(By Bill Moloney, ’76 Contributor) (Nantucket) In perusing the shelves of this island’s renowned Atheneum I followed my usual habit of seeking high quality books about people or events of great consequence concerning which I am woefully ignorant. I highly recommend a remarkable biography, which significantly reduced my ignorance and gave great pleasure as well.
William Pitt the Younger by Robin Reilly (G.P. Putnam, 1978)
All I knew about William Pitt (1759-1806) was that he had become Great Britain’s Prime Minister at the tender age of twenty-four, sustained himself in that office for eighteen of the remaining twenty-two, years of his life, and during some of the most tumultuous events of modern world history acquitted himself with such distinction that he is today widely viewed as his country’s greatest leader.
Beyond question Pitt’s early ascent to power owed a very great deal to his being the son of William Pitt “The Elder” (1708-1778) one of the greatest figures in Parliamentary History and the architect of Britain’s victory over France in the global conflict known as the Seven Years War in Europe (1756-1763) and the French and Indian Wars in America.
While young Pitt’s path to power rested importantly on family connection his long tenure and great success was entirely a matter of individual merit. Even before becoming Prime Minister young Pitt had won the respect of the House of Commons for his remarkable intelligence, judgment, wit, oratorical skill, and above all integrity- qualities, which would sustain him throughout his brilliant career.
Pitt’s story provides superb insight into the still evolving character of Parliamentary Democracy, which was the model for the English Speaking Peoples worldwide, and in particular the Great American Democracy then arising across the Atlantic Ocean. America’s founding fathers were intimately familiar with every nuance of British politics both practically and philosophically. Thus in a very real sense Pitt’s story, Britain’s story, is our story as well.
A key aspect of this narrative is the ongoing tension between executive and legislative authority a theme that still resonates powerfully today.
To become Prime Minister Pitt had to be summoned to that office by his King- George III (1738-1820), a more formidable and complex character than is generally credited in American oriented Histories. Yet the monarch was limited by England’s unwritten Constitution, which had evolved over the centuries since Magna Carta (1215). Accordingly he could only choose a Prime Minister who had a reasonable base of support in Parliament. Though Pitt and his Sovereign had great differences on many matters they were able to work together because they both respected the other’s fundamental integrity.
By 1783 George III had come to realize that he had been disastrously served by those Ministers who allowed Britain to blunder into an entirely avoidable conflict with the American Colonies.
Thus Pitt’s first great challenge following his appointment was to repair the damage.
The long and costly war had a ruinous effect on Britain’s finances and trade exacerbated by the opportunism of Continental rivals particularly France which had decisively tipped the military balance in favor of the Americans.
Freed of the burdens of war Pitt’s administrative genius came to the fore as he pushed through Parliament and implemented a sweeping and long overdue overhaul of Britain’s economic institutions. Recognizing the absolute imperative of naval supremacy to Britain’s security he also launched a dramatic program of shipbuilding and reform of antiquated organizational practices.
These efforts restored Britain’s global primacy and most importantly provided the economic foundation for the titanic struggle against Revolutionary France that would dominate world politics for a generation.
The extraordinary national energy unleashed by the Revolution combined with the military genius of Napoleon allowed France to repeatedly defeat all Continental rivals.
Though he did not live to see final victory what enabled great Britain- half the population of France- to prevail in the end were the transformational financial reforms implemented by Pitt. Throughout his time as Prime Minister Pitt also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and the manner in which he organized and channeled Britain’s economic resources and rallied the nation to support the taxes and debt needed to build up Britain’s army and navy while also subsidizing allies proved decisive.
The reformer William Wilberforce- a Parliamentary giant in his own right- persuasively asserted that Pitt worked himself to death at the age of forty-six and said of him: “For personal purity, disinterestedness, and love of this country I have never known his equal”.
The consensus of historians supports this judgment. In the view of Charles Petrie Pitt was not only the Savior of his Country , but he also enabled Britain “to pass from the old order to the new without any violent upheaval…..He understood the new Britain”.
In the opinion of a later Conservative Prime Minister- Winston Churchill- the praise Pitt would have valued most is that reflected in the nickname given him by the British people who supported him throughout his extraordinary tenure: “Honest Billy”.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.