The persons of the drama were among the most famous in English history. At the top was George III, who held the throne for the fateful years (1760-1820) that saw England through the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars. He was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs to be born in England, to think of himself as an Englishman, and to take an absorbing interest in English affairs. He was the grandson of George II, and son of the unruly Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, who had died in 1751. The future George III was then twelve years old. His mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, frightened by the “ill-educated and vicious young people of quality”13 whom she met, kept him in quarantine from such company, and brought him up—one of nine children—in an aseptic isolation from the games, joys, turmoil, and thought of his peers and his time. He grew up timid, lethargic, pious, poorly educated, and unhappy. “If I ever have a son,” he told his censorious mother, “I will not make him so unhappy as you make me.”14 She transmitted to him her scorn of his grandfather for having tolerated the supremacy of Parliament; repeatedly she bade him, “George, be a king!”—recapture active leadership of the government. A tradition often questioned credits the youth with being influenced by Bolingbroke’s Idea of a Patriot King (1749), which exhorted rulers “to govern as well as to reign,” and (while “letting Parliament retain the powers it possessed”) to initiate measures for improving English life.15 One of George’s teachers, Lord Waldegrave, described him in 1758 as “strictly honest, but wants that frank and open behavior which makes honesty amiable. … He does not want resolution, but it is mixed with too much obstinacy. … He has a kind of unhappiness in his temper, which … will be a source of frequent anxiety.”16 These qualities remained with him to the end of his sanity.
After the death of George’s father the widow formed a close friendship with John Stuart, Earl of Bute, groom of the stole in the princely household. Bute was thirty-eight in 1751, and was already fifteen years married to Mary Wortley Montagu, daughter of the famous Lady Mary of that name. In the last years before George became king he accepted Bute as his chief preceptor and confidant. He admired the Scot’s learning and integrity, gratefully received his advice, and was encouraged by him to prepare for aggressive leadership in government. When the royal youth thought of proposing marriage to the fifteen-year-old beauty Lady Sarah Lennox, he yielded sadly but affectionately to Bute’s admonition that he must marry some foreign princess who would help to cement a useful political alliance. “I surrender my future into your hands,” he wrote, “and will keep my thoughts even from the dear object of my love, grieve in silence, and never trouble you more with this unhappy tale; for if I must either lose my friend or my love I will give up the latter, for I esteem your friendship above every earthly joy.”17 George took Bute with him when he ascended the throne.
His reign was one of the most calamitous in England’s history, and he shared in the blame. Yet he himself was emphatically a Christian and usually a gentleman. He accepted the theology of the Anglican Church, observed its rites with unostentatious devotion, and rebuked a court preacher who praised him in a sermon. He imitated his political enemies in the use of bribery, and bettered their instruction, but he was a paragon of virtue in his private life. In a generation noted for sexual license he gave to England an example of husbandly fidelity that quietly contrasted with the adulteries of his predecessors and the irregularities of his brothers and sons. He was the soul of kindness in everything but religion and politics. Though lavish in gifts, he was a man of simple habits and tastes. He forbade gambling at his court. He toiled resolutely at government, attending to minute details, and sending messages of instruction to his aides and ministers a dozen times a day. He was no somber Puritan: he liked the theater, music, and the dance. He was not wanting in courage: he fought his political foes tenaciously for half a century; he faced a violent mob bravely in 1780, and kept his composure in two attempts upon his life. He frankly recognized the defects of his education; to the end he remained relatively innocent of literature, science, and philosophy. If he was a bit weak in the mind it may have been due to some quirk in the genes or some negligence in his teachers, as well as to the thousand strains that hedge a king.
One of George’s faults was a suspicious jealousy of ability and independence. He could never forgive William Pitt I for conscious pre-eminence in political vision and understanding, penetration of judgment, force and eloquence of speech. We have seen elsewhere18 the career of this extraordinary man from his entry into Parliament (1735) to his triumph in the Seven Years’ War. He could be arrogant and obstinate—far more so than George III; he felt himself to be the proper custodian of the empire that had been created under his leadership, and when the king in name met the king in deed there followed a duel for the throne. Pitt was personally honest, untouched by the bribery that flourished around him, but he thought of politics purely in terms of national power, and allowed no sentiment of humanity to divert his resolve to make England supreme. He was called “the Great Commoner” because he was the greatest man in the House of Commons, not because he thought of improving the lot of the commonalty; however, he rose to defend Americans and the people of India against oppression by Englishmen. Like the King he resented criticism, and was “unapt to forget or to forgive.”19 He would not serve the King unless he could rule him; he resigned from the ministry (1761) when George III insisted on violating England’s compact with Frederick and making a separate peace with France. If in the end he was defeated it was by no other foe than gout.
Pitt’s influence on English politics was matched by Edmund Burke’s influence on English thought. Pitt disappeared from the scene in 1778; Burke appeared on it in 1761, and held the attention of educated England, intermittently, till 1794. The fact that he was born in Dublin (1729), the son of an attorney, may have handicapped him in his struggle for political office and power; he was not an Englishman except by adoption, and not a member of any aristocracy except that of the mind. The fact that his mother and sister were Catholics must have entered into his lifelong sympathy for the Catholics of Ireland and England, and his persistent emphasis upon religion as an indispensable bulwark of morality and the state. He received his formal education at a Quaker school in Ballitore, and at Trinity College, Dublin. He learned enough Latin to admire Cicero’s orations and to make them the foundation of his own forensic style.
In 1750 he passed to England to study law at the Middle Temple. Later he praised law as “a science which does more to quicken and invigorate the understanding than all the other kinds of learning put together,” but he thought it “not apt, except in persons very happily born, to open and to liberalize the mind exactly in the same proportion.”20 About 1775 his father withdrew Edmund’s allowance on the ground that he was neglecting his legal studies for other pursuits. Apparently Edmund had developed a taste for literature, and was frequenting the theaters and the debating clubs of London. A legend arose that he fell in love with the famous actress Peg Woffington. He wrote to a friend in 1757: “I have broken all rules; I have neglected all decorum”; and he described his “manner of life” as “chequered with various designs; sometimes in London, sometimes in remote parts of the country, sometimes in France, and shortly, please God, to be in America.” Otherwise we know nothing about Burke in those experimental years, except that in 1756, in uncertain sequence, he published two remarkable books, and married.
One book was entitled A Vindication of Natural Society, or a View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind from Every Species of Artificial Society. A Letter to Lord——. By a late Noble Writer. The essay, some forty-five pages long, is on its face a vigorous condemnation of all government, far more anarchistic than Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which had appeared only a year before. Burke defined “natural society” as “society founded in natural appetites and instincts, and not in any positive institution.”21 “The development of laws was a degeneration.”22 History is a record of butchery, treachery, and war;23 and “political society is justly charged with much the greater part of this destruction.”24 All governments follow the Machiavellian principles, reject all moral restraints, and give the citizens a demoralizing example of greed, deceit, robbery, and homicide.25 Democracy in Athens and Rome brought no cure for the evils of government, for it soon became dictatorship through the ability of demagogues to win admiration from gullible majorities. Law is injustice codified; it protects the idle rich against the exploited poor,26 and adds a new evil—lawyers.27 “Political society has made the many the property of the few.”28 Look at the condition of the miners of England, and consider whether such misery could have existed in a natural society—i.e., before the making of laws.—Should we nevertheless accept the state, like the religion that upholds it, as being made necessary by the nature of man? Not at all.
If we are resolved to submit our reason and our liberty to civil usurpation, we have nothing to do but to conform as quietly as we can to the vulgar [popular] notions which are connected with this, and take up the theology of the vulgar as well as their politics. But if we think this necessity rather imaginary than real, we shall renounce their dreams of society together with their visions of religion, and vindicate ourselves into perfect liberty.29
This has the bold ring and angry sincerity of a young radical, a youth religious in spirit but rejecting the established theology, and sensitive to the poverty and degradation that he had seen in England; a talent conscious of itself but as yet without place and standing in the stream of the world. Every alert youngster passes through this stage on his way to position, possessions, and such frightened conservatism as we shall find in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. We note that the author of theVindicationcovered his tracks with anonymity, even to playing dead. Nearly all readers, including William Warburton and the Earl of Chesterfield, understood the tract as a genuine attack upon current evils,30 and many ascribed it to Viscount Bolingbroke, who, having died in 1751, was “a late Noble Writer.” Nine years after publishing the essay Burke ran for election to Parliament. Fearing that his youthful ebullition would be held against him, he reprinted it in 1765 with a preface that said in part: “The design of the following little piece was to show that … the same [literary] engines which were employed for the destruction of religion might be employed with equal success for the subversion of government.”31 Most biographers of Burke have accepted this explanation as sincere; we cannot join them, but we can understand the effort of a political candidate to protect himself against popular prejudice. Which of us would have a future if his past were known?
Just as eloquent as the Vindication, and much subtler, was Burke’s other publication in 1756: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and Beautiful; to which in a second edition he added A Discourse on Taste. We must admire the courage of the twenty-seven-year-old youth who pursued these elusive subjects a full decade before Lessing’s Laokoon. He may have taken a lead from the opening of Book II of Lucretius’ De rerum natura: “Pleasant it is, when the winds are troubling the waters in a mighty sea, to witness from the land another’s great toil; not because it is a delight to behold anyone’s tribulation, but because it is sweet to see from what evils you yourself are free.” So Burke wrote: “The passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger without being actually in such circumstances. … Whatever excites this delight I call sublime.” Secondarily, “all works of great labor, expense, and magnificence are sublime, … and all buildings of very great richness and splendor, … for in contemplating them the mind applies the ideas of the greatness of exertion necessary to produce such works, to the works themselves.”32 Gloom, darkness, mystery help to arouse a sense of sublimity; hence the care of medieval builders to let only dim and filtered light enter their cathedrals. Romantic fiction, as in Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) or Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), profited from these ideas.
“Beauty,” said Burke, “is a name I shall apply to all such qualities in things as induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness, or some other passion the most nearly resembling these.”33 He rejected the classical reduction of these qualities to harmony, unity, proportion, and symmetry; we all agree that the swan is beautiful, though its long neck and short tail are quite disproportionate to its body. Usually the beautiful is small (and thereby contrasts with the sublime). “I do not now recollect anything beautiful that is not smooth”;34 a broken or rugged surface, a sharp angle or sudden projection, will disturb us and limit our pleasure even in objects otherwise beautiful. “An air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty. An appearance of delicacy, and even offragility, is almost essential to it.”35 Color adds to beauty, especially if it is varied and bright, but not glaring or strong.—Strange to say, Burke did not ask whether a woman is beautiful because she is small, smooth, delicate, and colorful, or whether these qualities seem beautiful because they remind us of woman, who is beautiful because she is desired.
In any case June Nugent was desirable, and Burke married her in this fecund year 1756. She was the daughter of an Irish physician; she was a Catholic, but she soon conformed to the Anglican worship. Her mild and gentle disposition soothed her husband’s irascible temperament.
The impression made by the style, if not the arguments, of the Vindication and the Enquiry opened doors to Burke. The Marquis of Rockingham engaged him as secretary, despite the Duke of Newcastle’s warning that Burke was a wild Irishman, a Jacobite, a secret papist and Jesuit.36 Late in 1765 Burke was elected to Parliament from the borough of Wendover through the influence of Lord Verney, “who owned it.”37 In the House of Commons the new member acquired the reputation of an eloquent, yet not persuasive, orator. His voice was harsh, his accent Hibernian, his gestures awkward, his jests occasionally coarse, his denunciations unduly passionate. Only in reading him did men perceive that he was creating literature as he spoke—by his command of the English language, his luminous descriptions, his range of knowledge and illustrations, his ability to bring philosophic perspective to the issues of the day. Perhaps these qualities were handicaps in the House. Some hearers, Goldsmith tells us, “loved to see him wind into his subject like a serpent,”38 but many others were impatient with his excessive detail, his digressions into theory, his ornate declamations, his massive periodic sentences, his flights into literary elegance; they wanted practical considerations and immediate relevance; they praised his diction, but ignored his advice. So, when Boswell said that Burke was like a hawk, Johnson countered, “Yes, sir, but he catches nothing.”39 Almost to the end of his career he defended policies unpalatable to the people, the ministry, and the King. “I know,” he said, “that the road I take is not the road to preferment.”40
Apparently, during the years of his climb, he read much and judiciously. One contemporary described him as an encyclopedia, from whose stores everyone received instruction. Fox paid him an unmeasured compliment: “If he [Fox] were to put all the political information which he had learned from books, all which he had gained from science, and all which any knowledge of the world and its affairs had taught him, into one scale, and the improvement which he had derived from his right honorable friend’s instruction and conversation were placed in the other, he should be at a loss to decide to which to give the preference.”41 Johnson, who usually administered praise in small doses, agreed with Fox: “You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.”42
Burke joined the Johnson-Reynolds circle about 1758. He rarely entered into debate with the invincible debater, probably fearing his own temper as well as Johnson’s; but when he did, the Great Cham drew in his horns. When Johnson was sick, and someone mentioned Burke, the Doctor cried out, “That fellow calls forth -all my powers; were I to see Burke now it would kill me.”43 Yet the two men agreed on almost all basic questions of politics, morals, and religion. They accepted the aristocratic rule of Britain, though both were commoners; they scorned democracy as the enthronement of mediocrity; they defended orthodox Christianity and the Established Church as irreplaceable bastions of morality and order. Only the revolt of the American colonies divided them. Johnson called himself a Tory, and denounced Whigs as criminals and fools; Burke called himself a Whig, and gave a stronger, better-reasoned defense of Tory principles than any other man in English history.
He seemed at times to uphold the most questionable elements of the existing order. He opposed changes in the rules for the election of members or the enactment of laws. He thought “rotten” or “pocket” boroughs forgivable, since they sent good men like himself to Parliament. Instead of widening the suffrage he would, “by lessening the number, add to the weight and independency, of our voters.”44 Nevertheless he espoused a hundred liberal causes. He advocated freedom of trade before Adam Smith, and attacked the slave trade before Wilbérforce. He advised removing the political disabilities of Catholics, and supported the petition of the Dissenters for full civil rights. He tried to soften the barbarous severity of the penal code, and the handicaps of a soldier’s life. He vindicated the freedom of the press though he himself had felt its sting. He stood up for Ireland, America, India in the face of chauvinistic majorities. He championed Parliament against the King with a candor and audacity that forfeited all chance of political office. We may debate his views and his motives, but we can never doubt his courage.
The last crusade of Burke’s career—against the French Revolution—cost him the friendship of a man whom he had long admired and loved. Charles James Fox returned his affection and shared with him the dangers of battle in a dozen causes, but differed from him in almost every quality of mind and character except humanity and bravery. Burke was Irish, poor, conservative, religious, moral; Fox was English, rich, radical, and kept only so much religion as comported with gambling, drinking, mistresses, and the French Revolution. He was the third but favorite son of Henry Fox, who inherited one fortune, squandered it, married another, accumulated a third as paymaster of the forces, helped Bute to buy M.P.s, was rewarded by being created Baron Holland, and was denounced as “the public defaulter of unaccounted millions.”45 His wife, Caroline Lennox, was granddaughter of Charles II by Louise de Kéroualle, so that Charles James had in his veins the diluted blood of a rakish Stuart king and a Frenchwoman of complaisant morals. His very names were Stuart memories, and must have grated on Hanoverian ears.
Lady Holland tried to bring up her sons to integrity and responsibility, but Lord Holland indulged Charles in every humor, and inverted old maxims for him: “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow, nor ever do yourself what you can get anyone else to do for you.”46 When the boy was barely fourteen his father took him from Eton College for a tour of Continental casinos and spas, and allowed him five guineas per night for play. The youth returned to Eton a confirmed gambler, and kept this up at Oxford. He found time to read much, both in classical and in English literature, but he left Oxford after two years to spend two years in travel. He learned French and Italian, lost £ 16,000 in Naples, visited Voltaire at Ferney, and received from him a list of books to enlighten him on Christian theology.47 In 1768 the father bought a borough for him, and Charles took a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. This was quite illegal, but so many members were impressed by the youth’s personal charm and presumptive wealth that no protest made itself heard. Two years later, through his father’s influence, he was made a lord of the admiralty in the ministry of Lord North. In 1774 the father, the mother, and an elder son died, and Charles became the master of a large fortune.
His physical appearance in his mature years was as careless as his morals. His stockings were loosely tied, his coat and waistcoat were rumpled, his shirt was open at the neck, his face was puffed and ruddy with food and drink, and his swelling paunch, when he sat, threatened to tumble over his knees. When he fought a duel with William Adam he rejected the advice of his second to assume the customary sideways stance, for he said, “I am as thick one way as the other.”48 He took no pains to conceal his faults. It was common gossip that he proved to be an amiable victim of sharpers. Once (Gibbon tells us) he played for twenty-two hours at a sitting, and lost in that time £ 200,000. Fox remarked that the greatest pleasure in life, next to winning, was losing.49 He kept a stable of racing horses, bet heavily on them, and (we are asked to believe) won more on them than he lost.50
Sometimes he was as careless of his political principles as of his morals and his dress; more than once he let his personal interests or animosity determine his course. He tended to indolence, and did not prepare his parliamentary speeches or measures with that care and study which distinguished Burke. He had few graces as an orator, and sought none; his addresses were often formless and repetitious, sometimes shocking the grammarians; he “threw himself into the middle of his sentences,” said the scholar Richard Porson, “and left it to God Almighty to get him out again.”51 But he was gifted with such quickness of mind and power of memory that he became, by general consent, the ablest debater in the House. “Charles Fox,” wrote Horace Walpole, “has tumbled old Saturn [Chatham] from the throne of oratory.”52
Fox’s contemporaries were lenient with his faults since these were so widely shared, and they almost unanimously testified to his virtues. Through most of his life after 1774 he followed liberal causes at reckless sacrifice of preferment and popularity. Burke, who scorned vice, nevertheless loved Fox because he saw that Fox was unselfishly devoted to social justice and human liberty. “He is a man made to be loved,” said Burke, “of the most artless, open, candid, and benevolent disposition; disinterested in the extreme, of a temper mild and placable to a fault, without one drop of gall in his whole constitution.”53 Gibbon agreed: “Perhaps no human being was ever more perfectly exempt from the taint of malevolence, vanity, or falsehood.”54 Only George III was immune to that spontaneous charm.
Bound with Burke and Fox in leading the liberal factor of the Whigs was a second Irishman, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His grandfather, Thomas Sheridan I, published translations from Greek and Latin, and an Art of Punning which may have infected the grandson. The father, Thomas Sheridan II, was by some ranked second only to Garrick as actor and theatrical manager. He married Frances Chamberlaine, a successful playwright and novelist. He received degrees from Dublin, Oxford, and Cambridge; lectured at Cambridge on education; was instrumental in getting Johnson a royal pension, and got one for himself. He wrote an entertaining Life of Swift, and dared to publish a General Dictionary of the English Language (1780) only twenty-five years after Johnson’s. He helped his son manage Drury Lane Theatre, and saw him rise in romance, literature, and Parliament.
So Richard had wit and drama in his milieu, if not in his blood. Born in Dublin (1751), he was sent to Harrow at the age of eleven, stayed there six years, and acquired a good classical education; at twenty he echoed his grandfather by publishing translations from the Greek. In that year 1771, while living at Bath with his parents, he fell into raptures over the lovely face and voice of Elizabeth Ann Linley, seventeen, who sang in the concerts presented by her father, composer Thomas Linley. Those who have seen any of Gainsborough’s portraits of her55 will understand that Richard had no alternative but rapture. Neither had she, if we may believe his sister, who thought him irresistibly handsome and lovable. “His cheeks had the glow of health; his eyes the finest in the world.... A tender and affectionate heart. … The same playful fancy, the same sterling and innoxious wit, that was shown afterwards in his writings, cheered and delighted the family circle. I admired—I almost adored—him. I would most willingly have sacrificed my life for him.”56
Elizabeth Ann had many suitors, including Richard’s elder brother Charles. One of them, Major Mathews, rich but married, annoyed her to such aggravation that she took laudanum to kill herself. She recovered, but lost all desire for life until Richard’s devotion revived her spirits. Mathews threatened to force her; half in fear, half in love, she eloped with Sheridan to France, married him (1772), and then took refuge in a convent near Lille while Richard returned to England to conciliate his father and hers. He fought two duels with Mathews; victor in the first, he spared Mathews’ life; drunk in the second, he disarmed his adversary, allowed the duel to degenerate into a wrestling match, and returned to Bath smeared with blood, wine, and mud. His father disowned him, but Thomas Linley brought Elizabeth Ann back from France, and sanctioned her marriage (1773).
Too proud to let his wife support him by public singing, Richard, twentytwo, undertook to make a fortune by writing plays. On January 17, 1775, his first comedy, The Rivals, was produced at Covent Garden. It was poorly acted and poorly received; Sheridan secured a better actor for the leading role, and a second performance (January 28) began a series of dramatic successes that brought Sheridan fame and wealth. Soon all London was talking about Sir Anthony Absolute, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, and Miss Lydia Languish, and was imitating Mrs. Malaprop’s mangling of words (“Forget this fellow, illiterate him quite from your memory”;57 “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”).58 Sheridan had a mint of sallies in his brain, scattering them on every page, dowering lackeys with wit, and making fools talk like philosophers. Critics complained that the characters were not always consistent with their speech, and that the wit, crackling in every scene, bubbling in almost every mouth, dulled its point by excess; no matter; audiences relished the merriment, and relish it to this day.
Even greater was the success of The Duenna, which had its première at Covent Garden on November 2, 1775; it ran for seventy-five nights in its first season, breaking the record of sixty-three nights set by The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. David Garrick, at the Drury Lane Theatre, was alarmed by this lively competition, but could find no better riposte than to revive The Discovery, a play by Sheridan’s lately deceased mother. Flushed with success, Sheridan offered to buy Garrick’s half share of the Drury Lane; Garrick, feeling his years, agreed for £ 35,000; Sheridan persuaded his fatherin-law and a friend to contribute £ 10,000 each; he himself invested £ 1,300 in cash; the remainder he raised on a loan (1776). Two years later he gathered together another, £ 35,000, took ownership of the theater with his partners, and assumed the management.
Many thought that his confidence had overreached itself, but Sheridan went on to another triumph by producing (May 8, 1777) The School for Scandal, the greatest dramatic success of the century. The author’s father, who had been pouting ever since Richard’s elopement five years before, was now reconciled with his son. After these victories there was a pause in Sheridan’s ascent. The offerings at the Drury Lane proved unpopular, and the specter of bankruptcy frightened the partners. Sheridan saved the situation with a farce, The Critic, a satire of tragic dramas and dramatic pundits. However, his wonted dilatoriness intervened, and two days before the scheduled opening he had not yet written the final scene. By some ruse his father-in-law and others lured him to a room in the theater, gave him paper, pen, ink, and wine, bade him finish the play, and locked him in. He emerged with the desired denouement; it was rehearsed and found adequate; the première (October 29, 1779) was another smile of fortune for the ebullient Irishman.
He looked around for new worlds to conquer, and decided to enter Parliament. He paid the burgesses of Stafford five guineas for their vote, and in 1780 he took his seat in the House of Commons as an ardent liberal. He shared with Fox and Burke in prosecuting Warren Hastings, and in one brilliant day outshone them both. Meanwhile he lived with his accomplished wife in happiness and luxury, famed for his conversation, his wit, his exuberance, his kindness, and his debts. Lord Byron summed up the marvel: “Whatsoever Sheridan has done, or chooses to do, has been par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy, the best drama, … the best farce, … the best address [a Monologue on Garrick ], and, to crown all, delivered the very best oration … ever conceived or heard in this country.”59 And he had won and kept the love of the loveliest woman in England.
Sheridan was all romance; it is hard to picture him in the same world and generation as William Pitt II, who recognized only reality, stood above sentiment, and ruled without eloquence. He was born (1759) at the height of his father’s career; his mother was sister to George Grenville, chief minister 1763-65; he was nursed on politics, and grew up in the odor of Parliament. Frail and sickly in childhood, he was kept from the rigors and socializing contacts of “public” school; he was tutored at home under the careful supervision of his father, who taught him elocution by making him recite Shakespeare or Milton every day. By the age of ten he was a classical scholar and had written a tragedy. At fourteen he was sent to Cambridge, soon fell ill, returned home; a year later he went again, and, being a peer’s son, he was graduated as Master of Arts in 1776 without examination. He studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, practiced law briefly, and was projected into Parliament at the age of twenty-one from a pocket borough controlled by Sir James Lowther. His maiden speech so well supported Burke’s proposal for economic reforms that Burke called him “not a chip of the old block but the old block itself.”60
Being a second son, he was allowed only £ 300 a year, with occasional help from his mother and uncles; these conditions encouraged a stoic simplicity in his conduct and character. He avoided marriage, having pledged himself indivisibly to the pursuit of power. He took no pleasure in gambling or the theater. Though he later used liquor in excess to dull his nerves after the tumult of politics, he earned a reputation for purity of life and incorruptibility of purpose; he could buy, but he could not be bought. He never sought wealth, and seldom made concessions to friendship; only an intimate few discovered, behind his cold aloofness and self-control, a friendly gaiety, even at times an affectionate tenderness.
Early in 1782, when Lord North’s ministry was about to resign, “the boy,” as some members condescendingly called Pitt, included in one of his speeches a rather unusual announcement: “For myself, I could not expect to form part of a new administration; but were my doing so within my reach, I feel myself bound to declare that I never would accept a subordinate position”;61 that is, he would accept no place lower than the six or seven seats that constituted what came to be called the cabinet. When the new ministry offered to appoint him vice-treasurer of Ireland at £ 5,000 a year, he declined, and continued to live on his £ 300. He was confident of advancement, and hoped to win it on his own merits; he worked hard, and became the best-informed man in the House on domestic politics, industry, and finance. A year after his proud pronouncement the King turned to him not merely to join but to head the government. No man before him had ever been chief minister at the age of twenty-four; and few ministers have left a deeper mark on English history.