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REPLY TO WALPOLE ON A CHARGE OF YOUTH
DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
MARCH 6, 1741.
It was during this debate [on search warrants for seamen] that the famous altercation took place between Mr. Pitt and Horatio Walpole, in which the latter endeavored to put down the young orator by representing him as having too little experience to justify his discussing such subjects, and charging him with "petulancy of invective," "pompous diction," and "theatrical emotion." The substance of Mr. Pitt's reply was reported to Johnson, who wrote it out in his own language, forming one of the most bitter retorts in English oratory. It has been so long connected with the name of Mr. Pitt, that the reader would regret its omission in this work. It is therefore given below, not as a specimen of his style, which was exactly the reverse of the sententious manner and balanced periods of Johnson, but as a general exhibition of the sentiments which he expressed.
SIR,--The atrocious crime of being a young man, which the honorable gentleman has, with such spirit and decency, charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny, but content myself with wishing that I may be one of those whose follies may cease with their youth, and not of that number who are ignorant in spite of experience. Whether youth can be imputed to any man as a reproach, I will not, sir, assume the province of determining; but surely age may become justly contemptible, if the opportunities which it brings have passed away without improvement, and vice appears to prevail when the passions have subsided. The wretch who, after having seen the consequences of a thousand errors, continues still to blunder, and whose age has only added obstinacy to stupidity, is surely the object of either abhorrence or contempt, and deserves not that his gray hairs should secure him from insult. Much more, sir, is he to be abhorred, who, as he has advanced in age, has receded from virtue, and becomes more wicked with less temptation; who prostitutes himself for money which he can not enjoy, and spends the remains of his life in the ruin of his country. But youth, sir, is not my only crime; I have been accused of acting a theatrical part. A theatrical part may either imply some peculiarities of gesture, or a dissimulation of my real sentiments, and an adoption of the opinions and language of another man.
In the first sense, sir, the charge is too trifling to be confuted, and deserves only to be mentioned to be despised. I am at liberty, like every other man, to use my own language; and though, perhaps, I may have some ambition to please this gentleman, I shall not lay myself under any restraint, nor very solicitously copy his diction or his mien, however matured by age, or modeled by experience. If any man shall, by charging me with theatrical behavior, imply that I utter any sentiments but my own, I shall treat him as a calumniator and a villain; nor shall any protection shelter him from the treatment he deserves. I shall, on such an occasion, without scruple, trample upon all those forms with which wealth and dignity intrench themselves; nor shall any thing but age restrain my resentment--age, which always brings one privilege, that of being insolent and supercilious without punishment. But with regard, sir, to those whom I have offended, I am of opinion, that if I had acted a borrowed part, I should have avoided their censure. The heat that offended them is the ardor of conviction, and that zeal for the service of my country which neither hope nor fear shall influence me to suppress. I will not sit unconcerned while my liberty is invaded, nor look in silence upon public robbery. I will exert my endeavors, at whatever hazard, to repel the aggressor, and drag the thief to justice, whoever may protect them in their villainy, and whoever may partake of their plunder. And if the honorable gentleman--.
[At this point Mr. Pitt was called to order by Mr. Wynnington, who went on to say, "No diversity of opinion can justify the violation of decency, and the use of rude and virulent expressions, dictated only by resentment, and uttered without regard to--"
Here Mr. Pitt called to order, and proceeded thus :] Sir, if this be to preserve order, there is no danger of indecency from the most licentious tongues. For what calumny can be more atrocious, what reproach more severe, than that of speaking with regard to any thing but truth. Order may sometimes be broken by passion or inadvertency, but will hardly be re-established by a monitor like this, who can not govern his own passions while he is restraining the impetuosity of others.
Happy would it be for mankind if every one knew his own province. We should not then see the same man at once a criminal and a judge; nor would this gentleman assume the right of dictating to others what he has not learned himself.
That I may return in some degree the favor he intends me, I will advise him never hereafter to exert himself on the subject of order; but whenever he feels inclined to speak on such occasions, to remember how he has now succeeded, and condemn in silence what his censures will never amend.
*Scanned for Classicpersuasion.org from the first edition of Select British Eloquence, edited with notes by Chauncey A. Goodrich (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1852)
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