Pitt the Elder: Man of War

 Jeremy Black looks at a new biography of the 18th-century prime minister William Pitt

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Edward Pearce
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25

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Reputation is an interesting topic, one that tells us as much about subsequent ages as the subject of discussion. In the case of 18th-century prime minister William Pitt – known as Pitt the Elder – it is instructive to consider why his reputation has been on a roller coaster. Edward Pearce, a former journalist, is stuck somewhat behind on this journey. He takes William Pitt from 19th-century heights and follows him into revisionist depths, giving him a kick when he is down: “a demagogue… incapable of coping with detail… the showbusiness of war… England didn’t need saving”. And so on. Pearce writes in a vigorous, indeed bracing, fashion, but given that the book draws on only one archival collection, ignores key published works, including biographies of Pitt and George II, and fails to understand the politics of the period, it is not surprising that it is not short of questionable judgements. In particular, there is an underplaying of the political significance of Pitt’s position in the late 1750s and its role in helping ensure the stability of the ministry.

The absence of a reliable political party unity on which government could rest placed greater weight on ministers than is the situation today. Because of, rather than despite, his rhetoric, Pitt was good at aligning policy and political possibilities. Some contemporaries claimed that Pitt was inconsistent, and it was easy, in the contexts of a rapidly changing international scene and an uncertain domestic sphere, to bring charges of opportunism and hypocrisy against politicians, especially when they made the transition to office. Pitt faced special problems as he was an outsider by temperament who found it difficult to co-operate with others.

For Pitt, politics was a matter of absolutes, and his personality and attitudes did not readily make for successful peacetime politics, but both enabled him to make a great contribution in wartime. His achievement was considerable for a man dogged for much of his life by poor physical health and considerable mental stress.

Lacking an adequate understanding of the subject, Pearce’s book cannot be recommended. Aside from questionable judgments on Pitt, he is plain wrong on point after point. Unlike Pearce, having read the surviving correspondence of, to and about Viscount Townshend, I cannot agree with comments such as “the idea of needing a war was in the later 1720s, the idée fix of… Viscount Townshend”. Or what about “If Free Trade had been established as doctrine in the 1740s, there would have been no war”; or throwaway remarks such as “Robert Peel, an incomparably abler man than Pitt”? I applaud popular history, but see no reason to squander accuracy or judgment to that end.

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Jeremy Black is the author of Pitt the Elder (Stroud, 1999)