Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


James Bruce

Eight Earl of Elgin


Elgin, James Bruce, eighth Earl of (1811-1863), governor-general of British North America (1847-54), was born in London, England, on July 20, 1811, the eldest son of Thomas, seventh Earl of Elgin, and his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of J. T. Oswald, of Dunnikier, Fifeshire, Scotland. He was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1833; M.A., 1835); and in 1833 was elected a fellow of Merton College , Oxford . In 1840, on the death of his elder brother, he became heir to the earldom of Elgin in the Scottish peerage, and in 1841, on the death of his father, he succeeded to the peerage. In 1841 he had been elected to the House of Commons for the borough of Southampton in the Tory interest; but his succession to the peerage cut short his parliamentary career, and in 1842 he accepted appointment as governor of Jamaica .


His successful administration of this post led in 1846 to the offer by Lord John Russell's whig government of the governor-generalship of British North America. The Colonial Office, under Earl Grey, had decided on giving the principle of "responsible government", as advocated by Lord Durham, a fair trial in Canada ; and the task of putting the new policy into effect was confided to Elgin. He accepted the appointment, and arrived in Canada on January 30, 1847. He found in office the Draper-Viger government formed by Lord Metcalfe, and for over a year he worked in harmony with it, though he made it clear that he was prepared, if necessary, to work in harmony with any other advisers who had the confidence of the Assembly. In the general elections of 1848 the government was defeated; and Elgin thereupon entrusted office to the second Baldwin-Lafontaine administration. To these advisers he gave "all constitutional support", in the face, at the time of the passage of the Rebellion Losses Act of 1849, of violent Tory opposition, culminating in personal attacks on himself and in the burning of the parliament buildings at Montreal. Through his firmness and patience on this occasion, the triumph of "responsible government" was assured.


During Elgin's régime four ministries in Canada held power, the Draper-Viger, the Baldwin-Lafontaine, the Hincks-Morin, and the MacNab-Morin administrations; and with all his relations were harmonious. He played a more active part than later governors in some respects; and in 1854 it was largely through his personal diplomacy at Washington that the Reciprocity Treaty of that year was ratified by the United States Senate. But in general he laid down the lines of conduct which all governors-general of Canada have followed since his time.


After leaving Canada, he was twice a special commissioner to China, in 1857-9 and in 1860-1. In 1858 he made an official visit to Japan. In 1859-60 he was postmaster-general in the Palmerston cabinet; and in 1862 he became the viceroy of India. While administering this office, he died at Dhurmsala, in the Himalayas, on November 20, 1863.


In 1841, he married (1) Elizabeth Mary (d. 1843), daughter of C. L. Gumming Bruce, by whom he had two daughters; and in 1846 (2) Lady Mary Louisa Lambton, daughter of the first Earl of Durham, by whom he had four sons and one daughter. In 1849 he was created a peer of the United Kingdom with the title of Baron Elgin, was sworn of the privy council, and invested with the order of the thistle. In 1856 Oxford University recognized his services in Canada by conferring upon him the degree of D.C.L.


See T. Walrond (ed.), Letters and journals of James, eighth Earl of Elgin (London, 1873) ; Extracts from the letters of James, Earl of Elgin, to Mary Louisa, Countess of Elgin, 1847-1862 (Privately printed, 1864) ; Sir J. G. Bourinot, Lord Elgin (Toronto, 1903); G. M. Wrong, The Earl of Elgin (London, 1905) ; Sir J. M. Lemoine, Le Comte d'Elgin (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1894) ; J. L. Morison, The eighth Earl of Elgin (London, 1928) ; and W. P. M. Kennedy, Lord Elgin (Toronto, 1926).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 285-286.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College