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George Tierney (1761-1830)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1898

George Tierney was the son of Thomas Tierney, a native of Limerick, who, having been a merchant in London, removed to Gibraltar in order to act as prize agent there. His family belonged to the wealthy mercantile class; his uncle James was a member of the firm of Tierney, Lilly, & Robarts, Spanish merchants of Lawrence Pountney Lane; and another uncle, George, was long a merchant and banker at Naples.

George Tierney was born at Gibraltar on 20 March 1761. About 1763 his father removed to Paris, where he lived in affluence for nearly thirty years. For some reason he appears to have been unable or unwilling to return home, but his wife resided near London, and his children were educated in England.

George was sent to Eton and afterwards to Peterhouse, Cambridge, whence he graduated LL.B. in 1784. He was called to the bar, but did not practise. Late in 1788 he contested Colchester in the popular interest against George Jackson (afterwards judge-advocate of the fleet), and both candidates polled the same number of votes. On 1 April 1789 the committee which was appointed to try the election reported that Tierney was duly elected. At the general election next year the same candidates stood and Jackson was elected. Tierney petitioned, and his petition was dismissed as frivolous and vexatious. Colchester was a notoriously corrupt place, and the expenses of two elections and two petitions fell heavily upon him.

An attempt to enforce a promise of the Duke of Portland to bear part of the cost by filing a bill in chancery against him was unsuccessful, and Tierney was left to publish his annoyance in a pamphlet letter to Dundas in 1791. He turned his attention also to Indian affairs, on which he had already written one pamphlet in 1787, and now wrote two others, both in 1791. At the general election of 1796 he was invited to contest Southwark, a subscription being raised to return him free of expense; but he was decisively defeated by his opponent, George Woodford Thellusson, his niece's husband, and second son of Peter Thellusson. On petition, however, Thellusson's election was annulled for breaches of the Treating Act. Another election was held with the same result, and Tierney again petitioned, with the result that his opponent was declared ineligible and the seat awarded to him.

Tierney at once plunged into an active opposition to Pitt. During 1797 he introduced several financial motions, and served as chairman of a committee upon a bill to prevent the regrating of cattle. In 1798, when Fox and his followers resolved to discontinue their attendance in the House of Commons, Tierney insisted upon appearing in his place. He thus secured an opportunity of making himself personally prominent, and became for a considerable time the most prominent and often the only opponent of Pitt in debate. By this conduct he deeply offended the whigs of the party of Fox, and it was long before he regained any share of their confidence. Matters were not mended by his protestations of personal loyalty to Fox. His action in fact deprived their demonstration of much of its effect, and he was never wholly forgiven.

In May 1798 Tierney came into personal conflict with Pitt. During a debate on the manning of the navy on the 25th, Pitt accused Tierney of deliberately impeding public business, and refused to withdraw his aspersion when it was ruled unparliamentary. He and Tierney met in consequence on the following Sunday afternoon, the 27th, on Putney Heath, and, while a considerable crowd, among whom was the speaker Addington, looked on, they exchanged two shots on each side without hitting, and the seconds then declared honour to have been satisfied.

From 1798 onward Tierney kept up a constant and vigorous criticism of Pitt's policy, and ‘maintained his own line of opposition, especially in questions of finance’. He had begun on 24 November 1797 his series of onslaughts on the budget, when his tone is said by Wilberforce to have been ‘truly Jacobinical’, and he annually introduced resolutions censuring in detail the government's financial policy for the year. In 1798 he moved a resolution in favour of a separate peace with France, and his generally cosmopolitan sentiments made Canning strike at him as the ‘Friend of Humanity’ in the ‘Needy Knife-grinder.’ His talent, however, was recognised and admitted by his opponents, and it was thought not impossible to attach him to the government. It was already rumoured, in 1802, that he was willing to take office under Addington, and in consequence he was almost defeated at the general election, when his Southwark seat was assailed by Sir Thomas Turton, a follower of Pitt.

Pitt is said to have recommended Addington to secure Tierney as the most useful supporter he could have, and on 1 June Tierney became treasurer of the navy in Addington's ministry, and was sworn of the privy council. His re-election for Southwark was not opposed. He quitted office with Addington in May 1804. In August of the same year Pitt made him the offer of the Irish chief-secretaryship, which he refused. Greville was told twenty years later that Tierney, though willing to serve, wished to do so without a seat in the House of Commons, as he was not yet prepared to commit himself to an open parliamentary support of a leader whom he had so often attacked. Pitt, however, insisted on a full support, and the matter fell through.

On 30 September 1806 he returned to office as president of the board of control; but he was now ousted by Turton, his former opponent, from the representation of Southwark, and contented himself with sitting for Athlone. At the next general election he was returned for Bandon Bridge, in 1812 for Appleby, and from 1818 till he died he was M.P. for Knaresborough.

Tierney returned to opposition when Lord Grenville quitted office, and year by year he became more and more prominent in his party's ranks. His undaunted tenacity, his knowledge of business, his readiness in debate, his clearness of expression gave him great claims to the leadership of his party in the House of Commons. But the old soreness which arose in 1798 had not wholly passed away, and he was not in Grenville's confidence. He laboured, too, as did Whitbread, under the heavy social disadvantage among his party of being only sprung from the mercantile class. By unsparing use of his wealth he had forced his way into parliament, but the aristocratic whigs shrank from serving under him, and he advanced to the front rank only by the death or retirement of his contemporaries.

When George Ponsonby died in 1817 he became the acknowledged leader of the opposition; but his followers were insubordinate, and early in 1821 a difference of opinion on the question of the insertion of the queen's name in the liturgy led to a feud so open that he refused to act as leader any longer. In 1827 he favoured the coalition with Canning, and in May he joined the administration as master of the mint. On Canning's death Goderich is said to have offered him the chancellorship of the exchequer, but this is doubtful; and the personal efforts he made to thwart Herries's chances of obtaining the post seem inconsistent with his having had it offered to himself already. It was on his suggestion and through his negotiation that Althorp was selected for the chairmanship of the finance committee, and was thus set on his way to be leader of the House of Commons in 1830. Tierney quitted office with Goderich in January 1828, and thereupon his political career closed. He died suddenly on 25 January 1830 at his house in Savile Row, London. He married Miss Miller of Stapleton in Gloucestershire on 10 July 1789, and by her had a large family.

Had Tierney been the contemporary of men less brilliant than Pitt, Burke, Fox, and Sheridan, his reputation as a debater would have stood very high. His logic was strong, his wit ready, and his sagacity great. His sarcasms and sneers, uttered in tones and phrases equally cutting, were much dreaded by his opponents, and for years he fought the uphill battle of hopeless opposition, and fought it admirably, when his more famous contemporaries retired from it. Yet because of the social obscurity of his origin the whigs would neither trust nor reward him; he only held office for about three years in his whole life and was a member of a whig ministry for but a few months, and then only in subordinate position.

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