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Page:EB1911 - Volume 06.djvu/15

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CHATHAM, EARL OF


he had suffered even during his school-days, compelled him to leave the university without taking his degree, in order to travel abroad. He spent some time in France and Italy; but the disease proved intractable, and he continued subject to attacks of growing intensity at frequent intervals till the close of his life. In 1727 his father had died, and on his return home it was necessary for him, as the younger son, to choose a profession. Having chosen the army, he obtained through the interest of his friends a cornet’s commission in the dragoons. But his military career was destined to be short. His elder brother Thomas having been returned at the general election of 1734 both for Oakhampton and for Old Sarum, and having preferred to sit for the former, the family borough fell to the younger brother by the sort of natural right usually recognized in such cases. Accordingly, in February 1735, William Pitt entered parliament as member for Old Sarum. Attaching himself at once to the formidable band of discontented Whigs known as the Patriots, whom Walpole’s love of exclusive power had forced into opposition under Pulteney, he became in a very short time one of its most prominent members. His maiden speech was delivered in April 1736, in the debate on the congratulatory address to the king on the marriage of the prince of Wales. The occasion was one of compliment, and there is nothing striking in the speech as reported; but it served to gain for him the attention of the house when he presented himself, as he soon afterwards did, in debates of a party character. So obnoxious did he become as a critic of the government, that Walpole thought fit to punish him by procuring his dismissal from the army. Some years later he had occasion vigorously to denounce the system of cashiering officers for political differences, but with characteristic loftiness of spirit he disdained to make any reference to his own case. The loss of his commission was soon made up to him. The heir to the throne, as was usually the case in the house of Hanover, if not in reigning families generally, was the patron of the opposition, and the ex-cornet became groom of the bed-chamber to the prince of Wales. In this new position his hostility to the government did not, as may be supposed, in any degree relax. He had all the natural gifts an orator could desire—a commanding presence, a graceful though somewhat theatrical bearing, an eye of piercing brightness, and a voice of the utmost flexibility. His style, if occasionally somewhat turgid, was elevated and passionate, and it always bore the impress of that intensity of conviction which is the most powerful instrument a speaker can have to sway the convictions of an audience. It was natural, therefore, that in the series of stormy debates, protracted through several years, that ended in the downfall of Walpole, his eloquence should have been one of the strongest of the forces that combined to bring about the final result. Specially effective, according to contemporary testimony, were his speeches against the Hanoverian subsidies, against the Spanish convention in 1739, and in favour of the motion in 1742 for an investigation into the last ten years of Walpole’s administration. It must be borne in mind that the reports of these speeches which have come down to us were made from hearsay, or at best from recollection, and are necessarily therefore most imperfect. The best-known specimen of Pitt’s eloquence, his reply to the sneers of Horatio Walpole at his youth and declamatory manner, which has found a place in so many handbooks of elocution, is evidently, in form at least, the work, not of Pitt, but of Dr Johnson, who furnished the report to the Gentleman’s Magazine. Probably Pitt did say something of the kind attributed to him, though even this is by no means certain in view of Johnson’s repentant admission that he had often invented not merely the form, but the substance of entire debates.

In 1742 Walpole was at last forced to succumb to the long-continued attacks of opposition, and was succeeded as prime minister by the earl of Wilmington, though the real power in the new government was divided between Carteret and the Pelhams. Pitt’s conduct on the change of administration was open to grave censure. The relentless vindictiveness with which he insisted on the prosecution of Walpole, and supported the bill of indemnity to witnesses against the fallen minister, was in itself not magnanimous; but it appears positively unworthy when it is known that a short time before Pitt had offered, on certain conditions, to use all his influence in the other direction. Possibly he was embittered at the time by the fact that, owing to the strong personal dislike of the king, caused chiefly by the contemptuous tone in which he had spoken of Hanover, he did not by obtaining a place in the new ministry reap the fruits of the victory to which he had so largely contributed. The so-called “broad-bottom” administration formed by the Pelhams in 1744, after the dismissal of Carteret, though it included several of those with whom he had been accustomed to act, did not at first include Pitt himself even in a subordinate office. Before the obstacle to his admission was overcome, he had received a remarkable accession to his private fortune. The eccentric duchess of Marlborough, dying in 1744, at the age of ninety, left him a legacy of £10,000 as an “acknowledgment of the noble defence he had made for the support of the laws of England and to prevent the ruin of his country.” As her hatred was known to be at least as strong as her love, the legacy was probably as much a mark of her detestation of Walpole as of her admiration of Pitt. It may be mentioned here, though it does not come in chronological order, that Pitt was a second time the object of a form of acknowledgment of public virtue which few statesmen have had the fortune to receive even once. About twenty years after the Marlborough legacy, Sir William Pynsent, a Somersetshire baronet to whom he was personally quite unknown, left him his entire estate, worth about three thousand a year, in testimony of approval of his political career.

It was with no very good grace that the king at length consented to give Pitt a place in the government, although the latter did all he could to ingratiate himself at court, by changing his tone on the questions on which he had made himself offensive. To force the matter, the Pelhams had to resign expressly on the question whether he should be admitted or not, and it was only after all other arrangements had proved impracticable, that they were reinstated with the obnoxious politician as vice-treasurer of Ireland. This was in February 1746. In May of the same year he was promoted to the more important and lucrative office of paymaster-general, which gave him a place in the privy council, though not in the cabinet. Here he had an opportunity of displaying his public spirit and integrity in a way that deeply impressed both the king and the country. It had been the usual practice of previous paymasters to appropriate to themselves the interest of all money lying in their hands by way of advance, and also to accept a commission of 1/2% on all foreign subsidies. Although there was no strong public sentiment against the practice, Pitt altogether refused to profit by it. All advances were lodged by him in the Bank of England until required, and all subsidies were paid over without deduction, even though it was pressed upon him, so that he did not draw a shilling from his office beyond the salary legally attaching to it. Conduct like this, though obviously disinterested, did not go without immediate and ample reward, in the public confidence which it created, and which formed the mainspring of Pitt’s power as a statesman.

The administration formed in 1746 lasted without material change till 1754. It would appear from his published correspondence that Pitt had a greater influence in shaping its policy than his comparatively subordinate position would in itself have entitled him to. His conduct in supporting measures, such as the Spanish treaty and the continental subsidies, which he had violently denounced when in opposition, had been much criticized; but within certain limits, not indeed very well defined, inconsistency has never been counted a vice in an English statesman. The times change, and he is not blamed for changing with the times. Pitt in office, looking back on the commencement of his public life, might have used the plea “A good deal has happened since then,” at least as justly as some others have done. Allowance must always be made for the restraints and responsibilities of office. In Pitt’s case, too, it is to be borne in mind that the opposition with which he had acted gradually dwindled away, and that it ceased to have any organized existence after the death of the prince of Wales in 1751. Then in regard to the important question with Spain as to the right of search,