William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from the painting by R Brompton
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from the painting by R Brompton

The old Whig connection which for a time had worked successfully in the days of the coalition between Pitt and Newcastle had been broken up. Even in those days, when its ranks included several men of marked ability and experience in affairs, it had not been productive of leaders. The Rockingham group represented the survival of that Whig tradition, but the individuals who formed it were for the most part comparatively young men of talent which could at the best be called respectable, and they were wanting in experience.

More conspicuously than ever the Govern­ment rested upon family connection; it carried little weight, and was regarded with little confidence. It was a makeshift Government, brought into being and preserved by the reluctant support of the king and the court party which the king had created, a support which was certain to be withdrawn as soon as the downfall of the ministry should be compatible with some alternative to the return of Grenville and Bedford. Pitt, although it was his own fault that he was not at the head of the govern­ment, chose somewhat ostentatiously to express mistrust of the men who for the most part would have been only too willing to submit themselves to his direct guidance.

Stamp Act and Declaratory Act
The ministers did not formulate a definite programme; it was not till the end of the year that they decided to reverse Grenville's American policy. In this decision they were guided mainly by the opinions of Pitt himself, who laid it down that the British parlia­ment had no- right to impose taxes, though it had the power of legis­lation for the colonies. Parliament did not meet till January 1766, when for the first time a new and notable figure ap­peared among its members - Rockingham's secretary, Edmund Burke. With the support of Pitt, the Government brought in and carried by substantial majorities a bill for the repeal of the Stamp Act; and, in spite, of his opposition, an accompanying Declaratory Act affirming the legal authority of parliament to impose taxation.

The latter, in fact, was passed merely in order to save the self-respect of parliament; it was a purely formal declaration, intended to be in practice a dead letter. During their brief tenure of power the ministry applied to America Walpole's principle of reducing tariffs, of which the Americans certainly could not complain, while its wisdom was demonstrated by the increased revenue which accrued. Smuggling in order to evade the reduced duties was not worth while; the lowered price following the lower duties extended the demand, and there was a very substantial increase in the quantity of goods on which duty was paid.

But there was no confidence between the Crown and the ministers. King George in the course of a single week had authorised first Rockingham to say that he was in favour of the repeal of the Stamp Act, and then a member of the court party, now known as the "king's friends," to say that he was opposed to it. He explained the matter to Rockingham by saying that while he was in favour of repeal as opposed to the simple retention of the Act, what he desired was not its repeal but its modification. But the incident was a most unmistakable sign that he had no intention of giving the ministry his countenance longer than he could help.

Pitt's Return
It became known that Pitt was ready to resume office on his own terms, and no longer on terms dictated by Temple. But Rockingham, on approaching him, found that his terms meant a dictatorship, and a reconstruction of the ministry to which Rockingham could not with honour make himself a party. Pitt would not recognise the Whig connection; he would not work in conjunction with Newcastle, who was no longer a power, or with some other members of the ministry, and he would bring in other men who could not assimilate with the Rockingham group. Some of the warmer personal/adherents of Pitt resigned, the administration came to an end, and once more Pitt returned to the helm.

Pitt's desire was to rule without party, to ignore party, ties altogether; and he collected round him a singularly heterogeneous group of ministers gathered from every quarter - members of Rockingham's ministry, personal adherents of his own, king's friends, and others. What he might have done with such a body in the plenitude of his powers we cannot say. Assuredly he had large designs.

The American question appeared to have been cleared out of the way. He would certainly have sought to re-invigorate the public services, which had achieved such a splendid efficiency under his previous regime, but had drifted rapidly towards decay under the Grenville policy of extreme retrenchment. He was certainly meditating the transfer to the Crown of the territorial sovereignty which the East India Company had acquired in India. But within a few months of his assumption of office the direction passed out of his hands. His popularity in the country and his personal effectiveness in parliament suffered grievously when the "Great Commoner," as he had hitherto been called, accepted a peerage, and was transferred from the representative chamber to the House of Lords with the title of Earl of Chatham.

But more serious still was the breakdown of his physical and intellectual powers, brought on by the gout of which he was an unhappy victim. His sufferings exaggerated this natural arrogance and irritability until he became almost intolerable as a colleague, and then incapacitated him altogether for taking any part in public business. After the first month of 1767 the ministry, of which Lord Grafton was the figurehead, ceased to be in any sense Chatham's ministry. The things that Chatham would have done were left undone; the things that were done were precisely the things that Chatham would have condemned.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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