DUNNING, John (1731-83), of Ashburton, Devon

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



1768 - Mar. 1782

Family and Education

b. 18 Oct. 1731, o. surv. s. of John Dunning of Ashburton by Agnes, da. of Henry Judsham of Modbury, Devon. educ. Ashburton g.s.; M. Temple 1752, called 1756. m. 31 Mar. 1780, Elizabeth, da. of John Baring of Larkbear, Devon, sis. of John and Francis Baring, 2s. suc. fa. 1 Dec. 1780;  cr. Baron Ashburton 8 Apr. 1782.

Offices Held

Recorder, Bristol 1766- d.; bencher, M. Temple 1768, reader 1776, treasurer 1779; solicitor-gen. Jan. 1768-Jan. 1770; P.C. 27 Mar. 1782; chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Mar. 1782- d.


John Dunning began his legal career in the office of his father, a country attorney, and ended as the foremost advocate of his day. Shelburne, his political patron, wrote of him:1

He had the greatest power of reasoning which can be conceived, and such a habit of it that he could not slight a cause, no more than an able artist could suffer a piece of work to go imperfect from his hands. He could not pass a link in the chain, and had such a faculty of arrangement that he would take an absolute chaos of matter and return it to you in an instant so clear and distinct as of itself to present a proper judgment without need of discussion ... His industry, his liberality, his acuteness added to his capacity, procured him the personal confidence, reverence, and attachment of almost all the great families, who always found him no less a gentleman than he was a lawyer. The only doubt was whether he excelled most at equity or common law. There was none as to anybody’s coming up to him in either.

Chatham, who met him for the first time in December 1770, had an equally high opinion. ‘Mr. Dunning ... is another being from any I have known of the profession’, he wrote to Shelburne on 3 Dec. 1770.2 ‘... Mr. Dunning is not a lawyer, at the same time that he is the law itself.’

Dunning became prominent in 1764 as a result of the law cases which followed Wilkes’s arrest, and about this time he became friendly with Shelburne. On 9 Nov. 1765 he wrote to inform Shelburne that he had been offered through a friend (presumably authorized by the Rockingham Administration) a silk gown and a seat in Parliament—‘your Lordship’s wishes will determine mine either to do so [accept] or break off the treaty entirely’, he wrote.3 ‘I would certainly lay hold of the opportunity’, replied Shelburne,4 ‘if either measures are fully explained as to leave no room for any future difference of opinion, or if you are left entirely at liberty without any engagement even implied.’ But nothing came of this.

Dunning’s appointment in January 1768 to be solicitor-general surprised contemporaries, for Shelburne’s influence in the Administration was declining rapidly. It probably owed a good deal to Camden, who was Dunning’s close friend. At the general election of 1768 Dunning was brought into Parliament by Shelburne, but did not resign with Shelburne and Barré in October. He hesitated a good deal, consulted Barré, talked about his wishing to resign, and finally allowed himself to be persuaded by Camden to stay.5

He remained for over a year in office under Grafton, an awkward and anomalous position, for Shelburne was in open Opposition. On 8 Nov. 1768 he made his first recorded speech in the House.

Both Grenville and Burke attacked the chancellor violently [Rigby reported to Bedford6] as having with Lord Chatham been the principal cause of the American disturbances. Dunning defended his friend, but not with such abilities as I think promise to make so great a figure in the House of Commons as he does at the bar.

Similarly, Walpole writes that his ‘fame did not rise ... in proportion to the celebrity he had attained at the bar’;7 and Wraxall:8his speeches ‘resembled more the pleading of the bar than the oratory of the senate’. His appearance was unprepossessing and his voice husky, yet he was listened to with attention and respect.

When in December 1768 the affair of Wilkes’s libel was about to come before the House, Dunning, writes Grafton,9

differed in opinion with most of the King’s servants as to the mode of conducting the accusation. This offended Lord North much more than it need have done: he complained to me the next day most bitterly, and entreated me to desire Lord Camden to see Mr. Dunning upon it; which I did, though very reluctantly, seeing that Lord North was so much affected.

Camden took Dunning’s part; but, continues Grafton:10

The prejudice of Lord North against Mr. Dunning was not removed by this explanation of ours, nor could he be brought to treat him with that confidence which the situation of the other had a right to expect from the minister of the House of Commons.

North had good reason to complain, for Dunning gave little assistance in the House of Commons; and when he did speak was trimming and inconclusive.11 On the Middlesex election he neither spoke nor voted: like Camden, he disapproved of Government’s proceedings, yet retained his office.

On 9 Jan. 1770, when the Middlesex question was renewed after the re-emergence of Chatham, Dunning voted with Opposition and shortly afterwards resigned. Henceforth he adhered strictly to Shelburne. During the greater part of North’s Administration Dunning and Barré were Shelburne’s only followers of consequence in the Commons. Dunning, though an inferior debater to Barré, was of great weight in the House, and seems to have reserved himself for the more important debates. Yet he never quite attained the front rank of parliamentary speakers.

After the defeat of Burke’s economical reform bill in March 1780, Dunning took the lead in the Commons of the movement to reduce the influence of the Crown. On 6 Apr. he introduced two resolutions, designed to secure the widest measure of support: ‘that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’ (the famous ‘Dunning’s motion’);12 and ‘that it is competent for this House to reform the civil list or any part of the public expenditure’. ‘If the committee [of the whole House] should agree with me in the resolutions’, he said,13‘I mean to follow them up with real, substantive, practicable measures.’ The first was carried against Administration by 233 votes to 215, the second without a division; and on 10 Apr. Dunning carried two further resolutions for reform of the Household and the civil list. But his motion of 24 Apr., that Parliament should not be prorogued until measures had been taken to reduce the influence of the Crown, was lost by 254 to 203.

On 25 Mar. 1782 Dunning announced to the House the formation of the Rockingham Administration.14 The same day he wrote to Shelburne:15

I have always given myself the credit enough with your Lordship to have it believed, and not imputed to a silly affectation, that instead of desiring I have a perfect dread of any office of any sort, proceeding from a perfect satisfaction with my present situation, an apprehension that I cannot change it with credit to myself or advantage to my friends, and that as far as such talents as mine can be of any use they may be better employed where I am.

But Shelburne’s wishes prevailed. Dunning was made a peer and entered the Cabinet; and the duchy of Lancaster, with a pension of £4000 p.a., was conferred on him until the chief justiceship of the King’s bench should become vacant. His acceptance of a pension was criticized in the House, and his profession of disinterestedness, made when he was in opposition,16 brought up against him.

In the interregnum following Shelburne’s defeat in Feb. 1783 Ashburton was frequently consulted by the King.17 He withdrew from the Cabinet on the formation of the Fox-North Coalition; and died on 18 Aug. 1783.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, ii. 318-19.
  • 2. Chatham Corresp. iv. 41.
  • 3. Lansdowne mss.
  • 4. 10 Nov. 1765, ibid.
  • 5. There are two letters, both undated, from Barré to Shelburne in the Lansdowne mss, reporting conversations with Dunning about his expected resignation. One was written before 28 Oct. 1768, the other probably on 28 Oct. See also Camden to Grafton, 4 Nov. 1768, Grafton, Autobiog. 225.
  • 6. 9 Nov. 1769, Bedford mss 57, f. 224.
  • 7. Mems. Geo III, iii. 145.
  • 8. Mems. ii. 39-40.
  • 9. Autobiog. 227.
  • 10. Ibid. 227-8.
  • 11. See his speeches of 26 Jan. 1769, Cavendish’s Debates, i. 203; 8 Feb. 1769, ibid. 218; and 24 Feb. 1769, ibid. 249-50.
  • 12. About this motion, see Fitzmaurice, ii. 318.
  • 13. Almon, xvii. 447-54.
  • 14. Debrett, vi. 510.
  • 15. Fitzmaurice, ii. 90.
  • 16. 21 Feb. 1780, Almon, xvii. 136.
  • 17. See his memo., Fitzmaurice, ii. 253-61.