Caulfeild, James (1728–99), 1st earl of Charlemont , politician, and landowner, was born 18 August 1728 at Castle Caulfeild, Co. Tyrone, second (but first surviving) son of James Caulfeild, 3rd Viscount Charlemont, and his wife Elizabeth Barnard of Castle Barnard, Co. Cork. As his father died before his sixth birthday, Caulfeild became a peer at a very early age, which encouraged expectations within his family that he would become ‘the very first character of a peer in Ireland’ (HMC, Charlemont, i, 178–9). Charlemont was educated privately by a succession of tutors, of whom Philip Skelton (qv) was the most learned and Edward Murphy (1707–77) the most important; his predisposition to recreational pursuits as a teenager prompted his guardians to send him on grand tour in preference to university. Accompanied by Murphy, he embarked in 1746 on a series of journeys through Europe that brought him to familiar and not so familiar parts of the Continent. The most venturesome part of his tour involved trips to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Charlemont wrote an account of his experiences in the east Mediterranean that included a large amount of sociological description as well as traditional antiquarian narrative, but though he subsequently revised the manuscript account he prepared at the time, he declined to publish it, and it saw print only in the 1980s. Of the places he visited, Charlemont was most deeply influenced by his experiences in Italy, for it was here that his aesthetic sensibility was educated. Part of a circle in Rome that included Joshua Reynolds, Robert Adam, and William Chambers (qv), who became his architect, Charlemont spent five years in all in that city, and (although his experiences there included an unedifying dispute with Giambattista Piranesi) his time abroad served the purpose intended by his guardians: the young peer who returned to Ireland in 1755 was a more serene and serious man than the young adult who embarked on the grand tour nine years earlier.
Charlemont's intention on his return to play an active part in Irish politics was signalled by his decision to take his seat in the house of lords on 7 October 1755. Schooled by his stepfather and guardian, Thomas Adderley (qv), in the principles of whig politics, he was persuaded that the most valuable contribution he could make would be ‘to mediate between the two powers’ whose rivalry provided the impetus for the money bill dispute. Charlemont's intervention proved less than entirely successful, but it earned him the good will of Dublin Castle, which endeavoured to absorb him into the fold. Charlemont was uneasy at this prospect. Persuaded that ‘in Ireland . . . a permanent and respectable opposition is absolutely and essentially necessary . . . to check the encroachments’ both of the crown and of Great Britain, he determined to adopt a ‘wholly independent position’ (HMC, Charlemont, i, 7). However, his intentions were dealt a serious setback when he was struck down by a ‘violent rheumatism’ arising out of a severe attack of nerves precipitated by the demand of making a speech in 1756. As a result, Charlemont was unable, during his lifetime, to engage formally in political debate. For most aspiring politicians this would have spelled the end of their ambitions, but in Charlemont's case his sense of duty and strength of conviction, aided by the medical care of Charles Lucas (qv), enabled him to make a good recovery and to carve out an influential niche in society as well as politics. Thus, he accepted an invitation to become president of the Hibernian Society in 1759, rallied to the defence of the kingdom following Thurot's unexpected seizure of Carrickfergus in 1761, and made an important contribution to the restoration of law and order when south Ulster was disturbed by an outbreak of agrarian violence prompted by the Oakboys in 1763.
Charlemont's tactful engagement of the Oakboys hastened his elevation in the peerage to the rank of earl, but this had no influence on his political conduct. Already esteemed in Patriot circles for his defence of the right of Irish peers to march in procession at George III's coronation in 1761, he performed a comparable role in the lords to that performed by voluble Patriots such as Henry Flood (qv) and Edmund Sexton Pery (qv) in the commons. As he did not engage in formal debate, Charlemont's modus operandi was to enter ‘protests’, some of which were written in consultation with Henry Flood, against particular decisions he found politically and ideologically objectionable. Though hardly the most animating strategy, it allowed Charlemont to emerge as the leading opposition peer in the Irish house of lords during the 1760s. His public profile was further enhanced by his embarking during these years on the construction of a residence in Dublin and a country retreat near Marino to the north of Dublin city. The care, attention, vision, and large sum of money he devoted to ensuring that the Casino (as his country retreat was named) met his exacting standards, resulted in the creation of a building of exquisite character that ranks among the finest Palladian edifices of the era. His town house at the northern end of what became Rutland (later Parnell) Square may appear banal in comparison but it too achieved high aesthetic standards that consolidated Charlemont's reputation as an arbiter of good taste in Irish society.
Between 1763 and 1773 Charlemont also maintained a town house in London that enabled him to observe his political hero William Pitt, earl of Chatham, at close quarters. Unlike Flood, Charlemont remained fixedly of the opinion that he could best serve Ireland by keeping clear of all engagements with ministers, though the success of the combined efforts of the administration and Patriots such as Charlemont, Flood, and Charles Lucas to secure the ratification of an octennial act (1768) suggested that a cooperative relationship might not be entirely unproductive. However, Charlemont was not tempted, and he strongly opposed the efforts of Lord Townshend (qv) to strengthen the authority of Dublin Castle at the expense of the undertaker system, because he perceived this as a replication of Lord Bute's efforts in Britain to institute arbitrary government there. This was not the case, but Charlemont's commitment to the politics of opposition was so complete that he felt betrayed when Flood accepted office in 1775. Henry Grattan's (qv) agreement to accept his nomination to represent the Caulfeild borough of Charlemont the same year helped ease his disappointment, but it took his active involvement in the Volunteers in the late 1770s to provide him with the role with which he is most identified.
Though possessed initially of some reservations at the wisdom of an armed civilian volunteer force, Charlemont was so impressed by the civic-spiritedness of the citizen soldiers who joined the Volunteers in such large numbers, and so encouraged by their successful intervention in the political process to bring about ‘free trade’ in 1779, that his reservations soon evaporated. Furthermore, he revelled in the pomp and ceremony of the many annual reviews he attended in his capacity as commander-in-chief after his assumption of that position in 1780. His subsequent contribution to the achievement of legislative independence, both as commander-in-chief of the Volunteers and as an eminence grise within the Patriot political élite, was critical. As well as encouraging Grattan and (after his break with the Irish administration) Flood to continue to press what at times seemed like a lost cause, it was at his Dublin home that most of the resolutions approved at the Dungannon convention in February 1782 were drafted. Subsequently, with Grattan, he withstood enormous pressure to ensure that the concessions agreed by the British government in 1782, giving the Irish parliament ‘legislative independence’, were implemented without mitigating conditions. This was Charlemont's finest moment, though the lustre of the occasion was dulled somewhat by differences within the Patriots and the Volunteers as to whether these concessions amounted to the renunciation by the British government of its right to legislate for Ireland. Subsequently, Charlemont consolidated his leadership of the Volunteers by participating in the Ulster Volunteer-led campaign for parliamentary reform in 1783, though reform was not achieved. His antipathy to catholic enfranchisement made him a voice of moderation within the movement and provoked criticism from middle-class radicals, but his commitment to a protestant reform was, and remained, sincere and unconditional.
The controversy generated by the Volunteers’ advocacy of parliamentary reform prompted a government attempt formally to abolish the Volunteers and to replace them with a militia under government control. Determined that the government should not be provided with an excuse to do this, Charlemont directed the Volunteers to desist from political activity, though this meant they soon dwindled in size and significance. In the political realm, his conduct in the 1780s and 1790s was determined by his commitment to defend the constitution negotiated in 1782. To this end, he opposed Pitt's attempted commercial union in 1785, supported an unlimited regency in 1788–9, and was a leading figure in the Irish Whig Club that was formed the same year. Though he was sympathetic to the ideals of the French revolution in the early 1790s, neither the United Irishmen nor the enfranchisement of catholics in 1793 was to his liking. He played an ever-diminishing political part in the years that followed, but his correspondence from the mid and late 1790s indicates that his traditional commitment to whig principles had little dimmed over the years. In this context, his advocacy of temperate reform, including (belatedly) the admission of catholics to sit in parliament if it would enable the country to avoid civil war, reflected his genuine anxiety at the direction of events in the late 1790s. The initiation of plans for a legislative union in 1799 was particularly troubling because it represented nothing less than an attack on the right of Ireland to its own parliament as established in 1782. He contrived, despite illness, to orchestrate opposition for as long as he had the energy; his death on 4 August 1799 saved him the disappointment of seeing the act of union becoming law. He was survived by his wife, Mary (née Hickman; m. 2 July 1768), and succeeded by Francis William, his elder son, who became 2nd earl of Charlemont.
Though his strong commitment to whig principles, and definite opinions on individuals as well as issues, have ensured that the verdicts of historians vary sharply, Charlemont impressed most who knew him by his loyalty to friends and firm conviction. His refined aesthetic sensibility and support for intellectual endeavour, which aided him to create a fine library as well as to become the first president of the RIA in 1785, illustrate well his versatility. He even published a number of papers in the Academy's transactions. However, it is his memoirs, self-serving and informative by times, that offer the clearest insight into the strengths of character and limits of vision of this essentially honourable man; they survive with his papers in the RIA.