MACDONALD, James (1784-1832), of East Sheen, Surr.

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



26 June 1805 - 1806
1812 - Feb. 1816
23 Feb. 1816 - 1831
1831 - June 1832

Family and Education

b. 14 Feb. 1784, o.s. of Sir Archibald MacDonald*. educ. Westminster 1797; Christ Church, Oxf. 1801-5; L. Inn 1804. m. (1) 5 Sept. 1805, Elizabeth (d. 4 Jan. 1818), da. of John Sparrow of Bishton, Staffs., s.p.; (2) 10 Aug. 1819, Lady Sophia Keppel (d. 29 Sept. 1824), da. of William Charles, 4th Earl of Albemarle, 2s.; (3) 20 Apr. 1826, Anne Charlotte, da. of Rev. John Saville Ogle of Kirkley Hall, Northumb., s.p. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 18 May 1826.

Offices Held

Principal clerk of privy seal 1806-d.; commr. Board of Control Dec. 1830-July 1832; high commr. Ionian isles 2 June 1832-d.


On coming of age, Macdonald was returned to Parliament for Tain Burghs on the interest of his uncle the 2nd Marquess of Stafford (the marchioness being Countess of Sutherland). He was Member for Tain for only one session, transferring at the general election of 1806 to Newcastle-under-Lyme, on the same interest. Like his patron, he adhered to the Grenville ministry, voting for their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and being listed a staunch supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. He voted for Brand’s motion against their successors, 9 Apr. 1807. On 15 Apr. he spoke to the same effect on Lyttelton’s motion. His patron had doubts about his interest at Newcastle-under-Lyme, but Macdonald was permitted to stand a contest, in which he narrowly succeeded.1 He rallied to opposition at the outset of the new Parliament.

On 22 Jan. 1808 Macdonald dissented from the address at the report stage, with particular reference to the Copenhagen expedition and the omission of peace negotiations. He voted in this sense in February; as well as against the present application of the droits of Admiralty (11 Feb. 1808 and subsequently). He opposed the orders in council, 3 Mar. 1808, the mutiny bill, 14 Mar., was teller against the pensions of the Scotch barons of Exchequer, 4 May, and voted for Catholic relief at every opportunity. On 18 Jan. 1809 he was one of the Whigs who met to endorse George Ponsonby’s leadership in the House. He opposed the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809, and was in two minorities against the Duke of York on 17 Mar. He supported both motions critical of ministerial corruption, 25 Apr., 11 May 1809, as well as Ward’s motion critical of the Dutch commissioners, 1 May. He was listed ‘thick and thin’ in opposition in 1810 and so behaved on the Scheldt question and on those of (Sir) Francis Burdett* and John Gale Jones. He also supported tithe reform, Romilly’s bill to mitigate penalties for private theft, parliamentary reform and sinecure reform that session. On 31 May 1810 he congratulated Henry Bankes* on his campaign against sinecures in the face of government hostility. He rallied to opposition on the Regency questions—not without an encouraging hint from the Prince of Wales. He and James Abercromby* were in consultation with their leader, Ponsonby, as to tactics in January 1811.2 On 29 Mar. he spoke in support of Romilly’s dwelling house robbery bill. He opposed the bank-note bill, 9 and 19 July. In the session of 1812 he was again steady in opposition, and in debate advocated giving teeth to the civil list committee to which he was named, 11 Feb., and the abolition of the ‘odious sinecure’ bestowed on John McMahon*, 23 Feb. According to Robert Ward*,

Macdonald (son of the ld. chief baron) spoke well against sinecure places. Fitzgerald said it came with an ill grace from one who himself was a sinecure placeman, different from McMahon in this, that he had not been so from a schoolboy. Macdonald, in reply, called him the l[or]d of the Treasury, who so modestly attacked him, and said he would give up his place when the goodly example was set him by others. We said across the House, why don’t you set it?

Macdonald, whose place was worth £350 p.a., said no more for the rest of the session, but voted against ministers to the bitter end. On Stuart Wortley’s motion his authority as ‘the great list-maker’ was cited as a forecast of its success. He was one of the young Whigs who were anxious for a junction with Canning at that time.3

In 1812 Macdonald, in accordance with a suggestion made by the party managers some three years before, transferred his Membership to Sutherland, on the same interest: it was believed that he would have been beaten at Newcastle-under-Lyme, where his patron’s heir replaced him. He was in the minority on the bank-note bill, 11 Dec. 1812, seconded Bankes’s opposition to (and was teller against) the vice-chancellor bill, 11 Feb., and voted for Burdett’s motion on the Regency, 23 Feb. 1813. He was at this time discontented with Ponsonby’s leadership. He criticized the Duke of Cumberland’s interference in the Weymouth election, 1 Apr., but failed on 7 Apr. to procure a select committee to investigate corruption there by 102 votes to 37. His only other known votes that session were all for Catholic relief, and in the next session only one survives, for Creevey’s motion on East India Company affairs, 17 May 1814. Five days before he had been instructed by his patron not to attend the opposition motion against the blockade of Norway. As this was the second such request in a short time, he sought an explanation and learnt that his patron no longer saw eye to eye with the party leadership, at least not on foreign policy.4

In Canning’s phrase, ‘hopes were then entertained of Macdonald’s pliability’; as if to encourage them, he joined Grillion’s Club, which was nonpartisan, and went abroad. Ponsonby complained, 4 Jan. 1815, ‘Macdonald who used to make out our lists and attend to our musters in the House will I presume not be in England at our next meeting and we must think of some other person ...’ The sequel was told by Francis Horner* to Lord Grey, 27 Oct. 1815:

[Macdonald] did not return from the continent till near the end of last session and had no opportunity of giving any vote but upon the Duke of Cumberland’s question in which he and Lord Gower voted on opposite sides. But he was so little satisfied with the ambiguous manoeuvring of that family with which he is so nearly connected or with the conclusion to which it so manifestly tended that he took upon himself to explain his own opinions and to desire an explanation of theirs. After some evasion, the correspondence has ended in their accepting his resignation, and he is to take the Chiltern Hundreds on the first day of the session ...

Macdonald has the greater merit for acting in this way that he had formed no political connexion but with Lord Stafford by which he was in the smallest degree pledged to particular opinions; and that during the whole of that period which has put men to so strong a test, from the first overthrow of Buonaparte to the last declaration of war, he was abroad.

Macdonald himself, writing to Lord Grenville on 30 Sept., had explained that the renewal of his qualification for the county had precipitated a showdown with the Staffords (in which his father acquiesced); Lady Stafford had already informed him of her husband’s wish to separate from ‘those who had disapproved the results of the battle of Leipzig’. Grenville, in commiseration, commented that this was the first formal intimation he had received of it.5 While Macdonald had wished to avoid acrimony, he could not resist pointing out to the Staffords that Grenville himself had similarly shifted his ground with regard to the struggle against Buonaparte. Nothing came of a report of a ‘hitch in Lady Stafford’s ratting and that Macdonald’s admirable conduct has frightened her’: Lord Grey was sure that the ‘air of the court’ was her ‘natural atmosphere ... and she cannot live long out of it’.6

Macdonald’s Whig friends cast about for a new seat for him in December 1815. Tierney, who realized that a purchase was likely to be beyond Macdonald’s means, regretted that he could not get a vacant one at Winchelsea on Lord Darlington’s interest for him, as he was ‘one of the very few who will condescend to make himself useful’.7 It was Lord Lansdowne who came to the rescue, returning him for Calne by inducing Joseph Jekyll to retire; nothing could have pleased Lord Grey more. His erstwhile patrons insisted that they knew in advance of this provision for their rebel.8 He was in time to vote with opposition on the army estimates, 28 Feb. 1816, and acted staunchly with them thereafter, frequently as their teller. On 25 Apr. 1816 he spoke at length in favour of retrenchment: Althorp thought the speech ‘one of the most brilliant I ever heard. It was a little too flowery so as to show that it was a set speech, but that was its only fault, and it had a tremendous effect upon the muscles of Lord Castlereagh’s face.’ Nevertheless, he was more active behind the scenes. In December 1816 he was encouraging his leaders to launch ‘an immediate attack’ on ministers next session and in March 1817 he was abetting Brougham in his bid to start a Whig evening paper. That session he spoke only twice, 1 May, 27 June (his speeches were still ‘written and got by heart’).9 He did not vote for Burdett’s reform motion, 20 May 1817, although he had voted for the reception of the Lymington petition for reform on 11 Feb. In July Brougham complained that Macdonald and Abercromby, Lansdowne’s protégés, were cold-shouldering him: to disoblige him they had voted against Williams Wynn’s election bill on his trying to save it and Macdonald was ‘carefully absent’ when Brougham assailed ministers that month—he accused them of grumbling at the Whigs from ambition for office. Macdonald was certainly disheartened about politics and, personally, by the death of his wife. He was a silent voter with opposition in 1818.10 On 3 June he returned after nearly a month’s absence to vote for Brougham’s proposed inquiry into popular education.

Macdonald signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whig opposition in the Parliament of 1818; Tierney wished him to ‘take a more active part than he has done’. He was ‘exceedingly affected’ by Sir Samuel Romilly’s suicide:

... Romilly was his intimate friend and Macdonald had been the chairman of his election committee in July last—besides this intimacy, there was a coincidence in their ill fortunes—Macdonald had lost his wife at Cowes in the Isle of Wight last year after a lingering illness similar to that which had carried off Lady Romilly at the same place.

On 21 Jan. 1819, according to plan, Macdonald assailed the address in the House, without moving an amendment: ‘a manifesto of the views and intentions of Opposition’, which was ‘uniformly strongly condemned by Tories and applauded by Whigs’.11 On 3 Feb. he was balloted for the secret committee on the Bank: he had regularly supported the resumption of cash payments. He also favoured Brougham’s membership of the committee. He was released from attendance by his party in mid February while he sponsored George Lamb’s candidature for Westminster in Romilly’s place, having been involved in Whig consultations on the subject and regarded as discountenancing support of a radically inclined candidate.12 He voted for criminal law reform, 2 Mar., and for burgh reform, 1 Apr. and 6 May. On 8 Apr. he rebuked the Camelford election committee for glossing over the corruption they had discovered and dodging the issue of reform; but he still did not support Burdett’s reform proposals. He was teller for Tierney’s censure motion on 18 May. On 3 June he was a leading critic of the foreign enlistment bill, which affected the freedom of South America. Four days later he criticized government for budgeting against the widow’s mite and leaving untouched ‘the large encumbrances on the public purse ... those golden baits which were held out for veering politicians’.

In the summer of 1819 Macdonald, who had in May been ‘dying for love of Lady Mary Stanley’ for whom Lord Derby thought him too old, so far recovered as to marry Lady Sophia Keppel. His parliamentary patron was abroad and among the Norfolk Whigs he resolved to resist stoutly impending government measures against sedition: the Whigs alone could keep radicalism at bay by ‘a conciliatory system of administration’.13 On 2 and 8 Dec. 1819 he attacked the seditious meetings prevention bill; on 20 Dec. he claimed that the newspaper stamp duties bill cancelled the victory of Waterloo. In January 1820 he eulogized Fox at the memorial dinner at Norwich. His political course was now set, though subsequently marred by ill health. He died 29 June 1832.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Fortescue mss, Macdonald to Grenville, 27 Apr. 1807.
  • 2. Blair Adam mss, Tyrwhitt to Adam, 16 Jan., Ponsonby to Adam, 18 Jan. 1811.
  • 3. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 431; Buckingham, Regency, i. 311; Letters of Countess Granville, i. 36.
  • 4. Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 25 Aug. 1809; Carlisle mss, Lady to Ld. Morpeth, 4 Oct. 1812; Brougham mss 10348; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 17 May 1814.
  • 5. Add. 38740, f. 273; Grey mss, Ponsonby to Grey, 4 Jan., Horner to same, 27 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Macdonald to Grenville, 30 Sept., reply 3 Oct. 1815.
  • 6. Add. 51542, Macdonald to Holland, 25 Oct.; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey [10 Nov.]; Grey mss, Grey to Brougham, 13 Nov. 1815.
  • 7. Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland [Nov.]; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 8, 23 Dec. 1815.
  • 8. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 12 Feb. 1816; Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 143; Grey mss, Grey to Lady Holland, 12, 18 Feb. 1816; Carlisle mss, Lady Sutherland to Lady Carlisle, Wed. 21 [Feb. 1816].
  • 9. Spencer mss, Althorp to Spencer, 26 Apr.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 12 Dec. 1816; Lambton mss, Brougham to Lambton, 27 Mar.; Add. 51565, Brougham to Lady Holland, Sat. [28 June 1817].
  • 10. Brougham mss 352; Brougham to Lambton [28 June] [10 July]; Add. 51542, Macdonald to Holland, 27 Nov. [1817]; Buckingham, ii. 237.
  • 11. Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland, 23 Sept.; Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 4 Nov. 1818, 21, 25 Jan.; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 24 Jan., Lambton to Grey, 21, 29 Jan. 1819; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 316.
  • 12. Add. 56540, f. 11; Chatsworth mss, Abercromby to Devonshire, 16 Feb. 1819; Buckingham, ii. 315.
  • 13. Chatsworth mss, Lady Morpeth to Devonshire, 5 May; Add. 51542, Macdonald to Holland, 31 Oct. 1819.