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John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham (1792-1840)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1892

Lord DurhamJohn George Lambton, first Earl of Durham, eldest son of William Henry Lambton, of Lambton, co. Durham, M.P. for the city of Durham, by his wife, Lady Anne Barbara Frances Villiers, second daughter of George, fourth earl of Jersey, was born in Berkeley Square, London, on 12 April 1792. On the death of his father at Pisa in November 1797, he inherited the family estate, which had been held in uninterrupted male succession from the twelfth century. He was educated at Eton, and on 8 June 1809 was gazetted a cornet in the 10th dragoons. He became a lieutenant in the same regiment on 3 May 1810, but retired from the army in August 1811.

At a by-election in September 1813 he was returned to the House of Commons in the whig interest for the county of Durham, and continued to represent the constituency until his elevation to the peerage in 1828. On 12 May 1814 Lambton, in a maiden speech, seconded C. W. Wynn's motion for an address to the crown in favour of mediation on behalf of Norway, and on 21 February 1815 moved for the production of papers relating to the transfer of Genoa, which he stigmatised as ‘a transaction the foulness of which had never been exceeded in the political history of the country’. In March 1815 he unsuccessfully opposed the second reading of the Corn Bill, and in May 1817 his resolutions condemning Canning's appointment as ambassador extraordinary to Lisbon were defeated by a large majority. In March 1818 he led the opposition to the first reading of the Indemnity Bill, and in May of the same year unsuccessfully opposed the second reading of the Alien Bill.

At a public meeting held at Durham on 21 October 1819, Lambton denounced the government for their share in the Manchester massacre. His speech on this occasion was severely criticised by Henry Phillpotts, afterwards bishop of Exeter, and at that time a prebendary of Durham, in a ‘Letter to the Freeholders of the County of Durham,’ &c. (Durham, 1819).

In July 1820 Lambton fought a duel with T. W. Beaumont, who had made a personal attack upon him in a speech during the Northumberland election. In February 1821 he seconded the Marquis of Tavistock's motion censuring the conduct of the ministers in their proceedings against the queen, and on 17 April 1821 brought forward his motion for parliamentary reform, which was defeated by a majority of twelve in a small house on the following day. Lambton was in favour of electoral districts, household suffrage, and triennial parliaments, and his proposed bill ‘for effecting a reform in the representation of the people in parliament’ is given at length in the appendix to 2nd ser. vol. v. of ‘Parliamentary Debates’.

For the next few years Lambton took little or no part in the more important debates in the house, and in 1826 went to Naples for the sake of his health, remaining abroad about a year. Though he is said to have warmly supported the Canning and Goderich administrations, his name does not appear as a speaker in the ‘Parliamentary Debates’ of that period. On Goderich's resignation Lambton was created Baron Durham of the city of Durham and of Lambton Castle, by letters patent dated 29 January 1828, and took his seat in the House of Lords on the 31st of the same month. On the formation of the administration of Earl Grey, who was father of Durham's second wife, Durham was sworn a member of the privy council, and appointed lord privy seal (22 November 1830).

In conjunction with Lord John Russell, Sir James Graham, and Lord Duncannon, he was entrusted by Lord Grey with the preparation of the first Reform Bill. A copy of the draft plan, with the alterations which were subsequently made in it, is given in Lord John Russell's ‘English Government and Constitution,’ 1866. When the proposals were completed Durham wrote a report on the plan, which, with the exception of Durham's proposition of vote by ballot, was unanimously adopted by the cabinet. On 28 March 1831 Durham made an elaborate speech in the House of Lords in defence of the ministerial reform scheme. He was present at the interview on 22 April 1831, when the king was persuaded to dissolve parliament. Durham was one of those in the cabinet who desired to secure the passage of the Reform Bill through the House of Lords by an unlimited creation of peers. It was Grey's objection to this course that probably led to a violent scene at the cabinet dinner at Lord Althorp's in December 1831, when ‘Durham made the most brutal attack on Lord Grey’. Though his colleagues thought that he would resign, he merely absented himself for some days from the cabinet, and wrote to his father-in-law (over whom he exercised considerable influence) a formal declaration in favour of ‘a large creation of peers,’ which was read at the cabinet meeting on 2 January 1832.

On 13 April 1832 he made an animated speech in favour of the second reading of the third Reform Bill, and violently attacked his old antagonist, Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter. Durham was appointed ambassador extraordinary to St. Petersburg on 3 July 1832, and to Berlin and Vienna on 14 September 1832, but returned to England in the following month without accomplishing the object of his mission. He objected strongly to Stanley's Irish Church Temporalities Bill, and much of the other policy of the government. At length, irritated by the perpetual compromises of the cabinet, his health gave way, and he became anxious to retire. Upon Lord Palmerston's refusal to cancel the appointment of Stratford Canning as minister to St. Petersburg (an appointment which Durham had promised the Emperor of Russia should be revoked), Durham resigned (14 March 1833), and was created Viscount Lambton and Earl of Durham by letters patent dated 23 March 1833. According to Lord Palmerston, Durham induced Ward to bring forward his appropriation resolution in May 1834, which led to the resignation of Stanley, Graham, Richmond, and Ripon.

It appears that Lord Grey soon afterwards wished to have Durham back again in the cabinet, but was overborne by Brougham and Lansdowne. Durham's opinions were not, however, in accord with those of the cabinet, for during the debate in July on the second reading of the bill for the suppression of disturbances in Ireland, he expressed his strong disapproval of the clause authorising interference with public meetings. At the Grey banquet in Edinburgh in September 1834, Durham replied to Brougham's attack upon the radical section of the party, and after frankly declaring that he saw ‘with regret every hour which passes over the existence of recognised and unreformed abuses,’ declared his objection to compromises, and to ‘the clipping, and paring, and mutilating which must inevitably follow any attempt to conciliate enemies who are not to be conciliated’. This controversy, which led to a lasting enmity between them, was renewed by Brougham in a subsequent speech at Salisbury, when he challenged Durham to a debate in the House of Lords, and in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for October 1834, and by Durham in a speech delivered at the Glasgow banquet given in his honour on 29 October 1834.

Durham was now the head of the advanced section of the whigs, and under his auspices an election committee sat to promote the return of candidates who favoured his pretensions to the leadership of the party. Failing in this object of his ambition, Durham was appointed ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg on 5 July 1835; but the Emperor of Russia's consent having been obtained before Durham was named to the king, there was, according to Lord Melbourne, ‘the devil to pay about this appointment’. Durham resigned his post at St. Petersburg in the spring of 1837, and was invested by the new queen with the order of G.C.B. at Kensington Palace on 27 June 1837. Though strongly urged at this time to give the government a more radical character by the admission of Durham and other advanced liberals, Melbourne refused to do so, and in a letter to Lord John Russell, dated 7 July 1837, significantly remarks that ‘everybody, after the experience we have had, must doubt whether there can be peace or harmony in a cabinet of which Lord Durham is a member’.

In consequence of the insurrection of the French Canadians an act of parliament was passed in February 1838, by which the legislative assembly of Lower Canada was suspended for more than two years, and temporary provision was made for the government of the province by the creation of a special council, and by letters patent dated 31 March 1838 Durham was appointed high commissioner ‘for the adjustment of certain important questions depending in the said provinces of Lower and Upper Canada, respecting the form and future government of the said provinces,’ and also governor-general of the British provinces in North America. Durham landed at Quebec on 29 May, and two days afterwards having dismissed the executive council which his predecessor had appointed, selected a new one from among the officers of the government. On 28 June he appointed his chief secretary, Charles Buller, and four officers attached to his own person, who were entirely ignorant of Canadian politics, members of the special council, and persuaded them on the same day to pass an ordinance authorising the transportation to Bermuda of Wolfred, Nelson, Bouchette, Gauvin, and five others of the leading rebels then in prison at Montreal, and threatening the penalty of death on Papineau and fifteen others if they returned to Canada without permission. These high-handed proceedings were known in England in July, and were immediately denounced by Brougham, whose Canada Government Act Declaratory Bill was carried on the second reading against the government by a majority of eighteen. On the following day (10 August) Lord Melbourne declared the intention of the government to disallow Durham's ordinance, and to accept the indemnity clause of Brougham's bill, which was shortly afterwards passed into law. Having been virtually abandoned by the ministers who had appointed him, Durham sent in his resignation, and issued a proclamation, dated 9 October 1838, in which he injudiciously appealed from the government to the Canadians, and declared that from the outset the minutest details of his administration had been ‘exposed to incessant criticism, in a spirit which has evinced an entire ignorance of the state of this country’.

He sailed from Canada on 1 November, leaving Sir John Colborne in charge, and reached England on the 26th of the same month. Though he was received without the usual honours, a number of addresses were presented to him on his return, and while boasting at Plymouth, in answer to one of them, that he had put an end to the rebellion, the news arrived that it had already broken out again. On 31 January 1839 Durham sent in his ‘Report on the Affairs of British North America’ to the Colonial office. The whole of this celebrated report, which bears Durham's name, and has guided the policy of all his successors, was written by Charles Buller, ‘with the exception of two paragraphs on church or crown lands,’ which were composed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Richard Davies Hanson. Two unofficial editions of this report were also published, one with and the other without the despatches.

Durham spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 26 July 1839, during the debate on the bill for the government of Lower Canada. At the conclusion of his speech he alluded to ‘the personal hostility to which he had been exposed,’ and to his own anxiety that the Canadian question ‘should not be mixed up with anything like party feeling or party disputes,’ and asserted that it was ‘on these grounds that he had abstained from forcing on any discussion relative to Canada’ . He died at Cowes on 28 July 1840, aged 48, and was buried at Chester-le-Street, Durham.

Durham was an energetic, high-spirited man, with great ambition, overwhelming vanity, and bad health. ‘When he spoke in parliament, which he did very rarely,’ says Brougham, ‘he distinguished himself much, and when he spoke at public meetings more than almost anybody’. His undoubted abilities were, however, rendered useless by his complete want of tact, while his irritable temper and overbearing manner made him a most undesirable colleague. Lord Dalling, who with Buller, Ward, Grote, Duncombe, and Warburton belonged to the ‘Durham party,’ had a very high opinion of Durham's capacity, while Greville never loses an opportunity in his Memoirs to disparage him.

Durham was elected high steward of Hull in 1836, and was a knight of the foreign orders of St. Andrew, St. Alexander Newsky, St. Anne, and the White Eagle of Russia, Leopold of Belgium, and the Saviour of Greece. He married, first, in January 1812, Miss Harriet Cholmondeley, by whom he had three daughters: 1. Frances Charlotte, who married on 8 September 1835 the Hon. John George Ponsonby, afterwards fifth earl of Bessborough, and died on 24 December 1835, aged 23; 2. Georgina Sarah Elizabeth, who died unmarried on 3 December 1832; and 3. Harriet Caroline, who died unmarried on 12 June 1832. His first wife died on 11 July 1815, and on 9 December 1816 Lambton married, secondly, Lady Louisa Elizabeth Grey, eldest daughter of Charles, second earl of Grey, by whom he had two sons; namely, 1. Charles William, the ‘Master Lambton’ of Sir Thomas Lawrence's celebrated picture, who died on 24 December 1831, aged 13; and 2. George Frederick D'Arcy, who succeeded his father as the second earl; and three daughters: 1. Mary Louisa, who became the second wife of James, eighth earl of Elgin, on 7 November 1846; 2. Emily Augusta, who married, on 19 August 1843, Colonel William Henry Frederick Cavendish, and died on 2 November 1886; and 3. Alice Anne Caroline, who became the second wife of Sholto, twentieth earl of Morton, on 7 July 1853. Lady Durham, who was appointed a lady of the bedchamber on 29 August 1837, but resigned the appointment immediately after her return from Canada, died at Genoa on 26 November 1841, aged 44.

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