Wednesday, 29 June 2011

William Pitt the Younger: 'The Honestest Man'

Among my favourite Georgian politicians is the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger, the second son of the esteemed first Earl of Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and to this day, the youngest man to have ever have held the office of First Lord of the Treasury (what we would now called the office of Prime Minister).
He presided over parliament during an exceedingly turbulent period of history. During his term, he contended with the effects of the French Revolution and the first significant episode of madness in King George III (and thus a Regency crisis) and initiated a war with France in response to her growing dominance over the other Continental powers. During this engagement, he witnessed the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte who inflicted a series of devastating defeats on the allied forces (of which Britain was apart) and threatened the British Isles with a very real and formidable invasion force.  

Pitt is considered by historians as a somewhat elusive character – a man of many contradictions. Whilst widely considered as the preeminent orator of his age, he was at the same time an acutely shy man who staved off social engagements. In the company of his most intimate friends, he was considered the life and soul of the party – according to William Wilberforce (of abolition movement fame):
“no man, perhaps at proper seasons ever indulged more freely or happily in that playful facetiousness which gratifies all without wounding any.”
Yet publicly he was known for his cool, impassive demeanour. While indulgent of his brother, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, who at one time served as the First Lord of the Admiralty owing to Pitt’s influence, and his former tutor George Pretyman Tomline for whom he tried  (unsuccessfully) to obtain the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, Pitt was to the people “Honest Billy” – the incorruptible. Indeed, his contemporary Horatio Nelson described him as "the greatest Minister this country ever had, and the honestest man." Such an assessment wasn't unfair. For instance, Sir Edward Warpole’s death in 1784 left the Clerkship of Pells vacant. Such a position involved no work but entailed an annual income of £3000 (approx. £180,000 today) for life – and what’s more, its appointment was the gift of the First Lord of the Treasury. No one would have blamed Pitt had he taken the position for himself – indeed it was widely assumed he would. But Pitt instead granted it to Colonel Barre who despite being revered as somewhat of a national hero owing to his role in capturing Quebec in 1775, had been denied a pension by a previous government – a move, which as William Hague put it, “maintained the Colonel’s income while...while saving the taxpayer 3000 pounds a year and giving nothing to himself.”
A depiction of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe between them

Perhaps my favourite anecdote concerning Pitt which demonstrates the two distinctive sides of his personality comes from the account of William Napier, a family friend who related the following incident which took place when Pitt was in his early forties:
“Mr Pitt liked practical fun and used to riot in it with Lady Hester, Charles and James Stanhope, and myself; once...we were resolved to blacken his face with burnt cork, which he most strenuously resistsed, but at the beginning of the fray a servant announced Lords C--- and L--- desired to see him on business. ‘let them wait in the other room,’ was the answer; and the great Minister instantly turned to the battle, catching up a cushion and belabouring us with it in glorious fun. We were however, too many and strong for him him down and were actually daubing his face, when, with a look of pretended confidence in his prowess, he said, “Stop this will do; I could easily beat you all down, but we must not keep these grandees waiting any longer.”...we were obliged to get a towel and basin of water to wash him down before he could receive my surprise [the two lords] bent like spaniels on approaching the man we had just been maltreating with such successful insolence of fun! But instantly Mr Pitt’s change of manner...entirely fixed my attention...his tall, ungainly, bony figure seemed to stiffen and grow to the ceiling...and his eyes fixed immovably in one position...”
After his meeting with the two esteemed men, Pitt dismissed them (“with an abrupt stiff inclination of the body”) and
“turning with a laugh, caught up his cushions and renewed the fight.”
Pitt died in office in January of 1806 aged just 46. He remains the second longest serving British Prime Minister – in total, he was in office for 18 years and 343 days.
William Pitt the Younger addressing the Commons

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