Samuel Romilly, the youngest of the nine children of Peter Romilly (1712–1784) and his wife, Margaret Garnault, was born on 1st March 1757 in Frith Street, Soho. Both parents had fled to London during the persecution of protestants in France. His father was a jeweller and the family eventually set up home in Marylebone.
Samuel Romilly was educated at a local day school and at the age of fourteen, joined his father's jewellery business. In 1773 he was articled to William Lally, a chancery solicitor. Five years later he enrolled as a student at Gray's Inn. During this time Romilly became interested in politics and regularly attended debates in the House of Commons.
Romilly was called to the bar on 2nd June 1783. His biographer, Rose Melikan, points out: "He failed to secure a lucrative chancery practice straight away and determined to gain a wider professional experience on the midland circuit and the Warwick assizes. He lacked the early confidence to exploit his assets: a keen intellect and an attractive personal appearance. Gradually, however, he overcame his diffidence and his ability was recognized."
Romilly was a strong opponent of the slave trade. In 1787 Granville Sharp and his friend Thomas Clarkson decided to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Romilly gave his support to this organisation. Other supporters included William Dillwyn, William Allen, John Wesley, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Walker, John Cartwright, James Ramsay, Charles Middleton, Henry Thornton and William Smith. His anti-slave trade activities brought him into contact with William Wilberforce and Jeremy Bentham.
Romilly was a strong supporter of the French Revolution. In 1790 he published a pamphlet Thoughts on the probable influence of the French Revolution on Great Britain. Rose Melikan, has argued: "Together with Étienne Dumont and James Scarlett he produced what purported to be a series of letters favourably contrasting the legal and constitutional practices of the republic with their English counterparts. This was published in summer 1792, shortly before the September massacres. Such violence and political repression caused a thorough revulsion in Romilly. He also criticized the regime's atheism. His own indoctrination in Anglicanism and French Calvinism had not inspired a very profound dedication to organized religion. He felt that the French anti-clericalism, however, was both unreasonable and likely to presage further persecution." Romilly later admitted that the French Revolution produced "among the higher orders... a horror of every kind of innovation".
In his memoirs Romilly commented: "I am soon to enter on a career which … will certainly give me partial and selfish interests, incompatible with the good of others, and which will … compel me to hear the profession of dishonourable sentiments without opposing them, and to be a near spectator of selfish and degrading conduct, without discovering any detestation of it." By 1791 Romilly had acquired an excellent reputation in the legal world and in 1793 he received fees of approximately £2,000. According to one source "His earnings would rise by a factor of eight within the next two decades."
Romilly argued that this large income enabled him to obtain political independence. For example, he supported the London Corresponding Society, an organisation that had been established by Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, John Horne Tooke, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot in 1792. As well as campaigning for the vote, the strategy was to create links with other reforming groups in Britain. The society passed a series of resolutions and after being printed on handbills, they were distributed to the public. These resolutions also included statements attacking the government's foreign policy. A petition was started and by May 1793, 6,000 members of the public had signed saying they supported the resolutions of the London Corresponding Society.
Romilly did free legal work for the organisation and in 1797 he successfully defended John Binns, against a charge of seditious words. The Seditious Meetings Act made the organisation of parliamentary reform gatherings extremely difficult. Finally, in 1799, the government persuaded Parliament to pass a Corresponding Societies Act. It was now illegal for the London Corresponding Society to meet and the organisation came to an end.
In May 1804 William Pitt appointed Viscount Melville as his First Lord at the Admiralty. The following year Romilly was appointed a member of the legal team to conduct the impeachment of Melville. Eventually, Melville was forced to resign in April 1805, for failing to prevent the paymaster of the navy mixing public funds with his own money in a private account.
In 1806 Romilly entered the House of Commons as MP for Queenborough. When Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration he invited Romilly to became his solicitor-general. Grenville, like Romilly, was a strong opponent of the slave trade. Grenville was determined to bring an end to British involvement in the trade. Thomas Clarkson sent a circular to all supporters of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade claiming that "we have rather more friends in the Cabinet than formerly" and suggested "spontaneous" lobbying of MPs. Romilly later recalled that at London dinner parties: "The abolition of the slave trade was the subject of conversation, as it is indeed of almost all conversations."
Grenville's Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, led the campaign in the House of Commons to ban the slave trade in captured colonies. Clarkson commented that Fox was "determined upon the abolition of it (the slave trade) as the highest glory of his administration, and as the greatest earthly blessing which it was the power of the Government to bestow." This time there was little opposition and it was passed by an overwhelming 114 to 15.
In the House of Lords Lord Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20.
In January 1807 Lord Grenville introduced a bill that would stop the trade to British colonies on grounds of "justice, humanity and sound policy". Ellen Gibson Wilson has pointed out: "Lord Grenville masterminded the victory which had eluded the abolitionist for so long... He opposed a delaying inquiry but several last-ditch petitions came from West Indian, London and Liverpool shipping and planting spokesmen.... He was determined to succeed and his canvassing of support had been meticulous." Grenville addressed the Lords for three hours on 4th February and when the vote was taken it was passed by 100 to 34.
Wilberforce commented: "How popular Abolition is, just now! God can turn the hearts of men". During the debate in the House of Commons, Samuel Romilly, paid a fulsome tribute to Wilberforce's unremitting advocacy in Parliament. The trade was abolished by a resounding 283 to 16. According to Thomas Clarkson, it was the largest majority recorded on any issue where the House divided. Romilly felt it to be "the most glorious event, and the happiest for mankind, that has ever taken place since human affairs have been recorded."
Under the terms of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807) British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.
Romilly resigned with his colleagues in March 1807 and according to Rose Melikan "thereafter established himself as a political maverick." He purchased a seat at Wareham, in Dorset, for £3000 in 1808, and four years later he accepted the seat at Arundel controlled by the 13th Duke of Norfolk. Over the next few years he supported mainstream whig principles such as Catholic Emancipation and maintenance of the Habeas Corpus Act.
Romilly was one of the most progressive MPs in the House of Commons and usually associated with other radicals such as Charles Fox, Samuel Whitbread and Henry Grey Bennet. The author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Edward Thompson, has argued: "While the democratic persuasions of most of the group were largely speculative, individual members - Sir Samuel Romilly, Samuel Whitbread, H. G. Bennet - stood up again and again in the House to defend political liberties or social rights."
As solicitor-general Romilly advocated reform of the criminal law, especially in the areas of corporal punishment and capital punishment. He also criticised the policy of flogging in the military. Romilly also opposed transporting criminals to penal colonies or confining them in prison ships or common gaols. He led the campaign to restrict the death penalty. In 1808 he obtained the repeal of the law which had made pickpocketing a capital offence. However, most of his colleagues did not share his liberal views and was unsuccessful in persuading them to pass very much legislation. For example, Romilly twice introduced bills to abolish capital punishment for theft to the value of at least 40s. from a house or ship on a river, and on each occasion they were lost or defeated. Similar attempts to reduce the punishment for shoplifting goods of a minimum value of 5s. also ended in failure.
Romilly was close to other supporters of parliamentary reform such as Francis Burdett and William Cobbett. In 1809 Burdett was charged with a breach of privilege by the House of Commons. This resulted from an article that appeared in Cobbett's Political Register. Burdett was defended by Romilly. Burdett's biographer, Marc Baer, has commented: "The confrontation between the ‘Man of the People' and the Perceval government had been building for some time, owing to Burdett's speeches about the unrepresentative character of the Commons, criticism of the war and the sale of army commissions, and tiresome lectures on the ancient constitution. On 6 April the Commons voted to commit Burdett to the Tower of London, whereupon he challenged the speaker's warrant and barricaded himself in his London house." Burdett was arrested on the morning of 9th April 1810 and was ordered to was confined to the Tower of London until the end of the parliamentary session on 21st June. The government was too afraid to expel him from Parliament. When Burdett was released he cancelled a march through London, fearing further riots and loss of life.
Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Samuel Romilly, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and James Cropper, argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. William Wilberforce disagreed, he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom."
In 1823 Romilly joined James Cropper, Thomas Clarkson, Joseph Sturge, Thomas Fowell Buxton, William Allen and Zachary Macaulay in forming the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Clarkson agreed to take to the road again to resurrect the old abolition network of some 70 local bodies and to establish new ones. Cropper offered Clarkson £500 to pay for the campaign. In his book, The Great White Lie (1973), Jack Gratus argues that: "The plan was to divide the country into districts, and to send a lecturer to each, armed with facts and information about slavery and fired by an enthusiasm to convert new audiences around the country to emancipation. The Quakers accepted the idea immediately and Cropper advanced £500 out of his own pocket. The prosperous Birmingham Quaker, Joseph Sturge, who was to play such an important role in the later history of emancipation, advanced £250. Wilberforce gave £20 and James Stephen ten guineas."
Romilly supported the principle of parliamentary reform but he admitted that he was "no friend to universal suffrage … or even to annual parliaments." He also criticised the aggressive oratory of men such as Francis Burdett and Henry Hunt. In his memoirs he argued: "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." He also disagreed with Thomas Paine and was surprised by the success of The Rights of Man: "I do not understand how men can be convinced without arguments."
Rose Melikan has argued: "His oratorical powers were considerable but his appeal was always to his audience's intellect, rather than to their emotions. This style was effective in the court of chancery, where bench and bar shared a considerable, detailed knowledge of a highly technical subject. Its appeal in the less rarefied atmosphere of the House of Commons was not so certain."
Samuel Romilly's wife died in the Isle of Wight on 9th October, 1818. Unable to live without her, he cut his throat the following month at his house in Russell Square, on 2nd November. He was survived by his seven children, including John Romilly, later first Baron Romilly of Barry.
In 1797, as Pitt's repression settled upon the country, Grey and Fox moved for a last time a motion in the House for household suffrage. Thereafter, Fox and his patrician rump of Whig "commonwealthsmen" seceded from the House, in protest against the suspension of Habeas Corpus and in opposition to the war. They retired to their country mansions, their amusements and their scholarship, their discussions at Holland House and Brooks' Club. Wealthy and influential, they could not be altogether excluded from political life, since they were secure in the possession of rotten boroughs which their own principles denounced. After 1800 they drifted back and resumed their seats in the House. While the democratic persuasions of most of the group were largely speculative, individual members - Sir Samuel Romilly, Samuel Whitbread, H. G. Bennet - stood up again and again in the House to defend political liberties or social rights.