Prime Ministerial Exemplar: Studies of Pitt the Younger by Victorian Statesmen

Article excerpt

William Pitt the Younger was the yardstick by which prominent politicians of both parties in Victorian England measured their own aspirations and achievement. During his long tenure as prime minister of Great Britain (1784-1801 and 1804-6) when it was seeking to recover from the loss of the American colonies and then in the throes of the French and industrial revolutions, Pitt prescribed fiscal, administrative, and foreign policies which won bipartisan acceptance after his death. The Victorian consensus in favour of free trade and severe economy in administration rested on foundations laid down by Pitt, who was known as the Younger because of his equally famous father also called William, the earl of Chatham. The Younger Pitt established a stately style of oratory, less theatrical than his father's but still sometimes impassioned, piling up balanced clause upon clause, which continued to be regarded as classical more than a century later by that belated Victorian, Winston Churchill. Pitt set a standard of rectitude in private as in public life which struck his contemporaries as odd but which Victorians embraced as exemplary. HIS attempts to straighten out the strained relations between England and Ireland framed the Irish question for the ensuing century.

Paradoxically, the example of the Younger Pitt set the subsequent lines of partisan controversy as much as of bipartisan consensus. Praise or censure of the way in which he advocated and then abandoned various measures of reform divided Whig from Tory and Liberal from Conservative to the end of Queen Victoria's reign. In England if not in Ireland, even the debate on Home Rule which redrew the lines of partisan conflict toward the end of the nineteenth century continued to revolve around evaluation of Pitt's handiwork.

However commonly Pitt served as a reference point, Victorian politicians did not attempt full biographies of him. That task was handled, according to the fashion of the day, in a multi-volumed work, entrusted in his case to a descendent member of his family, the fifth earl Stanhope, (1) who was an accomplished historian of the eighteenth century. Macaulay wrote an influential essay on Pitt for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2) but Macaulay was more historian than politician. Stanhope's work, however, and preceding editions of the letters of Pitt's contemporaries, including his inveterate antagonist Charles James Fox, provided an opportunity for political luminaries to present their assessments of Pitt in the rival journals through which the governing elite sustained their internal debates, in particular the Edinburgh Review for the Whigs and the Quarterly for the Tories. Afterwards, during the controversy over Home Rule, when members of the new generation in Parliament were accepting commissions to write brief biographies of the leading statesmen of the eighteenth century, Lord Rosebery wrote one on Pitt (3) after Gladstone declined to do so. At the turn of the century two studies of Pitt were published by active members of Parliament. (4)

Three works stand out in this half century of writing about the Younger Pitt by prominent politicians who were not primarily historians: a connected series of articles by Sir George Cornewall Lewis for the Edinburgh Review, (5) the pair of articles for the Quarterly Review in which Lord Robert Cecil, later Marquess of Salisbury, reviewed Stanhope's biography, (6) and the biography Lord Rosebery wrote for the Macmillan series on "Twelve English Statesmen." The similarity in length of the three, each over two hundred pages, facilitates comparison. But it is the political distinction of the authors and their differing interpretations of their subject that make the comparison rewarding.

Comment on Pitt tended to concentrate on controversial episodes in his life, which became the measuring marks by which later political commentators assessed his achievement, defined their own position and judged their contemporaries. …