1st Earl of Chatham
1708 - 1778
William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, one of England's greatest and most famous statesmen, whose combined vision and practical ability led to a remarkable increase in English possessions and influence, was born at Golden Square, Westminister, on November 15, 1708. His father was Robert, son of the famous Governor Thomas "Diamond" Pitt of Madras; his mother, Harriet Villiers, daughter of Viscountess Grandison. He was the fourth child of a family of seven, most of whom showed signs of mental instability. He was educated in the classics at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford. At Eton he made friends with many who later became his political associates, and especially with George Lyttleton, Henry Fielding, Charles Pratt and Charles Hanbury Williams. He left Oxford after only one year, partly because of the persistent gout from which he already suffered, and spent several months studying law at the University of Utrecht.
In 1735 he entered the house of commons as member for Old Sarum, one of his brother's pocket boroughs, which later became the most notorious example of all rotten boroughs. He belonged inevitably to the group of "Cobham's cubs," the connection of family friends and place hunters whom Cobham was mobilizing to oppose the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole. Calling themselves "patriots," they joined with discontented Whigs like Lord Carteret and William Pulteney and Hanoverian Tories like Sir William Wyndham to rally the opposition forces behind the prince of Wales, Frederick Louis. Pitt had entered parliament at a crucial stage of party development. His maiden speech provoked reprisals from Walpole, who deprived him of his military commission in an effort to "muzzle this terrible cornet of horse."
In 1737 the Prince of Wales made him a groom of the bedchamber with a salary of £400 a year. Despite his status as a relatively poor dependent of a powerful Whig clan and as a pensioner of the Prince of Wales, Pitt already showed that independence of mind and appeal to popular support which were to gain him unique personal prestige in English political life. His talents as an orator had become clear. His exploitation of the position of patriotic martyr, by driving around the southern counties after his dismissal by Walpole, showed a readiness to appeal to public opinion outside parliament, as well as his lively sense of the histrionic.
When Walpole at last fell from power in 1742, he was replaced by a ministry which included his old colleagues the Duke of Newcastle and Lord Hardwicke, with Carteret as secretary of state. The "boy patriots," of whom Pitt was by now the acknowledge parliamentary leader were still excluded from power. They were left with no option but to oppose Carteret even more vehemently than they had Walpole.
From 1741 to 1748 Great Britain was engaged in the complex diplomacy and strategy of the War of the Austrian Succession. When Carteret was forced to resign in 1744, Newcastle and his brother Henry Pelham took office. They wanted to include Pitt, but George II refused to accept him. Then, in February 1746 the king agreed to appoint Pitt joint vice-treasurer of Ireland at £3,000 a year, and two months later be became paymaster general of the forces.
The outbreak of the Seven Years' War gave Pitt his supreme opportunity for statesmanship. It began with heavy losses and considerable confusion of policy. The popular demand for Pitt became irresistible, and he declared, "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can." In November 1756 he formed a ministry which excluded Newcastle, with the duke of Devonshire as its nominal head. In June 1757 Newcastle returned to office on the understanding that he should control all the patronage and leave Pitt to conduct the war. It proved to be an admirable division of labor.
Pitt determined that it should be in every sense a national war and a war at sea. He got rid of the German mercenaries who had been sent over to resist invasion and revived the militia, which he made into a serviceable defense force. He re-equipped and reorganized the navy. He sought to unite all parties and public opinion behind a coherent and intelligible war policy. He seized upon America and India as the main objects of British strategy. He sent his main expeditions to America, to ensure the conquest of Canada, and supported the East India company and its "heaven-born general," Robert Clive, in their struggle against the French East India company. He also subsidized and reinforced the armies of Frederick II the Great of Prussia, so as to engage the main French armies on the continent, while he used naval power to harass the French on their own coasts, in the West Indies and in Africa. He chose good generals and admirals -- James Wolfe, Jeffery Amherst, Edward Boscawen, Edward Hawke, Charles Saunders, George Pocock and Charles Watson -- and he inspired them with a new spirit of dash and enterprise. Against so resolute and concerted a policy the Bourbon powers even in alliance could not prevail. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763 Great Britain remained supreme in North America and India, held Minorca as a Mediterranean base and gained territory in Africa and the West Indies. Pitt had given Britain a new empire as well as preserving and consolidating the old.
But before the war ended Pitt had been forced to resign. In 1760 George III came to the throne resolved, as was his chief adviser, the Earl of Bute, to end the war as speedily as possible. When Pitt failed to persuade his colleagues to forestall Spain's entry into hostilities by an immediate declaration of war he resigned, in October 1761.
When Bute resigned in April 1763, he was succeeded by George Grenville. Pitt's attacks on his administration completed the breach between the two brothers-in-law. He condemned an action taken by the ministry against John Wilkes and he opposed Grenville's Stamp Act. He took no active part in politics between 1764 and 1766, and was now becoming subject to the recurrent fits of manic-depressive insanity which were to cloud the rest of his life. In 1765 he was left, by Sir William Pynsent, the estate of Burton Pynsent in Somerset, worth more than £3,000 a year. In January 1766 he re-entered the stage with a passionate appeal for imperial liberty. Of the American colonists, who had resisted the Stamp Act, he proclaimed, "as subjects they are entitled to the common right of representation, and cannot be bound to pay taxes without their consent." He supported and defended the colonies' resistance and demanded the complete repeal of the Stamp Act. This was done, but it was replaced by a Declaratory Act maintaining Britain's right of taxation. Grenville's successors, the Rockinghams, found their positions untenable, and in July 1766 the king asked Pit to form a ministry drawn from all sections of the house.
Pitt organized the ministry and it could have worked very well if only Pitt himself had remained in active control over it. But he accepted an earldom and took the almost sinecure post of lord privy seal. The "great commoner" retired to the lords and fell ill for another two years.
His last years were clouded by illness, and only on rare occasions did he emerge from seclusion to appeal for a more generous and understanding treatment of America. Yet he broke with the Whig groups when they were prepared to recognize the independence of the 13 colonies and when the Americans had allied with Britain's traditional enemy, France. His last speech in the lords was a protest against any diminution of an empire based on freedom. In 1775 he hurriedly introduced a bill designed to suspend repressive measures in Boston, maintain the legislative authority of parliament over the colonies and yet use the continental congress established in Philadelphia as a body for assessing the monetary contributions of each colony. The bill was summarily rejected, but it is the best indication of how Pitt would have handled the American problem.
After 1771 it was his practice to emerge only occasionally, as the elder statesman, to promote or attack individual measures, but not to attempt, as in 1770, to overthrow the ministry as a whole. He spent most of these years enjoying the life of a country gentleman or in gloomy seclusion as an invalid. He died at Hayes, Middlesex, on May 11, 1778, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
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