Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Grenville, William Wyndham
GRENVILLE, WILLIAM WYNDHAM, Baron Grenville (1759–1834), the youngest son of George Grenville [q. v.], by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Wyndham, bart., was born on 25 Oct. 1759. He was educated at Eton, and afterwards at Christ Church, Oxford, where he matriculated 14 Dec. 1776, and, gaining the chancellor's prize for Latin verse in 1779, graduated B.A. in 1780. He was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 6 April 1780, but was never called to the bar; and at a by-election in February 1782 was returned to parliament for the borough of Buckingham. In September 1782 he became chief secretary to his brother George Nugent Temple Grenville [q. v.], earl Temple (afterwards marquis of Buckingham), lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and was sworn a member of the Irish privy council. Grenville appears to have remained in London the greater part of the time he held the office of Irish secretary, and on 22 Jan. 1783 seconded Townshend's motion for leave to bring in the Renunciation Bill, which was quickly passed through parliament (23 Geo. III, c. 28), and ‘completely set at rest every reasonable or plausible demand of the party of Flood’ (Lecky, History of England, vi. 313). Upon the appointment of Lord Northington in the place of Temple as lord-lieutenant (June 1783) Grenville resigned office, but after the downfall of the coalition ministry accepted the post of paymaster-general in his cousin Pitt's first administration, and was sworn a member of the privy council on 31 Dec. 1783. On 7 April 1784 he was appointed joint-pay master-general with Constantine, second baron Mulgrave, and at the general election in the same month was returned, after a very severe contest, at the head of the poll for Buckinghamshire. On 3 Sept. following he was made one of the commissioners of the newly created board of control, and on 6 Sept. 1786 was appointed vice-president of the committee of trade. Though Grenville had taken part in several important debates with a fair amount of success, he did not make much way in the commons as a debater, and as early as 1786 began to aspire to a seat in the House of Lords. In the summer of 1787 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Hague, and afterwards went to Paris to assist Morton Eden [q.v.] in the Dutch disputes. On 5 Jan. 1789,while only in his thirtieth year, Grenville was elected speaker of the House of Commons, in the place of Charles Wolfran Cornwall [q. v.], by 215 votes against 144 (Parl. Hist. xxvii. 904-7). Owing to the king's illness the usual formalities of receiving the royal permission to elect a speaker, and the royal approbation of him when elected, could not be observed, and Grenville taking his seat immediately performed all the duties of his office (May, Parl. Practice, 1883, p. 203). On 16 Jan. Grenville spoke at great length on Pitt's resolutions providing for the exercise of the royal authority during the king's illness (Parl. Hist. xxvii. 970-94), and in May took part in the debate on the slave trade resolutions, when he declared that Wilberforce's speech ‘entitled him to the thanks of the house, of the people of England, of all Europe, and of the latest posterity’ (ib. xxviii. 76). Having accepted the post of secretary of state for the home department in the place of Lord Sydney, Grenville resigned the speakership on 5 June 1789, and was succeeded in the chair by Addington. A few weeks afterwards he also resigned the offices of joint-paymaster-general and of vice-president of the board of trade. On 12 March 1790 he succeeded Lord Sydney as president of the board of control, and at the general election in June was again returned for Buckinghamshire. On 25 Nov., the day of the meeting of the new parliament, he was created Baron Grenville of Wotton-under-Bernewood in the county of Buckingham. Grenville was forthwith entrusted with the conduct of the government business in the lords, it being vainly hoped that he would be able to keep matters smooth with Thurlow, whom Pitt was at a loss to know how to manage. He made his maiden speech in the upper house during the debate on the convention with Spain on 13 Dec. (ib. p.948). On the resignation of Francis, fifth duke of Leeds, Grenville was appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs (8 June 1791), being succeeded at the home office by Dundas. At first Grenville seems to have taken a very rose-coloured view of foreign affairs. Writing on 17 Aug. 1791, on hearing of the conclusion of the negotiations at Sistova, he says: ‘I am repaid by the maintenance of peace, which is all this country has to desire. We shall now, I hope, for a very long period indeed enjoy this blessing, and cultivate a situation of prosperity unexampled in our history’ (The Court and Cabinets of George III, ii. 196), His letter to his eldest brother, dated 7 Nov. 1792, satisfactorily proves that up to that time our government had abstained from any interference in the hostilities against France (ib. pp. 221-5), while that dated 17 Sept. 1794 gives Grenville's view of the war after it had broken out. In his opinion ‘the existence of the two systems of government was fairly at stake, and in the words of St. Just, whose curious speech I hope you have seen, that it is perfect blindness not to see that in the establishment of the French republic is included the overthrow of all the other governments of Europe’ (ib. p. 303). This letter contains the key to Grenville's foreign policy, and whenever the subject of peace negotiations was brought before the cabinet Grenville was always to be found at the head of the war party in opposition to Pitt.
On 13 Dec. 1791 Grenville was appointed ranger and keeper of St. James's and Hyde parks, a sinecure office, which he afterwards exchanged in February 1794 for the lucrative one of auditor of the exchequer, worth 4,000l. a year. In December 1792 he introduced the Alien Bill for the registration and supervision of all foreigners in the country, and on 24 Jan. 1793 wrote to M. Chauvelin, the French ambassador, informing him that ‘His Majesty has thought fit to order that you should retire from this kingdom within the term of eight days’ (Parl. Hist. xxx. 269). Grenville resigned the presidency of the board of control in June 1793, and was succeeded by Dundas. On 22 May in the following year Grenville moved the first reading of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill, which was passed through all its stages and read a third time in the House of Lords on the same day (ib. xxxi. 574-603). On 6 Nov. 1795 he introduced the Treasonable Practices Bill (ib. xxxii. 244-5), and in the following month the Seditious Meetings Bill (ib. pp. 527-9). Grenville made a spirited speech in defence of the government on 22 March 1798, during the debate on the Duke of Bedford's motion for an address to the king for the removal of the ministry (ib. xxxiii. 1338-51), and on 19 March 1799 moved the resolutions for the union with Ireland in a speech lasting four hours, ‘putting the arguments on strong grounds of detailed political necessity’ (Lord Colchester's Diary, i. 175). On 4 Jan. 1800 Grenville replied to Napoleon's letter to the king, and, throwing the whole blame of the war upon the French, refused to enter into negotiations with those ‘whom a fresh revolution has so recently placed in the exercise of power in France.’ A few weeks after Grenville defended the foreign policy of the government in the House of Lords, and carried an address in favour of the vigorous prosecution of the war, by 92 to 6 (Parl. Hist. xxxiv. 1204-22). In October 1800 Grenville wrote a long letter to Pitt, protesting against tampering with the laws of supply and demand, and reminded him that ‘we in truth formed our opinions on the subject together, and I was not more convinced than you were of the soundness of Adam Smith's principles of political economy till Lord Liverpool lured you from our arms into all the mazes of the old system’ (Stanhope, Pitt, iii. 248).
Grenville, however, had to yield his opinion in the cabinet, and several measures of an exceptional character for the alleviation of the existing distress were passed early in the ensuing session. Writing to his eldest brother on 2 Feb. 1801, Grenville declared that it had always been his opinion that ‘the union with Ireland would be a measure extremely incomplete’ . . . ‘unless immediate advantage were taken of it’ to conciliate the great body of the Irish catholics (The Court and Cabinets of George III, iii. 128). An elaborate plan, prepared by Grenville in conjunction with Pitt, was submitted to the cabinet. Though approved of by a majority of the ministers, the king refused to sanction any measure of catholic emancipation. Pitt thereupon resigned, and Grenville announced his own resignation and that of several other members of the administration on 10 Feb. 1801 (Parl Hist. xxxv. 945-6). In November 1801 Grenville forcibly stated his objections to the peace, the terms of which he considered ‘fraught with degradation and national humiliation’ (ib. xxxvi. 163-71), and voted against the address, which was, however, carried by 114 to 10. Though at variance with Pitt on the subject of the peace, Grenville, thinking that war was inevitable, was strongly of opinion in November 1802 that unless the government were placed in Pitt's hands Bonaparte would be able to treat us as he had treated the Swiss (The Court and Cabinets of George III, iii. 214). In April 1803 the negotiations between Addington and Pitt fell through owing to Pitt insisting that Grenville and Windham should be included in the ministry. In the confidential letter of 12 July 1803, written by Grenville to Lord Wellesley (which falling by the chances of war into the hands of the French was published in the ‘Moniteur’), the writer says: ‘While my quarrel with Addington becomes every day more serious, all the motives which made Pitt and me differ in opinion and conduct daily decrease. We have not yet been able to assimilate completely our plans of political conduct’ (Annual Register, 1804, app. to Chron. p. 153).
Though Pitt at first refused to join in a systematic opposition to the government, he afterwards combined with Grenville and Fox in their attack upon Addington's administration. Upon its downfall in the spring of 1804, Grenville declined to accept office under Pitt without Fox, whom the king refused to admit. Pitt was greatly incensed at Grenville's refusal to join him, and their long friendship was terminated. On Lord Hawkesbury refusing to carry on the government after Pitt's death, Grenville formed the Ministry of All the Talents, comprising the principal members of the three parties which had recently acted together in opposition. Grenville was appointed first lord of the treasury on 11 Feb. 1806, while Fox became secretary for foreign affairs, and Lord Sidmouth took the office of lord privy seal. Grenville's short administration was a singularly unfortunate one. The admission of Lord Ellenborough to the cabinet while holding the office of lord chief justice of England was injudicious if not unconstitutional. The measure, which was immediately introduced and rapidly passed through both houses,to enable Grenville while holding the post of first lord of the treasury to execute the office of auditor of the exchequer by deputy (46 Geo. III, c. l), was not creditable to the prime minister. The negotiations with France failed. The foreign expeditions were unsuccessful. Fox's death, in September 1806, created a void which none could fill. One great measure, though not strictly speaking a government one, was, however, accomplished. Resolutions in favour of the abolition of the slave trade were carried by Fox and Grenville in the two houses in June 1806. On 2 Jan. 1807 Grenville introduced a bill to carry these resolutions into effect, and on 5 Feb. moved the second reading in an eloquent speech (Parl. Debates, viii. 657-64). The bill, after passing through the House of Commons, received the royal assent on 25 March (47 Geo. III, sess. i. c. xxxvi.), the very day on which the ministers went out of office. On 5 March 1807 Lord Howick (afterwards Earl Grey), who had succeeded Fox in the post of foreign secretary, introduced the Roman Catholic Army and Navy Service Bill, a measure throwing open both services to Roman catholics and dissenters alike (Parl. Debates, ix. 2-8). Lord Sidmouth had already alarmed the king, who declared that he would never go beyond the extension to England of the Irish act of 1793. On the 13th the king told Grenville and Howick that he would never consent to their bill. Finding that all Pitt's friends were determined to support the king, Grenville and the other ministers who were favourable to the bill determined on the 15th not to proceed any further with it. In the minute acquainting the king with their determination they reserved to themselves the right to openly avow their opinions in parliament on the subject of the catholic claims, and to offer in future such advice to the king about Ireland ‘as the course of circumstances shall appear to require’ (Memoirs of Lord Castlereagh, iv. 388). On the 17th the king demanded a positive assurance from ministers that they would never press upon him in the future any concessions to the catholics. On the 18th Grenville informed the king that it was not possible for the ministers acting with him to give such assurances (ib. p. 392). The king thereupon expressed his intention of looking out for other ministers, and appointed the Duke of Portland first lord of the treasury.
As a matter of policy, the insertion of these reservations in the minute was most ill advised. They were quite unnecessary, and were only calculated to provoke the king into retaliation. Some of Grenville's colleagues, indeed, looked upon his conduct as nothing short of political suicide, notably Sheridan, who is reported to have said that ‘he had known many men knock their heads against a wall, but he had never before heard of any man who collected the bricks and built the very wall with an intention to knock out his own brains against it’ (Lord Colchester, Diary, ii. 109). In September 1809 an unsuccessful attempt was made to induce Grenville and Grey to join the ministry on the resignation of the Duke of Portland. In his letter to Perceval conveying his refusal Grenville declared that his ‘accession to the existing administration’ could not be considered ‘in any other light than as a dereliction of public principle’ (The Court and Cabinets of George III, iv. 376). On 14 Dec. 1809 Grenville was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford, in the place of the Duke of Portland, who had died in the previous October. The contest was a severe one, but the division of the tory interest secured Grenville's election, the votes recorded for Grenville being 406, for Lord Eldon 393, and for the Duke of Beaufort 288. Grenville was created D.C.L. by diploma on 23 Dec., and was duly installed as chancellor on 10 Jan. 1810. Previously to the passing of the Regency Bill in the beginning of 1811 the Prince of Wales had several communications with Grenville and Grey. It was believed that the prince intended to change the government as soon as he should become regent. The prince, however, on 4 Feb. 1811 informed Perceval that he had decided ‘not to remove from their stations those whom he finds there’ (Memoirs of the Court, i. 32).
In February 1812 Grenville and Grey refused to accede to the regent's wish that ‘some of those persons with whom the early habits of my public life were formed would strengthen my hands and constitute a part of my government’ (ib. p. 227). In their joint letter to the Duke of York, through whom the prince regent had made his wishes known, they declared that their differences of opinion were ‘too many and too important to admit of such a union,’ and that they were ‘firmly persuaded of the necessity of a total change in the present system of government’ in Ireland, and of the immediate repeal of the catholic disabilities (ib. p. 233). After Perceval's death fresh negotiations, with a view to forming an administration, were opened with Grenville and Grey, first through Lord Wellesley and afterwards through Lord Moira. On the refusal of the latter to acquiesce in the demand of Grenville, that certain changes should be made in the household appointments, the prince regent made Lord Liverpool prime minister. In April 1813 Grenville supported Romilly's bill for repealing the Shoplifting Act. ‘For strength of reasoning,’ wrote Romilly, ‘for the enlarged views of a great statesman, for dignity of manner and force of eloquence, Lord Grenville's was one of the best speeches that I have ever heard delivered in parliament’ (Memoirs, 1840, iii. 95). In the following year Grenville made a powerful speech calling attention to the question of the slave trade in the newly restored French colonies (Parl. Debates, xxviii. 299-336). In March 1815 he strenuously opposed the new corn bill, and on the 20th of that month, with ten other peers, signed the protest drawn up by himself and Lord Wellesley declaring their opinion that ‘public prosperity is best promoted by leaving uncontrouled the free current of national industry’ (Rogers, Protests of the Lords, 1875, ii. 481-3). On the escape of Napoleon differences of opinion arose between Grenville and Grey on the war question. Grenville maintained that, as it was impossible to keep peace with Napoleon, vigorous hostilities should be immediately commenced, while Grey declared that it was the duty of this country and the allies to do everything which they reasonably could to preserve the peace. A correspondence ensued between them, which led to a division among their followers. Though this difference between the two opposition leaders was not immediately followed by their political separation, it was the commencement of that schism which paralysed the strength of the opposition for so many years. In the debate on the prince regent's message, on 23 May, Grenville supported the ministers, and advocated the prosecution of the war against Bonaparte with the utmost vigour (Parl. Debates, xxxi. 363-71), and Grey's amendment was defeated by 156 to 44. In April 1816 Grenville spoke in favour of the Marquis of Buckingham's motion for the appointment of a committee to take into consideration the state of Ireland, and maintained that before they could expect general obedience in any country ‘the laws themselves ought to be made equal to all’ (ib. xxxiii. 832-5). In the following year he supported the repressive measures which were introduced by the government, and spoke in favour of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bills (ib. xxxv. 583-6, xxxvi. 1013-1014). Though no longer acting in concert with his old colleague, Grenville gave his support to Grey's Roman Catholic Relief Bill in June 1819 (ib. xl. 1058-63). Alarmed at the recent disturbances in the country, Grenville wrote to Lord Liverpool shortly before the opening of parliament enclosing a lengthy memorandum of suggestions for several stringent measures ‘to provide for the public tranquillity and safety of the kingdom’ (Life of Lord Liverpool, ii. 418-430). On 30 Nov., during the debate on Lord Lansdowne's motion on the state of the country, Grenville made a long speech full of gloomy prognostications, and urged the ministers to pass further repressive measures (Parl. Debates, xli. 448-78). In November 1820 he voted for the second reading of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, though he had formed one of the commission appointed to inquire into the conduct of the Princess of Wales in 1806, which entirely acquitted her of the charges then brought against her. In order to strengthen his ministry, Lord Liverpool towards the close of 1821 made overtures to the Grenville party. Grenville himself, having practically retired from active political life, had no desire for office,' but his small band of followers were provided with valuable posts. The value of the preferment which they obtained seemed so disproportionate to the strength which they added to the ministry that it occasioned Lord Holland to remark that ‘all articles are to be had at low prices except Grenvilles’ (Walpole, Hist. of England, ii. 42). Grenville spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 21 June 1822, when, ‘as one of those who had always been favourable to the concession of the catholic claims,’ he supported the second reading of the Duke of Portland's Roman Catholic Peers Bill (Parl. Debates, new ser. vii. 1251-5).
In 1823 Grenville had a paralytic attack, and retired altogether from public life to Dropmore, where he amused himself in literary pursuits. That he continued almost to the last to take an interest in politics is apparent from his letter to the Duke of Buckingham of 21 Nov. 1830 (The Court and Cabinets of William IV and Victoria, i. 146), and the account which Brougham gives of his unsuccessful attempt to overcome Grenville's objections to certain parts of the Reform Bill (Memoirs of Lord Brougham, iii. 495). Grenville died at Dropmore Lodge, Buckinghamshire, on 12 Jan. 1834 in his seventy-fifth year, and was buried at Burnham. In character Grenville greatly resembled his father. Though his industry and honesty secured him respect both in public and private life, his cold and unsympathetic manners rendered him unpopular. Brougham bears witness in his ‘Memoirs’ to Grenville's great capacity for business. ‘The industry with which he mastered a subject previously unknown to him may be judged from his making a clear and impressive speech upon the change proposed in 1807 in the court of session ; and no lawyer could detect a slip on any of the points of Scotch law which he had to handle’ (iii. 488-9). In one important qualification Grenville himself acknowledged his deficiency. ‘I am not competent,’ he says in a letter to his brother, ‘to the management of men. I never was so naturally, and toil and anxiety more and more unfit me for it’ (The Court and Cabinets of George III, iv. 133). Though not a great orator, Grenville was a successful speaker in the House of Lords, where his weighty and sonorous speeches, though sometimes long and tedious, were listened to with attention. ‘The great staple of his discourse was argument,’ says Brougham, ‘and this, as well as his statement, was clear and impressive, and I may say authoritative. His declamation was powerful and his attacks hard to be borne’ (Memoirs, iii. 488-9). From a party point of view Grenville's career, taken as a whole, was inconsistent. This inconsistency of political conduct was due to his inbred alarm at the spread of revolutionary principles abroad, and his belief in the efficacy of repressive measures at home. It should, however, always be remembered, when Grenville's consistency is called in question, that he twice gave up office rather than sacrifice his principles on the subject of catholic emancipation, and that his views on that question practically excluded him from office during the rest of his political life.
Grenville married, on 18 July 1792, the Hon. Anne Pitt, only daughter of Thomas, first baron Camelford, and sole heiress of her brother Thomas, the second baron. There being no issue of the marriage the barony of Grenville became extinct upon his death. His widow survived him for many years, and died in South Street, Grosvenor Square, on 13 June 1864, aged 91, leaving her large estates to her husband's nephew, the Hon. George Matthew Fortescue. The National Portrait Gallery possesses a portrait of Grenville by Hoppner. Another portrait, painted in 1792 by Gainsborough Dupont, was exhibited in the third Loan Collection of National Portraits (Catalogue, No. 29), while a third, painted by W. Owen, belonging to Christ Church, Oxford, was lent to the Exhibition of Old Masters in 1872 (Catalogue, No. 248). Engravings after portraits of Grenville by W. Owen and J. Jackson will be found in Cadell's ‘British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits’ (1822) and Fisher's ‘National Portrait Gallery’ (1830). A large collection of letters, including Grenville's correspondence with Pitt, is preserved by Colonel Fortescue at Dropmore. In addition to a number of his speeches, which were separately published, and the edition of Homer which was privately printed by him and his brothers, and edited by Porson and others (Oxford, 1800, 4to, 4 vols.), Grenville published the following: 1. ‘Letters written by the late Earl Chatham to his nephew, Thomas Pitt, Esq. (afterwards Lord Camelford, then at Cambridge’ [edited by Grenville], London, 1804, 8vo; third edition, London, 1804, 8vo; a new edition, London, 1810, 12mo; a new edition, London, 1821, 8vo. 2. ‘Letter from Lord Grenville to the Earl of Fingal, January 22, 1810,’ Buckingham , 8vo; another edition, London, 1810, 8vo; new edition, corrected, London, 1812, 8vo; ‘third edition, 1815,’ contained in the fifth volume of ‘The Pamphleteer’ (1815), pp. 141-50. 3. 'Nugæ Metricæ,' 1824, 4to, privately printed, addenda printed 1834. 4. ‘Essay on the supposed advantages of a Sinking Fund,’ by Lord Grenville, part the first, London, 1828, 8vo, privately printed; second edition corrected, London, 1828, 8vo; no second part was ever printed. 5. ‘Oxford and Locke,’ by Lord Grenville, London, 1829, 8vo; second edition, corrected, London, 1829, 8vo. 6. ‘Dropmore,’ 1830, 4to, privately printed.[Memoirs of Court and Cabinets of George III (1853-6); Memoirs of the Court of the Regency (1856); Memoirs of the Court of George IV (1859); Memoirs of the Court and Cabinets of William IV and Victoria (1861); Lord Auckland's Journal and Correspondence (1861-2); Lord Colchester's Diary and Correspondence (1861); Lord Holland's Memoirs of the Whig Party (1852-4); Lord Stanhope's Life of Pitt (1861-2); Life and Opinions of Earl Grey (1861); Yonge's Life of Lord Liverpool (1868); Pellew's Life of Lord Sidmouth (1847); Sir G. C. Lewis's Administrations of Great Britain 1783-1830(1864); Lord Brougham's Statesmen of George III (1839), 1st series, pp. 254-9; Lord Brougham's Memoirs (1871), iii. 487-98; Martineau's History of England, 1800-1815 (1878); Walpole's History of England (1879), vols. i. and ii.; Edinburgh Review, clxviii. 271-312; Collins's Peerage (1812), ii. 418, viii. 269-70; Lipscombe's Buckinghamshire (1847), i. 600-1; Gent. Mag. 1792, vol. lxii. pt. ii. p. 672, 1834 new ser. vol. i. pt. i. pp. 327-9, 1864 new ser.xvii. 125; Foster's Alumni Oxonienses, pt. ii. p. 563; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 162, 175, 187; Haydn's Book of Dignities (1851): Lincoln's Inn Registers; Brit.Mus. Cat.; Grenville Library Cat.]