Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 July 2014
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.
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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