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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
William Pitt

(also known as Pitt the Younger, 1759–1806)
Statesman of exceptional precocity; he became prime minister at 24, and when he left office, 18 years later, he was still younger than any other prime minister in history beginning his or her first term. He was born into a political family, as the second son of the earl of *Chatham, and a seat in the House of Commons was found for him in 1781. He immediately made a mark with forceful speeches urging parliamentary reform, and by 1783 he was chancellor of the exchequer. In 1784, as the result of a political impasse largely caused by *George III's hatred of Charles James *Fox, the king asked Pitt to form a government. Pitt did so initially with some difficulty, but early success in a general election kept him in power, combined with the essential element of the king's support.

His policies were pragmatic. He followed what he considered to be Britain's best interests without any overriding principle – an approach which has caused him to be seen as prefiguring the eventual transition from the *Tories into the *Conservative party. His first task was to restore the nation's finances after the expense of the War of American Independence. He succeeded in this by a variety of financial reforms and by reintroducing a sinking fund (a device nowadays called amortization, first used in 1716, by which a fund is built up so that its interest can be used to reduce a debt, in this case the national debt). These housekeeping improvements were later offset by the expense of the *French Revolutionary Wars, in response to which Pitt brought in *income tax.

The example of revolution in France led to radical agitation throughout the British Isles. In general Pitt's response was repressive, *habeas corpus even being suspended in 1794 (till 1801), but unrest in Ireland prompted more positive solutions. He was ahead of his time in trying to pass an *emancipation act for Catholics (the issue on which he resigned in 1801 because of widespread opposition, including that of the king), but he was able to force through the Act of *Union in 1800.

He was replaced as prime minister by the ineffectual Henry Addington (1757–1844), until the threat of French invasion caused *George III to invite Pitt to form a new government in 1804. Pitt wanted a coalition with the Whigs, but he bowed to the king's outright rejection of Fox, thus making it impossible for other leading Whigs to accept office. This second ministry included the triumph of *Trafalgar, but *Napoleon was still growing in strength when Pitt died in office after several years of illness.

He was a lonely man, known for his personal integrity (in an age when most were clubbable and corrupt), and the rival versions of his dying words suggest the extent to which his personal life was restricted to politics. One has him saying 'Oh my country! how I leave my country!', another substitutes 'how I love my country!', while in a third he murmurs that he could eat 'one of Bellamy's veal pies'. John Bellamy was the first man to run a refreshment room in the House of Commons, which he opened in 1773.

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