Stanley, Edward George Geoffrey Smith (1799–1869), 14th earl of Derby , politician and chief secretary for Ireland, was born 29 March 1799 at Knowsley Hall, Lancashire, the eldest son of Edward Smith Stanley (1775–1851), 13th earl of Derby, and his wife, Charlotte Margaret (née Hornby; d. 1817). At Eton College and at Christ Church, Oxford (1817–20), which he left without taking a degree, Stanley demonstrated an aptitude for high-level debate and classical studies that led perhaps inevitably to his entering politics. His innate whig political outlook was inherited from his grandfather, the 12th earl of Derby (d. 1834), and he was influenced after leaving university by the 3rd marquess of Lansdowne, a leading whig at Westminster. Following a period of travel in Italy, where he was briefly imprisoned for assault, Stanley was elected whig MP for the borough of Stockbridge (1822–6). He later represented the boroughs of Preston (1826–30) and Windsor (1831–2), before replacing his father as one of the members for the county seat of North Lancashire (1832–44).
In 1827 Stanley followed Lansdowne in supporting Canning's liberal tory government and, after the death of Canning in July, he received from Lord Goderich his first governmental appointment, as under-secretary for the colonies (1827–8). He resigned after the duke of Wellington (qv) became prime minister in January 1828. Stanley was a supporter of both the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and of Catholic emancipation in the parliamentary sessions of 1828–9. He rapidly gained prominence for being an intelligent and assured parliamentary debater and, despite his relative youth, was appointed Irish chief secretary (29 November 1830) by Lord Grey when the whigs attained power in November 1830.
Ireland was in an agitated state at the time of Stanley's appointment, even by the standards of the 1810s and 1820s. The combination of agrarian violence, the beginnings of violent opposition to the payment of tithes, and the first campaign by Daniel O'Connell (qv) for the repeal of the Act of Union led the government to fear a general rebellion. Stanley was delighted when O'Connell was arrested in Dublin in January 1831 on conspiracy and seditious libel charges, and was involved in the attempted prosecution of newspapers that supported him. This marked the beginning of a hostile relationship between the two, characterised by their acrimonious exchanges in the house of commons over the next few years. Stanley also introduced an arms bill in 1831 and encouraged the trend of placing the maintenance of law and order under Dublin Castle's control by the increased use of the Peace Preservation Force and stipendiary magistrates in disturbed counties between 1831 and 1833. He also assisted Lord Melbourne (qv), the home secretary, in producing the harsh Coercion Act (1833) to quell anti-tithe violence. He became the first chief secretary to be promoted to the cabinet (1831), much to the annoyance of Lord Anglesey (qv), the lord lieutenant.
Stanley also implemented a number of political and administrative reforms during his tenure as chief secretary. He – not very expertly – guided the Irish Parliamentary Reform Act (1832) through parliament which moderately increased the Irish electorate and gave the country five extra seats at Westminster. He established the national education system (1831) and the Board of Works to advance money for public works, both of which, despite some criticism, found broad approval. In addition to setting up the committee to inquire into Shannon navigation, he reorganised the Irish civil service and the grand joy system, and reduced the number of staff at Dublin Castle.
The reform of the Church of Ireland was a more complex issue for Stanley; he was a firm supporter of the established church but recognised that it required some reform to cater better for the needs of the small Anglican population in Ireland. He passed the Tithe Act (1832), which began the process of commuting tithe into a rent charge, and contributed to the Church Temporalities Act (1833), which reorganised and reduced the size of the Church of Ireland, though he steadfastly resisted the original plans of some cabinet members to appropriate the vast revenues of the Church of Ireland for lay purposes.
Lord Grey promoted Stanley to a full ministerial position as colonial secretary (29 March 1833). Removing him from Irish affairs also meant that the government could ensure his more constant presence in parliament, where it lacked effective speakers. As colonial secretary he was responsible for the introduction of the act abolishing slavery (1833). He resigned from the government in May 1834 along with Sir James Graham, Lord Ripon, and the duke of Richmond, when Lord John Russell and the more liberal wing of the cabinet made clear their intention to appropriate Church of Ireland revenues.
After his resignation Stanley was acknowledged as head of a small group of independent MPs in parliament, dubbed by O'Connell ‘the Derby Dilly’. They remained aloof from the government of Robert Peel (qv) in 1834–5 but began to drift towards the conservatives after the whigs formed a loose alliance with radicals and O'Connellites in the Lichfield House compact (1835). He continued to oppose the principle of appropriation in the various tithe bills put forward by the whigs in the 1830s. Now styled Lord Stanley, following the death of his grandfather in October 1834, he inflicted damage on the faltering whig government by his proposals to change the system of electoral registration in Ireland in 1840. These were not carried but provided a focus for the conservatives and contributed to the collapse of the whigs and the formation of Peel's government in 1841.
Peel appointed him colonial secretary (1841–5), though he lost his services as an effective debater in the commons after his elevation to the lords by writ of acceleration (as Lord Stanley of Bickerstaffe) in November 1844. Stanley resigned from the colonial office (1845) in opposition to Peel's proposals to repeal the corn laws, and thereafter became the leader of the protectionist conservatives opposed to free trade. He succeeded to the family title in June 1851, becoming 14th earl of Derby, after the death of his father, and went on to become conservative prime minister three times over the next two decades: February to December 1852, March 1858 to June 1859, and June 1866 to February 1868.
In addition to his political offices, Stanley held a number of other important positions: lord rector of the University of Glasgow (1833–4), Sloane trustee of the British Museum (1835–66), and chancellor of Oxford University (1852–69), where he was posthumously honoured with a classical scholarship in his name. His blank verse translation of The Iliad was published in 1864. He was made KG in 1859. A keen sportsman, he particularly enjoyed horse racing and shooting, and was appointed steward of the Jockey Club in 1849.
He married Emma Caroline (1805–1876), the second daughter of Edward Bootle-Wilbraham, 1st Baron Skelmersdale (1771–1853), on 31 May 1825 in London; they had two sons and one daughter. Stanley died at Knowsley Hall 23 October 1869, aged seventy, and was buried in the local parish church. Both his sons, Edward Henry (1826–93) and Frederick Arthur (1841–1908), succeeded to the family title – as the 15th and 16th earls respectively. Stanley's papers are in the Liverpool Record Office.