Command, Leadership & Management: Beyond Biographies

This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.


Military and political leaders, like all objects and subjects of historical analysis, come in and out of vogue depending on the political undercurrents which dominate the field at any given time. Biographies are no exception to the rule and, in some ways, are particularly subject to the trends and politics of the era in which they are written. A biography of Thomas Jefferson published in the bi-centenary year of American Independence might be likely to focus on his role in shaping the U.S. government, his writing of the Declaration of Independence, and his support for the French Revolution. A biography of the same man published in the bi-centenary of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. might focus more on his role as a Virginia slave owner and the hypocrisy of his advocacy for the freedoms and rights of white men which depended on the enslavement and exploitation of black men and women. Both are valid analyses, but a readers might develop very different opinions on Jefferson as a leader depending on which biography is read. The treatment of military and political leaders in biographies is often more scrutinized by historians because the arguments being made are often overt value judgements on the leader’s life and their contribution or detraction to society. However, biographies are far from the only works in which leaders are judged and used by historians to further an argument. Understanding how and why historians use leaders outside of a biographical context is crucial if a reader is to make a judgment on specific leaders or leadership itself.

William Pitt the Elder, Britain’s defacto prime minister during most of the Seven Years’ War, enjoys a varied reputation in published works from brilliant strategist to a Francophobe tyrant who refused to work with his cabinet. Both descriptions contain elements of accuracy depending on the context in which Pitt is examined and the overall aim of the author writing about him. For Julian Corbett writing about British maritime strategy in his book England in the Seven Years’ War, Pitt mostly serves as an example of the brilliant strategist with minimal consideration of any character flaws which might have contributed to the failed peace negotiations in 1760 and Pitt’s fall from power. For Richard Pares, a historian writing mostly about the politics of maritime trade in his book War and Trade in the West Indies, Pitt is acknowledged to be an excellent strategist but there is a more critical consideration of how his character flaws contributed to the failure of the peace negotiations.

Corbett was writing a book on strategy with the express purpose that Britain’s position and concerns as a maritime power could be readily understood. From an understanding of British strategy in the Seven Years’ War Corbett hoped that lessons could be extracted which would help Britain develop and equally useful strategy in the early 20th century. With this purpose in mind, Pitt was the perfect man around whom to build an illustrative argument because, as far as Corbett was concerned, Pitt formulated an almost perfect strategy that allowed Britain to defeat France and Spain.

…well adjusted combinations of land and sea force present probably the most difficult and confusing of all strategical problems. Their power was Pitt’s great discovery – the method of employing them his strategical legacy – and it is in the skilful and instructed use of them that lies the greatest power of a maritime state to this day.

By 1760, Britain was decisively defeating France and France was negotiating to bring Spain into the war on her side. Peace negotiations took place between France and Britain in 1760 but Pitt had no wish to end the war while still able to force France, and possibly Spain, into a weaker position and thus a more advantageous peace. Other ministers in the British Cabinet (and after October 1760 the new king George III) wanted peace and did not want to prolong a war against either France or Spain. Pitt, unable to direct the war as had become his custom and facing some strong opposition, left the government. Corbett paints Pitt as a victim when discussing his fall from power and describes the occasion as follows:

[Pitt was] a victim to the disease which in a constitutional country is inherent in effective war-direction…Under a government like our own, it is probable that any form of real combined control in war must sooner or later produce a pathological condition, so obnoxious to the constitution that either the constitution must perish or develop a paroxysm in which it will throw off the disease and rid itself of the morbid impurity.

For Corbett, the important take away from the fall of Pitt was more a comment on Britain’s system of government than Pitt’s peculiarities or failures as a leader. The ‘pathological condition’ which was produced in Pitt by being in command of the war was a function of Britain’s constitutional government rather than a product of the man’s character and was therefore likely to be reproduced in future leaders. Pitt’s fall thus becomes an important lesson about British government and how leaders night be affected or shaped by it rather than a lesson about how the character of a leader can effect government.

In opposition to Corbett, Richard Pares saw the fall of Pitt as a function of the minister’s character. Pares analyzed the Seven Years’ War by looking at how Britain, France, and Spain managed seaborne commerce and maritime commerce predation during war time. He agreed with Corbett that Pitt was a strategic genius but believed that the collapse in the peace negotiations with France in 1760, the war with Spain, and Pitt’s fall were largely due to a power struggle between Pitt and George IIIs favourite, Lord Bute:

Why did Bute rush into the Spanish war?…because he was afraid – not of the consequences but of Pitt’s popularity.

He also argued that Pitt’s vitriolic feelings against the house of Bourbon were a contributing factor to the breakdown of peace negotiations:

[Pitt] had never been a friend of Spain: from his first days in Parliament to his last, he was too easily fired by patriotic rants against the whole House of Bourbon.

For Pares, Britain as a constitutional state at war had nothing to do with Pitt’s fall and the failure to secure a peace settlement in 1760. The fault lay with the characters of ministers involved and Pitt’s inability to see beyond his desire to reduce to House of Bourbon’s power to a point from which it could never recover and challenge Britain again. The lesson to be learned from Pares’ analysis of Pitt’s fall is a caution to leaders who might get carried away and not know when to check their own fears, biases, and ambitions during a war.

Both Corbett and Pares make compelling arguments about Pitt as a war time leader that are well suited to the overall analysis and aims of their work. Agreeing with one over the other is, perhaps, inevitable but it is most important to consider how and why they came to different conclusions in order to understand in what context those conclusions can be usefully applied when considering questions on leadership.

Image: William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by Richard Brompton via wikimedia commons.

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