And you thought Churchill drank?

I watched Amazing Grace last night, via Netflix. I found it a better movie than most English period pieces, perhaps because from my end because I’m more readily attracted to political history than historical romance. And the story of William Wilberforce and his determination to abolish the slave trade is certainly a compelling one.

I came away especially curious to know more about William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the age of just 24 and held that office, with just a three year absence, until his death at 47. There, certainly, is a biopic waiting to be made. Ostensibly an Independent, Pitt managed to pull the kind of epochal moves that would alternately enthrall and alienate both the modern left and the modern right. How many politicians can claim to have introduced a country’s first Income Tax and to have suspended habeas corpus? Considering that Amazing Grace shows him as supporting the abolition of slavery, it’s fascinating to note that, frightened by the French Revolution (and who wouldn’t be?), Pitt passed both the Seditious Meetings Act and the Combinations Act, the latter which restricted reformist organizations, and even brought prominent reformers to trial for treason. Somehow, in the middle of all this, he used the war with France as an opportunity to bring Ireland into Great Britain, via 1800’s Act of Union.

The most remarkable aspect of this rather over-achieving, some might say “dictatorial” Premiership is that he appeared to have conducted most of this business while drunk. At age 14 (the same year he entered Cambridge University, incidentally), Pitt suffered an attack of gout and his doctor, by coincidence the father of future Prime Minister Henry Addington, recommended a bottle of port a day as the cure.

Pitt stuck religiously to his medicine for the rest of his life. And he died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-six.

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November 2021