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Friday, September 7, 2018

William Pitt: On His Refusal To Negotiate With Bonaparte

William Pitt (the younger) [1759-1806]  was the son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. For about half of his comparatively short life he was prac­tically the ruler of England, serving as Prime Minister most of this time. His greatest task, of course, was to lead England in its struggle with Napoleon, and it is part of an address on this subject, delivered in the House of Commons, on February 3, 1800, that is presented here.

That Bonaparte has an interest in making peace is at best but a doubtful proposition, and that he has an interest in preserving it is still more uncertain. That it is his interest to negotiate, I do not indeed deny. It is his interest, above all, to engage this country in separate negotiation, in order to loosen and dissolve the whole system of the confederacy on the Continent, to palsy at once the arms of Russia, or of Austria, or of any other country that might look to you for support; and then either to break off his separate treaty, or, if he should have concluded it, to apply the lesson which is taught in his school of policy in Egypt, and to revive at his pleasure those claims of indemnification which may have been reserved to some happier period.

This is precisely the interest which he has in negotiation. But on what grounds are we to be convinced that he has an interest in concluding and observing a solid and permanent pacification? Under all the circumstances of his personal character, and his newly acquired power, what other security has he for retaining that power but the sword ? His hold upon France is the sword, and he has no other. Is he connected with the soil, or with the habits, the affections, or the prejudices of the country? He is a stranger, a foreigner, and a usurper. He unites in his own person everything that a pure republican must detest; everything that an enraged Jacobin has abjured; everything that a sincere and faithful royalist must feel as an insult. If he is opposed at any time in his career, what is his appeal? He appeals to his fortune; in other words, to his army and his sword. Placing, then, his whole reliance upon military support, can he afford to let his military renown pass away, to let his laurels wither, to let the memory of his trophies sink in obscurity? Is it certain that with his army confined within France, and restrained from inroads upon her neighbors, that he can maintain, at his devotion, a force sufficiently numer­ous to support his power? Having no object but the possession of absolute dominion, no passion but military glory, is it to be reckoned as certain that he can feel such an interest in permanent peace as would justify us in laying down our arms, reducing our expense, and relinquishing our means of security, on the faith of his engagements? Do we believe that, after the conclusion of peace, he would not still sigh over the lost trophies of Egypt, wrested from him by the celebrated victory of Aboukir, and the brilliant exertions of that heroic band of British seamen, whose influence and example rendered the Turkish troops invincible at Acre? Can he forget that the effect of these exploits enabled Austria and Prussia, in one campaign, to recover from France all which she had acquired by his victories, to dissolve the charm which for a time fascinated Europe, and to show that their generals, contending in a just cause, could efface, even by their success and their military glory, the most dazzling triumphs of his victorious and desolating ambition?

Can we believe, with these impressions on his mind, that if, after a year, eighteen months, or two years of peace had elapsed, he should be tempted by the appearance of fresh insurrection in Ireland, encouraged by renewed and unrestrained communication with France, and fomented by the fresh infusion of Jacobin principles; if we were at such a moment without a fleet to watch the ports of France, or to guard the coasts of Ireland, without a disposable army, or an embodied militia capable of supplying a speedy and adequate reënforcement, and that he had sud­denly the means of transporting thither a body of twenty or thirty thou­sand French troops; can we believe that, at such a moment, his ambition and vindictive spirit would be restrained by the recollection of engage­ments or the obligation of treaty? Or if, in some new crisis of difficulty and danger to the Ottoman Empire, with no British navy in the Mediter­ranean, no confederacy formed, no force collected to support it, an oppor­tunity should present itself for resuming the abandoned expedition to Egypt, for renewing the avowed and favorite project of conquering and colonizing that rich and fertile country, and of opening the way to wound some of the vital interests of England, and to plunder the treasures of the East, in order to fill the bankrupt coffers of France—would it be the interest of Bonaparte, under such circumstances, or his principles, his modération, his love of peace, his aversion to conquest, and his regard for the independence of other nations—would it be all or any of these that would secure us against an attempt which would leave us only the option of submitting without a struggle to certain loss and disgrace, or of renew­ing the contest which we had prematurely terminated, without allies, with­out preparation, with diminished means, and with increased difficulty and hazard?

Hitherto I have spoken only of the reliance which we can place on the professions, the character, and the conduct of the present First Consul; but it remains to consider the stability of his power. The Revolution has been marked throughout by a rapid succession of new depositaries of pub­lic authority, each supplanting its predecessor. What grounds have we to believe that this new usurpation, more odious and more undisguised than all that preceded it, will be more durable? Is it that we rely on the par­ticular provisions contained in the code of the pretended constitution, which was proclaimed as accepted by the French people as soon as the garrison of Paris declared their determination to exterminate all its ene­mies, and before any of its articles could even be known to half the coun­try, whose consent was required for its establishment?

I will not pretend to inquire deeply into the nature and effects of a con­stitution which can hardly be regarded but as a farce and a mockery. If, however, it could be supposed that its provisions were to have any effect, it seems equally adapted to two purposes: that of giving to its founder, for a time, an absolute and uncontrolled authority; and that of laying the certain foundation of disunion and discord, which, if they once prevail, must render the exercise of all the authority under the constitution im­possible, and leave no appeal but to the sword.

Is, then, military despotism that which we are accustomed to consider as a stable form of government? In all ages of the world it has been at­tended with the least stability to the persons who exercised it, and with the most rapid succession of changes and revolution. In the outset of the French Revolution its advocates boasted that it furnished a security for­ever, not to France only, but to all countries in the world, against military despotism; that the force of standing armies was vain and delusive; that no artificial power could resist public opinion; and that it was upon the foundation of public opinion alone that any government could stand. I believe that in this instance, as in every other, the progress of the French Revolution has belied its professions; but, so far from its being a proof of the prevalence of public opinion against military force, it is instead of the proof, the strongest exception from that doctrine which appears in the history of the world. Through all the stages of the Revolution military force has governed, and public opinion has scarcely been heard. But still I consider this as only an exception from a general truth. I still believe that in every civilized country, not enslaved by a Jacobin faction, public opin­ion is the only sure support of any government. I believe this with the more satisfaction, from a conviction that, if this contest is happily ter­minated, the established governments of Europe will stand upon that rock firmer than ever; and, whatever may be the defects of any particular con­stitution, those who live under it will prefer its continuance to the experi­ment of changes which may plunge them in the unfathomable abyss of revolution, or extricate them from it only to expose them to the terrors of military despotism. And to apply this to France, I see no reason to be­lieve that the present usurpation will be more permanent than any other military despotism which has been established by the same means, and with the same defiance of public opinion.

What, then, is the inference I draw from all that I have now stated? Is it that we will in no case treat with Bonaparte? I say no such thing. But I say, as has been said in the answer returned to the French note, that we ought to wait for “experience and the evidence of facts” before we are convinced that such a treaty is admissible. The circumstances I have stated would well justify us if we should be slow in being convinced; but on a question of peace and war, everything depends upon degree and upon comparison. If, on the one hand, there should be an appearance that the policy of France is at length guided by different maxims from those which have hitherto prevailed; if we should hereafter see signs of stability in the government which are not now to be traced; if the progress of the allied army should not call forth such a spirit in France as to make it probable that the act of the country itself will destroy the system now prevailing; if the danger, the difficulty, the risk of continuing the contest should in­crease, while the hope of complete ultimate success should be diminished; all these, in their due place, are considerations which, with myself and, I can answer for it, with every one of my colleagues, will have their just weight. But at present these considerations all operate one way; at present there is nothing from which we can presage a favorable disposition to change in the French councils. There is the greatest reason to rely on powerful cooperation from our allies; there are the strongest marks of a disposition in the interior of France to active resistance against this new tyranny; and there is every ground to believe, on reviewing our situation and that of the enemy, that, if we are ultimately disappointed of that com­plete success which we are at present entitled to hope, the continuance of the contest, instead of making our situation comparatively worse, will have made it comparatively better.

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