BARRE, Isaac (1726-1802), of Manchester Buildings, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



5 Dec. 1761 - 1774
1774 - 1790

Family and Education

b. 15 Oct. 1726,1 o.s. of Peter Barré of Dublin by Marie Madelaine Raboteau. educ. Trinity, Dublin 1740. unm. suc. fa. 1776.

Offices Held

Ensign 32 Ft. 1746, lt. 1755, capt. 1758; capt. 28 Ft. 1760, lt.-col. 106 Ft. 1761-2; adjutant-gen. Mar.-Dec. 1763; gov. Stirling castle Apr.-Dec. 1763; ret. 1773.2

P.C. 10 Sept. 1766; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Sept. 1766-Oct. 1768; treasurer of the navy Apr.-July 1782; paymaster gen. July 1782-Apr. 1783, clerk of the pells Jan. 1784- d.


Barré’s father was a Huguenot refugee who settled as a merchant in Dublin c.1720, and his mother was also a Huguenot. In 1757 Barré served with James Wolfe and Lord Fitzmaurice on the expedition to Rochfort. In 1758 he went to Canada with Wolfe, who appointed him adjutant-general; served at Louisbourg; and in the attack on Quebec (September 1759) was wounded and lost an eye. Though a major in America, his substantive rank was still only that of captain. ‘For want of friends’, he wrote to Pitt on 28 Apr. 1760,3 asking for promotion, ‘I had lingered a subaltern officer eleven years, when Mr. Wolfe’s opinion of me rescued me from that obscurity.’ In October 1760 he returned to England with despatches; and, after personally soliciting Pitt and Barrington, was promised the rank of lieutenant-colonel.4

He renewed his friendship with Fitzmaurice, who introduced him to Bute and recommended him for a seat in Parliament:5 ‘Barré ... has parts which would certainly make a figure in a parliamentary way, and, what is not always the case of great parts, his are capable of very great attachment.’ In May 1761, when Fitzmaurice succeeded his father in the Shelburne peerages, he offered to return Barré at Chipping Wycombe. In a letter to Shelburne of 15 May Barré professed to have doubts:

I speak without reserve when I say that I may be an honest, but I fear greatly that a life of dissipation in my first setting out, has prevented me from being a very acceptable representative of your friends at Wycombe. I have not been sufficiently habituated to great objects to undertake this affair with ease to myself.

He was ‘a good deal uneasy’ about his qualification, and went over to Ireland to consult his father. From Dublin he wrote to Shelburne on 13 Aug.:

My father ... has by no means proved himself able in the management of his own affairs ... His income arises from houses mostly ... ’tis clear about £300 a year, and may (including a little lodge in the country, which I don’t now estimate), sell at certain times for near £4,000.6

Presumably Shelburne provided him with a qualification, and on 5 Dec. 1761 he was returned to Parliament.7 For more than twenty years he was Shelburne’s closest friend, and chief spokesman in the House of Commons.

On 10 Dec. he made a sensational début. Walpole, who entered the House just as Barré was beginning to speak, writes:8

My ear was struck with sounds I had little been accustomed to of late, virulent abuse on the last reign, and from a voice unknown to me. I turned, and saw a face equally new; a black, robust man, of a military figure, rather hard-favoured than not young, with a peculiar distortion on one side of his face, which it seems was owing to a bullet lodged loosely in his cheek, and which gave a savage glare to one eye. What I less expected from his appearance was very classic and eloquent diction, and as determined boldness as if accustomed to harangue in that place. He told the House that in the late King’s reign we had been governed solely by Hanoverian measures and councils; and ... he proceeded with the same vociferous spirit to censure all ministers but Lord Bute; and for Mr. Pitt, who was not present, he received the appellation of a profligate minister, who had thrust himself into power on the shoulders of the mob.

The next day, when Pitt was present, Barré repeated his attack. ‘Insult of language, terms, manner were addressed, and personally addressed, to Mr. Pitt by that bravo’, writes Walpole;9 and another eye-witness:10

He attacked Mr. Pitt’s political principles, and said his life had been a series of change and contradiction from the beginning to the end; that after the most violent protestations against continental and Hanoverian connections, when he had thrust himself into the ministry, chameleon-like, he took the colour of the ground he stood on. He then ridiculed his figure and action, saying he was amazed to see the gentleman, with solemn looks, with eyes uplift to heaven, one hand beating on his breast, and formally contradicting and disowning the principles he had maintained the day before.

‘You know I never was partial to Pitt’, wrote Lord John Cavendish to the Duke of Devonshire,11 ‘but I am scandalized that such a creature as Lord Shelburne should dare to turn loose an Irish ruffian in the House of Commons to affront a man of Pitt’s age and rank’; and opinion was general in condemning Barré.

Barré subsequently revealed in the House of Commons that he had been instigated to make these attacks on Pitt by Henry Fox.12 He was ‘pressed to go to court’, was ‘honoured with more than common attention’,13 and appointed lieutenant-colonel of the 106th Foot. In subsequent speeches that session he tried to maintain the style of his first. On the militia bill, 19 Mar. 1762, he was, writes Harris, ‘strong, rough, and nervous’. On 12 May:14

Colonel Barré set out in a flaming, scurrilous speech as usual, but was discountenanced by the House. Many gentlemen as soon as he rose went out of the House; many of those who stayed shuffled about from their places, talked with one another, coughed, and would not hear him. And as he proceeded to talk in an unbecoming manner of the late King, abusing him for his German measures, Lord Barrington rose up in indignation and called him to order.

On the conclusion of peace Barré’s regiment was disbanded, and Shelburne asked Bute to make him surveyor of the Ordnance:15

This would be rewarding him very nobly certainly, but upon weighing it I am clear he would be able to return it in the execution of the office and in the credit he would do your Lordship in a Board which, you may depend upon it, wants reformation more than any other.

Barré refused the offer because it would put him out of the way of promotion in the army—‘what I cannot help calling my freehold’.16 Appointed adjutant-general in March, he wrote to Shelburne on 18 Apr. complaining at not being properly rewarded.17‘Harsh usage may break my temper’, he wrote, ‘it shall not affect my spirit. Administration ... may in some important hour want the assistance of one firm and honest man.’ Bute, shortly before his retirement, obtained for Barré the governorship of Stirling castle.

On 25 Nov. 1763 Barré, together with Shelburne’s other friends in the Commons, voted against Grenville’s Administration over Wilkes; and was turned out of his military employments. He subsequently estimated that he lost £1500 a year,18 and during the next twenty years frequently reminded the House that he had been dismissed because of his vote in Parliament. He became reconciled to Pitt, and took his place among the leading Opposition speakers. Walpole wrote to Mann on 11 Feb. 1765 about the debate of 29 Jan. on general warrants:

The hero of the day was the famous Colonel Barré, a man, or I am mistaken, whose fame will not stop here. He spoke with infinite wit and humour, and with that first of merits to me, novelty: his manner is original. He spoke too with extreme bitterness.

Harris described his speech as ‘street dirt upon Lord Sandwich’; without doubt Barré excelled in virulence and abuse.

In 1764 he was engaged with Shelburne and Laurence Sulivan in East India Company affairs,19 obtained a voting qualification and took part in the debates of the general court. Contemporaries believed that Barré was intended by Sulivan, had he proved victorious over Clive, to go out as governor of Bengal.20 In the Commons on 14 Mar. 1765 Barré

made a full and masterly speech, and went at large into a state of the Company’s affairs, showed and with plausibility the danger of changing the Company from a trading one into a fighting one, the motives it gave their servants to avarice and ambition, the experience and knowledge of war it taught the natives, the cruel incidents ... to which it exposed our countrymen, opposed Lord Clive’s party and their schemes, yet artfully contrived to give Lord Clive his due praise.21

He corresponded with friends in America and remained in touch with American affairs.22 On 6 Feb. 1765 he seconded Beckford’s motion against the stamp tax. ‘There are gentlemen in this House from the West Indies’, he said,23 ‘but there are very few who know the circumstances of North America ... The tax intended is odious to all your colonies and they tremble at it.’ It was, wrote Jared Ingersoll, agent to the governor of Connecticut, ‘a very handsome and moving speech’; but it did not deny the right of Parliament, asserted by many Members in the debate, to tax the colonies. In reply to Charles Townshend, who had described the colonies as ‘children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence ... and protected by our arms’, Barré delivered a second, impassioned, speech:

They planted by your care? No! your oppressions planted them in America ... They nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them ... They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence ... God knows I do not at this time speak from motives of party heat, what I deliver are the genuine sentiments of my heart ... The people I believe are as truly loyal as any subjects the King has, but a people jealous of their liberties and who will vindicate them if ever they should be violated.

‘These sentiments’, wrote Ingersoll, ‘were thrown out so entirely without premeditation, so forcibly and so firmly ... that the whole House sat awhile as amazed, intently looking and without answering a word.’24

In the summer of 1765 Barré went to Italy, and while there the newly-formed Rockingham Administration sent him an offer, first of a seat at the Board of Trade, and next of the place of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland.25 Barré wrote to Conway on 22 Oct., declining to join Administration:

I have not the honour of knowing many others of his Majesty’s new servants, and at this distance it cannot be supposed that I am well informed of the measures which they choose to adopt. Besides, in the very extensive change which has taken place I have not been able to find the names of those for whom (or rather for whose principles) I bear the highest respect.

‘You know best, my Lord’, he wrote to Shelburne on 23 Oct., ‘whether I have acted sensibly as a politician, but I know I have acted as a gentleman and your friend.’ A further offer in December 1765 of ‘rank in the army or anything else added to the vice-treasurership’ was also declined.26

On 3 Feb. 1766 he spoke against the declaratory bill,27 taking Pitt’s line that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies; yet in one point going beyond Pitt:

All colonies have their date of independence. The wisdom or folly of our conduct may make it the sooner or later. If we act injudiciously this point may be reached in the life of many of the Members of this house.

On 24 Feb. he spoke for the repeal of the Stamp Act—‘as well as I ever heard him’, wrote George Onslow to Newcastle.28

Barré accepted from Chatham the vice-treasurership he had refused from Rockingham, and was sworn of the Privy Council. His silence during the early debates on Chatham’s East India inquiry was unfavourably noticed by the King; who wrote to Conway on 18 Feb. 1767:29‘I should imagine, considering the unmerited favours he has received, he ought to be zealous in supporting my Administration.’ Barré spoke in the debate on printing the East India Company’s papers on 6 Mar., and on 9 Mar. made ‘a violent declamation on the undoubted right of the Crown to the possessions’ in India.30 Now that he had in the Company an antagonist he spoke much more frequently. But in the debates on America only one speech is recorded,31 and of that no report is known: clearly he did not at the time realize the significance of the Townshend duties.

Barré resigned, following Chatham and Shelburne, on 31 Oct. 1768.32 On 8 Nov. he spoke in the debate on the Address, and, writes Walpole,33‘made a better figure, as usual, in opposition’. He attacked the ministry’s American policy, and on 17 Nov. criticized them for their supineness over Corsica. On 23 Nov. he said about Chatham: ‘The sooner Heaven shall restore to health that proud assertor of the liberties of the country, the better it will be for that country.’34 By January 1769, when Wilkes’s case came into the Commons, Barré was in declared opposition, where he remained until the fall of North.

During the Parliament of 1768 Barré was one of the most frequent Opposition speakers. Two questions particularly concerned him: India and America.

On India he followed the line laid down by Chatham in 1766: the Company had no right to the territorial revenues, and should pay an annual tribute to the state.35 In April 1772 he was elected to Burgoyne’s select committee, and in October declined an invitation from the Company to go out to India to investigate and reform abuses.36 He welcomed North’s attempt in 1773 to regulate the Company’s affairs in India, but said in the House on 23 Feb.:37

If it was intended to take revenue and patronage into our own hands I should make my stand there, and resist such a step as highly dangerous to the constitution. The finger of Government to direct, aid, and control upon extraordinary occasions might be useful, but the strong hand of Government would ruin us all.

He spoke for Burgoyne’s motion against Clive, 21 May 1773, and refused North’s offer of a place on the Bengal council.38

His attitude towards America remained the same. The colonists, he said on 26 Jan. 1769,39 ‘will not submit to any law imposed upon them for the purposes of revenue’; if the Townshend duties are not repealed ‘you run the risk of losing America’. Yet on 14 Mar. 1774 he supported the Boston port bill:40

The proposition before the House, he said, he could not help giving his hearty and proper affirmative to; that he liked it, harsh as it was ... He wished ... to see a unanimous vote in the first onset of this business, that when Boston saw this measure was carried by such a consent they would the more readily pay the sum of money to the India Company ... Now is your time to try, in a civilized manner, your power over the Americans; other of your enemies are not in a condition to take part with them.

Contemporaries supposed that Shelburne and Barré were making overtures to the court,41 which seems a natural conclusion to draw from the last sentences of Barré’s speech:

I am not in office that my advice can be taken, if I was I should give it freely. If office comes to me it comes as an atonement for repeated and unmerited affronts. I shall at all times speak the language of a free and disinterested Member.

Barré, like Chatham, was not prepared to relinquish British supremacy over America. ‘If it is necessary’, he said on 23 Mar., ‘I have no doubt but that a small part of our force would reduce the Americans.’ But this situation should not be allowed to develop. ‘As we are about to punish we should heal also’, he said on 19 Apr.;42 and he favoured the repeal of the tea duty, and fiercely opposed North’s later punitive measures and the Quebec Act.43

Barré, contradicting many of the assertions he had previously made, was one of the severest critics of the American war. Even before Saratoga he warned Administration that the conquest of America was doubtful and ‘the holding of it without the affection and goodwill of the natives’ impossible;44 should the war spread, ‘we were by no means a match for the united forces of France and Spain’.45 His criticism was not primarily directed against the conduct of the war (though he alleged that the troops ‘misbehaved’ at Bunker’s Hill,46 he never criticized the field commanders), but at what he regarded as governmental maladministration. Hoping to prove inefficiency and corruption he was constantly calling for returns of troops, ordnance, and ships (despite North’s protests that such returns would give information to the enemy). He was very severe on contractors: ‘their appetites for dishonest lucre and foul gain were as insatiable as their consciences were easily satisfied’, he said on 17 Feb. 1777; and on 13 Mar. 1780 he accused North of having made a ‘most corrupt and fraudulent’ contract for rum with Richard Atkinson.47 In 1780 Barré moved for a commission of accounts,48 and was considerably annoyed when North took up the idea but produced his own scheme.49

Jeremy Bentham wrote about Barré in 1781:50

Barré ... abounds in stories that are well told and very entertaining. He really seems to have a great command of language; he states clearly and forcibly; and upon all points his words are fluent and well chosen.

‘In his younger days’, wrote Walpole,51 ‘he had acted plays with so much applause that it was said Garrick had offered him a thousand pounds a year to come upon the stage.’ Gibbon described him in one debate as ‘an actor equal to Garrick’;52 and Lord George Germain wrote of his speech of 26 Oct. 1775: ‘very long, good acting, not much argument’.53

Melodramatic charges and threats abound in his speeches. Here are a few examples from one session: 15 Mar. 1779, he said that North and Sandwich had behaved ‘like traitors to this country’ and threatened them with impeachment; 22 Mar. 1779, he accused them of ‘aiming like assassins at the life of Admiral Keppel’; 21 June 1779, he said of North that his crimes ‘were black enough ... to have warranted the suspicion of treachery’; etc.54 Wedderburn said it was Barré’s constant custom to be personal against him.55 On 22 Feb. 1782 North, usually good-tempered, was roused by Barré’s description of his conduct as ‘scandalous, indecent, and insulting’, to reply

that he supposed the large minority of that evening had inspired the right honourable gentleman with courage to abuse him. He had always held forth to him such language as was not decent, but now he had been insolent and brutal.

Barré, though professing to esteem North ‘as a private gentleman’, claimed that ‘as a minister he had a right to use and treat him with as severe epithets as parliamentary form would allow’.56

On the formation of the Rockingham Administration Barré obtained a well-paid office, and a pension of £3200 p.a. if removed from his place. When the pension was criticized in Parliament, Barré defended it as compensation for being dismissed from his military offices in 1763.57 During the Shelburne ministry he held the still more lucrative office of paymaster-general. In January 1784 he surrendered his pension for the sinecure of clerk of the pells.

Barré did not vote on Fox’s East India bill, and in Robinson’s list of January 1784 and Stockdale’s of March is classed as ‘absent’. About this time he became totally blind. On 14 Mar. 1785 he made his first speech since July 1782, in opposition to the extensive fortifications proposed in the Ordnance estimates. On 18 Apr. 1785 he voted for parliamentary reform. His last big speech in the House was on 27 Feb. 1786 against Richmond’s fortifications plan.58 He voted with Pitt on the Regency. He differed with Lansdowne on the French Revolution,59 and was dropped in 1790.

Barré died 20 July 1802.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Reg. of the French Nonconformist Churches of Dublin (Huguenot Soc.), 77.
  • 2. Barré to Chatham, 21 Jan. 1773, Chatham Corresp. iv. 242-4.
  • 3. Ibid. ii. 41-43.
  • 4. See his letters to Pitt and Bute, Fortescue, i. 8-10; also Namier, Add. and Corr. 9.
  • 5. Shelburne to Bute, Feb. 1761, Bute mss.
  • 6. Lansdowne mss.
  • 7. For his election, see CHIPPING WYCOMBE.
  • 8. Mems. Geo. III, i. 86.
  • 9. Ibid. 94.
  • 10. John Milbanke to Rockingham, 28 Dec. 1761, Rockingham Mems. i. 81-82.
  • 11. 12 Dec. 1761, Devonshire mss.
  • 12. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iv. 194; Cavendish’s Debates, ii. 426-7.
  • 13. Barré to Shelburne, 18 Apr. 1763, Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 102.
  • 14. Robt. Symmers to Andrew Mitchell, 14 May 1762, Add. 6839, ff. 268-9.
  • 15. Bute mss.
  • 16. Barré to Shelburne, 23 Dec. 1762, Lansdowne mss.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Speech of 9 July 1782, Debrett, vii. 288-90.
  • 19. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 121.
  • 20. Walpole to Hertford, 20 Apr. 1764.
  • 21. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 22. See corresp. of John Watts, a New York merchant and member of the Council, Colls. N.Y. Hist. Soc. (1928).
  • 23. Ryder’s ‘Debates’, Harrowby mss.
  • 24. Colls. Conn. Hist. Soc. xviii. 322-3.
  • 25. In the Lansdowne mss are copies of Conway’s letter to Barré of 29 Aug. 1765 and Barré’s reply of 22 Oct., enclosed in a letter to Shelburne of 23 Oct.
  • 26. Shelburne to Pitt, 21 Dec. 1765, Chatham Corresp. ii. 355-6.
  • 27. Ryder’s ‘Debates’.
  • 28. Add. 32974, f. 79.
  • 29. Fortescue, i. 451. See also Rigby’s remark, reported in Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 296.
  • 30. West to Newcastle, 9 Mar. 1767, Add. 32980, f. 248.
  • 31. Ryder’s ‘Debates’, 13 May 1767.
  • 32. His letter of resignation is in the Grafton mss.
  • 33. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 172.
  • 34. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 56-57, 63.
  • 35. Speech of 27 Feb. 1769, ibid. 256-8.
  • 36. Sutherland, 235.
  • 37. Barré’s account of this debate in the Lansdowne mss. Shelburne’s letter to Chatham of 30 Mar. 1773 (Chatham Corresp. iv. 254-7) is based largely on this account.
  • 38. Shelburne to Chatham, 12 June 1773, ibid. 273.
  • 39. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 205-7.
  • 40. Debrett, vii. 74-75.
  • 41. Walpole, Last Jnls, i. 314, 316.
  • 42. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 43. See his speeches of 15 Apr., 2 May, and 26 May.
  • 44. 10 Feb. 1777, Almon, vi. 173.
  • 45. 31 Oct. 1776, ibid. 42.
  • 46. 20 Feb. 1776, ibid. iii. 339.
  • 47. Ibid. vi. 278; xvii. 290.
  • 48. 14 Feb. 1780, ibid. 117, 120, 125.
  • 49. 21 Mar. 1780, ibid. 398-402.
  • 50. Works, x. 204.
  • 51. Mems. Geo. III, i. 87.
  • 52. Gibbon to Holroyd, post 5 Dec. 1774.
  • 53. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 137.
  • 54. Almon, xii. 168, 254; xiii. 477.
  • 55. 21 Feb. 1780, ibid. xvii. 142.
  • 56. Debrett, vi. 281-2.
  • 57. 9 July 1782, ibid. vii. 288-90.
  • 58. Stockdale, v. 183-7, vii. 235-40.
  • 59. Fitzmaurice, ii. 399.