STANHOPE, Charles, Visct. Mahon (1753-1816).
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Family and Education
b. 3 Aug. 1753, 1st. surv. s. of Philip, 2nd Earl Stanhope, by Grisel, da. of Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning, sis. of Thomas, 7th Earl of Haddington [S]. educ. Eton 1761-3; Geneva 1764-74. m. (1) 19 Dec. 1774, Lady Hester Pitt (d. 20 July 1780), da. of William, 1st Earl of Chatham, 3da.; (2) 19 Mar. 1781, Louisa, da. of Henry Grenville, 3s. suc. fa. as 3rd Earl Stanhope 7 Mar. 1786.
Before returning to England in 1774 Mahon served for a short while on the Genevese Council of Two Hundred.1 Imbued with ‘democratic principles’, he stood unsuccessfully in 1774 as one of the Wilkite candidates for Westminster, subscribing to all the points of the Wilkite programme. In 1777 he contested Maidstone, but withdrew at the beginning of the poll; and he declined fighting a by-election at Westminster, as ‘he spent too much last time’.2 Sympathising with the opposition to North’s ministry, he tried early in 1778 to forward a reconciliation between Richmond and Chatham.3 During that year he became increasingly intimate with Shelburne,4 who in 1780 brought him into Parliament for Chipping Wycombe.
Mahon was active in the petitioning movement, both in Buckinghamshire and in Kent, where he was elected chairman of the committee of correspondence. He also joined the Society for Promoting Constitutional Information. He enthusiastically supported Wyvill’s reform programmes and in 1783 and 1785 voted for Pitt’s proposals for parliamentary reform.
In the Commons Mahon was a voluble and vehement debater, possessed of ‘stentorian lungs and a powerful voice’, which were accompanied always by violent gesticulation. Once, when speaking from just behind Pitt, and commending ‘his endeavours to knock smuggling on the head at one blow’, he convulsed the House by inadvertently striking Pitt’s head. Over ninety speeches by him are reported for a period of less than five and a half years. His maiden speech, made on the first day he sat as a Member, was a declaration of outright opposition to the North ministry and all its works. As well as speaking against the Government’s American policy, he made himself a champion of particular commercial interests, supporting in 1781 a proposal by the gold dealers for a reduction in the carat-standard in gold articles, and in 1781 opposing taxes on soap and salt in the interests of the soap and glassware manufacturers. He pushed an inquiry into the coining operations of the mint, and he supported Fox’s attempt in 1781 to amend Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, though seeking to purge Fox’s bill of its more extreme features. From an early date he indulged in criticisms of ministerial finance, on occasions sparing not even Pitt himself. In May 1782 he began a long and unsuccessful crusade to limit the expense of county elections, introducing a bill whereby the poll was to be adjourned from place to place to cut down travel by voters, and forbidding payment to them of travel allowances. A similar measure was steered through the Commons in 1784 but thrown out in the Lords.
Mahon opposed the Coalition in 1783, and for a time acted as a zealous independent supporter of Pitt. At the general election of 1784 he was active against Fox at Westminster, and for some time thereafter seems to have made a dead set at Fox, ridiculing his politics with venomous wit: he is described as on one occasion, 6 Aug. 1784, ‘extremely pleasant upon Mr. Fox, on account of his skill in borrowing money, and his want of skill to pay it off’.5 Pitt relied on Mahon for advice, and acknowledged that the reduction of the tea duty in 1784, to help combat smuggling, was made on Mahon’s recommendation.6 In the Lords he continued to support Pitt until his sympathies for the French Revolution drove him into Opposition.
Mahon, like his father, had a deep interest in science and in mechanical devices. In the 1770s he constructed successful calculating machines, and in 1779 published a well-received treatise Principles of Electricity. Much of his better known scientific work followed his partial retirement from politics during the French Revolution.
He died 15 Dec. 1816.