EDEN, William (1744-1814), of Beckenham, Kent

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



1774 - 1784
1784 - 22 May 1793

Family and Education

b. 3 Apr. 1744, 3rd s. of Sir Robert Eden, 3rd Bt., and bro. of Sir John Eden. educ. Durham sch. 1755-8; Eton 1758-62; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1762-5; M. Temple, called 1768. m. 26 Sept. 1776, Eleanor, da. of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 3rd Bt., 6s. 8da.  cr. Baron Auckland [I] 18 Nov. 1789; Baron Auckland of West Auckland [GB] 22 May 1793.

Offices Held

M.P. [I] 1780-3.

Under-sec. of state 1772-8; ld. of Trade 1776-82; commr. for conciliation with America 1778-9; sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1780-2; P.C. [I] 23 Dec. 1780; P.C. 17 Apr. 1783; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Apr.-Dec. 1783; envoy to France on special commercial mission 1785-8; ambassador to Spain 1788-9, to the United Provinces 1789-93; jt. postmaster gen. 1798-1804; pres. Board of Trade 1806-7.


Eden first contemplated a career at the bar, began practice on the northern circuit, and in 1773 published a book on penal law; but he soon decided that politics offered more chance of advancement. Through Alexander Wedderburn he obtained the post of under-secretary to Lord Suffolk. About this time he told Wedderburn: ‘I love politics better than law (and this not from caprice, for I feel it to be the natural bent of my inclination).’ In fact he found the law hard going and uncongenial. ‘I have a turn for business, none for oratory.’1 His willingness and his ‘most insinuating gentle manner’2 soon made him a favourite with Suffolk, who did his best to advance him and praised him without stint in letters to the King.3

Seeking a seat in Parliament Eden showed extraordinary caution. He refused offers from Clive (not a good life) and also from Suffolk,4 probably because he did not wish to have all his eggs in one basket. Instead he accepted Marlborough’s offer of nomination for Woodstock, exploiting the intimate friendship with the Spencers which he had cultivated from his acquaintance with Lord Robert at Oxford. Soon afterwards the illness of John Robinson provided a new opportunity. Eden, while still holding his appointment under Suffolk, took over the conduct of much of the secret service business for North, who, like Suffolk, fell under the spell of his charm. After Robinson’s recovery, Eden still kept this business in his hands, and was rewarded with his appointment to the Board of Trade.5 After the outbreak of the American war, much of the intelligence received by the British government about American negotiations at Paris passed through his hands,6 and his reports on it were prepared with skill. ‘Mr. Eden’, the King once commented, ‘writes a short, clear and intelligent style, and has stated all that is necessary.’7

Eden fully supported the American war. He wrote, in December 1777:8

When I first came into Parliament ... there was at that moment no alternative but ‘war or separation’. All retrospect to the causes of such an alternative were idle; it was necessary to take a choice; and in doing so, I was not influenced either by the popular cry or by political connexions. As an individual of a family possessing considerable interests both in Great Britain and America I was naturally indisposed to a separation evidently mischievous to both countries, but still further as an English gentleman, inheriting my share of that English pride which I never wish to lose, I could not bear to see a dismemberment of the Empire without running every hazard to prevent it.

And in another letter:9

We have full conviction, indeed, that the Americans are no cowards, but that is no reason with us against fighting them, and all the world if necessary, in a just and honourable cause.

Though he took little part in debate, except to support in 1776 a criminal law amendment bill in which he was interested, he increasingly gained North’s confidence. After Saratoga, he, with Wedderburn, was called into consultation about future tactics in Parliament.10 He acted as a go-between in negotiations for a reconstruction of the ministry planned by Suffolk, Wedderburn, and himself, by which Chatham and his friends were to be brought in (and Wedderburn was to get personal advancement).11 In February 1778 North pressed him to accept a place on the America conciliation commission. Professing reluctance, Eden at heart was delighted. His spirits and ambition rose to the challenge: ‘It is an enterprise of the great kind, we must hope it will end well.’ ‘My commission is the full appointment of ambassador in every respect.’ So far as was possible the arrangements were planned to open the way to a great personal triumph. Carlisle, at the head of the commission, would be dependent on Eden’s industry. Of the appointment of the third commissioner, Eden wrote:

The change made in the commission was my own private negotiation, and gives me much better hopes than I had before. Governor Johnstone is particularly favourable in his opinions towards me personally, is manly and right-headed on the points in question, is of much weight among the most violent Americans, and in his whole character active, decisive, and bold.12

Wedderburn ‘was very desirous his friend should succeed in the negotiations, and the instructions were most liberally framed for that purpose, so diametrically against his former conduct’.13 Always ready to press for present advantage, Eden also tried to get the commissioners made privy councillors.14

After going with such high hopes to America, Eden’s indignation was beyond all bounds when he found, on arrival at Philadelphia, that the ministers had secretly sent instructions for its evacuation, as part of the new dispositions in consequence of the French entry into the war. On this sole point Eden afterwards blamed the failure of the commission, since he claimed that it made it impossible for the commissioners to negotiate from strength. His animus was kindled particularly against Germain and Sandwich. On his return home his anger increased, when he found no inclination on the ministers’ part to defend the activities of the commission or to show approval by giving promotion to its members. In order to force the ministry to pay due attention to his pretensions he threatened to call in Parliament for papers relating to the withdrawal from Philadelphia, a move which, it was understood, would draw the support of Carlisle and Marlborough. He told Marlborough that Sandwich and Germain ought to be forced out of office. But he did not disclose to him the personal motives for his actions, which were apparent enough in the ultimatum he sent to North:

I certainly have not deserved the insinuation conveyed in your letter, that the proposed measure is adopted on a speculation that your Government is sinking—unless you admit at the same time that I have with the warmest and most honourable attachment to you suggested, urged, and attempted everything that might establish it on a firmer foundation ... The long letter which I wrote on the subject near four weeks ago to the attorney-general ... is a very sufficient proof that I arrived in England with a disposition to labour in your service to the last gasp of our political lives. The sentiments however which were then allowed to be so just and proper (and so pressing too in point of time) have not produced the slightest effect either public or personal; on the contrary our public embarrassment and every personal cause of complaint have been suffered to grow worse, and at this moment I am to choose among the three following lines of conduct.
1. I may continue in possession of a very inconsiderable office and greatly lowered from the situation which I held before I left England and answer through the session all such unpleasant questions as may be asked me; precluded from giving the only answers that may do credit to myself and justice to the public expectations. In short I may embrace various disadvantages and disgraces as the volunteer of a Government for which I have already sacrificed much and hazarded more, and for which I have met with nothing in return but disregard and neglect; and from a Government too, which, constituted as it now is, will I believe in my conscience tend very fast to its own dissolution after adding more calamities to those under which the King’s fortunes at present labour.
2. If that Government were really ... so circumstanced in the state of national parties, that it cannot be strengthened by the fairest attempts of your Lordship to strengthen it, I might not unnecessarily say, ‘I will not on the one hand impair the very small chance that I see remaining in favour of the public, on the contrary I will concentrate to improve that chance by suggesting anything that may do good and by labouring to give energy and activity wherever I can.’ But in return I expect (not as a matter of favour but of fair pretension) before I proceed one step in so hazardous a path to have my own situation made both creditable and secure and to see those with whom I am connected in this discussion previously satisfied.
3. I may take the manly part of bringing before the public a question which is the key to all my conduct in America, which leads to great consequences in every point of view, and upon which so far as it respects either measures or men, I should have the concurrence and countenance of the kingdom.

Three days later he told North that the price of his silence was an office or reversion worth £600 p.a., and satisfaction for Carlisle and Johnstone. His insistence that the Government ought to be re-shaped and strengthened hardly camouflaged his implication, that he was open to persuasion that this was impracticable, and would then give support—provided his demands were satisfied. To the King’s disgust, he tried to secure a pension for life, in the name of his wife. This was refused, and he agreed to accept one at pleasure. At the end of February he made some show of finding a successor to Sandwich at the Admiralty—either Keppel or Howe—but soon found that this was impracticable. For the rest of 1779 his efforts were largely spent in trying to force North to provide immediate promotion for Wedderburn and to appoint a secretary of state in succession to Suffolk, more vigorous than Hillsborough to whom North had promised the place. This campaign was abandoned in November, after promises of satisfaction had been made to Wedderburn. During 1779, in pamphlets published as ‘Four Letters to the Earl of Carlisle’, he defended the Government’s policy.15

In January 1780, Lord Buckinghamshire, lord lieutenant of Ireland, asked that Eden be sent over as his secretary. Eden declined this opening, telling North, ‘my situation here was not unpleasant, and my hopes of advancement not low, and that I could not therefore think it to my happiness or interest to engage in so very precarious and difficult a situation’.16 During the spring he continued to intrigue on behalf of Wedderburn, and in the summer he was one of those who pressed strongly for an early general election.17 In July, when Carlisle accepted the lord lieutenancy, Eden agreed to accompany him as secretary, but proceeded to set his price as high as possible.18 North wanted him to go—he was ready to help him on, in reason, out of personal esteem, thought him ‘clever’ and a suitable person for Ireland, and probably also looked forward to being quit of him for a time at least.19 From July to September Eden stood out for an appointment to the Treasury Board (if only for a few weeks) before he went to Ireland: ‘I should then have gone to Ireland after having passed through the Boards, and if my zeal and discretion in Ireland should be such as to engage his Majesty’s future favour, I might have entertained a reasonable expectation upon my return to England to be promoted to a Privy Council office.’ He also tried unsuccessfully to secure immediate promotion to the Privy Council, and to get the promise of appointment to the first Privy Council office that should fall vacant after his return from Ireland, greatly irritating the King with his persistence.20 The King standing firm, and Loughborough warning Eden that ‘it was not our interest to hurt him [North] or to make an absolute quarrel’, he at last accepted the secretaryship on the promise that he would, on returning, be considered as having passed the Treasury Board.21

From December 1780 till April 1782 Eden was in Ireland. He was brought into the Irish House of Commons for Dungannon, and set himself with immense zeal, and no little success, to the task of Irish parliamentary management. He worked loyally but took care to remind North of his merits and of the great expenses he felt bound to incur out of his own pocket. Despite his success with the Irish politicians, he ended his term in Ireland with the conviction that Irish constitutional demands would have to be conceded.22

On Rockingham’s succeeding North, Eden at first refused co-operation in Irish matters; but this was purely because of the new ministry’s affront to Carlisle in dismissing him from his Yorkshire lord lieutenancy; and when Carlisle was found a court place, Eden ceased to be troublesome. He even voted for the contractors bill.23 Deprived of most of his official salaries, owing to Carlisle’s withdrawal from Ireland and the suppression of the Board of Trade, he trod warily, till he should see ‘further light into the system’ he should adopt.24 After Rockingham’s death his attitude to the Shelburne ministry was determined by his feeling that it could not endure. He agreed with Loughborough that a coalition between North and Fox offered the only prospect of a strong and lasting ministry, under which it would be profitable to enlist, but that the time was not yet ripe—an early move against Shelburne would be premature: ‘The Portland set, as it is to be called, would not be quite what any reasonable man could bear, if they were now to come in as a triumphant party.’ He gave non-commital replies to approaches from Shelburne, and considered ‘the game would be completely in the hands of Lord North and his friends, if Lord North were formed to manage such a business’.25 During the last months of 1782 he pressed his views on North and bolstered up his decision to remain aloof, ready to exploit the situation.26 In the opening weeks of 1783 he and Loughborough exerted all their influence to bring about North’s junction with Fox, and Eden made contact with Fox about the planning of their moves in the House of Commons.27 ‘It is’, Robinson wrote, ‘by ... perpetual teasing and writing, that Eden gets his influence.’28 In February Eden joined in the attack on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries. Shortly after he explained his political position to his complaisant parliamentary patron, Marlborough.

It happened to me originally to be engaged in Lord North’s line of politics ... [and] to receive several occasional favours through his friendship ... believing him (as I do) to be both a good and a wise man, and knowing him always to mean well ... I should reproach myself if I were capable of deserting him.

Whenever North should choose, or be obliged, to quit politics,

there is no longer a claim on me from any party whatever, for I have not, nor do I mean to have a party connexion with the other branch of what is called the Coalition.

On the formation of the Coalition Eden obtained the coveted rank of Privy Councillor, but was disappointed to find himself fobbed off with a sinecure instead of ‘an office of business’; nevertheless he made protestations to Fox of his loyalty.29 He found consolation in being brought on to the ministry’s select committee on East India affairs.30 He was also made chairman of a parliamentary committee to investigate smuggling.31 Work on this body, which presented two important reports in March 1784, gave Eden a wide and valuable insight into the working of the revenue system, which he exploited to the full during the sessions of 1784 and 1785. In November 1783 he strongly approved of Fox’s East India bill, on all counts, including the control of patronage it conferred. In a conversation with John Courtenay he ‘expatiated with great zeal and party confidence on the infinite advantage of this politic expedient for infallibly securing the permanency of the ... Administration for seven years at least, by their possessing such an unbounded and lucrative patronage’.32

When the Coalition was dismissed Eden promptly resigned his sinecure,33 and joined in the attack on Pitt with the utmost energy. From December 1783 till July 1785 he was one of the most frequent and vigorous Opposition spokesmen; and on at least one occasion Fox was stung to a sharp rejoinder by Eden’s complaint that he was not taking the game sufficiently seriously.34 After the general election of 1784 he saw no hope except in ‘the probability of the imprudent use which Pitt may make of his great power and his obsequious Parliament’.35 Intent to exploit any ministerial errors, Eden made trade and finance his particular province: on these he ‘ranked far above any individual composing the party of the Opposition’. On him, wrote Wraxall, ‘principally devolved the task of dissecting, answering, and refuting, the arguments, calculations, or propositions brought forward by the Government’, while North, Fox, and Sheridan were content to make Pitt the butt of their wit and eloquence. His style of speaking was described as ‘neither glowing, nor elevated, nor impassioned, but ... correct, with digression, always directed to the subject under discussion’.36 But Eden was out of his element in Opposition. Even in the spring of 1784 he accepted Pitt’s invitation to be re-elected to the select committee on East India affairs, now with Dundas as leading spirit.37 As early as August 1784 Pitt seems to have hoped to win him over.38 His close friend, Lord Sheffield, reporting in July 1785 a conversation in which his conduct in the Commons was highly praised, remarked unwittingly, ‘I did not mention a word of your being so infernally civil that you do not appear to be in earnest, or that your only defect is not being as violent as myself.’39 All through 1785 Eden was in contact with the ministers, and there were tentative efforts to detach him from Opposition, his Irish friend, John Beresford, acting at times as go-between. At an early stage he hinted at the Speakership of the Commons, a position which might not have meant a complete break with the Opposition; but perhaps for this reason, the suggestion was not acceptable to Pitt.40 A new office with responsibility for reforming the revenue services was also considered between them but put aside as unsuitable. His acceptance in December 1785 of the post of special envoy to France to negotiate a commercial treaty was the climax of twelve months of negotiation. In his view politics had ‘nothing to do with the foreign line’, and he believed this offer would avoid any breach with his old friends: ‘It is not fairly objectionable on any grounds of party.’41 Indeed, while North and Fox resented his action, Fox and his friends attacking it in the Commons to deter waverers, others saw in it nothing disreputable and continued their private friendship with him.42 His change of sides was regarded as important, both for itself and as an example. Robert Hobart wrote: ‘He is a great acquisition and the fittest man in England for the appointment he has accepted; his example will, I make no doubt, be followed by as many of the Opposition as Mr. Pitt chooses to purchase.’43

Eden’s appointment virtually ended his career in the Commons. Though he remained a Member for another eight years, he is not known to have spoken there again, and he was almost constantly out of the country on diplomatic duties. About September 1786, when the successful negotiations with France were approaching completion, he was offered the vice-treasurership of Ireland but declined it. In December Orde, the Irish secretary, wrote: ‘I do not wonder that he should have refused ... because he really seems to have lost all temper and decency in the wildness of self-complacency and pretensions’; and added his impression that Eden was being cossetted on the supposition that he might bring Carlisle, Loughborough, and Stormont over to the court.44 Whether or not for these reasons Eden, though refused posts at home of the kind he wanted,45 obtained other diplomatic appointments after 1787; but an inherent suspicion of him on Pitt’s part is perhaps indicated by the fact that in 1793, by which time Pitt’s political position was impregnable, he was given a peerage and dropped from the service.

He died 28 May 1814.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: I. R. Christie


  • 1. Add. 34412, ff. 145, 202.
  • 2. HMC Var. vi. 265-6.
  • 3. Fortescue, iii. 143; iv. 539.
  • 4. L. Scott, ‘Under-Secretaries of State, 1755-75’ (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis, 1950), pp. 72, 80.
  • 5. HMC Var. vi. 265-6.
  • 6. Add. 34413, 34414.
  • 7. Fortescue, iii. 527.
  • 8. Add. 46490-1, pkt. 2.
  • 9. Countess of Minto, Mem. Hugh Elliot, 132.
  • 10. Add. 34415, f. 422.
  • 11. Fortescue, iv. 59-60, 68, 115.
  • 12. Add. 34415, ff. 247, 325.
  • 13. HMC Var. vi. 265-6.
  • 14. Fortescue, iv. 44.
  • 15. Add. 34416, ff. 241-2, 245, 248, 251, 264-6, 267-8, 269-70, 278; 38564, f. 1; 34416, ff. 285-288, 367, 372, 508, 391-2, 463; 38567, ff. 8-9; 38212, ff. 231-2; Fortescue, iv. 304, 327, 328, 330, 342, 343, 349.
  • 16. Add. 38213, ff. 89-92; 34417, f. 98.
  • 17. Fortescue, v. 45; Christie, End of North’s Ministry, 1780-82, p. 31.
  • 18. See corresp. in Add. 34417 and Fortescue, v. 115, 117, 124.
  • 19. Abergavenny ms 266; Fortescue, v. 117.
  • 20. Add. 34417, ff. 135, 139-41; Add. 38567, f. 163; Fortescue v. 124.
  • 21. Add. 29475, f. 17; 34417, ff. 208-9; Beresford Corresp. i. 144-5; Add. 34419, f. 144; Fortescue, v. 132.
  • 22. HMC Lothian, 382, 390; HMC Charlemont, i. 147-8, 319, 390-1; Beresford Corresp. i. 188-9; Debrett, vii. 2-6.
  • 23. Add. 34418, ff. 407-8; Walpole, Last Jnls. ii. 442.
  • 24. Add. 34418, f. 460.
  • 25. Auckland Corresp. i. 5-14, 15-16; Mem. Hugh Elliot, 254-5.
  • 26. Auckland Corresp. i. 36; Add. 38567, ff. 107-112; Abergavenny ms 478.
  • 27. Add. 34419, ff. 105, 124; Auckland Corresp. i. 46-47; Last Jnls. ii. 478, 480.
  • 28. Add. 38567, ff. 123-4.
  • 29. Add. 34419, ff. 122, 147.
  • 30. Debrett, xv. 60.
  • 31. J. E. D. Binney, British Public Finance Admin. 1774-92, p. 69.
  • 32. John Courtenay, Incidental Anecs. Biog. Sketch (1809), pp. 135-8.
  • 33. Add. 34419, f. 315.
  • 34. Ibid. f. 357.
  • 35. HMC Dropmore, i. 230.
  • 36. Wraxall, iv. 227-9.
  • 37. Debrett, xv. 60.
  • 38. HMC 11th Rep. VII, 53.
  • 39. Auckland Corresp. i. 348.
  • 40. Eden to Pitt, 12, 21 Oct. 1785, Chatham mss; Auckland Corresp. i. 89.
  • 41. Auckland Corresp. i. 70-71 and n.; Beresford Corresp. i. 295-6.
  • 42. Auckland Corresp. i. 362.
  • 43. HMC Rutland, iii. 270-1.
  • 44. Ibid. 344, 348, 363.
  • 45. Eden to Pitt, 19 May 1787, Chatham mss.