Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/89

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

tion of a lord mayor, and received their thanks for his conduct of their case. In consequence of the extraordinary partisanship displayed by the chief justice of the king's bench [see Scott, John, Lord Clonmell] in the famous quarrel between John Magee (d. 1809) [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Dublin Evening Post,’ and Francis Higgins (1746–1802) [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Freeman's Journal,’ Ponsonby brought the matter before parliament on 3 March 1790. His speech, which was published and had a wide circulation, was from a legal standpoint unanswerable; but the motion was adroitly met by the attorney-general moving that the chairman should leave the chair. A similar motion in March of the following year, expressly censuring the lord chief justice, incurred a similar fate; but the fierce criticism to which his conduct had exposed him utterly ruined Clonmell's judicial character.

In 1792, during the discussion on the Roman catholic question, Ponsonby, who at this time took a more conservative line than Grattan, urged that time should be given for recent concessions to produce their natural fruits, and a fuller system of united education be adopted before the catholics were entrusted with political power. Nevertheless, he voted for the bill of 1793; and on the ground that government was trying to create a separate catholic interest inimical to the protestant gentry, he urged parliament ‘to admit the catholics to a full participation in the rights of the constitution, and thus to bind their gratitude and their attachments to their protestant fellow-subjects.’ He was designated for the post of attorney-general in the administration of Earl Fitzwilliam [see Fitzwilliam, William Wentworth, second Earl Fitzwilliam], and corroborated Grattan's account of the circumstances that led to that nobleman's recall. In a subsequent debate on the catholic question in 1796 he again urged parliament to admit the catholics to a full participation of political power, and thus to deprive government of its excuse to keep the country weak by keeping it divided. Every attempt to settle the question and to purify the legislature having failed, Ponsonby, in company with Grattan, Curran, and a few others, seceded from parliamentary life early in 1797. The wisdom of such conduct is open to question; but he at once returned to his post when the intention of government to effect a legislative union was definitely announced. During the reign of terror which preceded the union he incurred the suspicion of government, and acted as counsel for Henry Sheares [q. v.] and Oliver Bond [q. v.] He led the opposition to the union in the House of Commons, but he spoiled the effect of his victory on the address by injudiciously trying to induce the house to pledge itself against any such scheme in the future.

On 2 March 1801 he took his seat in the imperial parliament as member for Wicklow county, and speedily won the regard of the house by his sincerity, urbanity, and businesslike capacity. He opposed the motion for funeral honours to Pitt, on the ground that to do otherwise ‘would be virtually a contradiction of the votes I have given for a series of years against all the leading measures of that minister.’ On the formation of the Fox-Grenville ministry in 1806, he received the seals as lord chancellor of Ireland, and at the same time obtained for Curran the mastership of the rolls; but in the arrangements for this latter appointment a misunderstanding arose, which led to a permanent estrangement between them. Though holding office for barely a year, he retired with the usual pension of 4,000l. a year. He represented county Cork in 1806–7; but on 19 Jan. 1808 he succeeded Lord Howick—called to the upper house as Earl Grey—in the representation of Tavistock, and for the remainder of his life acted as official leader of the opposition. He offered a strenuous resistance to the Irish Arms Bill of 1807, which he denounced, amid great uproar, as an ‘abominable, unconstitutional, and tyrannical measure.’ In the following year he opposed the Orders in Council Bill, which, he predicted, would complete the mischief to English commerce left undone by Bonaparte, and he was very averse to the system of subsidising continental powers, ‘the invariable result of which had been to promote the aggrandisement of France.’ In speaking in support of the Roman catholic petition on 25 May 1808, he added some novelty to the debate by announcing, on the authority of Dr. John Milner (1752–1826) [q. v.], that the Irish clergy were willing to consent to a royal veto on the appointment to vacant bishoprics. It soon turned out that he was misinformed, and his statement caused much mischief in Ireland; but he did not cease to advocate the concession of the catholic claims. On 19 Jan. 1809, in a speech of an hour and a half, he arraigned the conduct of the ministry in mismanaging affairs in Spain, and, in consequence, was charged with throwing cold water on the Spanish cause. In the following year he took a prominent part in the debates on the Walcheren expedition; and his speech on the privileges of the House of Commons as connected with the committal of Sir Francis Burdett [q. v.] on 11 May,