Political Essays (1819)/Pitt and Buonaparte
PITT AND BUONAPARTE.
From the Morning Post, March 19, 1800.
"Plutarch, in his comparative biography of Rome and Greece, has generally chosen for each pair of Lives the two contemporaries who most nearly resemble each other. His work would, perhaps, have been more interesting, if he had adopted the contrary arrangement, and selected those rather, who had attained to the possession of similar influence, or similar fame, by means, actions, and talents the most dissimilar. For power is the sole object of philosophical attention in man, as in inanimate nature; and in the one equally as in the other, we understand it more intimately, the more diverse the circumstances are with which we have observed it to exist. In our days, the two persons who appear to have influenced the interests and actions of men the most deeply and the most diffusively, are, beyond doubt, the Chief Consul of France, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain: and in these two, are presented to us similar situations, with the greatest dissimilitude of characters.
William Pitt was the younger son of Lord Chatham; a fact of no ordinary importance in the solution of his character, of no mean significance in the heraldry of morals and intellect. His father's rank, fame, political connexions, and parental ambition, were his mould: he was cast, rather than grew. A palpable election, a conscious predestination controlled the free agency, and transfigured the individuality of his mind, and that, which he might have been, was compelled into that, which he was to be. From his early childhood it was his father's custom to make him stand upon a chair, and declaim before a large company; by which exercise, practised so frequently, and continued for so many years, he acquired a premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words, which must of necessity have diverted his attention from present objects, obscured his impressions, and deadened his genuine feelings. Not the thing on which he was speaking, but the praises to be gained by the speech, were present to his intuition; hence he associated all the operations of his faculties with words, and his pleasures with the surprise excited by them. But an inconceivably large portion of human knowledge and human power is involved in the science and management of words; and an education of words, though it destroys genius, will often create and always foster, talent. The young Pitt was conspicuous far beyond his fellows, both at school and at college. He was always full-grown: he had neither the promise nor the awkwardness of a growing intellect. Vanity, early satiated, formed, and elevated itself into a love of power; and in losing this colloquial vanity, he lost one of the prime links that connect the individual with the species, too early for the affections, though not too early for the understanding. At College he was a severe student; his mind was founded and elemented in words and generalities, and these too formed all the superstructure. That revelry and that debauchery, which are so often fatal to the powers of intellect, would probably have been serviceable to him; they would have given him a closer communion with realities, they would have induced a greater presentness to present objects. But Mr. Pitt's conduct was correct, unimpressibly correct. His after-discipline in the special pleader's office, and at the Bar, carried on the scheme of his education with unbroken uniformity. His first political connexions were with the Reformers; but those who accuse him of sympathising or coalescing with their intemperate or visionary plans, misunderstand his character, and are ignorant of the historical facts. Imaginary situations in an imaginary state of things, rise up in minds that possess a power and facility in combining images. Mr. Pitt's ambition was conversant with old situations in the old state of things, which furnish nothing to the imagination, though much to the wishes. In his endeavours to realize his father's plan of reform, he was probably as sincere as a being, who had derived so little knowledge from actual impressions, could be. But his sincerity had no living root of affection: while it was propped up by his love of praise and immediate power, so long it stood erect, and no longer. He became a member of the Parliament, supported the popular opinions, and in a few years, by the influence of the popular party, was placed in that high and awful rank in which he now is. The fortunes of his country, we had almost said the fates of the world, were placed in his wardship—we sink in prostration before the inscrutable dispensations of Providence, when we reflect in whose wardship the fates of the world were placed.
The influencer of his country and of his species was a young man, the creature of another's predetermination, sheltered and weatherfended from all the elements of experience; a young man, whose feet had never wandered, whose very eye had never turned to the right or to the left, whose whole track had been as curveless as the motions of a fascinated reptile! It was a young man, whose heart was solitary, because he had existed always amid objects of futurity, and whose imagination too was unpopulous, because those objects of hope, to which his habitual wishes had transferred, and as it were, projected his existence, were all familiar and long established objects. A plant sown and reared in a hot-house, for whom the very air that surrounded him, had been regulated by the thermometer of previous purpose; to whom the light of nature had penetrated only through glasses and covers, who had had the sun without the breeze; whom no storm had shaken; on whom no rain had pattered; on whom the dews of Heaven had not fallen! A being, who had had no feelings connected with man or nature; no spontaneous impulses; no unbiassed and desultory studies; no genuine science; nothing that constitutes individuality in intellect; nothing that teaches brotherhood in affection. Such was the man, such, and so denaturalized the spirit, on whose wisdom and philanthropy the lives and living enjoyments of so many millions of human beings were made unavoidably dependent. From this time a real enlargement of mind became almost impossible. Pre-occupations, intrigue, the undue passion and anxiety, with which all facts must be surveyed; the crowd and confusion of these facts, none of them seen, but all communicated, and by that very circumstance, and by the necessity of perpetually classifying them, transmuted into words and generalities; pride, flattery, irritation, artificial power; these, and circumstances resembling these, necessarily render the heights of office barren heights, which command indeed a vast and extensive prospect, but attract so many clouds and vapours, that, most often, all prospect is precluded. Still, however, Mr. Pitt's situation, however inauspicious for his real being, was favourable to his fame. He heaped period on period; persuaded himself and the nation, that extemporaneous arrangement of sentences was eloquence; and that eloquence implied wisdom. His father's struggles for freedom, and his own attempts, gave him an almost unexampled popularity; and his office necessarily associated with his name all the great events, that happened during his administration. There were not, however, wanting men, who saw through the delusion: and refusing to attribute the industry, integrity, and enterprising spirit of our merchants, the agricultural improvements of our landholders, the great inventions of our manufacturers, or the valor and skilfulness of our sailors, to the merits of a Minister: they have continued to decide on his character from those acts and those merits which belong to him, and to him alone. Judging him by this standard, they have been able to discover in him no one proof or symptom of a commanding genius. They have discovered him never controlling, never creating, events, but always yielding to them with rapid change, and sheltering himself from inconsistency by perpetual indefiniteness. In the Russian War, they saw him abandoning meanly what he had planned weakly, and threatened insolently. In the debates on the Regency, they detected the laxity of his constitutional principles, and received proofs that his eloquence consisted not in the ready application of a general system to particular questions, but in the facility of arguing for or against any question by specious generalities, without reference to any system. In these debates, he combined what is most dangerous in democracy, with all that is most degrading in the old superstitions of monarchy, and taught an inherency of the office in the person of the King, which made the office itself a nullity, and the Premiership, with its accompanying majority, the sole and permanent power of the State. And now came the French Revolution. This was a new event; the old routine of reasoning, the common trade of politics, were to become obsolete. He appeared wholly unprepared for it. Half favouring, half condemning, ignorant of what he favoured, and why he condemned; he neither displayed the honest enthusiasm and fixed principle of Mr. Fox, nor the intimate acquaintance with the general nature of man, and the consequent prescience of Mr. Burke. After the declaration of war, long did he continue in the common cant of office, in declamation about the Scheld, and Holland, and all the vulgar causes of common contests, and when at last the immense genius of his new supporter had beat him out of these words (words signifying places and dead objects, and signifying nothing more) he adopted other words in their places, other generalities—Atheism and Jacobinism, phrases, which he had learnt from Mr. Burke, but without learning the philosophical definitions and involved consequences, with which that great man accompanied those words. Since the death of Mr. Burke, the forms and the sentiments, and the tone of the French, have undergone many and important changes: how indeed is it possible, that it should be otherwise, while man is the creature of experience? But still Mr. Pitt proceeds in an endless repetition of the same general phrases. This is his element; deprive him of general and abstract phrases, and you reduce him to silence. But you cannot deprive him of them. Press him to specify an individual fact of advantage to be derived from a war, and he answers. Security. Call upon him to particularise a crime, and he exclaims, Jacobinism. Abstractions defined by abstractions—generalities defined by generalities! As a minister of France, he is still, as ever, the man of words and abstractions, figures, Custom-house reports, imports and exports, commerce and revenue all flourishing, all splendid. Never was such a prosperous country as England under his administration. Let it be objected, that the agriculture of the country is, by the overbalance of commerce, and by various and complex causes, in such a state, that the country hangs as a pensioner for bread on its neighbours, and a bad season uniformly threatens us with famine, this (it is replied) is owing to our prosperity—all prosperous nations are in great distress for food. Still prosperity, still general phrases, uninforced by one single image, one single fact of real national amelioration, of any one comfort enjoyed, where it was not before enjoyed, of any one class of society becoming healthier, or wiser, or happier. These are things, these are realities; and these Mr. Pitt has neither the imagination to body forth, or the sensibility to feel for. Once, indeed, in an evil hour intriguing for popularity, he suffered himself to be persuaded to evince a talent for the real, the individual: and he brought in his Poor Bill. When we hear the Minister's talents for finance so loudly trumpeted, we turn involuntarily to his Poor Bill, to that acknowledged abortion, that unanswerable evidence of his ignorance respecting all the fundamental relations and actions of property, and of the social union.
As his reasonings, even so is his eloquence. One character pervades his whole being. Words on words finely arranged, and so dexterously consequent, that the whole bears the semblance of argument, and still keeps awake a sense of surprise; but when all is done, nothing rememberable has been said; no one philosophical remark, no one image, not even a pointed aphorism. Not a sentence of Mr. Pitt's has ever been quoted, or formed the favourite phrase of the day, a thing unexampled in any man of equal reputation. But while he speaks, the effect varies according to the character of his auditor. The man of no talent is swallowed up in surprise: and when the speech is ended, he remembers his feelings, but nothing distinct of that which produced them; (how opposite an effect to that of nature and genius, from whose works the idea still remains, when the feeling is passed away, remains to connect itself with other feelings, and combine with new impressions!) The mere man of talent hears him with admiration, the mere man of genius with contempt; the philosopher neither admires nor contemns, but listens to him with a deep and solemn interest, tracing in the effects of his eloquence the power of words and phrases, and that peculiar constitution of human affairs in their present state, which so eminently favours this power.
Such appears to us to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain, whether we consider him a statesman or an orator. The same character betrays itself in his private life, the same coldness to realities, to images of realities, and to all whose excellence relates to reality.
He has patronised no science, he has raised no man of genius from obscurity; he counts no one prime work of God among his friends. From the same source he has no attachment to female society, no fondness for children, no perceptions of beauty in natural scenery; but he is fond of convivial indulgences, of that stimulation, which, keeping up the glow of self-importance and the sense of internal power, gives feelings without the mediation of ideas.
These are the elements of his mind; the accidents of his fortune, the circumstances that enabled such a mind to acquire and retain such a power, would form the subject of a philosophical history, and that too of no scanty size. We scarcely furnish the chapter of contents to a work which would comprise subjects so important and delicate, as the causes of the diffusion and intensity of secret influence, the machinery and state intrigue of marriages, the overbalance of the commercial interest; the panic of property struck by the late Revolution, the short-sightedness of the careful, the carelessness of the far-sighted; and all those many and various events which have given to a decorous profession of religion, and a seemliness of private morals, such an unwonted weight in the attainment and preservation of public power. We are unable to determine whether it be more consolatory or humiliating to human nature, that so many complexities of event, situation, character, age, and country, should be necessary in order to the production of a Mr. Pitt."