HARTLEY, David (c.1730-1813), of Putney, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



6 June 1782 - 1784

Family and Education

b. c.1730, 1st s. of David Hartley, physician and philosopher, of Bath by his 1st w.  educ. Sherborne; C.C.C. Oxf. 6 Apr. 1747, aged 17; Leyden, 26 July 1757, aged 26; L. Inn 1759. unm.  suc. fa. 1758.

Offices Held


The portrait of David Hartley painted by Romney in 17831 shows him in simple, unadorned dress, sitting by a table on which rests a copy of the peace treaty with America. His eyes loom large behind his spectacles; earnestness, honesty, and naïvety are written in his features; it is the face of a man wrapped up in his ideas and caring little for those of others. ‘Though destitute of any personal recommendations of manner’, wrote Wraxall,2 ‘[he] possessed some talent, with unsullied probity, added to indefatigable perseverance and labour.’ In the House of Commons ‘the intolerable length, when increased by the dullness of his speeches, rendered him an absolute nuisance even to his own friends’. And Anthony Storer wrote, after listening to one of Hartley’s speeches:3 ‘No one can have a complete idea of a bore who has not been in Parliament.’ John Adams wrote of his ‘consummate vanity’.4 Yet his benevolence was unquestioned, and many of his ideas were far beyond his time.

Hartley had studied medicine at Leyden; was an expert on public finance; and a scientist of note. He was the intimate friend of Sir George Savile, and well known to Rockingham and Portland. In 1764 he published a pamphlet criticizing Grenville’s finance, and in July 1765 was offered the post of secretary to the Treasury in the Rockingham Administration. ‘I know that I have [neither] talents nor inclination for the common train and routine of office business’, wrote Hartley to Rockingham;5 in addition:

The treatment which so many persons have so lately received as to their reputation as well as their fortunes has, I confess, in my mind destroyed all confidence in the service of Government. Every man’s fortune and good name ... is to depend upon the caprice and villainy of parties.

This did not prevent him from laying down a plan of finance for Rockingham’s guidance, including the injunction that the land tax must be reduced. ‘The stubborn, uncompromising spirit of Mr. Hartley’s political sentiments’, wrote his friend, Richard Warner,6‘had not escaped his Lordship’s notice, and he was perfectly aware could not harmonize with his own views.’

In 1768 Hartley stood with John Bentinck, and backed by the Duke of Portland, for Callington, against candidates supported by Lady Orford, patron of the borough.7

For my own part [he wrote to Portland on 14 Mar. 1768] I am entirely ... indifferent about Parliament. If I may have the happiness to be connected with you and to contribute our joint labours to the public stock, I don’t care whether I am in the House or out ... I shall have but one object in view, to consent to nothing that is unbecoming or wrong, that might make either my friends or myself have any proceedings to be ashamed of.

He went down to Callington, only to find that the borough could not be carried without bribery; and abandoned the enterprise when it became clear that he and Bentinck would be overborne by the faggot votes.

In 1774 he stood at Hull with Savile’s recommendation, and was returned after a contest. Nearly a hundred parliamentary speeches by him are reported, all on finance or the American war; and between 1775 and 1779 he made eight motions for conciliation with the colonies. His proposals varied according to circumstances, but his assumptions were always the same: the British Government was bent on tyrannizing the colonists, and whatever the Americans did was justifiable. In his pamphlet, Letters on the American War, published in 1778, he wrote about the British Government:

The motives which I impute to them ... are a design to establish an influential dominion to be exercised at the pleasure of the Crown, and to acquire from America an independent revenue at the disposition of the Crown, uncontrolled, and not accountable for to Parliament.

Sense and nonsense were mixed together in his American proposals: always lacking was an understanding of what was possible both in Britain and America. On 7 Dec. 1775 he said:8

Even if you could make out your right to tax America, yet justice ... requires that you should abandon that supposed right ... If we boast that taxation by representation is the prerogative blessing of our own constitution, reason and justice demand that we should have given the same to every part of the empire.

He proposed that ‘the Americans contribute to the general defence of the empire by way of requisitions’; if so, ‘there can be no doubt but that this country will think them entitled to relaxations in trade in proportion as they contribute’. In short, he was proposing an entirely new system of imperial affairs. ‘I have long seen’, he wrote to Franklin on 22 July 1775,9 ‘the terms of parent state over children as very misleading in themselves; if we must have allegorical terms let us change them for brethren and friends.’ Few in the House of Commons had such insight.

His proposals of December 1775 were a tribute both to his benevolence and naïvety:

Let the Americans be replaced where they were in 1763 if they will admit and register in their assemblies such an Act of Parliament as they themselves shall confess that they would have admitted in 1763 ... the Act to be proposed to America as an auspicious beginning to lay the first stone of universal liberty should be what no American should hesitate an instant to comply with, that every slave in North America should be entitled to his trial by jury in all criminal cases. America cannot refuse to accept and enrol such an Act as this, and thereby to re-establish peace and harmony with the parent state. Let us all be re-united in this as a foundation to extirpate slavery from the face of the earth.

It never occurred to Hartley that even if the British Parliament could be induced to pass such an Act, it would merely be regarded in America as one more example of British tyranny.

After 1776 Hartley favoured the recognition of American independence, but with a ‘mutual naturalization’ between the two countries.10 The American alliance with France, he wrote in 1778, was a ‘reluctant act of self-defence’; and would be abandoned if the British Government would drop its aggressive policy. Franklin, with whom Hartley corresponded throughout the war, tried in vain to disabuse him. In April 1778 Hartley, with North’s privity but with no authority from the British Government, saw Franklin and Vergennes, the French foreign minister, in Paris. ‘He seemed to consider our treaty with France as a nullity’, wrote John Adams, ‘that we might disregard at our pleasure, and treat with England separately or come again under her government.’11 It was once more explained to him that America would stand by her treaty with France; and the cession of Canada and Nova Scotia was also demanded. Yet Hartley, on his return home, professed to have found a basis for negotiation. He said in the House on 22 June 1779:12

America will doubtless perform all her contracted engagements; but whenever the British ministry can be prevailed upon ... to abate their hostilities towards America, the common interests ... and all the ancient ties of friendship and consanguinity between us will again emerge into operation, and lead the two countries to peace and reunion with each other.

It was unwise of North to have sanctioned Hartley’s visit, which did no good.

At the general election of 1780 Hartley was defeated at Hull, which he attributed to his opposition to the American war (but Wilberforce, elected in his place, also opposed the American war). Anticipating his defeat, he had hinted that Portland might like to provide him with a seat in the House; and his request was supported by Savile after the general election.13 But Rockingham wrote to Portland on 22 Sept.:

Sir George Savile ... came here on Wednesday night ... He was in good spirits and good humour, except when anything brought up any thought about the loss he sustained by Hartley’s not being in Parliament ... I did not attempt to contend, but I neither would nor could afford any encouragement to raise any expectation that it could be accommodated.

Hartley was out of Parliament until returned again for Hull in June 1782.

When Rockingham took office in 1782, Savile applied to him on Hartley’s behalf. Hartley wished to be employed in the peace negotiations, and the office Rockingham suggested for him (which has not been ascertained) was not acceptable. In a reproachful letter to Rockingham of 28 Mar.,14 Savile wrote: ‘I cannot wonder at the decision he is come to. The business of the office in question would have been ill suited to his particular talents, to the course of his studies, or indeed to the whole plan and object of his life.’ But Rockingham was not disposed to give him a second choice.

Hartley voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, giving as his reason that Shelburne had yielded too much to the Bourbon powers.15 He had an old friendship with North and disliked Shelburne; and, against Savile’s advice, adhered to the Coalition.16 In April 1783 he went to Paris to negotiate the definitive treaty with the United States and to try to reach a trade agreement; but, after four months’ negotiations, no agreement on trade was reached and the preliminary treaty was accepted as final.17

In 1784 Hartley stood again at Hull, and was defeated. It was his last attempt to enter Parliament. The remainder of his life he passed in retirement at Bath, mostly engaged on scientific experiments.  He died 19 Dec. 1813.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


See G.H. Guttridge, David Hartley.

  • 1. Reproduced in Guttridge, 320.
  • 2. Mems. iii. 124.
  • 3. HMC Carlisle, 315.
  • 4. Guttridge, 283.
  • 5. Undated, Rockingham mss.
  • 6. Lit. Recollections. ii. 223.
  • 7. About this election, see corresp. of Hartley, John Peters, and David Maitland, Portland mss.
  • 8. Almon, iii. 256-68.
  • 9. Guttridge, 247.
  • 10. Stockdale, viii. 212-22.
  • 11. Guttridge, 262-4, 284.
  • 12. Almon, xiii. 553-64.
  • 13. 7 Aug., 16 Sept. 1780, Portland mss.
  • 14. Rockingham mss.
  • 15. Almon, ix. 294.
  • 16. See under SAVILE, Sir George.
  • 17. Guttridge, ch. iv.