RUSSELL, Francis, Mq. of Tavistock (1788-1861), of Woburn Abbey and Oakley, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. 13 May 1788, 1st s. of John Russell I*, 6th Duke of Bedford, by 1st w. Hon. Georgiana Byng, da. of George, 4th Visct. Torrington; bro. of Lord George William Russell* and Lord John Russell II*. educ. by Dr Moore, Sunbury, Westminster 1801, by Rev. John Smith at Woodnesborough, nr. Sandwich 1805-6; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1807. m. 8 Aug. 1808, Lady Anna Maria Stanhope, da. of Charles Stanhope†, 3rd Earl of Harrington, 1s. summ. to the Lords in his fa.’s barony as Lord Howland 15 Jan. 1833; suc. fa. as 7th Duke of Bedford 20 Oct. 1839; KG 26 Mar. 1847.
PC 6 July 1846.
Ld. lt. Beds. 1859-d.
Lt. Beds. militia 1806-9, lt.-col. 1809; capt. Woburn yeoman cav. 1807.
In the opinion of Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire, Tavistock was
a man everbody likes, very gentlemanlike and pleasing, but wastes good parts and sense originally from being neglected in his youth and getting into bad attachments to women. He has made himself a mere jockey and dawdler, but he has certainly good qualities, for all his friends love him.
He went with his brothers to a gentlemen’s finishing school, where the chief occupations were card playing and walking, visited Ireland in 1806 during his father’s viceroyalty and was elected to Brooks’s on 13 Apr. 1807. At Cambridge he had only a ‘pretended education’, which included instruction in pugilism by ‘Jackson the bruiser’, but he was already well versed in the tenets of Foxite Whiggism, as Bedford told Whitbread, 11 Apr. 1808:
Tavistock has been following your steps at a humble distance, and endeavouring to persuade the big wigs at Cambridge, that a state of peace must at all times be more to the interest of this country than a state of war, building his argument on the pacific system of Sir Robert Walpole, and insisting upon that, as the groundwork of England’s greatness during the subsequent administration of Lord Chatham.1
Bedford had intended to take the first opportunity of returning him for the Bedfordshire seat which he controlled, but when a vacancy occurred at Peterborough in 1809 Earl Fitzwilliam brought him in, two months under age.
Tavistock claimed in 1819 to have discovered ‘some 12 or 14 years ago’ the ‘paramount importance of reform’, without which a mere change in the political complexion of the government of the day could achieve no lasting good, and his first known vote was with the minority for Folkestone’s amendment to the title of Curwen’s emasculated reform bill, 12 June 1809. He remained well in advance of the Whig hierarchy in his views on reform during this period and was often critical of their timidity; but he was too diffident and lazy to make a sustained effort to propagate his ideas and was never quite the enfant terrible which he fitfully threatened to become. He voted against government, as was to be expected, on the address, 23 Jan., the Walcheren expedition, 26 Jan., and Lord Chatham’s narrative, 23 Feb. 1810; but his appearance in the minority of 19 who divided for Cochrane’s demand for the minutes of Lord Gambier’s court martial, 29 Jan., which was opposed by the Whig leader Ponsonby, caused surprise in ministerial circles. In the early stages of his career ‘the charms of fox hunting’, as Bedford put it, were ‘greater than Tavistock’s political zeal’, and Tierney and Whitbread were irritated by his absence from the division against Wellington’s annuity bill, 16 Feb. 1810. Bedford, who thought ‘the fault was venial’, blamed himself and expressed confidence that ‘upon every proper occasion’ Tavistock would ‘always be ready to obey orders, at least those that he may receive from Lord Holland’. The duke was less indulgent when he found that Tavistock had not been in his place for the debate on Whitbread’s second motion on the Chatham papers, 2 Mar. 1810. He was thought to have paired with Lord Robert Manners, but both of them are named, on their respective sides, in the lists of those who divided on the question, 5 Mar.2 Bedford told William Adam, 7 Mar., that he hoped Tavistock would ‘summon resolution to talk to ministers and the House a little about the constitution’ but, after giving silent votes for Porchester’s resolutions on Walcheren, 30 Mar., and Brand’s parliamentary reform motion, 21 May, it was on the Catholic question that he made his debut, 1 June 1810, when he put the case for concession and conciliation. According to the Grenvillite William Fremantle, the speech was ‘extremely eloquent, well arranged, manly and well delivered, with great taste and judgement’ and made ‘a great noise and acquired him very great credit’.3
Fremantle may have exaggerated, for Tavistock’s performance appears to have gone otherwise unnoticed and the House evidently saw little of him in 1811, when he voted for Catholic relief, 31 May, and spoke briefly in favour of parliamentary reform, 11 June. He remained shy of public gestures and, despite every encouragement from his father and Whitbread, his political idol, he could not bring himself to ‘undertake the Irish motion’ as requested in 1812 and merely seconded it when it was moved by Morpeth, 3 Feb. He attended only for Turton’s motion on the state of the nation, 27 Feb., when Bedford, who had not tried to force him to do so, learnt from Grey that it was ‘of importance in a party view’.4 With the outbreak of disturbances in the provinces and the Regent’s abandonment of the Whigs his political interest intensified. He voted, without catching Fremantle’s censorious eye, for inquiry into the reduction of Exchequer sinecures, 7 May, and later the same day obtained leave to bring in a bill to reduce the expense of county elections, which he presented as an instalment of the cautious reform necessary to combat the increasing influence of the crown, which sustained an unpopular ministry in power. When seconding Brand’s motion to extend the county franchise, 8 May, he observed that only if his own bill became law would he contemplate moving the repeal of the Septennial Act, as triennial parliaments would be of no benefit without a reduction in the cost of elections, and appealed for the unified support of the friends of reform for
a reform radical, as far as it went to the root of all corrupt influence, and moderate as far as it restrained itself within the limits of practical good sense, and kept clear of all the wild theories of visionary speculators.
He secured a first reading for his bill on 11 June 1812, when it was ordered to be printed, but did not persevere with it. These activities, and his appearance at the London Livery reform dinner, 9 May, when he advocated ‘a complete, substantial and radical reform’, led the Grenvillites to conclude that Whitbread had seduced him into joining the ‘Mountain’; and Fremantle wondered how a young man who stood to inherit such a stake in the country could be so ‘blind to his own interest’.5 Had Lord Wellesley succeeded in forming a ministry in June 1812 he would probably have been offered a lordship of the Treasury.
Tavistock’s show of energy was short-lived and he was only spasmodically active in the first two sessions of the 1812 Parliament, to which he was returned unopposed for the county seat. Among his few recorded votes were those for Burdett’s motion on the Regency, 23 Feb., the Catholic relief bill, 13 and 24 May, receipt of the Nottingham reform petition, 30 June 1813, the censure of the Speaker, 22 Apr., Williams Wynn’s motion on the blockade of Norway, 12 May, and against the expulsion of Cochrane, 5 July 1814. His motion to disfranchise Helston and transfer its two seats to Yorkshire, 2 July 1813, got no support. From 1815 he was more active in the division lobbies, though he was clearly never an attender through thick and thin and only occasionally addressed the House. He voted for Whitbread’s motion on behalf of Spanish Liberals, 1 Mar., against a war of proscription against Buonaparte, 28 Apr. and 25 May, and, in deep distress, moved the writ for Bedford after Whitbread’s suicide, 11 July 1815. He was one of the 23 who divided against the address in the Whig fiasco of 1 Feb. 1816, voted for the amendment criticizing the peace settlement, 20 Feb., and thereafter participated in the campaign for economy and retrenchment, though he paired only against the property tax, 18 Mar. 1816. He spoke for reform, 18 June 1816, and voted against the introduction of the seditious meetings bill, 24 Feb., the suspension of habeas corpus in both February and June, and for Burdett’s reform motion, 20 May 1817. In July 1816 Henry Grey Bennet of the ‘Mountain’, exasperated with the existing Whig leadership in the Commons, had considered Tavistock ‘best of all’ the alternative candidates, but supposed that his love of hunting and lack of money disqualified him. On Ponsonby’s death a year later he was said to have turned down an invitation to succeed him. He declined to undertake the task of pressing ministers to end the suspension of habeas corpus at the opening of the 1818 session, but voted in condemnation of the domestic spy system, 11 Feb. and 5 Mar., against the indemnity bill, 9 Mar., and for the repeal of the Septennial Act, 19 May.6
At the general election of 1818 Tavistock, who signed the requisition calling on Tierney to assume the leadership, took a prominent part at Westminster, where he ostentatiously supported Burdett as well as the Whig Romilly. Lord Grey was later reported to have said that ‘Tavistock’s wearing Burdett’s colours was enough to sicken a man of politics’. Possibly under pressure from Bedford, who had been pestered by Brougham to remonstrate with Tavistock over his ‘delusion about Burdett’, he wrote to his old Cambridge friend, John Cam Hobhouse†, a member of Burdett’s election committee who had a foot in both Whig and radical camps, to protest against Burdettite abuse of the Whigs. In subsequent exchanges of views with Hobhouse he professed his desire to see a working union between the advanced Whigs and the less fanatical reformers, freely criticized Grey, Brougham, Perry and other unbending Whig partisans, and claimed that he would readily ‘sacrifice the party’ if he found them ‘acting against the liberties and happiness of the country’. As a personal friend, he initially supported Hobhouse’s candidature for Westminster at the by-election of 1819, though he was relieved when the collapse of the Whig scheme to start Whitbread’s son spared him an embarrassing dilemma. Hobhouse never entirely trusted him and their relations were already strained when the Whigs, provoked by the reformers’ abusive braggadocio, intervened with a party candidate; but according to Hobhouse, Tavistock admitted in January 1819 that ‘the Whig aristocracy and the people would never come together’ and he evidently resisted the pressure put on him by Bedford, who feared that he would ‘suffer his indolence and diffidence to get the better of his good sense and sound judgement’, to ‘go on the hustings and publicly disavow any connection’ with the Westminster committee.7
In the House he voted for inquiry into Scottish burgh reform, 1 Apr., and against the Barnstaple bribery bill, 17 May, attacked the Game Laws, 14 May, and, when opposing the excise duties bill, 18 June, called for shorter parliaments and ‘a full and free representation of the people’, and stressed the importance of a change of measures as against one merely of men. Presenting the Liverpool reform petition before the debate on Burdett’s reform motion for which he voted, 1 July, he appealed for unity among reformers and denounced the extremists. Hobhouse thought it ‘a shabby sly blow at Burdett’, but Tavistock subsequently swore to him that his object had been only to recruit as much Whig support as possible for Burdett. His name appears in the published lists of the minority who supported Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May 1819, but he later told Hobhouse that he had not in fact done so and had ‘no reason to repent it, having no wish to see a change of men, not accompanied by a change of measures, including parliamentary reform’.8
He was outraged by the Peterloo incident, subscribed to the Westminster relief fund and tried to organize a protest in Bedfordshire, only to be frustrated, as he claimed, by the gentry’s ‘absurd and stupid’ unwillingness to take ‘any step which (in their view) may appear to countenance Hunt and his radicals’. He gave up the attempt for fear of stampeding them ‘into a despotism which appears to be coming upon us by rapid strides’. He seconded the amendment to the address, 23 Nov. 1819, and, once more disclaiming party motives, called for inquiry into Peterloo and a measure of reform, though he declined to detail any ‘specific plan’. He was one of the last-ditch opponents of the subsequent repressive legislation, and on the blasphemous libels bill, 21 Dec., deplored, in retrospect, the prosecution of William Hone. He visited Hobhouse in Newgate and was present at the Crown and Anchor meeting in his support, 16 Dec. 1819, but the malevolent Hobhouse thought Tavistock’s telling him that only 200 had been present was ‘a Whig way of spiting a friend’.9 He died 14 May 1861.