Dunning, John, first Baron Ashburton 1731-1783, younger son of John Dunning of Ashburton, Devonshire, by his wife, Agnes, daughter of Henry Judsham of Old Port in the parish of Modbury in the same county, was born at Ashburton on 18 Oct. 1731, and after receiving a good education at the grammar school of the town, was articled to his father, who practised there as an attorney. Having shown signs of remarkable ability while in his father's office, he came up to London to study for the bar, and was admitted a student of the Middle Temple on 8 May 1752. His means were small, and he was compelled to live in a most economical manner. While a student he was very intimate with Kenyon and Horne Tooke, in whose company he used to dine during the vacation, at a little eating-house in the neighbourhood of Chancery Lane, for the sum of seven pence halfpenny each. As to Dunning and myself, adds Tooke, we were generous, for we gave the girl who waited upon us a penny a piece; but Kenyon, who always knew the value of money, sometimes rewarded her with a halfpenny, and sometimes with a promise (Stephens, Life of Tooke, 1813, i. 33). Dunning was called to the bar on 2 July 1756, and joined the western circuit. For several years after his call he met with but little success. In 1762, however, Serjeant Glynn, one of the leading counsel on the circuit, being suddenly attacked with gout, placed his briefs in Dunning's hands (Holliday, Life of Mansfield, 1797, pp. 36-7). So well did he avail himself of this opportunity that from this time his practice rapidly increased, and in 1764 he was making 2,000l. a year. This sudden success was also partly due to A Defence of the United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies and their servants (particularly those of Bengal) against the Complaints of the Dutch East India Company; being a Memorial from the English East India Company to his Majesty on that subject, which was drawn up by Dunning on behalf of the directors of the English company early in 1762, and afterwards published in the same year. In 1765 he established his great reputation by his celebrated arguments against the legality of general warrants in the case of Leach v. Money (Howell, State Trials, 1813, xix. 1001-28). In 1766 he was appointed recorder of Bristol, and on 28 Jan. 1768 he became solicitor-general in the Duke of Grafton's administration, in the place of Edward Willes, who was raised to the bench. At the general election in March 1768, Dunning, through the influence of Lord Shelburne, was returned to parliament as one of the members for the borough of Calne. Though solicitor-general, he took no part in the debate on the expulsion of Wilkes from the house, and was absent from the division. On 9 Jan. 1770 Dunning both spoke in favour of and voted for the amendment to the address urging an inquiry into the causes of the unhappy discontents which at present prevail in every part of his majesty's dominions (Parl. Hist. xvi. 726), and a few days later tendered his resignation.
On 19 March he spoke on the side of the minority in the debate on the remonstrance of the city of London. No report of this speech, which continued near an hour and a half, has been preserved, but it is said to have been one of the finest pieces of argument and eloquence ever heard in the house (ib. 898). After considerable delay Thurlow was appointed solicitor-general on 30 March 1770. Upon Dunning's appearance on the first day of the next term in the ordinary stuff gown, Lord Mansfield announced that in consideration of the office he had holden, and his high rank in business, he [Lord Mansfield] intended for the future (and thought he should thereby injure no gentleman at the bar) to call him next after the king's counsel, and serjeants, and recorder of London (5 Burrow's Reports, 1812, v. 2586). On 12 Oct. 1770 the freedom of the city was voted to Dunning for having (when solicitor-general to his majesty) defended in parliament, on the soundest principles of law and the constitution, the right of the subject to petition and remonstrate (London's Roll of Fame, 1884, pp. 23-4). In the debate which took place on 25 March 1771 Dunning made an animated speech against Welbore Ellis's motion to commit Alderman Oliver to the Tower, in which he denied the right of the house to commit in such a case (Parl. Hist. xvii. 139-45). Though he did not oppose the Boston Port Bill, Dunning vehemently opposed the third reading of the bill for regulating the government of Massachusetts Bay on 2 May 1774, declaring, We are now come to that fatal dilemma, Resist, and we will cut your throats; submit, and we will tax you; such is the reward of obedience (ib. 1300-2).
At the general election in October 1774 he was re-elected for Calne, and continued to oppose the ministerial policy towards the American colonies to the utmost of his power, and on 6 Nov. 1776 supported Lord John Cavendish's motion for the revisal of all acts of parliament by which his majesty's subjects in America think themselves aggrieved (ib. xviii. 1447-8). The motion was defeated by 109 to 47, but in the next session Dunning, still undaunted, continued to oppose the ministry, and was instrumental in obtaining the insertion of a clause in the bill for the suspension of the habeas corpus, which considerably lessened its scope (ib. xix. 24-6). On 14 May 1778 he seconded Sir George Savile's motion for leave to bring in a bill for the relief of the Roman catholics (ib. 1139-40), and it was upon his amendment that the house unanimously voted that a monument should be erected in Westminster Abbey to the memory of the Earl of Chatham (ib. 1225). On 21 Feb. 1780 he supported Sir George Savile's motion for an account of all subsisting pensions granted by the crown (ib. xxi. 86-90), and on 6 April moved his famous resolutions that the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished, and that it is competent to this house to examine into and correct abuses in the expenditure of the civil list revenues, as well as in every other branch of the public revenue, whenever it shall appear expedient to the wisdom of the house so to do (ib. 340-8). In the teeth of Lord North's opposition, the first resolution (with a slight addition) was carried by 233 to 215, and the second agreed to without a division. But in spite of this success, when Dunning a few weeks afterwards proposed an address to the king requesting him not to dissolve the parliament or to prorogue the present session until proper measures have been taken to diminish the influence and correct the other abuses complained of by the petitions of the people, he found himself in a minority of 51 (ib. 495-9).
At the general election in September 1780 Dunning was again returned for Calne, and upon the meeting of the new parliament proposed the re-election of Sir Fletcher Norton to the chair, but Cornwall, the ministerial candidate, was elected by 203 to 134 (ib. 795-6). In February 1782 he supported Conway's motion against the further prosecution of the American war (ib. 1081-2), and a month later announced that arrangements were being made for the formation of a new ministry which he trusted would meet with the wishes of that house and of the nation at large (ib. 1237). On 27 March 1782 Dunning, in company with Lord John Cavendish, Fox, Burke, and Keppel, was admitted to the privy council, and on 8 April following was created Baron Ashburton of Ashburton in the county of Devon. He was now fairly entitled to the great seal, but as the king insisted upon retaining Thurlow, Dunning with considerable reluctance was sworn in as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 17 April. He continued in the cabinet after Rockingham's death, and was consulted by Shelburne as his confidential adviser in all legal matters, but took little share in the debates of the upper house. Upon Shelburne's resignation, Dunning had several interviews with the king, who had taken a great fancy to him, and asked his advice with regard to the formation of a new ministry. Before the act for the reform in the civil list expenditure (22 George III, c. 82) could be passed, a pension of 4,000l. was granted to Dunning. His health, however, had begun to give way, and he died at Exmouth a few months after the death of his eldest child, on 18 Aug. 1783, in the fifty-second year of his age. He was buried in the parish church of Ashburton, where a monument was erected to his memory.
Though possessed of an ungainly person, a husky voice, and a provincial accent, Dunning was one of the most powerful orators of his time. Lord Shelburne in his sketch of Dunning says: He had the greatest power of reasoning which can be conceived, and such a habit of it that he could not slight a cause no more than an able artist could suffer a piece of work to go imperfect from his hands. — All parties allow'd him to be at the head of the bar. — The only doubt was whether he excelled most at equity or common law. There was none as to anybody's coming up to him in either (Life of Lord Shelburne, iii. 453-4). Kenyon records that he was a man of the greatest ability he had known (Kenyon, Life, p. 103); while Sir William Jones, speaking in somewhat exaggerated style of his wit, describes it as a faculty in which no mortal ever surpassed him, and which all found irresistible (Works, 1779, iv. 578). But though Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol declared that there was not a man of any profession, or in any situation, of a more erect and independent spirit, of a more proud honour, a more manly mind, a more firm and determined integrity (Burke, Works, 1852, iii. 429), Dunning's conduct afterwards in accepting a sinecure office as well as a pension was grievously inconsistent with his former professions. Dunning married, on 31 March 1780, Elizabeth, daughter of John Baring of Larkbear, Devonshire, by whom he had two sons, viz John, who was born on 29 Oct. 1781, and died in April 1783, and Richard Barré, who succeeded as second Baron Ashburton, and on 17 Sept. 1805 married Anne, daughter of William Cunninghame of Lainshaw. Upon his death without issue at Friar's Hall, Roxburghshire, in February 1823, the title became extinct. The existing barony of Ashburton was in 1835 conferred upon Alexander Baring [qv.], the second son of Sir Francis Baring, bart., an elder brother of the first Lord Ashburton's widow. Dunning is supposed by some to have been the author of A Letter to the Proprietors of East India Stock on the subject of Lord Clive's Jaghire, occasioned by his Lordship's letter on that subject (London, 1764, 8vo), and also of an Inquiry into the Doctrines lately promulgated concerning Juries, Libels, &c., upon the principles of the Law and the Constitution. Horace Walpole, writing in reference to this pamphlet, which was published in 1764, says that it is the finest piece that I think has been written for liberty since Lord Somers. It is called — and is said to be written by one Dunning, a lawyer lately started up, who makes a great noise (Letters, Cunningham's ed. iv. 299). The joint authorship of Junius's Letters has also been attributed to him (Halkett and Laing, ii. 1435). His portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was engraved by Bartolozzi in 1787, is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Roscoe's Lives of Eminent British Lawyers, pp. 287-306
Law Magazine, vii. 317-48
Lord Mahon's History of England, vols. v. vi. and vii.
Chatham Correspondence, vols. iii. and iv.
Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice's Life of Shelburne
Kenyon's Life of Lloyd, first Lord Kenyon
Lord Campbell's Lives of the Lord Chancellors, vols. v. vi. and vii.
Sir N. W. Wraxall's Historical Memoirs, 1815, ii. 41-4
The Georgian Era, 1833, ii. 289-91
Law and Lawyers (1840), i. 57-60, 182-3, 185-9
Collins's Peerage (1812), vii. 543-545
Burke's Peerage (1886), pp. 62, 1021
Gent. Mag. 1783, vol. liii. pt. i. p. 254, pt. ii. pp. 717-18, 1006-7
Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 144, 157, 170
Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. v. 121, 161, 240-2, 278-80, vi. 151, 3rd ser. viii. 182-3
Watt's Bibl. Brit.
Brit. Mus. Cat.
Contributor: G. F. R. B. [George Fisher Russell Barker]