The premier killed by government

The Younger Pitt
November 29, 1996

There can be few historians who have written successively larger authoritative studies on seemingly unrelated topics in three different periods of history, but such is the achievement of John Ehrman. His 710-page volume, The Navy in the War of William III, 1689-1697: Its State and Direction, published in 1953, was followed in 1956 by the two volumes of Grand Strategy: August 1943 September 1944 (634pp) and October 1944-August 1945 (422pp). The first volume of The Younger Pitt, subtitled The Years of Acclaim (710pp) appeared in 1969, followed by a second, The Reluctant Transition (689pp) in 1983, and his work is now triumphantly concluded with The Consuming Struggle.

These three volumes cumulatively will stand as one of the great works of political biography of the 20th century, and his publisher merits commendation for providing a standard of production worthy of its status. Although the march of time led him in this final volume to resort to the help of researchers, whose efforts he generously acknowledges, the style and the focus of the contents remain unmistakably and elegantly those of the author. In his conclusion he credits Pitt with encouraging the development of systematic information and measurement as tools of administration. Ehrman has turned them into tools of biography. The meticulous care with which he has assembled his information has led to a study that has taken longer in its course than the remarkable political career of Britain's youngest and second longest-serving premier: prime minister at 24, dead at 46.

"'The story of Pitt's retirement," he says at one point, "is full of loose ends, and motives are seldom unmixed". It is these loose ends that Ehrman loves to trace, and those mixed motives that he delights in unravelling. This makes for a discursive style that some will undoubtedly find frustrating, but which provides a thorough exploration and development of the issues involved and enables him to develop a sure feel for his subject which leads on to acute insight and measured judgement.

There is in fact a connecting link between Ehrman's three different master works in that his abiding interest has always been in administration and in the formulation of strategic policy. These are at the centre of his portrait of Pitt, and he sees one of the latter's principal contributions to British political life as to bring "a more professional, dispassionate appreciation to the problems of government", a willingness to tackle topics (such as excise duties) that his aristocratic political contemporaries thought degrading, and to give a "modernising tone to the practice of government." It is Pitt the improving administrator and Pitt the strategist, wrestling with problems of foreign policy and war, who predominates in these volumes, and the latter issues particularly pervade volume three.

In this final volume the pressures of administration and foreign relations reach a peak beyond anything Pitt had experienced before, with crises coinciding or following each other with mounting rapidity: 1797, the year in which this volume begins, commenced with an invasion scare and continued with a run on the banks which forced Britain off the gold standard, the collapse of the last of its European allies, mutiny in the fleet, a cabinet fight with his cousin, the foreign secretary, on the issue of peace talks, followed by a failed peace negotiation with the French republic, and finally a parliamentary struggle to get new tax measures accepted to pay for the inevitable continuation of the war. In addition to these national problems, Pitt faced personal crises in having to reach a decision on whether to marry (he shied away, Ehrman concludes, for financial reasons and possibly because of health worries) and the sudden death of his beloved brother-in-law, Edward Eliot. Small wonder that at one stage he considered temporarily stepping down in favour of his eventual successor Addington, and at another he was plagued by anxiety as to whether he was equal to going on. He was, however, an instinctive survivor with a love of governing. As new topics caught his interest and his mercurial temperament took an upturn, the will to go on strengthened. Pitt's political career had made him into a great believer "that everything comes right in time" (the greatest political virtue, he said, was "patience") and yet again changing circumstances - the naval victory at Camperdown and a patriotic swing behind the government against threatened invasion - as well as some astute parliamentary manouevring (often underestimated by historians) saw him through to the next cluster of crises: Irish revolt, domestic plotting, Bonaparte's escape from Toulon, in 1798.

This volume covers a period of three failed European coalitions against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, repeated invasion threats from across the Channel, Irish revolt and the struggle for union, successive bad harvests in 1799-1800 which fostered political discontent and nationwide food rioting. It was the time when his reputation was earned as "the Pilot that weathered the Storm", though Ehrman's subtitle, "The consuming struggle", fits better, for the effort consumed Pitt. Combined with a hidden, gnawing disease - Ehrman opts for a recurring gastrointestinal lesion - the pressures first drove him to the point of nervous breakdown in 1800 (he was perhaps fortunately saved from its recurrence by his resignation a few months later) and finally killed him in 1806. He literally gave his life to government.

On the abiding mystery over Pitt's abrupt resignation in 1801, Ehrman sees illness and the coincidence of major internal and external crises as leading Pitt into neglecting to prepare the king for Irish Catholic Emancipation until it was too late, and the crisis then developed too far and too fast for him to regain control. He believed himself too committed to back down - the same sort of stubbornness in refusing to retract that produced his duel with Tierney in 1798 led him into a political duel with the king from which he could only withdraw with his honour and his "character" intact by resignation. Did this public act of sacrifice make it easier for him only a few weeks later to promise the ailing king never to renew the subject in his lifetime?

It is the period out of office that Ehrman declares as giving us the best clue to Pitt's nature and conception of himself, and he takes as his text Pitt's statement to Canning that his ambition was "character, not office". In fact, for Pitt the two were connected, not contradictory concepts. Having long ago followed his father in his determination to be part of no faction or political party, office could only be obtained by the preservation of character or reputation. The character he always sought to maintain was of the patriot statesman: the unbiased politician (he described himself as an "independent Whig") who would vote according to his concept of the wisdom of individual measures and not for factional advantage; the penniless younger son who disdained the opportunities to find money and title in government (he learnt from his father's mistake on the latter) and who died a debtor and commoner. This was the basis of his popular support and he knew he would be nothing without it. Unfortunately it was not a role that could bring quick returns for someone out of office, and he was undoubtedly fortunate in finding patriotic causes on which to attack and overthrow governments in his early career and hence avoid the accusation of factious opportunism, leaving him instead to parade the patriot in government. When such causes did not recur when out of power between 1801 and 1804, he was hamstrung by not being able publicly to attack the king's government. His hesitation and procrastination ultimately frustrated and divided his former followers and left him to return in his last ministry with diminished support in very disadvantaged circumstances. It left him more dependent on the king's prejudices than ever, something which he had always wished to avoid.

It is on matters of administration, strategic policy and the circumstances of his private life that Ehrman is likely to be at his most enduring. Pitt's authorship of the 1804-05 plan of European settlement, so influential on Castlereagh in 1813, is here firmly reasserted against the denials of Professor Ingram. More may emerge at a detailed level from foreign diplomatic archives on policymaking, but further study is likely to be largely a commentary on Ehrman's picture. On his private life, Ehrman seems to have unravelled the continued parlous state of Pitt's finances in a way that defeated both Pitt and those devoted followers who sought to help the hard-pressed premier, while he also offers consideration without firm conclusion on Pitt's sexual affinities - on that we may never know.

What does this leave for other historians to do? Ehrman's three volumes culminate a century of studying Pitt through the government's administrative archives, but there is still work to be done on the preoccupation of the 19th century: Pitt the parliamentarian. While there are analytical chapters on Westminster, and Ehrman cites a later secretary of the Treasury's admiration of "Mr Pitt's never-to-be-equalled management of the House of Commons", he largely resorts to Pitt's speaking abilities and to the unpalatable alternative of Charles Fox to explain this parliamentary success. More needs to be said of Pitt's care in organising tactics and speakers for major debates. More needs to be said on how he controlled the committee system and ran the House through it, turning it into an effective instrument of government. More needs to be said of his remarkable skill in discerning new talents and turning them into devoted disciples by bringing them forward at an early stage to second the annual address to the throne. To select early in their careers two future prime ministers, five cabinet ministers and five junior office holders is no mean feat; to say nothing of three other future premiers and four cabinet ministers he befriended and advanced or a final ward, Lord Aberdeen, whose premiership ended in 1855. Pitt may have been cold to the ordinary MP, but he warmed to rising "men of business". If his reputation remained so high it was because successive generations of political leaders were proud to avow that they learned their trade from Pitt.

Ehrman concludes that "In the longer perspective Pitt was fortunate in his time" that his life and career spanned formative years for Britain's 19th century development which "gave him a symbolic place, as the pilot who weathered the storm and also the source from whom so many strands of development flowed." He also admits elsewhere that Pitt's skill was in seeing, exploiting and taking forward nascent trends. It may be that the next century will look with sharper focus than Ehrman at Pitt's part in another of these trends: his contribution towards bringing the public into national politics. Resolutely preferring to lead by his own exertions and example rather than form a political party, he avowedly addressed himself, as he said early in his ministerial career, "to the independent part of the House and to the public at large". He exploited the facility to publish the reports of parliamentary committees in order to publicise issues and his policies on them. He spoke three times early in his career on behalf of petitioning movements for parliamentary reform (and was the first to do so while prime minister). When he subsequently acted likewise as the principal speaker on behalf of 108 petitions in 1788 and 509 in 1792 to abolish the slave trade, potential activists throughout the country must have felt that their views were at last being voiced and respected in Westminster.

Pitt seems to have been far more accessible than his predecessors to delegations from commercial, manufacturing and religious interest groups (though deferring nevertheless to the national strength of Anglican sentiment). Four times, in 1784, 1789, 1792, and in 1795, he occasioned massive nationwide surges of addresses to the throne in support of his policies. If, as he is reported to have said in 1792, he came to regret what he had stimulated, that did not stop his attentiveness to public opinion. He remained conscious of the need to carry the nation along with him, and he was capable of rapid response as with the 1792 Association Movement, acting quickly to contain it and turn it to his advantage in giving "the impression and effect of numbers on our side". Shy and awkward though he was in relations with individuals whom he did not know, Pitt's sensitivity to the national pulse was far greater than any political rival in knowing how far he could go, and produced the admiring comment from Lady Holland, the wife of one of them, that Pitt "knows what is called the people of England - a very different thing from knowing mankind - better than anybody."

Michael Duffy is senior lecturer in history, University of Exeter.

The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle

Author - John Ehrman
ISBN - 0 09 475540 X
Publisher - Constable
Price - £35.00
Pages - 911

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