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
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.
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.
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
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
* 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
* 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
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
JACANA HOME PAGE
CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS
JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE
JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY |
OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY |
MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY
FREE FONTS |
PIC OF THE DAY
GENERAL LIBRARY |
MAP LIBRARY |
HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY
MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST
BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES
MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS |
FREE SOFTWARE |
JACANA WEATHER PAGE
JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY |
JACANA CARTOON PAGE |
This web page was last updated on:
15 December, 2008