Monday, August 14, 2017

Introducing that Amazing Man, William Pitt the Younger ~ Part II

by Jacqui Reiter

Please cast your minds back to 24 November 2013, when I introduced (or re-introduced) you to the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger and began explaining to you why you should find him worth the trouble of studying. I have already discussed his youth, his intelligence and his humanity. Today I will bring my explanations to a close.

He defied expectations

Pitt was proverbial for his honesty. This was a time when most politicians were happy to cream off every last financial perk they could, and were indeed half expected to do so. Pitt infused the posts of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer with a fresh sense of responsibility.

One of the first things he did on taking office was to turn down the lucrative sinecure of Clerk of the Pells. He later turned down the Garter as well. He did accept the Lord Wardenship of the Cinque Ports in 1792, but only after the King told him he'd take a refusal as a personal insult.[1]

This had a lot to do with Pitt's determination not to be anyone's plaything, even the King's. It's no accident that, when Pitt resigned in March 1801, he did so on an issue (extending the political freedoms of Catholics and other non-Anglicans) with which the King vehemently disagreed.

Pitt was no doctrinaire. He described himself early on as an 'independent Whig'[2] and showed a lifelong reluctance to commit himself to political absolutes (apart, of course, from the admiration for the Glorious Revolution and its religious and political settlement that was sine qua non for any ambitious 18th century politician).

He was an admirer of Adam Smith and formed many of his financial policies on a laissez-faire basis, but when things went wrong he was not afraid to depart from Smith's ideas. In 1800, for example, the harvest failed and Britain was on the brink of famine. Pitt outraged many of his more rigid followers by recommending the importation of grain from abroad to relieve the scarcity.

Politically he was creative enough. Many of his more famous ideas were lifted from others, but crucially Pitt made them work. You can blame him for the first Income Tax in 1798, which helped raise much-needed funds for the war with France despite being criticised as an unprecedented attack on personal property. The newest thing about it-- and I'm not sure this happened again until 1992-- was that the monarch was also taxed.

The forging of the United Kingdom and its new parliament after the union with Ireland in 1801 involved startling corruption but also significant administrative change. Less obvious was Pitt's review of the way government departments were run. These were made more accountable, stripped of excess staff and slim-lined in a way that laid the foundations for 19th century bureaucracy.

And of course Pitt was capable of breaking the rules in a literal sense. During a debate in Parliament in 1798 he accused a member of the opposition, George Tierney, of obstructing the defence of the country. Tierney challenged Pitt to a duel, and Pitt accepted. Thankfully both parties emerged unscathed. but it's just another of those unexpected little details that makes Pitt so interesting.

He is a mystery

For someone so famous there is much about Pitt that is simply not known, starting with his own opinions on major matters and working down from there. Like many politicians Pitt was cagey about taking a stand and was rarely categorical on the 'big issues' such as parliamentary reform, abolition of the slave trade, abolition of political restrictions based on religious beliefs, and so on. His political pronouncements were so woolly that, after his death, his heirs could trace arguments for and against all the above issues to him. 19th century Liberals and Conservatives both traced their ancestry to Pitt, and both were in some degree right to do so.

Part of the problem is the lack of primary evidence. Some of this is due to Pitt himself. He was a notoriously bad correspondent. His friends despaired of him. 'I called [at Downing Street] in hopes of seeing you, for you are so bad a correspondent that nothing can be made of you by Letter,' one wrote in 1796.[3] Pitt's own mother complained she had to hear about him from mutual friends.[4]

But there is more to it than Pitt's laziness. He certainly left a lot more behind him than now exists. One of his executors was his old friend and former Cambridge tutor George Pretyman-Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln, who later also wrote a (dreadful) biography of Pitt.

Pitt was barely cold in the grave before Tomline went through his papers and 'indulged in an orgy of devastation which ensured that nothing of the slightest personal significance ... remained to posterity'.[5] This is Reason Number 1, and there are more, why Tomline's portrait will always be at the centre of my dartboard.

Tomline was not alone; several of Pitt's friends, for example Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, destroyed material in their possession as well. Quite why is hard to say as the material obviously no longer exists, but it means that much of Pitt's private life and public opinions have to be guessed at from the little that remains.

It's really, really annoying for historians, but a perfect boon for novelists. I am surprised so few novelists have taken up the challenge of filling in the blanks. (No, I'm not the first, and I hope I won't be the last either!)

He is relevant

A historical character can be interesting, but in my opinion they only become important historically when what they achieved resonates across the centuries. Pitt, I think, definitely qualifies.

If you will pardon the cliché, Pitt lived in turbulent times. He entered Parliament at the end of the war with revolutionary America, when only a quarter of a million adult males had the vote and the movement for Parliamentary Reform was in full swing. He was later prime minister when reform returned to the fore of the agenda in the shadow of the French Revolution.

Pitt initially supported reform. He introduced three private reform bills in the early 1780s, one as prime minister. All failed. By the time the French Revolution broke out he'd changed his mind and argued that wartime was not the opportunity for reform. He had never been anything but a cautious reformer and clamped down hard on radicalism. For this reason he is mostly remembered as an enemy of the reform movement.

His quashing of popular reform movements in the 1790s in particular earned him a fearsome reputation in some 20th century historiographical circles. Some historians still talk about 'Pitt's Terror', and a book was recently published drawing parallels between Pitt's anti-reform measures and post-9/11 American and British intrusions into personal privacy.[6]

This does not make him any the less influential. The fact that his political acts in the 1790s still resonate today suggests the opposite. And in any case Pitt made a more lasting mark in other areas. He was the friend of William Wilberforce, and helped him galvanise the movement for abolishing the slave trade.

Abolition was not achieved until after Pitt's death, and for a variety of reasons he was not able to make it an official government measure. It was he, however, who first suggested Wilberforce take up the cause in Parliament, and it was Pitt himself who first moved it on Wilberforce's behalf. He continued to support it throughout his life.

Others of Pitt's measures were of great practical importance. For better or for worse, the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801-- passed by Pitt's government-- changed the political complexion of the British Isles completely. We are still (... just about!) the United Kingdom today, so it's safe to say Pitt's policy-making had a lasting impact.

I have no intention of going into the political complexities of the above-mentioned issues here. Reams have been written on the subject. What I want to say is that Pitt was a leading figure in a time of profound change and his actions mattered. He will always be interesting. Like him or not, I trust you will at least concede his importance.

And finally...So there you have it: six reasons why Pitt the Younger is worth your time of day. I hope that my enthusiasm has been catchy, and that any of you who began reading these entries with questions about who Pitt was, or why he is interesting, have now had those questions answered.

I hope, too, that I have whetted your appetite for more. Should you choose to expand your knowledge I would advise you to consult any or all of the following:

John Derry, William Pitt (B.T. Batsford, 1962)
Michael Duffy, Pitt the Younger (Longmans, 2000)
John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt, 3 vols (Constable, 1969-96)
William Hague, William Pitt, the Younger (Harper Collins, 2004)
Robin Reilly, Pitt the Younger (Cassell, 1978)
J. H. Rose, William Pitt and National Revival and William Pitt and the Great War
Lord RoseberyPitt (1891) 
Earl StanhopeLife of William Pitt, 4 vols (J. Murray, 1861-2) 
Michael J. Turner, Pitt the Younger: A Life (Hambledon and London, 2003) 

[1] Stanhope II, Appendix xv-xvi
[2] Ehrman I, 58
[3] Lord Mulgrave to Pitt, 14 May 1796, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS f 1961
[4] Holland Rose,
[5] Robin Reilly, Pitt the Younger
[6] Kenneth R. Johnson, Unusual Suspects: Pitt's reign of alarm and the lost generation of the 1790s (OUP 2013)

An EHFA Editor's Choice, originally published December 11, 2013.

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at and you can follow her on Facebook ( or Twitter ( Her first book, The Late Lord: the Life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.


  1. Thank you
    I love reading about William Pitt the younger and this is just amazing.
    Thanks again

  2. Brilliant stuff, thanks!

  3. I concur with the other commenters,well done and thank you!

  4. Well done, and thank you! -Mark

  5. You state

    This was a time when most politicians were happy to cream off every last financial perk they could, and were indeed half expected to do so.

    What has changed?


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