Hill, Wills (1718–93), 1st marquess of Downshire , politician, was born at Fairford, Gloucestershire, on 30 May 1718, the third but only surviving son of Trevor Hill (1693–1742), 1st Viscount Hillsborough, and Mary Hill (née Rowe), the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Anthony Rowe of Muswell Hill, Middlesex, and North Aston, Oxfordshire, and widow of Sir Edmund Denton of Hillesden, Buckinghamshire.
Irish and English MP Educated at Oxford University, Hillsborough maintained a lifelong connection with the university, being created DCL in 1771; he was also made an elder brother of Trinity House in 1781. With an English upbringing and a large Irish estate in Co. Down, to which he succeeded on the death of his father in May 1742, Hillsborough had interests in both kingdoms. Although he was an absentee, he kept a close eye on his Irish estates, which he visited annually; they expanded by inheritance – the most notable increase being of 17,000 acres and a parliamentary borough at Blessington, Co. Wicklow – as well as by purchase, and Hillsborough improved them by promoting the linen trade. He also maintained an interest in Irish affairs, symbolised by his nomination in 1742 (in succession to his father) to the position of lord lieutenant of Co. Down, by his readiness on 10 November 1743 to take his seat in the Irish house of lords, and by his elevation in August 1746 to the Irish privy council. However, like his father, who had forsaken the Irish parliament (in which he briefly represented Hillsborough, 1713–14, and Co. Down, 1715–17) for Westminster, where he was an undistinguished representative for Aylesbury (1715–22), Lord Hillsborough's horizon was dominated by the imperial legislature. First elected to represent the boroughs of Warwick and Huntingdon in the 1741 general election, he chose the former and represented the constituency until his elevation to the lords fifteen years later.
Returned as ‘an opposition Whig’ (Hist. parl.: commons, 1715–54, ii, 140), Hillsborough took an active part in political debate from his entry into parliament. Although his ostensible oscillation between opposing and supporting the government during the 1740s caused some to question his dependability, he was in reality guided by his own instincts and convictions. This caused him to gravitate towards the Pelhams in 1749–50, and he had established himself as a strong voice on behalf of government by the early 1750s, when Horace Walpole noted positively that he was ‘a young man of great honour and merit, remarkably nice in weighing whatever cause he has to vote in’ (Walpole, Memoirs … George II, i, 56). Walpole classified him as a distinguished speaker, though not a ‘real orator’ (ibid., ii, 116); he was ‘excellent at setting off his reasons, if the affair was at all tragic, by a solemnity in his voice and manner that made much impression on his hearers’ (ibid., i, 56).
Proponent of an Anglo–Irish union Hillsborough's high profile and readiness to advance the government position in parliament in the 1750s earned him a number of essentially honorific appointments in the royal household (comptroller of the household, May 1754 to December 1755, and treasurer of the chamber, December 1755 to November 1756), which led to his being described as a courtier, and to his elevation to the British privy council in June 1754. Meanwhile, his marriage, on 1 March 1748, to Lady Margaret Fitzgerald (1729–1766), the daughter of Robert Fitzgerald (1675–1744), 19th earl of Kildare, and sister of the 1st duke of Leinster (qv), temporarily boosted his standing in Ireland, though this was not to survive long: in 1751 a pamphlet, entitled A proposal for uniting the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, was published anonymously in London and Dublin, though it was reliably assumed to be by Hillsborough. Consistently with Hillsborough's inclinations, as well as with his analysis of Britain's strategic needs in the mid-eighteenth century, the author adjudged that it was in Ireland's as well as Britain's interest to agree ‘a complete and perfect incorporation of the two kingdoms’ in order to create ‘a new national interest . . . productive of both nations [and] of more numerous and greater benefits than either of them can separately enjoy’ (Proposal, 7). Irish opinion felt otherwise, however, and Hillsborough was memorably aspersed by his critics as a ‘brainless, short-sighted babbler’, and an Anglo–Irish union was caricatured as an ‘unnatural scheme’ (Kelly, 54).
The hostile response to his advocacy of an Anglo–Irish union did not stimulate Hillsborough to disengage wholly from Irish affairs, but Britain was and remained his primary arena thereafter. His expressed preference was for a political system free of ‘party’ and ‘faction’, in which court and country worked together to the advancement of the ‘public good’ (Proposal, 37–8), and this encouraged him to avoid becoming enmeshed in any of the factions that dominated the British political landscape in the 1750s and 1760s. His independence was facilitated by his elevation to the British peerage as Baron Harwich in 1756. On the negative side, the slowly increasing realisation that his talents were not quite so great as was initially assumed, and that he was prone to misjudge a situation badly – as in November 1755 when he ‘seemed to describe, while he meant to defend, the weakness of the government’ (Walpole, Memoirs of George II, ii, 67) – acted as a brake on his progress, till the political context and atmosphere altered in the early 1760s. Hillsborough secured his first important official appointment in September 1763, when he was made president of the board of trade and foreign plantations in George Grenville's administration. He held this position again in Chatham's administration from August to December 1766, and was joint postmaster general from December 1766 to January 1768, when he was nominated to the office upon which his reputation largely rests – that of secretary of state for the colonies.
Secretary of state for the colonies Hillsborough's appointment to oversee colonial affairs derived from the acknowledged need for a third secretary of state to deal with the increased volume of work generated by Britain's mounting problems in North America. Although he approached the task energetically and brought some administrative clarity to the office, Hillsborough's support while at the board of trade for a legal prohibition on the colonies’ issuing paper currency (Currency Act, 1764) indicated that he was committed strongly to maintaining the traditional dependent position of the colonies. He was not, however, entirely inflexible in policy matters and his support for the repeal of the contentious Stamp Act and the easing of the troublesome Townshend duties before he took up office suggested that he had room to manoeuvre. This might have proved useful if the colonists had acceded to Hillsborough's unyielding commitment to uphold the authority of the British parliament unchanged and undiluted, but the issuing in April 1768 of the Massachusetts Circular Letter denying the right of the British parliament to tax without consent indicated otherwise. Offended by what he deemed a brazen affront, Hillsborough reacted in a way that set him on a collision course with the Massachusetts assembly, whose actions he famously condemned in a series of eight resolutions presented to the house of lords. He also antagonised the people of Boston by ordering the army into the city, and alarmed the colonial population at large by proposing to rewrite the terms of the Massachusetts Bay charter. Even when the British government chose in 1769 to adopt a more conciliatory policy, Hillsborough's insistent emphasis on upholding ‘the legislative authority of Great Britain’ greatly diminished its effectiveness and earned him, in the inimitable words of Benjamin Franklin, a reputation for ‘conceit, wrongheadedness, obstinacy and passion’ that obscured, where it did not simply overturn, his previous reputation as ‘an honest man, [who] means well’ (Franklin, xviii, 24). His resignation, in August 1772, was in keeping with this portrayal, prompted as it was by his inability to accept a compromise on western settlement, which was agreeable to the rest of the cabinet, because it was inconsistent with an official prohibition authorised in 1763 which he was committed to uphold.
Hillsborough's inflexibility was the crucial factor both in his loss of office and in earning for him a reputation for ‘tyranny and ignorance’ (Walpole, Memoirs of George III, iv, 198), which Lord Chatham, Edmund Burke (qv), and others remorselessly exposed and which made so decisive an impression on opinion in America, where it was concluded that he was ‘disposed to do every evil in his power to us’ (Greene, Negotiated authorities, 410). However, the damage to his reputation was eased by his being created, on 28 August 1772, Viscount Fairford and earl of Hillsborough in the peerage of Great Britain. Although he would have acted no differently in any event, his elevation helped to ensure his continuing support for Lord North's government through the difficult years of the mid- and late 1770s, and his vocal resistance to any concessions to the Americans. This paved the way for his return to office, as secretary of state for the southern department, in November 1779. His appointment was not welcomed in many quarters, and he seemed intent on proving his critics right by offending both the lord lieutenant of Ireland and the empress of Russia within a few months of taking up his duties. In practice, his lack of industry was as serious as his want of judgement. His preference with respect to Ireland, where the demand for free trade gathered momentum during 1779, was for a legislative union, which was simply unrealistic; when free trade had to be conceded, he expressed the equally naïve hope that Ireland would accept what was offered and not agitate over constitutional points. As a result, he spent his two and a half years as secretary of state fighting a rearguard action in opposition to constitutional concessions that would alter the nature of the Anglo–Irish relationship. He was equally resistant to the attempt to bring about parliamentary reform at Westminster, on the grounds that any such change must ‘lead to anarchy and public confusion’ (Parliamentary history, xxi, 1352), and he urged the lords to stand forward to ‘check and resist that delirium of virtue, that rage and tempest of liberty, and bring them back to coolness and sobriety’ (Butterfield, 328).
Final years Hillsborough's unhappiness with the direction of events dovetailed with his administrative and political limitations – which caused George III to observe that he did not know ‘a man of less judgement than Lord Hillsborough’ (HMC, Abergavenny MSS, 15) – to ensure not only that he was out of a job on the fall of Lord North's government in March 1782 but also that he was never again to hold high office. He made his last reported parliamentary speech, in which he urged an Anglo–Irish union, in the House of Lords in January 1786, following which he withdrew from politics. His elevation in the Irish peerage to marquess of Downshire in August 1789 represented a further acknowledgement of his eminence. Affected by a stroke in 1790, he died at Hillsborough Castle on 7 October 1793 and was buried at Hillsborough. Had he achieved the lord lieutenancy of Ireland, to which he actively aspired in the 1770s, Hillsborough might have risen even higher, though he would hardly have made a more successful lord lieutenant than he did secretary for the colonies, and his known enthusiasm for an Anglo–Irish union might have made a difficult situation even worse. Nonetheless, as one of a handful of Irish aristocrats to achieve high office in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, Hillsborough's life and career are representative of the political options open to men of his stature.
Hillsborough's second, but only surviving son, Arthur Hill (1753–1801), second marquess of Downshire and politician, was born on 23 February 1753 at Hanover Square, London. During his father's lifetime he was styled successively Viscount Kilwarlin (1756–72), Viscount Fairford (1772–89), and earl of Hillsborough (1789–93). He was admitted to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1771, and graduated MA on 9 July 1773. Elected in the government interest to the Westminster parliament for the constituencies of Lostwithiel in 1774 and Malmesbury in 1780, he was content to be guided in his political actions by his father, whose political character he reputedly ‘adored’. He was an infrequent participant in debate (only two of his speeches are recorded), but supported Pitt at the outset of his prime ministerial career; however, his failure to be returned for St Albans in 1784 cut short his representative aspirations at Westminster and encouraged him to focus more on Ireland. Fairford was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1776 for the prestigious constituency of Co. Down and held on to his seat in 1783; though this was a warmly contested election, it was uneventful compared with the celebrated contest that took place in 1790, when the father and son, facing a coalition of opponents headed by Robert Stewart (qv) (later Lord Castlereagh), spent extravagantly in order to retain the seat.
Although it seems improbable that the 1790 election cost the £30,000 claimed at the time, Fairford's marriage, in June 1786 at St Marylebone, London, to Mary Sandys (1764–1836), the daughter of Colonel Martin Sandys and the heiress to £60,000 in cash and estates at Edenderry in King's County (Offaly), Dundrum in Co. Down, and Easthampsted Park in Berkshire (which increased the Downshire estates to over 100,000 acres) facilitated such extravagance. It also encouraged his political ambitions and, following his succession to the marquessate in 1793, he purchased the right to nominate to the borough of Fore, Co. Westmeath and half the borough of Carlingford, Co. Louth; added to the seats for Hillsborough and Blessington, one seat for Co. Down, and one for Newry, Co. Antrim, these acquisitions meant that he was in a position to command as many as nine seats in the Irish house of commons during the 1790s. Though his parliamentary phalanx was rarely so large, it did assure him of a high profile and the attention of the Irish administration, which valued his support. However, Downshire drew the limit at catholic relief, which, as a matter of ‘internal regulation’, he adjudged according to his own principles and resisted in 1793. Two years later, during the Fitzwilliam administration, he joined with the 2nd earl of Shannon (qv) and the earl of Enniskillen to oppose a proposal to allow catholics sit in parliament.
Had Earl Fitzwilliam (qv) avoided dismissal as viceroy, Downshire's relationship with Dublin Castle must have soured immediately; as it was, his relations with Earl Camden (qv), Fitzwilliam's conservative successor, proved difficult. Their differences derived in the first place from Downshire's support for a hard-line security response to the problem of sedition in Ulster. He had signalled his convictions in this respect in 1793, when he actively promoted the establishment of a militia; but it was his efforts to raise a yeomanry in 1796, his support for General Lake's (qv) draconian disarmament tactics in south Down in 1797, which he justified on the grounds that otherwise ‘His Majesty's loyal subjects [will be] murdered’ (NAI, Rebellion Papers, 620/28/295), and his running of the spies Samuel Turner (qv) and Leonard MacNally (qv) that were the primary sources of tension. Inevitably, Downshire was a sharp critic of Lord Cornwallis's (qv) conciliatory response once the 1798 rebellion was defeated, but since the damage the rebels did to his Blessington estate necessitated a payment to him of £9,267 from the ‘suffering loyalists’ fund, his criticism of government policy at this point is comprehensible. More famously, he also resisted Cornwallis's efforts to bring about an Anglo–Irish union, though the initial assessment of his position was that he was ‘undecided … but not inclined to oppose government’ (Bolton, 75). His decision in 1799 to vote in support of the principle of a union in the British house of lords and against the specific measure in the Irish lords strongly suggests that he was uncertain as to what was best at this point, and may be another indication of the ‘impulsiveness’ (Malcomson, ‘Gentle Leviathan’, 106) that was the hallmark of his character. This was clearly in evidence in the spring of 1800, when his misguided and unethical use of his position as colonel of the Co. Down militia to canvass his corps to oppose the union prompted the Irish administration to order his dismissal from the sinecure position of register of the court of chancery, worth £1500–£2000 per annum, which he had held since 1786, and his post as governor of Co. Down.
The enactment of the Act of Union was a major personal defeat for Downshire since seven of the nine seats that constituted his Irish political interest were abolished at a stroke. His son, the third marquess, who succeeded to the title following Downshire's suicide on 7 September 1801, received £52,500 in compensation, but it made only a modest dent in the large burden of debt he inherited. Indeed, debt was the main legacy of his father, a man whose personal wealth and political inheritance encouraged him to conceive of himself as a natural leader, but whose character flaws and deficient judgement ensured he never held even minor office.