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William Pitt The Younger

Prime Minister 1783 - 1801, and 1804 - 06

William Pitt the Younger was born in 1759, the "Annus Mirabilis" when Britain was conquering a world wide empire, under the supposed direction of his father William Pitt. Young William grew up with politics, and after becoming a Cambridge undergraduate at 14, and training as a lawyer, he entered Parliament as MP for Appleby in 1781. Pitt then refused offers of minor office, claiming he was destined for higher things. In most circumstances this would have served only to annoy people. But incredibly Pitt was chancellor by 1782, and prime minister by 1783, at the age of 24. Following this breathless rise to prominence Pitt then had the wisdom to see that progress in parliamentary reform could not be similarly rapid. While his predecessor the Earl of Shelburne had tried to force through reform, Pitt took Shelburne's ideas and introduced them piecemeal. Rather than abolishing redundant or worthless offices, Pitt would quietly wait for the death of the holder before acting. Pitt also had to deal with the situation facing Britain following the American War of Independence. America's loss was expected to be catastrophic. But economist Adam Smith, and former prime minister Shelburne had been arguing otherwise. They said that Britain could make more money out of trade with a newly independent America than it could through futile attempts to tax restive colonists. William Pitt the Younger was a representative of the new way of economic thinking. And his view seemed bourne out in an immense upsurge in British production and trade. The old world view was one of military conquest of resources, with the aim of gaining a monopoly over them. The new view accepted that trade required vigorous independent countries to trade with, and peace in which to do it. Pitt wasn't only forward thinking in his economic views. He also gave vigorous support to ending the slave trade. Britain was the only country in the world committed to this, with Royal Navy squadrons stationed off west Africa to intercept slave trading ships.


William Pitt the Elder had believed in winning a monopoly on economic resources through territorial conquest. His son was in tune with the new economic realities of the day which held that trade flourished best in times of peace. For the first ten years of his administration Pitt had peace, and Britain boomed. A.D. Harvey calls these years "one of the most completely successful ten years in the history of British government" (History Magazine May 2009). Witnessing the economic benefits of avoiding war, the younger Pitt, with youthful optimism, predicted that peace was the new world order. At the beginning of 1792, after ten successful years, Pitt cut taxation, and felt able to reduce the size of the Royal Navy by 2000 men. He looked forward to the next twenty five years of peace, which would save the country £25 million in unneeded military expenditure. Unfortunately these forecasts were wrong. The French revolutionary wars were about to break out in continental Europe. In August 1792 France declared war on Austria and Prussia, Louis XIV was deposed, and the British ambassador was withdrawn from Paris. By the following January Louis XIV had been executed, and France had declared war on Britain.



Napoleonic era fortifications at Fort Amherst

Peter Douglas Brown claims that as a war leader Pitt the Younger was not so effective (see The Prime Ministers Vol 2). It is true that unlike his father Pitt the Younger saw no sense in war, and could never put his heart into it. War disrupted the trade which he hoped would lead to universal prosperity and happiness. Hopes of tax cuts had gone, and 1796 saw the first imposition of income tax. Ironically, however, the war with Revolutionary, and then with Napoleonic France was to leave Britain as the only nineteenth century superpower. Continental trade suffered more severely than British trade. Britain also had the advantage of an advanced system of public borrowing which allowed the British government to spend out of all proportion to its tax revenue (see British Credit In The Last Napoleonic War by E.L. Hargreaves). This combined with the remarkable British Industrial Revolution led to Britain defeating France and becoming the world's most powerful nation in the nineteenth century. But Pitt, in the midst of a struggle he was not comfortable with, must have felt that success was difficult to appreciate. As well as disruption to trade, the war also forced Pitt into pushing through union with Ireland, which became one of the milestones in Britain's unhappy relationship with its neighbour. An Irish rebellion in 1798, and an attempted French invasion of Ireland turned back by the Royal Navy, convinced Pitt that union between Britain and Ireland was essential to British security. By 1801 Pitt had pushed through his controversial union of Britain and Ireland. But he paid a high price. It seems that Irish catholics were promised full rights in return for union, with Pitt hoping to persuade Parliament to follow up on this rash promise after union had been finalised. These promises, however, proved impossible to fulfill, partly because George III was now in a very poor mental state, and the idea of rights for catholics only seemed to worsen his condition. Pitt dared not press the issue and be accused of endangering the king. By now Pitt was exhausted and probably disillusioned. He resigned on 3rd February 1801, standing aside while Henry Addington took over for two years.



"England Expects" flag message on HMS Victory at Portsmouth Dockyard

Pitt, however, was a natural leader and could not stay on the sidelines indefinitely. He briefly returned to power early in 1804. Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, but Pitt's plan to build a European alliance against France fell apart when the French defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz in December 1805. It was after this battle that Pitt pointed at a map of Europe and gave his famous command "roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years".

Pitt did not live long after this. He had drunk heavily all his life, and it is possible that at the age of 46 the effects of alcohol finally caught up with him. On 23rd January 1806 Pitt died, in the middle of a war for which his talents did not really suit him. He was not a warrior, but an energetic administrator, who worked hard to enhance trading conditions. William Pitt the Younger was a sensible man who lived in a crazy world.