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Catholic Emancipation and the Resignation of William Pitt in 1801*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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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.

Type
Research Article
Information
Albion , Volume 24 , Issue 1 , Spring 1992 , pp. 49 - 64
Copyright
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1992

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Footnotes

*

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.

References

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

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36 Glenbervie Diaries, 1: 278Google Scholar.

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

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. 178–87Google Scholar, and Wretched Faces: Famine in Wartime England, 1793–1801 (London, 1988)Google Scholar.

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: 373Google Scholar. 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, 282Google Scholar; Pellew, , Life of Addington, 1: 266–67Google Scholar.

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

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

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: 332nGoogle Scholar.

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

55 Ibid., p. xix.

56 Ashbourne, , Pitt, p. 311Google Scholar.

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

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