William Pitt the Younger

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: One of the longest-serving prime ministers in British history, Pitt did much to restore stability to British politics in the aftermath of the American Revolution. He also strengthened the prime ministership, led the international opposition to Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and changed the constitutional relationship between Great Britain and Ireland.

Early Life

William Pitt the Younger was born May 28, 1759, at Hayes, Kent. He grew up in an intensely political environment. His father, William Pitt the Elder (created Earl of Chatham in 1766), was one of the preeminent politicians of the middle eighteenth century and, in 1759, was at the peak of his career thanks to his association with Great Britain’s greatest victories in the Seven Years’ War. Pitt the Younger’s mother, Lady Hester Grenville, was the sister of the second Earl Temple and George Grenville, both important politicians themselves. Pitt the Elder fostered his son’s interest in politics, and this became the younger Pitt’s preoccupation. Suffering from frail health, he was tutored at home before going to Cambridge University at the early age of fourteen. A younger son, Pitt trained for a legal career, but he retained a keen interest in politics and was present in the House of Lords in April, 1778, when his father collapsed in the course of his final speech. Pitt announced his intention of seeking election to Parliament before he attained the minimum age of twenty-one. He stood unsuccessfully for Cambridge University in 1780 but was elected early the following year for Sir James Lowther’s pocket borough of Appleby.

Pitt thus entered the House of Commons at twenty-one and soon attracted favorable attention with his measured criticisms of the North administration’s American policy, his advocacy of reform, and his calm and self-assured manner. After North was driven from office in 1782, Pitt was offered a junior position in the administration formed by the Marquess of Rockingham. Pitt respectfully declined, letting it be known that he would have a major office or none at all. When Rockingham died in July, 1782, the second Earl of Shelburne was asked to form a new government. The new prime minister had been a close ally of Pitt’s father, and the young man accepted the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Tall and lanky, Pitt had a thin, pointed nose that delighted caricaturists. Although he had a small circle of close friends, he was reserved in manner and was more often the object of admiration than affection. He was a lifelong bachelor with few interests outside politics or affairs of state.

Life’s Work

Pitt rose to prominence during the greatest crisis in late eighteenth century British politics. The ministry to which he belonged faced the difficult task of negotiating a peace settlement to the American Revolutionary War. When finally negotiated, the draft treaty faced strong opposition from the unlikely combination of Lord North, who had been prime minister during most of the war, and Charles James Fox, who had been one of North’s greatest critics and who now led most of Rockingham’s former followers. Though many were shocked by such an unholy alliance, Fox and North between them controlled a majority of the House of Commons. In February, 1782, they defeated the treaty. Shelburne’s government resigned, and George III was forced to call in Fox and North. The king hated the Fox-North coalition, as the new ministry was known, but was forced to tolerate it. He played a waiting game, giving the coalition minimal support and looking for an opportunity to rid himself of it. His chance came in late 1783, when the coalition introduced its East India Bill. The controversial measure passed the Commons with a comfortable majority. When it reached the Lords, George III permitted Pitt’s cousin, the third Earl Temple, to say that the king would regard any lord supporting the bill as a personal enemy. The upper house threw out the bill, and the king dismissed the coalition. It was a move of questionable constitutionality and one that the king would not have chanced without the prospect of an alternative administration. This he had, thanks to Pitt, who had secretly agreed to participate in the formation of a new ministry.

Named First Lord of the Treasury, Pitt was, in effect, prime minister at the tender age of twenty-four, the youngest in British history. He faced a hostile House of Commons controlled by his enemies. Nevertheless, with the king’s support, he stood his ground, and, though suffering defeat after defeat in early 1784, he refused to resign. Eventually, he secured the minimum of legislation necessary to keep government going, and in March, 1784, the king, at Pitt’s request, called new elections. Pitt and his supporters won handily. While no eighteenth century government ever lost a general election, the degree of Pitt’s victory was increased by a public opinion still offended at the union of Fox and North.

After the election of 1784, Pitt was secure in Parliament. During the next nine years, he did much to restore stability to British politics and enjoyed considerable legislative success in the process. The first major statesman to acknowledge the ideas of Adam Smith, Pitt gained a reputation as a master of government finance. He continued the reorganization of the Treasury, overhauled the existing system of customs and excise taxes, established a “sinking fund” for the gradual reduction of the national debt (which had grown enormously as a result of the war with America), and had a commercial treaty negotiated with France.

Like his father, Pitt was a convinced imperialist, and his administration oversaw a number of important developments overseas that showed that the loss of the American colonies did not mean the end of the British Empire. In 1785, Pitt secured his own East India Act, which gave the British government much more control over the political activities of the East India Company. Great Britain also became more active in the Pacific. Trade was expanded with China, and settlement of Australia (as a penal colony) began. In North America, the old colony of Quebec was reorganized by the Canada (or Constitutional) Act of 1791. This established separate colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, each with an elected assembly as part of its government.

Pitt, however, was not always successful, especially as a reformer. In 1785, he introduced a bill calling for a modest measure of parliamentary reform. The Commons defeated it, 248 to 171. Other initiatives for freer trade with Ireland and for an end to the slave trade also failed. Pitt took the reverses in stride. His calm outward appearance was little ruffled by such personal disappointments.

By the late 1780’s, Pitt was the...

(The entire section is 2799 words.)