PULTENEY, William (1729-1805), of Westerhall, Dumfries.

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



1768 - 1774
8 Mar. 1775 - 30 May 1805

Family and Education

b. 19 Oct. 1729, 3rd s. of Sir James Johnstone, 3rd Bt., M.P., by Barbara, da. of Alexander Murray, 4th Lord Elibank [S]; bro. of George, Sir James and John Johnstone.  m. (1) 10 Nov. 1760, Frances (d. 1 June 1782), da. and h. of Daniel Pulteney (1st cos. of William Pulteney, Earl of Bath), 1da.; (2) 3 Jan. 1804, Margaret, da. and coh. of Sir William Stirling, 4th Bt., of Ardoch, wid. of Andrew Stuart of Craigthorn, s.p. Took name of Pulteney 1767 on his wife’s succeeding to the estates of Lord Bath;  suc. bro. as 5th Bt. 3 Sept. 1794.

Offices Held


Pulteney began his career as an advocate at the Scottish bar. He moved in Edinburgh literary circles, was the friend of Adam Smith and David Hume, and in 1762 became secretary of the Poker club where the literati foregathered. He possessed, wrote Smith to James Oswald, 19 Jan. 1752,1

qualities which from real and unaffected modesty he does not at first discover; a refinement, depth of observation, and an accuracy of judgment, joined to a natural delicacy of sentiment ... He had when I first knew him a good deal of vivacity and humour, but he has studied them away. You will find him ... a young gentleman of solid, substantial (not flashy) abilities and worth.

A penniless younger son, he seems early to have acquired habits of extreme thrift, and though he obtained a large fortune on his wife’s inheriting the Pulteney estates, he appears to have retained his penurious habits. According to Sir John Sinclair,2 ‘having been accustomed to live on £200 a year, he thought it a great extravagance to spend £2,000 per annum, when he might have spent £20,000’. Yet he was generous to old friends, and when Andrew Stuart was in financial straits after the Douglas cause, Pulteney gave him an annuity of £400.3 On 5 Sept. 1772 Adam Smith, thanking him for a recommendation to the East India directors, wrote:4 ‘You have acted in your old way of doing your friends a good office behind their backs, pretty much as other people do them a bad one.’

Even before he succeeded to the Pulteney fortune he was determined to enter Parliament, and on 15 Nov. 1765 he wrote to Sir John Hussey Delaval about a vacancy at Berwick, adding that his wife’s relation, General Pulteney, had ‘expressed his approbation and promised me his support’.5 Though Pulteney did not receive Delaval’s support he canvassed the borough, but withdrew without becoming a candidate. General Pulteney’s death in 1767 gave him an interest at Shrewsbury, and at the general election of 1768 he unsuccessfully contested the borough in opposition to Lord Clive and Noel Hill. He was almost immediately afterwards returned for Perth Burghs on the interest of his friend George Dempster, who stood down while a charge for bribery was pending against him. Pulteney was also returned for Cromartyshire, and chose to represent the county, leaving the burghs to Dempster.

In Parliament Pulteney was completely independent, and though through Dempster he had some contact with the Rockinghams, who supported him over the petition brought by his opponent in Cromartyshire, the connexion was always tenuous. Pulteney’s first recorded vote was with Administration on the expulsion of Wilkes, 3 Feb. 1769, but he voted with the Opposition on the Middlesex election, 15 Apr. 1769, and on 16 June 1770 was censured as a Wilkite by his friend Hume. All his other recorded votes during this Parliament were with Opposition, but he excused himself from an Opposition meeting of 5 Feb. 1771 to discuss papers concerning the Spanish convention because ‘he conceived differently of the peace’. Yet, wrote the Duke of Richmond to Rockingham, 12 Feb.,6 ‘he added that he had the highest opinion of us, and had no thoughts of acting with the present ministers, but on such great occasions thought it right to follow the best opinion he could form’. Pulteney spoke frequently on a wide variety of subjects, particularly on financial matters, and like his brothers and Dempster he was interested in East India affairs.

In 1774 Pulteney again contested Shrewsbury, and though defeated was returned on petition the following March. Very few speeches by him were reported during the first years of this Parliament. But in 1778 he published his views on the American conflict in a pamphlet, The Present State of Affairs with America. Sympathetic to the American objection to taxation without representation, he denied that there was any parallel between America and the unrepresented parts of Britain. The actual representation of Great Britain he admitted was far from perfect, but

though Manchester and Birmingham ... are not represented, yet as the tax which affects them is at the same time imposed upon all places in the kingdom which are represented, if the taxes were grievous and oppressive, it would excite a general disgust, and the voice of the people being against it would check and control even the corruption of Parliament.

Since it was to the advantage of this country to tax America the colonies did not enjoy the same protection, and trading regulations had already deprived them of ‘many of the important advantages of Englishmen, and therefore we could not without injustice impose upon them the same taxes to which we ourselves are subject ... in establishing a monopoly of their trade we had in fact exacted from them a proportion of our public burdens’.

Pulteney’s petition at Shrewsbury was still pending when on 27 Feb. 1775 North introduced his conciliatory proposition, but he was present during the debate and describes as ‘most just and proper’ the proposal that the colonial assemblies should agree to a contribution for the public service, after which no further taxes should be imposed. He thought it unfortunate that the Opposition had attacked North’s proposal so violently in the House, and that it had been so misunderstood in America. He would always think favourably of North ‘for the candour and moderation which suggested to him the idea of the proposition’.7 Yet he voted with the Opposition on America, 26 Oct. 1775, and in his pamphlet paid tribute to them for ‘plans of accommodation with the colonies, which it was in the power of the Administration to have adopted’.

On 5 Mar. 1777 Pulteney approached Lord George Germain about possible negotiations with Franklin. He had a correspondent in Paris acquainted with him, and offered to find out what terms America would accept. On 6 Dec., concerned about rumours of a treaty between America and France, he wrote again offering to go immediately to Paris:

Dr. Franklin knows that I have always respected him when it was the fashion to entertain other opinions. He knows that I have always wished the most perfect freedom of America with respect to taxation and charters; but he knows too that I wished the indissoluble union of Great Britain and America.8

Germain was not encouraging, but on 9 Dec. Pulteney urged the suggestion again: ‘Every delay on our part is ... dangerous ... because the situation of the Americans is such at present that their demands are likely to rise every hour.’ At length, in March 1778 he was dispatched to Paris, and in spite of a cool reception from Franklin returned to England to obtain concrete proposals. But Franklin would consider nothing short of the recognition of American independence. Yet Pulteney still hoped to win back the colonies, and on 10 Apr. 1778 he opposed a motion by Thomas Powys to authorize the commissioners going to America to grant independence:

A number of men had raised themselves in the colonies from obscurity to grandeur ... they had the reins of their new power in their hands, which must be wrested from them ... Such a resolution as that moved for would give them the fairest argument to persuade the people, and independency must be the consequence.
But he did not despair of the success of the commission. He believed the tone of the Americans in general was against independency. They had been in a manner forced into a measure they had not approved of ... Secured from taxation, relieved from fear of having any share in the burden of our debt; protected during the war by our strength and cultivated during the peace by our arts, with these advantages joined to dependency, could they wish to be independent?9

He foresaw that an independent America ‘would soon rival Europe in arts as well as grandeur, and their power in particular would rear itself on the decay of ours’. He wrote to a friend on 22 May 1778 that rather than grant independence it would be better ‘to meet the contest now like men, and die with swords in our hands’.10

In 1779 Pulteney published a further pamphlet, Considerations on the Present State of Affairs, in which he maintained that as the Administration’s liberal attempts to treat with America had been rejected, there was no option but to carry on with the war or to submit ‘to such further conditions of peace as France and the Congress may think proper to impose’. To abandon the loyalists would be dishonourable; the object of the war should now be ‘to preserve such a connexion with the colonies in North America as to unite the force of the whole empire in time of war for common safety’. The colonies should acknowledge the Crown, but Congress should remain to take care of the general interests of the whole, and the Americans should send representatives to the British Parliament. As America would also possess the exclusive power to impose taxes and raise troops, and would enjoy trade ‘almost free from restriction, not only to Great Britain but to all parts of the world’, Pulteney found it ‘difficult to imagine what any reasonable man in the colonies can wish for more’. To bring the Americans to their senses, Administration should be ‘directed by men of fortitude and exertion ... by men who like Lord Chatham are capable of selecting and resolute in employing the most proper officers by sea and land’. To avoid the very high rates of interest necessary to raise public loans he proposed ‘to call upon individuals ... for a direct aid’, and on 1 Mar. 1779 suggested a tax of 15s. per cent on property.

Though he had previously attacked the Government’s naval mismanagement (5 May 1778), Pulteney voted with them on Keppel, 3 Mar. 1779. On 23 Feb. 1780 he declared that as an ‘independent man indifferent to who did or did not approve of the part he had taken ... he was surprised the timidity of the ministry prevented their calling so experienced a commander as Sir Hugh [Palliser] again to their assistance’.11 Pulteney voted with the Opposition on economical reform in February and March 1780, and on Dunning’s motion, 6 Apr. But he voted with Administration on the motion against prorogation, 24 Apr., and on 6 Nov. told the Commons that he thought those who outside the House ‘called the war unjust and thus presumed to brand and stigmatize a measure sanctified by the British Parliament, were guilty of an offence which ought to be followed by punishment’. Admitting that his own views had changed, he repeated his argument that the war was ‘carried on to protect our American friends from the tyranny and oppression of Congress, and those friends he believed were very numerous’.12 Pulteney voted with Administration on Lowther’s motion against the war, 12 Dec. 1781; and on Conway’s similar motions of 22 and 27 Feb. 1782; but with Opposition on Lord John Cavendish’s censure motion, 8 Mar., and on Rous’s motion of no confidence, 15 Mar. He voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783. Strongly opposed to Fox’s East India bill, he published a pamphlet, The Effects to be expected from the East India bill upon the Constitution of Great Britain. On 12 Jan. 1784 he condemned the bill in the House, and Wraxall reported that Pulteney and his brother, George Johnstone, ‘extended an invaluable assistance to the new Administration’.13 His speeches, generally on financial measures, were now almost invariably favourable to Pitt, and even when on 5 Mar. 1788 he condemned the East India declaratory bill he did not, wrote Wraxall, ‘omit to give praise to Pitt’s ministerial character and conduct’.14 In general he supported Pitt’s Regency proposals, but on 12 Feb. 1789 moved a clause to limit the duration of that part of the bill which prevented the Regent from increasing the peerage, and ‘descanted on the great utility and importance of the power of the Crown to make peers’.15 Pulteney’s independence, and his competence as a speaker, gave him considerable standing in the House, and according to Wraxall, ‘under a very forbidding exterior and a still more neglected or almost threadbare dress which he usually wore, [he] manifested strong sense, a masculine understanding and very independent as well as upright principles of action. Nor did he want a species of eloquence, though it could boast of no elegance or ornament.’16

Pulteney died 30 May 1805.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. Oswald Mems. 124.
  • 2. Corresp. Sir John Sinclair, 367.
  • 3. Letters of David Hume, ii. 195.
  • 4. Rae, Life of Adam Smith, 254.
  • 5. Delaval mss, Newcastle Pub. Lib.
  • 6. Rockingham mss.
  • 7. The Present State of Affairs.
  • 8. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 59, 81-83.
  • 9. Stockdale, viii. 235.
  • 10. Mass. Hist. Coll. (ser 6), ix. 420.
  • 11. Almon, xvii. 161, 163.
  • 12. Debrett, i. 31.
  • 13. Mems. iii. 259.
  • 14. Ibid. v. 71.
  • 15. Stockdale, xvi. 461.
  • 16. Mems. iii. 259.