Bethell was Whig MP for Aylesbury 1851-59 and Wolverhampton 1859-61. After serving as Solicitor and Attorney General, Lord Palmerston appointed him Lord Chancellor in 1861, with the title of Baron Westbury, to succeed Lord Campbell. Lord Westbury was responsible for two key pieces of legislation – the Divorce Act of 1857 and the Land Registry Act of 1862.
Birth of Thomas Babbington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, poet, historian and A key figure in early 19th century literature and politics, Macaulay’s series of popular ballads Lays of Ancient Rome were required reading in schools for many years, while his History of England with its theme of human progress gave rise to the Whig interpretation of history. Macaulay served as Whig MP for Calne 1830-32, Leeds 1832-34 and Edinburgh 1839-47 & 1852-56 and was a member of several Whig governments in the 1830s and 40s as Secretary at War and Paymaster General. He was also involved in Indian administration and played a major part in drafting India’s penal code which remains in force today. Illness curtailed his parliamentary career and he resigned his seat in 1856 and was enobled as Baron Macaulay. He died in 1859.
William Page Wood was educated at Winchester where he was expelled for his involvement in a revolt against the Headmaster, Geneva and Trinity College Cambridge. He was called to the Bar in 1824 and became a QC in 1845. In 1847 Wood was elected as Liberal MP for Oxford. He served as Solicitor General from 1851-2. In 1868 Gladstone appointed him Lord Chancellor in his first administration. Failing eyesight forced his retirement in 1872 but he continued to sit as a Law Lord until his death in 1881.
Villiers served as, Whig/Liberal/Liberal Unionist MP for Wolverhampton 1835-85 and Wolverhampton South 1885-98. An early convert to free trade, Villiers initiated debates on the abolition of the Corn Laws before Richard Cobden and John Bright were elected to parliament. The Times observed in 1853 that “it was Mr Charles Villiers who practically originated the Free Trade Movement.” Villiers achieved ministerial office under Lord Aberdeen and served in the cabinets of Palmerston and Russell as President of the Poor Law Board. He left the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule and joined the Liberal Unionists. He was Father of the House from 1890 and when he died aged 96 in 1898 he was still an MP and the last MP to have served during the reign of King William IV.
Cobden’s work in founding the Anti-Corn Law League in 1839 and his campaigning work with John Bright is seen as integral to overturning these laws and influential in the Liberal Party’s support for free trade. Elected as MP for Stockport in 1841, Cobden was able to argue the case for reform inside parliament and the work of the League coupled with the Irish potato famine led in 1846 to Sir Robert Peel’s Tory government repealing the laws. Cobden declined positions in both Lord John Russell’s and Lord Palmerston’s governments. An opponent of the Crimean War, Cobden was openly criticised for his opposition to the government’s foreign policy. He devoted much of the rest of his career to promoting free trade and peace, seeing the former as a way to deliver the latter. He gave his name to the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, a free trade agreement that was signed between Britain and France on 23rd January 1860.
An intellectual, Shelburne numbered Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin amongst his friends. He was one of the first politicians to advocate free trade, a position he put down to debating with Adam Smith. Prior to his entry into politics, Shelburne had a distinguished military career, serving during the Seven Year’s War. In parliament Shelburne joined George Grenville’s government as First Lord of Trade, later serving as the first Home Secretary. He succeeded the Marquess of Rockingham as Prime Minister following the latter’s sudden death in July 1782. Shelburne’s hold on power was tenuous and his government lasted only 266 days. His main achievement was to conclude a peace treaty with the US. Although he was only 45 when he lost power, he never returned to government and ceased to play an active political role.
Born in Leith, Smith (1805-1881) was a solicitor of radical instincts who in 1839 through Richard Cobden became a lecturer for the Anti-Corn Law League, soon becoming one of their most popular speakers. He moved to London in 1841 to take appointment as secretary to the Metropolitan Anti-Corn Law Association and became an election agent, master-minding the election of a free trade candidate in the City of London in 1843. He was then made secretary of the City of London Liberal Registration Association, a post he held for thirty-three years. From 1847 to 1858 he ran election campaigns of Baron Lionel de Rothschild which culminated in the bill enabling Jews to take their seats in parliament.
Lewis served in Lord John Russell’s government as Secretary to the Board of Control and later as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Defeated at the 1852 election, Lewis edited the influential Edinburgh Review. On his return to parliament the new Prime Minister Lord Palmerston made him Chancellor of the Exchequer. His last major role was as Secretary of State for War from which position he successfully led the opposition to calls by Russell and William Gladstone to mediate in the American Civil War. His sudden death in 1863 robbed the Liberal Party of a major figure of whom at least one historian has argued that had he lived it might have been Cornewall Lewis rather than Gladstone leading the Liberal Party.
The son of Scottish utilitarian philosopher James Mill, John Stuart Mill became one of the most important philosophers of the nineteenth century. His publications especially The Principles of Political Economy, Utilitarianism and, most importantly, On Liberty form the cornerstone of modern Liberalism. Mill’s defence of individual liberty and his unease at the excessive power and influence of the state still resonates today. In parliament Mill called for women to be given the vote and was a strong supporter of proportional representation and an extension of the franchise. In 2007 a poll organised by the Liberal Democrat History Group voted Mill as the greatest British Liberal.
Orator, radical thinker and possessor of one of the most colourful and dissolute private lives of all politicians, Fox was Foreign Secretary at the time of his death and had held that post twice before, albeit very briefly. However, he was really an opposition man, fiercely pro-Parliament against the King, defender of the French Revolution when most were turning against its excess. In an age of aristocratic privilege and repression, Fox stood for things modern Liberals would identify with, such as a belief in power stemming from the people, a desire for wide-ranging reforms and a belief in progress.
Born in Thetford, Norfolk, Thomas Paine became one of the foremost political thinkers of his age. His pamphlet Common Sense which made the intellectual case for American independence was one of the most significant documents of the American Revolution. Paine’s advocacy of republicanism, utopianism, a commitment to free markets and individual liberty and a belief in scientific and social advance continues to influence Liberal thought to the present day. Paine was a supporter of the French Revolution and his response was in sharp variance to Edmund Burke, one of the other key liberal figures of the period. Both wrote important and contrasting books – Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 and Paine’s response Rights of Man, published the following year, highlighting the divergence of liberal thought in the 1780s and 90s. From 1774 Paine lived mostly in the USA and France, settling permanently in America after 1802, where he died, aged 72, forgotten and neglected amid slanders over excessive brandy drinking.
Whilst still professing to be a Whig, Portland’s second spell as Prime Minister was as a figurehead to an administration comprised of supporters of William Pitt. Portland old and infirm provided little direction to the government, rarely attending cabinet and only visiting the Lords on 15 occasions and never speaking there. Portland’s health had been failing and in August 1809 he suffered a seizure from which he never fully recovered. The following month the simmering rivalry between Castlereagh and Canning, the two leading members of the government, exploded and led to the two men fighting a duel and resigning from the cabinet. Faced with this blow to the government Portland resigned and was succeeded by Spencer Perceval. He died less than a month later.
Born in Liverpool the son of a prosperous merchant, Gladstone’s political career lasted for over 60 years and included four periods as Chancellor of the Exchequer and four as Prime Minister. Gladstone entered parliament in 1832 as MP for Newark as a Tory and served in both administrations of Sir Robert Peel. Gladstone’s devotion to Peel led him to side with Peel in the Tory split over the Corn Laws and to serve as Chancellor under Aberdeen, Palmerston and Russell. As Prime Minister Gladstone and his ministers instituted profound changes to British society. His first administration, arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century, reformed the army, opened up the civil service, reformed the Poor Law, established elementary education and brought in secret ballots for elections. During his third government, Gladstone’s espousal of Irish Home Rule split the Liberal Party and lead to its defeat, however his achievements led him to be called “the People’s William” and when he died in 1898 he was given a state funeral and two future kings acted as pallbearers.
Grafton served briefly in the House of Commons as Whig MP for Boroughbridge 1756 and Bury St Edmunds 1756-57 before succeeding his father. He first entered government in 1765 as Secretary of State for the Northern Department in Lord Rockingham’s first ministry and later as First Lord of the Treasury under the Earl of Chatham. Chatham’s illness in late 1767 resulted in Grafton becoming the government’s effective leader. When Chatham resigned, Grafton became Prime Minister at the age of only 33. His government was not a success. The cabinet largely inherited from the previous ministry lacked a common purpose and had been held together by the force of Chatham’s personality. Grafton was distracted by the activities of John Wilkes, pilloried in the press in the Letters of Junius and his attempts at conciliation with the American colonies overruled by the cabinet. Hit by a series of resignations the government fell apart and Grafton resigned after less than two years. He returned to office as Lord Privy Seal 1771-75 and again in 1782 after which he retired from public life.
Granville was a fixture in every Whig and Liberal government from the 1840s to the 1880s. Serving as Whig MP for Morpeth 1837-40 and Lichfield 1841-46 before succeeding to the Earldom, he first saw office under Lord Melbourne and ended his career as Gladstone’s Colonial Secretary. He led the Liberal Party in the House of Lords for over 30 years. Granville’s chief legacy was his two spells at the Foreign Office (1870-74 and 1880-85). He avoided alliances and kept Britain out of European conflicts. He pioneered international arbitration and improved relations with the United States. Granville supported Gladstone over Home Rule but, after the fall of Gladstone’s Third Administration in 1886 he largely retired from public life.
In 1841, Elgin briefly served as MP for Southampton before being unseated on petition. He served as Postmaster General in Palmerston’s first administration but his main contribution was as Governor General of Canada, making important steps in establishing self-government and creating the essentially symbolic role for the Governor General which continues to this day, and as Viceroy of India where he died of a heart attack aged only 53. In the late 1850s Elgin served as High Commissioner to China where he opened up trade with Japan and concluded the Second Opium War.
Bright is noted as founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, along with Richard Cobden. He served in the House of Commons from 1843 to 1889, where he campaigned for the abolition of the Corn Laws and rotten boroughs, universal suffrage and secret ballots for elections. A Quaker, he joined Cobden in his opposition to the Crimean War. In 1868 William Gladstone appointed Bright to President of the Board of Trade. He was also to serve as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, resigning from Cabinet in 1874 after Gladstone ordered the bombarding of Alexandria. He is noted for introducing the phrase Mother of Parliaments in relation to the Houses of Parliament and for the first use of flogging a dead horse.
Born in Nottingham, Lowe moved to Australia 1841 where he became a lawyer and served in the New South Wales Legislative Council. On his return to Britain in 1850 he became a leader writer for The Times and was elected to Parliament in 1852 as Liberal MP for Kidderminster and rapidly promoted to ministerial office, serving at the Boards of Trade and Education. In 1856 he was responsible for the joint Stock Companies Act, the first national codification of company law in the world. Lowe was implacably opposed to parliamentary reform and fell out with Russell and Gladstone over their 1866 Reform Bill. Described by John Bright as having retired into the ‘Cave of Adullam’, Lowe (along with his supporters known forever as the Adullamites) opposed the bill with a series of brilliant speeches and played a major role in defeating the bill and ending the Liberal Ministry. Later making peace with Gladstone, he served in the latter’s first administration as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later as Home Secretary. From 1875 Lowe’s health began to decline and he gradually retired from public life. He left the House of Commons in 1880 and went to the Lords as Viscount Sherbrooke. He died in 1892.
Educated at Rugby, Winchester and Oxford, Roundell Palmer was called to the Bar in 1837. Ten years later he was elected Conservative MP for Plymouth. A supporter of Sir Robert Peel, Palmer joined him in opposition and remained with the Peelites, eventually joining the newly created Liberal Party in 1859. Palmer served under Lords Palmerston and Russell as Solicitor General and Attorney General. In 1872 Gladstone appointed him Lord Chancellor. In 1873 Selborne was responsible for the Judicature Act which reorganised the court system and established the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Selborne returned to the Woolsack in Gladstone’s Second Administration but split with Gladstone in 1885 over Irish Home Rule and joined the Liberal Unionists. In June 1860 Selborne was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Selborne died in 1895.
Cardwell first entered the House of Commons as Tory MP for Clitheroe and became a confidante of Sir Robert Peel. When the Conservatives split over the Corn Laws Cardwell sided with Peel. With the formation of Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government Cardwell entered the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade and served in a succession of posts under Palmerston and Russell, but he made his greatest impact as Gladstone’s Secretary of State for War. He abolished flogging and the purchase of officer commissions, replacing it with advancement on merit. In addition, he centralised the power of the War Office and made the Secretary of State superior to the Army Commander in Chief in the person of the Duke of Cambridge, cousin to Queen Victoria and an opponent of reform. The Duke would still be in post nearly 20 years later when another Liberal War Secretary Henry Campbell-Bannerman sought to introduce further army reforms.