The Age of George III
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In 1789 the French Revolution began and in 1793 France declared war against Britain. The ideas of the French Revolution -liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy - plus the religious link, were favoured by the Irish, and Ireland traditionally had been the back door to England. The Irish could see that religious inequality had been abolished in France and that a democratic government had been set up. Irish Roman Catholics wanted equality; Irish Protestants wanted parliamentary reform. Both groups wanted economic reform.
Many moderate Irish politicians wanted Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform, but thought that Ireland should support England in the crisis and wanted to preserve the link with Britain. However, there were others who were more extreme in their views. Among these were Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald who formed the United Irishmen in 1792 which aimed at 'breaking the connection with England, asserting the independence of our country, uniting all Irishmen in place of the denominations of Protestants and Catholics'. Wellington seemed to be in favour of Catholic Emancipation as early as 1793, when he took his seat in the Irish Parliament as Member for Trim, in Co. Meath. Two of his speeches early that year deal with the subject of Catholics and their rights. The first was in January, soon after he had taken his seat.
The organisation tried to unite Dissenters and Catholics against Anglican rule, and it grew rapidly. Pitt moved equally quickly. In 1793 the Irish parliament was persuaded to pass the Catholic Relief Act which gave Catholics the right to vote. Voters still had to be 40/- freeholders, and Roman Catholics, although they could stand as candidates, were not allowed to take a seat in parliament. Catholic voters could realistically only vote for Protestants. Pitt's 1793 Act was only a part-solution.
In 1795 Earl Fitzwilliam was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was a Whig and an Irish absentee landowner who believed that Roman Catholics should have complete political equality. This he announced as a policy which raised hopes in Ireland, but Fitzwilliam was recalled within three months on the King's orders and in disgrace. After 1795 there were increasing incidents of sectarian violence in Ireland, exacerbated by the attempts of the United Irishmen to enlist French help in their struggle to free Ireland from English control. The Protestants in Ireland formed the Orange Order to safeguard Protestantism in Ireland which merely escalated the problem.
In May 1798 an Irish rising occurred with the avowed aim of Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. Many peasants joined because they wanted tithes to be abolished; some educated men wanted independence. Pitt believed that Ireland could not be allowed the luxury of an independent parliament, because the Irish might decide on an independent nation and make Ireland a base for England's enemies. Pitt therefore decided on an Act of Union which would totally tie Ireland to Great Britain
In 1800 the Act of Union was passed by both the Irish and British parliaments despite much opposition. It was signed by George III in August 1800 to become effective on 1 January 1801. Pitt intended to follow the Act of Union with other, more far reaching reforms, including Catholic Emancipation, but was thwarted by George III, who refused to break his Coronation Oath to uphold the Anglican Church.
As early as February 6th, 1795, George III had expressed his opposition to the idea of ‘admitting Roman Catholics to vote in Parliament’. When Pitt wrote on 31 January 1801, saying that he would feel obliged to resign if the King would not allow some measure of emancipation to be passed at some time, George III replied in the following way.
Queen’s House, February 1, 1801
I should not do justice to the warm impulse of my heart if I entered on the subject most unpleasant to my mind without first expressing that the cordial affection I have for Mr Pitt, as well as high opinions of his talents and integrity, greatly add to my uneasiness on this occasion; but a sense of religious as well as political duty has made me, from the moment I mounted the throne, consider the Oath that the wisdom of our forefathers has enjoined the Kings of this realm to take at their Coronation, and enforced by the obligation of instantly following it in the course of the ceremony with taking the Sacrament, as so binding a religious obligation on me to maintain the fundamental maxims on which our Constitution is placed, namely the Church of England being the established one, and that those who hold employment in the State must be members of it, and consequently obliged not only to take oaths against Popery, but to receive the Holy Communion agreeably to the rites of the Church of England.
This principle of duty must therefore prevent me from discussing any proposition tending to destroy this groundwork of our happy Constitution, and much more so that now mentioned by Mr Pitt, which is no less than the complete overthrow of the whole fabric.
(Public Records Office, Chatham Papers, C.IV)
Ruling Ireland direct from Westminster solved nothing. The union was a political expedient in wartime, solving none of the grievances in Ireland over land, religion or politics. It had no social dimension at all. Ireland's economic problems were also ignored. The Act did increase the sense of grievance in Ireland however.
Pitt did not see the Act of Union as a solution to the Irish problem. He knew that social and economic reforms were essential, as was Catholic Emancipation. George III refused to allow full emancipation so Pitt resigned in protest because he had intended to follow the Act of Union with reforms.
The Act became a liability rather than an asset. Peers holding Irish estates opposed concessions to Roman Catholics, as did the King, because of vested interests and religious bigotry. The threat to the status quo and potential violence together with patriotic zeal against Catholics stopped full Catholic Emancipation and ended all Pitt's intended reforms.
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Last modified 26 October, 2013
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