Chatham, William Pitt, First Earl of

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Chatham, William Pitt, First Earl of

CHATHAM, WILLIAM PITT, FIRST EARL OF. (1708–1778). Prime minister. Pitt was born in Westminster on 15 November 1708, grandson of a wealthy merchant and ex-governor of Madras who had acquired the family fortune. He was educated at Eton (1719–1726), Trinity College Oxford (1727), and Utrecht (from 1728). As a younger son he had to make his own career, and in 1731 he was bought a £1,000 commission in Cobham's regiment of horse. In 1733–1734 he took an attenuated grand tour of France and Switzerland, and in February 1735 he was elected to the House of Commons for the family pocket borough of Old Sarum, becoming one of "Cobham's Cubs." This group was closely associated with Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was at odds with his father George II, and whose home at Leicester House was a focus for opposition politics. The connection cost Pitt his cornetcy in May 1736. But he did not regularly take part in debates in the Commons and in 1742 failed to obtain a place in the ministry of John Carteret (Earl Granville). From about this time, however, he argued vehemently against financial and military support for the Hapsburg monarchy and Hanover, contending that vital British interests were being sacrificed for "a despicable electorate." Although he moderated his language in 1744, it is hardly surprising that George II's opposition kept him out of office until he became paymaster general in May 1746.

In the autumn of 1755 Pitt was dismissed from the paymastership for attacking the King's new treaties with Prussia and Hesse-Cassell. In opposition, Pitt continued to argue that Britain should concentrate on naval and colonial objectives, rather than waste resources on alliances meant to defend Hanover. The loss of Minorca to a French invasion in 1756, followed by further disasters in India and North America gravely weakened the duke of Newcastle's ministry and seemed to justify Pitt's criticisms. The king had to accept Pitt as secretary of state for the southern department (an office which gave him effective control of the war) with the duke of Devonshire as nominal prime minister. However, George II's confidence came at a price: once in office Pitt promised new support for Prussia in addition to a greater effort in America. Although dismissed in April 1757, he was able to forge a new alliance with Newcastle (who replaced Devonshire as prime minister) and resumed office on 29 June. The spectacular military successes of 1759–1760 were followed by plans for a pre-emptive strike against Spain. The last alarmed his cabinet colleagues, and in October 1761 Pitt resigned rather than give way.

Pitt attacked the Peace of Paris as far too moderate, given the scale of his own military successes. But his opposition to the Stamp Act seems to have been genuine. Unlike most contemporaries, Pitt argued that, because America was not represented in the Commons, Parliament had no right to levy internal taxes. Unlike George Grenville, who was far more prescient on this issue, he thought that Americans could raise no fundamental objection to external duties intended to regulate trade within the navigation system. Like almost everyone else, he thought that such powers were fundamental to Britain's prosperity and, even more important, to her naval power and security. The enthusiasm with which Americans greeted news of his speeches was therefore partly misplaced. Pitt never really resolved the paradox of standing up for American liberties on one hand while insisting on parliamentary supremacy on the other.

On 6 July 1766 Pitt was asked to form a new administration, but by accepting a peerage as earl of Chatham he seriously weakened his influence over his old power base, the Commons. The cabinet, distracted by the affairs of the East India Company and Chatham's ill health, was slow to work out specific policies toward America. Then, in January 1767, with Pitt ill at Bath, Charles Townshend denounced the distinction between internal and external taxes, effectively rebelling against the prime minister. The government's following in the Commons disintegrated, and Chatham returned to London only in time to hand over the leadership to Augustus Grafton.

Ill and isolated for two years, he returned to politics in 1769 to form an opposition alliance with the followers of Rockingham (Charles Watson-Wentworth). Rockingham opposed confrontation in America (in 1766 his short-lived ministry had carried the repeal of the Stamp Act with Pitt's support) which he associated with an imaginary court plot to subvert the constitution. However, age and infirmity had made Chatham both inflexible and autocratic, and he had nothing constructive to say about the fast-changing position in America. His speech on the Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts was muddled, and not until January and February 1775 did he put forward coherent proposals. By now he was prepared to offer "concessions" to the Americans (his old talk of rights had vanished) in return for acknowledgment of ultimate parliamentary sovereignty. His position differed from Lord North's only in the scale of the concessions he was prepared to offer. Again disabled by illness, he took little part in politics during the first part of the War of Independence. In May and November 1777, alarmed by the likely Franco-American alliance, he argued strongly for an early and generous peace and for the futility of a war conquest. At the same time he set himself firmly against independence as a natural right and broke with the Rockinghamites in 1778. On 7 April he made a rambling speech on the issue of independence, then collapsed and was carried out of the House of Lords. It was his last exit: he died at Hayes on 11 May.

Pitt had little effect on American affairs after his resignation in 1761. His second administration did little to grapple with the problems of American resistance, and his insistence on the distinction between internal and external taxes was myopic at best. His initial apparent sympathy with the Stamp Act rioters concealed a conviction, which hardened as time went on, that Britain's great-power status depended on the subordination of her colonies. His reputation depends more on the legend generated by his unmatched oratory and by the sheer scale of his accomplishments during the Seven Years' War.

SEE ALSO Grafton, Augustus Henry Fitzroy; Grenville, George; Independence; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; North, Sir Frederick; Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Second Marquess of; Townshend, Charles.


Black, Jeremy. Pitt the elder: the Great Commoner. Revised edition. Stroud: Sutton, 1999.

Middleton, R. The Bells of Victory: the Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years' War, 1757–1762. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Peters, Marie. The Elder Pitt. London: Longman, 1998.

Peters, Marie. Pitt and Popularity: the Patriot Minister and London Opinion During the Seven Years' War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

                                  revised by John Oliphant

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