Philip Dormer Chesterfield, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was an English statesman and author known for his wit and oratory skills. His ability to use tact and discrimination in governance made him the secretary of state, got him elected to The Hague as ‘ambassador’ twice, and appointed as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Lord Chesterfield was also instrumental in negotiating the ‘Second Treaty of Vienna’. He had such courtly manners that it often masked over his talent in writing and a distinguished career as a statesman. Being an active statesman, he loved taking part in debates and procuring valuable information for his government during his tours. His oratory skills were appreciated in the House of Lords. He was on good terms with famous people like Alexander Pope, John Gay and Voltaire. His famous writings were a series of letters written for his illegitimate son, Philip, and his godson. These letters, which he began to pen when his son was young and kept adding on, went on to become famous works of literature. He was criticized by eminent people such as Samuel Johnson who damaged his reputation with acrid remarks about his letters. The advice his letters carried did nothing, however, to make gentlemen out of his sons. There were other letters written to his lifelong friend Solomon Dayrolles that carry the wit and charm that is classic Chesterfield literature.
Childhood & Early Life
Philip Dormer Chesterfield was born on September 22, 1694 in London. He was the son of Philip Stanhope, the 3rd Earl of Chesterfield and Lady Elizabeth Savile. He was known as Lord Stanhope till his father passed away in the year 1726.
Born and brought up in London, he completed his education at ‘Trinity Hall’, Cambridge. After this, he undertook the Grand Tour of Europe to learn more about other countries, their systems, culture and art.
Due to the sudden death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the accession of King George I, he was called back from his tour. His appointment as the ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’ of the Prince of Wales, through the influence of his uncle, launched his political career.
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Lord Chesterfield entered the House of Commons in 1715, as a member of St. Germans. He seized the opportunity of the impeachment of James Butler, the Duke of Ormonde, to flaunt his oratory skills and gave his maiden speech which was an instant success.
Since he was still six months short of age to assume a seat in the House of Commons, he continued with his European tour. In 1716, he resumed his seat and took active part in the proceedings of the government.
Philip Chesterfield was appointed the Captain of Gentlemen Pensioners by the government in 1723. During this time, he befriended Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk, who was the Prince’s mistress, earning the wrath of the Princess of Wales.
He soon found himself in the House of Lords where his oratory skills began to be appreciated tremendously. In 1728, he was sent to The Hague as ‘Ambassador’. He handled all political affairs with flair, tact and intelligence which earned him good reputation.
His popularity and impeccable manners won him the friendship of Robert Walpole, who is often considered the first Prime Minister of Britain. He received the position of Lord Steward, an important post in the royal household, in 1730.
He was instrumental in the negotiation of the Treaty of Vienna in 1731, while he was posted as the British envoy in Den Haag. The signing of this treaty opened up an Anglo-Austrian alliance which continued for years.
His health began to deteriorate, forcing him to resign from the post of ambassador in 1732, but after a few months’ rest, he was back in the House of Lords. He supported Walpole’s ministry but did not endorse all his proposals, especially the Excise Bill.
He was excluded from office from the year 1733 to 1744, during which time he went abroad. He used this time period to build friendship with eminent people like Voltaire in Brussels and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in Paris.
In 1745, Lord Chesterfield was sent to Hague as the Ambassador again on a mission that was successful. The objective of this appointment was to persuade the Dutch to join the War of Austrian Succession, to dissuade the accession of Maria Theresa to the throne of Habsburg.
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Lord Chesterfield received the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland following his success as Ambassador, much to his pleasure since it was a place he had desired. He remained the Viceroy of Ireland from 1745 to 1746 and brought many reforms during this period.
He returned to the post of Secretary of State and continued to take part in the debates and proceedings of the House. In 1751, he, along with Lord Macclesfield and mathematician James Bradley, promoted the Gregorian calendar, putting it to effect.
His son Philip Stanhope, though illegitimate, had inspired Lord Chesterfield to write his famous letters about correct etiquette. However, his son could not imbibe any of those qualities and died in 1768, leaving him devastated.
His most accomplished work has been ‘Letters to His Son’ which consists of a series of more than 400 letters addressed to his son. These letters were written in French, English and Latin, and dealt with a wide range of subjects such as geography, history and sophistication.
He wrote another series of letters titled ‘Letters to His Grandson’. These letters too are regarded as brilliant pieces of literature, full of wisdom, and display his keen observation and his way with words.
Lord Chesterfield was conferred upon the ‘Order of Garter’ in 1730, the highest order of chivalry and a very prestigious honor of Britain. It is an award with the image and arms of Saint George, who is the patron saint of Britain.
He was also awarded the ‘Order of Bath’ which had been discontinued but revived in 1725. Lord Chesterfield was awarded with the most respected military ‘red ribbon’, which he declined.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1733, Chesterfield married Melusina de Schulenberg, who was the illegitimate daughter of King George I. He did not beget any children from this marriage.
In 1732, his illegitimate son, Philip, was born from a union with Madelina Elizabeth du Bouchet. It was for this son that he had composed letters with advice and instructions for dignified living.
He lent his name to the street in Mayfair, which runs from Curzon Street, where the Chesterfield house is located. Two counties in the United States of America have also been named after him.
Lord Chesterfield died on March 24, 1773 - a death out of slow decay and inability to move out of the house due to growing deafness. He was succeeded by a nephew from a distant cousin.
This man of wit and wisdom once had a famous dispute with Dr. Samuel Johnson over an English dictionary, which the latter had put together. Dr. Johnson had alleged that real men of letters would not behave the way this patron of literature had with him.
The famous writer Charles Dickens had caricatured this man of letters as a character in his famous book ‘Barnaby Rudge’. This would later be instrumental in damaging the reputation of the great man.