Grattan, Henry (1746–1820), politician, was baptised 3 July 1746 at St John's Church, Fishamble St., Dublin, first son of James Grattan of Belcamp, Co. Dublin, recorder of Dublin and MP, and Mary Grattan (née Marlay) of Marlay Abbey, Co. Dublin.
Education and early life
Educated at a number of day schools in Dublin, he was admitted to TCD (1 November 1763), where his enthusiasm for literature displeased his father, who adjudged that his son should follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in the law. Henry was less than excited by this prospect, but his options were greatly reduced when, after his father's death (1766), he learned that he was not to succeed, as expected, to the family seat at Belcamp. Grattan's mood, which at this time tended towards melancholy, was exacerbated by the death of his sister Catherine in 1767 and his mother the following year. His admission to the Middle Temple, subsequent to his graduating from Trinity (BA 1767), may also have contributed, since he apparently spent much of the time he might have devoted to reading law on the historical and political writings of Burnet, Hume, Clarendon, and Bolingbroke. He was also drawn to the gallery of the house of commons, where he spent many hours listening to debates and studying oratorical technique, which he practised assiduously.
In the years spanning his admission to the Middle Temple and his call to the Irish bar in 1772, Grattan felt increasingly strongly drawn to the politics of patriotism which had contributed to his poor relationship with his father, who was strongly opposed to the reformist faction within Dublin city politics headed by Charles Lucas (qv). He was attracted by the Patriots' claim that they were guided in their actions by their commitment to uphold a virtuous constitution and to eradicate corruption from the body politic. To this end he supported the campaign to limit the duration of parliament in the mid 1760s and, after the marriage of his elder sister to Gervaise Parker Bushe (qv), he found congenial company in a circle of activist patriot politicians that included, as well as Bushe, Henry Flood (qv), and Hercules Langrishe (qv), with whom he socialised on his trips home from England. It was from these that he learned of the severe disfavour with which Irish Patriots regarded Lord Townshend (qv), and, specifically, that they perceived his attempts to increase the power of the Irish executive at Dublin Castle as an exercise in despotism. Already familiar with this whig argument from the controversy generated at Westminster by the Wilkes affair and the evolving crisis in British America, Grattan had no difficulty embracing this analysis. Eager to contribute in whatever way he could, he penned a number of essays for the influential opposition propaganda series that became the ‘Baratariana’ letters in the early 1770s. The most notable was a hagiographical account of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, who was lionised by such influential Irish patriots as Henry Flood and Lord Charlemont (qv).
Though Grattan was manifestly attracted by the idea, a career in politics seemed a remote prospect in the early 1770s, as he possessed neither a patron who would nominate him nor the wherewithal to purchase a parliamentary seat. Conscious of the need to make a living, he endeavoured to develop a legal practice after his call to the Irish bar (1772) but, as he conceded to his close friend William Broome, he had neither the temperament nor the eye for detail necessary for a successful career in the law. He remained active on the political fringes during this time through his membership of the Patriot club ‘The Society of Granby Row’, but a fringe role might have been his destiny had fate not taken a hand. The accidental death (November 1775) of Francis Caulfeild, MP for Charlemont, created a representational vacancy that his brother Lord Charlemont nominated Grattan to fill. He was admitted to the house of commons on 11 December and made his maiden speech four days later.
Patriot MP, 1775–80
Grattan entered the house at a potentially exciting moment. The recent outbreak of war in Britain's American colonies provided the then listless Patriot interest in the commons with a series of issues they could agitate, as the war obliged the administration to take a controversial series of contingent actions. As a new member, Grattan yielded to established Patriots such as Barry Yelverton (qv) and Hussey Burgh (qv), but he demonstrated that he did not want for confidence by criticising the redoubtable Henry Flood on 19 February 1776 for supporting the imposition of an embargo on Irish exports. Grattan's penchant for ‘violent’ language (Gilbert MS 93, ff 375–6) elicited disapproving comment from Castle sympathisers, but it endeared him both to his fellow Patriots and to the politicised public. Returned to represent Charlemont for a second time in the 1776 general election, he justified the confidence his patron vested in him by taking an increasingly active role in debate after the commencement of the 1777–8 session. As he had done in 1775–6, he concentrated on fiscal matters, and he was sufficiently emboldened by his impact to date to propose (6 February 1778) that the house of commons should address the king on the need for retrenchment. The motion was lost by a large margin, but in the context of the British parliament's refusal in 1778 to approve the generous admission to free trade anticipated in Ireland, his pointed remarks on the state of the economy towards the end of the session mirrored the public mood.
Though it would be wrong to portray Grattan as the mouthpiece of public opinion, the positions he adopted in the late 1770s were closer then to those of Patriot opinion at large than at any time in his long career. Significantly, he seems to have entertained no reservations about the Volunteers as their numbers rose rapidly in the summer of 1778. Indeed, he was one of the first Patriot politicians to appreciate their potential usefulness in securing free trade. These developments combined with his commitment and rhetorical assertiveness to elevate Grattan's star further in the Patriot firmament, and he was a prominent member of the influential patriot club known colloquially as the ‘Monks of the Screw’. More consequently, he was an active member of the small cabal of patriots that determined, in the run-up to the opening of the regular parliamentary session in October 1779, to commit the Irish parliament to seek the right to ‘free trade’ from the British government. Grattan was a powerful advocate of this cause, and based on his impressive contribution to the debate that resulted in the ratification by the house of commons (12–13 October 1779) of an address to the king calling for ‘free trade’, Henry Grattan jr (qv) has described this debate as ‘the real commencement of Mr Grattan's career’ (Life of Grattan, i, 387). It is a problematic claim, but it did signal his arrival as a leading patriot parliamentarian. This was affirmed by his influential insistence that the Irish parliament should only agree a six-months money bill, which was critical in securing the right to trade within the empire on the terms demanded.
The campaign for legislative independence, 1780–82
Having hastened the abolition of the mercantilist restrictions that limited Ireland's freedom to trade, Grattan vowed to pursue the relaxation of the constitutional bonds that limited the legislative authority of the Irish parliament. He would, he informed the Dublin Guild of Merchants in January 1780, ‘strain every nerve to effectuate a modification of the law of Poynings . . . [and] to secure this country against the illegal claims of the British parliament’ (Miscellaneous works, 143). To this end, he undertook to press for a ‘declaration of the rights of Ireland’, and on 19 April he made a long and powerful speech in support of a resolution affirming the rights of the Irish parliament to make law for Ireland. It was defeated, but this did Grattan little harm. He was now widely identified as the most electrifying set-piece Patriot orator in the house of commons. The challenge was how to harness this skill and the support forthcoming from an expectant public to secure constitutional change. Grattan's priorities for the 1781–2 session were an annual mutiny bill and legislative independence. His decision in the autumn of 1781 to publish a pamphlet affirming the right of the Irish parliament to legislative autonomy, and challenging the government's refusal to allow Ireland an annual mutiny act, reinforced his case with the public, but he was unable to make much of an impression in the division lobbies in the house of commons. Indeed, faced with a better-organised administration and an absence of consensus as to whether it was better to pursue Henry Flood's assertive or Barry Yelverton's moderate definition of what constituted legislative independence, Grattan seemed unsure on the best means of proceeding. He was provided with a way forward by the intervention of the Ulster Volunteers, who approved a number of assertive resolutions on the subject prepared by Grattan, Charlemont, and Flood at a delegate assembly at Dungannon (15 February 1782). The assembly also approved an additional resolution, drafted and conveyed secretly by Grattan, favouring further toleration for catholics, reflecting his conviction that it was possible to transcend the intrinsic sectarianism of Irish politics to forge an Irish nation. Encouraged by this, Grattan made a number of unsuccessful attempts to secure the support of the Irish parliament for motions calling for legislative independence. It took the fall of Lord North's ministry and the accession to power of Lord Rockingham (March) to create the circumstances that made it possible.
Rockingham and his ministers were prepared to agree that the legislative authority of the Irish parliament should be enhanced, but they hoped to do so in a manner that affirmed Britain's authority in matters of imperial concern. This was an important test for Grattan and Charlemont, with whom the government sought to treat. Both men were ideologically well disposed towards the whigs and on good personal terms with their principal leaders, but they were not prepared to compromise on what Grattan described as ‘our rights’, and – suspecting this was the intention – they politely declined all overtures to negotiate. With parliamentary and public opinion on his side, Grattan overcame the illness that limited his political effectiveness during much of 1782 to move a third time for a declaration of rights on 16 April 1782. His motion was approved unanimously, which gave him the moral authority to insist that the government accede to the repeal of the declaratory act and the amendment of Poynings’ law, and that it meet Irish concerns on the perpetual mutiny bill and on the nature of judicial appointments. In return, Grattan emphasised his commitment and that of Irish protestants to uphold the British connection. ‘The crown of Ireland’, he maintained, was ‘an imperial crown inseparably annexed to the crown of Great Britain’ (Parl. reg. Ire., i , 339). Such sentiments reinforced Grattan's fame, as the Irish house of commons acknowledged by awarding him a grant of £50,000 on 31 May ‘in testimony of the gratitude of this nation for his eminent and unequalled services to this kingdom’ (ibid, p. 383). This enabled Grattan to purchase a house in Co. Wicklow and an estate in Queen's Co. and to live the rest of his life free of money worries. It also freed him to marry Henrietta Fitzgerald (daughter of Nicholas Fitzgerald of Greensborough, Co. Kilkenny) later the same year.
Unhappily, from Grattan's perspective, by this time his public profile was already in decline because of his refusal to accept Henry Flood's contention that the ‘simple repeal’ of the declaratory act was insufficient so long as the British parliament declined to renounce its claim to make law for Ireland. His failure to join actively in the campaign in support of parliamentary reform in 1783–4, his involvement with Dublin Castle between 1783 and mid 1785, and, not least, his severe criticism of the Volunteers in 1784 contributed further to diminish his popular appeal. Grattan bitterly resented this fall from popular favour, as his calculated verbal assault on Flood on 28 October 1783 vividly attests. A duel was only narrowly averted, and with no popular issue demanding his attention Grattan had little alternative but to work alongside the Irish administration in promoting fiscal reform, though it almost certainly contributed to his unexplained rupture with Lord Charlemont and produced no beneficial changes. At the same time, his relationship with Dublin Castle proved advantageous in the spring of 1785 when he secured significant modifications to the financial terms of William Pitt's proposal for a commercial union. Subsequent changes that threatened the legislative authority of the Irish parliament obliged him to take a more public stand, and his speech against the arrangement (12 August 1785) was an oratorical tour de force that signalled his return to the politics of opposition.
During the late 1780s and early 1790s, Grattan worked closely with John Forbes (qv), the MP for Drogheda, in seeking reform of the pension list and (after a serious outbreak of agrarian disorder in Munster) tithe reform. Both were strongly resisted by the predominantly conservative establishment in Ireland, but Grattan was not easily dissuaded. The incapacity of George III in the winter of 1788–9 certainly encouraged him, as it opened up the prospect of his achieving great influence in Ireland should the whigs achieve power in Britain. Grattan convinced the Irish parliament to offer a regency to George, prince of Wales, but George III's recovery invalidated his effort. The episode was not without a positive outcome, however. Grattan was a founder member of the Irish Whig Club, established in 1789 to promote political reform and to sustain the constitution achieved in 1782, which gave greater direction and coherence to the parliamentary opposition in the early 1790s. His priority was patronage reform, and though none of his proposals was adopted, his stand enabled him to maintain a high public profile that ensured his election to represent Dublin city in 1790.
The most controversial political question Grattan had to come to terms with in the early 1790s was catholic enfranchisement. As the representative for a city many of whose voters espoused ‘protestant ascendancy’, Grattan sought initially to uphold his reputation as a proponent of catholic relief, without alienating his constituents, by promising to support relief ‘only in as much as’ it was ‘consistent with’ protestant ascendancy (Miscellaneous works, 289). This was an unsustainable position, and by 1793 he had come round to the opinion that enfranchisement was necessary to diminish the appeal of ‘pernicious’ doctrines (Life of Grattan, iv, 87) emanating from France. As a political moderate, Grattan was convinced that the best response to the challenge posed by the French revolution was a programme of reform. He supported the war with France in 1794, but the hopes he vested in the British government were dealt a severe setback by the government's unwillingness to agree to proposals to reform the Irish legislature in 1793 and 1794. It was at this moment, when his hopes for the future were at a low ebb, that the unexpected appointment (December 1794) of Earl Fitzwilliam (qv) as lord lieutenant gave Grattan the opportunity to shape the pattern of government in Ireland according to his own design. Though unprepared to take office, Grattan had direct access to the lord lieutenant prior to his arrival in Ireland (January 1795) and, as the administration's main spokesman in the commons in 1795, he warmly endorsed Fitzwilliam's dismissal of conservative officeholders and wish to admit catholics to parliament. Indeed, Grattan must share the blame for the incautious manner in which the administration sought to proceed. As a result, when Fitzwilliam was recalled (March 1795) for exceeding his authority, Grattan had no choice but to revert to opposition with little tangible to show for his efforts. The next two years were among the most depressing in his political life as his attempts to resist the reactionary policies favoured by those whose dismissal he had welcomed in 1795 were rebuffed in turn.
On the margins, 1795–1805
Marginalised in the house of commons and demoralised by the refusal of those in power to accept his argument that they were making a bad situation worse, he withdrew from the house of commons and did not stand for reelection in 1797. Though his disillusionment with parliamentary politics ran deep, Grattan resisted the attempts by members of the United Irishmen to enlist him in their cause after his withdrawal from the house of commons. His familiarity with some of their number, and his preparedness to travel to Maidstone to give evidence at the trial of Arthur O'Connor (qv), led to the groundless accusation that he was a sworn member of the Society, and such was the suspicion with which he was regarded in conservative circles that he wisely stayed in England for the duration of the 1798 rebellion. It did not prevent his removal from the Irish privy council and other marks of public disfavour; but, combined with the fact that he was no longer a member of parliament, it ensured that he was poorly positioned to resist the proposed legislative union when it was mooted late in 1798. His decision to purchase a parliamentary seat for the borough of Wicklow in 1799 provided him with the opportunity to express his opposition during the 1800 session, but despite his eloquent pronouncements to the contrary, the act of union was carried by a comfortable margin. In the eyes of some Castle observers, lingering suspicion about Grattan's loyalty weakened the anti-union cause, but this is belied by the efforts they made to neutralise his contributions, which led, on 14 February 1800, to a duel with Isaac Corry (qv) in which the latter was slightly wounded.
Having failed to prevent the union, Grattan devoted his life to study and estate matters for a number of years. Disapproving of both conservative and radical streams, he was more convinced than ever that the way forward was to extend the civil rights of catholics, and it was this issue that tempted him back into politics.
At Westminster, 1805–20
Nominated by Earl Fitzwilliam to represent the borough of Malton, he made his first contribution in the house of commons at Westminster (13 May 1805) supporting Charles James Fox's motion for a committee on a catholic petition from Ireland seeking concessions. Grattan's particular brand of declamatory oratory and unusual style was regarded with less favour at Westminster than it had been at College Green, but there was no doubting his abilities, and he was sufficiently personable and well connected to negotiate the transition to the imperial stage well. This was confirmed publicly in 1806 when he was restored to the privy council, was offered but declined the office of chancellor of the Irish exchequer, and was elected to represent the city of Dublin (November). In the years that followed, he contributed actively to political debate on a range of issues appertaining to Ireland and, on occasions, imperial matters, but it was his promotion of the cause of admitting catholics to parliament that consumed most of his energies. Eager to overcome the resistance of a majority of MPs, he urged catholics to compromise and to allow the crown the right to veto catholic episcopal appointments, but this served only to generate difference and division in Ireland. Despite this, Grattan persisted in bringing forward proposals for catholic relief in 1808, 1810, 1811, and 1812 without success. He obtained the commons’ approval in 1813 to introduce a relief bill that sought to allow catholics to hold all but the highest of state offices, on condition that they took an oath of allegiance to uphold key protestant structures and institutions, but the intervention of the speaker ensured its emasculation. Grattan's continuing unwillingness to be guided in his actions by the Irish catholic leadership caused considerable resentment in this quarter in Ireland, but they lacked an alternative of stature. Moreover, it did not prevent his election, for the last time, for Dublin city in 1818. Persuaded that unconditional emancipation was impossible, Grattan continued to propose measures to admit catholics to sit in parliament, accompanied by a provision for a state veto. Following the disappointment of 1813, he raised the matter again in 1816, 1817, and 1819, and had just agreed to do so once more in 1820 when he was struck down by illness. He died in London on 4 June 1820, and was buried, at the request of the whigs, in Westminster Abbey. He was survived by his wife, and by his two sons – James, who, after a career in the army, was MP for Co.Wicklow 1821–41, and Henry, his biographer, who was MP for Dublin city 1826–30 and Co. Meath 1831–52 – and two daughters, Mary Anne and Harriet. Among portraits of Grattan are those by Francis Wheatley (qv) (oils 1780; National Portrait Gallery, London) and Martin Archer Shee (qv) (oils 1788; NGI); Wheatley's group portrait, showing Grattan addressing the house of commons in 1780, is in the possession of Leeds City Art Galleries (Lotherton Hall, West Yorkshire). A plaster bust by Peter Turnerelli (qv) is in the NPG, London.
Reputation and assessment
Grattan's interment at Westminster abbey symbolised how successfully he made the transition from College Green to Westminster. His reluctance to endorse his son Henry's efforts to support an anti-union campaign in 1810 suggests, moreover, that it was not an inappropriate location and that he was content by that date that the act of union should continue, though he made no explicit statement to the effect. This is not surprising. Always sensitive to his reputation, Grattan devoted a considerable amount of effort in his later years to the task of ensuring that posterity would hold him in high esteem. His most notable undertaking was a four-volume edition of his political speeches, which he recast as appropriate to present himself in a more flattering light. His son subsequently reinforced this positive image with a five-volume life that has never been equalled in scale or reverence, and has contributed greatly to the overwhelmingly positive image Grattan retains to this present day. This is demonstrable in the continued use of the term ‘Grattan's parliament’ to describe the phase of Irish parliamentary history that extends from 1782 to 1800, and by the use of his appellation to describe bridges, roads, and public houses in contemporary Ireland. In many respects, Grattan's reputation is larger than his achievements warrant. He was a superb orator and a determined advocate of constitutional and political rights. However, he was less than adept when faced by complex detail, and such attempts as he made to master such complex issues as tithe and commercial reform in the 1780s seldom impressed. He was, in sum, an excellent opposition politician who achieved the posthumous reputation he desired because nationalist politicians in the nineteenth century, eager to achieve home rule, had their own reasons for extolling his sole memorable achievement – ‘legislative independence’.