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Sir James Stephen (1789–1859)

by J. E. Egerton

This article was published:

Sir James Stephen (1789-1859), public servant, was born on 3 January 1789 at Lambeth, London, the third son of James Stephen (1758-1832; M.P. 1808-15; Master in Chancery 1811) and his first wife Anne, née Stent. His father was a close friend of William Wilberforce, whose sister he married after his first wife's death, and a leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery. Like Wilberforce he belonged to that group of evangelical Christian philanthropists designated by Sydney Smith the Clapham Sect, to whose ideals his son gave lifelong loyalty.

In 1806 James Stephen entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge (LL.B., 1812). He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in November 1811 and entered practice in the Chancery Court. In 1813, at Bathurst's nomination, his long service with the Colonial Office began. At first he acted as part-time counsel, reviewing colonial acts at £3 3s. a time. His advice on general colonial questions was increasingly sought, and in 1825 at considerable financial sacrifice he decided to give up private practice and accept the position of permanent counsel to the Colonial Office and Board of Trade.

As his admiring colleague, Henry Taylor, put it, Stephen entered the Colonial Office because he 'hoped to get a hold upon the policy of the government in the matter of slavery', and his success 'raised the first outcry against him'. The Duke of Wellington was not alone in wishing, in June 1830, that Stephen would confine himself to questions of law 'instead of … Questions of Policy with which according to my Notions he ought to have nothing to do'. However, suspicions that this dedicated son of a prominent abolitionist must be partisan in professional judgment were unfounded. It was not by moral argument but by meticulous and soundly based legal criticism that Stephen demonstrated the iniquity of slave laws. His success in this was crucial in securing abolition.

In 1834 Stephen was appointed assistant under-secretary in the Colonial Office, and in 1836 permanent under-secretary, holding this position until his retirement in 1847. Throughout this period the Colonial Office was faced with rapidly expanding responsibilities for which its staff, in numbers and talent, was largely ill equipped. Direction was nominally in the hands of the secretary of state for war and the colonies, but this office had small attraction for politicians, for the House of Commons showed but fitful and fractious interest in colonial affairs. Moreover political instability resulted in rapid changes in holders of the office. It was therefore inevitable that successive ministers should depend upon the under-secretary as 'the depository of all that knowledge of which the Secretary of State must daily avail himself'. It was for precisely this role, unprotestingly subordinate and greatly experienced, that Stephen's character and talents fitted him, making him one of the greatest civil servants of the nineteenth century; but it inevitably exposed him to the charge of ruling the Colonial Office and the award of such sobriquets as 'King Stephen', 'Mr. Over-Secretary Stephen' and 'Mr. Mother-Country'.

Undoubtedly Stephen tried to give direction and consistency to colonial policy and to lift it above the level of what seemed expedient in the short run; but Taylor's remark that for more than a quarter of a century Stephen 'more than any one man virtually governed the British Empire' is misleading. It overestimates Stephen's influence on his chiefs, and seriously underestimates the degree of freedom extended to colonial governors.

Stephen made three particular contributions to colonial policy. First, he insisted that in a growing colony the mother country had a positive duty to guard the weak. 'The desire to extinguish the freedom of action of those on whose labour the profit of Capital depends is a passion always at work', he wrote; he feared that colonial settlers avid for quick profits would exploit the natives and the poor. This fear underlay his opposition to Edward Gibbon Wakefield's theories of colonization, particularly in New Zealand; their details he further criticized as vague and impracticable. His conception of the mother country's role is clearly illustrated in his minute, 12 September 1843, in which he opposed the introduction of cheap coloured labour into Australia; its key sentence stresses the duty to 'watch over the welfare of the many rather than the present advantage of the few'. 'I entirely concur', noted Stanley; and the proposal was vetoed.

Second, Stephen believed that colonial governors and officials should be given a large measure of freedom and trust. If his repeated stress on the superior knowledge of the man on the spot led him into estimates of particular individuals which now seem wrong, it was wiser than constant meddling in local affairs.

Third, Stephen favoured the development of colonial self-government. He was much involved in its establishment in Canada, and was convinced that 'the course we took in relation to Canada was the only right one … that of cheerfully relaxing, one after another, the bonds of authority, as soon as the colony itself desired that relaxation'.

Stephen had small appetite for imperial expansion. His remark in a private letter in 1839 that most of England's colonies were 'wretched burdens which in an evil hour we assumed and have no right to lay down again' has been much quoted, but is uncharacteristically gloomy; he concluded that the British annexation of New Zealand was 'if not an expedient, at least an inevitable measure'.

Within the Colonial Office Stephen was indefatigably hard-working. He was not the first to attempt administrative reform; nor did all his reforms, the most important being the perfection of a system of minuting, work like charms. R. B. Pugh believes that Stephen's insistence on formality 'decelerated the machine'. He was not good at delegation; his distaste for conference inclined him 'to engross work into his own hands and not to be much helped'. Painfully shy, he found relationships with all but a few intimates difficult. He did not suffer fools gladly; nor could he bring himself to compromise with men who, like Wakefield, he found 'wanting in truth and honour'. Such criticisms are, however, outweighed by what Bell and Morrell acclaimed as 'the wisdom, the experience, the essential righteousness of Stephen'.

Stephen was deeply religious, of latitudinarian sympathies. He found religious literature of surpassing interest and from 1833 regularly contributed articles to the Edinburgh Review, published in 1849 as Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography. His style, both in minutes and essays, is lucid and graceful, and his sense of humour keen. He was ascetic by temperament; it was typical of him that he 'once smoked a cigar and found it so delicious that he never smoked again'.

Stephen resigned office in 1847 because of ill health. He was knighted and made a member of the Privy Council. He was still consulted on colonial questions and played an important part in drafting the report of the Privy Council committee on the Constitutions of the Australian colonies. In 1849 he was appointed regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, and published his Lectures on the History of France in 1851. At Cambridge he disliked both dons and undergraduates, and was accused of heresy for disputing the meaning of eternal damnation. He had been wont to envy the life of the scholar or recluse; but it is likely that Stephen exercised his talents and fulfilled his ambitions at his desk in the Colonial Office as he could have in no other way.

On 22 December 1814 Stephen had married Jane Catherine, daughter of Rev. John Venn, rector of Clapham. Family life afforded him great pleasure: 'the real thing', he once remarked, 'is domestic society'. He died at Coblenz on 14 September 1859, and his widow in 1875. Of their five children, Leslie (1832-1904) was first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and father of Virginia Woolf. Stephen's paternal uncle, John Stephen, and several other relations held government offices in Australia.

A bust of Stephen by Marochetti is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Taylor, Autobiography (Lond, 1885)
  • L. Stephen, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (Lond, 1895)
  • C. E. Stephen, The Right Honourable Sir James Stephen (Gloucester, 1906)
  • K. N. Bell and W. P. Morrell (eds), Select Documents on British Colonial Policy (Oxford, 1928)
  • P. Knaplund, James Stephen and the British Colonial System (Madison, 1953)
  • D. M. Young, The Colonial Office in the Early Nineteenth Century (Lond, 1961)
  • J. C. Beaglehole, ‘The Colonial Office, 1782-1854’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 1, no 3, Apr 1941, pp 170-89
  • E. T. Williams, ‘The Colonial Office in the Thirties’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 2, no 7, May 1943, pp 141-60
  • R. B. Pugh ‘The Colonial Office, 1801-1925’, in The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol 3, 1959, pp 711-68
  • J. W. Cell, ‘The Colonial Office in the 1850's’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 12, no 45, Oct 1965, pp 43-56
  • H. T. Manning, ‘Who Ran the British Empire 1830-1850?’ Journal of British Studies (Connecticut), vol 5, no 1, Nov 1965, pp 88-121.

Citation details

J. E. Egerton, 'Stephen, Sir James (1789–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 January, 1789
London, Middlesex, England


14 September, 1859 (aged 70)
Coblenz, Germany

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