William Pitt the Younger
by William Hague
Knopf, 556 pp., $35
The great paradox of liberal democracies is that they seldom do a very good job of preparing for war but, once it arrives, they usually prove to be much more resilient and much less “decadent” than their illiberal enemies had expected. Even with the winds of war gathering, free countries are often led by such feckless leaders as James Buchanan, Aristide Briand, Edouard Daladier, H.H. Asquith, or Neville Chamberlain. Yet when all seems lost they almost invariably summon forth a lion to save them—a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt, a Georges Clemenceau or a Charles de Gaulle, a David Lloyd George or a Winston Churchill.
Two great exceptions—the only major wars lost by Britain and the United States in modern times—show how important it is to have such a leader. Under the inept leadership of Frederick Lord North, England failed to defeat the American bid for independence, while under the equally inept leadership of Lyndon Johnson, the United States failed to defeat North Vietnamese aggression.
William Pitt, father and son, were no LBJ or Lord North. (In fact, both of them were at political loggerheads with North.) They were more in the Churchill mold. Pitt the Elder (later the Earl of Chatham) guided Britain to victory over France, Austria, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden in the Seven Years’ war (1756-1763). His son, Pitt the Younger, was not so fortunate, dying in 1806, nine years before Napoleon was finally vanquished. But he nevertheless provided indomitable and indispensable leadership during the darkest days of the struggle against revolutionary France.
In the pantheon of wartime greats, Pitt the Younger was one of the odder ducks. A political prodigy, he entered Cambridge at 14 and Parliament at 21, where he immediately established a reputation as one of the greatest orators in an age of great oratory. (After his maiden speech, Edmund Burke proclaimed that Pitt “was not merely a chip off the old ‘block’ but the old block itself.”) By 23, having audaciously rejected offers of lesser office, he was chancellor of the exchequer and, a year later, the youngest prime minister in British history.
He would go on to hold the top office, with only one brief interruption, for a total of almost 19 years, much longer than Churchill, William Gladstone, or Margaret Thatcher. His tenure ranks in longevity behind only one man, Sir Robert Walpole, who served from 1721 to 1742.
Notwithstanding his peerless pedigree and invaluable connections, there was nothing inevitable about Pitt’s rise, certainly not at such a ridiculously young age. For a politician, he was remarkably uninterested in cultivating other politicians. Outside of a circle of close friends, which he made no attempt to expand, he was, in the words of a contemporary political diarist, “cold, stiff, and without suavity or amenity.” A lifelong bachelor, he was in all likelihood Britain’s only virgin prime minister. Despite innuendo linking him to his protégé (and future prime minister) George Canning, there is no record of a sexual liaison with anyone, male or female.
“I am the shyest man alive,” he once confessed—hardly an ideal qualification for a lifetime in politics.
Pitt was sickly, bookish, and intellectual, enjoying nothing more than to read classical texts in the original or to work out abstruse algebraic equations. (His ability to pull out Latin aphorisms at the drop of a cocked hat impressed his fellow members of Parliament.) His direct knowledge of foreign countries was limited to one short trip to France. He knew even less of military affairs. Though he came of age during the American War of Independence, it apparently never crossed his mind to don a red coat, nor did anyone expect him to do so. He disarmingly confessed, “I distrust extremely any Ideas of my own on Military Subjects.”
The mystery of how, despite it all, Pitt became Britain’s longest-serving war leader is ably explained in this biography. William Hague, who first gained national prominence when he addressed a Conservative party convention at age 16, and who assumed the party leadership in 1997 when he was just 36, seems perfectly placed to chronicle the fortunes of an earlier prodigy. He now has the leisure to write because he was not quite as successful as his hero. After losing in a landslide to Tony Blair in 2001, Hague resigned the party leadership. He continues to sit in parliament, but as a backbencher, which leaves him time for other pursuits.
That he has chosen to produce a serious biography rather than simply undertake the usual round of profitable, if dreary, company directorships and consultancies is very much to his credit, but less unusual in British politics than it would be here. With a few notable exceptions (the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan springs to mind), our politicos write only two kinds of books: memoirs and campaign manifestos. And in both cases, “write” must be taken with a grain of salt, since the actual composition is done by hired hacks. Westminster, by contrast, is full of professional writers such as Boris Johnson, who edits the Spectator in his spare time.
Hague has not worked in journalism, but he was encouraged by the late Roy Jenkins—a once-prominent Labour politician who later became a biographer of Gladstone and Churchill—to try his hand at a biography, and he has acquitted himself admirably.
Hague’s effort may not match the literary excellence and exhaustive research of two recent biographies of Pitt’s contemporaries—Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and John Adams by David McCullough—but it is a knowledgeable, eminently readable, and altogether impressive account. Taking advantage of his background, Hague sprinkles the text with asides about how some action of Pitt’s would have been perceived in parliament today, or how a modern politician would have handled some situation that Pitt faced. He is particularly good in explaining Pitt’s rise and exploits in the House of Commons—subjects obviously close to the heart of an author who is known as an accomplished parliamentary performer himself.
Pitt’s ascent to become first lord of the treasury in 1783—the post formally occupied by the “prime minister” even today—came in a period of unusual political fluidity following the British Empire’s shocking defeat at the hands of ragtag American rebels. (Think America after Vietnam.) After the death, in short order, of one prime minister and the resignation of another, George III was desperate to keep out of office an opposition coalition led by Lord North and Charles James Fox. The king loathed Fox, Pitt’s lifelong adversary, as an unprincipled adventurer, and North had been discredited by his failed policies during the American war. Pitt, then chancellor of the exchequer, was the most senior figure in the Commons acceptable to the king, so the top job was his—if he could keep it.
Hague notes that “politics in the 18th century was more of a younger man’s game” than it is today. At a time when a teenager could ascend to the throne, and inheritance “was more widely prized,” Hague argues, “for such a young person to enjoy such a high rank was regarded as unusual rather than ludicrous.” Still, many MPs laughed when the appointment of this tyro was announced. Few expected he could last long, given the opposition of most of the House of Commons. They did not reckon with “Billy” Pitt’s political skill and determination, or the king’s.
At the time, there were no political parties in the modern sense, and few ideological divisions. The terms “right wing” and “left wing” had not yet been coined. All politics was personal, with the government staying in office as long as it enjoyed the confidence of the monarch and his parliamentary friends, many of them placed in their seats by grandees who owned their boroughs in the same way that they owned castles and coaches. In such a situation, getting and consolidating power involved dishing out patronage. Pitt was personally uninterested in making money or accumulating titles (he died deeply in debt and a commoner), but he was happy to use the full power of his office (and the king’s) to rally support in Parliament.
“They are crying peerages about the streets in barrows,” wrote one contemporary of Pitt’s successful effort to win a majority.
Once he had consolidated his position, Pitt showed such great ability that both king and Parliament were content to entrust the country to his care for year after year. He was a skilled, hard-working, and incorruptible financial manager, and so dedicated to the commonweal that he did not hesitate to fire his own brother as First Lord of the Admiralty for subpar performance. He was also a mild reformer, unsuccessfully pushing political rights for Roman Catholics, a reorganization of parliamentary seats to comport with population shifts, and an end to the slave trade. But after 1793 all such domestic concerns were subordinated by the demands of war against the French Revolution.
Like John Adams in the United States, Pitt did not hesitate to pass repressive legislation to quell the possibility of an uprising in his own country. Habeas corpus was suspended and large political meetings banned. Anyone who spoke favorably about the French Revolution in public was liable to be jailed. (And to think that some historical ignoramuses claim the Patriot Act is the height of repression!)
Pitt prosecuted the war in the classic British fashion: A strong navy would blockade France, seize its colonies, and protect the home islands, while subsidies would be extended to continental allies to do the fighting that Britain’s tiny army could not. Even under the best of circumstances, it was not a recipe for a quick victory. The French armies went from success to success while the pitiful expeditionary force Pitt dispatched to the continent was summarily routed. Britain was saved only by the glorious exploits of the Royal Navy, which bested the French fleet and its allies in a series of epic encounters culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Six weeks later, however, Napoleon won a crushing victory against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, leading to the collapse of the Third Coalition and hastening Pitt’s demise.
Pitt’s health had been declining for years because of too much work, too many worries, and, above all, too much wine. Hague is unsparing in calling Pitt an alcoholic, a word that his contemporaries would not have used but one that seems apt in light of Pitt’s habit of drinking three bottles of port at a sitting. In one of his more amusing passages, Hague examines hand-blown 18th-century bottles and finds that they could hold less liquid than modern, machine-made bottles because they had a larger base and thicker glass. Even so, he concludes that Pitt’s consumption would equate to “one and two-thirds of a bottle of strong wine today.” It would take a cast-iron constitution to quaff so much booze without adverse effects, and Pitt’s constitution was far from strong.
By the time of his death in 1806, Pitt appeared to be far older than 46. Tortured by gout and ulcers, he was, in the words of his physician, “a man much worn out,” with eyes that “were almost lifeless,” and “his voice hollow & weak.” He had sacrificed his health in order to serve king and country. Appropriately enough, Pitt’s last words were, “Oh, my country! How I leave my country!”
He had cause for concern because, notwithstanding the victory off Cape Trafalgar, the war situation still did not look all that promising. It was as if FDR had died after Midway. But Hague is convincing in defending Pitt’s legacy as a resolute war leader and a cautious reformer.
No matter how many setbacks Britain suffered, Pitt rallied the nation to keep fighting. Although no transcripts exist of most of his speeches, it is clear that he often exhibited Churchillian eloquence—it might be more accurate to say that Churchill exhibited Pittian eloquence—as when he said of the French Revolution: “Nothing is too great for the temerity of its ambition, nothing too small or insignificant for the grasp of its rapacity.”
In combating French designs, Pitt made many risky and courageous decisions. In 1798, he sent the bulk of the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean in pursuit of a French expeditionary force, even though it left the home islands vulnerable to invasion. This gambit led directly to Horatio Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile, which destroyed a French fleet and left Napoleon’s army stranded in Egypt. Pitt showed equal wisdom and resolution on many other occasions, whether dealing with King George III’s intermittent bouts of madness or facing down the mutiny of the Channel Fleet in 1797.
His greatest achievement lay in the unglamorous realm of finance. By raising large sums of money through a combination of borrowing and taxing (Pitt introduced Britain’s first income tax, capped at 10 percent), he was able to create the “sinews of war” that kept one anti-French coalition after another going until final victory at Waterloo.
Pitt thought of himself as an “independent Whig,” but he has gone down in history as a Tory. When he first entered politics, pretty much everyone was a Whig. Tories had been discredited as lackeys of the Stuart pretenders, chased out of office by William and Mary. Whigs were the champions of the parliamentary monarchy established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The divisions fostered by the French Revolution helped to tear the Whigs asunder. A small number of radicals under Fox expressed sympathy for the French Revolution and opposed Pitt while the more conservative Rockingham Whigs rallied around him. After his death, his friends would carry on his legacy, ruling for 23 straight years and laying the foundation for a modern Conservative party built on Pitt’s reputation as (in Hague’s words) “an improver rather than a radical.”
George Canning offered the best epitaph for Pitt when he wrote a song about him called “The Pilot that Weathered the Storm.” Britain was lucky to have such a pilot at such a perilous time. But looking back at the long, successful record of democracies in wartime, one is tempted to conclude that luck had nothing to do with it.