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Pitt, William

Pitt, William (1759–1806), known as Pitt the Younger. Prime minister. The second son of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, was an intellectually precocious but physically delicate boy. He was educated privately and at Cambridge. From an early age, his father supervised his upbringing, paying particular attention to skill in public speaking. He also introduced him to politics and although the younger Pitt qualified as a lawyer there was never any doubt that he would follow a political career. He entered Parliament in 1781 and soon made his mark in the Commons. He was a critic of North, whom he blamed for the loss of America, and advocated both economical and parliamentary reform. Pitt's basic political convictions mirrored those of his father. He upheld the king's right to choose and dismiss ministers; he detested party, and he believed that the secret of British prosperity lay in the maintenance of the balance between king, Lords, and Commons established after 1688. He was keenly interested in financial and commercial questions and knew the writings of Adam Smith and Richard Price. When North fell in 1782, Pitt refused a merely subordinate station in Rockingham's ministry. After Rockingham's death, Pitt became chancellor of the Exchequer under Shelburne. He deeply resented Fox's alliance with North, yet he was wise enough to refuse George III's invitation to head a ministry after the fall of Shelburne, preferring to bide his time until a more propitious moment. The crisis over Fox's India Bill gave George III and Pitt their chance. Pitt agreed to become prime minister provided that a public demonstration of George III's hostility towards the Fox–North ministry indicated where the king's confidence lay.

When Pitt took office in December 1783 few thought his ministry would survive. He faced an opposition majority in the Commons. But several factors worked in his favour. He had the unflinching confidence of the king; the Fox–North coalition was unpopular; and he was able to win over opinion in the Commons. He called the opposition's bluff over their threat to refuse supplies and he was able to distance himself from the unpopular Shelburne. At the general election of 1784 Pitt won a decisive victory.

During his peacetime administration he achieved much in the fields of fiscal, economical, and commercial reform. He cut customs duties and stimulated trade, set up a sinking fund in the hope of paying off the national debt, and put government loans and contracts out to tender. Having established his mastery in public finance he negotiated a commercial treaty with France and ended Britain's diplomatic isolation by entering into alliance with Prussia and Holland in the aftermath of the Dutch crisis of 1787. But there were frustrations and disappointments. Pitt's proposals for a moderate reform of Parliament were defeated; he was compelled to drop his scheme for free trade with Ireland; plans to improve the defences of Portsmouth and Plymouth had to be abandoned; the abolition of the slave trade had to remain an open question within the government. These set-backs reflected Pitt's acceptance of conventional ideas about the role of the crown and the functioning of the cabinet, and his vulnerability to shifts of opinion among the country gentlemen in the Commons. Pitt did not see himself as a party leader and neglected to build up a party within Parliament. This made him all the more dependent on the support of the king and unable to overcome opposition on controversial questions within the cabinet. His position was threatened in 1788 when the illness of George III presaged a change of government. But Pitt saw off the Foxite challenge. He studied precedent, stood forth as the defender of the rights of the king and the privileges of Parliament, and insisted that Parliament had the right to decide who should be regent and on what terms. When the king recovered in 1789 Pitt seemed invincible. He knew when to yield to political pressure, as over the impeachment of Hastings, and was adept at turning the ideas of others into practicable policies. By 1789 the confidence and prosperity of the country had been restored after the humiliation of the loss of the American colonies.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Pitt was sympathetic to reform in France but was determined to stay out of European complications if possible. As late as February 1792 he affirmed his expectations for fifteen years of peace in Europe. But with the collapse of the French monarchy and the aggressive policies pursued by the French republic his hopes were shattered. He was under pressure from those who feared radical movements in Britain and Ireland, especially when these were seen to be inspired by Jacobinical ideas. The outbreak of war in 1793 was a disaster for Pitt. His hopes for further reform were indefinitely postponed and he became transformed into ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’, a symbol of the nation's resistance to the French republic and empire. The war was long, arduous, and inconclusive. Though loyalism was the dominant feeling in Britain there was much economic distress and rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1798. Pitt had tried to appease Ireland by granting civil rights to Irish catholics and enfranchising the catholic freeholders in the Irish counties. Though the rebellion was crushed, Pitt was convinced that the credibility of the Dublin Parliament was destroyed. He carried an Act of Union with Ireland, hoping to follow it with catholic emancipation. He was thwarted on the catholic question, partly by the opposition of George III, partly by hostility within his own government, and partly by the unpopularity of catholic relief in Britain. He resigned in 1801, giving general support to Addington's ministry from the back benches and approving the peace of Amiens when it was signed in 1802.

During his years out of office he was criticized for failing to build up his party. He had recognized that a more dominant role for the prime minister was a desirable accompaniment of cabinet government, but when Addington left office in 1804, Pitt once again felt the constraints of the contemporary system. Despite their differences Pitt wanted to bring Fox into a coalition as foreign secretary. George III vetoed this appointment. As a result, the Foxites and Grenvillites refused to serve. Pitt's health was now in decline and the strains of office wore him out. He built up a coalition to defeat Napoleon, but hopes of a decisive end to the war were dashed by Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805. On 23 January 1806 Pitt died. He left behind him a band of younger men whose talents he had recognized and fostered and a legend which shaped popular Toryism in the early 19th cent. Yet, to the end of his life, Pitt regarded himself as an independent Whig. With a little ingenuity Victorian conservatives and liberals could claim to stand within the Pittite tradition when it was expedient for them to do so. In this sense Pitt became part of a national mythology.

John W. Derry

Bibliography

Ehrman, J. , The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim (1969);
—— The Younger Pitt: The Reluctant Transition (1983);
—— The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle (1996).

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Pitt, William (1759–1806, British statesman)

William Pitt, 1759–1806, British statesman; 2d son of William Pitt, 1st earl of Chatham. Trained as a lawyer, he entered Parliament in 1781 and in 1782 at the age of 23 became chancellor of the exchequer under Lord Shelburne. At the fall (1783) of the coalition government of Lord North and Charles James Fox, who was to be Pitt's lifelong rival, Pitt was made prime minister by George III. He overcame strong opposition in Parliament, where the king's interference was sharply resented, and a long-postponed general election (1784) gave him a parliamentary majority. Pitt's policies included reduced expenditures, new taxes to decrease the national debt, and lower customs duties in accordance with the theories of Adam Smith. He also advocated parliamentary reform but failed (1785) to secure Parliament's approval of it. His India Act (1784) strengthened the government's powers there but left patronage in the hands of the East India Company. His Constitutional Act (1791) divided Canada into Upper and Lower Canada and sanctioned the institutions of the French Canadians in the latter province. Pitt's popularity increased steadily; when the king became temporarily insane (1788–89), the prime minister was able, despite the efforts of Fox, to prevent the establishment of an unlimited regency and remain in office. His liberal policies ended when Great Britain became involved in the French Revolutionary Wars, followed by the Napoleonic Wars (see Napoleon I). When the French Revolution began (1789), Pitt's desire was for peace and neutrality, and after France finally declared war (1793) on Britain, he failed to foresee either the length or the seriousness of the conflict. Within Great Britain he suspended (1794) habeas corpus and enacted other repressive legislation to halt radical agitation. His military coalitions against France (1793 and 1798) were unsuccessful on land, although the British navy won some overwhelming victories, and his financial support of Britain's allies brought on a monetary crisis. Rebellion in Ireland hampered the war effort and convinced Pitt that the solution to the Irish problem lay in the parliamentary union of Ireland with England, accompanied by Catholic Emancipation, so that Roman Catholics might hold office. The union was achieved (1800) by wholesale bribery, but the king then refused to approve Catholic Emancipation, and Pitt resigned (1801). He was recalled (1804) as prime minister to repel an expected invasion by Napoleon, which never materialized. He organized a third coalition against France, but Horatio Nelson's great naval victory at Trafalgar was soon followed by the defeat of Britain's allies at Austerlitz (1805). The latter news is said to have hastened Pitt's death.

See biographies by P. H. Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope (4 vol., 3d ed. 1867, repr. 1970), Lord Rosebery (1891, repr. 1968), and J. Ehrmann (1972, repr. 1983); studies by P. MacKesy (1984) and G. O'Brien (1986)

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Pitt, William (1708–78, 1st earl of Chatham)

William Pitt, 1708–78: see Chatham, William Pitt, 1st earl of.

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"Pitt, William (1708–78, 1st earl of Chatham)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pitt-william-1708-78-1st-earl-chatham

"Pitt, William (1708–78, 1st earl of Chatham)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pitt-william-1708-78-1st-earl-chatham