PETTY, Lord Henry (1780-1863).
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Family and Education
b. 2 July 1780, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of William Petty†, 1st Mq. of Lansdowne, by 2nd w. Lady Louisa Fitzpatrick, da. of John Fitzpatrick†, 1st Earl of Upper Ossory [I]; half-bro. of John Henry Petty, Earl Wycombe*. educ. Westminster 1795; Edinburgh Univ. 1797-8; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1798; continental tour 1801-2. m. 30 Mar. 1808, Lady Louisa Emma Fox Strangways, da. of Henry Thomas, 2nd Earl of Ilchester, 2s. 1da. suc. half-bro. as 3rd Mq. of Lansdowne 15 Nov. 1809; cos. Francis Thomas Fitzmaurice as 4th Earl of Kerry [I] 4 July 1818 and took additional surname of Fitzmaurice; KG 5 Feb. 1836.
Chancellor of Exchequer Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807; PC 5 Feb. 1806; minister without portfolio May-July 1827; sec. of state for Home affairs July 1827-Jan. 1828; ld. pres. of Council Nov. 1830-Nov. 1834, Apr. 1835-Sept. 1841, July 1846-Feb. 1852; minister without portfolio Dec. 1852-Feb. 1858.
Maj. commdt. Calne vols. 1803, lt.-col. commdt. 1803.
Ld. lt. Wilts. 1857-d.
Rector, Glasgow Univ. 1829-31.
‘Whatever disappointments Lansdowne may have had in public life and of a still more sensible kind in Lord Wycombe, he must be very unreasonable if he does not consider them all compensated in Lord Henry.’ This was the view of Charles James Fox, whose brother had married Lansdowne’s sister-in-law and who ‘never did see a young man he liked half so much’. The only son of the marquess’s second marriage, Petty received a more conventional education than his half-brother Wycombe, but his father’s self-appointed mentor Jeremy Bentham saw to it that he spent a term at Edinburgh, where he was a member of the Speculative Society, and that he went abroad under the aegis of an admirable tutor, Etienne Dumont. His father conceded that he emerged with ‘a very happy temper, with, I would say if I were not afraid of rating him too high, a strong natural judgment’. According to Lady Holland he united
to a strong understanding a pleasant vein of cheerful humour, with talents and advantages far beyond his years. His simplicity and unassuming manner is the more winning of his qualifications.
Fox, who was ‘excessively civil and kind to him’ at Paris (as was Buonaparte) had ‘little doubt’ that Petty would ‘make a figure’. His half-brother Wycombe, encountering him in Ireland in 1801 before he proceeded to the Continent, admitted that Petty was
the very opposite of me for he is prudent and reflecting ... He converses not eloquently, but fluently, correctly, and logically ... He bids fair to be a moral man, and a good parliamentary debater, so that hopes may reasonably be entertained of his begetting children and making speeches by word of command, than which nothing can be more delightful to a parent labouring under the rage of politics and family. I too ought to rejoice for as he is the most tractable son alive, so it is possible that he will be the most correct brother.1
As early as 9 Feb. 1800 Petty’s friend Althorp wrote of him: ‘His great aim seems to be to make himself a good speaker, and to this end he reads all the speeches which are published’. His father returned him for Calne on the family interest in 1802, having rejected ‘two or three flattering proposals’ for the purchase of a seat for him from aversion to ‘such practices’. Nothing came then of a notion that he might stand for his university. In his first session he was unobtrusive, not impatient to make his debut in debate and, when ready to do so in May 1803, missed his chance. He joined Brooks’s Club, 24 Feb. 1803, and his sympathies, like those of his father, lay with Fox, behind whom he had taken his seat. He voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar., and against ministers on the resumption of war in May 1803. So the only gesture that brought him any publicity that session, as he himself alleged, was his ‘first vote with Pitt’ on 3 June when Fox and his friends went away without voting.2 He did not break his silence until December 1803 when he spoke as chairman of the select committee of inquiry into the Sierra Leone Company, the continuation of which he cautiously supported on 9 July 1804.
In his maiden speech, 13 Feb. 1804, Petty distinguished himself. He drew ministerial attention to some features of the Irish Bank restriction bill and, after pointing out the dangers of excessive note issue by country banks, was placed on the committee on Anglo-Irish currency exchange, 2 Mar. 1804. On this subject he collaborated with Lord Archibald Hamilton, whose motion of 12 Apr. 1804 he supported in what Fox described to Grey as ‘one of the neatest and best short speeches I ever heard’. Lord Holland, too, was informed:
He speaks very fluently and distinctly, and seems to be the greatest acquisition to the party he has chosen. Indeed everybody seems to admire him, for his unassuming and at the same time determined manner.3
Apart from his support for inquiry into the war in Ceylon, 14 Mar. 1804, Petty took no part in debate on the questions that brought down Addington’s ministry, but voted steadily with opposition. On his return to power Pitt made an ineffectual bid (through Charles Long*) to lure him into office. In the party lists Pitt’s calculators had him as a Foxite in March 1804, but ‘Prince’ in May, and in September ‘Fox and Grenville’. He favoured a combined opposition to the court and took a more active part in debate, opposing Pitt’s additional force bill, 18 June 1804, and supporting the censure of the lord advocate, 22 June. On 14 Feb. 1805 he led the opposition to the Irish habeas corpus suspension bill, the duration of which he sought to limit next day. He supported the continuation of the commission for naval inquiry, 1 Mar. At that time Wilberforce was prepared to let him sponsor the abolition of the slave trade, because he ‘stands well with the House’. On 8 Apr. he was a prominent speaker for the censure of Melville, Fox publicly complimenting him on his speech. He launched a parliamentary campaign against Melville’s Scottish sinecures and favoured his impeachment, 25 Apr., 11 June, but on 25 June informed the House that he could not support their rescinding their resolution in favour of criminal prosecution. He was nevertheless made a manager of the impeachment and on 9 July secured its continuance from session to session, if necessary. He was anxious at this time to cement an alliance between the opposition and Lord Sidmouth. He then proceeded to Kerry to view the unentailed estate left him by his father that year and ducked an invitation to stand for that county.4
Petty, who had opposed Pitt’s continental alliances on 21 June 1805, was chosen to move the amendment to the address in January 1806. In view of Pitt’s fatal illness, he contented himself with stating what it was to have been and waived it. At the same time he staked his claim to Pitt’s seat for Cambridge University. Before Pitt died, he had Fox’s and the Prince of Wales’s support and, although there was some indignation at his haste, he was preceded at Cambridge by another candidate, Viscount Althorp. He headed the poll in a tripartite contest and took his seat on 12 Feb. 1806. Meanwhile, office for him in the Grenville ministry had been under discussion. Grenville suggested that he might be first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer for Ireland, but Fox did not agree and he became chancellor of the Exchequer in England at the age of 25. He was spared the necessity of re-election by kissing hands on appointment to this office before his return for the university was made.5
Petty’s elevation was criticized as premature, but he was under Lord Grenville’s aegis and, according to George Rose, ‘a cipher at the Board’. On the other hand, he did not confine himself in the House to financial business, but acted as Fox’s lieutenant in debate. His friend Francis Horner* wrote of his attachment to Fox, 23 Jan. 1806:
any other conduct, to be sure, in the present circumstances, would be folly, but he has had praise enough to turn his head, if it were not a steady one. He is overrated I certainly think in point of abilities, but he has information, diligence and sense that will make him an eminent statesman if he preserves unimpaired his political consistency and probity. In this respect, I have the most sanguine expectations of him; notwithstanding the great disadvantages he may incur, if he is brought early into considerable power. I talk of him as on the high road to it, and Mr Fox regarded him as his successor in the only station he has ever held, or may perhaps hold ... At present he is in everybody’s mouth.
Canning described his defence of Ellenborough’s seat in the cabinet, 3 Mar. 1806, as very poor: ‘nothing up to his reputation, or the expectations formed of him’; but in private he found him ‘quiet, and unassuming and clever’ and such as he could expect to get on with as a colleague. Lord Grenville, perhaps, could not be expected to share this view, as Petty looked to Fox rather than to him for his inspiration and joined Fox in scant respect for the record in India of Grenville’s friend the Marquess Wellesley when it was impugned in the House.6
In his official capacity, Petty did justice to his declaration that ‘the country could only be ruined by want of principle in those who directed its resources’ (26 Mar.). His first budget, 28 Mar., which raised the property tax from six-and-a-half per cent to ten per cent, included threats of action against the ‘scenes of fraud, perjury and peculation’ which might be exposed. (This tone of economical reform had already been set by his bill to regulate the treasurership of the Ordnance, 28 Feb.) He provoked the indignant opposition of George Rose, who treated it as an accusation, but Lord Grenville urged Petty on. Canning described his defence of the budget as better than anything he had attempted that session and conceded ‘He is very able certainly’. On 7 May the Speaker noted:
This evening Lord Henry Petty has done extremely well in the ordinary business of debating his property taxes; his facility of expression and businesslike manner were always good, but he evidently improves in dexterity and strength and is very acceptable to the House, who view his progress with great favour.7
There were set-backs: he was persuaded to abandon his proposals for indirect taxes on pig iron and private brewing in May and June 1806 and had to substitute an increase in direct taxation, but secured approval for selective exemption for poorer tax payers. He was keen to be the prime mover against abuses and resisted Richard Bateman Robson* attempt to take the initiative on his discovery of them in the barracks department. On 16 May he promised a commission of inquiry into abuses discovered by the military commission in the West Indian department and a stricter audit of public accounts. These promises were implemented on 21 May and 23 June. He was also an advocate of Windham’s military plan, 6 May, of the abolition of the slave trade, 10 June, and of vaccine inoculation, 2 July, and secured increased grants for the younger members of the royal family without difficulty, 6 July.
As Fox lay dying in September 1806, Lord Grenville’s brother, Lord Buckingham, was anxious to prevent Petty from obtaining further elevation, to the Home secretaryship, an arrangement in which Grenville was seeking his other brother Thomas’s concurrence. In July his name had been mentioned as a possible envoy to Paris to negotiate with Buonaparte and he now offered to undertake a diplomatic mission to Berlin, but Lord Holland dissuaded him from a step that could only prejudice his political future. It was dropped on the grounds of incompatibility with his official situation, though Grenville had thought this no obstacle.8 On 20 Dec. Petty led for the government on the opposition amendment to the address and on 5 Jan. 1807 paid tribute to Fox in the debate on the failure of negotiations with France.
On 29 Jan. 1807 Petty took two hours and twenty minutes to present to the House a ‘new plan of finance’ concocted by Lords Grenville and Auckland. Grenville’s brother Thomas assured him ‘Nothing could be more prosperous than Lord Henry’s opening which was clear, distinct, and impressive’. It provided for protracted warfare by the redemption of public loans over 14 years. The annual maximum of expenditure estimated was £32 millions and there were to be no new taxes for the first three years. So the budget of 4 Mar. was a mere formality and no effective opposition to the plan had been offered by then. On 10 Feb. Petty conceded a select committee on sinecure places and pensions (including Ireland) to further the objectives of economical reform announced in the previous session. He was frustrated in promoting them, so he claimed in the House, 24 Mar., by the dismissal of the ministry. He had been one of those who insisted on the inclusion of relief for Catholic officers in the mutiny bill and had already inspired in Lord Grenville the wish for a spokesman in the House more attached to him: though in Grenville’s secret negotiations with Canning in March 1807 he was earmarked for a secretaryship of state, which, in Canning’s view, must make him leader of the House.9
Petty at once went into opposition to Portland’s administration, objecting to the grant of the duchy of Lancaster for life to his successor at the Exchequer, 25 Mar. 1807. On 9 Apr. he wound up the debate on Brand’s motion against the new ministry, anticipating a majority for it. On 13 Apr. he regretted that Perceval would not pledge himself to continue the new plan of finance after that session. At the ensuing election he blamed his defeat at Cambridge on the cry of ‘No Popery’ against him. He was promptly returned by the Duke of Bedford for Camelford, by previous arrangement.10 In the Parliament of 1807 he was from the start a leading spokesman for opposition. On 30 June he proposed the retention of those members of the finance committee of February who were still in Parliament. His speeches ranged from advocacy of popular education, 13 July, and defence of the Catholic seminary of Maynooth, 15 July, to a bid to salvage his sinking fund scheme, 14 July, opposition to the militia transfer bill, 27 July, and ineffectual continental alliances, 31 July. He tried to limit the Irish arms bill, 7 Aug., and championed the offices in reversion bill, which he had assisted Bankes in promoting, against the Lords, 10 Aug.
When in November 1807 Charles Grey succeeded to his father’s title, Petty’s claims to replace him as leader of the opposition in the Commons were canvassed. Lord Grenville thought that the objections were that ‘he is very young, not I fear very industrious’ and had ‘many prejudices and leanings’ unacceptable to him; but he was ‘amiable and conciliatory and gentlemanlike’ and perhaps the fittest man in the House for the task. He himself was preoccupied with marriage plans and did not covet the unenviable position of leader; so he readily concurred, ‘reasonable as usual’, in the choice of George Ponsonby. His handsome manner of doing so was as readily applauded by Grey. It was supposed that he would be pushed forward by the Foxite opposition, and Tierney admitted that ‘if this business could be settled by a poll he would be chosen by a majority for reasons not one of which have reference to his fitness for the situation’. Lord Holland, whom Tierney supposed to be keenest for Petty, was, in fact, Ponsonby’s advocate with him, and before the year was out Petty was being credited with winning waverers over to Ponsonby. He was also drawn into consultations at Dropmore with Grenville and Ponsonby as to tactics next session. He was then complimented with a backlash in his favour.11 His most notable contribution to debate in 1808 was his speech against the orders in council, 18 Feb., followed up on 3 Mar. by an unsuccessful motion on the failure of the allies to implement them; but in May and June he was further conspicuous in the debates on the Catholic question. On 5 May he ‘dwelt upon secret influence’, hinting at a compromise with the King whereby ministers would give up the Catholics in return for royal acquiescence in the parliamentary discussion of offices in reversion.12 He advocated Catholic claims at length, 25 May, and on 2 June was defeated by 96 votes to 83 on his motion to permit Catholics to become directors of the Bank of Ireland. He was an agricultural protectionist in the debate on distillation from sugar, 13 June.
Petty was recommended to Tierney by Whitbread in July 1808 as an efficient leader of opposition, supposing that a change took place. The suggestion was referred by Tierney to Lord Grey.13 In December, however, he rallied to Ponsonby when the latter disagreed with Lord Grenville’s proposal for minimal activity by the opposition in the ensuing session, and went to Dropmore to reinforce Ponsonby’s resistance. He cajoled Grenville into concurrence in an attack on the conduct of the Peninsula War, stood by Ponsonby at the meeting to confirm his leadership, 18 Jan., and himself moved a censure of the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809. His speech, highly commended by the Grenvillites but based on inadequate information, was followed by a muster of 153 votes (against 203), but he had already discovered that he could not steer clear of the divisions in the opposition. He seceded from the finance committee, 24 Jan. 1809. On 31 Jan. he at once criticized Whitbread’s hopes for peace and expressed sympathy with Burdett’s devotion to reform. On the same day he was inadvertently trapped, with Tierney, in a dissident minority on a militia question. On 6 Mar. he supported Whitbread’s motion for reconciliation with the United States, on evidence provided by Henry Brougham. But it was on the Duke of York’s question that his conduct was most at odds with fellow oppositionists.14 He paid compliments to Perceval, 17 Feb., and on 17 Mar. explained that, although he had voted for Bankes’s amendment on 15 Mar. (having waived one of his own), he could not support Turton’s resolution that day as it was meant to incriminate the duke, whereas the House’s duty was merely to safeguard the public against his misconduct. He could not support Perceval’s resolution either, but would have preferred an adjournment, which he was induced to withdraw.
It was at this somewhat unpropitious moment that the question of Petty’s taking over the leadership of opposition from Ponsonby was revived, in case a return to office was at hand. Lords Grenville and Grey were agreed that Ponsonby’s entire consent was an indispensable precondition of it. From Grenville’s point of view ‘Petty is the only man on whom such a lead can devolve, and ... it is a great public object to detach a man of his consequence and talents from the ranks from which we are obliged to separate ourselves’. This separation was from the more radical Whigs and it was thought that Petty in turn would be the man to wean Whitbread from them. Grenville, nevertheless, feared that Petty was somewhat sympathetic to them on the question of parliamentary reform and might not like the ‘sacrifice of adherents and a certain loss of popularity’ incurred by turning his back on them. In any case, Petty had no wish to be ostensible leader and was unable to win over Whitbread. By early April 1809 the proposal had evaporated into a closet conference on tactics at Dropmore.15
Petty was so far amenable to the moderate line as to oppose Folkestone’s motion for a general inquiry into abuses, 17 Apr. 1809, unless it were made specific. He supported the offices in reversion bill, 24 Apr.; voted for Hamilton’s motion for inquiry into allegations of ministerial corruption, 25 Apr.; queried the application of public money to the emigration of the Portuguese court to Brazil, 28 Apr.; supported his friend Ord’s motion against the Dutch commissioners’ peculation, 1 May, and advocated sinecure reform, 8 May. But he joined the moderate Whigs in walking out before the division on Madocks’s motion of 11 May16 and he opposed the sale of offices prevention bill because it was ineffective, 15 May. He likewise opposed Whitbread’s proposal to exclude junior ministers from the House, 2 June. He opposed a clause in Curwen’s reform bill, 7 June, but his amendment to leave out the word ‘express’ before ‘covenant’ in the penalization of promises of office in exchange for seats in Parliament was defeated by 78 votes to 43. Next day he clarified his views on sinecures: he did not deny the necessity for offices as public reward, but wished to abolish superfluous ones. The cost and tendency of Canning’s foreign policy was a more congenial topic; but he was obliged to withdraw, for the time being, a motion on the deterioration of Anglo-American relations, 13 June 1809.
In the summer of 1809 Petty’s brother was so gravely ill that it was a foregone conclusion that he would not see another session in the Commons. Many members of the opposition regretted the loss of a future leader there. Brougham remarked sarcastically that he had lived to see the removal of Petty to the Lords ‘regarded as a national calamity’.17 Petty, then in Ireland, himself admitted that he ‘certainly never felt more disposed’ to exert himself in the Lower House, but had other things to regret—his brother’s estrangement, connived at by his sister-in-law who after her husband’s death endeavoured to hinder his succession by a feigned pregnancy. Once this obstacle was removed, the world thought he was a man to be envied:
in spite of all his brother could do, Lord Lansdowne gets six and twenty thousand a year, exclusive of his younger brother’s portion, which might have been five more. This with a marquessate, three seats in Parliament, a certain Garter, youth, health, and a high reputation, make no bad lot in life.18
As Lord Holland put it:
He was the best hope of the Whig party in the Commons, and he himself considered the accession of a princely fortune and a seat in the House of Lords as a loss, till in a few years the solid comforts of those possessions compensated for the uncertain objects with which his ambition had occasionally dazzled his judgment.19
Lansdowne, too ‘cold and reserved’ to suit Whig ‘cordiality’, remained a moderate on the subject of reform and formed his own political coterie, like his father.20 In 1827 he and his pack took office under Canning, a step that complicated his relations with the Whig ministry in which he was included in 1830. He nevertheless became the Nestor of the Whigs, refusing a dukedom in 1857. He died 31 Jan. 1863.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Fox Corresp. iii. 202, 209; Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, ii. 430; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 100; Add. 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 8 Nov. ; Leveson Gower, i. 326-7; Camden mss C562/87, Wycombe to Lady Londonderry, 27 Sept. 1801.
- 2. Spencer mss, ‘Althorp Letters’, p. 7; Add. 51682, Lansdowne to Holland, Tues.; 51736, Holland to Caroline Fox, [June], Caroline Fox to Holland, 24 Dec. , 22 Feb., 11, 24, 31 May, 13 June, 25 July ; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 10; Lansdowne mss, Petty to Lansdowne, 7 May 1803.
- 3. Colchester, i. 478; Add. 47565, f. 120; 51570, Hamilton to Holland, 13 Feb.; 51724, Ponsonby to Holland, 2 Apr. 1804.
- 4. Stanhope, Pitt, iv. 190; Add. 47569, f. 230; 51686, Petty to Holland, 1 May 1804; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 14; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 27; Horner Mems. i. 300; Mq. of Lansdowne, Glanerought and the Petty Fitzmaurices, 116, 118; Creevey Pprs. i. 42-44.
- 5. See CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY; Add. 41852, f. 232; HMC Fortescue, viii. 199; Horner Mems. i. 329-30.
- 6. Rose Diaries, ii. 397; Horner Mems. i. 340; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 4, 10 Mar. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 44-46; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 15 Mar. 1806.
- 7. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 1 Apr. 1806; NLS mss 3795, ff. 143, 147; Wickham mss 1/9/37.
- 8. Leveson Gower, ii. 202; Add. 41851, ff. 262, 266; Lansdowne mss, Holland to Petty [Sept. 1806]; HMC Fortescue, viii. 354-6; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 186; PRO 30/29/6/5, f. 938; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 24,  Sept. 1806; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 65-68; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, ii. 81-82.
- 9. Colchester, ii. 91; Holland, ii. 156; HMC Fortescue, viii. 462-3, 469; Fortescue mss, T. to Ld. Grenville, 30 Jan. 1807; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 203, 208; Buckingham, iv. 139; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 4 Feb., 6, 7 Mar. 1807.
- 10. Add. 51686, Petty to Holland, 2 May; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 2 May 1807.
- 11. Add. 37887, f. 184; 41582, f. 324; 51686. Petty to Holland, 10, 12 Dec.; Lansdowne mss, Holland to Petty, 11 Dec., Petty to Grey, 14 Dec., reply 23 Dec.; Grey mss, Grey to Holland, 6, 12 Dec., Tierney to Grey, 10, 14, 28 Dec. 1807; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 235-6; Buckingham, iv. 216; Holland, ii. 237-8; Fortescue mss, Newport to Grenville, 13 Dec. 1807; Hants RO, Tierney mss 33d; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/63; HMC Fortescue, ix. 148, 156, 157; NLW mss 10804, Williams Wynn to Temple, 10 Jan. 1808.
- 12. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 2 Mar.; Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey, Sat. [30 Apr.], Sat. [8 May 1808].
- 13. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 12 July 1808.
- 14. Fortescue mss, Petty to Grenville, 22 Dec. 1808, Fremantle to same, 21 Feb.; Lansdowne mss, Grenville to Petty, 5 Jan.; Grey mss, Ponsonby to Grey, 2 Jan., Tierney to same, 16, 19 Jan., 1 Feb. 1809; Buckingham, iv. 300, 301, 333; HMC Fortescue, ix. 253, 266, 267; NLW mss 2791, C. to H. Williams Wynn, 2 Mar. 1809; Brougham mss 413; Fitzwilliam mss, box 92, Althorp to Milton, 17 May 1818.
- 15. Add. 41853, ff. 8, 11, 15, 25, 30; HMC Fortescue, ix. 282, 284-7; Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, [27 Mar.], 1 Apr. 1809.
- 16. Grey mss, Grey to his wife, 12 May 1809.
- 17. Ibid. Tierney to Grey, 20 June; Whitbread mss W1/2493; Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen, 26 Dec. 1809.
- 18. Add. 51686, Petty to Holland, 4 Oct., Thurs. [16 Nov.]; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 5 Dec., Russell to same, 9 Dec. 1809; Ward, 87; Leveson Gower, ii. 70.
- 19. Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 44.
- 20. Grey mss, Grey to his wife, 17 Nov. 1819.