IX. THE RISE OF WILLIAM PITT: 1708–56

The fall of Walpole bequeathed England to a succession of minor ministries that floundered in political chaos and inconclusive wars. Lord Wilmington, as first lord of the treasury (1742–43), ruled at home while George II fought with theatrical but real heroism at Dettingen (June 27, 1743). “During all the battle,” wrote Frederick the Great, “the King of England kept himself at the head of his Hanoverian battalion, his left foot behind, sword in hand and arm outstretched, very much like a master of fencing”;78 just the same he inspired his men by his bravery, while he modestly accepted the commands of his generals. The ministry of Henry Pelham (1743–54) Jed England back to peace, but it continued the technique of ruling by the purchase of votes in boroughs and Parliament. His brother, the Duke of Newcastle, kept a tariff of England’s politicians, on which, for budgetary convenience, he listed the current market price of each man’s soul.79 The most lasting distinction of these two ministries is that they included the man who made the British Empire, and who stood out in his turbulent time as one of the most powerful characters in history.

William Pitt was born (1708) to money because his grandfather, Thomas Pitt, had made a vast fortune in India. Thomas himself was a man to be reckoned with. He took service as a sailor in a merchant vessel, settled in Bengal, and engaged in trade in “illicit” competition with the East India Company, to which Parliament had granted a monopoly. He was fined £1,000, continued to compete, brought the company to terms, joined it, and was for twelve years governor of Madras. By 1701 he was a man of sterling, rich enough to buy the famous “Pitt diamond” for £20,000, and clever enough to sell it to Philippe d’Orléans, Regent of France, for £ 135,000; now valued at £480,000, it is preserved among the state jewels of France in the Louvre as a brilliant witness to the depreciation of currencies. Thomas invested his gains in English realty, bought a seat in Parliament, and represented there, from 1710 to 1715, the “rotten borough” of Old Sarum. He devised his estate to Robert Pitt, his eldest son, who married Harriet Villiers, who gave him seven children, of whom William Pitt was the second son.

At Eton William protested against the discipline; he thought the fagging would break the spirit of the students; it did not break his. At Oxford he distinguished himself by suffering from gout at the age of eighteen. Hoping to shake off the ailment in a warmer climate, he left the university without a degree and traveled in France and Italy, but gout remained his cross through all his victories. Nevertheless he joined the army, served in it for four years, saw no battle, but came out with the conviction that war is the arbiter of history and the destiny of states. In 1735 his family, while keeping him relatively poor as a younger son, bought Old Sarum’s votes for him, and he began his career in Parliament.

He soon made himself heard there, for he was the most effective orator that that forensic cavern has ever known. All the force of his passionate character went into his speeches, all his resolve to rise to power, to unseat Walpole, to dominate Parliament and the King, finally to remake Europe to his heart’s desire. For those purposes he used logic, drama, imagination, enthusiasm, poetry, bombast, invective, sarcasm, satire, appeals to patriotism, to personal and national interest and glory. As the years progressed he developed his oratorical mastery until it embraced all the arts of a Demosthenes or a Cicero. He could lower his voice to a whisper, or raise it to an angry roar; he could sink an enemy with a phrase. He followed Demosthenes’ rule and made action the life of speech; every line had its gesture, every feeling molded his hawklike face and glowed in his deep-set eyes, until his whole body came into play as if the word had been made flesh. He was the greatest actor that ever shunned the stage.

He was no saint. Ambition was the mast of his character and the wind in his sails; but it redeemed itself by embracing all England, and consumed itself in dragging England, willy-nilly, out over imperial seas to world supremacy. Feeling himself to be the voice of the state, beyond any Hanoverian gutturals or Walpolian bribes, he appropriated the ethic of governments—that all is good that advantages the state; if he used deception, calumny, intimidation, intrigue, ingratitude, perjury, treachery, these were tools of the statesman’s trade, and were to be judged not by preachers but by kings. At nearly every step in his rise he turned his back upon a position that he had recently defended with all the sublimity of moral passion;80 he seldom stopped to explain or apologize; he mounted all intent toward his goal; and his success—which was England’s—sanctified his sins and haloed his head. Meanwhile there was something grand in his pride; he disdained to buy advancement with servility, he remained incorruptible amid corruption, and he attained his ends by the force of an uncompromising personality that would not be deterred.

He pursued Walpole as a peacemongering merchant too chicken-livered to risk war with Spain, and too subservient to a king who, said Pitt, showed an “absurd, ungrateful, and perfidious partiality for Hanover,” and “considered England only as a province to a despicable electorate.”81 The ardent orator pursued his martial policy with such intensity that the Duchess of Marlborough, dying in 1744, left Pitt a legacy of ten thousand pounds, for Sarah had inherited her dead Duke’s love of war. When Pelham came to office he asked the King to make Pitt secretary of war; George II, still burning with Pitt’s fire, refused. Pelham persisted; he described Pitt as “the most able and useful man we have amongst us, truly honorable and strictly honest.”82 The King yielded, and in 1746 Pitt entered the ministry, first as joint vice-treasurer for Ireland, then as paymaster of the forces. This position had become by custom a mine of personal wealth: the paymaster took for himself one half of one per cent of all subsidies voted by Parliament to foreign princes; and he invested at interest—which he kept for himself—the large floating balance left with him for the payment of troops. Pitt refused to take anything more than his official salary; when the King of Sardinia pressed him to accept a gift equal to the usual deduction from his subsidy he declined it. England, which had long accounted such perquisites as a normal accommodation to the nature of man, applauded Pitt’s anomalous integrity, and listened with eagerness to his pleas for a Britain that would bestride the world.

In June, 1755, without a declaration of war, hostilities between England and France broke out in America. In January, 1756, England signed a treaty with Prussia. In May France concluded a defensive alliance with Austria. In November Pitt, now secretary of state, became England’s voice and arm in that Seven Years’ War that would determine the map of Europe till the French Revolution.


I. Cf. Lord Birkenhead’s summary: “The Whigs went bathing, and Bolingbroke stole their clothes.”43

II. According to Horace Walpole, when Jenkins died he was found to have two perfectly sound ears. Burke spoke of “the fable of Jenkins’ ears.”47 Another version attributed the amputation to a pirate, who was punished therefor by the Spanish government.48

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