Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832) was born in Aldourie, Scotland, on the banks of Loch Ness. He had been described by himself and others as “indolent and dilatory at every period of his life.” When taking his degree, he put off writing his thesis until an hour after the appointed time of his examination by the entire faculty enclave who were kept waiting for him in patient condescension. How did this obscure Scotsman come to the notice of Lansdowne House, particularly when admittance within its halls was habitually sought after by the industrious and the prompt?
The man was just so very interesting!
His mind was stored with the wisdom of the ancient and modern world; and his remarkable memory enabled him to retain all that he had read. His conversation was enriched with wit, philosophy, history and anecdotes, and so extensive was his range of knowledge that it was said of him that he could pass from Voltaire’s verses to Sylvia up to the most voluminous details of the Council of Trent. — from an 1894 article entitled Lansdowne House in the Chautauquan (a journal of the Chatauquan Literary and Scientific Circle)
He was trained as a doctor and as a lawyer, but was continually drawn to the spheres of philosophy and politics. His speeches were well-attended but it was his response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the Revolution in France made Mackintosh one of the Whig party’s most erudite writer and orator. Later he deplored the actions of the revolutionaries that led France to descend into a military dictatorship, but he remained a passionate defender of the rights of man and a vociferous opponent of the system that supports a titled nobility.
In 1798 he formed an exclusive Whig club in London, called the King of Clubs. Good conversation was already the rage in London and membership to this group was in great demand. Conversation Sharp was prevailed upon to join. He later reminisced about those days long after the club had disappeared:
Ah yes! – our King of Club days with Mackintosh, Bobus, Dumont and Romilly, were days that the Gods might envy !”
For me, however, this frequent visitor to Lansdowne House could not have been more moving in his writings or his orations than when he exerted himself in the cause of Love. To the dismay of his family and hers, he married Catherine Stuart, one of the most “fortunate circumstances of his life.” She was prudent where he was excessive, she was industrious where he was indolent. She was the making of him and his success to such an extent her disapproving brothers not only became reconciled to the marriage, but became Mackintosh’s most ardent champions. But when she died, he could scarcely contain his grief. She was his beloved and in an age where women’s achievements were subordinate to men’s, he was passionate that she be remembered for her efforts. He sought advice from one Dr. Parr as to how he should form a suitable epitaph to “my dearest Catherine:”
“To her I owe that I am not a ruined outcast; to her whatever I am; to her whatever I shall be.”
Dr. Parr was astonished at this letter and agreed to arrange for the Latin inscription on Catherine’s tomb. He replied,
“I never received from mortal man a letter which, in point of composition, can be compared with that which you wrote me the other day.”
He did not think it bad at all.