Saturday, 27 May 2017

How did Pitt face the French Revolution between 1789 and 1801?

In 1789, the fall of the Bastille[1] foreshadowed revolution in France. Reactions were mixed in Britain but many people were initially well disposed towards the revolution. Pitt saw political advantages for Britain because it weakened France’s colonial ambitions. Some thought France should become a ‘constitutional’ monarchy. Others saw it leading to reform in England. The British believed themselves to be the freest people in Europe, thanks to the 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution,[2] and many foreigners flatteringly took the same view. It is not surprising that the opening stages of the revolution looked like a French attempt to copy Britain.

Reacting to revolution: the intellectual debate

The debate began with a ‘political sermon’ given by the dissenting minister Richard Price on 4 November 1789. He pointed to the 1688-1689 Revolution Settlement as part of the dissenting agitation for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Many opponents of Dissent feared that much more was involved than mere religion. In November 1790, Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was an Anglican defence of the state and denied Price’s assertion that ‘the people’ had acquired important rights in 1688-1689, especially the right to choose their own rulers, remove them for misconduct and frame a government for themselves. Religion, not some vague contractual notion, was for Burke at the heart of the civil society. He celebrated aristocratic concepts of paternalism, loyalty and the hereditary principle in which the great social institutions--the Church, the law, even the family--confirmed the aristocracy as the ruling class and the protectors of traditional values. The response was immediate.

Thomas Paine wrote the first part of Rights of Man as a reply to Burke’s Reflections and it was published in February 1791. Part Two was published in April 1792. It was only one of the thirty-eight responses to Burke but was the most influential. It merged the debate about the revolution with a programme of practical and radical reform. Paine put forward a simple message. He denounced Burke’s idea of society as an association between past and present generations and his view of the role of monarchy and aristocracy. Power lay with the people and their rights. The impact of Rights of Man was immediate. It was distributed in cheap editions (50,000 copies of Part One were sold in 1791), read aloud and discussed. To his sup­porters, Paine was a heroic figure. To his opponents, he became a symbol of the excesses of revolution. He was frequently burned in effigy especially at the end of 1792 and the first few months of 1793. In Nottingham, for instance, Paine was ritualistically killed, stoned by ladies at a dinner and dance. Between 1792 and 1795, the circulation of Paine’s work was one of the main reasons given for the passage of repressive legislation.

The debate was not confined to a dialogue between Burke and Paine. Many of the authors knew each other and their work may be seen as a collective project. Paine, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft produced a number of innovative and utopian proposals between 1791 and early 1793--the establishment of a welfare state, the withering away of the centralised state, equality in relationships to remove the automatic obedience of employees to employers and women to men. Thomas Spence’s Meridian Sun of Liberty cost only one penny and was aimed at a different audience that Burke’s Reflections at three shillings and Godwin’s Political Justice priced at a pound. The extent to which the debate reached different sections of the public was largely determined by the cost of the written material.

Government was concerned that ‘informed opinion’ was in the hands of a closely-knit radical circle. While those individuals were addressing each other, they represented no threat to established order. However, the combination of growing political organisation with a supply of radical writings to politicise the masses was another matter. A loyalist backlash began in late-1792 with John Reeves and the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. It com­missioned and circulated popularly written anti-radical pamphlets to ensure the loyalty of the labouring population. It main­tained pressure on the radical writers while the govern­ment controlled radical publishing, processes helped by the patriotic reac­tion to the outbreak of war with France in 1793. With the publication of Godwin’s Political Justice in February 1793, innovative radical thinking stopped. Fewer pamphlets were published, repeated old ideas and tried to reassure a moderate audience rather than developing new theor­ies. The objective of many radical thinkers was to attract the widest possible support for an anti-government platform. The radical vision of communicating with a wide audience had been established yet in practical terms, the reforming movement achieved little. By 1800, European societies were destabilised and Burke’s fears had apparently been realised.

Reacting to revolution: radical demands for reform

British reformers were roused into action by the events in France. The dissenters’ campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was stimu­lated by events across the Channel. The Society for Consti­tutional Information (SCI), founded in 1780, began to circulate radical propaganda and in April 1792, some Whig reformers formed the Society of the Friends of the People to campaign for parliamentary reform. However, the Corresponding Societies marked a new departure for radicalism.
The French Revolution stirred people to political action and provided them with an ideology through which to redress their grievances but the economic conditions in the first half of the 1790s also played an important role. The disturbed state of Europe in 1792-1793 led to economic depression in Britain with widespread unemployment and lower wages. War interrupted trade. It also placed increasing tax burdens on the middle- and lower classes. Economic distress reached critical levels in 1795-1796 following harvest failure in 1794, pushing up food prices at a time when the labouring population was already faced with higher taxation and lower wages. It is, however, important not to see the reforming movement simply in terms of a response to economic conditions. What was different about the Corresponding movement was that it crossed the threshold from traditional economic grievances to fundamental political demands.

Corresponding Societies

During the winter of 1791-2, popular radical societies emerged. The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was the most important. Founded in January 1792 by a small group led by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, membership was open to all who paid a penny at each weekly meeting. Though formed to discuss the poverty faced by many of the labouring population and the high prices of the day, the LCS quickly adopted a political programme for remedying their grievances: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and redistribution of rotten boroughs to the large towns. The LCS spread rapidly across London and developed a sophisticated organisational struc­ture of divisions district committees and general committee.

Two features described the LCS: its size and its social composition. By late-1792, about 650 people regularly attended its meetings. By late-1794, its total active membership was 3,000. By the spring of 1796, this had fallen to about 2,000, by the end of the year to 1,000, to about 600 in 1797 and to 400 active members before it was banned in 1798. LCS membership was confined to a very small proportion of London’s working population. To call the LCS a ‘working-class’ organisation neglects the extent to which its membership was made up of individuals from the ‘middling’ and professional classes as well as artisans and tradesmen. An analysis of 347 activists shows that only half were artisans and the rest were medical men, lawyers, book­sellers, clerks, shopkeepers and printers. There is no evidence that it ever had much appeal to unskilled labourers or the very poor.

Provincial radical societies had begun to spring up before the LCS was founded. The Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information was formed in late 1791. Within a few months, it had grown from a few members to 2,500 members. In the autumn of 1792, the Sheffield SCI could bring 5-6,000 people on to the streets to celebrate the French victory at Valmy and a similar number in February 1794 to press for peace abroad and liberty at home. During 1792, the number of societies mushroomed and regional differences became more obvious. Manchester, with its factory workers, merchants and expanding population, stood at the other end of the scale to Sheffield. It had been Tory since the 1750s and this may account for the slow initial development of the Manchester Constitutional Society founded by Thomas Walker as early as October 1790. In Norwich, the radical cause developed along similar lines. A Revo­lution Society established in 1788, was dominated by middle-class Dissenters, merchants and tradesmen. It rivalled Sheffield as the pacemaker of radicalism. The textile industry supported artisans of a particularly independent temper and Norwich’s Dissent was rooted in a craggy, though surprisingly liberal, tradition. By 1792, forty tavern clubs of shoemakers, weavers and shop­keepers had developed, comprising some 2,000 members.


How did the radical societies attempt to achieve their aims? Weekly meetings and the spread of printed propaganda provided focus for their activities. They corresponded regularly with each other and with groups in France. However, their attempt to reach a mass audience was limited. There was, however, no nationwide petitioning campaign. There were only 36 petitions in support of Charles Grey’s motion on parliamentary reform in 1793. The reformers seriously overestimated the amount of mass support and dangerously underestimated the fears it would arouse in the authorities. Radical tactics were very restrained. The bulk of the labouring population did not rally behind parliamentary reform and few radical leaders appreciated the power of organised labour. Some radicals did try to whip up food rioters in Sheffield in 1795 to protest against the war and demand parliamentary reform and similar tactics were used in the north-west in 1800. However, these were isolated examples and the radicals made no attempt to co-ordinate popular riots. Most radical leaders, with their middle-class background, were committed to non-violent action. When the governing class refused to concede reform, resorting to repression and persecution, most radicals lost heart or moderated their demands.

Reacting to revolution: the conservative response

The attack on popular radicalism came from three directions. There was an attack on its ideology, a populist and loyalist reaction and a legislative attack by Pitt’s government. The reform movement collapsed not simply because of repressive actions but because the opponents of reform developed a defence of the existing political system that was convincing not just to those with property but also to large sections of British society.

Conservative ideology in the 1790s had considerable appeal. A tradition of resistance to constitutional change in Britain existed in the decades leading up to the revolution and events in France, especially after 1791, reinforced this tradition. Radicals at home were seen in the same light as revolutionaries abroad. It was not difficult to persuade people that the radical reform would destroy the established order as the revolution had in France. French anarchy was contrasted unfavourable with British stability and prosperity. Conservative apologists and propagandists appealed to British hatred of France and fear of radical change. There was also an intellec­tual response contrasting the stability of constitutional monarchy with the anarchy of ‘mob’ rule and democracy. Anti-radical propa­ganda, subsidised by the loyalist associations, by government and by private individuals, took many forms. Pamphlets and tracts like the Cheap Repository Tracts, many written by Hannah More, between 1795 and 1798; pro-government newspapers like the Sun, the True Briton and the Oracle; journals like the Anti-Jacobin (1797-8) and its successor the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, a monthly that lasted until 1821; political caricatures and cartoons by artists like Isaac Cruickshanks. James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson; and local newspapers like the Man­chester Mercury and the Newcastle Courant. This concerted campaign was outstandingly successful and convinced the majority of Eng­lish people that the French Revolution was a disaster.

Loyalist associations emerged initially as a response to the Dissenter campaign for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts but the number of Church and King clubs was given a major boost by the revo­lution especially the Royal Proclamation against seditious writings on 21 May 1792. By September 1792, some 386 loyal addresses had been received by the king and in November John Reeves formed the first loyalist Associ­ation for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (APLP). By the end of 1793, the total number of APLPs may have reached 2,000 making them the largest political organisation in the country. They spread from London first into the neighbouring counties, then to the west, Midlands and finally the north. Active membership was largely confined to men of property, though they were able to enlist support from across society. They can be seen as far more successful and popular ‘working-class’ organisations than the radical societies. Loyalist associations adopted the organisation and some of the methods of the reformers. They produced a great deal of printed propaganda but were not content to rely upon persuasion, resorting to intimidation and persecution to defeat their opponents. Calls for loyalty and patriotism proved far more popular with the bulk of the population than demands for radical change.

Government repression.

Pitt acted quickly against the threat pose by the radicals, inaugurating what has been called Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. The government was convinced it faced a revolutionary conspiracy, a view reinforced by the intelligence received from local magistrates and spies and believed it was justified in taking firm action. In May and December 1792, two Royal Proclamations were issued against seditious writings. The Home Office, especially after 1794 under the strongly anti-radical Duke of Portland, monitored the activities of the radical societies using spies as well as more conventional methods like opening letters, receiving reports from local sources, watching the activities of radicals abroad and infiltrating radical groups. Its resources were very limited with a staff of less than twenty-five. After success in the Scottish treason trials in 1793-1794, Pitt moved against English radicals. Forty-one men, including Hardy, were arrested in late 1794 and charged with high treason but after he was acquitted, further trials were aban­doned. The administration had little further success with treason trials during the remainder of the decade but had more success with those for publishing seditious libels. There were less than 200 convictions during the 1790s and whether this constitutes a government-inspired reign of terror is open to debate.

Parliament was prepared to pass legislation in support of the govern­ment though, in practice, this often turned out to be far less effective than anticipated. Habeas Corpus was suspended from May 1794 to July 1795 and April 1798 to March 1801 but only a few people were imprisoned without charge. The Two Acts of 1795--the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act--proved less than effective weapons despite the wide powers given to central and local government. The Treasonable Practices Act was designed to intimidate and no radical was pros­ecuted under it. The Seditious Meetings Act failed to prevent the increas­ing number of meetings organised by the LCS. There was only one pros­ecution under a 1797 Act rushed through Parliament following the naval mutiny at Spithead and the Nore. It strengthened penalties for attempting to undermine allegiance to the authorities and administering unlawful oaths. The banning of the leading radical societies by law in 1799 was unnecess­ary, largely because they were already in a state of collapse. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned combinations of workers completing the legislative armoury of repression. Radicalism was increasingly driven underground. It did not emerge as a mass movement until the last years of the French wars. Between 1794 and 1800, Pitt had successfully driven radical politics to the margins of political life.

Government legislation was infrequently used but it remained as a threat hanging over radicals, limiting their freedom of action. Its effect was to intimidate and harass. It destroyed the leadership of the radical societies, silenced the ablest propagandists and frightened many into abandoning the reform movement. However, the collapse of the radical movement was not simply a matter of repression by government or magistrates. War revived latent deep-seated patriotism among the most people for whom radicalism was only of peripheral importance.

[1] The Bastille was the royal palace and prison in the centre of Paris. Its capture on 14 July 1789 by a Parisian mob marked the beginnings of the French Revolution.
[2] The 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution occurred when the Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William III and Mary so preserving constitutional monarchy and the powers of Parliament.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Why did Pitt dominate politics between 1783 and 1793?

Pitt was a cautious reformer. In 1785, he unsuccessfully attempted to abolish thirty-six rotten boroughs and transfer their seats to London and the counties, failed to achieve economic union with Ireland and dropped the idea of economic union with America. These failures confirmed Pitt’s inability to lead the country in his own reforming terms because of the extent of opposition. Parliamentary reform was lost in the Commons by 248 votes to 174 and he abandoned economic union following opposition from British manufacturing and commercial interests. The framework of government within which Pitt operated was ‘administrative’, reacting to problems when they arose rather than initiat­ing programmes of a fundamental reforming nature. He was primarily an administrative reformer responsible for a ‘national revival’ between 1783 and the early 1790s.

Restoring national finances

In 1783, government expenditure exceeded income by £10.8 million, largely because of the cost of the American War and inefficiency in collecting excise duties. Government had difficulty in raising loans and confidence in a recovery of national finances was low. Between 1783 and 1791, annual governmental revenue increased by almost £4 million of which half came from new taxes, reducing smug­gling and fraud and by increasing the efficiency of collec­tion. Pitt’s initial priority was to raise revenue and his first target was smuggling. It is difficult to estimate the effect smuggling had on national finances but perhaps a fifth of all imports was contraband. The finances of the East India Company were under­mined by smuggled tea, which in the early 1780s amounted to between 3 and 4.5 million tons per year.

Pitt adopted a two-pronged approach. He introduced restrictive legislation to reduce the attractiveness of smuggling and extended the rights of search over suspect cargoes. An extended ‘Hovering Act’, for instance, allowed confiscation of certain types of vessel carrying contraband goods found at anchor or ‘hovering’ within four miles of the coast. Parallel to this was a massive reduction of duties. The 1784 Commutation Act reduced the duty on tea from 119 to a uniform 25 per cent and this was followed by reductions on wines, spirits and tobacco. The tightening up on revenue agencies and the transfer of more business to the excise department led to increased yields: 29 per cent on spirits, 63 per cent on wines and 39 per cent on tobacco by 1790. Pitt did not extinguish smuggling but he made it a far less profitable and far more risky activity.

The loss of revenue through reducing duties was recovered by the increased efficiency with which taxes were collected. Pitt was one of the most efficient tax-gatherers ever to govern England. His taxation policy was based on the prevailing view that all should bear a share but that the poor should not be overburdened. Luxury goods were consequently the major taxable items: horses, hackney carriages, gloves, hats, ribbons, candles, servants and hair powder plus a graduated increase in the tax on windows. Pitt’s taxation policy was sensible but could be both unpopular and misguided. The window tax may have held back the development of the glass industry. A projected tax on coal was withdrawn because of opposition and taxes on linen and cotton in 1784 had serious economic implications and were withdrawn. Pitt’s only real innovation was a tax on shops, introduced in 1785, but withdrawn in 1789 after widespread opposition and public disturbances in London.

In 1783, the National Debt stood at £238 million with interest charges amounting to about a quarter of government spending. Pitt wanted to reduce this by extending the ‘sinking fund’, a device where annual sums were set aside to pay off or reduce the National Debt. It had existed since 1716 but its value had been reduced by ministers raiding it for other purposes. Richard Price had argued in 1772 for a regularly supported fund and, as in many other areas of policy, Pitt was willing to use other people’s ideas and the reform of the sinking fund in 1786 was perhaps more important in restoring national confidence than in producing financial improvement. It was placed under the control of a board of six commissioners. The scheme worked well until the outbreak of war in 1793 by which time there was a £10 million reduction in the debt.

Administrative efficiency

Offices, whether sinecures or not, were given as rewards for political services not on merit. Pitt wanted to reduce waste in government. Radical reform would have encountered widespread opposition from the entrenched power of patronage-mongers and consequently Pitt operated in a cautious manner. Sinecures were allowed to lapse on the death of their occupants. Most of the posts the public accounts com­missioners recommended should be abolished in 1786 disappeared in the next twenty years. What had gone were ‘offices of profit’.

Efficient departmental management was gradually built up with greater Treasury control of public expen­diture by the Treasury Commission of Audit created in 1785. The Board of Taxes was reinforced by transfers from the Treasury and the Excise Board. People with talent, like Richard Frewin at Customs, were promoted and encouraged to develop administrative policies on their own initiative. The creation of a central Stationery Office in 1787 secured economies in the supply of stationery to departments. Pitt tightened naval spending where he relied heavily on its Comptroller of the Navy Office Sir Charles Middleton, later Lord Barham, who was largely responsible for the creation of a navy capable of responding to the French challenge between 1793 and 1815.
Before 1787, there were 103 separate exchequer revenue accounts and revenue collectors forwarded funds to 68 different accounts.[1] Under the Consolidated Fund Act of 1787, most revenue collected was paid into a single consolidated Treasury fund account. The exceptions were the Civil List[2] and the land and malt taxes on which specific blocks of funded Exchequer bills were secured. This marked a major step forward in efficient administration and led to economies and reduction of confusion. Initially new taxes were accounted for separately but this was removed in 1797.

Commercial policies

Financial and administration efficiency was paralleled by a commercial policy that encouraged growing trade. The value of imports doubled to £20 million between 1783 and 1790 and exports rose from £12.5 million in 1782 to over £20 by 1790. This was a major achieve­ment. Economic recovery meant protecting British industries and trade and the United States was seen as a threat to British commercial supremacy. Pitt’s new Committee of Trade rejected the reduction of trade barriers and the Navigation Acts were maintained with vigour. In 1783, American shipping was excluded from the West Indian islands; trade with America for chea­per meat and fish via the French and Spanish islands was made illegal in 1787-1788. Pitt’s protectionist policy towards America trade was shown by the passage of the last Navigation Act in 1786. If America could be prevented from challenging Britain’s merchant shipping then, although there had been loss of political control, Britain could retain commercial domination. By 1787, British exports to America had returned to the levels achieved in the early 1770s and by the 1790s the tariffs acted only as a minor irritant. The outbreak of the French war led to the Jay Treaty of 1794 that opened certain markets to American shipping. The effects were dramatic. Britain’s exports to America more than doub­led between 1793 and 1799 and by 1800, America was taking a quarter of British exports. This more liberal policy recognised the growing economic importance of the American market for exports and the dependence of Britain’s textile industry on imported cotton.

The immediate economic advantages of Canada were limited in the 1790s.[3] Its furs, fish and timber were important but its scattered population did not offer a large market for British goods. Yet, relations with Canada were handled with care. An arena of Anglo-French conflict, it was only brought under the British Crown by conquest in 1760. In Quebec, there was still tension between English and French-speakers. Canada’s population had been substantially increased by the migration of many American loyalists north: some 25,000 settled in Nova Scotia and a further 20,000 in upper Quebec. The costs of administering the Canadian prov­inces of Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were largely borne by the British government. Canada assumed greater importance after 1783 as a barrier to possible American expansion. The 1791 Canada Act, which radically recast the government of the province of Quebec, reflected an imprecise desire to give some self-determination to colonial development.

The loss of the American colonies focused the attention of government on India and the East, with their potentially large markets. Pitt had come to power because of the abortive Fox-North India Bill and the issue was quickly dealt with in his East India Act of 1784. The East-India Company kept its patronage but political and strategic control passed to a Board of Control made up of ministers of the Crown. Responsibility for Indian affairs passed to Henry Dundas in London and the Governor-General in India. Sinecures were suppressed and able recruits enlisted. Trade in the East improved under Pitt, though this was partly the result of ending tea smuggling.

There was an important commercial thread in ending Britain’s isolation in Europe after 1783. Negotiations were opened with all the leading courts of Europe for reciprocally lowered tariff duties. The Eden trade treaty with France, signed in September 1786, was the only real, though temporary, achievement of this policy. French wines entered Britain at the same rates as the Portuguese and, although opposition from manufacturers kept the silk market protected, France was opened to British goods through general tariff reductions of 10-15 per cent. Within three years, French manufacturers were complaining that the treaty was unfairly weighted in favour of British manufacturers. In reality, their complaint was a reflection of Britain’s competitiveness in the early stages of industrialisation.

Commercial considerations played a part in challenging French expansion into the Low Countries though Britain also wanted to stop France using Dutch overseas bases like Cape Town. Britain’s isolation was emphasised by the French alliance with the Dutch in 1785, which involved a reduction in the powers of the pro-English House of Orange. A successful Prussian invasion in 1787 revived Orange fortunes and was followed by a Triple Alliance between Prussia, the United Provinces and Britain. This ended Britain’s diplomatic isolation and enabled Britain successfully to exert her authority in the North Pacific in 1790 when Spain seized ships from a British trading base for furs and fish at Nootka Sound, off western Canada. Pitt was less successful in his support of Anglo-Prussian policy over Russian round Ochakov on the Black Sea. Demands that Russia return the area to the Ottoman Empire were resisted and Pitt abandoned his policy following large-scale opposition to his warlike stance in the House of Commons.


Pitt was an efficient administrator rather than an innovative minister. He improved existing systems of government and taxation, building on the work of previous governments. His approach was cautious and responsive to opposition. Historians frequently argue that Pitt was committed to free trade. This may be true but it did not divert him from the practicalities of politics. Diplomatic and commercial realities meant that his commit­ment to freer trade was always limited. Britain’s commercial success was built on protection and the move to freer trade resulted from British industry no longer needing protection as much as the intellectual attraction of the new system. The outbreak of war in 1793 drove the British government back to protection.

[1] The Exchequer dealt with national finances.
[2] The Civil List was the money paid by Parliament for the monarch’s personal support and for his household. It was introduced in the late-seventeenth century.
[3] Canada was originally a French colony (New France) but was conquered by British troops in 1759-1760. It proved an attractive destination for those American colonists (the loyalists) who had fought with the British during the American war.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Realigning the Tories and Whigs to 1812

The French Revolution transformed British political life. Between 1790 and 1794, tensions within the opposition Whigs led to division and gradually Pitt remodelled his government. The first split was provoked by the publi­cation in November 1790 of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.[1] He challenged the notion of equal natural rights, maintaining that government did not derive its authority from the consent of the governed but from custom, practice and experience. However, Burke was no reactionary, arguing that any state that did not embrace change had lost the means of conserving itself. He laid down principles subsequently identified as central to the ideology not of the Whigs but of Conservatism.

Fox under pressure

In May 1791, Fox who enthusiastically supported the Revolution, and Burke parted company. Burke only took a few supporters with him but the rift within the party widened during the following year. Fox sponsored a Libel Act. In April 1792, a group of radical Whigs formed the Friends of the People to try and commit the party to parliamen­tary reform. The Whigs had to make an uncomfortable choice. Burke had emphasised the dangers of well-meaning reforms leading to revolution and increasingly the debate within the Whig party polarised over whether it should emphasise reform and liberty or order and public security.[2]

Fox did not join the Friends of the People though he sympathised with its aims. He became increasingly convinced that Pitt intended to undermine English liberties and in December 1792, he was driven to a defence of both the French Revolution and parliamentary reform. Fox believed that Britain had more to fear from the influence of George III than from the French Revolution. As a result, thirty conservative Whigs dis­tanced themselves from Fox and Portland and declared their support for the government. The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and the out­break of war with France the following month aggravated Whig prob­lems. Fox opposed the outbreak of the war. Portland regarded it as a regrettable necessity. Fox supported Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform in the Commons in May 1793. Portland opposed it. Neither Burke nor Portland still wished to safeguard the Whig constitution, but what separated them from Fox was how this could be done. Fox found it impossible to keep the Whig party together. By late 1793, the conservative Whigs had separated from the party. Portland[3] formed a coalition with Pitt in July 1794, when Portland became Home Secretary and four other conservative Whigs, Fitzwilliam Mansfield, Spencer and William Windham,[4] entered the cabinet, marked a realignment of political forces.

A restructured coalition 1794-1801

The 1784, 1790 and 1796 General Elections confirmed Pitt’s dominance. This is, however, misleading. His control of the Commons came from the support of the 200 MPs in the court and administration group. In the House of Lords, about half the peers were open to royal influence. Pitt’s personal following was only 50 MPs. His cabinet until 1794 was, with the notable exceptions of Henry Dundas and Lord Grenville lightweight.[5] It was his talents and the support of the king that kept him in office. In addition, the only alternative to Pitt was Fox supported by the Prince of Wales, something George III found unthinkable.

Did the formation of the coalition in 1794 mark the birth of the Tory party? Pitt certainly did not see himself as a Tory, considering himself an independent Whig. Portland and the conservative Whigs did not abandon Whig beliefs nor did they lose their long-standing distrust of Pitt. Between 1794 and 1797, Pitt could count on the support of over 500 MPs, consisting of 426 Pittites and 80 Portland Whigs. The Foxite Whigs, numbering about 60MPs stood apart. Between 1794 and 1797, they demonstrated a commitment to peace and reform calling for an end to the war, religious freedom and parliamentary reform. In 1797, Charles Grey’s reform motion was defeated in the Commons and the Foxite Whigs renounced regular parlia­mentary attendance though secession was never complete. Pitt’s resig­nation in 1801 brought them flooding back to Parliament.

The fall of Pitt in 1801 was a matter of conflicting constitutional principles. Pitt saw Catholic Emancipation as a necessary part of the Union with Ireland. George III could not accept this. Pitt, though he promised not to raise the question while the king lived, felt obliged to resign. He had been in power for nearly eighteen years and had fought a hardly successful war for eight. He was physically and mentally exhausted. His management of the cabinet had, since the mid-1790s become increasingly high-handed and he had taken the king’s consent for granted. The king’s refusal to accept Emancipation may have been his way of re-establishing royal influence and the ministerial crisis of 1801 clearly showed the continuing importance of the monarch in politics. It is also important that the king’s attitude reflected the anti-Catholicism of public opinion.

An unstable interlude 1801-1812

Between 1801 and 1812, five weak ministries ruled Britain, none lasting more than 3¼ years. The Pittites were transformed into Tories and the Whigs re-emerged as a credible opposition. Pitt’s large governing coalition was split by his resignation into groupings of Pittites (60), Addingtonians (30-40), Grenvilles (20-30) and Canningites (10-15). Stable government needed the alliance of at least two parts of the old Pittite coalition to lead the Court and Treasury grouping. It took eleven years before three of these groups reunited under Lord Liverpool.

Henry Addington

Addington 1801-1804

Henry Addington formed his administration in 1801. Pitt had readily agreed not to oppose the ministry as Addington’s condition for accepting office. Canning refused to serve and, although Portland remained in office, Windham and Spencer left. In 1802, Grenville went into opposition against the Treaty of Amiens and, with Windham, formed a separ­ate war party of about thirty MPs. Despite Pitt’s neutrality, Addington’s ineffectiveness and the renewal of war in 1803 could not delay the inevitable. In April 1804, he resigned and Pitt returned for a second time.

Pitt returns 1804-1806

Pitt could not reunite his old supporters between 1804 and his death in January 1806. The Fox-Grenville group deprived him of support and he did not enjoy assistance from Addington. His ministry was unstable and narrow. However, initially the opposition was disunited. The Grenvilles did not understand the personal animosity between Pitt and Fox and the two opposition groups took time to work together effectively. By late 1805, however, the opposition coalition was performing well and there was little doubt that an effective opposition existed for the first time since 1791.

‘All the Talents’ 1806-1807

George III had no alternative after Pitt’s death but to turn to Grenville and, with reluctance, Fox. The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’, as it was widely dubbed, was led by Grenville, with Fox as Foreign Secretary and, though Whig-dominated, was a coalition of politicians including the group round Addington, who became Viscount Sidmouth in 1805. No action was taken on religious concessions to Ireland or parliamentary reform, both of which were unacceptable to the Addington. Fox’s death in September removed the ministry’s most talented member and the 1806 General Election added little to its popular support. The war was going badly, the king was lukewarm in his support and the ministry lingered until dismissed in March 1807.

Portland 1807-1809

Grenville’s refusal to give the king a written promise that he would not raise the Catholic question was the cause of the dismissal of the Talents. Many people believed that the king had acted in an unconstitutional way but as in 1783-1784, reactions to his actions in the form of petitions and the result of the 1807 General Election showed that his intervention was generally approved. Public opinion was vehemently anti-Catholic. The electorate was given a clear choice between Whigs and Tories, denoting opposition or support for the king’s position on religion. The 1807 election was a clear victory for the Tories. Portland could count on the support of about 370 MPs while the opposition could only muster about 290. The Whigs did not to hold office again until 1830.

Spencer Perceval

Perceval 1809-1812

The development of Toryism between 1807 and 1812 was far from smooth. Personal rivalries, which went so far as a duel between Castlereagh and Canning in 1809, and the final mental collapse of the king with the estab­lishment of the Regency in 1810-1811, were obstacles to stable government. So too was the erratic progress of the war, resulting in increased taxation, commercial disruption and the revival of extra-Parliamentary radicalism. Portland retired in 1809 and his successor, Spencer Perceval, could not hold the Pittites together. Canning refused to serve and Perceval was unable to gain the support of the Whig opposition, which believed that the advent of the Regency would enable them to take office indepen­dently. Whigs divisions in September 1809, early in 1811 and February 1812 allowed Perceval to remain in power. His government was not secure until March 1812 with the return to Sid­mouth and Castlereagh to strengthen its anti-reformist base. After his assassination in May 1812, the appointment of Lord Liverpool, despite the eventual length of his administration, was neither immediate nor inevi­table.

[1] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish lawyer who came to England in 1750 to advance his fortune. He became private secretary to Rockingham and entered Parliament in 1766. He opposed the American war but drifted away from a central position in the Whig opposition from the mid-1780s.
[2] The Libel Act 1791 gave juries rather than judges the responsibility of determining whether a libel had been committed. Fox believed that the power of the executive had been significantly reduced by this measure
[3] William, Lord Portland (1738-1809): Prime Minister 1783 and again 1807-1809; Home Secretary 1794-1801 and Lord President of the Council 1801-1805; leading conservative Whig.
[4] William Windham (1750-1810), a friend of Edmund Burke and MP for Norwich 1784-1802. He was a conservative Whig who sided with Burke against Fox in 1792-1793 and was Secretary at War 1794-1801.
[5] William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (1759-1834) was Speaker of the House of Commons 1789, Home Secretary 1789-1794 and Foreign Secretary 1794-1801; leader of the war party in the government and its leading spokesman in the House of Lords.