A Whig, Lord Stanhope, as he was known until his father's death in 1726, was born in London, and educated at Cambridge and then went on the Grand Tour of the continent. The death of Anne and the accession of George I opened up a career for him and brought him back to England. His relative James Stanhope, the king's favourite minister, procured for him the place of gentleman of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales.
His maiden speech was youthfully fluent and dogmatic; but on its conclusion the orator was reminded with many compliments, by an honourable member, that he was six weeks short of his majority, and consequently that he was liable to a fine of £500 for speaking in the House. Chesterfield left the Commons with a low bow and set out for the continent. From Paris he sent the government valuable information about the Jacobite plot; and in 1716 he returned to Britain, resumed his seat, and took frequent part in the debates. In that year came the quarrel between the king and the Prince of Wales. Stanhope, whose political instincts obliged him to worship the rising rather than the setting sun, remained faithful to the prince, though he was too cautious to break entirely with the king's party. He was on friendly terms with the prince's mistress, The Countess of Suffolk and he maintained a correspondence, which earned him the hatred of the Princess of Wales. In 1723 a vote for the government got him the place of captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners. In January 1725, on the revival of the Order of the Bath, the red ribbon was offered to him, but was declined.
He took his seat in the House of Lords, and his oratory, which had been ineffective in the Commons, was suddenly appreciated. In 1728 he was sent to the Hague as ambassador. His tact and temper, his dexterity and discrimination, enabled him to do good service, and he was rewarded with Robert Walpole's friendship, the Order of the Garter, and the position of Lord Steward. In 1732 there was born to him, by a certain Mlle du Bouchet, the son, Philip, for whose advice and instruction at Westminster School were afterwards written the famous Letters to his Son. He negotiated the second Treaty of Vienna in 1731, and in the next year, his health and fortune damaged, he resigned as ambassador and returned to Britain. Vincent la Chapelle, his cook, accepted a post at the court of William IV of Orange.
A few months' rest enabled him to resume his seat in the Lords, of which he was one of the acknowledged leaders. He supported the ministry, but his allegiance was not the blind fealty Walpole exacted of his followers. The Excise Bill, the great premier's favourite measure, was vehemently opposed by him in the Lords, and by his three brothers in the Commons. Walpole bent before the storm and abandoned the measure; but Chesterfield was summarily dismissed from his stewardship. For the next two years he led the opposition in the Upper House, leaving no stone unturned to effect Walpole's downfall. During this time, he resided in Grosvenor Square and got involved in the creation of a new London charity called the Foundling Hospital for which he was a founding governor. In 1741 he signed the protest for Walpole's dismissal and went abroad on account of his health.
He visited Voltaire at Brussels and spent some time in Paris, where he associated with the younger Crebillon, Fontenelle and Montesquieu. In 1742 Walpole fell, and Carteret was his real, though not his nominal successor. Although Walpole's administration had been overthrown largely by Chesterfield's efforts the new ministry did not count Chesterfield either in its ranks or among its supporters. He remained in opposition, distinguishing himself by the courtly bitterness of his attacks on George II, who learned to hate him violently.
In 1743 a new journal, Old England; or, the Constitutional Journal appeared. For this paper Chesterfield wrote under the name of "Jeffrey Broadbottom." A number of pamphlets, in some of which Chesterfield had the help of Edmund Waller, followed. His energetic campaign against George II and his government won the gratitude of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, who left him £20,000 as a mark of her appreciation. In 1744 the king was compelled to abandon Carteret, and the coalition or "Broad Bottom" party, led by Chesterfield and Pitt, came into office in coalition with the Pelhams. In the troubled state of European politics the Earl's conduct and experience were more useful abroad than at home, and he was sent to the Hague as ambassador a second time. The object of his mission was to persuade the Dutch to join in the War of the Austrian Succession and to arrange the details of their assistance. The success of his mission was complete; and on his return a few weeks afterwards he received the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland, a place he had long coveted.
Short as it was, Chesterfield's Irish administration was of great service to his country, and is unquestionably that part of his political life which does him most honour. To have conceived and carried out a policy which, with certain reservations, Burke himself might have originated and owned, is indeed no small title to regard. The Earl showed himself finely capable in practice as in theory, vigorous and tolerant, a man to be feared and a leader to be followed; he took the government entirely into his own hands, repressed the jobbery traditional to the office, established schools and manufactures, and at once conciliated and kept in check the Orange and Roman Catholic factions. In 1746, however, he had to exchange the lord-lieutenancy for the place of Secretary of State. With a curious respect for those theories his familiarity with the secret social history of France had caused him to entertain, he hoped and attempted to retain a hold over the king through the influence of Lady Yarmouth, though the futility of such means had already been demonstrated to him by his relations with Queen Caroline's "ma bonne Howard." The influence of Newcastle and Sandwich, however, was too strong for him; he was thwarted and over-reached; and in 1748 he resigned the seals, and returned to cards and his books with the admirable composure which was one of his most striking characteristics. He declined any knowledge of the Apology for a late Resignation, in a Letter from an English Gentleman to his Friend at The Hague, which ran through four editions in 1748, but there is little doubt that he was, at least in part, the author.
In 1755 occurred the famous dispute with Johnson over the dedication to the English Dictionary. Some 8 years previously (1747) Johnson sent Chesterfield, who was then Secretary of State, a prospectus of his Dictionary, which was acknowledged by a subscription of 10 pounds. Chesterfield apparently took no further interest in the enterprise, and the book was about to appear, when he wrote two papers in the World in praise of it. It was said that Johnson was kept waiting in the anteroom when he called while the actor Colley Cibber was admitted. In any case the doctor had expected more help from a professed patron of literature, and wrote the earl the famous letter in defence of men of letters. Chesterfield's "respectable Hottentot," now identified with George, Lord Lyttelton, was long supposed, though on slender grounds, to be a portrait of Johnson.
In the mid-1750s Chesterfield offered a cogent critique of the Stamp Act passed by Grenville's parliament. He wrote (in a letter to his friend Lord Newcastle) about the "absurdity" of the act. It could not be properly enforced, and even if it was effective, the tax would bring in no more than 80,000 pounds per year while the cost in reduced trade from the American colonies would be at least a million pounds a year (as it happened the loss was nearly two million a year).
His famous jest (which even Johnson allowed to have merit), "Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years, but we don't choose to have it known," is the best description possible of his humour and condition during the latter part of this period of decline. To the deafness was added blindness, but his memory and his fine manners only left him with life; his last words ("Give Dayrolles a chair") prove that he had neither forgotten his friend nor the way to receive him. He died on the 24 March 1773.
Chesterfield was selfish, calculating and contemptuous; he was not naturally generous, and he practised dissimulation until it became part of his nature. In spite of his brilliant talents and of the admirable training he received, his life, on the whole, cannot be pronounced a success. His anxiety and the pains he took to become an orator have been already noticed, and Horace Walpole, who had heard all the great orators, preferred a speech of Chesterfield's to any other; yet the earl's eloquence is not to be compared with that of Pitt. Samuel Johnson, according to his extraordinary biographer, James Boswell, expressed himself pointedly about the nobleman, in the following manner, ‘“This man (said he) I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among Lords!” And when his Letters to his natural son were published, he observed, that “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.”’ As a courtier he was utterly worsted by Robert Walpole, whose manners were anything but refined, and even by Newcastle. He desired to be known as a protector of letters and literary men; and his want of heart or head over the Dictionary dedication, though explained and excused by Croker, nonetheless inspired the famous change in a famous line "Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail." His published writings have had with posterity a very indifferent success; his literary reputation rests on a volume of letters never designed to appear in print. The son for whom he worked so hard and thought so deeply failed especially where his father had most desired he should succeed.
As a politician and statesman, Chesterfield's fame rests on his short but brilliant administration of Ireland. As an author he was a clever essayist and epigrammatist. But he stands or fails by the Letters to his Son, first published by his son's widow Eugenia Stanhope in 1774, and the Letters to his Godson (1890). The Letters are brilliantly written, full of elegant wisdom, of keen wit, of admirable portrait-painting, of exquisite observation and deduction.
Among the quotations attributed to him are:
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