Overview

William Pitt

(1759—1806) prime minister


Related Overviews

Earl of Chatham William Pitt (1708—1778) prime minister

Charles James Fox (1749—1806) politician

Lord North (1732—1792) prime minister

George Canning (1770—1827) prime minister and parodist

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'William Pitt' can also refer to...

Earl of Chatham William Pitt (1708—1778) prime minister

Lord William Pitt Lennox (1799—1881) army officer and writer

William Pitt (1749—1823) writer on agriculture

William Pitt Amherst (1773—1857) diplomatist and governor-general of Bengal

William Pitt Root (b. 1941)

William Pitt Scargill (1787—1836) Unitarian minister and writer

 

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(1759–1806),

known as Pitt the Younger. Prime minister. The second son of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, was educated privately and at Cambridge. From an early age, his father supervised his upbringing, paying particular attention to skill in public speaking. He entered Parliament in 1781 and soon made his mark in the Commons. He was a critic of North, whom he blamed for the loss of America, and advocated both economical and parliamentary reform. He was keenly interested in financial and commercial questions and knew the writings of Adam Smith and Richard Price. When North fell in 1782, Pitt refused a merely subordinate station in Rockingham's ministry. After Rockingham's death, Pitt became chancellor of the Exchequer under Shelburne. He deeply resented Fox's alliance with North, yet was wise enough to refuse George III's invitation to head a ministry after the fall of Shelburne, preferring to bide his time until a more propitious moment. The crisis over Fox's India Bill gave George III and Pitt their chance. Pitt agreed to become prime minister provided that a public demonstration of George III's hostility towards the Fox–North ministry indicated where the king's confidence lay.

When Pitt took office in December 1783 few thought his ministry would survive. He faced an opposition majority in the Commons. But several factors worked in his favour. He had the unflinching confidence of the king; the Fox–North coalition was unpopular; and he was able to win over opinion in the Commons. At the general election of 1784 Pitt won a decisive victory.

During his peacetime administration he achieved much in the fields of fiscal, economical, and commercial reform. He cut customs duties and stimulated trade, and set up a sinking fund in the hope of paying off the national debt. Having established his mastery in public finance he negotiated a commercial treaty with France and ended Britain's diplomatic isolation by entering into alliance with Prussia and Holland in the aftermath of the Dutch crisis of 1787. But there were disappointments. Pitt's proposals for a moderate reform of Parliament were defeated; he was compelled to drop his scheme for free trade with Ireland; plans to improve the defences of Portsmouth and Plymouth had to be abandoned; the abolition of the slave trade had to remain an open question within the government. His position was threatened in 1788 when the illness of George III presaged a change of government. When the king recovered in 1789 Pitt seemed invincible. He knew when to yield to political pressure, as over the impeachment of Hastings, and was adept at turning the ideas of others into practicable policies.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Pitt was sympathetic to reform in France but determined to stay out of European complications if possible. As late as February 1792 he affirmed his expectations for fifteen years of peace in Europe. But with the collapse of the French monarchy and the aggressive policies pursued by the French republic his hopes were shattered. The outbreak of war in 1793 was a disaster for Pitt. His hopes for further reform were indefinitely postponed and he became transformed into ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’. The war was long, arduous, and inconclusive. Though loyalism was the dominant feeling in Britain there was much economic distress and rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1798. Pitt had tried to appease Ireland by granting civil rights to Irish catholics and enfranchising the catholic freeholders in the Irish counties. Though the rebellion was crushed, Pitt was convinced that the credibility of the Dublin Parliament was destroyed. He carried an Act of Union with Ireland, hoping to follow it with catholic emancipation. He was thwarted on the catholic question, partly by the opposition of George III. He resigned in 1801, giving general support to Addington's ministry from the back benches and approving the peace of Amiens when it was signed in 1802.

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Subjects: British history.


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