Grenville, George (1712-1770) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 23
Grenville, George (1712-1770)

by George Fisher Russell Barker
1904 Errata appended.

GRENVILLE, GEORGE (1712–1770) statesman, was the second son of Richard Grenville (1678-1728) of Wotton Hall, Buckinghamshire, by his wife Hester, second daughter of Sir Richard Temple, bart., of Stowe, near Buckingham, and sister and coheiress of Richard, viscount Cobham of Stowe. He was born on 14 Oct. 1712; was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford (where he matriculated on 6 Feb 1730), and was admitted a student of the Inner Temple in 1729. It appears that he was also admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 21 Feb. 1733. He was, however, called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1735, and was afterwards elected a bencher of that society in 1763. At the wish of his uncle, Lord Cobham, Grenville forsook the law for politics, and at the general election in May 1741 was returned to the House of Commons for the borough of Buckingham, a constituency which he represented until his death.

Grenville began his political career among the ‘Boy Patriots,’ who opposed Sir Robert Walpole's policy, and on 21 Jan. 1742 took part in the debate on Pulteney's motion for a secret committee on the conduct of the war (Walpole, Letters, i. 119). In December 1742 he spoke in the debate on Sir William Yonge's motion for a grant in payment of the Hanoverian troops and voted with Pitt against the motion (Parl. Hist. xii. 1051-3). In December 1744 he was appointed a lord of the admiralty in Pelham's administration. In the following year, though in office, he engaged with Pitt and his brother Richard (afterwards Lord Temple) in opposing the measures of the government until the former obtained preferment (Grenville Papers, i. 424) On 23 June 1747 Grenville became a lord of the treasury. On the death of Henry Pelham Grenville was appointed treasurer of the navy in the Duke of Newcastle's administration, and was sworn a member of the privy council on 21 June 1754. By untiring industry Grenville had already made a mark in the House of Commons. Pitt, writing to the Earl of Hardwicke in the previous April, says: ‘Mr. Grenville is universally able in the whole business of the house, and after Mr. Murray and Mr. Fox is certainly one of the very best parliament men in the house’ (Chatham, Correspondence, i. 106). When parliament met in November 1755 Grenville attacked the foreign policy of the government in a speech which, according to Horace Walpole, ‘was very fine, and much beyond himself ; and very pathetic’ (Letters, ii. 484). and on 20 Nov. was dismissed from his office. In November 1756, on the formation of the Duke of Devonshire's administration, Grenville returned to his former post of treasurer of the navy, in succession to Dodington, but on 9 April in the following year resigned it, in consequence of the dismissal of Pitt and Temple from the government. In June 1757, however, Grenville once again became treasurer of the navy, and on 24 Jan. 1758 reintroduced his Navy Bill, which had been thrown out in the previous year (Parl. Hist. xv. 839-70). This useful measure, which provided for the speedy and punctual payment of seamen's wages, after considerable opposition in the lords, became law during the session (31 Geo. II, c.x.) Soon after the accession of George III, Grenville, under Bute's influence, began to break away from Pitt, with whom he had hitherto acted in accord. In February 1761 he was admitted to the cabinet, while still holding the office of treasurer of the navy. Upon Pitt's resignation in October 1761, the seals of secretary of state were offered to Grenville, who refused them. At the king's desire, Grenville, however gave up the thoughts which he had entertained of succeeding Onslow as the speaker and consented to remain treasurer of the navy, and to take the lead in the House of Commons. On the meeting of the new parliament, in November 1761, Grenville proposed Sir John Cust as Onslow's successor in the chair (Parl. Hist. xv. 1100-2). When the Duke of Newcastle resigned, in May 1762, Grenville was appointed secretary of state for the northern department, in the place of Lord Bute who became first lord of the treasury. During the summer, while the negotiations for peace were going on, Grenville had considerable differences with Bute upon the terms of the treaty. Grenville strongly insisted upon the retention of Guadaloupe, or upon obtaining an equivalent for giving it up ; but while he was in bed, owing to a temporary illness, Bute took the opportunity of summoning a council, by which it was surrendered. Grenville was however, successful in compelling Bute to exact compensation from Spain for the cession of Havannah. Hitherto Grenville had had an easy task as leader of the house, since Pitt had abstained from any violent opposition but he by no means relished the prospect of having to take the leading part in the commons in the defence of the treaty. Bute, being anxious to secure a majority in the lower house, and doubting Grenville's ability in the coming crisis, called in Fox to his assistance, and Grenville, compelled to resign the leadership as well as the seals, accepted the post of first lord of the admiralty, in the place of Lord Halifax, who succeeded Grenville as secretary of state on 13 Oct. 1762. Parliament met in November 1762, but Grenville, thinking himself neglected, took little part in the debates. On one memorable occasion, however, in March 1763, he interposed in defense of Dashwood's proposition of an additional duty on cider, and reminded the house that the profusion with which the late war had been carried on necessitated the imposition of new taxes. ‘“He wished gentlemen would show him where to lay them.” Repeating this question in his querulous, languid, fatiguing tone, Pitt, who sat opposite to him, mimicking his accent aloud, repeated these words of an old ditty, “Gentle shepherd, tell me where !” and then rising abused Grenville bitterly. He had no sooner finished than Grenville started up in a transport of rage, and said, if gentlemen were to be treated with that contempt—— Pitt was walking out of the house, but at that word turned round, made a sneering bow to Grenville, and departed.… The appellation of the Gentle Shepherd long stuck by Grenville. He is mentioned by it in many of the writings on the Stamp Act, and in other pamphlets and political prints of the time’ (Walpole, Memoirs of George III, i. 251). Fox, in his memorandum dated 11 March 1763, urged Bute to remove Grenville from the government, stating that, in his opinion, Grenville was ‘and will be, whether in the ministry or in the House of Commons, an hindrance, not a help, and sometimes a very great inconvenience to those he is joined with’ (Lord E. Fitzmaurice, Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, i. 189).

Bute had other plans, and on his resignation of office Grenville was appointed first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer on 10 April 1763. Grenville afterwards practically avowed that he took office to secure the king from the danger of falling into the hands of the whigs. ‘I told his majesty,’ he says in a letter to Lord Strange, ‘that I came into his service to preserve the constitution of my country, and to prevent any undue and unwarrantable force being put upon the crown’ (Grenville Papers, ii. 106). A few days after his assumption of office the session came to an end. The king's speech identified the foreign policy of the new ministry with the old one, and referred to ‘the happy effects’ of the recently concluded peace, ‘so honourable to the crown, and so beneficial to my people’ (Parl. Hist. xv. 1321-31). On 23 April the famous No. 45 of the ‘North Briton’ appeared, in which the speech was severely attacked, and on the 30th Wilkes was arrested on the authority of a general warrant. There can be little doubt that Bute had hoped to make Grenville his tool, but he soon found out his mistake. Grenville resented his interference, and complained that the ministry had not the full confidence of the king. Negotiations were commenced, with a view to displacing Grenville, in July with Lord Hardwicke, and afterwards in August with Pitt. Upon the failure of the second attempt the king was compelled to ask Grenville to remain in office, which he consented to do on receiving an assurance that Bute should no longer exercise any secret influence in the closet. In September the ministry, which had been weakened by the death of Lord Egremont in the preceding month, was strengthened by the accession of the Bedford party, the duke becoming the president of the council, while Sandwich, Hillsborough, and Egmont were given important offices. On 9 March 1764 Grenville introduced his budget, speaking ‘for two hours and forty minutes ; much of it well, but too long, too many repetitions, and too evident marks of being galled by reports, which he answered with more art than sincerity’ (Walpole, Letters, iv. 202). On the following day his proposals for the imposition of duties on several articles of American commerce were carried without any resistance, as well as a vague resolution that ‘it may be proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations’ (Journal of the House of Commons, xxix. 935). On 7 Feb. 1765 a series of fifty-five resolutions, imposing on America nearly the same stamp duties which were then established in England, were unanimously agreed to in the commons. The bill embodying these resolutions met with little opposition in either house, and quickly became law. Upon the recovery of the king from his severe illness the Regency Bill was introduced into the House of Lords, and by a curious blunder of the ministry the name of the Princess Dowager of Wales was excluded from it. This was eventually rectified in the commons but not until Grenville had suffered great discomfiture. The king had long been tired of his minister's tedious manners and overbearing temper. ‘When he has wearied me for two hours,’ complained the king on one occasion, ‘he looks at his watch, to see if he may not tire me for an hour more’ (Walpole, George III, ii. 160); and on another occasion the king declared that ‘when he had anything proposed to him it was no longer as counsel, but what he was to obey’ (Grenville Papers, iii. 213). Negotiations were again opened with Pitt, this time through the Duke of Cumberland, but failed, owing to the action of Lord Temple, with whom Grenville had been lately reconciled. Upon Lord Lyttelton's refusal to form a ministry the king was compelled to retain Grenville in office. The latter, however, insisted that the king should promise that Bute should no longer participate in his councils, and that Bute's brother, James Stuart Mackenzie, and Lord Holland should be dismissed from their respective offices of privy seal of Scotland and paymaster-general. The king reluctantly consented to these terms, but after the Duke of Bedford's celebrated interview with him on 12 June determined to rid himself of the ministry at all hazards. After another ineffectual negotiation with Pitt, the Marquis of Rockingham was appointed first lord of the treasury, and Grenville was dismissed on 10 July 1765.

When parliament met in December following, Grenville at once attacked the ministerial policy with regard to America (Chatham Papers, ii. 350-2), and in January 1766, after an able defence of the Stamp Act, boldly declared that ‘the seditious spirit of the colonies owes its birth to the factions in this house’ (Parl. Hist. xvi. 101-3). When Conway brought forward his bill for the repeal of the Stamp Act, Grenville opposed it with all his might. In the session of 1767 Grenville and Dowdeswell defeated the ministry on the budget, by carrying an amendment reducing the land tax from 4s. to 3s. in the pound—the first instance, it is said, since the revolution of the defeat of a money bill (ib. p. 364). In 1768 appeared ‘The Present State of the Nation ; particularly with respect to its Trade, Finances, &c. &c. Addressed to the King and both Houses of Parliament,’ Dublin, 8vo. This pamphlet, the authorship of which was attributed to Grenville, was written by William Knox with Grenville's assistance (Grenville Papers, iv. 395). It contained many dreary prognostications, and accused the Rockingham party of ruining the country, but is chiefly remarkable for having elicited from Burke in reply his ‘Observations on a late publication intituled the Present State of the Nation’ (Works, 1815, ii. 9-214). Though Grenville had taken a prominent part in the early measures against Wilkes, he opposed his expulsion from the House of Commons on 3 Feb. 1769, in probably the ablest speech that he ever made (Parl. Hist. xvi. 546-75). In spite of the fact that his health was already failing him, Grenville obtained leave on 7 March 1770 to bring in his bill to regulate the trial of controverted elections (ib. pp. 902-24). This excellent measure of reform, which transferred the trial of election petitions from the house at large to a select committee empowered to examine witnesses upon oath, received the royal assent on 12 April (10 Geo. III, c. xvi.) Grenville continued to attend to his parliamentary duties to the end of the session, and made his last speech in the House of Commons on 9 May 1770 in the debate on Burke's motion for an inquiry into the causes of the disturbances in America (Cavendish, Debates, ii. 33-7). He died at his house in Bolton Street, Piccadilly, on 13 Nov. 1770, in his fifty-ninth year, and was buried at Wotton.

Grenville was an able but narrow-minded man, of considerable financial ability, unflagging industry, and inflexible integrity, both in private and public life. Burke, in his speech on American taxation, in April 1774, paid a remarkable tribute to Grenville's devotion to parliamentary work. ‘He took public business, not as a duty which he was to fulfil, but as a pleasure he was to enjoy ; and he seemed to have no delight out of this house, except in such things as some way related to the business that was to be done within it. If he was ambitious, I will say this for him, his ambition was of a noble and generous strain. It was to raise himself, not by the low pimping politics of a court, but to win his way to power, through the laborious gradations of public service ; and to secure himself a well-earned rank in parliament, by a thorough knowledge of its constitution, and a perfect practice in all its business’ (Speeches, 1816, i. 205). Stern, formal, and exact, with a temper which could not brook opposition, and an ambition which knew no bounds, Grenville neither courted nor obtained popularity. Utterly destitute of tact, obstinate to a degree, and without any generous sympathies, he possessed few of the qualities of a successful statesman. His administration was a series of blunders. The prosecution of Wilkes led to the discredit of the executive and the legislature alike. His ill-considered attempts to enforce the trade laws, to establish a permanent force of some ten thousand English soldiers in America, and to raise money by parliamentary taxation of the colonies, in order to defray the expense of protecting them, produced the American revolution; while the incapacity which he showed in the management of the Regency Bill damaged his reputation in the commons, and angered the king beyond measure. The king never forgave the treatment he received from Grenville while prime minister, and is said to have declared to Colonel Fitzroy, ‘I would rather see the devil in my closet than Mr. Grenville’ (Lord Albemarle, Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham, ii. 50). As a speaker, Grenville was fluent and verbose, and though at times his speeches were impressive, they were seldom or never eloquent.

Grenville married, in May 1749, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Wyndham, bart., and sister of Charles, second earl of Egremont, by whom he had, besides five daughters, four sons, viz. Richard Percy, who died an infant in July 1759; George, who succeeded his uncle Richard as second Earl Temple, and was created Marquis of Buckingham ; Thomas, the owner of the famous Grenville Library ; and William Wyndham, who was created Baron Grenville ; the last three are separately noticed. His wife died at Wotton on 5 Dec. 1769. Several pamphlets have been attributed to Grenville without sufficient authority. Three letters addressed to Grenville, and written by Junius in 1768, were published for the first time in the ‘Grenville Papers.’ Junius, who positively asserted that he had no personal knowledge of Grenville, appears to have felt more esteem for him than for any other politician of the day. A portrait of Grenville, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1764, was exhibited at the second Loan Exhibition of National Portraits in 1867 (Catalogue, No. 465). An earlier portrait of Grenville, by W. Hoare, has been engraved by Houston and James Watson.

[The following authorities, among others, may be consulted : Grenville Papers (1852-3); Chatham Correspondence (1838-40); Correspondence of the Duke of Bedford (1842-6); Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George II (1847); Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III (1845); Walpole's Letters (1857); Lord Albemarle's Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham (1852); Lord Mahon's History of England (1858), vols. iv. v.; Lecky's History of England (1882), vol. iii.; Lord Macaulay's Essays (1885), pp. 744-91; Collins's Peerage (1812), ii. 410, 415-19; Lipscombe's History of Buckinghamshire (1847), i. 600-1, 614; Haydn's Book of Dignities (1851); Foster's Alumni Oxonienses, pt. ii. p. 562; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 85, 98, 109, 123, 137; Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple (1883), p. 78; Lincoln's Inn Registers.]

G. F. R. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.141
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
116 ii 9f.e. Grenville, George: for first earl read second earl