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The Younger Pitt and the Ochakov Affair

In 1791, while the French Revolution was nearing its climax, the Tory Prime Minister was deeply concerned about Russian designs upon Poland and Turkey. The Younger Pitt's policy of calling a halt to Russian expansion, writes John Ehrman, led to vehement political schism in Britain.

Some time towards the end of his life, between 1806 and 1824, Sir James Bland Burges, the minor politician and man of letters and a former Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, sat down to compose a number of character sketches of eminent persons he had known.

He did not complete the plan. But headings for some of the series survive, and of these the fullest are for a character of the younger Pitt, with whom Burges had been acquainted on and off since the Prime Minister’s brief sojourn as a young lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn.

They show a shrewd, if somewhat opinionated, understanding of their subject. Pitt’s virtues receive their due. But so do his faults; and indeed the emphasis lies more on the failures, as Burges saw them, than on the successes of a long career.

One event, in particular, recurs to plague the author’s memory. “His want of judgment,” begins one list of setbacks, real or presumed, “in the Russian business, Adair’s Mission”

...Again, “Instances of his vacillation—In the Russian business—In that of Adair’s correspondence.” And later, among some headings on foreign affairs, “The success in Holland in 1786—the Nootka business—that of Adair.”

It was perhaps not surprising that the business of Adair should have featured so prominently in Burges’ mind.

He had been intimately concerned in it at the Foreign Office; it was connected with a major crisis, in which his patron, the Foreign Secretary, had resigned; and to the end of his days he regarded Pitt’s treatment of it as almost criminally weak, and directly responsible for the loss of a golden opportunity to shatter the Opposition and above all Fox.

The incident indeed attracted attention at the time, and has remained a footnote to history since. Had it been handled as Burges would have wished, it might have earned some at least of the prominence he himself always accorded it.

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