James Ewing, businessman and politician, was one of Glasgow's best-known public figures of the early 19th century. Born and educated in Glasgow, he came from a large and well-connected family. His father, Walter Ewing Maclae (1744-1814) was an accountant who went on to make a fortune in the West India trade. Following the death of an uncle he had assumed the name Maclae in order to inherit the landed estate of Cathkin. By the 1790s the family had extensive sugar interests in Jamaica. Although James Ewing initially had hopes of becoming a lawyer, he bowed to parental pressure and joined the family business.
By the 1810s Ewing had become a dominating figure in the Merchants House – Glasgow's leading merchant guild – and the town council. Politically he was a "liberal" Tory, supporting progressive measures such as parliamentary reform. He was noted for his free trade sentiments, especially the need to break down the trade monopoly of the East India Company. The Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers (1780-1840), charismatic leader of the evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland, also strongly influenced Ewing's views on the moral value of public service.
Among his numerous civic and philanthropic activities, Ewing served as Lord Provost between 1832 and 1833. He topped the poll in Glasgow's first reformed General Election of 1832 and was an MP for the next three years. The Necropolis was his most celebrated project to improve the city. An elaborately landscaped cemetery, next to the Cathedral, it opened in 1833. However, Ewing's high public profile did not meet with universal approval. Above all, political opponents pointed out that his wealth had been built upon the use of slave labour in the West Indies. Differences were apparent in his own family, as his cousin, the Reverend Dr Ralph Wardlaw (1779-1853), was one of Scotland's leading anti-slavery campaigners.
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