Ponsonby, George (1755–1817), lord chancellor of Ireland, was born on 4 or 5 March 1755, the third, but second surviving, son of five sons and eight daughters born to John Ponsonby (qv) (1713–87), the speaker of the Irish house of commons, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (1723–96), daughter of the 3rd duke of Devonshire (qv). He received his schooling at the Rev. Thomas Benson's school at Fownes' Court in Dublin, following which he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in December 1773, but left without taking a degree. Admitted to Lincoln's Inn in February 1776, he found the law to his liking and he was uncommonly attentive while at the inns of court. Called to the Irish bar in 1780, Ponsonby seemed destined for a career in the law when he was made recorder at Youghal in 1780, a year before his marriage, on 18 May 1781, to Lady Mary Butler (1755–1826), the first surviving daughter of Brinsley, 2nd earl of Lanesborough (qv), with whom he had two sons and one daughter. His admission to the inner bar in 1782 suggested also that the law was his priority, but given his background and connections it was inevitable that a career in politics should exert an equally strong pull.
Ponsonby entered the Irish house of commons in 1778 as MP for the borough of Wicklow and a member of the strong Ponsonby connection. Its effective leader, after the withdrawal of their father, John, from active politics when he failed to regain the speakership in 1776, was George's elder brother, William Ponsonby (qv). Nominally, the Ponsonbys were in opposition, but their interest was too strong to be long ignored by any Irish administration and George Ponsonby was courted by the earl of Carlisle (qv), lord lieutenant in 1781–2, who appointed him clerk of ships entries, a post worth £500 per annum. Carlisle's successor, the duke of Portland (qv), was still more kindly disposed. Eager to construct a strong whig political connection around the Ponsonbys, he treated George Ponsonby as his ‘only real confidant’ (Beresford, i, 206) and he demonstrated this by authorising Ponsonby's appointment as first counsel to the revenue commissioners in 1782.
In keeping with the confidence placed in him, Ponsonby took the lead for the administration in the Irish house of commons when MPs reassembled on 16 April 1782, but his efforts to secure support for a temperate address to the king that fell short of a full demand for legislative independence was pre-empted by the famous intervention of Henry Grattan (qv). Recognising the futility of attempting to resist the tide of popular opinion, Ponsonby tactfully backed down. This did not injure his relationship with Portland, who continued to believe that the Ponsonbys would provide the basis for ‘a real whig party in Ireland’ (Portland to Northington, 18 Sept. 1783; BL, Add. MS 38716), for when the Fox–North coalition was formed in 1783 Ponsonby was ready with tactical advice as to what was required to form ‘a party here intimately connected with yours in England, and always going out and coming in with it’ (Fox Papers, BL, Add. MS 47582, ff 179–80). Ponsonby's father was less than happy at this prospect, but George was beyond his ability to control. In the event such attempts as were made to generate an Irish whig party foundered on the reluctance of MPs to confine their freedom to manoeuvre, with the result that Ponsonby and the Ponsonby interest generally supported the Irish administration during the 1780s.
The Ponsonby vote could not, however, be taken for granted, as they demonstrated in 1785 when the commercial propositions were at issue, which resulted in some loss of trust. Thus a Castle insider observed of George Ponsonby in the mid-1780s that while he ‘does not want [for] abilities’ his ‘sly and artful’ qualities were a major obstacle in the way of his appointment to high office (Johnston, 198). Such doubts were proved justified in 1788–9, when Ponsonby sided with the British whigs against Pitt and the Irish administration over the terms on which George, prince of Wales, should be offered a regency during the incapacity of George III. As a result, Ponsonby was dismissed from his position as counsel to the revenue.
The regency crisis was a turning point in George Ponsonby's career. Liberated from the requirement to support the Irish administration, he and other like-minded victims of ministerial vengeance founded the Irish Whig Club, and committed themselves to vigorous opposition. The programme of reforms he advanced – focused on ministerial patronage – was very traditional, but Ponsonby performed consistently well in the house of commons. Described in 1789, based on his performances during the 1780s, as an ‘indistinct, hollow and unharmonious [orator], having neither force to impress nor sweetness to please’ (Falkland, 91), he later proved a sufficiently skilful and adept performer to have acquired the reputation by 1799 of an ‘eloquent’ and ‘distinguished speaker’ (MacDougall, 166, 167). His profile as a popular spokesman was enhanced, moreover, by his advocacy in a number of high-profile legal cases, of which his efforts in 1790 on behalf of the common council of Dublin corporation in their struggle with the court of aldermen over the nomination to the lord mayoralty was the most closely watched. This served greatly to raise his reputation as an advocate of distinction, with the result that he was justifiably described as a lawyer of ‘the first rank, without a superior, or perhaps an equal, except . . . [John Philpot] Curran’ (ibid., 167).
Politically, Ponsonby was less than wholly at ease with the trend of events in the 1790s, as the reverberations of the French revolution hastened the polarisation of Irish politics between radical and conservative. His observation to Napper Tandy (qv) in December 1791 that ‘any attempt to introduce French systems, and the coalition between Catholic and Dissenter for those purposes would oblige the opposition to throw themselves into the arms of government, and to press an immediate union with Great Britain’ (HMC, Fortescue, ii, 238) is indicative. As a moderate reformer, he had no objection to the further repeal of the disabilities afflicting catholics, but he drew the line at their admission to the political process until 1793, when he performed something of a volte-face and maintained that it was ‘inconsistent with reason not to give the great body of the inhabitants of any country under a reasonable government . . . political power’ (Parl. reg. Ire., viii, 273).
In keeping with his fast-changing position at this time, Ponsonby also took up the question of parliamentary reform, but a bill he introduced late in the 1793 session ‘for the more equal representation of the people’ failed to become law. He had no more success in 1794, but events elsewhere in the winter of 1794–5, which culminated in the duke of Portland and a majority of the moderate British whigs joining William Pitt in a coalition government in Britain and in Earl Fitzwilliam (qv) becoming lord lieutenant of Ireland, provided Ponsonby with a glorious opportunity both to grasp hold of the tillers of power and to put his distinctive imprint on the direction of political events. Ponsonby and Fitzwilliam were on good terms personally as well as politically, and he was a logical choice for the position of attorney general in the new administration; had Fitzwilliam been allowed to remain in office and implement the sweeping changes in personnel he desired, Ponsonby would inevitably have rivalled Henry Grattan as its most influential voice. He might also have overseen the concession to catholics of the right to sit in parliament, but such was Ponsonby's eagerness to make up for the frustration he had experienced as a lukewarm supporter of the administration in the 1780s and as a leader of the whig opposition in the early 1790s that, instead of counselling Fitzwilliam to proceed cautiously, he encouraged the precipitate action that resulted in the undoing of the administration and his own political marginalisation once more. It was a devastating outcome, and it was compounded in the years that followed by his inability to persuade the serried conservative ranks in the commons to endorse his moderate reform programme. Unwilling to acquiesce in the loss of his reform plans, he joined his fellow whigs in Britain and Ireland in withdrawing from parliament in protest in 1797.
Unlike Grattan and others who declined to stand for re-election in 1797, Ponsonby remained in parliament as MP for Galway. He devoted more time in the late 1790s to the law than to politics, and he consolidated his popular reputation by defending some of those accused of involvement in fomenting treason in 1798 and 1799. However, he quickly took up the political baton once more when news emerged that the British government was intent on pursuing an Anglo–Irish union. He was active initially in prompting the bar to pronounce its opposition, but he enjoyed his finest moments in January 1799, when he not only upstaged the chief secretary, Lord Castlereagh (qv), but ensured by his intervention that the Irish administration could not proceed with the measure during the 1799 session. Matters went much less favourably in 1800, for though Ponsonby was joined by Henry Grattan the opposition as a whole lacked ideological coherence and organisational discipline. As ‘the chief conductor of opposition’ (Ross (ed.), iii, 238), Ponsonby sustained the contest through the 1800 session, but it was a vain struggle and the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence.
In common with other opponents of the Act of Union ideologically attached to the British whigs, Ponsonby adjusted easily to the imperial legislature following his election in 1801 to represent Co. Wicklow. Because of his experience as well as his connections, much was expected of him, and he endeavoured to live up to his billing by taking an active part in proceedings. Focusing in particular upon Irish issues, he soon demonstrated that he was an able parliamentarian. However, the whigs entertained still higher expectations and his failure to sustain his presence in the house combined with his reluctance to take up the issue of catholic relief disappointed some. His coyness was prompted at least in part by his calculation that support for catholic relief would not assist his ambition to become Irish lord chancellor, an ambition he achieved on the formation of the Fox–Grenville ministry in 1806. Ponsonby held the office for too short a spell (February 1806 to April 1807) to make much of an impression, though he found the burden of office irksome. Still, he did his reputation no harm as even before the ministry fell he was being touted in some quarters as potentially the whigs’ ‘most effective leader’ (HMC, Fortescue, viii, 347).
This was not a role that Ponsonby wanted or for which he was well suited, but since nobody else was acceptable to the rival Foxite and Grenvillite wings of the party, he allowed himself to be persuaded to take up the challenge. He possessed certain characteristics – experience, gregariousness, and ability – required for the task, but his leadership skills were under-developed and his knowledge of issues other than Ireland was limited. Indeed, he was not immune from criticism on Irish matters, for though his party was united in their support for catholic emancipation, Ponsonby's backing for a state veto on the appointment of catholic ecclesiastics was less than popular in Ireland. Because he took his seat at Westminster for Tavistock (1808–12) and Peterborough (1812–16) between 1808 and 1816, Ponsonby was protected from criticism in that quarter, but his inability to strike a telling blow in the house of commons and to heal divisions within his party were more serious. Suggestions in 1809 that he should give way to Lord Henry Petty came to nothing because of Petty's elevation to the lords, but despite Ponsonby's resolve to lead more firmly he continued to fail to live up to the expectations of his parliamentary colleagues. His stance on the regency in 1810 was particularly unimpressive, but he was sufficiently effective on other issues and on other occasions to be able to muddle through. In truth he was the stop-gap leader of a divided party, who retained the leadership because he was willing to represent the wishes of the different factions. This alone explains the readiness of MPs, who were acutely aware of his limitations as a parliamentary performer, as a political strategist, and as a leader, to put up with him. They did so until 8 July 1817 when he died at his house in Curzon Street, eight days after he collapsed in the commons chamber. His death brought to an end a career of undelivered promise. Letters by him are in the collections of his major whig contemporaries, but his own papers do not survive.