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“A difficult part to act”

When I came to Parliament everyone knew who I was. Now they all look through me as though I’m not there … I have no presence, no role, nothing but a name, and even that is more William’s than mine now.

Thus speaks the 2nd Earl of Chatham, the main character of my novel The Long Shadow, shortly after his brother Pitt the Younger makes his maiden speech in the House of Commons. John’s words are, of course, my own, and they reflect one of the main themes of the novel, John’s search for his own identity beyond the long shadow of his father and brother. My theme, however, is well-grounded in fact. He was the eldest son, the head of the family, but heavily dependent on the patronage and favour of his younger brother. It was a complete inversion of the 18th century aristocratic norm. Not only that, but John possessed an impoverished and virtually landless title which was nonetheless closely associated with greatness and authority. How difficult must John’s position have been?

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham" (1779)

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham” (1779)

With our 20/20 hindsight it is all too easy to forget that Pitt the Younger was not his father’s eldest son. When the first Earl of Chatham died in 1778 all eyes did not automatically turn to his second son, who was barely nineteen, still kept rooms at Cambridge, and was only just embarking on legal training at Lincoln’s Inn. William Pitt had not yet done anything to distinguish himself in the public, although his reputation for hard study and a defence of his father’s posthumous reputation published as an open letter to Lord Bute suggested he had inherited more than his fair share of the family brains. Quite reasonably, everyone turned their attention to the eldest son, John, now the 2nd Earl. “One looks upon him as the Child of the Publick,” Lord Grantham wrote, explaining his curiosity to meet the eldest son of the great Lord Chatham.[1]

At the time of his father’s death John was twenty-one and about to serve as aide-de-camp to General Boyd at Gibraltar. He does not seem to have been well known in political circles, but had clearly kept up social links with the effective head of the Chathamite political interest in Parliament, Lord Shelburne, and he had served on various occasions as a scribe for his gout-stricken father. John’s closest friend, the Duke of Rutland, might have formed a political group of his own — his father, the Marquis of Granby, was nearly as famous a political figure as Pitt the Elder, and Rutland’s rank, wealth and intelligence would have suited him to the task. Astonishingly, however, Rutland laid himself completely at the service of “a man for whom I profess & most sincerely do feel so much”[2]:

My dear Lord, give me Leave to thank you in the Sincerest Manner for the Great Honor you have done me in trusting me with your Proxy [while John was abroad in the West Indies]. Such an unequivocal testimony such a Publick distinguished Demonstration of Confidence from one whose Good opinion & Friendship is the Pride & Pleasure of my Life is a Circumstance too affecting, for me to be able to Express the Satisfaction I feel upon it in terms adequate to my Sensations.[3]

Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland (Wikimedia Commons) [a]

Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland (Wikimedia Commons) [a]

While Rutland was in Ireland, he left Chatham in charge of his parliamentary interest, instructing his agent Daniel Pulteney to apply to Chatham for advice on all political issues.

Had Chatham wanted to, he could have taken advantage of his name and parentage (as his brother William was later to do). His attitude to politics started out diligently enough. He was in Gibraltar from June 1778 until March 1779, so he could do nothing in that period, but one of the first things he did upon returning to England was to take his seat in the House of Lords. The reappearance of the Earl of Chatham in Parliament caused a frenzy of interest:

The young Earl of Chatham took the oaths and his seat in Parliament on Thursday last. His Lordship was dressed in his regimentals … and presented a very elegant, manly, and graceful figure. He is as tall as his late father, has the appearance of much mildness in his countenance, and is said to be a most exemplary young nobleman in his morals, and general good character.[4]

Chatham did not spend much time in England over the next two years, but he crops up regularly enough in the Journals of the House of Lords, and was one of nine opposition Lords who signed an official protest against the King’s elevating Lord George Germain to the peerage as Viscount Sackville.[5] As Rutland’s letter suggests, Chatham cared enough about political issues to make arrangements for his proxy vote to be deployed in his absence.

During a period  of leave in 1781 he spent some time at Lord Shelburne’s house at Bowood, where he was looked upon with great curiosity by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

Do you know Lord Chatham? … He has his father’s Roman nose, and, if events should concur to make him have a good opinion of himself, will soon, I dare say, acquire his commanding manner: at present, one sees little more than a kind of reserve, tempered with mildness, but clouded with a little dash of bashfulness.[6]

That “bashfulness”, however, was one of several reasons why John never did manage to find a political niche for himself. His “mildness” was remarked upon by many who met him, often in surprise. “Lord Chatham … has not his [father’s] Countenance,” Lord Grantham noted in astonishment when he met John in Madrid in 1779.[7] But Chatham was not his father, despite inheriting the title: he simply wasn’t cut out for politics. Much later in his life, during the Walcheren debacle, a military subordinate suggested “that he wants confidence in his own powers”, a remarkably incisive comment.[8] He had the intelligence to be interested, but neither the energy nor the drive to make his name. And in any case, by the time Bentham was writing in 1781, the rising star of the Pitt family was becoming clear… and it wasn’t John.

What sort of effect must all this have had on Chatham? He must have been aware that his father always expected great things of him. “The promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air,” Pitt the Elder once wrote to his wife, referring specifically to both John and William.[9] In the first few years after his father’s death he must have had a great burden on his shoulders, one he was not necessarily well-suited to carry, but he did his best.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare (Wikimedia Commons) [b]

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare (Wikimedia Commons) [b]

As contemporaries realised, it was a difficult line to tread. When various rumours were circulated regarding his behaviour in Gibraltar, Lord Grantham and his brother Frederick Robinson immediately dismissed them as partisan talk. “I think much depends on ye. hands he will fall into,” Grantham concluded cautiously, but it was Robinson who put his finger on a deeper truth: “I think Ld. Chatham has a difficult part to act in this country, & do not wonder at his character being variously spoken of”.[10]


[1]Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/127

[2] Rutland to Chatham, 8 December [1778], PRO 30/8/368 f 231

[3] Rutland to Chatham, 22 January 1780, PRO 30/8/368 f 233

[4] London Evening Post, 19 July 1779

[5] House of Lords Journal vol XXXVI, 18 February 1782

[6] Jeremy Bentham to George Wilson, 1781, Benthamiana, ed. J H Burton (London, 1843), p 333

[7] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 25 March 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/126

[8] Letters from Flushing by an officer of the 81st Regiment (London, 1809), p 126

[9] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 8 June 1770, Chatham Correspondence IV, 267

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 6 April 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/132; Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 27 April 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/198

Image references

[a] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A4th_Duke_of_Rutland.jpg

[b] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWilliamPittTheElder.jpg


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