HUSKISSON, William (1770-1830), of Eartham, nr. Chichester, Suss.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 11 Mar. 1770, 1st s. of William Huskisson of Oxley, nr. Wolverhampton, Staffs. by 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of John Rotton of Oxley. educ. Brewood; Albrighton, Staffs.; Appleby Magna g.s., Leics. 1782-3; Paris, privately from 1783. m. 6 Apr. 1799, Eliza Emily, da. of Adm. Mark Milbanke, s.p. suc. fa. 1790; gt.-uncle Dr Richard Gem 1800.
Supt. aliens office Jan. 1793-July 1794; chief clerk to sec. of state for War July 1794-Mar. 1795, under-sec. of state for War Mar. 1795-May 1801; agent for Cape of Good Hope 1799-1801, Ceylon 1801-4, 1807-23; jt. sec. to Treasury May 1804-Feb. 1806, Apr. 1807-Dec. 1809; PC 29 July 1814; commr. of woods, forests and land revenues Aug. 1814-Feb. 1823; member, Board of Trade Dec. 1814; treasurer of navy Feb. 1823-Sept. 1827; pres. Board of Trade Feb. 1823-Sept. 1827; sec. of state for Colonies Sept. 1827-May 1828.
Dir. Sun Fire Office 1814-d.
Huskisson’s father was
nothing more than a country gentleman, or in other words, one of the honest yeomanry of England, who lived respected and beloved upon the estate he had inherited from his father, in the parish of Bushbury in Staffordshire, and which in the course of the entail, devolving at his death to Mr Huskisson, placed him at least above dependence.
Huskisson’s life might have followed a similar course if his father’s second wife had maintained happier relations with her step-children, but the stresses of family life led to his being placed in the care of his maternal great-uncle, Dr Gem, an English physician resident in Paris. Under Gem’s tutelage he came into contact with the intellectual life of the French capital and eventually to the notice of the British ambassador, Lord Gower, whose private secretary he became, and more particularly of the ambassador’s wife Lady Sutherland. He returned to England with them on the recall of the embassy in September 1792 and they introduced him to Pitt and Dundas, both of whom quickly marked him down as a man of unusual administrative ability. In January 1793 Dundas asked him to take charge of the arrangements which were being made for the émigrés under the new Aliens Act. He was, to quote Lord Glenbervie,
a sort of extra clerk to read and digest French documents and to see the numerous French emigrants who then swarmed to that office, and with whom neither the minister (Dundas) nor his two under-secretaries Nepean and King, could hold any direct intercourse from their ignorance of the language ...
Huskisson himself despised the French aristocracy, but deplored the excesses of the French revolution and was averse to ‘innovation’ in England. He hoped his employment would ‘turn out a passport to a better’ and relied on Lord Gower and Lady Sutherland to push for promotion for him. In September 1793 Evan Nepean, Dundas’s hard-pressed under-secretary, was eager to retain his confidential assistance.1 In July 1794, when Dundas and Nepean transferred to the War department, Huskisson joined them as chief clerk.
Huskisson took up his new work with vigour and enthusiasm and stamped himself conclusively as one of those able men of business whom Pitt liked to gather round him; Pitt earmarked him as under-secretary of a new India department projected to replace the existing Board of Control at the end of the war. Huskisson knew he was in his métier and was anxious not to lose the opportunities thus far created. Nepean’s planned departure from the War Office to the Admiralty in December 1794 brought him to a critical point in his career. His post at the War Office had no recognized standing, being merely an ad hoc arrangement. A mutual understanding with Nepean had ensured that he had had a wide area of personal responsibility, but under a newcomer he might be little more than a glorified chief clerk and easily slip into obscurity. The hazards of political life made it imprudent to base his expectations solely on the good opinion of Pitt and Dundas: he needed to rest on the firm ground of an established public position, where his presence would be known to the political world. He wrote to Nepean, knowing that his views would be conveyed to Pitt and Dundas, that he would not remain in employment except as an equal of the new under-secretary with a clear division of responsibilities, or in an office of similar importance whenever one should fall vacant, for which he was prepared to wait. Alternatively he would accept a minor office if he were promised a seat in Parliament to go with it. These were brave terms for a man of 24 with nothing but his talents to recommend him and it is a measure of the esteem in which those talents were held that Huskisson, not a vain man, could allow them thus to sustain his pretensions. He had not over-bid his hand. The response was the under-secretaryship, sole and undivided, in succession to Nepean. He was reported to have declined a transfer to the Foreign Office later in 1795 on the retirement of Sir James Bland Burges†.
There was no necessity for the under-secretary to have a seat in Parliament, but Pitt intended that government should provide for Huskisson at the next election. His intervention became unnecessary when Lord Carlisle, a friend of Lord Gower, offered Huskisson a seat for his borough of Morpeth, saying ‘It would be an additional satisfaction to me (beyond respect to your personal character) to mark attention to those to whom you are closely connected’ (i.e. Pitt and Dundas). Huskisson hesitated to be obligated to someone whose support of Pitt was of fairly recent origin and consulted Dundas. Dundas, in the avuncular tone which characterized his relationship with Huskisson, replied:
I really think it more eligible for you to bring yourself in through a friend, than to be included in the nomination list. If you concur in this opinion you ought to see Lord Carlisle without delay and let me know what passes. Considering, however, the connection you are in with me and consequently with Mr Pitt I think it would be right for you to explain to Lord Carlisle if any jumble of general politics should ever put you into a situation to differ with him you would not feel yourself at liberty to retain the seat. The event is I think a very unlikely one but it is always best to stand perfectly clear in points of that kind.2
An important office of state and a seat in Parliament now needed only the supplement of financial security to establish Huskisson firmly in the world. In 1793 he had sold the family estate for £13,500; the death of a brother in 1794 brought him another £2,500. On £16,000 and the expectation of a further legacy from his great-uncle he could live quite comfortably himself, even if the vicissitudes of political life carried him out of office; but it was not enough to found a marriage on. In December 1798 he applied for a public pension of £1,000 p.a., payable whenever he should not be in receipt of an official salary, and a residuary provision of £600 p.a. for his widow. His request was grudgingly granted on Pitt’s application to the King, and in April 1799 he married Miss Milbanke.3 About the same time Dundas secured him the London agency for the Cape of Good Hope, worth £600 p.a., although this was to be deducted from his salary as long as he remained in office. His private means were enlarged in 1800 by the death of his great-uncle who left him about £10,000, but this was consumed within months when he had to find some £14,000 to pay Walter Boyd*. For a man of business who was suspected of stockjobbing on the strength of the abortive peace negotiations with France, which he had himself offered to assist ‘in a secondary position’, and who had disclaimed his £1,500 subscription to the loyalty loan so as to be able to vote for the bonus to subscribers on 1 June 1797, Huskisson had acted with incredible folly in his dealings with Boyd. The two had formerly been friends in Paris, and when Huskisson sold his father’s property he put his financial affairs in Boyd’s hands. In the expectation of making a profit from the government loans which Boyd had undertaken to float on the London market, Huskisson gave him unlimited discretion to obtain stock on his behalf. But the stock depreciated and when Boyd was finally forced to liquidate he told Huskisson that his account showed a loss of some £14,000. Huskisson might have disputed the sum—there was no written agreement and he can hardly have imagined that Boyd was dealing in such large amounts on his limited capital. He paid without query although the loss must have been a severe blow to him, and was mortified by William Cobbett’s getting wind of the story and publicizing it.4
When Pitt resigned in 1801 Huskisson unhesitatingly went out with him. He would indeed have had little option. If Pitt were not his chief patron, then Dundas was—and Dundas was opposed to Addington. Nor does it appear that there was any anxiety on the part of the incoming administration to retain his services, although he did stay at his post for a few months while the new secretary, Lord Hobart, familiarized himself with affairs. The fact was that, apart from those who knew him in his official capacity, few at this time regarded Huskisson with admiration. In the House he had not attempted to make any mark as a debater, confining himself to departmental business. From Windham we learn that he was ‘strong’ on the ‘dangers of union’ with Ireland and from his correspondence with Dundas that he doubted whether much was to be gained by the prolongation of war with France, though he approved the rebuff of Buonaparte’s overture for an armistice in 1800. Dundas was prepared in that year to transfer him to the India Board and wrote of him to Pitt, ‘I wish he would exercise his genius for two months in executing as well as planning, and then he would learn that however desirable the end might be, it was necessary there should likewise be the means’. In society a certain ungraciousness in his manner—dry, reserved and impersonal—alienated many. The King greeted his resignation thus: ‘I cannot but rejoice at Mr Huskisson’s retiring, as his style and manner rather give disgust to those obliged to confer with him’.5 Dundas rendered him a last service by obtaining for him the agency of Ceylon, at £300 p.a. more than that of the Cape, which he then surrendered. His contingent pension was fixed at £1,200 p.a.6
Huskisson evidently remained closely attached to Pitt and Dundas throughout Addington’s administration but, unlike other hard core Pittites, he did not feel himself thereby precluded from seeking office in the new government. He had the approval, if unenthusiastically given, of Dundas and of Pitt, but the move was not part of any wider scheme of junction between government and Pittites; nor is it clear what particular situation was intended for him, though Castlereagh offered to take him at the India Board in July 1802. In the event, nothing came of it. Even so, it cost him the prospect of a sure seat in the next Parliament. Lord Carlisle did not intend to bring him in again and, advised by Pitt not to accept a seat ‘directly’ from the new ministry, he had looked to a return for Tain Burghs on Lady Sutherland’s interest: this was now denied him (December 1801), despite all the ‘jobs’ he had done for her through Dundas. After the general election had left him without a seat, Dundas wrote: ‘I suppose if there is an opening in England the Treasury would at least assist you to the extent of the £1,500 which you have saved to them’. Huskisson had unsuccessfully contested Dover. Lord Boringdon noted in his diary on 20 July 1802, ‘Huskisson ill used—spent £3,000’. Most probably he had preferred to brush aside a Treasury offer of subvention and take his unaided chances at Dover, with the minor advantage of the support of Pitt, as lord warden of the Cinque Ports—with whom the venture had been concerted—rather than be indebted too heavily to Addington.
In choosing Dover, Huskisson had rejected an offer from Lord Lowther to bring him in for Cockermouth for three years (after which the seat would be required for Lowther’s son). Pitt, through whom the offer had been made, counselled against acceptance, believing that a permanent interest could be established at Dover and thus relieve Huskisson of the recurrent anxiety to which his inability to purchase would necessarily expose him when out of office. After the failure at Dover, Dundas vowed: ‘I shall leave no stone unturned to procure you some seat in this country [Scotland]’ but nothing came of a report of a change of heart by Lady Sutherland about Tain Burghs or of a speculation at Okehampton, and it was not until March 1804 that Lord Eliot, probably at the instigation of Pitt, placed his interest at Liskeard at Huskisson’s disposal. He was opposed there by Thomas Sheridan, and after a double return was finally successful and took his seat on 18 May, by which time Pitt was back in office. Huskisson now became ‘financial’ secretary to the Treasury, and despite the King’s continuing disapproval quickly demonstrated his flair for this kind of business. Admittedly in the House he still made no attempt to cut a figure in debate, confining himself to departmental questions.7
On the advent of the Grenville ministry he passed into opposition with the rest of the Pittites. His own wish, confided to Lord Melville, was that they should form a ‘corps de reserve’ to join Grenville if and when he fell out with Fox. Meanwhile, he started to figure as a speaker, pecking critically at government against whom he voted on the critical divisions of 3 Mar., 30 Apr. and 17 June 1806. He was to support them only on the abolition of the slave trade. He was feeling his way towards the role of a major spokesman on financial affairs. On 14 July 1806 he proposed, in the form of nine resolutions, a largely non-controversial scheme for simplifying the management of the public accounts. He had previously submitted the scheme to Petty, chancellor of the Exchequer, and had secured his approval, but a faint portent of things to come emerged when Perceval, from his own side of the House, took exception to one of the resolutions. As a group the Pittites at this time were far too incoherent for there to be any question of Huskisson—or anybody else—contracting a specific allegiance to any one leader or another, but as Huskisson put it two years later: ‘At the time we were all separated and set loose by the death of Pitt, the political attachment I then formed was certainly with Canning’. The two would already have been well known to each other, if only through their common intimacy with the Gowers, but there is no indication that they had been particularly close associates. Nevertheless in his various negotiations with Lord Grenville, Canning did make mention of a provision for Huskisson, whom he had in mind as Admiralty secretary; and Huskisson, who thought himself safer at Liskeard than at Dover, which he had continued to cultivate, did at least offer to back Canning at Dover. Canning could not afford it and Huskisson himself had to overcome an opposition encouraged by the government at Liskeard. He acknowledged that Grenville might no longer need the Pittites.8
On the fall of the ministry in 1807 Huskisson automatically returned to his post at the Treasury and at the general election came in for the Treasury borough of Harwich—the Irish borough of Dundalk was also thought of for him. The death of Pitt had deprived his party not only of a leader but also of its chief financial expert. This deficiency was now largely supplied by Huskisson. Men of the requisite aptitude and industry were always hard to come by and his special flair for it made him a peculiarly valuable member of the administration, one whose services Portland, or any prime minister, would be particularly anxious to retain. For all that, Huskisson, from a subordinate, non-cabinet position and of little weight as a public personage, could play but a slight part in the formation of policy. Advice, fact-finding for his superiors and management of the revenue machinery marked the limits of his competence. Under other circumstances this would have been no more than was to be expected. He was not yet 40 and was without the family connexions which would give him some claim to early consequence. Under a man with the clear right and the evident capacity to lead, such as Pitt had been, Huskisson would have served without question. Even in such a weak administration as Portland’s he did not look to official preferment, but neither did he feel strongly disposed to resign his judgment to that of others who had no prescriptive entitlement to superiority. He was, for instance, in favour of sinecure reform and a supporter of Curwen’s parliamentary reform bill; above all, he was at odds with cabinet policy where it touched upon his only special sphere, finance. How strongly he urged his views in private with Perceval, chancellor of the Exchequer, or with others cannot be known, and indeed what those views were can only, for the most part, be inferred from the reports of his parliamentary speeches after his resignation. But in an anachronistic word, he was a deflationist. Paper currency and the high level of government expenditure were the central subjects of his criticism; and the latter necessarily meant military expenditure. Whether Huskisson paused to consider the strategic implications of this point is not clear; but certainly in September 1808 he wrote to Canning denouncing not only the convention of Cintra but the whole Portuguese expedition—without, however, making it plain whether it was the project in itself or merely the execution of it to which he took such strong exception.9 Either way, questions of war and finance apart, the letter did at least indicate that Huskisson’s views about Castlereagh at the War Office were substantially the same as Canning’s and that the two had by then formed a habit of exchanging confidential views on political subjects. The implications were that if Canning resigned over Castlereagh, Huskisson would go out with him and that if it came to a straight choice between Perceval and Canning for the premiership, Huskisson would opt for Canning.
When in June 1808 a replacement for Sir Arthur Wellesley as chief secretary to the Duke of Richmond in Ireland was mooted, Hawkesbury informed the latter that Huskisson was well qualified for the post by his ‘energy and efficiency’, but ‘he would be a serious loss at the Treasury, and I do not know whether Perceval would or could consent to give him up’. By October Perceval was ready to make this sacrifice at the altar of necessity, though Lord Bathurst cautioned Richmond in a letter of 1 Mar. 1809 that Huskisson was ‘a desponding politician I think; and I do not know what Perceval can do without him’. Richmond chose him, however, only to be informed by Huskisson, 5 Apr., that the proposal, made through Lord Liverpool and Perceval that day, came ‘with a strong impression on the minds of those who made it, that, by its acceptance, I should, upon the whole, have contributed much more to the embarrassment than to the ease of his Majesty’s government’. On this account he declined it. On 9 Apr. Richmond wrote to Liverpool, ‘He is so useful where he is that as Dundas will accept I believe the thing could not have been better managed’.10
In August 1809, when Portland’s retirement seemed imminent, Huskisson spoke and wrote to Perceval (underlining nearly every word)
it would be impossible for me, if the government remains in its present state, and proceeds in its present course with a reference to the manner in which public expenditure is controlled and directed, to take an active part in bringing forward measures, founded upon a system, or rather perhaps upon a want of system, which I believe, in my conscience, will, if persevered in, lead, at no great distance of time, to consequences most distressing to the King, and prejudicial to the country.
Perceval in his reply (21 Aug.) took this to mean not only that Huskisson could not remain in office unless ‘a system of diminished expenditure’ on lines he had sketched for his scrutiny were adopted, but also that, in Huskisson’s view, ‘in any government to be formed of the present men, with whatever change of head’, such a system was unobtainable. He went on to sound Huskisson as to whether he would be prepared to serve under Harrowby or Bathurst on Portland’s retirement, in a ministry of which Perceval was the effective head. Huskisson would not be drawn (24 Aug.) beyond an expression of willingness to aid any ministry that was prepared to exert control over public expenditure in accordance with his aims.
What degree of collusion existed between himself and Canning at this stage is undeterminable. Only two things are certain: that of the resignations which might follow Canning’s, Huskisson’s would be that which would most strengthen Canning’s hand in a bid for the premiership; and that if Huskisson had resolved to go wherever Canning went, he kept his intention remarkably well hidden—Perceval received the news of his resignation with the greatest surprise, exclaiming, ‘This is the worst and most unexpected stroke of all’.11 That was on 15 Sept. when Canning still entertained hopes of being called on to form a government—hopes which must have been shared by Huskisson who might expect to become chancellor of the Exchequer in such an administration, with the freedom to operate his own financial policy. This expectation cannot but have figured in his decision to resign. He was essentially an official man; out of office he was a fish out of water. Nevertheless when it became apparent that Canning had only cut his own throat, Huskisson had no hesitation in standing by him; and for the next five years his political career was inseparably linked with Canning’s.
Huskisson stood on a very different footing from that of the others who made up the small Canningite party in the House. The party was in essence a club for the intimates and devotees of George Canning: Huskisson was neither. On the one hand he was not and never really became a personal friend of Canning’s. On the other, and more importantly, he was a figure of political consequence in his own right—apart from Canning himself, the only big fish in the minnow pool and one in some ways more worth landing than Canning: Canning’s most formidable talent was for debate; as an opponent he was more to be feared than anyone, but his mere absence from an administration was not perhaps as grievous as Huskisson’s, with his rare aptitude for administration and finance. Huskisson had no need to hitch his wagon to Canning’s star and it soon became evident, in so far as considerations of personal advancement counted, that he had blundered badly in following Canning. He at once forfeited Lord Melville’s confidence by it. At any time until May 1812 (when Vansittart joined the administration) he could almost certainly have become chancellor of the Exchequer whenever he chose, irrespective of Canning’s position. If it be said then that Huskisson was loyal to Canning, it was the loyalty of one colleague to another, rather than that of follower to leader: and Huskisson was loyal, braving the embarrassment to himself. He had made a token offer of assistance to his successor at the Treasury, Richard Wharton, but he resisted Lord Wellesley’s blandishments when the latter joined Perceval’s ministry. By 3 Feb. 1810 he had been ‘but once in the House’, joining Canning in support of ministers on the address. On 16 and 26 Feb., when he criticized the army estimates, he was twitted by Whitbread for his hostility to Wardle’s motion for retrenchment on 19 June previous, but stood his ground. He joined Canning in voting against ministers on Lord Chatham’s conduct, 23 Feb. and 5 Mar., though he believed Chatham had been ‘extremely ill used’ by his colleagues. Speaking for Canning (as his ‘chancellor of the Exchequer’), he supported the Portuguese campaign, 9 Mar., and at Canning’s instigation voted with ministers on the first, but went away on the last, division on the Scheldt inquiry, 30 Mar. Canning wrote of him as ‘a great clog in one sense—though capable certainly of being a great aid in others’, 24 Nov. 1810. This was after Perceval had admitted, following an abortive negotiation with Canning, that he would not have liked to cede the Exchequer to Huskisson, in view of their differences on ‘two or three financial points’. But Huskisson had disclaimed the Exchequer.12 After previous absence, he joined Canning’s opposition to the Regency bill, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811. He declined being of the committee on commercial credit, 1 Mar. 1811, and, like Canning, abstained on the gold coin bill in July, though his hostility to it was expressed. In January 1811 Lord Grenville, anticipating a summons to office from the Prince Regent, had inquired through an intermediary if Huskisson would accept the Irish chief secretaryship with an ultimate view to the chancellorship of the Exchequer. Huskisson declined to consider any offer which would separate him from Canning. In July 1811 when the prospect of a Grenville government reappeared, Canning, against the possibility of another offer being made to Huskisson, wrote to him:
It is my earnest wish and advice that you should not suffer any consideration respecting me to prevent you accepting it. All that I should desire would be that it should be distinctly known that I voluntarily urged your acceptance.
Huskisson replied that he would heed no invitation which was not part of a wider arrangement embracing Canning, although he also implied, significantly, that in the event of Canning’s rejecting such an arrangement he would not than feel precluded from acting individually.13 Apart, however, from the barracks estimates, which he openly assailed in debate, 13 Apr. 1812, he acted in unison with Canning in the House next session. When in June 1812 Lord Moira was trying to create a government out of the confusion caused by Perceval’s death, Huskisson provided a more striking demonstration of the extent to which he would go to promote Canning’s interests. Moira had naturally envisaged Huskisson as chancellor of the Exchequer. But Huskisson, doubtless in collaboration with Canning, drew up a memorandum for him stating the basis on which a government should be constructed, including among other provisions:
Mr Huskisson is not to be shaken from his resolution of not taking the chancellorship of the Exchequer from a firm conviction that the interests of the government cannot be adequately maintained in the House of Commons especially at this moment unless this office united to that of first lord of the Treasury is held by the person who leads the House [i.e. Canning].14
If Moira was to be nominal prime minister, Canning was to have such a status as made him virtual equal by taking the Treasury: but in that case he must also have an active departmental office. The obvious and indeed the only possible one to link with the Treasury was the Exchequer, the very one to which Huskisson had an almost prescriptive right. If Canning and Wellesley had formed a government, he would, apparently, have been ready to cede the Exchequer to Canning and be treasurer of the navy and vice-president of the Board of Trade.
After these failures came the Lord Liverpool-Canning negotiations. Huskisson could expect little for himself to emerge from these. If Vansittart were to be displaced at the Exchequer, it could only be by Castlereagh—moving there to allow Canning to take the Foreign Office. In fact Huskisson, to his great distaste, was marked down for the Irish chief secretaryship; but he did what he could to promote a coalition. He worked hard on Charles Arbuthnot*, an old colleague with whom he had remained on intimate terms and who had the ear of Liverpool and of the Prince Regent, to undermine Castlereagh’s determination to retain the lead in the Commons;15 indeed it appears that he went further than Canning in urging the impossibility of serving under Castlereagh, but sacrificed that view against his better judgment. Certainly a year later, when the project was revived, he advised Canning against making Castlereagh’s demotion a sine qua non of coalition.16
Still out of office, Huskisson was now also threatened with being out of Parliament. Harwich was regarded as a Treasury borough; but he was not without hope that government might allow him to retain his seat there—after all Arbuthnot was the man who, under Liverpool, managed these things and Arbuthnot was his friend. There was another chance too: of the 32 electors, only nine were directly dependent on government. A man who stood high in their favour might conceivably command an independent interest, and Huskisson had served them well when occasion arose; even after his resignation his applications had generally been attended to by government. He sounded out John Hopkins, a leading member of the corporation, hinting delicately at the possibility of his return to office quite soon. Hopkins replied cautiously: ‘You have several friends, but there is some of the old leaven left by the late Mr Robinson whose doctrine was "never leave the Treasury".' Later he wrote more encouragingly: 'I cannot say to the contrary but that there is a general attachment of the corporation to you'. But as the election drew nearer Hopkins was constrained to inform Huskisson that 'if the existing government should earnestly take up the cause warmly, whoever they recommend will be selected'. At this news Huskisson fell back on Arbuthnot, who took the matter to Liverpool and reported: 'Ld. L. was made uneasy by your letter. He said Heaven knows I have no wish to act hastily towards Huskisson but surely he must feel that the government is forced to try to bring in the most attached friends.' Huskisson tried one last throw and despatched a circular letter to the members of the corporation to learn directly if an independent interest could be supported. The reply was empathic; 'never leave the Treasury' had prevailed.17
Time was quickly running out and the next few days saw a flurry of correspondence as Huskisson thrust three different irons in the fire: at Poole, where his fellow Canningite John Dent thought that Huskisson might come in on his tail; at Dover, his old constituency; and, waiving Arundel where he had been nibbling, at Chichester where he was a person of some local standing. The Poole project soon evaporated: Dent's own prospects became dubious and a running partner could only hamper him further. Dover seemed brighter. William Wellesley Pole wrote encouragingly of it: 'there is a very strong feeling in favour of the Wellesleys' (the Wellesley and Canning groups were then acting in concert). Steddy, Huskisson's contact at Dover, was more optimistic still:
The freemen of Dover are very generally dissatisfied with their present representatives. If you will only come down and try one day's canvass, I trust you will be perfectly convinced that no one can oppose you with success. You have only come down to any inn and make it known that you are in town when you will be waited on by several of the most respectable inhabitants requesting you to offer.
Steddy had already been active on his own initiative: bills had been posted urging the voters not to engage themselves as another candidate was expected, and letters sent out to potential supporters.18 Despite these favourable appearances, Huskisson in the end opted for Chichester. Here the representation had since 1790 been divided between the Duke of Richmond and the local independent interest. Huskisson and Richmond had been on good terms since he had politely declined the duke's offer to serve as his chief secretary in 1809. On 9 June 1810 Huskisson had ostentatiously supported Richmond's salary increase in debate and despite his severance from administration and his support of Catholic relief he had every reason to suppose that Richmond would be willing to bring him into Parliament. Richmond, however, was already pledged to his son Lord March. Huskisson again betook himself to Arbuthnot to see if March might not instead run for Sussex; but the cost if a county election was considered prohibitive. In the meantime, Huskisson had been testing the possibilities of coming in on the independent interest. His Chichester informant, James Bennet Freeland, told him that he would he opposed but:
You would have at least an equal chance of success especially if you could furnish yourself with the means of satisfying a few of the Duke of R's principal friends that their affording you their support would be agreeable to him. But I must be allowed to suggest that it might be most polite for you to appear to the public quite unconnected with the Duke of Richmond, as many respectable inhabitants have a decided objection to the duke's returning both Members.
In the event he showed sufficient strength to discourage the opposition and came in without a contest. In all this he had the valuable backing of the Earl of Egremont, who was then starting to build up an interest in Chichester which fortified his position there in future years.
Behind all these ventures, he had had the dubious comfort of the good intentions of the Prince Regent, who was currently courting the Canningites as a means of protecting himself against Lord Grenville, who he loathed. While Huskisson was still casting about for a seat, Arbuthnot had written to him:
I was yesterday with the prince and talked fully with him about you—nothing could be more kind—he even went so far as to say that if you did not get a seat elsewhere he would endeavour to find one for you. He only objects to your giving votes to the G[renville]s. On all other points you might have carte blanche. If you are baffled everywhere else let me know and the Prince will assist you—nothing can be more kind—He really went far beyond what I'd have expected.19
This was a kindness which Huskisson was doubtless glad not to have to invoke.
These years in opposition gave Huskisson an opportunity to establish himself as a parliamentarian He spoke quite often, though rarely at great length or with notable oratorial effect, for he was 'a wretched speaker, with no command of words, with awkward motions, and a most vulgar uneducated accentuation', according to Samuel Egerton Brydges*. His speeches, however, were cogently related to a consistent theme of financial policy which gave them in sum the impressiveness which they might lack individually. An excessive issue of credit with its consequences—depreciation of the currency and the flight of gold—these were the ultimate terms of reference of nearly all his speeches; and the measures he prescribed were the restoration of cash payments by the Bank and the reduction of government borrowing. The Bank, he contended, freed from the obligation to pay gold against its notes was no longer compelled to maintain a due proportion between its stock of gold and the notes issued by way of commercial loans; the only restraint now operating on its lending money was the creditworthiness of the borrower. The identification, formerly secured by the obligation to pay gold, of the commercial interests of the nation no longer obtained. This opinion and all that flowed from it, Huskisson urged not only in his parliamentary speeches but also in his influential pamphlet on the Depreciation of the currency (1810) and in the report of the bullion committee (1811), which was the joint product of himself, Francis Horner* and Henry Thornton*. Government borrowing he wished to see reduced by two means: the retrenchment of expediture, especially military expenditure, and the raising of extra revenue by more taxation. On all these points his views were at odds with official ones. This in itself was after all a very good political ground for advancing them. The Canningite group had to make itself felt in the House, but it had to do so without creating the appearance of factious oppostion. To this end Huskisson, with his reputation for sense and solidity, was an invaluable asset and the critical edge of his views was perhaps sharpened by this tactical consideration. His major confrontation with official policy came with Vansittart's finance plan in the budget of 1813 which gave Huskisson, in the longest speech he had yet made (25 Mar.), an opportunity of engaging in main combat on the question of governement borrowing, with the emotive advantage of being able to represent Vansittart's proposals as a dereliction of the principles for the management of the sinking fund established by Pitt himself. No trimuph in the division lobbies ensued, nor was one expected on an issue which nine-tenths of the House found incomprehensible, but it was a potent reminder to government that it would do well to come to terms with Canning and his adherents. Huskisson had previously, with Canning, opposed the bank-note bill, 11 Dec. 1812, the joint paymastership of the forces, 8 Mar. 1813, and supported Catholic relief throughout the session. He also voted for Christian missions to India, 22 June.
The summer of 1813 brought the corn trade into politics. In entering upon this issue at least there was no question of party advantage, since there was no government view as such to criticize. Huskisson, a member of the select committee, approached the question (21 June) with caution and moderation but he approached it as an unmistakable prtectionist, although not, as he was careful to make clear, as the protector of sectional interests:
I am not actuatedin my consideration of the question by any solicitude for the corn grower or the landlords, or for Ireland in which I have no personal interest, but for the general interests of the empire which are best consulted by securing to all classes an adequate supply of corn.
But, he was persuaded, an adequate supply could only be ensured in the long run by a policy designed to promote efficient and plentiful production at home. Room should certainly be left for the entry of foreign corn both to act as a spur to British growers and to tide over temporary shortfalls in domestic supplies; but a planned dependence in imports hazarded the bread of the poulace and the strength if British agriculture. The British grower must be guaranteed such a price as would ensure him a surplus for fruitful reinvestmebt in the land, with the twin results of yielding an ample and cheap supply of home grown corn and of sustaining a buoyant demand for agricutural labour. Yet Huskisson was not insensible of the free trade argument (5 May 1814):
If no foreign corn had been imported the nation would have saved sixty millions sterling. It might be said then that without this importation sixty millions worth of our manufactures would have remained unsold; but then it is not recollected what those sixty millions would have effected if they had been expended in the improvement of our agriculture; or what increased means of purchasing our manufactures they would have given to the agriculturists.
To afford the requisite protection without creating an unhealthy monopoly, Huskisson proposed a sliding scale of duties: a duty of 24s. when the price was 63s. a quarter, descending evenly to free importation at 86s. The proposal was accepted as a resolution of the House, 5 May 1814, and on 17 May survived a counter-attack by the out-and-out protectionists led by John Foster, by 81 votes to 60. Yet protectionist sentiment triumphed the following year when the bill was brought in as a government measure, without the sliding scale.
By then Huskisson was himself a member of government, Canning having made his peace and gone off to Lisbon. In his negotiations with Lord Liverpool he proposed for Huskisson the treasureship of the navy or the Mint, the pay office being out of the question as 'he must give up £1,200 p.a. to take office'. But George Rose* refused to give up the treasureship and the Mint went to William Wellesey Pole*. The dignified obscurity of Woods and Forests, with a privy councillorship, underlined the price Huskisson had paid for his loyalty to Canning. Those positions which he might have filled five years eariler were now occupied by Sidmouth's men or by the rising young talents of Frederick John Robinson and Robert Peel, respectively 12 and 18 years his junior; and they resented his presence. Among the opposition there was some surprise that Huskisson did not replace Vansittart as chancellor of the Exchequer; instead he was expected to prop up Vansittart.20
Huskisson's subsequent career until 1820 was therefore thankless. Attending to Canning's interests kept him quite busy until the summer of 1816, when Canning returned from Portugal. Canning had appointed him as deputy as Member for Liverpool, on a forlorn hope that if Oxford University adopted himself on the next vacancy, Huskisson might sit for Liverpool. He had to keep his chief constantly abreast of political affairs in England; defend him in the House against charges of jobbery levelled at his ambassadorial appointment, 15 Nov., 1 Dec. 1814, 14 Apr. 1815; smooth over difficulties between him and Castlereagh; ensure that Lord Liverpool offered him the India Board when it fell vacant early in 1816 and then persuaded Canning that he really had no option but to accept it unconditionally; and through it all endure that spasms of querulousness and fractiousness to which Canning was always prone when unsure of his ground.21 His official duties demanded little of him and their mechanical routine bored him. His occasional contributions to debate on the government side were uninspired. On 4 May 1814 he had called for retrenchment with the advent of peace. Next session he defended the new taxes, gave up his refinements on the Corn Law, defended the King of Spain and delay in the resumption of cash payments. He qualified his support of Catholic relief, 30 May 1815, and merely paired in favour in 1816 and 1817. In 1816 he supported the unpopular taxes, direct and indirect, and opposed motions for retrenchment, 7 and 24 May. On 12 Feb. 1817 he rebutted a charge of malversation against himself as agent of Ceylon. He was elected to the finance committee that month. On 5 May he congratulated ministers on having achieved sinecure reform. In the session of 1818 he defended the navy estimates and the budget and opposed the repeal of the leather tax and the resumption of cash payments.
Sussex politics briefly stirred Huskisson's energy when the Whigs tried to upset the Tory monopoly of the county at the election of 1818. Egremont wrote to him gratefully: 'I am sure that all the gentlemen of the county ought to be very much obliged to you, for without you in Chichester we should have been in awful confusion'.22 He could at this time have gone to Dublin as chief secretary in place of Peel, but decided that the domestic disturbance was more than it was worth and told Lord Liverpool that he would prefer to give up his present post and retire from official life for the moment, as long as it was understood that he in no way waived his expectation of succeeding Canning at the India Board, whenever Canning should be better provided for.23 Liverpool's answer to this cannot have been encouraging and he remained at Woods and Forests.
From Huskisson's desultory parliamentary speeches during these years one straw in the wind is worth noting. On the finance resolutions, 9 July 1817, he said:
I trust that every means of practical economy will be resorted to and that the House will do everything to prepare the country for the reception of more liberal commercial arrangements which will have the effect of disarming foreign countries of their jealousy towards us.
After the election of 1818 he wrote to Lord Liverpool
I shall be ready to attend your meetings on finance and establishments whenever you call upon me. Allow me to say that I trust we shall all come to them impressed with the necessity of attempting further retrenchments, to a considerable amount. Be assured that the feeling is strong in the country that we have not done enough ...
I venture to say this much to you generally, because I am convinced that without great prudence in the Regent's expenditure, and something more than has hitherto been done to diminish that of the State, you will feel the bad consequences in the new Parliament and in public opinion, which is after all the power to which we must look for any durably prevailing influence in Parliament itself.24
In the ensuing session there were once more expectations that Huskisson would succeed Vansittart at the Exchequer. He sat on all the major financial committees and his views were leaned upon by the Treasury. In return he supported their proposals for the Windsor establishment and, in a delicate situation, defended the report of the committee in the resumption of cash payments, 22 Feb., 5 Apr. 1819. In the next two months he further defended financial expedients. He had no stomach for the last session of that Parliament, but in one of the three brief speeches warned against reliance on government to heal economic distress, 16 Dec. He stayed in town in support of repressive measures against radical agitation.25
Always accident-prone, he died after being run over be a train, 15 Sept. 1830.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Biog. Mem. of William Huskisson (1831); Add. 38734, ff. 21, 25, 33, 46, 75, 77, 85; 38758, f. 275; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 28.
- 2. Add. 38734, ff. 116, 171, 229; Oracle, 19 Oct. 1795.
- 3. PRO 30/8/157, f. 256; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1903.
- 4. Add. 38758, f. 275; Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 583, 595; Colchester, i. 228; PRO 30/8/147, f. 120.
- 5. Windham Diary, 404; PRO 30/8/157, f. 272 and Dacres Adams mss 3/23; Bucks. RO, Hobart mss C335, J22; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2412; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 29; Colchester, iii. 273.
- 6. Add. 38736, f. 291; 39948, f. 12.