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Another letter from Spencer Perceval

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I’m guessing the moment John read this letter was the moment he saw the end of his 22-year cabinet career rushing towards him at great speed.

This letter was written by the prime minister, Spencer Perceval during the enquiries in Parliament in early 1810 over the failure of the expedition to Walcheren, which Lord Chatham commanded. Perhaps the most embarrassing detail for Perceval’s government was the fact that Chatham submitted a memorandum of defence to the King, privately, on 15 October 1809 after returning from campaign. He later resubmitted the memorandum in accordance with protocol to the King via the Privy Council, on 15 February 1810, but it was too late. The opposition, led by Sir Samuel Whitbread, accused Chatham and, through him, the government of unconstitutional behaviour. Chatham was Master General of the Ordnance with a seat in the cabinet at the time.

The government had only been in power a few months and was already half-crippled with weakness. Whitbread’s attack was a disaster, and it is clear from the letters Perceval sent to Chatham that he was utterly incandescent with rage at Chatham’s foolishness. During the debate to which Perceval refers in the following letter Whitbread made a direct accusation of unconstitutionality against Chatham. Perceval managed to get the debate adjourned till Monday. His defence of Chatham was lukewarm at best. After saying he would not merely sacrifice a cabinet colleague because the opposition had made unfounded accusations against him, he went on:

“He begged, however, not to be misunderstood: he did not mean to say if a colleague was wrong he should, under any circumstances, be supported. But in a ballanced [sic] case, where a colleague was merely in error, he thought by deserting his cause, he should be exposed to more merited reprobation than could otherwise fall to his share, justice, decency, and propriety alike called on them to postpone coming to a decision on the resolutions that night”.

(Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates volume 16, p. 1**, here)

In public Perceval and his colleagues focused on the rather weak argument that Chatham had made a “mistake”. In private, Perceval was much more brusque. He had already written to Chatham informing him that Whitbread would pounce if Chatham did not resign his cabinet post. Perceval did not outright demand Chatham’s resignation now, but his letter was clearly designed to tell him: “There’s only so much my government can now do. I’m not going to destroy the ministry for you. Weigh the consequences of your actions well.”

I can hardly read this letter without wincing, and I imagine John, too, had a bad moment or six when he opened Perceval’s packet to read the following.

Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, 4 March 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f 145

“My Dear Lord

I was in expectation of seeing you to day at the Cabinet, or I should have endeavoured to pursue a meeting with you by appointment.

You are aware of the Line which I took in the Ho of Co on Friday last [the debate of the 2nd, in which Perceval labelled Chatham’s early submission of his memorandum to the King an “error” and postponed the vote]; it succeeded to the extent of putting off the discussion, and gave me the opportunity of making known to our Friends, that while on the one hand I did not mean to Satisfy you in delivering your Narrative to the King with the request that it should not be communicated for the present, so on the other I could not consent to ascribe to that delivery any of that Motive or Character which our adversaries endeavour to impute to it [ie, that it was unconstitutional]; and therefore that I should recommend it to the House to pass it by with the previous Question. With this Impression known to be felt by me, we shall meet the Question in the Ho of Commons tomorrow, and I believe that this is the most advantageous manner in which this Question can be met.

I wish it may succeed; but I have too much reason to fear that we shall be beat [in fact Whitbread’s motion was not passed, but only by a slim margin of 33 votes]. I have heard to day and yesterday of several who will keep away, and not suffer us. Lascelles, & the Master of the Robes are two, who think the House of Commons cannot pass over the subject by the previous Question. These are authorities of great weight. Still I feel most strongly that, if the Ho of Co should pronounce any judgment against this proceeding of yours [note: “of yours” ~ If John didn’t feel his hair standing on end at that phrase then he was excessively dim], more especially if they characterize it as unconstitutional, it will be impossible that the King’s Service can go on, particularly in our State of Weakness, with the Weight of such a vote against any one of His Servants; and therefore it is absolutely necessary to endeavour to resist it.

This I shall do to the best of my power. But I should not think I acted fairly by you if I did not thus fully apprize you of the view which I take of this unfortunate Business [John’s hair, already standing on end, probably started to turn white at this point].

[And then the last paragraph, in which Spencer Perceval, deeply religious as he is, doesn’t swear but clearly wants to say something stronger than “unfortunate”:]

I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.

[Ouch!]

I am My Dr Lord

Yrs most truly

Sp Perceval”

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