William Pitt (known as Pitt the Younger) was the second son of William Pitt, earl of Chatham. He was an intellectually precocious if delicate boy, educated privately and at Cambridge. From a young age his father took charge of his upbringing, encouraging his son’s obvious skill at public speaking. He also introduced him to politics and although the boy qualified as a lawyer, he was always destined for a political career.
The young Pitt entered Parliament in 1781, making his immediate mark upon the Commons. He was highly critical of Lord North (then prime minister), whom he blamed for the loss of America, and he supported both economic and parliamentary reform. He was also a firm believer in the king’s rights to select or dismiss ministers; he disliked party and held that the secret of British prosperity lay in the continuation of a balance between king, Lords and Commons (established after 1688).
Pitt became chancellor of the Exchequer under Shelburne’s Whig government but turned down George III’s invitation to head the ministry after this PMs fall, biding his time until a more propitious opportunity came along.
During the crisis over the India Bill Pitt finally agreed to become the Tory prime minister (Britain’s youngest), on the understanding that the George III showed his hostility towards the then Fox-North ministry – to show where the king’s confidence lay. Pitt took office in December 1783, facing an opposition majority in the Commons. Nevertheless, with the king’s continued support he gradually won over opinion and called the opposition’s bluff over their threat to stop supplies – allowing him to distance himself from the unpopular Shelburne. Pitt won a decisive victory in the general election of 1784.
During peacetime Pitt achieved much in the way of economic and commercial reform – but his proposal for a moderate reform of Parliament was defeated. He was forced to drop his scheme for free trade with Ireland and his plans to improve sea defences at Portsmouth and Plymouth.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Pitt showed sympathy towards reform in France but determined to stay out of European troubles if possible. However, the outbreak of war in 1793 was a great personal disaster and he became known as ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’ – a symbol of Britain’s resistance to the French republic.
Pitt’s Irish policy led to the 1798 revolt and he attempted to solve the issue by the Act of Union (1800). But George III rejected the Catholic emancipation that Pitt has promised as a condition, giving Pitt no alternative but to resign in 1801.
He returned to office in 1804, forming an alliance with Austria, Russia and Sweden against Napoleon – but this was shattered at Austerlitz. His health had been declining for some time and he died on hearing this terrible news, saying “Oh, my country! How I leave my country!”.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "William Pitt (The Younger)" https://englishhistory.net/georgian/william-pitt-the-younger/, February 8, 2022