The Prime Ministers: Lord Liverpool

Robert Jenkins, Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister 1812-1827

Robert Jenkins was born on June 7th, 1770, in Westminster. His father was a prominent member of George III’s court, and he was educated at Oxford. He won election to the House of Commons in 1790 as Member for Rye, but he was actually under the age required to take his seat, so he spent a year touring the continent until, at age 21, he could take his seat in 1791. In his first few years in the Commons, he held a few minor positions and, not at all to his credit, opposed the abolition of slavery. In 1794, he enlisted in the militia, in reaction to the rapidly escalating French Revolutionary Wars, and in 1796 was made Baron Hawkesbury, as his father was made Earl of Liverpool, and ascended to the House of Lords.

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In the Addington Ministry of 1801-1804, Hawkesbury was made Foreign Secretary, and was one of the primary architects of the Treaty of Amiens; Pitt’s Second Ministry took over in 1804, and as the Prime Minister was gravely ill during this time, Hawkesbury served as the real head of the government, in addition to his official position as Home Secretary. Pitt eventually died in 1806, moving Hawkesbury to the opposition in Baron Grenville’s brief Ministry, before he resumed the Home Office in the Duke of Portland’s Second Ministry. He served in this position for two years, before becoming Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in Spencer Percival’s Ministry. Throughout all these years, Hawkesbury, Lord Liverpool after the death of his father in 1808, served competently in his various offices, until in 1812, Percival was assassinated, the only Prime Minister to befall such a fate. Liverpool succeeded him, and found that he had a great deal to cope with. An inconclusive war with the United States began almost immediately after his ascension, and it was under his leadership that the Peninsular War and last campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars were fought. In the Congress of Vienna which followed, Liverpool gave his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, considerable autonomy in negotiations, and turned to domestic affairs.

In 1815, the later infamous Corn Laws were passed, which prohibited the import of grain until domestic prices reached a certain level. The Commons then voted in 1816 to discontinue the wartime income tax, which left Liverpool no real option to resolve the nations’s finances, which had been totally unbalanced by the war, other than increase in other taxes. This resulted in massive public discontent, which forced a series of emergency measures. In 1817, Habeus Corpus was suspended, and after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which cavalry attacked a demonstration, killed 15 and wounded several hundred. In response, the government issued the Six Acts. These Acts, collectively, massively increased the authorities of the government and curbed civil liberties, by giving police the right to search private property for weapons without a warrant, outlawing private training in weapon use, reducing bail opportunities, banning non-government-sanctioned meetings of 50 or more, tightening sedition laws, and increasing publication taxes. The Six Acts are one of the most contentious collections of acts in British history, and led directly to the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Liverpool and his cabinet. Liverpool’s last seven years in office were comparatively uneventful. In 1824, he supported the repeal of the Combination Acts, which banned labour unions, and spoke against Catholic Emancipation. It was the latter issue which brought his resignation in 1827; faced by the rising tide of pro-Emancipation feeling, Liverpool resigned rather than have to stand against an act which would have allowed Catholics to stand for Parliament. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by George Canning. The Duke of Wellington’s First Ministry passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, by which time Liverpool had died, on December 4th, 1828, of a stroke.

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Liverpool is not an especially consistent Prime Minister. His Ministry passed the infamous Six Acts, but he strangely supported the repeal of the Combination Acts, and he was a free trader, yet supported the Corn Laws. Along with his star-studded cabinet, which included such figures as the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, Liverpool was a key part of the age of reaction which followed the Congress of Vienna, both within partisan politics and in the larger affairs of the nation. The Six Acts and suspension of Habeus Corpus were of course reactionary, but he also managed to keep a lid on the coming split of the Tory Party between the old Tories and the new Conservatives, which would come to a head in 1835, with Peel’s issuance of the Tamworth Manifesto. In both cases, Liverpool managed to keep the clock from running too quickly, and it is this which forms his main achievement, if one can consider it an achievement.

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