William Pitt the Younger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

If Robin Reilly, author of a biography of Major-General James Wolfe and three studies of Wedgwood pottery, does not offer readers any startling revelations about William Pitt the Younger, he does offer them a briskly written, balanced, accessible account of Pitt’s personality, his parliamentary successes and failures, and his human strengths and weaknesses. If the book has a weakness it is that Reilly at times assumes that the reader understands many of the people, places, and events mentioned, while at other times he goes into considerable detail explaining who is who and what is what. William Pitt the Younger, therefore, is not a beginner’s book. Ideally, the reader should approach this volume with background knowledge of the complicated parliamentary debates and issues common to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

William Pitt, son of the “Great Commoner,” the First Earl of Chatham, was reared as an aristocrat. As a child, Pitt used to be taken on holiday excursions which were more pageants than tourist jaunts; everywhere people would greet the Earl and his family with cheers and shouts. Yet Reilly is quick to point out that such attentions did not “spoil” young Pitt, who, as son of the second most powerful man in England, had every possibility of being spoiled. Rather than a narcissistic, idle young man of pleasure, Pitt was remarkably stable and ethical. Thin and pale as a child, he suffered from one disease after another, but his suffering apparently only made him determined to excel in life. From the first, Pitt was a skilled speaker, and later he became an equally adept writer; his extraordinary mental capacity and his keen powers of observation and analysis set him apart from other children his age.

More significantly, Pitt not only grew up in a household in which politics was continually spoken of, but he also took a precocious interest in affairs of state. As one of his tutors, Edward Wilson, observed of Pitt in a letter written to his wife, “He will go to Pembroke [College, Cambridge], not a weak boy to be made a property of, but to be admired as a prodigy.” Wilson further said that “His parts are most astonishing and universal. He will be perfectly qualified for a wrangler before he goes. . . .” Young Pitt did well at Cambridge, as Wilson predicted, obtaining an M. A. degree in 1776. It was his visits to Westminster parliamentary debates, however, that sparked Pitt’s interest far more than his studies at Cambridge. He was particularly impressed by his Parliamentarian father’s “electrifying presence” and oratorical skill.

Reilly also places young Pitt within his historical context, providing information about such matters as the taxation of the American colonists’ stamps and tea, the uprisings in the colonies which led to war, the peace made with America, the end of Britain’s hold on her colonies, her subsequent decline in international prestige, and finally, her struggles with revolutionary, regicidal France and France’s supporters in Parliament. He describes major crises such as the Warren Hastings’ affair involving the East India Company and the attempts of William, Prince of Wales, to seize the crown from his father, George III, who suffered from periodic bouts of insanity.

Pitt, coming into office as Prime Minister in 1784 after the fall of Lord North and James Fox’s Coalition, led a nation still suffering from the misadventure in North America and feeling disjointed, dispirited, and fearful of becoming a “second-rank” power in world affairs. Pitt was...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)