24 January 2014

'A very perplexing situation'

On December 1, 1794, William Pitt wrote to his older brother John, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, with some painful news. In an undated letter (which must be from the beginning of December 1794 as each successive letter immediately follows from that date), William writes: 

"My dear Brother, I do not write to you till after a very painful struggle in my own mind, and it is under a full persuasion that what I have to say is absolutely required from me under the present circumstances both by duty and pressing necessity. After the full explanation which passed between us some time since I had really flattered myself that there was an end of the distressing embarrassment which we had experienced, and that no further difficulty of the same sort would occur again. But I cannot disguise from you that from various circumstances (that I see no good in dwelling upon) and especially from what passed at the Cabinet yesterday I foresee too evidently the renewal of that embarrassment the utter impossibility that business can permanently go on between you and those with whom in your present department you must have continual intercourse, with that cordially and complete [illegible] at confidence which at the present moment is indispensable. 

"If public considerations alone were in Question they ought to decide my opinion; but on more Personal Grounds I really believe that for your ultimate credit and happiness as well as my own any thing is preferable to a state in which the inconvenience to the Service cannot be greater than the vexation to ourselves. In this opinion I believe you will agree with me, and I therefore trust you will think that I consult my affection to you as much as what I owe to other considerations in telling you fairly tho’ reluctantly my perfect conviction that the time is come when it will be best for us both as well as for the Public Service if you will exchange your present situation for one of a different description. 

"I must ascribe it to some [fallibility?] of Temper (in whom, it is not material to enquire) that the attempt to present this unfortunate necessity should have been in vain. The only thing which remains is to make what is painful enough in itself as little as possible in the mode. For this purpose what I should most wish is that nothing which has led to this point should transpire. The situation of President of the Council or of Privy Seal (according as Ld Stafford may take or decline the former) is still open. If you are willing to take either of them, I have no doubt that the King’s kindness to us both will make him approve it; and to the King it would be necessary to explain that some unfortunate misunderstanding made us propose it, as best for his Service. You will easily see that the Time presses, and will not consider that having formed this opinion on full reflection, I do not for a moment withhold it from you. 

"I have preferred telling it you by letter to a conversation, which must be unnecessarily distressing to us both, and to which I really do not feel myself equal. Always affect. yrs, WP.” (Cambridge University Library, Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958 f. 1557).

It is not my purpose here to speculate upon the motivations or reasoning behind William's decision to replace his own brother as First Lord of the Admiralty with Lord Spencer. I leave that up to the more capable hands of others. It does seem, however, from the language William used in his letter, that it was a very painful choice to make. He loved his older brother John, and as one will see from John's response, this letter was received with quite a shock.

John, the 2nd Earl of Chatham promptly wrote back to his younger brother on December 1, 1794, doubting William's vague circumstances for his dismissal. 

Lord Chatham writes: “It must be something more than you have yet liked to mention, which must have occasioned your letter, and I shall of course be most impatient to see you as soon as it may be convenient to you; as I cannot but feel great anxiety on an occasion which involves in it every consideration that ought to be most dear to me.”

Needless to say, Lord Chatham was impatient to meet his brother to discuss the reasoning behind William's decision. In the same letter, John also reminds him: “You will, I am sure, recollect that I undertook the situation I am in [as First Lord of the Admiralty] by your desire and advice, and that I have sacrificed to it every other consideration.” It appears, from the 2nd Earl's letter, that he only undertook the position of First Lord of the Admiralty upon his brother (who was then First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer) William's insistence. Crucially, Lord Chatham also writes that “I am not conscious of having failed in my duty to the public.” Clearly there was a misunderstanding somewhere, which hopefully would be rectified (Cambridge University Library, Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958 f. 1558). It wasn't.

William's letter to the 2nd Earl of Chatham dated either the first or second of December is missing, but we still have Chatham's response. It is laced with confusion and pain.

He writes to William from the Admiralty on December 2, 1794, stating: “I will not attempt to describe the pain which your letter (which I have this moment received) has given me.” They clearly had not yet met to discuss William's reasoning, despite John pressing for a discussion. John is becoming insistent. He writes that they must meet as he [Chatham] has to face his government colleagues and the King tomorrow [Dec 3], for otherwise it is "a very perplexing situation” for him. He presses the point to William that “meeting cannot be more distressing to you than to myself" (Cambridge University Library, Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958 f. 1560).

Despite his older brother's entreaties, William still refuses to meet in person. He writes to Lord Chatham from Downing Street on Tuesday, December 2, 1794, at half past 12, declining a conversation as he saw "no possibility that explanation or discussion can be of any advantage." William, rather obstinately, stressed that his “opinion is formed (however reluctantly) on grounds which will not admit of its being changed; and I cannot in times like these acquit myself to my own mind if I do not ultimately act on that opinion, even with the sacrifice if necessary of the personal considerations which are nearest my heart. You are really mistaken if you suppose that I have any one particular circumstance to state which has been the immediate cause of these ideas being now brought forward. They are the result of much anxious reflection…” 

Later in the letter, William goes on to emphasise his strict duty to the public service: “…in one word, I ought not to remain in my present situation, under all the present circumstances, if I were disposed to shrink from any part of my duty however painful. I can only entreat you for both our sakes to make it in this instance as little painful as possible by reconciling your mind to what I have proposed and to save me from the extremity of feeling that I act against your wishes when I yield to the necessity of the Public Service" (Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958 f. 1561).

In a moving letter from Chatham to William, dated from December 4, 1794, he ends by saying, "I will only add that, whatever may be my fate in life, I shall sincerely wish for your honour and prosperity" (quoted in Ashbourne, p. 177).

After what one might call a deliberate, painful reluctance or avoidance by both parties to meet face-to-face, it appears from the correspondence that they did not seem to have a meeting before at least December 5, 1794. 

In the last letter of this distressing written exchange, William writes to Lord Chatham from Downing Street on Friday, December 5, 1794, that “…my great consolation has been and is the persuasion that in going thro’ this severe Trial I am persuaded that I am really consulting my personal affection to you as much as every other motive by which I must be guided…” (Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958 f. 1566). 

The situation ended with Lord Chatham becoming Privy Seal, and later Lord President of the Council, and Lord Spencer (the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's brother) became First Lord of the Admiralty. 


Ashbourne (1898) Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life and Times. London: Longmans, Green & Co., p. 177.

Cambridge University Library, Pitt Papers, Add Ms 6958, ff. 1557-1566.

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