Prime Ministerial Exemplar: Studies of Pitt the Younger by Victorian Statesmen

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William Pitt the Younger was the yardstick by which prominent politicians of both parties in Victorian England measured their own aspirations and achievement. During his long tenure as prime minister of Great Britain (1784-1801 and 1804-6) when it was seeking to recover from the loss of the American colonies and then in the throes of the French and industrial revolutions, Pitt prescribed fiscal, administrative, and foreign policies which won bipartisan acceptance after his death. The Victorian consensus in favour of free trade and severe economy in administration rested on foundations laid down by Pitt, who was known as the Younger because of his equally famous father also called William, the earl of Chatham. The Younger Pitt established a stately style of oratory, less theatrical than his father's but still sometimes impassioned, piling up balanced clause upon clause, which continued to be regarded as classical more than a century later by that belated Victorian, Winston Churchill. Pitt set a standard of rectitude in private as in public life which struck his contemporaries as odd but which Victorians embraced as exemplary. HIS attempts to straighten out the strained relations between England and Ireland framed the Irish question for the ensuing century.

Paradoxically, the example of the Younger Pitt set the subsequent lines of partisan controversy as much as of bipartisan consensus. Praise or censure of the way in which he advocated and then abandoned various measures of reform divided Whig from Tory and Liberal from Conservative to the end of Queen Victoria's reign. In England if not in Ireland, even the debate on Home Rule which redrew the lines of partisan conflict toward the end of the nineteenth century continued to revolve around evaluation of Pitt's handiwork.

However commonly Pitt served as a reference point, Victorian politicians did not attempt full biographies of him. That task was handled, according to the fashion of the day, in a multi-volumed work, entrusted in his case to a descendent member of his family, the fifth earl Stanhope, (1) who was an accomplished historian of the eighteenth century. Macaulay wrote an influential essay on Pitt for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2) but Macaulay was more historian than politician. Stanhope's work, however, and preceding editions of the letters of Pitt's contemporaries, including his inveterate antagonist Charles James Fox, provided an opportunity for political luminaries to present their assessments of Pitt in the rival journals through which the governing elite sustained their internal debates, in particular the Edinburgh Review for the Whigs and the Quarterly for the Tories. Afterwards, during the controversy over Home Rule, when members of the new generation in Parliament were accepting commissions to write brief biographies of the leading statesmen of the eighteenth century, Lord Rosebery wrote one on Pitt (3) after Gladstone declined to do so. At the turn of the century two studies of Pitt were published by active members of Parliament. (4)

Three works stand out in this half century of writing about the Younger Pitt by prominent politicians who were not primarily historians: a connected series of articles by Sir George Cornewall Lewis for the Edinburgh Review, (5) the pair of articles for the Quarterly Review in which Lord Robert Cecil, later Marquess of Salisbury, reviewed Stanhope's biography, (6) and the biography Lord Rosebery wrote for the Macmillan series on "Twelve English Statesmen." The similarity in length of the three, each over two hundred pages, facilitates comparison. But it is the political distinction of the authors and their differing interpretations of their subject that make the comparison rewarding.

Comment on Pitt tended to concentrate on controversial episodes in his life, which became the measuring marks by which later political commentators assessed his achievement, defined their own position and judged their contemporaries. The first occurred at the outset of Pitt's prime ministerial career when, backed solely by the king and opposed by all the men of talent in the House of Commons, he defied and ultimately routed the forces of the alliance formed between Lord North, prime minister throughout the war against the American colonies, and his fiercest wartime critic, Charles James Fox. Fox and Pitt reversed roles at the next crossroads of controversy, the regency crisis of 1788 brought on by the temporary insanity of George III, when Fox championed and Pitt sought to limit the prerogatives of the prospective regent, later George IV, whom Fox had befriended. There was little disagreement between Pitt's later defenders and his critics about the various measures of reform which he proposed in the 1780s, about how he placed the government of the country on a sound financial basis and enhanced its efficiency, or about the necessity of war with revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. But Liberal commentators censured his abandonment of domestic reform and suppression of radical dissent after the war broke out. Controversy focussed especially on his proposal amid the urgency of the war to pacify Ireland through what was called Catholic emancipation, or the admission of Roman Catholics to political office. When the king refused the proposal as a violation of his coronation oath, Pitt resigned, but when the crisis continued to threaten the king's sanity, Pitt promised not to raise the matter again. This ambiguous performance divided contemporaries as it did subsequent commentators; and when Pitt returned to office in 1804, he found his parliamentary support almost as weak as it had been at the beginning of his prime ministerial career. He died in office, leaving his country at a low ebb in its fortunes yet resolutely defiant of Napoleon.

The assessment Sir George Cornewall Lewis made of this record reflected views common among those political heirs of Fox who were too young to have known either Fox or Pitt personally. Born in the year that both men died, Lewis shared another distinction peculiar to his political generation: he underwent his apprenticeship for politics not in the House of Commons but on the investigatory commissions whose reports in the 1830s and '40s paved the way for the domestic reforms that ensued. He served first the Irish poor inquiry commissioners, then as joint-commissioner on the affairs of Malta, and finally as a poor law commissioner for England and Wales, before entering Parliament at the age of thirty-one. The Whig prime minister at the time, Lord John Russell, appointed him almost immediately to junior ministerial office. Defeated in the general election of 1852 and hence deprived of office, Lewis became editor of the Edinburgh Review, for which he wrote on a wide range of subjects including Pitt. His literary career came to an end with his return to Parliament in 1855. Again he received almost immediate ministerial appointment, this time at the nomination of Lord Palmerston to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lewis remained in high office for the rest of his life, which was however cut short at the age of fifty-six.

Pitt was always judged alongside his rival Fox. Although during Fox's long and varied lifetime in politics a small band of supporters defended his every move, the Whigs and Liberals of succeeding generations deplored his coalition in 1783 with Lord North as a departure from principle which blighted the rest of his career. Lewis accepted and amplified that judgement, which enabled Liberals to salvage for Fox a reputation for reform from the wreckage he had made of the Whig party. Such a defence involved censure of Pitt for abandoning reforms which Fox advocated ever more zealously during the war with revolutionary France.

Lewis turned Pitt's triumph over the Fox-North coalition into a lesson in Whig constitutional history. As Lewis pointed out, Pitt fused two sources of support to overthrow the coalition: popular support in the country as well as from the king. The country was disgusted by the utter repudiation of principle involved in Fox's combination with North to force a ministry of their choosing upon the king; and when Pitt appealed to the judgement of a general election, he won a crushing majority in the Commons. Therafter, far from subservient to the king, Pitt insisted upon going his own way, and he had the ability to do so. He thus satisfied "the conditions of the practical problem, which had for so many years remained unsolved," of how to find "a Minister whom the King would tolerate and the country would support." (Lewis, Essays, 75)

In a way that befitted the man who would become one of Lord Palmerston's chief ministers, Lewis applied lessons such as this in constitutional Whiggery, which he drew from the distant as well as recent past, to the needs of the world in his own day. The attempts which the revolutionaries of 1848 had made to establish parliamentary government in continental Europe had failed by 1854. when Lewis wrote about Pitt; and their failure helped Conservatives argue that British prescriptions were inapplicable abroad. Lewis insisted however, citing examples of successful republican government from antiquity and the middle ages, "that Free Government is not the monopoly of a privileged race." He then used modern British experience with parliamentary monarchy to account for the collapse of parliamentary government on the continent: "the late attempts may ... be completely explained by the neglect of those precautions which an intelligent study of the history of England during the reign of George III. is calculated to suggest." (Lewis, Essays, 80-81) Among other events of that reign, Pitt's achievement in combining support from the royal and popular elements in the constitution enabled Lewis to argue that "the parliamentary form of government, combined with a hereditary king, offers the best chance of permanent amelioration in the existing circumstances of the European States." (Lewis, Essays, 79)

Pervasively Whiggish in his judgement of Pitt, Lewis was irritated by the Tory cast of Lord Stanhope's interpretation of the eighteenth century. Stanhope portrayed the Whigs as a wealthier and more overweening clique of aristocrats than the Tories. Lewis insisted that the only significant difference between the two oligarchies was that Tories were more subservient to the king than were Whigs. "Tories submitted themselves absolutely to his will," (Lewis, Essays, 92) whereas "Whigs sought to maintain a Parliamentary party, independent of the King's personal influence, and to established its supremacy over the royal will." (Lewis, Essays, 95)

Pitt performed well by Lewis's account until the end of the eighteenth century; but he found Pitt's abandonment of Catholic emancipation inexcusable and traced the weakness of Pitt's final administration to that apostasy. The royal commissions on which Lewis had served his political apprenticeship were supposed to investigate a problem, to propound solutions, and then sometimes to implement them, all without regard to political considerations of office, party and power. Lewis retained that approach to public service for the rest of his life; he continued to insist on the primacy of principle and considerations of policy in political deliberations. He admired the proposal Pitt made in 1800 for Catholic emancipation as a "great and healing measure," (Lewis, Essays, 143) because it would have solved or at least reduced the bitterness in the problem of Anglo-Irish relations, with which Lewis was familiar from his work with the Irish poor inquiry commissioners. Lewis understood why Pitt resigned when the king refused his consent to the proposal. But a month later, when the king recovered from the fit of insanity which had seized him in the heat of the controversy, Pitt, though remaining out of office, promised him never to raise the subject again for fear of perpetuating his derangement. Lewis found this behaviour unintelligible. Straightforward himself with a reputation for plain-dealing, Lewis confessed in the authorial third person that, "if we were asked what is the first, and second, and third qualification of an English statesman, we would answer, 'Intelligibility.'" (Lewis, Essays, 253) If the policy of Catholic emancipation was right, then Pitt ought upon his departure from office to have mobilized all the parliamentary support he could "with a view of compelling [the king] to read mit a Pittish Ministry." Once back in office, he should have used "all the influence of Government for carrying [Catholic emancipation], and to postpone all other considerations to its success." (Lewis, Essays, 209) The strength of Lewis's conviction on Catholic emancipation blinded him to how far the course of action he required would have violated Pitt's constitutional accomplishment in reconciling support from the king and the country.

Once Pitt had "reduced public duty to a question of private feeling or personal delicacy," (Lewis, Essays, 252-3) he became ever more inconsistent. Neither a supporter nor an opponent now of Catholic emancipation, he was reluctant also to support or oppose the Addington ministry that replaced his. As a result he lost his ablest allies and much of his parliamentary following. By 1804, when at last he ousted the incapable Addington, Pitt found himself, a little like Fox in 1783, at "the head of the old Ministry, whose policy he had condemned in the most contemptuous language, and in whose overthrow he had taken the most prominent part." (Lewis, Essays, 253) Little wonder that in his final months in office before his death he had to endure humiliations in Parliament, which were deepened by military disaster on the continent.

Lewis gave a Whig account of Pitt, Lord Robert Cecil a Tory. Ultimately the most eminent of the writers on Pitt, Cecil was a young man of uncertain political significance in the early 1860s when he reviewed Stanhope's biography for the Quarterly Review. Though a brilliant member of the Tory aristocracy among whom brilliance was in short supply, Lord Robert had alienated himself from his father by contracting a less than aristocratic marriage, and from the leader of his party in the Commons, Disraeli, whom he conspicuously despised. (7) Cut off from financial support by his father, he turned to journalism for a living, and in that capacity he delighted inarticulate Tories with his savage criticism of Disraeli as an unprincipled soldier of fortune. His review of Stanhope's biography was another such attack. Cecil praised Pitt for epitomising the virtues which elsewhere he accused Disraeli of lacking. Though the incisiveness of Cecil's intellect raised his review into a classic analysis of the importance of character in parliamentary politics, his reflections were prompted by individual animosity.

Cecil expanded on the meritorious occasions in Pitt's career which Cornewall Lewis acknowledged, and absolved Pitt of all the misdeeds which roused Lewis to indignation. Nothing was finer in Pitt's career, according to Lord Robert, than its commencement. In withstanding the parliamentary might of the Fox-North ministry until its majority melted away, and by eliminating much of the joint force in the ensuing general election, Pitt demonstrated that England disliked unprincipled coalitions. Not only that: as Cecil saw it, Pitt revealed how disgusted the nation at large was at the overriding importance given in parliamentary circles to partisan and personal manoevre. The politicians of the early 1780s, jaded by their own concerns, had failed to perceive the silent reaction out of doors to their self-absorbed alliances. That failure was one to which parliamentary government was prone. "There is no blindness," wrote Cecil

   so unaccountable as the blindness of English statesmen to the
   political value of a character. Living only in and for the House of
   Commons, moving in an atmosphere of constant intrigue, accustomed
   to look upon oratory as a mode of angling for political support and
   upon political professions as only baits of more or less
   attractiveness, they acquire a
   very peculiar code of ethics, and they are liable wholly to lose
   sight of the fact that there is a stiffer and less corrupted
   morality out of doors. (Salisbury, Essays, 85)

Like much else in his essay, this comment had as much bearing on the present as on the past and identified a concern that would stay with the writer in the future. Lord Robert had Disraeli in mind as much as Fox and North. Any doubt about the application to the current leader of his party disappeared when Cecil inveighed against those who fought "in the spirit of political condottieri," (Salisbury, Essays, 90) for that derogatory term was applied much more commonly to Disraeli than to Fox and North. Cecil was infuriated by Disraeli's lack of commitments to principle, by his abandonment of tariff protection after driving Peel from office on the issue, by his flirtation with further instalments of parliamentary reform, by his willingness to angle for Whig and even Radical votes in the House of Commons in order to put together a majority to gain office. The defeat in the general election of 1784 of so many M.P.s who had supported the Fox-North coalition enabled Lord Robert to assure his readers that the manoeuvring of Disraeli would sooner or later repel rather than attract the electorate.

The revulsion Cecil felt at ploys without principle persisted unabated until 1878, when he replaced the feeble Lord Derby at the Foreign Office in the midst of a crisis in the middle east during Disraeli's second ministry. Despite the ensuing partnership with Disraeli, Salisbury (as Cecil had become) remained wary of alliance with former enemies. After the general election of 1886, even though the prevention of Home Rule depended on cooperation with Joseph Chamberlain, Salisbury refused to serve in any ministry which included him. Such a combination between the leaders of the Tory right and the Radical left who, within the past two years, had threatened each other rhetorically with physical violence would constitute too sharp a turn for honourable men. Only after they had worked together for a decade in impersonal alliance would Salisbury welcome Chamberlain as a ministerial colleague.

There were other ways in which the commentary of Lord Robert Cecil on the Younger Pitt forshadowed the prime ministerial performance of Lord Salisbury. It could be said of Salisbury as he wrote of Pitt, that "[t]hroughout his career it was a comparison of character, far more than of measures or of eloquence, that formed his great political strength." (Salisbury, Essays, 91) Cecil also firmly defended the repressive measures which Pitt employed to deal with Jacobin sympathizers in Britain, and thus foreshadowed his own willingness after 1885 to repress nationalist agitation in Ireland. On the other hand, Cecil did not entirely sympathize with some of Pitt's most significant achievements and initiatives; and those differences foreshadowed limitations in the statecraft of Lord Salisbury. Liberal commentators like Lewis dilated approvingly on Pitt's economic policy and the other proposals for reform he made before the outbreak of war with revolutionary France, if only to sharpen the contrast with his abandonment of reform thereafter. In the earlier period Pitt placed Britain on the road to free trade, economical and efficient administration, and reduced dependence on patronage and corruption, all proud principles of the Victorian state. But Cecil could not find "much to say" (Salisbury, Essays, 119) about his accomplishment during "the tedious prosperity" (Salisbury, Essays, 135) of those years. Apart from Pitt's opening defeat of the Fox-North coalition, Cecil found "the first half of his career ... monotonous and tame." What he most admired in Pitt's reforms was that they did "the least possible damage to the interests which any great change must necessarily affect." (Salisbury, Essays, 123) Small wonder that the later Salisbury displayed little constructive interest in domestic reform and sought to ensure that its framing minimized the cost to the ecclesiastical and properties interests he had at heart.

Pitt had paid dearly for one of his reforming initiatives, for Catholic emancipation, which deprived him of royal support and hence of office. While Lewis admired the proposal and censured Pitt for abandoning it, it had little appeal for Cecil. He dismissed the inability of Catholics to enter Parliament as a "sentimental" grievance. In view of the fact that, after the eventual grant of Catholic emancipation in 1829, the Catholics of Ireland proved themselves more disruptive than ever, Cecil regarded the concession as futile. Indeed he treated the attempt generally to "frame an acceptable solution" to the "great and perplexing difficulty" of Anglo-Irish relations as hopeless. "Everything that would have converted the Irish into loyal subjects would have alienated the religious feelings of the English." (Salisbury, Essays, 127) Thus spoke the future founding father of British Unionism.

His reviews of the Stanhope biography reflected another response still at work in the later prime minister. Lord Robert's interpretation of Pitt's career and of his rivalry with Fox was intensely partisan. Victorian Whigs looked back to Fox, particularly during the years when only a handful of friends endorsed his sympathy for revolutionary France, as the man who restored the soul of Whiggery and saved it from being nothing more than a grasping clique of aristocrats. Cecil could not find a shred of enduring principle in Fox. On the contrary, "in Fox's hands Whiggism meant the advocacy of all that was ignorant, antiquated, and narrow." (Salisbury, Essays, 96) The biting edge of Cecil's partisanship was less evident in his later, lofty days as prime minister, but it was always there, sharpened rather than softened by his powers of intellect. Gladstone had no more implacable opponent than Salisbury. Like Pitt with Fox, Salisbury did everything that consistency of character would allow to drive and keep Gladstone out of power.

Whatever their bearing on political practice, it is the ideas expressed in Cecil's review of the life of Pitt that command attention. Cecil wrote essays in political thought. Lord Rosebery wrote a biography. Rosebery was also, of the three writers discussed here, the most straightforward disciple of his subject. Rosebery saw in Pitt the prototypical Liberal Imperialist and found it "difficult to find any act of his career which cannot be justified by solid and in most cases by convincing reasons." (Rosebery, Pitt, 285)

Whereas Cecil wrote at the beginning of his career, Rosebery like Lewis wrote during an interlude in his tenure of office. Rosebery had served briefly as Foreign Secretary in Gladstone's third ministry and would shortly return to that office in Gladstone's final ministry before replacing Gladstone as prime minister. At forty-four years of age, he was still comparatively young for these highest of offices though just three years younger than Pitt when he died. Rosebery's time as prime minister was to be as short and Pitt's was long. (8) Whether or not the fact says anything about Liberal Imperialism, Rosebery was the last statesman to make Pitt his measuring rod.

One thing Rosebery shared with most British statesmen of his century, and indeed of the next, was an often intimate familiarity with the careers of his famous predecessors. To an extraordinary extent, British statesmen interpreted their country's past as a story not of broad forces but of famous men, whose ranks they aspired to join. They lavished attention on the carefully preserved correspondence of those who had gone before. Lewis based his essays on published correspondence, Cecil on a biography swollen to four volumes by verbatim letters. Reverently and regretfully, Rosebery listed the dozen collections of papers that Stanhope had not consulted, even though, for the short biography he had to write, Rosebery did not consult them himself. With his mind well stocked on the doings of great men, Rosebery drew sometimes apt but sometimes foolish comparisons. It was worthwhile to note that Pitt resumed his post as prime minister in 1804 on the same day that Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French, and still more to compare the impotence of Pitt's second administration with Napoleon's final hundred days after he returned from Elba. But to describe Fox as "a sort of lax Luther" (Rosebery, Pitt, 31) was ridiculous.

Rosebery was straining to reconcile the admiration he felt as a Liberal for Fox with his much greater admiration for Fox's illustrious rival. Rosebery found the consistent principle in Fox that Lord Robert Cecil could not descry. "The mastering passion of Fox's mature life," according to Rosebery, was the Liberal "love of liberty: it is this which made him take a vigorous, occasionally an intemperate, part against every man or measure in which he could trace the taint or tendency to oppression". (Rosebery, Pitt, 29-30) As a young man Rosebery had been a confidante of Gladstone, and he knew that the Grand Old Man identified liberty as the love which lent consistency to the reversals of policy in his career. Rosebery made what he could of this affinity between Fox as the progenitor of Liberalism and Gladstone as its ultimate exemplar. Both had begun as high Tories and ended up as Radicals. The contrast in lifestyle between the two men could not have been greater. One could not venerate Fox as one did Gladstone. But Rosebery shared the extravagant love that the companions of Fox felt for their dissolute leader:

   he stands forth as the negation of cant and humbug, a character
   valuable then, invaluable now; as an intellectual Titan; and as the
   quick and visible embodiment of every lovable quality in man.
   (Rosebery, Pitt, 33)

The only action of Pitt that Rosebery could not excuse was his attempt to invalidate Fox's election as M.P. for Westminster in 1784, a spiteful episode which Cornewall Lewis as well as Salisbury had ignored.

Love of Fox also made Rosebery aware of how much Pitt's hold on office depended on the exclusion of Fox. Pitt owed his accession to and retention of the highest office to the determination of George III to rid himself of the ministry which Fox and North imposed upon him, to the revulsion which Fox's coalition with his former arch-enemy roused among the electorate, and to the king's ever growing aversion from Fox over his dissipating influence on the heir to the throne and over the revolution in France. Though the king resented Pitt's dictatorial conduct of government and much preferred the malleable Addison who replaced him at the turn of the century, Pitt was always preferable when the alternative was Fox.

Written in 1891, Rosebery's biography of Pitt was as much a tract for the times as Cecil's review had been thirty years earlier. Ireland was the focus of Rosebery's concern, as it was of all British politicians after 1886 when Gladstone proposed to give Ireland back the parliament Pitt had taken away. The debate over Home Rule drew renewed attention to the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland passed in 1800 at Pitt's behest and, back farther, to the Irish policy he had begun to develop in 1795. Rosebery explained the historical connection the other way round: "the moment [the foot of the innocent investigator] rests on 1795 he irresistibly slips on to 1886; and rebounding from 1886, he is soon soused in 1891." (Rosebery, Pitt, 172) The task for Rosebery was to reconcile the handiwork of Pitt with its repudiation by Gladstone. Though Gladstone's proposals avoided formal repeal of the Act of Union, the substance of that Act would be overturned by the restoration of a parliament in Dublin. The more attention Gladstone devoted to the Irish question, the more critical he became of what Pitt had done.

But Rosebery argued that the Act of Union was merely "the petty fragment of a large policy which [Pitt] did not live to carry out," a policy "as generous and comprehensive in conception as it was patriotic in motive." (Rosebery, Pitt, 200) Indeed Rosebery preferred Pitt's Irish policy to Gladstone's and accepted the necessity for the latter mainly because of the tragic delay that had transpired in enacting the generous parts of the former. What Rosebery so admired in Pitt's Irish policy was its patriotism, not English or Irish but imperial. Pitt had designed his policy to meet the imperial emergency created during the war with France by the eruption of disaffection in Ireland, which had acquired further power to advance its desires with the restoration of its parliamentary autonomy at the end of the American war of independence. Pitt's object as Rosebery put it was "to strengthen ... by a liberal Irish policy the bonds of Empire." (Rosebery, Pitt, 117) The liberal aspects of Pitt's policy were manifold but were invariably defeated in his time. He had attempted through free trade as far back as 1785 "to unite the two countries on the sure basis of commercial intercourse and common interest," (Rosebery, Pitt, 70) a more substantial basis than the "union of hearts" Gladstone sought a century later; but Pitt was stopped by English protectionism. After war broke out with France, Pitt developed a fresh approach to the problem of Ireland, and proposed to envelop a union between the legislatures of the two islands with a group of measures to counteract their religious estrangement, including Catholic emancipation. But the opposition from the king prevented religious conciliation, and left Ireland without compensation for the loss of its parliament.

Rosebery mourned the lost opportunity all the more because of his admiration for Pitt's understanding of British interests abroad. Rosebery's primary political concerns lay in foreign policy. In doing all he could to avoid war but then, when necessary, in resolving to see it through whatever the expense, Pitt embodied the principles by which Rosebery intended to shape his diplomatic course. Pitt was not naturally warlike as his father had been. The most outstanding talents of the Younger Pitt were for domestic finance; and he knew that war was the greatest enemy of economy, just as the economy was Britain's greatest source of imperial strength. He did all he could to avoid war with France. He infuriated Burke by disregarding the ideology of the revolution, and he tried to ignore the enthusiastic support France gave to British would-be revolutionaries. But when France violated vital material interests of Britain and also denied the validity of the international agreements by which the states of Europe regulated their relations, Pitt accepted the necessity for war. Thereafter, more than any other European head of government, he recognized the necessity for sustained, cooperative agreement among the powers of Europe to defeat France. Unlike previous British heads of government who had made the country a synonym for perfidy, Pitt became and "remained long after his death the embodiment and watchword of British determination."(Rosebery, Pitt, 136) The war also stimulated his political vision. After the terrible defeats of his allies at Ulm and Austerlitz which shortened his life, he had the vision to see, as Rosebery put it, "that nothing more could be hoped of the sovereigns--there must be a war of peoples." (Rosebery, Pitt, 157)

Rosebery identified himself with Pitt's policy to the point of justifying his wartime abandonment of reform and suppression of radical dissent, as no Liberal such as Lewis would have done. In the accents of the purest Toryism, Rosebery insisted that it was "absurd to discuss annual parliaments when the Gaul was at our gates. It was indispensable to check the French revolutionary propaganda, of which these proposals were only an instalment, and which were really aimed at the subversion of the entire constitution of which Pitt was the official trustee." (Rosebery, Pitt, 162) Rosebery blamed juries and the public for the excesses in applying Pitt's otherwise understandable repressive legislation: "it was not the coercion of a people by a government, it was the coercion of a government by the people." (Rosebery, Pitt, 167) In Scotland judges carried these excesses so far that they burned libertarian revulsion into the national soul; and Rosebery as the brightest light among the Scottish Liberals of his generation reiterated that reaction--but it did not reflect directly on Pitt. Rosebery otherwise defended Pitt's domestic administration during the war as robustly as had Lord Robert Cecil. (9)

When it came to war, imperial considerations obliterated liberal ones for Rosebery, as they had for Pitt and continued to do for Cecil though not for Lewis, and as they would do again for Britain in the Great War that Rosebery lived to see. Though Pitt provided a standard of political measurement for Victorian statesmen, the standard he provided was not fixed but variable, dependent on the subsequent concerns and commitments of his commentators. War, the ultimate test of institutions for Cecil, was no excuse as Lewis saw it for the abandonment of domestic reform. War stirred Rosebery's imagination more than it had Pitt's. Pitt had been able to reconcile himself to the commencement of war only by assuming that dearth of financial resources would prevent France from fighting for long. Rosebery romanticized that moment of reluctant decision. He saw "something pathetic" in "the lonely figure, dinging to hope with the tenacity of despair. As [the light] fades, the darkness closes, and the Pitt of peace, prosperity, and reform disappears for ever." (Rosebery, Pitt, 126) Those words were echoed at the outbreak of the Great War by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who was descended from a companion of Fox and was himself a friend of Rosebery. As night fell and the hour passed for Germany to accept the British ultimatum over Belgium--the same place that sent Pitt to war with France--Grey reflected: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." They would never burn brightly again for the mixed liberal and imperial political culture for which the Younger Pitt had reluctantly become the exemplar as well as the standard of measurement.


(1) Earl Stanhope, Lift of the Right Honourable William Pitt (John Murray: London, 1861-2), 4 vols.

(2) "William Pitt" (January 1859) reprinted in The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay (Longmans, Green, and Co: London, popular edition, 1889), 395-432

(3) Lord Rosebery, Pitt (Macmillan: London 1891), in the Macmillan series on "Twelve English Statesmen"

(4) Edward Gibson, Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: Some chapters of his lift and times (Longmans, Green, and Co.: London 1898), and J.A.R. Marriott, "William Pitt," Fortnightly Review, lxxix, 1906, 487-503. For a complete and annotated list of works about as well as by Pitt, see A.D. Harvey, William Pitt the Younger, 1759-1806: A bibliograpby (Meckler: Westport and London, 1989).

(5) Beginning January 1854, reprinted in Sir Edmund Head, ed., Essays on the Administrations of Great Britain from 1793 to 1830 contributed to the Edinburgh Review by the Right Hon. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Bart. (Longman, Green: London 1864), hereafter referred to as Lewis, Essays.

(6) April 1861 and April 1862, reprinted in Essays by the late Marquess of Salisbury: Biographical(E.P. Dutton: NY 1905), hereafter referred to as Salisbury, Essays.

(7) Still far and away the best, indeed the only good biography of Salisbury is the one by his daughter Lady Gwendolen Cecil, Life of Robert Marquis of Salisbury (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1921-32), 4 vols., covering his years to 1892.

(8) See Robert Rhodes James, Rosebery (Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London, 1963)

(9) Salisbury, Essays, 161ff.