Brougham, Henry

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BROUGHAM, HENRY (1st Baron Brougham and Vaux; 1778–1868), British politician and reformer.

Born in Edinburgh on 19 September 1778, and educated at the University of Edinburgh, Henry Brougham displayed a remarkable talent for learning in a city steeped in the cosmopolitanism of the Scottish Enlightenment. Yet his ambition required a wider scope. He made his way to London, where he began a long career as a Whig politician and reformer. Trained as a lawyer and called to both the Scottish and English bars, Brougham made a name, as well as a substantial income, in this profession. The legal victory for which he acquired the most recognition was his 1820 defense of Queen Caroline in the House of Lords. Brougham had served as her legal advisor since 1812 and became her attorney general when George IV (r. 1820–1830) insisted on a divorce soon after inheriting the throne. After Brougham delivered a speech that lasted for two days, the bill to dissolve the royal marriage passed the Lords with only a handful of votes, which convinced the government to drop the matter and avoid what promised to be a crushing defeat in the Commons. As the public demonstrations celebrating the queen's victory demonstrated, popular opinion was firmly with the queen, and thus also with Brougham.

Commentators at the time recognized that Brougham's rhetorical skills far surpassed his understanding of complex legal issues. His particular talents were perfectly suited for politics. He began his political career in journalism, when in 1802 he helped Sydney Smith, Francis Horner, and Francis Jeffrey establish The Edinburgh Review, a quarterly periodical with a strong Whig bias that soon became a leading platform for political debate. Brougham frequently contributed articles, which in the first eight years of the Review's run numbered over one hundred. Brougham entered Parliament for the first time in 1810 as MP for Camelford. Though he lost and regained seats in Parliament over the years, he nevertheless managed to attain high political office by serving as lord chancellor from 1830 to 1834 in the administrations of the prime ministers Charles Grey (1830–1834) and Lord Melbourne (William Lamb; 1834).

Brougham was routinely associated with the radical wing of the Whig Party, since his positions reflected those of many nineteenth-century reform movements. He was an early supporter of the abolitionists and promoted their efforts to end the slave trade with two pamphlets, An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of European Powers (1803) and A Concise Statement of the Question Regarding the Abolition of the Slave Trade (c. 1804). In 1812 he received much applause for leading a successful parliamentary fight against the Orders in Council (1807), which many merchants condemned for the blockade it established in response to Napoleon's attempt, through the continental system to close all European ports to ships from Britain and its colonies. Brougham encouraged one of the most significant political shifts of the century by making parliamentary reform a main tenet of his election campaign in Yorkshire in 1830 and then by helping to secure passage of the 1832 Reform Act in the House of Lords. His interest in educational policy took him in several directions. First, in 1820 he proposed a bill promoting publicly funded education; the bill failed, but Brougham remained committed to the cause. Second, in 1826 he founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which published cheaply priced works aimed at the working classes. And third, he was among the active supporters of England's first nonsectarian university, the University of London (later renamed University College), which opened in 1828.

Brougham became Parliament's most consistent champion of law reform, in part because in 1828 he delivered a brilliant six-hour speech that turned law reform into a popular cause. His position as lord chancellor also enabled him to follow through on important initiatives. He established the judicial committee of the Privy Council, a central criminal court, and bankruptcy courts, and he also laid the foundation for a county court system. Brougham made the Court of Chancery, a court of equity where rulings could conflict with the common law, another target of reform by eliminating abuses and reducing its backlog. He continued to push for legal reform when his term as lord chancellor ended by supporting, for example, the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which permitted divorce cases in the courts and granted women certain property rights.

Brougham had an interest in science as well as politics. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and was credited with designing the brougham, a four-wheeled carriage. He died and was buried at Cannes, where his frequent residence during the last three decades of his life helped make the French Mediterreanean town a destination for British tourists.

See alsoGeorge IV; Whigs.


Huch, Ronald K. Henry, Lord Brougham: The Later Years, 1830–1868. Lewiston, N.Y., 1993.

Lobban, Michael. "Henry Brougham and Law Reform." English Historical Review 115 (2000): 1184–1215. Also authored an extensive article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Stewart, Robert. Henry Brougham, 1778–1868: His Public Career. London, 1986.

Elisa R. Milkes