Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Montagu, Basil
MONTAGU, BASIL (1770–1851), legal and miscellaneous writer and philanthropist, second (natural) son of John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, by Martha Ray [see Hackman, James], born on 24 April 1770, was acknowledged by his father, brought up at Hinchinbrook, Huntingdonshire, and educated at the Charterhouse and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1786, graduated B.A. (fifth wrangler) in 1790, and proceeded M. A. in 1793. On 30 Jan. 1789 he was admitted a member of Gray's Inn, but continued to reside at Cambridge until 1795, when, having by a technical flaw lost the portion intended for him by his father, he came to London to read for the bar. He was on intimate terms with Coleridge and Wordsworth, whose juvenile enthusiasm for the ideas of 1789 he shared. In the autumn of 1797 he made a tour in the midland counties with William Godwin the elder [q. v.] He was called to the bar on 19 May 1798. By Sir James Mackintosh, whose acquaintance he soon afterwards made, and with whom he went the Norfolk circuit, he was converted to political common sense and the study of Bacon. Montagu was also a friend of Dr. Parr, whom he visited at Hatton (cf. a funny story in De la Pryme, Autobiography, p. 261, of his falling asleep in church while Parr was officiating, and being roused by the doctor himself in time for the repetition of the creed with the peremptory command, 'Basil, stand up'). Montagu never became eminent as a pleader, but he gradually acquired an extensive practice in chancery and bankruptcy ; his leisure time he devoted to legal and miscellaneous literary work.
In 1801 he published 'A Summary of the Law of Set Off, with an Appendix of Cases argued and determined in the Courts of Law and Equity upon that subject,' London, 8vo, a valuable treatise on an obscure and intricate branch of the law ; and between 1805 and 1807 compiled 'A Digest of the Bankrupt Laws, with a Collection of the Cases argued and determined in the Courts of Law and Equity upon that subject,' London, vols. 8vo. Appointed by Lord Erskine, 1806-7, to a commissionership in bankruptcy, he at once set himself to reform the bankruptcy law. In 1809 he published 'An Enquiry respecting the Expediency of Limiting the Creditor's power to refuse a Bankrupt's Certificate,' London, 8vo ; in 1810 an 'Enquiry respecting the Mode of Issuing Commissions in Bankruptcy,' London, 8vo, a protest against the bad practice then in vogue of initiating bankruptcy proceedings by means of secret commissions ; and in 1811 'Enquiries respecting the Administration of Bankrupts' Estates by Assignees,' London, 8vo. He also founded in 1809 the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death ; published the same year a volume of selections entitled 'The Opinions of different Authors upon the Punishment of Death,' London, 8vo ; and in subsequent years a variety of pamphlets on the same topic, for which see bibliographical note infra. In 1813 appeared his 'Enquiries respecting the Proposed Alteration of the Law of Copyright as it affects Authors and Universities,' London, 8vo ; in 1815 'A Digest of the Law of Partnership, with a Collection of Cases decided in the Courts of Law and Equity,' London, 2 vols. 8vo ; and in 1816 'Enquiries respecting the Insolvent Debtors' Bill, with the Opinions of Dr. Paley, Mr. Burke, and Dr. Johnson upon Imprisonment for Debt,' London, 8vo. 'A Summary of the Law of Lien' followed, and 'Suggestions respecting the Improvement of the Bankrupt Laws' in 1821, London, 8vo ; 'Some Observations upon the Bill for the Improvement of the Bankrupt Laws' in 1822, London, 8vo ; 'A Summary of the Law of Composition with Creditors' in 1823, London, 8vo ; and ' A Digest of Pleading in Equity, with Notes of the Cases decided in different Courts of Equity upon that subject,' in 1824, London, 2 vols. 8vo.
In 1825 he exposed (against his own interest) the ruinous delay and expense involved in the existing bankruptcy procedure in 'Inquiries respecting the Courts of Commissioners of Bankrupts and Lord Chancellor's Court,' London, 8vo ; and in July of the same year gave evidence before the chancery commission, and suggested a radical reform. In 1826 he edited The Evidence in Bankruptcy before the Chancery Commission, with the Report,' London, 8vo ; and in 1826-7 published two 'Letters on the Report of the Chancery Commissioners to the Right Honourable Robert Peel,' London, 8vo. He also published in 1827 'Observations upon the Act for Consolidating the Bankrupt Laws,' London, 8vo ; ' Reform,' London, 8vo (a tract chiefly relating to bankruptcy) ; and in conjunction with Francis Gregg 'A Digest of the Bankrupt Laws as altered by the New Statutes,' London, 2 vols. 8vo. 'Letters on the Bankrupt Laws to Edward Burtenshaw Sugden, Esq.' (afterwards Lord St. Leonards), followed in 1829, London, 8vo ; and in 1831 'The New Bankrupt Court Act, arranged with a copious Index and Observations upon the Erroneous Principle on which it is Founded,' London, 1831, 8vo.
In Trinity term 1835 Montagu was made K.C., and soon afterwards accountant-general in bankruptcy. His tenure of this office, which lasted until 1846, he made memorable by establishing the liability of the Bank of England to pay interest on bankruptcy deposits. In 1837 he published, in conjunction with Scrope Ayrton, ' The Law and Practice in Bankruptcy as altered by the New Statutes, Orders, and Decisions,' London, 2 vols. 8vo ; 2nd edit. 1844. Montagu also published several excellent series of bankruptcy reports, viz. : in conjunction with John Macarthur, London, 1830, 8vo, 1832, 8vo; in conjunction with Scrope Ayrton, 1834-9, 3 vols. 8vo; in conjunction with Richard Bligh, 1835, 8vo ; in conjunction with Edward Chitty, 1840, 8vo ; in conjunction with Edward E. Deacon and John De Gex, 1842-5, 3 vols. 8vo.
To the 'Retrospective Review' Montagu contributed in 1821 two articles on the 'Novum Organum' of Lord Bacon, whose 'Works' he edited, in 16 vols. 8vo, between 1825 and 1837. His qualifications for the task were by no means of the highest order. His knowledge of the history of philosophy was far too slight and superficial to enable him to form a just appreciation of Bacon's contribution to scientific method, while he exhausted the resources of special pleading in the attempt to rehabilitate his character as a man. His perverse ingenuity provoked the trenchant censures of Macaulay's celebrated 'Essay' originally published in the 'Edinburgh Review' for July 1837. In 1841 Montagu began the publication of a series of 'Letters to the Right Hon. T. B. Macaulay upon the Review of the Life of Lord Bacon.' Only the first, however, dealing with Bacon's conduct in Peacham's case, seems to have appeared. His reputation suffered unduly by Macaulay's strictures, for with all its faults his edition, by its approximate completeness, was of indubitable value, although it was practically superseded by Mr. Spedding's labours in 1860 and following years. He was assisted in it by Francis Wrangham [q.v.] and William Page Wood, afterwards Lord Hatherley [q. v.], who were responsible for the translations of the Latin treatises.
Montagu also published a volume of 'Essays,' chiefly reprints, with 'An Outline of a Course of Lectures upon the Conduct of the Understanding,' London, 1824, 8vo; 'Thoughts on Laughter,' London, 1830, 12mo : 'Thoughts of Divines and Philosophers,' London, 1832, 24mo (a volume of selections) ; 'Lectures delivered at the Mechanics' Institution upon the connexion between Knowledge and Happiness,' London, 1832, 8vo ; ' Essays and Selections,' London, 1837, 8vo ; and Thoughts on the Conduct of the Understanding,' a fragment of a magnum opus which he had on hand for thirty years, printed for private circulation, probably in 1847, 8vo. He was a member of the Athenaeum Club, and his town house, 25 Bedford Square, was for many years a centre of reunion for London literary society. He was one of the most attentive listeners to Coleridge's monologues at Highgate. He died at Boulogne-sur-Mer on 27 Nov. 1851.
Montagu married thrice : (1) On 4 Sept. 1790, Caroline Matilda Want of Brampton, Huntingdonshire; (2) at Glasgow, in 1801, Laura, eldest daughter of Sir William Beaumaris Rush of Roydon, Suffolk, and Wimbledon, Surrey ; (3) the widow of Thomas Skepper, lawyer, of York. He had by his first wife a son Edward, mentioned in Wordsworth's lines 'To my Sister' and 'Anecdotes for Fathers' (see Poems referring to the Period of Childhood, No. xii. ; and Poems of Sentiment and Reflection, No. v.) By his second wife he had three sons ; and two sons and a daughter by his third wife. All his children but two (his daughter and one of his sons by his third wife) died in his lifetime, and none now survive. His third wife, whose maiden name was Benson, was the daughter of a wine merchant of York, and in her youth had known Burns (cf. his complimentary letter to her dated Dumfries, 21 March 1793, in his Correspondence}. She was a fine woman, and in her middle age fascinated Edward Irving, who gave her the sobriquet of ' the noble lady.' Carlyle, introduced to her by Irving in 1824, corresponded with her in a somewhat stilted and adulatory style, and during the earlier years of his residence in London was a frequent visitor at 25 Bedford Square. His pride was wounded by an offer of a clerkship at 200l. a year which her husband made him in 1837, and he vented his spleen in his 'Reminiscences.' His portrait of 'the noble lady' is, however, by no means unfavourable. His early letters to her were printed for private circulation by her daughter by her first husband, Mrs. Procter, soon after the publication of the 'Reminiscences' [see Proctor, Bryan Waller].
A portrait of Montagu by Opie was lent by Bryan Waller Procter ('Barry Cornwall') to the third Loan Exhibition (No. 183).
Besides the works above mentioned, and a long series of pamphlets denouncing the punishment of death (1811-30), and two on the emancipation of the Jews (1833-4), Montagu published : 'Enquiries and Observations respecting the University Library,' Cambridge, 1805, 8vo ; 'Selections from the Works of Taylor, Hooker, Hall, and Lord Bacon, with an Analysis of the Advancement of Learning,' London, 1805, 8vo ; 'An Examination of some Observations upon a passage in Dr. Paley's Moral Philosophy on the Punishment of Death,' London, 1810, 8vo ; 'Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors,' London, 1814, 8vo ; 'Some Thoughts upon Liberty, and the Rights of English men,' London, 1819, 8vo ; 'The Private Tutor, or Thoughts upon the Love of Excelling and the Love of Excellence,' London, 1820, 8vo ; 'A Letter to the Right Hon. Charles, Lord Cottenham, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, on the Separation of the Judicial and Political Functions of the Lord Chancellor,' London, 1836, 8vo ; 'Knowledge, Error, Prejudice, and Reform,' London, 1836, 8vo ; 'Rules for the Construction of Statutes, Deeds, and Wills,' London, 1836, 8vo ; 'Adam in Paradise, or a View of Man in his first State,' London, 1837, 16mo (a reprint of South's sermon on Gen. i. 27); ‘A Letter addressed to Charles Purton Cooper, Esq., Secretary to the Commissioners on the Public Records upon the Report of the recent Record Committee,’ London, 1837, 8vo; ‘The Law of Parliamentary Elections’ (in conjunction with W. Johnson Neale), London, 1839, 8vo; ‘The Funerals of the Quakers,’ London, 1840, 12mo; ‘The Law and Practice upon Election Petitions before Committees of the House of Commons,’ London, 1840, 8vo; ‘Three Lectures on the Works of Lord Bacon’ (of uncertain date).
[Gent. Mag. 1790 pt. ii. p. 858, 1806 pt. i. p. 590, 1824 pt. ii. p. 560, 1852 pt. i. p. 410; Athenæum, 1851, p. 1282; Law Times, xliii. 237; Gunning's Reminiscences, i. 155 et seq.; Cambridge Triposes, 1754–1807; Grad. Cant.; Foster's Gray's Inn Reg.; Law List, 1799, 1836, and 1847; Knight's English Cyclopædia; Knight's Life of Wordsworth, i. 103, ii. 169–73, 278, iii. 214; Sir James Mackintosh's Memoirs, 2nd ed. pp. 147–66; Kegan Paul's William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries; Crabb Robinson's Diary, i. 371, 488, ii. 37, 129, 252, 254; Sir Samuel Romilly's Memoirs, ii. 410; An Account of the Origin and Object of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death and the Improvement of Prison Discipline, London, 1812, 8vo; Allsop's Letters, Conversations, and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge, i. 102, ii. 69, 211; Stephens's Memoir of the Right Hon. William Page Wood, Baron Hatherley, i. 51, 57, 160, 175, ii. 120; Fitzgerald's Life and Letters of C. Lamb, iii. 22; Carlyle's Reminiscences (under Edward Irving); Froude's Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1835 and 1830–1881; Bryan Waller Procter's Autobiography, p. 56; Mrs. Oliphant's Life of Edward Irving, 4th ed. pp. 91, 103, 111, and Literary History of England in the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th Century, ii. 316; Letters addressed to Mrs. Basil Montagu and B. W. Procter by Mr. Thomas Carlyle, with prefatory note by Anne Benson Procter, 1881; Visitations of Essex (Harl. Soc.), pt. ii. p. 704; Add. MS. 24811, ff. 308–11.]