“The decline of the [Board of] Ordnance, which began under Cornwallis, continued unabated under his deplorable successor, John, the second Earl of Chatham. Fortescue has well and truly said that, when he chose, Chatham could both think and write. Unfortunately, however, he very rarely made this exacting choice, and in sheer laziness he eclipsed even [William] Windham [Pitt’s Secretary at War in the 1790s]. Any reader of Castlereagh’s military correspondence must be struck by the frequency with which Chatham is to be found at his country home when he ought to have been in London. Relatively few documents attributable to him are to be found in the Chatham Papers, or elsewhere, in the Public Record Office; and it is surely significant that among them lies a trim little notebook containing lists of garden flowers written in an admirably neat italic printing hand. This suggests where his real interests lay … Yet in spite of his lack of interest in the duties of his office, Chatham did his country the disservice of clinging like a limpet to [the Ordnance] from May 1801 to 1810, with only the break of the eighteen months when the Ministry of All the Talents was in power”.
(Richard Glover, Peninsular Preparation, 1963, p. 39)
Jeeeeeeeeeeez. To quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Where do I begin with the bad?”
It certainly had me snorting at certain moments— “he very rarely made this exacting choice”, “clinging like a limpet” in particular— but at base, there’s little evidence here to make such sweeping statements about Chatham’s uselessness. I was kind of hoping there might be more examples to work with, so that I could at least say “OK, fair enough”, but now I’m just left thinking, “Bleagh, poor John.”
And the lack of evidence is, at least in this instance, not overwhelming proof. I agree there are few of John’s papers anywhere; I haven’t had the opportunity to go to Michigan to see those at the Clements Library, nor have I managed to get to Manchester to see the ones held there. The National Archives (as the PRO is now called) is disappointing, but I really get the impression that John’s papers were either destroyed by his executors, who cared more about his father and brother, or they were destroyed by John himself (and let’s face it, he had 25 years of kicking his heels in the political wilderness to sort through his papers).
(Although I am soooo going to look up that gardening notebook next week when I’m at the National Archives. 😉 )
So what a value judgment: and the only concrete evidence for it is from the Castlereagh Papers, where he ought to have been in London but was at his country estate!
I confess I have not read Castlereagh’s correspondence cover to cover, but I have consulted them. Chatham doesn’t appear a great deal (except on the volumes covering Walcheren, obviously). I presume that Glover is mainly talking about the instance also cited by Wendy Hinde in her biography of Castlereagh (London, 1981, p. 119): after describing Chatham as “incurably idle” she relates how he “preferred to remain in the country potting pheasants” rather than come to town for a cabinet in October 1805 to discuss reeling Prussia into the Third Coalition. She continues: “Chatham’s irresponsibility is scarcely more surprising than Castlereagh’s polite—or philosophical—acceptance of it”, thereby implying that this sort of thing happened all the time, ho ho ho, it’s the Late Lord Chatham again, oh well, never mind.
Shall we take a look at this letter in the Castlereagh Correspondence? It’s from Volume 6, p. 19, dated 16 October 1805. I quote it in full:
“My dear Lord,
Colonel Hadden communicated to me this morning your kind offer to come up to town in the course of next week, if there was anything of importance. Things are grown so interesting, that I trust you will forgive me for availing myself of your proposal; and if you could appropriate Sunday to the journey, you would, without wasting a sporting day, catch your brother before his return to Walmer on Monday. I send you by the messenger the outline of our immediate measures, which has been approved by the King, and will be executed without delay. But this subject connects itself so much with the state of the Continent, and the general scheme of our future military views, that I feel extremely desirous of having a full conversation with you upon the whole of this interesting subject.
Believe me &c., Castlereagh.”
What leaps out at me from this immediately is:
1) John is not the only member of the Cabinet currently on holiday (Pitt is “RETURNING” to Walmer, so obviously has also come up for a debrief)
2) John had asked for permission to go (“your kind offer to come up to town in the course of next week, if there was anything of importance”: translates as “I’m off, but if you need me I’ll come back”)
3) Whether this was flattery or not I couldn’t say, but Castlereagh seems to imply he wants Chatham’s views as a military man rather than those as a cabint minister. No mention of ordnance, for example.
I certainly see nothing in the above to justify Glover’s character assassination of Lord Chatham, and I think Hinde was also writing with that good ol’ 20/20 historical hindsight.
After all, people will see what they want to see in anything. (And of course I guess this applies to me too, so I will take my own fulminations with a pinch of salt 😉 )
Ironically the book from which I took the reference to the Glover paragraph quoted above was much nicer to Chatham. I really thought that by following the reference I might find some concrete evidence of Chatham’s incapability … but I am once again disappointed. (And maybe a little relieved too!)
Edited to add:
WHAT country home? In 1805?