This celebrated nobleman, of whom Dr. Johnson once remarked, "that he was a wit among lords, but a lord among wits," was the eldest son of Philip, third Earl of Chesterfield, by Lady Elizabeth Savile, daughter of the Marquis of Halifax. He was born in London, on the 22nd of September, 1694; and prosecuted his studies, under private tutors, until the eighteenth year of his age, when he was sent to Trinity college, Cambridge; where, although he is said to have laboured diligently for the acquirement of knowledge, it does not appear that he obtained any scholastic honours. Prior to attaining his majority, he quitted the university, and made the tour of Europe, without a governor. While abroad he acquired a fondness for gaming, which clung to him during the remainder of his life; but although his conduct in general, at this period, was exceedingly dissolute, he continued to cultivate his talents, and appears to have been resolved on attaining a high degree of celebrity as an orator and a statesman.
In 1715, he became a gentleman of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales; and about the same time, took his seat in the house of commons as member for St. Germains, in Cornwall. In one of his letters to his son, he states, that from the day of his election, to that on which he delivered his maiden speech, which was a month afterwards, he thought and dreamed of nothing but speaking. His first parliamentary effort, was an oration in support of the proposed impeachment of those who had been concerned in the treaty of Utrecht. Shortly afterwards he discontinued his attendance in parliament, and passed several months at Paris, in consequence of some notice having been taken of his illegal conduct in taking his seat while yet a minor; for he was still under age. He returned to his senatorial duties some time in the year 1716, and warmly supported the septennial bill. On the rupture taking place between George the First and the heir-apparent, he joined the opposition party, headed by the latter; and rendered himself particularly offensive, for a considerable period, to the king and his administration. In 1723, he was, however, made captain of the yeomen of the guards, but received his dismissal in 1725. In the following year, he succeeded to the titles of his father.
Soon after the accession of George the Second, he was sent out as ambassador to the Hague, where he displayed considerable diplomatic talent; on his return to England, in 1730, he was made a knight of the Garter, and high steward of his majesty's household. He subsequently repaired again to the Hague, and participated in concluding an important treaty between the courts of London and Vienna, and the States General. At the latter end of 1732, he quitted the party of Sir Robert Walpole, whose excise bill he opposed with great vehemence. His dismissal from office immediately followed, and the king treated him with such marked coolness, that he ceased to attend at court. From this time, until the year 1744, he was constantly in opposition, not only to Walpole, but to whatever party happened to be in office: his animosity being, it seems, directed not against men, or their measures, so much as against the government itself, by whomsoever it happened to be conducted. During this period, he delivered some of his best speeches; none of which obtained more admiration than those in which he opposed the bill for subjecting dramatic productions to the authority of the lord chamberlain.
On the union of parties taking place in 1744, he connected himself with the administration; and, in the following year, obtained his old office of ambassador to the Hague; whence he proceeded to Ireland, of which, while in Holland, he had been appointed lord-lieutenant. He had the good fortune, although he occupied this important station at a very critical period, to acquire the good will of all parties, by his dignity, prudence, and hostility to any kind of persecution. While in Ireland, he is foolishly said to have incurred the suspicion of being a Jacobite, by having indulged in the following joke. During the height of the insurrection in favour of the Pretender, a zealous bishop came to him one morning., before he was out of bed, and told him he feared the Irish Jacobites were about to rise; "I fancy they are," replied the lord-lieutenant, coolly looking at his watch, "it is nine o'clock, I perceive."
On his return to England, in 1746, he was restored to the king's favour, and made chief secretary of state. In 1748, partly on account of his declining health, but chiefly because his opinions in favour of a peace had been overruled in the cabinet, he retired from office, and took no part in any future administration. Nor did he afterwards, except in a few rare instances, being afflicted with deafness, join in the parliamentary debates. In 1751, however, he delivered a speech in favour of the proposed alteration of the style, which procured him considerable applause. On this occasion he stated, that every one complimented him, and said, that he had made the whole matter very clear to them; "when, God knows," continued he, "I had not even attempted it. I could as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them, as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well. Lord Macclesfield, who is one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers in Europe, spoke afterwards, with infinite knowledge, and all the clearness that so intricate a matter would admit of; but as his words, his periods, and his utterance, were not near so good as mine, the preference was most unanimously, though most unjustly, given to me."
Having no children by his wife, Melusina de Schulemberg, Countess of Walsingham, (natural daughter of George the First, by the Duchess of Kendal,) to whom he was married in September, 1733, a natural child, by some Dutch beauty, had, from its infancy, been an object of the earl's most anxious solicitude. So great was his tenderness towards the boy, that when the latter was only ten years old, Chesterfield wrote him long letters, almost daily, and waited for answers to each of them with considerable anxiety. In November, 1768, he lost this beloved being, whose education and advancement he had, during a number of years, most zealously and affectionately forwarded. His sorrow was greatly aggravated on this occasion, by discovering that his son had left a wife and two children, having long been secretly married. He assisted the latter; and, it appears, purchased from the former all his letters to his son, copies of which were, however, retained by the widow, who published them in two quarto volumes, immediately after the earl's decease, which took place on the 24th of March, 1773.
His health and spirits appear to have been seriously affected by the loss of his son; after whose death, the earl, in one of his letters, described himself as being totally unconnected with the world; detached from life, bearing the burden of it with patience, from instinct rather than reason; and, from that principle alone, taking all proper methods to preserve it. For some time before his decease, he was confined to his bed, by extreme weakness; he still, however, continued to receive visitors. On the morning of his death, his valet having announced the arrival of a visitor, the polite earl feebly said, "Give him a chair": and sinking on his pillow, instantly expired.
His conversational wit was much applauded by his cotemporaries. Walpole says of him, "Chesterfield's entrance into the world was announced by his bon mots; and his closing lips dropped repartees, that sparkled with his juvenile fire."
One night, on being asked, in the Haymarket theatre, if he had been to the other house, in Lincoln's-Inn Fields, which, although preferred by their majesties, was not so fashionably attended as its rival, Chesterfield replied in the affirmative; "but," added he, "there was nobody there but the king and queen; and as I thought they might be talking about business, I came away."
His style as a writer was easy, pure, and brilliant; Pope once borrowed his diamond ring, and wrote the following extemporaneous couplet, in compliment to his literary abilities, on the window of an inn:—
Accept a miracle instead of wit,
See two dull lines, with Stanhope's pencil writ.
His collected works occupy several quarto volumes; but they have lost much of their interest, in consequence of the subjects on which he wrote being for the most part of a temporary nature. He was the author of some elegant verses, in Dodsley's collection; and many poems published during his life, were falsely, but, as it has been insinuated, by his connivance, attributed to his pen. He corresponded constantly with Algarotti, Montesquieu and Voltaire; and most of the literary men in this country accorded him the reputation of being the Maecenas of his age. Numerous books were dedicated to him; and he was eulogised as being the all-accomplished arbiter of taste, both in literature and the drama. But doubts may be reasonably entertained if his own pretensions, or even a tithe of the applauses conferred on him by his literary adherents, were warranted by facts. At one period he treated Johnson with contempt; but subsequently, when the dictionary was on the eve of publication, in a spirit of true meanness, he courted the lexicographer's favour, in hopes of having his name immortalized, in a dedication to so important a work. Johnson, however, rejected his advances, in a letter remarkable for its stern sarcasm and dignified rebuke.
His biographer, Dr. Maty, describes him as having been a nobleman unequalled, in his time, for variety of talents, brilliancy of wit, politeness, and elegance of conversation; at once a man of pleasure and business; yet never suffering the former to encroach upon the latter; an able statesman; a first rate orator; in public life upright, conscientious and steady: in private, friendly and affectionate; in both, pleasant, amiable and conciliating.
"Lord Chesterfield's eloquence," says the same author, "though the fruit of study and imitation, was, in a great measure, his own. Equal to most of his cotemporaries in elegance and perspicuity, perhaps surpassed by some in extensiveness and strength, he could have no competitors in choice of imagery, taste, urbanity, and graceful irony. This turn might have originally arisen from the delicacy of his frame; which, as on the one hand, it deprived him of the power of working forcibly upon the passions of his hearers, enabled him, on the other, to affect their finer sensations, by nice touches of raillery and humour. His strokes, however poignant, were always under the control of decency and good sense. He reasoned best when he appeared most witty; and while he gained the affections of his hearers, he turned the laugh on his opposers, and often forced them to join in it."
Although evidently endowed with great talents, his letters to his son prove him to have been a man of despicable principles. No attack of an enemy could have degraded him so much as the publication of these epistles, which, as Johnson says, inculcate the morals of a strumpet with the manners of a dancing-master.