Pitt the Younger was not a Tory

“Oh! It makes me sick to think that … they [Lord Liverpool and George Canning] must even bring discredit to his [Pitt’s] memory by attributing to him a line of conduct he never pursued. To think of Canning’s going about and saying, ‘This is the glorious system of Pitt’; and the papers echoing his words—‘This is the glorious system of Pitt!’”

(Charles Meryon, Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope (London, 1845), III, 168)

Lady Hester, I salute you. You may have been barmy as a sackful of squirrels but you saw something that many of your contemporaries had lost sight of, and most historians too.

I have been recently getting quite hot under the collar about this topic (always sure to raise my blood pressure), so much so that I am contemplating getting a huge flashing neon sign pinned up on every single social network platform I frequent reading “PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY”.

Can I say that again? PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY. (Yes, I am shouting. So shoot me.)

I’m not just talking about his self-identification as an “Independent Whig” — something he declared publicly only once to my knowledge, and which was less a statement of his Whiggery (which he would have taken for granted, much as, say, I take for granted the fact that I am female) than a declaration that he was attached to no other political leader available at the time.

Perhaps historiography has moved on a little in the past ten years since I studied this academically, and I would be very grateful if anyone could pass any more recent references my way, but to my mind Jennifer Mori in William Pitt and the French Revolution, J.J. Sack in From Jacobite to Conservative and his super article “The memory of Burke and the memory of Pitt” (Historical Journal 30(3) 1987), and Michael Duffy’s biography Pitt the Younger have it covered. In sum, Pitt’s ideologies were drawn from very traditional Whig sources (unsurprisingly). Conservative (with a small “c”), yes, undoubtedly; rooted in tradition, absolutely; not very creative perhaps either—but Tory? Big T Tory? “Founder of the modern-day Conservative Party” (……..and at this point I would like to bitch-slap William Hague) Tory? No.

Even Pitt’s immediate followers struggled to fit him into the strait-jacket of party political ideals. Even in his own lifetime Pitt (during the short time he spent in opposition to Henry Addington between 1803 and 1804) drove Canning half-mental by refusing to shackle himself to a particular line of conduct, going out of his way to stay aloof to such an extent that he managed to drive off half his old political following by the time he ended up back in office. (Incidentally John Ehrman deals with this confusing period excellently in his chapter of The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle entitled “The pursuit of ‘Character’”). When the old “Pittite” following was splintering and reforming itself in the 1820s Pitt’s stance on parliamentary reform, abolition of the slave trade and Catholic Emancipation (to name only the most important) allowed men who identified with him to invoke his name in support of all sorts of diametrically opposed political positions. At the annual Pitt Club dinner Pitt was toasted as the opponent of religious toleration, which I find especially ironic as Pitt’s support of the issue led to his resignation in 1801. True enough the modern-day Conservative Party traces its ancestry back to Pitt, but not directly by any means, and to say “But modern Tories come from Pitt” is like saying Gladstone was a Liberal Democrat.

So what was Pitt? The question would have astounded him. Why, he was a Whig, of course. And it wasn’t his fault that Fox’s followers were much more ideologically organised than his own were, and able to lay claim to that label far more successfully.

(And incidentally, WHY is Lord Grenville described as a “Whig” when he was MUCH more ideologically conservative than Pitt was? Is it because he was in government coalesced with the Foxites? Give me strength!)

So, are we clear? 🙂


By the way I welcome any discussion of the above points. I’m sure many of you have a very different opinion. 🙂

*Falls off chair*

Was just scouring the AMAZING Wellington Database at the University of Southampton (http://www.archives.soton.ac.uk/wellington/) to see if I could find any reference to John’s correspondence with the Duke, and found this in regard to the Catholic Emancipation issue in 1829.

It’s from a letter to Lord Camden, 29 March 1829:

“I received your note last night. It is very difficult for me to find a moment to go to LordChatham again who is visible only at the time that others must see me upon business.” (WP1/1007/46)

In other words, John and the Duke of Wellington were only both awake for a short period of the day 😉 (In John’s defence it looks like his health was already poor.)

Incidentally it seems John opposed Catholic Emancipation, which doesn’t surprise me as he seems to have been rather against it in 1800-1801 when Pitt the Younger thought of proposing it. He sent a letter to Camden, 1 April 1829, asking Camden to make use of his proxy vote in the House of Lords in favour of the Bill, but explained “I cannot say that I am quite satisfied of the urgency there was of pressing forward the measure of concession, but I am clear that there is now but one course to be pursued and from my confidence in the Duke of Wellington and my anxious wish to support his government, I shall certainly vote for the bill.” (WP1/1008/8)

This does slightly sadden me as one of the things that initially attracted me to Pitt was his willingness to keep an open mind on the Catholic question (… oh, goodness what a contentious point: watch the reams of emails from outraged historians come rolling in!), but I’ve always known Chatham was the more conservative of the two brothers and after all I can’t judge him by modern standards. (And yet.)

By the way if you haven’t found this database … check it out. It absolutely rocks.

Very cute, John

Third post today, but why the hell not?

Without giving too much away (…….. if you want spoilers just check out the passages from Volume 2 of Ehrman’s biography of Pitt the Younger that first inspired my novel), the second Earl of Chatham and his brother had a relationship that was at times quite troubled. Lord Ashbourne wrote that “relations between the two brothers remained on the most affectionate and harmonious basis” (Pitt: Some chapters of his life and times (1898), p. 178), but Ashbourne can’t have read any of John’s correspondence because John was anything but subtle in expressing his feelings.

The breach was patched up well enough, and by September 1795 the two brothers were corresponding, perhaps ever so slightly stiltedly as the following signature from a letter from Chatham to William on 29 September 1795 suggests:

(PRO 30/08/122 f 137)

It’s not as sweet, though, as this letter from Chatham to Pitt on 20 May 1799. The first half of the letter is devoted to political ruminations and thoughts on upcoming cabinet discussions, and then all of a sudden Chatham comes over all “um, ah, I’ve run out of things to say” and starts talking about the weather:

“It is a good while since I have seen so much of the Spring in ye Country, and I have had but a bad specimen of the weather, as I think, with the exception of two or three days, it has been uncommonly bad, but the heavy rains of yesterday and today will I hope bring about, a favorable change”.

(PRO 30/08/122 f 142)

I presume John realised he had a page and a half of paper left to write on and wanted to make it worth his brother’s while, but still, pahahahaha, I had to laugh when I read that.

At least he signs off in a slightly less abrupt and self-conscious way:

On a lighter note…..

……… look, a letter to William Pitt from his sister-in-law Mary, Countess of Chatham!

(PRO 30/08/122 f. 174)

Yes, yes, yes, it’s a patronage letter about her brother William, but it’s A LETTER FROM MARY. Rare as anything, these are— so much so that the cataloguer didn’t know for sure it was her (see the pencilled note on the top left of the front page, “Lady Chatham?” — but comparing the characteristic capital M and E in her letter with her signature on her marriage settlement makes me 110% certain this IS definitely her).

Those who know me, and know what a central character Mary is turning into in my novel, will know how excited I was when I found this. Not much to be drawn about her relationship with William (although she does seem to be a bit frustrated about his reluctance to give her request full attention), but it is nice to see that she starts the letter “My dear Mr Pitt” and signs off “Yrs most aff[ectionate]ly, MEC”.

More proof that Mary existed! Yay!

John’s later years, Part 2

So yes, despite my radio silence over the past few days I still have quite a lot of stuff to share that came from my foray into the National Archives last week. Time, then, for my Part 2 of the insight I have gleaned into the later years of the second Earl of Chatham, and it doesn’t make for happy reading.

A cursory Google search will inform you that the Pitt family tree pretty much comes to a . with John’s death in 1835. Pitt the Elder’s late marriage to Lady Hester Grenville was a successful and surprisingly fruitful one, given that both parties were somewhat past their best (Pitt was 46, Hester nearly 34): they had five children in quick succession, Hester in 1755, John in 1756, Harriot in 1758, William in 1759 and James Charles in 1761. Unfortunately five children did not guarantee continuance of the family name. Hester and Harriot both had children (… and died having children), but none of the boys managed to pass on their genes. James died aged 19, William of course died a bachelor, and John’s marriage to Mary Townshend produced no live issue.

The Chatham title was granted in 1766 by letters patent (*I think*— I actually need to check this as I am not 100% sure: mention has been made in papers of “Acts of Parliament” but I think that refers to the pension granted to the title for four lives on Pitt the Elder’s death). It was strictly limited to “issue male of the body of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham”, which meant that Hester and Harriot’s fruitfulness was, from a dynastic point of view, useless. Since John outlived all his siblings he was, automatically, the last Earl of Chatham. In the course of my research I often winced at the entries in the volumes of Burke’s and Debrett’s Peerages when I turned to the section entitled “John, Earl of Chatham” and read the line “Heir Apparent – None”. Until now I had only been able to wonder at what John’s feelings might have been had he, too, read his own entry (which he must have done, on occasion). Now I have an inkling, and bloody hell, poor John.

I mentioned in my previous entry that John came close to death in 1830, aged 73. He seems to have been very ill for a long time, and his thoughts naturally turned to posterity. He had heirs in the grandchildren of his sisters, but he seems to have panicked at the prospect of the title becoming extinct. In the Hoare MSS (a kind of add-on to the Chatham Papers) I found a draft of the following letter (in the Earl of Clarendon’s handwriting) to the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister (PRO 30/70/4 f. 292):

“Charles St., August [blank] 1830

My dear Duke,

I would have asked the favor of an interview, if I had not thought that I shd give your Grace less trouble in addressing you by letter. I can assure you that it is not without extreme reluctance that I trespass at all upon your valuable time; But I am impelled by motives, for which I trust that no one can be more disposed than yourself to make allowance.

My own infirmities lead me to contemplate the no very distant extinction of my name & family; I may perhaps be allowed to say, considering my Fathers & my Brothers brilliant & important services (without any personal or unworthy feelings) that I do so with regret. Had the fortune of my eldest sister’s son, Mr Taylor [one of the main beneficiaries of his will], been adequate to the honor, I might perhaps have solicited your Grace to forward my respectful request to his Majesty to continue in the family the peerage which was granted to my mother [the Barony of Chatham, conferred on Lady Hester Pitt in lieu of her husband in 1761]; but I must not urge such a request. I confine myself to the object of soliciting some provision for my nephew Major Taylor … He is a most intelligent & pleasing young man, & wd not discredit any employment which you might be good enough to give him …

I will only add how deeply I shall feel any attention which you may have the goodness to shew to this application, & I remain ith the sincerest respect & regard,

My dear Duke,

Most truly & faithfully yours,


Wellington replied promptly enough, wholeheartedly agreeing to meet with Taylor to size him up for office (PRO 30/70/4 f. 293):

“London August 5th 1830

My dear Lord

I have received your Letter; and I am much concerned to hear of your continued Indisposition.

I am convinced that you will give Credit to the Existence of the anxious desire on my Part to forward any wish of Your’s for the promotion of the Interests of any of your Family.

I beg you to send Major Taylor to me in Downing Street on any day that may be convenient to him; in order that I may converse with him on his Views; and conclude with him the best mode of forwarding them. Believe me My dear Lord with the most sincre respect and Regard Your most faithful Servant


Not a word on the subject of the peerage, something John no doubt spotted because he seems to have dropped the subject for a while.

Interestingly, however, the Earl of Clarendon, who copied out the draft of John’s letter to Wellington, seems to have urged John to try again, this time with the highest authority. At PRO 30/70/4 f 295 d there is a draft of an unsent letter to King William IV in which John embroiders on the theme broached in his letter to Wellington:

“I am the last & almost expiring bearer of a Title, associated with the glory of this country, & of a name, borne by one, whose eminence & whose services, (under most trying circumstances for this country & for all Europe), it does not become me to point out. It is with regret that I feel the honors & the memorial of such services expiring with myself, at the same time that I have, in my niece’s [sic] Son, Mr Taylor, a nephew who wd not discredit any mark of your Majesty’s favor, and whose children will be educated in feelings of loyalty to your Majesty, & in principles worthy of their own descent. I cannot presume to say more. I submit myself to your Majesty’s gracious consideration”.

According to Clarendon (the erstwhile John Charles Villiers, close friend of both Lord Chatham and Pitt the Younger), the idea of petitioning to continue the Barony of Chatham came from him (Clarendon to Taylor, 20 March 1836, PRO 30/70/4 f 295e), although clearly John had already approached Wellington with the suggestion. Clarendon stated that only “Ld Chathams extreme illness” prevented further consideration of the subject. Presumably lack of response to repeated hints also discouraged John enough to let the subject drop. Either way the King does not seem to have become involved. Had he done so, would we still have a Lord Chatham to this day?

In conclusion, poor John, who clearly spent his last years dwelling over his failure to continue the family name, and probably also his failure to live up to the family reputation in general. In his attempt to save the title of Chatham from extinction he failed as well. Poor John indeed.