WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER 1759 -
(G2, G3a, G3b, G3c)
xxxxxWilliam Pitt, son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, was Prime Minister from 1783-
xxxxxThe Englishman William Pitt the Younger served as the Tory prime minister for two terms: 1783-
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 -
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 -
xxxxxIn the conduct of the war, Pitt’s policy -
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-
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 -
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 -
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 -
Pitt: by the English portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough, 1784 – private collection. Bastille: by the French painter Jean-
xxxxxThe Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749-
xxxxxCharles James Fox (1749-
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 -
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-
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-
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.