Biography

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Sir James Mackintosh, (1765-1832)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and it was published in 1893


Sir James Mackintosh, a philosopher, was born on 24 October 1765, at Aldourie on the bank of Loch Ness, seven miles from Inverness. His father was Captain John Mackintosh, who served twenty-four years in the army, and inherited the small estate of Kellachie, which had belonged to his family for two centuries. His mother was Marjory, daughter of Alexander Macgillivray. Soon after the birth of James his father joined his regiment at Antigua, and afterwards at Dublin. Mrs. Mackintosh was left with small resources to live with her mother and sisters and her only child at a small house called Clime.

In 1775 the boy was sent to a school at Fortrose, Ross-shire. He showed intellectual activity, disputed the Calvinistic doctrine of his teachers at fourteen, and took to reading books and to ‘castle-building.’ His mother joined her husband in 1779, and accompanied him to Gibraltar, where she died. Mackintosh was left in Scotland, and in October 1780 went to King's College at Aberdeen, where he attended the lectures during four winters, spending the summers with his grandmother. He had already taken part in a village quarrel, which ultimately got into the law courts, by versifying a prose satire written upon their neighbours by a lady. He brought a collection of verses to college, which gained for him the nickname of ‘Poet.’ He now began to be interested in speculation, stimulated by the writings of Beattie (then professor at Marischal College, Aberdeen) and Priestley, and by Warburton's ‘Divine Legation.’ He formed a lasting friendship with Robert Hall (1764-1831) the famous preacher. They started a debating society called the ‘Hall and Mackintosh Club.’ His poetical talents were devoted to the praises of a young lady with whom he fell passionately in love. He courted her for three or four years, but she married another.

His father, who returned in 1783, after serving through the siege of Gibraltar (1779-83), was too poor to send the son to the Scottish bar. Mackintosh therefore resolved to take up medicine, and began his studies at Edinburgh in October 1784. He was kindly received by Dr. Cullen, but soon became an ardent ‘Brunonian,’ i.e. follower of John Brown (1735-1788) , being ‘speculative, lazy, and factious’. He was cured of a fever by a Brunonian friend, and warmly supported Brown's heresy in the ‘Royal Medical Society,’ which met for weekly discussions, and of which he became president. He was also a member of the ‘Speculative Society,’ where he was a friend of Charles Hope (1763-1851— afterwards Lord Granton), of Malcolm Laing, and of Thomas Addis Emmet. He read papers before the ‘Royal Medical’ and the ‘Physical’ Society, showing youthful audacity and power. In 1787 he obtained his diploma, reading a thesis, ‘De Motu Musculari,’ which he is said to have defended with such skill as to remove the unfavourable impression made by his impertinence in keeping the Senatus Academicus waiting for some time.

In the spring of 1788 he moved to London, living with a Mr. Fraser, a maternal cousin, in Clipstone Street. He declined an offer of settling as a physician at St. Petersburg, after having so far considered it as to apply for introductions through Dugald Stewart. Mackintosh, as the letter implies, was only known to Stewart through a common friend, and though afterwards a friend, and in some degree a disciple, had apparently not heard Stewart's lectures at Edinburgh. He attended the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and became known at debating societies. He spoke at the ‘Society for Constitutional Information,’ where he formed a lasting friendship with Richard Sharp. He was already getting into difficulties, due to his habitual carelessness about business.

After his father's death in 1788 he sold the estate of Kellachie, but his position was not much improved. On 18 February 1789 he married Catherine Stuart, sister of Daniel Stuart, afterwards editor successively of the ‘Morning Post’ and ‘Courier,’ and at this time already engaged in journalism. Mrs. Mackintosh did her best to keep her husband to the methodical work made irksome by his easy temper and love of society. He advertised, and partially wrote, a book upon insanity, suggested by the illness of George III, and made some slight moves towards settling as a doctor in the provinces. He was, however, drawn towards politics. He supported Horne Tooke in the Westminster election of 1790.

After a tour to Brussels in the autumn, where he acquired ‘uncommon facility’ in speaking French, he became a regular contributor to the ‘Oracle,’ belonging to John Bell (1745-1831). Bell was startled by his once earning ten guineas in a week, and afterwards allowed him a fixed salary, which was for a time his chief support. He now resolved to go to the bar. Meanwhile he settled at Little Ealing, and in answer to Burke's ‘Reflections on the French Revolution,’ wrote the ‘Vindiciæ Gallicæ,’ published in April 1791. Three editions were speedily sold, and the publisher liberally gave him ‘several times’ the sum of £30, originally stipulated. Burke had been answered with much power by Thomas Paine. Mackintosh's reply, however, taking a less radical ground, and showing much literary and philosophical culture, was the most effective defence of the position of the whig sympathisers with the revolution. It was partly translated by the Duke of Orleans (afterwards Louis-Philippe).

Mackintosh, already known to Horne Tooke and Parr, was now introduced to Fox and Sheridan. He became honorary secretary to the association of the ‘Friends of the People,’ and defended their principles in a published letter to Pitt (1792), which was highly applauded by Parr and other friends. He continued, however, to study law, was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in Michaelmas term 1795, and joined the home circuit. He was contributing at this time to the ‘Monthly Review,’ not yet eclipsed by the ‘Edinburgh.’ A review of Burke's ‘Thoughts on a Regicide Peace’ in November and December 1796 showed that his revolutionary ardour had been considerably cooled by events. He was led into a correspondence with the author, and visited Burke at Beaconsfield in the following Christmas. He became a most ardent though discriminating admirer of Burke ever afterwards, and adopted his view of the French revolution. ‘It is my intention,’ he said on 6 Jan. 1800, ‘to profess publicly and unequivocally that I abhore, abjure, and for ever renounce the French revolution, with its sanguinary history, its abominable principles, and for ever execrable leaders,’ and hoped that he would be able ‘to wipe off the disgrace of having been once betrayed into an approbation of that conspiracy against God and man.’

His wife died on 8 April 1797, leaving three daughters. A monument to her memory, with a Latin inscription by Dr. Parr, was erected by him in the church of St. Clement Danes. On 10 April 1798 he made a second and happy marriage with Catherine, daughter of John Allen of Cresselly in the county of Pembroke. Two of her sisters were married to Josiah and John Wedgwood.

He met Coleridge at Cote, John Wedgwood's house, in the winter of 1797-8, and introduced him to the Stuarts as a promising contributor to the ‘Morning Post.’ Coleridge disliked Mackintosh, and wrote a witty lampoon upon him, the ‘Two Round Spaces on a Tombstone,’ in the ‘Morning Post’ (4 December 1800). In the edition of 1834 he apologises for it as written in ‘mere sport.’ Mackintosh takes some credit to himself for obtaining Coleridge's pension from the Royal Literary Society in 1824, which his biographer calls his only mode of revenging himself. It does not appear, however, that he had anything to revenge except occasional expressions of contempt in private intercourse. In the ‘Table Talk’ (27 April 1823) Coleridge calls Mackintosh ‘the king of the men of talent,’ and praises his conversation, while denying his originality.

Mackintosh had formed a plan for a course of lectures on ‘The Law of Nature and Nations.’ He published an ‘Introductory Discourse’ at the end of 1798, intended partly to indicate his conversion from the objectionable theories of the ‘Vindiciæ Gallicæ.’ In this he attacked Godwin with a sharpness for which he afterwards expressed some regret. It succeeded brilliantly; Pitt, Canning, and Lord Loughborough signified their approval, and the benchers of Lincoln's Inn granted him the use of their hall. He gave a course of thirty-nine lectures from February to June 1799, and ‘repeated it with some variations’ in 1800. He had about one hundred and fifty hearers, including six peers and twelve members of the House of Commons, but only two of his opposition friends. The lectures (except the first) were never published, but a few extracts are given in the ‘Life’.

He was now prospering both at the bar and in society. He joined a debating society of barristers and members of parliament, chiefly supporters of the government, and made the acquaintance of Perceval, afterwards prime minister. A dining club called ‘The King of Clubs’ was started at his house, of which the original members were Rogers, Sharp, ‘Bobus’ Smith, Scarlett, and John Allen. It was afterwards joined by many eminent men, including Lord Holland, Brougham, Porson, Romilly, Sydney Smith, Jeffrey, Hallam, and Ricardo. Mackintosh obtained briefs before parliamentary committees, especially in cases involving constitutional and international law. Basil Montagu as a young barrister, who first made his acquaintance at the Wedgwoods', became an admiring disciple, and persuaded him to join the Norfolk circuit, where there was an opening for leading counsel, although little business. Montagu describes a circuit in which they visited in the intervals of business places associated with the memory of Cowper, and in which Mackintosh made a conspicuous success in a case of libel. Beginning to speak late at night he gave a long discourse, starting from philosophical reflections upon the nature of power and knowledge, and ending with a pathetic appeal to the parties concerned, which melted half his audience to tears, and secured a verdict at four in the morning.

His greatest performance was the defence of Peltier (21 February 1803), accused of a libel in a paper called ‘L'Ambigu,’ intended to suggest the assassination of Napoleon, then first consul. Mackintosh, besides suggesting a different meaning for the alleged libel, gave a long harangue upon constitutional principles and the history of England since Elizabeth. Both Perceval, prosecuting as attorney-general, and the judge paid the highest compliments to his ‘almost unparalleled eloquence’, and he was highly praised by Erskine. The defendant, however, was instantly convicted, but, in consequence of the war, never called up for judgment. Mackintosh's speech was published, and is a fine literary composition, though it hardly seems so well designed to secure a verdict.

Mackintosh made £1,200 during his last year at the bar. In the spring of 1803, however, he accepted an offer from Addington of the recordership of Bombay. Canning and William Adam had supported his claims. He had already (in 1800) thought of accepting a judgeship in Trinidad, and had been a candidate for the office of advocate-general in Bengal, conferred upon his friend ‘Bobus’ Smith. At an earlier period he had been invited by Lord Wellesley to become head of a projected college at Calcutta. He was anxious, it seems, to obtain leisure for executing schemes of literary work incompatible with an active professional career, and expected to save enough to make him, with the addition of a pension, independent for life. Similar motives induced Macaulay to accept a position in India, but Mackintosh unfortunately had not Macaulay's businesslike capacity for work. He was exposed to some very unjust abuse for accepting an office from the ministry. Two letters to Fox (in the ‘Morning Post’ of 4 November 1802) denouncing his French proclivities, really written by Coleridge, were supposed to have been inspired by Mackintosh.

He was knighted on his appointment, and spent some months at Tenby, near his father-in-law's house at Cresselly. He sailed with his wife and his five daughters on 14 February 1804, landing at Bombay on 26 May. He received in 1806 a commission as judge in the court of vice-admiralty, then first instituted at Bombay for the trial of prize and maritime cases. He lived at Parell, a country house belonging to the governor, who as a bachelor did not require it. He had brought a library with him, and read much during his stay. He soon, however, found his anticipations disappointed. He regretted the breaking off of a promising career and the loss of his social recreations. Communications with home were so slow that at one period he notes that the last news from London was seven months old. Few people in the small society of Bombay could share his intellectual interests, and they seem to have regarded him as above his work, and suspected him of despising them. The pecuniary results were equally disappointing. He had to give judgment in some delicate cases where officials were charged with corruption, and incurred obloquy in a small society which was still tainted with abuses of the old order. His freedom from the demands of English society, instead of being favourable to study, encouraged his natural indolence by removing the stimulus of congenial minds. He read very widely, though in a desultory way. He kept up with English and French literature, studied Kant and Fichte — then known to very few Englishmen — and the schoolmen, of whom he had taken a large collection to India; and read not only Scott but Wordsworth, of whose poems he was an early admirer. He produced nothing, however, except designs for future work, and frequently expresses a fear that his will be a ‘life of projects’. He founded the ‘Literary Society of Bombay’ (26 Nov. 1805), of which he became president, and tried to promote the study of Indian languages and philosophies. He made some tours to different parts of the country, and was much interested in the antiquities and the manners and customs of the natives.

His health suffered from the climate. His wife was compelled to return to England for the health of the younger children, and sailed in February 1810. He was urged by his English friends to remain after the five years, which entitled him to a pension, in order to make some more money. His poverty, he admitted, showed ‘a want of common sense. I can no more learn to play the game of life than that of whist’. The state of his health made a departure imperative before he had stayed much longer, and he sailed for England on 6 November 1811. He had gradually secured the goodwill of his countrymen by his ability and kindliness, and received addresses with requests for his portrait from the grand jury and the ‘Literary Society.’ In his last charge to the grand jury he congratulated himself especially on having been able greatly to dispense entirely with capital punishment (just afterwards he had to sentence one man to death) without any increase of crimes.

Mackintosh landed at Weymouth on 25 April 1812. He immediately received an offer of a seat in parliament from his old friend Perceval, now prime minister. He wrote a reply, saying that he could not accept an offer by which he would be implicitly pledged to resist an immediate repeal of Roman catholic disabilities. Perceval was assassinated before receiving the answer.

Scarlett (afterwards Lord Abinger) had meanwhile been empowered by Lord Cawdor to offer Mackintosh a seat for the county of Nairn, if he should still adhere to the whig politics. Mackintosh in reply produced the letter to Perceval as a proof of his unchanged views, and was elected for Nairn in June 1813. His health had suffered permanently from the Indian climate, and he had to pay several visits to Bath and Cheltenham. During the homeward voyage he had begun the introduction to his contemplated history of England from the revolution of 1688 to the French revolution. He was allowed to examine the Stuart papers then at Carlton House; he examined also the French archives during some foreign trips, and collected in time fifty volumes of manuscript notes. He made his first speech in the House of Commons on 14 December 1813, protesting against the threatened interference of the allies in Holland and Switzerland, and at the end of the session made an appeal for Poland, which was warmly acknowledged by Kosciusko. He also supported Romilly's attempt to reform the criminal law by abolishing the ‘corruption of blood’ of convicted felons. It soon became clear to his friends that his weakened health would disqualify him from at once writing history and attending to politics. He took Weedon Lodge, near Aylesbury, in order to secure some retirement, and spent there great part of three years.

Unfortunately he did not break off his parliamentary career. He was elected for Knaresborough, a borough belonging to the Duke of Devonshire, in the parliament which met in January 1819. Some of his speeches were successful; but Macaulay, a friendly witness, says that he ‘rather lectured than debated’ and that his most splendid orations produced less effect than always attended the speaking of men without a tenth part of his abilities. He was, however, an able and faithful defender of liberal principles. He vigorously opposed the repressive measures which followed the peace, the ‘Seditious Meetings Bill’ of 1817, the ‘Six Acts,’ and the ‘Alien Bill,’ renewed periodically in 1818, 1820, 1822. On 10 June 1819 he made an eloquent speech, opposing the Foreign Enlistment Bill, directed against the supplies sent to the Spanish colonies. He supported Romilly's proposals for softening the severity of the criminal law, and after Romilly's death in 1818 took charge of similar measures. On 2 March 1819 he carried a motion against the government, by a majority of nineteen, for a committee to consider capital punishment. He introduced in 1820 six bills embodying the recommendations of the committee, three of which only became law. On 21 May 1823 he proposed nine resolutions to the house for abolishing the punishment of death in many cases. Peel, then home secretary, moved and carried the previous question, but promised to introduce some measures of the same kind, and Mackintosh left the question to be taken up by the government.

In February 1818 Mackintosh was appointed to the professorship of ‘law and general politics’ at Haileybury, worth about £300 a year, and took a house at Mardocks, near Ware. He had to give lectures two days a week which probably cost little trouble. He was long the colleague and friend of Malthus. In 1820, upon the death of Thomas Brown (1778-1820) , he had the offer of succeeding to the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, but was persuaded by his political friends to decline. He resigned his post at Haileybury in 1824, and was succeeded by W. Empson . He had written for the ‘Edinburgh Review’ since his return, and was unable to refuse applications from the editor, although to the delay of his history. James Mill harshly says that he only lived for ‘social display’ and to be talked of in certain circles. It seems, too, that he was in want of ready money. He managed, after many delays from illness, and making some omissions, to finish in the spring of 1830 what is perhaps his most important work, the ‘Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy,’ for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ He wrote also the short ‘History of England’ for the ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia.’ Macaulay says that to him the thought of bearing from publishers and editors what Dryden bore from Tonson, and what, to his own knowledge, Mackintosh bore from Lardner, was ‘horrible.’ For Lardner he also wrote a life of Sir Thomas More.

He was one of the chief celebrities at Holland House, and after leaving Haileybury resided for some time at Lord Holland's seat, Ampthill Park in Bedfordshire. According to Scarlett, Canning, upon forming his administration of 1827, was surprised that Mackintosh was not proposed as one of his colleagues by the whigs. He was shortly afterwards made a privy councillor, but it seems that he had not made a sufficient mark as a practical politician, or was regarded as too infirm to be fit for any important office. His wife died on 6 May 1830, while on a visit to her sister, Madame Sismondi, near Geneva. On the formation of the whig government in the following November he was made a commissioner of the board of control, a post which had been offered to him through Canning in 1812, during the negotiations which followed Perceval's death. Mackintosh was disappointed by the insignificance of his new position, but took part in the inquiry into East Indian affairs which preceded the renewal of the company's charter. He supported the second reading of the Reform Bill in 1831 (4 July), in a speech which was respectfully received, in spite of its philosophical generalities. He spoke for the last time on 9 February 1832, in a debate upon Portuguese affairs in the new parliament. A trifling accident to his throat from swallowing a chicken-bone caused an inflammation. He sank gradually, always preserving his sweetness of temper, and died at his house in Langham Place on 30 May 1832. He was buried at Hampstead on 4 June.

Mackintosh's historical writings, though tending to discourse rather than narrative, show reading and a judicial temper, but have been superseded by later books. The ‘Dissertation upon Ethical Philosophy’ is perfunctory, except in regard to the English moralists since Hobbes, and greatly wanting in clearness and precision. It is intended to be eclectic, accepting Hume's doctrine of utility as the ‘criterion’ of morals, and Butler's doctrine of the supremacy of the conscience, while the formation of the conscience is explained by Hartley's doctrine of association. In substance it seems to be a modification of utilitarianism, and suggests some important amendments in the theory. James Mill, however, attacked it with excessive severity in his ‘Fragment on Mackintosh,’ 1835, and exposed much looseness of thought and language. Mackintosh was entrusted with some metaphysical papers written by Thomas Wedgwood, and undertook to write his life, but the papers disappeared, and the life remained unwritten.


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