Born November 15, 1708
Died May 11, 1778
Kent County, England
British prime minister, member of Parliament
William Pitt was a politician of tremendous influence in Great Britain for more than forty years. He opposed the unfair taxation of the American colonies in the critical years leading up to the American Revolution (1775–83), and advised settling the quarrel with them so they would remain part of the British empire. As leader of the British government, Pitt led Britain to victory over France in the French and Indian War (1756–63), gaining Canada and the Mississippi Valley for the British empire. He was known as William Pitt the Elder because his son also served in British government.
William Pitt was born on November 15, 1708, on fashionable Piccadilly Street in London, England, where many rich and high-born people lived. He was the younger son of Robert Pitt, a wealthy country squire, and his wife, Harriet Villiers. His was a political family. His father was a member of Parliament (see box on p. 366), occupying a seat for the county of Cornwall in the House of Commons. His grandfather was Thomas Pitt, who had been governor of Madras, India (at this time, England was making India part of the British empire). Much of the family wealth came through Thomas Pitt's service in India.
William Pitt was educated at Eton, a famous boys' boarding school, and at Trinity College, a part of Oxford University. Pitt did not graduate because he began to suffer from gout, a hereditary (inherited) disease that caused painful swelling of the joints. Upon the advice of his doctor to seek out warmer climates, Pitt traveled to Italy and France. He then studied law at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Because Pitt was a younger son, he would not inherit the family estate in Cornwall. Instead, he needed to select a career to support himself. As a member of the upper class (a gentleman), only three choices were open to him: join the Anglican church as a minister, resume his studies to become a lawyer, or join the army. Upon his return to England, Pitt chose to join the British army. In 1731, at the age of twenty-three, he purchased a cornetcy (a low-level officer's rank) in a regiment known as Cobham's Horse. At this time, British army officers bought their commissions (military ranks) instead of training for them or being promoted because of battlefield bravery.
Pitt, however, was more interested in political life than the army. When his older brother, Thomas, decided not to run for reelection to the family seat in Parliament, William ran and won the election in 1735. Pitt had one of the longest and most famous political careers in British history.
In his early years, Pitt was a member of the House of Commons (only noblemen could sit in the House of Lords). In his first speech, he criticized King George II (1683–1760), a move that caused his dismissal from the army. Next, Pitt attacked the king's weak foreign policy, because he believed the king was too soft in his dealings with France, England's longtime enemy. George II had been born in Germany, spoke only German, and was more interested in his German lands than in England. He left much of the governing of England to Parliament.
The Prince of Wales supported Pitt and his political allies in openly opposing France. (The Prince of Wales is a title given to the king's heir, usually his oldest son). Pitt also earned the king's displeasure by criticizing the British crown's payment of foreign troops. (Remember that this family of British kings descended from a marriage with a prince from a German state called Hanover. It was this German connection that provided the German soldiers who were so hated during the American Revolution).
Pitt soon earned the name "The Great Commoner" for his criticism of the king and the wealthy upper classes. During the course of his long career, Pitt spoke out against financial support for the king's projects in Hanover and against taxation (of both British and American citizens). He spoke out for freedom of the press and for a strong army and navy. The poor and middle-class people of England felt that Pitt was looking after their interests instead of German interests, that he was protecting them from a French invasion, and that he was committed to bettering their lives by spending British tax dollars at home in England. Pitt often appealed to the people, whom he called the "voice of England," and with their support won political victories.
However, possibly because of his political ambitions, Pitt did not always oppose the king. In 1737, he voted to grant the Prince of Wales an annual allowance of 100,000 pounds (a large sum of money). The king showed his pleasure by naming Pitt a "groom of the bed chamber" to the Prince of Wales, an honorary title. Pitt later lost this post after he again displeased the king. This love-hate relationship between the crown and Pitt would last throughout Pitt's career, as would the gout that continued to plague him.
Pitt was reelected to the House of Commons in 1741. He soon showed a real ability for organizing and managing, and was asked to form a cabinet. (This means his political party was in power, and he was to head the government with cabinet ministers of his choice; see box on p. 366.) In 1746, he was named to his first major post, as paymaster general of the armed forces.
Marries into political family
Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville on November 16,1754. She was the only daughter of a famous political family, which included Richard Grenville, later the Earl of Temple, and George Grenville, British prime minister in 1763. Pitt and his Grenville brothers-in-law did not always agree on politics. George Grenville, for instance, favored taxing the American colonies and had little patience for their claims of "no taxation without representation."
Pitt did have a happy marriage with Lady Hester, and their family included three sons and two daughters. Their second son, also named William, gained fame as the politician who successfully led the British government in its war against France under the Emperor Napoleon. One of their daughters was Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, who was known for her travels in the Middle East.
The Pitt family had a home in St. James's Square in a fashionable area of London (for when Parliament was in session) and country estates in Somerset and Kent counties. The Kent home, called Hayes Place, was Pitt's favorite residence and he enjoyed gardening while at home.
Helps defeat the French
In 1756, Pitt was named secretary of state and became leader of the House of Commons. His Grenville brothers-inlaw also received posts. Richard became first lord of the admiralty (he ran the navy) and George was named treasurer of the navy.
By 1757, England was losing a war against France, and Pitt was asked to organize Britain's defense as the secretary of war. In Europe, this war was known as the Seven Years' War (1756–63). Known in America as the French and Indian War, it was a struggle to see whether England or France would dominate the colonial world. Under Pitt's leadership, the French navy was destroyed, the French lost Quebec to General James Wolfe (one of the able young officers Pitt had promoted), and the French were driven from India. By 1761, England had won the war and controlled most of Canada, the Mississippi Valley, and the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea.
This war was typical of the ongoing struggle among the European powers to gain territory. The struggles often spilled over into their colonial possessions in the Americas, India, Africa, the oceans, and the rich islands in the Caribbean Sea, and these territories often changed hands.
Pitt's policy of promoting capable army and navy officers helped England win the war. He also realized the need for a strong army and navy, and found a better system for managing war supplies (food, uniforms, weapons, and so on). Pitt demonstrated strong leadership, a willingness to make decisions, and a talent for war strategy. Like many great men, he also suffered from pride and arrogance (a superior attitude). Because of his coldness, he had few political allies. Despite his genius, this inability to be a team player cost Pitt political victories throughout his career.
Loses royal favor
Pitt was convinced that the future of England, a small, island country, depended upon expanding and protecting her empire overseas. The empire provided England with money, raw materials, and other goods from all over the world. (The American colonies were the richest of Britain's many possessions). Under Pitt's leadership, England was a strong military power that discouraged other European nations from trying to conquer British territory. This policy changed when George III (1738–1820; see entry), the new king, ascended to the throne upon his grandfather's death in 1760. George III, who would rule for sixty years, was determined to show his kingdom (and Pitt) just who was in charge. George III was the first of the Hanoverian kings to be born and educated in England and he was much more interested in English affairs than George I or George II.
With his Tory (or Royalist) political party, George III would tax the American colonies into open rebellion against Great Britain. One of his first acts, however, was to disregard Pitt's advice to declare war on Spain in 1761. Pitt, convinced that Spain would soon attack England, resigned in protest. History then proved Pitt was right, as Spain declared war against England in 1762.
Although ill with gout between 1762 and 1764, Pitt reentered the House of Commons. There he managed to irritate the new king by supporting American complaints against the government. Parliament had passed the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765, both designed to raise money by taxing the American colonists. The colonists reacted with violent protests, and Parliament responded by sending British troops to America to enforce the taxation. The rift between mother country and colonies grew more bitter.
The colonists claimed that the acts amounted to unfair taxation. Pitt agreed. The Americans and Pitt began to make distinctions between types of taxes. They approved of taxes that were put in place to help commerce (that is, taxes on goods imported into the colonies). But they objected to taxes whose only purpose was to raise money for the government. The Stamp Act was one such tax. Its purpose was to raise money to pay for the increase in government needed when Canada moved from French to English rule. Pitt, like the Amer icans, said that colonial assemblies (like the Continental Con gress) should be the only government bodies able to pass tax laws in the colonies. Pitt's views summed up the split that existed in the British Parliament at this time. Some in government supported total control over the colonies, while others favored allowing the colonial governments some decisionmaking power. Pitt, however, never supported the American colonies breaking away from England.
By 1765, Pitt was suffering from the mental illness that would continue to plague him for the remainder of his life. Some historians believe this condition was manic-depression, a type of mental illness in which a person suffers severe and prolonged mood swings.
Raised to the peerage
After the next election in 1766, Pitt was again approached to form a cabinet, which he did. The same year, the king honored Pitt for his service to England by making him the first Earl of Chatham of Kent County and Viscount (pronounced VY-count) Pitt of Somerset County. Since Pitt was now a nobleman, he could not sit in the House of Commons and moved instead into the House of Lords. This move was very unpopular with the English people, who loudly criticized their former hero. This criticism hurt Pitt deeply. By early 1767, Pitt was suffering again from illness and retired from public life until the fall of 1768. While Pitt was ill, the Townshend Acts were passed, placing duties (taxes) on lead, paint, glass, paper, and tea going into the American colonies. These Acts were another major source of discontent in the colonies.
Pitt resigned from the ministry (the cabinet) in 1768, and returned to his seat in Parliament in 1770 and 1771. From 1772 through 1774, Pitt suffered again from illness and rarely took his seat in the House of Lords. In 1774, he did make a speech pleading for the government to "adopt a more gentle mode of governing America." The next year, Pitt introduced a bill to peaceably settle Britain's differences with America. Pitt's bill acknowledged the right of the colonists to tax themselves, allowed for a congress to meet in the American capital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and proposed that the Americans, as good British subjects, help support the king by donating an annual sum of money. The bill was defeated in Parliament. Unfortunately Pitt, one of the few people in Parliament working for a peaceful solution to the American problem, fell ill and was again absent from public life throughout 1776. In mid-1777 he again addressed the House of Lords, pleading with Parliament to end the war.
Attitude toward the American colonies
Pitt was regarded as a hero in the colonies. The Americans appreciated his speaking out against the Stamp Act in 1765. Pitt also opposed the "Intolerable Acts" passed by Parliament to punish the colonies for the Boston Tea Party, in which they destroyed tons of British tea, in 1773. The acts closed the port of Boston, took away self-government in Massachusetts, and forced the citizens of Boston to house the British soldiers stationed there.
Pitt also angered the king and pleased the Americans when he proposed that no taxes be levied without the consent of the American local governments (called assemblies). In 1775, he proposed that British troops be withdrawn from Boston. This further earned American gratitude, even though his motion failed to pass. In 1777, he spoke against the British practice of hiring Native Americans to fight against the colonials.
While Pitt supported the Americans' right to representation and fair taxes, he never believed in granting them their independence from England. He knew that Britain's strength rested on her colonial possessions, which provided much money for England.
On April 7, 1778, Pitt made his last speech in Parliament, rising to oppose the idea of independence for the American colonies. He suffered a seizure and collapsed. When he seemed to be recovering, Pitt was moved to his country home at Hayes Place. He lingered for several weeks, and died on May 11, 1778, at the age of sixty-nine. Pitt is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.
For More Information
Cockburn, J. S. "Pitt the Elder." Encyclopedia of World Biography. David Eggenberger, editor-in-chief. Palatine, IL: McGraw-Hill, 1973, pp. 464-66.
Lowe, William C. "Pitt, William, 1st Earl of Chatham. Known as the Elder Pitt." The American Revolution 1775-1783. An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2: M-Z. Richard L. Blanco, ed. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 1306-09.
Wilcoxen, Charlotte. "British Sympathy for America." Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine. Vol. 110, 1976, pp. 323-25.
Pitt's Speech on the Stamp Act. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug....sa/D/1751-1775/stampact/sapitt.htm (accessed on April 14, 1999).
Zaagsma, Gerben. Sugar Act and Stamp Act. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/E/sugar_stamp/act01.htm (accessed on April 14, 1999).
The British Parliament
Parliament, the name given to the British law-making body, is made up of three parts: the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The Crown refers to the ruling king or queen, who has the right to veto (overturn) votes in the House of Commons. The House of Lords is made up of noblemen (dukes, earls, and so on), who usually hold a seat that has been in their family for generations. The House of Lords had its beginnings in the councils of nobles and high church officials who used to advise the ancient kings of England.
The House of Commons has members who are elected by British subjects in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The House of Commons is the most powerful part of Parliament. It proposes the laws and then passes or rejects them. The prime minister (roughly equal to the U.S. president) is the head of the political party who wins the most votes in the election, and is always chosen from the House of Commons. When the new session of parliament opens following the election, the prime minister is asked to form a cabinet (or ministry). The cabinet is a group of advisers who look after certain areas such as defense, finance, or social conditions.
When a party loses an election, the prime minister and his cabinet must resign. The new officials are then chosen from the winning party and a new session of parliament begins.
When Pitt took office in December 1783 few thought his ministry would survive. He faced an opposition majority in the Commons. But several factors worked in his favour. He had the unflinching confidence of the king; the Fox–North coalition was unpopular; and he was able to win over opinion in the Commons. He called the opposition's bluff over their threat to refuse supplies and he was able to distance himself from the unpopular Shelburne. At the general election of 1784 Pitt won a decisive victory.
During his peacetime administration he achieved much in the fields of fiscal, economical, and commercial reform. He cut customs duties and stimulated trade, set up a sinking fund in the hope of paying off the national debt, and put government loans and contracts out to tender. Having established his mastery in public finance he negotiated a commercial treaty with France and ended Britain's diplomatic isolation by entering into alliance with Prussia and Holland in the aftermath of the Dutch crisis of 1787. But there were frustrations and disappointments. Pitt's proposals for a moderate reform of Parliament were defeated; he was compelled to drop his scheme for free trade with Ireland; plans to improve the defences of Portsmouth and Plymouth had to be abandoned; the abolition of the slave trade had to remain an open question within the government. These set-backs reflected Pitt's acceptance of conventional ideas about the role of the crown and the functioning of the cabinet, and his vulnerability to shifts of opinion among the country gentlemen in the Commons. Pitt did not see himself as a party leader and neglected to build up a party within Parliament. This made him all the more dependent on the support of the king and unable to overcome opposition on controversial questions within the cabinet. His position was threatened in 1788 when the illness of George III presaged a change of government. But Pitt saw off the Foxite challenge. He studied precedent, stood forth as the defender of the rights of the king and the privileges of Parliament, and insisted that Parliament had the right to decide who should be regent and on what terms. When the king recovered in 1789 Pitt seemed invincible. He knew when to yield to political pressure, as over the impeachment of Hastings, and was adept at turning the ideas of others into practicable policies. By 1789 the confidence and prosperity of the country had been restored after the humiliation of the loss of the American colonies.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Pitt was sympathetic to reform in France but was determined to stay out of European complications if possible. As late as February 1792 he affirmed his expectations for fifteen years of peace in Europe. But with the collapse of the French monarchy and the aggressive policies pursued by the French republic his hopes were shattered. He was under pressure from those who feared radical movements in Britain and Ireland, especially when these were seen to be inspired by Jacobinical ideas. The outbreak of war in 1793 was a disaster for Pitt. His hopes for further reform were indefinitely postponed and he became transformed into ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’, a symbol of the nation's resistance to the French republic and empire. The war was long, arduous, and inconclusive. Though loyalism was the dominant feeling in Britain there was much economic distress and rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1798. Pitt had tried to appease Ireland by granting civil rights to Irish catholics and enfranchising the catholic freeholders in the Irish counties. Though the rebellion was crushed, Pitt was convinced that the credibility of the Dublin Parliament was destroyed. He carried an Act of Union with Ireland, hoping to follow it with catholic emancipation. He was thwarted on the catholic question, partly by the opposition of George III, partly by hostility within his own government, and partly by the unpopularity of catholic relief in Britain. He resigned in 1801, giving general support to Addington's ministry from the back benches and approving the peace of Amiens when it was signed in 1802.
During his years out of office he was criticized for failing to build up his party. He had recognized that a more dominant role for the prime minister was a desirable accompaniment of cabinet government, but when Addington left office in 1804, Pitt once again felt the constraints of the contemporary system. Despite their differences Pitt wanted to bring Fox into a coalition as foreign secretary. George III vetoed this appointment. As a result, the Foxites and Grenvillites refused to serve. Pitt's health was now in decline and the strains of office wore him out. He built up a coalition to defeat Napoleon, but hopes of a decisive end to the war were dashed by Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805. On 23 January 1806 Pitt died. He left behind him a band of younger men whose talents he had recognized and fostered and a legend which shaped popular Toryism in the early 19th cent. Yet, to the end of his life, Pitt regarded himself as an independent Whig. With a little ingenuity Victorian conservatives and liberals could claim to stand within the Pittite tradition when it was expedient for them to do so. In this sense Pitt became part of a national mythology.
John W. Derry
Ehrman, J. , The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim (1969);
—— The Younger Pitt: The Reluctant Transition (1983);
—— The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle (1996).