1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Somers, John Somers, Baron
SOMERS, JOHN SOMERS (or Sommers), Baron (1651—1716), English lord chancellor, was born on the 4th of March 1651, near Worcester, the eldest son of John Somers, an attorney in large practice in that town, who had formerly fought on the side of the Parliament, and of Catherine Ceaverne of Shropshire. After being at school at Worcester he was entered as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxford, and afterwards studied law under Sir Francis Winnington, who became solicitor-general, and joined the Middle Temple. He appears, in addition to his legal studies, to have written several poems and pamphlets. He soon became intimate with the leaders of the country party, especially with Essex, William Russell, and Algernon Sidney, but never entered into their plans so far as to commit himself beyond recall. He was the author of the History of the Succession of the Crown of England, collected out of Records, &c., and was reputed to have written the Just and Modest Vindication of the Two Last Parliaments, which was put forward as the answer to Charles II.'s famous declaration of his reasons for dissolving them. This, however, was by Sidney, though probably Somers was responsible for the final draft. When the grand jury of Middlesex threw out the bill against Shaftesbury, and were vehemently attacked for so doing, Somers wrote in defence of the rights of grand juries. In 1683 he was counsel for the sheriffs Pilkington and Shute before the court of King's Bench, and secured a reputation which continually increased until the trial of the seven bishops, in which he was junior counsel. “Somers rose last. He spoke little more than five minutes, but every word was full of weighty matter; and when he sat down his reputation as an orator and a constitutional lawyer was established.” In the secret councils of those who were planning the revolution Somers took a leading part, and in the Convention Parliament was elected a member for his native town. He was immediately appointed one of the managers for the Commons in the conferences between the houses, and in arguing the questions whether James II. had left the throne vacant by abdication and whether the acts of the Convention Parliament were legal—that parliament having been summoned without the usual writs—he displayed great learning and legal subtlety. He was further distinguished by being made chairman of the committee which drew up the celebrated Declaration of Right.
In May 1689 Somers was made solicitor-general. He now became William III.'s most confidential adviser. In the controversy which arose between the Houses on the question of the legality of the decision of the court of King's Bench regarding Titus Oates, and of the action of the Lords in sustaining this decision, Somers was again the leading manager for the Commons, and has left a clear and interesting account of the debates. He was next employed in January 1690 as chairman of the select committee of the House of Commons on the Corporation Bill, by which those corporations which had surrendered their charters to the Crown during the last two reigns were restored to their rights; but he refused to associate himself with the violent measures of retaliation which the Whigs on that occasion endeavoured to include in the bill. In April a speech by him carried through the lower house, without opposition, the bill which declared all the laws passed by the Convention Parliament to be valid. As solicitor-general he had to conduct the prosecution of Preston and Ashton in 1691, and did so with a moderation and humanity which were in marked contrast to the customs of the former reigns. He was soon after appointed attorney-general, and in that capacity strongly opposed the bill for the regulation of trials in cases of high treason. On the 23rd of March 1693, the great seal having meanwhile been in commission, Somers was appointed lord-keeper, with a pension of £2600 a year from the day on which he should quit his office, and at the same time was made a privy councillor. He had previously been knighted. Somers now became the most prominent member of the Junto, the small council which comprised the chief members of the Whig party. When William left in May 1695 to take command of the army in the Netherlands, Somers was made one of the seven lords-justices to whom the administration of the kingdom during his absence was entrusted; and he was instrumental in bringing about a reconciliation between William and the princess Anne.
In April 1697 Somers was made lord chancellor, and was created a peer by the title of Baron Somers of Evesham. When the discussion arose on the question of disbanding the army, he summed up the case against disbanding, in answer to Trenchard, in a remarkable pamphlet called “The Balancing Letter.” In August 1698 he went to Tunbridge Wells for his health. While there he received the king's letter announcing the first Partition Treaty, and at once replied with a memorandum representing the necessity in the state of feeling in England of avoiding further war. When the king, on the occasion of the Disbanding Bill, expressed his determination to leave the country, Somers boldly remonstrated, while he clearly expressed in a speech in the Lords the danger of the course that was being taken. Hitherto Somers's character had kept him free from attack at the hands of political opponents; but his connexion in 1699 with the notorious Captain William Kidd, to the cost of whose expedition Somers had given £1000, afforded an opportunity; the vote of censure, however, proposed upon him in the House of Commons for giving Kidd a commission under the great seal was rejected by 199 to 131. The attack was renewed shortly on the ground of his having accepted grants of Crown property to the amount of £1600 a year, but was again defeated. On the subject of the Irish forfeitures a third attack was made in 1700, a motion being brought forward to request the king to remove Somers from his counsels and presence for ever; but this again was rejected by a large majority. In consequence, however, of the incessant agitation William now requested Somers to resign; this he refused to do, but gave up the seals to William’s messenger. In 1701 he was impeached by the Commons on account of the part he had taken in the negotiations relating to the Partition Treaty in 1698, and defended himself most ably before the house, answering the charges seriatim. The impeachment was voted and sent up to the Lords, but was there dismissed. On the death of the king Somers retired almost entirely into private life. He was president of the Royal Society from 1699 to 1704. He was, however, active in 1702 in opposing the Occasional Conformity Bill, and in 1706 was one of the managers of the union with Scotland. In the same year he carried a bill regulating and improving the proceedings of the law courts. He was made president of the council in 1708 upon the return of the Whigs to power, and retained the office until their downfall in 1710. He died on the 26th of April 1716. Somers was never married, but left two sisters, of whom the eldest, Mary, married Charles Cocks, whose grandson, Sir Charles Cocks, bart., became the second Lord Somers in 1784, the title subsequently descending in this line.
For a contemporary character of Somers Addison’s paper in the Freeholder for the 14th of May 1716 should be referred to; and there is in Macaulay’s History (iv. 53) an eloquent and worthy tribute to his stainless character and comprehensive learning. A catalogue of his publications will be found in Walpole’s Royal and Noble Authors. (O. A.)