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This article was written by William Carr and was published in 1895
Lord Lansdowne, a statesman, was the only son of the second marriage of William Petty, second earl of Shelburne and first marquis of Lansdowne. His mother was Lady Louisa Fitzpatrick, daughter of John, earl of Upper Ossory. He was born on 2 July 1780 at Lansdowne House, and was educated at Westminster School, under the special care of a private tutor, the Rev. Mr. Debarry, and from his earliest years was trained with a view to public life. From Westminster School he was sent, together with Lord Ashburton, under the tutelage of Mr. Debarry, to Edinburgh. Shelburne is said to have chosen Edinburgh rather than Oxford for his son's academic training owing to the advice of his friend, Jeremy Bentham. At Edinburgh he attended the lectures of Professor Dugald Stewart, with Henry John Temple, afterwards third Viscount Palmerston, Brougham, Cockburn, Jeffrey, Horner, and Sydney Smith, and the political ideas of Petty and his fellow students were formed, to some extent, in Stewart's class-room.
While at Westminster School Petty had been a frequent attendant at the debates in the House of Commons, and at Edinburgh he became a prominent member of the Speculative Society, to which he was admitted on 17 January 1797, and of which he was elected an honorary member on 1 May 1798. From Edinburgh he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. 1801. In 1811 he was created LL.D. On leaving the university in 1802 he set out, on the conclusion of the peace of Amiens, on the grand tour, in the company of M. Etienne Dumont, an intimate friend of Mirabeau, and the translator into French of Bentham's works.
Returning to England on the renewal of the war, he almost immediately entered the House of Commons as member for Calne, at the age of twenty-two. He appears to have first directed his attention to financial questions, and delivered his maiden speech in 1804 on the Bank Restriction Act. The leaders of both parties soon marked the political promise displayed by the young member. Fox wrote of him, ‘The little he has done is excellent; good sense and good language to perfection’; and Pitt showed his appreciation by making him an offer of subordinate office in 1804. This Petty declined, being determined to attach himself to Fox. In April 1805 he made a very able speech in answer to Pitt's attempt to defend Lord Melville as treasurer of the navy, and left no doubt as to the party to which he was to belong through life. On the meeting of parliament in January 1806 he was selected to move an amendment to the address; but Pitt was lying on his deathbed, and at the last moment the opposition refrained from the attack. On the formation, after the death of Pitt, of the administration of ‘All the Talents’ under Lord Grenville, Petty found himself chancellor of the exchequer at the age of twenty-five. He took office as member for the university of Cambridge, having secured the seat (vacated by the death of Pitt) after a contest with Lord Althorp and Lord Palmerston. It was of this election and of Petty's and Palmerston's rival candidatures that Byron wrote in the ‘Hours of Idleness:’
One on his power and place depends,
The other on the Lord knows what,
Each to some eloquence pretends,
Though neither will convince by that.
The young chancellor of the exchequer, finding that the exigencies of the war made fresh taxation absolutely necessary, boldly introduced on 28 March 1806, and carried after considerable opposition, a new property tax, raising the tax from six and a half per cent. to ten per cent., and at the same time cutting down and regulating more strictly the exemptions. The best service that he rendered during his brief term of office was in bringing forward the New Auditors Bill on 21 May 1806, when he forcibly directed public attention to the condition of the finance of the country, showing that there were arrears of public money not accounted for amounting to the sum of £455,000,000.
On 29 January 1807 he produced a novel and ingenious but unsound scheme for providing for the next fourteen years' war expenditure. The money was to be raised by annual loans, to be charged on the war taxes, then estimated to produce £28,000,000 a year, and provision was made for interest on the loans, and for a sinking fund for their redemption, by the appropriation of the extra war taxes. Portions of the pledged war taxes, when successively liberated by the redemption of the loans through the action of the sinking fund, would, it was supposed, if the war continued, become capable of again being pledged on the raising of fresh loans in a revolving series. The eleven resolutions in which this plan was formulated were, after severe criticism, agreed to by the house; but on the Grenville administration going out of office, they were subsequently negatived on 14 July 1807. The ministry resigned on 8 April 1807, on the king's demand for a pledge from the cabinet against the introduction of the catholic question, and on 8 May Petty lost his seat for the university of Cambridge, mainly in consequence of his expressed sympathy with the catholic claims.
He entered the new parliament, which met on 22 June 1807, as member for Camelford, and immediately became a prominent and active leader of the opposition. On 21 January 1808, on the discussion of the address, he strongly supported Mr. Whitbread in his condemnation of the attack on Copenhagen, and spoke frequently on all questions of importance during the session. In November 1809, on the death of his half-brother, who had succeeded his father as second Marquis of Lansdowne, Petty's career in the House of Commons terminated at a moment when his services as a leader were specially required, and the influence which for the rest of his life he exercised over his party was maintained by him, as Marquis of Lansdowne, in the House of Lords.
For twenty years following on the death of Fox the disorganisation of the whig party was complete, the opposition at times appearing only to exist in the drawing-rooms of Lansdowne, Devonshire, and Holland houses. During this period Lord Lansdowne took a regular and prominent part in the debates in the House of Lords. He proved himself a warm supporter of the abolition of the slave trade, moving an address to the regent on the subject on 30 June 1814, and on 1 June 1815 moving the second reading of a bill designed to prevent English subjects from lending capital to assist in the carrying on of the trade; again, five years later, on 9 July 1819, he co-operated with Wilberforce by taking charge in the lords of an address to the crown similar to that moved at the same date in the commons. He showed warm sympathy with the South American insurgents in their struggle for independence by opposing on 28 June 1819 the Foreign Enlistment Bill, a measure designed to prevent British subjects fighting on behalf of revolted colonies.
Lansdowne's views on the development of trade were clearly expressed, in May 1820, in a speech proposing the appointment of a committee to consider the means of extending our foreign commerce, when he pronounced himself in favour of free trade. A true liberal in his love of tolerance, he opposed on 6 December 1819 the second reading of the bill for the prevention of blasphemous and seditious libels; moved on 2 April 1824 the Unitarian Marriage Bill; and subsequently advocated the removal of the political disabilities of the Jews. But catholic emancipation was the political question which more than any other engrossed his attention during this period. When supporting Lord Donoughmore's introduction of the Irish Roman catholic petition in the House of Lords on 18 June 1811, he declared that the granting of the catholic claims was in his opinion necessary to the completion of the union; he again supported Lord Donoughmore's motion to call attention to the petition of the Roman catholics praying for relief, on 17 May 1819, and in 1824 he introduced two bills evidently designed to prepare the way for the consideration of the whole Roman catholic question in the next session; the first of these measures conferred the parliamentary franchise on English catholics, the second declared them eligible for various offices, and removed the disability of the Duke of Norfolk from exercising the office of earl marshal. Though both bills were rejected, Lansdowne received the support of five cabinet ministers, including Lord Liverpool.
In April 1827 Lansdowne was mainly instrumental in bringing about the coalition between a section of the whigs and the followers of Canning. Two conditions of this alliance were that the Roman catholic question should not be made a cabinet question, and that parliamentary reform should be a forbidden subject. Although the bulk of the whig party agreed with Canning on the catholic question, and supported his later foreign policy, Lansdowne's action in supporting a coalition occasioned a temporary split in the party, Lord Grey and Lord Althorp, and a considerable following, refusing to either join or support the ministry. The Duke of Bedford wrote to Lord John Russell, 29 April 1827, that Lansdowne had ‘been the victim and dupe of the two greatest rogues, politically speaking, in the kingdom'. Although his action displeased members of his party, it gave great satisfaction to O'Connell . Very shortly after the formation of this coalition administration, Lansdowne entered the cabinet without office; but in July 1827 Sturges Bourne, probably by previous arrangement, gave place to him in the home department. On the death of Canning, the news of which Lansdowne was deputed to announce to the king at Windsor, another ministerial crisis ensued, but was overcome by Lansdowne and his friends assisting Lord Goderich to form a ministry . Possibly this was the one occasion in his life when he would not have been unwilling to become prime minister; certainly his friends thought at the moment that his pretensions were not sufficiently asserted. Lord John Russell expressed the opinion, 16 August 1827, that, ‘whilst honest as the purest virgin, Lansdowne was too yielding, too mild, and most unfit to deal with men in important political transactions’. The appointment of Herries as chancellor of the exchequer caused him to threaten, if not actually to tender, his resignation and he appears to have remained in office only at the express wish of the king. But the new administration broke up on 8 January 1828, when the whigs retired from the cabinet. The split in the whig party thus came to an end.
When Sir F. Burdett's resolution on the Roman catholic question was passed in the commons, Lansdowne, now freed from the constraint of office, brought the resolution before the House of Lords (9 July 1828), but was defeated by a majority of forty-four. In 1829 he severely censured the government for their policy in Portugal in supporting Dom Miguel, and, 18 March 1830, he strongly supported the Duke of Richmond's motion for an inquiry into the internal state of the country. He was appointed lord lieutenant of Wiltshire 16 November 1829.
On the formation of the whig administration, 21 November 1830, Lord Grey is said to have proposed Lansdowne as first lord of the treasury and subsequently offered him the foreign office; he preferred the office of president of the council. He was completely at one with the rest of the ministry on the question of reform, and resigned, with the other members of the cabinet, on the king refusing to empower the prime minister to create a sufficient number of peers to secure a majority. On the royal assent being given to the Reform Bill by commission, Lansdowne was one of the five commissioners. He retained his place as president of the council after Lord Grey's resignation in 1834 and the appointment of Lord Melbourne as prime minister. In Melbourne's second administration of 1835 he resumed his old office. His interest in the question of national education made the presidency of the council an especially congenial office. From the date of the first grant in 1833 he was an advocate of state assistance for the purposes of education, provided that the bestowal of grants was accompanied by the right of inspection. On 5 July 1839 he made, in answer to the archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps the most important speech which had up to that time been delivered in parliament on the subject. He pointed out that, in the matter of education, England was behind the chief nations in Europe; he reminded the house that at that moment 80,000 children in four of the great manufacturing towns of the north were growing up in hopeless ignorance. ‘In them,’ he said, ‘you may see the rising Chartists of the next age.’ This speech was published, and was widely read. Lansdowne resigned with Lord Melbourne's government on 30 August 1841. He had been made K.G. on 5 February 1836.
Although Lansdowne had declared himself a free-trader in 1820, he was not at first in favour of the absolute repeal of the corn laws, and did not support Lord Brougham's motion on the subject, February 1839. He declared himself a friend of free trade, and of change in the corn laws, 24 August 1841, but appears to have been a believer in the advantage of a fixed duty, and he abandoned that view (26 January 1846) only after the public declaration of Sir Robert Peel. He spoke in support of the second reading of Peel's corn bill, pointing out the failure of protective legislation in past history.
In Lord John Russell's ministry of July 1846, Lansdowne again became president of the council. He brought forward the subject of Irish distress in the lords, 25 January 1847, and when he introduced the relief bill for destitute Irish, 15 February 1847, expressed his opinion that the tendency of legislation should be to diminish the number of small tenants. He introduced, 17 February 1848, a bill for legalising the carrying on of diplomatic relations with the court of Rome, a measure which met with considerable opposition, and gave him a good opportunity of exhibiting his tact and skill in managing the lords. In May 1848 he acted with Lord John Russell in putting pressure on Palmerston, and in insisting on the submission of all foreign office despatches to the prime minister. On 25 May 1848 he introduced the bill for the removal of Jewish disabilities. On 7 May 1849 he moved in the lords the repeal of the navigation laws, and prophesied an immediate extension of British commerce as the result.
In 1850 he led the opposition in the cabinet to Lord John Russell's proposals for a new reform bill and was successful in forcing its withdrawal; his opinions on the matter he confided to Greville, when the latter informed him that his presence in the cabinet was regarded by many as a guarantee that no strong measure would be taken. ‘They may rely with entire confidence on me, for you may be sure that if any strong measure was to be contemplated by the cabinet, I should immediately walk out of it’.
He was not in favour of the prolongation of the official existence of Lord John Russell's disunited ministry, and on their resignation showed his feeling (23 February 1852) in the House of Lords by declaring that the retention of office by a government which does not obtain the amount of support necessary to enable it to conduct with efficiency the queen's affairs becomes productive of evil to the country. On the same occasion he took a formal leave, in dignified language, of the house. But though somewhat infirm through attacks of gout, he was not yet destined to retire from public life. On the death of the Duke of Wellington he spoke eloquently on the loss sustained by the nation (11 November 1852). The same duty had fallen to his lot on the death of Nelson.
On the resignation of Lord Derby in December 1852, the queen sent for Lansdowne and the Earl of Aberdeen. Lansdowne was at the time crippled with gout, and declined the responsibility of forming a government. He arrived, however, at an understanding with Lord Aberdeen, and entered his cabinet without office. Again, on the resignation of Lord Aberdeen, 1 February 1855, the queen sought the assistance of Lansdowne, and at his advice sent first for Lord Derby, then for Lord John Russell, and finally for Lord Palmerston, whose cabinet Lansdowne entered without office 22 February 1855. He declined the offer of a dukedom in September 1857. The following lines appeared in Punch on the occasion:
Lord Lansdowne won't be Duke of Kerry,
Lord Lansdowne is a wise man very,
Punch drinks his health in port and sherry.
Despite increasing infirmity, he maintained a regular attendance in the House of Lords until 4 March 1861, when he made his last recorded speech. During the last year of his life he spent most of his time at Bowood, where he died, from the effects of a fall, 31 January 1863. He was buried in the mausoleum at Bowood.
Through life Lansdowne was, as Lord Campbell described him, ‘a very moderate whig’. Though a prominent leader of the whig party for over fifty years, he never acquired the character of a party man. ‘The very happy temper’ and ‘strong natural judgment’ which Lord Shelburne remarked in his character in early life never failed him, and doubtless produced that love of moderation which dominated his political character. A member of three different coalition administrations, he appears to have been happily designed for making such constructions possible. Although not an obstinate minister in council, but, in Lord Campbell's words, ‘one who sincerely tries to pass measures which he does not entirely relish’, his political views were clear and definite; he proved himself a consistent and powerful advocate of the removal of political disabilities occasioned by religious opinions.
Though no ardent parliamentary reformer, he saw the necessity of the Reform Bill of 1832, and gave it strong support. He had proclaimed himself in favour of free trade twenty years before his party recognised its possibility. In Irish affairs he was no sympathiser with the aspirations of O'Connell, but was inclined to temper a very firm support of the existing government with generosity. In his view of foreign policy he was influenced by the spirit of Canning, but was invariably governed by a sense of patriotism which, early in his career, prevented him sharing the romantic French sympathies entertained by his cousin, Lord Holland, and made him a determined supporter of the Napoleonic war. At the end of his public life he took up a similar attitude in the very different circumstances of the Crimean struggle. His great experience in affairs and the length of his public service made him supreme in questions of political precedent and etiquette and gave him for a time an influence possessed in like degree by no other statesman. On this account he was chosen, on the Duke of Wellington's death, to fill the latter's place as informal adviser on political and constitutional questions to the crown. He understood well the sentiment of the House of Lords, and was a skilful and successful leader of that assembly. He lacked ambition, as he confessed to Moore. And Lord John Russell, writing to him in 1829, lamented that the pure gold of his integrity was not ‘mixed with a little more alloy of ambition and self-love, for then you might be stamped with the king's head, and pass current through the country’.
The wide social influence which Lansdowne exercised proved of no small service to his party. Under him the reputation which Bowood and Lansdowne house had secured in the lifetime of Lord Shelburne as meeting-places not only for politicians, but for men of letters and of science, was fully maintained. In the patronage of art and literature Lansdowne exercised considerable discretion, and re-established the magnificent library and collections of pictures and marbles which had been made by his father, and dissipated during a short period of possession by his half-brother. Most delicate in his acts of generosity, he freed the poet Moore from his financial troubles; he assisted Sydney Smith to long-waited-for preferment and he secured a knighthood for Lyell.
Lansdowne married, 30 March 1808, Lady Louisa Emma Fox-Strangways, fifth daughter of Henry Thomas, second earl of Ilchester, by whom he had two sons; the second succeeded him as Marquis of Lansdowne.
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