Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, was born on 19 September 1778, the eldest son of Henry Brougham and Eleanora Syme Brougham, a famous and influential lawyer in Edinburgh. Young Henry grew up in a Georgian townhouse at no. 21 St Andrew Square, and followed in his father’s legal footsteps.
Brougham graduated from the University of Edinburgh, where he studied law but spent most of his time taking courses in the natural sciences and mathematics. While at university he published several scientific papers on prisms, and when he was just 25 he joined his father as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. However, science was still mainly the purview of those who could afford to eschew a monetized profession, so Brougham went into the law and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1800.
In his early adulthood Brougham supported himself primarily through his work in journalism. His father and three associates founded the Edinburgh Review in 1802 as a competitor for the Tory magazine, the Quarterly Review. The Edinburgh Review was the periodical arm of the Whig party and advocated for liberal politics, including political reform. Brougham “quickly became known as its foremost contributor, with articles on everything from science, politics, colonial policy, literature, poetry, surgery, mathematics and the fine arts.”
While working as a journalist, Brougham moved to London and entered Lincoln’s Inn in 1803 for further study of the law. His work for the Edinburgh Review won him many friends among the Whigs, both within and without of Parliament. He moved in exalted social and political circles, and became good friends with future Prime Minister, Lord Grey. A progressive, Foxite Whig to his core, he was devoted to the fight against the slave trade, Parliamentary reform, relief for the poor, and education for all social classes. He was also handsome, erudite, and a good speaker, so he was always welcome by any hostess.
Although he wouldn’t be called to the Bar until 1808, in 1806 Charles James Fox, the Foreign Secretary, appointed young Brougham secretary to a diplomatic mission to Portugal, led by James St Clair-Erskine, 2nd Earl of Rosslyn and John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent. By the time Brougham entered Parliament in 1810, via a rotten borough under the control of the Duke of Bedford, he thought to have the potential to be a future leader of the Whig Party. This appeared to be just wishful thinking in 1812 when, galvanized by fears of rebellion among the working-class and the association of Whigs with Luddites and ‘radical’ reformers, the electorate swept the Tory party into power, defeating many prominent Whigs, including Brougham.
Brougham did not sit idle after his defeat, however. He continued to write, fight for the abolition of slavery, and grow his legal practice. He defended both free speech and the Luddites, much to the establishment’s worry. He nevertheless remained plugged into the political current of Parliament. Thus, when he returned to the House of Commons to represent Winchelsea in 1816, he resumed his position as one of the foremost Whig members almost instantly. He would represent Winchelsea until 1830, after which he became one of the four representatives for Yorkshire.
As an MP, he continually agitated for the abolition of slavery, opposed restrictions on trade with continental Europe, demanded Catholic emancipation, called for the Whigs to embrace ‘radical’ ideology, campaigned against flogging in the army, tried to eliminate solitary confinement in prison, argue for the reduction of wartime taxes, (particularly the property tax), the revision of export and usury laws, a review of international treaties that allied Britain to authoritarian regimes, and proposed educational reforms for the lower-class. He was given the nickname “the Whigs’ maid of all work” because he was so busy doing grunt work in the Parliamentary trenches.
In spite of his good work, he became increasingly less popular among his own party because he was impatient with what he considered stupidity (which was anything that would harm the poor and oppressed, by action or inaction) and wasn’t shy about letting his opinion be known. He was often thought to have ‘gone too far’, such as his “vehement attacks on Court extravagance and Court favouritism that, though many of his co-oppositionists cheered him on at the time, the sober view afterwards was that he had overshot the mark and spoilt their chances of defeating government.” One of his collogues recounted how Brougham used to tell, “Gentlemen and other Members of that House, that they could hardly count ten upon their fingers, and that he looked upon them as little better than dolts and blockheads.” He was also considered both selfish and arrogant due to his refusal to compromise on matters of seemingly minor import.
In sum, Brougham was principled but unwilling to bend to the needs of party leaders, who found him “dissatisfied, restless, independent and ungovernable”. He would dig in his heels and rip the hides off of anyone who tried to ignore or explain away a law designed to oppress civil liberty or denigrate the unfortunate, even if that meant tearing into party leaders or would-be allies. Lord and Lady Holland, two the most important Whigs of the Regency era, agreed with Brougham on most particulars but yet often quarreled with him. Lady Holland complained that he was not “enduring of contradiction or even of a difference in opinion … [and] he lays down his opinion and will not easily listen to that of another person”. Only Earl Grey seemed to stay constantly on Brougham’s good side.
He may have been considered difficult by his peers, but he was witty and wealthy enough to became one of lovers of noted Regency courtesan, Harriette Wilson. Rather than be named in her notorious 1825 tell-all, the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Brougham paid her a substantial bribe to leave him out of it. Still, Wilson was exceedingly nice about whom she allowed to be her ‘protector’ for a time, and it speaks volumes about his appeal that a man as sharp-tongued and ornery as Brougham was one of the chosen. It must has been his wit as much as his money, because even those who found his difficult, like Lady Holland, admitted that he often “told such excellent stories that [even his enemies] laughed in spite of their spleen towards him.”
I wonder if Brougham had Asperger’s syndrome? I have it, and can be as didactic and unyielding on matters of principle as he was. We can be funny, but we are also remarkably stubborn and ‘tone deaf’ to social niceties and political maneuvering. We can also turn into rabid badgers when having to deal with either stupidity or injustice. If we lose our tempers, then we eviscerate those who have angered us because we will speak unspeakable truths, and don’t give a gnat’s wee shit about the preserving myriad little sociocultural norms that grease the wheels of life. Then we are startled that people dislike us, because we only told the truth. Isn’t truth axiomatically laudable?
Regardless of Brougham’s lack of tact, his career took a drastic upward trajectory in 1820, when he served as attorney-general for Queen Caroline during King George IV’s divorce proceedings against her:
The Pains and Penalties Bill, aimed at dissolving the marriage and stripping Caroline of her Royal title on the grounds of adultery, was brought before the House of Lords by the Tory government. However, Brougham led a legal team (which also included Thomas Denman) that eloquently defended the Princess. The bill passed, but by the narrow margin of only nine votes. Lord Liverpool, aware of the unpopularity of the bill and afraid that it might be overturned in the House of Commons, then withdrew it. The British public had mainly been on the Princess’s side, and the outcome of the trial made Brougham one of the most famous men in the country.
After his defense of the beleaguered queen, his public popularity allowed him to become a liberal leader in the House of Commons, in spite of his unpopularity among his fellow MPs.
The next decade was a good one for Brougham. In 1821 he married Mary Anne Eden Spalding, widow of Brougham’s fellow Scotsman, John Spalding, MP. Sadly, they had two daughters. Furthermore, he became one of the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1825 to give those with little income access to good books at low prices, and helped establish University College London , which allowed students of any religion to enroll, in 1826. Most significantly, Brougham became Lord Chancellor in 1830 when the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, fell and Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, became Prime Minister. To effect the chancellorship, Brougham was was made 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux on 22 November of that year.
Brougham would hold the position of Lord Chancellor until the Tories came to power under Sir Robert Peel in November of 1834. During his time as chancellor he was a stalwart ally of Grey’s progressive policies. He was instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, effected many legal reforms to speed procedure, and established the Central Criminal Court.
After the reemergence of the Tories in 1834, Brougham – who had alienated many of his own party with his brusque attitude – never held another high office. He did, however, continue to serve as an MP and fight for reforms tooth and nail. In 1837 Brougham introduced a bill for public education, pointing out caustically that “it cannot be doubted that some legislative effort must at length be made to remove from this country the opprobrium of having done less for the education of the people than any of the more civilized nations on earth.” He also continued the battle for the rights of the newly freed slaves in British territories. When he received the news that the emancipation of slaves was being obstructed in the British colonies, and that ex-slaves were being treated as inferior to their former owners, Brougham gave a thunderous speech in the House of Lords, declaring, “the slave … is as fit for his freedom as any English peasant, aye, or any Lord whom I now address. I demand his rights; I demand his liberty without stint… . I demand that your brother be no longer trampled upon as your slave!” In the 1840s he was one of the loudest voices urging the repeal of the Corn Laws, which upheld the English aristocracy at the expense of starving commoners.
He was a busy man outside of Parliament as well. He continued to write for the Edinburgh Review, and edited scientific publications. He also turned his hand to carriage design, ordering what would become known as the brougham from London coachbuilder Robinson & Cook in the late 1830s.
Unfortunately, his private life was much less felicitous. Both his daughters died before they reached adulthood, with his youngest passing away in 1839. His marriage seems to have been happy, but his wife also predeceased him. In addition to the loss of his wife and daughters, he outlived all of his siblings but his youngest brother. His life was a long one, but it was perhaps longer than he would have liked it to have been.
As the years passed, the elderly Lord Brougham was held in increasing esteem for his works throughout the Regency period and the early Victorian era. He was considered a giant among reformers, and founded the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1857. He was eventually given a second peerage by Queen Victoria “in honour of the great services he had rendered, especially in promoting the abolition of slavery”.
Lord Brougham passed away at the age of 89 on 7 May 1868 while at Cannes, France, a resort he had popularized from a tiny fishing village into the “the sanatorium of Europe.” He was buried in the Cimetière du Grand Jas, where a large statue in his honor still stands. Although he is little remembered now, his legal and political reforms became the bedrock of English civil procedures in the latter half of the 19th century.