PIGGOTT, Sir Arthur Leary (1749-1819), of Gower Street, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 19 Oct. 1749 in Barbados, 1st s. of John Piggott, later of Grenada, by w. Jane. educ. M. Temple 1767, called 1777; Trinity, Oxf. 1778; m. ?1773, Jane Dunnington of Manchester, Lancs. s.p. legit. suc. fa. 1776; kntd. 12 Apr. 1806.
Commr. of public accts. 1780, KC (patent of precedence) 21 May 1783; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales Nov. 1783-92; attorney-gen. Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807; counsel to Bank of England.
Piggott began his legal career in Grenada, returning to England towards the close of the ministry of Lord North, whose fortunes he followed in 1783. He was a founder member of the Whig Club in 1784. He then built up a ‘considerable practice as a common lawyer’. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine, in one case he severely criticized an attorney, whose vindictive colleagues left Piggott briefless: so that he was compelled in 1793 to migrate to the court of Chancery, where he enjoyed ‘great success’; but his migration may have been due to Thomas Erskine’s* triumphs. He also had a ‘considerable practice’ in election committees. In 1789 he went to France to admire the revolution. In 1791 he was a steward at the Revolution Society’s celebration of the 14th July. Late in 1792 he was dismissed from his post as solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, because of his membership of the Society of Friends of the People. He was also a Friend of the Liberty of the Press and was one of Charles Grey’s advisers in the promotion of parliamentary reform in the House. On 13 June 1804 he appeared at the bar of the House in a different capacity, as counsel for the West India merchants.1
One of the most eminent of Whig counsel, he was in 1806 an immediate choice for legal office when Fox and Grenville began to form their ministry. Sidmouth thought that ‘though a good [in a draft, he wrote ‘great’] lawyer, and an honourable man, Piggott has not sufficient weight of character’ for the attorney-generalship; but he was nevertheless chosen by Fox, who ‘highly esteemed’ him. This was in preference to the Prince of Wales’s recommendation of William Adam*, who admitted that Piggott was his senior at the bar. The King insisted on knighting him on appointment, against his will. Fox arranged with the 11th Duke of Norfolk that he should come in for Steyning ‘without any expense’.2 He took his seat on 25 Feb. 1806.
As the senior law officer, he soon engaged in debate; on 21 Mar. he spoke in favour of Tierney’s election treating bill going to committee, not being able to swallow it as it then stood. On 31 Mar. he obtained leave for a bill to prevent the import of slaves into Britain’s newly acquired colonies by British subjects or ships. Wilberforce found his notice ‘quite wrong’, but was placated by Fox. Unlike his colleague Romilly, he believed that an order in council could not achieve the aim of the bill. Besides, he was ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the trade. He took charge of the witnesses’ declaratory bill when it came down from the Lords and on 17 Apr. argued ‘with some earnestness and at considerable length’ against Romilly for an amendment to allow witnesses, at the judge’s discretion, to refuse to answer questions on certain grounds. He voted for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. He defended the Chelsea Hospital and mutiny bills, 12 June, as well as the West Indian accounts, the auditors and the American intercourse bills, attacking George Rose with powerful irony, 16, 17 June, 2, 8 July. The Grenada and St. Vincent loan bill originated with him: he had found merchants heavily indebted to government and wished to secure the debt, 11 July. In September, at the time of Fox’s death, Howick suggested that Piggott should take the Irish seals, but nothing came of the proposal. The common pleas or the Rolls were also mentioned as likely offices for him in a reshuffle.3
In the general election of 1806 the Duke of Norfolk provided another seat for Piggott, who wrote to his friend George Cumberland on 1 Dec. 1806,
the duties of my office require all the time and more than the time that I have ... I have no patronage of any kind annexed to my office ... I have never asked any favour since I have been in office and feeling great obligations and no pretensions to further layouts I cannot depart from the resolution which I have laid down, the course of conduct which I have prescribed to myself as long as I remain where I am ... Indeed the only friend with whom I could have used any freedom [Fox] is now no more.
He spoke with his usual forcefulness on the question of expelling John Fenton Cawthorne*, 23 Jan. 1807: he thought proceedings should not be grounded on the verdict of a court-martial and remarked, to the anger of several Members, that national proceedings in a court of justice could never be founded on ‘fanciful notions of honour’. On 9 Feb. he opposed a motion to amend Grenville’s Election Act—a subject which had engaged much of his attention—and on 18 Feb. supported, ‘on the grounds of justice and morality’, Romilly’s bill to make personal debts a charge on freehold estates, the introduction of which he had seconded. In the impeachment of Melville, ‘the only person who did himself credit’, according to Lord Holland, ‘was Sir Arthur Piggott, who spoke in the authoritative tones of a representative of the people’.4 His speech in favour of Lyttelton’s motion, 15 Apr. 1807, was inadequately reported—he had voted silently for Brand’s motion on 9 Apr.
Though out of office, at the general election of 1807 Piggott was again brought in gratis by Norfolk for Arundel and induced his patron to accommodate Romilly (as a paying guest) if seated.5 Speaking on the state of the nation, 6 July 1807, he stressed the illegality of the King’s acting without advisers and drew a distinction between the monarch’s executive and legislative capacities: it being the former alone that was bound by the coronation oath. He voted for inquiry into pensions and places, 7 July, and against the Irish insurrection bill which, he declared, ‘would be a disgrace to the statute book’, 24, 27 July. He denounced the Irish arms bill as unconstitutional, 7 Aug., and attacked ‘this fatal system which risked no less than the ultimate loss of Ireland’. On 23 Jan. 1808 he was present at ‘the great opposition dinner’ at Lord Erskine’s. In the ensuing session he was chiefly concerned with the orders in council, which he wished ministers to reconsider, 5, 24 Feb., 4, 10 Mar. He voted for Whitbread’s motions on Copenhagen and in favour of a peace mediation, 8 and 29 Feb. Whitbread was gratified and at that time prepared to listen to his counsel of moderation. Piggott voted steadily with opposition on Irish questions. On 15 June he spoke in committee on Romilly’s privately stealing bill. The criminal law, he thought, ought not rashly to be altered, but it had failed to prevent crimes: ‘its failures ought to be ascribed to its severity, which in many instances prevented persons from prosecuting those guilty of smaller offences’. His Chancery practice continued to thrive, which probably accounted for the modest part he took in debates: he wrote to Cumberland, 7 Apr. 1808, ‘it is out of my power to correspond even upon my own necessary business’. In his reports to the absent Lord Grey, Piggott, a keen critic of the conduct of the Peninsular war in November 1808, claimed to find the state of the party ‘embarrassing’ in January 1809 and noted: ‘Opposition was certainly, as you seem to think, in a great measure fruitless last session. I do not know it will be more effectual this session.’ He hoped the party would not be inactive and thought inquiries should be called for:
the House of Commons is a body to whom effort and battle are so natural that it might not be easy to persuade party [sic] to forego them, especially at a time when minds are much agitated by the events that are passing.
He admitted that ‘a quiet session’ would be ‘personally more agreeable’ to him and, in reply to a letter from Grey, confessed that ‘harassing and vexatious opposition’ was far from his mind. He was more sanguine than Grey as to the prospects of party unity, which was a necessity, ‘else we shall fall like Spain with her provincial juntas, for want of universal authority and common consent’.6 He had rallied to Ponsonby’s leadership of the party, 18 Jan. 1809, and a year later was not in favour of a change of leader.
Piggott voted against the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809. After questioning witnesses at the bar of the House, he abstained on the divisions relating to the Duke of York, 15, 17 Mar. 1809. He voted for inquiry into ministerial corruption, 25 Apr. On 4 May he was ordered to help draft Curwen’s reform bill, but developed a prejudice against it. He supported the amendment to the address in January 1810 and was a ‘thick and thin’ opponent of ministers during the Scheldt divisions, being a member of the committee of inquiry. He took a high line against Sir Francis Burdett’s attempts to revenge himself on the Speaker and serjeant-at-arms for his imprisonment in the Tower, though he had opposed it; he allied himself firmly to Ponsonby against Whitbread’s line, complained of delay by government in dealing with the question and insisted on the privileges of the House and its power to commit ‘in all cases for offences against itself’ (7 May). Beyond that he would take no further part in the proceedings.7 On 21 May he voted for parliamentary reform, as he had, four days before, for sinecure reform. As a Chancery lawyer, he no doubt felt obliged to defend the increase in judges’ salaries, 12 June 1809, as well as his chief the chancellor, for he advised Michael Angelo Taylor to withdraw his motion on Chancery delays and to leave the investigation to those qualified, 25 May 1810. But he voted for Romilly’s bid to reform criminal law, 1 May 1810, and on 25 Feb. 1811 even voted against the lord chancellor on Whitbread’s motion.
Piggott was alleged by Lord Grey to have been in the minority against the adjournment, 15 Nov. 1810, but he subsequently consulted with Ponsonby and Grey on opposition tactics on the Regency bill. He supported Lord Grenville’s refusal as auditor to endorse issues from the Exchequer which had not received the royal approval, 4 Jan. 1811, and after being unable to speak earlier on the bill, proposed leaving out the ninth clause, 17 Jan. When the Whigs expected to return to office under the Regent, it was suggested Piggott should become chief baron of the Exchequer, but he preferred to return to his former post. Once again, the Irish seals were rumoured for him. His great expectations were, according to Brougham, the probable explanation of his absenting himself from such ‘constitutional’ motions as Folkestone’s on ex officio informations for libel and Brougham’s own on the droits of Admiralty; though on the latter question Piggott had abstained previously. He was, with other conservative Whigs, in the majority favouring the reinstatement of the Duke of York, 6 June 1811, and did not give his sanction to an extra-parliamentary meeting that month of Friends of Constitutional Reform.8 He voted on 31 May 1811 and spoke strongly in support of the Irish Catholics on 3 Feb. 1812: thereafter they invariably had his vote. On 17 Feb. 1812 he objected to the principle of the framework bill: witnesses (he argued), reluctant to come forward under the existing law, would be still more so were the offences made capital. On 20 Feb. he again condemned the bill as ineffectual. He thought there was insufficient reason for the expulsion of Benjamin Walsh* (5 Mar.), which would create a mischievous precedent. On 21 May he voted for a more comprehensive administration.
It was the Duke of Norfolk’s intention, at the general election of 1812, to bring in Piggott alone for Arundel; but the unauthorized attempt of the duke’s party to secure both seats so disgusted Piggott that he declined the nomination, being returned instead for Horsham on the same interest.9 He deplored Whitbread’s injudicious manner of raising the question of the Princess of Wales’s plight in the House, 23 Mar. 1813. He came out very strongly in favour of Romilly’s bill to charge freehold estates with simple contract debts, 29 Apr. 1814. He supported Romilly on 28 Nov. 1814, on his motion against keeping the militia embodied in peacetime, explaining
his general practice in giving his vote. When he could acquiesce in any motion, he felt little anxiety to trouble the House. With the present motion he most cordially acquiesced; but not so with the doctrine laid down in opposition to it; and, therefore, he could not let the debate pass, and allow this doctrine to stand uncontradicted.
Keeping the militia embodied would establish a precedent by which it would be converted into a standing army. He spoke in similar terms in a further debate on the subject, 28 Feb. 1815. He opposed the corn bill, 3 and 10 Mar., and aligned himself once more with Whitbread against the resumption of war, 7, 28 Apr., 5 and 25 May 1815. He also opposed foreign entanglements, 20 Feb. 1816, and voted steadily for retrenchment.
For the remainder of his career, Piggott seldom spoke in Parliament. In 1815 his patron died, leaving him £300 After a bout of illness he was in November 1816 reported by Lady Holland to be
quite alive again, grown fat and brisk, his summer occupations have been most beneficial to his health and important to the Howard interest as he has been investigating the different properties belonging to the Duke of Norfolk ... He seems also to have acquired great influence with the duke, whose politics are sound, as will be visible at the next election.10
Soon afterwards she called him ‘the sheet anchor of our friends’. The habeas corpus suspension bill (28 Feb. 1817) called forth his powers. The report of the secret committee (of which, with Ponsonby, he was a member) he approved: it ‘was so far from exaggerating the dangers of the country that he was inclined to think it did not go so far as the evidence would have warranted’; he agreed, moreover, with not publishing the evidence and ‘with respect to the bills which had been brought in, substantially he approved of most of them as being well applied to the evils they were intended to cure’. But the suspension bill he thought ‘quite unnecessary’, a view he set forth at length. ‘The more vigorous the measures ... now actually required to check the evil, the more important it was that the great body of the people should feel their rights and liberties had not been invaded by Parliament.’ The second report, he declared on 20 June, ‘if considered as a preparatory step towards the further suspension of the ... Act, did not fairly grow out of the evidence produced’—though he had been prevented from attending the later meetings of the committee. He remained hostile to the suspension during the next session. As counsel to the Bank of England, he ‘strongly defended [its] conduct’ against Mackintosh’s criticisms with regard to bank-note forgeries, 14 May 1818. In almost the last of his reported speeches, 5 June 1818, he attacked the Lords’ amendments to the aliens bill, retrospectively barring subscribers to Bank of Scotland stock from naturalization, as totally unfair and an infringement of the privileges of the House.
At the general election of 1818 he offered to retire in favour of Romilly, but the Duke of Norfolk ‘would not consent to leave out so old and faithful a friend’. Nor did Piggott, who signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the opposition, like the idea of ‘unqualified retirement and repose’. Yet Thomas Grenville, writing to Lord Grenville on 20 Jan. 1819 about the lord chancellorship, remarked, ‘Piggott’s health would not do for it even if they offered it to him’.11 His attendance in the House was now curtailed. A member of the select committee on the Windsor establishment bill, 4 Feb. 1819, he voted against it later that month. He paired in favour of burgh reform, 1 Apr., as he had done in favour of Burdett’s reform motion of 20 May 1817. His last known vote was on 21 June 1819.
The Gentleman’s Magazine obituary notice described Piggott as ‘a man of the highest sense of honour, a finished gentleman in his manners and address, of most mild and conciliating demeanour’. As an advocate, the writer thought him to be ‘a clear, nervous, impressive speaker ... with great powers of discrimination’. Creevey quoted among instances of Lord Grey’s ‘folly’, an after-dinner comment (of 1809) that ‘Piggott was the best speaker in the House next to Canning’. His parliamentary record as a convinced but moderate Whig, ready to support but not to initiate reforms, endorsed Lord Holland’s description of him as ‘that cautious lawyer’. After his death Holland wrote of him at greater length:
a high-minded man and sound lawyer, who combined real philosophy with considerable eloquence, acuteness, and learning; and who, although in all exigencies, public and private, singularly serviceable to his friends and party, was too unobtrusive to acquire the celebrity to which his rare attainments and elevated mind certainly entitled him. His appearance was indeed uncouth; and both in figure and his face it was said that anatomists could trace affinity to the African race.
He was in favour of putting down insurrections in the West Indies.12
Piggott died 6 Sept. 1819. Charles Williams Wynn wrote: ‘Poor Piggott is a great loss to the House of Commons. He was one of the old school on all questions which concerned its privileges or dignity and a most thoroughly upright man.’13