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Reference group
Portland whigs (act. 1782–1809) is a convenient though potentially misleading description of a political grouping associated with William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck, third duke of Portland. In July 1794 the duke formed a national coalition with William Pitt the younger. The Portland whigs joined Pitt's ministry and were given five seats in cabinet, various lesser places, and a flattering number of promotions to the peerage. At this juncture it is possible to identify the duke's supporters with some precision.

The Portland whigs in 1794 sought to resist French revolutionary principles at home and abroad, while gaining for themselves a long overdue share of the spoils of power. Either side of this crucial year, however, the label becomes problematic. A Portland electoral connection certainly existed as early as the mid-1760s, but it is impossible to talk of Portland whigs until after the death of Charles Watson-Wentworth, second marquess of Rockingham, in 1782. Portland had spent a fortune in trying to build up a parliamentary following for the Rockingham whigs, but by the 1780s he was left with only a handful of dependent MPs. His status as a whig grandee was not therefore based on electoral patronage. Rather it was derived from a consistent record of loyalty to Rockingham, bolstered by strong ties of family and friendship within the party. His ducal title was also a significant factor.

Contemporaries referred to Portland's party in a variety of ways during the period 1782–94, but his followers were not customarily described as Portland whigs. They were simply known as the ‘whigs’, which for most of this period was a synonym for the ‘opposition’. It bears repeating that the whig party was not in opposition to a tory government, but one led by Pitt, who had gained power in 1783 at Portland's expense and as a result of interference by George III. Pitt was many things but never a tory, preferring instead to describe himself as an independent whig. Yet his supporters were not ashamed to be known as Pittites. The expression Portlandites was not customarily used for the duke's followers, which contrasted markedly with the familiar label Foxites to describe supporters of Charles James Fox. The whig opposition after 1784 was properly speaking a Portland–Fox party, as noted by Sir Gilbert Elliot [see Kynynmound, Gilbert Elliot Murray, first earl of Minto] who stated in the early 1790s that ‘I am of the Duke of Portland's party. I have always understood that this was the same thing as saying that I was of the same party with Fox’ (Wilkinson, 71). Their political abilities were complementary: Fox provided charismatic parliamentary leadership, whereas Portland brought aristocratic respectability and promoted organizational improvements. Credit should also go to William Adam, a resourceful manager of the party's electoral and financial affairs. Without this co-ordinated approach the Portland–Fox whigs might have disintegrated in the wake of Pitt's devastating triumph in 1788–9, when the whigs nearly gained power under a regency only to be thwarted by the king's recovery.

Portland believed that the whig party was ‘united in principles and opinions’, by which he meant opposition to Pitt, suspicion of the influence of the crown, and a desire for the whig aristocracy to regain political influence (Wilkinson, 71). Other ideological differences between Fox and Portland did not seriously damage party unity until after 1789. They held opposite positions on parliamentary reform, for example, but this was treated as a non-party question. In 1785 the great rivals Pitt and Fox voted together in favour of reform, while Portland's supporters helped to defeat the bill. Everything changed after the French Revolution, and especially following the publication of Edmund Burke's famous Reflections in 1790 and his public separation from Fox the following year. Those who shared Burke's fears about revolution were initially dismissed as mere alarmists by mainstream whigs. Although Portland privately agreed with Burke's interpretation, he refused to give him public support in order to avoid splitting the party, which could only help his enemy Pitt, by weakening the opposition, and harm his friend Fox, by thrusting him into the arms of more radical reformists within the party. Portland long hoped that Fox would come to his senses over the dangers of reform and revolution. Even after this pious wish had been abandoned Portland played a skilful waiting game in order to separate as many whigs from Fox as possible.

The creation of a separate Portland party was not the duke's idea but something that the alarmists tried to force prematurely upon him. It was also obvious that some of those who pressed for an early separation from Fox did not possess any Rockinghamite credibility and were ambitious for office on their own account without much regard for preserving whig unity. One example was James Harris, first Baron (later first earl of) Malmesbury, a career diplomat who had miscalculated badly during the regency crisis by siding with the whigs and was anxious to regain Pitt's confidence. Malmesbury, together with his friend and relative Sir Gilbert Elliot, tried to pressurize Portland into making a public declaration against Fox in late 1792 but without success. They both accepted foreign duties under Pitt the following year. Another disruptive influence within the party was Lord Loughborough (Alexander Wedderburn, later first earl of Rosslyn), who was eager to gain the lord chancellorship. Loughborough defected early in 1793, but no whig of any great consequence followed in his immediate wake, thereby prompting some vitriolic attacks by Foxites, who compared him to the pre-eminent ‘rat’ of the 1780s, William Eden (later first Baron Auckland). Eden and Loughborough were both former supporters of Lord North and had therefore been on the opposite side to the whigs during the 1770s, only joining with them at the Fox–North coalition of 1783. Loughborough's conduct in the 1790s was therefore regarded as a reversion to type rather than a genuine change of a true whig heart.

The Portland whigs seem to have been particularly sensitive to the charge that their concerns over the French war and the threat of revolution in Britain were really a smokescreen to cover self-interest. In February 1793 a ‘third party’ was formed, inspired by Burke but led by William Windham. This group was mainly composed of Portland whigs and its declared intention was to support government measures from outside the ministry. Yet only twenty-eight whig MPs signed up to this manifesto and took the first step of seceding from the Whig Club. Portland refused to endorse the ‘third party’, as did his fellow grandee the second Earl Fitzwilliam (William Wentworth Fitzwilliam). Fitzwilliam was still smarting over the behaviour of Burke and Windham, who in the previous year had made a rash and unguarded offer of support to Pitt. This latest development was more of the same poison in Fitzwilliam's view. Portland was slightly more sanguine and told one of his followers that ‘reunion with our friends (if possible) ought to be the object and it will not be promoted by criticism and much less by censure’ (Wilkinson, 100).

Political alignments in the spring of 1793 were in a state of fragmentation. Surveying the political spectrum from one side of the parliamentary divide to the other, there were first pro-reform Foxites, anxious to be rid of Portland's leadership; then Fox himself, who was reluctant to break old ties yet unwilling to denounce the reformers; next a fluctuating group of undecided whig MPs, doubtless concerned at Fox's conduct though unwilling to abandon him precipitately; Portland and his fellow grandees, looking anxiously in both directions and desperate to maintain some appearance of party unity, while becoming increasingly exasperated by Fox's behaviour and the government's poor conduct of the war against France; the ‘third party’ of Windham and Burke, occupying an uncomfortable limbo and plagued by uncertainty about how best to advance their agenda; sundry independent MPs, some of whom welcomed the advent of the ‘third party’, while others were already giving loyal support to Pitt's wartime ministry; a few whig defectors, such as Loughborough, who had succumbed to the lure of office; Pitt and his confidential friends, who were clearly enjoying the spectacle of their opponents' disunity and actively sowing discord by holding out tantalizing prospects to any wavering whigs; and finally junior ministers and the main body of rank-and-file Pittites, who probably welcomed, in theory, the prospect of coalition government to promote national unity, but feared that sharing power with the whigs might go too far and thereby undermine Pitt's leadership or hinder their own future prospects. This jumbled mixture of shifting motives and alliances did not settle into a new form until the following summer, during which time the international situation had deteriorated and Pitt began finally to take the Portland whigs seriously.

The turning point in foreign affairs was the fall of Toulon in mid-December 1793. This was another disappointment in a series of military reverses and one which dashed hopes of a royalist counter-offensive in southern France. On the domestic front Fox had made a number of speeches during the summer in favour of reform, specifically endorsing the conduct of the Society of Friends of the People; he also moved for peace negotiations with France. In September Windham renewed communication with Portland to find out the duke's current ideas about joining with Pitt. He had to wait months for a reply, and during the intervening period Portland finally reached a crucial decision. On 25 December Portland informed Fitzwilliam privately of his intention of breaking with Fox by declaring a ‘determination to support the war with all the effect and energy in my power’ and for that purpose to collect ‘all the force which the old Whig party can supply’. This would involve a formal declaration that ‘no connection exists between the Friends of the People and me’ (Wilkinson, 104). After meeting Fox in early January 1794 the duke called an eve-of-session meeting of Portland whigs later that month, to which he extended a personal invitation to Burke and Windham. Portland's much delayed reply to Windham on 11 January set out an agenda for the Portland whigs, who were now reunited with the ‘third party’ and comprised just over sixty MPs. Portland would be prepared to accept office ‘under certain conditions’ but believed that the ‘characteristic feature of the present reign has been its unremitting attention and study to debase and vilify the natural aristocracy of the country, and … to annihilate if possible the Whig party’. Pitt's ministry had been formed in 1783 for ‘these express purposes’. It was vital therefore for the Portland whigs to maintain their character and integrity, ‘exempt from all suspicion of being influenced by motives of interest’. Pitt's offers to date had ‘not originated out of a wish or hope for union’ but from an intention ‘to take advantage of the differences which have unhappily arisen amongst us’ (ibid., 102–3). The net result of Portland's deliberations was that he now endorsed the ‘third party’ doctrine of supporting the government without taking office. The key difference was that the reunited Portland whigs in the Commons possessed double the parliamentary strength of the original ‘third party’ and, moreover, enjoyed the approval of the whig grandees in the Lords. It was not just numbers that Portland could now offer to Pitt, but rather the combined weight of aristocratic whiggery.

After protracted negotiations the Portland whigs took office in July 1794, gaining five cabinet places. Portland became home secretary; Fitzwilliam, lord president of the council; Windham took the office of secretary at war; George John Spencer, second Earl Spencer, came in as lord privy seal; and David Murray, second earl of Mansfield, became a minister without portfolio. This initial arrangement was subsequently adjusted in two significant respects: Spencer was shortly promoted to the Admiralty, where he served with distinction; and Fitzwilliam took up the Irish viceroyalty and proceeded swiftly to self-destruction. The inclusion of the recalcitrant Fitzwilliam had been a significant achievement of coalition because (as Rockingham's nephew and heir to his vast estate) he was the most important Portland whig after the duke himself. Fitzwilliam's resignation over Catholic relief in 1795 was therefore highly detrimental to the Portland whigs. Fitzwilliam felt betrayed and broke off all contact with Portland. Thereafter the duke's following faded away to insignificance. This was mainly because Portland saw no need to cultivate a separate interest and instead gave wholehearted support to George III and Pitt. In 1801 Portland supported the king and not the prime minister over the Catholic question, thereby also separating himself from his fellow whigs Spencer and Windham, who subsequently served alongside Fox in the ‘talents’ ministry of 1806–7. This reconjunction of old whiggery, which included Fitzwilliam, rendered the label ‘Portland whig’ devoid of meaning.

Portland re-emerged as nominal premier of a Pittite ministry in 1807, but there was no recognizable body of Portland whigs in the Commons to support him. Only twenty MPs remained from the Portland whigs of the mid-1790s and eight of these actually opposed the new Portland ministry. In addition to these twelve survivors there were another ten MPs with some family or patronage connection with the duke. Together they did not amount to a party, or even a faction. The historical significance of the Portland whigs lies therefore in the political realignment of 1794 and should not be extended on false premisses to account for the emergence of a tory party in the nineteenth century. Portland did indeed preside over a ministry that contained such future ‘tories’ as George Canning and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Yet the Portland ministry of 1807–9 was not in any meaningful sense supported by Portland whigs: that political grouping no longer existed.

David Wilkinson


D. Wilkinson, The duke of Portland: politics and party in the age of George III (2003) · F. O'Gorman, The whig party and the French Revolution (1967) · HoP, Commons, 1790–1820