TARLETON, Banastre (1754-1833), of St. James's Place, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1790 - 1806
1807 - 1812

Family and Education

b. 21 Aug. 1754, 2nd s. of John Tarleton of Aigburth, Liverpool, Lancs. by Jane, da. and coh. of Banastre Parker of Cuerden, Lancs.; bro. of John Tarleton*. educ. Liverpool; M. Temple 1770; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1771. m. 17 Dec. 1798, Priscilla Susan Bertie, illegit. da. of Robert Bertie, 4th Duke of Ancaster, 1da. d.v.p. cr. Bt. 23 Jan. 1816; GCB 16 May 1820.

Offices Held

Cornet, 1 Drag. Gds. 1775; capt. 79 Ft. 1778; lt.-col. provincial cav. N. America 1778; lt.-col. Brit. Legion (American Drag.) 1779; half-pay 1783-8; brevet col. 1790; maj.-gen. 1794; col. Prince of Wales’s fencible cav. 1799; lt.-gen. 1801; col. 21 Drag. 1802; gov. Berwick 1808-d.; gen. 1812; col. 8 Drag. 1818.

Biography

Tarleton, descended from an old Lancashire family whose fortunes were revived by his father, was trained as a lawyer, but he turned to the army, distinguishing himself in the war of American independence, which gave scope to his enterprise, vigour, and daring. In the fighting he lost two fingers: his crippled hand was to prove an electoral asset. He returned to England on half-pay at the end of hostilities and in the general election of 1784 was narrowly defeated at Liverpool, his native town. He became well known in society, mixing with the Prince of Wales’s circle and succeeding to the Prince’s former mistress, ‘Perdita’ Robinson, who was said to have helped him compile his narratives of the American campaigns. His susceptibility to women was the subject of election squibs, though in society he and his wife were thought ‘too conjugal, as they always sit on the same chair and eat out of the same plate’. His ‘frankness and bonhomie’ made him popular among the ‘lower orders’ of his constituents. When he stood for Liverpool again in 1790, a coalition of the sitting Members, whose politics were opposed, at first frightened him away—he went to assist Fox in the election for Westminster—but his supporters insisted on polling for him and he ousted Lord Penrhyn.1

Tarleton joined the Whig Club, 14 July 1788, and Brooks’s, 18 Apr. 1791. In the House he was a steady adherent of Fox in opposition and a frequent speaker, ‘spirited and animated’, in debate. Most of his speeches in his first two sessions in the House assailed the ‘mistaken philanthropy’ of abolishing the slave trade, which Liverpool Members were instructed to oppose. ‘There’, said Tarleton to Wilberforce, pointing to some of his constituents in the gallery during a debate on the subject, ‘there are my masters.’2 His own favourite subject was military affairs. He was a critic of the colonization of New South Wales, 21 Feb., and of the convention with Spain, 28 Mar. 1791. In April he was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. That summer he visited Paris, was barred from the Jacobin Club because of his defence of the slave trade, but was ‘much with Lafayette’, who wished to enlist his services if France were beset by reactionary enemies of the revolution. He joined the Friends of the People in 1792 and returned to Paris in the autumn.3 On 15 Dec. 1792 he deplored the prospect of war against France, calling for abstention and negotiation.

The only major divisions he missed in that Parliament were in the session of 1793, when he took sick leave on 4 Mar. On 21 Jan. 1794, on the address, he indicted ministers for ‘the long catalogue of errors’ they had committed in a war that had been both wasteful and unsuccessful to date; to a commercial nation, war must be a curse, the more so because it was a hopeless one for which England footed the bill and was infected with alarmism. He seconded Fitzpatrick’s motion on behalf of Lafayette, 17 Mar. 1794, and attacked the émigré enlistment bill as unconstitutional and an omen of military government, 14 Apr. That session he also resisted Wilberforce’s bid to veto the export of slaves to foreign countries as an attack on private property, 7 Feb., 7 Mar. In January 1795 he advocated strengthening the navy and led the opposition to the army estimates. He presented and defended his constituents’ petition for an armistice, 19 Feb., and next day moved unsuccessfully for an exposé of war casualties. He protested at the more favourable provision for militia officers than regular officers, 5 and 19 Mar. On 10 Apr. he attempted to secure the House’s reprimand of Sir Benjamin Hammet for abuse of the Members’ privilege of franking. He opined that the Prince of Wales’s debts should have been settled before his marriage, 15 May. On 18 May he reverted to criticism of military measures and on 22 May advocated a pay increase for subalterns. He attacked the loan to the Emperor, 10 June, speculating on the disastrous campaign that must ensue: ‘Can a despot of Germany’ he asked, ‘be dearer to you than the heir apparent of England?’ On the address, 29 Oct. 1795, he reviewed the unsatisfactory progress of the war in all theatres and on 16 Nov. had to apologize to the Speaker after accusing him of ‘great partiality’.4 He objected to the excessive provision for cavalry in the army estimates, 19 Nov., 2 and 4 Dec., blaming the ministry for the disasters of war, which had made the monarchy unpopular and equated justifiable discontent with treason. The institution of barracks was a symptom of growing militarism, 3 Feb. 1796. On 15 Mar. he succeeded in thwarting a further bid to abolish the slave trade and went on, with equal success, to oppose the slave carrying bill in May.

Tarleton’s commitment to opposition politics had cost him the support of a junto at Liverpool which had subscribed £5,300 for his expenses in 1790. His own family were ‘decidedly against him’, as was shown in the election of 1796 when he was opposed by his brother John, standing as a ministerialist. This ‘unnatural’ challenge told in his favour. On 27 Sept. 1796 he made his peace with the Speaker by seconding his re-election to the chair. He remained a leading opposition spokesman on military affairs that session, but his criticisms were less blunt than previously. On 18 Oct. he doubted the danger of invasion and thought existing home defence measures adequate. He was critical of the cavalry augmentation, 2 Nov., and objected to the size of the army estimates, 2 Dec., and to the boosting of the militia, 13 Dec. On the whole he thought the subsidies to the allies had been unfruitful, 20 Dec. He claimed that the country could repose no more confidence in the ministry, 28 Mar. 1797. On 2 May the diarist Farington reported that ‘Perdita’ Robinson was ‘at present separated from Tarleton on account of his designs on her daughter who is now 21’. In any case ‘Perdita’ and Tarleton had been spending £2,500 a year between them and could no longer afford to continue the relationship. On 26 May Tarleton was not present to vote for Grey’s reform motion ‘through a severe domestic calamity’; but he was at the Whig Club on 6 June, when he paid tribute to the Polish patriot Kosciusko, and in October, at Fox’s anniversary dinner, he deplored the failure of peace negotiations. Had the Whigs taken office, he was expected to be joint paymaster-general of the forces. On 15 Dec. 1797 he seconded Tierney’s motion for retrenchment; he was teller against the assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, and on 27 Mar. criticized the defence of the realm bill, but said that he would not oppose it. On 4 Apr. the Speaker wrote, ‘General Tarleton has offered his services. I have no doubt they will be accepted.’ On 30 Apr. he said it was the House’s duty to support the militia proposals. He would not vote against the navy manning bill, though his constituents disliked it, 25 May; but he objected to the bill for sending the militia to Ireland, 20 June, having ‘offered his services, which had been rejected’. On 26 Nov. 1798 he advocated a more vigorous war effort and on 10 Dec., bringing in a Liverpool petition for the improvement of the harbour, stated that ‘he believed he should soon have an opportunity of making up in his professional line for lost time, in his profession, for the safety and honour of the country’. On top of this, his exiguous finances were somewhat relieved by marriage to an illegitimate heiress with £150 p.a. disposable.5

Tarleton was awarded a command in Portugal, but, as anticipated by him in a speech of 2 Dec. 1796, it was not to his liking and he obtained his recall. In March 1800 report had it that he would command an expedition.6 On 30 June 1800 he reappeared in the House as a sponsor of the repeal of the Combination Act of 1799, but was now a less obtrusive Member. On 11 Mar. 1801 he defended flogging in the army. He rejoined the minority on 22 Apr. 1801, being anxious to see Henry Dundas, not the army, held responsible for the fiasco of the Dutch expedition. He was next placed in command of the Cork district until the dissolution which followed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.

Tarleton approved the peace, but met with a strong challenge at Liverpool from Joseph Birch*, a well-wisher to Addington’s ministry. Courting Whig support was not enough: his colleague Gascoyne came to his rescue by splitting his votes with him. Gascoyne was an alarmist and Tarleton so far agreed with him as to advocate an increase in cavalry to defend Ireland. He advised ministers, privately, ‘to prepare for war’.7 But in debate he did not agree with Gascoyne, 1 Dec. 1802, and on 8 Dec. he praised the peace, recommending merely vigilance as to Buonaparte’s designs. This speech was described at Liverpool as ‘evidently meant to widen the breach between his colleague and the ministers and to earn his patronage of your good town from them’. He was reported in the minority for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s financial claims, 4 Mar. 1803, but Thomas Creevey contradicted this.8 Tarleton certainly supported ministerial military measures, offering constructive suggestions to improve them, throughout that session; but he opposed the coroners expenses bill on the grounds that recompense for the military would be more appropriate, 10 May. On 6 June he vouched for the popularity in his constituency of the resumption of hostilities. On 27 June he asserted that ministers had provided ‘the best measures for the defence of the country’ and he rebuffed their critics, 30 June, objecting particularly to the enlistment of the militia, 22 July.

Tarleton was appointed to the Irish staff in the spring of 1803 but was not required to join until the Dublin rising of 23 July occurred. He then came to the conclusion that the Irish government had been taken by surprise and on 7 Mar. 1804 spoke and told for Wrottesley’s motion critical of them. He had just been placed in command of the Severn district. At Liverpool the speech excited a ‘good deal of speculation’, it being interpreted to mean that Tarleton was going into opposition and forefeiting thereby the patronage of the town.9 This proved true: on 19 and 22 Mar., Tarleton deprecated emphasis on volunteer forces and called for augmentation of the regulars, though not for any foreign expeditions. On 23 and 25 Apr. he was in the minorities on defence questions that brought down the ministry. Listed a Foxite in March, May and September 1804, he silently opposed Pitt’s additional force bill in June. His opposition to abolition of the slave trade was now based on the danger from Buonaparte, 30 May 1804; though he went on to explain, 15, 28 Feb. 1805, that Liverpool’s growth and prosperity depended on the trade. He voted with opposition on defence, 21 Feb. and 6 Mar. 1805, but offered no objection to the militia enlistment bill in March, and although he was in the opposition majorities against Melville, 8 Apr. and 12 June, and listed ‘Opposition’ by the Treasury in July, he was evidently won over to Pitt’s war policy, for he described Pitt’s last six months in office as ‘the most brilliant of his life’, in a speech in favour of public funeral honours for Pitt, 27 Jan. 1806. His critics readily believed a story that he had been to Pitt and forsworn opposition in exchange for the reversion of the stamp office at Liverpool.10

Tarleton’s attitude to the Grenville ministry was critical from the outset. He voted against Ellenborough’s having a seat in the cabinet, 3 Mar. 1806, pressed them for their military plans and ridiculed their motley composition, 7 and 17 Mar. On 3 Apr. he opposed Windham’s ‘dangerous experiments’, coming now to the defence of the volunteers and of Pitt’s Additional Force Act—he opposed its repeal, 17, 30 Apr., 8 May. Renewing his opposition to reduction of the slave trade, he ‘was sorry to observe that ministers were much more active in injuring the trade of the country than in providing for its defence’, 1 May. (In his view the United States would benefit most from abolition.) On 21 May he championed the cavalry, threatened with reduction, in a repetition of his criticisms of Windham’s plans and he asserted that professional opinion was against enlistment for a fixed term, 6 June. On 11 July he heartily concurred in a vote of thanks to the volunteers.

Tarleton’s tergiversations and the ‘dreadful state’ of his affairs made him a vulnerable candidate in the election of 1806, when he was ousted. At the end of July Windham had suggested to Lord Grenville that Tarleton should be entrusted with the projected seizure of the Portuguese fleet.

It is not [he wrote] that I have acquired any new admiration of his powers during the course of the late parliamentary debates, or that I reckon him a great general; but I think the service in question is one of those that he is fit for, and probably more fit for than a better man. It is a service, not of combination, but of decision and enterprise, one in which a prompt determination is almost as important as a right one. It is possible that, in the course of time, Tarleton may have lost even the qualities which I am here supporting; but if he is what he was formerly, I should question whether he was not as proper a choice as could be made. It may be said, and perhaps with some truth, that one must have but a bad opinion of the service for which he could be the properest person.

Grenville replied, 31 July, ‘I confess myself very adverse to employing Tarleton upon a service which requires so much political as well as military skill and enterprise’.11

Tarleton regained his seat in 1807, pledged to support the Portland ministry, which made him governor of Berwick. In debate he gave a general support to their military measures. His constituents, he admitted, were at odds with government on the East India Company trade monopoly, 30 July 1807, and on the orders in council, 3 Mar. 1808. He rebuked the opposition for seeking to make political capital out of it, but conceded that the majority in Liverpool opposed the orders, 10 Mar. On 21 Feb. 1809 he opposed ministers on his own account, supporting the censure of the convention of Cintra; and while he opposed opposition efforts to redeem the reputation of Sir John Moore, 27 Apr., he pressed for inquiry into the campaign in Spain, 3 May. He also commended Sir Francis Burdett’s efforts to investigate the affairs of Chelsea Hospital, 14, 20 Apr., 5 May. On 7 June he said he would ‘offer that advice to ministers, in public, which he had suggested to them in private, but which had not been attended to’, that is, to retrench public expenditure; the Peninsular war was a drain on resources and privately he doubted whether Wellington would succeed in his objectives.12 On 23 Jan. 1810, opposing Perceval’s ministry on the address, he condemned the Scheldt expedition as well, suggesting that a diversion in Italy would have been more useful. ‘The merit of Lord Wellington was still equivocal’ (25 Jan.); he opposed the vote of thanks to him for the victory of Talavera, 1 Feb. Opposing the army estimates he called for economies, but not in the cavalry department, and advocated interior rather than coastal depots. He voted with opposition on the Scheldt question, 26 Jan., 30 Mar., as ‘among all the vacillations of ministers’ it ‘stood pre-eminent for folly and ignorance’. It was doubtless no coincidence that his command of the Severn district was now abolished. The opposition listed him among their adherents.

Tarleton continued in this line: on 1 May 1810 he attempted to reduce the subsidy to Sicily. Presenting his constituents’ petition for parliamentary reform, 21 May, he concurred with it, ‘but could not give up the privileges of the House’. He voted for Williams Wynn’s motion in favour of those privileges, 8 June, but warned against indiscriminate rejection of petitions, such as that from Sheffield for Burdett’s release, 13 June. He voted with opposition on the Regency question, 29 Nov. 1810, 1, 21 Jan. 1811, and on 12 Feb. complimented the Regent in the debate on the address. He remained sceptical of the prospects of success in Spain, as he explained at some length, 4 and 18 Mar.; but he was ready enough to welcome the victory of a Whig general at Barrosa, 28 Mar., and on 26 Apr. recanted as to Wellington, assenting to the vote of thanks to him. On 14 May, moreover, he assented to the Anglo-Irish militias interchange bill. He opposed increases in Indian public servants’ pay unless the same was done for the army, 24, 27 May. On 6 June he welcomed the reinstatement of the Duke of York against whose conduct he claimed to have voted in 1809, and next day concurred in the vote of thanks for the victory of Albuera. He remained opposed to the abolition of flogging in the army, 18 July 1811. Despite a revival of his scepticism about the Spanish campaign, 8 Jan. 1812, he seconded the vote of thanks to Wellington on 10 Feb., and on 27 Apr. approved the capture of Badajoz in rapturous terms. Meanwhile, his constituents’ problems brought him into collision with the government. He advocated ending the East India Company trade monopoly as an outlet for their commercial distress, 6 Feb. 1812, deplored the ‘draconian legislation’ against Luddites, 18 Feb., and blamed Perceval for John McMahon’s* embarrassment when his paymastership came under fire, 23 Feb.: he voted for its abolition next day, as also for Turton’s censure motion, 27 Feb., and with opposition on the orders in council, 3 Mar., speaking to that effect on 17 Apr. though he deprecated alarmism, 27 Apr. He voted with opposition on the question of McMahon’s appointment to Regency office, 14 Apr.; for Catholic relief, 24 Apr.; for sinecure reform, 4 May, and for Brand’s reform motion, 8 May. On 21 May he voted for a stronger administration. He opposed the leather tax, 26 June, 1 July, and on 16 July assailed Castlereagh on the preservation of the public peace bill.

As early as March 1812 Tarleton was being written off as a candidate for Liverpool on the same interest that had returned him in 1807, and ministers were being urged to replace him. He himself alleged that his supporters had fallen out over the expenses of his return long before he quarrelled with government, and complained of ‘the cold neglect, and unjust hostility, which I have experienced’. He tried to redeem his situation by an appeal to the Whig leader Earl Grey, who reported his claims to Henry Brougham, the prospective Whig candidate. Brougham paid lip-service to Tarleton’s claims and hinted that overtures for a junction between them might be made, but refused to meddle himself: Thomas Creevey was already designated as the second Whig candidate. Tarleton’s former supporters had turned to Canning, and he could ill afford a contest. On 3 Oct. he informed Grey:

You cannot say the conduct of Brougham and Creevey has been kind and fair to a person who walked out of the House with them ... and never to any human being had intimated an intention of withdrawing on the dissolution.

Brougham admitted Tarleton had been ‘abominably used’, but Grey claimed that he had ‘not behaved well in politics’. He stood the poll until 14 Oct., when he took steps to ‘keep several of my personal friends from voting at all who would otherwise join Canning’. He blamed William Roscoe* for the fact that he and Brougham were not returned in conjunction, to which the latter would not have been averse; as it was, Brougham thought him useful in the contest as a ‘mediator’.13

Thus ended Tarleton’s political career, apart from an unsuccessful petition against the return and a plea to the Whigs to help him find a seat. In 1815 he memorialized the government on the enlargement of the order of the Bath, regarding its limitation to officers distinguishing themselves after 1803 as a slight; and through the Duke of York sought ‘a baronetcy as the panacea for my wounded feelings’. He obtained it, but Lord Liverpool in 1819 declined to grant the remainder to his next of kin. ‘Vanity’, it had been claimed of him, was his ‘prevailing foible.’14 He died 23 Jan. 1833.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. H. Port / R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. HMC Sackville, ii. 174, 181; J. A. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool, i. 222, 244; Farington, i. 21; Hist. of the Election ... for ... Liverpool (1806); Collection of Addresses (Liverpool, 1807); Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish, 83; Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 8 June 1796; Public Advertiser, 25 June 1790; see LIVERPOOL.
  • 2. Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 89; Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 147.
  • 3. B. Connell, Whig Peer, 220, 222, 238; HMC Fortescue, ii. 315.
  • 4. Colchester, i. 7.