Henry Brougham (1778-1868) was one of Britain's leading reform politicians of the nineteenth century. Through the force of his oratory before Parliament, Brougham helped win passage of some of the country's most important legislative efforts in his generation. As the first Baron Brougham and Vaux, he was sometimes referred to as "the Terror of the Senate" and enjoyed great fame throughout the land.
Brougham was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and was born on September 19, 1778, into a family of minor nobility. His father held literary ambitions, but never pursued them with much vigor. The eldest Brougham son, however, proved much more ambitious, even at an early age. At school, he gained a measure of fame for successfully challenging his Latin master, who was forced to admit an error before the class. After finishing at the age of 13, Brougham was tutored for a year and entered Edinburgh University in 1792. There, he studied science and mathematics and even wrote a paper on optics that was published by the Royal Society in 1796. By that point, Brougham had begun studies toward the bar exam and was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1800.
In the early years of Brougham's career, the British criminal justice system still followed some harsh, medieval practices. Petty thieves were regularly hanged, prisons were filthy, and a fair trial was unlikely. This unenlightened attitude extended to other legal realms as well. Dissent and freedom of the press were greatly restricted, and even public meetings were outlawed. There was a growing movement toward reform, especially from the younger generation. Brougham and some of his college friends, many of whom would also achieve prominence later in life, founded the Edinburgh Review in 1802. The journal was a lively and opinionated magazine, and Brougham penned many of the anonymous articles himself. From there followed his first book, An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers. It discussed the slave trade in part, and his vocal opposition to the practice drew him into the abolitionist cause.
At the age of 25, Brougham moved to London in 1803 and immersed himself in political circles sympathetic to the Whig Party. At the time, the Whigs were Britain's liberal party, and the party was defiant in its belief that the power of Parliament was superior to that of the Crown. In contrast, the Tory Party was a conservative, tradition-minded institution and largely the province of the aristocracy and Church of England leaders.
The Whigs were committed to eradicating slavery, or at least England's role in the trade. Commercial interests— namely the shipping and trade magnates who profited from it—were adamantly opposed to any form of parliamentary restraint. It was argued that ending British involvement in the procurement and shipment of Africans to the New World would have a ruinous effect on the British economy. In 1807, Brougham was tapped to organize the press campaign for the Whig Party, and later that year British statesman William Wilberforce secured passage of a law that ostensibly ended the slave trade.
Brougham enjoyed great social success in London as an erudite and witty guest. His increasing prominence helped him gain a seat in House of Commons when a vacancy in the Camelford area occurred. This was known as a "pocket" borough and contained just twenty eligible voters, all of whom were in the service of the major landholder in the area, the Duke of Bedford. Elected in 1810, Brougham served two years and rose quickly within the Whig Party to a leadership role. He was a masterful, entertaining speaker, and early on made his mark with a fiery anti-slave trade bill before Parliament in June of 1810. Wilberforce's earlier bill had resulted in a law that made slave trading illegal, but it was punishable by a small fine. Brougham asserted that ships built in Liverpool yards dodged the law by sending carpenters out to sea with its first sailing, who then outfitted the vessel with the bunks necessary for human cargo. He argued for a law that would make slave trading a felony: "While you levy your pence, the wholesale dealers in blood and torture pocket their pounds and laugh at your twopenny penalty," Brougham thundered, according to Frances Hawes's biography, Henry Brougham.
Brougham went on to argue many precedent-setting cases of the era. At the time, British sailors and soldiers were still flogged for infractions, and when one newspaper ran an article criticizing the barbaric practice, its publishers were sued by the Crown for libel. Brougham successfully defended them. He also gained an acquittal for 38 weavers from Manchester, a major textile center, accused of attempting to unionize. He lost his Camelford seat in 1812 but was elected again in 1816 from another pocket borough, Winchelsea. Political cartoonists of the era took great pleasure in caricaturing the outspoken M.P. and barrister, with his long nose and trademark plaid trousers. He gained further admiration from this quarter by proposing to guarantee freedom of the press.
Brougham had less success in his personal life. In the summer of 1819, he secretly wed Mary Anne Spalding, a widow with two children, and the couple had a daughter, who was born that November. It was said to be an unhappy union, an intellectual mismatch. Furthermore, their child died in 1821; another daughter, named after Brougham's mother Eleanor, who lived with him for many years, did survive until adulthood.
Still, Brougham's marital woes were trifling compared to those of his most famous client, the Princess of Wales. The corrupt prince, who had roused the ire of his family and parliament by marrying a Roman Catholic woman, finally agreed to marry a suitable bride in exchange for an increase in his royal allowance. A niece of the Queen, Caroline, a German princess of Braunschweig, was chosen. Caroline was immediately reviled by members of the royal family, who treated her shamefully. Elsewhere, political powers hostile to the prince used Caroline to attack him. The new Princess of Wales was said to be unattractive, with bad teeth and poor personal hygiene. Moreover, she was prone to incessant talk punctuated by vulgar jokes. After the birth of a daughter, the Prince refused to co-habit with his wife again, and Caroline was left to amuse herself. There was an inquiry into an allegedly indigent child she adopted, after rumors arose that it was her own, but she was acquitted. Brougham became her advisor in 1809, three years after these proceedings. She eventually left England for Europe and engaged in further scandalous behavior there. When King George III died in 1820, she planned to return for her husband's coronation, but he refused to receive her. She was accused of adultery with her couturier in Italy and a bill to annul the marriage was introduced in Parliament.
At this point, Brougham became Caroline's attorney general. He delivered an impassioned speech before the House of Lords in her defense and skillfully discredited the witnesses brought in against her. According to Hawes, he enjoined the assembled lords to "save the country, that you may continue to adorn it—save the Crown, which is in jeopardy—the Aristocracy which is shaken—save the Altar, which must stagger with the blow that rends its kindred throne." The speech reduced some to tears, and though the Lords voted to annul the marriage, it was only by narrow majority, and there was no hope of its passage in the House of Commons. The bill was withdrawn, and public sentiment turned against the King. Brougham became a major celebrity of the era for his defense of Caroline, and large crowds often turned out when he visited towns outside the capital.
Brougham's other achievements made a lasting mark on English society during his century. He introduced a Public Education Bill in 1820, which failed to pass, and subsequent proposals that would have created a vastly improved system of publicly funded schools in what was, at the time, virtually an educational vacuum. There were few schools, teachers were unqualified, corporal punishment common, and high rates of illiteracy persisted in the countryside. Many of the ideas Brougham proposed were adopted later in the century.
Brougham had better success as one of the primary founders of London University in 1828. At the time, the country's two major institutions of higher learning, Oxford and Cambridge, admitted only students who belonged to the Church of England. Brougham imagined a nonresidential university open to all religious denominations, with a focus on the sciences. He secured money from the government to help establish it, though it was initially derided as "Brougham's Cockney College." Still, the Anglicans formed a competing city college, and the two were formally joined as London University in 1836.
In 1830 Brougham accepted an offer from the Whig government to become Lord Chancellor under the Prime Minister, Earl Grey. With it he received a baronetcy. It was a brief tenure, but one stamped with a tremendous achievement. Brougham was instrumental in securing passage of the famous Reform Bill of 1831, which vastly modernized the nation's parliamentary election system. It had been largely unchanged since the 1600s. There were many of the aforementioned pocket boroughs, and so-called "rotten" boroughs as well. These were districts that had suffered a major loss of population, but still held a seat in House of Commons. Old Sarum, near Salisbury, was the most famous rotten borough; it had once been the site of a Roman garrison, but fell into decline by the 1300s. Moreover, major population shifts resulting from the Industrial Revolution had not remedied the situation; large cities like Manchester and Birmingham had little or no representation in the House of Commons. Voting was still restricted, and out of a nation of 24 million, only 435,000 men were eligible.
The Reform Bill vastly expanded the voting franchise and resulted in an entirely new group of voters from Britain's growing middle class. Passage of the bill, however, was hard-won. A new king in 1830, William IV, had Whig sympathies, and in 1831 he agreed to dissolve Parliament so that the necessary reforms could pass. He walked back to Buckingham Palace and was cheered by massive crowds. The bill failed to pass in the House of Lords, however, and reform riots took place in several British towns, most notably in Bristol. Grey and Brougham met with the King and asked him to create a number of Whig barons that would secure passage of the bill in the House of Lords, but he had a change of heart about the matter and refused. Grey's government then resigned, other parties failed to form a government, and Grey was invited back. When the King agreed to create new peers, the House of Lords decided to back the Reform Bill.
Brougham also helped secure passage of several other reform bills. One concerning criminal law brought speedier procedure for suspects regarding detention and trial and the creation of a central criminal court. The Privy Council judicial committee was remodeled on his plan in 1833. He lost office in 1834 with the defeat of the Whig Party, but when it returned to power the next year he was not given a post. He was, however, instrumental in the passage of the Municipal Reform Bill of 1835, which allowed taxpayers in England's 178 boroughs to form their own local councils and elect their own mayor. One of his last great political achievements was the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which permitted divorce cases to be heard in the court system; prior to this it required petitioners to ask for a Private Act of Parliament, which was slow and costly.
Brougham had nicknamed his second daughter, born in 1821, "Tullia." She was in poor health throughout her life and died in 1839. The loss was said to devastate him. She was the first woman to be buried at Lincoln's Inn. In 1844, Brougham wrote a novel, Albert Lunel, or the Chateau of Languedoc, set in the south of France where he preferred to vacation. His presence helped make Cannes a popular spot for Britons of a certain class. He died there in May of 1868, at a house he had named after his daughter.
Aspinall, Arthur, Lord Brougham and the Whig Party, Manchester University Press, 1917.
Hawes, Frances, Henry Brougham, St. Martin's, 1958.