Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pratt, John Jeffreys
PRATT, JOHN JEFFREYS, second Earl and first Marquis of Camden (1759–1840), born on 11 Feb. 1759, was the eldest child and only son of Charles, first earl of Camden [q. v.], and Elizabeth, daughter of Nicholas Jeffreys. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and received the degree of M.A. in 1779. At the general election in the following year he was returned for Bath, of which city he was recorder; he continued to represent Bath as long as he remained a commoner. As a reward for his father's services, he was in 1780 appointed one of the tellers of the exchequer, and held that office for the extraordinary period of sixty years. An unsuccessful attempt was made on 7 May 1812 to limit the emoluments accruing to that office, which had increased from 2,500l. per annum in 1782 to 23,000l. in 1808. From that moment Camden relinquished all income arising from it, amounting at the time of his death to upwards of a quarter of a million sterling, and received the formal thanks of parliament for his patriotic conduct. He was a lord of the admiralty from 13 July 1782 till 8 April 1783, during the administration of Earl Shelburne, and again in that of Pitt, from 30 Dec. following to 6 July 1783. On 8 April 1789 he was appointed a lord of the treasury, and held office till May 1794. He was admitted a privy councillor on 21 June 1793, and succeeded his father in the peerage on 18 April 1794. On 11 March 1795 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland vice Earl Fitzwilliam [see Fitzwilliam, William Wentworth, second Earl Fitzwilliam].
To the Irish generally, who saw in his appointment the frustration of all those hopes of remedial legislation to which the short-lived administration of Earl Fitzwilliam had given birth, he was from the first unpopular. He arrived in Ireland on 31 March 1795, and was greeted by a riot. Personally opposed to catholic emancipation, and to any concession to the popular demand for parliamentary reform, he must share with the English cabinet and his advisers in Ireland the responsibility attaching to that disastrous line of policy which terminated so fatally three years later in the rebellion of 1798. Resolved to present an uncompromising front to the catholic claims, he hoped by a system of state-endowed education to diminish the influence of the catholic priesthood and to render them more subservient to the crown. Apparently his object was realised in the rejection of the catholic bill of 1795, and the foundation of Maynooth College, the first stone of which he laid himself. It was not long before he realised that ‘the quiet of the country depended upon the exertions of the friends of the established government backed by a strong military force.’ Only a few weeks after his arrival, Theobald Wolfe Tone [q. v.] sailed for America, and the society of United Irishmen, of which Tone was the founder, was reconstructed on a new and purely revolutionary basis. To this danger was added the rapid spread of defenderism. Camden was thus driven to adopt a system of espionage and a policy of sheer repression. The formation of a loyal orange society seemed to furnish a guarantee of peace. But the countenance shown to the orangemen led to fresh disturbances, especially in co. Armagh; and, though Camden himself may be exonerated from regarding such occurrences as the battle of the Diamond with anything but anger and alarm, it is impossible to say so much for other members of the government on whose advice he relied. His colleagues in England yielded to his demand for further measures of repression, and when the Irish parliament met in 1796, its first and principal business was to pass a bill for the more effectual suppression of disorder in the country. But this drastic measure failed to stem the rising spirit of rebellion, and in August Camden recommended the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the formation of yeomanry corps, a step to which he had hitherto been averse. Parliament reassembled in October. The air was full of rumours of an impending French invasion, and, as a measure of precaution, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was carried by 137 to seven.
The expedition of General Hoche missed its object; but the country was not pacified, and in January and February 1797 Camden found it necessary to proclaim several counties of Ulster under the Insurrection Act. In March the whole of Ulster was placed under martial law. Camden took the entire responsibility for this step upon himself; and to Portland, who suggested the desirability of conciliating public opinion by conceding parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation, he replied by threatening to resign. There were, he frankly admitted, objections to the constitution of Ireland as it existed, ‘but,’ he added, ‘as long as Ireland remains under circumstances to be useful to England, my opinion is that she must be governed by an English party … and, illiberal as the opinion may be construed to be, I am convinced it would be very dangerous to attempt to govern Ireland in a more popular manner than the present.’ He appears to have been ignorant of any intention on the part of Pitt to utilise the situation to effect a legislative union between the two countries; but not being a military man, and feeling that affairs had reached a point when physical force could alone avail anything, he offered in May to resign in favour of Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis, who viewed the policy of the Irish government with apprehension, declined to cross the Channel except in case of imminent invasion, and in November Sir Ralph Abercromby [q. v.] was appointed commander-in-chief. There can be no doubt that Camden regarded his appointment with satisfaction, but the ill-concealed contempt of Abercromby for the incapacity of the Irish government, and his zealous but imprudent efforts to restore discipline and efficiency to the army, aroused such a strong feeling of hostility against him on the part of Lord Clare and Speaker Foster that he was compelled to tender his resignation, and Camden reluctantly accepted it.
It is difficult to say how far Camden was personally responsible for forcing the rebellion to a head. For he had fallen so completely under the influence of Lord Clare and the castle clique as to be little more than the mouthpiece of their policy; and it is extremely doubtful whether he was really aware of the atrocities committed in his name. When the rebellion actually broke out in May 1798, he believed that the force at his disposal, amounting to eighty thousand men, was insufficient to cope with the rebels, and wrote frantically to Portland for reinforcements. In the meantime he preserved an attitude more or less defensive. His conduct was much censured, and an ultra-loyal pamphlet, entitled ‘Considerations on the Situation to which Ireland is reduced,’ published in this year, of which six editions were almost immediately exhausted, blamed him severely for his dilatoriness in not attacking the rebels at once. The collapse of the rebellion can hardly be ascribed to the energy of the government; as for Camden, he added to the panic by sending his wife and family to England for safety. At last, in answer to his entreaties to be superseded by a military man, Lord Cornwallis arrived in Dublin on 20 June. But by that time the rebellion was practically at an end. ‘The public,’ sarcastically remarked the author of the pamphlet already referred to, ‘were congratulated by all his excellency's friends on his good fortune in having been able to terminate the rebellion without the horrid necessity of subduing the rebels. His excellency having thus left scarcely anything to be done, but to treat and to conciliate, descended to the water edge in a splendour of military triumph, which Marius, after he had overcome the Cimbri, would have looked at with envy, leaving Lord Cornwallis to enjoy, if he could earn it, the secondary honours of an ovation’ (Considerations on the Situation, p. 21).
Nevertheless, Camden was not without admirers. He was strongly in favour of the union, and there were those, notably Lord Clare and under-secretary Cooke (Auckland Corresp. iv. 83), who imagined that he would have been a better person to carry it into effect than Cornwallis. Though hitherto strongly opposed to catholic emancipation, he thought it might safely (with certain reservations) have been conceded at the time of the union, and some of his notes relative to Pitt's plan are extant in the Pelham MSS. (Addit. MS. 33119, ff. 161–176). During the debate in the House of Lords on the Union Resolutions on 19 March 1799, his administration was severely criticised by Lord Lansdowne. Camden replied that he had acted as just and humane a part as was practicable (Parl. Hist. xxxiv. 680). On 14 Aug. he was created a knight of the Garter. He held the post of secretary of state for war in Pitt's administration from May 1804 to July 1805, and there was some talk of reappointing him lord lieutenant of Ireland whenever a vacancy occurred. On 10 July he succeeded Sidmouth as president of the council, and held office till 5 Feb. 1806, and again from 26 March 1807 to 11 June 1812. He was master of Trinity House from 7 Dec. 1809 to 10 June 1816, and was appointed a governor of the Charterhouse on 29 April 1811. He was created Marquis of Camden and Earl of Brecknock on 7 Sept. 1812; LL.D. of Cambridge in 1832, and on 12 Dec. 1834 was elected chancellor of the university. He seldom took any prominent part in the debates in the House of Lords. As secretary for war he moved the second reading of the Additional Force Bill on 25 June 1804, and more than once, on subsequent occasions, defended that measure at considerable length. He supported the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in 1817, and spoke in favour of the Irish Insurrection Bill on 10 Feb. 1822. He consistently opposed catholic emancipation till 1825, but spoke and voted for the third reading of the Roman Catholic Bill on 10 April 1829. His opinions were not regarded as carrying great weight, and he was described by Canning, with more truth than politeness, as ‘useless lumber in the ministry’ (Abbot, Diary, ii. 180). He died at his seat, the Wilderness, in Kent, on 8 Oct. 1840, in the eighty-second year of his age. He married, on 31 Dec. 1785, Frances (d. 1829), daughter and sole heiress of William Molesworth, and by her had issue George Charles, second marquis Camden, born in 1799, and three daughters. A portrait, by Hoppner, was published in Fisher's ‘National Portrait Gallery’ in 1829.
[Doyle's Official Baronage; Gent. Mag. 1840, pt. ii. p. 651; Grattan's Life and Times of Henry Grattan; Plowden's Hist. Review of Ireland; Auckland Corresp.; Dunfermline's Memoirs of Sir Ralph Abercromby; Stanhope's Life of W. Pitt; Abbot's Diary and Corresp.; Parl. Debates, 1804–30 passim, but particularly ii. 817, iii. 483, 797, iv. 706, vii. 273, xx. 675, xxxvi. 1051, new ser. vi. 192, xiii. 677, xxi. 620, xxiii. 501. Camden's Correspondence with the Earl of Chichester and the Duke of Portland, preserved in the Pelham MSS. in the British Museum, has been utilised in Lecky's Hist. of England, vols. vii. and viii. passim. For specific references see Addit. MSS. 33101 ff. 146–370, 33102 ff. 15–123, 33103 ff. 85, 97, 101, 103, 126, 128, 132, 136, 152–8, 33105 ff. 18–441, 33109 f. 19, 33112 ff. 146–50, 156, 189–93, 410, 438, 33441 ff. 76, 78, 80.]