Biography

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Sir James Robert George Graham (1792-1861)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

See also this page for more information on the Grahams of Netherby and this page for Longton politics.


Sir James Graham was descended from a family long famous in the history of the English border. James was the son of Sir James Graham and Lady Catharine Stewart, daughter of John, seventh earl of Galloway. He was taught at a private school at Dalston in Cumberland, kept by the Rev. Walter Fletcher. At the age of fifteen he went to Westminster School; afterwards he was a pupil of the Rev. G. Richards at Bampton in Berkshire. In 1810 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a fellow commoner; but he owed little to his Oxford education and quitted the university early in 1812. After a short stay in London he travelled in Spain. Passing from Spain to Sicily he was unexpectedly asked by Archibald Montgomerie, lord Montgomerie, who was at Palermo on a diplomatic mission, to act as his private secretary. Thus at the age of twenty-one Graham entered upon official life, and an illness of Lord Montgomerie threw the main weight of a delicate negotiation, to detach King Joachim from Napoleon, upon Graham's shoulders. He accompanied Lord Montgomerie to Rome and Genoa, and returned to England with a high character for capacity in 1814

Life in London turned Graham's thoughts towards politics, in which he declared himself on the side of the Whigs. His father was a Tory and refused to help him; but in the general election of 1818 Graham took his chance as a stranger at Hull, and was elected at a cost of £6,000, which he had to borrow. In July 1819 he married Fanny, daughter of Colonel Callander of Craigforth in Stirlingshire, a famous beauty. His parliamentary career was not at first successful; his attempts to speak were ineffective, and on the dissolution in February 1820 he felt that he could not afford to contest Hull a second time, but a less expensive seat was found at St. Ives in Cornwall. Early in 1821 a petition from some electors of St. Ives was presented against his return, and as he could not afford the enormous expense which then attached to a contest before the election committee he took the Chiltern Hundreds and retired for a time from political life.

This retirement was of great service to him. He lived at Crofthead, near Netherby, and gave his attention to the management of his father's estate. In this work he did good service to the borderland and towards the improvement of agriculture. He substituted hard-working farmers for a number of small tenants who mostly lived by poaching; he rebuilt the cottages and farm-buildings, introduced tile drains whereby much marshy land was reclaimed, and improved the breed of stock on the estate. Throughout his life he continued to be a model of an improving landlord, and it was owing to his care that the Netherby farming gained considerable celebrity. Besides this practical work Graham now had leisure for the study of political and social questions, as well as literature. His study of political economy produced in 1826 a pamphlet entitled Corn and Currency, which attracted considerable attention. In this he proved the futility of the attempts being made by government to regulate by law the price of money and the price of goods, and showed that the questions of the corn laws and the currency were intimately connected. His general conclusions were in favour of free trade and free banking.

The death of his father in 1824 made Graham a person of importance in the politics of the county. He was an active magistrate and did good work in reforming county finance. On these grounds he was chosen as liberal candidate for Carlisle on the dissolution of 1826. The election was notorious for a riot, which Graham showed much skill in appeasing. He was returned in spite of the influence of Lord Lonsdale, who had hitherto been almost omnipotent in the choice of candidates in Cumberland and Westmoreland. In parliament Graham united himself to Lord Althorp and Huskisson; but he did not succeed in making a reputation as a speaker. Tall and handsome, he had the manner of a dandy, and his style was stiff and pompous. He was more at his ease when addressing a popular audience which appreciated a commanding presence and a grand air. On the death of Mr. Curwen in December 1827, Graham resigned his seat for Carlisle, and stood for the county of Cumberland, for which he was returned without opposition. In 1830 he first made a name in the House of Commons by a motion for the reduction of official salaries, and he increased his reputation by an attack on the salaries received by privy councillors. This gave him a position as one of the more advanced reformers, and in November Lord Grey offered him the post of first lord of the admiralty in his government. In this capacity he did good service in reforming the finance of his department. He was also one of the committee of four to whom was entrusted the preparation of the first Reform Bill, though when the measure came before parliament his speech was pronounced to be a failure.

On the dissolution in 1831 Graham found that his constituents proposed to run a second liberal candidate for the county, a Cumberland yeoman, William Blamire, the companion of his own early days. Graham feared that this might imperil his seat, and showed the impatience of an aristocratic whig by asking, ‘Am I to carry Blamire on my back?’ The answer was given, ‘Take care that Blamire hasn't to carry thee,’ and this incident is characteristic of the cause of Graham's political failure. Polished, cultivated, and capable, he was convinced that he was one of the class who had the right to govern England; he was too cold and unsympathetic to put himself frankly into connection with that popular sentiment which he claimed to express, and whose applause was almost necessary to his happiness. However, on this occasion his petulance was forgiven, and he and Blamire were elected.

After the passing of the Reform Bill, Graham was enabled to carry out still more vigorously his reforms at the admiralty. In 1834 there were signs of disunion in the cabinet, which displayed itself significantly in a debate on Hume's motion on the corn law. As it was impossible to deal with the question fully, Graham undertook to oppose it on behalf of the ministry, but in the course of his speech his rhetoric carried him beyond the limits of the actual question, and he was attacked as retrograde by Mr. Poulett Thompson, vice-president of the board of trade. This was the first indication that Graham was receding from the position of an advanced reformer. In the same session he introduced a bill for the reform of the exchequer office, which was lost in committee. This was his last attempt at financial reform. When the government showed an inclination to meddle with the revenues of the Irish church, Graham joined Mr. Stanley (afterwards Earl of Derby) in resigning office. He was convinced of the need of an established church, and was of opinion that constitutional changes had gone far enough.

On the fall of the whig ministry Graham was offered office by Sir Robert Peel, but refused. At the election of 1835 he defended himself to his constituents, and spoke with considerable asperity of his late colleagues. For this he was attacked when parliament met, and in the debate which followed, O'Connell quoted Canning's line in reference to Lord Stanley and his friends, ‘The Derby Dilly carrying six insides.’ The name stuck and gave point to the ridicule with which the independent position of Graham was now assailed. His naturally haughty and sensitive temper felt the taunts of his former friends. At last, on 30 June, after a vote given by Graham against the ministry on an unimportant amendment, as he was about to cross the floor of the house to his accustomed seat, a cry was raised on the ministerial side, ‘Stay, stay.’ Pale with anger, Graham proudly took his seat on the opposition side, and from that time approached nearer and nearer to the principles of the conservative party. His change of front was not approved by his constituents, and, in spite of his distinction and his local influence, he was rejected by the Cumberland electors in the election of 1837. He deeply felt this rejection, for local patriotism was strong in the north of England, nowhere stronger than in Cumberland, and Graham was proud of his local popularity. He was singularly dependent on outward surroundings, and his natural coldness and haughtiness increased before the consciousness of hostility. A seat was found for him at Pembroke early in 1838, but he went back to parliament an embittered man.

In the same year Graham was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow against the Duke of Sussex. His inaugural address was a failure, and by an allusion to the relations between church and state he turned his audience against him. In spite of his polished style of oratory Graham was ineffective outside of the region of politics. In the House of Commons his speeches were increasingly distinguished by the asperity of their invective against Lord Melbourne and his ministry, and in a speech in favour of Sir Robert Peel's motion of want of confidence in 1841 his rhetoric against his old friends was inexcusably savage. Lord Melbourne was defeated, and in the following election a seat was secured for Graham at Dorchester. In Sir Robert Peel's administration he undertook the post of Home Secretary (September 1841), a post scarcely well suited to one who was so little conciliatory in manner and so rash in utterance. An important question with which he had to deal was the threatened disruption of the Scottish church on the subject of patronage. The cabinet resolved to uphold the existing condition of the law and make no concessions. Graham's supercilious manner in dealing with representatives from Scotland and in announcing the decision of the cabinet was singularly unfortunate, and was greatly responsible for creating the feeling of hard usage which led to the secession of the Free kirk. In the session of 1843 he introduced a facTories act, of which the education clauses were opposed by the nonconformists; again he failed to be sufficiently conciliatory, and the clauses had to be withdrawn. Similarly a bill for the reform of ecclesiastical courts had to be abandoned, because he failed to consider vested interests. Nor was he more successful in dealing with Irish affairs. An utterance of his that ‘concession to Ireland had reached its limits’ caused great ill feeling, and the arrest and trial of O'Connell were carried out in a manner which many considered to be needlessly arbitrary. Graham became increasingly unpopular; he was regarded as an intolerable coxcomb.

The session of 1844 produced an incident which has made Graham's name most widely known. On 14 June Mr. Duncombe presented a petition from W. J. Linton, Joseph Mazzini, and others, complaining that their letters had been opened in the post office. Graham admitted that, as Home Secretary, he had, in accordance with a statute of Anne, issued a warrant authorising this to be done. Perhaps his reticence in explaining fully the circumstances was one cause of the storm of popular indignation which immediately arose. As a matter of fact Graham had done nothing more than previous Home Secretaries; he had not acted on his own motion, but at the request of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, who thought it his duty to help foreign governments by discovering plots which were being hatched in England. But Lord Aberdeen held his tongue, and allowed the whole storm to burst on Graham, whose sensitive nature winced under the attacks which came from all sides, and of which the cartoons in Punch are abiding memorials. The matter was ultimately referred to a secret committee of nine, which reported fully to the house. Several attempts were made to do away with the power of opening letters, but they were unsuccessful. The power still remains in the hands of the Home Secretary, but Graham's case is likely to be a lesson enforcing prudence. The whole matter was justly damaging to the government, but unduly damaging to Graham's reputation. He was made a scapegoat, and used to say in later days that when all else that he had done was forgotten he would be remembered in connection with this miserable affair of the post office.

In the session of 1845 the Home Secretary did not introduce any measures of importance; but the vacation brought proofs of a disease in potatoes and the imminence of a famine in Ireland. Graham joined Sir Robert Peel in his opinion that the duty on imported corn would have to be abandoned; he said that ‘the sliding scale would neither slide nor move, and that was its condemnation.’ He frankly avowed his entire change of opinion, and suffered much from his consequent severance from Lord Stanley, with whom he had lived in close intimacy for twelve years. He had to supervise the measures taken for the relief of the Irish famine, especially the administration of the poor law. In March he introduced a bill for the protection of life in Ireland, a bill which aimed at putting down agrarian crime. This bill was defeated on the second reading, and Sir Robert Peel resigned in June 1846.

Again Graham found himself a member of a small party of dissentients. The Tories could not forgive him for abandoning protection, and he was not prepared to join the Whigs. The small band of Peelites sat on the opposition side of the house, and were useful only as impartial critics. In 1847 Lord John Russell offered Graham the governor-generalship of India, a post which had been offered him by Lord Melbourne in 1834, and again by Sir Robert Peel. He had refused it before for family reasons; he was now determined that the Whigs should not get him out of their way. It was thought that he would have difficulty in finding a seat in the new parliament, but by Lord de Grey's influence he was elected for Ripon.

Graham now showed a disposition to help Lord John Russell's government; in fact, he was offered the admiralty in 1848, but declined through fear of a difference on public policy. He did good work on committees and on commissions, where his capacity for business, his attention to detail, and his skill in examining witnesses made him exceedingly useful. The death of Sir Robert Peel in 1850 left him the most prominent man among the Peelites, and he did good service in resisting Disraeli's attempts to restore protection. When a ministerial crisis occurred in February 1851, Lord John Russell endeavoured to gain Graham's assistance in forming a ministry; but Graham was unable to assent to the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, which was then before the house. However, the negotiations led to a reconciliation between the two statesmen, and when the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill was passed Graham was offered the presidency of the board of control. This he declined, as he thought that the existing government would not long continue in office, and he did not feel called upon to accept a subordinate post to save it.

In 1852 Lord Derby came into office, and Graham thereupon took his place on the opposition benches. In the election of that year Graham was invited to stand for Carlisle. The Cumbrians were proud of numbering among themselves a man of such distinction, and were not unwilling to have an opportunity of taking him back. Graham entered into the situation, and happily began his first election speech by the words, ‘Well, gentlemen, the wanderer has returned.’ After this he was triumphantly elected. Soon after the meeting of parliament Lord Derby was defeated, and in Lord Aberdeen's coalition ministry Graham returned to his original post at the admiralty, where he resumed his endeavours after administrative efficiency.

The outbreak of the Crimean war threw much onerous work on the admiralty, and Graham was responsible for the choice of Sir Charles Napier to command the fleet in the Baltic. Sir Charles did not relish the inactivity to which he was reduced by the strength of the fortresses of Cronstadt and Sveaborg, which he was forbidden to attack, except in conjunction with the French fleet. The French refused to join in the attempt, and Sir Charles loudly complained on his return of his treatment by the admiralty. It does not seem that Graham was to blame; the shutting up of the Russian fleet was a service of sufficient importance without the glory of an attack upon fortresses which would have cost much bloodshed without an adequate return. From the charge of inefficiency in the conduct of the war which led to the fall of Lord Aberdeen's government in January 1855 the admiralty, under the management of Graham, was excluded, and illness prevented him from taking part in the debate on Mr. Roebuck's motion. In the government as reconstituted by Lord Palmerston Graham retained his office; but when he found that the majority of the cabinet were disposed to agree to the appointment of a committee of inquiry he resigned, together with Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Sidney Herbert, on the ground that it was detrimental to the public service to carry on a war with a committee sitting to discuss its conduct. From that time Graham took his seat below the gangway. His health was failing, and he had no desire for office again. At the election of 1857 an attempt was made to unseat him from Carlisle, and Graham had determined to retire from political life. But a sense that he was being dictated to unworthily stung him to make an effort, and few men have ever enjoyed a greater testimony to the force of their personality than did Graham, when by one or two speeches he won back the confidence of his constituency. In October 1857 Lady Graham died, and Graham took only a slight part in public affairs during her illness. From this time his health grew feebler, and he suffered from spasms of the heart. In spite of this he attended to his duties in the House of Commons, and was active on committees. In the vacation of 1861 he went back to Netherby a broken man, and died on 25 October.

Graham was as a speaker exceedingly polished, but tended to pomposity, and carried the habit of quotation to inordinate lengths. His speeches were enlivened by epigrams and by passages of splendid rhetoric; but their construction was always artificial. He is remembered as an orator for a number of brilliant sayings rather than for any great speech. He never succeeded in getting outside himself and identifying himself with his audience. Similarly his political judgment was too much swayed by personal considerations, and he said of himself: ‘In a party sense it must be owned that mine has been a devious career.’ He was too self-conscious in all that he did to be a great statesman; but he was an impressive personality in the House of Commons, and was an able administrator. Where he failed he failed not through want of foresight or political intelligence, but through a defect of personal sympathy


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