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Brougham was born and educated in Edinburgh, the son of Henry Brougham Esq. of Brougham in Westmorland. He began practising law in Scotland in 1800, but embarked on further study in order to qualify as an English barrister. He was called to the bar in 1808.
Although he became well known as a barrister thanks to his lively rhetorical style, Brougham disliked the legal profession and spent much of his time cultivating his radical political interests. He was one of the group of young men who launched the Edinburgh Review in 1802, and was a prolific writer for the magazine for nearly 40 years. He also wrote for The Times and the Morning Chronicle.
After becoming a well-known figure in Whig circles, Brougham accepted the parliamentary seat of Camelford (a pocket borough) in 1810. Two years later he chose to stand as a candidate for Liverpool, but his support for the abolition of slavery led to his defeat. He entered the House of Commons again in 1815 as the member for Winchilsea. In 1830 he was appointed as Lord Chancellor, and raised to the peerage as Baron Brougham and Vaux.
As Lord Chancellor, Brougham was instrumental in ensuring that the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed. He also initiated reform of the legal system in England and Wales. However, he was mistrusted by many colleagues who suspected him of self-advancement at the expense of Whig policies. After Lord Melbourne’s ministry fell in 1834, he was never reappointed to public office. From 1841 onwards Brougham associated himself with the Tories.
Throughout his career, Brougham preferred to campaign on particular issues rather than conform to party discipline. He was best known for his support for mass state education, as Vice-President of the British and Foreign School Society. He also encouraged adult education through the Mechanics' Institutes, and helped to establish University College, London.