ADAIR, James (?1743-98), of Lincoln's Inn Fields, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



30 Jan. 1775 - 1780
13 Sept. 1793 - 21 July 1798

Family and Education

b. ?1743, 1st s. of James Adair, merchant and Irish factor, of Belfast, co. Antrim and Aldermanbury, London by Margaret, da. of Henry Maxwell, MP [I], of Finnebrogue, co. Down. educ. Eton 1753-9; Peterhouse, Camb. 10 Nov. 1759, aged 16, BA 1764, fellow 1765, MA 1767; L. Inn 1761, called 1767. m. c. 1766, Elizabeth Spencer, 1s. 1da. suc. fa. 1782.

Offices Held

Serjt.-at-law 28 Apr. 1774; recorder, London 1779-June 1789; King’s serjt. 1782; counsel to Ordnance 1782-d.; c.j. Chester circuit Nov. 1796-d.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1798.


As a young barrister, Adair was in violent opposition to the Court and, as Lord Lowther’s Member for Cockermouth, a scathing critic of Lord North’s administration. Left without a seat in 1780 and defeated at Southwark in 1782, he fell back on his profession. He joined the Whig Club, 26 June 1784. Apart from his politics, the effect on his health of his other professional duties as King’s serjeant nudged him out of the recordership of London worth £1,000 p.a. In June 1789 he retained his place as counsel to the Ordnance, which he considered ‘distinct from party’.1

On 8 Feb. 1790 the Duke of Portland in a letter of introduction for the Prince of Wales described Adair as ‘a steady friend to the party’, who had acted for them in the Regency crisis. He remained active in the Southwark branch of the Whig Club.2 In January 1793 he was given the delicate task of moving, at the Whig Club, a vote of thanks to Fox for his denunciation of the loyal associations which would be palatable to Portland and the conservative Whigs. He regarded the duke as his leader and, finding that Portland could not swallow the draft of his motion, proposed absenting himself until, upon Fox’s intervention, the duke was pacified. He then attended the meeting, 20 Feb., but did not move any resolutions. On 2 Mar., prompted by Robert Adair*, he urged the duke to disavow the secession of some of his friends from the Whig Club, and added that unless the duke attended the next meeting of the Club he would himself stay away. The duke in reply requested him and his friends to attend on 5 Mar., even if he himself was absent (which in the event he was not).3 A month later, Adair declined an overture from Thomas Erskine to league himself with the friends of parliamentary reform, not from lack of sympathy, but because he thought the time inopportune.4 In May 1793 he was urged by Portland to assist the party project to redeem Fox’s debts. He acted as Portland’s intermediary in the business, made the presentation to Fox and moved public thanks at the Crown and Anchor to William Adam, who had organized the subscription.5

On 3 Aug. 1793 Adair was offered by Earl Fitzwilliam an expected vacancy at Higham Ferrers, which, being a close borough, could not cost him more than £150 at elections. Accepting the offer, 8 Aug., he assured his patron that they were ‘likely very seldom to differ’:

I cannot prevail upon myself to concur in any systematic opposition to government, on the subject of the war with France, unless the ministry should hereafter neglect any fair and palpable opportunity of terminating it, by a safe and honourable peace in a manner consistent with the faith of treaties.

In reply, Fitzwilliam assured him that there was ‘but a shade’ of difference between them.6 His election in September was darkened, so he thought, by the government’s failure to hold Dunkirk. On 30 Dec., in an intended letter to Fox which he toned down next day, he characterized himself as forced ‘to support an administration I dislike’ in ‘uneasiness and embarrassment’; he nevertheless regarded the war as just and action against jacobinism at home justified. Fox at once put it about that Adair was ‘a most zealous friend to the war’.7 Yet he was less inflexible than other Portland Whigs in this respect. Thus on 20 Jan. 1794 it was he who, at Burlington House, dissented from William Windham’s proposal that there should be no attempt to check the ministry’s conduct of the war by inquiry. He justified such inquiry, ‘by way of exciting ministers and gaining confidence with the people’. He was then isolated in this view.8

As Fox had noted hopefully, Adair also disliked the proceedings against the Scottish radicals, and on 4 Feb. 1794, in his first known speech in the House, supported Adam’s motion in favour of appeals to the Lords against the judgments of the Scottish courts. Although he absented himself on 10 Mar., when Adam developed his theme, on the pretext of ignorance of Scottish criminal law, he supported Adam’s motion for a select committee on the subject, Mar. On 10 Feb. he had successfully moved the previous question 25 against Grey’s motion objecting on constitutional grounds to the landing of foreign troops in England; he admitted, nevertheless, that a violation of the letter of the law was involved and that he must in extremis support Grey’s requirement of indemnity. On 14 Mar., after showing that there was no prerogative in the crown to introduce foreign troops, he accordingly did so by speech and vote. Another question upon which he differed from Pitt was that of voluntary subscriptions for home defence not explicitly countenanced by Parliament, 17 Mar., 1 Apr. Pitt refused Adair’s offer of a clause tagged on to the volunteer bill to remove the anomaly; nor did Portland share Adair’s enthusiasm for it. When he brought in his clause, 7 Apr., it was supported only by Foxite Whigs and negatived without a division.9

A memorandum, in Adair’s hand, of ‘Grounds on which independent Members of Parliament ought at this time to act, May 1794’ emphasized the need to support government in a ‘vigorous prosecution of the present just and necessary war’ and in preserving public order and the principles of 1688 against those who sought to ‘overturn the constitution ... by giving any new power to the body of the people, or asserting any rights in them, inconsistent with the just prerogative of the crown and the rights and privileges of the nobles’. Independent Members were nevertheless to act as a check on the executive, lest it take advantage of its extraordinary powers in time of emergency to abuse the liberties of the subject.10

Adair, who was of Irish background and had inherited estates in county Down, was thought of for Irish office—as lord chancellor—when Portland joined administration in July 1794. He was assured of Irish Whig support if the new viceroy proscribed the ‘Castle gang’. Writing to the duke on 3 Aug. he referred to the role he might be called upon to play in the implementation of Irish policy if Fitzwilliam became viceroy.11 Meanwhile, in token of the junction with Pitt, he supported George Rose’s son against Bryan Edwards in the by-election at Southampton.12 The delay in Fitzwilliam’s appointment made him suspicious. His own stipulations for office were outrageous: £3,000 pension plus the Irish pells in reversion and provision for his wife. He warned Portland, 25 Oct. 1794, that he doubted Pitt’s commitment to the duke’s proposals for Ireland, in which case, the duke would be better off out of office. He knew that he himself could only obtain office if the duke remained in, but by 27 Oct. he had resolved that even if Pitt agreed to remove the Irish lord chancellor Fitzgibbon to substitute Adair (which Portland wished him to do), he could not accept it, so he advised the duke to leave his name out of the question altogether. Edmund Burke thought Adair’s appointment would have been ‘an outrage to the Irish bar’, as he was ‘a man of straw ... a mongrel in respect of the policy—not Irishman enough to be known on that side of the water—not enough of a stranger to be reputed English; and no splendid person at either bar’. This was on the eve of his acting as counsel for the crown in the treason trials. On 30 Dec. 1794 he vindicated the trials against Fox in the House, and on 5 Jan. 1795, in defence of the suspension of habeas corpus, denounced the activities of the radicals. This speech Canning described as ‘one of the very best ... whether as a parliamentary oration or as the argument of a lawyer, whether for eloquence or effect, that I ever heard in my life’. On 23 Jan. 1795 he further vindicated the suspects’ detention bill.13

His patron’s recall from Dublin placed Adair in a painful dilemma, in so far as Portland must be supposed to have acquiesced in it. A quarrel between the two men must be as harmful to the ‘true Whig interest’, as the recall in itself was to Ireland and to Anglo-Irish relations. On 8 Mar. Adair was told his side of the story by Portland. When next day Fitzwilliam, in his isolation, appealed to him for his friendship, he was moved to remind Portland that he had been opposed to Fitzwilliam’s recall, but admitted that it would be ‘the least of two afflictions’ if he remained Portland’s friend. To Fitzwilliam he wrote consolingly, indicating that he could not adjudicate without further information. He avoided a full explanation with Fitzwilliam and on 19 May, when the House disposed of the question of the viceroy’s recall, moved the order of the day against the motion for inquiry, on the basis of cui bono. He had represented the preliminary debate to Fitzwilliam as ‘the most complete triumph’ for him and such as made any further discussion undesirable.14

Adair retained Fitzwilliam’s confidence, being offered, 12 Sept. 1795, a fresh lease of Higham Ferrers by his patron, who did not think they differed ‘materially’. Fitzwilliam was now politically unconnected, not wishing to give ‘ostensible strength’ to ministers, but unwilling to join opposition because of his general support for the war and hostility to jacobinism. Accepting the offer from Belfast, 26 Sept., Adair was anxious to assure his patron that they were in substantial agreement. He could not pledge himself to support the conduct of the war by ministers, though he approved the justice of it and would prefer peace, but doubted if it was at present feasible. He had no confidence in Pitt, but saw no alternative. He proposed, therefore ‘a general support’ to administration, ‘though I shall probably feel it a duty to oppose them in some instances; and shall be happy on every occasion, to manifest my disapprobation of their conduct to your lordship, in relation to the government in Ireland’.15 He was among those who thought John Reeves’s Thoughts on English Government a seditious libel, 23 Nov. 1795, but opposed prosecuting him without further inquiry, 4 Dec. Although he favoured the reception of a petition against them, he supported the bills against sedition, 24, 27 Nov. 1795; but in the trial for treason of William Stone was, with Thomas Erskine, counsel for the defence, January 1796. Adair had already indicated his support of the aboliton of the slave trade in March 1794; on 18 Feb. 1796 he confirmed it: ‘to all who believed in a superintending Providence, the slave trade of itself was sufficient to account for all the calamities which had lately befallen Europe’. It was, he stated on 7 Mar., ‘a disgrace to the nation’ and he roundly rebuked its apologists, denying ‘the existence of our right to enslave others’. On 15 Mar., justifying the abolition bill, he claimed that the demands of justice and humanity overrode all others, and on 11 Apr. he deprecated Philip Francis’s bid to temporize and take the initiative on the subject from Wilberforce. On 11 Mar. 1796 he scathingly opposed a bill to anatomize the bodies of executed burglars and felons: he referred to the ‘disgraceful multiplicity of crimes already punished with death’ and added that he ‘was not such an enthusiast for the promotion of the science of anatomy as to advance it at such a price and by such means’. That session also he supported Charles Abbot’s efforts to methodize the revision of statutes, 12 Apr., being named to the select committee. Himself a Unitarian, he brought in a Quaker relief bill, 26 Apr. 1796, which, being thwarted in the Lords, he renewed next session, 17 Oct. Sir William Scott destroyed it on 6 Mar. 1797, when it was postponed by 28 votes to 16. It was intended to relieve Quakers of the penalties for refusal of tithe payment and to enable them to affirm, rather than swear oaths, in the criminal courts.

Adair’s election at Higham Ferrers in 1796 cost him a mere £193, and when he was offered the chief justiceship of Chester in November his patron assured him that his re-election would be no problem, adding that he was glad that the appointment was on professional merit and not ‘an ostensible ministerial’ one.16 He had nevertheless stood up in the House in retrospective defence of the bills against sedition, 18 Oct. 1796, which he claimed had been of ‘utmost service to the country’: on that occasion he disdained the aspersion of apostasy cast by the Whigs. On 30 Dec., with scrupulous fairness, he objected to the misrepresentation of one word in a sentence of Fox’s which the ministerialists demanded should be written down. On 3 Mar. 1797 he voted with ministers against Whitbread’s charge that Ireland was inadequately defended against the French: he justified this to his patron, adding that he was averse to publicizing defence arrangements. On 13 Mar. he supported the previous question, moved by Pitt, against Harrison’s motion for retrenchment, but gave as his reason that the ministry had undertaken to promote public economy. He voted for Fox’s being of the committee on public accounts the same day. On 27 Mar. he obtained leave to go the Chester circuit. He led the opposition to Fox’s motion to repeal the seditious meetings bill, 23 May 1797, in what Pitt described as ‘a very able speech’, and supported at least for the moment stern measures against mutiny, 2, 5 June 1797, in terms that earned the King’s approval. At that time there had again been reports of Adair’s being sent to Ireland as lord chancellor, with the additional view of conciliating Fitzwilliam. Burke, hearing of this, vented his spleen against a man he had come to regard as ‘the Duke of Portland’s creature’, calling him ‘that low, intriguing and perfidious tool, whose sole recommendation to the great office he holds, and which is much above his merits, was his betraying [Fitzwilliam]’.17

Adair attended Pitt’s conference on the assessed taxes bill, 17 Dec. 1797, and assisted in its passage. He opposed Sheridan’s amendment to the newspaper bill, 13 June 1798, which permitted the reproduction of French press attacks on the English government. He was reported to have opposed the Whig censures on the Irish government, 22 June, but according to Charles Grey, he was critical of its conduct. He died on 21 July 1798, of a paralytic stroke, said to have been brought on by his exertions as a light horse volunteer since 19 June. Like his parents, he was buried at Bunhill Fields.18

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Add. 53804, ff. 111, 112; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 20 Feb. 1806.
  • 2. Prince of Wales Corresp. i. 496; Morning Chron. 4 June 1791; Add. 50829, Harris to Adair, 17 Jan. 1793.
  • 3. Portland mss PwF14, 16, 17, 18, 32; Add. 50829, Portland to Adair, 17, 18, 19 Feb., 3 Mar. 1793; 53804, ff. 117, 119, 131.
  • 4. Add. 53804, ff. 127, 129.
  • 5. Add. 50829, Portland to Adair, 4 May, 4 June 1793; 53804, f. 133; Portland mss PwF46; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 62.
  • 6. Add. 50830, Fitzwilliam to Adair, 3, 11 Aug. 1793; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/10.
  • 7. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/12; Add. 47580, f. 152; 50829, Adair to Fox, 30, 31 Dec. 1793.
  • 8. Add. 33630, f. 4; 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 21 [Jan. 1794]; NLS mss 11138, f. 57.
  • 9. Blair Adam mss, Fox to Adam, Fri. [3 Jan.], Adair to Adam, n.d. [?9 Mar.]; Add. 50829, Adair to Portland, 3 Apr. 1794; 53804, ff. 162, 164.
  • 10. Add. 53804, f. 169.
  • 11. Add. 50829.
  • 12. Portland mss PwF23; Add. 53804, f. 188.
  • 13. Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, ii. 314; Add. 50829, Adair to Portland (drafts) 25, 27 Oct. 1794; 53802, ff. 25, 34; Burke Corresp. viii. 68, 347; Twiss, Eldon, i. 243; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 5 Jan. 1795.
  • 14. Add. 50829, Adair to Portland, 4, 13 Mar.; 50830, Fitzwilliam to Adair, 9 Mar. 1795; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/13, 14, 15.
  • 15. Add. 50830; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/16, 17 (copy).
  • 16. Add, 53805, f. 105; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/19.
  • 17. Wentworth Woodhouse mun, F32/22; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1550, 1566; Burke Corresp. ix. 350, 355.
  • 18. Colchester, i. 123; Grey mss, Grey to Lady Ponsonby, 11 July 1798; Gent. Mag. (1798), ii. 720; City Biog. (1800), 146.