Selected Speeches on British Foreign Policy, 1738-1914/The Defence of Weaker States

A speech given on the British government's lack of opposition to the French purchase and takeover of Corsica. Given to the House of Lords on 22 January 1770.

36355Selected Speeches on British Foreign Policy, 1738–1914 — The Defence of Weaker States1770William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham


January 22, 1770


My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble duke, that nothing less than an immediate attack upon the honour or interest of this nation can authorize us to interpose in defence of weaker states, and in stopping the enterprises of an ambitious neighbour. Whenever that narrow, selfish policy has prevailed in our councils, we have constantly experienced the fatal effects of it. By suffering our natural enemies to oppress the Powers less able than we are to make a resistance, we have permitted them to increase their strength; we have lost the most favourable opportunities of opposing them with success; and found ourselves at last obliged to run every hazard, in making that cause our own, in which we were not wise enough to take part while the expense and danger might have been supported by others. With respect to Corsica I shall only say, that France has obtained a more useful and important acquisition in one pacific campaign, than in any of her belligerent campaigns;[1] at least while I had the honour of administering the war against her. The word may, perhaps, be thought singular: I mean only while I was the minister chiefly entrusted with the conduct of the war. I remember, my Lords, the time when Lorraine was united to the Crown of France;[2] that too was, in some measure, a pacific conquest; and there were people who talked of it as the noble duke,[3] now speaks of Corsica. France was permitted to take and keep possession of a noble province; and, according to his Grace's ideas, we did right in not opposing it. The effect of these acquisitions is, I confess, not immediate; but they unite with the main body by degrees, and, in time, make a part of the national strength. I fear, my Lords, it is too much the temper of this country to be insensible of the approach of danger, until it comes with accumulated terror upon us.

My Lords, the condition of His Majesty's affairs in Ireland, and the state of that kingdom within itself, will undoubtedly make a very material part of your Lordships' inquiry. I am not sufficiently informed to enter into the subject so fully as I could wish; but by what appears to the public, and from my own observation, I confess I cannot give the Ministry much credit for the spirit or prudence of their conduct. I see that, even where their measures are well chosen, they are incapable of carrying them through without some unhappy mixture of weakness or imprudence. They are incapable of doing entirely right. My Lords, I do, from my conscience, and from the best weighed principles of my understanding, applaud the augmentation of the army. As a military plan, I believe it has been judiciously arranged. In a political view, I am convinced it was for the welfare, for the safety, of the whole empire. But, my Lords, with all these advantages, with all these recommendations, if I had the honour of advising His Majesty, I would never have consented to his accepting the augmentation with that absurd, dishonourable condition which the Ministry have submitted to annex to it.[4] My Lords, I revere the just prerogative of the Crown, and would contend for it as warmly as for the rights of the people. They are linked together, and naturally support each other. I would not touch a feather of the prerogative. The expression, perhaps, is too light; but, since I have made use of it, let me add, that the entire command and power of directing the local disposition of the army is the royal prerogative, as the master-feather in the eagle's wing; and if I were permitted to carry the allusion a little farther, I would say, they have disarmed the imperial bird, the 'Ministrum fulminis alitem'. The army is the thunder of the Crown. The Ministry have tied up the hand which should direct the bolt.

My Lords, I remember that Minorca was lost for want of four battalions. They could not be spared from hence; and there was a delicacy about taking them from Ireland. I was one of those who promoted an inquiry into that matter in the other House; and I was convinced that we had not regular troops sufficient for the necessary service of the nation. Since the moment the plan of augmentation was first talked of, I have constantly and warmly supported it among my friends: I have recommended it to several members of the Irish House of Commons, and exhorted them to support it with their utmost interest in Parliament. I did not foresee, nor could I conceive it possible, the Ministry would accept of it, with a condition that makes the plan itself ineffectual, and, as far as it operates, defeats every useful purpose of maintaining a standing military force. His Majesty is now so confined, by his promise, that he must leave twelve thousand men locked up in Ireland, let the situation of his affairs abroad, or the approach of danger to this country, be ever so alarming, unless there be an actual rebellion, or invasion, in Great Britain. Even in the two cases excepted by the King's promise, the mischief must have already begun to operate, must have already taken effect, before His Majesty can be authorized to send for the assistance of his Irish army. He has not left himself the power of taking any preventive measures, let his intelligence be ever so certain, let his apprehensions of invasion or rebellion be ever so well founded ; unless the traitor be actually in arms—unless the enemy be in the heart of your country, he cannot move a single man from Ireland.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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  1. Louis XV, in consequence, as was pretended, of the Jesuits being allowed to take refuge in Corsica in 1767, purchased the island from the Genoese, and after two years' contest, succeeded in subduing it. The French minister, Choiseul, induced the British Government to render no opposition.
  2. In the year 1735, by an arrangement between the Emperor of Austria and the French.
  3. The Duke of Grafton.
  4. King George III had, by a message through the Lord-Lieutenant, recommended the Irish House of Commons to augment the Irish army, and assured them expressly that on the augmentation being made, not less than 12,000 men should at all times, 'except in cases of invasion or rebellion in Great Britain,' be stationed in Ireland.