The Forgotten Prime Minister

At 5:15 on the 11th May 1812, Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of Great Britain entered the House of Commons on his way to attend an inquiry into a set of Orders of Council he had issued. As Perceval walked through the lobby, he passed through a crowd of petitioners and civil servants, something that he had done many times without incident throughout his time as the head of the world’s most powerful democracy.

That day, however, was different. Suddenly, out of the crowd stepped John Bellingham, a failed (and possibly insane) merchant who blamed Perceval’s government for the failure of his business. Raising a pistol before the astonished Prime Minister he fired a single shot, straight into Perceval’s chest.

As the wounded Prime Minister collapsed to the ground, and both 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 weak and fading, where he was placed on a table as a doctor was frantically sought. It was too late. The shot had taken Perceval in the heart and the wound was fatal. Mere seconds later he was dead. In that moment he became the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.

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History has not been kind to Spencer Perceval. Not because it has judged him harshly, but because generally speaking it has forgotten to judge him at all. Ask most people if they recognise the name and, if they do, it will be for his unique death. The truth though is that he deserves far more attention than that.

A Man of Contrasts

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

This was because his harmless exterior concealed a fiercely conservative outlook and an almost fanatical commitment to his beliefs. As a lawyer he helped oversee the successful prosecution of the publisher of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792 and soon built up a reputation as a fierce opponent of social change.

In 1796 Perceval became the MP for Northampton (you’ll still find a statue of him in the Guildhall there) and soon began ruthlessly and doggedly attacking the liberal cause. Indeed so competent a conservative attack dog was he that in 1798 when William Pitt the Younger, then Prime Minister, was challenged to a duel by opposition MP George Tierney, it was Perceval that Pitt suggested should follow him if he lost.

Luckily the need did not arise. Pitt and Tierney did indeed duel, choosing pistols at twelve paces, but Tierney’s first shot missed and Pitt elected to fire into the air.

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Pitt and Tierney duel

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 small headway in Britain, although its supporters knew faced an up-hill battle to bring it to pass. Slavery stood at the heart of British conservatism – a trade which brought in enormous money to the country, particularly to 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 themselves (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 the horrific triangular trade would begin again.

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Warehouses in Liverpool used to store goods for the slave trade. Today the Liver building stands in their place.

Abolutionists thus faced a situation no different to, if not worse than, 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 supporters, especially on the conservative-leaning benches to be found on both sides 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. In fact, 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 man knew what was involved then he faced a stark moral choice.

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

It was a choice that Perceval soon found himself facing. Enlightened to the realities of the trade by Wilberforce and others, Perceval was soon convinced that slavery was morally wrong. And, as a man for whom convictions were more important than politics, he was determined to do what he could to bring it to an end.

Finding a loop-hole

After Perceval’s death, Wilberforce himself would say that the abolitionist movement owed more to Perceval than it ever did to him. Wilberforce had been trying, and failing, to get Parliament to ban the slave trade for over ten years, without success. The votes weren’t there, and Pitt – though personally against the trade – would not publicly support the cause for fear of alienating his support.

In the end it was Perceval, determined to do the right thing despite the pressure to do nothing, who finally found a way to strike the first real blow against slavery in 1805.

At the time Britain was locked in conflict with France, and this had resulted in the occupation of Dutch Guiana. Perceval the lawyer quickly spotted that this occupation, which had been carried out under Crown rather than Parliamentary authority presented a rather unique opportunity. With a bit of legal hand-waving a ban on the import of slaves to the new colony could go into the controversial Orders-in-Council being enacted under similar authority to prevent neutral countries from trading with France. Importantly, thanks to the vagaries of the British Parliamentary system these Orders-in-Council didn’t need Parliamentary approval.

It was a masterful suggestion. Perceval knew that the barrier to gaining Pitt’s approval for anti-slavery legislation was the fear the Prime Minister had of standing in front of the House of Commons and publicly committing 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 – and once the plan was suggested to Pitt, the Prime Minister swiftly agreed.

The Orders-in-Council represented an enormous blow struck for the abolitionist cause. Their physical effect may have been minor, but they set a huge precedent – a crack that once opened could never be closed. It would not be the only blow that Perceval would strike.

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. Over the next few years, some of the most tumultuous in British Parliamentary history, Perceval would work 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, he would also work tirelessly to ensure the ban was enforced, and would work hard to give the West Africa Squadron, the Royal Navy’s first dedicated anti-slavery force, genuine legal and physical power.

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HMS Brisk apprehends a slave ship

Ultimately by the time of his death, Perceval had done more than almost any man to ensure that not only would the slave trade be banned, but that this ban would mean something and make a real difference out in the world itself.

Making enemies

The strange combination of anti-liberalism and reform that we have seen in Perceval so far would come to epitomise Perceval’s political career. His arch-conservatism earned him many enemies amongst the liberals, whilst at the same time his commitment to eradicating the slave trade earned him a similar number of enemies on the other side of the political fence.

He had even added the Prince Regent (yes that one) to his ever-growing list of enemies in 1806 when he effectively blackmailed the Prince into letting the Prince’s estranged wife, Princess Charlotte, back into court society. Appalled at the smear campaign being enacted by the Prince against her in the courts (including allegations of having an illegitimate child), Perceval wrote what became known infamously as “The Book” (which you can read here), a brutally frank legal takedown of the Prince’s case, which he threatened to print if the Prince didn’t back down. The future George IV did so, allegedly with much swearing directed in Perceval’s direction.

An un-expected Prime Minister

To many then, his ascension to the position of Prime Minister in 1809 seemed doomed to failure – he arguably only really got the job because Canning and Castlereagh, the two leading lights of the day were in the political doghouse (yes, you guessed it, they’d been caught duelling). Forced to chose from the remaining leading politicians of the day, King George III picked Perceval – in no small part because Perceval was strongly against giving greater political rights to Catholics, a belief which the King held strongly himself.

Despite this inauspicious start though, somehow Perceval made it work. Over the next two years his personality seemed to hold everything together – even his enemies in Parliament seemed to respect him, if not his politics – and perhaps most crucially few doubted his personal integrity. For as a politician he was practically unique at the time – not only because he was happily married (and had no mistresses throughout his life), but also because he refused to treat politics as an opportunity to make money from the public purse.

Indeed his early death would ultimately leave his widow and family in such financial straits that Parliament voted them both a lump sum and an annuity for life (you can read the original document here).

Perceval’s integrity and talent for holding things together somehow ensured that throughout his time in office he managed to bring some element of stability to the government.

Alongside ensuring that the Slavery Act was enforced he also worked hard to prosecute the war against Napoleon’s France. Despite the ebb and flow of the campaign on the Iberian Peninsular, his support of the British forces there under Sir Arthur Wellesley was unwavering. 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. Perceval’s support of his initially embattled general, however, helped to give Wellesley the time to prove his detractors wrong. By the end of the war Wellesley’s victory over both the French and his detractors was complete, and as Viscount Wellington (an honour that Perceval had urged the King to bestow) he had rightly cemented his place in the pantheon of great generals.

Perceval’s commitment to prosecuting the war would also have consequences beyond the battlefield and beyond his own life. For whilst he would not live to see it, it would be his refusal as Prime Minister to lessen the trade restrictions on neutral powers that would help set Britain and the United States on a path to war – the War of 1812, in which the White House would burn.

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The White House burns, by Tom W. Freeman

All the above meant that by 1811 Perceval arguably had more enemies than any other man in Britain. His abolitionist activities, limitations on trade, anti-liberal tendencies and ruthless tax policy made him a hate figure amongst the urban poor and trading classes, yet there were few in Parliament who didn’t accept his position as Prime Minister. Indeed he was mourned universally by both friends and enemies 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, reader, for the the man behind the pub quiz question.

Abolitionist, conservative attack dog, reformer, blackmailer, loving husband (and father to twelve children). War leader, White-House-Burner and almost certainly the most infuriating man living in Britain at the time. Spencer Perceval was all these things and more.

In fact, possibly the least interesting thing he ever did was get assassinated…



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