William Huskisson

First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, 1814-23; President of the Board of Trade, 1823-27

March 11, 1770 - September 15, 1830

William Huskisson (1770-1830) First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, 1814-23. President of the Board of Trade, 1823-27. Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, 1827-28. Huskisson was born into minor Staffordshire gentry and educated at Appleby Grammar School and privately in Paris, where he came under the influence of the liberal mathematician/economist, the Marquis de Condorcet.1 Like his contemporary Liverpool, he witnessed the outbreak of the French Revolution, after which he became a protégé of the ambassador Lord Gower (the future first Duke of Sutherland).

Huskisson was brought into the Home Office by Dundas to help with settling French émigrés, then transferred as chief clerk to the War Department with Dundas in 1794, becoming Under Secretary, 1795-1801. He left office under Addington, then became Senior Secretary to the Treasury under Pitt’s second ministry and again under Portland. In 1809, despite being valued for his financial abilities, he followed Canning out of office, missing becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer under Perceval and remaining on the backbenches until 1814, during which period he drew closer to Liverpool and served on the 1810 Bullion Committee.

In 1814, when Canning reconciled to the government, Huskisson was brought back in the semi-sinecure office of Woods and Forests but with a Privy Councillorship, with a brief to support Vansittart in Commons economic debates as well as advising Liverpool. Although a free trader and supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he supported the Corn Laws in 1815, retention of income tax in 1816 and return to the gold standard in 1819. In January 1823 he was promoted to the Board of Trade, finally being admitted to the Cabinet the following November. There he promoted a series of tariff reductions and relaxation of the Navigation Acts. In 1826-27, with Liverpool, he prepared a revised Corn Law which would have introduced a lower sliding scale of tariffs. (The Bill he finally sponsored in 1828 was less well designed.) Huskisson was close to an outright unilateral free trader, forty years ahead of his time, but was politically realistic about the lack of support for that position in a Tory government.

Huskisson received no promotion from Canning, who offered the big jobs to Whigs, but became War and the Colonies Secretary and Leader of the House under Goderich, relinquishing the latter office to Peel under Wellington. He was an awkward colleague for Wellington, being annoyed by the watering down of his Corn Law reform and resigned in May 1828. He was in discussions with Wellington for a return to the Cabinet when killed by Stephenson’s Rocket in September 1830.

Huskisson was a poor speaker but dominated the Commons by his command of financial and economic issues, although he never became popular there and was criticised for arrogance. His promotion early on was delayed by suspicion of his French connections and financial integrity, in particular, that he had shared a stockbroker with Talleyrand during some abortive French peace negotiations.2 Mrs Arbuthnot disapproved of his friendship with Canning and his free trade principles; in May 1826 (after the December 1825 banking crash and subsequent downturn) she wrote:

I do not know whether Mr Huskisson’s theories are wise, but certainly hitherto they have not worked very well. Our trade at home and abroad was flourishing and prosperous when he took it in hand, and now there is not one branch that is not shaken to its very foundations and in the greatest possible distress. The confidence which the public had in Lord Liverpool’s government is quite at an end, and indeed ought to be.3

[1] Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), mathematician, philosopher and economist.

[2] Abbot, The Diaries and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Vol. 1, p. 228.

[3] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-32, Vol. 2, p. 26.

© 2021 Martin Hutchinson