Brougham was a radical thinker and reformer who nevertheless was able to work within the establishment.
The son of Henry and Eleanora Brougham, landowners in Westmorland, was born in Edinburgh. He entered Edinburgh University at the age of 14, studied science and mathematics and while still a student presented a paper on the physics of light, to the Royal Society. In 1800 he transferred his studies to the law.
In 1802 Brougham and a few friends founded the journal Edinburgh Review. In the next two years Brougham contributed thirty-five articles. He developed radical political opinions and many of these articles dealt with issues of social reform and was widely influential. He wrote "An Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers". Having worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh for three years he came to the conclusion that his radical political views would prevent him from obtaining promotion so in 1803 moved to London.
He fell in with a group of establishment reformers (not really 'radicals' like Richard Carlile) that included Thomas Barnes, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Charles Lamb. In 1807 he took on the task of organising the Whigs' (Liberals) General Election press campaign. Three years later, the Duke of Bedford, a Whig aristocrat, offered Brougham, the 'pocket borough' of Camelford (twenty votes controlled by the Duke). He accepted the seat in order to enter the House of Commons.
His first campaign in Parliament was against slavery and in 1810 played an important role in making participation in the slave trade a felony. The Duke of Bedford had to sell Camelford in 1812. Brougham stood as Whig candidate in Liverpool, a centre of the slave trade, but was defeated by Tory George Canning and was out of the Commons for four years.
He continued to work as a lawyer and in August 1812 he defended thirty-eight handloom weavers who had been arrested by Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, while trying to form a trade union. Their leader John Knight was charged with "administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms" and the rest of the men were accused of attending a seditious meeting; all thirty-eight were acquitted.
In 1815 via Winchelsea, another pocket borough, owned by Lord Darlington, he reentered the House of Commons and became the leading spokesman for the reformers. In 1819 he blamed the Tory government and Manchester's local magistrates for the Peterloo Massacre. He spoke out against the prison sentences imposed on Henry 'Orator' Hunt, John Knight, Samuel Bamford and the other organisers of the meeting at St. Peter's Field.
In 1824 he was one of those who paid blackmail to Joseph Stockdale to keep his name out of the memoirs of the courtesan Harriette Wilson (as opposed to the Duke of Wellington who famously told him to "publish and be damned".)
Brougham was actively involved in educational reform. He supported the Ragged Schools Union, Mechanics Institutes and founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Brougham's ideas on state-funded education were unpopular with the government and the education bills that he introduced in 1820, 1835, 1837, 1838 and 1839 were all defeated. [Also Samuel Whitbread 1807]. He was involved in the founding of both University College and King's College in what became the University of London, from 1826. [cartoon]
In 1830 Brougham was given a peerage and became Lord Chancellor in Lord Grey's new Whig government. Brougham, who had been arguing for parliamentary reform for over thirty years, played an important role in persuading the House of Lords to pass the 1832 Reform Act. Lord Brougham was also one of the main people behind the passing of the 1833 Anti-Slavery Act.
Brougham lost office after the defeat of the Whigs in 1834, but remained committed to further political reform and helped Melbourne's government pass the Municipal Reform Bill in 1835. A strong believer in equal rights for women, he was prominent in the defence of Queen Caroline (divorced wife of George IV), and played an important role in the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857.
The brougham carriage was named after him (it is not clear if he actually had a hand in the design). He died in Cannes which he had made a popular resort for English visitors to France.