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Catholic Emancipation and the Resignation of William Pitt in 1801*

  • Charles John Fedorak

Extract

The resignation of William Pitt in 1801 remains one of the most controversial developments in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British parliamentary politics. At the time few believed that Pitt's dispute with George III over the issue of removing the political disabilities imposed on Roman Catholics in Ireland—also known as Catholic emancipation—was the real reason behind his decision, and many alternative explanations arose within parliamentary circles. Nevertheless, Pitt's closest adherents insisted that the Catholic question was solely responsible for the resignation, and this debate has been carried on by historians, with John Holland Rose and Richard Willis leading the side supporting Pitt's claim and David Barnes and Piers Mackesy the more sceptical side. Such a debate that has raged back and forth for almost two centuries might seem pedantic, but it deserves another look because historians should provide an accurate representation of events and the debate has overlooked some important aspects of the question. Moreover, the whole episode is relevant to the larger issue of the power relationship between the king and his ministers. Therefore, this article addresses four points: the degree of Pitt's commitment to Catholic emancipation; whether the resignation was constitutionally necessary; other factors that were involved in his decision to resign such as his physical and mental health and the serious divisions in the Cabinet over the war and how to handle the grain crisis; and the implications of the resignation for the relationship between the king and the executive.

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*

Research for this paper was made possible by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire National Chapter of Canada. I also wish to acknowledge the helpful advice of Professors Kenneth Bourne and Edward Ingram.

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1 Rose, John Holland, William Pitt and the Great War (London, 1911), William Pitt and the National Revival (London, 1911), Napoleonic Studies (London, 1906), Pitt and Napoleon: Essays and Letters (London, 1912); Willis, Richard E., “William Pitt's Resignation in 1801: Re-examination and Document,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 44 (1971): 239–57; Barnes, David G., George III and William Pitt, 1783–1806 (New York, 1935); Mackesy, Piers, War Without Victory: The Downfall of Pitt, 1799–1802 (Oxford, 1984).

2 The Journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland, 1791–1811, ed. Earl of Ilchester, 2 vols. (London, 1908), 2: 128.

3 The Journal and Correspondence of William, Lord Auckland, ed. Hogge, G., 4 vols. (London, 1861), 4: 121.

4 The Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, Lord Glenbervie, ed. Bickley, Francis, 2 vols. (London, 1928), 1: 184.

5 Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury, ed. Third Earl of Malmesbury, 4 vols. (London, 1844), 4: 39; Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 159, 262, 295, 375; Glenbervie Manuscript Diaries in the possession of Mr. Francis Sitwell, Weston Hall, Northamptonshire, 4: 24 Feb. 1801. I wish to thank Mr. Sitwell for permission to consult the diaries.

6 Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh, ed. Mackintosh, R. J., 2 vols. (London, 1835), 1: 170.

7 Willis, , “William Pitt's Resignation in 1801,” pp. 239–57; According, to Aspinall, “the Catholic question was the principal and immediate cause of Pitt's virtual dismissal,” (The Later Correspondence of George III, ed. Aspinall, Arthur, 5 vols. [Cambridge, 19661970], 3: xix).

8 Malmesbury Diaries, 4: 4, 75.

9 Pitt to the king, 31 Jan. and 3 Feb. 1801, in John, Earl Stanhope, The Life of Pitt, 3 vols. (3rd ed.; London, 1879), 2: 458–62.

10 Glenbervie Manuscript Diary, 4: 5 Feb. 1801.

11 Auckland Journal, 4: 116.

12 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 157; Matheson, Cyril, The Life of Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville, 1742–1811 (London, 1933), pp. 293–94.

13 John, Lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, 10 vols. (4th ed.; London, 1857), 8: 190.

14 Memoirs and Correspondence of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, ed. Marquess of Londonderry, 12 vols. (London, 18481854), 4: 11.

15 Castlereagh Correspondence, 4: 11.

16 Hobart to Pitt, 2 Nov. 1799, quoted in Bolton, G. C., The Passing of the Irish Act of Union: A Study in Parliamentary Politics (Oxford, 1966), p. 208.

17 Bolton, , The Passing of the Act of Union, p. 208.

18 Ashbourne, Lord, Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life and Times (London, 1898), pp. 305–06. W. E. H. Lecky described tithes as “the greatest practical grievance, both of the poorer Catholics and the Presbyterians,” (A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, [Chicago and London, 1972], p. 248).

19 Beckett, J. C., The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603–1923 (New York, 1966), p. 177; Beames, Michael, Peasants and Power: The Whiteboy Movement and Their Control in Pre-Famine Ireland (New York, 1983), pp. 2430.

20 McDowell, R. B., Irish Public Opinion, 1750–1800 (Westport, Conn., 1975), pp. 195219.

21 Campbell, , Lives of Lord Chancellors, 8: 196.

22 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 169; Pellew, George, The Life and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth, 3 vols. (London, 1847), 1: 292; Twiss, Horace, The Public and Private Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with Selections from his Correspondence, 3 vols. (London, 1844), 1: 361.

23 Willis, , “William Pitt's Resignation in 1801,” pp. 245–46; Buckingham to T. Grenville, 3 Feb. 1801, Grenville Papers, Buckinghamshire Record Office, D/54/13/1.

24 George III to Pitt, 6 Feb. 1795, Stanhope, , Life of Pitt, 2: 433–36.

25 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 389.

26 Rose, Holland, Pitt and the Great War, p. 437; Windham Manuscript Diary, 28 Jan. 1801, British Library, Add. MSS 37924, fo. 86; Pitt to the king, 31 Jan. 1801, Stanhope, , Life of Pitt, 2: 547–61.

27 Pares, Richard, King George III and the Politicians (Oxford, 1953), pp. 163–64.

28 May, Thomas Erskine, The Constitutional History of England, 1760–1860, 2 vols. (London, 1863), 1: 5.

29 Willis, Richard E., “Cabinet Politics and Executive Policy Making Decisions, 1794–1801,” Albion 7 (1975): 13.

30 Aspinall, , Later Correspondence of George III, 3: 424; Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 233; Mackesy, , War without Victory, pp. 168–69.

31 Pitt to the king, 3 Feb. 1801, Stanhope, , Life of Pitt, 2: 462.

32 Pitt to the king, 31 Jan. 1801, Stanhope, , Life of Pitt, 2: 458.

33 Windham Manuscript Diary, 1 Oct. 1800, BL, Add. MSS 37924, fo. 65; Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 156–58; Auckland Journal, 4: 115; Campbell, , Lives of Lord Chancellors, 8: 181; Rose, Holland, William Pitt and the Great War, p. 442. From a letter that Chatham wrote after the meeting it is clear that he opposed the measure. Chatham to Pitt, 6 Feb. 1801, Chatham Papers, Public Record Office, PRO 30/8/22/2.

34 Mackesy, , War without Victory, p. 188.

35 The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons 1802–1817, ed. Charles, , Colchester, Lord, 3 vols. (London, 1861), 1: 243, 258; Malmesbury Diaries, 4: 33; Pellew, , Life of Addington, 1: 335. That Grenville did not hear of this (or Pitt's subsequent promise to the king never to raise the question) until 1803 or 1804 corroborates the assertion that Pitt did not consult his Cabinet colleagues about his discussions with the king in the days surrounding his resignation.

36 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 278.

37 Mackesy, , War Without Victory, p. 173.

38 The seriousness of the grain crisis and the differing opinions of the Cabinet are covered in Wells, Roger, Insurrection: The British Experience, 1795–1803 (Gloucester, 1983), pp. 178–87, and Wretched Faces: Famine in Wartime England, 1793–1801 (London, 1988).

39 Grenville to Pitt, 24 Oct. 1800, Dacres Adams Papers in the possession of Mr. G. A. F. E. Adams, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, PRO 30/58/3/85, also in Stanhope, , Life of Pitt, 3: 373. I wish to thank Mr. Adams for permission to consult these papers.

40 Liverpool to Dundas, 11 Oct. 1800, BL, Add. MSS 38311, fo. 84.

41 Pitt to Rose, 25 Oct. 1800, BL, Add. MSS 42772, fo. 124; The Diaries and Correspondence of Rt. Hon. George Rose, ed. Harcourt, L. V., 2 vols (London, 1860), 1: 279, 282; Pellew, , Life of Addington, 1: 266–67.

42 Galpin, W. F., The Grain Supply of England during the Napoleonic Period (New York, 1925), pp. 2226.

43 Windham to Pitt, 13 Dec. 1800, BL, Add. MSS 37844, fo. 244.

44 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 160.

45 Aspinall, , The Later Correspondence of George III, 3: 424; Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 160.

46 Pitt to Loughborough, 5 Sept. 1800, Campbell, , Lives of Lord Chancellors, 8: 176–77.

47 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 160.

48 “State of the Cabinet 1800,” 22 Sept. 1800, BL, Add. MSS 40102, fos. 79–81.

49 Mackesy, , War without Victory, pp. 174–77.

50 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 167, 169, 180.

51 Ibid., p. 180.

52 Ibid., p. 320.

53 Mrs Tomline's Notes, 10 Nov. 1801, Stanhope of Chevening Papers, Kent Record Office, UB/590/S5; I wish to thank Mr. John Ehrman for drawing my attention to this reference, cf. also Mary Anne Addington's Notes on Lord Sidmouth's Career, Sidmouth Papers, Devon County Record Office, Box 51 Public Office 2; Pellew, , Life of Addington, 1: 332n.

54 Aspinall, , The Later Correspondence of George III, 3: xix.

55 Ibid., p. xix.

56 Ashbourne, , Pitt, p. 311.

57 Harvey, A. D., Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York, 1978), p. 195.

* Research for this paper was made possible by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire National Chapter of Canada. I also wish to acknowledge the helpful advice of Professors Kenneth Bourne and Edward Ingram.

Catholic Emancipation and the Resignation of William Pitt in 1801*

  • Charles John Fedorak

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