15 November 2013

Pitt at age 22: 'I never would accept a subordinate situation'

Whilst speaking in the House of Commons in March 1782, William Pitt, then just 22 years of age, stated categorically: "For myself, I could not expect to form part of a new administration; but were my doing so more within my reach, I feel myself bound to declare that I never would accept a subordinate situation" (quoted in Hague 2005: 85; Stanhope. Vol. 1: 70). Many senior politicians were shocked at Pitt's declaration, especially considering he had not yet held even a minor position in government. Horace Walpole recorded "the moment he [Pitt] sat down he was aware of his folly, and said he could bite his tongue out for what he had uttered" (Hague 2005: 85; Steuart, ed. The Last Journals of Horace Walpole, Vol. 2, p. 416).

I'll never forget the first time I read this passage. I had barely any knowledge of William Pitt, and had certainly never before read or heard anything even remotely similar it. Whereas many others think it was a pompous, vain, and certainly an overly confident thing to say given Pitt's age and lack of experience at the time, I was instantly attracted to him. The first impressive qualities of Pitt which appealed to me - even before I saw any portraits or caricatures of him - were his youthfulness, ambition, intelligence, courage, strength of character, incorruptibility, independence from political parties, precociousness, and his refusal to accept anything less than what he desired. 

Skipping forward just a single year - from March 1782 to December 1783 - Pitt's life forever changed. He became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer on December 19, 1783 at the age of just 24. Most doubted how long he would remain in office. Famously, Mrs. Crewe said to Wilberforce at the time "Well, he [Pitt] may do what he likes during the holidays, but it will be only a mince-pie administration, depend on it" (Wilberforce's Diary, 22 December 1783, R.I. and S.W. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, Vol. 1, p. 48). Most derided Pitt's youthfulness, and thought his remaining in office for long was completely hopeless. In fact, when it was first announced in the House of Commons that Pitt was the head of the government, MPs erupted into roaring laughter. 

But here is Pitt's greatness: He stood the overwhelming tests put in his way, and he fought all the obstacles which came his way. In February 1784, Pitt said "the country calls aloud to me that I should defend this castle; and I am determined therefore that I WILL defend it" (quoted in Hague 2005: 153). The young man, who at 24 in 1783 would go on to lead his country until he was forced to resign in 1801 over the question of Catholic Emancipation, and then AGAIN become First Lord from 1804 until his death - still in office - in January 1806, is one that I really believe shall never be surpassed. He occupied No. 10 Downing Street for longer than any other politician in British history, and he sacrificed his life for the greater good of the country he stood for and loved. Pitt's patriotism is another admirable quality he possessed. He was the least vain person, and he repeatedly put other people's wishes before his own. Ultimately, he was a kind, shy man; he was a truly brilliant man. 
We shall never see the likes of him again.


Hague, W. (2005) William Pitt the younger. London: Harper Press, pp. 85, 153.

R.I. and S.W. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, Vol. 1, p. 48.

Stanhope, P.H. (1862) The Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, Vol. 1. London: John Murray, p. 70.

Steuart, ed. The Last Journals of Horace Walpole, Vol. 2, p. 416.

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