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The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846$

Philip Harling

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198205760

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205760.001.0001

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The French Wars and the Failure of Pittite Reform

The French Wars and the Failure of Pittite Reform

(p.56) 3 The French Wars and the Failure of Pittite Reform
The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores how several factors contributed to the dramatic growth of the critique of ‘Old Corruption’ and the failure of Pittite reform after the turn of the century. Pitt's colleagues were quick to take advantage of his carelessness in patronage matters. When Henry Dundas, Pitt's sedulous chief adviser, became President of the Board of Control, rumours abounded that he planned to make India an enormous treasure trove for himself and his connection. The Dundas affair, however, seriously weakened the Pitt ministry's attempt to protect the political system from popular agitation. Pitt and company were hard-pressed to prove that they were spending all of it to protect the nation, and not to reward ‘corrupt’ private interests at public expense. All combined to sully Pitt's reputation for disinterested management.

Keywords:   French War, Pittite reform, Dundas affair, Old Corruption, economical reform

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars put such stress on the financial and administrative structures of the British state that by the time of Pitt's death in 1806 they had deeply compromised the image of public-minded stewardship which he had projected in the 1780s. Of course, Britain fought these wars in order to roll back the French Revolution, and it must be noted at the outset that many of the Pitt ministry's harshest critics—whether Painite republicans, Dissenting reformers, or Foxite Whigs—attacked it not so much because they simply felt that it was mishandling the war effort, but because it was intervening to defend what they perceived to be despotic monarchies abroad while suppressing basic liberties at home. These criticisms of Pitt and his supporters are already broadly familiar. They deserve to be, for it should always be kept in mind that the French Revolution inspired fierce debates about the rights of citizenship which would have been virtually unimaginable before the 1790s, and which went far beyond the relatively mundane questions raised by the ministry's management of the British war machine.

Historians have nevertheless paid too little attention to the persistent and widespread criticism of wartime waste and official cupidity. The scope of the war effort against the French Revolutionary regimes boggled the minds of contemporaries. Its unprecedented expenditure of manpower was matched by an unprecedented expenditure of public money. The central government raised a grand total of some one and a half billion pounds in taxes and loans to fight the French.1 One of the most remarkable facts about the French Wars was that Britons were generally willing to tolerate the colossal tax burden imposed by the state in order to (p.57) wage them. As Patrick O'Brien suggests, this acquiescence in wartime taxation would seem to indicate that, generally speaking, its apportionment was considered just: the propertied were paying most of the bill for a war fought in defence of property. Some 63 per cent of all additional taxes between 1793 and 1815 fell on the incomes and consumption patterns of the wealthy.2

Even ‘respectable’ proponents of the war, however, readily criticized the government when they deemed it to be squandering their huge contributions to the Treasury. A large bloc of the propertied classes obviously supported the military and legal measures taken by the ministry in order to defend property against revolutionary ‘levelling’, and the overwhelming majority at least showed themselves willing to pay for the war effort.3 But as the war dragged on, and then ended only to begin again, it became imperative for the Pitt ministry to make it known that it was neither dropping public money into administrative sinkholes nor using it to line their own or their friends' pockets. Pitt and company proved that the financial system was capable of extracting a hitherto inconceivable sum in taxes. But they were hard-pressed to prove that they were spending all of it to protect the nation, and not to reward ‘corrupt’ private interests at public expense.

In the end, they failed to do so. For the suspicion that many of Pitt's associates looked upon public office primarily as a means to serve themselves, the ministry's failure to sustain even the slow pace of administrative reform of the 1780s, and the sheer expense of the military effort itself, all combined to sully Pitt's reputation for disinterested management. All these factors contributed to the dramatic growth of the critique of Old Corruption after the turn of the century. While independent MPs (mainly frugal country gentlemen and punctilious Evangelicals) rallied in the Commons to press economy on the government, popular radicals once again launched a parliamentary reform initiative to do away with the expense and the ‘corruption’ of the state.

(p.58) The imperative to preserve property against ‘levelling’ ensured that the government's critics at Westminster would put up with very heavy public spending on the war, and even serious bureaucratic waste, rather than join popular radicals in pressing for constitutional change. They nevertheless forced economical reform back onto the government's agenda when it became obvious to them that the stress of prolonged warfare had reversed Pitt's earlier efforts to enhance the efficiency and reduce the expense of the instruments of state. On the other hand, radicals such as Major Cartwright, and a growing number of men of small and middling property in the metropolis and many open boroughs in the provinces, dismissed economical reform as an insufficient remedy to the problem of the burden of the state, once evidence of malfeasance in high places had convinced them that only constitutional means could rid the public of parasitical interests at the centre. These divergent efforts of independent MPs and radicals did intersect in one important respect. They wrested the initiative over the reform of state structures from the same minister who before the wars had taken it from them on behalf of executive authority.

1. The Limits of Administrative Reform in the 1780s

The shortcomings of Pittite reform in the 1780s ultimately became more noticeable than its achievements. These shortcomings had become glaringly obvious by the late 1790s, when the ministry's failure to make systematic administrative improvements conveyed the impression that the wartime state was multiplying the opportunities for government insiders to feed off the public revenue. In retrospect, it appeared that Pitt's great weakness was his failure to raise the central bureaucracy as a whole to the same high standard of probity that he had reached himself. Pitt had always shown much greater initiative in financial than in administrative reform. During the 1780s, before wartime pressures distracted his ministry, it made only fitful efforts to procure for the administrative network of the ‘fiscal-military’ state the same reputation for disinterested and efficient public service that Pitt personally enjoyed. It was in large part the neglect of thorough administrative reform that led to the wartime growth of the Old Corruption critique. For it encouraged the perception that large sums of public money were being wasted on faulty bureaucratic machinery and on privileged insiders.

(p.59) This neglect is remarkable because, well before the war, an influential group of administrative insiders had recommended a series of reforms that would have transformed the public image of office-holders from greedy servants to the well-connected, to public servants who were the auxiliaries of a disinterested executive. Much of what Pitt did manage to accomplish stemmed from the proposals of these men, the Commissioners for Examining the Public Accounts, whom North had appointed to fob off opposition at the height of the economical reform agitation in 1780. Over the next several years the Commissioners submitted fifteen reports that comprised an exhaustive review of the administrative apparatus. Significantly, the Commissioners were Treasury appointees who were intimately tied to government: the chairman, Sir Guy Carleton, for instance, was a career military man who had been a Governor of Quebec; Arthur Pigott, a Middle Temple barrister who became Solicitor General to the Prince of Wales and Attorney General in Grenada; Samuel Beachcroft, a former Governor of the Bank of England; and William Roe, a Commissioner of Customs.4 These men, with their connections to the City, the Inns of Court, and Westminster, were all members of the metropolitan service class that the ‘country’ party had sporadically assailed as corrupt tools of the government ever since the late seventeenth century. But their guiding assumptions reveal that, by the 1780s, the imperative to reduce waste and to promote public service as means of enhancing the efficiency and preserving the legitimacy of the state had come to shape the thinking of well-connected government insiders themselves.

In the course of their inquiry, the Commissioners laid down a series of axioms about the proper conduct of official business. ‘The officer is a trustee for the public,’ they affirmed. ‘[A]s such, he is bound to husband the public money committed to his charge with as much frugality as if it were his own.’ This being the case, ‘he ought not to be permitted … to carve out for himself an interest in the execution of a public trust’.5 Here was a frontal assault on the traditional notion of property in office, and it was the introduction to a series of proposals that anticipated virtually all of the axioms of mid-Victorian ‘good government’.

(p.60) As a consequence of their denial of officers' private interest, the Commissioners recommended that all official business should be continuous, resting in the office itself rather than the person holding it. All public balances should hence be lodged in accounts at the Bank of England rather than in the private hands of individual officers. Likewise, all offices should be directly accountable to the public. To ensure this, the hierarchy of authority within departments should be clearly delineated. There should always be a strict division between public revenue and private income. Gratuities and fees for performing official functions should be abolished. Tt is not for the honour of government', the Commissioners insisted, ‘that His Majesty's bounty should be curtailed by gratuities and fees of office … [I]t should pass to the object as liberally and as entirely] as it flows from the royal beneficence.’6 They protested against ‘irregular’ emoluments both as a mark of royal favour and as payment for doing paperwork. Sinecures were therefore not an acceptable reward for official or other services, and should be replaced by an open pensions system. Finally, officers should be full-time employees of the state, and the salary structure ought to reward merit.7 ‘[I]n every proposed official regulation, the advantage or disadvantage of the officer can never be properly a subject of discussion’, the Commissioners affirmed. ‘[T]he only question is, whether the necessity or good of the state actually requires it?’8

In all their recommendations, the Commissioners insisted, their central aim was public economy. It was imperative to keep government inexpensive and thus solvent; not simply in order to keep faith with the fundholders,9 but even more importantly, to convince the public that its tax money was not being wasted:

The subject must place confidence in the integrity and wisdom of the government: he should have no doubt but his contributions to the public service find their way, undiminished, without deviation or delay, to their proper object. [So long as this is made evident,] … let him no more seek for shifts and subtleties to evade the payment of those duties and taxes which … the necessities of the state fully justify.10

(p.61) This was the crucial compact that state officials should propose to the people: if we no longer help ourselves to or otherwise squander your tax money, you should not protest the extent of taxes, as they will be spent in the national interest. In order to facilitate the government's obligation in the compact, the Commissioners urged that the Treasury be made solely responsible for ‘guard [ing] the public treasure both against superfluous and improvident issues’.11

In sweeping fashion, the Commissioners laid out all the basic premisses of financial and administrative reform for the next several decades. Their attack on the ‘corrupt’ corollaries to the notion of office as freehold property (sinecures, fees, and the like) did not emerge full-blown from some sort of anticipation of the mid-Victorian attitude towards public administration. In practice, the Excise had already set up a number of obstacles to prevent officers from using property in office as an excuse for taking emoluments at unnecessary public expense.12 But that a handful of government insiders would lay out bold axioms based on these obstacles marks an important point in the shift of mentality about the proper uses of office towards an ideal of public service. The Commissioners had done so because they were disturbed at the excessive cost of the central bureaucracy during the American War, and the many ways in which it encouraged the widespread conviction that the state was parasitical.

Pitt shared the insider's perspective of the Commissioners, but he responded to their reports in a piecemeal and undramatic fashion that was at variance with the boldness and urgency of their pronouncements. The most flattering interpretation of his caution is that it was a consequence of the premium he put on enhancing his own authority through the process of administrative reform. As Ehrman notes, Pitt had good reason to fear that too programmatic a response might spawn resistance to change within the many departments of state that were not directly under the First Lord of the Treasury's control. In the 1780s, strong departmental secretaries were still masters in their own houses, and were thus well equipped to offer fierce resistance to reform proposals if they were inclined to do so.13 Moreover, the older departments of state were (p.62) still full of patent officers whose claims to property in office were still generally respected, and who would be certain mightily to resist any reforms that could be interpreted as infringements of property right.14 Ehrman suggests that it was for these reasons that Pitt proceeded very carefully with administrative reform.

In any case, Pitt acted on very few of the Commissioners' recommendations. A year after the Commissioners had wound up their inquiry, he had only endorsed three of their suggestions, asking leave to bring in bills for better auditing the public accounts, for better regulating the office of Treasurer of the Navy, and for appointing another commission to look into fee-taking in all the public departments.15 Where Pitt enjoyed customary authority, as First Lord of the Treasury, he acted more swiftly but almost as carefully. For instance, he launched plans to eradicate sinecures in the Customs,16 but by attrition rather than by a frontal assault on property in office. As patent officers died off, Pitt simply abolished their offices. This strategy prevented protests, but ensured that the sinecures would only fall in at a snail's pace.

A less generous interpretation than Ehrman's of the slow pace of administrative reform in the 1780s, but an equally compelling one, is that it chiefly stemmed from Pitt's jealousy of executive privilege. The fate of the Fees Commission that Pitt appointed as a follow-up to the reports of the Public Accounts Commission would seem to support this view. As John Breihan has pointed out, Pitt did not want to jeopardize the cautious pace of his reforms by giving the House of Commons an opportunity to debate either the Fees Commissioners' terms of reference or their suggestions. Pitt therefore had them report to the Privy Council, not to Parliament, and any reforms that followed the Fees Commission's recommendations were to be executed by Order in Council, so that the Commons would not even have an opportunity to debate any ensuing measures.

With the process thus insulated from MPs who might have proved to be dangerously zealous administrative reformers, Pitt was able to wind up the Fees Commission in 1789 after it had examined only ten of the twenty-four offices it had been slated to (p.63) look into. Most of the ten reports that were actually written went unpublished for several years. Reforms of fees were ultimately implemented in only six offices, after very long delays.17 These results were unimpressive, however much Pitt may have backed off for fear of internal resistance. Vested interests within the central administration may have been well equipped to stave off a direct executive assault, but Pitt's dismissal of the Fees Commission reveals that his distaste for activism in areas where he could expect serious challenges to his authority doomed from the outset even the possibility of thorough administrative reform. This timidity damaged his reputation for frugal and responsible management during the French Wars, when bureaucratic waste and inefficiency presented an irresistible target for critics of Old Corruption.

The Pittites and the Politics of Wartime Administration

Ultimately, the perceived greed of Pitt's colleagues contributed even more than his own reluctance as an administrative reformer to the wartime growth of the Old Corruption critique. Pitt's ministry was full of talented men of political business who subscribed to his notion of executive management. But many of their contemporaries suspected that the Pittites were by no means as decorous in their service to the public as was Pitt himself. Perhaps Pitt's most serious flaw was his failure to compel other government officers to adhere to the same high standard of conduct to which he adhered by choice, and which had helped to secure for him such a lofty reputation. As the radical propagandist John Wade noted, in a retrospective judgement of Pitt, ‘from the meanness of avarice he was totally free; but, disinterested himself, he was perhaps too slow in suspecting the contrary in some of his colleagues’.18

Pitt had neither the will nor the inclination to keep able but ambitious officials from reaching for as many emoluments as they could lay their hands on. He thought of patronage as a tedious chore that took him away from the important business of government (p.64) .19 According to Pitt's old tutor and biographer George Pretyman Tomline, he sometimes managed to escape from this and other unpleasant tasks by staying in bed late, which prevented him from ‘seeing and talking with many persons to whom he might otherwise have shown attention’.20 This constitutional aversion to dispensing the perquisites of office sometimes led him to neglect his supporters,21 but it also led him in many cases to capitulate to hungry men. Pitt's long-time Treasury secretary George Rose, for instance, was convinced that Pitt made so many peers not because he wished to enhance his ministry's influence in Parliament, but because ‘his most uncommon share of good-nature’ often ‘occasioned his giving way … to solicitations he should have resisted’.22

Pitt's colleagues were quick to take advantage of his carelessness in patronage matters. They were ambitious men who expected to be rewarded handsomely for their labours with power and emoluments. Henry Dundas, for example, was Pitt's sedulous chief adviser, but his love of office and the patronage it commanded was as notorious as his capacity for work.23 At the zenith of his power in the late 1790s, at least thirty-six government candidates were returned for Scotland through his nomination, and when he became President of the Board of Control, rumours abounded that he planned to make India an enormous treasure trove for himself and his connections.24

Dundas was joined by other veteran placemen who made comfortable careers out of making themselves useful to Pitt and to others before him. For example, Pitt's President of the Board of Trade, Charles Jenkinson, had been North's private secretary and (p.65) had served stints at the Admiralty and Treasury boards. Along with a number of ‘efficient’ offices, Jenkinson held the lucrative sinecures of the Clerkship of the Pells and the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster.25 John Robinson rose from a humble beginning in Westmorland to become patronage secretary at the Treasury under North and later Pitt; the King rewarded him handsomely for his invaluable services with a £1,000 pension, a sinecure, and the grant of a reversion for two lives.26 George Rose, likewise, ‘from a low situation had by political activities made a very large fortune’, as one contemporary put it.27 Rose's financial expertise was amply rewarded; by the late 1790s he was simultaneously Secretary to the Treasury, Clerk of the Parliaments, Agent for Dominica, Master of the Exchequer Pleas, and Verderer of the New Forest. He was regularly attacked in the Commons and the popular press for his multiple sinecures and his shady dealings as patronage secretary, and Cobbett accused him late in his career of costing the public at least £12,000 a year.28 Rose spent much of his emoluments on his Hampshire seat, Cuffnells, such a magnificent estate that the King himself joked that ‘only a Secretary of State’ could afford to keep it up.29

These senior Pittites were thus not nearly as inclined to renounce the private fruits of office as was their leader. But they failed to see any necessary conflict of interest between public duty and making money out of office. Rose, for example, confided to his diary that ‘there is something in self-love so deeply rooted, that private interests … have often a silent and effectual influence’ on men, but he hoped and trusted that such interests had never and would never compromise his own devotion to public duty.30 Pittites such as Rose tended to think of sinecures, pensions, and peerages as (p.66) much-deserved rewards for lives dedicated to public business, and many of them aggressively promoted their own claims. William Eden, for instance, the ministry's chief negotiator for its famous commercial treaty with France of 1786, badgered Pitt for marks of favour at every opportunity, and managed to extract from him an Irish peerage, some generous pensions, and the reversion to a Tellership of the Exchequer for his son. He was careful to preface each request with a declaration of his worthiness in consideration of his toil on the public's behalf.31

No doubt Eden and his hard-working colleagues felt that their requests were justified. But even observers with no political axe to grind felt that Pitt's men had advanced their private interests through office to an inordinate degree, and assumed that they had amassed fortunes in public money by the time they went out over the Catholic issue in 1801.32 In fact, the Pittites' notorious hunger for emoluments proved to be damaging to their political reputation even within the élite itself, at a time when the war and the Evangelical revival inspired the belief that Providence was punishing rapacious rulers. ‘This seems a time of judgement, especially upon corrupt establishments’, the Evangelical MP Charles Grant affirmed late in 1793, ‘and if we look at our privileges and the abuse of them … may we safely say that we shall see no sorrow?’33 God had already called His wrath down on the French ruling classes for abusing their privileges, and who could be certain that He was not now using the Jacobins once again as an instrument of vengeance on the moral laxness of rulers elsewhere on the Continent, and in Britain itself?

There was no question in the minds of Evangelicals, nor indeed in those of some High Churchmen such as John Bowdler, that official greed had done damage to the workings of the British state. Only ‘A THOROUGH REFORM OF PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES’, in Bowdler's estimation, could prevent prodigality and all the abuses to which it led from unleashing God's wrath on the government: ‘Ministers [must] learn … that human laws and human power can (p.67) avail nothing, without sound principles and pure morals.’34 Government would have to cleanse itself, Charles Grant concluded, or fall victim to the ‘time of chastisement’.35

These apocalyptic notions about the need for economical reform exerted a powerful parliamentary influence. They entered the Commons through the Evangelical phalanx that sat at Westminster during the war years and pressed the Pitt administration to retrench and to do away with administrative abuses. While Evangelical MPs applauded the ministry's suppression of domestic radicalism as a blow against sinful insubordination, a small but influential minority of them pitted themselves against the government in their efforts to extirpate national extravagance through economical reform. The compact squad of twenty or so MPs who generally acted under the informal leadership of William Wilberforce, unlike their fellow Evangelicals in the Commons, did not engage in unquestioning veneration of Pitt. Of 112 MPs identified as ‘evangelically-inclined’ between 1784 and 1832, over half of them gave an almost totally silent support to the ministry of the day, adhering to a fairly reactionary view of politics and only speaking out on narrow religious issues.36 Those who sat in the Commons during the Pitt era tended to treat Pitt himself as God's proxy, subscribing to Spencer Perceval's opinion that Pitt was ‘the immediate instrument under providence raised up for our deliverance from those calamities which have spread over Europe’.37 Not so Wilberforce and his followers. These ‘Saints’, as they were called, tended like other Evangelicals to vote with the ministry, especially on law-and-order issues, and none were willing to contemplate even a modest measure of parliamentary reform while Britain was at war with a regime which respected neither property nor religion. But they were truculently independent,38 and regularly sided with (p.68) the Foxite opposition and other independents on economical reform issues.

The Saints' critique of wartime ‘extravagance’ came to hinge on their contention that the greed and ambition of Pitt's political associates jeopardized his own disinterestedness and undermined his commitment to economical government. Wilberforce himself concluded by the 1820s that Pitt's ‘habitually associating with men of worldly ways of thinking and acting, in short, with a class which may be not unfitly termed trading politicians’, had brought to grief his earlier efforts ‘to govern his country by principle rather than by influence’. Not even as intrinsically virtuous a soul as Pitt's couldhave had regular contact with such self-serving men ‘without contracting insensibly more or less of defilement’.39 This was a retrospective judgement but a devastating one, for it came from one of Pitt's oldest and most widely respected supporters. It was anticipated by the Saints' occasional alliance with the opposition Whigs on economical reform measures, which put the Pitt ministry in serious trouble in 1805, when the Commons voted to bring Dundas to trial for impeachment on charges of misappropriation of public money.

We shall see that the proceedings against Dundas put paid to Pitt's reputation as a disinterested executive reformer and inspired popular radicals to launch another campaign for parliamentary reform, but it was only the last in a long series of wartime disappointments with the limits of Pitt's efforts to make the administrative structure more economical and more accountable to the public. Bureaucratic sclerosis and official malfeasance combined to intensify the critique of Old Corruption. As early as 1796, the Earl of Shelburne (now Marquess of Lansdowne) prefigured Wilberforce's posthumous criticism of Pitt when he made a general motion in the Lords for the reform of public offices, designed to ‘relieve the subject, and remedy evils which, if still suffered to accumulate, will be past all remedy, and must inevitably terminate in public confusion’. Lansdowne assailed the ministry for its failure to consolidate the revenue boards, to simplify army accounts, to curb unfunded debt, and to cut down on the patent offices in the Customs. The (p.69) growth of the central bureaucracy since the outbreak of the war, he insisted, had combined with the general increase in public spending to ‘augment … to an alarming degree’ the ‘influence of the Crown’. Lax wartime administration, Lansdowne concluded, had led to a deplorable accretion of civil and military offices. ‘[T]he Red Book [i.e., the official list of places, pensions, etc.] will soon become large enough to form a library’, he warned, and it was time for Parliament to take the initiative away from the executive in order to cut it down to decent proportions.40 Lansdowne's motion lost by a wide margin, but his indictment of his own former Chancellor of the Exchequer on issues of public economy was telling, and it inspired the opposition to make several administrative reform motions in the House of Commons during the 1796 session.41

The growth of the wartime bureaucracy quickly became a favourite target of opposition attack in the Commons, and the friends of the ministry felt compelled to respond. Nicholas Vansittart, for instance, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer, published a favourable assessment of Pitt's administrative accomplishments in 1796. Vansittart insisted that the administration had passed up no opportunities to retrench expenditure, and boasted that more government offices had at least been slated to fall in than had been created since Pitt took office in 1784.42 This last assertion was simply untrue. The civil government grew throughout the war years. While accurate figures for the earliest period are hard to come by, the number of government office-holders grew from 16,267 in 1797 to a peak of 24,598 in 1815;43 one can probably safely assume that the establishment had grown at the same or even a higher rate in the first years of the war. Between 1782 and 1796, for instance, the Customs establishment grew by 294 offices,44 and the Excise establishment by 65.45 The combined annual administrative costs of the Admiralty Office, the Navy Pay Office, and the Navy Board grew by over £24,000 over the same period.46 The (p.70) growth of public business in the first several years of the war undoubtedly accounted for much of these increases in personnel and cost. For example, the Barrack Office alone employed 173 men in 1796, and it had been created less than three years before, after the outbreak of hostilities.47

The inaccuracy of Vansittart's numbers is not as surprising as the imperative he felt to rest his case for the ministry's attention to economy on a net decrease in the number of government offices. His line of reasoning was designed to allay the suspicion generated by any growth in the size of the central government among a public that still tended to think of place primarily as a means for greedy men to reward themselves at taxpayers' expense. There was a good argument to be made for the necessity of central government growth, simply in order to keep pace with the huge wartime increase in public business. Indeed, official returns indicate that the government often got good value for money from administrative growth. For instance, Excise revenue grew almost 50 per cent between 1782 and 1796, while the cost of collection fell by almost £1.6 per £100 of tax;48 Post Office revenue increased by 250 per cent while costs increased by only 75 per cent;49 and the number of registered Treasury papers grew by some 70 per cent while office expenses grew by only 4 per cent.50 But despite such evidence of bureaucratic efficiency, not even the ministry's outspoken defenders were willing to clash openly with the popular bias against government growth.

The widespread suspicion of office and its emoluments challenged the mindset of men of political business who considered hefty perquisites to be their just rewards for public service. There were even some vociferous advocates of economy in the House of Commons who still believed that a sinecure was a proper reward for men who had sacrificed opportunities to get rich at the bar or elsewhere in order to hold public office.51 Moreover, given the constraints imposed on talented men from relatively humble back (p.71) grounds by the unreformed political system, ‘inefficient’ offices provided one of the few means by which they could afford to devote themselves to public service. This was a plausible and rational defence of bureaucratic ‘irrationality’.

As the war dragged on, however, the functional utility of ‘irregular’ emoluments came under attack, much as it had done in the early 1780s. As the public felt the bite of wartime privations, Evangelical pamphleteers told MPs that it was incumbent upon them to lop off ‘redundant expences, needless offices, and unmerited pensions’.52 As ‘the luxury of former years [was] no longer maintainable with any propriety’, it was time for office-holders to set an example by sacrificing part of their bloated incomes.53

In this climate of opinion, public men who accepted government favour were bound to come in for criticism. Burke himself discovered this, to his great indignation, when the young Foxite Duke of Bedford impugned him from the floor of the House of Lords for accepting a government pension.54 In a proud letter to Pitt, Burke had been very careful to stake his claim to a pension on meritorious public service,55 and in a famous pamphlet he indignantly refused to ‘recognize in his [Bedford's] few and idle years, the competence to judge of my long and laborious life’.56‘No state’, he concluded in an eloquent defence of ‘irregular’ emoluments, had ever been impoverished by the ‘species of profusion’ that rewarded public service.57 Even such an outspoken critic of lavish expenditure as Cobbett had to admit the justice of giving pensions as rewards for meritorious service.58 But merit was becoming a hotly contested notion as war continued and the tax burden grew more onerous. (p.72) Placemen began to feel more sharply the possible discrepancy between public and private notions of official comportment. Veteran office-holders like Baron Glenbervie appreciated how difficult it had become to balance ‘the dignity of my own character, [and] the integrity of my conduct’ against the need ‘to forward my own honourable views of laudable ambition in my own way’.59

The war exacerbated this tension between public and private perceptions of ‘irregular’ emoluments, and exposed the limitations of Pittite administrative reform more generally. In fact, growing wartime expenditure often tended to magnify abuses that the Public Accounts and Fees Commissions had long since denounced. In too many specific cases, it seemed that the taxpayers' money was being applied not to the defeat of the French, but to the pockets of government insiders. Wartime profits of many offices, for example, grew to dimensions that greatly exceeded any compensatory rationale. Several of the more conspicuous sinecurists in the civil government were paid fees on a sliding scale according to aggregate public expenditure or the volume of official business. Accordingly, when spending grew and the tempo of public business accelerated in response to the pressures of war, some sinecurists made truly outrageous profits. For instance, the Registrar of the High Court of Admiralty, Lord Arden, made £19,000 in 1797 alone from the percentage he received on naval prizes registered in the Court.60 The wartime profits that the Marquess of Buckingham and Marquess Camden received from their unregulated Tellerships of the Exchequer were even more notorious. They were paid on the basis of a fixed percentage of all government expenditure, so their emoluments grew with the growth in public spending. By 1809, they were each making over £20,000 a year from their Tellerships.61 Several more ‘efficient’ officers were also making immense profits from wartime fees. For instance, while the fees of the Accountant of Cash had totalled only about £740 in 1790, they came to over £3,000 in 1797.62

Pitt appointed a Finance Committee in 1797 in an effort to preserve some executive initiative over economical reform, but it (p.73) was quick to criticize the ministry's failure to prevent ‘irregular’ emoluments from ballooning during the war. The Committee assailed the magnification of fees as a violation of the plain good sense contained in the recommendations of the Public Accounts and Fees Commissions of the 1780s. Commissioners had repeatedly damned the payment of fees as a wasteful practice that encouraged government employees to perceive their offices not as public trusts but as convenient means of extracting profits from private clients. Despite such criticisms, the growth of business in the War Office alone had caused fees to grow by 800 per cent between 1792 and 1796, to almost £43,000 a year.63 Over roughly the same period, fees swelled by almost 350 per cent in the Home Office, to over £28,000 a year.64 In many departments, senior officers and humble subordinates alike reaped huge windfalls. While in 1796 the Secretary at War earned only a salary of £2,480, for instance, his First Clerk made a staggering £14,482 from fees alone.65 The clerk of the cutting house at the Deptford naval yards went from rags to riches: he had earned only £135 in 1792, but his fees alone in 1797 came to almost £l,500.66

The magnification of fee income was not confined to the older departments. It is a telling commentary on the limits of Pittite administrative reform that, despite all the sound and fury of the Public Accounts and Fees Commissioners in the 1780s, fees accounted for a significant proportion of compensation even in offices created after the outbreak of war. For instance, only two years after the creation of the Transport Office in 1794, its employees received over 20 per cent of their emoluments in the form of fees, and the clerks in the office made almost twice as much in fees as they did in salaries.67 In any case, the Finance Committee was only reiterating customary advice when it argued that the conversion of fees into strict salaries would do away with the gross fluctuations in official incomes, and that the cost to the public of this conversion would prove to be substantially less than the cost of swollen fees at a time when Britons could least afford to pay them.68

(p.74) The Committee was once again merely echoing its predecessors when it assailed the sinecures remaining in the central bureaucracy as an insulting waste of public money, particularly during wartime. While it acknowledged the value of a few such ‘inefficient’ offices as compensation ‘for long and meritorious service’ and the professional opportunities thereby sacrificed, it felt that a regular form of superannuation was a vastly preferable alternative in most cases;69 Committee members counted a hundred or so offices executed by deputy in the courts of justice alone,70 and five years after the Committee issued its reports there remained some 200 life patents and fourteen reversions in the domestic establishment.71 These numbers seemed to offer proof that a bevy of placemen were profiting handsomely from taxpayers' wartime misery. It appeared that the effect of growing expenditures was not so much to ensure the defeat of the French as to magnify Old Corruption.

The Finance Committee concluded that many other aspects of central administration had fallen prey to the waste and sclerosis caused by the wartime increase of business within a faulty administrative system. Its chairman was Charles Abbot, a stepbrother of Jeremy Bentham and a ‘master of little forms’72 who tackled public business with a vigorous punctilio and an independent spirit, and it included other staunchly independent economizers such as Abbot's close friend Henry Bankes,73 as well as industrious Pittite administrators such as Dudley Ryder. The Committee issued a total of thirty-six reports that covered every aspect of revenue collection, the management of expenditure and the national debt, the audit of accounts, and the organization and payment of personnel. Committee members conceived of their task as an examination of the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Public Accounts and Fees Commissions,74 and their conclusions attested to the narrow limits of Pittite administrative reform and its failure to ensure bureaucratic efficiency during the war.

First, the Finance Committee followed the Public Accounts Commission in its harsh criticism of the spending departments. While (p.75) the state had turned into a very efficient tax engine, Committee members concluded, it was still lamentably wasteful in the manner in which it allocated public money. Taxpayers thus had good reason to suspect that a significant proportion of the wartime increase in public revenue was being squandered. Indeed, faulty administrative structures, contracting procedures, and accounting methods led to an incalculably greater waste of wartime tax money than did the inflation of fees and sinecure incomes. The naval yards provide one vivid example of how the growing demands on an archaic organizational structure magnified waste and even fraud. A traditional perquisite for dockyard workers was the gathering of ‘chips’ to be taken home or sold for fuel—squares of wood that were left over from the conversion of timber into ships' parts. Jeremy Bentham's brother Samuel, Inspector General of Naval Works, testified that workers deliberately wasted costly timber in an effort to create more chips for themselves; that they spent much of their time on the job in collecting chips rather than doing useful work; and that they often smuggled out of the yards in their piles of chips such expensive articles as copper and brass fittings, which they then sold at inflated prices.75

There is no telling how much of the enormous sum of tax money spent on the wartime navy (well over £13 million in 1798 alone) was wasted on chips. But it is safe to assume that opportunities for chip-collecting and for petty embezzlement increased in roughly direct proportion to the dramatic growth of shipbuilding in the yards.76 In 1801, the Attorney General estimated the annual loss to the public through the taking of chips and related forms of embezzlement at £500,000,77 which was roughly 30 per cent more than the annual cost of all sinecures in the domestic establishment. This figure was probably exaggerated, and in any case chip-taking was abolished that same year. But chips clearly cost taxpayers a great deal in the first eight years of war, simply because bureaucratic inertia made it very difficult to do away with them.

The Finance Committee and its wartime successors likewise discovered that contracting procedures were costing taxpayers dearly. (p.76) It was inevitable that the provisioning requirements of such a farflung and protracted war effort would furnish contractors and government officers with irresistible opportunities to commit frauds on the public. For lack of any comprehensive study of contracts during the French Wars, it is impossible to make anything like an accurate estimate of their total cost, much less their cost in fraud. The general impression that one gets from wartime inquiries is that neither cost was particularly great, considering the vast scale of the provisioning effort. Nevertheless, a few examples indicate that the government lost an appreciable sum to contract fraud. Plenty of small-scale fraud was detected at the naval yards, for example. While Michael and John Hodges, for instance, were contracted by the Woolwich yards to do £3,670 worth of cooper's work in 1801, they only performed about £260 of it and made off with the balance. What especially bothered investigators about this instance of fraud was that it could only have been carried out with the collusion of yard officials.78 A more spectacular fraud was detected in the purchase of naval stores in Jamaica, where it was calculated that the purchase of shoddy goods at exorbitant prices had cost the government almost £28,000 in the first two months of 1800 alone.79

Elsewhere, the failure to enforce the principle of competitive bidding may well have inflated the cost of material purchased by the civil branches of the armed forces. In 1794, for example, the then Barrack Master General, Oliver De Lancey, provided Alexander Davison with a virtual ten-year monopoly for the supply of ‘the great articles of barrack consumption’ to the Barrack Office. Davison made substantial commissions on provisions that were worth a total of almost £900,000, and the Barrack Office apparently never even bothered to ascertain whether or not he was charging it at competitive prices, and only rarely inspected the quality of his merchandise. It was later discovered that the dealers who had sold goods to Davison would just as happily have sold directly to the Barrack Office, thus saving taxpayers the cost of Davison's commissions.80 Such lax contracting procedures, accompanied as they were by several instances of downright fraud, were clearly an appreciable drain on the Treasury during the war.

(p.77) Finally, the Finance Committee's investigations made it clear that cumbersome accounting procedures hampered the war effort and wasted large sums of public money. The enormous wartime growth of the army put great strain on a primitive accounting system in which senior officers were required to handle the accounts of their units, then submit them to regimental agents and paymasters who would in turn submit the accounts to the army Pay Office, which would finally submit them for a final reckoning to the Commissioners for Auditing the Public Accounts. Several serious problems arose from the structural inadequacies of this system. First of all, there was no reliable means of determining arrears in army accounts, because almost every officer in the field was ‘in some degree a public accountant’.81 The only thing that could be assumed with confidence was that arrears were mounting rapidly, because the system was unable to keep pace with the growth of accounts. Remarkably, by 1797 it had been over eleven years since any accounts had been submitted by the Pay Office to the Commissioners for Auditing, a fact that led the Finance Committee to the obvious conclusion that ‘the sum not finally accounted for by the Pay Office must be of an enormous extent’.82 Second, it was clear that this slipshod accounting system invited fraud, by putting substantial sums of public money into such a multitude of hands. Finally, the inadequacies of the system led to interminable delays in the payment of arrears, because the individual accounts of field officers could not be cleared until all such accounts for a given year had been settled.83

In the early 1780s, the Public Accounts Commission had warned that the practice of lodging large balances of public money pending audit in the hands of officials rather than in accounts at the Bank of England was bound to encourage peculation, and the 1797 Finance Committee's strictures on army accounting reiterated the point. In this case, the cost of administrative inertia became clear by the last several years of the Napoleonic War, when a series of large embezzlements became public knowledge. Several public officers had been unable to resist the temptation to profit from the (p.78) enormous sums of wartime tax money with which the auditing system had entrusted them. Accounting procedures in the civil departments of the navy were so lax that George Villiers, long-time Paymaster of Marines, had until 1803 been able to deceive the Navy Office into believing that he held only £12,000 of public money pending audit, when in fact he held over twenty times this sum. As late as 1817, long after the government had seized his assets and sold his estate, Villiers still owed £220,000 to the public.84 Similarly, Joseph Hunt, Treasurer of the Ordnance (1803–6, 1807–10), ran off to Portugal with over £93,000 in public balances after having posted no sureties for them. After his expulsion from the House of Commons and the government's sale of his estate for only £3,750, it appeared that the enormous outstanding balance would have to be written off as a total loss.85 Wartime accounting practices at the Treasury were likewise so slipshod that one chief clerk, William Chinnery, was able to supplement his salary of £4,000 a year with almost £79,000 in public money that had been given to him in order to defray various official expenses that he had incurred in his capacity as colonial agent for several islands in Britain's possession.86 Ultimately, the government had to write off a charge against him of £42,000.87 In sum, the stress exerted upon a woefully inadequate accounting system by the rapid growth of wartime spending ended up costing taxpayers a great deal of money. Of course, embezzlement was illegal, but the administrative system practically invited it, and the only surprise is that investigators uncovered only a handful of spectacular frauds.

The important point is that the 1797 Finance Committee gave considerable publicity to what it perceived to be the wasteful abuses connected with sinecures, reversions, fees, contracts, and accounting methods, and that the Pitt administration showed little inclination to rectify them. Several office-holders made it known to Abbot that they resented his Committee's broad terms of refer (p.79) ence,88 and he could count on nothing more than lukewarm support from the Treasury in the battle he was waging against well-entrenched bureaucrats. George Rose perused the first batch of Committee reports and then handed them over to Pitt with the inauspicious remark that ‘there is nothing I think of much importance in any of them’.89 Abbot's diary entries suggest that Pitt privately gave his blessing to several of the Committee's bolder reform proposals.90 But the ministry's failure to act upon them casts serious doubt on the customary historiographical assertions of Pitt's abiding commitment to piecemeal structural improvement.

The reticence that Pitt and his colleagues showed towards the Finance Committee recommendations was striking, and extended even to their correspondence with each other. One can only infer that they failed to commit themselves to wholesale structural reform during the war for three probable reasons: first, because, as in peacetime, they wished neither to offend powerful government insiders nor to encourage the Commons to tamper with the machinery of state; second, because, ironically, the burden of daily wartime business prevented them from taking the time to implement reforms which could have lightened that burden;91 and third, because the great fear of systemic change provoked by the French Revolution was enough to cripple virtually any reform effort, even one that would have enhanced Britain's ability to combat the ‘revolutionary contagion’. However understandable these reasons for inaction may have been under the circumstances, Pitt's failure to reshape the bureaucratic structure during the wartime crisis ultimately prompted many observers to question whether he was still the responsible manager of tax money that he had shown himself to be in peacetime.

(p.80) In the absence of a formidable opposition in the Commons and in the midst of an invasion scare, the ministry found it easy to pass over most of the Committee's suggestions. A 500-page volume entitled Proceedings and Measures of Government, 1798–1803, on the Finance Reports of 1797–8,92 is chiefly notable for what it did not include. As a result of the reports, bills were drafted to lessen the number of holidays in several government offices,93 to abolish some of the patent offices in the Customs establishment,94 and to transfer the collection of salt duties from the sinecure-ridden Salt Office to the Excise.95 But the government confronted virtually none of the Finance Committee's major criticisms. The problem of ballooning wartime fees was scarcely even mentioned in the Proceedings, despite all the damning evidence to be found inthe Committee reports. Sinecures and reversions were virtually ignored. Practically nothing was done to deter contracting fraud, or to streamline the ineffectual accounting system that cost so much money as the French Wars went on. In short, the Pitt ministry's failure to tackle the systemic problems exposed by the Finance Committee made charges of wartime administrative waste and official negligence far more persuasive than they need have been.

Retrenchment was the biggest casualty of the government's administrative laxity. The Finance Committee had hesitated to make any sweeping statements of the need to slash expenditure during wartime—for fear, no doubt, of questioning the administration's resolve to continue fighting the Directory—and in the next several years ministers took little care to distinguish between waste and expenditure necessary to wage war. Their failure to discriminate encouraged radicals to protest once again that the state was diverting tax money to parasitical interests at the centre while the common people were going hungry.96

Economical reform did briefly return to the ministerial agenda after Pitt left office in March 1801. Henry Addington took over as (p.81) premier because he upheld the King's constitutional authority to veto Catholic relief, but his subservience to the royal will on this issue did not prevent him from attempting a thorough recasting of the administrative machinery. He took advantage of the Peace of Amiens (October 1801) to try to set the apparatus of state in order. In addition to increasing the rate and improving the collection of Pitt's income tax, the Addington ministry set for itself the ambitious goals of reforming the management of the naval dockyards and cleansing the Irish administration of the manifold nepotistic abuses to be found within it. But the precipitate manner in which Addington attempted root-and-branch reforms alienated bureaucrats, and their resistance forced him into one tactical retreat after another. Addington sent the irrepressible Charles Abbot to Dublin Castle to carry out the proposed Irish reforms, but his peremptory insistence on a clean sweep of the Irish administration provoked so much resistance from powerful vested interests within it that Addington soon had to recall him.97

At the Admiralty, Earl St Vincent declared war on the Navy Board's wasteful management of dockyard production through a Commission of Naval Inquiry armed with extremely broad terms of reference. It ruthlessly criticized the ‘irregular’ emoluments, inflated business expenses, and faulty accounting procedures of the civil branch of the navy.98 This criticism was not entirely just, for the great expense and relative inefficiency of the royal dockyards stemmed primarily from long-term organizational flaws rather than the incompetence of officers. But St Vincent insisted on holding the members of the Navy Board responsible, and their dogged resistance to him, along with that of the contractors for naval timber with whom St Vincent was also at war, left the navy unprepared for the resumption of hostilities in 1803.99 This uneven and illconceived approach to administrative reform compromised the Addington ministry's effectiveness almost as much as the widespread perception among contemptuous Whigs and Pittites that it (p.82) lacked ‘the sufficient proportion of three things—brains, blood and gold, i.e. abilities, family and property’.100

Even so, the Addington interlude had served to make administrative improvement an executive project once again. When Pitt returned to the Treasury in May 1804 (after promising George III that he would never again raise the issue of Catholic relief while he held office), he set to work on administrative reforms at a more rapid pace than he had in the past. For instance, the second Pitt ministry issued a Treasury Minute in 1805 that established the prototype for the apolitical civil servant in the permanent secretary of the Treasury.101 Pitt also appointed a Commission on Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of the Navy that consolidated regulations, clarified the duties attached to each civil office, and revised accounting procedures.102 It began to appear that Pitt was seeking to restore his tarnished credentials as an administrative reformer.

3. The Dundas Affair

The Dundas affair, however, seriously weakened the Pitt ministry's attempt to protect the political system from popular agitation. Of course, the government's efforts to suppress the revolution abroad and dissent at home had already alienated reformers of all sorts. But its repressive measures had at least driven underground the republican agitators whom it had deemed its most dangerous enemies. Now it was not Pittite ‘despotism’ that provoked radicals (who professed to speak for humble taxpayers such as artisans, shopkeepers, and labourers) to agitate for wholesale parliamentary reform after a decade of virtual silence. It was the perception that only a sweeping constitutional change would root out the ‘corrupt’ politicians who profited from the people's wartime misery. Ultimately, it was the Pittites' failure to cleanse the wartime administration of its most serious abuses that provoked just the sort of popular challenge to élite political authority that they had hoped to prevent. The Dundas affair, radicals argued, made it clear that ministers could not be trusted to spend public (p.83) money responsibly of their own free will. They would have to be forced to do so by a broader electorate that would send vigilant watchdogs of the people's money to Westminster.

In March 1805, the tenth report of Addington's Commission of Naval Inquiry was published. It revealed that Alexander Trotter, the Paymaster of the Navy, had paid public balances lodged in his hands into his private bank account at Coutts's. This was in clear violation of 25 George III, c. 31, an Act that had grown out of precedents established as part of the Rockinghams' economical reform programme of 1782.103 The Act itself was flawed, since officers in some departments were still permitted to draw interest from public money,104 and it was not clear whether Lord Melville (Henry Dundas), as First Lord of the Admiralty, had actually colluded in his inferior's misappropriation of funds. But the Foxites were not about to let slip such a golden opportunity to label the ministry ‘corrupt’, and early in April the leftwing Whig Samuel Whitbread moved a vote of censure on Melville.

Whitbread's most damning resolutions alleged that Trotter had acted with Melville's knowledge and consent when he used public money to invest in Exchequer and Navy Bills; and that at the same time Trotter had paid out advances to Melville of £10,000–20,000 in his capacity as Melville's private agent, without establishing whether these advances came from public accounts or from Melville's private income. ‘Country’ and Evangelical independents were appalled by the thought that a senior minister might have taken such liberties with the taxpayers' money. The Saints' leader, Wilberforce, spoke strongly in favour of Whitbread's resolutions, suggesting that the nation expected the Commons to condemn such a flagrant example of the abuse of ministerial privilege at public expense. ‘It is not religion, but popular opinion, which among us at this day is the general standard of practice’, Wilberforce later explained, and if the Commons had let Melville off, ‘there is no saying what might have been the effect in a few years on the purity of our political system’.105 Any failure to condemn such an abuse of (p.84) privilege, he reasoned, would encourage further abuses and provoke popular contempt for the constitution.

If the house was once to suffer a minister to say that he had connived at the breach of a law by a person who had been his confidential servant for a number of years, and that the superior was to pass uncensured because no personal corruption had been proved against him; … it would open a door to every species of corruption, and there would be no security left for the faithful discharge of any public trust.106

A sufficient number of independents saw the matter in the same light to force a deadlock of 216 to 216 on Whitbread's resolutions, and the Speaker, that paragon of integrity, Charles Abbot, cast the deciding vote against Melville,107 who resigned in response.

This was the first time in many years that a government led by Pitt had lost an important division. ‘The strength of the minister, with all the personal friends created by Lord Melville in his long public career,’ exulted one friend of the opposition, ‘availed nothing. The impression within, & the clamour without, [are] very great.’108 The result focused the public imagination once again on parasitism at the centre. To many observers, the Dundas affair offered the most damning proof of all that Pitt's henchmen were profiting directly from the people's wartime burden. ‘The tenth Report’, wrote one lady of fashion, ‘engross[es] all the attention from the highest to the lowest.’ She regretted that a great public man had apparently turned out to be a rogue, but regretted even more that the knowledge of it ‘so exasperates the minds of the lower people’ and seemed to corroborate ‘the arguments of those mischief-makers who strive so hard to persuade them that all their woes originate in the corruption & peculation of their superiors’. She went on to describe the indignation generated by the rumour that Melville and his close relatives were receiving upwards of £50,000 a year in public money.109 Of around forty prints published in the three months after the release of the tenth Committee (p.85) report, all but nine of them attacked Melville, depicting him as Macheath and Wolsey, among other villains.110

At a performance of The Wheel of Fortune at Covent Garden shortly after Melville's resignation, the audience roared when one character exclaimed that he could not give a marriage portion to his daughter because he had ‘never understood the art of governing’. The actors had to wait several minutes before they could hear themselves above the din, and the commotion provoked by the same line at Drury Lane a few days later was ‘infinitely greater’.111 Numerous public meetings in the metropolis and many other cities and county towns in the next several weeks resulted in petitions to the Commons to persevere in their inquiries into corruption in high places.112 Petitioners from Norfolk hoped that,

warned by the example of detected guilt, and awake to the frauds which have been practised upon their own facility, as well as upon the public purse, the house will perceive the necessity of resorting to those principles which prevailed in the better days of our constitution, and of acting upon a system of vigilance and jealousy in preference to one of blind and implicit confidence in ministers.113

As an opposition MP noted, ‘the spirit of enquiry certainly spreads as it naturally would among the better class of middling men as well as among the lower orders’.114

These signs of popular disgust delighted the Whigs, who felt that office was finally within their reach now that ‘their antagonists are cast into the shadow by the disclosure of such vulgar and miserable embezzlements’.115 The Whig left wing hoped to drive the Pitt ministry from office with a flurry of economical reform activity. ‘[A] clamour for reform in the expenditure of the public money is at last found to be the touchstone of the House of Commons and the Public’, Thomas Creevey exulted. He hoped that further economical (p.86) reform agitation would lead to another round of public meetings.116 Even Whigs who were less inclined to stir up indignation outdoors hoped to prolong the public airing of dirty linen for political advantage.117 Samuel Whitbread did his part to further the cause of the opposition by moving impeachment proceedings against Melville in the middle of June. The government managed to defeat the motion, but the Saints and other high-minded independents joined the Foxites on Henry Bankes's amendment calling for the criminal prosecution of Melville. Once again the Evangelicals had forced retribution on the stricken minister. Melville's friends preferred an impeachment trial to a criminal prosecution, so the ministry permitted Whitbread to take the case for impeachment to the House of Lords. Nearly a year passed before the Lords delivered their verdict, but their acquittal of Melville came as no surprise, since the Upper House was packed with ministerial supporters.

The proceedings against Melville nevertheless inspired renewed outdoor agitation for economical and even parliamentary reform. Yet Pitt managed to preserve his personal reputation for strict probity. Even enthusiastic Whigs had ‘great respect for his proud and careless purity’ and could entertain ‘no idea of his participation in any thing like Dundas's common pilfering’.118 Pitt was careful not to jeopardize this predisposition in his favour. He spoke out in his peccant colleague's defence tardily and unenthusiastically, to the chagrin of some of his own supporters, such as the Earl of Liverpool,119 but to his own benefit. His friends could not but ‘regret exceedingly that Mr. Pitt was not sooner aware of the extent of the public feeling’ against Melville.120 But while they thought it very unfortunate that ‘a spirit of reform and inquiry has been excited which it will be impossible to resist’, they had reason to be confident that ‘it is in Mr. Pitt's power to take the lead and in a considerable degree to guide its direction’.121

Evidently concluding that he had no choice but to sacrifice (p.87) Melville, Pitt made assurance doubly sure by bringing in a notice for a military inquiry and the renewal of the same Commission for Examining the Civil Affairs of the Navy that had exposed his old colleague in the first place. He also replaced Melville at the Admiralty with Sir Charles Middleton, an old reforming Evangelical administrator of unimpeachable character. Through such prompt concessions Pitt came out of the affray ‘perfectly immaculate notwithstanding the bad company he has kept’.122 Nevertheless, Whigs and popular radicals alike felt that the Melville affair had exposed the Pitt ministry's vulnerability, and it rekindled their old antagonism to ‘ministerial extravagance’ as the focus of unfair privileges and wartime misgovernment. The earnest young Whig Francis Horner, for instance, still thought Pitt a man of impeccable integrity, but loathed Melville and Pitt's other henchmen as greedy placemen, and deplored the ‘want of system’ that blemished their management of the war and threw ‘our whole system of civil economy … into disorder’.123

Popular radicals would have readily agreed with Horner's assessment, except that they were now, as in the 1780s, more inclined to press for a constitutional rather than an administrative solution to ‘corruption’ and prodigal expenditure. Fortunately for the government, very few landlords and tenants and virtually no ‘country’ or Evangelical independents in the Commons were willing even to contemplate parliamentary reform as a means of obtaining economical reform while Britain was at war with a revolutionary regime. Urban radicals had no such qualms, however. Major John Cartwright, the old veteran of the Wilkite and Association movements in the metropolis, felt that the parasitism at the centre manifest in the Melville affair, and the hopelessness of obtaining redress from a ministry which seemed to encourage such parasitism, were sufficient reasons to sponsor public meetings in support of parliamentary reform. He bitterly complained to Wyvill that, after ‘all that had passed since the former addresses and petitions against the corruptions in the government during the American War’, there was no point in ‘mumbl[ing] over again the miserable stuff with which the exertions of those days commenced’.124 Anything (p.88) less than the exclusion of placemen, shorter parliaments, and a broader franchise would be insufficient to liberate the public from ministerial extravagance. The duration of the war, its enormous cost, and the sustenance it evidently gave to privileged interests at the centre, including ministers themselves, had brought home to Cartwright the hopelessness of economical reform as a means of renovating the constitution.

Ultimately, then, the scale of the war had combined with the sluggish pace of administrative reform to prompt radicals to thrust parliamentary reform back into the political arena after a decade's absence. Their new restiveness marked the ultimate failure of Pitt's effort to appropriate economy and public-spiritedness for an executive mission to safeguard the constitution, and the social hierarchy on which it rested, from outdoor assaults. In the late 1780s, Pitt had convinced even Cartwright that he was ‘the first character’ for ‘conducting national business’.125 By 1805, Cartwright and many other popular radicals blamed Pitt not only for the suppression of civil liberties, but for corruption, and for general mismanagement of the war; they were prepared to launch a campaign to rid the constitution of all these blemishes by means of parliamentary reform. A few months later, in January 1806, Pitt died, and his critics now had to focus their attack on the nefarious ‘System’ that they felt he had bequeathed to the nation.


(1) Clive Emsley, ‘The Impact of War and Military Participation on Britain and France 1792–1815’, in Emsley and James Walvin (eds.), Artisans, Peasants, and Proletarians 1760–1860: Essays Presented to Gwyn Williams (1985), 60.

(2) Patrick O' Brien, ‘The Political Economy of British Taxation, 1660–1815’, Econ. HR, 2nd ser. 41 (1988), 13.

(3) It is still difficult to generalize with any confidence about attitudes towards the French Revolutionary War among the less privileged classes. E. P. Thompson's Jacobinical artisans (The Making of the English Working Class (1963), pt. 1) and Linda Colley's humble, ostensibly patriotic volunteers (Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992), ch. 7) represent the two extremes of what was clearly a very broad spectrum of opinion.

(4) J. E. D. Binney, British Public Finance and Administration 1774–92 (Oxford, 1958), 11–13.

(5) Sessional Papers, xli. 430.

(6) . Sessional Papers, xlii. 154.

(7) John Torrance, ‘Social Class and Bureaucratic Innovation’, P&P 78 (1978), 58–9; Binney, British Public Finance, 7–19.

(8) Sessional Papers, xliii. 27.

(9) Ibid. 34–5.

(10) Ibid. 35–6.

(11) Ibid. 135.

(12) See Torrance, ‘Social Class’, 60–6; John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State 1688–1783 (New York, 1988), 101–14.

(13) John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt (1969), i. 311.

(14) Ehrman, Younger Pitt, i. 300.

(15) Cobbett, xxv, cols. 299–310 (17 Feb. 1785).

(16) See e.g. George Rose, Observations respecting the public expenditure and the influence of the Crown (1810), 9.

(17) John Breihan, ‘William Pitt and the Commission on Fees, 1785–1801’, HJ 27 (1984), 59–81

(18) John Wade, British History, chronologically arranged (1839), 670. For a similar radical assessment of Pitt, see The Reflector, ed. Leigh Hunt [1811], i. 456.

(19) Ehrman, Younger Pitt, i. 233–4.

(20) The Diaries and Correspondence of George Rose, ed. Leveson Vernon Harcourt, 2 vols. (1860), ii. 91: Pretyman Tomline to George Rose, 4 Feb. 1805.

(21) Samuel Smith e.g., long-time MP for Leicester, complained to Pitt in 1805 that his only request for patronage in seventeen years of unswerving support for the government had been ignored. R. G. Thorne (ed.), The House of Commons, 1790– 1820, 5 vols. (1986), v. 204. Even Pitt's more grasping political friends who had done well by him often complained of his inattention. See e.g. PRO 30/8, 117 (part 1), fo. 76: Marquess of Buckingham to Pitt, 1 Oct. 1796.

(22) Rose Diaries, ed. Harcourt, ii. 260.

(23) Dundas liked to boast that his ‘strong disposition to perspiration’ kept him in robust health, even though he was always too overworked to take exercise. PRO 30/8, 157, fo. 149: Dundas to Pitt, 22 Nov. 1792.

(24) Thorne (ed.), House of Commons, iii. 636; Cobbett's Political Register, vii. 519–21 (6 Apr. 1805).

(25) Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke (eds.), The House of Commons, 1754–1790, 3 vols. (1964), ii. 674–8.

(26) Ibid. iii. 364–6.

(27) The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave, xv. 5140–1 (14 Jan. 1818).

(28) See e.g. Admirable satire on the death, dissection, funeral procession, and epitaph of Mr. Pitt (1795), 14; The Rosead (1804); Namier and Brooke, House of Commons, iii. 375–6; Thorne, House of Commons, v. 45–53.

(29) The Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, Lord Glenbervie, ed. Francis Bickley, 2 vols. (1928), i. 235 (3 July 1801). See also i. 329 (20 Aug. 1802). Rose liked to brag that his conservatory at Cuffnells was 100 feet long. Farington Diary, ed. Garlick, Macintyre, and Cave, xv. 5140–1 (14 Jan. 1818).

(30) Rose Diaries, ed. Harcourt, ii. 266 (22 Feb. 1806).

(31) See e.g. PRO 30/8, 110 (part 1), fos. 135–6: Pitt to Eden, 27 Oct. 1788; fos. 154–5: Auckland (formerly Eden) to Pitt, Feb. 1790; fo. 158: Same to Same, 23 Feb. 1790; part 2, fo. 23: Same to Same, 14 July 1794.

(32) Farington Diary, ed. Garlick, Macintyre, and Cave, iv. 1503–4 (18 Feb. 1801).

(33) Henry Morris, Life of Charles Grant (1904), 203–4: Grant to Hannah More, 26 Dec. 1793.

(34) [John Bowdler the Elder], Reform or ruin (12th edn. 1798), 10.

(35) Morris, Life of Grant, 231: Grant to his sister, 26 Feb. 1797.

(36) Ian Bradley, The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians (New York, 1976), 165–78; id., ‘The Politics of Godliness: Evangelicals in Parliament, 1784–1832’, D. Phil, thesis (Oxford, 1974), 7, ch. 8; Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1795–1865 (Oxford, 1988), 204–11.

(37) Quoted in Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister 1762–1812 (Manchester, 1963), 35.

(38) ‘[H]alf of the miseries of the world arise from the violence of opposite notions or factions … in the midst of whom the voice of the more wise and moderate is drowned,’ Henry Thornton pronounced in typical Saintly fashion. Thornton Papers (Cambridge University Library), Add. Ms. 7674/1/R, fo. 46; Thornton's diary, Thurs. [early Feb?] 1795.

(39) The Private Papers of William Wilberforce, ed. A. M. Wilberforce (1897), 72 (dated 2 Nov. 1821).

(40) Cobbett, 32, cols. 1041–50 (2 May 1796).

(41) See e.g. ibid., cols. 1062 (6 May 1796), 1138 (13 May 1796), 1224 (21 Oct. 1796).

(42) Nicholas Vansittart, An inquiry into the state of the finances of Great Britain; in answer to Mr. Morgan's Facts (1796), 67–71.

(43) PP 1830–1: 7 (no. 92), 300–1. Expenditure on salaries grew at an even greater rate—from almost £l.4m in 1797 to £3.2m in 1815.

(44) Sessional Papers, cvii. 209.

(45) Ibid. 393.

(46) Ibid. cix. 149–50.

(47) Sessional Papers, cix. 391–2.

(48) Ibid. cvii. 339–40.

(49) Ibid, cviii. 95–6.

(50) Ibid. cix. 40.

(51) This was the opinion of Charles Abbot, one of the most vigorous economical reformers in the House of Commons in the 1790s and 1800s. The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1802–1817, ed. Charles, Lord Colchester, 3 vols. (1861), i. 239 (18 Feb. 1801).

(52) Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the duties of men in the higher and middle classes of society in Great Britain (1794), 149.

(53) [Anon.], Considerations on public economy (1796), 48.

(54) Cobbett, xxxii, cols. 260–1 (13 Nov. 1795). The ministry had awarded Burke the pension in recognition of his public service in general and his authorship of the Reflections in particular.

(55) PRO 30/8, 118 (part 1), fo. 68: Burke to Pitt, n.d., 1794. ‘Mr. Burke has never asked for anything nor suggested any reward’, he affirmed. ‘But if he is permitted to compare his endeavours and rewards, … with contemporary examples’, perhaps the government would see that he truly deserved the pension which it intended to give him.

(56) Edmund Burke, A letter from the right honourable Edmund Burke to a noble lord, on the attacks made upon him and his pension (1st edn., 1796), 9.

(57) Ibid. 33.

(58) Cobbetfs Annual Register, vi, col. 384 (3 Sept. 1804).

(59) Glenbervie Diaries, ed. Bickley, i. 222 (15 Apr. 1801).

(60) Sessional Papers, cxi. 292.

(61) PP 1810: ii (no. 362), 637.

(62) Sessional Papers, cxiii. 82–5. Similarly, the profits of the Clerk of the House of Commons surpassed £12,000 in 1803, as the pressure of business in the House brought with it ever more fees. Abbot Diary, ed. Colchester, i. 482 (23 Feb. 1804).

(63) Sessional Papers, cix. 237–8.

(64) Ibid. 122–3. Over the same span of time, fees climbed by 25% in the Customs, to almost £80,000 a year. Ibid. cvii. 213.

(65) Ibid. cix. 375–6.

(66) Ibid, cxiii. 85.

(67) Ibid. cix. 193–4.

(68) Ibid, cviii. 363–6.

(69) Sessional Papers, cix. 526–7

(70) Ibid. cxi. 298–311.

(71) PP 1801–2: iv (no. 15), 59.

(72) Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, Autobiography, times, opinions, and contempo-raries, 2 vols. (1834), i. 191.

(73) See Abbot Diary, ed. Colchester, i. 141 n.

(74) Sessional Papers, cvii. 192–3.

(75) Ibid, cxiii. 44–6.

(76) The British fleet doubled in size between 1793 and 1802. Roger Morriss, The Royal Dockyards during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Leicester, 1983), 168.

(77) Ibid. 93.

(78.) PP 1802–3: iv (no. 109), 354.

(79.) Ibid. 172–3.

(80.) PP 1806–7: ii (no. 4), 203–14.

(81) Sessional Papers, cvii. 145–6.

(82) Ibid. cix. 231.

(83) Ibid. 236. In 1797, the clerk in charge of regimental accounts at the War Office estimated that the arrears charged to army officers amounted to well over £250,000 for the previous year alone. Ibid. cvii. 163.

(84) PP 1810 (no. 203): 2, 371; Thorne (ed.), House of Commons, v. 453. Considering the prevailing standard of negligence in the wartime auditing system, it is altogether fitting that the Treasury was unable to locate the £10,000 bond that Villiers had submitted as security for the public balances to be lodged in his hands when he took the Paymaster's office in 1792.

(85) PP 1810: 9 (no. 81), 459–74; PP 1812: 2, 498–9; Thorne (ed.), House of Commons, iv. 266–7.

(86) PP 1812: 2 (no. 399), 514–18.

(87) Gray, Spencer Perceval, 318.

(88) Abbot Diary, ed. Colchester, i. 140 (22 Mar. 1798). Abbot encountered the greatest resistance in the courts of justice. The Lord Chancellor in particular was loath to disclose the inner workings of the Court of Chancery—customarily all but immune to central inquiry. Ibid. 142–4 (28 Mar. 1798).

(89) PRO 30/8, 173 (part 2), fo. 204: Rose to Pitt, 3 Sept. 1797.

(90) See e.g. Abbot Diary, ed. Colchester, i. 95 (4 Apr. 1797); 120 (17 Dec. 1797); 135 (20 Feb. 1798); 139–40 (22 Mar. 1798).

(91) In this respect, ministers' virtually silent treatment of the Finance Committee proposals is instructive. So, more generally, is the remarkably mundane quality of their wartime correspondence. The pressure of their daily responsibilities obviously did not encourage them to think expansively.

(92) Repr. in Sessional Papers, cxiv.

(93.) Ibid. 87.

(94.) Ibid. 85.

(95.) Ibid. 60.

(96) See e.g. Robert Waithman, War proved to be the real cause of the present scarcity (1800); Oeconomist, no. 9 (1799) 245–6.

(97) Philip Ziegler, A Life of Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth (1965), 133–5; Thorne, (ed.), House of Commons, iii. 3–4.

(98) See esp. PP 1802–3: 4. 161–88; PP 1803–4: 3. Iff.; PP 1806: 4. Iff.

(99) Morriss, Royal Dockyards, ch. 7, esp. 193–8; Bernard Pool, Navy Board Contracts 1660–1832: Contract Administration under the Navy Board (1966), 130–44.

(100) Glenbervie Diaries, ed. Bickley, i. 170–1 (16 Feb. 1801).

(101) Henry Parris, Constitutional Bureaucracy: The Development of British Central Administration since the Eighteenth Century (1969), 45–7.

(102) PP 1806: 5; PP 1809: 6; Morriss, Royal Dockyards, 202–3.

(103) PP 1805: 2 (no. 21), 127–76.

(104) See A. D. Harvey, Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York, 1978), 156.

(105) Quoted in Cyril Matheson, Life of Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville (1933), 353.

(106) Hansard, iv, cols. 318–19 (8 Apr. 1805).

(107) Ibid., col. 320 (8 Apr. 1805).

(108) Add. Ms. 52451 B, fo. 81: Richard Johnson to Sir James Mackintosh, 15 Apr. 1805. The Correspondence of Charlotte, Lady Williams Wynn, to her Three Sons,

(109) ed. Rachel Leighton (1920), 110–11: Lady Williams Wynn to Charles W. Williams Wynn, 27 Mar. 1805. One pamphlet attack on Melville claimed that he and his close relatives were making £61,830 a year at public expense: Memoirs of the right honourable Henry Dundas, Lord Viscount Melville (1805), 21–3.

(110) M. Dorothy George, English Political Caricature: A Study of Opinion and Propaganda, 2 vols. (1959), ii. 80–1.

(111) Francis Horner Papers (London School of Economics), ii, fo. 189: Horner to Sir James Mackintosh, 8 Apr. 1805.

(112) Petitions were sent from the London Livery, Southwark, Westminster, Salisbury, Reading, Coventry, Southampton, St Alban's, York, Kent, Northumberland, Essex, Cornwall, Surrey, Norfolk, Middlesex, Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire. Harvey, Britain, 160.

(113) Hansard, iv, cols. 621–2 (7 May 1805).

(114) Add. Ms. 58884, fo. 113: Thomas Grenville to Lord Grenville, 20 Apr. [1805].

(115) Horner Papers, ii, fo. 189: Horner to Mackintosh, 8 Apr. 1805.

(116) Creevey Papers (University College, London) M/F 11: Creevey to Dr James Currie, 15 Apr. 1805.

(117) Horner Papers, ii, fo. 195: Horner to Mackintosh, 19 Apr. 1805.

(118) Horner Papers, ii, fo. 198: Horner to Francis Jeffrey, 3 May 1805.

(119) The Journal and Correspondence of William Eden, Baron Auckland, ed. Bishop of Bath and Wells, 4 vols. (1861–2), iv. 237: Liverpool to Auckland, [JuneJuly 1805].

(120) Add. Ms. 31229, fo. 124: Earl of Hardwicke to Nicholas Vansittart, 13 Apr. 1805.

(121) Add. Ms. 31229, fo. 136: Vansittart to Hardwicke, 17 Apr. 1805.

(122) PRO 30/29/6/5, fo. 919: Morpeth to Granville Leveson Gower, [7 June 1805].

(123) Horner Papers, ii, fo. 198: Horner to Francis Jeffrey, 3 May 1805.

(124) Quoted in J. R. Dinwiddy, ‘Parliamentary Reform as an Issue in English Politics, 1800–1810’, Ph.D. thesis (London, 1971), 74: Cartwright to Wyvill, 6 Apr. 1805.

(125) Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright, ed. F. D. Cartwright, 2 vols. (1826), i. 180: Cartwright to Thomas Steele [n.d., 1789].