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Henry Addington

Prime Minister 1801 - 03

Henry Addington was a prime minister who illustrates how important appearances are in politics. Addington's reputation was ruined by his time as prime minister, and according to Philip Zeigler this was not the result of what his government did, but of how it was perceived.

Henry Addington was born 30th May 1757, eldest son of an eminent doctor, Anthony Addington. At school Henry gathered a loyal following around him. The young man also got to know fellow school boy and future prime minister William Pitt the Younger - Anthony Addington was doctor to Pitt's father, William Pitt the Elder. School days were perhaps the peak of Henry Addington's career. He was an academic star, with a loyal following, and connections in all the right places. But after finishing his education at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at Lincoln's Inn, Addington entered Parliament as MP for Devises in 1784 and immediately fell into the shadow of his childhood friend Pitt the Younger. While Pitt was installed as prime minister at age twenty four, Addington's early career in Parliament was quiet. He found his niche as Speaker in 1789. He was impartial, which was a rare attribute in an eighteenth century MP. But in this role Addington's tendency to pomposity went unchecked. This left him open to the ridicule that would one day ruin him.

After many years serving under Pitt, Addington's chance to become prime minister came in 1801. Pitt the Younger tried to force George III to accept a policy of equal rights for Catholics. This measure was required to support the union of Britain and Ireland. But George III felt it was his duty to defend the protestant faith. After many years of illness the king was in a mentally fragile state, and Pitt feared forcing the issue would be seen as threatening the king's sanity. Rather than face the unstable king, Pitt resigned. Addington was then the only acceptable candidate available to fill the vacancy. The two year government that followed was generally competent. After peace negotiations with France failed in May 1803, Addington followed a sensible if unspectacular course of doing nothing. Napoleon's army was sitting in France ready to invade, but if they tried to do so the Royal Navy was waiting for them. And if they stayed sitting around in France, disease and indiscipline threatened bored men. If only Addington could continue to do nothing then Britain would survive. Military tactics were sound, and the same was true of economic management. Income tax had been introduced by Pitt the Younger in 1796 to help pay for war against France. Addington now improved Pitt's system, introducing "taxing at source". Pitt's income tax of two shillings to the pound had given £5.3 million in revenue, while Addington's system gave £4.7 million from one shilling to the pound. Nevertheless none of this made for spectacular leadership. As Philip Zeigler says: "In the last resort... it was a question of confidence. All government rests fundamentally on an act of faith; the belief of ministers that they have the right to command, and of the people that they have the duty to obey" (The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P246). Inspite of the fact that Addington was competent, his prudent policies did not inspire confidence. Olga Soffer has suggested that competence is often a secondary consideration in the success of leadership. In an age when secular prime ministers have replaced divinely appointed monarchs, the vague idea of faith in a leader is still important. And that faith might only have a glancing relationship with how competent they are. The fate of Henry Addington certainly seems to demonstrate this. Addington's government quickly became a joke. His successes were ignored, and much was made of his mistakes. For example, an error was made in recruitment for the armed forces, giving a number of men beyond the resources available to train them. With his authority collapsing the prime minister resigned on 29th April 1803. Charismatic Pitt the Younger returned as prime minister, while Addington retired into lesser offices. Here he was to gain the reputation of a reactionary, with an inflexible enthusiasm for law and order. Unlike Pitt, Addington was not the sort of man to have faith that people and events would come right. He was not an optimist. Perhaps in the end this simple lack of optimism is where Addington failed as a prime minister. If Addington didn't believe things would work out, it would be difficult to give a reassuring impression to others.

 

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