DOWDESWELL, William (1721-75), of Pull Court, Worcs.
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Family and Education
b. 12 Mar. 1721, 1st s. of William Dowdeswell of Pull Court by Amy, da. of Anthony Hammond of Somersham, Hunts.1 educ. Westminster 1730; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1737; Leyden (with John Wilkes and Hon. Charles Townshend); Grand Tour (Italy and Greece). m. 6 Nov. 1747, Bridget, da. of Sir William Codrington, 1st Bt., sis. of Sir William Codrington, 2nd Bt., 6s. 9da. suc. fa. 1728.
P.C. 10 July 1765; chancellor of the Exchequer July 1765-July 1766.
The Dowdeswells were an old Worcestershire family with a strong electoral influence at Tewkesbury. William Dowdeswell was a country gentleman who made no mark in his first Parliament, and did not stand in 1754. In 1761 he was returned for Worcestershire as a Tory, and held his seat without a contest until his death. His first recorded vote in the Parliament of 1761 was against the peace preliminaries, December 1762. He became a frequent speaker in the House, and his political conduct can be traced in James Harris’s reports of parliamentary debates.
Dowdeswell was a curious mixture of Whig and Tory. He supported the commemoration of Charles I’s execution (which none but Tories did), yet heartily disliked the militia (a favourite Tory measure). The most constant theme of his speeches was the need to reduce Government expenditure and lower taxation. He wanted the army and navy reduced and the land tax lowered from its wartime figure of four shillings in the pound. He commended Grenville’s scheme for lowering the rate of interest on Government loans, 13 Mar. 1765, but objected to his budget proposals, 27 Mar. 1765. Government expenditure was too high; ‘as to our new taxes, [he] talked of the danger of provoking our colonies, and by duties on exports hinted the danger that foreigners may be induced to supply themselves elsewhere’. On Wilkes and general warrants he voted against the Grenville Administration, but did not identify himself with the Opposition: he did not belong to their club, and Newcastle on 10 May 1764 classed him as only a ‘doubtful’ friend. On 9 May 1765 he spoke for Administration on the Regency bill. It was as an opponent of the cider tax that he became really conspicuous. ‘Dowdeswell ... was the chief opponent’, wrote Harris on 9 Mar. 1763, ‘and had taken great pains’; and on 24 Jan. 1764 Dowdeswell moved for a committee to consider the tax, in a speech which Harris describes as ‘decent, temperate, and reasonable’. On 31 Jan. he criticized the method of raising the tax by an excise on the maker—‘he then entered into a detail of the grievances of the excise laws upon ignorant countrymen, the enormity of the penalties, the trials without juries, the partiality of what he called revenue injustices, the dreaded consequences that were these laws extended commissioners of excise might nominate Members for the cider counties’.
In July 1765 Dowdeswell was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer in the Rockingham Administration. The appointment was a surprising one and it is not certain who recommended it. But Charles Townshend, his close friend and successor, wrote to him on 28 Oct. 1766: ‘I hope you will not be unmindful that I had more pleasure in contributing to your late situation than I had or have in my own succession.’2 Horace Walpole described Dowdeswell as ‘so suited to the drudgery of the office, as far as it depends on arithmetic, that he was fit for nothing else. Heavy, slow, methodical without clearness, a butt for ridicule, unversed in every graceful art, and a stranger to men and courts, he was only esteemed by the few to whom he was personally known.’3 This unkind estimate is supported by an anecdote told by Mrs. Thrale:4 ‘When Warburton saw Lord Lyttelton going to dinner at Dowdeswell’s—there, says he, goes a man who cannot tell that two times two is four going to dine with a man who knows nothing else.’
In fact, Dowdeswell was an honest country gentleman, passionately interested in finance, and neither a wit nor a great parliamentarian. He was not a regular member of the Cabinet but was consulted by Rockingham on American affairs.5 In the debates on the repeal of the Stamp Act Dowdeswell took little part. Indeed, Harris noted, following his report of the great debate of 21-22 Feb.: ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer said not a word. Some say he was in his private sentiments rather for a modification than a repeal.’ When Chatham took office in July 1766 Dowdeswell was replaced at the Exchequer by Townshend, and declined an offer of the place of joint paymaster general or first lord of Trade. He wrote to his wife on 30 July, describing his last audience with the King:
I begged his Majesty would give me leave to express my feelings as a man, and my hopes that in what his Majesty might intend for me he considered the high station to which he had already raised me and the manner in which I had discharged my office to his satisfaction, and I persuaded myself with no small degree of public approbation. I said that it might be the misfortune sometimes to have been raised too high. Men could not after being much exalted stoop to certain offices which they might have at first accepted.
His Majesty approved very much what I said to him.
Dowdeswell now joined his political fortunes to those of Rockingham, and a close friendship developed between them: Dowdeswell became the leader of the Rockingham group in the Commons, and Rockingham’s trusted adviser. He took part in the conference between the Bedfords and the Rockinghams on 20 July 1767 to draw up the outlines of a new Administration to be submitted to the King. On 21 July Bedford, to break the deadlock, proposed Dowdeswell for leader of the House of Commons instead of Conway; but Dowdeswell declined, ‘for many reasons which he then gave, and for many more which he kept in his own breast’.6 Conway now invited the Rockinghams to join Chatham’s Administration; in a memorandum dated 23 and 24 July, Dowdeswell advised Rockingham to decline, unless ‘the King should send for him to give him powers from his own mouth without any of his ministers’. He went on to outline the conditions on which Rockingham should form an Administration (conditions which Burke afterwards developed in his pamphlet Thoughts on a late ‘State of the Nation’). Rockingham should endeavour to form as wide a coalition as possible—only a ‘broad and comprehensive’ Administration would be strong enough to stand up against ‘the intrigues of the Closet’; but he ‘must consider himself as the former of an Administration and answerable for its success, and would therefore preserve in all offices of business a manifest superiority for his own friends’. These principles were to guide Rockingham for the next fifteen years and foreshadow the coalition of 1783. What should be done, Dowdeswell finally asked, should such a coalition be found impracticable?
Nothing but to finish with honour. We have hitherto acted with the strictest honour. If our friends will not join us it is impossible for us to join them ...
I confess that I see no fair prospect before us. Standing still is the only thing we can do. This may possibly weaken us as a party, it depends upon the virtue of our friends whether it will nor will not, but I am sure it will do us honour as individuals.
In these unhappy times, when we find ourselves well in the opinion of mankind, the wisest thing we can do is to stand still and enjoy the reputation we have, not risk it for something new, the chances of which are so much against it.
Many a passage from Rockingham’s letters during the American war reads like an echo of this.
On America Dowdeswell’s views were conservative. In a long letter of 14 Aug. 1768 to Rockingham he discussed the American reaction to the Townshend duties.7
A repeated opposition from that side of the water [he wrote] upon a principle directed against all duties for revenue must be met. It must either be admitted, which is timidity, weakness, irresolution, and inconsistency; or it must be resisted, and the arms of this country must be exerted against her colonies.
If the Americans petitioned against the Townshend duties, they would in effect be petitioning against all duties laid for revenue.
If they succeed in such a petition they obtain a great charter, depriving this country in all future times and in all future circumstances of the power of raising any revenue there for the general support of its own authority, a power which the experience of these times will render this country extremely cautious of making use of, but which no human wisdom can foresee it may not, some time or other, and in some change of circumstances on both sides of the water, be equitable as well as necessary to exert.
Dowdeswell recognized that for Great Britain to abandon the right of taxation would be to abandon sovereignty over the colonies. Nor was there any reason to expect that the Americans would act in ‘a temperate and wise manner’. If British authority were resisted, ‘there are but two things left, either to fight to the last, in which case this country will be undone, or to treat with the contending party, depart from your own dignity, weaken your authority, and by giving up in time a part of your rights preserve the rest’. He concluded:
This leads me to my decision for much moderation. I could find much to say against any dissent that any man could offer, but upon the whole moderate measures are less dangerous, and if we come off at last with a loss those must answer for it who have wantonly and unnecessarily revived the question, and I believe now profess that these duties were laid merely as a test to the Americans.
Henceforth until his death Dowdeswell directed the strategy of the Rockingham party, and his lead was unchallenged. ‘I am sure’, wrote Burke to Rockingham on 7 Jan. 1773, ‘... we cannot find a leader whom a man of honour and judgment would so soon choose to follow.’ One of the most frequent speakers in the Commons, his political life is the history of the Rockingham party. The defection of the Grenvilles in 1771 and the break with Chatham (whom Dowdeswell distrusted and found difficult to work with) made his task a dreary one. ‘Impossibility of doing good in opposition’, he wrote to Rockingham on 8 June 1774, ‘and despair of being able to do it if we were again called into Administration, has long left me hopeless in politics.’ In the summer of 1774 he fell ill, apparently with tuberculosis, and was ordered abroad. ‘I am really not very sanguine in my expectations of his recovery’, wrote Burke to Rockingham, 18 Sept. 1774; and Dowdeswell died at Nice, 6 Feb. 1775.
Burke, asked by Mrs. Dowdeswell to compose her husband’s epitaph, wrote to her on 13 June 1775:
I am indeed very incapable of doing justice to his memory. I have however some pretensions to it which I should not suffer many persons living to dispute with me. I think I knew him perfectly; and I am very sure that in proportion as I knew I loved and honoured him. You know that we lived for near nine years in the closest participation of councils, in affairs that were delicate, and in a time which was critical and difficult. In all that time, and in all those affairs, we have scarcely ever had a difference in opinion. From that, perhaps, my deference to his thoughts secured us—but this was not all; we never had a momentary coldness of affection; no disgust; no peevishness; no political or personal quarrels; no reconciliations. There never was a soul so remote as his from fraud, duplicity, or fear; so perfectly free from any of those little passions or from any of that capricious unevenness of temper which embitters friendships and perplexes business. Of all the men I ever knew he was the best to act with in public and to live with in private, from the manly decision and firmness of his judgment and the extreme mildness and pleasantness of his temper.
The epitaph which Burke composed was inscribed on Dowdeswell’s monument in Bushley Church, Worcestershire.8