Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ponsonby, George
PONSONBY, GEORGE (1755–1817), lord chancellor of Ireland, third son of John Ponsonby (1713–1789) [q. v.], was born on 5 March 1755. William Brabazon Ponsonby, first baron Ponsonby [q. v.], was his brother. After an education received partly at home and partly at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was called to the Irish bar in 1780. Though fonder, it is said, of fox-hunting than of the drudgery of the law courts, he was in 1782, by the influence of his father and the patronage of the Duke of Portland, admitted to the inner bar, and at the same time given the lucrative post, worth 1,200l. a year, of first counsel to the commissioners of revenue, of which he was subsequently, in 1789, deprived by the Marquis of Buckingham. He entered parliament in 1776 as member for the borough of Wicklow, in the place of Sir William Fownes, deceased. In 1783 he was returned for Inistioge borough, co. Kilkenny, which he represented till 1797, and was one of the representatives of Galway city when the parliament of Ireland ceased its independent existence. He held office as chancellor of the exchequer in the brief administration of the Duke of Portland in 1782, and in February supported the motion for the postponement of Grattan's address regarding the independence of the Irish parliament. The traditions of his family, though liberal, naturally inclined him to support government; but his interest in politics at this time was not intense, and his attendance in the house far from frequent. He spoke at some length on 29 Nov. 1783 in opposition to Flood's Reform Bill; in March 1786 he opposed a bill to limit pensions as an unmerited censure on the Duke of Rutland's administration, and in the following year he resisted a motion by Grattan to inquire into the subject of tithes. He took, however, a very determined line on the regency question in 1789, arguing strongly in favour of the address to the Prince of Wales. He was in consequence deprived of his office of counsel to the revenue board, and from that time forward acted avowedly with the opposition. In the following session he inveighed strongly against the profuse expenditure of government with a declining exchequer, and the enormous increase in the pension list during the Marquis of Buckingham's administration. ‘His excellency,’ he said sarcastically, reviewing the list of persons promoted to office, ‘must have been a profound politician to discover so much merit where no one else suspected it to reside.’
Meanwhile his reputation as a lawyer had been steadily growing. His practice was a large and a lucrative one; and so great, it is said, was Fitzgibbon's regard for his professional abilities that Fitzgibbon, on his elevation at this time to the woolsack, forgot his political animosity towards him, and transferred to him his brief bag. In 1790, as counsel with Curran, he supported the claims of the common council of Dublin against the court of aldermen in their contest over the election of a lord mayor, and received their thanks for his conduct of their case. In consequence of the extraordinary partisanship displayed by the chief justice of the king's bench [see Scott, John, Lord Clonmell] in the famous quarrel between John Magee (d. 1809) [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Dublin Evening Post,’ and Francis Higgins (1746–1802) [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Freeman's Journal,’ Ponsonby brought the matter before parliament on 3 March 1790. His speech, which was published and had a wide circulation, was from a legal standpoint unanswerable; but the motion was adroitly met by the attorney-general moving that the chairman should leave the chair. A similar motion in March of the following year, expressly censuring the lord chief justice, incurred a similar fate; but the fierce criticism to which his conduct had exposed him utterly ruined Clonmell's judicial character.
In 1792, during the discussion on the Roman catholic question, Ponsonby, who at this time took a more conservative line than Grattan, urged that time should be given for recent concessions to produce their natural fruits, and a fuller system of united education be adopted before the catholics were entrusted with political power. Nevertheless, he voted for the bill of 1793; and on the ground that government was trying to create a separate catholic interest inimical to the protestant gentry, he urged parliament ‘to admit the catholics to a full participation in the rights of the constitution, and thus to bind their gratitude and their attachments to their protestant fellow-subjects.’ He was designated for the post of attorney-general in the administration of Earl Fitzwilliam [see Fitzwilliam, William Wentworth, second Earl Fitzwilliam], and corroborated Grattan's account of the circumstances that led to that nobleman's recall. In a subsequent debate on the catholic question in 1796 he again urged parliament to admit the catholics to a full participation of political power, and thus to deprive government of its excuse to keep the country weak by keeping it divided. Every attempt to settle the question and to purify the legislature having failed, Ponsonby, in company with Grattan, Curran, and a few others, seceded from parliamentary life early in 1797. The wisdom of such conduct is open to question; but he at once returned to his post when the intention of government to effect a legislative union was definitely announced. During the reign of terror which preceded the union he incurred the suspicion of government, and acted as counsel for Henry Sheares [q. v.] and Oliver Bond [q. v.] He led the opposition to the union in the House of Commons, but he spoiled the effect of his victory on the address by injudiciously trying to induce the house to pledge itself against any such scheme in the future.
On 2 March 1801 he took his seat in the imperial parliament as member for Wicklow county, and speedily won the regard of the house by his sincerity, urbanity, and businesslike capacity. He opposed the motion for funeral honours to Pitt, on the ground that to do otherwise ‘would be virtually a contradiction of the votes I have given for a series of years against all the leading measures of that minister.’ On the formation of the Fox-Grenville ministry in 1806, he received the seals as lord chancellor of Ireland, and at the same time obtained for Curran the mastership of the rolls; but in the arrangements for this latter appointment a misunderstanding arose, which led to a permanent estrangement between them. Though holding office for barely a year, he retired with the usual pension of 4,000l. a year. He represented county Cork in 1806–7; but on 19 Jan. 1808 he succeeded Lord Howick—called to the upper house as Earl Grey—in the representation of Tavistock, and for the remainder of his life acted as official leader of the opposition. He offered a strenuous resistance to the Irish Arms Bill of 1807, which he denounced, amid great uproar, as an ‘abominable, unconstitutional, and tyrannical measure.’ In the following year he opposed the Orders in Council Bill, which, he predicted, would complete the mischief to English commerce left undone by Bonaparte, and he was very averse to the system of subsidising continental powers, ‘the invariable result of which had been to promote the aggrandisement of France.’ In speaking in support of the Roman catholic petition on 25 May 1808, he added some novelty to the debate by announcing, on the authority of Dr. John Milner (1752–1826) [q. v.], that the Irish clergy were willing to consent to a royal veto on the appointment to vacant bishoprics. It soon turned out that he was misinformed, and his statement caused much mischief in Ireland; but he did not cease to advocate the concession of the catholic claims. On 19 Jan. 1809, in a speech of an hour and a half, he arraigned the conduct of the ministry in mismanaging affairs in Spain, and, in consequence, was charged with throwing cold water on the Spanish cause. In the following year he took a prominent part in the debates on the Walcheren expedition; and his speech on the privileges of the House of Commons as connected with the committal of Sir Francis Burdett [q. v.] on 11 May, was regarded as a valuable contribution to the constitutional literature of the subject. During the debate on the king's illness on 10 Dec., he defended the course pursued by the Irish parliament in 1789, and moved for an address in almost the same words as had been adopted by the Irish parliament; while his statement that, if the method by address were followed, he should submit another motion, seems to show that he intended following the form, prescribed by Grattan, of passing an act reciting the deficiency in the personal exercise of the royal power, and of his royal highness's acceptance of the regency at the instance and desire of the lords and commons of the realm. On 7 March 1811 he animadverted strongly on Wellesley-Pole's circular letter, and moved for copies of papers connected with it; but his motion was defeated by 133 to 48. He still continued to take a lively and active interest in the catholic claims, but, like Grattan, he had drifted out of touch with Irish national feeling on the subject, and to O'Connell his exertions, based on securities of one sort and another, seemed worse than useless. On 4 March 1817 he moved for leave to bring in a bill to prevent the necessity of renewing certain civil and military commissions on the demise of the crown. The desirability of some such measure seems to have been generally admitted; but he did not live to fulfil his intention. The severe labours of parliamentary life, and the constant strain to which his position as leader of the opposition subjected him, broke down a constitution naturally robust. He was seized with paralysis in the house on 30 June, and died a few days later, on 8 July 1817, at his house in Curzon Street, Mayfair. He was buried beside his brother, Lord Imokilly, without ostentation or ceremony, at Kensington.
In moving a new writ for co. Wicklow, which he represented at the time of his death, the future Lord Melbourne spoke of ‘Ponsonby's manly and simple oratory’ as evidence of the ‘manliness and simplicity of his heart;’ and another contemporary characterised him as possessing, in the words of Cicero with regard to Catulus, ‘summa non vitæ solum atque naturæ, sed orationis etiam comitas’ (Brutus, 132).
Ponsonby married about 1780 Mary Butler, eldest daughter of Brinsley, second earl of Lanesborough. He left no surviving male issue. His only daughter, Martha, was married to the Hon. Francis Aldborough Prittie, second son of Lord Dunally, M.P. for co. Tipperary.[Ryan's Biogr. Hibernica; Willis's Irish Nation; O'Flanagan's Lives of the Lord Chancellors; Smyth's Law Officers of Ireland, Annual Register, 1817, p. 145; Gent. Mag. 1817, pt. ii. pp. 83, 165, 261; Official List of Mem. of Parl.; Parliamentary Register (Ireland), passim; Grattan's Life of Henry Grattan; Hardy's Life of Charlemont; Beresford, Auckland, Cornwallis and Castlereagh Correspondence; Lecky's England in the Eighteenth Century; Parl. Debates 1801–1817 passim; Colchester's Diary and Correspondence; Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. pt. i. p. 426, pt. iv. p. 27, 13th Rep. App. viii. (Earl of Charlemont's MSS. vol. ii.)]