William Pitt the Younger (1759 – 1806) was British Prime Minister during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and helped to define and strengthen the office of the prime minister.
He suffered an affliction typical of many people born into wealth and power: he was named after his father, so he was known as “William Pitt the Younger” to distinguish him from William Pitt the Elder, a famous statesman.
When he was a boy, his health was poor and because of this, he made use in 1776 – when he was 17 – of the antiquated privilege that allowed noblemen’s sons to graduate without having to pass examinations.
Almost from the beginning he showed a great interest in politics. He was pragmatic rather than ideological, he believed in reform for the sake of honest, humane, and efficient administration rather than for the sake of grand and speculative theories.
At the age of 21, in early 1781, he was elected into Parliament, an entry which was somewhat ironic as he later railed against the very same pocket and rotten boroughs that had given him his seat These were boroughs in which the election of political representatives was controlled by (or “in the pocket” of) one person or family.
In 1782, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The following years were marked by the battle between king George III and the radical Charles Fox (who became Pitt’s lifelong political rival) and in December 1783, George III dismissed Fox-North coalition government and finally entrusted the premiership to William Pitt, after having already offered the position to him three times previously.
At the age of 24 Pitt was Great Britain’s youngest Prime Minister ever and a lot of people were convinced his administration would last until some more senior statesman took on the role. Though faced with a hostile majority in Parliament (the House of Commons, had greeted the announcement of his appointment with laughter) Pitt was able to solidify his position within a few months and served as Prime Minister for eighteen years. becoming known as a leader for reform and a voice for fiscal responsibility.
However, at the beginning of his career as Prime Minister, William Pitt was often ridiculed for his youth and inexperience.
The contemporary satire “The Rolliad”, published in serial form in the “Morning Herald”, whose authors were mainly anonymous, but very close to Charles Fox, portrayed Pitt as a child delivering memorized heroic speeches in parliament, ironically praised as wonders of the world:
In word a giant, though a dwarf in deed
Be led by others while he seems to lead. (1)
They wrote that the kingdom was entrusted in the hands of a “schoolboy“, whose government would not get through the winter.
Above the rest, majestically great,
Behold the infant Atlas of the state,
The matchless miracle of modern days,
In whom Britannia to the world displays
A sight to make surrounding nations stare;
A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care. (2)
(1) A parole un gigante, ma un nano nelle azioni
guidato da altri, mentre sembra lui a guidare.
(2) Soprattutto, maestosamente grande,
ecco il piccolo Atlante dello stato,
il miracolo ineguagliabile dei tempi moderni,
in cui viene la Britannia si mostra al mondo
uno spettacolo da far ammirare alle nazioni circostanti;
un regno affidato alle cure di uno scolaretto.