Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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the first part he was a fortunate smd, in ntany respeets,
a skilful administrator. With the difficulties whieh he
had to encounter during the second part he was alto*-
gether incf^ble of contending : but his eloquence and
his perfect mastery of the tactics of the House of
Commons concealed his incapacity fi*om the multitude.

The eight years which followed the general election
of 1784 were as tranquil and prosperous as any eight
years in the whole history of England. NeighbcMiring
nations which had lately been in arms against her, and
which had flattered themselves that, in losing her
American colonies, she had lost a chief source of her
wealth and of her power, saw, with wonder and vexa*
tion, that she was more wealthy and more powerful
than ever. Her trade increased. Her manu&ctures
flourished. Her exchequer wks full to overflowing*



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WILLIAM PITT. 268

Very idle apprehensions were generally entertained,
that the public debt, thongh moch less than a third of
the debt which we now bear with ease, wonkl be found
too heavy for the strength of the nation. Those ap-
prehensions might not perhaps have been easily quieted
by reason. But Pitt quieted them by a juggle. He
succeeded in persuading first himself, and then the
whole nation, his opponents included, that a new sink-
ing fond, which, so far as it differed from former sink-
ing funds, differed for the worse, would, by virtue of
some mysterious power of propagation belcMiging to
money, put into the pocket of the public creditor great
sums not taken out of the pocket of the tax-payer.
The country, terrified by a danger \vhich was no dan-
ger, hailed with delight and boundless confidence a
remedy which was no remedy. The minister was
almost universally extolled as the greatest of financiei-s.
Meanwhile both the branches of the House of Bour-
bon found that England was as fonnidable an antago-
nist as she had ever been. France had formed a plan
for reducing Holland to vassalage. But England in-
terposed ; and France receded. Spain interrupted by
violence the trade of our merchants with the regions
near the Oregon. But England armed ; and Spain
receded. Within the island there was profound tran-
quillity. The King was, for the first time, popular.
During the twenty-three years which had followed his
a jcession he had not been loved by his sutjects. His
d<miestic virtues were acknowledged. But it was gen-
erally thought that the good qualities by which he
was distinguished in private life were wanting to his
l»olitical character. As a Sovereign, he was resentftd,
unforgiving, stubborn, cunning. Under his rule the
sotintry had sustained cruel disgraces and cEsasters;



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264 WILLIAM PITT.

and every one of those disgraces and disa^sters was im-
puted to his strong antipathies, and to his perversf^
obstinacy m the wrong. One statesman after another
complained that he had been indaced by royal caresses,
entreaties, and promises, to undertake the direction of
affairs at a difficult conjuncture, and that, as soon as
he had, not without sullying bis fame and alienating
his best friends, served the turn for which he was
wanted, his ungrateful master b^:an to intrigue against
him, and to canvass against him. Orenville, Rocking-
ham, Chatham, men of widely different characters,
but all three upright and high-spirited, agreed in think-
ing that the Prince under whom they had successively
held the highest place in the government was one of
the most insincere of mankind. His confidence was
reposed, they said, not in those known and responsible
counsellors to whom he had delivered the seals of of-
fice, but in secret advisers who stole up the back stairs
into his closet. In Parliament, his ministers, while
defending themselves against the attacks of the oppo-
sition in front, were perpetually, at his instigation,
assailed ^n the flank or in the rear by a vile band of
mercenaries who called themselves his friends. These
men ^<^nstantly, while in possession of lucrative places
in his service, spoke and voted against bills which he
had authorised the First Lord of the Treasury or the
Secretary of State to bring in. But from the day on
which Pitt was placed at the head of affairs there was
an end of secret influence. His haughty aijd aspiring
spirit was not to be satisfied with the mere show of
power. Any attempt to undermine him at Court, any
mutinous movement among his followers in the House
of Commons, was certain to be at once put down. He
bad only to tender his resignation ; and he could dio-



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WILLIAM PITT. 265

t;uc Ills own terms. For he, and he alone, stood be-
tween the King and the Coalition. He was therefort
little less than Mayor of the Palace. The nation
loudly applauded the King for having the wisdom to
repose entire confidence in so excellent a minister.
His Majesty's private virtues now began to produce
their ftill effect. He was generally regarded as the
model of a respectable country gentleman, honest,
good-natured, sober, religious. He rose early: he
dined temperately : he was strictly faithful to his wife:
he never missed church ; and at church he never
missed a response. His people heartily prayed that he
might long reign over them ; and they prayed the more
heartily because his virtues were set off to the best ad-
vantage by the vices and follies of the Prince of Wales,
who lived in close intimacy with the chiefe of the op-
position.

How strong this feeling was in the public mind ap-
peared signally on one great occasion. In the autumn
of 1788 the King became insane. The opposition,
eager for office, committed the great indiscretion of
asserting that the heir apparent had, by the funda-
mental laws of England, a right to be Regent with the
full powers of royalty. Pitt, on the other hand, main-
tained it to be the constitutional doctrine that, when
a Sovereign is, by reason of infancy, disease, or ab-
sence, incapable of exercising the regal fnnctions, it
belongs to the estates of the realm to determine who
shall be the vicegerent, and with what portion of the
executive authority such vicegerent shall be entrusted.
A long and violent contest followed, in which Pitt was
8upi>orted by the great body of the people with as
.nuch enthusiasm as during the first months of his ad-
ministration. Tories with one voice applauded him

vt>u VI. 12



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266 WILLIAM PITT,

for defending the sick-bed of a virtuous and unhappy
Sovereign against a disloyal ^tion and an undutiful
son. Not a few Whigs applauded him for asserting
the authority of Parliaments and the principles of tlie
Involution, in opposition to a doctrine which seemed
to have too much aiBnity with the servile theory of
indefeasible hereditary right. The middle class, al-
ways zealous on the side of decency and the domestic
\ irtnes, looked forward with dismay to a reign resem-
bling that of Charles H. The palace, which had Jiow
been, during thirty years, the pattern of an English
home, would be a public nuisance, a school of profli-
gacy. To the good King's repast of mutton and lem-
onade, despatched at three o'clock, would succeed
midnight banquets, from which the guests would be
carried home speechless. To the backgammon board
at which the good King played for a little silver with
his equerries, would succeed faro tables from which
young patricians who had sate down rich would rise
up beggars. . The drawing-room, from which the
frown of the Queen had repelled a whole generation of
fi*Ail beauties, would now be again what it had been in
the days of Barbara Palmer and Louisa de Querouaille.
Nay, severely as the public reprobated the Prince's
many illicit attachments, his one virtuous attachment
was reprobated more severely stiU. Even in grave and
pious circles his Protestant mistresses gave less scandal
than his Popish wife. That he must be Regent nobody
ventured to deny. But he and his fiionds were so un-
popular that Pitt could, with general approbation, pro-
pose to limit the powers of the Regent by restrictions to
which it would have been impossible to subject a Prince
beloved and trusted by the country. Some interested
men, fully expecting a change of administration, went



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WILLIAM PITT. 267

aver to the opposition. But the majority, purified by
these desertions, closed its ranks, and presented a more
firm array than ever to the enemy. In every divisiov
Pitt was victorious. When at length, after a stormy in-
terregnum of three months, it was announced, on tlw
very eve of the inauguration of the Regent, that the
King was himself again, the nation was wild with do-
light. On the evening of the day on which His Majesty
resumed his functions, a spontaneous illumination, the
most genera] that ha4 ever been seen in England,
brightened the whole vast space from Highgate to
Tooting, and from Hammersmith to Greenwich. On
the day on which he returned thanks in the cathedral
of his capital, all the horses and carriages within a
hundred miles of London were too few for the multi-
tudes which flocked to see him pass through the streets.
A second illumination followed, which was even supe-
rior to the first in magnificence. Pitt with diflSculty
escaped from the tumultuous kindness of an innumera-
ble multitude which insisted on drawing his coach from
Saint Paul's Churchyard to Downing Street. This
was the moment at which his fame and fortune may be
said to have reached the zenith. His influence in the
closet was as great as that of Carr or Yilliers had
been. His dominion over the Parliament was moie
absolute than that of Walpole or Pelham had been.
He was at the same time as high in the favour of the
populace as ever Wilkes or Sacheverell had been.
Nothing did more to raise his character tl>an his noble
poverty. It was well known that, if he had been dis-
missed from office after more than five yeare of bound-
less power, he would haixlly have carried out with him
a sum sufficient to furnish the set of chambers in
which, as he cheerfully declared, he meant to resume



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268 WILLIAM PITT.

the practice of the law. His admirers, however, were
by no means disposed to suffer him to depend on daily
toil for his daily bread. The voluntary contributionii
which were awaiting his acceptance in the city of Lon-
don alone would have sufficed to make him a rich man.
But it may be doubted whether his haughty spirit
would have stooped to accept a provision so honour-
ably earned and so honourably bestowed.

To such a height of power and gloiy had this
extraordinary man risen at twenty-nine years of age.
And now the tide was on the turn. Only ten days
after the triumphant procession to Saint Paul's, the
States-General of France, after an interval rf a hun-
dred and seventy-four years, met at Versailles.

The nature of the great Revolution which followed
was long very imperfectly understood in this country.
Burke saw much fiirther than any of his contempora-
ries : but whatever his sagacity descried was refracted
and discoloured by his passions and his imagination.
More than three years elapsed beft)re the principles
of the English administration underwent any material
change. Nothing could as yet be milder or more
strictly constitutional than the minister's domestic pol*
icy. Not a single act indicating an arbitrary temper
or a jealousy of the people could bo imputed to him.
He had never applied to Parliament for any extraor-
dinary powers. He had never used with harshness the
oi'dinary powers entrusted by the constitution to the
executive government. Not a single state prosecution
'vvhi^jh would even now be called oppressive had been
instituted by him. Indeed, the only oppressive state
prosecution instituted during the first eight years of
his administration was that of Stockdale, which is to be
attribute, not to the government, but to thd chiefi



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WILLIAM Piir. 269

of the opposition. In office, Pitt had redeemed the
pledges which he had, at his entrance into public life,
given to the supporters of parliamentary reform. He
had, in 1785, Iwought forward a judicious plan for the
improvement of the representative system, and had
prevailed on the King, not only to refrain from talk-
ing against that plan, but to recommend it to the
Houses in a speech from the throne.^ This attempt
failed ; but there can be little doubt that, if the French
Revolution had not produced a violent reaction of pub-
lic feeling, Pitt would have performed, with little diffi-
culty and no danger, that great work which, at a later
period. Lord Grey could accomplish only by means
which for a time loosened the very foundations of the
commonwealth. When the ati:t>cities of the slave trade
were first brought under the consideration of Parlia-
ment, no abolitionist was more zealous than Pitt.
When sickness prevented Wilberforce from appearing
in public, his place was most efficiently supplied by his
friend the minister. A humane bill, which mitigated
the horrors of tlie middle passage, was, in 1788, car-
ried by the eloquence and determined spirit of Pitt, in
spite of the opposition of some of his own colleagues ;
and it ought always to be remembered to his honour
that, in order to carry that bill, he kept the Houses sit-
ting, in spite of many murmurs, long after the business
of the government had been done, and tlie Appro-
priation Act passed. In 1791 he cordially concurred
with Fox in maintaining the sound constitutional doc-
trine, that an impeachment is not terminated by a di»-

1 The speech with which the King opened the session of 1785, con*
tlnded with an assurance that His Majesty would heartily concur in
eveiy measure which could tend to secure the true principles of the
constitution. These words were at the time understood to refer to Pitt*i
Uefbrm BiH.



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270 WILLIAM PITT.

solution. In the course of the same year the two great
rivals contended side by side in a far more important
cause. They are fairly entitled to divide the high
honour of having added to our statute-book the in-
estimable law which places the liberty of the press
under the protection of juries. On one ocx^asion, and
one alone, Pitt, during the first half of his long admin-
istration, acted in a manner unworthy of an enlightened
Whig. In the debate on the Test Act, he stooped to
gratify the master whom he served, the university
which he represented, and the great body of clergy-
men and country gentlemen on whose support he
rested, by talking, with little heartiness, indeed, and
with no asperity, the language of a Tory. With this
single exception, his conduct from the end of 1788 to
the middle of 1792 was tliat of an honest friend of
civil and religious liberty.

Nor did anything, during that period, indicate tliat
he loved war, or harboured any malevolent feeling
against any neighbouring nation. Those French writ-
ers who liave represented him as a Hannibal sworn in
childhood by his father to bear etemal hatred to France,
as having, by mysterious intrigues and lavish bribes, in-
stigated the leading Jacobins to commit those excesses
which dishonoured the Revolution, as having been the
ri3al author of the first coalition, know nothing of his
diameter or of his history. So far was he irom being
a ileadly enemy to France, that his laudable attempts
t«) bring about a closer connection with that coun-
try by msans of a wise and liberal treaty of commerce
brought on liim the severe censure of the opposi-
tion. He was told in the House of Commons that
he was a degenerate son, and that his partiality for
th«- hereditary foes of our island was enough to make



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WII.LIAM PITT. 271

his great fether's bones stir ander the pavement of the
Abbey.

And this man, whose name, if he had been so fortu
nate as to die in 1792, would now have been associated
with peace, with freedom, with philanthropy, with
temperate reform, with mild and constitutional admin •
istration, lived to associate his name with arbitral y
government, with harsh laws harshly executed, with
alien bills, with gagging bills, with suspensions of the
Habeas Corpus Act, with cruel punishments inflicted
on some political agitators, with unjustifiable prosecu-
tions instituted against others, and with the most costly
and most sanguinary wars of modern times. He lived
to be held up to obloquy as the stern oppressor of Eng-
land, and the indefetigable disturber of Europe. Poets,
conti'asting his earlier with his later years, likened him
sometimes to the apostle who kissed in order to betray,
and sometimes to the evil angels who kept not their
first estate. A satirist of great genius introduced the
fiends of Famine, Slaughter, and Fire, proclaiming that
they had received their commission from One whose
name was formed of four letters, and promising to give
their employer ample proofs of gratitude. Famine
would gnaw the multitude till they should rise up
against him in madness. The demon of Slaughter
would impel them to tear him ' from limb to limb.
But Fire boasted that she alone could reward hini
as he deserved, and that she would cling round him
to all eternity. By the French press and the Frcncli
tribune every crime that disgraced and every calamity
that afflicted France was ascribed to the monster Pitt
and his guineas. While the Jacobins were dominant,
it was he who had corrupted the Gironde, who had
raised Lvons and Bordeaux against the Convention,



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272 WILLIAM PITT.

who had suborned Paris to assassinate Lepelletier, and
Cecilia Regnault to assassinate Robespierre. When
the Thermidorian reaction came^ all the atrocities of
the Reign of Terror were imputed to him. Collot
D'Herbois and Fouquier Tinville had been his pen-
sioners. It was he who had hired the mu derers of
September, who had dictated the pamphlets of Marat
and the Carmagnoles of Barere, who had paid licbon
to deluge Arras with blood, and Carrier to choke the
Loire with corpses.

The truth is, that he liked neither war nor arbitattry
government. He was a lover of peace and freedom,
driven, by a stress against which it was hardly possible
for any will or any intellect to struggle, out of the
course to which his inclinations pointed, and for which
his abilities and acquirements fitted hinn and forced
into a policy repugnant to his feelings and unsuited
to liis talents.

The charge of apostasy is grossly unjust. A man
ought no more to be called an apostate because his
opinions alter with the opinions of the gi'eat body of
his contemporaries than he ought to be called an ori-
ental traveller because he is always going round from
west to east with the globe and everything that is upon
it. Between the spring of 1789 and the close of 1792,
the public mind of England underwent a great change.
If the change of Pitt's sentiments attracted peculiar
notice, it was not because he changed more than his
neighbours ; for in fact he changed less than most of
tliem ; but because his position was far more conspicu-
ous than theirs ; because he was, till Bonaparte op
peared, the individual who filled the greatest space in
the eyes of the inhabitants of the civilised world.
During a short time the nation, and Pitt, as one <rf



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WILLIAM pirr. 273

the nation, looked with interest and approbation on
the French Revohition. But soon vast confiscations,
the violent sweeping away of ancient institutions, the
dinnination of clubs, the barbarities of mobs maddened
bv famine and hatred, produced a reaction here. The
CI urt, the nobility, the gentry, the clergy, the manu-
facturers, the merchants, in short, nineteen twentieths
ii tJiose who had good roofs over their heads and good
coats on their backs, became eager and intolerant Anti-
jacobins. This feding was at least as strong among
the minister's adversaries as among his supporters.
Fox in vain attempted to restrain his followers. All
his genius, all his vast personal influence, conld not
prevent tliem from rising up against him in general
mutiny. Burke set the example of revolt ; and Biirke
was in no long time joined by Portland, Spencer, Fitz-
william, Loughborough, Carlisle, Malmesbury, Wind-
Iiam, Elliot. In the House of Commons, tfic ft)llowcrs
of the great Whig statesman and orator diminished
from about a hundred and sixty to fifty. In the
Honse of Lords^ he had but ten or twelve adherents
lefl. There can be no doubt that there would have
been a similar mutiny on the ministerial benches if
Pitt bad obstinately resisted the general wish. Pressed
at once by his master and by his colleagues, by old
friends and by old opponents, he abandoned, slowly
and reluctantly, the policy which was dear to his heart.
He laboured hard tor avert the European war. Wlien
the European war broke out, he still flattered himself
that it would not be necessary for this country to take
either side. In the spring of 1792 he congratulated
the Parliament on the prospect of long and profound
peace, and proved his sincerity by proposing large re-
missions of taxation. Down to the end of that year



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274 WILLIA^I PITT.

he continued to cherish the hope that England might
be able to pi^eserve neutrality. But the passions whicli
raged on both sides of the Channel were not to be re-
strained. The repubHcans who ruled France were
inflamed by a fanaticism resembling that of the Mufv-
sulmans, who, with the Koran in one hand and t! e
sword in the other, went forth, conqoiering and con-
verting, eastward to the Bay of Bengal, and ^ estwjin I
to the Pillars of Hercules. The higher and middle
classes of England were animated by zeal not less fierj'
than that of the Crusaders who raised the cry of Deu9
vuU at Clermont. The impulse which drove the two
nations to a collision was not to be arrested by the abil-
ities or by the authority of any single man. As Pitt
was in front of his fellows, and towered high above
them, he seemed to lead them. But in fact he was
violently pushed on by them, and, had he held back
but a little more tlian he did, would have been thrust
out of their way or trampled under their feet.

He yielded to the current : and from that day his
misfortunes began. The truth is that there were
only two consistent courses before him. Since he did
not choose to oppose himself, side by side with Fox, to
the public feeling, he should have taken the advice of
Burke, and should have availed himself of that feeling
to the full extent. If it was impossible to preserve
peace, he should have adopted the only poKcy whicli
could lead to victory. He should have proclaimed a
Holy War for religion, morality, property, order, pub-
lic law, and should have thus opposed to the Jacobins
an energy equal to their own. Unhapj^ly he tried to
find a middle path ; and he found one which united
all that was worst in both extremes. He went to war:
but he would not understand the peculiar character of



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WILLIAM PITT. 276

tliat war. He was obstinately blind to the plain fact,
that he was contendin^c ao^ainst a state which was also
a sect, and that the new quarrel between England and
France was of quite a different kind from the old quar-
rels about colonies in America and fortresses in the
Netherlands. He had to combat frantio enthusiasm,
l>oundless ambition, restless activity, the wildest and
most audacious spirit of innovation ; and he act(Kl as
if he had to deal with the harlots and fops of the old
Comt of Versailles, with Madame de Pompadour and
the Abbe de Bernis. It was pitiable to hear him,
year after year, proving to an admiring audience that
the wicked Republic was exhausted, that she could
not hold out, that her credit was gone, and her assig-
nats were not worth more than the paper of which
they were made ; as if credit was necessary to a gov-
ernment of which the principle was rapine, as if Al-
boin could not turn Italy into a desert till he had
negotiated a loan at five per cent., as if the exchequer
bills of Attila had been at par. It was impossible that
a man who so completely mistook the nature of a con-
test could carry on that contest successfully. Great, as
Pitt's abilities were, ^is military administration was
that of a driveller. He was at the head of a, nation
engaged in a struggle for life and death, of a nation
eminently distinguished by all the physical and all the
moral qualities which make excellent soldiers. The
i-esourcos at his command were unlimited. The Par-



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 60 of 84)