SCOTT, Sir John (1751-1838), of Bedford Square, Mdx.; Eldon, co. Dur. and Encombe, Dorset.

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



16 June 1783 - 1796
1796 - July 1799

Family and Education

b. 4 June 1751, 3rd s. of William Scott, coal-fitter, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumb. by 2nd w. Jane, da. of Henry Atkinson of Newcastle; bro. of Sir William Scott*. educ. Newcastle g.s.; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1766, fellow 1767-72; M. Temple 1773, called 1776. m. 19 Nov. 1772 in Scotland and 19 Jan. 1773 at Newcastle, Elizabeth, da. of Aubone Surtees, banker, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2s. 2da. Kntd. 27 June 1788; cr. Baron Eldon 18 July 1799; Earl of Eldon 7 July 1821.

Offices Held

KC 4 June 1783; bencher, M. Temple 1783, treasurer 1797; chancellor of Durham 1787-99; solicitor-gen. June 1788-Feb. 1793, attorney-gen. Feb. 1793-July 1799; PC 17 July 1799; l.c.j.c.p. July 1799-May 1801; ld. chancellor Apr. 1801-Feb. 1806, Apr. 1807-Apr. 1827.

High steward, Oxf. Univ. 1801-d.


First and foremost a lawyer, Scott ‘neither liked nor understood politics’. He prided himself on King George III’s favour, which carried him to the top of his profession, and, as a law officer, supported the King’s ministers in the House, but without relish for debate.

Sir John Scott uniformly begins a speech in such a low tremulous tone of voice as implies embarrassment, yet the formalized and steady tenor with which he pursues his argument progressively removes that supposition. He is one of the most shrewd men in the House of Commons and makes his deliberation in debate more than adequate to his want of animation and immediate impression.1

He owed his seat to Lord Chancellor Thurlow, who induced the 2nd Viscount Weymouth (afterwards Marquess of Bath) to return him for Weobley. When a breach occurred between Thurlow and Pitt in July 1792, he considered resignation, but was dissuaded by Thurlow, whose withdrawal brought him closer to Pitt.2 In the first two sessions of that Parliament he had been of little service, disagreeing with Pitt in opposing the resumption of the impeachment of Warren Hastings in December 1790; offering a few words only in justification of war against Tipu in India, 28 Feb. 1791, and securing only a face-saving proviso in amendment of Fox’s libel bill in May 1791. He was listed at that time among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland, and defended the conduct of government over the Birmingham riots, 21 May 1792. On 13 Dec. 1792 he justified the early recall of Parliament and on 31 Dec. the deportation of suspect aliens. Two months later he was appointed attorney-general.

In later life Scott described how Pitt would send for him on the day of a debate, give him in half an hour ‘sufficient information’ and dismiss him with the words ‘now you are quite as equal to debate the subject as I am’. Despite his position he retained much independence of opinion. Wilberforce said that ‘when he was solicitor and attorney-general under Pitt, he never fawned and flattered as some did, but always assumed the tone and station of a man who was conscious that he must show he respected himself if he wished to be respected by others’.3

Scott’s importance as attorney-general was enhanced by the outbreak of war with France and the subsequent widespread disaffection in England. One of his first tasks (15 Mar. 1793) was to introduce and carry through the traitorous correspondence bill, which broke off private and commercial relations with the enemy. In February and March 1794 he defended the royal prerogative of bringing foreign troops into the country and the legality of voluntary donations to the war effort. In the following month he defended voluntary enlistment and amended the French enlistment bill to allow the King to determine the form of oath for foreign recruits. He opposed reform at this time, halting the Stockbridge disfranchisement bill, 27 May 1793, and crushing Adam’s motion for Scottish legal reform, 25 Mar. 1794; but had no objection to innovation in penal legislation. In defending legislation against radical conspiracies, 16 May 1794, he justified the severity of the Scottish judges: ‘if the punishment was unprecedented, the offences were novel and required an extraordinary remedy’. Later that year he was himself called upon to prosecute Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke* and John Thelwall for high treason. They were acquitted, partly because, as Thomas Erskine put it, ‘he always stated the law and the fact as favourable to the defendant as he could consistently with his duty’; but chiefly, so Scott’s critics in the House alleged, because he made the charge high treason rather than seditious misdemeanour. In his view he was adhering to the charge made in the warrants for committal and drawing public attention to the gravity of the offences countenanced by radical societies. He did not fear unpopularity.4

Scott had justified Pitt’s suspension of habeas corpus, 16 June 1794, and in January 1795 himself moved its continuation, seeking to convince the House that there was a radical plan subversive of the constitution. At this point Pitt’s difficulties in Ireland induced a crisis of confidence on the part of Scott and his colleague Mitford, who privately informed the Speaker that they felt ‘no attachment to any others of those who compose the present administration’, but did not wish to distress Pitt. It blew over. On 17 Feb. 1795 Scott, who had purchased a Durham estate in 1792, presented a counter-petition from there to one pressing for immediate peace. In June he was required to justify the government’s stance on the payment of the Prince of Wales’s debts and relied chiefly on the doubtful legality of the Prince’s claim to the revenues of the duchy of Cornwall. In November 1795 he was required to draw up legislation against treason and defended the two bills brought in for the purpose. He denied they were unconstitutional. Urged by opposition to prosecute John Reeves for his monarchist pamphlet Thoughts on English government, he complied, but failed to secure a conviction; which was also the case in his prosecution of the radicals Stone and Crossfield soon afterwards. He commended the legacy duties and real succession tax bill for their fairness, 22 Mar., 5, 9 May 1796. The following was Charles Abbot’s view of his performance in debate at this time:

Argumentative and copious in his matter, but involved in his style; always qualifying his assertions to a degree which does away their force, and too much inclined to draw the whole debate into a question about the vindication of his own conduct.

Abbot painted a ludicrous picture of Scott ‘in tears’ on this subject, amid the loud snores of John Robinson*.5

Scott was returned for Boroughbridge on the interest of the 4th Duke of Newcastle in 1796, with the pronounced concurrence of Rev. James Wilkinson, who was allowed a say in the returns. He stood by ministers on the stoppage of cash payments by the Bank in March 1797, vindicating the report of the secret committee, to which he was nominated against his will. He opposed Quaker relief, 6 Mar. On 5 June he defended his proposals for legislation against mutiny and on 7 July obtained leave for a bill to prevent illegal oaths. He improved the defence of the realm bill, 31 Mar. 1798. Aware of the failure of prosecutions for libel against the press because of the publishing of newspapers by persons unknown, he obtained leave for a bill to ensure their liability, 4 Apr. It passed on 13 June, after he had insisted that he had attacked not ‘the liberty but the licentiousness’ of the press. He denied too that his bill to prevent the King’s subjects from communicating with the enemy had any novel tendency, 31 May. Meanwhile he had tried certain United Irishmen for treason and justified his proceedings in the House, 11 June 1798.

On 17 Dec. 1798 Scott defended Pitt’s income tax and was sure that his profession would contribute readily. He had subscribed £4,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. He now paid £1,739 in the first assessment. (His frugal wife ‘never learned that they were rich’.)6 He justified the renewed suspension of habeas corpus, 21 Dec. 1798, and, on 19 Apr. 1799, further measures to suppress seditious societies. On that occasion he inveighed against theoretical reformers and prided himself on the effectiveness of the measures taken to curb the irresponsibility of the press. He denied opposition charges of ill-treatment of political prisoners, 26 Dec. 1798, 21 May 1799. He admitted that in one sphere— the Game Laws— reform was needed, 25 Feb. 1799. He seconded the appointment of a committee to review expiring legislation, 1 Mar. 1799.

In July 1798 Scott’s colleague Mitford had warned ministers that the law officers could no longer bear the burden of business imposed upon them and must be somehow relieved. Scott, whose health was giving way, was the more vulnerable of the two. He had borne the brunt of opposition criticism of repressive measures for six years, without losing his self-respect, or that of his profession, who never ‘joined in the clamour that was often raised against him by the opposition in the House of Commons’. At his own wish, he became lord chief justice in July 1799: Pitt agreed, subject to his accepting a peerage, and the King to his taking the great seal when the time was ripe. It was ripe when Addington succeeded Pitt as premier. The King’s partiality to Eldon, as he now became, exposed him to political animosity, particularly when he appeared to be a go-between in the changes of administration of 1804 and 1807. He himself denied political motivation, but his hostility to Catholic relief was undoubted and abiding.7

Except under the Grenville ministry, when Erskine replaced him, he remained lord chancellor for 25 years, the longest tenure to date. He enjoyed the confidence of the Prince Regent, who had formerly hated him but, as George IV, insisted on making him an earl, an honour he had steadily refused. This cordiality was an indication of his personal charm, enhanced by the ‘grave humour’ which survives in his Anecdote Book. As ‘the artificer of his own fortune’, he championed the constitution, thanks to which ‘an industrious man might rise to an honourable situation’. His resistance to legal innovation made him the bugbear of the reformers, who frequently sniped at him in the House of Commons. His mental imperative of scrupulosity, too, gave them ammunition, for the delays in Chancery were attributed to his ‘oyer sans terminer’.8 When, however, he was supplied in 1813 with a vice-chancellor, Sir John Leach*, the latter’s hasty decisions only multiplied appeals. He died 13 Jan. 1838.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: Winifred Stokes


  • 1. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 201; A. Pasquin, Legislative Biog. (1795), 64.
  • 2. Twiss, i. 213.
  • 3. Ibid. 314; Life of Wilberforce (1838), v. 215.
  • 4. Debrett (ser. 2), xliii. 412; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. ed. Lincoln and McEwen, 96, 173.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Mitford to Addington, 11 Feb. 1795; Colchester, i. 22.
  • 6. PRO E182/630 (St. Giles, Mdx.); Mems. of a Highland Lady ed. Lady Strachey, 142.
  • 7. SRO GD51/1/282/1; Scarlett, Mem. Lord Abinger, 90; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 113, 192, 197.
  • 8. Debrett (ser. 2), xliii. 176; Pellew, Sidmouth, iii. 35; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 191, 206, 213.