Empire of Liberty: The Rise of Pitt the Younger

“Confidence is a plant of slow growth in an aged bosom.”

-William Pitt the Elder

Except from John Bell’s “Portraits of Leadership: Histories of the Leaders and Rulers of the Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, 1992.

“Born as the second son to the former Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, William Pitt the younger is remembered as a key player in British politics between the American Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. A sickly boy, the younger Pitt hailed from Kent and had the good fortune of being born into a prominent political family as well as possessing great intelligence. Fluent in Latin and Greek, Pitt attended Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge at the age of 14. Sociable, but not gregarious, Pitt excelled at his studies and only found obstacles when his poor health flared. His poor health even caused him to invoke a special exemption from his final exams in order to graduate. Around the time the Elder Pitt died, the younger Pitt received training in the law at Lincoln’s Inn and entered the Bar in 1780.

That same year, Pitt contested the Cambridge seat to enter parliament but lost. Undeterred, Pitt found help from his friends Charles Manners, the 4th Duke of Rutland, and James Lowther, to win a by-election in the pocket borough of Appleby [1]. He entered parliament in the spring of 1781. Initially, Pitt supported the Whigs and the government of Lord Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford. A vocal opponent of the American Revolutionary War, he sought to find a favorable peace with the colonies that would allow Britain to continue its dominant role in trade. A visionary, Pitt saw North America as a resource base that could ship sugar, lumber, and other resources to Britain for manufacture, which Britain could then sell back to North America. Whether the colonies remained in the empire, or gained independence, mattered little so long as Britain retained favorable trade status. Pitt also became a vocal advocate for parliamentary reform, going so far as to urge the elimination of pocket and rotten boroughs. This stance is ironic since Appleby, established in 1295 and representing less than 1,000 constituents, certainly qualified as a borough in need of elimination.

Lord North’s government collapsed as the Revolutionary War drew to a close. George III appointed the Whig Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham as prime minister. Rockingham offered Pitt a minor office in Ireland, which he shrewdly refused as Rockingham’s ministry collapsed after the successful French invasion of Jersey. The king appointed Lord William Petty, the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, to replace Rockingham but Charles James Fox, a leading Whig, refused to serve under Shelburne and instead demanded the appointment of William Cavendish-Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland. Soon after, the House of Commons forced Shelburne out and replaced him with a coalition of North and Fox. In the midst of this crisis, Pitt became the Chancellor of the Exchequer vaulting him from unknown MP to a (brief) position of leadership. George III opposed the coalition government as he detested Fox, whom he believed acted as a bad influence on the Prince of Wales and lacked character. The king offered the young Pitt the prime ministership but Pitt wisely refused on the belief that the support would not exist in the House of Commons. The Duke of Portland became Prime Minister, with Fox and Lord North, as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary respectively. Pitt joined the opposition and became a vocal advocate for reform while drawing closer and closer to the king.

In the opposition, Pitt blasted the baroque inefficiencies of parliament as the reason for poor governance and the subsequent loss of the colonies. One of the first MPs to point out that the anti-French alliance system that had dominated Europe for the past century was evolving into anti-British system; Pitt sought to use the loss of the war as a means for widespread reform. During these critical early years in Parliament, Pitt solidified himself as an opponent of corruption, unnecessary expense, vanity and other vices while the North-Fox Coalition came to be identified with everything wrong in Parliament. Pitt found himself further vindicated when the peace saw a return of booming trade with the independent United States. In the meantime, many MPs found their personal finances in shambles with the loss of lucrative sugar and colonial investments in their portfolios.

A Fox-led attempt to reorganize the East India Company, an issue that many accepted as necessary, but few could agree on how to implement, broke the Fox-North coalition in late 1783. George III, who favored reform but refused the legislation, feared that an oversight board of parliamentary commissioners would be stacked with Foxite supporters. Flexing his own political muscles, the House of Lords rejected the legislation and the Portland ministry collapsed. This time, Pitt accepted an offer of the prime ministry.

Many saw Pitt as a stopgap appointment. He went on to retain the prime ministership for 16 years.

Pitt spent the first several months of his prime ministry solidifying his political position within the House of Commons. He refused to step down after a vote of no confidence in early 1794 (an unprecedented move) citing the support of the king, the House of Lords, the City of London, and the public. Slowly, the North-Fox Coalition eroded as some members flipped to become Pitt supporters or outright resigned their seats for either political or financial reasons. A general election in 1784 further solidified Pitt’s position as sweeping Pittite victories came in across the country. In this election, Fox barely won his own seat and Pitt secured the long coveted seat of the University of Cambridge.

His position secure, Pitt began his reform efforts immediately.

In 1785, Pitt attempted to remove the representation of 36 rotten boroughs while expanding the franchise. These efforts failed but they demonstrate Pitt’s reformist mindset.

In the area of finance, Pitt excelled. The national debt ballooned to nearly £300M by the end of the American Revolutionary War and the treasury dedicated over a third of the annual budget to interest on that debt [2]. The real problem was not the war debt itself but the reduced income and financial disarray caused by the loss of so much profitable territory. To combat this, he raised taxes, lowered import tariffs on easily smuggled goods and instituted a sinking fund to chip away at the tremendous debt. Controversially, Pitt reduced naval spending in an effort to cut costs. Without American colonies to protect, and with the East India Company a (somewhat) self-sufficient engine, Pitt reasoned he could cut the budget without affecting naval operations in European waters. His vision proved largely true for the home islands but the cuts did impact the Mediterranean. Cuts eventually stretched Royal Naval forces dangerously thin during the unexpectedly widespread and unexpectedly costly coalitionary wars.

In the realm of foreign policy, Pitt sought to normalize relations with the United States to benefit British trade and ledgerbooks. He created the “Triple Alliance” between Britain, Prussia and the Dutch Republic that would drag Britain into the coalitionary wars but ultimately provide few benefits. One foreign realm of great consternation to Pitt would be India.

The India Act of 1784 reformed the British East India Company to crack down on corruption and this time provided an oversight board whose positions the king could appoint himself. This was the inverse of the 1783 Whig attempt at reform, which would have given parliament appointment power over the board. The Governors of Bombay and Madras saw their powers reduced while the current Governor-General, Charles Cornwallis, saw his power increase. Of course, while the India Act went a long way towards reining in some of the excesses of the Company, it continued to operate mostly autonomously, far removed from the decisions of London. Indeed, it would be the Company, not Pitt, which ultimately sparked some of the initial seizures of Dutch Indian territories. Pitt, begrudgingly, consented to the plan knowing his ministership depended upon showing parliament, and indeed the British public, that the empire was not slowly imploding under his rule. While Pitt publicly supported the conquests, largely to instill public confidence in his own government, his behind the scenes reactions remained mixed. From his correspondence to many confidants in his own party, it appears that Pitt harbored conflicting feelings about the conquests. He supported the “easy” takeover of profitable territory and had no desire to stand in the way of the positive public reaction towards his government. At the same time, he questioned the honor of the attacks, the long-term impact on Britain’s standing in Europe (and the world), and was furious at the Company’s undermining his, and the royal boards’, authority. History further blurs the questions of Pitt’s conscience when one considers that Pitt played a direct role in the appointment of the very Governor-General that would undermine him, allegedly with a vague understanding by Pitt that he would have a rather long leash in the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, this says nothing about the extensive record of sympathetic correspondence between Pitt and wealthy Dutch exiles regarding the future of their empire, merchant routes and trading outposts. Nor does it take into account the convenient appointment of these interested Dutchmen to various roles of administration, business, and other posts that profited Britain and themselves.

To understand this drama, one must harken back to the original creation of the office of Governor-General. Stemming from legislation in 1773, Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General of India in 1774. Hasting was a bit of a legend as one of the few remaining British operatives in India to serve under the great Robert Clive. Arriving in India in 1750, Hastings quickly became an expert on Bengal where he facilitated trade, worked closely with royal leaders, learned both Urdu and Persian and even found himself one of the few surviving British prisoners in the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta” [3]. Escaping from his imprisonment, he met his wife amongst British refugees on a remote island, joined up with Clive and played critical roles in the conquest of Calcutta and the Battle of Plassey. Despite his personal opinions, Hastings then played a crucial role in the further British conquests of Bengal and eventually became the first Governor-General of India when the three presidencies (settlements) of Britain, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, were united to further administrative efficiency. Hastings furthered British interests in the region, and even established diplomatic contact with distant Tibet, but returned to Britain in 1784. John Macpherson ruled for about two years (the only notable development of his tenure was the establishing of a Company base on Penang Island to project power into the Strait of Malacca) in his stead while Charles Cornwallis made his way to India where he would rule until 1793. Cornwallis greatly expanded British influence across the subcontinent and enacted a code of revenue and land reform that proved highly influential in the years to come. The timid John Shore replaced Cornwallis until Pitt, fearing for his government, recalled Shore to replace him with Hastings.

During his time in Britain, Hastings found himself the center of a scandalous trial when the House of Commons impeached him over crimes and misdemeanors during his time in India, including the alleged judicial killing of Maharaja Nandakumar [4]. The House of Commons acquitted Hastings in 1795. The trial ended just as Pitt sought out a replacement for Shore, convinced he needed an officer in India capable of achieving victories and conquests that Shore was simply not providing. No one in Britain surpassed Hastings’ knowledge of local Indian culture and his legendary ties to the time of Clive harkened many back to Britain’s ascendant era before the American Revolutionary War derailed everything. Pitt secured Hastings’ re-appointment to the Governor-Generalship with an alleged tacit understanding that Shores’ tenure was too quiet and Hastings would need to demonstrate results. By the time Hastings arrived in India, he had already ordered a number of assaults on Dutch possessions and Pitt, seemingly, bought him a considerable amount of time by stalling peace negotiations with Amsterdam.

————- Author’s Notes ————

[1]: A pocket borough/rotten borough was a parliamentary borough or constituency in England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom before the Reform Act 1832, which had a very small electorate and could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence within the unreformed House of Commons. To compare this would be like the Smith family having an entire state under its control because the state is the size of a neighborhood with a population of a few dozen who consistently vote a Smith, or their ally, to Congress. The Lowther family historically dominated this particular region due to its control of the Appleby borough which they could either win directly, or, in cases such as Pitt’s, place candidates which they could then excise some control.

[2]: In our timeline the debt stood at £243M at the end of the war. I’ve increased it to demonstrate the wider scope of the war and reduced income from the loss of lucrative colonies.

[3]: The Black Hole of Calcutta was a small prison/dungeon in Fort William in Calcutta, India, where troops of Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, held British prisoners of war after the Bengali army captured the fort on 20 June 1756. The conditions were so cramped that most of the prisoners died in the single night they remained in the hole from suffocation and heat exhaustion. Numbers vary but allegedly 123 of 146 prisoners of war died.

[4]: This was a real trial that lasted nearly a decade and almost bankrupted Hastings. Hastings had Nandakumar hung on accusations of forgery. His opponents in parliament claimed it was an improper execution. Hastings was eventually acquitted.

Source Materials

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“The Pitt’s Act.” Indian History. Accessed December 17, 2017. http://www.indhistory.com/pitts-act.html.

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Black, Jeremy. British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783–93. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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Cobban Alfred; Smith, Robert. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Volume VI. Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Fox, Charles James. The Speeches of the Right Honorable Charles James Fox in the House of Commons. 3rd ed. Vol. II. Edinburgh: Aylott & Co., 1853.

Hague, William. William Pitt the Younger. Harper Perennial, 2005.

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Mitchell, Leslie. Charles James Fox. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Nuncomar. Vol. 19. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

O’Brien, Patrick. Political Biography and Pitt the Younger as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 1998

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Turner, Michael. Pitt the Younger: A Life. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003.

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Next Chapter: The Fall of Pitt the Younger

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