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Page:EB1911 - Volume 06.djvu/17

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CHATHAM, EARL OF

The existence of the so-called family compact by which the Bourbons of France and Spain bound themselves in an offensive alliance against England having been brought to light, Pitt urged that it should be met by an immediate declaration of war with Spain. To this course Bute would not consent, and as his refusal was endorsed by all his colleagues save Temple, Pitt had no choice but to leave a cabinet in which his advice on a vital question had been rejected. On his resignation, which took place in October 1761, the king urged him to accept some signal mark of royal favour in the form most agreeable to himself. Accordingly he obtained a pension of £3000 a year for three lives, and his wife, Lady Hester Grenville, whom he had married in 1754, was created Baroness Chatham in her own right. In connexion with the latter gracefully bestowed honour it may be mentioned that Pitt’s domestic life was a singularly happy one.

Pitt’s spirit was too lofty to admit of his entering on any merely factious opposition to the government he had quitted. On the contrary, his conduct after his retirement was distinguished by a moderation and disinterestedness which, as Burke has remarked, “set a seal upon his character.” The war with Spain, in which he had urged the cabinet to take the initiative, proved inevitable; but he scorned to use the occasion for “altercation and recrimination,” and spoke in support of the government measures for carrying on the war. To the preliminaries of the peace concluded in February 1763 he offered an indignant resistance, considering the terms quite inadequate to the successes that had been gained by the country. When the treaty was discussed in parliament in December of the preceding year, though suffering from a severe attack of gout, he was carried down to the House, and in a speech of three hours’ duration, interrupted more than once by paroxysms of pain, he strongly protested against its various conditions. The physical cause which rendered this effort so painful probably accounts for the infrequency of his appearances in parliament, as well as for much that is otherwise inexplicable in his subsequent conduct. In 1763 he spoke against the obnoxious tax on cider, imposed by his brother-in-law, George Grenville, and his opposition, though unsuccessful in the House, helped to keep alive his popularity with the country, which cordially hated the excise and all connected with it. When next year the question of general warrants was raised in connexion with the case of Wilkes, Pitt vigorously maintained their illegality, thus defending at once the privileges of Parliament and the freedom of the press. During 1765 he seems to have been totally incapacitated for public business. In the following year he supported with great power the proposal of the Rockingham administration for the repeal of the American Stamp Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional to impose taxes upon the colonies. He thus endorsed the contention of the colonists on the ground of principle, while the majority of those who acted with him contented themselves with resisting the disastrous taxation scheme on the ground of expediency. The Repeal Act, indeed, was only passed pari passu with another censuring the American assemblies, and declaring the authority of the British parliament over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”; so that the House of Commons repudiated in the most formal manner the principle Pitt laid down. His language in approval of the resistance of the colonists was unusually bold, and perhaps no one but himself could have employed it with impunity at a time when the freedom of debate was only imperfectly conceded.

Pitt had not been long out of office when he was solicited to return to it, and the solicitations were more than once renewed. Unsuccessful overtures were made to him in 1763, and twice in 1765, in May and June—the negotiator in May being the king’s uncle, the duke of Cumberland, who went down in person to Hayes, Pitt’s seat in Kent. It is known that he had the opportunity of joining the marquis of Rockingham’s short-lived administration at any time on his own terms, and his conduct in declining an arrangement with that minister has been more generally condemned than any other step in his public life. In July 1766 Rockingham was dismissed, and Pitt was entrusted by the king with the task of forming a government entirely on his own conditions. The result was a cabinet, strong much beyond the average in its individual members, but weak to powerlessness in the diversity of its composition. Burke, in a memorable passage of a memorable speech, has described this “chequered and speckled” administration with great humour, speaking of it as “indeed a very curious show, but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand on.” Pitt chose for himself the office of lord privy seal, which necessitated his removal to the House of Lords; and in August he became earl of Chatham and Viscount Pitt.

By the acceptance of a peerage the great commoner lost at least as much and as suddenly in popularity as he gained in dignity. One significant indication of this may be mentioned. In view of his probable accession to power, preparations were made in the city of London for a banquet and a general illumination to celebrate the event. But the celebration was at once countermanded when it was known that he had become earl of Chatham. The instantaneous revulsion of public feeling was somewhat unreasonable, for Pitt’s health seems now to have been beyond doubt so shattered by his hereditary malady, that he was already in old age though only fifty-eight. It was natural, therefore, that he should choose a sinecure office, and the ease of the Lords. But a popular idol nearly always suffers by removal from immediate contact with the popular sympathy, be the motives for removal what they may.

One of the earliest acts of the new ministry was to lay an embargo upon corn, which was thought necessary in order to prevent a dearth resulting from the unprecedentedly bad harvest of 1766. The measure was strongly opposed, and Lord Chatham delivered his first speech in the House of Lords in support of it. It proved to be almost the only measure introduced by his government in which he personally interested himself. His attention had been directed to the growing importance of the affairs of India, and there is evidence in his correspondence that he was meditating a comprehensive scheme for transferring much of the power of the company to the crown, when he was withdrawn from public business in a manner that has always been regarded as somewhat mysterious. It may be questioned, indeed, whether even had his powers been unimpaired he could have carried out any decided policy on any question with a cabinet representing interests so various and conflicting; but, as it happened, he was incapacitated physically and mentally during nearly the Whole period of his tenure of office. He scarcely ever saw any of his colleagues though they repeatedly and urgently pressed for interviews with him, and even an offer from the king to visit him in person was declined, though in the language of profound and almost abject respect which always marked his communications with the court. It has been insinuated both by contemporary and by later critics that being disappointed at his loss of popularity, and convinced of the impossibility of co-operating with his colleagues, he exaggerated his malady as a pretext for the inaction that was forced upon him by circumstances. But there is no sufficient reason to doubt that he was really, as his friends represented, in a state that utterly unfitted him for business. He seems to have been freed for a time from the pangs of gout only to be afflicted with a species of mental alienation bordering on insanity. This is the most satisfactory, as it is the most obvious, explanation of his utter indifference in presence of one of the most momentous problems that ever pressed for solution on an English statesman. Those who are able to read the history in the light of what occurred later may perhaps be convinced that no policy whatever initiated, after 1766 could have prevented or even materially delayed the declaration of American independence; but to the politicians of that time the coming event had not yet cast so dark a shadow before as to paralyse all action, and if any man could have allayed the growing discontent of the colonists and prevented the ultimate dismemberment of the empire, it would have been Lord Chatham. The fact that he not only did nothing to remove existing difficulties, but remained passive while his colleagues took the fatal step which led directly to separation, is in itself clear proof of his entire incapacity. The imposition