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WILLIAM PITT. 1 (1861.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 4 (Political, Literary, & Literary Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 4.
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Lord Stanhope’s Life of Mr. Pitt has both the excellences and the defects which we should expect from him, and neither of them are what we expect in a great historical writer of the present age. Even simple readers are becoming aware that historical investigations, which used to be a sombre and respectable calling, is now an audacious pursuit. Paradoxes are very bold and very numerous. Many of the recognised “good people” in history have become bad, and all the very bad people have become rather good. We have palliations of Tiberius, eulogies on Henry VIII., devotional exercises to Cromwell, and fulsome adulation of Julius Cæsar and of the first Napoleon. The philosophy of history is more alarming still. One school sees in it but a gradual development of atheistic belief, another threatens to resolve it all into “the three simple agencies, starch, fibrin, and albumen”. But in these exploits of audacious ingenuity and specious learning Lord Stanhope has taken no part. He is not anxious to be original. He travels, if possible, in the worn track of previous historians; he tells a plain tale in an easy plain way; he shrinks from wonderful novelties; with the cautious scepticism of true common sense, he is always glad to find that the conclusions at which he arrives coincide with those of former inquirers. His style is characteristic of his matter. He narrates with a gentle sense and languid accuracy, very different from the stimulating rhetoric and exciting brilliancy of his more renowned contemporaries.
In the present case Lord Stanhope has been very fortunate both in his subject and his materials. Mr. Pitt has never had even a decent biographer, though the peculiarities of his career are singularly inviting to literary ambition. His life had much of the solid usefulness of modern times, and not a little also of the romance of old times. He was skilled in economical reform, but retained some of the majesty of old-world eloquence. He was as keen in small figures as a rising politician now; yet he was a despotic Premier at an age when, in these times, a politician could barely aspire to be an Under-Secretary. It is not wonderful that Lord Stanhope should have been attracted to a subject which is so interesting in itself, and which lies so precisely in the direction of his previous studies. From his high standing and his personal connections, he has been able to add much to our minuter knowledge. He has obtained from various quarters many valuable letters which have not been published before. There is a whole series from George III. to Mr. Pitt, and a scarcely less curious series from Mr. Pitt to his mother. We need not add that Lord Stanhope has digested his important materials with great care; that he has made of them almost as much as could be made; that he has a warm admiration and a delicate respect for the great statesman of whom he is writing. His nearest approach to an ungentle feeling is a quiet dislike to the great Whig families.
Mr. Pitt is an example of one of the modes in which the popular imagination is, even in historical times, frequently and easily misled. Mankind judge of a great statesman principally by the most marked and memorable passage in his career. By chance we lately had the honour to travel with a gentleman who said, that Sir Robert Peel was the “leader of the Whigs”; and though historical evidence will always prevent common opinion from becoming so absurd as this, it is undeniable that, in the popular fancy of young men, Sir Robert Peel is the Liberal minister who repealed the corn-laws and carried Catholic emancipation. The world is forgetting that he was once the favourite leader of the old Tory party—the steady opponent of Mr. Canning, and the steady adherent of Lord Sidmouth and Lord Eldon. We remember his great reforms, of which we daily feel the benefit; we forget that, during a complete political generation, he was the most plausible supporter of ancient prejudices, and the most decent advocate of inveterate abuses. Mr. Pitt’s fate has been very similar, but far less fortunate. The event in his life most deeply implanted in the popular memory is his resistance to the French Revolution; it is this which has made him the object of affection to extreme Tories, and of suspicion and distrust to reasonable Liberals. Yet no rash inference was ever more unfounded and false. It can be proved that, in all the other parts of Mr. Pitt’s life, the natural tendency of his favourite plan was uniformly Liberal; that, at the time of the French Revolution itself, he only did what the immense majority of the English people, even of the cultivated English people, deliberately desired; that he did it anxiously, with many misgivings, and in opposition to his natural inclinations; that it is very dubious whether, in the temper of the French nation and the temper of the English nation, a war between them could by possibility have been avoided at that juncture; that, in his administration and under his auspices, the spirit of legislative improvement which characterises modern times may almost be said to begin; that he was the first English minister who discussed political questions with the cultivated thoughtfulness and considerate discretion which seem to characterise us now; that, in political instruction, he was immeasurably superior to Fox, and that in the practical application of just principles to ordinary events, he was equally superior to Burke.
There are two kinds of statesmen to whom, at different times, representative government gives an opportunity and a career—dictators and administrators. There are certain men who are called in conjunctures of great danger to save the State. When national peril was imminent, all nations have felt it needful to select the best man who could be found—for better, for worse; to put unlimited trust in him; to allow him to do whatever he wished, and to leave undone whatever he did not approve of. The qualities which are necessary for a dictator are two—a commanding character and an original intellect. All other qualities are secondary. Regular industry, a conciliatory disposition, a power of logical exposition, and argumentative discussion, which are necessary to a Parliamentary statesman in ordinary times, are not essential to the selected dictator of a particular juncture. If he have force of character to overawe men into trusting him, and originality of intellect sufficient to enable him to cope with the pressing, terrible, and critical events with which he is selected to cope, it is enough. Every subordinate shortcoming, every incidental defect, will be pardoned. “Save us!” is the cry of the moment; and, in the confident hope of safety, any deficiency will be overlooked, and any frailty pardoned.
The genius requisite for a great administrator is not so imposing, but it is, perhaps, equally rare, and needs a more peculiar combination of qualities. Ordinary administrators are very common: every-day life requires and produces every-day persons. But a really great administrator thinks not only of the day but of the morrow; does not only what he must but what he wants; is eager to extirpate every abuse, and on the watch for every improvement; is on a level with the highest political thought of his time, and persuades his age to be ruled according to it—to permit him to embody it in policy and in laws. Administration in this large sense includes legislation, for it is concerned with the far-seeing regulation of future conduct, as well as with the limited management of the present. Great dictators are doubtless rare in political history; but they are not more so than great administrators, such as we have just defined them. It is not easy to manage any age; it is not easy to be on a level with the highest thought of any age; but to manage that age according to that highest thought is among the most arduous tasks of the world. The intellectual character of a dictator is noble but simple; that of a great administrator and legislator is also complex.
The exact description of Mr. Pitt is, that he had in the most complete perfection the faculties of a great administrator, and that he added to it the commanding temperament, though not the creative intellect, of a great dictator. He was tried by long and prosperous years, which exercised to the utmost his peculiar faculties, which enabled him to effect brilliant triumphs of policy and of legislation: he was tried likewise by a terrible crisis, with which he had not the originality entirely to cope, which he did not understand as we understand it now, but in which he showed a hardihood of resolution and a consistency of action which captivated the English people, and which impressed the whole world.
A very slight survey of Mr. Pitt’s career is all we have room for here; indeed, it is not easy within the compass of an article to make any survey, however slight; but we hope at least to show that peculiar training, peculiar opportunity, and peculiar ability, combined to make him what he was.
It may seem silly to observe that Mr. Pitt was the son of his father, and yet there is no doubt that it was a critical circumstance in the formation of his character. When he was born, as Lord Macaulay has described, his father’s name was the most celebrated in the whole civilised world; every post brought the news of some victory or some great stroke of policy, and his imagination dwelt upon the realities before him. “I am glad I am not the eldest son,” he said. “I should like to speak in the House of Commons, like papa.” And there are other sayings indicating an early ambition and an early consciousness of power. There is nothing extraordinary in this. Most boys are conceited; most boys have a wonderful belief in their own power. “At sixteen,” says Mr. Disraeli, “every one believes he is the most peculiar man who ever lived.” And there is certainly no difficulty in imagining Mr. Disraeli thinking so. The difficulty is, not to entertain this proud belief, but to keep it; not to have these lofty visions, but to hold them. Manhood comes, and with it come the plain facts of the world. There is no illusion in them; they have a distinct teaching. “The world,” they say definitely, “does not believe in you. You fancy you have a call to a great career, but no one else even imagines that you fancy it. You do not dare to say it out loud” Before the fear of ridicule and the touch of reality, the illusions of youth pass away, and with them goes all intellectual courage. We have no longer the hardihood, we have scarcely the wish to form our own creed, to think our own thoughts, to act upon our own belief; we try to be sensible, and we end in being ordinary; we fear to be eccentric, and we end in being commonplace. It is from this fate that the son of a commanding Prime Minister is at any rate preserved; the world thinks about him; the world alludes to him. He can speak “in the grand style,” and he will not be laughed at, or not much. When we wonder at the indomitable resolution and the inflexible self-reliance which Mr. Pitt through life displayed, we may lessen our wonder by remembering that he never endured the bitter ignominy of youth; that his self-confidence was never disheartened by being “an unknown man”; that he early received from fortune the inestimable permission to be himself.
The education of Mr. Pitt was as favourable to the development of his peculiar powers as his position. The public education of England has very great merits, and is well fitted for the cultivation of the average Englishman; but one at least of the qualities which fit it for training ordinary men unfit it for training an extraordinary man. Its greatest value to the mass of those who are brought up in it, is its influence in diminishing their self-confidence. They are early brought into a little but rough world, which effects on a small scale what the real world will afterwards effect still more thoroughly on a large one. It teaches boys who are no better than other boys, that they are no better than other boys; that the advantages of one are compensated by the advantages of others; that the world is a miscellaneous and motley medley, in which it is not easy to conquer, and over which it is impossible to rule. But it is not desirable that a young man in Pitt’s position should learn this lesson. If you are to train a man to be Prime Minister at five and twenty, you must not dishearten his self-confidence, though it be overweening; you must not tame his energy, though it seem presumptuous. Ordinary men should and must be taught to fear the face of the world; they are to be guided by its laws and regulated by its manners; the one exceptional man, who is in his first youth to rule the world, must be trained not to fear it, but despise it.
The legitimate food of a self-relying nature is early solitude, and the most stimulating solitude is solitude in the midst of society. Mr. Pitt’s education was of this kind entirely. He was educated at home during his whole boyhood. He was sent to Cambridge at a most unusually early age. He lived there almost wholly with Mr. Pretyman, his tutor. “While Mr. Pitt was undergraduate,” writes that gentleman, “he never omitted attending chapel morning and evening, or dining in the public hall, except when prevented by indisposition. Nor did he pass a single evening out of the college walls; indeed, most of his time was spent with me. During his whole residence at the university,” Mr. Pretyman continues, “I never knew him spend an idle day, nor did he ever fail to attend me at the appointed hour.” He did not make any friends, scarcely any social acquaintances till he had taken his degree. He passed very much of his time, his tutor tells us, in very severe study, and very much of it, as we may easily believe, in the most absorbing of early pleasures—the monotonous excitement of ambitious anticipation. On an inferior man, this sort of youth could have had but one effect—it must have made him a prig. But it had not that effect on Pitt. It contributed to make him a shy, haughty, and inaccessible man. Such he emerged from Cambridge, and such he continued through life to be; but he was preserved from the characteristic degradation of well-intentioned and erudite youth by two great counteracting influences,—a strong sense of humour and a genuine interest in great subjects. His sense of fun was, indeed, disguised from the vulgar by a rigid mask of grave dignity; but in private it was his strongest characteristic. “Don’t tell me,” he is said to have remarked, “of a man’s being able to talk sense, every one can talk sense; can he talk nonsense?” And Mr. Wilberforce, the most cheerful of human beings, who had seen the most amusing society of his generation, always declared that Pitt’s wit was the best which he had ever known. And it was likely to be; humour gains much by constant suppression, and at no time of life was Pitt ever wanting in dexterous words. No man who really cares for great things, and who sees the laughable side of little things, ever becomes a “prig”.
While at Cambridge Pitt likewise paid, as his tutor tells us, great attention to what are now, in popular estimation, the characteristic studies of the place. His attainments in mathematics were probably not much like the elaborate and exact knowledge which the higher wranglers now yearly carry away from the university; but they were considerable for his time, and they comprehended the most instructive part of the subject, the first principles; a vague hope, too, is expressed that he may read Newton’s Principia “after some summer circuit,” which, as we may easily suppose, was not realised.
Though the tutor’s information is not very exact, we may accept his general testimony that Pitt was a good mathematician, according to the academic standing of that day. There is, indeed, strong corroborative evidence of the fact in Mr. Pitt’s financial speeches. It is not easy to draw out the evidence in writing, and it would be very tiresome to read the evidence if it were drawn out; but a skilful observer of the contrast between educated and uneducated language will find in Pitt many traces of mathematical studies. Raw argument and common-sense correctness come by nature, but only a preliminary education can give the final edge to accuracy in statement, and the last nicety to polished and penetrating discussion. In later life, the facile use of financial rhetoric was as familiar to Mr. Pitt as to Mr. Gladstone.
His classical studies were pursued upon a plan suggested by his father, which was certainly well adapted for the particular case, though it would not be good for mankind in general. A sufficient experience proves that no one can be taught any language thoroughly and accurately except by composition in it; and Mr. Pitt had apparently never practised any sort of composition in Greek or Latin, whether verse or prose. But, for the purpose of disciplining a student in his own language, the reverse practice of translating from the classical languages is the best single expedient which has ever been made use of. And to this Mr. Pitt was trained by his father from early boyhood. He was taught to read off the classics into the best English he could find, never inserting a word with which he was not satisfied, but waiting till he found one with which he was satisfied. By constant practice he became so ready that he never stopped at all; the right word always presented itself immediately. When he was asked in later life, how he had acquired the mellifluous abundance of appropriate language with which he amazed and charmed the House of Commons, it was to this suggestion of his father that he at once imputed it.
To the probably unconscious influence of the same instructor we may ascribe his early interest in Parliamentary conflict. We have before quoted the naïve expression of his boyish desire to be in the House of Commons. There is a still more curious story of him in very early youth. It is said, “He was introduced, on the steps of the throne in the House of Lords, to Mr. Fox, who was his senior by ten years, and already in the fulness of his fame. Fox used afterwards to relate that, as the discussion proceeded, Pitt repeatedly turned to him, and said, ‘But surely, Mr. Fox, that might be met thus’; or, ‘Yes, but he lays himself open to retort’. What the particular criticisms were, Fox had forgotten; but he said that he was much struck at the time by the precocity of a lad who through the whole sitting was thinking only how all the speeches on both sides could be answered.”
Nor were his political studies confined to the studious cultivation of oratorical language, or to a thorough acquisition of the art of argumentative fence: he attended also to the substance of political science. He was the first great English statesman who read, understood, and valued The Wealth of Nations. Fox had “no great opinion of those reasonings”; and the doctrines of free trade, though present, like all great political ideas, to the overflowing mind of Burke, were, like all his ideas, at the daily mercy of his eager passions and his intense and vivid imagination. Mr. Pitt, as it would seem, while still at college, acquired and arranged them with the collected consistency which was the characteristic of his mind. So thorough a training in the superficial accomplishments, the peculiar associations, and the abstract studies of political life, has not perhaps fallen to the lot of any other English statesman.
Nor was the political opportunity of Mr. Pitt at all inferior to his political training. The history of the first twenty years of the reign of George III. is a history of his struggles with the aristocratic proprietors of parliamentary boroughs. Neither the extension of the power of the Crown, nor the maintenance of the political ascendency of the Whig families, was very popular with the nation at large; the popular element in the Constitution was for the most part neutral in the conflict; it reserved the greater part of its influence for objects more interesting to itself; but between the two parties, between the Crown and the great borough proprietors, the strife was eager, intense, and unremitting.
As the present writer has elsewhere explained, the situation in which a constitutional king was placed under the old system of an unreformed Parliament was more than an energetic man could endure. According to the theory of that Government, the patronage of the Crown was to be used to purchase votes in Parliament, and to maintain a Parliamentary majority by constant bargains with borough proprietors.
“But who is to use the patronage? The theory assumes that it is to be used by the minister of the day. According to it, the head of the party which is predominant in Parliament is to employ the patronage of the Crown for the purpose of confirming that predominance. But suppose that the Crown chooses to object to this; suppose that the king for the time being should say, ‘This patronage is mine; the places in question are places in my service; the pensions in question are pensions from me. I will myself have at least some share in the influence that is acquired by the conferring of those pensions and the distribution of those places.’ George III. actually did say this. He was a king in one respect among a thousand; he was willing to do the work of a Secretary of the Treasury; his letters for very many years are filled with the petty details of patronage; he directed who should have what, and stipulated who should not have anything. This interference of the king must evidently in theory, and did certainly in fact, destroy the efficiency of the alleged expedient. Very much of the patronage of the Crown went, not to the adherents of the prime minister, because they were his adherents, but to the king’s friends, because they were his friends. Many writers have been very severe on George III. for taking the course which he did take, and have frequently repeated the well-known maxims, which show that what he did was a deviation from the Constitution. Very likely it was; but what is the use of a Constitution which takes no account of the ordinary motives of human nature? It was inevitable that an ambitious king, who had industry enough to act as he did, would so act. Let us consider his position. He was invested with authority which was apparently great. He was surrounded by noblemen and gentlemen who passed their life in paying him homage, and in professing perhaps excessive doctrines of loyal obedience to him. When the Duke of Devonshire, or the Duke of Bedford, or the Duke of Newcastle, approached the royal closet, they implied by words and manner that he had immeasurably more power than they had. In fact, it was expected that he should have immeasurably less. It was expected that, though these noblemen daily acknowledged that he was their superior, he should constantly act as if he were their inferior. The prime minister was in reality appointed by them, and it was expected that the king should do what the prime minister told him; that he should assent to measures on which he was not consulted; that he should make peace when Mr. Grenville said peace was right; that he should make war whenever Mr. Grenville said war was right; that he should allow the offices of his household and the dignities of his court to be used as a means for the support of cabinets whose members he disliked, and whose policy he disapproved of. It is evident that no man who was not imbecile would be content with such a position. It is not difficult to bear to be without power, it is not very difficult to bear to have only the mockery of power; but it is unbearable to have real power, and to be told that you must content yourself with the mockery of it; it is unendurable to have in your hands an effectual instrument of substantial influence, and also to act day by day as a pageant, without any influence whatever. Human nature has never endured this, and we may be quite sure that it never will endure it. It is a fundamental error in the ‘esoteric theory’ of the Tory party, that it assumed the king and the prime minister to be always of the same mind, while they often were of different minds.”1
By a series of stratagems George III. at last obtained, in the person of Lord North, a minister who combined a sufficient amount of Parliamentary support with an unlimited devotion to the royal pleasure. He was a minister of great ability, great Parliamentary tact, unbounded good humour, and no firmness. He yielded everything to the intense, eager, petty incisiveness of his sovereign. The king was the true minister for all purposes of policy and business. Lord North was only the talking minister of the present French Assemblies, who is bound to explain and to defend measures which he did not suggest, and about which he was not consulted.
It is difficult to say how long Lord North’s Government might not have continued, if it had not been for the military calamities of the American War. That war had been very popular at its commencement, and continued popular as long as it was likely to be successful: it became unpopular as soon as it was likely to fail. The merchants began to murmur at the stoppage of trade. The country gentlemen began to murmur at the oppressive burden of war-taxes. The nation began to reconsider its opinion as to the justice of the quarrel, as soon as it appeared that our military efforts would probably be disastrous. Lord North shared in these feelings; he did not believe the war would succeed; no longer hoped it would succeed; no longer thought that there was any motive for continuing to carry it on, but for several years he did continue to carry it on. The will of George III. was a very efficient force on every one just about him, and his personal ascendency over many men intellectually far his superiors is a curious example of the immense influence of a distinct judgment and inflexible decision, with fair abilities and indefatigable industry, and placed in a close contact with great men and great affairs.
At length, in March, 1782, the calamitous issue of the American War became too evident, and Lord North resigned. Lord Holland gives us a curious history of the mode in which he announced to the House that he was no longer Prime Minister.
“I have heard my uncle Fitzpatrick give a very diverting account of the scene that passed in the House of Commons on the day of Lord North’s resignation, which happened to be a remarkably cold day, with a fall of snow. A motion of Lord Surrey’s for the dismissal of ministers, stood for that day, and the Whigs were anxious that it should come on before the resignation of Lord North was officially announced, that his removal from office might be more manifestly and formally the act of the House of Commons. He and Lord Surrey rose at the same instant. After much clamour, disorder, and some insignificant speeches on order, Mr. Fox, with great quickness and address, moved, as the most regular method of extricating the House from its embarrassment, ‘That Lord Surrey be now heard’. But Lord North, with yet more admirable presence of mind, mixed with pleasantry, rose immediately and said, ‘I rise to speak to that motion’; and, as his reason for opposing it, stated his resignation and the dissolution of the Ministry. The House, satisfied, became impatient, and after some ineffectual efforts of speakers on both sides to procure a hearing, an adjournment took place. Snow was falling and the night tremendous. All the members’ carriages were dismissed, and Mrs. Bennet’s room at the door was crowded. But Lord North’s carriage was waiting. He put into it one or two of his friends, whom he had invited to go home with him; and turning to the crowd, chiefly composed of his bitter enemies, in the midst of their triumph, exclaimed, in this hour of defeat and supposed mortification, with admirable good humour and pleasantry, ‘I have my carriage. You see, gentlemen, the advantage of being in the secret. Good-night.’ ”
Such acquiescent bonhomie is admirable, no doubt; but easy good-nature is no virtue for a man of action, least of all for a practical politician in critical times. It was Lord North’s “happy temper” which first made him the mean slave of George III., which afterwards induced him to ally himself with the most virulent assailants of that monarch, and, at a preceding period, of himself.
When Lord North resigned, it was natural that the leaders of the Opposition should come at once into predominant power; but a ministerial crisis in the early part of George III.’s reign was never permitted to proceed in what is now fixed as the constitutional etiquette. The King always interfered with it. On this occasion, the only political party who could take office was that which, under the judicious guidance of Lord Rockingham, and supported by the unequalled oratory of Fox and Burke, had consistently opposed the American War. But the leaders of this party were personally disliked by George III. Lord Rockingham he had once before called “one of the most insignificant noblemen in my service”. Mr. Fox, from a curious combination of causes, he hated. Accordingly, though it was necessary for him to treat with Lord Rockingham and his friends, he did not treat with them directly. He employed as an intermediate agent Lord Shelburne, the father of the present Marquis of Lansdowne, a politician whom it is not difficult to describe, but whom it is difficult really to understand. Policemen tell us that there is such a character as a “reputed thief,” who has never been convicted of any particular act of thievery. Lord Shelburne was precisely that character in political life; every one always said he was dishonest, but no particular act of dishonesty has ever been brought home to him. It is not for us now to discuss the dubious peculiarities of so singular a character. But it will be admitted, that it was a most unfortunate one for conducting the delicate personal negotiations inevitable on the formation of a Cabinet, and that it specially unfitted the person believed to possess it to be a good go-between a king who hated the Opposition and an Opposition who distrusted the King. The inevitable result followed: every member of the incoming party was displeased with the King; every one disbelieved the assertions of Lord Shelburne; every one distrusted the solidity of a ministry constructed in a manner so anomalous. A ministry, however, was constructed, of which Lord Shelburne and Lord Rockingham were both members; and both, Mr. Fox said, intended to be Prime Ministers.
Lord Rockingham must evidently have been a man of very fine and delicate judgment. He could not speak in the House of Lords, and his letters are rather awkwardly expressed; but those who compare the history of the Whig party for some years before his death with the history of that party for some years after it, and those who compare the career of Burke for the same two periods, will perceive that both over the turbulence of the great party and the turbulence of the great orator the same almost invisible discretion exercised a guiding and restraining control. After Lord Rockingham’s death, both the Whig party and Mr. Burke committed great errors and fell into lamentable excesses, which were entirely unlike anything which happened while he was yet alive. If he had been permitted to exercise a composing influence, it is possible that the ministry we have described might have lasted; but, unfortunately, within three months after its formation he fell ill and died. Mr. Fox, who had just been quarrelling with Lord Shelburne, refused to serve under him and sent in his resignation; and his example was followed by Burke, and by most of the followers of Lord Rockingham.
Lord Shelburne, however, still intended to be Prime Minister. The King was in his favour. The Whigs had no great aristocratic leader. The Duke of Portland, who was put forward as such, had no powers of speech and but feeble powers of thought. There was no difference of political opinion which need have separated any Whig from Shelburne. He was therefore justified in hoping that if he persevered, he might rally round him in no long time the greater portion of the Whig party, notwithstanding the secession of its present leaders. He doubtless hoped also, by taking advantage of the various influences of the Crown, to attach to himself very many of the followers of Lord North, who were the old adherents of the Crown. But these were anticipations only. For the moment he was more completely separated from the Parliamentary ability of his age than any minister has since been. He came into office in opposition to Lord North and one great party; he remained in office in opposition to Fox and Burke, the leaders of the other great party. The trained leaders of the old Ministry and the trained leaders of the old Opposition were both opposed to him. If he decided to remain Prime Minister, it was necessary for him to take some bold step. He did so. He made Mr. Pitt Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leader of the House of Commons, though he was but twenty-three.
Such singular good fortune has never happened to any English statesman since Parliamentary government in this country has been consolidated into its present form, and it is very unlikely that anything like it can ever happen again. Perhaps no man of twenty-three could get through the quantity of work that is now required to fill the two offices of Finance Minister and leader of the House of Commons. In Pitt’s time the Chancellor of the Exchequer (he himself tells us) needed no private secretary; he had no business requiring any. The leader of the House of Commons did not even require one-tenth part of the ready available miscellaneous information which he must now have at his command, and most of which cannot be learned from any books. To fill the offices which Mr. Pitt filled at twenty-three, it would in this age be necessary that a man should have a trained faculty of transacting business rapidly, which no man of twenty-three can have; and that he should have also a varied knowledge of half a hundred subjects, which no college can teach, and which no book of reference will ever contain. Mr. Pitt, however, met with no difficulty. Though the finances of the country had been disordered by the American war, and though the Ministry was daily assailed by the dexterous good-humour of Lord North and the vehement invectives of Fox and Burke, “the boy,” as they called him, was successful in his Budget, and successful in his management of the House of Commons. It soon, however, became evident that Lord Shelburne’s Ministry could not stand long. There were three parties in the House, and a coalition of any two was sufficient to outnumber any one. According to a calculation preserved in a letter from Gibbon, everything depended on the decision of Mr. Fox. If he returned to the Government, it would be strong; if he allied himself with Lord North, it must fail. He did ally himself with Lord North, and Lord Shelburne resigned.
The coalition between Fox and Lord North is not defended even by Lord John Russell, who defends almost every act in the political life of his great hero. Indeed, it was not likely that he would defend it; for to it we owe the almost unbroken subjection of the Whigs, and the almost unbroken reign of the Tories, for five and twenty years.
No political alliance in English history has been more unpopular than this coalition. For once the King and the people were on the same side, and that side the right side. During by far the greater part of his reign the wishes of George III. were either opposed to the wishes of his people; or the wishes of the two, though identical, were pernicious. During the first part of his reign his attempts to increase the royal influence were generally unpopular; during the latter part, he and his people were both favourable to the American War and to the French War, with what result history shows. But at the period at which we are speaking, both the prominent prejudices of the King, and the deepest feelings of the people were offended by the same event. The Coalition deeply annoyed the King. It was hateful to him that his favourite, Lord North, who had been his confidential minister for years, who was enriched with the marks of his bounty and good-will, who was the leader of many politicians, always biassed in favour of the Crown, and always anxious to support its influence, if they could, should after all ally himself with Mr. Fox, who had opposed the Crown for years; who had called its latent influence “an infernal spirit”; who was the leader of the party opposed to the American War, and therefore, in the King’s view, of the party which had advocated treason and abetted the disruption of the empire; who, worse than all, was the companion and encourager of the Prince of Wales in every species of dissipation; who introduced him to haunts and countenanced him in habits which made the very heart of an economical and decorous monarch horrified and angry: who at that very moment was endeavouring to make “capital,” as we should now say, out of the political prospects and present influence of his profligate associate. George III. used to call the “Coalition Ministry” his son’s ministry; and he could not embody his detestation of it in terms more expressive, to those who knew their meaning. On the other hand, the people were not unnaturally offended also. The Coalition brought into very clear prominence the most characteristic weakness of our unreformed Constitution. Though it professed to be, and really was, a popular Constitution, the people could not be induced to believe that they had much concern in it. The members chosen by popular election were a minority; those nominated by aristocratic and indirect influence were a majority. Accordingly, most men believed, or were prone to believe, that the struggles in Parliament were faction-fights for place and power; that the interest of the nation had little to do with them, or nothing; that they were contests for political power, and for the rich pecuniary rewards which influential office then conferred. The Coalition seemed to prove that this was so even to demonstration. If there ever had been a bonâ fide, and not a simulated, struggle in Parliament, it was the struggle between Fox and Lord North. They had opposed one another for years; Fox had heaped on Lord North every term of invective, opprobrium, and contempt; Lord North had said everything which a good-natured and passive man could say in reply. They had taken different sides both on the obvious question which had been the dividing and critical one of the last few years, and on the latent question which was the real one underlying the greater part of the controversies of the age and giving to them most of their importance. Lord North was the great Parliamentary advocate of the American War; Fox was its most celebrated and effective opponent. Lord North was the most decent agent, and the most successful cooperator, whom George III. had yet found in his incessant policy of maintaining and augmenting the power of the Crown. Fox was known to be opposed to that policy with all his mind, soul, and strength; he was known to have heaped upon that policy every bitter term of contempt, opprobrium, and execration which the English language contains; he was known to have incurred the bitter hatred of George III. by so doing. With these facts before them, what could the nation infer when they saw these two statesmen combine for the evident purpose of obtaining immediate office? They could only say what they did. They said at once that the Coalition must be dishonest if the previous opposition had been real, and that the coalescing statesmen were utterly untrustworthy if that opposition had been simulated.
The Government of the Coalition was not, however, destined to be durable. George III. was a dangerous man to drive to extremity. Though without great creative ability, he had dexterous powers of political management, cultivated by long habit and experience; he had an eager obstinacy allied to the obstinacy of insanity; it was not safe to try him too far. The Coalition Government, however, tried him as far as it was possible. They framed an India Bill, giving the patronage of India to commissioners, to be from time to time nominated by Parliament, to be irremovable by the Crown, the first of whom were to be nominated by themselves. The King was enraged at a scheme so injurious to his secret influence. He considered that it was a scheme for enabling Mr. Fox to buy votes in Parliament. Lord Fitzwilliam, his intimate political friend, was to be at the head of the new Board; and it was expected, perhaps intended, that the Board should be an independent instrument of Parliamentary power at the service of the aristocratic Whigs, and in daily opposition to the influence of the Crown—to that personal influence which George III. had all his life been hoarding and acquiring. The people were almost as much enraged at the scheme as the King himself. They thought that the politicians who had just formed a corrupt coalition to obtain office were now providing a corrupt expedient for retaining that office. “Being dishonest themselves,” it was said, “they are providing themselves with the means of purchasing the votes of others who are dishonest likewise.” The exact value of these accusations we have not space to estimate now; something might certainly be said in extenuation, if it were needful, but at the time the popular feeling was powerfully excited by them; they were expressed by Pitt with marvellous force and marvellous variety, and reechoed through the nation.
The Parliamentary influence of the Coalition Government, which was supported by the greater part of the borough proprietors, both Whig and Tory, was, however, sufficient to carry their India Bill through the House of Commons by majorities which would now be considered very large. It reached the House of Lords, and would have passed that House too, if George III. had not taken one of the most curious steps in our constitutional history. He wrote on a card: “His Majesty allowed Earl Temple to say that whoever voted for the India Bill was not only not his friend, but would be considered by him as an enemy; and if these words were not strong enough, Earl Temple might use whatever words he might deem stronger and more to the purpose”.
Such was the influence of the Crown, such was especially the personal influence which George III. had acquired by steady industry and incessant attention to the personalities of politics, that the fate of the India Bill in the Lords very soon became dubious. “The bishops wavered;” the staunchest followers of Lord North especially, being high Tories, became uncertain; and in the end the Bill was rejected by a majority of ninety-five over seventy-six.
Nor did the King’s active influence stop here. The Coalition Ministry did not resign; although their principal measure had been rejected in the Lords, they kept their places; they induced the House of Commons to resolve that it was a breach of the privilege of Parliament to attempt to influence votes in either House by announcing “any opinion or pretended opinion of his Majesty”. The Ministry was passive in its place; but George III. was never deterred by minor difficulties. He sent his commands at midnight to Mr. Fox and Lord North to deliver up the seals of office, and to send them by their under-secretaries, as he must decline to see them in person. By this Parliamentary coup d’état he broke up an administration which, though unpopular in the country, was supported by the “great owners” of Parliamentary influence and an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons.
But who was to come in? That the King could turn out the old Ministry was very clear, for he had done so; but that he could form a Ministry that could last in such circumstances seemed unlikely; that he could form any Ministry at all was not evident. Political expectation was very eager. As soon as the House met on the day after the midnight dismissal, a new writ was moved for the borough of Appleby, “in the room of the Right Honourable William Pitt, who, since his election, has accepted the office of first Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer”. The announcement was received with laughter, for it seemed unlikely that an ambitious boy (such was the speech of the time) should be able to carry on the government, and to lead the House of Commons in the face of an adverse majority, in direct opposition to the most experienced statesmen, the most practised debaters, and the most skilful manœuvrers of his age.
Mr. Pitt was only twenty-five, and he had no one to rely on. Mr. Dundas was a useful subordinate and an efficient man of business, but he was not a great statesman or a great orator, and he was a Scotch adventurer. In the Lords, Mr. Pitt was confident of the support of Lord Temple, who had effected the defeat of the India Bill by use of the King’s name; but Lord Temple wanted to be paid. He had great borough connections, which gave him permanent claims on every Government; he had just turned out the old Government, which gave him a peculiar claim upon the favour of the new. He asked for a dukedom, and was refused. The King thought he had asked too much, and perhaps believed that it would be most dangerous at that critical moment to give the highest of honorary rewards to the principal agent in an alarming act of royal influence. At any rate, the application was declined, and Lord Temple resigned. Mr. Pitt was thus left almost alone. His Cabinet consisted but of seven persons, and he himself was the only member of the House of Commons among those seven.
Everybody expected that Parliament would be immediately dissolved. As Mr. Pitt was evidently in a minority in the House of Commons which then existed, it was confidently believed that he would at once see whether he would not have a majority in a new House of Commons. He was too wary, however, to do so. In that age, public opinion formed itself slowly and declared itself slowly. The nation, as far as it had an opinion, was in favour of the new administration; but in many parts of the country there was no opinion. Delay was in favour of the side which had the advantage in telling argument; and so strong were the objections of reasonable and moderate men to the coalition between Fox and Lord North—so entirely was their India Bill interpreted by the help of that connection, and regarded in its relation to it—that every day’s discussion made converts. The members for close boroughs, and for counties in which individual interest predominated, were, it is true, a majority in the House of Commons, and they adhered for the most part to the Coalition. But the strength so obtained was always weak at a trying crisis. The same influences acted on the borough proprietors which acted upon others, and they never liked to be opposed to the national will when it was distinctly declared. Nor had the extreme partisans of either party ever liked the coalition of the two parties. The warmest Whigs were alienated from Fox, and the strongest Tories were alienated from Lord North. The majority of Fox began to waver, and the minority of Pitt began to augment. Every division showed a tendency in the same direction. Pitt maintained the struggle with dauntless courage and unbounded dialectical dexterity, against all the orators in the House of Commons. The event began to be doubtful. In the unreformed Parliament no more was necessary. A large section of every part was attached to it by the hope of patronage; it had been bought by promises of that patronage. As the present writer has elsewhere explained, the strength so obtained was unstable.
“It especially failed at the moment at which it was especially wanted. A majority in Parliament which is united by a sincere opinion, and is combined to carry out that opinion, is in some sense secure. As long as that opinion is unchanged, it will remain; it can only be destroyed by weakening the conviction which binds it together. A majority which is obtained by the employment of patronage is very different; it is combined mainly by an expectation. Sir Robert Walpole, the great master in the art of dispensing patronage, defined gratitude as an anticipation of future favours; he meant that the majority which maintained his administration was collected, not by recollection, but by hope; they thought not so much of favours which were past as of favours which were to come. At a critical moment this bond of union was ordinarily weak.”1
As soon as it seemed likely that Mr. Pitt would be victorious, the selfish part of the followers of the Coalition—a very large part—began to go over to Mr. Pitt. The last motion of Mr. Fox was carried by a majority of one.
Mr. Pitt then saw that his time had come; he dissolved Parliament, and his triumph was complete. The popular feeling was overwhelming. It prevailed even in the strongholds of the Whig aristocracy. “Thus in Norfolk,” says Lord Stanhope, “the late member had been Mr. Coke, lord of the vast domains of Holkham, a gentleman who, according to his own opinion, as stated in his address to the county, had played ‘a distinguished part’ in opposing the American War. But notwithstanding his alleged claims of distinction, and his much more certain claims of property, Mr. Coke found it necessary to decline the contest.” But of all the contests of this period, the most important in that point of view was for the county of York. That great county, not yet at election times severed into Ridings, had been under the sway of the Whig Houses. Bolton Abbey, Castle Howard, and Wentworth Park had claimed the right to dictate at the hustings. It was not till 1780 that the spirit of the country rose. “Hitherto”—so in that year spoke Sir George Savile—“I have been elected in Lord Rockingham’s dining-room. Now I am returned by my constituents.” And in 1784 the spirit of the country rose higher still. In 1784 the independent freeholders of Yorkshire boldly confronted the great houses, and insisted on returning, in conjunction with the heir of Duncombe Park, a banker’s son, of few years and of scarcely tried abilities, though destined to a high place in his country’s annals—Mr. Wilberforce. With the help of the country gentlemen, they raised the vast sum of £18,662 for the expense of the election; and so great was their show of numbers and of resolution, that the candidates upon the other side did not venture to stand a contest. Wilberforce was also returned at the head of the poll by his former constituents at Hull. “I can never congratulate you enough on such glorious success,” wrote the Prime Minister to his young friend. One hundred and sixty followers of Mr. Fox lost their seats, and were called “Fox’s martyrs”. The majority for Pitt in the new Parliament was complete, overwhelming, and enthusiastic.
The constitutional aspect of the events of 1784 has been much discussed, and well merits discussion. It is certain that George III. did much that was, according to the good notions now fixedly established, thoroughly unconstitutional; it is certain that scarcely any one will, upon any constitutional doctrines, new or old, defend the “card” displayed by Lord Temple. But, if we had room to argue the subject, we think it might be shown that it would have been inexpedient to apply, in the year 1784, the strict constitutional maxims on which we should act in the year 1861; that the beneficial relations, and that the inevitable relations of the Parliament and the Crown, were different then from what they are now; that, under such an aristocratic Legislature as the unreformed Parliament principally was, it was needful that the Crown should sometimes intervene, when the opinion of Parliament was opposed to the opinion of the people; that, in times when public opinion was formed but slowly, it was advisable that the Crown should do so, not by an instant dissolution of the House of Commons, as we should now exact, but by a deferred dissolution, which would enable the thinking part of the community to reflect, and give the whole country, far and near, time to form a real judgment.
But, at present, we have to deal with the events of 1784, not in their relation to the Constitution of England, but in their relation to the life of Mr. Pitt. They were the completion of his opportunity. But a short time previously the political isolation of Lord Shelburne had made him Chancellor of the Exchequer at a boyish age; the isolation of George III. now made him Prime Minister while still very young. The first good fortune would have been a marvel in the life of any other man, but was nothing to the marvel of the second. By a strange course of great incidents, he was in the most commanding position which an English subject has ever occupied since Parliamentary government was thoroughly established in the country. The victory was so complete, that the mercenaries of the enemy had deserted to his standard. The Crown was necessarily on his side, for he alone stood between George III. and the hated Coalition, which he had discarded and insulted; the people were on his side, from a hatred of the official corruption of which they considered his opponents to be the representatives and the embodiments, from a firm belief in his true integrity, from a proud admiration of his single-handed courage and audacious self-reliance. He had the power to do what he would.
Nor was this all. The opportunity was not only a great opportunity, but was an opportunity in the hands of a young man. Half of our greatest statesmen would have been wholly unprepared for it. When Lord Palmerston was in office in the spring of 1857 with a large majority, a shrewd observer, now no longer among us, said, “Well, it is a large majority; but what is he to do with it?” He did not know himself; by paltry errors and frivolous haughtiness he frittered it away immediately. An old man of the world has no great objects, no telling enthusiasm, no large proposals, no noble reforms; his advice is that of the old banker, “Live, sir, from day to day, and don’t trouble yourself!” Years of acquiescing in proposals as to which he has not been consulted, of voting for measures which he did not frame, and in the wisdom of which he often did not believe, of arguing for proposals from half of which he dissents—usually de-intellectualise a Parliamentary statesman before he comes to half his power. From all this Pitt was exempt. He came to great power with a fresh mind. And not only so; he came into power with the cultivated thought of a new generation. Too many of us scarcely remember how young a man he was. He was born in 1759, and might have well been in the vigour of life in 1830. Lord Sidmouth, his contemporary, did not die till after 1840; he was younger than his cousin, Mr. Thomas Grenville, who long represented in London society the traditions of the past, and who died in 1846. He governed men of the generation before him. Alone among English statesmen, while yet a youth he was governing middle-aged men. He had the power of applying the eager thought of five and twenty, of making it rule over the petty knowledge and trained acquiescence of five and fifty. Alone as yet, and alone perhaps for ever in our Parliamentary history, while his own mind was still original, while his own spirit was still unbroken, he was able to impose an absolute yoke on acquiescent spirits whom the world had broken for him.
We have expended so much space on a delineation of the peculiar opportunities which Mr. Pitt enjoyed, that we must be very concise in showing how he used them. Three subjects then needed the attention of a great statesman, though none of them were so pressing as to force themselves on the attention of a little statesman. These were, our economical and financial legislation, the imperfection of our Parliamentary representation, and the unhappy condition of Ireland. Pitt dealt with all three.
Our economical legislation was partly in an uncared-for state, and partly in an ill-cared-for state. Our customs laws were a chaos of confusion. Innumerable Acts of Parliament had been passed on temporary occasions and for temporary purposes; blunders had been discovered in them; other Acts were passed to amend those blunders; those other Acts contained other blunders; new corrective legislation was required, and here too there were errors, omissions, and imperfections. And in so far as our economical legislation was based upon a theory, that theory was a very mistaken one; it was the theory of Protection. The first duty of the English Legislature, it was believed, was to develop English industry and to injure foreign industry. Our manufactures, it was thought, could be made better by Acts of Parliament; the manufactures of our rivals, it was believed, could be made worse. The industry of the nation worked in a complicated network of fetters and bonds.
Mr. Pitt applied himself vigorously to this chaos. He brought in a series of resolutions consolidating our customs laws, of which the inevitable complexity may be estimated by their number. They amounted to 133, and the number of Acts of Parliament which they restrained or completed was much greater. He attempted, and successfully, to apply the principles of Free Trade, the principles which he was the first of English statesmen to learn from Adam Smith, to the actual commerce of the country, and to the part of our commerce which afforded the greatest temptations to a philosophic statesman, and presented the greatest accumulation of irritable and stupid prejudice. France and England were near one another, but had no trade with one another; no such trade, at least, as two countries so different in soil, in climate, and in natural aptitude, ought to have. So far from either nation much wishing to trade with the other, neither wished to depend on the other for anything. The national dignity was supposed to be compromised by buying from an ancient rival. Mr. Pitt, however, framed a treaty which, if its consequences had not been swept away with so much else, both good and evil, in the European storm of the French Revolution, would have been quoted as the true commencement of Free Trade legislation; would have been referred to as we now refer to the tentative reforms of Huskisson, and to the earlier Budgets of Sir Robert Peel. So little was the subject then understood, even by those most likely to understand it, that both Fox and Burke opposed the treaty with virulence and vehemence; declaring that France was our natural enemy, and that it was unworthy of any one who pretended to be a statesman to create a “peddling traffic,” and maintain “huckstering” relations with her.
The financial reputation of Pitt has greatly suffered from the absurd praise which was once lavished on the worst part of it. The dread of national ruin from the augmentation of the National Debt was a sort of nightmare in that age; the evil was apparent, and the counteracting force was not seen. No one perceived that English industry was yearly growing with an accelerating rapidity; no one foresaw that in a few years it would be aided by a hundred wonderful inventions—by the innumerable results of applied science; no one comprehended that the national estate was augmenting far faster than the national burden. The popular mind was apprehensive, and wished to see some remedy applied to what seemed to be an evident and dangerous evil. Mr. Pitt sympathised with the general apprehension, and created the well-known Sinking Fund. He proposed to apply annually a certain fixed sum to the payment of the debt, which was in itself excellent; but he omitted to provide real money to be so paid. The only source out of which debt can be defrayed, as every one now understands, is a surplus revenue; out of an empty exchequer no claims can ever be liquidated by possibility: an excess of income over outlay is a prerequisite of a true repayment. Mr. Pitt, however, not only did not see this, but persuaded a whole generation that it was not so. He proposed to borrow the money to pay off the debt, and fancied that he thus diminished it. He had framed a puzzle in compound interest, which deceived himself, and every one who was entrusted with the national finances, for very many years.
The exposure of this financial juggle, for though not intended to be so, such in fact it was, has reacted very unfavourably upon Mr. Pitt’s deserved fame. It was so long said “that he was a great financier because he invented the Sinking Fund,” that it came at last to be believed that he could not be a great financier inasmuch as he had invented it. So much merit had been claimed for something bad, that no search was made for anything good. But an accurate study of these times will prove that Pitt was really one of the greatest financiers in our history, that he repaired the great disorders of the American War, that he restored a surplus revenue, that he understood the true principles of taxation, that he even knew that the best way to increase a revenue from the consumption of the masses is to lower the rate of duty and develop their consuming power.
The subject of Parliamentary reform is the one with which, in Mr. Pitt’s early days, the public most connected his name, and is also that with which we are now least apt to connect it. We have so long and so often heard him treated as the great Conservative minister, that we can hardly realise to ourselves that he was an unsparing and ardent reformer. Yet such is the indisputable fact. He proposed the abolition of the worst of the rotten boroughs fifty years before Lord Grey accomplished it. The period was a favourable one for reform. The failure of the American War had left behind it a bitter irritation and an anxious self-reproach. Why had we, with our great wealth, our great valour, our long experience, failed in what seemed a trivial enterprise? Why had we been put to shame in the face of Europe? Why had we been forced to humble ourselves in the face of Europe? Why had we been compelled to make an ignominious peace? Why had we, one of the greatest of civilised States, failed to conquer a raw and unknown colony? The popular answer was that our arms had been unsuccessful because our Government was corrupt. The practical working of our unreformed Constitution has been tersely described as the barter of patronage for power; the Parliamentary majorities of that age were kept by an incessant commerce between the proprietors of seats who sold and the Secretary of the Treasury who bought. In the present day refined arguments are often brought forward to justify or to palliate the system of government. But whatever may be the abstract worth of those arguments, their practical worth is not great. They will never convince the mass of men; they will never satisfy the unsophisticated instinct of ordinary men; they will not remove their natural distrust of what they believe to be unpatriotic selfishness; they will not lessen their conscientious repugnance to that which they call corruption. After the disasters of the American War, this feeling was very strong and very diffused. An unpopular tree was judged of by unpopular fruits; our calamities were evident, and our corruption was conspicuous. A most distinct association of the two was formed in the popular mind. Of this Mr. Pitt took advantage. If the strong counteracting influence of the French Revolution had not changed the national opinion, he would unquestionably have amended our Parliamentary representation. Even after the French Revolution he never changed his own opinion; he considered that the time was not favourable for what we now call organic changes; and he judged wisely, for the mass of the nation was wildly and frantically Conservative; but he did not abandon his early principles: he never became a “Pittite”.
The state of Ireland was a more pressing difficulty than our financial confusion, our economical errors, or our Parliamentary corruption. It had an independent Legislature, which might at any time take a dangerously different view of national interests, of the expediency of a peace, or the expediency of a war, from the English Parliament. That Legislature was a Protestant Legislature in the midst of a Catholic people; it was the Legislature of a small and hated minority in the midst of an excitable, tumultuous, oppressed people. The mass of the Irish Catholics believed that the mass of the property, which belonged in fact to the Protestants, was in strict right theirs; they believed that they were the true owners of the soil, and that the Protestants were intruders; they believed that they had a right to govern the country, and that the Protestants were usurpers; they believed that the Church which the State supported was a heretic Church; that the Church which the State did not support was the true Church—the only true Church in Christendom. In every parish the distinction between Protestant and Catholic was periodically ruled by the most critical of tests—the pecuniary test. The collection of the tithe in detail over the country, from the Catholic population for the Protestant Church, was the source of chronic confusion and incessant bloodshed. Mr. Pitt proposed to remedy all these evils in turn, and effectually. He proposed to remedy the most immediate and pressing cause of trouble throughout the country by changing—as has since been done—the periodical extortion of the Irish tithe from the hostile farmer into an equivalent payment by a rent-charge, which could be easily collected and could give rise to no disgraceful scenes. He proposed to put the Catholic majority and the Protestant minority upon a perfect equality so far as civil rights were concerned. He was desirous that Catholics should be eligible to all offices, and be electors for all offices. He was ready likewise to destroy the prevalent religious agitation at its very root, by paying the ministers of the Church of the poor as well as the ministers of the Church of the rich. He proposed at once to remedy the national danger of having two Parliaments, and to remove the incredible corruption of the old Irish Parliament, by uniting the three kingdoms in a single representative system, of which the Parliament should sit in England. He framed, in a word, a scheme which would have cured the internal divisions of Ireland, which would have united her effectually to the Empire without impairing her real liberty.
Of these great reforms he was only permitted to carry a few into execution. His power, as we have described it, was great when his reign commenced, and very great it continued to be for very many years; but the time became unfavourable for all forward-looking statesmanship—for everything which could be called innovation. The French Revolution and the French War destroyed for many years our national taste for political improvement. But, notwithstanding these calamities, Pitt achieved some part of all his cherished schemes save one.
No opportunity would have enabled Pitt to effect these great reforms, no peculiar situation would have suggested them to him, if he had not had certain more than ordinary tendencies and abilities—the tendencies and abilities of a great administrator. Contrary to what might at first sight be supposed, using the word “administrator” in its most enlarged sense—in the sense in which we used it at the commencement of this article—the first qualification of the highest administrator is, that he should think of something which he need not think of—of something which is not the pressing difficulty of the hour. For inferior men no rule could be so dangerous. Ambitious mediocrity is dangerous mediocrity; ordinary men find what they must do amply enough for them to do; the exacting difficulty of the hour, which will not be stayed, which must be met, absorbs their whole time and all their energies. But the ideal administrator has time, has mind—for that is the difficulty—for something more; he can do what he must, and he will do what he wishes. This is Mr. Pitt’s peculiarity among the great English statesmen of the eighteenth century. As a rule, the spirit of Sir Robert Walpole ruled over all these statesmen. They respected his favourite maxim, quieta non movere; to deal shrewdly and adroitly with what must be dealt with; to leave alone whatever might be left alone; to accumulate every possible resource against the inevitable difficulties of the present moment, and never to think or dream or treat of what was not inevitable;—these were then, as always, the justifiable aims of commonplace men. They did their possible; they did all that they could with their strength and their faculties in their day and generation. The philosophy of the time, with its definite problems and its unaspiring tendencies, encouraged them; it made them unalive to the higher possibilities they were forgetting, to the higher duties they were half-consciously, half-unconsciously passing over. It was with reference to this oblivious neglect of the future, this short-sighted absorption in the present, that Dr. Arnold called this century the “misused trial-time of modern Europe”. It is the distinctive characteristic of Pitt that, having a great opportunity, having power such as no Parliamentary statesman has ever had, having in his mind a fresh stock of youthful thought such as no similar statesman has ever possessed—he applied that power steadily and perseveringly to embody that thought. To persons who think but slightly, this may seem only a very slight merit. The first remark of many a commonplace man would be, “If I had great power, I would carry out my own ideas”. A modern Socrates, if there were such a person, would answer, “But, my good friend, what are your ideas?” When explained to an exact and scrutinising questioner, still more when confronted with the awful facts—the inevitable necessities of the real world—these “ideas” would melt away; after a little while the commonplace person, who was at first so proud of them, would cease to believe that he ever entertained them; he would say, “Men of business do not indulge in those speculations”. The characteristic merit of Pitt is, that in the midst of harassing details, in the midst of obvious cares, in the face of most keen, most able, and most stimulated opposition, he applied his whole power to the accomplishment of great but practicable schemes.
The marvel, or at any rate the merit, is greater. Pitt was by no means an excited visionary. He had by no means one of those minds upon which great ideas fasten as a fanaticism. There was among his contemporaries a great man, who was in the highest gifts of abstract genius, in the best acquisitions of political culture, far superior to him. But in the mind of Burke great ideas were a supernatural burden, a superincumbent inspiration. He saw a great truth, and he saw nothing else. At all times with the intense irritability of genius, in later years with the extreme one-sidedness of insanity, he was content, in season and out of season, with the great visions which had been revealed to him, with the great lessons which he had to teach, and which he could but very rarely induce any one to hear. But Pitt’s mind was an absolute contrast to this. He had an extreme discretion, tested at the most trying conjunctures. In 1784, when he had no power, when there was a hostile majority in the House of Commons, when he had no sure majority in the House of Lords, when the support of the King, which he undeniably had, was an undeniable difficulty;—for he did not intend to be a second Lord North; he did not intend to be a servitor of the Palace; he would not have stooped to carry out measures which he disapproved of; he would not have been willing to enunciate measures as to which he had not been consulted;—at this very moment, with most of the constitutional powers against him, with the very greatest greatly against him, with no useful part of it truly for him—he never made a false step; he guided the most feeble administration of modern times so ably and so dexterously that in a few months it became the strongest. A mind with so delicate a tact as this is entitled to some merit for adhering to distant principles. It is those who understand the present that feel the temptation of the present, it is those who comprehend the hour that feel the truly arduous, though upon paper it may seem the petty, difficulty of thinking beyond the hour. It is no merit in those who cannot have the present to attempt to act for posterity. There is nothing else left to them; they have no other occupation open to them. But it is a great merit in those who can have what is plain, apparent, and immediate, to think of the unseen, unasking, impalpable future.
It is this singular discretion which is Mr. Pitt’s peculiar merit, because he belongs to the class of statesmen who are most apt to be defective in that discretion. He was an oratorical statesman; and an oratorical statesman means, ex vi termini, an excitable statesman. His art consists in the power of giving successfully in a more than ordinary manner the true feelings and sentiments of ordinary men; not their superficial notions, nor their coarser sentiments, for with these any inferior man may deal, but their most intimate nature, that which in their highest moments is most truly themselves. How is the exercise of this art to be reconciled with terrestrial discretion? Is the preacher to come down from his pedestal? is he who can deal worthily with great thoughts to be asked also to deal fittingly with small details? is it possible that the same mind which can touch the hearts of all men can also be alive to the petty interests of itself? is the microscopic power to be added to the telescopic power? is the capacity for careful management to be added to the power of creating unbounded enthusiasm? Yet this is the perpetual difficulty of Parliamentary statesmen. A dry man can do the necessary business; an excitable man can give to the popular House of Parliament the necessary excitement. Mr. Pitt was able, with surpassing ability and surpassing ease, to do both; scarcely any one else has been so.
This great Parliamentary position he owed to a combination of Parliamentary abilities, of which only one or two can be, within our necessary limits, distinctly specified, but one or two of which are very prominent.
First, his singular oratorical power. He was, Lord Macaulay tells us, “at once the one man who could explain a Budget without notes, and who could speak that most unmeaningly evasive of human compositions, a Queen’s Speech, off hand”. He had the eloquence of business both in its expressive and its inexpressive forms, and he had likewise the eloquence of character; that is, he had the singular power, which not half a dozen men in a generation possess, of imparting to a large audience the exact copy of the feelings, the exact impress of the determination, with which they are themselves possessed. On a matter of figures, “Pitt said so,” was enough; on a question of legislative improvement, an apathetic Parliament caught some interest from his example; in the deepest moments of national despair, an anxious nation could show some remains of their characteristic courage, from his bold audacity, and unwearied, inflexible, and augmenting determination.
No man could have achieved this without a sanguine temperament, and accordingly good observers pronounced Mr. Pitt the most sanguine man they had ever known. In no stage of national despondency, in no epoch of national despair, was his capacity of hope, one of the important capacities for great men in anxious affairs, ever shaken. At the crisis of his early life, Lord Temple’s resignation, which seemed the last possible addition to the coalition of difficulties under which he was labouring, is said to have deprived him of sleep; but nothing else ever did so after his power attained its maturity, and while his body retained its strength.
Over the House of Commons, too, his anxious love of detail had an influence which will not surprise those who know how sensitive that critical assembly is to every sort of genuineness, and how keenly watchful it is for every kind of falsity. The labour bestowed on his reform of the Customs Acts, on his Indian measures, on his financial proposals from year to year, is matter of history; no one can look with an instructed eye at these measures without instantly being conscious of it. In addition to his other great powers, Mr. Pitt added the rare one of an intense capacity for work, in an age when that capacity was rarer than it is now, and in a Parliament where the element of dandies and idlers was far more dominant than it has since become.
Nor would this enumeration of Pitt’s great Parliamentary qualities be complete—it would want, perhaps, the most striking and obvious characteristic—if we omitted to mention Pitt’s well-managed shyness and his surpassing pride.
In all descriptions of Pitt’s appearance in the House of Commons, a certain aloofness fills an odd space. He is a “thing apart,” different somehow from other members. Fox was the exact opposite. He was a good fellow; he rolled into the House, fat, good-humoured, and popular. Pitt was spare, dignified, and reserved. When he entered the House, he walked to the place of the Premier, without looking to the right or to the left, and he sat at the same place. He was ready to discuss important business with all proper persons, upon all necessary occasions; but he was not ready to discuss business unnecessarily with any one, nor did he discuss anything but business with any save a very few intimate friends, with whom his reserve at once vanished, and his wit and humour at once expanded, and his genuine interests in all really great subjects was at once displayed. In a popular assembly this sort of reserve rightly manipulated is a power. It is analogous to the manner which the accomplished author of Eothen recommends in dealing with Orientals: “it excites terror and inspires respect”. A recent book of memoirs illustrates it. During Addington’s administration, a certain rather obscure “Mr. G.” was made a privy councillor; and the question was raised in Pitt’s presence as to the mode in which he could have obtained that honour. Some one said, “I suppose he was always talking to the Premier, and bothering him”. Mr. Pitt quietly observed, “In my time I would much rather have made him a privy councillor than have spoken to him”. It is easy to conceive the mental exhaustion which this well-managed reserve spared him, the number of trivial conversations which it economised, the number of imperfect ambitions which it quelled before they were uttered. An ordinary man could not of course make use of it. But Pitt at the earliest period imparted to the House of Commons the two most important convictions for a member in his position: he convinced them that he would not be the King’s creature, and that he desired no pecuniary profit for himself. As he despised royal favour and despised real money, the House of Commons thought he might well despise them.
We have left ourselves no room to speak of Mr. Pitt’s policy at the time of the French Revolution. It would require an essay of considerable length to do it substantial justice. But we may observe, that the crisis which that Revolution presented to an English statesman was one rather for a great dictator than for a great administrator. The English people were at first in general pleased with the commencement of the French Revolution. “Anglo-manie,” it seemed, had been prevalent on the Continent; the English Constitution, it was hoped, would be transplanted, the fundamental principles of the English Revolution it was, at any rate, hoped, would be imitated. The essay of Burke by its arguments, the progress of events by an evident experience, proved that such would not be the history. What was to come was uncertain. There was no precedent on the English file; the English people did not know what they ought to think, they were ready to submit to any one who would think for them. The only point upon which their opinion was decided was, that the French Revolution was very dangerous; that it had produced awful results in France; that it was no model for imitation for sober men in a sober country. They were ready to concede anything to a statesman who allowed this, who acted on this, who embodied this in appropriate action.
Mr. Pitt saw little further than the rest of the nation; what the French Revolution was he did not understand; what forces it would develop he did not foresee; what sort of opposition it would require he did not apprehend. He was, indeed, on one point much in advance of his contemporaries. The instinct of uncultivated persons is always towards an intemperate interference with anything of which they do not approve. A most worthy police-magistrate in our own time said, that “he intended to put down suicide”. The English people, in the very same spirit of uncultured benevolence, wished to “put down the French Revolution”. They were irritated at its excess; they were alarmed at its example; they conceived that such impiety should be punished for the past and prohibited for the future. Mr. Pitt’s natural instinct, however, was certainly in an entirely opposite direction. He was by inclination and by temperament opposed to all war, he was very humane, and all war is inhumane; he was a great financier, and all war is opposed to well-regulated finance. He postponed a French war as long as he could; he consented to it with reluctance, and continued it from necessity.
Of the great powers which the sudden excitement of democratic revolution would stimulate in a nation seemingly exhausted, Mr. Pitt knew no more than those who were around him. Burke said that, as a military power, France was “blotted from the map of Europe”; and though Pitt, with characteristic discretion, did not advance any sentiment which would be so extreme, or any phrase which would adhere so fixedly to every one’s memory, it is undeniable that he did not anticipate the martial power which the new France, as by magic, displayed; that he fancied she would be an effete country, that he fancied he was making war with certain scanty vestiges of the ancien régime, instead of contending against the renewed, excited, and intensified energies of a united people. He did not know that, for temporary purposes, a revolutionary government was the most powerful of all governments; for it does not care for the future, and has the entire legacy of the past. He forgot that it was possible, that from a brief period of tumultuous disorder, there might issue a military despotism more compact, more disciplined, and more overpowering than any which had preceded it, or any which has followed it.
But, as we have said, the conclusion of a prolonged article is no place for discussing the precise nature of Mr. Pitt’s antirevolutionary policy. Undoubtedly, he did not comprehend the Revolution in France; as Lord Macaulay has explained, with his habitual power, he over-rated the danger of a revolution in this country; he entirely over-estimated the power of the democratic assailants, and he entirely under-estimated the force of the conservative, maintaining, restraining, and, if need were, reactionary, influence. He saw his enemy;—he did not see his allies. But it is not given to many men to conquer such difficulties; it is not given to the greatest of administrators to apprehend entirely new phenomena. A highly imaginative statesman, a man of great moments and great visions, a greater Lord Chatham, might have done so, but the educated sense and equable dexterity of Mr. Pitt failed. All that he could do he did. He burnt the memory of his own name into the Continental mind. After sixty years, the French people still half believe that it was the gold of Pitt which caused many of their misfortunes; after half a century it is still certain that it was Pitt’s indomitable spirit and Pitt’s hopeful temper which was the soul of every Continental coalition, and the animating life of every anti-revolutionary movement. He showed most distinctly how potent is the influence of a commanding character just when he most exhibited the characteristic limitation of even the best administrative intellect.
[1 ]Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt. By Earl Stanhope, author of the History of England from the Peace of Utrecht.
[1 ]Essays on Parliamentary Reform, p. 154. By Walter Bagehot. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1883.
[1 ]Essays on Parliamentary Reform, p. 157. By Walter Bagehot. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1883.