Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

William Pitt (1759-1806)

William Pitt was born on a bright May day in the year 1759, when the name of his father was on the lips of all, and England was ringing with news of fresh victories. But before the children were old enough to understand that their father was a great man, his popularity was almost over. He was very fond of his children, but the one that found most favour in his eyes was his second son, William, a thin, tall boy, with grave eyes and pale, thoughtful face.

From babyhood William had taken an interest in grave subjects; from the time he could read he would pore over difficult books; while his clever and sensible sayings amazed his parents and teachers. When he was seven years old, and his father had just been made Earl of Chatham, and given a seat in the House of Lords, the little William cried out:

"I am so glad I am not the eldest son. I want to speak in the House of Commons, like papa!"

The boy took a keen interest in all that was going on in the country, and he was able to understand many things that were beyond grown-up men.

When he was twelve, William knew far more than his elder brother, who was three years older.

But his parents saw that this intense study could not go on. The boy was growing very fast, he was often ill, and so weak, that many people thought the tall, slender boy would never live to be a man. It was impossible for him to go to school in such a state of health, so his work was carried on under his father and a tutor.

At the age of sixteen he went to Cambridge, and two years after took his degree. He knew Greek and Latin very well, and left all behind in his knowledge of arithmetic and Newton.

His voice was very clear and deep. He had been taught by his father, a great speaker, to manage it well, and in later years was once laughed at for having been "taught by his dad on a stool."

When he was nineteen he went with his father to the House of Lords to hear a great debate. His father, Earl of Chatham, was very weak and ill, but he would go to raise his voice for his country. He made one of the greatest speeches he had ever made, but the exertion was too much for him, and the old statesman fell back in a fit, to be borne from the House by his son William.

He died soon after, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Three years after his father's death, William Pitt was elected to sit in the House of Commons. Soon after Parliament met, a great debate took place, and Pitt was called upon to speak for his party.

He was not prepared, but, without waiting, the young man rose, and calmly and quietly began to speak. Much was expected of the old earl's son, but not so much. The silver clearness of his voice, his proud, lofty manner, and well-chosen words, not only delighted, but astonished the House.

"Pitt will be one of the first men in Parliament," said one member to Fox, a great speaker.

"He is so already," answered Fox, while Burke, moved even to tears, murmured,

"It is not a chip of the old block—it is the old block itself!"

After this William Pitt spoke often, always brilliantly and well.

When he was just twenty-three he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one of the cabinet.

Now the head of the government is, as you know, the king or queen, under them is the prime minister, who chooses a certain number of trusty men to form the cabinet. So you see this was a grand step for such a young man as William Pitt.

So well did he discharge his duties, that two years later the young statesman was made prime minister of England.

A difficult task was before him, for there were many great speakers in Parliament, but not a single able one on his side.

In the new Parliament, however, the tide was turned. The nation was on his side, the king was on his side, and backed by these the young prime minister could do much.

Perhaps his greatest triumph at this time was settling the government of India.

He saw there was much injustice and bad government going on in the country so lately won by Clive. So he planned a new government, by which the natives and Englishmen were ruled alike with justice.

In 1788 the king, George III., became insane, and unable to govern the kingdom. Long debates took place as to who should be regent, to govern till the king was well enough to rule again himself. Pitt, who said the Prince of Wales ought to be regent, but not have full power, was supported by the people. In every debate he gained, the bill was passed, and the prince was about to be made regent, when the king got well, and the nation was wild with delight.

Pitt was now at the height of his power and glory. His noble temper, his love of England, his desire for peace, had won him the esteem of all. He did not care for personal gain, the good of his country was his one object. He was too proud to rule at all unjustly. "Pride was written in the harsh lines of his face, was marked by the way in which he walked, in which he sat, in which he stood, and, above all, in which he bowed."

Among his friends he was greatly loved, he was loving, clever, and even amusing at times. He was always very busy reading or writing, or drawing up plans for government.

In 1793 Pitt's greatest time arrived.

A terrible war was waging in France. Holland, Spain, Austria, Prussia, all declared war against her, and England longed to join.

To keep peace was Pitt's great object, to remain neutral was the only course to take. But the whole country clamoured for war. Pitt stood alone in England, refusing to "bow to the growing cry of the nation for war," till at last he could struggle no longer, and France wrenched from his grasp the peace he had clung to so bravely.

From this moment Pitt's power was at an end. His pride kept him at the head of affairs, but Pitt was a peace minister, and quite unfitted to conduct a war.

One part of Pitt's conduct during the last eight years deserves high praise.

He was the first English minister who tried to do good to Ireland and succeeded too.

A union was made with that country, and Pitt further wanted the Roman Catholics to be allowed to sit in Parliament, but the king refused to listen to him.

Pitt therefore resigned, having held office for over seventeen years.

Some time after, he was offered the post of a secretary of state, but he angrily refused, and talked of it with bitter mirth.

"Which office was offered to you?" asked one of his friends.

"Really," answered Pitt, proudly, "I had no desire to hear."

Three years after, he again returned to power, but not for long.

Failure was fast killing him. Napoleon's victories were telling upon him, although the news of Nelson's battles revived him for a time. His sleep was broken; all who saw him saw misery written upon his face.

He tried to form a union against Napoleon, hoping to check his power, but at last the blow came.

One day rumours were about that Napoleon had defeated a huge Austrian army at Ulm.

"Do not believe a word of it," said Pitt to those who were spreading the news, "it cannot be true." The next day he received a Dutch newspaper. He knew no Dutch. It was Sunday, and all offices were shut, so he took the paper to a friend who had been in Holland. The rumour was too true. Pitt heard the news silently, he tried to bear up, but the shock was too great. He never got over it.

Four days after, the news arrived of the battle of Trafalgar, and seemed to revive the unhappy minister, but only for a time.

He appeared in public for the last time, and was called upon to speak. He rose:

"England has saved herself by her courage—she will save Europe by her example!" were his last words in public.

He slowly sank, his voice became hollow, his form wasted, and on the 23rd of January, 1806, William Pitt died, murmuring to the last, "My country! how I love my country!"

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, beside his great father, the Earl of Chatham.

"Glorious was his course
And long the track of light he left behind him."