To Stir up the People

John Barrell

  • BuyUnusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s by Kenneth Johnston
    Oxford, 376 pp, £30.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 965780 3

In April 1792, William Pitt, the ‘heaven-born minister’ as his Tory supporters liked to call him, made what we can now recognise as one of the first of many attempts to cast off the perception that the Tories are the nasty party. The slave trade, he told the Commons, was ‘the greatest practical evil that ever has afflicted the human race’, and a ‘stigma on our national character’. ‘I know of no evil that ever has existed, nor can imagine any evil to exist, worse than the tearing of seventy or eighty thousand persons annually from their native land, by a combination of the most civilised nations, inhabiting the most enlightened part of the globe.’ And though the French and the Dutch were involved, he continued, ‘there is no nation in Europe that has … plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain.’

Had the internet been in existence then, Campaign Headquarters would have been sure to delete this speech within a year. For in February 1793, Pitt’s active imagination discovered an evil even worse than the slave trade, that crime worse than any other previously committed in the whole history of the human race. The execution of Louis XVI, he now told the Commons, ‘is the foulest and most atrocious deed which the history of the world has yet had occasion to attest’. But did not Pitt himself share some of the blame for the death of Louis? Couldn’t he have intervened to arrest the chain of events that had led the king inexorably to the guillotine? In the summer of 1792, with the Austrian and Prussian armies massing on the borders of France, threatening to invade in order to restore Louis to all the ‘legitimate authority’ he had exercised before the Revolution, the French government appealed to Britain to mediate. Britain loftily refused, France was invaded, and from that moment no sensible punter would have staked a single sou on Louis’s chances of living another year, widely suspected as he was of colluding with the invaders.

There were other, larger questions raised by Pitt’s speeches, which his opponents asked but which he seems not to have thought worth answering. Why did a British government believe it had an obligation to deplore in such extravagant terms the death of a foreign king? Did the British not have sufficient terrible crimes of their own to atone for, without searching abroad for the crimes of others to bemoan and punish? And then again, was the killing of one man, believed by many (though very few of them British) to have been justly executed for a grave crime he had certainly committed, now to be considered an atrocity greater than the killing of hundreds of thousands of Africans, the enslavement and brutal treatment of those who survived, the permanent separation of parents from children and husbands from wives, and all so that European consumers could sweeten their tea with sugar in preference to honey? How many hundreds of thousands more Africans would have had to be heaped onto the scales to weigh more heavily with Pitt than the death of a single European? How many lives of ordinary people would weigh more than the life of one king?

Quite how much Pitt’s organ of moral outrage had been retuned by the execution of Louis would soon become apparent. In February 1794 the French National Convention, responding or reacting to the slave revolts in its Caribbean possessions, passed a decree promising the emancipation of all slaves in territories under the jurisdiction of France, to be put into effect as soon as it could determine how the emancipation should be managed. Pitt described the decree as ‘wild and improvident’, and declared that it would not be put into effect in any islands that Britain might succeed in capturing from the French. For Pitt, West Indian slavery was a necessary evil if sugar was to be produced; but the slave trade, as well as being inhumane and criminal, was unnecessary, for there were by now enough slaves in the Caribbean for the cultivation of the sugar islands. Well-stocked islands could be used as breeding pens, producing slaves for export to those where labour was in short supply. The heaven-born minister had discovered a way of trading in slaves that would apparently leave no ‘stigma on our national character’. A modern equivalent of his position might be that it is a foul, filthy crime to traffic women to Western Europe as sex workers, but hell, once they’re here, it’s just good economic sense to shunt them around from town to town, country to country, as the market might require.

I find it continually amazing that, among so many historians of high politics, Pitt has managed to hold on to his reputation for exalted virtue as well as for the other skills and characteristics, more useful to a prime minister, that he did possess, such as low cunning, a shameless willingness to bend or break the law in his pursuit of political radicals, and an unembarrassed eagerness to destroy the lives of his opponents. In an infamous song of adulation, George Canning praised Pitt’s ‘Virtue’: his humility, his blameless life, his courage, his absolute integrity (‘By pow’r uncorrupted, untainted by gold’) and so on. When Britain was threatened by ‘rapine and treason’, Pitt had stood up for ‘the heart and the hopes’ of the country, and by his dauntless spirit ‘one kingdom’, and apparently only one, was ‘preserv’d ’midst the wreck of the world’. He was, Canning declared, in a line still quoted in virtually all positive assessments of Pitt, ‘the Pilot that weather’d the storm’.

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