MACPHERSON, John (c.1745-1821), of Brompton, Mdx.

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



29 Apr. 1779 - 28 May 1782
1796 - 1802

Family and Education

b. c.1745, 2nd s. of John Macpherson, Presbyterian minister at Sleat, Skye by Janet, da. of Donald Macleod of Bernera.  educ. King’s Coll. Aberdeen 1760; Edin. Univ. unm.  cr. Bt. 10 June 1786.

Offices Held


In 1767 Macpherson went out to India as purser on his uncle’s ship, and entered the service of the Nawab of Arcot. The same year he persuaded the Nawab to send him on a mission to the British Government to lodge complaints against the East India Company’s servants.1 Though no obvious results followed, his representations may have had some effect on the Government’s intervention in the affairs of the Carnatic in 1769, and he himself returned in 1770 with the rank of writer in the Company’s service. He also brought a letter of introduction to Hastings from Shelburne, and began a friendship with him which, sedulously cultivated by Macpherson, continued after Hastings went as governor general to Bengal.

During the next five years Macpherson was deeply involved in the intrigues of the Nawab’s durbar, often in competition with Paul Benfield. In 1774 he was associated with the plan whereby Lauchlin Macleane became the Nawab’s agent in England. In 1776, however, Lord Pigot, the new governor of Madras, deeming Macpherson’s relations with the Nawab dangerous to the Company, dismissed him from their service. While settling his affairs before returning to England he took an active part in the arrest and imprisonment of Lord Pigot by the discontented Company servants, supported by the Nawab.2 He left for England in February 1777. Though he was believed to have a fortune of some £20,000, and he had some promises of remittances from the Nawab, his financial position was far from satisfactory, and a return to India was his aim.3 The Company showed at first no desire to reinstate him; but the absence of Macleane, on the voyage from which he never returned, enabled Macpherson to stand forth as agent for both Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Arcot. Through the good offices of his kinsman, the pamphleteer James Macpherson, and his own considerable skill in ingratiating himself with those whom he wished to please, he began to exercise considerable influence on both North and John Robinson in Indian affairs. In April 1779, though his finances were by then desperate, he purchased a seat at Cricklade from Henry Herbert, and entered Parliament, to protect, as he claimed, the interests of Hastings and the Nawab of Arcot.4 In 1780, acting in conjunction with Benfield (with whom he was now closely allied) he was re-elected at Cricklade; and though his return was at once challenged, it was not till May 1782 that his election was declared void. In Parliament he was a steady supporter of Administration.

In 1780 Macpherson had helped to bring about a reconciliation between the Government and the friends of Hastings in the East India Company; and in 1781 he was elected to the Bengal council, despite his lack of seniority in the service, and his previous dismissal. Francis Sykes wrote to Hastings on 14 Jan. 1781:

The candidates ... are Mr. George Vansittart, and Mr. Macpherson, and notwithstanding the former has very good interest, yet the latter getting himself into Parliament and always voting with Administration, they have taken him up, and returned the compliment this way, of obliging him to the prejudice of Mr. Vansittart and all justice.

And Laurence Sulivan, on 10 Feb.:

The attention that is paid to Mr. Macpherson by the minister and his most confidential friends will hardly be credited. They have a real affection for him, and few are better informed of the secret intentions.5

He arrived in Bengal in 1781, and by the end of 1782 had quarrelled with Hastings who wrote bitterly of his incapacity and betrayal of their friendship. When Hastings resigned, and Macpherson, as the senior councillor, became acting governor general, he proved quite inadequate to the task. Cornwallis, who succeeded him in 1786, described his administration as ‘a system of the dirtiest jobbing’, and wrote:6

I am very far from having any personal ill-will to the man, for he is a very good-humoured fellow; but I think him weak and false to a degree, and he certainly was the most contemptible and the most contemned governor that ever pretended to govern.

On his retirement Macpherson was given a baronetcy ‘to take off any appearance of dissatisfaction with his conduct’.7

Macpherson arrived in England in August 1787, and ran into a very warm reception. On 10 Sept. he was reported fighting a duel in Hyde Park; and two days later the sheriff of Middlesex distrained upon his property to force an appearance in reply to actions brought against him by his opponent at the 1780 election.8 He was convicted of bribery and fined £3,000.

His object in returning to England appears to have been to bring pressure to bear on the ministry to grant him a pension. In March 1788 he declared his intention of resuming his place on the Bengal council. Dundas wrote to Cornwallis, 25 Aug. 1788:9

In truth, my Lord, I did not wish him to return, for it never appeared to me possible that after the situation he had held, he could sit cordially to a Board, to cooperate in systems many of which might be different from his own. I stated these ideas to Mr. Pitt in many conversations; he entirely concurred with me in thinking that if it was necessary to give him a handsome allowance at home to prevent the untoward circumstances of his return, it was well worth the compensation. It will end in that way.

Macpherson was granted more than £15,000, and in February 1789 resigned his seat on the council.

In the meantime he had made the acquaintance of the Prince of Wales and joined the Opposition. Wraxall wrote10 of his friendship with the Prince, which lasted until 1802, that ‘during that time few individuals enjoyed more distinguishing marks of his Royal Highness’s favour’; and Dundas reported in 1789 to Cornwallis:11 ‘He is a right-hand man with the Prince of Wales, and supposed to be very deep in his counsels, rather more so than anybody except Mr. Sheridan.’ James Grant wrote of him during the Regency crisis that ‘he took the opportunity of going over to the rising sun in the first boat; he is not in Parliament, but he carried off his namesake and Sir Samuel Hannay’.12

Macpherson died 12 Jan. 1821.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Reports from Committees of the House of Commons, v. 641; Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 319.
  • 2. Add. 29137, f. 375.
  • 3. HMC Palk, 270; Add. 29143, ff. 121-3.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 357.
  • 5. Add. 29147, ff. 119, 370.
  • 6. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 383, 454.
  • 7. Hen. Dundas to Cornwallis, 3 Aug. 1787, ibid. i. 338.
  • 8. Gent. Mag. 1787, p. 832.
  • 9. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 370.
  • 10. Mems. iv. 237.
  • 11. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 423.
  • 12. Ibid. 448.