MACLEANE, Lauchlin (?1727-78), of Holles St., London

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



1768 - May 1771

Family and Education

b. ?1727, 1st s. of Rev. John MacLeane, vicar of Billy, co. Antrim by Elizabeth, da. of Rev. Philip Matthews, rector of Ballymoney.  educ. John Dennison’s sch. nr. Belfast; Trinity, Dublin, 29 May 1746, aged 18; Edinburgh Univ., M.D. 1755.  m. 30 Mar. 1755, Elizabeth, da. of John Hewit, M.D., formerly physician to Czar Peter II, s.p.; left her c.1768 and cohabited with Penelope, da. of Sir Andrew Agnew, 5th Bt., of Lochnaw, wid. of Lt.-Col. Alexander Agnew of Dalreagle, 1s. 1da. He also had other illegit. issue.1

Offices Held

Gov. St. Vincent Mar.-Oct. 1766; under-sec. of state Oct. 1766-June 1768; superintendent of lazarettoes 1771; collector at Philadelphia 1772; comptroller of army accounts in Bengal 1772-3; commissary of musters in Bengal 1773.


In 1756 Macleane emigrated to Pennsylvania and practised medicine in Philadelphia in partnership with John Stuart, another Edinburgh graduate.2 He served in the army from November 1757 as surgeon to the 60th Foot and the 2nd Virginian regiment, and was present at the fall of Montreal. After a short return to private practice he accompanied Major-General Robert Monckton on the expedition of 1761 to conquer Martinique, as commissary of provisions and supplies and as private secretary and unofficial medical adviser. While in the West Indies he made considerable purchases of land in his own name and that of others, including Monckton. In November 1763 he returned to England, and in April 1764 moved to Paris in connection with business arising from his land purchases. Here he became intimate with John Wilkes, and after the formation of the first Rockingham Administration in July 1765 his connexion with the Burkes (he was a contemporary of Edmund Burke at Trinity, and had known both Edmund and William for many years) enabled him to act as Wilkes’s intermediary with Administration.3Returning to London in December 1765, he pushed his claims to office; and was appointed lieutenant governor of St. Vincent. It was a position which involved residence and was not lucrative, but which gave prospects of private gain.

Before he took it up, however, his circumstances changed in two ways. The speculative boom in East India stock, beginning in April 1766, gave him an opening which he seized at first with great success. He organized large-scale combined operations on the London, Amsterdam, and Paris markets in which a number of prominent persons were concerned, including Lord Verney and William Burke;4 and he had dealings with Sir George Colebrooke in East India stock and West Indian land.5 Moreover, the change in Administration in July 1766 brought him new opportunities. Isaac Barré, whom he had met in America in 1760, introduced him to Lord Shelburne, secretary of state, who appointed him under-secretary with responsibilities for American business. He became intimate with Shelburne, acted as his man of business, and, among other confidential tasks, managed the interest in East India Company politics which he kept up through Laurence Sulivan. At the general election of 1768 Macleane was returned for Arundel on the interest of Sir George Colebrooke. Though handicapped by an acute stammer,6 he took part in debates in the House on various topics. In June 1768, four months before his patron, he resigned his office, partly no doubt because of the creation of a third secretaryship of state to handle American affairs, but partly for personal reasons. Throughout 1769 he remained politically connected with Shelburne and voted against the Grafton Administration. He was now free to concentrate on his speculative activities (curtailed but not abandoned while he was in office) on his own account and that of others, and on the politics of the East India Company where he worked (for himself and for Shelburne) for the restoration to power of Sulivan’s party. Though success crowned the party’s efforts in the election of directors of April 1769, a collapse in the price of East India stock in May-June 1769 led to widespread panic, in which Macleane himself, Shelburne, Verney, the Burkes, Henry Vansittart, Sulivan, Colebrooke and others suffered heavy losses. Macleane failed to meet commitments amounting to more than £90,000 and was totally ruined.

Meeting this disaster ‘with the manliness of an Indian’, he won credit for accepting full responsibility for all his losses, and seems to have persuaded his creditors that he could serve them best if he were given the chance to retrieve his fortunes.7 Strenuous efforts in 1769 to obtain profitable employment in India having failed, and his connexion with Shelburne being broken in the ill-will following his debacle, he switched his allegiance to the North Administration, as was first made clear by his support of Government in the Falkland Islands debate of 13 Feb. 1771.8

Obtaining in 1771 the sinecure of superintendent of lazarettoes, he applied for the Chiltern Hundreds on 8 May 1771, giving up his seat (he hoped only temporarily) to John Stewart.9 In January 1772 he was also given the post of collector at Philadelphia, but he did not take this up, since on 11 Dec. 1772 Colebrooke and Sulivan (both his creditors) succeeded with some difficulty in getting him appointed by the directors of the East India Company to the post of comptroller of army accounts in Bengal, an appointment which on 10 Mar. 1773 was improved to that of commissary of musters in Bengal with the brevet rank of colonel, the pay of the youngest councillor, and responsibility for advising on economies in the Company’s forces.10 They also recommended him to the governor, Warren Hastings, in terms which made clear their interest in his fortunes.11

Arriving in India in the autumn of 1773, he became intimate with Warren Hastings (who sent him on a confidential mission to Oudh) and impressed those with whom he came into contact, though he did not disguise his determination to make a rapid fortune and return to England.12 The arrival of the new councillors under the Regulating Act in November 1774 ended his Indian career, however, and he resigned on 21 Dec. 1774 to forestall their scathing indictments.13 Leaving in February 1775, he was back in England before 4 Aug. 1775, acting as the paid agent both of Warren Hastings and of the Nawab of Arcot, with whom he had made contact through John Macpherson.14 The rest of his life was spent in hectic negotiations, first on Hastings’s behalf (in the course of which he offered, in 1776, Hastings’s resignation to the directors, an offer later repudiated by his principal) and then on behalf of the Nawab, in whose service he hoped to obtain lucrative employment. With this end in view he resigned on 31 Mar. 1777 all claims on the Company’s service,15 and on 14 June 1777 set out by the overland route on a lightning visit to the Nawab at Madras. On 21 Sept. 1777 he embarked for his return journey on the naval sloop Swallow, which called at the Cape of Good Hope in November, but was subsequently lost with all hands, it was believed during February 1778.16

He died with large debts still unpaid and with no assets except nebulous claims on the Nawab of Arcot (which were not honoured), and his reputation was further damaged by such particulars of his recent negotiations as became known to his associates.17 It was said of him that his death was ‘a happy event for himself, though very distressing to his friends’, and John Macpherson could find no better epitaph than the remark: ‘If he involved others he only did to them what he did without mercy to himself.’18 Highly intelligent, resourceful, brave, wholly without scruple, disreputable in his private as well as his public life, but capable of winning the (mistaken) confidence of a wide variety of people, he was the most spectacular of the Irish and Scottish adventurers of his day, and his life was a series of picaresque incidents. He wrote with distinction, was the author of a number of anonymous pamphlets and contributions to the Press, and has been suspected of being the author of the letters of Junius.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Lucy S. Sutherland


  • 1. Material for this biography has been supplied by Mr. James N. M. MacLean.
  • 2. Franklin v. Macleane, C12/1305/30.
  • 3. D. Wecter, Burke and his Kinsmen, 6; Burke Corresp. ed. Copeland, i. 220.
  • 4. L. S. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 143-4, 206-12.
  • 5. Orme mss, India Office Lib.
  • 6. Alex. Graydon, Memories of a life chiefly passed in Pennsylvania within the last sixty years (Harrisburg, 1811) p. 33.
  • 7. Sutherland, 191-3.
  • 8. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 224, pp. 433-6.
  • 9. ‘Tompkins Diary’, Suss. Arch. Colls. lxxi. 28.
  • 10. E.I. Co. Court Bk. 81, p. 336.
  • 11. Sutherland, 285.
  • 12. ‘Papers of Richard Barwell’, Bengal Past Present, xi. 298.
  • 13. India Office Lib. Home Ser. Misc. 118, p. 152, minute of Clavering, Monson and Francis, 11 Jan. 1775.
  • 14. Ibid. 235; Home Ser. Misc. 286, pp. 39-65.
  • 15. E.I. Co. Court Bk. 85, p. 675.
  • 16. See his letters to Hastings in Add. 29139.
  • 17. Add. 29141, ff. 35-36.
  • 18. Sutherland, 326; Add. 29141, f. 65.