Monday, 27 February 2017

The French Revolution: the British debate

Britain in 1789

At the time of the fall of the Bastille, Britain was preoccupied with domestic politics. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, had survived the Regency Crisis, and the Foxite Opposition were more divided than ever. With a Commons majority and the support of the king he appeared safe.

However, he did not have it all his own way. Since the Wilkite agitations of the 1760s various reforming movements - some more radical than others - had sprung up. From 1787 a campaign to give full civil rights to Dissenters by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts  had got underway. It was spearheaded by 'Rational Dissenters' (later to be called Unitarians) like the ministers, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, together with well-to-do manufacturers, merchants, professional men, in both London and the provinces. The campaign was supported by Fox, but with the government opposed, it had no hope of getting through Parliament.

Richard Price
Dissenting Minister
National Library of Wales
Public Domain

The Anglican monopoly of political power was safe for the time being, but there was a great deal of bad feeling between the Church and the Dissenters. 

The Centenary celebrations

Many of the characteristics of 1790s politics were already in place before the French Revolution: the parliamentary duel between Pitt and Fox, provincial movements for parliamentary reform, the grievances of the Dissenters. The events of 1788 added a further ingredient when the centenary of the Glorious Revolution was celebrated with bonfires, revolution dinners, and balls. The tone of the celebrations was largely self-congratulatory, but in  towns such as Birmingham, Derby, Newcastle, Norwich and Sheffield, Whigs and Dissenters made common cause, toasting ‘Equal liberty to all mankind’ and the end of slavery. The radical Revolution Society toasted: 
‘May the dawn of liberty on the continent be soon succeeded by the bright sunshine of personal and mental freedom.’

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Regency crisis: or, the madness of King George

The White House at Kew, where George III became ill
(now demolished). Public Domain

The dilemmas of the Opposition

By the end of the 1780s the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, felt himself to be in a strong position. His economic policies were bearing fruit: the national debt had been cut and the navy improved after its poor showing in the American War. His political opponents, the Foxites, were fewer than 200 in a House of 558, and the king’s favour consolidated his position. Pitt and George III were never close but they knew they needed each other. This left the Foxites impotent in opposition, deeply loathing Pitt but powerless to hurt him. Politically they depended on the Prince of Wales and hoped desperately that the king would die

The Fitzherbert marriage

Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837)
by Sir JoshuaReynolds. 
Public Domain

On 15 December 1785 the prince had secretly marred the widowed Catholic Maria, Fitzherbert, whom he had met the previous year. The marriage was illegal according to three acts: the Act of Settlement (1701), the Act of Union (1707), both of which excluded a prince or princess married to a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and to the Royal Marriages Act (1772). Though the couple initially kept separate establishments, the marriage was an open secret in London society, where they were constantly seen together. However the king and queen were ignorant of it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

More on the Georgian papers

Here is an American take on the Georgian papers online project. The material is coming as a particular surprise to many Americans, who have grown up with the somewhat simplistic idea that the King was a tyrant. 

Burke and the American Revolution

Edmund Burke has always been a puzzle to historians - the man who so passionately supported the American Revolution and was equally passionately opposed to the French Revolution. This blog post by a distinguished historian, the editor of the latest volume of Burke's writings and speeches, analyses the contradiction.

Monday, 6 February 2017

George III and the politicians (3): the victory of Pitt the Younger

William Pitt the Younger
Public Domain

The Rockingham administration

On 27 March 1782 Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister for the second time, following North’s resignation and the Earl of Shelburne’s inability to form a government. After 16 years in the political wilderness, his moment had come. Rockingham was First Lord of the Treasury, and Shelburne and Charles James Fox Secretaries of State. Shelburne was responsible for colonial affairs, Fox for foreign affairs – making him Britain's first Foreign Secretary. Burke had to content himself with the non-Cabinet job of Paymaster of the Forces. 

The new government brought in some important reforms, most notably Burke’s Civil Establishment Bill removing 134 royal household officers, twenty-two of them coming with a seat in Parliament and to restrict the Civil List to £900,000 per annum. It was a major achievement to carry this measure in the face of the court’s hostility and it helped to weaken the influence of the monarchy. 

The Rockingham government was always potentially unstable, because of the King’s hostility and because of divisions within the government. In particular, Fox and Shelburne disliked each other intensely and Fox and Rockingham believed that Shelburne was the king’s spy in the government.

Ministers quarrelled over the peace negotiations. As Foreign Secretary, Fox was negotiating a treaty with France and Spain, while Shelburne dealt with America. This proved a powerful source of conflict. Fox wished to give unconditional independence to the Americans, Shelburne wanted more favourable terms for Britain.

Matters came to a head at a cabinet meeting on 30 June when Fox gave notice that he would resign if the Americans were not granted independence unconditionally in advance of the peace treaty. This move would have put the peace negotiations squarely within his department. This might not, on its own, have led to a crisis, but the moment of decision was forced on the government by the death of Rockingham the next day.