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William Huskisson

William Huskisson (March 11, 1770 - September 15, 1830), English statesman and financier, was descended from an old Staffordshire family of moderate fortune, and was born at Birch Moreton, Worcestershire.

Having been placed in his fourteenth year under the charge of his maternal great-uncle Dr Gem, physician to the English embassy at Paris, in 1783 he passed his early years amidst a political fermentation which led him to take a deep interest in politics. Though he approved of the French Revolution, his sympathies were with the more moderate party, and he became a member of the "club of 1789," instituted to support the new form of constitutional monarchy in opposition to the anarchical attempts of the Jacobins[?].

He early displayed his mastery of the principles of finance by a Discours delivered in August 1790 before this society, in regard to the issue of assignats by the government. The Discours gained him considerable reputation, but as it failed in its purpose he withdrew from the society. In January 1793 he was appointed by Dundas to an office created to direct the execution of the Aliens Act; and in the discharge of his delicate duties he manifested such ability that in 1795 he was appointed under-secretary at war. In the following year he entered parliament as member for Morpeth, but for a considerable period he took scarcely any part in the debates. In 1800 he inherited a fortune from Dr Gem. On the retirement of Pitt in 1801 he resigned office, and after contesting Dover unsuccessfully he withdrew for a time into private life. Having in 1804 been chosen to represent Liskeard[?], he was on the restoration of the Pitt ministry appointed secretary of the treasury, holding office till the dissolution of the ministry after the death of Pitt in January 1806.

After being elected for Harwich in 1807, he accepted the same office under the duke of Portland, but he withdrew from the ministry along with Canning in 1809. In the following year he published a pamphlet on the currency system, which confirmed his reputation as the ablest financier of his time; but his free-trade principles did not accord with those of his party. In 1812 he was returned for Chichester. When in 1814 he re-entered the public service, it was only as chief commissioner of woods and forests, but his influence was from this time very great in the commercial and financial legislation of the country. He took a prominent part in the corn-law debates of 1814 and 1815; and in 1819 he presented a memorandum to Lord Liverpool advocating a large reduction in the unfunded debt, and explaining a method for the resumption of cash payments, which was embodied in the act passed the same year. In 1821 he was a member of the committee appointed to inquire into the causes of the agricultural distress then prevailing, and the proposed relaxation of the corn laws embodied in the report was understood to have been chiefly due to his strenuous advocacy.

In 1823 he was appointed president of the board of trade and treasurer of the navy, and shortly afterwards he received a seat in the cabinet. In the same year he was returned for Liverpool as successor to Canning, and as the only man who could reconcile the Tory merchants to a free trade policy. Among the more important legislative changes with which he was principally connected were a reform of the Navigation Acts, admitting other nations to a full equality and reciprocity of shipping duties; the repeal of the labour laws; the introduction of a new sinking fund; the reduction of the duties on manufactures and on the importation of foreign goods, and the repeal of the quarantine duties. In accordance with his suggestion Canning in 1827 introduced a measure on the corn laws proposing the adoption of a sliding scale to regulate the amount of duty. A misapprehension between Huskisson and the duke of Wellington led to the duke proposing an amendment, the success of which caused the abandonment of the measure by the government.

After the death of Canning in the same year Huskisson accepted the secretaryship of the colonies under Lord Goderich, an office which he continued to hold in the new cabinet formed by the duke of Wellington in the following year. After succeeding with great difficulty in inducing the cabinet to agree to a compromise on the corn laws, Huskisson finally resigned office in May 1829 on account of a difference with his colleagues in regard to the disfranchisement of East Retford. On the 15th of September of the following year he was accidentally killed by a locomotive engine while present at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

See the Life of Huskisson, by J Wright (London, 1831).


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