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Alexander Wedderburn (1733-1805)

This article was written by Alexander Hastie Millar and was published in 1899

Alexander Wedderburn, first Baron Loughborough and first Earl of Rosslyn, became Lord Chancellor. He was born at Edinburgh on 13 February 1733 and was the eldest son of Peter Wedderburn of Chester Hall, advocate (afterwards a senator of the College of Justice), by his wife Janet Ogilvy. Sir Peter Wedderburn was his great-grandfather.

His education was begun in the school of Dalkeith under James Barclay, a famous pedagogue of the time, and he had Henry Dundas (afterwards Viscount Melville) as his schoolfellow. On 18 March 1746 he matriculated at Edinburgh University. While a student he was on familiar terms with many of the leading literary men of the time, among them Dr. Robertson, the historian; David Hume, the librarian to the faculty of advocates; and Adam Smith, whose friendship was lifelong. As Wedderburn was intended for the legal profession, he began his special studies in 1750 with a view to practising in the court of session. From an early period, however, he felt that the English bar offered him larger opportunities, and on 8 May 1753 he was admitted a member of the Inner Temple while on a visit to London.

Returning to Edinburgh, he pursued his studies, and was enrolled as advocate on 29 June 1754. He first won distinction as a debater in the general assembly of the kirk of Scotland, taking his position there as an elder when only twenty-one years old, and it was his task to defend David Hume from church censure and John Home, the author of Douglas, from deposition from his ministerial office. At this time he was associated with a number of the Edinburgh literati in founding the Select Society, in which Wedderburn, though youngest member, had a prominent place. He also projected and edited two numbers of a semi-annual publication called the Edinburgh Review which was started and ended in 1756.

The death of his father on 11 August 1756 altered Wedderburn's prospects, and intensified his desire to abandon Edinburgh. His exit was dramatic. In August 1757 he was opposed to Alexander Lockhart (afterwards Lord Covington of Session) in a case which he won against his veteran adversary. Stung by a depreciatory remark made by Lockhart, the young advocate replied so intemperately that he was rebuked by the presiding judge, Lord-president Craigie. The other judges were of opinion that Wedderburn should retract and apologise; but instead of doing so, he took off his advocate's gown, laid it on the bar, and, declaring that he would wear it no more, he left the court, never again to enter it. That night he set out for London, determined to make his way at the English bar. He rented chambers in the Temple, and, as his first step towards success, he took lessons in elocution from the elder Sheridan and afterwards from the actor Quin, so that he might overcome his provincial accent.

On 25 November 1757 he was called to the bar. His practice for several years was not great, but he became an intimate friend of the Earl of Bute, and when that nobleman came into power after the death of George II in 1760, Wedderburn came into notice. On 28 December 1761 he was returned to parliament as member for the Ayr burghs, and retained this seat till 1768. He ‘took silk’ and was chosen a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in February 1763, and joined the northern circuit. Here he was not so successful as he had anticipated, and shortly afterwards he took up his residence permanently in London, practising chiefly in the court of chancery. He soon made a name for himself as an equity lawyer. Important cases from Scotland were entrusted to him, and he was counsel for the respondent in the famous Douglas cause, in which he greatly distinguished himself, though the final judgment was against his client.

On 21 March 1768 Wedderburn was returned as member of parliament for Richmond, Yorkshire. He entered the house as a Tory; but in the following year he warmly espoused the cause of Wilkes, and delivered so violent a speech against the government that he felt bound in honour to accept the Chiltern Hundreds and resign his seat. Within a few days Lord Clive offered him the borough of Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, a vacancy having been created by the retirement of William Clive, and Wedderburn took his seat as an ardent supporter of the popular party. He represented this constituency till 1774.

Wedderburn began the session of 1770 in violent opposition to Lord North's administration, and lost no opportunity of attacking the government alike on home and colonial policy. He has been accused, not without reason, of having adopted this attitude for the purpose of compelling Lord North to purchase his support. His ambition was unbounded, and it is probable that he coveted the office of lord chancellor from the beginning of his parliamentary career. But Wedderburn did not at first listen to the cautious overtures made by Lord North. When, however, Lord Chatham, towards the close of 1770, sought to attach him to the whig party by personal attentions, he justified the epithet of ‘the wary Wedderburn,’ applied to him by Junius. It was evident that his ardour for the popular cause was cooling, and at length Lord North was able to bid for his support.

On 25 January 1771 Thurlow was gazetted as attorney-general, and Wedderburn succeeded his great rival as solicitor-general. This conversion has been justly described as ‘one of the most flagrant cases of ratting recorded in our party annals.’ There was no change of policy on the part of the government to excuse so virulent an opponent becoming a devoted partisan of Lord North. Wedderburn was also appointed at the same time chancellor to the queen and a privy councillor. He had thoroughly broken his connection with the whig party. Though Lord Clive was indignant at Wedderburn's conversion, the new solicitor-general had no difficulty in securing his re-election for Bishop's Castle.

The reputation which Wedderburn had gained as a parliamentary debater was greatly increased after he took office. At the election in 1774 he was chosen for two places: Castle Rising, Norfolk, and Okehampton, Devonshire; and, selecting the latter, he sat as its member till 1778. In June of that year, when Thurlow received the great seal, Wedderburn was promoted to the attorney-generalship, and became once more member for Bishop's Castle.

During his tenure of office he had many difficult cases to conduct, while the defence of the government through all the blundering of the American war was no light task. It was, besides, plainly seen by Wedderburn that the ministry could not retain its hold upon office much longer, and he was the more eager to obtain a secure place on the bench while opportunity remained. At length, on 14 June 1780, he was appointed chief justice of the court of common pleas, and raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Loughborough of Loughborough, Leicestershire. He remained chief justice for twelve years, and preserved the dignity of the office, although ‘he had not much credit as a common lawyer.’ On 2 April 1783 North and Fox formed a coalition ministry under the premiership of the Duke of Portland; the great seal was put into commission, and Loughborough was appointed first commissioner. The coalition government, it was evident, could not long hold together. Loughborough seemed to favour the party of Fox rather than that of their opponents. It is possible that the friendship of the prince regent for Fox had suggested to Loughborough that in event of the death of George III the coveted lord chancellorship might be at Fox's disposal. But Pitt came into office at the end of 1783, and Lord Thurlow was made chancellor. Thurlow retired in June 1792, and the great seal was for seven months in commission.

At length Pitt gratified Loughborough's ambition. On 28 January 1793 he obtained the great seal, and took his seat as lord chancellor. Having reached the goal of his ambition, he abandoned the party of the Prince of Wales, and definitely joined himself to the adherents of George III, who were known as ‘the king's friends.’ In 1795 he obtained a regrant of his title, and, as he had no children, it was given in remainder to his nephew, Sir James St. Clair Erskine. The designation was changed from Loughborough, Leicestershire, to Loughborough, Surrey.

The chancellor was not fated to find the woolsack an easy seat. The wave of insurgency which had begun in France spread rapidly to this country, and the sedition trials were mercilessly prosecuted under the new chancellor. There can be little doubt that the firm attitude of Loughborough helped to stem the swelling tide of revolution, though it served to make him very unpopular. There were constant cabals among contending statesmen, and he knew that his place, so patiently waited for, was far from secure. After the king had a return of mental malady, Loughborough was accused of procuring the king's signature to important documents when he was not in a fit state to understand them.

In March 1801 Pitt's ministry was dismissed, Mr. Addington (Lord Sidmouth) was called upon to form a new cabinet, and Loughborough was ousted from his office to make way for John Scott, lord Eldon. On 14 April Loughborough resigned the great seal, but so tenaciously did he cling to office that he continued to attend the meetings of the cabinet when he had no longer any right to do so, until he was politely dismissed by Addington. On 21 April 1801 he was created Earl of Rosslyn, with remainder to his nephew, as in the patent of the barony of Loughborough. As an equity judge Loughborough attained a very modest reputation. But his decrees were well considered, and were couched in clear and forcible language. He showed good sense and good nature in the distribution of ecclesiastical patronage.

After his retirement from the woolsack Loughborough's mental powers declined. He took little part in parliamentary affairs, and spent most of his time in a villa which he purchased near Windsor. It is said that he often contrived to force himself into the company of the king.

He died suddenly at his residence on 2 January 1805, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. He was twice married: first, on 31 December 1767, to Betty Anne, daughter of John Dawson of Morley, Yorkshire; and, secondly, in 1782, to Charlotte, daughter of William, first viscount Courtenay. As he died without issue, the earldom fell to his nephew, Sir James St. Clair Erskine, son of his sister Janet, who was the direct ancestor of the present Earl of Rosslyn.

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