William Pitt the Younger

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William Pitt the Younger : biography

28 May 1759 – 16 January 1806

Personal life

Of his social relationships, biographer William Hague writes: Pitt was happiest among his Cambridge companions or family. He had no social ambitions, and it was rare for him to set out to make a friend. The talented collaborators of his first 18 months in office – Beresford, Wyvil and Twining – passed in and out of his mind along with their areas of expertise. Pitt’s lack of interest in enlarging his social circle meant that it did not grow to encompass any women outside his own family, a fact that produced a good deal of rumour. From late 1784, a series of satirical verses appeared in The Morning Herald drawing attention to Pitt’s lack of knowledge of women: "Tis true, indeed, we oft abuse him,/Because he bends to no man;/But slander’s self dares not accuse him/Of stiffness to a woman." Others made snide references to Pitt’s friendship with Tom Steele, Secretary to the Treasury. At the height of the constitutional crisis in 1784, Sheridan had compared Pitt to James I’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, a clear reference to homosexuality. Socially, Pitt preferred the company of young men, and would continue to do so into his thirties and forties. It may be that Pitt had homosexual leanings but suppressed any urge to act on them for the sake of his ambitions. He could be charming to women, but it seems certain that he rejected intimacy whenever it was proffered – and would do so publicly at a later date. In practical terms it appears that Pitt was essentially asexual throughout his life, perhaps one example of how his rapid development as a politician stunted his growth as a man.

At one point rumours emerged of an intended marriage to Eleanor Eden, whom Pitt had grown close to. Pitt broke off the potential marriage in 1797, writing to her father, Lord Auckland, "I am compelled to say that I find the obstacles to it decisive and insurmountable".

Pitt became known as a "three bottle man", a reference to his heavy consumption of port wine. These bottles would be around 35cl in volume, which although still a large amount of alcohol to consume, is not as dramatic as it initially appears.

First ministry

His administration secure, Pitt could begin to enact his agenda. His first major piece of legislation as Prime Minister was the India Act 1784, which re-organised the British East India Company and kept a watch over corruption. The India Act created a new Board of Control to oversee the affairs of the East India Company. It differed from Fox’s failed India Bill 1783 and specified that the Board would be appointed by the King. Pitt was appointed, along with Lord Sydney who was appointed President. The Act centralised British rule in India by reducing the power of the Governors of Bombay and Madras and by increasing that of the Governor-General, Charles Cornwallis. Further augmentations and clarifications of the Governor-General’s authority were made in 1786, presumably by Lord Sydney, and presumably as a result of the Company’s setting up of Penang with their own Superintended (Governor), Captain Francis Light, in 1786.

In domestic politics, Pitt also concerned himself with the cause of parliamentary reform. In 1785, he introduced a bill to remove the representation of thirty-six rotten boroughs, and to extend in a small way, the electoral franchise to more individuals. Pitt’s support for the bill, however, was not strong enough to prevent its defeat in the House of Commons. The bill introduced in 1785 was Pitt’s last parliamentary reform proposal introduced in Parliament.

Another important domestic issue with which Pitt had to concern himself was the national debt, which had increased dramatically due to the rebellion of the American colonies. Pitt sought to eliminate the national debt by imposing new taxes. Pitt also introduced measures to reduce smuggling and fraud. In 1786, he instituted a sinking fund to reduce the national debt. Each year, £1,000,000 of the surplus revenue raised by new taxes was to be added to the fund so that it could accumulate interest; eventually, the money in the fund was to be used to pay off the national debt. The system was extended in 1792 so as to take into account any new loans taken by the government.