Empire of Liberty: The Fall of Pitt the Younger

Except from John Bell’s “Portraits of Leadership: Histories of the Leaders and Rulers of the Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Throughout his tenure, Pitt always had to balance his government with the health of George III. In 1788, a mental illness incapacitated the king and threatened to force parliament to appoint a regent. If this ever came to pass the regent would surely be Price George, the Prince of Wales, who also happened to be a supporter of Charles James Fox. Luckily, for Pitt, just after the introduction of a regency bill in 1789, the king recovered and the matter passed. Instead, Pitt strengthened his position in the 1790 general elections with the electorate generally supportive of his reforms and frightened to shake things up as the revolution began to spread across France.

The revolution soon came to dominate Pitt’s ministry. Initially, many in parliament were supportive of the revolution, which they saw as a way for France to join Britain as a constitutional monarchy. Pitt’s great rival, Charles James Fox, would prove to be a radical proponent of the revolution even after support went out of fashion amongst the British elite. Fox went so far as to say that he:

“Admired the new constitution of France, considered altogether, as the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty, which had been erected on the foundation of human integrity in any time or country.”[1]

Even the great opponent of the revolution, Edmund Burke, initially showed some favor towards events in France. He wrote in 1789:

“England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud! The thing indeed, though I thought I saw something like it in progress for several years, has still something in it paradoxical and Mysterious. The spirit it is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner”

Fox’s support for the revolution fit his character but later cost him his leading role amongst the Whigs. For years, Fox’s support of “progressive” causes such as abolitionism, religious freedom, and even the American Revolution garnered him the enmity of the king, eyerolls from the conservatives and smirks from his Whig colleagues who enjoyed how his causes so easily got under the skin of the majority party. Fox’s continued support for the French radicals though proved to be the straw that would break the camel’s back. From the death of Louis XVI onward, Fox and the more progressive Whigs broke with the conservative Whigs, led by Burke. From that point on, Fox’s hopes of one day attaining the prime ministership faded and he settled in his role as “prime opponent”.

Burke, on the other hand, turned on the revolution when the Parisian mobs forced Louis XVI to move to Paris from Versailles. He wrote to his son:

“This day I heard from Laurence who has sent me papers confirming the portentous state of France—where the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it—where Mirabeau presides as the Grand Anarch; and the late Grand Monarch makes a figure as ridiculous as pitiable”

Quickly, these supporters of the revolution found themselves labeled as radicals as France spiraled out of control. Pitt waffled a bit on the matter of the revolution until the execution of the king. Burke publicly condemned the revolution in early 1790 stating in the House of Commons:

“Since the House had been prorogued in the summer much work was done in France. The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures… [there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy… [in religion] the danger of their example is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind; which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.”

Burke then cemented his opposition to the revolution, and took a shot at its English proponents, by penning the best-seller “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. In his work, Burke argued against the nebulous and abstract rights of humans and took a more nationalist approach:

“The Revolution was made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty… The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror. We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon [scion] alien to the nature of the original plant… Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta. You will see that Sir Edward Coke, that great oracle of our law, and indeed all the great men who follow him, to Blackstone, are industrious to prove the pedigree of our liberties. They endeavour to prove that the ancient charter… were nothing more than a re-affirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom… In the famous law… called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, “Your subjects have inherited this freedom”, claiming their franchises not on abstract principles “as the rights of men”, but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers.”

Reflections became a best seller in both England and France. Louis XVI assisted in translating it into French and Marie-Antoinette reportedly burst into tears when she read some of its passages. Fox split with Burke on the issue stating that Reflections was “in very bad taste” and “favouring Tory principles”. Other Whigs such as the Duke of Portland and William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, privately agreed with Burke but disfavored a public split in the party.

Interestingly, Burke’s work was part of a larger genre of revolutionary literature circulating Britain and the continent because of the enlightenment and the revolution. Burke joined writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft (who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Men and then of Woman in 1790 and 1792 as well as Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796) and Thomas Paine (who rebutted Burke’s work with his own 1791 work Rights of Man as well as The Age of Reason). Indeed his Reflections were motivated as a rebuttal to the liberal Welsh preacher Richard Price and his famous sermon A Discourse on the Love of our Country that compared the 1688 English Glorious Revolution and the current French Revolution and arguably sparked the pamphlet war in the first place. The many works of the era shaped the discussion about the revolution and its philosophic effect with lasting impact on such subjects as political philosophy, qualitism, liberationism, and nationalism among others.

Apart from the philosophic, actual policy towards France needed execution.

This fell on Pitt and the Tories. In 1792, George III appointed Pitt as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, officially placing Pitt in command of Britain’s coastal defenses. In 1794, the House of Commons tried three of its own MPs for treason in regards to their radicalism. The House acquitted all three MPs but the trials stand as an example of the Jacobin Scare that swept Britain in the 1790’s. Pitt’s government became increasingly repressive in response to the revolution. With the king’s permission, Pitt suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1794, pressed sedition laws, and instituted the Combination Acts that restricted the formation of societies and organizations that favored political reform. Fox and his faction of the Whigs challenged the legislation at every opportunity and modern historians refer to his prolonged challenge as “Pitt’s Terror”.

Pitt and Fox would clash over this legislation in very public ways such as this speech from Fox before a crowded House of Commons session:

“Persecution always says, ‘I know the consequences of your opinion better than you know them yourselves.’ But the language of toleration was always amicable, liberal, and just: it confessed its doubts, and acknowledged its ignorance … Persecution had always reasoned from cause to effect, from opinion to action, [that such an opinion would invariably lead to but one action], which proved generally erroneous; while toleration led us invariably to form just conclusions, by judging from actions and not from opinions.”

Pitt rebutted:

“By the wisdom of our ancestors to serve as a bulwark to the Church, whose constituency was so intimately connected with that of the state, that the safety of the one was always liable to be affected by any danger which might threaten the other.”

To some, the clashes between Pitt and Fox paled in comparison to the battles between Fox and Burke that, arguably, laid the foundation for modern Commonwealth conservatism and liberalism.

***

Excerpt from Frederik Willem de Klerk’s “Crossing the Bench: A History of Commonwealth Politics”, University of Witwatersrand Press, 1989

Repeated clashes over the minutiae of the conduct of the revolution and the coalitionary wars further divided Fox and Burke. Burke lamented the conduct of the so-called “nonconformists” as “men of factious and dangerous principles” to which Fox would retort that Burke’s “strange dereliction from his former principles … filled him with grief and shame”. Fox and Burke’s great friendship would splinter forever in mid-1791 when, on a relatively minor piece of legislation when Fox and Burke clashed, once more, over the revolution. Burke replied in public that he would risk everything to defend the British constitution and the French constitution was the antithesis of everything the British and American constitutions stood for. Fox privately whispered to Burke that there was “no loss of friendship” to which Burke quietly replied “I regret to say that there is”. Burke continued:

“I have indeed made a great sacrifice; I have done my duty though I have lost my friend. There is something in the detested French constitution that envenoms every thing it touches”.

Fox, tearfully and clumsily, appealed for Burke to remember their friendship but unfortunately criticized Burke further and spoke “bitter sarcasms”. Their friendship ended, Burke’s wife even refused Fox entry to their house while Burke lay on his deathbed years later, preventing a final reconciliation.

A Whig civil war erupted for the soul of the party. Burke claimed that the Foxite Whigs rejected true Whig principles in favor of French principles, potentially even Jacobinism. Foxite Whigs viewed Burke as a secret conservative and a betrayer of the party. Indeed, Burke often harbored ideals that would occasionally lead him to support Tory legislation. Only upon Burke’s death in 1797, which coupled with the loss of influence of Fox, did the Whigs finally reorganize into a viable ruling party.

Many consider Burke the father of conservative commonwealth politics. He also played a leading philosophic role in the development of continental conservatism as well as eastern ideologies in the United States [2]. He viewed property as essential to human life and believed class divisions and social ordering to be natural occurrences. A fierce critic of atheism, he believed that religion stood as the foundation for civil society. Indeed, Burke often crossed the bench in the area of religion, vigorously defending the Anglican Church while speaking for the Catholic cause.

On the other side of the coin, liberals praise Fox and view him as a progressive hero, well ahead of his time. Fox proved himself a prophet of the politics to come in the Europe of the 19th century. He championed religious freedom, parliamentary reform, abolitionism, the rights of the opposition, and the principles of the French Revolution. On the United States compass, Fox is a classic northwesternist and sometimes praised as the most “British American” or the most “American Briton” [3]. Fox became a sort of folk hero amongst progressive Britons in the early 1800’s. Many cities sported Fox Clubs that would host Foxite Dinners to commemorate the old Whig’s birthday every year. Even Foxborough, Massachusetts owes its name to the staunch supporter of American independence.

In recent years, historians tend to view Fox, Pitt and Burke as a sort of philosophic triumvirate. In their minds, Burke stands as the bastion of conservatism, Fox as a pillar of liberalism and Pitt as the great nemesis of a bygone age of nobility, often standing in tandem with George III (this despite the fact that he clearly held reformist tendencies).

***

Except from John Bell’s “Portraits of Leadership: Histories of the Leaders and Rulers of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Oxford University Press, 1992

In the meantime, the Tories governed while the Whigs waxed philosophic and dramatic in the political wilderness. Conservative Whigs combined with Pittites to declare war on France and join the War of the First Coalition.

Once again, the issue of finance and war spending came to dominate British politics. Still working to right the ship after the American Revolution, Pitt did all he could to balance the books in the 1790’s while expanding naval spending and propagating a new global war. Some of his efforts found reward in the British capture of Guadeloupe and St. Lucia in addition to the Dutch colonies. Some efforts met disaster such as the navy’s failure to take Martinique or the British attempt to conquer Haiti, which instead became a meat grinder that nearly toppled Pitt’s government. The failures in Haiti combined with strained finances and a failing continental coalition to force Pitt to sue for peace.

The peace negotiations almost toppled Pitt’s government in its own right. Many MPs saw peace as dishonorable. Britain initially declared they would only seek peace with the “ancient and rightful” rulers of France, essentially hinting that peace would only occur when the Bourbons regained control. Not a few MPs saw the opposition to Jacobinism as something that was worth going bankrupt over. Pitt expended just about all of the political capital he possessed to end the fruitless war. Pitt’s decision to pursue peace shattered his political alliance with longtime friends including the Earl Fitzwilliam. The peace did give Britain a few years to, once again, right the ship. Nevertheless, the grumbling continued and many MPs grew frustrated when they saw American forces pick off vulnerable French territories, some of which Pitt had just returned to France.

To help repair some of the damage from the War of the First Coalition, Pitt instituted an income tax, Britain’s first ever such tax, and prohibited individuals from exchanging banknotes for gold (in an effort to protect British gold reserves that inadvertently led to the use of paper money for some time). Britain would join the War of the Second Coalition due to French adventures in the Mediterranean (namely Egypt) but this time Pitt could not survive the perception of wartime failure. The defeat of the Royal Navy at the First Battle of the Nile sent shockwaves through British society. Some argue that Pitt’s political fate sealed when rumor spread that his Tory friend Henry Dundas, the future Duke of Melville, had stated over a few too many glasses of Madeira red that Pitt’s leadership had made Britain “just another European state” [4]. No conclusive evidence exists one way or the other that Dundas actually said this but the legend demonstrates the reality of the failing confidence many Tories had in Pitt.

While many credit the loss as the reason for the collapse of his government, this misses the reality of Pitt’s political situation in the late 1790’s. To say that the loss at the First Battle of the Nile cost Pitt his ministership is just as incorrect as saying that the loss cost the British hegemony in the Mediterranean or that the Spanish victory in the Second Battle of the Nile gained them control of that sea. In reality, the failures of his government in the first and second coalitionary wars, especially the disaster in Haiti, and the perception of mismanagement against the Royal Navy, all combined to undermine faith in his wartime leadership. The collapse of the Pitt government signaled a reset in British politics that remained largely unchanged from even before the American Revolutionary War just as the twin battles of the Nile signaled a reset in the Mediterranean that opened that sea to competition between British, French, Spanish, Italian states, Ottomans and (soon) the Americans.

In 1799, Pitt resigned and parliament dissolved, resulting in a new government. William Cavendish-Bentinck, the Third Duke of Portland, replaced Pitt as the next Prime Minister.

In the wake of his resignation, Pitt retreated to his residence at Walmer Castle. Abstaining from parliamentary meetings for much of 1799 and 1800, he focused on local issues and allowed himself a period of rest. In 1801, Pitt found new life as an opponent of the Portland Government and its amicable policies towards France and Napoleon, especially during the War of the Third Coalition. When Napoleon crowned himself emperor, Pitt decried the act as an “abomination”. Despite his sometimes vocal opposition to Portland’s policies, he never joined the hawkish ranks of those MPs who demanded Britain enter that conflict. Some historians believe his intimate understanding of British finances and military strength provided him with a window into understanding the benefits of neutrality. Others believe he did not wish to become too vocal less his popularity regain momentum and he be thrust into a thankless position of leadership. Still a relatively young man, many wonder what Pitt’s political career would have looked like in the 1800’s, 1810’s and beyond had his health been even slightly better. Instead, Pitt died at the age of 45 in 1805 from chronic poor health and ulcerations of his stomach and duodenum. His chronic health problems likely combined with stress from the long ministry and an addiction to port wine (ironically initially medically prescribed to treat his ill health) [5]. He left behind no children as he never married and parliament agreed to pay their long-time leader’s unexpected debts.

Pitt’s ministry is remembered for its reformist spirit, undone by the revolution and strained British finances. It was neither a failure nor a success. Too few in the public, and in the Houses of Commons and Lords, had yet made peace with the fact that the American Revolution had deeply affected British finances. Needing more than a few years to repair the financial damage, Pitt suffered from numerous wartime defeats that aggregated to undermine his ministry. Perhaps if either the American or the French revolutions had never occurred, Pitt’s ministry might have flourished in its efforts. Many remember Pitt as a pragmatist who understood the true geopolitical and economic situation of Britain. He worked well with the king and was an apt politician but ultimately could not hold off his rivals, or public perception, when his political base fractured. Perhaps the most impactful legacy of his ministry would be that of wartime strategy. He expanded British influence into Africa, the East Indies and India. At the same time, British influence on the continent, and especially in the Mediterranean, crumbled. His peace treaty with Paris after the War of the First Coalition left the door open a crack, just enough to allow the Americans a toehold in various regions across the world, namely India. Obviously, this had lasting effects. Yet, how could Pitt be held responsible for not having the foresight to see how a peace treaty with one country could lead to an expanded conflict with a country that would soon project power in a way no one could have foreseen?

————- Author’s Notes ————

[1]: These are all real quotes.

[2]: In this timeline the U.S. has a different political spectrum than “left versus right”. Instead what we think of as “conservative” and the “right” corresponds with the “east” in this timeline. There will be much more on this later.

[3]: If east corresponds to right then west corresponds to left/liberal. “North” roughly corresponds to “globalist” while “south” corresponds to a “nationalist”. There will be much more about this to come.

[4]: In our timeline, Dundas was made a viscount in 1802, in this timeline, for other reasons that we will get to, he rises to the level of Duke.

[5]: In our timeline, Pitt died in 1806 for these same reasons. I waffled on whether or not to have him live shorter or longer. One on hand, the earlier resignation and lack of a second prime ministry might have allowed him some time to recover allowing him longer life. On the other hand the damage from his alcoholism would have occurred either way and his shakier ministry in this timeline probably would have been more stressful than his more successful ministry in our timeline. Ultimately, I flipped a coin and decided a slightly earlier death is the way to go.

Source Materials

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“The Pitt’s Act.” Indian History. Accessed December 17, 2017. http://www.indhistory.com/pitts-act.html.

Ayling, Stanley. George the Third. London: Collins, 1972.

Black, Jeremy. British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783–93. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Brooke, John. King George III. London: Constable, 1972.

Cannon, John. George III (1738–1820). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, September 2004

Clark, J. C. D. Reflections on the Revolution in France: A Critical Edition. Stanford University Press, 2001.

Cobban Alfred; Smith, Robert. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Volume VI. Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Fox, Charles James. The Speeches of the Right Honorable Charles James Fox in the House of Commons. 3rd ed. Vol. II. Edinburgh: Aylott & Co., 1853.

Hague, William. William Pitt the Younger. Harper Perennial, 2005.

Hibbert, Christopher. George III: A Personal History. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Lock, F. P. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Mitchell, Leslie. Charles James Fox. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Nuncomar. Vol. 19. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

O’Brien, Patrick. Political Biography and Pitt the Younger as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 1998

Reid, Loren. Charles James Fox: A Man for the People, University of Missouri Press, 1969

Turnbull, Patrick. Warren Hastings. New English Library, 1975.

Turner, Michael. Pitt the Younger: A Life. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003.

Younghusband, Francis. India and Tibet: a history of the relations which have subsisted between the two countries from the time of Warren Hastings to 1910; with a particular account of the mission to Lhasa of 1904. London: John Murray, 1910.

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