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Who was William Pitt?

Updated on December 3, 2016

William Pitt (1759-1806), known as Pitt the Younger to distinguish him from his father, Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham, entered Parliament at the age of twenty-two, when Lord North's government was tottering after the disasters of the American War of Independence. Pitt so distinguished himself in debate that Shelburne made him Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1782. This government soon fell, but the Fox-North coalition which followed was unpopular and King George III found an excuse to dismiss them and appoint Pitt to the office of First Lord of the Treasury, the equivalent of Prime Minister. He was only twenty-four and his position appeared to be hopeless; yet he withstood all the attempts to drive him from office, won the approval of the City and the admiration of the country, so that in the Election of 1784 he obtained support that kept him in power almost continuously for over twenty years.

Pitt used the years of peace to restore England's reputation and finances. A believer in Adam Smith's theory of free trade, he reduced duties on tea, spirits, tobacco and other imports, introduced various taxes on luxuries to compensate the Exchequer, put through a trade treaty with France, reformed the Treasury accounting system and drastically reduced government extravagance and graft. His India Act (1784) transferred political affairs from the East India Company to the government, while his Canada Act (1791) avoided racial dispute by dividing the country into Upper Canada (British) and Lower Canada (French). In Europe he ended England's isolation and made his views felt by foreign governments.

Pitt was a man of peace, who did not relish the challenge of war, as his father did. When war came with France in 1793 his policy to subsidize continental allies was frequently to fail, but his pre-war economies had not affected the navy, so that the victories of Jervis, Duncan and Nelson enabled Britain to continue the contest with Napoleon.

Fear of revolutionary action caused him to bring in harsh measures, including the Combination Acts, but he also had the courage to introduce income tax to help pay for the war.

In hope of solving the problem of Ireland, Pitt decided to put through a union of the two parliaments, promising this would be followed by Catholic Emancipation, but when the King refused to agree he felt compelled to resign in 1801. He resumed office in 1804 and put together yet another coalition of European powers, only to learn that Napoleon had smashed it to pieces at Austerlitz (1805). Men said 'the Austerlitz look' never left his face and he died a few months later at the age of forty-six, murmuring 'Oh my country! How I leave my country!'. Pitt, a lonely man who never married, devoted his life to politics; he can be criticized for his reluctance to pursue parliamentary reform and abolition of slavery, but he achieved much in peace, rather less in war and he won and retained the trust of his countrymen.

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