Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Denham, James Stewart (1712-1780)

Date of birth 1713 in the ODNB.

DENHAM, Sir JAMES STEWART, the elder (1712–1780), political economist, only son of Sir James Stewart, bart. [q. v.], sometime solicitor-general of Scotland, was born at Edinburgh on 21 Oct. 1712. He received his early education at North Berwick, entered Edinburgh University during the winter of 1724–5, when scarcely thirteen, studied law under Hercules Lindsay, a well-known civilian of Glasgow University, and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates on 25 Jan. 1735. As was then customary, he now set out to travel. He went first to Leyden, then to Avignon, where he met the Duke of Ormonde and other Jacobites, and finally to Rome. Here the exiled Stewarts showed him such kindness that he became firmly attached to their cause. He returned to Scotland in July 1740. In October 1743 he married Lady Frances Wemyss, eldest daughter of the Earl of Wemyss, and sister of Steuart's intimate friend the Jacobite Lord Elcho.

He soon retired from Edinburgh to Coltness, his family property, but was in the Scottish capital in the autumn of 1745, when it was occupied by Charles. He at once joined the young prince, and in his service set out for Paris in October. He was abroad when the defeat of Culloden crushed the rising. He was excepted by name from the Act of Oblivion (20 Geo. II, c. 53) which was soon passed. A ‘true bill’ was afterwards found against him at Edinburgh, 13 Oct. 1748, and this in the circumstances absolutely prevented his return (Scots Mag. October 1748). For some years Denham wandered about the continent, occupying himself in a variety of studies. At Frankfort-on-the-Main he published in French ‘A Vindication of Newton's Chronology,’ 1757. He afterwards contributed to the ‘New Bibliothèque Germanique’ of M. Formey some papers in reply to M. des Vignolles' dissertation upon that system.

At Tübingen he wrote ‘A Dissertation upon the Doctrines and Principles of Money applied to the German Coin,’ in which he ‘endeavoured to disentangle the inextricable perplexities of the German mints.’ While at Venice he met Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who took a great interest in the exile and his wife. ‘I never knew people more to my taste,’ she wrote. At Spa in 1762 his declaration of the superiority of the British over the French armies excited the anger or suspicion of the French authorities. He was arrested and only released when peace was made in 1762. He was then permitted to return home, and in 1763 arrived in Edinburgh. He retired to Coltness, where he occupied himself in the preparation of his great work, ‘Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy’ (2 vols. 1767), for which he got 500l. from Andrew Millar. ‘This,’ says McCulloch (Literature of Political Economy, p. 11), ‘is the first English work which had any pretensions to be considered as a systematic or complete view of the subject.

The treatise expounds the source from the standpoint of the mercantile system, but the remarks on agriculture, the currency, and exchanges are of some value, and the ‘true theory of population is in several passages set in the most striking light.’ The reasonings are, however, ‘singularly tedious and perplexed.’ This caused Adam Smith somewhat sarcastically to observe that ‘he understood Sir James's system better from his conversation than his volumes.’ In the ‘Wealth of Nations,’ published nine years later, there is no reference to the preceding treatise.

In 1769 Steuart wrote ‘Considerations on the interest of the County of Lanark,’ an attempt to prove that ‘high prices of corn were advantageous to manufacture as well as to agriculture.’ In December 1771 he procured a formal pardon, was presented at court, and became concerned in the affairs of the East India Company, for whose use he printed in 1772, ‘The Principles of Money applied to the present state of the Coin of Bengal.’ The court of directors gave him their thanks and the present of a diamond ring. The treatise led to some correspondence with Francis, then one of the supreme council of Bengal.

In 1773 he obtained, by the decease of his relative Sir Archibald Denham, the estate of Westshields on condition that he took the name of Denham. He afterwards wrote ‘Observations on the New Bill for altering the Laws which regulate the Qualifications of Freeholders,’ &c., 1775, maintaining that the proposal was contrary to the Act of Union; ‘A Plan for introducing an Uniformity of Weights and Measures,’ published in his ‘Works;’ ‘Observations on Dr. Beattie's Essay on Truth,’ 1775; ‘Critical Remarks on the Atheistical Falsehoods of the System of Nature,’ 1775; ‘Dissertation concerning the Motive of Obedience to the Laws of God’ (‘Works’).

Denham died at Edinburgh on 26 Nov. 1780, and is buried at Cambusnethan. By his wife, who survived him, he had a daughter who died in infancy, and a son, afterwards General Sir James Steuart Denham the younger [q. v.], who edited his ‘Works’ in six volumes (with memoir, 1805), and erected a tablet to him in Westminster Abbey.

[Works, &c.; Scots Mag. 1747, p. 259, 1780 pp. 618, 623 et seq.; Gent. Mag. 1780, p. 590, 1781, pp. 28, 29; Annual Register, 1780, p. 252; London Mag. 1780, p. 619. In 1818 ‘Original Letters from the Right Hon. Lady Mary W. Montagu to Sir James and Lady Frances Steuart, and Memoirs and Anecdotes of these distinguished persons,’ was privately printed at Greenock. It was edited by Mr. Dunlop, collector of excise there (Martin, Cat. of Privately Printed Books). Add. MS. 22901, f. 173.]

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