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Ministry of all the talents (act. 1806–1807) was the contemporary epithet applied to the broad-based administration formed by William Wyndham Grenville, Baron Grenville, following the death of William Pitt the younger, and containing representatives of three of the major political groupings in parliament during the period. After some initial reluctance to accept the office Grenville formally became first lord of the Treasury (prime minister) on 11 February 1806, having drawn up the list of his intended cabinet ministers for the king's approval at the end of January. A subsequent act of parliament allowed him to retain his lucrative sinecure as auditor of the exchequer by placing the office in trust during his premiership. Grenville's preferred choice as first lord, George John Spencer, second Earl Spencer, became home secretary, while another close associate, William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, second Earl Fitzwilliam, served as lord president of the council until October 1806—after which he sat in the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Other (non-cabinet) colleagues who were close to Grenville included William Eden, first Baron Auckland, the president of the Board of Trade, and Gilbert Elliot Murray Kynynmound, first earl of Minto, who was president of the Board of Control until July 1806. Minto left the government on being appointed governor-general of Bengal. He was succeeded by Thomas Grenville, the premier's brother, who also joined the cabinet.

Grenville's followers had sought a government of ‘all the talents and character’ since 1804 and it was this which gave rise to the common (and usually sarcastic) term by which the ministry was characterized. The increasingly close parliamentary co-operation between Grenville and the whigs, led by Charles James Fox, which had developed subsequently was reflected in the final composition of the government and in the careful balancing of cabinet appointments thereafter. Fox was foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons until his death on 13 September 1806. He was succeeded in both roles by his acolyte Charles Grey, Viscount Howick, afterwards second Earl Grey. In turn Howick was succeeded as first lord of the Admiralty by Thomas Grenville, and Grenville at the Board of Control by the Foxite George Tierney. Fox's preferred successor as foreign secretary, Henry Richard Fox (later Vassall), third Baron Holland, entered the government at this time as lord privy seal. Another Foxite, Lord Henry Petty (later Petty-Fitzmaurice), afterwards third marquess of Lansdowne, was chancellor of the exchequer throughout the ministry, but proved himself subservient to Grenville's influence. Other leading Foxites who served in non-cabinet positions included Richard Brinsley Sheridan (treasurer of the navy), Edward Smith Stanley, twelfth earl of Derby (chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster), and the Hon. Richard Fitzpatrick (secretary at war).

However, the ministry was by no means a purely Grenville–Fox affair. Disquiet was caused, in some quarters, by the adhesion of the Sidmouthites (political supporters of Henry Addington, first Viscount Sidmouth) to the ministry. The Grenville–Fox alliance had originally been formed in opposition to Addington's ministry (1801–4) and Sidmouth extracted a high price for his support. Sidmouth himself entered the cabinet as lord privy seal until October 1806 (when he was succeeded by Holland) and then became lord president of the council in succession to Fitzwilliam. The appointment of Nicholas Vansittart, John Hiley Addington (1759–1818), who was Sidmouth's brother, John Sullivan (1749–1839), Robert Hobart, fourth earl of Buckinghamshire, and Nathaniel Bond to non-cabinet positions was also due to their patron's influence. In October 1806 another associate, Charles Bragge Bathurst, became master of the mint in succession to Lord Charles Spencer. The most controversial cabinet appointment was that of Edward Law, first Baron Ellenborough, lord chief justice of the king's bench, who joined the ministry at its formation in deference to Sidmouth's wishes. Ellenborough's combined political and judicial role was criticized as unconstitutional but was strongly defended in parliament by Fox: however, it proved to be the last such appointment of its kind in British political history.

Sidmouth's support brought the ministry high favour at court with George III. Conversely the whigs' traditionally close association with George, prince of Wales, afterwards George IV, was gratified through the appointment of Francis Rawdon Hastings, first marquess of Hastings and second earl of Moira, to the cabinet as master-general of the ordnance and the appointment (to non-cabinet office) of John Calcraft the younger (clerk of the ordnance), John McMahon (c.1754–1817) (principal storekeeper of the ordnance) and John King (a joint secretary to the Treasury until September 1806). The prince's influence also contributed to Thomas Erskine, first Baron Erskine's elevation to the woolsack as lord chancellor after Sir James Mansfield (formerly Manfield) and Ellenborough both refused the office.

William Windham, the secretary for war and colonies, had his own, smaller political following, although one which was less well represented in terms of government posts. William Elliot (1766–1818), chief secretary to Ireland, French Laurence, William Pleydell-Bouverie, afterwards third Earl Radnor, and Sir John Coxe Hippisley were regarded as Windham's political associates. By contrast Grenville's tentative efforts to recruit Pittite support—notably through approaches to George Canning—proved unavailing; a fact which made the mocking terms in which the ‘ministry of all the talents’ was designated more telling.

Contemporaries dismissed the ministry as ‘a Fox or Sidmouth Government with a trace of Grenville’. However, Fox's death in September 1806 and Sidmouth's resignation from the government in March 1807, in consequence of its proposal to extend military commissions to Catholics, made Grenville the central political figure throughout the ministry's duration. While Grenville's family representation in the government was comparatively small—a minor example being the appointment of William Henry Fremantle as joint secretary to the Treasury, in succession to John King, in September 1806—his friends and associates were in key ministerial positions relative to domestic, economic, defence, and Irish policy. Through Thomas Grenville, Lord Spencer, and William Windham, Grenville had friends who were also on good terms with Fox.

Aside from differences over appointments and patronage (for example a failed bid by Fox to have James Maitland, Baron Lauderdale, nominated as governor-general of Bengal) Grenville and Fox agreed on the broad outline of government policy. Their relationship had been forged in political adversity and survived the compromises of ministerial office. For example both men held different views over the prosecution of the Napoleonic wars, the value of continental alliances, and the prospects for an achievable peace with Napoleon. Grenville and Windham were more bellicose and sceptical of French good faith than Fox but they agreed to pursue a defensive military strategy while simultaneously conducting (ultimately unsuccessful) peace negotiations with the emperor's representatives.

Until the final crisis over Catholic relief Sidmouth posed no serious obstacle in respect of government policy. While he remained personally objectionable to the Pittites, at this period Sidmouth was on close terms with the king and was well liked by the independent members in the House of Commons. Conversely Windham proved himself to be Grenville's most awkward political colleague. He was keen to hold Richard Wellesley, first Marquess Wellesley (a close friend of the prime minister), to account for perceived maladministration in India—seeing in him another Warren Hastings—and refused to accommodate Grenville's plans to recast the cabinet after Fox's death by taking a peerage. Windham's ‘military revolution’ in reforming the army also turned out to be highly controversial. His scheme replaced enlistment in the regular army for life with recruitment for seven years and reduced reliance on the militia and volunteers for home defence. In their different ways Grenville, Sidmouth, George III, Sir John Moore, and Prince Frederick, duke of York and Albany (the commander-in-chief) were doubtful of, or opposed to, the reformed system. The legislation was repealed by their successors.

The one substantive act for which the ministry is remembered—the abolition of the slave trade in March 1807—was not official government policy. This was largely because of the outright hostility of Sidmouth, who opposed the preliminary resolution condemning the trade in June 1806 as well as the bill that proscribed it. Among his cabinet colleagues Windham was also averse to the measure while Fitzwilliam favoured gradual abolition, although Grenville, Fox, and Howick were all supporters of abolition and communicated with William Wilberforce on tactics and strategy.

The government's Irish officers were all supporters of Catholic relief—John Russell, sixth duke of Bedford (the Foxite lord lieutenant), Chief Secretary Elliot, and Sir John Newport, a close friend of Grenville who became chancellor of the Irish exchequer. It was these men, together with Spencer (the most enthusiastic pro-Catholic in the cabinet), Howick, and Holland, who developed the proposals contained in the Roman Catholic Army and Navy Service Bill, introduced on 5 March 1807. This led to the resignation of Sidmouth and, thereafter, the withdrawal of the king's confidence. Within the cabinet Grenville, Petty, Windham, Thomas Grenville, and Moira were all united by their strong support for Catholic relief. This made them unwilling to give George III the assurance he required of them not to raise the subject again and presaged the ministry's fall on 25 March 1807.

By its very nature the epithet ‘ministry of all the talents’ raised expectations that could not be achieved: the shortness of the government's duration served to reinforce the mockery of the description. The government's enduring legacy was its role in the final stages of slave-trade abolition. Subsidiary to this it provided Grenville and Fox with their final experience of high political office and cemented, for the next decade, the alliance between the ‘old’ Foxite wing of the opposition and the ‘new’ Grenvillite forces. For some, like Howick and Petty, the ministry provided a brief, if formative, political experience; for others, like Spencer and Thomas Grenville, it precipitated their retirement from front-line political activity. In the long term the ministry cast a relatively minor shadow across the landscape of British political history. However, the concept of a government comprising representatives of diverse political outlooks and trajectories continues to captivate politicians periodically. The bicentenary of the ministry's fall coincided with a revival of interest in the language of a ‘ministry of all the talents’ after Gordon Brown's succession to the premiership.

Richard A. Gaunt


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