Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitzwilliam, William Wentworth
FITZWILLIAM, WILLIAM WENTWORTH, second Earl Fitzwilliam in the peerage of the United Kingdom (1748–1833), statesman, eldest son of William, first earl Fitzwilliam, was born 30 May 1748, and succeeded to the earldom on the death of his father (9 Aug. 1756). He was educated at Eton, where he began a lifelong friendship with his schoolfellows Charles James Fox and Lord Carlisle. From Eton he proceeded to Cambridge, and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1769. On 11 July 1770 he married Lady Charlotte Ponsonby, youngest daughter of William, second earl of Bessborough, by Lady Caroline Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. He adhered to the whig politics of his family, and steadily opposed the North administration. On the death of his uncle, Lord Rockingham, in 1782, he succeeded to estates valued at 40,000l. a year. He kept up a princely establishment at Wentworth House in Yorkshire, and had probably the finest stables and kennels in England. In 1783 Fox had intended him for the head of his new India board; and in their regency arrangements of 1788 the whigs designed him for the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland. The Prince of Wales in September 1789 honoured him by a visit at Wentworth, when nearly forty thousand persons were entertained in the park. After the outbreak of the French revolution Fitzwilliam acted with the ‘old whigs,’ and in July 1794, in company with the Duke of Portland and others, joined the government, and was appointed president of the council.
In December 1794 Pitt sent Fitzwilliam to Ireland as lord-lieutenant, where he became the centre of a political misunderstanding which it is very difficult to unravel. Fitzwilliam was known to be a friend to the Roman catholic claims, and his appointment in the place of Lord Westmorland, a favourer of the protestants, was regarded as an indication of approaching concessions. Before Fitzwilliam left England Grattan saw Pitt, and received what he took to be assurances that the catholic claims would be granted, though Pitt disavowed this interpretation of his words, and even told Fitzwilliam that he was to give the Roman catholics no encouragement, but to postpone the question until the fullest inquiries had been made. Fitzwilliam, when he reached Dublin, seems to have thought that delay was impossible, after Grattan had so raised the hopes of the party, and upon writing to the government was surprised to receive a repetition of his former instructions from the Duke of Portland, who declared that no steps would be taken at the present time in the interests of the catholics. It is impossible to say how far Pitt, Fitzwilliam, or the Duke of Portland was responsible for the misunderstanding. Fitzwilliam was not aware that Pitt was contemplating the union as a condition antecedent to emancipation, and therefore could hardly understand the premier's policy. He supposed himself to have received instructions subsequently disavowed by their author; nor was this the only point of disagreement between himself and the cabinet. Pitt, who had appointed Fitzwilliam chiefly to please his new allies, had stipulated, among other things, that the ‘supporters of government should not be displaced on the change.’ Portland explained this to Fitzwilliam, or, as Lord Stanhope thinks, tried ineffectually to explain it. In any case Fitzwilliam disregarded it (Life of Pitt, ii. 293). Fitzwilliam landed at Dublin on Sunday evening, 4 Jan. 1795, was in bed all Monday, and on Wednesday Beresford, commissioner of the customs, Cooke, secretary in the military department, Wolfe and Toler, attorney- and solicitor-general, were dismissed. Beresford appealed to the government and was at once reinstated; and Fitzwilliam was informed that the resignations of Wolfe and Toler would not be accepted. But in spite of this rebuff he did not send in his own resignation for nearly three weeks, and remained at the castle till 25 March, when he was succeeded by Lord Camden. ‘The day of his departure was one of general gloom; the shops were shut; no business of any kind was transacted; and the greater part of the citizens put on mourning, while some of the most respectable among them drew his coach down to the water-side’ (Stanhope, Life of Pitt, ii. 365).
Fitzwilliam now drew up his own version of the whole story in two letters addressed to the Earl of Carlisle. He maintained, without the least justification, that his dismissal was caused by Pitt's deliberate wish to humiliate his new allies. On his return to England motions for inquiry were made in both houses of parliament, and rejected by large majorities; and Beresford sent him a challenge which led to a meeting between them at old Tyburn turnpike on 26 June. The duel was stopped by the constables.
Fitzwilliam soon made his peace with the government, and in 1798, when the Duke of Norfolk was dismissed from the lord-lieutenancy of the West Riding for a seditious toast, Fitzwilliam was appointed to succeed him. On the formation of the Addington ministry in February 1801 Fitzwilliam, with the other whig conservatives, went into opposition. On Addington's resignation in April 1804 it was intended by Pitt to make Fitzwilliam one of the secretaries of state, but the allies standing out for the admission of Fox, the negotiation came to nothing, and Pitt went on without him. Under the short-lived ministry of Lord Grenville in 1806 he was president of the council; and during the political uncertainty occasioned by the king's illness in 1811 he was sometimes spoken of as a possible whig prime minister. All his official hopes, however, vanished with the determination of the prince regent to keep the tory government in power. He was afterwards one of the little knot of whig magnates in the House of Lords who protested against the government policy, and especially the maintenance of the Roman catholic disabilities. On 31 Jan. 1812 he brought on a resolution in the House of Lords charging the crown solicitor in Ireland with tampering with the panel of the jury selected to try one of the catholic delegates, but was defeated by a majority of 162 to 79. In the following March he was offered the vacant Garter, which he declined. In 1819 he attended a public meeting at York convened for the purpose of censuring the Manchester magistrates for their conduct at the Peterloo massacre, and was dismissed from the lord-lieutenancy for violent language.
The first Lady Fitzwilliam died on 13 May 1822, leaving one son, Charles William Wentworth, third earl [q. v.] On 21 July 1823 Fitzwilliam married Louisa, widow of the first Lord Ponsonby, and daughter of the third Viscount Molesworth. She died without issue, on 1 Sept. 1824. Fitzwilliam died on 8 Feb. 1833.[Diary of Lord Colchester; Cornwallis Correspondence; Rockingham Papers; Froude's English in Ireland; Plowden's Hist. of Ireland; Lord Stanhope's Life of Pitt; Massey's Hist. of England; Rose's Diary; Lord Malmesbury's Diary.]