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Vansittart, Nicholas, first Baron Bexley (1766-1851)

This article was written by William Carr and was published in 1899

Nicholas Vansittart, chancellor of the exchequer, was born on 29 April 1766 in Old Burlington Street, London. He was the fifth son of Henry Vansittart (1732-1770), governor of Bengal, by Emilia, daughter of Nicholas Morse, governor of Madras. On his father being lost at sea in 1770, Nicholas was placed under the guardianship of his uncles, Sir Robert Palk and Arthur Vansittart. He was educated at Mr. Gilpin's school at Cheam, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he matriculated on 29 March 1784, and graduated B.A. 1787 and M.A. 1791. On 16 June 1814 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L.

Becoming a student of Lincoln's Inn on 21 April 1788, he was called to the bar 26 May 1791, and went the northern circuit for about a year, but never devoted himself to his profession. He was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn on 12 November 1812. In London he at first associated with a somewhat gay set in fashionable society, but soon turned seriously to politics and proved himself a useful pamphleteer in support of Pitt's government. In 1793 he published ‘Reflections on the Propriety of an Immediate Peace,’ in which he maintained the necessity for the war, and the folly of trusting to an uncertain peace. In 1794 and 1795 he defended Pitt's finance in ‘A Reply to the Letter addressed to Mr. Pitt by Jasper Wilson,’ and in ‘Letters to Mr. Pitt on the Conduct of the Bank Directors;’ and in 1796 he published ‘An Inquiry into the State of the Finances of Great Britain, in Answer to Mr. Morgan's Facts respecting the State of the War and the Actual Debt.’

Having thus shown himself likely to be useful to the government in the House of Commons, he was returned as M.P. for Hastings on 25 May 1796, and continued to sit in the house for the next twenty-six years, being returned for Old Sarum on 12 July 1802, Helston on 3 November 1806, East Grinstead on 8 June 1812, and for Harwich on 6 October 1812, in possession of which seat he remained until he was made a peer. From almost the commencement to the end of his parliamentary career he attached himself to Addington. He had joined as cornet in 1797 the City of London and Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, a fashionable regiment in which he was promoted lieutenant in 1798 and captain in 1799.

In February 1801, under the Addington administration, Vansittart was selected to conduct the special mission to Copenhagen; his instructions from Lord Hawkesbury were to make clear the position of England, and to detach the court of Denmark from the northern alliance. His mission was unsuccessful, Denmark resenting too keenly the lengths to which the claim to search neutral vessels for contraband of war had been carried, and on 16 March Vansittart applied for his passports. In March, after his return, he was appointed joint secretary of the treasury, and held this office with credit till the resignation of the ministry on 26 April 1804. He was fortunate in possessing a good friend in the Duke of Cumberland, who warmly recommended him in July to both the king and Pitt as secretary for Ireland. Pitt objected to him at first as being likely to alarm the catholics, and as not being a sufficiently good debater in the house; but at the beginning of January 1805 he received the appointment, and was admitted member of the privy council on 14 January. His short term of Irish office was undistinguished, and he failed to find himself in complete accord with the lord lieutenant, Lord Hardwicke. Addington (now Lord Sidmouth) left the administration in July 1805, and Vansittart followed his example in September. On Grenville's administration following the death of Pitt, Vansittart again took the secretaryship to the treasury, coming in as one of Sidmouth's friends, and during this period of his office was the first to summon Nathan Meyer Rothschild to the assistance of the treasury.

In March 1807 he resigned, with his chief, Sidmouth, just before the break-up of the administration. In the session of 1809, during the debate on the resumption of cash payments, he proposed and carried without opposition thirty-eight resolutions relating to the total war expenditure, sinking fund, and the imports and exports of the United Kingdom, and declaring that the national resources were sufficient to provide for the defence, independence, and honour of the country. He had now so established his reputation as a financier that in October 1809 Perceval, hoping to secure Sidmouth's followers without their leader, offered the chancellorship of the exchequer to Vansittart. He, however, refused to desert his chief , and was the first of five to whom the office was on this occasion ineffectually offered. Despite his refusal, he remained on very friendly terms with Perceval.

On the report of the bullion committee in May 1811 Vansittart took the leading part in defeating Francis Horner's resolutions in favour of the resumption of cash payments, and proposed in their place, on 13 May, fourteen resolutions drawn up by the request of Perceval, to the effect that an immediate resumption was inexpedient, and that the restriction in cash payments had no connection with the unfavourable state of the exchanges. The third resolution, which affirmed that the promissory notes of the bank of England were held in public estimation to be equivalent to the legal coin of the realm, brought upon the author a good deal of ridicule. Notwithstanding Canning's declaration that no assembly of reasonable men could be persuaded to give their concurrence, all the resolutions were passed. On Sidmouth eventually joining the Perceval administration, Vansittart was at first suggested as lord treasurer and chancellor of the exchequer for Ireland; but the assassination of the prime minister on 11 May gave him a chance of higher office, and he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer on 20 May 1812.

Vansittart came into office at one of the most embarrassing periods in the history of English finance. The plan of his first budget, which was presented on 17 June 1812, was due to his predecessor; but Vansittart made new proposals for taxation, preferring additions to the existing taxes on male servants, carriages, horses, dogs, agricultural and trade horses, to Perceval's proposed tax on private brewing establishments. On 3 March 1813 he brought forward, in a number of resolutions in the House of Commons, a ‘new plan of finance’, dealing with the sinking fund. Under this plan, by repealing portions of the sinking fund bill, 42 George III, c. 71, it was believed the great advantage could be secured of keeping in reserve in time of peace the means of funding a large sum in case of renewed hostilities. The plan was adversely criticised by Huskisson, and Tierney said he was warranted in asserting that he had not met a single man who understood it; but the resolutions were agreed to seriatim on 26 March 1813. This scheme was the first specimen of similar contrivances by Vansittart, all burdened with mysterious complications, which, after first winning from the public a puzzled admiration for the ability of their author, eventually brought him into disrepute. The main feature in the budget of 1813 was a general twenty-five per cent. increase of the customs to raise an extra £1,000,000 required by the ‘new plan of finance.’

Hopes of relief to the burdened taxpayers which the peace excited were disappointed by the budget of 1814. The chancellor of the exchequer found himself obliged not only to maintain the war taxes, £20,500,000 in amount, but also to raise immense loans for the sinking fund, which he insisted on maintaining. The difficulty of providing sufficient specie for the wants of the army and for the payment of foreign subsidies was successfully met by employing Rothschild to collect with great secrecy bullion for the continent. During Castlereagh's absence in Paris in 1815 the administration was represented by Vansittart in the commons. He somewhat prematurely on 23 February 1815 explained what new taxes were about to take the place of the property tax; but the escape of Napoleon made provision necessary in the budget of 14 June 1815 for the enormous expenditure of £79,893,300, which was again met by a renewal of the war taxes and the issue of further loans. In this year the taxation of this country reached an unprecedented total.

On 12 February 1816, in committee of supply, the chancellor of the exchequer presented his financial policy for a period of peace. This was to consist of a diminution of taxation and ‘a system of measures for the support of public credit.’ His proposal, however, to reduce instead of abolish the property tax was treated as a breach of good faith, the contention being that it was entirely a war tax. Numerous petitions strengthened discontent existing in the house, and the minister's motion for the continuance of the tax was rejected on 18 March. Vansittart thus found himself deprived of £7,000,000 of revenue on which he had calculated; and on 20 March, owing to the pressure of the country members, he announced the discontinuance of the war malt tax. The loss of £2,700,000 from this source, and about £1,000,000 from other duties repealed, he appears to have regarded as of little consequence, ‘as recourse to the money market was now necessary.’ To make up for the loss of taxes producing some £18,000,000, he made additions to the post dues and excise, and a considerable increase on the soap tax. For this last he was caricatured as ‘Startling Betty’ by appearing in the wash-tub. Payment of debt by the sinking fund to the amount of more than £14,000,000 was in the budget provided for as usual by further loans.

In the debates on the consolidation of the British and Irish exchequers, Vansittart thought himself precluded from taking part as an interested party; he was strongly in favour of the consolidation, which was agreed to on 20 May 1816.

A new method of raising money was propounded in his budget speech of 14 May 1818. He proposed the issue of £27,000,000 at three and a half in the place of a similar amount of three-per-cent. stock, and recommended this unusual process as not increasing the nominal capital of the debt, and as affording facilities in the future for a reduction of the four and five per cents. The methods of the chancellor of the exchequer began now to be subjected to severe criticism. On the debate (2 February 1819) on the continuance of the Bank Restriction Act, Tierney attacked the whole conduct of Vansittart's finance, asserting that the minister added to the debt by exchequer bills as fast as he reduced it by the sinking fund.

The budget of 1819 was framed on the principle enunciated in the regent's speech for the year, that a clear available surplus of £5,000,000 ought to be applied annually to the reduction of the national debt. To effect this Vansittart proposed a consolidation of the customs and increased taxation to the extent of £3,190,000, and to make up his deficiency availed himself of the simpler method of borrowing £12,000,000 from the £15,000,000 applicable under the sinking fund to the reduction of the debt. The same policy was continued in 1820 and 1821, the requirements of the exchequer being provided for by borrowing from the sinking fund and issuing much smaller new loans, the chancellor clinging to some maintenance of the sinking fund, first for the sake of public credit, and secondly to prevent undue fluctuations in the price of stock. The heavy increase, however, of taxation in times of peace began to make Vansittart universally unpopular in the country, and on 14 June 1821 a motion for the repeal of the tax on horses employed in agriculture was carried against him in the house.

The conversion of the navy five per cents to a four-per-cent. stock, the most successful piece of finance with which Vansittart can be credited in his long term of office, was carried into effect without much difficulty in 1822. By this operation £105 of the new stock was given for each £100 of the old, and an annual saving of £1,140,000 was thus effected at the cost of an addition of £7,000,000 to the capital debt of this country. A similar arrangement for the conversion of the Irish five per cents was executed with equal facility the same year. The financial plan which Vansittart produced the same year for relieving in some degree the immediate burden of military and naval pensions was, however, from the first doomed to complete failure. His proposition was to grant to contractors a fixed annuity for forty-five years, calculated at about £2,800,000, while the contractors for the annuity were to pay sums sufficient to meet the pensions due during a term of forty-five years. In other words, the plan was simply the contracting for annual loans for the next fifteen years, which were to be repaid by a gradually increasing annuity continuing for thirty years after the expiration of the first fifteen year. This scheme, ingenious only in its unnecessary complication, ‘the most curious specimen of the most ruinous species of borrowing that the wit of man could devise’, after being completely exposed by Ricardo, Brougham, and Hume, but yet accepted by the house, happily could not be carried into effect, as no capitalists were ready to accept the risk. Subsequently (24 May 1822) very considerable modifications were made in the plan, under which trustees were nominated to lend specified sums for fifteen years, to be raised by exchequer bills on the sale of annuities. Here, however, there was obvious waste in appointing trustees to sell annuities and exchequer bills while the commissioners were being employed at the same time under the sinking fund. For this extravagance Vansittart made some amends by the passing of an act under which the salaries of all civil servants were considerably reduced, and a provision for superannuation made by reserving a percentage out of each salary. He attempted to conciliate public opinion by proposing, in his last budget, the immediate reduction of the tax on salt from fifteenpence to twopence per hundred weight. But the ‘plan of finance’ had destroyed any remaining confidence placed in him, and his retirement from office (December 1822) was regarded with relief even by his own friends.

The spiteful story that he was dismissed by a letter from Lord Liverpool's secretary is, however, absolutely untrue. Lord Liverpool wrote to him (14 December 1822) explaining the proposed rearrangement of the cabinet in order to include Huskisson and Robinson, and at the same time offered him the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster and a seat in the cabinet. Vansittart accepted this new arrangement without hesitation, and on 1 March 1823 was created Baron Bexley of Bexley in Kent, and awarded a pension of £3,000 per annum. In the debates in the House of Lords he took an occasional but not important part. He moved the Spitalfields weavers bill on 16 July 1823, which had been framed by Huskisson to repeal the Spitalfields acts, and voted with Liverpool (24 May 1824) for the second reading of the English Roman catholic elections bill. He accepted Canning's invitation to retain his office in the new cabinet (January 1828), but was omitted from the Duke of Wellington's administration, and did not again secure office.

During the remainder of his long life Bexley took an active part in aid of religious and charitable societies, being for many years president of the British and Foreign Bible Mission and a strong supporter of the Church Missionary and Prayer Book and Homily societies. He also materially assisted in the foundation and the promotion of the interests of King's College, London. He died on 8 February 1851 at Foot's Cray in Kent, when his peerage became extinct.

He married, 22 July 1806, Catharine Isabella, second daughter of William Eden, first baron Auckland. She died without issue on 10 August 1810.

The remarkable feature in Vansittart's political career is that he held for twelve years the office of chancellor of the exchequer, though possessing no special qualifications, at perhaps the most difficult financial period in English history. Despite, however, his weak points as an economist and financier, he could justly boast that he left the country in possession of a surplus revenue of £7,000,000. A mild-mannered man, most ineffective in debate, he yet had many friends, and his mediocre abilities with accommodating and moderate views probably account for his holding office from 1801 to 1828 with the exception of only two years. He took a keen interest in foreign politics, and maintained a lengthy correspondence with D'Ivernois and Generals Miranda and Dumourier, which is preserved among his papers in the British Museum.

Vansittart was a high steward of Harwich, a director of Greenwich Hospital, a F.R.S. and F.S.A.; and received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh on 2 March 1814.

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