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James Mackintosh

Sir James Mackintosh (October 24, 1765 - May 30, 1832), Scottish publicist, was born at Aldourie, 7 miles from Inverness. He came of old Highland families on both sides.

He went in 1780 to college at Aberdeen, where he made a friend of Robert Hall, afterwards the famous preacher. In 1784 he proceeded for the study of medicine to Edinburgh, where he participated to the full in the intellectual ferment, but did not quite neglect his medical studies, and took his degree in 1787.

In 1788 Mackintosh removed to London, then agitated by the trial of Warren Hastings and the king's first lapse into insanity, he was much more interested in these and other political events than in his professional prospects; and his attention was specially directed to the events and tendencies which caused or preceded the Revolution in France. In 1789 he married his first wife, Catherine Stuart, whose brother Daniel afterwards became editor of the Morning Post. His wife's prudence was a corrective to his own unpractical temperament, and his efforts in journalism became fairly profitable.

Mackintosh was soon absorbed in the question of the time; and in April 1791, after long meditation, he published his Vindiciae Gallicae a reply to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. It was the only worthy answer to Burke that appeared. It placed the author in the front rank of European publicists, and won him the friendship of some of the most distinguished men of the time, including Burke himself. The success of the Vindiciae finally decided him to give up the medical for the legal profession. He was called to the bar in 1795. and gained a considerable reputation there as well as a tolerable practice. In 1797 his wife died, and next year he married Catherine Allen, sister-in-law of Josiah and John Wedgwood[?], through whom he introduced Coleridge to the Morning Post.

As a lawyer his greatest public efforts were his lectures (1799) at Lincoln's Inn on the law of nature and nations, of which the introductory discourse was published, and his eloquent defence (1803) of Jean Gabriel Peltier, a French refugee, tried at the instance of the French government for a libel against the first consul. In 1803 he was knighted, and received the post of recorder at Bombay. The spoilt child of London society was not at home in India, and he was glad to return to England, where he arrived in 1812.

He courteously declined the offer of Perceval to resume political life under the auspices of the dominant Tory party, though tempting prospects of office in connexion with India were opened up. He entered parliament in the Whig interest as member for Nairn. He sat for that county, and afterwards for Knaresborough, till his death. In London society, and in Paris during his occasional Visits, he was a recognized favourite for his genial wisdom and his great conversational power. On Mme de Stael's visit to London he was the only Englishman capable of representing his country in talk with her. His parliamentary career was marked by the same wide and candid liberalism as his private life. He opposed the reactionary measures of the Tory government, supported and afterwards succeeded Romilly in his efforts for reforming the criminal code, and took a leading part both in Catholic emancipation and in the Reform Bill. But he was too little of a partisan, too widely sympathetic and candid, as well as too elaborate, to be a telling speaker in parliament, and was consequently surpassed by more practical men whose powers were incomparably inferior. From 1818 to 1824 he was professor of law and general politics in the East India Company's College at Haileybury.

In the midst of the attractions of London society and of his parliamentary avocations Mackintosh felt that the real work of his life was being neglected. His great ambition was to write a history of England. His studies both in English and foreign speculation led him to cherish the design also of making some worthy contribution to philosophy. It was not till 1828 that he set about the first task of his literary ambition. This was the Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, prefixed to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The dissertation, written mostly in ill-health and in snatches of time taken from his parliamentary engagements, was published in 1831. It was severely attacked in 1835 by James Mill in his Fragment on Mackintosh. About the same time he wrote for the Cabinet Cyclopaedia a "History of England from the Earliest Times to the Final Establishment of the Reformation." His more elaborate History of the Revolution, for which he had made great researches and collections, was not published till after his death. Already a privy councillor, Mackintosh was appointed commissioner for the affairs of India under the Whig administration of 1830.

Mackintosh was undoubtedly one of the most cultured and catholic-minded men of his time. His studies and sympathies embraced almost every human interest, except pure science. But the width of his intellectual sympathies, joined to a constitutional indecision and vis inertiae, prevented him from doing more enduring work. Vindiciae Gallicae was the verdict of a philosophic Liberal on the development of the French Revolution up to the spring of 1791, and though the excesses of the revolutionists compelled him a few years after to express his entire agreement with the opinions of Burke, its defence of the rights of man is a valuable statement of the cultured Whig's point of view at the time. The History of the Revolution in England, breaking off at the point where William of Orange is preparing to intervene in the affairs of England, is chiefly interesting because of Macaulay[?]'s admiring essay on it and its author. A Life, by his son RJ Mackintosh, was published in 1836.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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