ADAIR, James (?1743-98).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



30 Jan. 1775 - 1780
13 Sept. 1793 - 21 July 1798

Family and Education

b. ?1743, 1st s. of James Adair, merchant and Irish factor, of Aldermanbury, London by his w. Margaret. educ. ?Eton 1753-9; Peterhouse, Camb. 10 Nov. 1759, aged 16; L. Inn 1761, called 1767. m. Elizabeth Spencer, 1s. 1da.

Offices Held

Serjeant-at-law 1774; recorder of London 1779-89; King’s serjeant 1782; counsel to Board of Ordnance 1782- d.; c.j. Chester 1796-d.


During the ten years before he entered Parliament Adair was an active opponent of the court. According to Almon1 he was the author of two pamphlets. The first, published in 1764, was Thoughts on the Dismission of Officers, which condemned the dismissal of an officer for voting against the court: ‘To control his exercise of private judgment is to deprive him of that liberty without which he cannot discharge the duties he owes to the public.’ The second, published in 1768, Observations on the Power of Alienation in the Crown, attacked the Treasury grant of Inglewood Forest to Sir James Lowther. Both were critical of all George III’s Administrations except that of Rockingham.

Adair established his reputation by his fervent backing of Wilkes and the popular cause. In May 1769 he was counsel for the Middlesex freeholders petitioning against the seating of Luttrell, and was approached by Rockingham about publicising the Opposition case;2 the following year he obtained useful notoriety by intervening in Wilkes’s quarrel with Horne Tooke, and in 1771 was counsel for the publishers of the Junius letters. During the East India Company crisis of 1772-3 Adair seems to have acted as intermediary between Rockingham, Richmond, and members of the Company opposed to increased Government control in India.

In 1775 Adair was returned for Cockermouth by Sir James Lowther, whom he had attacked in his pamphlet of 1768, but who had by now gone into opposition. In Parliament Adair consistently opposed North’s Administration, and spoke fairly frequently. His first reported speech was in support of Wilkes’s motion for expunging from the journals the resolution of 17 Feb. 1769. He was a vigorous opponent of the anti-American measures, describing them as ‘the most violent, the most unjust and tyrannical, that ever disgraced the annals of any civilized nation’.3 He supported the New York petition against the Declaratory Act, 15 May 1775, and after the outbreak of war, in a long speech, 27 Oct. 1775, declared:

I am against the present war ... because I think it unjust in its commencement, injurious to both countries in its prosecution, and ruinous in its event. It is staking the fate of a great empire against a shadow. The quarrel which occasioned it, took its rise from the assertion of a right, at best but doubtful in itself; a right from whence the warmest advocates for it have long been forced to admit that this country can never derive a single shilling of advantage.4

Adair made several speeches advocating Opposition measures of reform, and, as a Dissenter and advocate of the abolition of subscription to the 39 Articles, spoke for Sir Henry Hoghton’s bill for the relief of Protestant Dissenters, 10 Mar. 1779. In the debate, 28 Apr. 1780, on Burke’s economical reforms he ‘urged the absolute necessity of complying with the prayers of the petitions in regard to economy’, and he himself introduced a motion, 19 May, ‘relative to giving satisfaction to the people respecting the grievances set forth in their petitions— no more sums of money granted for the public services till grievances stated in the petitions be redressed’. According to the Parliamentary Register he ‘was up for nearly an hour, was very able, and remarkably well heard ... and proved in a most able and convincing manner, the indispensable necessity there was of taking some effective step for the relief of the people’.5 The Public Ledger wrote of Adair (1779): ‘He is reckoned a good lawyer, but rather tedious in speaking.’ The City Biography6 states that ‘his action was awkward, and his voice better suited to a rookery than a Senate’; nevertheless ‘his talents ... were strong, improved by labour and sharpened by practice; he was a correct, methodical, and plausible speaker’.

Adair was not returned by Lowther in 1780, and does not appear to have stood at the general election, but in September 1782 unsuccessfully contested Southwark. He adhered to Fox, and as Pitt gained support in the City, Adair gradually lost ground, eventually in 1789 resigning his recordership— possibly over the Regency. He broke with Fox in 1793 over the war with France.

Adair died 21 July 1798. The Gentleman’s Magazine wrote (p. 721) in his obituary notice: ‘Mr. A. was not distinguished for luminous talents; but he possessed a solid judgment, with rectitude of principle, and a deep knowledge of the laws of this country.’

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. Biog., Lit. Political Anecs. (1797) i. 83-91.
  • 2. Adair to Rockingham, 17 and 18 May 1769, Rockingham mss.
  • 3. Almon, iii. 65.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Debrett, xvii. 598, 708.
  • 6. Anon. pamphlet, 1800.