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Charles Townshend (1725-1767)

This article was written by Albert Frederick Pollard; it was published in 1898

Charles Townshend, 1725-1767, chancellor of the exchequer, was born on 29 August 1725. He was the second son of Charles, third viscount Townshend by his wife Etheldreda or Audrey (d. 1788), daughter of Edward Harrison of Balls Park, Hertfordshire. His mother was ‘celebrated for her gallantries, eccentricities, and wit’. One of her witticisms, a reply to the question whether George Whitefield had recanted by the remark ‘he has only been canting,’ was considered by Gladstone to be Lord John Russell's most brilliant retort when repeated in another form. Charles Townshend's elder brother was George, fourth viscount and first marquis Townshend.

Charles was educated with Wilkes and Dowdeswell at Leyden, where he was admitted on 27 October 1745. Alexander Carlyle met him there in that year, and gives an amusing account of Townshend's being challenged by an irate Scot, (Sir) James Johnstone of Westerhall, in revenge for Townshend's jokes at his expense. Carlyle attributes to Townshend wit, humour, a turn for mimicry, and above all 'a talent of translating other men's thoughts ' into the most charming language'. On his return from Leyden he is said to have been sent to Oxford, but his name does not occur in Foster's ‘Alumni.’ On 30 June 1747 he was returned to parliament for Great Yarmouth. He attached himself to George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax and, when Halifax was placed at the head of the board of trade late in 1748, he gave Townshend a post in that office. Townshend soon ‘distinguished himself on affairs of trade and in drawing up plans and papers for that province. 'His figure was tall and advantageous, his action vehement, his voice loud, his laugh louder' (Walpole). He first made his mark in debate by his speech on 21 May 1753 in opposition to Hardwicke's proposed changes in the marriage law. In the redistribution of offices which followed Henry Pelham's death in March 1754, Townshend sought appointment as a lord of the treasury, but at length with some reluctance accepted a lordship of the admiralty He was elected for Saltash at the general election in April, yielding his former seat at Yarmouth to his cousin, Charles Townshend, afterwards Lord Bayning.

On 11 December following he made some stir by his attack on Lord Egmont, the ‘warmth, insolence, and eloquence’ of which deterred Egmont from accepting office. Some time in 1755 Townshend seems to have resigned, and in December he vigorously attacked Newcastle for his employment of German mercenaries. When Devonshire became prime minister, with Pitt secretary of state, in November 1756, Townshend was appointed treasurer of the chamber, being re-elected for Yarmouth on 13 December, and in April 1757 he was sworn of the privy council. The vacillation of his attitude towards the execution of Admiral Byng brought upon him the contempt of Pitt, but he retained his office throughout Pitt's great administration (1757-61).

On 15 August 1755 Townshend married at Adderbury Caroline, eldest daughter and coheir of John Campbell, second duke of Argyll and widow of Francis Scott, earl of Dalkeith. In 1758 he visited Dalkeith, and was presented with the freedom of the city of Edinburgh; he thought of standing for that city at the next general election, but was dissuaded by Alexander Carlyle, who was ‘considered as chaplain-in-ordinary to the family,’ and told Townshend that even the countess would oppose him. The ‘Select Society’ of Edinburgh broke its rules and elected Townshend a member in order to hear him talk one night.

On 18 March 1761 he succeeded Barrington as secretary-at-war, and in that capacity took an active part in the conduct of government business in the House of Commons. At the general election in the same month he was elected for Harwich. He was apparently opposed to the war with Spain, and in 1762, soon after Bute became prime minister, Townshend was succeeded as secretary-at-war by Welbore Ellis. He seems to have resigned in the expectation that Pitt would lead a vigorous opposition and soon return to power; but when he saw the weakness of the opposition and Pitt's disinclination to lead it, he repented, and at the end of February 1763 accepted the presidency of the board of trade. Grenville succeeded Bute in April, and offered Townshend the post of first lord of the admiralty; he refused to kiss the king's hand unless his nominee (Sir) William Burrell were also appointed to the board. This was refused, and it was intimated to Townshend that the king no longer required his services.

Townshend now became a frequent and unsparing critic of Grenville's administration. The death of Egremont and the necessity of strengthening his cabinet led Grenville to offer Townshend Egremont's secretaryship of state in August; but Townshend refused to take office without Pitt, and continued his attacks on Grenville's ministry. On 17 February 1764 he ‘made a most capital speech, replete with argument, history, and law,’ against the legality of general warrants and the outlawry of John Wilkes, whom, however, in spite of his former acquaintance, he said he abhorred. A few weeks later he issued a pamphlet, Defence of the Minority in the House of Commons on the Question relating to General Warrants. Almon says it was ‘universally read and highly esteemed’; but Horace Walpole, who wrote a rival pamphlet on the same side, describes it as quite ineffective. Nevertheless, in May 1765, when Henry Fox was dismissed, Townshend accepted from Grenville his office of paymaster-general and retained it throughout Rockingham's ministry, which succeeded Grenville in July, and fell twelve months later. That result was not a little due to Townshend's conduct. He ‘treated his colleagues with undisguised contempt, described the government of which he was a member as a 'lute-string administration fit only for summer wear,' and ostentatiously abstained from defending its measures'.

Pitt was now prevailed upon to form a second ministry, and on 2 August 1766 Townshend was appointed chancellor of the exchequer. The cabinet was a piece of patchwork, including politicians of every shade of opinion. Pitt weakened his own authority by retiring to the House of Lords, and ill-health soon prevented him from exercising any control over his colleagues. ‘In the scene of anarchy which ensued it was left for the strongest man to seize the helm. Unfortunately in the absence of Chatham that man was unquestionably the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend’. In November he openly flouted Chatham's authority by declaring that the East India Company ‘had a right to territorial revenue,’ of which Chatham was then promoting a measure to deprive it. At the same time he afforded a glaring example of the prevalent political corruption by using his position as chancellor of the exchequer to secure for himself a large share in a public loan. But the most disastrous results of Townshend's predominance were seen in America.

Parliament met on 16 January 1767, and Townshend presented his first budget. It included the usual land tax of four shillings in the pound; but his rivals, Grenville and Dowdeswell, combined to defeat it and reduce the tax to three shillings. Their motion was carried by 204 to 188 votes, and, according to long-standing precedent, a ministry defeated on a money bill should have resigned. Instead, Townshend set to work to devise means for meeting the deficiency of half a million thus created. On 26 January he declared himself a firm advocate of the principle of the Stamp Act repealed a few months before by Rockingham's ministry, of which he had himself been a member; and, to the astonishment of his colleagues, ‘pledged himself to find a revenue in America nearly sufficient for the purposes that were required.’ This pledge was perfectly unauthorised, ‘but, as the Duke of Grafton afterwards wrote, no one in the ministry had sufficient authority in the absence of Chatham to advise the dismissal of Townshend, and this measure alone could have arrested his policy’.

Meanwhile the East India Company's affairs again came before the house, and on 8 May Townshend made his famous ‘champagne speech,’ which, to judge from the accounts of contemporaries, must have been one of the most brilliant speeches ever delivered in the House of Commons. It had little relevance to the question at issue, but its wit and satire produced an extraordinary effect on those who heard it; even so critical an observer as Horace Walpole said ‘it was Garrick writing and acting extempore scenes of Congreve’. After its delivery Townshend went to supper at Conway's, where ‘he kept the table in a roar till two o'clock in the morning’. Five days later Townshend introduced his measures for dealing with America. The legislative functions of the New York assembly were to be suspended; commissioners of customs were to be established in America to superintend the execution of the laws relating to trade; and a port duty was imposed on glass, red and white lead, painters' colours, paper, and tea. The Americans received the news of these proposals with a burst of fury; anti-importation associations were formed, riots broke out, and the loyalist officials were reduced to impotence. Townshend did not live to see these developments. In July the city of London conferred its freedom upon him for his behaviour on the East India bill, and on 4 September he died, at the premature age of forty-two, ‘of a neglected fever.’

Townshend was one of those statesmen whose abilities are the misfortune of the country they serve. He impressed his contemporaries as a man of unrivalled brilliance, yet to obtain a paltry revenue of £40,000 he entered a path which led to the dismemberment of the empire. Burke lavished upon him a splendid panegyric and ‘the most gorgeous image in modern oratory,’ when he said ‘even before this splendid orb [Chatham] was entirely set, and while the western horizon was in a blaze with his descending glory, on the opposite quarter of the heavens arose another luminary [Townshend], and, for his hour, became lord of the ascendant.’ He was, declared Burke, ‘the delight and ornament of this house, and the charm of every private society which he honoured with his presence.’ According to Walpole ‘he had almost every great talent and every little quality' with such a capacity he must have been the greatest man of this age, and perhaps inferior to no man in any age, had his faults been only in a moderate proportion’. These faults are set forth in Smollett's character of him in Humphrey Clinker: ‘He would be a really great man if he had any consistency or stability of character. 'There's no faith to be given to his assertions, and no trust to be put in his promises. As for principle, that's out of the question.’ ‘Nothing,’ says Mr. Lecky, ‘remains of an eloquence which some of the best judges placed above that of Burke and only second to that of Chatham, and the two or three pamphlets which are ascribed to his pen hardly surpass the average of the political literature of the time. Exuberant animal spirits, a brilliant and ever ready wit, boundless facility of repartee, a clear, rapid, and spontaneous eloquence, a gift of mimicry which is said to have been not inferior to that of Garrick and Foote, great charm of manner, and an unrivalled skill in adapting himself to the moods and tempers of those who were about him, had made him the delight of every circle in which he moved, the spoilt child of the House of Commons.’

Townshend's widow, who had been created Baroness of Greenwich on 28 August 1767, died at Sudbrooke, Surrey, on 11 January 1794. She had issue by Townshend two sons: Charles (1758-1782), a captain of the 45th foot, who died unmarried on 28 October 1782; and William John (1761-1789), a captain, first in the 59th and then in the 44th foot, who died unmarried on 12 May 1789; and a daughter Anne, born 29 June 1756, who married, first, Richard Wilson, M.P. for Barnstaple, from whom she was divorced in 1798; and secondly, John Tempest.

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