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Francis Jeffrey , Lord Jeffrey (1773-1850)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1891.

Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey, critic, born 23 October 1773, in Charles Street, St. George's Square, Edinburgh, was the son of George Jeffrey, depute-clerk in the court of session, by Henrietta, daughter of John Louden, a farmer near Lanark. The family consisted of Margaret (died in childhood); Mary, married, 21 April 1797, to George Napier, writer to the signet; Francis; John, who became a merchant, was settled for some years before 1807 in Boston, Mass., as partner of his father's brother, who had married a sister of John Wilkes, and afterwards led a secluded life in Scotland; and Marion, married, 7 June 1800, to Dr. Thomas Brown, a physician in Glasgow. She died in 1846. The father, a high tory, was sensible and respectable, but of gloomy temper. The mother, who was much loved by her family (the more so from the contrast between her and her husband), died in 1786. Francis was healthy, though diminutive. He learnt dancing before he was nine, but was never good at any bodily exercise except walking.

In October 1781 he was sent to the high school at Edinburgh, where his first master was a Mr. Fraser, teacher of Scott in the preceding and of Brougham in the succeeding class. After four years under Fraser he entered the class of the rector, Alexander Adam but showed no special promise. He studied at Glasgow during the sessions of 1787-8 and 1788-9, and formed friendships with the Greek professor, John Young, and the logic professor, John Jardine. His father forbade him to attend the classes of Millar, the most famous, but unfortunately most whiggish, professor of the time, and in after years blamed himself for allowing his son to be corrupted even by the contagion of Millar's indirect influence. His intellectual vivacity now began to appear; he distinguished himself in a debating society, proposed to act Sigismunda in Thomson's Tancred and Sigismunda, till the play was forbidden by the authorities, and wrote to his old rector Adam to propose a philosophical correspondence. He read and annotated systematically and practised himself carefully in composition, writing essays, translations, and poems, from which his biographer has given many extracts.

After leaving Glasgow he stayed at Edinburgh for a time, attending the law classes of Hume and Dick, but seeing few friends except his uncle, William Morehead (d. 1793), at whose house at Herbertshire in the county of Stirling he passed much time. One charm of the house was a good library, where Jeffrey extended his reading and self-culture. In September 1791 he went to Oxford and entered Queen's College, but disliked the place, found his companions uncongenial and dissipated, and left Oxford for good 5 July 1792. He managed at Oxford to get rid of his old Scottish, but acquired in its place an unpleasing English accent. A 'high-keyed accent and a sharp pronunciation, with extreme rapidity of utterance' marred his oratory, though his peculiarities were afterwards softened. Jeffrey always retained a keen interest in Scottish universities. In 1820 he was elected lord rector of Glasgow, and delivered an excellent address to the students, besides founding a prize on his retirement for the best Greek student. In 1849 it was finally settled that the prize should be a gold medal. He took part in the foundation of the Edinburgh Academy (1824), and was afterwards a director. While busied in 1833 with official duties he found time to secure the use of rooms in the college at Edinburgh for the students' societies.

Jeffrey now prepared himself for the Scottish bar, and attended law lectures in 1792-1793. He became a conspicuous member of the Speculative Society, where he made the acquaintance of Scott and many distinguished contemporaries. He attended the trial for sedition of Thomas Muir, and never forgot the horror which it produced in him. He saw no society in Edinburgh as yet, and for a time hated the place. He continued to produce essays and to practise composition. His essays show great versatility and an early interest in serious questions. He wrote criticisms upon his own performances as sharp as his criticisms upon those of other writers in the Edinburgh Review, and probably received with more respect by the author. While at Oxford he told his sister that he should never be a great man, unless it be as a poet. He wrote a great quantity of verse and two plays. He once, it is said, went so far as to leave a manuscript with a publisher, but, on second thoughts, rescued it before it had been considered. He continued to versify until 1796, and in that year was thinking of publishing a translation, in the style of Cowper's Homer, from the Argonautics of Apollonius.

He was admitted to the bar 16 December 1794. At this period the whole system of government and patronage in Scotland was in the hands of the tories, administered chiefly by Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville. Jeffrey had become a whig, his natural liberalism being encouraged by the influence of his genial uncle, Morehead, contrasted with the gloomy severity of his father. An essay upon Politicks, written in 1793, shows him to have then been a' philosophical whig' and he steadily held to his principles, though disapproved by his father and a serious obstacle to any hopes of preferment. He got a few fees through his family connections, but at first made very slow progress.

In 1798 he went to London with introductions to editors, including Perry of the Morning Chronicle, and thought that he could make by literature four times as much as he could ever make at the bar. He returned, however, without finding an opening, and amused his leisure by studying science, especially chemistry. He became a member, in company with Brown, Brougham, Horner, and others, of a society called the Academy of Physicks. He had intervals of depression, in which he despaired of success at the bar, and thought of moving to England or to India. He owed much to the encouragement of George Joseph Bell , brother of Sir Charles Bell, both brothers being his friends through life. The marriage of his sister Marion in 1800 made his home life uncomfortable, and as he had not twenty guineas to spare he engaged himself, in the beginning of 1801, to Catherine, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Wilson, professor of church history at St. Andrews, a second cousin of his own. His friends wished him to apply for the chair of history in the university of Edinburgh, vacated in 1801 by the resignation of A. F. Tytler, but his whiggism made success hopeless. He married Miss Wilson on 1 November 1801; she had no money; his father was able to give little help, and he had not made £100 a year at the bar. The young couple settled in a third story flat in Buccleuch Place, moving in May 1802 to an upper story in 62 Queen Street. His professional prospects began to improve, and he made some reputation (May 1802) by a speech before the general assembly.

In the summer of 1801 he had stood for a reportership of the court of sessions, a small office for which he was proposed by Henry Erskine. He was beaten on purely party grounds by a large majority. The contest led to the 'solitary eclipse' which ever obscured a friendship of Jeffrey. One of the judges, Sir William Miller, Lord Glenlee, refused to support a whig, and a coolness ensued which lasted till 1826. This disappointment disposed Jeffrey to look for other employment. His social qualities and his brilliant talents had made him intimate with a circle of promising young men then resident at Edinburgh. Sydney Smith, Brougham, and Horner were the chief; and at a meeting in Buccleuch Place (on the third, not the eighth or ninth story) Smith's proposal to start a review (preface to Smith's Works) was carried by acclamation. Jeffrey afterwards dedicated his collected essays to Smith as 'the original projector of the Edinburgh Review.' It is probable enough, as Cockburn thinks, that the subject had been previously mooted, although first seriously considered at this meeting. Jeffrey had already published some articles, and three appeared in the Monthly Review in June, July, and November, 1802 (the first two on White's Etymoligon, the third on Southey's Thalaba).

The first number was prepared by the friends in committee, although Smith appears to have considered himself as editor. The confederates met at a 'dingy room off Willison's printing-office in Craig's Close'; Smith, who was very timid, insisting upon their repairing singly, and by back approaches, to the office. They read proofs and copy in committee, but within a year the awkwardness of this system led to the appointment of Jeffrey as responsible editor. Constable, the first publisher, agreed to take the risk, and was allowed to have the first three numbers as a gift. He afterwards agreed to pay ten guineas a sheet, 'three times what was ever paid before for such work', but the minimum was soon raised to sixteen guineas, and the average during Jeffrey's reign was (as he thinks) from twenty to twenty-five guineas. The editor was, by the first agreement, to have £50 a number.

The Review made an instant success, to the surprise of Jeffrey, who, with characteristic pessimism, expected it to die soon, and meant to drop his own connection with it after fulfilling his promises of support for the first four numbers. The first number appeared on 10 October 1802; in July 1803 Jeffrey tells his brother that they are selling 2,500 copies; in 1808 Scott put the circulation at 8,000 or 9,000, and in 1814 Jeffrey told Moore that they printed nearly 13,000 copies. The success was due to the independence of the Review, its predecessors having been always under the influence of publishers, and to the speedy substitution of the plan of handsome payment of contributors for the original scheme of gratuitous service. This enabled it to flourish when the singularly able group of young men who wrote the first numbers had dispersed. Thomas Brown and John Thompson took offence at some editorial liberties, and left the Review, without, however, quarrelling with Jeffrey. Brougham claimed three articles in the first number; Jeffrey said that he was kept out by Smith from doubts of his prudence till after the third number, and told Macvey Napier that he did not come in till 'after the third number, and our assured success'. Smith, Horner, Brougham, John Allen, and others, left Edinburgh in a year or two. Jeffrey remained, continued to receive contributions from the absentees, and naturally became the sole controller of the Review. He used his powers of excision and alteration very freely, probably too freely, and he allowed some contributors, especially Brougham, to go beyond the limits of what he personally approved; but there can be no doubt that he was one of the best editors who ever managed a review, and under his rule it became indisputably the leading organ of public opinion and the most dreaded of critical censors. Jeffrey, however, still considered the editing of the Review as subordinate to his professional career. On becoming definitely editor, he told Horner (11 May 1803) that it was known that he would 'renounce it as soon as he could do without it', and was afraid of sinking in estimation by being articled to a trade that is not perhaps the most respectable. His contributors equally regarded the Review as subsidiary to other pursuits.

Although Jeffrey and his associates were whigs, the Review did not at first take a strong political line. Scott's toryism did not prevent him from contributing several literary articles during 1803, 1805, and 1806. Although favouring Roman catholic emancipation and opposing the war, it held so moderate a tone, that Scott advised Southey in December 1807 to become a contributor. Southey declined on the ground of its politics, and (probably) also of its attacks upon the Lake poets. Scott admitted, in reply, that the growing whiggism of the Review, especially in regard to catholic emancipation, had given him some scruples. The publication of the famous Cevallos article in No. 26 finally clinched the matter. This article, written, it seems, by Jeffrey himself, with some help from Brougham, expressed utter despondency as to the English operations in Spain. Scott at once stopped his subscription to the Review, and decisive measures were now taken for starting the Quarterly Review in opposition. On 19 November 1808 Scott wrote to his brother describing a conversation in which Jeffrey had 'offered terms of pacification, engaging that no party politics should again appear in his Review.' After the publication of this letter in Lockhart's Life of Scott, Jeffrey, on republishing his essays, declared in the preface that Scott must have misunderstood, and that he could never have made such an offer, because his contributors were too independent, and he had remembered to have told Scott that he had for six years regarded politics as 'the right leg' of the Review. The truth is no doubt shown by a contemporary letter written by Jeffrey to Horner on 6 December 1808to ask help 'in the day of need' caused by the threatened competition. He tells his correspondent to write anything, 'only no party politics, and nothing but exemplary moderation and impartiality on all politics'. The context shows that by 'party politics' he did not mean whig politics, but only unfair and irritating methods of party warfare. The elastic term gave rise to a misunderstanding. Brougham told Napier in 1839 that the Cevallos article had first made the reviewers conspicuous as liberals. All the inner circle of reviewers were whigs, and naturally gave a whiggish tone to the Review. The competition of the Quarterly gave it a more distinctive party colour, especially as Brougham became its chief political writer. Jeffrey himself wrote very few political articles. He was at no time an enthusiast. Throughout life his natural despondency constantly showed itself. He was 'mortally afraid of the war', and of revolution afterwards. Sympathising with whig principles, he thought their aristocratic tendencies dangerous, because such tendencies weakened their capacity for leading, and so controlling, the popular party. He dreaded Cobbett and the popular radicals as well as Bentham and the philosophical radicals. He complained characteristically of Carlyle for being too much in earnest, and was regarded by the radicals as a mere trimmer. On the triumph of whig principles in the Reform Bill period, the Edinburgh Reviewers were inclined to take a little too much credit for their advocacy of the party creed. To say nothing of the general causes at work, this implied a considerable injustice to the radicals, whose advocacy had been far more thoroughgoing, and therefore exposed to much greater dangers. Neither Jeffrey nor his colleagues had ever ventured within reach of the law of libel. It may, however, be said with equal truth that they introduced a far higher tone of discussion than had hitherto been known in periodical writing; that they were honest in adherence to their own principles, and facilitated the spread of liberalism among the more educated classes. However timid politically, Jeffrey always defended what he held to be just, and was hostile to every form of tyranny.

Jeffrey's professional progress was still slow. In 1803 he was inclined to accept a professorship of moral and political science in the college recently started at Calcutta. His income at the bar at this time was only £240. He became an ensign in a volunteer regiment in 1803, with a strong conviction that an invasion was imminent, but showed so little military aptitude, that he was never at home in his uniform, and could hardly face his company to the right or left. He visited London in 1804, to enjoy his fame and see his friends, as well as to seek recruits; but he returned to Edinburgh with a fresh zest for the old home and the pleasant society, which then included a large proportion of the literary celebrities of the day. He began to make his way, and his personal charm broke down the old prejudices caused by his whiggism and his youthful impertinence. The death of his sister, Mrs. Napier, affected him profoundly, and on 8 August 1805 his wife died. His letters on the occasion show the exceeding tenderness of his nature. Their only child, born in September 1802, had died on 25 October following. He was strongly attached to his sister's children; but his home was now desolate. He stuck gallantly to his work, and went into society even more frequently, though with a sad heart.

In 1806 he went to London, where, as he said himself, his indifference to life enabled him to act coolly in the duel with Moore. Moore had taken offence at an article upon his Epistles, Odes, and other Poems in the fifteenth number of the Review. Jeffrey had condemned their immoral tendency with a vigour which Moore resented as a personal insult. Jeffrey met Moore at Chalk Farm on 11 August 1806. Both combatants were even comically ignorant of the practices of duellists. A friend from whom Moore had borrowed pistols gave information to the police, and Bow Street runners took them in charge at the critical moment. Although Horner, who was Jeffrey's second, declared that the pistols had both been loaded, it was discovered at the police-office that there was no bullet in Jeffrey's pistol. Byron referred to this in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, erroneously giving the 'leadless pistol' to Moore. The two authors were bound over to keep the peace, and Jeffrey, who had taken a fancy to Moore on the field of action, made satisfactory explanations, which were followed by a complete reconciliation. In 1814 Jeffrey got some articles from Moore for the Edinburgh, and wrote in affectionate as well as complimentary terms. In 1825 Moore visited him in Scotland, and they preserved a cordial friendship.

Jeffrey's practice was now extending through all the Scottish courts, and he frequently appeared in appeals before the House of Lords. Though not a profound lawyer, he was a very effective advocate, especially before a jury. He had an 'unchallenged monopoly on one side' before the general assembly for twenty years from 1807. He was able to take singular liberties before this 'mob of three hundred people' ignorant of legal technicalities. They treated him as an honoured favourite, and though the fees were trifling, his general professional position was raised by his popularity with them. The introduction of juries for the trial of facts in civil cases in January 1816 gave him a new field, and he was employed in almost every trial before the 'jury court'. In spite of an artificial manner and a tendency to over-refinement, his sagacity — which was his 'peculiar quality' — his great memory for details, his skill in veiling his own sophistries and exposing other people's, his versatility and general charm gave him great power. He appeared in one or two political cases, as the trial of Maclaren and Bird for sedition in 1817, and the defence of some persons tried for sedition at Stirling in 1820, and, though unsuccessful, made able speeches. He won a more questionable reputation by obtaining acquittals of some reputed criminals. A curious account of his rescue of one Nell Kennedy, of which he was rather ashamed, is given in Carlyle's Reminiscences.

In 1810 he moved from Queen Street to 92 George Street, where he lived till (in 1827) he moved to his last house in 24 Moray Place. At the end of the year he received a visit from M. Simond, a French refugee, whose wife was a sister of Charles Wilkes of New York, a nephew of John Wilkes. The Simonds were accompanied by their niece Charlotte, daughter of Charles Wilkes, with whom Jeffrey speedily fell in love. In 1812 he took a country house at Hatton, nine miles west of Edinburgh, where he spent part of three summers. Miss Wilkes had gone to her father in America, and in 1813 Jeffrey resolved to follow her. The countries were at war. He suffered from sea-sickness, and naturally was blind to the beauties of the sea, though singularly alive to beauty of landscape. He left his clients to themselves, gave the Review in charge to two friends, and sailed from Liverpool in a cartel, 29 August 1813. He landed at New York on 7 October, married Miss Wilkes soon afterwards, and then made a tour to some large towns, conversing with the president (Madison) and James Monroe, the secretary of state, and patriotically defending the English claims which he had attacked in the Review. He sailed from New York on 22 January 1814, reaching Liverpool on 10 February. Jeffrey was ever afterwards a warm advocate of reconciliation with America.

In 1815 he took Craigcrook, on the eastern slope of Corstorphine Hill, three miles north-west of Edinburgh, then an old keep with a disorderly kitchen-garden. He took great pleasure in improving the house and grounds, and there spent all his remaining summers. In 1815 he made his first visit to the continent. During the first years of the peace Jeffrey wrote many literary articles, but only one or two upon politics, especially one upon the state of the nation, advising moderation in all parties. He began, however, to take some part in political meetings, especially in co-operation with Sir James Gibson Craig . He spoke at a meeting for abolishing the income-tax in 1816, and was very effective at the Pantheon meeting (19 December 1820) in favour of a petition for dismissing the ministry. From 1821 to 1826 he took an active part at public dinners promoted by the Scottish whigs. A speech which he delivered (18 November 1828) upon the combination laws, explaining the dangers and follies of unions and strikes by workmen, was published as a pamphlet, and 8,000 copies speedily sold.

Jeffrey was now fairly in a position for preferment. Some offers were made to bring him into parliament in 1821. In 1827 he was advised to try for an appointment to the bench, when he replied that four of his friends had superior claims. On 14 March 1829 he spoke at a meeting on behalf of Roman catholic emancipation, the last which he attended.

On 2 July 1829 he was unanimously elected dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Sir John Hope, the solicitor-general, declining to oppose him. He was so popular that the conservative majority did not care to use their power against him. He decided upon the election to retire from the Edinburgh Review, of which Macvey Napier now became editor. His last article as a regular contributor appeared in October 1829, and he only wrote four others at considerable intervals.

Upon the advent to power of the whigs in 1830, Jeffrey received a reward for his long services to the party by the appointment to the post of lord advocate. He soon afterwards resigned the deanship, which on 17 December 1831 was conferred upon his old opponent, Hope. His new office broke up Jeffrey's old mode of life, and was not without drawbacks. The income was about £3,000 a year, but he had to obtain seats in parliament, which, between December 1830 and May 1832, cost him about £10,000. He was first chosen for the Forfarshire burghs, but unseated from a flaw in the proceedings. He was then chosen (6 April 1831) for Lord FitzWilliam's borough, Malton, for which he was again elected in June after the dissolution, having previously failed at Edinburgh, though a petition signed by 17,400 persons was sent to the town council on his behalf. After the passage of the Reform Bill he was elected at Edinburgh, 19 December 1832 — now for the first time an open constituency — receiving 4,058 votes, his colleague, James Abercrombie, receiving 3,865, and his opponent, Forbes Blair, 1,519. The two successful candidates were returned free of expense.

Jeffrey's parliamentary career was hardly a success, and his biographer's explanation substantially admits the facts. The lord advocate had to discharge a number of duties involving much drudgery and troublesome detail. Entering parliament at the age of fifty-seven, and with little previous experience of political warfare, he could scarcely acquire the art of debating. Though his speech on reform (4 March 1831) was praised by Mackintosh, and published at the special request of government, and later speeches were received with respect, they seem to have been rather elegant essays than effective oratory. An affection of the trachea now and afterwards caused him much inconvenience, and he had to undergo a severe operation in October 1831. His official position restrained him, and forced him to defend some points to which he was personally indifferent. He was entrusted with the Scottish Reform Bill in 1831 and 1832, and in 1833 with the Burgh Bill. This involved the discussion of innumerable details and long wrangles in committees, and with the advocates of all manner of reforms or crotchets. He seems, however, to have been conciliatory and good-tempered. He was constantly afraid of some popular outbreak, and disgusted with doctrinaire perverseness. In 1831 he was too ill to return to Scotland, and passed the summer at Wimbledon. He went out into London society, and in the spring of 1831 saw a good deal of his victim, Wordsworth, who met him in a friendly spirit. Worry and overwork oppressed him, as appears from Carlyle's account in the Reminiscences, and he began to desire his release. In May 1834 he was glad to accept a judgeship in the court of session, and received a farewell banquet from the Scottish members. He took his seat on the bench 7 June 1834, and became Lord Jeffrey.

Henceforward his judicial duties absorbed all his energies. He generally visited London in the spring, spending his winters at Edinburgh, and his summers at Craigcrook. He had always delighted in society. In 1803 he was one of the founders of the Friday Club, of which Scott was also a member. Though political differences and reviews of Scott's poems in the Edinburgh kept them at some distance, they were always on friendly terms as the heads of two different circles. The Friday Club lasted over thirty years. From 1840 to 1848 Jeffrey tried with some success to revive the old fashion of Edinburgh suppers by opening his house on two evenings a week. A vivid picture of his social charm and curious power of mimicry is given in Carlyle's Reminiscences. At Craigcrook Jeffrey amused himself in his garden and by miscellaneous reading. He was a sloven in regard to books, and had a wretched collection, though in a moment of infirmity he joined the Bannatyne Club in 1826. Craigcrook received a final addition in 1835.

On 5 June 1841 he had a bad fainting-fit in court, followed by a long illness, which permanently weakened him. On 22 November 1842 he was moved to the first division of the court of session. His judgments in the lower court were given in writing. He now sat with three colleagues, and cases were argued and judgments given in open court. According to Cockburn, he was singularly patient, painstaking, and candid. His fault was over-volubility and mutability, which led him to interpose a running margin of questions, suppositions, and comments throughout the argument. But his urbanity and openness of mind made him exceedingly popular, especially with the bar. On the disruption of the church, Jeffrey sympathised with the claims of those who formed the free church, and gave an opinion from the bench in their favour, which was overruled by the majority, and ultimately by the House of Lords.

His health weakened, but his character only mellowed, and he continued to rejoice in books, natural beauty, and, above all, in the society of his grandchildren. He frequently gave advice to young authors, and formed a special friendship with Dickens, the old Edinburgh reviewer melting into tears over the most sentimental passages of his friend's novels. He revised the proof-sheets of the first two volumes of Macaulay's history, boasting of his skill as a corrector of the press. He was especially proud of his accuracy in punctuation. He sank slowly, though retaining his faculties, and died on 26 January 1850. On 31 January he was buried very quietly in the Dean cemetery, near Edinburgh, at a spot which he had himself pointed out. A statue by Steel, bought by subscription among his friends, was erected to his memory in the outer house.

Mrs. Jeffrey never recovered the shock of her husband's death, and died, 18 May 1850, at the house of her son-in-law, William Empson , married on 27 June 1838 to her only child, Charlotte.

Jeffrey was a man of singular tenderness, exceedingly sensitive, and so nervous as always to anticipate evil. He never lost a friend, and was most affectionate in his family, a lover of children, and chivalrous to women, with whom he liked to cultivate little flirtations. Mrs. Carlyle was one of his special friends. He was known for liberality to poor men of letters. He offered to settle an annuity of £100 upon Carlyle, though he thought little of Carlyle's writings, and lent him £100 at a critical moment. When Moore was in difficulties, Jeffrey made him an offer of £500; and when Hazlitt was dying, Jeffrey answered to a request for help by an immediate present of £50. The sufferers under his critical lash naturally saw little of his finer qualities. Jeffrey had seated himself upon the critical bench with the audacity of a youthful judge, and, like other critics, discovered that fault-finding was easier than praise. The want of enthusiasm, which made him a despondent politician, prevented any real sympathy with the great literary movement of the time. He cared little for the romanticism or mysticism of Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, or Shelley. The code of laws which he administered was substantially the orthodox code of the previous generation, and his fear of the ridiculous kept his real warmth of feeling in the background. At the end of his career he stated his conviction that Rogers and Campbell were the only two poets of his day who would win enduring fame. Such praises as he bestowed upon Scott, Byron, and Moore were carefully balanced by blame, and followed, instead of anticipating, the popular verdict. The more chilling and negative character of his critical judgments has lowered his fame till it is difficult to understand how not only Cockburn, but Carlyle, pronounced him to be the first of all English critics. Carlyle compares him to Voltaire, whom he resembles in the brightness, vivacity, and versatility of his intellect. The essays, though little read, and marked by the defects of hasty composition peculiar to ephemeral literature, are full of vivid and acute remarks, and frequently admirable in style. If he had been less afraid of making blunders, and trusted his natural instincts, he would have left a more permanent reputation, and achieved a less negative result. He was, however, a fair opponent, and never condescended to the brutality too common in his time.

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