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William Pitt the Younger

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The Right Honourable

William Pitt
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
10 May 1804 – 23 January 1806
Monarch George III
Preceded by Henry Addington
Succeeded by The Lord Grenville
Prime Minister of Great Britain
In office
19 December 1783 – 14 March 1801
Monarch George III
Preceded by The Duke of Portland
Succeeded by Henry Addington
(As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
10 May 1804 – 23 January 1806
Monarch George III
Preceded by Henry Addington
Succeeded by Lord Henry Petty
In office
19 December 1783 – 14 March 1801
Monarch George III
Preceded by Lord John Cavendish
Succeeded by Henry Addington
In office
10 July 1782 – 31 March 1783
Monarch George III
Preceded by Lord John Cavendish
Succeeded by Lord John Cavendish
Personal details
Born (1759-05-28)28 May 1759
Hayes, Kent
Died 23 January 1806(1806-01-23) (aged 46)
Nationality British
Political party Tory (scholar consensus)
Independent Whig (self description)
Alma mater Pembroke College, Cambridge

William Pitt, the Younger ( 28 May 1759 23 January 1806) was a British politician of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He became the youngest-ever Prime Minister in 1783, aged 24. He left office in 1801, but was Prime Minister again from 1804 until his death. He is known as "William Pitt the Younger" to distinguish him from his father, William Pitt the Elder, who also served as Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was officially The Hon. William Pitt due to his father being a peer, although he became The Rt Hon. William Pitt during his time in government.

The younger Pitt's prime ministerial tenure, which came during the reign of George III, was dominated by major events in Europe, including the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Pitt, although often referred to as a Tory, always considered himself to be an "independent Whig" and was generally opposed to the development of a strict partisan political system.

Early life

William Pitt, son of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, was born at Hayes Place in the village of Hayes, Kent. Sickly as a boy, he was educated at home by the Reverend Edward Wilson. An intelligent child, Pitt quickly became proficient in Latin and Greek. In 1773, aged fourteen years, he attended Pembroke Hall (now Pembroke College, Cambridge), where he studied political philosophy, classics, mathematics, chemistry, and history. At Cambridge, Pitt was tutored by George Pretyman who became a close personal friend. Pitt would ultimately appoint Pretyman Bishop of Lincoln then Winchester and would draw upon his advice throughout his political career. 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. While at Cambridge, he befriended the young William Wilberforce, who would become a lifelong friend and political ally.

Pitt's father, who had by then been created Earl of Chatham, died in 1778. As a younger son, Pitt the Younger received a small inheritance. He received legal education at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar.

Early political career

During the general elections of September 1780, Pitt contested the University of Cambridge seat, but lost. Still intent on entering Parliament, Pitt, with the help of his university comrade, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, secured the patronage of James Lowther. 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; Pitt later railed against the very same rotten boroughs that gained him his seat.

In Parliament, the youthful Pitt cast aside the withdrawn and aloof nature that characterised him during his university days, emerging as a noted parliamentarian and debater. 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, and they formed a lasting friendship.

After Lord North's ministry collapsed in 1782, the Whig Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham was appointed Prime Minister. Pitt was offered the minor post of Vice-Treasurer of Ireland; but he refused, considering the post too subordinate. Lord Rockingham 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 Charles James Fox, now refused to serve under the new Prime Minister. Pitt, however, was comfortable joining the Shelburne 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. The Fox-North Coalition rose to power in a Government nominally headed by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland.

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.

Rise to power

The Fox-North Coalition fell in December 1783, after Fox introduced Edmund Burke's bill to reform the British East India Company to gain the patronage he so greatly lacked while the King refused to support him. 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 and finally entrusted the premiership to William Pitt after having offered the position to him three times previously. Pitt, at the age of twenty-four, became Great Britain's youngest Prime Minister ever, and was ridiculed for his youth. A popular ditty commented that it was "a sight to make all nations stand and stare: a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care." Many saw it simply as a stop-gap appointment until somebody more senior took on the role. However, although it was widely predicted that the new "mince-pie administration" would not last the Christmas season, it survived for seventeen years.

So as to reduce the power of the Opposition, Pitt offered Charles James Fox and his allies posts in the Cabinet; Pitt's refusal to include Lord North, however, thwarted his efforts. The new Government was immediately on the defensive, and was defeated on a Motion of No Confidence in January 1784. Pitt, however, took the unprecedented step of refusing to resign despite such a defeat. He retained the support of the King, who could not tolerate the Fox-North Coalition. He also received the support of the House of Lords, which passed supportive motions, as well as much support from the country at large, in the form of many petitions approving of his appointment (which influenced some local MPs to switch their support to Pitt) and he was accorded the Freedom of the City of London. Whilst returning from this ceremony the attendees chose to pull Pitt's coach home themselves as a sign of respect. When passing the Whig club the coach came under attack from a group of men who tried to assault Pitt. When news of this spread it was assumed that Fox and his associates had tried to bring down Pitt by any means. Pitt gained great popularity with the public at large as "Honest Billy" who was seen as a refreshing change from the dishonesty, corruption and lack of principles widely associated with both Fox and North.

Despite a series of defeats in the House of Commons, Pitt defiantly remained in office, watching the Coalition's majority shrink as some Members of Parliament left the Opposition to join his side. The defectors, however, were not sufficiently numerous to give Pitt a majority. In March 1784, Parliament was dissolved, and a general election ensued. An electoral defeat for the Government was out of the question, for Pitt enjoyed the support of King George III. The aid of patronage and bribes paid by the Treasury were normally expected to be enough to secure the Government a comfortable majority in the House of Commons but on this occasion the government reaped much popular support as well. In most popular constituencies the election was fought between clear candidates representing Pitt or Fox/North. Early returns showed a massive swing to Pitt, with the result that many opposing MPs either defected, stood down or made deals with their opponents to avoid expensive defeats. A notable exception came in Fox's own constituency of Westminster, which had one of the largest electorates in the country. In a contest estimated to have cost a quarter of the total spending in the entire country, Fox bitterly fought against two Pittite candidates to secure one of the two seats for the constituency, with every possible campaigning method tried. When polling finished massive legal wranglings ensued, involving the examination of every single vote cast, which dragged on for more than a year. In the meantime Fox sat for the pocket borough of Orkney but many saw the dragging out of the result as excessive vindictiveness on the part of Pitt and eventually the examinations were abandoned, with Fox declared elected. Elsewhere Pitt won a massive personal triumph when he was successfully elected a Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge, a constituency he had long coveted and which he would continue to represent for the remainder of his life.

First ministry

His administration secure, Pitt could begin to enact his agenda. His first major piece of legislation as Prime Minister was the India Act 1784, which re-organised the British East India Company and kept a watch over corruption. The India Act created a new Board of Control to oversee the affairs of the East India Company. It differed from Fox's failed India Bill 1783 and specified that the Prime Minister was to be a member of the Board and that the Home Secretary/Foreign Secretary (then Lord Sydney) was to be the President. The Act also centralised British rule in India by reducing the power of the Governors of Bombay and Madras and by increasing that of the Governor-General, Cornwallis. Further augmentations and clarifications of the Governor-General's authority were made in 1786, presumably by Lord Sydney, and presumably as a result of the Company's setting up of Penang with their own Superintended (Governor), Captain Francis Light, in 1786.

In domestic politics, Pitt also concerned himself with the cause of parliamentary reform. In 1785, he introduced a bill to remove the representation of thirty-six rotten boroughs, and to extend the electoral franchise to more individuals. Pitt's support for the bill, however, was not strong enough to prevent its defeat in the House of Commons. The bill introduced in 1785 was Pitt's last reform proposal introduced in Parliament.

In A new way to pay the National Debt (1786), James Gillray cariactured Queen Charlotte and George III awash with treasury funds to cover royal debts, with Pitt handing them another moneybag.

Another important domestic issue with which Pitt had to concern himself was the national debt, which had increased dramatically due to the rebellion of the North American colonies. Pitt sought to eliminate the national debt by imposing new taxes. Pitt also introduced measures to reduce smuggling and fraud. In 1786, he instituted a sinking fund to reduce the national debt. Each year, £1,000,000 of the surplus revenue raised by new taxes was to be added to the fund so that it could accumulate interest; eventually, the money in the fund was to be used to pay off the national debt. The system was extended in 1792 so as to take into account any new loans taken by the Government.

Pitt sought European alliances to restrict French influence, forming the Triple Alliance with Prussia and the United Provinces in 1788. During the Nootka Sound Controversy in 1790, Pitt took advantage of the alliance to force Spain to give up its claim to exclusive control over the western coast of North and South America. The Alliance, however, failed to produce any other important benefits for Great Britain.

In 1788, Great Britain faced a major crisis when King George III fell victim to a blood disorder, porphyria, unknown at this time. If protracted and untreated, it has serious mentally debilitating effects. In fact King George III was thought to be suffering from some form of mental disorder. The laws of the kingdom included no provisions relating to insane monarchs; hence, it was unclear as to how a Regency could be put into place. All factions in Parliament agreed that the only viable candidate for Regent was the King's eldest son, HRH The Prince George, Prince of Wales. The Prince, however, was a supporter of Charles James Fox; had he come to power, he would almost surely have dismissed Pitt. However, he did not have such an opportunity, as Parliament spent months debating legal technicalities relating to the Regency. Fortunately for Pitt, George III recovered in February 1789, just after a Regency Bill had been introduced and passed in the House of Commons.

The general elections of 1790 resulted in a majority for the Government, and Pitt continued as Prime Minister. In 1791, he proceeded to address one of the problems facing the growing British Empire: the future of British Canada. By the Constitutional Act of 1791, the province of Quebec was divided into two separate provinces: the predominantly French Lower Canada and the predominantly English Upper Canada. In 1792, George III appointed Pitt to the honorary post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The King had offered him a Knighthood of the Garter, but he refused, instead proposing that the honour go to his elder brother, the second Earl of Chatham.

French Revolution

After the French Revolution began in 1789, Pitt's government attempted to delay intervention in European conflicts for as long as possible. The aggression of the French revolutionary government, however, did not permit Great Britain to remain neutral. Especially alarming to the British were decrees issued by the French in 1792, vowing to aid any attempts other Europeans may undertake to overthrow their own monarchies. On 1 February 1793, the French, believing that they could precipitate a British Revolution, declared war on Great Britain, forcing Pitt to reciprocate by declaring war on France. Pitt did not seek to restore the French monarchy by crushing the revolutionaries, instead confining Great Britain to the protection of its own interests. He agreed to take part in the First Coalition, an alliance with Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Spain, and the United Provinces.

The French Revolution encouraged many in Great Britain to once again speak of parliamentary reform, an issue which had not been at the political forefront since Pitt's reform bill was defeated in 1785. The reformers, however, were quickly labelled as radicals and as associates of the French revolutionaries in 1794 Pitt's administration tried three of them for treason but lost. Parliament began to enact repressive legislation in order to silence the reformers. Individuals who published seditious material were punished, and, in 1794, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. Other repressive measures included the Seditious Meetings Act (which restricted the right of individuals to assemble publicly) and the Combination Acts (which restricted the formation of societies or organisations that favoured political reforms). Problems manning the Royal Navy also led to Pitt to introduce the Quota System in 1795 addition to the existing system of Impressment.

The war with France was extremely expensive, straining Great Britain's finances. In 1797, Pitt was forced to protect the kingdom's gold reserves by preventing individuals from exchanging banknotes for gold. Great Britain would continue to use paper money for over two decades. Pitt was also forced to introduce Great Britain's first ever income tax. The new tax helped offset losses in indirect tax revenue, which had been caused by a decline in trade. Despite the efforts of Pitt and the British allies, the French continued to defeat the members of the First Coalition, which collapsed in 1798. A Second Coalition, consisting of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, was formed, but it, too, failed to overawe the French. The fall of the Second Coalition with the defeat of the Austrians at Marengo ( 14 June 1800) left Great Britain facing France alone.


The French Revolution revived religious and political problems in Ireland, a realm under the rule of the King of Great Britain. In 1798, Irish nationalists even attempted a rebellion, believing that the French would help them overthrow the monarchy. Pitt firmly believed that the only solution to the problem was a union of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the defeat of the rebellion and an invasion of Ireland by the French, he advanced this policy. The union was established by the Act of Union 1800; compensation and patronage ensured the support of the Irish Parliament. Great Britain and Ireland were formally united into a single realm, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, on 1 January 1801.

Pitt sought to inaugurate the new kingdom by granting concessions to Roman Catholics, who formed a majority in Ireland, by abolishing various political restrictions under which they suffered. George III, however, did not share the same view. The King was strongly opposed to Catholic Emancipation; he argued that to grant additional liberty would violate his coronation oath, in which he had promised to protect the established Church of England. Pitt, unable to change the King's strong views, resigned on 16 February 1801, so as to allow Henry Addington, his political friend, to form a new administration. At about the same time, however, the King suffered a renewed bout of madness; thus, Addington could not receive his formal appointment. Though he had resigned, Pitt temporarily continued to discharge his duties; on 18 February 1801, he even brought forward the annual Budget. Power was transferred from Pitt to Addington on 14 March, when the King recovered.

Pitt supported the new administration, but with little enthusiasm; he frequently absented himself from Parliament, preferring to remain in his Lord Warden's residence of Walmer Castle (before 1802 usually spending an annual late-summer holiday there, and - later on - often present from the spring until the autumn). From the castle, he helped organise a local volunteer force in anticipation of a French invasion, acted as colonel of a battalion raised by Trinity House (he was also a Master of Trinity House), and encouraged the construction of Martello towers and the Royal Military Canal in Romney Marsh. He rented land abutting that of the Castle to farm, and on which to lay out trees and walks, and his niece Lady Hester Stanhope designed and managed the gardens and acted as his hostess.

In Britannia between Death and the Doctor's (1804), Gillray caricatured Pitt as a doctor kicking Addington (the previous doctor) out of Britannia's sickroom.

After a series of British military victories, the French agreed to make peace in the Treaty of Amiens (1802). By 1803, however, the war had begun once more. Although Addington had previously invited him to join the Cabinet, Pitt preferred to join the Opposition, becoming increasingly critical of the Government's policies. Addington, unable to face the combined opposition of Pitt and Charles James Fox, saw his majority gradually evaporate. By May 1804, Addington, who had lost his parliamentary support, had decided to resign.

Second ministry

In Uncorking Old Sherry (1805), Gillray caricatured Pitt uncorking a bottle of Sheridan that is bursting out with puns and invective.

Pitt returned to the premiership on 10 May 1804. He had originally planned to form a broad coalition government, but faced the opposition of George III to the inclusion of Fox. Moreover, many of Pitt's former supporters, including the allies of Henry Addington, joined the Opposition. Thus, Pitt's Second Ministry was considerably weaker than the first.

The British Government suffered under the unrelenting pressure of the French Emperor, Napoleon I. Thanks to Pitt's efforts, Great Britain joined the Third Coalition, an alliance that also involved Austria, Russia, and Sweden. In October 1805, the British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, won a crushing victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, ensuring British naval supremacy for the remainder of the war. Nevertheless, the Coalition collapsed, having suffered significant defeats at the Battle of Ulm (October 1805) and the Battle of Austerlitz (December 1805). The setbacks took a toll on Pitt's health, which was worsened by a fondness for port. On 23 January 1806, Pitt died due to liver disease; he was unmarried and left no children.

Pitt's debts amounted to £40,000 when he died, but Parliament agreed to pay them on his behalf. A motion was made to honour him with a public funeral and a monument; it passed despite the opposition of Fox. Pitt's body was buried in Westminster Abbey on 22 February, having lain in state for two days in the Palace of Westminster. Pitt was succeeded as Prime Minister by William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville, who headed an administration that included Charles James Fox.


Arms of William Pitt the Younger

William Pitt the Younger was a powerful Prime Minister who consolidated the powers of his office. Even though he was sometimes opposed by members of his own Cabinet, he helped define the role of the Prime Minister as the supervisor and co-ordinator of the various Government departments. He was not, however, the supreme political influence in the nation, for the King remained the dominant force in Government. Pitt was Prime Minister not because he enjoyed the support of the electorate or of the House of Commons, but because he retained the favour of the Crown.

One of Pitt's most important accomplishments was a rehabilitation of the nation's finances after the American War of Independence. Pitt helped the Government manage the mounting national debt, and made changes to the tax system in order to improve its efficiency. Pitt's other domestic plans, however, were not as successful; he failed to secure parliamentary reform, Emancipation, or the abolition of slave trade.

William Pitt the Younger was a personal friend of Thomas Raikes, Esquire (1741-1813), merchant and banker in London and Governor of the Bank of England during the crisis of 1797 when war had so diminished gold reserves that the government prohibited the Bank of England (national bank of Britain) from paying out in gold and ordered it to replace the payment out of gold by banknotes. On February 26, 1797 the Bank of England, under the direction of Raikes issued the first £1 and £2 English banknotes. It can be said that Pitt, despite and because of the opposition he faced, was one of Britain's greatest Prime Ministers.


  • "I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me; but Europe is not be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, I trust, save Europe by her example." (reply, at the Guildhall, 1805, in response to the Lord Mayor toasting him as the 'Saviour of Europe'. From: Ellis & Treasure Britain's Prime Ministers (2005), p.80)
  • "Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years." (On a map of Europe, after hearing the news of the Battle of Austerlitz. From: Stanhope's Life of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt (1862), vol. iv, p.369)
  • "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." (Speech to Parliament 1783)
  • "Oh, my country! how I love my country." (Attributed last words, from: Stanhope's Life of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt (1862), vol. iv, p.391)
  • "My country! oh, my country!" (Attributed last words, from: G. Rose Diary 23 January 1806)
  • "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies." (Alternative attributed last words)
  • "...the foulest and most atrocious deed." (in reference to the execution of King Louis XVI of France)

Pop culture

Film and television

William Pitt is depicted in several films and television programs. Robert Donat portrays Pitt in the 1942 biopic The Young Mr Pitt, which chronicles the historical events of Pitt's life. Pitt's attempts during his tenure as Prime Minister to cope with the dementia of King George III are portrayed by Julian Wadham in the 1994 film The Madness of King George. The 2006 motion picture Amazing Grace, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Pitt, depicts his close friendship with William Wilberforce, the leading abolitionist in Parliament. Pitt is caricatured as a boy-prime minister in the third series of the television comedy Blackadder, in which Simon Osborne plays a fictionalized Pitt as a petulant teenager who has just come to power "right in the middle of (his) exams".

Places named for Pitt

Several places are named after William Pitt the Younger. Pittsylvania County, Virginia which has its county seat named Chatham. Pittwater, New South Wales in Australia was named in 1788 by British explorer Arthur Phillip. Pitt's Head in Snowdonia National Forest Park near Gwynedd, Wales was named after the rock formation's resemblance to the Prime Minister. While Chatham County was named after his father, Pittsboro, North Carolina was named for William Pitt the Younger. Contrary to popular belief, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is named after William Pitt the Elder.

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