William Pitt
William Pitt; drawing by David Levine

The eighteenth century was the great age of funeral monuments. When Westminster Abbey was packed two-deep with them, they invaded St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other cathedrals are fully stocked, and nearly every parish church has a monument or two to members of the local family. Most of them follow a common pattern. There is usually a statue with the departed great man in a Roman toga or posed dramatically to confront the approach of death. There is a long recital of the deceased’s virtues, perhaps accompanied by a list of his progeny. He is surrounded by cherubs proclaiming his achievements, as historians have sometimes done later. The purpose was no doubt to commemorate him. The result usually is to turn him literally into stone. His humanity has departed. He will never come back to life. Very occasionally a monument achieves the opposite. A man or a historical event stands before us still vital. We share the experience and come away knowing more instead of being glad that we have finished with the subject for ever.

Here are two books on eighteenth-century themes, both monumental in their way—over 700 pages in the one, over 400 in the other, and both too heavy to read in bed. But the effect of the two books is very different. The younger Pitt never comes to life. The Irish nation is triumphantly resurrected. The new burial of the younger Pitt is a sad affair. His life ought to make a fascinating story. He became prime minister at the age of twenty-four, which is astonishing in itself. He remained prime minister for seventeen years, a feat beyond any of his successors. He dominated the House of Commons by his personality and was, according to all accounts, an orator of the first rank, outshining even such luminaries as Burke, Sheridan, and Charles Fox. He raised England up after the loss of the American colonies, restored her finances, and established a new British Empire in India. He understood the doctrines of Adam Smith and gave a lead in Parliamentary reform. He founded the second Tory party, perhaps without meaning to do so. His life should be a record of great wonders.

In addition Pitt’s latest biographer is a historian of distinction. Mr. Ehrman wrote the two final volumes on Grand Strategy in the official British military history of the Second World War. These volumes were a remarkable achievement, handling every problem with mastery and providing a narrative which even the least expert could read with pleasure. Mr. Ehrman has other, more strictly historical works to his credit. His reputation as a scholar is beyond dispute. All the sources are firmly under his control. The present volume contains everything that is known about the younger Pitt during the years of peace. Perhaps this is the trouble. Everything is a deal too much. Time and again the younger Pitt disappears. The policy of the British government in Pitt’s period takes his place, and this policy had many dreary aspects. The affair of the Triple Alliance, for instance, was no doubt important in its time. Now it is as unexciting as the movements of a dead quadrille.

Pitt provides hard going for any biographer. From his earliest youth he was built up as a monument by his father, the great Earl of Chatham, and he turned a face of classic stone to the public. He never unbent, cared nothing for women, and rarely went into society. His private life was in strange contradiction with his public appearance. He loved horseplay, throwing cushions at his few close associates and jumping over chairbacks. He drank heavily and was one of the very few prime ministers to be manifestly the worse for drink in the House of Commons. Though the most meticulous of public financiers, he handled his own money with incorrigible carelessness. He was always insolubly in debt without having much to show for it.

A figure of stone himself, Pitt has proved a Medusa’s head for others, at any rate in Mr. Ehrman’s book. Where is poor George III, a puzzle-headed and conscientious character, teetering on the brink of madness? Here he is only the King, an important piece on the chessboard. Where is Charles Fox, whose charm bewitched contemporaries? Here he has become an Opposition leader, distinguished only by his mistakes. Nor does life stir on a wider field. When Pitt became prime minister, England had just lost a great empire in America. Surely English people were worried about this or, if they were not, this too was worthy of remark. Instead the American war is shrugged off, apparently a forgotten episode. Perhaps countries are really more prosperous without their empires—an experience certainly demonstrated at the present day. But it remains odd that the English should have been so cheerful at getting rid of the American colonies.


The great shadow of Sir Lewis Namier lies heavy over this book. Namier told us that George III was not trying to recover the lost powers of the Crown. He told us that Whig and Tory were empty terms, which had no real meaning in politics. He told us that ministries were maintained, and policies settled, by personal maneuvers of patrons and boroughmongers. There were no causes, no principles, only the shuffling of places and the pursuit of sinecures. Namier rejoiced at this. He believed that the political world was admirable only when it was uninteresting, and he wanted us to follow the eighteenth-century example, as we seem to have done. Administration, to use an Austrian catch-phrase, has taken the place of government. In Namier’s own works this did not matter. He was alive all right and supplied the fun which is an essential ingredient of all good history, even if only in knocking the life out of everyone else. But he left behind a featureless flat expanse. If eighteenth-century politicians were really contending over nothing worthwhile, why bother to read about them?

Mr. Ehrman has faithfully followed Namier’s teaching. His book is a work of high scholarship with every reference carefully entered in a footnote. It will prove invaluable as a work of reference. No topic is passed over—perhaps a legacy from the time when Mr. Ehrman was an official historian. The reader comes out better informed about many things which he did not want to be informed about. He will not come out wiser about the younger Pitt. In a perverse way I am glad about this. From sentiment and in complete ignorance, I have always been a Foxite. This book makes me admire Charles Fox more than ever. Fox was everything that Pitt was not, and that is high praise. Namier himself recognized the contrast. He told me that he had not pushed his work into the later eighteenth century because he would have encountered Fox, and Fox, he said, “believed in all the rubbish you believe in”—things like liberty and the rule of the people. Pitt, it is clear, did not believe in this way, and in the long run it is only belief in a cause which keeps a man’s memory alive. There’s an end to him: a stone figure who does not even come to supper.

Of course even the eighteenth century was not such a dead world as is claimed by its admirers. For proof we need only turn to Thomas Pakenham. Now here is a book which will make its readers sit up, a book devoted to great causes and brutal repression. Mr. Pakenham, though not a professional scholar, is a most admirable historian: rigorous in his pursuit of sources, admirably fair without being impartial, and with a gift for lively narrative. His book deals with one of the greatest and most forgotten episodes in Ireland’s troubled history. We remember the curse of Cromwell. We remember Parnell and the struggle for Home Rule. We remember the Troubles. It comes almost as a surprise to realize that in 1798 all Ireland blazed into a national revolution. Many hundred thousand Irishmen took to arms. Many thousands were massacred. The spirit of Ireland was crushed for years to come. Only a handful of patriots retained the fighting determination which had characterized the entire nation in 1798.

Irish independence seemed to have perished with the treaty of Limerick at the end of the seventeenth century. The national will revived with the example of the American revolution, and Ireland received a limited autonomy. The great French revolution brought a new stir of a more radical kind. These first Irish revolutionaries were democrats and nationalists. They knew little of the appalling poverty in which the Irish peasants lived. But, like the French Jacobins, they hoped to achieve their democratic aims with peasant support. Their instrument was the United Irishmen, an association of middle-class intellectuals and professional men. They were not concerned with the inferior position of the Roman Catholic church, which was the most immediate grievance of most Irishmen. Indeed many of the leading United Irishmen were Protestants or skeptics, and Protestant Belfast, later the stronghold of Unionism, was a radical center. Many Ulstermen, who resisted Home Rule in the twentieth century, counted among their forebears prominent rebels of 1798.

The United Irishmen reckoned on French support. Some of them went to Paris and were promised a French army of liberation. The national rising was to coincide with the arrival of this army under Hoche or Bonaparte. But Hoche died. Bonaparte went to Egypt. The British authorities who ruled Ireland took precautions. They brought in troops. They arrested the revolutionary leaders. It was too late. The Irish masses were astir. For when the Irish Jacobins recruited their secret army, they recruited peasants, and this changed the entire character of the movement. The peasants knew nothing about the Rights of Man. They were against the landlords and the Protestant ascendancy. What had begun as a democratic revolution turned into an agrarian revolt, reinforced by sectarian passion. The original impulse was never wholly lost. The vast chaotic forces of ill-armed peasants were usually directed by some worthy middle-class man, struggling to operate according to respectable Jacobin principles.


The plan for a coordinated rising broke down when the French army failed to appear. Instead there were risings, more or less spontaneous, first in one district, then in another. The British authorities were almost as confused as the rebels. Some of the military leaders were panic-stricken, some were indescribably brutal. Only a few, such as John Moore, appreciated that conciliation was the most effective weapon. The pattern was always the same. Each rising was initially successful and then dissolved into undisciplined anarchy, until overcome by regular troops. When the rising was almost over, the French arrived after all. General Humbert won his first battle and then found his wild allies not at all to his taste. He was greatly relieved to be defeated and taken prisoner by the civilized English—civilized no doubt in their treatment of the French, but not at all in their treatment of the Irish.

The risings were everywhere subdued. The peasants were massacred. The leaders were treated less harshly. The younger Pitt determined to have done with a separate Ireland once and for all. He carried the Union, hoping to follow it with Catholic emancipation. George III threatened to go mad and Pitt yielded to this threat. The Protestant garrison remained in control. The Roman Catholics remained discontented. The religious cleavage cut across national sentiment. Ireland was divided in spirit as it has remained to this day. The Irish leaders of the nineteenth century drew from the rising the moral that they must seek freedom by constitutional process and not by rebellion. In the end the I.R.A. revived the spirit of the United Irishmen and freed most of Ireland after a civil war. Other heroes took the place of the United Irishmen.

Yet the marks of 1798 could never be erased. In the Year of Liberty Ireland established her claim to be a nation. The Irish masses remained in subjection throughout the nineteenth century. They lost their language and what was left of their land. But they did not cease to be Irishmen. Another item was entered in the record of English dealings with Ireland. The younger Pitt and his Tory supporters claimed to be defending the liberties of Europe against the French. Yet the greatest national rising of the time was directed against English rule and looked to France for support. Many people came badly out of the story, and none worse than the British government in London with the younger Pitt at its head. He looked on the Irish trouble with well-bred indifference, as so many British statesmen have done since.

This Issue

April 9, 1970