MACDONALD, Archibald (1747-1826), of East Sheen, Surr. and Armadale Castle, Skye.

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



9 Feb. 1777 - 1780
1780 - Feb. 1793

Family and Education

b. 13 July 1747, 3rd s. of Sir Alexander Macdonald, 7th Bt., by Lady Margaret Montgomerie, da. of Alexander, 9th Earl of Eglintoun [S].  educ. Westminster 1760-4; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1764; L. Inn 1765, called 1770.  m. 26 Dec. 1777, Lady Louisa Leveson Gower, da. of Granville, 2nd Earl Gower, 2s. 5da.  Kntd. 27 June 1788; cr. Bt. 27 Nov. 1813.

Offices Held

K.C. 1778; 2nd justice Carmarthen 1780-4; solicitor-gen. 1784-8; attorney-gen. June 1788-93; P.C. 15 Feb. 1793; ld. chief baron of Exchequer Feb. 1793-Nov. 1813.


Macdonald was born posthumously. His mother had Jacobite sympathies, and the Government insisted that her sons should be educated in England: ‘the saving of these boys will be gaining over the great clan of the McDonalds as they are now at the head of them’, wrote General Humphrey Bland to Hardwicke, 17 Oct. 1754.1

He first came to public notice as a lawyer in 1775 when he appeared for the plaintiff in the Grenada case.2 In 1777 he bought his way into Parliament for the venal borough of Hindon, and later the same year made a fortunate marriage with the daughter of Earl Gower. Mrs. Delany wrote:3

Lady Louisa Leveson to be married to Mr. Macdonald of the Temple, a rising genius in the law, a man of merit in other respects; without a fortune, which the lady’s will amply supply.

His first recorded speech was on 4 Dec. 1778, when he defended the manifesto of the commissioners at New York as ‘sober, sedate, sensible and well-meaning’, charged the Americans with atrocities, and called for war ‘in its full vigour’.4

His prospects do not seem to have been affected by a ludicrous incident in December 1779. Some days after his father-in-law had resigned from the ministry, Macdonald delivered an onslaught in the House on Lord North, whom he had supported until that very moment:

He accused him of being lazy, indolent, and incapable; of being evasive, shuffling, cutting and deceptious; of being plausible and artful, mean, insolent, confident and cowardly; of being a poor, pitiful, sneaking, snivelling, abject creature, fraught with deceit, and one whom no man of honour could support or trust as a minister or an individual.5

Even North was stung by this bombardment, and expressed surprise that Macdonald should have been so long finding this out. The King declared himself ‘highly incensed’ and could see ‘no excuse for his behaviour’.6 But the sequel was even more absurd. Lord Gower did not, after all, go into opposition, but continued to support the ministry.7 This change of front left Macdonald stranded. Accordingly, two days later, he recanted completely, and apologized in the Commons

for some hasty expressions which had fallen from him the last evening he had been at the House. He could now affirm, that they were totally ill-founded, and that in his cooler moments were directly contrary to his real opinion, never having had any reason for entertaining any such sentiments respecting the noble lord. It was a natural infirmity which suddenly hurried him sometimes to go beyond the limits of his own judgement.8

He then resumed his support of Lord North, and the ‘natural infirmity’ was no obstacle to his being appointed a Welsh judge nine months later.

At the general election of 1780 he transferred to his father-in-law’s borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. He spoke frequently in debate. On 26 Feb. 1781, opposing Burke’s bill to regulate the civil establishment, he pointed out that the civil list had stood at £800,000 ever since the Revolution: ‘if then, eight hundred thousand pounds worth of influence was not then thought dangerous to the liberties of the people, why should it be deemed so now?’9 He opposed Pitt’s motion for parliamentary reform, 7 May 1782: ‘as the present form of the constitution had stood from Charles the Second’s time, without any material alteration, he could see no reason for any amendment to it at present’.10 He voted with Opposition on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, but was one of the four Members who changed over on the second night, ‘the instant they observed that the arrow of Opposition was levelled not at the measures of Government, but at the man’,11 and he spoke against Lord John Cavendish’s resolutions on 21 Feb.

The following months, his sharp attack on the Coalition—they ‘run down every man whose principles were not as pliable and as versatile as their own’—called up Fox to remind him of his volte-face in 1779. In November he spoke effectively against Fox’s East India bill, complaining that ‘influence arising from a patronage of near two millions a year is to be thrown into the hands of a particular party’.12

He took office in Pitt’s Administration as solicitor-general, and held the post until 1788, when he succeeded Pepper Arden as attorney-general. In April 1785 he reversed his position on parliamentary reform and voted with Pitt. Two months later he moved for leave to present a bill for the better securing of the peace in the London area. His plan was to appoint three full-time commissioners of police, and to establish a regular system of patrols:

He had no intention of introducing any new punishment ... being convinced that extreme severity, instead of operating as a prevention to crimes, rather tended to inflame and promote them, by adding desperation to villainy ... he was equally convinced that there might be a system adopted that should have every effect that could be wished for; and this was, to render detection certain.13

The measure aroused great hostility as an invasion of the rights of the City, and Macdonald was obliged to abandon it. As attorney-general he took a prominent part in the debates on the Regency, 1788-9.

Most contemporary estimates of Macdonald were unflattering. ‘Moderate as were Pepper Arden’s abilities’, wrote Wraxall, ‘they exceeded those of Macdonald.’14 Lord Buckingham dismissed him as ‘one lightly thought of’.15 The obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1826, i. 561-2) is unusually disparaging, referring to him as ‘not a profound or accurate lawyer’. Nevertheless, it admits that he was fluent and lucid, and he seems to have been a useful debater. In private life he was friendly and cheerful. Boswell found him an agreeable companion in his early days, and the Gentleman’s Magazine testified:

He was the life and soul of society. With an inexhaustible store of anecdote and humour, and prodigious talent for conversation, which he had improved by constant exercise, he enlivened and amused wherever he went.

He died 18 May 1826.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Add. 35448, f. 179.
  • 2. State Trials, xx. 287, 303, 306.
  • 3. Mrs. Delany, Autobiog. and Corresp. (ser. 2) v. 334.
  • 4. Almon, xi. 108.
  • 5. Ibid. xvi. 130.
  • 6. Fortescue, iv. 510.
  • 7. Walpole to Mason, 11 Dec. 1779.
  • 8. Almon, xvi. 146.
  • 9. Debrett, ii. 25.
  • 10. Ibid. vii. 133.
  • 11. Morning Post, 27 Feb. 1783.
  • 12. Debrett, ix. 525; xii. 197.
  • 13. Parlty. Hist. xxv. 889.
  • 14. Mems. iii. 398.
  • 15. HMC Fortescue, i. 465.