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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Pitt
By John Richard Green (1837–1883)
 
From ‘History of the English People’

OUT of the union of these two strangely contrasted leaders, in fact, rose the greatest, as it was the last, of the purely Whig administrations. But its real power lay from beginning to end in Pitt himself. Poor as he was,—for his income was little more than two hundred a year,—and springing as he did from a family of no political importance, it was by sheer dint of genius that the young cornet of horse, at whose youth and inexperience Walpole had sneered, seized a power which the Whig houses had ever since the Revolution kept in their grasp. The real significance of his entry into the ministry was that the national opinion entered with him. He had no strength save from his “popularity”; but this popularity showed that the political torpor of the nation was passing away, and that a new interest in public affairs and a resolve to have weight in them was becoming felt in the nation at large. It was by the sure instinct of a great people that this interest and resolve gathered themselves round William Pitt. If he was ambitious, his ambition had no petty aim. “I want to call England,” he said, as he took office, “out of that enervate state in which twenty thousand men from France can shake her.” His call was soon answered. He at once breathed his own lofty spirit into the country he served, as he communicated something of his own grandeur to the men who served him. “No man,” said a soldier of the time, “ever entered Mr. Pitt’s closet who did not feel himself braver when he came out than when he went in.” Ill combined as were his earlier expeditions, and many as were his failures, he roused a temper in the nation at large which made ultimate defeat impossible. “England has been a long time in labor,” exclaimed Frederick of Prussia as he recognized a greatness like his own, “but she has at last brought forth a man.”  1
  It is this personal and solitary grandeur which strikes us most as we look back to William Pitt. The tone of his speech and action stands out in utter contrast with the tone of his time. In the midst of a society critical, polite, indifferent, simple even to the affectation of simplicity, witty and amusing but absolutely prosaic, cool of heart and of head, skeptical of virtue and enthusiasm, skeptical above all of itself, Pitt stood absolutely alone. The depth of his conviction, his passionate love for all that he deemed lofty and true, his fiery energy, his poetic imaginativeness, his theatrical airs and rhetoric, his haughty self-assumption, his pompousness and extravagance, were not more puzzling to his contemporaries than the confidence with which he appealed to the higher sentiments of mankind, the scorn with which he turned from a corruption which had till then been the great engine of politics, the undoubting faith which he felt in himself, in the grandeur of his aims, and in his power to carry them out. “I know that I can save the country,” he said to the Duke of Devonshire on his entry into the ministry, “and I know no other man can.” The groundwork of Pitt’s character was an intense and passionate pride; but it was a pride which kept him from stooping to the level of the men who had so long held England in their hands. He was the first statesman since the Restoration who set the example of a purely public spirit. Keen as was his love of power, no man ever refused office so often, or accepted it with so strict a regard to the principles he professed. “I will not go to court,” he replied to an offer which was made him, “if I may not bring the Constitution with me.” For the corruption about him he had nothing but disdain. He left to Newcastle the buying of seats and the purchase of members. At the outset of his career, Pelham appointed him to the most lucrative office in his administration, that of Paymaster of the Forces; but its profits were of an illicit kind, and poor as he was, Pitt refused to accept one farthing beyond his salary. His pride never appeared in loftier and nobler form than in his attitude towards the people at large. No leader had ever a wider popularity than “the great commoner,” as Pitt was styled; but his air was always that of a man who commands popularity, not that of one who seeks it. He never bent to flatter popular prejudice. When mobs were roaring themselves hoarse for “Wilkes and liberty,” he denounced Wilkes as a worthless profligate; and when all England went mad in its hatred of the Scots, Pitt haughtily declared his esteem for a people whose courage he had been the first to enlist on the side of loyalty. His noble figure, the hawk-like eye which flashed from the small thin face, his majestic voice, the fire and grandeur of his eloquence, gave him a sway over the House of Commons far greater than any other minister has possessed. He could silence an opponent with a look of scorn, or hush the whole House with a single word. But he never stooped to the arts by which men form a political party, and at the height of his power his personal following hardly numbered half a dozen members.  2
  His real strength indeed lay not in Parliament, but in the people at large. His title of “the great commoner” marks a political revolution. “It is the people who have sent me here,” Pitt boasted with a haughty pride when the nobles of the Cabinet opposed his will. He was the first to see that the long political inactivity of the public mind had ceased, and that the progress of commerce and industry had produced a great middle class, which no longer found its representatives in the legislature. “You have taught me,” said George the Second when Pitt sought to save Byng by appealing to the sentiment of Parliament, “to look for the voice of my people in other places than within the House of Commons.” It was this unrepresented class which had forced him into power. During his struggle with Newcastle, the greater towns backed him with the gift of their freedom and addresses of confidence. “For weeks,” laughs Horace Walpole, “it rained gold boxes.” London stood by him through good report and evil report; and the wealthiest of English merchants, Alderman Beckford, was proud to figure as his political lieutenant.  3
  The temper of Pitt indeed harmonized admirably with the temper of the commercial England which rallied round him, with its energy, its self-confidence, its pride, its patriotism, its honesty, its moral earnestness. The merchant and the trader were drawn by a natural attraction to the one statesman of their time whose aims were unselfish, whose hands were clean, whose life was pure and full of tender affection for wife and child. But there was a far deeper ground for their enthusiastic reverence, and for the reverence which his country has borne Pitt ever since. He loved England with an intense and personal love. He believed in her power, her glory, her public virtue, till England learned to believe in herself. Her triumphs were his triumphs, her defeats, his defeats. Her dangers lifted him high above all thought of self or party spirit. “Be one people,” he cried to the factions who rose to bring about his fall: “forget everything but the public! I set you the example!” His glowing patriotism was the real spell by which he held England. But even the faults which checkered his character told for him with the middle classes. The Whig statesmen who preceded him had been men whose pride expressed itself in a marked simplicity and absence of pretense. Pitt was essentially an actor, dramatic in the cabinet, in the House, in his very office. He transacted business with his clerks in full dress. His letters to his family, genuine as his love for them was, are stilted and unnatural in tone. It was easy for the wits of his day to jest at his affectation, his pompous gait, the dramatic appearance which he made on great debates with his limbs swathed in flannel and his crutch by his side. Early in life Walpole sneered at him for bringing into the House of Commons “the gestures and emotions of the stage.” But the classes to whom Pitt appealed were classes not easily offended by faults of taste, and saw nothing to laugh at in the statesman who was borne into the lobby amidst the tortures of the gout, or carried into the House of Lords to breathe his last in a protest against national dishonor.  4
  Above all, Pitt wielded the strength of a resistless eloquence. The power of political speech had been revealed in the stormy debates of the Long Parliament, but it was cramped in its utterance by the legal and theological pedantry of the time. Pedantry was flung off by the age of the Revolution; but in the eloquence of Somers and his rivals we see ability rather than genius, knowledge, clearness of expression, precision of thought, the lucidity of the pleader or the man of business, rather than the passion of the orator. Of this clearness of statement Pitt had little or none. He was no ready debater like Walpole, no speaker of set speeches like Chesterfield. His set speeches were always his worst, for in these his want of taste, his love of effect, his trite quotations and extravagant metaphors came at once to the front. That with defects like these he stood far above every orator of his time was due above all to his profound conviction, to the earnestness and sincerity with which he spoke. “I must sit still,” he whispered once to a friend; “for when once I am up everything that is in my mind comes out.” But the reality of his eloquence was transfigured by a large and poetic imagination, an imagination so strong that—as he said himself—“most things returned to him with stronger force the second time than the first,” and by a glow of passion which not only raised him high above the men of his own day, but set him in the front rank among the orators of the world. The cool reasoning, the wit, the common-sense of his age made way for a splendid audacity, a sympathy with popular emotion, a sustained grandeur, a lofty vehemence, a command over the whole range of human feeling. He passed without an effort from the most solemn appeal to the gayest raillery, from the keenest sarcasm to the tenderest pathos. Every word was driven home by the grand self-consciousness of the speaker. He spoke always as one having authority. He was in fact the first English orator whose words were a power,—a power not over Parliament only, but over the nation at large. Parliamentary reporting was as yet unknown, and it was only in detached phrases and half-remembered outbursts that the voice of Pitt reached beyond the walls of St. Stephen’s. But it was especially in these sudden outbursts of inspiration, in these brief passionate appeals, that the might of his eloquence lay. The few broken words we have of him stir the same thrill in men of our day which they stirred in the men of his own.  5
 
 
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