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William Pitt the Elder
1708 - 1778

The British statesman William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, was one of the most striking political figures of the 18th century. Known as the Great Commoner, he served as war minister under George II and led Britain to victory over the French.


William Pitt was born on Nov. 15, 1708, the son of a Cornish member of Parliament. Educated at Eton and at Oxford, in 1735 he entered Parliament. Pitt immediately showed himself to be a violent opponent of Sir Robert Walpole. His opposition to Hanoverian policy also lost him the favour of George II, a factor which prevented his obtaining office after Walpole's fall in 1742. In 1746 Pitt was appointed paymaster general, but this office carried little political influence.

Intensely ambitious, conscious of his power in the Commons, and impatient in his secondary role, Pitt aimed at supreme power. In September 1755 he gained admission to the Cabinet and dominated the great debate (November 13-14) on the war with France. His speech on this occasion, wrote Horace Walpole, "like a torrent long obstructed, burst forth with more commanding impetuosity." Dismissed because of his opposition, Pitt set out to rouse popular enthusiasm for the war, pressing for increases in the army and navy, for more troops to be sent to America, and for the establishment of a national militia. In December 1756 Pitt became secretary of state under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Devonshire; this ministry was replaced in July 1757 by a coalition between Pitt and Lord Newcastle. They worked well together and were responsible for England's victories in the Seven Years War.

His Character

Probably the most marked trait in Pitt's character was his aloofness. He was a solitary man who, according to his nephew, "lived and died without a friend." Politically his isolation meant that he was not a party man and worked badly in a team. In the Commons his aggression and commanding presence compelled attention. A contemporary wrote, "He was tall in his person with the eye of a hawk, a little head, thin face, long aquiline nose, and perfectly erect." Pitt also had great courage - a rare quality in 18th-century statesmen. He was not afraid to assume responsibility for war with the French, provided he was given full powers. "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can, " he said in 1756. His greatness as a war minister was that he invigorated the nation and imbued it with his own confidence and resolution.

But as George II grew older, Pitt's position became less secure. His alliance with Lord Bute and the Prince of Wales failed when Pitt adopted the policy of a Continental war. George III, who became king in 1760, opposed Pitt but could not begin his reign by dismissing the minister who had led Britain to victory. Instead, he tried to separate Newcastle from Pitt and, with Newcastle's compliance, secured Bute's admittance to office as secretary of state. In September 1761 Pitt, now isolated in the Cabinet, resigned over the conduct of the war. He hoped, he said, "never to be a public man again." Yet he remained the key figure in the Commons, and much of the confusion in politics during the next 5 years resulted from his unpredictable conduct.

Later Career

Between 1762 and 1764 Pitt, who was ill with gout, attended Parliament infrequently, leaving the opposition disjointed and leaderless. He declined to take office on the dismissal of the Grenvilles in 1765 and again in January 1766, when he was also asked for his opinion "on the present state of America." Pitt delivered his views on America during a debate on January 14: "It is my opinion that this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies. At the same time I assert the authority of this kingdom over the colonies to be sovereign and supreme in every circumstance of government and legislation whatsoever." Pitt considered this distinction between taxation and legislation essential to freedom. But he apparently never realized that to allow the American colonies the power of taxation inevitably meant allowing them separate sovereignty.

On the collapse of the Rockingham administration in July 1766, Pitt was at last given the opportunity to form an independent administration. He set out "to dissolve all factions and to see the best of all parties in Administration, " but he succeeded only in ranging all the political groups against him. His health prevented him from assuming regularly the leadership of the Commons, and his acceptance of the earldom of Chatham in August 1766 showed a fatal misunderstanding of the source of his political strength. Deprived by his aloofness and arrogance of loyal and reliable colleagues, he had to fall back on lazy and inexperienced ministers. When, early in 1767, illness prevented Chatham from attending the Cabinet and Parliament, he had no reliable deputy to weld his diversified Cabinet into a team. Finally, in the spring of 1767, he succumbed to an attack of manic depression, and for over 2 years he played virtually no part in politics.

The last 10 years of Chatham's life were anticlimactic. He returned to politics in 1769, but he had few followers and was as difficult to work with as ever. In 1771, no longer a political force, he practically ceased to attend Parliament. The outbreak of the American war reawakened something of his old vigour, and he fought to preserve the colonies for Britain. While speaking in Parliament on this subject, he fell ill and died a month later on May 11, 1778. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.


The elder William Pitt, later the first Earl of Chatham, was the driving force behind the British victory in the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in North America. The extensive triumph was instrumental in establishing a truly global empire. Pitt was born in Westminster, England, the son of a prominent family whose wealth had been made in India. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, and entered the House of Commons at age 27. There he joined with other young members in opposing the foreign policies of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. This opposition was embarrassing to the Crown and touched off lasting antipathy between Pitt and George II.

During the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s, Pitt grew in public admiration while serving as army paymaster, where he displayed unusual foresight, honesty and a refusal to enrich himself at public expense.

After warfare resumed in North America in 1755, Pitt lost his government position because of his constant criticism of the prime minister and the government’s war plan. However, the dreadful showing of the British forces soon brought him back to power. Reluctantly, George II named him secretary of state in 1756 and in the following year Pitt joined with the Duke of Newcastle in forming a new government. Never lacking in self-confidence, he declared, “I know that I can save this country, and that no one else can.” By 1758, Pitt controlled the war effort almost single-handedly. His decisive contributions included:

* He saw North America, not Europe, as the pivotal ingredient in the creation of a great empire. He liberally subsidized the Prussians to handle the bulk of the conflict on the continent, while concentrating on America.

* He publicly identified France as the prime opponent, a position that won support from leading merchants and the masses, thus cementing popular backing for the war effort.

* Pitt gained American support for the conflict by paying subsidies to the colonial governments that provided soldiers and supplies.

* He showed little patience with unproductive military leaders. Lord Loudoun, the successor to Edward Braddock, was relieved of his command after his failure at Louisbourg. Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe, among others, filled the void with startling success.

Despite victories in North America, Europe, West Africa, India and the West Indies, the new monarch, George III, forced Pitt’s resignation in 1761.

The former secretary of state spent the next few years as a leader of the opposition. He was a vocal critic of the Peace of Paris (1763), arguing that the terms were far too lenient in light of the overpowering British victory. He saw no reason for the return of West Indian islands to France, and Cuba and the Philippines to Spain. Pitt gained further adulation in the American colonies by his opposition to government programs for imposing new taxes, particularly the Stamp Act tax (1765).

Pitt returned to power in 1766 as Prime Minister and was made Earl of Chatham and Lord Privy Seal. His ability to mould events had been sharply diminished by declining health, which left him playing second fiddle to Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer. The infamous Townshend Duties were enacted in 1767 over Pitt’s protests. He resigned in 1768.

In the following years, Pitt made occasional appearances in the House of Lords, usually to plead for a more sympathetic treatment of the American colonists. After war erupted, Pitt urged that every effort be made to secure peace, but he — the great architect of empire — would not accept the idea of independence. Pitt died a few days after collapsing in the House of Lords, where he was delivering a speech on the troubled relationship with the American colonies.

William Pitt the elder demonstrated great skills as a wartime leader, particularly in the areas of grand strategy and organization. However, his contributions were limited by inattention to administrative matters and his inability to adjust to the give-and-take of political life.

In an ironic turn of events, Pitt gained great popularity in America during the French and Indian war by lavishing cash reimbursements on the colonists for their military expenses. Those excesses, however, helped to create a massive public debt at home. Post-war efforts to collect a portion of that obligation through taxes in the colonies would lead to estrangement, independence and ultimately the disintegration of the empire.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008