Story type: Essay
Time was when slaves were exported like cattle from the British Coast and exposed for sale in the Roman market. These men and women who were thus sold were supposed to be guilty of witchcraft, debt, blasphemy or theft. Or else they were prisoners taken in war–they had forfeited their right to freedom, and we sold them. We said they were incapable of self-government and so must be looked after. Later we quit selling British slaves, but began to buy and trade in African humanity. We silenced conscience by saying, “It’s all right–they are incapable of self-government.” We were once as obscure, as debased, as ignorant, as barbaric, as the African is now. I trust that the time will come when we are willing to give to Africa the opportunity, the hope, the right to attain to the same blessings that we ourselves enjoy.
—William Pitt, on “Abolition of Slavery in England”
The Law of Heredity has been described as that law of our nature which provides that a man shall resemble his grandmother–or not, as the case may be.
What traits are inherited and what acquired–who shall say? Married folks who resort to the happy expedient of procuring their children at orphan-asylums can testify to the many times they have been complimented on the striking resemblance of father to daughter, or son to mother.
Possibly that is all there is of it–we resemble those with whom we associate. Far be it from me to say the final word on this theme–I would not, if I could, deprive men of a problem they can never solve. When all questions are answered, it will be time to telephone the undertaker.
That men of genius do not reproduce themselves after the flesh is an axiom; but that William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, did, is brought forth as an exception, incident, accident or circumstance, just according to one’s mood at the moment.
“Great men do have great sons!” we cry. “Just look at the Pitts, the Adamses, the Walpoles, the Beechers, the Booths, the Bellinis, the Disraelis!” and here we begin to falter. And then the opposition takes it up and rattles off a list of great men whose sons were spendthrifts, gamblers, ne’er-do-wells and jackanapes.
When Pitt the Younger made his first speech in the House of Commons, he struck thirteen. The members of the House were amazed.
“He’s a chip off the old block,” they said.
“He’s the block itself,” said Burke.
Lord Rosebery, who had the felicity to own a Derby winner, once said of Pitt, “He was bred for speed, but not for endurance.”
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Since the subject of heredity always seems to come up when the Pitts are mentioned, it may be proper for us to go back and trace pedigree a bit, to see if we have here the formula for producing a genius.
The grandfather of William Pitt the Elder was Thomas Pitt, a sea-captain, trader and gentleman adventurer. In fact, he was a bold buccaneer, but not too bold, for he gave large sums to church and charity, and showed his zeal for virtue by once hanging three smugglers in chains, high up on a gibbet overlooking the coast of Cornwall, and there the bodies were left until the birds of prey and the elements had bleached their bones.
Thomas Pitt was known as “Diamond Tom” through bringing from India and selling to the Regent Orleans the largest diamond, I believe, ever owned in England. For this diamond, Tom received one hundred thirty-five thousand pounds–a sum equal to one million dollars. That Diamond Tom received this money there is no doubt, but where and how he got the diamond nobody seems to know, and in his own time it was deemed indelicate to inquire.
Tom might have wasted that money right shortly–there are several ways of dissipating a fortune–but he wisely decided to found a house. That is to say, he bought a borough–the borough of Old Sarum, the locality that was to become famous as the “rotten borough” of the Reform Bill.
He bought this borough and all the tenants outright from the Government, just as we bought the Filipinos at two dollars a head. All the people who lived in the borough had to pay tribute, taxes or rent to Tom, for Tom owned the tenures. They had to pay, hike or have their heads cut off. Most of them paid.
If the time were at our disposal, it might be worth while to let this story extend itself into a picture of how all the land in England once belonged to the Crown, and how this land was transferred at will to Thomas, Richard and Henry for cash or as reward for services rendered. It was much the same in America–the Government once owned all the land, and then this land was sold, given out to soldiers, or to homesteaders who would clear the land of trees; and later we reversed the proposition and gave the land to those who would plant trees.
There was this similarity, too, between English and American land-laws: the Indians on the land in America had to pay, move or be perforated. For them to pay rent or work out a road-tax was quite out of the question. Indians, like the Irish, will not pay rent, so we were compelled to evict them.
But there was this difference in America: the owner of the land could sell it; in England he could not. The law of entail has been much modified, but as a general proposition the landowner in England has the privilege of collecting the rent, and warning off poachers, but he can not mortgage the land and eat it up. This keeps the big estates intact, and is a very good scheme. Under a similar law in the United States, Uncle Billy Bushnell or Ali Baba might live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and own every foot of East Aurora, and all of us would then vote as Baron Bushnell or Sir Ali dictated, thus avoiding much personal animus at Town-Meetin’ time.
But no tenure can be made with death–he can neither be bought, bribed, cajoled nor intimidated. Diamond Tom died and his eldest son Robert came into possession of the estate.
Now, Robert was commonplace and beautifully mediocre. It is one of Nature’s little ironies at the expense of the Law of Entail that she will occasionally send out of the spirit-realm, into a place of worldly importance, a man who is a regular chibot, chitterling and chump. Robert Pitt, son of Diamond Tom, escaped all censure and unkind criticism by doing nothing, saying nothing and being nothing.
But he proved procreant and reared a goodly brood of sons and daughters–all much like himself, save one, the youngest son.
This son, by name William Pitt, very much resembled Diamond Tom, his illustrious grandfather–Nature bred back. William was strong in body, firm in will, active, alert, intelligent. Times had changed or he might have been a bold buccaneer, too. He was all his grandfather was, only sandpapered, buffed and polished by civilization.
He was sent to Eton, and then to Trinity College, Oxford, where buccaneer instincts broke out and he left without a degree. Two careers were open to him, as to all aspiring sons of Noble Beef-eaters–he could enter the Church or the Army.
He chose the Army, and became in due course the first cornet of his company.
His elder brother Thomas was very naturally a member of the House of Commons for Old Sarum, and later sat for Oakhampton. Another of Nature’s little ironies here outcrops: Thomas, who was named for his illustrious grandfather–he of the crystallized carbon–didn’t resemble his grandfather nearly so much as did his younger brother William. So Thomas with surprising good sense named his brother for a seat in the House of Commons from Old Sarum.
William was but twenty-seven years of age when he began his official career, but he seemed one who had leaped into life full-armed. He absorbed knowledge on every hand. Demosthenes was his idol, and he, too, declaimed by the seashore with his mouth full of pebbles. His splendid command of language was acquired by the practise of translation and retranslation. Whether Greek or Latin ever helped any man to become a better thinker is a mooted question, but the practise of talking off in your own tongue a page of a foreign language is a mighty good way to lubricate your English.
William Pitt had all the graces of a great orator–he was deliberate, self-possessed, positive. In form he was rather small, but he had a way of carrying himself that gave an impression of size. He was one of the world’s big little men–the type of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Harrison and John D. Long. In the House of Commons he lost no time in making his presence felt. He was assertive, theatrical, declamatory–still, he usually knew what he was talking about. His criticisms of the Government so exasperated Sir Robert Walpole that Walpole used to refer to him as “that terrible cornet of horse.” Finally, Walpole had him dismissed from the Army. This, instead of silencing the young man, really made matters worse, and George the Second, who patronized the Opposition when he could not down it, made him groom of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. This was an office lined with adipose, with no work to speak of.
The feeling is that Pitt revealed his common clay by accepting the favor. He was large enough to get along without such things.
In most of the good old “School Speakers” was an extract from a speech supposed to have been delivered by Pitt on the occasion of his being taunted by Horace Walpole on account of his youth. Pitt replied in language something like this: “It is true that I am young, yet I’ll get over that; but the man who is a fool will probably remain one all his days.”
The speech was reported by a lout of a countryman, Samuel Johnson by name, who had come up to London to make his fortune, and found his first work in reporting speeches in the House of Commons. Pitt did not write out his speeches for the press, weeks in advance, according to latter-day methods; the man who reported them had to have a style of his own–and certainly Johnson had. Pitt was much pleased with Johnson’s reports of his speeches, but on one occasion mildly said, “Ah, Mr. Johnson–you know–I do not exactly remember using that expression!”
And Samuel Johnson said, “Sir, it is barely possible that you did not use the language as I have written it out; but you should.” Just how much Johnson we get in Pitt’s printed speeches, is still a topic for debate.
Pitt could think on his feet, while Samuel Johnson never made but one speech and broke down in that. But Johnson could write, and the best of Pitt’s speeches are those reported by Ursa Major in a style superbly Johnsonese. The member from Old Sarum once sent Johnson two butts of Canary and a barrel of whitebait, as a token of appreciation for his skill in accurate reporting.
Pitt followed the usual course of successful reformers, and in due time lined up on the side of the conservatives, and gradually succumbed to a strictly aristocratic disease, gout. Whether genius is transmissible or not is a question, but all authorities agree as to gout.
Pitt’s opposition to the Walpoles was so very firmly rooted that it continued for life, and for this he was rewarded by the Duchess of Marlborough with a legacy of ten thousand pounds. Her Grace was the mother of the lady who had the felicity to have her picture painted by Gainsborough, which picture was brought to America and secreted here for many years and finally was purchased for sixty-five thousand dollars by Pierpont Morgan, through the kind offices of my friend Patricius Sheedy, Philistine-at-Large.
The Duchess in her will said she gave the money to Pitt as “an acknowledgment of the noble defense he had made for the support of the laws of England.” But the belief is that it was her hatred for Walpole that prompted her admiration for Pitt. And her detestation of Walpole was not so much political as sentimental–a woman’s love-affairs being much more to her than patriotism–but the Duchess being a woman deceived herself as to reasons. Our acts are right, but our reasons seldom are. I leave this Marlborough matter with those who are interested in the psychology of the heart–merely calling attention to the fact that although the Duchess was ninety when she passed out, the warm experiences of her early womanhood were very vivid in her memory. If you wish to know when love dies out of a woman’s brain, you will have to ask some one who is older than was the Duchess of Marlborough.
When George the Second died, and his grandson George the Third came into power, Pitt resigned his office in the Cabinet and abandoned politics.
At last he found time to get married. He was then forty-six years of age.
Men retire from active life, but seldom remain upon the shelf–either life or death takes them down. In five years’ time we find the King offering Pitt anything in sight, and Mr. Pitt, the Great Commoner, became Viscount Pitt, Earl of Chatham.
By this move Pitt lost in popularity more than he had gained in dignity–there was a complete revulsion of feeling toward him by the people, and he never again attained the influence and power he had once known.
Burke once referred to a certain proposed bill as “insignificant, irrelevant, pompous, creeping, explanatory and ambiguous–done in the true Chathamic style.”
But the disdain of Burke was really complimentary–it took a worthy foe to draw his fire. Chatham’s faults were mostly on the surface, and were more a matter of manner than of head or heart. America has cause to treasure the memory of Chatham. He opposed the Stamp Act with all the vigor of his tremendous intellect, and in the last speech of his life he prophesied that the Americans would never submit to taxation without representation, and that all the power of England was not great enough to subdue men who were fighting for their country. Yet his appeal to George the Third and his minions was like bombarding a fog. But all he said proved true.
On the occasion of this last great speech Chatham was attended by his favorite son William, then nineteen years old. Proud as was this father of his son, he did not guess that in four short years this boy would, through his brilliancy, cast his own splendid efforts into the shadow; and that Burke, the querulous, would give the son a measure of approbation he never vouchsafed to the father.
William Pitt, the Younger, is known as the “Great Pitt,” to distinguish him from his father, who in his day was known as the greatest man in England.
* * * * *
William Pitt, the second son of the Earl of Chatham, was born of poor but honest parents, in the year Seventeen Hundred Fifty-nine. That was the year that gave us Robert Burns–between whom and Pitt, in some respects, averages were held good. The same year was born William Wilberforce, philanthropist and emancipator, father of Canon Wilberforce.
At this time the fortunes of William Pitt the Elder were at full flood. England was in a fever of exultation–drunk with success. Just where the thought got abroad that the average Englishman is moderate in success and in defeat not cast down, I do not know. But this I have seen: all London mad, howling, exultant, savage drunk, because of the report that the Redcoats had subjugated this colony or that. To subdue, crush, slay and defeat, has caused shrieking shouts of joy in London since London began–unless the slain were Englishmen.
This is patriotism, concerning which Samuel Johnson, reporter in the House of Commons, once made a remark slightly touched with acerbity.
In the years Seventeen Hundred Fifty-eight and Seventeen Hundred Fifty-nine not a month passed but bonfires burned bright from Cornwall to Scotland in honor of English victories on land and sea. In Westphalia, British Infantry defeated the armies of Louis the Fifteenth; Boscawen had sunk a French fleet; Hawke put to flight another; Amherst took Ticonderoga; Clive destroyed a Dutch armament; Wolfe achieved victory and a glorious death at Quebec. English arms had marched triumphant through India and secured for the tight little island an empire, while another had been gained on the shores of Ontario.
For all this the Great Commoner received most of the glory; and that this tremendous popularity was too great to last is but a truism.
But in such a year it was that William Pitt was born. His father was fifty years old, his mother about thirty. This mother was a woman of rare grace, intellect and beauty, the only sister of two remarkable brothers–George Grenville, the obstinate adviser of George the Third, the man who did the most to make America free–unintentionally–and the other brother was Richard Earl Temple, almost equally potent for right or wrong.
That the child of a sensitive mother, born amid such a crash of excitement, should be feeble was to be expected. No one at first expected the baby to survive.
But tenderness and care brought him through, and he grew into a tall, spindling boy whose intellect far outmatched his body. He was too weak to be sent to take his place at a common school, and so his father and mother taught him.
Between the father and the son there grew up a fine bond of affection. Whenever the father made a public address the boy was there to admire and applaud.
The father’s declining fortunes drove him back to his family for repose, and all of his own ambitions became centered in his son. With a younger man this might not have been the case, but the baby boy of an old man means much more to him than a brood coming early.
Daily, this boy of twelve or fourteen would go to his father’s study to recite. Oratory was his aim, and the intent was that he should become the greatest parliamentarian of his time.
This little mutual-admiration society, composed of father and son, speaks volumes for both. Boys reaching out toward manhood, when they are neither men nor boys, often have little respect for their fathers–they consider the pater to be both old-fashioned and tyrannical. And the father, expecting too much of the son, often fails in faith and patience. But there was no such failure here. Chatham personally superintended the matter of offhand translation, and this practise was kept up daily from the time the boy was eight years old until he was nineteen, when his father died.
Then there was the tutor Pretyman who must not be left out. He was a combination valet and teacher, and the most pedantic and idolatrous person that ever moused through dusty tomes. With a trifle more adipose and a little less intellect, he would have made a most successful and awful butler. He seemed a type of the English waiter who by some chance had acquired a college education, and never said a wrong thing, nor did a right one, during his whole life.
Pretyman wrote a life of Pitt, and according to Macaulay it enjoys the distinction of being the worst biography ever written. Lord Rosebery, however, declares the book is not so bad as it might be. I believe there are two other biographies equally stupid: Weems’ “Life of Washington,” and the book on Gainsborough, by Thicknesse. Weems’ book was written to elevate his man into a demigod; Thicknesse was intent on lowering his subject and exalting himself; while Pretyman extols himself and his subject equally, revealing how William Pitt could never have been William Pitt were it not for his tutor. Pretyman emphasizes trifles, slights important matters, and waxes learned concerning the irrelevant.
A legacy coming to Pretyman, he changed his name to Tomline, as women change their names when they marry or enter a convent.
Religion to Pitt was quite a perfunctory affair, necessary, of course; but a bishop in England was one who could do little good and, fortunately, not much harm. With an irony too subtle to be seen by but very few, Pitt when twenty-seven years of age made his old tutor Bishop of Winchester. Tomline proved an excellent and praiseworthy bishop; and his obsequious loyalty to Pitt led to the promise that if the Primacy should become vacant, Tomline was to be made Archbishop of Canterbury.
This promise was told by the unthinking Tomline, and reached the ears of George the Third, a man who at times was very much alert.
There came a day when the Primacy was vacant, and to head off the nomination by Pitt, the King one morning at eight o’clock walked over to the residence of Bishop Manners Somers and plied the knocker.
The servant who answered the summons explained that the Bishop was taking his bath and could not be seen until he had had breakfast.
But the visitor was importunate.
The servant went back to his master and explained that the stout man at the door would neither go away nor tell his name, but must see his lordship at once.
When the Bishop appeared in his dressing-gown and saw the King, he nearly had apoplexy. But the King quickly told his errand and made his friend Primate on the doorstep, with the butler and the housemaid for witnesses.
Later in the day when Pitt appeared at the palace he was told that a Primate had been appointed–the King was very sorry, but the present incumbent could not be removed unless charges were preferred. Pitt smilingly congratulated the King on the wisdom of his choice, but afterward referred to the transaction as “a rather scurvy trick.”
At twenty-three years of age, William Pitt entered the House of Commons from the same borough that his father had represented at twenty-seven. His elder brother made way, just as had the elder brother of his father.
The first speech he made in Parliament fixed his place in that body. His fame had preceded him, and when he arose every seat was taken to hear the favorite son of the Earl of Chatham, the greatest orator England had ever seen.
The subject was simply a plan of finance, and lacked all excuse for fine phrasing or flavor of sentiment. And what should a boy of twenty-three know about a nation’s financial policy?
Yet this boy knew all about it. Figures, statistics, results, conclusions, were shown in a steady, flowing, accurate, lucid manner. The young man knew his theme–every byway, highway and tracing of it. By that speech he proved his mathematical genius, and blazed the way straight to the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Not only did he know his theme, but he had the ability to explain it. He spoke without hesitation or embarrassment, and revealed the same splendid dignity that his father had shown, all flavored by the same dash of indifference for the auditor. But the discerning ones saw that he surpassed his father, in that he carried more reserve and showed a suavity that was not the habit of Chatham.
And the man was there–mighty and self-reliant.
The voice is the index of the soul. The voice of the two Pitts was the same voice, we have been told–a deep, rich, cultivated lyric-barytone. It was a trained voice, a voice that came from a full column of air, that never broke into a screech, rasping the throat of the speaker and the ear of the listener. It was the natural voice carefully developed by right use. The power of Pitt lay in his cold, calculating intellect, but the instrument that made manifest this intellect was his deep, resonant, perfectly controlled voice.
Pitt never married, and according to the biting phrase of Fox, all he knew of love was a description of it he got from the Iliad. That is to say, he was separated from it about three thousand years. This is a trifle too severe, for when twenty-one years of age he met the daughter of Necker at Paris–she who was to give the world of society a thrill as Madame de Stael. And if the gossips are right it was not the fault of Pitt that a love-match did not follow. But the woman gauged the man, and she saw that love to him would be merely an incident, not a consuming passion, and she was not the woman to write a book on Farthest North. She dallied with the young man a day, and then sent him about his business, exasperated and perplexed. He could strike fire with men as flint strikes on steel, but women were outside his realm.
Yet he followed the career of Madame de Stael, and never managed to quite get her out of his life. Once, in his later years, he referred to her as that “cold and trifling daughter of France’s greatest financier.” He admired the father more than he loved the daughter.
For twenty-four years Pitt piloted England’s Ship of State. There were constant head-winds, and now and again shifting gales of fierce opposition, and all the time a fat captain to pacify and appease. This captain was stupid, sly, obstinate and insane by turns, and to run the ship and still allow the captain to believe that he was in command was the problem that confronted Pitt. And that he succeeded as well as any living man could, there is no doubt.
During the reign of Pitt, England lost the American Colonies. This was not a defeat for England: it was Destiny. England preserved her independence by cutting the cable that bound her to us.
The life of Pitt was a search for power–to love, wealth and fame he was indifferent.
He was able to manage successfully the finances of a nation, but his own were left in a sorry muddle: at his death it took forty thousand pounds to cause him to be worth nothing. His debts were paid by the nation. And this indifference to his own affairs was put forth at the time as proof of his probity and excellence. We think now that it marked his limitations. His income for twenty years preceding his death was about fifty thousand dollars a year. One hour a day in auditing accounts with his butler would have made all secure. He had neither wife, child nor dependent kinsmen, yet it was found that his household consumed nine hundred pounds of meat a week and enough beer to float a ship. For a man to waste his own funds in riotous living is only a trifle worse than to allow others to do the same.
Literature, music and art owe little to Pitt: only lovers care for beauty–the sensuous was not for him. He knew the Classics, spoke French like a Parisian, reveled in history, had no confidants, and loved one friend–Wilberforce.
Pictures of Pitt by Reynolds and Gainsborough reveal a face commonplace in feature save for the eye–“the most brilliant eye ever seen in a human face.” In describing the man, one word always seems to creep in, the word “haughty.” That the man was gentle, kind and even playful among the few who knew him best, there is no doubt. The austerity of his manner was the inevitable result of an ambition the sole aim of which was to dictate the policy of a great nation. All save honor was sacrificed to this end, and that the man was successful in his ambition, there is no dispute.
When he died, aged forty-seven, he was by popular acclaim the greatest Englishman of his time, and the passing years have not shaken that proud position.
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