GORDON, James Edward (1789-1864), of 5 York Street, St. James's Square, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 11 Mar. 1789, 3rd s. of James Gordon of Littlefolla, Fyvie, Aberdeen and Ann McDonald of Coclarachie, Abernethy, Perth. m. 25 Oct. 1836, Barbara, da. of Samuel Smith*, 2s. 1da. d.v.p. d. 30 Apr. 1864.
Vol. RN 1804, midshipman 1806, master’s mate 1810, lt. 1811, ret. 1815.
Gordon followed his elder brothers George and Peter into the navy, where he saw action in the Mediterranean and off the Spanish coast, before obtaining command of the St. Lawrence, a captured American schooner, 16 Nov. 1814. While carrying dispatches concerning the peace between Britain and the United States, 14 Feb. 1815, his vessel was taken after ‘a desperate action’ with the American privateer Chasseur in the Gulf of Florida. Gordon, who commended his captors’ ‘humane and generous treatment’, was ‘honourably acquitted’ at his subsequent court martial in Bermuda, 21 Apr. 1815, but he retired from active service the next day on half-pay.1 Thereafter Gordon, who had developed contacts with the Clapham Sect and the Glasgow Evangelical preacher Thomas Chalmers, busied himself with naval charities before turning his attention to the ‘state of Popery’ in Ireland, where he undertook numerous tours ‘to obtain accurate information’, particularly with regard to ‘scriptural education’ and ‘the number of scholars under the Sunday School and Hibernian Societies’.2 ‘You may implicitly rely on any facts he states to you’, John Maxwell Barry* informed the new home secretary Peel, 29 Dec. 1821, ‘though perhaps you may not entirely agree in the conclusions he draws from them. He was, when he came over, a very strong advocate for Catholic emancipation, but his opinion is, I believe, now much changed’.3
On 13 Jan. 1824 Gordon, who had been campaigning steadily for a commission on Irish education, notified Peel of his ‘perfect willingness to contribute the results of a four years investigation ... either on a commission or before a committee ... without regard to emoluments’. In March he reported his belief that ‘there lives not in Irish society so immoral and disorderly a class of persons as the schoolmasters conducting the hedge and priests’ schools’.4 He protested at being passed over as a commissioner, 10 Apr. 1824, citing his ‘intimate and particular acquaintance with the Roman Catholic and Protestant systems’, his ‘practical connection with the "local system" of the celebrated Dr. Chalmers’ and ‘the liberality’ of his principles.5 That summer he and the Baptist Wriothesley Noel began another tour of ‘about six months’ for the Hibernian Society, with whose ‘operations in Ireland’ he professed an ‘intimate acquaintance’.6 The disruption of their meetings by the Catholic Association in September led to accusations in the House of their ‘being the cause of general disturbance in Ireland’, a charge which Gordon vigorously denied in a letter to Peel condemning the Association for spreading ‘sedition, blasphemy and scurrilous invective’, 21 Feb. 1825.7 Speaking similarly before the commission on Irish education, 22 Feb., 12, 16 Apr. 1825, he praised the work of the Kildare Place Society, the London Reformation Society and the Hibernian and other Sunday school societies of which he was a member, but insisted that he had visited Ireland ‘in a private capacity’ to ‘promote the moral improvement of the county’ and not ‘any institution in particular’.8 A firm advocate of the need to proselytize the Irish Catholics, in May 1827 he established the British Protestant Reformation Society to ‘attract popular attention to the errors of the Romish creed’ and promote scriptural education in Ireland, where he continued to travel widely in his capacity as honorary secretary.9 An admirer later recalled:
The Lord raised up and sent forth a young naval officer, who had faith to believe that the sword of the spirit could cut its way through the sophisms of Papal superstition ... Ten of the best years of his life were chiefly spent in Ireland, in the attempt to render Protestantism aggressive.10
At the 1831 general election Gordon came forward for Dundalk as the nominee of the 3rd earl of Roden, vice-president of the Reformation Society, in order, asserted the Catholic press, ‘to pour the last drop of bitterness into the cup of insult’. He was returned unopposed.11 He is a ‘strange selection’ and ‘so obnoxious to the Irish people’, complained Richard Sheil*, who pledged to contest Dundalk at the next election.12 Gordon has ‘promised us ... to nail his flag to the mast for church and constitution and not to be put down, but I suppose Sheil will ... try to silence him’, observed Charles Thackeray to the Irish primate, 4 June 1831.13 In the House, 9 Sept. 1831, Gordon was described by the Grey ministry’s Irish secretary Smith Stanley as ‘chiefly remarkable for his over zeal on religious matters’. He asserted that a petition from the National Union presented by Hunt was illegal and called for a ‘more vigorous method of dealing’ with such ‘atrocious incitements to rebellion’, 28 June. Next day he contended that political unions were ‘founded upon the jacobinical principles of the Rights of Man’ and had no other object than ‘the subversion of the British constitution’. ‘Gordon has begun to harangue us, and promises to be a bore of the first order’, recorded Thomas Macaulay.14 He refuted allegations that he had identified Hume personally with ‘seditious publications’, 1 July, but pointed to the link between the societies he ‘patronises and the publications in question’. He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July. On the 12th he moved for an adjournment of the debates, arguing that ‘the House is not at the present hour’ able ‘to give a favourable hearing to even the most able and influential Members’, which was defeated 328-102, and voted again to the same effect at least twice. Next day he denied any ‘factious motives’ in his conduct, denounced the bill as ‘revolutionary’ and destructive ‘of every guarantee which is essential to the security of property and the existence of society’, remonstrated against the enfranchisement of Dissenters and Catholics (warning that they would ‘use the influence you give them against the church’) and ranted that the bill was supported by ‘every infidel’ and ‘all that is diseased, infected and degraded in the country’. He divided for use of the 1831 census to determine the disfranchisement schedules, 19 July, and to postpone consideration of the inclusion of Chippenham in B, 27 July. He voted against the bill’s third reading, 19 Sept., its passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. 1831.
In a clash with Daniel O’Connell, 12 July 1831, Gordon claimed that ‘resistance to the payment of tithes’ in the south of Ireland had resulted in ‘some most respectable clergymen’ being ‘starved out of their localities’. He defended the work of the Kildare Place Society, 14, 15 July, when, in response to charges by James Grattan that he did ‘not belong to the country of which he speaks’, he replied that he had ‘travelled through the length and breadth of Ireland’. He denied that the Orangemen who had fatally opened fire at Banbridge were guilty of murder, as they had ‘acted in self-defence’, 18 July, and contrasted that event with ‘the want of anxiety’ shown when murder was committed by Catholic priests, 3 Aug. He presented a petition from Dundalk ship owners against ‘excessive stamp duty upon policies of insurance’, 19 July. That day he moved unsuccessfully to print one from Glasgow Protestants against the grant to Maynooth College, which he alleged promoted ‘doctrines contrary to pure scripture’, 5 Aug. He condemned the ‘indulgence’ shown to the Rev. Robert Taylor who stood accused of blasphemy, 22 July, and remonstrated that he had held up the religion of his country to ‘contempt and abhorrence’, 15 Aug. He repeatedly refuted O’Connell’s allegations that the Carlow grand jury had drunk anti-Catholic toasts and, in a heated exchange with Sheil, that he had personally stated ‘that the Catholic peasantry were still so bigoted to believe that their priests had the power to turn them into hares or goats’, 9 Aug. ‘We gave Sandy Gordon a great dressing yesterday’, O’Connell boasted to a friend next day.15 On 11 Aug. he denounced a Waterford petition of protest at the massacre at Newtownbarry for its ‘charge against the whole of the yeomanry’ and, in a fracas which prompted the intervention of the Speaker, protested that Sheil had acted ‘in an unparliamentary manner, and his language is not that adopted in the society of gentlemen’. He complained of a breach of privilege by publications describing Hunt as the ‘opponent of the rights of the people’ and himself as ‘the author of many ... blasphemous articles’, 12 Aug. He voted for the motion of censure against the Irish government for using undue influence in the Dublin election, 23 Aug. He rebutted O’Connell’s ‘inflammatory’ assertions that the yeomanry’s fatal action at Newtownbarry was ‘premeditated’, 26 Aug, 9 Sept., 3 Oct. He praised the Society for the Suppression of Vice for checking ‘the trade in licentious publications’ and their ‘advantageous effect on the morals of society’, 5 Sept. That day he voted against the issue of the Liverpool writ. He moved unsuccessfully for the printing of a petition from Newcastle-upon-Tyne presbytery against the Maynooth grant and, in another intemperate exchange of which the Speaker despaired, regretted that ‘he was not a match’ for O’Connell ‘in the language of the fish-market’, 9 Sept. He again spoke and voted against the grant, 26 Sept. On 9 Sept. he attacked Smith Stanley’s proposals to a create an Irish board of education and, in response to charges by Henry Grattan that he was ‘entirely ignorant of Ireland’ and ‘merely the nominee of a noble Lord’, retorted that he ‘would rather be the nominee of the footman of the noble Lord, than the nominee’ of O’Connell. He divided for inquiry into the effects of the Sugar Refinery Act on the West India interest, 12 Sept. He threatened that ‘if night after night we are to have propositions for the abolition of the property of the church’, he would ‘read the oath taken by Members of the Roman Catholic persuasion’, 14 Sept. He accused Catholic priests of inciting resistance to tithes and praised the ‘Christian forbearance’ of the ‘established clergy of Ireland’, many of whom ‘had been obliged to sell their libraries’, 6 Oct. He defended the wording of a petition which applied ‘the epithet "impious" to the Roman Catholic religion’, 12 Oct. He postponed his motion on blasphemous and seditious libels the following day, when he warned that Westminster’s ‘refusal to pay parochial rates will soon be followed by a like refusal to pay the national taxes’. He welcomed a petition against the Indian pilgrim tax on the ground that ‘all sanction to idolatrous ceremonies ought to be withheld by a Christian government’, and objected to the ‘equalization of religion in Lower Canada’, which ‘should remain a Protestant state’, 14 Oct. He presented a Surrey petition against the proposed reform of Irish education, 17 Oct. 1831.
Gordon argued that reform petitions from political unions could not ‘be admitted on any grounds of legislative distinction or of common sense’, 16 Dec. 1831. He voted against the second reading of the revised reform bill the following day, opposed its details, and divided against the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. On 18 May he admonished its supporters for appealing to the ‘people out of doors’ and predicted that ‘the work of demagogues and incendiaries, and of political unions’ would ‘prove too strong for their masters’, so that ‘ere long a practical lesson may be applied to those who countenance their lawless proceedings’. He warned that radical publications were ‘gradually maturing the people for the horrors of a rebellion’ and pledged ‘week after week, to bring them down to this House, and hold up their libels and calumnies to public observation’, 21 May. He voted against the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, observing that he was ‘one of those old-fashioned bigots who still stand up for Protestant ascendancy in Ireland’. He insisted that the measure would drive the Protestants who ‘comprise 4/5ths of the population’ into a ‘collision with men to whom they are politically and religiously opposed’, 6 June. He condemned an Edinburgh reform meeting as ‘disgraceful’, 1 June, and was in a minority of 39 to preserve the voting rights of Irish freemen, 2 July 1832.
He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July 1832 (as a pair). He welcomed the motion of Spencer Perceval for a general fast, 26 Jan., and following its ridicule in the press complained of a ‘confederacy against the introduction ... into this House’ of ‘religious topics’ and the ‘lax and latitudinarian principles of the present day’, 31 Jan. He argued that control over cholera outbreaks in Scotland should reside with ‘the authorities in Edinburgh’, 15, 16 Feb., when he demanded that the prevention bill include a reference to ‘Almighty God’, on which he hoped the House would divide ‘in order that it may be known out of doors who are those who are enemies to the Christian religion’. He was in a minority of 13 against the anatomy bill, 27 Feb. He condemned petitions against the payment of Irish tithes as ‘tissues of misrepresentation’, for which he was called to order by the Speaker, 15 Mar. He welcomed an Aberdeen petition against the ‘rash and dangerous’ Maynooth grant, 11 Apr., and presented others in similar terms from Stirling and Falkirk, 3 July, and Glasgow, 10 July. He was appointed to the select committees on public petitions, 9 May, and Irish outrages, 31 May. He complained of the ‘prevailing neglect of the observance of the Sabbath by the example of persons high in authority’, 14 June, and called for a select committee on the subject, 28 June, to which he was appointed, 3 July. He voted against permanent provision for the Irish poor through a tax on absentee landlords, 19 June. He spoke and voted against the Irish party processions bill, 25 June, declaring that he was ‘as great an enemy to Orange processions’ as the Catholics, but believed ‘interference with them uncalled for’ and ‘imprudent’. He was not prepared to support the Scottish and Irish vagrants removal bill unless he succeeded in introducing ‘a clause limiting the liability of the English parishes for casual poor’, 4 July. He presented petitions from Brailsford for the abolition of slavery and the Maynooth grant, and for better Sabbath observance, 10 July, and one from St. Pancras for rescheduling parish meetings which fell on Sundays, 17 July. That day he was in a minority of two against inquiry into the inns of court. He seconded a motion for returns on cholera, which he believed had ‘increased to an extent which ought to call for a daily report from the board of health’, 23 July, and was in a minority of 16 against the bill to disqualify the recorder of Dublin from Parliament the following day. He spoke and was a minority teller against printing a ‘most calumnious’ petition against using troops to enforce Irish tithe payments, 3 Aug. 1832.
Throughout 1832 Gordon campaigned furiously against the new system of Irish education, on which he addressed Six Letters on Irish Education to Smith Stanley, denouncing its ‘heaven-daring aggression upon the principles of the reformed faith’ and ‘desertion of Protestantism in the moral contest in which it is at this moment engaged’ (pp. 65-66). He accused the board of ‘Roman Catholics, Churchmen, Presbyterians and Socinians’ who had compiled the ‘book of extracts from scripture for the instruction of the Protestant youth of Ireland’ of being ‘mutilators of the text of the Bible’, 6 Mar., and over the ensuing months made good his threat of 14 Mar. to cover the table with petitions against the plan. He declared that the scheme was supported by ‘the free thinker in religion, the radical in politics, and all that is morally infected, debased, and degraded in society’, 28 Mar., and reproached ministers for adopting a system which was ‘opposed not only to the intimations of the Bible itself, but to the very first principles of Protestantism’, 4 Apr. He moved for returns of schools operating under the new scheme, 10 Apr., 5 July, and complained of the lack of opportunity to bring up further hostile petitions, 18 Apr. He praised the conduct of Mr. Synge of county Clare, a member of the Reformation Society, who had been ‘fired at’ because he ‘felt it his duty, as a Protestant, to promote the education of the children on his estate’, and declared that the ‘influence of the priesthood is, at the present moment, directing the assassin’s knife, and sending hundreds of persons to a premature grave’, 21 May. He defended Chalmers for refusing to endorse ‘a system of national education which was not founded on scriptural truth’, 23 May, and proclaimed, ‘If I am bigoted, I may claim the company of the established churches of England and Ireland, of the synod of Ulster, and of the kirk of Scotland’, 5 June. He apologized ‘for the frequency with which a sense of duty has compelled me to intrude myself upon the attention of the House on the momentous question of Irish education’, 8 June, but vigorously denied being ‘actuated either by feelings of religious bigotry or political partisanship’, 5 July. He spoke and was a teller for the minority of 17 against the Irish education grant, 23 July, and declared that ‘a more mischievously exclusive and party spirited system has never ... been introduced into any country under the name of national education’, 28 July 1832. That month Macaulay described being in the Commons smoking room
in the vilest of all vile company, with the smell of tobacco in my nostrils and the ugly, hypocritical, high-cheeked, gaunt, vulgar face of Lieutenant Gordon before my eyes ... That confounded, chattering, blackguard ... has just got into an argument about the church with an Irish Papist who has seated himself at my elbow, and they keep such a din that I cannot tell what I am writing. There they go. The lord lieutenant, the bishop of Derry, Macgee, O’Connell, your Bible meetings, your agitation meetings, the propagation of the gospel, Maynooth College, the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head. My dear Lieutenant, you will not only bruise but break my head with your clatter. Mercy! Mercy!
A few days later he recorded a verse which was ‘in the mouth of every Member’:
If thou goest in the smoking room,
Three plagues will thee befall,
The chlorate of lime, and the bacco-smoke
And the captain who’s worst of all,
The canting sea captain,
The lying sea captain,
The captain who’s worst of all.16
At the 1832 general election Gordon retired from Dundalk and, after an abortive canvass for Trinity College, Dublin, stood as a Conservative for Nottingham, where he was beaten soundly by two Liberals. He unsuccessfully contested Paisley at the by-election of March 1834. In a letter to the new premier Peel, in which he bemoaned his inability to secure a seat at the 1835 general election, Gordon praised the work of the Record, an Evangelical publication to which he was a frequent contributor, and offered a series of observations on religious reform originally intended for the duke of Wellington, in which he warned that Protestantism was ‘the moral cement of the constitutional structure, destroy that cement and the venerable fabric becomes a dislocated and shapeless ruin’.17 That year he helped to launch the Protestant Association, of which he was a central figure until ‘symptoms of a very serious illness’ forced him to retire from public life. Enjoying a temporary recovery of health in the 1840s, he wrote numerous letters to the Record calling for a repeal of Catholic emancipation, which later appeared as British Protestantism: its present rights and duties (1847).18 In 1844 he condemned Peel, again prime minister, for his Dissenters’ chapels bill, which he prophesied would place him, ‘the Conservative government’ and ‘the nation under the ban of the Divine wrath’:
You are acting in complete ignorance of the moral guilt of the transaction to which you have but too hastily lent the sanction of your name and authority ... The unequivocal approbation of a handful of Socinian infidels will be found but a sorry compensation for the forfeited confidence and alienated feeling of all that is holy and righteous in the land.
Mr. Gordon would act more in conformity with the spirit of the religion which he professes were he less peremptory in imputing moral guilt to those who conscientiously differ in opinion from himself, and less presumptuous in undertaking to predetermine who are the proper objects of Divine vengeance.19
In his last known work, Original Reflections and Conversational Remarks on Theological Subjects (1854), Gordon warned his readers that Popery was ‘the most malignant type of moral evil which has entered our world, and the deadliest foe to the Christian and constitutional liberty of British Protestantism’ (pp. vi-vii).
Gordon died a widower and intestate at 20 Porchester Square, Bayswater, London, in April 1864. Administration of his estate was granted to his second son, the Rev. George Maxwell Gordon of Beddington, Surrey, a noted Protestant missionary in the Punjab.20
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Philip Salmon
- 1. C.O. Skelton and J. M. Bulloch, Gordons Under Arms, 179; W. O’Brien, Naval Biog. i. 410; G. Coggeshall, Hist. American Privateers, 367; E. Maclay, Hist. American Privateers, 298-300; E. Statham, Privateers and Privateering, 314-15.
- 2. J. Wolffe, Protestant Crusade, 34-35; Add. 40344, f. 205; 40356, ff. 94, 166.
- 3. Add. 40344, f. 205.
- 4. Add. 40360, f. 87; 40363, f. 89.
- 5. Add. 40364, f. 80.
- 6. Add. 40366, f. 255.
- 7. Add. 40373, f. 240.
- 8. PP (1825), xii. 707-8.
- 9. Wolffe, 35-59.
- 10. C.B. [Charlotte Ward], Dawn and Sunrise: brief notes on the life and death of Barbara Sophia Gordon (1860), 6-7.
- 11. Dublin Evening Post, 14 May 1831; Wolffe, 37.
- 12. Sketches, Legal and Political ed. M. Savage, i. 352; Drogheda Jnl. 24 May 1831.
- 13. PRO NI, Pack-Beresford mss D664/A/245.
- 14. Macaulay Letters, ii. 58.
- 15. O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1834.
- 16. Macaulay Letters, ii. 156-8, 160.
- 17. Add. 40413, f. 140.
- 18. Wolffe, 149, 221; Dawn and Sunrise, 8.
- 19. Add. 40546, f. 127.
- 20. Gent. Mag. (1864), i. 810; A. Lewis, George Maxwell Gordon, the Pilgrim Missionary of the Punjab (1889).