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  • William Pitt the Younger
  • Written by William Hague
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307430274
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William Pitt the Younger

Written by William HagueAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by William Hague


List Price: $17.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 576 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43027-4
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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William Pitt the Younger is an illuminating biography of one of the great iconic figures in British history: the man who in 1784 at the age of twenty-four became (and so remains) the youngest Prime Minister in the history of England. In this lively and authoritative study, William Hague–himself the youngest political party leader in recent history–explains the dramatic events and exceptional abilities that allowed extreme youth to be combined with great power.
The brilliant son of a father who was also Prime Minister, Pitt was derided as a “schoolboy” when he took office. Yet within months he had outwitted his opponents, and he went on to dominate the political scene for twenty-two years (nineteen of them as Prime Minister). No British politician since has exercised such supremacy for so long.

Pitt’s personality has always been hard to unravel. Though he was generally thought to be cold and aloof, his friends described him as the wittiest man they ever knew. By seeing him through the eyes of a politician, William Hague–a prominent member of Britain’s Conservative Party–succeeds in explaining Pitt’s actions and motives through a series of great national crises, including the madness of King George III, the impact of the French Revolution, and the trauma of the Napoleonic wars. He describes how a man dedicated to peace became Britain’s longest-serving war leader, how Pitt the liberal reformer became Pitt the author of repression, and how–though undisputed master of the nation’s finances–he died with vast personal debts.

With its rich cast of characters, including Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, and George III himself, and set against a backdrop of industrial revolution and global conflict, this is a richly detailed and rounded portrait of an extraordinary political life.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One
Elder and Younger

It would scarcely be possible to imagine a more intensely political family than the one into which William Pitt was born on 28 May 1759. On his father's side, his great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle had all been members of Parliament. His father, twenty-five years an MP, was now the leading Minister of the land. On his mother's side, that of the Grenville family, one uncle was in the House of Lords, and two others were in the Commons, one of them to be First Lord of the Treasury by the time the infant William was four years old. An understanding of Pitt's extraordinary political precocity requires us to appreciate the unusual circumstances of a family so wholeheartedly committed to political life.

It was in the year of William's birth that the career of his father, still also plain William Pitt, approached its zenith. Three years into what would later be known as the Seven Years' War, in which Britain stood as the only substantial ally of Prussia against the combined forces of France, Austria, Russia, Saxony and Sweden, the elder Pitt had become the effective Commander-in-Chief under King George II of the British prosecution of the war. In his view the war had arisen from "a total subversion of the system of Europe, and more especially from the most pernicious extension of the influence of France." He was not nominally the head of the government, the position of First Lord of the Treasury being held by his old rival the Duke of Newcastle, but he was the senior Minister in the House of Commons. Through his powerful oratory he dominated both Parliament and the Ministry, and was acknowledged as the effective leader of the administration. As Newcastle himself said in October of that year: "No one will have a majority at present against Mr. Pitt. No man will, in the present conjuncture, set his face against Mr. Pitt in the H. of Commons."

From taking office at the age of forty-eight in 1756 as Secretary of State for the Southern Department,* with a brief interruption of two months during the cabinet crisis of 1757, Pitt had become the principal source of ministerial energy in both organising for war and in preparing a strategy for Britain to do well out of it. It was Pitt who gave detailed instructions on the raising and disposition of the troops and the navy, and Pitt who insisted on and executed the objective of destroying the empire of France. As the French envoy, François de Bussy, was to complain to the leading French Minister, the Duc de Choiseul, after meeting Pitt in 1761: "This Minister is, as you know, the idol of the people, who regard him as the sole author of their success . . . He is very eloquent, specious, wheedling, and with all the chicanery of an experienced lawyer. He is courageous to the point of rashness, he supports his ideas in an impassioned fashion and with an invincible determination, seeking to subjugate all the world by the tyranny of his opinions, Pitt seems to have no other ambition than to elevate Britain to the highest point of glory and to abase France to the lowest degree of humiliation . . ."

It was in 1759 that Pitt, previously dismissed as a rather unpredictable politician with a distinctly chequered career, came to be regarded as the saviour of the nation. His insistence on fighting a European war with offensives elsewhere-in America, the Caribbean, Africa and on the oceans of the world-was crowned with success within months of the birth of his second son, William. Instead of having to face the French invasion feared throughout much of the year, Britain celebrated a stream of military successes that summer and autumn: victory at Minden in Germany in August, the storming of Quebec which shattered French rule in Canada in September, the simultaneous news of victories which reinforced British dominance of India, and then the defeat and scattering of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay in November. These events brought about a change in the public perception of the elder Pitt, analogous to the regard in which Churchill was held after 1940 compared to the controversy which previously surrounded him. From then on there was a sense of reverence, sometimes of awe, towards him, both on parliamentary occasions and among the wider public. Tall, haughty, but always eloquent, he was the great orator and war leader who had placed himself beyond party gatherings and factions to be at the service of the nation. The young William, as he became conscious of the people and events around him, would know only a world in which his father was treated as a legend.

Such renown was a far cry from the frustrated ambitions of earlier generations of Pitts. Being a younger son, the elder Pitt had enjoyed little in the way of financial inheritance, but his ancestors and relatives had been well connected and often very wealthy for the previous century and a half. Pitt's forebears had included prominent and sometimes wealthy officials under Elizabeth I and James I, but it is Thomas Pitt of Bocconoc (1653-1726) who brings the family story to life. He was the buccaneering "Diamond Pitt" who went to India and made a fortune in probably illegal competition with the East India Company, came back and purchased English property with it, including the medieval borough of Old Sarum,* and then returned to India on behalf of the Company as Governor of Madras. While there, he bought a 130-carat diamond for £25,000 which he hoped to sell to one of the European royal families for at least ten times as much. Returning to Britain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), he discovered that European royalty was otherwise preoccupied, but eventually sold the diamond at a substantial but much smaller than expected profit to the Regent of France. With this and other earnings from his exploits in India, Thomas Pitt set about buying more estates, particularly in Cornwall. He was part of a new and often resented breed of rich men who came back from the East to buy property and parliamentary influence at home. He used his wealth to help all five of his children on their way in life, particularly the eldest son, another Thomas Pitt, who kept most of the family wealth and became Earl of Londonderry. A younger son, Robert Pitt, was put into Parliament for Old Sarum in 1705, for which he sometimes sat alongside his father. Robert Pitt was undistinguished, came close to disaster by being on the fringes of Jacobite attempts to overthrow the new Hanoverian dynasty, and died young, but not before fathering six children, the fifth of whom was William Pitt, the future Earl of Chatham. Once again the eldest son was a Thomas Pitt, who after much litigation and family dispute ended up with the lion's share of the family wealth.

The family lived at Stratford-sub-Castle near Salisbury, but at the age of ten William was sent with his eldest brother, Thomas, to Eton, an experience which proved decisive in his later determination to educate all of his own children at home. He remarked much later to the Earl of Shelburne that he "scarce observed a boy who was not cowed for life at Eton; that a publick school might suit a boy of a turbulent forward disposition, but would not do where there was any gentleness."

It seems that Robert Pitt had intended William for the Church, but William himself had other ideas, joining the army at the lowest officer rank in the cavalry, as a Cornet of Dragoons. He never saw active service, since the long-serving Whig Minister Robert Walpole did an effective job of keeping Britain out of various international disputes at the time, but he took the opportunity to travel to the Continent on a modest version of the Grand Tour through France, Switzerland and Holland. This was the only time he left his native country; an eighteenth-century political career did not require extensive travel. Like his son, he was later to dispose of huge forces, alliances and treaties around the globe, while only once in his life leaving the shores of Britain. He was clearly determined to continue the emerging Pitt tradition of serving in Parliament, and was duly elected for the family borough of Old Sarum in the general election of 1734, but only after some acrimony when his brother Thomas suggested giving the seat to the sitting member, with financial compensation for William instead.

Although Pitt seems to have been well disposed towards Walpole and the Whigs at the time he was elected, he soon fell in with key figures in the opposition, notably Lord Cobham, his ex-Colonel, and Prince Frederick, the Prince of Wales. The relationship between Prince Frederick and his father, King George II, was an early example of a noted Hanoverian tradition, being one of unmitigated hatred between monarch and heir. The Prince of Wales was truly loathed by both his father and mother. Queen Caroline once exclaimed when she saw the Prince pass her dressing-room window: "Look, there he goes-that wretch! that villain!-I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!" Such loathing was exacerbated when the King's adoption of a Hanoverian mistress became public knowledge, so helping to make the Prince the more popular member of the Royal Family. Pitt, as a young MP and army officer, became part of the Prince's circle, with some of his early parliamentary speeches being unmistakably toadying towards the Prince. He became a regular opponent of Walpole, and was dismissed from his position in the army as a result.

A study of the rise to power of the elder Pitt over the subsequent twenty years provides four main conclusions which assist in appreciating the career of his son. First, elections in the eighteenth century were not contested by organised political parties with a programme or manifesto. Although in the mid-eighteenth century many politicians could still be roughly categorised as Whig or Tory, even this distinction was breaking down. The opposition to the long-running Whig administrations would generally include dissident Whigs as well as a rump of Tories. In any case, most members of Parliament had no wish to pursue a political career as such and were not elected to pursue any particular policy, many seeing their duty as one of supporting the King's chosen Ministers unless they did something manifestly outrageous. As a result, politicians did not generally win power by campaigning at a general election and winning a majority for a specific programme, and nor did voters necessarily have the composition of the government foremost in their minds-no general election in the entire eighteenth century led directly to a change of government. There were really two routes into office: one was to be an ally of the Crown, or of someone who would inherit the crown in due course; the other was to make such a nuisance of oneself in Parliament that Ministers seeking a quiet life or a broad consensus would have to include the troublemaker in the government. The elder Pitt tried the first of these approaches for about ten years and then switched to the second, although by that time King George II was most reluctant to appoint him to anything. As Pelham, the leading Minister of the mid-1740s, wrote to Stephen Fox in 1746 on Pitt's appointment as Paymaster General: "It is determined, since the King will not hear of Pitt's being Secretary att [sic] War, that he shall be Paymaster . . . I don't doubt but you will be surpris'd that Mr. Pitt should be thought on for so high and lucrative an employment; but he must be had, and kept." There was never any love lost between Pitt and the other leading politicians of the day or between him and either of the kings he served. Each time he was appointed to the government it was because his speeches were too effective or his support too great to keep him out.

Second, while the power of Parliament was still tempered by the authority and patronage of the Crown, it was the only forum in which the politicians of the time engaged with each other and staked out their positions. As a result, prowess in parliamentary debate was a most valuable political skill. The elder Pitt could never have advanced to high office without such skill since he lacked both money and the patronage of the King. The second Earl Waldegrave, chief confidant of George II, wrote in his memoirs:

Mr. Pitt has the finest genius, improved by study and all the ornamental parts of classical learning . . . He has a peculiar clearness and facility of expression; and has an eye as significant as his words. He is not always a fair or conclusive reasoner, but commands the passions with sovereign authority; and to inflame or captivate a popular assembly is a consummate orator.

Having finally thrown in his lot with King George II in 1746 in return for a place in the government, Pitt was happy to use his oratorical skills to advance arguments sometimes the exact opposite of those he had propagated in opposition, a phenomenon well-known to this day. He had made his name in opposition denouncing the payment of subsidies for Hanoverian troops even to the point of saying he would agree to be branded on the forehead as a traitor if he ever supported the idea, but once in office he swiftly switched sides on the issue with "unembarrassed countenance."

It is a tragedy for historians that parliamentary proceedings at the time of the elder Pitt were not officially recorded. Indeed, it was expressly forbidden to publish speeches delivered in Parliament, since it was thought that this would lead to popular pressure interfering with the judgements of an independent Parliament. By the time of the younger Pitt these matters were treated very differently, but this restriction illustrates the limited role of public opinion in the British constitution of the mid-eighteenth century.

From the Hardcover edition.
William Hague|Author Q&A

About William Hague

William Hague - William Pitt the Younger

Photo © Caroline Forbes

William Hague has served in various capacities in the British government since 1989. He became the leader of the Conservative Party in 1997 and in the same year led the party’s campaign for Parliament. He lives in Yorkshire, England.

Author Q&A

Questions for The Right Honourable William Hague, MP

Q: What led you to write a biography of William Pitt the Younger? What did you feel had been left unsaid in the other biographies of him that exist?

A: Pitt was quite simply one of the most extraordinary politicians in history. For anyone to become Prime Minister at the age of 24 is amazing in itself, but to then go on to become one of the most dominant and long serving of British history puts him in a class of his own. In successfully steering Britain’s affairs after the ruinous American War of Independence but then going on to become the nation’s longest serving war leader amidst the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars, he is a hugely important historical figure. I felt that his memory had become neglected in recent decades, partly because many of the books about him have been aimed at a more academic audience. In my book, I have tried to provide an account of Pitt’s fascinating career and the extraordinary times he lived in for the intelligent but non expert reader.

Q: Like Pitt, you entered the political realm an early age by addressing Britain’s Conservative Party at age 16. As a result, do you feel a special kinship with him? Did this aid you while writing the book?
A: I certainly feel I benefited from having been an unusually young politician myself. This may have helped me to understand the motivations and calculations of someone who enters politics very early in adult life, and bases their success upon speech making. When I was 16, Margaret Thatcher once announced to the press: “We may be standing here with another young Mr. Pitt”. At that time, I knew very little about him, but it has always given me a certain identification with him.

Q: Pitt came to power during a tumultuous time in Britain’s history: the American colonies had recently been lost, the French Revolution was about to begin, and King George III was battling insanity. How did this affect the beginnings of his rule? What enabled him to overcome such obstacles?
A: Pitt was able to consolidate himself in power for three particular reasons. The first was that the loss of the American colonies wiped out the careers of an entire generation of British politicians — some because they had prosecuted the war and lost it, and others because they had opposed it and, thereby, become unacceptable to many people, including the King. The second was his domination of the House of Commons - his “transcendent eloquence” as it was described at the time - and which was always the cornerstone of his power. The third was that he was the first Prime Minister to understand and manipulate public opinion. Just as politicians of recent decades have become expert in exploiting the power of television, Pitt was one of the first to exploit the rapidly rising circulation and political interest of the press, successfully creating an image of himself as fresh and incorruptible in a Parliament of venal and selfish politicians. “Honest Billy” had general popular appeal at a time when it was beginning to matter.

Q: Pitt is a beloved historical figure in Britain–what makes him so popular?
A: He served for so long in office - nearly 19 years in total as Prime Minister - and was so exclusively devoted to public service rather than his own interests that he has always been regarded an utterly exceptional figure. After his death, scores of “Pitt Clubs” were founded in his memory, some of which still exist and meet regularly 200 years later. At each meeting they toast “the Immortal Memory” - that of William Pitt.

Q: What threats existed to his power? How was he able to remain in office despite these for and unprecedented (and, today, record) 17 years?
A: One threat to his power was the possibility that King George III would die or become permanently insane, thus transferring the powers of the monarchy to Pitt’s enemy the Prince of Wales. The brilliance of Pitt’s debating ploys and political tactics during the “Regency Crisis” of 1788-89, in which he spun out debates for over three months in a seemingly impossible situation until the King recovered his senses, is one of the outstanding examples of his political acumen. A second threat was defeat in Parliament, which he avoided by the skilful management of elections and plentiful use of patronage. In the end he was defeated only by alcohol, exhaustion and death.

Q: Did he, like so many people of power or celebrity, have demons? What were they? Did they affect his ability to rule effectively?
A: Pitt drank far too much - three bottles of Port a day for most of his adult life. As my book demonstrates, this was a smaller quantity of alcohol in the 18th century than would be the case today, but it was still a large amount. Only occasionally did this affect his ability to speak in Parliament, but it undoubtedly added to his health problems from his mid thirties onwards. In addition, his spectacular early success as a politician stunted his growth as a man. He had no experience of most people’s situations other than as Prime Minister, often leading him to over optimistic assessments of people and events, particularly in wartime. He was hopeless at unsolicited or unimportant correspondence, with many people offended by his habit of not dealing with minor requests. He could never be bothered with his own personal finances and ended up, in today’s money, millions of dollars in debt by the time he died. This was despite an ability to handle the national budget superior to anything anyone had witnessed before. Nevertheless, his great stamina, political touch, financial brilliance and personal integrity more than made up for these faults.

Q: Pitt’s sexuality has been speculated about for ages. What is your opinion?
A: My opinion is that he was asexual, and probably never had intimate relations with either sex. In part, this was the result of being placed in such high office at such an early age. The book charts what has been described as his “one love affair”, with the beautiful Eleanor Eden, but he was clear that he would not marry her. Much fun was made of him for preferring the company of young men - and some of the comments of the time could be ruder than anything normally heard today - but he has left no whiff of any active homosexuality.

Q: Was he satisfied with his accomplishments in office during his first 17-year term? What about his second, shorter term disappointed him?
A: The outbreak of war with France following the French Revolution ruined all his hopes for his first administration. His cherished ambition of repaying the entire national debt could not be attained. Even so, he would have been proud of the great expansion of trade over which he had presided, along with the union of the Dublin and Westminster Parliaments. He entered office for a second time with his reserves of physical health and political support near their end, and it killed him.

Q: What surprised you most about Pitt as you wrote the book? What did you find to be most impressive? Were you disappointed with any of his decisions or actions?
A: Most impressive about Pitt is his transparent honesty and integrity (with the exception of one whopping lie) maintained through war and peace and two decades of difficult decisions. Most disappointing was that his enfeebled physical and political state in his final years meant that he did not ram home his earlier pioneering efforts to abolish the slave trade, something which was secured only the year after his death.

Q: Do you have plans to write another book anytime soon?
A: I would certainly like to write another book in the near future, particularly since I have come to know and love the history of this particular period. At some stage I would like to tackle the subject of Pitt’s father, the elder Pitt, who was also a towering political figure and of great importance in American history, or Pitt’s arch rival, Charles James Fox, or Pitt’s great friend William Wilberforce, who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade and then to abolish slavery in the British Empire as well.

From the Hardcover edition.



Praise for William Pitt the Younger

"Mr. Hague covers Pitt's career with elegance and panache. . . [he] has written a very fine biography of this immensely important figure in British history." -- Martin Hutchinson, The Wall Street Journal

"William Hague's book is a model of orderly exposition and narration. . . Anyone really interested in British history or in politics ought to read it." --Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Praise from England:

“Even if [Pitt] were a 15th book, not a maiden effort, it should rate admiration as a first-class work of history; informative, well written and captivating.” —Alistair Horne, The Times London

“A serious yet readable shorter life was much needed, and Hague has pulled this challenge off, making Pitt his own. He delivers not only a shrewd political biography, full of sharp analysis, but also a sensitive portrait of one of our most enigmatic heroes.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore, Daily Telegraph

“One of the most enjoyable biographies for years . . . In William Hague, Pitt has found the modern biographer he merits: the youngest Conservative leader of the last 200 years has written a fine biography of the youngest Prime Minister of them all. If you buy only one political biography this year, then make it this one. It will not be bettered.” —John Major, Mail on Sunday

“Hague has a competent understanding of the international background, a good eye for the revealing quotation, and knows how to keep his reader entertained.”
John Adamson, The Sunday Telegraph

“It is a substantial, handsomely illustrated work, primarily based on printed sources, but with a respectable amount of archival seasoning . . . What makes the book such an engrossing and stimulating read is the author’s passion for and understanding of politics, especially parliamentary politics.” —Brendam Simms, Sunday Times

“Hague’s description of how Pitt dealt with the knig’s episodes of insanity, and the avid expectations of the Whigs should George III become permanently insane, is one of the perceptive chapters in the book. Hague deserves an accolade for redressing [people’s] ignorance [of Pitt]. He has written a serious, detailed and thoughtfull study of one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers.” —Shirley Williams, The Guardian

"Very well written, and narrated with a finely attuned sense of the politically dramatic." --Andrew Roberts, The Evening Standard

From the Hardcover edition.

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