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The Age of George III

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The background to Pitt's first ministry

Pitt the Younger has been seen as one of Britain's best PMs: certainly he is the youngest person ever to hold the post. He was only twenty-four years old when he was appointed by George III as the replacement to the Fox-North coalition. Pitt has also been seen as the first modern PM because he was aggressive and dynamic, having a business-like approach to politics. 

Pitt was aloof and cold towards others.  As Shelburne said to a friend who was about to have an interview with Pitt:

I know the coldness of the climate you go into, and that it requires all your animation to produce a momentary thaw.

Samuel Coleridge's assessment of Pitt was this:

He has patronised no science, he has raised no man of genius from obscurity: he counts no prime work of God among his friends.  He has no attachment to female society, no fondness of children, no perception of beauty in natural scenery; but he is fond of convivial indulgences, of that stimulation, which, keeping up the glow of self-importance and the sense of internal power, gives feelings without the mediation of ideas.

Pitt believed in doing, not talking. Under his premiership, government affairs expanded to cover not only political activity but also social and economic affairs. His first ministry took in a period of peace and reconstruction between 1783 and 1793. Britain became involved in the French Wars in February 1793 following the French Revolution of 1789. The rest of Pitt's first ministry was taken up with the wars until he resigned in 1801 following the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland. His second ministry lasted from 10 May 1804 until his death in January 1806.

On 19 December 1783 Pitt was appointed PM by George III. The announcement in the House of Commons was received with a great shout of laughter, possibly because the indebted new First Minister also took post of Chancellor of Exchequer. The new ministry was described by the Whig society hostess Mrs. Crewe as 'a mince-pie administration' on the grounds that it would be all over just after Christmas. Sir Gilbert Elliot said that the ministry comprised 'a set of children playing at ministers, and must be sent back to school, and in a few days all will have returned to its former course'. Gibbon commented that 'Billy's [Pitt] painted waggon would soon sink under Charlie's [Fox] black collier'. The ministry did not have an auspicious beginning.

From January to March 1784 the struggle between government and opposition became a personal fight between Pitt and Fox. Pitt formed a ministry made up of peers and he was the only member of his government who had a seat in the Commons. It was noticeable that he chose man of talent rather than men of influence but omitted Shelburne from his ministry in order to avoid the government being accused of nepotism.

Pitt showed much integrity, honesty and disinterestedness from the start. He refused to accept sinecures from the king although Pitt had no private income. This strengthened the PMs position among the country gentry. Pitt's government was defeated several times in January 1784 as the result of Fox's vicious onslaught on Pitt, who refused to resign. Pitt's tenacity in remaining in office aroused public sympathy and Fox lost more support. Pitt also had full royal patronage.

In March 1784 Pitt asked George III to dissolve parliament so he could hold a general election and, if he won, govern on a clear mandate. The Foxite opposition stole Great Seal of England from Lord Chancellor's house and new one had to be made for next day. In the election, Pitt was returned top of the poll for Cambridge University and 160 opposition MPs lost their seats. Eighty of them were Fox-North coalition supporters who became known as 'Fox's Martyrs'.

The results for Pitt's supporters were most significant. In Yorkshire, William Wilberforce was returned and a Pittite won Middlesex. As Charles James Fox said, 'Yorkshire and Middlesex between them make all England'. It was clear that the merchants and the commercial world supported Pitt, who upheld the rights trade and empire. Pitt's stated belief in constitutional reform won him support of country gentlemen. In Pitt's first ministry, the landed and commercial interests were united in their support of the government.

Because of the variety of supporters whom he attracted, Pitt had a working majority of about two hundred but he could only survive as long as his personality and ability able to maintain that support. He was young, new and untried, and did not have an automatic party or majority. Of 558 MPs:

52 regularly supported Pitt, regardless (i.e. his party)
138 were Foxites - the bigger influence group.
183 were independent gentlemen/supporters of current government ) 368
185 were 'Crown party': placemen, treasury officials, king's influence).

These last two groups held the balance and determined the future. Pit did not have a free hand: his support came mainly from the king and from whoever he could win over. By 1783 the 'king to come' - George, Prince of Wales - was of age and had a political following of his own; these men, led by Charles James Fox, were desperate to hold power.

His policies in peacetime included many liberal measures. Although Pitt called himself a Whig, he was in office because of royal support; therefore it could be argued that Pitt was a reforming Tory, following progressive, utilitarian policies.

In the first decade of this ministry (1783-93), Pitt implemented a number of policies aimed at restoring Britain's position in the world following the loss of her American colonies and the concurrent European wars.   Pitt's major achievements during his first ministry were the restoration of national finances, administrative reforms, the reorganisation of Britain's overseas possessions and the rehabilitation of Britain in Europe.  His policies included

Pitt's record of achievement was thin, but what he did and tried to do shows a liberal, progressive, modernist PM who realised the needs and requirements of Britain. There was much similarity between Chatham and Pitt in their methods and policies.

Pitt's reforms slowed down in 1789 with the start of the French Revolution and ended almost totally in 1792 at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars. Domestic policy regressed from 1792 onwards: there was little progessive domestic policy between 1793 and 1815, because of the total commitment and concentration on defeating France.  Britain was 

This ending of reform could not have happened at a worse time because Britain needed to develop and change because

However, there were no reforms and the gulf between economic and social development and the provisions made for it was tremendous by 1815, leading to the problems of Dickensian England.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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