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Pitt, William [known as Pitt the younger]locked

  • J. P. W. Ehrman
  •  and Anthony Smith

William Pitt (1759–1806)

by John Keyse Sherwin, 1789 (after Thomas Gainsborough, begun 1787)

Pitt, William [known as Pitt the younger] (1759–1806), prime minister, the fourth child and second son of William Pitt, later first earl of Chatham (1708–1778), prime minister, and his wife, Hester (1720–1803), the daughter of Richard Grenville and Hester, Countess Temple, was born at the family home, Hayes Place, Kent, on 28 May 1759. A lively and cheerful but delicate child, he was educated at home, where his precocious intelligence engaged his father's interest. According to the Revd Edward Wilson, the family tutor, he seemed 'never … to learn, but merely to recollect' (Pretyman, 1.3–4). He was trained as a debater, his powers of elocution developed by declamation from Shakespeare and Milton, his ready choice of words by translation from the Greek and Latin classics, his oratory by being set to address an imagined parliamentary audience.

University and early career, 1773–1782

Although he was intended for the bar, Pitt's destiny was clearly a political life. In April 1773, at the young age of fourteen, he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, and took up residence in October; his college tutor was George Pretyman (from 1803 Pretyman Tomline), who became a lifelong friend. Because of poor health Pitt resided only intermittently until 1776, thereafter keeping regular terms until the end of 1779. The prominence given at Cambridge to mathematical studies and history and political philosophy suited Pitt's cast of mind and contributed to his mature outlook. He read extensively in the classics and English literature, became interested in chemistry and fascinated by Newton's Principia, and was a competent mathematician. While European literature and the study of philosophy received due attention, concern for theology was less marked. His later time in college was sociable, and some of his friends—among them John Pratt, later second Earl Camden, the marquess of Granby, later fourth duke of Rutland, the tenth earl of Westmorland, and Charles Long, later Lord Farnborough—became political associates. Before leaving Cambridge, Pitt settled the affairs of his father, who died in May 1778. He inherited an annual income of £600—half being a grant from his elder brother John Pitt, second earl of Chatham—with the expectation of a future capital payment, which amounted to only some £4000, raised through the sale of Hayes Place in 1785. From the outset, therefore, Pitt had little money. After leaving Cambridge he borrowed from the family's banker, Thomas Coutts, to complete the purchase of rooms at Lincoln's Inn while preparing for the bar, and mortgaged them a year later to a moneylender at a high rate. He had entered on a tangle of personal financial expedients that continued for the rest of his life.

From Lincoln's Inn Pitt witnessed the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in June 1780, and that summer practised as a barrister on the western circuit. In September, on the dissolution of parliament by Lord North, he canvassed a university seat at Cambridge, but ended at the bottom of the poll. Through the influence of the duke of Rutland he was offered the Westmorland borough of Appleby by the boroughmonger Sir James Lowther, who—with uncharacteristic generosity—allowed him freedom of conduct, requiring only that he should agree to resign 'if ever our Lines of Conduct should become opposite' (Pitt to Hester, countess of Chatham, endorsed November 1780, TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/12). Unable to afford the expense of a contested election, Pitt accepted the invitation and, aged twenty-one, was elected in his absence, in time for the assembly of the new parliament in January 1781. There Pitt attached himself to the followers of the second earl of Shelburne, who had been his father's disciple, as part of the combined opposition under the second marquess of Rockingham to the ministry of Lord North. His maiden speech on 26 February 1781, during the second reading of Edmund Burke's motion to reintroduce his bill for economic reform, was an unusual début, for he spoke unprepared, following calls from the opposition benches. The confidence and quality of his response deeply impressed the house. 'His voice', it was recorded, 'is rich and striking, full of melody and force; his manner easy and elegant; his language beautiful and luxuriant. He gave in this first essay, a specimen of eloquence, not unworthy the son of his immortal parent' (Debrett, 2.17). In its maturity of argument, its logic, balance, and control, Pitt's oratory was indeed from the first as it endured to the end. Burke, Charles James Fox, and North himself commended his performance.

Pitt spoke seldom during his first session and indeed is recorded as speaking on only twenty occasions over the next fifteen months. His substantial contributions covered three key topics. He attacked the ministerial incompetence that he believed had provoked and perpetuated the American War of Independence. He supported economic reform, an endeavour to reduce the expense of government and curtail the political influence of the crown by paring its patronage, though his emphasis, like Shelburne's, differed from that of the Rockinghamites; for—while suspicious of George III in person—he was guided less by hostility to the royal prerogative and more by a sense of the value of administrative improvement. And he espoused parliamentary reform, his sympathy—like Shelburne's—inclining rather to the proposals of the Yorkshire Association under Christopher Wyvill than the more radical metropolitan movement linked with Fox.

In Pitt's second session, on 20 March 1782, North resigned following opposition criticism over the British defeat by the Americans at Yorktown, and Rockingham formed a ministry with Shelburne and Fox as principal secretaries of state. Despite his rising prominence, Pitt was not included in the arrangements. He had compromised his hopes of a cabinet post by declaring in the Commons on 8 March that he would accept no other and then, while having apparently been tempted, rejected the offer of a more junior place as a vice-treasurer of Ireland—Chatham's first appointment—worth £5000 a year. Having thus underlined his independence, he turned to parliamentary reform. In April he met Wyvill in the London home of Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, and was requested to present a motion; on 7 May, in a carefully phrased speech, he proposed the appointment of a select committee 'to take into consideration the present state of the representation of the House' (Debrett, 7.105). Careful to encourage the different strands of possible support, he linked parliamentary with economic reform by an argument—'the people were loud for a more equal representation, as one of the most likely means to protect the country from danger, and themselves from oppressive taxes' (Ehrman, 1.71)—already employed by the Yorkshire Association. He asked for 'a moderate and substantial reform' (Debrett, 7.126), and denounced the rotten boroughs. The motion was defeated by 161 to 141 votes, a respectable minority. Pitt attended the reformers' Thatched House Tavern meeting on 18 May, and spoke in June for an unsuccessful bill to regulate the conduct of elections from his brother-in-law Lord Mahon, later third Earl Stanhope. He was proceeding, as he had intended, as far as possible by his own route: he was never, for instance, as has sometimes been said, a member of the Society for Constitutional Information.

First taste of government, 1782–1783

Rockingham died on 1 July 1782 and Shelburne accepted the leadership of the ministry, upon which Fox and Lord John Cavendish, the chancellor of the exchequer, resigned; on 10 July Pitt was appointed, at the tender age of twenty-three, in Cavendish's place. His first experience of office was in association with a man whose political views much resembled his own and who in some ways influenced his development. They broadly agreed over economic and parliamentary reform and wanted to introduce a liberal system of trade between Britain and Ireland; Shelburne also had firm views on the management of the national debt, an issue that Pitt later made his own. Yet there were temperamental differences between them, as well as differences in their methods of business, and they failed to warm to one another. A reform in Treasury office procedures was introduced, and Pitt brought in bills to reform office-holding and fees in the customs and for the wider regulation of departmental fees and the sale of offices (the Public Offices Regulation Bill). The first was defeated in the Commons and the second in the Lords. Pitt was not consulted closely in Shelburne's peace negotiations with America and its allies but participated fully in cabinet discussions, attending all meetings of which records survive, and both there and in the Commons—where he had to answer for foreign affairs—supported Shelburne loyally. He approved of Shelburne's broad aims, if not always their detail, but his own interest was focused more on domestic than on foreign issues.

When the preliminary treaties of peace with the United States, France, and Spain were presented to parliament on 27 January 1783, Shelburne failed to prevent Fox and North from uniting against them. A meeting on 10 or 11 February, in which Pitt sounded out the possibility of an accommodation with Fox, was fruitless and brief; and Shelburne resigned on the 24th. On the same day—on Shelburne's recommendation, and with the eager concurrence of Henry Dundas, who hoped for an arrangement which would free North from dependence on FoxGeorge III sent for Pitt. On 27 February, after nearly being persuaded to accept, Pitt declined the offer, explaining to Dundas:

I see that the main and almost only ground of reliance would be this,—that Lord North and his friends would not continue in a combination to oppose. In point of prudence … such a reliance is too precarious to act on. But above all, in point of honour to my own feelings, I cannot form an administration trusting to the hope that it will be supported, or even will not be opposed, by Lord North.

Stanhope, Life, 1.107

Despite having been asked by the king on 20 March to reconsider, Pitt resigned on the 30th, and on 1 April a coalition of Fox and North took power, with the duke of Portland as first lord of the Treasury. Pitt's conduct made a great impression, and was a precocious example of good political judgement. Without forfeiting the king's goodwill he preserved his independence from both party and court and showed that, notwithstanding his declared ambition for power, he would not 'coalesce with those whose principles he knew to be diametrically opposed to his own' (Debrett, 9.349).

Out of office, Pitt turned again to parliamentary reform, and on 7 May 1783 he introduced another motion, declaring that his objective was not to 'innovate, but rather to renew and invigorate the spirit of the constitution, without deviating materially from its present form' (Debrett, 9.689). He called for a measure to prevent electoral bribery, for the disfranchisement of boroughs known to be corrupt, and for an increase in representation for the shires and larger metropolitan boroughs, but made no general attack on rotten boroughs. The proposals were easily defeated, by 293 to 149, though with enough support to justify another effort later. In the summer recess, in September, Pitt travelled with his friends Edward Eliot (now his brother-in-law) and William Wilberforce to France, staying in Rheims and visiting Paris and Fontainebleau, where they met Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. He was back in London on 22 October for the new parliamentary session in November, and never crossed the channel again.

The struggle for power, November 1783–April 1784

On 18 November Fox introduced his East India Bill and sparked off a political storm, which swept Pitt to the forefront of affairs. Its opponents saw the bill as an attack on both the rights of the crown and the East India Company's charter. As disquiet grew, a group of politicians, including Henry Dundas and the parliamentary expert John Robinson (formerly secretary of the Treasury), saw the issue as an opportunity to remove a ministry detested by the king. If George III were to dismiss the ministry, however, he would need someone to lead a new one in the Commons which would come under intense pressure from the deposed FoxNorth coalition until a general election could be called with the prospect of ministerial victory. On 9 December Pitt's views were sought in great confidence by the king through an intermediary; and on the 11th, once assured of the authenticity of the overture, Pitt advised him not to dissolve parliament immediately, but to await events in the House of Lords, which might be influenced if the king made his own sentiments plain. George III acted immediately, authorizing Lord Temple to say that he would regard as an enemy anyone voting for the bill. On the 17th the peers threw out the measure by a majority of nineteen, on the 18th Portland, North, and Fox were dismissed, and the next day Pitt took office as first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. His cabinet, formed after a series of refusals, was notably weak, with every member but himself in the Lords, so that in parliament as well as in government much depended on his own performance. When the Commons reassembled in January 1784, moreover, the confident ferocity of Fox's attack was discouraging; on the opening day, 12 January, Pitt was defeated twice, by majorities of thirty-nine and fifty-four, the second on a motion that the king's name had been used unconstitutionally, and another five opposition motions were carried without division. On the 16th a motion that the ministry was unconstitutional had a majority of twenty-one. Pitt ignored these humiliations, however, and the situation began intermittently to ease. On 23 January he introduced an East India Bill, which was defeated by only eight votes, and addresses to the throne from corporations friendly to government mounted. On 2 February some independent MPs carried a unanimous motion that 'a firm, efficient, extended, united Administration' was needed (Debrett, 13.27), but the talks with opposition that followed foundered on Fox's insistence that Pitt must resign. The struggle continued fiercely, with Fox gaining a majority of twelve on 18 February for postponing consideration of the financial supplies for the Ordnance. While returning from receiving the freedom of the City of London on the 28th, Pitt was attacked in his carriage in St James's Street by a Foxite crowd, and on 5 March Fox had a majority of nine for postponement of discussion of the annual mutiny bill; but he had already declared—a significant concession—that he would not stop the financial supplies, and these all passed in the following weeks. Another call on the 8th for Pitt's dismissal passed by a single vote, and on the 16th he declared 'our present position a triumph, at least compared with what it was' (Stanhope, Life, 1.199). On the 24th, with all the grants for the year secured, parliament was dissolved.

The general election of early 1784 broadly endorsed Pitt's struggle to survive over the previous three months, and produced a majority in a full house of about 120. There had been, clearly if irregularly, a surge of opinion in Pitt's favour among the larger and more open constituencies. The quality of the victory, as well as the swing in numbers, impressed both contemporaries and Pitt himself. Throughout the bitter parliamentary conflict, when he could so easily have been charged with an opportunist servility to George III, he had been concerned to proclaim his independence and maintain a distinctive position, free from the 'old politics of the Court' (letter to Temple, 20 July 1783, Stanhope, Miscellanies, 23–6)—a claim of abiding and central importance, politically and personally. Now he could appeal to a favourable national verdict, and a rejection of Fox's politics. Having stood again for Cambridge University—as well as for Appleby—he emerged at the top of the university poll; since he was no longer associated with Lowther, his victory strengthened his independence.

India, Ireland, and political set-backs, 1784–1793

Pitt's immediate unavoidable task was settling the affairs of the East India Company. His act, passed in August 1784, proved the basis of Indian affairs for more than seventy years; it created a new Board of Control, made Indian authorities more responsible to London in their conduct of foreign affairs, and placed British subjects in India more directly within the jurisdiction of British courts. Unlike Fox's bill, it stipulated that the commissioners of the board—who were always to include the chancellor of the exchequer and a secretary of state—were to be crown rather than parliamentary appointments and have no powers of appointment to Indian offices. From 1784 to 1787 Pitt attended only sixteen of the 116 meetings of the Board of Control, leaving most of the business to Henry Dundas, the ministerial expert on Indian affairs. Friction between ministry and company continued over civil and military appointments in India, and in April 1786 Pitt strengthened the executive and military powers of the governor-general of Bengal in order to persuade Earl Cornwallis to accept the office. In 1787, on seeking to increase the crown forces in India, Pitt found the company unwilling to meet the attendant costs, and accordingly, in February 1788, introduced a bill to give the Board of Control power to order payment of any expenses incurred in securing British possessions in India. Apparently unwell, possibly from a bout of drinking with Dundas, he made one of the worst speeches of his career, displaying the impatience with the company he had often revealed in private. 'What', he asked, 'had been his avowed objects in framing the Act of 1784? The principal one was, to take from the Company the entire management of the territorial possessions, and the political government of the country' (Debrett, 8.301). The fate of the bill became doubtful, and it took a more conciliatory speech and a series of amendments against the extension of ministerial patronage to save it. Pitt concerned himself with Indian commercial and financial issues; the company's debts posed complex problems, and, when Cornwallis made proposals for a settlement of the Bengal revenues, he reportedly shut himself up with Dundas for ten days to study them. He contributed to discussions on the renewal of the company's charter, which passed through the Commons in June 1793, and introduced the office of president of the Board of Control, to which Dundas was appointed.

Pitt distanced himself from attempts in 1786 to impeach the former governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings. He declared himself neither friend nor foe of Hastings, was unwilling to take an official stance, and treated each accusation on its merits, but his conduct naturally attracted attention. On the first charge against Hastings he spoke and voted for the defendant, but on the second, debated in the Commons on 13 June 1786, he astonished colleagues and the political world by condemning Hastings's conduct and voting with the opposition against him. On two later charges he likewise gave his verdict for Hastings to stand trial. He regarded the issues as entirely ones of conscience, but was reluctant to discuss his decisions, and was sensitive to criticism that they were inappropriate from the leader of the ministry, even if the case was not conventionally speaking one of ministerial responsibility. He moved firmly in 1787 to prevent the impeachment of Hastings's chief justice, Sir Elijah Impey, and was absent when the trial of Hastings opened in February 1788.

In the summer of 1784, after a poor harvest in Ireland followed by an outbreak of economic distress and public disorder, the government in Dublin suggested palliative measures—a revision of the Navigation Act, the regulation of certain duties, and the definition of Ireland's position in treaties with foreign states. Pitt, who was already interested in Irish commercial problems, seized this opportunity to try to introduce more radical 'fixed principles' and a 'permanent and tranquil system' that would enable the British and Irish parliaments to 'exercise the rights of legislation, without clashing with each other on the one hand, or, on the other, being encumbered by the necessity of actual and positive concert on every point of common concern' (Gibson, 85–6). He contemplated 'a prudent and temperate reform' of the Irish parliament, which might 'unite the Protestant interest in excluding the Catholics from any share in the representation or the government of the country' (Correspondence between … Pitt and … Rutland, 43–4). He hoped most of all to increase the aggregate wealth of the two countries through trade, and was inclined:

to give Ireland an almost unlimited communication of commercial advantages, if we can receive in return some security that her strength and riches will be our benefit, and that she will contribute from time to time in their increasing proportions to the common exigencies of the empire.

ibid., 65–6

In exchange for the expected commercial rewards, coming in part from overseas trade, Pitt proposed that Ireland contribute to British naval strength through the income of the Irish hereditary revenue, a fund made up mainly of customs and excise duties that might be regarded as a self-regulating index of national prosperity. The contribution in any year would be the annual surplus of the fund over the yield produced on average in the preceding five years; if trade increased or decreased, so also would the contribution. The design was of a kind that always appealed to him, using an ingenious device for the wider end of ensuring that 'for the future the two countries will be to the most essential purposes united'. He pressed it on the cabinet, and on 7 February 1785 resolutions were placed before the Dublin parliament. There difficulties arose, for the Irish Commons demanded that any increase in revenue should be devoted to the ordinary peacetime expenditure of Ireland. The administration compromised by proposing that contributions be required only after its budget had been balanced each year and, with this concession secured, the remaining commercial measures were approved. Pitt, however, unwilling to drop his principle of annual contributions, set to work to have it accepted, but miscalculated by forcing the pace in London during March, thereby arousing a campaign of hostile petitions and pamphlets from British manufacturers. Thereafter his policy was ensnared in a ceaseless round of discussions and amendments. A modified scheme passed the British Commons at the end of May and the Lords in July, but the revisions excited further suspicion in Ireland, the method of annual contributions remained unresolved, and the Irish government failed to rally adequate support. When the amended measure was placed before the Irish Commons on 13 August 1785, it was accepted, after a damaging debate, by a majority of only nineteen, and the bill was dropped two days later.

The defeat was Pitt's worst failure during his first eight years in office and a severe personal blow. Having been sure of success, he convinced himself that an opportunity had been lost for a comprehensive settlement on enduring principles. Yet he had been in too much of a hurry, and failed to consult widely enough to discover, as he had wished, 'the actual temper … of men's minds' (Correspondence between … Pitt and … Rutland, 44). It needed patient explanation and careful management to persuade the Irish parliament to accept his ideas, and he had not allowed enough time. Having invested much emotional capital in the scheme, his disappointment ran deep. Now his attention turned elsewhere, and when Irish affairs were next thrust upon him his approach was on very different lines.

Pitt suffered a reverse over the parliamentary scrutiny of the Westminster election of 1784, in which Fox had beaten the ministerial candidate Sir Cecil Wray into third place. Convinced that Wray had polled more votes, he allowed the call for an inquiry to drag on into 1785, enabling the opposition to exploit a mounting sense of the unfairness and apparent vindictiveness of the process. His earlier majorities declined and, following a defeat early in March, the attempt was abandoned: his determination to succeed—fuelled by rivalry with Fox—had closed his mind to the changing mood in the Commons.

Remaining concerned with parliamentary reform, in April 1785 Pitt introduced a modest bill for piecemeal and voluntary purchase of voters' rights in thirty-six small boroughs and the redistribution of the seats among the counties and London. This was defeated by a majority of seventy-four in a division of 422, and its opponents included two ministers. Although more successful than in 1783, Pitt had been far too optimistic about the prospects, and he never returned to the subject again. Another failure was the loss in February 1786 of a ministerial bill to implement the plans of the duke of Richmond, the master-general of the ordnance, to spend £760,000 on improving dockyard defences at Plymouth and Portsmouth. Despite Pitt's advocacy, back-benchers objected to the scale of the expenditure, and the measure was defeated in the Commons on the casting vote of the speaker. Pitt's rash attempt to reintroduce it in May prompted an outcry and its ignominious withdrawal. He had failed both to secure ministerial unity—Lord Howe at the Admiralty was particularly hostile to the bill—and to anticipate the mood and the likely prejudices of the Commons.

Finance and administration, 1784–1793

Pitt's first financial initiative was directed against the evasion of customs duties, particularly by tea smuggling, which sapped the revenues of the East India Company and the exchequer alike. His Commutation Act of 1784 lowered the levy from an average of 119 per cent to a uniform rate of 25, the loss of revenue being compensated by a sharp increase of the window tax in his June budget. Then, with the co-operation of the East India Company and the tea merchants, and the support of an advance from the Bank of England, he secretly attempted to slash the profits of the contraband by forcing down the market price of tea. A significant fall was achieved in 1784–5 and maintained in subsequent years. Encouraged by this success, Pitt lowered duties on other goods (principally wines, spirits, and tobacco) between 1785 and 1789; rights of search and seizure and other powers of the revenue officers were strengthened, for instance by the Manifest Act of 1786. These measures markedly increased annual yields, discernibly reduced smuggling, and by 1792 had produced an overall increase in revenue of £1.5 to £2 million a year.

Fiscal policy during the peacetime years of Pitt's first ministry was mainly cautious and conservative. He had no marked preference for any particular class of tax, introduced new imposts on some items of conspicuous expenditure, and increased rates on some established levies. The emphasis fell on luxuries and customary forms of assessment, and no new principle was involved, but his fiscal measures did not escape opposition. Proposals for more effective collection of levies on hops and coals and a duty on linens and calicoes were defeated in 1784; a tax on female servants in 1785 was quickly withdrawn. Pitt kept his shop tax of 1785 despite strong opposition in the Commons, riots in London—Downing Street was briefly besieged—and continued resentment, but dropped it in 1789, when the improved state of the finances allowed. The yield of this miscellany of taxes proved adequate, as only about £1 million a year was needed to cover the annual peacetime surplus of expenditure over ordinary revenue. Pitt's budget speech of February 1792 reviewed with satisfaction a period of successful management, stable finances, and buoyancy and growth in British trade, which he felt justified an immediate cut in taxation of about £0.25 million.

Within this fiscal framework—traditional, sensitive, but not unduly demanding—Pitt earned great acclaim for his financial reforms. His Consolidation Act of 1787 replaced an enormous range of customs and excise duties—and some stamps—with new rates linked to a greatly reduced list of exchequer accounts formed into one consolidated fund, and established the priorities of expenditure claims upon the fund. He thus tackled a system acknowledged to be rigid, inefficient, and complex—the bill needed 2537 distinct resolutions—in which negligence and fraud were rife from the administrative burdens involved and no clear view could be gained of the state of a large part of the nation's revenue. Treasury account books soon slimmed from between sixty and seventy folios to about a dozen, and exchequer tallies were reduced from 1700 to some 200 a year. The idea had been in the air since the 1750s and recommended in 1782—but it took a bold young chancellor to implement it. While the measure did not cover all aspects of government finance, being limited to receipts and issues of the exchequer, it was a vast and beneficial simplification, and anticipated the eventual reform of the accounts as a whole in 1857.

Benefiting from reduced post-war expenditure needs, Pitt took steps to reduce the national debt. In 1784 funded national debt was about £243 million, and of £24 million annual expenditure some £8.5 million was devoted to the annual interest incurred. While Pitt's aim when increasing revenue modestly beyond outgoings was to have the means of reducing the debt he nevertheless had to borrow to meet the interest charges, though this was possible on better terms than during the war. In 1784 he encouraged two syndicates to compete for the governmental loan, a useful precedent, though less immediately effective than he had hoped, and in 1785 he negotiated directly with the Bank of England. Thereafter in peacetime he raised money through short-term bills and debentures—except for the employment, with disappointing results, in 1789–90 of a tontine (a variety of life annuity). During 1784–5 he redeemed all he could of the higher interest-bearing unfunded wartime loans (those not secured against specified government revenues), such as navy bills and ordnance debentures.

In 1786 Pitt implemented a plan to reduce the funded national debt (the total of loans for which payment of interest—and sometimes repayment of capital—had been assigned to designated funds of government revenue) by establishing a sinking fund accumulating through compound interest, as had been advocated in the eleventh report of the parliamentary commissioners for examining the public accounts in December 1783. The policy excited Pitt, who was influenced in his expectations by the views of the actuarial authority Dr Richard Price, and described himself on 30 September 1785 as being 'half mad with a project which will give our supplies the effect almost of magic in the reduction of debt' (Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 1.9). The sinking fund bore the stamp of Pitt's imagination and experience and was a crucial part of his policy for the national debt, which was reduced by 1792 to £170 million. In that year he allocated £400,000 to a distinct account for the redemption of new debt, and in the following decade he added further annual sums of £200,000. Although there remained no adequate check on the creation of unfunded debt, which increased in the late 1780s, Pitt had nevertheless settled the structure of the fund as it endured until the 1820s.

Pitt's peacetime financial measures were judged a notable success. A favourable economic context, interrupted by only one short period of mild recession, permitted him to reduce the national debt, simplify public accounts, reform duties, and restore confidence. While his policies undoubtedly owed something to others, finance was an aspect of government in which Pitt moved with confidence, and he made a great impression, particularly from 1786. Pragmatic and knowledgeable, and ready to take objections into account, he possessed an unusual degree of professionalism and was heard with respect on a subject that became his favourite occupation.

Pitt's pragmatic handling of public administration was founded upon a command of detail. His efforts were restricted mainly to departments over which he presided as first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer; while showing his disfavour in cases of corruption or negligence across the whole range of government, he was unwilling to press for wide-ranging structural reforms. His concern not to excite opposition by challenging rights of patronage or seeming to extend the crown's influence meant a cautious approach. Steps were taken in 1785 to overhaul the collection of assessed taxes by increasing the number of inspectors, improving training, and extending the supervision exercised by an enlarged taxes office, changes which proved the basis for managing the later income tax. He improved efficiency in the customs by administrative pressure, appointing able men to the commission between 1784 and 1792 and quietly suppressing twenty-eight sinecures as opportunity arose. Efforts to curb abuses by further regulation of fees resulted in an abortive bill of 1789 and an office report in 1790–91 which concluded that wholesale introduction of salaries would be impracticable. Certain responsibilities were transferred from the customs to the more efficient Excise Office without controversy, notwithstanding the unpopularity of the excise's powers. One authority suggests there was a net reduction of 441 revenue places between 1783 and 1793.

Following criticisms by the commissioners for examining the public accounts, Pitt appointed in 1785 a commission for the audit of public accounts and abolished two ineffectual exchequer posts, the auditors of the imprests, but made little impression on the financial procedures of the navy and the army, both very largely immune still from Treasury supervision. In 1786–7, when George III asked parliament for assistance with his debts, Pitt enquired into crown revenues and obtained details of the civil list, bringing it under the scope of the Consolidation Act. Without overtly challenging the crown's prerogative, he placed an important facet of public expenditure under effective parliamentary control and Treasury supervision, but did not insist on retrenchment by the crown. Pitt approved of justifiable expansion and expense, as seen in the creation of the Board of Control for India and the privy council's committee of trade and plantations (both in 1784), his outlay on naval shipbuilding (£2,400,000 in 1784) and raising the naval establishment (by 3000 men in 1784 and a further 2000 in 1788), and the founding of the Stationery Office (1786). The underlying aim was improved control of expenditure rather than major reductions of it.

Trade and the slave trade, 1784–1792

Pitt's role in matters of trade, empire, and diplomacy was less personal and sustained than his role in politics, finance, and administration. He left much business to such colleagues as Dundas, Grenville, and Charles Jenkinson, Baron Hawkesbury, later first earl of Liverpool. His approach to trade was pragmatic. He favoured the establishment of several limited free ports in the West Indies from 1787 and measures in 1785 and 1786 to encourage the Newfoundland fisheries and Atlantic whaling trades, a principal aim in each case being the exclusion of competition from the United States. Through the Nootka Sound dispute with Spain in 1789–90 he secured British whaling interests in the Pacific Ocean and opportunities also for trade with Asia. He was concerned about commerce with India, south-east Asia, and China, particularly in view of Britain's adverse bullion balance with the region arising from the country's fast growing tea imports, and consequently applied the principle of free freight to China in company ships for British and Indian goods, thereby promoting export growth and reduced demand for bullion in the 1790s. He liaised with Dundas over the latter's proposal for a commercial embassy to China, which culminated in the largely fruitless mission of the first Earl Macartney between 1792 and 1794.

Pitt was keen to find new and growing markets, for instance in South America, but had no great commitment to securing them by territorial acquisition. British interests worldwide were firmly defended, as in the negotiation of the Indian commercial convention with France in 1787, which was closely supervised by him, and by which France conceded Britain's de facto supremacy in India. He wished to prevent French encroachment upon the Dutch spice trade and possessions in the East Indies (in Ceylon, Malaya, and elsewhere), and was prepared to guarantee Dutch trade in return for the cession of bases and depots. Repeated overtures to The Hague before 1792 failed, and ministers had to be content with the annexation of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean during 1789 as a contribution to the security of British India and its Far Eastern concerns.

Trade encouraged Pitt's first sustained contacts with foreign powers. Between 1785 and 1792 Britain negotiated for commercial alliances with eight European states—those with France and Spain deriving from provisions in the peace treaties of 1783—but concluded only one treaty, with France in 1786. By then Pitt was ready to attend to them enthusiastically, and their conduct depended heavily upon him. In 1786, for instance, he wrote or amended dispatches and papers for France, Spain, Portugal, and Russia and carefully supervised progress with the first in particular, while in 1791 he made commercial overtures to Poland and Prussia. The treaty with France was exceptional, a highly successful affair confidently handled by Pitt and his expert William Eden, first Baron Auckland. Having learned the lesson of his Irish propositions and consulted British manufacturing and merchant interests, Pitt obtained a growing French market for British and Irish exporters through reciprocal duties on manufactures—excluding French silks—in exchange for reduced duties on French wines. He was, however, in no hurry to settle border disputes with the United States, on the grounds that America had not honoured debts owed to British merchants and loyalists (an issue which strained Anglo-American relations until 1794), but appreciated Canada's value for naval stores and the economic potential of its hinterland, where he wished to establish freer trade and encourage agriculture and forestry. From 1789 Grenville handled Canadian affairs, working closely with Pitt to implement policies to which both fully subscribed, including a scheme of constitutional government. Pitt introduced his colleague's bill in 1791, vigorously announcing a policy of 'colonial assimilation' and proclaiming faith in a British constitution 'deservedly the glory and happiness of those who lived under it', which 'should be extended to all our dependencies as … circumstances … would admit' (Debrett, 29.76–7). The Canada Act—though not an especially successful measure, particularly in respect of French Quebec—formed the basis of Canadian administration until 1840.

In challenging the well-established and lucrative slaving and sugar interests Pitt revealed a sensibility at one with the humanitarian impulses widely evident in the 1780s, and his efforts gained their driving force from moral conviction: 'This was a question which called forth all the sensibilities of his heart' (Pretyman, 3.543). He suggested the subject of abolition of the trade to Wilberforce for investigation in 1787, and over the next five years gave him strenuous support; he used ministerial facilities to assist the abolitionists—supplying information from the customs, ordering a report by the committee of trade, and seeking co-operation from foreign powers such as France.

Pitt's colleagues were not united on the issue, and a private bill (which eventually became law) to restrict the trade, introduced by Sir William Dolben in 1788, encountered opposition in the Lords from ministers—including Lord Hawkesbury and Lord Chancellor Thurlow—despite Pitt's hints that opposition was inconsistent with cabinet office. On the eve of the great parliamentary debate on the question in May 1789 he stated that there was 'no part of our cause that is not made out upon the strongest ground' (letter to Wilberforce, 20 April, Private Papers of William Wilberforce, 35), and he helped draft the resolutions that Wilberforce presented to the Commons. The resolutions were nevertheless lost, for Pitt had underestimated the unease of the house over immediate abolition. Wilberforce tried again in April 1792, having earlier that year rejected Pitt's suggestion that he should introduce a less radical motion with greater likelihood of passing. Pitt supported Wilberforce's uncompromising version of April 1792 in one of his finest and most celebrated orations: 'I hope we shall hear no more of the moral impossibility of civilising the Africans' but rather make 'an atonement for our long and cruel injustices' (Ehrman, 1.401). Yet his stirring reconciliation of a noble ideal with detailed arguments to satisfy practical men did not prevail, and the motion was lost by 230 to 85, though an amendment from Dundas advocating gradual, regulated abolition by 1800 (later revised to 1796) did pass the Commons by 193 to 125, only to be lost from sight in the House of Lords after the outbreak of the war with France. Had Pitt insisted on making the measure, which was not conventionally of a ministerial nature, into one demanding collective cabinet responsibility, it might have been enacted, since his judgement in commercial matters was respected and his moral conviction was evident, but there would have been great difficulties. He could not credibly claim that interests of state demanded abolition, and he was generally disposed to allow associates considerable freedom of conscience; the king, moreover, did not approve of the measure. Pitt continued during the 1790s to support Wilberforce's parliamentary efforts; but successive discouragements moderated his enthusiasm for what he increasingly saw as a marginal issue in a demanding war.

Diplomacy, 1784–1791

When he took office, Pitt's experience of—and taste for—diplomatic affairs was slight, and his principal objective was to avoid commitments that might hinder the revival of British trade and prosperity. A series of diplomatic crises, however, tested his resolution in defending British interests, and he showed a marked willingness to take the control of policy into his own hands—notably so until 1791, when Lord Carmarthen was replaced at the Foreign Office by the more capable Grenville.

One crisis derived from a traditional concern to restrain French influence in the Netherlands, which had heightened in 1785 through France's defensive alliance with the government of the United Provinces, then dominated by the Francophile patriot party rather than pro-British supporters of the house of Orange. Britain's envoy at The Hague, Sir James Harris, later first earl of Malmesbury, acted as a focus of Orangist and anti-French feeling, making use of secret-service funds sent after 1785, and as an agent of Anglo-Prussian co-operation. When in 1787 Frederick William III of Prussia received an appeal for protection from the princess of Orange, his sister, it seemed much would depend on Prussia. In August Pitt proposed joint mediation by France, Prussia, and Britain to settle the affairs of the United Provinces. He kept up diplomatic pressure on France, offered an accord on naval armaments (which was signed on 30 August), and, ordering naval preparations, warned that Britain would respond if France intervened in the Netherlands. The French, he wrote, must 'give up in effect their predominant influence in the Republic, or they must determine to fight for it' (letter to Eden, 14 September, Eden, 1.195). France did not in fact mobilize when Prussia occupied the United Provinces in September, and acquiesced as Britain and Prussia, in accordance with a secret convention of 2 October, dictated a settlement of the Netherlands favourable to the house of Orange. This was a triumph for Pitt, who had skilfully united cabinet and king behind his policy, personally drafted dispatches to Harris, and been responsible for crucial instructions to representatives in France and the United Provinces. A model of military and diplomatic co-ordination, his policy disconcerted France by its firmness and facilitated Prussian strategy. Britain's emergence from post-war diplomatic isolation was consolidated in 1788 by the formation of the triple alliance, through separate, mutual, treaties between Britain, Prussia, and the United Provinces, a system which Pitt intended to guarantee the European status quo, and which played a prominent diplomatic role from 1788 to 1791.

The triple alliance was well received by parliament, but its consequences tested Pitt's diplomatic skill. When the Austrian Netherlands revolted against Austrian rule in July 1789 and sought the allies' protection, Prussia urged recognition, but Pitt judged that British interests were better served by the preservation of a semi-autonomous province ruled by Vienna than by the creation of a weak Belgian state potentially under French sway. He persuaded Prussia in January 1790 that the allies should not recognize the independence of the Austrian Netherlands, refused to assist Prussia in its disputes with Austria in central Europe, and persuaded the two powers to accept the convention of Reichenbach in July 1790. That the terms of the convention were those proposed by Britain demonstrated Pitt's considerable influence on the settlement.

A dispute with Spain was handled with similar confidence and success. In 1789 Spanish officials closed a British depot at Nootka Sound (Vancouver) engaged in the north Pacific fur and fishery trades, claiming navigation and settlement of the entire Pacific coast of America as the exclusive preserve of Spain. When news of the incident reached London in January 1790, Pitt grasped that it raised major issues of freedom of trade. He took control of policy, informing the Spanish government that no discussion of its sovereign claims was possible until the British subjects arrested at Nootka Sound were released and fully compensated. The arrival of more details in April and May aroused traditional hostility towards Spain within parliament and among the public, and circumstances were ripe for Pitt to take a firm stand. He obtained cabinet and parliamentary approval for naval mobilization and assurances of assistance from Britain's triple alliance partners while diplomatic efforts isolated Spain in Europe and, through rapprochement with the United States, in the Americas. On 16 May he demanded the withdrawal of Madrid's claims over unoccupied American territory, restoration of the Nootka Sound depot, free settlement of the north-west coast, free trade between Spanish and British settlements, and British participation in the southern Pacific whale fishery; and on 5 July he offered to accept immediate settlement of British grievances as a preliminary to exploration of the wider issues. Madrid undertook to grant full compensation, without making any immediate concessions of principle. As mobilization continued Pitt kept up the pressure, issuing an ultimatum on 2 October in the form of alternative draft treaties of agreement. On the basis of these the British ambassador in Madrid negotiated a convention, signed on 28 October, by which Spain conceded free settlement north of California and British participation in the southern whale fishery.

During the autumn of 1790 Pitt, under the influence of Joseph Ewart, the British envoy in Berlin, planned a 'grand design' to curb Russian expansion in south-east Europe by imposing peace on the warring Russians and Turks and compelling Russia to restore the recently captured Black Sea port of Ochakov, at the mouth of the River Dniester. He hoped to prevent Russian access to the Mediterranean and to use Ochakov as an entrepôt for naval stores from the Baltic and British exports to markets in eastern and central Europe, but the policy, launched in January 1791, received a lukewarm response from the European powers. Undeterred, Pitt—calculating that Russia would not fight—ordered preparations for Baltic naval operations, and at length Prussia offered support. At the end of March, after several meetings of a divided cabinet, a joint Anglo-Prussian ultimatum was issued threatening war if Russia did not cede Ochakov and make peace on the terms of the convention of Reichenbach. Pitt's policy, however, caused an outcry in parliament, the press, and the country at large against mobilization for a war in which neither the balance of power nor any immediate British interest seemed threatened. Although his majorities were maintained, the hostile temper of the Commons alarmed ministers and left Pitt visibly shaken. It was, he reportedly told Ewart, 'the greatest mortification he had ever experienced' (Ewart to Jackson, 14 April, Ewart MSS, priv. coll.). By 15 April he had determined to abandon the policy, and he drafted an explanation for Berlin. This was a humiliating defeat for Pitt's foreign policy, resulting in renewed British isolation. Overconfident and incautious after a run of diplomatic successes, he had seriously overreached himself and misjudged the mood of parliament and public. The experience contributed to his reluctance to make an early commitment against revolutionary France.

Political character

Despite his triumph in 1784, Pitt's political judgement and tactics were sometimes uncertain, particularly at first, while the intermittent effects of inexperience were not offset by widespread popularity among members of parliament. With his conception of personal independence went personal remoteness, in part adopted defensively to guard his exposed youthful situation, but more fundamentally that of a man never on outgoing terms with his world, and he seemed chilly, aloof, and severe in public life. Aspects of his personality appeared markedly in his political character—pride, rectitude, shrewdness, and vacillation. Quick to recognize talent in the handling of business, he had little time for the mass of back-benchers:

From the instant that Pitt entered the doorway … he advanced up the floor with a quick and firm step, his head erect and thrown back, looking neither to the right nor to the left, nor favouring with a nod or a glance any of the individuals seated on either side, among whom many who possessed five thousand pounds a year would have been gratified even by so slight a mark of attention.

Memoirs of … Wraxall, 3.217

Nor did he entertain on a scale considered appropriate for a first lord of the Treasury. Wilberforce remarked, 'Pitt does not make friends' (Wilberforce and Wilberforce, 1.78). His style of leadership too was unusual at first, granting his political intimates an exceptional freedom of conscience.

Yet Pitt was in a strong position—his opponents were out of favour, the king supported him, his talents were conspicuous and admired—and by the end of the decade he demonstrated growing political mastery. His oratory, debating skills, and widely perceived competence earned the respect of the Commons. His usual reluctance to adopt overtly controversial measures was approved. Evidently standing—unlike Fox—for stable, pragmatic government dedicated to national revival after the American war, he was backed in the Lords and the Commons by the party of the crown, the office-holders, and dependants who supported government in all but very exceptional circumstances. He soon revealed a facility for working with parliamentary committees that contributed significantly to his management of the Commons in the 1790s. Except in relation to foreign policy and the king's own business, he made little special use of the cabinet. An exception occurred during the unusual circumstances of the regency crisis, when he took care to lay emphasis on collective responsibility for ministerial decisions. For leadership in the Lords before 1790 he relied on Thurlow and, increasingly from 1786, Hawkesbury; thereafter Grenville was prominent, as a counterweight to Thurlow, whose conduct over several years annoyed Pitt. Although there were forty-five peerage creations or promotions between December 1783 and the summer of 1790, Pitt had no deliberate policy of packing the Lords; the rapid growth, which eventually produced an unmanageably large assembly, was the result more of failure to resist pressing applications from ambitious men than a clear desire to use them for political ends.

Pitt and George III, on whose support the ministry's survival ultimately depended, were never on friendly terms. Their relations always correct rather than cordial, they treated one another cautiously; yet, despite occasional disagreements over policy, they co-operated well in the 1780s. Pitt advanced his powers in areas of business—financial and administrative—not directly threatening to royal prerogatives and powers of patronage, and each welcomed post-war renewal and the exclusion of Fox. Pitt called a general election in the summer of 1790, a year earlier than necessary, with confidence, and the result strengthened his ministry, with one estimate suggesting a bloc of 340 members in support and only 183 in opposition when parliament reassembled. He again headed the Cambridge University poll. A mark of continuing royal approval was the grant of the wardenship of the Cinque Ports in August 1792.

The regency crisis to the outbreak of the French war, 1788–1793

The regency crisis of 1788–9, following the king's mental collapse in November 1788, threatened Pitt's career, since the prince of Wales, whom it was assumed would be regent, favoured the Foxite opposition. Pitt's response was correct, methodical, and diplomatic; advised by the lunacy specialist Dr Willis that the king would recover, he played for time, and was careful to consult the cabinet regularly and seek parliamentary endorsement of his policy. Aware that Thurlow was privately negotiating with Fox, he took legal and constitutional advice from Lord Chief Justice Kenyon, and throughout retained control, encouraged by public support in the form of addresses from the City and urban corporations sympathetic to king and ministers. In December he established committees to examine medical reports and constitutional precedents and secured agreement in both houses that parliament should provide for the regency. On 16 January 1789 he introduced a scheme for highly restricted regency powers that was likewise accepted. Early in February parliament agreed to place the great seal in commission to enable royal assent to be given to Pitt's Regency Bill, which—having been approved by the Commons on 12 February—entered the Lords four days later. The next day—17 February—came news of the king's recovery, and on 19 February further discussion of the bill was postponed. The outcome vindicated Pitt's handling of the crisis. He had enlisted the support of the House of Commons whereas Fox had antagonized it, and he had exploited the unpopularity of the prince to delay—and curb the powers of—a regency administration.

Pitt's attitude towards the campaign of the protestant dissenters for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which officially barred them from public office unless subscription was made to a sacramental test, surprised many. When the subject was raised in parliament in March 1787, May 1789, and March 1790, he showed himself firmly opposed to repeal. In a decisive speech in March 1787 he deemed the issue one of expediency rather than principle, arguing that toleration in practice existed—especially through the practice of granting annual indemnities to office-holding dissenters—and that repeal would constitute a needless weakening of the constitution. His opposition was perhaps encouraged by Fox's advocacy; more important, having consulted the bishops in 1787 and found them strongly against repeal, he knew the measure would be fiercely resisted in the House of Lords and by the king. At a deeper level, he took the Erastian view that, as church and state were necessary defences of each other and the established social order, political wisdom lay in safeguarding the privileges and patronage of the church hierarchy, particularly as dissenting views were readily associated with subversive political doctrines. It was a conviction which he espoused the more firmly as the threat from revolutionary political and social ideas—both at home and abroad—escalated during the 1790s.

From the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 until 1792 Pitt was unperturbed about events in France: 'unquestionably there never was a time in the history of this country, when, from the situation of Europe, we might reasonably expect fifteen years of peace, than we might at the present moment', he declared in his budget speech of 17 February 1792 (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 29, 1817, 826). Although Britain's ambassador was recalled on Louis XVI's deposition in August 1792, Pitt determined not to interfere in French affairs. Austria's defeat at Jemappes (6 November) and subsequent French edicts proclaiming free navigation of the River Scheldt (16 November) and assistance for foreign revolutionaries (the ‘fraternal decree’ of 19 November) alarmed him, however, not least because the former decree challenged the restricted navigational rights guaranteed by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1788. On 13 November Pitt instructed Lord Auckland at The Hague to assure the Dutch of British help in the event of French aggression. At an unofficial meeting on 2 December with H. B. Maret of the French foreign ministry, Pitt called this edict 'a proof of an intention to proceed to a rupture with Holland' which 'must also lead to an immediate rupture with this country' and the fraternal decree 'an act of hostility to neutral nations' (Ehrman, 2.233–4). His public pronouncements grew increasingly condemnatory in December 1792 and January 1793, and, though keener than many colleagues to avoid war, he became convinced that fundamental British interests were at stake. In a note of 31 December he told the French envoy Chauvelin that Britain could never 'consent that France shall arrogate the power of annulling at her pleasure, and under the pretence of a natural right … the political system of Europe, established by solemn treaties, and guaranteed by the consent of all the powers.' Rather, France must 'renounce her views of aggression … and confine herself within her own territory' (ibid., 2.239). Chauvelin's expulsion from Britain, agreed on 24 January 1793 following news of Louis XVI's execution, prompted France to declare war on Britain and the Dutch. Replying to the king's message of 11 February on the outbreak of war, Pitt condemned revolutionary 'principles … which, if not opposed, threaten the most fatal consequences to the tranquility of this country, the security of its allies, the good order of every European Government, and the happiness of the whole of the human race!' (Debrett, 34.459).

During 1792 relations with Thurlow were further aggravated by the lord chancellor's attack on a ministerial bill, and on 16 May Pitt's ultimatum to George III finally secured his dismissal. Pitt consulted opposition leaders that month over the drafting of a royal proclamation against seditious writings and made overtures to the Northite Lord Loughborough (Alexander Wedderburn) and the Portland whigs, aiming to replace Thurlow with Loughborough and possibly strengthen the ministry further, though without immediate result. Only when the situation seemed more threatening in the winter of 1792–3, with a poor harvest, a sudden economic downturn, and a worsening international situation, did Pitt consider further repressive measures, such as the suspension of habeas corpus. In November and December he acted to strengthen the army and embody sections of the militia, while an Aliens Bill was quickly passed in January 1793. He had widespread support for these measures in the country and in parliament, not least from members of the whig opposition, such as Portland, Fitzwilliam, Burke, Malmesbury, and William Windham, who were dismayed by Fox's sympathy for the revolution. When Fox demanded recognition of the French republic in December 1792 his party split. Malmesbury declared his support for Pitt on 16 January 1793 and Loughborough accepted the lord chancellorship on 28 January, while shortly after the outbreak of war a grouping of whig MPs—led by Burke and Windham—offered their co-operation.

Ministerial concerns, 1793–1795

The main body of the parliamentary opposition united in support of the war, and showed little enthusiasm in May 1793 for a renewed call by Charles Grey, later second Earl Grey, for parliamentary reform, a proposal which Pitt described as 'capable of producing much mischief, and likely to be attended with no good' (Debrett, 35.470). In the same month, Pitt responded to a temporary credit crisis, involving a run on the country banks and the withdrawal of specie from the Bank of England, by extending the money supply through an issue of banknotes—the £5 note made its first appearance—and using exchequer bills to advance credit to the mercantile community. The conclusion of the crisis by the late summer was widely seen as a personal triumph. His offers during the summer of ministerial posts to William Windham and the second Earl Spencer were rejected, though closer links were established with the whig groups associated with Windham and the duke of Portland; Sylvester Douglas, later Baron Glenbervie, accepted the position of Irish secretary in December, while Portland renounced 'systematic opposition' in January 1794. In the spring of 1794 Pitt, now increasingly concerned about alleged Jacobin conspiracies in Britain, cultivated the opposition whig leaders, offering Portland the lord lieutenancy of Middlesex—which was declined—and keeping them informed about war policy. On 24 May, and subsequently on 2 and 18 June, he met Portland to seek a union of the duke's political connection with the ministry. On 3 July, after a month of talks, he presented his plans to the king.

By the beginning of July Pitt had promised the Home Office (currently held by Dundas, who, unlike Grenville, was intimately involved in the negotiations) to Portland and the lord lieutenancy of Ireland to Earl Fitzwilliam. To keep oversight of the war in friendly hands, he proposed a new cabinet position of secretary for war and the colonies—including India—for Dundas, while offering Windham a new subordinate—but cabinet-level—place as secretary at war, and was horrified by Dundas's refusal on 9 July to accept the arrangement. Replying the same day that his friend's resignation would leave him 'really completely heart broken', he made a 'personal request in the strongest manner' that Dundas should accept (NA Scot., GD 51/1/204); on his refusal, Pitt went at once to George III to ask him to write also, which the king did immediately. Dundas acquiesced, and the new arrangements went ahead on the 11th. The cabinet now numbered thirteen rather than ten, of whom five (or six if Loughborough is counted) had joined from the parliamentary opposition. Despite some grumbling among his friends, Pitt exuded confidence and was certain of his capacity to maintain his ascendancy. He valued the coalition for the additional authority it brought government within and outside parliament and also for its further isolation of Fox.

Pitt shared much political ground with the newcomers to his cabinet, but this did not yet extend to Irish affairs, and in promising the lord lieutenancy to Fitzwilliam (promoted lord president for the time being) he had given a hostage to fortune; not appreciating the importance attached to it, he characteristically delayed making the appointment. Matters came to a head early in October, when Portland reminded him of it and Fitzwilliam threatened resignation. By the 12th the cabinet was in grave danger of a rupture. Pitt now asserted himself, making clear to whig ministers that the current Irish administration must be fairly treated, and a respite was earned when Fitzwilliam decided to consult Lord Spencer, then in Vienna. In mid-November, on Spencer's return, Pitt discussed Fitzwilliam's Irish policy with his whig colleagues. Although what was agreed is uncertain, he told Windham on the 16th that:

the very Idea of a new System (as far as I understand what is meant by that Term) and especially one formed without previous Communication or Concert with the rest of the King's Servants here, or with the Friends of Government in Ireland, is in itself what I feel it utterly impossible to accede to.

BL, Add. MS 37844

The issue of consultation and agreement was uppermost in his mind, for on the subject of parliamentary representation of the Roman Catholics in Ireland—to which Fitzwilliam was especially committed—he was inclined to be accommodating if pressed, having already conceded the franchise on the same qualifications as protestants and access to civil and military posts other than the higher offices of state by an Emancipatory Act of February 1793.

Pitt was slow to intervene when news reached London of the controversial appointments and policies undertaken by Fitzwilliam on his arrival in Dublin in January 1795. A warning on 6 February from George III had greater impact. He complained that Fitzwilliam's plan to introduce parliamentary representation for Roman Catholics was 'a total change in the principles of government' and indeed 'beyond the decision of any Cabinet of Ministers' (TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/103). Ministers met the next day. On the 8th Fitzwilliam was instructed to defer the measure and not encourage its supporters. After further cabinet discussion on the 20th and 21st, Fitzwilliam was recalled, Pitt sending as replacement his friend Camden, with the whig Thomas Pelham as chief secretary, and calm was restored among the Irish politicians. While Fitzwilliam had precipitated the crisis in Dublin, Pitt had not grasped the strength of his political views; his failure to act quickly to prevent trouble and to consider the likely reaction of the king had compounded the error. Possibly he had given a misleading impression of personal support for Fitzwilliam, but he had not been alone in misjudging him, and was genuinely angry at what he considered a breach of the understanding reached in November 1794. He described Fitzwilliam's conduct as 'the strongest instance of the breach of political Faith, which had ever occurred to him' (BL, Add. MS 45107, ch. 18, pp. 52–3), and the episode created lasting ill feeling.

Dearth and discontent, 1793–1795

With the Fitzwilliam affair ('the unlucky Subject of Ireland', as Pitt described it in January 1795; BL, Add. MS 37844) concluded, the ministry united to deal with the growing threats facing the country, of which one was political subversion. A government bill on traitorous correspondence had clarified the treason laws in the spring of 1793, and a number of prosecutions, usually successful, were then brought under the sedition laws. In response to large public meetings and agitation by the radical societies, the government acted decisively in May 1794, arresting Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society, and other prominent radicals, establishing a special Commons committee, and suspending the Habeas Corpus Act for eight months. Pitt encouraged and approved of these measures, and was personally involved in the examination of the arrested men. In the Commons on 16 May he called the societies' aims a 'pretext of reform' and a 'mask of attachment to the state and country' disguising a conspiracy for insurrection in the manufacturing towns: he was convinced there existed an immediate danger demanding urgent precautions, and his fears were shared by ministers and a majority of the Commons. His measures temporarily restrained the radicals, notwithstanding the collapse of the celebrated treason trials of the autumn of 1794. Politically disappointing, these were also personally embarrassing for Pitt, who was subpoenaed as a witness for the defence of John Horne Tooke, questioned about his own earlier campaigns for parliamentary reform, and taxed with having professed doctrines very similar to those of the accused himself.

Pitt brushed off calls by Wilberforce (in December 1794 and again in May 1795) and Charles Grey (in January 1795) for peace negotiations. He renewed the suspension of habeas corpus in February 1795, though it expired in June. The winter of 1794–5, following a poor harvest, was severe and 1795 a disastrous year for agriculture; corn prices rose dramatically during 1795–6, and a fierce wave of unrest, worrying for Pitt, was evident by the summer of 1795. During the spring of that year he had started buying corn overseas on the government's account—an innovative policy; but when prices were debated in November a committee of the house condemned the purchases. Faced by these traditional criticisms, Pitt immediately stopped the purchases and introduced—as the committee had recommended—bounties on certain imported grains. The arrival of government shipments with those of private merchants in the spring of 1796 helped to moderate prices the next summer. Pitt was unwilling to interfere legislatively with the market for grain or the level of agricultural wages but focused instead on measures of poor relief that were traditionally the responsibility of local authorities. The Speenhamland system of May 1795—which related allowances for the poor to the prevalent price of bread and the number of dependants in a family but eschewed increases in wages—was endorsed the following autumn in an act sanctioning outdoor relief and the removal of the workhouse test of destitution. Pitt did little to support the board of agriculture set up in 1793 or a bill from Sir John Sinclair to facilitate agrarian enclosures in 1796, though he did encourage measures to reduce grain consumption in such industries as distilling and starching.

The second half of 1795 saw the most serious occurrences of combined political and economic protest yet witnessed by Pitt's ministry. When a new session of parliament opened on 29 October, Pitt was surrounded by a cursing mob, and the king encountered a crowd shouting 'No Pitt, no war, bread, bread, peace, peace', his carriage being hit by a missile. Pitt responded swiftly; habeas corpus was again suspended and a bill for seditious meetings and assemblies and another for the definition of treasonable practices were quickly introduced. They passed by overwhelming majorities into law on 18 December 1795, Pitt carefully presenting them as necessary measures that preserved legal rights such as petitioning. Anxious about unrest, he ordered military reinforcements to London, and remarked to Wilberforce early in November: 'My head would be off in six months, were I to resign' (Wilberforce and Wilberforce, 1.114).

War and strategy, 1793–1795

In 1793 Pitt could not envisage the nature of the war ahead, and he approached it at first with characteristic optimism. He believed Britain would easily find allies and the small British army cope with a wide range of tasks—including operations on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France, and in Mauritius and the West Indies—but was baselessly optimistic about the quality of the army and its logistical and administrative support. He never remedied his lack of profound strategic understanding and ignorance of logistical detail; he favoured raids on the French coast but was rarely prepared to concentrate effort at one point and too often allowed diplomatic considerations to outweigh military practicalities in strategic planning. He expected a short, successful war: 'every circumstance concurs to favour the hope of our being able completely to accomplish every object of the war', he told the Commons on 17 June 1793 (Debrett, 35.675).

The basis for the first coalition against France was quickly laid in 1793, as conventions assuring co-operation and mutual security were signed with Russia in March, Sardinia in April, Spain in May, Prussia and the Two Sicilies in July, and Austria in August. Pitt was disappointed by the failure of a British expedition to Dunkirk in August and early September, which he had intended to strengthen Austria's possessions in the Netherlands, but grasped that future success would require closer co-operation with the military power of Austria and Prussia. In November 1793 the prospect of aiding a French royalist revolt in La Vendée tempted him, but by the time an expedition reached Cherbourg on 2 December the rising had been suppressed, and it had to withdraw. News of the occupation—at the city's request—of the Mediterranean port of Toulon by a small British and Spanish force supported by the fleet under Lord Hood elated Pitt. Orders were given for British reinforcements to be sent and efforts made to secure assistance from Vienna and Naples, but Hood was obliged to withdraw in December. The episode raised acutely the issue of Britain's war aims and attitude towards the varying strands of French royalism. Pitt wished to avoid prescribing a form of government for France or alienating enemies of the revolution who opposed restoration of an absolute Bourbon monarchy, but thought it tactically necessary to woo active royalists. A British proclamation of 29 October invited the French 'to join the Standard of an hereditary Monarchy' (5 October 1793, Fortescue MSS, 2.438–9). He urged, in the course of drafting it, a 'pointed recommendation of monarchical government with proper limitations' as most 'likely to unite considerable numbers in one vigorous effort', though this, he wrote, 'by no means precludes us from treating with any other government, if, in the end, any other should be solidly established; but it holds out monarchy as the only force from which we expect any good, and in favour of which we are disposed to enter into concert'. Pitt's pragmatic approach was not easy in practice to define or apply, and contemporary critics—among the parliamentary opposition and more widely—saw, as have some later historians, the Toulon episode as the moment when he committed Britain to an ideological struggle for monarchy in France.

In 1794 Pitt sought victory through a continental coalition and deployed some 20,000 British troops in Flanders. Following set-backs to the Austrian and British forces in Flanders, he sent a special mission to Austria in July for a full alliance. When Vienna demanded a large loan underwritten by Britain, he instructed—on 14 September—the envoys (Lord Spencer and Thomas Grenville) to request a force of 80,000 to 100,000 Austrian troops, but they left Vienna on 7 October without any prospect of agreement in sight; the same month he abruptly terminated payments to Prussia (£1 million having been uselessly expended) and recalled Malmesbury, who had been sent to reach an agreement. He termed the mounting military crisis in the Netherlands in September a 'calamity' and, braving the king's displeasure, removed the duke of York from command there; he wrote a dutiful but firm letter to George III on 23 November and softened the blow by appointing York commander-in-chief, but keeping him out of the field.

Pitt attached great importance in 1794 to the West Indies, where a British expedition achieved successes in the spring and summer, taking Martinique, St Lucia, Guadeloupe, The Saints, and Port-au-Prince in St Domingue. The arrival of French reinforcements and the decimation of British troops by disease meant West Indian opportunities were not fully exploited later in the year, and Guadeloupe was abandoned in December. The conclusion of Jay's treaty with the United States in November 1794, however, resolved many outstanding differences between the two powers and strengthened Britain's diplomatic position. Pitt advised and fully supported Grenville during his conduct of the negotiations.

Although the set-backs of 1794 shook public confidence in the ministry and Wilberforce's call for peace talks in December unsettled him, Pitt saw no immediate reason for a change of strategy. Active himself in the London capital market for government loans, he was confident that money could be found for Austria as 'a public measure of necessity' (Ehrman, 2.377). On 18 December 1794 he offered a loan of £6 million guaranteed by parliament in return for 200,000 troops in 1795, of which 80,000 were to defend the Netherlands if the Dutch continued to fight. He remained keen for Prussian assistance too. In the spring of 1795 this caused a dispute lasting some six weeks with Grenville, who despaired of effective help from Berlin; the cabinet was almost equally divided on 1 March and Grenville privately offered his resignation, though Pitt—unwilling to lose his colleague—dissuaded him. On 8 April Pitt drafted instructions for Berlin; owing to the refusal of Grenville—who minuted his dissent—Dundas signed them. The foreign secretary opted—as possibly Pitt had judged he would—to stay in office, and was shortly vindicated by news of Prussia's peace treaty with France; the Dutch, moreover, allied with France and surrendered their fleet by a treaty of 16 May.

Pitt's continental strategy was salvaged by Austria's agreement of a loan convention on 4 May and a treaty of defensive alliance on the 20th, though neither brought results in 1795, while Spain's peace with France in July further isolated Britain. His cabinet's decision to appropriate Dutch possessions at the Cape and in Ceylon and the Far East ensured territorial and commercial gains, but the West Indies drained military reserves, and operations on the coast of north-west France in support of the French royalists—which attracted his enthusiastic support—achieved nothing. By the end of 1795 Pitt had concluded that the continental war could be fought only by Austria at British expense, while Britain sought advantages at sea and in the colonies, especially the West Indies. Domestic and strategic pressures, however, were leading him to envisage a negotiated peace with France's republican government quite soon. A cabinet of 19–20 September agreed with him that—although every effort was needed to keep Austria in the war—it was appropriate with Vienna's knowledge to determine what terms France might accept. This shift of emphasis in his policy alarmed some ministerial colleagues but was accepted by the newly reassembled House of Commons, and by late December Pitt was contemplating making in the spring an overt declaration of British willingness to negotiate.

Finance and domestic politics, 1796–1798

In the first three years of war Pitt did not alter radically the military and financial constraints on British policy. He tried to increase recruitment to the regular army and (by the Quota Acts of 1795) to the navy, and in 1794 introduced bills to regulate the volunteers and militia. During October 1796 further bills passed to increase recruitment to the regular infantry and the militia and to raise a provisional force of cavalry. They caused brief, fierce riots across the country, Pitt being burnt in effigy at Norwich. On 8 November orders were issued for the withdrawal of the fleet from the Mediterranean, after a century of continuous presence. Although war expenditure had risen rapidly (£8,137,000 in 1793, £16,837,000 in 1794, and £26,273,000—an unprecedented height—in 1795), no new tax was introduced; Pitt increased government borrowing—largely through the issue of 3 per cent stock—against a background of buoyant foreign trade, and maintained public confidence by supporting the sinking fund. The loans produced substantial sums—£6.7 million, £17.4 million, £22.8 million, and £32.5 million respectively in the years 1793–6—but his approach presupposed a short war. Resounding success in the general election of May 1796, which improved the ministry's position—now strengthened by the accession of the Portland whigs—markedly over that of 1790, showed there was, in public perception, no alternative to him.

The national debt—£241.6 million in 1793 and £310.4 million in 1796—grew at an alarming rate in wartime. The Bank of England, with which Pitt was not on good terms, was anxious that liabilities incurred would dangerously outrun reserves, particularly from the summer of 1795. In July 1796 the bank warned him that no further advances to government could be expected that year. A contraction of the general supply of money and rising interest rates restricted his capacity to borrow. While Pitt retained his earlier financial mastery—managing in two large operations of May and November 1796 to reduce unfunded debt and improve borrowing terms—he perceived that the strain on public finances was threatening Britain's ability to continue the war. Having considered a forced loan in late November, he opted for a voluntary one—the loyalty loan—and announced the details on 1 December; subscribers were to receive £122 10s. of 5 per cent stock for a contribution of £100. The target of £18 million was reached in four days, a heartening display of public spirit encouraged by the threat of French invasion. In the longer term the measure was unsatisfactory because the falling value of stock meant lenders made a pronounced loss, a result that perturbed Pitt.

Invasion scares during February 1797 put pressure on the Bank of England and the country banks. When on the 25th news was received of a French landing in Pembrokeshire—on a small scale and easily subdued—the general alarm made Pitt take decisive steps to prevent a run on the bank, which had only £1,200,000 bullion in reserve. The cabinet met immediately, the king was requested to travel to town to confer, and an order in council suspending cash payments by the bank was issued on the 26th. This revived commercial confidence immediately in London and, more slowly, in the provinces. At the beginning of March Pitt passed an act enabling the bank to issue notes of small value until 1 May, to offset the general shortage of specie, and on the 10th the country banks were permitted to do likewise. The terminal date was extended regularly thereafter, the low-denomination note having come to stay. An act of 5 May confirmed the order in council of 26 February until 24 June, but converted suspension into restriction, specifying the purposes to which bank notes might be applied. Again the time limit was periodically extended, and the ‘restriction period’ indeed continued until 1821. Pitt made such changes—which laid the basis of a new and enduring monetary system—on pragmatic grounds, with no intention of permanency and acknowledging his uncertainty about their possible effects. Previously wary of a sharp rise in the volume of paper currency, he was reluctant to act until the need was clear, though he did so then with a sure touch. He chose continuation as the safest option during new crises in the spring and summer, and persisted when he saw the country's credit and commerce benefit from an amelioration of the disruptive effects of specie shortage. In March too he promised a new low-denomination copper coinage; over 1000 tons of farthing, halfpenny, penny, and twopenny pieces were produced during the next two years.

On 16 April mutiny erupted in the Channel Fleet at Spithead, a blow without warning and shocking after the victory of Jervis's Mediterranean Fleet over the Spaniards at Cape St Vincent on 14 February. Pitt was immediately prepared to grant the pay rises demanded, but mutiny flared again and was not ended until 15 May. By this time an outbreak had occurred among the North Sea Fleet at the Nore, hindering the blockade of the Texel, where an invasion armada was gathering. On the 27th Pitt was 'convinced that things [were] in extremis' (Wilberforce and Wilberforce, 2.220). He pushed through acts against incitement to mutiny and communication with mutineers on 6 June and, assured of public support, resolved to wait for the mutiny to collapse, as it did on the 16th. Towards the end of the crisis he was calm and confident, but his response had appeared at times inattentive and indecisive, for he was preoccupied by the war against France, which had reached a critical stage.

The set-backs from February to June 1797 damaged Pitt's reputation, stimulating a pervasive sense of anxiety and transient doubts in parliament and the country about his competence to lead. Opposition revived, and in March there was a short-lived back-bench move, focused on Sir John Sinclair, to topple the ministry. In May a greater challenge appeared in the person of Lord Moira. Perhaps the most overt signs of discontent from the Commons in the course of his first administration, they strengthened Pitt's determination to restore public confidence through peace.

Foreign policy and peace talks, 1796–1797

By early 1796 Pitt regarded the conclusion of a secure peace as a pressing objective. He allowed inquiries to be made to France through William Wickham at Bern in March, but the reply on the 26th ruled out any prospect of talks—France demanded renunciation of British colonial gains and recognition of her own 'natural' frontiers. Bonaparte's Italian campaign worsened Pitt's hand: Sardinia sued for peace on 28 April, the Two Sicilies a month later, and on 19 August Spain made an offensive alliance with France. ‘Pitt's gold’ shored up Austrian resistance and delayed an Austrian separate peace.

By midsummer 1796 the strategic position seemed bleak to Pitt. He vigorously supported a proposal—deemed 'indispensably necessary'—by Grenville to involve Prussia in a 'plan of pacification', and at the end of July had overcome the king's opposition. Prussia was to be offered the Austrian Netherlands in return for proposing to France the allies' terms of peace, and if terms were refused Berlin would act militarily with Austria and Britain. George Hammond from the Foreign Office was sent to Berlin, but no support was forthcoming, Prussia indeed having signed a secret treaty of neutrality with France. A minute of 2 September recording ministerial aims for a negotiation evinced 'something very like panic' (Ehrman, 2.628–9); vague about the Austrian Netherlands, it anticipated the relinquishment of British gains except for Ceylon, Cochin in India, and the Cape, but conceded France's conquests at the expense of all Britain's former allies except Austria. Contrary to the spirit of past exchanges with Vienna, the proposals were not to be sent in advance to Austria, and there was no suggestion of a joint initiative. Pitt—in low spirits and desperate for peace talks—was the driving force behind this plan, but Grenville, Portland, and Loughborough agreed, Dundas, previously critical, did not object, and—after seeing Pitt—the king consented. The overture was accepted, and Britain's plenipotentiary Lord Malmesbury reached Paris on 22 October.

By then there had been a revival of optimism in London. Pitt's mercurial spirits were improved during September by news of Austrian successes in Germany. His cabinet—undismayed by a Spanish declaration of war on 5 October—had approved plans to seize Spain's overseas possessions and send a small British force—at Lisbon's request—to Portugal. Malmesbury's instructions were consequently firmer than the ideas of 2 September, stipulating joint negotiation with Austria and her consent as a sine qua non of any settlement. When Austria proved unwilling to participate in talks, British demands were sent to Paris—on 10 December—for restitution of the Austrian Netherlands and imperial possessions in Germany and British retention of Ceylon, Cochin, and the Cape. Pitt kept in close touch with the negotiations, carrying on—as was his habit—a direct correspondence with Malmesbury and receiving reports confidentially from George Canning in the Foreign Office. On 17 December—the day after a French expedition had sailed from Brest for Bantry Bay, where it was dispersed by storms—the British demands were rejected and the negotiations terminated by France.

Soon after this blow—in January or February 1797—Pitt seriously, if briefly, considered withdrawing in favour of the speaker, Henry Addington, reasoning that peace with France might be more attainable if he did so. His plan to direct affairs at one remove and return once the attempt had been made was overtaken by the bank crisis. In March came news of Prussia's treaty with France, and by early April Austrian military resistance was clearly faltering. On 8 April Pitt told the king that an Austrian separate peace would be 'the greatest aggravation' of British difficulties (Later Correspondence of George III, 2, no. 1526). His view commanded unanimous cabinet support, and, despite the king's antipathy, George Hammond was sent on a fruitless mission to Vienna to propose Russian mediation for peace. In late May, when he decided again to attempt peace negotiations, Pitt was unaware that Austria had agreed secret preliminaries of peace with France at Leoben on 18 April. An overture, approved by the cabinet on 31 May, was sent to Paris on 1 June. News on the 14th that France was willing to treat for a separate peace triggered a cabinet crisis and a severe test of Pitt's leadership. In a stormy cabinet meeting of the 15th Grenville argued strongly against negotiations, and only a slender majority of ministers supported Pitt; a minute was made of the foreign secretary's dissent. The official note of acceptance insisted that Britain would not abandon the interests of Portugal and demanded that France represent those of the Netherlands and Spain. The British representative, Malmesbury, arrived in Lille on 4 July and, as before, Pitt kept in close touch with him. He was instructed officially to retain as a sine qua non both Ceylon and the Cape and to seek retention of Cochin and at least one West Indian acquisition in return for recognition of French sovereignty over the Austrian Netherlands, Nice, and Savoy, but was told privately by Pitt—without the cabinet's knowledge—that either the Cape or Ceylon might also be surrendered to obtain peace. Pitt knew that this concession—if made—would cause the resignation of Grenville and strain relations with Dundas: 'on this particular point', he told Malmesbury, as the latter recorded, 'he, or Lord Grenville, must have gone out; and he added, it would have been Lord Grenville' (Harris, 4.128). Pitt rejected a French demand for the restoration of all British conquests, and talks were soon terminated by France after the coup of 18 Fructidor (4 September). Although actively pursued by Pitt, hopes of reviving the negotiation or securing peace through indirect channels quickly faded.

Revival, 1797–1798

Failure at Lille and the death of his brother-in-law Edward Eliot in September 1797 left Pitt ill and depressed, but he soon revived, comforted by victory over the Dutch fleet at Camperdown on 11 October and his new ideas about public finance. His memorandum of 11 October anticipated reduced expenditure in 1798–9—as a result of a decrease in subsidies and loans to allies—and explored ways of meeting the expected public deficit of £21 to £22 million without undue dependence on borrowing. His speech of 24 November acknowledged the necessity of greater taxation, not to meet the whole deficit but to make possible 'some expedient by which we may … render within equitable limits the accommodation of the funding system, and lay the foundation of that quick redemption which will prevent the dangerous consequences of an overgrown accumulation of our public debt' (Debrett, 3rd ser., 4.272). He envisaged a single 'general tax'—known as the triple assessment—that would triple the rates of existing assessed taxes but—not being a new form of assessment—would incur no additional administrative expenditure. He rejected heavy increases in taxes and duties overall as too unpopular for the likely yield and ruled out both a general property tax and an income tax as introducing 'a degree of inquisition which would be generally invidious' (TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/273); he nevertheless introduced exemptions and graduated scales designed to place the burden on the wealthy, propounding in effect the principle of a graduated income tax. He hoped to find about £7 million net, which would meet two-thirds of the charge for servicing and redeeming the loan for the year. Although the triple assessment displayed Pitt's strengths of pragmatism, coherence, and comprehensiveness, the bill was attacked in the Commons and much revised before an act was passed on 12 January 1798; expectations of likely yield were reduced to about £4.5 million. Pitt adopted a suggestion made by Henry Addington for an additional voluntary contribution—of one-fifth of income—by the most wealthy and included it in the act, eventually producing over £2 million additional revenue. Increased estimates for the armed forces and the bank's willingness to advance only £3 million—rather than the £4 million Pitt had wanted—meant that by April 1798 a bigger loan was needed than forecast. More revenue raising measures were introduced: the commutation of the land tax, increased rates on salt and teas, and two new taxes—on convoys and on armorial bearings.

The resolve of the British public cheered Pitt. 'The general zeal and spirit of the country is everything that we can wish', he noted on 21 April 1798 (Later Correspondence of George III, 3.49 n. 1), but anxieties remained. He supported Canning's patriotic publication The Anti-Jacobin with public money at this time, making literary contributions himself. In June 1798 he carried an act to control the press and prosecute publications exciting hatred and contempt for king, constitution, and government. Proceedings were brought against radicals in Scotland in November 1797 and in England from February to May 1798. Forty-seven members of the London Corresponding Society were arrested in April and some were held for almost three years, though of five tried for high treason four were acquitted. In January an act—unsuccessful in practice—was passed to recruit militiamen into the regular army, while in June another permitted militia service in Ireland. In April the Defence Act strengthened government's powers in the event of invasion, and in May the exemption of men employed in river and sea trades from naval service was suspended.

The debate on this suspension provoked Pitt's duel with George Tierney. Introducing the bill on 25 May, Pitt asked that it should pass that day, whereupon Tierney accused him of making a 'precipitate' demand hostile to freedom; Pitt rejoined that Tierney wished 'to obstruct the defence of the country' (Ehrman, 3.126–9), a charge he refused to retract or explain when called upon by the speaker. He accepted Tierney's challenge and met him calmly on Putney Heath on the 27th—Whit Sunday—with pistols at twelve paces. Neither was injured. While the political world was dismayed by the risk taken during a national crisis, Pitt plainly shared the strong sense of personal honour of most gentlemen of his time, though his judgement was possibly impaired by the poor health that prevented his return to the Commons before parliament rose on 29 June.

Ireland: rebellion and union, 1795–1800

Pitt was reluctant to apply himself closely to Irish affairs until they became unavoidable. After a quiet first year, 1795, Lord Camden's administration in Dublin became increasingly worried—against a background of renewed economic recession and a mounting threat of French invasion—about the growth of revolutionary nationalism among the protestant community (as seen in the Society of United Irishmen) and the activities of Roman Catholic secret societies; in 1797 martial law was imposed in Ulster and reinforcements of fencible infantry and cavalry were sent from Britain. Although Dublin's forces suppressed the unco-ordinated insurrections by the Catholics of co. Wexford and co. Wicklow and the dissident Ulster protestants during May and June 1798, the events made a deep impression upon Pitt. He sent temporarily a further 8000 fencible and militia troops and accepted Camden's plea for replacement by a capable soldier. Pitt's choice, Lord Cornwallis, arrived in Ireland on 20 June, and defeated French landings in co. Sligo in August and co. Donegal in September. A third expedition, destined for Ulster, was intercepted on 16 September.

Pitt was convinced of the need to bring Ireland permanently under closer control by Westminster. He mentioned to Camden the idea of parliamentary union in late May 1798, discussed it with Grenville early in June, and subsequently with Cornwallis; the king approved. Although not a new idea—Pitt said in November 1792 that it had already been long in his mind—it was dormant until it became his initiative in 1798. Characteristically brisk and hopeful to begin with, he consulted widely among colleagues at home, and more selectively in Dublin with Cornwallis, the chief secretary, Lord Castlereagh, the lord chancellor, John Fitzgibbon, first earl of Clare, and John Beresford. He studied the Act of Union with Scotland of 1707 for guidance. Two problems required particularly careful handling: the status of the Roman Catholics and the reduction of 300 Irish parliamentary seats to about 100—giving appropriate weight to the counties and boroughs—so as not to swamp the British representatives in a union parliament. On Cornwallis's appointment the king had informed Pitt of his decided opposition to further concessions for the Irish Catholics. Pitt was soon also aware of the strong antipathy to such measures that permeated the Irish political establishment. In October, after much consideration and with the agreement of the cabinet, he accepted that union should for the time being be on a strictly protestant basis. He postponed consideration of the difficult related issues of relief—to which George III was also opposed—for Irish protestant dissenters, state support for the Catholic and dissenting churches, Irish tithe commutation, and the union of the Church of England with that of Ireland. He failed, however, to impose himself directly on the process of consultation in Dublin, and a feeling of resistance to his more limited policy emerged during November and December 1798, centred on the influential speaker, John Foster. Reassured by Castlereagh's forecast of success, ministers nevertheless approved the principle of union on 21 December and finalized their plans for its implementation.

Pitt's proposals were presented to the Irish parliament on 22 January 1799 and at Westminster the following day. In a speech on the 23rd he represented them as the key to enduring benefits:

Ireland is subject to great and deplorable evils, which … lie in the situation of the country itself—in the present character, manners and habits of its inhabitants—in their want of intelligence … in the unavoidable separation between certain classes—in the state of property—in its religious distinctions—in the rancour which bigotry engenders and superstition rears and cherishes.

Debrett, 34.247–8

These 'an imperial legislature standing aloof from local party connexion' would in time cure, encouraging trade and industry and healing religious discord . Two years before—in a speech of 23 March 1797—Pitt had accepted the capacity of the Irish legislature to act for the good of the Irish people, but now his emphasis was different. He never expressed more forcefully the primacy he accorded to parliament's role and the capacity of the constitution to provide means for social and economic ends. None the less his profession of faith conflicted with protestant political sentiment in Ireland that perceived the Dublin parliament as the guarantor of a distinctive degree of national independence, whereby the country was connected with—but not united to—Great Britain.

In the Irish parliament the union clause was deleted from the royal address on 23 January by 109 votes to 104. At Westminster, though, the outcome was never doubtful, and in January and February Pitt demonstrated his determination to succeed notwithstanding the set-back in Dublin. He obtained consent in April to detailed resolutions for an Act of Union and encouraged every means of ensuring success in Ireland, reportedly being prepared to wait until 'people' came 'to their Senses, … with the Assistance of a little quiet Coercion if it should be necessary' (Suffolk RO, Ipswich, Pretyman MS 435/44). At length the anti-union bloc broke up, assisted by judicious use of patronage; appointments, pensions, peerage creations, and promotions were deployed, with financial compensation for the proprietors of parliamentary boroughs (£1.5 million was spent on their eventual abolition). Pitt has been accused of permitting 'corrupt' means to achieve the union, but it is perhaps fairer to say that contemporary conventions of executive practice were strained to the limits rather than broken. His policy was popular in some quarters of Ireland, notably with those who feared French republicanism and with Catholics who hoped measures of relief would follow. He neither encouraged nor discouraged such hopes, and took care to prevent the kind of confusions evident in the Fitzwilliam episode. Preparations continued throughout 1799. From January to March 1800 the Dublin administration won a series of crucial majorities, and the bill for the Union, presented in May, passed both Commons and Lords there in June. Pitt meanwhile commanded substantial majorities at Westminster, and his bill received royal assent on 2 July. A triumph of determination and patience for Pitt, this achievement proved by an irony of history to play a major role in his resignation in 1801.

An order under strain: finance, dearth, and unrest, 1798–1801

The triple assessment not having met expectations, the underlying financial problem remained: government's annual bill for funded and unfunded borrowing had risen by 50 per cent in five years, and accounted for a third of total net expenditure. By the summer or early autumn of 1798 Pitt was considering the introduction of an outright income tax. He consulted colleagues, officials, and within the City, and his expectation of parliamentary backing rested on an impression that the necessity of the measure was 'strongly felt' (TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/341). He aimed to find at least £8 million and thought it likely that £10 million might result. His proposals were presented in an impressive budget speech—made in spite of a bad cold—of two and a half hours on 3 December 1798. The ensuing bill—of 124 clauses—replaced the triple assessment with an income tax on a graduated scale of 5 to 10 per cent for incomes between £60 and £200 a year, those below £60 being exempt and those above £200 incurring 10 per cent. Administrative details derived largely from the triple assessment and the new and important elements were a shift of assessment from expenditure to income and the obligation of the taxpayer to make a detailed return of income if required.

Pitt took great pains to prepare the ground for his innovations in parliament, and the new measures passed through the Commons quickly, with ample majorities and apparent ease, taking effect on 5 April 1799. Yet opposition was voiced: although their necessity was generally conceded, they caused deep alarm and resentment, and the opinion that they subverted the constitution was expressed. In particular the investigative powers at the discretion of the commissioners and surveyors of the income tax caused widespread outrage. Acknowledging these anxieties, Pitt stressed the familiar aspects of his proposals, and made no attempt to introduce new administrative arrangements to implement them. He vigorously defended the income tax as necessary and equitable, but accepted that commercial commissioners be appointed to deal with mercantile incomes and a range of minor amendments. Results were nevertheless disappointing. Pitt reduced expectations of yield to £7.3 million in June 1799 and to £6.2 million in February 1800; the best calculation of the final net produce for the first year is the surprisingly low sum of £1,671,000 out of an aggregate of £6,446,000 from the land and assessed taxes. Evasion was a serious problem, yet the income tax was a historic innovation that bore fruit during the Napoleonic War.

Underpinned by commercial buoyancy, the yield of taxation as a whole was markedly greater at the end of the 1790s than earlier in the decade, but mean annual expenditure also grew to £48.5 million for 1798–1800 from £37.75 million for 1793–7. Pitt had little scope to reduce expenditure, having already introduced tighter controls over naval and military spending in 1796–7. He continued to borrow on a large scale, though from 1798 he did so at a more favourable rate of interest than before, while in 1799 he arranged with the Bank of England for annual interest-free loans of £3 million. The hopes expressed on the introduction of the triple assessment and the income tax had proved sadly unrealistic, and Pitt was hard pushed to service loans; he had recourse in 1801 to a host of fresh levies in the old style, such as increased stamp and customs duties. Alongside funded borrowing, his short-term unfunded borrowing—mainly through exchequer bills—also rose sharply, from £19.3 million in 1797 to £37.9 million in 1801, and greater recourse was had to the sinking fund; the prospect of redeeming the national debt receded into the distance, though Pitt never renounced his determination that it should eventually be repaid. Pitt's handling of financial policy was, despite set-backs over his fiscal initiatives, generally very capable, and the main lines of his approach were widely endorsed. Its practical results—the liberalization of credit, reduced real interest rates, and containment of the growth of public debt and inflation through direct and indirect taxation—were appropriate to a commercial nation undergoing the strains of prolonged war.

A severe subsistence crisis, caused by successive harvest failures in 1799 and 1800, darkened the last months of Pitt's first ministry. Living standards of the poorer classes were sharply reduced and the ensuing distress provoked widespread rioting. These developments alarmed Pitt. 'After all', he wrote on 8 October 1800, 'the question of peace or war is not in itself half so formidable as that of the scarcity with which it is necessarily combined, and for the evils and growing dangers of which I see no adequate remedy' (Stanhope, Life, 3.249). His response was characteristically pragmatic, combining steps to promote trade and industry with temporary measures to encourage imports, restrain exports, and discourage consumption of grain while promoting the use of alternatives. Refraining on this occasion from state trading in grain, he improved the system of bounties and government encouragement to traders, sometimes with impressive results. He disregarded the opposition of Grenville, who disapproved of many of his interventionist policies. In the summer of 1800 Pitt secured the passage of acts to introduce a co-operative company to manufacture flour, meal, and bread for London and to enable the lord mayor to regulate flour and bread prices. In November 1800, after a second harvest failure, he summoned parliament early and immediately brought in a number of bills to ease the crisis, including one to increase the consumption of fish and another to forbid the export of victuals. His controversial Brown Bread Act—which forbade the baking of bread solely from fine flour—was largely ignored and repealed after two months. Another act—which enjoyed greater success in diversifying diet and mitigating the effects of famine—enabled (rather than compelled, as he had at first desired) parish authorities to use substitutes for wheat in their provision for the deserving poor. Pitt was unwilling to raise wage rates so as to increase the purchasing power of the poor. He discerned no practicable means of regulating the high price of wheat, professing himself unwilling to 'draw theories of regulation from clamour and alarm' or to institute 'oppressive general regulations' (Debrett, 3rd ser., 13.48, 239, 244); government, he acknowledged, lacked the information and understanding to control the complex phenomenon of price inflation. Committed neither to intervention nor to laissez-faire, he strove to keep his feet in the growing storm of public anxiety which followed the second harvest failure by associating parliament—for instance, by appointing a select committee to report on the dearth—with a moderate, pragmatic consensus approach while clinging to the correct expectation that better harvests would come, scarcity pass, and high prices abate.

Distress and its attendant discontent and disorder reinforced Pitt's well-established anxieties about the activities of radicals and revolutionaries in Britain and Ireland. A Commons committee of secrecy, appointed in January, reported on the subject in March 1799, and on 12 July Pitt's Act against Societies established for Seditious and Treasonable Purposes was passed. This suppressed the principal bodies by name and others that administered oaths unlawfully or failed to register members; previously enacted repressive measures were simultaneously tightened up. Another act that month stipulated full forfeiture of property by convicted traitors. Such provisions supplemented the continued suspension of habeas corpus for the remainder of the ministry. Early in 1801 Pitt was studying further papers on alleged subversive activities, soon to be referred to another Commons committee. His repressive policies—sometimes known as ‘Pitt's reign of terror’—were implemented at a time of war, scarcity, disorder, and revolutionary unrest. Deeply alarmed by the autumn of 1800 at the problems confronting his ministry, Pitt regarded them as necessary for the preservation of the British state. He did not intend the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 as part of an armoury of repression, though they have sometimes been so considered. These acts were intended to improve the existing provisions for reducing restraints on trade by both workers' and employers' combinations and for encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes. Almost all the explicitly repressive legislation was temporary and required parliamentary approval for renewal. Pitt himself was keen to preserve legal and constitutional safeguards, such as the right of petitioning, and acknowledged that, to succeed, his policies needed the underlying consent of the political nation: 'If the mass of the people were disloyal', he said in December 1800, 'the measures of Parliament … would be ineffectual' (Debrett, 3rd ser., 13.438). A deep well of support existed upon which he could draw. His person indeed, now seen in a sterner guise, was widely if sometimes grudgingly viewed as a necessary guardian of order and of society itself.

The second coalition, 1798–1799

In the spring of 1798 Pitt, keen to re-establish British naval presence in the Mediterranean despite objections from the Admiralty, insisted that the cabinet discuss the subject on 11 and 18 April. It was agreed to send a squadron but the squadron failed to intercept Bonaparte's expedition en route for Egypt. The news—received on 26 September—of the destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir on 1 August rendered Pitt 'in the highest possible spirits' (W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Canning MS 30), 'confident that Buonaparte must be destroyed' (Suffolk RO, Ipswich, Pretyman MS 435/45); he now expected no further expeditions against Ireland and had hopes of renewed continental resistance to France. The French capture of Malta in June prompted Tsar Paul to envisage a more active Russian role. On 24 July he offered Britain a treaty of alliance; 60,000 Russians would act with the Austrians on the Rhine in exchange for £1.5 million in the first year and £1.2 million thereafter. Pitt found this immediately acceptable, and, after cabinet discussions, it was decided on 22 August to offer conditional acceptance. Pitt was worried that further aid to Austria would encounter political opposition at home, but his chief preoccupation was financial; he felt unable to find more than £2 million a year for continental strategy, of which £200,000 was already committed to Portugal. The cabinet agreed to allot to Russia the £1.2 million provisionally reserved in the spring for Austria, for use as Paul had indicated, on condition that the loan convention of 1797 was ratified by Austria and Russia was properly informed of Vienna's military plans, with stress being laid upon the importance of freeing Switzerland from French domination. The disappointing response was received on 19 October that Russia would not accept a subsidy unless provision was also made for Austria. As that involved exceeding Pitt's limit of £2 million, Paul was told that Britain could not comply. 'I am not very sanguine of anything but our … continuing to fight well our own battle; and Europe must probably be left for some time longer to its fate' Pitt told Grenville on 29 October (Fortescue MSS, 4.355). The tsar changed his mind, however; an Anglo-Russian convention was signed in St Petersburg on 29 December by which 45,000 troops were made available to operate in the Netherlands for £900,000 a year and further payments amounting to £300,000. When details arrived in early March 1799, Pitt was glad to ratify it.

War was renewed between France and Austria on the Rhine in March 1799, though, contrary to Pitt's hopes, without any formal coalition or concerted plans having been agreed by the enemies of France. It was conducted throughout in an atmosphere of marked mistrust between London and Vienna and with little expectation of Prussian assistance. Encouraged by reports of the unpopularity of the French and the difficulties experienced by its republican government, Pitt was keen with Russian help to strike a decisive blow in the Netherlands, hopeful that a patriotic uprising might restore the house of Orange. He had hopes that a similar revolt would assist allied efforts in Switzerland. Indeed, having convinced themselves the enemy was near exhaustion, he and Grenville considered a range of options, including a raid on Brest, though Pitt—concerned at the expense and difficulty of co-ordinating operations and inclined from previous experience to be wary—discouraged Grenville's schemes for employing French royalist forces.

On 7 June 1799 Pitt made public statements, in some memorable phrases, about ultimate aims that were consistent with his approach since 1793: 'Our simple object is security, just security, with a little mixture of indemnification. These are the legitimate objects of war at all times' (Debrett, 3rd ser., 8.652–73). He denied any intention of reimposing monarchy on France or extirpating republicanism. Britain, he said, was 'at war with armed opinions … We will not leave the monster to prowl the world unopposed … Whilst Republican France continues what it is, then I make war against Republican France', but if a government were established that did not threaten others, he would not oppose it (ibid., 687–99). Despite his low opinion of the Bourbons, he privately acknowledged that monarchy would be its safest form. He agreed with Grenville that coalition was needed to ensure victory within two or three years and shared his mistrust of Vienna's intentions. Both considered an attack on the Netherlands with Russian support to be Britain's most helpful military contribution and thought of Prussian assistance as desirable. In the formulation of a 'strategy of overthrow'—as it came to be known—Grenville was the main protagonist, but he had his colleague's full support.

By the end of June plans had been made for a combined assault on the Netherlands at British expense by a force of Russians, their Swedish allies, and British to support the Austrians and another Russian force in south Germany and Switzerland, though details of Austria's plans remained unknown. Renewed hopes of Prussian aid were dashed by the end of July and it was learned that no Swedes would be available. On 1 August Pitt, worried by these developments, summoned Grenville to confer; declining to attend, Grenville instead wrote a 'remonstrance' on the importance of not abandoning the planned expedition. Apparently swayed by his advocacy, Pitt dropped his doubts. He was in high hopes at Walmer when the British force under Sir Ralph Abercromby sailed on 13 August, landing at The Helder on the 27th.

In the spring and summer the Austrians and Russians had successes in Italy and Switzerland but subsequently encountered set-backs, and Austria failed to co-operate with Britain or act effectively in the Netherlands. By early September Pitt was pondering the unification of the Austrian Netherlands and the former United Provinces (at that time the Batavian Republic, a French satellite) into a new state, with Austria receiving compensation in Italy. News of the Austrian evacuation of Switzerland, received on 14 September, persuaded him that such plans were 'out of the question' (Ehrman, 3.251), though he remained hopeful, writing resiliently of possible Prussian assistance or of continuation with Russia alone, of an assault on the fleets in Brest, or, once Holland was captured, an attack on Spain from the Mediterranean by Russian and British forces. In mid-October came news both of a devastating defeat of the Russians in Switzerland and of the decision of the British commanders to withdraw from the Netherlands. Having made a decisive start with the capture of the remaining Dutch fleet of twenty-five warships, they had found the enemy in greater strength than expected but also little sign of widespread insurrection, and it had been impossible to achieve a breakout. Although the evacuation was completed by the end of November, the campaign was nevertheless a humiliation that brought starkly into focus the failure of the most extensive military and diplomatic efforts yet attempted by Pitt's ministry during the course of the war.

Strategy and diplomacy, autumn 1799–1800

After this demoralizing set-back, ministers grew increasingly divided over strategic affairs. Pitt was incapable of giving a clear lead, for the collapse of the grand design destroyed the context in which he liked to work, and with it the prospect of a strategy agreed by his two principal colleagues. He was anxious for another scheme of coalition, and in early November overtures were made to St Petersburg and Vienna for renewed campaigns in the spring, while plans were aired for British operations in north-west France and the Mediterranean. Writing buoyantly to Canning on 3 December 1799, Pitt asserted that, with the enemy seeming near to exhaustion, new allied efforts would have 'a reasonable Prospect of making a decisive Impression', though if necessary Britain would fight on indefinitely alone, for he would never make peace with 'a Revolutionary Jacobin Government'. The recent coup of Brumaire, which had inaugurated the consulate under Bonaparte, he considered a step towards the restoration of monarchy. Should Bonaparte offer peace on 'honourable and Advantageous terms', he could not see 'on what Grounds We could justify to ourselves a refusal to Treat, and much the less how We could expect to be supported by Public Opinion' (W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Canning MS 30). When Bonaparte's overture of peace to George III of 31 December 1799 arrived, however, Pitt did not think the circumstances—the unproven stability and trustworthiness of the new French regime—warranted negotiations. The king and cabinet agreed, though the acerbic tone and strict official form of Grenville's note to Talleyrand did not please Pitt. In a long, carefully prepared speech in the Commons on 3 February he impressively defended the answer to France, which was approved by a majority of 265 to 64. On the 17th he was challenged by George Tierney to state in one sentence the object of the war. 'I know not', he responded, 'whether I can do it in one sentence; but in one word, I can tell him that it is Security … It is Security against a danger, the greatest that ever threatened the world' (Debrett, 3rd ser., 10.567–8).

Pitt found it impossible to envisage what Britain's strategic role should now be. A cabinet decision in February 1800 to send 15,000 troops to Minorca for co-operation with Austria or the royalists in the south of France received much criticism. Confirmation of this decision by the cabinet on 26 March led Dundas to circulate an important paper critical of the government's military strategy, and an angry exchange between him and Grenville ensued; on 8 April Dundas expressed his desire to resign after the summer campaigns, but Pitt elicited a promise that he would not do so until the end of the war. An uneasy cabinet of the 19th agreed to reduce the Mediterranean force to 5000 men, making the seizure of Malta its prime objective. In May—worried by Bonaparte's latest incursion into Italy—Pitt obtained cabinet backing (with the exception only of Windham) for Dundas's suggestion that additional troops be sent to the Mediterranean. Orders were issued without the king being consulted, however, and it transpired that he did not approve; on the 19th a cabinet reversed the decision (though too late to prevent the departure of the troops), ordering instead a harassing raid against the French coast. As this scene of confusion unfolded, with Pitt unable to impose any coherence, news arrived of the crushing Austrian defeat on 14 June at Marengo.

Pitt bore the blow, George Rose reported, 'with Fortitude', and resolved not to abandon Austria. Vienna was told, despite the king's displeasure, that Britain would work for a general peace if Austria had to stop fighting, and attempts were made to arrange a defensive alliance in order to prevent a unilateral peace. A convention was steered rapidly through the Commons by 18 July, granting Vienna £2 million and wide scope to make territorial arrangements in north Italy, but the cabinet had already concluded on the 16th that a Franco-Austrian armistice could hardly be opposed if Austria found it expedient. On 24 August a French offer of a naval armistice was received. Although a cabinet meeting of 4 September quickly agreed that it was unacceptable, Pitt found the issue a 'delicate one'; 'absolute refusal', he recorded, 'would produce the immediate renewal of hostilities between France and Austria, and probably drive the latter … to an immediate peace on the worst terms' (Stanhope, Life, 3.240). Pitt's decision to parley until the end of September was unwise; it worsened his relations with the king and exacerbated divisions within the cabinet.

Signs of the king's dissatisfaction with Pitt's ministry were increasingly evident in 1800. On 24 July, for instance, ministers approved plans for an assault on Ferrol, Cadiz, and Tenerife, advocated by Dundas, who then received an angry letter from George III, saying that policy was being made and orders being given without consultation or regard for his legitimate sovereign interest. Pitt saw that his intervention was needed and, showing sound tactical sense, wrote direct to Windsor firmly stressing the importance of using the remainder of the summer to advantage, advising Dundas at the same time to write likewise and with care to avoid awkward constitutional issues. The king on this occasion gladly eschewed confrontation, but the incident was upsetting. When Pitt put his authority behind a plan, proposed by Dundas on 18 September, to dispatch a force to clear the French from Egypt, the king opposed this too, while several ministers, including Grenville, expressed deep reservations. Despite this Pitt pushed the decision through an evenly divided cabinet on 3 October, probably in the hope that a military success there would strengthen Britain's hand in any future peace negotiations. His continental strategy was shattered during the winter of 1800–01. After defeat at Hohenlinden on 3 December, Austria undertook separate negotiations for the peace of Luneville (9 February 1801), while Tsar Paul proclaimed the armed neutrality of Russia, Prussia, Denmark, and Sweden on 16 December to challenge Britain's exercise of rights over neutral shipping. Pitt fully supported Grenville's defence of British maritime policy and the decision to prepare a naval force for action in the Baltic.

Pitt's management of the war reached a nadir in 1800. It was not a task in which his talents shone. Indecisive, and without much trust in his own judgement, he was pulled increasingly in conflicting directions by the disagreements of Dundas and Grenville. He had long thought the latter's continental policy the only means of definitive victory, and when it repeatedly failed he had no strategic vision of his own to put in its place; nor was he entirely convinced by Dundas. He was increasingly tired, and his energies were absorbed in attempting to find common ground to unite the cabinet and in trying to keep Dundas in office, while serious issues of domestic policy simultaneously claimed his attention.

Resignation, 3 February 1801

Pitt's resignation arose from the proposal, usually known as Catholic emancipation, to admit Irish Roman Catholics to the Westminster parliament, something he came to regard himself as under an obligation to introduce once the Act of Union was successfully implemented, particularly since it was urged upon him by the administration in Dublin. In the early autumn of 1800 he was reportedly doubtful about it, perhaps opposed. An inconclusive cabinet meeting on the subject on 1 October was not followed up, but, with the Act of Union coming into force on 1 January, it was necessary to prepare the king's speech for the new union parliament. Hence, during a cabinet meeting early in January, it was resolved at Pitt's instance to make a firm decision about emancipation. He evidently concluded from another meeting on 25 January that cabinet approval existed, however qualified, and undertook to ascertain the views of the lord chancellor, Loughborough, who had been absent from the meeting—though in the event he omitted to do so.

Pitt now lost control of events, for at a levee on the 28th the king, who had indirectly gained knowledge of these deliberations, publicly demanded an explanation from Dundas and in a state of high excitement announced that he would consider any proponent of emancipation his personal enemy. Alarmed by a report of these ominous words, Pitt immediately summoned another cabinet, at which he declared that he 'must go out' (Ehrman, 3.504) if it were not carried; but, the measure being opposed by Liverpool, Westmorland, and Loughborough, it was decided to postpone the opening of parliament while he prepared a written proposal for communication—with cabinet approval—to the king. On the 29th Addington brought him a message from George III about the dangers of introducing 'a subject on which I can scarcely keep my temper' (ibid., 3.505). Nevertheless on the 31st Pitt wrote to the king stating his commitment to emancipation. He assured him that, circumstances having changed a good deal in past decades, it would present no dangers for the established church or the protestant interest in either Great Britain or Ireland, would be accompanied with a strong test of loyalty by oath, and would help reconcile the Roman Catholic clergy, the 'higher orders of the Catholics', and a 'large class' of Irish subjects to the Union. If the king was not prepared to give full support, he concluded, he would 'wish to be released from a situation, which he is conscious, that, under such circumstances, he could not continue to fill but with the greatest disadvantage' (Ehrman, 3.507–8).

Replying on 1 February, the king refused to discuss a proposal he believed would subvert a fundamental maxim of the constitution, but expressed the hope that Pitt would drop the measure and stay in office. After meeting Addington on the 3rd, Pitt wrote a letter of resignation. It was accepted two days later, on condition that he remained to introduce his budget (which passed without difficulty) on the 18th. Addington formed a ministry with Pitt's goodwill; he advised colleagues to support (or join if invited) the new administration, though five cabinet ministers (including Grenville and Dundas) and a number of junior ones resigned with him. On 14 March, following the king's recovery from a renewed attack of his illness, Pitt returned the seals of office he had received on 19 December 1783. Uneasy about the effect his resignation might have had on the king, and having received a report that he attributed his illness to it, Pitt also sent a message assuring the monarch that he would never bring forward the Catholic question again in or out of office, and furthermore that he would try to defer it should it be agitated by others during the reign.

Various explanations of Pitt's conduct—widely held at the time to be mysterious—were attempted. Possibly he was seeking rest, and anxious to find an excuse, or, while thinking it dishonourable to abandon Catholic emancipation, was worried that to insist on its discussion might produce a further attack of the king's malady. Or possibly his absence from office would enable Addington (under his guidance) to negotiate a settlement with the French at a moment when hopes of victory had been shattered and peace was his own objective. All these considerations doubtless played a part, but above all, perhaps, he had felt a stand needed to be made against non-ministerial or court influences on the king and the manner in which George III had spoken out prematurely against emancipation in public at a levee. Writing to Chatham on 5 February, Pitt underlined the importance of this, saying that the monarch's language had been 'so strong and unqualified … as to show … that his mind was made up to go to any extremity rather than consent to the measure in question' (Gibson, 310).

Undoubtedly Pitt made characteristic errors of judgement, revealing his tendency to postpone attention to the practicalities of policy and then rely on his unusual powers of assimilation to master them quickly. He took by surprise colleagues who had neither been adequately consulted nor—in many instances—saw Catholic emancipation as a pressing issue or one meriting resignation. He failed to prepare the ground properly with king and cabinet in the autumn of 1800 and was unduly swayed by pro-emancipation arguments from Dublin and the convictions of Dundas and Grenville, which led him to adopt hastily in 1801 an issue of which he had previously taken a more remote view. His inattention to the king was the more serious because both he and George III were well aware of it and because it occurred as the king from the late 1790s was growing dissatisfied with ministers' dissensions and unsuccessful military strategies. As Pitt admitted: 'other Business and want of Health often made him postpone both written and personal communication with the King' (Ehrman, 3.522). In the midst of the other demands of a crisis whose prospects looked very grim, the 'unlucky business' of Ireland—brought to a head by the sudden clash of the king's and his own deep instinctive responses—drew to an untimely end the labours of seventeen years.

Health, private life, and finances

By late 1800 Pitt suffered poor health, which contributed to the errors that led to his resignation. His debility owed much to the pressures of public life. As an adult he was free of serious illness before 1789; apart from short attacks of gout in July 1789 and October 1791 his general health appeared unchanged until 1793. The war brought greater strain, which recreation and exercise at his country residence did not entirely dispel. By the middle of the decade, he had an established gouty tendency, possibly exacerbated by steady drinking with Dundas, though his surviving cellar-books give no indication of increased consumption of alcohol in this period. He was seriously unwell in the winter of 1796–7. During September 1797, after the failure of the Lille negotiation and the death of his brother-in-law Edward Eliot, he had tormenting headaches; he was ill in June 1798, indisposed and depressed in April 1799. In July and October 1800 he suffered severe digestive difficulties; a nervous breakdown left him badly shaken at the end of that year. A physically and emotionally resilient man, he succumbed at length to the strains of unremitting attention to ministerial business in a protracted war without victory. Yet retirement from office did not bring full recovery. There were signs of debility when he resigned, two bouts of illness in 1802, and the digestive complaints that tended particularly to plague him at times of great tension persisted. His condition was neither entirely psychosomatic nor primarily the result of excessive consumption of alcohol but involved an underlying physical problem, possibly bowel cancer or more likely a combination of irregular gout producing hyperuricaemia and a recurring gastro-intestinal lesion.

Never a widely sociable man, Pitt became more reclusive after the outbreak of war in 1793, and was increasingly withdrawn from social life after 1795. Having no inclination to be a patron of the arts or sciences, he never moved much in society or among artists and writers. Socially he saw nothing of political opponents and little of the mass of his own supporters, counting only a small group as friends. He confined attendance at court and cabinet dinners to what was necessary. Evenings were usually devoted to business, which, despite his celebrated capacity to prepare papers and speeches quickly, became ever more burdensome; he was notoriously unmethodical in maintaining his correspondence, even with the little secretarial help he received. A shy man, he could seem disconcertingly haughty and often chilly in public. In private life, however, among a small circle of close acquaintances, he showed markedly greater warmth: he was kindly, good humoured, playful and even boisterous, amiable, and fond of children. Undoubtedly mercurial—'either in a garret or a cellar', as was remarked by Dundas, to whom he was very close until 1801—his temper was buoyant and for long capable of throwing off troubles without help from religious conviction, for which he had no noticeable capacity, or interest in theological reflection. Occasionally he showed deep emotion, being overwhelmed with grief on the death in September 1786 of his sister Harriot, with whom he lived at Downing Street in 1785–6, and again eleven years later on that of Edward Eliot—his favourite companion in early life. He was friendly with Jane, duchess of Gordon, in the late 1780s, though they drifted apart after 1791. Only once did he consider marriage, to Eleanor Eden, the eldest daughter of Lord Auckland, of whom he saw a good deal in late 1796. He expressed marked affection for her in a letter of 20 January 1797 to her father, in which, however, he explained that his circumstances—not elaborated upon—meant they could not marry; another letter assured Auckland he had not 'lightly or easily sacrificed my best hopes and earnest wishes to my conviction and judgement' (BL, Add. MS 59704). The episode was closed with much embarrassment on Pitt's part. He may not have wished to be drawn too close to the ambitious Auckland. Deeper-seated explanations are concern that his debts, indifferent health, and political preoccupations would make him an unsuitable husband, and perhaps reluctance to make a great change in his way of life by embarking upon a close, sexual, relationship for which he possibly felt unfitted. Friendship, affection, and (particularly as he grew older) admiration were important to Pitt, though he was poor at keeping relationships in good repair. Responding easily to sentiment, he lacked possessive passions. He enjoyed the company of younger men of political promise, most notably Canning, in whose career he took an interest, and although these relationships were sometimes close they seem rather paternal in nature and not overtly homosexual. Pitt's innocence and purity of character were often noted by acquaintances. A bachelor, wedded to politics and public life, in which he found fulfilment, he was content to spend his brief moments of leisure either convivially with friends or alone at his houses in Kent. The last three years of his life were brightened by the presence of his niece Hester Lucy Stanhope, who lived with him from 1803.

Pitt lived as a country gentleman when time allowed. In November 1785 he bought a house at Holwood, close to Hayes Place where he had been born; he added adjacent property the following January, enlarged the estate by purchases from 1788 to 1793, and extended the house in 1797. He planted, improved the grounds, and farmed sheep in a small way; indifferent to antiquarian interests or Romantic taste, he ruined an Iron Age fort there. In these pursuits he employed Sir John Soane, with whom he was friendly, and Humphry Repton. He liked shooting, but gave up field sports as time went by. Holwood was a place of solace and recreation that he sold with regret in 1802. He had another Kent home, Walmer Castle, following his appointment as warden of the Cinque Ports in 1792. Before 1802 he usually spent some time there annually in the late summer; thereafter he was frequently present from the spring until the autumn, finding it a welcome diversion after his resignation. He rented adjoining land on which he planted trees, laid out walks, and farmed, to some profit. At Walmer, as lord warden, constable of Dover Castle, and admiral of the Cinque Ports, he had official duties he relished; he raised a corps of Cinque Ports Volunteers and was colonel of a battalion raised by Trinity House (of which he was master). Out of office he approached the military life with gusto and seriousness, encouraging the construction of Martello towers and the Royal Military Canal in Romney Marsh.

Pitt's income between 1784 and 1792 was about £6900 a year and from 1792 until 1801 about £10,000. This should have been ample for a bachelor with rent-free accommodation at Downing Street, but, while being neither a gambler nor a speculator, he spent freely, with little regard for economy or attention to his accounts; as early as 1785 he owed about £8000, and he spent some £1617,000 in 1785 and £1112,000 in 1786. Servants and tradesmen cheated him on a considerable scale. He took on large loans, principally from his banker, Coutts, to whom he was paying interest on about £15,805 by 1787. Coutts arranged advances on Pitt's official income, and in 1793 Pitt was forced to assign him his salary as first lord of the Treasury. In 1796 he was paying interest of £676 on his overdraft and £940 on his bank loans. In 1797 he took out a new loan of £10,000 and a second mortgage of £7000 on Holwood. He spent over £20,200 in 1799 and needed another loan in 1800, by which time his debts were about £46,000. Fortunately his creditors were usually patient; attempts were made to settle with them in 1786 and 1793 on the strength of Coutts's loans, but debts to tradesmen nevertheless totalled about £11,000 by 1801. Servants, however, were usually paid promptly. Pitt combined financial extravagance with a markedly unassuming standard of life; restrained in his building works, he had no racing stable or great library or collection (though he did spend quite heavily on books in the late 1790s, owing £714 for them in 1801). By 1800 he had abandoned any attempt to deal with his private affairs; nearly always he contemplated them with serene disregard and was unwilling to accept private assistance in his predicament—a detachment consonant with a concentration on public issues and devotion to public standards that made it unthinkable for him to profit privately from office. Resignation was a serious threat to his finances, and at first he seemed worried himself. He now had to rent a London house, taking first Park Place (off St James's Street) and then, from April 1802, 14 York Place (later Baker Street). He permitted his secretary Joseph Smith and his friends George Rose and George Pretyman to attempt to improve his financial position. He was unwilling to accept a sinecure and in 1801 declined an offer of money from the king, but he did accept advances from friends, whose names were made known to him, amounting to at least £11,700. In 1801 all but £500 of his debts to tradesmen were thought to have been settled; but other obligations of over £30,000 remained, many of them to his banker; despite the sale of Holwood for £15,000 in 1802 and strenuous efforts to reduce current outgoings, his habitual neglect meant considerable sums were owing once more at his death.

Domestic politics in the years out of office, 1801–1804

Pitt expected to support Addington's ministry and act as his adviser, but he entered a period of partial political retirement lasting three years. In the autumn of 1801 he applauded the preliminaries of peace with France signed on 1 October, though regretting the cession of the Cape to the Dutch. In a speech of 3 November he said that, lacking an obvious continental ally, Britain must seek a modest but necessary peace, bargaining away as necessary her overseas acquisitions, except for Ceylon and Trinidad, which he thought too valuable to surrender; they were indeed retained in the definitive settlement. He approved the peace of Amiens of March 1802, although its terms were unfavourable to Britain, and Addington's first budget, about which he was consulted in outline. He was re-elected for Cambridge University in July 1802 in the general election that confirmed Addington in power.

Canning arranged a public birthday dinner in Pitt's honour at Merchant Taylors' Hall on 20 May 1802, during which verses were sung on 'the pilot who weathered the storm'. Although Pitt declined to attend he was moved by reports of the occasion. His self-proclaimed pursuit of ‘character’ perplexed friends and former ministerial colleagues who opposed Addington. He conceived himself pledged to uphold the new minister and to refrain from taking any steps to regain office or which would disturb the king's state of mind; and he was unwilling to serve in any other capacity than chief minister, and then only with the king's express invitation and approval. The extent of his support for Addington depended upon the ministry's response to Bonaparte's territorial ambitions. In the winter of 1802–3—while seeming increasingly dissatisfied—he withdrew from politics, living mainly at Walmer and Bath. In October 1802 he told Lord Grenville that, although French provocations made another war likely and the ministry lacked sufficient talent and support in the country to fight effectively, he would do nothing himself to regain office. In January 1803 he talked fruitlessly with Addington, and then absented himself from the Commons until April. When Addington made overtures in March through Dundas (now Viscount Melville), Pitt rejected a proposal that he and Addington be secretaries of state under Chatham as first lord of the Treasury, saying he would neither share power with nor serve under Addington. On 10 April Addington tried again through Charles Long, but Pitt insisted that if he returned he would expect the king's authority to reconstruct the ministry, a proposal the cabinet rejected outright. The negotiation petered out in an exchange of stiff, self-justificatory letters.

Declaration of war with France on 18 May 1803 drew Pitt back into politics. On 23 May, frequently cheered and vociferously applauded, he gave one of his greatest orations in support of the decision to fight and was perceived to have delivered a 'negative censure' (Harris, 4.256) on the ministry's previous performance. When, however, on 3 June a motion of censure on the government was brought he tried to stop it with one of his own to proceed to the next business; he made a poor speech (which he afterwards regretted as out of touch with the mood of the Commons) and, on being overwhelmingly out-voted, made an unfavourable impression by leaving the house. Thereafter, while giving general support to the ministry, he contributed little during the session, though he did intervene critically several times on the detail of Addington's remodelling of the income tax. During the autumn session of 1803, amid growing fears of French invasion, Grenville and Fox drew closer, and on 10–12 January 1804 Pitt met Grenville, at the latter's suggestion, to see whether common ground existed. Pitt refused, however, to align himself with the Grenvillites and Foxites, arguing that systematic opposition to a weak ministry at a critical moment would be unpopular in parliament and the country, incur the hostility of the king, and be embarrassing to himself.

Pitt attacked the measures for national defence propounded in a ministerial bill, introduced on 8 February, to regulate the volunteer forces, a subject about which he spoke regularly and in detail, using first-hand knowledge of the system in Kent. Early in March he turned to the state of the navy, whose civil administration under the earl of St Vincent as first lord of the Admiralty he condemned on the 15th in a motion defeated by 203 to 132. His scathing attacks continued during April, in closer co-operation with opposition groupings in parliament. This was a limited alliance, for he told Grenville and Fox on 18 April that he could not undertake to require the king to admit either of them to government should he be asked to lead a new ministry. His role in a co-ordinated attack on government was a severe blow for Addington, and he made a telling contribution to the debate on Fox's motion about national defence on 23 April, denouncing the 'tardiness, languor, and imbecility of ministers in every thing' (Ehrman, 3.635). By 26 April Addington was ready to resign, and on the 30th the king consulted Pitt. In a letter of 2 May Pitt proposed a 'comprehensive' ministry, including Grenville and Fox. This was not well received, as he learned by a reply on 5 May, but he requested an interview and, having consulted the royal doctors first, met the king for three hours on the 7th. The monarch was prepared to accept Grenville, with some of his associates, and possibly some Foxites. Emerging hopeful from the meeting, Pitt was shocked to learn that Grenville, the Grenvillites, and the Foxites would not enter government without Fox. Angered and bewildered at Grenville's position, he refused to ask the king to reconsider, offered his services on the 9th, and took office on 10 May 1804, with the prospect of forming a ministry without the support of the main opposition parties that had returned him to power.

The second ministry, 1804–1806

The material available for a new ministry in May 1804 was distinctly weak, and Pitt disliked making the arrangements. Of his own followers few were fitted for high office: Melville accepted the Admiralty, Camden became secretary of state for war and the colonies, and the new foreign secretary was Dudley Ryder, now Lord Harrowby, an able friend of long standing. From Addington's ministry Eldon was lord chancellor, Portland lord president of the council, Hawkesbury home secretary, and Chatham master-general of the ordnance; Castlereagh was added as head of the Indian Board of Control. Great difficulty arose filling junior posts. Canning, shocked by the exclusion of the Grenvillites, agreed only from personal loyalty to become treasurer of the navy; and others either declined office or accepted under renewed pressure. Their reactions betrayed disappointment—which later hardened into disillusionment and resentment—with a statesman prepared to compromise in any direction to produce a government. Although dependent, as he recognized, on the king—an unwelcome state of affairs—Pitt did not despair. Addington he thought unlikely to be influential out of office; the Grenville clan was unpopular, and Fox still suspect to many.

Pitt was hard pressed to make good the charges he had levied against Addington's ministry. When he presented his own proposals for additional land forces the detailed and lengthy objections he encountered owed much of their animus to the feelings engendered by the tone of his return to power. By the autumn of 1804 he was seeking further support. The financial burden of the war was met largely by fresh issues of short-term bills and debentures, though Pitt's final budget in 1805 allowed also for a funded loan of £20 million, twice that for the previous year. This owed some of its size to a contingency sum of £5 million reserved for potential allies in an intended European coalition. One of Pitt's criticisms of Addington's ministry was its alleged failure to mount an offensive design for Europe, but he built on Addington's proposal for a Russian alliance; the two powers found common interest in south-east Europe, agreeing to work more closely in opposing the partition of the Ottoman empire. Plans were discussed to expel the French from southern Italy, and the arrival in London late in the year of a representative from the tsar with a blueprint for an alliance and a peace settlement greatly raised Pitt's spirits. While he set to work to answer these ideas for post-war Europe—in a lengthy review that became a basis for Britain's contribution to the terms worked out ten years later—he instructed the British envoy in St Petersburg to pursue detailed proposals for a strategic partnership. Although Russia remained the centre of attention, he discerned opportunities in Vienna and Berlin. Britain, moreover, was now at war with Spain, following a pre-emptive attack in the previous September on ships carrying bullion from South America, and the Baltic powers were being wooed. A provisional treaty was signed in the Russian capital on 12 April 1805, followed on 28 July by the ratification of a definitive treaty. In late June news reached St Petersburg that France had annexed the territory of Genoa. The tsar reacted furiously, and preparations for war were immediately begun, involving Austria, the Two Sicilies, and perhaps more surprisingly Sweden, which exacted a heavy financial price in London for a campaign in northern Germany. By September only Prussia, constantly wooed, had still to be won. The third coalition came into being without any concessions by Britain over its maritime interests.

This did not save Pitt, as he had hoped, from domestic political problems. His ministry was ill at ease for much of 1804, and although efforts to bolster its strength from the various quarters of opposition failed in the autumn a junction with Addington was subsequently achieved. In January 1805 Addington became lord president of the council as Viscount Sidmouth, but relations between the two connections were strained. Ministers were ill-prepared for the storm that followed the publication of a report on Melville's alleged misappropriation of funds as treasurer of the navy during Pitt's first ministry, which brought Pitt's own conduct under scrutiny. The most public humiliation Pitt ever suffered, and one that deeply afflicted him, this also exposed party animosities within government. Pitt had therefore to face again the problem of parliamentary majorities, and now it seemed more intractable. When the definitive treaty with Russia was safely received late in August, to be followed within a few days by an agreement with Austria, the way looked open for him to seek the king's permission to broaden his ministry by including some Grenvillites and Foxites and if necessary Fox himself. Talks between Pitt and George III in September, however, proved a complete failure and led Pitt to conclude that nothing remained but 'to fight the best Battle We can with our own Strength' (letter to Bathurst, 27 September 1805, BL, Loan MS 57, vol. 2).

All therefore turned on Pitt's plans for the coming campaign. He proposed to intervene in concert with the allies in the Mediterranean and northern Germany. Early in November he received the great boost to morale of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, and was toasted as the saviour of Europe at the lord mayor's banquet at Guildhall. His reply passed into legend: 'I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me: but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example' (Stanhope, Life, 4.346). Prussia, in particular, was still holding aloof; a supreme effort was to be made to win her over. But the fate of Europe lay with Napoleon; in October he checked the Austrians at Ulm, the next month he entered Vienna, and on 2 December he decisively defeated Austrian and Russian forces at Austerlitz. Pitt's plans were shattered, and the future appeared to offer little hope. The blow found him—in very bad health—taking the waters at Bath. He returned to the villa on Putney Heath he had rented the previous year, where he died, utterly worn out, on the morning of 23 January 1806, aged forty-six years and almost eight months, twenty-five years to the day after he had first entered the House of Commons. Contrary to the tradition, begun by Disraeli, that Pitt died after expressing a desire to 'eat one of Bellamy's pork pies', his final words, as recorded by his nephew James Stanhope, who was at his deathbed, were 'Oh, my country! how I leave my country!' (Ehrman, 3.829).


Pitt's death came to most people as a surprise, and even some of those close to him nursed hopes of recovery almost to the end. Its impact on the House of Commons was dramatic: 'the silence was deathlike, and several of the hardiest oppositionists said it was like an electrical shock … and that they could hardly breathe' (Thorne, 5). Fox was heard to mutter that there seemed to be 'something missing in the world—a chasm or blank that cannot be supplied' (Lord Granville Leveson Gower, 2.162–3). As in the case of the elder Pitt, the Commons voted to address the throne for a lying in state and funeral at the public expense and, unanimously, that the public should pay his debts, which was done to the extent of £40,000. On 22 February Pitt joined his parents and his favourite sister, Harriot, in Westminster Abbey. The personal grief among his circle was intense; it was shared, perhaps most tellingly, by some who had felt disappointment and umbrage in recent years—Lord Grenville, George Rose, and Lord Sidmouth. Most poignant of all was Melville's affliction, as he contemplated a life in which there seemed 'to be not an hour … for these twenty-four years past, that does not at this moment and for ever continue to bring his image to my Mind' (Ehrman, 3.831–2). Pitt's executors, his brother Chatham and Bishop Pretyman Tomline, took sixteen years to settle his affairs, but in 1821 they closed the books with a net surplus, where none had been expected, of some £7600, from which bequests were made to Chatham and to the three surviving daughters of his two deceased sisters.

Among the personal mementoes which passed to Pitt's friends were copies, executed by the artist, of John Hoppner's portrait of 1805, the last likeness for which Pitt had sat. An outstanding posthumous portrait by Thomas Lawrence appeared in 1808 and a posthumous bust by Joseph Nollekens, based on Hoppner's portrait, followed in 1815 by a full-length statue in Cambridge; other monuments included Richard Westmacott's in Westminster Abbey and statues by Francis Chantrey in London and Edinburgh. Prints of many of these representations and, in sculpture, casts of Nollekens's bust in particular were subsequently produced, as were medals with Pitt's head in profile, designed to be worn on a ribbon at celebratory dinners of the Pitt clubs whose membership grew steeply in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. His 'tall, ungainly, bony figure' (H. A. Bruce, Life of Sir William Napier, 1, 1864, 31) was relished by graphic satirists such as James Gillray, who caricatured him as a rake-thin, rather prim figure, with an exaggeratedly long, pointed, and up-turned nose, in countless images, most famously in The Bottomless Pitt (16 March 1792).

Pitt had died facing the prospect of a parliamentary assault which might well have brought his ministry down, and the immediate response of his colleagues was to resign. Unable to find his successor among the cabinet, George III—as some of its members advised—turned to Grenville and Fox, so that, by the time that Pitt was interred, the former was first lord of the Treasury and the latter a secretary of state in the ‘ministry of all the talents’. When the new government invited only two junior office-holders from its predecessor's ranks, outgoing ministers agreed to act under the standard of Pitt's name, and soon became known as Mr Pitt's friends, or Pittites. Just as Pitt had done, they abjured regular opposition, and conceived themselves ready to speak and where appropriate 'take the sense of Parliament' (Canning's interpretation in April 1806) on measures 'brought forward … in derogation from Mr. Pitt's system, or in discredit of his memory', or 'really objectionable and felt to be so by the country and still more by' the king (A. D. Harvey, Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century, 1978, 181). They were recognized as a distinctive connection for the rest of the decade.

A wide range of appeals to Pitt's influence or example were made, and certain characteristic policies were credibly identified as Pittite: the persistent use of a continental strategy, in which British troops came to serve a distinctive role; the conception of a final peace treaty derived consciously from a design suggested by Pitt; a fiscal system centred throughout the Napoleonic War on the direct income tax; and the employment against threats of disorder of stern repressive legislation which yet respected a core of constitutional liberties. Certain appeals, however, were historically less respectable and brought much distortion, even caricature. The ‘expedient’ statesman emotionally unmoved by religious sentiment was portrayed as spiritually devout, and hailed as a convinced opponent of Catholic emancipation. The whig upholder of the balanced constitution, whose attitude to the royal prerogative was watchful and reductive, the politician who had been suspect to the elder Jenkinson and Thurlow and Eldon, acquired in memory a party label as a tory which he himself would not have recognized.

The transmission of ‘Mr Pitt's system’ was arguably clearer and of greater impact in the major areas of governmental business than in the politically controversial subjects which had demanded so much of his attention, particularly in his later years. For Pitt's view of politics was affected, to an exceptional degree, by his treatment of the system as a vehicle for business. He had the traditional disdain of party and, with whatever inconsistencies and lapses, he undertook improvements for their own sake: this was a perceptible shift from the earlier movement of economic reform, and one that over time made a significant contribution to a far-reaching development by applying a more dispassionate assessment to problems of administration which could still be brought within an individual's grasp but increasingly called for a systematic approach in an era of accelerating change. The unaccustomed weight he placed on 'subjects of a low and vulgarising quality' (Private Papers of William Wilberforce, 79)—such as budgetary and commercial details—proved equally lasting. His emphasis and tone over a long span in office suited current needs, drawing a ready response from his officials and an admission from his colleagues of his dominance. As men came increasingly to look back across a watershed to the different world of the eighteenth century, Pitt was seen as a great agent and symbol of change.

The enduring sense of Pitt's personal probity and dedication was a potent legacy too. This was particularly well expressed by Wilberforce, who had known him well:

Mr. Pitt had foibles, and of course they were not diminished by … continuance in office; but for a clear and comprehensive view of the most complicated subject in all its relations; for that fairness of mind which disposes a man to follow out, and when overtaken to recognise the truth; for magnanimity, which made him ready to change his measures, when he thought the good of the country required it, though he knew he should be charged with inconsistency on account of the change; for willingness to give a fair hearing to all that could be urged against his own opinions, and to listen to the suggestions of men whose understanding he knew to be inferior to his own; for personal purity, disinterestedness, integrity, and love of his country, I have never known his equal.

Wilberforce and Wilberforce, 3.249–50

Pitt had his own political vision, which he was ready to advance and where necessary defend with vigour, and it was not the less strong for—indeed it turned on—its practicability. Great Britain, he believed, had the good fortune to enjoy a constitution which was a model of its kind. Revolution was thus the enemy of true advance, 'improvement' the true end, and parliamentary majorities were the instruments for the purpose. He was, as he knew, well qualified to put in hand and expound the task. He was, moreover, a hard-headed, if volatile, practitioner, skilled in contrivance and resource. His eloquence suited, might even elevate, the matter-of-fact tastes of the Commons, and for all his lofty neglect of the mass of back-benchers he was usually distinctly sensitive to the moods of the house. He encouraged and was anxious to recruit talent, at levels lower than that of the cabinet, and greatly preferred persuasion and manoeuvre to an outright fight. His expectations, of his position and himself, were perhaps extravagant, as was evident at the outset of his career and particularly later during his pursuit of 'character' in 1801–4. These could give hostages to fortune, but the effect in the round was undeniable. Pitt died at the nadir of his fortunes; but he took his place at once in the pantheon of exceptionally renowned prime ministers, those few outstanding figures whose names have endured.


  • J. Ehrman, The younger Pitt, 3 vols. (1969–96)
  • J. H. Rose, William Pitt and the national revival (1912)
  • J. H. Rose, William Pitt and the great war (1912)
  • Earl Stanhope [P. H. Stanhope], Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, 4 vols. (1861–2)
  • M. Duffy, The younger Pitt (2000)
  • A. D. Harvey, William Pitt the younger, 1759–1806: a bibliography (1989)
  • The correspondence of William Wilberforce, ed. R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, 2 vols. (1840)
  • The manuscripts of J. B. Fortescue, 10 vols., HMC, 30 (1892–1927)
  • Correspondence between William Pitt and Charles, duke of Rutland, 1781–1787, ed. Lord Mahon (1842)
  • Diaries and correspondence of James Harris, first earl of Malmesbury, ed. third earl of Malmesbury [J. H. Harris], 4 vols. (1844)
  • The later correspondence of George III, ed. A. Aspinall, 5 vols. (1962–70)
  • Secret correspondence connected with Mr Pitt's return to office in 1804, ed. Lord Mahon (1852)
  • Private papers of William Wilberforce, ed. A. M. Wilberforce (1897)
  • The journal and correspondence of William, Lord Auckland, ed. G. Hogge, 4 vols. (1861–2)
  • Lord Granville Leveson Gower: private correspondence, 1781–1821, ed. Castalia, Countess Granville [C. R. Leveson-Gower], 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1916)
  • E. Gibson, Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: some chapters in his life and times (1898)
  • J. Debrett, ed., The parliamentary register, or, History of the proceedings and debates of the House of Commons, 112 vols. (1775–1813)
  • R. G. Thorne, ‘Pitt, William’, HoP, Commons, 1790–1820
  • G. Pretyman, Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, 3 vols. (1822)
  • The historical and the posthumous memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, 1772–1784, ed. H. B. Wheatley, 5 vols. (1884)
  • P. H. Stanhope, Miscellanies, 2nd ser. (1872)
  • The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 2 vols. (1903)
  • R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols. (1838)


  • CKS, corresp. and papers
  • CUL, corresp., incl. letters and memoranda in French [copies]
  • CUL, papers relating to Ireland [copies]
  • Duke U., Perkins L., letters
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. and papers [formerly TNA: PRO, PRO 30/58]
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. and papers
  • Pembroke Cam., corresp.
  • Suffolk RO, Ipswich, corresp. and papers
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, PRO 30/8
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, PRO 30/70
  • TNA: PRO, Coutts Bank Archives, financial papers relating to Pitt, PRO 30/70
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters
  • Beds. & Luton ARS, corresp. with Lord Grantham and Frederick Robinson
  • BL, Add. MSS 41852, 45107, 59704
  • BL, letters to him and W. D. Adams from members of the public relating to taxes, Add. MSS 59318–59320
  • BL, letters to Lord Auckland, Add. MSS 34420–34461, passim, 46491, 46519
  • BL, corresp. with third Earl Bathurst, loan 57
  • BL, letters to Lord Camelford, Add. MS 69288
  • BL, Dropmore papers, Add. MSS 58855–59478, 69038–69411
  • BL, letters to George, prince of Wales, Add. MS 46362
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MSS 58906–58909
  • BL, corresp. with second and third earls of Hardwicke, Add. MSS 35424–35762, passim
  • BL, corresp. with duke of Leeds, Egerton MS 3498
  • BL, letters to earls of Liverpool, Add. MSS 38192–38571, passim
  • BL, letters to Lord Liverpool, loan 72
  • BL, corresp. with George Rose, Add. MS 42772
  • BL, letters to second Earl Spencer
  • BL, letters to Lord Wellesley, Add. MSS 12564–13915, 37274–37318, passim
  • BL, corresp. with William Windham, Add. MS 37844
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir James Bland Burges
  • CKS, corresp. with Sir Jeffery Amherst
  • CKS, corresp. with second Earl Camden
  • CKS, corresp. with third duke of Dorset
  • CKS, letters to Lord Mahon
  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to earl of Lonsdale
  • Devon RO, corresp. with Lord Sidmouth
  • Devon RO, letters to J. Simcoe
  • Durham RO, corresp., mainly with Lord Sidmouth
  • Glos. RO, corresp. with Granville Sharp
  • Hants. RO, corresp. with William Wickham
  • Harrowby Manuscript Trust, Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, letters to first earl of Harrowby
  • JRL, letters to Lord Muncaster
  • Keele University Library, letters to Lord Auckland
  • N. Yorks. CRO, corresp. with Christopher Wyvill
  • NA Ire., corresp. with Lord Westmorland
  • NA Scot., corresp. with A. Hope
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville
  • NL Ire., corresp. with Lord Bolton
  • NMM, corresp. with Lord Barham
  • Northants. RO, Buccleuch MSS, corresp. with duke of Buccleuch
  • NRA, letters to John Simcoe
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Eldon
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Kenyon
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Norman Macleod
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Shelburne
  • Pembroke Cam., letters to E. Wilson
  • PRONI, corresp. with Lord Castlereagh
  • Royal Arch., letters to George III
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Edmund Burke
  • Sheff. Arch., letters to second Earl Fitzwilliam
  • Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, corresp. with second and third dukes of Grafton
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Cornwallis, PRO 30/11
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Granville, PRO 30/29
  • TNA: PRO, letters to marquess of Stafford, PRO 30/29
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to Thomas Coutts
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to Lord Melville
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to George Rose
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to Lord Sydney
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to Count Vorontsov
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters to Lord Wellesley
  • U. Nott. L., letters to third duke of Portland
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, letters to George Canning
  • Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with eleventh earl of Pembroke


  • attrib. J. Flaxman junior, Wedgwood medallion, 1787, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire
  • T. Gainsborough, oils, 1788, Lincoln's Inn, London; version, Kenwood House, London; version Burrell Collection, Glasgow
  • J. Gillray, line engraving, 1789 (after his earlier work), NPG
  • J. K. Sherwin, engraving, 1789 (after T. Gainsborough, begun 1787), NPG [see illus.]
  • mezzotint, pubd 1790 (after I. R. Cruikshank), NPG
  • G. Dupont, oils, 1796, Trinity House, London
  • J. Gillray, engraving, pubd 1797, NPG
  • J. Brydon, stipple, 1799 (after S. de Kostar), NPG
  • H. Edridge, pencil drawing, 1800, BM
  • J. Hoppner, oils, 1805, Merchant Taylors' Hall, London; version, NPG; version, Trinity Cam.; version, Inner Temple, London
  • J. Hoppner, portrait, 1805, NPG
  • F. Bartolozzi, line engraving, pubd 1806 (after W. Owen), BM, NPG
  • G. Clint, mezzotint, pubd 1806 (after J. Hoppner), BM, NPG
  • J. Nollekens, bust, 1806 (after death mask), FM Cam.
  • J. Nollekens, death mask, 1806
  • sculpture medal, 1806, NPG
  • J. Nollekens, bust, 1807 (after death mask), Royal Collection
  • T. Lawrence, oils, exh. RA 1808, Royal Collection
  • T. Bragg, line engraving, pubd 1810 (after J. Hoppner), BM, NPG
  • J. Nollekens, bust, 1810 (after death mask), Belton House, Lincolnshire
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, 1812, U. Cam., Senate House
  • R. Westmacott, statue, 1813, Westminster Abbey
  • J. Nollekens, bust, 1815 (posthumous; after Hoppner)
  • Nollekens, statue, 1815
  • F. Chantrey, bronze statue, 1831, Hanover Square, London
  • A. Cardon, stipple (after H. Edridge), BM, NPG
  • Chantrey, sculpture
  • J. S. Copley, group portrait, oils (The collapse of the earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778), Tate collection; on loan to NPG
  • H. Edridge, portrait
  • J. Gillray, caricatures, BM
  • K. A. Hickel, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1793), NPG
  • J. Nollekens, bust (after death mask), NPG
  • W. Owen, portrait
  • J. Sayers, caricatures, BM, NPG
  • Westmacott, bronze sculpture, Pembroke Cam.
  • line engraving (after W. Miller), NPG
  • plaster cast sculpture, NPG
  • silhouette drawing, NPG

Wealth at Death

probate was obtained by Pitt's executors in 1821, affording a surplus of some £7600, but this followed public provision of £40,000 to settle his debts: Ehrman, The younger Pitt, 3.835

W. Cobbett & J. Wright, eds., , 36 vols. (1806–20)
Historical Manuscripts Commission
R. G. Thorne, ed., , 5 vols. (1986)