Father & Son: Two Prime Ministers

William Pitt (the Elder) / commons.wikimedia.org

William Pitt (the Elder) / commons.wikimedia.org

William PItt, 1st Earl of Chatham, sometimes known as Pitt the Elder, was born in 1708, narrowly avoiding the tumultuous seventeenth century in Europe. He joins the brief list of brilliant orators and parliamentarians who rose to become Prime Minister (1756-61, 1766-68). Politically, he was Whig – a liberal of the original stamp who earned the mistrust of Hanoverian George II.

At least George spoke English, whereas George I (his father, qv.) had arrived in England from Hanover without a word of English, to take the throne on the strength of having a mother who was the granddaughter of a Stuart king – James I (and VI of Scotland).

In 1746 heavy court influences forced George II to give the thirty-eight year old William a ministerial post. The prime mover in this political manoeuvre had been the Duke of Newcastle, but it was not long before William Pitt was engaging the Duke in semi-permanent argument. The Seven Years War put them together, however cautiously, in a coalition government in 1757.

Pitt controlled this war for seven years. No-one really knows by what means he had learned about war (he had no military or naval training), but he was a supreme strategist, and fully understood the importance and paramountcy of sea power. Throughout these seven years of open war involving Prussia, Britain and Hanover on one side, and Austria, France, Russia, Sweden and Spain on the other – public opinion in Britain venerated Pitt as a national hero, while fellow parliamentarians found him bullying and aloof. The fact remains that he might have been a domineering tyro, but Britain sailed out of the war victorious. Pitt instantly resigned, after becoming hopelessly involved in disagreement with other ministers over what their actions should be with Spain.

In 1764 and the following year he was twice invited by the king to form a government, but (rather gracelessly) he declined. In 1766 however he accepted and formed a government. But his premiership of 1766 – 68 was not successful, mostly because of failing health and strength.

Pitt’s past years were negatively influenced by illness. As a revered elder statesman he sympathised with the American revolutionaries; he saw their point of view, but found it impossible to reconcile himself to colonists’ independence, somnething he made abundantly clear in the last speech he was able to make in Parliament before his death at the age of seventy in 1778.

William Pitt (Pitt the Younger) was the second son of the Earl of Chatham. This quite remarkable parliamentarian became Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-three! Though hardly out of his teens, he refused to betray Lord Shelburne in his conflict with Charles James Fox, starting rivalry between the younger Pitt and Fox which lasted years. In 1783 the Fox/North coalition was overthrown and Pitt became Prime Minister at the age of twenty-four. During the years of peace until 1793 Pitt the Younger concentrated on nurturing Britain’s expanding economy, following the loss of the American colonies. In fact he was the first in a line of economic wizards that includes Disraeli.

From 1793 he stood with the rest of Britain against every tenet of the French Revolution, and Bonaparte himself, rising like a rotund phoenix from the ashes. Pitt had no illusions however, and though he raised three coalitions to fight Napoleon and gave subsidies to the enemies of France, Pitt never fought to restore the Frenchy monarchy; he did it to defend Britain. This is made perfectly clear in his speeches.

In Ireland, trouble was brewing; the Irish agreed with French revolutionaries, with the added aggravation of conflicting religious argument. Pitt believed Irish feuding could only be halted by the political union of Britain and Ireland. He proposed an Act of Union, but George III refused to consider it. Pitt resigned in consequence (1801) in the first year of the nineteenth century. It was not long before he was back in office, though his second term was not as spectacular as the first, despite Nelson’s victory over a combined Franco/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar (1805). William Pitt had a serious problem with drink, which almost certainly accelerated his decline towards an early death in 1806 at the age of 47.

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