We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Founders of the Edinburgh Review (act. 1802–1829) were a group of young intellectuals, united by literary and political ambitions and by liberal views, who met in Edinburgh, where in 1802 they started a new, instantly successful periodical. They called it the Edinburgh Review after the journal of the same name published in 1755–6 by the leading members of the Select Society of Edinburgh, Adam Smith (1723–1790) and Allan Ramsay of Kinkell (1713–1784). While in later years the Edinburgh Review relied on a wide circle of contributors, the original group included four members: Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850), Francis Horner (1778–1817), Henry Peter Brougham (1778–1868), and Sydney Smith (1771–1845). Initially Sydney Smith acted as editor, with a considerable input from Jeffrey, Horner, and Brougham, but in 1803 he was replaced by Francis Jeffrey, who continued to run the journal until 1829; it was above all his energetic and meticulous editorship that gave the Edinburgh its distinctive character.

Context and intellectual background

Francis Jeffrey, son of a deputy clerk in the court of session, Francis Horner, son of a merchant and grandson of a writer to the signet, and Henry Brougham, the child of an impoverished gentry family, were all born and educated in Edinburgh, where they became active members of the two major local debating societies, the Speculative Society and the Academy of Physics. Sydney Smith, son of a prosperous London businessman, was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, and took orders in the Church of England in 1794. He arrived in Edinburgh in 1798, as private tutor to Michael Hicks-Beach; because of the French wars Scotland had in fact come to replace the traditional continental destinations visited by wealthy Englishmen on their customary grand tour.

The French Revolution, and the ensuing conservative reaction that dominated the Edinburgh establishment, meant the virtual disappearance of all opportunities of advancement for any aspiring lawyer, academic, or politician who held progressive views. During the 1790s and 1800s the stifling political climate accelerated the process of emigration of Scottish talents towards the English capital. With the exception of Jeffrey—who continued to edit the review from Edinburgh even when, in 1826, the Scottish publisher Archibald Constable was replaced by the English firm of Longmans—by 1803 the other members of the group had all moved to London: Horner and Brougham entered Lincoln's Inn, while Smith became a successful preacher and lecturer. For all three these activities were but stepping stones towards their entry into liberal political circles and the whig patronage network.

The reviewers brought with them some distinctive features of their Scottish intellectual heritage. If in broad terms this heritage is generally associated with the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, their affiliation was in fact to a particular group of eighteenth-century Scottish writers who pursued the ‘experimental’ study of moral sentiments, subscribed to an interpretation of history based on the evolution of modes of production, and attributed to political economy a central role in the development of modern society: Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), David Hume (1711–1776), Adam Smith, and, in the younger generation, John Millar (1735–1801) and Dugald Stewart (1753–1828).

Of these it was Stewart, professor of moral philosophy in Edinburgh from 1785 to 1809, who exercised the greatest influence on the group. Between 1799 and 1801 Jeffrey, Horner, and Brougham attended his lectures on political economy; although Stewart did not contribute directly to the Edinburgh Review, his pupils maintained close contact with him over the following decades. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) provided the overall framework for Stewart's teaching, but alongside Smith's book the lectures covered a wide range of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British and continental works on economics, law, government, and moral philosophy. As they remained unpublished until the 1850s, the notebooks that circulated among the students gave his pupils exclusive access to a vast body of knowledge—an invaluable mine of material to serve in future political debates. To a lesser extent the reviewers were influenced by John Millar, professor of law in the University of Glasgow between 1761 and 1801 (Jeffrey was a student at Glasgow in 1787), though they were generally critical of his historical method and of his radical brand of whiggism. Another important source of inspiration for the Edinburgh who can be included neither among its Scottish masters nor among its founders was Sir James Mackintosh of Kyllachy (1765–1832). Mackintosh had studied medicine at Aberdeen before becoming a journalist in London. His work Vindiciae Gallicae (1791), a defence of the French Revolution against Edmund Burke's influential Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), had established his reputation in continental liberal circles. As he continued to cultivate contacts with foreign authors and to follow their works, his articles for the Edinburgh (which appeared from 1813) conferred on the journal a distinctly sophisticated, cosmopolitan outlook.

The reviewers' popularization of the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment has been stigmatized as superficial and opportunistic, as Thomas Love Peacock suggested when he satirized them as ‘sugar-plum manufacturers to the Whig aristocracy’ (T. L. Peacock, Crotchet Castle, 1831, 73). Yet even their severest critics have been forced to acknowledge their major impact not just on British literary criticism, but on public discourse and political debates.

A new type of journal

In a letter addressed to Horner in 1803 Jeffrey claimed that the Edinburgh had been created for the purpose of ‘personal amusement and improvement’ and for ‘the gratification of some personal and some national vanity’ (Cockburn, 2.83). In spite of these modest intentions the review soon brought about what amounted to a revolution in British journalism and promoted an entirely new style of critical writing. Until then reviewing consisted mainly of short complimentary notices, generally commissioned by the booksellers themselves. In contrast with this practice, the formula adopted by the new journal consisted in publishing long articles, selecting contributors in function of their expertise, and paying them very generously (between 10 and 16 guineas a sheet), thus securing as far as possible competent and independent assessments.

The Edinburgh covered a wide range of subjects: literature and drama, theology, philosophy, history, politics, economics, travel, and science. During the early years of its life the founders contributed to it in different ways: Horner wrote mainly about political and economic issues, Smith took on philosophy, theology, and some literary subjects; Brougham and Jeffrey were the most prolific and eclectic contributors. During his editorship Jeffrey revised every single article, thus ensuring the homogeneity of style that characterized the journal. But the real secret of the Edinburgh's instant success was the practice of placing in every issue some aggressively critical, irreverent, or sarcastic article, a genre in which, in different ways, Jeffrey, Smith, and Brougham were all masters.

Their taste for literary assassination led them to some surprising errors of judgement (as in their attacks on Lord Byron and the lake poets) and enraged some of their victims, but proved very effective in capturing and retaining the readers' attention. Their impact on the public was irresistible: circulation rose steadily from 750 copies for the first issue, published on 2 October 1802, to 13,000 copies in 1814. By 1826, the year in which the Edinburgh was taken over by the London publisher Longmans, its successful formula had called into existence two important imitators and competitors: the Quarterly Review, founded by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in 1809, and the Westminster Review, founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and James Mill (1773–1836) in 1824. The Edinburgh itself survived the end of Jeffrey's editorship, continuing under an early prominent contributor, Macvey Napier (1776–1847). It ceased publication in 1929, but the title was revived as the New Edinburgh Review in 1969 and renamed the Edinburgh Review in 1984.

Whig politics

The fortunes of the Edinburgh were of course dependent to a large extent on the fact that it came to represent the voice of political opposition; thus the journal is generally associated with nineteenth-century whiggism, more specifically with the patronage of Henry Fox, third Baron Holland (1773–1840). However, the relationship between the founders and whig ideology and politics was from the start more complex than this simple association seems to suggest. Like many intellectuals in their generation the reviewers shared the traumatic experience represented by the impact of the French Revolution on European public opinion. They strongly subscribed to the belief that the evil effects of the revolution should not discourage all projects for progress and reform in Britain; they also shared an irreverent, if not rebellious, attitude towards established authority. Yet beyond these common features their individual positions do not justify their treatment as a politically unified group. Both Horner and Brougham became whig MPs (Horner in 1806 for St Ives, Brougham in 1810 for Camelford), but their situations and alliances within the party were quite different. While Horner oscillated prudently between the Foxite and Grenvillite factions, Brougham ruthlessly pursued his ambition to become leader of the whig party in the House of Commons. Horner's most important performance in the ten years of his parliamentary life was his appointment as chairman of the bullion committee, established in 1810 to assess the consequences of the suspension of gold payments by the Bank of England under Pitt's government in 1797. Thus his role was essentially a technical one, and the leader of the party, Lord Grenville, needed an expert political economist to brief him on the rather obscure subject of monetary policy.

Brougham, who had been introduced by Horner into whig circles about 1805–6, went on to a far more illustrious career that culminated in his appointment as lord chancellor when the whigs finally returned to power in 1830. Over the decades he was involved in a variety of different issues—from freedom of trade to the reform of education and the reform of the parliamentary system—and maintained throughout an aggressive, radical stance that brought him close to the positions of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Jeffrey, the only member of the group who never left Scotland, was more sensitive to the climate and issues of Edinburgh politics, where the conservative establishment was considerably stronger than in London. Smith, while undeniably a supporter of the whig party and a protégé of Holland House, had no political ambition, and frequently dissociated himself from the positions advocated by the whig leadership. These differences within the group resulted in frequent disagreements over the political line of the journal. Jeffrey believed that the Edinburgh's success depended on its ability to sustain a vigorous line of political opposition, but he tried to resist Brougham's efforts to transform it into a party journal. After 1807–8 both Horner and Smith felt that the review had become too politicized and exercised constant pressure on the editor to preserve its independence.

On the whole the identity of the journal remained more intellectual than political, and it was the existence of common intellectual preoccupations, rather than any party allegiance, that kept the group together. Thus it is misleading to imagine that the reviewers helped to voice some pre-existing whig doctrine: on the contrary, it is reasonable to claim that they did as much to create nineteenth-century whiggism as they did to popularize it. The Edinburgh itself is best described as the locus in which a new liberal ideology was tentatively taking shape. The central question its founders were trying to address was in several respects an entirely new one, forced on the attention of contemporaries by the French Revolution: how to protect the welfare and independence of the citizens of a large commercial nation from two symmetrical, opposed dangers, the abuse of arbitrary government on the one hand and the threat of social violence on the other. It was a question that concerned at the same time the future of British political institutions and the prospects of Britain as a fast-developing modern commercial nation.

Biancamaria Fontana


EdinR (1802–29) · H. Cockburn, Life of Lord Jeffrey, with a selection from his correspondence, 2 vols. (1852) · J. Clive, Scotch reviewers: the Edinburgh Review, 1802–1815 (1957) · D. Roper, Reviewing before the ‘Edinburgh’, 1788–1802 (1978) · S. Collini, D. Winch, and J. Burrow, That noble science of politics: a study in nineteenth-century intellectual history (1983) · B. Fontana, Rethinking the politics of commercial society: the Edinburgh Review, 1802–1832 (1985) · L. Mitchell, The whig world (2005) · BL, Holland House papers, Add. MSS 51520–52254 · BL, Macvey Napier papers, Add. MSS 34611–34636 · BL, Add. MSS 33544, 34459–34560, 40206, 40426 · UCL, Brougham MSS · London School of Economics, Horner MSS · London School of Economics, Kinnordy MSS · NL Scot., Jeffrey correspondence · D. Stewart, lecture notes, NL Scot., MS 3771