Napier, Sir Joseph (1804–82), 1st baronet, judge and politician, was born 26 December 1804 in Belfast, son of William Napier, merchant (a descendant of a Scots gentry family, which included the inventor of logarithms), and his wife Rosetta (née Macnaghten). He was educated at the Belfast Academical Institution, where he was regarded as an exceptionally brilliant pupil; his teachers included James Sheridan Knowles (qv) and William Thomson. In later life he regularly presented Ulster as peaceful and prosperous proof that the ‘Irish question’ derived from catholicism and sedition rather than misgovernment or the land system.
Napier entered TCD in 1820, graduating BA in 1825 and MA in 1828, and then supported himself by journalism while continuing his studies in pursuit of a fellowship. He was active in an organisation known as the Oratorical Society with his friend and future brother-in-law James Whiteside (qv), and helped to revive at TCD the College Historical (debating) Society founded by Edmund Burke (qv). (Napier regarded Burke as the greatest Irishman ever; and identified himself with Burke as a Trinity statesman; his admiration for Burke's defence of church establishment, and the view that Burke's prosecution of Warren Hastings reflected a sense of moral duty towards India, were expressed by Napier in his demands for state support for Christian missionaries.) Napier was an outspoken defender of the confessional status of Trinity: he argued that Church of Ireland clerical students gained immeasurably from mixing socially with lay gentleman students, and that a separate theological college within a non-denominational university might create a cultural ghetto. Napier campaigned against catholic emancipation in 1828; after emancipation he moved from the stand-fast conservatism of Lord Eldon to the conservative reformism of Robert Peel (qv), but his whole career was underpinned by belief in a hierarchical society and an anglican confessional state.
In 1828 Napier married Charity Grace, the daughter of John Grace of Dublin. This impetuous love match, which produced a long and happy marriage and a family of two sons and three daughters, ruled out a Trinity fellowship (which required celibacy). Napier went to London, where he studied law at Gray's Inn and London University. He was admitted to the English bar in 1830, but in 1831 joined the Irish bar; he joined the north-eastern circuit and developed a flourishing practice. He published manuals on aspects of common law procedure, and became the only Dublin barrister to take pupils. In association with Tristram Kennedy (qv), he took a leading role in establishing the Irish Law Institute and campaigned to abolish the requirement for Irish law students to study in London.
Napier's legal reputation was made in the criminal trial of Sam Gray (qv) in 1843; after arguing Gray's case to the house of lords (at considerable trouble and expense) he established that a defendant's right to challenge jurors extended to non-capital felonies (a right later widely exercised by nationalist agitators). Daniel O'Connell (qv) sought Napier as defence counsel for his trial in 1844, but found that the crown had already engaged him for the prosecution. (O'Connell habitually called Napier ‘Holy Joe’, in reference to his effusive evangelical piety.) Napier became a queen's counsel in November 1844.
In 1847 Napier contested the Dublin University parliamentary seat against Frederick Shaw (qv) on an ultra-conservative platform. Shaw won, but his majority was so narrow that he resigned in 1848, when Napier was elected MP unopposed. Napier rapidly established a reputation as a lawyer–politician (he even provided informal advice to the whig government, whose Irish law officers were not MPs) and as an ultra-conservative. He joined the campaign against the Rate-in-Aid Act, enthusiastically supported the Ecclesiastical Titles Act (1851), and demanded state aid to the anglican denominational schools of the Church Education Society. He was a consistent opponent of Jewish emancipation and of the legalisation of marriage between a man and his deceased wife's sister. He spoke darkly of national doom if Britain were to abandon the connection between church and state. Despite his evangelicalism he had little time for dissent: he believed a state church was vital to prevent clerical encroachment on politics.
In 1852 Napier became attorney general for Ireland in Lord Derby's first government. In this capacity he introduced a ‘land code’ consisting of four bills that simplified court procedures in relation to land ownership, made it easier to obtain leases and secure loans for land improvement, and allowed tenants to claim compensation for improvements. These measures, aimed at securing support from tenant-right MPs, were opposed by many conservatives (and some liberals) as tantamount to confiscation; they collapsed with Derby's government. In later years, however, they enabled conservative leaders to claim a share of the credit for anticipating land reforms, and were seen by Napier's admirers as a missed opportunity to defuse Irish ‘sedition’.
In opposition, Napier continued to campaign for the reform and codification of British law (particularly in his capacity as head of the jurisprudential section of the Social Science Association). He helped to restrain Disraeli's schemes for securing Irish catholic support, which he felt would merely alienate the protestant middle classes of Britain and Ireland. His openly expressed disgust at evangelicals who hailed the promiscuous and sceptical Palmerston as a protestant champion led to an unsuccessful challenge to his re-election in 1857. In February 1858, when Derby formed his second government, Napier was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland, and held the office until June 1859, when the administration fell. Palmerston proposed to appoint him to the judicial commission of the privy council, but discovered that Irish judges were excluded by a technicality from serving in this capacity.
Napier was now without a position and devoted himself to literary and evangelical work. He prepared a popularised version of Bishop Butler's classic anglican apologetic Analogy of the Christian religion, and campaigned against anglo-catholic ‘ritualism’ and theological liberalism, serving on official commissions to standardise and modernise anglican clerical professions of faith (1864–5) and to regulate ritualism within the Church of England (1867–74). As president of TCD's College Historical Society (1854–82) and a leading figure in the Dublin Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) he sought to identify and assist promising young protestant professionals; his beneficiaries included Hugh Cairns (qv) and Edward Gibson (qv). From the mid-1860s Napier came to argue that Church of Ireland schools should seek state aid when they could not maintain themselves financially. This pragmatism, in which he was influenced by Archbishop Marcus Beresford (qv), was criticised as hypocritical by such former allies as the Belfast clergyman Rev. Thomas Drew (qv).
After the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland Napier hoped to regain the lord chancellorship or receive a judicial post from Derby's third government of 1866–8, but lost out to more politically influential rivals. These intrigues, which included anonymous accusations in the press that Napier's deafness (which he did not attempt to disguise) was too severe to allow him to function effectively in public office, triggered a permanent breach with Whiteside. He was consoled by a baronetcy in March 1867, and in that year also became vice-chancellor of Trinity. In March 1868 he was appointed to the judicial committee of the privy council, where he served with distinction. In 1874 the Disraeli government temporarily entrusted the Irish lord chancellorship to three commissioners, led by Napier. His duties ended just before the death of his eldest son and de facto secretary in December 1874.
Napier never recovered from this blow; he and his wife could no longer bear to live in Dublin and moved to Kensington in London. In 1876 Whiteside died unreconciled with Napier, who was physically overcome with grief at the funeral. In 1878 Napier suffered a stroke, which increased his deafness and led him to resign from the general synod, the Trinity vice-chancellorship, the YMCA (all 1880), and the privy council (1881). He died 9 December 1882 at St Leonards on Sea, Sussex, and was buried 15 December at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin.
Napier's distinctively mid-Victorian Irish toryism combined the legal confessionalism of Eldon with the conservative administrative reformism of Peel. Although accusations of hypocrisy have some foundation (he was capable of greeting a candidate for judicial office with effusive expressions of sympathy while privately blocking his appointment), they largely reflect the difficulty (experienced on a much larger scale by Gladstone) of combining high religious and moral professions of principle with the constraints and compromises required for political effectiveness. His extreme political and religious views should not overshadow his genuine (and never completely fulfilled) gifts as jurist and administrator.