‘A strenuous and able Reformer’: Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873)

Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834)
Stephen Lushington, after William John Newton, mezzotint (1834) CC NPG

This month we take a look at Dr Stephen Lushington (1782-1873). One of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London, Lushington famously served as Queen Caroline’s legal counsel in 1820. As MP for Tower Hamlets from 1832, he was influential in determining the final details of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and was an outspoken, although often frustrated, advocate of religious and legal reforms and the abolition of capital punishment.

The son of an East India Company chairman, Lushington was educated at Eton and Oxford where he specialised in civil law. He first entered parliament in 1806, at the age of 24, but was forced to resign after his opposition to the slave trade and support for Catholic emancipation offended his electoral patron. Swapping Parliament for a legal career in Doctors’ Commons, Lushington practised diligently as a civilian in the admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, enjoying some distinction in 1816 by acting with Henry Brougham in Lady Byron’s separation case. Aided by Brougham’s influence, Lushington was returned to Parliament in 1820 and rose to national prominence that year as counsel to Queen Caroline.

Lushington (far right) as counsel to Queen Caroline, J. Fairburn, ‘All a Bottle of Smoke!! or John Bull and the Secret Committee’ (1820), CC NPG

A committed advanced Whig throughout the 1820s, Lushington lost his seat at the 1830 election. He returned to Parliament at a by-election in April 1831 at the beginning of the parliamentary struggle over the Whigs’ reform legislation. As a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society and close ally of several cabinet ministers, Lushington acted as a middle-man between the government and the anti-slavery lobby during May 1832, fearing that the efforts of the latter might derail the reform bill.

Lushington was returned for the newly created London borough of Tower Hamlets at the 1832 general election. He represented the constituency until his appointment as a judge of the admiralty court required his retirement in 1841. As a reformer he offered consistent support to the ballot and shorter parliaments (but not household suffrage), the abolition of slavery (but supported the government’s compensation scheme), the improvement of conditions for army and naval officers, corn law reform, Jewish emancipation and the abolition of capital punishment.

Lushington (far right) skulks off after narrowly avoiding a duel with Robert Peel, J. Doyle, ‘A Nice Distinction or a Hume-iliating Rejoinder to a Warlike Ap-Peel!’ (1835) CC NPG. Also see An Illustrative Key to the Sketches of H. B.

Known for their clarity of argument, Lushington’s speeches never failed to attract the attention of his fellow MPs on account of his inability to pronounce the sound r (probably the speech impediment, rhotacism) and his ‘clear and shrill’ tone, as well as his habit of baring his teeth and fixing a piercing gaze on fellow members as he spoke. His public speeches also had an uncanny knack of provoking the Conservative press. During the 1835 election he came remarkably close to a duel with the new prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. This followed reports that he had labelled Peel and the Duke of Wellington ‘convicted swindlers’ on account of their recent conversion to reform.

Lushington’s is one of six anti-slavery campaigners whose names are inscribed on the Buxton Memorial Fountain in London © Martin Spychal 2020

Lushington’s major policy legacy after 1832 stemmed from his involvement in the anti-slavery movement. In 1824 he was one of the first anti-slavery leaders to advocate immediate, rather than gradual abolition, the movement as a whole only resolving in favour of complete abolition in 1832

In 1832 Lushington and his fellow campaigner, Thomas Fowell Buxton, drafted an anti-slavery bill for the government. However, this was rejected in favour of the eventual 1833 legislation that proposed an immediate and much more extensive system of compensation for slave owners. Lushington came to accept compensation for slave owners as the only means of getting Parliament to accept abolition, and did not vote against it in the Commons.  Along with Buxton he convinced the national anti-slavery lobby to accept the compensation scheme with concessions, one of which was a reduction in the duration of the slave apprenticeships that followed abolition, from twelve years to seven.

Lushington remained active as a parliamentary representative of the anti-slavery movement thereafter. In 1836 he called on the government to delay its recognition of the newly formed Republic of Texas until it agreed to ‘desist altogether’ in the slave trade, lobbied for the immediate cessation of slave apprenticeships, sat on the 1839 select committee that investigated Portugal’s involvement in the Brazilian slave trade and used his expertise in maritime law to support ministers in drafting the 1839 Slave Trade Suppression Act. In his final year in Parliament, Lushington also started to apply pressure to the board of control to address slavery in India.

As well as his attention to slavery Lushington was a leading Anglican advocate of the removal of Jewish disabilities, the reform of the parliamentary oath and Dissenters’ rights. In 1839, after years of frustration with the extent of religious reforms, he made a particularly impassioned speech in which he urged his fellow Conservative and Whig MPs to take religious grievances seriously:

first, for the sake of justice; secondly, for the sake of their own character; and, lastly, for the sake of that which every well-regulated Government should have nearest and dearest to their hearts – the appeasement of the bitterness of that religious dissension, which day after day disgraced and debased the discussions of Parliament (Hansard, 25 Apr. 1839)

With his allies, Lushington brought in the 1841 Punishment of Death Act which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property (4 & 5 Vict. c.56)

Lushington’s commitment to the removal of religious grievances was reflective of his wider attempts to effect the wholesale reform of the civil and ecclesiastical courts. However, as with religious grievances he was left frustrated by the ease with which parliamentarians, particularly peers, could block reform. In 1839, for instance, he lambasted the House of Lords for sitting on one of his proposals to reform the ecclesiastical courts ‘for upwards of ten weeks’.

He did achieve some small victories, however, one of which came in his final year in Parliament. As a vocal advocate on the issue since 1813, Lushington had argued that capital punishment had no utility as a preventative measure, as it caused reluctance among victims of crime, juries and judges to prosecute offences and led to irreversible errors in sentencing. He also believed that public executions ‘did debase, and lower, and brutalise the public morals, and the public mind’.

After several failed attempts, Lushington and his allies secured the passage of the 1841 Punishment of Death Act, which removed capital punishment for rape, embezzlement, forgery and the demolition of church property. It would take another 132 years before capital punishment was totally abolished in the United Kingdom.

For details about how to access the biographies of Lushington and other MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, see here.

Further Reading

S. Waddams, Law, Politics and the Church of England: the career of Stephen Lushington 1782-1873 (1992)

D. Eltis, ‘Dr Stephen Lushington and the Campaign to Abolish Slavery in the British Empire’, Journal of Caribbean History, 1 (1970), 43-8.

L. M. Bethell, ‘Britain, Portugal and the Suppression of the Brazilian Slave Trade: The Origins of Lord Palmerston’s Act of 1839’, EHR, 80 (1965), 761-784

A. H. Manchester, ‘The Reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts’, American Journal of Legal History, 10 (1966), 51-75.

R. G. Thorne, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)‘, HP Commons 1790-1820

T. Jenkins, ‘Lushington, Stephen (1782-1873)’, HP Commons 1820-1832

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