Browne, Arthur (1756?–1805), lawyer, legal and classical scholar, and MP, was born probably in Newport, Rhode Island, North America, the only son of Marmaduke Browne (1731–71), rector of Trinity church, Newport, and later a founding fellow of Rhode Island College (from 1804 Brown University), and Anne Franklin (d. 1767) of Bristol. His grandfather the Rev. Arthur Browne (1699–1773), a native of Co. Louth and a graduate of TCD (1726), emigrated to Rhode Island in 1729 as a protestant missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts; Marmaduke was also educated at Trinity (BA 1754, MA 1770) and from 1755 performed missionary work in New England for the same society. Arthur was educated in Newport and was admitted to Harvard College, Massachusetts, in 1771 but never studied there. Instead, after his father died (16 March 1771) of fever contracted on a long voyage from Ireland, he was sent to TCD (March 1772), with the financial help of the Newport congregation. At Trinity he was assisted by his father's friends, notably John Forsayeth, senior fellow and professor of laws (1782–5), but largely advanced on merit. He won a scholarship in 1774, graduating BA (1776), MA (1779), LLB (1780), and LLD (1784), entered the Middle Temple in London in 1777, and was called to the bar at King's Inns (1779). Elected junior fellow of TCD in 1777, he was appointed junior proctor of Dublin University (1784), senior fellow (1795), senior proctor, and vicar-general of the diocese of Kildare.
At the bar he built up a thriving legal practice, especially in admiralty cases, and was appointed KC (1795). In a celebrated case in 1789–90 he represented John Magee (qv), editor of the Dublin Evening Post, who was sued for libel by Richard Daly (qv), manager of the Theatre Royal. This drew attention to the use of judicial fiats to interfere with press freedom, and although Browne lost the case he helped to create such a public outcry against fiats that they were not used again against the press. Appointed regius professor of civil and canon law (1785), he was popular with students and, unlike many of his predecessors, took his academic duties seriously. He published A compendious view of the civil law and of the law of the admiralty (2 vols, 1797, 1799), a work that drew on his great classical and historical knowledge and was a model of clear analysis and exposition. Republished in London (1803) and New York (1840), it had a major influence on American maritime law. He also published A compendious view of the ecclesiastical law (1799). He had a detailed knowledge of international law, pioneered its teaching in Trinity, and is generally recognised as one of the most able and learned academic lawyers ever to teach there. Regius professor of Greek (1792–5, 1797–9, 1801–5) and MRIA (1797), he contributed articles on Roman history and Greek tenses to the Transactions of the RIA. In imitation of Montaigne, he published Miscellaneous sketches, or hints for essays (2 vols, 1798), a work that ranged over religion, literature, and law. He read widely in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, had a working knowledge of German, Hebrew, and Persian, and published a philological study, ‘Beauty and heart, an allegory’; translated from the Persian (1801). He also contributed several articles on Irish antiquities to the RIA's Transactions.
When in 1783 the college provost, John Hely-Hutchinson (qv), attempted to turn the university into a family borough, Browne opposed him and was elected MP for Dublin University (1783–1800) (reelected 1790, 1797). He identified with the Patriots and in a speech to the commons (10 November 1783) claimed that Ireland owed the achievement of legislative independence to events in America rather than British generosity. An ‘acute, strong, and forcible’ debater (Falkland, 32), he could match the best speakers in the house. He was a staunch supporter of the Church of Ireland, ably defending the payment of tithes in a protracted parliamentary debate with Henry Grattan (qv) in 1787; he also defended the record of the Irish legislature in A brief review of . . . whether the articles of Limerick have been violated (1788). Interested in social issues, he sponsored a bill to promote the formation of friendly societies to help the poor in difficult times. He was known for his parliamentary independence, and attempted to adopt a moderate stance in the 1790s, claiming that he was strongly opposed both to excessive executive power and to violent revolution. A member of the liberal Whig Club from 1790, he supported moderate parliamentary reform, but opposed the United Irishmen's more radical proposals. Similarly, he supported catholic emancipation, but believed that it should be introduced gradually, and deliberated long and hard before supporting the 1793 catholic relief bill; in the past he had been critical of catholics for fomenting agrarian disturbances over tithes. Willing to counter disaffection by force of arms, in December 1796 he was elected to command the first company of the college yeomanry corps, and later produced a short manual on military tactics (1797).
With the secession from parliament of many whigs in 1797, he was one of the most prominent liberal voices in the late 1790s. He spoke out strongly in the commons against the military excesses before and during the 1798 rebellion. Early in 1798 he defended two scholars who had been expelled from Trinity for their radical political sympathies, for which he was severely rebuked during the visitation of the college by Lord Clare (qv). After the rebellion, he opposed the 1799 coercion act, arguing that it was illegal to exercise martial law while the civil courts still functioned, and he also opposed legislation granting indemnity to magistrates who had gone beyond the law. Somewhat undecided on the act of union, in accordance with the wishes of his constituents he initially spoke and voted against it, but eventually he came round to support it, convinced that the Irish parliament had lost the confidence of its electorate and that union with Great Britain offered the best opportunity of peaceful progress for Ireland. He was one of only a dozen MPs who voted against the union in 1799 and for it in 1800. The defection of such a respected and independent figure was a great blow to the anti-union cause and he was bitterly denounced by anti-union whigs such as Grattan and William Conyngham Plunket (qv). Because of his support for the union, he lost his parliamentary seat in 1800, but was appointed to the board of accounts (1801) and made prime serjeant 29 December 1802 (the last person to hold this office); he was also made a privy counsellor (1802), and admitted a bencher of the King's Inns (1803). After a sudden bout of ‘dropsy’, he died 8 June 1805 in Clare St., Dublin, and was buried in St Anne's churchyard, Dawson St. Twice married, he had a daughter with his first wife, Marianne, and five children with his second, Bridget. A portrait of Browne (c.1795) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) is held in TCD.