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William Pitt the Younger

(b. May 28, 1759, Hayes, Bromley, London – d. Jan. 23, 1806, Putney, Wandsworth, London )

Gender: M

William Pitt (1759-1806) was the second son of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. His acute intelligence was noticed while he was still a student at Cambridge. His father died when he was only nineteen, he went on to study law and was called to the bar. He was destined for politics, which had been the province of the men on both sides of his family, and entered parliament in 1781 as MP for the pocket borough of Appleby. He was admired as a debater, and continued his father’s policy of opposing the American war; he also supported parliamentary reform and the abolition of the slave trade (which was however not achieved until after his death). When the coalition between Lord North and Charles James Fox collapsed in 1783, King George III appointed Pitt as Prime Minister, at the age of only twenty-four. Despite suffering a string of defeats in the House of Commons, Pitt clung to power with the support of the King, the House of Lords and the country at large, who saw him as an honest alternative to the political corruption of the other factions. In the 1784 general election, Pitt won a secure parliamentary majority, and was elected MP for the University of Cambridge, a seat that he held for the rest of his life. During the following five years, Pitt attempted without success to abolish rotten boroughs, took action against smuggling, and increased taxes in order to reduce the national debt. With the advent of the French Revolution, however, his focus was on protecting Britain against the contagion of radical ideas and then on defending the country against French military attack. The actions of his government became increasingly repressive, with a number of those who spread radical ideas tried for treason or seditious libel, and at one point the legal protection of habeas corpus was suspended. The government used all the resources at its disposal to keep public opinion on its side, presenting those who advocated radical reform as unpatriotic revolutionaries under the influence of France. Pitt attempted to reduce the civil disabilities of Catholics in order to discourage unrest in Ireland, but was defeated by the Protestant Ascendancy and by a failed French invasion of Ireland in 1796. An Irish rebellion in 1798 was put down, and in 1801 Great Britain and Ireland were united as one realm, leading to the abolition of the Irish parliament. When the King vetoed Pitt’s attempts to introduce Catholic Emancipation, he resigned in February 1801 and spent much of his time in Walmer Castle, Kent, of which he was Lord Warden. He returned to power in 1804, and concentrated his efforts during his last administration on resisting the threat from Napoleon’s armies, doubling the size of the Royal Navy and increasing taxes to fund the burgeoning national debt. Pitt had suffered from poor health since his childhood, and like his father was plagued by gout. He died on 23rd January 1806 at the age of 46; he was unmarried and left no children. Parliament agreed to pay his debts and to honour him with a public funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, having lain in state for two days in the Palace of Westminster.

Also known as:

  • William Jr Pitt

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