FRANCIS JEFFREY was born in Edinburgh on 23 October 1773 to the humourless and conservative George, Depute Clerk in the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest court), and his more lively and affectionate wife, Henrietta (née Louden), of a Lanarkshire farming family, who would die when was only twelve. Of small stature and with little interest in sports, excelled academically, first at the Edinburgh High School, then (from age 14 to 17) at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. After an unhappy year at Oxford in 1791-2, Jeffrey completed his legal studies in Edinburgh before being admitted advocate at the Scottish bar in December 1794. His friend and biographer, Henry Cockburn, writes eloquently and at length of the bias and obstruction facing liberal Whigs in the increasingly conservative 1790s under the ‘reign’ of the Tory Henry Dundas, Scotland’s political manager. Like many of his Whig friends, Jeffrey was refused official positions in Edinburgh’s legal institutions and found briefs difficult to come by, and began to establish a reputation as an advocate only by occasional pleading in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
In November 1801, Jeffrey would add to his responsibilities by marrying his second cousin, Catherine Wilson, daughter of the Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of St Andrew’s. Jeffrey and Catherine lost a son at only one month in September 1802, and Catherine herself died in August 1805 – events which, with the early loss of his beloved mother and sudden loss of her equally beloved surrogate, his sister Mary, in 1804, exacerbated a natural pessimism and induced in him a markedly fatalistic attitude to life that sometimes colours his social and political thinking. At the very least it explains why, when Jeffrey crossed the Atlantic in 1813 to marry his second wife, Charlotte Wilkes (another second cousin and great niece of the notorious John Wilkes) and they had a daughter (another Charlotte), the three became inseparable, with Charlotte and Charly accompanying him wherever he went – and this in defiance of Jeffrey’s reputation in society for harmless gallantry.
Jeffrey was eventually able to overcome political resistance to his advancement in the legal profession and would go on to become one of Scotland’s leading advocates, at the height of his powers in the years following the Battle of Waterloo when economic hardship led to industrial unrest and he became the (often successful) council to activists who fell foul of the state’s repression of political dissidence. Until his voice gave out in the mid to late 1820s, and in spite of a hybrid accent adopted as an eighteen-year-old living in England, Jeffrey was one of the greatest speakers of his age, his court pleading an Edinburgh tourist attraction. In July 1829, he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, giving the conflict of interest that would be created by his accepting this non-political legal appointment as his reason for handing over the editorship of the Edinburgh. From that moment, his life became a public and political one. Created Lord Advocate of Scotland when the Whigs won power late in 1830, Jeffrey was obliged to seek election to a seat in parliament and from there would be responsible for the Scottish Reform Bill, which in 1832 increased the franchise to fourteen times its original size (from 4,500 to 65,000). In 1834, having been elected MP for Edinburgh in the newly reformed parliament, he resigned his seat to take up a position on the bench in the Court of Session, held until his death on 26 January 1850.
Edinburgh Reviewer and Editor
Disappointed in his profession, Jeffrey’s thoughts had turned to writing – to creative writing (poetry) and to critical commentary. Throughout the 1790s, though with no specific end or vocation in mind, he continued the self-improvement mandated by his Enlightened teachers by attending university lectures in a variety of disciplines, becoming a regular and vocal member of Edinburgh’s Speculative Society (an agonistic intellectual debating society over which he presided for four years), reading extensively, and writing exhaustive critical notes on everything he read. In retrospect, it proved the perfect apprenticeship for the reviewing that would occupy his out-of-court moments for nearly thirty years. On initiating the Edinburgh Review in October 1802 with Sydney Smith and fellow lawyers Francis Horner and John Archibald Murray, Jeffrey immediately became (with Henry Brougham) its most prolific contributor, with the bulk of his substantial contribution (230 articles which amounted to 15% to 40% of each number) in original literature and literary history, travel writing, biography, cultural history and geography, philosophy, education, politics, and politics.
As an editor, when he took over from the third number, he was disorganized: always generous but never careful in his accounting, and sometimes forced to rely on contributors to tell him how much he owed them; often scrambling around for contributors and obliged to fill the vacuum with writings of his own; rarely meeting his own deadlines (though only occasionally seriously delinquent). But Jeffrey read, corrected, thought, and wrote scrupulously and well at an incredibly high speed, often writing and editing into the early hours. Though Brougham (on whom he was reliant) seems to have been allowed to impose on him, the Edinburgh remained very much his own throughout the years of his editorship, when the Edinburgh’s popularity and influence remained impressively consistent. The policies generally true of the Review were all specifically true of its editor, and the sheer quantity of his and Brougham’s contributions had a centripetal effect. On top of this, not only did Jeffrey often more or less subtly let a contributor know what approach and summary judgment he had in mind when commissioning a review, but most reviews were modified editorially after their composition. Sometimes these modifications were extensive, sometimes only slight, but nothing escaped Jeffrey’s surveillance. When in May of 1807 it looked like the Review would have to begin again under another name to circumvent a legal battle between Longman and Murray over the London publication rights, Horner reminded Jeffrey of something the other contributors had also repeatedly confirmed: ‘it is the stamp of your own hand that gives the work all its character’. The title Edinburgh Review remained, but by 1815 Horner was calling it ‘Jeffrey’s Review’.