Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux genius

Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778-1868)

Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux  (1778-1868)

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Cowgate, Edinburgh
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Cannes, Second French Empire
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Education makes people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.

Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux was a British statesman who became Lord High Chancellor and played a prominent role in passing the 1832 Reform Act and 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Born in Edinburgh, Brougham helped found the Edinburgh Review in 1802 before moving to London, where he qualified as a barrister in 1808. Elected to the House of Commons in 1810 as a Whig, he was Member of Parliament for a number of constituencies until becoming a peer in 1834.

Brougham won popular renown for helping defeat the 1820 Pains and Penalties Bill, an attempt by the widely disliked George IV to annul his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. He became an advocate of liberal causes including abolition of the slave trade, free trade and parliamentary reform. Appointed Lord Chancellor in 1830, he made a number of reforms intended to speed up legal cases and established the Central Criminal Court. He never regained government office after 1834 and although he played an active role in the House of Lords, he often did so in opposition to his former colleagues.

Education was another area of interest. He helped establish the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and University College London, as well as holding a number of academic posts, including Rector, University of Edinburgh. In later years he spent much of his time in the French city of Cannes, making it a popular resort for the British upper-classes; he died there in 1868.


Early life

Brougham was born and grew up in Edinburgh, the eldest son of Henry Brougham 1742–1810, of Brougham Hall in Westmorland, and Eleanora, daughter of Reverend James Syme. The Broughams had been an influential Cumberland family for centuries. Brougham was educated at the Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh, where he chiefly studied natural science and mathematics, but also law. He published several scientific papers through the Royal Society, notably on light and colours and on prisms, and at the age of only 25 was elected a Fellow. However, Brougham chose law as his profession, and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1800. He practised little in Scotland, and instead entered Lincoln's Inn in 1803. Five years later he was called to the Bar. Not a wealthy man, Brougham turned to journalism as a means of supporting himself financially through these years. He was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review and quickly became known as its foremost contributor, with articles on everything from science, politics, colonial policy, literature, poetry, surgery, mathematics and the fine arts.

Brougham Hall in 1832

In the early 19th century, Brougham, a follower of Newton, launched anonymous attacks in the Edinburgh Review against Thomas Young's research, which proved light was a wave phenomenon that exhibited interference and diffraction. These attacks slowed acceptance of the truth for a decade, until François Arago and Augustin-Jean Fresnel championed Young's work. Another example of Lord Brougham's scientific incompetence is his attack upon Sir William Herschel 1738–1822, a story is described by Pustiĺnik and Din. Herschel, as Royal Astronomer, found a correlation between the observed number of sunspots and wheat prices. This met with strong and widespread rejection, even ridicule as a "grand absurdity" from Lord Brougham. Herschel had to cancel further publications of these results. Seventy years later, the English economist W. S. Jevons indeed discovered 10–11-year intervals between high wheat prices, in agreement with the 11-year cycle of solar activity discovered at those times. Miroslav Mikulecký, J. Střeštík and V. Choluj found by cross-regression analysis shared periods between climatic temperatures and wheat prices of 15 years for England, 16 years for France and 22 years for Germany. They now believe they have found a direct evidence of a causal connection between the two.

Early career

The success of the Edinburgh Review made Brougham a man of mark from his first arrival in London. He quickly became a fixture in London society and gained the friendship of Lord Grey and other leading Whig politicians. In 1806 the Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, appointed him 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. The aim of the mission was to counteract the anticipated French invasion of Portugal. During these years he became a close supporter of the movement for the abolition of slavery, a cause to which he was to be passionately devoted for the rest of his life. Despite being a well-known and popular figure, Brougham had to wait before being offered a parliamentary seat to contest. However, in 1810 he was elected for Camelford, a rotten borough controlled by the Duke of Bedford.

Sir Henry Brougham by John Adams Acton 1867

He quickly gained a reputation in the House of Commons, where he was one of the most frequent speakers, and was regarded by some as a potential future leader of the Whig Party. However, Brougham's career was to take a downturn in 1812, when, standing as one of two Whig candidates for Liverpool, he was heavily defeated. He was to remain out of Parliament until 1816, when he was returned for Winchelsea. He quickly resumed his position as one of the most forceful members of the House of Commons, and worked especially in advocating a programme for the education of the poor and legal reform. In 1828, he made a six-hour speech, the longest ever made in the House of Commons.

Defence of Queen Caroline

In 1812 Brougham had become one of the chief advisers to Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George, Prince of Wales, the Prince Regent and future George IV. This was to prove a key development in his life. In April 1820 Caroline, then living abroad, appointed Brougham her Attorney-General. Earlier that year George IV had succeeded to the throne on the death of his long incapacitated father George III. Caroline was brought back to Britain in June for appearances only, but the king immediately began 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. Brougham threatened to introduce evidence of George IV's affairs and his secret marriage to a Roman Catholic, which could have potentially thrown the monarchy into chaos, and it was suggested to Brougham that he hold back for the sake of his country. He responded with his now famous speech in the House of Lords:

An advocate, in the discharge of his duty, knows but one person in all the world, and that person is his client. To save that client by all means and expedients, and at all hazards and costs to other persons, and amongst them, to himself, is his first and only duty; and in performing this duty he must not regard the alarm, the torments, the destruction which he may bring upon others. Separating the duty of a patriot from that of an advocate, he must go on reckless of consequences, though it should be his unhappy fate to involve his country in confusion.

The speech has since become legendary among defence lawyers for the principle of zealously advocating for one's client. 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. His legal practice on the Northern Circuit rose fivefold, although he had to wait until 1827 before being made a King's Counsel.

Henry Brougham in 1825

In 1826 Brougham, along with Wellington, was one of the clients and lovers named in the notorious Memoirs of Harriette Wilson. Before publication, Wilson and publisher John Joseph Stockdale wrote to all those named in the book offering them the opportunity to be excluded from the work in exchange for a cash payment. Brougham paid and secured his anonymity.

Lord Chancellor

Brougham remained member of Parliament for Winchelsea until February 1830 when he was returned for Knaresborough. However, he represented Knaresborough only until August the same year, when he became one of four representatives for Yorkshire. His support for the immediate abolition of slavery brought him enthusiastic support in the industrial West Riding. The Reverend Benjamin Godwin of Bradford devised and funded posters that appealed to Yorkshire voters who had supported William Wilberforce to support Brougham as a committed opponent of slavery However, Brougham was adopted as a Whig candidate by only a tiny majority at the nomination meeting: the Whig gentry objecting that he had no connection with agricultural interests, and no connection with the county. Brougham came second in the poll, behind the other Whig candidate; although the liberals of Leeds had placarded the town with claims that one of the Tory candidates supported slavery, this was strenuously denied by him.

Brougham as Lord Chancellor (1830–1834)

In November the Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington fell, and the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey. Brougham joined the government as Lord Chancellor, although his opponents claimed he previously stated he would not accept office under Grey. Brougham refused the post of Attorney General, but accepted that of Lord Chancellor, which he held for four years. On 22 November, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Brougham and Vaux, of Brougham in the County of Westmorland.

The highlights of Brougham's time in government were passing the 1832 Reform Act and 1833 Slavery Abolition Act but he was seen as dangerous, unreliable and arrogant. Charles Greville, who was Clerk of the Privy Council for 35 years, recorded his "genius and eloquence" was marred by "unprincipled and execrable judgement". Although retained when Lord Melbourne succeeded Grey in July 1834, the administration was replaced in November by Sir Robert Peel's Tories. When Melbourne became Prime Minister again in April 1835, he excluded Brougham, saying his conduct was one of the main reasons for the fall of the previous government; Baron Cottenham became Lord Chancellor in January 1836.

Later life

Brougham was never to hold office again. However, for more than thirty years after his fall he continued to take an active part in the judicial business of the House of Lords, and in its debates, having now turned fiercely against his former political associates, but continuing his efforts on behalf of reform of various kinds. He also devoted much of his time to writing. He had continued to contribute to the Edinburgh Review, the best of his writings being subsequently published as Historical Sketches of Statesmen Who Flourished in the Time of George III. In 1834, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1837, Brougham presented a bill for public education, arguing 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".

Bust of Henry Brougham in the Playfair Library of Edinburgh University's Old College

In 1838, after news came up of British colonies where emancipation of the slaves was obstructed or where the ex-slaves were being badly treated and discriminated against, Lord Brougham stated in the House of Lords:

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!

Brougham was elected Rector of Marischal College for 1838. He also edited, in collaboration with Sir Charles Bell, William Paley's Natural Theology and published a work on political philosophy and in 1838 he published an edition of his speeches in four volumes. The last of his works was his posthumous Autobiography. In 1857 he was one of the founders of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and was its president at a number of congresses.

In 1860, Brougham was given by Queen Victoria a second peerage as Baron Brougham and Vaux, of Brougham in the County of Westmorland and of Highhead Castle in the County of Cumberland, with remainder to his youngest brother William Brougham died 1886. The patent stated that the second peerage was in honour of the great services he had rendered, especially in promoting the abolition of slavery.


Brougham married Mary Spalding d. 1865, daughter of Thomas Eden, and widow of John Spalding, MP, in 1821. They had two daughters, both of whom predeceased their parents, the latter one dying in 1839. Lord Brougham and Vaux died in May 1868 in Cannes, France, aged 89, and was buried in the Cimetière du Grand Jas. The cemetery is up to the present dominated by Brougham's statue, and he is honoured for his major role in building the city of Cannes. His hatchment is in Ninekirks, which was then the parish church of Brougham.

The Barony of 1830 became extinct on his death, while he was succeeded in the Barony of 1860 according to the special remainder by his younger brother William Brougham.


He was the designer of the brougham, a four-wheeled, horse-drawn style of carriage that bears his name. Brougham's patronage made the renowned French seaside resort of Cannes very popular. He accidentally found the place in 1835, when it was little more than a fishing village on a picturesque coast, and bought there a tract of land and built on it. His choice and his example made it the sanitorium of Europe. Owing to Brougham's influence the beachfront promenade at Nice became known as the Promenade des Anglais literally, "The Promenade of the English".

The title page of British Constitution (1st ed., 1844), written by Brougham

A statue of him, inscribed "Lord Brougham", stands at the Cannes waterfront, across from the Palais des festivals et des congrès.

Brougham holds the House of Commons record for non-stop speaking at six hours.

Brougham was present at the trial of the world's first steam powered ship on 14 October 1788 at Dalswinton Loch near Auldgirth, Dumfries and Galloway. William Symington of Wanlockhead built the two-cylindered engine for Patrick Miller of Dalswinton.

Brougham Street and Brougham Place in Edinburgh are named in his memory.


Brougham wrote a prodigious number of treatises on science, philosophy, and history. Besides the writings mentioned in this article, he was the author of Dialogues on Instinct; with Analytical View of the Researches on Fossil Osteology, Lives of Statesmen, Philosophers, and Men of Science of the Time of George III, Natural Theology, etc. His last work was an autobiography written in his 84th year and published in 1871.

A brougham, of the style built to Lord Brougham's specification

Brougham's Political Philosophy was included on the Cambridge syllabus for History and Political Philosophy, where it was considered among the major works on the topic along with Aristotle's Politics, François Guizot's Histoire de la civilization en Europe, and Henry Hallam's Constitutional History.

  • Henry Brougham Brougham and Vaux 1838. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests: With Historical Introductions, and a Critical Dissertation Upon the Eloquence of the Ancients, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 4 vol. online: vol. 1, 2, 3, 4

More facts

Gender: Male
Best Known For: Playing a prominent role in passing the 1832 Reform Act and 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Number of spouses: 1
First Marriage To: Mary Anne Eden
Children: 2
Father’s Name: Henry Brougham
Mother’s Name: Eleanora Brougham
Citizen Of: United Kingdom
Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux
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