The Worlds Famous Orations. Great Britain: I. (7101777). 1906.
I. The Retort to Walpole
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (170878)
Born in 1708, died in 1778; entered Parliament in 1735; attacked the Government in 1755, and removed from office; Secretary of State in 17561757; again Secretary of State in the Coalition Ministry of 17571761, when he adopted vigorous measures in the Seven Years War; Prime Minister in 1766; resigned on account of ill health in 1768; made his last appearance in Parliament in 1778.
THE ATROCIOUS1 crime of being a young man, which the honorable gentleman has, with such spirit and decency, charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny; but content myself with wishing that I may be one of those whose follies may cease with their youth, and not of that number who are ignorant in spite of experience. Whether youth can be imputed to any man as a reproach, I will not, sir, assume the province of determining; but surely age may become justly contemptible, if the opportunities which it brings have passed away without improvement and vice appears to prevail when the passions have subsided.
The wretch, who, after having seen the consequences of a thousand errors, continues still to blunder, and whose age has only added obstinacy to stupidity, is surely the object of either abhorrence or contempt, and deserves not that his gray hairs should secure him from insult.
Much more, sir, is he to be abhorred, who, as he has advanced in age has receded from virtue and become more wicked with less temptationwho prostitutes himself for money which he can not enjoy, and spends the remains of his life in the ruin of his country.
But youth, sir, is not my only crime. I have been accused of acting a theatrical part. A theatrical part may either imply some peculiarities of gesture, or a dissimulation of my real sentiments, and an adoption of the opinions and language of another man. In the first sense, sir, the charge is too trifling to be confuted and deserves only to be mentioned to be despised. I am at liberty like every other man to use my own language; and tho I may, perhaps, have some ambition to please this gentleman, I shall not lay myself under any restraint, nor very solicitously copy his diction or his mien, however matured by age or modeled by experience.
If any man shall, by charging me with theatrical behavior, imply that I utter any sentiments but my own, I shall treat him as a calumniator and a villainnor shall any protection shelter him from the treatment he deserves. I shall on such an occasion without scruple trample upon all those forms with which wealth and dignity intrench themselvesnor shall anything but age restrain my resentment; age, which always brings one privilege, that of being insolent and supercilious without punishment.
But with regard, sir, to those whom I have offended, I am of opinion that if I had acted a borrowed part I should have avoided their censure. The heat that offended them is the ardor of conviction, and that zeal for the service of my country which neither hope nor fear shall influence me to suppress. I will not sit unconcerned while my liberty is invaded, nor look in silence upon public robbery. I will exert my endeavors at whatever hazard to repel the aggressor and drag the thief to justice, whoever may protect them in their villainy, and whoever may partake of their plunder. And if the honorable gentleman
[At this point Pitt, called to order by Winnington, sat down. In the course of his protest, Winnington said:I do not, sir, undertake to decide the controversy between the two gentlemen, but I must be allowed to observe that no diversity of opinion can justify the violation of decency, and the use of rude and virulent expressions; expressions dictated only by resentment and uttered without regard to Whereupon Pitt jumped to his feet and called Winnington to order, saying:]
Sir: If this be to preserve order there is no danger of indecency from the most licentious tongue; for what calumny can be more atrocious, or what reproach more severe, than that of speaking with regard to anything but truth. Order may sometimes be broken by passion or inadvertency, but will hardly be reestablished by a monitor like this who can not govern his own passion while he is restraining the impetuosity of others. Happy, sir, would it be for mankind if everyone knew his own province; we should not then see the same man at once a criminal and a judge, nor would this gentleman assume the right of dictating to others what he has not learned himself. That I may return in some degree the favor which he intends me, I will advise him never hereafter to express himself on the subject of order, but whenever he feels inclined to speak on such occasions to remember how he has now succeeded and condemn in silence what his censures will never reform.
Note 1. This celebrated retort was made during the debate on Walpoles bill for the encouragement and increase of seamen. As here given, it was furnished by Doctor Johnson to The Gentlemans Magazine for November, 1741. The phrasing of the retort in the main is undoubtedly Johnsons rather than Pitts. Long after the date of the speech, some one mentioned it in Johnsons presence as superior to anything in Demosthenes, whereupon Johnson declared, I wrote that speech in a garret in Exeter Street. The internal evidence bears him out, for in these reports Pitt, Walpole, Halifax, and Newcastle all speak alike. But the ideas are of course those of Pitt. The reply was not made to Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, but to his brother, Horace Walpole, the older, who in answer to a speech Pitt had already made attacking Sir Roberts administration, had said: Formidable sound and furious declamation, confident assertions and lofty periods may affect the young and inexperienced, and perhaps the gentleman may have contracted his habits of oratory by conversing more with those of his own age than with such as have had more opportunities of acquiring knowledge, and more successful methods of communicating their sentiments. If the heat of his temper, sir, would suffer him to attend to those whose age and long acquaintance with business give them an indisputable right to deference and superiority, he would learn in time to reason rather than to declaim, and to prefer justness of argument and an accurate knowledge of the facts to sounding epithets and splendid superlatives, which may disturb the imagination for a moment, but leave no lasting impression on the mind. He will learn, sir, that to accuse and give proof are very different, and that reproaches inspired by vindictiveness affect only the character of him that utters them. Excursions of fancy and flights of oratory are indeed pardonable in young men, but in no other. [back]