Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey

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"Various and superficial knowledge is now not only so common, that the want of it is felt as a disgrace ; but the facilities of acquiring it are so great, that it is scarcely possible to defend ourselves against its intrusion. So many easy and pleasant elementary books, — such tempting summaries, abstracts, and tables, — such beautiful engravings, and ingenious charts, and coups-d'oeil of information, — so many museums, exhibitions, and collections, meet us at every corner, — and so much amusing and provoking talk in every party, that a taste for miscellaneous and imperfect information is formed, almost before we are aware ; and our time and curiosity irrevocably devoted to a sort of Encyclopedical trifling."
From a review by Jeffrey of Philosophical Essays By Dugald Stewart.

Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey (23 October 1773 – 26 January 1850) was a Scottish judge and literary critic.

Early life

Born in Edinburgh, he studied at the University of Glasgow from 1787 to 1789, and at Queen's College, Oxford, from 1791 to 1792. He became a member of the Speculative Society, where he debated with Sir Walter Scott, Lord Brougham and others. He was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1794, but his Whig politics hampered his legal prospects. In 1801 he married Catherine Wilson, a second cousin, but she died in 1805.

Edinburgh Review

In 1798, he went to London to try his hand at journalism, but without success. However, on his return to Edinburgh, a project for a new review, brought up by Sydney Smith in Jeffrey's flat (on Buccleuch Place) resulted in the appearance on 10 October 1802 of the Edinburgh Review.

At first, the Review did not have an editor. The first three numbers were edited by Sydney Smith, and when he left for England Jeffrey took on the work, and was eventually appointed editor at a fixed salary. Although the general bias of the Review was towards social and political reforms, no distinct emphasis was given to its political leanings until the publication in 1808 of an article by Jeffrey on the work of Don Pedro Cevallos on the French Usurpation of Spain.

According to Lord Cockburn, the effect of the first number of the Edinburgh Review was "electrical." The English reviews were, at that time, practically publishers' organs; the Edinburgh Review, on the other hand, enlisted a brilliant and independent staff of contributors, guided by the editor, not the publisher. They received sixteen guineas a sheet (sixteen printed pages), increased subsequently to twenty-five guineas in many cases, instead of the two guineas earned by London reviewers. The review was not limited to literary criticism but became the mouthpiece of moderate Whig opinion. The particular work which provided the starting-point of an article was often merely the occasion for the exposition, always brilliant and incisive, of the author's views on politics, social subjects, ethics or literature. These general principles ensured the success of the undertaking even after the original circle of exceptionally able men who founded it had been dispersed. Jeffrey's editorship lasted about twenty-six years, until June 1829, when he resigned in favour of Macvey Napier.

Jeffrey's own contributions numbered two hundred; he wrote quickly, and fluently, with a considerable warmth of imagination and moral sentiment, and his sharp eye to discover any oddity of style or violation of good taste, made his criticisms pungent and effective. Unlike his politics, his taste in literature was conservative.


"There is one other topic upon which we are not quite sure whether we should say any thing. On a former occasion, we reproved Mr. Moore, perhaps with unnecessary severity, for what appeared to us the licentiousness of some of his youthful productions. We think it a duty to say, that he has long ago redeemed that error; and that in all his latter works that have come under our observation, he appears as the eloquent champion of purity, fidelity, and delicacy, not less than of justice, liberty, and honour." [1]

A criticism in the fifteenth number of the Review on the morality of Thomas Moore's poems led in 1806 to a duel between the two authors. The proceedings were stopped by the police, and Jeffrey's pistol was found to contain no bullet. The affair led to a warm friendship, and Moore contributed to the Review, while Jeffrey made amends in a later article on Lalla Rookh (1817).

When the Edinburgh Review criticised Byron's unremarkable first collection Hours of Idleness, the retort came in Byron's first characteristic work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he played on the resemblance between Jeffrey's and that of the infamous Judge Jeffreys:

Health to immortal Jeffrey! once, in name,

England could boast a judge almost the same;
In soul so like, so merciful, yet just,
Some think that Satan has resigned his trust,
And given the spirit to the world again,
To sentence letters as he sentenced men. . .


In 1813 he became acquainted with Charlotte, daughter of Charles Wilkes of New York, and great-niece of John Wilkes. When she returned to the United States of America, Jeffrey followed her, and they were married in 1813. Before returning to Scotland, they visited several of the chief American cities, and his experience strengthened Jeffrey in the conciliatory policy he had advocated towards the States.

Legal offices

Despite the success of the Review, Jeffrey continued to look to the bar as the chief field of his ambition. His practice extended rapidly in the civil and criminal courts, and he regularly appeared before the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was twice, in 1820 and 1822, elected Rector of the University of Glasgow, and in 1829 he was chosen dean of the Faculty of Advocates. On the return of the Whigs to power in 1830 he became Lord Advocate, and entered parliament at a by-election in January 1831 as member for the Perth burghs. The election was overturned on petition, and in March he was returned at a by-election for Malton. He was re-elected in Malton at the general election in May 1831, but was also returned for the Perth burghs and chose to sit for the latter. After the passing of the Scottish Reform Bill, which he introduced in parliament, he was returned for Edinburgh in December 1832. His parliamentary career, which, though not brilliantly successful, had won him high general esteem, ended with his elevation to the judicial bench as Lord Jeffrey in May 1834. In 1842 he was moved to the first division of the Court of Session. On the disruption of the Scottish Church he took the side of the seceders, giving a judicial opinion in their favour, afterwards reversed by the House of Lords. He died at Edinburgh. Jeffrey Street (a planned street of 1868) in Edinburgh is named in his memory, and a bust by Sir John Steell stands on the east wall of Parliament Hall in Edinburgh[2].


  1. Contributions to the Edinburgh review, Volume 3 By Lord Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey
  2. Monuments and Statues of Edinburgh, Michael T.R.B. Turnbull (Chambers) p.66