A Blupete Biography Page

William Pitt

His father was the prime minister of England for different periods of time beginning in 1756 and ending in 1768; indeed, William Pitt, senior, known in history as Chatham, was at the pinnacle of power when his second son, William was born in 1759. William's mother, Lady Chatham was the sister to George Grenville who had his turn as the prime minister from 1763 through to 1765. With such parents, with such family, the younger Pitt was born to be a politician.1

Though he was never sent off to a formal school -- from his youth he was under the tutelage of his father -- at 14 years of age, William was sent to Cambridge as a "classical scholar." With the death of his father, William, the younger son was left with a limited income.2 He determined to go to the bar and was called at Lincoln's Inn. For a short time he practised law on the "Western Circuit."3 Soon, however, William was to come to the attention of old friends of his father. One of them, James Lowther, gave William one his borough seats (Appleby); thus William Pitt entered the House of Commons during January, 1781, at the very young age of twenty-two (as his critics were to taunt: "a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care"). On February 26th, 1781, the young William Pitt was to make his maiden Speech.4 Burke heard the speech and was to declare, "It is not a chip off the old block, it is the old block itself."5 William Pitt was then to catch a huge political updraft. The Tory Government of Lord North was then tottering under the disasters in America. With North and key ministers having been turned out of office, there was to be a dearth of suitable men to fill the high offices of government. Those who were still in power advised the king to call on Pitt, no matter his age, he was the man most acceptable to all: he had a seasoning that went much beyond his years and the public knew well the name, Pitt. Though wisely reticent at first (on the theory, I suppose, that one should always say no to the first offer no matter how attractive) Pitt came around to accepting the position as was officially offered by the king. In December of 1783, William Pitt was appointed by the king as "First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer," viz., the prime minister of Great Britain. He was then but twenty-four years of age; and, so, the youngest Prime Minister ever known.6 He was to hold this high position for the next eighteen years.

William Pitt, like his father before him, was at the head of England during momentous times. Because of his success of leading Great Britain through the The Seven Years War, the father had brought his country to great heights of international power and supremacy. There then ensued, within the decade, the American Revolution which was to greatly embarrass the island nation. The son came into power at a time when the loss of the American colonies was just then, in 1783, being formalized by the Paris Peace Treaty. What William Pitt wanted, was to see Great Britain out of this most expensive confrontation with its former American colonies; his post-war policy was to consolidate, pay off her bills, to bring Britain back to prosperity, and to keep her out of foreign wars. For ten years he pursued that policy though there were many in Britain, aristocrats all, who pressured Pitt into responding militarily to events that were then unfolding in France.

The French court which had been the envy of and model for foreign courts, was, both literally and figuratively -- bankrupt. There was great turmoil amongst the common men of France. A bloody revolution, the French Revolution came about; and the absolute monarchy and its attending aristocratic order which had reigned in France, collapsed. William Pitt looked on, determined not to get involved. The time for England between July 1789 and January 1793 were "flat and prosperous" to be compared with "the contemporary stress and tumult in Europe." As Pitt's biographer, Lord Rosebery was to express it, "The history of England ... during this period hardly fills a page." Pitt with "dogged determination" ignored the French Revolution.7

During 1793, a series of events took place in quick succession such that Pitt could not continue with a policy that had been followed during the previous ten years. On January 21st, Louis XVI was beheaded. George the Third of England sent the French ambassador packing. Diplomatic relations were severed. France invaded England's ally, Holland. Then, on February 1st, France declared war on England.

Thus it was that this most pacific and commercial of ministers, William Pitt was to find himself confronted with a war of the very first magnitude. Pitt's policy during the ensuing years to the Peace of Amiens (1802) "was twofold: it was a naval policy and a policy of subsidy."8 Unlike his father, the younger Pitt had no desire, general like, to conduct the war from the prime minister's office; he was first and foremost a manager of finances. That he managed "without crushing commerce by taxation is evident from the fact that ... imports and exports went on mounting during the war in spite of deficient harvests with reassuring elasticity."9

The English nation was, certainly in the beginning, not fully behind the war effort. Fighting Frenchmen was practically in the blood of every true Englishmen -- they had been doing so for centuries -- but, for many, this particular war was not so much a war against the French as it was against liberty, itself. Voltaire, the very "embodiment of the 18th-century enlightenment," with his writing, inspired not only his native countrymen but reformers beyond the borders such as were to be found in increasing numbers, in England. Voltaire led the charge against organized religion, fanaticism, intolerance and superstition; his cry: Ecrasez l'infâme! ("Crush the infamous thing!") Edward Gibbon took the other side of the question, as did Edmund Burke, viz. that revolution, as was unfolding in France, spelt nothing but violence and destruction for all. Gibbon wrote:

"... our tranquillity has been clouded by the disorders in France ... the revolution, or rather the dissolution of the kingdom, has been heard and felt in the adjacent lands. I beg leave to subscribe my assent to Mr. Burke's creed on the revolution of France. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I [Gibbon, the avowed atheist] can almost excuse his reverence for church establishments. [However, we] should mutually acknowledge the danger of exposing an old superstition [viz. we are all equal] to the contempt of the blind and fanatic multitude. ... The fanatic missionaries of sedition have scattered the seeds of discontent in our cities and villages ... [the people are] infected with the Gallic frenzy, the wild theories of equal and boundless freedom."10
It was these "fanatic missionaries of sedition" which William Pitt turned to fight off. He could not put up with them while trying to fight off Napoleon at the same time. If Englishmen spoke out criticizing government policy, though they say they are but arguing for Parliamentary Reform, then, Pitt announced, they were taking the side of France a country with which England was at war. Habeas Corpus was suspended11 and editors, nonconformists and radicals were rounded up and prosecuted for treason. There was, for example, in 1793, the trials of the "Reform-martyrs," Thomas Muir (1765-99) being one, who, with others, was transported to Botany Bay. In 1794, there was the trial of The Twelve Reformers: among whom were Thomas Holcroft, Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwal. The Twelve Reformers were brought to trial on the charge of high treason; they were, however, acquitted amid much excitement. The people were getting mad, even to the extent that the king was pelted and shot and his coach destroyed during his ride to open parliament.12 This was to bring on further suppression in the form of the Treasonable Practices Act and Seditious Meetings Act. The first made the business of getting a conviction much easier by dispensing with certain procedural and evidentiary requirements. The second act was to forbid public meetings where there was more than fifty people involved where such a meeting took place without the superintendence of a magistrate.13

Pitt's historical reputation, is, as Lord Rosebery writes, [together with his father] "the most conspicuous English Ministers of the eighteenth century." Pitt, the younger, was conspicuous as an incomparable manager of men and finances; so too, as a man who would resort to harsh measures, as we have seen in respect to the civil liberties of Englishmen.14 Pitt is also conspicuous in history as the man who abolished the Irish parliament.

In 1801, Great Britain and Ireland come together under one legislative body. In June, a hundred Irish members became part of the House of Commons; and, 28 temporal and four spiritual peers took their seats in the House of Lords.15 This bill, by both parliaments, was "passed by purchase."16 "No Irish patriot can regard the Union as other than the sale of his Parliament, justifiable or unjustifiable according to his politics ..."17 At the time it was thought by Pitt that the union would, in the face of the very real threat of France invading Great Britain, that with one British Parliament there would be but one line, and, the Catholic majority which held such sway in the Irish Parliament would be reduced to a minority in the larger parliament. What Pitt promised in return was that Ireland should have free trade and Catholic relief.18 Once the union was put through, however, Pitt was prevented by the political forces in England to deliver on his promises. "Catholic Emancipation waited for thirty, and Tithe Reform waited for near forty, embittered and envenomed years." Pitt resigned, thinking he would be called back, but the king let him go, a case as Lord Rosebery put it of "genius giving away to madness."19

Thus Pitt took his choice of retirement. However, on May 18th, 1804, a grand effort (yet again) being intended by Great Britain and her allies to defeat Napoleon; Pitt was recalled as the prime minister. It was the same day that Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French.20 The story of England's fight with Napoleon is not one that ends with this further concerted effort, indeed it was not to conclude until we come to Waterloo a number of years later, a story which we will work into our larger history, in time. But the story of William Pitt can now be brought to an end. His health, a problem since childhood, was now to seriously slip. He was to hear of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in October of that year, 1805, whereby both the French and Spanish navies were annihilated, with the result that the danger of an invasion of England was brought fully to an end. On the other hand, that December he was to get the very bad news of the Battle of Austerlitz (Austerlitz is a place located in modern day Czechoslovakia) a battle by which Napoleon decisively defeated the armies of Russia and Austria, each with its emperor at its head. The news of Austerlitz was to strike Pitt a mighty blow; he was not to get over it. William Pitt, though a man of only forty-seven went to death's door, and, on 23rd of January, 1806, passed through it.

Through the years Pitt was continually broke and in debt. In the last few years of his life a number of people tried to get him to take money, as a gift21: he would not. He was obliged to sell his homes, and, for a while was even in danger of being arrested for his debts. Lord Rosebery, after pointing out that Pitt enjoyed a large salary for many years and that he "had no expenses except those of homely hospitality," continued:

"... his ideas of public and private finance differed widely. We are told that, when he could not pay his coachmaker, he would order a new carriage, as an emollient measure. And so with the other tradesmen. His household was a den of thieves."
As stated, Pitt died on the 23rd of January, 1806. He was buried at Westminster Abby alongside his father.22

Lord Rosebery was to refer to the usual epithet applied to Pitt: haughty23. Another used the word eloquence, another knowledge, and another toil, Pitt himself thought his greatest virtue was patience. Pitt paid homage to no man; he paid it to his country. George Macaulay Trevelyan was to write:

"He left her in desperate straits, amid the ruins of those dynastic alliances by which he had three time striven in vain to make head against the French nation. He left her shorn of her ancient freedom of speech and thought, and that harmony of classes that had once distinguished "merry England". He left her with her foot on Ireland prostrate and chained. But he left her recovered from the dishonour and weakness of the state in which he had found her a quarter of a century before. He left her with Canada and India so established that they would not go the way of the lost Colonies. He left her able and willing to defy the conqueror of Europe when all others bowed beneath the yoke. He left her victor at sea, freshly crowned with laurels that have proved immortal. And if in the coming era, Englishmen were divided class from class by new and bitter griefs, they had also a new bond of fraternity in the sound of Nelson's name.24


[1] There was two other children born to the Pitts, John, the elder of the two sons, and a daughter, Lady Hester. William and John were to leave no issue. Hester married her cousin Lord Stanhope.

[2] The insolent prerogative right of primogeniture, a feudal notion, gave everything to the first born son, viz. John succeeded to all the wealth and title upon his father's death. Primogeniture was introduced into England at the Norman Conquest. In fact the old English custom was to equally partition the lands. Primogeniture worked a considerable hardship on the children, on less, of course, one was the first born male. The only "virtue" of primogeniture, down through the generations, was that it kept the great estates together. Because of primogeniture, sons who were not first born often went into military service; or became ordained and took positions within the Church of England; or, as did the younger Pitt, go to the law.

[3] Bigham, The Prime Ministers of Britain (Toronto: Goodchild Co., 1922) at p. 87.

[4] Pitt is known as an orator during a time when there was an assembly of brilliant orators. Lord Rosebery wrote, "He seemed as by intuition to hit the precise point, where, having attained his object as far as eloquence could effect it, he sat down." [Lord Rosebery's biography, Pitt (London: MacMillan, 1891) at p. 270.]

[5] As quoted by Bigham, op. cit., p. 88; and, see too, Lord Rosebery's biography, op. cit., p. 15. Burke's overall thought of William Pitt, however, was that "Pitt had great parts but a little soul, -- none of his father's characteristic grasp of mind." [Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (Arlington House, 1967) fn at p. 192.]

[6] As quoted by Bigham, op. cit., p. 88.

[7] Pitt, op. cit. at pp. 95-6. The attitude was summarized by Chatterton: "France is reforming herself ... as we have done. She is making rather a noise about it, but this is merely a family squabble, and we have neither the right nor the intention to meddle with our neighbours concerning their domestic differences." [A Life of William Pitt, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930) p. 236]

[8] Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., at p. 148.

[9] Ibid., p. 155.

[10] Gibbon's Autobiography (Oxford University Press, nd) at pp. 216-7.

[11] The suspension of the Habeas Corpus continued till 1801. (Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., at p. 164.)

[12] To add to Pitt's problems, in 1797, the crews of the Channel Fleet at Portsmouth rose in rebellion. "The mutiny lasted five weeks and spread all over the world." (Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., at p. 134.) Fortunately, the Dutch or the French did not know of these naval problems. As Lord Rosebery points out (p.135) it was England's darkest hour; two invasions had been attempted and a third was pending.

[13] See Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., pp. 164-5.

[14] In these years, Great Britain came as close to be overrun by foreign troops as ever she was to be. Napoleon, who gazed often out to the English Channel, was to say all that was needed was but for the French fleet to be in charge of the Channel for twelve hours: it never was to happen.

[15] See Green, vol. X, p. 188.

[16] Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., at p. 191.

[17] Ibid., at p. 193.

[18] Ibid., at pp. 196-7.

[19] Ibid., at p. 229.

[20] Ibid., at p. 247.

[21] For example the merchants of London wanted him to take £100,000; the king £30,000 from the privy purse.

[22] Green quotes Lord Wellesley (vol.10, p.218): "What grave contains such a father and such a son? What sepulcher embosoms the remains of so much human excellence and glory?' Lord Rosebery was to compare the two, father and son. (At pp. 284-5.) The son outshone the father. They were both "the most conspicuous English Ministers of the eighteenth century"; but their characters were decidedly different. "Each Pitt possessed in an eminent degree the qualities the other most lacked: one was formed by nature for peace, the other for war. Chatham could not have filled Pitt's place in the ten years which followed 1783: but from the time the war was declared, the guidance of Chatham would have been worth an army." (At p. 285.) (Green makes the comparison in vol. 10, at pp. 127-9.)

[23] John Richard Green was to write that Pitt's "haughty self-esteem" was "in every movement of his tall, spare figure, in the hard lines of a countenance which none but his close friends saw lighted by a smile, in his cold and repulsive address, his invariable gravity of demeanor, and his habitual air of command." (In vol. 10, at p. 121.) Chatterton wrote (op. cit., at p. 123): "That clear direct look, as strait as a spear and as hard as steel, that typical Pitt forbidding manner which kept all but the very few from intruding into his friendships, that natural dignity and easy assumption of superiority which instantly demanded for him, attention, that biting wit and unflinching courage which were manifest immediately he warmed up to his subject." Lord Rosebery, gives an interesting insight into William Pitt. He never married, but he had a tight clutch of friends and family around him; they were referred to as the "the firm" or "the gang." His sister Hester and her children, it would appear were very much part of "the gang"; their husband and father Lord Stanhope (1753-1816) giving them no time whatsoever, and was quite against the policies of his brother-in-law, the Prime Minister. In any event, William Pitt was quite different when he was with "the gang." One of the stories recounted was the time that Lady Hester had managed to blacked her brother's, the prime minister's face while some of the members of the family pinned him down, much to the delight of the children. The struggling was interrupted by callers, members of his cabinet it would seem, including Castlereagh. He excused himself from his family and went into another room to deal with his ministers. The transition of Pitt's manner was spectacular; Pitt, this tall figure that seem to stretch to the ceiling, entered the room and these powerful men who came calling "bent like willows before him." (Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., pp. 263-4.) Incidently, one of the children in his "gang" was his sister's girl, Lady Hester Lucy (1776-1839) who went on to lead a Bohemian life by leaving England and living with the Bedouins. She left England in 1810, a few years after her illustrious uncle's death. She had been William Pitt's housekeeper for a period of years up to the time of his death. Lord Rosebery writes: "She led him an uneasy life with her terrible frankness of speech; but he bore all with composure, and she repaid him with rare devotion of that vain, petulant nature, which fretted off into something like insanity." (Rosebery's, Pitt, op. cit., p. 265.)

[24] British History in the Nineteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green; 1924) at p. 114.


Found this material Helpful?

Custom Search
[Introduction -- Book 1 (1500-1763)]
[Introduction -- Book 2 (1760-1815)]
[History Jump Page]

Peter Landry