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This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and it was published in 1888
Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, fourth son of Robert Dundas of Arniston the elder, lord president of the court of session 1748-53, by his second wife, Anne, daughter of Sir William Gordon of Invergordon, bart., was born on 28 April 1742. Robert Dundas, second lord Arniston, was his grandfather. He was educated at Edinburgh High School and University, and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates on 26 February 1763. Dundas acquired the art of public speaking in the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, which at that time was the great school of oratory in Scotland, and, being of a well-known legal family, he rapidly obtained a large practice at the bar.
His first appointment was that of assessor to the magistrates of the city, and shortly afterwards he was made one of the depute-advocates. At the age of twenty-four Dundas was appointed solicitor-general for Scotland, and his half-brother, the lord president of the court of session, was, by royal warrant dated 20 June 1766, ordered to allow ‘Mr. Henry Dundas, his majesty's sole solicitor in Scotland, to sit within the bar.’ At the general election in October 1774 he was elected member for the county of Midlothian, for which he continued to sit until the dissolution in 1790, with the exception of a few months at the end of 1782, when he represented the borough of Newtown in the Isle of Wight.
He made his first speech in the House of Commons on 20 February 1775, in the debate on Lord North's propositions for conciliating the American colonists. Dundas showed his independence by alluding ‘in very strong terms’ to the inconsistency of the prime minister, and declared that he could never accede to any concessions whatever ‘until the Americans did, in direct terms, acknowledge the supremacy of this country; much less could he consent to such concessions while they were in arms against it’. He spoke again on 6 March in favour of the bill for restricting the trade of the New England colonies, and in reply to Thomas Townshend, who had urged the injustice of an act which made no discrimination between the innocent and the guilty, but starved all alike, declared that the bill, which was both just and merciful, ‘had his most hearty approbation,’ and that, ‘as to the famine which was so pathetically lamented, he was afraid it would not be produced by this act’.
On 24 May 1775 he was appointed lord advocate in the place of James Montgomery, who had been made chief baron of the exchequer in Scotland, but it was not until 20 July that Dundas presented his commission in the high court of justiciary. From this time Dundas devoted his attention chiefly to politics, though at first he regularly appeared as the public prosecutor in the Scotch courts. In 1777 he was appointed joint keeper of the signet in Scotland, but still continued to oppose every plan for effecting a reconciliation with the American colonists.
In February 1778 his support of Powys's amendment for the repeal of the Massachusetts charter made the king so indignant that, in a letter to Lord North, he declared ‘the more I think on the conduct of the advocate of Scotland, the more I am incensed against him; more favours have been heaped on the shoulders of that man than ever were bestowed on any Scotch lawyer, and he seems studiously to embrace every opportunity to create difficulties; but men of talents when not accompanied with integrity are pests instead of blessings to society, and true wisdom ought to crush them rather than to assist them’. The king, however, recognising Dundas's use as a debater, soon afterwards became reconciled to him, and on 21 April 1779 wrote to Lord North: ‘Let the lord advocate be gained to attend the whole session and let him have the confidence concerning measures in parliament’. On 14 May 1778 Dundas gave notice of his intention to bring in a bill, similar to Sir George Savile's, for the relief of the Roman catholics in Scotland. But the agitation which was immediately commenced in that country against the proposed toleration assumed such formidable proportions that Dundas was obliged to abandon his intention. To such an extent had sectarian bitterness been aroused, that, though in the general assembly a motion against the proposed change had been defeated by a large majority in May 1778, in the following year a resolution was passed by the same body declaring that ‘a repeal of the laws now in force against papists would be highly inexpedient, dangerous, and prejudicial to the best interests of religion and civil society in this part of the United Kingdom.’
Dundas took a prominent part in the debate on Dunning's famous resolution relating to the influence of the crown on 6 April 1780, and tried to end the discussion by moving that the chairman should leave the chair, but ultimately withdrew this motion and moved the addition to the resolution of the words ‘that it is necessary to declare.’ This amendment, which was made apparently for the sake of gaining time, was immediately accepted by Fox, and Dundas thereupon voted with the government in the minority.
In April 1781 he was made chairman of the secret committee appointed to report on the causes of the war in the Carnatic and the state of the British possessions in that part of India. On 9 April 1782 he moved that the six reports which he had presented should be referred to a committee of the whole house, and in a speech lasting nearly three hours strongly condemned the mismanagement of the Indian presidencies. On 30 May following his resolutions declaring that Warren Hastings and William Hornby (president of the council of Bombay) having ‘in sundry instances acted in a manner repugnant to the honour and policy of England,’ ought to be removed from their respective offices, were agreed to. But though an order for the recall of Hastings was made by the directors, it was subsequently rescinded, and he remained in India until 1785. Dundas retained the office of lord advocate during the Rockingham and Shelburne administrations, and on 19 August 1782 was also appointed by the latter minister treasurer of the navy. He was admitted to the privy council on 31 July 1782, and was also given the office of keeper of the Scotch signet, as well as the patronage of all places in Scotland.
Shortly before Shelburne's downfall Dundas entered into negotiations for the purpose of securing Lord North's support to the ministry. The latter, however, refused to commit himself, and directly afterwards formed the coalition with Fox which put an end to the Shelburne administration. Dundas then attempted to prevail on Pitt to accept the office of prime minister, but after a long ministerial interregnum the coalition government came into power in April 1783, and Dundas was succeeded as treasurer of the navy by Charles Townshend. The office of lord advocate Dundas continued to hold for some time longer, but in spite of his boast that ‘no man in Scotland will venture to take my place,’ he was at length displaced by Fox in August 1783 in favour of Henry Erskine. On 14 April 1783 Dundas moved for leave to bring in his bill for the regulation of the government of India. As the government afterwards brought in a bill of their own. Dundas abandoned his, and vehemently denounced Fox's as ‘big with the most alarming consequences to the constitution’.
Upon Pitt's accession to power Dundas once more became treasurer of the navy, an office which he continued to hold until June 1800. He was also appointed one of the committee of the privy council for trade and foreign plantations on 5 March 1784, and on the passing of Pitt's East India Bill was constituted a member of the board of control on 3 September in the same year. Though Dundas did not become president of the board of control until 28 June 1793, the management of Indian affairs was practically left in his hands from the first formation of the board. Towards the close of the session of 1784 Dundas brought in a bill for the restoration of the forfeited estates in Scotland, which was received with great favour in that country, and passed through both houses with little difficulty. In December 1785 Dundas, who had for some years been dean of the Faculty of Advocates, resigned that office and was succeeded by Henry Erskine. When Burke brought the charge arising out of the Rohilla war against Hastings in June 1786, Dundas, in spite of the resolutions which he had himself carried in the House of Commons in 1782, opposed it. In his speech on this occasion he called Hastings ‘the saviour of India,’ and endeavoured to explain his own position by declaring that, though he still condemned the Rohilla war, what he had formerly desired was the recall, and not the criminal prosecution, of Hastings. A few days later the ministry suddenly changed their policy, and when Fox brought forward the charge relating to the rajah of Benares, Pitt spoke in favour of the motion and Dundas silently voted with the majority. At the general election in June 1790 Dundas was returned for the city of Edinburgh, for which constituency he continued to sit until his elevation to the peerage. In June 1791 he became home secretary, in the place of Lord Grenville, who had been appointed the secretary for foreign affairs. Dundas's appointment, which was at first merely a provisional one, was confirmed on the refusal of Lord Cornwallis, who was then in India, to accept the post.
On 23 April 1793 Dundas moved a resolution pledging the house to secure the renewal of the monopoly to the East India Company for a further term of years. He defended the government of India by the company at great length, and maintained that the country had been indebted to the company for the great increase of its shipping. His speech on this occasion was in Pitt's opinion one which, ‘for comprehensive knowledge of the history of India, and of the various sources of the British commerce to the East Indies, ... though it might have been equalled in that house, had never been excelled’.
On the accession of the Duke of Portland to the ministry in the summer of 1794 he was appointed home secretary in the place of Dundas, who accepted the new secretaryship of war. As the duke shortly afterwards laid claim to all the rights of patronage which Dundas had hitherto possessed, the latter announced that he should resign the seals and relinquish the conduct of the war. After great pressure from Pitt, who declared that he should ‘give up all hope of carrying on the business with comfort, and be really completely heartbroken if you adhere to the resolution’, and a letter from the king desiring him ‘to continue secretary of state for the war,’ Dundas consented to remain in office. On 10 June 1800 he was appointed keeper of the privy seal of Scotland. The credit of the Egyptian campaign of 1801 was in a great measure due to his energy and perseverance, as he both planned and carried out the expedition against the opinion of Pitt and the king. With reference to this campaign it is related that Dundas used afterwards to tell with pride how on one occasion the king proposed a toast ‘to the minister who planned the expedition to Egypt, and in doing so had the courage to oppose his king.’
On Pitt's resignation in March 1801 Dundas resigned the office of secretary for war, and in the following May resigned his position at the board of control. Dundas, however, gave Addington his general support, and at the general election of 1802 managed the Scotch elections in the interest of the government so successfully that out of the forty-five members returned only two were whigs. Greatly to Pitt's surprise Dundas accepted a peerage from Addington, and on 24 December 1802 was created Viscount Melville of Melville in the county of Edinburgh, and Baron Dunira in the county of Perth. Melville unsuccessfully attempted to induce Pitt to join the Addington ministry, and on the return of Pitt to power was appointed first lord of the admiralty on 15 May 1804. In 1785 Dundas had carried through a bill for ‘better regulating the office of treasurer of the navy’, the object of which was to prevent the treasurer for the time being from appropriating any part of the money passing through his hands to his own private use. In 1802 an act was passed by which five commissioners were appointed to inquire into the frauds and irregularities which were supposed to exist in the several naval departments. On 13 February 1805 their tenth report, which dealt with the office of treasurer of the navy, was presented to the house. The commissioners had extended their inquiry back to the time when Barré was treasurer in 1782. Melville had been examined before them on 5 November 1804, and their report gave rise to considerable suspicions against him, as it was conclusively shown that large sums of public money during his tenure of office had been applied to other uses than those of the navy.
On 8 April 1805 Samuel Whitbread called the attention of the House of Commons to the tenth report, and moved a series of resolutions setting out the case against Melville. Pitt thereupon moved the previous question, and promised that in the event of his motion being carried he would then move that the report should be remitted to a select committee. Wilberforce, in a powerful speech, gave his ‘most cordial and sincere support’ to Whitbread's motion. Upon a division, in a house of 432 members, the numbers were found to be equal, and the speaker (Abbot), after some hesitation, gave his vote in favour of the original motion. Melville immediately resigned the office of first lord of the admiralty, and on 9 May his name was erased from the roll of the privy council. On 25 April Whitbread moved that the tenth report should be remitted to a select committee, which was appointed on the following day. On 27 May the report of the select committee was presented to the house. Melville was heard at the bar of the House of Commons in his own defence on 11 June, and at the close of his speech Whitbread moved that ‘Henry, lord Viscount Melville, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.’ On the morning of the 13th Whitbread's motion was lost by 272 to 195, and Bond's amendment in favour of a criminal prosecution by the attorney-general was carried by 238 to 229.
It was subsequently thought by Melville's friends that an impeachment would be less dangerous than a trial before Lord Ellenborough and a jury; and on 25 June Leycester's motion, that the house should proceed by impeachment and that the attorney-general should stay the proceedings in the prosecution already ordered, was ultimately agreed to. On the following day Whitbread, in obedience to the order of the house, proceeded to the House of Lords and impeached Melville of high crimes and misdemeanors. The impeachment was commenced in Westminster Hall on 29 April 1806. Whitbread opened the case for the prosecution, and both Piggott and Romilly, the attorney-and solicitor-general, were heard on behalf of the commons during the course of the proceedings. Melville was defended by Plumer, afterwards the master of the rolls, Adam, and Hobhouse. After a trial lasting fifteen days the peers reassembled on 12 June and acquitted Melville on all the charges, the majorities in his favour varying from 27 to 128, while on the fourth charge the acquittal was unanimous.
On the second and third charges, which accused Melville of permitting Trotter, his paymaster, to withdraw public money from the Bank of England, and of conniving at its use by Trotter for his own private emolument, Melville was only acquitted by majorities of 27 and 31. These two charges were the strongest point of the prosecution; for though it is tolerably clear that Melville did not embezzle any of the public money himself, it is equally evident that he was guilty of considerable negligence, and that he had acted contrary to the spirit of the act of 1785. On the formation of the Duke of Portland's ministry, Melville's eldest son was appointed president of the board of control, and on 8 April 1807 Melville was restored to the privy council. Though he continued to take great interest in public affairs, and often gave his advice on matters connected with India and the navy, he never again took office. In October 1809 he declined Perceval's offer of an earldom. His last speech in the House of Lords was delivered on the occasion of the third reading of the Scotch Judicature Bill on 14 June 1810. He died suddenly at Edinburgh, at the house of his nephew, the lord chief baron, on 28 May 1811, in the seventieth year of his age, and was buried in one of the aisles of the old church at Lasswade, Midlothian.
Melville was twice married. By his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of David Rennie of Melville Castle, whom he married on 16 August 1765, he had three daughters and an only son, Robert Saunders Dundas, who afterwards became the second viscount. He married secondly, on 2 April 1793, Lady Jane Hope, sixth daughter of John, second earl of Hopetoun, by whom he had no issue. His second wife, surviving him, married, on 16 February 1814, Thomas, lord Wallace, and died on 29 June 1829.
As the intimate friend and trusted lieutenant of Pitt, Dundas fills an important place in the political history of the age in which he lived. Without any gift of eloquence, and in spite of his broad Scotch accent and ungraceful manner, he was a steady debater and a lucid and argumentative speaker. Deficient alike in refinement and in literary taste, he was possessed of great political sagacity and of indefatigable industry. In his private life he was frank and straightforward in character, convivial in his habits, and utterly indifferent about money. For nearly thirty years he was the most powerful man in Scotland, and, as the election agent for the government, controlled the elections of the Scotch representative peers, as well as of the Scotch members of the House of Commons. As treasurer of the navy, he introduced various improvements into the details of the admiralty departments, and carried through several measures for the improvement of the condition of seamen and their families.
As the practical head of the board of control, the management of Indian affairs was in his hands for more than sixteen years. ‘His celebrated reports,’ says Lord Brougham, ‘upon all the complicated questions of our Asiatic policy, although they may not stand a comparison with some of Mr. Burke's in the profundity and enlargement of general view, any more than their style can be compared with his, are nevertheless performances of the greatest merit, and repositories of information upon that vast subject, unrivalled for clearness and extent’. On the other hand, James Mill says that ‘the mind of Mr. Dundas was active and meddling, and he was careful to exhibit the appearance of a great share in the government of India. …But I know not any advice which he ever gave, for the government of India, that was not either very obvious or wrong’. It is worthy of notice that the possibility ‘of an attack on India either through Persia or some part of Asia’ was one that Dundas had often in contemplation, and it was upon this ground that he ‘insisted with the court of directors on establishing a resident at Baghdad’. His earlier political career is thus ruthlessly satirised in the ‘Rolliad’ (1788, p. 43): —
For true to public Virtue's patriot plan,
He loves the Minister, and not the Man;
Alike, the Advocate of North and Wit,
The friend of Shelburne, and the guide of Pitt.
He was created an LL.D. by the university of Edinburgh on 11 November 1789, was lord rector of the university of Glasgow from 1781 to 1783, and on 2 February 1788 was appointed chancellor of the university of St. Andrews.
Three monuments have been erected to his memory, viz. a marble statue by Sir Francis Chantrey in the outer house of the court of session; a column, surmounted by a statue, in the centre of St. Andrew Square, Edinburgh, which was erected in 1821 by the officers and seamen of the royal navy; and a third on the hill overlooking Dunira in Perthshire, where he frequently lived during the closing years of his life.
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