British Politics, 1793-1815: Governments
The French Revolutionary War (1793–1802) took place almost entirely under the premiership of:
with the exception of the last 12 months of the struggle. In contrast, the Napoleonic War (1803–1815) saw no fewer than six separate ministries:
William Pitt the Younger (1783–1801; 1804–06)
Pitt had already been prime minister for a decade when war with France broke out in 1793. Although initially unimpressed by the French Revolution, Pitt came to believe there was a connection between French republicanism and British radicalism (known as ‘Jacobinism’, after the Jacobins who governed France during the Terror).
This belief was fed by organisations such as the London Corresponding Society and Society for Constitutional Information, which had connections with French radicals and proposed sweeping reform of Britain’s political system. It was also stoked by publications such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), which argued that revolution against corrupt governments was justified.
During the 1790s, Pitt enjoyed massive majorities in Parliament. This was partly because Fox’s Whigs split over the French Revolution. Fox’s friend Edmund Burke was dismayed by the possibility that radicalism and revolution might carry over to Britain from France. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) argued against deep-rooted change and predicted the French Revolution would devour itself.
The Duke of Portland, one of the most prominent Whigs, sympathised with Burke, and split from Fox in 1793 to form a third party before coalescing with Pitt in 1794. The Foxites were left with a rump of 40 or 50 followers, and Fox did not attend Parliament at all between 1797 and 1800.
In 1794, Pitt’s government suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to a fair trial following arrest) and cracked down on the reformists. Several members of the LCS and SCI (including John Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, and John Thelwall) were tried for treason, but acquitted.
An attack on the King in 1795, following a poor harvest and a summer of unrest, gave the government an excuse to rack up the pressure. The Treasonable Practices Act redefined treason to encompass criticism of the King or of Parliament, and the Seditious Meetings Act made it virtually impossible to meet in large groups. A further act in 1799, the Combination Act, outlawed meetings for political purposes and trade unions.
This repression was described by its opponents as ‘Pitt’s Terror’. Hundreds of prosecutions for sedition during the 1790s led to reformist organisations being driven underground.
As a war minister, Pitt’s fortunes were mixed. His government was liable to focus on far too many military objects: in 1794, for example, the government could not decide whether to focus on Corsica and the Mediterranean, an assault on Brittany, or attacking France in their West Indian colonies, and tried all three, with predictably disastrous results. Diplomatically, Pitt’s government helped negotiate the First, Second, and Third Continental Coalitions. Pitt emphasised the need for a European military and diplomatic concert underwritten by British subsidies to defeat France, and foreshadowed the grand coalition that helped defeat Napoleon in 1813–14.
Pitt fell from power in 1801 following the Anglo–Irish Union, which brought the problem of Ireland’s mainly Catholic composition to the fore. Pitt proposed allowing Irish and British Catholics and non-Anglicans to vote and hold high office (‘Catholic Emancipation’), but the King disagreed and forced Pitt to resign. Three years later Pitt returned, but his second ministry was blighted by political weakness. Pitt did preside over Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, but this was overshadowed by the defeat of the Third Coalition on the battlefields of Ulm and Austerlitz. His health shattered, Pitt died in January 1806.
Henry Addington (1801–04)
Addington served between Pitt’s two ministries. He had been Speaker of the House of Commons and proved to be an intelligent and competent prime minister, if not a brilliant one. After eight years of war, Britain was financially exhausted and bereft of allies. Addington’s first challenge was therefore to make peace with France. Peace preliminaries were agreed in October and the final Peace of Amiens was signed in March 1802, leaving Addington free to restructure Britain’s battered finances. Continuing French encroachments on the continent, however, led Addington to re-declare war in May 1803.
Addington was not the weak stop-gap prime minister he is often portrayed to be. His government laid the foundation for the Third Coalition by approaching Russia and Austria for an alliance, reopened the British campaign against France in the West Indies, and restructured British home defence by reforming the militia and calling forth a nationwide volunteer movement.
Addington’s naval policy, however, was less successful: his First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St Vincent, had controversially decided to drive through deep-seated administrative reforms during the peace, which slowed down ship building when war began again. This left Addington vulnerable to attack, and when Pitt joined forces with Charles James Fox and other opposition leaders on the issue, Addington felt obliged to resign.
William Wyndham Grenville, Baron Grenville: the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ (1806–07)
Lord Grenville had been Foreign Secretary in the 1790s, but split with Pitt over the Peace of Amiens and formed a political alliance with Charles James Fox in January 1804. Ever since, the Grenvilles and Foxites had formed a large political bloc in Parliament.
Grenville’s government was thus a coalition, with Grenville taking the post of First Lord of the Treasury and Fox becoming Foreign Secretary. It comprised of the Grenville party, the Foxites, and Addington’s followers, but was nicknamed the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ by its enemies because it excluded the Pittites.
Grenville inherited a poor international outlook from Pitt. The Third Coalition had just failed, and Grenville was convinced the best strategy for Britain was to cut ties with the continent and focus on defending the home front. Remaining allies such as Russia and Prussia received virtually no British assistance and Fox opened peace negotiations with France over the summer of 1806 (these failed).
Contrary to expectations, the government survived Fox’s death in September 1806, and managed to win a general election in early 1807. It fell shortly afterwards, however, when the King refused to countenance a proposed measure to allow Catholics to hold high rank in the armed forces. The ministry’s most enduring legacy was its abolition of the Slave Trade, which occurred in March 1807.
William Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1807–09)
Pitt’s followers returned to power following the fall of the Talents, with the Duke of Portland as a figurehead prime minister. Portland was old and chronically unwell, and his government was not exactly a model of unity. No obvious new leader had emerged for Pitt’s old following, but there were several potential candidates, including Spencer Perceval, now Chancellor of the Exchequer; Lord Hawkesbury (from 1809 Lord Liverpool), now Home Secretary; George Canning, now Foreign Secretary; and Lord Castlereagh (Secretary of State for War).
Portland was unable to control these personalities, and his government was divided from the start. It was also weak; another general election produced what was effectively a hung parliament.
The government’s strategic priority was to reverse the Talents’ isolationism, as a result of which they brashly attacked Copenhagen in 1807 and espoused the cause of Spain and Portugal following France’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808.
Their war strategy, however, was too unfocused – significant forces were sent to the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Peninsula, and to Holland, but none made much impact. Failure in the Peninsula with the Convention of Cintra and retreat to Corunna heightened existing rivalries, and Canning began secretly plotting against Castlereagh.
The dramatic failure of the Walcheren expedition in 1809 coincided with the Duke of Portland’s health finally failing. With Canning and Castlereagh openly at loggerheads (they even fought a duel), the government collapsed.
Spencer Perceval (1809–12)
Portland’s government was reshuffled, and Spencer Perceval, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, also became First Lord of the Treasury. The first 18 months of Perceval’s government demonstrated that he had inherited Portland’s instability. He failed to make an alliance with Lord Grenville and Lord Grey (who succeeded Charles James Fox as leader of the Foxites), although the parliamentary inquiry into the Walcheren expedition did not bring him down.
With the war stretching on, however, and the Peninsular campaign stalling with Wellington’s retreat behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, Perceval faced a strong challenge in Parliament, particularly over fears that the country would suffer bankruptcy if it did not return to a gold standard. Nationwide recession in 1811 was followed by riots in 1812, and the army was called in to suppress the ‘Luddite’ risings against the mechanisation of industry in the Midlands.
Perceval seemed certain to fall when the King went permanently insane in 1810–11. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Prince Regent did not dismiss Perceval, despite a long-standing political and personal connection with the Foxites. The government was eventually brought down, not by political weakness, but by assassination: Perceval was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812 by John Bellingham, an aggrieved merchant who claimed to have been denied government compensation.
Robert Bankes-Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1812–27)
Perceval was succeeded by Lord Liverpool, another of Pitt’s protégés. Once more the government’s weakness seemed certain to undermine it, and Liverpool initially resigned after narrowly losing a vote of no confidence. He returned to office, however, when the Prince Regent failed to form an alternative. Although overshadowed by war breaking out with the United States, Liverpool’s government did not fall. In fact it became the longest-lived government since that of William Pitt.
Liverpool was helped by the Grenville party and the Foxite Whigs parting ways over the course of the war, and by a favourable turn of events on the continent. In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia and was disastrously defeated, following which most of the continental powers returned to the conflict. Britain once again brokered a continental coalition (the Sixth) with Austria, Russia, Prussia and several smaller powers.
Following defeat at Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon abdicated in early 1814. The Liverpool government’s major task now became making peace. Lord Castlereagh (the Foreign Secretary) was sent to Vienna to represent Britain at the international peace congress. Napoleon’s brief return in 1815 led to his final defeat at Waterloo, and (following the end of the War of 1812 in the same year) Liverpool and his colleagues returned to the challenges of transitioning from a wartime power to a peacetime power.
This involved political unrest and a return to Pitt’s repressive policies of the 1790s. Despite the resurgence of parliamentary reform and the drive for Catholic Emancipation (which dominated the 1820s and early 1830s), Liverpool remained in power until ill health forced his retirement in early 1827.