Pitt, William, 1st earl of Chatham

views updated May 29 2018

Pitt, William, 1st earl of Chatham (1708–78), known as Pitt the Elder. In 1735 Pitt launched his belligerent political career by insulting King George II over his son's marriage and was dismissed from the army commission he had held since 1731. Thereafter Pitt quickly established himself as a leading speaker against Walpole's ministry and its policy of support for Hanover.

Walpole's fall did not immediately bring Pitt into the government, but after turning his oratorical fire on Carteret, he was given the post of paymaster-general in 1746. He refused to make money from this lucrative post. The king's enmity ensured, however, that he remained outside the cabinet. Pitt dextrously altered his attitude towards support for Hanover during the War of the Austrian Succession, one of a series of shifts on this and other issues marking his change from opposition to government. Henry Pelham, the prime minister, kept Pitt quiet, but upon Pelham's death in 1754, Pitt entered the great struggle between leading politicians. The new minister, the duke of Newcastle, would not give power to a serious rival in the Commons; consequently Pitt and Henry Fox joined forces to ridicule Newcastle's minions to devastating effect. Fox was the first to break ranks and join Newcastle, but when the Seven Years War began with the loss of Minorca and defeats in America, Pitt came to be seen by many as the country's only hope. With great reluctance George II invited him to form a government with the duke of Devonshire nominally at its head in December 1756. It soon became apparent that no government would have the combination of skill and numerical strength in Parliament necessary to prosecute the war unless Pitt and Newcastle acted together; thus, in July 1757, Newcastle was appointed 1st lord with Pitt as secretary of state for the southern department.

Pitt unquestionably acted as leader of the war effort. He had the backing of independent MPs (notably through his encouragement of the Militia Bill), dominated the cabinet, showing singleness of purpose and an immense capacity for detail. He inspired the military and the country at large and won the confidence of Britain's major ally, Prussia. Once again he found it necessary to alter his position to one of support for large-scale engagements in Europe, but excused this by declaring that ‘America has been conquered in Germany.’ Pitt's goal was colonial expansion, and by 1761 Britain had driven the French from Canada, India, and most of the Caribbean.

Pitt had won George II's respect, though never his affection, by the time of the king's death in 1760, but when George III's reign commenced his position was less secure. The new king, encouraged by his tutor Bute, wanted peace. Pitt disagreed, and after another year of military success, he resigned over the cabinet's refusal to permit attacks upon the Spanish in October 1761, stating, ‘I … will be responsible for nothing that I do not direct.’ War with Spain soon followed. In the Commons, Pitt condemned the peace settlement but Fox's managerial skills ensured that the treaty was overwhelmingly approved.

The 1760s was a decade of political instability due in no small measure to Pitt himself. He refused to ally with any political faction, uniformly support the king, or retire. His strongest feelings were reserved for America and he bitterly attacked his brother-in-law Prime Minister Grenville for passing the Stamp Act. However, he would not agree with the Rockingham faction either, who repealed the Act.

The king persuaded Pitt to form a ministry in July 1766. Pitt (hitherto popularly known as ‘the Great Commoner’) took the title of earl of Chatham and the office of lord privy seal (with the duke of Grafton as 1st lord). Within months he had plunged into a state of virtual insanity. Chatham officially resigned in October 1768, but did not regain his senses until late 1769. The final decade of Chatham's life was divided between illness and dramatic appearances in the Lords to attack North's American policies. He was against American independence, but believed, as late as 1778, that an imperial settlement could be reached. In April 1778 Chatham was escorted to the Lords by his favourite son, William Pitt the Younger, but during debate collapsed and died on 11 May.

The complexity of Pitt's character added to the mystery, fear, and reverence that surrounded him. He was a skilled orator and yet a three-hour speech (not uncommon) left his listeners with memories of just a few sentences. He is said to have required his under-secretaries to stand in his presence, yet could declare, ‘he should be prouder to be an alderman than a peer’. He despised the concept of party and yet arranged posts for his followers. He had a romantic, deferential view of monarchy but demanded personal control of policy. Pitt had few friends, no sense of humour, and found it difficult to treat people as equals, but he was a devoted father and husband. He spared his sons the Etonian thrashings he had suffered, educating them and his daughters at home, rigorously but lovingly. His wife Hester supported him diligently during his lifelong bouts of gout and mental disorder. For a man with so many problems, in office for such brief periods, to be regarded as one of the country's greatest premiers testifies to the scale of his achievements.

Andrew Iain Lewer


Ayling, S. , The Elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1976);
Black, J. , Pitt the Elder (Cambridge, 1992).

Pitt (the Elder), William, 1st Earl of Chatham

views updated May 11 2018

Pitt (the Elder), William, 1st Earl of Chatham (1708–78) British statesman, known as ‘the Great Commoner’. He entered Parliament in 1735. Pitt was noted for his opposition to the foreign policies of prime ministers Walpole and Carteret and King George II. The crisis of the Seven Years' War (1756–63) made him effective head of the government. Widespread criticism of Pitt's dismissal (1757) brought about his reappointment as head of the government in coalition with the Duke of Newcastle. His ministry was a brilliant one, preserving and consolidating Britain's old empire and gaining a new one. Pitt placed his main efforts on successful attempts to conquer Canada and India. In 1761, he resigned after George III refused to declare war on Spain. After the war, he spoke out against the prosecution (1763) of John Wilkes and the imposition of the Stamp Act (1765) on the American colonies. The ministry he nominally headed from 1766 to 1768 was a confused and divided one. Created Earl Chatham in 1766, he retired to the House of Lords in 1768. There he spoke out against repression of the American colonies and in favour of any peace settlement that stopped short of granting independence.

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