by Jacqueline Reiter
The British political scene in 1807 seemed to be stagnating. Two big names had passed away in the past year: Pitt the Younger, prime minister for most of the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, had died in January 1806, followed by his celebrated opponent, Charles James Fox, in September. Both their parties seemed aimless and confused. The "Foxites", under Charles Grey, Lord Howick, were in a foundering coalition government with Pitt's cousin Lord Grenville. The "Pittites" were riven by internal disagreements and could not find a common ground from which to agree on a leader, let alone mount an effective opposition.
|William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (Wikimedia Commons)|
In February 1807, Lord Grenville, the prime minister, decided the time had come to strengthen his government. Fox's death had left a gaping big hole, and Lord Howick, the government's main orator in the House of Commons, was expected to succeed to the peerage as 2nd Earl Grey at any moment. Grenville's solution was to split the Pittites further by making an individual offer of office to their most talented man: George Canning.
|George Canning (Wikimedia Commons)|
At the end of February, therefore, Grenville's nephew Lord Temple carried an official offer to Canning. Would he consider joining the government in a high capacity, as an unconnected individual? There would be no room for any other Pittites, but Canning might bring one colleague with him in an unspecified role.
Canning was half-convinced to accept the offer -- he had long been dissatisfied with the way things were going among the Pittites -- but he wanted to join the Grenville government in a way that made it clear he was there on his own merits. His own course was clear: he was resolved to hold out for one of the three Secretaryships of State (Home, Foreign, or War) or, failing that, the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. The major question, therefore, was which Pittite colleague to bring with him.
The three most talented men in the Pittite party, apart from Canning himself, were Lord Hawkesbury (later Lord Liverpool), Lord Castlereagh, and Spencer Perceval. Of those three, Perceval was the best orator, and by February 1807 was not yet considered to be a front-runner for the Pittite leadership, although he would later become prime minister. In any case, Canning wanted an ally who would not be a rival. He did not even consider Perceval. Hawkesbury and Castlereagh both had experience of high office, but neither was an impressive orator and Canning had a poor opinion of both. Apart from these three, talent was thin on the ground, but Canning was willing to consider other assets.
Canning discussed the issue with his wife, Joan, who was away in Hinckley with their three young children. (Interestingly, Canning seems never to have held back in any political matters with his wife, with whom he was deeply in love and whom he treated as his intellectual equal.) "If I can have but one brought into Cabinet with me, who should that one be?"
Canning's solution was to draw up a table rating the seven most likely candidates based on eight criteria. Five were positive: three were negative, but "more than counterbalance[d]" the positives. The result was the following table:
- "Who would carry most of Pitt?"
- "Who would bring or satisfy most people?"
- "Who would feel most obliged to me?"
- "Whom would the K[ing] like best?"
- "Who would L[or]d G[renville] [like best]?"
- "Mischievous Intrigue"
Lord Bathurst seems to have been a sudden inspiration on Canning's part: he was added last and in different ink. Like Grant, he had not held Cabinet office, but he had been friendly with both Pitt and Grenville and had much influence. He was the only person who did not score in any of the three negative categories. As a result Canning concluded: "Perhaps L[or]d Bath[urs]t is the best of all".
Bathurst, then, may well have been the man Canning chose to bring with him. Certainly it would not have been Castlereagh -- poor Castlereagh, who only ticked the "Pitt" box for positives, and was considered both too "unpopular" and too prone to "mischievous intrigue" (whatever that meant). Sir William Grant would probably have been Canning's second choice, but he seems to have been a political lightweight. "Ld. Chat.?" Canning dithered. "Ld. Eld.? Castlerg.? Ld Mulg.? Sir W. Grant? Yorke?"
He was saved from making up his mind (and from having to come clean to his colleagues that he actually had a rating system for them) by circumstances. At the beginning of March, Grenville's government brought in a Bill relieving Catholics and Dissenters in the armed forces from some discrimination. The King, who felt such concessions trespassed on his Coronation Oath, balked, and the government fell. Before the end of March 1807, Canning was in office as Foreign Secretary in a Pittite government headed by the Duke of Portland anyway.
|Cartoon by James Gillray depicting the fall of the Grenville government (Wikimedia Commons)|
Unsurprisingly, given his poor opinion of most of his colleagues, Canning would be one of the men primarily responsible for the fall of the Portland ministry in 1809. He clashed with Castlereagh -- that unpopular mischievous intriguer -- and ended up fighting a duel with him. But that is very much another story.
Canning's letter to his wife, 27 February 1807, containing the table reproduced above is in the Canning Papers at the British Library (formerly West Yorkshire Record Office), currently catalogued as WYL 250/8/22
I have also consulted Wendy Hinde's biography, George Canning (NY, 1975) and Peter Dixon's Canning: Politician and Statesman (London, 1976)
Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.