The popular phrase, “speak truth to power,” implies that power is hostile to truth and that power might benefit from giving truth a hearing.
It also suggests that the speaker runs some risk for speaking it.
People unafraid to speak truth to power are among the great heroes of history. They raise our standards and boost our courage. While tyrants fear them, the rest of us are inspired by them.
One whose name once inspired near-universal admiration in America but has since, sadly, slipped into history’s foggy mist is William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778).
Pitt is the man for whom Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is named. He masterminded Britain’s brilliant military victory in the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French & Indian War, (1756-63) and served as Prime Minister. Long after his death in 1778, he was revered in America and regarded in his own Britain as one of the country’s most distinguished statesmen.
By the 1760s, Pitt the Elder had evolved into a principled devotee of liberty and an eloquent foe of concentrated political power. In April 1763, King George III delivered a speech for which he was savagely criticized by journalist and Member of Parliament John Wilkes. The King issued a warrant for the arrest of Wilkes, but William Pitt took the risk of defending him without hesitation. British liberty, Pitt declared, required vigorous support for freedom of speech.
In 1766, Pitt rose to defend American colonists in the dispute with Parliament’s hated Stamp Act. “I rejoice that America has resisted,” he declared. “Three million people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest [of us].”
On January 20, 1775, he condemned the Coercive Acts enacted by Parliament the previous year. Aimed at punishing Massachusetts in general and Boston in particular for the famous Tea Party protest, the Acts ended local self-government and inhibited colonial commerce.
King George III, his ministers, and a large majority of Parliament were arrayed against Pitt on the matter of how to deal with the Americans. That did not deter the distinguished statesman from taking them on:
I will tell you plainly, my Lords: No son of mine, nor any one over whom I have influence, shall ever draw his sword upon his fellow subjects…I trust it is obvious to your Lordships that all attempts to impose servitude [on the American colonists], to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation, must be vain, must be fatal. We shall be forced ultimately to retract, while we can, not when we must. I say we must necessarily undo these violent and oppressive Acts.
Parliament voted 68-18 against Pitt’s position. British troops would not be withdrawn from Boston. American independence was declared the following year.
Pitt succumbed to gout in May 1778. As he had predicted, Britain lost the war. Most Brits came to regret it had ever been fought in the first place. Pitt spoke truth to power, but in this instance, power did not listen.
On the strength of his great father’s coattails, his son, William Pitt the Younger, became Prime Minister at the age of 24 in 1783 and served in that post for nearly 19 years.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.