William FitzMaurice, Earl of Shelburne

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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FitzMaurice, William, Earl of Shelburne, Marquis of Lansdowne, a distinguished statesman, was born in Dublin, 20th May 1737. [His father, on the decease of a maternal uncle, inherited the large Irish estates of his grandfather, Sir William Petty, and was in 1753 created Earl of Shelburne.] His early years were spent in Munster with his grandfather, the Earl of Kerry. There he was allowed to run wild. He owed his first steps in learning to the care of his aunt, Lady Arabella Denny. At sixteen he was sent to Christ Church, Oxford.

Afterwards, entering the army, he served in Germany, and gave signal proof of personal valour at the battles of Kampen and Minden. At the accession of George III. he was appointed aide-de-camp to the King, with the rank of colonel. In 1761 he was elected member for Wycombe, a seat he held but for a few weeks, as upon his father's death on 10th May of that year, he passed to the House of Lords as Earl of Shelburne in the Irish and Baron Wycombe in the British peerage. In April 1763 he was, though not then twenty-six years of age, appointed to the head of the Board of Trade, and sworn of the Privy Council. In these official positions he reported upon the organization of the government and the settlement of boundaries of the newly-acquired Canadian territories. His strongly-worded representations as to the danger attending the proposed plans for the taxation of the American colonies, caused him to be regarded with disfavour by George III. On Grenville's modification of his cabinet in the following September, Shelburne resigned his office, and thenceforth remained closely united with Pitt, against whom, at the outset of his career, he had been strongly prejudiced. For more than a year he lived in retirement at Bowood, adding to his library and improving his estate.

In 1766 Pitt, then Earl of Chatham, formed his second administration, and the Earl of Shelburne accepted the post of Secretary of State for the Southern Department, which included the colonies. As might have been expected from his previously declared opinions, he endeavoured to gain the good-will of the American colonies — putting himself in communication with their several agents in England, and seeking full information on the points in which the colonists regarded themselves aggrieved. In these good offices he was to some extent thwarted by his colleagues, and when illness obliged Lord Chatham to withdraw from an active share in the Government, the influence of Grafton, Townshend and others became paramount, and Shelburne's conciliatory policy was cast to the winds. After the passage of the Import Duties Act, he would probably have resigned, were it not that he considered himself bound to Chatham, then too ill to see any of his coadjutors even on the most important affairs.

The management of the colonies was shortly afterwards transferred to Lord Hillsborough, the other secretary, and Lord Shelburne gladly resigned office on 19th October 1768. Lord Chatham's resignation followed, and George III. found a congenial minister in Lord; North. Shortly after this Lady Shelburne died, and he paid a prolonged visit to the Continent with his friend Colonel Barre. In Paris he became acquainted with Baron d'Holbach, Malesherbes, the Abbe Morellet, and other eminent men; and he afterwards declared that his intimacy with Morellet was the turning point in his career; in his own words, "Morellet liberalized my ideas." Many of his French friends were afterwards induced to visit Bowood, where, in company with Franklin, and Garrick, Barre, Priestley, and others, they found the equivalent of the brilliant society of Paris. Out of office, Lord Shelburne continued the steady friend of Chatham, opposing Lord North's ministry on most leading questions, especially those relating to America. Nevertheless, like Lord Chatham, he expressed the strongest repugnance to the plans of the colonists for independence — opinions of which he was afterwards reminded by opponents, when as Premier he was forced to acknowledge the independence of the United States. In the debate on the American Conciliatory Bill, 5th March 1778, he went so far as to say: "The moment that the independence of America is agreed to by our Government, the sun of Great Britain is set, and we shall no longer be a powerful or respectable people."

He desired that the countries should be united by at least a federal union, in which they would have the same friends and the same enemies, one purse and one sword for common purposes. A few days after these utterances, Lord North resigned (April 1778), and the negotiations for the return of Lord Chatham to office (put an end to by his death) were carried on almost entirely by Lord Shelburne. Next year his marriage with Lady L. FitzPatrick connected him more closely than before with Fox and Lord Holland. After Lord Chatham's death, Shelburne joined Lord Rockingham, consenting to waive in his favour, in case of office being offered to him, his title to the premiership. His opposition to Lord North increased in activity as the policy of the latter became more and more unsuccessful, while Shelburne himself may be said to have become proportionately popular. The measures passed in December 1779 for the relief of Irish commerce had his heartiest approval. On 20th March 1782, in consequence of the surrender of Cornwallis, Lord North's ministry succumbed, and Lord Rockingham became his successor, with Lord Shelburne and Charles James Fox as Secretaries of State. As Secretary of State, Shelburne, in the House of Lords on 17th May, moved those measures which conceded Parliamentary independence to Ireland.

The ministry lasted little over three months — Rockingham's death in July being the immediate cause of its dissolution. Fox, with Burke and his other friends, then insisted on the Duke of Portland being made Premier; the King, however, who had come to place great confidence in Lord Shelburne, preferred him, and entrusted him with the formation of a ministry. Fox's party, unable to dissuade him from acceding to the King's desire, seceded in a body, being unwilling to accept his leadership. During Shelburne's administration of little over seven months, Gibraltar was successfully defended, the great victories of Howe and Rodney enabled Great Britain to make honourable terms with France, Spain, and Holland, and separate preliminaries of peace were arranged with the United States. Shelburne resigned in February 1783, and did not again accept office, or take any prominent part in public affairs — giving, however, a steady and useful support to his younger and abler colleague, Pitt. He was created Marquis of Lansdowne in 1784. His health being feeble, he felt neither strength nor inclination again to enter into the turmoil of party politics. In the debate in the British House of Lords on 19th March 1799, he expressed himself very fully regarding the proposed union with Ireland. It is, however, difficult to gather his exact sentiments. On the one hand, he declared, as a party to the concessions of 1782, that that settlement by no means precluded a measure of closer union when desirable. Referring to the disturbed state of Ireland he said: "There is no remedy for all these evils but a union; . . a union was at all times desirable; at present it was indispensable. The resolutions respecting it should be acted on immediately, for our very existence was at stake."

On the other hand, he appeared to desire that the real sentiments of the people of Ireland upon the question should be consulted — not merely the opinions of the members of the Irish Parliament. He declared immediate Catholic emancipation desirable. "There was one point on which his mind doubted, as to the mode of carrying a union into effect, and that was the union of the Parliaments. . . He felt inclined to adopt all the resolutions except that which related to the addition of one hundred members to the House of Commons." Lord Lansdowne died on 7th May 1805, aged 67, and his remains were interred in the church of High Wycombe. The following summary of his character is from Knight's Cyclopaedia:— "The Earl of Shelburne; was not a great statesman; but he was a highly cultivated and well-informed one, liberal in his general views, and possessing a wider acquaintance with foreign affairs and sounder commercial principles than most of the political men of his time. He was, moreover, an able debater, assiduous in his attention to business, and there can be now little doubt, honest in purpose, and less swayed than many of his eminent contemporaries by mere party motives; but he was proud, unaccommodating, and wanting in frankness; so that, while he made many enemies by his assumption, he failed to secure a character for sincerity, earnestness, and firmness.

In private life he was highly esteemed. He was the friend of men of talent and genius, and his love of letters led him to form one of the noblest libraries which had ever been collected in England by a private individual. It was in his library that his last years were chiefly spent, though he continued to superintend personally as much as possible his extensive estates. On his death, his collection of printed books was dispersed by auction; but his MSS. were purchased for the British Museum — a parliamentary grant of £4,925 being voted for the purpose." The Edinburgh Review (January 1877) says: "History has not done justice to the character of the first Marquis of Lansdowne, who only wanted the opportunity to have taken his place in the first rank of English statesmen. During his short administration he concluded a disastrous war by a peace in which the interests and the honour of the country were duly regarded, and the domestic policy which he pursued was only in fault inasmuch as it was in advance of the knowledge and morality of the time. His personal failings were certainly not those of casuistry and duplicity, which are popularly attributed to him. He rather erred from a stubborn faith in the virtue of principle, and a contemptuous neglect of those party connexions, without which, even in this improved age, it is difficult to carry any measure bearing the stamp of novelty or progress. But in truth Lord Shelburne was even more of a political philosopher than a statesman; and his political philosophy was far above the level of his own age.

He was an ardent champion of American independence. He hailed with enthusiasm the French Revolution. He had always firmly maintained that France ought not to be the enemy, but the friend and ally of England. He was the strenuous advocate of free trade. He was for Catholic emancipation and complete religious equality before the law; he would have proposed a Reform Bill and the disenfranchisement of nomination boroughs; he was in favour of the rights of the neutral flag in time of war; he did institute a close search into the gross abuses that pervaded every branch of the administration; his house became, what it continued to be for two generations, a centre of cultivated and liberal society, for Priestley, Price, Morellet, Dumont, Romilly, Bentham, were among his most constant associates.

On all these points Lord Shelburne was fifty years ahead of his own times; and whatever place may be assigned to him in the ranks of party, he was undoubtedly one of the most genuine liberals who has ever played a part in the affairs of England. If his public life was on the whole a failure, it was throughout consistent in its adherence to these liberal principles; it was neither stained by corruption nor disfigured by faction; and in one respect Lord Lansdowne was most fortunate; his declining years were cheered by the early promise of a son who ultimately inherited his honours and added lustre to his name." He was twice married — in 1765 to Lady Sophia Carteret, and after her death, to Lady Louisa FitzPatrick in 1779. One of his sons by the first marriage succeeded him as 2nd Marquis of Lansdowne, and another by the second became 3rd Marquis.

Sources

40. Biographical Division of English Cyclopaedia, with Supplement: Charles Knight, 7 vols. London, 1856-'72.

158. Hansard's Parliamentary Debates.
Hardiman, James, see Nos. 188, 346.
Harris, Walter, see Nos. 110a, 160a, 339, 347a.

201b. King, Archbishop, Answer to a Book of, intituled, The State of the Protestants of Ireland. (Charles Leslie, M.A.) London, 1692.

305. Shelburne, William, Earl of, Life: Lord Edward FitzMaurice. 2 vols. London, 1875-'76.

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