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Pitt, William the Elder and William the Younger (1708–1778; 1759–1806)


PITT, WILLIAM THE ELDER AND WILLIAM THE YOUNGER (17081778; 17591806), English statesmen. The Pitts, father and son, are unique in eighteenth-century British political history for their success in fashioning and refashioning self-images of disinterested public service that captured the imagination of a nation. Both were consummate players of the Hanoverian political game who reached the highest rungs of power from unpromising backbench origins.

Upon entering Parliament in 1735, the elder Pitt soon established himself as an eloquent critic of Court Whig government as established by the premiership of Sir Robert Walpole. While Pitt was by no means Walpole's only backbench critic, he was unique in his cultivation of an outspoken and haughty independence. Pitt was once widely regarded as a "commonwealthman," an exponent of a seventeenth-century English republican ideology that defined political virtue as the maintenance of continual vigilance against the twin evils of corruption and over-mighty executive power. To thisthough Pitt's commitment to it has been questionedhas been attributed his support for avantgarde causes: parliamentary reform, an independent county militia, and the cause of the Thirteen Colonies against Britain.

There can be little doubt that Pitt was a master of public relations. When he first took office as paymaster general in 1746, he stood out for his refusal to enrich himself from the perquisites of office, a self-restraint that stunned contemporaries used to peculation in high places. In 1757, upon entering office in partnership with the duke of Newcastle as secretary of state for the Southern Department, he insisted upon sole management of Britain's Seven Years' War (17561763) effort against France and Austria, thereby preserving his reputation for independence of thought and action. Pitt was a gifted military strategist who masterminded a series of bold and successful assaults on French possessions in India, Canada, and the Caribbean that began to establish Britain as the dominant European power in the wider world. When, in 1761, he resigned over George III's refusal to extend the war to Spain's maritime empire, he asked the crown to grant a peerage to his wife so that he could return as an independent M.P. to the House of Commons. His high-minded image was slightly compromised in 1766, when he finally accepted the earldom of Chatham, but many by that date thought a peerage no more than Pitt's due, and he remained a trenchant critic of British imperial policy until his death in 1778.

The Younger Pitt, a reserved workaholic, was very different in temperament from his flamboyant father, but displayed a talent for self-representation from his earliest days at Westminster. Having inherited Chatham's persona as an independent and critical Whig, Pitt appeared in 1781 as a fresh face to a Parliament and public weary of a twelve-year-old government and an unsuccessful war in America. Following the fall of Lord North's ministry in 1782, he was courted by several opposition groups but renounced all his connections to lead a minority government at the invitation of George III in December 1783. This was a political gamble that could easily have ended in disaster but Pitt, banking on the support of the crown and its supporters, outfaced his critics and was confirmed in power by a landslide general election victory in May 1784. He would not leave Downing Street until 1801, and returned from 1804 to 1806 to lead a second ministry.

The Younger Pitt's career has been traditionally divided into two halves: a liberal youth (17811791), in which he advocated parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, and religious toleration while inaugurating a kind of fiscal and administrative efficiency that established his reputation for honest, responsible government; and a conservative middle age (17921806), when he seemingly repudiated all the avant-garde causes of his youth to lead a war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, in so doing suspending the civil liberties of Britons in the name of national security. Pitt is still remembered as the founding father of the modern British Conservative party for having overseen the transformation of Toryism from a traitorous Jacobite creed into a political doctrine that valued tradition and stability over speculative change. What really went on in Pitt's mind remains a bone of contention. Did he simply take fright at the coming of the French Revolution? Was his advocacy of enlightened policies during the 1780s merely a form of window dressing? Was he some sort of progressive conservative or, alternatively, a cautious liberal? Pitt's own followers were unsure for decades after his death, and all they could agree upon was the shining image of incorruptibility that he presented to the world.

See also George III (Great Britain) ; Parliament ; Political Parties in England ; Representative Institutions ; Seven Years' War (17561763) ; Walpole, Horace .


Ehrman, John. The Younger Pitt. 3 vols. London, 19691996.

Mori, Jennifer. William Pitt and the French Revolution, 17851795. Edinburgh and New York, 1997.

Peters, Marie. The Elder Pitt. London and New York, 1998.

Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies. Cambridge, Mass., 1959.

Jennifer Mori

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