The Portland Whigs, 1792-4

From 1792, as the French revolution took an increasingly violent course, posing a threat to monarchical Europe and raising the prospect of war, the more conservative section of the opposition Whig party, under the leadership of the 3rd duke of Portland, gradually moved closer to Pitt’s ministry and away from the more liberal wing of the party led by Fox. However, Portland’s reluctance to destroy the party by breaking irrevocably with Fox ensured that the final rupture did not take place until January 1794. The Portland Whigs’ official junction with the government (by which they did handsomely) was concluded in the following July.

William Henry Cavendish Bentinck (1738-1809) was Member for Weobley (as marquess of Titchfield) from 28 Mar. 1761 until he succeeded his father as 3rd duke of Portland on 1 May 1762. He became a prominent member of the Rockingham Whig group and was appointed lord chamberlain in the 2nd marquess of Rockingham’s administration in July 1765. The ministry fell in July 1766, but Portland was pressured into remaining in office as a possible link with the new Chatham government. After an unhappy five months he resigned, having conceived a lasting hostility to Chatham, and strengthened in his attachment to Rockingham. He took office as lord lieutenant of Ireland when Rockingham returned to power in April 1782, but resigned in August on Lord Shelburne’s appointment as prime minister following the death of Rockingham, whom he succeeded as head of the Whig party. As such, he was the titular premier in the Fox-North coalition of April to December 1783, and on its dismissal continued as leader of the Whig opposition to the ministry of Chatham’s son William Pitt.

While Portland privately shared much of Burke’s alarm over events in France, and was uneasy at the activities of the younger Foxite Whigs in the Society of the Friends of the People, he did not express public approval of Burke’s extreme views, being anxious above all to stay united with Fox for as long as possible, in the hope that the party could be kept intact. As war loomed at the end of 1792, he came under mounting pressure from Burke, Windham and other alarmist leaders to break with Fox, but he remained unwilling to do so prematurely, and was in any case still deeply suspicious of Pitt. In December 1792 Windham’s friend Sir Gilbert Elliot compiled a list of Members of the Commons ‘supposed attached to the duke of Portland’. A list of 42 peers was appended to it. Portland himself annotated these lists, which were subsequently endorsed as being ‘very incorrect’. Portland queried two dozen of the Members and eight of the peers, and deleted five or six Members and three peers. He identified five Members as friends of the prince of Wales, three as nominees of the duke of Northumberland and one as returned by Lord Carlisle. Of the Members, 51 belonged to the Whig Club, and of these 16 subsequently seceded from it. The Commons list included 27 of the Members who attended one or both of Windham’s ‘third party’ meetings in February 1793, and a further 48 who were either invited (but did not attend) or were considered as possible recruits. Seventy-two of the 109 Members are not known to have voted against the government between December 1792 and December 1794. If those who enlisted in the ‘third party’ are excluded, the hard core of Portland Whigs in the Commons probably numbered just over 50.

In the Lords, 12 Feb. 1793, Portland declared that he would support the war against France but continue to oppose Pitt’s ministry on other issues, as he saw fit. He declined to denounce the Whig Club seceders and stuck to his gradualist (some might say dithering) line, hoping to postpone a breach with Fox for as long as possible. Fox, however, made no concessions to the alarmists in his attacks on the government and the war, and support for parliamentary reform; and by December 1793 Portland had accepted that separation was inevitable. The Portland Whigs (who since the outbreak of war had voiced hardly any overt support for Pitt in either House) were now barely distinguishable from the ‘third party’. At the turn of the year Portland informed Fox that he and his followers must now give the ministry more decided support, and at a meeting of conservative Whigs at his London residence of Burlington House, 20 Jan. 1794, called to consider the means of backing a vigorous prosecution of the war, he formally announced his separation from Fox.

Portland successfully resisted Pitt’s attempts to poach cheap individual recruits, and when he and his followers joined the ministry in July 1794 they secured five cabinet places: Portland as home secretary; Lord Fitzwilliam as lord president; Lord Spencer as lord privy seal; Lord Mansfield as minister without portfolio, and Windham as secretary at war. Burke received a pension, while other honours conferred on the rank and file included four peerages and one promotion.


Further reading

David Wilkinson, The Duke of Portland: Politics and Party in the Age of George III (2003)

Author: David R. Fisher