Stephen, Sir James
b. 1789-01-03
d. 1859-09-14
Sir James Stephen (1789-1859), lawyer and civil servant, was born on January 3, 1789 at Lambeth, London to father James Stephen, a lawyer, and mother Anna. As a child, Stephen suffered an attack of smallpox that left his eyesight permanently weakened. As a result, he was a shy boy who was privately schooled, but who did eventually enrol at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1806. He went on to practice in the court of chancery after he was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in November of 1811 and received his LLB degree in 1812.
Stephen was appointed legal adviser to the Colonial Office in 1813. As such, Stephen had to review all acts passed in the colonies. In December of 1814, he married Jane Catherine Venn, the daughter of Henry Venn, the rector of Clapham, and together they had five children.
In 1834, Stephen was appointed assistant under-secretary at the Colonial Office and then two years later made permanent under-secretary. Here he would remain until 1848.
As the top bureaucrat at the Colonial Office, Stephen rarely delegated work to his staff (most of whom he considered less than mediocre), restricting them to mindless tedium, like copying letters and drafts.1 The privilege of advising government on colonial problems of the day was the purview of Stephen alone, as was the process at arriving at such an opinion. This, and his formidable memory, made Stephen's knowledge of the colonies unmatched; his advice carried great weight when given to the secretary of state. However, he remained a bureaucrat, and his advice, especially on matters of policy fiercely debated in the House of Commons, could be and was frequently overruled. Still, his domination of his office as it pertained to legality, details and matters of colonial precedent was such that he earned the nickname “Mr.Over-Secretary” and “Mr. Mother-Country”.2
An indefatigable worker, meticulous and possessing a voluminous memory, Stephen's influence on Colonial Office was lasting. Stephen streamlined the disorganized and ad hoc office run by his predecessors into a place where rational work-flow prevailed. The most noticable of these reforms was a stamp for all papers that included the names of officials who had read it and when. Stephen also initialed and minuted every paper, a habit passed on to staff, and required that copies of drafts and outgoing letters be kept. Once in place, Stephen's system remained unchanged until 1870, a testament to its efficiency. In this, the deliverer of something like bureaucratic rationality, he can be regarded as the Colonial Office's founding father.3
Stephen believed all the British colonies would mature and inevitably leave the mother country and its empire. Although he wished it were otherwise, the pessimistic Stephen—who was against imperial expansion—surrendered to the need for conciliation and relented to what he thought was the distasteful inevitability of responsible government in Canada and elsewhere in the empire.4 He understood the limits of his office—the colonies would develop whether officials in Britain liked it or not—and stubborn resistance to change would only make it worse, perhaps with a repeat of the American Revolution.
Stephen retired in poor health from the Foreign Office in 1848. He was given honorary professorships at Cambridge in 1849 and at the East India Company's college at Haileybury in 1853.
Stephen died on September 14, 1859 at Koblenz, in Prussia's Rhine province, after having been in ill health for many months.
  • 1. Cell, John W. British Colonial Administration in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: the Policy Making Process.M New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.
Mentions of this person in the documents
Footnotes
  1. John W. Cell, British colonial administration in the mid-nineteenth century; the policy-making process [by] John W. Cell (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1970), 26.
  2. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Stephen, Sir James, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26374 (accessed June 2, 2009).
  3. John W. Cell, British colonial administration in the mid-nineteenth century; the policy-making process [by] John W. Cell (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1970), 10.
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Stephen, Sir James, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26374 (accessed June 2, 2009).
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London

The Colonial Despatches Team. Stephen, Sir James. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/stephen_j.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)