The Shelburne Ministry only lasted long enough to conclude the final peace with the United States; for in the opening of 1783 it was overthrown by the most unscrupulous coalition known in our history, that of the Whig followers of Fox with the Tories who still clung to Lord North. Never had the need of representative reform been more clearly shown than by a coalition which proved how powerless was the force of public opinion to check even the most shameless faction in Parliament, how completely the lessening of the royal influence by the measures of Burke and Rockingham had tended to the profit, not of the people, but of the borough-mongers who usurped its representation. Pitt's renewed proposal of Parliamentary Reform was rejected by a majority of two to one. Secure in their Parliamentary majority, and heedless of the power of public opinion without the walls of the House of Commons, the new Ministers entered boldly on a greater task than had as yet taxed the constructive genius of English statesmen.
To leave such a dominion as Warren Hastings had built up in India to the control of a mere company of traders was clearly impossible; and Fox proposed to transfer the political government from the Directors of the Company to a board of seven Commissioners. The appointment of the seven was vested in the first instance in Parliament, and afterwards in the Crown; their office was to be held for five years, but they were re-moveable on address from either House of Parliament. The proposal was at once met with a storm of opposition. The scheme indeed was an injudicious one; for the new Commissioners would have been destitute of that practical knowledge of India which belonged to the Company, while the want of any immediate link between them and the actual Ministry of the Crown would have prevented Parliament from exercising an effective control over their acts. But the real faults of this India Bill were hardly noticed in the popular outcry against it. The merchant-class was galled by the blow levelled at the greatest merchant-body in the realm: corporations trembled at the cancelling of a charter; the King viewed the measure as a mere means of transferring the patronage of India to the Whigs. With the nation at large the faults of the bill lay in the character of the Ministry which proposed it.
To give the rule and patronage of India over to the existing House of Commons was to give a new and immense power to a body which misused in the grossest way the power it possessed. It was the sense of this popular feeling which encouraged the King to exert his personal influence to defeat the measure in the Lords, and on its defeat to order his Ministers to deliver up the seals. In December 1783 Pitt accepted the post of First Lord of the Treasury; but his position would at once have been untenable had the country gone with its nominal representatives. He was defeated again and again by large majorities in the Commons; but the majorities dwindled as a shower of addresses from every quarter, from the Tory University of Oxford as from the Whig Corporation of London, proved that public opinion went with the Minister and not with the House. It was the general sense of this which justified Pitt in the firmness with which, in the teeth of addresses for his removal from office, he delayed the dissolution of Parliament for five months, and gained time for that ripening of national sentiment on which he counted for success.
When the elections of 1784 came the struggle was at once at an end.
The public feeling had become strong enough to break through the corrupt influences which commonly governed its representation. Every great constituency returned supporters to Pitt; of the majority which had defeated him in the Commons a hundred and sixty members were unseated; and only a fragment of the Whig party was saved by its command of nomination boroughs.
When Parliament came together after the overthrow of the Coalition, the Minister of twenty-five was master of England as no Minister had been before. Even the King yielded to his sway, partly through gratitude for the triumph he had won for him over the Whigs, partly from a sense of the madness which was soon to strike him down, but still more from a gradual discovery that the triumph which he had won over his political rivals had been won, not to the profit of the crown, but of the nation at large. The Whigs, it was true, were broken, unpopular, and without a policy, while the Tories clung to the Minister who had "saved the King." But it was the support of a new political power that really gave his strength to the young Minister. The sudden rise of English industry was pushing the manufacturer to the front; and all that the trading classes loved in Chatham, his nobleness of temper, his consciousness of power, his patriotism, his sympathy with a wider world than the world within the Parliament-house, they saw in his son. He had little indeed of the poetic and imaginative side of Chatham's genius, of his quick perception of what was just and what was possible, his far-reaching conceptions of national policy, his outlook into the future of the world.
Pitt's flowing and sonorous commonplaces rang hollow beside the broken phrases which still make his father's eloquence a living thing to Englishmen. On the other hand he possessed some qualities in which Chatham was utterly wanting. His temper, though naturally ardent and sensitive, had been schooled in a proud self-command. His simplicity and good taste freed him from his father's ostentation and extravagance. Diffuse and commonplace as his speeches seem, they were adapted as much by their very qualities of diffuseness and commonplace as by their lucidity and good sense to the intelligence of the middle classes whom Pitt felt to be his real audience. In his love of peace, his immense industry, his despatch of business, his skill in debate, his knowledge of finance, he recalled Sir Robert Walpole; but he had virtues which Walpole never possessed, and he was free from Walpole's worst defects. He was careless of personal gain. He was too proud to rule by corruption. His lofty self-esteem left no room for any jealousy of subordinates. He was generous in his appreciation of youthful merits; and the "boys" he gathered round him, such as Canning and Lord Wellesley, rewarded his generosity by a devotion which death left untouched. With Walpole's cynical inaction Pitt had no sympathy whatever.