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Basil Montagu, 1770-1851


Son of John Montagu, fourth earl Sandwich and mistress Martha Ray. Bankruptcy Law.

Son of the famous John Montagu, fourth earl of sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, and his murdered mistress Martha Ray. Educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, 1790; resided at Cambridge and studied law until 1795; a close friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth; they were all enthusiastic young admirers of the French Revolution (1789); called to the bar, 1798; studying Bacon made him more conservative; acquired an extensive bankruptcy practice and acquired a reputation as a legal scholar; wrote a number of books on bankruptcy law, including 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 (1806), 1801-1807;

Appointed to commission on bankruptcy and started reforming the bankruptcy laws, 1806; founded the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death, 1809; wrote against secret bankruptcy commissions, 1810; exposed the corruption and expense of bankruptcy proceedings, 1825; Numerous legal and political writings regarding bankruptcy law;

Knighted, 1835; accountant-general in bankruptcy, 1835-1846; established the liability of the Bank of England to pay interest on bankruptcy deposits;

Besides his prolific writings on bankruptcy, he published 2 articles on Bacon, (1821) and edited Bacon's collected works (1825-1837). However, he was not nearly as strong a scientist as he was a lawyer, which resulted in a published dispute over Bacon's scientific method with Macaulay, with Basil getting the worst of it. Modern historians, however, are not so sure... (see below).

He published a number of essays, among other things writing against the death penalty, for the emancipation of the Jews, and for the separation of the judicial and political branches of government. For years his house was a meeting place of the London literary society.


The Universal Biography notes:

"An intimacy with Godwin, Coleridge, and other "advanced" thinkers, induced Montagu to form the intention of abandoning the law; but he was dissuaded from doing so by Sir James Mackintosh... he published numerous works on legal subjects and especially on the law of bankruptcy, which procured him both fame and employment. An honest and disinterested man, he laboured to promote legal reforms, even in that branch of the profession from which his own income was derived. ... He co-operated with Romilly in his efforts to abolish the punishment of death for minor offences, and published in all about forty volumes." (Universal Biography)

Although Basil's father was the illustrious Lord Sandwich, Basil apparently had no money and in his early years lived a somewhat impoverished existance. (Lord Sandwich himself had a similar precarious childhood).


An example of Basil's writing is Basil's preface to his translation of the works of Bacon. I particularly like Basil's phrase `a diseased love of arrangement'.


Francis Bacon is considered by many to have first synthesized and explicated the modern idea of science, that is, he was the first modern philosopher of science. He was a good friend and close political ally of Henry Montagu (1563-1642); the two formed a political duo. Basil was the first to collect and publish Bacon's works, and also wrote a history of Bacon:

"First of all, we have Bacon's own texts. They provide a direct indication of the meaning of the phrase `Bacon's philosophy... The first truly complete editions appeared around the middle of the nineteenth century -- Montague (1824-34)..." (Perez-Ramos)

The `Bacon controversy' involved the eminent historian Macaulay's vitriolic assessment of Basil's view of Bacon as a virtuous man: "Mr Montagu's notion that Bacon desired power in order to do good to mankind appears somewhat strange to us...' (Macaulay, quoted in Mathews).

For a good review of the history and politics of the historians of this affair, see Mathews, in `Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination':

"Spedding did not set out to defend Montagu, whose partiality in favour of Bacon he conceded, but to discover the truth. ... Over a century has passed... it is time to take another look at the charges that were so thoroughly refuted, seemingly in vain. ... Defamation is brief, but vindication is long.

... Macaulay, who, writing in India without access to contemporary records, ... relied almost solely on the biography he was reviewing... Even this he did not read with care, so that many of his misjudgements may be attributed to gratuitous mistakes of dating that were not in Montagu. ...

Campbell's story of Bacon was, as Spedding put it, a coarser version of Macaulay's. ... Campbell made no secret of his intention in writing this `Life'. It was to show Bacon up for what he was, `THE MEANEST OF MANKIND!!!' ....

Some of Bacon's defamers, no doubt, were moved by disappointed love. A great philosopher is expected to be near perfect... So when Bacon failed to meet their standards praise turned to invective. ... The majority, however, simply enjoyed putting down the great. Negative biography, written in a bitter and contemptuous tone, is very much in vogue today, and as we watch its authors at work, the question inevitably arises, are they writing about their subjects or about themselves?" (Mathews)

Mathews book is published by Yale University Press (1996), and is very thorough and readable, a good place to start if you are interested in Francis Bacon.


Basil was involved in a minor scandal involving the famous romantic poets William Wordsworth  [1]  [2]  [3]  [4]  [5] and Samuel Coleridge  [1]  [2]  [3]. The three of them had formed a youthful partnership based on interest in the ideas of the French Revolution. As Coleridge got older he became more of the "drugged-out rock-star", while Wordsworth became increasingly mellow and conservative.

Apparently Coleridge wanted to live at Basil's place in 1810, and Wordsworth, who had previously supported Coleridge, warned Basil about his being a nuisance, apparently with the understanding that Basil would confront Coleridge. Maybe they were trying a little "tough-love". There was also, I believe, a woman involved, a relative of Wordsworth...


Basil's son was raised by Wordsworth after Basil's wife died. This boy was the Edward of Wordsworth's poetry. Wordsworth and Coleridge seem to have suffered from being considered "subversives" when living in the country (probably not helped when Coleridge's attempted to smear Wordsworth):

"... Wordsworth returned to Racedown and fetched four-year-old Basil, the motherless child of his barrister friend Basil Montagu who paid the Wordsworths a modest sum to bring him up and, for part of the Alfoxden year, paid nothing. This child who had been a pale, miserable little creature when they took him, played in joyful freedom at Alfoxden, familiar with trees, stones, birds, animals. He grew hardy and happy and stayed out in all weathers. Generally he played alone, but at times he played with a Holford cottage child whom Dorthy considered very spoiled, and was taken with him to play on the shore at Kilve. ...

... Basil Montagu came again to see his little son who figures as Edward in Wordsworth's poems. Seventeen years later Mrs Coleridge wrote to Tom Poole that he must surely remember the little boy he used to see playing at Alfoxden. She had just seen him at Southey's house, a youth fearfully stricken by consumption, being blistered and bled while blood came from his lungs and Dorthy Wordsworth nursed him with the aid of an old servant and remained constantly at this bedside.

On a mild March morning Wordsworth wrote his verses `To My Sister' at a small distance from the front of the house and put them in little Basil Montagu's hand to take to Dorothy whom they summoned `to feel the sun' instead of working indoors. In the poem he called the boy by the name Edward just as in `Ancedote for Fathers' in which he describes him as a fair, fresh, active boy of five years. So Dorthy too described him in a letter, but at greater length. That morning when Basil ran in with the poem in his hand the robin whose song Dorothy always mentioned with such pleasure in her journal was singing in the tall larch near the door. ..." (Lawrence)


Sources:
[DNB].
Francis Bacon, Nieves Mathews.
Francis Bacon's Idea of Science, Antonio Perez-Ramos.
Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset, Berta Lawrence.
The Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography.

Family Research and History Section Maintained by Bruce R. Montague:
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http://www.cse.ucsc.edu/~brucem
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