James Stephen (civil servant)

Bust of Sir James Stephen.

Sir James Stephen (3 January 1789 – 14 September 1859) was the British under-secretary of state for the colonies from 1836 to 1847. He was instrumental in implementing the slavery abolition act.

Early life

Stephen was born at Lambeth, the third son of James Stephen and brother to George Stephen (1794–1879). An attack of smallpox during James' infancy caused a permanent weakness of eyesight. He was under various schoolmasters, including John Prior Estlin and the Rev. Henry Jowett of Little Dunham, Norfolk. In 1806 he entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he learnt as little as if he had passed the time "at the Clarendon Hotel in Bond Street." He took the LL.B. degree in 1812, having been called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 11 November 1811.[1] His father, who was just leaving the bar, transferred some practice to his son, who also began to make a digest of colonial laws. Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst, who was in sympathy with the "Clapham Sect," allowed him to inspect official records for the digest, and in 1813 appointed him counsel to the Colonial Office. His duty was to report upon all acts of the colonial legislatures. The work increased, but he was also allowed to practise privately, and in a few years was making £3,000 a year, and in a fair way to the honours of the profession.

Colonial office career

On 22 December 1814 Stephen married Jane Catherine, daughter of John Venn, rector of Clapham, one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. In 1822 Stephen had a severe illness caused by overwork. As he was now a father, he decided in 1825 to accept the offer of the post of permanent counsel to the colonial office and to the board of trade, abandoning his private practice.

In 1834 Stephen was appointed assistant under-secretary of state for the colonies, and in 1836 under-secretary, giving up his position in the board of trade. The duties became onerous. He had a high reputation for his knowledge of constitutional law, and as an administrator. He gained influence with his superiors, and his colleague, Sir Henry Taylor, said that for many years he "literally ruled the colonial empire." The impression of his influence gained him the nicknames of "King Stephen" and "Mr. Over-secretary Stephen;" and he was made the scapegoat for real and supposed errors of the Colonial Office.

Stephen had accepted his position partly with a hope of influence policy on slavery question. When abolition became inevitable, he was called on to draw up the Slavery Abolition Act passed in 1833. Between the noons of Saturday and Monday he dictated an elaborate bill of sixty-six sections. He also was writing for the Edinburgh Review, and suffered a breakdown.

In later years Stephen was involved in the establishment of government in Canada; and his views are said to have been more liberal than those of the government. Esteemed by his official superiors, he used formality to keep others at a distance. The health of his youngest son induced him in 1840 to take a house at Brighton for his family, to which he could make only weekly visits. From 1842 to 1846 he lived at Windsor, in order to send his sons to Eton. In 1846 he was summoned to Dresden by the illness of his eldest son, who died before his parents could reach him. In 1847 he resigned his post. He was made a K.C.B. and a privy councillor.

Teaching and writing

Stephen had meanwhile become known as a writer by a series of articles in the Edinburgh Review, the first of which (on William Wilberforce) appeared in April 1838. They were written in the intervals of his official work, generally in the early morning. He carefully disavowed any pretence to profound research. The articles had, however, shown considerable historical knowledge as well as literary power. He had partly recovered strength, and was anxious for employment.

In June 1849 Stephen was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, a chair vacant by the death of William Smyth.[2] He delivered a course of lectures on the history of France during the summers of 1850 and 1851, which were published in 1852, and praised by De Tocqueville. Another severe illness in the summer of 1850 had forced him to spend a winter abroad. From 1855 to 1857 he held a professorship at the East India Company College, Haileybury, which had been sentenced to extinction. He continued to lecture at Cambridge, but the history school then had little prestige.

Retirement and death

Monument, Kensal Green Cemetery
Monument detail, Kensal Green Cemetery

Stephen passed the last years of his life mainly in London. In 1859 his health showed serious symptoms, and he was ordered to Bad Homburg, Prussia. Becoming worse, he started homewards, but died at Koblenz, Prussia on 14 September 1859. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.[3] His widow died in 1875. They had five children:


Stephen spent his best years and highest powers in work of which it is impossible that any estimate should be formed. He was a most conscientious and energetic official, but the credit or discredit of the policy which he carried out belongs to those whom he advised. In domestic life he impressed all who knew him by his loftiness of principle. He was a man of the strongest family affections. He sacrificed his own comforts for the benefit of his children, and set before them a constant example of absolute devotion to duty. He began life as a strong evangelical, and never avowedly changed; but his experience of the world, his sympathy with other forms of belief, and his interest in the great churchmen of the Middle Ages led to his holding the inherited doctrine in a latitudinarian sense. He was accused of heresy, when appointed professor at Cambridge, for an Epilogue to his Essays, in which he suggested doubts as to the eternity of hell-fire. The Essays are the work by which he is best known, and show a literary faculty to which he could never give full play. The autobiography of Sir Henry Taylor gives an interesting account of his personal character. Taylor, James Spedding, Aubrey de Vere, and Nassau Senior were his most intimate friends; but he led a reclusive and rather ascetic life, and seldom went into society. A bust by Marochetti is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.



  1. "Stephen, James (STFN806J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. The London Gazette: no. 21003. p. 2351. 27 July 1849.
  3. Paths of Glory. Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery. 1997. p. 94.
  4. Margaret M. Jensen, ‘Stephen, Caroline Emelia (1834–1909)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 accessed 9 Dec 2015

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Stephen, Leslie (1898). "Stephen, James (1789-1859)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 54. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 

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