He married, first, in 1859, Thérèse (d. 1863) Lister, by whom he had one son, Lewis Harcourt (b. 1863), afterwards first commissioner of works both in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's 1905 ministry (included in the cabinet in 1907) and in Asquith's cabinet (1908); and secondly, in 1876, Elizabeth Ives, a widow and the daughter of John Lothrop Motley, the historian. By his second wife he had another son, Robert (b. 1878).
He entered parliament as Liberal member for Oxford, and sat from 1868 to 1880, when, upon seeking re-election after acceptance of office, he was defeated by Hall. A seat was, however, found for him at Derby, by the voluntary retirement of Samuel Plimsoll, and he continued to represent that constituency until 1895, when, having been defeated at the general election, he found a seat in West Monmouthshire. He was appointed solicitor-general and knighted in 1873; and, although he had not been a strong supporter of Gladstone in opposition, he became secretary of state for the home department on the return of the Liberals to office in 1880. His name became connected with the passing of the Ground Game Act (1880), the Arms (Ireland) Act (1881), and the Explosives Act (1883). As Home Secretary at the time of the dynamite outrages he took a firm attitude, and the Explosives Act was passed through all its stages in the shortest time on record. Moreover, as champion of law and order against the attacks of the Parnellites, he was constantly in conflict with the Irish members. In 1884 he introduced an abortive bill for unifying the municipal administration of London. He was recognized as one of the ablest and most effective leaders of the Liberal party; and when, after a brief interval in 1885, Gladstone returned to office in 1886, Harcourt was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, an office which he again filled from 1892 to 1895.
Between 1880 and 1892 Sir William Harcourt acted as Gladstone's political deputy. A first-rate party fighter, his services were of inestimable value; but in spite of his great success as a platform speaker, he was generally felt to be speaking from an advocate's brief, and did not impress the country as possessing much depth of conviction. It was he who coined the phrase about "stewing in Parnellite juice", and, when the split came in the Liberal party on the Irish question, even those who gave Gladstone and Morley the credit of being convinced Home Rulers could not be persuaded that Sir William had followed anything but the line of party expediency. In 1894 he introduced and carried a memorable budget, which equalized the death duties on real and personal property. After Gladstone's retirement in 1894 and Rosebery's selection as prime minister, Sir William became the leader of the Liberal party in the House of Commons, but it was never probable that he would work comfortably in the new conditions. He had been ignored as Gladstone's successor, and it was evident that Lord Rosebery's ideas of Liberalism and of the policy of the Liberal party were not those of Sir William Harcourt. Their differences were patched up from time to time, but the combination could not last. At the general election of 1895 it was clear that there were divisions as to what issue the Liberals were fighting for, and the effect of Sir William Harcourt's abortive Local Veto Bill on the election was seen not only in his defeat at Derby, which gave the signal for the Liberal rout, but in the set-back it gave to temperance legislation. Though returned for West Monmouthshire (1895, 1900), his speeches in debate only occasionally showed his characteristic spirit, and it was evident that for the hard work of Opposition he no longer had the same motive as of old. In December 1898 the crisis arrived, and with John Morley he retired from the counsels of the party and resigned his leadership of the Opposition, alleging as his reason, in letters to Morley, the cross-currents of opinion among his old supporters and former colleagues. The split excited considerable comment, and resulted in much heart-burning and a more or less open division between the section of the Liberal party following Lord Rosebery and those who disliked that statesman's Imperialistic views.
Though now a private member, Sir William Harcourt still continued to vindicate his opinions in his independent position, and his attacks on the government were no longer restrained by even the semblance of deference to Liberal Imperialism. He actively intervened in 1899 and 1900, strongly condemning the government's financial policy and their attitude towards the Transvaal; and throughout the Boer War he lost no opportunity of criticizing the South African developments in a pessimistic vein. A great parliamentary debater, he sprinkled his speeches with humour. In 1898-1900 he was conspicuous, both on the platform and in letters to The Times, in demanding active measures against the Ritualistic party in the Church of England; but his attitude in this was reflected in his political advocacy of Disestablishment. In March 1904, just after he had announced his intention not to seek election again to parliament, he succeeded, by the death of his nephew, to the family estates at Nuneham. But he died suddenly there in the same year.
Sir William Harcourt was one of the great parliamentary figures of the Gladstonian Liberal period. He was essentially an aristocratic type of late 19th century Whig, with a remarkable capacity for popular campaign fighting. He had been, and remained, a brilliant journalist in the non-professional sense. He was one of those who really made the Saturday Review in its palmy days, and in the period of his own most ebullient vigour, while Mr Gladstone was alive, his sense of political expediency and platform effectiveness in controversy was very acute. But though he played the game of public life with keen zest, he never really touched either the country or his own party with the faith which creates a personal following, and in later years he found himself somewhat isolated and disappointed, though he was free to express his deeper objections to the new developments in church and state.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Sir William's only surviving son was Lewis Harcourt,1st Viscount Harcourt.