Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Pitt and His Age
By John Richard Green (18371883)
From A Short History of the English People
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, sceptical of virtue and enthusiasm, sceptical 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 Pitts 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, his flashing eye, 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.