SCOTT, John (1751-1838), of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 4 June 1751, 3rd s. of William Scott of Newcastle, coal-fitter, by Jane, da. of Henry Atkinson of Newcastle. educ. Royal g.s., Newcastle; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1766; M. Temple 1773, called 1776. m. 19 Nov. 1772,1 Elizabeth, da. of Aubone Surtees of Newcastle, banker, 2s. 2da. Kntd. 27 June 1788; cr. Baron Eldon 18 July 1799; Earl of Eldon 7 July 1821.
Bencher M. Temple 1783; K.C. 1783; chancellor of Durham 1787-99; solicitor-gen. 1788-93; attorney-gen. 1793-9; P.C. 17 July 1799; l.c.j. of common pleas 1799-1801; ld. chancellor 1801-6, 1807-27.
Scott’s background was modest. ‘His rise’, writes Wraxall,2 ‘resulted from a combination of talent, labour, and character. Neither noble birth, nor favour, nor alliances produced it.’ By 1783 he was known as one of the ablest and most promising young lawyers; and when in June a seat became vacant at Weobley, he was recommended by Lord Thurlow to Lord Weymouth, on whose interest he was returned unopposed, after making the usual professions of independence. During the debates on Fox’s East India bill, Richard Fitzpatrick wrote to Lord Ossory, 18 Nov. 1783, that ‘Lord Weymouth’s lawyer ... without giving his opinion, was against us upon the question, as I have no doubt he will continue to be’.3 On 20 Nov. in his first speech he said he found the East India bill ‘rather of a dangerous tendency; but he would not declare against it. He would rather wait till he had got more light thrown upon the subject, and as he was attached to no particular party, he would then vote as justice seemed to direct.’ On 8 Dec. he attacked the bill in an over-elaborate speech, quoting the book of Revelation to draw an analogy between Fox’s commissioners and ‘the beast rising out of the seat having seven heads’, and drawing other rather laboured analogies from Shakespeare and Thucydides.4 This oratory was effectively ridiculed by Sheridan, and his later, rather infrequent, speeches, were straightforward with a mainly legal approach.
Though Scott normally supported Pitt, on 9 Mar. 1785 he voted for Fox’s proposal that the resolution authorizing the Westminster scrutiny should be expunged from the journals. There was, he said, ‘a necessity for some additional law, to put it out of the power of future ministers to keep counties or towns unrepresented under the colour of scrutinies’, and he proved from existing statutes that ‘the election must be finally closed before the return of the writ, and that the writ must be returned on or before the day specified for it’. Fox declared that in this speech Scott ‘entered into the whole of the case with a soundness of argument, and a depth and closeness of reasoning that perhaps had scarcely been equalled in the discussion of any topic within these walls’.5
Still, from this time Scott’s connexion with Pitt became increasingly close. During the passage of the East India declaratory bill in March 1788, when Pitt was attacked by numbers of his own side, Scott was one of his most fervent and able supporters. When in November 1788 the King became insane, Scott, recently appointed solicitor-general, suggested the expedient of using the Great Seal to give assent to bills, thus preventing the automatic assumption of power by the Prince of Wales. He warmly defended the measure against Opposition attacks, answering them with ‘legal metaphysics, endeavouring not without success to demonstrate that the fiction of which Burke complained was dictated and justified by necessity’.6 On 11 May 1790 Scott objected to Burke’s motion that the Commons were ‘bound to persevere in their impeachment against Warren Hastings’, because it ‘conveyed an insinuation against the party upon his trial which he as an individual Member of that House did not think sufficiently grounded by anything he had heard, and that being the case, the gentleman under prosecution did not in his opinion merit such a resolution’.7
He died on 13 Jan. 1838, having held high legal office for almost forty years—the most distinguished lawyer of his age.