lamented the ‘great decrease’ in British shipping as a result of erosion of the navigation laws, 22 June, and in attacking the ships registry bill next day, stated that he had ‘always opposed the measures of ministers’ in this area of policy. He believed that ‘every branch of industry in this country ought to be protected’, but ‘the House would not do this and proposed rather to grind and oppress the people’; British trade ‘was going to decay under the new regulations’. After being called to order for denouncing ministerial shipping policy during a debate on the combination bill, 27 June 1825, he warned that the latter would be ‘attended with the most mischievous consequences to the workmen themselves’, who, ‘being enabled to extort ... any rate of wages they pleased ... would pass one half of their week always in idleness and contract the most dangerous habits of excess and intoxication’.18 That autumn, while admitting that he had ‘no right to ask any favour from government’, he applied to the home secretary Peel for preferment in the Scottish church for his eldest brother James, minister of Livingston. Although Peel noted that he ‘should not be sorry to have an opportunity of obliging Robertson’, nothing came of it.19

In a ponderous diatribe during the debate on the address, 2 Feb. 1826, Robertson claimed to have predicted the ‘unavoidable consequences’ of ‘open and barefaced spoliation ... by the machinations of joint-stock companies’, and blamed the current financial crisis on the ‘speculative and gambling system of commerce’ encouraged by ministers. Attributing the country’s problems to the £189,000,000 excess of exports over imports since 1815, he called for protection of domestic industry to ensure that capital was kept at home: he ‘considered the doctrine of absolute free trade, as applied to this country, as the most vicious principle which had ever been adopted by thinking men’. His complaint of press misrepresentation of his speech was cut short by the Speaker, 6 Feb.20 He maintained that only the banking system was keeping the country from total ruin and that the government’s plan to restrict the circulation of small notes would undermine it, 9 Feb.; he divided in the minority on this question, 13 Feb. He recommended the establishment of branch banks and the encouragement of country banks to pay in gold, 27 Feb. He spoke and voted in the minority against the third reading of the promissory notes bill, 7 Mar., expressing fears that it would lead to a large influx of foreign bullion. He believed that ‘a currency founded on a metallic basis’ was essential, 26 May. He accused ministers of ruining the silk industry, 9 Feb., and voted for inquiry into its problems, 24 Feb. He ‘strongly condemned the miscalled and delusive system of reciprocity’ and deplored the ‘union’ between government and opposition to promote it, 14 Feb.; he returned to this theme, 22 Feb., 13 May. On the presentation of the London merchants’ petition calling for an immediate issue of exchequer bills, 23 Feb., he declared that ministers had ‘proved themselves unfit for their situations’ and that ‘their continuance in office was an embarrassment to the king’. He wanted the bill dealing with merchants’ goods offered as security for exchequer bill loans to be ‘general’ rather than ‘partial’, 8 Mar.21 He objected to the ‘violent language’ of a Staffordshire pottery workers’ petition for revision of the corn laws, 2 Mar., and maintained that ‘there could not be a greater grievance inflicted on the country than cheap bread’, as the real need was for ‘good rents, good profits and well-paid labour’. He reckoned that the emergency admission of bonded corn would entail ‘ruin’, 2 May, and suggested the alternative of buying it to feed to starving workers in the manufacturing districts. In recommending the imposition of a duty on foreign shipping, 17 Apr., he alleged that opposition, who had ‘urged ministers to these experiments [in free trade], saw now sufficient reason for retracing their steps’. He dismissed Hume’s call for inquiry into the state of the nation as ‘delusive’, posited as it was on the supposed need for tax reductions, 4 May. He declared that it was ‘necessary, for the interests of the country, that the naval force should not be suffered to decline in any degree’, 17 Feb.,22 but four days later, complaining that no minister was present, he rejected the plea of the war in India as a ‘totally inadequate’ reason for maintaining it at the proposed level, and divided in Hume’s minority. He also voted for large army reductions, 3 Mar., having concluded that ministers ‘did not know what they were about’. He divided against the opposition motion condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. On 6 Apr. he alluded to the ‘mysterious circumstances’ surrounding the chartering in 1825 of the London Silk Company, headed by Alexander Baring*, who had subsequently emerged as a leading advocate of the proposal to give the president of the board of trade, Huskisson, an enhanced ministerial salary. He voted twice in minorities on this subject next day, but was apparently absent from the division of 10 Apr. He was presumably the ‘R.C. Robertson’ who divided against the resolutions condemning electoral bribery, 26 May 1826.23

The disfranchisement of Grampound came into effect at the dissolution in June 1826 and left Robertson without a seat. His unsuccessful candidature for Durham in February 1828, against the re-election of Sir Henry Hardinge, the secretary at war in the duke of Wellington’s ministry, was nominal and involuntary.24 John Cam Hobhouse* recorded in October 1830 that Robertson, ‘a queer man’, had expressed the opinion that ‘I ought to take a lead’ in the Commons against the government.25 In July 1843 he offered Peel, as prime minister, information on the ‘ill consequences’ of current British policy towards Spain, having recently returned from a two-month stay in Madrid; he was taken seriously enough to be interviewed by the foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen.26 He appears to have remained active as a merchant until about 1851. He died in December 1856. By his will, he instructed that a trust fund be created for the benefit of his daughter Margaret Turnbull Robertson, an imbecile, and left the residue of his estate to his great-nephew, Alexander Robertson.27

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Fasti Eccles. Scot. i. 183.
  • 2. PROB 11/2245/62.
  • 3. PP (1821), vii. 37-43. Identical views were advanced in the 1820 tract, Reflections on the Present Difficulties of the Country, but internal evidence indicates that Robertson was perhaps not its author, as suggested in HP Commons, 1790-1820, v. 25.
  • 4. West Briton, 10 Mar.; R. Cornw. Gazette, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. The Times, 3 Apr. 1822.