See A. Aspinall, Lord Brougham and the Whig Party (1927, repr. 1972).
As a young lawyer in Scotland Brougham helped to found the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and contributed many articles to it. He went to London, and was called to the English bar in 1808. In 1810 he entered the House of Commons as a Whig. Brougham took up the fight against the slave trade and opposed restrictions on trade with continental Europe. In 1820 he won popular renown as chief attorney to Queen Caroline and in the next decade he became a liberal leader in the House of Commons. He not only proposed educational reforms in Parliament, but also was one of the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1825 and of the University of London in 1828. As Lord Chancellor from 1830 to 1834 he effected many legal reforms to speed procedure and established the Central Criminal Court. In later years he spent much of his time in Cannes, which he established as a popular resort.
Brougham was born in Edinburgh, the eldest son of Henry Brougham, of Brougham Hall in Westmorland, and Eleanora, daughter of Reverend James Syme. The Broughams had been an influential Cumberland family for centuries. Brougham was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and at the University of Edinburgh, where he chiefly studied natural science and mathematics, but also law. He published several scientific papers through the Royal Society, notably on light and colours and on prisms. He gained such a reputation, that in 1803 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of only 25. However, Brougham chose law as his profession, and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1800. He practiced little in Scotland, and instead entered Lincoln's Inn in 1803. Five years later he was called to the Bar. Not a wealthy man, Brougham turned to journalism as a means of supporting himself financially through these years. He was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review and quickly became known as its foremost contributor, with articles on everything from science, politics, colonial policy, literature, poetry, surgery, mathematics and the fine arts. In the early 1800s, Brougham, a follower of Newton, launched vicious anonymous attacks in the Edinburgh Review against Thomas Young's research that proved light was a wave phenomenon that exhibited interference and diffraction, attacks that slowed acceptance of the truth for a decade until Arago and Fresnel championed Young's work.
The success of the Edinburgh Review made Brougham a man of mark from his first arrival in London. He quickly became a fixture in London society and gained the friendship of Lord Grey and other leading Whig politicians. In 1806 the Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, appointed him secretary to a diplomatic mission to Portugal, led by James St Clair-Erskine, 2nd Earl of Rosslyn and John Jervis, 1st Earl St Vincent. The aim of the mission was to counteract the anticipated French invasion of Portugal. During these years he became a close supporter of the movement for the abolition of slavery, a cause to which he was to be passionately devoted to for the rest of his life. Despite being a well-known and popular figure, Brougham had to wait before being offered a parliamentary seat to contest. However, in 1810 he was elected for Camelford, a rotten borough controlled by the Duke of Bedford. He quickly gained a reputation in the House of Commons, where he was one of the most frequent speakers, and was regarded by some as a potential future leader of the Whig Party. However, Brougham’s career was to take a downturn in 1812, when, standing as one of two Whig candidates for Liverpool, he was heavily defeated. He was to remain out of Parliament until 1816, when he was returned for Winchelsea. He quickly resumed his position as one of the most forceful members of the House of Commons, and worked especially in advocating a programme for the education of the poor and legal reform.
In 1826, Brougham, along with Wellington, was one of the clients and lovers named in the notorious Memoirs of Harriette Wilson Before publication, Wilson and publisher John Joseph Stockdale wrote to all those named in the book offering them the opportunity to be excluded from the work in exchange for a cash payment. Brougham paid and secured his anonymity.
Brougham remained Member of Parliament for Winchelsea until February 1830 when he was returned for Knaresborough. However, he only represented Knaresborough until August the same year, when he became one of four representatives for Yorkshire. In November the Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington fell, and the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey. It was considered impossible to leave the popular Brougham out of the government, although his independent political standing was thought to be a possible impediment to the new administration. Grey initially offered him the post of Attorney General, which Brougham refused. He was then offered the Lord Chancellorship, which he accepted, and on 22 November he was raised to the peerage as Baron Brougham, of Brougham in the County of Westmorland. He was to remain in this post for exactly four years.
The highlights of Brougham’s tenure was the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, of which he was a staunch supporter, and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the cause to which he had been devoted to for so many years. However, he increasingly came into conflict with the rest of the government, mostly caused by his tendency to interfere with every department of state. He nonetheless kept his post when the government was reconstructed in July 1834 under Lord Melbourne. The Melbourne administration was dismissed by the King in November the same year, and the Tories came to power under Sir Robert Peel. This government only lasted until April 1835, when Lord Melbourne was again summoned to form a government. However, Brougham was now so ill regarded within his own party that he was not offered to resume the post of Lord Chancellor, which instead was put into commission. An even greater blow to him was when the post was eventually conferred on Charles Pepys, 1st Baron Cottenham, in January 1836.
In 1837 Brougham presented a bill for public education, arguing that "it cannot be doubted that some legislative effort must at length be made to remove from this country the opprobrium of having done less for the education of the people than any of the more civilized nations on earth".
Brougham also edited William Paley's Natural Theology and published a work on political philosophy and in 1838 he published an edition of his speeches in four volumes. The last of his works was his posthumous Autobiography. In 1860 Brougham was given a second peerage as Baron Brougham and Vaux, of Brougham in the County of Westmorland and of High Head Castle in the County of Cumberland, with remainder to his youngest brother William Brougham (died 1886). The patent stated that the second peerage was in honour of the great services he had rendered, especially in promoting the abolition of slavery.
Brougham had married Mary Spalding (d. 1865), daughter of Thomas Eden, in 1821. They had two daughters, both of whom predeceased their parents, the latter one dying in 1839. Lord Brougham and Vaux died in May 1868 in Cannes, France, aged 89, and was buried in the Cimetière du Grand Jas. His hatchment is in Ninekirks, which was then the parish church of Brougham. The Barony of 1830 became extinct on his death, while he was succeeded in the Barony of 1860 according to the special remainder by his younger brother William Brougham.
Brougham was the designer of the brougham, a four-wheeled, horse-drawn style of carriage that bears his name.
Through Lord Brougham the renowned French seaside resort of Cannes became very popular. He had accidentally found the place in 1835, when it was little more than a fishing village on a picturesque coast, and bought there a tract of land and built on it. His choice and his example made it the sanatorium of Europe. The beach front promenade at Nice became known as the Promenade des anglais (literally, "The Promenade of the English").
Holds the House of Commons record for non-stop speaking at six hours .