FITZGERALD (afterwards VESEY FITZGERALD), William (?1782-1843), of Inchicronan, co. Clare.
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Family and Education
b. ?1782, 1st surv. s. of James Fitzgerald*. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 23 Oct. 1799, aged 17; L. Inn 1799. unm. 1s. 1da. Took name of Vesey Fitzgerald 13 Feb. 1815; suc. mother as 2nd Baron Fitzgerald [I] 3 Jan. 1832; cr. Baron Fitzgerald 10 Jan. 1835.
Commr. of treasury [I] Dec. 1809-1812; PC [I] 10 Feb. 1810, [UK] 13 Aug. 1812; ld. of Treasury [UK] 1812-16; chancellor of exchequer [I] July 1812-16; envoy to Sweden Aug. 1820-Apr. 1823; paymaster-gen. July 1826-July 1828; treasurer of navy Feb. 1828-Dec. 1830; pres. Board of Trade June 1828-Feb. 1830; pres. Board of Control Oct. 1841-d.
Trustee, linen board [I] 1815.
Gov. co. Clare 1815, ld. lt. 1831-d.
Maj. co. Clare militia 1805, col. 1832-d.; capt. Ennis inf. 1817.
A clever and ambitious Irishman like his father, who seems to have made an abortive bid to buy an English borough for him as soon as he came of age, Fitzgerald was returned in succession to his parent for the close borough of Ennis. Although his ‘oldest political friends’ had been the Foster family, he adopted his father’s attachment to the Prince of Wales as ‘in some sort my inheritance’ and on 9 May 1808 appealed to the Prince for directions as to his political conduct. Hitherto, he had abstained even from giving a vote, except on the Maynooth College question, 29 Apr., on which he had joined some friends of the Prince’s in the minority in favour of the increased grant. On 19 May he spoke against the restriction of the import of Irish spirits into Great Britain and on 25 May voted for the Catholic claims, as his father had done.
The Countess of Erroll, one of London’s elegant widows, claimed privately that she had the control of Fitzgerald’s vote during 1809 and he was also in some danger of being ensnared by Mrs Mary Anne Clarke.1 The sober ministerial view of him, however, was that of the Duke of Richmond, who recommended him for a prospective vacancy at the Irish treasury board, 2 Nov. 1809, with the remark: ‘I am told [he] is clever and not decided in politics.’2 Richmond proved correct, for after consulting the Prince (who evidently advised him to make his own decision) and overcoming reservations as to what ‘speculating politicians’ might conclude, he accepted office and was content to wait for the privy councillorship, which he applied for at the same time and subsequently obtained.
Fitzgerald, who had ‘a bold, forward, lively flow of words’ spoke ‘very sensibly and well’, so Perceval thought, on behalf of ministers in the debate on the Scheldt expedition, 29 Mar. 1810. When he supported inquiry into Irish tithes, 13 Apr., he was careful to explain that his grounds were not those of the mover, Parnell.3 He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810, and also against the reform of sinecures, though his bid to prevent the sinecure bill from extending to Irish pensions failed by one vote, 15 June 1812.
Whatever fears Fitzgerald had of losing his independence were certainly soothed by the willingness of the Irish executive to accommodate both his support of a measure of Catholic relief and his opposition to the Regency bill, which caused them no surprise and on which they did not require the resignation he proffered out of loyalty to the Prince.4 The allowance made for his views was a tribute to his talents and after he had made himself useful to government on Irish and other questions in the session of 1812, his name was put forward as a candidate for the Irish exchequer, which he was reported to covet. His youth was felt to be a drawback, but the lord lieutenant believed he was the best candidate available and he was likely to be alienated if overlooked. He was chosen and his promotion to the forefront of Irish affairs threw into sharper relief his opinions in favour of Catholic emancipation, expressed on 22 June 1812 after opposition speakers had pilloried him for his previous abstention. They contributed to the difficulty government had in assisting him in his rather late bid to come in for county Clare at the ensuing election, in which, on account of his connexion with that government, he forfeited Catholic support and was defeated. He had to fall back on his father’s seat for Ennis.5 Two days before the debate on Grattan’s Catholic motion of 2 Mar. 1813, the lord lieutenant was convinced that he had changed his mind on the subject,6 but he proved consistent and reiterated his view, expressed on 26 Feb., that ‘the greatest security ... the Protestant establishment could have, was to be found in attaching the Catholics to the constitution under which they lived’. His adherence to this view subsequently increased his popularity in county Clare.7
By July 1813, after a busy session introducing Irish financial measures, Fitzgerald had decided that he no longer wished to hold the Irish exchequer on the terms that were generally understood by both Westminster and Dublin to have prevailed on his appointment. The crux of the issue between him and the government was that he felt that, in the interest of the Irish revenue boards, there should be a clear line of demarcation between his duties and those of the chief secretary which, he believed, were slowly usurping them. The prime minister took the view that Fitzgerald, whom he regarded as too ambitious for the health of his Irish policies and too reminiscent of his mentor John Foster*, wished to increase his department’s importance to the detriment of the authority of Westminster as represented by the chief secretary, and therefore preferred that he should resign and his duties be absorbed by Peel. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Peel had no wish to take on such additional work and was somewhat isolated from Westminster feelings on the subject by his personal friendship with Fitzgerald. The upshot was that Fitzgerald withdrew his threat of resignation and continued in his post until the solution suggested by Liverpool on Peel’s demur was at length adopted and the English and Irish treasuries united in 1817.8 His ambition, however, had not been deflated. He was critical of administration, writing to Peel, 4 Dec. 1814, of a ‘humiliating’ debate, ‘it was as much as a man could bear to belong to the party’, and in July 1815 he met with a refusal when he applied for an Irish peerage for his father on the strength of his own services. Nor was it pleasant to him, when he continued to support Catholic relief, to be traduced in county Clare as an Orangeman.9
Fitzgerald, apart from defending Irish financial measures against Sir John Newport, also stood by Peel in defence of the Irish executive generally. A select committeeman on and partisan of the Corn Laws, he rescued John Wilson Croker* from the mob outside the House in March 1815. On 20 May 1816 he introduced the measure for the consolidation of the exchequers which made himself redundant. A year before there had been some talk of an appointment which would remove him from the House, and on 4 Mar. 1816 he wrote of ‘an arrangement in contemplation which would give me income without putting me to the tremendous expense which I have had in my present station’: that is, clerk of the pleas, on the death of Lord Buckinghamshire. In June he mentioned that he would prefer a foreign mission, or permission from his father to live economically in France or Switzerland. He refused the vice-treasurership of Ireland (a nominal substitute for the Irish chancellorship), 29 Nov. 1816, against Peel’s advice, on the grounds that ‘I ought not to accept now of an office so little equivalent in any respect which can make public employment desirable to a public man, or an object of honourable ambition’. It was a decision which stung Liverpool into writing to Peel that he thought Fitzgerald ‘possessed of many excellent qualities. He has certainly considerable abilities, but he is unfortunately deficient in two qualities, more important in the concerns of life than any talents, judgement and temper’.10 Wellesley Pole thought ‘he had put himself too high, and was therefore nothing’.
As a result of his being out of office and having personal financial problems which he had disdained to relieve by recourse to the sinecure of the hanaper office, or to the civil services compensation bill, Fitzgerald’s career was in the doldrums. In July 1817 he failed to secure employment abroad from Castlereagh. In January 1818 Peel pressed his claims to the vacant treasurership of the navy or for the post of envoy to Berlin, but Fitzgerald was passed over; as also in an application, in June 1818, to succeed Peel as chief secretary, a circumstance that left him not merely disappointed, but ‘mortified’. It was no consolation to him that he walked over county Clare at the election of 1818, of which he commented ‘it only seems to make me dependent’.11
Not surprisingly, Fitzgerald ‘was loud in his condemnation of the conduct of government during the last session’ in August 1818 and his behaviour of a piece with that of other disgruntled young politicians out of place at that time. His contributions to debate continued to be largely on Irish affairs, particularly the grand jury presentment bill, though it was he who presented the report of the committee on the royal establishments, 17 Feb. 1819, and he rallied to government on critical divisions. His appointment in 1820 to a minor diplomatic post appeared little more than a snub to his political ambitions. His subsequent career was similarly chequered, though his close friendship with Peel ensured him more official recognition and he was one of the few Irishmen of his day to achieve cabinet rank. He died 11 May 1843.12
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: P. J. Jupp
- 1. Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2480; Frere mss, Lady Erroll to Frere, 3 May 1804, 9 Jan. 1810; NLI mss 7818, p. 22, Fitzgerald to Peel, 3 Feb. 1812 [recte 1813].
- 2. NLI, Richmond mss 72/1508.
- 3. Ibid. 72/1493, 1512, 1518, 1531, 1534; 62/495, 505, 506, 528; 66/891; Prince of Wales Corresp. vi. 2665; Brydges, Autobiog. i. 200; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4122; Parl. Deb. xvi. 316, 686.
- 4. Richmond mss 73/1650; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 22 Dec. 1810; Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2804.
- 5. Richmond mss 62/493, 494; 72/1580, 1588, 1590; 74/1916; Add. 38249, f. 20; 38328, f. 35; 40185, ff. 11, 15.
- 6. Add. 40185, f. 152.
- 7. NLI mss 7818, pp. 48, 121, Fitzgerald to Lovaine, 19 Feb., O’Connell to Fitzgerald, 14 Mar. 1813.
- 8. Add. 38254, ff. 202, 215, 222, 258, 264, 282, 288; 40181, ff. 39, 43, 47; 40207, ff. 213, 296; 40285, f. 34.
- 9. Add. 38573, f. 101; 40181, f. 76; 40190, f. 232; 40209, ff. 72, 214.
- 10. NLI mss 7842, p. 68, Browne to Fitzgerald, 21 June 1815; 7846, p. 166, Fitzgerald to Stacpoole, 4 Mar. 1816; 7849, p. 119, Fitzgerald to Newport, June 1816; Add. 38195, f. 49; 38264, ff. 12, 27, 50; 38566, f. 96; 40181, f. 81; 40292, f. 53; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. ii. 48.
- 11. NLI mss 7815, p. 276, Fitzgerald to Hill [2 Jan. 1815]; Add. 38270, f. 81; 40181, f. 132; 40210, ff. 172, 322; 40294, f. 119.
- 12. Staffs RO, Hatherton diary, 4 Aug. 1818, 24 Jan. 1819.