William Pitt the Younger: A Biography
by William Hague.
Knopf (New York), 556 pp., $35.00 cloth, 2005.

book cover imageWilliam Hague, one of the only leaders of Britain’s
Conservative party in the twentieth century never to have
become his nation’s Prime Minister, once half-jokingly
declared that he had been born two centuries too late. “Actually,
I do hanker after those days. In part because Parliament
mattered more. There were no television or newspaper interviews
and no national election campaigns. I feel vastly more comfortable
expressing myself in the Commons than anywhere else.” The
political world he longed for was that of William Pitt the
younger (1759–1806), eighteenth-century Britain’s
most consequential politician and the subject of Hague’s
first book. The similarities between author and subject are
striking: both were political prodigies with first-rate intellects,
silver tongues,and a taste for the grape.

What distinguished them was the power each held. While Pitt
was the youngest Prime Minister in British history, coming
to office at the ripe old age of twenty-four and holding
that office longer than anyone since, Hague, though leader
of the Conservatives by the age of thirty-six, never won
a general election for his party. Where Pitt helped steer
the nation successfully in a war for its survival against
the French, Hague’s four-year term as leader of the
Conservatives was generally reckoned to have been an unmitigated
failure. Thankfully for its readers, this book is neither
an exercise in hero-worship nor in elegy: it is, instead,
a solid, reliable, and at times even insightful study of
late eighteenth-century British political life and the person
who dominated it. For the general reader it is perhaps the
best one-volume treatment we have of Pitt the younger’s

Pitt’s father, William Pitt the elder, the earl of
Chatham, groomed his second son from birth for politics.
Educated at by private tutors and at Pembroke College, Cambridge,
the younger Pitt early on mastered the ability to speak clearly,
extemporaneously, and with evident authority. These skills
held him in good stead throughout his career in the House
of Commons. Pitt entered parliament in 1781, quickly making
his mark as an able parliamentary debater. The early 1780s
was a time of national political crisis in Britain: the war
with the American colonies was going horribly, the Gordon
Riots had put paid to the idea that religious bigotry was
no longer the flammable stuff of politics, and many across
the nation clamoured loudly for political, economical, and
religious reform. It was a propitious time for someone with
Pitt’s political lineage, talents, and ambitions, and
within two years of becoming a member of parliament, he was
given hold of the reins of government by George III, who
was by this time desperate for someone whom he could trust
to lead the government. While most expected his ministry
quickly to collapse, Pitt served as prime minister continuously
until his resignation in 1801; he made a political comeback
in 1804, serving as prime minister for the last two years
of his life. What kept him in power was immense political
talent, a ferocious ambition, a willingness to make his work
his life, the unwavering support of the king, and the ineptitude
and unpopularity of his opponents.

The first six years of his ministry were given over to relatively
modest domestic and political reforms and to dealing with
the political fallout that arose from George III’s
increasingly fragile mental health. The French Revolution
changed everything, and though even until 1792 he professed
himself determined to keep Britain out of continental warfare,
Pitt was forced to lead a nation which found itself in a
war with France that lasted until 1815. Britain would eventually
emerge victorious, but that was not always evident. During
Pitt’s lifetime, the war was inconclusive, and he died
broken and exhausted from overwork in 1806, with Napoleon’s
victory at Austerlitz fresh in his memory. Nonetheless, Pitt
had done a masterful job directing the war effort, and the
young political talent in his ministry that he had scouted
and succoured would lead the country to victory within a
decade of Pitt’s death. He died a national hero, and
William Hague concludes his book positively awestruck by
his subject, reckoning that Pitt’s “dedication
to public service [was] so intense as to be rare even in
the annals of Prime Ministers . . . [F]rom his early childhood
to the hour of death, he so aligned himself with thefate
of his country that at no moment of his existence could he
separate himself from it.”

Hague is not an historian-pioneer, going boldly where none
have gone before. In a frank admission at the book’s
outset, he acknowledges that he could not have written this
biography of Pitt so quickly but for the path-clearing done
in John Ehrman’s definitive trilogy, The Younger
. Hague is, instead, a politician-biographer in
the vein of the late Sir Roy Jenkins, and is in this way
akin to a first-rate travel writer, describing in interesting
and colorful ways already familiar lands and peoples. His
knowledge of his subject has depth and is grounded firmly
in the archives (particularly manuscript correspondence in
the British Library) and in the relevant printed primary
sources concerning late eighteenth-century British political
life. What distinguishes Hague’s biography of Pitt
from others is not any new discoveries, but the insights
that arise from the depth of sympathy and understanding one
working politician has for another. For Hague, it seems,
there are natural laws of politics, and much of the book
is spent observing and elucidating them. Pitt, for instance, “showed
the cool ruthlessness which characterises those politicians
who are capable of seizing power and keeping it.” Elsewhere,
we learn that “Pitt had not the slightest interest
in monitoring his own finances while he was in office. This
is a common fault among politicians many of whom to this
day barely trouble to look at their bank balance until they
are out of power.” One senses that Hague himself learned
the hard way that “Colleagues at the top of a government
are generally thrown together by some mixture of duty, conviction
and circumstances; hardly every by friendship, as usually
becomes apparent whenever one of them runs into trouble.” Hague’s
biography of Pitt brims over with present-minded observations
like these.

The insistence on drawing connections between the past and
the present is at once the book’s greatest strength
and its most debilitating weakness. Certainly there are some
immutable laws of nature in politics, and it forces us to
consider anew both the past and the present political situation
in Britain when they are so clearly illumined. Yet there
is the danger of reading too much of the present into the
past. So, for instance, we encounter this clunker early on
in the book: “Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union
two centuries later led to changes in political attitudes
in the countries that had stood guard against it, so the
collapse of the Jacobite threat after 1745 led to a steady
breaking down of the political and religious battle lines
in the late eighteenth century.” This comparison tells
us practically nothing about the nature of the Jacobite “threat” to
the Hanoverian monarchs who led Britain. Much more seriously
vitiating than the inapposite comparisons that pop upoccasionally,
is the undue weight given to parliament in Hague’s
reading of British politics in the late eighteenth century.
Hague’s descriptions of Pitt the younger’s parliamentary
speeches are written with the loving care of someone who
truly appreciates the art form and are easily the best parts
of the book. But it is simply not the case that the House
of Commons was the driving force in national politics in
the late eighteenth century. For during this period “public
opinion” became a significant, and at times the dominant,
force in the nation’s politics, a recognition that
would have only enriched Hague’s treatment of Pitt
the politician.

Yet this is perhaps to cavil, for Hague promised nothing
more than to give us a readable biography of a politician
whom he admired. This he has done. His biography of Pitt
the younger is a work suffused with its author’s enthusiasm
for his subject, and we can earnestly hope that Hague will
soon deliver on another promise, a biography of Pitt’s
debauched political rival, Charles James Fox.

Robert G. Ingram is Assistant Professor of History at Ohio