Myth, Reality and William Pitt the Younger

R. E. Foster examines the career of Pitt the Younger.

In Britannia between Death and the Doctor's (1804), Gillray caricatured Pitt as a doctor kicking Addington (the previous doctor) out of Britannia's sickroom.William Pitt is, in some respects, an unlikely political icon. A delicate child, he was described as a man by H. A. Bruce as a ‘tall, ungainly, bony figure’. Pitt was a satirist’s gift. The best known, James Gillray, also captured the aloofness that many remembered. In an age where personal contacts mattered, Pitt was not clubbable. As William Wilberforce, a rare exception, put it, ‘Pitt does not make friends.’ He preferred to immerse himself in the details of commerce and finance – matters which Wilberforce dismissed as ‘subjects of a low and vulgarising quality’. But only Walpole has served longer as prime minister. How is Pitt’s longevity and achievement to be explained?

Part of the answer lies in his parentage. Pitt’s mother was sister to George Grenville, Prime Minister in 1763-5. His father, Pitt the Elder, was Prime Minister in 1766-8. The precocity of his second son did not escape the father’s notice: legend had it that young Pitt was schooled in oratory by being required to address an imaginary audience at home! After Cambridge, he was offered a pocket borough in 1780. His maiden speech in February 1781 made a memorable impression: ‘his manner easy and elegant; his language beautiful and luxuriant’, as one eyewitness recorded it; as did his espousing Parliamentary Reform and his criticism of ministers for their conduct of the war in America.

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