PERCEVAL, John, Visct. Perceval [I] (1683-1748).
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Family and Education
b. 12 July 1683, 1st surv. s. of Sir John Perceval, 3rd Bt., of Burton, Kanturk, co. Cork by Catherine, da. of Sir Edward Dering, 2nd Bt., M.P. educ. Westminster 1698; Magdalen, Oxf. 1699; Grand Tour 1705-7. m. 10 June 1710, Catherine, da. of Sir Philip Parker, 2nd Bt., of Erwarton, Suff., 3s. 4da. suc. bro. as 5th Bt. 9 Nov. 1691; cr. Baron Perceval [I] 21 Apr. 1715; Visct. Perceval [I] 25 Feb. 1723; Earl of Egmont [I] 6 Nov. 1733.
M.P. [I] 1703-14.
P.C. [I] Oct. 1704; recorder, Harwich 1728-34.
Perceval was descended from an ancient Somerset family, who in the early seventeenth century had settled in Ireland, where they had acquired large grants of forfeited lands. Succeeding to an estate of about £6,000 a year (ii. 185), he was created an Irish peer on George I’s accession, but took little part in public life till the opening of the next reign, when, in his own words,
I waited on the King, and told him that though loving my ease, I never yet would be in Parliament, yet having observed in all reigns that the first that was summoned was always most troublesome to the Prince, I was resolved to stand, that I might contribute my poor services to the settlement of his affairs. The King took it extremely kind and thanked me; asked me where it was? I replied at Harwich, where my brother [-in-law, Sir Philip Parker, 3rd Bt.] had a natural interest, and would give me his to join my own; that his Majesty had servants there that had votes, and if his Majesty would not suffer them to be against me, I should meet with no opposition, and be at no expense. The King replied, they should be at my service, and said he would speak to Sir Robert Walpole to order ... that the Post Office should be for me. Upon this security I went down, but how were the King’s orders obeyed? I was kept there two months and a half under a constant declaration that the government servants were to be against me, and Phillipson, the commissary of the packets [father of John Phillipson], averred that I had not the Government’s interest, and even named another person who was to come and oppose me on the Government’s account ... It was not till the very day before the election that, when I could be worried no longer, the Post Office thought fit to give their directions to Phillipson, and then the Government’s servants declared themselves.
Nor were his troubles at an end, for
ever since our friends are treated in the hardest manner imaginable. The town is poor, and the people subsist by serving the packets with beer, bread, candles, and working for the packet boats. In these matters none of our friends are suffered to do anything till they forsake us to range themselves on Phillipson’s side; then they may be employed, but otherwise are left to starve. What is this but ruining my brother’s interest and mine there, and who can we attribute this to but the ministry? (i.20).
When he and Parker complained of Phillipson, charging him with being a Jacobite, Walpole promised that ‘he should be out ... but nothing came of it’ till 17 Feb. 1730, when Walpole told Perceval that
he had spoke to the King, and received his orders to turn him out; he said he had done it before, but he was not able; that a great many things were laid to his charge that he was not to blame in, and that he could not do everything expected of him (iii. 347-8; i. 15-19, 50).
Perceval at the time attributed his treatment to the resentment of the ministers at his having applied to the King instead of to them for the government interest at Harwich, and to their suspicion that he and Parker were trying to convert it from a government borough into a private one (i. 22). Connecting the decision to comply with his and Parker’s repeated requests for Phillipson’s dismissal with Parker’s voting against the Government on a bill for excluding pensioners from the House of Commons, on which they had been defeated on 16 Feb., he thought that the fear that Parker, with both his brothers-in-law, Perceval and William East, might vote against them in the impending critical debate on Dunkirk, had ‘cast the ministry into so great apprehensions of their friends deserting them, that they think it necessary to use us in a more decent manner than before’ (i. 56). He also believed that his troubles at Harwich were due to Edward Carteret, joint postmaster general, whom he supposed to have protected Phillipson, while being himself protected by his nephew, Lord Carteret (i. 23). In fact, as he learned four years later, the chief author of his troubles at Harwich was not Carteret but the other joint postmaster general, Edward Harrison, whose daughter and heiress had married Lord Townshend’s eldest son, Charles, Lord Lynn, ‘for Harrison designed to have brought in a son of my Lord Townshend’s’ for the seat taken by Perceval (ii. 82). As had been hinted to him at the time, Walpole, as minister for the House of Commons, had been ready to placate the Parker-Perceval-East group by dismissing Phillipson, but had been prevented from doing so by Townshend (i. 47). Had Phillipson’s retention or dismissal not been connected with the struggle for power between Walpole and Townshend, which was about to end in Townshend’s resignation, such a parish pump affair would not have been referred to the King; for when, on the death of Phillipson’s successor as agent of the packets in 1734, Perceval, having obtained a promise in favour of his own nominee for the post from Walpole, expressed a fear that ‘the King’s promise in favour of another might be surreptitiously obtained, unknown to Sir Robert’, he was told by Walpole that the ‘matter was of too small a nature ever to reach the King’s ear’ (ii. 5).
For the rest of the Parliament Perceval was usually on excellent terms with Walpole, whom he regarded as ‘the ablest minister in the kingdom’, though he deplored ‘the neglect the ministry show of the ancient gentry and men of fortune in the disposal of employments and favours, which they choose to bestow on little and unknown persons’ (i. 18, 41). Not that he had much to complain of in this respect for, besides an Irish earldom for himself, he obtained a place in the Prince of Wales’s household for his brother-in-law, whose widow at his instance was granted a pension when, in the words of the epitaph which he composed for him, ‘God removed him ... from the land of the living and undoubtedly preferred him to a higher place’ (i. 23, 203). An independent supporter of the Government, he voted with them in all the five recorded divisions of this Parliament, but sometimes voted against them ‘out of conscience and not from a spirit of opposition’ (i. 297). In the debate on Dunkirk in 1730, he was among the government supporters who secured an amendment to the proposed ministerial motion by making it clear that otherwise ‘the Court would lose ... all the independent Members of the House’ (i. 73). When pressed in 1731 by an emissary from Walpole to vote against a bill for excluding pensioners from the House of Commons he ‘flatly refused to be against it, telling him that my honour and conscience obliged me to be for it’ (i. 125). In 1734 he was one of ‘twenty friends of the Court who left the House’, in order not to have to vote against the Government on a place bill, for which he must have voted had he been present,
for otherwise having no employment, my opposing so reasonable a thing might be interpreted as if I were a secret pensioner, yet I apprehended some danger might arise from passing it, because parties are now so high and envenomed against each other, that were the new Parliament almost entirely independent of the Crown, I know not how violently they may behave against the public measures next year, when we shall be perhaps engaged in war (ii. 37-38).
He went to court and to Walpole’s levees, but not to the meetings of ministerial supporters in the Commons which were held the evening before the opening of a new session, to hear the King’s speech and the heads of the proposed Address, looking on them ‘as a precluding the judgment which for honour sake at least ought to have the appearance of being determined by the debates of the House’ (i. 2). A member of the gaols committee and of the Georgia Society, he was also active on Irish affairs, serving on the drafting committee of the bill allowing unenumerated goods to come direct from the plantations to Ireland,1 which he carried to the Lords in 1731 (i. 187). In 1733 he spoke on Irish and Georgian matters (i. 334-5, 373). In the same year he published anonymously a pro-government pamphlet, of which Walpole ordered the Post Office to reprint 3,000 copies for distribution before the elections (i. 488, ii. 86). His parliamentary status and relations with the ministry are shown by his being invited to the select meeting of leading ministerial Members of the Commons held at Walpole’s house the night before the Cockpit meeting in January 1734, though he did not attend either for the reason already given (ii. 7).
At the general election of 1734 Perceval, now Earl of Egmont, stood down in favour of his son, Lord Perceval, for whom he had obtained a promise of the government interest at Harwich from Walpole. About a fortnight before the election, due on 27 Apr., the Customs and the Post Office, on Walpole’s instructions, sent word orally to those of their officers, numbering twelve out of the thirty-two members of the Harwich corporation who elected the parliamentary representatives of the borough, that they should vote for Perceval and the other government candidate, Carteret Leathes, it being considered too dangerous to put into writing orders which, if they fell into the hands of the Opposition, could be produced in Parliament as a proof that the Government were interfering with the freedom of elections (ii. 82-3, 91-2). Up to that time no third candidate had made an appearance, though there was a strong anti-Perceval party in the corporation, headed by Egmont’s old enemy, Phillipson. Egmont fancied that this party would be cowed by the appointment of his nominee to the agency of the packets, whose holder, as he himself had found when Phillipson held it, could bring pressure to bear on opponents by depriving them of the orders for the packets, on which they depended for their livelihood (ii. 9-10). In fact it seems to have goaded them into looking for an alternative to Perceval, on the ground that his father ‘had put a person into the agency of the packets, who was odious to them all’, besides having ‘represented several there [e.g. Phillipson] to be Jacobites’ (ii. 100). On 16 Apr. Walpole told Egmont that they had sent to Lord Harrington, offering ‘him the choice of a Member if he will send one down, but I told my Lord he should not accept it, for I desired your son to be chosen’ (ii. 85). On 19 and 21 Apr. Leathes showed Walpole letters to him signed by 20 of the 32 voters, inviting him or Walpole to recommend some other candidate than Perceval, ‘for they were determined not to choose’ him, his father, his uncle, ‘or any of the family, who had used them ill, broke promises etc., and were odious to them’ (ii. 87, 90). By this time Harrington had accepted the offer on behalf of his brother, Charles Stanhope. On this Walpole told Egmont, who had been pressing the King ‘to order his servants to vote for my son’:
I have done all I can, except to write under my own hand, which I dare not, nor should the King’s name be used, but your son may freely use my name and tell all the government servants that if they will in anything oblige me, they will vote for him (ii. 90).
On 24 Apr., three days before polling day, Egmont, in response to a last minute appeal from his son, asked Walpole to order the Post Office and the Customs to send for six of their Harwich officials, who had stated their intention of voting against Perceval, so that they might ‘be out of the way during the election’. Walpole replied:
My Lord, I think it impossible for me to do what you desire, and those to whom I was to give my orders would think it too great a hardship to be put on them, to send for a number of officers the day before the election. In my station, where what I do or do not do everything is imputed to me, makes this too dangerous to venture upon [sic.]. I have with great honour and truth kept my engagements to your Lordship, and declared so to all persons concerned, and must beg you will excuse me taking this step (ii. 92-93).
At the election 19 electors voted for Leathes and Stanhope, the remaining 13 voting for Perceval, two of whom also voted for Leathes, the official vote, despite statements to the contrary by both sides, being equally divided. Writing from Harwich, Parker told Egmont that it was ‘impossible to describe the malice of the other side, so that some of them seem as if they would sacrifice their employments’. When the result was announced, Phillipson exclaimed: ‘Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen thy salvation’, several of the voters crying out: ‘Liberty! we are free from the tyranny we were under’ (ii. 93, 95-98, 100). Nevertheless Egmont blamed his defeat on Walpole, who, he suggested, had never ‘meant at the bottom my son should be chose’ (ii. 106), while his son regarded himself as having lost the election ‘by the treachery of Sir Robert Walpole’, though admitting that this view was not shared by the King, who took ‘his minister’s part in some measure against my father and me, which appeared by his withdrawing much of the civility and particular respect which he had before showed to him’.2
After this setback Egmont took no further part in politics, but he continued active on the council of the Georgia Society till 1742, when he resigned, ‘partly by reason of my ill health and partly from observing the ill behaviour of the ministry and Parliament with respect to the colony’ (iii. 265). He died 1 May 1748, leaving a diary which is one of the chief sources of information on the House of Common from 1730 to 1734.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
The references in the text are to HMC Egmont Diary.