William Pitt the Younger

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9781400040520: William Pitt the Younger

William Pitt the Younger is an illuminating biography of one of the great iconic figures in British history: the man who in 1784 at the age of twenty-four became (and so remains) the youngest Prime Minister in the history of England. In this lively and authoritative study, William Hague–himself the youngest political party leader in recent history–explains the dramatic events and exceptional abilities that allowed extreme youth to be combined with great power.
The brilliant son of a father who was also Prime Minister, Pitt was derided as a “schoolboy” when he took office. Yet within months he had outwitted his opponents, and he went on to dominate the political scene for twenty-two years (nineteen of them as Prime Minister). No British politician since has exercised such supremacy for so long.

Pitt’s personality has always been hard to unravel. Though he was generally thought to be cold and aloof, his friends described him as the wittiest man they ever knew. By seeing him through the eyes of a politician, William Hague–a prominent member of Britain’s Conservative Party–succeeds in explaining Pitt’s actions and motives through a series of great national crises, including the madness of King George III, the impact of the French Revolution, and the trauma of the Napoleonic wars. He describes how a man dedicated to peace became Britain’s longest-serving war leader, how Pitt the liberal reformer became Pitt the author of repression, and how–though undisputed master of the nation’s finances–he died with vast personal debts.

With its rich cast of characters, including Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, and George III himself, and set against a backdrop of industrial revolution and global conflict, this is a richly detailed and rounded portrait of an extraordinary political life.

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About the Author:

William Hague has served in various capacities in the British government since 1989. He became the leader of the Conservative Party in 1997 and in the same year led the party’s campaign for Parliament. He lives in Yorkshire, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Elder and Younger

It would scarcely be possible to imagine a more intensely political family than the one into which William Pitt was born on 28 May 1759. On his father's side, his great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle had all been members of Parliament. His father, twenty-five years an MP, was now the leading Minister of the land. On his mother's side, that of the Grenville family, one uncle was in the House of Lords, and two others were in the Commons, one of them to be First Lord of the Treasury by the time the infant William was four years old. An understanding of Pitt's extraordinary political precocity requires us to appreciate the unusual circumstances of a family so wholeheartedly committed to political life.

It was in the year of William's birth that the career of his father, still also plain William Pitt, approached its zenith. Three years into what would later be known as the Seven Years' War, in which Britain stood as the only substantial ally of Prussia against the combined forces of France, Austria, Russia, Saxony and Sweden, the elder Pitt had become the effective Commander-in-Chief under King George II of the British prosecution of the war. In his view the war had arisen from "a total subversion of the system of Europe, and more especially from the most pernicious extension of the influence of France." He was not nominally the head of the government, the position of First Lord of the Treasury being held by his old rival the Duke of Newcastle, but he was the senior Minister in the House of Commons. Through his powerful oratory he dominated both Parliament and the Ministry, and was acknowledged as the effective leader of the administration. As Newcastle himself said in October of that year: "No one will have a majority at present against Mr. Pitt. No man will, in the present conjuncture, set his face against Mr. Pitt in the H. of Commons."

From taking office at the age of forty-eight in 1756 as Secretary of State for the Southern Department,* with a brief interruption of two months during the cabinet crisis of 1757, Pitt had become the principal source of ministerial energy in both organising for war and in preparing a strategy for Britain to do well out of it. It was Pitt who gave detailed instructions on the raising and disposition of the troops and the navy, and Pitt who insisted on and executed the objective of destroying the empire of France. As the French envoy, François de Bussy, was to complain to the leading French Minister, the Duc de Choiseul, after meeting Pitt in 1761: "This Minister is, as you know, the idol of the people, who regard him as the sole author of their success . . . He is very eloquent, specious, wheedling, and with all the chicanery of an experienced lawyer. He is courageous to the point of rashness, he supports his ideas in an impassioned fashion and with an invincible determination, seeking to subjugate all the world by the tyranny of his opinions, Pitt seems to have no other ambition than to elevate Britain to the highest point of glory and to abase France to the lowest degree of humiliation . . ."

It was in 1759 that Pitt, previously dismissed as a rather unpredictable politician with a distinctly chequered career, came to be regarded as the saviour of the nation. His insistence on fighting a European war with offensives elsewhere-in America, the Caribbean, Africa and on the oceans of the world-was crowned with success within months of the birth of his second son, William. Instead of having to face the French invasion feared throughout much of the year, Britain celebrated a stream of military successes that summer and autumn: victory at Minden in Germany in August, the storming of Quebec which shattered French rule in Canada in September, the simultaneous news of victories which reinforced British dominance of India, and then the defeat and scattering of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay in November. These events brought about a change in the public perception of the elder Pitt, analogous to the regard in which Churchill was held after 1940 compared to the controversy which previously surrounded him. From then on there was a sense of reverence, sometimes of awe, towards him, both on parliamentary occasions and among the wider public. Tall, haughty, but always eloquent, he was the great orator and war leader who had placed himself beyond party gatherings and factions to be at the service of the nation. The young William, as he became conscious of the people and events around him, would know only a world in which his father was treated as a legend.

Such renown was a far cry from the frustrated ambitions of earlier generations of Pitts. Being a younger son, the elder Pitt had enjoyed little in the way of financial inheritance, but his ancestors and relatives had been well connected and often very wealthy for the previous century and a half. Pitt's forebears had included prominent and sometimes wealthy officials under Elizabeth I and James I, but it is Thomas Pitt of Bocconoc (1653-1726) who brings the family story to life. He was the buccaneering "Diamond Pitt" who went to India and made a fortune in probably illegal competition with the East India Company, came back and purchased English property with it, including the medieval borough of Old Sarum,* and then returned to India on behalf of the Company as Governor of Madras. While there, he bought a 130-carat diamond for £25,000 which he hoped to sell to one of the European royal families for at least ten times as much. Returning to Britain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), he discovered that European royalty was otherwise preoccupied, but eventually sold the diamond at a substantial but much smaller than expected profit to the Regent of France. With this and other earnings from his exploits in India, Thomas Pitt set about buying more estates, particularly in Cornwall. He was part of a new and often resented breed of rich men who came back from the East to buy property and parliamentary influence at home. He used his wealth to help all five of his children on their way in life, particularly the eldest son, another Thomas Pitt, who kept most of the family wealth and became Earl of Londonderry. A younger son, Robert Pitt, was put into Parliament for Old Sarum in 1705, for which he sometimes sat alongside his father. Robert Pitt was undistinguished, came close to disaster by being on the fringes of Jacobite attempts to overthrow the new Hanoverian dynasty, and died young, but not before fathering six children, the fifth of whom was William Pitt, the future Earl of Chatham. Once again the eldest son was a Thomas Pitt, who after much litigation and family dispute ended up with the lion's share of the family wealth.

The family lived at Stratford-sub-Castle near Salisbury, but at the age of ten William was sent with his eldest brother, Thomas, to Eton, an experience which proved decisive in his later determination to educate all of his own children at home. He remarked much later to the Earl of Shelburne that he "scarce observed a boy who was not cowed for life at Eton; that a publick school might suit a boy of a turbulent forward disposition, but would not do where there was any gentleness."

It seems that Robert Pitt had intended William for the Church, but William himself had other ideas, joining the army at the lowest officer rank in the cavalry, as a Cornet of Dragoons. He never saw active service, since the long-serving Whig Minister Robert Walpole did an effective job of keeping Britain out of various international disputes at the time, but he took the opportunity to travel to the Continent on a modest version of the Grand Tour through France, Switzerland and Holland. This was the only time he left his native country; an eighteenth-century political career did not require extensive travel. Like his son, he was later to dispose of huge forces, alliances and treaties around the globe, while only once in his life leaving the shores of Britain. He was clearly determined to continue the emerging Pitt tradition of serving in Parliament, and was duly elected for the family borough of Old Sarum in the general election of 1734, but only after some acrimony when his brother Thomas suggested giving the seat to the sitting member, with financial compensation for William instead.

Although Pitt seems to have been well disposed towards Walpole and the Whigs at the time he was elected, he soon fell in with key figures in the opposition, notably Lord Cobham, his ex-Colonel, and Prince Frederick, the Prince of Wales. The relationship between Prince Frederick and his father, King George II, was an early example of a noted Hanoverian tradition, being one of unmitigated hatred between monarch and heir. The Prince of Wales was truly loathed by both his father and mother. Queen Caroline once exclaimed when she saw the Prince pass her dressing-room window: "Look, there he goes-that wretch! that villain!-I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!" Such loathing was exacerbated when the King's adoption of a Hanoverian mistress became public knowledge, so helping to make the Prince the more popular member of the Royal Family. Pitt, as a young MP and army officer, became part of the Prince's circle, with some of his early parliamentary speeches being unmistakably toadying towards the Prince. He became a regular opponent of Walpole, and was dismissed from his position in the army as a result.

A study of the rise to power of the elder Pitt over the subsequent twenty years provides four main conclusions which assist in appreciating the career of his son. First, elections in the eighteenth century were not contested by organised political parties with a programme or manifesto. Although in the mid-eighteenth century many politicians could still be roughly categorised as Whig or Tory, even this distinction was breaking down. The opposit...

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