MACPHERSON, James (1736-96), of Putney Heath, Surr. and Belville, Inverness.

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



1780 - 17 Feb. 1796

Family and Education

b. 27 Oct. 1736, s. of Andrew Macpherson of Kingussie, Inverness-shire by his w. Ellen Macpherson.  educ. Inverness g.s.; King’s Coll. Aberdeen 1752.  unm. 3s. 2da.

Offices Held


Born in a small village in the heart of the Highlands, Macpherson tried teaching and tutoring, and considered entering the Church, before the publication of Fingal in December 1761 brought him literary fame. His connexion with Bute, to whom Fingal and its successor Temora were dedicated, explains much of the abuse hurled at him. Bute was responsible for getting him a pension, and in 1764 he was appointed secretary for West Florida. After two years in America he returned to England and was given the secretaryship for life—presumably in exchange for an undertaking to write for Administration. During the next sixteen years Macpherson was the leading Government writer, combating Junius, and publishing, along with literary and historical works, the Rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of America (1776) and a Short History of the Opposition (1779). A partner in the London Packet,1 another of Macpherson’s tasks was to insert news items on behalf of Administration in the London papers: ‘Macpherson’s daily column of lies’, was Walpole’s description.2 About 1777 he became interested, through his kinsman John Macpherson, in Indian affairs, and published the letters from the Nawab of Arcot to the court of directors: two years later he produced a History of the East India Company. In the course of 1778 he established a correspondence with Warren Hastings, who wrote of him later: ‘he is the only man in England who possesses a cool and prescient mind’.3 On the death of Lauchlin Macleane in 1778, James and John Macpherson took over the management of the Nawab’s affairs in England, and in April 1780 claimed to have been instrumental in bringing about the understanding between Hastings, Sulivan and the ministry.4

On 18 Dec. 1779 Macpherson wrote to John Robinson:5

You may perhaps recollect that last year I made some efforts to obtain a seat in a certain place, at the particular injunctions of a friend. I shall now defer any attempts of the same kind to the general election ... May I request your turning this subject in your mind at a leisure hour? The pointing out the line is all that is wanted.

At the general election, Government arranged for him to come in for Camelford at a cost of £4000, presumably defrayed by the Nawab. On 26 Mar. 1782 Lord North, on the point of leaving office, wrote to the King:6

Mr. James Macpherson has for many years been a most laborious and able writer in favour of Government. The History of the Opposition, the best defence of the American war, and almost all the good pamphlets on the side of Administration were the production of his pen. When Lord North succeeded the Duke of Grafton, he found Mr. Machperson on the private list of pensioners. He is now in possession of a pension of £500 a year, and has lately lost the place of secretary to the province of West Florida, worth near £300 a year. He will certainly meet with no mercy from the new Administration, who are much irritated against him.

He went on to suggest that Macpherson should be given a pension in the names of four other people, to bring in ‘above £500 net’. From a note by John Robinson,7 it appears that this was done.

Macpherson did not speak in the House, and his political attitude seems to have depended on that of John Macpherson. He stayed with North until the Coalition, voting against the peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, but left him over Fox’s East India bill, and was a classed as a supporter of Pitt in 1784. During the next Parliament he supported Government until the Regency crisis, when he and his colleague at Camelford, Sir Samuel Hannay, went into opposition, probably because of dissatisfaction with the way Sir John Macpherson had been treated. The later years of his life Macpherson spent improving an estate he had purchased in the Highlands.

He died 17 Feb. 1796.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Add. 38729, f. 165.
  • 2. To Countess of Upper Ossory, 7 Jan. 1782.
  • 3. Dodwell, Letters of Hastings to John Macpherson, 146.
  • 4. Add. 29145, f. 37.
  • 5. Abergavenny mss.
  • 6. Fortescue, v. 414.
  • 7. Laprade, 50.