William Petty, who served as Prime Minister from 4 July 1782 to 26 March 1783, was born in Dublin on 2 May 1737, the elder son and first of five children born to John Petty and Mary Fitzmaurice. Shelburne's father adopted the name Petty in 1751 upon inheriting his uncle's estates. Shelburne appears not to have had much education: in his autobiography, he noted, "From the time I was four years old till I was fourteen, my education was neglected to the greatest degree". He was sent to an ordinary school and then was taught by a tutor until he went to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1755. He left Oxford in 1757 without taking a Degree. At that point, his father bought Shelburne a commission in the 20th Regiment of Footguards and in 1759 he distinguished himself at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years' War.
In 1760, while still on active service overseas, he was elected to the House of Commons for the family borough of Chipping Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He did not take his seat but became a Colonel and aide-de-camp to King George II. Although he was again returned as MP for Chipping Wycombe in the 1761 general election, he was elevated to the House of Lords on his father's death, becoming Earl of Shelburne.
Shelburne served as President of the Board of Trade in Bute's ministry although Bute wanted to make Shelburne the Secretary of State for Trade. Shelburne's obvious ambition for high office made him unpopular with his colleagues. In 1763 Shelburne attached himself to Pitt the Elder after being involved in an intrigue to replace Grenville by Pitt in Bute's ministry. In the same year, George III dismissed Shelburne from his post as aide-de-camp because Shelburne supported John Wilkes against the government in the North Briton incident. Shelburne retired to his country estates. In 1764 he took his seat in the Irish House of Lords.
Bowood House in Wiltshire was the country seat of the Earl of Shelburne
The following year, Shelburne married Lady Sophia Carteret and was appointed a Major-General. He refused to become President of the Board of Trade in Rockingham's first ministry because he opposed the taxation of the colonists. However, he did accept the post of Secretary of State for the Southern Department in Pitt's (Chatham's) ministry in 1766. His failure to prevent Charles Townshend imposing the American Import Duties Act on the colonies in 1767 drove Shelburne to despair, whereupon Grafton removed from Shelburne the responsibility for American affairs by creating a new Cabinet post of Secretary of State for the Colonies. With the end of Chatham's ministry, Shelburne resigned and joined Chatham in attacking Grafton's ministry.
In 1771, Shelburne's wife died and the following year he went to France and Italy with his friend Isaac Barré, who also opposed Britain's attempts to tax the American colonists. On his return, Shelburne was made a Lieutenant-General and employed Dr Joseph Priestley as his librarian and archivist at Bowood. The earl was also the patron of Jeremy Bentham and employed Lancelot ("Capability") Brown to landscape his estates.
Shelburne supported the Regulating Act for India in 1773 and in 1775 he spoke to Chatham's motion for the withdrawal of troops from Boston (Massachusetts). On Chatham's death in May 1778, Shelburne took over the leadership of the Chathamites. Having served with Bute, Shelburne did not have the trust of his colleagues; the king referred to him as the "Jesuit of Berkeley Square" (Shelburne's home was at Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square) and cartoons nicknamed him "Malagrida" (a Portuguese Jesuit who had been convicted of heresy). Shelburne appears to have been a poor leader with few close friends.
In 1779 Shelburne remarried, taking as his wife Lady Louisa FitzPatrick, the second daughter of the Earl of Upper Ossory. The following year, he fought a duel over an imagined slight suffered by Lieutenant-Colonel Fullarton; Shelburne was wounded in the groin. In 1782 he became Secretary of State for the Home Department in Rockingham's second administration and on the marquis' death on 1 July 1782, Shelburne was appointed as Prime Minister. Charles James Fox and a number of other Rockinghamites resigned rather than serve under Shelburne. Shelburne was hard-working, talented, witty, cultured and rich. He was well informed on diplomatic and financial matters; he was a patron of Price and Priestley.
Shelburne had great respect for the institution of monarchy, which made the Whigs suspicious of him. The resignation of many of the Rockingham Whigs weakened Shelburne's position, but he did appoint Pitt the Younger as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shelburne hoped to win the support of the Independent Gentlemen in parliament and from the public through his programme of utilitarian administrative reforms. Shelburne concluded the final peace negotiations at the Treaty of Versailles (1783) which ended all European and American hostilities. The last part of the war against European nations continued after the fighting in America had ended and brought British successes:
- Gibraltar withstood the French and Spanish siege (1779-83)
- Admiral Rodney beat de Grasse at the Battle of the Saints (1782) and re-established British control over the West Indies and the Atlantic sea routes
- Britain's empire was secured by the peace treaty
Government economies were fairer and more honest. Shelburne applied "political philosophy" to politics which attempted to implement Benthamite Utilitarianism and Adam Smith's free trade ideas. Shelburne is thought of as the first Utilitarian politician and his reforms followed the precepts of Bentham's philosophy, aimed at achieving administrative efficiency and preserving national resources. He chose men of talent, not influence. Shelburne planned to introduce a series of measures:
- a reform of the Civil List
- a reduction of fees paid by the government for "services rendered"
- a redistribution of offices
- the overhauling of methods of accounting
- a simplification of taxation
- an attack on patronage
- a mild reform of the constitution involving the abolition of some rotten/pocket boroughs and the redistribution of seats. This was deemed to be a capitulation to public pressure.
Shelburne did give valuable training to Pitt, whose later achievements owed much to Shelburne — who received no credit whatsoever from Pitt. Shelburne's ministry was defeated by a combination of Foxites, Northites, placemen, courtiers, borough mongers, government contractors, and serving officers who feared attacks on the patronage system. Fox believed that Shelburne was extremely unpopular, and refused to serve under him: Shelburne was seen as a "Tory" because of his respect for the monarch. In addition, Shelburne looked like staying in office indefinitely and Fox was desperate for power. Fox was annoyed that the Home Secretary, not the Foreign Secretary, had been chosen as PM. Fox does not seem to have realised that George III hated him.
Shelburne faced increasing opposition from Charles James Fox and Lord North: Fox manipulated a coalition strong enough to cause Shelburne to resign in February 1783 after a series of parliamentary defeats at which time he retired from public life, aged 45. George III had no alternative but to accept a 'Whig' coalition ministry under the premiership of the Duke of Portland. Shelburne continued to sit in the House of Lords but preferred his home at Bowood. He died in London on 7 May 1805.
Fitzmaurice, Lord. Life of William, Earl of Shelburne. 2 vols. London, 1912.
Last modified 28 February 2002