William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder

British Prime Minister


Great Commoner. William Pitt was born on 15 November 1708 to Robert Pitt and his wife, Lady Harriet Villers. Though the Pitt family was not aristocratic, they had, through their own initiative and strength of will, succeeded in a variety of enterprises, and had amassed some land and a small fortune. William’s grandfather, Thomas “Diamond” Pitt, had been the governor of Madras in India, for example. While there, “Diamond” Pitt amassed a tidy fortune through lucrative black market deals. When he returned to England, he purchased several rotten boroughs, including the infamous Old Sarum that William Pitt himself represented when he became a Member of Parliament (MP). As an MP and as Prime Minister (PM) Pitt successfully played upon his nonaristocratic origins to create a powerful popular base of political support. Pitt graduated from Eton (attended 1719-1726) with honors, and attended Trinity College, Oxford (1726-1727), and the University of Utrecht (1728). Though he received high marks from virtually all of his professors, he particularly excelled at oratory, forensics, and debate. Pitt was in many ways a born actor: from his college days he learned to study his gestures and expressions in a mirror before going out in public in order to maximize the effects of his statements. His opponents accused him of vanity, superciliousness, and egotism but also conceded that he was a fiery patriot. His oratory skills soon pointed him in the direction of a political career, though without an aristocratic pedigree he was forced to tread a more populist path to political power. This approach occasionally got him into trouble. In 1736 he was, for example, expelled from the Royal Army (in which his parents had purchased him a commission in 1731) for reading a speech that was critical of the influence Hanover (King George II’s ancestral land) had on Britain’s foreign policy. The speech raised the ire of George II, who took Pitt’s remarks as a personal affront. For the next twenty-four years the king worked energetically to exclude Pitt from government, especially from any office with cabinet rank. Being the object of royal enmity was certainly politically disadvantageous to Pitt; however, his forthright stature through the ordeal earned him a great deal of respect among the English common folk and Whigs and Tories alike. When he entered Parliament, Pitt played up his plebeian origins and adopted the sobriquet Great Commoner. In 1737 he received the appointment of Groom of the Bedchamber of the Prince of Wales, a position that kept him well out of London.

Parliament. British politics in the 1730s centered on the creation of a policy that would both expand domestic industry and keep the European peace. The PM was Sir Robert Walpole, a hard-drinking man with a reputation for having the finest head for figures in England; he steered British foreign policy away from military confrontations in Europe by making peace with both France and Spain (Britain’s traditional economic and colonial rivals). This strategy, as well as Walpole’s relentless purging from his cabinet of anyone with policy ideas differing from his own, successfully alienated many of Walpole’s own Whig party members from him and effectively created a sizable opposition to him in Parliament. Walpole excluded Pitt from his administration largely to placate George II, who still held a grudge against Pitt. Nevertheless, Pitt still sat as an MP. He used his seat to savagely attack Walpole’s foreign policy; he openly questioned whether Britain’s foreign policy had been subordinated to that of Hanover, especially with regard to the hated Spanish. His speeches in Parliament and in public helped whip England into a bellicose furor over the general mistreatment of British sailors at the hands of Spain. The grisly tale of Captain Robert Jenkins, who claimed that his ear had been cut off by Spanish sailors in 1731 while his vessel was being searched, created an angry and war-like mood in England and eventually forced Walpole to declare war on Spain in 1739 (the War of Jenkins’ Ear). George II’s worries over the fate of Hanover, however, meant a cautious war strategy, even when the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) exploded across Europe and threatened to absorb Britain’s tiff with Spain into its maelstrom. The British public, which generally wanted revenge for what was perceived as predatory Spanish behavior, was infuriated by Britain’s neutrality at the war’s outset, especially since this was effected largely to preserve Hanover’s integrity. Scandalous broadsides questioned the competence of the king’s ministers, especially Walpole, and presented the public with images that questioned royal authority (in one image Britain is represented as a large, dull-witted dog whose leash is held by a fat, beer-drinking German with “Hanover” printed on his hat). By 1742 a battered Walpole resigned. Despite Walpole’s fall, the Whig dominance of the House of Commons ensured that they would maintain control of the government. In 1744 Henry Pelham ousted the new PM, John Carteret, Earl Granville, and then himself became PM. Pelham brought many young Whigs into his cabinet, except Pitt, whom George II still despised. Pelham was a savvy politician but did not have a wide political base. For this he relied on his brother, the duke of Newcastle, who, through bribes and patronage, held more pocket boroughs then any person in England. Though they balanced one another well, Pelham and Newcastle merely continued Walpole’s neutralist foreign policy. Pitt was isolated from cabinet or ministerial office but still sat as an MP. He again used this position as a bully pulpit and spoke vigorously and persuasively against any peace with Spain. Pitt suspected, and stated as much in his speeches, that the Bourbon monarchs of Spain and France had signed some sort of secret pact between themselves against Britain. In fact this had occurred, but few outside Paris and Madrid were yet aware of it. In such a situation, Pitt reasoned, peace with either country was dangerous to Britain, regardless of Hanover. Pitt called for war and spelled out his plan for a successful military venture against Spain. By the late 1740s Pitt had developed a reputation for having the keenest understanding of British foreign policy, especially its military aspects, of anyone in England. In 1746 Pelham suggested the addition of Pitt to the cabinet on the basis of his considerable foreign policy expertise; George II, who nursed grudges against many of Pelham’s allies (including Newcastle), flew into a rage and refused to allow it. Disgusted with the king’s lack of objectivity, Pelham and his cabinet resigned en masse as a protest. George II, however, could find no one able or willing to form a majority in Parliament and was forced to accept Pelham’s demands. Pitt was allowed into the cabinet, but only at a junior level. This relatively stable political arrangement was cut short by Pelham’s death in 1754. Newcastle succeeded Pelham as PM, but, despite the fact that he controlled many pocket boroughs and held a majority in Parliament, Newcastle was not a savvy politician and found it difficult to formulate workable policies. Newcastle, for example, ignored the ominous clashes between French and British forces in North America and India through the early 1750s. He argued before Parliament that these disturbances were unimportant and would not lead to war. Newcastle apparently believed his own rhetoric; he did little, if anything, to prepare the military for what many already knew was going to be a long, tough fight.

Empire. When the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) broke out in Europe, the conflict spilled quickly into the colonies. Great Britain was caught unprepared and by mid 1757 was in danger of losing its commercial entrepots in India and its colonies in America. For his part, Pitt stepped up his verbal assault on the government and charged New-castle with incompetence. Military defeats piled up, and public criticism against Newcastle mounted; he was forced to resign in 1758. George II surprisingly yielded to parliamentary and public pressures: he allowed Pitt into the cabinet as the secretary of state and gave him virtually dictatorial control of England’s war effort. Pitt buried what differences he had with Newcastle and invited him into the new cabinet. In the cabinet of 1758 Newcastle served as a figurehead PM and used his influence in the House of Commons to ensure the passage of legislation; Pitt, on the other hand, actually crafted the government’s policies. Pitt proved himself to be one of England’s best wartime ministers. In 1757 he enthusiastically began a complete new reorganization of the British military. Incompetent field commanders were retired or recalled, and young talented officers, such as George Augustus Howe and James Wolfe, were promoted. The troops themselves were outfitted with new equipment, uniforms, and weapons, received regular supply shipments, and had their overall level of manpower increased. Pitt also planned Britain’s overarching war strategy and individual military campaigns himself. His primary aim was to break France’s colonial empire in North America and India. In India, Pitt allowed the brilliant new British commander Robert Clive to pursue an aggressive, and ultimately successful, strategy against the French. In Europe and North America, however, Pitt carefully managed each phase of the war. Realizing that France’s armies must be tied down in Europe if Britain were to have success in the colonies, Pitt secured huge cash loans from Parliament to Frederick II of Prussia. These subsidies proved to be crucial to Prussia’s survival. With French troops effectively bogged down in Europe, Pitt’s reorganized military was able to successfully seize and hold Canada. In 1758 British and colonial forces captured the key forts of Louisbourg, Duquesne, and Oswego. In 1759, after a daring nighttime amphibious assault, Wolfe took Quebec and effectively choked off the rest of Canada from any French resupply efforts. With the capitulation of Montreal in 1760 French rule in Canada effectively ceased. These victories were followed by English military successes in India, where the outnumbered British used treachery and guile to drive the French from Bengal. Spain, now anxious to avoid a war with Britain, ceded Florida as the price of peace. England’s victories in the Seven Years’ War and consequent gains at the Peace of Paris (Canada, Cape Breton, Senegal, and Florida) constitute the greatest military achievement in English history, and established the foundations of the British Empire—Pitt himself, through his deft handling of the military and diplomatic situation, could claim a great deal of the credit for the victory. For Prussia, however, the war had not gone as well: British subsidies had achieved Frederick II’s survival; however, much Prussian territory was still occupied by Austrian, Russian, and French armies. Redressing the situation diplomatically at the peace table would likely have entailed Britain surrendering some of the territory it won at France’s expense. Pitt was unwilling to give back Canada or India and advocated continuing the war. The new king, George III, and his advisers, especially the king’s personal friend John Stuart, Earl of Bute, were reluctant to continue the war, as its economic cost had nearly bankrupted the state. Pitt’s arguments for the continuation of the war made his position in the cabinet untenable, and he was forced to resign in 1761. By mid 1761, however, considerable evidence had surfaced that not only demonstrated Spain’s war-like intentions but also proved the existence of a secret pact between the Bourbon courts in Paris and Madrid. Bute, now PM, had to declare war despite his earlier protestations. Many English people felt that the gains at the Peace of Paris (1763) did not adequately reflect the magnitude of Britain’s victory. Parts of Bengal, for example, were returned to France, but no compensation was exacted for Britain elsewhere. Bute and George III, who had chaperoned the treaty through Parliament together, were greeted with a chorus of popular disapproval. Worse followed for Bute as George III was mentally unstable from 1765-1766. His government crippled, Bute resigned in early 1766.

Illness. After the king had recovered, he offered the PM position to Pitt in an effort to stabilize the government. Pitt accepted; however, his disgust with the party system in Parliament, which he saw as perpetuating corruption, made him bitter and irascible. Instead of knitting together the politically fissured government, Pitt’s domineering tenor merely exacerbated existing divisions. Pitt’s biggest mistake, however, was in accepting the title of Earl of Chatham as a reward from George III for his war record in 1766. As a member of the peerage, Pitt was now excluded from the House of Commons, where his oratory had been the key to his success. Further, Pitt and George III locked horns over Britain’s policy toward the American colonies: Pitt favored a conciliatory approach that would not drive the colonist into revolt, while the king preferred to browbeat the colonists and force their obedience. Pitt led an attack on George Grenville’s Stamp Act (1765), for example, but his failing health prevented him from fully addressing the issue. Exhausted and gaunt, Pitt retired to his estate to rest. Despite his illness he wrote hundreds of letters to various MPs urging or deploring various policies. On 1 April 1778 he attended the House of Lords for a debate on the situation in the colonies with the intention of opposing the duke of Richmond’s motion to give the colonies their independence (which Pitt felt was a mistake). Pitt collapsed during an argument and was carried from the House of Lords to his estate, where he died on 11 May at the age of 68.

Significance. Pitt’s historical importance rests mainly on his early achievements as war minister. His successful prosecution of the Seven Years’ War, made especially difficult by royal attempts to undercut him, gained England the most territory of any modern war England has fought in, and established it as the dominant world power through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


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

Peter D. Brown, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, the Great Commoner (London: Allen & Unwin, 1978).

Kate Hotblack, Chatham’s Colonial Policy: A Study in the Fiscal and Economic Implications of the Colonial Policy of the Elder Pitt (London: Routledge, 1917).

Marie Peters, The Elder Pitt (London & New York: Longman, 1998).

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William Pitt the Elder

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