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Jenkinson, Robert Banks, second earl of Liverpoollocked

  • Norman Gash

Robert Banks Jenkinson, second earl of Liverpool (1770–1828)

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1820

The Royal Collection © 2004 HM Queen Elizabeth II

Jenkinson, Robert Banks, second earl of Liverpool (1770–1828), prime minister, was born on 7 June 1770, the eldest son of Charles Jenkinson, first earl of Liverpool (1729–1808), MP, and his first wife, Amelia (1750/51–1770), daughter of William Watts, governor of Fort William and president of the council in Bengal. Jenkinson's mother died on 7 July 1770, shortly after his birth, and in 1782 his father married again. Charles Jenkinson's second wife was Catherine (1744–1827), widow of Sir Charles Cope, bt; they had two children, Charles Cecil Cope Jenkinson, later third earl of Liverpool, and Charlotte.

Upbringing and education

Jenkinson was baptized on 29 June 1770 at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. As a small motherless child he spent much time with his grandmother Amarantha Cornwall at Winchester and for a time attended a school there. His regular education began at a private school at Parson's Green, Fulham. In September 1783 he was sent to board at Charterhouse School, where his father had been a foundation scholar forty years earlier. He remained there nearly four years, his educational progress being carefully monitored by his father, who ensured that in addition to the classics and mathematics he studied the more unconventional subjects of French, history, European politics, and political economy. It is obvious that Charles Jenkinson was ambitious for his first-born son and impressed on him from an early age the expectations of his family that he would have an eminent career in public life. From Charterhouse he proceeded without a break to Christ Church, Oxford, where he matriculated on 27 April 1787. Though not yet seventeen, he struck observers as having an unusually wide knowledge, particularly of European history and politics, with a touch of intellectual conceit and considerable powers of self-expression. He was also, perhaps because of his father's constant supervision and the absence of a mother's affection, emotionally immature and lacking in natural self-confidence, though conciliatory and good-natured. At Christ Church, where he was an industrious and sober student, he took part for a time in a small debating society which included George Canning and Lord Henry Spencer. Canning, of whose talents he was a warm admirer, became one of his closest companions. It was the start of a lifelong friendship. It was, however, an uneven relationship. Canning was jealous of Jenkinson's more fortunate background and found in the latter's moral seriousness and emotional sensitivity easy targets for ridicule.

In the summer of 1789 Jenkinson spent four months in Paris to perfect his French and enlarge his social experience. His French tutor described him as well informed, well behaved, and amiable, though deficient in social poise and self-confidence. Another critic, the Abbé Barthelemy, discerned beneath his simplicity and kindness a reassuring firmness of character. In July Jenkinson was an eyewitness of the storming of the Bastille; it was his first, and disagreeable, taste of revolution. He returned to Oxford for three months to complete his terms of residence and in May 1790 was created master of arts, the usual procedure for peers' sons. In the general election the following month his father's influence secured his return in two boroughs, Appleby (a constituency under the influence of the Lowther family) and Rye (a pocket borough). The independence of the latter was preferred; but being still under age, he refrained from taking his seat and spent the following winter and early spring in an extended tour of the continent which took in the Netherlands and Italy. It is not clear exactly when he entered the Commons but as his twenty-first birthday was not reached until almost the end of the 1791 session, it is possible that he waited until the following year.

Early parliamentary career

In February 1792 Jenkinson was entrusted by the prime minister with the reply to Whitbread's critical motion on the government's Russian policy and made a successful début as a Commons debater. He delivered several other speeches during the session, including one against the abolition of the slave trade, which reflected his father's strong opposition to Wilberforce's campaign. In July he went abroad again (according to French newspapers as an agent of the ministry) and sent back to his father useful reports on the state of the Austrian and Prussian armies on the French frontier. Returning home for the early meeting of parliament necessitated by the government's defence precautions, he spoke strongly against Fox's motion in December 1792 calling for peaceful negotiations with France. After war broke out he became one of the staunchest supporters of the government's military policy despite the ridicule heaped on his suggestion in a debate of April 1794 that the soundest strategy might be to strike at the heart of the enemy and march on Paris. His services were recognized by his appointment in April 1793 to the Board of Control set up by Pitt's India Act of 1784.

In the patriotic defence movement which followed the outbreak of hostilities Jenkinson was one of the first of the junior ministers to enlist in the militia. In 1794 he became a colonel in the Cinque Ports fencibles and his assiduity in his military duties led to frequent absences from the Commons. In 1796 his regiment was sent to Scotland and he was quartered for a time in Dumfries. His parliamentary attendance also suffered from his mutinous reaction when his father angrily opposed his projected marriage with Lady (Theodosia) Louisa Hervey, daughter of the earl of Bristol. After Pitt and the king had intervened on his behalf, the wedding finally took place at Wimbledon on 25 March 1795. In June 1796, when his father was created earl of Liverpool, he took the courtesy title of Lord Hawkesbury, by which he was known until his father's death in 1808. Three years later he was promoted to the mastership of the Royal Mint and membership of the Board of Trade.

Foreign secretary, 1801–1804

When Pitt unexpectedly resigned in February 1801, Hawkesbury's first instinct was to go out with him. He had supported Irish union, had apparently no strong views on Catholic emancipation, and favoured carrying on the war, though privately critical of its conduct. Nevertheless, he was persuaded by Pitt not to retire and instead took the daunting post of foreign secretary in the depleted administration led by Addington. His three years in that office did little to enhance his reputation. The peace with France, to which the ministers were committed, was reached with the peace of Amiens (March 1802) after long, difficult negotiations; but mutual distrust delayed its full implementation. When the government abruptly renewed hostilities in May 1803, it was without a single ally on the continent. The hard line taken with France probably owed more to the older members of the cabinet than to the foreign secretary. Nevertheless, the impression was created that Hawkesbury's conduct of diplomacy had not been a success, even though his parliamentary speeches vindicating the government's policy earned much praise. The main charges against him were slowness in transacting business and awkwardness in dealing with people, especially foreign representatives. There were many interested parties ready to exploit the criticisms. His predecessor at the Foreign Office, Lord Grenville, despite Hawkesbury's initially conciliatory overtures, had become increasingly hostile. Another enemy was Count Vorontsov, Russian ambassador and Grenville's personal friend, with whom Hawkesbury's relations seem to have been particularly difficult. Senior British diplomats disliked his youth and inexperience; and Canning's resentment at Pitt's supersession embraced Hawkesbury as well as Addington.

In the Lords, and home secretary

With his parliamentary support crumbling, the prime minister asked Hawkesbury at the end of 1803 to move to the Lords to counter Grenville's bitter attacks. It was with great reluctance that Hawkesbury left the Commons, where he was generally regarded as the most effective speaker on the front bench. He was created Baron Hawkesbury. When Pitt replaced Addington he offered Hawkesbury the Home department with the leadership of the Lords, which, with some hesitation, he accepted in May 1804. Although it was politically inexpedient for Pitt to retain him at the Foreign Office, he clearly regarded Hawkesbury as an indispensable member of his new administration, not only because of his influence in the Lords but also because he had come to have a high opinion of his knowledge and judgement. In June, however, following a wounding reference by Canning in the House of Commons to his removal from the Foreign Office, Hawkesbury tendered his resignation, feeling that he had been left unsupported by the prime minister. Pitt subsequently made amends for this in parliament and privately made it clear to both men that, if forced, he would prefer to part with Canning rather than lose Hawkesbury.

Although his tenure of the Home department was clouded by the fact that it was widely regarded as a demotion, its routine business at least enabled Hawkesbury to strengthen his already good relations with the king; and he declined a proposal by Pitt to transfer to the Admiralty in 1805 after Melville's resignation. Outside his department he found a congenial role as mediator between past and present colleagues. It was he who on behalf of the cabinet started the negotiations with Addington that led to the latter's return to office early in 1805. The ministry, however, lacked a firm political basis and on Pitt's death in January 1806 the cabinet decided to resign. The king offered the premiership to Hawkesbury and, when he wisely refused, pressed on him the wardenship of the Cinque Ports previously held by Pitt. Acceptance of this lucrative sinecure exposed Hawkesbury to much public criticism.

In opposition for the first time, Hawkesbury acted with Castlereagh and others in keeping together a nucleus of Pittite politicians as a possible alternative set of ministers for the king rather than as a direct opposition to the new Grenville administration. When it abruptly resigned in 1807, Hawkesbury and the former lord chancellor, Eldon, were called in for consultation by the king. Hawkesbury's advice, as agreed among the Pittites, was for the appointment of the elderly Lord Portland as a compromise prime minister, with Perceval as leader in the Commons. In the ministry thus formed he returned to his former post as home secretary and once again acted as the chief conciliatory influence within the government. It was a function made increasingly necessary by the passivity and ill health of Lord Portland and the deepening rivalry among Canning, Castlereagh, and Perceval. When in the summer of 1809 cabinet disunity could no longer be contained, Hawkesbury ranged himself firmly with Castlereagh and Perceval against Canning. He did more perhaps than any member of the cabinet to ensure the continuation in office under Perceval of the rump of the old Portland ministry.

Lord Liverpool, and secretary for war

Perceval's immediate task was to fill the two secretaryships of state left vacant by the resignations of Canning and Castlereagh. Lord Liverpool (as Hawkesbury had now become by the death of his father in December 1808) was unwilling to go back to the Foreign Office where he felt that there had been an unfair campaign against him; but Perceval insisted on his acceptance of the almost equally unattractive secretaryship for war, which had an alarming record of failure and mismanagement throughout the war, culminating in the disaster at Corunna in January 1809. Liverpool's first step on taking up his new post was to elicit from Wellington a strong enough statement of his ability to resist a French attack to persuade the cabinet to commit themselves to the maintenance of his small force in Portugal. Only the determination of the government in fact upheld the Peninsular strategy in the face of their pessimistic parliamentary supporters and a defeatist whig opposition.

With limited reserves of men and money, and a clumsy apparatus of army administration, Liverpool needed time to build up Wellington's army. But he assured its commander that he had the full confidence of the cabinet and that they would not dissipate their resources on any subsidiary strategy. Despite Wellington's initial distrust and frequent grumbling, Liverpool remained calm and conciliatory, though he had to emphasize to his impatient general the importance of not risking the actual existence of the only army in the field the country possessed. By hard departmental work the force in the peninsula was raised by January 1811 to 48,000, substantially more than the 33,000 the cabinet had agreed to in 1809. By the time Liverpool left the War Office he had dispatched some 25,000 additional troops to Portugal and annual expenditure on the Peninsular campaign had risen from a planned £3 million to £6 million in 1810 and £9 million in 1811. Liverpool felt he had made a success of his post and had no wish to leave it while the war lasted. When, during the negotiations with Castlereagh early in 1812, it transpired that the latter wanted to go back to his old office, there was no desire in the cabinet to make a change. Lord Mulgrave told Plumer Ward that 'Lord Liverpool was too good a War Secretary to be spared there' (R. Plumer Ward, Memoirs, 1850, 1.428).

Prime minister

After the prolonged regency crisis had been overcome by the recruitment of Castlereagh and Sidmouth early in 1812, the ministry was again thrown into disarray by Perceval's assassination the following May. The cabinet proposed Liverpool as his successor with Castlereagh as leader in the Commons. But after an adverse vote in the Lower House they subsequently tendered their resignations. The prince regent, however, found it impossible to construct an alternative coalition and in the end confirmed Liverpool as prime minister on 8 June. The reasons for the cabinet's choice of Liverpool are not difficult to guess. During the previous decade he had shown himself a good colleague, an efficient administrator, and an outstanding debater. In difficult times he had remained cheerful and courageous. He had stayed in the mainstream of the Pittite party and within it had been an unselfish and unifying figure. On more than one occasion he had been ready to sacrifice personal advantage in order to keep the government going. He had been liked and trusted by George III; and by the time the prince regent assumed full powers in February 1812 he had come to regard Liverpool as more congenial than Perceval or Addington, and more trustworthy than Canning.

Many of the government's troubles in parliament had been caused by the rigid line taken by Perceval on Catholic claims and the unpopular orders in council. Liverpool's first actions as prime minister were to announce the neutrality of the ministry over the Catholic issue and to revoke the orders in council, a pacific gesture which came just too late to prevent an American declaration of war. In the cabinet he cemented the alliance with the Addington party by appointing Sidmouth to the Home Office and Vansittart as chancellor of the exchequer. In July he made a prolonged but unsuccessful attempt to bring back Canning, which broke down on the latter's insistence on having the leadership of the Commons as well as the Foreign Office. Confident it would be recognized that he had made fair offers to Canning, Liverpool then took the unusual step of calling an early general election in the hope of gaining a more favourable House of Commons. He also perhaps wished to weaken what he called the ‘third party’ of Canning and Wellesley which in his mind constituted a greater danger to the government than the whig opposition. His appreciation of Canning's value remained unaltered. Two years later, when the ministry's position had become unassailable, Liverpool gave him a special mission to Lisbon with a private assurance of the first cabinet vacancy, and meanwhile appointed to minor offices several of his followers, including Huskisson.

In the summer of 1814 the prominent part played by Britain in the overthrow of Napoleon was marked by the presence of the allied monarchs in London and the award of the Garter to the prime minister. At the peace negotiations which followed, Liverpool's main concern was to obtain a European settlement that would ensure the independence of the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal and confine France inside her pre-war frontiers without damaging her national integrity. For that he was ready to return all British colonial conquests except a few of special strategic importance. Within this broad framework he gave Castlereagh a wide discretion at the congress of Vienna. He was realistically aware, however, of the limitations of British influence on the settlement in eastern Europe and made it his task to emphasize to the foreign secretary the restrictions on British policy created by parliament, public opinion, and lack of financial resources. Nevertheless, he gave prompt approval for Castlereagh's bold initiative in making the defensive alliance with Austria and France in January 1815, partly out of loyalty to his distant colleague, partly because he did not think it would actually lead to war.

Post-war policies

The coming of peace ended the patriotic enthusiasm which had simplified the task of parliamentary management. When the powerful agricultural lobby in parliament demanded protection, Liverpool yielded to political necessity. Under governmental supervision the notorious corn law of 1815 was passed prohibiting the import of foreign wheat until the domestic price reached 80s. a quarter. Liverpool, in principle a free-trader, would have preferred a sliding scale but he accepted the bill as a temporary measure to ease the transition to peacetime conditions. His chief economic problem was finance. Interest on the national debt, grossly swollen by the enormous expenditure of the final war years, together with continuing liabilities such as war pensions, absorbed the greater part of normal revenue. The refusal of the Commons in 1816 to continue the wartime income tax left ministers with no immediate alternative but to go on with the ruinous system of borrowing to meet necessary annual expenditure.

The social and political disturbances in the country in 1816 and 1817 led the home secretary to press for instant legislation. Liverpool preferred to collect evidence and obtain the backing of the country gentry. The reports of the secret committees he obtained in 1817 pointed to the existence of an organized network of disaffected political societies, especially in the manufacturing areas. Though in retrospect the evidence before the committees can be seen to have been biased and exaggerated, it convinced both the cabinet and parliament. Liverpool told Peel that the disaffection in the country seemed even worse than in 1794. The resulting legislation included a temporary suspension of habeas corpus in cases of alleged treason; but this summary power of arrest and detention (which Liverpool agreed in the Lords was 'a most odious one') was sparingly used. Other legislation that session showed that the government was not indifferent to the social distress which made the political agitation appear so dangerous.

In August 1819 the handling by local magistrates of the Peterloo meeting at Manchester was privately admitted by the prime minister to have been imprudent; but he thought they had acted in good faith and had to be supported. He was opposed, however, to any further action until in the autumn the whig leaders tried to make political capital out of the incident in a series of county protest meetings. It was this which persuaded him to dismiss Earl Fitzwilliam, lord lieutenant of Yorkshire, who had helped to organize the protest in his county, and to call an early meeting of parliament. Legislation was now unavoidable but Liverpool was less concerned with Hunt and the other radical agitators, who were left to the ordinary processes of the law, than with the growth of seditious journals, the dilatoriness of legal machinery, and the frightening novelty of huge open-air political meetings. The legislation laid before parliament, notorious to posterity as the Six Acts, was designed to deal with these problems. But it was kept studiously moderate and both the home secretary and many government supporters were critical of its leniency. Liverpool, however, was anxious not to encroach more than was necessary on the traditional liberty of the subject. Apart from the temporary powers (which were not renewed when they expired) to search for arms and prohibit mass meetings, he could claim with some justice that there was nothing in the Six Acts that violated the fundamental principles of the constitution.

The reputation of the government sank even lower with the queen's affair in 1820. The initial refusal of the cabinet to accede to George IV's wish, on becoming king, for a divorce, nearly led to the dismissal of the prime minister. Only when compromise negotiations with Caroline failed, and she made a public arrival in London, did Liverpool reluctantly introduce a bill to deprive her of her titles and annul the marriage. The sensational hearing in the Lords in the autumn was conducted by him with dignity and restraint; but weakening parliamentary support forced him to drop first the divorce clause and finally the whole bill. It was the worst point in his long premiership. The king took soundings with prominent whigs and the end of the ministry was confidently expected. Even so, though emotionally harassed, Liverpool stood firm on his refusal to provide Caroline with a royal palace or reinsert her name in the liturgy. He let it be known that this was a moral issue on which he was prepared to leave office and the following session the House of Commons rallied to his support.

Though it was delayed by the events of 1820 Liverpool had already started his government on the road to recovery. He had long felt that their concessions to the endless demands for retrenchment and lower taxation were harming the machinery of the state and that the only remedy for their financial straits lay in ending inflation and returning to balanced budgeting. By 1818 he had probably decided in favour of restoring the gold standard, though his colleagues were divided and the timing was difficult. An unexpected change of mind by the Bank of England in favour of an inquiry accelerated the decision. The currency committees he secured in 1819 recommended a return to cash payments by 1823—a target actually reached in 1821. His other policy objective proved more difficult. The cabinet, stiffened by Liverpool's insistence that they must at last stand and fight, agreed in 1819 to use the sinking fund, and raise an additional £3 million in new taxes, to create a budget surplus which they hoped would continue for the next three years. Fortified by the recommendation of the ministerial-dominated committee of finance that, in principle, government revenue should exceed expenditure by a clear annual surplus of £5 million, the cabinet in the end saw its innovatory budget of 1819 accepted by the Commons. It was the turning point in the post-war history of the ministry and Liverpool had been ready to stake its existence on the issue. 'If we cannot carry what has been proposed,' he told the apprehensive lord chancellor, 'it is far, far better for the country that we should cease to be the Government' (H. Twiss, Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, 1844, 2.39).

Ministerial changes, 1822

The steady recovery of authority by the ministry after 1821 enabled Liverpool to make a number of ministerial changes that he had long been contemplating. His primary object was to strengthen the front bench in the Commons and conciliate the Grenville faction, the only remaining element of the old Pittite following which still remained aloof. Peel replaced the ageing Lord Sidmouth at the Home Office and Grenville, though himself too old for office, was gratified by a dukedom for Lord Buckingham, the Irish lord lieutenancy for Lord Wellesley, a cabinet seat for Wynn, and minor appointments for other members of the group. The future of Canning, who had earned royal displeasure by resigning in protest over the queen's divorce bill, was settled by his appointment as governor-general of India. Castlereagh's suicide in August 1822, however, reopened the issue in circumstances of even greater acrimony. Only after a severe battle of wills with the king was Liverpool able to secure Canning's succession to Castlereagh's 'whole inheritance'—the Foreign Office and the leadership of the Commons. Later in the year the altered balance of power in the administration was reflected in the promotion of two junior Canningite ministers, Robinson to the chancellorship of the exchequer and Huskisson to the presidency of the Board of Trade. Although these piecemeal and partly fortuitous changes enhanced the public standing of the government, they materially weakened the unity of the cabinet which had been its principal source of strength.

Catholic emancipation and cabinet conflict

One source of disunion was Catholic emancipation. In 1805, in his first important statement of his views on the subject, Liverpool had argued that the special relationship of the monarch with the Church of England, and the refusal of Roman Catholics to take the oath of supremacy, justified their exclusion from political power. The decision of 1812 to remove the issue from collective cabinet policy, followed in 1813 by the defeat of Grattan's Roman Catholic Relief Bill, brought a period of relative calm. As an individual member of the House of Lords Liverpool supported marginal concessions such as the admittance of English Roman Catholics to the higher ranks of the armed forces, the magistracy, and the parliamentary franchise; but he remained opposed to their participation in parliament itself. In the 1820s pressure from the liberal wing of the Commons and the rise of the Catholic Association in Ireland revived the controversy. By the date of Sir Francis Burdett's Catholic Relief Bill in 1825 Liverpool was probably already anticipating the ultimate victory of the emancipation party, though he was determined to take no responsibility for the measure. The success of the bill in the Commons in April, followed by Peel's tender of resignation, finally persuaded Liverpool that it was time to retire. The speech he made against the bill in the Lords in May, though couched in unusually strong terms, he regarded as a dying effort. When Canning made a formal proposal that the cabinet should take up the issue, Liverpool was convinced that his administration had come to its end. It was in fact that fearful prospect which induced the cabinet to continue with the old principle of neutrality. This in turn deprived both Liverpool and Peel of any ground for resignation.

Agriculture and the corn laws

This conflict within the cabinet, largely hidden from the public, was in ironic contrast to the support the ministry now enjoyed in the country and the continued success of its economic policies. The government-inspired committee on foreign trade in 1820 and 1821 reaffirmed the principles of free trade which Liverpool had outlined to the Lords in a wide-ranging speech of May 1820. The budgets of 1824 and 1825 constituted the first free-trade budgets of the century, encouraging home consumption and lowering the cost of raw materials. Liverpool himself was in favour of an even more drastic reduction in indirect taxation and an actual increase in direct taxation; but although it was politically inexpedient to put forward such revolutionary ideas, the government pursued a policy of using its budget surpluses to finance a programme of simplifying and lowering tariffs rather than of cutting direct taxes still further, as Canning and some government supporters would have liked.

Agriculture remained a problem because good harvests between 1819 and 1822 had brought down prices and evoked a cry for greater protection. Though politically significant, because of the powerful landed interest in parliament, the issue remained for Liverpool one of economic principle. In an important speech of February 1822 he denied that agricultural distress was caused by high taxation, emphasized the interdependence of agriculture, commerce, and manufacture, and argued that the remedy for agricultural depression lay in expanding the market and promoting greater consumption of its products in the population at large. The sudden rise in wheat prices in 1825, which made the cabinet authorize an emergency release of bonded grain, hardened his determination to revise the unsatisfactory corn law of 1815. Liverpool's plan, accepted by the cabinet at the end of 1826, provided for a sliding scale of duties, pivoting round a ‘remunerative price’ for wheat of 60s. a quarter, with duties on foreign imports ending entirely when the domestic price reached 70s. Though he was denied the opportunity to put this through parliament in the 1827 session as planned, it was the substance of the act passed by Wellington's ministry in 1828.

Liverpool's economic and political outlook

That the Liverpool administration was the first to pursue a coherent economic programme was largely due to the fact that Liverpool was the first prime minister to have a coherent economic philosophy. It owed much to the early tutelage of his father and his youthful study of Adam Smith. In principle he deprecated the intervention of the legislature in the economy of the country. 'Government or Parliament never meddle with these matters at all,' he wrote in 1819, 'but they do harm more or less' (Yonge, 2.416). Britain had become great, he told the Lords in 1820, not because of but despite its protectionist system. Free trade was therefore the right direction for policy even if in the absolute sense it was not immediately or perhaps ever attainable. Financially he was a monetarist. In the crisis of 1825 he refused to meet the Bank of England's wish to suspend cash payments. In his view the only sound remedy for over-borrowing was a rise in interest rates. He was not, however, a doctrinaire exponent of laissez-faire. He supported the elder Peel's act to protect children in cotton mills and in 1818 assisted the movement for church building in manufacturing towns with a government grant of £1 million.

In his general political outlook Liverpool was guided by the traditional aristocratic concept of duty to the state. The task of government, he held, was to keep the balance between the great interests and to consider the needs of all classes of the community. While he knew that government could not in the long run maintain itself without the support of public opinion, he thought it had a duty to disregard popular clamour when pursuing the long-term interests of the nation. He distrusted calls for parliamentary reform since he believed that this would strengthen the influence of the volatile urban electorate. The country gentry, though not always amenable to government control, represented to him a more stable element in the constitution.

As prime minister Liverpool upheld the authority of his office and the integrity of the cabinet against the capricious interference of the crown. Within the cabinet he led through persuasion, tact, and moderation. He never allowed his administration to degenerate into a collection of departments and exercised a close supervision of all its main branches. There can be little doubt that he, not Huskisson, was the dominant influence in economic policy; and though he was accused of being led by Canning in foreign policy, the record of his career supports his contention that on its basic principles—distrust of the congress system, avoidance of permanent alliances and commitments in mainland Europe, and encouragement of national independence and liberal regimes among the smaller continental states—he and Canning thought alike.

As a parliamentarian Liverpool was among the best debaters in either house. His speeches were characterized by clarity, command of detail, and objectivity; and he had the rare quality of always doing justice to the arguments of his opponents. His more elevated sphere in the House of Lords and his unostentatious style of leadership concealed from the public the crucial importance of his position in the administration, even though his honesty and blameless private life earned their respect. Among his colleagues, however, there was general recognition that his unrivalled experience in high office, his administrative skills, his prudence and common sense, and his ability to get the best out of ministers of diverse views and temperaments, made him indispensable to the existence of the government. His long period at the head of affairs, surpassed only by Walpole and the younger Pitt, was proof of his qualities as prime minister, as was, in a different way, the immediate breakup of the cabinet after his retirement.

Appearance, health, and second marriage

A lanky, awkward figure when young, Liverpool in later life was a serious-looking man, fairly tall, with strong chin and long nose, and what Mrs Arbuthnot described as an 'untidy look and slouching way of standing'. His health had never been robust and for many years he had suffered from a painful form of thrombophlebitis in his left leg. It is evident that there was a general vascular weakness affecting his heart and pulse-rate which was only temporarily relieved by his regular visits to Bath. After the death of his wife in June 1821, which affected him profoundly, there was an observable deterioration in his physical condition. In coming to difficult decisions, and in time of personal crisis, he displayed increasing irritability and nervous agitation. Beneath his phlegmatic appearance he had an anxious temperament and had always been easily moved to tears. In private life he preferred the company of women to that of men. On 24 September 1822 he married Mary Chester, a friend and long-standing companion of his first wife; his early remarriage was an indication of his need for a peaceful domestic refuge. He entertained little, and among politicians Coombe House (near Kingston upon Thames) was rated as one of the duller houses to visit. Despite the soberness of his own household, however, he was by no means an unsociable guest elsewhere.

Illness, retirement, death, and estate

On 17 February 1827 at Fife House (his riverside residence in Whitehall since 1810) Liverpool suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage and in March the king was obliged to seek a successor. There was another minor stroke in July after which he lingered on at Coombe until a third and fatal attack on 4 December 1828. He was buried in Hawkesbury parish church, Gloucestershire, beside his father and his first wife. He had no children and his main landed estate with his titles passed to his stepbrother Cecil Jenkinson. His personal estate was registered at under £120,000. Liverpool was not, by contemporary standards, a rich man; and he had been a generous supporter of public charities and impoverished relatives. There is no reason to disbelieve the statement of his official biographer, C. D. Yonge, that he left office poorer than he entered it. He had a well-stocked library, was knowledgeable on the history and literature of the previous century, took considerable interest in the arts, and was a patron both of contemporary British painters and of the two great sculptors Chantrey and Canova. But neither these aesthetic tastes nor the improvements he made to his modest country house at Coombe Wood, which he had purchased in 1801, led him into any great extravagance. His major contribution to the arts was the part he played in the foundation of the National Gallery and the provision of a government grant to acquire for it J. J. Angerstein's great collection of paintings and his house in Pall Mall in 1824.

Subsequent reputation

In the nineteenth century Liverpool's reputation suffered partly because of his modest personality, partly because Victorian opinion tended to date the period of liberalism and enlightened government from the Reform Act of 1832. Though the Dictionary of National Biography observed that 'history has hardly done justice to Liverpool's solid though not shining talents', another half-century passed before a start was made in reassessing his historical importance. It was a slow process. Sir Charles Petrie's popular account Lord Liverpool and his Times appeared in 1954 but until 1984 there was no specific modern biography to place beside Yonge's dull but indispensable three-volume study. It was through more general historical writing that a gradual shift of opinion first became discernible. Disraeli's flippant label of the 'Arch-Mediocrity' was discarded and even the later concept of a deliberate reconstruction of the ministry in 1821 to allow a new ‘liberal toryism’ to emerge was increasingly regarded as an artificial imposition on the underlying continuity of policy and personnel present in the administration.

The security measures taken between 1817 and 1820 were recognized as a relatively moderate response—by contemporary standards—to a difficult situation, and Liverpool's desire to encroach as little as possible on constitutional liberties received belated acknowledgement. Attention has also been given to the sincere and tolerant Christianity which underlay his genuine concern for the poor and enabled him to deal sympathetically with religious parties as diverse as the high-church Hackney phalanx, the evangelical British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Wesleyan Methodists. His academic free-trade principles are seen to have been tempered by humanitarian considerations, a realistic view of the actual state of the economy, a shrewd diagnosis of political possibilities, and a regard for national strength. Even with these limitations, the work of the 1819–27 years is accepted as comparable with that of any other administration of the century.

Liverpool failed to find a solution for the disruptive issue of Catholic emancipation. That apart, he showed great and continuing ability in dealing with a succession of problems which in intensity and variety have rarely fallen to the lot of a single prime minister. His success was the more striking since he never possessed effective control of the House of Commons nor enjoyed the steady support of a constitutionally still influential monarch. Indeed, the royal family added substantially to his difficulties. Although his administration belonged, in structure and membership, to what might be called the ancien régime in British politics, he was paradoxically the first in a line of creative prime ministers who helped to shape the Victorian state. For his financial and commercial policies alone he deserves to rank with Peel and Gladstone.


  • C. D. Yonge, The life and administration of Robert Banks, second earl of Liverpool, 3 vols. (1868)
  • N. Gash, Lord Liverpool (1984)
  • N. Gash, ‘Lord Liverpool: a private view’, History Today, 30/5 (1980), 35–40
  • N. Gash, ‘The tortoise and the hare: Liverpool and Canning’, History Today, 32/3 (1982), 12–19
  • J. E. Cookson, Lord Liverpool's administration: the crucial years, 1815–1822 (1975)
  • ‘Jenkinson, Robert Banks, second earl of Liverpool’, HoP, Commons
  • W. R. Brook, Lord Liverpool and liberal toryism (1941)
  • B. Hilton, Corn, cash, commerce: the economic policies of the tory governments, 1815–1830 (1977)
  • B. Hilton, ‘The political arts of Lord Liverpool’, TRHS, 5th ser., 38 (1988), 147–70


  • BL, corresp., Add. MS 74091
  • BL, corresp. and papers, loan 72
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 38190–38475, 38489, 38564–38578, 38580, 59772, 61818
  • Harrowby Manuscript Trust, Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, letters to Lord Harrowby
  • TNA: PRO, letters and papers, PRO 30/29
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Joseph Banks
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Bathhurst, MS loan 57
  • BL, letters to Lord Bexley, Add. MSS 31231–31232
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MS 58936
  • BL, corresp. with third earl of Hardwicke, Add. MSS 35395–35765, passim
  • BL, corresp. with John Charles Herries, Add. MS 57367
  • BL, corresp. with William Huskisson, Add. MSS 38737–38748
  • BL, corresp. with Prince Lieven, Add. MSS 47287–47293
  • BL, corresp. with Moore family, Add. MS 57545
  • BL, corresp. with Sir A. Paget, Add. MS 48389
  • BL, letters to Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40181, 40304–40305
  • BL, corresp. with Comte de Puisaye, etc., Add. MS 7981
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Wellesley, Add. MSS 37295–37310, passim
  • BL, letters to Sir James Willoughby Gordon, Add. MS 49476
  • BL, corresp. with C. P. Yorke, Add. MS 45036
  • Cambs. AS, Huntingdon, letters to duke of Manchester
  • CKS, corresp. with Lord Camden; corresp. with Lord Cornwallis etc., letters to William Pitt etc.
  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to first earl of Lonsdale
  • Devon RO, corresp. with Lord Sidmouth
  • Duke U., corresp. and papers
  • Durham RO, corresp. with Lord Londonderry
  • Hunt. L., letters to Lord Beresford
  • Kent Archives Office, Camden MSS
  • Kent Archives Office, Pitt MSS
  • Lambton Park, Chester-le-Street, co. Durham, corresp. with first earl of Durham
  • LPL, letters to Archbishop Manners-Sutton
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Alexander Cochrane; corresp. with Sir Thomas Graham; corresp. with Robert Liston; corresp. with Lord Melville
  • Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Lord Wallace
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to William Adams
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Eldon
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Spencer Perceval
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to second earl Spencer
  • PRONI, corresp. with second earl of Caledon, D2431–2433
  • PRONI, corresp. with Lord Castlereagh, D3030
  • Royal Arch., letters to George III
  • Sheff. Arch., letters to Lady Erne; letters to Lord Fitzwilliam
  • Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, letters to first marquis of Bristol
  • SUL, Wellington MSS
  • Surrey HC, corresp. with Henry Goulburn
  • TCD, corresp. with Lord Donoughmore
  • TNA: PRO, letters to William Pitt, PRO 30/8
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with T. Perronet Thompson
  • U. Nott. L., corresp. with duke of Newcastle; letters to duke of Portland
  • U. Southampton L., corresp. with Lord Palmerston
  • UCL, letters to Lord Brougham
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. with George Canning


  • T. Lawrence, portrait, 1796, priv. coll.
  • J. Hoppner, portrait, 1807, priv. coll.
  • H. H. Meyer, mezzotint, pubd 1815 (after J. Hoppner), NPG
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, 1816, Royal Collection
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1820, Royal Collection [see illus.]
  • C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1826, BM, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, oils, exh. RA 1827, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, portrait, pubd 1845 (after J. R. Jackson), NPG
  • B. F. Hardenberg, bust, Ickworth House, Park and Garden, Suffolk
  • G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The trial of Queen Caroline, 1820), NPG
  • G. Hayter, oils, Weston Park, Shropshire
  • K. A. Hickel, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1793), NPG

Wealth at Death

under £120,000 personal estate

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)