1902 Encyclopedia > William Pulteney, Earl of Bath

William Pulteney, Earl of Bath
English politician and orator

WILLIAM PULTENEY, EARL OF BATH (1684-1764), a politician elevated by a living historian 6 into the important position in history of the first leader of the opposition, was descended from an ancient family with a pedigree duly recorded in Nichols's History of Leicestershire (iv. 320). His father, William Pulteney, died in 1715, and the future statesman was the offspring of his first wife, Mary Floyd, and was born in 1684. As his grandfather had been intimately connected with the city of Westminster, the boy was sent to Westminster school and from it proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, acquiring in these institutions that deep classical knowledge which adorned his own speeches and enabled him to correct his great antagonist when he blundered in a quotation. On leaving Oxford he made the usual tour on the Continent. In 1705 he was brought into parliament by Henry Guy for the Yorkshire borough of Hedon, and at the death of that gentleman (a politician who had at one time held the office of secretary of the treasury) Pulteney inherited an estate of £6500 a year and £40,000 in cash. This seat was held by him without a break until 1734, and though the family was then dispos-sessed for a time the supremacy was regained in the return of another Pulteney in 1739. Throughout the reign of Queen Anne William Pulteney played a prominent part in the struggles of the Whigs, and on the prosecution of Sacheverell he exerted himseit with great zeal against that violent divine. When the victorious Tories sent his friend Robert Walpole to the Tower in 1712, Pulteney championed j his cause in the House of Commons and joined with the leading Whigs in visiting him in his prison-chamber. For these acts he was duly rewarded on the accession of George I. In the first ministry of the new king he held the post of secretary of war, a post which in the previous reign had been conferred upon St John, Walpole, and Granville suc-cessively, and when the committee of secrecy on the Utrecht treaty was formed the list included the name of William Pulteney. Two years later (6th July 1716) he became one of the privy council. In the following year the Whig ministry was rent in twain by internal dissension. On the proposition of the Government for granting a supply against Sweden the friends of Lord Townshend and Sir Robert Walpole voted against the administration, which only escaped defeat by a majority of four. Townshend was immediately dismissed from his post of lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and Walpole at once resigned his places, and amongst the Whigs who followed him in his retirement was Pulteney. Devotion like this merited some signal mark of favour on the return to power of the displaced ministers; yet, when the crash of the South Sea Company restored Walpole to the highest position of authority, all that he offered to Pulteney was a peerage, a distinction which entailed the misfortune of banishment from the House where his faculties found their highest opportunities for display. The offer was rejected, but in 1723 Pulteney stooped to accept the lucrative but insignificant post of cofferer of the household. In this obscure position he was content for some time to await the future; but when he found himself neglected he broke out into sarcasms on the civil list and in 1725 was dismissed from his sinecure. From the day of his dismissal to that of his ultimate tri-umph Pulteney remained in opposition, and, although Sir Robert Walpole attempted on his quarrel with Townshend to conciliate him, all his overtures were spurned. Pul-teney's resentment was not confined to his speeches in parliament. With Bolingbroke he set on foot the well-known periodical called The Craftsman, and in its pages the minister was incessantly denounced for many years. The war of pamphlets raged without ceasing. Lord Hervey published an attack on the Craftsman, and Pulteney, either openly or behind the person of Amhurst, defended its strict-ures of the minister. Whether the question at issue was the civil list, the excise, the income of the prince of Wales, or the state of domestic affairs Pulteney was ready with a pamphlet, and the minister or one of his friends came out with a reply. For one of these efforts he was challenged to a duel by Lord Hervey; for another he was struck off the roll of privy councillors and dismissed from the com-mission of the peace in several counties. In print Pulteney was inferior to Bolingbroke alone among the antagonists of Walpole, but in parliament, from which St John was excluded, he excelled all his comrades. When the sinking fund was appropriated his voice was the foremost in denunciation; when the excise scheme was stirring popular feeling to its lowest depths the passion of the multitude broke out in his oratory. Through Walpole's prudent withdrawal of the latter measure the fall of his ministry was averted, and dismay fell on the opposition leaders. Bolingbroke withdrew to France and Pulteney sought con-solation in foreign travel.

From the general election of 1734 until his elevation to the peerage Pulteney sat for Middlesex. For some years after this election the minister's assailants made little progress in their attack, but in 1738 the troubles with Spain supplied them with the opportunity which they desired. Walpole long argued for peace, but he was feebly supported in his own cabinet, and the frenzy of the people for war knew no bounds. In an evil moment for his own reputation he consented to remain in office and to gratify popular passion with a war against Spain. His downfall was not long deferred. War was declared in 1739 ; a new parliament was summoned in the summer of 1741, and over the division on the election petitions the ministry of Walpole fell to pieces. The task of forming the new administration was after some delay entrusted to his principal antagonist, whereupon Pulteney offered the post of first lord of the treasury to that harmless poli-tician the earl of Wilmington, being content himself, as he had often declared his disdain for office, with a seat in the cabinet coupled with a peerage. At this act popular feeling broke out into open indignation. Exclamations that the country was betrayed were heard on all sides, and from the moment of his elevation to the Upper House Pulteney's influence dwindled to nothing. Horace Walpole asserts that when Pulteney wished to recall his desire for a peerage it was forced upon him through the ex-minister's advice by the king, and another chronicler of the times records that when victor and vanquished met in the House of Lords, the one as Lord Orford, the other as the earl of Bath, the remark was made by the exulting Orford: " Here we are, my lord, the two most insignificant fellows in England." On 14th July 1742 Pulteney was created baron Pulteney of Hedon, county York, viscount Pulteney of Wrington, county Somerset, and earl of Bath, and a few months previously he had been restored to his rank in the privy council. On Wilmington's death in 1743 he made application to the king for the post of first lord of the treasury, only to find that it had been conferred on Henry Pelham. For two days in 1746 he was at the head of a ministry, but in " 48 hours, three quarters, seven minutes, and eleven seconds" this short-lived ministry collapsed. An occasional pamphlet and an unfrequent speech were afterwards the sole fruits of Lord Bath's talents. His praises whilst in retirement have been sung by two prelates of the established church of England, Bishops Pearce and Newton. He died on 7th July 1764, and was buried on 17th July in his own vault in Islip chapel, Westminster Abbey.

Pulteney's eloquence was keen and incisive, sparkling with vivacity and with allusions drawn from the literature of his own country and of Rome. Of business he was never fond, and the loss in 1734 of his trusted friend John Merrill, who had supplied the qualities which he lacked, was feelingly lamented by him in a letter to Swift. His chief weakness was a passion for money, which was born with him and grew as he grew. As he left no surviving issue his vast fortune went to William Johnstone of Dumfries (the third son of Sir James Johnstone), who had married Frances, the daughter and heiress of his cousin Daniel Pulteney, and had taken the name of Pulteney. Lord Bath has left no trace of the possession of practical statesmanship, but for nearly twenty years he led the opposition in the House of Commons to the greatest minister of the age, and had at last the triumph of driving his adversary from office. (W. P. C.)

The above article was written by: W. P. Courtney.

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