Empire of Liberty: The Liverpool Ministry and the Catholic Question

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

Chapter 7: The Liverpool Ministry and the Catholic Question

The failures of Britain in the First and Second Coalitionary Wars led to the downfall of William Pitt the Younger’s Prime Ministry in 1799. The reformist Pitt stood as prime minister for much of the 1790’s and enjoyed great support and popularity until the French Revolution and subsequent British losses in the French Revolutionary Wars derailed his ministry. This led to a governmental shakeup that resulted in the prime ministry of William Cavendish-Bentinck, the Third Duke of Portland. The Portlandite Ministry was less, however, focused on one man as much as it was focused on a crude coalition that represented several disparate walks on British political life.

The governing coalition that lasted from 1799 to 1806 largely comprised of MPs who favored conditional peace with France, an “inward” focus on the internal economy with an emphasis on overseas expenditures to incorporate the former Dutch Empire, fostering good relations with the United States, and the pursuit of catholic emancipation and the incorporation of Ireland into Britain [1]. Including William Grenville, Portland himself, and Henry Addington the government proved a partial success. Free trade policies and wise overseas spending helping the British economy chug along and weather the continental storms, the British East India Company’s work in India and the East Indies saw Britain become the undisputed master of the region (despite efforts by the U.S. and Portugal), and we should remember that Britain was on the winning side of the war against Russia. Yet, the Portlandite government took the blame then, and now, for allowing the Mediterranean to become a French lake, for allowing the U.S. to fall into the French allied sphere rather than their own, and clashes with George III led to zero progress whatsoever on the question of Catholicism and Ireland. When the news of Napoleon’s Treaty of Constantinople reached London, the Portlandite government began its immediate collapse and the Duke of Portland tendered his resignation to the king on March 5, 1806.

A tense several months ensued as election campaigns got underway. Already the Pittite faction began to separate as the political losses stacked up, compounded by Pitt’s death the previous year. Henry Addington lambasted the predictions that the Whigs would take the House and place Fox of all people in the ministry (assuming George III would even allow such an occurrence). In a letter to James Stopford, 3rd Earl of Courtown, and Portland’s Treasurer of the Household [2]:

“I hate liberality – nine times out of ten it is cowardice, and the tenth time lack of principle. If the people want a liberal peace I promise they will wake up one day in several years and find Bonaparte knocking on their doors.”

Luckily for Addington, Fox’s death in the fall of 1806 threw the Whigs into internal turmoil at the wrong moment. Fox had always been a powerful voice within the Whig ranks but he never commanded a unified party (if either the Whigs or Tories could be called political parties in those days) thanks to a combination of his radicalism and his personality. In many ways the old Whig split caused by the 1790’s falling out between the liberal Foxite Whigs, the Burke Whig-turned-Pittites, and the moderate Whigs caught in the middle was still lingering keeping the Whigs from seizing the day in the 1806 elections. The Whigs splintered further when Napoleon crowned himself emperor causing a faction led by Richard Brinsley Sheridan to refuse support to France any longer while a faction led by Charles Grey tended to remain more reconciliationist and concerned with British war finances. Many students of British political history err in believing that Sheridan’s Whigs simply took in some former lost Pittites, bellicose Foxite Whigs, and combined them with the moderate Whigs while Grey’s Whigs were the remaining pro-peace Foxite radical liberals (i.e. a horde of unwashed British northwesterners [3]) when this couldn’t be further from the truth. By the 1806 election the old factions of Fox, Burke, and Pitt had largely given way and diffused into both the Tories and the Whigs as the wartime setbacks scattered party members every which way. While many former Foxite Whigs did find a home in Grey’s faction just as many felt comfortable taking up with Sheridan or even crossing the bench to the Tory ranks which, itself, was becoming more welcoming of reformist efforts thanks to the pragmatic legacy of Pitt.

In reality, the election of 1806 was about two issues: foreign policy towards France and the bubbling resentment in Ireland. The Tories tended to have more hawks with a hefty faction of traditional conservatives and a sizable contingent of moderate reformists. There were very few doves amongst the Tory ranks. The Whigs tended to be reformists across the board (varying from moderates to radical liberals) but their ranks were split between hawks and doves. Ultimately, the Tories held the day and were joined by Sheridan’s hawkish Whigs while Grey took to the backbenches. While we will get to the Irish Question in a moment, we should note that this election was mostly about the direction of British policy towards France and the British electorate gave its stamp of approval towards a more antagonistic approach. To give the opposition’s perspective, let us examine an excerpt from Grey’s own correspondence in 1807 with Grenville over a potential war:

“The French have achieved greatness at Constantinople, hardly their first triumph. But even if such an effort could not take place or should not succeed, I am convinced the period when we shall be obliged to give up the contest from an absolute inability to support the expense, is fast approaching.”

Grey’s Whigs were not unpatriotic as they are sometimes painted, they simply didn’t believe an antagonistic attitude was necessary nor was the cost of wartime expenses worth the drag on the economy and the average family.

The Tory/Whig hawk victories led to the governing coalition of Robert Jenkinson, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool. Comprised of Sheridan’s Whigs, old Pittites, traditional conservatives, and hawkish Tory MPs it was a truly aggressive and outwardly focused coalition that also happened to feature a reformist streak (a nod to the influence of Pitt and Fox). This Coalition lacked inspiring leadership (though it was cultivating impressive young leaders like Robert Stewart, George Canning, and Spencer Perceval) but was the first government since the War of the Second Coalition focused on checking France. Immediately, British ambassadors began shopping subsidies to Prussia, Russia, Austria, and even tried to flip minor powers. George Canning, Ambassador to Naples at the time, wrote:

“A sense of relief and enthusiasm permeated through the very streets, almost as if the common citizens themselves believed that the tide had turned. Toasts to George III rang out alongside those to Ferdinand [I of the Two Sicilies] as the general belief was that Britain was rising to the challenge to check the tyrant.”

An aggressive naval spending campaign began to reestablish the might of the Royal Navy and nearly a hundred warships operating in the Americas and the Indian Ocean maneuvered back to the Home Islands. A palpable fear existed amongst the population that, in the event of another war, Napoleon might attempt a crossing of the channel. While the population was correct in that Napoleon harbored ambitions to invade Britain, they underestimated the powerful check continental armies had on his plans. Besides, even if Napoleon did manage to successfully place a French army ashore, it would not exactly be in his, or France’s, interest for him to be gallivanting around Kent while a Prusso-Russian of 200,000 men swept towards Paris like a tidal wave. In addition to the conservative aspects of hawkishness in general, the coalition accomplished some key liberal reforms the most important of which was the Slave Trade Act of 1809 that banned the gross practice just before the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition (an intentional attack on the economy of the United States).

The Liverpool Ministry seemed to have an understanding that war with France likely meant war with the United States. The Sheridanite Whig, William Windham, took up the cabinet post of Secretary of State for War and of the Colonies under Liverpool and worked closely with the Admiralty and the Royal Army to devise a strategy to counter the trans-Atlantic wildcard. Windham’s famous “two oceans” plan essentially gambled on a territory swap at the end of the war and purposefully left the handful of British colonies in the Americas defenseless to stack naval forces in the home waters, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean. The stacked forces could successfully counter Napoleon and U.S. forces in North Africa (this would lead to Nelson’s “Five Points Blockade” strategy) while Royal forces in the Indian Ocean would surely steamroll the tiny American outposts. A narrow wartime defeat of Napoleon would allow Britain to propose a status quo ante bellum peace with the United States (thus swapping the territories) and, if necessary, forces could be diverted from post-Napoleonic Europe to North America perhaps allowing Britain the opportunity to seize territories lost in the American Revolution. When Nelson received the strategy from the Admiralty in 1808 he couldn’t help but note the braggadocios talk by some of the administrators about sailing a fleet into Chesapeake Bay, burning Washington, and strong arming the Americans into giving back rich islands like Jamaica and St. Vincent. Chiding them for their arrogance he famously quipped:

“Of course I approve of this plan sirs, but first gain the victory and then make the best use of it you can.”

It was a good plan but it hinged on the belief that the Americans couldn’t defend themselves in India and that Nelson could deliver the long awaited British victory in the Mediterranean. The U.S. Navy might have been small compared to the Royal Navy but by skill or by luck the Americans had won at the Windward Passage and Bajo Nuevo against the might of Britain and then followed up by defeating the French Navy at Mahé. All the professionalism, cannons, skill and arrogance in the world wouldn’t matter if the U.S. somehow kept winning.

The start of the Liverpool ministry sounds impressive but there were significant flaws. The problem for Britain was that the ballooning war debt was beginning to take its toll. At its height, the national debt soared to £537 million, more than double the GDP [4]. While Britain remained the strongest economy in the world, state finances were increasingly strained and everywhere the average Briton turned costs were rising. The American Revolution had already caused the price of sugar, cotton, and other commodities to rise yet Briton’s missed out on the jackpot as the revolution upended investments and land ownership, bankrupting not a few prominent families. Conversely, the rising costs allowed fledgling investors in East Indian sugar or Indian cotton opportunities to reap fortunes. Tea prices dropped dramatically as unchecked exporters and smugglers outfoxed the overstretched Royal Navy dumping East Indian and subcontinental tea onto the insatiable English market. It would take another twenty years for the British East India Company to clamp down its control on the ports and waters around the region to effectively police and enforce its monopoly. Inflation and fluctuating markets became a serious problem, especially as the War of the Fourth Coalition dragged on.

Still, the British economy was far more suited for this style of prolonged warfare than France. Despite his impressive and ambitious reforms to France’s bureaucracy and financial systems, Napoleon could never quite reach the same level of administrative and fiscal domination the British maintained. No one matched the advantage the British held in terms of patents and machine design that gave them the unquestioned edge in the early industrial revolution. Utilizing designs that were completely unknown too much of the world in everything from textiles to iron smelting, the British were simply on a technological level beyond anything their rivals could muster. Coupled with the efficiency of their financial and commercial sectors, it almost seems strange that Britain routinely encountered setbacks throughout the coalitionary wars. Nevertheless, the economic and technical dominance of the empire ensured that Britain, more than any other country, sat first on Napoleon’s mind and emerged as well as it did from the wars even if we consider the sheer blows London took in the Fourth and Fifth Coalitionary Wars.

While the coalitionary war governments obviously focused heavily on foreign policy, other domestic considerations dominated the day-to-day politics of parliament. Indeed, this was the era where the Catholic Question and the Irish Question loomed large over the minds of Pitt, Portland and Liverpool. If any one issue swayed voters in 1806 outside of Napoleon, it was Ireland and Catholic Emancipation.

To understand the Irish Question one must understand the Catholic Question and to understand the Catholic Question we must go back to the 16th century reign of Mary I, sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary”. The only daughter of the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Braganza, Mary saw her father instigate the entire English Reformation just to secede from the Catholic Church, lock up her mother, and marry multiple women in an attempt to have a male heir only for Mary to gain the throne anyways. In her quest to underdo her father’s efforts and return England to Catholicism she burned nearly 300 Protestants at the stake with many more persecuted, imprisoned and exiled. She also married Phillip II of Spain raising concerns that she sought to unite England with a powerful, Catholic, foreigner. Eventually Henry VIII’s other daughter, Elizabeth, took the throne after Mary died childless and reversed Mary’s reversal. Elizabeth did a good job of balancing the interest of both Protestants and Catholics but even her reign saw extensive war with Catholic Spain and the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots who could have been a potential usurper and was the rallying point of Catholic political interests in England. The 1605 Gunpowder Plot that hoped to blow up parliament by a group of Catholics proved a scandal that cemented every Catholic as a potential enemy of the state [5]. Upon Elizabeth’s death, her closest Protestant male relative took the throne: James IV, King of Scots (who became James I of England and IV of Scotland). This brought the Stuarts to power in England who routinely clashed with parliament for power ultimately leading to the English Civil War, the execution of James’ son Charles I (a suspected catholic sympathizer), and twenty years of Puritan dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. The downfall of the Cromwell era saw the restoration of the Stuarts with the return of Charles II to England. Except this time, just as Mary had been nearly a century before, Charles was Catholic.

By this point, English society was deeply suspicious of Catholicism and its adherents were viewed as 17th and 18th century fundamentalists; fanatics of the highest order answerable only to a distant foreign pope. The 1660 restoration of Charles II immediately aroused suspicion. In 1662 he married another Catherine of Braganza and he routinely pursued an amicable relationship with France (by the now the preeminent catholic power in Europe over Spain). It did not help that by the late 17th century the king and his supporters were becoming associated as power hungry catholic disturbers of the peace while parliament routinely identified with the Church of England and checks on royal abuses. Religion and politics had polarized into two camps.

In 1672 Charles passed the Declaration of Indulgence, a direct attack on parliament. In it he claimed the ability to suspend laws and the catholic and protestants could worship freely. This was a shot across the bow of parliament who jealously guarded its inviolable right to make laws. Parliament pushed back and a year later Charles retracted the Declaration but the damage was done. Parliament then responded with two Test Acts requiring all government officials and military officers to take communion in the Church of England and renounce the doctrine of transubstantiation and outright forbidding any non-Anglican from sitting in Parliament. In 1678 hysteria gripped England as the fabricated “Popish Plot” swept the countryside. The “Plot” alleged a Jesuit conspiracy to murder Charles and put his brother James, a devout Catholic, onto the throne. Adding fuel to the fire, Edmund Berry Godfrey, the first magistrate to hear the case, later turned up murdered. Vigilante reprisals occurred across England while whispers abounded of a cabal of Jesuits and Catholics hiding in the shadows looking to undo the reformation. All the while Catherine of Braganza remained without child and the threat of James’ accession to the throne loomed. The bubbling political crisis even caused the formation of the two historical British political parties: the Tories and the Whigs. The “Tories”, slang for an Irish cattle thief, began as the royalist “Court Party” while the Whigs, slang from the Scottish Whiggamores, a pejorative term for a Presbyterian, emerged from the reformist “Country Party”. Due to Charles II’s ability to appoint his own ministers the government was stacked with Tories during this time but the Whig cause continued to sweep the country. Charles tried to strike a balance but conflict was inevitable. When the Whig politician Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, introduced an Exclusion Act to remove James from the succession altogether, Charles simply dissolved parliament. He did it a second time two years later when a similar maneuver occurred. In 1685, Charles II died and James II took the throne.

James never stood a chance. Immediately after succession, Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, invaded England from Holland and declared himself king. James’ troops defeated the threat at the Battle of Sedgemoor. James could have taken the opportunity to unite England under his leadership, instead he created a large standing army (to which England is historically adverse, hence the affinity for the Royal Navy since ships cannot hold capitals), liberally promoted Catholic officers, and threw out the Test Act. Parliament pushed back at this blatant disregard for their rights and James promptly dissolved parliament. While he warred with parliament James also began dismissing officials from the Church of England and even imprisoned several bishops. By 1687 it was patently obvious that James was waging war on the Church of England and parliament. In 1688, James and his wife Mary of Modena gave birth to a healthy baby boy ensuring a potential succession (the future “Bonnie Prince Charlie”).

Parliament reached out to James I’s protestant daughter Mary who married William of Orange, the powerful ruler of the Dutch Republic (really an oligarchy) and notorious foil to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Thus in 1688 the Glorious Revolution saw William and Mary land in England while James II fled to France. Not only did this event mark the end of Catholic monarchs in England but it also, arguably, marks the point where parliament superseded the monarch, in terms of practical power. Parliament drafted the 1689 English Bill of Rights that truly revolutionized modern politics. The Bill declares illegal royal supersession of laws, levying taxes and raising armies with parliament’s permission, guarantees the right of subjects to petition the king, allows protestants to bear arms, guarantees free elections and freedom of speech for discourse by MPs, outlaws excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments, and regular meetings of parliament among other matters (such as declaring James’ flight from England to be an act of abdication). Needless to say the Bill is one of the foundational legal and political achievements in history given its progressive nature (1689 was the heyday of absolute monarchs) and its influence on future constitutions (notably the U.S. Bill of Rights) [6].

Even with the Glorious Revolution, the Catholic threat to England had hardly dissipated. Naturally, Mary died childless and the throne passed to her sister Anne who saw the infant death of fourteen children before dying childless herself. Parliament needed a solution less James II somehow return. They turned to George I, Elector of Hanover, the great grandson of James I of England and IV of Scotland. George spoke no English, reigned absolutely in Hanover, and cared far more for continental affairs than British ones but that was good enough for Parliament. Indeed, the Hanoverians disinterested attitude towards England allowed parliament to consolidate its own power further for decades until the reign of the politically active (and English speaking) George III. From 1689 through 1759 multiple “Jacobite” (“Jaccobus” being Latin for James) rebellions occurred or threatened the British Isles with the intention of returning the Stuarts to the throne (often with the backing of France). Support for James endured in Scotland until a “Williamite” victory in 1689 and in Ireland until a Williamite victory in 1691. Multiple uprisings or Jacobite supported invasions by France occurred or were planned until 1759. None succeeded (though the 1745 event did see James’ son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” occupy Edinburgh and invade England as far south as Derby) but they had a profound influence on British politics. In 1707, Parliament ramrodded through the Act of Union to unite the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain. It occurred specifically to shore up succession issues and consolidate England’s control on Scotland, which had been and remained a hotbed of Jacobitism until the final defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie (and his subsequent flight back to France) at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The French proposed an invasion of 100,000 men including Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Seven Years War but naval defeats prevented the operation and the Stuarts’ last real chance at taking the throne. The Prince had one illegitimate daughter and James’ other son, Henry, became a Catholic Cardinal who, obviously, bore no children thus ending the line, and threat, of the Stuarts.

As a result, the very real political threat of Catholicism and Jacobitism existed in British politics until the mid-18th century augmented by nearly two hundred years of religious strife. The entire Act of Union with Scotland was likely only politically viable amongst the English MPs to ensure London’s control over Edinburgh and its distant Stuart-favoring populace. It only makes sense therefore that both the slave trade and slavery would be abolished in Britain before a comprehensive Catholic Emancipation law passed.

This should also give you the background necessary to better understand how politically touchy the Irish Question was in early 19th century British politics.

——– Author’s Notes ———

[1]: This is basically an eclectic mix of the Pittite-heavy Addington government and the Portland led Ministry of all the Talents from our timeline.

[2]: The “Treasurer of the Household” is a member of the British monarch’s royal household (the household being the departments that support the royal family). The position is usually held by one of the government deputy Chief Whips in the House of Commons.

[3]: We haven’t delved into the in-time U.S. political compass in a while but for these purposes a “northwesterner” politically equates  (roughly) to “liberal” in our-timeline’s modern sense.

[4]: This is actually less than their debt in our timeline but Britain hasn’t been at war with France for as long in this timeline (though surely the war debts from the war against Russia have stacked up).

[5]: “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November”. Yet, this is the attempt to blow up parliament that inspired Guy Fawkes Day, V for Vendetta, and the V anarchist mask you see so much these days.

[6]: The English Bill of Rights was one of the key precedents that the founders relied on while crafting the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and even the Declaration of Independence. The in-timeline author doesn’t go into it but the English Bill of Rights lists out grievances with James II before declaring his flight from England to be abdication. If this sounds familiar it is essentially the same legal strategy Thomas Jefferson utilized when drafting the Declaration which lists grievances against George III justifying the subsequent independence declaration.

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