So now, when the Absentee at last returns, there is at once a centrifugal sauve qui peut. The Cabinet of Grafton, that still in a way bears the name of Chatham, suddenly dissolves, as by a kind of spontaneous combustion. One member after another vanishes into space, each in his different way conscience-stricken. The scene-painting is not unworthy of Tacitus or Carlyle. The author triumphantly attains his object, which is to show the amazing political influence which the veteran statesman even then exercised.
Our present object is far humbler and much more limited. It is to give some impression of the way in which he spoke.
At the time of his return to Parliament there were two main questions which during those eight years, the years in which, in Macaulay's phrase, 'Junius had taken the field,' were chiefly agitating the minds of Englishmen. The one was the controversy as to John Wilkes. The other was the renewal of virtual hostilities with the American colonies. The first involved the liberty of the English citizen. The second involved the disruption of the British Empire.
As regards Wilkes and his repeated expulsions from the House of Commons, after repeated re-elections by his Middlesex constituents, Chatham had convinced himself that the House of which he had so long been the ornament was now exercising its power tyrannically. 'I have considered the matter,' he says in his first utterance on returning to Parliament on January 9, 1770, 'I have considered it with most serious attention, and as I have not in my own breast the smallest doubt that the present universal discontent of the nation arises from the proceedings of the House of Commons upon the expulsion of Mr. Wilkes, I think that we ought, in our Address, to state that matter to the King. I have drawn up an amendment to the Address.'