The English statesman William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) introduced important financial and administrative reforms, girded England for war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and attempted to solve the perennial Irish problem.
The second son of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, the younger William Pitt was born on May 28, 1759, at the family estate of Hayes, near Bromley, Kent. It was a year of triumph for his father, and for England, which was victorious on land and on sea against the French. Thus his birth appeared auspicious—and Pitt fully lived up to the expectations that he excited in family and acquaintances. His accomplishments at least equaled those of his illustrious father.
Although in early childhood Pitt suffered from frail health, almost from the beginning he showed great intellectual promise and an interest in politics. Pitt later outgrew his physical frailty, but he always retained the sense of personal destiny that his abilities and interests early inspired and that his family encouraged. As a youth, Pitt was painfully shy; in adulthood he did not lose this quality, but he hid it behind a facade of cold aloofness. Those who did not know him well assumed that his coldness revealed his true nature, and his reputation has survived as a man utterly lacking in human sympathy and feeling. That picture is a false one, however, for in his personal relationships with friends and family he showed himself warm, amiable, and witty.
His Political Stance
Politically, Pitt was a pragmatist. He believed in reform for the sake of honest, humane, and efficient administration rather than for the sake of any abstract theory. For him politics was the art of the possible, and he believed that it was better to do the best one could in any given situation than surrender office (and thus lose the chance of serving one's country) because of an insistence on the impossible. Although he was scrupulously honest regarding his own conduct and financial dealings (he rejected an offer of £100, 000 because he feared it might prejudice his political independence), and although he was contemptuous of those who sold their votes and influence for money or advancement, on more than one occasion he resorted to the then current methods of jobbery and bribery in order to win support on important issues. Pitt's political convictions were rooted in the 18th-century English constitution: he always upheld the right of the monarch to choose his ministers and to participate in government, and at the same time he always maintained the privileges of Parliament in the legislative process and in the governing of the country. Pitt foresaw the eventual supremacy of the House of Commons over both Lords and King, but he did not do anything to bring about that situation. Pitt sometimes displayed a deep, almost uncanny, insight, but in only one respect might he be deemed a visionary: he had an abiding faith in the greatness that Britain could achieve.
In 1781 Pitt became a Member of Parliament from a pocket borough. His eloquence in debate soon distinguished him, and he was favorably compared with his late father. Ambitious, self-confident, and eager both to show his abilities and to serve his country, he did not leap at his first opportunities, which were minor offices. He chose instead to preserve his political independence and to wait for more responsible positions. His chance came in July 1782, when he accepted the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Shelburne's ministry. During his chancellorship Britain signed preliminary peace treaties with the United States, France, Spain, and Holland. Parliamentary opposition to these treaties caused Shelburne to resign his office in February 1783. A month later Pitt also resigned.
Pitt became head of the ministry on Dec. 19, 1783, when he took office as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was then only 24 years old, and he lacked a majority in the House of Commons, which greeted the announcement of his appointment with laughter. His first task was to win the confidence of the Commons. He already possessed the support of the King and the House of Lords. Pitt's eloquence and steadiness of purpose favorably impressed the Commons, and these qualities together with the skillful politicking of John Robinson gained Pitt an overwhelming victory at the polls in 1784. With the support of a majority in Commons, Pitt then embarked on the important business of leading Britain into a period of hitherto unparalleled prosperity and strength. In this endeavor he was not, as Lord North had been, the compliant tool of the King. For his part, George III refrained from interference, seemingly happy to have found at last a strong minister whom he could trust.
Pitt made his greatest achievements between 1784, when he won a parliamentary majority, and 1789, when the outbreak of the French Revolution brought new problems that eventually led to war. In the realm of finances, Pitt's contemporaries accounted him little less than a wizard, and his accomplishments in this area seem to justify their esteem. Through various reforms and through reducing wherever possible corrupt and inefficient practices, he achieved a surplus in the national budget. His greatest financial success was his establishment in 1786 of the sinking fund to pay off the national debt. In the field of colonial administration Pitt brought about reforms in the governing of both India and Canada.
Not all of Pitt's efforts met with success. Several of his attempts at very necessary reforms encountered so great a weight of parliamentary or monarchical opposition that, recognizing the impossibility of pushing them through, he abandoned them. Others of Pitt's legislative failures—his unsuccessful attempts at parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, and the reform of the Poor Law, and the failure of much of his Irish policy—were owing to the temper of his times.
Pitt's Later Career
After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Pitt strove at first to maintain a British attitude of neutrality, but the revolutionary excesses of behavior and of thought could not remain forever isolated in France. France declared war on England in 1793, and this crisis was accompanied by a republican scare that led, among other coercive measures, to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in 1794. Many Whigs joined the government in this vote, only a few diehards remaining with Charles James Fox in opposition. The remainder of Pitt's career grew increasingly worrisome and was chiefly occupied with winning the war against France.
One important concern apart from the French war, however, was the Irish problem. Pitt decided that parliamentary union of Ireland with England and Catholic emancipation (so that Roman Catholics could hold office) must be accomplished. He achieved the legislative union in 1800 with the aid of a massive program of outright bribery. But his plan for Catholic emancipation met with the King's adamant refusal. Pitt regarded it as so important that he would not remain in office in view of George III's objections. He accordingly resigned in March 1801.
His Last Years
For some time Pitt supported the ministry of his successor, but he eventually lost confidence in Henry Addington's ability. Pitt was recalled to office in May 1804 and helped to rededicate England to the struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte. But his long years of wartime service had undermined his health, and the news of the defeat of England's allies at the Battle of Austerlitz shattered Pitt completely. His health declined rapidly, and he died on Jan. 23, 1806.
Pitt left tremendous debts (the financial wizard had paid no attention to his personal accounts) but no children to pay them. He had never married. His devotion was solely lavished upon his country. His last words were of England: "Oh, my country! How I leave my country!"
Further Reading on William Pitt the Younger
The biography of Pitt by John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt (1969), is an outstanding work of scholarship which deals exhaustively with Pitt's early years, to 1789. A brief but thoughtful biography is John W. Derry, William Pitt (1962). Important older works include P. H. Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt (4 vols., 1861-1862), and Lord Rosebery, Pitt (1891). Studies of aspects of Pitt's career include the works of J. Holland Rose, William Pitt and National Revival (1911) and William Pitt and the Great War (1911), and D. G. Barnes, George III and William Pitt, 1783-1806 (1939). Two useful books for background reading are Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959), and J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Jarrett, Derek, Pitt the younger, New York: Scribner, 1974.
Reilly, Robin, William Pitt the Younger, New York: Putnam, 1979, 1978.