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Boy Premier

From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: A life of the youngest man ever to inhabit 10 Downing Street.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By MAX BOOT
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Pitt prosecuted the war in the classic British fashion: A strong navy would blockade France, seize its colonies, and protect the home islands, while subsidies would be extended to continental allies to do the fighting that Britain's tiny army could not. Even under the best of circumstances, it was not a recipe for a quick victory. The French armies went from success to success while the pitiful expeditionary force Pitt dispatched to the continent was summarily routed. Britain was saved only by the glorious exploits of the Royal Navy, which bested the French fleet and its allies in a series of epic encounters culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Six weeks later, however, Napoleon won a crushing victory against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, leading to the collapse of the Third Coalition and hastening Pitt's demise.

Pitt's health had been declining for years because of too much work, too many worries, and, above all, too much wine. Hague is unsparing in calling Pitt an alcoholic, a word that his contemporaries would not have used but one that seems apt in light of Pitt's habit of drinking three bottles of port at a sitting. In one of his more amusing passages, Hague examines hand-blown 18th-century bottles and finds that they could hold less liquid than modern, machine-made bottles because they had a larger base and thicker glass. Even so, he concludes that Pitt's consumption would equate to "one and two-thirds of a bottle of strong wine today." It would take a cast-iron constitution to quaff so much booze without adverse effects, and Pitt's constitution was far from strong.

By the time of his death in 1806, Pitt appeared to be far older than 46. Tortured by gout and ulcers, he was, in the words of his physician, "a man much worn out," with eyes that "were almost lifeless," and "his voice hollow & weak." He had sacrificed his health in order to serve king and country. Appropriately enough, Pitt's last words were, "Oh, my country! How I leave my country!"

He had cause for concern because, notwithstanding the victory off Cape Trafalgar, the war situation still did not look all that promising. It was as if FDR had died after Midway. But Hague is convincing in defending Pitt's legacy as a resolute war leader and a cautious reformer.

No matter how many setbacks Britain suffered, Pitt rallied the nation to keep fighting. Although no transcripts exist of most of his speeches, it is clear that he often exhibited Churchillian eloquence--it might be more accurate to say that Churchill exhibited Pittian eloquence--as when he said of the French Revolution: "Nothing is too great for the temerity of its ambition, nothing too small or insignificant for the grasp of its rapacity."

In combating French designs, Pitt made many risky and courageous decisions. In 1798, he sent the bulk of the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean in pursuit of a French expeditionary force, even though it left the home islands vulnerable to invasion. This gambit led directly to Horatio Nelson's victory in the Battle of the Nile, which destroyed a French fleet and left Napoleon's army stranded in Egypt. Pitt showed equal wisdom and resolution on many other occasions, whether dealing with King George III's intermittent bouts of madness or facing down the mutiny of the Channel Fleet in 1797.

His greatest achievement lay in the unglamorous realm of finance. By raising large sums of money through a combination of borrowing and taxing (Pitt introduced Britain's first income tax, capped at 10 percent), he was able to create the "sinews of war" that kept one anti-French coalition after another going until final victory at Waterloo.

Pitt thought of himself as an "independent Whig," but he has gone down in history as a Tory. When he first entered politics, pretty much everyone was a Whig. Tories had been discredited as lackeys of the Stuart pretenders, chased out of office by William and Mary. Whigs were the champions of the parliamentary monarchy established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The divisions fostered by the French Revolution helped to tear the Whigs asunder. A small number of radicals under Fox expressed sympathy for the French Revolution and opposed Pitt while the more conservative Rockingham Whigs rallied around him. After his death, his friends would carry on his legacy, ruling for 23 straight years and laying the foundation for a modern Conservative party built on Pitt's reputation as (in Hague's words) "an improver rather than a radical."

George Canning offered the best epitaph for Pitt when he wrote a song about him called "The Pilot that Weathered the Storm." Britain was lucky to have such a pilot at such a perilous time. But looking back at the long, successful record of democracies in wartime, one is tempted to conclude that luck had nothing to do with it.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.