Introduction and the Elder Pitt

The Elder Pitt entered Parliament when Robert Walpole, generally regarded as Britain's first Prime Minister, was nearing the end of his twenty year reign. Pitt was one of a group of politicians clustered around the Prince of Wales in opposition to Walpole, who enjoyed the support of King George II. It was a commonplace for Hanoverian heirs to gather around them opposition politicians due to a generally poor relationship between King and son. Opposition politicians thus hoped to gain power when Prince became King; however, no-one ever gained office for more than a week by pursuing this tactic.

Under George II and after Walpole's resignation, the Elder Pitt served as Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State, and was in charge of war policy in the successful Seven Years' War. Under George III he was himself Prime Minister from 1766 - 68, eventually having to resign over the American question. He had a son on May 28, 1759, who he named William. This son would go on to be the most well-regarded of later eighteenth century British politicians and preside over a period of great change. The rest of this write-up is about the Younger Pitt.

Pitt becomes Prime Minister

A sight to make surrounding nations stare;
A kingdom trusted to a school-boy's care
~ Contemporary Whig waggery

When Pitt entered Parliament via a 'rotten borough' in 1781, Britain was in the middle of the American Revolutionary War, which didn't end until 1783. He served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Shelburne's short-lived government of 1782 - 83. In 1783, George III was forced by necessity to accept the creation of a government headed by Lord North and Charles James Fox (nominally by Portland). Fox was the most powerful member of the faction known as the Rockingham Whigs, a group of men who were slaves to the Whig myth that politics was a battle between a pure House of Commons and a corrupt and evil Monarchy - hence they were George's biggest critics. When Fox introduced an East India Act which proposed nationalisation, to which the king was strongly opposed, the monarch ensured its defeat in the Lords and then dismissed the government.

The Whigs regarded this as a high-handed and unwarranted exercise of royal perogative, but their troubles were only just beginning. The King now asked Pitt, a young man of only 24, to form a government. His appointment was met with derisive laughter in the Commons, and he didn't even pick particularly experienced ministers to be part of his new government. The Fox-North coalition still controlled the House of Commons as Pitt's ministers were all Lords. Pitt suffered a number of early defeats in the first few months of 1784, but knew that if he bided his time until an election he would mostly like be successful, as governments generally were. The king also put his substantial network of patronage and persuasion to work to secure Pitt's success in the election.

The election of March 1784 hence confirmed Pitt's position. This election has sometimes been seen as the success of monarchical pressure (which is how Fox saw it), but Pitt also had a good showing in relatively open districts like Yorkshire. The upper classes have been convinced that the government of Pitt is necessary to keep the Rockingham Whigs out of office and stop the constitutional experiments of the previous few years. Stable government would be needed to recover from the loss of the American colonies, both fiscal and psychological. Pitt continued to enjoy the support of the upper classes throughout his turbulent Premiership, as they rallied behind him under the impetus of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. This support was buttressed by the creation of 119 new peerages during Pitt's reign.


Pitt had arrived to reform. The country was in immense debt following the wars with America, and it was not inconceivable that she would have to declare bankruptcy at some point in the near future. Pitt set about reforming the nation's finances to set them on a more secure footing, an achievement that would prove singularly useful when Britain entered her most expensive wars yet in the 1790s. British finance was based on finding a balance between indirect taxes such as tariffs, which fell mainly on the poor, and direct taxes such as the income or window tax which fell mainly on the rich. Pitt set about increasing revenue from indirect taxes by making them more efficient and directly increasing direct taxes.

Pitt's first action in this sphere was to pass tough laws against smuggling which made it a more risky venture. He then combined this with a carrot in the form of a much-reduced tariff on tea, and had soon doubled the amount of tea going through customs. The result was more money from tea overall going into the customs, a huge source of revenue when tea was becoming the national drink. He also introduced a new window tax aimed at luxury dwellings. The result was that the last pre-war budget showed a surplus going into the Treasury.

Alongside these fiscal measures, Pitt made a more concerted yet subtle attack against waste and inefficiency in state departments. Eighteenth century politics was build largely on an edifice of patronage and sinecures which were used to reward supporters and maintain clients. However, this led to vital and important departments suffering from a lack of staff while some were bloated with people doing nothing. However, knowing that bureaucracies create vested interest which is hard to attack, Pitt did not launch a frontal assault on them. Rather, he quietly transferred people to important offices when it was convienient and did not replace empty offices when their occupants died. As he remained in office for eighteen years, the cumulative effect was quite great.

French Revolution to French War

The French Revolution was not initially regarded as a huge event in Britain. The general impression was that the dim-witted French had belatedly had their own Glorious Revolution, and would establish a constitutional monarchy upon British lines. Only Edmund Burke realised the significance of the event early on, and the issue would tear what remained of Whig unity apart. Fox became truly estranged from mainstream opinion when he failed to condemn the September Massacres in Paris in 1792. After a series of treason trials in 1794 after which Pitt vastly overblew the scale of the threat from British sympathisers of the Revolution, almost everyone rallied behind him and Portland, an erstwhile ally of Fox, joined the government.

Although Pitt condemned the excesses of the Revolution, he did not take Britain to war out of principle or hatred. No doubt he harboured a deep hatred for the regicides of Paris, but even after the murder of Louis XVI and the September Massacres he did not take Britain to war. Instead, he took her to war for a very traditional reason - to protect British interests in the Low Countries, particularly the United Provinces (the Netherlands). Britain traditionally stood fairly aloof from Continental wars, but she had her "red lines" which could not be crossed. One of these was not to let France control the entire coastline of north-west Europe and hence be able to control the English Channel. The UK was also bound to the Dutch by an Alliance and was worried trade there might suffer.

Pitt's war policy seemed to be focused on the colonies, which has puzzled some observors. However, this reflected Donald Rumsfeld's observation that you go to war with the forces you have, not the ones you want to have. Britain did not have an army to speak of, and depended entirely on the Navy. She was very successful in the West Indies and made a number of useful gains, especially useful as the war would be won by economc might ultimately, and most European ports would soon be closed to British goods. The armies of the Continent were no match for the French leveé en masse, but there was no way to get them past the Navy and onto British soil. A stalemate ensued which would be eventually broken by Pitt's successors.

Britain's eventual success in the war was due to economic might and the ability of the British state to persuade its citizens to pay high taxes to finance the war effort. Higher taxes were accepted with grudging reluctance and a raised income tax was accepted on the strict understanding it would be rescinded when the war was over. Pitt managed to secure this domestic support by exaggerating the extent of the threat from 'English Jacobins' and due to the large trust invested in him by the propertied classes. He acted as the consummate and steady rock which would keep Britain anchored as the revolutionary tide washed around it.

When Pitt's first ministry ended in 1801, his successor signed the very unfavourable Peace of Amiens shortly afterwards. Britain's finances and opinion were straining under pressure, and the current stalemate of the French ruling the Continent and the British ruling the waves helped no-one. The war restarted and when Pitt formed his second ministry he oversaw setbacks for Britain and her allies.

Patriotism and repression during the war

Although the French Revolution did not create British popular radicalism out of a vacuum, it did have a transformative effect on the country which worried the propertied classes. Calls for universal suffrage emanated from taverns and Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man. However, the strength of this radicalism should not be overblown - Hannah More's loyalist Cheap Repository Tracts sold much more than double the number of copies as Paine's book.

However, the movement was worrying to the aristocracy more because of who was suggesting constitutional change rather than specific proposals. Eccentric aristocrats had suggested democracy in the past, and no-one had thought of arresting them. But the spectre of educated artisans forming cells throughout the country which had links to each other and existed to promote constitutional reform was enough to provoke a bout of repression from the government. This was especially true after it was found some of the societies had even been corresponding with the republicans in Paris!

In 1794 - 1800, the government passed bills to suspend habeas corpus, the right of association and make anyone criticising the constitution liable for transporation (deportation to Australia). Although the acts are made up of 'sunset clauses' which expired after a number of years, this was a considerable affront to the rights of free-born Englishmen. However, rioting during years of dearth had seemed to make them necessary, especially after someone had pelted the King's coach with stones. The radical movement was firmly shattered and retreated underground, and then vanished altogether.

Concurrently, efforts had been made to motivate the masses for loyalism. These turned out to be very successful, as in the example of the Volunteer Movement of 1794 - 5 which had propagandistic goals rather than defensive ones, and was very successful in attaining them. Invasion threats encouraged patriotism. The government also introduced poor law reform, although this was defeated in the Commons - the intent seems to have stood for something, however. The message from the people was that loyalism required paternalism on the part of the upper classes, as property involved duties as well as rights. The French Revolution went a considerable way to teaching the aristocracy this lesson.

The end

Pitt eventually drank himself into an early grave due to a fondness for port. In this way he was in a way one of the last of an age. By 1830, even before Victoria, 'Victorian values' would be predominant among MPs and observors would be denied the spectacle of men like Fox and Pitt debating while plainly pissed out of their faces. Pitt is remembered as a strong and capable Prime Minister who ruled during the period the power of the Monarchy was becoming totally emasculated, and paradoxically he contributed to this emasculation.