William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the youngest Prime Minister of Great Britain at the age of 24 when he was elected in 1783, and became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Part 1 of this three-part series explores his early life and his rise to power.
He is known as "the Younger" to distinguish him from his father, William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who is customarily referred to as "William Pitt the Elder" (or less commonly, simply "Chatham") and who had previously served as prime minister.
Pitt's prime ministerial tenure, which came during the reign of King George III, was dominated by major political events in Europe, including the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Pitt was regarded as an outstanding administrator who worked for efficiency and reform, bringing in a new generation of outstanding administrators. He increased taxes to pay for the great war against France and cracked down on radicalism.
His greatness came in the war with France. His integrity and industry and his role as defender of a threatened nation allowed him to inspire and access all national reserves of strength.
He was highly regarded among his peers. William Wilberforce said, "For personal purity, disinterestedness and love of this country, I have never known his equal."
Historian Charles Petrie concludes that he was one of the greatest Prime Ministers "if on no other ground than that he enabled the country to pass from the old order to the new without any violent upheaval.... He understood the new Britain."
Although he was educated at home, he was an intelligent child, and quickly became proficient in Latin and Greek. He was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, on 26 April 1773, a month before turning fourteen, studying political philosophy, classics, mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry and history.
At Cambridge, Pitt was tutored by George Pretyman, who became a close personal friend. Pitt later appointed Pretyman Bishop of Lincoln, then Winchester, and drew upon his advice throughout his political career. While at Cambridge, he befriended the young William Wilberforce, who became a lifelong friend and political ally in Parliament.
In 1776, Pitt, plagued by poor health, took advantage of a little-used privilege available only to the sons of noblemen, and chose to graduate without having to pass examinations. Pitt's father, who had by then been raised to the peerage as Earl of Chatham, died in 1778. As a younger son, Pitt the Younger only received a small inheritance. He acquired his legal education at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar in the summer of 1780.
During the general elections of September 1780, at the age of 21, Pitt contested the University of Cambridge seat, but lost. Still intent on entering Parliament, Pitt secured the patronage of James Lowther with the help of his university comrade, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland.
Lowther effectively controlled the pocket borough of Appleby; a by-election in that constituency sent Pitt to the House of Commons in January 1781. Pitt's entry into parliament is somewhat ironic as he later railed against the very same pocket and rotten boroughs that had given him his seat.
In Parliament, the youthful Pitt emerged as a noted debater right from his maiden speech. Pitt originally aligned himself with prominent Whigs such as Charles James Fox. With the Whigs, Pitt denounced the continuation of the American War of Independence, as his father strongly had.
Instead he proposed that the prime minister, Lord North, make peace with the rebellious American colonies. Pitt also supported parliamentary reform measures, including a proposal that would have checked electoral corruption. He renewed his friendship with William Wilberforce, now MP for Hull, with whom he frequently met in the gallery of the House of Commons.
After Lord North's ministry collapsed in 1782, the Whig Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, was appointed prime minister, but died only three months after coming to power; he was succeeded by another Whig, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne.
Many Whigs who had formed a part of the Rockingham ministry, including Fox, now refused to serve under Lord Shelburne, the new prime minister. Pitt, however, was comfortable with Shelburne, and thus joined his government; he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Fox, who became Pitt's lifelong political rival, then joined a coalition with Lord North, with whom he collaborated to bring about the defeat of the Shelburne administration. When Lord Shelburne resigned in 1783, King George III, who despised Fox, offered to appoint Pitt to the office of Prime Minister. But Pitt wisely declined, for he knew he would be incapable of securing the support of the House of Commons.
Pitt, who had been stripped of his post as Chancellor of the Exchequer, joined the Opposition. He raised the issue of parliamentary reform in order to strain the uneasy Fox-North coalition, which included both supporters and detractors of reform. He did not advocate an expansion of the electoral franchise, but he did seek to address bribery and rotten boroughs. Though his proposal failed, many reformers in Parliament came to regard him as their leader, instead of Charles James Fox.
The Fox-North Coalition fell in December 1783, after Fox had introduced Edmund Burke's bill to reform the East India Company to gain the patronage he so greatly lacked while the King refused to support him.
Fox stated the bill was necessary to save the company from bankruptcy. Pitt responded that: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."
The King was opposed to the bill; when it passed in the House of Commons, he secured its defeat in the House of Lords by threatening to regard anyone who voted for it as his enemy. Following the bill's failure in the Upper House, George III dismissed the coalition government and finally entrusted the premiership to William Pitt, after having offered the position to him three times previously.
Pitt, at the age of 24, became Great Britain's youngest Prime Minister ever. Many saw Pitt as a stop-gap appointment until some more senior statesman took on the role. However, although it was widely predicted that the new "mince-pie administration" would not outlast the Christmas season, it survived for seventeen years.
In Part 2 of this history of William Pitt the Younger, we will explore in more detail the characteristics of his first premiership and his foreign and domestic policies - which included the introduction of income tax, a supposedly temporary measure that has strangely been retained by succeeding governments until the present day.