Sylvester Douglas, Baron Glenbervie

 

NPG D11004Sylvester Douglas, Baron Glenbervie (1743–1823), politician and diarist, was born in Fechil, Aberdeenshire, on 24 May 1743, the elder and only surviving son of John Douglas (1713/14–1762), landowner, of Whiteriggs, Kincardineshire, and his first wife, Margaret Gordon (d. 1747), daughter and coheir of James Gordon of Fechil. His father was descended from a brother of Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, later earl of Angus, and resided at Fechil after having bought out his wife's two sisters, who were second cousins of George Keith, the Jacobite Earl Marischal. Douglas's pride in his genealogy is displayed in the account of his family which he published in the third edition of Lyric Poems (1806) by his brother-in-law, the poet James Mercer (1734–1804), who had married his only sister, Katherine Douglas.

Douglas was educated at Foveran School, Aberdeen, where bullying by a young kinsman, so he later alleged, damaged his development. From 1754 his father engaged tutors (Alan Gordon, John Calder, and Alexander Gall) to teach him at home, until in 1757 he entered King's College, Aberdeen, of which he later became rector from 1805 to 1814. He lived at home, his father having moved to Aberdeen, and left college without a degree in 1760. After his father's death he spent some time in Edinburgh, proceeded to London in 1765, and took a medical degree at Leiden in 1766, with a dissertation ‘De stimulis’. He travelled to Paris, then toured Italy and progressed to Vienna, from where he visited Hungary; his first publication was to be an account of Tokay wines in the Philosophical Transactions (1773). He returned to London in 1769, switched from medicine to the law, and entered Lincoln's Inn in 1771. When called to the bar in 1776 he had already embarked on reporting the disputed parliamentary elections to the 1774 House of Commons, which were published in four volumes in 1775 and 1777. From 1778 he reported Lord Mansfield's judicial decisions in king's bench, published in 1783. He was elected FSA in 1781 and FRS 1795.

By 1784 Douglas's election reports were said to earn him £3000 a year. He had also, since his call, practised on the Oxford circuit, and for a decade to 1794 he was king's attorney. Tall and high-nosed with beetling black brows, he was more remarkable for his assimilative capacity and ambition than for any originality. One of the prosecuting counsel for Warren Hastings's impeachment, he moved in whig circles, joining Brooks's Club and the Whig Club in 1789, when he made a momentous marriage on 25 September that year. His bride, Catherine Anne North (1760–1817), to whom he had been introduced by Lord Sheffield, was the eldest daughter of Frederick North, second earl of Guilford (1732–1792), the former premier, and his wife, Anne Speke, and was her father's match for wit and ugliness. They had a son, Frederick Sylvester North Douglas, who pre-deceased him, but both of their daughters were stillborn. Douglas's whig friends had encouraged him to look to high legal office during the Regency crisis, but even the solicitor-generalship would have left him much poorer than his professional income, and he was in no hurry to enter parliament, which served him better with its crop of election and canal disputes.

The death of his father-in-law in 1792 freed Douglas from whig shackles. He joined the phalanx of Portland whigs who went over to Pitt the younger's administration. He took silk on 7 February 1793, and became a bencher of his inn (of which he was to be treasurer in 1799). After complaining loudly of not having been made solicitor-general to the prince of Wales, he was offered a commissionership at Toulon, captured from the French, in September 1793. As this appointment was worth £1500 a year and not pensionable, Douglas declined, preferring an under-secretaryship at the Foreign Office. In January 1794, however, he agreed to become chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and was sworn of the Irish privy council on 20 January and of the British privy council on 4 May. Report had it that having failed to ‘bustle himself into the Chancellorship of Ireland’, he ‘bullied himself into the Secretaryship’ (Walpole, 12.124). He sat for St Canice in the Irish parliament. Recalled from Dublin with Viceroy Westmorland in January 1795, he was unable to obtain the sinecure Irish secretaryship of state, being told this was reserved for Irishmen, but he was offered compensations: the first vacant lordship of the Treasury at home, a seat at the Board of Control for India, a pension of £800, half of which was to descend to his son, and a seat in parliament. The latter was for Fowey, where he was by-elected on 14 February 1795 with ministerial backing, having failed in his negotiations elsewhere. His pension, awarded on 21 March 1795, was actually set at £600 for life and the same in survivorship for himself or his son unless he accepted office of £1000 a year (a condition which reflected his stated aspiration to succeed John Robinson as surveyor of woods and forests). He gave his maiden speech on disputed elections on 14 April 1795, but was shouted down when he defended Westmorland's Irish administration on 19 May. In June he took his seat at the Board of Control, but chafed for further employment. Lord Camden would not have him as his chief secretary at Dublin, although the king had suggested it, and he tried to make himself useful to ministers in debate, coming to the defence of Henry Dundas and of Pitt, whose Poor Relief Bill he helped to prepare. In March 1796 he obtained a seat at the Board of Trade.

Douglas sat for Midhurst on Lord Carrington's interest in the 1796 parliament. In September he was invited to accompany Lord Macartney to the Cape with the promise of succeeding him as governor in eighteen months' time, and of receiving a £2000 pension two years later. He agreed, on condition that he would be raised to the Irish peerage, but his wife disapproved, and her influence on his decisions was paramount. He jobbed with Dundas to place him at the Treasury board instead. In the Commons he served as committee chairman and teller, and was a notable promoter of the Irish union: his speech of 22 April 1799 answering objections to it was published in 1800. When in January 1800 he was again offered the governorship of the Cape, his wife took the blame for his refusal. After talk of a continental mission, he settled for the Cape in October 1800, and was duly created Baron Glenbervie on 30 November. Pitt's resignation spared him the Cape, and from Addington he requested the Home Office. Instead he was appointed joint paymaster-general, in March 1801, to which he would have preferred a return to Dublin or promotion on the Board of Control, and finding himself second fiddle at the pay office, he angled to replace Dundas in charge of Scottish affairs. As his Irish peerage enabled him to sit at Westminster, he was by-elected for Plympton Erle as a government nominee on 6 July 1801; he made himself useful in debate, and was offered the presidency of the Board of Control. This still did not satisfy his ambitions as he would have preferred the vice-presidency of the Board of Trade, presiding in Lord Liverpool's absence, or better still, the speakership. He scorned, as Lord North's son-in-law, Addington's proposal of a diplomatic mission to the United States in December 1801, even though he introduced a bill easing commercial relations with America, and on 24 May 1802 reminded Addington that he had no objection to negotiating a commercial treaty with France.

In January 1803 Glenbervie, who sat for Hastings as a Treasury nominee in that parliament, succeeded Robinson as surveyor of woods and forests, thereby enabling Addington's brother to replace him at the pay office, although he would have preferred to have held both. He obtained £3000 a year, but not for life, and promotion in the peerage might have compensated him. Ostensibly for health reasons he took little part in debate, and in February 1804 gave up the Board of Trade. On Pitt's return to power that year he was a doubtful supporter, and offered to relinquish office only if compensated. By September he was listed as a reliable government supporter, and in 1805 defended Lord Melville against charges of naval maladministration. He was mortified to lose his surveyorship when the Grenville administration took over in February 1806. He complained that the pension he negotiated was only a fifth of what he had been earning in 1793, and tried to obtain compensatory employment hearing appeals to the privy council. He did not seek re-election to parliament that year. The Portland ministry restored him to the surveyorship of the woods and forests in April 1807, reducing his salary but not sufficiently to allow him to retain his pension: this saved the public £1600 a year. In July 1810, when his office was reformed, he became first of three commissioners. Then, and in 1812, he was criticized as a jobber in the Commons, and Lord Liverpool was reluctant to let him serve in 1814 in view of his pension claims. He travelled on the continent, and his later years were devoted to a vain attempt to guide his son's career. His wife died on 6 February 1817 and his son in 1819. Cared for by his daughter-in-law, he turned to literary pursuits. Nothing came of a projected biography of Lord North, but he managed a translation of part of the Italian poet Fortiguerri's Ricciardetto, published in 1822. From 1812 he was a trustee of the British Museum. He died at Cheltenham on 2 May 1823, whereupon his title became extinct. His journals and diaries, published piecemeal in 1910 and 1928, are a record of his aspirations and disappointments, interlaced with scandalous anecdotes, political gossip, and travel notes, which account for their attraction as a period piece.

On his death on 2 May 1823, the barony became extinct.


The following is extracted from The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1824, Volume 8

The Right Hon. SYLVESTER DOUGLAS,
BARON GLENBERVIE OF KINCARDINE, F. R. AND A. S.
Motto — Per Yarios Casui.

Lord Glenbervie was the eldest son of John Douglas, Esq. of Fechil, in the parish of Ellon, county of Aberdeen.
The said John Douglas was tenth in lineal male descent
from William Douglas, first Earl of Douglas; which William . was paternal nephew and successor, as heir male, to James, «ighth Lord Douglas, (called by the Scottish historians the good Sir James,) who flourished in the time of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, and Edward I., King of England. The said William was seventh in male descent from William de Douglas, first Lord Douglas, who was descended from Sholto Douglas, said to have flourished in 700. John Douglas was the great-great-grandson, and became (in consequence of the death of his elder brother George, and of Robert and James, the only sons of George, who both died unmarried,) lineal heir male of the body of the Reverend James Douglas, of Glenbervie; which James was brother to William the ninth Earl of Angus, the said ninth earl being the sixth in lineal male descent from the above-named William, the first Earl of Douglas, and great-grandson to Archibald, the fifth Earl of Angus, (styled the Great Earl,) whose second son was Gawin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, author of the celebrated translation of Virgil.

The said Archibald was the common ancestor of the Lady Margaret Douglas, maternal sister of James V. of Scotland, niece of Henry VIII., grand-daughter of Henry VII., and grandmother of James the first of England and sixth of Scotland; being the mother of Lord Darnley, and of the present Archibald Lord Douglas; of the Duke of Hamilton; of the Earl of Selkirk; of Sir William Hamilton, K. B.; of Sir Alexander Douglas, Bart, (styled of Glenbervie); and of the late Lord Glenbervie.

John Douglas, Esq., Lord Glenbervie's father, who was born in 1714, and died in 1762, married Catharine, the second of the three daughters and co-heirs of James Gordon of Fechil, great-grandson to the celebrated geographer, Robert Gordon of Straloch, author of the Geography of Scotland, inserted in Bleau's Atlas. The said Catharine Gordon was second cousin to the last Earl Marischal, George Keith; they being grandchildren of George Hay, second Earl of Kinnoul, by his two daughters, the Ladies Mary and Catharine. By her Mr. Douglas had issue Sylvester, the late Lord Glenbervie, and Catharine, who married James Mercer, of Sunny Bank, Aberdeenshire, Esq., and died in 1802.

Lord Glenbervie was born May 24. 1743. He received the rudiments of his education near the place of his nativity, whence he went to the University of Aberdeen; and, after prosecuting his studies there for two or three years, travelled with the present Lord Douglas over the Continent. While abroad, and particularly during his residence at Paris and Vienna, Mr. Douglas mixed in gay and expensive society to an extent which led to the sale of his paternal property at an early period of his life, and happily forced upon him the necessity of applying his mind and talents to some profession, by which he might obtain the means of honourable, independence. His situation and feeling at this period are well expressed in the following "Ode to Poverty," written by himself at the time: —
TO POVERTY.
WRITTEN ON MY RETURN FROM VIENNA, MARCH, 1769.
Come, Poverty, to Pleasure's snares,
To wild Ambition's loftier cares,

While calm Content succeeds;
Teach me, stern goddess, to deride
The miser's gold! the monarch's pride t

The hero's boasted deeds!
Teach me, while I no more pursue
The rainbow hope, which still in view

Still cheats the grasping fool,
To shun the thresholds * of the great,
No courtly sycophant, nor yet

Seditious faction's tool-
Too long the dazzling glare of courts..
Where Fortune with Ambition sports,

Drew my fond thoughts astray:
Too long was Pleasure's path my choice,
While, deaf to Reason's sober voice,

I heard her syren lay.
Ambition! Pleasure! fatal pair!
My buoyant spirits, light as air,
No gloomy damp opprest;
'Till won by their delusive charms,
I clasp'd them in my youthful arms,
. And press'd them to my breast.

'Twas then the poison they infus'd
Which, through my inmost frame diffus'd

Mad Passion's feverish rage;
But Poverty, though Reason fail,
With force resistless shall prevail,'

Its fury to assuage.
» " Forumque vitat, et superba
Civium potentiorum limina." Hob. VOL. Till. Z
The profession of the law was that to which Mr. Douglas determined to devote himself. At the age of thirty-one, he entered at Lincoln's Inn; and, notwithstanding his former long-continued habits of indulgence, — habits so destructive in general of all inclination for laborious study, — he applied with such earnestness and industry to his new pursuit, and especially to the law pf controverted elections, that he soon became highly and justly celebrated for his legal acquirements, and for several years was in possession of the principal practice in that very lucrative branch of the profession, — the election-law. He was also selected by the House of Commons as one of their counsel to assist the managers of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Esq.

Having thus obtained considerable eminence as a professional man, Mr. Douglas, on the 26th September, 1789, married the Honourable Katharine Anne North, eldest daughter of Frederic Lord North, afterwards Earl of Guilford; an amiable and excellent woman; who, besides many more valuable qualities, possessed, to use Lord Glenbervie's own words *, "the most prompt, genuine, and brilliantwit," which, however, "was always vigilantly checked and reined in by a proportionate share of tact, good nature, and delicacy." The admirable character of this lady is fully and touchingly painted in the following inscription on a tablet, which, after her decease in January, 1817, was placed in Hampton church:
"Near this place are deposited The mortal remains of Lady Katharine Anne North, Lady Glenbsrvje. "Those who knew her while she sojourned on earth, and who knew how to form a just estimate of that rare union of the soundest understanding, the kindest, tenderest heart, the happiest temper, and the most lively yet innocent wit, by which she was so eminently distinguished: those who had opportunities of contemplating the steady firmness and edifying tenour of her principles, affections, and conduct as a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a wife; as a Christian, a friend, and a member of society: those who can bear testimony to the severity with which she scrutinised her own thoughts, words, and actions, and her ever charitable indulgence towards those of others, will be best able to conceive, and will, perhaps, sympathise with the sentiments of unavailing sorrow and regret (though not daring to arraign the impenetrable dispensations of Providence) with which her aged husband has dictated this scanty and inadequate memorial of her excellence."

This marriage naturally introduced Mr. Douglas into political life. On the junction of a portion of the Whigs with Mr. Pitt's administration, in 1793, he was made a king's counsel, and appointed chief secretary to the Earl of Westmoreland, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland. In 1795 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the affairs of India. In 1798, he became one of the lords of the Treasury. In 1800, he was appointed governor of the Cape of Good Hope; and was on that occasion advanced to the dignity of a peer of Ireland, by the title of Baron Glenbervie of Kincardine. He did not, however, go to the Cape of Good Hope; his views having been altered by a change in the ministry the day before that which had been fixed for his embarkation, and a determination to restore that valuable colony to the Dutch. On the 20th February, 1801, His Lordship kissed His Majesty's hand on being nominated joint paymaster-general of the forces, in the room of Mr. Canning. In 1803, Lord Glenbervie was appointed to the office of surveyor-general of the king's woods, forests, and chases; which office he resigned in 1806, but was again appointed to it in the following year. To the duties of this office he applied himself with the most ardent zeal and perseverance; and the advantages which the public have derived from his exertions are considerable. The efforts of all His Lordship's predecessors, from the very establishment of the office itself, had been confined to cutting down the wood. Lord Glenbervie was actuated by a more wise and provident spirit; and, while he was the surveyor-general, between thirty and forty thousand acres were inclosed, and carefully planted. To him, therefore, the present flourishing condition of the King's woods, forests, and chases, is chiefly attributable. His Lordship was also for some years vice-president of the Board of Trade.

Lord Glenbervie sat in the Irish parliament for St. Canice, or Irish Town; and in the British and Imperial parliaments, first for Fowey, then for Midhurst, afterwards/or Plympton, and, lastly, for Hastings. He was a frequent speaker. His reasoning was always close and logical, and was occasionally enlivened by dry and effective sarcasm; and his utterance, which was slow and solemn, was in strict harmony with the profound and intellectual expression of his countenance. One of his most celebrated speeches was made on the 23d of April, 1799, on seconding the motion of the Right Hon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the House of Commons to agree with the House of Lords in an address to His Majesty relative to the union with Ireland; of which measure Lord Glenbervie was a warm and an able advocate. In 1801, he repeatedly took part in the debates on the "Corn Bill." In 1802, he suggested an important amendment in the "Navy Abuse Bill," relative to the legal questions which might be be raised about supposed difficulties. On the 8th of April, 1805, when the House of Commons decided on the conduct of Lord Melville, who had been implicated in a Report from the Commissioners of Naval Inquiry, Lord Glenbervie voted in the minority of 216 to 217. On the 26th of June following, he was chosen by ballot one of a committee of seven, to inquire into and examine the secret matter contained in the Eleventh Report of the Commissioners of Naval Inquiry; and afterwards, as chairman of the committee, delivered in the report of their proceedings.

Lord Glenbervie had an only son, the Hon. Frederic Sylvester North Douglas, who was educated at Westminster school, and was afterwards a student of Christ Church, Oxford; where he gained the first class honours, and took the degree of M. A. On various occasions he displayed the greatest taste, learning, and judgment; and among other productions, published a valuable work "On certain Points of Resemblance between the ancient and modern Greeks," derived from the observations which he made during his travels in that country; which will always be interesting to literature. During two parliaments Mr. Douglas sat in the House for the borough of Banbury, and gave great earnest of future eminence and celebrity.

In July, 1819, he married Harriet, eldest daughter of William Wrightson, Esq. of Cusworth, Yorkshire; a union which promised lasting felicity to both parties. To the inexpressible grief, however, of his family and friends, and the deep and general regret of the public at large, on the 21st of October following, a sudden illness, — effusion on the brain, — deprived his country of one who promised to be among her brightest ornaments, in the 29th year of his age. The subjoined just and eloquent tribute to his * memory appeared a few days after in the Morning Chronicle : —
"The early death of the Hon. Frederic North Douglas demands more than common notice. Indefatigable in his attention to public business, he brought to the consideration of every subject a clear, vigorous, and active understanding; a copious fund of information, the spirit and the tact of a man of business. He had devoted, at an early age, all his faculties to public life, and in the opinion of the most judicious among his contemporaries, he would have obtained the highest distinctions of parliament, and of the state. As a classical and a general scholar, greatly accomplished in languages and in letters, few were his superiors; but it is for his friends. alone to speak with justice of his social merits. Inheriting, with the name, the humour of Lord North, the characteristic humour of his family, which appeared to be rather the effusion of playful spirits and of social enjoyment than the effort of wit, dnd being free from spleen or vanity, was incapable of inflicting pain, he enlivened every society by his presence. A. cheerful and agreeable companion, a warm and generous friend, a kind and affectionate son, nothing remained to make his private character more amiable, but that most endearing relation of all, which, with every prospect of happiness, he bad undertaken only a few months before bis lamented death."

• Such was the language in which the public press spoke of Mr. Douglas. The following inscription, placed near his remains in Hampton Church, will further show the affliction of those who were near to him in blood and affection, and the irreparable loss which society sustained by his premature decease:
"In Memory
of

The Honourable Frederic Sylvester North Douglas,
only son of Sylvester Lord Glenbervie,
and of Katharine Anne,
Daughter of Frederic second Earl of Guilford;
in two successive Parliaments
Representative of the borough of Banbury:
who, during the short but not obscure career
assigned him by Providence,
was distinguished, both in public and private life,
by splendid talents and extensive acquirements,
by an ardent attachment to literature,
a Patriotism consistent, disinterested, and rational,
an unaffected zeal in the cause of Benevolence and Religion,
the kindest heart, the most conciliating manners,
and a conscientious and cheerful discharge
of all the social duties and charities
of a Friend, a Son, a Husband,
a Senator, and a Christian.

He was born February 8. 1791, married July 19. 1819, to Harriet, eldest daughter of William Wrightson, Esq. of Cusworth, in the county of York, and died October 21. in the same year."
It is impossible for any one of common feeling to contemplate the state into which Lord Glenbervie must have been thrown by this unexpected calamity, without emotion. Lady Glenbervie had died only two years before. That event was a heavy blow; but it was in the course of nature, and was therefore an evil for which her noble husband must have been in some degree prepared. But the death of his son, his only son, was not merely an additional, it was an unlooked-for affliction. The grief which it occasioned, deep in itself, must have been embittered by disappointment. Had it occurred at an earlier period, it would have been sufficiently severe; but it was delayed until every circumstance conspired to aug-' ment the anguish of the infliction. It is after the labours of tillage are successfully over, when the corn has sprung healthily and luxuriantly from the earth, and every thing indicates the near approach of an abundant and glorious harvest that the storm, by which the cultivator's hopes are in a moment destroyed, falls with its most overwhelming and heart-break* ing effect.

But the influence of a sound philosophy, and the advaft* tages of a cultivated taste, were perhaps never more strikingly exemplified than in His Lordship's case. By plunging into literary stndies and amusements, he was enabled in some de-> gree to divert his attention from retrospects under which he must otherwise have speedily sunk. Among various* deployments of a similar nature, to which he devoted himself with almost youthful alacrity and relish, he translated the first canto1 of " Rieciardetto," a humorous Italian poem by Fortiguerri which translation was published in 1822, with an introdnetiotti relative to the principal romantic, burlesque, and1 mock-heroic' poets, and notes, critical and philological. The original Is rendered into English with spirit and correctness;, and the whole work does great honour to the learned and Venerable. translator. He also occupied some of the latter years of hfc life in preparing for publication a new edition of the transition of Virgil into Scottish verse, by his ancestor, Gawi&> Douglas, Bishop of Dtinkeld, with a life of the author; and* a Comparison between English and Italian literature. He had likewise made considerable progress in what, if completed* must have proved a most interesting work, namely, an account of the private and political life of his father-in-law, Lord North; for which, it is understood, he had very copious materials, having been the surviving executor of His Lordship's widow, Lady Guilford; and in that character having become possessed of all Lord North's correspondence with the King during his ministry, as well as with the eminent persons who were his colleagues in the administration.

In addition to very eminent classical acquirements, Lord Glenbervie was considered one of the first modern linguists of his time; and nothing was more remarkable than the way in which he retained his powers and faculties on literary subjects to the very last; and after they had become somewhat imperfect on matters requiring less mental exertion.

In December, 1822, his lordship, feeling the infirmities of age increase, went to Bath for the winter, accompanied by his son's widow, the Hon. Mrs. F. S. N. Douglas, from whom he experienced, during the latter part of his life, the most affectionate and unremitting attention. He visited Clifton and Cheltenham; but at length he was seized with a violent illness, which, after two months' duration, terminated his life at Cheltenham, on the 2d of -May, 1823, in the 80th year of his age.

Besides an account of the Tokay and other wines of Hungary, inserted in the Philosophical Transactions for 1773, Lord Glenbervie was the author of " History of the Cases of Controverted Elections, determined during the first Session of the 14th Parliament of Great Britain," 4 vols. 8vo. 1777; 2d edition, 1802. "Reports of Cases determined in the Court of King's Bench, in the 19th, 20th, and 21st Years of George III." fol. 1783; 3d edition. 2 vols, royal 8vo. 1790. Many years ago His Lordship published "Lyric Poems," written by the late James Mercer, Esq., who had married Lord Glenbervie's sister, to which a life of the author, and an account of his own family, were prefixed. The celebrated Lord Mansfield used to instance the preface to this last-mentioned volume as a fine specimen of prose composition.

See also: Douglas of Glenbervie