John Dunning, by Reynolds
What's special about Lord Ashburton?
The large double portrait of the first Lord Ashburton and his wife dominates the Council Chamber in Ashburton’s Town Hall, but why should he remain of interest nearly two hundred and fifty years after his death?
Well, from today’s point of view, it’s in part because he was involved as a lawyer in two cases in the eighteenth century that remain important to human rights in England and Wales, each of which has an interesting back-story.
John Dunning was born at Gulwell on the edge of Ashburton in October 1731 (the old house was sadly demolished for the construction of the A38 road). Dunning's father was an Attorney in the town, and after attending Ashburton Grammar School, he joined his father's practice. His work came to the attention of a wealthy client, no less than the then Master of the Rolls, who had property in Ashburton, and who taking a fancy to young Dunning's undoubted talent, sponsored him through the Inns of Court. He was called to the Bar in 1756 and began to practice on the Western Circuit. He had several lean years.
Now, despite his quick legal mind, Dunning had a major disadvantage, his unprepossessing appearance. Comparing the picture of him by Sir Joshua Reynolds with other likenesses suggests that Sir Joshua was (not for the only time) rather flattering of his subject. And indeed it was told that a waiter sent to find Dunning should see a man looking like the Ace of Clubs. Dunning himself buttressed this by almost consciously cultivating a boorish and uncouth manner; his legal addresses were noted for his coughing and spluttering and the waving of his arms. But when in London his ready wit ennabled him to move in cultured circles, so he was welcomed into a literary world that included not only Reynolds, but Dr Johnson, Garrick and Goldsmith.
In 1760, when Dunning was still a junior and not very successful barrister, King George III came to the throne. The King immediately changed the whole complexion of the government by appointing his friend Lord Bute as Prime Minister. This occasioned furious opposition in Parliament and outside, where it was driven by the notorious journalist MP John Wilkes. Wilkes was by all accounts even less physically attractive than Dunning but it did not prevent him boasting a proud reputation as a rake and wit-about-town.
Wilkes set about attacking the government in a malicious and satirical publication which he called The North Briton, in reference to Bute’s Scottish connections. By the time this weekly publication reached No.45 in 1763, the government had had enough, and alleging what it called seditious libel, issued a warrant in general terms supposedly authorising the arrest and imprisonment of all authors, printers and publishers of the newspaper. No-one was named in the warrant which thus seemed to give the government officers a free hand to arrest almost anyone they pleased. Homes and premises were raided and forty-eight people arrested; Wilkes spent a week in the Tower. Dunning was briefed to oppose the government and made his name by a spirited defence in a series of cases which resulted in the courts declaring such general warrants illegal, and so putting limits on those in authority persecuting anyone they disliked. Dunning’s success was the more notable because the Chief Justice was Lord Mansfield, a known government supporter and a Scot like Bute. Wilkes and Liberty became a popular cry.
As his star rose, Dunning made important friends. In 1766 he was appointed Recorder of Bristol, and in 1768 following a change of government, Solicitor-General; this necessitated a seat in Parliament and so Dunning was parachuted (as we might now say) into Calne, Wiltshire. This was a seat in the pocket of Lord Orford, who also controlled Ashburton. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Dunning had already published a much-lauded defence ot the East India Company, whose business was so important to the Ashburton Wool trade.
In Parliament Dunning largely supported what might now be considered progressive causes. He was noted for attacking the misuse of sinecures and pensions to obtain government support. When his own government succeeded in expelling Wilkes from the Commons, our Solicitor-General was tactfully absent. But eventually his position in the government became untenable and he resigned the post in 1770. He then became a major critic of the government policy of repression in the American colonies (where he became something of a hero). It was Dunning who proposed the then notorious Commons motion of 1780 that The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and should be diminished, which was to lead to the fall of Lord North's Tory government and the final victory of the American colonists. It is worth noting that he supported efforts to relieve Roman Catholics from the penalties that still subjugated them.
So it would seem surprising that in a case that became a landmark for the anti-slavery movement he accepted the brief to represent the Slave-owners.
James Somersett was an African sold into slavery in Virginia whose owner Charles Stewart brought him to England in 1769. He left his master in 1771, so Stewart had him kidnapped and put on a ship for Jamaica; but before it could sail his friends had him produced before the courts. The judge was once again Lord Mansfield, but this time Dunning’s eloquence could not prevail and Mansfield ordered that Somersett should be freed, The case is often taken to mean that slavery could not exist in England from that time, although Mansfield’s judgement was actually on rather more technical grounds.
In truth, Dunning was the epitome of his time and, in his determinedly Whiggish viewpoint, of the rising middle class. The liberties that he had in mind when supporting Wilkes or the American colonies, or even the East India Company, were the liberties of the property-owning classes against a high-handed government. Sadly we have to report that in 1782 and despite his earlier antagonisms, he accepted a peerage from the government (becoming the Baron Ashburton of Ashburton) as well as a very large government pension. He had married the banker's daughter Elizabeth Baring in 1780, and largely with her money, bought and transformed the Spitchwick estate. But he did not live long to enjoy his successes, for he died at Exmouth in 1783, aged only 51. Sabine Baring-Gould, an indirect descendant and so probably recycling family tales, sardonically commented that on the marriage Lady Ashburton could look for a happy release from a very disagreeable husband in a very short time. The stern portrait in our Council chamber does suggest some truth in this verdict. The first Lord Ashburton is buried in Ashburton church, behind the organ.
John Wilkes (by Hogarth)
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