Eden, William (1744–1814), 1st Baron Auckland , politician, diplomat, chief secretary for Ireland, was born 3 April 1744, the third son of Sir Robert Eden, 3rd baronet, of West Auckland, and his wife, Mary Eden (née Davison). Educated at Durham (1755–8), Eton (1758–62), and Christ Church, Oxford (1762–5), he graduated BA in 1765. In that year he entered Middle Temple and was called to practise in 1768. Unfortunately he proved an indifferent speaker and made little impression at the bar, though he published a legal text, The principles of penal law (1771). Recognising that his talents lay elsewhere, he decided upon a career in politics and in 1772 he was appointed under-secretary of state for the northern department. He entered parliament, and was MP for New Woodstock (1774–84) and Heytesbury (1784–93). In 1776 he was appointed to the Board of Trade, and in 1778 was one of five commissioners sent to America to negotiate a peace. During this mission he became close friends with the earl of Carlisle (qv) and when Carlisle was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1780 he insisted that Eden accompany him as chief secretary. Eden wanted to refuse and relented only when given an ultimatum by the king and Lord North that he choose Ireland or obscurity. On 29 November 1780 he was appointed chief secretary and on 28 December he was sworn in as an Irish privy councillor. He entered the Irish parliament and served as MP for Dungannon, Co. Tyrone (1781–3). Alert and ambitious, Eden recognised the potential of the office of chief secretary as a way of proving one's political worth. Thus he was careful to demonstrate his administrative expertise and, by carrying out an investigation into the Irish administration, he made an immediate impact. His most lasting achievement was the drafting and introduction of the bill to establish a national bank (21 & 22 Geo. III, c. 24), the Bank of Ireland, using the Bank of England as a model.
With the collapse of Lord North's ministry, Eden returned to England in April 1782. In April 1783 he became a British privy councillor, and was appointed vice-treasurer of Ireland, an office he resigned in December when William Pitt became prime minister. In 1784–5 he gathered opposition against Pitt's commercial propositions for Ireland and is credited with responsibility for the defeat of the measure in England. Shifting his political allegiances, in 1785 he was employed by Pitt to negotiate a commercial treaty between Britain and France. He acted as a diplomat for the next eight years, as envoy to France (1785–8), ambassador to Spain (1787–9), and ambassador to the United Provinces (1789–93). On 18 September 1789 he was raised to the Irish peerage as Baron Auckland, and on 22 May 1793 to the British peerage as Lord Auckland of West Auckland, Durham. He repeatedly pressed for cabinet office throughout the 1790s but his ambition was never satisfied. In 1795 he published a pamphlet in favour of peace with France; this prompted Edmund Burke (qv) to reply with his ‘Letters on a regicide peace’.
He resided at Eden Farm, Kent, near Pitt's residence at Holwood. Pitt became a regular visitor to the estate, and developed an attachment to Eden's eldest daughter, Eleanor. In January 1797 he abruptly ended the tentative courtship, creating a breach with the family, though Eden took the opportunity to demand cabinet office; Eleanor Eden later married Robert Hobart (qv), himself a former chief secretary. In 1798 Eden was appointed joint postmaster general, and Pitt regularly sought his advice on Ireland during the negotiations for the Act of Union, especially on matters of trade and finance. He was also employed to sound out leading Irish figures about the measure: he discussed it with the earl of Clare (qv) in June 1798, and in the autumn attempted to persuade the speaker, John Foster (qv), to give his support. Strongly opposed to catholic relief, he acted in unison with Clare and Lord Loughborough to sabotage the government's plans for emancipation in the autumn of 1800. When Pitt resigned in January 1801 he accused Eden of plotting behind his back and their friendship ended acrimoniously. For a while Eden continued in office as postmaster general, but he was dismissed in May 1804 after Pitt's return to power. He accepted office under Lord Grenville (qv) in 1806, as president of the Board of Trade, but returned to opposition the following year. The death of his eldest son, William Frederick Elliot Eden, MP, possibly by suicide, in 1810 was a bitter blow and he never recovered from the loss.
Although warm and generous in private, Eden was ruthless and cunning in his political dealings. Throughout his life, principle was regularly sacrificed for power and personal reward. Nevertheless he was an able administrator and a respected ‘man of business’ who understood the workings of politics. In 1776 he married Eleanor Elliot, daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 3rd baronet, of Minto, and his wife Agnes, daughter of Hugh Dalrymple Murray Kynynmound. They had four sons and eight daughters. He died 28 May 1814, of a heart attack, at Eden Farm.