Impeachments and the British Parliament

Every year, the History of Parliament holds two competitions for schools and one for university students, for the best undergraduate dissertation to focus on Parliamentary or political history. We recently gave last year’s winner, Gary Hutchison, his prize for his dissertation ‘No Party Matter either in or out of doors: reaction to the Impeachment of Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville’. Here, Gary, who has completed his degree at Edinburgh University and is about to embark on a Masters degree at the same institution, shares his research…

Impeachment as a process is well known to those who follow American political history, and remember the unsuccessful attempts to impeach Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon by Congress. Less well known, however, is that the British Parliament had (and may indeed still have, in theory at least) its own formal mechanism for impeaching members accused of improprieties. A power held by parliament since medieval times, it was most famously employed against Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal. Less attention has been paid, however, to the last case of impeachment, and what it can tell us about British politics and attitudes of the period.

On the 8th of April 1805, Parliament voted to on the motion to censure Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville. In dramatic scenes described by Walter Thornbury in ‘Old and New London’,

The fierce debate ended with an even vote—216 members declared for Lord Melville; 216 voted for his guilt. Lord Melville’s fate was thus placed in the Speaker’s hands, to be decided by that one vote. Yet it was long before the Speaker could give his vote; agitation overcame him; his face grew white as a sheet. Terrible as was the distress to all who awaited the decision from the chair; terrible as was the Speaker’s distress, this moment of suspense lasted ten long minutes. There the Speaker sat in silence: all were silent. At length his voice was heard; he gave his vote, and he condemned Lord Melville. One man, at least, that evening was overcome. Mr. Pitt was overcome; his friend was ruined. At the sound of the Speaker’s voice, the Prime Minister crushed his hat over his brows to hide his streaming tears that poured over his cheeks; he pushed in haste out of the House.

The vote represented the first significant parliamentary defeat for a Pittite government in over twenty years.

During the 1780s, Henry Dundas had become Pitt the Younger’s de facto deputy, in addition to many other roles for which he earned a reputation as a ‘Mr-Fix-It’ figure. By 1805, Dundas had been elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Melville, and was the only other experienced figure in Pitt’s politically vulnerable cabinet. Melville’s downfall began with the publication of the Tenth Report of the Commissioners of Naval Enquiry in March 1805 and ended with his eventual acquittal after impeachment proceedings in June 1806. The Commissioners of Naval Enquiry report, instituted by the previous administration under Henry Addington, accused Melville of negligence in his role as Treasurer of the Navy.

The push to prosecute Melville was led by Samuel Whitbread, an opposition MP and independently-minded anti-corruption advocate. Because the impeachment concerned naval matters at a time when the Royal Navy was crucial to defending against Napoleonic France, the scandal held the interest of the country until the middle of 1806, when it was diverted by naval battles (indeed, the Battle of Trafalgar happened during the proceedings!).

The peculiar intensity of the proceedings meant that parliamentary speeches more accurately reflected genuine opinions than was usually the case – especially Whitbread’s forthright orations.  Whitbread passionately despised Melville’s actions:

He (Melville) is a political suicide. No more can he hope again to enter the political Elysium. All his expectations of future honours are fled; all his schemes of future ambition are blasted. He must now wander on the banks of the Styx, with kindred spirits employed in useless penitence, and forming unavailing schemes of reformation (HC Deb 12 June 1805, vol. 5, cc384)

The large number of mass petitions presented to parliament provides an invaluable insight into the wider reaction to impeachment. Newspaper coverage and the editorials on the affair (an innovation pioneered by the radical journalist William Cobbett) provide a significant understanding of the topics in public discourse, which arose as a reaction to the impeachment. Satirical prints were a prominent feature of the Melville affair – indeed, between February 1805 and June 1806, the British Museum lists 36 prints directly relating to the scandal.

'Bruin in his boat,-or-The Manager in Distress.-' © Trustees of the British Museum

Bruin in his boat,-or-The Manager in Distress.-‘ © Trustees of the British Museum

This evidence of reactions to the impeachment contains undercurrents of increasing public assertiveness, anti-Scottishness, disapproval of the Pittite ‘system’, and advocacy of electoral reform; these themes and concerns were awakened (and re-awakened) in parliamentary circles and in the wider political nation in part by the events of the impeachment. Moreover, the impeachment both reveals and confirms of growth of linkages between the parliamentary opposition, popular opinion, and the reviving radical movement outside Parliament. While the impeachment may not have been as significant as later scandals such as the ‘Queen Caroline affair’, the reaction to impeachment was comparable, and may indeed have presaged these later reactions. It might be assumed that since impeachment is an inherently political process, this might make the discovery of facts more difficult than in other judicial proceedings. Nevertheless, the extremely strong reactions generated can illuminate political attitudes and opinions in far greater detail than would normally be the case.


Watch this space for more details of this year’s competition winners!


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