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Jeffrey, Francis, Lord Jeffreyfree

  • Michael Fry

Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey (1773–1850)

by Sir Henry Raeburn, in or before 1812

photograph by courtesy Sotheby's Picture Library, London

Jeffrey, Francis, Lord Jeffrey (1773–1850), writer and judge, was born on 23 October 1773 at 7 Charles Street, off George Square, Edinburgh, the elder son and third of five children of George Jeffrey (1742–1812), depute clerk in the Court of Session, and Henrietta, daughter of John Louden, a farmer near Lanark. His father was a respectable, conservative, and gloomy man; his mother, of a cheerful temperament and greatly loved by her family, died in 1786.

Early years and education

Jeffrey was, according to his friend Henry Cockburn, 'the tiniest possible child, but dark and vigorous' (Cockburn, Life, 1.3). He grew into a bookish boy, with no interest in physical exercise. He entered Edinburgh high school in 1781, a year after Walter Scott and a year before Henry Brougham. At the age of thirteen he caught a glimpse of Robert Burns, and some time later helped to carry a drunken James Boswell to bed. In 1787 he went to the University of Glasgow to study law. However, his father forbade him to hear the lectures of its most eminent professor, John Millar, the liberal legal theorist, and so from 1789 he continued his education under the more orthodox David Hume and Robert Dick at the University of Edinburgh. In 1791 he proceeded to Queen's College, Oxford. Like many Scottish students, he found life there uncongenial. He left after a year. The one legacy from his stay was his accent. He cast off his Scots, at least for public purposes, and acquired a high-pitched pronunciation which grated on most contemporaries. 'The laddie has clean tint his Scotch, and found nae English', said Lord Braxfield (Omond, 2.301).

Jeffrey returned to Edinburgh to finish reading for the bar, to which he was admitted on 16 December 1794. He began to practise, with little success. But he continued, as he had all through his student days, to devote much energy to literary composition, of essays, verse, and attempts at drama. He would 'never be a great man, unless it be as a poet' (Cockburn, Life, 1.69), he had written to a sister while at Oxford. In particular, he began to put together his thoughts on politics, in a spirit of philosophical whiggery bound to meet disapproval from his colleagues, as from his father, at a time of growing conservatism among the Scottish élites. It appeared nowhere more strongly than in the faculty of advocates, which during these years deposed a whig, Henry Erskine, from its deanship and saw one of its members, Thomas Muir, transported for sedition, after a trial which the horrified Jeffrey watched from the public gallery. He could thus expect no preferment, nor even many briefs, and only earned about £100 a year. In 1795 he tried his luck in London, but introductions to various editors got him nowhere. Back in Edinburgh, where he had a flat at 18 Buccleuch Place, he continued to improve himself by attending lectures at the university nearby, especially on political economy. Many more of his idle hours he passed away in entertainment: in the Friday Club, which he frequented for forty years, or in the Speculative Society, which attracted all the city's bright young men and where, to his ultimate advantage, he fell in with others of like mind.

On 1 November 1801 Jeffrey married a second cousin, Catherine Wilson, daughter of the professor of ecclesiastical history in the University of St Andrews. They set themselves up at 62 Queen Street. They had a son in September 1802, who survived only a month. Catherine Jeffrey herself died on 8 August 1805. Jeffrey's second wife was Charlotte Wilkes of New York, great-niece of John Wilkes, the radical agitator. She was another relative of Jeffrey's, his paternal uncle having married John Wilkes's sister. Their family had emigrated to America whence, with her banker father, Charlotte Wilkes toured Europe in 1810. She met Jeffrey then, and he followed her after she went back to the United States in 1813, despite the war going on with Great Britain at the time. They married on 1 October 1813, almost as soon as he landed in her native city. 'Almost the whole happiness of his life flowed from this union' (Cockburn, Life, 2.306). He took the opportunity of travelling to Washington to have interviews with president James Madison and the secretary of state, James Monroe, before returning to Edinburgh. There the Jeffreys lived at 92 George Street, and rented a country house, Craigcrook, at the back of Corstorphine Hill just outside the city. They had one child, Charlotte, who married William Empson in 1838.

Jeffrey could keep such exalted American company because he had meanwhile won fame. By the time of his first marriage it was obvious to him that he could scarcely live off the law. He had that year done credit to himself as a legal assessor at the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, where he regularly continued to appear afterwards, usually pleading on the side of the evangelical party. But more lucrative briefs were still some way off and would only come with his growing renown outside his profession. He never gave up hope of success in it, and always turned down offers of employment which would have taken him away for good from the courts of Edinburgh. But for the time being even the political changes of 1801—when Henry Dundas retired from the management of Scotland and the country's patronage was opened up somewhat—did not benefit Jeffrey. After failing to win the very minor office of reporter in the Court of Session, Jeffrey decided in some desperation that he must try to earn his bread from writing. But he now happened to have a number of friends—the Revd Sydney Smith, Henry Brougham, and Francis Horner—with similar concerns. Smith was apparently the one who, during a meeting in Jeffrey's flat, proposed that they should found the Edinburgh Review.

The Edinburgh Review

If Smith took the lead, this was at the outset a co-operative venture in which they all dealt with both copy and proofs. They would meet at the printer's, just off the High Street, Smith apparently insisting that they went singly and by back approaches to the office. But the original arrangements turned out to be too awkward and, well before Smith left Scotland early in 1803, Jeffrey became the editor responsible. Archibald Constable, the imperious publisher of Scott and other literary lions, bore the cost of starting up the publication on condition that the young men should produce the four initial monthly numbers for nothing. The first issue, of 750 copies, appeared on 2 October 1802 and sold out almost at once. Of the third issue, 2500 copies were printed. Constable then agreed to pay 10 guineas a sheet, a fee already handsome by the standards of the day, but this was raised afterwards to a minimum of 16 guineas. Jeffrey reckoned that the average income during the quarter-century of his editorship lay between 20 and 25 guineas per issue, and he himself received £50. This innovative generosity kept the Edinburgh Review going and maintained its quality long after the circle of founders had dispersed. Cockburn remarked that it 'drew authors from dens where they would otherwise have starved, and made Edinburgh a literary mart, famous with strangers, and the pride of its own citizens'. Sales rose steadily, to 7000 within five years, and more than 14,000 by the mid-1820s (Cockburn, Life, 2.70–6).

The Edinburgh Review had an influence on opinion and taste far beyond its circulation. It popularized, though it also vulgarized, the teachings of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it helped to transform them into Victorian orthodoxies. Under Jeffrey's editorship, it also marked an epoch in the history of the periodical. Though not the first to bear the title of review, it was the direct parent of the genre as the vehicle of bourgeois culture that it became in the course of the nineteenth century, in Britain and other countries. If the genre afterwards declined, it left to the higher journalism of the modern age much of the same ethos: clever, probing, irreverent. Cockburn said that the venture burst upon a public that seemed to be waiting for something of the kind. News of public events, even of the excitements of war, had until then been conveyed through boring reprints of official documents and dispatches in a press often subsidized by the government. Jeffrey gave more graphic and objective accounts, on which he editorialized judiciously. Again, almost the only way for the reading public to find out about the latest books had been through publishers' puffs, which were no more reliable then than later. The Edinburgh Review, by contrast, offered independent criticism, even if in Jeffrey's case it has not stood the test of time. Altogether, this new type of periodical marked the emergence of a middle-class public opinion, culturally and politically aware, which was now served by an organ that could articulate and promote its interests.

The Edinburgh Review first came out in wartime, and while the wars went on Jeffrey expressed his political views cautiously. He showed no such restraint in his literary judgements, which were savage to the point of being sensational, and made his reputation. On one occasion they were even the cause of a threat to his life. In 1806 Thomas Moore, after Jeffrey had criticized a supposedly immoral tendency in his Epistles, Odes and other Poems, heard that he was on a visit to London and challenged him to a duel. They met at Chalk Farm. Neither had the faintest idea how to go about fighting. The Bow Street runners had anyway been informed. They arrived in the nick of time and, after arresting the pair, found that Jeffrey's pistol contained no bullet. Both were bound over to keep the peace, and they later became friends, with Moore even contributing to the Edinburgh Review.

Influential though he became, Jeffrey failed to appreciate some of the best and most enduring literature of his time. He could see no virtue, for example, in the English lake poets; he dismissed William Wordsworth's 'The Excursion' with the terse comment that it 'would never do' (Edinburgh Review, xxiii, 1814, 3); his attack on Lord Byron's first collection provoked the latter's satire, 'English bards and Scotch reviewers'; and he overstated the case for Scott's 'Marmion':

To write a modern romance of chivalry seems to be such a phantasy as to build a modern abbey or an English pagoda. For once, however, it may be excused as a pretty caprice of genius, but a second production of the same sort is entitled to less indulgence, and imposes a sort of duty to drive the author from so idle a task, by a fair exposition of the faults which are, in a manner, inseparable from its expression.

Edinburgh Review, xii, 1808, 278

His choice of the word 'faults' shows Jeffrey's lack of sympathy with, indeed incomprehension of, romantic sensibility. He remained in aesthetic matters a man of the eighteenth century, holding to standards of correctness in literature which he identified with artificial diction and deliberate design.

According to Thomas Carlyle, this influence was baleful, though there can have been nothing personal in the stricture: Jeffrey lent him money and made a special friend of his wife. In his Reminiscences Carlyle warmly characterized this 'delicate, attractive, dainty little figure … uncommonly bright black eyes, instinct with honesty, intelligence, and kindly fire, rounded brow, delicate oval face full of rapid expression, figure light, nimble, pretty though small, perhaps hardly five feet in height'. But Carlyle added that he found Jeffrey's conversation better than his writing, especially if, as was evidently still the case sometimes, he spoke Scots:

Here is a man whom they have kneaded into the shape of an Edinburgh Reviewer, and clothed the soul of in whig formulas … but he might have been a beautiful Goldoni, too, or something better in that kind, and given us beautiful comedies, and aerial pictures, true and poetic, of Human Life, in a far other way.

Carlyle then went so far as to call Jeffrey 'a potential Voltaire', yet he had turned out 'not deep enough, pious or reverent enough to have been great in Literature'. In the end, Carlyle felt forced to condemn his benefactor as a man who had reduced criticism to banality:

Democracy, the gradual uprise and rule in all things of roaring, million-headed, unreflecting, darkly suffering, darkly sinning Demos come to call old superiors to account, at its maddest of tribunals: nothing in my time has so forwarded this as Jeffrey and his once-famous Edinburgh Review.

Carlyle, 2.14ff.

Even with allowance for Carlyle's habitual exaggeration, it may be conceded that Jeffrey's blend of artistic timidity and liberal politics fostered a conventional bourgeois respectability. He himself confirmed it in urging his readers 'to adopt a style of literary and political principles, which was rooted, not in eternal principles, but in the ordinary experience of ordinary literate and responsible men living in the modern age' (Edinburgh Review, xxxiii, 1823, 237).

As for the political principles, the Edinburgh Review would come to identify them with the whig party. At first it did not do so explicitly, though Jeffrey never made any secret of his commitment to such liberal causes as Roman Catholic emancipation, or of his scepticism about the war with France. Equally, he was strong on political economy, and made the Edinburgh Review a channel for diffusing its doctrines. Two of his most frequent contributors, Brougham and Horner, had sat with him at the feet of Dugald Stewart in the lecture halls of Edinburgh, and Stewart was himself a pupil of Adam Smith. But they did not regard The Wealth of Nations as a tablet of stone. They noted how Britain had now acquired an industrial economy and a global empire, in a commercial system where commodities from the periphery fed manufactures at the centre. The account of free trade which they then developed was fairly modest in scope compared to the conceptions prevailing later in the century. But here Jeffrey consciously maintained the broad-minded outlook of the Scottish Enlightenment, baulking at the logical rigour and crude accountancy of the emerging utilitarian school in England.

As a political position, there was nothing too suspect in any of this, and a high tory like Scott happily wrote for the early numbers of the Edinburgh Review, while Henry Dundas read them with attention and commended the editor's reasoning. Only in 1808, when Jeffrey printed, and according to Cockburn wrote, a notorious article, 'Don Pedro Cevallos on the French usurpation in Spain', did he really begin to flaunt whig colours. Scott was so angry with this attack on British strategy in the Peninsula that he cancelled his subscription and launched the Quarterly Review as a patriotic rival. Jeffrey now set out to elaborate his politics in print, if still guardedly enough to avert any threats of censorship. But he was ready to tackle even such a sensitive subject as the French Revolution. It seemed to him that it had been an expression of genuine grievance which had no other outlet, and that savage repression of similar unhappiness in Britain would be the worst response imaginable. Thus, when disruption of trade during the war caused unemployment and unrest at home, he was the only leading whig to posit a link between economic distress and the need for reform.

Legal and political career

Peace in 1815 failed of itself to relieve the country's economic problems, but on the contrary plunged it into a terrible depression, marked by workers' protests which the government vigorously suppressed. Jeffrey, now at last sought after for some of the biggest legal cases, specialized for the defence at the state trials by which the Scottish authorities played their part in executing policy. They took a hard line in prosecutions of radicals, and a none too scrupulous one, with ample use of informers and agents provocateurs. In a series of dramatic scenes in the courtrooms during 1817, Jeffrey exposed this sharp practice with such skill that juries became reluctant to convict and the whole official campaign against radicalism backfired. He was less successful in defending rebels involved in the ‘radical war’ of 1820, a small-scale proletarian uprising in the west of Scotland; three men were found guilty and hanged.

Jeffrey's professional activity was a natural extension of what he had been preaching in the Edinburgh Review. There he argued that there was a danger of the people losing their allegiance to British constitutionalism, and that it fell to the whigs to save the situation. They had a duty not only to oppose executive abuse, as they had ever done, but to curb the radical forces which prompted it as well. In a straight contest with the ruling class, Jeffrey reckoned, the people were bound to win. So he urged the whigs to ally themselves with radical leaders, restrain their demands, guide them through orderly channels, and halt any slide towards revolution. This meant a departure from the aristocratic whiggery of old, though not a break. Jeffrey saw aristocracy as a mark of all civilized society, and was himself if anything anti-democratic. He still drew a distinction between the right to vote, which was not for everybody, and civil liberty, which was. Parliamentary reform would be preferable, but even an unreformed parliament might guarantee civil liberty so long as it met frequently and criticized without restraint.

Jeffrey had inherited from David Hume and Adam Smith a science of politics. What is striking about his development of it is his stress on the practice and style of discourse necessary to make enlightened ideas work in an era of confused and often violent conflicts. It was something of a retreat from the creative audacity of the Scottish Enlightenment proper, and altogether different from the portentous political philosophy current in Europe. Yet, while highly pragmatic, it was intellectual enough not to fall into mere expediency.

Jeffrey himself became a politician. He won his first office with election to the rectorship of the University of Glasgow in 1820. He began to appear regularly on public platforms calling for various reforming measures. Rising whigs agreed with him on the need to bridge the gap between their staid leadership at Westminster and their potential support in the country. The Edinburgh Review was the mouthpiece for this programme, and it acquired a remarkable authority in the prelude to its triumph in 1832. Nowhere was that truer than on Jeffrey's native heath, where to wide applause he mounted a systematic and telling critique of the Scottish system of political management. The managers sought to appease the reviewers with patronage, but these were not disarmed. While other whigs accepted appointments to the Scottish bench, Jeffrey declined. In July 1829, however, he was elected without official opposition as dean of the faculty of advocates. He moved to his last and grandest house in Edinburgh, at 24 Moray Place, and took the opportunity to retire as editor of the Edinburgh Review, handing over to Macvey Napier.

When the general election of 1830 brought the whigs to power, Jeffrey was appointed lord advocate. With Cockburn as solicitor-general, and Thomas Kennedy, MP for the Ayr burghs, he constituted a reform committee for Scotland and within days sent proposals to the cabinet. It was necessary for Jeffrey to be in the House of Commons, but his efforts to get elected cost him £10,000. He was first chosen for the Perth burghs, was unseated on a technicality, and was then returned for Malton, Yorkshire. Between coming in and going out, he had been able to introduce the first Scottish Reform Bill in March 1831. It lapsed, however, when the English bill was defeated and the ministry had once more to go to the country. Jeffrey seized the chance to challenge the tories in their stronghold of Edinburgh, standing against a cadet of the Dundas family. More than 17,000 citizens petitioned the town council in his favour, but it rejected him by 17 votes to 14. He was returned again for the Perth burghs. He introduced his second Reform Bill in July. It was only to receive the royal assent, after many further vicissitudes, more than a year later. Though it increased the Scottish electorate from 4000 to 65,000, it was in some respects a cautious measure and in others a sloppy one. Now that Jeffrey could actually do something about reform, he was mainly concerned with not going too far towards democracy. He and especially his draftsman, Cockburn, showed besides a rather silly contempt for the Scots feudal law which made a minefield of the suffrage but which had to be mastered if a moderate measure was to work. Instead, hasty and ill-considered compromises allowed abuses to persist, while deliberately conservative elements in the package meant that aristocratic control of the counties continued. Numerous blemishes in the working of Jeffrey's reformed system were to appear, for which he has to be held largely to account.

However, Jeffrey enjoyed a personal triumph when he went back to Edinburgh and was comfortably elected one of its MPs, along with his fellow whig, James Abercromby. Reappointed lord advocate as well, he proceeded straight to reform of the notoriously corrupt Scottish burgh councils. Although eventually successful, he was shocked at the difficulty of the task. Cockburn had already observed: 'I fear for him in Parliament—nearly sixty years of age, a bad trachea, inexperience and a great reputation are bad foundations for success in the House of Commons' (Journal, 16). Now Jeffrey saw at first hand some of the deficiencies of his reformed system. It did not, for example, suppress the importunity of Scots for official patronage. The only difference was that liberals now demanded all the jobs previously reserved for tories. Raised expectations similarly increased the demand for legislation. Jeffrey, who unlike the former managers was not a member of the cabinet, could never persuade it to give him enough time. He had to work there either through the capricious Brougham, who vaunted himself on familiarity with Scottish affairs but did nothing about them, or through the home secretary, Lord Melbourne, who viewed them with languid indifference and was ready only with excuses for inaction. Most of Jeffrey's business was referred to committees of Scots MPs, whose bickering constantly thwarted him. Cockburn wrote: 'He was left to the mercies of every county, city, parish, public body or person, who had an interest or a fancy to urge' (Cockburn, Life, 2.355). Since no degree of industry or complaisance seemed to satisfy his countrymen, Jeffrey found his position impossibly burdensome. Frustrated and disillusioned, he got out of parliament by appointing himself to the Scottish bench. He took his seat on the bench as Lord Jeffrey on 7 June 1834.

According to Cockburn, Jeffrey was a popular judge—patient, painstaking, and candid, but too voluble and unpredictable, keeping up a 'running margin of questions, suppositions and comments' (Cockburn, Life, 2.422). The most notable verdict he had to deliver came in the Auchterarder case of 1838, in the long dispute over lay patronage in the Church of Scotland which was to lead to the Disruption in 1843. On the appeal to the Court of Session he found, in the minority, for the evangelical defendants. At the Disruption, when one-third of the ministers seceded from the kirk, he famously declared: 'I am proud of my country. In not another land in the world would such a thing have been done' (2.431).

After an illness, Jeffrey's workload was reduced by transfer to a lower division of the court in 1842. He continued to preside over a sociable table, improved his country house and garden, and kept in touch with literary trends. He gave advice to young authors, made a friend of Charles Dickens, whose novels brought tears to his eyes, and revised the proofs of the first two volumes of Thomas Macaulay's History of England. He remained lively enough, though steadily weakening. He died on 26 January 1850 and was buried quietly four days later in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, at a spot chosen by himself. His wife survived him only briefly, and died on 18 May, to be interred beside him.


  • H. Cockburn, Life of Lord Jeffrey, with a selection from his correspondence, 2 vols. (1852)
  • Journal of Henry Cockburn: being a continuation of the ‘Memorials of his time’, 1831–1854, 2 vols. (1874)
  • F. Jeffrey, Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, 4 vols. (1844)
  • G. W. T. Omond, The lord advocates of Scotland from the close of the fifteenth century to the passing of the Reform Bill, 2 vols. (1883)
  • J. Clive, Scotch reviewers: the Edinburgh Review, 1802–1815 (1957)
  • J. A. Greig, Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review (1948)
  • T. Carlyle, Reminiscences, ed. J. A. Froude, 2 vols. (1881)
  • NA Scot., SC 70/1/72, p. 48


  • Hunt. L., letters
  • Mitchell L., Glas., corresp.
  • NL Scot., corresp; diaries of journies; journals, etc.; legal notes; letter-books; letter-books as lord advocate; letters; answers to memorials and queries relating to encroachments on works of Sir Walter Scott; journal of his visit to the United States
  • Library of Birmingham, corresp. with Gregory Watt
  • BL, corresp. with John Allen, Add. MS 52181
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MS 51644
  • BL, letters to Macrey Napier, Add. MSS 34611–34626 passim
  • BL OIOC, corresp. with Mountstuart Elphinstone, Eur. MS F 88, boxes 3C, D, G-H
  • BLPES, letters to Francis Horner
  • Glos. RO, letters to Daniel Ellis
  • Heriot-Watt University archives, letters to Sir James Gibson-Craig
  • NA Scot., letters to Sir John Dalrymple
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Thomas Carlyle and Jane Carlyle
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Henry Cockburn; letters to Henry Cockburn; corresp, with Archibald Constable; corresp. with Lord Dunfermline; letters to James Reddie; corresp. with Thomas Spring Rice; letters to Andrew Rutherfurd; letters to Sir Walter Scott
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with William Creech
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Moncreiff
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir John Sinclair
  • U. Durham L., letters to Earl Grey
  • U. Edin. L., letters to George Wilson
  • U. Edin., New Coll. L., letters to Thomas Chalmers
  • U. Glas. L., letters to J. P. Muirhead
  • U. Reading L., letters to Thomas Moore
  • UCL, letters to Lord Brougham and Henry Brougham
  • W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond
  • William Patrick Library, Glasgow, letters to Peter Mackenzie


  • J. Henning, wax medallion, 1801, Scot. NPG
  • J. Henning, chalk drawing, 1806, Scot. NPG
  • W. Evans, stipple, pubd 1812 (after H. Raeburn), NPG
  • H. Raeburn, portrait, 1812; Sothebys, New York, 4 June 1980, lot 159 [see illus.]
  • W. Nicholson, watercolour, 1816, Abbotsford House, Selkirkshire
  • S. Joseph, plaster bust, 1822, Scot. NPG
  • J. Pairman, oils, 1823, Scot. NPG
  • A. Geddes, oils, 1826, NPG
  • S. Cousins, mezzotint, 1830 (after C. Smith), NG Ire.
  • J. Steell, marble statue, 1855, Parliament House, Edinburgh
  • W. Bewick, chalk drawing, Scot. NPG
  • B. W. Crombie, pencil and watercolour study, Scot. NPG; repro. in W. S. Douglas, Modern Athenians (1882)
  • G. Hayter, mezzotint (after J. E. Coombs), NPG
  • G. Hayter, mezzotint (after J. Sartain), NPG
  • J. Linnell, pencil drawing, NPG
  • P. Park, marble bust, NPG
  • C. Smith, oils, Scot. NPG

Wealth at Death

£11,613 0s. 5d.: inventory, 11 Jan 1851, NA Scot., SC 70/1/72, p. 48

National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh