Henry Brougham, the eldest son of Henry Brougham (1742–1810) and Eleanora Syme Brougham, was born in Edinburgh on 19th September, 1778. Brougham was a modest landowner in Westmorland. At the age of seven he was sent to the local high school.
Henry, was extremely intelligent and was accepted as a student at the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14. At first Brougham studied science and mathematics and while still a student presented a paper Experiments and Observations of the Infection, Reflection and Colours of Light, to the Royal Society. Brougham became interested in law and in 1800 joined the university's faculty of advocates.
His biographer, Michael Lobban has argued: "Brougham was called to the Scottish bar in June 1800, and went directly on the summer circuit. His early experience of life as a lawyer was not a happy one. 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 was soon disgusted with law, and resented it for interfering with his politics."
In 1802 Brougham and a few friends founded the journal Edinburgh Review. In the next two years Brougham contributed thirty-five articles. At university Brougham developed radical political opinions and many of these articles dealt with the issue of social reform. The journal was a great success and quickly became one of the most influential political publications of the 19th century. As well as writing articles for the journal, Brougham wrote the book An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers (1803) where he attacked the slave trade.
Brougham worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh for three years but he came to the conclusion that his radical political views would prevent him from obtaining promotion so in 1804 he decided to move to London, where he became friends with a group of radicals that included Thomas Barnes, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Charles Lamb. Soon after arriving in the capital Brougham published a pamphlet, A Concise Statement of the Question Regarding the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Brougham developed a reputation as a lawyer with progressive views. This brought Brougham to the attention of the leaders of the Whigs and he was given the task of organising the press campaign in the 1807 General Election. Three years later, John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, a Whig aristocrat, offered Brougham, the parliamentary seat of Camelford. The constituency only had twenty votes and they were all under the control of Russell. Although Henry Brougham disapproved of this corrupt system he accepted the seat in order to enter the House of Commons.
Brougham soon established himself as one of the leading radicals in Parliament. His first great parliamentary speech was on the issue of slavery. In June 1810 he complained that the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was ineffective. Brougham argued that Britain was doing nothing to end "this abominable commerce". Yet she was always ready to use her power "when the object is to obtain new colonies and extend the slave trade; then we can both conquer and treat; we have force enough to seize whole provinces where the slave trade might be planted and skill enough to retain them and the additional commerce in slaves their cultivation requires." James Stephen, the MP for Tralee, and one of those who campaigned against the slave trade, replied: "we have at least delivered ourselves as a nation from the guilt and shame of authorising that cruel and opprobrious traffic... If we have effected nothing more I shall rejoice and bless God to the last hour for this happy deliverance."
In March 1811 Brougham introduced a bill (which passed) to make it a felony to trade in slaves. This was a much more effective sanction to the ones that was part of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. His biographer, Michael Lobban, has pointed out: "Throughout his life Brougham continued to speak out, in parliament and in public, against the evils of the slave trade and slavery, and he remained proud of his own contribution to the cause of the abolitionists."
He was less radical on the subject of parliamentary reform. He attacked the views of Thomas Paine that had been expressed in The Rights of Man. He also disagreed with Francis Burdett and Henry Hunt, the main supporters of adult suffrage in the House of Commons. He agreed with Samuel Romilly who argued that he was "no friend to universal suffrage … or even to annual parliaments... No conduct can, in my eyes, be more criminal than that of availing one's self of the prejudiced clamours of the ignorant or misinformed to accomplish any political purpose, however good or desirable in itself."
John Russell had financial problems and had to sell Camelford in 1812 and Brougham had to find another seat in the next election. John Cartwright offered him the seat in Middlesex but he refused to support universal suffrage and annual parliaments. Instead, Brougham decided to become the Whig parliamentary candidate in Liverpool. This was a brave decision as the city was one of the main centres of the British slave trade. Brougham was defeated by George Canning and was without a seat in the House of Commons for the next four years.
Henry Brougham continued to work as a lawyer and in August 1812 he defended thirty-eight handloom weavers who had been arrested by Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, while trying to form a trade union. Their leader John Knight was charged with "administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms" and the rest of the men were accused of attending a seditious meeting. As a result of Brougham's brilliant defence, all thirty-eight were acquitted.
In 1815 Earl of Darlington offered Henry Brougham the vacant seat of Winchelsea. Like Camelford, Winchelsea was a pocket borough. Unable to find a seat which he had a chance of winning, Brougham accepted the offer. Samuel Whitbread was dead and Samuel Romilly too ill to attend, Brougham became the Whigs most effective speakers in parliament. He also became more concerned about parliamentary reform telling Francis Place that there was a need to "change the whole of the present ruinous system".
In the House of Commons Brougham became the leading spokesmen for the radicals. In 1819 he blamed the Tory government and Manchester's local magistrates for the Peterloo Massacre. "The magistrates there (in Manchester) and all over Lancashire I have long known for the worst in England, the most bigotted, violent and active. I am quite indignant at this Manchester business, but I fear, with you, that we can do nothing till parliament meets." Brougham also spoke out against the prison sentences imposed on Henry Orator Hunt, John Knight, Samuel Bamford and the other organisers of the meeting at St. Peter's Field.
Michael Lobban has pointed out: "Brougham married on 1 April 1819. Always slightly uncomfortable in the company of women, he had had occasional affairs, as in 1816, when he had a liaison in Geneva with Caroline Lamb, wife of George Lamb. In 1818 he courted (and was rejected by) Georgiana Pigou, and soon afterwards married a widow, Mary Ann Spalding, daughter of Thomas Eden of Wimbledon and niece of Lord Auckland. She brought with her two children, a house in Mayfair, and an annual income of £1500, but little intellectual stimulation. None of Brougham's friends was told of the marriage, which took place at Coldstream, until well after the event. There was some talk that his marriage was the consequence of an indiscretion, and a daughter (who died in infancy) was born in November. Brougham's wife remained a sickly and nervous woman, particularly after the birth of their second daughter, Eleanor Louise, in October 1822. Brougham continued, after his marriage, to have affairs, beginning a liaison with Harriette Wilson, who blackmailed him throughout the late 1820s and early 1830s. He paid up, rather than risk public embarrassment."
Brougham was actively involved in educational reform. He supported the Ragged Schools Union and Mechanics Institutes. In 1826 he joined forces with Charles Knight to establish the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, an organisation that published cheap and accessible works on both scientific and artistic subjects. Brougham's ideas on state-funded education were unpopular and the education bills that he introduced to Parliament in 1820, 1835, 1837, 1838 and 1839 were all defeated.
Brougham continued to campaign against slavery. On 5th March 1828, Brougham argued in the House of Commons: "The progress of the colonies is so slow as to be imperceptible to all human eyes save their own. They are standing still instead of advancing towards the goal at which it was the wish of the House they should gradually but certainly arrive... Out of twenty heads of regulation and improvement recommended to them there was no less than nine in which not a single colony has not taken a single step. In Jamaica and Barbados with populations together of nearly half a million slaves not one step has been taken with respect to sixteen out of twenty heads proposed to them by the Colonial Department." Brougham complained that the Government had lamely replied that it was their desire "to introduce a system which will be beneficial to the slaves without infringing on the rights of private property".
The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery continued to grow. In May 1830, 2,000 people packed the Freemasons' Hall to hear their leaders denounce the slave system. One member argued: "The friends of humanity have slept too long at their posts while the enemy never slackens his endeavours to perpetuate the present abuse by which his avarice is fostered. Indeed I fear that until some black O'Connell or an African Bolivar devotes his unceasing energy to effecting emancipation of his negro brethren, the condition of the slaves... will never change."
Brougham, who was at the meeting, and had recently been given a peerage and had been appointed Lord Chancellor in Lord Grey's new Whig government, argued that Parliament was not ready to free the slaves in the colonies. Daniel O'Connell, who was also in Freemasons' Hall, challenged Brougham: "Let us make a beginning. Whatever day we propose we will be met with the answer, you are too hasty; you do not give enough time to educate the young descendants of slaves before they come to man's estate, and make them fit for freedom."
During the meeting the meeting the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. Sarah Wedgwood suggested a plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. The following year they presented a petition to the House of Commons calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves".
Lord Brougham, who had been arguing for parliamentary reform for over thirty years, played an important role in persuading the House of Lords to pass the 1832 Reform Act. One observer commented: "When the bill returned to the Lords in the new parliament, he delivered a speech lasting over three hours, in temperatures of 85° F, ending in the lord chancellor, by now the worse for drink, on his knees, begging the Lords to pass the bill."
His biographer, Michael Lobban, has described him as: "Tall and thin, with a high forehead, deep-set eyes, and a long, upturned nose, which proved to be the delight of caricaturists, and with a prodigious amount of energy, Brougham was both a congenial and warm-hearted man who could captivate any audience with his wit and learning, and an awkward and abrupt man, who could offend with his eccentric conduct and bore with his vain self-seeking. He aspired to be a polymath who could master science, law, and literature while remaining at the centre of the political stage; but he never stood still long enough to make a permanent impact in any of these fields. As a thinker he cast his net so widely that the vast quantities of print which he produced proved to be of little lasting value."
In 1831 James Cropper and his son-in-law, Joseph Sturge, formed the Young England Abolitionists, a pressure group within the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, that campaigned for a new act of Parliament. It was distinguished from other anti-slavery groups by its unconditional arguments and vigorous campaigning tactics. Peter Archer has argued that they directed "their activities much more in the direction of forming mass opinion."
The Anti-Slavery Society presented a petition to the House of Commons calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves". Thomas Clarkson redoubled his efforts and between October 1830 and April 1831, 5,484 petitions calling for an end to slavery was sent to Parliament. However, Clarkson had to wait until 1833 before Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. It contained two controversial features: a transitional apprenticeship period and compensation to owners totalling £20,000,000.
Lord Brougham lost office after the defeat of the Whigs in 1834. Brougham's views were considered to be too radical by Lord Grey's successor, Lord Melbourne, and was not given government office after the Whigs returned to power in April 1835. Lord Brougham remained committed to further political reform and helped Melbourne's government pass the Municipal Reform Bill in 1835.
James Cropper was disappointed by the measure that granted compensation to slave owners and substituting a temporary system of unpaid apprenticeship for slavery. Joseph Sturge visited the West Indies (November 1836 to April 1837) where he collected evidence to demonstrate the flaws in the legislation. On his return he published The West Indies in 1837 and gave evidence for seven days before a committee of the House of Commons. As a result of his campaign in 1838 the apprenticeship system was terminated.
On 29th March, 1838, Lord Brougham, argued in the House of Lords: "compulsory apprenticeship, which was another name for slavery, and could only be justified by expediency, is proved to be inexpedient, and nothing remains but the duty of the mother country to afford all her subjects the protection of equal laws." Jack Gratus, the author of The Great White Lie (1973) has commented: "With these strong words the highest legal authority in the land condemned fifty years of parliamentary inactivity under the guise of ameliorative legislation on behalf of the slaves, and condemned, moreover, the final act of hypocrisy for the fraud it was."
In 1844 he founded the Law Amendment Society. This organisation provided him with material and measures to present before parliament, and kept him in the forefront of law reform. Michael Lobban has pointed out: "For thirty years he proposed reforms ranging from the structure of the court system to real property law and the law of marriage and divorce." A strong supporter of equal rights for women, Brougham played an important role in the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857.
Henry Brougham died on 17th May, 1868 at Château Eleanor-Louise, Cannes, and was buried on 24th May in the town's cemetery.
The magistrates there (in Manchester) and all over Lancashire I have long known for the worst in England, the most bigotted, violent and active. I am quite indignant at this Manchester business, but I fear, with you, that we can do nothing till parliament meets.
The case of the Manchester magistrates is desperate. There is no speaking with patience on it. I wish to God Parliament were met. My tongue itches to be at them. I dare hardly venture to go to a meeting at Kendal for fear of being carried away and then carried off to Appleby Jail under the new law of commitment.
The progress of the colonies is so slow as to be imperceptible to all human eyes save their own. They are standing still instead of advancing towards the goal at which it was the wish of the House they should gradually but certainly arrive... Out of twenty heads of regulation and improvement recommended to them there was no less than nine in which not a single colony has not taken a single step. In Jamaica and Barbados with populations together of nearly half a million slaves not one step has been taken with respect to sixteen out of twenty heads proposed to them by the Colonial Department.