The Forgotten Prime Minister

Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated. He deserves to be remembered for much more than that.

On the 11th May 1812, Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, entered the House of Commons. He was on his way to attend an inquiry into a set of Orders of Council he had issued. Perceval was, at the time, the leader of the most powerful democracy on Earth, one whose empire was already beginning to spread across the globe, despite the loss of the American colonies and repeated wars with France. Despite this, he was surprisingly approachable, rarely accompanied by any kind of guard. This was very much the case that afternoon and as Perceval walked through the lobby he passed through a large crowd of petitioners and civil servants, something that he had done many times before without incident.

That day, however, was different. In the crowd of petitioners was John Bellingham. Bellingham was a failed merchant from Liverpool, burdened by debt. This had led, in part, to a period of imprisonment in Russia, from which he had returned just a month before. In the time since he had become convinced that his imprisonment was somehow the government’s fault and that Perceval in particular was to blame.

As the Prime Minister moved through the crowd Bellingham stepped out in front of him. Before anyone could react, Bellingham pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired a single shot from close range into Perceval’s chest.

The wounded Prime Minister collapsed to the ground and confusion and fear rippled through the crowd. Bellingham calmly walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Seconds later he was restrained by Isaac Gascoigne, Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool. Bellingham made no effort to resist. Meanwhile bystanders carried Perceval into a nearby office. His pulse was weak and fading and he was placed on a table. A doctor was frantically sought, but it was too late. The shot had taken Perceval in the heart and the wound was fatal. Mere minutes after the shot had been fired he was dead.

In that moment Spencer Perceval became (and remains) the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.

The forgotten man

History has not been kind to Spencer Perceval. Not because it has judged him harshly, but because it has forgotten really to judge him at all. For most people, if they know the name, it is as the answer to a pub quiz question about his unique death.

A short man (even by the standards of the time), Perceval was blessed with boyish features well into later life. He was born into a well-connected family, but as the second son of his father’s second marriage his prospects (and finances) were not great. As a result, Perceval was largely forced to look to his own resources. He trained as a lawyer and swiftly began to make a name for himself as he embarked on both a legal and a political career.

Perceval’s harmless exterior concealed a fiercely conservative outlook and an almost fanatical commitment to his beliefs. This was a major contributor to his increasing reputation, but it ensured he made many enemies along the way. As a lawyer he participated in the successful prosecution of the publisher of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792. His reputation as a fierce opponent of social change grew further.

In 1796 Perceval became the MP for Northampton. He soon began ruthlessly and doggedly attacking the liberal cause in Parliament, becoming a key conservative attack dog for Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. So much so that when opposition MP George Tierney, challenged the Prime Minister to a duel in 1798, it was Perceval that Pitt suggested should succeed him in office if he lost. Luckily the need did not arise. Pitt and Tierney did indeed duel, firing pistols at twelve paces, but Tierney’s first shot missed and Pitt elected to fire into the air.

A country on the verge of great change

Perceval’s conservatism and extreme anti-liberal stance came at a time when Britain (and indeed the world) faced enormous social upheaval. France was in a state of revolution and the call for reform at home was increasing day by day. Abolitionism — the quest to end slavery — had also begun to make some headway in Britain, although its supporters knew they faced an up-hill battle to bring it to pass.

Slavery stood at the heart of British conservatism. It was a trade that earned enormous wealth for the country, particularly in ports such as Liverpool which played a crucial role in the world slave trade. Manufactured goods would be loaded there onto ships bound for Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves would then be taken by those same ships to America, where they (or at least those that survived the journey) would be traded for goods such as sugar, coffee or tobacco. These would be brought back to Liverpool, where enormous profits would be made and this horrific triangular trade would begin again.

Abolutionists faced a situation similar to that faced by those battling the Tobacco industry over lung cancer, or energy companies over environmental issues, today. They may have had the moral high ground but slavery’s supporters had the money, and they could call on many powerful, political supporters on both sides of the benches in Parliament.

In this environment you could be forgiven for thinking that Spencer Perceval, Pitt the Younger’s conservative attack dog, would be at the heart of the fight to preserve this shameful institution. Remarkably, the truth was the exact opposite.

Refusing to look away

William Wilberforce, one of the prime architects of abolition, was a man who firmly believed that the practice of slavery could never survive the exposure of what it truly involved. Once a person knew what was involved then they faced a stark moral choice.

“You may choose to look the other way,” Wilberforce once explained, “but you can never say again that you did not know.”

In the early 1800s Perceval was one of several politicians on whom Wilberforce and his supporters tested this theory. On the MP for Northampton, it worked. Having seen the horrible reality of the trade, Perceval became convinced that it had no place in modern society. Whatever his feelings on reform or liberalism in general, he soon became convinced that slavery was an absolute wrong. As a man for whom convictions were more important than politics, he soon became determined to do what he could to bring it to an end, regardless of the conflicts this might cause him within his own political party.

Finding a loop-hole

By the time he converted Perceval to the cause, Wilberforce had been trying, and failing, to get Parliament to ban the slave trade for over ten years. The brutal truth was the votes weren’t there. Plenty of politicians privately professed their opposition to slavery, but few would commit to its end publicly for fear of angering the wealthy and powerful pro-slavery lobby. That reluctance extended to Pitt the Younger himself. The Prime Minister told Wilberforce that he was personally against the trade, but that his hands were tied. He would not publicly support the cause or trigger a vote for fear of alienating his support or losing in Parliament.

The abolitionists knew that what they needed was some kind of win — anything that would put the first crack into the legal and political armour that surrounded the institution of slavery. In the end it was Perceval, determined to do the right thing despite the overwhelming pressure to do nothing, who finally found a way to strike that first blow.

In 1805 Britain was locked in conflict with France, and this had resulted in the occupation of Dutch Guiana. Ever the lawyer, Perceval quickly spotted an unexpected opportunity. The occupation had been carried out under Crown rather than Parliamentary authority. It was a subtle difference, but an important one as it meant that the way in which it was governed was subtly different to the rest of British territory. Most importantly, Perceval spotted, it meant that with a bit of legal hand-waving, a ban on the import of slaves to the new colony could go into the Orders-in-Council being enacted to prevent neutral countries from trading with France. And of course, Perceval quietly pointed out to Pitt, thanks to the vagaries of the British Parliamentary system Orders-in-Council didn’t need Parliamentary approval.

It was a masterful piece of political manouevring. Perceval had recognised that Wiberforce’s head-on approach could only take things so far. Certainly it had worked on Perceval himself, but the MP for Northampton knew that Pitt would never stand in front of the House of Commons and publicly commit to a cause which many of his friends and supporters still fervently opposed. So rather than try and force Pitt to do so, Perceval had simply engineered a way round it. Very quickly, the Prime Minister agreed to make the change.

The Dutch Guianan ban represented a key victory for the abolitionist cause. At a stroke, a trade that had consumed 6,000 human lives a year in Guiana had been ended, It also set a huge precedent. It opened a crack in slavery’s legal armour that could never be closed. Perceval remained determined to widen it further.

Seeing things through

In 1807 Parliament finally passed the Slave Trade Act. As the name implies, the Act banned the practice of the slave trade throughout the entirety of the British Empire and also committed Great Britain to press other European nations to do the same.

The passing of the Act represented a public triumph for the abolitionist cause and for Wilberforce himself, but neither Wilberforce nor Perceval believed that it represented the end of the fight. Its opponents were not beaten by its passing, and remained determined to use their power to weaken its impact. Over the next few years, some of the most tumultuous in British Parliamentary history, Perceval worked hard to ensure that the ideals of the Act became the reality. When the government Pitt had formed fell as the Bill was passing through Parliament, it was Perceval that carefully shepherded it through the change of government. Later, during his own tenure as Prime Minister, Perceval worked hard to give it teeth. This would ultimately lead to the founding of the West Africa Squadron, the Royal Navy’s first dedicated anti-slavery force, backed up by the full legal and political force of Perceval’s government.

Ultimately, by the time of his assassination, Perceval had done more than almost any man in Britain to ensure that not only would the slave trade be banned, but that the ban would not be a paper tiger. He was determined to ensure it would have a real impact both in Britain and anywhere British power projected.

Making enemies

Perceval’s strange combination of anti-liberalism and reform to be found Perceval ensured that he was never short of enemies. His arch-conservatism earned him the vitriol of liberals, whilst at the same time his commitment to eradicating the slave trade provoked the same reaction among many on his own side of the political fence.

In 1806 he even added the Prince Regent (yes that one) to his ever-growing list of enemies. The Prince‘s marriage to his wife, Charlotte was an unhappy one. Their marriage had been arranged against his will, and within a year of their nuptuals they were already living separately. When rumours began to circulate that the Princess might have had an affair, George stoked the flames and organised an investigation into her behaviour through his political connections.

Appalled at the smear campaign being enacted against Charlotte, Perceval became a key player in her defence. He wrote what became known infamously as “The Book” (which you can read here). It was a brutal, legal takedown of the Prince’s case, one that Perceval told the future George IV he would publish if the Prince didn’t back down and allow Charlotte to resume her public life. Brow-beaten and blackmailed, the Prince did so, although not before bombarding Perceval with what one observer described as “the most offensive personal abuse, and an oath that cannot be recited.”

An un-expected Prime Minister

To many Perceval’s ascension to the position of Prime Minister in 1809 seemed doomed to failure. Certainly it could not have happened at any other time. Although, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was a senior figure in the government, he arguably only really got the job because George Canning and Lord Castlereagh, the two leading political lights of the day, were locked a personal political rivalry that ruined their own chances of taking the top job (they too had been caught duelling). Both men initially refused to serve under Perceval. Various other Tory politicians refused to serve in his government as well, believing that the increasing economic hardships at home and the conflict with France abroad would make it unpopular and likely to fall. In the end, Perceval was unable even to find anyone willing to take on the office of Chancellor was forced to shoulder both roles.

Despite this inauspicious start, somehow Perceval made it work. Over the next two years his personality seemed to hold everything together — even his enemies in Parliament respected him, if not his politics — and perhaps most crucially few doubted his personal integrity. As a politician he was practically unique at the time — not only because he refused to treat politics as an opportunity to make money from the public purse (and gave much of what he could spare to charity) but also because he had married for love.

The family man

Perceval’s marriage to Jane Wilson had taken place while he was a poor junior lawyer, and though her father approved of his character he disapproved of Perceval’s poverty. The two lovers were forced to elope in order to seal their marriage, living for several years in a small flat above a carpet shop. A devoted husband, Perceval never took a mistress, something which caused much confusion amongst his political peers. So too did the fact that he adored his children. The couple had thirteen, twelve of whom survived into adulthood and Perceval delighted not only in helping raise them, but also in playing games with them.

“He was beloved without sensation of fear,” wrote one bemused contemporary on seeing Perceval with his children, “and never so happy as when playing in the midst of them.”

The stable statesman

Perceval’s integrity and talent for holding things together turned out to be exactly what the times required. Alongside ensuring that the Slavery Act was enforced he also worked hard to prosecute the war against Napoleon’s France in the face of successive defeats.

After the disastrous Walcheren campaign in the Netherlands and setbacks on the Iberian Peninsular, Perceval came under enormous pressure to withdraw all British troops from the continent. The small British force in Portugal under Sir Arthur Wellesley, however, continued to cling on. Napoleon had dismissed Wellesley as a “Sepoy General,” a derogatory reference to the fact that his experience had, until the Peninsular, largely come from fighting in India. It was a view that some in the upper echelons of British politics and the military shared and they began to advocate the army — or at least Wellesey’s — removal.

Perceval’s support for the General and his army, however, was unwavering. This gave Wellesley the time to prove his detractors wrong. By the end of the war with France, Wellesley’s victory over both the French and his detractors was complete, and as Viscount (later Duke of) Wellington he rightly cemented his place in the pantheon of great generals, and ultimately beat Napoleon himself at Waterloo.

Perceval’s commitment to prosecuting the war would have consequences beyond the battlefield though and beyond his own life. It brought economic hardship at home, to the point where in some cities — including London itself — news of his assassination was greeted with cheers. His refusal as Prime Minister to lessen the trade restrictions on neutral powers would also help set Britain and the United States on a path to war — the War of 1812, in which the White House would burn.

By 1812, however, there were few in Parliament — on either bench — who would dispute that Perceval was the right man for the Premiership. His cabinet colleagues referred to his as the ‘Supreme Commander’. As a politician he was at the height of his power when Bellingham’s bullet struck, and he was almost universally mourned by his peers after his death.

More than a piece of trivia

Given his unique place in history, it is perhaps inevitable that whenever the anniversary of Perceval’s death comes about, such coverage as there is nearly always focuses only on his assassination. Do spare a thought though for the man behind the pub quiz question.

Even the Prince Regent had come to begrudgingly respect him, and on realising that Perceval’s early death had robbed his wife and children of their sole source of income. Immediately requested that Parliament vote them a lump sum and an annuity for life.

Lord Castlereagh, once Perceval’s opponent but by then his Foreign Secretary, was unable to finish reading the Regent’s request in Parliament. Breaking down with emotion, he was forced to sit down and let others finish the reading.

“In most faces,” wrote one Parliamentary observer, “there was an agony of tears.”

Parliament wanted to bury Perceval in Westminster Abbey, but his widow Jane refused. He would not have wanted it, she insisted. He was buried in a quiet, private ceremony by his family in St Lukes, Charlton. Perceval’s journey into anonymity had begun.

That anonymity is unfair. There is no doubting that he was a man of contrasts. He was a conservative attack dog, a staunch anti-reformist and a blackmailer. He was also a loving husband and father, a man of integrity and an abolitionist. Indeed after Perceval’s death, William Wilberforce said that the abolitionist movement owed more to Perceval than it ever did to him.

In fact, possibly the least interesting thing Perceval ever did was get assassinated.

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