Perceval, Spencer (DNB00)
|←Perceval, Robert||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44
PERCEVAL, SPENCER (1762–1812), statesman, second son of John Perceval, second earl of Egmont [q. v.], by his second wife, Catherine, third daughter of the Hon. Charles Compton, envoy to the court of Lisbon, and granddaughter of George, fourth earl of Northampton, was born at his father's house in Audley Square, London, on 1 Nov. 1762. His name, Spencer, was a family name on his mother's side, derived originally from Sir John Spencer, owner of Crosby Place, whose daughter Elizabeth married William Compton, first earl of Northampton. Perceval was brought up at Charlton House, near Woolwich; about the age of ten he was sent to Harrow, and thence to Trinity College, Cambridge, where Dr. William Lort (afterwards bishop) Mansel [q. v.] was his tutor. He gained the college declamation prize for English, and on 16 Dec. 1781 graduated M.A. Being a younger son, with only a small income, he went to the bar and joined the midland circuit, where he soon became popular. Romilly, who began on circuit a friendship with him lasting many years, describes him at this time (Memoirs, i. 91) ‘with very little reading, of a conversation barren of instruction, and with strong and invincible prejudices on many subjects; yet by his excellent temper, his engaging manners, and his sprightly conversation, he was the delight of all who knew him.’ Windham (Diary, p. 71), meeting him in 1786, noted that his career was likely to be distinguished. In 1790 his grandfather procured him the deputy-recordership of Northamptonshire; next year he obtained a small mint sinecure, the surveyorship of the meltings and clerkship of the irons, just vacated by George Selwyn's death. He seized the occasion of the dissolution of parliament in 1790, while the impeachment of Warren Hastings was proceeding, to publish an anonymous pamphlet on the constitutional question involved, which is said to have brought him favourably to the notice of Pitt. He presently began to obtain crown briefs, in 1792 on Paine's trial, in 1794 on Horne Tooke's. In the latter year Lord Chatham made him counsel to the board of admiralty, and in 1796 he became a king's counsel, an appointment all the more honourable to him because, in bestowing it, Lord Loughborough intimated that he thought there were already king's counsel enough, but was induced to increase the number by his high opinion of Perceval's talents. Lord Loughborough was not alone in thinking highly of him. Only a few weeks earlier Pitt had offered him the chief secretaryship for Ireland, with the prospect of a pension. Perceval refused the offer on the ground that, with a wife and five children, he could not afford to accept any income that Pitt could fairly grant. His needs were considerable. Though he had lived, when first married, in lodgings in Bedford Row, he had bought about 1793 a good house in Lincoln's Inn Fields with money settled on his wife by her father, and there he kept an expensive establishment. In the course of 1796 a sixth child was born to him, and, for the time being, all his ambition was confined to making money by the law.
In the summer, however, a seat was found for him in parliament. Lord Northampton's death in April, and his son Lord Compton's elevation to the House of Lords, left a vacancy in one of the Northampton seats, and Perceval was returned unopposed. On the dissolution, which shortly followed, he was only elected after a sharp contest. He did not speak, apparently, till May 1797, when he made a favourable impression by his support of Pitt's proposal to make penal any attempt to sow disaffection in the forces. From his first entrance into parliament he declared for uncompromising war with France abroad, and for a strenuous support of Pitt and his repressive policy at home. He spoke after very careful preparation, and not unfrequently. His manner was epigrammatic though artificial, and he seems to have won the esteem not of Pitt only (who is said to have named him as a possible successor to himself as early as the date of his duel with Tierney), but also of Sheridan and of Fox. During 1798 and 1799 he more than once wound up debates on the government side and acted as teller for them in divisions. The growth of his political influence is shown by the fact that Mansel, his old tutor, was appointed master of Trinity in 1798 mainly by his solicitation, and that he himself was in the same year appointed solicitor to the board of ordnance through Lord Cornwallis's intervention, and solicitor-general to the queen by the special favour of the king. Nor had politics interfered with his progress at the bar. His income, which had been 1,012l. in his last year as a stuff-gownsman, had risen to 1,504l. in 1799, and to 1,807l. in 1800. Ultimately his private practice brought him four to five thousand a year.
When Pitt was succeeded by Addington the new minister found himself ill-supported in debate by the members of his cabinet, and therefore bestowed his law offices where he could get the required assistance. Law became attorney-general, Perceval solicitor-general, and it was intended that they should be regularly instructed as though they were counsel for the new administration (Colchester, Diary, i. 307). Perceval, as an earl's son, was permitted to decline the customary knighthood, the only exception made since 1783. From this time he gave up practice in the king's bench, and appeared only in chancery; but if his object was to secure more time for politics, he did not succeed, for he rapidly became the regular opponent of Romilly in the chancery courts. During the sessions of 1801 and 1802 he spoke little in the house, and mainly on Irish questions. In 1802 Law succeeded Lord Kenyon in the chief-justiceship of the king's bench, and Perceval became attorney-general. In that capacity he prosecuted Colonel Despard for high treason, and Peltier for a libel on Bonaparte. Both were convicted early in 1803. On 24 May 1804 he appeared again for the crown on the trial of Cobbett for the libels on Lord Hardwicke and Lord Redesdale, published in Cobbett's ‘Political Register,’ and signed ‘Juverna;’ and, when ‘Juverna’ proved to be Mr. Justice Johnson, one of the Irish judges, Perceval conducted his prosecution on 23 Nov., and again both prosecutions were successful. In the same year he declined the chief-justiceship of the common pleas, with a peerage.
During the career of the Addington administration Perceval, according to Brougham, almost single-handed, defended the ministry in the House of Commons from the assaults of Pitt, Fox, Windham, and their followers (Statesmen, i. 248, ii. 58). His future as a champion of debate seemed assured. Hence Pitt, on succeeding Addington, was anxious to secure his assistance. Perceval's first intention was to decline Pitt's advances. But he was approached adroitly through Lord Harrowby, one of his best friends, and, having stipulated for his own entire freedom at all times to oppose catholic emancipation, he accepted office again as attorney-general. Here he displayed a more liberal spirit than might have been looked for. He refused to prosecute the members of the early trade unions at the instance of the employers, on the ground that he was unwilling to commit the government to a uniform support of the employers on trade questions; and to Wilberforce's efforts to remedy the abuses of the Guinea slave trade he lent a warm and steady support. He took up the bill, which Sir William Scott had dropped, for compelling non-resident clergymen to pro- vide curates, properly paid, to discharge their parish duties, and twice brought it in, though without success. In the debates on the financial irregularities which led to Lord Melville's impeachment, he played a very brilliant part. When Pitt died (23 Jan. 1806), Perceval resigned; but he showed himself fertile in expedient and cautious in counsel. It was he who suggested in debate the device of appointing a trustee for Lord Grenville as auditor of the exchequer, and so set him free to form a ministry; and it was in spite of his remonstrances that Lord Ellenborough became a member of the cabinet while still continuing to be chief justice.
During 1806 he constantly criticised the measures of the ‘Talents’ administration; and, after the death of Fox on 13 Sept., Lord Grenville, through Lord Ellenborough, unsuccessfully invited him to join the ministry. His attack on the government's Roman catholic policy on 5 March 1807 contributed to its fall. When, a fortnight later, the Duke of Portland came to form his administration, it was obvious that Perceval must find a place in it. The difficulty was to determine what his place should be. He himself desired to continue to be attorney-general, and to increase his income by practising at the bar. Finally, at some pecuniary sacrifice, he accepted the office of chancellor of the exchequer (31 March 1807), with a salary of some 1,300l. He was offered at the same time the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster for life, so that he might be provided with an adequate income. This arrangement roused some scruples on Perceval's part, but there were two precedents for it, and it had been contemplated on several other occasions. But the plan provoked strenuous opposition in the House of Commons, and a motion for an address against it was carried by 208 to 115. The duchy was consequently bestowed on Perceval during pleasure only. The new ministry shortly dissolved, and returned with a strong majority.
On 25 June Perceval gave the usual ministerial dinner to hear the king's speech read at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which he was about to quit for Downing Street (Colchester, Diary, ii. 123). Both on the address and on Whitbread's motion of 6 July, to draw attention to the state of the nation, he and his followers obtained large majorities. He at once provoked the hostility of the opposition by adding supporters of his own to the committee on expenditure originally appointed in February (see Romilly, Memoirs, ii. 205), and by so modifying the inquiry on places held in reversion, which was proposed by Lord Cochrane, as to exclude from inquiry his own reversion to his brother Lord Arden's place of registrar of the court of admiralty. Other of his parliamentary performances were unsatisfactory to his friends. He spoke ill, stammered, was nervous in manner and weak in matter. Official business prevented that elaborate preparation for debate upon which he had hitherto depended, and he had not obtained such a mastery of public business as to enable him to debate effectively without preparation. His anxieties only increased after the session of parliament ended, when the necessity arose for the seizure of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen and for the issue of the orders in council. The latter originated with and were drafted by him. In the debates upon them which took place as soon as parliament met in January and February 1808, he took the leading part, and showed a marked improvement in his attitude to the house.
Though untried as a financier, he was successful with his budget, and his scheme for the conversion of three-per-cent. stock into terminable annuities was generally approved. The Stipendiary Curates' Bill, which he had introduced in 1805 and 1806, he this year passed through the commons, but it was rejected in the House of Lords; nor, though subsequently reintroduced by him, did it pass till after his death. His first personal achievement in 1809 was the speech in which he met Wardle's motion for an address praying for the removal of the Duke of York from the chief command of the army, in consequence of the scandals connected with Mrs. Mary Ann Clarke [q. v.] His speech on 8–9 March, described by the speaker as a ‘masterly speech of three hours,’ was afterwards published; the almost unprecedented adjournment in the middle of his speech was by the general desire of the house (Colchester, Diary, ii. 172). His personal popularity was enhanced by the failure of Maddocks' ill-grounded attempt to connect him with parliamentary corruption in connection with the sale of seats at Rye, Queenborough, Hastings, and Cashel. On 11 May the house rejected the motion for hearing these charges by 310 votes to 85. The disclosures, however, of corruption which were made against others, and the general demand for increased purity in public life which had resulted from the Clarke scandals, led to the introduction of a bill for parliamentary reform by preventing the sale of seats, which ultimately passed. Perceval had from the first recognised that such a bill must be accepted, and, while objecting to some of the details, gave it a general support. But by his influence parts of the bill which would have interfered with the mode in which ministerial patronage was employed were omitted. The effect of his criticism was to give him the appearance of defending and seeking to perpetuate the abuses which had recently been brought to light by the report of the East India patronage committee; but there is no ground for supposing that he was personally concerned in, or a supporter of, any corrupt appointments.
With the earlier part of the strife between Castlereagh and Canning, which took place in the summer of 1809, Perceval does not appear to have been concerned. It was not until after the meeting of the cabinet in June, at which the Walcheren expedition was resolved upon, that he was even informed of Canning's arrangement with the Duke of Portland for Castlereagh's removal from office. He then took Castlereagh's part, intimated that Castlereagh was entitled to have been informed of what it was proposed to do with him, and insisted that till the Walcheren expedition, which Castlereagh had planned, was over, his removal ought not to take place. He did not, however, directly communicate with Castlereagh, and was careful to maintain friendly relations with Canning, in spite of his admission to his friend Lord Harrowby that ‘the making a conclusive arrangement with regard to Lord C.'s fate, and pledging ourselves to stand by it previously to his knowing anything about it, is unjust and dishonourable to him.’ When the Duke of Portland's illness at the end of August left the government practically leaderless for the moment, and tolerably certain to require a new leader very shortly, Perceval entered into communication upon the subject with Canning. He expressed himself at first as willing to act under any head satisfactory to Canning and the rest of the ministry, provided he would take his fair share of the responsibility of the treasury work. Canning replied that he thought the new minister must be in the commons, and, if so, must be Perceval or himself. The upshot was that Perceval, being either more popular with his colleagues or more adroit in his manœuvres than Canning, succeeded the Duke of Portland as prime minister. The cabinet had, while matters were still unarranged, recommended that Lord Grey and Lord Grenville should be approached with a view to the formation of a coalition ministry; but although the king reluctantly assented to the scheme (Colchester, Diary, ii. 211, 217; Twiss, Life of Eldon, ii. 97), neither lord entertained the proposal (see the various letters contained in Life of Spencer Perceval; Lord Colchester, Diary, ii. 205 sqq.; Courts and Cabinets of George III, iv. 374; Phipps, Memoir of Plumer Ward, i. 229). Perceval's task under these circumstances was one of extreme difficulty. Pitt's old party was broken up, and some of the ablest of the tories were standing aloof with Canning; Castlereagh had been deeply mortified; Lord Sidmouth's assistance would cause a loss of more votes than it would bring; and the whig leaders would not assist, and indeed refused all overtures in a manner which indicated that they considered themselves insulted by the proposal (Romilly, Memoirs, ii. 295). Perceval himself was anxious to be rid of the burden of the chancellorship of the exchequer, but nobody could be found to take it. After five persons had refused it, Perceval at last, on 2 Dec. 1809, completed his cabinet by retaining it himself. With a disinterestedness which in his case was especially praiseworthy, he held the office without salary.
The new ministry was generally regarded as a weak one; in debating power it was especially deficient. Perceval's own authority over the rank and file of his party was steadily declining, and he had, almost single-handed, to face an opposition which, with the assistance of Castlereagh and Canning, he had hardly kept in check in 1809. Many doubted if he would meet parliament. The Walcheren expedition and the retreat after the victory of Talavera were not matters easy to commend to a hostile house. In the first week of the session the ministry was four times defeated. Such a beginning was ominous. The ministerial vote of thanks for Talavera and motion for a pension to Wellington were carried only after strong opposition. Lord Chatham's conduct in sending his report to the king direct, and not through Lord Castlereagh, was made the subject of a vote of censure, which was carried. With difficulty the ministry saved themselves by forcing Chatham to resign. The disputes connected with Burdett's arrest on the speaker's warrant for breach of privilege were, though Perceval's own speech on them was sensible enough, equally little to the credit of his administration (see, for the speaker's version, Colchester's Diary, ii. 245 sqq.) A successful budget somewhat redeemed his fortunes, but he was beaten on Banke's proposal for the reform of sinecures. Nor were the military and fiscal troubles of the government less formidable than their parliamentary difficulties. England had to pay for the Spanish army in the Peninsular war when she could scarcely pay for her own, and to pay in gold when gold was hardly to be procured. The expense of the campaign of 1809 had been underestimated, and the poor results of the war raised a strong opposition to its continuance. Perceval doggedly insisted that it must go on. Although his steady debating skill carried the government on in the House of Commons till the prorogation on 21 June 1810, its position remained very critical. They had depended on the followers of Lord Sidmouth and of Canning; but Bathurst had deserted early in the session, and Canning toward its close. Perceval vainly applied to Lord Sidmouth and to Lord Castlereagh to take office under him. In September Canning intimated that no assistance of this sort was to be looked for from him. In October the king went out of his mind again, and, his recovery being uncertain, the ministry found itself face to face with the difficult question of a regency, a question none the less embarrassing in that Perceval's own relations with the Prince of Wales were strained; he had been the princess's counsel and her warm supporter in 1806 (see Surtees, Life of Eldon, p. 117; Romilly, Memoirs, ii. 165; Edinburgh Review, cxxxv. 29). On 20 Dec. Perceval introduced resolutions in the House of Commons identical with those of 1788. Again the whigs contended for the indefeasible right of the Prince of Wales to be regent. Perceval steadily adhered to the former precedent, and proposed to bind the regent by the same restrictions as before. The Prince of Wales and his brothers protested against them in writing. But Perceval was immovable. He introduced his scheme into the House of Commons on 31 Dec., and was immediately involved in a life-and-death struggle with his opponents. Yet, in spite of the opposition of Canning, the first three resolutions were carried, but only by majorities of twenty-four, sixteen, and nineteen in a full house. The fifth resolution, which gave the household and the custody of the king's person to the queen, came on for debate on 1 Jan. 1811. Canning, Castlereagh, Wilberforce, and others supported the opposition's amendment, and the government was defeated by thirteen, in spite of a speech which showed Perceval's personal superiority in debate over all his opponents; nor did he succeed in restoring his own form of the resolution on the report stage. The Regency Bill eventually passed the House of Lords substantially unchanged.
Before the Prince of Wales assumed the regency he had prepared a list of new ministers whom he intended to supplant Perceval and his colleagues. Lord Grey, upon whom he proposed to confer a chief place in the contemplated administration, made it a condition that the prince should cease to consult his friends—Sheridan and Lord Moira in particular—on political affairs. The negotiation consequently proved abortive. It seemed likely, too, that the king might recover, and it was abundantly clear that as soon as he recovered he would dismiss Perceval's supplanters. Accordingly the regent made no change in the ministry. He disingenuously informed Perceval on 4 Feb. that he was only restrained from doing so by his fear of interfering with the king's recovery by anything so agitating as a change of government.
On 12 Feb. 1811 a session of parliament opened. The demands upon the budget were enormous. Perceval proposed a grant of 2,100,000l. for Portugal; acceded to the recommendation of the select committee on commercial credit that 6,000,000l. should be advanced to the manufacturers who were suffering from the over-speculation of previous years; and, when Horner proposed resolutions in favour of the resumption of cash payments, strenuously and successfully resisted them. In July the bill making bank-notes legal tender was passed, avowedly because gold was so appreciated that for currency purposes it was unprocurable, while bank-notes were worth but eighty per cent. of their face value. It is clear that Perceval, if no worse, was no better a financier than his contemporaries, and knew no difference between financial right and financial wrong.
Perceval's position was now secure. The prince's personal friends were voting for the government, and that by their master's desire. His tenacity and perseverance had carried him through a struggle in which he seemed foredoomed to failure. He had no rivals among his opponents whom he needed to fear. His only foes were in the cabinet. Lord Wellesley and he could not work together. To Wellesley Perceval seemed to be starving the Peninsular war; to Perceval Wellesley appeared prejudiced and extravagant. During the autumn of 1811 communications passed between Wellesley and the regent with a view to a change of policy and of ministry. It was assumed that, when the regency restrictions expired early in 1812, the prince would place Wellesley at the head of the administration. The prince wanted money, and Lord Wellesley was apparently prepared to concede what Perceval would certainly refuse. Wellesley dissented from the cabinet's decision as to the regent's future allowance, and placed his resignation in Perceval's hands. The danger, however, passed away. Wellesley was replaced by Castle- reagh, and Charles Yorke, who had resigned slightly earlier for different reasons, by Lord Melville. Some other changes were made, and Perceval's power was apparently unshaken. Yet he soon met with rebuffs. He was deserted by his own party on the question of the prince's personal appointment of his friend ‘Jack’ Macmahon to the indefensible sinecure of the paymastership of widows' pensions, and later saw Banke's bill for the abolition of sinecure offices carried against him on second reading by nine votes. The fact that his brother, Lord Arden, held one of the best of the sinecure posts may perhaps account for the zeal with which Perceval opposed their extinction. His stolid resistance to all reforms was also preparing for him grave difficulties. The wisdom of the orders in council had long been in question, still more so their results. Perceval himself had never defended them in the abstract; he had openly avowed that they were forced on the government by the necessities of war. Complaints were now loud that, without injuring France, the orders were destroying English commerce. Brougham moved for an inquiry. Perceval spoke energetically, rallied his followers, and defeated the motion in March; but so numerous were the petitions against the orders from all the manufacturing districts that he had to concede the appointment of a committee in April.
There was a certain bankrupt named John Bellingham, a man of disordered brain, who had a grievance against the government originating in the refusal of the English ambassador at St. Petersburg to interfere with the regular process of Russian law under which he had been arrested. He had applied to Perceval for redress, and the inevitable refusal inflamed his crazy resentment. On Monday, 11 May, the House of Commons went into committee on the orders in council, and began to examine witnesses. Brougham complained of Perceval's absence, and he was sent for. As he passed through the lobby to reach the house, Bellingham placed a pistol to his breast and fired. Perceval was dead before a doctor could be found (see Jerdan, Autobiography, i. 23). He was buried on 16 May in Lord Egmont's family vault at Charlton. His large family was ill provided for; but the House of Commons voted him a monument in Westminster Abbey, and a grant to his family of 50,000l., and a further 2,000l. a year to his widow for life, with remainder to the eldest son, on whose succession the pension was to be increased to 3,000l.
Bellingham was tried at the Old Bailey on 15 May, and, the plea of insanity being set aside by the court, he was hanged on 18 May.
Perceval's friends had an unbounded admiration for his private character. As a friend and father he seems to have been blameless. He was pious, a student of the prophetical Scriptures, a diligent attendant at divine worship. Publicly, too, he was honest and disinterested, and his ability as a debater and administrator, and the courage and tenacity with which he fought difficult battles, are manifest. When he became prime minister he had practically no one but himself to rely on. Yet he carried on the government single-handed, prosecuted the war, defeated his opponents, and disarmed his critics. His conduct of the Peninsular war has been vehemently attacked by Colonel William Francis Patrick Napier [q. v.], who alleges that Wellington had occasion to complain of the inadequacy of the supplies sent him. The duke, however, informed Perceval's son in 1835 (see Walpole, Perceval, ii. 236) that he had made no such complaints, and had received every support the cabinet could give. He also told Charles Greville (Memoirs, 1st ser. iii. 271) that Napier was unfair to Perceval, and that although he had been short of money in the Peninsula, that was not the home government's fault. It was on other grounds that the Marquis of Wellesley resigned office in 1812 (cf. Memoir of J. C. Herries, i. 27 sqq.) The charge that Perceval during the Peninsular war was ‘afraid of throwing good money after bad,’ and that he ‘always took the money consideration first, and the moral consideration second,’ seems unfounded. A man of strong will and decisive character, he can, however, hardly be credited with possessing either ‘the information or the genius essential to an English minister at that momentous epoch.’ His word ‘became a law to his colleagues, and completely overruled the better judgment and more special experience of Lord Liverpool’ (Kebbel, History of Toryism, pp. 94–8). Many of the measures he advocated have been since discredited, and many of the evils he apprehended have proved illusory. In Alison's eyes (History of Europe, viii. 198) his great merit is that he stood forward as the champion of the protestant religion. To most students of history his conduct in that capacity is the part of his life which it best becomes his admirers to forget. His strenuous opposition to the Roman catholic claims seems now as ill-advised as his Jesuit's Bark Bill of 1807, and his fiscal policy was at best a makeshift. None the less, his dogged obstinacy was of great value to his country in the later periods of the Napoleonic struggle, and but for his tenacity changes of ministry might have taken place which might have compromised England's prestige abroad.
In person he was thin, pale, and short. The medal struck by the government after his murder has a good likeness of him on the obverse; and, though no portrait of him is said to have been painted from life, several pictures of fair authenticity are extant—one by Sir W. Beechey, engraved by W. Skelton, and published in 1813, and two by G. F. Joseph in the National Portrait Gallery and at Hampton Court respectively. A statue by Chantrey was erected in All Saints' Church, Northampton, and was removed in 1866 to the Northampton Museum. The Beechey portrait was also engraved by Picart for Jerdan's memoir of Perceval in Fisher's ‘National Portrait Gallery,’ vol. i., and by Joseph Brown for Walpole's ‘Life of Perceval.’
Perceval married, on 10 Aug. 1790, Jane, second daughter of Sir Thomas Spencer-Wilson, by whom he had six sons and six daughters. The fourth daughter, Isabella (d. 1886), married the Right Hon. Spencer Horatio Walpole, formerly home secretary; their son, Sir Spencer Walpole, K.C.B. (1839–1907), wrote a full biography of Perceval in 1874. Perceval's widow married, on 12 Jan. 1815, Lieutenant-colonel Sir Henry Carr, K.C.B., and died on 26 Jan. 1844.
[The best life of Perceval is by Sir Spencer Walpole, and was issued in 1874. There is another in J. C. Earle's English Premiers, 1871, and a third by C. V. Williams, 1856. A contemporary memoir was suppressed by his brother, Lord Arden. See, too, Alison's Europe; Jesse's Memoirs of George III; Romilly's Memoirs; Wilberforce's Life; Duke of Buckingham's Memoirs of the Regency; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. iii. 445, which contains a bibliography of his assassination, and of Bellingham, and also 7th ser. xi. 191; Edinburgh Review, xx. 30; Sydney Smith's Plymley Letters; Napier's Peninsular War; Massey's Hist. of England; State Trials, xxvi. 598 (Binn's trial), xxviii. 363 (Despard's trial), xxviii. 547 (Peltier's trial), xxix. 21, 243 (Cobbett's and Johnson's trials).]