Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, Whig politician, reformer, and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, was born on the 19th of September, 1778.
Henry Peter Brougham rose from relative obscurity as a rather flamboyant, but otherwise unremarkable advocate in 19th Century Scotland, to high legal office in the ‘mother’ of all Parliaments. However, apart from being the designer of the ‘Brougham’, a four wheeled, horse drawn carriage, his main claim to fame is his advocacy for the abolition of slavery; that abominable condition afflicted on less well endowed members of the human race by those in the Empire and the Colonies who scarcely deserved the label as its most civilised. When you think of major figures involved in the abolition of slavery, you might come up with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s 1791 speech introducing the first Parliamentary Bill against the slave trade is stirring and emotional as befits the evangelist he was, but for all the success of his abolitionist efforts, he was a bit of a wimp when it came to facing down the men of rank who held power.
Contrast Lincoln’s utterances on slavery with that of Wilberforce or Brougham, who was a pallbearer at Wilberforce’s funeral. As Monroe H. Freedman wrote in a 2007 Hofstra Law Review article, Lincoln is known to have said that he had never been “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” On the other hand, Brougham’s famous 1838 speech to the House of Lords, in a debate on negro emancipation, which you can find in Hansard for the 20th of February, 1838 (vol 40 cc1284-360), is a pearl of rhetoric in support of liberty. In that speech, Brougham said, “The time has come… The slave… is as fit for his freedom as any English peasant, aye or any Lord whom I now address. I demand his rights: I demand his liberty without stint. …I demand that your brother be no longer trampled upon as your slave!”
He had a way with words, did Henry Peter Brougham, right from the beginning. His biographer, Michael Lobban, wrote of Brougham that “Although he enjoyed the scope which advocacy gave to his rhetorical skills, and used them daringly to spar with and irritate judges, his showmanship attracted no more than the occasional poor client.” Brougham had shown himself to have been an argumentative sort from as early as the age of seven, when he was sent to the High School of Edinburgh. According to G. F. A. Baer, in ‘The Champion of Popular Education’, one day, in a Latin class, Brougham was punished for his ‘impertinence’ in defending his point. Brougham maintained that he was perfectly right and the very next day, he appeared with books and, before the whole class, forced the Master, Luke Fraser, to acknowledge that he had made a mistake.
Continuing the theme, Brougham is also supposed to be the holder of the record for speaking in the House of Commons. Mr. Nicholas Bennett (M. P. for Pembroke) is on record in Hansard of the 8th of May, 1989, referring to Brougham having spoken, on the 7th of February, 1828, for six solid hours on the subject of law reform. Funnily enough, the same Hansard has no record of any contributions made by Mr. Henry Brougham in 1828. During the period when he was recorded by Hansard, in both Houses, Brougham was also actively involved in educational reform. In 1826, he helped Charles Knight establish the short lived Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and supported the Ragged Schools Union, formed in 1844 and dedicated to the free education of destitute children. However, his Parliamentary Bills on education, between 1820 and 1839, were all defeated.
Brougham also gained notable success with the written word when, back in Edinburgh, in 1802, he and some mates founded ‘The Edinburgh Review’. Brougham contributed thirty-five articles to the journal, which presented his radical political opinions and dealt with issues of social reform. The ‘Review’ was a great success, becoming one of the most influential political publications of the 19th Century. During that period, Brougham also wrote a book entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers’, in which he began his active campaign against the slave trade.
Brougham’s first great parliamentary speech, in 1810, was on the issue of slavery and his successful 1811 Bill, which made it a felony to trade in slaves, was far a more effective sanction than those of Wilberforce’s ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’. After years of Acts and Bills and campaigning, 1838 was a watershed year in the abolition of slavery and when he branded compulsory apprenticeship as “another name for slavery” in the House of Lords on the 29th of March, Brougham couldn’t know that over a hundred years later, in 1973, Jack Gratus in ‘The Great White Lie’ would comment that, “the highest legal authority in the land [Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham] condemned fifty years of parliamentary inactivity …for the fraud it was.”
Henry Peter Brougham was born in Edinburgh, on the 19th of September, 1778. At the age of seven, wee Henry went to the Edinburgh High School and, when precisely twice that age, he became a student at the University of Edinburgh. At first, Henry studied science and mathematics, and presented a paper, ‘Experiments and Observations of the Infection, Reflection and Colours of Light’, to the Royal Society. In 1800, Brougham joined the University’s Faculty of Advocates and was soon called to the Scottish Bar. However, he soon came to believe that his radical politics were going to be a limiting factor in his career as an Advocate in Scotland, and so, in 1804, he moved to London.
Having already gained a reputation from his progressive views, Brougham joined the Whig Party to run its 1807 General Election press campaign. With that first taste of politics, Brougham was able to put aside his distaste for patronage and accepted the seat of Camelford, which was the gift of the Duke of Bedford, in 1810. He lost the seat two years later, because the Duke had to sell Camelford, and took on the centre of the slave trade by standing as a candidate in Liverpool. He lost to George Canning and was without a seat for the next four years, before getting the vacant seat of Winchelsea, a ‘pocket borough’ under the gift of the Earl of Darlington. Brougham then set about becoming the Whigs’ most effective parliamentary speaker and leading radical. He was outspoken over the Peterloo Massacre and, while still active as a lawyer, in 1812, he had practiced what he preached, in successfully defending thirty-eight handloom weavers who had been arrested while trying to form a trade union. He became Lord Chancellor in 1830.
Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, died at at Château Eleanor-Louise in Cannes, in France, on the 24th of May, 1868. He was buried in the cemetery of the town he had put on the map, having established Cannes as ‘the sanatorium of Europe’ after stumbling on what was, in 1835, little more than a picturesque fishing village. Brougham bought some land there, on which he built, and now, if you stroll along the Promenade des Anglais on the Cannes waterfront, you will come across his statue, opposite the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès.