Lord Grenville, 1759–1834: biography

This biography first appeared in the Dictionary of Liberal Biography, produced by the Liberal Democrat History Group.

William Wyndham Grenville, later the first Baron Grenville and more commonly known to historians as Lord Grenville, was born on 25 October 1759. Like many Whigs of his generation, he mixed support for repressive domestic measures with modest support for administrative and economic reform. He strongly believed in a limited number of what later became distinctively liberal views. Although a Whig, he spent much of his political career happily working in government with Tories, notably Pitt.

Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Grenville went on to study law, although he was never called to the bar. He was elected to Parliament in 1782, in a by-election for one of the seats in the two-member Buckingham constituency. Soon afterwards, he joined the government, as Chief Secretary to his brother, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

During the rest of the 1780s he progressed through a variety of government posts and became MP for the more prestigious constituency of Buckinghamshire. In 1789, he was appointed Speaker of the House of Commons. At this time being Speaker did not mean holding back from participating in parliamentary debates or withdrawing from normal politics. Indeed, later that same year, he resigned in order to become Home Secretary.

In 1790, he moved on again, becoming a Baron and moving to the House of Lords. This creation of a new peerage to ensure the Prime Minister, Pitt, had the person he wanted in the Lords caused some comment. His closeness to Pitt went back several years; they were cousins, and had spent much time together studying Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

The House of Lords better suited Grenville’s limited debating skills. Initially responsible for handling government business, he again moved on quickly, becoming in 1791 Foreign Secretary. During the 1790s, he consistently took a hard line on policy towards France, often leading the war party in the Cabinet. He happily supported restrictive domestic measures, designed to head off a supposed threat of revolution. He played an intimate role in some of the most controversial measures, including introducing the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill to Parliament.

His role at the heart of government was confirmed by work preparing the 1801 Act of Union between England and Ireland, when he cooperated closely with the Prime Minister, Pitt. Both strongly believed that increased rights for Catholics were essential to the enterprise. When the King refused to accept this Pitt, followed by Grenville, resigned.

As someone with a significant band of followers in Parliament, Grenville was naturally involved in the manoeuvrings to bring down Pitt’s successor, Addington. Grenville initially combined with Charles Fox, also a Whig though in practice much more radical than him, and then later persuaded Pitt to join their opposition. When Addington fell in 1804, Pitt became Prime Minister once more. Grenville did not take up a post in the government, as the King refused to let Fox have a position.

However, on Pitt’s death in 1806 Grenville was the natural choice as Prime Minister. Without Pitt, the Tories were seriously short of talent, and George III, finally, had no option but to allow the Whigs to form a ministry. Grenville assembled a broad coalition of different factions in Parliament out of both necessity and his hostility to party politics, preferring grand governing coalitions. The administration was nicknamed the ‘ministry of all talents,’ but its record was not happy, with internal dissension and a lack of success in negotiations with France. The one significant measure during its office was a resolution attacking the slave trade, which was followed by a bill in 1807. Even the credit for this largely lay elsewhere, with anti-slavery campaigners such as James Stephen. The bill became law on the day the government fell, its demise again being caused by a conflict with the King over rights for Catholics.

Although such a clash was in many ways inevitable – Grenville not only believed in the principle of more rights for Catholics, but also believed they were required to keep Ireland manageable – the actual circumstances of the fall from office were largely self-inflicted. Having failed to persuade the King to allow Catholics and dissenters more rights in the army and navy, Grenville then refused to promise not to bring any similar measures forward in the future. George III took this opportunity to sack the government. Sheridan described the situation aptly, saying he had ‘known many men knock their heads against a wall, but he had never before heard of any man who collected the bricks and built the very wall with an intention to knock out his own brains against it’.

In opposition from 1807, Grenville was prominent in support of free trade (and opposition to the Corn Laws), more rights for Catholics and in opposition to slavery. He did, though, continue to take a strong line against France, wanting firm military action until the final conclusion of hostilities in 1815, and being willing to support repressive domestic measures designed to head off any threat of revolution at home.

In 1809 he was elected Chancellor of Oxford University, largely because of a split in the Tory vote between two rival candidates. Both before and after this time there were various attempts to bring him into the government, which foundered because he wanted too much of a change in policy. Only in 1821, when Grenville himself was on the brink of retirement, did his followers join the government, with many envious comments being made about the generous terms they acquired. He finally retired in 1832, following a paralytic attack, and died two years later, on 12 November 1834, at Dropmore Lodge, Buckinghamshire. He had no children to succeed him, his marriage to Anne Pitt in 1792 having left no issue.

As with many other Whigs of the time, Grenville’s hostility to France and his willingness to see tough law and order measures at home meant that for many years he worked happily with various Tory politicians. But, during the long period of Tory rule after 1807 he became increasingly identified with reform, and in particular, toleration of different religious beliefs.

For biographies, see P. Jupp, Lord Grenville, 1759–1834 (Clarendon, 1985), and the brief study in A. D. Harvey, Lord Grenville, 1759–1834 (Meckler, 1989).

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