Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

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Charles Grey
I am a great lover of morality, public and private, but the intercourse of nations cannot be strictly regulated by that rule.

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, KG, PC (13 March 176417 July 1845), known as Viscount Howick between 1806 and 1807, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 22 November 1830 to 16 July 1834. A member of the Whig Party, he backed significant reform of the British government and was among the primary architects of the Reform Act 1832. In addition to his political achievements, he famously gave his name to Earl Grey tea.



  • He was not a friend to Paine's doctrines, but he was not to be deterred by a name from acknowledging that he considered the rights of man as the foundation of every government, and those who stood out against those rights as conspirators against the people. The dearest right of Englishmen was to the possession of their constitution, while it was maintained on its true principles; but if it was abused, the effect must infallibly be to inflame men's minds, and ministers alone would be responsible for the consequences which might ensue. If the people complained of grievances, let those grievances be removed, and their discontents would cease. If the people were put in possession of their rights, there would be no longer any fear of internal or foreign danger... The retreat of the duke of Brunswick, which he, along with his right hon. friend, and every friend of freedom, considered as matter of joy and exultation, had indeed thrown them into confusion.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (12 December 1792), quoted in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXX (1817), pp. 41-42
  • Bad as I am thought, I cannot express the horror I feel at this atrocity.
    • Letter to Mrs. Ord on the execution of Louis XVI (24 January 1793), quoted in in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764-1845 (1990; 1996), p. 57, n. 9
  • Mr. Grey said, that he was prepared to defend the country, not only against an invasion of a foreign enemy, wishing to inculcate their own dangerous principles, which were clearly most subversive of civil society, but he would defend it, at the risk of his life, against the subjects of any government, if it was the best that human wisdom could devise; he did not however think it was candid, or by any means conciliatory, in the right hon. gentleman, on every occasion that presented itself to introduce the words "just and necessary" war. He declared he was much obliged to an hon. gentleman who had done him the honour to remember his words. He had declared, and he would declare again, that he would rather live under the most despotic monarchy, nay, even under that of the king of Prussia, or the empress of Russia, than under the present government of France. He wished the chancellor of the exchequer had descended a little from his high and haughty tone of prerogative, and had informed the House, in plain, simple, intelligible language his real opinion of the legality of the measure which ministers had thought to pursue with respect to voluntary subscriptions. As for himself, he would insist, that to raise money without the authority of parliament, for any public purpose whatsoever, was illegal; and if right hon. gentleman should insist on contrary, it would give a deeper wound the constitution than any that it had received even from that right hon. gentleman.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 March 1794), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXI (1818), pp. 94-95
"I have no hope of a reform, but from the people themselves; that this House will never reform itself, or destroy the corruption by which it is supported, by any other means than those of the resolutions of the people, acting on the prudence of this House."
  • What was the conduct of the minister in the year 1782, when his pretended sincerity for a parliamentary reform had been defeated in that House, by a motion for the order of the day? He had abandoned it for ever. William Pitt, the reformer of that day, was William Pitt the prosecutor, aye, and persecutor too, of reformers now... What was object of these people? "Their ostensible object," said the minister, "is parliamentary reform; but their real object is the destruction of the government of the country." How was that explained? "By the resolutions," said the minister, "of these persons themselves; for they do not talk of applying to parliament, but of applying to the people for the purpose of obtaining a parliamentary reform." If this language be criminal, said Mr. Grey, I am one of the greatest criminals. I say, that from the House of Commons I have no hope of a parliamentary reform; that I have no hope of a reform, but from the people themselves; that this House will never reform itself, or destroy the corruption by which it is supported, by any other means than those of the resolutions of the people, acting on the prudence of this House, and on which the people ought to resolve. This they only do by meeting in bodies. This was the language of the minister in 1782.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 May 1794), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXI (1818), pp. 532-533
  • Mr. Grey was much obliged to his hon. friend for submitting the motion to the House. The length of time during which the nation had groaned under such vexatious and tyrannical institutions, was with him a reason why they should exist no longer, and he wished Mr. Curwen to move for a committee to inquire into the state of the game laws.
    • Remarks in the House of Commons on the debate on Mr. Curwen's Motion to Repeal the Game Laws (4 March 1796), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXI (1818), p. 845
  • What I most heartily wish for is, a union between the two countries: by a union I mean something more than a mere word—a union, not of parliaments, but of hearts, affections, and interests—a union of vigour, of ardour, of zeal for the general welfare of the British empire. It is this species of union, and this only, that can tend to increase the real strength of the empire, and give it security against any danger. But if any measure with the name only of union be proposed, and the tendency of which would be to disunite us, to create disaffection, distrust, and jealousy, it can only tend to weaken the whole of the British empire. Of this nature do I take the present measure to be. Discontent, distrust, jealousy, suspicion, are the visible fruits of it in Ireland already: if you persist in it, resentment will follow; and although you should be able, which I doubt, to obtain a seeming consent of the parliament of Ireland to the measure, yet the people of that country would wait for an opportunity of recovering their rights, which they will say were taken from them by force.
    • Speech in the House of Commons on the proposed unification of Great Britain and Ireland (7 February 1799), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXIV (1819), p. 334


  • We are referred to the period the Revolution [of 1688]. We are told to be contented with those securities for our liberties which our ancestors provided... It is pleaded as an invincible bar to any improvement proposed in favour of the people, though it is not allowed the smallest authority when it is opposed to an enlargement of power: when the crown is to be invested with any new prerogatives, the ancient landmarks may be removed without a scruple, but they are sacred against the best founded claims of the people... The point now is, to inquire, whether, in the course of human affairs, and the changes which time and events have produced, the principle of freedom has preserved those bulwarks and securities with which it was the object of the Revolution to invest it? Whether the crown has not gained a degree of influence beyond the regulated portion assigned by the establishments of our ancestors, and which either has been, or threatens to become, injurious to cause of liberty and to the of the empire?
    • Speech in the House of Commons (25 April 1800), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXV (1819), pp. 91-93
  • Has, then, the influence of the crown increased since the Revolution? Down to the period of 1782 I believe the fact will not be much disputed. It was upon the notoriety of the fact, and the bad consequences it had produced, that the motions of the right hon. gentleman in favour of reform were founded. That it has increased, I think every impartial man must be compelled to admit... If, then, while the influence of the crown has so manifestly advanced, while the cause of liberty has remained the same, or has sustained a diminution of its strength, can it be said that we are standing upon the establishment of the Revolution, and adhering to the principles which it ascertained? It is, then, upon this ground of experience and the evidence of facts, upon proof of positive inconvenience and real declination from its original purity, that I should propose to recall our constitution to its true principles and to amend the system of our representation.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (25 April 1800), reported in The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XXXV (1819), pp. 91-93
  • I have from the beginning been adverse to distant expeditions for the purpose of expanding our colonial possessions. They are necessarily attended with a further division of our force, and with a diminution of our means of acting in Europe. Whilst we are acquiring colonies, the enemy is subjugating the Continent; and though I am by no means disposed to raise doubts of our ability to maintain the contest in this manner, I cannot help fearing the effect of any system which might enable the French, either completely to subdue the remaining Powers of the Continent, or to engage them in opinion against this country... In Europe the most formidable danger exists. It is there that every effort should be made to stop the career of the enemy. Our interest and our reputation are equally at stake. Our allies have a right to look to us for support, and our honour requires that we should not appear to be wanting to the common cause. With a view, therefore, to a continuance of the war on the Continent, I am strongly of opinion that we should immediately collect and prepare for embarkation the largest possible British force that can be made applicable to such a service.
    • Minute written whilst Foreign Secretary and docketed as 'objections intended to have been submitted to the King, if the plan for more extended operations in South America had been persevered in' (autumn 1806), quoted in Lieutenant-General Hon. C. Grey, Some Account of the Life and Opinions of Charles, Second Earl Grey (1861), pp. 135-136
  • [The Spanish news] really keeps me awake at night and in the day I can think of nothing else. I did not think it possible that anything could have made me regret being out of office, but I now wish I was in a situation, in which it might be possible to assist this glorious cause.
    • Letter to Lady Holland (2 July 1808), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764–1845 (1990; 1996), p. 169
  • To assist the Spaniards is morally and politically one of the highest duties a nation ever had to perform.
    • Letter to Lord Brougham on the Spanish uprising against Napoleon's invasion (29 September 1808), quoted in The Life and Times of Lord Brougham, Written By Himself. Volume I (1871), p. 288
  • Wellesley's success...appears to have been nothing more than an affair of a rear-guard, and is ridiculously magnified.
    • Letter to Lord Grenville on the Duke of Wellington's successes in the Peninsular War (25 May 1809), quoted in Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (1996), p. 94


  • I think I entirely agree with you on the subject of Portugal; all the probabilities were, and in my opinion still are, against eventual success there. I have no faith even in the promised victory... I could not deny that such a success would be worth the sacrifices we had made for it. But a doubtful or indecisive victory, and protracted operations, I should think little less ruinous (I am not sure they would not be more so) than an immediate defeat.
    • Letter to Lord Grenville (9 November 1810), quoted in Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (1996), pp. 136-137
  • Earl Grey rose, and said, that the motion of the noble lord had his most entire and full assent... [H]e could not sit silent on the occasion, impressed as he was with feelings of gratitude and admiration towards that great commander who was the subject of this vote, and deriving a just national pride from the consideration, that the honour of the country had been so greatly exalted by the conduct of that distinguished general and his brave army... [T]he apparent contrast, or contradiction, as some might call it, between the sentiments which he had now delivered, and the opinions which he had expressed on former occasions... [U]pon the whole it appeared manifest, that by the most exemplary and patient perseverance under unfavourable circumstances, and at the moment of action by the skilful combination of force and the most determined courage, a great success had been achieved, and as much honour done to the British army as any victory could have accomplished.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the Vote of Thanks to Lord Wellington, and the British and Portuguese Armies (26 April 1811)
  • [T]he French are on the point of making a great effort in Portugal...which Lord Wellington...will find himself unable to resist. But even if such an effort could not take place or should not succeed, I am convinced the period when we shall be obliged to give up the contest from an absolute inability to support the expense, is fast approaching.
    • Letter to Lord Grenville (1 September 1811), quoted in Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (1996), p. 157
  • [Accounts from Russia lead me to conclude,] as you probably have done, that no reasonable hope of success is to be entertained in that quarter.
    • Letter to Lord Grenville (1 November 1812) on Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia, quoted in Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (1996), p. 231
  • With all the uncertainty of the success of the next campaign, and with the absolute certainty that we are now making our last effort...I should be willing to conclude a peace, which compared with our situation a year ago would be most advantageous, though it may be one to which, with our resources entire, I should not have been willing to submit.
    • Letter to Lord Fitzwilliam (9 April 1813), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764-1845 (1990; 1996), pp. 174-175
  • It is impossible not to admire his ability, resource, and fortitude, in presenting himself everywhere to repel the dangers which assail him.
    • Letter to Lord Holland on Napoleon (24 September 1813), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764-1845 (1990; 1996), p. 176
  • I cannot agree with you that the money in Spain has been ineffectual in producing the better hope which now exists... I still think that our opinions at the beginning and in the progress of the Spanish contest were well warranted by such data as we then had to reason upon... But I cannot say that as things have turned out, contrary certainly to any expectations, the event of the Spanish war has not been both honourable and advantageous to this country.
    • Letter to Lady Grenville (27 October 1813), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764-1845 (1990; 1996), p. 174
  • I have written with a very confused head from the affects of laudanum.
    • Letter to Sir James Mackintosh in 1813, excusing a brief letter he had sent him, quoted in Patrick O'Leary, Sir James Mackintosh. The Whig Cicero (1989), p. 184
  • [T]his indeed is one of the most mischievous effects of the proceedings of the Radicals, that by abusing popular privileges they establish precedents for abridging them. My views of the state of the country are more and more gloomy. Everything is tending, and has for some time been tending, to a complete separation between the higher and lower orders of society; a state of things which can only end in the destruction of liberty.
    • Letter to Lord Brougham after the Peterloo Massacre (25 August 1819), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764–1845 (1990; 1996), p. 217
  • Look at the men themselves who lead in this cause. Is there one among them with whom you would trust yourself in the dark? Can you have, I will not say, any confidence in their opinions and principles, but any doubt of the wickedness of their intentions? Look at them, at their characters, at their conduct. What is there more base, and more detestable, more at variance with all tact and decency, as well as all morality, truth, and honour? A cause so supported cannot be a good cause. They may use Burdett as an instrument for a time, and you also if you place yourself in their trammels, but depend upon it, if a convulsion follows their attempt to work upon the minds of the people, inflamed as they now are by distress, for which your reform will afford a very inadequate remedy, I shall not precede you many months on the scaffold, which you will have assisted in preparing for us both.
    • Letter to General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson on the Radicals (October 1819), quoted in M. R. Brock, Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism. 1820–1827 (1941), pp. 117-118
  • The noble lord who moved the address had, in the course of his speech, warned the House not to let an anxiety for liberty lead to a compromise of the safety of the state. He, for his part, could not separate those things. The safety of the state could only be found in the protection of the liberties of the people. Whatever was destructive of the latter also destroyed the former... The discontent existing in the country had been insisted on as a ground for the adoption of some measures... But there was another axiom no less true—that there never was an extensive discontent without great misgovernment... When no attention was paid to the calls of the people for relief, when their petitions were rejected and their sufferings aggravated, was it wonderful that at last public discontents should assume a formidable aspect?
    • Speech in the House of Lords (23 November 1819). The Speech from the Throne at the opening of the session of 1819-20 called for strong measures against the seditious spirit shown in the manufacturing districts. Grey moved an amendment in the Lords, calling for an enquiry into the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August, in order to maintain ‘that confidence in the public institutions of the country, which constitutes the best safeguard of all law and government.’ His amendment was defeated by 159 votes to 34. Parliamentary Debates, vol. xli, pp. 7-19, quoted in Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock (ed.), The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes (1967), pp. 5-6
  • Their lordships had some experience in that House two years ago, when restrictive laws were passed and when the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended... The effect of these measures was, in his opinion, the cause of a great portion of the discontent which now prevailed. After all the experience which they had had, there was no attempt at conciliation, no concession to the people; nothing was alluded to but a resort to coercion... The natural consequence of such a system, when once begun, was that it could not be stopped: discontents begot the necessity of force; the employment of force increased discontents: these would demand the exercise of new powers, till by degrees they would depart from all the principles of the constitution... Could government rest with confidence upon the sword for security? It was impossible that a government of such a nature could exist in England...without that spirit which the knowledge of the advantages they enjoyed under their constitution infused, all their energies would flag, and all their feelings by which their glory as a nation had been established, would be utterly dissipated.
    • Speech in the House of Lords (23 November 1819). Parliamentary Debates, vol. xli, pp. 7-19, quoted in Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock (ed.), The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes (1967), pp. 5-6


  • The claim set up was nothing less than the right of a general superintendence of the states of Europe, and of the suppression of all changes in their internal government, if those changes should be hostile to what the Holy Alliance called the legitimate principles of government... Every reform of abuses, every improvement in government, which did not originate with a sovereign, of his own free will, was to be prevented. Were this principle to be successfully maintained, the triumph of tyranny would be complete, and the chains of mankind would be riveted for ever... He was one of those old-fashioned politicians who thought that every great political change might be traced to previous misgovernment... Let their lordships look to the revolution of 1688, and then he would ask them, if it could have been carried into effect without the combinations of those great men, who restored and secured our religion, our laws, and our liberties, and without such mutual communications among them as would bring them under the description of a sect or party?
    • Speech in the House of Lords during the debate on Naples (19 February 1821). After the revolution in Naples in July 1820 the protocol which affirmed the right of the European Alliance to interfere to crush dangerous internal revolutions had been issued at the Congress of Troppau, October 1820. Parliamentary Debates, N.S. iv, pp. 744-59, quoted in Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock (ed.), The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes (1967), pp. 13-16
  • I am a great lover of morality, public and private, but the intercourse of nations cannot be strictly regulated by that rule.
    • Letter to Princess Lieven (18 August 1828), reprinted in Guy Le Strange (ed.), Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey. Volume I: 1824 to 1830 (1890), p. 130


  • I am indeed convinced that the more the bill is considered, the less it will be found to prejudice the real interests of the aristocracy.
    • Letter to Lord Somers on the Reform Bill (26 September 1831), quoted in J. R. M. Butler, The Passing of the Great Reform Bill (1914), p. 255
  • This is indeed a maxim of general application... Nations cannot be governed by the obligations of friendship which prevail among individuals in private life... There can be, in the eyes of a philosophical statesman neither national enmities, nor national friendships.
    • Letter to Lord Palmerston (9 October 1833), quoted in E. A. Smith, Lord Grey. 1764–1845 (1990; 1996), p. 284

Quotes about Charles Grey[edit]

  • Charles Grey was the most consistent political failure of his age. When he became prime minister in 1830, aged 66, he had sat in parliament for 44 years, yet had spent only 15 months in office. Finally, he had his chance. Given power at last, he used it to destroy the political system that had excluded him for so long. And that had excluded his uncles, cousins and aunts: in all, it was claimed that Grey named 20 of his relatives to appointments, sinecures or pensions during the ministry of 1830–34, from which they netted a cool £202,892 6s 2d... Since G. M. Trevelyan published his classic biography in 1920, Grey has been splendidly debunked by modern scholarship. Instead of the logical and long-planned culmination of Grey's career, the 1832 Reform Bill now stands as the short-term product of political contingency. As late as February 1830, he warned his elder son not to get involved with parliamentary reform: "You cannot rely on the support of the people."
    • J. C. D. Clark, 'Lord Grey quietly whitewashed', The Times Saturday Review (8 September 1990), p. 25
  • During his last illness [in 1845], when no longer able to walk, he used to be wheeled about the house in a chair, and on one occasion, when stopping, as he often did, before Mr. Fox's bust, and speaking of the influence he had held over him, he added, ‘Yet he did not always use it as he might of done—one word from him would have kept me out of all the mess of the “Friends of the People,” but he never spoke it.’ When I remarked that, considering he only advocated as one of that Society the principles to which he had given effect as Minister, this was hardly to be regretted, he replied, ‘that might be true, but there were men joined with them in that Society, whose views, though he did not know it at the time, were widely different from his own, and with whom it was not safe to have any communication.’
    • Lieutenant-General Hon. C. Grey, Some Account of the Life and Opinions of Charles, Second Earl Grey (1861), pp. 10-11
  • Nor, though surrounded by such men, did the youngest manager pass unnoticed. At an age when most of those who distinguish themselves in life are still contending for prizes and fellowships at college, he had won for himself a conspicuous place in Parliament. No advantage of fortune or connection was wanting that could set off to the height his splendid talents and his unblemished honour. At twenty-three he had been thought worthy to be ranked with the veteran statesmen who appeared as the delegates of the British Commons, at the bar of the British nobility. All who stood at that bar, save him alone, are gone, culprit, advocates, accusers. To the generation which is now in the vigour of life, he is the sole representative of a great age which has passed away. But those who, within the last ten years, have listened with delight, till the morning sun shone on the tapestries of the House of Lords, to the lofty and animated eloquence of Charles Earl Grey, are able to form some estimate of the powers of a race of men among whom he was not the foremost.
  • Grey was the very type of the old whig nobleman, punctiliously honourable and high-minded, and devoted to the constitution and to popular liberty as he understood them. At the same time his views were narrow, he was personally diffident and timorous in reform, and even less democratic than many of his opponents. (For his general opinions and comments on passing events see LE STRANGE'S Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey, 1824–34, London, 1890, a collection of his letters to the wife of the Russian ambassador, with whom he maintained a most intimate friendship.) At the time when, after his long exclusion from office, he became prime minister, he had outlived the power of feeling or inspiring enthusiasm; but it was perhaps fortunate that at a moment of so much popular excitement the ministry was led by so cold a man. He was a great orator and a great debater, and, like all great orators, was very nervous just before rising to deliver his greatest speeches. He was exceedingly ready in apprehending complicated statements of fact, and in bringing them home to his hearers.
    • J. A. Hamilton, 'Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey, Viscount Howick, and Baron Grey (1764–1845)', Dictionary of National Biography (1890)
  • Grey was an ambitious man who always wished to lead, but his overt ambition during his youth made him unpopular. He lacked the warmth of personality that made Fox revered by his followers. Grey was respected but rarely loved. His achievements were few, but they were significant. He helped to keep liberal principles alive during the years of conflict with revolutionary France, and in 1832 he safeguarded the continuity of the British constitution into an era of increasingly rapid social and political change. In character he was a man of contradictions, headstrong but easily discouraged by failure, imperious but indecisive, cautious and introspective. He was at his best when in office, for he sought fame and reputation: in opposition he often became despondent. He was a man of principle and integrity, though not always successful in execution. His bearing and attitudes were aristocratic, and his instincts were fundamentally conservative. He was a whig of the eighteenth-century school, most at home among his deferential clients, tenants, and labourers at Howick, and he never came to terms with the new industrial society which was coming into being during his later years. It is greatly to his credit that his Reform Act, whatever its conservative purpose, smoothed the path for that new society to establish its dominance without destroying the old.

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