The best books on Regency politics

The Books I Picked & Why

William Pitt the Younger : A Biography

By William Hague

William Pitt the Younger : A Biography

Why this book?

William Pitt, the younger, established the Tory-dominated Regency politics and William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary, is by far his best qualified modern biographer. (Lord Rosebery was Prime Minister but his brief biography of Pitt was published in 1891!)  Hague’s biography, which is very elegantly written, shows a deep understanding of the political forces Pitt faced, inside and outside Parliament. Pitt was a leader and father-figure to all the great Tory leaders of 1783-1830; he also began the process of dealing with industrialization and that of fighting the Napoleonic Wars. He is thus one of Britain’s most important prime ministers, and Hague’s biography throws a welcome light on the Regency period, when the country surmounted enormous threats and difficulties through being truly well-governed.


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In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815

By Jenny Uglow

In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815

Why this book?

Jenny Uglow looks at the Napoleonic Wars period from the bottom up -- what life was like, how political issues affected the person in the street. Bankers, clergymen, working men and women, manufacturers, and statesmen all play roles in her narrative. Through the letters and diaries of ordinary people, she produces a vibrant picture of life in a period of unprecedented political, social, and economic turmoil. She still ends with the Battle of Waterloo, but Waterloo as experienced by the junior officers and enlisted men. A fascinating book, that shows how high politics and world events affected ordinary people and is highly accessible to general readers.


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Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815

By Roger Knight

Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815

Why this book?

This book is heavier going than the first two yet answers a deep and interesting question: how in a political system with dilettante politicians and tiny departments of amateur administrators, did Britain fight and eventually win a 20-year total war against a country with twice the population. The period’s politicians are here shown at work, wearing themselves down with long hours and short weekends, setting up policies and systems that could do the job. Their sheer intelligence and professionalism is remarkable; a century later Britain almost lost World War I because it had forgotten lessons about Naval convoys learned during this conflict. Of all the books here, this shows best why Pitt and Liverpool had a much tougher job and worked much harder than Disraeli or Gladstone.


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Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny

By John Bew

Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny

Why this book?

John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee is superb, this biography of Castlereagh, “perhaps the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries” (Andrew Roberts) is even better. Castlereagh is a Regency politician’s Regency politician; he fought a duel against the devious Canning and when informed he was popular, replied that unpopularity was “more convenient and gentlemanlike.” He also, with Liverpool’s help and support, designed a peace settlement that lasted in essentials for 100 years, based on principles of legitimacy and lack of vengefulness that his successors at the 1919 Congress of Versailles would have done well to follow. Bew writes beautifully; this is a great biography of a very great man.


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The Making of the English Working Class

By E. P. Thompson

The Making of the English Working Class

Why this book?

This is the classic study of the other side of Regency politics: the working class’s struggle to achieve class consciousness and assert themselves in a threatening new industrial environment, where many of them were losing their jobs. Thompson has a Marxist support for the working-class struggle, combined with a surprising respect for the statesmen who prevented that struggle from erupting into revolution. Forestalling the emergence of Thompson’s working-class consciousness was a primary objective of Pitt, Liverpool, and their colleagues and generally, they succeeded; working-class consciousness only emerged, encouraged by the Whigs, in the Reform Bill struggle of 1831-32, after the Tories had lost power.  Alas, the workers lost out through that measure’s middle-class franchise; as the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’ wrote, quoted by Thompson: “Of all governments, a government of the middle classes is the most grinding and remorseless.”


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