Military history

CHAPTER 49

Pitt’s Problems

1761

BACK IN LONDON, William Pitt had problems too—political ones that dwarfed anything that Amherst faced in America. These would shape the remainder of the war and its conclusion and deeply influence the politics of a critical decade in British and American history. To understand them, we need first to realize that while in late 1760 William Pitt was the most powerful figure in British politics, his power depended on two factors beyond his control. More than even Pitt knew, his fortunes were hostage to the character of the new king and to the course of a stalemated European war.

George III was twenty-two years old when he ascended the throne, a limited, immature man, and all too easy to underestimate. His father, Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales, had died when George was only thirteen. Frederick had rejected his father’s and grandfather’s devotion to Hanover along with their embrace of the Whig party. Had he lived, he would doubtless have striven to make the monarchy symbolically central to the British national identity that was still taking form. George was old enough at Frederick’s death to have absorbed his ambitions, but he was fated to pass his teenage years at Leicester House, the focus of the “reversionary interest” and the very heart of opposition to the court and its policies. Because of his youth, George as heir apparent was more observer than actor in the schemes of his mother, the dowager princess Augusta, and his tutor, Lord Bute. Because of this, he imbibed their views on politics and politicians wholeheartedly, leavening them with his own powerful conviction that people and issues must be divided into morally absolute categories of right and wrong. George had been a reluctant student—he evidently did not read until he was eight years old and wrote like a child through his teens—but like many late bloomers he made great strides at the end of adolescence. At the time of his accession no informed observer could have missed his marked intelligence, nor failed to see the odd skew his emotions had given it. 1

It was not limitations of mind but certain characteristics of personality that made the new king a problematic figure for Pitt and the rest of Britain’s ruling oligarchy. George was unswervingly loyal to people he trusted and ideas he believed to be true; and he behaved in ways that a modern psychologist might interpret as obsessive. As a young man he developed remarkably regular habits. As he aged these would grow rigid: he would, for example, eat virtually the same dinner every day of his adult life (bread, soup, beets or turnips, and mutton—varying only on Sundays, when he allowed himself roast beef). The regularity of his tastes bespoke a deeper hunger for order. It was no accident that he would become a great collector of Canaletto paintings and of ingenious orreries and chronometers, for both Canaletto and clockwork offered the reassuring precision he looked for in the universe and longed for in human relationships.2

Mercurial, brilliant, and charismatic, William Pitt at the zenith of his power seemed to George to be precisely the kind of man who was most dangerous in politics. Once Pitt had been Leicester House’s darling and had seemed to the prince to exemplify the principles that would be Britain’s salvation: incorruptibility in politics, aversion to factionalism and self-interest, and a refusal to compromise British interests by allowing foreign policy to be driven by concern for Hanover. Everything George had loathed in his grandfather, especially his partisanship and his fixation on “that horrid Electorate,” Pitt had opposed before he had become chief minister. But Pitt’s alliance with Newcastle, his volte-face on engagement in the continental war, his willingness to ingratiate himself with the old king without regard to prior expressions of principle: these had helped convince George that Pitt was a man of no moral character, no trustworthiness, at all. Pitt’s refusal to intervene with the king and preserve the reputation of General Bligh after the disaster of St.-Cas, his rejection of the advice that George’s beloved Bute offered, and his readiness to jettison his Leicester House connections once they became inconvenient: these had proven to the prince that Pitt was “the most dishonorable of men . . . the blackest of hearts.”3

George wanted most of all to be a king who stood as truly above party as Pitt had once seemed to stand: a king of all the people of Great Britain, as his father had intended to be, and not just the servant—as his grandfather had been—of the Whig oligarchs who controlled the House of Commons. In his first address to Parliament, he took pains to announce that he gloried “in the name Briton,” and he meant it with all his callow soul. He intended to serve the interest of all Britons, Scots and Welsh and English alike, and above all he understood that to do so would require ending what in his inaugural statement to the Privy Council he attempted to call “a bloody war.” Attempted, because Pitt had caught his tone beforehand and insisted that he change the words to “an expensive but just and necessary war,” which he would would pursue “in concert with our allies” until it was possible to obtain “an honourable and lasting peace.”4 The new king acquiesced. But he had not been persuaded that the war was either just or necessary, and from the beginning of his reign he made it his goal not only to end it, but to terminate the political ascendancy of the man he identified with its continuance. The interests of the whole people, George III believed, were no longer being served by William Pitt; they would be better protected by a Briton as truehearted and impartial as he was himself, the earl of Bute.

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The young king: George III (1738–1820). This Woollett engraving of a portrait by Allan Ramsay shows the king as he would have appeared at court in his early thirties. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

But while Lord Bute coveted the office of first lord of the Treasury, he also feared Pitt, who had declared on the first day of the new reign that “he must act as an independent minister or not at all, that his politics were like his religion, which would admit of no accommodation,” and that “if the system of the war was to undergo the least change or shadow of a change,” he would resign. That statement required no decoding: Newcastle and all the rest of the ministers would stay on, or Pitt would go. And thus although the former prince’s tutor was beyond doubt the man whom the king trusted most in all the world, his ambitions were for the moment blocked by Pitt’s popularity as the most successful war leader in British history. Sophisticated and handsome, and yet also an outsider, and temperamentally aloof—as Walpole put it, “unknown, ungracious, and a Scot”—Bute would for the time being hold only the ceremonial office of Groom of the Stole. George stipulated that Bute be admitted to meetings of the cabinet, but he would have to wait more than five months before he assumed an official role in government. In the meantime, Pitt would continue to operate as before and assume that his control was as complete as it had ever been. In the realm of strategy, this meant the execution of his plan to seize Belle-Île-en-Mer, the fortified island just outside Quiberon Bay, and the continuation of plans to conquer Martinique. Both expeditions went forward in 1761, and both succeeded in obtaining yet more territory for Britain, more leverage to be exerted in the peace negotiations. As a matter of practical fact, however, the entry of Bute into active politics changed more than Pitt realized, for it put a direct contender for power into the cabinet and gave Newcastle—ironically Newcastle, for his was the job Bute wanted—an ally in his search for a way to end the war.5

Because Newcastle acted as the government’s chief fund-raiser among the “money’d men” of the City, the war’s expense never ceased to torment him. Better than most politicians—and much more acutely than Pitt, who naively believed that the government’s credit was bottomless— Newcastle understood that the financial resources of the nation had been stretched taut by taxation and borrowing. Yet the war on the Continent dragged on, seemingly without any prospect of ending, while its costs mounted to ever more terrifying heights. Decisive victories were nowhere to be seen. Frederick had finished the campaign of 1760 with a victory over Daun at Torgau, a strategic crossing on the River Elbe. This victory, however, cost the Prussian army seventeen thousand men against sixteen thousand Austrians, and it settled nothing. Daun merely withdrew across the river, while Frederick’s forces were so depleted that he could only send them into winter quarters. He had staved off the Austrian threat to Berlin but remained powerless to remove the enemy from Silesia, or even from Saxony.6

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The “Dearest Friend”: John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713–92). Allan Ramsay’s 1760 portrait, engraved by William Wynne Ryland in 1763, shows the “unknown, ungracious” Scot at the height of his influence, wearing the ceremonial robes of a member of the House of Lords, as well as the chain that symbolized his recent appointment as first lord of the Treasury. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the west, Prince Ferdinand’s army had gone into winter quarters following the indecisive Battle of Kloster Kamp, in October. Thereafter much complaint had been made (privately by Ferdinand, publicly by British officers serving under him) that the army had been hobbled by lack of adequate supplies. Since the British Treasury was solely responsible for supplying Ferdinand’s force, these allegations greatly concerned Newcastle. He was relieved to find, upon inquiry, that the commissariat’s problems had been exaggerated. But that there were problems on the western front was confirmed in March when Ferdinand, who had attacked the French in a winter campaign, was forced by shortages of men and supplies to scuttle back from the Rhine to the River Diemel—a retreat that cost him all of Hesse. Neither Ferdinand nor Frederick seemed likely to force the French, Austrians, and Russians to make peace. Every gain seemed to be compensated for by a loss sustained elsewhere, every victory dampened by its cost and lack of decisiveness. 7

Increasingly, all Newcastle could see was how expensive the war had become. The virtually continuous reconstruction of the Prussian army from the ruin that Frederick’s campaigns made of it, year after year, had already cost the British Treasury millions of pounds. The commissariat of Ferdinand’s army alone was consuming more than ten thousand pounds a day and producing little but complaints. Even though, to the duke’s great relief, the House of Commons had approved the year’s budget estimates for the German war on a voice vote, he still had to find the money somewhere. This was no trivial task. The war was eating up twenty million pounds annually. Tax receipts to the Treasury could supply only about a third of that sum, and nearly half of those revenues were previously obligated to pay the interest on the existing debt.8 Incessantly Newcastle worried that any disruption in the securities market would lead to financial panic and bring the whole house of cards slithering down. And what was Pitt’s response? To blame him for extravagance, and to propose more expeditions!

The duke had served the royal family faithfully during the two previous reigns, and had always drawn strength from his relationship with the king. Deprived of that emotional anchor, he responded in a not altogether rational way to his fears and to Pitt’s bullying refusal to consider peace. In February, when Pitt was immobilized by gout, Newcastle set out to curry favor with the new king by suggesting that the earl of Holdernesse be dismissed from his position as secretary of state for the Northern Department, and that Lord Bute be named as his replacement. Superficially this made sense—Bute as the king’s confidant deserved a formal place in the cabinet, and Holdernesse had been little more than a nonentity—and George jumped at the chance to serve the interests of his favorite. In the most important ways, however, Newcastle’s gambit made no sense at all. He proposed the change to the king without consulting Pitt, who was furious at what he saw as both a personal betrayal and an attack on his authority. Holdernesse, it was true, had been a cipher; but he had been Pitt’s cipher, and Pitt knew that he would never be able to dictate to the man whom the king called his “Dearest Friend” as he had to Holdernesse. Newcastle had perhaps forgotten his colleague’s capacity for pettiness. If so, he would soon have cause to remember it, for Pitt would henceforth make it his purpose to humiliate and thwart the duke at every turn. Moreover, Newcastle would soon discover that he had made an even more significant oversight, for he had not attended to the differences between Bute’s ideas about the kind of treaty that was desirable and his own.

The duke wanted peace as soon as possible, but not at the expense of Britain’s allies. He therefore favored economizing by scaling back operations against France but sustaining the German war as long as necessary to obtain an honorable peace. Given his driving fear of bankruptcy, this was at best an inconsistent policy; it was certainly at odds with Pitt’s evident determination to strip France of her empire, humble her diplomatically, and in effect dictate the peace terms. Bute, on the other hand, wanted a prompt settlement and was willing to accept the status quo as its basis, which meant that he wanted to cut the German subsidies and leave Frederick and Ferdinand to shift for themselves. So Newcastle in fact compounded his woes by suggesting that Bute be made a minister, yet realized it too late to stop the appointment. On March 10, before the duke had a chance for second thoughts, before Pitt even knew what was happening, Bute kissed his former pupil’s hand for the seals of office. With that ritual act began Pitt’s descent from power and the somewhat more protracted decline of Newcastle himself.9

Shortly thereafter, at the end of March, Louis XV made a formal appeal for a peace to be concluded, on the basis of the current status quo, at a general conference of all the belligerent powers. Simultaneously Pitt received a letter from the French war minister, Étienne-François de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, proposing that Britain and France exchange envoys to discuss the issues—implicitly, an offer to begin negotiations for a separate peace. Although neither Pitt nor Newcastle was as willing to make peace without reference to the interests of Prussia, they agreed to send a diplomat to Paris and to receive a French representative in return. In the meantime, Pitt’s long-planned expedition against Belle-Île-en-Mer went ahead. By the time the envoys were beginning to state their governments’ respective positions in Paris and London, the island was in British hands, following a campaign that afforded yet another example of the cooperation between army and naval forces that had come to characterize the war effort under Ligonier and Anson.10

Belleisle was more than just a diplomatic counter to be bargained back in return for Minorca or those parts of the Prussian Rhineland that France had conquered. Reviving his old navalist strategy, Pitt intended Belleisle to be a stage from which coastal raids could be launched to take pressure off Ferdinand by forcing the French to concentrate on coastal defense. Thus while the seizure of an island that lay less than twenty miles off the Brittany coast shook the French court, it also frightened Newcastle, Bute, and others in the British ministry who were inclined to negotiate for peace. They feared both any addition to Pitt’s popularity and the prospect that more defeats would drive France, in desperation, to seek an alliance with Spain—and there were plenty of indications that Madrid would favor such an agreement. Yet Pitt, far from fearing the prolongation of the war, seemed actually to welcome it. As his colleagues in the cabinet knew only too well, his war aims had grown with every victory; they worried that he would refuse to make peace so long as he could go on expanding British military and commercial power. They had good reason to fear that he would think the Spanish colonies, too, were ripe for the picking, and that he would find only a kind of perverse benediction in Spain’s belligerency.11

The Southern secretary’s haughty reception of France’s peace envoy seemed only to prove the substance of Bute’s and Newcastle’s fears. Despite the announced willingness of the French to deliver up most of their American empire, Pitt insisted that he would not make peace until they also surrendered their rights to the Newfoundland fishery, and that demand was strictly nonnegotiable. This was not solely, or even principally, because the French market for cod sustained a £500,000 annual trade, a sum larger than the whole fur production of Canada. It was rather because every eighteenth-century strategist held it as an axiom that a great fishery was a “nursery of seamen,” and thus crucial to maintaining a significant navy. Pitt was demanding, in effect, not only that the French surrender the bulk of their colonies, but that they prostrate themselves before a British commercial monopoly and foreswear rebuilding their naval power—thus placing their international trade permanently at Great Britain’s mercy.12

Virtually everyone in the cabinet except Pitt saw this as madness, an invitation to make Britain into an international pariah in the postwar era. As the duke of Bedford (lately lord lieutenant of Ireland, but now a cabinet member without portfolio) observed to Newcastle, Pitt’s gambit for supremacy “would be as dangerous for us to grasp at as it was for Louis XIV, when he aspired to be the arbiter of Europe, and might be likely to produce a grand alliance against us.” More immediately it produced deep divisions within the cabinet, stopped the negotiations cold, and finally aligned every important minister against a sublimely unconcerned Pitt. 13

Meanwhile, the Spanish court had grown concerned that France was at the point of selling out Spain’s interests, and promised Choiseul a formal alliance if he would refrain from making a separate peace. In fact Choiseul, deeply committed to rebuilding French power, had no intention of agreeing to peace on Pitt’s terms and eagerly took advantage of Spain’s offer. The alliance, concluded at Paris on August 15, was called the Family Compact because its signatories represented the two branches of the Bourbon dynasty. It took the form of a defensive mutual pledge that Spain and France would settle their differences with Great Britain in concert. The signatories made no special effort to conceal its provisions, but they took care not to publicize the existence of the secret convention that accompanied it. This instrument promised that if the war had not ended by May 1, 1762, Spain would enter hostilities as France’s ally.14

The Spanish hoped that the Family Compact would make Great Britain reasonable and that the convention would make France resolute. Only the latter hope had any prospect of fulfillment. The conclusion of the Franco-Spanish alliance inaugurated the last futile phase of the peace negotiations, in which the stakes were higher than ever and the fishingrights issue—now that Spanish demands for consideration had to be included as well—was even less susceptible to resolution. By mid-September Pitt was pressing hard for a preemptive declaration of war against Spain. An intercepted letter from the Spanish ambassador to Paris to his counterpart in London had suggested that a secret protocol of the Family Compact provided for a military alliance to take effect after the treasure fleet arrived from the New World. This, Pitt argued, could only mean that the Spanish intended to enter the war. If war with Spain was inevitable, what was to be gained by waiting? But Pitt’s fellow ministers were not about to be swept into an expanded conflict by torrents of eloquence. Some, like Bute and Bedford, opposed declaring war on Spain for diplomatic reasons, since victory in such a conflict would threaten the balance of power. Others, including Anson and Ligonier, doubted the ability of the navy and army to take on a new enemy and demurred for strategic reasons. Newcastle, worrying that tremors in the securities markets in May and June portended worse problems to come, dissented on financial grounds.15

When the cabinet met on September 15 and 18, only Richard, Earl Temple, the lord privy seal and Pitt’s brother-in-law, supported the Great Commoner’s demand for an immediate declaration of war. The other ministers agreed to reinforce the Caribbean and Mediterranean fleets but wanted to try to buy Spain out of the alliance by offering to withdraw Britain’s logwood cutters from the Honduras coast—a significant concession in a long-standing dispute between London and Madrid. It was clear in the meeting of September 15 that the cabinet would not be bullied. In desperation, therefore, at the next meeting, Pitt and Temple produced a minority report they had drawn up for presentation to the king. This was a maneuver for which there was no precedent, and George, treating it as “Mr. Pitts black scheme,” refused to accept the report.

“Were any of the other Ministers as spirited as you are my Dearest Friend,” he wrote to Bute, “I would say let that mad Pitt be dismissed, but as matters are very different from that we must get rid of him in a happier moment than the present one.” Cannily, the king insisted on waiting for the expected return from Paris of the British peace envoy before hearing arguments for and against a declaration of war. While they waited, the ministers convinced themselves that they could not afford to follow the Southern secretary’s line, and George braced himself for the political hurricane that would inevitably accompany Pitt’s offer to resign.16

When the critical meeting of the cabinet came on October 2, Pitt once more made his case for a declaration of war. When all of his fellow ministers except Temple declined to support him, however, he gave up. In better grace than anyone who knew him expected, he thanked “the old ministers for their civility to him” and took his leave. Three days later he tendered his resignation to the king; Temple followed suit on the ninth. Astonishingly, there was no crisis. The king, with ceremonial expressions of regret, accepted the seals from the secretary and immediately “made him a most gracious and unlimited offer of any rewards in the power of the crown to bestow.” Pitt, who had been under extraordinary psychological strain, broke down and wept. That evening, he and Bute worked out the terms of his reward: a pension (for his, his wife’s, and their son’s lifetimes) of three thousand pounds per year and a peerage, as Baroness Chatham, for his wife.17

It was a generous reward, although not an extravagant one. It secured Pitt’s family from possible financial embarrassment and it allowed him— since it was his wife who had received the title—to remain in the House of Commons. But it served another purpose, too, and one Pitt could hardly have expected when he tearfully accepted the king’s offer. The terms of pensions granted by the Crown were customarily kept secret, but Bute ordered the details of this one to be reported in the government’s next Gazette. That alone would have been sufficient to harm the Great Commoner’s reputation for disinterestedness, but Bute also had pamphleteers engaged to write tracts with titles like The Patriot Unmasked and The Right Honourable Annuitant Unmasked, lest anyone miss the point. Insofar as possible, the ungracious Scot had insured that if Pitt went into opposition, he could not easily stake his customary claim to the moral high ground. And for that, three thousand pounds a year must have seemed a bargain indeed.

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