18th century politics
Whatever virtues the eighteenth century had, it was assuredly not democratic. It did not want to be democratic; and accordingly, even when democratic instruments were placed in its hands, it did not commonly care or trouble to use them.
From Cole's contribution to A S Turberville (ed), Johnson's England (Oxford 1933).
It doth not appear, from what you have said, how any perfection is required towards the procurement of any one station among you, much less that men are ennobled on account of their virtue, that priests are advanced for their piety or learning, soldiers for their conduct or valour, judges for their integrity, senators for the love of their country or counsellors for their wisdom.
Observation by the King of Brobdingnag following Gulliver’s explanation of Britain’s government, according to Jonathan Swift, 1726.
The situation in 1760
We start this political excursion with the death of George II in 1760. He is succeeded by his grandson George III. The Seven Years War still has over two years to run. At the head of Government is William Pitt. Nowadays we would him call Prime Minister, but the term is not used in his time. Most holders of the office take the title First Lord of the Treasury.
More than the title, what matters are the Seals of Office that go with it. These will survive into the twentieth century.
Pitt has achieved remarkable success in directing the war effort. But the new king has ambitions to be ruler of Great Britain, not just a Hanoverian emigré with a crown and a few palaces this side of the water. His vision includes Scotland (often known as North Britain at this time), where his mentor the Earl of Bute has his seat.
What is the political situation he inherits?
A general election is due. Elections are governed by a Septennial Act: they must take place at least every seven years. One is also held after accession of a new king.
Voters in the twenty-first century would barely recognise an election as held in the eighteenth. The whole method of voting is different, there is no common party platform to attract votes across the whole country, and elections hardly ever produce an immediate change in government.
The ballot, such as it is, is not secret. If the constituency is large, it may take place over several days. Different constituencies vote at different times, so that a candidate who is unsuccessful in one constituency can go on to contest another in the same election. The qualifications for voting vary from constituency to constituency (but nowhere are women allowed to vote, far less to stand for election).
Many constituencies are not contested. A contest in a large seat (some counties have electorates of a few thousand) is expensive. When Ralph Verney stands for Buckinghamshire in 1790, his agent will hope "to limit his expenses to £12,000 or £13,000". Since candidates usually have to meet their own expenses and Members of Parliament are not paid a salary, many are deterred from standing.
In smaller seats there is often a tradition of patronage. The local landowner may choose a candidate: what then is the point of anyone else standing? Or he may represent the constituency himself, as Henry Petty does in Wycombe. On being created Earl of Shelburne in 1760, he nominates his son William to take over. And when William succeeds to the title, the vacant Commons seat is offered to his friend Isaac Barré.
Political parties barely exist in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. Tories hardly dare show their faces after being labelled Jacobites for the part played by some in the risings of 1715 and 1745. Whigs have split into factions, and there is a fair sprinkling of independent "country gentlemen". It is commonly held that political parties cause unnecessary conflict, sometimes even within families.
A government is chosen through a balancing of political forces, with the king playing an active part. It falls if it loses support in Parliament, if several of its members quit, or if the king gets fed up with it.
George III has a strong card to play: patronage. Although there is no salary, over 150 MPs claim an income as holders of "offices of remuneration under the crown". It will not be long before a group become known as King's Friends.
George's immediate problem in 1760 is to replace Pitt with his own favourite, the Earl of Bute. Pitt's success in the conduct of the war is worrying many MPs. They, and the electors they represent, are property owners: costs of the war will eventually fall on them. They fear Pitt will prolong it to bolster his own popularity.
The king and Bute work on these fears, and on personal rivalries within the ruling group. Soon after the election Pitt loses the cabinet's support in pursuing the war. He promptly resigns, Bute takes over, and a tussle develops for control of Parliament which is not resolved until 1770.
The Wilkes episode
Soon after Pitt's resignation a scurrilous publication called The North Briton starts to appear. It portrays Bute's elevation to the top post as a victory for the Scots over the English. It sneers at members of the Government and even makes insinuations about the relationship between Bute and the king's widowed mother. Most villainously, it exposes to the public the way parliamentary affairs are conducted.
It is a high indignity to and a notorious breach of the Privilege of this House, for any News-Writer, in Letters, or other Papers (as Minutes, or under any other denomination), or for any Printer or Publisher of any printed News-paper of any denomination, to presume to insert in the said Letters or Papers, or to give therein any account of the Debates or other proceedings, of this House, or any Committee thereof, as well during the Recess, as the Sitting of Parliament; and that this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offenders.
Resolution of Parliament, April 13 1738, quoted in Turberville (ed), Johnson's England (Oxford 1933).
The author does not reveal himself, but people have their suspicions.
Issue number 45 brings matters to a head by alleging that some of the statements in the King's Speech at the opening of Parliament are lies. On 30th April 1763, two Secretaries of State issue a general warrant for arrest of whoever is responsible. The culprit is found to be John Wilkes, MP for Aylesbury. He is carted off to the Tower of London and confined.
Not everyone believes Wilkes is a villain.
Keeping Wilkes in prison seems a very imprudent measure. The mob begin to say, whenever he is indisposed, that he has been poisoned.
From letter of Elizabeth Montagu.
What matters legally is whether Wilkes as an MP is entitled to immunity. The Lord Chief Justice rules that he is. He is let out, to great rejoicing in the streets and great consternation in Parliament. He defuses the situation for a while by going off to France, but his return in September is taken as another challenge to Government authority.
On 15 November the Commons, much influenced by Lord Sandwich’s revelations about other subversive – nay, blasphemous – literature found near Wilkes’s printing press, votes 237-111 that North Briton No 45 was "a false, scandalous and seditious libel".
A conviction for blasphemy follows. Before he can be apprehended, Wilkes leaves for France again. The House votes to expel him.
The new MP for Aylesbury is less contentious. Anthony Bacon’s business interests should ensure he does not upset the Government.
But Wilkes’s story is not yet over. In February 1768, with another election due, he returns to England. He stands for the City of London. Unsuccessful there, he tries Middlesex. This time he gets elected.
Taking his seat is another matter. He has yet to serve a sentence for blasphemy: at the end of April he is back in the Tower. Rioting ensues, leading to seven deaths in May. A byelection is ordered. He fights it from prison, and wins.
Still parliament refuses to accept the Middlesex electorate's decision. They vote to expel Wilkes and call another byelection. When he wins that, they reject him and install his defeated opponent.
By now the City establishment are rallying to Wilkes's side. They elect him an Alderman. Lord Mayor William Beckford presents a petition to the king. The king ignores it.
Beckford remonstrates: a dangerous thing to do, but maybe he knows he has only a few weeks to live. You can read the words of his remonstrance in the New DNB, and on the plinth of the memorial erected to him in the Guildhall.
Wilkes is let out in 1771, amidst "rejoicing on an unprecedented national scale".
But by now people are getting tired of the battle, Wilkes included. Elected Sheriff, then Lord Mayor, he joins the establishment. When a particularly bad bout of rioting breaks out in 1780, he does his bit to quell it.
But he leaves a legacy. No longer does Parliament object to its proceedings being made public.
No family link has yet been found to a later John Wilkes responsible for the Universal British Directory (1793-8).
The American War
In 1770 comes a Government of King's Friends, which proceeds to sleepwalk its way to war and the loss of thirteen American colonies. At the head of Government is Lord North, heir to the Earldom of Guilford (the sort of lord who can take a seat in the Commons). At the Admiralty is the Earl of Sandwich.
The colonists, they reckon, are subjects of the Crown. We can rely on the loyalty and obedience of most of them: why bother with a few loudmouths moaning about "taxation without representation"? They ought to be jolly grateful that we sent an army when they were threatened by the French. Why shouldn't they pay their whack? We lost a fine soldier when Wolfe fell at Quebec: they couldn't do without us then.
They petition us to relax some of our tax demands? All right, we'll relax them – and come up with new ones. We have to show them who's the boss.
They dump a load of tea in Boston Harbour, because they'd rather buy it from their merchants than from ours? Send out the troops!
They prepare for armed resistance? Arrest them!
Not everyone in Parliament supports this attitude. Some, like Barré, understand and sympathise with the colonists. Some oppose the Government on principle: they resent the King's influence, and don't mind being rated as his enemies. Others are concerned about the war’s cost, which they will eventually have to pay. (Not immediately: money for the armed forces is raised by the sale of army and navy bonds. Over time these bonds are redeemed, with interest. Future taxation.)
The war starts with an American declaration of independence.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation... In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress on the most humble terms; Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Part of the catalogue of George III's villainies cited in the American Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776.
The conduct of the war meets criticism within Parliament. But the idea of giving up is too much for one old stalwart, leading to a dramatic moment in the Lords…
I must give you an account of Lord Chathams appearance at the House of Lords on tuesday, and his indisposition. His Lordship was recovering from a fit of the gout, but tho the distemper was retiring, strength was not return'd; however the present critical state of things would not allow a Statesman and a Patriot to slumber on his Pillow. It was declared he wd come to the House of Lords. He appear'd there. The Thunder of his eloquence was abated, the lightening of his eye was dimmed, but experience gave weight to all he said, and the glory of his days of administration threw a lustre around him. Every eye was fixd on him, every ear attentive to him. The D. of Richmond had made a motion, that the Commissioners should have power to declare America independent, and gave for reason, the sad condition of this Country. Submission and dejection never fashioned the counsels of the Great Man. The energy of his mind imparted force enough to his body to enable him to rise. He said, he rejoyced that the Grave had spared him to this time, that he might declare himself against the granting independence to America, and then he went on reprobating what had been said of the weakness and inability of the Country. In all the pomp of Oratory, with all the lustre of eloquence he set forth the former triumphs of our arms, and the past glories of the Brunswic line; the news papers will give you the speech more at large. The D. of Richmond answerd his Lordship, Lord Chatham rose to reply, the Genius of Brittain seemd to heave in his bosom the Senate was attentive to catch its Oracle; but the sentiments were too great for utterance, the subject too important, too august for words; he fell into a convulsion fit; he continued in the fit, and the House in consternation, for half an hour; his eldest and second Son and Lord Mahone in speechless agony stood by him. Ld. Lyttelton with great presence of mind went to Dr. Addington immediately on the accident; he used every means to recover the Patient, and he brought him back from the immeasurable distance of the inanimate being to the Earl of Chatham. he was very sick at the stomach for about two hours, and the Doctor did not think it safe to carry him to Lord Mahones, where he had taken up his abode, as the situation was remote, but removed him to Mr. Strutts house adjacent. This morning being still better he is gone to Downing Street. Humanly speaking (as the phrase is) I wish and hope his recovery, but how great! how glorious! how marvellous! or, to say all in one, how Chatham wd be his Exit! ... if he lives he may sweep away some of our dirt and disgrace, but no addition will be made to his glory, for we are become a scoundrel Nation, worthy to be scorned, and fit to be cudgell'd... The account of Ld Chatham I had from his family, so you may depend on the truth of it.
From letter of Elizabeth Montagu, April 1778.
The Earl of Chatham (William Pitt in his Commons days) postpones his final exit until 11 May.
Soon France joins the war, followed later by Spain and Holland.
The war ends
On 12 December 1781, Sir James Lowther presents a Motion to the House of Commons for "putting an end to the American War." To judge from the speeches, news of the Yorktown surrender has not reached MPs. Despite some scathing comments about the Government and the inadequacy of the British Navy, the motion is defeated. For a few months the Government continues to get its way.
But the message from the bourgeoisie is getting through: how much more will we have to pay for this? The Government's majority slips. In March 1782 North gives up, and the king reluctantly hands the seals of office to the Marquis of Rockingham. Under him, as Secretaries of State, are Charles James Fox (Home Office) and the Earl of Shelburne (Foreign Office). Keppel takes over from Sandwich at the Admiralty, while the post of Navy Treasurer goes to Isaac Barré. One of the new Admiralty Board's first actions is to order Admiral Rodney's replacement by Admiral Pigot.
The new Government is reconciled to American independence. It opens negotiations with the rebels and their allies. Inquiries also start into the previous Government's conduct of the war.
The king is not happy with the new arrangement. Accounts generally agree that the king speaks only to the Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Shelburne, ignoring Rockingham at the head of government.
In July Rockingham dies. When George calls on Shelburne to form a new administration, Fox and his supporters pointedly decline to take part.
Two names stand out from the new team: William Pitt (the younger) as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Henry Dundas as Treasurer of the Navy (Barré moving to the equivalent army post of Paymaster General). If the new dispensation suits the king, it goes down badly with his opponents. Fox is prepared to discard a lot of political baggage to get back into Government: but eventually the king wins out.
The only other possible coalition was between Fox and Lord North. The two men met several times and, despite their previous political differences, agreed to put their past enmity behind them. As soon as the Whigs and North's supporters began voting together Shelburne was lost... On 1 April North, Fox and the Duke of Portland tripped up the stairs of St James's to receive the Great Seals of State, loudly congratulating themselves on their success.
From Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (Harper Collins, 1998).
The Fox-North Government had nothing on which to rest their feet. Within nine months this Ministry also collapsed... The King now seized his chance of regaining popularity by destroying a monstrous administration. Party and personal issues alike being exhausted by the weight of the disaster, George III saw his opportunity if he could find the man... In William Pitt, the son of the great Chatham, the King found the man.
From Winston S Churchill, A History of the English-speaking Peoples, Vol III (London, 1957).
The supremacy of William Pitt
The establishment of a new Government under Pitt ushers in a new period of stability, the main political features being the king’s illness of 1788-9 and the outbreak of a revolution in France, leading to new Anglo-French hostilities in 1793.
In 1801 Pitt resigns after a disagreement with the king over Catholic emancipation. The new administration under Addington signs a treaty, the Peace of Amiens, with France and her allies in March 1802, but in May the following year war breaks out again. Meanwhile the appointment of Earl St Vincent as First Lord of the Admiralty gives him an opportunity to settle old scores.
You may rest assured the Civil Branch of the Navy is rotten to the core.
Attributed to John Jervis, Earl St Vincent, in Richmond's contribution to A.S. Turberville (ed), Johnson's England.
It was in 1803 that St Vincent achieved a Royal Commission to inquire into the irregularities, frauds and abuses practised in the naval departments and in the business of Prize Agency. The fourteen reports between May, 1803, and June, 1806, exposed incredible corruption and fraud.
From Geoffrey L. Green, The Royal Navy and Anglo-Jewry.
In May 1804 Pitt returns, and St Vincent is succeeded by the newly ennobled Henry Dundas, Lord Melville.
The Tenth Report of the Commission of Naval Enquiry appears early in 1805, leading to proceedings against Melville.
After Pitt’s death in January 1806, a ministry “of all the talents” takes over, and Melville is acquitted: at which point we may leave this account of later eighteenth-century politics, with nine further years of war to run.