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George Cornewall Lewis

Sir George Cornewall Lewis, 2nd Baronet (1806-1863), English statesman and man of letters, was born in London on 21 April 1806. His father, Thomas F. Lewis, of Harpton Court, Radnorshire, after holding subordinate office in various administrations, became a poor-law commissioner, and was made a baronet in 1846.

Young Lewis was educated at Eton College and at Christ Church, Oxford, where in 1828 he took a first-class in classics and a second-class in mathematics. He then entered the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar in 1831. In 1833 he undertook his first public work as one of the commissioners to inquire into the condition of the poor Irish residents in the United Kingdom. In 1834 Lord Althorp included him in the commission to inquire into the state of church property and church affairs generally in Ireland. To this fact we owe his work on Local Disturbances in Ireland, and the Irish Church Question (London, 1836), in which he condemned the existing connexion between church and state, proposed a state provision for the Catholic clergy, and maintained the necessity of an efficient workhouse organization.

During this period Lewis's mind was much occupied with the study of language. Before leaving college he had published some observations on Whately's doctrine of the predicables, and soon afterwards he assisted Thirlwall and Hare in starting the Philological Museum. Its successor, the Classical Museum, he also supported "by occasional contributions. In 1835 he published an Essay on the Origin and Formation of the Romance Languages (re-edited in 1862), the first effective criticism in England of Raynouard's theory of a uniform romance tongue, represented by the poetry of the troubadours. He also compiled a glossary of provincial words used in Herefordshire and the adjoining counties. But the most important work of this earlier period was one to which his logical and philological tastes contributed. The Remarks on the Use and Abuse of some Political Terms (London, 1832) may have been suggested by Bentham's Book of Parliamentary Fallacies, but it shows all that power of clear sober original thinking which marks his larger and later political works. Moreover, he translated Boeckh's Public Economy of Athens and Muller's History of Greek Literature, and he assisted Tufnell in the translation of Muller's Dorians. Some time afterwards he edited a text of the Fables of Babrius. While his friend Hayward conducted the Law Magazine, he wrote in it frequently on such subjects as secondary punishments and the penitentiary system. In 1836, at the request of Lord Glenelg, he accompanied John Austin to Malta, where they spent nearly two years reporting on the condition of the island and framing a new code of laws. One leading object of both commissioners was to associate the Maltese in the responsible government of the island. On his return to England Lewis succeeded his father as one of the principal poor-law commissioners. In 1841 appeared the Essay on the Government of Dependencies, a systematic statement and discussion of the various relations in which colonies may stand towards the mother country.

In 1844 Lewis married Lady Maria Theresa Lister, sister of Lord Clarendon, and a lady of literary tastes. Much of their married life was spent in Kent House, Knightsbridge. They had no children. In 1847 Lewis resigned his office. He was then returned for the county of Hereford, and Lord John Russell appointed him secretary to the Board of Control, but a few months afterwards he became under-secretary to the Home Office. In this capacity he introduced two important bills,one for the abolition of turnpike trusts and the management of highways by a mixed county board, the other for the purpose of defining and regulating the law of parochial assessment. In 1850 he succeeded Hayter as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. About this time, also, appeared his Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion.

On the dissolution of parliament which followed the resignation of Lord John Russell's ministry in 1852, Lewis was defeated for Herefordshire and then for Peterborough. Excluded from parliament he accepted the editorship of the Edinburgh Review, and remained editor until 1855. During this period he served on the Oxford commission, and on the commission to inquire into the government of London. But its chief fruits were the Treatise on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics, and the Enquiry into the Credibility of the Early Roman History, in which he vigorously attacked the theory of epic lays and other theories on which Niebuhr’s reconstruction of that history had proceeded.

In 1855 Lewis succeeded his father in the baronetcy. He was at once elected member for the Radnor boroughs, and Lord Palmerston made him Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had a war loan to contract and heavy additional taxation to impose, but his industry, method and clear vision carried him safely through. After the change of ministry in 1859 Sir George became Home Secretary under Lord Palmerston, and in 1861, much against his wish, he succeeded Sidney Herbert (Lord Herbert of Lea) at the War Office. In that role he successfully argued against Russell's call for British mediation in the American Civil War in the fall of 1862.

The closing years of his life were marked by increasing intellectual vigour. In 1859 he published an able Essay on Foreign Jurisdiction and the Extradition of Criminals, a subject to which the attempt on Napoleon III’s life, the discussions on the Conspiracy Bill, and the trial of Bernard, had drawn general attention. He advocated the extension of extradition treaties, and condemned the principal idea of Weltrechtsordnung which Mohl of Heidelberg had proposed. His two latest works were the Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients, in which, without professing any knowledge of Oriental languages, he applied a sceptical analysis to the ambitious Egyptology of Bunsen; and the Dialogue on the Best Form of Government, in which, under the name of Crito, the author points out to the supporters of the various systems that there is no one abstract government which is the best possible for all times and places. An essay on the Characteristics of Federal, National, Provincial and Municipal Government does not seem to have been published. Sir George died in April 1863. A marble bust by Weekes stands. in Westminster Abbey.

Lewis was a man of mild and affectionate disposition, much beloved by a large circle of friends, among whom were Sir E. Head, the Grotes, the Austins, Lord Stanhope, John Stuart Mill, Dean Milman, the Duff Gordons. In public life he was distinguished, as Lord Aberdeen said, “for candour, moderation, love of truth.” He had a passion for the systematic acquirement of knowledge, and a keen and sound critical faculty. His name has gone down to history as that of a many-sided man, sound in judgment, unselfish in political life, and abounding in practical good sense.

text originally from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.