On the 11th May 1812, Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of Great Britain was shot by a disgruntled (and possibly insane) merchant in the lobby of the house of commons. In that moment he became the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated
. That's all that most people know about him, but the truth is he deserves far more attention than that...
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.
Perceval was without doubt a figure of fascinating contrasts. A short man (even by the standards of the time) with boyish features well into later life, his harmless exterior concealed a fiercely conservative outlook and an almost fanatical commitment to his beliefs. Perceval was the lawyer that successfully prosecuted the publisher of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man
in 1792 and was a fierce opponent of social change. As an MP for Northampton (you'll still find a statue of him in the Guildhall there
) he ruthless and doggedly attacked the liberal cause. Indeed so competent a conservative attack dog was he that a few years later when William Pitt the Younger, then Prime Minister, challenged George Tierney to a duel, it was Perceval that Pitt suggested should follow him if he lost (Tierney missed though, and Pitt fired into the air
Yet in stark contrast to this, after Perceval's death, no lesser man than William Wilberforce
would say that the abolitionist movement owed more to Perceval than it ever did to him. Wilberforce had tried, and failed, 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 publically support the cause for fear of alienating his support. It was Perceval, a fervent supporter of the anti-slavery movement who found a way to strike the first real blow in 1805. Newly occupied Dutch Guiana, he pointed out, was under Crown authority not
Parliamentary authority, and with a bit of legal hand-waving a ban on the import of slaves to the new colony could go in the controversial Orders-in-Council being enacted to prevent neutral countries trading with France without
then need for Parliamentary approval. Freed of the need to publically commit specifically to the cause, Pitt agreed, and an important early blow was struck.
It was not to be the last blow against slavery struck by Perceval. When Wilberforce's Bill was finally passed in 1807 it was Perceval that carefully shepharded it through the change of government later that year. Later, during his own tenure as Prime Minister, he would 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.
This strange combination of anti-liberalism and reform 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 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.
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
) and George III liked the fact that Perceval was strongly against giving greater rights to Catholics.
Yet 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 few doubted his personal integrity. As a politician he was practically unique at the time for not only being happily married (and not having a mistress), but also for refusing to treat politics as an opportunity to make money from the public purse. Indeed his death left his family in such financial straits that Parliament voted them a lump sum and his widow an annuity for life (you can read the original document here
There's much, much more than can be said about Perceval, but there is little space here. As Prime Minister, he was one of the few genuine supporters on whom Wellington could rely for support in the Peninsular War
(indeed it was Perceval who persuaded the King to make him "Viscount Wellington"), but his refusal to lessen the trade restrictions led to recession at home and, ultimately, the War of 1812
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.
And so whilst such coverage that does exist today on the anniversary of his death focuses on the assassination itself
(although to be fair this blog post over at the National Archive is worth a look
), do spare a thought for the the man behind the pub quiz question.
Abolitionist, conservative attack dog, reformer, blackmailer, loving husband (and father to eleven
children, war leader and possibly the most infuriating man in Britain. Spencer Perceval was all these things and more.
In fact, possibly the least
interesting thing he ever did was get assassinated.