ST. JOHN, Hon. John (?1746-93).
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Family and Education
b. ?1746, 3rd s. of John, 2nd Visct. St. John, and bro. of Hon. Henry St. John. educ. Eton 1756-63; Trinity, Oxf. 13 Dec. 1763, aged 17, L. Inn 1765; M. Temple 1767, called 1770. unm.
Surveyor gen. of Crown lands 1775-84.
An unfriendly, but not altogether inaccurate, account of St. John was given in the English Chronicle in 1781:
This gentleman’s original view in life was to shine as a luminary of the law, and to astonish the grave sages of Westminster Hall ... where, if the splendour of his abilities could not produce the intended effect, the novelty of his appearance there greatly contributed to it ... The court of King’s bench first beheld a barrister pleading before them, with hair full dressed, and an ample bag pendant thereto, in the pretty figure of Counsellor St. John. In 1771 [should be 1773] ... he was by the strong recommendation of his relation [by marriage] Lord North to Mr. Holmes ... elected into Parliament, where he opened his political career with a thundering philippic against opposition.
St. John’s maiden speech was delivered on 10 June 1773 in defence of North’s regulating bill and in reply to Dowdeswell’s long opening speech against it. In the new session, 13 Jan. 1774, St. John seconded the Address.1
Our poor counsellor [wrote Selwyn2] was a long while in the mud. He took too large a field upon a dry subject, the coinage ... He was sometimes out, and very dull through the whole.
St. John spoke in two other major debates in that Parliament, on both occasions in support of Government: 25 Feb. against perpetuating the Grenville Act; and, 2 May, on the third reading of the Massachusetts Bay bill—a legalistic speech, precious and precise.3 Although he was hardly a success as a speaker, four other interventions by him in later Parliaments are recorded in Almon’s Parliamentary Register,4 though only the last, connected with Crown lands, receives more than the briefest notice.
‘John St. John is more dull, more tedious, more important than ever’, wrote A. M. Storer to Lord Carlisle on 28 June 1781; Selwyn refers to ‘our Counsellor’s profound looks and impenetrable circumlocutions’; and James Hare from Paris, in 1783: ‘St. John is by many degrees more stupid and ridiculous than he is in England.’5 When a club was formed
at Welche’s, in St. James’s Street, consisting of young men who belong to Government ... poor John St. John [wrote Hare to Carlisle on 29 Dec. 1781], whose age and zeal for Government particularly qualify to be a member ... met with objections on the ballot, which I hope will be withdrawn on another trial of his interest.
The office of surveyor of Crown lands, wrote Selwyn to Carlisle on 7 Nov. 1775, ‘is called £1,400 a year; I believe it is more, and then he has another of £500; John will wallow in preferment.’ St. John voted regularly with the Government. But his attempts to support them were also a matter of fun to his brilliant friends. When the North Administration was tottering—
As I conceive the last defeat in the House of Commons [wrote Carlisle from Dublin Castle on 6 Mar. 1782] to have arisen from some deep-laid scheme of J. St. John’s to make Administration in the end infinitely stronger, I only wait for the next mail to comprehend the dexterity of this operation.
John must have been, as you suppose, at the bottom of this. I really believe, if Providence had a mind to create the world anew, John would be appointed to begin with composing a chaos, and take the plan of it from his own mind.
By 12 Mar. Selwyn wondered what ‘may become of ... J. St. John’. He was suffered to retain his office; did not vote on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; and was classed in Robinson’s list of March 1783 as connected with Fox. A follower and relative of North, and of Fox’s social set, he rallied to the Coalition, and voted for their East India bill. He did not stand again in 1784. According to official records he was that year replaced by Selwyn as surveyor of Crown lands; but in a letter dated by the editor of the Carlisle MSS 16 Oct. 1789, Selwyn, having referred to St. John’s ‘flirtation with the Muses’, adds:
He cannot be employed upon the property office, as it is called, at Drury Lane, without neglecting the land revenue, upon which more, as I should fancy, might still be said, than has as yet occurred to him.
Possibly he acted as Selwyn’s deputy. In 1787 he published Observations on the Land Revenue of the Crown; and in 1791 a pamphlet against Paine’s Rights of Man. Two tragedies by him, Mary Queen of Scots and The Island of St. Marguerite, were produced in 1789 at Drury Lane—St. John ‘uses Helicon as habitually as others do a cold bath’ wrote Selwyn on 6 Nov.6
He died 8 Oct. 1793.