This Parliament existed for only 138 days, but saw two administrations. The general election consolidated the numerical supremacy of Lord Grenville’s coalition ministry of ‘All the Talents’, but, after carrying abolition of the slave trade, it was brought down in March 1807 by the king’s unyielding resistance to any concessions on Catholic relief. The ailing 3rd duke of Portland became the figurehead premier of a largely Pittite government. Their displaced opponents mustered strongly in hostile divisions in April 1807, and the king readily granted Portland a dissolution at the end of the month.
The 1806 general election ran from 29 Oct. to 2 Dec. There were contests in 87 of the 380 constituencies (23 per cent). There was a bitter struggle between government and the Pittite opposition in Hampshire, where the ministerialists won, but there ensued a parliamentary vendetta over alleged treasury interference. The highest rate of contests occurred in Scotland (12, or 27 per cent), where the Scottish Foxites harboured hopes of overturning the long-established Melvillite supremacy. Grenville entrusted the Scottish campaign to William Adam, who did his best, but had to concede after the elections that ministers could count on at most 28 friends among the 45 Scottish Members, with 14 in opposition and three uncertain. This was the least satisfactory return for government for any part of the kingdom; but the election had come too soon for the Scottish Foxites, who were inhibited by Grenville’s reluctance to alienate the Pittites by a wholesale purge of Melvillites. Overall, 137 Members with no previous parliamentary experience came in (21 per cent); and a further nine were returned at by-elections.
The Grenville ministry probably increased its majority over the Pittite opposition by about 30. The Sidmouthites lost about a dozen of their 30 or so seats. Yet within four months the government was terminated. Meanwhile, Grenville, who in June 1806 had, at the prompting of Charles James Fox and the Evangelical Member for Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, moved general resolutions in favour of abolition of the slave trade, decided to act on them. He informed Wilberforce of this intention in early November, and played a major role in the subsequent drafting of a bill and the canvassing of parliamentary support. The measure was introduced in the Lords, and passed its second reading there by 100-36, 5 Feb. 1807. In the Commons, the slightly amended bill was carried at its committalby 283-16, 23 Feb. Returned to the Lords, it passed on 23 Mar. 1807 and received royal assent on the 25th.
That day Grenville, whose renewed overtures to George Canning had failed, surrendered his seals of office, after a complicated sequence of events turning on the issue of Catholic relief. When the king demanded a pledge that the ministers, some of whom wished to make further concessions, would not raise the issue again in his lifetime, Grenville and his pro-Catholic colleagues refused. On 19 Mar. 1807 George III announced that he would look to others to form an administration, and the ‘Talents’ ceased to exist.
Portland became the titular head (as he had been in the Fox-North coalition 25 years previously) of the new ‘prerogative’ ministry, whose front bench men in the Commons were Spencer Perceval, Canning and Lords Castlereagh and Hawkesbury. Sidmouth was excluded. The displaced Grevillites and Foxites did well in divisions on motions censuring the king’s abuse (as they saw it) of the royal prerogative: 226 to 258 for government on 9 Apr.; and 196 to 244 on 15 Apr. 1807. Ministers secured a dissolution in order to strengthen their hand in the Commons.
Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810 (1975)
Stephen Farrell, ‘Contrary to the Principles of Justice, Humanity and Sound Policy: The Slave Trade, Parliamentary Politics and the Abolition Act, 1807’, in The British Slave Trade; Abolition, Parliament and People ed. Stephen Farrell, Melanie Unwin and James Walvin (Edinburgh, 2007)
Peter Jupp, Lord Grenville 1759-1834 (1985)