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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Pitt, William the Younger (1759-1806)

In 'The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer', Burns called him 'Yon Premier youth'. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784 at the age of twenty-three. (The Government's first minister did not regularly assume the title of Prime Minister until Walpole's day.)

He was the second son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, himself a distinguished statesman, who, because of his criticisms of the public school system, educated his son at home under the tutorship of the Reverend Edward Wilson, of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. This form of education developed the intellectual abilities of the already precocious child. At the age of ten, William Pitt, junior, was a proficient classical scholar, and when he was thirteen he wrote a political tragedy called Laurentino, King of Chersonese.

Pitt went to Cambridge, where his tutor was Dr George Pretyman (later he changed his name to Tomline), to whom Pitt afterwards gave the bishopric of Lincoln, and also bequeathed his papers. Pretyman became Pitt's first biographer.

The young Pitt first entered Parliament as member for the pocket borough of Appleby, although he afterwards always represented Cambridge University. His maiden speech was described by his rival, Lord North, as the best first speech he had ever heard, and Burke went even further by declaring him to be 'not a chip off the old block but the old block itself'. He supported Shelburne's party, and became Chancellor of the Exchequer under his administration.

Pitt's career in Parliament was distinguished by his untiring political warfare with Fox, whom he fought on the Irish question, the India Bill, the Regency question and on France.

On the home front, a Bill he brought forward in April 1785 to suppress thirty-six pocket boroughs, and to transfer their members to increase the representation of certain towns and counties, was defeated. Pitt did not again try to bring in a Reform Bill, though after 1792, when Tom Paine's Rights of Man was published, the demand for reform grew. But, alarmed by the turn the French Revolution had taken, Pitt had the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, in 1793, and again from 1795 to 1801 There were also the trials of the Friends of the People leaders, Skirving, Margarot, Gerrald and Muir, savagely sentenced for advocating nothing more treasonable than constitutional reform and universal suffrage. To Burns, with his radical sympathies, Pitt thus seemed the tyrannical defender of privilege against reform, a conception, however, which history has hardly sustained.

Because of his Irish policy, Pitt's resignation was at last forced in February 1801, but he returned in 1804, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury.

He was never really a popular statesman, being considered cold and aloof, though clearly he was an inspired leader.

He was, in a sense, the bridge between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and responsible for the origin of modern financial theory. He approved of the abolition of the slave trade, but did little to advance the social conditions of his workers at home. To quote one biographer, he was 'revered but not loved'.

His debts were so large that he could never bring himself to make a formal declaration for Lord Aukland's daughter, whom he is alleged to have loved. He never married.

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