Pitt has disarmed criticism by acknowledging that the course he followed during Wapole’s administration was indefensible. All due weight being given to these various considerations, it must be admitted, nevertheless, that Pitt did overstep the limits within which inconsistency is usually regarded as venial. His one great object was first to gain office, and then to make his tenure of office secure by conciliating the favour of the king. The entire revolution which much of his policy underwent in order to effect this object bears too close a resemblance to the sudden and inexplicable changes of front habitual to placemen of the Tadpole stamp to be altogether pleasant to contemplate in a politician of pure aims and lofty ambition. Humiliating is not too strong a term to apply to a letter in which he expresses his desire to “efface the past by every action of his life,” in order that he may stand well with the king.
In 1754 Henry Pelham died, and was succeeded at the head of affairs by his brother, the duke of Newcastle. To Pitt the change brought no advancement, and he had thus an opportunity of testing the truth of the description of his chief given by Sir Robert Walpole, “His name is treason.” But there was for a time no open breach. Pitt continued at his post; and at the general election which took place during the year he even accepted a nomination for the duke’s pocket borough of Aldborough. He had sat for Seaford since 1747. When parliament met, however, he was not long in showing the state of his feelings. Ignoring Sir Thomas Robinson, the political nobody to whom Newcastle had entrusted the management of the Commons, he made frequent and vehement attacks on Newcastle himself, though still continuing to serve under him. In this strange state matters continued for about a year. At length, just after the meeting of parliament in November 1751, Pitt was dismissed from office, having on the debate on the address spoken at great length against a new system of continental subsidies, proposed by the government of which he was a member. Fox, who had just before been appointed secretary of state, retained his place, and though the two men continued to be of the same party, and afterwards served again in the same government, there was henceforward a rivalry between them, which makes the celebrated opposition of their illustrious sons seem like an inherited quarrel.
Another year had scarcely passed when Pitt was again in power. The inherent weakness of the government, the vigour and eloquence of his opposition, and a series of military disasters abroad combined to rouse a public feeling of indignation which could not be withstood, and in December 1756 Pitt, who now sat for Okehampton, became secretary of state, and leader of the Commons under the premiership of the duke of Devonshire. He had made it a condition of his joining any administration that Newcastle should be excluded from it, thus showing a resentment which, though natural enough, proved fatal to the lengthened existence of his government. With the king unfriendly, and Newcastle, whose corrupt influence was still dominant in the Commons, estranged, it was impossible to carry on a government by the aid of public opinion alone, however emphatically that might have declared itself on his side. In April 1757, accordingly, he found himself again dismissed from office on account of his opposition to the king’s favourite continental policy. But the power that was insufficient to keep him in office was strong enough to make any arrangement that excluded him impracticable. The public voice spoke in a way that was not to be mistaken. Probably no English minister ever received in so short a time so many proofs of the confidence and admiration of the public, the capital and all the chief towns voting him addresses and the freedom of their corporations. From the political deadlock that ensued relief could only be had by an arrangement between Newcastle and Pitt. After some weeks’ negotiation, in the course of which the firmness and moderation of “the Great Commoner,” as he had come to be called, contrasted favourably with the characteristic tortuosities of the crafty peer, matters were settled on such a basis that, while Newcastle was the nominal, Pitt was the virtual head of the government. On his acceptance of office he was chosen member for Bath.
This celebrated administration was formed in June 1757, and continued in power till 1761. During the four years of its existence it has been usual to say that the biography of Pitt is the history of England, so thoroughly was he identified with the great events which make this period, in so far as the external relations of the country are concerned, one of the most glorious in her annals. A detailed account of these events belongs to history; all that is needed in a biography is to point out the extent to which Pitt’s personal influence may really be traced in them. It is scarcely too much to say that, in the general opinion of his contemporaries, the whole glory of these years was due to his single genius; his alone was the mind that planned, and his the spirit that animated the brilliant achievements of the British arms in all the four quarters of the globe. Posterity, indeed, has been able to recognize more fully the independent genius of those who carried out his purposes. The heroism of Wolfe would have been irrepressible, Clive would have proved himself “a heaven-born general,” and Frederick the Great would have written his name in history as one of the most skilful strategists the world has known, whoever had held the seals of office in England. But Pitt’s relation to all three was such as to entitle him to a large share in the credit of their deeds. It was his discernment that selected Wolfe to lead the attack on Quebec, and gave him the opportunity of dying a victor on the heights of Abraham. He had personally less to do with the successes in India than with the other great enterprises that shed an undying lustre on his administration; but his generous praise in parliament stimulated the genius of Clive, and the forces that acted at the close of the struggle were animated by his indomitable spirit. Pitt, the first real Imperialist in modern English history, was the directing mind in the expansion of his country, and with him the beginning of empire is rightly associated. The Seven Years’ War might well, moreover, have been another Thirty Years’ War if Pitt had not furnished Frederick with an annual subsidy of £700,000, and in addition relieved him of the task of defending western Germany against France.
Contemporary opinion was, of course, incompetent to estimate the permanent results gained for the country by the brilliant foreign policy of Pitt. It has long been generally agreed that by several of his most costly expeditions nothing was really won but glory. It has even been said that the only permanent acquisition that England owed directly to him was her Canadian dominion; and, strictly speaking, this is true, it being admitted that the campaign by which the Indian empire was virtually won was not planned by him, though brought to a successful issue during his ministry. But material aggrandizement, though the only tangible, is not the only real or lasting effect of a war policy. More may be gained by crushing a formidable rival than by conquering a province. The loss of her Canadian possessions was only one of a series of disasters suffered by France, which radically affected the future of Europe and the world. Deprived of her most valuable colonies both in the East and in the West, and thoroughly defeated on the continent, her humiliation was the beginning of a new epoch in history. The victorious policy of Pitt destroyed the military prestige which repeated experience has shown to be in France as in no other country the very life of monarchy, and thus was not the least considerable of the many influences that slowly brought about the French Revolution. It effectually deprived her of the lead in the councils of Europe which she had hitherto arrogated to herself, and so affected the whole course of continental politics. It is such far-reaching results as these, and not the mere acquisition of a single colony, however valuable, that constitute Pitt’s claim to be considered as on the whole the most powerful minister that ever guided the foreign policy of England.
The first and most important of a series of changes which ultimately led to the dissolution of the ministry was the death of George II. on the 25th of October 1760, and the accession of his grandson, George III. The new king had, as was natural, new counsellors of his own, the chief of whom, Lord Bute, was at once admitted to the cabinet as a secretary of state. Between Bute and Pitt there speedily arose an occasion of serious difference.