How Charles Jenkinson turned a Whig government Tory

The politics of the neglected 1st Earl of Liverpool

When William Pitt the younger formed his government in December 1783, it was a Whig one. Pitt himself, his two Secretaries of State and most of his Cabinet were Whigs. Yet by his death in 1806, his long-standing administration was generally accepted as a Tory government, and its direct successors were to continue ruling as Tory governments until 1830. The change, of both label and principle, was largely achieved by the influence of Charles Jenkinson, first Earl of Liverpool, Pitt’s long-serving President of the Board of Trade.

At the start of his government, Pitt firmly identified himself as a Whig. Pitt’s father the Earl of Chatham had been a Whig, albeit one allied to opposition forces in Walpole’s time, and had formed a coalition with the orthodox Whig Duke of Newcastle that had won the Seven Years War before being ousted by the Tory-leaning George III, in favor of the Earl of Bute, leading the first Tory government for 48 years. Pitt’s 1783 Secretaries of State were the Marquess of Carmarthen, who had been aligned with the Whigs in opposition to Lord North’s mostly Tory government in the 1770s, and Thomas Townshend, Viscount Sydney, who had also been in opposition to North and was the grandson of Walpole’s Whig Secretary of State.

Of Pitt’s other five initial Cabinet members, three were lifelong Whigs and only Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor could be called a Tory, though being a friend of George III and a thoroughly slippery character he had served as Lord Chancellor under North, the Whig Rockingham and the Independent Whig Shelburne. Other than in the economic sphere, the Pitt government’s early measures, notably an attempt at parliamentary reform and the impeachment of the Tory ex-Governor General of India Warren Hastings, could easily have been undertaken by a Foxite Whig government.

Charles Jenkinson was notably not included in Pitt’s government, even in a minor capacity, though together with his friend John Robinson (the leading electoral manager) and Richard Atkinson of the East India Company he had arranged the parliamentary coup that had brought Pitt to power.

Jenkinson came from a long line of Tory Oxfordshire squires. The first four Jenkinson baronets, Charles’ great grandfather, grandfather and two uncles, had all been MPs for Oxfordshire, the second through fourth Baronets having been strong Tories, with the fourth Baronet losing the seat in 1727 because of his Jacobitism. The family had been closely linked with their neighbors the Earls of Clarendon, and their belief system was close to that of the great first Earl, itself derived from the 1630s Great Tew circle surrounding Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland.

However when Jenkinson entered politics as a keen participant in the celebrated Oxfordshire election of 1754, Tory affiliation, while still widespread, was no road to preferment – the Whigs, with the acquiescence of George I and II had established a one-party state in 1714 and kept it that way even when the Whig party split as in 1742. Hence Jenkinson supported the “new Interest” independent Whig candidates in Oxfordshire (both of whom were to support Tory ministries after 1760.)

His progress was thereafter slow, as unpaid secretary to the Earl of Holderness until 1760, until the advent of the Tory-friendly George III in 1760 allowed nominal Whigs like Jenkinson to reveal their Toryism and advance rapidly. Jenkinson was Secretary to Bute, the first Tory prime minister since 1714, and Senior Secretary of the Treasury (arranging the production of the 1765 Stamp Act) under George Grenville, like Jenkinson an ex-Whig Tory.

Thereafter Jenkinson was a leader of the Tories in parliament, and close to George III. His Whig opponents such as Edmund Burke referred to them as “King’s Friends” and implied there was something sinister about them, but this was just thwarted ambition from a group that had thought itself destined to rule forever. He was Secretary at War from 1778, playing a major role in keeping the feeble North up to his duties and smoothing rivalries between North’s fractious Cabinet. After North’s departure he opposed Rockingham, supported Shelburne without becoming part of his government and opposed the Fox-North coalition. By 1783, at 54, Jenkinson was the acknowledged expert on financial and trade matters, with a deep though skeptical understanding of the new economic doctrines propounded by Adam Smith in the previous decade.

Once Pitt settled into power, he realized his government was a weak one and he couldn’t do everything himself, even though he was both First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hence in the economic sphere he began to draw on the abilities of the friendly Jenkinson, not much help as a Commons speaker but enormously so on the nuts and bolts of economic and financial policy. There was considerable Whig Ducal squawking from such worthies as the ex-prime minister Duke of Grafton as it became clear Jenkinson was to be given office, but in 1786 he was made Lord Hawkesbury and President of the Board of Trade, though still not in the very small Cabinet.

Pitt thereby gained additional reliable Tory support in the Commons, and from that date his government’s policies took a more firmly Tory line. When Sydney departed in 1789 and Carmarthen in 1791 they were succeeded as Secretaries of State by Tories – William Grenville, son of the 1760s Tory prime minister and Henry Dundas, who had entered government under North and was a firm friend of Jenkinson. Hawkesbury himself was finally admitted to the Cabinet in 1791 and exercised increasing influence on all areas of policy thereafter. By 1793, William Wyndham, Commons leader of the Portland Whigs, was speaking of crossing the floor to join Pitt in a Tory government, which happened the following year.

Addington, who succeeded Pitt in 1801 at Pitt’s own recommendation, was an avowed Tory. After Pitt’s death in 1806 his successors called themselves “followers of Mr. Pitt” for a few years but Perceval and Liverpool were both avowed Tories and a Tory government remained in office with a Whig coalition interlude in 1806-7 and a year of Canningite/Whig coalition in 1827-28 until Wellington’s defeat in November 1830.

Many commentators have noted the greater Toryism of Pitt’s governments in the 1790s compared to his early years and have attributed it to the crustiness of advancing age and length in office. Part of the change was the result of revolution in France, which converted former Whigs like Burke to Toryism, belying their writings of the preceding thirty years. In reality however the change resulted mostly from the influence of Jenkinson himself, his supporters in the Commons, his ability to represent the King’s views in Cabinet, and the other personnel changes in Pitt’s government. From 1793 also, one of the government’s foremost spokesmen in the House of Commons was the young Robert Banks Jenkinson, the future Tory prime minister.

Charles Jenkinson, created first Earl of Liverpool in 1796, was a very important figure for over 40 years, who has been wholly neglected by biographers. Not the least of his achievements was to bring the Tory beliefs in Church, King and existing institutions in from the cold and make them central to the operations of government for the next generation. Even Burke became a Tory in the end.

February 21, 2015

© 2021 Martin Hutchinson