(G2, G3a, G3b, G3c)

xxxxxWilliam Pitt, son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, was Prime Minister from 1783-1801 and 1804-1806. He helped to restore Britain’s prosperity and confidence after the disastrous American War of Independence - stimulating trade, increasing revenue, cutting back on expenditure, and starting a sinking fund to reduce the national debt. Overseas, he introduced Acts to improve administration in India and Canada, and set up a penal colony in Australia. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, he passed repressive measures to clamp down on dissidents, and when war with France came in 1793, he organised and subsidised alliances against France. In an attempt to quell unrest in Ireland, he united the country with Britain by the Act of Union of 1801, but his failure to achieve civil rights for Roman Catholics led to his resignation that year. He returned to office in 1804, and lived long enough to see the British naval victory at Trafalgar and Napoleon’s rout of the Austro-Prussian army at the Battle of Austerlitz. He died fearing for the future of Europe, but his earlier reforms played a part in strengthening Britain, and making possible the ultimate defeat of Napoleon. He was reserved by nature, but he was a fine orator and a capable leader in both peace and war, and his long term in power did much to establish the role of a prime minister.

xxxxxThe Englishman William Pitt the Younger served as the Tory prime minister for two terms: 1783-1801 and 1804 -1806. The second son of William Pitt the Elder, he was educated at home, and showed ability at an early age. He went up to Cambridge at the age of 14, and entered Parliament at 22. Self-assured, an able speaker, and forward in his thinking, he proved more than a match for his opponents, notably his unremitting rival Charles James Fox. Full of ideas for parliamentary and administrative reform, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1782, and in December the following year the king, having openly engineered the collapse of the improbable North-Fox coalition, named him prime minister. Fox claimed that Pitt would not last for more than three weeks in his new office, but, in fact, he won a parliamentary majority in the 1784 election - strongly backed by the king - and held his post with distinction for the next seventeen years.


xxxxxHe became the leader of a Britain which was impoverished and dispirited by its military failure during the American War of Independence, and he proved just the man to restore the nation’s confidence and prosperity. Over the next decade he strove, successfully, to keep the country at peace. This enabled him to concentrate his efforts on stimulating trade (including a favourable trade agreement with France), increasing revenue, reducing government expenditure, and tackling the country’s national debt by the setting up of a “sinking fund”. These financial and commercial measures revived the economy, inspired domestic confidence, and helped to restore British prestige on the continent.

xxxxxAt the same time, in colonial matters he built upon his father’s military gains. He increased political control over British possessions in India by his India Act of 1784, and provided, via his Constitutional Act of 1791, institutions tailored to meet the needs of an English and French speaking population in Canada. And the establishment of a penal settlement in Australia in 1788 was to lead to the opening of a new colony, a vast acquisition for the expanding British empire - though this was in no way envisaged at the time.

xxxxxBut the peace he valued at home could not be bought at any price. Faced with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Pitt attempted to keep Britain out of continental affairs, but in 1793, at the start of the Revolutionary Wars, France declared war on both Britain and Holland. He was now obliged to turn his attention away from domestic reform, and take on the role as the nation’s symbol of resistance against the spread of French power and ideology. He proved a resolute leader, but not without cost to his own popularity. In its opening phases the revolution in France was viewed with some sympathy in Britain. Fearing internal disorder he therefore introduced repressive measures. For a number of years, for example, restrictions were placed on political discussion, the habeas corpus act - that bulwark of individual freedom - was suspended, and dangerous dissidents were imprisoned or transported. It was only after the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror which followed in 1794 that most people became strongly opposed to the events in France. Even then, his introduction of income tax in 1797 to help pay for the war was hardly a popular move!

xxxxxIn the conduct of the war, Pitt’s policy - not unlike his father’s in the Seven Years’ War - was to attack French maritime trade and her colonies, whilst organising and subsidising allies to fight the French on the continent. In this strategy he was supported by the vast majority of the Whigs, though a small group, led by Fox, remained in opposition. The war brought hardships at home and the land conflict went badly - particularly with the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte - but British sea power remained convincing, demonstrated by Admiral Nelson’s victories at Aboukir Bay in 1798 and at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

xxxxxBut, in fact, the victory over the Danish fleet in April 1801 came two months after Pitt’s resignation, the outcome of problems in Ireland. The demand for Irish independence had re-emerged in the rebellion of 1798, a revolt clearly encouraged by French promises of help. The insurrection was ruthlessly put down following the government victory at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, and it was then that, in the hope of avoiding a repetition, Pitt planned the union of the Irish and British parliaments. After some difficulty - in which bribery and corruption played a prominent part - the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence, and the Act of Union came into force in January 1801. However, Roman Catholic Emancipation (giving Roman Catholics full civil rights), promised by Pitt as a necessary follow-up to the union, was rejected by King George on the grounds that such a measure was contrary to his coronation oath. As a result Pitt felt obliged to resign, leaving office at the beginning of the following month.

xxxxxThe Addington ministry which followed proved ineffectual, but brought a short period of peace by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. However, when hostilities broke out again - the start of the Napoleonic Wars - Pitt was recalled as prime minister in May 1804. By then he was a sick man, but he wasted no time in organising a new alliance with Austria, Russia and Sweden in order to put an end to French ambitions on the continent. The Battle of Trafalgar in the following year destroyed French sea power, and removed the immediate threat of invasion, but the comfort Pitt gained from this victory was shattered a few months later with Napoleon’s crushing victory over an Austro-Russian force at the Battle of Austerlitz. The defeat of the two major powers which alone, he felt, could call a halt to French expansion, deeply alarmed Pitt and contributed to his death. In despair for the future of Europe, and overwhelmed by illness, he died just a few weeks later, his last words being “Oh my country! How I leave my country”. He was buried in Westminster Abbey the following month.

xxxxxWilliam Pitt the Younger was one of Britain’s outstanding political figures. Reserved by nature, little travelled, and with few close friends, he devoted his life to politics and served his country well. In many ways he lacked the common touch, and gave little or no thought to social problems - then beginning to loom large - but he proved a capable and dedicated leader in time of peace and war. Furthermore, a superb orator and an accomplished parliamentarian, his long tenure of power did much to develop the concept and office of a prime minister.

xxxxxIt is recorded that when news came through of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, he pointed to a map of Europe and exclaimed, “Roll up that map it will not be wanted these ten years!”. This proved a highly accurate prophecy, but when that map was unrolled ten years later, Napoleon had been defeated, and the Peace of Paris was busy drawing up a set of new political boundaries. In this Allied victory, Britain had played a major part, due in no small measure to the strength and resolve gained under Pitt’s leadership.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1783 William Pitt, then aged 24, became Britain’s youngest prime minister. Lacking as he did parliamentary experience in depth, doubts were expressed as to his ability to hold down such a high office. These doubts were soon expelled. On hearing him speak in the House of Commons, the Whig member of parliament Edmund Burke commented, “He’s not just a chip off the old block, but the old block itself.” ……


xxxxx…… Such leadership qualities were put to the test in 1788 when the king suffered another bout of mental illness. Fox, a close friend of the king’s degenerate son George, Prince of Wales, attempted to have him appointed Regent - a step that would have brought down the government and endangered the country. Pitt blocked the move, stipulating that only Parliament had the right to appoint a Regent. Fortunately, the king made a complete recovery the following year.


Pitt: by the English portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough, 1784 – private collection. Bastille: by the French painter Jean-Pierre Houel (1735-1813), 1759 – National Library of France, Paris. Fox: by the Bohemian artist Karl Anton Hickel (1745-1798) – National Portrait Gallery, London.


Charles Fox

xxxxxThe Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806) spent most of his career in opposition. A strong believer in liberty, he fiercely opposed the king’s policy towards the American colonists and, later, Pitt’s war against revolutionary France. He also waged a continuous attack upon the excessive power of the monarch and this, together with his close friendship with the king’s son, the degenerate Prince of Wales, made him a life-long enemy of George III. His dogged support of the French Revolution lost him much support, but during his long career he worked for parliamentary reform, and played a prominent part in the lead-up to the abolition of the slave trade. In 1783 he governed the country via the Fox-North coalition, but the king quickly engineered his downfall, and appointed Pitt as his prime minister.

xxxxxCharles James Fox (1749-1806), the man who carried out a long political feud with both Pitt and King George, was educated at Eton and Oxford University, and became a member of parliament at the age of 19. Initially he supported the Crown and held minor posts in Lord North’s ministry in the early 1770s. In 1774, however, he showed his true colours, using his skill as an orator to condemn the king’s policy towards the American colonists as “unjust and oppressive”, and to criticise his misuse of royal authority. Needless to say, he was accused of “insubordination” and quickly found himself on the opposition benches. From there, however, he continued a scathing attack upon the excessive powers of the monarchy.

xxxxxNot surprisingly he remained as an opposition member, albeit a leading one, until 1782. He spent a short spell as Foreign Secretary during that year and then in 1783 - to the surprise of all - formed a coalition with his old Tory enemy Lord North in order to overthrow the ministry of Lord Shelburne. But he was not long in power. King George, detesting Fox and his “most unprincipled coalition”, ensured that his bill to reform the government of India was thrown out by the Lords. This gave him the opportunity to dismiss the coalition and nominate William Pitt as prime minister.

xxxxxIt was then that Fox became the leader of the opposition and, refusing an invitation to join the government, began a political duel with Pitt which lasted to the end of their parliamentary careers. From 1789 onwards he remained adamantly in support of the French Revolution, even after the execution of Louis XVI and the butchery of the Reign of Terror. He saw the revolution as “the greatest and the best event in world history”, and this lost him much support. Many Whigs, led by Edmund Burke, deserted to the government, leaving Fox and a small group of some 50 “New Whigs” to carry on the fight against Pitt’s policy towards France and his reactionary measures to repress dissent at home. The war, they argued, was a crusade against freedom.

xxxxxApart from this unpopular stand, however, Fox espoused a number of worthy reforms. He played a leading part in repealing much of the anti-Catholic legislation in Ireland, and was a firm advocate of parliamentary reform - seeking an extension of the franchise and strongly arguing that a prime minister should be chosen by the majority party in the House and not be dependent upon royal patronage. He also played a prominent part in working for the abolition of slavery, and, opposing corruption in any form, came out in favour of the impeachment of the former governor general of India, Warren Hastings, even being prepared to co-operate with his great rival Pitt over this particular matter.

xxxxxThe hostility between George III and Fox, which began with Fox’s criticism of the king’s policy towards the American colonists and continued throughout the American War of Independence, was further embittered by the formation of the Fox-North coalition in 1783, an unholy alliance which George was determined to crush at the first opportunity. But even more galling to the king was Fox’s close friendship with the Prince of Wales, his degenerate son. This came close to causing a constitutional crisis in 1788 when the king suffered another period of madness. Had it not been for the intervention of Pitt as prime minister, Fox, together with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, might well have succeeded in having the dissolute heir to the throne appointed Regent, with dire consequences for both Pitt and the country at that particular time. Parliament alone, argued Pitt, had the competence to appoint a Regent. Fortunately for Pitt, the recovery of the king the following year put the problem on the back burner.

xxxxxFor a short term after Pitt’s death in January 1806, Fox served as Foreign Secretary in the “ministry of all talents”, and it was while in this office that agreement was finally given to the abolition of the slave trade, a cause which he had strongly supported over many years. Regarded in varying measure as a rake, a charming rogue, and a political opportunist, he was nonetheless an ardent reformer who, as a champion of liberty and free speech, was prepared to speak his mind whatever the consequences. In this respect he influenced the policy of the Whig Party as it entered the 19th century.