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date: 28 February 2021

Black, Adamfree

  • Gordon F. Millar

Adam Black (1784–1874)

by unknown engraver, pubd 1885

Black, Adam (1784–1874), publisher and politician, was born on 20 February 1784 at 7 Charles Street, Edinburgh, the second of the three sons of Charles Black (1755/6–1826), master builder, and his wife, Isabella Nicol (1757/8–1847) of Drygrange Farm near Melrose.

Education, early life, and bookselling

After initially attending a school in the Pleasance, Edinburgh, Black was sent to the Edinburgh high school in October 1791. His progress was hampered by the need to help at home. He attended Greek and Latin classes at Edinburgh University in 1798–9, again without much profit. In March 1799 he began an apprenticeship with John Fairbairn, an Edinburgh bookseller, a period he described as 'a dreary, disgusting servitude, in which I wasted five of the best years of my life' (Nicolson, 18). At this time he also served in the Edinburgh Volunteers. In 1804 Black took employment as an assistant at Lackington, Allen & Co., the ‘Temple of the Muses’, in Finsbury, London, and stayed there for over two years. He was subjected to a thorough drilling, the hardships of which he would recount to his own employees in later life.

Having returned to Edinburgh, Black married Isabella, daughter of James Tait, an Edinburgh builder, on 4 June 1817. Her brother, William Tait (1793–1864), was later well known as the publisher of Tait's Edinburgh Magazine. Adam and Isabella had four sons and five daughters who lived to survive their father. Black set up in business on his own account, and by the time he moved his shop into the old General Post Office premises on the North Bridge in 1823 he had begun to be recognized as one of the principal booksellers in Edinburgh. He took his nephew, Charles Black, into partnership, thereby establishing the house of A. and C. Black. With the collapse of Archibald Constable & Co. in 1827 and Black's acquisition from them of the copyright to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he moved his business into the first rank of publishers. In addition A. and C. Black became the Edinburgh distributing agents of the important whig–Liberal periodical the Edinburgh Review. In 1830 he began to issue the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia, and by 1837 the firm of A. and C. Black was its sole proprietor. An eighth edition was completed in 1861 and a ninth was in preparation at the time of his death. Black also contributed articles to the Encyclopaedia. His firm consolidated its position still further in 1851 by purchasing the remainder of the copyright on Sir Walter Scott's works. These were then published in a variety of editions, the popular sixpenny edition of Scott's novels with particular success. At this time also Black moved to new, extensive premises on the other side of the North Bridge.

Role in Liberal politics in Edinburgh

From the period of his return from London, and at some risk at that time to his business prospects, Black was also active as a Liberal reformer in Edinburgh politics. His initial power-base was the Edinburgh Merchant Company, of which he served two terms as assistant and one, from 1831, as master. Black was consulted by the Parliament House whigs on whether the mercantile community of the city would support the reformers' landmark protest meeting eventually held in the Pantheon in December 1820. In 1822 he moved and carried a series of resolutions in the Merchant Company welcoming Lord Advocate William Rae's proposals to open up the system of burgh administration but at the same time attacking them for not addressing the root of the problem. This early example shows the direction his political activity was to take, namely that of pressing for limited constitutional and civil reform.

In addition to pressure for burgh reform Black was instrumental in getting the Merchant Company to petition against the Test and Corporation Acts, which imposed civil disabilities on religious dissenters. Black was himself a prominent voluntary dissenter and later a member of the Voluntary Church Association for the diffusion of voluntary principles. He also used his influence with the Merchant Company to support the movement for city improvement which resulted in the development of the George IV Bridge and Johnston Terrace areas round the castle. Black was a governor of the Merchant Maiden Hospital and was active in the 1820s in various positions, including that of chairman, in the Edinburgh chamber of commerce.

With this record of public activity behind him Black went on to take a prominent role in the demonstrations called in Edinburgh to press for parliamentary reform in 1831 and 1832. He was convener of the first Liberal committee set up after the passage of the Reform Bill to support the two whig candidates for Edinburgh, Francis Jeffrey and James Abercromby, at the election of December 1832. In 1833 Black was himself elected to the reformed town council and became city treasurer. Finding the city bankrupt and deeply in debt, in the following three years he laid the basis of the settlement with the city's creditors which was completed by his successor as treasurer, Duncan McLaren. Black refused to stand for re-election in 1836, but by late 1840 he was again a member and was then the loser in a very bitter contest for the provostship with Sir James Forrest, also a Liberal. The campaign against Black was explicitly based on objections to his voluntary religious beliefs, and his eventual election as lord provost in 1843, in the changed religious atmosphere immediately surrounding the Disruption of that year, was seen as a triumph for unsectarian principles. He was re-elected in 1846 and left office and the council in 1848, before the end of his second term. At this time he declined the offer of a knighthood. Black himself described his main achievement as demonstrating that the interests of the whole community could be safely entrusted to a voluntary dissenter.

Other public activities and parliamentary career

Overlapping with these years during which he held civic office, Black was also active in other roles. In 1839 he became a director of the Edinburgh Zoological Gardens Association and was elected the first president of the Philosophical Institution at its foundation in 1845. As provost he was an ex officio director of the Edinburgh Water Company, and as a leading shareholder in the Edinburgh and Leith Gas Company he was its chairman for a period from 1846. His spirit of religious tolerance found expression in his chairmanship from 1846 to 1848 of the Edinburgh Cemetery Company, which was set up to facilitate Sunday burials, especially important to working people, in the face of opposition from the sabbatarian party.

Adam Black owes his significance beyond his contribution to the development of reformed municipal government in Edinburgh to his involvement with the parliamentary politics of the city. His position as link man between leading whig lawyers and the business community in Edinburgh was enhanced by the contacts he formed with nationally prominent figures, especially whigs, through being agent for the Edinburgh Review and publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

One of these was T. B. Macaulay, whose candidature for the city at a by-election in 1839 Black suggested to the Liberal committee. For the next eight years Black was the major channel of communication between Macaulay and his constituency. Seen through the eyes of Duncan McLaren it was at this time in the early 1840s that Black chose to remain true to his whig roots, especially on the subject of corn law repeal, and began to find himself at odds with more ‘advanced’ Liberals. Although personally in favour of immediate and total repeal, Black, unlike McLaren, remained loyal to whigs such as Macaulay, who were trying to find a compromise based on a fixed duty. A further source of division between Black and more radical Liberals and voluntary dissenters was his opposition to attempts to repeal the grant to the Roman Catholic college at Maynooth in Ireland. This issue had been made into a cause célèbre by the Peel government's decision to increase the grant and make it permanent in 1845. Black's position was that it was unfair to select this particular grant for withdrawal while public money was still given to other religious institutions.

At the general election of 1847 Black gave public expression to his mortification at Macaulay's defeat in Edinburgh. This result was in large measure caused by Macaulay's positions, similar to those of Black, on issues such as corn law repeal and Maynooth. At the next general election (1852) Black took the lead in getting Macaulay again returned for Edinburgh, a candidacy which Macaulay himself made a point of taking no step to further. The election also saw the defeat of Black's former town council colleague Duncan McLaren.

On Macaulay's retirement in early 1856 Black was elected in his place. Although his partner, Charles, had died in 1854, Black was now relieved of the pressure of running his business by the participation of his sons. He identified his support as coming from the whigs, the Roman Catholics (because of his position on Maynooth), the publicans, and the Scotsman newspaper. A combination of radical Liberals, Conservatives, and many voluntary dissenters (despite Black being one of their number) gathered round his opponent, Francis Brown-Douglas. One of the leaders of this anti-whig grouping was again Duncan McLaren.

Black was re-elected twice for Edinburgh, in 1857 and 1859, and sat in parliament until his defeat at the general election of 1865. Especially in the latter part of his parliamentary career he found himself more and more out of step with the increasingly powerful advanced or ‘independent’ Liberals in Edinburgh led by Duncan McLaren, who came top of the poll in 1865. To them, his earlier offences were compounded by his reluctance to further extend the franchise and a willingness to compromise on the still unsolved problem of the Edinburgh annuity tax.

Black was comfortable with the prevailing Palmerstonian unwillingness to engage in electoral reform. He voted against the DisraeliDerby Reform Bill in 1859, against lowering the franchise to £6 as proposed in the Liberal government's bill of 1860, and more than once against Baines's Borough Franchise Bill. Black believed that the franchise was a duty to be exercised in the interests of others rather than a right. During the 1859 election he commented on the tyranny and oppression prevalent in some trades, which he implied made their members unfit to be electors. Together with his position on the franchise, these comments were held to have particularly offended new, mostly working-class electors who had come onto the register by 1865.

Black's acceptance of Lord Advocate Moncreiff's bill to reform the Edinburgh annuity tax was, in McLaren's opinion, even more important than the franchise question in bringing about his defeat. He had long been associated with the movement to abolish this tax, raised to support the city's established clergy. In the 1830s he had been recognized as an authority on the subject of ecclesiastical revenues in the city, and had produced a report which had provided ammunition for agitation against the tax. His brother-in-law, William Tait, though an established churchman, had been imprisoned for four days for non-payment. In 1860, however, Black had abandoned a bill of his own and with it the principle of total abolition, and had compromised on Moncreiff's which, while it lowered the tax, made it perpetual. In 1865 McLaren was therefore able to draw on the support of those who continued to press for the tax's total removal.

Black's parliamentary career was also marked by his interest in educational matters. He was partially successful in his attempt to ensure that the Scottish Universities Act of 1858 preserved the part played by the Edinburgh town council in the management of Edinburgh University. Untypically for a voluntary he supported the giving of state aid to the ragged schools. In 1864 he was appointed to the Argyll commission of inquiry into education in Scotland. For Black the ‘religious difficulty’ did not exist and he was consistently in favour of an unsectarian, national educational system.

Final years

After his defeat Black continued to travel, visiting Spain and Wiesbaden, the latter for his health. He had also been in 1863 to Italy, where he met the pope. He continued to be interested in his own firm until his retirement in favour of his sons in 1870. Twenty-six years later Black's grandson acquired the biographical register Who's Who, which remains one of the titles for which the company is best-known. In addition to his publishing work Black acted as chairman of the Edinburgh and Leith Shipping Company, and participated in the management of other companies, such as the Union Bank, in this period. When not attending to business he spent the greater part of his time at his country house at Prior Bank, near Melrose.

At eighty Black was variously described as having an elastic and wiry frame, good features marked by the effects of smallpox, and a firm nose and mouth, 'altogether the form and face of a strong man, physically and mentally, eminently healthy, capable, trustworthy' (Nicolson, 256). His strict religion, which included daily religious observances at home, was not at all marked by intolerance or sanctimoniousness. Black could relish a good joke.

Adam Black died at his Edinburgh home, 38 Drummond Place, on 24 January 1874, and was buried in the Warriston cemetery, Edinburgh, on 28 January. His wife survived him. Three years later a statue in his memory was placed in East Princes Street Gardens. This had been proposed in 1854 but turned down by Black himself on the grounds that statues should not be put up to those still alive. It is likely that the vein of shyness in his temperament played just as big a role as any such principle. Black may have seen himself as the link man, the facilitator, for the whigs in Edinburgh in their struggle to achieve moderate constitutional and civic reform. He himself, however, was a central figure in mid-nineteenth century Scottish politics whose political fate mirrored that of the whigs to whom he remained so loyal. In the vanguard of Liberalism up until the 1830s, he subsequently, by standing still and continuing to concentrate on the limited whig reform agenda of civil, religious, and commercial freedom, slowly found himself left behind as those such as Duncan McLaren moved on to forge an independent Liberalism. This drew strength from those interested in more franchise reform and involved in the Edinburgh trades union movement, people with whom Adam Black publicly said he was out of sympathy. He refused to 'bow popularly low' (The Scotsman, 26 Jan 1874) and, like Macaulay before him in 1847, paid the price electorally.


  • A. Nicolson, ed., Memoirs of Adam Black (1885)
  • The Scotsman (26 Jan 1874)
  • The Scotsman (29 Jan 1874)
  • B. W. Crombie and W. S. Douglas, Modern Athenians: a series of original portraits of memorable citizens of Edinburgh (1882), 179–82
  • J. B. Mackie, The life and work of Duncan McLaren, 2 vols. (1888)
  • J. D. Marwick, A retrospect (privately printed, Glasgow, 1905)
  • The Times (26 Jan 1874)
  • Glasgow Herald (26 Jan 1874)
  • Men of the time (1872), 107–8
  • WWBMP, 1.35
  • J. Foster, Members of parliament, Scotland … 1357–1882, 2nd edn (privately printed, London, 1882), 28
  • EdinR, 196 (1902), 275–318, esp. 291
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn (1910–11), vol. 4, p. 18



  • J. W. Gordon, portrait, 1847–8, City Chambers, Edinburgh
  • B. W. Crombie, caricature, coloured etching, 1848, NPG
  • J. Hutchison, bronze statue, 1877, East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
  • W. Stewart, lithograph, BM
  • chalk drawing, Scot. NPG
  • drawing, repro. in Crombie and Douglas, Modern Athenians, no. 48
  • engraving, repro. in Nicolson, ed., Memoirs of Adam Black [see illus.]
  • photographic or drawing, repro. in Nicolson, ed., Memoirs
  • stipple and line engraving, NPG

Wealth at Death

£48,350 10s. 4d.: confirmation, 28 March 1874, NA Scot., SC 70/1/167/509–525

University of California, Los Angeles
British Museum, London
Edinburgh Review, or, Critical Journal
M. Stenton & S. Lees, eds., , 4 vols. (1976–81)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
University of St Andrews
Mitchell Library, Glasgow City Archives, Glasgow
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
University of Texas, Austin
National Portrait Gallery, London