Pitt in Peace
1. After the War
The loss of the American colonies was a tremendous blow to England's reputation. Friends and foes alike thought that her sun was setting, and only decay and weakness lay before her. Few guessed that soon her rising trade and industry would make her wealthier and stronger than she had ever been. All saw her present failure and humiliation and her urgent need for reform both at home and in the remaining fragments of her Empire beyond the seas.
The king's plan of government had broken down, for it had brought disaster on the country. Parliament was shamefully corrupt, and, owing to the out-of-date methods of election, hardly a tenth of the people had any share in choosing its members. The system of taxation was both burdensome and wasteful, and condemned by the best thinkers on the subject, especially by the famous Glasgow professor, Adam Smith. Harsh and useless laws harassed Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. The scenes provoked by the repeal of still harsher laws had lately proved the pitiable weakness of the Government; for in the "Gordon Riots" a brutal mob, shouting "No Popery!" and led by a crack-brained nobleman, had held London at its mercy till the unfailing courage of the king restored order. In Europe the government of Ireland, in Asia the government of India, in America the government of Canada, demanded sweeping changes.
Thus in every direction England needed to put her house in order For this two things were quite essential: first, peace and leisure; secondly, the appearance of a great reformer. For a time it seemed that England had secured both. For ten years she waged no war, and towards the close of that period the Prime Minister, in a famous speech, prophesied a further fifteen years of peace. And that Prime Minister, the younger William Pitt, was himself the reformer that the times required.
He came to power in a notable way. In 1783 North, but lately the king's obedient tool, joined hands with Charles James Fox, the arch-foe of the king's influence, to overthrow Lord Shelburne, the minister whom the king had just appointed. And thereupon George III found himself almost forced to accept a "Coalition Government" led by Fox and North. Now Fox had been the bitterest of all North's enemies; he had clamoured for the trial, even for the execution, of North and his colleagues; he had declared himself ready to be thought "the most infamous of mankind" if ever he made terms with them. Hence the new alliance could only disgust the country and enrage the king. Ordinary men saw in it a greedy snatch at power and profit by two unscrupulous men. The king saw also a dastardly plot to force on him the most detestable of all his subjects.
For Fox was not only the ancient enemy of North. He was the boon companion of the king's own son, the drinking and gambling Prince of Wales. He had led the bitterest attacks on the king's system of government, and the most outrageous rejoicings over the defeat of the king's troops in America. And but a few months since he had headed the ministers who resigned office rather than accept the leader whom the king had chosen.
Yet there seemed but one way of escaping the Coalition, and that was to set up against Fox his lifelong rival, the younger Pitt.
2. The Rivals
Born in 1759—his father's famous "year of victories"—Pitt was ten years younger than Fox. Both were the sons and the idols of famous fathers. Both were great orators. Both spent their lives in politics. And both, as politicians, were reformers. But otherwise their careers and characters were full of contrasts.
Chatham despised wealth and worshipped power. Lord Holland, Fox's father, gave up the pursuit of power for the sake of those very profits of the Paymaster's Office which Chatham had scorned to take. Chatham trained his son from early boyhood to be an orator and a statesman. Holland taught his son every vice of a vicious society. And in each case the training bore its fruit.
Fox, indeed, was naturally of a noble character. He was profoundly generous—a passionate lover of liberty and justice, ready to sacrifice everything he possessed for the causes in which he believed. He had, moreover, a wonderful personal charm, which neither his vicious life, nor his coarse features, nor his clumsy figure, nor his slovenly dress could destroy. But he was noted for dissipation in a dissipated age. His gambling debts were enormous. And in politics his violence in word and deed—especially in attacking George III's government and defending American rebels and French Revolutionists—made ordinary Englishmen think him disloyal to his country and his king.
Pitt, on the other hand, lacked most of the genial graces of his rival. His manner was often reserved, stern, even haughty, though at times he could unbend. He did not charm, he awed, his followers. As a reformer he was cautious rather than enthusiastic. As an orator he never let himself be carried away by passion. He was intensely ambitious. He clung almost too eagerly to office. And once or twice he stooped to a revenge which the generous Fox would have found impossible.
But, apart from excessive drinking, for which his doctor must be chiefly blamed, he had but one vice—extravagance. He was as incorruptible, as contemptuous of wealth and titles, as Chatham himself; and as far as possible he swept corruption out of public life. Above all, he was so passionately devoted to his country that to many men in his generation Pitt seemed to mean England, and England Pitt.
3. "A Kingdom in a Schoolboy's Care"
A sickly child, copiously dosed with the port wine that caused his later gout, Pitt could not share the active pleasures of other boys. And the time and energy which they gave to games and sports he spent chiefly in study. So at fourteen he was already a scholar at Cambridge. At twenty-one he became a barrister. Shortly afterwards he entered Parliament.
Chatham was now dead, and his title had passed to Pitt's elder brother. But Chatham's mantle fell on Pitt himself, who, following in his father's footsteps, assailed North's ministry, now tottering to its fall. A little later he refused a place in a new ministry because he was not to be in the Cabinet. In the next Government he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and when it fell the king turned to him to save him from the Coalition. Thus a youth of twenty-three was invited, almost entreated, by his sovereign to head the English Government.
Young as he was, however, he had the wisdom to refuse. Fox and North had a great majority in the Commons, and even in the country time was needed to rouse the public wrath against them. Pitt, too, had no mind to owe his power solely to the Crown—to be (like North in 1770–82) the mere mouthpiece of the king. He would wait till some mischance or blunder gave the enemy into his hand, and he could take office with the certainty of support not only from the king, but from both the Commons and the country.
So George had to admit Fox and North to power, and endure their rule for eight months with what patience he could command. But at last his chance came. Fox introduced a "Bill for the Better Government of India." It was not a bad Bill. On the contrary, it was a much-needed measure of reform, such as Pitt himself was soon to pass. But it enabled Fox and his supporters, whether in or out of office, practically to control for four years all the vast and valuable "patronage," or right of filling offices, in India. And it was easy to represent this as one last crowning proof of the greed and insolence of the Coalition, an impudent attempt to snatch the diadem from George III and place it on the head of Mr. Fox."
The king and Pitt saw and seized their opportunity. Pictures and pamphlets and speeches stirred up public feeling, and placed the Bill in the most odious light. George could not, indeed, defeat it in the Commons. But—with a directness that Queen Elizabeth herself might have envied—he stated that he "would regard not only as not his friend, but as his enemy," any peer who voted for it. So in the House of Lords it was rejected. Thereupon the ministry, with extreme violence, denounced the conduct of the king. The king, with extreme discourtesy, drove the ministers from his service. And Pitt—now twenty-four years old—took office at the head of a Cabinet full of noblemen as superior to him in age as they were inferior in ability.
His appointment seemed to amuse his enemies no less than it disgusted them. They jeered at the spectacle of "a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care." They prophesied his speedy downfall. They defeated his proposals. They denounced his conduct. They demanded his dismissal. But his courage and his confidence never failed. He refused the king's offer to dissolve Parliament and appeal at once to the country. He faced the storming opposition unflinchingly day by day, till its abusive violence and its insolence to the king roused the anger of the nation—till it began to lose supporters even in Parliament—till, indeed, the majority against him in the Commons sank to a majority of one.
Then he dissolved. And the answer of the country was unmistakable. It approved the firmness of the king. It condemned the violence of the Opposition. It welcomed the famous and familiar name of Pitt. It delighted in the courage, the self-confidence, the noble scorn of wealth, which already marked the new bearer of that name, as they had marked his father before him. And it cast out from their place in Parliament a hundred and sixty of Fox's followers—"Fox's Martyrs" they were called in jest—and sent Pitt back to rule not for the few days or weeks which Fox had foretold, but for a longer time than any Prime Minister before or since.
4. Nine Years of Peace
For nine years Pitt worked his hardest at the tasks to which his country had called him. He cleared off much of the debt due to the late war and arranged to pay off more and more each succeeding year. He began to put into practice some of the teaching of Adam Smith. He lowered the tea duties to discourage smuggling. He made the whole customs system simpler, cheaper, and more profitable to the State. He concluded a famous commercial treaty with France. He tried to give Ireland all the commercial privileges of Great Britain, though here he failed, largely through the jealousy of English manufacturers and merchants. He passed an Act for the Government of India which, whatever its defects, held its place for over seventy years. He passed another Act to improve the Government of Canada. He supported proposals to abolish slavery. He actually carried measures which lessened the grievances of Roman Catholics. And he made a third and last vain effort to induce the House of Commons to reform itself.
Meanwhile England enjoyed peace and prosperity. Her debt diminished and her revenue grew: her manufactures developed and her trade increased. Nor was the Empire neglected. A Spanish attempt to seize Vancouver, which would have cut off Canada from the Pacific Ocean, was promptly checked. And even on the Continent the voice of England, raised in the interests of peace, was heard with a respect which few in 1783 would have believed possible.
Pitt's government was not, indeed, entirely beyond reproach. Convinced of his own value to his country, he was perhaps even too eager to remain in office, too lukewarm in supporting causes which might possibly endanger his power—Parliamentary Reform, Justice to Ireland, the Abolition of Slavery. And, convinced of the necessity of peace, he neglected disastrously the means of war—the navy and, far more, the army.
Yet he certainly worked wonders. He reformed the finances of the country. He increased her wealth. He purified her political life—abandoning every form of corruption: indeed, he was so careful not to seem to bribe his supporters that he disgusted many by never even inviting them to dinner. And he looked forward hopefully to many years of prosperous reform.
But his work was quickly tried by an unexpected test—a struggle with France almost as long as the fight against Louis XIV, and far more dangerous and exhausting. For before his task was half finished, and in spite of every effort to avoid it, he was forced into a war which ended only long after he and Fox alike had died, and their royal master had sunk into final madness; a war, too, which drove Pitt to give up, even to resist, the very plans of reform for which he himself had once fought.