1902 Encyclopedia > Earl Grey

Earl Grey
British statesman
(1764-1845)




EARL GREY, (1764-1845). Charles, second Earl Grey, was the eldest surviving son of General Sir Charles Grey, afterwards first Earl Grey. He was born at his father's residence, Fallodon, near Alnwick, March 13, 1764. General Grey, who was a younger son of the house of Grey of Ho wick, one of the most considerable territorial families in Northumberland, had already begun a career of active service which, like the political career of his son, covered nearly half a century. Before the latter was born, General Grey had served on the staff of Prince Ferdinand of Bruns-wick in the Seven Years' War, and had been wounded at | Minden. While the son was making verses at Eton, the j father was serving against the revolted colonists in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and while the young member for Northumberland was denouncing Pitt's war against the Convention, the veteran soldier was destroying the remnant of the French colonial empire by the capture of Martinique and Guadaloupe. When Napoleon threatened an invasion, General Grey took the command of the southern district, and at the peace of Amiens he was rewarded with a peer-age. His elder brother, Sir Henry Grey of Howick, the head of the family, had supported the Government in parliament. But the political career of young Grey, who was heir-presumptive to the family estates, took a different complexion, which needs to be explained by the circum-stances in which it began.

Young Grey expected to reoccupy the seat which had been his uncle's; and his early years were spent in prepara-tion for a parliamentary career. He was sent to Eton, and proceeded thence to Cambridge. William Pitt, a youth five years older, was then in residence as a master of arts, studi-ously paying court to the Whigs of the university; and at the general election of 1780 he came forward as a candidate for the academical seat. His name stood last on the poll, but he was brought in elsewhere, and his first speech proved him a man of the first mark. The unparalleled successes which followed portended grave changes. Pitt's elevation to the premiership, his brilliant and hard-fought battle in the house, and his complete rout of the Whig party at the general election of 1784, when he came in for Cambridge at the head of the poll, threatened the great territorial interest with nothing less than extinction. It was to this interest that Grey belonged ; and hence, when at length re-turned for Northumberland in 1786, he at once came for-ward as a vigorous assailant of the Government of Pitt. He was hailed by the opposition, and associated with Fox, Burke, and Sheridan as a manager in the Hastings im-peachment. During the nineteen years which remained of the career of Fox, he followed the great Whig statesman with absolute fidelity, and succeeded him as leader of the party. The shortcomings of Fox's statesmanship were inherited by Grey. Both were equally devoid of political originality, shunned the severer labours of the politician, and instinctively feared any deviation from the traditions of their party. Such men cannot save a party in its de-cadence, and the history of Fox and Grey has been aptly' termed the history of the decline and fall of Whiggism.

The stunning blow of 1784 was the first incident in this history. Its full significance was not at once perceived. An opposition, however weak in the beginning, generally has a tendency to revive, and Grey's early successes in the house helped to revive the Foxites. The European situa-tion became favourable to this revival. The struggle in France for popular rights, culminating in the great devolu-tion, was watched by Fox with interested sympathy. He affected to regard the domination of Pitt as the domina-tion of the crown, and as leading logically to absolutism, and saw in that popular sympathy for the French Revolution which naturally arose in England an instrument which might be employed to overthrow this domination.

But Pitt gathered the fruits of the windfall. The spread of "Jacobinism," or "French principles," became the pre-text on which the stronger half of the opposition went over to the Government. Burke led the movement in the Commons, the duke of Portland and Lord Fitzwilliain in the Lords, and with this second incident in the Whig decline began the difficulties of Grey's career. The domina-tion of the premier had already stirred the keenest resent-ment in the younger and more ambitious members of the Whig party. Freed from the restraint of the steadier politicians under Burke and Portland, the residuum under Fox fell into a series of grave mistakes. Of this residuum Grey became the moving spirit, for though Fox did not check their activity, he disclaimed the responsibility of their policy. Fox had refused to condemn " French i:>rinciples," and denounced the war with France; but he would take no part in exciting agitation in England. It was otherwise with the restless spirits among whom Grey was found. Enraged by the attitude of Pitt, which was grounded on the support of the constituencies as they then stood, the residuum plotted an ill-timed agitation for parliamentary reform.

The demand for parliamentary reform was as yet in a rudimentary stage. Forty years later it had become the demand of an unenfranchised nation, disabused by a sudden spread of political and economical knowledge. It was as yet but the occasional instrument of the scheming politician. Chatham had employed the cry in this sense. The Middlesex agitators had done the same; even the premier of the time, after his accession to power, had sought to strengthen his hands in the same way. But Pitt's hands were now strengthened abundantly ; whereas the opposition had nothing to lose and much to gain by such a measure. The cry for reform thus became their natural expedient. Powerless to carry reform in the House, they sought to overawe parliament by external agitation, and formed the Society of the Friends of the People, des-tined to unite the forces of all the " patriotic" societies which already existed in the country, and to pour theii violence irresistibly on a terrified parliament. Grey and his friends were enrolled in this portentous association, and presented in parliament its menacing petitions. Such petitions, which were in fact violent impeachments of parliament itself, proceeding from voluntary associations having no corporate existence, had been hitherto unknown in the English parliament. They had been well-known in the French assembly. They had heralded and furthered the victory of the Jacobins, the dissolution of the con-stitution, the calling of the Convention, and the fall of the monarchy.

The Society of the Friends of the People was originally an after-dinner folly, extemporized at the house of a man who afterwards gained an earldom by denouncing it as seditious. Fox discountenanced it, though he did not directly cond emn it; but Grey was overborne by the fierce Jacobinism of Lauderdale, and avowed himself the parlia-mentary mouthpiece of this dangerous agitation. But Pitt, strong in his position, cut the ground from under Grey's feet by suppressing the agitation with a strong hand. The suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the Gagging Acts, and the state prosecutions form a painful historical episode. But the discredit belongs as much to Grey and Lauder-dale as to Pitt. Grey always spoke regretfully of his share in the movement. " One word from Fox," he said, " would have kept me out of all the mess of the Friends of the People. But he never spoke it."

It was Grey who moved the impeachment of Pitt, and he next promoted the equally foolish " Secession." Since the parliament did not properly represent the nation, and refused to reform itself or to impeach the minister, nothing remained but to disown it; and the opposition announced their intention of " seceding," or systematically absenting themselves from their places in parliament. This futile movement was originated by Grey, Lauderdale, and the duke of Bedford. It obtained a somewhat wider support. It suited the languor of some dispirited politicians, like Fox, and the avarice of some lawyers in large practice, like Erskine ; but sensible politicians at once condemned it. It directly ignored parliamentary government, and amounted to nothing but a pettish threat of revolution. " Secession," said Lord Lansdowne, with characteristic shrewdness, " either means rebellion, or it is nonsense." Pitt easily dashed this feeble weapon from the hands of his opponents. He roused jealousy in the absent by praising the parts and the patriotism of the rest, and thus gradually brought them back. Grey himself reappeared to protest against the union with Ireland.

When Pitt died in 1806, nothing could prevent the reunited opposition from coming into power, and thus the Broad-bottom ministry was formed under Fox. On his death, Grenville became premier, and Grey, now Lord Howick, Foreign Secretary, and leader of the House of Commons. Disunion, always the bane of English Liberal-ism, lurked in the coalition, and the Foxites and Grenvillites were only ostensibly at one. Grey opposed the war policy of Grenville; and this policy was not more successful than it had been in the handsof Pitt. And the changefromthe leadership of Fox to that of Grenville was only too perceptible. Both in court and country Grenville affected the role of Pitt, and assumed a stiff and peremptory attitude which ill became him. An ill-advised dissolution weakened their majority; they lost ground by the " delicate investigation " into the conduct of the Princess of Wales ; Lord Henry Petty's budget was too specious to command confidence ; and the king, fully aware of their weak situation, resolved to get rid of them. When they proposed to concede a portion of the Catholic claims, George refused, and demanded of them an undertaking never to propose such a measure again. This was refused, and the Grenville-Grey cabinet retired in March 1807. In the same year Grey's father died, and Grey went to the Upper House. Opposition united Grey and Grenville for a time, but the parties finally split on the old war question. When Napoleon returned from Elba in 1815, and once more seized the government of France, the same question arose which had arisen in 1792, Was England to go to war for the restoration of the Bourbons 1 Grenville followed the traditions of Pitt, and supported the ministry in at once renewing hostilities. Grey followed those of Fox, and maintained the right of France to choose her own governors, and the impossibility of checking the reaction in the emperor's favour. The victory of Waterloo put an end to the dispute,, but the disruption became permanent. The termination of the war, and the cessation of all action in common, reduced the power of the opposition to nothing. Grenville retired from public life, and his ad-herents reinforced the ministry. Little remained for the Whigs to do. But the scandalous persecution of the queen afforded an opportunity of showing that the ministry were not omnipotent; and the part taken on that occasion by Grey won him at once the increased respect of the nation and the undying aversion of George IV. It sealed the exclusion of himself and his few friends from office during the king's life; and when in 1827 Grey came forth to denounce the ministry of Canning, he declared that he stood alone in the political world. His words were soon justified, for when Lord Goderich resigned, the remnant which had hitherto supported Grey hastened to support the ministry of the duke of Wellington. Thus was the original Whig party dissolved, after a series of struggles which had begun with the longest reign upon record, and had outlasted it.

We now reach the principal episode in Grey's career. In 1827 he seemed to stand forth the solitary and powerless relic of an extinct party. In 1832 we find that party re-stored to its old numbers and activity, supreme in parlia-ment, popular in the nation, and Lord Grey at its head. ! The duke of Wellington's foolish declaration against parlia-I mentary reform, made in a season of great popular excite-! ment, suddenly deprived him of the confidence of the country, and a coalition of the Whigs and Canningites became inevitable. The Whigs had in 1827 supported the Canningites; the latter now supported the Whigs, of whom Grey remained the traditional head. George IV. was dead, and no obstacle existed to Grey's elevation. Grey was sent for by William IV. in November 1830, and formed a coalition cabinet, pledged to carry on the work in which the duke of Wellington had faltered. But Grey himself was the mere instrument of the times. An old-fashioned Whig, he had little personal sympathy with the popular cause, though he had sometimes indicated a certain measure of reform as necessary, When he took office, he guessed neither the extent to which the Beform Act would go, nor the means by which it would be carried. That he procured for the country a measure of constitutional reform for which he had agitated in his youth was little more than a coincidence. In his youth he had put himself at the head of a frantic agitation against rjarliament, because he there found himself powerless. In his old age the case was reversed. Suddenly raised to a position of authority in the country, he boldly stood between parliament, as then constituted, and the formidable agitation which now threatened it, and by a forced reform saved it from revolution. In his youth he had assailed Pitt's administration because Pitt's administration threatened with extinction the political monopoly of that landed interest to which he belonged. In his old age, on the contrary, unable to check the progress of the wave, he swam with it, and headed the movement which compelled that landed interest to surrender its monopoly.

The second reading of the first Reform Bill was carried in the Commons by a majority of one. This was equivalent to a defeat, and further failures precipitated a dissolution. The confidence which the bold action of the ministry had won was soon plainly proved, for the second reading was carried in the new parliament by a majority of 136. When the bill had at length passed the Commons after months of debate, it was Grey's task to introduce it to the Lords. It was rejected by a majority of 41. The safety of the country now depended on the prudence and courage of the ministry. The resignation of Grey and his colleagues was dreaded even by the opposition, and they remained in office with the intention of introducing a third Reform Bill in the next session. The last months of 1831 were the beginning of a political crisis such as England had not seen since 1688. The two extreme parties, the Ultra-Radicals and the Ultra-Tories, were ready for civil war. Between them stood the ministry and the majority of intelligent peace-loving Englishmen ; and their course of action was soon decided. The bill must be passed, and there were but two ways of passing it. One was to declare the consent of the House of Lords unnecessary to the measure, the other to create, if necessary, new peers in sufficient number to outvote the opposition. These two expedients did not in reality differ. To swamp the house in the way proposed would have been to destroy it. The question whether the ministry should demand the king's consent to such a creation, if necessary, was debated in the cabinet in September. Brougham proposed it, and gradually a majority of the cabinet were won over. Grey had at first refused to employ even the threat of so unconstitutional a device as a means to the proposed end. But his continued refusal would have broken up the ministry, and the breaking up of the ministry must now have been the signal for revolution. The second reading in the Commons was passed in December by a majority of 162, and on New-Year's Day 1832 the majority of the cabinet resolved on demanding power to carry it in the Lords by a creation of peers. Grey carried the resolution to the king. Some time still remained before the bill could be committed and read a third time. It was not until the 9th of April that Grey moved the second reading in the Lords. A sufficient number of the opposition temporized; and the second reading was allowed to pass by a majority of nine. Their intention was to mutilate the bill in committee. The Ultra-Tories, headed by the duke of Wellington, had entered a protest against the second reading, but they were now politically powerless. The struggle had become a struggle on the one hand for the whole bill, to be carried by a creation of peers, and on the other for some mutilated measure. Grey's instinct divined that the crisis was approaching. Either the king must consent to swamp the House, or the ministry must cease to stand in the breach between the peers and the country. The king, a weak and inexperienced politician, had in the meantime been wrought upon by the temporizing leaders in the Lords. He was induced to believe that if the Commons should reject the mutilated bill when it was returned to them, and the ministry should consequently retire, the mutilated bill might be reintroduced and passed by a Tory ministry. He was deaf to all representations of the state of public opinion ; and to the surprise of the ministry, and the terror and indignation of every man of sense in the country, he rejected their proposal, and accepted their resignation, May 9, 1832. The duke of Wellington undertook the hopeless task of constructing a ministry which should pass a restricted or sham Reform Bill. The only man who could have made the success of such a ministry even probable was Peel, and Peel's conscience and good sense forbade the attempt. He refused, and after a week of the profoundest agitation throughout the country, the king, beaten and mortified, was forced to send for Grey and Brougham. On being told that his consent to the creation of peers was the only condition on which they could undertake the Government, he angrily and reluctantly yielded. The chancellor, with cool forethought, demanded this consent in writing. Grey thought such a demand harsh and unnecessary. " I wonder," he said to Brougham, when the interview was over, " you could have had the heart to press it." But Brougham was inexorable, and the king signed the following paper :—" The king grants permission to Earl Grey, and to his Chancellor, Lord Brougham, to create such a number of peers as will be sufficient to ensure the passing of the Reform Bill, first calling up peers' eldest sons.—WILLIAM R., Windsor, May 17, 1832." This brief paper may be called the Magna Charta of responsible government. It established the right of a ministry to break down, by some convenient means, a factious opposition in the Lords; and this right has never since been practically disputed.

Grey had now won the game. There was no danger that he would have to resort to the expedient which he was authorized to employ. The introduction of sixty new peers would have destroyed the opposition, but it would have been equivalent to the abolition of the House. The king's consent made known, a sufficient number of peers were sure to withdraw to enable the bill to pass, and thus the dignity of both king and peerage would be saved. The duke of Wellington headed this movement on the part of the opposition ; and the third reading of the bill was carried in the Lords by a majority of 84.

It is well known that in after years both Grey and Brougham disclaimed any intention of executing their threat. If this were so, they must have merely pretended to brave a danger which they secretly feared to face, and intended to avoid ; and the credit of rescuing the country would belong to the duke of Wellington and the peers who seceded with him. To argue such cowardice in them from statements made when the crisis was long past, and when they were naturally willing to palliate the rough policy which they were forced to adopt, would be to set up a need-less and unjustifiable paradox. Nothing else in the career of either Grey or Brougham leads us to suppose them cap-able of the moral baseness of yielding up the helm of state, in an hour of darkness and peril, to reckless and unskilled hands. Such would have been the result if they had lacked the determination to carry out their programme to the end. The influence of every statesman in the country would then have been extinguished, and the United Kingdom would have been absolutely in the hands of O'Connell and Orator Hunt.

Grey took but little part in directing the legislation of the reformed parliament. Never anxious for power, he had executed the arduous task of 1831-2 rather as a matter of duty than of inclination, and wished for an opportunity of retiring. Such an opportunity very shortly presented itself. The Irish policy of the ministry had not conciliated the Irish people, and O'Connell denounced them with the greatest bitterness. On the renewal of the customary Coercion Bill, the ministry was divided on the question whether to continue to the lord-lieutenant the power of; suppressing public meetings. Mr Littleton, the Irish secretary, was for abolishing it; and with the view of conciliating O'Connell, he informed him that the ministry intended to abandon it. But the result proved him to have been mistaken, and O'Connell, with some reason supposing himself to have been duped, called on Mr Littleton to resign his secretaryship. It had also transpired in the discussion that Lord Althorp, the leader of the House of Commons, was privately opposed to retaining those clauses which it was his duty to push through the house. Lord Althorp therefore resigned, and Grey, who had lately passed his seventieth year, took the opportunity of resigning also. It was his opinion, it appeared, which had overborne the cabinet in favour of the public meeting clauses; and his voluntary withdrawal enabled Lord Althorp to return to his post, and to proceed with the bill in its milder form. Grey was succeeded by Lord Melbourne; but no other change was made in the cabinet. Grey took no further part in politics. During most of his remaining years he continued to live in retirement at Howick, where he died on the 17th of July 1845, in his eighty-second year. By his wife Mary Elizabeth, only daughter of the first Lord Ponsonby, whom he married November 18, 1794, he became the father of ten sons and five daughters, of whom eight sons and four daughters survived him.

In public life, Grey could always be upon occasion bold, strenuous, and self-sacrificing; but he was little disposed for the active work of the politician. He was not one of those who took the statesman's duty " as a pleasure he was to enjoy." A certain stiffness and reserve ever seemed in the popular eye to hedge him in ; nor was his oratory of the kind which stirs enthusiasm and delight. A tall, stately figure, fine voice, and calm aristocratic bearing reminded the listener of. Pitt rather than of Fox, and his speeches were constructed on the Attic rather than the Asiatic model. Though simple and straightforward, they never lack either
point or dignity; and they were admirably adapted to the audience to which they were addressed. The scrupulous uprightness of Grey's political and private character completed the ascendency which he gained ; and no politician could be named who, without being a statesman of the highest class, has left a name more enviably placed in English history. (B. J. P.)









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