John Scott, Viscount of Encombe and Earl of Eldon, 1751-1838

John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon by Sir Thomas LawrenceJohn Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1877.

Lord Eldon, born John Scott, was one of the major political and legal figures during the reigns of George III and IV, remaining a force until the early years of Victoria. He served as cabinet minister, advisor to kings, member of Parliament in both houses, and held a variety of legal posts, culminating in twenty years on the bench as Lord Chancellor. He was an unabashed royalist in an age marked by growing antipathy to monarchy, strict on matters of religion in an increasingly ecumenical age. Still, he was widely respected by friends and enemies alike for his great personal charm and intellectual gifts. Despite being widely criticized for delays in deciding cases, his most enduring work is the salutary effect he had on the equity jurisprudence of England.

John Scott was born on June 4, 1751, in Love Lane, Newcastle. His father William was a coal fitter, owner of several keels, and a freeman of Newcastle and a member of the Hoastman's Company. By William's second wife, Jane Atkinson, were born thirteen children, most of whom did not survive infancy. The eldest son, William, was named a judge of the High Court of Admiralty in 1798, and raised to the peerage as Baron Stowell in 1821. John Scott was the third and youngest son.

His early education began at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, under the direction of the estimable Reverend Hugh Moises. His older brother William went up to Oxford, but John was slated to be apprenticed to his father. On the advice of William, however, and just shy of his fifteenth birthday, John went up to Oxford in 1766. He was instructed by his brother, and was elected to a Fellowship the next year. He was awarded the B.A. degree in 1770, and won the essay prize the next year for his piece on "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Foreign Travel."

While in Newcastle, he had fallen in love with Elizabeth Surtees, the daughter of a prominent banker. On November 19, 1772, they eloped, to the temporary distress and disapproval of both families. Soon, however, all were reconciled, and Scott and his new wife were given a modest endowment with which to begin life. At the time of his elopement, Scott knew that he would have to surrender his Fellowship and any hopes of entering the clergy. Law became his alternative.

Scott entered the Middle Temple in 1773 and was awarded the M.A. soon after. For the three years of his probation, he assisted his brother as tutor at University College and acted as deputy to Sir Robert Chambers, Vinerian Professor of Law. It is said that during this period he studied law so assiduously that his health was nearly broken. One account has him rising at four in the morning and reading with a wet towel wrapped around his head to keep him awake. In the last year of his probation, he moved to London with his wife and their new son, and worked in the office of Mr. Duane, a conveyancing lawyer. Scott mastered the intricacies of conveyancing and pleading during that time. He was called to the bar in early 1776, but business was slow in coming to him. His father's death later that year allowed him enough money to live on, but he was frustrated by the lack of progress in his career.

His fortunes changed rather suddenly. Arguing in a case before Lord Thurlow, Scott so impressed the judge that he became a mentor to Scott throughout the early part of his career, steering work to him and advising him in politics. Shortly after that, Scott was asked to step in to argue the Clitheroe election case, for which he had only a few hours to prepare. His successful arguments in that case were more widely noticed, and suddenly he was very much in demand.

The next few years were spent increasing his practice, his reputation and his wealth. He had been noticed by First Minister Pitt and his government, and upon Lord Thurlow's resignation, Scott was elected a Bencher of his Inn. In the same month, again with Thurlow's help, he was elected to Parliament from Lord Weymouth's borough of Weobly. In his first session, Scott was instrumental in opposing Fox's East India Bill, and his political future was assured, as long as conservatives were in power. In 1788, Pitt selected him to succeed Sir Archibald Macdonald as Solicitor General. In that role, he helped engineer the methods by which government could continue its work despite the occasional incapacity of George III. For this effort, he received the King's personal thanks.

In 1793 he was made Attorney General. It was a time of great unrest, owing to the shock waves caused throughout Europe by the French Revolution. There were fears of sedition and treason, and Scott was charged with prosecuting the leaders. The infamous Treason Trials of 1794 have been called the low mark of his career, since none of the indicted were convicted and juries rejected his theory of constructive treason. Scott, however, had no doubts concerning the necessity of the prosecutions and the soundness of his legal theory. He was reelected to Parliament and continued on as Attorney General until the death of Sir James Eyre, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, to which Scott succeeded.

Upon his taking the bench in 1799, Scott was elevated to Baron Eldon (named so for his estate in southern Durham), and made Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He held the post for less than two years but by all accounts acquitted himself very well in his duties. Made Lord Chancellor in 1801, upon the resignation of Pitt and the dissolution of his government, Eldon's primary duties were as counselor to the King and member of the cabinet. Pitt regained power in 1804, and from that point until Pitt's death in 1806, Eldon continued to play a central role in English politics.

Pitt's death ushered in the administration of Fox and Grenville, called "All the Talents". The fourteen months of that government saw Eldon on the sidelines, as it were. Upon the dissolution of the All the Talents administration, Eldon resumed his seat as Lord Chancellor and held it for the next twenty years, under the governments of Portland, Perceval and Lord Liverpool. As the King's condition worsened, Eldon was part of the effort to keep the government running smoothly and to keep some control on the Regent. That Eldon was able to support the King strenuously without alienating the Regent is testimony to his nimble political sense. Upon the King's death in 1821, Eldon was named Viscount Encombe and Earl of Eldon. He remained Lord Chancellor until 1827, when he resigned rather than serve in the government of George Canning, a lifelong rival.

During his twenty years on the Chancery bench, Eldon became known for his dilatory and overly cautious style. He was accused of allowing cases to languish for years without ruling, causing suitors, lawyers, and eventually political enemies in Parliament to denounce him. In his defense, though, it must be said that his careful, methodical application and explication of equity principles regularized this once chaotic and disordered area of the law, and the effect he had is still felt today. It has been said that what may have been bad for litigants was ultimately good for equity and the law generally. The abuse heaped upon Eldon may have been partly deserved, partly the result of conservative and royalist political positions he took in Parliament. It is clear that he had a profound effect on English equity jurisprudence.

After his resignation in 1827, Eldon retired to his estates, where he lived out the remaining eleven years of his life. During his retirement he spoke out, to no avail, on the repeal of the Test and Corporations Act, the Reform Bill, and other reform measures he felt would bring ruin to England. He died on January 13, 1838, and was buried at Encombe in the family vault built when his wife Elizabeth died seven years before, after a happy marriage of nearly sixty years. Only two of his six children survived him. His grandson became the second Earl of Eldon, and the line has continued until this day.