Forever Young: Myth, Reality and William Pitt: R. E. Foster Examines the Career of Pitt the Younger

By Foster, R. E. | History Review, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Forever Young: Myth, Reality and William Pitt: R. E. Foster Examines the Career of Pitt the Younger


Foster, R. E., History Review


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A Young Man in a Hurry: 1759-1783

William Pitt is, in some respects, an unlikely political icon. A delicate child, he was described as a man by H. A. Bruce as a 'tall, ungainly, bony figure'. Pitt was a satirist's gift. The best known, James Gillray, also captured the aloofness that many remembered. In an age where personal contacts mattered, Pitt was not clubbable. As William Wilberforce, a rare exception, put it, 'Pitt does not make friends.' He preferred to immerse himself in the details of commerce and finance--matters which Wilberforce dismissed as 'subjects of a low and vulgarising quality'. But only Walpole has served longer as prime minister. How is Pitt's longevity and achievement to be explained?

Part of the answer lies in his parentage. Pitt's mother was sister to George Grenville, Prime Minister in 1763-5. His father, Pitt the Elder, was Prime Minister in 1766-8. The precocity of his second son did not escape the father's notice: legend had it that young Pitt was schooled in oratory by being required to address an imaginary audience at home! After Cambridge, he was offered a pocket borough in 1780. His maiden speech in February 1781 made a memorable impression: 'his manner easy and elegant; his language beautiful and luxuriant', as one eyewitness recorded it; as did his espousing Parliamentary Reform and his criticism of ministers for their conduct of the war in America.

But Pitt's meteoric rise cannot be explained unless we juxtapose his connections and talents alongside political circumstances. In October 1781 British forces surrendered at Yorktown. In March 1782 the beleaguered Lord North resigned as Prime Minister. His opponents coalesced briefly under Rockingham, but their alliance did not survive his death in July. The Earl of Shelburne now assumed the premiership and Pitt became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shelburne's government in turn resigned in February 1783, victim of an alliance between North and his supposed antagonist, Charles James Fox. Their coalition from March 1783, nominally led by the Duke of Portland, survived some six months. From the outset it faced a deadly antagonist in George III. On 17 December 1783 the King's influence was instrumental in the Lords rejecting Fox's India Bill. George used this as sufficient reason to dismiss the administration. Two days later Pitt was installed as First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister at the age of 24.

Pitt's elevation owed much to the fact that by December 1783 he was one of the few men of obvious talent who had not compromised his principles by allying with others. Nor was he old enough to have been associated with the reverses of the American war. Crucially--for the monarch's role in cabinet making still mattered--he enjoyed the support of the King, if only because he had sided against Fox and North. But this alone was insufficient to guarantee his long term survival. In the Commons, where he was the only member of his cabinet with a seat, he was roughly 60 short of a majority. Though he inevitably lost Commons divisions in the weeks which followed, he nevertheless survived. This owed much to his masterly parliamentary performances in the face of adversity which won over many independent country gentlemen on the back benches and also the political nation at large. That, at least, seems to be the conclusion one should draw from the general election which followed George III's dissolution of parliament in March 1784. But Pitt's resulting majority of about 120 also owed much to the government influence which the King, in agreeing to an early election, put at Pitt's disposal. Those opponents who had scoffed that Pitt's would be a 'mince pie' administration--one that would not survive the Christmas season--were left to eat their words instead.

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The Politics of National Revival: 1783-1789

Pitt's primary governmental objective was to revive the economy--exports fell 12 per cent in value during the 1770s-and thus improve the national finances. …

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