Origins and education
Vernon was a younger son of Francis Vernon of London (a scion of the Vernons of Haslington, Cheshire, and Hanbury, Staffordshire), by his wife, Anne Welby, widow daughter of George Smithes, a London goldsmith. Like his elder brother Francis, he was an alumnus of Charterhouse and Oxford, where he matriculated from Christ Church on 19 July 1662, graduated B.A. in 1666, and proceeded M.A. in 1669. In 1676 he was incorporated at Cambridge, which university he represented in the parliament of 1678-9.
Rise to prominence
Vernon was employed by Sir Joseph Williamson to collect news in Holland in March 1671-2, and in the following June attended Lord Halifax on his mission to Louis XIV. On his return he became secretary to the Duke of Monmouth; he it was that erased the obnoxious adjective 'natural' from the patent conferring the command-in-chief upon the duke in 1674 but left his service in 1678. He then entered the secretary of state's office as clerk and gazetteer, i.e. editor of the London Gazette. These duties he exchanged on the revolution for the post of private secretary to Lord Shrewsbury. On Shrewsbury's resignation, Vernon served in the same capacity Sir John Trenchard, by whom he was employed in Flanders in the summer of 1692 to furnish reports of the movements of the army to Sir William Dutton Colt, British minister at Celle. In 1693 he was appointed to a commissionership of prizes, which he held until 1705. On 30 October 1695 he was returned to parliament for Penryn, Cornwall, and on 22 July 1698 for Westminster, which seat he continued to hold until the dissolution of 2 July 1702. He again represented Penryn in the parliaments of 1705-7 and 1708-10. On Shrewsbury's return to power (March 1693-4) Vernon resumed in name his former relations with him. Shrewsbury's ill-health, however, and the course of events soon thrust Vernon into prominence, and during the king's absences on the continent he acted as secretary to the lords justices. On him fell the main burden of investigating the assassination plot, and of hushing up the charges brought by Sir John Fenwick (1645–1697) against Godolphin, Shrewsbury, Marlborough, and Russell. In support of the bill for Fenwick's attainder he made on 25 November 1696 the only important speech which he is recorded to have delivered throughout his parliamentary career. The dexterity which he displayed in this affair, and Shrewsbury's virtual retirement, enhanced his consequence, and at Sunderland's suggestion he received the seals on the resignation of Sir William Trumbull, and was sworn of the privy council (5 December 1697). Though he did not formally succeed to Shrewsbury's department on his resignation, 12 December 1698, he was thenceforth virtually secretary for both departments until the delivery of the southern seals to the Earl of Jersey, 14 May 1699.
Secretary of State
By the king Vernon was treated rather as a clerk than as a minister. He was hardly more than cognisant of the negotiations for the peace of Ryswick, and of the partition treaty he knew nothing until the draft was placed in his hands for transmission to Lord Somers. He went down to Tunbridge Wells with a mind made up against the treaty, and, though he drafted the blank commission and transmitted it to Holland, he fully approved, if he did not inspire, the letter with which Somers accompanied it (28 August 1698). When the treaty was signed he drafted the necessary forms of ratification and procured their authentication by Somers under the great seal. With Somers alone of the ministers in England, he shared the secret of the separate articles. When the treaty came before the notice of parliament, Portland, who bore the first brunt of the attack, sought to share his responsibility with Vernon, whom he represented as cognisant of and concurring in the negotiation from the outset. Vernon cleared himself from this charge by producing with the king's leave the relevant correspondence, and, though no less responsible than Somers for the course taken at Tunbridge Wells, he was omitted from the articles of impeachment and was continued in office. He was, in fact, sole secretary during the interval, 2 May - 5 November 1700, between Jersey's resignation and the appointment of Sir Charles Hedges, and retained the seals when Hedges gave place to the Duke of Manchester on 1 January 1701-2.
Dismissal and later years
A staunch Whig, Vernon viewed with undisguised alarm the death of the Duke of Gloucester (30 July 1700), and proposed that the king should again marry and the succession be settled, in default of issue, in the Hanoverian line, thus passing over Anne. This proposition rendered him so odious to the tories that, soon after the accession of Anne, he was dismissed and replaced by the Earl of Nottingham. By way of pension he was provided (29 June 1702) with the sinecure office of Teller of the Receipt of the Exchequer, of which he was deprived on the decisive victory of the Tories in 1710, he was one of the commissioners to whom, on 28 August 1716, the privy seal was entrusted during Sunderland's absence on the continent, but held no other office during the reign of George I. His last days were spent in retirement at Watford, Hertfordshire, where he died on 31 January 1726-7. His remains were interred in Watford parish church.
Vernon married, by license dated 6 April 1675, Mary (d. 12 Oct. 1715), daughter of Sir John Buck, bart. He had issue by her two sons and two daughters, one of whom Mary married Michael Harrison, M.P. for Lisburn, Co. Antrim. His eldest son, James (died 1756), was ambassador to Copenhagen. His younger son, Edward Vernon (1684–1757), became an admiral, who was famous for his victory at Porto Bello. Vernon's son by his second wife Arethusa, Francis, was created Earl of Shipbrook in 1777.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Lee, Sidney, ed. (1899). "Vernon, James". Dictionary of National Biography 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co.