William Pitt the Elder

The British statesman William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham (1708-1778), 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 favor 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 vigor, 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.

Further Reading on William Pitt the Elder

The major modern biography of Chatham is a three-volume work by O. A. Sherrard, Lord Chatham: A War Minister in the Making (1952), Lord Chatham: Pitt and the Seven Years' War (1955), and Lord Chatham and America (1958). A detailed single-volume biography is provided by Brian Tunstall, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1938). J. H. Plumb, Chatham (1953), is shorter and most interesting. On Chatham's unsuccessful administration, John Brooke, The Chatham Administration, 1766-1768 (1956), is essential.

Additional Biography Sources

Ayling, Stanley Edward, The elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham, London: Collins, 1976.

Black, Jeremy, Pitt the Elder, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Brown, Peter Douglas, William Pitt Earl of Chatham, the great commoner, London: Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Peters, Marie, Pitt and popularity: the patriot minister and London opinion during the Seven Years War, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Robertson, Charles Grant, Sir, Chatham and the British Empire, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Sherrard, Owen Aubrey, Lord Chatham: a war minister in the making, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Sherrard, Owen Aubrey, Lord Chatham: Pitt and the Seven Years' War, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.