Petty, William (1737–1805), 2nd earl of Shelburne and British prime minister, was born 2 May 1737 in Dublin, eldest son of John Petty (formerly Fitzmaurice), 1st earl of Shelburne, and Mary Petty (née Fitzmaurice). Embittered by a miserable childhood, he later blamed it for many of his subsequent problems. His parents were indifferent to him and his education was neglected; he claimed that between the ages of four and 14 he learned nothing. Styled Viscount Fitzmaurice (1753–61), he entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1755 but left after two years.
Determined to break free of his ‘detestable home’, he enlisted in the army and fought with distinction at the battles of Minden (1759) and Kloster Kampen (1760). He was promoted to colonel in 1760; his appointment as ADC to the new king, George III angered many whigs. Rising steadily in the military ranks, he became a full general in 1783. Having entered the British house of commons as MP for Chipping Wycombe in 1760, he was forced to resign the seat on 14 May 1761 when he succeeded his father as 2nd earl of Shelburne and 2nd Baron Wycombe.
There were many contradictions in Shelburne's character. Although he was one of the most talented politicians of his day, his self-destructive tendencies sabotaged his career. He was unpredictable, autocratic, bad-tempered, and suffered from unpredictable mood swings that made him appear insincere and untrustworthy. Disliked for being ‘un-English’, he became the most despised and unpopular figure in British public life. Samuel Johnson praised him for being ‘a man of abilities and information’ but recognised that he ‘acted like himself, that is, unlike anybody else’ (Hist. parl.: commons, 1754–90, iii, 271). An undoubted intellectual, he was the patron of Jeremy Bentham and an admirer of Adam Smith. Appointed a first lord of trade in April 1763, he sat in cabinet but was dismissed in December for his support of John Wilkes.
Becoming a close ally of William Pitt the elder, he became secretary of state for the southern department in July 1766 but resigned because of differences over policy and patronage in 1768. While out of office he managed his estates in Ireland and England, and spoke in favour of the American colonists in parliament. He announced in the house of lords (2 June 1779) that the war had started on less provocation than Britain had given Ireland, and from then on he regularly brought Irish concerns before parliament. He briefly served as home secretary (March–July 1782) but his attitude to Irish legislative independence was ambivalent because he did not wish to alienate the king.
On 13 July 1782 he was invited to form his own administration. He became prime minister but continued to be haunted by his unpopularity. Almost everything he did was distrusted, and he was accused of widespread treachery and duplicity and denounced as ‘the Jesuit of Berkeley Square’ and ‘Malagrida’ (after a Portuguese Jesuit). Horace Walpole once remarked that ‘his falsehood was so constant and notorious . . . that he could only deceive by telling the truth’ (G.E.C., Peerage, 438). The ministry was fragile from the outset and collapsed on 5 April 1783 after the combined efforts of Charles Fox and Lord North defeated Shelburne's preliminary proposals for peace with the colonies.
Many observers were surprised when there was no room for Shelburne in the first administration of his protégé, William Pitt the younger, who became prime minister in December 1783. Instead, he had to be content with being raised in the peerage, when on 6 December 1784 he was created Viscount Calne and Calston, Earl Wycombe, and marquess of Lansdowne. He never held office again. Initially supportive of his successor, Shelburne gradually became ambivalent and eventually hostile. He resented being discarded and in the 1790s was highly critical of some of Pitt's policies, especially the war with France. After the 1798 rebellion in Ireland he urged catholic emancipation, and believed it would be a better solution than a legislative union.
He married first (2 February 1765) Lady Sophia Carteret (d. 1771); they had two sons. He married secondly (19 July 1779) Lady Louisa Fitzpatrick; they had one son and one daughter. He died 7 May 1805 at his home at Berkeley Square, London. He was succeeded by his eldest son from his first marriage, John Henry Petty (qv), as 2nd marquess of Lansdowne.
Many people have struggled to understand Shelburne's unpopularity and the contempt with which his contemporaries regarded him. Benjamin Disraeli considered him to be ‘the ablest and most accomplished statesman of the eighteenth century’ (G.E.C., Peerage, 438), and credited him with many of the younger Pitt's successes. Historians have found little evidence of his notorious duplicity but many examples of his inconsistency. John Ehrman concluded that ‘sagacious and blinkered, strong-willed and unsure, gifted and flawed, he is impressive and pathetic’ (Ehrman, i, 87).