At age 21, in December 1756, Fitzroy entered Parliament as a member for the family seat of Bury St. Edmonds; but he left the Commons in May 1757, when he succeeded his grandfather (who had raised him) as the third Duke of Grafton.
In July 1765 he took up the post of secretary of state for the Northern Department at the unusually early age of 29; but he resigned this post the following May, in protest of the continued exclusion of Pitt. In July 1766, Rockingham was dismissed and Pitt agreed to form a ministry, in which he himself took the role of Lord Privy Seal. The more obvious job of First Lord of the Treasury was pressed upon Grafton, not yet 31, who soon found himself having to deal with a divided coalition while Pitt concerned himself less and less with the business of political management.
As Pitt’s health worsened, Grafton gradually took on more responsibilities, until by the summer of 1767 he was serving as the de facto head of administration.
With the election so negligently handled, the new Parliament of May 1768 saw no improvement in the government’s majority, despite the support of the Crown as well as all the other resources a ministry typically enjoys. Nonetheless, when Pitt (now Lord Chatham) resigned in October 1768, it was Grafton who was invited to head the new ministry, becoming prime minister officially as well as in practice. Junius continued to allege that Grafton neglected his duty and showed an excessive dedication to private pleasures; but the main thrust of his attack was the clumsy handling of the Wilkes affair, which became the central controversy surrounding Grafton’s time in office.
Expelled from the House for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1764, Wilkes had returned from outlawry and exile in Paris to stand for election in the large open constituency of Middlesex. Denied parliamentary privilege, he was sentenced for his earlier seditious libel to two years in King’s Bench prison, where crowds of supporters gathered, riotously demonstrating. Wilkes appealed on various technicalities against his sentence, and stood for by-election in Middlesex—an election necessitated by his imprisonment. He was duly reelected, but the Commons annulled the election. Wilkes’s rhetorical skill in linking his cause with ancient English liberties generated massive popular support, which culminated in the demonstration in St. George’s Fields on 10 May 1768, in which ten of his followers were killed by soldiers called out by the magistrates. In February 1769, Wilkes was expelled from the House, only to be reelected in the ensuing by-election and expelled again.
Twice more the Parliament responded in this manner, which was tantamount to proclaiming to the volatile and proud Middlesex electorate that they had no influence whatever at the polls. In April 1769, Colonel Henry Luttrell contested the Middlesex by-election on behalf of the government. The Commons declared Wilkes’s candidacy invalid and Luttrell legally elected, although Luttrell received only a sixth of the votes cast. Horne Took’s Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights, which was formed initially to find ways of paying off Wilkes’s debts, triggered a wave of petitions and reform agitation, which gave new force and significance to extraparliamentary politics.
The ministry’s unpopularity over the handling of Wilkes, and the unexpected way in which a personal cause had swollen into a widespread antigovernment campaign for liberties and reform, made it harder for Grafton to control his cabinet. In the spring of 1769 the ministry also had to sort out the American problem caused by Towshend’s intensely unpopular taxation measures, which brought in little revenue but were designed to push the colonists into accepting the principle of Westminster taxation. Grafton wanted to repeal all the duties, but he was overruled in May by a cabinet majority voting to retain, for the sake of the principle, the duty on tea.
The divisions and ineffectiveness of the ministry became increasingly apparent, as did Grafton’s indolence in office, which worsened after his remarriage.
By the middle of January 1770, the ministry had been further weakened by the resignation of Granby and the dissent of Lord Chancellor Camden, who was dismissed by the king. Grafton persuaded Charles Yorke, son of the famous Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and a supporter of Rockingham, to accept Camden’s post; but three days later, afflicted by remorse at his betrayal of his family by joining their political enemies, Yorke killed himself. At the end of that month, execrated in the press, disillusioned, and powerless, Grafton resigned. He was succeeded by Lord North.
In June 1771, under pressure from North and the king, Grafton accepted the office of Lord Privy Seal. In serving in North’s ministry, he sought as before to promote moderate policies toward the American colonists.
Over the next few years, Grafton gradually aligned himself with Lord Rockingham, and in March 1782 he accepted the appointment of Lord Privy Seal when Rockingham became prime minister. He continued in that post under Shelburne after Rockingham died in July of that year; but he resigned in February 1783, when the Duke of Rudand was brought into the cabinet without consultation with leading ministers. Thereafter Grafton retired to country pursuits, to enjoy matrimony, horse racing, and religious observations and study. He died in March 1811.
In his early political life he was a supporter both of the Duke of Newcastle and of William Pitt (the Elder), and he spoke out strongly against Lord Bute and the terms of the Peace of Paris in 1763.
In November 1775 Grafton spoke out boldly in the House of Lords against government policy, advocating a complete rescinding of all legislation imposed upon the colonists since the end of the Seven Years’ War. This was too much for George III, who demanded his resignation the next day.
Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, has sometimes been seen as an archetype of the eighteenth-century Whig grandee. Wealthy, meticulous in his dress, and persuasive in address and manner, he came into political life as though by right, as soon as he had left be-hind him the experiences of Oxford and the grand European tour. Yet he was no passionate career politician, and devoted much of his energies to farming, hunting, and the breeding of racehorses: he won the Derby three times. A founding member of the Jockey Club, he was also part of the political scene at Brook’s and Whites club. He had firm religious convictions, and when he was appointed chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1769 he refused the usual honorary doctorate of laws because he could not subscribe to the Church of England. He became a Unitarian, a member of a dissent-ing intellectual elite from whose ranks came a number of constitutional reformers; and in later years he wrote two serious works advocating “rational Christianity.”
Quotes from others about the person
The anonymous critic Junius, who in 1769 began savaging the Grafton ministry in print, reflected scornfully on the election period: “The prime minister of Great Britain, in a rural retirement, and in the arms of faded beauty, had lost all memory of his Sovereign, his country and himself.”
Separated from his first wife in January 1765, Grafton was living openly with Anne Parsons, a well-known “woman of the town”—a liaison that elicited critical comment from his colleague Charles Townshend (1725-1767).
His estranged wife, Anne, eloped with John Fitzpatrick, Earl of Upper Ossory, by whom in August of 1767 she had a child; and Grafton had scandalized polite society by appearing publicly with his mistress.
He was divorced from Anne Liddell, his first wife, by an act of Parliament in March 1769, and in June he married Elizabeth Wrottesley, with whom he enjoyed an affectionate and full family life (the couple had 13 children over the years).