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John Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl Spencer

John Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl Spencer (1782-1845), English statesman, better known by the courtesy title of Viscount Althorp, which he bore during his father’s lifetime, was the son of George John, 2nd Earl (17581834), grandson of John (17341783), created 1st Earl Spencer in 1765, and great-grandson of Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland. His father served in the ministries of Pitt, Fox and Grenville, and was First Lord of the Admiralty from 17941801; and his interest in literature was shown in his attention to the Althorp library, inherited from the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, which he developed into the finest private library in Europe; his wife, the eldest daughter of the 1st Earl Lucan, was conspicuous in London society for her gaiety and brightness. Their eldest son, John Charles, was born at Spencer House, London, on 30 May 1782. In 1800 he took up his residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, and for some time applied himself energetically to mathematical studies; but he spent most of his time in hunting and racing. Almost immediately after taking his degree in 1802, he set out on a continental tour, which was cut short, after he had passed some months in the chief cities in Italy, by the renewal of war. Through the influence of Pitt’s government he was returned to parliament for the borough of Okehampton in Devonshire in April 1804, and, although he vacated his seat in February 1806, to contest the university of Cambridge against Lord Henry Petty and Lord Palmerston (when he was hopelessly beaten), he was elected in the same month for St Albans, and appointed a lord of the treasury. At the general election in November 1806, he was elteted for Northamptonshire, and he continued to sit for the county until he succeeded to the peerage. His tastes were then, as ever, for country life, but his indignation at the Duke of York’s conduct at the Horse Guards led him to move a resolution of the House of Commons in 1809 for the duke’s removal from his post. For the next few years after this speech Lord Althorp occasionally spoke in debate and always on the side of Liberalism, but from 1813 to 1818 he was only rarely in the House of Commons. His absence was partly due to a feeling that it was hopeless to struggle against the will of the Tory ministry, but more particularly to his marriage on 14 April 1814, to Esther, only daughter of Richard Acklom of Wiseton Hall, Northamptonshire, who died in childbirth 1818. In 1819, on his return to political life after her death, and for many years after that date he pressed upon the attention of the house the necessity of establishing a more efficient bankruptcy court, and of expediting the recovery of small debts; and he saw both these reforms accomplished before 1825. During the greater part of the reign of George IV the Whigs lost their legitimate influence in the state from their want of cohesion, but this defect was soon remedied in 1830 when Lord Althorp was chosen their leader in the lower house, and his capacity for the position was proved by experience. When Lord Grey’s administration was formed at the close of the year the chancellorship of the exchequer combined with the leadership of the House of Commons was entrusted to Lord Althorp, and to him more than to any other man, with the exception of the prime minister and the lord chancellor, may be attributed the success of the government measures. The budget, it is true, was a failure, but this misfortune was soon forgotten in the struggles over the Reform Bill. The consideration of the preliminaries of this measure was assigned to four ministers, two in the cabinet and two outside that body; but their proposals were, after careful examination, approved or rejected by Lord Grey and Lord Althorp before they were brought under the notice of the cabinet. When the Bill was ready for introduction to the House of Commons its principles were expounded by Lord John Russell; but from the commencement of the protracted discussion over its details he had the assistance of Lord Althorp, and after some weeks of incessant toil, which the physique of Lord John Russell could not sustain any longer, the whole responsibility was cast on Lord Althorp. To combat the objections of three such pertinacious opponents as Croker, Sugden and Wetherell required both skill and courage, and in Lord Althorp these qualities were found. On one evening he made nearly twenty speeches. The Reform Bill was carried at last, and popular instinct was right in assigning to the leader of the house a credit only second to that earned by Lord John Russell. After the dissolution of 1833 the Whigs returned to power with augmented numbers; but differences soon showed themselves among both leaders and followers, and their majority crumbled away. Their position was strengthened for a time by triumphantly carrying a new Poor Law bill; and even their keenest critics would not allow that, had the Whig propositions on tithes and church rates been carried into effect, many years of passionate controversy would have been spared. The ministry of Lord Grey was shattered to pieces by difficulties over an Irish coercion bill. Although Lord Melbourne became premier (July 14, 1834), the fortunes of the ministry rested on Lord Althorp’s presence in the House of Commons.

The death of the 2nd Earl Spencer in November 1834, called his son to the upper house, and William IV took advantage of this event to summon a Tory cabinet to his side. The new Lord Spencer abandoned the cares of office and returned to country life with unalloyed delight. Henceforth agriculture, not politics, was his principal interest. He was the first president of the Royal Agricultural Society (founded 1838), and a notable cattle-breeder. Often as he was urged by his political friends to come to their assistance, be rarely quitted the peaceful pleasures which he loved. He died at Wiseton on 1 October 1845, being succeeded as 4th Earl, in default of issue, by his brother Frederick (d. 1857). He had held, as a statesman, a remarkable position. The Whigs required, to carry the Reform Bill, a leader of unstained character, one to whom party spirit could not attach the suspicion of greed of office, and against Lord Althorp malevolence was powerless. No stronger proof of his pre-eminence could be given than the oft-quoted saying of Lord Hardinge that one of Croker’s ablest speeches was demolished by the simple statement of Lord Althorp that he "had collected some figures which entirely refuted it, but had lost them." The trust which the house put in him then was never wanting.

Preceded by:
George John Spencer
Earl Spencer Followed by:
Frederick Spencer

Text originally from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.