William Pitt

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William Pitt

Born November 15, 1708 Westminster, England

Died May 11, 1778 London, England

British war minister during the French and Indian War

William Pitt is known as one of the greatest wartime leaders in British history. He served as secretary of state in the British government during the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War). During this period, he directed British military operations and carried out political schemes with great effectiveness. Under his guidance, British and colonial troops added Canada and most other disputed areas of North America to the British Empire, and England established itself as the world's greatest power.

Privileged upbringing leads to a career in politics

William Pitt was born on November 15, 1708. His parents were Robert Pitt, a member of the British Parliament, and Lady Harriet Villiers, whose family was of English-Irish nobility. Young Pitt was raised in very comfortable surroundings and studied at England's finest schools. He attended school at Eton from 1719 to 1726, then moved on to Oxford and Utrecht in 1727. He suffered from a variety of illnesses as a youngster, so he rarely participated in the outdoor and sports activities that were popular with other boys his age. But he was an intelligent and curious youngster who filled his days with literature, art, and music.

In 1735, Pitt followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, taking a seat as a member of the Parliament, the supreme legislative body of the country. All across Great Britain, no laws or taxes could be approved without the formal agreement of the Parliament. In addition, only members of Parliament were eligible to serve as the prime minister or fill other posts in the cabinet. (The cabinet is a group of legislators who lead various government departments and serve as advisors to the prime minister.)

Pitt quickly established himself as one of the Parliament's most fearless and ambitious members. In 1736, he delivered a speech in which he strongly criticized the policies of King George II (1683-1760) and the government. The king was so angry about the remarks that he arranged for Pitt's dismissal from the "Blues," a ceremonial regiment of horsemen affiliated with the royal crown. But the move backfired. The British public sided with Pitt in the dispute, expressing admiration for his bold behavior.

From 1737 to 1745, Pitt served as assistant to Frederick Louis (1707-1751), the prince of Wales, King George II's son. During this period, he remained one of the most vocal critics of the ruling government. In May 1744, Pitt became seriously ill. He gradually recovered, but mysterious ailments and sicknesses dogged him for the rest of his life. In 1746, King George II permitted Pitt to return to the government, most notably as paymaster general of the military. In 1754, Pitt married Hester Grenville, with whom he eventually had three sons and two daughters.

Pitt guides Britain through the French and Indian War

Even as Pitt's political career flourished in the early 1750s, relations between Great Britain and France became dangerously tense. Since the late seventeenth century, these two European powers had repeatedly clashed for economic, military, and political supremacy around the world. In 1754, this struggle erupted once again in North America with the French and Indian War.

By the 1750s, both Great Britain and France had established large colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country) throughout the eastern half of North America. The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin. Both the British and French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies. This region offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations who had lived on the land for generations. When the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy began to decline in the mid-1700s, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. This conflict—the French and Indian War—quickly widened into a global struggle.

When the French and Indian War began, Pitt repeatedly urged the government to attack France and its colonies all around the world. He called on the nation's leaders to increase the size of its army and navy, create a national militia, and send more troops to America. He also told his political allies that if he was running things, he could lead Britain to great glory. As noted in Encyclopedia of World Biography, he declared, "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can."

From 1754 through early 1757, British forces suffered a series of military defeats in North America and elsewhere. These losses triggered a political crisis in Great Britain. Finally, King George II called on Pitt to take leadership of the government, despite his personal dislike for the man. The king recognized that England needed to be led by a popular figure like Pitt if it hoped to win the war against France. Pitt gladly accepted the challenge, and in July 1757, he was formally appointed war minister of Great Britain. He shared political power with Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693-1768), the duke of Newcastle, but enjoyed authority over all of Britain's military forces.

When Pitt took over the war effort, England was struggling all across the world. The French and their Indian allies were scoring victory after victory in North America, and some British leaders feared that France was on the verge of seizing not only the fur trade and fisheries of that continent, but also the American colonies themselves. In addition, Great Britain had recently suffered military setbacks at the hands of the French in India, the Mediterranean, and Africa.

Reversing the momentum of the war

But Pitt quickly reversed the falling fortunes of the British Empire. He spoke with such great confidence and determination that he was able to renew Britain's commitment to the war. Indeed, his appeals to national pride inspired the English people. In addition, he proved to be an effective planner of military and naval strategy. He also used his authority to make sure the military received the best possible leadership. For example, he promoted and removed commanders based on their talent, skill, and bravery rather than their years of service in the military or family connections. Finally, he worked very hard to improve relations with the American colonists. During the first years of the French and Indian War, British generals and law-makers had treated the Americans poorly. But Pitt behaved as if they were equals, and he listened to their wartime complaints and suggestions respectfully. As a result, support for the war increased dramatically throughout the colonies.

Under Pitt's leadership, England registered a series of major military victories around the world. In Europe, he sent huge sums of money to British allies so that they could expand their militaries. Before long, these armies were posting major victories over France and its allies. At the same time, Pitt sent large numbers of British troops to attack French outposts around the globe. In North America, for example, combined British and American forces swept through French territory in 1758 and 1759, capturing one fort after another.

In 1760, King George II died of a stroke and King George III (1738-1820; see box) took the throne. The new king's primary advisor was an old opponent of Pitt's named John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713-1792). King George III distrusted Pitt and wanted him removed from office, but he knew that he could not immediately dismiss the popular Pitt. Indeed, Pitt—known around the country as "the Great Commoner" because of his background in Parliament's House of Commons—had brought his countrymen a great deal of glory and honor. He had claimed most of North America for the British Empire, and French forces were in retreat all around the world.

In 1761, Great Britain and France initiated negotiations to end the war. Pitt, however, did not want to end the war. On the contrary, he wanted to expand the war by attacking Spain, which had allied itself with France. But when his advice was rejected, Pitt resigned from office in October 1761. Two years later, France and England signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War. Pitt bitterly criticized the treaty, but it firmly established Britain as the world's great economic, commercial, and colonial power.

Hampered by failing health

Pitt struggled with a range of health problems through the early 1760s. He spent most of this time at his country estate in Bath, England. Every once in a while, he would travel to London, where his public proclamations on government policies continued to attract attention. For example, he repeatedly expressed his opposition to imposing taxes on the American colonies since they were not represented in the British Parliament. He believed that this "taxation without representation" was illegal, according to British law. At the same time, however, he made it very clear that he considered the colonies a part of the British Empire.

In August 1766, the collapse of the current administration in England led to Pitt's reappointment as prime minister. But illness kept him away from office for months at a time, and political battles and scheming made it impossible for him to forge an effective government. Weary and sick, he stepped down from office in November 1768.

By 1771, Pitt made only rare appearances in Parliament because of his poor health, but he remained concerned about the growing tensions between Britain and the American colonies. Pitt firmly supported British efforts to end the rebellion, and while he did not want to see the Americans gain total independence from Great Britain, he believed that they deserved to have greater control over their own futures. On April 7, 1778, he traveled to Parliament and delivered a speech in which he urged his countrymen to keep the British flag flying over the colonies. At the same time, he also asked Parliament to consider an arrangement in which the colonies would have significant powers of self-government, and he warned that it would be very difficult for Britain to win an all-out war with the Americans.

At the conclusion of this speech, Pitt collapsed. After undergoing medical treatment, he was taken back to his country estate, but he never regained his health. He remained confined to his bed for more than a month, and he died on May 11, 1778.

For More Information

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

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Historic World Leaders. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center . Detroit:Gale Group, 2002.

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

King George III—The "Mad King"

King George III was one of the most controversial monarchs in English history. Though considered an honest man of good intentions, there is no argument that he was a man of limited intellectual capacity. Historians generally agree that his minimal intelligence made him an ineffectual ruler and led to the controversy surrounding his tragic life.

In the first years of his rule, which lasted from 1760 to 1820, Great Britain seized control of much of North America in the French and Indian War. But he later lost the American colonies in the War for Independence, and he suffered from mental illness during many of his years on the throne.

Born in London on June 4, 1738, George III was the oldest son of Frederick Louis, the prince of Wales, and the grandson of King George II. He became king of England in 1760, after George II died of a stroke. In the first years of his reign, George III devoted much of his time and energy to restoring powers to the king that had been lost during his grandfather's reign. His main ally in this effort was John Stuart, the earl of Bute. In 1761, their opposition to an offensive against Spain led to the resignation of William Pitt, Britain's enormously popular war minister. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War between Britain and France, established Great Britain as the world's leading economic, military, and political power.

In the 1760s, King George III appointed and dismissed a series of ministers to run the British government. He finally settled on Frederick North (1732-1792), the earl of Guilford, who served as prime minister from 1770 to 1782. But King George III and Lord North instituted policies that further increased tensions between Great Britain and its colonies in America. Relations eventually became so poor that the colonies launched a successful fight for independence and formed theUnited States of America. The loss of the colonies triggered a storm of political unrest that nearly forced the king to abdicate (step down from the throne).

In the meantime, the health and well-being of King George III became a major source of concern within the British Empire. In 1765, he had been confined to bed for three months by a mysterious illness that threatened to take his life. From that point forward, he suffered from periodic attacks of insomnia, hallucinations, excessive sensitivity to touch, and delirious behavior. Historians now believe that these symptoms came from a rare hereditary disease called porphyria.

The disease worsened in the late eighteenth century, and many British citizens, as well as King George III himself, became concerned that he might be going insane. During this period, his power and influence eroded significantly. In 1809, he became blind, and two years later his mental state became so unbalanced that he could no longer function as king. His son, who later became George IV (1762-1830), acted as regent (someone who rules during the disability or absence of a king or other ruler) until George III's death on January 29, 1820.

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