PITT, Hon. William (1759-1806).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



8 Jan. 1781 - 1784
1784 - 23 Jan. 1806

Family and Education

b. 28 May 1759, 2nd s. of William Pitt of Hayes.  educ. Pembroke, Camb. 1773; L. Inn 1778, called 1780.  unm.

Offices Held

P.C. 10 July 1782; chancellor of the Exchequer July 1782-Apr. 1783; first ld. of Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer Dec. 1783-Mar. 1801, May 1804- d.


William Pitt began his parliamentary career with one great advantage and one great handicap. As the son of Chatham he inherited something of his father’s aura: his name ensured him an expectant welcome in the House, and he could count on the goodwill of his father’s friends. His great handicap was his poverty: with an allowance of only £300 a year, he had to take to the bar as a profession. In his youth he had been a model son: devoted to his father, earnest, and studious. In 1779, when not yet of age, he planned to contest Cambridge University at the forthcoming general election—evidence of assurance and also of immaturity. His name could not compensate for his youth and lack of achievements in the world; yet, though he came bottom of the poll, he did surprisingly well. In 1781, at the request of his friend the Duke of Rutland, he was returned by Sir James Lowther for Appleby.

On 26 Feb. 1781 Pitt made his maiden speech in support of Burke’s economical reform bill. Failure to impress the House at his outset might have been the extinction of his hopes. Yet he did not fail, and the first men in the House vied with each other in their congratulations. There was nothing very new in Pitt’s argument, but the speech showed all the characteristics of his mature oratory: logical in its argument, clear in its arrangement, eloquent in its expression, and confident in its delivery. Having found his feet, Pitt did not make the mistake of speaking too often. During his first session he made only three speeches, and in each case the newspapers complimented him by reporting them at length. On 1 Jan. 1782 James Hare wrote to Lord Carlisle:1

You have without doubt heard of the progress Pitt has made. He is wonderful in all respects, but in nothing so much as in the regular and rapid improvement he makes. I have heard him speak three times only and each speech was better than the former ... He seems to hold prudence in much higher estimation than Charles [Fox] does, and in this respect, therefore, has an advantage over him; in all others is nearer to an equality with him than anyone I ever saw.

When it is remembered that Pitt had not then been a year in Parliament and that Fox was virtually the leader of the Opposition, this is a remarkable tribute to the position Pitt had won for himself.

It was not by his oratory alone that Pitt impressed the House: he managed to convey a sense of intense earnestness and moral purpose. ‘He had early determined in the most solemn manner’, he said in January 1782, ‘never to suffer any private and personal consideration whatever to influence his public conduct at any one moment of his life.’2 On 8 Mar., when North’s Administration was tottering to its fall, he made a celebrated declaration: ‘That he could not expect to take any share in a new Administration; and, were his doing so more within his reach, he never would accept of a subordinate situation.’ It was an amazing statement for so young a man, particularly in an age which expected candidates for office to be modest about their pretensions. And when the Rockingham Administration was being formed, Pitt duly refused the offers of minor employment made to him.

There are some significant likenesses in the characters of Pitt and his father. Both impressed by their calmness and self-assurance, and Pitt had much of his father’s aloofness and distaste for party. By not accepting office under Rockingham he was able to stand apart from the struggle for power between Fox and Shelburne, a possible alternative leader of Administration. By family tradition he was inclined more to Shelburne, and Fox already saw him as a rival. On 11 May he wrote about Pitt:3

He is very civil and obliging, profuse of compliments in public; but he has more than once taken a line that has alarmed me, especially when he dissuaded against going into any inquiries that might produce heats and differences ... I am satisfied he will be the man that the old system, revived in the person of Lord Shelburne, will attempt to bring forward for its support.

Undistracted by the day to day routine of office, Pitt found time to appeal to a wider audience outside the House. On 7 May 1782 he moved his motion for an inquiry into the system of representation, an issue which transcended party divisions. The motion was defeated, but Pitt had created an image of himself as the champion of parliamentary reform.

When Shelburne formed his Cabinet in July 1782, Pitt was originally set down for the Home Office. But there were difficulties in appointing a young man who had never held office before over the head of his seniors. On 9 July 1782 the King wrote to Shelburne:4

I am sorry Mr. Pitt cannot be secretary of state but undoubtedly he may take the lead as chancellor of the Exchequer, which Mr. Townshend cannot object to, and perhaps considering his youth the arrangement may appear better as necessity has decided it.

In the event Pitt became chancellor of the Exchequer without the lead in the House of Commons, but with a seat in the Cabinet. Shelburne’s weak Administration could only hope to survive through an alliance with either Fox or North; and Pitt, unalterably opposed to North, undertook to see Fox. They met on 11 Feb. 1783. In reply to Pitt’s query ‘whether there were any terms on which he would come in’, Fox said: ‘None, while Lord Shelburne remained.’ ‘Then we need discuss the matter no further’, said Pitt, ‘I did not come here to betray Lord Shelburne.’5

In the debate of 17-18 Feb. Pitt spoke in defence of Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, and in that of 21 Feb. made clear the object of the Coalition’s attack:6

It is not this treaty, it is the Earl of Shelburne alone whom the movers of this question are desirous to wound. This is the object which has raised the storm of faction; this is the aim of the unnatural coalition to which I have alluded. If, however, the baneful alliance is not already solemnized, I know a just and lawful impediment, and in the name of the public safety I here forbid the banns.

Shelburne, defeated in the House of Commons, could no longer remain in office, and he consulted Dundas as to whom he should recommend to the King as his successor. Dundas instantly suggested Pitt.7

Young as he is [Dundas wrote], the appointment of him to the government of the country is the only step that can be taken in the present moment ... His youth appears a very material ingredient in the scale of advantages which recommend him. There is scarce any other political character of consideration in the country to whom many people ... will not have objections.

Pitt, offered the premiership by the King, asked time to consider, but on 27 Feb. declined.

Every argument I could think of [wrote the King to Shelburne8] I employed to actuate Mr. Pitt to take the step which would undoubtedly do him credit ... yet nothing could get him to depart from the ground he took, that nothing less than a moral certainty of a majority in the House of Commons could make him undertake the task.

On 24 Mar., when negotiations between the King and the Coalition were broken off, Pitt was again offered the Treasury and again declined.

During the time of the Coalition Pitt increased his stature in the House of Commons, and gave indications of the policy an Administration formed by him would pursue. On 7 May he introduced his plan of parliamentary reform: London and the counties were to have their representation increased, and boroughs which proved themselves to be corrupt were to be disfranchised. On 17 June he moved for a bill to effect economy in government departments. Both measures were lost, the one in the Commons and the other in the Lords; but they consolidated Pitt’s reputation as the champion of reform. ‘If Pitt could be persuaded [to take office]’, wrote Fox on 9 Sept., ‘... he would do more real service to the country than any man ever did.’9 But he despaired of gaining Pitt’s support.

On 18 Nov. Fox’s East India bill was introduced into the House of Commons, and Pitt, in Richard Fitzpatrick’s words, ‘threw down the gauntlet of opposition to the whole system and principles of the bill’. In a letter to the Duke of Rutland of 22 Nov. Pitt outlined his objections:

It is, I really think, the boldest and most unconstitutional measure ever attempted, transferring at one stroke, in spite of all charters and compacts, the immense patronage and influence of the East to Charles Fox, in or out of office. I think it will with difficulty, if at all, find its way through our House, and can never succeed in your’s.

Pitt spoke the feelings of a large section of public opinion, but misjudged opinion in the House of Commons: the bill passed the Commons with a large majority but was rejected in the Lords after the King had intervened against it. The Coalition was dismissed, and Pitt accepted the Treasury. He owed his appointment to the favour of the Crown, not to the confidence of the Commons. On 6 Dec. he wrote to Rutland: ‘The Closet will do everything, as far as I can judge, in fair co-operation and concert, if the crisis is found to be ripe, which I think it will.’ The negotiations leading to Pitt’s assumption of office cannot even now be traced in detail, but so much is clear: that once Pitt was convinced by John Robinson’s calculations that he could secure a majority in the House of Commons, he agreed to accept.10

Pitt was for nearly ten years the only commoner in the Cabinet: this gave him a strong position with respect to the King and the other ministers. But first he had to bear the brunt of the attack from the Coalition in the House of Commons. In the three months when Pitt was in a minority in the House he displayed coolness, steadiness, and courage of the highest order. Had he faltered, his political career would have been virtually over, and the King would have had to surrender again to the triumphant Coalition on even harder terms than in April 1783. But Pitt did not falter; the Coalition failed to drive him from office in the first few days; and as it became clear that he was going to stand his ground, the House of Commons gradually veered round towards him. By 25 Mar., when Parliament was dissolved, Pitt’s victory was assured; and the rout of the Coalition at the general election of 1784 was merely the ‘crowning mercy’.

With an ample majority and the confidence of the Crown, Pitt began the task of restoring national credit and reforming abuses in government—work which he was well fitted to do. His attitude to the House of Commons was curiously detached. He seemed to regard himself as the servant of the Commons, bound to interpret and carry out its wishes, rather than as its leader. On three important questions in this Parliament, Pitt was defeated in the House: the Westminster scrutiny, parliamentary reform, and the Duke of Richmond’s fortifications plan; yet he did not resign, nor was his position rendered insecure by these defeats. Fox said in the House during the debate on Richmond’s fortifications plan:11

Does any man imagine that I or any of my friends shall be advanced one step nearer the acquisition of power whether the Duke of Richmond’s fortifications plan succeeds or is negatived? If defeating the minister, even upon points which he has exerted his whole force to carry, could have brought us nearer to office, how happens it that, after the failures he has undergone, he not only remains unshaken, but seems to take deeper root?

In short, Pitt was no party leader, and his position was very different from that of a modern prime minister. His personal following was small. A computation of the House of Commons made in May 1788 gave the number of members attached to Pitt as 52; and added: ‘Of this party, were there a new Parliament and Mr. Pitt no longer minister, not above twenty would be returned.’12 Nor did he take pains to cultivate a party. Daniel Pulteney, an intelligent observer and a supporter of Pitt, wrote on 6 July 1784:13

We have no sort of plan or system or discipline. We conquer at present by numbers, and shall run no sort of risk this year at least; but I foresee what may happen if Pitt’s ministry is to be conducted on such a narrow system as public virtue, for the House of Commons must and will be what they have been this last century.

And on 1 July 1785:

I have even heard some of our most virtuous friends seriously complain that they never supported any minister a fortnight before in their lives without one dinner at least in the time, and it seems in this great duty of a good minister Pitt has almost deserved an impeachment.

Pitt’s attitude to the House of Commons strongly resembled his father’s: both were solitary men. Pulteney wrote about him on 23 Apr. 1785:

From having no immediate intercourse with the generality of the House of Commons here, he is as ignorant of their opinions on particular questions as if he was minister of another country. His whole attitude proves he can only be minister with an independent House ... His living and conversing with a very small circle, and acting only on abstract general principles will, I foresee, involve him at some time or other in difficulties ... But the aversion to the Coalition is still so strong in the House that he may continue many years ... and whenever he was to quit, I think no ministry, not founded on corruption, could stand against him.

And Sir Gilbert Elliot wrote at the time of the Regency crisis:14

Pitt is the only object the nation can perceive, and the only thing they think valuable in the world; and I rather think they would be content and pleased to set aside the whole royal family, with the Crown and both Houses of Parliament, if they could keep him by it.

After 1790 foreign affairs and the war with France are the dominating themes in Pitt’s career, and faced with the challenge from revolutionary France the erstwhile reformer became a conservative.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. HMC Carlisle, 560.
  • 2. Tomline, Mems. Pitt, i. 52-53.
  • 3. Fox Corresp. i. 325.
  • 4. Fortescue, vi. 79.
  • 5. Buckingham, Courts Cabinets Geo. III, i. 148-9; Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, ii. 233.
  • 6. Parlty. Hist. xxiii. 491.
  • 7. C. Matheson, Hen. Dundas, 91-92.
  • 8. Fitzmaurice, ii. 252-253.
  • 9. Corresp. C. J. Fox, ii. 208.
  • 10. Ibid. 212; Pitt-Rutland Corresp. 4, 5-6.
  • 11. Wraxall, Mems. iv. 273.
  • 12. Namier, Personalities and Powers, 31-32.
  • 13. Rutland mss.
  • 14. Life Letters Sir Gilbert Elliot, i. 248.