Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin




XIV. Chatham

Let us now approach the greatest man and the greatest time in our English story. But to understand the policy and the character of Pitt we must understand also the conditions in which he lived, the problems he had to face, the difficulties he had to fight.

The trade of England at first thought itself fortunate in the House of Hanover, both because the Electorate commanded Hamburg, Stade, and Emden, and because it gave England an ally opposed to and apparently secure against the menace of the House of Bourbon. When Hanover endeavored to add Bremen to her territories it was no doubt because England desired an advanced base for her commerce and her sea-power in the Baltic.

Yet the House of Hanover carried with it obligations and disadvantages which made England sometimes repent of her bargain. The plains of Hanover, distant as they were, came within the scope of French ambitions, and their defense was found to be costly and difficult. All England wanted was access to the markets of Germany; she was forced by the Georges to defend and to pay for the defense of its interior.

Here was a continental policy which England disliked. Like the mermaid in the story drawn by the love of a prince, she had to take to feet instead of her fish's tail, and drag herself painfully over those ugly and unaccustomed regions. The sea and its interest for England were forgotten in the intrigues and wars of Austria, France, and the Empire.

Walpole, founding himself on an uneasy coalition of town and country, had devoted himself to keeping in office and at peace. His policy, founded upon production, was the traditional policy of England. He has been praised for following and developing it: he could hardly have done otherwise. If he maintained office by the arts of corruption, it is not on record that he was ever himself corrupted. But he lived supinely upon a truce which he must have known to be precarious, for it left every question that vexed the world unsettled between England and the House of Bourbon. It was ignoble to seek a foundation for English trade in contraband with Spanish America, and when Spain found herself secretly backed by France, England had to face either war or a smuggler's punishment. As Walpole had neglected his Navy, the pride of England, which was greater than his own, proved his downfall.

Carteret, who succeeded, had the merit of high mettle. No Englishman can think of him without pride, although it is doubtful if he had a true conception of England's interests. He was, like his sovereign, a continental statesman.

"I want," he said to Fox, "to instil a nobler ambition into you; to make you knock the heads of the Kings of Europe together, and jumble something out of it which may be of service to this country." And again: "What is it to me who is a judge or who a bishop? It is my business to make kings and emperors, and to maintain the balance of Europe."

But he failed because he did not see, as Frederick saw, and Pitt, that the balance of power was a maritime and a trade question. He entangled himself and England in the affairs of Central Europe and there lost the heart of the English people, whereas Pitt knew that the war would be decided in America, in India, and in the Mediterranean, but especially in America.

How Pitt came by his knowledge is doubtless a vain question. It is like asking where Keats or Shakespeare found his poetry. The alchemy of genius transmutes all things to its own element, and as it may make a poet out of a surgeon's apprentice, so it may make a statesman out of a cornet of horse. Yet it may be said at least that Pitt inherited a great tradition of national policy, which he could find put with clearness and logic in the pamphlets and the State Papers of his time.

England understood her own interests, and the City of London especially, with its great trading companies, composed only of natural-born Englishmen, and all bound by oath to serve the common good, were a natural school of statesmanship. Pitt no doubt inherited some of his grandfather's City friends; but at any rate it is true that the seeds of his achievements are to be found scattered about in the letters he received from his friends the City merchants: Beckford, king of the West Indian sugar trade, Alderman Sayre, Allen of Bath, and the rest. The City believed in him and supported him against the Court and the Court Party, against Newcastle, against Bute. Those cool business men, who so well concealed their ideals under a cloak of commerce, bared their hearts to Pitt. They had found a man, and they believed, followed, supported him with a passionate adoration, for that, although it may sound ridiculous, is hardly too strong a phrase.

England then suffered, or thought she suffered, terrible things from lawyers, courtiers, and politicians. It may not be believed in these more enlightened times that in those the lawyer was unpopular. I find traces of this extraordinary prejudice as far back as the reign of Edward I, who won the hearts of his barbarous subjects by hanging his Chief Justice. The offence for which this martyr suffered was corruption, which in those days, like witchcraft, was considered a crime. In the reign of Edward III, a superstitious House of Commons petitioned that lawyers might not be made knights of the shire on the ground that they used their position not in the interests of their constituents but of their clients and of themselves. And we find this prejudice lingering into the eighteenth century.

Pitt shared this unaccountable dislike possibly because lawyers were chiefly employed by their friends the politicians to keep him out of place and power, or possibly because Pitt had a supercilious contempt for people whose very trade destroyed conviction and sophisticated truth. On one famous or infamous occasion he turned upon Murray. "I must now," he said, "address a few words to the Solicitor; they shall be few but they shall be daggers." He paused, and Murray's agitation was visible to the whole House. "Judge Festus trembles," said Pitt, "he shall hear me some other day." And at another time he burst out upon the whole breed of lawyers as "the bloated spiders of Westminster Hall."

In those times, too, the politician to such lengths went the prejudices of our forefathers was considered rather as a curse than as a blessing. But there was some excuse for this strange opinion. The House of Commons was not as now, in the hands of a caucus administered by some trustworthy servant of the public like the Master of Elibank, but was under the influence of one or two great families, and the electorate, shocking as it may sound, was corrupted not with public but with private money. The Duke of Newcastle, who had a block of fifty members, not counting Scotchmen, spent most of a great private fortune with this nefarious object; though it is not recorded that he ever collected money for the purpose from the prospective enemies of his country.

The Administrations of Newcastle followed a principle which must sound strange to these days when the best men are invariably chosen, that "capacity is little necessary for most employments." As this maxim found no place for Pitt, he was never allowed power except when the country had been reduced to a position of danger so grave that the politicians feared not only for the nation but for themselves. We might indeed compare Pitt to Gulliver tied to the ground by innumerable bands woven and thrown over him by a race of malignant pygmies. And yet it has to be said, in justification of his century, that despite his gout, his unaccommodating temper, and his lack of great means, he was allowed to govern the country when the country most needed him.

We have seen how France animated the crumbling power of Spain, and used the vast empire of that country to support her growing strength at sea. Her manufacture of fine stuffs and her port of Marseilles gave her the trade in the Levant which had once belonged to Venice. Her empire in Canada and her fortified positions on Cape Breton gave her command of a timber trade to support her shipping, a fish trade invaluable in Spain and the Mediterranean, and a fur trade to maintain her continental monopoly in the hat manufacture. Her West Indian islands supplied with sugar nearly all Europe except England, and her growing military power in India threatened both the English and the Dutch East India Companies.

But we have also to look at France in Europe to realize the tremendous power of England's enemy at that time. She had the South German States at her command, as she held the gates of the Rhine; on the eve of the stalemate peace of 1748 her armies were invading Holland. Sweden and Denmark were her allies. In Naples and Denmark the House of Bourbon was enthroned. And when in 1756 France detached Austria from England, it seemed to most observers that she had secured the empire of the world. By that alliance she was put in possession of Ostend, Nieuport, and Bruges. Her armies invaded Hanover and seized the port of Emden, thus encircling Holland from sea to sea.

Hamburg, the great depot of the English cloth trade in North Germany, Holland, the depot of the English cloth trade on the Rhine and in the Netherlands, were both in danger. Long before Burghley had told Queen Elizabeth that the Netherlands were the counterscarp of her dominions. Pitt had said the same thing in 1750: "If the Dutch had been ruined, and the Emperor dispossessed, this nation . . . must have yielded to every demand our enemies might have been pleased to make upon us."

With the loss of Minorca our position in the Mediterranean was also desperate, and Pitt was so far reduced in the first year of his Administration that he offered Spain Gibraltar in return for Minorca and her neutrality.

It was in these circumstances that the country rose in revolt against the Too-Late Government of Newcastle and demanded Pitt. The City of London, that ancient stronghold of a national policy, forced Pitt upon the Court and upon Newcastle. But Pitt added to the devotion of London the allegiance of the landed interest. Pitt made that appeal which reaches the heart of the English country, the appeal to patriotism.

"Pitt's programme, and his clearly expressed intention of making no Party distinctions, awoke in them a new zeal for public affairs: 'They deserted their hounds and their horses,' says Glover, 'preferring for once their Parliamentary duty, and under their new Whig leader, the gallant George Townshend, displayed their banner for Pitt.'"

Pitt, as he stood for a national policy, had England behind him, and "a willing giving House of Commons, on whom the King might call for anything for an English object."

Pitt's policy was a development of the traditional policy of England adapted to the new circumstances of world-empire. Although committed to continental campaigns by the engagements with Prussia and Hanover and the danger to Italy, his main design was to strike at the sources of the enemy's strength in world-trade. His first great stroke was the capture of the French West African empire, upon which depended a rich trade in ivory and dyes, and the supply of slaves for the French West Indian sugar plantations. He acted upon the advice of one Cumming, a Quaker merchant, whose conscientious scruples were salved by a bloodless victory, and his friend Alderman Sayre. But Pitt knew well that the chief source of French strength lay in North America: and to drive France from that continent was the chief end of his policy.

The story of that great conquest is well known: it is indeed one of the epics of English history. The deeds of Boscawen and Saunders, of Amherst, Howe, and Wolfe need no telling here. But it is well to remember as a practical maxim in war that a mastermind laid down the main principles of that great campaign, and chose its leaders for their zeal, their energy, and their youth. Pitt, like Napoleon, did not believe in old men.

And his ardor in administration supported their efforts in the field. He reformed the Admiralty, rebuilt the Navy, reorganized and reinspirited the Army. He replaced German mercenaries by English militia for the defense of England. And when an expedition sailed, its guns, its munitions, and stores were all the objects of his care and anxiety, for there was nothing too small for his mind to consider if it contributed to a great design. His energy in striking was backed by his care in choosing and in preparing. He put no faith in a gamble, however legitimate; his plans and preparations went as far as might be to make success a certainty.

It would take us beyond the scope of this little book to follow his achievements in detail; but we must note his captures in the French West Indies as of an importance equal to the conquest of Canada. France had drawn vast revenues from her matchless sugar plantations: their loss threw the national revenues into confusion and transferred the bulk of this wealth to England. The British took over the sugar trade of Europe. He had been urged to this great stroke by his friends the merchants of London. By the conquest of Guadeloupe alone England gained a sugar trade worth £425,000 in the first year besides a flourishing market for her manufactures. As a strategic position in the West Indies it was hardly less valuable. A little later India was lost to France by the victories of Clive and Coote. The whole world now lay at the victorious feet of England.

But small men have an itch to betray the achievements of the great. In September 1761, Pitt discovered that Spain, which had hesitated long, had at last determined to join France and Austria in the Family Compact. With his true instinct for war he proposed that England should strike first and anticipate the blow. But the politicians and placemen were frightened.

"I submitted my advice for an immediate declaration of war to a trembling Council," he said. Pitt had certain knowledge from intercepted correspondence that Spain was only waiting until her treasure fleet reached Cadiz, and his plan was to capture this fleet and deal a first and deadly blow at Spanish power.

His colleagues debated the proposal through three successive Cabinet Councils and rejected it. Pitt and Temple thereupon resigned, and three months afterwards, when the Spanish treasure fleet was safe in the roads of Cadiz, England was forced to that declaration of war which Pitt had advised. Then the Too Late Government of Bute determined upon the betrayal of England's allies and England's conquests. Bute ended the alliance with Frederick on the ground that that monarch would not make peace, and entered upon secret and separate negotiations with France.

Bute's greatest trouble, as his best biographer says, was "the uniform success of the English arms." The treaty was less favorable to England than the terms stipulated by Pitt before the later victories. Guadeloupe, Martinique, Marie Galante, and St. Lucia were all restored to France, so that she was left in a stronger position in the West Indies. But worst of all, France was reinstated in the Newfoundland fisheries. It was upon those fisheries that Pitt had been adamant, for they were the secret of French power on the sea. They were the main source of her wealth, the nursery of her seamen. Without them the locks of the Bourbon Samson were shorn, and Pitt had said that to secure them he was willing to fight six or seven years more in America. They had been obtained, and they were now surrendered.

It would be idle to inquire whether Pitt felt more the stain on British honor or the surrender of British interests. If the statesmanship be right, honor and interest are one. The alliance with Frederick was a matter of honor to maintain; it had been a matter of interest to procure. The betrayal reacted on the interest because it destroyed the good repute of England, and England was left with her foes united and her allies disgusted.

The effect of the betrayal soon became manifest. The French trade in the West Indies, more than any other single cause, seduced the American colonists from their allegiance, and when England was in vain trying to reduce her colonists to obedience, France, strong in her naval power, intervened. It was thus by the treachery and cowardice of politicians that England lost the best part of her Empire.

And now let us come to Pitt's share in the great American controversy, for it has been a little misunderstood. Pitt was a Mercantilist, and he would not reconcile himself to give up to New England Old England's monopoly of manufactures and her control of trade policy. When Franklin proposed that all restrictions should be taken off American manufactures he got no encouragement from Pitt nor from any of the Whig Party, nor did Pitt sympathize with the American interest in the West Indian trade. There Pitt took the narrow view, but in the minor matter of taxation he was all for meeting the colonists, taking the line best put by Chesterfield in a letter to his son:

"For my part, I never saw a froward child mended by whipping, and I would not have the Mother Country become a stepmother. Our trade to America brings in, communibus annis, two millions a year; and the Stamp Duty is estimated at but one hundred thousand pounds a year; which I would by no means bring into the stock of the Exchequer, at the loss or even the risk of a million a year to the national stock."

Pitt, like Chesterfield, was too wise to kill a goose that laid such golden eggs. But did he desire merely to keep the colonies like a goose in a pen egg-laying for the City of London? If that was his dream for the young British nations it was unworthy of his genius and their future. Upon such terms there could have been no stability of empire. For such an ideal did not allow for the growth of young and powerful nation through agriculture to industry, and from the production of raw materials to the manufacture of wares.

Now there is some ground for the belief that such was Chatham's conception of empire. His great speech on the Stamp Tax in 1766, with all its paternal love for the Americans and its championship of their immediate cause, is in one respect illogical.

"The Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England. . . . The Commons of America, represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it. At the same time this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative Power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures in everything except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent. Here I would draw the line."

The line, it must be said, is arbitrary. It would be hard indeed for a son, and not a bastard of England, to be denied that right of manufactures which is the life of a nation by an assembly in which he had no voice. Nor is the distinction between customs, which Pitt claimed the right to impose upon America, and internal taxation as strong as Pitt claimed and no doubt supposed.

It is difficult to believe that a statesman of Pitt's visions and ardent sympathy with the colonists should have been content with such a conception. He knew, of course, that at that time American manufactures were not likely to be formidable, and he hoped also, by securing the French West Indies, to remove the temptation to a contraband system of trade. But his mind, which was constructive and logical, could not have been satisfied with such expedients. He must have looked further. He must have seen that Imperial trade and manufactures could not permanently be regulated by a purely English Parliament. And so we find it. In a letter to Lord Shelburne of October 24, 1773, he says:

"I hope Government will have the wisdom and humanity enough to choose the happy alternative, and to give to America a constitutional representative, rather than hazard an unjust and impracticable war."

And in the Chatham Papers there are two schemes for the representation of the colonies in an Imperial Parliament. The colonies were to have fifty members in the House of Commons, elected not by their direct vote, but by their local assemblies, and were to have ten Peers in the House of Lords.

Here, then, was no selfish ideal of empire. How far it might have been practicable then is another question. Owing to the growth of a whole hierarchy of self-governing institutions as well as of the spirit of colonial nationalism, it is almost certainly impracticable now.

But Chatham would probably have acquiesced in the kindred and more feasible plan of a Cabinet or Council of Empire in which the United Kingdom and all the self-governing Dominions should be represented on a basis of equality. That might be, as nearly as possible, an executive body, armed with powers received from the constituent assemblies and unhampered by debate or publicity. Such a Council, of which there is already the germ in the Imperial Conference, might solve this problem of a free and yet united Empire on which eighteenth-century England made such disastrous shipwreck.

If now we sum up Pitt's policy we find that it was national since it obliterated parties and brought together the Tory squire and the Whig merchant. Its design was a strong and independent British Empire based upon sea-power. It aimed at the destruction of the Bourbon supremacy, both because that supremacy threatened the British market in Europe and because it was a menace to the British world-empire. Its method of fighting this Bourbon supremacy was to strike at the sources of its wealth and naval strength in Canada and the West Indies.

Although Pitt thoroughly understood the importance of the European battlefield, he put his main trust in the Navy of England, and aimed his chief blows at the props and supports of the Bourbon naval power. In this policy he leaned upon the companies and the merchants of the City of London, understanding well that as they then represented the production, so they represented the interest of England.