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William Petty was born in Dublin on 2 May 1737, the elder son and first of five children born to John Petty and Mary Fitzmaurice. He appears not to have had much education: in his autobiography, he noted, "From the time I was four years old till I was fourteen, my education was neglected to the greatest degree". He was sent to an ordinary school and then was taught by a tutor until he went to Christ Church, Oxford in 1755. He left Oxford in 1757 without taking a Degree. At that point, his father bought Shelburne a commission in the 20th Regiment of Footguards and in 1759 he distinguished himself at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years' War.
In 1760, while still on active service overseas, he was elected to the House of Commons for the family borough of Chipping Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He did not take his seat but became a Colonel and aide-de-camp to King George II. Although he was again returned as MP for Chipping Wycombe in the 1761 general election, he was elevated to the House of Lords on his father's death, becoming Earl of Shelburne.
Shelburne served as President of the Board of Trade in Bute's ministry although Bute wanted to make Shelburne the Secretary of State for Trade. It was clear that Shelburne was ambitious for high office and this made him unpopular with his colleagues. In 1763 Shelburne attached himself to Pitt the Elder after being involved in an intrigue to replace Grenville by Pitt in Bute's ministry. In the same year, George III dismissed Shelburne from his post as aide-de-camp because Shelburne supported John Wilkes against the government in the North Briton incident. Shelburne retired to his country estates. In 1764 he took his seat in the Irish House of Lords.
The following year, Shelburne married Lady Sophia Carteret and was appointed a Major-General. He refused to become President of the Board of Trade in Rockingham's first ministry because he opposed the taxation of the colonists. However, he did accept the post of Secretary of State for the Southern Department in Pitt's (Chatham's) ministry in 1766. His failure to prevent Charles Townshend imposing the American Import Duties Act on the colonies drove Shelburne to despair, whereupon Grafton removed from Shelburne the responsibility for American affairs. With the end of Chatham's ministry, Shelburne resigned and joined Chatham in attacking Grafton's ministry.
In 1771, Shelburne's wife died and the following year he went to France and Italy with his friend Isaac Barré, who also opposed Britain's attempts to tax the American colonists. On his return, Shelburne was made a Lieutenant-General and employed Dr Joseph Priestley as his librarian and archivist at Bowood. The earl was also the patron of Jeremy Bentham and employed Lancelot ("Capability") Brown to landscape his estates.
Shelburne supported the Regulating Act for India in 1773 and in 1775 he spoke to Chatham's motion for the withdrawal of troops from Boston (Massachusetts). On Chatham's death in May 1778, Shelburne took over the leadership of the Chathamites. Having served with Bute, Shelburne did not have the trust of his colleagues, who referred to him as "the Jesuit of Berkeley Square" and "Malagrida".
In 1779 Shelburne remarried, taking as his wife Lady Louisa FitzPatrick, the second daughter of the Earl of Upper Ossory. The following year, he fought a duel over an imagined slight suffered by Lieutenant-Colonel Fullarton; Shelburne was wounded in the groin. In 1782 he became Secretary of State for the Home Department in Rockingham's second administration and on the marquis' death in July 1782, Shelburne was appointed as Prime Minister. Charles James Fox and a number of other Rockinghamites resigned rather than serve under Shelburne. It was Shelburne's ministry that concluded the peace treaty with the American states, after Rockingham's acknowledgement of the colonies' independence. As Chatham before him, Shelburne attempted to form a ministry containing men with the best of talents rather than one of strong party allegiance, believing that ministers should be responsible only to the monarch. He tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce efficiency in government and - as a disciple of Free Trade - attempted to implement the ideas of Adam Smith.
Shelburne faced opposition from Charles James Fox and Lord North and in March 1783 tendered his resignation, which was accepted. His ministry was overthrown by the combined efforts of Fox and North who came to office under the premiership of the Duke of Portland. Shelburne retired to his estates once more and never held office again. He continued to sit in the House of Lords but preferred his home at Bowood. Shelburne died in London on 7 May 1805.
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