He began public life as a zealous adherent of the Presbyterian cause, took the covenant, sat as an elder in the assembly at St Andrews in July 1643, and was sent to England as a commissioner for the covenant in August, and to attend the Westminster assembly in November. In February 1644 he was a member of the committee of both kingdoms, and on November 20 was one of the commissioners appointed to treat with the king at Uxbridge, when he made efforts to persuade King Charles I to agree to the establishment of Presbyterianism. In 1645 he advised Charles to reject the proposals of the Independents, and in 1647 approved of the king's surrender to the Scots.
At this period Lauderdale veered round completely to the king's cause, had several interviews with him, and engaged in various projects for his restoration, offering the aid of the Scots, on the condition of Charles's consent to the establishment of Presbyterianism, and on December 26 he obtained from Charles at Carisbrooke "the engagement" by which Presbyterianism was to be established for three years, schismatics were to be suppressed, and the acts of the Scottish parliament ratified, the king in addition promising to admit the Scottish nobles into public employment in England and to reside frequently in Scotland.
Returning to Scotland, in the spring of 1648, Lauderdale joined the party of Hamilton in alliance with the English royalists. Their defeat at Preston postponed the arrival of the prince of Wales, but Lauderdale had an interview with the prince in the Downs in August, and from this period obtained supreme influence over the future king. He persuaded him later to accept the invitation to Scotland from the Argyll faction, accompanied him thither in 1650 and in the expedition into England, and was taken prisoner at Worcester in 1651, remaining in confinement till March 1660. He joined Charles in May 1660 at Breda, and, in spite of the opposition of the Earl of Clarendon and George Monck, was appointed secretary of state.
From this time onwards he kept his hold upon the king, was lodged at Whitehall, was "never from the king's ear nor council," and maintained his position against his numerous adversaries by a crafty dexterity in dealing with men, a fearless unscrupulousness, and a robust strength of will, which overcame all opposition. Though a man of considerable learning and intellectual attainment, his character was exceptionally and grossly licentious, and his base and ignoble career was henceforward unrelieved by a single redeeming feature. He abandoned Argyll to his fate, permitted, if he did not assist in, the restoration of episcopacy in Scotland, and after triumphing over all his opponents in Scotland drew into his own hands the whole administration of that kingdom, and proceeded to impose upon it the absolute supremacy of the crown in church and state, restoring the nomination of the lords of the articles to the king and initiating severe measures against the Covenanters. In 1669 he was able to boast with truth that "the king is now master here in all causes and over all persons."
His own power was now at its height, and his position as the favourite of Charles, controlled by no considerations of patriotism or statesmanship, and completely independent of the English parliament, recalled the worst scandals and abuses of the Stuart administration before the Civil War. He was a member of the cabal ministry, but took little part in English affairs, and was not entrusted with the first secret treaty of Dover, but gave personal support to Charles in his degrading demands for pensions from Louis XIV. On May 2 1672 he was created duke of Lauderdale and earl of March, and on June 3 knight of the garter.
In 1673, on the resignation of James in consequence of the Test Act, he was appointed a commissioner for the admiralty. In October he visited Scotland to suppress the dissenters and obtain money for the Dutch War, and the intrigues organized by Shaftesbury against his power in his absence, and the attacks made upon him in the House of Commons in January 1674 and April 1675, were alike rendered futile by the steady support of Charles and James. On the 25th of June 1674 he was created earl of Guilford and Baron Petersham in the peerage of England. His ferocious measures having failed to suppress the conventicles in Scotland, be summoned to his aid in 1677 a band of Highlanders, who were sent into the western country. In consequence, a large party of Scottish nobles came to London, made common cause with the English country faction, and compelled Charles to order the disbandment of the marauders. In May 1678 another demand by the Commons for Lauderdale's removal was thrown out by court influence by one vote.
He maintained his triumphs almost to the end. In Scotland, which he visited immediately after this victory in parliament, he overbore all opposition to the king's demands for money. Another address for his removal from the Commons in England was suppressed by the dissolution of parliament on May 26 1679, and a renewed attack upon him, by the Scottish party and Shaftesbury's faction combined, also failed. On June 22 1679 the last attempt of the unfortunate Covenanters was suppressed at Bothwell Brig. In 1680, however, failing health obliged Lauderdale to resign the place and power for which he had so long successfully struggled. His vote given for the execution of Lord Stafford on November 29 is said also to have incurred the displeasure of James. In 1682 he was stripped of all his offices, and he died in August. Lauderdale married (1) Lady Anne Home, daughter of the 1st earl of Home, by whom he had one daughter; and (2) Lady Elizabeth Murray, daughter of the 1st earl of Dysart and widow of Sir Lionel Tollemache. He left no male issue, consequently his dukedom and his English titles became extinct, but he was succeeded in the earldom by his brother Charles.
See Lauderdale Papers Add. manuscipts in Brit. Mus, 30 vols., a small selection of which, entitled The Lauderdale Papers, were edited by Osmond Airy for the Camden Society in 1884-1885; Hamilton Papers published by the same society; "Lauderdale Correspondence with Archbishop Sharp," Scottish Hist. Soc. Publications, vol. 5 (1893); Burnet's Lives of the Hamiltons and History of his Own Time; R Baillie's Letters; SR Gardiner's Hist. of the Civil War and of the Commonwealth; Clarendon's Hist. of the Rebellion; and the Quarterly Review, civii. 407. Several speeches of Lauderdale are extant.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.