The 'Armed Neutrality', 1797

In March 1797, when William Pitt’s ministry was grappling with a national financial crisis, a group of about 30 disgruntled backbenchers, led by the Scotsman Sir John Sinclair, formed a self-styled ‘armed neutrality’ with the object of ending the Pitt-Fox polarization of politics and securing the establishment of a government of national unity. Another Scot, Sir William Pulteney, was prominent in a separate group of Commons malcontents, and had talks with the prince of Wales’s friend Lord Moira. In late May Pulteney and leaders of the ‘armed neutrality’ joined forces in urging Moira to appeal to the king to dismiss Pitt and appoint a coalition ministry. Moira did so, but to no effect, and by mid-June 1797 the campaign of the ‘armed neutrality’ had ended in failure, with Pitt, though beleaguered by difficulties, still invulnerable in the Commons.

Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835), of Ulbster, Caithness, inherited lucrative estates from his father in 1770, was returned for his native county in 1780 and received a baronetcy in 1786. He at first took an assertively independent line in the House, and was prominent in the St. Alban’s Tavern group of Members, 1781-4, though by the latter date he was a partisan of Pitt’s fledgling ministry. Disappointed by Pitt’s lack of interest in his grandiose schemes for economic development, he drifted back into independence, and during the regency crisis of 1788-9 was one of the leaders of an ineffectual ‘armed neutrality’ party. In 1790 he set on foot the Statistical Account of Scotland, and in 1793, with Pitt’s grudging acquiescence, he secured the establishment of a board of agriculture, of which he became the first (unsalaried) president.

Loosely associated with William Windham’s ‘third party’ venture in 1793, he rallied to government when war broke out. However, deprived of his seat for Caithness by the county’s alternating return arrangement (with Buteshire) at the general election of 1796, he vainly pestered the premier for a free seat or a peerage. He obtained a berth for Petersfield on the Jolliffe interest in January 1797, and in the House emerged as a critic of the suspension of cash payments.

On 9 Mar. 1797 he hosted a meeting of about 30 Members who were to act as an ‘armed neutrality’, with the aims of promoting peace and economy, opposing the bank restriction and supporting Pitt’s coercive legislation of 1795. Charles Abbot noted in his diary the names of 19 of those present, including Sinclair himself. The others were Alexander Allardyce; John Pollexfen Bastard; Sir Lionel Copley; Joseph Foster Barham; Sir Richard Hill; John Langston; Sir John Fleming Leicester; John Lemon; Sir William Lemon; John Lubbock; Sir John Macpherson; John Nicholls; Lawrence Palk; John Petrie; George Augustus Pollen; George Porter; Robert Sewell, and Thomas Tyrwhitt. To these can be added Bryan Edwards, Sir Christopher Hawkins and Sir George Shuckburgh Evelyn. The last named, and Bastard, Hill, Sir William Lemon and Palk were county Members. There was clear evidence in the division lobbies of an accession to opposition, notably on the bank restriction question, but the government’s Commons majority was not remotely threatened, and ministers were generally contemptuous of the ‘rats’. Pollen was conspicuous in debate, and on 10 Apr. 1797, from the ministerial benches, he moved for peace negotiations, condemning both the Foxite opposition’s negative partisan invective and Pitt’s financial policy. Supporting the motion, which was defeated by 291-85, Porter likewise declared his loss of confidence in Pitt and his colleagues. Of the Members listed above, Bastard, Copley, Hill, the Lemons, Nicholls and Pollen voted in the minority of 93 for the Whig Charles Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform, 26 May 1797, which preceded the Foxite secession from Parliament.

By then, following the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, the disgruntlement of some backbench Members with the state of affairs had taken on a new shape, and there was an attempt, in which Sinclair and others prominent in the ‘armed neutrality’ now joined, to persuade the king to get rid of Pitt and form a coalition ministry of national unity. In mid-May 1797 Moira told the Whig duke of Northumberland that ‘a formidable body of Members of the House of Commons’, who were quite distinct from Sinclair’s ‘armed neutrality’ and ‘of much greater weight’, had asked him to support their bid to save the country from ruin by ending the Pitt-Fox party impasse. Northumberland, who had already been contacted to the same end by Lord Lansdowne, and may have conceived a fanciful notion that he was to become the head of a ministry that would include Fox, was not impressed by the vagueness of Moira’s letter. Almost no evidence has survived as to the identities of the Members referred to by Moira, but two of the prime movers were the wealthy Lowland Scots Sir William Pulteney, Member for Shrewsbury, and William Fullarton, Member for Ayrshire, who had had talks with Moira in the second week of April, when it was reported to the prince of Wales that Pulteney was to become chancellor of the exchequer in the putative new administration. In late May Moira informed Fox of these developments. Fox had no high opinion of the calibre of the Members in the ‘armed neutrality’, but when he was made aware of which other men had approached Moira he presented himself to the king and waived his own claim to office if it would obstruct their scheme. (Pulteney had evidently objected to Fox’s inclusion.) On 2 June 1797 Moira wrote to the king, enclosing a letter to himself, jointly signed by Sinclair, Edwards, Foster Barham, Hawkins and Shuckburgh Evelyn of the ‘armed neutrality’, in which they urged him to press on the king the need for a revamped ministry to save the country. The king was resolved to stand by Pitt, and, without his co-operation, the project was a dead letter by mid-June.

Author: David R. Fisher