HenrySeymour Conway: 1719-1795

In 1766 General Henry Seymour Conway moved the repeal of the Stamp Act in the House of Commons, and in 1782 it was his motion for an end to offensive warfare in America which brought an end to Lord North’s administration. And yet, save for he article in the Dictionary of National Biography and the summary of his parliamentary career by John Brooke in The History of Parliament, his story has never been told. His presence on those two occasions has been regarded as almost accidental or inconsequential since historians have generally held him to have been an inept and ineffectual politician—“a better soldier than he was an officer, and more of an officer than a statesman.” This judgment was based on the Memoirs of Horace Walpole, Conway’s cousin and great friend, which might cause one to suspect that Conway was a pawn in Walpole’s hands; and on criticism hurled at Conway by such men as Edmund Burke and Charles Fox who accused him of deserting the Whig cause.

The following study of Conway’s parliamentary career suggests, however, that though a good solder, Conway was an even better statesman. An Old Corp Whig from the beginning of his career, he moved in the highest circles of politics, played a key role in the development of the Whig opposition in 1763, and two years later was a major figure in the Rockingham administration. The Chatham administration could not have been formed without his concurrence and his support kept it alive. Of equal importance was his intervention in the affairs of Ireland, America and India during this period. Finally, Conway was a resolute defender of “the cause of the House of Commons,” the great central concern of Whiggery in the age of George III.

Many of Conway’s letters have been lost or scattered but a number of important collections remain. M. W.S. Lewis has recovered a great number of those to Walpole, and they will presently be printed in the Yale edition of Walpole’s correspondence. I am deeply grateful to Mr. Lewis and his associate, Mr. Warren Hunting Smith, for allowing me to use these letters before publication. I wish also to record a special debt to the late Dr. George Lam, editor of the Walpole-Mann correspondence, who willingly shared with me his great fund of knowledge. Another valuable collection of Conway letters is in the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth, and I would like to thank the curator of the Chatsworth library, Mr. Thomas Wragg, and Professor G. R. Potter of Sheffield University for their kindness in putting these and other Devonshire materials in my hands. I have incurred a similar obligation to the officers of the Bury St. Edmunds and West Suffolk record office for sending me copies of Conway’s correspondence with the Duke of Grafton.

In addition to these letters the major source for Conway’s story is the memoirs and correspondence of Walpole which contains a veritable chronicle of Conway’s career. Walpole is generally truthful and accurate in regard to his cousin, but I have used him with care because he tended to overestimate his own influence on Conway. Conway often sought his advice and confided in him (many of Walpole’s court stories came from Conway), and the two usually agreed on men and measures. Where they disagreed Conway, to Walpole’s chagrin, usually went his own way.

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