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Summary Article: Portland, William Henry Cavendish Bentinck from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English Whig politician. He was prime minister in 1783 and 1807–09, each time as titular leader of a government dominated by stronger characters. He served as home secretary in William Pitt's Tory administration 1794–1801.

Early life Portland was born at Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire, and educated at Westminster public school and Oxford University. He entered the House of Commons as a Whig in 1760. In 1762 he inherited his peerage, along with great estates and powers of patronage. He held office under the Marquess of Rockingham as Lord Chamberlain 1765–66 and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1782.

First government In 1783, Lord North (Tory) and Charles James Fox (reformist Whig) invited Portland to head their improbable coalition. It did not last, and when the Lords rejected Fox's India Bill in December 1783, the king installed a Tory administration under William Pitt the Younger.

Home secretary Opposition showed up Portland's deficiencies as a leader of the Whig grandees. He was a poor orator and left party tactics to Fox and Burke. Like many in Britain, he was at first sympathetic to the French Revolution of 1789, but he quickly became alarmed by its radical excesses. When the Whigs split in response to the outbreak of war with France in 1793, Portland sided with the majority who favoured hostilities. These ‘Old Whigs’ gave their support to Pitt's war government, in which Portland agreed to serve as secretary of state for the Home Department from 1794. His seven years at the Home Office were the most useful of his career. The ‘gagging’ acts – repressive measures against treason and sedition – placed enormous arbitrary power in his hands, but he was generally cautious and restrained in exercising it. He firmly suppressed the Irish rebellion in 1798. In 1801, he transferred to the less demanding post of Lord Privy Seal.

Second government Portland retired in 1805, but two years later he was persuaded to return to politics and form a new Tory ministry. The Tories, beset by internal divisions since the death of Pitt in 1806, needed a compromise leader who would be above faction. Portland's premiership was purely nominal; old and ill, he was incapable of controlling his squabbling colleagues. When Canning, the foreign secretary, and Castlereagh, the war secretary, fought a duel in September 1809, Portland could bear no more; he resigned, and died within one month.

Importance Portland was not held in high public esteem. Although criticism of him was often exaggerated, it is clear that his career owed more to his aristocratic status and inoffensive personality than to any exceptional abilities.

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