Nicholas Vansittart

Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1812-23

April 29, 1766 - February 8, 1851

Nicholas Vansittart (1766-1851) First Baron Bexley from 1823. Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1812-23. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1823-28. Vansittart was the son of a governor of Bengal, lost at sea when he was four years old and was at Christ Church four years ahead of Liverpool, after which he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. He became from 1796 a Pittite MP, publishing several pamphlets on financial and political matters in support of Pitt’s government. Under Addington, after a diplomatic mission to Copenhagen, he became Senior Secretary to the Treasury.

Vansittart became part of the Addington connection, becoming Chief Secretary for Ireland and a Privy Councillor when Addington joined Pitt’s government in 1805 and resuming his position as Senior Secretary to the Treasury under the Talents in 1806-7. Perceval offered him the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in 1809 but loyalty to Addington prevented him from accepting. However, generally he supported the Perceval ministry and in 1811 produced thirteen resolutions critical of the findings of the Bullion Committee, before becoming an official sponsor of the bill making bank notes legal tender.

When Perceval was killed, Vansittart’s was the first appointment Liverpool made, and he delivered the budget Perceval had mostly prepared. Liverpool valued him as Chancellor because he trusted him; in 1821 he said that: ‘the First Lord of the Treasury in the House of Lords could not carry on the government without his Chancellor of the Exchequer being wholly, exclusively and entirely in his confidence’1. Castlereagh also trusted him and supported him in the Commons, believing that a more popular Chancellor would be a threat to his own position.

Vansittart opposed the resumption of cash payments in 1819, possibly influenced by heavy Bank of England opposition, but he was overruled by Liverpool. In February 1823 he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, where he remained as a token ‘Protestant’ opposing Catholic Emancipation through the Canning and Goderich administrations until January 1828. He was not a good House of Commons speaker, although he used very correct English, but was a master of economic and budgetary detail. The Prince Regent referred to him sarcastically as ‘lively’ but for ten years he held down the most difficult job in Liverpool’s government, struggling to bring the monstrously swollen deficits and debt under control, imposing numerous additional taxes to do so, and defending the result in a mostly hostile House of Commons. Robinson, his successor, had a much easier job as the ‘heavy lifting’ had already been done.

Working closely with Liverpool, who was always in overall charge,2 Vansittart was a highly effective Chancellor, one of the longest serving in British history (exceeded by nobody since, though Gordon Brown came close). He has been hugely underrated by historians – even the usually thoughtful Gash described him as ‘one of the weakest Chancellors of the Exchequer in modern British history’3. Apart from their general Whiggery, historians, not being financially trained, have failed to realise the scale of Vansittart’s achievement. This was the only occasion in world history when so large a debt has been managed down without resorting to default or inflation, and Liverpool and Vansittart, working together harmoniously, deserve huge credit for the achievement.

As Chancellor in an era of high taxation and economic hardship, Vansittart became unpopular but, like his colleagues, he maintained a sense of humour about it. Mrs Arbuthnot tells the story of William John Bankes returning from Egypt with an obelisk said to have been erected as a monument to tax reduction, which he proposed to present to Vansittart as Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, Vansittart refused it, saying the only appropriate obelisk for him would be one for imposing taxation.4

[1] Fisher, The History of Parliament. Liverpool said this to Buckingham, during the negotiations on coalition with the Grenvillites.

[2] In 1821, when there was a suggestion that Peel should be made Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liverpool discussed this possibility with Melville, who said: ‘You know from experience that you can go on perfectly well with Vansittart as your Chancellor, but at best it would be an experiment with Peel … and, as there was no fault to be found with Van in his financial capacity, it would be a pity to run such a risk.’ Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-32, Vol. 1, p. 94.

[3] Norman Gash, Mr. Secretary Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) p. 87.

[4] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-32, Vol. 1, pp. 118-19. William John Bankes (1786-1855). MP for Dorset, 1832-35. A distant cousin of Liverpool, travelled extensively to Egypt.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson