William Pitt’s revamped administration met the new Parliament with a commanding majority, but the land war was going badly. In 1797, Pitt was assailed by a financial crisis and a naval mutiny, while the threat of invasion by Bonaparte’s army became real. In May that year Charles James Fox and most of his rump of opposition Whigs seceded from Parliament, after calling for reform. Prompted by the Irish rebellion of 1798, which seemed to endanger national security, Pitt carried the Act of Union with Ireland, by which on 1 Jan. 1801 100 Members, returned by 66 constituencies, were added to the House. Soon afterwards Pitt fell, the victim of the king’s veto on Catholic emancipation, proposed as the corollary to the Union. George III replaced him with the Speaker, Henry Addington, who, propped up initially by Pitt, concluded the peace treaty of Amiens. His ministry was in an ostensibly powerful position when the 1796 Parliament was dissolved at the end of June 1802, but it was brought down within two years.
The general election lasted from 25 May until 29 June 1796. Only 66 of the 314 constituencies (21 per cent) were contested. The Foxite Whigs campaigned for peace negotiations and the repeal of repressive domestic legislation. There was a notable contest in Southwark, where the Friend of the People George Tierney was beaten into third place but had the election of one of his opponents, George Thellusson, voided for bribery. In their renewed contest in November 1796 Thellusson won by 163 votes in a poll of 2,401, but Tierney’s petition was successful. He ignored the secession and became Pitt’s most formidable opponent in the Commons until 1801. Of the Members returned in 1796, 127 (23 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience. Between then and the dissolution, a further 123 such men came in. George Rose, the patronage secretary, forecast a return of 417 ministerialists and 141 attached to opposition or unreliable. In the event, the new House consisted, in theory, of 424 government supporters, 95 in opposition, 29 independents and ten doubtful.
This confirmed Pitt’s parliamentary supremacy, which was untroubled by the 1797 efforts of the self-styled ‘armed neutrality’, a body of about 30 discontented backbenchers led by Sir John Sinclair, and of another group of malcontents led by Sir William Pulteney and Lord Moira to secure his ejection from office. At the end of May that year Fox and three dozen of his Whig followers seceded from the Commons, after voting in a minority of 91 (to 256) for Charles Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform. Yet Pitt, whose peace overtures to the French Directory in October 1796 and April 1797 were rebuffed, and whose health was suffering, was becoming increasingly vulnerable. A financial crisis, amounting to national bankruptcy, forced a suspension of cash payments and the imposition of unpopular assessed and income taxes. There was a mutiny in the Channel fleet in May and June 1797, and the fear of invasion became acute when Bonaparte assembled a vast army along the French coast in the last months of the year. The panic diminished when he was sent to Egypt in 1798, but the potential threat remained. The rebellion by the United Irishmen in 1798 and later outbreaks of industrial unrest in Britain added to fears for national security.
Yet Pitt’s fall from power in February 1801 was an affair of the Court, where he had grown distant from George III, and the cabinet, where his authority had been undermined, especially in foreign and war policy, by Lord Grenville and Henry Dundas. Prompted by the Irish rebellion, the cabinet proposed a plan for a Union between the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. This scheme, which involved the abolition of the Dublin Parliament and the admission to the Westminster Commons of 100 Irish Members, was carried with little difficulty, and took effect on 1 Jan. 1801. However, when Pitt brought forward the complementary measure of Catholic emancipation (to allow Roman Catholics to sit in Parliament) the king, who had been kept in the dark, would have none of it, and forced Pitt to resign. Half the cabinet went out with him, and the king installed Speaker Addington as Pitt’s successor.
Although he was widely ridiculed as ‘The Doctor’ (his father’s profession), Addington inherited half of Pitt’s cabinet and had Pitt’s blessing. Between October 1801 and March 1802 he negotiated with the French republic for the distinctly disadvantageous peace of Amiens. This abated the parliamentary hostility of the Foxites, who flocked to Bonaparte’s Paris. Only 20 Members divided against the terms of the treaty, 14 May 1802, but they embodied the views of the ‘new opposition’, a small but politically formidable group of ex-ministers and their connections, notably Grenville, Dundas and William Windham.
Addington’s successor as Speaker (11 Feb. 1801) was the attorney-general Sir John Mitford, an equity lawyer, who on 13 Mar. used his casting vote for the committee on poor relief. After a largely unhappy year in the Chair, he was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland and, setting a precedent for retiring Speakers, took a peerage. His replacement was the Irish secretary Charles Abbot (11 Feb. 1802), whose rational reforms had a lasting impact on the conduct of parliamentary business.
Heated exchanges in the House between Tierney and Pitt over the government’s naval augmentation bill on 25 May 1798 led to their fighting a bloodless duel on Putney Heath two days later.
The case of the veteran radical John Horne Tooke, returned in February 1801 by the insane 2nd Baron Camelford for his rotten borough of Old Sarum, excited considerable interest, for he had taken holy orders in 1760, though he had soon afterwards given up his clerical duties and in 1773 had resigned the living bought for him by his father. Earl Temple proposed to have him unseated as disqualified by having taken orders, and his priestly past was duly proved. While a select committee sifted precedents, Horne Tooke continued speaking and voting with the opposition to the Addington ministry. The committee’s report, 4 May 1801, ruled against him, but Addington introduced a declaratory bill to exclude clergymen of the established church and kirk, but exempted Horne Tooke from its provisions until the next dissolution, possibly because Camelford was threatening to replace him with his African servant.
Piers Mackesy, War without Victory: The Downfall of Pitt, 1799-1802 (Oxford, 1984)
Patrick M. Geoghegan, The Irish Act of Union: A Study in High Politics, 1798-1801 (Dublin, 1999)