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Grant, William (1752-1832) (DNB00)

GRANT, Sir WILLIAM (1752–1832), master of the rolls, was born at Elchies on the banks of the Spey on 13 Oct. 1752. His father, James Grant, was a small farmer in Morayshire, and afterwards became collector of the customs in the Isle of Man. Upon the death of his parents Grant was taken care of by his uncle, a wealthy London merchant. He was educated at the grammar school at Elgin, and at King's College, Aberdeen, and after studying the civil law at Leyden University for two years was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 30 Jan. 1769. He was called to the bar on 3 Feb. 1774, and in the following year sailed to Canada, where he arrived in time to command a body of volunteers during the siege of Quebec. Grant was appointed attorney-general of Canada on 10 May 1776, and remained there a few years. Upon his return to England he first joined the western and afterwards the home circuit, but obtained so little success that he contemplated returning to Canada. In consequence of Lord Thurloe's advice he abandoned the common law bar for the equity courts. In an interview with Pitt, who was then preparing a bill for the regulation of Canada, Grant made a great impression upon the prime minister, by whom he was ultimately induced to enter parliament. At the general election in June 1790 Grant was returned as one of the members for the borough of Shaftesbury, and on 15 April 1791 made his maiden speech in the House of Commons, when he opposed the resolutions condemning the armament against Russia (Parl. Hist. xxix. 237-40). In the following month he spoke on the Quebec Government Bill, giving a lucid explanation of the Canadian law (ib. pp. 407-9), and in the same year was appointed a commissioner with Sir John Nichol to report on the laws of Jersey. In April 1793 he received a patent of precedence, and in the same year was appointed joint justice of the Carmarthen great sessions. The acceptance of this office obliged Grant to vacate his seat for Shaftesbury. He was not re-elected, but was returned for the borough of Windsor after a sharp contest at a by-election in February 1794, and was appointed solicitor-general to the queen. At the general election in June 1796 Grant was returned for Banffshire, which county he continued to represent until his retirement from parliamentary life at the dissolution in September 1812. In 1798 he was promoted to be chief justice of Chester in succession to Serjeant Adair, and on 18 July 1799 was appointed solicitor-general in Pitt's administration, and was thereupon knighted. Upon Pitt's resignation in February 1801 Grant retired from office, and being sworn a member of the privy council on 21 May following was appointed master of the rolls on the 27th of the same month, in the place of Sir Richard Pepper Arden [q. v.], who had become chief justice of the common pleas. After sitting on the bench for more than sixteen years he retired on 23 Dec. 1817, to the great regret of the court (Merivale, Reports, ii. 567-9), and was succeeded by Sir Thomas Plumer, then vice-chancellor of England. For a few years after his retirement from the rolls Grant occasionally sat in the cockpit and assisted in the hearing of appeals. He gradually retired from public life, and died after a lingering illness at Barton House, Dawlish, on 23 May 1832, aged 79. He was buried at Dawlish, where there is a monument to his memory in the church. Grant was one of the few lawyers who have made a great reputation in the House of Commons. 'In parliament,' says Brougham, 'he is unquestionably to be classed with speakers of the first order.… No speaker was more easily listened to; none so difficult to answer' (Statesmen of the Time of George III, 1st ser. pp. 138-9). Horner, who heard Grant's masterly speech in support of the ministry during the debate on the Spanish papers (Parl. Debates, iii. 437-48), described it as an 'extraordinary oration … quite a masterpiece of his peculiar and miraculous manner: conceive an hour and a half of syllogisms strung together in the closest tissue, so artfully clear that you think every successive inference unavoidable; so rapid that you have no leisure to reflect where you have been brought from, or to see where you are to be carried, and so dry of ornament or illustration or refreshment that the attention is stretched—stretched—racked. All this is done without a single note' (Horner, Memoir, 1843, i. 285). Grant's most important speeches were delivered in the debates on Whitworth's motion respecting the armament against Russia (Parl. Hist. xxix. 935-40), Fox's motion for sending a minister to Paris (ib. xxx. 105-107), the Seditious Meetings Bill (ib. xxxii. 397-408), the message relative to a union with Ireland (ib. xxxiv. 383-7), the address of thanks (ib. xxxv. 921-31), the definitive treaty of peace (ib. xxxvi. 796-804), the Spanish papers (before referred to), Whitbread's motion for the impeachment of Lord Melville (Parl. Debates, v. 310-13), the American Intercourse Bill (ib. vii. 987-1008), the orders in council (ib. x. 332-7), the conduct of the Duke of York (ib. xiii. 393-403), and the resolutions respecting the regency (ib. xviii. 638-45).

Though Grant had acquired a far greater reputation as a parliamentary orator than as a leader of the chancery bar, his success as a judge was remarkable. Charles Butler [q. v.] declared that 'the most perfect model of judicial eloquence' which had come under his observation was that of Sir William Grant. 'His exposition of facts, and of the consequences deducible from them, his discussion of former decisions, and showing their legitimate weight and authority, and their real bearings upon the point in question, were above praise; but the whole was done with such admirable ease and simplicity that, while real judges felt its supreme excellence, the herd of hearers believed that they should have done the same' (Reminiscences, 4th edition, i. 134-5). While Romilly in his 'Diary,' referring to Grant's resignation, says: 'His eminent qualities as a judge, his patience, his impartiality, his courtesy to the bar, his despatch, and the masterly style in which his judgments were pronounced, would at any time have entitled him to the highest praise' (Memoirs, 1840, iii. 324-5). Though a tory in politics, Grant supported Romilly's reform of the criminal law, while his speech in defence of the definitive treaty of peace actually secured the approbation of Bentham, who pronounced him to be 'an animal sui generis amongst lawyers, and indeed amongst parliamentary men,' and added, 'The notions of the master about colonies approach nearer to what I call reason than those of almost anybody else I have met with' (Bentham, Works, 1843, x. 387). Reserved and formal in manner, his habitual taciturnity disappeared in social intercourse over a bottle of madeira. Grant was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in Easter term 1793, and acted as treasurer of the society in 1798. In 1802 he was chosen major-commandant of the Lincoln's Inn corps, in 1809 was elected lord rector of the university of Aberdeen, and on 14 June 1820 was created a D.C.L. by the university of Oxford. He was unmarried. His portrait, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence 'for the gentlemen of the chancery bar,' which formerly hung in the Rolls Court, was presented in 1883 to the National Portrait Gallery (No. 671), and has been engraved by Richard Golding. An engraving by W. H. Mote of the portrait of Grant by Harlow, which used to hang in the six clerks' office, will be found in Brougham's 'Statesmen of the Time of George III' (1st ser. p. 135).

[Townsend's Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges, 1846, ii. 191-233; Foss's Judges of England, 1864, viii. 295-300; Brougham's Statesmen of the Time of George III, 1839, 1st ser. pp. 135-141; Anderson's Scottish Nation, 1863, ii. 368-9; Chalmers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, (1869), ii. 173-4; The Georgian Era, 1833, ii. 328; Morgan's Celebrated Canadians, 1862, pp. 86-8; Legal Observer, iv. 81-4; Gent. Mag. vol. lxiii. pt. i. p. 382, pt. ii. p. 966, vol. cii. pt. i. pp. 561-2; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1851; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. v. 28, 135, 193, 273; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament. ii. 187, 190, 211, 225, 238, 253; Lincoln's Inn Registers.]

G. F. R. B.