Monday, December 22, 2014

A ‘mince pie administration’?: When William Pitt first became Prime Minister

by Stephenie Woolterton

William Pitt, after
Thomas Gainsborough (late 1780s)
Wikimedia Commons
One of the most fascinating tales of British political history was the great struggle between William Pitt (1759-1806) and Charles James Fox (1749-1806) during the winter of 1783-4. On 19 December 1783, Pitt’s friend Richard Pepper Arden rose in the House of Commons to move a new writ for the borough of Appleby, in which Pitt was Member of Parliament, and declared that Pitt had accepted the office of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The reaction from the assembled House was one of resounding incredulity and laughter. Pitt was, after all, only 24 years old at the time of his appointment. To many, he was hardly qualified for the role of Premier, and the odds were stacked heavily against him. He had only 149 certain votes against the Opposition’s 231 votes [1]. Even so, the remaining number would still not win Pitt a majority. On 22 December 1783, the great Whig hostess Mrs. Crewe confidently said to William Wilberforce, ‘So your friend Mr. Pitt means to come in…well, he may do what he likes during the holidays, but it will only be a mince-pie administration, depend upon it.’ [2]

Photo by Stephenie Woolterton
Mrs. Frances Anne Crewe was far from the only person sharing such sentiments. Few believed Pitt’s government could survive much beyond the Christmas recess. Indeed, the vast majority in the House of Commons underrated Pitt’s ability to govern. Sir Gilbert Elliot compared Pitt’s newly formed administration to ‘children playing at ministers, and must be sent back to school, and in a few days all will have returned to its former course’ [3]. Pitt’s biographer Lord Stanhope described the challenges Pitt faced when he first took office as ‘the greatest perhaps that any Prime Minister of England ever had to grapple with. Arrayed against him was a compact majority of the House of Commons, led on by chiefs of consummate oratorical ability - by Burke and Sheridan, by Fox and Lord North’ [4]. Pitt’s friend, tutor, and later his biographer, George Pretyman Tomline remembered Pitt’s extreme uneasiness in the first days of his administration. He recalled many years later that in a conversation with Pitt at the end of December 1783, Pitt told him he hadn’t had a moment’s sleep because of the political upheaval [5]. Pitt’s power of resilience, however, was much stronger than his enemies gave him credit. The struggle underpinning the affair was essentially between the Crown’s prerogative to appoint government ministers, and the then Opposition Coalition's majority in the House of Commons. Although Pitt was certainly far from being a mere puppet to the Crown, he firmly stood his ground.

From European Magazine
Photo by Stephenie Woolterton
When Parliament reassembled after the Christmas recess on 12 January 1784, Pitt was ready for the onslaughts of Fox. Although Pitt’s government was twice defeated, he refused to resign his position. He also declined to call for a dissolution of Parliament. After several months of blatant defiance, courage, tenacity, and sheer force of will, Pitt began to gain the support of the people. He was viewed as defending the King’s royal prerogative; Pitt’s self-confidence and determination began to bring the majority over to his side.

A modern-day view of Brooks’s
Club on St. James’s Street
Photo by Stephenie Woolterton
Then on the night of 28 February 1784, upon returning to his brother Lord Chatham’s house in Berkeley Square after receiving the Freedom of the City of London, Pitt’s carriage was attacked halfway up St. James’s Street. This attack appears to have been deliberately orchestrated by members of the Opposition and Foxite supporters. Pitt, his brother Chatham, and his brother in-law Lord Mahon were in the carriage at the time. Fortunately, Pitt was left uninjured, but understandably he was shaken up. Despite this attack, his resolve was unbroken, and he would not abandon his post. After the incident, Pitt had more support than ever. The tide had undeniably turned. Finally, on 24 March 1784, Pitt agreed for the King to dissolve Parliament. Nevertheless, the Opposition was not going to give up without one last hurrah. On the very same day, the Great Seal of England was stolen from the Lord Chancellor’s house. A new Seal had to be hurriedly made overnight so that Parliament could finally be dissolved by Royal proclamation on the following day [6]. The original Seal, however, was never recovered.

After the resulting general election of 1784, Pitt became MP for his beloved Cambridge University (the constituency where he had previously come bottom of the poll in the 1780 election), and his government was confirmed victorious. Although Fox was returned as Member of Parliament for Westminster, his obstinacy and hatred for the King would bar him from holding a government office for the next twenty-three years. Most importantly, unlike the ‘mince-pie administration’ that Mrs. Crewe and others were expecting, Pitt retained his position as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer for the next seventeen years. He was to hold his seat as the Member of Parliament for Cambridge University for the rest of his life.

References

1. Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, p. 96.
2. Wilberforce, R.I. & Wilberforce, S. (1839) The Life of William Wilberforce, Volume 1. London: John Murray, p. 48.
3. The Countess of Minto (ed.) (1874) The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, First Earl of Minto, Vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, p. 91.
4. Stanhope, Philip Henry (1861) The Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, Vol. 1. London: John Murray, p. 169.
5. Tomline, G. (1821) Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, Vol. 1. London: John Murray, p. 233.
6. Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, p. 104.

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Stephenie Woolterton has an MSc in Social Research, and a background in Psychology. She is currently researching and writing her first book on the private life of William Pitt the Younger. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden. She blogs at:www.theprivatelifeofpitt.com and can be contacted via Twitter at: www.twitter.com/anoondayeclipse


3 comments:

  1. Today, of course, we'd assume that the attack on 28th February was staged by his supporters, not by his enemies. Was responsibility ever proved?

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    1. Pitt's brother recognised several of Fox's supporters among the Brooks's attackers, and was certain it had been a planned ambush. He set down his detailed recollections nearly 40 years after for Pitt's biographer, Tomline, although because a number of the men involved were still alive he told Tomline not to specify anything more than "some gentlemen of the Club" in the published work.

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    2. Incidentally, one of the men Chatham recognised was the husband of the very same Mrs Crewe who coined the term "mince pie administration".

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