[1783] - Pitt becomes Prime Minister at the age of 24 (until 1801)

William Pitt (known as Pitt the Younger to distinguish him from his father, William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham) was born in Kent on 28 May 1759. He was educated at home before going up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and then training for the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. In January 1781 he entered parliament at the age of 21 as the Member of Parliament for Appleby in Cumbria. In the summer of 1782 William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne, became Prime Minister on the death of the Marquis of Rockingham, prompting the resignation of Lord John Cavendish as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Pitt was appointed in Cavendish’s place on 8 July. When Shelburne’s administration collapsed in February 1783, Pitt declined George III’s request for him to form a government. He resigned from office on 30 March, enabling the Duke of Portland to form a coalition government with Fox and North. In doing so, Pitt showed considerable political judgement. Portland’s ministry was detested by the king and, following the rejection of the East India Bill, Portland was dismissed from office. On 19 December 1783 Pitt was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Although the early months of his ministry were fraught with difficulty, the election in early 1784 strengthened his position considerably by producing a majority of around 120.

For the next quarter of a century Pitt dominated the political life of the nation. With the exception of a three-year period from 1801 to 1804 he served as Prime Minister, leading the country to financial stability following the loss of the American colonies, guiding policy in response to the French Revolution, and bringing about the Act of Union with Ireland in the summer of 1800. He directed British policy during the Napoleonic Wars, negotiating a series of military coalitions with European allies. He died, however, overwhelmed by a sense of failure after Napoleon’s decisive victory at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, an event that signalled the collapse of the Third Coalition. According to his nephew, James Stanhope, his last words were, ‘Oh, my country! How I leave my country!’ He died on 23 January 1806 at the age of 46. Despite Pitt’s despair, Britain nonetheless went on to defeat Napoleonic France in 1815.

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