Imágenes de páginas

the King's esteem for his oath by the esteem which he himself had shown in 1783 for his own most solemn asseverations, he could not well come to any other conclusion. If at any time of his life he had professed to take an important political step, out of a regard for his own previous promises, the proceeding would have been most justly designated by the vigorous epithets we have quoted. The fury with which his later followers have attacked the King's persistency on this occasion is less intelligible. One would have thought that that persistency was exacted by the most rudimentary principles of honour. His view of the bearing of his Coronation Oath might have been erroneous; but it was the belief of many persons far more gifted and far more cultivated than himself.

It implies neither intellectual nor moral obliquity to entertain a belief which is the popular persuasion of the age. And, assuming that it really was his belief, it was not only natural that he should have acted up to it, but he would have been the most contemptible of men if he had disregarded it. For the sake of a worldly interest of no very pressing kind, he would have perjured himself of an oath sworn to in the most solemn manner, and relating to the most sacred subject. Not only no wise king, but no man who was fit to associate with gentlemen, would have done that which some writers inveigh against George III. for having refused. The Constitutional duties' of an English King are a matter of prudence, not of special obligation ; but, even if they had been imposed by law instead of by a vague and shifting custom, they could not have bound him to a perjury. Nor did the importance of the question in any way affect his duty. As it happened, his decision, though of great, was not of vital moment. It embarrassed the subsequent settlement of the Roman Catholic claims; but it produced at the time no consequences of importance. But, if it had been as momentous as it was trivial in its immediate results, it would have been far better for the fair fame of George III. in the eyes of posterity—to speak of no higher tribunal—that he should have forfeited his crown or his life in resisting Catholic claims, than that he should for expediency's sake have yielded what in his own belief he had sworn to refuse. And yet, if he had consciously forsworn himself, he would have been judged more kindly by many at least of his critics. It is a sad comment on the morality by which historians try the actions of great men, that Henry IV 's abandonment of Protestantism, or Charles I.'s abandonment of Episcopacy, to serve the purpose of the moment, have not been visited with one tenth part of the invective that has followed George III.'s honest, though blind veneration for his oath.

2 m 2


Though Pitt had rightly estimated the strength of the King's determination, he had not anticipated the depth of the King's attachment to himself. The struggle of parting with him for conscience' sake was too severe for a mind already shaken by insanity. Before the new Ministers could be installed, the old symptoms of 1778 returned. The attack was quite as severe; fortunately it was not quite as obstinate. Addington's happy suggestion of the hop-pillow—which Lord Stanhope will not allow to have originated the soubriquet of the Doctor'-brought about an amendment before any steps had been taken for the appointment of a regency.

But it was a narrow escape, and the risk that had been run made a deep impression upon Pitt. As soon as the King was well enough to receive the message, Pitt sent him a promise, by Dr. Willis, that he would never during the King's lifetime renew the question of the Catholic claims. As soon as this had been done, it occurred to some of Pitt's subordinates, who were sharing his loss of office without sharing in any degree his credit for magnanimity, that as the cause of his resignation had disappeared, there was no reason why the resignation itself should not follow its example. Pitt did not view this process of reasoning with absolute disfavour. He would take no step himself ; but he did not conceal his willingness to resume office from his friends, or forbid them to mention it to others. But to Addington the idea did not seem quite so natural. He was not so much impressed with his own enormous inferiority to Pitt as Dundas and Pelham seem to have expected. Moreover, having been made to resign the Speakership by the representation that he alone could save the country from ruin in such a crisis, he was not inclined to fall between the two stools, or to become the victim of a lovers' quarrel between the King and Mr. Pitt. So he gave the strongest possible discouragement to Dundas's modest proposal. As soon as his reluctance was ascertained, Pitt interfered to rescue him from further pressure, and suppressed the murmurings of his own displaced friends with a strong hand. ·

Pitt's inconsistent conduct on this occasion has been very severely blamed. Even the calm and judicial mind of Sir G.Č Lewis refuses to acquit him. "Why,' he asks, 'if he was so willing to remain in March, was he so resolved on resigning in February ; or why, if he was so resolved upon resigning in February, was he so willing to remain in March?' No doubt, if the intervening fact of the King's insanity be left out of sight, Pitt's conduct was marked by a levity worthy only of a coquette. But this fact, with all the contingent consequences that hung on it, entirely altered the state of facts upon which he had to form his judg


ment. It was one of those political cases of conscience of which we have spoken, which a constitutional Minister may at any moment have to solve, in which a possible act of patriotism lies on one side and a certainty of obloquy on the other. Whatever decision Pitt had taken, he could not have expected to avoid some degree of blame from those who were not disposed to view his conduct leniently. Lord Stanhope puts the case on Pitt's behalf as forcibly as it can be put:

'I would venture, in the first place, to ask how the critic can feel the smallest difficulty in explaining at least, if not in justifying, the change which he here describes. As reasonably might he state his surprise that the Emperor of Austria was not willing to treat on the 1st of December, 1805, and was willing on the 3rd of the same month; the fact being that the battle of Austerlitz was fought on the intervening day. The intervening illness of George the Third affords, as I conceive, a no less clear, a no less sufficient explanation. When it became manifest that the proposal of the Roman Catholic claims had not only wrung the mind of the aged King with anguish, but altogether obscured and overthrown it, the duty of a statesman, even if untouched by personal considerations, acting solely on public grounds, was then to refrain from any such proposal during the remainder of His Majesty's reign. Loyal Roman Catholics themselves could not expect, could not even desire, their claims to be under such circumstances urged. Let me moreover observe that the restraint which Mr. Pitt laid upon himself in consequence was one that came to be adopted by all other leading politicians of that age. It was on the same understanding that Lord Castlereagh took office in 1803; Mr. Tierney also in the same year; Mr. Canning in 1804; Lord Grenville and Mr. Fox in 1806. All these, with whatever reluctance, agreed that on this most tender point the conscience of George the Third should be no further pressed. And surely if the ground here stated was sufficient, as I deem it, to justify Mr. Tierney, who had never before held office, and who owed no special attachment to the King, the ground was far stronger in the case of Mr. Pitt, who had served His Majesty as Prime Minister through most trying difficulties and for more than seventeen years.

'It may be said, however, that although Mr. Pitt was right to relinquish the Catholic Question in March, 1801, he should not have been willing to resume office at once upon such terms. If, however, the Catholic Question were honourably and for good reason laid aside, the special, and indeed the only, reason for calling in “ the Doctor was gone. Under him there was every prospect that the new Government would be a weak one-even far weaker than from various causes which I shall hereafter explain it really proved. I have already shown what were the anticipations upon this point of so experienced and so far-sighted a politician as Dundas. A weak Government was then in prospect; and that at a period when the national interests called most loudly for a strong one. It was the duty of a patriot


Minister to avert, if he honourably could, that evil from his country. It was his duty not to shrink from the service of his Sovereign, if that Sovereign thought fit to ask his aid, and if the question which had so recently severed them was from other and inevitable causes to sever them no more.

· For these reasons I believe, and must be permitted to maintain, that the conduct of Mr. Pitt in March, 1801, is free from all ambiguity, and open to no just imputation, but guided from first to last by the same high sense of duty as distinguished his whole career.'-vol. ij. pp. 311-313.

Whether Pitt was right or wrong, his change of conduct was intelligible enough. In February, 1801, he had to consider which was the least evil—that Addington should become Minister, or that the Catholics of Ireland should think that they had been deceived by their Government. In April the question had wholly changed. The notorious illness of the King had set all suspicions of bad faith at rest; and a change was threatened far more formidable in its results, and far more irremediable in its character, than the accession of Addington to office. The question which he had then to decide was, whether it was better that the Catholics should wait till the King's death, or that the King should be driven mad. As the event has proved, England would have flourished, whichever horn of the dilemma had been chosen. At the time, however, it had been proved by experience that the Catholic claims could have been postponed without danger; whereas the dangers of a Regency were untried and unknown. There had been no Regency in English history since the Reformation. In French history the experiment of a Regency had been exhaustively tried, but not with results of a character to encourage imitation. In any case, whatever the expediency of the question may have been, Mr. Pitt will be forgiven by most men for having declined deliberately to drive into insanity an aged Sovereign, whose confidence and intimacy he had uninterruptedly enjoyed for the period of seventeen years, merely for the purpose of hastening by a short space the relief of the Catholics from a grievance that was in a great measure sentimental.

His conduct, upon this as upon most other occasions, appears in the brightest light when it is contrasted with the conduct of Mr. Fox. As long as we compare it with what might theoretically have been done, or with what we, judging after the event, would have been inclined to recommend, portions of it may seem open to doubt. But when we compare it with what was actually done by the idol of a whole school of statesmen, we see how high Mr. Pitt soared above the highest ideal of Liberal politicians. Mr. Pitt pressed the King while he was in office, and spared him



when he had left office. Mr. Fox took precisely the opposite course. As long as he was in opposition, no words that he could use could be too strong in denouncing the religious scruples of the King and his supporters. The mention of the Coronation Oath was one of the most disgusting pieces of impudence and folly he had Even so late as the year 1805, he was virtuously indignant with Mr. Pitt because no Catholic Relief Bill had been recommended from the throne-'a subject so important, that if it be not speedily taken into our consideration, no honest man can say there is anything like stability and security to that part of the empire.'* A year passed, and most unexpectedly he found himself in office. Čount Stahremberg, the Austrian minister, very naturally asked him whether he did not feel a difficulty respecting the Roman Catholic Question. “None at all,' said Fox; “I am determined not to annoy my Sovereign by bringing it forward.' † The seals of the Foreign Office had exercised a marvellous virtue in quickening the loyalty which had slumbered for so many years.

Pitt's self-imposed exile from office did not last very long. Perhaps it was that he had been too well used to power to bear to see it for long in other and weaker hands. Perhaps it was that he listened too readily to the suggestions and innuendoes of his political friends, who were less tolerant of inactivity even than himself. Certain it is that his hearty support of the Addington Government grew beautifully less with each succeeding year. In 1801 he was almost enthusiastic in his championship of the promoted Speaker. In 1802 there were only occasional clouds between the two former friends. In 1803 Pitt treated Addington with distance, refused him his advice, and pointedly abstained from commending him in Parliament. In 1804 he joined with Fox and Grenville to throw him out. When Addington gave way in consequence of this combined attack, Pitt attempted to bring his new allies into office, and to include in his Cabinet all the existing Parliamentary talent of the country. But the King's aversion to Fox was too strong to be overcome. He could not forgive either his share in the corruption of the Prince of Wales, or the open support which he had given to the Jacobins. Pitt pressed it on him with great earnestness, but the King stood firm. As soon as Pitt saw that the King would rather fall back upon the Addington Government than assent to any combination that should include Fox's name, he gave way. Lord Grenville, for some inexplicable reason, preferred to cast in his lot with the new ally with whom he did not agree, rather than

* Jan, 15.

† Life of Lord Sidmouth, ii. 435.

« AnteriorContinuar »