POWYS, Thomas (1743-1800), of Lilford, Northants.
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Family and Education
b. 4 May 1743, 1st s. of Thomas Powys of Lilford by Henrietta, da. of Thomas Spence of Palgrave, Norf., serjeant at arms to the House of Cammons. educ. Eton 1755-9; King’s, Camb. 1760. m. 31 Mar. 1767, Mary, da. of Galfridus Mann of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, 5s. 6da. suc. fa. 2 Apr. 1767; cr. Baron Lilford 26 Oct. 1797.
Sheriff, Northants. 1768-9.
Thomas Powys shared all the attitudes of the typical country gentleman, had no desire for office, disliked party, and claimed to judge each issue on its merits. He disapproved of parliamentary reform, and was against any alteration in the position of the Church. Yet unlike most country gentlemen he was a forceful and passionate speaker, and for a few months in the spring of 1784 circumstances put him in the front rank of politics.
Returned unopposed for Northamptonshire in 1774, he voted with Opposition, 22 Feb. 1775, on the motion to expunge the resolutions against Wilkes. Over America, he at first supported Administration, but in the debate on the army estimates, 8 Nov. 1775, complained that the minister had not told the House what his plans were. As the war went on, he became increasingly hostile to Lord North. His speech of 23 June 1779, on the bill to double the militia, gave some indication of what an excellent debater he was to become. He could not oppose the bill, he told the House, since he must stand by his country at this critical time, but he would like to know from the minister,
what he should say to his tenants and neighbours, when he went down into the country, and urged them to take up arms to defend the kingdom from the imminent peril which threatened it? They would naturally say—imminent peril? Impossible! You told us in Parliament, three weeks since, that there was no danger. If he mentioned to them the Spanish war, they would be still more amazed, and say that it was but the last week that ministers declared Spain would not join with France in the present quarrel.1
In the spring of 1780 he supported the Rockinghams in all their measures for economical reform.
At the general election of 1780, Robinson hoped that there might be an opposition to Powys, but he was returned without a contest. He now took an even more prominent part in debate. On 12 Dec. 1781 he seconded Lowther’s motion against the continuance of the war, with a speech directed particularly towards the other country gentlemen:
The illusion which had filled the minds of some gentlemen with the hope of seeing America reduced to her former obedience to this country was now no more; and though at first it might have betrayed honest men into a determination to support the measures of ministers ... he could not conceive how it came to pass that now there could be found a set of honest, independent gentlemen who could persevere in supporting those measures, by which the empire had been dismembered and destroyed.2
He then continued with a reading from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, applying it to the ministry with such devastating aptness that the effect was sensational.3
The Rockinghams now made full use of Powys, whose position as a county Member, coupled to a most formidable debating technique, made him an invaluable ally. On 8 Mar. 1782 he seconded Lord John Cavendish’s motion of censure on the ministers, and ridiculed the newly appointed secretary for America, Welbore Ellis:
The King of Sardinia is styled King of Cyprus and Jerusalem with the same justice as the honourable gentleman is styled secretary for the American department; for the King of Sardinia has no power over Cyprus nor Jerusalem, neither has the honourable gentleman any power over America ... The old secretary of state [Germain] had retired to the Upper House and was transplanted into a viscount for the having completed the loss of America: certainly, by the same justice, the noble lord in the blue riband [North] for his eminent services in having begun and continued until he had finished the ruin of his country, ought to be transplanted into the first Duke.4
When the new ministry was formed on North’s resignation Powys was offered a post, but declined. He was now, in Shelburne’s opinion, ‘very intimately connected’ with the Rockinghams.5 On 15 Apr. 1782 he seconded Burke’s motion thanking the King for promising economical reform. When the Rockingham Administration broke up, Shelburne considered making him secretary at war, but Powys again refused: he had ‘no great predilection’ for Shelburne, he admitted later.6
But however closely he co-operated with the Rockinghams he prided himself on his independence, and when, early in 1783, Fox joined forces with North, Powys denounced the Coalition in strong terms. To Shelburne’s peace preliminaries he gave unenthusiastic support, speaking, according to Daniel Pulteney, ‘very well and wittily’.7 One of his most effective speeches was in opposition to Pitt’s motion for parliamentary reform, 7 May 1783. After expressing doubts about some of the petitions, he went on:
Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield, however, he was determined to hear, and to pay particular attention to. They were great trading towns, and their petitions ought not to be slightly passed over ... He said he must have the whole of what they contained explicitly and distinctly made known to the House, and for that purpose desired the clerk to read them. The clerk turned over and over again, but no such petitions being found, he told Mr. Powys that neither Manchester, Birmingham, or Sheffield were in the list. Not in the list! said Mr. Powys, great God, what a misfortune! How could they employ their leisure hours when this great spirit of parliamentary reform was in agitation, and neglect their duty to themselves, and what they owed to the only means of restoring them to trade, wealth, and happiness!8
He gave strong opposition to Fox’s East India bill, as a ‘most cruel and wanton’ violation of the rights of the East India Company, and a threat to the balance of the constitution. No speech, in Wraxall’s opinion, did more damage to the Coalition.9
Powys had always been interested in constitutional questions, and in the spring of 1784 flung himself into the argument with tremendous energy and intense conviction. During these months he attained a position of great importance in the House: on several occasions he was called upon by Members to express his views, and was answered immediately by the leading speakers on each side. At first he supported Pitt. In the opening debate, 12 Jan. 1784, he objected to Fox’s resolutions against the ministry as ‘pointing censure before criminality of any kind was established’.10 He voted and spoke in favour of Pitt’s India bill, though without enthusiasm. But when a majority of the House had repeatedly declared itself against the minister, Powys held that he was bound to resign. He was particularly disturbed by the scene that followed the division on Pitt’s India bill, 24 Jan. 1784, when Members from all sides of the House begged Pitt to say whether an immediate dissolution was intended: though the House sat until two in the morning Pitt refused to answer. The next day Powys rose in great agitation, shedding tears: ‘the very extraordinary and disgraceful scene’ he had witnessed, ‘had not been absent from his mind one moment’. He demanded to know from Pitt whether the House would be dissolved before Monday next. Pitt assured him that he had no intention of advising a dissolution.11
Powys now turned his attention to a scheme for bringing about a union between Fox and Pitt. On Monday, 26 Jan., 55 country gentlemen met at the St. Alban’s Tavern, and appointed a committee of six, including Powys, to negotiate with the rival leaders. The same day Powys explained to the House his own attitude to the constitutional problem. He conceded that he had thought the earlier resolutions against Pitt unfair:12
But he would admit that the case had since been very materially altered. A bill upon a great and important measure had been brought forward and submitted to the consideration of the House; on that bill the House had decided, and by their decision showed that the present Administration had not the confidence of the House of Commons, without which it was impossible for a ministry to carry on the public business.
This position Powys firmly maintained, insisting that Pitt was defying the House and undermining the Constitution. Pitt’s supporters found his attitude pedantic and unintelligible: he was dubbed a ‘political weather-cock’. The Foxites, on the other hand, made the most of their acquisition: the Morning Chronicle, 24 Feb. 1784, carried a long encomium, describing him as ‘a most independent and upright man of great fortune’.
His attention has been much given to public business for several years, his understanding is good, and his mind well informed. This gentleman had strong predilections for Mr. Pitt ... but when those resolutions had passed, Mr. Powys, like an honest man, who knows and loves the constitution, said that whatever his predilection for Mr. Pitt might be, his love of the constitution was still greater.
The breakdown of the negotiations for a union confirmed Powys’s suspicion of Pitt. On 20 Feb. he moved to ask the King to give effect to the House’s expressed wishes:13
Government had been vacated for many weeks. Ministers had been asked why they stayed in? What was the answer? It was that they stayed in to prevent greater evils; but could there be greater evils than those that at present existed? He was no tool to any party. He was the mean but the honourable instrument for promoting the public good. He knew the consequence of the part he took: it was courting unpopularity. He should be called the betrayer of the Administration he had promised to support, but he was conscious of his own rectitude.
The longer Pitt remained in office, the more bitter Powys became. If the King did not dismiss him, Powys told the House in the debate of 1 Mar., ‘he would advise the Speaker, when he next went, to carry the mace and the keys of the House, and deliver both into the King’s closet’. In the debate of 9 Mar. the growing antipathy between Powys and Pitt produced an angry exchange, in which Pitt accused him of using his position as a negotiator to act as a spy.
Powys’s attitude placed his seat for the county in some jeopardy. Sir James Langham, a supporter of Pitt, declared himself a candidate, and there was the possibility of a contest. But the second Member, Lucy Knightley, though a Pittite, announced that his respect for Powys was so great that, were he to be opposed, he would resign in his favour.14 On the morning of the county meeting, Lord Spencer admitted that Powys was ‘very unpopular’.15 But though Powys was subjected to strong criticism at the meeting, county opinion was in favour of a compromise solution, and he and Langham were returned unopposed.
In the new Parliament, Powys continued to adopt a Foxite line. He took an active part in debate, particularly on parliamentary reform, 18 Ap