His Vindiciae Gallicae was the verdict of a philosophic Liberal on the development of the French Revolution up to the spring of 1791. The excesses of the revolutionaries compelled him a few years later to oppose them and agree with Burke, but his earlier defence of the rights of man is a valuable statement of the cultured Whig's point of view at the time. The width of his intellectual sympathies, joined to a constitutional indecision and vis inertiae, prevented him from doing more enduring work. His 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.
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2 Indian Career
3 Later life
Mackintosh was born at Aldourie, 7 miles from Inverness. Both his parents were from old Highland families. His mother died while he was a child, and his father was frequently abroad, so he was brought up by his grandmother, and then schooled at Fortrose Seminary academy. He went in 1780 to Kings College, Aberdeen, where he made a lifelong friend of Robert Hall, later a famous preacher. In 1784 he began to study medicine at Edinburgh University. 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 moved to London, then agitated by the trial of Warren Hastings and the first lapse into insanity of George III. He was much more interested in these and other political events than in his professional prospects; and specially interested in the events and tendencies which caused or preceded the Revolution in France. In 1789 he married Catherine Stuart, whose brother Daniel later edited the Morning Post. His wife's prudence counteracted Mackintosh's own unpractical temperament, and his efforts in journalism became fairly profitable. They had a son, who died in infancy, and three daughters.
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 Edmund 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; the resulting fame helped open doors for him later in life. Mackintosh was also famed for his spreech in 1803 defending Jean Gabriel Peltier, a French refugee, against a libel suit instigated by Napoleon - then First Consul (military dictator) of France. It was widely published in English and also across Europe in a French translation by Madame de Staėl. In 1803 he was knighted.
He was appointed Recorder (chief judge) of Bombay, taking up the post in 1804. He was not at home in India, where he became ill, and he was glad to leave for England in November, 1811.
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 connection with India were opened up. He entered parliament in July 1813 as a Whig. He was the member for Nairn, 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 Staėl'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 Samuel 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 surpassed there 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; he also cherished the idea 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 his 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. A privy councillor since 1828, Mackintosh was appointed Commissioner for the affairs of India under the Whig administration of 1830. His second wife died on May 6, 1830; they had a son and a daughter.
A Life, by his son RJ Mackintosh, was published in 1836. An edition of his works, in three volumes, (apart from the History of England,) was published in 1846, containing his ethical and historical dissertations, a number of essays on political and literary topics, reviews, and other contributions to periodical publications, and speeches on a variety of subjects delivered at the bar and in parliament.
A first version of this entry originated from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.