William Pitt the Younger (May 28, 1759 - January 23, 1806) was a British politician and Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1783 to 1801 and of the United Kingdom from 1804 until his death in 1806. He is considered to have been one of the key figures in consolidating the office and powers of the Prime Minister.
He was born in Hayes, Kent the second son of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. Pitt the Younger was educated at home due to his consistently poor health. He attended the University of Cambridge from 1773, but his health delayed his graduation so in 1776 he took advantage of a little-used privilege allowing the sons of nobles to graduate without a final examination. His father died in 1778 and left Pitt with very little. He was called to the bar in 1780 and in September of that year he also stood for election to Parliament for Cambridge. He lost but entered Parliament in January 1781 after winning in Appleby, a seat controlled by patronage.
In Parliament the youthful Pitt cast aside his withdrawn and aloof nature to emerge as a great parliamentarian. He was a traditional Tory, accepting Royal control over the more democratic ideas of the Whigs. He demonstrated amazing self confidence: when William Petty, Earl Shelburne formed a new government in July 1782 Pitt gained for himself the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. He appointed a commission to consider economic reform and introduced certain new taxes. Pitt attempted to build a rapprochement with the reformer Charles James Fox: instead he succeeded in earning Fox's political enmity for life and an alliance of Fox with Lord North soon brought the Shelburne administration to an end. George III offered Pitt the opportunity to form a new government, a chance Pitt wisely declined realising he would not be able to control the House. The new coalition government that did form was nominally under the control of the Duke of Portland. In order to strain the uneasy alliance of reformers and anti-reformers Pitt raised the reform question, although he did not seek to extend the franchise he managed to convince the reformers that he was their true leader.
In December 1783 the coalition government was dismissed and this time Pitt accepted the offer of the King to form a new administration. He was Britain's youngest ever prime minister, still trading on his father's reputation. A popular ditty commented that it was:
- A sight to make all nations stand and stare:
- A kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care.
With his administration secure Pitt could now turn to the actual problems of the country. He had the British East India Company reorganised by a bill in 1784, inroducing government supervision. It went so far that when the governor-general, Warren Hastings returned from his commercially successful and expansionist term he was faced with an inquiry and trial for impeachment. In 1790 the Spanish claims to exclusive control of the western side of North America were crushed following the Nootka Sound dispute. Canada was divided between the French and the British by the Constitutional Act of 1791.
Following the rebellion in America the national debt had assumed staggering proportions. Pitt instituted more taxes, simplified customs and excise, and worked to reduce corruption. In 1786 he instituted a new fund of stock purchase, at £1 million a year for 28 years. In 1792 the sinking fund concept was extended by an Act to all new loans - a 1% fund would allow each loan to be repaid in under fifty years. The system worked only if there was an annual surplus, so the outbreak of renewed hostilities with France in 1793 threw the government finances back into disarray.
Pitt had sought European alliances to restrict French power, signing agreements with Prussia and the United Provinces in 1788. But the government delayed intervening in Europe following the French Revolution as long as possible: the French had to declare war on February 1, 1793 before Britain would act. Pitt refused to act to restore the monarchy and confined his resources to guarding the most vital interests of the empire. He formed an alliance with Austria, Prussia, Spain and the United Provinces. He responded to the demonstrations of reformers by clamping down on seditious publications and in 1794 habeas corpus was suspended (until 1801). The French repeatedly beat Britain's allies on the battlefield, the First Coalition collapsing around 1798. The fall of the Second Coalition with the defeat of the Austrians at Marengo (June 14, 1800) left Britain facing France alone. With a lull in active hostilities Pitt was distracted by the Irish: inflamed by revolutionary ideas there had been a rebellion in 1798 and religious tensions were worse than ever. Pitt sought a union of the two countries and also, controversially, Catholic emancipation. Blocked by his cabinet and the King he resigned on February 3, 1801.
Henry Addington, a political friend of Pitt, headed the new government. The King suffered a renewed bout of madness and when he recovered in March, 1802 he accused Pitt of inciting the attack by arguing the Catholic issue. Pitt supported the new government but with little enthusiasm; he was frequently absent from Parliament. A series of British military victories led to the signing of the Treaty of Amiens (March, 1802). War with the French was renewed in earnest from May 1803 and Pitt returned to the House a strong critic of government policy. Addington lost support and in May 1804 resigned. Pitt was approached to head a new government and agreed.
Pitt's new government was shaky in the House and under unrelenting pressure from the activities of Napoleon. Pitt put great effort into forming a coalition with Austria, Russia and Sweden. Pitt was highly confident in the success of the Third Coalition but military defeats at Ulm (September-October, Austrians) and Austerlitz (December 2, Russians and Austrians) led to its collapse. The threat of invasion grew ever closer throughout the year until Nelson secured British control of the seas with his vital victory at Trafalgar (October 21). The set-backs took a toll on Pitt's health - he made a last public speech in November and by early January, 1806 he was so poorly that MPs were considering forcing him to resign to preserve his life. He died on January 23 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. In Parliament a motion to pay his debts (£40,000) was carried unanimously. He was replaced as Prime Minister by William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was named in his honour.
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2 Pitt's First Government, December 1783 - February 1801
3 Pitt's Second Government, May 1804 - February 1806
Necessity is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves.
Pitt's First Government, December 1783 - February 1801
Pitt's Second Government, May 1804 - February 1806