Parsons, Sir Lawrence (1758–1841), 2nd earl of Rosse , politician, was born 21 May 1758 at Birr Castle, King's Co. (Offaly), eldest son of Sir William Parsons (1732–91), 4th baronet and MP for King's Co. (1757–91), and Mary Parsons (née Clere). William Parsons was a leading figure in the Volunteer movement and Lawrence joined the corps in Parsonstown (Birr) in 1776. Educated at Mr Warburton's school in Dublin, he entered TCD and graduated BA (1780), LLB (1783), and LLD (1790). He was auditor of the College Historical Society, and eagerly attended debates in the house of commons. Deciding on a career in politics, he entered the commons as MP for the prestigious seat of Dublin University (1782–90), a tribute to his intellectual reputation and standing; he later sat as MP for King's Co. (1790–1800, 1801–7). His political mentor was Henry Flood (qv) whose principles of financial retrenchment and constitutional reform strongly marked his career. In 1785 Parsons opposed Pitt's commercial propositions as an infringement on Irish rights. On 3 March 1789 he had a dramatic clash with Henry Grattan (qv) which almost resulted in a duel. When Parsons rose to speak on a resolution about absentees, Grattan informed the house that he would withdraw the motion if Parsons was the seconder. Stung by this rebuke, Parsons launched into a bitter denunciation of Grattan, listing the many blunders he had committed in his career. In retaliation, Grattan claimed that Parson's speeches offered ‘a melancholy proof that a man may be scurrilous who has not the capacity to be severe’ (McDowell, 78) and accused him of delivering ‘the spite which some other person has spit into his mouth’ (Parliamentary register, ix, 258), an obvious reference to Flood. Even after Flood's death, Parsons remained somewhat in his shadow: in February 1794 the under-secretary, Edward Cooke (qv), described him as ‘a disciple of Flood, with much of his policy and little of his ability and bearing much hatred to Grattan’ (Malcomson, 451).
Parsons supported the government during the regency crisis and kept aloof from the Whig Club (founded 26 June 1789), disapproving of the notion of an organised opposition. His independence and integrity earned him respect from some political radicals: Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) regarded him as a friend, praised him as ‘one of the very few honest men in the Irish house of commons’ (Bartlett, 30), and credited him with turning his attention to Ireland's constitutional relationship with England. Parsons's father died on 1 May 1791 and Lawrence succeeded as 5th baronet. By 1793 the French revolution and growth of radicalism in Ireland had curtailed his desire for reform, and he published a pamphlet, Thoughts on liberty and equality (1793), in which he argued against the revolution's egalitarian ideals. He supported the whig parliamentary reform bill of 1794, but opposed extending the franchise to the poor, believing they could be easily corrupted and that the propertied classes alone were fit to rule. Although a supporter of catholic emancipation, he believed that the extension of the franchise to catholic forty-shilling freeholders under the 1793 relief act was a mistake, and argued that it would be better to grant full emancipation but have a £20 property qualification to ensure that catholic property was represented in parliament. Parsons was the quintessential independent MP and his highly-principled individualism could exasperate both government and opposition. He opposed the war with France in 1794, and for a brief period found himself at the head of a small group of anti-war MPs, but usually he was an isolated figure in parliament. With few allies and no great political instinct, he had little influence on government policy. Many of his fellow landowners thought him rather ‘too clever for a gentleman’ (Malcomson, 453) and were baffled by the fact that he disliked sport, educated his sons at home rather than at public school, and opposed flogging in the army.
Although concerned at the growth of political disaffection and agrarian agitation from the mid 1790s, he insisted that they should be addressed by legal and judicious means, and he denounced the draconian insurrection act of 1796 as unconstitutional. He deplored the severity of government repression in Ulster and Leinster in 1797–8, and on 5 March 1798 moved for a committee to inquire into the state of the country. Ultra-loyalists were outraged and he was removed from the colonelcy of the King's Co. militia – some even suspected him of being a United Irishman. He blamed the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion on the repressive and inconsistent policies of the government. After its defeat he expressed concern about the treatment of rebel prisoners and approved of Lord Cornwallis's (qv) offer of an amnesty to those who remained in arms. Strongly opposed to legislative union with Britain, Parsons was one of the leading opposition figures in the commons but failed to co-operate effectively with fellow anti-unionists. He did however, manage to pass a motion deleting the paragraph concerning union from the king's address on 24 January 1799.
After the union he took his seat in the united parliament as MP for King's Co., but he disliked travelling to London and rarely spoke at Westminster. He soon reconciled himself to the union, co-operated with the Irish administration, and made clear his willingness to accept public office. On commercial grounds he criticised proposals for the immediate abolition of the slave trade in 1805, and instead advocated gradual abolition. In 1805 there was talk of his being made Irish chancellor of the exchequer, but he had to settle for appointment as a privy councillor and a commissioner of the Irish treasury (1805–9). On 20 April 1807 he succeeded his uncle, Lawrence Parsons-Harman (1749–1807) as 2nd Baron Oxmantown and 2nd earl of Rosse. He became joint postmaster general in 1809, which gave him some opportunity to implement his ideas on financial retrenchment. He introduced a more efficient system of accounts (January 1810) and attempted to improve delivery times. These reforms had some success but he was hampered by disagreements with Edward Lees (qv), the post office secretary. Parsons was joint postmaster general until 1831, when the Irish post office was merged with the British. His most lasting memorial was the building of the GPO in Dublin, having approved the design by Francis Johnston (qv) in 1814. Parsons had a keen interest in architecture, and undertook several architectural projects on his estate and in the town of Birr.
He also devoted much of his time to literature and antiquities, and was a friend of Maria Edgeworth (qv). Defending Flood's efforts to endow a chair of Celtic literature at TCD, he published Observations on the bequest of Henry Flood Esq. to Trinity College, Dublin, with a defence of the ancient history of Ireland (1795). In his later years he became increasingly preoccupied with intellectual matters and wrote An argument to prove the truth of the Christian revelation (1834), a systematic attempt to assemble scientific evidence in support of Christian belief. He also wrote a large amount of poetry, most of which was never published.
Although well disposed towards his catholic tenants, he looked with concern on catholic agitation for emancipation, and approved of the government's decision to dissolve the Catholic Committee in 1811, regarding its representative character as a threat to public order. In 1822 he opposed catholic emancipation, claiming that it would lead to the supplanting of the protestant gentry. Taking no part in the debates leading to catholic emancipation (1829) and parliamentary reform (1832), he gave silent support to the former, and absented himself from the house on the latter. He died 24 February 1841 at Brighton, Sussex. A large collection of his papers is held at Birr Castle.
He married (5 April 1797) Alice (d. 1867), daughter of John Lloyd of Gloster, King's Co., thereby allying himself with one of the main families in the south of the county; they had three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, William Parsons (qv), succeeded as 3rd earl of Rosse.