The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 3

Author: William Pitt  | Date: 1741


The Retort to Walpole*

Much more, sir, is he to be abhorred, who, as he has advanced in age has receded from virtue and become more wicked with less temptation—who prostitutes himself for money which he cannot 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 pint. 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 tho I may, perhaps, 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 anything 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 mycountry 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 Pitt, called to order by Winnington, sat down. In the course of his protest, Winnington said :—"I do not, sir, undertake to decide the controversy between the two gentlemen, but I must be allowed to observe that no diversity of opinion can justify the violation of decency, and the use of rude and virulent expressions; expressions dictated only by resentment and uttered without regard to—"Whereupon Pitt jumped to his feet and called Winnington to order, saying :]

Sir: If this be to preserve order there is no danger of indecency from the most licentious tongue; for what calumny can be more atrocious, or what reproach more severe, than that of speaking with regard to anything but truth. Order may sometimes be broken by passion or inadvertency, but will hardly be reestablished by a monitor like this who can not govern his own passion while he is restraining the impetuosity of others. Happy, sir, would it be for mankind if everyone knew his own province; we should not then see the same man at once a criminal anda 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 which he intends me, I will advise him never hereafter to express 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 reform.

* This celebrated retort was made during the debate on Walpole’s bill for the encouragement and increase of seamen. As here given, it was furnished by Doctor Johnson to TheGentleman’s Magazine for November, 1741. The phrasing of the retort in the main is undoubtedly Johnson’s rather than Pitt’s. Long after the date of the speech, some one mentioned it in Johnson’s presence as superior to anything in Demosthenes, whereupon Johnson declared, "I wrote that speech in a garret in Exeter Street." The internal evidence bears him out, for in these reports Pitt, Walpole, Halifax, and Newcastle all speak alike. But the ideas are of course those of Pitt. The reply was not made to Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, but to his brother, Horace Walpole, the elder, who in answer to a speech Pitt had already made attacking Sir Robert’s administration, had said:

"Formidable sound and furious declamation, confident assertions and lofty periods may affect the young and inexperienced, and perhaps the gentleman may have contracted his habits of oratory by conversing more with those of his own age than with such as have had more opportunities of acquiring knowledge, and more successful methods of communicating their sentiments. If the heat of his temper, sir, would suffer him to attend to those whose age and long acqúatntance with business give them an indisputable right to deference and superiority, he would learn in time to reason rather than to declaim, and to prefer justness of argument and an accurate knowledge of the facts to sounding epithets and splendid superlatives, which may disturb the imagination for a moment, but leave no lasting impression on the mind. He will learn, sir, that to accuse and give proof are very different, and that reproaches inspired by vindictiveness affect only the character of him that utters them. Excursions of fancy and flights of oratory are indeed pardonable in young men, but in no other."


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Chicago: William Pitt, "I the Retort to Walpole*(1741)," The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 3 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 195–197. Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2023,

MLA: Pitt, William. "I the Retort to Walpole*(1741)." The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 3, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 195–197. Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Pitt, W, 'I the Retort to Walpole*(1741)' in The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 3. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.195–197. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2023, from