“Do you remember, William, at university, I used to sing?”
His first three years at Cambridge had been so lonely. There were few others his age, 14 upon arrival, and, in spite of the life of study to which they were supposed to dedicate themselves, few others of his focus or intelligence.
It was that which separated him, far more than his age, from the other young scholars around him. He knew he was considered arrogant, having an air of superiority -- and the random remarks he heard from others, especially the sons of well established Earls or noble Dukes, confirmed it was his most common first impression -- but he also didn’t know how to change it. He was more intelligent than most of his fellows, younger sons studying for holy orders for which they had neither the inclination nor the temperament, and the exceptional ones who sparkled with a brilliance greater than his own often lacked the discipline to harness those talents and guide them down a road to successful resolution.
Then Wilberforce had appeared, and suddenly, there was more for him at Cambridge.
Their first year, it was he who showed Wilberforce the common clubs and places for students to gather. While he himself only rarely indulged in strong drink or some of the rather odd games and activities popular in such places, they were also warm rooms with nooks where he could take advantage of the bright light to read his Latin and Greek without wasting candles of his own.
In his second year, Wilberforce had inherited, become wealthier than Pitt in a mere two funerals. It was then that he truly learned to value his friend. As a rich man, Wilberforce was invited everywhere, and Wilberforce accepted no invitation which didn’t include Pitt. The one time someone had tried to insinuate something unclean about their relationship -- it had taken Pitt nearly two days to link his studies in Greek with the act some had accused them of -- Wilberforce, sweet Wilberforce who could barely swat a fly even then, had offered the man a duel. The man’s friends had made pretty apologies and excuses of drunkenness and taken the obviously fuddled accuser away.
“A duel, William?”
“It was unlikely that he’d accept the challenge, and if he had, I would have suggested we duel with brooms.”
“You took a risk, William, a great one.”
Wilberforce had looked at him with all his great warmth and said, “True friendship is rare, William, too rare to allow others to make crude slanders.”
In that one moment, he would have followed Wilberforce into hell, sure that his friend would return him safely to this world. Wilberforce had walked Pitt back to his college before whirling out the gate and running the half mile to his own.
If he were asked about his memories of those years at university, Pitt thought, running would play a large part. They ran, racing against each other as much younger boys are wont to do. They ran between their colleges or to the library or the river. In summer, they swam naked in the Cam with many of their fellows, but Wilberforce who’d grown up along the sea coast, could outlast any of them in the water.
And he sang. There were clubs where songs were forfeits for wagers, clubs where they were contests, but he shone best as part of his college’s choir. Lifting his voice to God, for God, transformed William Wilberforce. For the first time, Pitt understood why people listened to music.
The most important thing about their friendship was its reciprocity. Wilberforce brought Pitt to the attention of a wider circle and that circle taught him wit and debate, but Pitt was able to steer Wilberforce through the politics of the university. Pitt showed his friend how to judge a man’s usefulness, though he made it clear that none should ever be valued purely for those purposes. Thanks to his father’s time as prime minister, Pitt was an excellent judge of men’s characters and politics.
There was one memorable conversation in a private room Wilberforce had paid for. There were six of them. Two had been early friends of Pitt when he first arrived in Cambridge. Wilberforce had taken over his life, in some ways, but these men continually repaid the faith Pitt reposed in them. The other two were acquaintances, both had fathers who served in Parliament in pocket borough seats.
“You can’t really oppose the current system,” Grantham said. “It clearly works for the best benefit of England.”
He saw Wilberforce taking in enough breath for a half hour long retort, and, with a minute wave of his hand asked his friend to allow him to speak.
“Perhaps it does. But we are not merely England are we? The Act of Union with Scotland and our long stewardship of Wales argues that we should know them and their needs, not merely our own.”
Ballard, the other acquaintance, said, “Should one then consider the needs of one’s wife or, as we are all bachelors, one’s horse?”
Pitt smiled. “You reckon without Wilberforce who, soul of kindness that he is, indeed sees to the needs of his horses more than the needs of himself. Animals show willing for him because he’s considerate of them.”
“Are you suggesting a Scotsman is as intelligent as a horse?” Grantham snickered.
“I’m suggesting that neither breeding nor intelligence is the primary standard by which men should be judged.”
The other five had stared at him, even Wilberforce. “If we don’t allow ways for men to climb ladders to better success, they revolt as the thirteen colonies have. How much better might it have been to allow thirteen, or even one, member of Parliament from the Americas than to allow them to bleed us of our adventurous young men or the gold to pay mercenaries. Did you read their Declaration of Independence? They specifically mentioned the mercenaries as a proximate cause for all the bloodshed.”
Lewes, who had yet to speak said, in his lilting Welsh accent, “Then surely they should not have thrown tea in the harbor at Boston or refused shipments in New York and Philadelphia.”
“Why not,” Wilberforce asked, finally getting a word in. “They can feed themselves. It might take some bartering and future favors for everyone to have enough bread and cheese to live on, but it can be done. Can we do the same without trade?”
Pitt watched the other men while they thought this through before catching Wilberforce’s eye and giving him a nod. “By not granting them some form of say on their taxes and customs, we’ve given them a unifying force. Had we allowed their Continental Congress -- as an example, merely -- to help us levy taxes, the chances are excellent that Great Britain would not be in debt, for not only would they have stayed British citizens, and thus we would not be losing our gold to war, they would pay the duties and taxes which were levied and be contributing to our wealth.”
“But they’re rabble,” Grantham said. “We force our subjects here to pay their taxes and customs duties.”
“And what does that get us but marred faces and maimed hands? Think on it, gentlemen. Lowering the duties sufficiently would decrease smuggling substantially, pay off the debt, and refill the king’s coffers.” Pitt turned to his friend, “Wilberforce, you know sailors.”
“Yes, William. Hull is a seaport and my family’s wealth comes from water rather than land.” He tilted his head toward Grantham and Ballard, both sons of Earls.
“Do they like smuggling?”
Wilberforce smile lit his face. “A question no one’s asked them, not until you bade me to last vacation. And the answer is no. I made as certain as I could that their answer came not just because I was a shipowner. But the stories they told of having to run aground in the dark, often losing men either to the sea or to double dealing by the men who meet them, sounded fearful for any man. Nearly all I spoke to would rather put into a safe harbor with a light and a harbor master and the protection of others. It’s only when the duties become onerous, that the risk becomes worthwhile.”
Pitt continued, “We taxed the colonists’ tea and they began to drink coffee. We taxed their newspapers and they printed their own, often with better looking forgeries of the official stamp than the real seals had.”
This got a chuckle from the others, and the conversation had become more general until, over a late punch, Wilberforce began to sing. He and Lewes exchanged songs and even harmonized on one or two before the rest decided that their beds were calling to them.
That night, a night where he got people of influence to think about Parliamentary Reform and taxation, told Pitt that he was on the right path, that Parliament was his ultimate calling, as it had been for his father. But the reason, it was preserved in the amber of memory, was the sound of William’s voice singing clearly.
“Do you remember, William, at university, I used to sing?”
Pitt paused before smiling warmly and saying, "I do."