Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentinck, William Henry Cavendish
BENTINCK, WILLIAM HENRY CAVENDISH, third Duke of Portland (1738–1809), twice prime minister, was the oldest son of William, second Duke of Portland, by his wife, Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley, only daughter and heiress of the last Earl of Oxford. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and as Marquis of Titchfield was returned to parliament as member for Weobly in Herefordshire in 1760. In May 1762 he succeeded his father as third Duke of Portland. He was only twenty-four, possessed of immense wealth, derived both from his father and his mother, of good, if not brilliant, parts, and of unblemished character, so that it was no wonder that his support was warmly desired by the various whig cliques. The young duke at once entered into a warm political alliance with the Marquis of Rockingham, and when Lord Rockingham formed his first cabinet in July 1765, the Duke of Portland was appointed lord chamberlain of the household, and sworn of the privy council. He retired with the Rockingham whigs in December 1766, and further associated himself with the great whig families by his marriage in November 1766 to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, only daughter of William, fourth Duke of Devonshire. He now entered into most violent opposition in the House of Lords, and so great was his animosity towards the duke of Grafton, that he was absurdly suspected of being the author of the letters of Junius. The quarrel between the two dukes was so violent that the attempt of the crown to dispossess the Duke of Portland of Inglewood Forest, which had been granted to the first Earl of Portland by William III, was put down to a feeling of spite on the part of the Duke of Grafton. It is not, however, necessary to believe this story; for although the Duke of Portland obtained a verdict in his favour, the case for the crown was a good one, and by no means trumped up for the purpose. Throughout the ministry of Lord North the duke remained in opposition, and when, in April 1782, the Marquis of Rockingham returned to power, he was sent to Ireland as lord-lieutenant, and his brother-in-law, Lord John Cavendish, became chancellor of the exchequer.
The whigs had not learnt union in opposition, and on the death of Lord Rockingham there appeared at once two irreconcilable elements. The king appointed Lord Shelburne, the first of the new whigs, to succeed Lord Rockingham. Charles James Fox, who had been a secretary of state with Shelburne when the cabinet was formed, for personal reasons disliked having Shelburne over his head. He therefore combined with Lord John Cavendish to request the king to make the Duke of Portland prime minister, and when the request was refused they both resigned, and their resignations were followed by those of the duke himself, Burke, and Sheridan. Shelburne made Pitt his chancellor of the exchequer, and tried to fight the matter out, but the majority in both houses was against him, and Lord North combined with Fox. Before this famous coalition Shelburne had to retire, and in April 1783 the Duke of Portland became prime minister, with Fox and Lord North as secretaries of state. Much has been said of the infamy of this 'coalition,' but it was very nearly becoming the strongest ministry that could possibly be formed. The duke resigned in December 1783, when Fox's India Bill had been thrown out in the lords owing to Lord Temple's use of the king's name, but Pitt, who succeeded him as premier, had very nearly become his colleague; Lord John Cavendish was quite ready to resign the exchequer to him, but he was reluctant to admit all Pitt's friends.
After the fall of the coalition cabinet, the Duke of Portland was regarded as the head of the Rockingham whigs. He was not a great speaker, but he had exactly the character which had enabled Rockingham to hold his party together ; he could always be trusted, and his rank and wealth were sufficiently preeminent to prevent others from being jealous of his position. He did not make a good leader of an opposition ; he left all party tactics to Fox and Burke, and devoted himself more and more to his country - life at his favourite seat, Bulstrode, and to the study of music, of which he was passionately fond. From this easy life he was awakened by the rapid progress of the French revolution. Like Pitt and Fox, he had sympathised with that great movement at first, but as its tendency became more and more manifest, he shrank, like every other great landowner, from the idea that 'French principles' might spread to England. Pitt saw his opportunity. He had always been weak in parliament; and he saw that by sternly declaring against French principles he would gain the support of the great whig families. His repressive bills were warmly taken up by them, and the war discussed with enthusiasm. It only remained for him to make a formal alliance with these 'Burkite' whigs and their acknowledged leader, the Duke of Portland. The negotiation was managed by Lord Malmesbury and Lord Loughborough on either side, but it was very difficult, from sheer nervousness, to get the duke to make a public declaration of his alliance with Pitt. At last it was made, and Pitt, in his delight, largely rewarded the duke himself. He had been elected chancellor of the university of (Oxford in succession to Lord North in 1792; he was now made secretary of state for the northern department, that is home secretary, a knight of the Garter, and lord-lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, while his eldest son, the Marquis of Titchfield, was made lord-lieutenant of Middlesex.
The most important and useful years of the Duke of Portland's life were the seven years from 1794 to 1801, during which he held the home secretaryship. No one who has not studied the papers in the Public Record Office can have any idea of the amount of work done by him during these seven years. The new repressive acts, such as the Alien Act, the Treason Act, and the Sedition Act, had thrown an enormous arbitrary power into the home secretary's hands. Yet the Duke of Portland's administration was marked by no straining of his powers and no consequent unpopularity of the government, by no outrage worse than trade processions with seditious flags at Sheffield, and the breaking of the king's carriage windows on his way to open parliament, while Lord Sidmouth's administration, in the corresponding period of repression in 1816-22, was signalised by the Peterloo massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy. The contrast is due to the difference between the Duke of Portland and Lord Sidmouth. The duke was a tolerant man of the world, not a man of great ability, but of great experience, who knew the advantage of leaving the expression of opinion as free as possible.
In yet another point the behaviour of the Duke of Portland is worthy of all praise. Irish affairs and Irish correspondence were included in his department, and during his period of office the Irish insurrection of 1798 broke out and was suppressed, and the Act of Union carried. In the published despatches of Cornwallis and Castlereagh there is evidence of the steady support Portland gave them in every point, excepting in his reluctance to ratify the disgraceful bargaining in honours, by which the Irish peers took advantage of the necessity of their support to the government in carrying the Act of Union, to obtain peerages for themselves (Cornwallis Correspondence, iii. 269-62). But his attitude towards the Roman catholics is particularly noteworthy. The king once remarked, according to Sir. Cooke (Castlereagh Correspondence, iv. 81), that 'the Duke of Portland was weak and of no use, and that he was governed by the bisliop of Meath.' This refers to the scheme proposed by Lord Castlereagh of subsidising the Roman catholic church in Ireland, and making it a state church as well as the reformed episcopal church of Ireland. This statesmanlike solution of the Irish question was highly approved of by the Duke of Portland, and in a passage in the 'Castlereagh Correspondence' (iii. 400), the Bishop of Meath, the propounder of the scheme, speaks of the warm sympathy he has received from the duke.
In spite of his sentiments on Irish affairs, the Duke of Portland consented, at the earnest request of the king and Mr. Addington, to remain in the latter's cabinet in the nominal capacity of lord president of the council ; but he soon perceived the feebleness of Addington and his friends, and the necessity of forming a really strong administration after the fresh outbreak of war with Napoleon in 1803. Pitt's return to office was anxiously demanded by the country, and, after some communications with the king through Lord Eldon, Pitt was again requested to form a cabinet. Pitt first proposed a strong coalition cabinet, in which he was to be chancellor of the exchemier and first lord of the treasury; Dundas, Fox, and Lord Fitzwilliam, secretaries of state; Lord Grenville, lord president; and the Duke of Portland, lord privy seal; but the king's objection to Fox caused this scheme to fail, and Pitt had to take office with only his own personal friends and a very small majority; the duke continued to hold the office of lord president of the council. He had imbibed some of his eldest son's warm personal attachment to Pitt, and did all he could to relieve the prime minister's difficulties. Lord Titchfield and George Canning had married sisters, the two daughters and heiresses of the successful gambler, General Scott, and they had become very intimate friends; Lord Titchfield caught Canning's enthusiastic feelings for Pitt, and his enthusiasm reacted on the old duke. When, therefore, Pitt desired to find a place in his cabinet for Addington, who was also made Lord Sidmouth, the Duke of Portland readily consented to surrender his place to him. 'The Duke of Portland agrees to remain in the cabinet without office. Nothing could be kinder or handsomer than his whole conduct' (Pitt to Sidmouth, Stanhope's Life of Pitt, iv. 249). When Pitt died, and the ministry of All the Talents came into office, the duke gladly retired to Bulstrode. He was now growing an old man, and suffered very much much from the gout, and he naturally hoped for a peaceful old age. But this was not to be. The ministry of all the Talents made mistake after mistake, and in 1807 Pitt's old friends were again called to power. The difficulty was to find a prime minister under whom such rival spirits as Canning and Lord Castlereagh would consent to serve. The only fit man was the old Duke of Portland, and he, very unwillingly, from a his sense of public duty accepted the burden.
The last premiership of the Duke of Portland, from 1807 to 1809, is by no means the brightest period of his political career. He was old and feeble, and unequal to his great duties. Owing to his incapacity for work, the real power of government fell to Castlereagh and Canning. The expedition to Copenhagen, the failure at Walcheren, the victories of Vimeiro and Talavera, and the convention of Cintra, all occurred in this last premiership; but the prime minister hardly deserves either the praise or blame. Still less was he responsible for the dissensions in his cabinet. Castlereagh and Canning could not agree. The duke was afraid to accept Canning's resignation, and promised to dismiss Lord Castlereagh, but he was equally afraid of dismissing Castlereagh, and so procrastinated. The inevitable discovery was made by Castlereagh of what had been going on; the famous duel took place between Canning and Castlereagh on Wimbledon common, and both statesmen resigned. This blow killed the old duke; his health had for months been so bad that he was unable to attend to any details of business ; in October 1809 he insisted on resigning, and on 30 Nov. 1809 he died at Bulstrode.
Few statesmen have suffered more obloquy than the Duke of Portland. He was not a great man, and was a very poor orator, but he deserves to be remembered rather for his administration of the home department from 1794 to 1801 than for his two premierships. In his home secretaryship he showed himself a good administrator, tolerant in his exercise of great and extraordinary powers, careful in details, and yet not wanting in broad statesmanlike views. In private life he was in every way admirable.
[For the Duke of Portland's first administration and early life consult Lord Albemarle's Memorials of the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord John Russell's Memorials of C. J. Fox, Macknight's Life of Burke, Stanhope's Life of Pitt, the Duke of Buckingham's Courts and Cabinets of George III, the ordinary histories of the period, and the innumerable contemporary pamphlets on the coalition in the British Museum; for his home secretaryship consult his despatches and minutes in the Public Record Office, and Stanhope's Life of Pitt; and for Irish affairs the Cornwallis Correspondence, and the first volumes of the Castlereagh Correspondence. especially vol. ii.; for his later life consult the Castlereagh Correspondence, the Wellington Supplementary Despatches, and especially the Diary and Journals of the first Earl of Malmesbury; almost all memoirs and publications on the period will be found to frequently allude to the duke.]