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Sir William Molesworth (1810-1855)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1894

Sir William MolesworthSir William Molesworth, politician, born in Upper Brook Street, London, on 23 May 1810, was son of Sir Arscott-Ourry Molesworth, by Mary, daughter of Patrick Brown of Edinburgh. The Molesworths had been settled at Pencarrow, near Bodmin, Cornwall, since the time of Elizabeth I. Sir Arscott was the seventh baronet (created in 1688). William had a bad constitution and was disfigured in childhood by scrofula. He was sent very early to a boarding-school near London, where the boys teased him on account of his infirmity. His father died 30 December 1823. His mother then bestowed more care upon him; his health improved. With his mother and two sisters he removed during 1824 to Edinburgh, and studied at the university till 1827.

In that year he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, but soon migrated to Trinity. He gave promise of mathematical distinction, but a quarrel with his tutor led to his expulsion in April 1828. He sent his tutor a challenge, and both were bound over by the mayor of Cambridge to keep the peace for a year. Molesworth spent the next few months in the family of Dr. Bekker at Offenbach, near Frankfort, studying German and philosophy. At the end of a year he travelled by coach to Munich to fight the postponed duel with his Cambridge tutor. Lord Queensberry acted as his second. Shots were exchanged, but neither was hurt. Molesworth then broke away ‘for the south of Europe,’ and stayed at Rome and Naples, where he found some young Englishmen, with whom he indulged in ‘some youthful follies.’ His follies, however, did not prevent him from studying Arabic for several hours a day with a view to eastern travel.

His treatment by his father and at Cambridge had made him dislike all authority; in Germany he had become democratic; in Scotland, sceptical; and he had found Cambridge at a period of remarkable intellectual ‘activity’. The utilitarian propaganda had been actively carried on there by Charles Buller and others. Receiving news at Naples of the growing excitement about parliamentary reform, he thought it a duty to take part in the contest. He made his first public appearance at a reform meeting in Cornwall in 1831; and he was returned as member for East Cornwall (December 1832) in the first reformed parliament. His Cornish connection made him known to Charles Buller, who had also been his contemporary at Cambridge, and was returned at the same election for Liskeard. He made the acquaintance of Grote in the house of commons, and by Grote was introduced to James Mill. Mill thought highly of his abilities, and he was accepted as one of the faithful utilitarians. Grote was for some years his political and philosophical mentor. He was also a favourite of Mrs. Grote, to whom he confided more than one love affair at this period. Two young ladies, to whom he made offers, rejected him at the bidding of their guardians on account of his infidel and radical opinions. Molesworth was embittered by his disappointments; and for some years tried to console himself by study, and received many reproaches from Mrs. Grote for his unsocial habits. He declared that he preferred to be disliked.

Molesworth was again returned for East Cornwall at the general election at the end of 1835. He had meanwhile projected the ‘London Review,’ of which the first number appeared in April 1835. James Mill contributed to it his last articles, and J. S. Mill was practically editor; while it was supported by the ‘philosophical radicals’ generally. In 1836 Molesworth purchased the ‘Westminster Review’ and amalgamated the two. In 1837 he transferred the ownership to J. S. Mill.

Molesworth continued to follow Grote's lead in politics. He voted against the repeal of the malt-tax under Peel's short administration in 1835, because he could not bear to vote against Grote, though many radicals differed from him. He was also a staunch supporter of the ballot — Grote's favourite measure — but his especial province was colonial policy. He obtained a committee to inquire into the system of transportation in 1837, and wrote the report. He continued to attack the system, and contributed to its ultimate abandonment. In his colonial policy he accepted the theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, then in much favour. He supported all measures for colonial self-government, and protested with his party against the coercive measures adopted by the whig ministry during the Canadian troubles, after championing Lord Durham's policy. The ‘philosophical radicals,’ however, gradually sank into insignificance. As early as 1836 Buller observed to Grote that their duties would soon be confined to ‘telling’ Molesworth. His Cornish constituency became dissatisfied with him, he was disliked by the country gentlemen for his extreme views, the whigs resolved to give him up, and he did not satisfy the agricultural interest. He wrote to his constituents (September 1836) that he should not stand again, and looked out for a metropolitan constituency. He took part in founding the Reform Club during the same year. He was finally accepted as a candidate for Leeds, and was elected with Edward Baines in July 1837. An attempt to form a ‘radical brigade’ in this parliament failed, owing to a proposal from O'Connell to join it. The radicals were afraid that they would be swamped, and the scheme fell through. On 2 March 1838 Molesworth moved a vote of censure upon the colonial secretary. An amendment was proposed by Lord Sandon condemning the Canadian policy, when the original motion was withdrawn. The government had a majority of 29, Molesworth and Grote not voting.

During the next few years Molesworth was much occupied with his edition of ‘Hobbes's Works.’ It was published in sixteen volumes, from 1839 to 1845, with dedication in English and Latin to Grote. He engaged as literary assistant Mr. Edward Grubbe. The book is said to have cost ‘many thousand pounds.’ It is the standard edition; but unfortunately Molesworth never finished the life of Hobbes, which was to complete it, although at his death it was reported to be in manuscript. Molesworth joined Grote in subsidising Comte in 1840.

At the general election of 1841 Molesworth did not stand. He had offended many of his constituents in 1840 by holding a peace meeting at Leeds during the French difficulties of 1840, when he strongly advocated an alliance with France and attacked Russia. He remained quietly at Pencarrow studying mathematics. Another love affair, of which Mrs. Grote gives full details, had occupied him in 1840 and 1841, which again failed from the objections of the family to his principles. In 1844, however, he met a lady, who was happily at her own disposal. He was married, on 4 July 1844, to Andalusia Grant, daughter of Bruce Carstairs, and widow of Temple West of Mathon Lodge, Worcestershire. His friends thought, according to Mrs. Grote, that the lady's social position was too humble to justify the step. Mrs. Grote says that she defended him to her friends, but Molesworth, hearing that she had made some ‘ill-natured remarks about his marriage,’ curtly signified to her husband his wish to hear no more from her. Although Charles Austin made some attempts to make up the quarrel, the intimacy with the Grotes was finally broken off.

Molesworth after his marriage gave up his recluse habits, being anxious, as Mrs. Grote surmises, to show that he could conquer the world, from which he had received many mortifications. It may also be guessed that his marriage had made him happier. In any case he again entered parliament, being returned for Southwark in September 1845, with 1,943 votes against 1,182 for a tory candidate, and 352 for the representative of the dissenters and radicals, Edward Miall. His support of the Maynooth grant was the chief ground of opposition, and a cry was raised of ‘No Hobbes!’ Molesworth retained his seat at Southwark till his death.

On 20 May 1851 he moved for the discontinuance of transportation to Van Diemen's Land, but the house was counted out. He gave a general support to the whigs in the following years, and upon the formation of Lord Aberdeen's government in January 1853 became first commissioner of the board of works, with a seat in the cabinet. Cobden regarded his accession to office as an apostasy, and on the approach of the Crimean war taunted him with inconsistency. Molesworth defended himself by referring to the Leeds speech of 1840, in which he had avowed the same foreign policy. He had, however, broken with his old allies. He has the credit of having opened Kew Gardens to the public on Sundays. Upon Lord John Russell's resignation in 1855, Molesworth became colonial secretary (2 July). It was a position for which he had specially qualified himself; but his strength had already failed. He died 22 October following, and was buried at Kensal Green.

As Molesworth left no issue, and as his brothers had died before him, his cousin, the Rev. Sir Hugh Henry Molesworth, succeeded to the baronetcy. He left Pencarrow to his widow for her life. She was a well-known member of London society till her death, 16 May 1888. His sister Mary became in 1851 the wife of Richard Ford, author of the ‘Handbook to Spain.’

Mrs. Grote says of him at the age of twenty-three, he had ‘a pleasant countenance, expressive blue eyes, florid complexion, and light brown hair; a slim and neatly made figure, about 5 ft. 10 in. in height, with small, well-shaped hands and feet.’ His health was always weak, and caused him many forebodings. This, as well as his unlucky love affairs and the dispiriting position of his party, probably increased his dislike to society in early life. In late years he seems to have been much liked. He was no debater; his speeches in parliament were carefully prepared essays, but were received with respect.

Molesworth reprinted some of his speeches in parliament, and wrote articles in the ‘London and Westminster Review.’

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