Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Edward Hicks, ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar of lent term, Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) spoke on: ‘“The best regulated ambition I ever witnessed”: Spencer Perceval and the Importance of Character in the Parliaments of the Napoleonic Wars’. Here he reports back on his paper…

The death of Pitt the Younger in 1806 left a void in the political world of late Hanoverian Britain, the lack of a dominant personality who could lead the Commons, manage the finances, and the steer the ship of state through the trouble waters of the Napoleonic Wars. Four prime ministers followed in six years. Ultimately Lord Liverpool cemented Pitt’s friends and followers into a strong government that lasted until 1827. But Liverpool’s rise was facilitated by the assassination of Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1807-12) and Prime Minister (1809-12). Even with his short career Perceval still earned the praise of Romantic poet Robert Southey as ‘the best minister we have ever had’. My paper sought to explain Perceval’s success in the tumultuous years of 1807 to 1812. I drew on Paul Langford’s idea that politicians of the late Hanoverian era became less flashy, more sombre and aloof in their public image than had been the case with the corrupt and showy Robert Walpole or the morally dubious Earl of Sandwich in the eighteenth century. I began by arguing that contemporaries saw character as an important political asset, before contending that Perceval’s reputation for integrity, honesty, his well-regulated ambition, personal piety and amiability abetted him in the struggle for political power. This contrasted with George Canning’s struggles to overcome a reputation for excessive ambition and insincere views.

Canning declared that ‘my road must be through character to power’. Drawing on contemporary correspondence I noted how MPs and peers observed the growing importance of ‘the character which a Statesman bears in the relations of private life’, to judge amongst politicians repeatedly engaged in party disputes and changes of government. A politician’s character could come to aid of a weak speech in the Commons, or make a great oration seem unprincipled. The important characteristics for success were ideas of honesty and integrity, an idea of manliness that was probably especially pertinent during a global war, and a controlled ambition.

Perceval’s success rested on several important character traits. Firstly, contrary to Langford’s claim that aloofness was politically beneficial, I suggested that Perceval also gained through his perceived openness and friendly disposition. His plain dealing brought political rewards. George III, who appointed Perceval prime minister in October 1809, called him ‘the most straightforward man I have ever met’. Secondly, his reputation for piety, which caused him to support the abolition of the slave trade, and endeavour to strengthen the Established Churches in Britain and Ireland, meant, as the diarist Sylvester Douglas noted, Perceval’s ‘reputation stands high as a worthy, friendly, and generous man, of real piety and orthodoxy in religion.’ Thirdly, this was combined with a sincerity which palliated, even for political opponents, his staunchly anti-Catholic views. The opposition MP John Ward acknowledged that Perceval ‘was a man of the most perfect honour and disinterestedness’. Fourthly, despite being physically unimpressive – he was nicknamed ‘Little P’ – Perceval had a reputation for being hard-working and capable of withstanding constant parliamentary assaults. As his fellow Pittite Charles Long put it ‘He is as hard as Iron.’

These traits came to his aid during the Regency Crisis of 1810-11. With the new Regent expected to dismiss Perceval and bring in his Whig friend, Perceval’s decision to proceed with proposing restrictions on the Regent’s power seemed foolhardy yet also courageous. The MP and diarist Robert Plumer Ward recounted several parliamentarians disagreed with him but ‘devoted themselves to him on account of his manly firmness, his integrity, honour and courage’. Even political opponents apparently cheered him as he carried Parliament with him in passing his restricted Regency bill. Plumer Ward reckoned Perceval’s success was ‘all owing to his personal character’. Lord Liverpool, in a most revealing comparison written to the Duke of Wellington in Portugal, stated that Perceval’s ‘character is completely established in the House of Commons; he has acquired an authority there beyond any minister in my recollection, except Mr Pitt.’ Indeed such was Perceval’s standing that the Prince Regent ultimately decided, both in 1811 and 1812, to retain him as prime minister, helping entrench the Pittite dominance that would persist throughout George IV’s reign.

Perceval’s success contrasted with George Canning’s failure in this period. Charles Arbuthnot declared Perceval had ‘the best regulated ambition I ever witnessed’, and Wilberforce even claimed his political ‘eminence was not of his own seeking.’ Conversely Canning’s reputation was sullied by bouts of political chicanery, notably in 1809 when his attempt to remove Lord Castlereagh from office led to Canning and Castlereagh fighting a duel on Putney Heath. Lord Malmesbury claimed that Canning had ‘too much restless ambition, too much arrogance’. This meant that when Canning took a principled stance against the government’s plan for a restricted Regency in 1811, which broke with Pitt’s own approach in 1788-9, he was denounced as ‘playing a game’.

One man who was no admirer, but gives an important and amusing account as to why Perceval was so successful, was the Whig wit, cleric, and satirist Sydney Smith. He recounted in 1831 that Perceval was

The most mischievous little man that ever lived – just every thing that John Bill likes, – moral, and religious, with a wife and ten children, quiet and meek, with the heart of a lion – and always in the wrong, – always flattering some rascally prejudice, always oppressing and humbugging – and hang the fellow! – making oppression and humbug respectable by his decent character and his admirable demeanour, and his skill in debating.

Though he did not live to see the conclusion of the Napoleonic War or govern through the post-war upheaval that ensued, Perceval’s character did help ensure it was his fellow Pittites who ruled. It also gives a telling example of how the late Hanoverian period was already fashioning an image of the heroic, principled, and industrious statesman that the Victorians would later develop.

‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ returns in May for a new programme for the summer term. Full details available here.

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