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Title: William Pitt and national revival

Author: J. Holland Rose

Artist: Thomas Gainsborough

Release date: March 13, 2024 [eBook #73157]

Language: English

Original publication: United Kingdom: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd, 1911

Credits: MWS and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)


Transcriber’s Note

Larger versions of most illustrations may be seen by right-clicking them and selecting an option to view them separately, or by double-tapping and/or stretching them.

New original cover art included with this eBook is granted to the public domain. It includes an illustration taken from the original book.

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Fifth Edition. With many Maps and Plans and numerous
Illustrations from contemporary paintings, rare prints
and engravings, medals, etc.

In Two Volumes, Large Post 8vo. 18s. net.

Also a Cheaper Edition, without the Illustrations, 2 vols. 10s. net.



Second Edition, revised. Post 8vo. 5s. net.



Emery Walker Ph. sc.

William Pitt
as Chancellor of the Exchequer
from a painting by T. Gainsborough



A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you, gods, will give us
Some faults to make us men.
Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.





In this volume I seek to describe the work of national revival carried out by William Pitt the Younger up to the time of the commencement of friction with Revolutionary France, completing the story of his life in a volume entitled “William Pitt and the Great War.” No apology is needed for an attempt to write a detailed description of his career. The task has not been essayed since the year 1862, when the fifth Earl Stanhope published his monumental work; and at that time the archives of the Foreign Office, War Office, Admiralty, and Home Office were not open for research in the period in question. Excellent monographs on Pitt were given to the world by Lord Rosebery and Mr. Charles Whibley in the years 1891 and 1906, but they were too brief to admit of an adequate treatment of the masses of new materials relating to that career. Of late these have been greatly augmented by the inclusion among the national archives of the Pitt Manuscripts, which comprise thousands of letters and memoranda hitherto little used. In recent years also the records of the Foreign Office and Home Office have become available for study, and at many points have yielded proofs of the influence which Pitt exerted on the foreign and domestic policy of Great Britain. Further, by the great kindness of the Countess Stanhope and Mr. E. G. Pretyman, M.P., I was enabled to utilize the Pitt Manuscripts preserved at Chevening and Orwell Park; and both His Grace the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Harrowby generously placedvi at my disposal unpublished correspondence of Pitt with their ancestors. These new sources render it necessary to reconstruct no small portion of his life.

Among recent publications bearing on this subject, the most important is that of “The Manuscripts of J. B. Fortescue, Esq.,” preserved at Dropmore (Hist. MSS. Comm., 7 vols., 1892–1910), the seventh volume of which comprises details respecting the death of Pitt. This collection, containing many new letters of George III, Pitt, Lord Grenville, and British ambassadors, has proved of incalculable service. Many Memoirs, both English and foreign, have appeared of late. Among foreign historians who have dealt with this period, Sorel holds the first place; but his narrative is often defective on English affairs, to which he gave too little attention. The recent monograph of Dr. Felix Salomon on the early part of Pitt’s career (Leipzig, 1901), and those of Herren Beer, Heidrich, Luckwaldt, Uhlmann, Vivenot, and Wittichen on German affairs, have been of service, as well as those of Ballot, Chassin, and Pallain on Anglo-French relations. The bias of Lecky against Pitt detracts somewhat from the value of the latter part of his work, “England in the Eighteenth Century”; and I have been able to throw new light on episodes which he treated inadequately.

Sometimes my narrative may seem to diverge far from the immediate incidents of the life of Pitt; but the enigmas in which it abounds can be solved only by a study of the policy of his rivals or allies at Paris, The Hague, Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. These questions have not received due attention from English students; for Lecky did not treat the period 1793–1800 except in regard to Irish affairs. Accordingly, while by no means neglecting the private and social life of Pitt, I have sought in this volume to describe hisvii achievements during the period dominated by Catharine of Russia, Joseph of Austria, and Mirabeau. That age is also memorable for political, fiscal, and social developments of high interest; and I have dealt with them as fully as possible, often with the aid of new materials drawn from Pitt’s papers. It being impossible to extend the limits of this work, I ask the forbearance of specialists for not treating those problems more fully. It is a biography, not a series of monographs; and I have everywhere sought to keep the figure of Pitt in the foreground. New letters of George III, Pitt, Grenville, Windham, Burke, Canning, etc., which could only be referred to here, will be published in a volume entitled “Pitt and Napoleon Miscellanies,” containing also essays and notes.

I wish to thank not only those whose generous assistance I have already acknowledged, but also Mr. Hubert Hall, of the Public Record Office, for advice given during my researches; the Rev. William Hunt, D.Litt., for a thorough recension of the proofs of this work; the Masters of Trinity College and Peterhouse, Cambridge; Professor Firth, and Mr. G. P. Gooch, M.A., for valued suggestions; the Ven. Archdeacon Cunningham and Mr. Hewins for assistance on economic subjects; M. Raymond Guyot and Herr Doctor Luckwaldt for information on French and German affairs; also Mr. E. G. Pretyman, M.P., for permission to reproduce the portrait of the first Countess of Chatham; Mr. R. A. Tatton, for similar permission to include Gainsborough’s portrait of William Pitt; and last, but not least, Mr. A. M. Broadley for the communication of new letters relating to Pitt and his friends.

J. H. R.

February 1911.ix


Introduction 1
I. Early Years 34
II. At Cambridge 50
III. Political Apprenticeship 63
IV. At Westminster and Goostree’s 76
V. The Peace with America 97
VI. The Coalition 124
VII. The Struggle with Fox 152
VIII. Retrenchment 178
IX. Reform 196
X. India 216
XI. The Irish Problem (1785) 241
XII. Pitt and his Friends (1783–94) 267
XIII. Isolation (1784, 1785) 296
XIV. L’Entente cordiale (1786) 321
XV. The Dutch Crisis (1786, 1787) 349
XVI. The Triple Alliance 368
XVII. The Prince of Wales 391
XVIII. The Regency Crisis 406
XIX. Australia and Canada 432
XX. The Slave Trade 454
XXI. The Schemes of Catharine II 480
XXII. Partition or Pacification? 503
XXIII. Partition or Pacification? (continued) 518
XXIV. The French Revolution 537
XXV. The Dispute with Spain 562
XXVI. Pitt and Catharine II 589
XXVII. The Triumph of Catharine II 608



William Pitt as Chancellor of the Exchequer. (From a painting by Gainsborough in the possession of R. A. Tatton, Esq.) Frontispiece
Lady Chatham, mother of William Pitt. (From a painting in the possession of E. G. Pretyman, Esq., M.P.) 38
William Wyndham, Lord Grenville. (From a painting by Hoppner) 280
William Wilberforce. (From an unfinished painting by Sir T. Lawrence) 458



Ann. Reg. = “Annual Register.”

Ashbourne = “Pitt: some Chapters of his Life and Times,” by the Rt. Hon. Lord Ashbourne. 1898.

Auckland Journals = “The Journal and Corresp. of William, Lord Auckland.” 4 vols. 1861.

Buckingham P. = “Mems. of the Court and Cabinets of George III,” by the Duke of Buckingham. 2 vols. 1853.

B.M. Add. MSS. = Additional Manuscripts of the British Museum.

Beaufort P. = “MSS. of the Duke of Beaufort,” etc. (Hist. MSS. Comm.). 1891.

Campbell. = “Lives of the Lord Chancellors,” by Lord Campbell. 8 vols. 1845–69.

Castlereagh Corresp. = “Mems. and Corresp. of Viscount Castlereagh.” 8 vols. 1848-.

Chevening MSS. = Manuscripts of the Countess Stanhope, preserved at Chevening.

Cunningham = “Growth of Eng. Industry and Commerce (Modern Times),” by Dr. W. Cunningham. 1892.

Dropmore P. = “The Manuscripts of J. B. Fortescue, Esq., preserved at Dropmore” (Hist. MSS. Comm.). 7 vols. 1892–1910.

Fortescue = “The History of the British Army,” by the Hon. J. W. Fortescue. vol. iv.

Häusser = “Deutsche Geschichte (1786–1804),” by L. Häusser. 4 vols. 1861–3.

Holland = “Memoirs of the Whig Party,” by Lord Holland. 2 vols. 1852.

Jesse = “Mems. of the Life and Reign of George III,” by J. H. Jesse. 3 vols. 1867.

Lecky = “Hist. of England in the Eighteenth Century,” by W. E. H. Lecky. 8 vols. Fifth edit. 1891–1904.

Luckwaldt = “Die englisch-preussische Allianz von 1788,” von F. Luckwaldt. 1902.


Leeds Mem. = “Political Memoranda of Francis, Fifth Duke of Leeds,” ed. by Mr. O. Browning. 1884.

Malmesbury Diaries = “Diaries and Corresp. of the First Earl of Malmesbury.” 4 vols. 1844.

Parl. Hist. = “History of the Parliamentary Debates” (after 1804 continued in Hansard).

Pellew = “Life and Corresp. of the first Viscount Sidmouth,” by Rev. C. Pellew. 3 vols. 1847.

Pitt MSS. = Pitt MSS., preserved at H.M. Public Record Office.

Pitt-Rutland Corresp. = “Corresp. between ... W. Pitt and the Duke of Rutland.” 1890.

Rose G., “Diaries” = “Diaries and Corresp. of Rt. Hon. G. Rose.” 2 vols. 1860.

Rose, “Napoleon” = “Life of Napoleon,” by J. H. Rose. 2 vols. 1909.

Rutland P. = “MSS. of the Duke of Rutland” (Hist. MSS. Comm.). 3 vols. 1894.

Ruville = “William Pitt, Earl of Chatham,” by A. von Ruville (Eng. transl.). 3 vols. 1907.

Sorel = “L’Europe et la Révolution française,” par A. Sorel. Pts. II, III. 1889, 1897.

Stanhope = “Life of ... William Pitt,” by Earl Stanhope. 4 vols. 3rd edition. 1867.

Sybel = “Geschichte der Revolutionzeit” (1789–1800). Eng. translation. 4 vols. 1867–9.

Vivenot = “Quellen zur Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserpolitik Œsterreichs ...” von A. von Vivenot. 1873.

Wittichen = “Preussen und England in der europäischen Politik 1785–8,” von F. K. Wittichen. 1902.

Wraxall = “Memoirs of Sir N. W. Wraxall” (1772–84), edited by H. B. Wheatley. 5 vols. 1884.


On page 157, l. 23, for “Richard” read “Thomas.”

On page 267, ad fin., for “Bob” read “Tom.”




I think it proper before I commence my proposed work to pass under review the condition of the capital, the temper of the armies, the attitude of the provinces, and the elements of weakness and strength which existed throughout the whole Empire, so that we may become conversant, not only with the vicissitudes and issues of events, which are often matters of chance, but also with their relations and causes.—Tacitus, The History, bk. i, ch. iv.

In the course of the session of 1782, when the American War was dragging to its disastrous close and a change of Ministers was imminent, one of the youngest members of the House of Commons declared that he would accept no subordinate office in a new administration. At the close of 1783, during a crisis of singular intensity, he became Chief Minister of the Crown, and thenceforth, with one short interval, controlled the destinies of Great Britain through twenty-two years marked by grave complications, both political and financial, social and diplomatic, ending in wars of unexampled magnitude. Early in the year 1806 he died of exhaustion, at the age of forty-seven. In these bald statements we may sum up the outstanding events of the life of William Pitt the Younger, which it is my aim to describe somewhat in detail.

Before reviewing his antecedents and the course of his early life, I propose to give some account of English affairs in the years when he entered on his career, so that we may picture him in his surroundings, realize the nature of the difficulties that2 beset him, and, as it were, feel our way along some of the myriad filaments which connect an individual with the collective activities of his age.

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, died in 1778. His second son, named after him, began his political career at the close of the year 1780, when he was elected Member of Parliament for Appleby. The decade which then began marks a turning point in British history. Then for the first time the old self-contained life was shaken to its depths by forces of unsuspected power. Democracy, Athene-like, sprang to maturity in the New World, and threatened the stability of thrones in the Old World. For while this militant creed won its first triumphs over the soldiery of George III, it began also to colour the thoughts and wing the aspirations of the masses, especially in France, so that, even if the troops of Washington had been vanquished, the rising tide of thought would none the less have swept away the outworn barriers of class. The march of armies may be stayed; that of thought never.

The speculations enshrined in the “Social Contract” of Rousseau and the teachings of the Encyclopaedists contained much that was crude, or even false. Nevertheless, they gave an impulse such as no age ever had known, and none perhaps ever will know again. The course of the American War of Independence and the foundation of a State based on distinctly democratic principles proved that the new doctrines might lead to very practical results. The young giant now stood rooted in mother-earth.

Side by side with this portent in the world of thought and politics there came about another change. Other centuries have witnessed experiments in the direction of democracy; but in none have social speculations and their results been so closely accompanied by mechanical inventions of wonder-working potency. Here we touch on the special characteristics of the modern world. It is the product of two Revolutions, one political, the other mechanical. The two movements began and developed side by side. In 1762 Rousseau gave to the world his “Contrat Social,” the Bible of the French Revolutionists; while only two years later Hargreaves, a weaver of Blackburn, produced his spinning-jenny. In 1769 Arkwright patented his spinning-frame, and Watt patented his separate condenser. The year 1776 is memorable alike for the American Declaration of3 Independence, and for the publication of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” In 1779 the Lancashire weaver, Crompton, produced his “mule-jenny,” a vast improvement on the machines of Arkwright and Hargreaves. The year 1785 witnessed not only the Diamond-Necklace scandal, so fatal to the prestige of the French monarchy, but also the patenting of Watt’s double-acting steam-engine and Cartwright’s “power loom.” In the year 1789, which sounded the knell of the old order of things on the Continent, there appeared the first example of the modern factory, spinning-machinery being then driven by steam power in Manchester. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, when the democratic movement had for the time gone astray and spent its force, the triumphs of science and industry continued peacefully to revolutionize human life. In 1803, the year of the renewal of war with France, William Radcliffe of Stockport greatly increased the efficiency of the power loom, and thereby cheapened the production of cloth. Finally, the year 1814 ought to be remembered, not only for the first abdication of Napoleon, but also for that peaceful and wholly beneficent triumph, George Stephenson’s “No. 1,” Killingworth locomotive.1

The list might be extended far beyond the limits of the period treated in this work, but enough has been said to show that the democratic and industrial forces closely synchronized at the outset, and that while the former waned the latter waxed more and more, proving in the years 1830–2 the most potent ally of English reformers in efforts which Pitt and his friends had failed to carry through in the years 1780–5. So intimate an interaction of new and potent forces had never been seen in the history of man. In truth no one but a sciolist will venture to ascribe the problems of the present age solely to the political movement which found its most powerful expression in the French Revolution. Only those can read aright the riddle of the modern sphinx who have ears for both her tones, who hearken not only to the shouts of leaders and the roar of mobs, but also listen for the multitudinous hum of the workshop, the factory, and the mine.

* * * * *

The lot of William Pitt the Younger was cast in the years when both these revolutions began their mighty work. The4 active part of his father’s career fell within the old order of things; the problems which confronted Chatham were merely political. They therefore presented none of that complexity which so often baffled the penetration and forethought of his son. It is true that, with a prophetic vision of the future, the old man foretold in thrilling words the invincibility of the American cause, but then his life-work was done; from his Pisgah-mount he could only warn, and vainly warn, the dwellers in the plain below. His son was destined to enter that unknown land; and he entered it when his people were burdened by debt, disaster, and disgrace.

What were the material resources of the nation? Were they equal to the strain imposed by a disastrous war? Could they resist the subtly warping influences of the coming age? The questions closely concern us in our present inquiry. For the greatness of a statesman is not to be assessed merely by an enumeration of his legislative, diplomatic, and warlike successes. There is a truer method of valuation than this haphazard avoir-dupois. It consists in weighing his achievements against his difficulties.

It is well, therefore, to remember that the British people of the year 1780 was a small and poor people, if we compare it not merely with modern standards (a method fallacious for the present inquiry), but with the burdens which it had to bear. The population of England and Wales at that time has been computed a little over 7,800,000; that of Scotland was perhaps about 1,400,000. That of Ireland is even less known. The increase of population in England and Wales during the years 1770–80 exceeded eight per cent., a rate less, indeed, than that of the previous decade, which had been one of abounding prosperity, but surpassing that of any previous period for which credible estimates can be framed.2

The wealth of the nation seems also to have suffered little decline; and after the conclusion of peace in 1783 it showed a surprising elasticity owing to causes which will soon be considered.5 But in the years 1780–3 there was a universal conviction that the burden of debt and taxation was unendurable. Parliament in 1781 voted the enormous sum of £25,353,857 for Ways and Means, an increase of £814,060 on the previous year. As the finances and debt of Ireland were kept entirely separate up to the end of the century, this burden fell upon some 9,200,000 persons, and involved a payment of about £2 15s. per head, an amount then deemed absolutely crushing.

But two important facts should be remembered: firstly, that the investments of British capital in oversea undertakings, which are now enormous, were (apart from the British East and West Indies) practically non-existent in the year 1780, Great Britain being then an almost self-sufficing unit financially; secondly, that modern methods of taxation are less expensive in the collection and less burdensome to the taxpayer than those prevalent in that non-scientific era. The revenue of 1781 included the following items: £12,480,000 for “Annuities and Lottery,” £2,788,000 for “Certain Surpluses of the Sinking Fund,” £2,000,000 Bank Charter, and so on. Only about one fourth of the requisite amount was raised by means that would now be considered sound.3

The National Debt was then reckoned at £177,206,000; and the annual interest, amounting to £6,812,000, ate up considerably more than one fourth of the “bloated estimates” of that year. The burden of debt seemed appalling to that generation; and the Three per cent. Consols sank from 60¼ in January 1781 to 55 in November. But further blows were soon to be dealt by Ministers at the nation’s credit; and the same stock ranged between 56 and 58 when William Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783. Predictions of national bankruptcy were freely indulged in; and it should be remembered that Great Britain, vanquished by a mighty Coalition and bereft of her most valuable colonies, seemed far more likely to sink into the gulf of bankruptcy than triumphant France. The events of the next six years turned essentially on the management of the finances of the rival Powers by Pitt and by the Controllers-General of Versailles. Apart from the personal questions at issue, the history of that time affords the most instructive proof that victory may bear within itself the seeds of future disease and collapse;6 while a wise use of the lessons of adversity may lead the vanquished to a lease of healthier life.

* * * * *

If we turn our gaze away from the material resources of Great Britain to the institutions and sentiments of our forefathers, there will appear many bizarre contrasts and perplexing symptoms. At first sight the self-contained, unreceptive, torpid society of the Georgian era might appear to be wholly unfitted to bear the triple strain of a serious national disaster, and of the warping influences of the new democracy and the new industrialism. The situation was indeed most alarming: “What a dismal fragment of an Empire!” wrote Horace Walpole in June 1780, “Yet would that moment were come when we are to take a survey of our ruins.” In truth, had the majority of Britons been addicted to morbidly introspective broodings, they would have been undone. There are times when a nation is saved by sheer stolidity; and this characteristic alike in monarch and people, which was responsible for the prolongation of the war, helped to avert collapse at its close. The course of the narrative will show that the brains of Englishmen were far from equal to the task of facing the problems of the age then dawning; but Englishmen were equal to the task of bearing the war-burdens manfully, and thus were able to supply the material out of which Pitt, aided by the new manufacturing forces, could work financial marvels.

Then again, British institutions offered that happy mixture of firmness and adaptability which at many crises has been the salvation of the race. Had they been as rigid as those of Sparta they must have cracked and fallen asunder; had they been as fluid as those of Athens they might have mouldered away. But, like the structure of English society of which they form the framework, they lend themselves to reverent restoration, and thwart all efforts at reckless innovation. Sir Henry Maine happily assessed the worth of this truly national safeguard in the statement that our institutions had, however undesignedly, arrived at a state in which satisfaction and impatience, the chief sources of political conduct, were adequately called into play. Of this self-adjusting process Pitt, at least during the best years of his career, was to be the sage director.

There were many reasons why Englishmen should be a prey alternately to feelings of satisfaction and discontent. Instinct and tradition bade them be loyal to the throne and to the institutions7 of their fathers. Reason and reflection bade them censure the war policy of George III and the means whereby he sought to carry it through to the bitter end. St. Stephen’s, Westminster, had been the shrine of the nation’s liberties; it now, so Burke declared, threatened them with a slow and inglorious extinction. Obedience to the laws had ever been the pride of the nation; but now that virtue might involve subservience to a corrupt and greedy faction.

Yet however great the provocations, Britons were minded to right these wrongs in their own way, and not after the fashions set at Geneva or Paris. In truth they had one great advantage denied to Continental reformers. At Paris reform almost necessarily implied innovation; for, despite the dictum of Burke to the contrary, it is safe to say that the relics of the old constitution of France offered no adequate basis on which to reconstruct her social and political fabric. In England the foundations and the walls were in good repair. The structure needed merely extension, not rebuilding. Moreover, British reformers were by nature and tradition inclined towards tentative methods and rejected wholesale schemes. Even in the dull years of George II the desire for a Reform of Parliament was not wholly without expression; and now, at the time of the American War, the desire became a demand, which nearly achieved success. In fact, the Reform programme of 1780 satisfied the aspirations of the more moderate men, even in the years 1791–4, when the excitements of the French Revolution, and the writings of Thomas Paine for a time popularized the levelling theories then in vogue at Paris.

Certainly, before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the writings of Continental thinkers had little vogue in Great Britain. The “Social Contract” of Rousseau was not widely known, and its most noteworthy theses, despite the fact that they were borrowed from Hobbes and Locke, aroused no thrill of sympathy. This curious fact may be explained by the innate repugnance of the islanders alike to the rigidly symmetrical form in which the Genevese prophet clothed his dogmas, and to the Jacobins’ claim for them of universal applicability. The very qualities which carried conviction to the ardent and logic-loving French awakened doubts among the cooler northern folk.

Then again, however sharp might be the resentment against George III for this or that action, national sentiment ran strongly in the traditional channels. After the collapse of the Stuart cause8 loyalty to the throne and to the dynasty was the dominant feeling among all classes. As Burke finely said of the Tories after the accession of George III, “they changed their idol but they preserved their idolatry.” The personality of George III was such as to help on this transformation. A certain bonhomie, as of an English squire, set off by charm of manner and graciousness of speech,4 none too common in that class, went to the hearts of all who remembered the outlandish ways of the first two Georges. Furthermore, his morals were distinctly more reputable than theirs, as was seen at the time of his youth, when he withstood the wiles strewn in his path by several ladies of the Court with a frankness worthy of the Restoration times.5 His good sense, straightforwardness, and his love of country life and of farming endeared him both to the masses of the people and to the more select circles which began to learn from Versailles the cult of Rousseau and the charms of butter making. Queen Charlotte, a princess of the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, also set her face against vice and extravagance, but in a primly austere manner which won few to the cause of virtue. Domesticity in her ceased to be alluring. Idle tongues wagged against her even when she sought to encourage the wearing of dresses woven in Spitalfields rather than those of ever-fashionable Paris; or again, when she prohibited the wearing of ostrich feathers at Court.6

The reader will fail to understand the political life of that time and the difficulties often besetting Pitt until he grasps the fact that George III not only reigned but governed. His long contest with the Whig factions left him victor; and it is singular that the shortsightedness of the elder Pitt signally aided the King in breaking up their power. Both of them aimed at overthrowing the supremacy of the old Whig families, but it was George III who profited by the efforts of the Earl of Chatham.7 The result was seen in the twelve years of almost personal rule (1770–82), during which Lord North and the well-fed phalanx of the King’s Friends9 bade fair to make the House of Commons the mere instrument of the royal will. The King’s influence, impaired for a time by the disasters of the American War, asserted itself again at the time of the Lord George Gordon Riots in June 1780. That outbreak of bigotry and rascality for a time paralyzed with fear both Ministers and magistrates; but while all around him faltered, George III held firm and compelled the authorities to act.8 The riots were quelled, but not before hundreds of drunken desperadoes had perished in the flames which they had kindled. Those who saw large parts of London ablaze long retained a feeling of horror at all popular movements, and looked upon George III as the saviour of society. This it was, in part, which enabled him to retain his influence scarcely impaired even by the disasters of the American War. The monarchy stood more firmly rooted than at any time since the reign of Queen Anne. Jacobitism survived among a few antiquated Tories, like Dr. Johnson, as a pious belief or a fashionable affectation; but even in the year 1763 the lexicographer, after receiving a pension from George III, avowed to Boswell that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover and of drinking King James’s health was amply overbalanced by an income of three hundred pounds.

As a sign of the reality of the royal power, we may note that public affairs were nearly at a stand-still at the time of the lunacy of George III (November 1788 to February 1789). The following Foreign Office despatch, sent to the British Ambassador at Berlin at a critical time in our diplomatic relations, shows that Pitt and the Foreign Secretary, the Marquis of Carmarthen, considered themselves the King’s Secretaries of State, and unable to move until the royal will was known:

Whitehall, January 6 1789.

To Mr. Ewart,


I have received your letters up to No. 93, but I have not any commands to convey to you at present, the unhappy situation of His Majesty’s health making it impossible for me to lay them before him. The present situation of this country renders it impossible for me to send you any particular or precise instructions. I trust, however, that the system for supplying the present unfortunate interruption in the executive part of the Government will be speedily completed, at least with as little delay as the importance of the object will admit of, and10 which, being once more formed, will of course restore that part of the Constitution to its usual energy and effect.9

Ewart and our other ambassadors were therefore urged to mark time as energetically as might be; and no orders were sent to them until after 17th February 1789, when the King began to recover.

At ordinary times, then, the King’s authority was looked upon as essential to the working of the Government, a fact which explains the eager interest, even of men not place-hunters, in the Regency disputes of 1788–9. In truth, the monarchy was the central fact of the nation’s life; and, as it acquired stedfastness from the personal popularity of George III, the whole of the edifice had a solidity unknown in the years 1680–1760.10

* * * * *

Montesquieu praised the English constitution as providing without undue friction a balance of power between King, Lords, and Commons. This judgment (penned in 1748) still held good, though the royal authority had in the meantime certainly increased. But the power of the nobles was still very great. They largely controlled the House of Commons. The Lowthers secured the election of 11 Members in the Lake District; and through the whole country 71 Peers were able directly to nominate, and secure the election of, 88 commoners, while they powerfully influenced the return of 72 more. If we include all landowners, whether titled on untitled, it appears that they had the power to nominate 487 members out of the 658 who formed the House of Commons.

In these days, when the thought and activities of the towns overbear those of the country districts, we cry out against a system that designedly placed power in the hands of nobles and squires. But we must remember that the country then far outweighed the towns in importance; that the produce of the soil was far more valuable than all the manufactures; and that stability and stolidity are the characteristics of an ancient society, based on agriculture and reared in Feudalism. If we except that metropolitan orgy, the Wilkes’ affair, London and Westminster were nearly as torpid politically as Dorset. Even in the year11 1791 the populace of Manchester and Birmingham blatantly exulted in a constitution which left them without any direct voice in Parliament. It was in the nature of things that Grampound, Old Sarum, Gatton, and Castle Rising should return eight members; the choice of the Tudor Sovereigns had lit upon those hamlets or villages as test-places for consulting the will of the nation, and the nation acquiesced, because, even if Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield had enjoyed that privilege, they would probably have sent up country gentlemen of the same type, and after a far greater output of money and beer. Where the will of the nation is almost entirely homogeneous there is no injustice in selecting representatives by the haphazard methods then in use.

Strong in their control of Parliament, the nobles sought to hem in the throne by meshes of influence through which even the masterful and pertinacious George III could with difficulty break. Their circle was small. True, they had failed in their effort of 1719 to limit the number of creations at any one time to six; but jealousy had almost the force of law. Ultimately we find George III declining to confer a dukedom on any but princes of the blood, and Pitt incurred the displeasure of his cousin, Earl Temple, because he failed to bend the royal will on that question. The need of caution in respect to the granting of titles may be inferred from the Pitt Papers, no small part of which refer to requests for these honours. Pitt has been reproached with his lavish use of this governmental device, for he created about 140 peerages in the years 1783–1801. I have, however, found proofs that he used it reluctantly. In the Pitt Papers are several letters which the statesman wrote refusing requests for peerages. On this matter, as also with regard to places and appointments, he treated any attempt at bargaining with cold disdain, witness this crushing reply to an Irish peer who, in September 1799, applied for a British peerage: “... There is a passage in the conclusion of your Lordship’s letter on which it is impossible for me not to remark that it appears to convey an intimation with respect to what may be your political conduct, which would at all events induce me to decline being the channel of bringing your application before His Majesty.”11

But rebukes and refusals seem to have made little impression on12 that generation, imbued as it was with a deep-seated belief that the victors had a right to the spoils and should apportion them among their followers according to rank and usefulness. The whole matter was spoken of under the convenient euphemism “influence,” which, when used in a political sense, denoted the secret means for assuring the triumph of the Crown and the reward of the faithful. While not implying actual bribery, it signified persuasion exerted through peerages, places, and pensions. According to this scheme of things, strenuous support of “the King’s cause” would earn a title, a bishopric, a judgeship, or a receivership in the customs or excise. These allurements offered irresistible attractions in an age which offered far fewer means of independent advancement than the present. With the exception of those strange persons who preferred to make their own way in life, men of all classes had their eyes fixed on some longed-for perch above them, and divided their attention between the symptoms of decay in its occupant and the signs of the favour of its patron. The expectant part of Society resembled a gigantic hen-roost at the approach of evening, except that the aspirations upward were not signs of quiescence but of ill-suppressed unrest. Those who delve among the confidential letters of that time must often picture the British nation as a mountain-climber. Perhaps one sixth part of Pitt’s time was taken up in reading and answering requests of bewildering variety. College friends dunned him with requests for preferment, with or without cure of souls. Rectors longed to be canons; canons to be deans; deans to be bishops; and wealthy bishops coveted sinecure deaneries, among which, curiously enough, that of London was the greatest prize. The infection spread to all classes. Gaugers of beer longed to be collectors of His Majesty’s revenue; faithful grooms confidently expected a gaugership; and elderly fishermen, who in their day had intercepted smugglers, demanded, as of right, the post of harbourmaster. A Frenchman once defended the old régime on the ground that it ranged all classes about the King in due gradations of privilege. Similarly Britons of their own free will grouped themselves around the throne on steps of expectancy.

A curious example of the motives which led to influential requests for preferment in the Church is to be found in the correspondence of the Marquis of Carmarthen (afterwards Duke of Leeds), who was at that time Foreign Secretary under Pitt. His letter to his chief may speak for itself:



Grosvenor Square, Nov. 13 1787.12

My dear Sir,

I fear it will not be in my power to return to Hollwood to-day, by which I shall be prevented from so soon troubling you viva voce with the only subject I do not like to converse with you upon, viz., asking for Preferment. But my anxiety for my friend Jackson, and understanding that the Bishopric of Chester is not yet given away, will, I hope, plead my excuse to you for asking it for him, and perhaps you may forgive me adding that from local circumstances that preferment in his hands would be particularly agreeable to me, on account of a large part of my northern property being situated in the Diocese of Chester. I do assure you that a compliance with this request would make me truly happy.

Believe me, etc.

Reverting to matters which are purely secular, we may note that in the year 1783, at the time of Pitt’s assumption of power, the number of English peers was comparatively small, namely about 240, and of these 15, being Roman Catholics, could not sit in Parliament.13

This select aristocracy was preserved from some of the worst evils incident to its station by healthful contact with men and affairs. The reversion of its younger sons to the rank of commoners prevented the formation of the huge caste of nobles, often very poor but always intensely proud, which crusted over the surface of society in Continental lands; and again, the infusion of commoners (generally the ablest governors, soldiers, and lawyers of the age) preserved the Order from intellectual stagnation such as had crept over the old noblesse of France. Both the downward and the upward streams kept the mass free from that decay which sooner or later besets every isolated body. Nor did the British aristocracy enjoy those flagrant immunities from taxation which were the curse of French social and political life.

But let us view this question in a more searching light. Montesquieu finely observes that an aristocracy may maintain its full vigour, if the laws be such as will habituate the nobles more to the perils and fatigues, than to the pleasures, of command.14 In14 this respect the British aristocracy ran some risk of degeneration. It is true that its members took an active part in public business. Their work in the House of Lords was praiseworthy. The debates there, if less exciting than those of the Commons, bear signs of experience, wisdom, dignity, and self-restraint, which were often lacking in the Lower House. The nobles also took a large share in the executive duties of the State. Not only did they and their younger sons fill most of the public offices, including the difficult, and often thankless, diplomatic posts, but they were active in their counties and on their estates, as lords-lieutenant, sheriffs, and magistrates. The days had not yet come when “Society” fled from the terrors of the English winter. For the most part nobles spent the parliamentary vacations at their country seats, sharing in the duties and sports which from immemorial times had knit our folk into a compact and sturdy whole. Yet we may question whether the pleasures of command did not then far exceed its perils and fatigues. Apart from the demoralizing struggle for higher honours, there were hosts of court and parliamentary sinecures to excite cupidity and encourage laziness. The rush after emoluments and pleasure became keener than ever after the glorious peace of 1763, and a perusal of the letters addressed to any statesman of the following age must awaken a doubt whether public life was less corrupt than at the time of Walpole.

Then, again, in the making and working of laws, the privileges of the nobles and gentry were dangerously large. Throughout the eighteenth century those classes strengthened their grip both on Parliament and on the counties and parishes. Up to the year 1711 no definite property qualification was required from members of Parliament; but in that year a law was passed limiting the right of representing counties to those who owned land worth £600 a year; and a rental of half that sum was expected from members of boroughs. This was equivalent to shutting out merchants and manufacturers, who were often Dissenters, from the county representation; and the system of pocket boroughs further enabled landowners to make a careful choice in the case of a large part of the members of towns. Again, the powers of the magistrates, or justices of the peace, in the affairs of the parish, were extraordinarily large. A French writer, M. Boutmy, computes them as equalling those of the préfet, the conseil d’arrondissement, the maire, the commissaire de police, and the juge de paix, of the French local government of to-day. Of course the15 Shallows of Pitt’s time did not fulfil these manifold duties at all systematically; for that would be alien to the haphazard ways of the squires and far beyond their talents. Local despotism slumbered as much as it worked; and just as the Armenians prefer the fitful barbarities of the Turks to the ever-grinding pressure of the Russian bureaucracy, so the villagers of George III’s reign may have been no more oppressed than those of France and Italy are by a system fruitful in good works and jobs, in officials and taxes. On this point it is impossible to dogmatize; for the Georgian peasantry was dumb until the years after Waterloo, when Cobbett began to voice its feelings.

The use of the term “despotism” for the rule of the squires is no exaggeration. They were despots in their own domains. Appeals against the rulings of the local magistrates were always costly and generally futile. It was rare to find legal advisers at their side; and the unaided wits of local landowners decided on all the lesser crimes (many of them punishable with death at the assizes) and the varied needs of the district. With the justices of the peace it lay to nominate the guardians of the poor and “visitors,” who supervised the relief of the poor in the new unions of parishes resulting from Gilbert’s Act of 1782. The working of the Draconian game-laws was entirely in their hands, and that, too, in days when the right of sporting with firearms was limited to owners of land worth £100 a year. Finally, lest there should be any community of sentiment between the bench and the dock, at the oft-recurring trials for poaching, the same land and money test was applied to all applicants for the honoured post of magistrate. The country gentlemen ruled the parish and they virtually ruled the nation.15 The fact was proclaimed with characteristic insolence by the Lord Justice Clerk, Macqueen of Braxfield, in his address to the jury at the close of the trial of Thomas Muir for sedition, at Edinburgh in August 1793: “A Government in every country should be just like a Corporation; and in this Country it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented. As for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation upon them? What security for the payment of their taxes? They may pack up all their property on their backs and leave16 the country in the twinkling of an eye. But landed property cannot be removed.”16 The Scottish nobles, especially in the Highlands, still claimed extensive rights over their vassals; and several of them made patriotic use of these powers in raising regiments during the great war with France. Thomas Graham, afterwards Lord Lynedoch, is the best known example of this feudal influence.17

In many districts the squires received unwelcome but powerful support from “nabobs.” Those decades witnessed a steady flight homewards of Indian officials, for the most part gorged with plunder. They became an appreciable force in politics. Reckless of expense so long as they could enter the charmed circle of the higher gentry, they adopted the politics and aped the ways of their betters; so that many a countryside felt the influence of their greed and ostentation. The yeomen and villagers were the victims of their land-hunger; while the small squires (so says Grose in his Olio of the year 1792) often fell in the course of the feverish race for display. As the Roman moralist inveighed against the influx of Syrian ways into the life of his city, so too might Johnson have thundered at the blending of the barbaric profusion of the Orient with the primal simplicity of the old English life.

For the most part, however, that life still showed the tenacity that marks our race. Certainly in Court circles there were no signs of the advent of commercialism, still less of democracy. The distinctions of rank in England seemed very strict, even to a German, who was accustomed to the formalities of the Hanoverian and Rhenish Courts. Count von Kielmansegge in 1761 noted the precision of etiquette at the State balls: “Rank in England is decided exclusively according to class, and not according to service; consequently the duchesses dance first, then marchionesses, then dukes’ daughters, then countesses. Foreigners had no rank at all in England, so they may not dance before the lords and barons.... For this reason foreigners seldom dance at Court.” It was not etiquette for the King and Queen to dance at the state balls; but, even so, the formalism of those functions must have been pyramidal. The same spirit of formality, fortified by a nice sense of the gradations of rank, appears in the rules of a county club at Derby, where the proceedings seem to have17 been modelled on the sun and planets, the latter being always accompanied by inferior satellites.18

The customs of the beau monde in London were regulated by one all-absorbing preoccupation, that of killing time in a gentlemanly and graceful manner. Fielding, in his “Joseph Andrews,” thus maps out the day of a fop about the middle of the century:

In the morning I rose, took my great stick, and walked out in my green frock, with my hair in papers, and sauntered about till ten. Went to the Auction; told Lady B. she had a dirty face, laughed heartily at something Captain G. said (I can’t remember what, for I did not very well hear it), whispered to Lord ——, bowed to the Duke of ——, and was going to bid for a snuff-box, but did not, for fear I should have had it. From 2 to 4 dressed myself; 4 to 6 dined; 6 to 8 coffee-house; 8 to 9 Drury Lane Playhouse; 10 to 12 Drawing-room.

The sketch of West End life given by Moritz, a Prussian pastor who visited England in 1782, is very similar, but he enters into more detail. He describes fashionable people as walking about all the morning in a négligé attire, “your hair not dressed but merely rolled up in rollers, and in a frock and boots.” The morning lasted till four or five o’clock, then the fashionable time for dinner. The most usual dress in that summer was a coat of very dark blue, a short white waistcoat, and white silk stockings. Black was worn for full dress, and Moritz noticed that the English seemed to prefer dark colours. Dress seemed to him to be one of the chief aims and occupations of our people; and he remarked on the extraordinary vogue which everything French then enjoyed.

One is tempted to pause here and dwell on the singular fact that, at the time when England and France were still engaged in deadly strife, each people should be intent on copying the customs and fashions of the other. The decade of the “eighties” witnessed the growth of “Anglomania” to ridiculous proportions in France; while here the governing class thought it an unfailing proof of good breeding to trick out every other sentence with a French phrase. Swift alone could have done justice to the irony of a situation wherein two great nations wasted their resources in encompassing one another’s ruin, while every day their words and actions bore striking witness to their admiration of18 the hereditary foe. Is it surprising that Pitt should have used all his efforts in 1786 to bring about an entente cordiale on the basis of the common interests of the two peoples?

To revert to our theme: the frivolities and absurdities of Mayfair, which figure so largely in the diaries and letters of the period, probably filled a smaller space in the life of the nation than we are apt to infer from those sources. Moritz, who had an eye for the homely as well as the courtly side of life, noticed the good qualities which kept the framework of society sound. He remarked that in London, outside the Court circles, the customs were plain and domestic, the people generally dined about three o’clock, and worked hard.19 His tour on foot through the Midlands also gave him the impression that England enjoyed a well-balanced prosperity. He was everywhere pitied or despised, it being assumed that a pedestrian must be a tramp. There can be little doubt that even at the end of that disastrous war, our land was far more prosperous than any of the States of North Germany.

The wealth of the proud islanders was nowhere more obvious than at the chief pleasure resorts of Londoners, Vauxhall and Ranelagh. These gardens and promenades impressed Moritz greatly, and he pronounced the scene at the rotunda at Ranelagh the most brilliant which he had ever witnessed: “The incessant change of faces, the far greater number of which were strikingly beautiful, together with the illumination, the extent and majestic splendour of the place, with the continued sound of the music, makes an inconceivably delightful impression.” Thanks to the curiosity of the Prussian pastor, we can look down with him on the gay throng, and discern the princes, lords, and knights, their stars far outshining all the commoners present; we see also a difference in the styles of wearing the hair, the French queues and bags contrasting markedly with plain English heads of hair or professional wigs. Most of the company moved in “an eternal circle, to see and to be seen”; others stood near to enjoy the music; others again regaled themselves at the tables with the excellent fare provided for the inclusive sum of half-a-crown; while a thoughtful minority gazed from the gallery and moralized on the scene. The display and extravagance evidently surprised19 Moritz, as it surprises us when we remember that it was at the close of a ruinous war. In the third year of the struggle, the mercurial Horace Walpole deplored the universal distress, and declared that when he sat in his “blue window,” he missed nine out of ten of the lordly chariots that used to roll before it. Yet, in the seventh year, when the half of Europe had entered the lists against the Island Power, the Prussian pastor saw nothing but affluence and heard nothing that did not savour of a determined and sometimes boastful patriotism. At Ranelagh he observed that everyone wore silk stockings, and he was informed that even poor people when they visited that abode of splendour, dressed so as to copy the great, and always hired a coach in order to draw up in state at the entrance.20

Ranelagh and Vauxhall, we may note in passing, were beyond the confines of the London of 1780. The city of Westminster was but slowly encroaching on Tothill Fields; and the Queen’s House, standing on the site of the present Buckingham Palace, commanded an uninterrupted view westwards over the fields and market gardens spreading out towards the little village of Chelsea. On the south of the Thames there was a mere fringe of houses from the confines of Southwark to the Archbishop’s palace at Lambeth; and revellers returning from Vauxhall, whether by river or road, were not seldom sobered by visits from footpads, or the even more dreaded Mohawks. Further afield everything was completely rural. Trotter, Fox’s secretary, describes the statesman as living amidst bowers vocal with song-birds at St. Ann’s Hill, Wandsworth; and Pitt, in his visits to Wilberforce or Dundas at Wimbledon, would probably pass not a score of houses between Chelsea and the little old wooden bridge at Putney. That village and Wimbledon stood in the same relation to London as Oxshott and Byfleet occupy to-day. North of Chelsea there was the hamlet of Knightsbridge, and beyond it the villages of Paddington and “Marybone.”

As Hyde Park Corner marked the western limit of London, so Bedford House and its humbler neighbour, the British Museum, bounded it on the north. The Foundling Hospital stood in open fields. St. Pancras, Islington Spa, and Sadler’s Wells were rivals of Epsom and Tunbridge Wells. Clerkenwell Church was the fashionable place for weddings for the richer citizens who dwelt20 in the northern suburbs opened up by the new City Road completed in 1761. On the east, London ended at Whitechapel, though houses straggled on down the Mile End Road. The amount of the road-borne traffic is curiously illustrated by the fact that the Metropolis possessed only three bridges, London Bridge, Westminster Bridge, and Blackfriars Bridge; and not till the year 1763 did the City Fathers demolish the old houses standing on London Bridge which rendered it impossible for two carts to pass. Already, however, suburbs were spreading along the chief roads out of London. In the “Connoisseur” of September 1754 is a pleasingly ironical account of a week-end visit to the villa of a London tradesman, situated in the desolate fields near Kennington Common, from the windows of which one had a view of criminals hanging from gibbets and St. Paul’s cupola enveloped in smoke.

Nevertheless, the Englishman’s love of the country tended to drive Londoners out to the dull little suburbs around the Elephant and Castle, or beyond Tyburn or Clerkenwell; and thus, in the closing years of the century, there arose that dualism of interests (city versus suburbs) which weakens the civic and social life of the metropolis. A further consequence was the waning in popularity of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, as well as of social clubs in general. These last had furnished a very desirable relief to the monotony of a stay-at-home existence. But the club became less necessary when the family lived beyond the river or at “Marybone,” and when the merchant spent much time on horseback every day in passing from his office to his villa. Another cause for the decline of clubs of the old type is doubtless to be found in the distress caused by the Revolutionary War, and in the increasing acerbity of political discussions after the year 1790. Hitherto clubs had been almost entirely devoted to relaxation or conviviality. A characteristic figure of Clubland up to the year 1784 had been Dr. Johnson, thundering forth his dicta and enforcing them with thumps on the table. The next generation cared little for conversation as a fine art; and men drifted off to clubs where either loyalty or freedom was the dominant idea. The political arena, which for two generations had been the scene of confused scrambles between greedy factions, was soon to be cleared for that deadliest of all struggles, a war of principles. In that sterner age the butterfly life of Ranelagh became a meaningless anomaly.


For the present, however, no one in England dreamt of any such change. The spirit of the nation, far from sinking under the growing burdens of the American War, seemed buoyant. Sensitive littérateurs like Horace Walpole might moan over the ruin of the Empire; William Pitt might declaim against its wickedness with all his father’s vehemence; but the nation for the most part plodded doggedly on in the old paths and recked little of reform, except in so far as it concerned the abolition of sinecures and pensions. In 1779–80 County Associations were founded in order to press on the cause of “œconomical reform”; but most of them expired by the year 1784. Alike in thought and in customs England seemed to be invincibly Conservative.

The reasons, other than racial and climatic, for the stolidity of Georgian England would seem to be these. Any approach to enthusiasm, whether in politics or religion, had been tabooed as dangerous ever since the vagaries of the High Church party in the reign of Anne had imperilled the Protestant Succession; and far into the century, especially after the adventure of “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” all leanings towards romance were looked on as a reflection on the safe and solid House of Brunswick. Prudence was the first of political virtues, and common sense the supreme judge of creeds and conduct.

External events also favoured the triumph of the commonplace, which is so obvious in the Georgian literature and architecture. The call of the sea and the influence of the New World were no longer inspirations to mighty deeds. The age of adventure was past, and the day of company promoters and slave-raiders had fully dawned. Commerce of an almost Punic type ruled the world. Whereas the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had turned mainly on questions of religion, those of the eighteenth centred more and more on the winning of colonial markets as close preserves for the mother-country. By the Peace of Utrecht (1713) England gained the first place in the race for Empire; and a clause of that treaty enabled her to participate in the most lucrative of trades, the kidnapping of negroes in Africa for the supply of Spanish-America. Never was there a more fateful gain. It built up the fortunes of many scores of merchants and shipowners, but it degraded the British marine and the populace of our ports, in some of which slaves were openly sold. The canker of its influence spread far beyond ships22 and harbours. Its results were seen in the seared conscience of the nation, and in the lowering of the sense of the sanctity of human life, which in its turn enabled the blind champions of law, especially after the scare of 1745, to multiply capital punishments until more than 160 crimes were punishable by death.

The barbarities of the law and the horrors of the slave-trade finally led to protests in the name of humanity and religion. These came in the first instance from the Society of Friends.21 But the philanthropic movement did not gather volume until it was fed by the evangelical revival. Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay, Wilberforce (the ablest champion of the cause), and John Howard, the reformer of prisons, were living proofs of the connection which exists between spiritual fervour and love of man. With the foundation, in the year 1787, of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the philanthropic movement began its career of self-denying effort, which for some five years received valuable support from Pitt. Other signs of a moral awakening were not wanting. In 1772 Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declared that all slaves brought to the United Kingdom became free—a judgement which dealt the death-blow to slave markets in this country. In 1773 John Howard began his crusade for the improvement of gaols; and seven years later Sunday Schools were started by Robert Raikes. The protests of Burke and Sir Charles Bunbury against the pillory, the efforts of the former in 1784–5 to prevent the disgraceful overcrowding of the prisons, and the crusade of Romilly against the barbarities of the penal code are also a tribute to the growth of enlightenment and kindliness.

These ennobling efforts, however, failed to make any impression on what is termed “Society.” The highest and the lowest strata are, as a rule, the last to feel the thrill of new movements; for surfeit and starvation alike stunt the better instincts. Consequently, Georgian England became strangely differentiated. The new impulses were quickly permeating the middle classes; but there their influence ceased. The flinty hardness of the upper crust, and the clayey sediment at the bottom, defied all efforts of an ordinary kind. The old order of things was not to be changed save by the explosive forces let loose in France in 1789.23 That year forms a dividing line in European history, as it does in the career of William Pitt.

* * * * *

Though ominous signs of the approaching storm might already be seen, the noble and wealthy wasted their substance in the usual round of riotous living. It may be well to glance at two of the typical vices of the age, drinking and gambling, of course in those circles alone where they are deemed interesting, for thence only do records reach us.

Drinking did not count as a vice, it was a cherished custom. The depths of the potations after dinner, and on suitable occasions during the day, had always been a feature of English life. Shakespeare seems to aim these well-known lines at the English rather than the Danes:

This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition.22

Certainly in the eighteenth century drinking came to be in a sense a flying buttress of the national fabric. The champions of our “mercantile system” brought about the signature of the Methuen Treaty of 1703 with Portugal, in order to favour trade with that harmless little land at the expense of that with our “natural enemy,” France. Hostility to the French being the first of political maxims, good citizens thought it more patriotic to became intoxicated on port wine than to remain sober on French claret. Though we may not endorse Adam Smith’s hopeful prediction that the abolition of all duties on wine would have furthered the cause of temperance, yet we may agree that the drunkenness of the age was partly due to “the sneaking arts of underling tradesmen”—when “erected into political maxims for the conduct of a great empire.” Equally noteworthy is his verdict that drunkenness was not limited to people of fashion, and that “a gentleman drunk with ale has scarce ever been seen among us.”23

The habit of tippling, which even the moralist Johnson (aet. 70) said might “be practised with great prudence,” was everywhere dominant. The thinness and unpracticality of the studies at the old universities were relieved by the depth and seriousness24 of the potations. The phrase, “a port wine Fellow,” lingered to the close of the nineteenth century as a reminiscence of the crusted veterans of a bygone age, whose talk mellowed at the second bottle, and became drivel only at the fourth. Lord Eldon relates how a reverend Silenus, a Doctor of Divinity of Oxford, was once discovered in the small hours feeling his way homewards by the delusive help of the railings encircling the Radcliffe Library, and making lay remarks as to the unwonted length of the journey.24 Where doctors led the way, undergraduates bettered the example; and the customs of Cambridge, as well as the advice of physicians, served to ingrain in Pitt that love of port wine which helped to shorten his life.

But the Universities only reflected the customs of an age when “drunk as a lord” had become a phrase. In fashionable society it was usual to set about tippling in a methodical way. Sometimes, at the different stages of the progress, travellers’ impressions were recorded in a quaintly introspective manner. Rigby, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, when jocularly asked at dinner by the Prince of Wales to advise him about his marriage, made the witty and wise reply: “Faith, your Royal Highness, I am not drunk enough yet to give advice to a Prince of Wales about marrying.”25 The saying recalls to mind the unofficial habit of training and selecting diplomatists and ambassadors, namely, to ply the aspirants hard and then notice who divulged fewest secrets when under the table.

Fortunately, amidst the Bacchic orgies of the time, the figure of George III stood steadfast for sobriety. His tastes and those of Queen Charlotte were simple and healthy. Further, he was deeply impressed by the miserable end of his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, whose frame, always unwieldy, became a mass of gouty corpulence and staggered on to dissolution at the age of forty-four. The Duke, so it is said, had long before warned the King, if he wished to live to a healthy old age, to avoid all the pleasures of the table.26 The life and death of the Duke—an example more potent than words—and the homely tastes of the royal pair themselves, served to keep the bill of fare at Windsor well within the compass of that of many a small squire. After hunting for a whole morning, the King was sometimes content to25 lunch on a jug of barley-water. Stories to this effect endeared “farmer King George” to the plain, wholesome folk of the provinces in whom lay the strength of England; but they aroused no responsive feeling in courtiers and nobles, who looked on such lenten fare as scarcely human, certainly not regal.

The behaviour of the Prince of Wales, however, tended to bring matters back to the level beloved of the Comus rout. The orgies of Carlton House were not seldom bestial; and yet fashionable society seems to have suffered no qualms on hearing that the prince was more than once saved from suffocation by prompt removal of enswathing silks.27 Dinners became later, longer, and more luxurious. Experienced diners were those who could reckon the banquet, not by the number of glasses, but of bottles. Instead of figuring as an incident in the course of the day, dinner became its climax. We find Horace Walpole in February 1777 complaining that it absorbed the whole of the evening: “Everything is changed; as always must happen when one grows old and is prejudiced to one’s old ways. I do not like dining at nearly six, nor beginning the evening at ten at night. If one does not conform one must live alone.”

Many letters of that amusing writer show how the latter part of the four hours was spent. Take this reference to the death of Lord Cholmondeley: “He was seventy and had a constitution to have carried him to a hundred, if he had not destroyed it by an intemperance that would have killed anybody else in half the time. As it was, he had outlived by fifteen years all his set, who have reeled into the ferry-boat so long before him.” There Horace Walpole laid his finger on one of the sores of the age. Statesmen and generals, parsons and squires, were generally worn out at fifty-five; and if by reason of strength they reached three score years and ten, those years were indeed years of sorrow and gout. In the annals of that period it would be impossible to find a single man possessed of the vigour of Mr. Gladstone at eighty, or the subtlety and firmness displayed by Beaconsfield at Berlin at the age of seventy-four. A nonagenarian was never seen at St. Stephen’s: at seventy statesmen were laid by in flannel and wheeled about in bath-chairs. The cause of it all may be summed up in one word—port wine.


This chapter would extend to an unwieldy length if a full account were given of what was, perhaps, the most characteristic vice of the age. Gambling has always flourished in an uncultured, reckless and ostentatious society. Men who have no mental resources within themselves are all too apt to seek diversion in the vagaries of chance. Tacitus noted it as the worst vice of the savage Teutons whom in other respects he lauded; and certainly none of their descendants gamed more than the Englishmen of the Georgian era. In vain did the King set his face against the evil. The murmurs grew not loud but deep when he forbade gambling at Court on that much cherished occasion, “twelfth-night.” The courtiers then substituted cards, and betted furiously on them, until they too were banished from the royal palaces, even on that merry festival.28 But here again the Prince of Wales neutralized his father’s example, and before long succeeded in contracting debts to a princely amount, whereupon they were considerately paid by Parliament. That sturdy opponent of George III, Charles James Fox, outran even the Prince of Wales in zeal. At an all night sitting he is known to have lost £12,000; and, putting fortune to the test, lost successively £12,000 and £11,000 more. His great rival, the younger Pitt, plunged into play for a brief space, but on finding it get too strong a hold over him, resolutely freed himself from its insidious meshes. Thereafter that genial wit, George Selwyn, pointed the moral of their early careers by comparing the rivals to the industrious and idle apprentices of Hogarth.

* * * * *

The mention of Hogarth awakens a train of thought alien to his self-satisfied age. One begins to inquire what was the manner of life of those coarse thickset figures who fill the background of his realistic canvases. Were Englishmen of the lower orders really given over to Bacchic orgies alternating with long spells of flesh-restoring torpor? What was their attitude towards public affairs? While Rousseau began to open out golden vistas of a social millennium, were the toilers really so indifferent to all save the grossest facts of existence? The question is difficult to answer. The Wilkes affair seemed for the time to arouse universal interest, but the low class Londoners who bawled themselves hoarse for “Wilkes and Liberty” probably cared for that demagogue mainly because he was a Londoner bent on defying27 the House of Commons. Personal feelings rather than political convictions seem to have determined their conduct; for Wilkes was not reviled a few years later when he went over to the King’s side. Meanwhile the Gordon Riots had shown the London populace in another light. As for the County Reform Associations of the years 1780–4, they had very little hold upon the large towns, except in Yorkshire; and there the movement was due to the exceptionally bad representation and to the support of the great Whig landlords. The experience of those decades proves that political action which arises out of temporary causes (especially of a material kind) will lead to little result.

That mercurial and ill-educated populace seems to have shaken off its political indifference only at the time of a general election. Moritz describes the tumultuous joy with which Londoners took part in the election of the year 1782. The sight of carters and draymen eagerly listening to the candidates at the hustings; their shouts for a speech from Fox; the close interest which even the poorest seemed to feel in their country’s welfare, made a deep impression on Moritz, who found the sight far more exhilarating than that of reviews on the parade ground at Berlin. His mental comparison of Londoners with the Romans of the time of Coriolanus was, however, cut short when he saw “the rampant spirit of liberty and the wild impatience of a genuine English mob.” At the end of the proceedings the assembly tore down the hustings, smashed the benches and chairs, and carried the fragments about with them as signs of triumph.29 Rousseau and Marat, who saw something of English life during their stay in this country, declared that Britons were free only during an election; and the former averred that the use which they made of “the brief moments of freedom renders the loss of liberty well deserved.”30 Certainly their elections were times of wild licence; and the authorities seem to have acquiesced in the carnival as tending to promote a dull, if not penitential, obedience in the sequel. Not without reason, then, did Horace Walpole exclaim, at the close of the American War—“War is a tragedy; other politics but a farce.”

The moralist who cons the stories of the frivolity and vice of that age is apt to wonder that any progress was made in a28 society where war and waste seemed to be the dominant forces. Yet he should remember that it is the extravagant and exceptional which is chronicled, while the humdrum activities of life, being taken for granted, find no place either in newspapers, memoirs, or histories. We read that in the eight years of the American War the sum of £115,000,000 was added to the National Debt, the interest on which in the year 1784 amounted to £9,669,435.31 But do we inquire how a country, which with great difficulty raised a revenue of £25,000,000 a year, could bear this load and the far heavier burdens of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars? The problem seems insoluble until we remember that British industry was then entering on its most expansive phase. The condition of our land may be compared with that of a sturdy oak which has had one of its limbs torn away and its foliage blighted by a storm. Yet, if the roots grip the soil deep down, the sap of a single season will restore the verdure, and in a few years the dome of foliage will rise as shapely and imposing as ever. So was it to be with England. Her astonishingly quick recovery may be ascribed partly to the exertions of the great man whose public life will here be set forth. But one man can do little more than direct the toil of the many to fruitful issues; and the fruitfulness that marked the first decade of his supremacy resulted from the contact of the nation’s roots with a new and fertile layer of soil.

Below the surface of the national life, with its wars and party intrigues, there lay another world, in which the thoughts of Watt and Trevithick, of Hargreaves, Arkwright and Cartwright, were slowly taking shape in actuality. There lay the England of the future. Already its strength, though but that of an embryo, sufficed to send up enough of vital sap quickly to repair the losses of war; and the first claim of the younger Pitt to the title of Statesman lay in his perception of the needs and claims of this hidden life.

The mechanical inventions which led up to the era of great production resulted indirectly from the outburst of industrial activity that followed the victorious issue of the Seven Years’ War. “Necessity is the mother of Invention”; and the great need after 1763 was to quicken the spinning of yarn so that the spinsters of a household could keep the father supplied with29 enough weft for his loom. This necessity quickened the wits of a Lancashire weaver, Hargreaves; and in 1764 he constructed his “jenny,” to lighten the toil of his wife. In quick succession came the inventions of Arkwright and Crompton, as already noted. The results obtained by the latter were surprising, muslin and other delicate fabrics being wrought with success in Great Britain. In a special Report issued by the East India Company in 1793, the complaint was made that every shop in England offered for sale “British muslins equal in appearance and of more elegant patterns than those of India, for one fourth, or perhaps more than one third, less price.”32 Further improvements increased the efficiency of this machinery, which soon was used extensively in the north-west of England, and in Lanarkshire. The populations of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Birmingham, after 1780, began to increase amazingly.33 Hitherto they had numbered between 30,000 and 60,000 souls. Now they began to outstrip Bristol and Norwich, the second and third of English cities.

It is noteworthy that the Industrial Revolution in this, its first phase, brought wealth and contentment to all members of the community. The quantities of thread, varying in fineness, but severally invariable in texture and strength, enabled the hand-loom weavers to push on with their work with none of the interruptions formerly caused by the inability of hard-pressed spinsters to supply the requisite amount of yarn. These last, it is true, lost somewhat in economic independence; for by degrees they sank to the position of wage-earners in mills, but they were on the whole less hard-worked than before, water furnishing the power previously applied by the spinster’s foot; and the family retained its independence because the father and brothers continued to work up cloth on their own hand-looms and to sell the produce at the weekly markets of Manchester or Blackburn, Leeds or Halifax. In the case of the staple industry of Yorkshire, many men reared the sheep, dressed and dyed the fleeces, worked up the thread into cloth, and finally, with their sons, took it on a packhorse to the nearest cloth market. A more complete example of economic independence it would be difficult to find; and the prosperity of this class—at once farmers, and dyers, manufacturers, and cloth merchants—was enhanced by the new30 spinning machinery which came rapidly into use after the year 1770.

This fact is emphasized in a vivid sketch of life in a Lancashire village drawn by one who saw it at the time of these momentous developments. William Radcliffe describes the prosperity which they brought to the homes of the farmer-artisans who formed the bulk of the population of his native village of Mellor, about fourteen miles north of Manchester. He calls the years 1788 to 1803 the golden age of the cotton industry. Every out-house in the village was fitted as a loom-shop; and the earnings of each family averaged from 80 to 100 or sometimes even 120 shillings a week.34 This account, written by a man who rose to be a large manufacturer at Stockport is probably overdrawn; but there can be no doubt that the exuberant prosperity of the North of England provided the new vital force which enabled the country speedily to rise with strength renewed at the very time when friends and enemies looked to see her fall for ever. Some idea of the magnitude of this new source of wealth may be gained from the official returns of the value of the cotton goods exported from Great Britain at the following dates:

1710      £5,698
1751      45,986
1764    200,354
1780    355,060
1785    864,710
1790 1,662,369
1795 2,433,331
1800 3,572,217
1806 9,753,824

After 1803 Cartwright’s power-loom came more and more into use, and that, too, at the time when Watt’s steam-engine became available for general use. The pace of the Industrial Revolution was thus accelerated; and in this, its third phase, the far-reaching change brought distress to the homes of the weavers, as was to be seen in the Luddite riots of 1810–11. This, however, belongs to a period later than that dealt with in these pages. Very noteworthy is the fact that in the years 1785–1806, which nearly cover the official life of Pitt, the exports of cotton goods increased almost twelvefold in value; and that the changes in31 the textile industries enhanced not only the wealth of the nation but also the prosperity of the working classes in districts which had been the poorest and most backward.

Limits of space preclude any reference to the revolution wrought in the iron industry when coal and coke began to take the place of wood in the smelting of that metal. It must suffice to say that, whereas the English iron industry had seemed in danger of extinction, it now made giant strides ahead. In 1777 the first iron bridge was erected at Coalbrookdale, over the Severn. Six years later Cort of Gosport obtained a patent for converting pig-iron into malleable-iron by a new and expeditious process;35 and in 1790 the use of steam-engines at the blast furnaces trebled their efficiency. This and the former reference to the steam-engine will suffice to remind the reader of the enormous developments opened up in all manufactures when the skill and patience of Watt transformed a scientific toy into the most important generator of power hitherto used by man.

Thus, in the closing years of the eighteenth century—that much despised century, which really produced nearly all the great inventions that the over-praised nineteenth century was merely to develop—the Industrial Revolution entered on its second phase. The magnets which thenceforth irresistibly attracted industry, and therefore population, were coal and iron. Accordingly, as Great Britain had abundance of these minerals in close proximity, she was able in a very short space of time to become the workshop of the world. The Eldorado dreamt of by the followers of Columbus was at last found in the Midlands and moorlands of the north of England. For the present, the discovery brought no curse with it. While multiplying man’s powers, it also stimulated his ingenuity in countless ways. Far from diverting his energies from work to what is, after all, only the token of work, it concentrated his thoughts upon productive activity, and thus helped not only to make work but to make man.

While the moors and vales of the North awakened to new and strange activities, the agricultural districts of the Midlands and32 South also advanced in wealth and population. A scientific rotation of crops, deep ploughing, and thorough manuring of the soil altered the conditions of life. Here again England led the way. Arthur Young, in his “Travels in France” (1787–9) never tires of praising the intelligence and energy of our great landowners, whereas in France his constant desire is to make the seigneurs “skip.” In the main, no doubt, the verdict of Young was just. Landlords in England were the leaders of agricultural reform. In France they were clogs on progress. Yet, the changes here were not all for good. That is impossible. The semi-communal and almost torpid life of the village was unequal to the claims of the new age; and, amidst much of discomfort and injustice to the poor, individual tenures, enclosures, and high-farming became the order of the day.36 New facilities for travel, especially in the form of mail-coaches, better newspapers (a result of the Wilkes affair)—these and other developments of the years 1770–84 heralded the dawn of an age which was to be more earnest, more enlightened, less restful, and far more complex. The times evidently called for a man who, while holding to all that was best in the old life, fully recognized the claims of the coming era. Such a man was William Pitt.

In many respects he summed up in his person the tendencies of the closing decades of the century, just as the supreme figure of his father reflected all that was most brilliant and chivalrous in the middle of the Georgian era. If the elder Pitt raised England to heights of splendour never reached before, the younger helped to retrieve the disasters brought on by those who blindly disregarded the warnings of his father. In the personality both of father and of son there was a stateliness that overawed ordinary mortals, but the younger man certainly came more closely into touch with the progressive tendencies of the age. A student of Adam Smith, he set himself to foster the industrial energies of the land. In order to further the cause of peace, he sought the friendship of the French nation, of which Chatham was the inveterate33 enemy; and in the brightest years of his career he seemed about to inaugurate the golden age foretold by the Illuminati. As by contact with Adam Smith he marched at the head of the new and peaceful commercialism, so too through his friendship with Wilberforce he felt the throb of the philanthropic movements of his times.

For the new stirrings of life in the spheres of religion, art, and literature, Pitt felt no deep concern. Like his father, and like that great genius of the South who wrecked his career, he was “a political being.” In truth, the circumstances of the time compelled him to concentrate all his energies on public affairs. It was his lot to steer the ship of state through twenty of the most critical years of its chequered voyage. Taking the tiller at a time of distress, he guided the bark into calmer waters; and if he himself did not live on to weather a storm more prolonged and awful than that from which he at first saved his people, yet even in the vortex of the Napoleonic cyclone he was to show the dauntless bearing, the firm faith in the cause of ordered freedom, the unshaken belief in the destinies of his race, which became the son of Chatham and the typical Englishman of the age.



I am glad that I am not the eldest son, but that I can serve my country in the House of Commons like papa.—Pitt, May 1766.

Champions of the customs of primogeniture must have been disquieted by observing how frequently the mental endowments of the parents were withheld from their eldest son and showered upon his younger brother. The first Earl of Chatham was a second son, and found his doughtiest opponent in Henry Fox, Lord Holland, also a second son. By a singular coincidence the extraordinary talents of their second sons carried them in their turn to the head of their respective parties and engaged them in the longest duel which the annals of Parliament record. And when the ascendancy of William Pitt the Younger appeared to be unshakably established, it was shattered by the genius of the second surviving son of Charles Marie de Buonaparte.

The future defender of Great Britain was born on 28th May 1759, just ten years before the great Corsican. His ancestry, no less than the time of his birth, seemed to be propitious. The son of the Earl of Chatham, he saw the light in the year when the brilliant victories of Rodney, Boscawen, Hawke, and Wolfe lessened the French navy by sixty-four sail of the line, and secured Canada for Britain. The almost doting fondness which the father felt for the second son, “the hope and comfort of my life,” may perhaps have been the outcome of the mental ecstasy of those glorious months.

If William Pitt was fortunate in the time of his birth, he was still more so in the character of his father. In the nature of “the Great Commoner,” the strain of pride and vanity was commingled with feelings of burning patriotism, and with a fixed determination to use all honourable means for the exaltation of his country.35 Never since the age of Elizabeth had Englishmen seen a man of personality so forceful, of self-confidence so indomitable, of patriotism so pure and intense. The effect produced by his hawk-like eye, his inspiring mien and oratory was heightened by the consciousness that here at last was an honest statesman. In an age when that great party manipulator, Walpole, had reduced politics to a game of give and take, the scrupulous probity of Chatham (who refused to touch a penny of the interest on the balance at the War Ministry which all his predecessors had appropriated) shone with redoubled lustre. His powers were such as to dazzle his contemporaries. The wide sweep of his aims in 1756–61, his superb confidence as to their realization, the power of his oratory, his magnetic influence, which made brave officers feel the braver after an interview with him—all this enabled him completely to dominate his contemporaries.

In truth his personality was so dazzling as to elude the art of portraiture. At ordinary times he might have been little more than a replica of that statesman of the reign of Charles II whom Dryden has immortalized:

A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome.

But Chatham was fortunate in his times. He certainly owed very much to the elevating force of a great idea. In the early part of his life, when no uplifting influence was at work, his actions were often grossly incongruous and at times petty and factious. Not until he felt the inspiration of the idea of Empire did his genius wing its way aloft. If it be true that the Great Commoner made the British Empire, it is also true that the Empire made him what he was, the inspirer of heroic deeds, the invigorator of his people.

In comparison with these qualities, which entitle him to figure in English annals as Aristotle’s “magnificent man,” his defects were venial. Nevertheless, as some of them lived on in a lesser degree in his son, we must remember his arrogance, his melodramatic airs, his over-weening self-will, and his strange inconsistencies. In no one else would these vices and defects have been tolerated; that they were overlooked in him is the highest tribute that can be paid to the splendour of his services and the sterling worth of his nature.

If we look further back into the antecedents of the Pitt family,36 we find it domiciled at or near Blandford in Dorset, where it had produced one poet of quite average abilities, Christopher Pitt (1699–1748), whose translation of Virgil had many admirers. The love of adventure and romance, so often found in West Country families, had already been seen in Thomas Pitt (1653–1726), who worked his way to the front in India despite the regulations of the Company, became Governor of Madras, and made his fortune by very questionable transactions.37 His great stroke of good fortune was the purchase of the famous diamond, which he thereafter sold to the Regent of France for nearly six times the price of purchase. He married a lady who traced her descent to a natural son of James V of Scotland; and to this union of a daring adventurer with the scion of a chivalrous race we may perhaps refer the will-power and the mental endowments which shone so brightly in their grandson, the first Earl of Chatham.

On his mother’s side the younger Pitt could claim a distinguished descent. Her maiden name was Hester Grenville, and she was the daughter of Richard Grenville and Hester, Countess Temple. The appended table will show the relation of the Pitt and Grenville families:

             RICHARD GRENVILLE m. HESTER (Countess Temple).
    |                       |                              |
(Earl Temple),        (1712–70) (m.           Baroness Chatham in 1761) m.
(1711–79).            Elizabeth Wyndham).     William Pitt (created Earl of
                            |                 Chatham in 1766).
          +-----------------+----------+                   |
          |                            |                   |
  (2nd Earl Temple,          (Lord Grenville),             |
  and Marquis of             Foreign Minister              |
  Buckingham), d. 1813.      in 1791–1801,                 |
                             and 1806–7.                   |
   |                    |               |           |              |
(1755–80) m. Lord   of Chatham)      (1758–86)  (the younger)  (1761–79).
Mahon (3rd Earl     (1756–1835).     m. Mr. E.  (1759–1806).
Stanhope).                           Eliot.

The personality of Lady Chatham, if less remarkable, is more37 lovable than that of her husband. In contrast to his theatrical, lordly, and imperious ways, she shone by her simplicity and sweetness. His junior by many years, she accepted his devotion with something of awe, and probably felt his oft recurring attacks of gout, for which he magniloquently apologized, to be a link between them; for the Jove of the Senate became docile and human when he was racked with pain.38 Her tender care at these times, and at others her tactful acquiescence in his moods and plans, ensured tranquillity and happiness in their household. Not that she lacked firmness of character, when occasion required; but we may ascribe her pliability to the personal ascendancy of her lord, to the customs of the times, and to her perception of the requisites for a peaceful existence. She carried her complaisance so far as to leave to her consort the choice of the residence at Hayes, near Bromley, in Kent, which he bought at the end of the year 1754. The following are the almost Griselda-like terms in which she defers to his opinion on the matter: “For the grand affair proposed by my dear love, I have only to reply that I wish him to follow what he judges best, for he can best judge what sort of economy suits with the different plans which he may choose to make hereafter. Whatever you decide upon will be secure of being approved by me.”39

When a woman renounces all claim to a voice in the selection of her abode, we may be sure that she will neither interfere much in her husband’s political career, nor seek to shine in a salon of blue-stockings. In fact, Lady Chatham’s influence on her children was purely domestic. Her realm was the home. There is scarcely a trace of any intellectual impress consciously exerted upon her gifted son, William; but her loving care ensured his survival from the many illnesses of his early years; and she dowered him with the gentler traits for which we search in vain in the coldly glittering personality of Chatham. As examples of her loving care for her children, I may cite the following passages from her letters. In August 1794, when she felt old age coming on apace, she wrote in this tender strain:

I feel that I cannot support the idea of leaving you, my beloved sons, without saying unto ye how truly my fond affection has increasingly38 ever attended ye both, and that my constant prayers have been daily addresst to the Omnipotent Disposer of all events, that you might be directed in all things by the blessing of heavenly wisdom....

Or take this gentle chiding to William (25th April 1796):

I do not [hear] from you, my dear son, but I hear often of you in a way that makes up to me in the best manner possible for your silence. I cannot, however, help wishing that my pleasure was increased by receiving now and then a few words from you, and immediately comes almost a reflection that obliges me to unwish it again, that I may not take up any part of the small leisure you have to enjoy a little relaxation from your various calls.

The old lady long retained her vigour; for in the autumn of 1795 she describes herself as “stout enough both in body and mind to wish the wind to shift to the east so that the fleet might not be detained.”40 Indeed, in the even strength of her body, as in the constancy of her mind, she far excelled her husband. We find Wilberforce, in the summer of 1791, entering the following note in his diary: “Old Lady Chatham, a noble antiquity—Lady Chatham asked about Fox’s speaking—is much interested about politics—seventy-five years old, and a very active mind.”41

Emery Walker Ph. sc.

Hester Grenville, Countess of Chatham
from a painting in the possession of E. G. Pretyman Esq.

Doubtless, her pride in the triumphs of her second son explains the singular buoyancy of her nature almost up to the time of her death. She must have recognized him as pre-eminently her child. In appearance he certainly favoured her. A comparison of the two noble Gainsboroughs of mother and son preserved at Orwell Park shows William to have been more a Grenville than a Pitt. His nose—that feature on which caricaturists eagerly fastened, and on which he was said proudly to suspend the House of Commons—had nothing in common with Chatham’s aquiline and terrifying prow. So, too, the whole bearing of the son was less fiery and less formidable than that of the father. In Chatham there lay the potentialities of a great warrior; but in the son’s nature these powers were wholly subordinate to the faculties that make for supremacy in civil affairs, namely, patience, reasonableness, and aptitude for logic and finance. Above all, there shone39 in the younger Pitt a harmony of the faculties, in which the father was lacking.

There is ample proof of the devotion with which Pitt regarded his parents. His letters to them were long and loving; but while he addressed Chatham in the stilted terms which the Earl himself affected, he wrote to his mother in a simple and direct style that tells of complete sympathy. In one of his youthful letters to her he apologized humbly for some little act of inattention; and in later years the busy Prime Minister often begged her forgiveness for his long silence. In all 363 letters to his mother have survived, and prove the tenderness of his love. Clearly also he valued her advice; for at the crisis of the early part of 1783 he asked her opinion whether or no he should take office as Prime Minister.42 For the most part the letters contain little more than references to private affairs, which prove the warmth of his family feelings; but sometimes, especially in the later years when the overworked Prime Minister could rarely visit his mother at her home, Burton Pynsent in Somerset, he gives reasons for hoping that the progress of measures through Parliament, or the state of the negotiations with France during the Revolutionary war, would permit him to pay her a visit. The letters bear touching witness to the hopefulness of spirit which buoyed him up; but sometimes they are overclouded by disappointments in the political sphere, which were all the keener because they held him to his post and prevented the longed-for stay at Burton Pynsent in August or at Christmas. In such cases Lady Chatham’s replies are restrained and dignified. I shall sometimes draw on this correspondence, especially where it reveals Pitt’s hopes for the work of the session or the conclusion of peace.

Ingenious pleaders from the time of Macaulay onwards have shown their skill in comparing the achievements of father and son. The futility of all such tight-rope performances must be obvious to those who remember the world-wide difference between the cataclysmic forces and novel problems of the revolutionary era and the comparatively simple tasks of the age of Chatham. We shall have cause, later on, to insist on the difference in efficiency between Frederick the Great and Frederick William II as an ally; and not even the most fervent panegyrists40 of Chatham will dare to assert that the ill-led and underfed armies of Louis XV were foes as redoubtable as the enthusiastic hosts called into being and marshalled by the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Nevertheless, there is one of these fallacious comparisons which deserves a brief notice. Lady Chatham, on being asked by one of her grandchildren which was the cleverer, the Earl of Chatham or Mr. Pitt, replied: “Your grandpapa without doubt.”43 The answer is remarkable. No woman in modern times has been blessed with such prodigality of power and talent both in husband and son; and we, with a knowledge of the inner forces of the two periods which she could not possess, may perhaps be inclined to ascribe her verdict to the triumph of the early memories of the wife even over the promptings of maternal pride. Explain it as we may, her judgement is certainly a signal instance of self-effacement; for the gifts of tact, prudence, and consistency whereby Pitt restored England to her rightful place in the years 1783–93 were precisely those which he derived from her.

It has often been remarked that great men have owed more to the mother’s nature than to that of the father; and, while Chatham dowered his second son with the qualities that make for versatility, display, and domination, his mother certainly imparted to him forethought, steadiness of purpose, and the gentler gifts that endeared him to a select circle of friends. Here again, one might suggest a parallel between Pitt and his great opponent, Napoleon, who owed to his father characteristics not unlike those named above, but received from his mother the steel-like powers of mind and body which made him so terrible an opponent.

* * * * *

Enough has been said to indicate some of the influences of heredity which helped to shape the career of Pitt. It is a topic on which only sciolists would venture to dogmatize. Even in his early youth William began to outshine his elder brother. In their boyhood, mostly spent at Hayes, the difference of temperament between John and William made itself felt to the disadvantage of the former. He was reserved, not to say heavy and indolent, where William was bright and attractive. “Eager” is the epithet applied to him by Lady Chatham in 1766. The eldest son, having none of the intellectual gifts and41 graces of Chatham, could not satisfy the imperious cravings of the father, with the result that William received an undue share of admiration. He was “the wonderful boy.” John was designed for the army, with results no less unfortunate for England than a similar choice proved ultimately to be for France in the case of Joseph Bonaparte. Well would it have been for the United Kingdom had John Pitt allowed the glorious name of Chatham to sink to comfortable mediocrity on the paternal estates of Hayes or Burton Pynsent, and never to be associated with the Isle of Walcheren. His colleagues in the Cabinet learnt to respect his judgement as that of a safe man; but, as the sequel will show, he was utterly lacking in energy and the power of inspiring others.

William, having alertness of mind and brightness of speech, was designed for Parliament. Or rather, this was his choice at the age of seven. In May 1766, on hearing that his father was raised to the Peerage, he told his tutor, the Rev. Edward Wilson, in all seriousness, that he was glad he was not the eldest son, but that he could serve his country in the House of Commons like his papa.44 The words have often been misquoted, even by Earl Stanhope, the boy being reported as saying, “I want to speak in the House of Commons like papa.” The words, when correctly cited, are remarkable, not for childish conceit, but for a grave and premature sense of responsibility. They show the strength of that patriotic instinct which inspired every action of his career, spurring him on to his early studies, and to the complex and crushing duties of his youth and manhood. They sound the keynote of his character and enable us to form some notion of the strength of that life-long desire to serve his native land. This, his first recorded utterance, links itself in noble unison with that last tragic gasp of 23rd January 1806—“My country. How I leave my country!”

* * * * *

The health of the little William was so precarious that he and his brothers and sisters spent much time at the seaside resorts, Weymouth and Lyme Regis, which were not far from Burton Pynsent, an estate bequeathed by an admirer to the Earl of Chatham. Yet notwithstanding all the care bestowed on him, the boy had but a frail hold on life. Illness beset him during fully the half of his youth. At the age of fourteen he was still42 short and thin and weighed only six stone, two pounds.45 Observers, however, agree that his spirits always rose superior to weakness; and to this characteristic, as also to his indomitable will, we may attribute his struggling on through an exhausting career to the age of forty-seven. The life of Pitt is a signal proof of the victory which mind can, for a time, win over matter.

Very naturally, his parents decided to have him trained at home rather than at a public school. Chatham, while at Eton, formed the most unfavourable impression of the public school system and summed it up in his remark to Shelburne that he had “scarce observed a boy who was not cowed for life at Eton; that a public school might suit a boy of a turbulent, forward disposition, but would not do where there was any gentleness.”46

The tutor chosen for this purpose was the Rev. Edward Wilson, of Pembroke Hall (now College), Cambridge, who had charge of him from his sixth to his fourteenth year. The mutual affection of tutor and pupil is seen in a letter which the tutor wrote at Weymouth in September 1766, describing William as often standing by him while he read, and making remarks that frequently lit up the subject and impressed it on the memory. His ardour, he adds, could not be checked.47 Wilson’s training seems to have been highly efficient, as will appear when we come to consider the phenomenal attainments of his pupil at the time of his admission to the University of Cambridge.

It is perhaps significant that that later prodigy of learning and oratorical power, Macaulay, was also not brought into contact with our public school system. Both of these remarkable men may have owed some of their originality to the thoroughness of the private tuition which they received before entering the university. Had they passed through the mill of a public school they would certainly have been less angular, and would have gained in knowledge of men. Pitt especially might have cast off that reserve and stiffness which often cost him so dear. But both of them would assuredly have lost in individuality what they might have gained in bonhomie. Still more certain is it that those hotbeds of slang would have unfitted them for the free43 expression of their thoughts in dignified and classical English. The ease with which, from the time of his first entrance into Parliament, Pitt wielded the manifold resources of his mother tongue may be ascribed partly to hereditary genius but also to daily converse with one of the greatest of orators. It was Chatham’s habit to read with his favourite son passages from the Bible or from some other great classic. We also know from one of the Earl’s private memoranda that he made it a special study to clothe his thoughts in well-chosen words.48 Indeed, he never talked but always conversed. We may be sure, then, that even the lighter efforts of the statesman must have been to the boy at once an inspiration to great deeds, a melodious delight, and a lesson in rhetoric. What youth possessed of genius would not have had his faculties braced by learning English from such a tongue, by viewing mankind through such a lens?

This education at home probably explains one of Pitt’s marked characteristics, namely, his intense hopefulness. Brought up on the best authors, imbued with the highest principles, and lacking all knowledge of the seamy side of life, he cherished an invincible belief in the triumph of those aims which he felt to be good and true. This is an invaluable faculty; but it needs to be checked by acquaintance with the conduct of the average man; and that experience Pitt scarcely ever gained except by hearsay. Sir George Trevelyan has remarked that the comparative seclusion of Macaulay in youth led to his habitual over-estimate of the knowledge usually possessed by men. Certainly it led to the creation of that singular figment, “Macaulay’s school-boy.” A similar remark probably holds true of the quality of Pitt’s nature noted above. Partly, no doubt, his hopefulness was the heritage bequeathed by Chatham; but it was strengthened by Pitt’s bookish outlook on life.

The surroundings of his childhood and early youth must also have favoured the growth of that patrician virtue, confidence. Up to the year 1774 he lived on his father’s estates at Hayes and Burton Pynsent, amidst some of the choicest scenery in the south of England. The land overflowed with prosperity, which was rightly ascribed in large measure to the genius of Chatham. Until the shadow of the American War of Independence fell on the youth, in his seventeenth year, he was the favourite son of a father44 whom all men revered; and his lot was cast in a land which seemed to be especially favoured. Thus pride of family and pride of race must have helped to stiffen the mental fibre of a youth on whom nature and art alike showered the gifts and graces of a chivalrous order. In a coarse nature the result would have been snobbishness. In William Pitt the outcome was devotion to the ideals of his father and buoyant confidence as to their ultimate triumph.

In some respects there is truth in the statement of Windham that Pitt never was young. Certainly for so delicate a plant the forcing process was perilously early and prolonged. In the Pitt Papers (No. XI) I have found a curious proof of the hold which the boy had over Latin at a very early age. It is a letter written to his father, the general correctness of which contrasts strangely with its large round letters enclosed within lines. It is not dated, but probably belongs to 1766, that is, to the seventh year of his age.

Mi Charissime Pater,

Gaudeo audire te rursum bene valere. Vidimus primates Mohecaunnuck et Wappinger, Tribuum Indicorum a septentrioli America, qui veniunt in Angliam supplicare regem ob quosdam agros. Gulielmus Johnson, eques auratus, desiderabat auxilium eorum in bello, et illi omnes abierunt ut pugnarent contra Gallos; sed, cum domum rediebant, sentiebant Batavos arripuisse omnes suos agros. Vulgus apud Portland illos parum commode tractabat.

Sum, mi charissime Pater,
tibi devinctissimus,
Gulielmus Pitt.

I have also found a curious proof of the stilted style in which the boy wrote to his father, while on the very same day he wrote to his brother almost in the terms which a boy of eleven would use. To the Earl of Chatham he thus begins a letter of 31st July 1770:

From the weather we have had here I flatter myself that the sun shone on your expedition, and that the views were enough enlivened thereby to prevent the drowsy Morpheus from taking the opportunity of the heat to diffuse his poppies upon the eyes of the travellers.49

This almost rises to the pomposity of style with which Chatham described to his son William the stinging of carriage-horses by45 wasps. The insects figure as “an ambuscade of Pandours,” and the horses as “these coursers of spirit not inferior to Xanthus and Podarges.”50

* * * * *

Here on the other hand is the boy’s letter to his brother:

Hayes, July 31 1770.

Dear Brother,

I assure you that I am obliged to you beyond what is to be expressed for your epistle or journal. The dialogue between you and your host is very entertaining to those not interested in the want of provision in the inn. But I fancy it was not so to you, as it afforded little or no hope of dinner unless you could dine on the small tithes. The 2 Masons are incomparable. I think the intended candidate is to the full as likely as G. O. to succeed, and for what I know deserves it better. As I have seen neither the statue at Guilford nor that at South Carolina, I cannot judge which excels in point of workmanship, but I know which of the two noble Persons (in my opinion) is the superior. Your white mare I take to be more of the species of an elephant than any other; and can carry houses or castles on her back. Tho’, great as She is, Long Sutton might perhaps keep her under her feet. These two mornings I have rode out before breakfast. Your Greek was excellent, and (I think) with practice you may become a Thucydides. Dapple is in good health; and we have taken the liberty to desire him to honour us with following the little chaise. I hope all stock is pure well.

I am, dear brother,
Affectionately yours,
William Pitt.51

The contrast between the two letters proves that Chatham’s influence must have overwrought the boy’s brain and inflated his style. The letter to John evinces a joy in life natural to a boy of eleven, together with a wide range of interests and accomplishments.

That the writers of the period also did much to form the boy’s46 style will appear from his first poem, “On the Genius of Poetry,” which bears date May 1771.52 It seems to be the joint product of Harriet and William Pitt:

Ye sacred Imps of thund’ring Jove descend,
Immortal Nine, to me propitious, bend
Inclining downward from Parnassus’ brow;
To me, young Bard, some Heav’nly fire allow.
From Aganippe’s murmur strait repair,
Assist my labours and attend my pray’r.
Inspire my verse. Of Poetry it sings.
Thro’ Her, the deeds of Heroes and of Kings
Renown’d in arms, with fame immortal stand.
By Her no less, are spread thro’ ev’ry land
Those patriot names, who in their country’s cause
Triumphant fall, for Liberty and Laws.
Exalted high, the Spartan Hero stands,
Encircled with his far-renowned bands.
Whoe’er devoted for their country die,
Thro’ Her their fame ascends the starry sky.
She too perpetuates each horrid deed;
When laws are trampled, when their guardians bleed,
That shall the Muse to infamy prolong
Example dread, and theme of tragic song.
Nor less immortal, than the Chiefs, resound
The Poets’ names, who spread their deeds around.
Homer shall flourish first in rolls of fame;
And still shall leave the Roman Virgil’s name;
With living bays is lofty Pindar crown’d;
In distant ages Horace stands renown’d.
These Bards, and more, fair Greece and Rome may boast,
And some may flourish on this British Coast.
Witness the man, on whom the Muse did smile,
Who sung our Parents’ fall and Satan’s guile,
A second Homer, favor’d by the Nine.
Sweet Spenser, Jonson, Shakspear the divine.
And He, fair Virtue’s Bard, who rapt doth sing
The praise of Freedom and Laconia’s King.
But high o’er Chiefs and Bards supremely great
Shall Publius shine, the Guardian of our state.
Him shall th’ immortal Nine themselves record,
With deathless fame his gen’rous toil reward,
Shall tune the harp to loftier sounding lays
And thro’ the world shall spread his ceaseless praise.
Their hands alone can match the Heav’nly strain
And with due fire his wond’rous glories sing.


The poem, which is in William’s handwriting, shows that by the age of twelve he had acquired the trick—it was no more—of writing in the style of Pope and Johnson. The lines remind us of the felicitous phrase in which Cowper characterized the output of that school:

The click-clock tintinnabulum of rhyme.

But they show neatness of thought and phrase. In a word, they are good Johnsonese.

The same quality of sonorous ponderosity is observable in Pitt’s letters of 3rd June 1771 to his uncle the statesman, Earl Temple, thanking him for a present, in which the names of Lyttelton and Coke are invoked. In the following sentences the trend of the boy’s thoughts is very marked: “I revere this gift the more, as I have heard Lyttelton and Coke were props of the Constitution, which is a synonimous [sic] term for just Liberty.” The “marvellous boy” ends by quoting part of a line of Virgil, which still more powerfully inspired him:

avunculus excitat Hector.

The next year saw the production of a play, which he and his brothers and sisters acted at Burton Pynsent on 30th May 1772. Here again the motive is solely political: a King, Laurentius, on his way homeward, after a successful war, suffers shipwreck, and is mourned as dead. The news leads an ambitious counsellor, Gordinus, to plot the overthrow of the regency of the Queen; but his advances are repelled by a faithful minister, Pompilius—the character played by William Pitt—in the following lines:

Our honoured Master’s steps may guide her on,
Whose inmost soul she knew; and surely she
Is fitted most to fill her husband’s throne,
She, whom maternal tenderness inspires,
Will watch incessant o’er her lovely son
And best pursue her dear Laurentius’ plans.

Pompilius warns the Queen of the plot of Gordinus, and persuades her to entrust her son Florus to his care in a sylvan retreat. Thither also Laurentius comes in disguise; for, after landing as a forlorn survivor, he hears of dangerous novelties that had poisoned men’s minds and seduced the army from allegiance to the Queen. Pompilius, while visiting the royal heir, sees and recognizes Laurentius, brings him to Florus, and48 prepares to overthrow the traitors. In due course the King’s adherents defeat the forces of Gordinus, who is slain by Laurentius himself, while Pompilius, his standard bearer, kills another arch-conspirator. The King grants a general pardon in these lines:

Us it behoves, to whom by gracious Heav’n
The cares of nations and of States are giv’n—
Us it behoves with clemency to sway
That glorious sceptre which the gods bestow.
We are the shepherds sent to tend the flock,
Sent to protect from wrong, not to destroy.
Oh! Florus! When thou govern’st our domains,
Bear these thy father’s precepts in thy mind.
Thro’ love control thy subjects, not thro’ fear.
The people’s love the bulwark of thy throne.
Give not thy mind to passion or revenge,
But let fair Mercy ever sway thy soul.53

It is fairly certain that none of the children but William could have written these lines; and the fact that the mainspring of the action is political further stamps the play as his own. Some Spirit of the Future seems to have hovered over him, for the mental derangement of George III in 1788 brought to the front questions relating to a Regency not very unlike those sketched by the boy playwright. The sense of loyalty and devotion which informs the play was then also to guide Pitt’s footsteps through a bewildering maze. Indeed this effusion seems almost like a marionette’s version of the Regency affair: Laurentius is a more romantic George III, Pompilius quite startlingly foreshadows Pitt the Prime Minister, the Prince of Wales (an undutiful Florus) and Fox may pass for the conspirators; and the motif of the play twangs a mimic prelude to the intrigues of Carlton House. In the acting of the play the elder brother seems far to have surpassed William, who bore himself stiffly and awkwardly. Such was the testimony of young Addington, a lifelong friend, who saw the play acted on another occasion at Hayes.54 The criticism is valuable as showing how ingrained in Pitt’s nature was the shyness and gaucherie in public which were ever to hamper his progress.

Juvenile authorship has its dangers for a delicate child; and49 we are not surprised to find from notes left by his first tutor to Bishop Tomline that the half of Pitt’s boyhood was beset by illnesses which precluded all attempt at study. But nothing stopped the growth of his mental powers, which Wilson summed up in the Platonic phrase, “Pitt seemed never to learn but merely to recollect.” At the age of fourteen and a half, then, he was ripe for Cambridge. It is true that youths then entered the English Universities at an age fully as early as the Scottish lads who went from the parish school, or manse, straight to Edinburgh or Aberdeen. Charles James Fox, Gibbon, and the lad who became Lord Eldon, entered Oxford at fifteen. Wilberforce, who at seventeen went up from Hull to St. John’s College, Cambridge, was probably the senior of most of the freshmen of his year; but the case of Pitt was even then exceptional.

Cambridge on the whole enjoyed a better reputation than Oxford for steady work; but this alone does not seem to have turned the thoughts of the Earl of Chatham so far eastwards. He himself was an Oxford man, and the distance of Cambridge from Burton Pynsent, the usual abode of the family, would naturally have told in favour of Oxford.

The determining facts seem to have been that Wilson’s companionship was deemed essential, and that he, as a graduate of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, turned the scale in favour of his own college. This appears from Wilson’s letter of 2nd December 1772 to his wife:

I could not have acted with more prudence than I have done in the affair of Pembroke Hall. Mr. Pitt is not the child his years bespeak him to be. He has now all the understanding of a man, and is, and will be, my steady friend thro’ life.... He will go to Pembroke, not a weak boy to be made a property of, but to be admir’d as a prodigy; not to hear lectures but to spread light. His parts are most astonishing and universal. He will be fully qualified for a wrangler before he goes, and be an accomplished classick, mathematician, historian and poet.55

How often have similar prophecies led to disappointment. In the case of the “wonderful boy,” they did but point the way to a career whose meridian splendour has eclipsed the tender beauty of its dawn.



A man that is young in yeares may be old in houres, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.—Bacon.

On 26th April 1773 Pitt’s name was entered at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge; and he commenced residence there on 8th October 1772. His health being ever a matter of grave concern, Wilson stayed with him in order to prevent any boyish imprudences and accompany him in riding. But all precautions were in vain. Despite the invigorating influences of sea-air at Lyme Regis, where William and his brother had stayed from June up to 21st September, he soon fell ill at Cambridge, and remained in bed for several weeks. Thanks to the medical skill of Drs. Addington and Glynn (the former an old friend of Chatham), he gradually got the better of the hereditary foe, gout; but the letters which passed between Lady Chatham and Wilson attest the severity of the seizure. The boy seems to have won the love of his medical attendants, as appears from this sentence in her letter of 22nd November. “What a gift William has to conciliate the love of those who are once acquainted with him.”

There is a story told to Thomas Moore by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, that Pitt brought his nurse with him in the carriage to Cambridge, and that she stayed to look after him. This strange assertion is made in the poet’s diary for 13th February 1826; and the distrust which that late date inspires is increased when we find that the Bishop had the anecdote from Paley, who “was very near being his [Pitt’s] tutor, instead of Pretyman, but Paley did not like it.”56 As Paley was at Christ’s, and there never was any question of Pitt entering at that college or receiving from the outset regular instruction outside the walls of Pembroke, the story lacks every element of credibility.


The facts are as follows: Mrs. Sparry, who was attendant or housekeeper at Burton Pynsent, went to Cambridge to nurse the boy through his long and serious illness, and finally brought him home. At last the invalid was strong enough to bear the journey. Four days were taken up in reaching London; and we find him writing thence to his mother on 6th December that he had not been fatigued and felt strong enough to walk all the way home; but, he added, Mrs. Sparry urged him not to write much.57 He did not return to Cambridge (“the evacuated seat of the Muses” as Chatham styled it) until 13th July 1774. Then he informed Lady Chatham that Cambridge was empty, that Dr. Glynn had called on him and had inquired after Mrs. Sparry, who would be glad to hear that the bed at his rooms had been well aired. These trifles enable us to reduce the oft quoted nurse story to its proper insignificance.

Wilson seems to have done his best to amuse his charge in the dreary vacation time of July–September 1774; for on 24th August Pitt described to his mother a ride in which Wilson and he had lost their way among lanes and fields and regained the track with some damage to hedges, and after a chase of one of the steeds, but far too late to share in college dinner. Again, on 1st September, he wrote to the Earl of Chatham: “The ardour for celebrating this day is as great at Cambridge as anywhere; and Mr. Wilson himself, catching a spark of it, signalized himself by killing a crow on the wing after a walk of six hours.”58

The natural vivacity of disposition, which charmed all his friends, must have played no small part in the recovery of his health. The medical authorities of to-day would also probably assign more importance to regular hours, exercise, and careful diet than to the use of port wine, adopted in compliance with his physicians’ recommendation, on which some contemporary writers dwell with much gusto. Certain it is that from the year 1774 onwards “his health became progressively confirmed.”

This phrase occurs in the biography of Pitt written by his college tutor, Dr. Pretyman, whose style it aptly characterizes. The book is indeed one of the most ponderous ever published. As tutor, friend, and adviser, the Rev. Dr. Pretyman had unique opportunities for giving to the world a complete and life-like portrait. Pitt was entrusted to his care and to that of his52 colleague, Dr. Turner, in 1773–4, and thereafter to Pretyman alone. The undergraduate soon conceived for him an affection which was strong and lasting. Their intercourse suffered little interruption, not even from the ecclesiastical honours which the young Prime Minister so freely bestowed on his old tutor. The bishop, who in 1803 took the name of Tomline, continued to be the friend and adviser of the Statesman up to the dreary days which succeeded the death-blow of Austerlitz. Pitt died in his arms, and he was his literary executor. Yet, despite the mass of materials put into his hands (or was it because of their mass?)59 he wrote one of the dullest biographies in the English language.

The solution of the riddle may perhaps be found in the cast of his mind, which was that of a mathematician and divine, while it lacked the gifts of interest in men and affairs, of insight into character, of delicate and instinctive sympathy, and of historic imagination, which enliven, reveal, interpret, and illuminate personalities and situations. Talleyrand, with a flash of almost diabolical wit, once described language as a means of concealing thought. Tomline, with laboured conscientiousness, seems to have looked on biography as a means of concealing character. Certainly he portrayed only those features which are easily discernible in the tomes of the Parliamentary History. An almost finnikin scrupulousness clogged him in the exercise of the scanty powers of portraiture with which Nature had endowed him. The biographer was continually being reined in by the literary executor, the result being a progress, which, while meant to be stately, succeeds only in being shambling. Here and there we catch glimpses of Pitt under the senatorial robes with which his friend adorned and concealed him, but they are tantalizingly brief. The Bishop was beset by so many qualms concerning the propriety of mentioning this or that incident as to “suppress many circumstances and anecdotes of a more private nature,” and to postpone the compilation of a volume on this more frivolous subject. Death supervened while the Bishop was still revolving the question of the proprieties; and we shall therefore never fully know Pitt as he appeared to his life-long counsellor.60


There must have been sterling qualities in the man whom the statesman thus signally honoured. Dr. Pretyman’s learning was vast. Senior Wrangler and Fellow of his College, he also became a Fellow of the Royal Society; and his attainments in the classics enabled him to command the respect of his pupil in a sphere where, according to Wilson, Pitt had the Platonic gift, not of learning, but of instinctive remembrance (ἀνάμνησις). Nevertheless, nearly all contemporaries seem to have found in the tutor and Bishop a primness and austerity which were far from attractive. Perhaps he lacked the vitality which might have energized that mass of learning. Or else the consciousness that he was a Senior Wrangler, together with the added load of tutorial and episcopal responsibility, may have been too much for him. To Pitt, nurtured amidst the magniloquence of Hayes and Burton Pynsent, the seriousness and pedantry of Pretyman doubtless appeared natural and pleasing. To outsiders they were tedious; and the general impression of half-amused, half-bored wonderment is cleverly, though spitefully, expressed in the lines of the Rolliad:

Prim preacher, prince of priests and prince’s priest,61
Pembroke’s pale pride, in Pitt’s praecordia placed,
Thy merits all shall future ages scan,
And prince be lost in parson Pretyman.

Among the most interesting parts of the bishop’s biography of Pitt are those in which he describes his attainments, and his studies at Pembroke Hall. The tutor found him, as Wilson expected, exceedingly well versed in the classics, so that he seldom met with any difficulties. Chatham had prescribed a careful study of Thucydides and Polybius; and the young undergraduate was often able, with little or no preparation, to translate six or seven pages of the former historian, without making more than one or two mistakes. This is very remarkable in a youth of fifteen; but his sense of the meaning and fitness of words seems to have been not less instinctive than his choice of language, which was soon to arouse the wonder and admiration of the most experienced debaters at Westminster.


As regards his mathematical attainments, Tomline states that he had already read the first six books of Euclid, and had mastered the elementary parts of Algebra, Trigonometry, and Natural Philosophy. The bent of his mind was towards the Humanities; but he had a good hold on mathematics, and became expert at the solution of problems. Newton’s Principia aroused his deepest admiration. Various notes on mathematical and astronomical subjects extant in the Pitt Papers (too fragmentary for reproduction here) show that he retained his interest in the exact sciences.62

At Cambridge, above all, he deepened his knowledge of the classics. The ease with which he deciphered so obscure a work as Lycophron’s “Cassandra” astonished even those who were familiar with his exceptional powers. Everything therefore conduced to give him an exceedingly wide and thorough knowledge of the literatures of Greece and Rome; for, fortunately for him, he had neither the need nor the inclination to bestow much time on the art of versifying in those languages, which absorbed, and still absorbs, so much of the energy of the dwellers by the Cam. Accordingly the life, thought, and statecraft of Athens and Rome became thoroughly familiar to him. His love for their masterpieces of art and imagination was profound; and the many comments in his handwriting on the margin of the chief authors suffice to refute the gibe of certain small-minded opponents, that he kept up his acquaintance with the classics in order to find tags for his speeches.63 To some extent, it is true, his studies were directed towards his future vocation. At the wish of the Earl of Chatham, he bestowed great attention on the oratory of the ancients; and he seems to have bettered the precept by making critical notes on the speeches which he read, and remarking how the various arguments were, or might be, answered. Add to this a close and loving perusal of Shakespeare and Milton, and it will be seen that Pitt’s studies at Cambridge were such as invigorated55 the mind, cultivated his oratorical gift, and thoroughly equipped him for the parliamentary arena.

From Tomline we glean a few details which enable us to picture the young undergraduate in his surroundings. He states that his manners even at that early age were formed and his behaviour manly, that he mixed in conversation with unaffected vivacity and perfect ease. His habits were most regular; he never failed to attend morning and evening chapel except when prevented by ill health. Owing to his father’s habit of reading aloud a chapter of the Bible every day, his knowledge of the Holy Scripture was unusually good. Tomline mentions a circumstance which will serve also to illustrate Pitt’s powers of memory and fine sense of sound. On hearing his former tutor read portions of Scripture in support of his “Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles,” the statesman (it was in that anxious year, 1797) stopped him at one text with the remark—“I do not recollect that passage in the Bible, and it does not sound like Scripture.” He was right: the passage came from the Apocrypha, which he had not read.

The singular correctness of Pitt’s life while at Cambridge exposed him to the risk of becoming a bookworm and a prig. From this he was saved by his good sense and his ill-health. “The wonderful boy” was begged by his parents not to court the Muses too assiduously. Chatham’s fatherly anxiety and his love of classical allusions led him to run this metaphor to death; but the strained classicisms had the wished for effect. Pitt rode regularly and far. In the Pitt Papers (No. 221) I have found proof that, while at Cambridge, he was trained in the then essential art of fencing. At a later date his old fencing-master, Peter Renaud, sent to him a petition stating that he had “had the honour of teaching you when you was at Pembroke College,” and that in consequence of the decline in the habit of fencing, he was now in poverty, and therefore begged for help from his illustrious pupil.

We clutch at these trifles which show the drift of Pitt’s early habits; for the worthy Tomline, who had stacks, where we have only sheaves, does not condescend to notice them. From the Pitt Papers we can, however, in part reconstruct his Cambridge life. In his first term, Pitt described Pembroke as “a sober, staid college, and nothing but solid study there.” Fortunately, too, no exceptional privileges were accorded to Chatham’s56 favourite son. The father in his letter to the tutor had not claimed any, except those required on the score of health. Consequently though Pitt had the right to don the gorgeous gown of a “gentleman-commoner” (afterwards called “fellow commoner”), he did not do so. In his first letter to his father he stated that his cap was “to be stripped of its glories, in exchange for a plain loop and button.”64 It is further pleasing to know that his father wished him not to make use of that tattered mediaeval privilege which allowed sons of noblemen to receive the degree without sitting for examination; and that persistent ill-health alone led him to resort unwillingly to this miserable expedient.

We are here reminded of Wordsworth’s reference to the sense of social equality to be found at Cambridge, even at a time when titled arrogance and old-world subservience ramped and cringed unchecked and unrelieved in most parts of the land. The lines are worthy of quotation because they show that the spirit prevalent at Cambridge, at least at St. John’s College, prepared the poet to sympathize with the French democracy. He speaks of Cambridge as

A Republic, where all stood thus far
Upon equal ground, that we were brothers all
In honour, as in one community,
Scholars and gentlemen; where, furthermore,
Distinction open lay to all that came,
And wealth and titles were in less esteem
Than talents, worth, and prosperous industry.

We do not know whether Pitt’s feelings at this time were akin to those of Wordsworth, who entered St. John’s in 1787. Pitt’s surroundings were not such as to favour the infiltration of new ideas. In his first two years he mixed scarcely at all with undergraduates, and even after 1776 his circle seems to have been limited, doubtless owing to his intense shyness, ill-health, and constant association with Dr. Pretyman. On 4th November 1776 he writes home that he had been spending a few days at the house of Lord Granby (the future Duke of Rutland), and had returned to the “sober hours and studies” of college; but he rarely refers to pastimes and relaxations.

His letters also contain few references to study; but one of these is worthy of notice. On 10th November 1776 he asked permission57 to attend a month’s course of lectures on Civil Law for the fee of five guineas; and later on he stated that they were “instructive and amusing,” besides requiring little extra work. In that term he took his degree in the manner aforesaid. Early in 1777 he moved to other rooms which were small but perfectly sheltered from wind and weather. About that time, too, he launched out more freely into social life, so we may judge from the not infrequent requests for increased supplies. On 30th June 1777 he writes that he has exceeded his allowance by £60, the first sign of that heedlessness in money matters which was to hamper him through life.

* * * * *

The chief feature of interest in these early letters is the frequent references to the politics of the time, which show that he kept the service of his country steadily in view. Thus, on 23rd March 1775 during vacation time at Hayes, he writes to his brother, begging him, if he leaves his pillow before noon, to find out the fate of Mr. Burke’s motion on behalf of conciliation with America. He signs the letters on behalf of “the Society at Hayes,” possibly a reference to a family debating club.65 It is noteworthy that the struggle of the American colonists with George III was the first political event to arouse his interest, which must have been heightened by the fervid speeches of Chatham on the subject. A little later a side eddy must have set in, for his elder brother, Lord Pitt, on receiving his commission in 1774, joined his regiment, which was quartered successively at Quebec and Montreal. On 31st May 1775 William writes from Cambridge that the papers are full of the bad news from Boston, doubtless the fight at Lexington. Ten days later he requests Lady Chatham to send, along with the “Ethics,” Davenant on “Peace, War, and Alliance,” as it is not in any library in Cambridge. Clearly, then, the youth was alive to the legal and international questions then at stake.

Probably these wider interests carried him more into society. His friendship with Lord Granby, then an undergraduate, is more than once referred to; and thus was formed that connection which furthered Pitt’s career, and led to the sending of Lord Granby (after succeeding to the Dukedom of Rutland) to the Viceregal Lodge at Dublin. The Duke, it may be mentioned,58 bequeathed to Pitt the sum of £3,000.66 Friendships formed at the University counted for much in times when court and governmental influence made or marred a man’s career. We may therefore note that as Pitt’s health improved during the last years at Cambridge, he also became friendly with the following: Lord Westmorland, Lord Euston, Lowther (Lord Lonsdale), Pratt (Lord Camden), Pepper Arden, Eliot, Bankes, Long, and St. John.

The name of him who was perhaps Pitt’s dearest friend is here conspicuous by its absence. Wilberforce saw little of Pitt at Cambridge, partly, perhaps, because he did not enter at St. John’s College until 1776 and then became associated with a dissolute set; but he made Pitt’s acquaintance towards the end of their time there, and the youths were mutually attracted by their brilliant conversational gifts and intellectual powers, which were to be sharpened by delightful intercourse at London and Wimbledon. In a passage penned in 1821, Wilberforce contrasts the comparative ill fortune of Pitt with the good fortune of his rival, Charles James Fox, who at Oxford made the acquaintance of a number of brilliant young men, Sheridan, Windham, Erskine, Hare, General Fitzpatrick, and Lord John Townshend. Nearly all of these, it is true, won distinction in public life; but it is scarcely fair to say that Pitt’s Cambridge friends (to whose number Wilberforce adds Lords Abercorn and Spencer) were deficient in parts. Their gifts, if less brilliant, were more solid than those of Fox and Sheridan. Lords Camden and Westmorland were to prove themselves able administrators, and the future Duke of Rutland, though showy and dissolute, displayed much ability as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Bankes “the precise” (as the Rolliad terms him) was a hard-hitter in debate; while the gentler qualities of Eliot endeared him both to Pitt and to his sister Harriet, whom he married in 1785.

Viewing the question more widely, we may surmise that Pitt’s career at Cambridge would have been more fruitful had he gone up somewhat later and mixed more with undergraduates, especially with good talkers. In that case we can imagine that the Grenville stiffness in him would almost have vanished. A bon vivant like Fox or North he could never have been; but the austerity of his life at Cambridge, save in its closing months,59 did not tend to cure him of the awkward shyness which Wilberforce noted as so prominent a trait in his character;67 and thus he went forth into the life of Westminster weighted with that serious defect, an incapacity for making a wide circle of friends or winning over enemies. In a sense it may be said that Pitt took political life too seriously. He prepared for it from boyhood so strenuously as partly to stunt his social faculties, and thereby handicap himself for life. For in that age the political arena was the close preserve of the nobles, gentry, and nabobs, with whom a statesman could scarcely succeed unless he had the manners of the clubs and the instincts of a sportsman. A compromise between Lord Chatham and Tony Lumpkin would have made the ideal leader. As it was, there entered on the scene a compromise between Chatham and Aristides.

Pitt’s chief relaxation from the “sober studies” at Pembroke Hall was found in visits to the great debates at Westminster. The first of these visits belongs to the month of January 1775, when his father was pleading passionately for conciliation with America. Benjamin Franklin, the champion of the colonists, was present; and the orator clearly aimed at persuading our kinsmen beyond the seas that they had the sympathy of very many British hearts. Those two orations echoed far and wide amid the dales of New England and the rocks of the Alleghanies. What, then, must have been the effect of the living voice and of that superb presence, which trebled the power of every word, on a sensitive youth whose being ever thrilled responsive to that of his father? Language failed him to express his feelings. “Nothing prevented his speech,” so he wrote to his mother, “from being the most forcible that can be imagined, and [the] Administration fully felt it. The manner and matter both were striking; far beyond what I can express. It was everything which was superior; ... his first speech lasted above an hour and the second half an hour—surely the two finest speeches that ever were made, unless by himself.”68 He heard also Chatham’s great effort of 30th May 1777, and describes it as marked by “a flow of eloquence and beauty of expression, animated and striking beyond expression.”

For Pitt, indeed, the chief delights of the vacations centred in60 St. Stephens. Never has there been a more eager listener to the debates; and here his method of studying the orators of Greece and Rome enabled him quickly to marshal the arguments of a speaker, assess them at their real worth, and fashion a retort. During one of his visits to the House of Lords he was introduced to Charles James Fox, already famous as the readiest debater in the Lower House. The Whig leader afterwards described the rapt attention with which the youth at his side listened to the speeches of the peers, and frequently turned to him with the remark: “But surely, Mr. Fox, that might be met thus,” or “Yes; but he lays himself open to this retort.” Little can Fox have imagined that these gifts, when whetted by maturity, were frequently to dash the hopes of the Whigs.69

The nice balancing of arguments, and the study of words, together with the art of voice production, may make a clever and persuasive speaker; but a great orator is he to whom such things are but trifling adornments, needful, indeed, for a complete equipment, but lost amidst the grander endowments of Nature, imagination and learning. Pitt excelled in the greater gifts no less than in the smaller graces. He had the advantage of a distinguished presence, a kindling eye, a sonorous voice; and to these excellences were added those of the mind, which outshone all adventitious aids. And these intellectual powers, which give weight to attack and cover a retreat, were cultivated with a wholeheartedness and persistence unparalleled in our annals. The pompous greetings of the Earl of Chatham to “the civilians and law of nations tribe” at Pembroke Hall show the thoroughness of his son’s application to law. It also seems probable that during the latter part of his stay at Cambridge he widened his outlook on public affairs by a study of Adam Smith’s great work, “The Wealth of Nations,” which appeared in 1776. He afterwards avowed himself a disciple of Adam Smith; and it is questionable whether he would have had time after leaving Cambridge thoroughly to master that work.

Books which bore upon the rise and fall of States seem to have engaged his attention, as was also the case with the young Napoleon—witness his copious notes on changes of dynasty and revolutions. In truth, those questions were then “in the air.” In 1748 Montesquieu had published his “Spirit of Laws”;61 Rousseau had brought out in 1762 his “Social Contract,” which Quinet has described as the seed of the French Revolution. Whether Pitt perused these works is doubtful; but it is clear that in his reading he had an eye for the causes that make or mar the fortunes of nations. Witness the remark in his letter of 19th March 1778, that nowhere in history could he find “any instance of a Nation so miserably sacrificed as this has been.”70 He shared the general conviction that none but Chatham could steer the ship of State into safe waters; and deep must have been his concern when the King refused to hear of Chatham forming a new Ministry for the purpose of conciliation. No consideration, not even the loss of his Crown (so he wrote to Lord North) would induce him to “stoop to the Opposition.”71

Such conduct bordered on the insane now that France had made common cause with the United States; but there was no means of forcing the King’s hand. The majority in Parliament supported his Minister, Lord North; and little could be expected from the Earl of Chatham in view of his growing infirmities of mind and body. His haughty and exacting ways no less than his inconsistencies of aim had scattered his following; and it was but a shadow of a name that appeared in the House of Lords on 7th April 1778. Encased in flannel, looking deadly pale, but with something of the old gleam in his eyes, he entered, staying his tottering frame on his sons, William and James. He spoke twice, urging the House not to debase the monarchy by conceding full independence to America, still less by giving way before France. “Shall this great kingdom now fall prostrate before the House of Bourbon? If we must fall, let us fall like men.” Much of the speech was inconsistent with his former opinions; but the peers recked not of inconsistency; they listened with bated breath to words which recalled the glorious days of 1759—words which were to be prophetic both for himself and for his son. A second oratorical effort was too much for his overwrought frame. He pressed his hand to his heart and fell. The peers hard by caught him in their arms; his sons hurried up and helped to bear him to a house in Downing Street. Thence he was removed to Hayes, and there on 11th May 1778, in the midst of his family, he passed away.


For the greatest statesman and orator of his age there could be but one place of sepulture. The House of Commons unanimously voted an address for a public funeral and a monument in Westminster; and probably of all Englishmen there was only one who regretted the decision. George III had revealed the pettiness of his nature when, in a letter to Lord North, he referred to Chatham’s breakdown in the House of Lords as his “political exit.” He now stated that, unless the inscription on the monument dwelt only on Chatham’s influence in “rouzing the nation at the beginning of the last war,” the compliment paid to the deceased statesman would be “rather an offensive measure” to him personally.72 “The Court do everything with an ill grace,” is William’s description of the preparations for the funeral.73 No one represented the King at the funeral on 9th June, a fact which gave to the ceremony the appearance of a great popular demonstration. It was the last of Chatham’s triumphs.

Owing to the absence of the eldest son with his regiment, William was the chief mourner. Few of the beholders had any knowledge of his manifold gifts; and the crowds which gazed at the stately procession, as at the burial of England’s glories and hopes, could not surmise that the slim figure following the hearse was destined to retrieve the disasters of the present and to link once more the name of Pitt with a great work of national revival.



I cannot approve of the requisition, in the studies of future statesmen, of so much theoretical knowledge, by which young people are often ruined before their time, both in mind and body. When they enter into practical life, they possess indeed an immense stock of philosophical and learned material; but in the narrow circle of their calling this cannot be practically applied, and will therefore be forgotten as useless. On the other hand what they most needed they have lost: they are deficient in the necessary mental and bodily energy, which is quite indispensable when one would enter efficiently into practical life.—Goethe.

The lives of English statesmen have very rarely, if ever, been enervated by that excessive zeal for education which the great German thinker discerned as a possible danger for his fellow countrymen. Certainly to those who had drunk deep of the learning of Leipzig, Heidelberg, or Göttingen, the transference to a Staats-secretariat at Weimar, Cassel, or even at Berlin, must have been a life of sheer drudgery. Doubtless, the doctrinaire policy of many a Continental State sprang from the persistent attempts of some Pegasus in harness to rise again to the serene heights of his youthful contemplations. In England our youths did not meditate on the science of politics. Both Oxford and Cambridge displayed a maternal care lest the brains of the rising generation should overtax the bodies; and never was the unsullied spring of Helicon ruffled by draughts taken under compulsion. Gibbon’s experience at Magdalen College in 1752–3, of the genial indifference of his first tutor, and the unblushing neglect of his successor, seems to have been quite normal; and it is clear that the curriculum of that wealthy corporation had not the remotest connection with any known form of activity outside its walls.

Pitt’s residence at Cambridge was more fruitful for the future. The dons of Pembroke Hall seem to have taken their duties less64 lightly than was the rule elsewhere; and Pitt’s lifelong gratitude to Dr. Pretyman may have been partly due to the unusual advancement in learning achieved under his watchful care. But even so, the regular studies had no bearing on the life of a statesman other than that which comes from an intelligent reading of the philosophers and historians of Greece and Rome. Pitt’s choice of lectures on Civil Law was his own. And, after taking his degree in the autumn of 1776, he seems largely to have followed the bent of his mind, which, as we have seen, led him to study the crises in national affairs, and the causes of welfare or decay. It is significant that the young Napoleon Bonaparte approached historical study in the same practical way.

Above all, Pitt haunted the precincts of Westminster, and there learnt to view politics, not as a science, but a strife. For him, therefore, there was little risk of being hampered by an ill-digested mass of theoretical learning as he faced the ever shifting problems of the Commonwealth; still less of undergoing the transition from the breezy uplands of philosophy to the political mill of some petty principality. It is the happy lot of Britain’s sons to come to ever widening spheres of activity; and their minds, never “sicklied o’er” at the outset, should possess the alertness and vigour which Goethe rightly praised as a better equipment than the best elaborated theories and the richest store of precedents. This natural course of development ought to produce not doctrinaires, but statesmen.

* * * * *

The chief misfortunes of Pitt’s early life were his appalling precocity, which the Earl of Chatham in no wise checked, and the sense of responsibility thrust upon him all too soon by the terrible bereavement described above. As the eldest son was then abroad with his regiment, William was at once involved in a network of cares. The finances of the family were in an embarrassed state. Chatham’s habits had been so lavish, and his conduct in official life so honourably scrupulous, that the estate was encumbered with debts. Parliament voted the sum of £20,000 towards their payment; but, if we may judge from one of the later letters of Lady Chatham, embarrassments at times continued to beset her.74 William also inherited property which was to yield little more than an annual income of £250—a sum65 inadequate to meet the demands of an ambitious youth in an age when money no less than family standing served as the passport to a public career.

Nevertheless, the lack of resources seems to have stimulated energies that were ever braced by difficulty. About five months after the funeral of his father, we find him expressing to Lady Chatham his resolve to take rooms at Lincoln’s Inn. In his view practice at the Bar was invaluable as a training for that wider and grander service to which he had early vowed himself.

In one important particular Pitt’s conduct showed singular foresight. He did not, as might have been expected in days when travelling was slow and expensive, give up his rooms at Pembroke Hall, but for nearly two years he continued usually to reside there, even while keeping his terms at Lincoln’s Inn. Extravagant though this arrangement seemed to be, it was based on prudential motives. In the miserable condition in which public affairs then were, he judged that a dissolution of Parliament could not be long deferred; and the chance of winning a seat at his University seemed to him, though still in his teens, greater than at an ordinary constituency, where the deep pockets of grandees or nabobs must mar his prospect.75

About Cambridge, then, his hopes fondly clustered, seeing that it was “a seat of all others the most desirable, as being free from expense, perfectly independent, and I think in every respect extremely honourable.”76 The words have the ring of manly determination which marks all his public utterances.

The following letter of his to Mr. John (afterwards Lord) Townshend, then one of the members for the University, marks the first official announcement of his intentions:

Pembroke Hall, July 15 1779.

Dear Townshend,

The very earnest and sincere wishes I expressed for your success in the late contest for the University of Cambridge, might perhaps lead you to imagine that I should take a similar part on every future occasion. I was therefore very sorry that it was not in my power to explain to you my situation when I had the pleasure of seeing you here. But, having since finally determined to offer myself a candidate for the66 University at the General Election, I am desirous of giving you immediate notice of a circumstance of which I imagine you will be glad to be apprised as soon as possible.

W. Pitt.77

At the same time he informed his uncle, Earl Temple, of his resolve, and received the following reply. The italicizing of the Christian name speaks for itself:

Stowe, July 18 1779.

I cannot, my dear William, but interest myself most warmly in whatever relates to your honour or interest; I therefore learn with singular pleasure the hopes you conceive that the good old lady, the alma mater of Cambridge, may be inclined to treat you as her most favourite son. Such a testimony at your age from a learned body cannot but be very flattering. As to your prospect of success, I cannot form any opinion, being totally unacquainted with every circumstance but that of your merit. You must therefore be [sic] at present to receive from me nothing but sincere assurances of my best good wishes and readiness to serve you as may be in my power. How far it may be advisable for you before you have more ripened in your profession to launch out into the great ocean of politicks and expose yourself to the sweet music of those lovely syrens, which have already seduced your cousin Thomas from the destined and determined object of his life, is a matter of great doubt, and the reflection that it is so may prove some consolation to you should you not succeed. The memory of your father and the great character you have attained speak forcibly in your favour, but a dead minister, the most respectable that ever existed, weighs very light in the scale against any living one, at least if I may guess at your university by her good sister. All therefore I can say further is to recommend to you very thoroughly to examine the foundation of your hopes before you engage, not suffering your conduct to be warped by your wishes; because, if from the event this measure shall appear to be lightly taken up, such an outset in life will diminish much of those high expectations which you have so deservedly raised. Your young old friend and namesake salutes you very kindly and gratefully, Hester and Catherine very affectionately, without forgetting that antient spinster Mrs. Stapleton. We shall be happy to receive you here, candidate or no candidate....78


Despite this response, Pitt resolved to persevere, and that too, though the political horizon had darkened owing to the67 declaration of war by Spain. At first he avowed his deep concern at this event; but the note of hopefulness, which is never long absent from his letters, soon begins to reassert itself in the expression of a belief that this new danger may “be productive of some good effects at home, and that there may still be spirit and resources in the country sufficient to preserve at least the remnant of a great empire.” This forecast was justified. The struggle became one for national existence, waged against our hereditary rivals, the monarchs of the House of Bourbon; and the searchings of heart of England’s sons, at warring against their own kith and kin, were in large measure stilled. The thrilling incidents that accompanied the three years’ siege of Gibraltar by the Spaniards, our successes in India, and the naval triumphs of the closing years of the war showed the hardening of the nation’s fibre under the strain of adversity and danger.

After residing at Burton Pynsent for some weeks in the autumn in order to reassure Lady Chatham while the invasion-scare was at its height, Pitt returned to Cambridge at the close of the year, and settled down at Lincoln’s Inn in the early weeks of 1780. Thanks to the kindness of his uncle, Earl Temple, he had been able to procure a lease of rooms on the north side of the attic of staircase number 4 of Stone Buildings (those nearest to Holborn). The sum of £1,100, which in November 1778 he had pronounced “frightful,” had been advanced on the property which Pitt was to inherit when he came of age.

Concerning Pitt’s life at Lincoln’s Inn we know next to nothing. The lack of official records of the Inns of Court, except unilluminating entries of dates, thwarts all efforts at reconstructing the early life of many famous men; and the denseness of the gloom which surrounds our institutions, academic and legal, is apt to provoke the investigator to unpatriotic reflections. Is there any French statesman of modern times about whose early career the records of the institutions with which he was associated are so scanty and uninteresting as are those of Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn concerning the life of the brilliant son of Chatham?

As it is, the investigator at Lincoln’s Inn can discover little more than that Pitt was called to the Bar on 12th June 1780, and that on the next day a lease was taken out for his rooms for three “lives,” namely, John, Earl of Chatham, aged 23, William68 Pitt, aged 21, and James Charles Pitt, aged 18. The rent was £9 9s. 10d. per annum.79

The great preoccupation of Pitt, apart from the ever-pressing topic of national danger, was the movement for Economic Reform. Originating at York in December 1779, it gathered volume until the petitioners in that county alone numbered more than 8,000 freeholders. East Anglia responded to the call of Yorkshire; and Pitt hoped to see London rally to the cause of purity and political freedom. If ever there was a chance of sweeping away the network of sinecures whereby the King kept his hold on the House of Commons, it was now, when the growth of debt and taxation rendered economy in non-essentials the most urgent of public duties.

In February 1780 Burke introduced his proposals for Economic Reform in a speech of great ability. He sought, firstly, to abolish the special jurisdictions in Wales and Cheshire and in the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, which formed petty and extravagant and corrupt governments. The great orator, like a forensic retiarius, sought to enfold his great enemy, Corruption, within the cloak of humour which he thus deftly threw in front. Affecting the desire to free the royal prerogative from irritating and absurd local restrictions, he proceeded thus: “Cross a brook, and you lose the King of England, but you have some comfort in coming again under His Majesty, though shorn of his beams, and no more than Prince of Wales. Go to the north and you find him dwindled to a Duke of Lancaster. Turn to the west of that north, and he hops upon you in the humble character of the Earl of Chester.” Equally difficult and important was Burke’s attempt to reduce the Civil List and lessen the number of sinecures attached to the King’s household. He sought to abolish the offices of Master of the Household, Treasurer, Comptroller, Cofferer, Treasurer of the Chamber, the whole Board of Green-Cloth, the Wardrobe and Jewel Offices, the Board of Works, and the Keepers of stag-hounds, buck-hounds, fox-hounds, and harriers, and other well-paid sinecures. With playful irony he described the clatter of white-sticks and yellow-sticks about the head of a reformer who would touch those offices, or sought to exclude the King’s turnspit from Parliament. As regarded the Civil List, he proposed to fix its amount immutably,69 to transfer to the general fund accounts which had ceased properly to belong to the King’s private purse, and to regulate the whole on business-like principles. He also urged the suppression of useless offices in the general administration, especially the newly created Secretaryship for the Colonies and the Board of Trade, the latter of which then formed a desirable sinecure for eight members of Parliament.80 Most important of all, perhaps, was the proposal, brought in by Sir Philip Clerk, to exclude from Parliament contractors—a class which had been proved to have battened on the funds, and to have urged the continuance of the war.

Had Burke’s proposals stood in need of further vindication, it would have been supplied by the mysterious fate which befell them. Members of Parliament with scarcely an exception loudly commended the measure, and the eloquence and power with which Burke introduced it to the House. About the same time Lord Shelburne brought forward in the Upper House damning proofs of the greed of contractors and of the gross carelessness with which accounts were kept at the Admiralty and War Office.81 The defence of ministers was strong only in personalities. Argument there was none; and it seemed that the whole festering sudd of corruption must be swept away by the flood of popular indignation.

From three of Pitt’s letters, those of 9th and 26th February and 14th March 1780, we can imagine the high hopes of the young reformer as he listened to the scathing attack on Ministers by Lord Shelburne, and the comprehensive indictment framed by Burke. In the second letter he notes with joy the drop of the ministerial majority to two; and in the small hours of 14th March he was privileged to witness the stormy scene which occurred when Burke by a majority of eight carried his motion for abolishing the Board of Trade. And yet the sudd did not move. Despite the success of reformers in the House, and the growing excitement among their associations in the country, the clogging influences of the past prevailed. Members who praised Burke for his lofty and statesmanlike aims, voted in committee against the details of his scheme. Little by little it disappeared; and, in face of the greed, cowardice, or apathy of Parliament, Burke soon declared his indifference as to the fate of the few remaining70 clauses of his measure. The bill for the exclusion of contractors from Parliament passed the Commons, but was thrown out by the Lords.

Another surprise was in store for the House and the country. On 6th April Mr. Dunning brought forward a motion that “the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be lessened.” The motion was made suddenly and on the day when numerous petitions were laid on the table, signed by thousands of persons, on behalf of shorter parliaments and a larger addition to the representatives of counties who, as a rule, showed some independence. The proposal produced a great sensation. Ministers seemed to be “stunned.” Pitt’s relative, Thomas Pitt of Boccanoc, ably supported this daring motion. The Speaker himself left the chair and spoke in support of it, and the resolution, after a trifling change of form, was passed by a majority of eighteen. But again the forces of obscurantism triumphed. Apparently Dunning owed his success solely to the fear of the imminence of a general election, and as that fear lessened, so also did the numbers of the popular party in the House. North slowly but surely regained his hold on the waverers, and succeeded in defeating a motion begging the King not to dissolve or prorogue Parliament until steps had been taken to diminish the influence of the Crown at elections (24th April).

For the present Pitt stifled his disappointment at this fiasco by attendance at the opera and masquerades, so we may judge from his letters; but he probably hardened his resolve to effect the Reform of Parliament itself, which, as was now clear to all but Burke, must precede any attempt to cleanse the Augean stables of the Court and the Administration. That gifted thinker but somewhat erratic politician, whose character will concern us later, had gone so far as to defend the state of the representation and to urge reformers to concentrate their efforts on the task of freeing Parliament from the corrupt influences that were warping its character. To this belief he still clung, in spite of the recent damning proof that a Parliament of place-hunters and borough-mongers had refused to root out the canker of corruption, even at a time of great national danger. Pitt, for his part, looked for safety to that course of action which Chatham had so often taken; he turned away from Parliament and fixed his hopes in the nation. Even the oratory of Burke failed to satisfy him. He found in his great speech of 11th February not only71 “real beauties,” but “ridiculous affectations.” He added, however, in his letter of 14th March: “I have heard two less studied harangues from him since in reply that please me much more than this does now that it is upon paper.” This criticism, coming from the son of Chatham, is a little surprising; but it may be considered symptomatic. As will appear later, there was something in Burke’s temperament which jarred on the young statesman.

While disagreeing with Burke and the more academic wing of the reformers, Pitt did not consort with the men on the extreme left who now raised a great clamour through the country. He seems to have had no dealings at this time with the Reform or “Œconomic” Associations; and events now occurred which helped for a time to distract his attention from politics. While he was expecting to be called to the Bar, London fell a prey to the Lord George Gordon rioters (2nd to 9th June).

What must have been the disgust of the young patrician as he gazed at the scenes of rapine and drunkenness which went on under the name of Protestantism! The pretence of bigotry was soon flung aside, and then, when the thin crust of civilization was removed, men saw appalled the depths of villany that usually are hidden. For days the passions of the mob raged unchecked by timorous magistrates and ministers. The King alone was undismayed, and finally insisted on the use of vigorous measures. Thanks to his staunchness, the wheels of government began to move once more. Then the orgy quickly died down; but it left men with a dread of the newly-revealed Caliban, and a heightened respect for the one man whose firmness had ensured the vindication of law and order. How much the popular cause then suffered can never be known. When, in the course of the French Revolution, the Parisian mob carried the King and Queen from Versailles to Paris and completed its triumph at the harvest time of 1792, Englishmen viewed those events in the lurid light thrown by the flames of the Lord George Gordon riots; and it is probable that Pitt himself was no stranger to this feeling.

The cause of Parliamentary Reform in England also suffered untold harm. Why talk about manhood suffrage, vote by ballot and annual Parliaments, as the Westminster Committee had talked, when all around were proofs of the savagery of the many-headed monster? The Duke of Richmond, who then, along with72 Fox, advocated a programme of reform which was to furnish the Chartists with their “six points,” confessed in a letter to Shelburne that the riots “will tend to discredit any attempts of the people to do themselves justice on any future occasion when the cause may warrant it”;82 and though Charles James Fox retained his faith in the cause, yet he and all other democrats thenceforth found it a hopeless task to roll the stone up to the point to which the enthusiasm of the people carried it in the spring of 1780. After midsummer of that year the various committees and associations preached to deaf ears. The King had won.

To return to Pitt’s fortunes, we may note that Lincoln’s Inn had been in no immediate danger from the rioters, though surrounded with flames on all sides. In order to be ready for the worst, the benchers took arms and formed a corps, in which Pitt had his first experience of volunteering. The records of the Inn, however, show that it was also defended by 800 men of the Northumberland Militia, the sum of £364 12s. 0d. being paid for provisions to them for the ten days during which they were in garrison.83

The desire of the resident members of the Inn worthily to entertain the officers of that corps led to the appointment of a committee for that purpose, which included Pitt, Pepper Arden (afterwards Lord Alvanley), Mitford (afterwards Lord Redesdale), Bland Burges, and three others. The last named, in his reminiscences, tells how, when his turn came, he invited Gibbon and Lord Carmarthen to meet four officers and other company at dinner. The historian, as is well known, was a most entertaining talker, flitting easily from one topic to another, and lighting up all with sallies of wit which the listeners were expected to receive with deferential applause and unquestioning mirth. Judge then of his astonishment, when, after one of his best foreign anecdotes, which touched on “the fashionable levities of political doctrine then prevalent,” a deep but clear voice was heard from the far end of the table calmly but civilly impugning the correctness of the story and the propriety of its political connexion. The applause ceased at once, and Gibbon turned his gaze petulantly on the slim youth who had dared to challenge his unquestioned supremacy, and sat there quietly eating grapes. As the interruption had been73 hailed with too much approval to be ignored or dismissed with a frown, he endeavoured to crush the youth by heavy artillery. A spirited fire came in return, and a sharp duel of wits began, which the company followed with the keenest interest. Finally the skill and vigour of the attack drove the historian from one position after another and left him defenceless; whereupon he left the room in high dudgeon. In vain did Bland Burges seek in the anteroom to calm his feelings and persuade him to return. “By no means,” replied Gibbon; “that young gentleman is, I have no doubt, extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me.” Meanwhile Pitt continued to hold forth on the topic in dispute, “which he discussed with such ability, strength of argument, and eloquence, that his hearers were filled with profound admiration.”84

Such was the first recorded triumph of Pitt. Would that we knew more than the bare outlines of the discussion! But an unkind fate has vouchsafed here, as at so many points, enough of information to whet the appetite for more, enough to give us the merest glimpse of those surprising powers which easily discomfited Gibbon at his prime.

We know little about the extent of Pitt’s legal attainments or his skill as a pleader. His practice was to last but a short time. Three days after the end of the riots he was called to the Bar and afterwards went on the Western Circuit, of which he was a member. As to the impression aroused by his pleading, I have found very few particulars except the statement in an almost contemporary biography that his first case, which must have been in London, was one concerning an East India trade dispute, and that he attracted the notice of Lord Mansfield on the Bench. He is said to have acted as junior counsel in several cases at Dorchester and Exeter, and to have commanded attention by the force of his reasoning rather than attracted it by playing upon the emotions. His style, in short, was clear and argumentative rather than “attractive and passionate.”85 From Exeter he was recalled in haste by news which was of far higher interest to him than the quarrels of Wessex squires and traders. The King had dissolved Parliament74 and had fixed 31st October for the date of assembly of its successor.

This action was what might have been expected from the most astute of electioneering agents. Disgust at the excesses of the Gordon rioters was still the dominant motive in the political world, and at such a time men looked askance at Reform. Further, in order to ensure the success of what he termed “my cause,” George III condescended to the arts of the canvasser, entering the shop of a draper at Windsor, and saying in his quick peremptory way—“The queen wants a gown, wants a gown. No Keppel. No Keppel.” Windsor rejected Keppel; Burke failed to keep his seat at Bristol; and Pitt made no impression whatever on the Toryism of the University of Cambridge. In any case his election was highly improbable. Dons and country clergymen are not wont to favour the claims of a young and unknown candidate; but the trend of thought at that time made his defeat certain.

He bore it with his usual serenity. “Mansfield and Townshend have run away with the prize,” so he wrote on 16th September, “but my struggle has not been dishonourable.” He now once more betook himself to legal affairs at Lincoln’s Inn, but his thoughts still centred in Westminster. Despite the stagnation which marked our public life after the victory of the King and Lord North at the general election, the fate of the commonwealth drew Pitt to St. Stephen’s for the earlier half of every day. His regular attendance at the House was perhaps instrumental in furthering his dearest hopes. The Duke of Rutland had been on cordial terms with Pitt at Cambridge; and he now mentioned the talents of his friend to Sir James Lowther. That magnate of Cumberland, who could secure the return of eleven candidates, welcomed the suggestion that Pitt should enter Parliament for one of his seats, and, with a generosity none too common among owners of “pocket boroughs,” offered him a seat at Appleby unconditionally, save that he (Pitt) was to resign his seat if his political views should in the future become opposed to those of his patron.86

To this condition even the proud son of Chatham could not demur; and, though the connection with what was practically a pocket borough could not be quite palatable to a reformer, yet75 he doubtless remembered that his father first entered Parliament as member for Old Sarum.

While we smile at the vagaries of the old system, which enabled “the great commoner” to begin his public career as representative of an untenanted mound, and his son as member for a town which he did not even visit, let us remember that occasionally it opened a door easily for a man of genius. Gladstone, in his Tory years, eulogized the system on these grounds;87 and it is certainly remarkable that, besides the two Pitts, many other famous men used these stepping-stones. Burke, through most of his public life, was member for a pocket borough, Wendover or Malton; and Canning entered Parliament as member for a scarcely discoverable village, Newtown, in the Isle of Wight. Fox and Peel also entered Parliament by similar means. However quaintly the old order of things misrepresented the British people, it did now and then help to bring brilliant men to the front with a speed that is no longer possible. But it is noteworthy that young men of spirit took care to be soon quit of pocket boroughs.88

Appleby having duly registered the decree of Sir James Lowther at the close of 1780, Pitt took his seat in the House of Commons on 23rd January 1781. From that time to the very same day in the year 1806 when he breathed his last, he was to expend his life in strenuous efforts throughout a quarter of a century which comprised such events as the close of the American War, the new grouping of the Powers of Europe, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon.



A series of undesigned changes brought the English Constitution to such a condition that satisfaction and impatience, the two great sources of political conduct, were both reasonably gratified by it.—Sir Henry Maine.

In the present age, marked by peaceful relations between the different parts of the Empire and by complete accord between the sovereign and his people, it is difficult to realize the condition of public affairs at the time when Pitt entered Parliament. The war with the United States, France, Spain and Holland, threatened the ruin of the nation, and it further brought to a climax a constitutional crisis of great importance. That struggle had resulted in no small measure from the personal methods of rule of George III; and, despite the disastrous influence of that policy on the Empire, there was still the chance of its winning at Westminster.

The reason for this paradox is to be found in the composition of the House of Commons and in the character of the King. Ten years had elapsed since the publication of Burke’s indictment, that, whereas in the previous century the distempers of monarchy had been the chief cause for fear, now the main apprehension centred in the distempers of Parliament.89 The facts given above, and those soon to be set forth, will show that the danger was still acute. The rallying of practically the whole of the Tory party to the King’s side, the division of the Whigs into two chief groups, neither of which had any definite programme, the enormous power which the monarch wielded over the members of the Lower House by means of “influence,” and, last but not least, the revival of his prestige owing to the Lord George Gordon crisis, all served to strengthen his hand even against77 reformers who struggled for peace abroad and economy and purity in the administration.

In fact, the disintegration of the party system and the corruption of the House of Commons had provided George III with a most favourable opportunity for realizing the ideals set forth in Bolingbroke’s “Patriot King.” The old parties had for the time lost their raison d’être. All but a few fossilized Tory squires had given up the cause of the Stuarts. The Whigs could no longer claim to be defenders of the House of Brunswick and the liberties of England. For more than a century they had settled down comfortably on the spoils of office, until the sight of their magnates affecting to slay the slain and battening on the nation’s spoils aroused general resentment. Of this feeling the King had made dexterous use. In the name of the nation he claimed to set aside the parties and govern in the interests of the whole. As generally happens in such cases, he called into being another party, the King’s Friends, which, under the guise of acting for the nation, gradually ensured the subservience of Parliament to the royal will. By dint of honours, places, and money, the new policy won its way, until, as we have seen, it could defy the efforts for Reform. To the eye of alarmed patriots it seemed that the House of Commons would soon be little more than a tool of the King, and that George III would succeed in the enterprise which had cost Charles I his head.

There were some grounds for these fears. George III was on the whole a more formidable opponent than the first Charles. While lacking the personal charm of the Stuart sovereign and his power of calling forth enthusiastic service, he far excelled him in common sense and the power of adapting means to ends. Both men believed thoroughly in their cause, struggled with obstinate persistence towards the goal, and yet showed great finesse in the use to which they put men and events. Outwardly and mentally, they had nothing in common. Yet the parallel between them is closer than would at first sight appear. In a political sense George III is a rather gross replica of Charles I. Even the highest of Anglicans has never been tempted to canonize him; for, in truth, he lived in a material age, and had too great a belief in material interests ever to be in danger of “martyrdom.”

Here, perhaps, lay the real danger to the liberties of England in the decade, 1770–80. They are more likely to be undermined78 by an appeal to material interests than by an open attack. Charles was foolish enough to assail both the consciences and the pockets of his subjects. George left consciences alone, and made use of the pockets of the governing classes to achieve his ends. This sapping process was more likely to succeed than a hasty attack above ground. The policy of Charles I braced men to resistance; that of George III drugged and enervated them.90 Early in the seventeenth century Parliament was the champion of the nation’s liberties; now there was some fear that it might degenerate into a King’s Council. Parliament is but the register of the nation’s will; and torpor at St. Stephen’s bespoke political deadness throughout the land. Here, perhaps, was the most threatening symptom of all. The attempt to manipulate Parliament could come near to success only in an age of high living and plain thinking. Even the disasters of the American War did not awaken England at once. Her monitor was sleeping the sleep of surfeit. What were defeats on the other side of the Atlantic to the members for the pocket boroughs who virtually controlled the House for the King’s cause? To what effect was it that London and Westminster now and again chafed at the losses of the war, when those cities returned only eight members, as against Cornwall’s forty-four? Episodes like those connected with the names of Wilkes and Lord George Gordon roused for a time storms of tropical violence; but when they died down there ensued long and enervating lulls. All went on once more as in a land of lotus-eaters, who scarcely heeded the dim mutterings that came across the western ocean. Even the disaster at Yorktown, which virtually ended the American War, did not thoroughly arouse the nation. Two months after the receipt of that news, Romilly wrote to a friend, “The nation seems fallen into a deep sleep.”91

The distributor of the soporific fruit seemed to be equal to every emergency. Lord North was a coarse and heavy man, with a wide mouth, thick lips, and puffy cheeks, which seemed typical of his policy. He resembled Walpole in his knowledge of men’s foibles and contempt of humanity. True, he excelled him in affability; but he signally fell behind him in the sterner qualities which master men and beat down obstacles. For eleven years79 he had been chief Minister of the Crown, latterly much against his will; and for fourteen months more the imperious monarch was to hold him to his post.

With Lord North were associated in the year 1781 men who were fully contented with the task of supervising their own departments and the patronage belonging to them. The most noteworthy of these Ministers were Lord Thurlow, a man of low tastes and violent temper, but considerable gifts for intrigue, who acted officially as Lord Chancellor and unofficially as chief of “the King’s friends”; Earl Bathurst, Lord President; Germain (Viscount Sackville), Secretary of State for the Colonies; Lord Townshend, Master of the Ordnance; Mr. Jenkinson (afterwards the Earl of Liverpool), Secretary at War; the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; the Earl of Carlisle, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland; and Mr. William Eden (afterwards Lord Auckland), Chief Secretary at Dublin Castle. The personality of some of these men will appear more fitly in the sequel. Here we may note that they resembled highly paid confidential clerks, working under the general direction of the King, rather than responsible Ministers. Of collective action and responsibility there was little under Lord North.92 George III acted on the principle that had guided the Caesars, Divide et impera.

Such, in brief, was the system and such were the men who now had to confront a world in arms. Apart from the interminable conflict in America, the area of strife was spreading in Europe; for the Dutch, incensed by our maritime policy, were on the point of declaring war. In India Hyder Ali was ravaging the Carnatic; and Britons, looking forth in fear from Madras, could see the clouds of smoke that told of his devastations. In the Mediterranean Gibraltar still stoutly held out against the Franco-Spanish forces, but our possession, Minorca, was soon to fall. In the Baltic the League of the Armed Neutrality held the sword dangling over Briton’s commerce, and was kept from striking only by the skill of Sir James Harris, our envoy at St. Petersburg, in playing on the foibles of Catharine II.

Yet against most of these difficulties British energy ultimately made headway; and they did not at present disturb the course of events in Parliament, with which we are here more especially concerned. The Opposition was divided into two chief groups,80 which had not yet begun to coalesce under the pressure of national calamity. The larger of these was the official Whig party under the nominal leadership of the Marquis of Rockingham, an affable and tactful man, with little strength of character, formidable only from his connections with the great Whig Houses. Among his followers two men stood forth, of powers so great and varied as to claim our attention at once. These were Fox and Burke.

Charles James Fox (1749–1806), the second son of Lord Holland, was now in the prime of his powers. Nature had dowered him with gifts so rich and varied as not to have been seriously marred even by the dissipations into which his father had encouraged him to plunge before he left Eton. While at Hertford College, Oxford, he gave proofs of his eager, vivacious, lovable temperament, and imbibed that passion for the classics and for all great literature which was to be his solace through life. Well would it have been for him had this been his only passion; unfortunately he never shook off the vices contracted in youth. His amour with Mrs. Armstead was notorious and avowed. Equally harmful was his mania for gambling. Many a time he ruined his speeches in the House by the fatigue or annoyance due to the losses of an all-night sitting at Brooks’s. But whether he lost or won, whether caressed by Ministers in Parliament or turned out of his rooms in St. James’s Street by Jews and bailiffs,93 he was ever beloved, even by those whom he belaboured in the House.

His oratorical gifts were the outcome of a powerful mind, and they were enhanced by a melodious voice and forcible action. Perhaps the greatest charm of his speeches was their ease and naturalness. He spoke as if without premeditation, and at times he indulged in repetitions and digressions to an unpardonable extent. But all such faults and occasional carelessness in the choice of words scarcely lessened the effect of his efforts, which seemed to his hearers to be above all art. The unfailing vigour of thought, the power with which he could first recapitulate the arguments of his opponents and then tear them in pieces, and the good humour, which rarely left him even in his most scornful moods, served alike to convince and captivate the House. He was the prince of debaters, surpassing even Chatham himself in ease, wit, skill, and versatility, though lacking that awe-inspiring81 faculty that swayed Parliament as with a Jove-like frown. The years 1780–82 saw him at the height of his powers. Grattan afterwards remarked that no one could realize the force of Fox’s oratory who had not heard him before his unnatural coalition with Lord North in 1783, after which event he always seemed on the defensive: “the mouth still spoke great things, but the swell of soul was no more.”94 How great must have been his blunders and indiscretions, both in public and private life, to have blighted a career of so transcendent a promise.

The figure of Edmund Burke belongs rather to the sphere of literature and political philosophy than to that of political action. Great in thought and great in his powers of oratory, he yet failed to impress the House of Commons, or the public at large; his speeches were too ornate, too overburdened with learning and reasoning, to please an audience that is plain, practical, and apt to be impressed more by the speaker himself than by the fullness of his arguments or the beauty of his style. In a word, Burke lacked the indefinable gift which Chatham, Fox, and Mirabeau so abundantly possessed—that of personality. His figure had not the forceful massiveness of that of Fox, and it wanted the dignity of the younger Pitt. Moreover his voice was harsh, and his action clumsy. His philosophic love of wedding facts to principles often led him to soar to heights where the question at issue appeared like a speck and votes a vulgar impertinence. Worst fault of all, his speeches were far too long. The fullness and richness which delights us to-day then had the effect of emptying the House. The result of it all was the decline of his influence and the increase of his irritability, Celtic vivacity leading him more than once shrilly to chide friends who sought to pull him back to his seat. These failings, together with the number of his impecunious relatives, probably explain why he never attained to Cabinet rank. In a subordinate office in the year 1783 he showed signal want of tact and discernment. Thus, in contrasting the effect produced by the perusal of his great orations with that which gained him the nickname of the dinner-bell of the House, one is reminded of the truth of the bitter line levelled at him by Goldsmith:

And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.

The other group, which rivalled the official Whigs in the zeal82 of its opposition to Lord North, was that of the former followers of Chatham. They had neither organization nor a programme; but in general they inherited the imperial sentiments and non-partisan traditions of that great leader. They were less eager than the Rockingham group for parliamentary reform and the limiting of the royal prerogative; but, like the Girondins of the French Revolution, the indefiniteness of their aims left much liberty of action to their following; and Pitt, who naturally attached himself to this group, rivalled Fox in his zeal for Reform, both economic and parliamentary.

The leader of the Chathamites was the Earl of Shelburne, who had been driven into opposition by the arbitrary conduct of the King at the time of the Wilkes affair. The estimates of his character are very diverse. Burke wrote of him privately in 1783 as “this wicked man, and no less weak and stupid than false and hypocritical,” his chief crime being that of breaking in pieces the Whig party. Few persons would have gone so far as the vehement Irishman, who, on these lower levels, allowed party passion to dull his eagle glance. Shelburne was one of the grands seigneurs and political thinkers of the time. Polite and courtly, he dazzled men by the splendour of his hospitality. In his library he shone as a scholar and philosopher, and his conversation was the index of his keen and supple intellect. In public life he showed that he never lacked courage. Yet there was always something wanting about Shelburne. His speech and manner passed so quickly and easily from the affable to the severe as to beget feelings of distrust. His enemies accused him of duplicity and dubbed him Malagrida, a well-known Portuguese Jesuit.95

We may note here that Pitt either shared or deferred to the general feeling about Shelburne when he omitted him from his Cabinet in December 1783.

Some of the specific charges against Shelburne (and most of them are vague) have vanished now that the mists of passion, amidst which he ever moved, have cleared away.96 It is the lot of some men to arouse undeserved dislike or distrust, owing to unfortunate mannerisms. Yet it is certain that England owes83 much to the earl. He was one of the first to espouse the Free Trade principles of Adam Smith; he was chiefly responsible for the terms of peace of 1782–3; and the admiration of Benjamin Franklin for him largely conduced to the signature of the preliminaries with the United States. Posterity has therefore accorded to him a far higher place than was allowed by the jealousy or pettiness of his contemporaries. Such was the leader to whom Pitt attached himself.

On 25th January 1781 Shelburne protested manfully against the overbearing conduct of our Government in ordering the capture of Dutch merchantmen before the outbreak of war, and inveighed against the policy of the Ministry as fatal to liberty and to the welfare of the Empire. Finally he declared that the tactics of Government had proved that the conquest of the American colonies, if it could be accomplished, would entail fatal results at home; that he would be better pleased to see his country free, though curtailed in power and wealth, than acquiring greatness, if greatness were to be purchased at the expense of her constitution and liberty. The speech rang true to the traditions of Chatham; and it awoke responsive echoes in the breast of his son.97

Within the space of five weeks Pitt proved that his support was of the highest value. In a maiden speech, which perhaps bears away the palm from the first efforts of the greatest orators of all time, he gave proof of those astonishing powers which nature seemed to have implanted in a state of maturity. Practice and experience were to perfect them; but they then left on all his hearers an impression of wonder as at something almost supernatural in a youth of twenty-one years. This feeling was all the more natural as the speech dealt with economic subjects, which Wilberforce regarded as “of a low and vulgarizing quality.”98

We must pause here to notice that the topic of economy was at that time of burning interest. On the whole it excited more general attention than the subject of parliamentary reform. In fact the latter was insisted on by practical men mainly with the view of stopping the frightful waste that resulted from sinecures, jobs, and other forms of corruption in the public service. Rigid doctrinaires like Major Cartwright might dilate on the heaven-born right of every man to have a vote, or depict the beauty of84 an electoral system which enlisted the virtuous energies of every citizen and called on him to renew Parliament every year, that being the natural time of renewal of all things.99 A still stiffer theorist, Jebb, might go further and insist on the election of a new Parliament for each session. Together they might call for the ballot, equal electoral areas, and payment of members. Yet their arguments would have fallen on deaf ears but for the strain of war taxes, the dullness of trade, and the blunderings of placemen high in office. When London, Bristol, and Yorkshire felt the pinch of hard times, national expenditure became a matter of the most urgent concern.

It was in support of Burke’s proposals for the better regulation of the King’s Civil List and for abolishing several sinecures that Pitt made his maiden speech in the House (26th February 1781). At once he lifted the subject to a high level. The measure, he said, would have come with more grace, and with more benefit to the public service, had it sprung from the royal breast. Ministers ought themselves to have proposed it, thereby showing that His Majesty desired to participate in the suffering of the Empire.

They ought to consult the glory of their royal master, and seat him in the hearts of his people, by abating from magnificence what is due to necessity.... The abridgment of useless and unnecessary expense can be no abatement of royalty. Magnificence and grandeur are not inconsistent with retrenchment and economy, but, on the contrary, in a time of necessity and of common exertion, solid grandeur is dependent on the reduction of expense; and it is the general sentiment and observation of the House that economy is at this hour essentially necessary to national salvation.

He next ventured on an argument scarcely consistent with the assumption of the royal graciousness and generosity touched on in his first period by asserting that the most important object of the bill was

The reduction of the influence of the Crown—that influence which the last Parliament, by an express resolution, had declared to be increasing, and that it ought to be diminished—an influence which was more to be dreaded, because more secret in its attacks, and more concealed in its operations than the power of prerogative.


After referring briefly to this delicate subject, he held up to scorn those who ridiculed the proposal on the ground that it would effect a saving of only £200,000 a year; as if the calamities of the present crisis were too great to be benefited by economy: as if, when millions were being spent, there was no need to think of thousands! Finally he declared that the Civil List had been granted by Parliament to His Majesty, not for his personal gratification, but in order

to support the power and the interests of the Empire, to maintain its grandeur, and pay the judges and the foreign ministers, and to maintain justice.... The people, who granted that revenue, under the circumstances of the occasion, were justified in resuming a part of it under the pressing demand of an altered situation. They clearly felt their right; but they exercised it with pain and regret. They approached the throne with hearts afflicted at the necessity of applying for retrenchment of the royal gratifications; but the request was at once loyal and submissive. It was justified by policy, and His Majesty’s compliance with the request was inculcated by prudence as well as by affection.100

Admiration of the perfect manner in which the speech was delivered seems to have blinded contemporaries to its importance as a political pronouncement. Certainly in both respects it is remarkable. No speech ever won more general and more immediate praise. Burke declared the young orator to be not merely a chip of the old block but the old block itself. Charles James Fox hurried up to offer his congratulations on this oratorical triumph, and further showed his regard by proposing Pitt as a member of Brooks’s club—a connection which he maintained unbroken through life. Lord North described the oration as the best first speech that he had ever heard; and another member of the House, Storer, commenting on the self-possession of the young speaker, which was far removed from “improper assurance,” remarked that there was not a word or a look that one would have wished to correct.101 In an age when dignity of diction and grace of deportment were deemed essential to the success of86 a speech—that was the time when Windham used to spend hours beforehand in framing elegant juncturae for his periods—the verdicts quoted above imply in a young speaker the possession of a profusion of gifts and graces no less remarkable than the maturity of judgment which harmonized them.

Alas, the reader of to-day cannot fully realize the witchery of his diction, instinct with the fervour of youth, but balanced by the sagacity of manhood. The printed word can never reveal the nature of the spell cast on listeners by a noble countenance, harmonious gestures, musical cadences, and the free outpouring of inspiring thoughts. No great speeches, except those of a pre-eminently literary quality, such as shines in the stately rhetoric of Burke, can be appreciated apart from the speakers. It is the man who gives life to the words. A fervent admirer of Chatham’s oratory summed up his chief impression in the suggestive remark that there was something in the speaker finer than his words; “that the man was infinitely greater than the orator.” This must be so, if the speaker is to keep attention on tip-toe, ever on the look-out for new effects and charms. Hope is a necessary element in all admiration. The hearer, to be enthralled, must have been wafted up to that state of ecstasy wherein delight at present beauties is intensified by the expectation of other charms yet to come. Shakespeare has once for all time portrayed this mental bliss in the young and eager love of Florizel for Perdita:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever.

Some such wealth of gifts the Commons of Britain discerned in Pitt in that springtide of hope. Theirs was to be a rich harvest of joy. Ours is but a lean aftermath.

The reader, who naturally thinks more about the matter of this speech than the manner of its delivery, will be most impressed by the boldness of some of the arguments. That a new member should venture to remind Parliament and the nation of the King’s control over the Civil List being that of a steward, not of a proprietor, was daring enough; but it is startling to find the future champion of the Crown asserting that the nation could resume at least a part of what it had granted. There is no essential difference between this plea and the dictum of Rousseau (used so effectively by the French Revolutionists against the87 King and the Church) that the hypothetical contract once framed between prince and people empowered the latter at any time to enter into possession of property which was held merely in trust on their behalf. The sentiments expressed in Pitt’s first speech enable us to gauge the astonishment of the world when the young orator at the close of 1783 became first Minister of the Crown.

His second speech, delivered on 31st May, was perhaps less effective than the first, though it marks an advance in argumentative power and the handling of details. Colonel Barré had proposed that the commissioners who supervised the public accounts should be chosen from the House of Commons. After a hostile speech from Lord North, Pitt rose to support the motion. He pointed out how essential this proposal was for the maintenance of the power of the Commons. He continued thus:

Every branch of the legislature has something peculiar to distinguish and to characterize it; and that which at once gives the character and elevation of the Commons House of Parliament is that they hold the strings of the national purse, and are entrusted with the great important power, first of granting the money, and then of correcting the expenditure. To delegate this right, then, is a violation of what gives them their chief consequence in the legislature, and what, above all other privileges, they cannot surrender or delegate without a violent breach of the constitution.

Tracking the Prime Minister into detail after detail, he finally begged the House to pass the motion as necessary for the prosperity of the land and as a pledge of further reforms.

But (said he) if the motion is rejected, and the old and vicious system of government is in every point tenaciously adhered to, the freedom of the people and the independence of this House must be buried in the same grave with the power, the opulence and the glory of the Empire.

Men so diverse in character as George Selwyn and the young reformer, Wilberforce, were loud in praise of the speech. The latter, though he regretfully voted against Pitt, declared him to be “a ready-made orator”; while the old place-hunter and roué found in it, “du sel et du piquant à pleines mains. Charles [Fox] en fut enchanté.”102 Horace Walpole praised the speech in these terms:


The young William Pitt has again displayed paternal oratory. The other day, on the commission of accounts, he answered Lord North, and tore him limb from limb. If Charles Fox could feel, one should think such a rival, with an unspotted character, would rouse him. What if a Pitt and Fox should again be rivals.... As young Pitt is modest too, one would hope some genuine English may revive.

So far as we know, not a single vote was gained by this oration, for the division list showed ninety-eight against Barré’s motion and only forty-two for it. A Scottish member, Ferguson of Pitfour, a faithful supporter of Henry Dundas, on one occasion confessed that he had only once ventured to vote on his own conviction, and that was the worst vote he ever gave. Many members, while lacking the courage and wit to make the admission, acted with equal fidelity to their own interests; and hence even the best speeches rarely won over votes. In the present case no one answered, and no one could answer, Pitt’s arguments; yet they had no effect on the docile flock which trooped into the lobby at the heels of Lord North. By a majority of forty-three the Commons decided that the King should not be requested to show his benevolence and disinterestedness.

The third effort of the young orator had no more effect. It came about, apparently without premeditation, in the course of a debate on the motion of Fox for the conclusion of an immediate peace with our American colonies (12th June). In the first part of his speech Pitt warmly controverted two members who claimed that Chatham had sympathized with the war; and, in his eagerness to clear his father’s memory, he averred that his (Chatham’s) conduct on this subject had been uniform and consistent. After this doubtful assertion he stated his own views in a most trenchant style. Falling upon Lord Westcote, who had declared the war to be a holy war, he uttered these remarkable words:

I am persuaded, and will affirm, that it is a most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust, and diabolical war. It was conceived in injustice; it was nurtured and brought forth in folly;103 its footsteps are marked with blood, slaughter, persecution and devastation; in truth everything which goes to constitute moral depravity and human turpitude are to be found in it. It is pregnant with misery of every89 kind. The mischiefs, however, recoil on the unhappy people of this country, who are made the instruments by which the wicked purposes of its authors are effected.

He continued in the same vehement strain, and seems to have impressed the House less than before, Selwyn giving as his verdict that he was “a promising young man.” The speech does, indeed, sound somewhat forced; and its declamation seems too turgid to be effective. On this occasion “the King’s cause” once more triumphed, by 172 votes to 99.

* * * * *

In the middle of July, after the close of the session, Pitt went on the western circuit, but the notices of his speeches are very meagre. The only reference that I have found to this episode in his life is in a letter of 29th August 1781 to his Cambridge friend, Meeke:

I have this circuit amassed the immense sum of thirty guineas without the least expense either of sense or knowledge.... I shall return to town with the fullest intention of devoting myself to Westminster Hall and getting as much money as I can, notwithstanding such avocations as the House of Commons, and (which is a much more dangerous one) Goostree’s itself. Adieu.

As a proof that Pitt did not merely play with the legal profession, I may quote this sentence from his letter of June 1782 to Meeke:

I have for many reasons chosen to be only a friend, without being a member, of Shelburne’s Administration, and am at least as likely to continue a lawyer as you are to commence one.104

The second letter belongs to a time when the prospects of advancement were unpromising, and when, therefore, Pitt devoted much of his time to the select and charming club at Goostree’s. As there is a widespread impression that he was a political automaton, who never unbent save under the spell of Bacchus, it will be well to turn our attention to his social life in London and at Wimbledon. It cannot be said that he ever felt the full charm of London—

The quick forge and working-house of thought.

Brought up in the aristocratic seclusion of Hayes and Burton90 Pynsent, and in Pretyman’s prim coterie at Cambridge, he had no experience of the varied jostling life which the Londoner loves: and nature had not dowered him with the adaptability that makes up for the defects of training. Therefore he ever remained somewhat of a stranger in London. He was at home in Downing Street, and still more so in his own select club, or at Hayes, Wimbledon, or Holwood; but London never laid her spell on him, and his life was the poorer for it. He reminds us somewhat of that character in Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” who, though naive and jovial, when he entered his suburban retreat in Walworth Road and the mimic castle at the end of the garden, yet always fixed his features in chilling reserve when he went forth citywards. So, too, there were two Pitts, the austere man of affairs, and the lovable, delightful friend. London alone could have mixed up the two men and produced a sociable compound; but this was not to be.

Lincoln’s Inn and the law did little towards unbending him; though the story, recounted in the previous chapter, of his intellectual duel with Gibbon at a dinner in Lincoln’s Inn during the Gordon Riots shows that even then he had the power of keen and witty repartee which gained him the victory over an admitted autocrat of the table. Why these gifts did not draw him into general society is hard to say. Probably his shyness and awkwardness, on which Wilberforce lays so much stress, held him aloof.

Certainly the temptations of the West End had for him only a passing allurement. He felt no desire, besides having no means, to associate with the gambling cohue that played at Brooks’s or Almack’s. His preference for bright and entertaining talkers naturally linked him with those who had sufficient mental resources within themselves to scorn the usually dull cliques whose interest in life begins and ends with card tables. So far as opportunities had offered at Cambridge, he had cultivated conversation as a fine art; and now in the West End he found several of his University friends who welcomed him to a somewhat wider circle. It included about twenty-five young men, of whom the most noteworthy were Lords Althorpe, Apsley, G. Cavendish, Duncannon, Euston, Graham, and Lennox; as well as the following who were to become peers: Mr. Pratt (Marquis Camden), St. John (Lord St. John), Bridgeman (Lord Bradford), Morris Robinson (Lord Rokeby), W. Grenville (Lord91 Grenville), Pepper Arden (Lord Alvanley), and R. Smith (Lord Carrington).

That was the age when the bestowal of titles was one of the means of influence used by the Crown for the defence of its prerogatives. Wilberforce late in life remarked that more than half of the Peers had received their titles during his lifetime, and certainly, if we look at the circle of Pitt’s friends in 1781, we find that only he and seven others remained commoners. They were Bankes, Edwards (afterwards Sir Gerard Noel), Marsham, T. Steele, General Smith, Wilberforce and Windham, a friend of somewhat later date.

These and a few others, about thirty in all, formed what might be termed Pitt’s Club. They met first at a house in Pall Mall, but afterwards occupied rooms in the premises of a man named Goostree, which later on were used as the Shakespeare Gallery.105 Opposition to Lord North’s Ministry was one of the shibboleths of this coterie; but in pre-revolutionary days, when the merely political club was almost unknown, conviviality held the first place at Goostree’s. One who was in George Selwyn’s set evidently thought the ideals aimed at in Pitt’s little society too good for London; for he wrote, at the close of 1781: “Goostree’s is a small society of young men in Opposition, and they are very nice in their admissions; as they discourage gaming as much as possible, their club will not do any harm to Brooks’s, and probably not subsist a great while.” In February 1782 Selwyn himself refers to Pitt as having formed a “society of young ministers who are to fight under his banner ... and they assemble at Goostree’s.” Clearly, then, this club was political, at least in part. Pitt spent much of his time there, supping at the club every night during the winter of 1780–81; and there it was that he became intimate with William Wilberforce, the most fascinating of his friends.

The young and brilliant member for Hull was a living proof of the triumph which mind can win over physical disadvantages. In person he was slight and bent, and he early suffered from that weakness of the eyes which hampered him through life. Yet, “bodkin” though he was, his quickness of mind, the silvery tones of his voice, the wit that sparkled in his speech, and his uniform geniality and kindliness gained for him a continuous92 round of social triumphs. His singing possessed a natural charm which drew from the Prince of Wales the statement that he would come at any time to hear Wilberforce sing. Equally attractive was his power of mimicking any public character; but what most of all endeared him to his friends was the genial raillery of his conversation, his power of lively repartee, and the chivalry which shone in all his words and deeds. Mme de Staël afterwards declared him to be the best talker among all the Englishmen she had known; and in that art of the salons the exuberant Genevese was an exacting connoisseur. She, however, could not know the warmth of feeling which animated that slight frame, or the sensitiveness of conscience which was to make him one of the chief uplifting forces of the age. Towards the close of his life he expressed regret that in his youth he had made intellectual conversation his all in all.106 But regret was surely needless, when that gift attracted to him the young statesman whose life at some points he helped to inspire and elevate. Both of them, indeed, were artists in words; and the free play of mind on mind must have helped to strengthen those oratorical powers which were to be devoted to the service of their country and of mankind.

From the pages of Wilberforce’s diary we catch a glimpse, tantalizingly brief, alas, of Pitt as a boon companion, losing among his intimates that shyness which outsiders mistook for pride.

He was the wittiest man I ever knew, and what was quite peculiar to himself, had at all times his wit under entire control. Others appeared struck by the unwonted association of brilliant images; but every possible combination of ideas seemed always present to his mind, and he could at once produce whatever he desired. I was one of those who met to spend an evening in memory of Shakespeare at the Boar’s Head, East Cheap. Many professed wits were present, but Pitt was the most amusing of the party, and the readiest and most apt in the required allusions. He entered with the same energy into all our different amusements; we played a good deal at Goostree’s, and I well remember the intense earnestness that he displayed when joining in these games of chance. He perceived their increasing fascination, and soon after suddenly abandoned them for ever.

This passage, together with its context, is interesting in more93 ways than one. Firstly it shows that the fashionable vice of the age had crept into Goostree’s more than was known by outsiders; or else Selwyn’s reference to the club belonged to a later period, when Pitt’s resolve to have done with gambling, and the remorse of Wilberforce at having suddenly won a large sum from impecunious friends, had availed to curb the passion for it in their society. The difference of the two friends in temperament is equally noteworthy. In Wilberforce the resolve to break away from gambling was the first sign of awakening of a sensitive conscience, which, though dulled by gaieties, was thenceforth to assert itself more and more and finally to win over the whole of his energies.

Pitt also felt the fascination of play in a manner which shows the eagerness of his animal instincts; but the awakening in his case seems to have been due to self-respect and also to a keen sense of what he owed to the State. How could he, who had early vowed himself to the service of his country, dull his powers and tarnish his name by indulgence in an insidious and enslaving vice? The career of Charles James Fox, we may believe, had already been a warning to the young aspirant. In any case, by an exercise of that imperious will, which controlled even his vehement impulses, he crushed at once and for ever those entangling desires, and came forth fancy-free from that Circean domain, saved by his ennobling resolve to serve England.

In another sense—a less important one, it is true—Pitt was the most unfortunate man of his age. All his friends agreed that he was a delightful talker and the most charming of companions. But there their information ends. Not one of them had the Boswellian love of detail which enables us to peer right into the heart of Johnson, and discern the loves and hates, the prejudices and envyings, the whims and fancies which swayed it. A man can never be known unless we have, not merely his great speeches, but also his small talk. That of Pitt must have been of singular charm, not only from the richness of his mental gifts, but also from the width of the culture which informed them. In learning he equalled the best of his compeers at Cambridge; and we may imagine that his vivid knowledge of the life of Greece and Rome lent to his comparisons and references a grace which could be appreciated by few raconteurs of to-day. I have already referred to the stories circulated by those who set themselves to talk and write him down to their own level, that he studied the94 classics merely in order to provide elegant tags to his speeches. The theme has been embroidered by certain admirers of Fox, who picture the Whig statesman as the disinterested lover of Greece and Rome, and Pitt as a kind of money-grubbing paramour. If these persons, instead of copying from the many malicious stories of that time, would investigate for themselves, they would see through the partisan spitefulness of all such tales. Fortunately, Pitt’s copies of the classics preserved at Orwell Park reveal signs, not only of his frequent perusal of them, but of the pleasure which it brought, as evinced by marginal comments. Away, then, with the Foxite myth of the classical tags!

The passage from Wilberforce’s Diary cited above also shows Pitt to have been well primed with Shakespearean lore, and to have had the mental agility and tact which could cull the right flower from that rich garner. Ill though we could spare any of Pitt’s oratorical efforts, I doubt whether we would not give up any one of his speeches if we could have in return a full record of some of the evenings spent by him and his friends at Goostree’s or the Boar’s Head.

Concerning his ordinary talk we only know that he delighted his family by his gaiety, even amidst the heaviest cares of state. In that terrible year 1793, when England and France had closed in the death grapple, Lady Chatham refers to his “ease and gay spirits”; and she speaks of him as not looking like a man on whom rested the destinies of kingdoms. A further sentence explains the source of this buoyancy of spirits: “The uprightness of his intentions and the strength of his mind saved him from feeling any oppression from the weight upon him.”107

Here we see the secret of that cheerfulness which charmed his friends. His high spirits were in part, no doubt, bequeathed to him by the ever confident Chatham; but their even flow was also the outcome of his own conscious rectitude. Hence also there came the brightness and sincerity which shone in Pitt’s conversation as also in his life. Another characteristic on which Wilberforce insisted was his strict truthfulness, which his friend attributed to his self-respect and to the moral purity of his nature. Yet there was no taint of priggishness about it. Wilberforce describes him as “remarkably cheerful and pleasant, full of wit and playfulness, neither, like Mr. Fox, fond of arguing a95 question, nor yet holding forth like some others [Windham is here hinted at]. He was always ready to hear others as well as to talk himself.”108

Obviously, then, Pitt’s conversation was free from some of the defects which mar the efforts of professional talkers. He never used the sledge-hammer methods by which Dr. Johnson too often won an unfair advantage; he scorned to make use of feigned incidents or grossly exaggerated accounts whereby many small wits gain a passing repute. His speech, in private as in public, seems to have resembled a limpid stream, the natural overflow of a mind richly stocked and a nature at once lively and affectionate.

Sometimes the stream raced and danced along, as appears from an entry in the diary of George Selwyn, in March 1782:

When I left the House, I left in one room a party of young men, who made me, from their life and spirits, wish for one night to be twenty. There was a tablefull of them drinking—young Pitt, Lord Euston, Berkley, North, etc., singing and laughing à gorge déployée: some of them sang very good catches; one Wilberforce, a M. of P., sang the best.

This is only one of many signs that nature had bestowed on Pitt social gifts and graces which under more favourable conditions would have made him the centre of a devoted circle of friends. True, he was too shy and modest to figure as a political Dr. Johnson; too natural to pose as did the literary lion of Strawberry Hill; too prudent to vie with Fox as the chief wit and gamester of a great club. But in his own way and in his own sphere he might have carried on those honourable traditions which have invested the life of St. Stephen’s with literary and social charm, had not Chatham’s premature forcing of his powers devitalized him before the start of a singularly early and exacting career. Here was the ill fortune of Pitt. Like all precocious natures he needed times of rest and recuperation before he reached his prime. He sought them in vain either at Hayes, Cambridge, or Westminster. As we shall see, the very unusual state of English politics down to 1789 would have made the accession of Fox, the unofficial representative of the Prince of Wales, a public misfortune; and soon afterwards there occurred96 in quick succession the disputes with Spain, Russia, and France, which, after two false alarms, ended in a tremendous war. In such a period how could a delicate man rise to the height of his faculties, either political or social? On both sides of his nature Pitt showed signs of the most brilliant promise; but the premature and incessant strain of public duty robbed him and his country of the full fruition.



Since the accession of our most gracious sovereign to the throne, we have seen a system of government, which may well be called a reign of experiments.—Junius, Letter to the Duke of Grafton, 8th July 1769.

James I was contemptible, but he did not lose an America. His eldest grandson sold us, his younger lost us—but we kept ourselves. Now we have run to meet the ruin—and it is coming.—Horace Walpole, 27th November 1781.

In the autumn of the year 1781 occurred a series of events which brought Pitt for a time into open opposition to the King. As we have seen, he had not hesitated to invite George III to enter the path of Economical Reform which was peculiarly odious to him. But now the divergence of their convictions seemed hopeless. For if Pitt inherited the firmness of the Pitts and Grenvilles, George III summed up in his person the pertinacity characteristic of the Guelfs and the Stuarts. The gift of firmness, the blending of which with foresight and intelligence produces the greatest of characters, was united in George III with narrowness of vision, absorption in the claims of self, and a pedantic clinging to the old and traditional. Coming of a tough stock, and being admittedly slow and backward, he needed an exceptionally good education in order to give him width of outlook and some acquaintance with the lessons of history. But unfortunately his training was of the most superficial character. Lord Waldegrave, his governor, found him at the age of fourteen “uncommonly full of prejudices, contracted in the nursery, and improved by bedchamber women and pages of the back stairs.”109 From these cramping influences he was never to shake himself free. The death of his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1751, left him under the influence of his mother, an ambitious and98 intriguing woman, who instilled into him the desire to govern as well as reign. That advice accorded with the leanings of his nature, which, though torpid, was yet masterful.

As will appear in the sequel, George III possessed characteristics which made him a formidable opponent. His lack of mental endowments was partly made up by his insight into character, and still more by his determined will. If he was dull, he was dogged—a quality dear to the Britons of that age. His private virtues, his homely good sense, a bearing that was generally genial, and a courage which never quailed, made him in many ways a pattern king for a plain people in ordinary times.

Unhappily for him and his people, the times were extraordinary. Like his contemporary, Louis XVI of France, he needed an intellectual equipment wider than that which goes to make a model country squire. In a period remarkable beyond all others for the infiltration of new ideas, neither of these unfortunate monarchs had the least skill in reading the signs of the times. But, while the royal hunter of Versailles was so conscious of his defects as frequently to lean too much on advisers and therefore waver, his equally Boeotian brother of Windsor had an absolute belief in his prognostications (save sometimes on foreign affairs) and scorned to change his mind. This last peculiarity appears in a letter which he wrote to Pitt on 2nd March 1797. After chiding his Prime Minister for complying too much with the Opposition, he continues:

My nature is quite different. I never assent till I am convinced what is proposed is right, and then I keep [sic]; then I never allow that to be destroyed by afterthoughts, which on all subjects tend to weaken, never to strengthen, the original proposal.110

This is doubtless sound advice, provided that the first decision emanates from a statesmanlike brain. How ruinous the results can be if that resolve be the outcome of a narrow, proud, and self-complacent understanding, the fortunes of the British Empire in the years 1774–83 may testify. Those who love to dwell on the “might-have-beens” of history, may imagine what would have happened if the mild and wavering King of France had ruled Great Britain, and if our pertinacious sovereign had99 been in the place of the hapless Bourbon whose vacillations marred everything in the memorable spring of 1789.

In certain matters George III showed great ability. If he was not a statesman, he was a skilled intriguer. Shelburne, himself no tyro in that art, rated the King’s powers high, stating that “by the familiarity of his intercourse he obtained your confidence, procured from you your opinion of different public characters, and then availed himself of this knowledge to sow dissension.”111 Further, the skill and pertinacity with which he pulled the wires at elections is astonishing. No British monarch has equalled him in his knowledge of the means by which classes and individuals could be “got at.” Some of his letters on these subjects, especially that on the need of making up for the “bad votes” cast for Fox in the famous Westminster Election of 1784, tempt one to think that George III missed his vocation, which should have been that of electioneering agent of the Tory party. In truth he almost succeeded in making Windsor and St. James’s the headquarters of that faction.112

Despite his private virtues, he rarely attached men to him by the ties of affection and devotion—the mark of a narrow and selfish nature. His relations to his sons were of the coolest; and all his Ministers, except, perhaps, Addington, left him on terms that bordered on dislike if not hostility. The signs of the royal displeasure (as Junius justly observed to the Duke of Grafton) were generally in proportion to the abilities and integrity of the Minister. This singular conduct may be referred to the profound egotism of the King which led him to view politics solely from his own standpoint, to treat government as the art of manipulating men by means of titles, places, and money,113 and to regard his Ministers as confidential clerks, trustworthy only when they distrusted one another. The union of the Machiavellian traits with signal virtue and piety in private life is a riddle that can be explained only by his narrow outlook, which regarded all means as justifiable for the “right cause,” and believed all opponents to be wicked or contemptible. In fact, the narrowing lens of his vision alike stunted and distorted all opponents until they appeared an indistinguishable mass. A curious instance of facility in jumbling together even irreconcilable opposites100 appeared in his remark to Lord Malmesbury in 1793 that the Illuminés (the Jacobins of Germany) “were a sect invented by the Jesuits to overthrow all governments and all order.”114 Such was the mental equipment of the monarch on whom now rested the fate of the Empire.

On Sunday, 25th November 1781, news arrived in London which sealed the doom of Lord North’s Ministry. Cornwallis, with rather less than seven thousand men, had surrendered to the Franco-American forces at Yorktown. The blow was not heavy enough to daunt a really united kingdom. On the Britain of that year, weary of the struggle, and doubtful alike of its justice and its utility, the effect was decisive. Lord North, on hearing the news from his colleague, Lord George Germain, received it “as he would have taken a bullet through his breast.” He threw up his arms and paced up and down the room, exclaimed wildly: “Oh, God! it is all over.” This, if we may believe Wraxall,115 was the ejaculation of the man who latterly had been the unwilling tool of his sovereign in the coercion of the American colonists.

While Lord North, the Parliament, and the nation were desirous of ending the war, the King still held to his oft expressed opinion, that it would be total ruin for Great Britain to give way in the struggle, seeing that a great Power which begins to “moulder” must be annihilated.116 He therefore kept North to his post, and allowed the King’s speech for the forthcoming autumn session to be only slightly altered; the crucial sentence ran as follows:

No endeavours have been wanting on my part to extinguish that spirit of rebellion which our enemies have found means to foment and maintain in the colonies, & to restore to my deluded subjects in America that happy and prosperous condition which they formerly derived from a due obedience to the laws; but the late misfortune in that quarter calls loudly for your firm concurrence and assistance to frustrate the designs of our enemies, equally prejudicial to the real interests of America and to those of Great Britain.

The gauntlet thus defiantly flung down was taken up with spirit by Fox and Burke, who even ventured to threaten with impeachment the Secretary for the Colonies, Germain, and the101 First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich. This was unfair. They were little more than puppets moved by the King; and he was responsible ultimately for the bad condition of the army and navy, and was sole cause for the continuance of the war. No one imagined (so Romilly wrote on 4th December 1781) that the war would go on after the disaster at Yorktown.117

In the ensuing debates on the King’s speech, Pitt made an effective attack on Ministers, upbraiding them with the inconsistency of their statements and the obscurity in which they shrouded their plans. For himself, with his profound conviction as to the need of promptly terminating the war, he adjured them to state clearly what line of conduct they meant to pursue. This last challenge went home because the language of Ministers was openly inconsistent, that of the Lord Advocate, Dundas, being hardly different from the views held by the Opposition. In fact it was now said that there were three parties on the Government benches—the King’s, Lord North’s, and that of Dundas, shading off from war à outrance to something like conciliation with America.

Nevertheless, the House (as Fox wrote in his Journal) was “tenacious of places and pensions,” and at first supported the Government by substantial majorities; but a typical placeman like Selwyn wrote early in December that if the measures and conduct of the Ministry were not changed, they were completely undone. Nervousness about his sinecure made the wit a true prophet. Not only was the majority breaking into groups, but the Opposition was acting well together. This again was a result of the Yorktown disaster. Only a few days previously, Shelburne, the leader of the Chathamites, had in vain proposed to the official chief of the Whigs, Rockingham, that they should unite their followers, so that there should be but two parties, “that of the Crown and that of the people.”

Now, however, as victory came in sight, the Opposition closed its ranks, while the once serried phalanx of placemen opposite began to split up from sheer panic. During this interesting time Pitt made another speech, which won high encomiums from Horace Walpole for its “amazing logical abilities.” Equally notable was the alertness which fastened on a slight incident. In the midst of his tirade against the inconsistencies of Ministers,102 North and Germain began to whisper together, while that wary little placeman, Welbore Ellis, who was between them, bent down his head to listen. At once Pitt exclaimed: “I will wait until the unanimity is a little better restored. I will wait until the Nestor of the Treasury has reconciled the difference between the Agamemnon and the Achilles of the American War.”118

Little by little Lord North’s majority dwindled away. It sank to a single vote on 22nd February 1782, when General Conway brought forward a motion for the termination of the war. On the renewal of the motion five days later, the House, amidst a scene of great excitement, declared against North by 234 votes to 215. The Ministry, under pressure from the King, held on for a few days, and, on 8th March, even defeated a vote of censure by a majority of ten.

Pitt, who was one of the tellers for the minority, had startled the House, in the course of a fighting speech, by the following notable words: “For myself, I could not expect to form part of a new administration; but, were my doing so more within my reach, I would never accept a subordinate situation.” On the authority of Admiral Keppel, his neighbour in the House, he is said to have repented immediately of this declaration, and to have wished to rise and explain or mitigate it. If so, the feeling must surely have been only momentary. Pitt, as we have seen, was essentially methodical. His feelings, his words, even his lightest jests, were always completely under control. It is therefore impossible to regard so important a statement as due to the whim of the moment, or to the exaggeration of which a nervous or unskilful speaker is often guilty. Still less can we believe that he seriously intended to explain away his words. So weak an action would have been wholly repugnant to another of his characteristics—pride. The declaration was probably the outcome of his unwavering self-confidence and of a belief that any Ministry which could be formed must be short lived.

If so, his conduct was well suited to bring him to the front at a time more opportune than the present. It was inconceivable that a monarch so masterful and skilled in intrigue as George III should long submit to be controlled by the now victorious Whig families, whose overthrow had been his chief aim. To foment the schisms in their ranks, and shelve them at the first possible103 time was an alternative far preferable to that of retiring to Hanover—a suggestion which he once more threw out to Lord North. When the struggle between Crown and Commons had come to its second phase, it would be time for a young member to take a leading place.

A crisis became imminent forthwith, on the House passing a declaration that it would “consider as enemies to His Majesty and to this country all who should advise or by any means attempt the further prosecution of offensive war on the continent of America.” By this Act the Commons reasserted their undoubted right of controlling the prerogative of the Crown even in the question of peace or war.119 The declaration was a preliminary to impeachment of Ministers in case they still persisted in defying the House.

It also led the King, on 11th March, to send his champion, the Chancellor, Lord Thurlow, to consult with Lord Rockingham. The leader of the official Whigs knew that he had the game in his hands, and sought to dictate the conditions on which alone he would form an administration. They were as follows: “American Independence; no Veto; Establishment Bill; great parts of Contractors Bill; Custom House and Excise, etc., Bill; Peace in general, if possible; Economy in every branch.”120 The King demurred to these terms, and after eight days the overture lapsed. Meanwhile Lord North’s position in the House was becoming intolerable, and on 20th March he announced the resignation of his Ministry. On going to take leave of the King, he was greeted by the following characteristic words: “Remember, my Lord, that it is you who desert me, not I you.”

Most sovereigns would now have accepted defeat. But George III was no less dogged of will than ingenious in finding a way of escape. He had one chance left. Beside the official Whig families, headed by Rockingham, there were the Chathamites, led by Shelburne, who occupied an intermediate position not easy to define. Like most political groups which profess to be above party, they had succeeded in forming another party. They differed from the Whigs in not desiring to see the royal prerogative shorn of power, as it had been under the first two Georges to the advantage of the old governing families. In foreign and colonial affairs they aimed at the triumph of a truly104 national policy, which, while furthering the cause of freedom, also made for the greatness of the Empire. Even amidst his protests against the continuance of the war, Shelburne raised his voice, as Chatham had done, against a complete severance of the tie uniting the colonies to the motherland.121 These opinions seem to us now unpractical in view of the existing state of things. Certainly, if we may judge by the speeches of William Pitt, he had overshot the limits of the Chathamite traditions which his chief still observed.

Nevertheless, the Chathamites, albeit a somewhat doctrinaire group, indeed scarcely a party, might now be utilized as a buffer between the throne and the Whig magnates. Accordingly, the King, during an interview with Shelburne, in which he expressed his dislike of Rockingham, proposed that Shelburne should form a Cabinet with Rockingham as head, Shelburne being the intermediary between the King and the Prime Minister. As Shelburne knew that he could not stand without the support of the Whigs, the latter had their way at nearly all points. The King most reluctantly consented not to veto American Independence—a matter on which Rockingham stood firm. In smaller and personal matters, on which George III set much store, he partly succeeded. He refused to see Rockingham until the latter was Prime Minister; he insisted on keeping his factotum, Lord Thurlow, as Chancellor, and he fought hard to keep the gentlemen of the royal household unchanged; but, as he wrote to Lord North, “the number I have saved is incredibly few.” Among them was Lord Montagu, the governor of the King’s son, whom Horace Walpole dubbed the King’s spy on the Prince of Wales, and the only man in whom he (George III) had any confidence. The same sharp critic noted that the King now used, with some success, the only artifice in which he had ever succeeded, that of sowing discord. He had openly shown that Shelburne and Thurlow were his men in the Cabinet; and Fox, who became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said that the new Cabinet belonged partly to the King and partly to the people. In the very limited sense in which the Whigs were a popular party (for the official Whigs sought the support of the people mainly in order to browbeat the King), the remark was correct.

However that may be, the King had certainly contrived105 largely to nullify the victory of the Whigs by fomenting discords in the Cabinet. So astute an intriguer as Shelburne was certain to chafe at the ascendancy of Rockingham; and the King’s tactics, while humiliating the Prime Minister, enabled Shelburne secretly to arrange matters according to the royal behests. Shelburne held the secretaryship for Home Affairs, which then carried with it a supervision of the executive at Dublin Castle. He also brought in Dunning (now created Lord Ashburton without the knowledge of Rockingham) as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; and it has been ascertained that he sought to include Pitt in the Cabinet with some high office. Which office he was to have is not clear; but Lady Chatham wrote to Shelburne on 28th March in terms which implied an office of Cabinet rank. Here, however, Rockingham protested with success; and as a result only the Vice-Treasurership of Ireland was offered him, an office which by his previous declaration he had bound himself to refuse.122 His exclusion from the Cabinet by the influence of the official Whigs served to alienate him from that party, and brought him more in contact with men who were beginning to figure as supporters of the royal prerogative.

As a private member, Pitt gave his support to the new Ministry; and on 29th April he made a brief but telling appeal for unanimity, “from which the salvation of the nation could alone be hoped for.” Certainly the Ministry needed the help of all patriots. The prestige of Britain was at the lowest ebb. Beaten alike in the New World and in the Mediterranean, where Minorca had recently been recovered by the Spaniards, she seemed at the end of her resources. Ireland was in a state of veiled rebellion. The Parliament at Dublin unanimously demanded the repeal of Poynings Act and that of the year 1720, which assured its dependence on the British Government; and some 100,000 Volunteers were ready to take the field to make good the claim. In vain did the new Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Portland, seek to gain time. Grattan, whom the Earl of Mornington styled “the most upright and temperate demagogue that ever appeared in any country,” had Ireland at his back. He refused to wait; and in the month of May the British Parliament gave effect to his demands by unanimously conceding legislative independence to the Dublin Parliament.123 Pitt106 did not speak on the subject, but he probably agreed with the change, which in the circumstances was inevitable. The news aroused in Ireland a storm of enthusiasm, and the Dublin Parliament voted the sum of £100,000 for raising 20,000 seamen. For the present, then, the Irish question was shelved, but at the cost of many difficulties in the future.

About the same time, the cloud which had hung so ominously over Britain’s navy cleared away. News arrived of the victory which Rodney gained over the French fleet under Count de Grasse near Dominica on 12th April 1782,124 which saved the West Indian colonies and restored Britain’s supremacy on the ocean. Equally fortunate was Eliott’s repulse of a determined attack on Gibraltar by the French and Spaniards, which brought about the relief of the garrison and ensured the total failure of the prolonged and desperate efforts of France and Spain to seize the key of the Mediterranean.

The spirit of the nation rose with these successes; and Shelburne brought forward a Bill for arming the people. The motion came to little, probably because of the fear which the Lord George Gordon riots had aroused;125 but, as the sequel will show, it took effect in some quarters and provided the basis for the far more important Volunteer Movement of the Great French War.

It is remarkable, as showing the strong bent of Pitt’s nature towards civil affairs, that he spoke, not on these topics, but solely on the cause of Parliamentary Reform. His insistence on this topic at a time of national peril can be paralleled by the action of another statesman a century later; and it is significant that, when Mr. Gladstone introduced his Franchise Bill in 1884, he was warmly reproached by Lord Randolph Churchill for bringing forward this topic amidst the conflicts or complications in which we were involved in Egypt, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and South Africa. But the Liberal leader claimed that by conferring the franchise on some two million of citizens, the people would be arrayed “in one solid compacted mass around the ancient throne which it has loved so well and round a constitution now to be more than ever powerful and more than ever107 free.” The plea has been justified by events; and we can now gauge at its true value the politic daring of the two statesmen who sought to meet dangers from without by strengthening the fabric of the Empire at its base.

In the year 1782 the gravity of the crisis was far greater than that of the year 1884; for the storms were beating on an edifice dangerously narrow at the ground. Realizing that the subject of the representation was too complicated to be handled except after an official investigation, Pitt for the present proposed merely the formation of a Committee of Inquiry which should report on the best means of carrying out “a moderate and substantial reform.” His proposals, and still more the fame of his eloquence, aroused great interest; so that on the morning of 7th May a crowd endeavoured to gain access to Westminster Hall. Many of the “news-writers” were excluded, with results harmful to the printed reports of the speech.126 Pitt prefaced his remarks by acknowledging most thankfully that they had now to do with a Ministry which desired such a measure, and not with one that “laboured to exert the corrupt influence of the Crown in support of an inadequate representation of the people.” He assumed it as proven that the House of Commons had received an improper and dangerous bias, which impaired the constitution.

That beautiful frame of government which has made us the envy and admiration of mankind, in which the people are entitled to hold so distinguished a share, is so far dwindled, and has so far departed from its original purity, as that the representatives have ceased, in a great degree, to be connected with the people. It is of the essence of the constitution that the people should have a share in the government by the means of representation; and its excellence and permanency is calculated to consist in this representation, having been designed to be equal, easy, practicable, and complete. When it ceases to be so; when the representative ceases to have connection with the constituent, and is either dependent on the Crown or the aristocracy, there is a defect in the frame of representation, and it is not innovation but recovery of constitution, to repair it.


He then pointed out some of the worst anomalies of the existing system. There were some boroughs wholly controlled, or absolutely possessed, by the Treasury. In others its influence was contested solely by a great landowner, but never by the inhabitants in their own right. Some few boroughs [Old Sarum is the classical instance] had only one or two voters. Other towns,

in the lofty possession of English freedom, claim to themselves the right to bring their votes to market. They have no other market, no other property, and no other stake in the country, than the property and price which they procure for their votes. Such boroughs are the most dangerous of all. So far from consulting the interests of their country in the choice which they make, they hold out their borough to the best purchaser.... It is a fact pretty well known that the Nabob of Arcot had no less than seven or eight members in that House. May not a foreign State in enmity with this country, by means of these boroughs, procure a party of men to act for them under the mask and character of members of that House?

Pitt then warned the Commons that the forces of corruption might soon be found to be as strong as ever. Though they had grown with our growth, they had not decayed with our decay. For years they had maintained in power a Ministry which had worked ruin to the Empire. Finally, he referred to the opinion of his father on this great subject and besought members to satisfy the longings now widely expressed throughout the kingdom, which must carry the matter to a triumphant issue. His speech was loudly cheered. The able orations of Fox and Sheridan also seemed to carry the House with them; but, as in former cases, the undercurrent of self-interest worked potently against Reform, and ensured the rejection of Pitt’s proposal by 161 votes to 141. The country gentlemen were alarmed at his motion, the opposition of Pitt’s relative, Thomas Pitt, being especially strong.

Probably it was a tactical mistake for Pitt, a private member, to bring forward such a motion. If he had waited until the Ministry had so far prevailed over its external difficulties and internal dissensions as to be able to take up the question, his support might have ensured the triumph of the Government proposals. As it was, the misgivings of the cautious, the vested interests of nominee members, the embarrassments of the109 Ministry, and the opposition of the old Whig families, doomed to failure his second effort in this direction. Not for the space of forty-eight years was so favourable an opportunity to recur; and then it was a new Industrial England which burst through the trammels of an old-world representation.

Undaunted by this rebuff, he spoke on 17th May in favour of the motion of a veteran reformer, Alderman Sawbridge, for shortening the duration of Parliaments. Only one of his arguments has come down to us, namely his contention that the Septennial Act placed undue influence in the hands of Ministers, as appeared from the strenuous opposition which the enemies of political purity had always offered to the repeal of that measure. Fox spoke for the motion; but Burke, who had been persuaded to absent himself from the earlier debate, now let loose the vials of his wrath against a Reform of Parliament in whatever shape it came. Sheridan describes him as attacking Pitt “in a scream of passion,” with the assertion that Parliament was just what it ought to be, and that all change would be fatal to the welfare of the nation.

Burke’s diatribe prepares us for the part which he played during the French Revolution. The man who discerned perfection in a Parliamentary system, in which Scotland had only 4,000 voters and 45 members, while 19 Cornish villages returned 38 members; in which the Duke of Norfolk could put in 11 members, and the Nabob of Arcot 7 or 8, while Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Birmingham remained politically dumb—such a man might well regard the French revolutionists as “the ablest architects of ruin” that the world had ever seen. His tirade against short Parliaments carried the House with him, the motion being rejected by a majority of 88.

It is interesting to find Pitt taking part at a meeting of friends of Reform at the Thatched House Tavern (18th May 1782), which seems to have been held under the auspices of Major Cartwright’s “Society for Promoting Constitutional Information.” The Duke of Richmond, Lord Mahon, Sir Cecil Wray, and the Lord Mayor were present. A motion was passed urging the need of petitioning Parliament for “a substantial reformation of the Commons House of Parliament”; and the minutes of the meeting were in Pitt’s handwriting. He was then in correspondence with John Frost, an attorney of Percy Street, who was secretary for the Middlesex Reform Committee; and in the110 second letter the young statesman refers to some honour which that committee proposed to confer on him for his efforts on their behalf. These facts and Pitt’s letters to Frost were produced by Erskine during his defence of Frost against a charge of sedition early in the Hilary Term 1793.127 The episode was highly effective and probably ensured the mitigation of Frost’s sentence. The whole incident is noteworthy, as it points the contrast between the earlier and later phases of Pitt’s career which was to be produced by the French Revolution.

Pitt did not speak during the debates on two other measures which alone of all the reformers’ programme passed through Parliament in 1782. They were the Contractors Bill, which, by excluding all contractors from Parliament and disfranchising all revenue officers, dealt a blow at some forms of political corruption.128 By the other Act several sinecures, with salaries of about £70,000 a year, were swept away. The King exerted his influence against both measures, his man, Lord Thurlow, striving by every means to defeat the former of them in the Lords; while the Economy Bill was shorn of some of its more drastic clauses by the action of Shelburne and Thurlow in Cabinet Councils.

The difficulty of common action was seen during the discussion of a Bill for the repression of bribery at elections (19th June). Pitt spoke in favour of the motion, but, strange to say, Fox opposed it. This was the first occasion on which they voted in opposite lobbies, though there had been no friendship or close intercourse between them. The motion was of course lost.

* * * * *

Their relations were destined quickly to alter, owing to an event which opened another phase of the long struggle between the King and the hostile Whig “phalanx.” On 1st July 1782 the Marquis of Rockingham died. Of small ability, he yet held a conspicuous place in the affairs of State, owing to his vast landed estates, the strength of his political and family connections, and to his high character. At once the King and the “phalanx” girded themselves for the conflict. On the very next day George III offered the Premiership to the Earl of Shelburne, now more than ever inclining to the King’s side. With an openness which did not always characterize him, that Minister at111 once referred the proposal to his colleagues, only to have it rejected by the official Whigs. Four of Rockingham’s most decided friends in the Cabinet—Fox, the Duke of Richmond, Lord John Cavendish, and Admiral Keppel—demanded that the Duke of Portland should be Prime Minister.129 Such a proposal was doubly objectionable; first, because the Duke, as then appeared from his conduct at Dublin Castle, had little insight and no strength of character; secondly, because the proposal itself was scarcely constitutional; for the King had, as he still has, the right to select his Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Shelburne consented to refer the proposal to George III, who emphatically rejected it. Thereupon Fox and Lord John Cavendish resigned; Shelburne undertook to form an Administration and offered the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, vacated by Lord John Cavendish, to William Pitt. He at once accepted it.

The other chief changes were that Thomas Townshend (soon to become Lord Sydney) took the Secretaryship of State held by Shelburne, while Fox was succeeded as Secretary for Foreign Affairs by Lord Grantham, and the Duke of Portland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, by Earl Temple. Burke and Sheridan marked their attachment to the Whigs by resigning their subordinate offices. It was in face of able, eloquent, and exasperated men like these that Pitt took up the burden of office, along with the virtual leadership of the House of Commons, at the age of twenty-three.

The conduct of Fox and his friends in resigning office was hotly arraigned. A debate on their action in voting a pension of £3,200 a year to Colonel Barré turned mainly on the larger question (9th July). Fox, conscious that Barré’s pension was a blot on Ministers who had posed as champions of economy, retorted fiercely on his critics, declaring Shelburne and his followers to be heedless alike “of promises which they had made, of engagements into which they had entered, of principles which they had maintained, of the system on which they had set out.... They would abandon fifty principles for the sake of power, and forget fifty promises when they were no longer requisite to their ends; ... and he expected to see that, in a very short time, they would be joined by those men whom that House had precipitated from their seats.”130


Had Fox been satisfied with defending his own resignation on the ground of disagreement with Shelburne on details of policy, his relations to the Chathamites might have remained cordial. But the attack on Pitt’s chief was so violent as to provoke sharp rejoinders. General Conway defended Shelburne from the charge of apostasy, and stated that it was he who had convinced George III of the need of recognizing the independence of the American colonies; also that the differences between Shelburne and Fox on that point were merely differing shades of opinion.131 Pitt expressed his regret at the resignation of Fox, but attributed it in the main to a dislike of Shelburne rather than of his policy. For himself, he said, he completely trusted the noble earl, and if he were called upon to serve under him (his appointment was not yet confirmed) he would do so cheerfully in any capacity and to the utmost of his power. The strictures of Fox were further discounted by the fact that Richmond and Keppel did not resign their seats in the Cabinet.

On reviewing the action of Fox after this lapse of time it seems impossible to acquit him of the charge of acting with haste and bad temper. His charges against the sincerity of Shelburne respecting the details of the negotiation then begun with France and America have been refuted, or at least minimized, by an eminent authority.132 Fox must have known as well as Conway that Shelburne had induced George III to recognize the independence of the American colonies—a political service of the highest order; and if on matters of detail he sharply differed from him, and thought him insincere, meddlesome, and too friendly to the King, it was his duty to remain in office with his Whig friends so as to curb those tendencies. It is by no means certain (as Mr. Lecky asserted) that he would have been always, or generally, outvoted;133 and his presence in the Cabinet would have strengthened his party in the Commons. It may be granted that he believed he was taking the only straightforward course; but his vehement nature often led him to unwise conclusions. True, his colleagues nearly always forgave him; for it was a signal proof113 of the warmth of his disposition that his friends loved him even when he offended them; but they came by degrees to distrust his judgement, and to see that other gifts than courage, eloquence, and personal charm were needed in a leader. Certain it is that public opinion condemned his resignation as hasty, ill-timed, and compromising to the cause of Reform.

His action was especially unfortunate in this last respect. In April he had written that, if the Rockingham Cabinet could stay in office long enough to deal “a good stout blow to the influence of the Crown,” it would not matter if the Ministry broke up. But the blow had not been dealt; the passing of the Economy Bill and the exclusion of contractors from Parliament and revenue officers from the franchise had only scotched the snake of corruption, not killed it. Yet the party which alone could deal the final blow was now weakened by the action of the most ardent of reformers. The worst result of all, perhaps, remains to be noticed. When Fox maliciously taunted Shelburne with being about to unite with Lord North in order to keep in office, no one could have imagined that the speaker would soon have recourse to that despicable manœuvre; but the curse, flung out in heedless wrath, was destined to come home to roost.

Pitt now came to office by a path which necessitated a sharp divergence from Fox—a divergence, be it noted, due to party tactics and not to the inner convictions of the men themselves. After the foregoing account of the session of 1782—it ended on 11th July—the reader will be in a position to judge for himself whether up to that time Pitt or Fox was to blame for a split which seems unnatural and blameworthy.

In the month of August Pitt moved into the “vast awkward house” in Downing Street which was to be his official residence. Dissensions soon arose in the Cabinet; and in addition there were the dangers resulting from the war and the urgent need of concluding peace. Accordingly Pitt was able to spend but very few days out of town at his beloved Hayes, even in the heat of summer, still less to go on circuit as he had intended. The Shelburne Ministry contrived to simplify the diplomatic situation by offering to recognize the independence of the United States (27th September). The frankness with which this was done, at a time when Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, showed a keen desire to shut those growing communities out from the114 valley of the Mississippi,134 served somewhat to allay the anti-British fury kindled by the War. The Americans saw, what had long been discerned at Westminster, that the Bourbons were using them as pawns in their game for the overthrow of the British Empire; and their envoys resolved to break loose from their engagement not to treat separately for a peace with England. The preliminaries of peace, signed on 30th November, accorded to the young Commonwealth the Mississippi as its boundary on the west, and the larger part of the great lakes on the north, together with fishery rights off Newfoundland. All these terms, including that of the independence of the States, were provisional, taking effect whenever peace should be settled with France and Spain.

The negotiations with France and Spain were rendered easier by the ill-will now existing between the Bourbon Powers and the United States. The relief of the garrison of Gibraltar by Lord Howe further disposed them to abate their terms. On the other hand, they knew of the difficulties of the British Cabinet, and the general desire of the nation for peace. Matters were therefore in a complicated state at the end of the year 1782; and we learn from a statement of Shelburne that during November he refrained from summoning Cabinet Councils in order to preserve unanimity.135 Ministers had indeed differed sharply, firstly, on the question whether Gibraltar should be handed back to Spain, and secondly, on that of the indemnity. The King and Shelburne wished to have Porto Rico and West Florida in exchange for Gibraltar; Grafton preferred Porto Rico and Trinidad; while Richmond, Keppel (probably also Pitt) objected to the cession of the great fortress which had been so stoutly held against a three years’ siege.136

Such was the state of affairs when, on 5th December, Parliament reassembled. On the next day Pitt committed a mistake which exposed him to a reprimand from the King through Shelburne. Fox pressed Ministers to declare that the acknowledgement of American independence was unconditional. The senior Minister in the House, Townshend, replied that that condition of peace would take effect only on the conclusion of a general peace. Pitt, however, added that “the clear indisputable115 meaning of the provisional agreements made with the American commissioners was the unqualified recognition of their independence”; and it would form part of the treaty with the belligerent powers.137 Here he overshot the mark. That recognition depended on the conclusion of treaties with France and Spain. The King, therefore, sent him a rebuke through Shelburne, adding, however, “It is no wonder that so young a man should have made a slip.”—We cannot regret the occurrence, for it shows how anxious Pitt was to have that great question settled.

In the ensuing debates Pitt sharply retorted on Burke, who, quoting from “Hudibras,” had accused Ministers of making the King speak—

As if hypocrisy and nonsense
Had got the advowson of his conscience.

The son of Chatham showed something of his father’s fire, reprobating the unseemly jeer of the speaker and declaring that he repelled the further charge of hypocrisy “with scorn and contempt.” A retort courteous, or humorous, would have been more in place after Burke’s raillery; but Pitt, though witty in private, rarely used this gift in the House, probably because he wished to be taken seriously. In this he succeeded. In all but name he was leader of the House of Commons. The task of keeping together a majority was extremely difficult; for, according to Gibbon, the Ministry could command only 140 votes, while as many as 120 voted with Lord North, 90 with Fox, the rest drifted about as marketable flotsam. The situation became worse still late in the year, when rumours began to fly about that Fox and Lord North were about to join their discordant forces for the overthrow of the Ministry.

In these circumstances the Shelburne Cabinet rendered the greatest possible service by holding on to office, while they pressed through the negotiations with France, Spain, and Holland. Ultimately, the preliminaries of peace were signed on 20th January 1783. They brought no disgrace on a Power which had latterly been warring against half the world. The chief loss in the West Indies was Tobago, a small but wealthy island, in which British merchants had large interests. It was surrendered to the French, who recovered their former possession, St. Lucia.116 On the other hand, they gave back to Britain Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat. The cession of the islands of Miquelon and St. Pierre enabled France to gain a firmer footing in the Newfoundland fisheries. In Africa we gave back Senegal and Goree to France; while her stations in India, conquered by us, were likewise restored. Spain gained more largely than France. She retained her recent conquests, West Florida and Minorca, and she acquired East Florida, while recognizing the reconquest of the Bahamas by England. The Dutch ceded Negapatam but recovered Trincomalee. These conditions were ultimately ratified by the Treaty of Versailles (3rd September 1783).

Terms so favourable could not have been secured had not the Court of Versailles felt the need of peace in order to repair its shattered finances. It was the shadow of the oncoming eclipse of 1789 which warned Louis XVI and Vergennes to agree with their adversary while they were in the way with him. Nevertheless, the Shelburne Ministry deserves the highest credit for making head against internal difficulties, and for gaining terms which were far less burdensome than those imposed on France by the Seven Years’ War.

This is the light in which they are regarded now. In that age, when the spoils of office rather than patriotism prompted the words and votes of members, the details of the peace afforded a welcome opportunity for undermining the Ministry. Already it seemed to be in difficulties. The waverers inside the Cabinet, or those who were chafed by the overbearing ways and personal diplomacy of Shelburne, began to leave the labouring ship. Keppel threw up the Admiralty, the Duke of Richmond absented himself from the Cabinet Councils, and Grafton and Conway seemed on the point of retiring.138 Pitt remained faithful, but urged the need of strengthening the Ministry by alliance with Fox and his followers. Shelburne at first inclined to a compact with Lord North’s party; though both he and Pitt objected strongly to the inclusion of North himself in the Cabinet. As “the lord in the blue ribbon” had his party well in hand, it117 was impossible to bring them in without him. It remained, then, to seek help from the Foxites. Here the bitter personal feud between Shelburne and Fox complicated the situation fatally both for Shelburne, Fox, and Pitt. But before the fight began in Parliament on the burning topic of the hour, Pitt made an attempt to bring in Fox (11th February). He acted with the consent of Shelburne and with the knowledge, and probably the grudging permission, of the King.

Few private interviews have been more important. On it depended the fortunes of the Ministry, and to some extent, of the Empire. If it succeeded, the terms of peace were certain to pass through Parliament. An alliance would also be formed between two political groups which had almost the same aims and were held apart only by the personal pique of their leaders. A union of the best elements of the Whigs and the Chathamites would tend to curb the power of the King, maintain the honour of the flag, and secure the passage of much-needed reforms. The defeat, or at least the postponement, of these salutary aims must necessarily result from persistence in the miserable feud. For the two men themselves that interview was fraught with grave issues. The repulse of the natural affinities was certain to doom one of them to an unnatural alliance or to helpless opposition.

It must have been with a keen sense of the importance of the crisis that these able men faced one another. The interview was soon over. Pitt stated to Fox the object of his visit; whereupon the Whig leader asked whether it was proposed that Lord Shelburne should remain First Lord of the Treasury. On Pitt answering in the affirmative, Fox remarked that it was impossible for him to form part of any Administration of which Lord Shelburne was the head. Pitt at once drew himself up (so Dundas afterwards declared), and the proud movement of his head, the significance of which many an opponent was destined to feel, ended the interview. According to Bishop Tomline, he broke off the conversation with the words: “I did not come here to betray Lord Shelburne.” The breach was irreparable.139

Three days later, Dundas (soon to be a firm supporter of Pitt) made a despairing effort to win over Lord North, who coolly repulsed him. On that same day Fox offered his alliance to118 the man whom for thirteen years he had railed at as the instrument of corruption and tyranny. They agreed

that nothing more was required to be done in reducing the influence of the Crown by economical reform, and that on parliamentary reform every man should follow his own opinion. Mr. Fox having urged that the King should not be suffered to be his own Minister, Lord North replied: “If you mean there should not be a government by departments, I agree with you. I think it a very bad system. There should be one man, or a Cabinet, to govern the whole and direct every measure. Government by departments was not brought in by me. I found it so, and had not vigour and resolution to put an end to it. The King ought to be treated with all sort of respect and attention, but the appearance of power is all that a King of this country can have.”140

They then began to consider the question of the distribution of offices, and finally decided to oppose the forthcoming address to the King expressing thankfulness at the peace.

Thus was formed the famous, or infamous, Coalition of 1783. With the policy of reducing the governing power of the King, it is impossible not to feel much sympathy. George III had hitherto governed England without much let or hindrance, except from Chatham and Rockingham. His narrowness and obstinacy were the chief causes of the American War; and we now know that during four years he had kept Lord North to that work, despite his remonstrances. But nothing could reconcile the new alliance to the public. A shiver of disgust ran through the nation when it transpired that Fox had plighted troth with the man whom he had threatened to impeach; and that impression was never to die away.

Further, it is doubtful whether enthusiasm for Reform was the chief motive that prompted Fox’s action.141 As we have seen, he gave up Economic Reform; and his stipulation respecting Parliamentary Reform was so half-hearted as to doom that question to failure. How could that cause thrive when it would have the effect of sending the chiefs of the future Ministry into opposite lobbies? Fox must have known enough of Parliament to see119 that his present conduct hopelessly impaired the strength of the reformers, in what was at all times an uphill fight. In truth, the whole incident brings into sharp relief the defects of his character, which, while rich in enthusiasms, ever lacked balance, and so frequently led him to a reckless use of most questionable means for the compassing of ends in themselves desirable.

In this instance his recklessness was to blast his whole career. He seems not to have considered the general impression certain to be created by his facile union with a long-loathed opponent. But the public, always prone to harsh judgements on political inconsistencies, at once inferred that he joined North, partly in order to be revenged on Shelburne for some personal slights, but mainly with the view of snatching at the sweets of office which he had of late so unaccountably cast aside. His conduct seemed oddly to blend all that was foolish in wayward boyhood with the cunning of an unscrupulous politician. The cynical majority argued that such extremes as Fox and North could meet only under the overmastering pressure of greed; and to idealists or patriots the Coalition of 1783 seemed to plunge England back into the old slough of selfishness from which the noble pride of Chatham had raised her.

The name of Chatham reminds us of the Coalition which in 1757 he framed with his former opponent, the Duke of Newcastle. The two cases have indeed been compared; but they have very little in common. Then the very existence of England was at stake. She was in the midst of a war which was being grossly mismanaged; and the union of the one able statesman of the age with the manipulator of patronage, was practically the only means of avoiding a national disaster. Now, in February 1783, hostilities were at an end; the terms of peace were arranged, and were certain to take effect, if the new Coalition allowed it. The action of the elder Pitt in 1757 was inspired by patriotism and crowned by deserved triumph. That of Fox and North rested, in part, on more sordid motives, jeopardized the conclusion of peace, threw the political world into utter confusion, and ended in disaster.

The fruits of the new Coalition were soon to appear. On Monday 17th February, the debates opened on the address to the King relative to the peace. In the Lords the opposition of Keppel and Richmond to their late colleagues was an ominous sign; but still more so was the combined attack of Foxites and120 Northites in the Lower House. North spoke with something of the restraint which became a man so largely responsible for the present humiliations. He fastened on the worst parts of the treaty—the cession of Minorca and the Floridas to Spain, and the absence of any guarantees for the American Loyalists. Where he trod with measured steps, Sheridan and Fox rushed in with frothy violence. Sheridan declared that the treaty “relinquished completely everything that was glorious and great in the country”; and his chief branded it as “the most disastrous and disgraceful peace that ever this country had made.” Then adverting to the understanding with North, which was generally known, Fox defended it by quoting the phrase, “Amicitiae sempiternae, inimicitiae placabiles.”142

Pitt’s speech, in reply to Fox, was not one of his happiest efforts, and Ministers were left in a minority of sixteen. He excelled himself, however, four days later during the debate on a vote of censure brought against the Administration by his former colleague, Lord John Cavendish. The attack was ingeniously made under cover of a series of resolutions, affirming that the House of Commons accepted the peace, while believing the concessions made to our enemies to be excessive, and demanding better terms for the American Loyalists. Fox spoke with his usual ardour in favour of these mutually destructive resolutions. After declaring that all who looked at the terms of peace must “blush for the ignominy of the national character,” he proceeded to defend his alliance with Lord North. The times, he said, were now changed; they had to deal with a Prime Minister, Shelburne, who was “in his nature, habitudes, and principles, an enemy to the privileges of the people.” They must therefore form “the strongest Coalition which may re-instate the people in their rights, privileges, and possessions.”143

We do not know whether Pitt was aware that the orator had just bartered away the cause of Parliamentary Reform; but he certainly suspected it; and the surmise must have kindled a fire of indignation before which his bodily weakness vanished. During the long speech of his opponent he suffered from fits of vomiting which compelled him at times to hold open a small door behind him, called Solomon’s porch. But when, at one o’clock in the morning, he rose to reply, all his weakness121 vanished. In a speech of three hours he traversed the whole ground of the treaty and reviewed the situation brought about by the recent monstrous Coalition. He fought hard for the Peace, which the present resolutions imperilled, and still more so for the maintenance of the honourable traditions of public life.

After briefly adverting to the strange part now played by Fox, he continued in terms which showed that he appealed more to the nation than to Parliament.

The triumphs of party, Sir, with which this self-appointed Minister seems so highly elate, shall never seduce me to any inconsistency which the busiest suspicion shall presume to glance at. I will never engage in political enmities without a public cause. I will never forego such enmities without the public approbation; nor will I be questioned and cast off in the face of this House by one virtuous and dissatisfied friend.144 These, Sir, the sober and durable triumphs of reason over the weak and profligate inconsistencies of party violence; these, Sir, the steady triumphs of virtue over success itself, shall be mine, not only in my present situation but through every future condition of my life—triumphs which no length of time shall diminish, which no change of principle shall sully.

He then showed that a continuance of war would be full of peril and might lead to national bankruptcy; that Ministers were not, as at the end of the Seven Years’ War, able to dictate terms of peace, and that those now proposed were as favourable as could be expected. If we had ceded Florida, we had regained the Bahamas and Providence. While losing Tobago and St. Lucia, we recovered Grenada, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat. In Africa we should once more hold Senegambia, the best and healthiest settlement. The loss of Minorca was bearable, for the island was expensive in peace and never tenable in war. Then, adverting to the alleged betrayal of the American Loyalists, he appealed warmly for reconciliation with the United States, and still more warmly deprecated the suspicion that Congress would be guilty of the base injustice of doing nothing for those sufferers. His words have the ring of sincere conviction; but it is painful to have to add that these magnanimous hopes were doomed to disappointment.145


Descending to the lower levels of party strife, he declared that his opponents were aiming their shafts, not at the Treaty, but at the Earl of Shelburne. Their unnatural coalition was brought about by personal spite; and, he added with thrilling emphasis: “If this ill-omened marriage is not already solemnized, I know a just and lawful impediment, and, in the name of the public safety, I here forbid the banns.” Finally, in what seemed a farewell to the cares of office, he vindicated his conduct, as inspired by the traditions of Chatham, and he appealed to the House and to the nation at large in this noble peroration:

You may take from me, Sir, the privileges and emoluments of place, but you cannot, and you shall not, take from me those habitual and warm regards for the prosperity of Great Britain, which constitute the honour, the happiness, the pride of my life, and which I trust death alone can extinguish. And, with this consolation, the loss of power, Sir, and the loss of fortune, though I affect not to despise them, I hope I soon shall be able to forget:

Laudo manentem. Si celeres quatit
Pennas, resigno quae dedit
... probamque
Pauperiem sine dote quaero.146

A member of the House relates that when he came to the words—“et mea virtute me involvo”—he paused for a moment, drew his handkerchief across his lips, and then, as if recovering from a slight embarrassment, gave the final words with thrilling effect.147

The whole speech aroused an interest and emotion unequalled since the time of Chatham’s mighty orations. North complimented the young Chancellor on his amazing eloquence, which had so deeply affected every member of the House, and stated that, though he himself was the object of his thunder, he123 had listened to that thunder with astonishment and delight. He then asserted that better terms might have been gained, especially from the Americans, and declared his belief that the new Coalition would greatly benefit the country. The House by a majority of seventeen decided for North and against Pitt.

In the Lords, Shelburne had a majority of thirteen; but the victory of North and Fox in the Commons led him to offer to resign office on 24th February 1783. In this honourable manner ended Pitt’s first tenure of office.



Of all the public characters of this devoted country (Mr. Pitt alone excepted) there is not a man who has, or who deserves, the nation’s confidence.—Romilly 21st March 1783.

In politics, as in war, victories sometimes prove to be more disastrous than defeats. When triumph lures a leader on into ever increasing difficulties, he may well rue his seeming good fortune; while, on the other hand, the retreat of his opponents may lessen their responsibilities, and, by enabling them to concentrate, double the strength of their next blow.

Such was the case with Fox and Pitt. Fox’s triumph over the former was seen by discerning friends to be of the Pyrrhic kind. He owed it to an unprincipled alliance, and for it he threw away the support of public opinion. Pitt, on the other hand, fell gloriously, fighting strenuously for terms of peace which, in the nature of things, his successors could not sensibly ameliorate. Accordingly, events worked for him and against the victors. Only a well organized party can resist the wear and tear of parliamentary strife; and it lay in the nature of things that greed of place and pension—to say nothing of political differences—should sunder these hungry and unprincipled groups.

But while the voice of prudence counselled delay, missives from Windsor urgently requested Pitt to assume the supreme command of the beaten host. Well might the King be insistent. In the young statesman, and in him alone, could he discern a possible saviour from the two-headed monster of the Coalition. As usual, he viewed the crisis from a purely personal point of view. In a characteristic letter to Shelburne he said nothing on the wider issues that were at stake, still less did he vouchsafe a word of thanks for his valuable services; but he deplored his own lot in having to reign in a most profligate age, and declared once more that he would never submit to the Coalition.


It seems probable that the credit of advising the choice of Pitt as the new Prime Minister rests with Shelburne. Certainly the idea did not originate with Henry Dundas, as he afterwards claimed; for on Monday morning, 24th February 1783, Dundas wrote to Shelburne as follows:

My Dear Lord,

I cannot refrain from troubling your Lordship with a few lines upon a subject of the most serious importance; and the particular ground of my addressing you arises from the words which dropped from you yesterday morning relative to Mr. Pitt. I did not pay much attention to them when you uttered them, but I have revolved them seriously and candidly in the course of the day yesterday, and I completely satisfied my own mind that, young as he is, the appointment of him to the Government of the country is the only step that can be taken in the present moment attended with the most distant chance of rearing up the Government of this country.... He is perfectly new ground, against whom no opposition can arise except what may be expected from the desperation of that lately allied faction, which I am satisfied will likewise gradually decline till at last it will consist only of that insolent aristocratical band who assume to themselves the prerogative of appointing the rulers of the kingdom. I repeat it again that I am certain the experiment will succeed if His Majesty will try it.148

Henry Dundas.

The King warmly welcomed Shelburne’s suggestion, sent for Pitt, and urged him to form a Ministry on his own terms. The young statesman, far from succumbing to the glamour of the moment, at once foresaw the difficulties of the proposal, and requested time for reflection. Dundas sat up with him through that night, going through the names of members of the House, and calculating the chances of adequate support. In a letter which Pitt wrote to his mother on the 25th, he speaks of the question as turning on that of numbers in the House. On the next day and the morning of the 27th he seemed ready to accept the King’s offer, on the strength of an assurance given by Dundas that Lord North would not actively oppose him. But on the afternoon of that day he laid before the King his reasons for declining the proposal.

The interview was long and earnest. It marked the beginning126 of that contest of wills which only ceased with life itself. The King strove hard to gain for his service the only man of note who stood between him and the new Coalition. He plied the young Minister with every possible argument.

Nothing [so the King wrote to Shelburne on that day] could get him to depart from the ground he took, that nothing less than a moral certainty of a majority in the House of Commons could make him undertake the task; for that it would be dishonourable not to succeed, if attempted; all I could obtain was that he should again try, but as fixed a declaration that, if he cannot meet with what he thinks certainty, he shall decline.149

We could wish to know more about this interview and to follow the mental wrestling of the Sovereign with the young barrister. Rarely, except perhaps from Chatham, had George III met with so firm a resolve not to accept office; and we may reasonably infer that the reluctance which baffled the arts of the King sprang from a deep fund of pride. Pitt scorned to be Minister by sufferance of North—a man whom he loathed. Further, why should he take up that burden at the bidding of the Sovereign whom he knew to be the chief cause of the present difficulties? Was it not better that George III and his former tool should unravel the tangle of their own making? As North and Fox for the present commanded the House of Commons, they must govern, as long as they could hold together. Reasons of varied kinds, therefore, must have led Pitt to hold back; and though he promised the King to consider the matter, we may be sure that his resolve was virtually formed.

Other names were then mooted, including those of Thomas Pitt and Earl Temple; but, as George III bitterly complained, not one of them had spirit enough to stand forth. All his efforts to escape the meshes of the Coalition were in vain. Meanwhile, public affairs went from bad to worse. “Our internal regulations (so William Grenville wrote to Temple), our loan, our commerce, our army, everything is at a stand ... we have no money, and our troops and seamen are in mutiny.”150 But, for a127 whole month, nothing bent the King’s purpose. It was clear that he was seeking to sow discord among his opponents.151 In this he failed. Finally the Coalition succeeded in imposing its nominee, the Duke of Portland, on the King; but, as George insisted that his “friend,” Lord Thurlow, should continue to be Lord Chancellor, the duke and his backers broke off the negotiations (18th to 20th March). At once the King sent for Pitt in the following curt note—the first in his long correspondence with him.152

Queen’s House, March 20, 1783.

Mr. Pitt, I desire you will come here immediately.

G. R.

Once more, then, the King made his offer to the young statesman. For five days he sought to bend that stubborn will, urging the needs of the public service and his own resolve never to admit the Duke of Portland and North after their treatment of him. But on 25th March Pitt politely, but most firmly, declined, on the same grounds as before. The King thereupon declared himself much hurt at his refusal to stand forth against “the most daring and unprincipled faction that the annals of this kingdom ever produced.”153 Once more he talked of retiring to Hanover and leaving to the Coalition the task of governing Great Britain. But on mentioning this scheme to his hard-headed counsellor, Lord Thurlow, he is said to have received the illuminating advice that the journey to Hanover was easy enough; but the example of James II’s travels abroad warranted the conclusion that the return journey was more difficult.154 The story is ben trovato; but we may doubt whether even Thurlow’s assurance was equal to this ironical dissuasiveness, and whether George III would ask advice on a step never meant to be taken, and threatened merely in petulance. Equally unconvincing is the story of the King bursting into tears in the presence of the hated Duke of Portland. If the age was lachrymose,155 George III was not.

In any case, the Coalition had conquered. They dictated their terms. George bent before the parliamentary storm, perhaps taking heart from Thurlow’s words, that time and patience128 would cure the present evils. On the last day of March, Pitt, with the relic of Shelburne’s Ministry, resigned office; and on the 2nd of April the new Ministers kissed hands. One who saw that function declared that he foresaw the fate of the Coalition Ministry; for when Fox came up for that ceremony, “George III turned back his ears and eyes just like the horse at Astley’s when the tailor he had determined to throw was getting on him.”156

The observer augured well. Fox’s eagerness to mount the saddle, and Pitt’s determination to stand aloof largely determined their future careers and the course of history. Success comes to the man who knows, not only when to strike swiftly and hard, but also how to bide his time. The examples of Pericles and Epaminondas; of Fabius Maximus, Caesar and Caesar Augustus in ancient history; of Louis XI, Elizabeth, Cromwell, William of Orange, Talleyrand, and even of Napoleon, might be cited as proofs of the power inherent in far-seeing patience. With Pitt’s refusal of power in the spring of 1783 we may compare Napoleon’s prudent reserve in the French political game of the years 1797–8, based as it was on his declaration to Talleyrand in October 1797: “It is only with prudence, wisdom and great dexterity that obstacles are surmounted and important ends attained.... I see no impossibility in attaining, in the course of a few years, those splendid results of which the heated and enthusiastic imagination catches a glimpse, but which the extremely cool, persevering and positive man alone can grasp.” Pitt’s great speech of 21st February 1783 showed him to possess imaginative gifts and ambition of a high order; his refusal of office, owing to the stubborn facts of arithmetic, was the outcome of those cool and calculating instincts without which aspiring genius is a balloon devoid of ballast.

The reception accorded by the public to the Coalition Ministry was far from flattering. No sooner were the names of Ministers known, on 2nd April 1783, than indignation ran high. The Duke of Portland, as First Lord of the Treasury, was seen to be an ornamental figure, easily controllable by Fox. The two Secretaries of State were North and Fox, the latter leading the House of Commons; and this close official union of two men who had spent their lives in vilifying each other was generally reprobated.157 Fox, formerly the bitterest of North’s revilers, was129 held to have betrayed his Whig principles; and his once enthusiastic constituents at Westminster, at his re-election refused him a hearing, shouting him down several times. The conduct of North, the reviled, seemed incredibly base and unmanly. For the rest, Lord John Cavendish (dubbed by Selwyn “the learned canary-bird”) took Pitt’s place at the Exchequer; Lord Stormont became President of the Council, the Earl of Carlisle, Lord Privy Seal; and Keppel returned to the Admiralty. The foregoing formed the Cabinet. As the King was forced to part with his man, Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor’s seal was put in commission, Lord Loughborough (formerly Mr. Wedderburn, a man apt at betrayal) becoming first commissioner. Burke and Sheridan were rewarded with the subordinate posts of Paymaster of the Forces and Secretary to the Treasury. Thus the Whig members were in the ascendant, though North’s party predominated in the House of Commons. Temple resigned the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland, which went, after an embarrassing delay, to one of Fox’s boon companions at Brooks’s, Lord Northington.158

Wilberforce, with his usual power of hitting off a situation, declared that the Fox-North Coalition inherited the defects of its progenitors, the violence of Fox and the corruption of North. This was the general opinion. As for George III, he raged against this unnatural union. He could not mention the subject without falling into the flurried incoherent kind of talk which afterwards marked the on-coming of attacks of lunacy. Private hatred of Fox, as the man who led astray the Prince of Wales into the equally odious paths of gambling and political opposition, fed the King’s animosity against the Whig orator as the foe of the constitution. But the vials of his wrath were poured forth on North, for his betrayal of the royal confidence lavished on him for a decade. On 1st April, George III informed Temple that he hoped the nation’s eyes would soon be opened, and that the Pitts and Grenvilles would deliver him from the thraldom of the Coalition. For the present, he would certainly refuse to grant any honours asked for by the new Ministry.159 As130 the greed of the Coalition was notorious, the situation thus became piquant in the extreme. Amusement at the irony of the situation must have helped, in Pitt’s case, to lighten the disappointment of retiring from office. Certainly he was never downcast. Wilberforce’s journal shows him to have been a frequent and a joyous visitor to Wimbledon. This was the time of the spring-sowing of the flower-beds of Lauriston House with the fragments of Ryder’s opera hat. (See Chapter XII.)

Other and more practical fruits of his hopefulness were his efforts for Parliamentary Reform, clouded over though that cause was by the alliance of Whigs and the former “King’s Friends.” Acting not as a partisan (for, just before resigning office, he informed the House that he belonged to no party), he introduced a motion on 7th May for the Reform of Parliament. On this occasion London and Kent seemed to take an interest in the motion, and the approaches to St. Stephen’s as well as the galleries were thronged by petitioners in favour of Reform. The freeholders of Kent, the householders of the Tower Hamlets, and the electors of Westminster (the last headed by Fox!), came in great numbers to give weight to their petitions. Horace Walpole noted that Kent and Essex had joined the Quintuple Alliance (i.e., of counties) in favour of Reform.160

In due course Pitt rose to bring in his motion. He claimed that the disasters of the past years had at length caused the people “to turn their eyes inward on themselves” to find out the cause of the evil. No one could now doubt that the radical fault in the constitution was the secret influence of the Crown as exerted on the House of Commons. For the redress of this evil three plans had been proposed, first, the extension of the franchise to every man—a proposal which he scouted as both impracticable and even undesirable, seeing that the minority must then hold themselves to be slaves to the majority. (It is difficult to follow Pitt here; for every electoral system implies a majority and minority; and hardship arises only when the majority is subservient to the minority—as was the case in 1783.) Their forefathers, he added, had never contemplated giving a vote131 to every man, and the scheme was “a mere speculative proposition that may be good in theory but which it would be absurd and chimerical to endeavour to reduce to practice.” These words should be noted. For they refute the slander that Pitt “ratted” from the cause of Reform in and after 1790, when it was based on the Jacobin theory of universal suffrage, which he had always repudiated.

Pitt’s second proposal of Reform was to abolish the “rotten boroughs.” He confessed that they were “deformities” in our system, but he felt that they could not be removed without endangering the whole pile. The third proposal seemed to him far better, namely, to add a number of members for the counties and the metropolis. He summed up his contentions in three Resolutions: (1) for the prevention of bribery and undue expense at elections; (2) the disfranchisement of boroughs where corruption was proven; (3) an addition to members of counties and of the metropolis. The details of these proposals were to be specified in a Bill, if the Resolutions were carried. They met with support from Fox, while their very limited character, which Sheridan ridiculed, commended them to Dundas and Thomas Pitt, who previously had opposed Reform.161 As a pledge of his sincerity, Thomas Pitt offered to surrender his rights over the parliamentary borough of Old Sarum.

All was of no avail. North, Colonel Luttrell, Lord Mulgrave, and others declaimed against any change in the glorious constitution. The House by a majority of one hundred and forty-four reprobated the dangerous spirit of innovation which was abroad. Doubtless the demoralization of the Whigs made defeat inevitable. Pitt himself spoke with less than his usual effectiveness; and the absence of petitions from the new manufacturing towns showed that the country at large cared little for the question. This apathy seems to us unaccountable until we remember that Manchester, Leeds, and Halifax tamely suffered Richard Cromwell to annul the act of enfranchisement which the great Oliver had bestowed upon them. Evidently the age-long torpor still lay upon the land.

In the rest of the session, Pitt brought in measures for effecting retrenchment in the public offices. He commented on such abuses as the following: that the chief clerk of the navy132 office received a salary of £250 a year, but ten times that amount in gifts, and other clerks in the same proportion. The Secretary of the Post Office raised his salary of £500 to a total of £3,000 by a 2½ per cent. charge on all packets—a curiously cumbrous method of redress. The expense of stationery at the office of Lord North during his term at the Treasury was £1,300 a year, one item being £340 for whip-cord! By careful economies Pitt hoped to save the nation £40,000 a year. The debate was rendered remarkable by a speech from Burke. The great man was smarting under the censure of the House for reinstating two dishonest officials, and had betrayed the Celtic sensitiveness of his nature by drearily ranting until Fox and Sheridan fairly pulled him to his seat. He now rallied Pitt on “prying into the little perquisites of little men in little offices, while he suffered the greatest abuses to exist in the offices under his eye. He seemed to have that nice olfactory nerve which could smell a ball of horsedung a thousand miles off, but which was not affected by the stench of a dunghill under his very window.” Burke, however, failed to substantiate the latter part of his malodorous simile. The measure passed the Commons, only to perish in the Lords. Keppel denied that there were any abuses at the Admiralty; the Duke of Portland opined that Pitt’s reforms would cost as much as they saved; and Stormont declared that they would be highly inconvenient.162 The same fate befell a measure, which Pitt warmly supported, for lessening expenses at elections.

In his speech on Lord John Cavendish’s Budget, Pitt showed a practical knowledge of finance which enabled him trenchantly to expose the weak points of his successor’s proposals; and he further pointed out the best means for launching a loan on the most favourable terms. His reputation gained in solidity during the session; and if his speeches, after the great effort of 21st February, lacked brilliance, they exhibited his capacity and his grasp of affairs.

Ministers, on the other hand, lost ground, owing to their own blunders and the widening of the gulf between their discordant sections. A case in point was their treatment of the question of the allowance for the Prince of Wales. As will appear later more in detail, the relations between the King and the Prince were133 already so strained that the Ministry—“my son’s Ministry,” the King sometimes called it—must have known the question to be thorny. The tastes of George III being as frugal as those of his son were extravagant, a clear understanding with the King seemed the first essential to a settlement. Yet Fox and his supporters in the Cabinet prevailed on the other Ministers, rather reluctantly, to allot the sum of £100,000 a year to the Prince, and that, too, without consulting the King. According to Horace Walpole, the proposal came to light during a casual conversation between the King and the Duke of Portland on 11th June. The account given in the “Fox Memorials” seems, however, to convict George III of inconsistency.163 In any case, he angrily declaimed against the proposal, as showing that Ministers, despite their professions of economy, “were ready to sacrifice the public interests to the wishes of an ill-advised young man”; he declared his readiness to allow the Prince £50,000 a year from the Civil List, so as not to burden the public. This was the sum which he himself had received as Prince of Wales; and he held strong ground in proposing to support his bachelor son on a similar allowance.

This was the mine sprung upon the Ministry on 16th June. It promised to end their existence; and Fox believed that the King would seize the opportunity to dismiss Ministers, dissolve Parliament, and appeal to the country on the cry of economy, paternal authority, and no mischief-making between father and son. Doubtless he would have done so but for the very speedy compliance of the Prince of Wales with his expressed wishes—an act of submission due less to the filial devotion of the Prince than to his desire to save his favourite from a crushing defeat at the polls. Ultimately, on 23rd June, the House agreed to vote the sum of £60,000 for the present needs of the Prince, as regards debts and the furnishing of Carlton House, and £50,000 a year out of the Civil List. The incident led to some regrettable complications. Fox seems to have attributed the King’s sudden anger to an intrigue of Pitt, whom he dubbed “an unscrupulous opposer.”164 Further, the Prince thenceforth more than ever looked on his father and the opponents of Fox as his own personal enemies,134 in that they bound him down to an insufficient allowance, which he felt no scruple in exceeding. The wretched business of the Prince of Wales’s debts, and even that of the Regency, resulted in no small measure from the bad blood engendered in the strife of June 1783.

The King, also, as we can now see by the new light which the Dropmore Papers have thrown on events, watched the course of affairs more closely than ever in order to pave the way to office for the Pitts and Grenvilles. But his rancour did not blunt his prudence. He was resolved not to exchange one set of masters for another. If Pitt came in, it must be on terms favourable to the Crown. George saw Temple after his abandonment of the cares of State at Dublin Castle, and soon began to sound him and Pitt as to their ideas on a future Ministry.165

There was one grave objection to Pitt, namely, his zeal for Reform. Seeing that the Coalition Ministry was lukewarm on this subject, the King strove to ensure similar complaisance on the part of its successor. He therefore commissioned his secret bargainer, Thurlow, to see Pitt and clear up this question. The ex-Lord Chancellor invited his former colleague to dinner on 19th July, five days after the end of the session. He was very wary in his overtures, and Pitt complained to Grenville that he had a very good meal, but little information. Thurlow was profuse in hints and innuendos, which Pitt gauged at their real value. First he depicted the situation as by no means unfavourable to the King, who had gone through the worst when he admitted the Foxites to office. On Pitt suggesting that perhaps he would become reconciled to them, Thurlow hastened to add that that was impossible, especially after the affair of the Prince’s allowance. The “King’s friend” then turned the conversation to the subject of Parliamentary Reform and the influence of the Crown.

His object (so Pitt wrote to Earl Temple) was to insinuate that a change was not so necessary to the King; and to endeavour to make it (if it should take place) rather our act than his; and on that ground to try whether terms might not be imposed that could not otherwise. This is so totally contrary to every idea we both entertain that I thought it necessary to take full care to counteract it. I stated in general that if the King’s feelings did not point strongly to a change, it was not what135 we sought. But that if they did, and we could form a permanent system, consistent with our principles, and on public ground, we should not decline it. I reminded him how much I was personally pledged to Parliamentary Reform on the principles I had publicly explained, which I should support on every seasonable occasion. I treated as out of the question any idea of measures being taken to extend [Crown] influence, though such means as are fairly in the hands of Ministers would undoubtedly be to be exerted. And I said that I wished those with whom I might act, and the King (if he called upon me) to be fully apprized of the grounds on which I should necessarily proceed....166

This is a declaration of the highest importance. If Thurlow was not very explicit, Pitt certainly was; and it is clear that he fathomed the intentions of George III. They were, in brief, to use the present unsatisfactory state of things as an inducement to a patriotic and ambitious young man to come forward as a “King’s friend,” taking up the place which North’s defection had left vacant. Shelving the problem of Parliamentary Reform, Pitt was to govern for the King and by means of his influence. The young statesman saw the snare, skilfully evaded it, and let it be understood that, if he took office, he would come in on his own terms, not on those of the King. Firm in the alliance of the Grenvilles, and all who detested the Coalition Ministry, he needed not to supplicate the royal favour. Once more he would bide his time, until the King sued for his support. Temple in his reply warmly commended his sound sense and honourable conduct, acknowledging that Pitt was pledged to Reform, so long as there was any chance of success.

A time of skilful balancing now ensued. The King, disappointed at Pitt’s independent attitude, took Temple’s advice, and decided to leave to his Ministers the odium of concluding peace, and of bringing in proposals of Reform which would certainly disappoint some and exasperate others of their following. It is clear, however, that, after his annoyance at the question of the Prince of Wales’s allowance, George resolved to dismiss his Ministers as soon as their popularity waned, and to recur to personal rule, if he could find a serviceable instrument. It was generally known by the end of the session that Pitt might play that part as soon as he chose. George hinted136 as much to Thurlow, who passed it on to the political world. The news was well known when Pitt went down to Brighthelmstone for sea-bathing in August.167

Other causes, however, besides the aloofness of Pitt, concurred to postpone the crisis. The Cabinet, feeling its position insecure, was in no haste to sign the definitive treaties of peace, feeling the interval of uncertainty to be some guarantee of continuance in office. There was also some hope that the Czarina, Catharine II, intent as she was on plans against Turkey, would court our alliance and thus end our isolation.168 Thus the state of party affairs in England, as well as the changing ambitions of the Czarina, helped to postpone the final settlement; but ultimately the treaties were signed on 3rd September at Versailles. They varied very slightly from the preliminaries which Ministers, when in opposition, had so violently attacked. Apart from a stipulation for the safeguarding of British property in the ceded island of Tobago, and the better definition of our rights in the gum trade, there was no material change. The American Loyalists, for whom Fox and Burke had so passionately pleaded, were left in the same position as in the preliminary treaty. The Coalition Ministry in five months of bargaining secured no better terms from France and Spain than Shelburne had arranged. Fox and North, who had blamed their predecessors for failing to make a commercial agreement with the United States, now had to confess their own failure. Finally, the Preliminaries with Holland, signed on 2nd September, showed that Fox, who, with Sheridan, had declaimed against the expected retrocession of Trincomalee to the Dutch, now consented to it. Negapatam, a far less commanding post, was retained.

These actions exposed Ministers to the charge of gross inconsistency in ratifying conditions of peace against which they had inveighed in unmeasured terms. On 11th November Pitt rallied them on this topic, and then, soaring from the low levels of partisan warfare, to the heights of statesmanlike survey, he uttered these words:

The nation has a right to expect that, without delay, a complete commercial system, suited to the novelty of our situation, will be laid before137 Parliament. I am acquainted with the difficulty of the business and will not attribute the delay hitherto to any neglect on the part of Ministers. I am willing to ascribe it to the nature of the negotiation; but I expect that the business will soon be brought forward, not by piece-meal, but that one grand system of commerce, built upon the circumstances of the times, will be submitted to the House for their consideration.169

This is the first sign of Pitt’s resolve to give effect to the teachings of Adam Smith, and to aid in founding on the ruins of our old colonial system a fabric far sounder and more beneficent. It is further significant, as showing the absence of factiousness in the Opposition, that the address to the King of thanks for the peace was carried unanimously.

* * * * *

We have looked ahead in order to glance at Pitt’s conduct respecting the treaties of peace concluded on 3rd September; let us turn to his movements during the vacation. First he ran down to Brighthelmstone to take some dips in the sea; and then struck away westwards towards Somerset for a flying visit to Lady Chatham at Burton Pynsent. Next, after a short stay at Kingston Hall, Bankes’s country house in Dorset, in company with Wilberforce and Eliot, he returned to town on 7th September in order to look into the political situation. He found that the Ministry was losing favour mainly because the King refused to grant any peerages at their request. Apart from this, however, there was no sign of a collapse. That stormy petrel of politics, Lord Thurlow, was abroad; and Pitt probably considered it tactful not to linger about town, but to visit the Continent. Before setting out, he attended the levée at St. James’s on 10th September; and the King inquired the time of his return “in a rather significant manner.”170

On the next day he met Wilberforce and Eliot at Canterbury, and on the 12th they crossed to Calais. He found the journey to Reims more comfortable, and the appearance of the people more prosperous, than he had expected; but “the face of the country the dullest I ever saw.” The reception of the party at Reims, where they proposed to improve their French before proceeding to Paris, had a spice of novelty. Each of the three friends had trusted to the others to provide the needful introductions.138 As a result they were able only to obtain one introduction, through the London banker, Thellusson, and this proved to be to a grocer, whom they found behind his counter selling figs and raisins. Somewhat crestfallen, the three milords anglais returned to their inn. Not for ten days did they gain an entrée to the intendant of Reims, and through him to the Archbishop. His Grace was by no means an awe-inspiring personage; he figures in Wilberforce’s letters as a jolly fellow, about forty years of age, who played billiards like other people. The three friends also met an Abbé de Lageard, “a fellow of infinite humour,” who used to entertain them by visits of five or six hours at a stretch. To him, early in their acquaintance, Pitt mooted a grievance, that there, in the middle of Champagne, they could get no wine that was even tolerable. The abbé thereupon entertained them at his house with the best wine of the province, and with five hours of breezy talk.

Pitt, so we learn from Wilberforce, was the most fluent of the visitors on these occasions. His ear, “quick for every sound but music,” readily caught the intonations of the language, and he soon conversed with ease and fair accuracy. Some few of his mots are preserved by Wilberforce. In answer to the abbé’s inquiry about his opinion of French institutions, Pitt replied: “Sir, you have no political liberty, but as for liberty in civil affairs, you have more than you think.” His opinion on the durability of the English constitution is even more surprising. “The part of our constitution which will first perish is the prerogative of the King and the authority of the House of Peers.”171 None of Pitt’s sayings is more remarkable than this, uttered as it was long before the storms of the French Revolution, and after the British monarchy had easily weathered the Atlantic gale. Possibly the conviction here recorded helps to explain why, at the close of the year, Pitt undertook to support the monarchy, in order to maintain that balance of the English constitution which all thinkers (especially Montesquieu) had praised as its peculiar excellence.

The third of the mots mentioned by Wilberforce illustrates the generosity of Pitt’s character, a trait in which his opponents, judging from his generally cold exterior, believed him to be deficient. On the abbé expressing surprise at so moral a country as139 England allowing itself to be governed by Fox, a man signally deficient in private character, Pitt replied: “Ah! you have not been under the wand of the magician.” Out of the varied scintillations of wit and gaiety with which Pitt brightened this five weeks’ sojourn in France, we catch a glimpse of these three sparks alone. Doubtless the weakness of Wilberforce’s eyes at that time accounts for the tantalizingly meagre entries in his diary; but, seeing how elusive a figure Pitt is, we must be thankful even for these slight jottings.

We are therefore left wondering about the intercourse between the three Englishmen and Talleyrand, who was then staying with his uncle, the Archbishop of Reims. Of their brilliant conversations—for where Talleyrand was dullness could not dwell—we know nothing. Talleyrand and Pitt, we are told, instructed one another in their mother tongues and exchanged ideas, especially on literature and the advantages of Free Trade.172 What a subject for Landor, this interchange of thoughts between the ablest young men of the age, who agreed on all the essentials of politics and yet were soon to be forced by destiny into bitter conflict! How different the future might have been had Talleyrand had enough strength and straightforwardness to become chief of the French Republic!

The stay of the three friends at Reims ended on 9th October, owing to Pitt’s desire to reach Paris in time to see George Rose, a Secretary of the Treasury, who had been travelling on the Continent with Lord Thurlow. There can be little doubt that Pitt hoped to hear from him news respecting the situation in London; for they had confidential converse, in which Pitt gained over Rose completely to his side.173 At Paris he had intercourse with Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, and many other celebrities. By special invitation they shared in the gala festivities of the Court at Fontainebleau, and there saw not only the French Ministers and chief nobles, but also the King and Queen (15th-19th October). That was the heyday of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The conclusion of the Peace of Versailles with England seemed to place France without question at the head of the political world. She had sundered the Empire of her rival, and with ordinary wisdom she might hope to keep the lead as a commercial140 and colonizing power. Strong in the alliance of Austria and Spain, with her friendship courted by the United States, Prussia, Sweden, and Holland—at times by the Czarina Catharine—France seemed to be high above the reach of adverse fortune. The prestige of the monarchy was as yet undimmed by the affair of the Diamond Necklace. The factious opposition of the Parlements had scarcely begun; and the days of hunting and festivity at Fontainebleau must have realized those visions of charm and beauty in which Burke has enshrined Marie Antoinette, “glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendour and joy.”

By her side at Court and in the hunting field was that strange opposite, her husband. What the friends thought of Louis XVI in hunting attire is shown by Wilberforce’s note—“clumsy strange figure in immense boots.” Whether the King spoke to them is doubtful, for his words were ever few, and etiquette forbade his conversing much with foreigners.174 But the Queen, with her usual vivacity and wit, rallied them upon their friend, the grocer, at Reims. The courtiers often crowded round Pitt (so Wilberforce recalls), “and he behaved with great spirit, though he was sometimes a little bored when they talked to him about Parliamentary Reform.” At Fontainebleau Pitt met Lafayette at dinner in company with the American Minister, Franklin. Again we long to know of the converse of these representative men. Only one scrap survives, namely, that Pitt informed the Frenchman, whom his admirers termed “the hero of both worlds,” that his principles were too democratic for him.175 When the tempest burst upon Western Europe, this soon became apparent.

Necker, the Minister who in 1789 aspired to ride on the winds and control the storm, was desirous of allying his family with that of Pitt. The ex-Controller-General of French Finances and his ambitious consort sought to strengthen their claims on the Government for a return to office, by an alliance with a powerful family. What alliance could be so brilliant for these Genevese Protestants as with the son of Chatham? We now know for certain that Necker and his wife urgently wished for this union; for a year later the mother, when seriously ill, wrote to her daughter (the future Mme. de Staël) in these terms:


I did desire that you should marry Mr. Pitt. I wished to confide you to the care of a husband who had made for himself a great name; I also could have wished for a son-in-law to whose care I could commend your poor father, and who would feel the full weight of his charge. You were not disposed to give me this satisfaction. Well! All is now forgiven.176

Clearly the match was to have been of an eleemosynary character; and all who rejoice in the eager exuberance of the life of Mme. de Staël cannot be surprised at her refusal, even when a young girl, to become a testamentary asset in the life of her father. Whether her repugnance at the idea was further increased by seeing Pitt in one of his “bored” moods, we do not know. Indeed it is uncertain whether they ever met. If we may judge from the sketch of Pitt written by Wilberforce in 1821, the affair was mooted in the frigid bargaining manner usual with French parents. Horace Walpole, a close friend of M. Necker, remarked to Lord Camden, who thereupon passed it on to Pitt, that the Neckers had so much respect for him that, if he claimed the hand of their daughter, he would not be refused—by the parents. What would have happened when Mlle. Necker came to be asked must be left to the imagination.177

* * * * *

From the charms of the French Court and the meshes of matrimonial schemes Pitt was suddenly called away. A special messenger bade him return at once to London. What he had all along hoped now came to pass. The King’s dislike of his Ministers had overcome all other feelings, and he now appealed to Pitt to free him from the toils of the Coalition. The friends spent twenty-four hours in a carriage, then suffered the usual miseries of a Channel passage, and reached London on 24th October.

The situation was serious. Though delivered from fear of war, the country was beset by many perils. Consols were on the decline. The state of Ireland was alarming. The Associations of Volunteers overshadowed the Government at Dublin, and seemed about to dictate terms to that at Westminster. Their attitude aroused keen resentment, seeing that the legislative independence of Ireland had been proclaimed to be the cure for142 all her evils. “What! (exclaimed Horace Walpole) Would they throw off our Parliament and yet amend it.” Worst of all, perhaps, was the almost complete indifference of Britons to the political situation. The same rather cynical observer had already noted that no one, except interested politicians, really cared who was in, or out of, office. His words deserve quotation:

Our levity is unlike that of the French. They turn everything into a jest, an epigram, or a ballad. We are not pleasant but violent, and yet remember nothing for a moment. This was not our character formerly.... Can the people be much attached to any man if they think well of none? Can they hate any man superlatively if they think ill of all? In my own opinion we have no positive character at present at all. We are not so bad as most great nations have been when sinking. We have no excessive vices, no raging animosities.178

The passage is interesting in more ways than one. Milton dubbed us fickle and alleged our insular situation as the cause.179 Addison in one of his essays repeated the charge, which was perfectly natural early in the eighteenth century. Further, Horace Walpole’s criticism is remarkable as that of a shrewd observer during what he termed a time of “comfortable calm.” He saw the two leading nations, as it were, drifting sluggishly in a Sargasso Sea of politics after one storm; and they and he never suspected the approach of a far more terrible tempest. Neither in London nor Paris had any inspiring personality come to the front. Pitt had not fully emerged. Robespierre was intent on his briefs at Arras; the Corsican, who was to quicken the pulse of all peoples, still studied under the monks of Brienne; and Horace Walpole could therefore complain of the pettiness of politics, the aimless brawlings of Westminster, the lighter vagaries of Versailles, and the dullness of the world.

At London all was soon to change. Though Fox and North kept their majority solid on the question of the peace, yet they came to grief over a measure of almost equal importance. On 18th November, amidst scenes of unequalled excitement, Fox brought forward his India Bill; and on a question where vast patronage was at stake passions rose to fever heat. Indian affairs will be treated more fully in another chapter; and it must suffice to143 state here that the East India Company was in a deplorable condition, mainly owing to the war with Hyder Ali and the insubordination and rapacity of the Company’s servants, which led to abuses degrading to Britain and oppressive to the natives of India. According to the terms of North’s Regulating Act of 1773, Parliament had the right of intervention in all matters of high policy; but in one important question the Company had set its behests at naught. In April 1782 a vote of censure was passed on the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, and the Company was requested to recall him. The Court of Directors issued an order to this effect; but the Court of Proprietors reversed their decision, and Hastings was left in a position ambiguous and irritating to all parties. Consequently dictates of policy and the interests of the nation compelled Parliament to assert its paramount authority.

But the manner of the intervention and the act itself were alike extraordinary. The new India Bill was the joint work of Fox and Burke with some aid from the law-officers of the Crown. It has often been said, on the scantiest of evidence, to have been framed mainly by Burke; but the clauses which abrograted the Charter of the East India Company and vested the control of Indian affairs chiefly in Parliament, bear the imprint of the mind of Fox rather than of the more cautious and conservative statesman.180 In strict propriety the measure ought to have originated with Lord North. He privately expressed his approval, and then, alleging indisposition, stayed away from Parliament on the day of its introduction.181

Fox opened his case in a speech of great power. He dilated on the ills resulting from the disorders in the Company’s service, and, in particular, from the ambition of Warren Hastings. He then showed the tendency of the parliamentary reports on Indian affairs, and claimed that, in the virtual bankruptcy of the Company (which could not discharge its debts to the Crown), Parliament had the right to take the supreme control of its territories. We may pause here to notice that the Directors of the Company stoutly denied the assertion as to their bankruptcy, and claimed that, when its expenses were reduced to a peace footing, the Company’s creditors would be in a better position than any144 creditors in Europe.182 Their printed report of 23rd January 1784 laid stress on the heavy charge involved by conquests in India “which the wisdom of the nation has given up for equivalents in other parts of the world.” It also claimed the payment of £260,687, the charge incurred by the Company for the maintenance of French prisoners in the Seven Years’ War. The Directors further stated that, if Government would check the very extensive smuggling in tea (an article which formed the most valuable of the monopolies of the Company), more than double the amount would be sold by legitimate means. These facts should be borne in mind, as the Company succeeded in spreading a conviction that the attack of Fox was unjust.

In the rest of his speech Fox detailed his proposals for effecting drastic changes in India, and explained the reasons for separating administrative affairs from purely mercantile affairs. Many authorities claimed that the territories of the Company belonged in reality to the Crown; others denied this claim. On one point all must agree, that the Crown could not possibly deal with “a remote and difficult trade.” Accordingly he sought to form “a mixed system of government, adapted to the mixed complexion of our interests in India.” For administrative work he proposed to establish a Board of seven commissioners, nominated by Parliament, for three or five years—four years was the term finally suggested—having full power to appoint and dismiss officers in India, and complete control over its government. The Board was to sit in London, “under the very eye of Parliament,” and the minutes of its meetings were to be open to inspection by Parliament. If this experiment succeeded, he proposed that in future the King should nominate the seven commissioners, and he was to fill up vacancies that might occur in the meantime. As for the mercantile interests of the Company, they were to be managed by a subordinate Board or Council, consisting of eight members chosen by Parliament from among the larger proprietors.

He further proposed to remedy the worst abuses in India in a second Bill which would abolish the holding of monopolies, such as that for opium, which had been jobbed away to the son of a former chairman of the Company. Security of tenure would be granted to the Zamindars, or native landlords, and the acceptance145 of presents by the Company’s servants in India—a fertile source of corruption and oppression—would be strictly forbidden. Fox admitted that the private influence of the Crown, even in its worst days, was nothing compared with that of the East India Company, and wisely abstained for the present from naming the seven commissioners whom he proposed to appoint.183

Here was the weak point of an otherwise excellent measure; and Pitt, towards whom all eyes were directed, fastened upon it. While admitting the urgent need of reform, he deprecated the abrogation of all the charters and privileges of an ancient Company under the plea of necessity. “Is not necessity,” he said, “the plea of every illegal exertion of power? Is not necessity the pretence of every usurpation? Necessity is the argument of tyrants: it is the creed of slaves.” Further, what evils must result if that formidable political weapon, the patronage of the Company, were transferred to the Ministers then in power, and finally to the Crown? On the one side it would tend to the grossest corruption, on the other, to despotism.184

Pitt, it will be seen, opposed the measure owing to the indirect but inevitable consequences which it would entail in the vitiated state of affairs then existing in Parliament, where an unwholesome Coalition held together only with the aim of enjoying the spoils of office and even richer booty in the future.185 The possession of the enormous patronage of the India Company opened up golden vistas that fired the imaginations even of the dull squires who trooped after Lord North. As for the far livelier followers of Fox, they were jubilant at prospects which promised not only places in the East, but a long lease of power at St. Stephen’s. Their opponents were alike depressed and indignant. A former friend of Fox, Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, commented on the “spirit of ambition, rapacity and confiscation” that characterized his proposals; and the bad impression caused by the patronage section of his Bill was intensified when it appeared that four of the seven new commissioners were to be declared Foxites, better known at Brooks’s Club than at the India House, namely, Lord Fitzwilliam, Frederick Montagu, Sir Henry146 Fletcher, and Robert Gregory. In Lord North’s interest there were his son, Colonel North, Viscount Lewisham, and Sir Gilbert Elliot.

The appointment of seven pronounced partisans to these posts of almost unbounded responsibility wrecked the measure. In itself the Bill contained many excellent features. The transference of governing power from the Company to Parliament in conjunction with the Crown, on terms ultimately favourable to the latter, was a bold step; but much could be said for it, and Pitt certainly overshot the limits of fair criticism in his first speech. If Fox and North had chosen the seven commissioners fairly from among all three parties, the mouths of gainsayers would have been stopped. Now, however, the partisan corollary to the measure justified the most vehement strictures. A flood of satire was poured on the Bill. Two caricatures in particular had a very wide circulation, probably at the expense of the threatened Company. One represented Fox as Samson carrying off the ruins of the East India House; the second, by Sayer, who soon became Pitt’s man and received a small post from him, showed Fox as Carlo Khan riding into Delhi on an elephant having the face of Lord North, and preceded by Burke as trumpeter.

Pitt wrote privately to the Governor of the Company suggesting that its prestige would be enhanced if a meeting of its creditors could be arranged and a declaration could be procured that they would allow ample time for the discharge of their claims.186 But caricatures, suggestions, and petitions were needless. The same facts which discredited the Bill in the country whetted the eagerness of the ministerial majority in Parliament. At the second reading Pitt briskly renewed his attacks; and he now had the support of William Grenville in a statesmanlike speech, which lacked “the commanding tone, the majesty, and all the captivating rotundity and splendour of Pitt’s eloquence,” but equalled it in argumentative power.187 Dundas, Jenkinson, and Scott (the future Lord Eldon), reinforced the assault: but all was in vain. Burke, in a majestic oration, proclaimed that the Bill would save India from manifold evils which he depicted with righteous indignation.188 But material interests told more than eloquence and morality. The influence of Ministers and the hopes of their followers ensured the speedy passing of this complex147 and far-reaching measure through the Commons by a final majority of 208 votes to 102 (3rd December).

This was a heavy blow to the Opposition, especially to Pitt, who had said that he would fight the whole Bill, clause by clause. Horace Walpole wrote two days later that Pitt had slunk from the contest, but that the check would do him good, dazzled as he had been by his premature fame. Walpole also remarked that, while excelling Chatham in logical power, the son had much less firmness and perseverance. Readers of those charming letters will note with some amusement that in the middle of the next month, Walpole wrote that nothing but obstinacy prevented Pitt resigning his post as Prime Minister. After that Walpole gave up the rôle of political prophet.

For now there occurred a series of events which taught modesty to wiseacres. The King intervened in a surprising manner. In the House of Lords influence from above was suddenly pitted against the interests of the nether world. George III had long been awaiting a fit opportunity for tripping up the hated Ministry. A few weeks before, he had covered Fox and North with ridicule in front of the whole Court. Acting on the first rumour of the death of Sir Eyre Coote in India, they had proffered a request that his ribbon of the Order of the Bath should go to a friend, and believed that they had secured the granted assent of the Sovereign. The aspirant therefore appeared at the next levée at St. James’s Palace with the officers of the Order; but the King, affecting great surprise at the unseemly haste of his ministers in acting on unofficial information, refused to confer the ribbon, repulsed their entreaties, and postponed the ceremony.189

George was now to taste the sweets of revenge in a matter more than ceremonial. His coadjutor was Earl Temple, who had advised him to wait until the times were ripe; and from a MS. preserved at Chevening we learn that the King hastily sent for the Earl on the night of 11th December. Thurlow also had an interview with him and pointed out in unmeasured terms the humiliations which he would suffer from Fox’s India Bill, namely, that it would transfer to the present Ministers “more than half the royal power.” Always jealous of his patronage, the King at once determined to ward off so insidious an attack. But he and his advisers acted with characteristic caution. They considered—and148 this is an interesting point in our constitutional history—that the exercise of the royal veto on the Bill, if it should pass both Houses, would be a “violent” step.190 They preferred to act secretly and indirectly through the Lords.

In order to exert pressure in the most drastic way possible, a card was written (probably in the King’s hand) stating “That 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.”191 Armed with this card, Temple set to work to whittle down the Fox-North majority. His success was startling and complete. The golden glint of the spoils of the Indies paled under the thunder-cloud of the royal displeasure. The fear of losing all chance of advancement at home, whether titular or material, sent place-hunters and trimmers trooping over to the Opposition; and a measure, the success of which seemed assured, was thrown out on 17th December by a majority of nineteen. On the next day the King ordered Lord North and Fox to send in their Seals of office by their Under-Secretaries, “as a personal interview on the occasion would be disagreeable to him.” He entrusted the Seals at once to Temple, who on the day following signified to the other Ministers their dismissal from office. On the same day, 19th December, the King sent for Pitt and appointed him First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

* * * * *

Thus it was that Pitt became Prime Minister before he attained his twenty-fifth year. His acceptance of office after the recent use of the royal prerogative is an action that stands in need of defence. There can be no doubt that George III abused his power by seeking in an underhand way to influence the votes of the Peers. The assertion of Earl Stanhope that his action did not involve the infraction of any specific rule of the constitution will not pass muster. As was ably pointed out in the debate in the Commons on 17th December, the three parts of the constitution, King, Lords, and Commons, exist independently; and, just as the interference of one branch of the Legislature in the debates and actions of the other is most properly resented,149 so too the intervention of the Crown during the debates is undoubtedly an infraction of the liberties of Parliament. While not forbidden by any specific rule of the constitution, such action contravenes the spirit of the ninth clause of the Bill of Rights, which stipulates for complete freedom of debate and speech in Parliament.

The attitude of Pitt towards this question during the debate of 17th December in the Commons is noteworthy. He did not attempt to defend such a use of the royal prerogative as was then first reported: he asserted, no doubt with perfect sincerity, that the report was an idle rumour, of which the House could take no cognizance. The House did not share his opinion. Swayed by a vehement speech of Fox, who declaimed against the “infernal spirit of intrigue” ever present in the King’s counsels, and charged Pitt with an underhand attempt to gain power, members decided by a majority of nearly two to one that to report the opinion, or pretended opinion, of the King on any Bill under discussion in Parliament, was a high crime and misdemeanour, subversive of the constitution.192

It was in face of these resolutions that Pitt, on 19th December, took office. If he looked solely to Parliament, his position was hopeless. Confronting him was a hostile majority, smarting under a great disappointment, and threatening him, and still more his relative, Earl Temple, with the penalties of the constitution. On hearing the news of his acceptance of office, the members of the Coalition burst into loud laughter, and gleefully trooped over to the Opposition benches. Scarcely could they conceal their mirth during the ensuing debates; and on 22nd December the House resolved itself into a Committee to consider the state of the nation. Certainly Pitt’s position was trying enough; for his triumph seemed to be the result of a backstairs intrigue, unworthy of the son of Chatham, and fatal to the influence of Parliament. He figured as the King’s Minister, carried to office by the votes of nineteen Peers, against the will of the Commons. One can therefore understand the persistence of the Whig tradition, in which his action appeared the great betrayal of the liberties of Parliament.

Nevertheless, if we carry the question to the highest Court of Appeal, the action of Pitt is justifiable. The prerogatives of150 Parliament are subservient to the interests of the nation. And when the majority of the House of Commons acts in a way strongly reprobated by public opinion, its authority undergoes an immediate eclipse. In a not dissimilar case, Chatham dared to appeal from a discredited House to the people at large; and his son was justified in taking a step which involved a reference to the people’s will at the first favourable opportunity. Pitt always looked on the Coalition as an unprincipled intrigue, in which the forms of the constitution were used in order to violate its spirit. He knew that the country condemned what Romilly termed “that scandalous alliance.” The original crime of the Coalition seemed more than ever heinous when Ministers appointed solely their own nominees to regulate Indian affairs. This very fact damned the India Bill in the eyes of the public, which cared not a jot for parliamentary majorities held together by hopes of booty. Men who had formerly inveighed against George III now began to revise their judgements and to pronounce even his last device justifiable when directed against Ministers who were about to perpetrate the most gigantic job of the century. In looking away from the votes of a corrupt Parliament to the will of the nation, Pitt was but following in the footsteps of his father, who had more than once made a similar appeal, and never in vain.

Finally we must remember that Pitt did not take office as a “King’s Friend.” He had consistently refused to bind himself down to the conditions which George III sought to impose. The King knew full well that he had to deal with a man of sternly independent nature. He had failed to bend Pitt’s will in the summer, when conditions favoured his own “cause.” Now, when he was accused of violating the constitution, and a hostile majority in the Commons held most threatening language, he could not but uphold a Minister who stood forth in his defence. If in July Pitt refused to bow before the royal behests, surely he might expect to dictate his own terms in December. The King’s difficulty was Pitt’s opportunity; and, as events were to prove, George III had, at least for a time, to give up his attempts at personal rule and to acquiesce in the rule of a Prime Minister who gave unity and strength to the administration. While freeing himself from the loathed yoke of the Whig oligarchy, the King unwittingly accepted the control of a man who personified the nation.


The importance of the events of 17th-22nd December 1783 can scarcely be overrated. In a personal sense they exerted an incalculable influence on the fortunes of George III, Pitt, Fox, Burke, and many lesser men. In constitutional history, as will afterwards appear, they brought about the development of the Cabinet and the reconstruction of the two chief political parties in their modern forms. The happy ending of the crisis enabled the ship of State to reach smoother waters and make harbour, though many of her crew and all foreign beholders looked on her as wellnigh a castaway. All this, and more, depended on Pitt’s action in those days. He knew the serious nature of the emergency; and at such a time it behoves the one able steersman to take the helm, regardless of all cries as to his youth and his forwardness. Pitt had the proud confidence of Chatham, that he and he alone could save the kingdom, and the verdict of mankind has applauded the resolve of the father in the crisis of 1756, and the determination of his youthful son in the equally dark days at the close of 1783. Conduct, which in a weak and pliable man would have been a crime, is one of the many titles to fame of William Pitt the Younger.



Let me lament,
With tears as sovereign as the blood of hearts,
That thou, my brother, my competitor
In top of all design, my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle—that our stars,
Unreconciliable, should divide
Our equalness to this.
Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.

The first difficulty which confronted the young Prime Minister was of a personal nature. On or about 23rd December, his cousin, Earl Temple, threw up the Seals and forthwith retired to his domain of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. This event seemed to presage the death of the infant administration, which the action of the Earl had largely helped to call to being. So assured was Fox of victory that he ascribed Temple’s resignation to cowardice, and expressed regret at it because the inevitable fall of the new Ministry would be explained away by the action of the Earl.193 Undoubtedly it was a severe blow to Pitt. Bishop Tomline states that, on visiting him early on the next morning, he found he had not had a moment’s sleep, an occurrence without parallel in time of health.194 For Pitt, like Napoleon, Wellington, and other hard workers, enjoyed the priceless boon of sound and restful slumber.

The reasons for Temple’s retirement cannot fully be fathomed153 owing to the loss of his letters in these important weeks; but we know from the Buckingham Papers that he was disgusted with political life and had claimed the award of some honour as a sign of the King’s approval of his services in Ireland, after his abrupt dismissal by Fox and North. The proud and sensitive nobleman doubtless entered into the plan for the overthrow of those enemies, in the hope of benefiting the State and setting the crown on his own career. Rumour had already assigned to him the Dukedom of Buckingham, and in this case that lying jade truthfully voiced his desires.195

The prominent part which he had played in the late intrigue doubtless led him to insist on some high honour. As to the nature of the claim and its reception by Pitt we know nothing; for he loyally maintained silence as to the cause of the rupture; but the Earl’s letter of 29th December to Pitt breathes suppressed resentment in every line. It is the peevish outpouring of a disappointed man, who saw his protégés in Ireland neglected, and his own wishes slighted.196

The question arises—why did not Pitt press the claims of his cousin? His services in Ireland had been valuable; and to him the Prime Minister very largely owed his present position. The answer would seem to be that Pitt soon found out the truth as to his objectionable use of the King’s name. At first he rejected the rumour to that effect, and it is consonant with his character to suppose that, after probing the matter to the bottom, he declined to press on the King Earl Temple’s claims. The rupture was sharp and sudden. It is even possible that high words passed between them. In any case, it is certain that Pitt did not raise the question of a reward for the Earl’s services until ten months later. Good taste may also have determined his conduct in this matter. How could he at once confer a high dignity on the very man whose politic whisperings had helped to raise him to power? Time must elapse before Temple could gain the reward for his services in Ireland; and it was not until early in October 1784 that Pitt mooted the question of the Marquisate of Buckingham or the Order of the Garter.197 The following new letter from Pitt to his cousin, preserved in the Chevening154 archives, contains the official notification of the former of these honours.

Downing St.
Nov. 23, 1784.

My dear Lord,

Your Lordship will receive from Lord Sydney the official notification of His Majesty’s having given orders for preparing a Patent giving your Lordship the rank of Marquis. In addition to this mark of His Majesty’s favour, I have great satisfaction in being authorized to assure your Lordship that, if His Majesty should depart from His present determination, of not giving the rank of Duke out of His Royal Family, it is His gracious intention to include your Lordship in any such promotion. I need not add how happy I am in obeying H.M.’s commands on this occasion, nor how truly I am at all times,

My dear Lord,
Your most affectionate and faithful servant,
W. Pitt.

Turning from this personal matter, which brought friction for a time between the Pitt and Grenville families, we notice other difficulties confronting the young Premier, which might have daunted an experienced statesman. The frivolous looked on with amusement at his efforts.—“Well, Mr. Pitt may do what he likes during the holidays; but it will only be a mince-pie administration, depend upon it.” So spake that truest of true blues, Mrs. Crewe, to Wilberforce on 22nd December; and she voiced the general opinion. Yet Pitt never faltered. On the next day Wilberforce noted in his journal: “Pitt nobly firm. Evening [at] Pitt’s. Cabinet formed.” On one topic alone did the young chief show any anxiety. “What am I to do,” he asked, “if they stop the supplies?” “They will not stop them,” replied his brother-in-law, Lord Mahon, “it is the very thing they will not venture to do.”198 The surmise of this vivacious young nobleman (afterwards Earl Stanhope) was for a time correct; but Pitt had rightly foreseen the chief difficulty in his path. For the present, on the receipt of a message from the King that no dissolution or prorogation would take place, Parliament separated quietly for the vacation (26th December).

For Pitt that Christmastide brought little but disappointment and anxiety. His cares were not lessened by the conduct which155 he found it desirable to pursue towards the Earl of Shelburne, long the official leader of the Chathamites. He did not include him in his Ministry, partly, perhaps, from a feeling of delicacy at asking his former chief to serve under him, but mainly from a conviction that his unpopularity would needlessly burden the labouring ship of State. To Orde he expressed his deep obligations to the Earl, but lamented his inability to leave out of count “the absolute influence of prejudice” against him. He did not even consult Shelburne as to the choice of coadjutors; and the Earl let it be known that he would have no connection with the new men, “lest he should injure them.”199 Pitt also sustained several direct rebuffs. Though, on 19th December, he sent an obsequious request to the Duke of Grafton to strengthen his hands by accepting the Privy Seal, that nobleman declined.200 Camden was equally coy; and, strangest of all, his own brother-in-law, Mahon, would not come forward. We can detect a note of anxiety in the following letter of Pitt to Lord Sackville, formerly Germain, which I have discovered in the Pitt Papers (No. 102):

Dec. 29, 1783.

My Lord,

In the arduous situation in which His Majesty has condescended to command my services at this important juncture, I am necessarily anxious to obtain the honor of a support and assistance so important as your Lordship’s. I flatter myself Mr. Herbert will have had the goodness to express my sense of the honor your Lordship did me by your obliging expressions towards me. Permit me to add how much mortification I received in being disappointed of his assistance at the Board of the Admiralty, which I took the liberty of proposing to him, in consequence of the conversation Lord Temple had had with your Lordship. I should sincerely lament if any change of arrangements produced by Lord Temple’s resignation should deprive the King and country in any degree of a support which the present crisis renders so highly material to both. If your Lordship would still allow us to hope that you might be induced to mark by Mr. Herbert’s acceptance your disposition in favour of the King’s Government, the opening may be made with the greatest ease at any moment, and Your Lordship’s commands on the subject would give me particular satisfaction.


From Wraxall’s Memoirs201 we learn that the writer undertook to pave the way for the receipt of Pitt’s letter; but all was in vain. Lord Sackville refused to take office, though he promised a general support.

The most serious refusal was that of the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland by Earl Cornwallis. George III highly approved of Pitt’s proposal of that nobleman, whose tact and forbearance would have proved of infinite service in so troublous a time.202 Who knows whether the rebellion and savage reprisals of 1798 might not have been averted by the adoption of wiser methods at Dublin Castle in the eighties? As it was, the most difficult administrative duty in the Empire was soon to devolve upon a young nobleman, the Duke of Rutland, whose chief qualifications seem to have been his showy parts, his splendid hospitality, and his early patronage of Pitt.

The Cabinet as finally formed comprised the following seven members: Pitt, First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Marquis of Carmarthen (son of the Duke of Leeds), an amiable but unenterprising Secretary for Foreign Affairs; Lord Sydney (T. Townshend), Home Secretary; Earl Gower, President of the Council (up to December 1784, when Earl Camden succeeded him); the Duke of Rutland, Lord Privy Seal (up to November 1784, when Earl Gower succeeded him, the Duke taking the Viceroyalty of Ireland); Lord Howe, First Lord of the Admiralty; Lord Thurlow, Lord Chancellor. In debating power this Cabinet was deficient. Apart from Pitt and Thurlow, not one of the Ministers could make a tolerable speech, or possessed the strength of character which makes up for oratorical deficiencies.

Thurlow might have been a tower of strength in the Lords, but for his duplicity, bad temper, and domineering ways. For the present, Pitt had to put up with him as a disagreeable necessity. There was something so threatening in his aspect as to elicit Thelwall’s picturesque description of him as a man with157 the Norman Conquest in his eyebrow and the Feudal System in every feature of his face. Add to these formidable gifts a sonorous voice, his powers of crushing retort, above all, his secret connection with George III, and his influence in the Upper House can be imagined. Yet his reputation rested on a slight basis; his knowledge of law was narrow, his culture slight, and his private character contemptible. He was known to bully his mistress and his illegitimate daughters, just as he browbeat juries and Whigs.203 On the whole his reputation is hard to explain save on the ground that the majority of mankind is apt to be imposed on by externals, and is too uncritical or too lazy to sound the depths of character.

For the present Pitt tolerated Thurlow just as the commander of an untried warship might tolerate the presence of an imposing gun of uncertain power, in the midst of light weapons. The boom of his voice was worth something to a Ministry in which the posts not of Cabinet rank were filled as follows: The Duke of Richmond, Master-General of the Ordnance;204 Kenyon, Attorney-General; Pepper Arden, Solicitor-General; William Grenville (afterwards Lord Grenville) and Lord Mulgrave, joint Paymasters of the Forces; Henry Dundas (afterwards Lord Melville), Treasurer of the Navy; Sir George Yonge, Secretary at War; George Rose and Thomas Steele, Secretaries of the Treasury; Thomas Orde, Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. Of these the Duke of Richmond had great private influence, but was personally unpopular. Grenville and Rose were useful, hard-working men, but uninteresting in personality and speech. Their characters and that of Dundas will concern us in Chapter XII. Here we may note that the bold and jovial nature of Dundas made him popular as a man; but his defection from Lord North, and his capacity for intrigue impaired his influence in the House. Nevertheless his fighting powers, his legal training, his knowledge of men and affairs, and his skill in parrying the blows of the Opposition made him an effective lieutenant in the House. By degrees, as we shall see, he acquired great influence over Pitt; and after his entry to the Cabinet as Home Secretary in 1791, he, together with Grenville, came to form around Pitt what may almost be termed an inner Cabinet. For the present,158 however, the distrust with which the “Caledonian thane” was regarded permitted him to be no more than the chief among Pitt’s subordinates; and the ingenious poetaster of the “Rolliad” maliciously aimed these lines at his weakest point, his inconsistency:

His ready tongue with sophistries at will
Can say, unsay, and be consistent still;
This day can censure, and the next retract,
In speech extol, and stigmatize in act.

The other subordinates claim only the briefest notice. Sir George Yonge was a nonentity, under whom the British army sank to the nadir of efficiency. Kenyon and Pepper Arden were very young men; the latter was one of Pitt’s Cambridge friends, lively and amiable, but having little influence in debate. The House could not take Pepper seriously. On the whole the Ministry aroused little confidence among friends and much derision among opponents. The general opinion was expressed by Sir Gilbert Elliot (first Earl of Minto) that Pitt’s colleagues were “a set of children playing at Ministers, and must be sent back to school, and in a few days all will have returned to its former course.”205 On the other hand Daniel Pulteney, writing to the Duke of Rutland, said that people approved the appointments and were glad that Pitt, in showing attention to existing interests, proved himself to be not “too virtuous and speculative for a Minister.”206

Such were the predictions concerning a premiership which was to last nearly eighteen years. In one respect the mediocrity of his colleagues made Pitt’s task easier. His commanding temper would never have brooked the superior airs of the earls, Temple and Shelburne. From the outset he could carry out his plan of moulding the Cabinet to his will and enforcing its discipline, without hindrance except from Thurlow; and the final ejection of that cross-grained egoist marked not only the triumph of Pitt, but also the consolidation of the Cabinet in what seems to be its permanent form, a body moulded by, and largely responsible to, the Prime Minister.

All this was hidden from the gaze of the most discerning amidst the gloom and uncertainties of the first days of the year 1784. Shortly before Parliament re-assembled events occurred159 which helped to strengthen a confessedly weak administration. At the request of Pitt, George III created four new peerages. Thomas Pitt received the title of Lord Camelford; Edward Eliot (father of Pitt’s brother-in-law) became Lord Eliot; Henry Thynne was created Lord Carteret; and a barony was conferred on the second son of the Duke of Northumberland. Thus the sources of nobility, which had remained hermetically sealed during the previous administration, were now opened with a highly suggestive readiness.

Another incident, which it is more pleasing to relate, concerned Pitt alone. On 11th January the Clerkship of the Pells, a sinecure worth £3,000 a year for life, fell vacant by the death of Sir Edward Walpole, a younger son of the Whig statesman. According to precedent, it would have been not only justifiable, but usual for Pitt to take this post. Despite the advice of his friends to this effect, Pitt refused to increase his very slender private income at the public expense, and prevailed on Colonel Barré to accept the sinecure in place of the pension of £3,200 a year generously voted to him by the economical Rockingham. This most unexpected conduct, which of course saved the public funds the amount of that pension, was loudly praised by Barré himself and by all who were not inveterate partisans. These last decried Pitt’s action as resulting either from love of applause or from priggishness. The taunt has been echoed in later times, even by those who laud to the skies Chatham’s self-abnegation in the matter of official perquisites. Nothing better illustrates the malice which has dogged the footsteps of the son than that sneers should be his reward for an action similar in all respects to that which has elicited praise for his father. Both of them, surely, desired at the outset to emphasize their resolve to put down financial jobbery in the public service. Their actions were prompted solely by patriotism.

On 12th January, when Parliament met, Pitt had to bear the brunt of reiterated attacks from Fox, Erskine, and General Conway, under cover of motions for resuming a Committee to consider the state of the nation. The young Minister parried their blows by stating his resolve to bring in very soon an India Bill. Then, flinging back their taunts, that he had crept into office by the backstairs, he uttered these memorable words: “The integrity of my own heart and the probity of the public, as well as my private principles, shall always be my sources of160 action. I will never condescend to be the instrument of any secret advisers whatever; nor in any one instance, while I have the honour to act as Minister of the Crown in this House, will I be responsible for measures not my own, or at least in which my heart and judgement do not cordially acquiesce.” The glance of contempt which he flung at Lord North (the unwilling tool of George III in the American War) gave point to this declaration. In truth, it sounded the keynote of Pitt’s career. He came into office to save the country from the Coalition, but he came in untrammelled by royal control; and his action in resigning in 1801 evinced the proud consistency of his convictions.

Beaten in the first division in the House of Commons by a majority of thirty-nine, and on the next day by even larger numbers, he held on his way unmoved.207 In consonance with the traditions of Chatham, he cared little for Parliament provided that the country was with him; and of this there were unmistakable proofs. The East India Company, acting through a sub-committee which sat permanently for the defence of its interests, was arousing all the chartered bodies of the land against a policy that seemed to threaten other vested interests. “Our property and charter are forcibly invaded: look to your own.” This was the battle-cry, unscrupulous but effective, which made aldermen, freemen, wardens, and liverymen of venerable companies bestir themselves. A little later the City of London sent an address of thanks to the King for his action in saving the country from the evils of Fox’s India Bill.

* * * * *

Thus Pitt, wafted onwards by the breath of popular favour, could confidently expose his India Bill to the contrary gusts that eddied in the House of Commons (14th January 1784). The methods used in its preparation were in signal contrast to those employed by Fox. The Whig leader, far from consulting the East India Company, had drawn up his Bill in concert with Burke and others hostile to its interests and ill-informed as to its working. Pitt, on the contrary, took care to find out the views entertained in Leadenhall Street. The Pitt Papers show that the161 Company manifested a desire to meet him more than half way, and that their representative officials conferred with him on 5th January 1784. Indeed, his Bill was in large measure the outcome of resolutions which seem to have been framed at that conference and which gained the assent of five-sixths of those present at a General Court of the Company held on 10th January. The resolutions were to this effect:—That the Company, confiding in the justice of Government for the relief of some of its most pressing claims, consented that the following powers should be vested in the Crown: (1) All despatches to or from India to be communicated to one of the King’s Ministers, and the Directors must conform to the King’s pleasure. The controlling power to be vested in the Minister and other responsible persons delegated to attend to the affairs of the Company. (2) Despatches relating to commercial affairs must likewise be submitted to the Minister, who may negative them if they bear on civil or military Government, or on the revenues of the Company. In case of dispute, the decision of His Majesty in Council shall be final. (3) The General Court of the Company shall be restrained from rescinding any act of the Court of Directors only after the King’s pleasure shall have been signified on the same. (4) The Government in India to be carried on in the name of the Company by a Governor and three councillors in each of the Presidencies, the Governor and the Commander-in-Chief (who shall be next in Council to the Governor) being appointed and recalled by the Crown, while the Company appointed the two other councillors, subject to His Majesty’s approbation. They could be recalled either by the Crown or by the Company.208

When the Company agreed to sacrifice so much of its powers, the battle was half won; but, for the present, the chief difficulty lay in the House of Commons. In introducing his India Bill on 14th January, Pitt sought to forestall the criticisms of the hostile majority by reminding the House that the government of territories so remote and so different from our own must be in a sense irrational—“inconvenient to the mother and supreme power, oppressive and inadequate to the necessities of the governed.” In such a case any scheme of government must be a choice between162 inconveniences. He then stated the principles on which he based his proposals. Firstly, the Indian dominion must not be in the hands of the Company of merchants in Leadenhall Street. Nevertheless, any change should be made not violently, but with the concurrence of that Company, its commercial affairs being left as far as possible to its supervision, wherever they were not mixed up with questions of policy and revenue. Where these questions were involved, obviously Government must have a voice.

Having laid down these guiding principles, he proceeded to fill in details. He claimed that his proposals were such as not to interfere arbitrarily with the privileges of the Company; and that his new Board of Control would be found to be, not the organ of a party, but an adjunct of the governmental machinery. It was to consist of at least two of the Ministers of the Crown, namely, the Secretary for Home Affairs and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, along with a certain number of Privy Councillors named by the King. These last were to attend regularly, and were not to be paid. All the despatches of the Company, except those of a completely commercial nature, were to be submitted to the new India Board and countersigned by it. While not controlling the patronage of the Company, the Board would have the right to negative their chief appointments. The three Presidencies were henceforth to be administered, each by a Governor (a Governor-General in the case of Bengal), a Commander-in-Chief, and a Council. The Crown would appoint these three Commanders-in-Chief, and would have the right of recalling the Governors and their councillors—a clause calculated to prevent such a fiasco as that of the attempted recall of Warren Hastings. Finally, in order to curb the abuses in the Company’s service, Pitt proposed to institute at Westminster a tribunal for the trial of offences committed in India, and he suggested that parts of the second India Bill of Fox might be adopted for the prevention of abuses in India.

There can be no doubt that this measure excelled that of Fox in many respects. It left the actual details of administration to Governors and councillors who were on the spot and could act therefore with promptitude; but, by subjecting them in all matters other than commercial to what was in effect a special committee of the Privy Council, it associated the Government of India with the British constitution in a way that answered the needs of the time and the developments of the future.


But the House of Commons was in no mood to gauge the excellences of the scheme. It was swayed rather by the vehement criticisms of Fox, who declared that the Bill gave far too much influence to the Crown, and that, if passed, it must inevitably lead to the loss of India. The Fox-North Coalition still voted solidly for their chiefs, and on 23rd January the measure was thrown out on the second reading by 222 votes to 214.

Scenes of great excitement ensued. Fox and his followers loudly called on the Ministry to resign. Pitt sat still, vouchsafing no reply to the clamour, except when General Conway accused him of sending agents over the land to corrupt the voters. Then he started to his feet, defying Conway to substantiate the charge, but, for the rest, declaring his indifference to the slanders of opponents, and his determination to work for the welfare of the State.

Three days later, when Fox charged him with acting as the unconstitutional Minister of the Crown and overriding the powers of Parliament, he replied that such was not his act and intention. His conduct was unusual because the occasion was unprecedented. To have resigned after the recent vote would have brought to power Ministers who, he believed, had not the confidence of the nation; and he further pointed to the recent diminution of the votes of the Opposition. The argument was telling, for the hostile majority had dwindled from one hundred and six on 3rd December, to thirty-nine on 12th January, and now to eight. These facts clinched his contention that the feeling of the House was inclining to the favourable verdict which the country had begun to declare. A shrewd observer like Wraxall came to see that Pitt was vindicating the constitution even in his seeming breach of it.209

Nevertheless, everything was at hazard. Though the majority against him lessened, it was still a clear majority; and to appeal from an indisputable fact to what was at most a surmise, seemed a defiance of the House. As such it met with severe handling at the hands of Fox and his sturdy henchman, Coke of Norfolk. They, however, finally agreed to adjourn the whole question for three days. Why Fox did not at once press his advantage to the utmost is hard to say. Perhaps he feared to let loose the passions of the House upon the country at large when Consols were164 down at 54 and national ruin seemed imminent. He may have desired to gain time in order to watch the trend of public opinion, and to appear as a peace-restoring Neptune rather than an inconsiderate Aeolus.

An influential minority of the House longed for calm. On that very day fifty-three of its members met privately at the St. Albans Tavern to urge a union of parties on a more natural and less unpopular basis than the Fox-North Coalition. Appointing a committee of five, they besought the Duke of Portland to use his influence to bring about a connection between Fox and Pitt. As we have seen, the hostility of these statesmen had arisen, not from difference of principles, but from the divergent interests of party groups. It had, however, been inflamed by Pitt’s acceptance of office in circumstances that were especially odious to Fox; and the Whig leader, in his speech of 26th January, pointedly declared that, while admitting the urgent need of union and conciliation, he must insist on the vindication of the honour of the House by the resignation of the present unconstitutional Ministry. A similar declaration was sent on the same day by the Duke of Portland to the committee of the St. Albans Tavern meeting.

Such a beginning was far from promising. Clearly an understanding existed between the nominal and real chiefs of the Whig party with a view to forcing on a dissolution. This implied that the conciliators were appealing to party-leaders to act as arbiters, and that they at once passed judgement against the Pitt Ministry. Matters were not improved during a debate in the House on the need of forming an extended Administration (2nd February). Fox, while disclaiming any personal hostility to Pitt, insisted on the resignation of Ministers as the first step towards the formation of a wider Administration. On his side Pitt once more declared that any union between them must be formed in an honourable way, and that it would be paltry for him to resign merely in order to treat for re-admission to office. The original motion having passed unanimously, a hostile resolution was then brought forward substantiating Fox’s declaration. Whereupon Pitt, nettled by these insidious tactics, declared that he would never change his armour and beg to be received as a volunteer among the forces of the enemy. Never, he exclaimed, would he consent to resign before the terms of such a union were arranged. If the House desired to drive the Ministry165 from office there were two ways open—either to petition the King for their removal, or to impeach them. At present their remaining in office was not unconstitutional. The hostile motion, however, passed by a majority of nineteen; and by a slightly larger majority the House resolved to lay its decision before the King.

That day was perhaps the most critical of Pitt’s parliamentary career. The feeling of the House seemed to be turning against him; and the negotiations at the St. Albans Tavern (which went on intermittently until 1st March) were far from favourable to his interests. Both sides agreed as to the goal to be reached, but each threw on the other the responsibility of taking the first step, which that other declined on points of honour. At the outset the Duke of Portland declined to see Pitt with respect to a union until he had resigned. Then, on 31st January, he hinted, obscurely enough, that the Minister might find a middle way; and when Pitt requested an explanation, he referred him to recent precedents, which were in effect resignations.

The good sense which rarely deserts the House of Commons for long reappeared on 11th February. Fox then professed not only his readiness to serve with Pitt, when he had complied with the terms of the constitution, but also his desire to meet him half-way as to the details of a new India Bill of which he had given notice. Pitt replied in a similar spirit, but declared that there were some men with whom he could not serve. Thereupon Lord North, at whom this shaft was levelled, declared his willingness to stand aside if the voice of the country demanded it. No act in his career did him more credit, and the incident aroused a general hope that Pitt would now feel himself able with honour to resign.

He refused, however, to take that step, probably because of the continued obduracy of the Duke of Portland. The St. Albans Tavern Committee had besought the King to intervene in order to facilitate an interview between Pitt and the Duke. Accordingly on Sunday, 16th February, the King rather reluctantly urged the Duke to meet the Prime Minister, but signified privately to Pitt his resolve never to apply to His Grace again if he still declined.210 Nevertheless the Duke refused to unbend.

The last stage of the negotiations illustrates the niggling166 methods of partisanship prevalent in those times. In answer to a final appeal from the committee, Pitt and his colleagues urged the King to make one more effort to bring the Duke of Portland to an accommodation. The reply of the King on 26th February shows that, in spite of his strong objections, he made that effort, but with the stipulation that the Duke should have “no right to anything above an equal share to others in the new administration, not to be the head of it, whatever employment he may hold.” Pitt amplified this statement by declaring that the new Ministry would be formed “on a wide basis, and on fair and equal terms.” Obviously this implied the entry of the followers of Portland and Fox on equal terms with those of Pitt; but the Duke, while approving the word “fair,” required to know the meaning of the word “equal”; and when Pitt replied that this could be best explained in their interview, the Duke refused to come unless the meaning of the word were first made clear.211 This straining at gnats put an end to the negotiations. It is now abundantly clear that Pitt went as far as could be expected, and that the continuation of the deadlock resulted from the captiousness of the Duke of Portland.

Ten years were to elapse before the Portland Whigs came in to strengthen Pitt’s hands, and their accession amid the storms of the French Revolution involved the break up of the Whig party. In February 1784 there was a chance that the whole party would form a working alliance with Pitt and the Chathamites. Such a union would have formed a phalanx strong enough to renovate the life of Great Britain and to prepare her better to stand the strain of the coming crises. It was not to be. Obviously no union could be lasting where the party knocking for admission insisted on dictating its terms and gaining admission to the citadel.

There is, indeed, an air of unreality about these negotiations, probably due to the fact that each party was intent on the state of public opinion and the chances of a dissolution. The same fact probably explains the action of Fox in the House. Time after time he carried motions of censure against Pitt, though by wavering majorities. He and his followers hindered the apportionment of the supplies, threatened to block the annual Mutiny Bill, and went so far as to hold the menace of impeachment over167 the heads of Ministers. When the Lords by a large majority reprobated the actions of the Commons and begged the King to continue his Ministers in office, the intervention of the Upper House was strongly resented by the Coalition majority.212

Yet Fox never pressed his attacks home. The threats of impeachment remained mere stage thunder, probably because he doubted his power to launch the bolt. There was, indeed, much truth in Pitt’s description of him as “the champion of a small majority of this House against the loud and decided voice of this people.” Hatred of the unnatural Coalition, far from declining, was intensified by Pitt’s manly and consistent conduct. The popular imagination thrilled at the sight of the young Premier braving the clamour of Foxites and Northites in reliance upon the final verdict of the nation. According to all the constitutional text-books, the Whig leader spoke sound doctrine when he declaimed against Pitt’s tenure of office in the teeth of the repeated censures of the House; but men discerned the weakness of the Opposition; they weighed it rather than counted heads; and in the balances of common sense the Fox-North majority kicked the beam. Westminster and Banbury, the very places which had returned Fox and North, now sent up addresses of thanks to the King for dismissing them from office. Middlesex, Edinburgh, York, Worcester, Exeter, and Southwark, besides many smaller places, sent in addresses to the same effect, thereby in some cases dishonouring the parliamentary drafts of their members. The City of London, the home of blatant Whiggism at the time of the Wilkes affair, now thanked Pitt for his services and voted him its freedom, with the accompaniment of a gold box. His ride into the city on 28th February to receive this honour resembled a royal progress, and Wilkes was the man who welcomed him to the Hall of the Grocers’ Company, where he was entertained at a great banquet.

Nor was his popularity lessened by an incident that attended his return to his brother’s residence in Berkeley Square. His carriage, drawn along by a cheering crowd, was passing the chief social centre of the Foxites, Brooks’s Club, when a sudden rush was made at it by a body of stalwart ruffians armed with sticks and the broken poles of sedan-chairs. So fierce was the onset that the carriage doors crashed in, and Lord Chatham with168 difficulty parried the blows aimed at his brother. For some moments they were in serious danger, but, aided by their partisans, they succeeded in escaping to White’s Club, hard by. Fox was loudly accused of being the author of this outrage. But, of course, it would be foolish to lay this brutal attack to his charge. It seems probable, however, that hangers-on of the party paid some scoundrels to incapacitate Pitt for the rest of the parliamentary strifes. He, and he alone, could make headway against the storm; and his removal even for a week would have led to the triumph of Fox and North. We may note here that Pitt did not resign his membership of Brooks’s Club on account of this outrage—a proof that he was far above all thoughts of revenge or rancour.

The prospects of the Opposition were somewhat marred by the events of 28th February. Everything tended to hamper the actions of that ill-assorted couple, North and Fox. True, on 1st March they carried by twelve votes an address to the King for the removal of Ministers; but George III acted not only with firmness but with dignity. He replied, as he had before replied to a similar address, that he deplored the failure of the efforts to form an extended Administration on fair and equal terms, but saw in that failure no reason for dismissing Ministers who appeared to have the confidence of the country, and against whom no specific charges were urged. These skilful retorts struck home; and a long and reproachful representation to the King, said to have been drawn up by Burke, was carried by a majority of only one. Pitt looked on this as tantamount to a triumph; for two days later he wrote to the Duke of Rutland that he was “tired to death even with victory; for I think our present state is entitled to that name.”213 His forecast was correct. In face of these dwindling numbers, Fox and North did not venture to oppose the passing of the Mutiny Bill, which, since the beginning of William III’s reign, has year by year legalized the existence of a standing army.214

To allow this measure to pass, after threatening to obstruct the work of Government, was a virtual confession of failure; and not only the House but the country took it as such. The inner169 weakness of the Coalition now became daily more evident. Discontents that were hidden during the months of seeming triumph broke forth as the prospect of defeat loomed large ahead. The tension of the past two months now gave way to a strange slackness, resulting doubtless from the uncertainties of the situation. Fox relapsed into silence. Pitt rarely spoke and scarcely vouchsafed a reply to the smaller men who kept up the aimless strife. In truth, the heavy-laden air at St. Stephen’s gave premonitory signs of that portent in nature when songsters become mute and animals creep about with anxious restlessness under the shadow of an oncoming eclipse.

* * * * *

The nation was now to give its verdict. On 24th March the King dissolved Parliament. The Great Seal disappeared from the house of the Lord Chancellor on that very morning; but by great efforts another was ready by noon of the 25th. For some weeks the land had simmered with suspense. “Even ladies,” wrote Horace Walpole on 12th March, “talk of nothing but politics.” In truth, a time of new political fashions was at hand. The old having been discarded, very much depended on a decided lead given by some of the leading constituencies.

For various reasons men looked eagerly to the example set by Yorkshire and Westminster. Both had recently led the way in the agitation for Economic and Parliamentary Reform and were strongholds of Whiggism; yet both the county and the city had recently acclaimed the conduct of Pitt. Canon Mason, a well-known poet of those days, who, with the reforming parson, Wyvill, had fathered the Yorkshire Reform Association, was now working hard on behalf of George III and Pitt—a fact which spoke volumes. Yet, despite the strength of the Association, and the ardent Toryism of most of the clothing towns of the West Riding, the influence of the great Whig Houses, especially the Cavendishes in Wharfedale, the Fitzwilliams at Wentworth, and the Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard, was so strong as to make the issue doubtful.

The feeling of the county was tested first at a great meeting of its freeholders held in the yard of the Castle at York on Lady Day. Despite driving hail-storms and a bitter wind, thousands of sturdy yeomen, together with throngs of clothiers from the towns of the West Riding, poured into that historic space. Then came the magnates of the county, driving up in their coaches-and-six.170 In good old English style the two sides of the case were set forth on the hustings in fair and open rivalry by the best speakers of both parties. The large towns and the yeomen evidently favoured the royal prerogative upheld by Pitt, while the claims of the Whigs and of North’s followers were championed by the great lords and their tenantry, by sticklers for constitutional precedents, and all who hoped to benefit by a change of Ministry. The issues at stake being as obscure as the cleavage between parties was zigzag, the speeches for the most part fell ineffectively. What with the sleet and the confusion of parties the meeting seemed about to break up in disorder, when there appeared on the daïs a figure so slim and weak as to quail before the blasts. But the first few sentences of that silvery voice penetrated the storm and dominated the swaying crowd. It was the voice of Wilberforce, who once more showed the influence of clearness of thought and beauty of utterance over a confused throng. Boswell, describing the whole incident to Dundas, said: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but, as I listened he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale.”

The victory of mind over matter was decisive. His arraignment of the Coalition and defence of Pitt carried the meeting with him; and a great shout arose: “We’ll have this man as our county member.” The instinct of the meeting was sound. The tact of Wilberforce in uniting all Whigs and Tories who were not committed to the Coalition or bound by the magnates greatly furthered his cause; so that finally an election which had of late always been decided by the three great Houses named above, resulted in the triumphant return of Wilberforce and Duncombe. The show of hands was so overwhelmingly in their favour that the Whigs accepted the verdict and did not demand a poll. The victory was not only a severe blow to the county families and an assertion of the growing independence of the middle classes and yeomen; it was also a gain for the cause of purity, the total expenses of the successful candidates being less than £5,000.

The example set in Yorkshire was followed in most parts of Great Britain. The supporters of the Coalition were smitten hip and thigh; as many as 160 members of the Opposition were thrown out, and by a very obvious joke they were termed Fox’s Martyrs, the details of their deaths being recorded with171 tragi-comic solemnity.215 The strength and universality of the popular impulse surprised even Pitt.216 He was carried in triumphantly by 334 votes for the University of Cambridge, his friend, Lord Euston, gaining 288, while their opponents, Townshend and Mansfield, polled only 267 and 181 respectively.217 Wilkes swept Middlesex by a large majority—for the Crown. Skilful speakers like Erskine, county magnates like Earl Verney and Thomas Grenville, were thrust aside for the crime of supporting the Coalition; and in certain boroughs, where no one had been sent down to oppose that hated union, travellers who declaimed against it were forcibly detained and returned as members of Parliament. Never, we are assured by Wraxall, was there less bribery used in the interests of the Crown; for, as he naively asserts, “corruption for once became almost unnecessary.”218

The reasons of this extraordinary overthrow of the Coalition are not far to seek. Tories felt far more regard for the royal prerogative than for Lord North, now that he had gone over to the King’s enemies; and independent Whigs refused to follow Fox in his ex-centric march towards the Northites. Thus the Coalition was in reality defeated by—the Coalition. That jaundiced old Whig, Horace Walpole, might abjure his friendship with Mason for heading “the pert and ignorant cabal at York”; he might declare that the nation must be intoxicated to applaud the use of the royal prerogative against “the Palladium of the people” (the House of Commons). “Junius” might raise his once dreaded voice to assure his countrymen that the victory of Pitt would put an end to their boasted liberties. It was useless. The172 nation’s instinct bade it break with the past and start afresh on a path that promised steady progress. That instinct now swept aside the old party lines and organizations in a way that had not been seen since the advent of the Georges.

Only at one place was the rout of the Whigs stayed; and the doubtful issue of the conflict at Westminster attested the wondrous personal powers of Fox. A union of strength with geniality, of eloquence with frankness, which appeals to Englishmen, was seen in him in all its potency. The “magician” (to use Pitt’s phrase about his rival) waved his wand with startling effect. A few days of platform speaking sufficed to restore his earlier popularity. Despite the utmost efforts of the Court and Government on behalf of their candidates, Admiral Hood and Sir Cecil Wray, the Whig totals crept up day by day, so as to threaten the seat of the latter, which at one time seemed assured.219 George III followed the course of the Westminster election with an eager interest that reveals his hatred of the Whig leader. This is seen in his suggestion on 13th April to Pitt that bad votes should be fabricated at Westminster to counterbalance those which must have been trumped up for Fox; or again (1st May) that the Quackers [sic] might perhaps be induced to come to the poll in the interests of the Government.

All was of no avail. The arts of Windsor were foiled by the charms of Devonshire House. Georgiana, the beauteous duchess, used her allurements to rally voters to the Whig cause, and is said to have carried her complaisance so far as to kiss a butcher for a promise of his vote. Certain it is that she and her sister, the Viscountess Duncannon, conveyed artisans from the outlying districts to the poll in their own chariots. The Countesses of Carlisle and Derby, Lady Beauchamp, and Mrs. Crewe, also used their charms on behalf of the Whig cause, so that a favouring rhymester could write:

Sure Heaven approves of Fox’s cause
(Though slaves at Court abhor him),
To vote for Fox, then, who can pause
Since Angels canvass for him?220

In vain did the Court put forward the Countess of Salisbury to keep waverers steadfast. The Countess possessed beauty, but173 tempered by age and discretion. Thanks to the exertions of Georgiana, and to the influence of the Prince of Wales and of the Dukes of Portland and Devonshire, Fox, at the end of an exciting contest of forty days, headed Sir Cecil Wray by 236 votes, though he still fell 460 votes below Lord Hood. The Prince of Wales celebrated this triumph by a great reception in the grounds of Carlton House at the very time when the King was passing outside to open Parliament.

But the local success of the Whigs was not yet complete. Many suspicious facts during the election seemed to discredit the result; and when Sir Cecil Wray demanded a scrutiny, the High Bailiff of Westminster not only granted the request, but refused to make any return for Westminster, thus invalidating the election of Fox and even of Hood until an inquiry was held.221 Fox entered Parliament, but it was through the kindness and foresight of Sir Thomas Dundas, who had procured his election for the Orkney and Shetland Islands. At once he attacked the High Bailiff as well as the Government, which he accused of influencing the action of that official. The matter is too involved and technical to enter upon here. Its chief interest lies in the manly and massive oration which Fox flung against Pitt on 8th June. The Prime Minister evaded the missile with much dexterity; and a large majority insisted on the scrutiny. After nine months of inquiry the position of the candidates was virtually unchanged. The Government’s following strongly desired to end this expensive and fruitless inquiry; but Pitt opposed the motions to this effect, and early in the session of 1785 found himself abandoned by his majority.

The motives which prompted his action on this affair will be considered in Chapter XII; but we may here note that it certainly lessened his personal influence in the critical session of 1785. His own position had hitherto been so well assured that generous behaviour towards one of the most affable and open-handed men of his time would have been both natural and becoming. As it was, many of his friends were disgusted, and some thought his conduct would fatally prejudice his future. Thus, on 10th February 1785 Daniel Pulteney wrote as follows: “Contrary to the wish of all his real friends, and only supported174 by Dundas, Lord Mulgrave, and Bearcroft, Pitt persevered in this cursed business.... The consequence of this will be trifling if Pitt will now recede and agree to order the return, but ... many will form a very different idea of the Administration if such an odious business is forced down by a small majority.”222 Fortunately Pitt’s own friends abandoned him before matters went too far. The affair unsteadied his followers for a time; and the impression was spread abroad that he had all the qualifications for winning a decisive victory, but none of the graces that add lustre to its laurels. Apart from this personal detail, which influenced public opinion more than far wider questions, Pitt’s triumph in and after 1784 was so complete as to usher in a new era in British politics. We may therefore pause to review both its causes and its significance.

* * * * *

Besides the irremediable blunder committed by Fox in framing the Coalition with Lord North, he made several mistakes during the early weeks of 1784. It was in the highest degree unwise to stake everything on the cohesion of his majority in the Commons, and to seek to avert a dissolution. Judging by his motions in the House, it was the worst of crimes for Pitt to advise the King to appeal to the nation. But surely that was the natural and almost inevitable step, seeing that Parliament had sat for four years, and the opponents were very nearly matched. Yet, while hindering the course of public business by the postponement of votes for the public service, Fox claimed to be acting with a single eye to the public welfare. Such conduct evinced no insight into the essentials of the problem before him. For surely, if Ministers were acting as illegally as he averred, it was his duty to impeach them. If their offence was more venial, the verdict of the people would suffice. The question could be decided only in one of two ways—either by an impeachment or a dissolution. He decided in neither way, but allowed the tangle to grow worse, until men came to believe that his sole aims were to shirk any appeal, either to the laws of England or to the hustings, and to force his way once more to power along with Lord North by means of their large but unstable majority. This was the suspicion which thinned their following at St. Stephen’s and ruined them at the polls.


Pitt, on the other hand, showed great tactical skill in working his way out from an apparently hopeless position. Admitting that his tenure of office was irregular, he justified it by the unanswerable retort that the Opposition could not govern. Accepting their decision, that supplies should be postponed so as to prevent a dissolution, he made it clear whose was the responsibility for the resulting disorganization. Finally, when the inability of his opponents to block the Mutiny Bill had set free the administrative machine, he appealed to the country. Men were quick to see which side had best consulted the interests of the State. Over against the impotently factious conduct of Fox stood the patriotic good sense of his rival in disregarding the wavering censures of a discredited House in order on the fitting occasion to consult the will of the nation.

So soon as the essential facts of that unparalleled situation are fully grasped, the diatribes against Pitt for making an illegal use of the royal prerogative for selfish purposes are seen to be mere verbiage. Equally futile is it to inquire, with Lord John Russell, why the constitution was not afterwards altered in favour of the Crown, and why the Court did not gain more advantage by its triumph in the General Election of 1784.223 The fact is that Pitt had never intended to govern as a Court minion, or to subject the constitution to the royal will. It was not merely that his pride revolted against any such degradation; but his principles, no less than the tough consistency of his nature, forbade it. Because he insisted on maintaining the King’s prerogative at one point, namely, that Ministers were dismissed by him and not by the House of Commons, he was far from supporting it at all points. Even in that particular, he admitted that Government could not be carried on by Ministers who had not the confidence of the House of Commons, but he asserted, and triumphantly proved, that that House had not the confidence of the nation. For the long delay in putting the matter to the test, Fox, not he, was responsible.

In reality, then, there was no violation of the constitution, and no change in Pitt’s relations to the Crown. True, he had sought to reconcile its prerogatives with the functions of Parliament; but his attitude towards George III was still marked by a proud independence, which often caused annoyance.224 He brought forward176 measures which the King disapproved; and in all important matters he had his way down to the spring of 1801, when George III demurred on conscientious grounds. The shelving of the cause of Parliamentary Reform by Pitt after the year 1785 resulted from the utter indifference of the nation, not from any bargain that he had corruptly struck with the King.

But if the memorable contest of 1784 has not the significance sometimes ascribed to it in partisan narratives, it is of great moment in regard to the monarchy, the Cabinet, and the course of events at St. Stephen’s. George III came forth victorious from his long struggle with the Whig Houses; but the magnitude of the peril had taught him prudence and self-restraint; and, while keeping a tight hand on patronage, he was thenceforth content, in the more important sphere of legislation, to leave a free hand to the Minister who had saved him from the open conflict with the Commons which Fox had sought to precipitate. The relations between the King and Prime Minister therefore came to resemble those which had subsisted between the first two Georges and Walpole.

Consequently, the growth in the powers of the Cabinet, which had been interrupted since the fall of that Minister, now proceeded normally. During the seventeen years of Pitt’s supremacy the principle became firmly established that the chief Minister of the Crown was the centre of authority, and that, while holding that authority nominally from the King, he exercised it by virtue of a mandate from the people. George, therefore, had escaped from the thraldom of the Coalition only in order to bow before an authority which was at once constitutional and irresistible. He no longer had to do with the nominee of a dozen great families, but with a man who had the clearly expressed confidence of the nation. The same fact tended to make the Cabinet of the future more and more a homogeneous and well disciplined Council, obeying the impulsion of the first Minister, and adding force to his declarations of policy. No longer was it possible, as in Lord North’s decade of office, for the Ministers to act singly and at the behests of the sovereign. George III’s policy of divide et impera might succeed with North; it could not but fail before the iron resolution of Pitt. The King’s acquiescence in the new order of things enabled him to regain much of the ground which he had earlier lost by his masterful efforts to govern as well as reign. Well was it for the British monarchy177 that those disputes were settled before the storms of the French Revolution beat upon that ancient fabric.

Finally, we may note that Pitt was far more than a second Walpole. The sturdy Norfolk squire wielded power, as a nominee of the Whig Houses; but Pitt was established in office by a wider and grander mandate. The General Election of 1784 ended the existing party system and shattered the rule of the Whig families who had hitherto dominated the Georgian Era. The somnolent acquiescence of the populace in that headship now gave way to a more critical spirit, to a sense that the traditional parties must readjust themselves under a new leader. Chatham’s conception of a union which should absorb the best elements of both Whigs and Tories received a startlingly complete fulfilment; for the greatest of the results of the election of 1784 was the emergence of a party which may be termed national.



In the arithmetic of the customs, two and two, instead of making four, make sometimes only one.—Dean Swift.

When the sixteenth Parliament of Great Britain met on 18th May 1784 the arrears of legislation and accumulation of debt were as serious as at any time in our history; for, owing to fierce party strifes and the distractions of war, very few remedial measures had been passed in recent years. The “Economic Reform” passed by Lord Rockingham’s Government is the only oasis in an otherwise arid waste, strewn with the wrecks of partisan warfare. The condition of affairs was therefore becoming most serious; and a collapse could be averted only by the utmost skill and care. The three per cent. government stocks told a tale of waning confidence. Even after the peace they steadily declined, from an average of 65 in January 1783 to 56 at the close of that year. They were as low as 53⅞ in part of January 1784; and it is a striking tribute to the confidence which Pitt inspired that, on the results of the elections of the spring of 1784 being known, they rose to more than 58. That first essential to a revival of national credit, a firm Government, was now assured, and patriots looked anxiously for the measures whereby the young Minister might stave off disaster.

The King’s Speech laid stress on two topics, finance and the East India Company. Within the limits of a short session Pitt could not possibly hope to pass other large measures; and he urged Alderman Sawbridge not to persevere with his annual motion in favour of Parliamentary Reform, promising to bring it forward himself in the session of 1785. When the Alderman pressed the matter to a division, he was defeated by a majority of seventy-four—a result damaging to the cause which he sought to serve.225


The way being thus left clear for the two great questions that would admit of no delay, Pitt sought to lay the ghost of national bankruptcy. The imminence of the danger can scarcely be realized. In that decade we link together the thought of bankruptcy with that of France; but if those years closed with the Revolution in France and prosperity in England, the result may be ascribed very largely to the wasteful financial system pursued at Versailles and to the wise husbanding of Britain’s resources by Pitt. According to the French statesman, Necker, the National Debts of the two countries were almost exactly equal.226 The pamphlet literature of the years 1783–84 reveals a state of things wellnigh as serious in England as that which brought about the crash in France. One of the closest students of finance, Dr. Price, in a pamphlet of the early part of 1783, stated that the Fox-North Ministry openly avowed its inability to pay off any of the public debts; and he asserted that such helpless conduct must carry us fast to the brink of disaster. Another writer urged that, in order to abolish the National Debt, tithes must be swept away, the revenues of the Church reformed, and all citizens must submit to the payment of one-sixth part of their incomes. The National Debt, which amounted to £215,717,709 in January 1783, was denounced in language whose extravagance would cause a mild surprise to a generation that placidly bears a burden nearly four times as great; but, to a kingdom which with the utmost difficulty raised £25,000,000 in revenue, this burden seemed overwhelming. Dr. Price summed up a widespread conviction in his statement that the growth of debt brought about increased subservience to the Crown, prosperity to stock-jobbers, and depression to all honest traders.227

The war which ended in 1783 had been carried on in a singularly wasteful manner. Price computed that the increase to the National Debt owing to the war had been £115,654,000 up to January 1783, when all the accounts had not yet come in; he also reckoned that the last four years of that struggle had cost £80,016,000 as against £60,835,000 for the last four years of the Seven Years’ War. This increase resulted largely from the180 reckless way in which North had issued loans, so that bankers and subscribers, and, it is said, the Ministers themselves, reaped large profits, while the nation suffered. According to Price, loans which cost the nation £85,857,691, actually brought to the exchequer only £57,500,000.228 This resulted partly from corrupt practices, but also from North’s endeavour to keep down the rate of interest to three or four per cent.; the outcome being that, in the impaired state of public credit of the year 1781 he had to allot £150 of stock in the three per cents and £25 in the four per cents for every £100 actually borrowed. Thus, the raising of a sum of £12,000,000 on these terms actually cost the nation £21,000,000; and interest had to be paid on £9,000,000 which never came into the exchequer. Obviously he would have done better to raise £100 for £100 stock, even had he given 6 or 7 per cent. interest; for the experience of the past showed that in time of peace and prosperity the rate of interest could be reduced without much difficulty. Nevertheless, the advisers of the Crown always preferred to keep to a low rate of interest, even at the cost of tempting lenders by allotting £175 of Government stock for every £100 of cash.

Such was the state of affairs when Pitt introduced his Budget (30th June 1784). It will be convenient to set forth and explain his proposals singly and in connection with the facts which he had to face. The first was the appallingly large deficit, constantly swollen by the coming in of bills for war expenses. The champion of peace and retrenchment had to confess that, despite all his efforts to balance income and expenditure, he must raise a loan of £6,000,000. Obviously, as Consols still stood as low as 58, he could borrow only on exorbitant terms; but it is regrettable that he now fell back on North’s plan of borrowing at a low rate of interest and of burdening the funds with a vast amount of fictitious debt. He proposed to allot to every subscriber of £100 no less an amount of stock than £100 of three per cents, £50 of four per cents, and 5s. 6d. of long annuities, besides three fifths of a lottery ticket in a lottery of 36,000 tickets.229 He computed that the terms and chances now offered were actually worth £103 14s.d., and that lenders would therefore be tempted181 to lend.230 This was so. But, for the reasons stated above, the burdens bequeathed to posterity were crushing, though less than those entailed by North’s loan of 1781.

As regards Pitt’s personal dealings with financiers, his conduct shone radiantly clear when contrasted with those of Lord North. It had been the custom for that guardian of the public purse to arrange the price of the loan with a few favoured supporters in the City, and then allot scrip on scandalously low terms to his friends in Parliament, who could thereafter sell at a handsome profit. Pitt now threw open to public competition all tenders for his loan; and the proposals sent in were formally opened at the Bank in a way which precluded jobbery and safeguarded the nation’s interests.

Scarcely less serious was the problem of the huge floating, or unfunded, debt, that is, that portion of the National Debt for which no provision whatever had been made by Parliament. In the main it consisted of unpaid bills, which had been increased by about one quarter or even one third of their original amount. It now stood at about £14,000,000. Pitt ardently desired to fund the whole of it, but he found that so great an effort would cause too much disturbance in the money market. He therefore proposed to fund at present only £6,600,000, forming it into stock bearing 5 per cent. interest and issued at 93. He defended this high rate of interest on the ground that such a stock could in the future be redeemed on more favourable terms than a three per cent. stock which might be worth a comparatively small sum when capitalized. The argument was surely just as applicable to the former loan of £6,000,000.231

* * * * *

It still remains to notice the worst ills that beset the fiscal and commercial life of our land. Indeed, we shall not understand the daring nature of Pitt’s experiment of the year 1784 unless we take a comprehensive view of the losses, both material and moral, which resulted from the extraordinary prevalence of smuggling. Never had contraband trade been so active as of late. How should it be otherwise, when the customs dues were tangled and burdensome; when the Navigation Laws, especially respecting the coasting trade in Scotland, were so annoyingly complex that the papers which a vessel needed for crossing the Firth of Forth182 involved nearly as much expense and delay as if she were bound for Canada.232 In such a state of things illicit trade was ever gaining recruits from the ranks of honest merchants and seamen.

For monopoly, too, depressed their calling and exalted that of the smuggler. By far the most important article subject to monopoly was tea. That expensive luxury of the days of Queen Anne, a “dish of tea,” was now fast becoming a comfort of the many. Indeed, Arthur Young found that the use of tea had spread into the homes of cottagers; and he classed as extravagant those villages which owed their refreshment to China, and commended the frugality of those which adhered to home-brewed ale.233 The increased use of Bohea was certainly not due to the East India Company or to the State; for the former sold the “drug” at the high prices warranted by its monopoly of trade with China; and on the arrival of the precious chests at our shores, an ad valorem duty of 119 per cent. had to be met. The increase of habits which Arthur Young deprecated and temperance reformers now applaud was due to smugglers. We learn from Adam Smith that Dutch, French, and Swedish merchants imported tea largely;234 and from their ports enterprising skippers conveyed it to our shores, there to be eagerly welcomed by a populace which found the cheating of Government far more attractive and gainful than agriculture. The annals of the time show how deeply the coast population was infected. The large barns which the tourist admires in many an East Anglian coast village, more often held contraband than corn. Thomas Hardy has shown how the dull life of a Wessex village kindled at the news of a successful “run in,” and how all classes helped to defeat the “King’s men.” The poet Crabbe, with his keen eye for the stern realities of life in his parish of Aldborough, tells of his grief at finding there, not the simple home-loving life of an old English village,

But a bold, artful, surly savage race.

Their sport was not cricket or wrestling on the village green, but smuggling.

Beneath yon cliff they stand
To show the freighted pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly with terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force,
Or yielding part (which equal knaves demand)
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

These are the words of a moralist. To the easy-going many the smuggler was merely a plucky fellow who cheated the common foe of all, the Government, and helped poor folks to get spirits, tea, and tobacco at cheap prices. As for showing any reluctance to buy smuggled goods, this seemed “a pedantic piece of hypocrisy.”235 It must also be admitted that Government had sinned against light; for the great reduction of the tea duty by Pelham in 1745 had almost put an end to smuggling in that article; but unfortunately his successors, when confronted with the results of war, re-imposed the old duties and thereby gave new life to the smuggler’s calling.236

The excess of an evil sometimes works its cure. It was the stupidity of the fiscal regulations in France which helped to turn the attention of her most original thinkers to the subject of national finance; whence it came about that Political Economy had its first beginnings in the land where waste and want were rampant. So, too, it was reserved for the son of a Kirkcaldy customs officer to note early in life the follies of our system; and, when further enlightened by contact with men and affairs, especially with the French Economistes, he was able to give to the world that illuminating survey of a subject where tradition and prejudice had previously reigned supreme. Finally, it was in the very darkest hour of Britain’s commercial and financial annals that remedial measures were set on foot by the young statesman who had laid to heart the teachings of the “Wealth of Nations.”

It is not easy to say whether Pitt owed more to Adam Smith or to Earl Shelburne. Probably the influence of the Scottish thinker on the young statesman at this time has been exaggerated; for it seems certain that the later editions of the “Wealth of Nations” were modified so as to bring them into line with some of Pitt’s enactments.237 Further, Pitt made no public acknowledgement184 of his debt to Adam Smith until his Budget speech of 1792, when he expressed the belief that the philosopher, then deceased, had given to the world the best solution to all commercial and economic questions. It may be, then, that Pitt in 1784 owed less to Adam Smith than to his first chief, Shelburne, and to other men of affairs, including his own brother-in-law, that able though eccentric nobleman, Lord Mahon. Shelburne was the depository of the enlightened aims of that age; and, as Price pointed out, he and Pitt in the year 1782 were about to make reforms in the public service which would have saved the revenue some half a million a year.238

Now, with a freer hand, he took up the task which the Coalition of Fox and North had interrupted; and in a measure which supplemented his Budget, he proposed to cut the ground from under the smuggler by reducing the duty on tea from an average of 119 per cent. to 12½ per cent. on the cheaper varieties, though on the finer kinds of tea (Suchong, Singlo, and Hyson) he imposed a higher scale of duties.239 Even so, he expected that the produce of the tea duty would sink at first from £800,000 to £169,000, though he must have hoped soon to recoup a large part of this sum. As there was a large deficit on the past year, it was necessary to devise a tax which would help to make up the temporary loss with no risk of leakage.

Such a source of revenue Pitt found in an increase of the window-tax. Every house with seven windows was now to pay, not four shillings, but seven shillings a year. On a house with eight windows eight shillings were paid, and so on, except that houses with more than ten windows paid half-a-crown per window. He reckoned the increase from this source at about £700,000. Whatever objections might be urged against the tax on the score of health, it certainly fell mainly on the middle and wealthy classes; for as many as 300,000 of the poorest houses went duty free. The impost may therefore be considered as a first rough attempt at taxation according to income. The change was beneficial in another way. The old customs duty on tea violated the canon of taxation laid down by Adam Smith—that a tax should take from the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the treasury of the State. The 119 per cent. duty seemed to challenge evasion, and the185 attempt to enforce it probably cost the country more than the tax yielded. The window tax belonged to the class of excise duties the expenses of which amounted only to about 5½ per cent. of the total yield; and the new impost could not possibly be evaded except by the heroic remedy of blocking up windows.

Thus, both in regard to economic doctrine and common sense (the former is but the latter systematized) Pitt’s experiment ushered in a new era in British finance and therefore in British commerce. The City of London welcomed the change, which promised to lead to the employment of twenty more clipper ships for the China tea-trade and to the destruction of the contraband tea-trade to these shores carried on hitherto by the French and Dutch East India Companies. Indeed, no sooner did this Commutation Bill (as it was called) gain general assent than the Dutch Company offered to sell to us its cargoes of tea at a loss of 40 per cent. on prime cost and expenses. This fact alone ought to have stilled all opposition to the measure; but Fox continued to oppose it with a vehemence worthy of a better cause; he was ultimately beaten by 143 votes to 40 (10th August 1784).240

We may note here that by further regulations of the year 1784 and by what was called the “Manifest Act” of 1786, frauds on the revenue were made far more difficult. Thus to Pitt belongs the credit of having done more than any minister (for he succeeded where Walpole largely failed) to stop a material loss and a grave moral evil.

It would be incorrect to claim that Pitt was the first to light on the idea of substituting lower and effective duties for the exorbitant and ineffective duty on tea. William Eden (the future Lord Auckland) declared that very many persons had advocated some such change, and he attributed to Lord John Cavendish the formation of the revenue committee, the results of whose inquiries were now utilized by the Prime Minister. Pitt, on the other hand, gave the credit of the measure to his relative, Lord Mahon. The mention of that nobleman reminds us of an incident which enlivened the debate. While sawing the air in order to emphasize his hearty approval of the death blow now dealt to smuggling, he gave Pitt a smart knock on the head, to the unbounded amusement of the House.


The details of the Budget itself do not imply a very firm belief in the principles of what is called Free Trade. As has been shown, the difficulties in Pitt’s way were enormous. The new loan, the funding operation, and the interest on the unfunded debt altogether entailed an added charge of £910,000 a year. This sum he proposed to raise by means that may be termed old-fashioned. Looking round the domain of industry, he singled out for taxation the few articles that were duty-free or were only lightly burdened. Men’s hats were now to pay a toll of two shillings a-piece (felt hats only sixpence), and thus bring £150,000 to the nation’s purse; female finery (ribbons and gauzes) was mulcted to the extent of £120,000. He also estimated that a duty of three shillings on every chaldron of coals (not only in London as heretofore, but throughout Great Britain) would bring in about £150,000; but he proposed to free from its operations all manufacturers who met with sharp foreign competition. Further, he imposed a tax on all horses used for riding or for pleasure, which he estimated at £100,000; and he eked out the remainder of the sum by duties on printed linens and calicoes, candles, hackney coaches, bricks and tiles, paper, licences for shooting, and licences for traders in excisable goods.

Most of these proposals were received with resignation, but several members urgently protested against the impost on coals as likely to be ruinous to industry, and ultimately Pitt withdrew it. This, however, led him to impose a tax on race-horses (especially winners), to raise the licence for shooting from one guinea to two guineas, to increase the postage for letters, and to curtail the privileges of franking letters by Members of Parliament. This had been disgracefully abused. Every member of both Houses had the right both of sending and of receiving letters free. As if this were not sufficient, in days when a shilling was an ordinary charge for the receiver of a letter, several members were known to sell envelopes which they had franked; and a large firm is said to have paid a member £300 a year for franking their correspondence. Pitt struck at these abuses by requiring that franked letters must bear the name of the member, the date, and the post town from which the letter was to be sent. By this and other restrictions a leakage which had amounted to nearly £200,000 a year was stopped, at least in part. The notion that every Member of Parliament ought to enjoy privileges which were withheld from the many was so187 deeply rooted that the abuses of “franking” persisted up to the time of the complete abolition of the privilege in 1840, when penny postage became the law of the land. Thus in January 1802 we find a distinguished diplomatist, Sir George Jackson, commiserating his sister on the scarcity of noblemen in Bath, which implied “a dearth of frank-men to fly to.”

The effort to curb the abuses of that hateful class privilege forms the best feature of Pitt’s Budget of 1784. In other respects it is not remarkable. The new imposts have none of the merits attending his Commutation Act for the repression of smuggling. What is surprising is that he did not try the experiment of increasing the House Duty, an impost which fell mainly upon the rich, was easy to collect, and could be made very remunerative.241 It was actually tried by North in 1778, apparently because it had borne good results in Holland.242 Thus, the machinery was at hand, and only needed to be more strenuously worked. I have failed to find in the Pitt Papers the reason why the statesman did not try this expedient; still less why he imposed the niggling and irritating little taxes named above. He estimated the yield of the duties on bricks, paper, and hackney coaches at no more than £50,000, £18,000, and £12,000 respectively. Further, the tax on candles, though only of one halfpenny the pound, was certainly burdensome to the poor. On the whole, it is not surprising that a rhymester thus set forth the condition of John Bull:

One would think there’s not room one new impost to put
From the crown of the head to the sole of the foot.
Like Job, thus John Bull his condition deplores,
Very patient, indeed, and all covered with sores.

Other persons of a quasi-scientific turn sought comfort in the reflection that taxation ought, like the air, to press on the individual at all points in order not to be felt.

In truth, Pitt’s financial genius matured slowly. Possibly he thought the situation too serious to admit of doubtful experiments. Certainly he went step by step, as is seen by reference to his next Budget. Its most significant feature was the endeavour to simplify the collection of taxes. Hitherto there had been much overlapping and consequent waste of effort, owing to the existence of three Boards or Committees. The Excise188 Department managed the taxes on carriages, wagons, carts, and male-servants; the new taxes on horses and race-horses were under the Commissioners of Stamps; while separate Commissioners administered the imposts on houses and windows. In place of this complex, expensive, and inefficient machinery, Pitt instituted a single “Board for Taxes,” which supervised affairs more cheaply and left few loopholes for evasion. The imposts named above were thenceforth termed “the assessed taxes.”243 In that year he also imposed taxes on female servants, shops, and attorneys. Here again his fiscal policy distinctly belonged to the old order of things, when men, despairing of finding any widespread and very lucrative tax, grumblingly submitted to duties on every article of consumption and every important action of life. The days of a few simple and highly productive taxes had not fully dawned.244 The sequel will show that, only under the intolerable pressure of the long war with France, did Pitt work his way to the Income Tax; and the terms in which he replied to the Lord Provost of Glasgow, who in March 1798 recommended that impost, show that, while always favouring it on theoretical grounds, he doubted the possibility of collecting it systematically.

In 1785 we are still in the age of youthful hopes and experiments. We find Pitt writing to Wilberforce on the last day of September: “The produce of our revenues is glorious, and I am half mad with a project which will give our supplies the effect almost of magic in the reduction of debt.”245 Equally hopeful is his letter to Lord Buckingham on 8th November, in which he speaks of the rise of stocks being fully justified by the splendid surplus of “£800,000 per annum at least. The little that is wanting to make good the complete million may be had with ease.”246 Both references are to the plan of a Sinking Fund which was to work wonders with the National Debt, blotting it out in two or three generations by the alchemy of compound interest.

* * * * *

The plan of a Sinking Fund was not wholly his, although it came to bear Pitt’s name. Walpole, early in his career, had189 started a scheme whereby a certain sum was annually set apart for forming a fund which would accumulate by compound interest and finally be available for the extinction of the National Debt. This plan came to grief, because in 1732 Walpole began to draw on his own fund rather than increase the Land Tax and annoy country gentlemen. This, we may note, is one of the perils of a Sinking Fund that, guard it as its founder may, some thriftless Chancellor of the Exchequer will insist on filching from it. That was the fate of Walpole’s fund. The scheme, however, survived, and received a new impulse in 1772, when Dr. Price, a Nonconformist minister, called public attention to it by a pamphlet on the National Debt. In this he proved by irrefutable arithmetic that a Sinking Fund, if honestly worked, must ultimately wipe out the largest debt that can be conceived. For, as he hopefully pointed out, a single seed, if its produce could be entirely set apart for sowing, would in course of time multiply so vastly as to fill all the lands where it could grow. This is true; but the simile implies singular powers of self-control in the sowers, especially if they are beset by hunger before that glorious climax is attained. Descending to the more practical domain of the money market, Price proved that a sum of £200,000, set apart annually, together with its compound interest, would in eighty-six years be worth £258,000,000. Whether the nation were at peace or at war, said Dr. Price, the stipulated sum must be set aside, even if it were borrowed at a high rate of interest; for the nation borrowed at simple interest in order to gain the advantages of compound interest. While admitting the folly of such conduct for a private individual, he maintained with equal naïveté that a State must benefit by it, even if there were no surplus of revenue and if money were dear.247

Such was the scheme which fired Pitt with hope; but it is very questionable whether he accepted all its details. Certainly he did not act precipitately. On 11th April 1785 he felt the pulse of the House of Commons by stating his confident hope of having a surplus of one million available for the present plan, and his determination next year to found “a real Sinking Fund” on a basis which would absolutely preclude pilfering in the future. It is also noteworthy that he resolved to raise that190 million by taxation, not by borrowing. This is a fact which has been ignored by Hamilton, McCulloch, Lecky, and other critics of Pitt’s experiment; but the debate just referred to and those soon to be considered place it beyond possibility of denial. Mr. Dempster urged him to begin at once, even if he had to borrow, seeing that France had started a Sinking Fund which “would enable her in a few years to get rid of the greatest part of her National Debt.” But the Prime Minister declined to be hurried, especially if he had to borrow at a high rate of interest.248 Clearly, then, Pitt did not share the extravagant hopes of Price.

His relations to Price cannot be wholly cleared up. Early in January 1786 he wrote to him in the following terms:

The situation of the revenue certainly makes this the time to establish an effectual Sinking Fund. The general idea of converting the 3 per cents with a fund bearing a higher rate of interest, with a view to facilitate redemption, you have on many occasions suggested, and particularly in the papers you were so good as to send me last year. The rise of the stocks has made a material change since that period, and I am inclined to think something like the plan I now send you may be more adapted to the present circumstances.249 There may be, I believe, some inaccuracies in the calculations, but not such as to be very material. Before I form any decisive opinion, I wish to learn your sentiments upon it, and shall think myself obliged to you for any improvement you can suggest if you think the principle a right one, or for any other proposal which from your knowledge of the subject you may think preferable.

With his reply Price sent the three alternative plans which the curious may peruse in his “Memoir and Works.” Unfortunately the ten volumes consecrated to his fame by his nephew, William Morgan, are instinct with so bitter a prejudice against Pitt as to be worthless on all questions affecting him. Morgan does not print Pitt’s proposal, but brushes it aside as puerile, and gives the impression that Price did so; he gives no account of the interview which Pitt had with Price in the middle of January, but asserts that the Minister threw aside his own proposals, adopted the third and least efficient of Price’s plans, mangled it in the process, and never acknowledged his debt to191 his benefactor.250 The first of these charges can be refuted by Price’s reply to Pitt’s letter given above. He pronounced the Prime Minister’s proposals “very just,” but pointed out some defects, especially the proviso which placed the Sinking Fund at the disposal of Parliament when the interest on it amounted to £4,000,000, as he expected it would by the year 1812.251 Morgan’s unfairness is further revealed by his statement that Pitt did not choose to increase the taxes in 1786 so as to provide the million surplus which ought to have been forthcoming. Whereas the fact is that in the Budget of 1785 the Minister imposed taxes for that very purpose; and when these proved scarcely sufficient, he imposed others on 29th March 1786.252

False and acrid charges such as these do not surprise us in the partisan biographies of that age. What is surprising is that McCulloch and Lecky should have endorsed some of Morgan’s statements, especially respecting Pitt’s omission of his acknowledgements to Price.253 On this I must observe, firstly, that it is not proven that Pitt owed to Price everything that was good in his Sinking Fund, and spoiled the plan by his own alterations of it; for the omission of Pitt’s proposal by Morgan leaves us without means of comparing the original proposals of the two men; secondly, that the official reports of the three debates of the spring of 1786 on this subject are so meagre as to furnish no decisive evidence on what was, after all, a minor detail. Further, it is probable that Price’s influence on Pitt’s proposal was less than has been supposed. In the Pitt Papers is a letter of Pulteney to Pitt dated 18th April 1786, in which he urges him carefully to reconsider Price’s third plan before finally adopting it. He states that Sir John Sinclair, Sir Edward Ferguson, Mr. Beaufoy, and Mr. Dempster had yesterday met Dr. Price at Bath House in order to discuss the merits of Price’s plan, and also one by Mr. Gale. The discussion left Pulteney with the conviction that Gale’s plan was “infinitely preferable to any of the three produced by Dr. Price,” and he begged Pitt to add it to his Bill as an alternative.254 I have not found a copy of Gale’s plan or any evidence as to its adoption in part by Pitt; but the statesman certainly repudiated the notion of borrowing192 in order to pay off debt, on which Price had laid stress. And yet by a strange irony of fate, this expedient, to which the statesman had temporary recourse only under the strain of war, is that which has been pronounced by nearly all critics the characteristic part of his scheme.

The chief features of Pitt’s proposals were his efforts to raise the whole of the annual million from revenue, and to safeguard this fund from the depredations of wasteful financiers in the future.255 He therefore placed it under the control of six responsible persons, among whom were the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England. The disposal by Parliament of the fund when the yearly income arising from it should amount to four millions, may be termed a concession of the financier to the parliamentary spirit.

The scheme met merely with indirect criticism, the debates turning on general policy, or on the question whether there was a surplus of a million, or any surplus at all. These were the issues to which the eager partisanship of Fox and Sheridan sought to divert the attention of the House. Let them beware, exclaimed Fox, of tying up a sum of a million a year, when they might want all their available resources for a war. As for Sheridan, he sought to ridicule the experiment, not on financial grounds, but because it was the height of folly to add to the present enormous burdens when “we had but one foe, and that the whole world.”

There seems to have been in these debates no reference to Dr. Price’s schemes, though they then enjoyed considerable notoriety. Mention was made of the writings of Baron Maseres on the efficacy of Compound Interest; but the Opposition confined itself almost entirely to complaints about the taxes, and gloomy prophecies about the advent of another war. Surely some member of that angry and disappointed group would have accused Pitt of filching his scheme wholesale from that of Price, if the charge had been possible. We can imagine that Sheridan, instead of croaking over the impending coalition of Europe against England, would in that case have declaimed against Pitt as the thief of the magic wand of the real Prospero of finance. Would not Fox also have brought his sound and sturdy sense to the congenial task of exposing the fallacies of193 Price and the imposture of Pitt? The darling of Brooks’s Club, who well knew the perils of borrowing in order to pay off old debts, would have fastened on the folly of borrowing at high rates in order to gain the advantage of Compound Interest. We can picture him asking how a plan, which was admittedly foolish for an individual, could be profitable for a nation, and where the taxes could be raised that would make good the interest on the sums set apart every year for the wonder-working fund. Surely the Opposition was not so ignorant of finance and of Price’s proposals as not to detect the weakness of the Prime Minister’s plan, had it been modelled solely on them.256

The debates in which the Commons dealt with this great and complex subject seem to have been fruitful only in personalities. At the final stage of the Bill, however, Fox moved an amendment with the aim of lightening the burdens on the nation in time of war. He proposed that, whenever a new loan should be raised, the Minister should be pledged to raise moneys sufficient to pay the interest on the loan, and also to make good to the Sinking Fund what might be taken from it. He stated as a concrete example that, if a new loan of £6,000,000 were required in time of war, and if £1,000,000 were in the hands of the Commissioners of the National Debt, that sum should be transferred to the account of the loan; for this, he claimed, would save the public the expense of raising that million through bankers and the Stock Exchange, and the Sinking Fund would not be injured if the million temporarily borrowed from it were made good by taxation. His speech contained one statement of personal interest, namely, that he had shown his proposal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who approved of it. This, then, was one of the few occasions on which Pitt conferred with Fox. He now accepted Fox’s amendment, because (to take the supposed case), apart from the saving of commission on the million, Government would be able to raise the five millions on better terms than the six millions. Pitt also expressed the hope that the addition of the amendment to his Bill would do away with all temptation to a Minister to rob the Sinking Fund.257

This last argument cut both ways. As Earl Stanhope194 (formerly Lord Mahon) pointed out to the Lords, when he introduced a rival scheme a few days later, it would be absurd to lessen the temptation to commit an offence which he (Pitt) had declared to be thenceforth impossible. In fact, the permission to transfer the yearly million to another fund rather tended to strengthen the argument for alienation in any other case where expediency might be urged. Stanhope’s plan for rendering the Sinking Fund permanent is too complex to be discussed here; the debates on it were closed by the royal assent being given to Pitt’s measure on 26th May.258

If we examine carefully the many criticisms that have been levelled against Pitt’s Sinking Fund, they apply only to his handling of the fund during the Great War with France. Every sciolist in finance can now see the folly of borrowing money at a high rate of interest in order to provide the fund with its quarterly supply.259 It is clearly a case of feeding a dog on his own tail. But such a proceeding, though lauded by Price, was quite contrary to Pitt’s original intention, which was the thoroughly sound one of paying off debt by a steady application of the annual surplus. He departed from this only under stress of circumstances which he looked on as exceptional and temporary.

Strange to say, even the officials of the Treasury seem to have overlooked the fact that the nation was thereby increasing its debt in a cumbrous attempt to lessen it. In 1799, when the pinch caused by the withdrawal of a million a year was severely felt, George Rose, the Secretary of the Treasury, praised the Sinking Fund as an example of integrity and economy which must in the highest degree promote the prosperity of the nation. And Lord Henry Petty, who succeeded Pitt as Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated in his first Budget Speech in March 1806 that “it was owing to the institution of the Sinking Fund that the country was not charged with a much larger amount of debt. It was an advantage gained by nothing.” This extraordinary statement, coming from a political opponent, shows how that generation was mesmerized by the potency of Compound Interest.


Yet, delusive as the scheme came to be, it conferred two benefits on Great Britain. Firstly, it tended to the reduction of the National Debt during the time of peace. Nearly eleven millions were written off in the years 1784–1792;260 and the country felt no inconvenience until the million had to be borrowed at ruinous rates. But, far more than this, faith in the Sinking Fund buoyed up British credit at a time when confidence was the first essential of the public safety. In the dark days of 1797 and 1805 Britons were nerved by the spirit of their leader, who never quailed even in face of mutiny, disaster, and the near approach of bankruptcy. There are times when unjustifiable trust is better than the most searching scrutiny. Finally, it is the barest justice to the memory of Pitt to remember that his whole financial policy in the early part of the Great War rested on the assumption that France would soon be overborne; and, as we shall see, that assumption was justified by the experience of the past and by every outward sign in her present life. It was the incalculable element in the French Revolution, from the levée en masse of 1793 down to Austerlitz in 1805, which baffled Pitt and metamorphosed his Sinking Fund into a load of lead.



Unblest by Virtue, Government a league
Becomes, a circling junto of the great
To rob by law; Religion mild, a yoke
To tame the stooping soul, a trick of State
To mask their rapine, and to share their prey.
Thomson, Liberty.

The distempers of monarchy were the great subjects of apprehension and redress in the last century; in this, the distempers of Parliament.—Burke, Thoughts on the present Discontents.

The experience of statesmen has generally led them to link together the question of retrenchment with that of Reform. The connection between these two topics indeed lies in the nature of things. The brunt of taxation has in the past fallen on the middle and artisan classes; and where they have only a small share in the government, the spending departments are apt to run riot. Under an oligarchy or plutocracy the Government is likely to become a close preserve for the benefit of landless younger sons, the preservation of great estates being thus assured by means which lower the public services to the level of eleemosynary institutions. Whenever the mass of taxpayers gains political power, it will insist on efficiency and economy; or, at the worst, it will claim that the unprivileged shall also have an entry into the domain of Government. In either case, the result will be not unlike that which happens in a household where the husband sleepily pays and the wife lavishly spends. When the rude awakening comes, the spending department will probably yield to the power that holds the purse. The ultima ratio of husbands and Parliaments is, after all, much the same. On the other hand, if the House of Commons represents little more than the rent-receiving classes, what hope is there that it will draw the purse strings? Whence it197 comes about that economists have for the most part pleaded for a truly representative system.

As we have seen, Pitt had twice brought forward the question of the Reform of Parliament, and had twice suffered defeat. The need of caution was obvious; and this explains his conduct in begging that veteran reformer, Alderman Sawbridge, not to press his motion on this subject in the short session of May–August 1784. The Prime Minister, however, promised to bring it before the House of Commons early in the following session.261 Some surprise was therefore felt on the opening day, 25th January 1785, when the King’s Speech contained no promise more definite than that he would concur in every measure which would “secure the true principles of the constitution.”262 Pitt himself, while admitting that the King’s Speech might in that House be assumed to be the speech of the chief Minister, stated that it was impossible to include in it a reference to that topic. The inference was obvious, that the King objected to its inclusion in the speech.

For Pitt’s interest in the subject certainly had not cooled. In the spring of 1784 he had assured the Rev. Christopher Wyvill and the Yorkshire Association of his devotion to the cause in the following as yet unpublished letter.

London, March 11, 1784.263


I consider myself greatly obliged to you for the favour of your letter, which I received upon the 6th instant. I beg leave to assure you that my zeal for Reform in Parliament is by no means abated, and that I will ever exert my best endeavours to accomplish that important object.

(Signed) W. Pitt.

Further, on 27th December 1784 he stated to Wyvill his intention to bring forward a Reform Bill as early as possible in the next session, and that he would “exert his whole power and credit as a man, and as a minister, honestly and boldly, to carry such a meliorated system of representation as may place the constitution on a footing of permanent security.”264 This at least was the version of his words which Wyvill at once circulated to Reform Committees throughout the country. With a belated198 access of prudence, he added a postscript, urging that it must in no case be published; but some foolish friend or wise opponent bruited it abroad, with the result that members of the House now contrasted his eagerness for Reform with his inability to secure any mention of it in the King’s Speech. He might declare that the subject was the nearest to his heart, and that nothing but its complexity prevented him sketching an outline of his proposal; but members drew their own conclusions. North made a skilful use of Wyvill’s letter, but elicited from Pitt no definite disclaimer of the words quoted from it. Indeed Pitt afterwards assured Wyvill that those words well expressed his thoughts.265

Pitt judged that it would be best to proceed circumspectly in the matter of Reform, perhaps because he wished the affair of Wyvill’s letter to blow over, or because he had obstacles to face in his Cabinet. Owing to these or other causes he decided to give precedence to his resolutions for according greater freedom of trade to Ireland, which will be dealt with in another chapter; and not until 18 April 1785 did he bring before Parliament the subject of parliamentary Reform. The delay was unfortunate, for the trading classes were by this time ruffled by proposals which promised to bring in the products of Irish cheap labour.

Meanwhile Pitt drew up a draft scheme of Reform and sent it to Wyvill for his perusal. He proposed to set aside a sum of somewhat more than £1,000,000 in order to indemnify electors in nomination boroughs, provided that two-thirds of their total number should agree to forego their right of sending members to Parliament. In that case the borough should be disfranchised, the electors receiving compensation by a Parliamentary Committee after due examination of their claims. The seats thus vacated were to be added to counties or to districts of the larger counties. Pitt also hinted at the enfranchisement of certain suburban areas of London, and suggested that notoriously corrupt boroughs (such as Shoreham and Cricklade) should be disfranchised without compensation, their electoral powers being transferred to counties. He further proposed to widen the county franchise by admitting copyholders of 40 shillings a year and leaseholders whose leases had a certain term yet to run.266


These suggestions strike us as strangely cramped, except in the matter of copyholds, which were dealt with more generously than in Earl Grey’s Bill of 1831. The proposals for disfranchising the pocket boroughs resemble a political auction, Pitt dangling a million before the potwallers of Gatton, Grampound, Castle Rising, etc., as the sole means of endowing the great counties with political power, and of enabling Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield to find articulate utterance. Wyvill in 1797 noted that these towns formed a part of Pitt’s scheme of enfranchisement; but the Prime Minister does not seem in 1785 to have ventured distinctly to formulate so revolutionary a proposal. In the draft of a preamble to his Bill he suggested the advisability of enlarging the electorate in the case of several towns such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Winchester, where the Corporation or the Guild Merchant alone returned the members of Parliament.

These draft proposals reveal the caution, not to say nervousness, with which Pitt approached this great subject; and the same characteristics appear in the speech of 18th April 1785 in which he introduced his measure. While lacking glow and enthusiasm, it was instinct with moderation and persuasiveness. He started with the assumption that the House of Commons ought to be “an Assembly freely elected, between whom and the mass of the people there was the closest union and most perfect sympathy”; but he proceeded to allay the fears of those who, like Burke, saw in any change a death-blow to the constitution, by disclaiming “vague and unlimited notions.” He desired, he said, “a sober and practicable scheme which should have for its basis the original principle of representation.” He then showed how that principle had been warped by time and Court intrigues. Sometimes method was discoverable, and he cited a case that occurred shortly after the Restoration when, after the disfranchisement of 72 boroughs, 36 of them regained their rights on petition, but the 36 others, having decreased in size, remained without representatives. Therefore, by the discretionary powers of the Crown to grant, or to withhold, representation, there was a clear recognition of the principle that the chief towns, not the decayed towns, should return members to Parliament. Who, he asked, was the truer supporter of the constitution? He who sought to preserve the mere form of it, or he who preferred its substance and essence to the empty200 shell? Coming next to the outlines of his scheme, he declared that he would change neither the proportion of Scottish to English members, as settled by the Act of Union of 1707, nor the numbers of the House. All that he aimed at for the present was to disenfranchise 36 decayed boroughs and to assign their 72 members to the counties which most needed a larger representation, as also to London and Westminster.

Moderation such as this implies timidity. Moreover this was not all. As we have seen, Pitt did not intend to carry out this reform by compulsion; and he now declared that, recognizing as he did the monetary value of the franchises of these decayed boroughs, he proposed to form a fund whence they might gain compensation for this undoubted loss. Very skilfully he introduced this novel proposal by deprecating the “squeamish and maiden coyness” which members affected in speaking there on a topic which they frankly discussed outside the House. For himself he faced the fact that the right of returning two members to Parliament had a certain monetary value, and he therefore offered a due indemnity. Further, if in the future any other decayed borough should wish to surrender its franchise “on an adequate consideration,” he proposed to facilitate such a surrender, and to allot the two seats to any district or town that seemed most to need the franchise. Finally he desired to widen the electorate in the counties by including copyholders, whose property was as secure as, sometimes more secure than, that of the freeholders.267

Such were the proposals. They were brought forward at a time when Pitt had suffered in the opinion of the House, first by his obstinacy in persevering with the Westminster election scrutiny, and, secondly, by the Irish Commercial Resolutions. Members were therefore in an unsettled state of mind, and an eye-witness describes them as listening to the Prime Minister “with that sort of civil attention which people give to a person who has a good claim to be heard, but with whom the hearers are determined to disagree.” The same witness, Daniel Pulteney, found that most of Pitt’s friends “lamented that he would not201 keep clear of this absurd business—this Yorkshire system of Reform.”268

Despite this chilling reception, Pitt set forth his proposals “with the attractions of a most seductive eloquence.” Such is the testimony of Wraxall, which by itself would tend to refute the venomous assertion that Pitt was not in earnest. The contrary is proved by his words and deeds. At Christmastide 1784 he begged Wilberforce to return from the south of France in order to work in the cause of Reform; and on 12th January 1785 he wrote to the Duke of Rutland in these terms: “I really think that I see more than ever the chance of effecting a safe and temperate plan [of Reform], and I think its success as essential to the credit, if not to the stability, of the present administration, as it is to the good government of the country hereafter.”269 Further, it is certain that those ardent reformers, Robert Smith (afterwards Lord Carrington) and Wyvill, had no doubt of his earnestness. The latter stated in his letters that Pitt was striving his hardest to arouse interest in the Reform of Parliament.270

There is also ground for thinking that the King had privately assured him that, though he regretted his advocacy of Reform, no word of his should influence any one against that measure. Wraxall, who voted against Pitt, admits that his plan of Reform was highly attractive in theory—a phrase which leaves us wondering what would have been the practical scheme of reform after which this earth-born soul was dimly groping.271 Even Burke, who saw mortal danger to the body politic in the removal of the smallest rag of antiquity, complimented the Minister on the skill with which he had sought to make the change palateable to all parties. None the less did that fervid Celt consider the whole plan an ignis fatuus, calculated to mislead and bewilder. Herein Burke for once voiced the feelings of the country gentry who thought the fate of the constitution bound up with the maintenance of the rotten boroughs. The speeches of Duncombe and Wilberforce in support of the measure were poor and rambling. Dundas, an unwilling convert to Reform,202 had nothing better to say than that he highly approved the principle of compensation.

The chief arguments against the measure were those of North, Fox, and Bankes. The first declared that the country cared not a jot for Reform. Birmingham had not petitioned for it. One of the members for Suffolk, who sought advice from his constituents, had received no instructions from them. The effort to get up a Reform meeting in London had resulted in the attendance of only three hundred persons; and the outcome of similar efforts in the provinces might be summed up in the line from “The Rehearsal”:

What horrid sound of silence doth assail mine ear?

As for Fox, though he voted with Pitt, he did his best to defeat the measure. He wittily explained the silence of the people by their alarm at Pitt’s Irish Resolutions; for when on the point of emigrating from a land on the brink of ruin, why should they trouble about its constitution? Further, he stoutly objected to the award of any indemnity to the owners of pocket boroughs. The same point was shrewdly pressed by Bankes. The measure, he said, was absurd on the face of it. For why declare against the whole principle of the traffic in such boroughs, and yet proceed to allow liberal compensation to the traffickers? The argument was more clever than sound, as appeared in 1834 when Parliament awarded £20,000,000 to slave-owners. The taunt also came with an ill grace from the owner and representative of Corfe Castle; but it cut Pitt to the quick. He immediately arose and avowed that the remark wounded him deeply on account of his long friendship with the speaker; the point touched was a tender one; but the evil was such that it must be cured, and it could be cured in no other way than the present. And so, in this mood of “Et tu, Brute,” Pitt and his friends withdrew into the lobby, and soon learned that his third attempt to redress the glaring ills of the representation had been defeated by 248 votes to 174.

The blow was crushing and final as regards Parliamentary Reform in that age. The storms of the French Revolution and the mightier subterranean forces of the Industrial Revolution were to work upon the old order of things before the governing classes of England were brought to see the need of renovation; and when the change came in 1832, it was not until the nation203 had drawn near to the verge of civil war. In 1785 the transition would have been peaceful and progressive. Pitt was content to work by permissive methods, and to leave open the decision as to which of the rising industrial towns should gain the franchise as it was sold by the decaying boroughs. Such a mode of advance seems to us that of a snail, and marked by a trail of slime. But we must remember that the brains of that generation worked very slowly on political questions; for in truth they had to do with a society which was to ours almost as a lake is to a torrent. Further, it is noteworthy that the offer to buy out the pocket boroughs was the chief recommendation of Pitt’s measure to the House of Commons. Burke praised him for thus gilding his pill; and Dundas’s chief plea for the measure was that it did not outrage “the sacred inheritance of property.” Alone among Pitt’s supporters Bankes reprobated these bartering methods. The attitude of the House should be remembered, as it bears on the question how far Pitt was justified in buying off the opposition of the Irish borough-holders and others who suffered by the Act of Union of 1800.

Could Pitt have taken any further steps to ensure the passing of his Reform Bill? Mr. Lecky, followed in this by lesser historians, has maintained the affirmative. He avers that, by making it a ministerial measure, Pitt could have brought to bear on it all the influence of party discipline.272 To this it may be replied that Pitt’s majority, though large, was very independent. As will appear in the next chapter, we find him writing that he could not then count on the support of many of his followers from one day to another. They had floated together from the wreckage of the Fox and North parties, and had as yet gained no distinct cohesion, except such as arose from admiration of him. Further, he strained this feeling too severely in the session of 1785 by his harsh treatment of Fox over the Westminster election, and by pressing on three unpopular measures, namely, the Irish Resolutions (22nd February), the fortification of Portsmouth and Plymouth (14th March), and Parliamentary Reform (18th April). Sooner or later he suffered defeat on all these proposals. Yet it is clear that his followers did not intend to drive him from office, but merely to teach him caution. In this they succeeded only too well. Thereafter he acted far more204 warily; and, except in the Warren Hastings’ case, and in the French Commercial Treaty, he for some time showed little of that power of initiative which marked the early part of the session of 1785. The fact is to be regretted; but the need of caution is manifest when we remember that a single irretrievable blunder would have entailed a Fox-North Ministry with all the discords and confusion that must have come in its train. Even zealous reformers, while regretting that Pitt did not persevere with Reform, continued to prefer him to Fox and North. This appears in a letter written by Major Cartwright at the close of the year 1788. On the news of the mental derangement of George III, that veteran reformer wrote to Wilberforce: “I very much fear that the King’s present derangement is likely to produce other derangements not for the public benefit. I hope we are not to be sold to the Coalition faction. Mr. Fox is, I see, arrived, and cabal, I doubt not, is labouring with redoubled zeal under his direction to overturn the present Government.”273 The distrust felt for Fox after his union with North survived in full force even in 1788. Their accession to power, and the triumph of the Prince of Wales, were looked on as the worst of all political evils. This, I repeat, explains and justifies the determination of Pitt to continue in office.

But other reasons must also have influenced his decision to shelve the question of Reform at least for the present. His Cabinet was too divided on it to warrant his risking its existence on a proposal which had always been rejected. The marvel was that a Prime Minister should bring it forward. Further, if we may judge from George III’s letter of 20th March, the active though secret opposition of the King was averted only by Pitt giving an unmistakable hint that he would resign if it were used against the measure.274 Having secured the King’s neutrality, Pitt could hardly go further and leave his sovereign in the lurch by breaking up his Cabinet on a question on which he alone of the executive Government felt strongly.

Another possible alternative was that he himself should resign. But this again would almost certainly have involved the fall of an Administration of which he was the keystone. It is also noteworthy that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility,205 whether collective or personal, had not then been definitely established. Cabinets and individual Ministers resigned on points of honour, or when they held that the Government could no longer be satisfactorily carried on. But neither of these cases had arisen. The Government of the country obviously could go on as well as before. True, a legislative proposal of great importance had been rejected; but it cannot be too clearly stated that in that century the chief work of Government was to govern, not to pass new laws. Far on in the next century the main business of a Cabinet came to be the proposing and carrying through of new measures; but this idea was foreign to that more stationary age; and probably everyone would have accused Pitt of deserting his post had he resigned owing to his inability to carry a legislative enactment of a very debatable character. Walpole has not been blamed because he held to office despite his failure to carry his very important Excise Bill.

Again, why should Pitt have persevered with the cause of Reform? Despite all the efforts of Wyvill and the Associations, only eight petitions had been sent up to the House in favour of it. The taunts of North as to the apathy of the country were unanswerable. No voice was heard in protest against the rejection of the measure; and the judgement of Wilberforce was that of practically all reformers, that, after Pitt’s failure, Reform was hopeless.275 Wyvill himself, in a pamphlet written amidst the excitements of 1793, admitted that Pitt’s measure received little attention in 1785, and soon fell into oblivion—a fact which he explained by the complete satisfaction which the nation then felt with its new Ministry. Here we have the true explanation, furnished by the man who had his hand on the nation’s pulse. Wyvill saw that the practical character of the reforms already carried by Pitt had reconciled the people even to rotten boroughs. He also stated that the proposals of 1785 did not go far enough to satisfy many reformers, but that they aroused the bitter hostility of the boroughmongers. There, indeed, was the gist of the difficulty. The boroughmongers carried the House with them; and it was impossible at that period to stir up a national enthusiasm which would brush aside the fears of the timid and the sophistries of the corrupt. Only under the overpowering206 impulse of 1832 could the House be brought to pass sentence against itself. Because Grey and Russell carried a Reform Bill nearly half a century later, is Pitt to be blamed for abandoning, after the third attempt, a measure which aroused invincible opposition in Parliament, and only the most languid interest in the nation at large?

Further, be it noted that the conduct of Fox had irretrievably damaged the cause of Reform. His union with Lord North had split in twain the party of progress; and we have the testimony of an ardent young reformer, Francis Place, that that unprincipled union dealt a death blow to the London Society for promoting Constitutional Information, the last expiring effort of which was to publish a volume of political tracts in the year 1784.276 Not until the year 1791 was this useful society revived, and then owing to the impulses set in motion by French democracy.

Finally, it is noteworthy that Pitt gave his support to a smaller measure of Reform brought forward in the session of 1786 by Earl Stanhope. That nobleman had persuaded Wilberforce to widen the scope of a proposal which the member for Yorkshire had first designed for that county alone. It provided for the registration of all freeholders and the holding of the poll in several places at the same time. Pitt spoke warmly for the Bill as tending to remedy the chief defects in the county representation, and he expressed the hope that at some future time the whole of the representation would undergo the same improvements (15th May). Despite the opposition of Grenville and Powys, leave was granted to bring in the measure by 98 votes to 22. Though Stanhope emphatically declared in the Lords that the summary rejection of a Bill affecting the Commons would be an act of “unutterable indecency,” the Peers rejected the measure by 38 votes to 15.277

This was the last effort made by Pitt’s friends and supporters to improve the old system. For the present, Reform had come to an impasse. Even practical little proposals which passed the Commons were doomed to failure in the Lords; and it was clear that nothing short of a convulsion would open up a passage. The events that followed tended to discredit the cause of progress. As will appear in Chapter XIV, the violence of the207 Dutch democrats threatened to wreck their constitution, to degrade the position of the Prince of Orange, and to make their country a footstool of the French monarchy. Pitt perforce took the side of the Prince; and this question, together with the torpor of the populace, served by degrees to detach the young statesman from uncompromising reformers like Stanhope and Wyvill.

* * * * *

The defection or apathy of many of his friends in the session of 1785 was undoubtedly a severe blow to Pitt. It sounded the death-knell of his earlier idealism, and led him on, somewhat dazed, to a time marked by compromise and a tendency to rely upon “influence.” Daniel Pulteney noted, when he saw him in the park on the day following the rebuff, that he was in deep sorrow.278 That was natural in a man who had hoped to arouse the nation to a vivid interest in good government, and suddenly found himself headed back to the old paths. The shock must have been the greater as he had been guided by what I have termed his bookish outlook on life.

Pulteney, as a man of the world, pointed out to his patron, the Duke of Rutland, this defect in the young Prime Minister: “This system of Pitt’s, to act upon general ideas of the propriety or wisdom of a measure, without attending enough to the means by which it can be best and most happily introduced—I mean, knowing the general opinion of the House at the time—must, I foresee, involve him in time in one or other of these difficulties,” namely, the rash introduction of a measure, or its abandonment through a sudden access of distrust. Again he says that Pitt is very much “fettered in his conduct on great affairs. From a very partial and confined knowledge of the world, he is too full of caution and suspicions where there does not exist the shadow of a pretext for them; and, from having no immediate intercourse with the generality of the House of Commons here, he is as ignorant of their opinions on particular questions as if he was Minister of another country.” He then states that, when Pitt suddenly came to see the facts of the case, he was apt to be unduly despondent and to bring forward only those questions on which he was sure of a majority. He concludes that this habit of “acting only on abstract principles” would greatly208 embarrass him; but that he might expect long to continue in power, because “whenever he was to quit, I think no Ministry, not founded on corruption, could stand against him.”279

This estimate, by a practical politician, though marked by a desire to depreciate Pitt and exalt the Duke of Rutland, goes far towards explaining the symptoms of change which are thereafter noticeable in Pitt’s career. It shows us Pitt, not a superb parliamentarian dominating men and affairs from the outset, but rather an idealist, almost a doctrinaire, who hoped to lead his majority at his will by the inspiring power of lofty principles, but now and again found that he had to do, not with Humanity, but with humdrum men. We see him in the midst of his upward gazings, disconcerted by the force of material interests, and driven thenceforth to pay more attention to the prejudices of his party.

First in importance among the expedients to which he was driven after the spring of 1785 was the use of “influence.” As was shown in the Introduction, that word, when used in a political sense, denoted the system of rewards or coercion whereby the King and his Prime Minister assured the triumph of their policy. Peerages, bishoprics, judgeships, magistracies, sinecures and gaugerships, were the dainties held out by every Ministry in order to keep their sleek following close to heel and thin the ranks of the lean and hungry Opposition. Peerages alone counted for much; for we find Pitt writing, during the Fox-North Ministry of 1783, that the King’s determination not to create a single peer during their term of office must sooner or later be fatal to them. Government by rewards and exclusions was looked upon as the natural order of things; but up to the session of 1785 Pitt used “influence” sparingly. At a later date Wilberforce ventured on the very questionable assertion that Pitt’s command over Parliament after the General Election of 1784 was so great that he might have governed by “principle” and have dispensed with “influence.” He expressed, however, his admiration of him for refusing to associate with trading politicians, a connection which, even in the hours of recreation, was certain to bring defilement.280

Pitt, as we have seen, never stooped to associate with jobbers, but he seems to have decided, after the severe rebuffs of February–April209 1785, to use “influence” more and more. We notice in his letters to the Duke of Rutland and Orde several injunctions as to the management of members in the Irish Parliament; and he sought to conciliate waverers by other means, such as the abandonment of those clauses of the Irish Resolutions which were most obnoxious to British traders, and an almost lavish use of honours and places. This last expedient he adopted unwillingly; for on 19th July 1785 he wrote to the Duke of Rutland that circumstances compelled him to recommend a larger addition to the British peerage than he liked, and that he was very desirous not to increase it farther than was absolutely necessary.281 This shows that his hand was forced either by his colleagues or by the exigencies of the time. Possibly the promises of peerages had to be made in order to secure the passing of the Irish Resolutions even in their modified form. It is humiliating to reflect that this descent from a higher to a lower level of policy thenceforth secured him a majority which followed his lead, except on the isolated questions of the fortification of Portsmouth and Plymouth, and of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the latter of which he left entirely open.

* * * * *

It will be convenient to consider here the question of the fortification of the chief national dockyards, as it shows the determination of the Prime Minister to secure economy and efficiency in the public services. As we have seen, his great aim was to carry out a work of revival in every sphere of the nation’s life. When thwarted in one direction he did not relax his energies, but turned them into new channels. On the rejection of the Irish Resolutions, he urged the Duke of Rutland to seek out the most practicable means of healing the discontent in that island. Above all he suggested an alleviation in the matter of tithe (then the most flagrant of all material grievances), if possible, with the assent of the (Protestant) Established Church.282 Similarly in the cause of Free Trade, when foiled by Anglo-Irish jealousies, he turned towards France; and, after discovering the impossibility of carrying out his aim for the regeneration of Parliament, he vindicated the claims of morality in the administration of India. Finally, it is a crowning proof of the many-sidedness and practical character of his efforts that, amidst all210 his strivings to reduce the National Debt, he sought to strengthen the nation’s defences.

Despite the many distractions of the years 1785–1786, he devoted much care and thought to the navy. Already, in 1784, he had instituted a Parliamentary inquiry into the state of the fleet and the dockyards, which brought to light many defects and pointed the way to remedies. His anxiety respecting the first line of defence also led him to keep the number of seamen at 18,000, a higher total than ever was known in time of peace; and he allotted the large sum of £2,400,000 for the building of warships by contract. Further, he sought to stop the corruption which was rife in the dockyards and the naval service.

The letter which Sir Charles Middleton (afterwards Lord Barham) wrote to him on 24th August 1786 reveals an astounding state of affairs. From his official knowledge he declared—

The principle of our dockyards at present is a total disregard to public œconomy in all its branches; and it is so rooted in the professional officers that they cannot divest themselves of it when brought into higher stations. They have so many relatives and dependants, too, in the dockyards, that can only be served by countenancing and promoting improper expences, that they never lose an opportunity of supporting them when in their power, and on this account ought to have as small a voice as possible in creating them.283

In this and other letters to Pitt, Middleton expressed his belief that much might be done to check these evils by the help of a firm and upright Minister. Probably this appeal from a patriotic and hard-working official sharpened the attention which Pitt bestowed on naval affairs. We know from the notes of Sir T. Byam Martin that Pitt frequently visited the Navy Office in order to discuss business details with the Comptroller, and by his commanding ability left the impression that he might have been all his life engaged on naval affairs. In particular he used to inspect the reports of the building and repairing of the ships-of-the-line.—“He also (wrote Martin) desired to have a periodical statement from the Comptroller of the state of the fleet, wisely holding that officer responsible personally to him without any regard to the Board.” The results of this impulse given by one master mind were speedily seen. More work was got out of the211 dockyards, and twenty-four new sail-of-the-line were forthcoming from private yards in the years 1783–1790. Thus, by the time of the Spanish war-scare in 1790, ninety-three line-of-battle ships were ready for commission.284 The crises of the years 1786–1788 had also been so serious that they might speedily have led to war had not Britain’s first line of defence been invincible.

In regard to the proposal to strengthen the defences of Portsmouth and Plymouth, Pitt was less fortunate. The proposal really came from the Duke of Richmond, Master of the Ordnance, who was far from popular—a fact which perhaps influenced the votes of members. Though Pitt and other Ministers adduced excellent reasons for not leaving those vital points in their present weak state, he did not carry the House of Commons with him. After an exciting debate, which lasted till 7 a.m. of 28th February 1786, the numbers on a division were found to be exactly equal. Then there arose a shout such as had not been heard since the memorable vote which wrecked Lord North’s Ministry. At once all eyes turned to the Speaker, Cornwall. He declared that he was too exhausted to give his reasons for his vote, but he would merely declare that the “Noes” had it. Wraxall states that the sense of the House was against Pitt, the country gentlemen especially disliking the addition of £700,000 to the next year’s expenses.285 One of the arguments of the Opposition seems to us curious. It was urged that the fortification of the two towns in question might be the beginning of a despotic system which would undermine the liberties of Englishmen. While treating this argument with the contempt it deserved, Pitt declared that he bowed before the feeling of the House. The commencement of huge works at Cherbourg later in the year must have caused qualms even to the watch-dogs of the constitution.

Some of the more eager Whigs called out for him to resign, it being the third time in twenty-two months that he had failed to carry an important measure. We may, however, point out that the proposal emanated from the Duke of Richmond; and there is the curious fact that Courtenay during the debate of 20th March 1789 asserted that the plan was merely the Duke’s, and212 had not come from the Royal Engineers. He was also not contradicted.286 Further, it should be noticed that though Pitt made the proposal his own, Dundas and others of his Cabinet were known to dislike it. There is the final consideration already dwelt on, that the custom which requires a Ministry to resign on the rejection of any important measure, had not yet crystallized into a rule.

This was the last severe check which Pitt sustained in Parliament for many years. The fact that he suffered as many as three in twenty-two months with little or no diminution of prestige shows that his majority really trusted him and had no desire to put Fox and North in power. That alternative was out of the question, as Fox knew, even when he twitted his rival with being kept in office solely by the royal favour.

Nevertheless in the years following 1785 we notice a distinct weakening in Pitt’s progressive tendencies. Whig though he was in his inmost convictions, he drifted slowly but surely towards the Tory position. Fortunately for him, the folly of his rivals in the year 1784, and again in the Regency crisis of 1788–9, enabled him to link the cause of the King with that of the nation. But these occasions were exceptional. It is never safe to owe a triumph to the mistakes of opponents amidst unusual conditions. For mistakes will be made good; and in the whirl of life circumstances will arise which range men and parties according to elemental principles.

* * * * *

Even before the French Revolution tested the strength of Pitt’s reforming convictions, there came a question which acted as a touchstone. This was the proposal to repeal the Corporation and Test Acts of the reign of Charles II. Those measures had excluded from office in Corporations, or under Government, all who would not receive the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. By this ban a large body of intelligent and loyal citizens were thrust out of the pale of political and civic preferment; and though the Toleration Act and Annual Acts of Indemnity screened them from actual persecution, their213 position was yet one of hardship. Certain bodies had not scrupled to make money out of their conscientious objections. As is well known, the Corporation of the City of London hit upon the plan of augmenting the building fund of their new Mansion House by passing a by-law in 1748 fining any Londoner who refused to serve when presented for nomination as Sheriff, and then proposing rich Nonconformists for that office. Not until 1767 did the able pronouncement of Lord Mansfield in the Upper House secure the rejection of this odious device. Thenceforth Nonconformists secured immunity from fines for refusing to serve in offices that were barred by the test of the Sacrament.

Nevertheless their position was far from enviable. By the freaks of insular logic Protestant Dissenters were allowed to vote in parliamentary elections and even to sit in the House of Commons; but though they had a share in the making and amending of laws, they could hold no office in a Corporation, or any of the great London Companies; commissions in the army, navy, and offices in other public services were also legally closed to them. Severe penalties hung over the head of any one who, in reliance on the annual Act of Indemnity, ventured to infringe any of these singular enactments. Public opinion approved this exclusiveness; and an anecdote told of that humorous mass of intolerance, Dr. Johnson, shows that prejudice was still keen in the circles which he frequented. He, Sir Robert Chambers, and John Scott (the future Lord Eldon), were walking in the gardens of New Inn Hall at Oxford, when Chambers began picking up snails and throwing them into the next garden. Johnson sharply rebuked him for this boorish act, until there came the soothing explanation that the neighbour was a Dissenter.—“Oh,” said the Doctor, “if so, Chambers, toss away, toss away as hard as you can.”287

The choice blend of Anglicanism and culture discernible in Chambers and Johnson, might be seen elsewhere than in the seat of learning on the Isis. It was the rule in the rural districts, except among the sturdy yeomen of the Eastern Counties, where the spirit that fought at Naseby had so far survived as to render snail-throwing a pastime of doubtful expediency. The same remark applies to London, where the tactics of the city fathers had214 signally failed to suppress Dissent. Very many churchmen were ashamed of these petty attempts at persecution, and the progress of the Evangelical revival aroused a feeling of uneasiness at seeing the most sacred rite of the Church degraded into a political shibboleth. Comprehension within the bosom of Mother Church was highly desirable; but clearly it might be too dearly purchased by Erastian laws which enabled a lax Nonconformist to buy his way into the Customs or Excise by presenting himself at the altar of the nearest church along with convinced communicants.

Accordingly Nonconformists had a strong body of opinion on their side in the session of 1787, when they asked for the repeal of those exclusive statutes. A staunch churchman, Mr. Beaufoy, championed their cause in a very powerful and eloquent speech, which won the admiration of Wraxall.288 Beaufoy dwelt on the anomaly of retaining this old-world exclusiveness, which would expose to the penalties of the law the illustrious John Howard, if ever he returned to this country. He showed that no danger need be apprehended for the Established Church, especially as the Act of Supremacy would continue to exclude from office all Roman Catholics, as well as Quakers. Further, the loyalty of the Protestant Dissenters had been sufficiently shown in the election of 1784, when they voted with Pitt on behalf of the prerogatives of the Crown. He then inveighed against the continuance of enactments which “degraded the altar into a qualification-desk for tax-gatherers and public extortioners.” Fox followed with a strong plea for religious toleration, quoting Locke and other writers who denounced the imposition of religious tests in political matters. The Church of England, said the Whig leader, was disgraced by the present state of things; and, seeing that it represented the majority of the English people, it could not be endangered by the proposed change.

On the other hand North, now quite blind, came into the House leaning on his son, Colonel North, in order to oppose the motion. Speaking with much earnestness, he declared that the Test and Corporation Acts were the bulwarks of our Constitution. Pitt must have felt some surprise at speaking on the same side as North; but he now asserted that those Acts did not impose any stigma or penalty on Nonconformists, for whom, indeed, he had a great respect. There must be a Church Establishment,215 and it of necessity implied some restrictions on those outside its pale. The constitution of Society involved limitations of individual rights; and he averred that the laws in question were justified by that consideration. Further, there were no means whereby moderate Dissenters could be admitted to these privileges while the more violent were excluded. If all were admitted, they might overthrow the outworks of the Establishment. These arguments carried the day by one hundred and seventy-six votes to ninety-eight (28th March 1787).289

Bishop Watson, of Llandaff, in his “Reminiscences,” explains Pitt’s conduct on this occasion. He declares that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had no strong feelings of his own on the subject, and had therefore referred the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Primate had assembled his colleagues at Lambeth, and by ten votes to two they had decided to uphold the Caroline enactments. If this be correct, Pitt’s action was weak. Certainly his speech was half-hearted, and utterly different in tone from his orations on Reform, the Regency, Slavery, and other topics which moved him deeply. Moreover, the referring a matter of this kind to the bench of bishops was about as reasonable as taking the opinion of country squires on a proposed mitigation of the Game Laws, or of college dons on a reform of their university. A Prime Minister abdicates his functions when he defers to the opinions of a class respecting a proposal which will trench on its prerogatives.



“We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territory by the same obligations of duty which bind us to all our other subjects.”—(Proclamation of Queen Victoria, 1st November 1858.)

Montaigne once uttered a protest against those historians who “chew the mouthfuls for us,” and spoil all in the process. He coupled with it, however, another vice which is really far more serious, namely, their habit of laying down rules for judging, and “for bending history to their fancy.” As for the presenting history in mouthfuls, it is probably the only way of making it digestible except for those mighty intellects which seize facts and figures with avidity, and assimilate them as if by magic.

Further, the modern historian may urge in defence of the topical method that it is the only practicable way of dealing with the infinity of topics of the last two centuries, ranging over parliamentary debates and wars, finance and social gossip, mean intrigues and philanthropic movements, industrial changes and empire-building, the efforts of great men and the impersonal forces that mould and move great nations, together with the denuding agencies that weather away the old surface and the resistless powers that thrust up a new world. How shall a finite intellect grasp at once all the moving details of this varied life? The mind craves to consider at any one time only one part of the majestic procession, just as it demands that the facts of Nature shall be grasped under different sciences. Human life is one as Nature is one; but the division in each case is necessitated by the increasing width of man’s outlook. All that is essential in the sorting-out process is that it shall honestly set forth all the important facts, and here and there open out vistas revealing the connection with other fields of human activity. In short,217 history can no longer be a detailed panorama of life, but it can and ought to be a series of companion pictures, informed by the personality of the artist and devoid of conscious prejudice.

Among the diverse subjects which confront us in the many-sided career of Pitt, none stands more apart than that of his relations to India. Of his Herculean labours we may, perhaps, term this one the cleansing of the Augean stables. The corruption that clung about the Indian Government, the baffling remoteness of its duties, the singular relations of the East India Company to the Crown, and of its own officials to it, above all, the storms of passion which had been aroused by the masterful dealings of Warren Hastings and the furious invectives of Burke, presented a problem which could not be solved save by the exercise of insight, patience, and wise forcefulness. It would greatly overburden this narrative to recount the signal services, albeit marred by deeds of severity and injustice, whereby Hastings grappled with the Mahratta War and the incursion of Hyder Ali into the Carnatic. All that need be remembered here is that Parliament had censured some of his actions and demanded his recall, that the Court of Directors of the Company had endorsed that demand, but that the Court of Proprietors had annulled it. Hastings therefore remained at his post, mainly, it would appear, from a conviction that he alone could safeguard British supremacy.

Accordingly, on this all-important question there was division in the executive powers at Calcutta, and in the East India Company itself; while the insubordination of very many of the Company’s servants in India further revealed the insufficiency of Lord North’s Regulating Act of 1773. Fortunately, however, the finances of the Company were in such disorder as to make it amenable to pressure from Westminster. It owed a very large sum to the Home Government for duties on its imports into Great Britain; and Parliament was thus the better able to assert the supremacy of the nation.

It was high time to make good this claim. The India Bills of Fox and of Pitt had been thrown out; and thus, despite an infinity of talk, the whole situation remained unchanged, except that nearly every one now agreed that it must be changed. On questions of detail opinions differed widely. Some of the proprietors and Directors of the Company protested against any interference whatsoever with chartered rights which they218 were perfectly able to uphold and vindicate. The opposite extreme was touched by Fox during a preliminary debate on the affairs of the Company, when he declared that body to be a sink of corruption and iniquity, a mere conduit for bringing home the wealth acquired by its servants in India. If, said he, the patronage of the India service must be vested either in the Directors or in the Crown, let the Crown take that influence from hands which had so shamefully abused it.

Pitt’s position, it soon appeared, was intermediate between these extremes. Four days later, on 6th July 1784, he introduced his second India Bill in a speech marked by great circumspection. He started from the same principles which had fashioned the outlines of his former measure (see chapter vii), that, though a charter ought not to override the needs of the State, yet nothing but absolute necessity could justify its abrogation. The affairs of the Company, he claimed, did not warrant so extreme a measure. His aim would be, not to abolish, but improve on, the existing plan of government for India. There were two essentials to be aimed at, namely, a due share of activity and resourcefulness in the Indian Government and obedience to the measures dictated by Parliament. The former of these requisites could be attained only by according to the Indian Government a certain degree of power, and from the latter it resulted that that power must be subject to the control of a regulating Board at home.

Pitt therefore recurred to his former plan. He left to the Governments of the Presidencies, above all, to the Governor-General, enough authority to enable them to cope with emergencies; but he also proposed to subject them to a Board consisting of members chosen by the Crown from the Privy Council. To this special committee of the Privy Council would be entrusted the power of devising legislation for India, of controlling Indian policy, and of recalling any of the Company’s officials. It was not, however, to have a voice in those questions of patronage which might deflect it from the path of duty and impartiality. The proceedings of the Board might be open to perusal by the Directors of the Company; but its behests would be final. In case of flagrant disobedience, or of other grave offences, the officials and servants of the Company were to be tried by a Commission consisting of members of the two Houses of Parliament chosen by ballot shortly before the trial.


Such were the chief proposals. As for the spirit which informed the measures, it may be divined from that part of the speech in which the Prime Minister set forth the fundamental principles of our Indian policy. They were in brief these, the avoidance of war and of alliances that might lead to war, and the use of such conciliatory methods as would further the aim which we had chiefly in view—pacific commerce.290

Neither the spirit of enlightened patriotism, which pervaded the speech, nor the practical nature of the proposals screened the measure from fierce opposition. That acrid opponent of Warren Hastings, Mr. Francis, taunted Pitt with leaving to the Directors of the Company the mere shadow of authority, but he prophesied that the large powers vested in the Governor-General and in the Governments of the Presidencies would be abused as flagrantly as ever they had been in the past. Fox expanded these objections with his usual force, asserting that far too large powers were given to the Crown, and that the proposed Board would be quite as partisan a body as the Commissioners to whom he in his India Bill had entrusted the regulating power. He further insisted that to leave appointments to the Company, while depriving it of authority, was a miserably weak expedient which must sap the base of government. On their side, the Directors of the Company complained that the present Bill at several points trenched on their trading rights, which they had always expressly reserved to themselves; and they urged that they must retain in their own hands the right of recalling their own servants. As for the proposed tribunal for the trial of disobedient officials, it seemed to them an unsatisfactory experiment, seeing that both trial by jury and impeachment were ill adapted to the complex questions of Indian administration.291

Nevertheless, the Company had to give way at nearly all points. The powers of the Court of Proprietors almost entirely lapsed (to the satisfaction of all but themselves); and a clause was passed, compelling the Company’s officials to state on oath the amount of their fortunes at the end of their service, Pitt himself suggesting that private gains up to £2,000 a year after the first five years of service should not be deemed culpable. Though the Bill prohibited the receiving of “presents” from natives, it220 was clear that officials would use other equally objectionable means in order to arrive at that unobjectionable sum.

On the whole, however, the principle of controlling Indian affairs from Westminster, which Lord North had rather haltingly asserted eleven years earlier, now became the dominant fact of the situation. This will be clear if we review the constitution and powers of the new Board of Control. It was to consist of six members of the Privy Council chosen by the King; the Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the Secretaries of State being always included. In the absence of these two, the senior member of the remaining four was to preside; and finally the conduct of the Board’s affairs came to rest virtually with him, so that he became, in all but name, Secretary of State for India. For the present, however, as appears from a letter of Dundas to Cornwallis of 29th July 1787, Pitt attended the Board regularly and thoroughly mastered its business.

To this Board were submitted all letters and despatches between the Company and its officials in India, except those which referred solely to trade. Every proceeding and resolution of the Court of Directors must come to it; and from it there issued orders which the Directors were bound to enforce. Further, at the second reading Pitt amended his Bill so as to allow the Board in urgent cases to frame and transmit their commands to India without communicating them to the Directors. Finally, if the Company appealed against the Board’s decisions, the ultimate judgement lay with the King in Council, that is, with a body largely the same as that from which it appealed.292 While, therefore, Pitt instituted what was called a system of dual control, that control, save in the lower sphere of commerce, was really exercised by the Home Government. In the long series of changes which transformed the venture of a company of London merchants into an Empire administered by the British people, no step is more important than that taken by him in this, his first great constructive effort.

But this was not all. Various circumstances in the next eighteen months showed the need of still further strengthening the Indian executive. Certain ominous moves of the French caused anxiety. In the spring of 1785 their East India Company221 was revived on an imposing scale; and the close relations subsisting between France and the Dutch Republic augured ill for the British dominions in the Orient. Everything, therefore, tended to emphasize the need of strong Government at Calcutta; and the attention directed to Indian affairs, consequent on the charges brought against Warren Hastings early in the year 1786, further convinced many competent judges of the need of strengthening the Indian executive. These considerations furnish the reasons which led Pitt to bring in an Amending Act.

If we may judge from Pitt’s speeches of 17th and 22nd March of that year, he had been much impressed by the sagacity of the Governor-General in seeking to frame an alliance with the Great Mogul for the purpose of counterbalancing the offensive league of Tippoo Sahib with the French. The action of Hastings’ Council in frustrating this statesmanlike plan, because it contravened the instructions of the Company, showed the unwisdom of doubly tying the hands of a competent governor, first by instructions drawn up in Leadenhall Street, and secondly by a Council in which pedantry or personal spite could paralyze great enterprises. Obviously what was required was to choose the right man as Governor-General, then to grant him powers large enough to meet serious crises, and to place him in such a relation to the Home Government that those powers would not be abused. None of these conditions could be satisfied so long as the Company appointed the supreme officials and prescribed their functions.

But Pitt’s Bill of 1784 had changed all this. As we have seen, the British Government was now the driving force of the Indian machinery, the Company acting merely as an intermediate wheel. The responsibility of the Governor-General to the new India Board and to Parliament having been decisively asserted, his powers could now safely be increased.

This formed the raison d’être of Pitt’s Amending Act of March 1786. Though introduced by Dundas—a graceful compliment to his exertions in Indian matters in time past—it emanated from the Prime Minister. It applied the principles of the India Bill of 1784 to the servants of the Company in Great Britain. But, what was far more important, it enabled the Governor-General to override the opinions of his Council at Calcutta, the members thenceforth merely recording in writing their protests or the grounds of their opposition. The like222 powers were also conferred on the Governors of Madras and Bombay. Finally, the Governor-General was empowered to fill up any vacancy in the Council occasioned by death, and was also to act as Commander-in-Chief.

These far-reaching proposals caused Burke’s spleen to overflow. He burst forth into a violent diatribe against this “raw-head and bloody bones Bill.” Pitt’s first India Bill, he declared, was an abortion of tyranny, an imperfect foetus in a bottle, to be handed about as a show, but hypocrisy had nursed it till now the full-grown monster was before them.

And at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, shall famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

It was absurd, he said, to expect energy and despatch from a despotism like that about to be set up in India. Democracy owed most of its triumphs to the openness and strength of its operations. The joint experience of many must prevail over the fallible judgements even of the best mind on earth. After this outburst, which Burke must have regretfully recalled when he undertook his crusade against French democracy, Fox emptied the vials of his wrath on the measure, especially taunting Pitt with robbing the Council at Calcutta of all administrative functions. This was not surprising, he said, as the Minister so obviously preferred speech to action. His speeches were splendid, his actions presented a long record of failure. “Let others act, the honourable gentleman desired only to argue.” Pitt wisely declined to notice heated personalities, and limited his speech to the task of proving that the Bill cured several of the weaknesses of the Indian Government, and met the needs of the situation. This reply, quiet, dignified, and practical, carried the House with him by a majority of eighty-nine. The Bill passed the third reading without a division on 27th March. Such was Pitt’s retort to the windy declamation of his opponents.

Thus was completed the fabric begun two years before. Thenceforth the Governor-General wielded a concentrated power such as India had not known since the decline of the Moguls. No longer could he be thwarted by the members of his own Council as Warren Hastings had often been by the intrigues of Monson and Francis. In truth the Viceroyalty was now an autocracy such as orientals could understand and respect. But223 this autocracy was, after all, local and conditional—a fact which Burke overlooked or ignored. While wielding despotic authority in India, the new Viceroy was but an adjunct of the British constitutional machine. It is perhaps the highest of Pitt’s achievements that he saw how to combine two ideals of Government, the oriental and the occidental, in a way that conduced to vigour of action in Bengal, and did not impair popular progress at home. While investing the real ruler of India with powers far greater than those wielded by Warren Hastings, he subordinated them to the will of King and Parliament.

It has been asserted that Pitt was weak as a legislator.293 It will be well to notice this charge at the close of these volumes. But surely, when judged by all conceivable standards, his India Bills must take rank amongst the greatest of legislative achievements. For by those measures, Pitt subordinated the most powerful of all Companies to the British Parliament. By it, as we have seen, he harmonized the claims of a viceregal autocracy in the Orient with those of popular government at home; and he thereby saved the British Empire from the fate which befell that of Rome. Historians of the Roman Republic agree that the favourites of the Senate of the type of Verres who were let loose on the provinces beyond the sea, not only proved the most frightful scourge to the subject peoples, but also undermined popular liberty at home by the unscrupulous use of their plundered hoards. The same system palsied the limbs of that Empire and drugged its brain. Whether the “nabobs” who rolled off from India and settled down in England would finally have exerted this doubly baleful influence, it is futile to inquire; but, had they gorged and bribed for several generations, the results must have been serious among a people that look on politics from a very practical standpoint.

On the other hand, to have run amok at that class, like Burke, might have yielded them the ultimate victory. Pitt observed the golden mean. For the present, the Company hailed him as its champion. But, while saving it from the Quixotic crusader, he bound it and its servants by strong ties, which it was found easy to tighten at every renewal of the Charter. Above all he strengthened the hands of the Viceroy even while binding him more closely to the Home Government. Has any other statesman224 succeeded in the task of linking an oriental autocracy with the ancient parliamentary system of a Teutonic race?

The first of the parliamentary Governors-General was the man whom Pitt early in 1784 designed for the equally difficult post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In the summer of that year, as also early in 1785, he urged Earl Cornwallis to combine the functions of Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of India; but the earl at that time declined, partly because the powers of the Commander-in-Chief were unduly restricted.294 The high hopes which Dundas had long entertained of the abilities of Cornwallis, shown by his desire to offer to him the Viceroyalty in 1782, now led the Ministry to meet his objections by introducing the Amending Act for extending the powers of the Governor-General in cases of emergency.295 Cornwallis accordingly accepted office; and in the seven years of his Viceroyalty (1786–1793) British rule was so far strengthened as to withstand the attacks of the Mahrattas and the far-reaching combinations of Bonaparte.

* * * * *

The same year which saw the dawn of a new era for India, witnessed also the impeachment of Warren Hastings. We are not concerned here with the series of events which provided material for that longest and most famous of our State trials. What does concern us is the behaviour of Pitt in what was perhaps the most complex problem confronted in his early manhood. Seeing that he was chiefly responsible for the vote in the House of Commons which made impeachment inevitable, this part of the question cannot be passed by. Difficult though it is to separate one of the charges brought by Burke and Fox against Hastings from the others, yet limits of space compel us to restrict our survey to that one which induced Pitt to vote for the impeachment. It related to Hastings’ treatment of Cheyt Singh, the Zamindar (not quite correctly termed the Rajah) of Benares.

The reader is doubtless aware that Hastings’ tenure of the Governorship of Bengal in and after the year 1772 coincided with a period of exceptional difficulty, which was enhanced by the acrid and often underhand opposition of Francis, Clavering, and Monson in the Governing Council at Calcutta. Further, the225 East India Company was often on the verge of bankruptcy. Undoubtedly the perpetual want of money led Hastings to the most questionable of his enterprises, the letting out of the Company’s troops to the Rajah of Oude for the purpose of driving out or subjecting the Rohillas, a race of freebooters on his north-western borders. But difficulties thickened with the outbreak of the war with the Mahrattas and the French. The climax came in 1780 when Hyder Ali, the usurper of Mysore, let loose his hordes upon the Carnatic, and threatened to sweep the British into the sea. Then it was that the genius of Hastings awoke to full strength. He strained every nerve to send from the Hooghly a large force of troops to the relief of the despairing settlement at Madras; and, money being an essential, he cast about for all means of finding it without wholly depleting the exchequer of the embarrassed Company. Among other devices he pressed one of his feudatories, Cheyt Singh, Zamindar of Benares, for a sum of £50,000 in addition to the annual tribute. Seeing that the British held the paramountcy in India, and therefore enjoyed the right of calling on the vassal princes for help in time of emergency, the claim was reasonable, especially as Cheyt Singh’s father owed his position to the East India Company. After giving extra assistance in each of the years 1778–80, Cheyt Singh began to grow restive in 1780 when the demand was renewed, and showed signs of disloyalty. Hastings thereupon imposed a fine of £500,000. More than this, he went to Benares in person, hoping to browbeat the Zamindar; but, his following being scanty, the troops of the latter rose against him, and cooped him up in his residence. With the splendid coolness which never deserted him, he manfully faced the danger. Secretly he sent warning to some of the Company’s forces not far distant, and British valour rescued him from his desperate plight. An Englishman in resolution, Hastings was an oriental in his methods of punishment and revenge. Forthwith he deposed Cheyt Singh, and set in his place another Zamindar with a much enhanced tribute (September 1781).

The same plea of overmastering necessity impelled him to interfere in the affairs of Oude, an episode which, when tricked out in the gorgeous rhetoric of Burke and Sheridan, shocked the conscience of the British people. Sheridan’s oration on “The Spoliation of the Begums of Oude” is perhaps the most thrilling Philippic of the modern world; but its force is sensibly lessened226 when we know that Burke derived his version of facts from a poisoned source. Francis, the bitter enemy of Warren Hastings, had been worsted by that master-mind in the Council-chamber at Calcutta; and, on challenging him to a duel, had been wounded in fair fight. It was this man, beaten twice over, who in 1781 returned to England to brood over means of revenge, and found them incarnate in Burke.

The genius which enabled that great Irishman to pour out serene and soul-satisfying judgements on the affairs of nations was allied with a more than feminine sensitiveness that often left him at the mercy of first impressions and Quixotic impulses. On all points of honour, whether personal or national, his chivalrous nature carried him to extremes bordering on the fantastic. The two incidents recounted above kindled in him a passion of indignation, which cooled but slowly, even when hatred of the French Revolution obsessed him. All attempts to ascribe Burke’s crusade against Hastings to partisanship or personal spite have egregiously failed. As Macaulay has shown in his brilliant but untrustworthy essay on Warren Hastings, Burke’s opposition to Hastings began in 1781, survived the kaleidoscopic changes of the next decade, and lived on into the new world of the Revolutionary Era. Clearly it resulted from a profound difference of view on Indian affairs. Even to-day, when the justificatory facts of Hastings’ career are well known, his actions are wholly condemned by men of a similar bent of mind. On the other hand his policy appears statesmanlike to those who look first at the wealth of benefits conferred on India by the British Raj and pay little heed to miscarriages of justice which they regard as incidental to an alien administration. The Hastings episode will ever range in hostile groups men of strongly marked dispositions; while the judicial minority will feel themselves drawn perplexingly first to the sentimental side and then to the practical side as new facts and considerations emerge from the welter of evidence.

From midsummer 1785, when Hastings landed at Plymouth and repaired to the Court at Windsor, England was rent asunder by these prepossessions. The King, as might be expected, received him with marked favour; but it caused some surprise that Queen Charlotte, who was propriety personified, should affably receive his wife, the divorcée of a complaisant Baron Imhoff. For a time it seemed that Hastings could afford to scorn the efforts227 of his opponents. Burke had given notice of a hostile motion in the House of Commons; but, in the then discredited state of the Opposition, it was unlikely to pass. Ministers for the most part approved the conduct of Hastings. Pitt also is said to have been favourably impressed by an interview which they had towards the end of June. Unfortunately no account survives of what must have been a memorable meeting. Hastings was then fifty-two years of age, exactly double the span of life passed by the Prime Minister. But the young statesman had by instinct the same faculty of controlling his feelings under a calm exterior which the Governor-General had perfected during years of vindictive opposition at Calcutta. The countenance of each was thin and worn by the workings of a too active brain, reminding the beholder of the noble lines of Milton:

Deep on his front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And princely counsel in his face yet shone

Undoubtedly they were then the ablest men of action of our race; and, despite envious surmises to the contrary, we may be sure that Pitt looked with admiration on the placid intellectual features of the man whose gigantic toil had saved British India. Both of them had the power of throwing off the cares of state and of indulging in playful intercourse with friends;296 and charm of manner and conversation must have enlivened the interview.

Yet each was closely on his guard. The opposition of Dundas to Hastings (for he it was who moved the vote of censure on him in May 1782) must have coloured Pitt’s feelings; and Hastings, as we know, believed that the India Bill of 1784 was a veiled attack upon himself. The interview certainly did not reassure him; for he thenceforth informed his friends that he could not depend on the support of Pitt.297 The doubts were strengthened by the omission of the honours that so distinguished a man might have expected; but this fact was attributable to the motion of censure of which Burke had given notice in the House.

Thus Pitt maintained a cautious reserve. To say that he was waiting to see which way the wind would blow is manifestly unjust.228 He was awaiting further information in what was a most complicated case. We know that he sent to Hastings for an explanation of the terms of a zamindar’s tenure of office, evidently in order to clear up some of the questions respecting the Zamindar of Benares.298 Thus, while Lansdowne, Mansfield, and Thurlow loudly proclaimed their confidence in Hastings; while the King continued to converse with him most affably at the levées, and Queen Charlotte accepted a splendid ivory bedstead presented by his wife, Pitt remained guardedly neutral.

Many members of the Opposition wished to let the motion of censure drop, and urged this at a private meeting held at the Duke of Portland’s residence shortly before the meeting of Parliament in January 1786. But the zeal of Burke and Fox had not cooled with time. Further, on the first day of the session they were pointedly challenged by Major Scott, the accredited agent of Hastings in the House. At best Scott was a poor champion. Verbose, tedious, and ever harping on the same theme, he wearied the House with the wrongs of Hastings before they came officially before it; and on the first day of the great trial Fanny Burney remarked: “What a pity that Mr. Hastings should have trusted his cause to so frivolous an agent! I believe—and indeed it is the general belief, both of friends and foes—that to his officious and injudicious zeal the present prosecution is wholly owing.”299

Yet Scott would scarcely have flung down the gauntlet without the knowledge and consent of his patron. Indeed on all grounds it is probable that Hastings, with his customary daring, preferred that the question should come to the clear light of a trial rather than swell with the accretions of gossip and dark innuendoes.300 We must also remember that until the vote of censure of 28th May 1782 was removed from the journals of the House his name was under a cloud; and now that the accusations of Burke and Francis hurtled more thickly through the air, the whole matter was bound to come to the arbitrament of the law or of pistols.

On Hastings and Scott, then, rests the responsibility for renewing the strife. While they thus rashly opened the game, Burke replied on 17th February 1786 by a move of unusual skill. He229 requested that the Clerk of the House should read Dundas’s resolutions of censure of May 1782, and then ironically suggested that that gentleman, formerly the president of the special committee of the House, was the man who now ought to take action against the ex-Viceroy. He himself was but a humble member of that committee, and he now looked, but in vain, to those in power to give effect to the earlier resolutions. “But I perceive,” he said, with his eyes on Pitt, “that any operations by which the three per cents may be raised in value affect Ministers more deeply than the violated rights of millions of the human race.”301 Dundas, never an effective speaker, failed to wriggle away from the charge of inconsistency thus pointedly driven home. The attitude of Pitt was calm and dignified. In the course of the adjourned debate he professed his neutrality on the question. While commending Burke for the moderation with which he then urged his demands, he admitted that the charges brought against Hastings ought to be investigated and his guilt or innocence proved by incontestable evidence. “I am,” he said, “neither a determined friend nor foe of Mr. Hastings, but I will support the principles of justice and equity. I recommend a calm dispassionate investigation, leaving every man to follow the impulse of his own mind.”302

This declaration of neutrality, the import of which will appear in the sequel, did not imply that there was to be no investigation. The challenge having been thrown down, the tournament was bound to proceed. Thenceforth Pitt confined himself to the functions of arbiter. Burke now enlarged his motion so as to include all the official correspondence respecting Oude, whereupon the Minister urged him always to state his reasons for the production of documents, and not to expect those which revealed any secret policy. Burke said he was ready to specify his charges, and he did so. He further said that he was in possession of abundant evidence to make good those charges. On his applying for certain confidential papers, Pitt opposed the motion; but he agreed to sixteen other motions for papers. In face of these facts, how can the panegyrists of Warren Hastings claim that Pitt objected to Burke’s procedure and carried a motion against it?303 Burke’s motions were agreed to without a division, the Prime Minister having merely given230 an obviously necessary veto in the case of confidential documents.

In view of the charges of gross inconsistency that have been brought against Pitt on the Hastings trial, it will be well to look into details somewhat closely. On 3rd March 1786 Burke returned to the charge by pressing for the communication of papers respecting the recent peace with the Mahrattas and cognate subjects. At once Dundas and Pitt objected, on the ground that very many of those documents were of the most confidential character, revealing, as they did, the secret means whereby the Mahratta confederacy was dissolved. In the course of his speech Pitt declared that Hastings had made that peace “with an address and ingenuity that did him immortal honour.” But he added that other charges against him might be substantiated. In vain did Fox and Burke protest against the withholding of documents bearing on the present topic. The sense of the House was against them. Wilberforce applauded the caution of Ministers, as did eighty-seven members against forty-four on a division. A similar motion by the accusers for the production of papers relative to Delhi met with the same fate three days later.

On Fox renewing his demand for the Delhi papers (17th March), Pitt took occasion to state his views clearly. If State papers were called for in order to set on foot a criminal prosecution, he required the mover to “show a probable ground of guilt,” and secondly, that the papers were necessary to substantiate that guilt; the third condition was that the public service would not suffer by publication.304 He then proceeded to prove that the action of Hastings in seeking to form an alliance with the Great Mogul (despite the orders of the Company) was timely and statesmanlike, as it promised to thwart the alluring offers of Tippoo Sahib and the French to that potentate. Finally he asserted that, if he could reveal the Delhi correspondence to the House, all members would see how improper its publication would be. For his own ease and for the reputation of Hastings, which would be enhanced by such a step, he could wish to give it to the world, especially as all the documents hitherto granted were hostile to the ex-Viceroy; but in the interests of the country he must oppose the demand of the prosecutors for the231 Delhi papers. In spite of the slap-dash assertions of Sheridan that the contents of those papers were perfectly well known, the House upheld Pitt’s decision by 140 votes to 73.305

The next move of the prosecutors was to demand the presence of certain witnesses at the bar of the House. The Master of the Rolls objected on points of form, and also protested against the appearance of pamphlets hostile to Hastings which had been industriously circulated among the members of both Houses. Burke then admitted that most of the State Papers asked for had been granted, though some had been denied, but acridly complained that Ministers were now trying to quash the prosecution. Pitt did not speak.306 On 26th April Burke brought forward two more charges, whereupon Pitt remarked that they contained much criminal matter, but he had formed no opinion as to their correctness; he hoped that it would appear otherwise, but the House must examine them with the utmost impartiality. Fox having taunted him with pretending to see no guilt where he saw too much, Pitt deprecated such outbursts. Later in the debate he demurred to the examination of witnesses called by the prosecutors before Hastings himself had been heard at the bar. Justice, he said, demanded that the accused should have a hearing before the accusers substantiated their case. He also declared that he would not consent to the examination of witnesses, still less to vote the impeachment of Hastings, on the vague and indefinite charges as yet before the House. Wilberforce expressed the hope that the Minister would persevere in the steady path he had pursued and would not be driven from it by the intemperate attacks of opponents. Burke inveighed against Pitt’s decision; but the latter carried the day by 139 votes to 80.

It was therefore by Pitt’s action that Hastings procured a hearing in the House—an opportunity which, if tactfully used, might have disconcerted his accusers. But the opportunity was lost. Instead of making a telling speech, Hastings proceeded to read a long and laboured reply, which occupied all the sittings of 1st and 2nd May, and emptied the House. Members accustomed to the faultless oratory of Pitt and the debating vigour of Fox, yawned at the dreary recital of remote events of which232 they knew little and cared less. Accordingly, it was with enhanced hope of success that Burke, after a month of careful preparation, brought forward his charges respecting the Rohilla War. On 13th June he introduced them. On the former of them Grenville defended the conduct of Hastings on the ground that the Rohillas had by their raids provoked the war, and that it was well to remove them. Dundas censured the Rohilla War, but maintained that, while the Governor-General should have been recalled for it twelve years ago, there was no ground for impeaching him for it now, especially as in the interval Parliament had three times named him Governor-General. Wilberforce, whose opinion weighed much with Pitt, took the same view. The most significant speech of the defence was that of Wilbraham who, on behalf of Hastings’ honour, urged the House to refer the charges to the House of Lords, where alone a full acquittal could be pronounced.307 Pitt spoke only on a small technical point, but voted with Grenville and Dundas. Despite a long and powerful speech by Fox, the House sided with what seemed to be the ministerial view, and at half-past seven in the morning of 3rd June rejected Burke’s motion by 119 votes to 67.

Undaunted by this further rebuff, Fox, on 13th June, very ably brought up the charge relating to the treatment of Cheyt Singh, Zamindar of Benares.308 He allowed that the continuance of Hastings in power twelve years after the Rohilla War seemed to imply that Parliament had condoned that offence; but this plea could not be urged respecting the Benares affair of 1781. He showed that the Company had agreed to respect the independence of the Zamindar of Benares, and that Hastings had pressed on him remorselessly for aids in money and cavalry, and had finally mulcted the exhausted prince of half a million sterling. The fate of Bengal, he claimed, depended on their condemnation of so tyrannical a proceeding.

All eyes were turned on Pitt as he rose to state his views on this question; and Wraxall avers that never did the range of his233 faculties appear greater, his marshalling of facts more lucid, or his elocution more easy and graceful. This is the more remarkable as the young Minister avowed his desire on personal grounds to absent himself from the discussion of so complex and remote a problem. We also know from his letter of 10th June to Eden, that he had “hardly hours enough to read all the papers on that voluminous article” (the Benares charge).309 It is therefore clear that he formed his judgement within a very short time of his speech. In this, however, he soon showed that he had probed the intricacies of the question. Setting forth in detail the terms of a zamindar’s tenure, he disproved Fox’s contention that the Company had no right to exact an “aid” from an “independent rajah.” He demurred to the epithet “independent,” at least as regarded the supreme power in India. The suzerain power has as good a right in time of crisis to exact “aids” from its feudatories as any Suzerain in Europe from his feudal dependents. Next he crushed Francis by citing his own written opinion that extraordinary demands might be exacted from such feudatories. Having set forth the question in its true light, and exposed the inconsistency and malice of Francis, he approached the crux of the whole problem, whether the fine ultimately exacted from Cheyt Singh was not excessive. Here he objected to the drawing of precedents solely from the days of the Indian Emperors. It was the duty of every British administrator to behave according to the rules of justice and liberty; and, said he, “On this ground I feel it impossible to acquit Mr. Hastings of the whole of the charge brought against him; for I feel in my conscience that he has pushed the exercise of that arbitrary discretion which, from the nature of the Eastern Government, was intrusted to him to a greater length than he was warranted to do by the necessity of the service.” While justified in imposing a penalty, he continued, Hastings had not proportioned the punishment to the guilt. In fining Cheyt Singh £500,000 for a mere delay to pay £50,000 (which £50,000 in the last instance was actually paid) Hastings had “proceeded in an arbitrary tyrannical manner.” As to the restoration of Cheyt Singh to his possessions, it was beset by certain difficulties, and he preferred for the present to withhold his opinion.

That speech led to the impeachment of Warren Hastings;234 for though Grenville, Lord Mulgrave, and the Attorney-General (Pepper Arden) spoke against the Prime Minister, the judgement of the last named prevailed; the House endorsed it by 119 votes to 79, or about the same numbers as had rejected the previous charge. The conduct of Pitt on this occasion has been vehemently assailed. Wraxall, writing many years later, maintained that it was a sudden and unaccountable change of front; and he further suggested that the jealousy which was said to be felt by Dundas for the superior abilities of Hastings might have influenced Pitt’s action.

As the insinuation has been endlessly repeated, I may be pardoned for dwelling on it somewhat fully. The story has been tricked out with a wealth of details. It is asserted that Pitt issued a Treasury circular calling for the attendance of his supporters on the 13th of June, as if it were for the defence of Hastings. No proof of this statement has ever been given; and there are good grounds for disbelieving it. In the first place it should be remembered that attendance at the House had been greatly thinned by the Whitsuntide holidays. The vacation was just over; and, as everyone acquainted with Parliament ought to know, a full House was hardly to be expected at the first sitting afterwards. Pitt’s letter of 10th June to Eden contains the following sentence. After stating that there had recently been a short and languid debate, and a division of seventy-one to thirty-three, he continues: “We shall probably have some attendance next Tuesday when Mr. Fox moves the charge respecting Benares; and after that our chief difficulty will be to get a House for the next fortnight. In the meantime I have hardly hours enough to read all the papers necessary on that voluminous article.”310

These are not the words of a man who is about to perform an act of treachery. It is clear that Pitt found great difficulty in getting through the evidence on that charge before the debate came on; and further, that he was doing his duty as leader of the House in trying to assure as good an attendance as the holiday season permitted on a charge of this importance. Wraxall, who here opposed Pitt, makes no mention of any ministerial “whip” in favour of Hastings, as he would certainly have done if he could thereby have strengthened his case against him. The235 fact that neither he nor Tomline refers to the calumny proves the lateness of its origin. Further, if a special “whip” had been sent out for the support of Hastings, would not some of the ex-Viceroy’s friends, especially Major Scott, have exposed the fraud? But no reference to it is to be found in the report of that debate. Are we also to suppose that the forty or fifty members who changed sides with Pitt, would have gone over to the accusers if he had been guilty of such duplicity? Finally, it is clear from the remarks of Grenville, Mulgrave, and Pepper Arden, that even the colleagues of Pitt felt perfectly free to vote as they chose. Mulgrave declared that the Prime Minister would not be fit to remain in office a single day if he expected his friends and associates to give up their opinions on this subject. Pitt, as we have seen, had at the outset called on members to exercise their impartiality; and he now assented to Mulgrave’s statement.311 The story that Pitt sent round a “whip” for the support of Hastings, and then drove his followers like sheep into the opposite lobby, may therefore be dismissed as a malicious fiction, at variance with all the known facts of the case.

Then again it is stated by Lord Campbell in his sketch of the life of Lord Eldon,312 that Pitt mysteriously abandoned Hastings, “and—contrary to the wish of Lord Thurlow who had a scheme for making Hastings a peer, perhaps a Minister—gave him up to impeachment.” The charge is made in a very loose way; but on it the detractors of Pitt have built a theory that Dundas and he feared the advent of Hastings to the India Board, or to the Ministry, or to the House of Lords. This story has been varied and amplified, so that in one version George III appears as desirous of forcing him into the Cabinet, or granting him a peerage on the sole recommendation of Thurlow. But the letter which the King wrote to Pitt on 14th June shows that, while regretting his action concerning Hastings, he respected his conscientiousness, and harboured no thought of breaking with him.313 That Thurlow had boasted of his power to further the interests of Hastings is236 likely enough; but it is certain that the King never thought of thrusting the ex-Viceroy into the Cabinet, or the India Board of Control, or of raising him to the House of Lords without the approval of his Prime Minister. The King’s letters to Pitt314 show that his chief desire then was to meet the large and growing expenses of his family; and Pitt’s economic policy made his continuance in power at that time especially desirable. Royal condescension towards Hastings set all tongues wagging; and they have wagged ever since on the malignant jealousy of Dundas, and the gross inconsistency of Pitt; but the proofs adduced are of the flimsiest character. Wraxall and Bland Burges, who later on jotted down their impressions of parliamentary life, asserted that Dundas had somehow become convinced that the King intended to eject him from the India Board of Control and put Hastings in his place. But neither of them gave any proof. Wraxall merely stated that “the public believed” that Dundas feared such a change.315 Bland Burges averred that Dundas had “by some means” come to know the secret intention of the King, and therefore “sedulously fanned Mr. Pitt’s jealousy and uneasiness and so alarmed his mind that he hurried him on to a decision before he had time to satisfy himself as to its justice or expediency.”316

Equally unconvincing is the story, which Hastings himself told some thirty years later, that on the morning of 13th June Dundas called on Pitt, remained closeted with him for some hours, and convinced him that they must abandon the ex-Viceroy. The insinuation conveyed in this belated anecdote is that Pitt was then and there won over by Dundas, and owing to the mean motives mentioned above. The ingrained tendency of men to seek for petty personal pretexts rather than larger, more generous, and more obvious causes, seems to be the raison d’être of the story and of its perpetuation. There are also some natures so warped by partisanship that they naturally refer actions of political opponents to discreditable motives; and it is a sign of the bias which detracts from the value of Macaulay’s “Warren Hastings,” that he did not mention the late date at which the story was started, while he gives it as an historic fact that Pitt’s change of front was “the result of this conference.”

No statement of what went on at this alleged interview has237 ever been forthcoming; but, fortunately, on the all important question of motive, we have the clear testimony of one who knew Pitt most intimately, and whose political differences never distorted his imagination. Wilberforce, who had followed Pitt’s actions closely throughout the case, afterwards declared that justice had not been done to Pitt:—

People [he said] were asking what could make Pitt support him [Hastings] on this point and on that, as if he was acting from political motives; whereas he was always weighing in every particular whether Hastings had exceeded the discretionary power lodged in him. I well remember (I could swear to it now) Pitt listening most attentively to some facts which were coming out either in the first or second case. He beckoned me over, and went with me behind the chair, and said: “Does not this look very ill to you?” “Very bad indeed.” He then returned to his place and made his speech, giving up Hastings’ case. He paid as much impartial attention to it as if he were a juryman.317

Here we have evidence at first hand, though belonging to Wilberforce’s later years. Clearly it must refer to the events of 13th June; and it shows that if any one person was responsible for Pitt’s change of front that person was Wilberforce. Late in life the philanthropist declared that Pitt’s regard for truth was exceptionally keen, springing as it did “from a moral purity which appeared to be a part of his nature.” He also added that the want of simplicity and frankness sometimes observable in his answers really sprang from this scrupulous veracity.318

To quote the opinion of another experienced politician. William Pulteney wrote to Pitt the following hitherto unpublished letter:

London, 15th June 1786.

I cannot abstain from congratulating you on the line you took on Tuesday. It will do you great credit everywhere, but, what you will always think of more importance, I am convinced it will have the most salutary effects in every part of this great Empire, and particularly in India. Such is the powerful influence of strict honour and justice in those who govern kingdoms that it pervades every mind and in a great degree regulates the conduct of individuals. On the other hand, the wilfully permitting persons in high and responsible situations to go238 unpunished and uncensured, when guilty of important offences, is sufficient to foster the bad and corrupt principles in all other minds and to lay a foundation for similar and greater offences. You have my hearty thanks, and I am sure will have the thanks of all who understand the importance of your conduct.

I am, etc.
W. Pulteney.319

Few persons did understand his conduct, and sensitive pride kept his lips sealed. Nevertheless to all unprejudiced minds his conduct needed no defence. On that higher plane where truth and justice are alone considered (for justice is applied truth), Pitt did not swerve from the principles which he at first laid down. From the beginning of the Hastings case he had sought to hold the balances even. He left it open to his colleagues to differ from him. He refused the publication of papers favourable to Hastings where they compromised the welfare of the State or the characters of our Indian feudatories. He insisted that the charges against Hastings should be clearly drawn up, and that he should be allowed to answer those charges in person. On the topic of the Rohilla War he did not speak, doubtless because his mind was not made up. The fact that Parliament had three times re-appointed Hastings after that very censurable event, did in a technical sense screen him from prosecution now. But on the Benares affair, no such plea could be urged. It was a question on which the present Parliament alone had to decide.

The enormous vogue enjoyed by Macaulay’s Essays compels me once more to notice his treatment of Pitt respecting the Benares charge. A man of philosophic temperament once expressed a wish that he was as sure about anything, as the great Whig historian was about everything. This assertiveness peeps through the veil of diffidence which Macaulay donned before delivering the verdict, that any man with a tenth part of Pitt’s abilities ought to have convicted Hastings on the Rohilla charge and acquitted him on the Benares charge.320 In order to establish this assertion Macaulay passed by the technical plea above named, which must have weighed with Pitt, and then used his powers of special pleading to whittle down Pitt’s arguments on239 the Benares case, so that they seem to turn ultimately on the trumpery question whether the fine inflicted on the Zamindar was rather too large or not. But we may ask, firstly, was it a small affair to exact half a million sterling from a prince who during three years had been hard pressed, and as a matter of fact had paid up the arrears for which that fine was imposed? Did it concern the Zamindar alone? Did it not concern all the subjects from whom that half million must ultimately be wrung?

Not only did the conduct of Hastings far exceed the limits required by justice; it was also bound up with a question on which the stability of our Indian Empire has ever rested. So long as the feudatories of the British Raj feel confidence in his sense of justice, India is safe. Whenever they have cause to believe that injustice and oppression are the characteristics of his rule, the foundations of the Indian Empire are shaken to their base. Not without reason did Fox declare that the decision on the Benares affair was vital to the preservation of our ascendancy in Bengal. The statesmanlike eye of Pitt, we may be sure, discerned the same truth. Besides, there was an additional reason why he should now more than ever resolve to engrave the names of Justice and Mercy on the newly formed arch of the Indian Government. As has been shown, the recent India Bill placed greatly increased powers in the hands of the Governor-General. Burke and Fox had taunted Pitt with setting up a despotism from which endless suffering must flow. The charge was hollow; but, adorned as it was by splendid rhetoric, it created a deep impression. Was it not well, then, to show by a concrete example that any Viceroy who violated the principles of justice would meet with condign punishment at Westminster? A statesman has to consider, not merely the principles of justice, as applied to an individual; he must also think of the results of his actions on the millions whom they will affect; and we may reasonably infer that among the motives which led Pitt to break with many of his friends not the least was a heartfelt desire to safeguard the relations of the feudatories to the Suzerain Power, and to protect the myriads of Hindoos who had no protection save in the dimly known court of appeal at Westminster.

On the charge respecting the spoliation of the Begums of Oude, Pitt also cast his vote against Hastings; and again a majority followed him. It is questionable whether even the240 sensationally brilliant oration of Sheridan on this affecting topic moved the House so much as the silent but scornful disapproval expressed in Pitt’s vote.321 The impeachment was thenceforth inevitable.

With the forensic pageant that ensued we are not here concerned. Thenceforth the case belonged strictly to the legal domain. Its duration throughout the years 1788–95 was certainly discreditable to British law. Hastings out of his never affluent fortunes spent some £71,000 in the vindication of his actions,322 and at last secured an acquittal. But though men in Europe forgot the case amidst the potent distractions of the French Revolution, the effect of it was not lost upon the Orient. The comparative calm which settled benignly on India for twelve years may be attributed largely to a renewal of confidence in the sense of justice of our people. After the events of the year 1786 princes and peasants alike felt assured that the most transcendent services, if smirched with acts of injustice, would never screen a Viceroy from the censure of the British Parliament.



We have the satisfaction of having proposed a system which will not be discredited even by its failure, and we must wait times and seasons for carrying it into effect.—Pitt to the Duke of Rutland, 17th August 1785.

There is a story, uncertain as to date and origin, which picturesquely describes Pitt’s indebtedness to the author of “The Wealth of Nations.”323 Adam Smith had been invited to meet the young Prime Minister at dinner; but some mischance delayed his arrival. Nevertheless, the guests patiently waited for him, and on his entrance Pitt exclaimed, “Nay, we will stand until you are seated; for we are all your scholars.” The compliment came with none the less graciousness because the father of Political Economy had in his work incautiously defined a statesman as “that insidious and crafty animal.” Pitt was now to give a new connotation to the word. Almost alone among the politicians of the eighteenth century, he had set himself to gain a store of knowledge which would enable him to cope with the increasingly complex problems of his craft; and thus, in an age when a university degree, the grand tour, and London club-life were held to be a sufficient preparation for a political career, he came forth like a Minerva fully armed at all points.

Among the practical questions to which the Scottish thinker turned the attention of his age, none was more important than those dealing with the relations between England and her American colonies, the desirability of an unfettered trade with France, and the need of a close union with Ireland. The first of242 these questions had been disposed of by war, and the second will engage our attention in a later chapter. On the Irish question Adam Smith strongly advocated union with Great Britain as conferring on the smaller island the boons which had breathed new life into Scotland, namely, freedom of trade and deliverance from an oppressive dominant caste.

These contentions must have secured the approval of Pitt; for the outlines of his policy both towards Ireland and France bear a striking resemblance to those sketched in “The Wealth of Nations,” with this important difference, that after the gain of independence by the Irish Legislature in 1782 the union of the two Parliaments was clearly impossible for the present. We therefore find Pitt turning his attention to the two topics which then chiefly agitated public opinion in Ireland, viz., the reform of Parliament and the fiscal relations to Great Britain. In order to understand Pitt’s handling of these problems it is necessary briefly to review the course of Anglo-Irish affairs.

The story of the dealings of England with the sister isle in the years 1688–1778 is one that it is painful to contemplate. The efforts to dragoon the Catholic Irish out of their creed, or to grind them into the lowest stratum of society, produced a race hatred of which we are still reaping the dire harvest. The Celt broods over the past; and his memory clings round the days when Papists were excluded from Parliament, from the possession of freehold estates, from the professions and from juries; when they might not act as guardians or possess a horse worth more than £5; and when their Protestant neighbours on tendering £5 could take any horse that pleased them. All this and far more may be read in the pages of Lecky. As for the ruffianly enactments of the Irish penal code, many of them were so monstrous as to bring their own cure. In the latter half of the eighteenth century even the arrogant Protestant squirearchy of Ireland found it impossible or undesirable to enforce them.

The growth of principles of toleration and enlightenment which marked the years 1760–80 had some effect even on the nominees of Protestant landlords and borough-mongers who formed the bulk of the Irish Parliament. It is a curious fact that even the narrowest and most bigoted of governing castes cannot wholly resist the tendencies of the times; and the Dublin Parliament, representing only a part even of the Protestant minority of Irishmen, was no more able to keep out new ideas243 than the members of the pocket boroughs of Britain could withstand the Reform movement of 1830–32. The infiltration of novel principles into the Irish Legislature was slower and more partial, inasmuch as that body misrepresented even more ludicrously the opinions of the mass of Irishmen.324 It had long been swayed by a clique of politicians who were termed “Undertakers,” because they undertook its manipulation, ostensibly in the interests of the British Government, but really in their own. The traditions of the past and the determination of the members of the Protestant Established Church to keep the Government in their own hands, formed a massive barrier against change. Yet the dissolving touch of the Time-Spirit and the shocks of war were at work upon that barrier; and when the war with the American colonies and France strained the resources of Great Britain and Ireland past endurance, it showed signs of giving way on two questions, the one religious, the other fiscal. In the year 1778, Catholics who took the oath of allegiance were allowed to become in effect owners of land, that is, they might hold land on lease for 999 years. Further, the odious temptations formerly held out to sons of Catholics to abjure their creed were also abrogated. That year therefore seemed to be the beginning of an epoch of toleration, which it was the ardent desire of Pitt to crown with an act of justice too long delayed.

At present, however, we are concerned mainly with his attempt to reform the fiscal relations between the two islands. Until the year 1778 Irishmen were still in the state of economic vassalage to England which the Parliaments of William III had forcibly imposed. In some respects, especially in regard to the woollen industry, they were now worse off than in that time of humiliation. The enactment of 1699, which absolutely forbade the export of her woollen goods, hopelessly crippled an otherwise promising industry. Nor was this all. Her staple product, wool, might not be sent to foreign lands lest their manufacturers might benefit, and become rivals to ours. That fear was not wholly groundless in the case of France; for French weavers found that Irish wool supplied the qualities lacking in their own wool. The result was the rise of an extensive smuggling trade in that article from244 Ireland to France, which the Government utterly failed to stop.

The outbreak of war with the American colonies, as I have said, brought all these questions to an acute phase; and in 1776 the British Government so far relaxed the prohibitions on export as to allow Irish woollens to be exported for the clothing of the Irish troops serving away from their own country. At the same time Irish fishermen were admitted to a share in the Newfoundland and other fisheries from which they had been excluded.

Nothing, however, was done for the most important of Irish manufactures. The linen industry had not been severely hampered by the British Government. While prohibiting the export of fine linens, and of sail-cloth, in the supposed interests of British manufacturers, the British Government granted bounties on the coarse linens exported from Ireland; and up to the year 1771 that industry had greatly prospered. Thereafter it underwent a serious decline. So alarming was the shrinkage of trade and the rise of Ireland’s debt, that in 1778 Lord North’s Ministry was fain to propose the abolition of many of the fiscal disabilities which sapped her strength. She was to be allowed to send her products to the British colonies and to receive theirs directly in return; but, in order to allay the fears of British manufacturers, the old restrictions on the Irish woollen trade remained in force. Nothing, however, could allay those fears. At once loud complaints were raised from Aberdeen to Plymouth, so that North gave up nearly all his proposals; and Ireland gained little or nothing from his well meant efforts, except that ships built in Ireland thenceforth counted as British-built, and could receive bounties granted for the fisheries.325

Where reason and statesmanship had failed, force was to succeed. The utter inability of the British Government to defend Ireland against threatened French invasions furnished the pretext for the formation of powerful Volunteer corps, consisting solely of Protestants, and therefore especially strong in Ulster. The Presbyterians of that province, smarting under the civic disabilities imposed by the old Test Act, and under an equally archaic system of commerce, demanded redress of these grievances, in the latter of which the more lethargic245 Romanists gave them increasing support. Religious antipathies were forgotten in the face of Ireland’s urgent needs. The governing coterie at Dublin Castle failed either to check the movement or to revive the old schisms. It seemed that the intolerable burdens of the British fiscal system were about to mould the jarring elements of Irish society into the unity that marks a nation.

Though they failed to reach that far-off goal, they for the present won a noteworthy success. By combining to refrain from the purchase of British goods they dealt a severe blow at the system thrust upon them. Nor did they abstain from threats of force. The Volunteers paraded the streets of Dublin with cannon bearing the motto, “Free Trade—or this.” In face of an overwhelming opposition, the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, advised the British Government to give way; and at the close of the year 1779, and early in 1780, a series of enactments was passed at Westminster withdrawing the prohibitions on the export of woollen goods and glass from Ireland. Commerce with the British colonies was now also provisionally thrown open to Irish merchants, and they were admitted to a share in the Levant trade.

At the same time the cause of religious toleration gained an equally signal triumph. The strength of the Ulster Volunteers and the abatement of religious bigotry brought the Irish Parliament to pass a measure for relieving the Protestant Dissenters of that land from the sacramental test which had been looked on as one of the bulwarks of the Established Church; and in the spring of 1780 the British Parliament gave its grudging assent to that boon for Ireland which for nearly half a century longer it persisted in withholding from Nonconformists in England and Wales. As was stated in Chapter V of this work, the Irish Volunteers in the year 1782 gained another most important concession, namely, the recognition of the legislative independence of the Irish Parliament. Fortunately the British Government on this occasion acted with grace and dignity. The Rockingham Ministry advocated the change, which passed both Houses with but a single adverse vote, that of Lord Loughborough. The disagreeable fact, that this last boon, like the others, was extorted by force, was thus tactfully glozed over; and when the suspicions of the good faith of England aroused in Ireland by that restless demagogue, Flood, were laid to rest by the Renunciation Act of246 the year 1783, the relations of the two islands became almost cordial.

Causes of friction, however, remained. The royal veto might, and probably would, still tell against the Irish Legislature, even though the veto of the British Parliament and of the Privy Council had lapsed. The influence of the Lord Lieutenant and of his Chief Secretary on the Irish Ministers was also great; and his influence was distinctly British. Dublin Castle could also generally determine the votes of a majority in both Houses of Parliament. Further, it was quite possible that on commercial questions the Irish Parliament would differ sharply from that of Westminster. This seemed so in the early months of Pitt’s Ministry. The beginning of the year 1784 found Ireland depressed by a very inclement winter; and the cry was raised that her Parliament should “protect” her industries, especially that of wool, from English competition. The exertions of the new Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Rutland, aided perhaps by the reluctance of the more moderate members to enter on a commercial war with England, sufficed to defeat these proposals; but the Irish House of Commons, in May 1784, unanimously passed an address to the King, emphasizing the need of “a wise and well-digested plan for a liberal arrangement of a commercial intercourse between Great Britain and Ireland.” This was the friendly challenge which Pitt determined to take up. From the outset he made the Irish commercial question peculiarly his own. More than once in his correspondence with the Duke of Rutland he describes it as the nearest to his heart.326

No problem could have been more tangled. Ireland was still in a very restless state. Despite the warnings of that uncrowned King of Ireland, Grattan, the Volunteers began to enroll Catholics and to threaten the coercion of the Dublin Parliament. But, as the Duke of Rutland wrote to Pitt, Parliament “does not bear the smallest resemblance to representation”; and a petition from a great meeting held at Belfast in July 1784 declared that “the [Irish] House of Commons has degenerated into a fixed body so little connected with the people that it ceases to be a guardian of their property, and hath become the representative of an overbearing aristocracy.” The petitioners asserted that the delegates of the Volunteers were a representative body, and urged the King247 to dissolve the Irish House of Commons.327 This demand was widely echoed. The Volunteers, having already through their delegates exerted on Parliament a pressure which was semi-national, refused either to let politics alone, or to disband. Ultimately their recklessness and the efforts of Grattan undermined their influence, and they gradually dwindled away; but, for the present, they seemed able to extort all their demands, prominent among which was that for the “protection” of Irish industries and products. In his first long communication to Pitt, the Duke of Rutland dwelt on the urgent need of investigating Irish claims, though he frankly declared that he could not understand the commercial question. Open-handed to ostentation, and devoted to the pleasures of the table, this affable young aristocrat occasionally showed signs of political foresight, as when he ventured to predict “that without an union Ireland will not be connected with Great Britain in twenty years longer.”328

Far abler and more painstaking was his chief secretary, Orde, on whom was to fall the burden of work connected with the proposed Reform. The letters which passed between him and Pitt in the summer of 1784 show the care taken by both of them to master the facts of the situation. Orde (the future Lord Bolton) warned Pitt that a resolute effort would soon be made to effect the entire separation of the two Kingdoms, and urged him to “act towards Ireland with the utmost liberality consistent with your own safety: it must in the long run be the wisest policy.” Above all he insisted, as the duke had also done, on the need of a firm decision, which even the malcontents must regard as final.329

Pitt on his side sought to procure the fullest information on all points. In regard to the Reform of the Irish Parliament he deprecated any extreme measure such as the admission of the Roman Catholics then appeared to be; but he advocated the extension of political rights to Protestant Dissenters; for, as he forcibly put it, “we may keep the Parliament, but lose the people.” As for the fiscal question he required first of all a satisfactory knowledge of the facts, so that some general principles of action could be agreed on; and he urged that the financial relations of the Kingdoms should be regulated according as the prosperity of Ireland increased with her enlarged248 commercial opportunities. Justice required that Ireland should then take her share of the imperial burdens, which at present rested almost entirely with Great Britain. Finally they must seek some means calculated to bestow on Ireland that permanent tranquillity which the late commercial concessions had failed to secure.330

In this letter, dated 19th September 1784, we see not only an outline of the scheme which took definite form in the Irish Propositions, or Resolutions, of the session of 1785, but also an instructive example of Pitt’s methods of procedure. He began by collecting all the ascertainable facts, including the causes of previous failures, and, by sifting these data, he sought to arrive at general principles which would illuminate the whole question. In a word, his method was inductive. It begun with facts and ended with principles. Unlike the French legislators of 1789–93, who first enunciated principles and then sought to square the facts of life to them, he started with a solid basis and reared on it a structure from whose summit the toiler might take a wide survey. The Revolutionists built symmetrically and grandly, but without foundations.

In order thoroughly to master details, Pitt summoned from Ireland not only Orde but also Foster, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Beresford, Chief Commissioner of the Revenue. Both were able and masterful men, the former the doughtiest opponent, the latter the staunchest champion, of Pitt’s Act of Union. Beresford did much to beautify Dublin, and his name lives on in Beresford Place. With these experienced officials Pitt had many conferences at Downing Street, or at the house on the north side of Putney Heath, which he rented for the latter part of 1784. They confirmed Orde’s advice as to the wisdom of granting to Ireland complete liberty and equality in matters of trade, but warned him as to the difficulty of drawing from Ireland any contribution to the imperial funds. Here it should be remembered that Ireland supported 15,000 regular troops, 3,000 of whom were at the disposal of the British Executive in Ireland, while the others could be moved from Ireland with the consent of her Parliament.

Converse with Foster must also have strengthened Pitt’s resolve to press on the Reform of the Irish Parliament; for he249 now warned the Duke of Rutland, who stoutly opposed Reform, not to confuse peaceable efforts in that direction with subversive or treasonable schemes; and in a notable phrase of his letter of 4th December, he declared that Parliamentary Reform must sooner or later be carried in both countries. As regards procedure, he thought it best to postpone a change in the Irish franchise until a similar measure came forward at Westminster; for this, if successful, would impart to the movement in Ireland an irresistible force. In the meantime it would be well to take up the commercial problem.

Pitt’s sanguine temperament here led him into a tactical mistake. The Irish Resolutions were destined to arouse in Great Britain a storm of opposition which swept away the hopes of the Reform Associations; and the collapse of their efforts told unfavourably on the Irish political movement. Probably also he erred in bringing forward his proposals first in Dublin—a matter on which Fox readily aroused resentment at Westminster. Yet, where the issues were so tangled, it is difficult to say whether success could have crowned Pitt’s efforts had they been put forth in a different order.331 From his letter of 7th October 1784 to the Lord Lieutenant we see that he looked on the Reform of the Irish Parliament as simpler, but yet “perhaps more difficult and hazardous,” than the commercial questions then at stake.

Here again he calculated wrongly. Ireland’s demand for equality of trading advantages with Great Britain was certain to meet with vehement opposition from our manufacturers, as the events of the year 1778 convincingly showed. His mistake is the more remarkable as he proposed “to give Ireland an almost unlimited communication of commercial advantage, if we can receive in return some security that her strength and riches will be our benefit, and that she will contribute from time to time in their increasing proportions to the common exigencies of the Empire.”332 How buoyant was Pitt’s nature to cherish the hope that British merchants would concede commercial equality to Ireland, or that the factions at Dublin would take up the burdens of Empire!

No letter of Pitt’s rings with more enthusiasm, though an250 undertone of anxiety can be detected, than the very long one of 6th-7th January 1785. Writing until far past midnight he explained to the Lord-Lieutenant in great detail the aim which he had in view, namely, the sweeping aside of all local prejudices, so that England and Ireland might become “one country in effect, though for local concerns under distinct Legislatures.” The pupil of Adam Smith had caught a clear glimpse of the truth that States which throw down their customs’ barriers become effectually parts of the same body. But he now saw that British manufacturers would probably resist so sweeping a change; and he pointed out to Rutland that the admission of Ireland to commercial equality, even in the case of the export trade from British Colonies, to which, he said, she had no claim of right, involved a solemn duty to respond to imperial duties. He then pointed out that Ireland would have more than mere equality; for Great Britain was burdened by taxes which were the outcome of those duties; and Irish shippers, with their lighter burdens, might find it possible to export the produce of those colonies to Great Britain to the detriment of British shippers. In many ways he sought to disprove the claims or excuses put forward by Irish patriots why they should receive much and give little in return. He showed the impossibility of conceding so much unless Ireland would irrevocably pledge herself to contribute, according to her ability, to the expenses of the Empire.333

The despatches sent by the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, to the Lord Lieutenant, and the letters of Pitt to Orde, contained precise instructions on this last point. Pitt first desired that Ireland’s contribution should go towards the navy.334 Then for a time he harboured the notion that it should go towards his proposed Sinking Fund, because that money would not pass beyond England, and would return in the form of a trade the balance of which was known to be in favour of Ireland.335 But the Cabinet adopted the earlier proposal, with the proviso that the contribution towards the naval expenses of the Empire should be made in such a way as the Irish Parliament might direct. The letter of George III to Pitt, of 28th January 1785, shows that the King insisted on a contribution from Ireland as essential.


The ten Propositions, or Resolutions, embodying the aims of Pitt, were brought before the Irish Parliament on 7th February 1785. They embodied the information gleaned from Beresford, Foster, and Orde; and a report recently drawn up by a special committee of the British Privy Council also furnished useful information. Modified in some particulars, and, with the addition of a Proposition soon to be noticed, they passed the Dublin Parliament with little difficulty. In their modified form they may be summarized as follows. Foreign and colonial products were to pass between Great Britain and Ireland, in either direction, without any increase of duty. The goods and products of the sister islands were also to be imported either free or at identical rates; or again, where the duties were not equal, they were to be reduced to the lower of the two tariffs hitherto in operation. All prohibitions on inter-insular trade were to lapse without renewal, unless it should seem expedient in the case of corn, meal, malt, flour, and biscuits. The British Government required that, when the “hereditary revenue” exceeded a certain sum, Ireland should pay over the surplus as a contribution to the naval expenses of the Empire. As the “hereditary revenue” consisted mainly of custom and excise duties, its increase (which was generally steady) afforded the best index of the prosperity of Ireland. Moreover that branch of the revenue had hitherto been under the general direction of the Crown; and Pitt’s proposal to transfer its surplus to the control of the Irish Parliament was both statesmanlike and conciliatory.336

Nevertheless, the letters of the Duke of Rutland to Pitt revealed the conviction even of the best friends of Government that the Propositions would fail if they were coupled with any demand for a money payment. The time, said the Duke, was very critical. They were seeking to organize a legal militia force in place of the self-constituted Volunteers; Grattan and Daly had spoken splendidly for the change; but the demand for a subsidy would jeopardize everything, even the connection with Great Britain.337 A secret report which he sent to Pitt showed that of the members of the large towns of Ireland, only Londonderry was well disposed to the Resolutions. In the case of Waterford (“well governed, under Lord Tyrone’s influence”) the freemen opposed252 them while the two members supported them. Belfast, a close borough, opposed them. In all, he reckoned forty-five members hostile, twelve friendly, and the others absent or not accounted for. A list followed of the “expectations” of members as regards judgeships, pensions and sinecures.338

As Rutland and Orde had foreseen, the assailants of the measure fastened on the question of the contribution. How could a country, whose annual expenditure at present exceeded income by £150,000, and whose absentee landlords drained her of a million a year, pay a large sum to the richer island? Did not Ireland contribute largely in men and money to the army? And was not a great part of her administration controlled by a Monarch and a Ministry in whose succession and appointment she had no voice? Such were the invectives of that most acrid and restless of demagogues, Flood. Far more statesmanlike was the conduct of Grattan. Equalling, nay excelling, Flood in his oratorical powers, he held them under the control of a masculine reason. As his energy and tact had gained for his land the boon of legislative independence, so now he sought to cement friendly relations with Great Britain, and therefore gave a general assent to the commercial proposals. The Irish Ministers also pointed out that Great Britain opened a far larger market than Ireland did; that the industries of the larger island, being handicapped by war taxes and high wages, could be exploited by Irishmen, whose national burdens were comparatively light, and that the colonial trade was now to be opened up in its entirety and for ever, not on terms that were revocable at the option of the British Government, as was the case in 1780.

All these arguments were of no avail to carry the proposal respecting Ireland’s contribution to the navy. Though Pitt had carefully framed it so that Ireland would pay nothing until she was in a prosperous state, he failed to meet the rooted objections of the Dublin Parliament to money going out of the country. Grattan focused the opposition by demanding that Ireland should pay nothing until her Government had put an end to the long series of deficits. In private conversations with him Orde failed to weaken this decision, in which nearly all Irishmen concurred. A Resolution to that effect was therefore added. It was further arranged that when the annual hereditary revenue,253 which then stood at £652,000, should exceed £656,000 in time of peace, the surplus should go towards the support of the imperial navy in such a way as the Irish Parliament should direct. Additional taxes were then voted which were estimated to yield £140,000 a year.

No beginning could have been less auspicious. The arrangement was far less satisfactory than the worst of the alternative plans to which Pitt expressed the hope that Orde would never resort. The contribution, on the present terms, could be evaded by any juggling Chancellor of the Exchequer who should contrive a series of small and profitable deficits. Consequently Orde, who came to London to persuade Pitt of the need of the change, found him inexorable. Pitt was resolved “not to proceed until the condition should be taken away from the last Resolution.”339 This also appears in a part of his letter to the Marquis of Buckingham:


Sunday, February 20, 1785.340

... I am able to tell you confidentially that we shall certainly suspend the final approbation of the commercial system, and declare the impossibility of completing it till more satisfaction and explicit provision is made in Ireland respecting the object of contribution.

Yours ever,
W. Pitt.

In opening his case at Westminster on 22nd February, Pitt had to contend with the discouragement caused by this rebuff, and with a fit of hoarseness, which he informed Grenville he had been trying to sleep off without much success. Nevertheless his speech was allowed to be a fine effort. He besought members fairly to consider his proposals, which aimed at settling the relations of the two islands on a liberal and permanent basis. Glancing scornfully at the tactics of the Opposition and the campaign of malice and misrepresentation started by the “Gazetteer” and taken up by various trading bodies, he claimed that there should be fair play, at least until he had stated his case fully. It was complex, and his proposals might need modification in details. The old system of cruel and abominable restraint imposed on Irish trade had vanished. They now had254 to complete a new system, and community of benefits was the only principle on which they could proceed. They proposed entirely and for ever to open to Ireland the trade of our colonies except that of India, which was a monopoly of the East India Company. There was no solid ground for the fear that so poor a country as Ireland would become the emporium of colonial goods, and would re-export them to our shores. Equally unlikely was the suggestion that Ireland would undersell us in manufactures; for British energy had secured for our goods a fairly large market in Ireland even against her import duties. He then referred guardedly to the subject of Ireland’s contribution to the imperial navy. Finally, while deprecating any immediate decision, he declared that what England lost by the bargain she would more than recoup from the growing friendliness and prosperity of the sister island. He therefore proposed a general motion for the permanent and irrevocable admission of Ireland to all the advantages of British commerce when she irrevocably pledged herself to pay a sum towards the defence of commerce.341

The Opposition, exasperated by Pitt’s ungenerous treatment of Fox concerning the Westminster election, at once opened a furious fire of criticisms. Fox, who held the old Whig views in favour of a “national commerce,” that is, protection, urged that Ireland would probably smuggle into Great Britain the produce of foreign colonies, and would become the “grand arbitress of all the commercial interests of the Empire.” The Resolutions ought, he claimed, first to have been moved at Westminster, in which he was probably right. If they were passed, he said, Great Britain would never have anything more to concede to Ireland. The Navigation Acts, the source of England’s prosperity, would be a dead letter. As for Ireland’s contribution to the navy, he would “trust everything to her generosity, but not much to her prudence.” Eden, formerly Irish Secretary, then dwelt on the danger of allowing a lightly taxed country to compete with a heavily burdened country. The debt of Great Britain was a hundredfold that of Ireland; and, while a Briton paid on an average fifty shillings a year in taxes, an Irishman paid only eight shillings. The plan now proposed would be a revolution in British trade. These words are remarkable in view of Eden’s desertion of North and his assistance to Pitt in carrying through255 a still greater “revolution,” the commercial treaty with France of 1786. The speeches of Fox and Eden did some good; their attack on Pitt’s measure convinced Irishmen that it must have many excellences. The Earl of Mornington (afterwards the Marquis Wellesley) declared that Ireland would warmly support Pitt. Beresford also stated that the Irish members now only wanted an excuse for siding with him; but England must beware of pressing Ireland too hard in this bargain. A rebuff would seriously jeopardize the cause of order.342

No sense of prudence or responsibility restrained the action of the British Opposition and their mercantile allies. A campaign had already begun. It bore signs of careful organization. The signal was given by the “Gazetteer” of 16th February, which pointed out that the Navigation Acts, the source of Britain’s prosperity, would be virtually annulled by Pitt’s proposals. On the next day it showed that Irish competition, based on low wages, must ruin our industries. On 18th February a meeting of silk manufacturers protested against the Resolutions. On the 24th the planters and merchants of the West Indies followed suit. On that day the “Gazetteer” stated that, if Pitt’s measure became law, the Exchange would be transferred from Cornhill to Cork; later on it declared that Arkwright and Dempster would set up their factories in Ireland. On 3rd March the “Morning Chronicle,” the organ of the middle classes, joined in the hue and cry, declaring that even as it was the balance of trade between Great Britain and Ireland was in favour of the latter, and that the larger island must be drained of money by the smaller if the old restrictions were not maintained.

Meetings of protest were now in full swing. Delegates of the West India merchants had an interview with Pitt and declared his answer to be unsatisfactory. The merchants themselves refused, by fifty-nine to forty, to petition against his proposals, but the minority published and circulated their opinions. The manufacturing towns, except those of the woollen districts, petitioned strongly against the Resolutions. Manchester, Lancaster, and Dudley each sent two petitions to that effect; while three apiece emanated from Glasgow, Paisley, and Bristol. So the game of misrepresentation went on. A petition from Lancashire contained 80,000 signatures; and a document purporting to come 256from 13,243 weavers of Glasgow and Rutherglen, shows that artisans were as much alarmed as the merchants. The weavers stated their conviction that if the Resolutions became law, they would be undersold by the Irish in the home market and reduced to beggary.343 This solidarity of interest is noteworthy. In those days the “manufacturer” was actually, as well as in name, the weaver; and tens of thousands of households, where the hand-loom kept the wolf from the door through the winter, saw pale Ruin stalking behind the figure of thrifty, resourceful, energetic Paddy. The agitation therefore spread through all classes with a unanimity that would scarcely be possible now, when the term “manufacturer” has come to mean a capitalist who owns a factory where nothing is done by hand. Then the solidarity of interest between merchants and weavers was obvious. In imagination both classes saw their industries wafted by a cruel east wind to a land whose inhabitants they disliked and despised.

Some of the petitions were based on false information. That of the Glasgow cotton workers complained that the fourth Resolution, as it left the Irish Parliament, would place a heavy duty on British cottons.344 But Pitt had throughout insisted that there must be an equalizing of duties on both sides of the Irish Sea, the lower level being always taken. In truth, all reasoning was in vain. The protectionist spirit was proof against all arguments. Thus, the committee of the merchants and manufacturers of Sheffield declared that their industry could not be carried on without grave injury if the present duty on bar iron imported into Great Britain, namely, 56 shillings per ton, were reduced to the level then obtaining in Ireland, that is, 10 shillings a ton.

Still keener was the opposition in Bristol. The protectionist feeling had lost none of the bitterness which mainly caused the unseating of Burke in the election of 1774. The sugar refiners of that town now declared that they had spent more than £150,000 in buildings and plant, all of which would go for naught, if the Irish Parliament, “under the privilege of importing raw and refined sugars through that country to this [should] lay a heavy duty on loaf and lump sugar and a small duty on bastard and ground sugars and molasses”; for the Irish merchants would257 then “effectually prevent our exporting the former to that kingdom and also to foreign markets, and enable them to send the latter into Great Britain at a less price than it can be manufactured here under the burthen of the high duties, the high price of labour, and heavy taxes, which would inevitably tend to the ruin of that valuable branch of trade in this kingdom.”345 The Bristol sugar-refiners can scarcely have read Pitt’s proposals, which implied equal duties on all articles at British and Irish ports; and the Irish Parliament had agreed to this. The notion that Irish sugar-refiners, by complex duties of their own devising, would soon beat their British rivals out of foreign markets and ruin them in the home market, is a sign of the mad folly of the time. Against stupidity such as this even the gods fight in vain.

By no arguments could the hubbub be appeased. Pamphlets, especially one by Lord Sheffield, denounced the doom awaiting England should Pitt’s Resolutions pass. In a short time sixty-four petitions poured in against them;346 and the manufacturers of Great Britain, under the chairmanship of Wedgwood, formed a “Great Chamber” in order to stave off the catastrophe. Yet Pitt’s energies and spirits seemed to rise with the rising opposition. In order to emphasize the importance of commerce, he had recently appointed a Committee of Council for Commerce, which promised to answer the purposes which that ornamental body, the Board of Trade (abolished in 1782), had signally failed to fulfil. The new Council was charged to examine manufacturers and others as to the relations of Anglo-Irish commerce and the probable effect of the Resolutions. Similar investigations were made at the bar of the House of Commons. Pitt cherished high hopes from these inquiries. “The more the subject is discussed,” he wrote to Orde on 4th April, “the more our cause will be benefited in the end.... I do not myself entertain a doubt of complete success.” To the Duke of Rutland he wrote on the 16th: “Though we may lose a little in popularity for the time,258 we shall ultimately gain—at least the country will, which is enough.”347

The report of the committee is very curious, as showing the difficulty of obtaining trustworthy statistics even on the weightiest topics. The Irish accounts showed a far larger export of goods to Great Britain than of imports from Great Britain; while, on the contrary, the British Custom House returns gave the balance of trade as largely against Ireland. The committee could discover no means of accounting for this extraordinary discrepancy.348 Thus, while protectionists on both sides of the Irish Sea were croaking over the decline of their trade and the growth of that of their rival, the official returns showed that (as they would have phrased it) the balance of trade was so largely in their favour as to warrant the hope of the speedy exhaustion of that rival.

In matters which were within the ken of the financiers of that age, the report was reassuring. The woollen manufacturers of Norwich declared that, though the wages of Irish spinners were less by one-half than those of English spinners, Irish competition was not to be feared under the conditions now proposed. Everett, a London merchant, maintained that the British manufacturers, owing to their skill, taste, and ingenuity, would always have a superiority over those of Ireland, provided that British sheep and wool were not exported thither. Nine woollen manufacturers of Yorkshire were decidedly of this opinion. The chief clothier of Devizes expected harm from Irish competition only in the cheaper stuffs.349 For the cotton industry the evidence was less encouraging, the witnesses from Manchester claiming that Irish thread could be spun 20 per cent. cheaper than British thread, and that an import duty of 10½ per cent. was needed to protect the home market.350 Representative silk merchants of London and Scotland had little apprehension for the future, until the Irish workers developed skill and taste.351 As for the iron trade, the evidence of eight iron-masters who were examined refuted the reasoning of the Sheffield petition. Provided that Ireland did not pay a smaller duty than Great Britain on imports259 of bar iron, they asserted that they could hold their own against her small and struggling iron industry.352

In face of the alarmist statements of Wedgwood in public, his evidence before the committee is of some interest. When asked whether he feared Irish competition in pottery if the duties in both kingdoms were equalized, he replied that “there might be danger of a competition in time, in their own and every foreign market.353 I should think we were safer if earthenware was allowed to be imported free of all duties into both countries.” This was the man who headed the protectionist “Great Chamber of Manufacturers.” Wedgwood’s chief manager admitted that he had only the day before heard that any pottery at all was made in Ireland. Is it surprising that Pitt sharply criticized Wedgwood’s tactics?

Other strange features of this report are, first, that the outcry in England against any relaxation of duties was greatest in the case of the very articles, calicoes and sugar, in which the Irish Parliament had recently imposed higher duties; secondly, that whereas much of the evidence told in favour of inter-insular Free Trade, the committee decided in favour of a system of moderate duties to be agreed on by the two Governments.354 Some such conclusion was perhaps inevitable in view of the popular clamour; but the committee made no suggestion how the two Parliaments, now drifting into fiscal hostility, were to come to terms.

If the evidence contained in the report had been duly weighed, the scare among British traders must have passed away; but official reports are of little avail to thwart the efforts of panic-mongers. In vain did George Rose, in an unsigned pamphlet, point the moral of the case, and appeal to the common sense of his countrymen.355 The Opposition had the ear of the public, and the fate of the Resolutions in their present form was evidently sealed. Probably Pulteney was right in stating that the report came out too late to influence public opinion, and that Pitt had unaccountably underrated the force of the prejudices contending against him. Now, when the vote on the Westminster Scrutiny alarmed him, he became perhaps unduly cautious.356 This may260 be the true explanation of his disposition to compromise. In his letter of 21st May, to the Duke of Rutland, he dwelt on the difficulties arising from the unscrupulous tactics of the enemy and the very marked independence of a large number of his supporters, so that “we are hardly sure from day to day what impression they may receive.”

This avowal is of some interest. It shows how critical was Pitt’s position in the spring of 1785. As has been seen in a former chapter, he had strained the allegiance of his motley following by taking up too many thorny questions at once. The composite elements—Foxite, Northite, and Chathamite—had not yet been fused into unity by the power of his genius and the threatening pressure of France. Only by the most careful leading could he keep his supporters together, and save the country from the turmoil which a Fox-North Ministry must have caused. There was the danger; and we may be sure that Pitt clung to office, not merely from love of power (though he did love power), but because, in the proud words of Chatham, he knew that he could guide his country aright, and that no one else could.

Viewing the question of the independence of members of Parliament in a more general way, we may hazard the conjecture that in the days of pocket boroughs and small electorates members probably acted more independently than in the present time, when their action is apt to be the resultant of two external forces, pressure from constituents and pressure from the party “whip.” However we may explain the fact, it is certain that Pitt, despite his huge majority, failed to carry three important proposals in 1785–6; and in the case of the Irish Propositions he hesitated and lost the day.

* * * * *

In the second week of May, 1785, the Prime Minister bent before the storm, and on the 12th presented his modified measure in the form of twenty Propositions. The chief changes were those tending to safeguard our West India planters and merchants against the secret importation of the products of the French or Spanish colonies into this country on Irish ships. He maintained the monopoly of the East India Company in all the seas and lands between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan, but allowed the Company’s ships to export goods from Ireland to the East Indies. Further, he proposed that the Navigation Laws, whether present or future, and the enactments261 respecting colonial commerce, should be equally binding on both kingdoms. Respecting the reduction of duties in either country, it was suggested that they should not fall below 10½ per cent.; also that no new duties should be imposed except such as would “balance duties on internal consumption.” He also added a Proposition concerning the copyright of books. Respecting Ireland’s contribution to the navy, Pitt annulled the Irish proposal asserting the prior need of balancing income and expenditure, and required that the proposed financial arrangement should be perpetual.

In his speeches of 12th May and succeeding days he showed that most of the petitions against his plan were founded on error, and he refuted the hackneyed assertion that, because Ireland was lightly taxed and wages were low, she would therefore undersell Britons in their own markets. Considering her extreme poverty, he said, her burdens were in effect as great as those of England; her backwardness in industry would long cripple her; moreover, for skilled labour she had to pay as dearly as British employers. He claimed that a liberal scheme of commercial union would benefit both islands, just as the Union with Scotland had immensely furthered the prosperity of Great Britain despite the prophecies of ruin with which it was at the time received.

His opponents now changed their tactics. Seeing that the Propositions had been altered largely in deference to their fears, they could scarcely meet them with a direct attack. They therefore sought to procure their rejection, if not at Westminster, then at Dublin. Congratulating themselves on having caused the abandonment of the first proposals, as fraught with ruin to Great Britain, they sought to set Ireland in a flame against the amended measure. It is true that Fox deprecated the concession of the proposed advantages to Ireland, on the ground that they would subject our workers to the caprices of the Dublin Parliament. But he reserved his denunciations for the proposals which treated Ireland as a subsidiary State, in the matter of the Navigation Acts. Above all, he declared, he would trust Ireland where the Prime Minister distrusted her, namely, in the contribution to the navy. Put that to her as a debt of honour, said he, and she would discharge it. Compel her, and she would either refuse from injured pride or concede it grudgingly, while perhaps equally withdrawing her support from the army. “I will262 not,” he exclaimed, “barter English commerce for Irish slavery: that is not the price I would pay, nor is this the thing I would purchase.” Finally he declared that the House could not understand these matters so well as the traders and workers of Great Britain, who had overwhelmingly declared against the measure. Fox did well to disclaim any positive opinions on these subjects; for he took no interest in them, and is known never to have read Adam Smith’s work, which he scoffed at as a collection of entertaining theories.357 We can now understand his conduct in declaiming against the new safeguards for British industry, which he himself had demanded; and if we may judge from Wraxall, the most telling parts of his speech were the personal touches in which he reprobated Pitt’s lofty dictatorial manner, and his novel connection with the “King’s friend,” Jenkinson. Formerly War Secretary under Lord North,358 he had recently been appointed by Pitt head of the new “Committee of Council for the Superintendence of Commerce.” Burke, who must have approved Pitt’s proposals (except the contribution from Ireland, against which he hotly inveighed), made capital out of the new “Coalition,” calling Jenkinson Pitt’s pedestal, and wittily declaring that he envied not the statue its pedestal or the pedestal its statue.359 Other members, including Fox and Pitt, skilfully played with the simile, and thus beguiled the hours of these otherwise exhausting debates, which, we may note, caused Wilberforce to faint in the midst of his efforts to defend his chief.

The most brilliant, though not the least mischievous, speech of these debates was that of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It is needless to dilate on the Celtic charm and vivacity of this great littérateur. Descended from an old Irish family, which gave to Swift one of his dearest friends, and to Dublin one of its leading actors and authors, he was born in 1751, doomed to sparkle. Educated at Harrow, and called to the Bar, he soon attracted attention by his speeches and still more by his plays. His “Rivals” and “School for Scandal” attested the versatility of his wit and the cynical geniality of his nature. In 1780 he made what was perhaps the chief mistake of his life in entering Parliament as member for Stafford; for his character was too volatile263 his satire too caustic, to ensure success except as a frondeur. Friendship with Fox condemned him almost entirely to this rôle and exaggerated the recklessness of his utterances. He was the Charles O’Malley of politics. When, therefore, that engaging political satire, “The Rolliad,” appeared, in castigation of Rolle, the somewhat roisterous member for Devonshire, everyone attributed the poems to Sheridan; and his strenuous denial found little credence.360

One of the “Probationary Odes” amusingly hit off the alliance of Jenkinson with Pitt and the increase in the number of the Irish Propositions:

Lo! hand in hand advance th’ enamour’d pair
This Chatham’s son and that the drudge of Bute.
Proud of their mutual love
Like Nisus and Euryalus they move
To Glory’s steepest heights together tend,
Each careless for himself, each anxious for his friend.
Hail! most prudent Politicians!
Hail! correct Arithmeticians!
Hail! vast exhaustless source of Irish Propositions!

Elsewhere in dolorous strains the Muse

Sees fair Ierne rise from England’s flame,
And build on British ruin Irish fame.361

In these witticisms we have the high-water mark of the achievements of the Opposition. Sheridan inveighed against the exaction of a contribution from Ireland towards the navy, and the re-imposition of the Navigation Laws (certainly the weakest part of Pitt’s case) as implying a legislative inferiority from which she had escaped in 1782. He scoffed at the commercial boons as a mean and worthless bribe, and the whole scheme as “a fraud, cheat and robbery,” fatal to the confidence of the Irish in the good faith of Britain. The playwright further exclaimed that it would be a misfortune if the Irish Parliament dared to pass the Resolutions, and that, as it was not by Parliament264 that the independence of Ireland had been obtained, so it was not by Parliament that it should be given up. This was tantamount to an invitation to the Irish Volunteers to renew their coercion of the Dublin Parliament; and it was now clear that Fox and his friends, in despair of defeating the proposals at Westminster, were seeking to wreck them at Dublin, if need be, at the cost of civil broils.

In this they succeeded. By substantial majorities Ministers carried the Irish Propositions at the end of May; and the Lords passed them on 18th July. But long before this the storm-centre had moved across St. George’s Channel. Throughout the length and breadth of Ireland an outcry was raised against the state of ignominious dependence in which Ireland would be placed by the contribution now imposed on her for ever in return for greatly diminished advantages. Fox’s telling phrase about the bartering of Irish liberty against British commerce was on every lip. The results were at once obvious. Though Pitt, with his usually sanguine forecast, had expressed the belief that the Dublin Parliament would be more manageable than that of Westminster, it set at naught all the Viceregal blandishments. Some of its members even taunted Pitt with acting treacherously towards Ireland throughout. Grattan, while refraining from this taunt, opposed the new scheme, especially clause iv and the perpetual contribution, in a speech which the Lord Lieutenant described to Pitt as “seditious and inflammatory to a degree scarcely credible.” Flood excelled himself in recklessness; and in that body of usually subservient placemen, leave to bring in the Bill was granted only by a majority of nineteen (12th August).

* * * * *

In face of this storm-signal the Irish Government decided to furl their sails and come to anchor. The measure was deferred to another session; and of course was never heard of again. Considering the “very great clamour”362 in the country, this was inevitable; and Dublin manifested its joy by a spontaneous and general illumination. Woodfall, an opponent of Pitt’s policy, admitted to Eden that neither the populace nor the members could explain the cause of their recent fury or their present joy.363265 The excitement soon abated; and it must be allowed that the popular party in Ireland did not adopt the hostile measures against British trade which might have been expected after the breakdown of these enlightened proposals. Lord Westmorland, during his viceroyalty five years later, admitted that complete harmony existed in the commercial relations of the two kingdoms.

This may have salved the wound which the events of 1785 dealt to Pitt. Up to the very end he had hoped for success in what had been the dearest object of his life. After hearing of the ominous vote of 12th August in Dublin, he wrote to the Marquis of Buckingham in the following manly terms:

Putney Heath, Aug. 17, 1785.364

My Dear Lord,

I have many thanks to return you for your letter. Grenville will probably send you the account we received to-day from Ireland, after a long period of suspense. The motion for bringing in a Bill has been carried only by 127 against 108; and such a victory undoubtedly partakes, for the present at least, of the nature of a defeat. A motion was announced for Monday last, declaratory against the 4th Resolution. The event of this motion seemed to be thought uncertain. The probable issue of all this seems to be that the settlement is put at some distance, but I still believe the principles of it too sound, not to find their way at last.

To the Duke of Rutland he also wrote in the same lofty spirit, using the words quoted at the head of this chapter, and adding that, when experience had brought more wisdom, “we shall see all our views realised in both countries and for the advantage of both.”

Faith and courage such as this are never lost upon colleagues and subordinates, especially when they can rely on loyal support from their chief. Both to the Duke and to Orde Pitt now tendered his thanks for their tact and resolution in face of overwhelming difficulties, and thus manifested that kindliness and magnanimity which wins heartfelt devotion. For, as usually happens after defeat, envious surmises were rife. Some spiteful influence (probably that of the Marquis of Buckingham),365 had sought to266 poison Pitt’s mind against Orde as the chief cause of the failure in Dublin. As for Beresford, he believed that some of Pitt’s colleagues had turned traitors. Lesser men might pry into corners to find petty causes for that heart-breaking collapse; but no such suspicions mar the dignity of Pitt’s voluminous correspondence, a perusal of which enables the reader to understand why Orde once exclaimed: “I am so sensible of the manly and noble part which Mr. Pitt has acted, that I will die by inches in the cause of his support.”366

The real reason of failure, as Pitt clearly saw, was the determination of powerful factions in both kingdoms to wreck his proposals by representing each concession made to the sister-island as an injury or an insult, or both. At all times it is easier to fan to a flame the fears and jealousies of nations than to allay them; and in that age the susceptibilities both of Britons and Irishmen were highly inflammable. Twelve decades, marked by reforming efforts and closer intercourse, have softened the feelings then so easily aroused; and as we look back over efforts of conciliation, not yet crowned with complete success, we see no figure nobler and more pathetic than that of the statesman who struggled hard to bring together those hitherto alien peoples by the ties of interest and friendship; we see also few figures more sinister than those of his political opponents at Westminster who set themselves doggedly to the task of thwarting his efforts by means of slander and misrepresentation.



Keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key.
Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well.

A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymball where there is no love.—Bacon.

Some statesmen merit notice solely from the magnitude of their achievements; others attract attention by the charm of their personality. Pitt claims homage on both accounts. Accordingly I propose to devote this chapter to his private life and friendships during the early part of his career, beginning with the time when he laid down the Chancellorship of the Exchequer and fled to the house of his friend Wilberforce at Wimbledon. In the Diary of the latter we read this brief but suggestive entry: “April 3 [1783]. To Wimbledon, where Pitt, etc., dined and slept. Evening walk—to bed a little past two. April 4. Delicious day: lounged the morning at Wimbledon with friends: foining at night, and run about the garden for an hour or two.”

We can picture the scene. Lauriston House, Wilberforce’s abode on the south side of Wimbledon Common, is a spacious villa, comfortable in its eighteenth-century solidity, and scarcely changed since those days. One of the front bedrooms is known as “Mr. Pitt’s room.” There he would look forth on the Common, which had for him a peculiar charm. At the back, the south windows look upon an extensive lawn, bordered not too thickly by trees, under one of which, a maple, tradition says that he was wont to lounge away his Sunday mornings, to the distress of his host. At other times the garden was the scene of half riotous mirth. Pitt, Dudley Ryder, Pepper Arden, Tom268 Steele, and Wilberforce there broke loose from the restraints of Westminster, and indulged in foyning. That old-English word, denoting thrusting or fencing, conjures up visions of quips and pranks such as Horace loved. Would that Pitt had had more time for these wholesome follies!

Imagine these youths, with the freshness of Cambridge still upon them, cheating the hours with fun. Pitt, the stately, austere leader of the House of Commons, who, on entering its precincts, fixed his eyes straight on his seat, and tilted his nose loftily in air during his State progress thither, with not so much as a nod to his supporters367—yet here, on the lawn of Lauriston House, is all fun and laughter, sharpening his wit against the edge of Wilberforce’s fancy, answering jest with jest, quotation with quotation, in a fresh mingling of jollity and culture. As yet all is joyous in the lives of the friends. Wilberforce has inherited from an uncle an ample fortune along with Lauriston House, and adds rooms to it so as fitly to entertain the friends who always cluster about him. The woes of the slaves have not yet struck a chill to his life, and he lives amidst a buzz of friends and admirers. He reminds us of that character in Disraeli’s “Lothair,” who proved an irresistible magnet at every party—no one quite knew why; but every one sought to be next him. The magnetism of Wilberforce is easily intelligible; it lay in his lovable and gifted nature, which welled forth freely in genial anecdote, friendly parody, sparkling retort.

For Pitt, too, there were as yet no oppressive cares. True, at that time, there loomed before him the toilsome career of an impecunious barrister, but that did not daunt his serene and self-reliant nature. Doubtless the troubles of England moved him more, now that the prospect of peace with America and the half of Europe was overclouded by the triumph of Fox and North. But Pitt had that protective faculty, inherent in all great natures, of laying aside personal and even national cares in the company of his dearest friends, and it set him free for life-restoring mirth. Then, too, his nature, shy and stiff to mere acquaintances, blossomed forth radiantly to a chosen circle, such as he found at Wimbledon. Here, then, was seen the real man. Away went the mask of official reserve, which prudence compelled him to wear at Westminster as a defence against his269 seniors. Here, among youths and friends, his pranks were startling. One of them must be told in the words of Wilberforce: “We found one morning the fruits of Pitt’s earlier rising in the careful sowing of the garden beds with the fragments of a dress-hat in which Dudley Ryder had overnight come down from the opera.”

Would that we knew more of those bright days! For Pitt the man, not Pitt the statesman, is seen at Wimbledon. The pillar of State, columnar in its Doric austerity, becomes a lithe facile form, twined about with social graces, gay with the flowers of friendship. The hours of recreation, rather than those spent in the office, reveal the inner life. Alas! the self-revealing episodes in the life of Pitt are hidden from us. None of his friends was a Boswell. Wilberforce, who might have been the enlightener, was troubled by defective eyesight, which curtailed his correspondence; and his Diary is a series of tantalizing jottings, a veritable Barmecide feast. As for Pitt’s relatives, they never drew him out of himself. Lord Chatham, though a good talker in general company, seems to have exerted on his younger brother a slightly chilling influence; and their letters were fraternally business-like. We therefore search in vain for those lighter traits of character, those sparkles of wit, which enlivened the joyous years 1783–5. This side of Pitt’s character is little more known to us than are the hidden regions of the moon. We wish to know it all the more because it is not the frozen but the sunny side of his being.

Failing to catch more than one sportive echo of those glad times, the chronicler falls back on mere externals, such as Pitt’s occasional reluctance to attend the parish church at Wimbledon, or his fondness for fishing in Lord Spencer’s lake on the lower land east of the Common. Clearly the neighbourhood must have attracted him; for in August 1784 he leased the house next to Lord Ashburton’s, on the north side of Putney Heath, scarcely two miles distant from the abode of Wilberforce. He resided there up to the autumn of 1785, when the opportunity of buying the house at Holwood drew him to the scenes of his boyhood, near Hayes, in Kent. Nevertheless the Surrey Common was to win him back. For, during his last term of office, he purchased Bowling Green House, on the old Portsmouth road, near the middle of that beautiful space.

There it was that he fought his duel with Tierney on Whitsunday270 1798. There, too, he breathed his last, on 23rd January 1806. In the dark days that followed on the news of Austerlitz, his thoughts turned with one final flicker of hope towards the news which he expected from his special envoy to Berlin, the Earl of Harrowby, formerly Dudley Ryder. The news proved to be heart-breaking. But fancy persists in wondering whether, perchance, during the time of waiting, the dauntless spirit did not for a brief space fling off the thraldom of the present and flit across the open to dwell with fond remembrance on that spring sowing of the flower-beds of his friend Wilberforce.368

* * * * *

After the severe disappointments of the session of 1785, the signs of friskiness vanish from the life of Pitt. Up to that time his hopefulness is of almost boyish intensity. Confidence in himself, and in the goodness of his cause, and determination to carry out a work of national revival, lead him to grapple with great enterprises in a way that astonishes friends and baffles opponents. The nation having given him a mandate in 1784, he hopes to solve the most urgent of existing problems. They are the restoration of public credit, the reduction of the National Debt, the reform of Parliament, the subordination of the East India Company to the control of Parliament, the opening up of freer trade not only with Ireland but also with France, and the preservation of peace, so that, as he phrased it—“Let peace continue for five years, and we shall again look any Power in Europe in the face.”369

Here was a programme which transcended anything previously seen. But to it were added the many unforeseen events and problems that provide a full stock in trade for an ordinary parliamentary leader. The Warren Hastings affair alone would have occupied a whole session under a quiescent Minister; and we may here note that Pitt’s conscientious treatment of it, as a matter on which Ministers and members must vote according to their convictions, tended to relax the bonds of party discipline to a dangerous extent.

Indeed, there is only one of his important actions during the271 first years of power that needs apology. This is the persistence with which he pressed against Fox the demand for a complete scrutiny of the Westminster election. Despite the fact that that wearisome and very expensive inquiry brought to light few bad votes, and did not exclude Fox from Parliament (for as we saw, he sat as Member for Orkney), the Prime Minister refused to put an end to “this cursed business,” as Pulteney termed it,370 until his own supporters compelled him to desist. How are we to explain this conduct? It led to waste of time and temper in Parliament, besides annoying many of his friends, and straining to breaking-point the allegiance of his composite majority. There can be no doubt that he committed a blunder, and one which Englishmen detest; for his conduct seemed ungenerous to a beaten foe and a violation of the unwritten rules of fair-play.

Nevertheless, it is likely that he acted, not from rancour, not from a desire to ban his enemy, least of all under any dictation from Windsor (of this I have found no sign), but rather from the dictates of political morality. That there had been trumping up of false votes was notorious; for the votes polled exceeded the total number of voters; and Pitt, as the champion of purity at elections, may have deemed it his duty to probe the sore to the bottom. In these days an avowed champion of Reform would be praised for such conduct. In that age he was condemned; and it was certainly tactless to single out Fox from among the many candidates for whom corrupt practices had been used. Such an act appeared the outcome of personal pique, not of zeal for electoral purity. So at least men looked on it in the spring of 1785. Pulteney, Wraxall, and the ordinary ruck of members failed to see anything but personal motives in the whole affair.371 Fox, who always gauged the temper of the House aright, carried it with him when he protested that he had little expected to find Pitt acting as the agent of the Crown in his persecution; that it was clearly the aim of the Ministry to ruin him, for he was a poor man. “Yet,” he added, “in such a cause I will lay down my last shilling. If ultimately I lose my election, it will be for want of money, not from want of a legal majority of votes, while Westminster will be deprived of its franchise because I am unable to prosecute a pecuniary contest with the Treasury.”

This is the most effective type of parliamentary speech.272 It avoided all reference to the abstract principles which were at stake, and it appealed with telling force to the sporting instincts of squires. Little wonder is it that Pitt’s followers went over to the side which seemed to stand for fair play to a poor man in his contest with a spiteful bureaucracy. A few days later Pitt could muster only a majority of nine (21st February 1785), and this clearly foreshadowed the end of the scrutiny, which came with a vote hostile to Ministers on 3rd March. On a subordinate motion, six days later, several malcontents returned to their allegiance, thus proving, in Wraxall’s words, that “they wished to control and restrain, but had no desire to overturn, the Administration.”372

This affair deserves mention here because it illustrates what was the chief weakness of Pitt. His secluded childhood, his education apart from other youths, even at Cambridge, his shyness in general company, and his decided preference for the society of a few friends, gave him very few opportunities for knowing ordinary men. He therefore was slow in understanding the temper of the House, and he never gained what we may call the Palmerston touch. Well would it have been for him if he had mixed more with men and shown towards members of the House the affability with which Fox and North charmed friends and foes alike. But, like Peel, Pitt had neither parliamentary graces nor small talk for the lobby. In truth he was too shy or too proud to unbend with ease. Or rather he did so only in a circle of friends or among his juniors. Then his sense of fun could go to surprising lengths, witness that historic romp when Lady Hester Stanhope, two of her younger brothers, and young William Napier (the future historian) managed to get him down and blacken his face. In the midst of their jubilant triumph there came a knock at the door. Two Ministers were announced as desirous of taking his commands on some question. For a few minutes State business stood still until the Prime Minister shook off his assailants and washed his face for the interview. Then the boys marvelled more at the change of manner than of colour. The Prime Minister threw up his chin, loftily inquired the cause of the visit, imparted his decision, stiffly dismissed the Ministers—and resumed the romp.373 Clearly there were two Pitts.


His rather stilted manners at Westminster were doubtless a reflection—a lunar reflection—of the melodramatic splendours of his father. Never was a colleague or a subordinate introduced to Chatham’s presence until the effects of light were Rembrandtesque, and the telling phrase had been coined. But where the father triumphed by the force of his personality, the son only half succeeded. For he was more a Grenville than a Pitt, and he inherited from that family some of its congenital stiffness. Hence the efforts which the son put forth, as if with the aim of fulfilling the precept of St. Paul to Timothy—“Let no man despise thy youth”—were calculated, not to impress beholders, but rather to freeze them.

Far different was the easy good nature of Fox, which often salved the wounds inflicted in the course of debate. It is said that Lord North, after one of the debates on the American War, in which Fox had mercilessly belaboured one of the Ministers, good-humouredly remarked to the orator, “You were in fine feather to-night, Charles; I am glad that it was not my turn to be fallen upon.” Fox, we may add, reciprocated these sentiments. However he might threaten North with impeachment, he was ready in private to shake him by the hand; and shortly before the fall of that Minister he publicly asked his pardon for offending him by his tremendous indictment, adding that he meant it not. To us this sounds unreal. Either the indictment against the author of the nation’s ruin was not quite sincere, or the apology was hollow. Pitt, with his exceptionally high standard of truthfulness,374 could not have tendered it. Fox did; and Wraxall praised his conduct, adding that Pitt was less placable, and was wanting in those frank, winning, open ways which made friends and retained them through adversity.375

This rather superficial verdict—for Wraxall knew Pitt only very slightly—summed up the views of the easy-going mass, which cares nothing for principles, little for measures, and very much for men, provided that they keep up the parliamentary game according to the old rules and in a sportsmanlike way. It must always be remembered that few members of Parliament took their duties seriously, and looked on the debates mainly as a change from the life of the other fashionable clubs. To such an assembly the political philosophy of Burke was foolishness,274 and the lofty principles of Pitt, mere Pharisaism. Its ideal would have been Esau, provided that he had held fast to the customs of primogeniture.

We have little or nothing that directly shows the impression produced on Pitt by his discovery of the shallowness and fickleness of his supporters. Perhaps it intensified his natural shyness and awkwardness of manner, which Wilberforce assures us were very great. Certainly he did not mix more with men. “Pitt does not make friends” is a significant entry in Wilberforce’s Diary for March 1785.376 This inability to make a wide circle of friends was not incompatible with those rarer gifts which link a man closely to those with whom he had real kinship of spirit. If we may read Shakespeare’s thoughts into the well-known words of Polonius to Laertes, the poet supremely admired a man who inspired the few with ardent affection and held the many at arm’s length. In regard to character, then, we may honour Pitt for the very characteristic which to men like Wraxall seemed a blemish.

Nevertheless, it was a serious failing in a parliamentary tactician. Onlookers, who saw only the cold and reserved exterior, described Pitt as the embodiment of egotism and pride. His friends knew full well that he was the soul of kindness. Dundas and Wilberforce testify to his affable behaviour to subordinates, his fund of good temper, which was proof even against contradiction and the advent of bad news. Wilberforce mentions a case in point. Pitt had long been ruminating on some revenue proposal, and at length mentioned it to the Attorney-General, only to learn that there would be grave legal objections to the scheme; far from showing annoyance, he received the announcement “with the most unruffled good-humour,” and, giving up his plan, “pursued his other business as cheerfully and pleasantly as usual.”377

It is not thus that a proud and egotistical nature sees his castle vanish into air. Anecdotes such as this have been known only since the year 1897. Now we know the real Pitt; the men of these times saw only the professional mask; and therefore we find exclamations like that of Sir Gilbert Elliot who, after hearing the almost inspired speech of Pitt on the abolition of275 the slave-trade, remarked: “One felt almost to like the man”;378 or again Lady Anne Hamilton in her “Memoirs of the Court of George III,” asserted that Pitt was always cold and carried his frostiness even into his carouses.

This certainly was the general belief. In one particular Pitt’s behaviour often gave colour to the charge of pride or egotism. His letters were as stiff as his parliamentary attitudes. Worst of all, he very often left letters unanswered; and this applied not merely to begging letters, against which silence is a Prime Minister’s panoply, but even to important matters of State. We find Eden, in the midst of the commercial negotiations with France, writing from Paris in despairing terms about the Prime Minister’s silence, and finally suggesting that all his letters of the last fortnight must have sunk in the Channel. Sir James Harris, too, when fighting an unequal battle against the French party in Holland, begged Pitt to send a few lines to encourage the hard pressed friends of England. For four months not a line came; and at last Harris begged Carmarthen to cajole a letter out of his chief: “Is it impossible to move him, who speaks so well, to write one poor line to these sound shillings and pence men?”379 The excuse doubtless was, that Pitt was overworked in Parliament (as indeed he stated to Eden);380 but, even with the then scanty facilities for dealing with a vast correspondence, he should certainly have handled it with more method and tact. Careless correspondents will readily conjecture how much a Prime Minister may harm his prospects by subjecting friends and foes alike to a peculiarly annoying slight.

Pitt, then, owed little or nothing to social graces; and Horace Walpole gave a very superficial judgement, when, in his companion sketches of Pitt and Fox, he stated that the former “cultivated friends to form a party.” On the contrary, he harmed his party by cooling his friends.

* * * * *

The men who most helped Pitt to keep in touch with his following were Dundas, Grenville, and Jenkinson. They did not,276 as Wraxall avers, hold the first place in his confidence. That was still held by Wilberforce; and to their friendship we may apply the apt remark of Montaigne, that the amity which possesses and sways the soul cannot be double. For political reasons Pitt after the year 1784 came into closer contact with his subalterns, among whom Dundas and Grenville claim notice.

Henry Dundas (1742–1811), a younger son of the Right Honourable Robert Dundas, Lord President of the Scottish Court of Session, and of Anne Gordon of Invergordon, was born at Edinburgh, where he was educated first at school, then in the University. The atmosphere in which he grew up was strictly legal; and his ancestry, no less than his upbringing, seemed to fit him for success at the Bar, at which he appeared in 1763. His rise was rapid, and in 1774 he entered Parliament as member for Midlothian. At Westminster he attached himself to North’s party and became known as a hard worker and hard hitter. United as these powers were with a manly presence, genial gifts, and the full fund of Scottish shrewdness, he acquired favour and became Lord Advocate. Grace and persuasiveness of speech he lacked; a harsh voice, a still harsher accent, and awkward gestures told against him; but above these defects he rose triumphant, thanks to indomitable courage, which enabled him unabashed to bear the heaviest blows of debate. Napoleon once expressed his admiration of Blücher, because, however badly he was beaten, “the old devil” came up again as though nothing had happened. So it was with Dundas in his many encounters with Fox. He might be repulsed but never routed. His features were bold and handsome, and, if they were “tinged with convivial purple,” that perhaps enhanced their charm. For the House loved a bon vivant, who entertained with lairdly lavishness and had good store, not only of wine, but of broad stories.

Wraxall, while admitting Dundas’s appearance to be “manly and advantageous,” avers that his conviviality was part of a deep-laid scheme for managing men and tightening his grip on the Administration; for “never did any man conceal deeper views of every kind under the appearance of careless inattention to self-interest.” The same insinuation is wittily conveyed by the authors of “The Rolliad” in a skit on the Cabinet Meetings which Dundas was supposed to hold in his villa. “March 9th, 1787. Got Thurlow to dine with us at Wimbledon—gave him277 my best Burgundy and blasphemy to put him into good humour. After a brace of bottles ventured to drop a hint of business. Thurlow cursed me, and asked Pitt for a sentiment. Pitt looked foolish, Grenville wise. Mulgrave stared. Sydney’s chin lengthened. Tried the effect of another bottle. Pitt began a long speech on the subject of our meeting. Sydney fell asleep by the fire”—and so on.

In one respect Dundas was the great political agent of the age. He managed Scotland, so thoroughly, indeed, that he has been termed “the foremost Scotsman of the eighteenth century.”381 No civilian since the time of John Knox has ever controlled the energies of that people so thoroughly as Henry Dundas. What the great Reformer achieved by an appeal to their highest aspirations, the party manipulator achieved by an appeal to the purse. Since the collapse of the Stuart cause material interests had been paramount; and their deadening effect on national character appears in the political torpor which lay upon Scotland until the strident call of the French Revolution awakened her. The men north of the Tweed had even more reason than Englishmen to desire Parliamentary Reform; for, as will be seen in a later chapter, in all Scotland there were only 1303 electors; and these returned 45 members as against 44 who misrepresented Cornwall. But so long as the Scots slumbered, it mattered not whether they had 45 members or 4; for the return of 45, and their course of conduct at Westminster were alike prescribed by Dundas. The soporific fruit which drugged the Scottish people and kept their representatives close to his heel was “patronage.” Dundas it was who dispensed all important prizes both in Church and State. Valuable livings at home, lucrative posts in India or speedy advancement in the navy, these and many other rewards were in his hands. His influence at the Admiralty and at the India Board of Control was immense; he worked hard for his men; and it may be admitted that his choice of officials, especially for India, was often sound. Certain it is that he opened up golden avenues to hundreds of poor Scottish families, so that he was often hailed as the benefactor of his people.

In one respect Dundas conferred a substantial boon. He persuaded Pitt to extinguish the embers of hatred to the reigning dynasty which still smouldered in the Highlands, by278 restoring the estates that were confiscated after the “Forty-five.” By this act of clemency Pitt and Dundas linked their names to the work of reconciliation so tactfully begun by Chatham, and helped to foster the sentiment of British nationality, which bore a rich harvest on the fields of Salamanca and Waterloo. It is not surprising, then, that Dundas had the small governing clique in Scotland entirely at his beck and call. One of his forty-five henchmen at Westminster, Ferguson of Pitfour, frankly stated that he had never heard a speech which had influenced his vote, and that there was only one defect in Dundas’s leadership, namely, that he was not quite tall enough to enable his followers readily to see into which lobby he was going at division-time.382

Even so, the magnetic influence of Dundas upon the obedient Caledonian squad was a political asset of no small worth. Not seldom could the laird of Melville decide the fate of Cabinets by throwing his forty-five votes into this or that scale. He himself was fully aware of his importance; for in a letter which he wrote to Grenville early in 1789, he declined another official post because in his present position (or positions) he was “a cement of political strength to the present Administration,” the dissolution of which might be ruinous. The words are instinct, not only with the Scottish canniness, but with Scottish loyalty. In truth, the staunchness of Dundas’s friendship to Pitt suffices to refute those critics, both of his own and later times, who speak of him as of a political Vicar of Bray. In his early days his trimming propensities were often disagreeably prominent; and the speech in which he hailed the rising sun of Pitt, and slighted the waning orb of North, was quite characteristic of the earlier half of his career.383 But, for him as for some others, the splendour of Pitt’s genius, and the glow of his pure patriotism, inaugurated a brighter future; and he might well say of his tergiversation at that time what Talleyrand said of his still more numerous changes of front: “I have never deserted a party before it deserted itself.” While recognizing in this new ally great powers of work, and still greater powers of “influence,” Pitt did not at once give him his whole confidence; and we shall probably not be far wrong in inferring that only after the disillusionment of the spring of 1785, did “Henry VIIIth of Scotland” become his counsellor on matters of the highest moment. Thenceforth his279 influence over Pitt steadily increased, while that of Wilberforce somewhat waned; and we find the latter declaring at a later time that Pitt’s connection with Dundas was his “great misfortune,” a remark which applied mainly to the slavery question.384 It is, however, still more applicable to Dundas’s conduct of the war, when, as we shall see, his absorption in other work, and his utter inexperience of military affairs, should have made him backward in giving advice. Far from that, he was for some time the guiding spirit; and from his seat at the Home Office or the India Board, or from his suburban villa, he dashed off orders of momentous import, which were to gladden the heart of Carnot.

Such, then, was the man at whose house, on the west side of Wimbledon Common, Pitt was a frequent visitor. There the conviviality was unrestrained by those scruples which more and more prevailed at Wilberforce’s abode hard by; and after the latter gave up that villa, in the autumn of 1786, the associations of Pitt with Wimbledon are somewhat vinous. Both Pitt and Dundas were hard drinkers. The former frequently tossed off several tumblers of port wine before a great speech in the House of Commons; and it would seem, if rumour spoke truly, that at Dundas’s the potations were long and deep. It must not, however, be supposed that Pitt performed no serious work there. The long and important despatches which he wrote at Wimbledon show the contrary; and their contents prove them to have been written before the Bacchic pleasures, which men of that age deemed the appropriate close of a busy day. Only once did the pleasures of dessert at Dundas’s cause Pitt and his host to compromise themselves in public. But on one occasion they came to the House of Commons obviously the worse for liquor. The occasion was equally remarkable. It was on the acceptance of the French Declaration of War, in February 1793. Fox generously forebore from taking advantage of his rival’s incapacity,385 but the situation was hit off in the following lines:

I cannot see the Speaker, Hal, can you?
What! Cannot see the Speaker, I see two.


A man so frank and intriguing, so subtle and pugnacious as Dundas, is fair game for the satirist; and it is not surprising that the Whig rhymsters who compiled the “Rolliad” scourged the factotum of Caledonia:

Whose exalted soul
No bonds of vulgar prejudice control.
Of shame unconscious in his bold career
He spurns that honour which the weak revere;
For, true to public Virtue’s patriot plan,
He loves the Minister and not the Man.
Alike the advocate of North and Wit,
The friend of Shelburne and the guide of Pitt,
His ready tongue with sophistries at will
Can say, unsay, and be consistent still.

This is, of course, the effusion of unscrupulous party hacks; but it shows the skill with which the enemies of Dundas seized on the weak points in his career. As a matter of fact, few men have worked harder than the future Viscount Melville, and on few men has fortune at the close pressed more unkindly.

* * * * *

William Wyndham Grenville (1759–1834) is a less interesting man than Dundas. First cousin to Pitt, and born in the same year, he seemed destined to advance hand in hand with him, just as his father had signally helped Chatham in certain parts of that meteoric career. Nature, however, had clearly designed the Grenvilles, both father and son, not to be comets, scarcely planets, but rather satellites. The traditional pride of the Grenvilles (in which Pitt was by no means lacking) appeared in William Grenville, blended with a freezing manner, the effect of which was enhanced by his heavy features and stiff carriage. To counterbalance these defects, he was dowered with an upright and virtuous disposition, great industry, a choice store of classical learning, good sense, though not illuminated by imagination, and oratorical gifts, which, if neither majestic nor pleasing, partook of his native solidity. As Paymaster of the Forces (conjointly with Lord Mulgrave) he did useful work, the higher branches of which involved questions of foreign policy.

Emery Walker Ph. sc.

William Wyndham, Lord Grenville
from a painting by Hoppner

Pitt’s appreciation of his sound sense appeared in his choice of Grenville for very delicate diplomatic missions to The Hague and Paris in the crisis of 1787. The evenness of his judgement and temper procured him the Speakership of the House of281 Commons in 1789, after the death of Cornwall. From this honourable post he was soon transferred to more congenial duties, as Secretary of State, and entered the Upper House as Lord Grenville. In 1791 he became Secretary for Foreign Affairs, his conduct of which will engage our attention later on. Here we may note that in all his undertakings he gained a reputation for soundness; and if the neutral tints of his character procured for him neither the enthusiastic love of friends nor the hatred of foes, he won the respect of all. The envious railers who penned the “Rolliad” could fasten on nothing worse than his solidity—

A youth who boasts no common share of head.
What plenteous stores of knowledge may contain
The spacious tenement of Grenville’s brain!
Nature, in all her dispensations wise,
Who formed his head-piece of so vast a size,
Hath not, ’tis true, neglected to bestow
Its due proportion to the part below.

Unfortunately, though Grenville could manage business, he could not manage men; and at this point he failed to make good a defect in the political panoply of Pitt. On neither of the cousins had nature bestowed the social tact which might have smoothed the rubs of diplomatic discussion, say, in those with the French envoy, Chauvelin, in 1792. That fervid royalist, Hyde de Neuville, complained bitterly of the freezing powers of Downing Street. The enthusiastic young Canning found it impossible to work with Grenville, who was also on strained terms with Dundas. The “inner Cabinet,” composed of Pitt, Grenville, Dundas, must have been the scene of many triangular duels; and it needed all the mental and moral superiority of Pitt (as to which every one bears witness) to preserve even the appearance of harmony between seconds who were alike opinionated, obstinate, and covetous of patronage.386 On the whole, the personality of Grenville must rank among the dullest of that age. I have found no striking phrase which glitters amidst the leaden mass of his speeches and correspondence. His life has never been written. He would be a very conscientious zealot who would undertake it.

* * * * *

Turning to the central figure of the group, we have once more282 to mourn the lack of information about those smaller details which light up traits of character. Few of Pitt’s letters refer to his private affairs in the years 1784–86; and the knowledge which we have of them is largely inferential. Even the secondary sources fared badly; for it seems that Pitt’s housemaid made a holocaust of the many letters which Wilberforce wrote to him during his foreign tour in 1785.387 In the Pitt Papers there is only one letter of Wilberforce of this period; and as it throws light on their friendship and the anxiety felt by Pitt’s friends at the time of the Irish Propositions, I print it here almost in extenso.388

Lausanne, 2nd Aug., 1785.

My dear Pitt,

... If I were to suffer myself to think on politics, I should be very unhappy at the accounts I hear from all quarters: nothing has come from any great authority; but all the reports, such as they are, are of one tendency. I repose myself with confidence on you, being sure that you have spirit enough not to be deterred by difficulties if you can carry your point thro’; and trusting that you will have that greater degree of spirit which is requisite to make a person give up at once when the bad consequences which would follow his going on are at a distance. Yet I cannot help being extremely anxious: your own character, as well as the welfare of the country are at stake; but we may congratulate ourselves that they are here inseparably connected. In the opinion of unprejudiced men I do not think you will suffer from adjourning the Irish propositions ad calendas Graecas, if the state of Ireland makes it dangerous to proceed and you can make it evident you had good reason to bring them on, which I think you can. At the worst, the consequences on this side are only that you suffer (the Country may suffer too, but I am taking for granted this is the lesser evil); but I tremble and look forward to what may happen if the Irish Parliament should pass the propositions, and the Irish nation refuse to accept them; nor would it be one struggle only; but as often as any Bill should come over from our House of Commons to be passed in theirs, which was obnoxious, there would be a fresh opportunity for reviving it, especially as you have an Opposition to deal with as unprincipled and mischievous as ever embroiled the affairs of any country. God bless you, my dear Pitt and carry you thro’ all your difficulties! You may reckon yourself most fortunate in that chearfulness of mind which enables you every now and then to throw off your load for a few hours and rest yourself. I fancy it must have been this which, when I283 am with you, prevents my considering you as an object of compassion, tho’ Prime Minister of England; for now, when I am at a distance, out of hearing of your foyning, and your (illegible) other proofs of a light heart, I cannot help representing you to myself as oppressed with cares and troubles, and what I feel for you is more, I believe, than even Pepper feels in the moments of his greatest anxiety; and what can I say more?...

Pepper Arden, to whom Wilberforce here refers, scarcely lived up to his name. His character and his countenance alike lacked distinction. The latter suffered from the want of a nose, or at least, of an effectively imposing feature. What must this have meant in a generation which remembered the effect produced by Chatham’s “terrifying beak,” and was dominated by the long and concave curve on which Pitt suspended the House of Commons! Further, Pepper lacked dignity. His manner was noisy and inelegant.389 He pushed himself forward as a Cambridge friend of Pitt; and the House resented the painful efforts of this flippant young man to run in harness by the side of the genius. Members roared with laughter when Arden marched in, at Christmastide of 1783, to announce that Pitt, as Prime Minister of the Crown, would offer himself for re-election. The effrontery of the statement was heightened by the voice and bearing of the speaker. Nevertheless, Pitt, as we have seen, made him Attorney-General. No appointment called forth more criticism. He entered the peerage as Lord Alvanley.

It is the characteristic of genius to attract and inspire the young; and Pitt’s influence on them was second only to that of Chatham. As we shall see later on, Canning caught the first glow of political enthusiasm from the kindling gaze of the young Prime Minister. Patriotism so fervid, probity so spotless, eloquence so moving fired cooller natures than Canning’s; and among the most noteworthy of those who now came forward was Henry Addington. His father, Anthony Addington, had started life as a medical man in Reading, and afterwards in Bedford Row, London, where Henry was born in 1754. In days when that profession held a lower place than at present, this fact was to be thrown in the teeth of the son on becoming Prime Minister. Chatham, however, always treated his family physician (for such Addington became) with chivalrous courtesy. Largely284 by the care of the doctor William Pitt was coaxed into maturity after his “wan” youth.390 It was natural, then, that the sons should become acquainted, especially as young Addington, after passing through Winchester School and Brasenose College, Oxford, entered at Lincoln’s Inn while Pitt was still keeping his terms there.

Considering the community of their studies and tastes, it is singular that few, if any, of their letters of this period survive. Such as have come down to us are the veriest scraps. Here, then, as elsewhere, some evil destiny (was it Bishop Tomline?) must have intervened to blot out the glimpses of the social side of the statesman’s life. It is clear, however, that Pitt must have begun to turn Addington’s thoughts away from Chancery Lane to Westminster; for the latter in 1783 writes eagerly against “the offensive Coalition of Fox and North.” At Christmas, when Pitt leaped to office as Prime Minister, he sought to bring Addington into the political arena, and held out the prospect of some subordinate post. Addington accordingly stood for Devizes, and was chosen by a unanimous vote at the hustings in April 1784. Nevertheless, his cool and circumspect nature rose slowly to the height of the situation at Westminster. Externals were all in his favour. His figure was tall and well proportioned; his features, faultlessly regular, were lit up by a benevolent smile; and his deferential manners gave token of success either as family physician or family attorney. In fine, a man who needed only the spur of ambition, or the stroke of calamity, to achieve a respectable success. It is said that Pitt early bade him fix his gaze on the Speaker’s chair, to which, in fact, he helped him in 1789, after Grenville’s retirement. But, for the present, nothing stirred Addington’s nature from its exasperating calm. As worldly inducements failed, Pitt finally made trial of poetry. During a ride together to Pitt’s seat at Holwood, the statesman sought in vain to appeal to his ambition; but Addington—five years his senior, be it remembered—pleaded the disqualifying effects of early habits and disposition. Thereupon Pitt burst out with the following passage from Waller’s poem on Henrietta Maria:

The lark that shuns on lofty boughs to build
Her humble nest, lies silent in the field;
But should the promise of a brighter day,
Aurora smiling, bid her rise and play,
Quickly she’ll show ’twas not for want of voice,
Or power to climb, she made so low a choice;
Singing she mounts; her airy notes are stretch’d
Towards heaven, as if from heaven alone her notes she fetch’d.

Then the statesman set spurs to his horse and left Addington far behind.391 It is curious that when Addington’s ambition was fully aroused, it proved to be an obstacle to Pitt and a danger to the country in the crisis of 1803–4.

Adverting now to certain details of Pitt’s private life, we notice that he varied the time of his first residence on Putney Heath (August 1784–November 1785) by several visits to Brighthelmstone, perhaps in order to shake off the fatigue and disappointment attendant on his Irish and Reform policy. At that seaside resort he spent some weeks in the early autumn of 1785, enjoying the society of his old Cambridge friends, “Bob” Smith (afterwards Lord Carrington), Pratt (afterwards Lord Camden), and Steele. We can imagine them riding along the quaint little front, or on the downs, their interchange of thought and sallies of wit probably helping in no small degree the invigorating influences of sea air and exercise. If we may trust the sprightly but spiteful lines in one of the “Political Eclogues,” it was at Brighton that Pitt at these times especially enjoyed the society of “Tom” Steele, whom he had made Secretary of the Treasury conjointly with George Rose. Unlike his colleague, whose visage always bore signs of the care and toil of his office, Steele was remarkable for the rotundity and joviality of his face and an inexhaustible fund of animal spirits.392 Perhaps it was this which attracted Pitt to him in times of recreation. The lines above referred to occur in an effusion styled—“Rose, or the Complaint,”—where the hard working colleague is shown as bemoaning Pitt’s preference for Steele:

But vain his hope to shine in Billy’s eyes,
Vain all his votes, his speeches, and his lies.
Steele’s happier claims the boy’s regard engage,
Alike their studies, nor unlike their age:
With Steele, companion of his vacant hours,
Oft would he seek Brighthelmstone’s sea-girt towers;
For Steele relinquish Beauty’s trifling talk,
With Steele each morning ride, each evening walk;
Or in full tea-cups drowning cares of state
On gentler topics urge the mock debate.

However much Pitt enjoyed Steele’s company on occasions like these, he did not allow his feelings to influence him when a question of promotion arose. Steele’s talents being only moderate, his rise was slow, but he finally became one of the Paymasters of the Forces. In that station his conduct was not wholly satisfactory; and Pitt’s friendship towards him cooled, though it was renewed not long before the Prime Minister’s death.

For George Rose, on the other hand, despite his lack of joviality, Pitt cherished an ever deepening regard proportioned to the thoroughness and tactfulness of his services at the Treasury. In view of the vast number of applications for places and pensions, of which, moreover, Burke’s Economy Bill had lessened the supply, the need of firm control at the Treasury is obvious; and Pitt and the country owed much to the man who for sixteen years held the purse-strings tight.393 On his part Rose felt unwavering enthusiasm for his chief from the time of their first interview in Paris in 1783 until the dark days that followed Austerlitz. Only on two subjects did he refuse to follow Pitt, namely, on Parliamentary Reform, from which he augured “the most direful consequences,” and the Slavery Question. That he ventured twice to differ decidedly from Pitt (in spite of earnest private appeals) proves his independence of mind as well as the narrowness of his outlook. He even offered to resign his post at the Treasury owing to their difference on Reform, but Pitt negatived this proposal. We need not accept his complacent statement that Pitt later on came over decidedly to his opinion on that topic.394

The tastes of the two friends were very similar, especially in their love of the country; and it was in the same month (September 1785) that each bought a small estate. We find Pitt writing at that time to Wilberforce respecting his purchase of “Holwood Hill,” near Bromley, Kent, and stating that Rose had just bought an estate in the New Forest, which he vowed287 was “just breakfasting distance from town.” “We are all turning country gentlemen very fast,” added the statesman. A harassing session like that of 1785 is certain to set up a centrifugal tendency; and we may be sure that the nearness of Holwood to Hayes was a further attraction. Not that Pitt was as yet fond of agriculture. He had neither the time nor the money to spare for the high farming which was then yearly adding to the wealth of the nation. But he inherited Chatham’s love of arranging an estate, and he was now to find the delight of laying out grounds, planting trees and shrubs and watching their growth. Holwood had many charms—“a most beautiful spot, wanting nothing but a house fit to live in”—so he described it to Wilberforce.395 He moved into his new abode on 5th November 1785, and during the rest of the vacation spent most of his time there, residing at Downing Street only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Many affairs of State were decided at parties at Holwood, or, later on, at Dundas’s villa at Wimbledon.

Pitt admitted to Wilberforce that the purchase of Holwood was a piece of folly; and this was soon apparent to all Pitt’s friends who had old-fashioned notions of making both ends meet. That desirable result had rarely, if ever, been attained by the son of the magnificent Chatham. Sparing for the nation’s exchequer, Pitt was prodigal of his own. The aristocratic hauteur, of which all but his friends complained, led him to disregard the peccadilloes of servants and the overcharges of tradesmen. A bachelor Prime Minister, whose nose is high in air, is good sport for parasites; and even before the purchase of Holwood, Pitt was in difficulties. During one of the visits to Brighthelmstone, “Bob” Smith undertook to overhaul his affairs, and found old and forgotten bills amounting to £7,914. The discovery came as a shock; for Pitt, with his usual hopefulness, had told his Mentor that, as three-quarters of his official salary were due, he would have enough for his current liabilities. A further scrutiny showed that tradesmen, in default of any present return, took care to ensure an abundant harvest in the future. The butcher usually sent, or charged for, three or four hundredweight of meat on a Saturday, probably because Pitt was often away for the week-end. The meat bill for January288 1785, when Pitt generally dined out, was £96, which, reckoning the price at sixpence a pound, implied a delivery of 34 hundredweight. Other bills for provisions (wrote Smith to Wilberforce) “exceed anything I could have imagined.” Apparently they rose in proportion to Pitt’s absence from home. His accounts were kept by a man named Wood, whose book-keeping seems to have been correct; but Smith begged Wilberforce to urge on Pitt the need of an immediate reform of his household affairs.396 Whether it took place, we cannot tell; for this is one of the private subjects over which Bishop Tomline chose to draw the veil of propriety.

An economical householder would have found relief from the addition of £3,000 a year to his income. That was the net sum which accrued to him after August 1792, from the Lord Wardenship of the Cinque Ports.397 That Pitt felt more easy in his mind is clear from his letter to Lady Chatham, dated Downing Street, 11th November 1793. She had been in temporary embarrassment. He therefore sent £300, and gently chid her for concealing her need so long. He continued as follows: “My accession of income has hitherto found so much employment in the discharge of former arrears as to leave no very large fund which I can with propriety dispose of. This, however, will mend every day, and at all events I trust you will never scruple to tell me when you have the slightest occasion for any aid that I can supply.”398

Unfortunately, Pitt soon fell into difficulties, and partly from his own generosity as Colonel of the Walmer Volunteers. As we shall also see, he gave £2,000 to the Patriotic Fund started in January 1798. But carelessness continued to be his chief curse. In truth his lordly nature and his early training in the household of Chatham unfitted him for the practice of that bourgeois virtue, frugality. That he sought to practise it for the Commonwealth is a signal proof of his patriotism. We shall see that his embarrassments probably hindered him from a marriage, which might have crowned with joy his somewhat solitary life.

In the career of Pitt we find few incidents of the lighter kind,289 which diversify the lives of most statesmen of that age. Two such, however, connect him with the jovial society of Dundas. It was their custom to outline over their cups the course of the forthcoming debates; and on one occasion, when a motion was to be brought forward by Mr. (afterwards Earl) Grey, Dundas amused the company by making a burlesque oration on the Whig side. Pitt was so charmed by the performance that he declared that Dundas must make the official reply. The joke sounded well over wine; but great was the Scotsman’s astonishment to find himself saddled with the task in the House. Members were equally taken aback; and the lobbies soon rustled with eager conjectures as to the reason why Pitt had surrendered his dearly cherished prerogative. It then transpired that the Prime Minister had acted partly on a whim, and partly on the conviction that a speaker who had so cleverly pleaded a case must be able to answer it with equal effect.399

The other incident is likewise Bacchic, and is also uncertain as to date. Pitt, Dundas, and Thurlow had been dining with Jenkinson at Croydon; and during their rollicking career back towards Wimbledon, they found a toll-bar gate between Streatham and Tooting carelessly left open. Wine, darkness, and the frolicsome spirit of youth prompted them to ride through and cheat the keeper. He ran out, called to them in vain, and, taking them for highwaymen, fired his blunderbuss at their retreating forms.400 The discharge was of course as harmless as that of firearms usually was except at point-blank range; but the writers of the “Rolliad” got wind of the affair, and satirised Pitt’s lawlessness in the following lines:

Ah, think what danger on debauch attends!
Let Pitt o’er wine preach temperance to his friends,
How, as he wandered darkling o’er the plain,
His reason drowned in Jenkinson’s champagne,
A rustic’s hand, but righteous fate withstood,
Had shed a premier’s for a robber’s blood.

Gaiety and grief often tread close on one another’s heels; and Pitt had his full share of the latter. The sudden death of his sister Harriet, on 25th September 1786, was a severe blow. She had married his Cambridge friend, Eliot, and expired shortly after childbirth. She was his favourite sister, having entered closely and fondly into his early life. He was prostrated with290 grief, and for some time could not attend even to the public business which was his second nature. Eliot, now destined to be more than ever a friend and brother, came to his house and for some time lived with him. It will be of interest to print here a new letter of George III to a Mr. Frazer who had informed him of the sad event.

Sept. 25, 1786. 9.15 p.m.401

I am excessively hurt, as indeed all my family are, at the death of the amiable Lady Harriot Elliot (sic); but I do not the less approve Mr. Frazer’s attention in acquainting me of this very melancholy event. I owne I dread the effect it may have on Mr. Pitt’s health: I think it best not at this early period to trouble him with my very sincere condolence; but I know I can trust to the prudence of Mr. Frazer, and therefore desire he will take the most proper method of letting Mr. Pitt know what I feel for him, and that I think it kindest at present to be silent.

G. R.

The King further evinced his tactful sympathy by suggesting that Pitt should for a time visit his mother at Burton Pynsent. In other respects his private life was uneventfully happy. The conclusion of the commercial treaty with France, the buoyancy of the national revenue, and the satisfactory issue of the Dutch troubles must have eased his anxieties in the years 1786–87; and after the serious crisis last named, his position was truly enviable, until the acute situation arising from the mental malady of George III overclouded his prospects at the close of the year 1788.

Certainly Pitt was little troubled by his constituents. Almost the only proof of his parliamentary connection with the University of Cambridge (apart from warnings from friends at election times how so and so is to “be got at”) is in a letter which I have discovered in the Hardwicke Papers. It refers to a Cambridge Debt Bill about to be introduced by Charles Yorke in April 1787, to which the University had requested Pitt to move certain amendments in its interest. It will be seen that Pitt proposed to treat the request rather lightly:

Dear Yorke,

I am rather inclined to wish the Cambridge [Debt] Bill should pass without any alteration, unless you think there are material reasons291 for it.—The impanelling the jury does not seem to be a point of much consequence, but seems most naturally to be the province of the mayor.—With regard to the appeal, I think we agreed to strike it out entirely.—As the Commission are a mixed body from the town, the county, and the University, there seems to be an impropriety in appealing either to the town sessions or the County Sessions, either of which may be considered as only one out of three parties interested. The decision of the Commission appears therefore the most satisfactory, and if I recollect right, it is final as the bill now stands.

Yours most sincerely,
W. Pitt.402

In the whole of Pitt’s correspondence I have found only one episode which lights up the recesses of his mind. As a rule, his letters are disappointingly business-like and formal. He wrote as a Prime Minister to supporters, rarely as a friend to a friend. And those who search the hundreds of packets of the Pitt Papers in order to find the real man will be tempted to liken him to that elusive creature which, when pursued, shoots away among the rocks under a protective cloud of ink. At one point, however, we catch a glimpse of his inmost beliefs. Wilberforce, having come under deep religious convictions in the autumn of 1785, resolved to retire for a time from all kinds of activity in order to take his bearings anew. Then he wrote to Pitt a full description of his changed views of life, stating also his conviction that he must give up some forms of work and amusement, and that he could never be so much of a party man as he had hitherto been. Pitt’s reply, of 2nd December 1785, has recently seen the light. After stating that any essential opposition between them would cause him grief but must leave his affection quite untouched, he continued as follows:

Forgive me if I cannot help expressing my fear that you are nevertheless deluding yourself into principles which have but too much tendency to counteract your own object and to render your virtues and292 your talents useless both to yourself and to mankind. I am not, however, without hopes that my anxiety paints this too strongly. For you confess that the character of religion is not a gloomy one, and that it is not that of an enthusiast. But why then this preparation of solitude, which can hardly avoid tincturing the mind either with melancholy or superstition? If a Christian may act in the several relations of life, must he seclude himself from them all to become so? Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action. I will not, however, enlarge upon these subjects now. What I ask of you, as a mark both of your friendship and of the candour which belongs to your mind, is to open yourself fully and without reserve to one, who, believe me, does not know how to separate his happiness from your own.403

On the morrow, a Saturday, he called on Wilberforce at Wimbledon, and the friends for two hours unburdened their hearts to one another. We know little of that moving converse. The two men had ideals so different that unison was out of the question. The statesman, so we learn, had never reflected much on religion, that is, in the keenly introspective sense in which Wilberforce now used the word. To Pitt, as to most Englishmen, religion meant the acceptance of certain doctrines laid down by the State Church, and we may describe it as largely political and conventional, buttressing the existing order, but by no means transforming life or character. One glance alone we gain into the sanctuary of his thoughts; he told Wilberforce that Bishop Butler’s “Analogy” raised in his mind more doubts than it answered—a proof (perhaps the only proof that survives) of his cherishing under that correct exterior a critical and questioning spirit.

To Wilberforce, thenceforth, all doubts were visitations of the devil. Indeed, the microscopic watch which he kept on his thoughts and moods seemed likely to stunt his activities. From this he was perhaps saved by his friendship with Pitt. True, they could no longer tread the same path. Pitt obeyed that call to action on behalf of his country which from his boyhood had deadened all other sounds. Wilberforce for a long time held aloof from politics as debateable ground beset with snares to the soul. And yet, though the two men diverged, the promptings of affection kept them ever within hail. No gulf293 ever opened out such as Coleridge finely pictured as yawning between two parted friends:

They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between.

Indeed, Wilberforce found with some surprise that on most questions they agreed as before404—a proof that there was no desertion of principle on Pitt’s part after the session of 1785. We may go further, and assert that in their changed relations the two friends exerted upon each other a mutually beneficent influence. The new convictions of Wilberforce tended to refine the activities of his friend; and Pitt’s practical good sense helped to launch the philanthropist on that career of usefulness in which he could both glorify God and uplift myriads of negroes.

A sharp difference of opinion respecting the war with France overclouded their lives in the year 1793. Wilberforce fully recognized the sincerity of the Cabinet’s efforts to avoid a rupture, and admitted that Ministers had not pursued a “war system.” But shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, when he was about to speak in favour of conciliation, Pitt took the strange step of sending Bankes to him, earnestly begging him not to speak, as it might do irreparable mischief, and promising him an opportunity for the statement of his views. That opportunity did not come; and Wilberforce evidently resented this attempt to make political capital out of their friendship.405 The breach between them did not widen until late in the year 1794, when Wilberforce deemed it his duty to move an amendment in favour of peace. Bankes and Duncombe supported it; but it was easily defeated. In the following year the relations between Pitt and Wilberforce on this question became so strained as to cause both of them deep distress. Indeed Pitt, who generally enjoyed profound slumbers, for a time suffered from insomnia. The only other occasions when sleep fled from him were the sudden resignation of Earl Temple late in 1783, the mutiny at the Nore, and the arrival of the news of Trafalgar.

The old feelings began to reassert themselves, when Pitt294 spoke strongly in favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (26th February 1795); but the friends did not meet for nearly a month, and then with some little embarrassment on both sides. All shadows, however, vanished in a few months’ time, when Wilberforce came to see that his friend longed for peace so soon as it was compatible with security. Thereafter their old friendship revived, though tinged with the sadness attending disappointed hopes.

Pitt did not so readily forget the independence now and again displayed by Bankes, for instance, in opposing Parliamentary Reform, the Westminster Scrutiny, and the continuance of the war. Though they were friendly at Cambridge, and afterwards at Goostree’s Club and in the House, Pitt never warmed to Bankes, whose nature indeed was too precise, cold, and prudent ever to call forth affection. Respected by all for his sound but stolid speeches, he for forty years sat at Westminster as member for Corfe Castle. No one seems ever to have thought of making Bankes either a Minister or a peer. At a later time the circle of Pitt’s friends included Canning and Wellesley, who will receive notice in later chapters.

On the whole, Pitt seems to have been somewhat exacting in his friendships. One of his early comrades complained that all suggestions to the Prime Minister must, under pain of his resentment, go forth to the world as emanations of his wisdom. This is to sacrifice friendliness and candour to egotism and parliamentary punctilio. True, no statesman can afford to neglect prudential considerations; and we may freely grant that the cautious calculations of Pitt rarely obsessed his whole being, as that of Napoleon was dominated by his egotism. We do not find Pitt acting, still less speaking, in the sense which prompted the remark of Napoleon about an over scrupulous servant: “He is not devoted to me; he does not want to get on.”

It must be confessed that there is something wanting about Pitt. He lacked geniality and glow alike in his treatment of men, and in his attitude towards the aspirations of the age then dawning. Probably this defect sprang from a physical basis. It must be remembered that Chatham was nearly all his life a martyr to gout. He bequeathed this weakness to his second son, a fact which may account for the coldness of Pitt’s nature. Just as creatures with a torpid circulation love to bask in the sun, so his chilliness may have prompted the cravings for the Bacchic295 society of Dundas and Steele. In this respect he suffers by comparison with Fox, the full-blooded man, the impetuous foe, the open-handed, forgiving friend, whose character somewhat resembles that of Antony, deified by Cleopatra:

For his bounty,
There was no winter in ’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping; his delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element they lived in.406


ISOLATION (1784, 1785)

The situation of Europe appears never to have been so critical at any epoch since the breaking out of the Thirty Years’ War as it is at the present moment.—Sir James Harris, 2nd February 1785.

The American War of Independence left Great Britain in a critical situation both internally and in relation to other Powers. She had been at war with France, Spain, the Dutch Netherlands, and the United States, while the Baltic Powers threatened her with hostilities owing to her insistence on an exacting maritime code. As she refused to come to a compromise on these questions, the period of peace which followed after the Treaty of Versailles (September 1783) did not lead to a resumption of friendly relations with the States above named. She was in part hated, in part despised.

The prevalent feeling found striking expression in an intercepted letter of Frederick the Great, which our able ambassador, Sir James Harris, saw at St. Petersburg. The crabbed monarch therein described Great Britain as a land ruined by an unfortunate war, and unable ever again to become a formidable rival to France. Here the wish was father to the thought. “Old sour-mug,” as the Berliners dubbed him, had not forgiven his desertion by England at the close of the Seven Years’ War, and never missed an opportunity of affronting George III and damaging his interests. It was he who, in the years 1778 and 1779, thwarted Harris’s plan of effecting an Anglo-Russian alliance, which might have nullified the efforts of France in the American War; and now, at the end of that struggle, the resentful old King did his best to perpetuate the isolation of the Island Power. In name, he was our ally, the treaty of 1756 never297 having been broken; but in reality he was the wiliest of opponents, his fleeting fits of complaisance being designed to make bad blood between England and the Emperor Joseph II.407

The ceaseless rivalry of Austria and Prussia would generally have enabled Great Britain to count on the support of one of those Powers. But while Frederick flouted us from senile spleen, Joseph held aloof from motives of policy. Not only did he hold England cheap, but he saw in her an obstacle to one of his many schemes. As he was then one of the most active of European rulers, we may well begin our survey of foreign affairs by a short account of him and of his aims.

Joseph II (1780–1790) held the extensive lands of the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine, ranging from the Milanese to Cracow, and from the Carpathians to the Breisgau on the Upper Rhine; but these States, especially those in Italy and Swabia, lacked the strength that comes from continuity. His position as “Emperor” (that is, elective head of the Holy Roman Empire) implied little; for the confederate princes of that moribund organism had almost complete sovereign powers in the component States. To breathe new life into “the Empire” was almost hopeless; but he set himself to solidify and extend his hereditary dominions by a series of attractively perilous projects. He also sought to centralize at Vienna the governing powers of his very diverse domains, and to carry out reforms, social, agrarian, and religious, which aroused widespread opposition. Many of his schemes were generous and enlightened, but they stirred the resentment of landowners, priests, and Nationalists, especially in Hungary and in his Belgic Provinces. In order to carry out these programmes, he sought or maintained alliances with the most powerful States, namely, Russia and France.

Here we are concerned chiefly with his connection with the latter Power. Despite temporary causes of friction, the Franco-Austrian alliance of 1756 still subsisted; and it had gained new vitality by the marriage of Louis XVI (then Dauphin) with Marie Antoinette, a daughter of Maria Theresa and sister of Joseph II, whose efforts on behalf of Viennese policy were to298 effect something for that Court, at the expense of her popularity at Paris. Thus, early in the year 1785, when Joseph II revived a scheme, which had been thwarted in 1778, for the exchange of his discontented Belgic lands for the Electorate of Bavaria, all Europe saw in it the hand of Marie Antoinette. The absorption of Bavaria would have made the Hapsburgs absolutely supreme in Central Europe, while the transfer of the Bavarian Electoral House to Brussels would have broken down the Barrier arrangements which British statecraft had ever sought to build up on the North of France. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) had assigned the then Spanish Netherlands to the House of Austria in order to set limits to the expansion of France; and the transfer could not be made without the consent of the signatory Powers, the chief being England.

In other respects, too, Joseph’s Belgian policy ran counter to British interests. He had ordered the Dutch troops out of the fortresses (Mons, Namur, etc.), which, by the Barrier Treaty of 1715, they had the right to occupy at the expense of those districts; and he further set at naught well-established rights of the Dutch, first by furbishing up certain musty claims to their frontier stronghold, Maestricht; and secondly, by declaring the navigation of the estuary of the Scheldt, below Antwerp, free from Dutch control. In the latter demand he undoubtedly had “natural law” on his side, while the law of nations was as clearly for the Dutch, the Treaty of Münster (1648) having empowered them to close that estuary to all commerce but their own. As a result the once flourishing trade of Antwerp was wellnigh strangled, and it was reasonable for Joseph II to seek to end this state of things. Nevertheless, his conduct in setting aside that treaty-right without consulting other Powers, was no less indefensible than the same action of the French Revolutionists in the autumn of 1792, which largely brought about the Great War. In fact, the conduct of Joseph II towards his own subjects and neighbouring States fitly earned him the designation, the “crowned revolutionist”; and, had his power of carrying out schemes equalled his facility in weaving them, he might have figured in history as a Teutonic Napoleon.

Equally disturbing and more incisive was the influence of Catharine II of Russia. It is needless to describe here the strange career of that daughter of a poor German prince who ultimately became Czarina. She was justly suspected of having299 connived at the murder of her consort Peter III; and her relations with her son, the future Paul I, were severely strained by her numerous amours. But no indulgences dulled the vision or the ambition of Catharine. Her freshness of mind and facility of expression dazzled her philosophic visitors, Diderot and Grimm; and these varied powers were held in leash by a virile will which made her one of the greatest political forces of the age. Her resolve to aggrandize Russia centred in two great enterprises, the partition of Poland and the overthrow of the Turkish Power. In the first partition of Poland (1772) she had the concurrence of Frederick the Great and the reluctant consent of Maria Theresa; but the death of the latter, in November 1780, removed all checks on Joseph II, who for fifteen years had been associated with her in the government of the Austrian States.

The two most daring rulers in Europe in the year 1781 came to an understanding which foreboded a general upheaval. Their arrangement did not take the form of a treaty, for Joseph, as Emperor, claimed precedence in all titles, which Catharine, proud of the comparatively new Imperial title of the Czars of Muscovy, refused to recognize. Accordingly, in May 1781, the punctilious sovereigns exchanged letters, binding themselves to mutual support; Joseph undertaking to assist the Czarina in her designs against the Turks, while she guaranteed to Joseph the integrity of his dominions, thus enabling him to adopt the forward policy whose developments in the Netherlands we have noticed.

In vain did Frederick the Great and England seek, though by widely diverse means, to dissolve this alliance. Capricious and violent in private life and in her likes and dislikes, Catharine showed statesmanlike firmness and caution in public affairs. Her firmness appeared in her refusal to take the tempting bait of Minorca which our ambassador Harris skilfully held out to her in 1780, if she would mediate in favour of England in the American War. She rightly saw more profit in heading the Armed Neutrality League; and Harris used all his arts in vain.408 Her caution shines in her charming repartee to Diderot after the French philosopher had vivaciously sketched his plan of renovating300 Russia. “M. Diderot, you forget in all your plans of reform the difference in our positions; you only work on paper, which endures all things; it opposes no obstacle either to your imagination or to your pen. But I, poor Empress that I am, work on a sensitive and irritable medium, the human skin.” In these phrases lies the secret of the success of Catharine and of the ultimate failure of Joseph. He forgot that the sentient skin is not parchment: she never forgot it.

For the present, their alliance promised to make them the arbiters of Europe, Catharine in the East, and her ally in the centre and the Netherlands. It was therefore desirable for Great Britain to gain their alliance, or at least their friendship. But our overtures were repulsed at both Courts. In vain did Sir Murray Keith, our respected envoy at Vienna, seek to undermine the unnatural alliance between France and Austria, and suggest a return to the traditional connection between the Courts of St. James and Vienna; the Francophile policy of the Austrian Chancellor, Kaunitz, was still in the ascendant.

In vain also did Alleyne Fitzherbert, now the British Ambassador at St. Petersburg, remind Catharine II of the many interests, trading and political, we had in common, and of the help we had given to the infant navy of Russia in officers and men, and in granting facilities for its repair at Portsmouth and Port Mahon.409 With her, past services weighed but lightly as against present expediency. The assurances of the previous decade as to the natural links between England and Russia were ridiculed, probably because her keen eyes discerned, sooner than those of any British statesman, the eventual opposition of England to her scheme of seizing Constantinople. As a prelude to this enterprise she annexed the Crimea in the year 1783; and, as we shall see later, she thenceforth bent all her energies to the task of enthroning at Constantinople her grandson, Constantine. The alliance of Austria being essential, and the union of the Hapsburgs with France being but little impaired by Joseph’s Belgic plans (at least up to the end of 1784), she courted Paris and slighted London. A proposal which Fitzherbert made at St. Petersburg in April 1784, for an alliance with Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, fell to the ground.410

Thus, the trend of European politics in the East, in Germany,301 and in the Netherlands told heavily against England, and increased the natural reluctance of any Power to seek the friendship of a beaten nation. It is at such times that the artificiality of the idea of the Balance of Power is seen. No State took the slightest interest in restoring the islanders to their rightful position in the world. For this they had to trust to themselves and to their young leader.

In point of fact, Pitt and his Foreign Secretary, the Marquis of Carmarthen, at first desired little more than to be left alone. Peace is always the greatest of British interests, and it was so pre-eminently at that time, when the interest on the National Debt absorbed three-fourths of the nation’s revenue. Foreign Affairs interested the Cabinet but little, so we gather from the memoranda of the Marquis of Carmarthen (afterwards Duke of Leeds); but he there states that Pitt applied himself closely to the correspondence with ambassadors, and that, in a conversation which they had together at Wimbledon in May 1784, he found that they agreed as to the desirability of severing the connection of Austria with France, and of forming some alliance which would counterbalance the power of the French and Spanish Houses of Bourbon; but at the same time Pitt was strongly convinced of the need of avoiding any engagements which might lead to war.411 That George III had lost his bellicose temper appears from the closing sentence of his letter of 6th July 1784 to Carmarthen: “Till I see this country in a situation more respectable as to Army, Navy, and Finances, I cannot think anything that may draw us into troubled waters either safe or rational.”412

This sensible pronouncement was called forth by the proposal of Pitt and Carmarthen to make another overture to the Empress Catharine. An opportunity occurred owing to a recent compact between France and Sweden, according to the former a naval depôt and other special privileges at the port of Gothenburg. As this might enable French warships to control the mouth of the Baltic, it threatened the interests of England, Denmark, and Russia; and the British Cabinet, always intent on regaining the favour of the Czarina, began to sound the situation at St. Petersburg and Copenhagen. Carmarthen sought302 the advice of Sir James Harris, and received the following witty reply:

Cuffnalls, Oct. 6, 1784.413

Should the Northern Lights be really enlightened, and a spark of common sense be added to Kitty’s bright understanding I hope my friend Fitz[herbert] will accomplish the point we have all failed in. I cannot but suppose that the Ch[ancellor] and Lord C. will defer to your opinion, and that your next messenger will carry positive and particular instructions both to Hamlet and Semiramis.

“Semiramis” (Catharine) proved to be no less obdurate to Fitzherbert than to Harris, though the instructions issued to the former had been drawn up in a masterly manner by Pitt himself. It is clear that the young statesman took a keen interest in the overture to Russia; for when Carmarthen sent him a draft of his “Instructions for Mr. Fitzherbert,” he sent the hitherto unpublished replies, which throw an interesting light on his relations to that Minister, and his views on foreign policy:

Brighthelmstone, Wedy night. Oct. 13, 1784.414

My dear Lord,

I return you with many thanks the draft of the Instructions to Mr. Fitzherbert. I trouble you at the same time, as you permitted me, with the sketch of the Ideas which had occurred to me on the same subject. I have the satisfaction to perceive, as I flattered myself must be the case, that our Ideas do not seem to differ in any respect. I hardly need give you the trouble of reading my scrawl. I leave it however to your consideration, tho’ hardly thinking anything in it will repay the time of perusing it. You will, I am sure, excuse a proof at least of my solicitude on a subject on which we feel equally interested.

That Carmarthen set a high value on the “scrawl,” appears from the fact that it bears the pencil-mark, “sent to Russia the 15th.” As it was probably the first diplomatic note ever penned by Pitt, it deserves to be quoted in full, especially as it proves that he was no advocate of isolation. He saw too well the dangers of it. Further, those who take pleasure in contrasting his orderly and forcible statement of ideas with a loose and feeble303 statement may consult the draft of Carmarthen, which that Minister had the good sense to replace by Pitt’s:415

It is His Majesty’s earnest desire to regulate his conduct on the occasion of the late Treaty between France and Sweden, in the strictest concert with the Court of Petersburg. And therefore, altho’ it would have been a great satisfaction to have known first what line appeared to the Empress most proper to be pursued, we have no difficulty in stating without reserve what the situation appears to us to call for. We wish at the same time to know whether any other specifick measures have been thought of by the Empress, and we are ready in every respect to enter into the fullest and most confidential communication.

We are not aware of any treaty or of any other ground, which gives a direct and absolute right to object to any arrangement which the King of Sweden may have thought proper to make in this instance with regard to a Port of his own dominions; altho’ the possibility of its being carried to the extent which there is reason to suspect is ultimately intended cannot but occasion great jealousy, and altho’ even in a commercial light, it may possibly not be a matter of indifference. The difficulty of making a direct opposition in the first instance seems, by Mr. Fitzherbert’s report, to have struck the Ministers of the Empress in the same manner. On this supposition, the only immediate step which it appears natural to take is to desire from the Court of Stockholm an explanation to what extent the privileges granted to the French are bonâ fide intended to be carried. A representation to this purpose should, we think, be made jointly in the names of the Courts of London, Petersburg, and Copenhagen, if the latter Court should be disposed (as we trust will be the case) to co-operate on this occasion. This may produce such an explanation from Sweden as may furnish a strong additional ground for interference hereafter to prevent the dangerous designs of France, if she should be inclined to avail herself of the privileges she has now acquired to carry them into execution. If the answer should not be explicit and satisfactory, further measures should be concerted to guard against the effects to be apprehended. Indeed, whatever colour may be given to the transaction, it would not seem wise to trust implicitly to assurances and explanations. In every light, therefore, the only substantial security would be in an establishment of that permanent and solid connection between this country and Russia304 and Denmark, which their common interests render on all accounts most desireable. Without such a system, [the] consequences of this attempt cannot be effectually obviated, direct opposition to it seeming hardly practicable; and desultory and unconnected efforts which terminate in one single and separate point (even if the occasion admitted of their being exerted to the utmost) promising comparatively but little effect. Explanations and assurances, however explicit, unless such measures are taken to enforce an adherence to them, will be but a feeble and precarious barrier against the encroaching spirit which has dictated this project. Even if this particular measure should be defeated, the same spirit (unless effectual and systematic steps are taken to counteract it) will show itself in other shapes and on innumerable occasions. This object therefore of an alliance between the three Courts seems to be the only measure, under the present circumstances, which promises effectual support to their common interests and to the general tranquillity of Europe. And there seems no reason to imagine that there can be any obstacle in the way of its completion, which a cordial and mutual inclination, and a free and open discussion will not easily remove.

All was in vain. There was more method in Catharine II’s waywardness than Harris understood. Her aim being the preparation of a great fleet at Sevastopol with a view to the conquest of Turkey, she needed, as we have seen, the co-operation of Austria; but that implied friendship with France, and therefore coolness to England.416 These motives long continued to govern the policy of the Empress, and prevented the formation of any good understanding with her.

As for the Emperor, Joseph II, there was small hope of an alliance with him. The emergence, early in 1785, of his pet scheme of a Belgic-Bavarian exchange was a palpable threat to the old Germanic System, of which George III, as Elector of Hanover, was a pillar; and he knew right well that the Court of St. James would steadfastly oppose the weakening of the Barrier in Flanders which must ensue from so violent a change. Sir James Harris summed up the opinion of our statesmen when he said that that Barrier against the encroachments of France had “ever been deemed essential to the interests of Europe in general305 and to those of England in particular; but it is destroyed the moment the Low Countries either belong to France directly, or are governed by a sovereign devoted to her influence.”417

* * * * *

We here touch upon a question which, after being the fruitful cause of wars from the time of the Plantagenets, was soon to involve Great Britain in the struggle with Revolutionary France, and yet again with Napoleon. The effort to prevent France acquiring complete control over the Netherlands was to be the chief work of William Pitt—a career far other than that which he had marked out for himself, and into which, as we shall see, he was drawn most reluctantly. The struggle presents three well-marked phases: the first concerns chiefly the disputes between the Stadholder of the United Provinces and the Patriots, abetted by France, which finally resulted in a complete triumph for the former, thanks to the action of Prussia and England and the formation of the Triple Alliance of 1788. In the second period Revolutionary France, with the help of the Patriots, overran those provinces, and set up the Batavian or Dutch Republic. The uneasy Peace of Amiens ended in 1803, largely because Bonaparte insisted on treating that Republic as a dependency of France; and Pitt’s life closed in the midst of the world-strife that ensued. But the Treaties of Vienna carried out (what Napoleon never would have agreed to418) the erection of a seemingly solid Barrier against France, the Kingdom of the United Netherlands.

These mighty convulsions arose very largely from a contention as to the fate of the Netherlands. The importance of States depends not so much on their size as on their situation; and the Dutch and Belgic Netherlands, forming the fringes of the French and Teutonic peoples, derive great importance from that circumstance, or perhaps even more from their occupying the coast-line beside the mouths of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt, which contains fine harbours and is peopled by an enterprising and industrious folk. The conduct of a British Government with respect to those lands is, so to speak, a barometric test of its skill and energy. None but the weakest306 and most craven of Administrations has ever allowed a great hostile Power to dominate the mouths of those rivers. It was no idle boast of Napoleon that at his great naval port of Antwerp he held a pistol at the head of England. Doubly true would that vaunt be of a Great Power which held Rotterdam and Amsterdam. In a description of the struggle with France in 1785–7 for supremacy in the Dutch Netherlands, we are concerned with the prelude of what was to be a mighty trilogy of war.

* * * * *

The fatuity of Lord North’s Administration was nowhere more glaringly shown than in the high-handed proceedings at sea which embroiled us with the United Provinces, but it should be remembered that three provinces out of the seven strongly objected to go to war. Accordingly, that ill-knit confederacy conducted the war without vigour; and, after Dutch commerce had suffered severely, it concluded peace with Great Britain in 1783, ceding the station of Negapatam in India. Resentment against England was blended with indignation against the Anglophile Stadholder, William V, who was accused of having paralysed the efforts of his country. He was even reported by the Patriots or democrats to have expressed the hope, after the Dutch success at the Dogger Bank, that the English fleet had not suffered much. These and other silly tales acquired some credibility from the fact that he was the son of the Princess Anne, daughter of George II, who had imbued him with a love of her country. As his guardian and instructor in statecraft was Duke Lewis of Brunswick, whose intermeddling finally hastened his departure from the country, the popular movement for the lessening of the Stadholder’s powers acquired strength from the hatred of foreigners and foreign ways always so strong in that home-loving folk. These, then, were the circumstances which brought the disputes between the Patriots and the Orange party to a crisis in the years 1785–7, and threatened to plunge Europe into a great war. The immediate causes were petty and local. The possible results were of world-wide importance.

The functions of the hereditary Stadholder had undergone several changes according to the exigencies of the times. In the long struggle with Spain, as later with Louis XIV, the Dutch had wisely entrusted to the Princes of Orange the chief executive powers, only to go back to strictly republican and federal customs when the crisis was past. The same expedient held good307 during the invasion of the Maréchal de Saxe in 1746–7, and with a similar sequel. Thus, to the House of Orange the Dutch looked for a Cincinnatus in times of stress, but expected him afterwards to go back to his tulips. The advantage of such an arrangement is obvious, provided that the populace is fully agreed as to the time of summoning Cincinnatus and the time of dismissal; also that that illustrious House could ever furnish a supply of men doughty in war and submissive in peace.

But here lay the difficulty: that the Princes and their supporters objected to arrangements which implied phenomenal powers of activity and hibernation. A demand arose that the Republic should so far centralize its governing powers as to be ready against emergencies; and in 1747 the United Provinces adopted a constitution whereby the Stadholderate became a perpetual office, hereditary in the House of Orange. It was confirmed by all the provinces in 1766; and until recently no one had disputed the right of the Prince to command the armed forces, both military and naval, and to exercise a large amount of control over the executive functions of the provinces. He shared these last with the States General, representing all the provinces, and with the States of the several provinces. Nevertheless, these bodies, together with their Grand Pensionaries, Greffiers, and the Regents (or chief magistrates) of towns, looked jealously on his prerogatives and sharply resented any change tending to unify and centralize the forces of the nation.419

In truth, the task of holding together the United Provinces was like that of grasping oiled billiard balls. They were, in effect, independent States, having power to decide on peace and war, make treaties and raise loans. Differing in their constitutions, they also stood in different relations to the Stadholderate. The duties of the States General were to uphold the Union framed at Utrecht in 1579, and, as far as possible, to supervise foreign policy and national defence, the executive side of these functions falling to the Stadholder and a Council of State. But ratification308 by the States of the several provinces, or at least by a majority of them, was needful to give validity to all such decisions and actions. When we further learn that the Regencies of the chief towns had the right of ratifying the decisions of the States of their provinces, we can understand the magnitude of the task which confronted the Stadholders and Marlborough in defending those clannish communities.

The alleged treachery of the Stadholder during the late war with England, together with resentment at his centralizing efforts, had now roused these local instincts to a state of fury, which William V seemed unable either to quell or to calm. In truth, that hapless ruler was irresolution personified. His rôle was always one of passivity. Rarely did he show a spark of spirit or turn the tables on his opponents, though he might easily have thrown on them the responsibility for the misfortunes of the war, of which they, not he, were the cause.420 Compared with him, that other political nullity, Louis XVI, seemed a man of firmness and energy. Strange to say, the lottery of marriage had given to each of them an active and capable consort. In her smaller sphere, Wilhelmina, Princess of Orange, played a part not unlike that of Marie Antoinette. She was niece of Frederick the Great and shared in the strong qualities that are rarely eclipsed in the House of Hohenzollern; but for the present she was doomed idly to chafe at the humiliating restrictions of her lot. The lynx eyes of Sir James Harris soon detected her real feelings for her husband, which, though curbed by wifely duty, now and again broke forth. In the as yet unpublished letters of Harris to the Marquis of Carmarthen are sharp comments on the dullness and torpor of the Prince. These piquant words describe the relations of that ill-matched pair: “He is so jealous of her sense and power that he would not even go to Paradise by her influence; and she has so mean an opinion of his capacity, and, in general, that kind of contempt a high-spirited woman feels for an inferior male being, that I see no hopes of bringing them to that degree of cohesion so highly necessary for the completion of my future plans.”421

The man who wrote these words had already seen much of309 men and affairs. Born at Salisbury in 1746, Harris was educated at Oxford, where his acquaintance with Fox instilled into him Whig principles. After completing his studies at Leyden, he entered the diplomatic service, served with distinction at Madrid and Berlin, and acted as ambassador at Petersburg in the years 1777–82, spending there, so it is said, £20,000 of his private fortune, in his country’s service. Returning to England, he entered Parliament as member for Christchurch, and warmly supported Fox. His handsome presence and lively conversation won him high favour at Carlton House, and afterwards, probably at the suggestion of Pitt, he gave good advice to the Prince of Wales. A leader in society, as in the diplomatic world, the brilliant Harris was courted on all sides; but popularity did not dull his love for his wife; and the strong expressions of friendship which occur in the correspondence between him and Carmarthen show that these versatile and witty men (the latter wrote a comedy which earned the praise of Warton) had a deep fund of staunchness and fidelity. Their affection had some political results. The first article in the political creed of Sir James Harris was hatred of France; and the intervention of Pitt in the affairs of the Foreign Office may be ascribed to his perception of the Gallophobe bias which the vehement and persuasive Harris imparted to the policy of Carmarthen.

Such was the envoy who at the close of the year 1784 proceeded to The Hague, to uphold the cause of the Stadholder and England against the Patriots and France. The outlook seemed of the gloomiest. “There is not, I fear” (so he wrote on 7th December), “the most distant prospect of reclaiming this country.” And again, on 11th March 1785: “We have nothing to expect from this country. Passive, tame, and void of every public virtue, they [the Orange party] will submit to everything. The Prince now talks of going away, of selling his demesnes in these provinces and retiring to Germany—a resolution which, if ever he carries it into execution, will compleat his character.”422 As for the refusal of Frederick the Great to help his niece Wilhelmina, it cut the chivalrous Harris to the quick. His private letters to Carmarthen breathe hatred against France, but contempt of Prussia. When Frederick coolly advised her to disarm the Patriots by coming to terms with France, the impetuous Harris310 burst forth: “The knot must be cut, not untied, and the King of Prussia’s half measures rejected.”423 Admiration for that unfortunate princess added vehemence to his language. He found her far more frank and genuine than Catharine of Russia, needing very little of the flattery which he vainly lavished on “Semiramis.” He succeeded in persuading the Princess to trust England rather than Prussia; and it is clear that he worked for a compact between Great Britain, Austria, and the Netherlands, with the inclusion of Russia and Denmark if possible. But at times, in hearing of the indignities that she daily had to bear at The Hague, he forgot mere questions of policy. “Now and then” (he wrote on 9th September 1785) “my thoughts get worldly, and I think of flesh and blood when I see a pair of fine eyes with the tears starting from them, but I soon suppress this idea.”424 Perhaps it was well that the Prince and Princess left The Hague and went to reside at Nymeguen, in faithful Guelderland, near the Prussian Duchy of Cleves.

* * * * *

As Pitt looked away from the turmoil at Westminster (it was the year of the Reform Bill and the Irish Propositions) he might well feel dismay at the almost indescribable welter on the Continent. On all sides the old order was breaking up. Two mighty Empires took the lead in disruptive schemes which menaced the smaller States with ruin. Intellectual keenness and military force helped on the coming cataclysm. Catharine and Joseph were by far the ablest rulers of their age. Frederick, a prey to moroseness, was content to wait for favours from Versailles which were never forthcoming. France as yet showed few signs of that weakness which was soon to overtake her. True, Louis XVI was a nonentity; but in Marie Antoinette the Austro-French alliance had its corner stone. Moreover, the French Foreign Minister, Vergennes, was a man of outstanding talents. His hostility to England had been notorious; and even now he was reviving the French East India Company, and was pressing the Sultan for trading facilities in Egypt and the Red Sea, which threatened our ascendancy in India.425 To complete this brief survey, we may note that England had disputes with Spain concerning the rights of British merchants on the Mosquito Coast311 of Central America;426 and the ill humour of the Court of Madrid lent some credit to persistent rumours of the formation of a Quadruple Alliance between Russia, Austria, France, and Spain, for the overthrow of England.

Having gained some knowledge of the chief players in the great game that was now opening, and of the vast issues at stake, we return to notice its varying fortunes, especially as they concerned Pitt. It should be remembered that, while the Marquis of Carmarthen wrote the despatches, the spirit which informed them was that of the Prime Minister. Carmarthen had ability, but it trickled off towards lampoons and plays. In la haute politique he never had very deep interest; but it is clear that Pitt soon found in it the fascination which has enthralled many a master mind.

As we have already seen, Joseph II early in 1785 led the way in two very threatening moves, namely, the proposal for the Belgic-Bavarian Exchange and the demand that the Dutch should cede to him Maestricht and throw open the navigation of the Scheldt estuary below Antwerp. It was characteristic of him that he should press both these disturbing claims in the same year, a fact which reveals his confidence in his alliances with Russia and France, and his contempt for the isolated Powers, Prussia, Holland, and Great Britain. In these two matters he used his allies as passive tools for the furtherance of his own ends; and this explains the concluding sentences of Harris’s letter to Carmarthen quoted in part above: “The Emperor dupes Russia: France makes a fool of Prussia. In two words this seems to be the state of Europe. I wish England could take advantage of this singular position of affairs.”427

Pitt and his colleagues were by no means so absorbed in managing the House of Commons as Harris hinted in his letter of four days later to Joseph Ewart at Berlin. The despatches of this able official, Secretary of the British Legation at the Prussian capital, had already warned them of their danger, and pointed to an alliance with Prussia as the only way of escape. The once Prussophobe Harris admitted to Ewart the force of these arguments;428 and, as Hertzberg, one of the Prussian Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, favoured an English connection,312 there was some hope that the long feud between Frederick the Great and George III would die a natural death. During a visit to London in May, Harris drew up convincing arguments in favour of a Prussian alliance, and the King suggested that he should go to Berlin to arrange matters.429

Unfortunately the martinet of Sans Souci was as unbending as ever. He would not hear of entering into a general alliance with England, either because he still hankered after a union with France,430 or feared that an entente with the islanders would drive France into close union with Russia and Austria. His resolve was the more remarkable because the Duke of York had been at Berlin to arrange the accession of Hanover to the League of German Princes which Frederick was then forming as a counterstroke to Joseph’s assault on the Germanic System.431 That the Prussian monarch should have neglected to strengthen that inherently weak union by the support of England, is one of the puzzles of his reign. Had he done so, the League would have taken a long stride forward towards the unification of Germany. Frederick chose otherwise. He welcomed Hanover and repulsed Great Britain. The League therefore lacked the support that it might have had. England and Prussia went their own ways, and therefore yielded to France the first place in the affairs of Western Europe, particularly in Holland. Moreover the Imperial Courts hotly resented the inclusion of Hanover in the League, as will presently appear.

George III very rarely, if ever, consulted Pitt concerning Hanoverian affairs, the control of which he shared solely with the Regency at Hanover.432 But the accession of the Electorate to the Fürstenbund, which took definite shape in August 1785, was not the purely Germanic affair which George III strove to represent it. The incident gave deep umbrage to Joseph and Catharine; and their anger fell scarcely less on Frederick than on the Elector of Hanover. Vorontzoff, the Russian ambassador at London, on 5th August handed in a sharp protest, which Pitt at once forwarded to Windsor. It hinted that if George III did not annul his treaty with Prussia and Saxony, Russia would form alliances disagreeable to England. As appears in the313 King’s reply to Pitt, George scorned the threat, which proved to be harmless.

The natural outcome of this should have been an Anglo-Prussian entente. As Frederick and George had given deep offence to the Imperial Courts, it would have been reasonable for them to bury the hatchet and come to a secret compact for mutual defence. Hanover, which had so long been the cause of alienation, should now have brought them to a close union. For this consummation Ewart had long been working. He it was who first caught a glimpse of the brilliant prospects which an Anglo-Prussian alliance would open up; and with his perfervid Scottish nature (he was born at a manse near Kirkcudbright in 1759, the year of Pitt’s birth) he set himself to win the confidence of the Prussian Minister, Count Hertzberg, and the respect of his chiefs at London. Possessing lively manners, a frank and pleasing address, natural shrewdness, perseverance, and zeal tempered with tact, he gradually won the confidence of Hertzberg, and saw him at least once, and often twice, every day. Thus he paved the way for a second proposal of a general alliance between England and Prussia. “M. Ewart me tourmente beaucoup du plan,” wrote Hertzberg on 5th July to the Princess of Orange.433 For the present he toiled in vain; but it is clear that the first conception of the Triple Alliance of England, Prussia, and Holland, originated neither with Pitt nor Carmarthen, nor Harris, nor Hertzberg, but with Ewart. His chief at Berlin, Lord Dalrymple, was in the main a figure-head of the British Embassy, and did not favour an Anglo-Prussian compact. But Ewart plodded on at the basis of the fabric, which Pitt and Harris were destined to complete. The services of this lonely and pertinacious Scot have not received due recognition.434

The threats of the Czarina, however much they might be spurned at Windsor and Whitehall, furnished another reason why Pitt and Carmarthen should seek to come to some understanding with Prussia; but, having failed in the month of May,314 they were now warily on their guard. The feeling prevalent in diplomatic circles is piquantly expressed in Harris’s letter of 23rd August to Carmarthen: “As for the King of Prussia if he is sincere, he will die; if not, he will of course deceive us; in both cases he should be used only as a tool, and, by being forced to speak out himself, compel others [i.e. Austria and Russia] to declare themselves.”435

This passage probably explains why the Pitt Ministry, in sending Earl Cornwallis on an informal mission to Berlin, tied his hands by instructions of a stringent kind. Carmarthen on 2nd September cautioned the Earl not to commit this country in the slightest degree; and to hear much, but speak little to that “artful” monarch.

When such suspicions beset the interview, no good could result. On his side Frederick appears never to have taken the proposal seriously. He assured Cornwallis of his friendship for England, but remarked on the threatening state of things in Europe; France, Spain, Austria, and Russia were in alliance (which was false); Holland was in the power of France; Prussia and England were isolated, and, if united, were no match for the vast display of power opposed to them. The union between France and Austria was indissoluble (a very questionable statement in view of their opposing interests in the Netherlands); but it might be possible to arouse the jealousy of Catharine against Austria over the suggested partition of Turkey. As for France, she was seeking to make trouble for England everywhere, especially in India and Ireland. But he ended his jeremiad with praises of Pitt for his care of British finances. This tirade was evidently intended to discourage Pitt and to bring him as a suppliant for the alliance of Prussia. For if the Quadruple Alliance were a fact, what was to be gained by the two States remaining in isolation, especially as each of them had annoyed its neighbours? Frederick’s real opinion appeared in the sharp rebuke which he sent to Count Lusi, his envoy at London, for venturing to suggest the desirability of an interview.436

The incident left the Pitt Ministry in worse straits than ever by revealing to all the world the friendless state of England. A note of anxiety may be detected in the letter which Pitt wrote to Harris on 13th October 1785. After referring to the315 growing prosperity of the country, as enhancing its prestige, he added that he would say nothing about Dutch or continental politics—“for they seem in truth still too mysterious to form any conjectures on the turn either of them may ultimately take.”437 The words deserve notice; for they refute the notion that Pitt had formed any definite system.438 His only plan at this time was to wait until the horizon cleared. Much may be said for this cautious opportunism; but it had the disadvantage of leaving us isolated at a time of great danger. We had done enough to incur the displeasure of two most dangerous sovereigns, Catharine and Joseph, but not enough to avert its probable consequences.

For the present, Ministers sought to recover the good will of Catharine. In semblance it was easily procurable. Vorontzoff for a time dangled before Carmarthen the prize of a Russian alliance, and sought to persuade him that the Empress was on the point of proposing it when she heard of Hanover joining the German League. The Austrian envoy, Kazeneck, also assured him that friendship with Russia would be the best means of preventing war with France. Carmarthen seems to have taken these offers at their face value and wrote to Harris that the road from London to Paris lay through Petersburg.439 Similar proposals came from these envoys for some time; and Carmarthen cheered himself with a truly pathetic belief in their honesty.440 Harris also, despite his knowledge of Catharine’s anti-British bias, persisted in hoping for a return of her favour. He even drew up a memorandum recounting the advantages of an Anglo-Russo-Austrian League, for which Carmarthen was already angling; and in particular he deprecated any offer of alliance to Frederick, “unless compelled by events.”441 It is strange that316 Pitt and Carmarthen did not see that the advances of the Imperial Courts were designed merely to keep England and Prussia apart. But, in truth, the fault lay mainly with Frederick the Great, whose spleen was incurable.

Meanwhile the course of events in the Netherlands should have brought Prussia and England to terms. They need not have been public, still less offensive in aim; for that would have brought about a close union of France with Russia as well as Austria, an event which Pitt no less than Frederick sought to avert. But why Pitt and Carmarthen should not have welcomed a secret defensive compact with Prussia it is hard to say. If the princes and counts of Germany did not hesitate to brave the wrath of Joseph by union with Prussia, why should Great Britain? Frederick’s shiftiness may be granted. But at this crisis there was a motive which might be trusted to keep him staunch, namely, self-interest. Both England and Prussia sorely needed an ally; yet they held severely aloof.

In the early autumn of 1785, Joseph II brought severe pressure to bear upon the Dutch to cede Maestricht to him, and to throw open the navigation of the Scheldt below Antwerp. Hostilities were on the point of breaking out, when France skilfully intervened, offered her mediation, and prevailed on the disputants to accept the terms which she offered. By the Treaty of Fontainebleau (8 Nov. 1785) the Emperor agreed to waive his exorbitant claims in consideration of the payment of 15,000,000 florins, for the half of which sum the Court of Versailles became responsible. That so heavily burdened a State should add to its financial difficulties excited some surprise; but in the political sphere Vergennes gained a signal triumph. By becoming paymaster to Joseph, he kept that wayward ruler in French leading strings; and, by saving Maestricht and the Scheldt navigation to the Dutch, he ensured the supremacy of France in that land. This compact was followed two days later by a Franco-Dutch treaty of alliance whereby the Court of Versailles guaranteed the possessions of the United Provinces; and each of the two States undertook to furnish ships and men to the other in case of attack.442

Meanwhile Pitt awoke to a sense of the danger, and urged Harris to use his utmost endeavours (short of an open breach317 with France) to prevent the ratification of the treaty by the United Provinces. All that the envoy could do was to present to the States General at The Hague a Memorial declaring the continued interest taken by England in the affairs of the Republic. But of what avail was this academic statement without a conditional and secret offer of armed support, which everybody knew France would give rather than forego her triumph? Again, early in December, Pitt warned Carmarthen that Harris should “redouble every possible effort” to prevent the Franco-Dutch alliance.443 This was merely to bid him fight with his hands tied.

France now held a most commanding position in Europe. By the new compacts she influenced Hapsburg policy, she forced Frederick the Great into almost abject deference, she allured Catharine, and she controlled the Dutch Netherlands. This last triumph crowned the life-work of Vergennes. The recent treaties relieved him from the disagreeable alternative of choosing between Austria and the United Provinces in case of a rupture. They emphasized the isolation of England. Above all, they prepared the way for joint action of the French and Dutch East India Companies which might prove to be fatal to British ascendancy in India.444

The meagre correspondence of Pitt at this time contains scarcely a reference to this very serious crisis. His letters turn mainly on finance, Irish affairs, and domestic topics such as the purchase of Holwood. On the Dutch problem there is not a word except the curiously curt reference in his letter of October 6 to Grenville: “I have written to Lord Carmarthen on the Dutch business much as you seem to wish.”445 The phrase is interesting as marking the commencement of the influence which Grenville was soon to gain over Pitt in foreign affairs; but its nonchalance is astounding. In part, no doubt, the passivity of the Prime Minister resulted from the determination of George III to hold aloof as King of England from all complications, however318 much, as Elector of Hanover, he might irritate Austria and Russia. As we shall see in the next chapter, George was beginning to be alarmed at the growing expenses of his family, and viewed the Dutch crisis mainly as involving burdensome demands on the Civil List. Here, then, as at so many points in his career, Pitt was handicapped by the King.

But it is also probable that in the disappointing year 1785, marked by the failure of his Reform and Irish measures, he suppressed the concern which he must have felt at the deepening isolation of England. We must remember that he had formed a resolve to play a waiting game in foreign affairs. On August 8 he wrote to the Duke of Rutland that, if the commercial treaty with Ireland became law, and peace lasted for five years, England would be able to look any Power in Europe in the face.446 That explains why he tied the hands of Harris at The Hague and sent to Berlin overtures so cautious as to be received with polite disdain. His great aim was to lessen the National Debt; and the year 1785, with all its disappointments, witnessed a most extraordinary rise in Consols, viz. from 54¼ to 73½. There was the strength of England’s position. If she reduced her debt, while all the Continental Powers were ruinously increasing theirs, she must have the advantage when turmoil ended in war.

Pitt therefore adopted a policy of delay. So long as he could strengthen the navy, maintain the army at the ordinary peace footing, and enhance the nation’s credit, he was content to bide his time, leaving Harris to combat French influence in Holland as best he could.447 Such a policy was very far from brilliant; and, had not France in the next two years entered on a period of rapid decline, he might be censured for tamely waiting on events. For it is possible that a bold initiative at Whitehall in October, while Vergennes’ Dutch treaties were taking shape, might have gained active support either from Prussia or from Joseph II, who had been on very cool terms with France. Pitt, however, preferred to hold back, even though the Bourbons gained control of the United Provinces. By his passivity in face of that diplomatic disaster we may measure his devotion to the cause of peace. And just as Queen Elizabeth often reassured her people at the gravest crisis by displays of frivolity, so too Pitt’s absorption in tree planting at Holwood319 may have been a device for hiding his anxiety, reassuring the public, and preventing a fall in the Funds.

Serene hopefulness in the future of his country is a strong feature in the character of this great man; and we shall find occasions when he displayed this quality to excess. Certain it is that he never lost hope or relaxed his energies, even now, when Ministers and envoys evinced signs of gloom or despair. A proof of the prevalence of these feelings appears in one of the closing passages of a Memorandum which the Duke of Richmond, Master of the Ordnance, on 30th December 1785, sent to his colleague, Carmarthen. It was written owing to a singular circumstance, which reveals the impulsiveness of Pitt. The Duke had almost casually suggested the desirability of recovering some foothold in the Dutch Netherlands by inducing them to propose to include England in their recent treaty with France. This hint, which the Duke threw out in conversation, was at once taken up by Pitt, who, without consulting the Cabinet, urged Carmarthen to take steps to carry it into effect, and suggested that one of the Patriots might be bribed to make the proposal of including England, as if it were to test the sincerity of her offers of friendship. Of course the matter came to nothing; but the surprise of the Duke at Pitt’s speedy adoption of the hint led him to descant on our isolation, and to harp on the well-worn theme of an alliance with Austria:—

Goodwood, December 30, 1785.

... If the Emperor and France keep well together, Leghorn will be also an inimical port,448 as may Algiers and Marocco if their treaties with Spain go on. Holland seems lost to us both in Europe and the East Indies; and should the Emperor and Russia unite with France, Sweden must follow, and Denmark dare not be our friend. Under such circumstances what are we to look for but utter ruin! If France is disengaged on the Continent and assisted by Spain, Holland and Russia (to say nothing of America), we must be attacked with greatly superior forces in the East and West Indies and perhaps in Canada; but, what is still worse, we shall undoubtedly have the war brought into Ireland, and I very much doubt whether we can by any means avoid that country being divided, and a large part acting against us. If any of these points of attack succeed, and above all, if our navy should meet with any disaster from superior forces, the next step will be to bring the war into320 this country, and the best issue of such an event must be attended with much distress. In short, the natural and political advantages of France are such that I very much fear the consequences. To divert her attention by stirring up some powerful enemy on the Continent has been long and universally considered as our only resource, and yet unfortunately we seem to be obstructing the only Power capable of creating that diversion, which is the Emperor....449

It was amidst fears so intense and prejudices so deep-seated that Pitt undertook the negotiations for a friendly commercial treaty with France which is the chief event of the year 1786.



Thy father’s fame with thine fair Truth shall blend.
His vigour saved from foreign foes the land,
Thy prudence makes each foreign foe a friend.
Rev. W. Mason to Pitt, 1786.

The nation is but the family writ large; and, just as families after a ruinous quarrel sometimes win their way back towards prudence and friendliness, so too nations now and again feel the force of the sociable instincts. Such a time was now at hand for Great Britain and France. The eight years of the American War of Independence had increased the debt of the Island Power by £115,000,000;450 and so wasteful had been the conduct of the war by France that in the years 1778–1783, she had exceeded the total of her already large peace expenditure by £66,000,000.451 Further, as that struggle brought to her few results beyond the satisfaction of rending the British Empire in twain, she was scarcely the better for it. In truth, while defeat led patriotic Britons to tread the humble paths of retrenchment and reform, the triumph of France allured her politicians into the stately avenues ending in bankruptcy and Revolution.

During the period of war, philosophy, science, and industry had been waging their peaceful campaigns; and now in the exhaustion or quiescence which beset both peoples, the still small voice of reason was heard. The responsiveness of thought in England and France is one of the most remarkable facts in the eighteenth century. Though political rivalry had five times over embroiled those peoples in deadly strife, yet their thinkers had322 never ceased to feel the thrill of sympathetic ideas, originated by “the natural enemy,” which proved to be no less potent than the divulsive forces of statecraft. The Marconigrams of thought pass through storms, whether atmospheric or political; and it may be that finally the nations will become sounding-boards responding more and more to progressive ideas, and less and less to the passions of mankind.

Certainly the mental sympathy of England and France in that century was strongly marked. As is well known, the philosophy of Locke supplied Voltaire and Rousseau with most of the weapons of their intellectual armoury. From the English constitution Montesquieu drew many of the contentions which lend significance to his Esprit des Lois. The ideas of naturalism and sensibility were wafted hither from the garner of Rousseau. Philanthropy became a force in both lands about the same time but in diverse ways. In France it was in the main anti-clerical, springing from the indignant protests of Voltaire against atrocities such as that inflicted by the Church on Calas. In this land it may be traced to the Wesleyan revival, the motive which impelled Howard, Clarkson, and Wilberforce being distinctly religious.

On a lower plane we notice the immense vogue of English fashions in France, and of French modes in England. Grands seigneurs sought to copy our field sports, swathed themselves in English redingotes, and rose in the stirrups à l’Anglaise. The Duc de Chartres (the future Philippe Egalité) set the rage for English ways and fabrics, so that French industries seriously suffered. In 1785 the French Minister complained to our envoy that French draperies could not be sold unless they looked like English stuffs.452 Britons returned the compliment. They swarmed into France. We find our envoy complaining that English families were settling in every French town, so that it might be well to devise an absentee tax which would drive them homewards.453

But no influence helped on the new cosmopolitanism so much as the spread of ideas of Free Trade. Here the honours lie with French thinkers. It was by residence in France and contact with the Economistes, Quesnay and Turgot, that Adam Smith was able to formulate the ideas soon to be embodied in the323 “Wealth of Nations.” Here we may note a curious paradox. The practical islanders supplied their neighbours with political ideas which, when barbed by Voltaire and Rousseau, did much to gall France into violent action. On the other hand, the more nimble-witted people gave to its trading rival the fiscal principles (neglected at home) which furthered the extension of its commerce. Venomous use might be made of this contrast by that fast diminishing band of Anglophobes who see in all British actions perfidious attempts to ruin France; but it must be remembered that everything depends on the men who introduce and apply the new ideas, and that, whereas France was unfortunate in the men who promulgated and worked the political principles learnt in England, the islanders on the contrary had the wisest of counsellors. Contrast Voltaire, Rousseau, and Robespierre with Adam Smith and Pitt, and the riddle is solved at once.

Amidst the exhaustion of war, both nations were now ready to listen to all that was most convincing in the arguments of the Economistes and of Adam Smith. These exponents of the nascent science of Economics rendered a memorable service to the cause of peace by urging nations, like sensible traders, to rejoice in the prosperity of their neighbours, not in their poverty. Propinquity, said they, should be an incentive to free intercourse, not to hatred. Adam Smith pointed out in his “Wealth of Nations” (1776) that France could offer us a market eight times as populous as that of our North American colonies, and twenty-four times as advantageous if the frequency of the returns were reckoned. The British market, he said, would be equally profitable to France. He laughed to scorn the notion that France would always drain Great Britain of her specie, and showed that the worship of the “balance of trade” was accountable for much folly and bloodshed.454 It is difficult to say whether these views had much hold on the English people. If we may judge from the passions aroused by Pitt’s Irish Resolutions, it was slight. On the other hand the absence of any vehement opposition to the commercial treaty with France a year later, shows either that public opinion here was moving forwards, or that the Opposition felt it impossible to bring to bear on the absolute government of Louis XVI those irritating arguments which had had so potent an influence on the Irish people.


The influence of the Economistes in France probably did not count for very much. But they had shown their power during the brief but beneficent ministry of Turgot; and even when Marie Antoinette procured the dismissal of that able but austere Minister, one of his disciples remained in office, and was now Minister of Foreign Affairs. This was Vergennes. Few men at that time did more for the cause of human brotherhood than this man, whom Carlyle described as “solid phlegmatic ... like some dull punctual clerk.” A man’s importance depends, after all, not so much on external brilliance as on the worth of his achievements; a statesman who largely decided the Franco-American alliance, the terms of peace in 1783, and the resumption of friendly relations with England, need not fear the verdict of history. In a little known fragment written in April 1776, Vergennes thus outlines an intelligent policy:

Wise and happy will that nation be which will be the first to adapt its policy to the new circumstances of the age, and to consent to see in its colonies nothing more than allied provinces and no longer subject States of the mother-land. Wise and happy will that nation be which is the first to be convinced that commercial policy consists wholly in employing lands in the way most advantageous for the owners, also the arms of the people in the most useful way, that is, as self-interest will enjoin if there is no coercion; and that all the rest is only illusion and vanity. When the total separation of America [from Great Britain] has forced everybody to recognize this truth and weaned the European nations from commercial jealousy, it will remove one important cause of war, and it is difficult not to desire an event which ought to bring this boon to the human race.455

Two years later, when France drew the sword on behalf of the Americans, Britons naturally scoffed at these philanthropic pretensions. The conduct of her Court and nobles was certainly open to the charge of hypocrisy, especially when Louis XVI issued the ordinance of 1781 restricting the higher commissions in his army to those nobles who could show sixteen quarters of nobility. Singular, indeed, to battle for democracy in the new world and yet draw tighter the bands of privilege in France! Yet Vergennes, Necker, and other friends of reform were not responsible for this regal folly; and they were doubtless sincere325 in hoping that the downfall of England’s colonial system would inaugurate a new era in the politics and commerce of the world.

A proof of the sincerity of Vergennes is to be found in the 18th Article of the Treaty of Versailles (1783), which stipulated that, immediately after the ratification of the treaty, commissioners should be appointed to prepare new commercial arrangements between the two nations “on the basis of reciprocity and mutual convenience, which arrangements are to be terminated and concluded within the space of two years from the 1st of January 1784.” For this clause Lords Shelburne and Grantham on the British side were chiefly responsible; and it is certain that the former warmly approved it.456 Pitt, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in that Ministry, doubtless also welcomed the proposal; but I have found no sign of his opinions on the subject. The credit for this enlightened proposal may probably be assigned to Vergennes, seeing that he dictated terms, while the British Cabinet accepted them. There is a ring of sincerity in his words written on 1st February 1783 to de Rayneval, then his diplomatic agent in London: “It is an old prejudice, which I do not share, that there is a natural incompatibility between these two peoples.... Every nation must strive for the utmost prosperity; but this cannot be based on exclusiveness, otherwise it would be a nullity. One does not get rich from very poor nations.”457 This seems to be an echo of Adam Smith’s dictum: “A nation that would enrich itself by foreign trade is certainly most likely to do so when its neighbours are all rich, industrious, and commercial nations.”458

Statesmen on this side of the Channel were slower than their rivals in seeking to realize these enlightened aims. The fall of Shelburne’s Ministry and the triumph of the Fox-North Coalition led to no important change in the Treaty, which was signed at Versailles in September 1783; but the commercial treaty was shelved for the present. With all his enlightenment in matters political, Fox had a limited outlook in the commercial sphere. He held the old Whig views, which for wellnigh a century had been narrowly national and mercantilist. Further, he hotly contested the claim put forward by the French326 Government to consider all trading arrangements at an end, including those of the Treaty of Utrecht, if no arrangement were formed before the end of the year 1785.459

Such was the state of things when Pitt and Carmarthen took office at the close of the year 1783. The events described in the previous chapter will have enabled the reader to understand the need of great caution on the part of Pitt. Though the language of Vergennes was redolent of human brotherhood, his actions were often shrewdly diplomatic. In the United Provinces, as we have seen, his policy wore a twofold aspect. While supporting the Patriots, he claimed to be supporting the cause of democracy, but he also dealt a blow at British influence. Though he maintained the Austrian alliance, he coquetted with Prussia; and, while dallying with the Czarina in order to keep out England, he made a profitable bargain with Russia’s enemy, Sweden, respecting Gothenburg. Thus on all sides he advanced the cause of enlightenment and the interests of France.

It is not surprising that this dextrous union of philosophy and statecraft (which resembles that by which Napoleon utilized Rousseau’s advocacy of natural boundaries) earned the hatred of nearly every Briton. Carmarthen and Harris were deeply imbued with these feelings; and it is certain that Pitt, while taking the outstretched hand of Vergennes, half expected a dagger-thrust. We find Grenville writing to Carmarthen on 25th February 1785 concerning a plan, which Pitt had formed, for provisionally buying over a Mr. D. S. M. at Paris to send confidential news, especially respecting the plans and movements of the French in the East Indies. He was to receive 60 guineas a month for news sent to Daniel Hailes, Secretary at the British Embassy, and 250 guineas at the end of three months if his information gave satisfaction.460 Other items make if clear that Pitt viewed with concern the activity of France in the East. The formation of a French East India Company in March 1785 was a threatening sign;461 and in the summer came a report from Sir Robert Ainslie, British ambassador at Constantinople, that France was intriguing to gain a foothold327 in Egypt on the Red Sea. Part of his despatch of 23rd July 1785 is worth quoting:

... The Porte has varied in her general opposition to establishing a trade through Egypt, by opening the navigation of the Red Sea to the flag of Christian Powers. The present undertaking and the late French mission to Cairo was in consequence of a plan devised by the late French ambassador to ruin our East India Company by an illicit trade under the protection of France, in which it was thought the Company’s servants would join most heartily. It is clear that France adopted this scheme, but I can pledge myself the Porte was not consulted and that she will never protect a project by far more dangerous to her own interests than even to ours. It seems Count Priest hoped to elude the Ottoman bad humour by employing the navigation of the flags of all Christian Powers indiscriminately and to secure his trade by the protection of the Beys of Egypt, who certainly have aimed at absolute independence ever since the time of Ali Bey.462

The correspondence of Sir James Harris with Carmarthen shows that our Ministry kept a watchful eye on any symptoms which portended a union of the Dutch East India Company with that of France. Indeed, as we shall see, the reasons which prompted the resolute action of Pitt at the crisis of 1787 in Holland were largely based on naval and colonial considerations. Matters in the East were in an uneasy state. Once again, in January 1786, Hailes reported that the unsettled state of Egypt was known to be attracting the notice of the French Foreign Office, probably with a view to conquest.463 The efforts which France put forth in 1785–6 for the construction of a great naval fortress at Cherbourg also claimed attention; and Britons were not calmed by the philosophic reflections of some peace-loving Gauls that the completion of that mighty harbour would render it impossible for England to make war on France.

* * * * *

In view of the lowering political horizon, is it surprising that Pitt was very cautious in responding to the proposals of the French Cabinet for a friendly commercial treaty? It is incorrect to say, as Harris did in a rather peevish outburst, that Pitt was too occupied with Parliament to attend to foreign affairs.464 We now know that he paid much attention to them,328 though the pressing problems of finance, India, Ireland, and Reform perforce held the first place in his thoughts. But he must have desired to gain a clearer insight into a very complex situation before he committed his country to a commercial treaty with France.465 To have done so prematurely might have prevented the formation of that closer political union with Russia and Austria which British statesmen long and vainly struggled to effect.

But another motive probably weighed even more with Pitt in favour of delay. We have seen how fondly and tenaciously he clung to the hope of a commercial union between Great Britain and Ireland through the session of 1785. Surely it was of prime importance to complete the fiscal system of the British Islands before he entered into negotiations with a foreign Power. To have hurried on the French commercial treaty before that with Ireland was concluded would have been a grave tactical error. As a firm economic unit, Great Britain and Ireland could hope for far better terms from France than as separate entities; and this consideration almost certainly supplies the reason for Pitt’s extreme anxiety to assure the industrial unity of these islands before he began to bargain with France; while it may also explain the desire of Vergennes to press on the negotiation before the British Islands had acquired fiscal solidarity. In fine, everything conspired to impose on Pitt a passive attitude. Vergennes, as the victor, could propose terms; Pitt, representing the beaten Power, could only await them. Such was the situation in 1784–5. An autocracy founded on privilege seemed to be threatening our political existence, and yet made commercial proposals which might have come from Adam Smith himself.

The British Government responded to them very slowly. In the spring of 1784 it appointed George Craufurd to act as our commissioner at Versailles for the drafting of a commercial arrangement, as was required by the treaty of 1783; but he did not receive his instructions until September. Rayneval, who had the full confidence of Vergennes, was the French commissioner; and at their first interview he asked that the principle of reciprocity should form the basis of the negotiations. To this the British Court demurred, and the affair remained in suspense for some months. On 3rd March 1785 Craufurd wrote to Carmarthen329 that he was still waiting for replies to his notes of 30th September and 25th November, and that Vergennes had repeatedly expressed to the Duke of Dorset, the British ambassador, his annoyance at the loss of time. His resentment had recently taken a tangible form; he had issued an ordinance (arrêt) imposing a tax of sixty per cent on all carriages imported from the United Kingdom. This action led Carmarthen to break his long silence on commercial matters and to protest against the tax as tending to “prevent that spirit of conciliation or friendly liberality so necessary at this time to produce any good effect for those commercial arrangements now in contemplation.”466 He also hinted that Great Britain might with perfect justice retaliate. Further, he repudiated the French claim, once again raised, that all commercial arrangements would lapse by the end of 1785, and maintained that the Treaty of Utrecht would afterwards equally be in force. After further delays Rayneval demanded that there should be absolute reciprocity in their commercial dealings, the basis of the most favoured nation being adopted where it did not infringe existing treaties. To this Carmarthen sent the following reply on 5th August:

Mutual benefits and reciprocal advantages are indisputably the objects we are inclined to pursue in the adjustment of this business; but to say at once that the two nations shall be entitled to those privileges which are alone allowed to the most favoured nations, by way of a basis to the negotiation and without weighing the nature and consequence of such privileges is totally impossible; and of this I think M. de Rayneval must be convinced when he recollects that it was a stipulation of this sort contained in the 8th and 9th articles of the Treaty of Commerce of Utrecht in 1713 that prevented those articles from ever being carried into effect.467

Considering that reciprocity and the most favoured nation treatment had been urged by Rayneval at his first interview with Craufurd in September 1784, it is difficult to see why Carmarthen felt flurried by the present proposal.

Meanwhile Vergennes had struck another heavy blow. He issued an arrêt forbidding foreigners to share in the French trade to the Barbary States, and on 10th July he prohibited the import330 of foreign cottons, muslins, gauzes, and linens into France. At once there arose a cry of distress and rage throughout Great Britain; and Carmarthen sent an energetic remonstrance against this further proof of the ill-humour of the French Government. Hailes at once informed him that the two arrêts had “been suspended with more forbearance than could reasonably have been expected, considering the detriment French manufactures have sustained, and the great advantage we have derived from the balance of trade being so much and so long in our favour. People in general think that this strong measure will hasten the conclusion of an arrangement between us.”468 Vergennes soon assured Hailes of his desire for a friendly arrangement, but he added that meanwhile the French Government had to look to its own needs and stop the enormous influx of British goods, for which the French public clamoured. Commerce and finance were then the chief care of the French Government. On 25th August Hailes reported the pains secretly taken by the French to attract skilled English workmen. On 22nd September Craufurd stated that further disagreeable events would happen unless some progress were made with the commercial treaty; Rayneval observed that, if we objected to reciprocity and the most favoured nation basis, it was for us to make a proposal. On 21st October Vergennes issued another unfriendly arrêt prohibiting the import of iron, steel, and cutlery; but Hailes continued to assure Carmarthen that Vergennes and Rayneval were anxious for a final settlement and that the arrêts were “meant to stimulate us to a conclusion of the commercial treaty as soon as possible.”469

Pitt now began to bestir himself on this matter. In order to have at Paris a commissioner abler, or more acceptable, than Craufurd seems to have been, he made overtures to William Eden (the future Lord Auckland) with a view to his acting as special commissioner in his place. In the Auckland Papers at the British Museum there is an unpublished letter of Pitt to Eden, dated Brighthelmstone, 16th October 1785, in answer to one in which Eden had hinted that he would prefer the Speakership of the House of Commons, as Cornwall331 “obviously suffered while in the chair.”470 Pitt’s reply is as follows:

It gives me great satisfaction to find that there remains no obstacle to your acceptance of either of the situations mentioned in my letter to Mr. Beresford, and that nothing seems left to settle but the mode of carrying such an arrangement into effect. I confess I am not aware of any means which could properly be taken to induce the Speaker to retire at present; and therefore in the interval I should very much wish to accelerate the execution of the other idea.471

Pitt then refers to some difficulties which make it desirable to defer the actual appointment until the session had begun. He suggests conferences, especially as in a fortnight he would be nearer to Eden. All this bespeaks a degree of nonchalance quite remarkable considering the importance of the questions at stake. Everything tends to show that Pitt felt far less interest in this negotiation than in that with Ireland, to which he had very properly given the first place. The effort to free trade between the two islands having now failed, there was no reason for further postponing the discussions with France.

Such seems to me the reasonable way of explaining his procedure. The contention of the French historian of this treaty, that Pitt was opposed to the commercial arrangement with France, and was only forced into it by the hostile arrêts, is untenable.472 He maintains that it was the last arrêt, that of 21st October, which brought Pitt to his senses—“Mr. Pitt, who did not then wish for war, surrendered.” This phrase reveals the prejudice of the writer, who, publishing his work at the time of Cobden’s negotiations with Napoleon III, obviously set himself to prove that Free Trade was French both in the origin of the idea and in the carrying out in practice by statesmen. Passing over these claims, we should remember that Pitt had made his first overtures to Eden in the first week in October, some ten days before the appearance of the arrêt, which, in Butenval’s version, compelled him to “surrender.”

Pitt acted with much circumspection. He urged Eden to collect information on trade matters; but it seems that not until December did the new Council of Trade set on foot any official332 inquiries.473 Perhaps the Irish negotiation, which was hurried on too fast, had given him pause. Meanwhile, however, France had gained another success by imposing her mediation on the Emperor Joseph II and the Dutch Government and settling the disputes between them. As appeared in the previous chapter, this treaty led to the conclusion of an alliance (10th November 1785) both political and commercial, with the United Provinces, which emphasized the isolation of England and secured the Dutch markets for France. Thus the delay in meeting the advances of Vergennes had been doubly prejudicial to British interests, and it must be confessed that Pitt’s début in European diplomacy was far from brilliant.

If, however, we look into details, we find that Carmarthen hampered the negotiations at the outset by refusing to accept the “most favoured nation” basis of negotiation, and by throwing on France the responsibility for not proposing some “practicable” scheme. On 14th October 1785 he wrote to Hailes that Great Britain very much desired a commercial treaty with France, and was waiting for “specific proposals” from her; and again, on 4th November, that matters seemed hopeless, owing to Rayneval’s obstinate adherence to his original scheme.474 This pedantic conduct was fast enclosing the whole affair in a vicious circle. Meanwhile the sands of time were running out: and it seemed that England would be left friendless and at the mercy of any commercial arrangement which France chose to enforce after the close of the year. It is strange that Pitt did not insist on the furtherance of a matter which he judged to be “of great national importance.”475 But his only step for the present was to write a letter, signed by Carmarthen, asking for an extension of time beyond the end of that year. In reply Vergennes expressed the satisfaction of Louis XVI that Great Britain was seriously desirous of framing a commercial treaty and granted six months’ extension of time.476 A year was finally granted.

Notwithstanding this further proof of Vergennes’ good will, the negotiation began under conditions so unfavourable to Great Britain as to call for a skilled negotiator; but the career of333 William Eden warranted the hope that he would bear the burden of responsibility triumphantly. Born in 1744, and educated at Eton and Christchurch, he early showed marked abilities, which were sharpened by practice at the Bar. He also devoted his attention to social and economic questions; and when, in 1780, he became Chief Secretary for Ireland under the Earl of Carlisle, he did much to promote the prosperity of that land, especially by helping to found the Bank of Ireland. He took keen interest in the treatment of prisoners, and proposed to substitute hard labour for transportation. The reform of the penal laws also engaged his attention. He had long been attached to Lord North’s party, though his views were more progressive than theirs. By his marriage with the sister of Sir Gilbert Elliot he came into touch with the Whigs; and, though his petulant conduct in 1782 with regard to the resignation of the lord-lieutenancy by Carlisle caused general annoyance, he was largely instrumental in bringing about the Fox-North Coalition. Consistency sat lightly upon Eden; and when, in 1785, he hotly opposed Pitt’s Irish proposals, similar in effect to his own of some years earlier, he was roundly abused by one of his friends for his factiousness.477 The same correspondent soon had cause to upbraid him still further for his conduct in the autumn of 1785, when, leaving the Opposition, he went over to the Government side in order to act as special commissioner at Paris. The Duke of Portland coldly commended him for placing country above party; but the many saw in the move only enlightened self-interest and felt no confidence in him. Wraxall expressed the prevalent opinion when he said that there “existed in Eden’s physiognomy, even in his manner and deportment, something which did not convey the impression of plain dealing or inspire confidence.”478

Undoubtedly Eden was the ablest negotiator whom Pitt could have chosen for a difficult commercial bargain; Wedgwood at once wrote to say that he would have been his choice; and the remarks as to Pitt filching away a prominent member of the Opposition are clearly prompted by spite. After hearing much evidence on commercial matters at the Committee of Council, Eden set out for Paris at the end of March 1786, and was welcomed by Vergennes as a kindred soul. The Duke of Dorset334 was somewhat offended at his coming, and held aloof. Fortunately he found it desirable to take a long holiday in England, during which time the affairs of the embassy were ably carried on by Eden and Hailes. A popular song of the day referred to this in the lines:

For Dorset at cricket can play
And leave Billy Eden in France, sir.

Dorset’s services were, in fact, mainly social. He was liked by Marie Antoinette; and his thés dansants were frequented by the leading nobles.479

On Eden, then, and Pitt (for Carmarthen felt no trust in the French) lay the chief burden of the negotiations. It is clear that Pitt now took a keen interest in the affair; and as Vergennes, Rayneval, and Calonne (Minister of Finance) showed a marked desire to come to a fair compromise, the matter was soon in good train. The chief difficulties arose from the suspicions of Carmarthen and the desire of Jenkinson, head of the Council of Trade, to drive a hard bargain with France. Pitt could not be indifferent to the opinions of his colleagues; and his experience of British manufacturers was such as to make him press for the best possible terms. That he still felt some distrust of the Court of Versailles is clear from his letter of 19th April 1786 to Eden that their financial embarrassments were such as “to secure, at least for a time, a sincere disposition to peace.”480 By that time, too, he must have received Eden’s letter of 13th April marked “Private and confidential,” which referred in glowing terms to the prospects of the negotiation:

It is a circumstance which I shall think a just subject of pride to us both in the present age and of merit with posterity if the result should be what at this moment seems probable.... France shows a disposition to encourage our trade if we remove the senseless and peevish distinctions which fill so many lines in our Book of Rates; and a decided resolution to obstruct it as much as possible if those distinctions are suffered to remain. In the same time all the speculations and exertions of our trade with this Kingdom are suspended, and the manufactures, the navigation and the revenue are suffering. Besides, all the trading335 and manufacturing parts of England are at this hour disposed to go much greater lengths than are now suggested.... It is even highly possible that this treaty may form a new epoch in history.481

Over against the enthusiasm of Eden we may set the distrust of Carmarthen, as evinced in his statement to that envoy on 29th April, that if France could ever be sincere, Eden would doubtless bring the bargain to a successful issue.482 Far less complimentary were his references to Eden in private letters to Dorset and Harris. From the former he inquired: “How is our paragon of perfection relished in France?”483 In a letter to Harris, who constantly maintained that Eden was playing the game for Versailles, not for London, Carmarthen referred to “the absurd and officious letter of our great commercial negotiator.”484 It is well to remember these jealousies; for, as Harris was the bosom friend of Carmarthen, he succeeded in persuading him that the whole negotiation with France was a trick of our arch-enemy. The letter of Harris, which called forth Carmarthen’s ironical reply, ended with the statement that France sought “to depress us everywhere, to keep us in an isolated and unconnected state, till such time as they think they can cripple us irrecoverably by an open hostile attack.”485 These suspicions must have been passed on to Pitt after due sifting; and it speaks much for the evenness and serenity of his mind that he persevered with the negotiation in spite of the prejudices of his Foreign Minister. Naturally, also, he kept the affair in his own hands.

In truth, Pitt occupied a position intermediate between that of the incurably suspicious Carmarthen and of the pleased and rather self-conscious Eden. When the latter very speedily arrived at a preliminary agreement, or Projet, with Rayneval, and begged that it should be adopted as speedily, and with as few alterations as possible, Pitt subjected it to friendly but close scrutiny. His reply of 10th May has been printed among the Auckland Journals; but his criticisms were even more practical in a long letter of 26th May, which is among the Pitt Papers. The following sentences are of special interest:


The Principles on which the Projet is founded are undoubtedly those on which it is to be wished that this business may be finally concluded, both as they tend to the mutual advantage of the two Countries in their commercial intercourse, and as they include the abolition of useless and injurious distinctions. But on the fullest consideration it has not appeared to His Majesty’s servants that it would be proper to advise the immediate conclusion of a treaty on the footing of that Projet without some additions to it which may tend to give a more certain and permanent effect to these principles.... In addition to this, the Projet, as it now stands affords no security that general prohibitions or prohibitory duties may not at any time take place in either Country to the exclusion of whatever may happen to be the chief articles of trade from the other. It is true that the same motives which should guide both parties in the present negotiation might for a long time prevent their adopting a conduct so contrary to the spirit of the proposed agreement. But it cannot be the wish of either Court to trust to this security only. We ought by all the means in our power to remove even the possibility of future jealousy on these subjects. And it appears from the observations of the French Government on the first sketch of this Projet that they felt the force of this remark. There can therefore be no doubt of their readiness to concur in anything which can give it a greater degree of stability and certainty. And we shall probably arrive sooner at the great object—a solid and comprehensive settlement of the commercial intercourse between the two countries than by beginning with a Preliminary Treaty, unexceptionable indeed in its principles, but which would necessarily reserve some very important points for separate discussion, and would in the meantime leave the whole system incomplete and precarious.486

Pitt then pointed out to Eden that the discussion of a compact of a temporary nature would tend to unsettle the minds of traders and perhaps even to discredit the whole undertaking. Accordingly he enclosed a Declaration, which comprised the substance of the French Projet, but gave it a more permanent form and set limits to the duties which might thereafter be levied. The letter shows that he had got over his first suspicions and was now working for a more thorough and permanent settlement than that sketched by Rayneval. The draft of the British Declaration is in Pitt’s writing—a proof that he had taken this matter largely into his own hands. The replies of Eden to him are both long and frequent; but most of those preserved in the British Museum are too faded to be legible. In that of 6th June he warned Pitt337 that France was ready to settle matters on friendly terms, but, as there were many intrigues against the treaty, Pitt should conclude it promptly. More favourable terms might possibly be gained for British cottons and steel; but it would be best not to press the Versailles Cabinet too hard.487

Pitt, however, refused to hurry matters. Indeed, the only part of this long effusion which he heeded, seems to have been that respecting steel and cottons. He further distressed Eden by his action with regard to silks. Under pressure from the London silk-workers, he found it necessary to continue to exclude all foreign silk-goods,488 which caused Eden to remark on 17th June: “With what face I am to propose the admission of English cottons and the exclusion of French silks I do not well foresee.”489

Most of the official letters between Pitt and Eden will be found in Lord Auckland’s Journals. We will therefore glance only at some of their letters which have not been published. They show that Pitt sought by all possible means to lessen the duties on British cottons and hardware imported into France, and that he demurred to the abrogation of the Methuen Treaty with Portugal (1703) which had accorded to her wines exceptionally favourable treatment. Discussions on these and other topics were retarded by the long debates at Westminster concerning the Sinking Fund and Warren Hastings: so that on 13th July Eden ironically informed Pitt that all his letters to him since 10th June had miscarried. The close of the session (11th July) left Pitt freer for diplomatic affairs; he threw himself into the bargaining with much zest, and Eden more than once hinted that a great outcry would arise in France if their Ministers gave way to our demands.

Nevertheless, Pitt struggled hard to obtain the best possible terms not only for Great Britain but also for Ireland. Despite Eden’s repeated appeals for urgency, he asked the Duke of Rutland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to induce the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Speaker, and Beresford to come to London for the purpose of advising him on several matters that concerned338 Ireland, especially as to the admission or exclusion of French linens. This further delay wrung Eden’s heart, and he wrote on 31st August: “Your political courage goes beyond mine, for I suppose that you look without anxiety on this fortnight’s delay, which we are giving. In truth, if it is given in politeness to Ireland, it is a great compliment; for it is impossible to do more for Ireland than we have done.”490 He then made the noteworthy prophecy that, as the treaty could not possibly adjust all the topics relating to the trade of Britain and Ireland, it would lead up to a right settlement between the two islands. Certainly Eden equalled Pitt in foresight, however much he fell short of him in coolness, determination, and bargaining power.

These qualities appear very forcibly in the Anglo-French negotiation. It is probable that Pitt bargained too closely; but the reason is apparent if one looks at the scores of petitions that reached him from alarmed manufacturers. Lancashire was well to the front in its demands for favourable terms; and we therefore find Pitt holding out for only a 5 per cent. duty in France on British cottons. To this Rayneval retorted by claiming at least 20 per cent.—“M. de Vergennes was of opinion,” wrote Eden, “for 15 per cent., and M. de Calonne, after much dispute, and by the aid of a paper in which I had urged for 5 per cent., split the difference and carried it for 10 (but with great doubts).”491 Calonne, the cheerful and prodigal Controller of Finances, now began to take a closer interest in the treaty; he inveighed against Pitt for prohibiting French silks while expecting the almost free entry of British cottons, and said that there were 60,000 workers at Lyons who would curse him for this treaty. This explains why the French negotiators once again held out for 15 per cent., and, when that was rejected by Pitt, finally fixed it at 12 per cent.

Pitt also struggled to gain easier terms for Irish linens in France, and suggested that if this were conceded, the Dublin Parliament would probably accept the Anglo-French treaty in toto.492 On the subject of hardware Pitt fought for the interests of Birmingham, as appears in the draft of a long despatch to Eden, of 4th September, with many corrections and additions in his339 writing. Very significant is the last sentence, which is in his hand:

If you cannot obtain a reduction to 5 or 7½ per cent. on iron, copper, or brass, you will endeavour to gain it on iron alone, that being a point which H.M.’s servants have most earnestly at heart, and in which the reasoning above stated seems conclusive in our favour. This is a point to be pressed to the utmost, but if you should find it absolutely impossible to carry it, it should not ultimately prevent your signing the treaty.493

The treaty, signed at Versailles on 26th September 1786, may be thus summarized: It granted complete freedom of navigation and trading rights between the two nations for their European dominions. The subjects of either kingdom were thenceforth free to enter the lands of the other without licence or passport, and free of any capitation tax—a privilege most unusual in those days—and to enjoy perfect religious liberty. In regard to the most important of French exports, namely, wine, Great Britain agreed to place her neighbour on the footing of the most favoured nation by lowering the duties to the level of those imposed on Portuguese wines. The duties on French vinegar and oil were also greatly reduced. The following articles nominally concerned both nations, but in practice applied almost entirely to British imports into France. Hardware, cutlery, and similar goods were not to pay more than 10 per cent.; cottons, woollens, muslins, lawns, cambrics, and most kinds of gauzes, not more than 12 per cent.; but silks, or articles partly silken, were prohibited as formerly. Linens were reciprocally to be charged at no higher rates than those levied on Dutch linens imported into Ireland, that is, at “the most favoured nation” rates. Sadlery, porcelain, pottery, and glass of all kinds, were to pay no more than 12 per cent. The highest impost retained was 30 per cent., levied on beer, perhaps because the interchange of that product was certain to be small. Countervailing duties might, however, be placed on certain articles. In the concluding forty articles of the treaty (one of the longest and most complex ever signed), the contracting Powers sought to lay down principles or regulations for the avoidance of disputes with respect to contraband and prohibited340 goods, smuggling, privateering, the suppression of piracy, and other subjects. They also left themselves free to revise the treaty at the end of twelve years. It is noteworthy that each of the contracting Powers affirmed the principle of seizing and confiscating the goods of the other Power when found on an enemy’s merchantman, provided that they were embarked after the declaration of war.494

The treaty disappointed the hopes of some enthusiasts, who hoped that it might include some proviso for arbitration. Among these was William Pulteney, who, on 14th September, wrote to Pitt in terms that deserve to be remembered. After pointing out the futility of prohibitive edicts, he continued:

It is to be considered whether this is not a good opportunity to ingraft upon this treaty some arrangement that may effectually tend to prevent future wars at least for a considerable time. Why may not two nations adopt, what individuals often adopt who have dealings that may lead to disputes, the measure of agreeing beforehand that in case any differences shall happen which they cannot settle amicably, the question shall be referred to arbitration. The matter in dispute is seldom of much real consequence, but the point of honour prevents either party from yielding, but if it is decided by third parties, each may be contented. The arbitrators should not be sovereign princes; but might not each nation name three judges, either of their own courts of law, or of any other country, out of whom the opposite nation should choose one, and these two hear the question and either determine it or name an umpire—the whole proceedings to be in writing? This would occasion the matter to be better discussed than is commonly done, and would give time for the parties to cool and most probably reconcile them to the decision, whatever it might be.

It has frequently occurred to my mind that, if France and England understood each other, the world might be kept in peace from one end of the globe to the other. And why may they not understand each other? I allow that France is the most intriguing nation upon earth; that they are restless and faithless; but is it impossible to show them that every object of their intrigue may be better assured by good faith and a proper intelligence with us, and might we not arrange everything together now so as completely to satisfy both?...495

Pitt, we may note, had sought to take a first step towards the341 limitation of armaments, by suggesting that the two Powers should lessen their squadrons in the East Indies; but to this Vergennes, on 1st April 1786, refused his assent.496 Seeing, too, that France was pressing on the works at Cherbourg, and forming an East India Company on a great scale, Pitt naturally restricted his aims to the establishment of friendly commercial relations. The progress made in this respect was immense. Powers recently at war had never before signed a treaty containing provisions of so wide a scope, and so intimate a character; and lovers of peace hailed it as inaugurating a new era of goodwill. “People in general,” wrote the Duke of Dorset, from London, to Mr. Eden, “are very much pleased with your treaty: the principal merchants in the City don’t choose to give an opinion about it; anything, if novel, is apt to stupify merchants.... I never saw the King in such spirits: they rise in proportion to the stocks, which are beyond the sanguine expectations of everybody.”497 The rise in Consols gave the verdict of the City in unmistakable terms, and it was generally endorsed. On 20th November the Marquis of Buckingham wrote: “My accounts are that all manufacturers are run wild in speculation. Our wool has felt it already.”498 A few cranks like Lord George Gordon declaimed against Pitt for selling his country to the French, but the majority of thinking men, even in the Chamber of Manufacturers, thankfully accepted the treaty. A Glasgow manufacturer wrote to Eden that Great Britain, having the best wool, the best iron, the best clays for pottery, the best coal, and by far the best machinery in the world, would soon beat the French in their own market.499 This was the general opinion. Those who held it said nothing, but set to work to regain in France herself the market of which she had deprived us in America. The state of Great Britain and of France in the year 1789 showed which were the more durable, the triumphs of war or of peace.

Nevertheless, there was some opposition in the House of Commons. Early in the session of 1787, Fox brought forward the question of the treaty and pressed for delay, so that the feeling of the country might be ascertained. To this Pitt demurred, on the ground that members had had ample time to consider the342 questions at issue, and that trade would suffer from the continuance of the present uncertainty. The arts which had undermined Pitt’s compact with Ireland were now once more practised. Burke twitted the Prime Minister with looking on the affairs of two great nations in a counting-house spirit; and the Chamber of Manufacturers, in which opinions were divided, sought to frighten members by a petition setting forth “the serious and awful importance of the treaty ... comprehending a prodigious change in the commercial system of this country.”500 This stage thunder was speedily divested of its terrors by Pitt pointing out that four months had elapsed since the signing of the treaty, and yet the Chamber of Manufacturers had remained silent until that day (12th February). After showing that neither our old ally, Portugal, nor our manufacturers had cause for alarm, Pitt raised the question to a high level in a passage which furnished a dignified retort both to the gibe of Burke, and to those who denounced trade with our traditional enemy: “To suppose,” he said, “that any nation can be unalterably the enemy of another is weak and childish. It has its foundation neither in the experience of nations nor in the history of man. It is a libel on the constitution of political societies, and supposes the existence of diabolical malice in the original frame of man.” Then, coming once more to practical considerations, he affirmed that, though the treaty was advantageous to France, it would be more so to us.501

In reply, Fox made one of the worst speeches of his career. He asserted twice over that France was the natural enemy of this land, owing to her overweening pride and boundless ambition; and that by means of the present treaty she sought to tie our hands and prevent us engaging in any alliances with foreign powers. Portugal, he said, was now made a sacrifice and peace-offering to France. The House refused to follow the vagaries of the Whig leader by 258 votes to 118; and the provisions of the treaty were passed in Committee by substantial majorities within a fortnight. The treaty passed the Lords on 6th March by 74 votes to 24.502 In due course the treaty was ratified, and343 the ports on both sides of the Channel were opened to free commercial intercourse on 10th May 1787.

Pitt undoubtedly erred in proclaiming his conviction that the treaty was more advantageous to Great Britain than to France. He clinched his triumph in Parliament, but he imperilled the treaty; and it is noteworthy that he made that statement after Eden had warned him not to do so.503 It was a weakness of which he was rarely guilty. The French negotiators had often pointed out that they were running a great risk of inflicting much harm on their industries. This was sober truth. Indeed, their general acquiescence in Pitt’s requests has always been a puzzle; for the belief of Vergennes in Free Trade was not shared by the other Ministers, except perhaps by Calonne; and it was certain that the manufacturers of Rouen, Amiens, and Lille would cry out against the sudden change from prohibition to a 12 per cent. duty on textiles.

Daniel Hailes set himself to solve the riddle for the satisfaction of the ever distrustful Carmarthen, who, on 29th September 1786, wrote to him privately: “our suspicions of the good faith and friendly professions of France in political matters ought to be in exact proportion to the facility she may have evinced upon matters purely commercial.” He further suggested that her aim was perhaps to sever our good relations with States with which we had political and commercial ties.504 Hailes, doubtless taking his cue from his chief, thereupon sought to find out the motives which had influenced the French Ministry, and summed up his conclusions in a long report. It gives an interesting but somewhat jaundiced account of affairs in that very critical year 1786—the year of the Diamond Necklace scandal and of the decision to convoke the Chamber of Notables for the rectification of abuses too deep-seated for Louis XVI to uproot. The report is too long to quote here except in its most important passage; but we may glance at its salient features. Hailes pointed out that France suffered nearly as much as England from the late war, which left her with a National Debt almost exactly equal to that of her rival; also that the hopes of Frenchmen to gain the trade of the United States had been blighted. The Court of Versailles had, moreover, not exercised “the wise management of venality and the344 œconomy of corruption and favor” which would have satisfied most of the privileged classes. Its partiality was as notorious as its extravagance; and the failure of the old commercial prohibitive system, as also of the recent prohibitive arrêts, was probably due to the corruption prevalent in Court and official circles; for, to quote Hailes’s words:

Every one having credit enough with the great, or the mistresses of the great, to procure an exemption, would not have failed to apply for it in favour of some dependent or other. It seems therefore probable that the French Government felt its own inability to give effect to its prohibitory laws against the importation of British manufactures, and in that respect, at all events, they may be said to have been gainers by the treaty.

But I think I can take upon me to assure your Lordship that there exists another and no less principal cause of the eagerness of France to conclude the commercial arrangement. I mean that of the immediate relief of the Trésor Royal by the increase of the Revenue, an increase which, it may be presumed, will prove immense, from the sudden influx of all sorts of British merchandise paying the legal duties, as soon as the Treaty shall take effect. If this opinion should prove to be well grounded (and from the attention which I have paid to the late conduct of the Comptroller General [Calonne] I am much inclined to think it is) it will be a strong mark of the corruption of that Minister, who sacrifices to an immediate and temporary resource the dearest interests of his country.505

We need not lay much stress on the personal arguments here adduced; for Hailes may have been unduly influenced by the partisans of Necker or Breteuil, who were always at feud with Calonne. It is probable that Vergennes and Calonne were swayed by a deeper motive, namely, the desire to keep England quiet and friendly while they laid their schemes with a view to the ascendency of France in the Dutch affairs soon to be described, and thereafter to the combination of their efforts for the overthrow of British power in the East. Such an aim is consonant with the philosophic thoroughness of the character of Vergennes and the ambition of his showy colleague. Whether Pitt suspected some such design is uncertain; that Carmarthen did so can admit of no doubt.


Much, however, may be said for Hailes’s views. It is generally admitted that the prodigal Calonne sacrificed very much in order to stand well with the Queen’s party, and that his ardent desire was to put a good face on things at the time of the Assembly of the Notables early in 1787. There was every reason for his concern. The future of France depended on the docility of the Notables. If they were so far satisfied with the state of affairs as to pass the reforms desired by the King and Vergennes, the crisis which led up to the Revolution might have ended peacefully. Unjust taxation, constant deficits, and national bankruptcy were among the chief causes of the Revolution. Of course, Vergennes and Calonne could not foresee events; but they knew that the future was gloomy in the extreme unless the Notables induced the privileged classes to take up their fair share of the financial burdens. If Ministers were able to point to increased customs returns, the decline of smuggling, and the cementing of friendly relations with England, the Notables and the nobles at large might prove amenable to reason (for Anglomania was still the fashion); and all might yet go well. In these considerations probably lies the key to the conduct of the French Ministry in the later stages of the negotiation of 1786. With Vergennes the treaty was probably a matter of principle; to Calonne it was a device adopted in the course of that daring game of “neck or nothing,” on which he staked the destinies of France. Though he was the chief sinner, Government and people alike behaved with incredible levity. Alvensleben, reporting on the situation at Versailles in November 1787, said: “Everything here is a matter of ceremony, clothes, varnish, phrases, national boasting, tinsel, intrigues; and everything is finally decided by forms.”506

This scathing report was written after France had lost her one able statesman. Vergennes died shortly before the Notables assembled; and they, having to deal with an irresolute King and a political gamester, turned a deaf ear to counsels of Reform. Probably, too, they were influenced by the outcry against the commercial treaty, for it was general in all manufacturing centres, and did not pass away, as was the case in Great Britain. The Rouen Chamber of Commerce instituted an inquiry, the outcome of which was a report affirming the marked superiority of346 British textile goods to those of France, and the impossibility of competing with them on the basis of the 12 per cent. duty. An able writer, Dupont de Nemours, gave an effective answer to the report; but, as generally happens in such cases, the defence attracted less attention than the attack.507 We must further remember that merchants who lived under an oppressive system of taxation had every possible reason for “crying poor.” Complaints against the commercial treaty were hurled at Arthur Young in every French manufacturing town which he visited in his tours of 1787 and 1788. Abbeville, Amiens, Lille, and Lyons declared against it in varying tones of anger or despair; the wine districts alone were loud in its praise.508 Undoubtedly the French textile industries suffered severely for a time. The taste for English goods continued to depress home products, and that, too, despite the efforts of Marie Antoinette to set the fashion for the latter. In 1788 as many as 5,442 looms were idle in Lyons; but it is to be observed that this crisis was due either to the continued smuggling of English silk goods, to the preference for our fine cottons, or to the failure of the silk harvest in that year. The last cause was probably the most important.509 The woollen and cotton trades alone could have been directly affected by the treaty. In them the conditions were undoubtedly bad in the years 1787, 1788. At Troyes 443 looms were not worked out of 2,600, and that proportion was usual throughout the east and north of France.

M. Levasseur, however, who has carefully investigated the causes of this crisis, attributes it largely to the utter prostration of public credit in France, and the issue of a coinage of doubtful value. The bad harvest of 1788, followed by a terribly cold winter, also intensified the distress. He concludes that, even so, the commercial treaty might ultimately have been advantageous to certain parts of the industrial economy of France; but it was applied suddenly in a time of political unsettlement and general distress.510

We must also remember that Calonne had for many months been squandering the resources of France. In accordance with347 his motto: “In order to establish public credit one must cultivate luxury,” he had raised loan upon loan in time of peace, and it has been estimated that in the forty-one months of his term of office (1783–87) he borrowed 650,000,000 francs (£26,000,000).511 No fiscal experiment can have a fair chance under such conditions; and it is therefore a violation of the laws of evidence to assert that the Commercial Treaty of 1786 was the chief cause of the French Revolution.

Summing up the facts concerning this most interesting treaty, we may conclude that the honour of originating it undoubtedly belongs firstly to Vergennes, secondly to Shelburne, and only in the third place to Pitt. It is clear that the French statesman worked steadily for it during the negotiations of 1783, and used all available means to bring it about even while Pitt showed no responsive desire. As has been shown above, the young Prime Minister had good reasons for not taking the matter up seriously until the autumn of 1785. Indeed it would have been a tactical mistake to press on the commercial compact with France until he had put forth every effort to unite Ireland with Great Britain by intimate trade relations. When those endeavours were frustrated by ignorance and faction, he turned towards France, but slowly and suspiciously. Not until the negotiation was far advanced did he show much eagerness on the subject. But it is the mark of a great Minister to keep a firm grasp upon colleagues and subordinates at all important points; and Pitt saw the futility of Carmarthen’s prejudices no less than the possible danger of Eden’s Gallophile enthusiasm.

The hostile actions of the French agents in Holland, to which we must soon recur, made him cautious on matters purely political; and, while pushing on the commercial treaty, which Carmarthen looked on as a trap, he took care to subject the ardent fancies of Eden to cold douches like the following: “Though in the commercial business I think there are reasons for believing the French may be sincere, I cannot listen without suspicion to their professions of political friendship.”512 As we shall see in the next chapters, Pitt generally treated with wholesome scepticism the alarmist news sent by Harris from The Hague. But the tidings from that quarter enabled Pitt to assess at their due value the philanthropic professions of the salons of348 Paris. Not that he was indifferent to the golden hopes of that age. After the treaty was signed he gave expression to his hopes in words pulsating with a noble enthusiasm; but, while it was under discussion, he showed the balance of mind and keenness in bargaining which characterize a great statesman. We may also remark here that Pitt sought earnestly to bring about a favourable commercial treaty with Spain and Russia, but failed. The Czarina showed her hostility by granting to France a treaty on the basis of the most favoured nation.513

Finally, we may hazard the conjecture that, if the finances of France had received from the Court of Versailles and Calonne a tithe of the fostering care which Pitt bestowed on those of Great Britain, both countries would have profited equally from the free commercial and social intercourse inaugurated by this memorable compact. As it was, France slid fast down the slope that led to the chasm of Revolution; and in the midst of that catastrophe Robespierre and his followers, who represented the prejudices of the northern manufacturing towns, spread abroad the spiteful falsehood that Pitt’s commercial policy had ever been aimed at the financial ruin of the French nation.


THE DUTCH CRISIS (1786, 1787)

If we lose the Netherlands, France will acquire what she has always considered as the climax of her power.—Sir James Harris, 1st May, 1787.

His Majesty wishes only the preservation of the independence and true constitution of the [Dutch] Republic.—The Marquis of Carmarthen, 29th June, 1787 (B. M. Add. MSS., 35539).

We have interrupted our survey of Pitt’s foreign policy in order to present a connected account of that interesting episode, the commercial treaty with France. But this event took place in a year which witnessed the growth of a crisis so serious as to threaten ruin to that constructive effort. The crisis arose from the sharp conflict of interests between Great Britain and France in Dutch affairs, as described in Chapter XIII. As no adequate account has yet appeared in English on this question, I propose to treat it on a scale proportionate to its importance.

The reader will remember that the feuds between the Patriots, abetted by France and the Stadholder’s party, had already aroused keen interest at London and Paris; that our able envoy, Harris, had bravely waged an unequal campaign for the Prince and Princess of Orange—unequal, because Pitt persistently forbade him to commit this country to the defence of their cause, though sentiment and policy linked it to that of England. Further, the general situation of the Powers then seemed irretrievably to doom the Prince’s fortunes. Frederick the Great, in his desire to keep on good terms with France, refused to help his niece, Wilhelmina, Princess of Orange. Austria was allied with France, and Russia with Austria. Finally, neither Pitt nor the Marquis of Carmarthen deemed it possible to frame an alliance with Prussia; and all the advances which they made to the Czarina, Catharine II, and the Emperor Joseph II, were coldly350 repelled. In fact, no Power cared for an alliance with England. The conclusion of the Franco-Dutch alliance of November 1785 seemed to close all doors against her. When the fortunes of a State have been on the decline, it is very hard to stop the downward movement. That was the position of Great Britain early in the year 1786.

The only sources of hope seemed to be in the imminence of the death of Frederick and in the outrageous actions of the Dutch Patriots. Their violent support of provincial rights and hatred of the Stadholder and his mildly centralizing policy were carried to strange lengths. The Estates of Holland decreed that no Orange songs were to be sung, and no Orange colours worn. Harris relates that a woman came near to be hanged for the latter offence. Even the vendor of carrots was suspect unless he left the roots in a protective coating of soil. To a home-loving people like the Dutch these pedantries became ever more hateful. The bovine character of the Stadholder was to some extent a safeguard; for who could reasonably claim that his colossal powers of inaction would ever be a danger to the Republic? It is fairly certain that he had the allegiance of the rural population everywhere, even in the Province of Holland; but the populace of the large towns was overwhelmingly on the side of the Patriots; and the Estates of Holland (a province which contained more than half the population, and more than half the wealth, of the whole Union) decidedly opposed him.514 Of the smaller provinces, Guelderland, Zealand, and Friesland supported the Stadholder. Utrecht was torn with schism on this subject, the rural districts cleaving to him, while the city of Utrecht broke away, and defied his authority. As Pitt forbade Harris to take any step which would commit England to the defence of the Stadholder, that envoy continued to play an apparently hopeless game. But his skill, resource, his commanding personality, and occasional bribes, enabled him to continue the struggle, even in democratic Holland. His great difficulty was that France in April 1786 had let it be known that she would allow no other Power to interfere in Dutch affairs, and would forcibly oppose any such attempt. To strive against the Patriots while351 they had a ground of confidence utterly denied to their opponents, was to condemn Harris to struggle against great odds, and never has an unequal fight been more gallantly fought. The worst symptom was the rise of bodies of armed burghers, styled Free Corps, which soon attained considerable strength. Encouraged by success, the Patriots sought to depose William V outright, and proclaimed the Princess Regent during the minority of her son. She rejected this scheme with indignation. Failing here, they struck at the authority of the Prince by procuring from the Estates of Holland his deposition from the command of the regular troops of that province. This blow could not be parried; and it dealt consternation among the loyalists.

There was no hope of help from Frederick the Great. For the reasons previously stated he had hardened his heart against all the appeals that came from the Princess of Orange; and she finally rejected with scorn his advice that she should come to terms with the Patriots and France. On 16th May 1786 Harris summed up the relations of Prussia to France and Holland in this sprightly way:

“Prussia says to France ‘Do what you please in Holland, but leave at least the appearance of a Stadholderian Government.’—France replies—‘We shall lose the confidence and support of the Patriots and with it our whole influence in the Republic if we mention the word “Stadholder”; take from us the odium of the measure by declaring you cannot see him deposed. We then may, without displeasing our friends, espouse his cause to a certain degree, and we shall both be satisfied.’”515

While the welter was ever increasing in this once prosperous land, there came a gleam of hope from the East. On 17th August 1786 Frederick the Great was gathered to his fathers, and his nephew Frederick William II reigned in his stead. As Prince Royal he had spoken warmly of his resolve to right the wrongs of his sister, the Princess of Orange; but as King he disappointed her hopes. His character was despicable. Extravagance and dissipation were accountable for private debts amounting to one million sterling at the time of his accession and soon352 after to three-quarters of a million more.516 But his irresolution was of more serious consequence. A vicious man may excel as a ruler; an unstable man, never. Frederick William had scarcely a feature in common with the masterful race of the Hohenzollerns. The contrast between him and his uncle was startling. In place of that silent, cynical, and dogged ruler, Berlin and Sans-Souci rejoiced in a handsome, affable monarch, who seemed made to win the hearts of all at first sight and to lose them on closer acquaintance. For it was found that with him work and policy depended on whims and moods. Swaying to and fro between energy and sloth, violence and timidity, he disconcerted his Ministers, until they came to see that the King’s resolves were as fleeting as his feelings. After the first flush of activity wore away, languor pervaded every bureau of that centralized autocracy. On 6th January 1787 Lord Dalrymple, our ambassador at Berlin, wrote of the King: “in general he appears very indifferent about what is passing”; and he further reported that he urgently desired to “get rid of so irksome an affair” as his sister’s troubles, and looked on the Prince of Orange as the chief cause of the dissensions in the Dutch Netherlands.517 Another of our envoys, with more wit than is usually found in semi-official letters, summed up the difference between Frederick the Great and Frederick William II by saying that the former had the wisdom of Solomon, but the latter resembled that potentate only in respect of his overflowing harem. Mirabeau’s opinion on the imminent downfall of the Prussian State is too well known to need quoting here.

Yet the nonchalance of Frederick William in foreign affairs is not wholly indefensible. Confronted by the alliance of those scheming and unscrupulous rulers, Catharine II and Joseph II, he could effect little until he had the friendship of one at least of the Great Powers; but France was pledged to Austria, and England was still averse from a Prussian alliance. On 20th October 1786 Dalrymple thus summed up his arguments against a compact with the Court of Berlin: “We might indeed form a temporary co-operation with Prussia for some particular purposes, as at present in the case of Holland, where little or no opposition is to be expected from the two Imperial Courts; but353 to enter into a general and permanent system with Prussia alone, without the concurrence of other Powers, would be a measure, in my apprehension, perfectly frantic, and only to be justified by a combination similar to that in 1756 being formed against us.” Four days later, after an interview with Hertzberg, Dalrymple wrote that a Northern League between us and the Baltic Powers was out of the question during the lifetime of the Czarina, seeing that Turkish schemes stood first in her thoughts, and these implied alliance with Joseph.518 As will shortly appear, the knowledge which the Turks had of these schemes was to lead to the Eastern War of 1787, which ended the suspense besetting Prussia and England.

For the present the isolation of these States left them in a most precarious position. The utmost they could hope for was to struggle on, waiting for a turn of Fortune’s wheel in their favour. The first aim of the Court of Berlin was to thwart the Austrian scheme for exchanging the Belgic provinces for Bavaria. Joseph II still pursued this phantom, though he had his hands full in Brabant, where philosophism had again stirred up revolt, and his alliance with Catharine portended war with the resentful Turks. Frederick William believed, and perhaps rightly, that so long as the Austro-Russian alliance held good, Prussia could take no step Rhinewards. He therefore saw in the entreaties of his sister only a scheme to draw him into fatal courses; and when the entreaties became reproaches his answers became few and cold.519

Unfortunately, too, the influence of the veteran diplomatist, Hertzberg, was waning, because of an austere and somewhat superior manner which the young King resented. That Minister favoured a close understanding with England with a view to joint action at The Hague; but there was associated with him at the Foreign Ministry a colleague, Count Finckenstein, who strongly inclined towards France, thwarted Hertzberg’s efforts, and prejudiced the King against an English alliance.520 To add354 to the perplexities of the time, Thulemeyer, the Prussian envoy at The Hague, supported France; and Harris suspected him, perhaps rightly, of having been bought over by the Patriots and their paymasters. He certainly thwarted the efforts of Görtz, a special envoy sent from Berlin to The Hague; and finally the Princess of Orange begged her brother, seeing that he would not help her, at least not to allow Thulemeyer to act in concert with De Vérac, the French envoy at The Hague.521 Early in May she sent a request for a loan of Prussian cannon in order to withstand the growing forces of the Patriots, but met with a refusal.

Matters, however, now took a turn for the better for that unfortunate Princess. Latterly the Court of Berlin had sought to arrange with that of Versailles a plan of joint intervention so as to end the strifes in the United Provinces in a way not too derogatory to the Prince of Orange. But this proposal was accompanied by conditions which were at once very tartly rejected by the Court of Versailles. This refusal of a friendly overture was to have far-reaching results, for the irritation of the Prussian monarch now led him to favour the idea of intervention in Holland.

* * * * *

This brief survey will have enabled us to understand the gradual development of Pitt’s policy from strict neutrality to tentative and cautious activity. The change of attitude will be found to correspond closely with a change in Continental affairs which enabled him with little risk to raise his country once more to her rightful position.

It is the mark of a great statesman to keep his gaze on all the chief matters of public interest, to weigh their importance, and to make his policy the resultant, as it were, of the leading forces and best tendencies of his age. No one who has not a clear vision and ripe judgement can give such an assessment and act on it with tact and firmness. Small minds are certain to be diverted towards side issues and hastily to take up questions which are unripe for solution. From these faults Pitt’s singular maturity of mind and steadiness of purpose kept him free. He saw that the greatest of British interests was peace; and, despite the pressing claims of Harris at The Hague, he refused to be drawn blindfold into the irritating and obscure questions there355 at stake. True, it was important to keep the United Provinces from becoming dependent on France; but he believed that the efforts of the Patriots in that direction might be curbed by means of diplomacy. No statesman prefers a warlike to a peaceful solution unless all the resources of his own craft have been exhausted, least of all could the champion of economy, who naturally discounted the clamorous appeals of Harris for help.

There were reasons why our envoy should urge Pitt to adopt a more forward policy. In the autumn of 1786 the fortunes of the Stadholder steadily declined, and the raids of the Patriots on his prerogatives became more daring and successful. In September, as we saw, he was deprived of the command of the regular forces in the Province of Holland. His opponents, the Patriots, next strengthened their Free Corps, drew a cordon of troops along the frontiers of Holland, and overthrew his authority in the hitherto loyal provinces, Overyssel and Groningen. The city of Utrecht also defied him and elected Estates, while those of the still loyal Province of Utrecht assembled at Amersfoort. Other towns, even in the loyal provinces, seemed likely to follow the example of Utrecht. In face of these facts the appeals of Harris for help became more urgent than ever. On 24th October he wrote privately to Carmarthen: “As we are afraid to threaten, we must either bribe or give up the game.”522 But, realizing more and more that the obstacle to his forward policy lay in the peaceful resolves of Pitt, he wrote directly to him on 28th November, pointing out that France was making amazing strides everywhere at our expense, that she was on the point of gaining complete control over the United Provinces, and he hinted that that accession to her naval strength and to her resources in the East Indies would enable her soon to attack England in overwhelming strength.

Much could be said in favour of this view. The activity of France in the East, as we saw in the last chapter, had been very threatening, and it is clear that the schemes of St. Priest and other French agents in Egypt pointed out the path on which Bonaparte set forth with heroic stride thirteen years later. Dreams of a French Empire in the East haunted many minds at Paris in 1786. On 7th September, shortly before the signature of the Anglo-French commercial treaty, Hailes, Secretary of356 Legation at Paris, reported that the French Government seemed to be preparing for “the entire subversion” of British power in India; and he cynically added that when the time for action came, “then, as formerly, the rights of mankind will be held out as the pretext.”523 Even Eden sent word that there was talk of a design that France should gain control over all the Dutch ports in the East Indies.524 When we remember that the Cape of Good Hope was a Dutch possession, and that the British lands in India were scattered and weak, we can appreciate the gravity of the crisis.

The surmises of Hailes and Eden were correct. There was a powerful party at the French Court which worked in alliance with the Dutch Patriots for the control of the East Indies. They saw their opportunity in the bankruptcy then threatening the Dutch East India Company; and in the winter of 1786 the Patriot leader, the Rhinegrave of Salm, sent to the Cabinet of Versailles a plan of a Franco-Dutch alliance with a view to the overthrow of the British power in India. Thanks to the pacific views of Louis XVI and Vergennes, nothing came of the scheme; but the Patriots then changed front and offered to hand over to France the important naval station, Trincomalee, in the north-east of Ceylon, to serve as a place of arms for France in case of war. This plan had a favourable reception at Versailles, some of the Ministers urging that 18,000 troops should be sent out under the command of General de Bouillé. This soldier (the hero of Carlyle’s stirring account of the Mutiny of Nancy in 1790) states in his Memoirs525 that he remained some time at Paris in hopes of receiving the order for the conquest of the British settlements in India; but he remained in vain; for the French Cabinet found no opportunity for going to war. The events now to be described will explain the sorry ending to these golden hopes; and the reader will bear in mind that the struggle of the rival Powers for ascendancy in Holland concerned the fate of Britain’s Indian Empire no less than her position in Europe.526


All the more astonishing, then, is the calmness of Pitt’s reply to Harris of 5th December 1786. In it he directed him to do all in his power to keep together the Orange party, so that it might “act with advantage, both for their own country and for us, on some future day, if it should arrive.” For the present, however, that party must “lie by,” and avoid pushing things to an extremity which would commit both themselves and England.527

This cautious policy was perhaps in some measure due to the King, who strongly opposed a forward policy in the Netherlands. His chief preoccupation in the years 1786, 1787, was the extravagance of the Prince of Wales and the rapidly increasing expense of his own family, to which he refers in pathetic terms. The news of the activity of Sir James Harris at The Hague “much affected” him; and when, on 7th January 1787, Lord Carmarthen wrote to Windsor in order to suggest a more energetic policy in the Netherlands, a sharp retort came, bidding that Minister remember “the disgraceful conduct” of England in the late war, and asserting that he (George III) refused to act as the Draw-can-sir of Europe.528

From the tenour of the King’s letter to Pitt on 8th January we may infer that Carmarthen had kept his overture to Windsor secret; and Pitt, on hearing of it from the King, must have felt piqued at his colleague’s action. Already they were on strained terms owing to Pitt having insisted on Carmarthen’s presence at Court, despite indisposition, in order to present the Portuguese envoy; and a chief who demanded so strict an observance of etiquette was certain to resent any private attempt of his Foreign Minister to influence the King’s opinions on a far weightier question. There is an apologetic tone in Carmarthen’s hitherto unpublished letter of 8th January to Pitt. The first sentences refer to his ill health, and are omitted:

Hendon, Jan. 8, 1787.

My dear Sir,

I wish to lay before you in confidence my letter to the King of yesterday, together with His Majesty’s answer of this morning’s date, which I am free to confess to you has occasioned me a considerable degree of uneasiness.... You will, I am sure, do me the justice to remark the manner in which I have stated my opinion to the King and I have always understood your sentiments to be precisely the same in358 regard to the object, though perhaps more cautious (from prudential and well founded motives) in the means to be employed. I am free to own that, eager as I am for preventing France acquiring the absolute command of Holland, I have always thought we might succeed by means of private negotiation and intrigue. The experiment of trying to combat her with her own weapons would have some merit; and, convinced as I am that she has reckoned all along upon England not interfering, I think the present moment must not be passed by without our endeavouring to make the most we can of the Provinces which are opposed to Holland, and of the present firmness of the Prince and Princess of Orange. L’Assemblée des Notables is I think some security for the pacific disposition of France, or rather for her inability of indulging any of a contrary nature at present. I should hope we might have a meeting on Thursday for the Dutch business.529

The differences between Pitt and Carmarthen were greater than are here represented; and the joint influence of the King and Pitt prevented the adoption of the more spirited measures towards which he inclined. This was gall and wormwood to Harris. That able envoy, looking on helplessly at the brilliant diplomatic successes of France, failed to see the canker which was eating at her heart. The Assembly of the Notables was “the beginning of the end.” It implied the inability of the absolute monarchy to carry the urgently needed reforms or to meet the ordinary expenses of the State. Pitt saw this. Further, while Harris admitted that he regarded France as “a natural enemy,” Pitt looked on her as a possible friend. On the Dutch Question alone was there keen rivalry between the two States; and, in view of the growing financial difficulties of France, delay was more than ever advisable; for her efforts abroad must slacken as her vitality lessened under the load of debt that Calonne was gaily heaping up. In the meantime, until the Prussian monarch had the will, and England had the power, to intervene, Harris must continue his Sisyphus toil, and the Prince and Princess must suffer further indignities. Such was Pitt’s policy. To our envoy it seemed unbearably mean; but it won in the end, and all the more surely for the delay. A Minister at the centre can often see things in truer perspective than an ambassador who is, after all, only at one point on the circumference.

Harris continued stoutly to roll the stone uphill. He helped359 to form an Association of the Provinces, towns and persons opposed to any change in the constitution; and, as the Stadholder in the early part of 1787 showed far more spirit and tact, the Patriots found it by no means easy to push the stone backwards. Harris declared on 20th April 1787 that the popular indignation ran strongly against the Patriots, who had not one-twentieth of the people on their side. This is incredible; but it is quite certain that his activity and the less determined policy of Montmorin, the successor of Vergennes at Versailles, put new heart into the Stadholder’s party. Nevertheless, the Patriots carried the day at Amsterdam by sheer audacity, and compelled the Regents, or magistrates, to dismiss nine of their number. This act of violence, together with the increasing activity of William V and the signs of wavering at Versailles, led Harris to request an interview with Ministers at Whitehall.530 He also bore a letter of the Princess to George III, which met with no favourable response.

A Cabinet meeting was held on 23rd May 1787, at which Harris was present, and submitted his opinions to a full discussion. Ministers met at Thurlow’s house for dinner; and he in due course launched forth on the troubled sea of Dutch politics, stating at great length the arguments against intervention, then tearing them to pieces, and declaring even for war with France, if the need arose. Richmond, Master of the Ordnance, called for maps, discussed the military situation, and urged the need of speedy preparations. Pitt then admitted the immense importance of preserving the independence of Holland, and of facing war as a possible, but not probable, alternative; then, turning to Harris, he pressed him to say which course involved the greater risk, that of opposing France at once before she entirely dominated the Dutch Netherlands, or that of awaiting the issue of her present efforts. He also asked what kind of help the Orange party most needed. In reply to this and to similar questions from Thurlow, Harris urged that money should be supplied, especially to the Province of Guelderland; he declared that the supporters of the constitution would probably be overborne if they were not helped by England; that France was not in such a condition as to go to war in order to conquer Holland, but that when she360 had the upper hand there she probably would throw down the gauntlet. Stafford then declared in favour of intervention. Nevertheless, Pitt held firmly to his conviction, that no case was yet made out for a course of conduct which might possibly lead to war and so blight the budding prosperity of Great Britain. Carmarthen and Sydney did not speak. We may plausibly conjecture that the silence of the Foreign Minister betokened his disapproval of Pitt’s views and his inability to controvert them.

So far as we can judge, Pitt alone was for complete neutrality. Nevertheless, his view prevailed. An interview which Harris had with him on the morrow did not change his sentiments; but, on 26th May, the Cabinet agreed to allow our envoy the sum of £20,000 so as to enable the loyal provinces to take into their pay the troops which had been disbanded by, or had deserted from, the forces of the Province of Holland.531 On 10th June the further sum of £70,000 was advanced.532

Pitt’s resolve was doubtless based on the difficulty of gaining an ally, for, as we have seen, the King of Prussia had recently refused the request of his sister for a loan of cannon and was proposing to concert plans with France for a joint mediation in Dutch affairs.533 How was it possible for England alone to interfere for the Prince and Princess of Orange while their natural protector was making advances to their enemy? So little hope was there at present of aid from Prussia that on 12th June Carmarthen expressed to Harris his belief that the Orange party would get more help from the Emperor Joseph than from Frederick William. The torpor of that party was another depressing symptom. Time after time Carmarthen informed Harris that if the Prince’s supporters desired help, they must bestir themselves: they had as yet the majority of the regular army and of the States-General on their side; and a fit use of this strength would save the situation.

Despite the efforts of Harris, the Patriots continued to gain ground. At the end of May their partisans wrecked the houses of the Prince’s friends at Amsterdam, and crushed the reaction in his favour which had gathered head.534 On 15th June the States-General decided, on the casting vote of the President,361 to admit the deputies sent by the illegal Estates of the city of Utrecht. This gave a bare majority to the Patriots, who then proceeded to deprive the Stadholder of the right to order the march of troops or the distribution of stores in the provinces outside Holland. Four days later, however, Harris was able to procure the rejection of this decree as illegal; and it was further decided that the Estates of Utrecht meeting at Amersfoort were the legal Estates of that province and could alone send deputies. Of course this change of front has been ascribed to English gold, and certainly it was due to Harris. This rebuff to the Patriots and the coyness of the French Court to their urgent demands for help may have led to the formation of a resolve which was to end the balancings of statesmen and the even pulls of parties. The solution of the Dutch problem was, in the first instance, due to a woman’s wit.

* * * * *

About the middle of the month of June 1787, the Princess of Orange framed a plan for leaving her city of refuge, Nymeguen, and proceeding to The Hague with the aim of inspiring her crestfallen partisans. Hitherto the Orange party had shown the torpor which is the outcome of poor leadership. Of the Prince of Orange it might have been said, as it was said of Louis XVI, that he cooled his friends and heated his foes; but his consort had the fire and energy which he lacked. Harris once confessed that her frank, blue eyes could be “dangerous”; and in many ways her presence promised to breathe new life into her party.

As the journey to The Hague would involve some risk of insult from the Free Corps which formed a cordon on the frontier of the Province of Holland, she proceeded first to Amersfoort, where her consort was holding together his partisans in the Province of Utrecht, in order to gain his consent to this daring step. Thereafter she warned Harris and her chief friends at The Hague of her resolve, and asked their sanction, adding that the magnitude of the object at stake impelled her to run some measure of personal risk in order to compass it. Harris saw objections to the plan, but yielded to the representations of the Dutchmen. He, however, stated to Carmarthen his doubts whether she could make her way through the bodies of armed burghers, and asked his chief for instructions as to his course of action in case any violence were offered to Her Royal Highness.535


His apprehensions were in part to be realized. The princess set out from Nymeguen on 28th June with the ordinary retinue. While seeking to enter the Province of Holland near Schoonhoven, she was stopped by a lieutenant commanding a body of Free Corps, who refused to allow her to proceed; his action was endorsed by the authorities; and she was obliged, though without much personal indignity, to put up at the nearest house where the lieutenant kept her and her ladies-in-waiting under close and embarrassing surveillance, until she consented that the question of her journey should be decided by the Estates of Holland. Then she was allowed to return to Schoonhoven, where she indited letters to the Grand Pensionary and others, declaring that her sole aim was to promote a reconciliation. The Estates of Holland refused to allow her to proceed, and she had finally to return to Nymeguen. This insult to royalty sent a thrill of indignation through every Court but that of Versailles.

Before describing the political results of the incident, we may pause to ask whether the plan of the Princess’s journey was the outcome of the fertile brain of Harris. That was the insinuation of the French Foreign Minister, Montmorin, and it has often been repeated.536 The charge has never been proven; and the following reasons may be urged against it. Harris certainly hoped to profit by her presence at The Hague, but obviously he doubted the possibility of her entering the province. Further, on 29th June, when he heard of her detention, he wrote to Carmarthen: “The event which has happened oversets our whole plan. Check to the queen, and in a move or two checkmate is, I fear, the state of our game.” Not yet did he see that the check might be worth a Prussian army to the Orange party. All he saw was the present discouragement of that party, and the timidity of the States-General of the United Provinces, who now refused to censure the outrage. Carmarthen saw more clearly. “Don’t be so disheartened by a check to the queen,” he replied. “Cover her by the knight and all’s safe.... If the King, her brother, is not the dirtiest and shabbiest of Kings, he must resent it.”537

But had the Princess throughout laid her plans with a view to such an event? In this connection it is significant that Frederick363 William of Prussia had latterly shown great irritation against the Court of Versailles owing to its summary rejection of his offer of a joint mediation in the Dutch troubles. Montmorin curtly declined every one of the preliminary terms which Hertzberg had succeeded in appending to that proposal. He also blamed the Stadholder for all the ferment, and stated that, if the Prussian monarch intervened in favour of the Orange party, he would “only compromise himself to his entire loss.”538 This nagging reply to a friendly overture cut the sensitive monarch to the quick; he sent a spirited remonstrance, declaimed against the bad faith of the French Government, and stated that he meant now to complete his own plans in Holland, that he hoped to have the support of England, and might draw the sword sooner than was expected.539 Ewart expected little result from all this; but he was mistaken. Frederick William was a man of sentiment; and the appeal which now came from Holland was one that stirred his being to its depths.

The Princess, on hearing of his resentment against France, seems to have devised a course of action which would be likely to make this mood lasting. Harris reported on 22nd June that on the day before, “in consequence of a courier from Berlin, the Princess of Orange, a few hours after he arrived, left Nymeguen and set out for Amersfoort. She had time to write to nobody, and the cause of this sudden departure is not to be guessed at.”540 The short journey to Amersfoort was for the purpose described above. That the Princess was acting in close concert with her brother, and that Harris knew nothing as to the motives of her conduct further appear in statements which (strange to say) are omitted from his despatch of 25th June, printed in the “Diaries.” He informed Carmarthen that she was sending a courier to Berlin, and that the present plan “completely does away all the ideas which have been very prevalent here for these three or four days, that His Prussian Majesty was so irritated at the late answer from France as to be decided to assist the Prince of Orange with men and money.” Obviously the guile of Sir James Harris was of the diplomatic, not of the feminine, kind. Further, the fact that the Princess travelled with a retinue364 made it almost certain that she would be stopped by the cordon of Free Corps on the frontier of Holland. If her chief aim had been to arrive at The Hague, she would have gone in disguise; for only so could she hope to pass through the troops. Her chief aim surely was to be stopped; and the more contumeliously, the better for her purpose.

Her letters written after the incident show that she desired to reap the full advantage from it. On 6th July Harris reported her expectation that, if England proposed to Prussia a plan for rescuing the Republic from France, it would be well received at Berlin; and that she grounded her confidence in the reports of those who knew the King of Prussia well. Ewart also on 10th July stated that she had written to Berlin in terms implying that the honour of the King was at stake fully as much as her own.541 With these proofs of the discouragement of Harris, and of the keen insight of the Princess before us, may we not infer that she deliberately chose to submit herself to an insult from the Patriots in order to clinch a resolve which she knew to be forming in her brother’s mind? His anger against France might then be fanned to a flame of resentment fed by injured family pride.

Fortunately for her purpose, the Estates of Holland waived aside the demand of the King of Prussia for immediate and complete satisfaction for the insult; and Frederick William vowed that he would exact vengeance at the sword’s point. Hertzberg now saw within his reach the great aims which Ewart and he had so long pursued, an Anglo-Prussian compact which might ripen into alliance. But it was a task of much difficulty to stiffen that monarch’s wavering impulses. Hertzberg rightly saw that English influence should not at first be pushed;542 and only when the King’s resentment at the insult began to cool, were the wider questions of the future discreetly opened to his gaze. Here again the situation was complicated; for Finckenstein worked on his fears of an attack from Austria, if he intervened in Holland; and Thulemeyer, the Prussian envoy at The Hague, darkened the royal counsels by sending an official warning that Prussia must expect no help from England, even if France struck at the Prussian expeditionary corps. Ewart, however, was able to show that this report closely resembled an earlier one from the same source. The only result, then, was to discredit Thulemeyer and365 pave the way for his disgrace. When further friendly assurances came from the Pitt Ministry, Frederick William gave orders for the mustering of 25,000 troops at his fortress of Wesel on the lower Rhine. Even now he was afflicted by the irresolution which for so many years was to paralyze the power of his kingdom; and it is doubtful whether he would have acted at all but for the initiative now taken by the Prime Minister of England.543

Pitt’s change of attitude at this time is the decisive event of the situation. At once, on hearing the news of the insult to the Princess of Orange, he saw that the time for action had come. In a personal interview with Count Lusi, Prussian ambassador at London, he pointed out that this was a matter which solely concerned the Prussian monarch, and in which France had no right to interfere.544 George III spoke in the same terms to Lusi at a levée. Further, on the receipt of Ewart’s despatch of 7th July, reporting that Pitt had declared against any intervention whatever by Great Britain, Carmarthen sent a sharp denial, and stated that diplomatic support would have been offered earlier to Prussia in Dutch affairs, but for the strange conduct of Thulemeyer at The Hague. If that conduct did not represent the wishes of the Prussian Government, His Majesty “will be extremely ready to enter into a most confidential communication with His Prussian Majesty” on the means of preserving the independence of the Dutch Republic and the rights of the Stadholder. Carmarthen added the important information that Montmorin had declared that France would not thwart the Prussian monarch’s resolve to gain reparation for the insult. That question he declared to be totally distinct from an interference in the domestic affairs of the Republic, which might be settled amicably by a joint mediation of the Powers most concerned in them, namely, the Emperor, Great Britain, Prussia, and France. The draft of this important despatch closed with this sentence, in Pitt’s handwriting: “Could such a good understanding be agreed on, there can be little doubt that the affairs of Holland would be settled in an amicable way, to the satisfaction of all those who are interested in the welfare of the Republic.”545


It is clear, then, that Pitt meant to encourage Prussia to energetic action, in case the Estates of Holland did not grant full reparation for the insult; but he looked on that step merely as preliminary to the others which would solve the whole question by a peaceful mediation of the four Powers above named. On learning that the Emperor had expressed his friendly interest in the Prince of Orange and his approval of Prussia’s conduct, the Foreign Office sent off a despatch to Keith, British Ambassador at Vienna, bidding him to urge his active co-operation “and to make it, if possible, the means of establishing a cordial and confidential correspondence with that Court in future.”546 Joseph II did not respond to this friendly proposal, probably because of troubles lowering in the East. But the incident proves the reluctance of our Foreign Office to act with Prussia alone, and also its hopes of a peaceful mediation in Dutch affairs. According to news received from Paris, France did not seem likely to oppose Prussia’s action, and even favoured the scheme of a joint mediation of the three Powers, which were then on cordial terms.547

In spite of the friendly assurances that came from London, and the manly advice of Hertzberg, Frederick William continued to vacillate in his usual manner. As we have seen, he had recently coquetted with the notion of a mediation conjointly with France alone; but, despite its curt rejection by the Court of Versailles, he now recurred to a similar scheme.548 If France had played her cards well, she might even then have won the day at Berlin.

The conduct of the French Government at this crisis is hard to fathom. Its swift and unaccountable changes may perhaps be explained by the alternate triumph of peaceful and warlike counsels in the Ministry, which in the month of August underwent367 some alterations. Towards Great Britain the tone was at first quite reassuring, a fact which may be ascribed to the friendly relations between Montmorin and Eden. Our envoy had visited London in July, and therefore, on his return to Paris at the end of the month, fully knew the intentions of his chiefs. Their pacific nature appeared in a proposal, which he was charged to make to Montmorin, for the discontinuance of warlike preparations on both sides until such time as notice might be given for their renewal. On 4th August the French Minister cordially received this proposal,549 and it was acted on with sincerity until the crisis of the middle of September. But Eden soon found that the French Court intended forcibly to intervene if the Prussian troops entered the United Provinces, and that Montmorin had rejected the recent proposal from Berlin for a Franco-Prussian intervention.550 Here, surely, the French Minister committed a surprising blunder. The traditional friendship between their Courts should have led him to welcome a proposal which would have kept England entirely out of the question. Probably he counted on procuring better terms from the ever complaisant Court of Berlin. If so, he erred egregiously. By repelling the advances of Prussia, he threw that Power into the arms of Great Britain; and Pitt was shrewd enough to accord a hearty welcome.



This treaty produced an effect throughout the whole of Europe by its mere existence, without military preparations or force of arms.—Von Sybel.

Pitt has already astonished all Europe by the alacrity of the late armament, and his name as a War Minister is now as high as that of his father ever was.—The Earl of Mornington to the Duke of Rutland, 17th October 1787.

The events described in the last chapter had brought England and Prussia to a crisis at which, despite their strong mutual suspicion, common action was imperiously needed in order to save the Dutch Netherlands from French domination. As we have seen, no British statesman had ever acquiesced in the supremacy of France in that country; and it is clear from the British archives that Pitt now took a keen interest in thwarting her designs. The draft of the official answer to Eden’s despatch of 4th August 1787 is entirely in Pitt’s writing, and it was sent without alteration or addition by the Foreign Minister, Lord Carmarthen—an unusual circumstance, which shows the masterful grip of the chief over matters of high import. In this despatch, of 10th August, he welcomed the assurance of Montmorin that warlike preparations would be stopped until further notice. Great Britain would, however, renew them after due notice if France assembled a force at Givet, on the Belgian border. He then referred pointedly to rumours that French transports had sailed for Amsterdam—a measure which would prejudice “the great work of conciliation which it is so much the object of the two Courts to forward and promote.” French ships were also reported as laying in stores of food in British ports, a proceeding which would have been stopped but for the friendly assurances now received. He then referred to the invitation of the loyal provinces of Friesland and Zealand, that369 Great Britain would mediate on their behalf, and hinted that this might be done. The despatch closed with the following dignified remonstrance on the subject of the outrages of the Free Corps in Holland:

I am here also under the painful necessity of adding that the conduct held in the Province of Holland, apparently instigated by those who have all along appeared the instruments of France, seems to increase, instead of diminishing in violence. I enclose a copy of an address presented by the Free Corps of that Province, which it is intended that you should show to M. de M[ontmorin]. It cannot escape that Minister how little such a step is calculated to promote an accommodation or a suspension of hostilities, which his language so strongly recommends.551

Meanwhile Pitt had sent his cousin, William Wyndham Grenville, to collect information at The Hague. As we saw in Chapter XII, the attainments of that young statesman, then Paymaster of the Forces, were eminently sound. His hard and practical nature stood in contrast to the sensitive and imaginative Harris, about whom George III trenchantly wrote to Pitt, that he was so easily discouraged that it was well he held no military command. Probably Pitt held the same opinion about Harris, whose forward policy he had long held in check. That there was some widespread distrust of him is clear from the observation of the Duke of Dorset, that “he was playing the devil at The Hague.”552 In any case, it was well to have independent advice, and the selection of so young a man as Grenville is a tribute to his prudence and ability.

He reached The Hague on 30th July, and during his stay of about three weeks succeeded in clearing up many points preliminary to the mediation. The letters which passed between him and Pitt bespeak a resolve on both sides to settle matters peaceably if possible. The following sentence in Pitt’s letter of 1st August is noteworthy: “It is very material that our friends should not lose the superiority of force within the Republic, while we are labouring to protect it from interference from without.” Six days later he wrote that the prospect was still favourable,370 but that, if French troops were to assemble at Givet, it might be needful to resume naval preparations, so as to reassure Prussia.553 Equally hopeful in tone is his letter of 2nd August to Earl Cornwallis, Governor-General of India. After pointing out that Great Britain could not allow France to become mistress of the Dutch Netherlands, and thereby add enormously to her naval strength and her power of aggression in India, he expressed the hope that the mediation of the three Powers would take place; but, failing an apology from the Estates of Holland, the King of Prussia would order his troops into that province, and take steps for “maintaining the just rights of the Stadholder and the constitution and independence of the Republic.” If war broke out, Cornwallis was at once to strike at the Dutch settlement of Trincomalee, in Ceylon; while a force from England would be sent to reduce the Cape of Good Hope—the first sign in Pitt’s letters of the importance which he attached to that post.554

Despite suspicious signs to the contrary, the French Cabinet at that time probably wished for a peaceful mediation; but the Courts of London and Versailles differed sharply as to the way of action. Pitt and Carmarthen held that reparation to the King of Prussia for the insult to his sister was a purely personal affair, distinct from the political issues. France now denied this; she belittled the affront to the Princess, and induced the Estates of Holland to frame an apology which was in the main a justification of their conduct. If Montmorin had pressed that body to make an adequate apology, it would certainly have been forthcoming. The stiff-neckedness of the Estates of Holland was due to their expectation of armed support from France if matters came to the sword; and the action of the Marquis de Vérac, the French envoy, justified their confidence.

In truth, French policy wore different aspects at Paris and at The Hague. Montmorin assumed an air of injured innocence when Eden transmitted to him Pitt’s remonstrances. On 15th August he indignantly denied the truth of the rumours about French transports sailing to Holland and of the food supplies drawn from England. He also complained of the harshness of Pitt’s reference to the assembling of troops at Givet, an action371 which was a natural retort to the muster of Prussians at their fortress of Wesel on the Rhine; and he merely laughed at the address of the Free Corps.555 A week later Eden reported that Montmorin was anxious to settle the Dutch troubles peacefully and speedily, and would therefore recall the over-zealous Vérac from The Hague. Pitt, however, refused to allow that Prussia was exceeding her just rights in claiming satisfaction for the insult. The fit way of ending the matter, he argued, would be for the Estates of Holland to apologize frankly and fully, whereupon the three Powers must insist on the dispersal and disarming of the Free Corps as a needful preliminary to the joint mediation.556 On 28th August Eden heard that the French Government would not form the camp at Givet, it being understood that the Prussian monarch would limit his claims to the gaining of personal satisfaction, which France promised to procure from the Estates of Holland. This welcome news led Pitt to express the hope that an agreement would at once be framed for stopping the excesses of the Free Corps. Thus, so far as our dealings with Montmorin ran, there seemed, even at the end of August 1787, the likelihood of a peaceful settlement. A signal proof of Pitt’s hopefulness is afforded by his letter of 28th August to Cornwallis at Calcutta. In this he speaks of the need of settling the personal question between the King of Prussia and the Estates of Holland as preliminary to the general settlement of the dispute. Even of that he cherished hopes, but he deemed caution and preparation so eminently necessary as to order the despatch of another regiment to Bombay.557

In truth, the central knot of the whole tangle was at The Hague. In order to understand the position there we must remember that the States-General, representing the Union, had not called on France for aid, in case of hostilities. Thanks to the skill and private influence of Harris, a majority of that body still upheld the claims of the Stadholder, deprecated any appeal to the Court of Versailles, and sought to procure from the Estates of Holland an apology to the King of Prussia. The Estates, however, stoutly refused to give anything more than a complacent explanation of the incident. The spirit which animated that assembly appears in the comment of one of the leading Patriots372 on the Prussian ultimatum: “A sovereign body can never apologize to the wife of its first servant.”558 The Memoirs of Count de Portes, a Swiss officer who espoused the cause of the Dutch Patriots and helped to raise a regiment for them, show the cause of their confidence. He wrote on 14th September: “Though the Prussians are at our gates, they seem to me still at the sport of politics, and I can scarcely believe that they will put themselves between our waters and our French. At the worst we will open our sluices and drown ourselves.”559

There was the strength of the Patriots. In a legal sense their case was weak; but their audacious energy even now promised to snatch victory from the inert Orange party. The Free Corps in the months of July and August became more numerous and insolent than ever, and it was a notorious fact that hundreds of French officers and soldiers had passed into their ranks.560 Thus strengthened, they marched about the country, taking some places by force, and in several cases deposing the Regents, or chief magistrates appointed by the Stadholder. On all sides they despoiled the property of opponents, and carried confusion to the gates of The Hague. On 1st August Harris thus summed up his hopes and wishes to Carmarthen: “If I am de-Witted, don’t let me be outwitted, but revenge me.”561 Count Bentinck also wrote: “the majority of Holland have made themselves masters of our lives and property; ... they are masters of the purse, and of the sword, and of the Courts of Justice.”562 That arch-intriguer, Vérac, on 31st August, the very day of his recall, assured the Patriots that France would never desert them. This boast was consonant with the whole policy of France respecting the Free Corps. She had rejected the Prussian proposal for their suppression, which accompanied the plan of a Franco-Prussian mediation. On 29th August Montmorin stated to Eden that it was impossible to disarm the Free Corps, and on 11th September when stiff remonstrances came from London on this subject, he airily declared that France could no more control those troops than the waves of the sea.563


Is it surprising that the Pitt Ministry came to the conclusion that the real aim of the French Government was to amuse England and Prussia with fair words, until its partisans gained a complete mastery in the United Provinces and forced the States-General to send to Paris a formal demand for help, with which the Court of Versailles could not but comply? Whether Montmorin was playing a double game, or whether his hand was forced by other members of his Cabinet, is far from clear.564 Certainly the contrast between his fair professions and French intrigues in Holland inspired increasing distrust, and served to bring about the dénouement which shattered the prestige of the French monarchy.

It was long before the crisis came. Only by slow degrees did Pitt, Carmarthen, and Harris shake off distrust of Prussia. The length of time attending the transit of despatches between London and Berlin (eleven days on the average even in summer) clogged the negotiations. At Paris the Prussian envoy, Görtz, intrigued against the Anglo-Prussian understanding, and represented Eden as minimizing the insult to the Princess of Orange. At once Pitt sent to Eden a courteous but firm request for an explanation of his words, which had caused a sensation at Berlin. Of course Eden was able to explain them entirely to Pitt’s satisfaction.565 But it is clear that the mutual dislike at London374 and Berlin could have been ended only by the fears aroused by the action of France.

In order to remove the distrust prevalent at Berlin, Pitt and Carmarthen sent to that Court full copies of their correspondence with France, which convinced Frederick William of their good faith and the duplicity of Versailles.566 He saw that France was dragging on the affair so that the approach of autumn might hinder the effective action of his troops. Suspicion of this helped to bring England and Prussia to accord. But the tidings which spurred on Pitt and Carmarthen to more decisive action came from The Hague. On 20th August Harris reported that a body of Free Corps was approaching that town, that he was preparing to leave it in haste, and had sent all important papers away. On hearing this news and perhaps that brought back by Grenville on 23rd August, the Cabinet resolved to send General Fawcett to Cassel to hire 5,000 Hessians for the help of the loyal Dutch provinces, and others for the British service—that detestable expedient which parsimony made inevitable at every alarm of war. Harris was also empowered to order up a British ship lying at Harwich, laden with gunpowder and stores for the help of the Stadholder’s forces.567 On the same day Carmarthen instructed Ewart to warn the Prussian Court that, though we had agreed with France to suspend warlike preparations, yet we were ready to send out at least as large a fleet as France could possibly equip.568 Ewart, in his reply of 4th September, stated that but for this encouraging news Frederick William might once more have wavered, owing to the insidious intrigues of the French party, and the discouraging reports which came from the Duke of Brunswick. The nerves of that veteran were unstrung by visions of the spectral camp at Givet, and he mourned over the unpreparedness of his own force at Wesel, which, he declared, could not march before 7th September.569 These tidings had once more depressed the royal thermometer at Berlin; but the news from London came just in time to send the mercury up again. On 3rd September, then, Frederick William drew up an ultimatum to the375 Estates of Holland, and bade Hertzberg come to a close understanding with England. On 7th September he resolved to recall Thulemeyer, and urged the British Government to declare what forces it would set in motion if France attacked the Prussian army in Holland.570

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Late on that day there arrived at Berlin news which ended the last hesitations of Frederick William. The Porte, long fretting under the yoke imposed by the Treaty of Kainardji, and irritated by the proceedings of the Czarina, had declared war on Russia. This came almost as a bolt from the blue. No one had believed the Sultan capable of so much energy as to attack the Muscovites; and rumours spread at Vienna and Petersburg that this was due to British gold. The insinuation was probably false. As will appear in Chapter XXI, the Turks had been goaded into war, and relied on help from Sweden, perhaps also from Prussia. Undoubtedly their action greatly embarrassed Joseph II, who was bound by compacts with Russia, the enemy of Turkey, and with France, her friend. Late on 7th September Finckenstein pointed this out to Ewart, and added that Prussia and England ought at once to frame an agreement, and intervene effectively without fear of France.571 This time the decision was final. Ewart reported that the news of Turkey’s challenge to Russia caused all the more joy at Berlin as the party of Marie Antoinette had gained an ascendancy at Versailles, which implied the strengthening of the Franco-Austrian alliance and a proportionate loosening of the ties linking Joseph II to Russia.572 The reasoning was not sound; for it was probable that France, acting in close concert with the two Empires, would partition Turkey with a view to the seizure of Egypt and other commanding posts in the East.

Nevertheless, Prussia looked on the war in the East as giving her a free hand in the West; and on 7th September she decided to act in the Netherlands. Four days later a French envoy, Groschlag, arrived in Berlin with offers, partly enticing,376 partly threatening, which might once more have drawn the wavering impulses of the King towards Paris.573 But now, after many months of uphill fight, all the omens favoured the Anglo-Prussian cause.

On 13th September, before the refusal of the Prussian ultimatum by the Estates of Holland had been received, the Duke of Brunswick crossed the Dutch frontier. In Guelderland and parts of Utrecht the Prussians were hailed as deliverers; even the city of Utrecht opened its gates, owing to the cowardice of the Rhinegrave of Salm, who soon abandoned the cause for which he had blustered so long. Nowhere did the Free Corps make any firm stand. Even in Holland their excesses had turned public opinion strongly against them. It is said that the weather prevented the opening of the sluices; but the half-heartedness of the defence, and the eagerness of the Orange party for deliverance, probably explain the débâcle. When the Dutch have been united and determined, their defence of their land has always been stubborn. Now it was not even creditable; and this fact may be cited as damning to the Patriots’ claim that they stood for the nation. On 20th September the Prince of Orange made his entry into The Hague amidst boundless enthusiasm. Sir James Harris also received a striking ovation, which rewarded him for the long months of struggle.

Now, while the Patriots were in consternation at their overthrow, our envoy clinched his triumph by persuading the Estates of Holland to reverse their previous acts against the Stadholder’s authority, and to rescind a resolution which they had passed on 9th September appealing for armed aid from France. The cancelling of this appeal on 21st September was a matter of great importance, as it deprived France of a pretext for armed intervention. The receipt of this news at Versailles helped to cool the warlike ardour of the French Court.

There the temper of the Ministry had fluctuated alarmingly. The recall of Vérac seemed to assure a peaceful settlement. But on 4th September Montmorin sent to Eden a despatch which ran directly counter to the British and Prussian proposals. It stated that the Dutch towns, where the Free Corps had forcibly changed the magistrates, “ont déjà consommé la réforme; ... c’est une affaire terminée.” As for the Prince of Orange, he would do377 well to abdicate in favour of his son.574 Pitt of course indignantly rejected both proposals; and his temper is seen in the phrase of his letter of 14th September to Eden, that if France was determined to keep her predominance in the United Provinces, she must fight for it.575

An acute crisis now set in. While Carmarthen warned Montmorin that England would not remain a quiet spectator of French intervention, that Minister on 16th September issued a Declaration that France could not refuse the appeal for help which had come from the Estates of Holland. He charged England with having plotted the whole affair with Prussia, and asserted that, inconvenient though the time was now that the fate of the Turkish Empire stood at hazard, France must in honour draw the sword.576

This Declaration drew from Pitt an equally stiff retort. In a circular despatch intended for all our ambassadors, which he himself drew up, he declared that England could not admit the right of France, owing to its treaty with the Dutch Republic, “to support a party in one of the Provinces in a measure expressly disavowed by a majority of the States-General; and His Majesty has repeatedly declared the impossibility of his being indifferent to any armed interference of France in the affairs of the Republic, which, if unopposed, must necessarily tend to consequences dangerous to the constitutional independence of those Provinces, and affecting in many respects the interests and security of his dominions. His Majesty has therefore found himself under the necessity of taking measures for equipping a considerable naval armament and for augmenting his land forces.” Nevertheless he still desired “an amicable settlement of the points in dispute.”577 As many as forty sail of the line were immediately prepared for sea; and here we may notice that Pitt’s care for the navy ensured a preponderance which virtually decided the dispute.

In order to see whether war might be averted, George III suggested, on 16th September, that someone should be sent to Paris who could deal with the French Ministers better than Eden378 did. Pitt therefore decided, on 19th September, to despatch Grenville, charging him distinctly to declare that Great Britain approved the action of the King of Prussia, and would resist an armed intervention by France; also that the settlement in the United Provinces must be such as to restore to the Stadholder his constitutional powers, and prevent the ascendency of the party hostile to Britain. A secondary aim of Grenville’s mission was the forming of a friendly understanding with France for the cessation of warlike preparations on both sides of the Channel—a proof of Pitt’s watchful care over the exchequer.578

Montmorin received Grenville coldly on 28th September at Versailles; but his reserve was merely a cloak to hide his discomfiture. Nine days before he had assured Eden, in the confidence which followed on a private dinner, that “if the Estates of Holland should prove so defenceless, or so intimidated as to give way to whatever might be forced under the present attack, he would advise His Most Christian Majesty not to engage in war.” If matters went more favourably he would advise him to draw the sword; but, as for his own feelings, he was weary of the Dutch Question, and only sought the means for getting rid of it creditably, so that France might turn her attention to another quarter, obviously the East.579 Grenville, after hearing all this from Eden, and receiving the good news from The Hague, of course put the right interpretation on Montmorin’s non possumus, and sought to facilitate his stately retreat. He was at once waved back. Montmorin would make no promise as to her course of action so long as the Prussians were in Holland. Even on the question of disarmament by the two Powers—a matter of the utmost moment to France—he would make no pledge, though Grenville strongly urged him to do so. Two more interviews passed with the same frigid negations; and on 3rd October Grenville returned to London, harbouring a shrewd suspicion that the actions of the Court of Versailles would on this occasion tally with Montmorin’s words.

Such proved to be the case. France did nothing, to the unbounded disgust of her partisans in Holland. Amsterdam shut its gates and endured a short siege from the Prussians in the belief that help must come from Paris. Our diplomatic agent,379 W. A. Miles, writing from Liège on 1st October, reported that the burgomasters of Utrecht and Gorcum had passed through that city on their way to Paris in the conviction that “France would never leave them in the lurch, and that her troops would certainly march to the relief of Amsterdam.”580 Their consternation must have been great on reaching Givet to find that there was no camp there.581 The truth then flashed upon them that the French agents had relied on bluster and the Free Corps. Disappointment at the inaction of the French Court probably hastened the surrender of Amsterdam, which opened its gates on 10th October. The capture by the Prussians of many French soldiers, who declared that they were acting for that Government, revealed the sinister conduct of some, at least, of the French Ministers, and of Vérac.582 A letter of Grenville to Eden on 26th October 1787 shows the surprise and disgust of our Ministers at this flagrant bad faith. He says he is “mortified” at finding that Ségur, Minister for War, had sent signed orders for parties of French artillerymen to march north to the frontier, and put themselves under the command of an adventurer named Esterhazy. “His (Ségur’s) orders again expressly direct the march into Holland in disguise, and point out the places where the men are to be equipped with habits de paysan for this purpose.”583

The surrender of Amsterdam gave the last blow to the war party at Versailles. Up to 14th October Pitt felt the utmost concern, as appears in his letter of that date to Eden; but the reply of that envoy three days later showed that Ségur and his colleagues now bowed to the inevitable. Their peaceful mood was doubtless confirmed by the evasive and discouraging answer sent by Austria to the appeal for help.584 The Emperor had a large force in Belgium, but none too large to hold down that people. Moreover, the prospect of war with Turkey imposed caution at Vienna.

The chief danger now was that France would join Russia and380 Austria in the dismemberment of Turkey. Fear of such a step haunted Pitt, who always surveyed the Dutch Question from the standpoint of India. Thus we find him on 8th October charging Eden to watch most carefully the attitude of France to the events in the East. The replies of that envoy were, as usual, reassuring. France, according to Eden, only desired peace, and the scheme of seizing Egypt was “wholly wild.”585 Pitt therefore decided to press forward, and to persuade France to give an unequivocal assurance of her pacific intentions, as a prelude to disarmament on both sides. His letter of 14th October to Eden on this topic shows a grip of essentials, together with a surprising finesse. While anxious to induce France to disarm at the earliest possible moment, he advised Eden to humour Alvensleben, the special Prussian envoy at Paris, and to convince him that we were giving Prussia firm support and were not disposed to patch up a premature settlement.586 Evidently Pitt’s interest in diplomacy, though belated, was keen.

After long correspondence with Berlin, and much demurring at Versailles, a Declaration and Counter-Declaration were drafted and signed by the British envoys and Montmorin on 27th October. The French document averred that, as it had never been the intention of the King of France to intervene in Dutch affairs, he now retained no hostile views in any quarter respecting them, and therefore consented to disarm.587 This public denial of what had notoriously been the aim of his Government, and this promise to renounce all ideas of revenge on Prussia, sent a thrill of astonishment through the diplomatic world. Never had France so openly abandoned her partisans or so publicly proclaimed her impotence. If Pitt (as French historians have asserted) had persistently sought to humiliate the Court of Versailles, he could not have succeeded more completely. But this Counter-Declaration was merely the climax of a diplomatic game which had taken a threatening turn only since the beginning of September. The fact is that the French Ministers, and still more their agents in Holland, had precipitated the crisis by the actions of the Free Corps at the very time which proved to be most unfavourable for them. By their conduct they courted failure; but it was the outbreak of war in the East which made that failure complete and crushing.


On the other hand, the conduct of the friends of the House of Orange, after long delays and blunders, was singularly astute when the crisis came. The conduct of the Princess deserves the highest praise. The diplomacy of Harris and Ewart was a marvel of skill. As for Eden, he had little more to do than to obey orders, though he sometimes toned down the harsh phrases of Pitt and Carmarthen.588 The action of the Prussians was trenchant, but it could not have been so but for their confidence in the promised support of the Sea Power. Pitt’s fostering care of the national resources, and his rehabilitation of the navy had made it virtually impossible for the semi-bankrupt French State to enter single-handed on a war with Great Britain and Prussia. This was the determining factor in the problem; and every statesman at Paris, London, and Berlin knew it.

But something more than sound finance is needed in a complex and critical situation. There the qualities of foresight, tact, and determination are of priceless worth; and on all sides it was admitted that Pitt displayed them to a high degree. The restraint which kept Harris strictly within bounds until the fit moment arrived is not more remarkable than the boldness which reaped all possible advantages from the daring coup of the Princess of Orange. Eden wrote on 1st November, that he had shuddered at the courage of Pitt in braving the chances of a war with France.589 But the young statesman knew how far he could go with safety; he discerned the essential fact that France could not fight, and that Montmorin adopted his negative attitude in order to hide that important secret. If Montmorin chose to justify her disarmament by assertions which were equally false and humiliating, that was a matter for him, not for the statesmen of Great Britain.

Pitt’s conduct of this, his first great diplomatic campaign, shines all the more brightly by contrast with the vacillations of Frederick William and the stupendous blunders of the French Government. Adverting briefly to these last, we may note that France had little ground for interference so long as a majority of the States-General deprecated such action; and, thanks to Harris, that majority, except for a few days, held firm. The French Government therefore founded its hopes on the majority in the Province of Holland, and on the high-handed proceedings382 of the Free Corps, which it secretly abetted. Montmorin repulsed two overtures from Berlin because of the insistence of Prussia that those corps should be suppressed. This action it was, more perhaps than the resentment of Frederick William at the insult to his sister, which helped to bring Prussia and Great Britain into line. France also finally denied the right of Frederick William to gain reparation for that insult, though she at first recognized the justice of his claim. Further, when he sent forward his troops, she made ready for war, and then adopted the attitude of sullen resentment, which rendered a joint mediation by the three Powers impossible. This conduct in its turn implied the lapse of the Franco-Dutch treaty of 1785, and the triumph of British and Prussian influence in the United Provinces. Frenchmen also saw in this event another proof of the uselessness of the Austrian alliance on which Marie Antoinette had staked her popularity; and the débâcle in Holland was a deadly blow at the influence of that unfortunate Queen. Finally France admitted her defeat in terms at which friends and foes alike scoffed. Not without reason, then, did Napoleon afterwards assert that the French Revolution was due to three causes, the Battle of Rossbach, the Diamond Necklace scandal, and the ousting of French influence from the United Provinces in 1787. The judgement is curiously superficial in that it passes over the fiscal and agrarian evils which potently conduced to the great upheaval; but it reflected the opinion of that generation, which looked on deficits, dearths, and bread-riots as dispensations of Providence, of trifling import when compared with the decay in prestige of an ancient monarchy. Something may be said for this view of things in the case of France. For years that monarchy had lived on prestige. The surrender of October 1787 now proclaimed to the world its decrepitude.

* * * * *

With the events attending the restoration of the Stadholder’s power and the constitution of the year 1747 we are not here concerned. Pitt had rightly refused to interfere until the efforts of the Patriots to establish French influence had become a positive danger to England. His interest in those troubles was largely grounded on naval and colonial considerations. If the United Provinces became an annexe of France, their fleet, their valuable colonies, and their once prosperous East India Company, would be cast into the balance against us. Now that this383 danger was past, he sought to remove all chance of its recurrence by suggesting the formation of a treaty of alliance with the Republic. On 5th October the first proposal to this effect was framed at Whitehall on condition that the two States should assist one another in case of attack, and guarantee the possession of their territories; but from the outset the Foreign Office set its face sternly against any concession such as “Free Ships, Free Goods,” on which the Dutch were likely to insist.

There was, however, another stumbling stone in the way. The Dutch felt keenly the surrender of Negapatam to Great Britain, and they urged that, as that sacrifice had been forced on them in 1784 for the greater security of our settlements in the Carnatic, its retrocession was a natural consequence and a pledge of the friendship now happily restored. The Pitt Ministry, however, viewed the matter in the cold light of self-interest, and rejected the demand, in spite of the reiterated assurances of the Prince of Orange, the new Grand Pensionary, Van der Spiegel, and other friends of England, that they could not otherwise accept the proffered treaty. Even Harris finally confessed his inability to bend their will, and he advised Pitt and Carmarthen not to imperil the alliance on this single detail. Prussia, he said, had given way at some points in her negotiations with the Dutch; and it was impolitic for us to be too stiff.590

Pitt, however, would not give way. Probably he considered that the Stadholder’s party, now in power, needed our support more than we needed his; or he may have grounded his decision on the need of preventing the rise of any Power other than that of England in South India, where Tippoo Sahib was always a danger. He refused to do more than offer to negotiate on this question within the space of six months after the signature of the treaty. The negotiation was never even begun; and thus the treaty signed at The Hague on 15th April 1788 was always viewed with disfavour by the Dutch. The guarantee of the restored Stadholderate by Great Britain, and the promise of each State to assist in the defence of the possessions of the other, were in themselves quite satisfactory; but the compact lacked the solidity which comes only from entire confidence and goodwill.591


The formation of an alliance with Prussia in the same year also came about in a manner more brilliant than sound. Of course, in all such affairs each Power tries to bring the other over to its own standpoint; and much tugging must needs take place between a military and a naval State. Frederick William and his chief statesman, Hertzberg, had just achieved the first success of their careers, and largely owing to the firmness of Pitt. Assured of their supremacy in Germany and Holland, they now sought to guard against the dangers threatening them from the East. The news which came in the month of November 1787, that Austria would join Russia in her war with Turkey, caused the gravest concern at Berlin, and therefore enhanced the value of a British alliance. The growing weakness of France and the power of Pitt to handle a crisis firmly therefore put a new face on Prussian policy. Instead of waiting on Paris, the Berlin Cabinet looked more and more expectantly towards London.

Already Frederick William had signified his desire for a union with the Dutch “in order to pave the way to a Triple Alliance between England, Prussia, and Holland as soon as it may be possible to accomplish it.”592 But the Pitt Ministry, distrustful of an alliance with Prussia unless Russia also came in, treated this overture very coyly. From a letter which the first Earl Camden wrote to Pitt on 18th October, we gather that the Earl was far more inclined to such an alliance than Pitt had shown himself to be at a recent meeting of the Cabinet. Camden favoured the plan as tending to consolidate our influence in Holland—a matter of the utmost moment. “We have escaped miraculously,” he writes, “from the most perilous situation we ever experienced, and shall be mad if we slip the opportunity of rooting out the French interest in that country for ever ... and that will be compleatly effected by a Prussian alliance.” It would also free Prussia from slavish dependence upon France. As for the fear that it would drive France to a close compact with Russia and Austria, the Earl treated that danger as remote.593

Carmarthen, and probably Pitt also, looked on the danger as real enough to give them pause. Not till 2nd December did Carmarthen return any specific answer; and then he expressed the doubt whether it was desirable to form a Triple Alliance then, 385as there were rumours of a projected union between these three Powers, which might become a reality if England, Prussia, and Holland coalesced.594 If that hostile league were formed, it would then be desirable to come to terms, and even to include Denmark, Sweden, and the lesser German States. It is curious that he did not name Poland; but here we find the first definite sign of that league of the smaller States with Prussia and Great Britain which afterwards played so important a part in Pitt’s foreign policy.

The caution of Pitt was justified. In a few days’ time Sweden came knocking at our door, asking for admittance along with Denmark. The adventurous character of Gustavus III will appear in the sequel. Here we may note that Carmarthen politely waved aside this offer of alliance from a suspicion that he was planning a blow at Russia.595 The blow did not fall until the middle of July 1788; but then the sudden summons of the Swedish King to the Empress Catharine to hand back part of Russian Finland, and to accept his mediation in the Russo-Turkish War, showed the meaning of his proposal at Christmas 1787.

Only by slow degrees did the eastern horizon clear. But when France showed her resentment at the participation of Austria in the Turkish War, the spectre of a hostile Triple Alliance was laid; and then, but not till then, Pitt showed more favour to the Prussian proposals. Yet here again there was need of caution. The Eastern Question touched Prussia far more closely than England. If Joseph II gained his heart’s desire—Moldavia and Wallachia—and Catharine extended her boundary to the River Dniester, the greatness and even the safety of Prussia and of Poland would be hopelessly compromised.596 Accordingly Prussia sought by all means short of drawing the sword to help the Turks in their unequal struggle. She cantoned large forces near the Austrian border, hinted that she would be glad to offer her mediation for the purpose of securing a reasonable peace, and sent an official disguised as a merchant by way of Venice to Constantinople in order to encourage the386 Sultan to a vigorous prosecution of the war.597 Hertzberg also urged the formation of a league between Prussia, England, and the smaller States with a view to the guarantee of the Turkish possessions in Europe.598

To this proposal the British Government gave no encouragement. So far as appears from the despatches of this year, the fate of Turkey was not a matter of much concern to Pitt and Carmarthen. Indeed, not until 2nd April did they vouchsafe an answer to the Prussian proposal of alliance; and then they based their acceptance on the need of safeguarding the situation in Holland. Other States, it was added, might be invited to join the Triple Alliance in order effectively to counterbalance the jealous efforts to which it might give rise; but Great Britain declined to bind herself to any guarantee of the Sultan’s dominions. If he were in sore straits, Great Britain would support Prussia in gaining reasonable terms for him, but she would not favour any active intervention on his behalf. Still less would she support the notion (outlined by Hertzberg) that Prussia should acquire an indemnity for any gains that Austria might make in the present war.599 The keynote of British policy was firmly struck in this sentence: “The great object which we have in view is the continuance of peace, as far as that is not inconsistent with our essential interests. It is with that view that the alliance of Holland has been thought so material, as rendering any attack upon us less probable. With the same view we are desirous of cultivating the closest connections with the Court of Berlin.”600 That is to say, the proposed Triple Alliance was to be a purely defensive league for the safeguarding of the three States and their colonies.

At Berlin, however, now that Catharine had finally waved aside the friendly offers of British and Prussian mediation, the Eastern crisis eclipsed all other topics. By degrees Hertzberg387 laid his plans for the aggrandizement of Prussia, whatever might befall the Turks.601 As will appear more fully in a later chapter, he expected that Joseph II would gain the whole, or large parts, of Moldavia and Wallachia. The armed mediation of Prussia was to lessen these acquisitions; and as a set-off to them Austria must cede Galicia to the Poles; while their gratitude for the recovery of that great province, torn from them in 1772, was to show itself in the cession to Prussia of the important fortresses and districts, Danzig and Thorn, so necessary for the rounding off of her ragged borders on the East. Such was the scheme which took shape in Hertzberg’s fertile brain, and dominated Prussian policy down to the summer of the year 1791.

The watchful Ewart forwarded to Whitehall details of this gigantic “deal” (if we may use the Americanism); and as the scheme came to light it aroused deep distrust at Whitehall. At once the Prussian proposal wore a new aspect; and the draft of a treaty drawn up in this sense in the middle of April left little hope of a settlement between the two Powers. In reply to its proposals Pitt and Carmarthen pointed out the vagueness of the Prussian suggestions respecting Turkey, but hinted that an opportunity might come for befriending the Sultan if he were too hard pressed. Further, while promising to help Prussia if she were attacked, they again demanded the like succour from her if any of our colonies were assailed. They also desired to bring into the league Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal. For the present, however, they sought to limit the Anglo-Prussian understanding to the Dutch guarantee, though a closer compact was to be discussed during the visit of the Prussian monarch to his sister at Loo.602

This last suggestion was for Ewart himself. The others he was to pass on to Hertzberg. That Minister chafed at this further rebuff to his plans, which now comprised the offer of the armed mediation of Prussia, England, and Holland to Catharine and Joseph. The fondness of Frederick William for France once more appeared; and the French party at Berlin venomously raised its head. England, they avowed, would gain everything from this one-sided compact; for her colonies were to be found in every sea. Why should the troops of the great Frederick be388 set in motion to help the islanders every time that one of their colonial governors lost his temper? Finally the King declared that he would not send his troops beyond the bounds of Germany and Holland.603

There seemed little chance of an agreement between the two Courts, until Frederick William set out for his visit to the Prince and Princess of Orange at Loo, and let fall the remark that he hoped to see Sir James Harris there. Already that envoy had asked permission to come to London; and, with the zeal of a convert to the Prussian alliance, he convinced Ministers of its desirability, even if they gave way on certain points. The Instructions drawn up for him on 6th June set forth the need of an Anglo-Prussian alliance in order “to contribute to the general tranquillity.” He was also to sound the Prussian monarch as to the inclusion of other Powers, especially Sweden and Denmark; but discussions on this matter were not to stand in the way of the signature of the treaty.604 George III, now a firm supporter of peace principles, favoured the scheme, as appears from his letter of the same date to the Princess of Orange. He there stated that he approved of an alliance with Prussia, though there might not be time to gain the adhesion of other States; and he expressed the hope that this compact would lead Austria and France to desire the continuance of peace, and thereby conduce to the termination of war in the East.605

Fortified by these opinions of the King and Cabinet, Harris prepared to play the game boldly. His handsome person, grand air, and consciousness of former victories gave him an advantage in the discussions with Frederick William, who, thanks to the tact of the Princess, laid aside his earlier prepossessions against the “dictator,” and entered into his views. In order to keep the impressionable monarch free from disturbing influences, Harris paid the sum of 200 ducats to a chamberlain if he would ensure the exclusion of a noted partisan of France, Colonel Stein, from the royal chamber during a critical stage in the healing process. The climax came during a ball on 12–13th June. After midnight the King sought out Harris, invited him to walk in the garden, admitted the force of his arguments in favour of an immediate signature of the proposed treaty, and allowed him to speak to his Minister, Alvensleben. While fireworks blazed389 and courtiers danced, the two Ministers drew up a provisional treaty, to which the King assented on the following morning, 13th June 1788.

The news of the signature of the Provisional Treaty of Loo was received at Berlin with an outburst of rage, when it appeared that nearly all the aims and safeguards striven for by Ministers and Francophiles had disappeared. Further negotiations ensued at Berlin; but they brought no material change to the Loo compact. The treaty signed at Berlin by Hertzberg and Ewart on 13th August 1788 was defensive in character. Each State promised to help the other, in case of attack, by a force of 20,000 men; but Great Britain was not to use such a force of Prussians outside Europe or even at Gibraltar. That contingent might be increased if need arose; or it might be replaced by a money equivalent. As was stipulated at Loo, the two Powers pledged themselves to uphold the integrity of the United Provinces and of their present constitution, and to defend that State by all possible means, in case of attack, the Dutch also affording armed help to either ally, if it were attacked. Two secret articles were added to the Berlin Treaty, the one stipulating that no military aid should be given to the party attacked unless the latter had on foot at least 44,000 men; the second provided that a British fleet should assist Prussia if the latter applied for it.606

Thus was formed an imposing league. The splendid army of Prussia, backed by the fleets and resources of Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, constituted a force which during three years was to maintain peace and assure the future of the smaller States. If we remember the state of woeful isolation of England up to the summer of 1787, the contrast in her position a year later is startling. It came about owing to the caution of Pitt in a time when precipitate action would have marred everything. His wise delay in the early stages of the Dutch crisis, and his diplomatic coyness in the bargaining with Prussia are alike admirable.607 The British envoys, Ewart and Harris (Keith at Vienna deserves also to be named) were men of unusual390 capacity and courage; but then as now success depended mainly on the chief; and it has been shown that the guiding hand at Whitehall was that of Pitt.

His diplomatic triumphs recorded in this chapter were to have a marked influence on the future of Europe. It is not generally known how acute was the danger arising from the schemes of Catharine II and Joseph II. In popular imagination the premonitory rumblings of the French Revolution rivet the attention of the world to the exclusion of all else; but a perusal of the letters of statesmen shows that nine-tenths of their time were given to thwarting the plans of the imperial revolutionists. In truth French democracy could not have gained its rapid and easy triumphs had not the monarchies of Central and Eastern Europe shaken the old order of things to its base, so that even the intelligent conservatism of Pitt failed to uphold the historic fabric from the attacks that came from the East and the West. Well was it for Great Britain that her diplomatic position was fully assured by the autumn of the year 1788. For at that time lunacy beset her monarch, paralyzed her executive government, and threatened to place her fortunes at the mercy of a dissolute prince.



Our Ministers like gladiators live;
’Tis half their business blows to ward or give.
The good their virtue would effect, or sense,
Dies between exigents and self-defence.

He [the Prince of Wales] has so effeminate a mind as to counteract his own good qualities, by having no control over his weaknesses.

The Earl of Malmesbury, Diaries, iv, 33.

A Prime Minister of Great Britain needs to be an intellectual Proteus. Besides determining the lines of foreign and domestic policy, he must regulate the movements of a complex parliamentary machine, ever taking into account personal prejudices which not seldom baffle the most careful forecast. It is not surprising, therefore, to find statesmen at Westminster often slow and hesitating even when there is need of prompt decision. The onlooker may see only the public questions at issue. The man in the thick of the maze may all the time be holding the personal clue which alone can bring him to the open. How often has the fate of Europe turned on the foibles or favouritism of Queen Elizabeth, Louis XIV, Queen Anne, Charles XII, Catharine II. In the present age this factor counts for less than of yore. Hence it comes about that many modern critics assess the career of Pitt as if he were in the position of a Gladstone. In point of fact he was more under royal control than Walpole or Godolphin. He had to do with a Sovereign who in the last resort gave the law to his Ministers, and occasionally treated them like head clerks.

True, George III interfered with Pitt less than with his predecessors. That masterful will had been somewhat tamed during the “bondage” to the Coalition, and almost perforce accepted the guidance of his deliverer. The King even allowed Pitt to go392 his own way respecting Reform, Warren Hastings, and the Irish Commercial Treaty. Family scandals and family debts for a time overshadowed all other considerations, a fact which goes far to explain the bourgeois domesticity of his outlook on Dutch affairs. In these years, then, he acquiesced in the lead of the heaven-sent Minister who maintained the national credit and the national honour. But in the last resort George III not only reigned but governed. Thus, apart from the Eastern War, which we shall consider later, everything portended a time of calm in the year 1788, when suddenly the personal element obtruded itself. There fell upon the monarch a strange malady which threatened to bring confusion in place of order, and to enthrone a Prince who was the embodiment of faction and extravagance.

The career of the Prince of Wales illustrates the connection often subsisting between the extremes of virtue and vice. Not seldom the latter may be traced to the excess of the former in some primly uninteresting home; and certainly the Prince, who saw the light on 12th August 1762, might serve to point the moral against pedantic anxiety on the part of the unco’ guid. His upbringing by the strictest of fathers in the most methodized of households early helped to call out and strengthen the tendencies to opposition which seemed ingrained in the heirs-apparent of that stubborn stock. In the dull life at Kew or Windsor, bristling with rules and rebukes, may we not see the working in miniature of those untoward influences—fussy control and austere domination—which wearied out the patience of Ministers and the loyalty of colonists?

Moreover this royal precisian was not blessed with a gracious consort. Queen Charlotte’s youthful experiences at the ducal Court of Mecklenburg predisposed her to strict control and unsparing parsimony. Many were the jests as to her stamping with her signet the butter left over at meals. It was even affirmed that apple charlottes owed their name to her custom of using up the spare crusts of every day. These slanders (for the latter story fails before the touchstone of the term Charlotte Russe) owed their popularity largely to her ugliness. One of her well-wishers, Colonel Disbrowe, once expressed to Croker the hope that the bloom of her ugliness was going off.608 This sin revealed393 a multitude of others; and it is fairly certain that Queen Charlotte has been hardly judged. Some there were who accused her of callousness towards the King during his insanity; and the charge seems in part proven for the year 1804.609 Others, again, charged her with unmotherly treatment of the Prince of Wales. Who can suffice for these things? Aristophanes coined a happy phrase to denote lovers of the trivial in politics. He calls them “buzzers-in-corners.” Those who essay to write the life of a great statesman must avoid those nooks.

One thing is certain. The Prince of Wales grew to dislike both his father and mother. His temperament was far gayer and more romantic than theirs. Some imaginative persons have ventured to assert that a more generous and sympathetic training would have moulded him to a fine type of manhood. Undoubtedly his education was of the narrow kind which had stunted the nature of George III; and when the King, with ingrained obstinacy, continued to keep the trammels on the high-spirited youth of eighteen, he burst them asunder. At that age the Prince had his first amour (was it his first?), namely, with the actress, “Perdita” Robinson.610 The gilded youth of London, long weary of the primness of Windsor, cheered him on to further excesses, and Carlton House set the tone of the age. In vain did the King seek to regain the confidence and affection of his son.611 His efforts were repulsed; and the debasing influence of Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, inured the Prince to every kind of debauchery.

As if this were not enough, the heir to the throne made a bosom friend of the man whom his father most detested, Charles James Fox. Through that charming libertine the Prince became an habitué of the Whig Club, Brooks’s;612 and, as we have seen, he helped to defeat the King’s eager electioneering in the great fight of 1784 at Westminster. Thenceforth the feud between father and son was bitter and persistent. The Prince had all his father’s wilfulness, and far more than his stock of selfishness.394 So far as is known, he showed no sign of repentance, but argued himself into the belief that the King had always hated him from his seventh year onward.613 There is nothing that corroborates this petulant assertion. The King had been a kind and even doting father, his chief fault being that of guiding too long and too closely this wayward nature.

By the summer of 1783 the quarrel had waxed warm on the subject of the immorality and extravagance of the Prince. At that time the Coalition Ministry startled the King by proposing to grant the sum of £100,000 a year to the Prince of Wales, exclusive of the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall, which amounted to about £13,000 a year.614 The King, having formerly received far less than that amount, considered it exorbitant. As we saw in Chapter VI, the Ministry would probably have fallen had not the Prince required his favourite to waive the proposal. Parliament then voted £30,000 to pay his debts, £30,000 to start his new establishment (Carlton House) and £50,000 a year out of the Civil List.

By the autumn of the next year the Prince defiantly proposed to travel abroad in order to ease his finances by evading his creditors. This the King forbade, and requested him to send in a detailed list of his expenses and debts. The result was a statement clear enough in most items, but leaving a sum of £25,000 unaccounted for. The King required an explanation of this, which the Prince as firmly refused to give, though he assured Sir James Harris it was a debt of honour. As the King refused to pass this sum, the whole matter dragged on, until in April 1785 the debts reached the total of £160,000. To escape the discomforts of his position, the Prince proposed to his friend, Harris, who was then in London, a term of residence at The Hague. The true reason for this proposal lies in the fact that the Prince had for some time been desperately in love with a fair young widow, Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was a Roman Catholic. In vain had he wounded himself as a sign of his undying passion for her: in vain had four of his friends sought to inveigle her into a mock marriage. In order to escape his importunities she had fled to the Continent; and the King refused him permission to pursue her.

Here, in truth, was the crux of the relations between father395 and son. King George saw no hope for the youth but in marriage with a Protestant princess. Prince George as firmly declared that he would not marry “some German frow,” and racked his brains with designs to secure the Roman Catholic of his choice. Mrs. Fitzherbert’s religion, her position as a commoner, and the anomaly of a morganatic marriage in these islands, rendered any connection with her odious in the eyes of the King. Besides, the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 forbade the marriage of any prince or princess of the blood under the age of twenty-six without the consent of the King. On all sides, then, the King had the Prince in his toils.

The Prince, realizing this fact, seems to have behaved as recklessly as possible in the hope of compelling the King to allow him to live abroad and marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. Such at least is the most charitable explanation of his early prodigalities. The debts, surely, were a means of forcing the hand of his father. But George was not to be gulled in this way. He, too, held firmly to his views, and the result was a hopeless deadlock. Pitt and Carmarthen sought to end it in May 1785. They threw out hints to Harris that the income of the Prince might be increased by Parliament if he would become reconciled to the King, cease to be a party man, and set about the discharge of his debts. Accordingly Harris waited on the Prince at Carlton House on 23rd May 1785, and suggested that on these conditions the Ministry would double his income, provided also that he set apart £50,000 a year for the discharge of his debts. To this the Prince demurred, on the ground that he could not desert Fox, and that the King’s unfatherly hatred would be an obstacle to any such proposal. In support of the latter statement he requested Harris to read the King’s letters to him, which were couched in severe terms, reprobating his extravagance and dissipation.

We cannot censure this severity. The gluttonous orgies of Carlton House were a public scandal, especially in hard times, when Parliament withheld the money necessary for the protection of Portsmouth and Plymouth. Both as a patriot and a father, George was justified in condemning his son’s conduct; and it is clear that the hatred of the Prince for his father led him to put the worst possible construction on the advice from Windsor. At the close of his interview with Harris he declared vehemently that he never would marry, and that he396 had settled with his brother Frederick, Duke of York, for the Crown to devolve on his heirs.615

As illustrating the relations of father and son, I may quote an unpublished letter from Hugh Elliot to Pitt, dated Brighthelmstone, 17th October 1785, and endorsed by Pitt—“Shewn to the King.”616 In it Elliot states that he went to Brighton merely for bathing, but was soon honoured by the Prince’s company and confidence. He had combated several of his prejudices, and this had not offended him; but the Prince asked him to discuss matters with the King’s Ministers, who would then report to the King. He then adds:

There is so much difficulty in putting upon paper the secret circumstances I have learnt, or in detailing the imminent danger to which H.R.H. is exposed from a manner of life that can be thoroughly understood only by those who are eye-witnesses of it, that, out of respect to the Prince, I shall be justified in not dwelling upon so distressing a subject, but that I may be allowed to advance, that in my opinion H.R.H. risks being lost to himself, his family and his country if a total and sudden change does not take place. I will even venture to add that the Prince is at this moment not insensible that such a change is necessary and that it is one of the motives which make him desirous of visiting the Continent under such restrictions as the King may think proper to advise.

Elliot adds that the Prince would travel only with Colonels Lee and Slaughter and himself, if the King and Pitt approved of his going with him. The Prince hoped to economize and so win back the good opinion of the King and country. He (Elliot) would rejoice if he could further this course.

The desire of the Prince for foreign travel ended with the return of Mrs. Fitzherbert from her secret tour. The Prince’s pursuit of her now became more eager than ever, and he succeeded in inspiring her with feelings of love. Consequently, on 15th December 1785, he secretly married her, having four days previously assured his bosom friend, Fox, that there was no “ground for these reports which of late have been so malevolently circulated.” It is now proved beyond possibility of doubt that the marriage was legal (except in the political sense above noticed), and that the Prince did his wife grievous397 wrong in persistently denying the fact.617 She, with all the proofs in her possession, refrained from compromising him, and therefore had to endure endless slights. Many persons had the good sense to place her dignified silence far above his unblushing denials, and Society was rent in twain by the great question—“Was he married or not?” In view of these facts, is it desirable to present a full-length portrait of His Royal Highness? The wonder is that even in his Perdita days his name could ever be compared with the tenderest and most faithful of Shakespeare’s lovers, Prince Florizel. That he allowed himself to be painted in that guise argues singular assurance. Was not Cloten more nearly his prototype?

It would be interesting to know whether the King and Queen were aware of the secret marriage. The Queen in a private interview pressed him to tell the truth; but he probably equivocated. Their action bespeaks perplexity. In private they treated Mrs. Fitzherbert kindly, but never received her at Court.618 That Pitt was not ill-informed on the subject appears from the following hitherto unpublished letter from his brother, the Earl of Chatham. It is undated, but probably belongs to the month of December 1785:

Hanley, Wednesday.619

My Dear Brother,

I have had a good deal of conversation with Sir C—— on the subject you wished some information upon. The result of which leaves no doubt on my mind of the P[rince] having not only offered to marry Mrs. F., but taken measures towards its accomplishment. Many circumstances confirm this opinion, but this much is, I think, certain information, which is that the letters from the P. offering it were shown by himself to Mrs. S—— L——, the mother, from whom Sir Carnaby has it immediately, and the letter from Mrs. F. to her mother, in which she informs her of her consent. Sir C—— has seen an extract of, and is promised a copy of [it], which I shall see. It must, however, I think, still remain very doubtful, till the step is absolutely taken, whether it ever will, or whether it is more than a last effort to gain her without; but398 Sir C. and all her family seem perfectly convinced that he seriously and at all events intends it. They are averse to it; but the person in the P’s confidence upon it and most employed in it is Mr. Errington, husband of Lady Broughton. He is supposed to be the person who is to go over as her relation to be present at the ceremony. I have endeavoured to learn what I cou’d as to the point of whether she wou’d change her religion or not. She at present says she will not; but Sir C—— seems to think that she might be brought to that whenever the marriage was declared. The present intention seems to be that it should be kept secret, but that, her conscience thus satisfied, she is to appear, and be received as, his mistress; and I believe it is pretty certain that he has a promise from a certain duchess to visit her and go about with her when she comes....

Clearly the Earl of Chatham came very near the truth. Sir Carnaby Haggerston knew the secret, and chose to reveal a good deal of it. Mr. Errington was the bride’s uncle, and gave her away at the secret ceremony at her house in Park Lane on 15th December.620 The Duchess of Devonshire early recognized Mrs. Fitzherbert, and frequently entertained her along with the Prince.

The liaison with Mrs. Fitzherbert (for it was ostensibly nothing more) of course did not lessen expenses at Carlton House. The Prince insisted on her moving to a larger residence and entertaining on a lavish scale. As for Carlton House, it “exhibited a perpetual scene of excess, unrestrained by any wise superintendence.”621 It was therefore natural that the Prince’s friends should ply Parliament with requests for larger funds in the spring of 1786. The matter came up, not inappropriately, during debates on the deficiency in the Civil List. That most brilliant of wits and most genial of boon companions, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, had now espoused the Prince’s cause. With his customary charm he dragged in the subject of the monetary woes of his patron, pointing out that the dignity of the Crown demanded an ampler provision and the payment of the existing debts. Pitt replied that this matter was not before the House, and added that, as he had received no instructions on the subject, he would not be so presumptuous as to offer any private opinion on it.

Undeterred by this freezing rebuke to Sheridan, Fox on the399 next day raised the same question, maintaining that it was a national advantage for the Heir-Apparent to be able to live not merely in ease but in splendour. This patriotic appeal fell on deaf ears. The country gentlemen who on the score of expense had lately decided to leave Portsmouth and Plymouth open to attack, were not likely to vote away on the orgies of Carlton House an extra sum of £50,000 a year, which in fourteen years would have made the two great dockyard towns impregnable. Fox wisely refrained from pressing his demand, and vouchsafed no explanation as to how the nation would benefit from the encouragement of extravagance in Pall Mall.622 Clearly the Prince’s friends were in a hopeless minority. Accordingly he began more stoutly than ever to deny his marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert; but in such a case character counts for more than oaths and asseverations.

So the miserable affair dragged on. The King refused every request for help for the Prince, doubtless in the hope that debt would compel him to give up his mistress. The debts therefore grew apace, until in the summer of 1786 Carlton House was in danger of being seized by the brokers. It is clear that Pitt sided with the King. George III frequently commended him for his wise advice; but unfortunately nearly all the letters from Pitt to his sovereign, especially on this topic, long ago disappeared from the Library at Windsor, a highly suspicious circumstance. We know, however, that, as early as March and April 1785, the King approved the messages drawn up by Pitt from the Sovereign to the Prince. In general they seem to have been drafted by the Minister; and the following draft, in Pitt’s writing, but dated by the King and with one slight correction, remains as proof that Pitt was the mouthpiece for the royal rebukes. It is endorsed “Draft of Letter from the King to the Prince of Wales”:

Windsor, July 8, 1786.623

After so often repeating to the Prince of Wales the same sentiments on the subject of his applications, and with so little effect, I should add nothing further at present. But I must express my surprise at receiving a letter from him in which he states himself to be convinced that he has no reason to expect either at present or in future the smallest assistance400 from me. A reference to my last letter624 and to the former correspondence might shew him what it was I expected before I could enter further on the consideration of the business. If he chooses to interpret what has passed into a refusal on my part to take measures in any case for his assistance, the consequence of his doing so can be imputed only to his own determination.625

That the details of the expenditure at Carlton House were laid before Pitt is clear from the evidence contained in the Pitt Papers. The packet entitled “Prince of Wales’s Debts,” affords piquant reading. For, be it remembered, at the very time when Pitt was straining every nerve to lessen the National Debt, to rebuild the navy, and to enable England to look her enemies once more in the face, the Prince was squandering money on rare wines, on gilding, ormolu, and on jewellery for Mrs. Fitzherbert, £54,000 being considered a “not unreasonable bill” by her latest biographer.626 An official estimate fixes the total expenditure of the Prince for the years 1784–86 at £369,977 (or at the rate of £123,000 a year) and yet there were “arrears not yet to hand.” Parliament had voted £30,000 for the furnishing of Carlton House; but in 1787 the Prince consulted the welfare of the nation by accepting an estimate of £49,700 for extensions and decorations; and late in 1789 he sought still further to strengthen the monarchy by spending £110,500 on further splendours. They included “a new throne and State bed, furniture trimmed with rich gold lace, also new decorations in the Great Hall, a Chinese Drawing-Room, etc.” The Pitt Papers contain no reference to the sums spent on the Pavilion at Brighton in the years 1785, 1786; but, even in its pre-oriental form, it afforded singular proof of the desire of the Prince for quiet and economy at that watering-place.

Much has been made of the retrenchments of July 1786, when the works on Carlton House were suspended, and the half of that palatial residence was closed. Whatever were the motives that prompted that new development, it soon ceased, as the foregoing figures have shown. The Prince’s necessities being as great as ever, he found means to bring his case before Parliament in the debates of 20th, 24th, and 27th April 1787. Thereupon Pitt clearly hinted that the inquiry, if made at all, must be made401 thoroughly, and that he would in that case be most reluctantly driven “to the disclosure of circumstances which he should otherwise think it his duty to conceal.” The House quivered with excitement at the untactful utterance—one of Pitt’s few mistakes in Parliament. Sheridan, with his usual skill and daring, took up the challenge and virtually defied Pitt to do his worst. Pitt thereupon declared that he referred solely to pecuniary matters.

Everyone, however, knew that the Fitzherbert question was really at stake; and the general dislike to any discussion, even on the debts, was voiced by the heavy Devonshire squire, who was to find immortality in the “Rolliad.” Rolle asserted on 27th April that any such debate would affect the constitution both in Church and State. Undaunted by Sheridan’s salvos of wit, he stuck to his guns, with the result that on the 30th Fox fired off a seemingly crushing discharge. As Sheridan had declared that the Prince in no wise shrank from the fullest inquiry, the Whig chieftain now solemnly assured the House that the reported marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert was a low and malicious calumny. When the tenacious Devonian plied him with the final inquiry whether he spoke from direct authority, Fox replied with the utmost emphasis that he did.

We now know that Fox had been cruelly deceived by the Prince. But in that age the assertion of Fox was considered as almost final, save by those who marked the lofty scorn poured by Mrs. Fitzherbert on her unwitting traducer. In Parliament the victory lay with the Prince; but even there Rolle firmly refused to comply with Sheridan’s challenging request and declare himself satisfied. To the outside world it was clear that either the heir to the throne or Fox had lied.

The letters of George III to Pitt in May 1787 and Pitt’s suggestions for a settlement of the dispute, show that the perturbed monarch placed absolute confidence in his Minister. Very noteworthy is the King’s assertion that there could be no reconciliation until his son consented to marry and to retrench his expenditure. His letter of 20th May 1787 to Pitt further proves that the proposal to add £10,000 to the Prince’s income emanated from Pitt, and was acquiesced in somewhat reluctantly by the King.627


This expedient brought about a partial reconciliation between father and son. On the strong recommendation of Pitt, Parliament allowed the extra £10,000 a year, besides granting £20,000 on behalf of the new works at Carlton House, and paying £161,000 towards the extinction of the Prince’s debts, on his express assurance that he would not exceed his income in the future. The vote was unanimous. Thereupon the King waived the question of the Prince’s marriage; so at least we may infer from the fact that they had a long interview on 25th May 1787 at the Queen’s House (Buckingham House), at the close of which the Prince proceeded to greet his mother and sisters. The parents had few happier days than that; and their joy was crowned a little later by the return of Frederick, Duke of York, after a l