John Scott was educated at the grammar school of his native town. He was not remarkable at school for application to his studies, though his wonderful memory enabled him to make good progress in them; he frequently played truant and was whipped for it, robbed orchards, and indulged in other questionable schoolboy freaks; nor did he always come out of his scrapes with honor and a character for truthfulness. When he had finished his education. at the grammar school, his father thought of apprenticing him to his own business, to which an elder brother Henry had already devoted himself; and it was only through the interference of his elder brother William (afterwards Lord Stowell), who had already obtained a fellowship at University College, Oxford, that it was ultimately resolved that he should continue the prosecution of his studies. Accordingly, in 1766, John Scott entered University College with the view of taking holy orders and obtaining a college living. In the year following he obtained a fellowship, graduated BA in 1770, and in 1771 won the prize for the English essay, the only university prize open in his time for general competition.
His wife was the eldest daughter of Aubone Surtees, a Newcastle banker. The Surtees family objected to the match, and attempted to prevent it; but a strong attachment had sprung up between them. On 18 November 1772 Scott, with the aid of a ladder and an old friend, carried off the lady from her father's house in the Sandhill, across the border to Blackshiels, in Scotland, where they were married. The father of the bridegroom objected not to his sons choice, but to the time he chose to marry; for it was a blight on his sons prospects, depriving him of his fellowship and his chance of church preferment. But while the bride's family refused to hold intercourse with the pair, Mr Scott, like a prudent man and an affectionate father, set himself to make the best of a bad matter, and received them kindly, settling on his son £2000. John returned with his wife to Oxford, and continued to hold his fellowship for what is called the year of grace given after marriage, and added to his income by acting as a private tutor. After a time Mr Surtees was reconciled with his daughter, and made a liberal settlement on her.
John Scott's year of grace closed without any college living falling vacant; and with his fellowship he gave up the church and turned to the study of law. He became a student at the Middle Temple in January 1773. In 1776 he was called to the bar, intending at first to establish himself as an advocate in his native town, a scheme which his early success led him to abandon, and he soon settled to the practice of his profession in London, and on the northern circuit. In the autumn of the year in which he was called to the bar his father died, leaving him a legacy of £1000 over and above the £2000 previously settled on him.
In. his second year at the bar his prospects began to brighten. His brother William, who by this time held the Camden professorship of ancient history, and enjoyed an extensive acquaintance with men of eminence in London, was in a position materially to advance his interests. Among his friends was the notorious Andrew Bowes of Gibside, to the patronage of whose house the rise of the Scott family was largely owing. Bowes having contested Newcastle and lost it, presented an election petition against the return of his opponent. Young Scott was retained as junior counsel in the case, and though he lost the petition he did not fail to improve the opportunity which it afforded for displaying his talents. This engagement, in the commencement of his second year at the bar, and the dropping in of occasional fees, must have raised his hopes; and he now abandoned the scheme of becoming a provincial barrister. A year or two of dull drudgery and few fees followed, and he began to be much depressed. But in 1780 we find his prospects suddenly improved, by his appearance in the case of Ackroyd v. Smithson, which became a leading case settling a rule of law; and young Scott, having lost his point in the inferior court, insisted on arguing it, on appeal, against the opinion of his clients, and carried it before Lord Thurlow, whose favorable consideration he won by his able argument. The same year Bowes again retained him in an election petition; and in the year following Scott greatly increased his reputation by his appearance as leading counsel in the Clitheroe election petition. From this time his success was certain. In 1782 he obtained a silk gown, and was so far cured of his early modesty that he declined accepting the king's counselship if precedence over him were given to his junior, Thomas Erskine, though the latter was the son of a peer and a most accomplished orator. He was now on the high way to fortune. His health, which had hitherto been but indifferent, strengthened with the demands made upon it; his talents, his power of endurance, and his ambition all expanded together. He enjoyed a considerable practice in the northern part of his circuit, before parliamentary committees and at the chancery bar. By 1787 his practice at the equity bar had so far increased that he was obliged to give up the eastern half of his circuit (which embraced six counties) and attend it only at Lancaster.
In 1782 he entered parliament for Lord Weymouth's close borough of Weobley, which Lord Thurlow obtained for him without solicitation. In parliament he gave a general and independent support to Pitt. His first parliamentary speeches were directed against Fox's India Bill. They were unsuccessful. In one he aimed at being brilliant; and becoming merely labored and pedantic, he was covered with ridicule by Sheridan, from whom he received a lesson which he did not fail to turn to account. In 1788 he was appointed solicitor-general, and was knighted, and at the close of this year he attracted attention by his speeches in support of Pitt's resolutions on the state of the king (George III, who then labored under a mental malady) and the delegation of his authority. It is said that he drew the Regency Bill, which was introduced in 1789. In 1793 Sir John Scott was promoted to the office of attorney-general, in which it fell to him to conduct the memorable prosecutions for high treason against British sympathizers with French republicanism, amongst others, against the celebrated Home Tooke. These prosecutions, in most cases, were no doubt instigated by Sir John Scott, and were the most important proceedings in which he was ever professionally engaged. He has left on record, in his Anecdote Book, a defence of his conduct in regard to them.
In 1799 the office of chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas falling vacant, Sir John Scott's claim to it was not overlooked; and after seventeen years' service in the Lower House, he entered the House of Lords as Baron Eldon. In February 1801 the ministry of Pitt was succeeded by that of Addington, and the chief justice now ascended the woolsack. The chancellorship was given to him professedly on account of his notorious anti-Catholic zeal. From the Treaty of Amiens (1802) till 1804 Lord Eldon appears to have interfered little in politics. In the latter year we find him conducting the negotiations which resulted in the dismissal of Addington and the recall of Pitt to office as prime minister. Lord Eldon was continued in office as chancellor under Pitt; but the new administration was of short duration, for on 23 January 1806 Pitt died, worn out with the anxieties of office, and his ministry was succeeded by a coalition, under Lord Grenville. The death of Fox, who became foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, soon, however, broke up the Grenville administration; and in the spring of 1807 Lord Eldon once more, under the Duke of Portland's administration, returned to the woolsack, which, from that time, he continued to occupy for about twenty years, swaying the cabinet, and being in all but name prime minister of England. It was not till April 1827, when the premiership, vacant through the paralysis of Lord Liverpool, fell to Canning, the chief advocate of Roman Catholic emancipation, that Lord Eldon, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, finally resigned the chancellorship. When, after the two short administrations of Canning and Goderich, it fell to the Duke of Wellington to construct a cabinet, Lord Eldon expected to be included, if not as chancellor, at least in some important office, but he was overlooked, at which he was much chagrined. Notwithstanding his frequent protests that he did not covet power, but longed for retirement, we find him again, so late as 1835, within three years of his death, in hopes of office under Peel. He spoke in parliament for the last time in July 1834.
In 1821 Lord Eldon had been created Viscount Encombe and Earl of Eldon by George IV, whom he managed to conciliate, partly, no doubt, by espousing his cause against his wife, whose advocate he had formerly been, and partly through his reputation for zeal against the Roman Catholics. In the same year his brother William, who from 1798 had filled the office of judge of the High Court of Admiralty, was raised to the peerage under the title of Lord Stowell'.
Lord Eldon's wife, his dear "Bessy," his love for whom is a beautiful feature in his life, died before him, on 28 June 1831. By nature she was of simple character, and by habits acquired during the early portion of her husband's career almost a recluse. Two of their sons reached maturity: John, who died in 1805, and William Henry John, who died unmarried in 1832. Lord Eldon himself survived almost all his immediate relations. His brother William died in 1836. He himself died in London on 13 January 1838, leaving behind him two daughters, Lady Frances Bankes and Lady Elizabeth Repton, and a grandson John (1805-1854), who succeeded him as second earl, the title subsequently passing to the latter's son John (b. 1846).
Lord Eldon was no legislator - his one aim in politics was to keep in office, and maintain things as he found them; and almost the only laws he helped to pass were laws for popular coercion. For nearly forty years he fought against every improvement in law or in the constitution, calling God to witness, on the smallest proposal of reform, that he foresaw from it the downfall of his country. Without any political principles, properly so called, and without interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs, he maintained himself and his party in power for an unprecedented period by his great tact, and in virtue of his two great political properties of zeal against every species of reform, and zeal against the Roman Catholics. To pass from his political to his judicial character is to shift to ground on which his greatness is universally acknowledged. His judgments, which have received as much praise for their accuracy as abuse for their clumsiness and uncouthness, fill a small library. But though intimately acquainted with every nook and cranny of the English law, he never carried his studies into foreign fields, from which to enrich our legal literature; and it must be added that against the excellence of his judgments, in too many cases, must be set off the hardships, worse than injustice, that arose from his protracted delays in pronouncing them. A consummate judge and the narrowest of politicians, he was doubt on the bench, and promptness itself in the political arena. For literature, as for art, he had no feeling. What intervals of leisure he enjoyed from the cares of office he filled up with newspapers and the gossip of old cronies. Nor were his intimate associates men of refinement and taste; they were rather good fellows who quietly enjoyed a good bottle and a joke; he uniformly avoided encounters of wit with his equals. He is said to have been parsimonious, and certainly he was quicker to receive than to reciprocate hospitalities; but his mean establishment and mode of life are explained by the retired habits of his wife, and her dislike of company. His manners were very winning and courtly, and in the circle of his immediate relatives he is said to have always been lovable and beloved.
In his person, says Lord Campbell, Lord Eldon was about the middle size, his figure light and athletic, his features regular and handsome, his eye bright and full, his smile remarkably benevolent, and his whole appearance prepossessing. The I advance of years rather increased than detracted from these I personal advantages. As he sat on the judgment-seat, the deep thought betrayed in his furrowed browthe large eyebrows, overhanging eyes that seemed to regard more what was taking place within than around himhis calmness, that would have assumed a character of sternness but for its perfect placidity his dignity, repose and venerable age, tended at once to win confidence and to inspire respect (Townsend). He had a voice both sweet and deep-toned, and its effect was not injured by his Northumbrian burr, which, though strong, was entirely free from harshness and vulgarity.