William Pitt the Younger: Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister

Here was a statesman without equal.

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The late 18th century was the period of such titanic figures as George Washington, Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte. This was an age of revolutions, industrial and political, a time of tumult and an era guided by statesmen without equal in the chapters of history. One such man was William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), Britain’s youngest Prime Minister at just 24.

Pitt would go on to be this country’s longest-serving premier since Robert Walpole. It was Pitt who led Great Britain against Napoleon, who engineered the Act of Union with Ireland and who helped to develop the modern office of Prime Minister. In effect, modern British politics is his legacy.

Youth

Pitt was born into politics. His father, William Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham, had himself served as Prime Minister in the years 1766-1768. Pitt’s mother, Hester Grenville, was sister to former prime minister George Grenville. From a young age Pitt would have observed his father entertaining the statesmen of the land, inculcating within him a sense of duty that was to define his own premiership. His powers of speech and command of the written word, evident in his correspondence that survives to this day, set him apart from his fellow peers.

Aged 14 Pitt would matriculate at Cambridge University. There he would forge a lifelong friendship with William Wilberforce, celebrated to this day for leading the movement against slavery. Pitt maintained a close-knit circle of friends; to those outside he could appear cold and aloof, but to those who knew him he was charming and warm in equal measure. Indeed, Wilberforce was to describe Pitt as the ”wittiest man” he had ever known.

Throughout his life Pitt never married nor had children (leading to speculations regarding his sexuality) but his dedication to the service of his country could be questioned by none, least of all his fiercest rivals. The story goes that a wealthy Frenchman offered his daughter in marriage to Pitt and Pitt replied, ”I am already married to my country”. His biographer, the former Foreign Secretary William Hague, suggests that power, not women, remained Pitt’s chief object throughout life.

Ill health defined much of that life and interrupted Pitt’s studies at Cambridge. His doctor recommended a daily consumption of port, excessive drinking of which probably contributed to his early death. Little wonder that Pitt was known to his contemporaries as the ”three-bottle-man”.

Power

Becoming a Member of Parliament at just 21, the young Pitt was a focus of attention in the Parliament of 1781. Of Pitt’s maiden speech, Lord North, then Prime Minister, said it was without rival. Charles James Fox, that Whig grandee and a formidable statesman in his own right, was eager to recruit Pitt into his circle but throughout his political career Pitt described himself as an ”independent”. For Pitt, Parliament had neither time nor desire for parties and factions.

From the outset Pitt marked himself out as a formidable orator, passionately attacking the government’s stance in the ongoing American War of Independence. During this time, British politics was dominated by such formidable figures as Charles James Fox, Frederick North and Edmund Burke. The fact that the young Pitt rose above them all testifies to the determination and zeal that lay at the heart of his being.

In 1783, at the age of 24, Pitt was invited by King George III to lead a new government. In 1783, his was a country in decline. The loss of the American colonies had fundamentally shaken Britain’s prestige. The cost of the conflict had created a seemingly insurmountable national debt. Exports were falling. The public decried a Parliament they saw as being consumed by corruption. Pitt recognised this popular feeling of decline, and sought to harness it, effectively making him one of the first premiers to utilise popular opinion. But numerous obstacles lay in his path, chief of all his age.

Indeed, upon hearing that the King had sent for Pitt to be made Prime Minister, the Commons reacted with laughter. The Rolliad satirised Pitt thus:

Above the rest, majestically great,

Behold the infant Atlas of the state,

The matchless miracle of modern days,

In whom Britannia to the world displays

A sight to make surrounding nations stare;

A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care.

Many believed that Pitt was but a caretaker leader; someone the King had turned to in desperation to keep his rival – Charles James Fox – out of 10 Downing Street until someone more suitable could be called for.

Pitt would serve seventeen consecutive years in office. Once secure, Pitt went on to centralise British control of India, to attempt a reform of Parliament so as to remove the system of rotten boroughs (a system Pitt himself had benefited from) and reducing the national debt. Serving simultaneously as both Prime Minister and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Pitt would prove himself a skilled administrator of the nation’s finances, an ironic fact given that his personal finances were often perilous. To quote Hague:

”His aptitude for learning rapidly and his prodigious attention to mathematics as a boy led naturally on to a mastery of financial detail which many onlookers found dazzling.”

The financial situation Pitt inherited was alarming to say the least. As Hague explains in his biography of Pitt, a country with annual tax revenues of about £13 million was paying £8 million a year interest on a national debt which now amounted to £243 million. Through his financial administration, however, Pitt succeeded in reducing the debt to £170 million, a reduction of c. 30%.

In power,” writes the historian Simon Montefiore, ”Pitt displayed brilliant debating skills, remarkable administrative competence, and the sang-froid and ruthlessness required to build up power and win a landslide election.” All this was achieved despite Pitt’s youth, the suspicion of the politicians who surrounded him and the lack of a parliamentary majority from the outset.

Revolution

It was the outbreak of Revolution across the Channel in 1789 that was to dominate Pitt’s premiership. On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was executed. Pitt commented:

”On every principle by which men of justice and honour are actuated, it is the foulest and most atrocious deed which the history of the world has yet had occasion to attest.”

Unlike others in Britain who welcomed the developments in France (with Charles James Fox branding the Fall of the Bastille as ”much the greatest event that ever happened”), Pitt appreciated that the status quo, as it existed at home and abroad, was at risk of faltering. Driven by fear of revolution spreading to Britain, Pitt suspended habeas corpus and instituted a subsequent reign of oppression that his critics castigated as constituting ”tyranny”. Tyranny or otherwise, Britain’s order remained intact. On February 1, 1793, Revolutionary France declared war on Britain.

Due to the limited size of the British Army, Pitt focused on using the Royal Navy to undermine France. The sheer cost of the war compelled Pitt to introduce Britain’s first income tax. Despite the efforts of Great Britain and her allies, the French continued to defeat the members of the First Coalition, which eventually collapsed in 1798.

In the same year, nationalists in Ireland attempted a rebellion, believing they could take advantage of Britain’s distractions. Following the suppression of the rebellion, Pitt engineered the 1800 Acts of Union, effectively making him the political father of union between Great Britain and Ireland. Pitt wished to consolidate said union via Catholic Emancipation – granting the same rights to Roman Catholics as enjoyed by Protestants. But this was to be his undoing.

On this issue Pitt’s  cabinet were of the contrary opinion and the King was adamant that no such concession could be made. Pitt, unable to alter the views of his monarch, resigned on 16 February 1801. Pitt was replaced as Prime Minister by his friend Henry Addington. When Addington proved unable to command parliamentary support, Pitt was invited again to 10 Downing Street, on 10 May 1804.

Across the channel, on 18 May, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France. His was the ambition to dominate Europe in her entirety. Leading Great Britain against the existential threat that was Napoleon, Pitt was nothing less than the Churchill of his day. To quote the historian Nick Lipscombe:

”By the end of the eighteenth century the threat of French invasion was a way of life. Nevertheless, it was Napoleon’s determination to succeed, where others had failed, that brought the terror of the Revolution from the cities and towns of France to the shores of England.”

The magnitude of the threat confronting Britain is made clear by the fact that Winston Churchill referenced the invasion threat in one of his most famous speeches:

When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, ‘there are bitter weeds in England.’ There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.”

Again, Pitt emphasized a naval strategy against Britain’s nemesis. In October 1805, Vice Admiral Nelson dealt the French a crushing blow in the Battle of Trafalgar, securing British naval supremacy for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. Victory at Trafalgar rescued Britain from a French invasion and created the opportunity for the landing of British forces in Europe, the very same forces who would eventually defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Commenting on the victory and his being called the ”Saviour of Europe”, Pitt famously said:

”I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.”

However, the Coalition collapsed following defeats at Ulm (October 1805) and Austerlitz (December 1805) at the hands of a seemingly invincible Napoleon. Upon hearing of Austerlitz, Pitt said regarding a map of Europe, “Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.”

Death

On 23 January 1806, an exhausted Pitt died in Putney, Surrey, aged just 46. According to one version, his last words were: ”O my country! How I love my country!” A year after his death, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, abolishing slavery in the British Empire, realizing one of Pitt’s personal ambitions. Pitt had been in office no less than 18 years and 343 days; a record unmatched by any of his successors to date. He was mourned by all, even by his chief political foe Charles James Fox, who reflected:

There was something missing in the world – a chasm, a blank that cannot be supplied.

Here was a statesman without equal. To Lord Minto, Pitt was ”the Atlas of our reeling globe”. His was the patriotism and energy that drove his country. His was an office he did not merely occupy but defined. Pitt did not simply lead Britain; he saved it. In the words of Wilberforce:

”For personal purity, disinterestedness and love of this country, I have never known his equal.”

 

 

 

 

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