Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, William (1694-1771)

SHIRLEY, WILLIAM (1694–1771), colonial governor, born at Preston in Sussex in 1694, was the son of William Shirley, merchant of the city of London, and a member of the Shirley family of Preston in Sussex, by Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Godman of Otehall, in the same county. William was bred to the law, and entered at the Middle Temple. In 1731 he emigrated to Boston with a letter of introduction from the Duke of Newcastle to Belcher, the governor of Massachusetts. He at once became a strenuous place-hunter; we find traces among the state papers of his seeking the post of collector of customs at Rhode Island, a like office at Boston, the attorney-generalship of New York, and clerk of the court of common pleas in Boston. His wife came to London and persistently pressed Shirley's suit, and we find Shirley himself writing letters which, if not deliberately intended to oust Belcher from his governorship, at least discredited him and tended to bring about that result. In October 1740 Shirley took a leading part in raising troops to be employed in Lord Cathcart's expedition against Carthagena, and in the same year he was nominated either by the governor, or more probably by the assembly of Massachusetts, to act as commissioner in a boundary dispute with Rhode Island. While he was thus engaged the news came of Belcher's supersession and Shirley's appointment to the governorship. His commission passed the privy council on 6 May 1741. His tenure of office was marked at the very outset by ineffectual attempts to restrain the issue of paper money and to secure for himself a fixed salary. He was, however, personally popular, and the refusal of the salary was tempered by a liberal grant.

The great event of Shirley's governorship was the capture of Louisburg. This enterprise was proposed by him to the assembly of Massachusetts under a pledge of strict secrecy. At first the assembly refused to entertain the scheme. Finally it was carried by a single vote. The New England colonies, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, joined in the enterprise. Shirley's attempts to secure help from Pennsylvania and New York failed. Probably every prudent strategist would have deemed the scheme a wholly foolhardy one. Louisburg was a strong place, regularly garrisoned. The New England troops were raw militia, with no military experience beyond frontier skirmishes; commander and men alike were wholly untrained to siege work. But daring and good fortune wrought together, and on 17 June 1745 Louisburg surrendered. In one respect the capture was of great service to the colony. The mother country paid the expenses of the siege. Thus a supply of specie was introduced into Massachusetts; the paper of the colony was redeemed, and Shirley was freed from what had proved a serious embarrassment to his predecessors.

Shirley had looked on the attack upon Louisburg only as a step towards a complete conquest of Canada, and success at once raised his hopes. Instigated by him, the English ministry approved of an expedition against Canada, and a force of over eight thousand men was raised, principally from the northern colonies. Massachusetts sent a contingent of three thousand five hundred. The British force which was to have co-operated was, however, detained either by bad weather or by the blundering of the ministry, and nothing came of the attempt. In 1748 the dispute between the governor and the assembly as to a fixed salary revived, but not, as it would seem, in an acute form. In the next year Shirley went home on leave, and was sent to Paris to negotiate with a commissioner of the French government about the boundary line between Canada and New England.

Shirley lost his first wife, Frances, daughter of Francis Barker, in September 1746, and he now married a young Frenchwoman, the daughter of his landlord. His marriage, however, did not abate his antipathy to France. In 1753 he returned to Boston, and was at once employed in conciliating the natives on the Canadian frontier, and in pressing on the British government the need for vigorous operations. He so far succeeded that in 1755 comprehensive operations were undertaken for expelling the French from all territory in North America to which England laid claim. Shirley himself was invested with the command of a force directed against Niagara. Sickness, lack of supplies, and storms which made Lake Oneida impassable, frustrated the expedition. Shirley's son John, who accompanied him died, and another son was killed with Braddock. Shirley's enthusiasm for the war was, however, unabated, and by Braddock's death he became commander-in-chief of the British forces in America. In December 1755 he held a council of war at New York, and a comprehensive scheme of operations against Canada was settled. But Shirley had excited the displeasure of certain New York politicians, and by their contrivance he was superseded in his military command. With all his zeal it can hardly be said that his military experience was such as to justify his retention at a time of such importance. It was much to Shirley's honour that though no longer in supreme command, he strove loyally and energetically to further the operations against Canada. But in 1756 Lord Loudon, then commander-in-chief, holding Shirley responsible for the loss of Oswego, summarily and discourteously ordered him to England, and in the following year he was removed from his governorship. Shirley's conduct was vindicated in a pamphlet published in 1758 as ‘The Conduct of Major-general Shirley, late General of his Majesty's forces in North America, briefly stated.’

Shirley was meagrely compensated by the governorship of the Bahamas. In 1770 he resigned that post, and went to live as a private citizen at Roxbury in Massachusetts, where he built a mansion for himself with bricks imported from England at a vast expense, and where he died on 24 March 1771; he was buried in the King's Chapel, Boston. Shirley's schemes may have been at times in advance of his executive abilities and his resources. But he saw more distinctly than any other colonial statesman of his day that the issue in America between France and Great Britain was one which allowed of no compromise, and that in his own words ‘Delenda est Canada.’ He began as a place-hunter, but his after career was free from all tincture of intrigue or self-seeking, and he proved himself a strenuous patriot.

A portrait by Thomas Hudson was engraved by J. McArdell (J. C. Smith, Mezzotinto Portraits, p. 896); it forms a frontispiece to ‘Memorials of the History of Boston,’ vol. ii., and is reproduced in Winsor's ‘Hist. of America’ (v. 142). Besides inspiring the ‘Vindication’ of his conduct, mentioned above, Shirley was author of ‘A Letter to … the Duke of Newcastle, with a journal of the siege of Louisbourg’ (London, 1746, 8vo). The plays which have been attributed to him (in Appleton's and Allibone's Dictionaries) were the work of William Shirley (fl. 1775) [q. v.]

Of Shirley's four sons by his first wife, Sir Thomas Shirley (1769–1800) was the only one who survived his parents. He was born in the Bahamas, entered the army and rose rapidly. In 1781 he was appointed governor of the Leeward Islands and colonel of the 91st foot; and in 1798 he was advanced to the rank of general, having been created a baronet on 27 June 1786. He died at Bath on 11 Feb. 1800, and on the death of his son, Sir William Warden Shirley, second baronet, on 26 Feb. 1815, the ancient Sussex family of Shirley became extinct in the male line (Sussex Archæolog. Coll. xix. 61–70; Gent. Mag. 1800, i. 286).

[Colonial State Papers; Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts; Parkman's Half-Century of Conflict; Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe; Shirley's Stemmata Shirleiana, 1873, p. 322.]

J. A. D.