Henry Brougham and Law Reform(*)

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Date: Nov. 2000
From: The English Historical Review(Vol. 115, Issue 464)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 17,379 words

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HENRY Brougham's career has attracted much attention among political historians.(1) Although he was the most charismatic Whig spokesman in the House of Commons of the 1820s, he has defied easy political characterization. A barrister educated in Scotland, he stood outside the ranks of the traditional landed aristocratic leadership of the Whigs and never fully won their trust. An opportunist ever keen to seek his own advancement, he flirted with middle-class Radicals when it suited him and constantly sought to appeal to wider public opinion outside the Commons. His name became associated with popular causes beyond the run of party politics, notably slavery and education. At the same time, while he could dazzle those within the walls of Westminster with his energy, invective and wit, he often exasperated his colleagues and became known for his political unreliability. Brougham's reputation among historians is therefore one of promise unfulfilled, thanks largely to his own self-destructive streak. Most agree that this star waned after 1830. By accepting the Great Seal in that year, and with it a place in the Lords, just at the point of his greatest popularity, he destroyed his own power base `and was reduced [henceforth] to delivering his histrionics nightly to stolid tory peers'.(2) He next proceeded to upset his cabinet colleagues with his vanity and unpredictability, to such an extent that, when the Whigs returned to office under Melbourne in 1835, he was permanently excluded. At the age of fifty-six, his career seemed effectively over, and in the years that followed, he became estranged from his party. The maverick Brougham now appeared to many to be increasingly eccentric and ridiculous, not least when he feigned his death in order to be able to read his own obituaries.

Yet Brougham lived another thirty-four years after leaving office, and continued to play an active role in political life. It is the aim of this article to reassess his career after 1830. In these years, the primary focus of Brougham's attention was law reform, the subject to which he had first publicly turned in a great six-hour speech delivered in the Commons in February 1828. His importance in this area has been acknowledged,(3) but here, as elsewhere, his reputation is ambivalent.(1) Brougham's attitude to law reform has been likened to `that of a boastful Don Juan recording conquests for conquest's sake', and he is said to have been prone to `flying as many kites as he could fashion at the opening of a session in the hope that some would catch a passing breeze'.(2) Indeed, his approach has been blamed for the fact that mid-nineteenth-century law reform measures were often badly drafted, untidy half-measures, in constant need of revision. In what follows, it will be argued that such assessments of Brougham's later career are unfair, and that his role in the movement for law reform was more positive and his later achievements more significant than have sometimes been accepted. Having launched the issue of law reform into a wider public debate in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A69064674