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William Petty, Second Earl of Shelburne — Too Clever by Half

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Eighteenth-Century British Premiers
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John Quincy Adams was probably the cleverest man ever to be President of the United States, but also the most disliked. This was largely responsible for abridging his political career, and he served only one term at a period when the norm was two. William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne, has a good claim to be regarded as his nearest British equivalent. Born in Dublin, on 2 May 1737, his parents, who were first cousins, were John Fitzmaurice (later Petty) and Mary Fitzmaurice, both of whom were descended from a family which had dominated the western Irish county of Kerry, since the twelfth century. The head of the family when William was born was his grandfather, the first Earl of Kerry, who ruled the roost with unbridled tyranny. William’s father, who was an MP in both the Dublin and Westminster Parliaments, changed his surname in 1751, after inheriting great wealth and large estates, both in England and Ireland, from his uncle, Henry Petty. He became an Irish peer, as the first Earl of Shelburne, in 1753, and Baron Wycombe, in the peerage of Great Britain, in 1760, which gave him a seat in the House of Lords. William clearly felt that his mother was the dominant partner in the marriage, saying of her that she was a foolish woman, but:

one of the most passionate characters I ever met with, but good natured and forgiving when it was over — with a boundless love of power, economical to excess in the most minute particulars, and persevering, by which means she was always sure to gain her ends of my father ….

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Works consulted

  • Bigham, Clive (1924), The Prime Ministers of Britain 1721–1924, London, John Murray.

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© 2011 Dick Leonard

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Leonard, D. (2011). William Petty, Second Earl of Shelburne — Too Clever by Half. In: Eighteenth-Century British Premiers. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-0-230-28478-4

  • Online ISBN: 978-0-230-30463-5

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