John Scott was educated at Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School. He was not remarkable at school for application to his studies, though his wonderful memory enabled him to make good progress in them; he frequently played truant and was whipped for it, robbed orchards, and indulged in other questionable schoolboy freaks; nor did he always come out of his scrapes with honor and a character for truthfulness. When he had finished his education. at the grammar school, his father thought of apprenticing him to his own business, to which an elder brother Henry had already devoted himself; and it was only through the interference of his elder brother William (afterwards Lord Stowell), who had already obtained a fellowship at University College, Oxford, that it was ultimately resolved that he should continue the prosecution of his studies. Accordingly, in 1766, John Scott entered University College with the view of taking holy orders and obtaining a college living. In the year following he obtained a fellowship, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1770, and in 1771 won the prize for the English essay, the only university prize open in his time for general competition.
His wife was the eldest daughter of Aubone Surtees, a Newcastle banker. The Surtees family objected to the match, and attempted to prevent it; but a strong attachment had sprung up between them. On 18 November 1772 Scott, with the aid of a ladder and an old friend, carried off the lady from her father's house in the Sandhill, across the border to Blackshields, in Scotland, where they were married. The father of the bridegroom objected not to his son's choice, but to the time he chose to marry; it was a blight on his sons prospects, depriving him of his fellowship and his chance of church preferment. But while the bride's family refused to hold intercourse with the pair, Mr Scott, like a prudent man and an affectionate father, set himself to make the best of a bad matter, and received them kindly, settling on his son £2000. John returned with his wife to Oxford, and continued to hold his fellowship for what is called the year of grace given after marriage, and added to his income by acting as a private tutor. After a time Mr Surtees was reconciled with his daughter, and made a liberal settlement on her.
John Scott's year of grace closed without any college living falling vacant; and with his fellowship he gave up the church and turned to the study of law. He became a student at the Middle Temple in January 1773. In 1776 he was called to the bar, intending at first to establish himself as an advocate in his native town, a scheme which his early success led him to abandon, and he soon settled to the practice of his profession in London, and on the northern circuit. In the autumn of the year in which he was called to the bar his father died, leaving him a legacy of £1000 over and above the £2000 previously settled on him.
In 1782 he entered parliament for Lord Weymouth's close borough of Weobley, which Lord Thurlow obtained for him without solicitation. In parliament he gave a general and independent support to Pitt. His first parliamentary speeches were directed against Fox's India Bill. They were unsuccessful. In one he aimed at being brilliant; and becoming merely labored and pedantic, he was covered with ridicule by Sheridan, from whom he received a lesson which he did not fail to turn to account. In 1788 he was appointed Solicitor General, and was knighted, and at the close of this year he attracted attention by his speeches in support of Pitt's resolutions on the state of the king (George III, who then labored under a mental malady) and the delegation of his authority. It is said that he drew the Regency Bill, which was introduced in 1789. In 1793 Sir John Scott was promoted to the office of Attorney-General, in which it fell to him to conduct the memorable prosecutions for high treason against British sympathizers with French republicanism, amongst others, against the celebrated Horne Tooke. These prosecutions, in most cases, were no doubt instigated by Sir John Scott, and were the most important proceedings in which he was ever professionally engaged. He has left on record, in his Anecdote Book, a defence of his conduct in regard to them.
In 1799 the office of chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas falling vacant, Sir John Scott's claim to it was not overlooked; and after seventeen years' service in the Lower House, he entered the House of Lords as Baron Eldon. In February 1801 the ministry of Pitt was succeeded by that of Addington, and the chief justice now ascended the woolsack. The chancellorship was given to him professedly on account of his notorious anti-Catholic zeal. From the Treaty of Amiens (1802) till 1804 Lord Eldon appears to have interfered little in politics. In the latter year we find him conducting the negotiations which resulted in the dismissal of Addington and the recall of Pitt to office as prime minister. Lord Eldon was continued in office as chancellor under Pitt; but the new administration was of short duration, for on 23 January 1806 Pitt died, worn out with the anxieties of office, and his ministry was succeeded by a coalition, under Lord Grenville. The death of Fox, who became foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, soon, however, broke up the Grenville administration; and in the spring of 1807 Lord Eldon once more, under the Duke of Portland's administration, returned to the woolsack, which, from that time, he continued to occupy for about twenty years, swaying the cabinet.
During this time Lord Eldon was revered for his work in consolidating equity into a working body of legal principles. In Gee v. Pritchard he wrote,
"Nothing would inflict on me greater pain in quitting this place, than the recollection that I had done anything to justify the reproach that the equity of this court varies like the Chancellor's foot.
It was not till April 1827, when the premiership, vacant through the paralysis of Lord Liverpool, fell to Canning, the chief advocate of Roman Catholic emancipation, that Lord Eldon, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, finally resigned the chancellorship. When, after the two short administrations of Canning and Goderich, it fell to the Duke of Wellington to construct a cabinet, Lord Eldon expected to be included, if not as chancellor, at least in some important office, but he was overlooked, at which he was much chagrined. Notwithstanding his frequent protests that he did not covet power, but longed for retirement, we find him again, so late as 1835, within three years of his death, in hopes of office under Peel. He spoke in parliament for the last time in July 1834.
In 1821 Lord Eldon had been created Viscount Encombe and Earl of Eldon by George IV, whom he managed to conciliate, partly, no doubt, by espousing his cause against his wife, whose advocate he had formerly been, and partly through his reputation for zeal against the Roman Catholics. In the same year his brother William, who from 1798 had filled the office of judge of the High Court of Admiralty, was raised to the peerage under the title of Lord Stowell.
Lord Eldon was no legislator — his one aim in politics was to keep in office, and maintain things as he found them; and almost the only laws he helped to pass were laws for popular coercion. For nearly forty years he fought against every improvement in law or in the constitution, calling God to witness, on the smallest proposal of reform, that he foresaw from it the downfall of his country. Without any political principles, properly so called, and without interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs, he maintained himself and his party in power for an unprecedented period by his great tact, and in virtue of his two great political properties of zeal against every species of reform, and zeal against the Roman Catholics. When he supported a Bill to abolish the right of convicted criminals to apply for trial by combat — a right which was thought obsolete but which an alleged murderer recently applied for — it was remarked that this was the only reform he had ever supported in over twenty years on the woolsack. To pass from his political to his judicial character is to shift to ground on which his greatness is universally acknowledged. His judgments, which have received as much praise for their accuracy as abuse for their clumsiness and uncouthness, fill a small library. But though intimately acquainted with every nook and cranny of the English law, he never carried his studies into foreign fields, from which to enrich our legal literature; and it must be added that against the excellence of his judgments, in too many cases, must be set off the hardships, worse than injustice, that arose from his protracted delays in pronouncing them. A consummate judge and the narrowest of politicians, he was doubt on the bench, and promptness itself in the political arena. For literature, as for art, he had no feeling. What intervals of leisure he enjoyed from the cares of office he filled up with newspapers and the gossip of old cronies. Nor were his intimate associates men of refinement and taste; they were rather good fellows who quietly enjoyed a good bottle and a joke; he uniformly avoided encounters of wit with his equals. He is said to have been parsimonious, and certainly he was quicker to receive than to reciprocate hospitalities; but his mean establishment and mode of life are explained by the retired habits of his wife, and her dislike of company. His manners were very winning and courtly, and in the circle of his immediate relatives he is said to have always been lovable and beloved.
Lord Eldon's wife, his dear "Bessy," his love for whom is a beautiful feature in his life, died before him, on 28 June 1831. By nature she was of simple character, and by habits acquired during the early portion of her husband's career almost a recluse. Two of their sons reached maturity: John, who died in 1805, and William Henry John, who died unmarried in 1832. Lord Eldon himself survived almost all his immediate relations. His brother William died in 1836. He himself died in London on 13 January 1838, leaving behind him two daughters, Lady Frances Bankes and Lady Elizabeth Repton, and a grandson John (1805-1854), who succeeded him as second earl, the title subsequently passing to the latter's son John (b. 1846).
"In his person," says Lord Campbell, "Lord Eldon was about the middle size, his figure light and athletic, his features regular and handsome, his eye bright and full, his smile remarkably benevolent, and his whole appearance prepossessing. The advance of years rather increased than detracted from these personal advantages. As he sat on the judgment-seat, 'the deep thought betrayed in his furrowed brow, the large eyebrows, overhanging eyes that seemed to regard more what was taking place within than around him, his calmness, that would have assumed a character of sternness but for its perfect placidity, his dignity, repose and venerable age, tended at once to win confidence and to inspire respect' (Townsend). He had a voice both sweet and deep-toned, and its effect was not injured by his Northumbrian burr, which, though strong, was entirely free from harshness and vulgarity."