In his youth, he displayed an exceptional intellect and character. At Trinity College, Dublin, where he had a distinguished career, he began his lifelong study of classical literature and especially to the great orators of antiquity. He was called to the Irish bar in 1772, but never seriously practised the law. Like Henry Flood, with whom he was friendly, he cultivated his natural eloquence by studying models such as Bolingbroke and Junius. A visit to the English House of Lords excited boundless admiration for Chatham, of whose style of oratory Grattan contributed an interesting description to Baratariana. The influence of Flood helped give direction to Grattan's political aims. When Lord Charlemont brought him into the Irish parliament in 1775, in the very session in which Flood damaged his popularity by accepting office, Grattan quickly superseded his friend in the leadership of the national party. Grattan's oratorical powers were unsurpassed among his contemporaries. He conspicuously lacked the gracefulness he so much admired in Chatham, the sustained dignity of Pitt, and the reasoning powers of Charles James Fox and Flood himself. Nevertheless, his speeches were packed with epigram; his terse and telling sentences were richer in profound aphorisms and maxims on political philosophy than those of any other statesman save Burke; he possessed the orator's gift of conveying his own enthusiasm to his audience and convincing them of his sincerity.
The principal object of the national party was to set the Irish parliament free from constitutional bondage to the English privy council. By virtue of Poyning's Law, a celebrated statute of King Henry VII of England, all proposed Irish legislation had to be submitted to the privy council for its approval under the great seal of England before being passed by the Irish parliament. A bill so approved might be accepted or rejected, but not amended. More recent English acts had further emphasized the complete dependence of the Irish parliament, and the appellate jurisdiction of the Irish House of Lords had also been annulled. Moreover, the English Houses claimed and exercised the power to legislate directly for Ireland without even the nominal concurrence of the parliament in Dublin. This was the constitution which Molyneux and Swift had denounced, which Flood had attacked, and which Grattan was to destroy. The menacing attitude of the Volunteer Convention at Dungannon greatly influenced the decision of the government in 1782 to resist the agitation no longer. It was through ranks of volunteers drawn up outside the parliament house in Dublin that Grattan passed on April 16, 1782, amidst unparalleled popular enthusiasm, to move a declaration of the independence of the Irish parliament. "I found Ireland on her knees," Grattan exclaimed, "I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift, spirit of Molyneux, your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation!" After a month of negotiation the claims of Ireland were conceded. The gratitude of his countrymen to Grattan was shown by a parliamentary grant of £100,000, which had to be reduced by half before he would accept it.
One of the first acts of Grattan's parliament was to prove its loyalty to England by passing a vote for the support of 20,000 sailors for the navy. Grattan was loyal to the crown and the English connection. He was, however, anxious for moderate parliamentary reform, and, unlike Flood, he favored Catholic emancipation. It was evident that without reform the Irish House of Commons would not be able to make much use of its newly-won independence. Though now free from constitutional control, it was still subject to the influence of corruption, which the English government had wielded through the Irish borough owners, known as the "undertakers", or more directly through the great executive officers. Grattan's parliament had no control over the Irish executive. The lord lieutenant and his chief secretary continued to be appointed by the English ministers; their tenure of office depended on the vicissitudes of English, not Irish, party politics; the royal prerogative was exercised in Ireland on the advice of English ministers. The House of Commons was unrepresentative of the Irish people. The great majority were excluded as Roman Catholics from the franchise; two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons were returned by small boroughs at the disposal of individual patrons, whose support was bought by the distribution of peerages and pensions. It was to give stability and true independence to the new constitution that Grattan pressed for reform. Having quarrelled with Flood over simple repeal, Grattan also differed from him on the question of maintaining the Volunteer Convention. He opposed the policy of protective duties, but supported Pitt's famous commercial propositions in 1785 for establishing free trade between Great Britain and Ireland, which, however, had to be abandoned owing to the hostility of the English mercantile classes. Grattan supported the government for a time after 1782, and spoke and voted for the stringent coercive legislation rendered necessary by the Whitebol outrages in 1785; but as the years passed without Pitt's personal favour towards parliamentary reform resulting in legislation, he gravitated towards the opposition, agitated for commutation of tithes in Ireland, and supported the Whigs on the regency question in 1788. In 1792 he succeeded in carrying an Act conferring the franchise on the Roman Catholics; in 1794 in conjunction with William Ponsonby he introduced a reform bill which was even less democratic than Flood's bill of 1783. He was as anxious as Flood had been to retain the legislative power in the hands of men of property, for he had through the whole of his life a strong conviction that while Ireland could best be governed by Irish hands, democracy in Ireland would inevitably turn to plunder and anarchy. i At the same time he desired to admit the Roman Catholic gentry of property to membership of the House of Commons, a proposal that was the logical corollary of the Relief Act of 1792. The defeat of Grattan's mild proposals helped to promote more extreme opinions, which, under French revolutionary influence, were now becoming heard in Ireland.
The Catholic question had rapidly become of the first importance, and when a powerful section of the Whigs joined Pitt's ministry in 1794, and it became known that the lord-lieutenancy was to go to Lord Fitzwilliam, who shared Grattan's views, expectations were raised that the question was about to be settled in a manner satisfactory to the Irish Catholics. Such seems to have been Pitt's intention, though there has been much controversy as to how far Lord Fitzwilliam had been authorized to pledge the government. After taking. Grattan into his confidence, it was arranged that the latter should bring in a Roman Catholic emancipation bill, and that it should then receive government support. But finally it appeared that the viceroy had either misunderstood or exceeded his instructions; and on February 19, 1795 Fitzwilliam was recalled. In the outburst of indignation, followed by increasing disaffection in Ireland, which this event produced, Grattan acted with conspicuous moderation. and loyalty, which won for him warm acknowledgments from a member of the English cabinet. That cabinet, however, doubtless influenced by the wishes of the king, was now determined firmly to resist the Catholic demands, with the result that the country rapidly drifted towards rebellion. Grattan warned the government in a series of masterly speeches of the lawless condition to which Ireland had been driven. He could now count on no more than forty followers in the House of Commons, and his words were unheeded. He retired from parliament in May 1797, and departed from his customary moderation by attacking the government in an inflammatory Letter to the citizens of Dublin.
At this time religious animosity had almost died out in Ireland, and men of different faiths were ready to combine for common political objects. Thus the Presbyterians of the north, who were mainly republican in sentiment, combined with a section of the Roman Catholics to form the organization of the United Irishmen, to promote revolutionary ideas imported from France; and a party prepared to welcome a French invasion soon came into existence. Thus stimulated, the increasing disaffection culminated in the rebellion of 1798, which was cruelly repressed. Almost immediately, the project of a legislative union between the British and Irish parliaments, which had been from time to time discussed since the beginning of the 18th century, was taken up in earnest by Pitt's government. Grattan denounced the scheme with implacable hostility.
The constitution of Grattan's parliament offered n security, as the differences over the regency question had mad evident that in matters of imperial interest the policy of the Irish parliament and that of Great Britain would be in agreement and at a moment when England was engaged in a life and death struggle with France it was impossible for the ministry to ignore the danger, recently emphasized by the fact that the independent constitution of 1782 offered no safeguard against armed revolt. The rebellion put an end to the growing reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants religious passions were now violently inflamed, and the Orange men and Catholics divided the island into two hostile factions It is a curious circumstance, in view of the subsequent history of Irish politics, that it was from the Protestant Established Church, and particularly from the Orangemen, that the bitterest opposition to the union proceeded; and that the proposal found support chiefly among the Roman Catholic clergy and especially the bishops, while in no part of Ireland was it received with more favor than in the city of Cork. This attitude of the Catholics was caused by Pitt's encouragement of the expectation that Catholic emancipation, the commutation of tithes, and the endowment of the Catholic priesthood, would accompany or quickly follow the passing of the measure.
When in 1799 the government brought forward their bill it was defeated in the Irish House of Commons. Grattan was still in retirement. His popularity had declined, and the fact that his proposals for parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation had become the watchwords of the rebellious United Irishmen had brought him the bitter hostility of the governing classes. He was dismissed from the privy council; his portrait was removed from the hall of Trinity College; the Merchant Guild of Dublin struck his name off their rolls. The threatened destruction of the constitution of 1782 quickly restored its author to his former place in the affections of the Irish people. The parliamentary recess had been employed by the government in securing by lavish corruption a majority in favour of their policy. On January 15, 1800 the Irish parliament met for its last session; on the same day Grattan secured by purchase a seat for Wicklow; and at a late hour, while the debate was proceeding, he appeared to take his seat, and was cheered from the galleries. Grattan's strength gave way when he rose to speak, and he obtained leave to address the House sitting. Nevertheless his speech was a superb effort of oratory; for more than two hours he kept them spellbound. After prolonged debates Grattan, on 26 May, spoke finally against the committal of the bill, ending with an impassioned peroration in which he declared, "I will remain anchored here with fidelity to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall." These were the last words spoken by Grattan in the Irish parliament.
The bill establishing the union was carried through its final stages by substantial majorities. One of Grattan's main grounds of opposition to the union had been his dread of seeing the political leadership in Ireland pass out of the hands of the landed gentry; and he prophesied that the time would come when Ireland would send to the united parliament a hundred of the greatest rascals in the kingdom. Like Flood before him, Grattan had no leaning towards democracy; and he anticipated that by the removal of the centre of political interest from Ireland the evil of absenteeism would be intensified.
For the next five years Grattan took no active part in public affairs; it was not till 1805 that he became a member of the parliament of the United Kingdom. He modestly took his seat on one of the back benches, till Fox brought him forward, exclaiming, "This is no place for the Irish Demosthenes!" His first speech was on the Catholic question and all agreed with the description of his speech by the Annual Register as one of the most brilliant and eloquent ever made within the walls of parliament. When Fox and William Grenville came into power in 1806 Grattan was offered, but refused to accept, an office in the government. In the following year he showed the strength of his judgment and character by supporting, in spite of consequent unpopularity in Ireland, a measure for increasing the powers of the executive to deal with Irish disorder. Roman Catholic emancipation, which he continued to advocate with unflagging energy though now advanced in age, became complicated after 1808 by the question whether a veto on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops should rest with the crown.
Grattan supported the veto, but a more extreme Catholic party was now arising in Ireland under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell, and Grattan's influence gradually declined. He seldom spoke in parliament after 1810, the most notable exception being in 1815, when he separated himself from the Whigs and supported the final struggle against Napoleon. His last speech of all, in 1819, contained a passage referring to the union he had so passionately resisted, which exhibits the statesmanship and at the same time the equable quality of Grattan's character. His sentiments with regard to the policy of the union remained, he said, unchanged; but the marriage having taken place it is now the duty, as it ought to be the inclination, of every individual to render it as fruitful, as profitable and as advantageous as possible. In the following summer, after crossing from Ireland to London when out of health to bring forward the Catholic question once more, he became seriously ill. On his death-bed he spoke generously of Castlereagh, and with warm eulogy of his former rival, Flood. He died on the 6th of June 1820, and was buried in Westminster Abbey close to the tombs of Pitt and Fox. His statue is in the outer lobby of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Grattan had married in 1782 Henrietta Fitzgerald, a lady descended from the ancient family of Desmond, by whom he had two sons and two daughters.
The most searching scrutiny of his private life only increases the respect due to the memory of Grattan as a statesman and the greatest of Irish orators. His patriotism was untainted by self-seeking; he was courageous in risking his popularity for what his sound judgment showed him to be the right course. As Sydney Smith said with truth of Grattan soon after his death: "No government ever dismayed him. The world could not bribe him. He thought only of Ireland; lived for no other object; dedicated to her his beautiful fancy, his elegant wit, his manly courage, and all the splendour of his astonishing eloquence."
Henry Grattan, Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Right Hon. H. Grattan (5 vols., London, 1839-1846); Grattan's Speeches (ed by H. Grattan, junr., 1822); Irish Part. Debates; WEH Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth century (8 vols., London, 1878-1890) and Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (enlarged edition, 2 vols., 1903). For the controversy concerning the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam see, in addition to the foregoing, Lord Rosebery, Pitt (London, 1891); Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life (London, 1898); The Pelham Papers (Brit. Mus. Add. Manuscripts 33118); Carlisle Correspondence; Beresford Correspondence; Stanhope Miscellanies; for the Catholic question, W Anshurst, History of Catholic Emancipation (2 vols., London, 1886 Sir Thomas Wyse, Historical Sketch of the late Catholic Association of Ireland (London, 1829); WJ MacNeven, Pieces of Irish History (New York, 1807) containing an account of the United Irishmen; for the volunteer movement Thomas MacNevin, History of the Volunteers of 1782 (Dublin, 1845); Proceedings of the Volunteer Delegates of Ireland 1784 (Anon. Pamph. Brit. Mus.).
See also F Hardy, Memoirs of Lord Charlemont (London, i8I2); Warden Flood, Memoirs of Henry Flood (London, 1838); Francis Plowden, Historical Review of the State of Ireland (London, 1803); Alfred Webb, Compendium of Irish Biography (Dublin, 1878); Sir Jonah Barrington, Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation (London, 1833); WJ O'Neill Daunt, Ireland and her Agitators; Lord Mountmorres, History of the Irish Parliament (2 vole., London, 1792); Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George III (4 vols., London, 1845 and 1894); Lord Stanhope, Life of William Pitt (4 vols., London, 1861); Thomas Davis, Life of JP Curran (Dublin, 1846) this contains a memoir of Grattan by DO Madden, and Grattan's reply to Lord Clare on the question of the Union; Charles Phillips, Recollections of Curran and some of his Contemporaries (London, 1822); JA Froude, The English in Ireland (London, 1881); JG McCarthy, Henry Grattan: an Historical Study (London, 1886); Lord Mahon's History of England, vol. vii. (1858). With special reference to the Union see Castlereagh Correspondence; Cornwallis Correspondence; Westmorland Papers (Irish State Paper Office).