The State of the Nation

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The State of the Nation  (1770) 
by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham
A speech by William Pitt 'The Elder', 1st Earl of Chatham, on Lord Rockinghams motion for an enquiry into the state of the nation, to examine the actions of the Grafton ministry, in the wake of the resignation of a number of government ministers & supporters over the case of John Wilkes. Given to the House of Lords on 22 January 1770.

MY LORDS, - I meant to have arisen immediately to second the motion made by the noble Lord (Rockingham). The charge which the noble Duke (Grafton) seemed to think affected himself particularly, did undoubtedly demand an early answer. It was proper he should speak before me, and I am as ready as any man to applaud the decency and propriety with which he has expressed himself.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, both in the necessity of your Lordships' concurring with the motion, and in the principles and arguments by which he has very judiciously supported it. I see clearly that the complexion of our government has been materially altered; and I can trace the origin of the alteration up to a period which ought to have been an era of happiness and prosperity to this country.

My Lords, I shall give you my reasons for concurring with the motion, not methodically, but as they occur to my mind. I may wander, perhaps, from the exact parliamentary debate, but I hope I shall say nothing but what may deserve your attention, and what, if not strictly proper at present, would be fit to be said when the state of the nation shall come to be considered. My uncertain state of health must plead my excuse. I am now in some pain, and very probably may not be able to attend to my duty when I desire it most, in this House. I thank God, my Lords, for having thus long preserved so inconsiderable a being as I am, to take a part upon this great occasion, and to contribute my endeavors, such as they are, to restore, to save, to confirm the Constitution.

My Lords, I need not look abroad for grievances. The grand capital mischief is fixed at home. It corrupts the very foundation of our political existence, and preys upon the vitals of the state. The Constitution has been grossly violated. The Constitution at this moment stands violated. Until that wound be healed, until the grievance be redressed, it is in vain to recommend union to Parliament, in vain to promote concord among the people. If we mean seriously to unite the nation within itself, we must convince them that their complaints are regarded, that their injuries shall be redressed. On that foundation I would take the lead in recommending peace and harmony to the people. On any other, I would never wish to see them united again. If the breach in the Constitution be effectually repaired, the people will of themselves return to a state of tranquillity; if not, may discord prevail forever. I know to what point this doctrine and this language will appear directed. But I feel the principles of an Englishman, and I utter them without apprehension or reserve. The crisis is indeed alarming. So much the more does it require a prudent relaxation on the part of government. If the King's servants will not permit a constitutional question to be decided on according to the forms and on the principles of the Constitution, it must then be decided in some other manner; and, rather than it should be given up, rather than the nation should surrender their birthright to a despotic minister, I hope, my Lords, old as I am, I shall see the question brought to issue, and fairly tried between the people and the government. My Lord, 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 know, that when the liberty of the subject is invaded, and all redress denied him, resistance is justified. If I had a doubt upon the matter, I should follow the example set us by the most reverend bench, with whom I believe it is a maxim, when any doubt in point of faith arises, or any question of controversy is started, to appeal at once to the greatest source and evidence of our religion - I mean the Holy Bible. 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 comments of their ministers; had they been better read in the text itself, the glorious revolution would have remained only possible in theory, and would not now have existed upon record a formidable example to their successors.

My Lords, I can not agree with the noble Duke, that nothing less than an immediate attack upon the honor or interest of this nation can authorize us to interpose in defense of weaker states, and in stopping the enterprises of an ambitious neighbor. Whenever that narrow, selfish policy has prevailed in our councils, we have constantly experienced the fatal effects of it. By suffering our natural enemies to oppress the powers less able than we are to make resistance, we have permitted them to increase their strength, we have lost the most favorable opportunities of opposing them with success, and found ourselves at last obliged to run every hazard in making that cause our own, in which we were not wise enough to take part while the expense and danger might have been supported by others. With respect to Corsica, I shall only say, that France has obtained a more useful and important acquisition in one pacific campaign than in any of her belligerent campaigns - at least while I had the honor of administering war against her. The word may, perhaps, be thought singular. I mean only while I was the minister chiefly intrusted with the conduct of the war. I remember, my Lords, the time when Lorraine was united to the crown of France. That, too, was in some measure a pacific conquest; and there were people who talked of it as the noble Duke now speaks of Corsica. France was permitted to take and keep possession of a noble province; and, according to his grace's ideas, we did right in not opposing it. The effect of these acquisitions is, I confess, not immediate; but they unite with the main body by degrees, and, in time, make a part of the national strength. I fear, my Lords, it is too much the temper of this country to be insensible of the approach of danger, until it comes with accumulated terror upon us.

My Lords, the condition of his Majesty's affairs in Ireland, and the state of that kingdom within itself, will undoubtedly make a very material part of your Lordship's inquiry. I am not sufficiently informed to enter into the subject so fully as I could wish; but by what appears to the public, and from my own observation, I confess I can not give the ministry much credit for the spirit or prudence of their conduct. I see that even where their measures are well chosen, they are incapable of carrying them through without some unhappy mixture of weakness or imprudence. They are incapable of doing entirely right. My Lords, I do, from my conscience, and from the best weighed principles of my understanding, applaud the augmentation of the army. As a military plan, I believe it has been judiciously arranged. In a political view, I am convinced it was for the welfare, for the safety of the whole empire. But, my Lords, with all these advantages, with all these recommendations, if I had the honor of advising his Majesty, I never would have consented to his accepting the augmentation, with that absurd, dishonorable condition which the ministry have submitted to annex to it. My Lords, I revere the just prerogative of the Crown, and would contend for it as warmly as for the rights of the people. They are linked together, and naturally support each other. I would not touch a feather of the prerogative. The expression, perhaps, is too light; but, since I have made use of it, let me add, that the entire command and power of directing the local disposition of the army is to the royal prerogative, as the master feather in the eagle's wing; and, if I were permitted to carry the allusion a little farther, I would say, they have disarmed the imperial bird, the Ministrum Fulminis Alitem (The winged minister of thunder). The army is the thunder of the Crown. The ministry have tied up the hand which should direct the bolt.

My Lords, I remember that Minorca was lost for want of four battalions. They could not be spared from hence, and there was a delicacy about taking them from Ireland. I was one of those who promoted an inquiry into that matter in the other House; and I was convinced we had not regular troops sufficient for the necessary service of the nation. Since the moment the plan of augmentation was first talked of, I have constantly and warmly supported it among my friends. I have recommended it to several members of the Irish House of Commons, and exhorted them to support it with their utmost interest in Parliament. I did not foresee, nor could I conceive it possible, the ministry would accept of it, with a condition that makes the plan itself ineffectual, and, as far as it operates, defeats every useful purpose of maintaining a standing military force. His Majesty is now so confined by his promise, that he must leave twelve thousand men locked up in Ireland, let the situation of his affairs abroad, or the approach of danger to this country, be ever so alarming, unless there be an actual rebellion or invasion in Great Britain. Even in the two cases excepted by the King's promise, the mischief must have already begun to operate, must have already taken effect, before his Majesty can be authorized to send for the assistance of his Irish army. He has not left himself the power of taking any preventive measures, let his intelligence be ever so certain, his apprehensions of invasion or rebellion be ever so well founded. Unless the traitor be actually in arms, unless the enemy be in the heart of your country, he can not move a single man from Ireland.

I feel myself compelled, my Lords, to return to that subject which occupies and interests me most. I mean the internal disorder of the Constitution, and the remedy it demands. But first I would observe, there is one point upon which I think the noble Duke has not explained himself. I do not mean to catch at words, but, if possible, to possess the sense of what I hear. I would treat every man with candor, and should expect the same candor in return. For the noble Duke, in particular, I have every personal respect and regard. I never desire to understand him but as he wishes to be understood. His Grace, I think, has laid much stress upon the diligence of the several public offices, and the assistance given them by the administration in preparing a state of the expenses of his Majesty's civil government, for the information of Parliament and for the satisfaction of the public. He has given us a number of plausible reasons for their not having yet been able to finish the account; but, as far as I am able to recollect, he has not yet given us the smallest reason to hope that it ever will be finished, or that it ever will be laid before Parliament.

My Lords, I am not unpracticed in business; and if, with all that apparent diligence, and all that assistance which the noble Duke speaks of, the accounts in question have not yet been made up, I am convinced there must be a defect in some of the public offices, which ought to be strictly inquired into, and severely punished. But, my Lords, the waste of the public money is not, of itself, so important as the pernicious purpose to which we have reason to suspect that money has been applied. For some years past, there has been an influx of wealth into this country, which has been attended with many fatal consequences, because it has not been the regular, natural produce of labor and industry. The riches of Asia have been poured in upon us, and have brought with them not only Asiatic luxury, but, I fear, Asiatic principles of government. Without connections, without any natural interest in the soil, the importers of foreign gold have forced their way into Parliament by such a torrent of private corruption, as no private hereditary fortune could resist. My Lords, not saying but what is within the knowledge of us all, the corruption of the people is the great original cause of the discontents of the people themselves, of the enterprise of the Crown, and the notorious decay of the internal vigor of the Constitution. For this great evil some immediate remedy must be provided; and I confess, my Lords, I did hope that his Majesty's servants would not have suffered so many years of peace to relapse without paying some attention to an object which ought to engage and interest us all. I flattered myself I should see some barriers thrown up in defense of the Constitution; some impediment formed to stop the rapid progress of corruption. I doubt not we all agree that something must be done. I shall offer my thoughts, such as they are, to the consideration of the House; and I wish that every noble Lord that hears me would be as ready as I am to contribute his opinion to this important service. I will not call my own sentiments crude and undigested. It would be unfit for me to offer any thing to your Lordships which I had not well considered; and this subject, I own, has not long occupied my thoughts. I will now give them to your Lordships without reserve.

Whoever understands the theory of the English Constitution, and will compare it with the fact, must see at once how widely they differ. We must reconcile them to each other, if we wish to save the liberties of this country; we must reduce our political practice, as nearly as possible, to our principles. The Constitution intended that there should be a permanent relation between the constituent and representative body of the people. Will any man affirm that, as the House of Commons is now formed, that relation is in any degree preserved? My Lords, it is not preserved; it is destroyed. Let us be cautious, however, how we have recourse to violent expedients.

The boroughs of this country have properly enough been called "the rotten parts" of the Constitution. I have lived in Cornwall, and, without entering into any invidious particularity, have seen enough to justify the appellation. But in my judgment, my Lords, these boroughs, corrupt as they are, must be considered as the natural infirmity of the Constitution. Like the infirmities of the body, we must bear them with patience, and submit to carry them about with us. The limb is mortified, but the amputation might be death.

Let us try, my Lords, whether some gentler remedies may not be discovered. Since we can not cure the disorder, let us endeavor to infuse such a portion of new health into the Constitution as may enable it to support its most inveterate diseases.

The representation of the counties is, I think, still preserved pure and uncorrupted. That of the greatest cities is upon a footing equally respectable; and there are many of the larger trading towns which still preserve their independence. The infusion of health which I now allude to would be to permit every county to elect one member more, in addition to their present representation. The knights of the shires approach nearest to the constitutional representation of the county, because they represent the soil. It is not in the little dependent boroughs, it is in the great cities and counties that the strength and vigor of the Constitution resides; and by them alone, if an unhappy question should ever arise, will the Constitution be honestly and firmly defended. It would increase that strength, because I think it is the only security we have against the profligacy of the times, the corruption of the people, and the ambition of the Crown.

I think I have weighed every possible objection that can be raised against a plan of this nature; and I confess I see but one which, to me, carries any appearance of solidity. It may be said, perhaps, that when the act passed for uniting the two kingdoms, the number of persons who were to represent the whole nation in Parliament was proportioned and fixed on forever. That this limitation is a fundamental article, and can not be altered without hazarding a dissolution of the Union.

My Lords, no man who hears me can have a greater reverence for that wise and important act than I have. I revere the memory of that great prince (King William III.) who first formed the plan, and of those illustrious patriots who carried it into execution. As a contract, every article of it should be inviolable; as the common basis of the strength and happiness of two nations, every article of it should be sacred. I hope I can not be suspected of conceiving a thought so detestable as to propose an advantage to one of the contracting parties at the expense of the other. No, my Lords, I mean that the benefit should be universal, and the consent to receive it unanimous. Nothing less than a most urgent and important occasion should persuade me to vary even from the letter of the act; but there is no occasion, however urgent, however important, that should ever induce me to depart from the spirit of it. Let that spirit be religiously preserved. Let us follow the principle upon which the representation of the two countries was proportioned at the Union; and when we increase the number of representatives for the English counties, let the shires of Scotland be allowed an equal privilege. On these terms, and while the proportion limited by the Union is preserved by the two nations, I apprehend that no man who is a friend to either will object to an alteration so necessary for the security of both. I do not speak of the authority of the Legislature to carry such a measure into effect, because I imagine no man will dispute it. But I would not wish the Legislature to interpose by an exertion of its power alone, without the cheerful concurrence of all parties. My object is the happiness and security of the two nations, and I would not wish to obtain it without their mutual consent.

My Lords, besides my warm approbation of the motion made by the noble Lord, I have a natural and personal pleasure in rising up to second it. I consider my seconding his Lordship's motion - and I would wish it to be considered by others - as a public demonstration of that cordial union which I am happy to affirm subsists between us, of my attachment to those principles which he has so well defended, and of my respect for his person. There has been a time, my Lords, when those who wished well to neither of us, who wished to see us separated forever, found a sufficient gratification for their malignity against us both. But that time is happily at an end. The friends of this country will, I doubt not, hear with pleasure that the noble Lord and his friends are now united with me and mine upon a principle which, I trust, will make our union indissoluble. It is not to possess, or divide the emoluments of government, but, if possible, to save the state. Upon this ground we met; upon this ground we stand, firm and inseparable. No ministerial artifices, no private offers, no secret seduction, can divide us. United as we are, we can set the profoundest policy of the present ministry, their grand, their only arcanum of government, their divide et impera (Divide and rule) at defiance.

I hope an early day will be agreed to for considering the state of the nation. My infirmities must fall heavily upon me, indeed, if I do not attend to my duty that day. When I consider my age and unhappy state of health, I feel how little I am personally interested in the event of any political question. But I look forward to others, and am determined, as far as my poor ability extends, to convey to them who come after me the blessings which I can not hope to enjoy myself.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.