CAVENDISH, Lord John (1732-96).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1768
1768 - 1784
22 May 1794 - 18 Nov. 1796

Family and Education

b. 22 Oct. 1732, 4th s. of William, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, and bro. of Lords George and Frederick Cavendish.  educ. Hackney; Peterhouse, Camb. 1750. unm.

Offices Held

Ld. of Treasury July 1765-July 1766; P.C. 27 Mar. 1782; chancellor of the Exchequer Mar.-July 1782 and Apr.-Dec. 1783.


Lord John was by far the most important member of the Cavendish family who sat in the House of Commons during this period. Horace Walpole, who came up against him, wrote:1

He had read a good deal, and his eyes saw not faster than his memory retained ... nor was he defective in quickness or reasoning. Under the appearance of virgin modesty he had a confidence in himself that nothing could equal and a thirst of dominion still more extraordinary ... To be first in however small a circle was his wish ... He was a kind of heresiarch that sought to be adored by his enthusiastic disciples without a view of extending his sect beyond that circle.

Still, Walpole ‘honoured his integrity’,2 and Wraxall spoke of his ‘high character for integrity and uprightness’.3 Burke praised his judgment, disinterestedness, and sensibility; and declared his only fault to be ‘the singular modesty and moderation of his nature’.4

In 1754 he was provided with a seat by Administration at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, and in 1761 was returned on the family interest at Knaresborough. His rise to political importance began after Devonshire’s dismissal in October 1762, but he did not become a first-rate political figure until after Devonshire’s death. He spoke in the debate on the peace preliminaries, 10 Dec. 1762, only to move an amendment to the Address which passed unopposed; and like his brothers voted against the peace. He was one of the group of young men who pressed for an active Opposition in the winter of 1762-3, and began to make his reputation as a speaker. On the Regency bill he moved an Address for the King to name the Regent, 7 May 1765, and was foremost in opposing Morton’s motion to include the Princess Dowager among those capable of the Regency—‘this damnable design’, as the Cavendish brothers described it in a letter to Newcastle.5 (‘Lord John ... was inflexible to Bute’, wrote Walpole.6) With his brothers and Robert Boyle Walsingham he attended the meeting at Claremont on 30 June 1765, and advocated taking office without Pitt.

During the Rockingham Administration Lord John favoured the attempt to bring in Pitt—the King, he wrote to Rockingham in January 1766,7 ‘must sooner or later swallow the pill’ and ‘the fewer wry faces he makes the better’. But when the Chatham Administration was being formed Lord John resigned from the Treasury Board. According to Walpole,8 who was then in close touch with Grafton, ‘he sent his resignation to the Duke of Grafton in a letter in which he told the Duke that he supposed his Grace did not desire to see a Cavendish at that Board’. No such letter survives among the Grafton mss, and this is Lord John’s own explanation of his resignation:9

My reason for what I have done [he wrote to Newcastle on 26 July 1766] is that as I have always thought Mr. Pitt’s style too high for my temper and I have been a long time tired of the confinement of my employment, it appeared to me I could not have a better opportunity of getting out than in company with those with whom I have been so long intimately connected, both in public and private life.

He once told Walpole that ‘he wished the Opposition was reduced to six or seven who could depend on one another’;10 and said in the House on 2 Apr. 1770 that he ‘wished all cursed distinctions of party to be done away’.11 His conception of party was based on friendship and connexion rather than principle.

At the meeting of the chiefs of the Rockingham party on 19 Nov. 1766 Lord John pressed for resignations, apparently in the belief that Chatham would thus be compelled to yield to the Rockinghams.12 In the East India debate of 25 Nov. he ‘made a farewell speech to the Administration’.13 He hoped to win back Conway, and during the negotiations of 1767 seems to have influenced Rockingham into making a stand on Conway’s inclusion in any new Administration. Lord John, wrote Newcastle on 7 Sept.,14 was ‘not a friend or well-wisher to the union’ between Bedford and Rockingham; and when Rockingham, in deference to Bedford, agreed to drop Conway, it was against Lord John’s advice.15

In the autumn of 1767 he was invited by a group of merchants to contest Lancaster at the forthcoming general election. He canvassed strenuously: ‘I don’t think he likes it much’, wrote Lord Frederick to Portland on 10 Nov.,16 ‘but he must now go through with it’; yet was forced to decline the poll, after having incurred heavy expenses.17 On 14 Mar. 1768, on his way home from Lancaster, he called at Wentworth, and was pressed by Rockingham to stand for York. ‘I desired to be excused’, he wrote to Newcastle on 16 Mar.,18

having so lately got out of one scrape, but I said I would go to Chatsworth, consult my brothers, and ... if he [Rockingham] found York in the state he expected I would then go and offer myself, but would not engage in a second contest.

He was returned unopposed on the corporation, or old Tory, interest.

His influence in the Rockingham party was always against extreme measures. In his speeches he shows himself to have been much influenced by Burke, whose diagnosis of the ‘present discontents’ agreed with his own. In a debate of 2 Mar. 1769 Lord John said of the early years of George III’s reign:19

Did not France ... at once see that those able counsellors whose advice had led to those successes were consulted and listened to no longer; that the system by which this country had been governed for the last fifty years was at once overturned; that no attention was paid to personal friendship; and that public virtue was disregarded.

In short, all would have gone well had Newcastle and Devonshire been retained in office—which agreed with what Rockingham thought. North, in March 1782, described Lord John as ‘more in the confidence of Lord Rockingham than any other person’,20 which may well have been true then; though it is probable that until 1775 the more energetic Dowdeswell had the greatest influence with Rockingham. Lord John tended to be lukewarm in action, and became increasingly discouraged at the impotence of opposition—‘I think our situation so unpleasant’, he wrote to Rockingham on 26 Jan. 1779,21‘that I should be glad to get out of it at any rate.’ Still, Rockingham at all times greatly trusted him, and never failed to consult him.

Lord John had no sympathy for Wilkes, but early realized the difficulties which would attend his expulsion. He said in the House on 3 Feb. 1769:22

Let gentlemen consider that this is not the case of a little borough but of a large county put out of temper. If indeed he had been found incapable of being elected I should have been glad of it, for there are many very inconvenient circumstances in this man’s situation.

And on 8 May:23 ‘I am sorry we have got into so unbecoming a contest with so unworthy an antagonist.’ Neither then, nor in the printers’ case of 1771, did he stress the constitutional issues: his concern was primarily for the dignity of Parliament.

‘We must be as moderate towards the Americans as possible’, he said in the House on 5 Dec. 1768;24 and he was not one of those who believed the colonists could do no wrong. ‘To be sure the Bostonians’ behaviour is indefensible’, he wrote to Rockingham on 29 Jan. 1774.25 When the Boston port bill was introduced he ‘doubted the efficacy of the measure’,26 and on 25 Mar. spoke against it:27

I do not love to hear it said we must maintain national dignity when the measures proposed to maintain it are at the expense of national justice. This Act punishes the innocent and wealthy, the rabble remain as they were.

Towards the end of the American war he developed a constitutional theory like that of Chatham, which he projected back to the time of the Rockingham Administration. On 12 June 1781, during the debate on Fox’s motion against the war, he replied to some remarks of Rigby on the Declaratory Act:28

He should ever think there was a very material difference between stating and declaring a right presumed to be vested in Parliament, as the sovereign or supreme power, and employing methods of force and coercion in maintenance of that right. Besides, it was not fair to conclude that the declaratory law, which asserted a general, undefined right, namely ‘to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever’, pointed to the exertion of a particular mode of exercising it, namely a right to tax, which claim had been renounced in the very same session by a repeal of the Stamp Act.

Such, however, had not been his opinion in 1766, when Pitt, almost alone in the House of Commons, had maintained that the British Parliament had no right to raise a revenue in America.

‘I do not love general sweeping remedies’, Lord John told the Commons on 12 Feb. 1770.29 At the York meeting of 28 Mar. 1780 he refused to sign the plan of Association, and objected to the demands for increased county representation and shorter Parliaments ‘as tending ... to lessen the probability of success to the petition’.30 In the Commons on 8 May 1780 he ‘spoke against the principle of shortening the duration of Parliaments’,31 yet voted for it ‘out of respect to the people’.32 At the general election of 1780 there was a possibility that he would be opposed at York by a candidate more sympathetic to the Association’s programme, and at one time he seemed inclined to retire. He wrote to Rockingham on 5 Sept.:33 ‘It is not the doubt of success nor the expense inclines me to have done so much as the disagreeableness here and hereafter. The House of Commons is no place for gentlemen of common sense.’ During the second Rockingham Administration he opposed the plan for a committee on parliamentary reform,34 yet voted for Pitt’s scheme on 7 May 1783. In short, he trimmed a good deal, but his friends had no doubt of his real opinions.

In March 1782 he was only persuaded to take office out of respect for Rockingham, and on Rockingham’s death is reported to have said ‘that now ... he cared no more about politics’.35 Shelburne would have retained him in the new Cabinet, hoping to placate the followers of Rockingham; but Lord John would take no office. On 9 July he

stated to the House his reasons for quitting the post of chancellor of the Exchequer, which, he said, were briefly that hearing a different system was meant to be pursued ... he had determined to withdraw himself that he might not divide the Cabinet and render it a scene of confusion ... for he always should be of opinion that a Cabinet unanimous in itself, although their measures might not be so good as could be wished, was much better for the country than a Cabinet which was divided.36

Fox regarded him as a valuable political asset, and drew him into opposition to the Shelburne Administration. On 17 Feb. Lord John moved the Opposition amendment to the address on the peace preliminaries, and on 17 Feb. the motion of censure. He described the treaty as ‘degrading and disgusting’; talked of the ‘formidable and truly respectable state of our navy’, and the exhaustion of the Bourbon powers; and defended the coalition with North by comparing it with the Pitt-Newcastle Administration—‘nothing but a union of great and able men could save the country’.37

Lord John’s second tenure of the Exchequer was marked by his introduction of the unpopular receipts tax. His talents, wrote Wraxall,38 ‘were not eminently adapted for the discussion of measures of finance’. But the ‘deserved and universal good opinion’ entertained of him39 more than made up for this weakness, and it is greatly to his credit that he withstood the extravagant demands of the Prince of Wales. He did not care for office: in November 1783 he seriously contemplated resigning,40 and a few days before the Coalition fell was prepared to yield his place to Pitt if it would strengthen Administration.41

His adherence to the Coalition and his dislike of parliamentary reform led to his defeat at York in 1784. Burke wrote subsequently of this period of Lord John’s life:42

He retired from the world exceedingly irritated at the triumph of his enemies, which was carried pretty high against him personally; and somewhat disgusted with the coldness of his friends, who at that time showed little energy of mind and considered his retreat with too much indifference.

‘Lord John’, wrote John Hatsell, clerk of the House of Commons, to John Ley on 25 Apr. 1784, ‘means to stay out of Parliament as long as he can’;43 and Sir Gilbert Elliot to his wife on 8 Jan. 1789:44 ‘Lord John Cavendish is very unwilling to engage again in public affairs.’

Henceforth he took little part in politics, and his friendship with Fox was severed by the French Revolution. He wrote to Burke on 14 Nov. 1790, after acknowledging the receipt of a copy of Burke’s Reflections:

All men of sense must I think feel obliged to you for showing in so forcible a manner that confusion is not the road to reformation. Though some of our allies have now and then run wild, our original set have always contended for that temperate resistance to the abuse of power as should not endanger the public peace or put all good order into hazard.

Lord John Cavendish died 18 Nov. 1796.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 17-18.
  • 2. Walpole to Mann, 4 June 1780.
  • 3. Mems. ii. 424.
  • 4. Corresp. (1844), iv. 526-7.
  • 5. Add. 32966, f. 355.
  • 6. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 232.
  • 7. Rockingham mss.
  • 8. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 250.
  • 9. Add. 32976, f. 269.
  • 10. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 92.
  • 11. Wm. Burke to Wm. Dennis, 6 Apr. 1770, Burke, Corresp. (1959), ii. 127.
  • 12. Brooke, Chatham Administration, 55, 82.
  • 13. Grenville Diary, 25 Nov. 1766, Grenville, Pprs, iii. 389.
  • 14. Add. 32985, ff. 45-51.
  • 15. Portland to Newcastle, 20 Oct. 1767, Add. 32986, ff. 58-60.
  • 16. Portland mss.
  • 17. Wm. Mason to Chris. Alderson, 15 Mar. 1768, mss of Mr. C. J. Wilson of Godalming, Surr.
  • 18. Add. 32989, ff. 191-2.
  • 19. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 301.
  • 20. North to the King, 8 Mar. 1782, Fortescue, v. 381.
  • 21. Rockingham mss.
  • 22. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 156.
  • 23. Ibid. 414.
  • 24. Ibid. 89-90.
  • 25. Rockingham mss.
  • 26. Walpole, Last Jnls. ii. 129.
  • 27. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 28. Debrett, iii. 534.
  • 29. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 457.
  • 30. Wyvill, Political Pprs, i. 160.
  • 31. Almon, xvii. 681.
  • 32. Savile to John Hewett, 9 May 1780, HMC Foljambe, 153.
  • 33. Rockingham mss.
  • 34. Richmond to Rockingham, 11 May 1782, Rockingham Mems. ii. 481.
  • 35. Walpole, Last Jnls
  • 36. Debrett, vii. 311-12.
  • 37. Ibid. ix. 297-302.
  • 38. Mems. iv. 95.
  • 39. Fox to Northington, 17 July 1783, Corresp. C. J. Fox, ii. 116.
  • 40. Fitzwilliam to Portland, 16 Nov. 1783, Portland mss.
  • 41. Dowager Lady Spencer to Ld. Spencer, 23 Dec. 1783, Spencer mss.
  • 42. Burke to Wm. Windham, 23 Dec. 1796.
  • 43. Ley mss.
  • 44. Life and Letters Sir G. Elliot, i. 260.