Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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admirals on the Atlantic ; who had conquered for his
country one great empire on the frozen shores of On-
tario, and another under the tropical sun near the
mouths of the Ganges. It was not in the nature of
things that popularity such as he at this time enjoyed
should be permanent. That popularity had lost its
gloss before his children were old enough to under-
stand that their father was a great man* He was at
length placed in situations in which neither his talents
tor administratioD nor his talents for debate appeared to
the best advantage. The ^nei^ and decision which
had emmently fitted him for the direction of war were
not needed in time of peace. The lofty and spirit-stir-
ring eloquence which had made him supreme in the
House of Commons often fell dead on the House of
Lords. A cruel malady mcked his joiints, and left his
joints only to &11 on his nerves and on bis brain.
During the closing years of hb life, he was odious to
the court, and yet was not on cordial terms with the
great body of the opposition. Chatham was only the
ruin of Pitt, but an awful and majestic ruin^ not to be
contemplated by any man of sense and feeling without
emotions resembling those which are excited by the
i*emains of the Parthenon and of the Coliseum. In
one respect the old statesman was eminently happy.
Whatever might be the vicissitudes of his public lifct,
he never failed to find peace and love by his own
hearth. He loved all his children, and was loved by
them ; and, of all his children, the one of whom he
was fondest and proudest was his second son.



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WILLIAM PITT. 228

The child's genius and ambition displayed themselves
with a rare and almost unnatural preo#city. At seven,
the interest which he took in grave sutjects, the ardour
with which he pursued his studies, and the sense and
vivacity of his remarks on books and on events, amaaed
his parents and instructors. One of hit sayings of this
• date was reported to his mother by his tutor. In Au-
gust, 1766, when the world wto agitated by the news
that Mr. Pitt had become Earl of Chatham, little Wil-
liam exclaimed : ^^ I am glad that I am not the eldest
son. I want to speak in the House of Commons like
papa." A letter is extant in which Lady Chatham, a
woman of considerable abilities, remarked to her lord,
that their younger son at twelve had left far behind
him his elder brother, who was fifteen. ** The fine-
ness," she wrote, ** of William's mind makes him en-
joy with the greatest pleasure what would be above the
reach of any other creature of his small age." At
fourteen the lad was in intellect a man. Hayley, who
met him at Lyme in the summer of 1773, was aston-
ished, delighted, and somewhat overawed, by hearing
wit and wisdom from so young a mouth. The poet,
indeed, was afterwards sorry that his shyness had pre-
vented him frc»m submitting the plan of an extensive
literary work, which he was then meditating, to the
judgment of this extraordinary boy. The boy, indeed,
had already written a tragedy, bad of course, but not
worse than the tragedies of his friend. This piece is
tjtill preserved at Chevening, and is in some respects
highly curious. There is no love. The whole plot is
political ; and it is remarkable that the ihterest, such
as it is, turns on a contest about a regency. On one
side is a fkithftd servant of the Crown, on the other an
ambitious and unprincipled conspirator. At length th*



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224 WILLIAM PITT.

King, who had been missing, reappears, resumes bia
power, and rewards the faithful defender of his rights*
A reader who should judge only by internal evidence
would have no hesitation in pronouncing that the play
was written by some Pittite poetaster at the time of
the rejoicings for the recovery of George the Third
m 1789.

The pleasure with which William's parents olcerved
the rapid development of his intellectual powers was
alloyed by apprehensions about his health. He shot
up alarmingly fast ; he was often ill, and always weak ;
and it was feared that it would be impossible to rear a
stripling so tall, so slender, and so feeble. Port wine
was prescribed by his medical advisers : and it is said
that he was, at fourteen, accustomed to take this agree-
able physic in quantities which would, in our abste-
mious age, be thought much more than sufficient for
any full-grown man. This regimen, though it would
probably have killed ninety-nine boys out of a hun-
dred, seems to have been well suited to the peculiar-
ities of Wilham's constitution ; for at fifteen he ceased
to be molested by disease, and, though never a stnmg
man, continued, during many years of labour and anx-
iety, of nights passed in debate and of summers passed
in London, to be a tolerably healthy one. It was prob-
ably on account of the delicacy of his frame that he
was not educated like other boys of the same rank.
Almost all the eminent English statesmen and orators
to whom he was afterwards opposed or allied. North,
Fox, Shelbume, Windham, Grey, Wellesley, Gren-
ville, Sheridan, Canning, went through the training of
^reat public schools. Lord Chatham had himself be^o
a distinguished Etonian ; and it is seldom that a distiii-
^lished Etonian forgets his obligations to Eton. But



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WILLIAM PITT. 225

William's infirmities required a vigilance and tender
ness such as could be found only at home, lie waii
therefore bred under the paternal roof. His studies
were superintended by a clergyman named Wilson;
and those studies, though often interrupted by illness,
wei-e prosecuted with extraordinary success. Befor*^
the lad had completed his fifteenth year, his knowl-
edge both of the ancient languages and of jnathematics
was such as very few men of eighteen then carried up
to college. He was therefore sent, towards the close
of the year 1773, to Peml^oke Hall, in the miiversity
of Cambridge* So young a student required much
more than the ordinary care which a college tutor be-
stows on undergraduates. The governor, to whom the
direction of William's academical life was confided,
was a bachelor of arts named Pretyman, who had been
senior wrangler in the preceding year, and who, though
not a man of prepossessing appearance or brilliant parts,
was eminently acute and laborious, a sound scholar, and
an excellent geometrician. At C^imbridge, Pretyman
was, during more than two years, the inseparable com-
panion, and indeed almost the only compani(m, of his
pupil. A close and lasting friendship sprang up be-
tween the pair. The disciple was able, before he com-
pleted his twenty-eighth year, to make his preceptor
Bishop of Lincoln and Dean of St. Paul's ; and the
|)receptor showed his gi*atitude by writing a life of the
disciple, which enjoys the distinction of being the worst
biographical work of its size in the world.

Pitt, till he graduated, had scarcely one acquaint-
ance, attended chapel regularly morning and evening,
dined every day in hall, and never went to a single
evening party. At seventeen, he was admitted, after
th(^ bad fashion of those times, by right of birth,



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226 WILLIAM PITT.

without any examination, to the degree of Master of
Axis. But he continued during some years to reside at
college, and to apply himself vigorously, under Prety-
man's direction, to the studies of the place, while mix-
ing freely in the best academic society.

The stock of learning which Pitt laid in during this
part of bis life was certainly very extraordinary. In
fact, it was all that he ever possessed ; for he very
early became too busy to have any spare time for
books. The work in which he took the greatest delight
was Newton's Principia. His liking for mathematics,
indeed, amounted to a passion, which, in the opinion
of his instructors, themselves distuiguished mathe-
maticians, requhred to be checked rather than en-
couraged. The acuteness and readiness with which he
solved problems was pronounced l^ one of the ablest
of the moderators, who in those days presided over
the disputations in the schools, and conducted the ex-
nminations of the Senate House, to be unrivalled in the
university. Nor was the youth's proficiency in clas-
sical learning less remarkable. In one respect, indeed,
he appeared to disadvantage when compared with even
second-rate and third-rate men from public schools.
He had never, while under Wilson's care, been in the
habit of composing in the ancient languages ; and he
therefore never acquired that knack of versification
which is sometimes possessed by clever boys whose
knowledge of the language and literature of Greece
and Rome is very superficial. It would have been
utterly out of his power to produce such charming
elegiac hues as those in which Wellesley bade fiire-
well to Eton, or such Virgihan liexatneters as those
in which Canning described the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But it may be doubted whether any scholar has ever.



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WILLIAM PITT. 227

at twenty, had a more solid and profound knowledge
of the two great tongues of the old civilised world.
The facility with which he penetrated the meaning of
the most intricate sentences in the Attic writers as-
tonished veteran critics* He had set his heart on
being intimately acquainted with all the extant poetry
of Greece* and was not satisfied till he had mastered
Lycophix>n's Cassandra, the most obscure work in die
whole range of ancient literature. This strange rfaap-
sody, the difficulties of which have perplexed and re*
pelled many excellent scholars, ^^he read," says his
preceptor, " with an ease at first si^t, which, if I
had not witnessed it, I should have thought beyond
the compass of human intellect"

To modem literature Pitt paid comparatively little
attention* He knew no living language except French ;
and French he knew very imperfectly. Witli a few of
tlie best English writers he was intimate, particularly
with Shakspeare and Milton. The debate in Pande-
monium, was, as it well deserved to be, one of his fiivour^
ite passages ; and his early friends used to talk, long
after his death, of the just emphasis and the melodious
cadence with which they had heard him recite the in-
comparable speech of Belial. He had indeed been
carefiilly trained firom infiuicy in the art of managing
his voice, a voice naturally clear and deep-toned. His
(atber, whose oratory owed no small part of its efiect
to that art, had been a most skilful and judicious
iiiQhructor. At a later period, the wits of Brookes's,
irritated by observing, night after night, how porwer-
fully Pitt's sonorous elocution fiiscinated the rows of
country gentlemen, reproached him with having been
" taught by his dad on a stool."

His education, indeed, was well adapted to form a



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228 WILLIAM PITT.

great pai*liamentary speaker. One argument often
urged against those classical stndies which occupy so
large a part of the early life of every gentleman bred
in the south of our island is, that tliey prevent him from
acquiring a command of his mother tongue, and that
it is not unusual to meet with a youth of excellait parts,
who writes Ciceronian Latin prose and Horatian Latin
Alcaics, but who would find it impossible to exprenB
his thoughts in pure, perspicuous, and forcible English.
There, may perhaps be some truth in this observation.
But the classical studies of Pitt were carried on in a
peculiar manner, and had the effect of enriching his
English vocabulary, and of making him wondeHully
expert in the art of constructing correct English sen-
tences. His practice was to look over a page or two
oi a Greek or Latin author, to make himself master of
the meaning, and then to read the passage straight-for-
ward into his own language. This practice, begun
under his first teacher Wilson, was continued under
Pretyman. It is not strange that a young man of
great abilities, who had been exercised daily in this
way during ten years, should have acquired an almost
unrivalled power of putting his thoughts, without pre-
meditation, into words well selected and well arranged.
Of all the remains of antiquity, the orations wei'e
those on which he bestowed the most minute exami-
nation. His favourite employment was to compare
harangues on opposite sides of the same question, to
analyse them, and to observe which of tlie arguments
of the first speaker were refuted by the second, which
were evaded, and which were left untouched. Nor
was it only in books that he at this time studied the
art of parliamentary fencing. When he was at home,
he had frequent opportunities of hearing important



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WILLIAM PITT 229

debates at Westminster ; and he heard them, not only
with interest and enjoyment, but with a close scientific
attention resembling that with which a diligent pupil
at Guy's Hospital watches every turn of the hand of
a great surgeon through a difficult operation. On one
of these occasions, Pitt, a youth whose abilities were as
yet known only to his own family and to a small knot
of college friends, was introduced on the steps of the
throne in the House of Lords to Fox, who was his
senior by eleven years, and who was already the great-
est debater, and one of the greatest orators, that had
appeared in England. Fox used afterwards to relate
that, as the discussion proceeded, Pitt repeatedly turned
to him, and said, " But surely, Mr. Fox, thTat might be
met thus;" or, " Yes; but he lays himself open, to
this retort." What the particular criticisms were Fox
had forgotten ; but he said that he was much struck at
the time by the precocity of a lad who, through the
whole sitting, seemed to be thinking only how all
the speeches on both sides could be answered.

One of the young man's visits to the House of Lords
was a sad and memorable era in his life. He had not
quite completed his nineteenth year, when, on the 7th of
April, 1778, he attended his &ther to Westminster. A
great debate was expected. It was known that France
liad recognised the independence of the United States.
The Duke of Richmond was about to declare his opin-
ion that all thought of subjugating those states ought to
be relinquished. Chatham had always maintained that
ihe resistance of the colonies to the mother country was
justifiable. But he conceived, very erroneously, thar
on the day on which their independence should be ac-
knowledged the greatness of England would be at an
end. Though sinking under the weight of years and



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280 WILLIAM PITT.

infirmities, he determined, in spite of the entreaties of
his &miiy, to be in his place. His son supported him
to a seat. The excitement and exertion were too much
for the old man. In the very act of addressing the
peers, he fell back in convulsions. A few weeks later
his corpse was borne, with gloomy pomp, from the
Painted Chamber to the Abbey. The &vourite child
and namesake of the deceased statesman followed the
coffin as chief mourner, and saw it deposited in the
transept where his own was destined to he.

His elaer broths, now Earl of Chatham, had means
sufficient, and barely sufficient, to support the dignity
of the peerage. The other members of the &mily
were poorly provided for. William had little more
than three hundred a year. It was necessary for him
to fellow a profession. He had already begun to eat
his terms. In the spring of 1780 he came of age.
He then quitted Cambridge, was called to the bar, took
chambers in Lincoln's Inn, and joined the western
circuit. In the autumn of that year a general election
took place ; and he offered himself as a candidate for
the university ; but he was at the bottom of the poll.
It is said that the grave doctors, who then sate, robed
in scarlet, on the benches of Golgotha, thought it great
presumption in so young a man to solicit so high a dis-
tinction. He was, however, at the request of a hered-^
itary friend, the Duke of Rutland, brought into Par-
liament by Sir James Lowther for the borough of Ap-
pleby.

The dangers of the country were at that time such
as might well have disturbed even a constant mind.
Army after army had been sent in vain against the re-
bellious colonists of Nortfi America. On pitched fields
of battle the advantage had been with the disciplined



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WILLIAM Pin. 231

troops of the mother country. But it was not on
pitched fields g£ battle that the event of such a contest
could be decided. An armed nation, with hanger and
the Atlantic for auxiliaries, was not to be subjugated.
Meanwhile the House of Bourbon, humbled to the
dust a few years before by the genius and vigour of
Chatham, had seized the (^portunity of revenge.
France and Spain were united against us, and had re«
cently been joined by Holland. The command of the
Mediterranean had been for a time lost. The British
flag had been scarcely able to maintain itself in the
British Channel. The northern powers professed neu-*
trality; but their neutrality had a menacing aqpect.
In the £ast» Hyder had descended on the Carnatic,
had destroyed the little army of Baillie, and had spread
terror even to tlie ramparts of Fort St. George. The
discontents of Ireland threatened nothing less than
civil war. In England the auth(»rity of the govern-
ment had sunk to the lowest point. The King and the
House of Commons were alike unpopular. The cry
for parUamentary reform was scarcely less loud and
vehement than in the autumn of 1830. Formidable
associations, headed, not by ordinary demagogues, but
by men of high rank, stainless character, and distin*
guished ability, demanded a revision of the repre-
sentative system. The populace, emboldened by the
impotence and irresolution of the government, had r^
?ently broken loose from all restraint, besieged the
chambers of the legislature, hustled peers, hunted Insh-
ops, attacked the residences of ambassadors, opened
prisons, burned and palled down houses. London had
presented during some days the aspect of a city taken
by storm ; and it had been necessary to form a camp
among the trees of Saint James's Park.



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282 WILLIAM PITT.

In spite of dangers and difficulties abroad and at
home, George the Third, with a firmness which had
little affinity with virtue or with wisdom, persisted in
his determination to put down the American rebels by
force of arms ; and his ministers submitted their judg-
ment to his. Some of diem were probably actuated
merely by selfish cupidity ; but their chief, Lord Nortli,
a man of high h(»iour, amiable temper, winning man-
ners, lively wit, and excell^it talents both for business
and for debate, must be acquitted of all sordid motives.
He remained at a post fcom which he had long wished
and had repeatedly tried to escape, only because he
had not sufficient fortitude to resist the entreaties and
reproaches of the King, who silenced all arguments by
passionately asking whether any gentleman, any man
of spirit, could have the heart to desert a kind master
in the hour of extremity.

The opposition consisted of two parties which had
once been hostile to each other, and which had been
very slowly, and, as it soon appeared, very imperfectly
reconciled, but which at this conjuncture seemed to act
together with cordiality. The larger of these parties
consisted of the great body of the Whig aristocracy.
Its head was Charles, Marquess of Rockingham, a man
of sense and virtue, and in wealth and parliamentary
interest equalled by very few of the English nobles,
but afflicted with a nervous timidity which prevented
him fix)m taking a prominent part in debate. In the
House of Commons, the adherents of Rockingham
were led by Fox, whose dissipated habits and ruined
fortunes were the talk of the whole town, but whose
commanding genius, and whose sweet, generous, and
affectionate disposition, extorted the admiration and
love of thase who most lamented the errors of his pri-



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WILLIAM PITT. 233

vate life. Burke, superior to Fox in largeness of com-
prehension, in extent of knowledge, and in splendour
of imagination, but less skilled in that kind of logic
and lin that kind of rhetoric which convince and per-
suade great assemblies, was willing to be the lieutenant
of a young chief who might have be^Ei his son.

A smaller section of the opposition was composed
of the old followers of Chatham. At their head was
William, Earl of Shelbume, distinguished both as a
statesman and as a lover of science and letters. With
him were leagued Lord Camden, who had formerly
held the Great Seal, and whose integrity, ability, and
constitutional knowledge commanded the public re-
spect ; Barre, an eloquent and acrimonious declaimer ;
and Dunning, who had long held the first place at the
English bar. It was to this party that Pitt was natu-
rally attracted.

On the 26th of February 1781 he made his first
speech, in fevour of Burke's plan of economical reform.
Fox stood up at the same moment, but instantly gave
way. The lofty yet animated deportment of the young
member, his perfect self-possession, the readiness with
which he replied to the orators who had preceded him,
the silver tones of his voice, the perfect structure of
his unpremeditated sentences, astonished and delighted
his hearers. Burke, moved even to tears, exclaimed,
" It is not a chip of the old block ; it is the old block
itself." " Pitt will be one of the first men in Parlia-
ment," said a member of the opposition to Fox. ^^ He
is so already," answered Fox, in whose nature envy
had no place. It is a curious fact, well remembered by
some who were very recently living, that soon after this
debate Pitt's name was put up by Fox at Brookes's.

On two subsequent occasions during that session



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234 WILLIAM PITT.

Pitt addressed the House^ and on both fully sustained
the reputation which he had acquired on his first ap*
pearance. In the summer, after the prorogation, he
again went the western circuit, held several bri^,
and acquitted himself in such a manner that he was
highly complimented by Buller firom the bench, and
by Dunning at the bar.

On the 27th of Norember the Parliament reassem-
bled. Only forty-eight hours before had arrived tid-
ings of the Kirrender of Comwallis and his army ; and
it had consequently been necessary to rewrite the royal
speech. Every man in the kingdom, except the King,
was now convinced that it was mere madness to think
of conquering the United States. In the debate on
the report of the address, Pitt spoke with even more
energy and brilliancy than on any former occasion.
He was warmly applauded by his allies; but it was
remarked that no person on his own side of the house
was so loud in eulti;iy as Henry Dundas, the Lord Ad-
vocate of Scotland, who spoke from the ministerial
ranks. That able nnd versatile politician distinctly
foresaw the approaching downfall of the government
with which he was connected, and was preparing to
make his own escape from the ruin. From that night
dates his connection with Pitt, a connection which
soon became a close intimacy, and which lasted till it
was dissolved by death.

About a fortnight later, Pitt spoke in the committee
of supply on the army estimates. Symptoms of dis-
sension had begun to appear on the Treasury bench.
Lord George Grermaine, the Secretary of State who
was especially charged with the direction of the war
in America, had held language not easily to be recon-
ciled witli declarations made by the First Lord of tli<f



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WILLIAM PITT. 286

Treasury. Pitt noticed the discrepancy with mtict*
force and keenness Lord George and Lord North
began to whisper together; and Welbore Ellis, ar
ancient placeman who had been drawing salary almost
every quarter since the days of Henry Pelham, bent
down between them to put in a word. Such inter-
ruptions sometimes discompose veteran speakers. Pitt
stopped, and, looking at the grot^), said, with admirable
readiness, ^^ I shall wait till Nestor has composed the
dispute between Agamenmon and Achilles."

After several defeats, or victories hardly to be dis-
tinguished from defeats, the ministry resigned. The
King, reluctantly and ungraciously, consulted to ac-
cept Rockingham as first minister. Fox and Shel-
bume became Secretaries of State. Lord John Cav-
endish, one of the most upright and honourable of
men, was made Chancellor of the Exchequer. Thup-
low, whose abilities and force of character had made
him the dictator of the House of Lords, continued to



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 57 of 84)