8th Earl of Elgin

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin (1811-1863), was the governor general of Canada who implemented the principle of "responsible government" in colonial administration and paved the way for the development of a Commonwealth comprising autonomous nations.

The son of the 7th Earl of Elgin, who collected the Elgin Marbles for the British Museum, James Bruce was born in London on July 20, 1811. He studied at Eton and Oxford, where he graduated in 1833. For a short time he was a Conservative member of Parliament for Southampton, but on the death of his father in 1841 he succeeded to the peerage and was thus denied a career in the House of Commons.

Elgin received a colonial appointment as governor of Jamaica in 1842 and 4 years later was given the more important post of governor general of Canada. Arriving in Canada in January 1847, he brought with him clear instructions from the Whig colonial secretary, Lord Grey, to concede "responsible government" to Canada by accepting the advice of ministers who could command the confidence of a majority in the legislature.

Acting upon these directions, Elgin called to office in March 1848 a group of reformers from Canada West and Canada East headed by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine. The next year he accepted the recommendation of these ministers by signing the Rebellion Losses Bill, even though he was personally unhappy over its provision to pay compensation to the victims of the rebellion of 1837. For this act of political wisdom Elgin was subjected to personal abuse from the English Tory population of Canada East, who felt outraged by what appeared to be a payment to "traitors." Elgin's farseeing action in this crisis marked the ultimate test of "responsible government" in the senior colony of the British Empire and paved the way for the extension of the principle to other settlement colonies.

Before he left Canada in 1854, Elgin was responsible for the negotiation of a reciprocity treaty with William L. Marcy, United States Secretary of State. This provided for the free admission of natural products between the British North American colonies and the United States, and it gave a considerable spur to the economic life of the colonies before it was abrogated in 1866.

A popular governor general, who built up harmonious relationships with four ministries during his term of office, Elgin left Canada amidst general regret. He went on two diplomatic missions to China in later years and served briefly in Lord Palmerston's Cabinet in 1859-1860 as postmaster general. In 1862 he was appointed to the highest post in Britain's overseas service, the position of viceroy of India, but he died suddenly in India on Nov. 20, 1863, at the beginning of his term.

Further Reading on 8th Earl of Elgin

There are a number of biographies of Elgin, mostly emphasizing his Canadian experience. One of the first was Sir John Bourinot, Lord Elgin (1903), in "The Makers of Canada" series. This was followed by W. P. M. Kennedy, Lord Elgin, in the 1926 edition of the series, which used new material. There is also a biography by J. L. Morison, The Eighth Earl of Elgin (1928). Elgin's correspondence on Canadian affairs with Lord Grey was published as The Elgin-Grey Papers, 1846-1852, edited by Sir Arthur G. Doughty (4 vols., 1837).

Additional Biography Sources

Checkland, S. G., The Elgins, 1766-1917: a tale of aristocrats, proconsuls and their wives, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

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