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William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham

Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my lords, that where laws end, tyranny begins.

The Right Honourable William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (15 November 1708 – 11 May 1778) was a British Whig statesman who achieved his greatest fame as war minister during the Seven Years' War (aka French and Indian War) and who was later Prime Minister of Great Britain. He is often known as William Pitt the Elder to distinguish him from his son, William Pitt the Younger

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  • When trade is at stake, it is your last entrenchment; you must defend it, or perish...Sir, Spain knows the consequence of a war in America; whoever gains, it must prove fatal to her...is this any longer a nation? Is this any longer an English Parliament, if with more ships in your harbours than in all the navies of Europe; with above two millions of people in your American colonies, you will bear to hear of the expediency of receiving from Spain an insecure, unsatisfactory, dishonourable Convention?
    • Denouncing the Spanish Convention of Prado in the House of Commons (6 March, 1739).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 6-7.
  • It must cut up Liberty by the root and poison the Fountain of Publick Security; and who that has an English heart can ever be weary of asserting Liberty?
    • Denouncing the patronage system (February, 1740).
  • Our seamen have always been famous for a matchless alacrity and intrepidity in time of danger; this has saved many a British ship, when other seamen would have run below deck, and left the ship to the mercy of the waves, or, perhaps, of a more cruel enemy, a pirate.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (6 March, 1741).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), p. 10.
  • My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can.
  • While we had France for an enemy, Germany was the scene to employ and baffle her arms.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (August, 1762).
  • We retain nothing, although we have conquered everything...France is chiefly, if not solely, to be dreaded by us in the light of a maritime and commercial power; and therefore by restoring to her all the valuable West India islands, and by our concessions in the Newfoundland fishery, we have given her the means of recovering her prodigious losses and of becoming once more formidable to us at sea...all the Spanish treasures and riches in America, lay at our mercy.
  • The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
  • It is my opinion, that this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies. At the same time I assert the authority of this kingdom over the colonies to be sovereign and supreme in every circumstance of Government and legislation whatsoever. The colonists are the subjects of this kingdom, equally entitled with yourselves to all the natural rights of mankind and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen...The Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England. Taxation is no part of the governing or legislative power...When, therefore, in this House we give and grant, we give and grant what is our own. But in an American tax, what do we do? We, your Majesty's Commons for Great Britain, give and grant to your Majesty,—what? Our own property?—No! We give and grant to your Majesty, the property of your Majesty's Commons of America...The distinction between legislation and taxation is essentially necessary to liberty...There is an idea in some, that the colonies are virtually represented in this House...Is he represented by any knight of the shire, in any county in this kingdom?...Or will you tell him that he is represented by any representative of a borough?—a borough which perhaps its own representatives never saw.—This is what is called the rotten part of the constitution. It cannot continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated...I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to let themselves be made slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of all the rest...The gentleman asks, When were the colonies emancipated? I desire to know when were they made slaves?
    • Speech in the House of Commons on the Stamp Act (14 January, 1766).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 71-6.
  • There are many things a parliament cannot do. It cannot make itself executive, nor dispose of offices which belong to the crown. It cannot take any man's property, even that of the meanest cottager, as in the case of enclosures, without his being heard.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (1766)
    • Parliamentary History of England (London, 1813), vol. 6, col. 195.
  • When then, my Lords, are all the generous efforts of our ancestors, are all those glorious contentions, by which they meant to secure themselves, and to transmit to their posterity, a known law, a certain rule of living, reduced to this conclusion, that instead of the arbitrary power of a King, we must submit to the arbitrary power of a House of Commons? If this be true, what benefit do we derive from the exchange? Tyranny, my Lords, is detestable in every shape; but in none is it so formidable as where it is assumed and exercised by a number of tyrants. But, my Lords, this is not the fact, this is not the constitution; we have a law of Parliament, we have a code in which every honest man may find it. We have Magna Charta, we have the Statute-book, and we have the Bill of Rights...It is to your ancestors, my Lords, it is to the English barons that we are indebted for the laws and constitution we possess. Their virtues were rude and uncultivated, but they were great and sincere...I think that history has not done justice to their conduct, when they obtained from their Sovereign that great acknowledgment of national rights contained in Magna Charta: they did not confine it to themselves alone, but delivered it as a common blessing to the whole people...A breach has been made in the constitution—the battlements are dismantled—the citadel is open to the first invader—the walls totter—the place is no longer tenable.—What then remains for us but to stand foremost in the breach, to repair it, or to perish in it?...let us consider which we ought to respect most—the representative or the collective body of the people. My Lords, five hundred gentlemen are not ten millions; and, if we must have a contention, let us take care to have the English nation on our side. If this question be given up, the freeholders of England are reduced to a condition baser than the peasantry of Poland...Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my Lords, that where law ends, there tyranny begins.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on John Wilkes (9 January, 1770).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 90-4.
  • I have the principles of an Englishman, and I utter them without apprehension or reserve...this is not the language of faction; let it be tried by that criterion, by which alone we can distinguish what is factious, from what is not—by the principles of the English constitution. I have been bred up in these principles, and I know that when the liberty of the subject is invaded, and all redress denied him, resistance is justifiable...the constitution has its political Bible, by which if it be fairly consulted, every political question may, and ought to be determined. Magna Charta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights, form that code which I call the Bible of the English constitution. Had some of his Majesty's unhappy predecessors trusted less to the commentary of their Ministers, and been better read in the text itself, the glorious Revolution might have remained only possible in theory, and their fate would not now have stood upon record, a formidable example to all their successors.
    • Speech in the House of Lords (22 January, 1770).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), p. 98.
  • A long train of these practices has at length unwillingly convinced me that there is something behind the throne greater than the King himself.
    • Chatham Correspondence, Speech, March 2, 1770, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). Quoted by Lord Mahon, "greater than the throne itself", in History of England, vol. v., p. 258.
  • Reparation for our rights at home, and security against the like future violations.
    • Letter to the Earl of Shelburne, Sept. 29, 1770. Compare: "Indemnity for the past and security for the future," Bertrand Russell, Memoir of Fox, vol. iii, p. 345, Letter to the Hon. T. Maitland.
  • Resistance to your acts was necessary as it was just; and your vain declarations of the omnipotence of Parliament, and your imperious doctrines of the necessity of submission, will be found equally impotent to convince or to enslave your fellow-subjects in America, who feel tyranny, whether ambitioned by an individual part of the legislature, or the bodies who compose it, is equally intolerable to British subjects...What, though you march form town to town, and from province to province; though you should be able to enforce a temporary and local submission, which I only suppose, not admit—how shall you be able to secure the obedience of the country you leave behind you in your progress, to grasp the dominion of eighteen hundred miles of continent, populous in numbers, possessing valour, liberty, and resistance? This resistance to your arbitrary system of taxation might have been foreseen: it was obvious, from the nature of things and of mankind; and, above all, from the Whiggish spirit flourishing in that country. The spirit which now resists your taxation in America, is the same which formerly opposed loans, benevolences, and ship-money, in England: the same spirit which called all England on its legs, and by the Bill of Rights vindicated the English constitution: the same spirit which established the great, fundamental, essential maxim of your liberties, that no subject of England shall be taxed but by his own consent. This glorious spirit of Whiggism animates three millions in America; who prefer poverty with liberty to gilded chains and sordid affluence; and who will die in defence of their rights as men, as freemen.
    • Speech in the House of Lords (20 January, 1775).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 134-6.
  • Confidence is a plant of slow growth in an aged bosom.
    • Speech, Jan. 14, 1766, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • You have ransacked every corner of Lower Saxony; but forty thousand German boors never can conquer ten times the number of British freemen. You may ravage—you cannot conquer; it is impossible: you cannot conquer the Americans. You talk, my Lords, of your friends among them to annihilate the Congress, and of your powerful forces to disperse their army: I might as well talk of driving them before me with this crutch! ...If you conquer them, what then? You cannot make them respect you; you cannot make them wear your cloth: you will plant an invincible hatred in their breasts against you. Coming from the stock they do, they can never respect you...
    • Speech in the House of Lords (30 May, 1777).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), p. 144.
  • I know that the conquest of English America is an impossibility. You cannot, I venture to say it, you CANNOT conquer America...As to conquest, therefore, my Lords, I repeat, it is impossible. You may swell every expense, and every effort, still more extravagantly; pile and accumulate every assistance you can buy or borrow; traffic and barter with every little pitiful German Prince, that sells and sends his subjects to the shambles of a foreign country; your efforts are for ever vain and impotent—doubly so from this mercenary aid on which you rely; for it irritates, to an incurable resentment, the minds of your enemies—to overrun them with the sordid sons of rapine and plunder; devoting them and their possessions to the rapacity of hireling cruelty! If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms, never! never! never! ...I call upon the honour of your Lordships to reverence the dignity of your ancestors, and to maintain your own. I call upon the spirit and humanity of my country to vindicate the national character. I invoke the genius of the constitution. From the tapestry that adorns these walls, the immortal ancestor of this noble Lord frowns with indignation at THE DISGRACE OF HIS COUNTRY! In vain he led your victorious fleets against the boasted Armada of Spain; in vain he defended and established the honour, the liberties, the religion, the Protestant religion of his country, against the arbitrary cruelties of Popery and the Inquisition.
    • Speech in the House of Lords (18 November, 1777), responding to a speech by Henry Howard, 12th Earl of Suffolk, who spoke in favour of the war against the American colonists. Suffolk was a descendant of Howard of Effingham, who led the English navy against the Spanish Armada. Effingham had commissioned a series of tapestries on the defeat of the Armada, and sold them to King James I. Since 1650 they were hung in the House of Lords, where they remained until destroyed by fire in 1834.
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 150-6.
"I rejoice that the grave has not closed upon me; that I am still alive to lift up my voice against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy!"
  • My Lords, I rejoice that the grave has not closed upon me; that I am still alive to lift up my voice against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy! Pressed down as I am by the hand of infirmity, I am little able to assist my country in this most perilous conjuncture; but, my Lords, while I have sense and memory, I will never consent to deprive the royal offspring of the House of Brunswick, the heirs of the Princess Sophia, of their fairest inheritance. Where is the man that will dare to advise such a measure? My Lords, his Majesty succeeded to an empire as great in extent as its reputation was unsullied. Shall we tarnish the lustre of this nation by an ignominious surrender of its rights and fairest possessions? Shall this great kingdom, that has survived, whole and entire, the Danish depredations, the Scottish inroads, and the Norman conquest; that has stood the threatened invasion of the Spanish Armada, now fall prostrate before the House of Bourbon? Surely, my Lords, this nation is no longer what it was! Shall a people, that seventeen years ago was the terror of the world, now stoop so low as to tell its ancient inveterate enemy, take all we have, only give us peace? It is impossible! ...My Lords, any state is better than despair. Let us at least make one effort; and if we must fall, let us fall like men!
    • Speech in the House of Lords (7 April, 1778).
    • William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. xv-xvi.
  • We have a Calvinistic creed, a Popish liturgy, and an Arminian clergy.
    • Prior's Life of Burke (1790), reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).

About William PittEdit

  • Mr Pitt, on entering upon administration, had found the nation at the lowest ebb in point of power and reputation. His predecessors, now his coadjutors, wanted genius, spirit and system...France, who meant to be feared, was feared heartily...They were willing to trust that France would be so good as to ruin us by inches. Pitt had roused us from this ignoble lethargy.
    • Horace Walpole, Memoirs of King George II: Volume III (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 51.
  • The admirers of Mr Pitt extol the reverberation he gave to our councils, the despondence he banished, the spirit he infused, the conquests he made, the security he affixed to our trade and plantations, the humiliation of France, the glory of Britain carried under his administration to a pitch at which it never had arrived—and all this is exactly true.
    • Horace Walpole, Memoirs of King George II: Volume III (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 53.
  • This minister is, as you know, the idol of the people, who regard him as the sole author of their success, and they do not have the same confidence in the other members of the council...Pitt joins to a reputation of superior spirit and talent, that of most exact honesty...with simple manners and dignity, he seeks neither display nor ostentation...He is very eloquent, specious, wheedling, and with all the chicanery of an experienced lawyer. He is courageous to the point of rashness, he supports his ideas in an impassioned fashion and with an invincible determination, seeking to have no other ambition than to elevate Britain to the highest point of glory and to abase France to the lowest degree of humiliation.
  • Our toast in general is,—Magna Charta, the British Constitution,—PITT and Liberty forever!
    • "A Son of Liberty in Bristol County, Mass.", Newport Mercury (19 May, 1766) on the repeal of the Stamp Act.
    • C. Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic (New York, 1953), p. 360.
  • It is a considerable fact in the history of the world, that he was for four years King of England.
  • The memory of that great and glorious minister, who, to all succeeding ages, will be quoted as an illustrious example, how one great man, by his superior ability, could raise his drooping country from the abyss of despair to the highest pinnacle of glory, and render her honoured, respected, revered, and dreaded by the whole universe.
    • Admiral George Rodney, writing in December 1779.
    • G. B. Mundy (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Admiral Lord Rodney: Volume I (London: 1830), pp. 204-5.
  • Erected by the King and Parliament
    As a Testimony to
    The Virtues and Ability
    of
    WILLIAM PITT EARL OF CHATHAM
    During whose Administration
    In the Regins of George II and George III
    Divine Providence
    Exalted Great Britain
    To an Height of Prosperity and Glory
    Unknown to any Former Age
    Born November 15, 1708; Died May 11, 1778
    • Enscribed on his monument in Westminister Abbey.

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