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William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham PC (15 November 1708 – 11 May 1778) was a Britishmarker Whig statesman who achieved his greatest fame leading Britain during the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America). He again led the country (holding the official title of Lord Privy Seal) between 1766-68.

He is often known as William Pitt, the Elder to distinguish him from his son, William Pitt, the Younger. He was also known as The Great Commoner, because of his long-standing refusal to accept a title. The major Americanmarker city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, is named after him, as is Pittsylvania County, Virginiamarker, and Chatham County, North Carolinamarker; and the communities of Pittston, Pennsylvaniamarker, Chatham, New Jerseymarker, Pittsburgmarker, Pittsfield, New Hampshiremarker Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Chatham, New Hampshiremarker, and Chatham Township in Quebec ; as well as Chatham Universitymarker in Pennsylvaniamarker. Pitt Town, New South Walesmarker, Australia was named after Pitt by Governor Macquarie in 1810.

Early life

Pitt was born at Westminstermarker, the grandson of Thomas Pitt, the governor of Madrasmarker known as "Diamond" Pitt because he had sold a diamond of extraordinary size to the Regent Orléans for around £135,000. It was mainly by this fortunate transaction that the governor was enabled to raise his family, which was one of old standing, to a position of wealth and political influence. The latter he acquired by purchasing the burgage tenures of the rotten borough of Old Sarummarker. William's father was Robert Pitt, also an MP, and his mother was Hon. Harriet Villiers, sister of 5th Viscount Grandison.

William Pitt was educated at Eton Collegemarker, and, in January 1727, was entered as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxfordmarker. There is evidence that he was an extensively read, if not a minutely accurate classical scholar; and it is noteworthy that Demosthenes was his favourite author, and that he diligently cultivated the faculty of expression by the practice of translation and re-translation. In these years he became a close friend of George Lyttelton, who would later become a leading politician.

A violent attack of gout, from which he had suffered even during his time at school, compelled him to leave Oxford University without finishing his degree, in order to travel abroad. He spent some time in Francemarker and Italymarker on the Grand Tour and from 1728 to 1730 he attended Utrecht University. He had recovered from the attack of Gout, however the disease proved intractable, and he continued to be subject to attacks of growing intensity at frequent intervals until the close of his life.

Military career

In 1727, Pitt's father had died, and, on his return home three years later, it was necessary for him, as the younger son, to choose a profession. He had at one point been considered likely to join the Church but instead opted for a military career. Having chosen the army, he obtained, through the interest of his friends, a cornet's commission in the dragoons. George II never forgot the jibes of 'the terrible cornet of horse'. It was reported that the £1,000 cost of the commission had been supplied by the Prime Minister out of Treasury funds in an attempt to secure the support of Pitt's brother Thomas in Parliament. Alternatively the fee may have been waived by the commanding officer of the regiment, Lord Cobham, who was related to the Pitt brothers by marriage.

Pitt was to grow close to Cobham, who he regarded as something close to a surrogate father. He was stationed for much of his service in Northamptonmarker, in peace time duties. Pitt was particularly frustrated that, due to the isolationist policies of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, Britain had not entered the War of the Polish Succession and he had not been given a chance to test himself in battle.

Pitt's military career was destined to be relatively short. His elder brother Thomas having been returned at the general election of 1734 both for Okehamptonmarker and for Old Sarummarker, and having chosen to sit for the former, the family borough fell to the younger brother. Accordingly, in February 1735, William Pitt entered parliament as member for the rotten borough of Old Sarummarker. He became one of a large number of serving army officers in the House of Commons.

Patriot Whigs

Pitt soon joined faction of discontented Whigs, known as the Patriots, whose disagreements with Walpole had forced them into opposition under Pulteney. Pitt swiftly became one of the factions most prominent members. The group commonly met at Stowemarker, the country estate of Lord Cobham.

Pitt's maiden speech was delivered in April 1736, in the debate on the congratulatory address to George II on the marriage of his son Frederick, Prince of Wales. He used the occasion to pay compliments, and there was nothing striking in the speech as reported but it helped to gain him the attention of the house when he took part on debates on more controversial subjects. He attacked in particular, Britain's non-intervention in the ongoing European war, which was in violation of the Treaty of Vienna and the terms of the Anglo-Austrian Alliance.

He became such a troublesome critic of the government that Walpole moved to punish him by arranging his dismissal from the army in 1736, along with several of his friends and political allies. This provoked a wave of hostility to Walpole because many saw such an act as unconstitutional — that members of Parliament were being dismissed for their freedom of speech in attacking the government, something protected by Parliamentary privilege. None of the men had their commissions reinstated, however, and the incident brought an end to Pitt's military career.

Rise to prominence

Politics in the Commons

The loss of his commission was soon compensated to him. The heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales was involved in a long-running dispute with his father, George II, and was the patron of the opposition. He appointed Pitt a Groom of the Bedchamber.

His hostility to the government did not stop. He had all the natural gifts an orator could desire—a commanding presence, a graceful though somewhat theatrical bearing, an eye of piercing brightness, and a voice of the utmost flexibility. His style, if occasionally somewhat turgid, was elevated and passionate, and it always bore the impress of that intensity of conviction which is the most powerful instrument a speaker can have to sway the convictions of an audience.

Spanish War

During the 1730s Britain's relationship with Spain had slowly declined. Repeated cases of reported Spanish mistreatment of British merchants caused outrage, particularly the incident of Jenkins' Ear. Pitt was a leading advocate of a more hard-line policy against Spain, and often castigated Walpole's government for its weakness in dealing with Madrid. Pitt spoke out against the Convention of El Pardo which aimed to settle the dispute peacefully. In the speech against the Convention in the House of Commons on 8 March 1739 Pitt said:

When trade is at stake, it is your last entrenchment; you must defend it, or perish...Sir, Spain knows the consequence of a war in America; whoever gains, it must prove fatal to this any longer a nation?
Is this any longer an English Parliament, if with more ships in your harbours than in all the navies of Europe; with above two millions of people in your American colonies, you will bear to hear of the expediency of receiving from Spain an insecure, unsatisfactory, dishonourable Convention?

Owing to public pressure, the British government was pushed towards declaring war with Spain in 1739. Britain began with a success at Porto Bello. However the war effort soon stalled, and Pitt alleged that the government was not prosecuting the war effectively - demonstrated by the fact that the British waited two years before taking further offensive action (fearing further British victories would provoke the French into declaring war.). When they did so, a failed attack was made on the South American port of Cartagenamarker which saw thousands of British troops killed, almost all of them from disease. The decision to attack during the rainy season was held as further evidence of the government's incompetence.

After this, the war against Spain was almost entirely abandoned as British resources were switched towards fighting France. The war with Spain was essentially a draw, and many of the underlying issues remained unresolved by the later peace treaties leaving the potential for future conflicts. Pitt considered the war a missed opportunity to take advantage of declining Spanish power, although he later came to be an advocate of wamer relations with Spain.


Walpole and Newcastle were now giving the war in Europe which had recently broken out a much higher priority than the colonial conflict with Spain in the Americas. Prussia and Austriamarker were at war from 1740, with many other European states soon joining in. There was a fear that France would launch an invasion of Hanover, which was linked to Britain through the crown of George II. To avert this Walpole and Newcastle decided to pay a large subsidy to both Austria and to Hanover, in order for them to raise troops and defend themselves.

Pitt now launched an attack on such subsidies, playing to widespread anti-Hanoverian feelings in Britain. This boosted his popularity with the public, but earned him the lifelong hatred of the King, who was emotionally committed to Hanover, where he had spent the first thirty years of his life. In response to Pitt's attacks, the British government decided not pay a direct subsidy to Hanover, but instead to pass the money indirectly through Austria - which was considered more politically acceptable. A sizeable German army was formed which George II himself led to victory at the Battle of Dettington in 1743, reducing the immediate threat to Hanover.

The best-known specimen of Pitt's eloquence, his reply to the sneers of Horatio Walpole at his youth and declamatory manner, which has found a place in so many handbooks of elocution, is evidently, in form at least, the work, not of Pitt, but of Dr Johnson, who furnished the report to the Gentleman's Magazine. Probably Pitt did say something of the kind attributed to him, though even this is by no means certain in view of Johnson's repentant admission that he had often invented not merely the form, but the substance of entire debates.

Fall of Walpole

Much of Pitt's attacks on the government were directed personally at Sir Robert Walpole who had now been Prime Minister for twenty years. He spoke in favour of the motion in 1742 for an investigation into the last ten years of Walpole's administration. In 1742, following poor election results and the disaster at Cartagena, Walpole was at last forced to succumb to the long-continued attacks of opposition and resigned and took a peerage.

Pitt now expected a new government to be formed led by Pulteney and dominated by Tories and Patriot Whigs in which he could expect a junior position. Walpole was instead succeeded as Prime Minister by Lord Wilmington, though the real power in the new government was divided between Lord Carteret and the Pelham brothers (Henry and Thomas, Duke of Newcastle). Walpole had carefully orchestrated this new government as a continuance of his own, and continued to advise it up to his death. Pitt's hopes for a place in the government were thwarted, and he continued in opposition. He was therefore unable to make any personal gain from the downfall of Walpole, to which he had so largely contributed.

The administration formed by the Pelhams in 1744, after the dismissal of Carteret, included many of Pitt's former Patriot allies, but Pitt was not granted a position because of continued ill-feeling about his views on Hanover. Before the obstacle to his admission was overcome, he had received a remarkable accession to his private fortune. When the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough died in 1744 she left him a legacy of £10,000 as an "acknowledgment of the noble defence he had made for the support of the laws of England and to prevent the ruin of his country". It was probably as much a mark of her detestation of Walpole as of her admiration of Pitt.

Pitt the Elder

About twenty years after the Marlborough legacy, Sir William Pynsent, a Somersetmarker baronet to whom he was personally quite unknown, left him his entire estate, worth about three thousand a year, in testimony of approval of his political career.

Paymaster of the Forces

It was with deep reluctance that the King finally agreed to give Pitt a place in the government. Pitt had changed his stance on a number of issues to make himself more acceptable to George, most notably the heated issue of Hanoverian subsidies. To force the matter, the Pelham brothers had to resign on the question whether he should be admitted or not, and it was only after all other arrangements had proved impracticable, that they were reinstated with Pitt appointed as Vice Treasurer of Ireland in February 1746. George continued to resent him however.

In May of the same year Pitt was promoted to the more important and lucrative office of paymaster-general, which gave him a place in the privy council, though not in the cabinet. Here he had an opportunity of displaying his public spirit and integrity in a way that deeply impressed both the king and the country. It had been the usual practise of previous paymasters to appropriate to themselves the interest of all money lying in their hands by way of advance, and also to accept a commission of 1/2% on all foreign subsidies. Although there was no strong public sentiment against the practice, Pitt completely refused to profit by it. All advances were lodged by him in the Bank of Englandmarker until required, and all subsidies were paid over without deduction, even though it was pressed upon him, so that he did not draw a shilling from his office beyond the salary legally attaching to it. Pitt ostentatiously made this clear to everyone, although he was in fact following what Henry Pelham had done when he had held the post between 1730 and 1743. This helped to etablish Pitt's reputation with the British people for honesty and placing the interests of the nation before his own.

The administration formed in 1746 lasted without major changes until 1754. It would appear from his published correspondence that Pitt had a greater influence in shaping its policy than his comparatively subordinate position would in itself have entitled him to. His support for measures, such as the Spanish Treaty and the continental subsidies, which he had violently denounced when in opposition was criticised by his enemies as an example of his political opportunism.

Pitt in office, looking back on the commencement of his public life, might have used the plea "A good deal has happened since then", at least as justly as some others have done. Allowance must always be made for the restraints and responsibilities of office. In Pitt's case, too, it is to be borne in mind that the opposition with which he had acted gradually dwindled away, and that it ceased to have any organized existence after the death of the prince of Wales in 1751. Then in regard to the important question with Spain as to the right of search, Pitt has disarmed criticism by acknowledging that the course he followed during Walpole's administration was indefensible.

All due weight being given to these various considerations, it must be admitted, nevertheless, that Pitt did overstep the limits within which inconsistency is usually regarded as venial. His one great object was first to gain office, and then to make his tenure of office secure by conciliating the favour of the king. The entire revolution which much of his policy underwent in order to effect this object bears too close a resemblance to the sudden and inexplicable changes of front habitual to placemen of the Tadpole stamp to be altogether pleasant to contemplate in a politician of pure aims and lofty ambition. Humiliating is not too strong a term to apply to a letter in which he expresses his desire to "efface the past by every action of his life", in order that he may stand well with the king.

Between 1746 and 1748 Pitt worked closely with Newcastle in forumlating British military and diplomatic strategy. He shared with Newcastle a belief that Britain should continue to fight until it could receive generous peace terms - in contrast to some such as Henry Pelham who favoured an immediate peace. Pitt was personally saddened when his friend and brother-in-law Thomas Grenville was killed at the naval Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747. However, this victory helped secure British supremacy of the sea which gave the British a stronger negotiating position when it came to the peace talks that ended the war. At the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 British colonial conquests were exchanged for a French withdrawal from Brusselsmarker. Many saw this as merely an armistice and awaited an imminent new war.

Dispute with Newcastle

In 1754, Henry Pelham died suddenly, and was succeeded as Prime Minister by his brother, the Duke of Newcastle. As Newcastle sat in the House of Lordsmarker, he required a leading politician to represent the government in the House of Commons. Pitt and Henry Fox were considered the two favourites for the position, but Newcastle instead rejected them both and turned to the less well-known figure of Sir Thomas Robinson, a career diplomat, to fill the post. It was widely believed that Newcastle had done this because he feared the ambitions of both Pitt and Fox, and belived he would find it easier to dominate the inexperienced Robinson.

Despite his disappointment there was no immediate open breach. Pitt continued at his post; and at the general election which took place during the year he even accepted a nomination for the Duke's pocket borough of Aldboroughmarker. He had sat for Seafordmarker since 1747. The government won a landslide, further strengthening its majority.

When parliament met, however, he made no secret of his feelings. Ignoring Sir Thomas Robinson, Pitt made frequent and vehement attacks on Newcastle himself, though still continued to serve as Paymaster under him. From 1754 Britain was increasingly drawn into conflict with France during this period, despite Newcastle's wish to maintain the peace. The country's clashed in North America, where each had laid claim to the Ohio Country. A British expedition under General Braddock had been defeated in summer 1755 which caused a ratcheting up of tensions.

Eager to prevent the war spreading to Europe, Newcastle now tried to conclude a series of treaties that would secure Britain allies through the payment of subsidies - which he hoped, would discourage France from attacking Britain. Similar subsidies had been an issue of past disagreement, and they were widely attacked by Patriot Whigs and Tories. As the government came under increasing attack, Newcastle replaced Robinson with Fox who it was acknowledged carried more political weight and again slighted Pitt.

Finally in November 1755, Pitt was dismissed from office as paymaster, having spoken during a debate at great length against the new system of continental subsidies proposed by the government of which he was still a member. Fox retained his own place, and though the two men continued to be of the same party, and afterwards served again in the same government, there was henceforward a rivalry between them, which makes the celebrated opposition of their illustrious sons seem like an inherited quarrel.

Pitt's relationship with the Duke slumped further in early 1756 when he alleged that Newcastle was deliberately leaving the island of Minorcamarker ill-defended so that the French would seize it, and Newcastle could use its loss to prove that Britain was not able to fight a war against France and sue for peace. When in June 1756 Minorca fell after a failed attempt by Admiral Byng to relieve it, Pitt's allegations fuelled the public anger against Newcastle - leading him to be attacked by a mob in Greenwichmarker. The loss of Minorca shattered public faith in Newcastle, and forced him to step down as Prime Minister in November 1756.

Southern Secretary

In December 1756, Pitt, who now sat for Okehamptonmarker, became Secretary of State for the Southern Department, and Leader of the House of Commons under the premiership of the Duke of Devonshire. Upon entering this coalition, Pitt said to Devonshire: "My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can".

He had made it a condition of his joining any administration that Newcastle should be excluded from it which proved fatal to the lengthened existence of his government. With the king unfriendly, and Newcastle, whose influence was still dominant in the Commons, estranged, it was impossible to carry on a government by the aid of public opinion alone, however emphatically that might have declared itself on his side. The historian Basil Williams has claimed that this is the first time in British history when a "man was called to supreme power by the voice of the people" rather than by the king's appointment or as the choice of Parliament.

Pitt drew up his plans for the campaigning season of 1757 in which he hoped to reverse Britain's string of defeats during the wars opening years.

In April 1757 Pitt was dismissed from office on account of his opposition to the continental policy and the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of Admiral Byng. But the power that was insufficient to keep him in office was strong enough to make any arrangement that excluded him impracticable. The public voice spoke in a way that was not to be mistaken. Probably no English minister ever received in so short a time so many proofs of the confidence and admiration of the public, the capital and all the chief towns voting him addresses and the freedom of their corporations (e.g., London presented him with the first ever honorary Freedom of the Citymarker awarded in history). Horace Walpole recorded the freedoms of various cities awarded to Pitt:

...for some weeks it rained gold boxes: Chester, Worcester, Norwich, Bedford, Salisbury, Yarmouth, Tewkesbury, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Stirling, and other populous and chief towns following the example.
Exeter, with singular affection, sent boxes of oak.

After some weeks' negotiation, in the course of which the firmness and moderation of "The Great Commoner", as he had come to be called, contrasted favourably with the characteristic tortuosities of the crafty peer, matters were settled on such a basis that, while Newcastle was the nominal, Pitt was the virtual head of the government. On his acceptance of office, he was chosen member for Bathmarker.

Newcastle and Pitt ministry

A coalition with Newcastle was formed in June 1757, and held power until October 1761. It brought together several various factions and was built around the partnership between Pitt and Newcastle which a few months earlier had seemed impossible. The two men used Lord Chesterfield as an intermediary and had managed to agree a division of powers that was acceptable to both. For the past few months Britain had been virtually leaderless, although Devonshire had remained formally Prime Minister, but now Pitt and Newcastle were ready to offer stronger direction to the country's strategy.

Early challenges

By summer 1757 the British war effort over the previous three years had broadly been a failure. Britain's attempts to take the offensive in North America had ended in disaster, Minorca had been lost, and the Duke of Cumberland's Army of Observation was retreating across Hanovermarker following the Battle of Hastenback. In October Cumberland was forced to conclude the Convention of Klosterzeven which would take Hanover out of the war.

Although it was late in the campaigning season when he had come to power, Pitt set about trying to initiate a more assertive strategy. He conspired with a number of figures to persuade the Hanoverians to revoke the Convention and re-enter the war on Britain's side, which they did in late 1757. He also put into practice a scheme of Naval Descents which would see amphibious landings on the French coast. The first of these, the Raid on Rochefort took place in September, but was not a success. The centrepiece of the campaign in North America, an expedition to capture Louisbourg had to be cancelled due to inclement weather.


In 1758 Pitt began to put into practice his plan to win the Seven Years War, which would involve tieing down large numbers of French troops and resources in Germany, while Britain used its naval supremacy to launch expeditions to capture French forces around the globe. He ordered the despatch of the first British troops to the European continent under the Duke of Marlborough, who joined Brunswick's army.

Pitt had been lobbied by an American merchant Thomas Cumming to launch an expedition against the French trading settlements in West Africa. In April 1758 British forces captured the ill-defended fort of Saint-Louismarker in Senegal. The mission was so lucrative that Pitt sent out further expeditions to capture Goree and Gambiamarker later in the year. He also drew up plans to attack French islands in the Caribbeanmarker the following year at the suggestion of a Jamaicanmarker sugar planter William Beckford.

In North America, a second British attempt to capture Louisbourgmarker succeeded. However, Pitt's pleasure over this was tempered by the subsequent news of a significant British defeat at Battle of Carillonmarker. Towards the end of the year the Forbes Expedition seized the site of Fort Duquesnemarker and began constructing a British settlement that would become known as Pittsburghmarker. This gave the British control of the Ohio Country, which had been the principal cause of the war.

In Europe, Brunswick's forces enjoyed a mixed year. Brunswick had crossed the Rhinemarker, but faced with being cut off he had retreated and blocked any potential French move towards Hanover with his victory at the Battle of Krefeldmarker. The year ended with something approaching a stalemate in Germany. Pitt had continued his naval descents during 1758, but the first had enjoyed only limited success and the second ended with near disaster at the Battle of St Cast and no further Descents were planned. Instead the troops and ships would be used as part of the coming expedition to the French West Indies. The scheme of amphibious raids was the only one of Pitt's policies during the war that was broadly a failure, although it did help briefly relieve pressure on the German front by trying down French troops on coastal protection service.

Annus Mirabilis

In France a new leader, the Duc de Choiseul, had recently come to power and 1759 offered a duel between their rival strategies. Pitt indended to continue with his plan of tieing down French forces in Germany while continuing the assault on France's colonies. Choiseul hoped to repel the attacks in the colonies while seeking total victory in Europe.

Pitt's war around the world was largely successful. While a British invasion of Martinique failed, they captured Guadeloupe shortly afterwards. In India, a French attempt to capture Madras was repulsed. In North America, British troops closed in on France's Canadian heartland. A British force under James Wolfe moved up the Saint Lawrencemarker with the aim of capturing Quebecmarker. After initially failing to penetratemarker the French defences at the Montmorency Falls, Wolfe later led his men to a victorymarker to the west of the city allowing the British forces to capture Quebec.

Choiseul had pinned much of his hopes on a French invasion of Britain, which he hoped would knock Britain out of the war and make it surrender the colonies it had taken from France. Pitt had stripped the British Islesmarker of troops to send on his expeditions , leaving an opportunity for the French if they could land in enough force. The French invested huge amounts of money and resources in building an invasion fleet. However the French naval defeats at Lagos and Quiberon Baymarker forced Choiseul to abandon the invasion plans. France's other great hope, that their armies could make a breakthrough in Germany and invade Hanover, was thwarted at the Battle of Mindenmarker. Britain ended the year victorious in every theatre of operations in which they were engaged, with Pitt receiving the credit for this.


Britain completed the conquest of Canada in 1760 by capturing Montrealmarker which effectively brought the war to an end on mainland North America.

Pitt's power had now reached its peak, but was soon under threat. The domestic political situation was altered dramatically when George II died in October 1760. He was succeeded by his grandson, George III, who had once considered Pitt an ally but had become angered by Pitt's alliance with Newcastle and acceptance of the need for British intervention in Germany – which George was strongly opposed to. The new king lobbied for his favourite Lord Bute to be given the post of Northern Secretary. Bute was inclined to support a withdrawal from Germany, and to fight the war with France largely at sea and in the colonies.

Pitt's plan for an expedition to capture Belle Îlemarker was put into force in April 1761 and it was captured after a siege. This provided yet a further blow to French prestige, as it was the first part of Metropolitan France to be occupied. Pitt now expected France to offer terms, although he was prepared for a longer war if necessary. Envoys were exchanged, but neither side could reach an agreement. Pitt's refusal to grant the French a share in Newfoundlandmarker proved the biggest obstacle to peace, as Pitt declared he would rather lose the use of his right arm than give the French a share there and later said he would rather give up the Tower of Londonmarker than Newfoundland. Newfoundland was at the time seen as possessing huge economic and strategic value because of the extensive fishing industry there.

The war in Germany continued through 1761 with the French again attempting to overcome Brunswick and invade Hanover, but suffering a defeat at the Battle of Villinghausenmarker. Pitt had substantially increased the number of British troops serving with Brunswick, and he also planned further conquests in the West Indies.


The London Magazine of 1766 offered 'Pitt, Pompadour, Prussia, Providence' as the reasons for Britain's success in the Seven Years' War. Posterity, indeed, has been able to recognize more fully the independent genius of those who carried out his purposes. The heroism of James Wolfe would have been irrepressible, Clive would have proved himself "a heaven-born general", and Frederick the Great would have written his name in history as one of the most skilful strategists the world has known, whoever had held the seals of office in England.

But Pitt's relation to all three was such as to entitle him to a large share in the credit of their deeds. He inspired trust in his chosen commanders by his indifference to rules of seniority — several of 'Pitt's boys', like Keppel, captor of Goréemarker, were in their thirties — and by his clear orders. It was his discernment that selected Wolfe to lead the attack on Quebecmarker, and gave him the opportunity of dying a victor on the heights of Abrahammarker. He had personally less to do with the successes in India than with the other great enterprises that shed an undying lustre on his administration; but his generous praise in parliament stimulated the genius of Clive, and the forces that acted at the close of the struggle were animated by his indomitable spirit.

Pitt's particular genius was to finance an army on the continent to drain French men and resources so that Britain might concentrate on what he held to be the vital spheres: Canadamarker and the West Indiesmarker; whilst Clive successfully defeated Siraj Ud Daulah, (the last independent Nawab of Bengal) at Plassey (1757), securing Indiamarker. The Continental campaign was carried on by Cumberland, defeated at Hastenbeck and forced to surrender at Convention of Klosterzeven (1757) and thereafter by Ferdinand of Brunswick, later victor at Mindenmarker; Britain's Continental campaign had two major strands firstly subsidising allies, particularly Frederick the Great and second financing an army to divert French resources from the colonial war and to also defend Hanovermarker (which was the territory of the Kings of England at this time)

Pitt, the first real Imperialist in modern English history, was the directing mind in the expansion of his country, and with him the beginning of empire is rightly associated. The Seven Years' War might well, moreover, have been another Thirty Years' War if Pitt had not furnished Frederick with an annual subsidy of £700,000, and in addition relieved him of the task of defending western Germanymarker against France: this was the policy that allowed Pitt to boast of having 'won Canada on the banks of the Rhine'.

Contemporary opinion was, of course, incompetent to estimate the permanent results gained for the country by the brilliant foreign policy of Pitt. It has long been generally agreed that by several of his most costly expeditions nothing was really won but glory: the policy of diversionary attacks on places like Rochefortmarker was memorably described as 'breaking windows with gold guineas'. It has even been said that the only permanent acquisition that England owed directly to him was her Canadian dominion; and, strictly speaking, this is true, it being admitted that the campaign by which the Indian empire was virtually won was not planned by him, though brought to a successful issue during his ministry.

But material aggrandisement, though the only tangible, is not the only real or lasting effect of a war policy. More may be gained by crushing a formidable rival than by conquering a province. The loss of her Canadian possessions was only one of a series of disasters suffered by France, which included the victories at sea of Boscawen at Lagos and Hawke at Quiberon Baymarker. Such defeats radically affected the future of Europe and the world. Deprived of her most valuable colonies both in the East and in the West, and thoroughly defeated on the continent, France's humiliation was the beginning of a new epoch in history.

The victorious policy of Pitt destroyed the military prestige which repeated experience has shown to be in France as in no other country the very life of monarchy, and thus was not the least of the influences that slowly brought about the French Revolution. It effectually deprived France of the lead in the councils of Europe which she had hitherto arrogated to herself, and so affected the whole course of continental politics. It is such far-reaching results as these, and not the mere acquisition of a single colony, however valuable, that constitute Pitt's claim to be considered as the most powerful minister that ever guided the foreign policy of England.


The first and most important of a series of changes which ultimately led to the fall of Pitt was the death of George II on 25 October 1760, and the accession of his grandson, George III. The new king was inclined to view politics in personal terms and taught to believe that 'Pitt had the blackest of hearts'. The new king had counsellors of his own, led by Lord Bute. Bute soon joined the cabinet as a Northern Secretary and Pitt and he were quickly in dispute over a number of issues.

In 1761 Pitt had received information from his agents about a secret Bourbon Family Compact by which the Bourbons of France and Spain bound themselves in an offensive alliance against Britain. Spain was concerned that Britain's victories over France had left them too powerful, and were a threat in the long term to Spain's own empire. Equally they may have believed that the British had become overstretched by fighting a global war and decided to try and seize British possessions such as Jamaicamarker. A secret convention pledged that if Britain and France were still at war by 1 May 1762, Spain would enter the war on the French side.

Pitt urged that such a clear threat should be met by a pre-emptive strike against Spain's navy and her colonies - with emphasis on speed to prevent Spain bringing the annual Manila galleon safely to harbour. Bute and Newcastle refused to support such a move, as did the entire cabinet except Temple, believing it would make Britain look the aggressor against Spain potentially provoking other neutral nations to declare war on Britain. Pitt believed had no choice but to leave a cabinet in which his advice on a vital question had been rejected and presented his resignation. Many of his cabinet colleagues secretly welcomed his departure as they believed his dominance and popularity were a threat to the Constitution.

On his resignation, which took place in October 1761, the King urged him to accept some signal mark of royal favour in the form most agreeable to himself. Accordingly he obtained a pension of £3000 a year and his wife, Lady Hester Grenville was created Baroness Chatham in her own right - although Pitt refused to accept a title himself. Pitt's domestic life was happy.

Pitt's spirit was too lofty to admit of his entering on any merely factious opposition to the government he had quit. On the contrary, his conduct after his retirement was distinguished by a moderation and disinterestedness which, as Burke has remarked, "set a seal upon his character." The war with Spain, in which he had urged the cabinet to take the initiative, proved inevitable; but he scorned to use the occasion for "altercation and recrimination", and spoke in support of the government measures for carrying on the war.

Treaty of Paris

To the preliminaries of the peace concluded in February 1763 he offered an indignant resistance, considering the terms quite inadequate to the successes that had been gained by the country. When the treaty was discussed in parliament in December of the preceding year, though suffering from a severe attack of gout, he was carried down to the House, and in a speech of three hours' duration, interrupted more than once by paroxysms of pain, he strongly protested against its various conditions. These conditions included the return of the sugar islands (but Britain retained Dominicamarker); trading stations in West Africa (won by Boscawen); Pondicherrymarker, (France's Indian colony); and fishing rights in Newfoundlandmarker. Pitt's opposition arose through two heads: France had been given the means to become once more formidable at sea, whilst Frederick had been betrayed.

Pitt believed that the task had been left half-finished and called for a final year of war which would crush French power for good. Pitt had long-held plans for further conquests which had been uncompleted. Newcastle, by contrast, sought peace but only if the war in Germany could be brought to an honourable and satisfactory conclusion rather than Britain suddenly bailing out of it as Bute proposed). However the combined opposition of Newcastle and Pitt was not enough to prevent the Treaty passing comfortably in both Houses of Parliament.

However, there were strong reasons for concluding the peace: the National Debt had increased from £74.5m. in 1755 to £133.25m. in 1763, the year of the peace. The requirement to pay down this debt, and the lack of French threat in Canada, were major movers in the subsequent American War of Independence.

The physical cause which rendered this effort so painful probably accounts for the infrequency of his appearances in parliament, as well as for much that is otherwise inexplicable in his subsequent conduct. In 1763 he spoke against the obnoxious tax on cider, imposed by his brother-in-law, George Grenville, and his opposition, though unsuccessful in the House, helped to keep alive his popularity with the country, which cordially hated the excise and all connected with it. When next year the question of general warrants was raised in connexion with the case of Wilkes, Pitt vigorously maintained their illegality, thus defending at once the privileges of Parliament and the freedom of the press.

During 1765 he seems to have been totally incapacitated for public business. In the following year he supported with great power the proposal of the Rockingham administration for the repeal of the American Stamp Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional to impose taxes upon the colonies. He thus endorsed the contention of the colonists on the ground of principle, while the majority of those who acted with him contented themselves with resisting the disastrous taxation scheme on the ground of expediency.

The Repeal Act, indeed, was only passed pari passu with another censuring the American assemblies, and declaring the authority of the British parliament over the colonies "in all cases whatsoever"; so that the House of Commons repudiated in the most formal manner the principle Pitt laid down. His language in approval of the resistance of the colonists was unusually bold, and perhaps no one but himself could have employed it with impunity at a time when the freedom of debate was only imperfectly conceded.

Pitt had not been long out of office when he was solicited to return to it, and the solicitations were more than once renewed. Unsuccessful overtures were made to him in 1763, and twice in 1765, in May and June - the negotiator in May being the king's uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, who went down in person to Hayesmarker, Pitt's seat in Kentmarker. It is known that he had the opportunity of joining the Marquis of Rockingham's short-lived administration at any time on his own terms, and his conduct in declining an arrangement with that minister has been more generally condemned than any other step in his public life.

The Chatham administration

In July 1766 Rockingham was dismissed, and Pitt was entrusted by the King with the task of forming a government entirely of his own selection. The result was a cabinet, strong much beyond the average in its individual members, but weak to powerlessness in the diversity of its composition. Burke, in a memorable passage of a memorable speech, has described this "chequered and speckled" administration with great humour, speaking of it as "patriots and courtiers, King's friends and republicans; Whigs and Tories...indeed a very curious show, but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand on." Pitt chose for himself the office of Lord Privy Seal, which required his elevation to the House of Lordsmarker, and in August he became Earl of Chatham and Viscount Pitt.

His principle, 'measures not men', appealed to the King whom he proposed to serve by 'destroying all party distinctions'. The problems which faced the government he seemed specially fitted to tackle: the observance of the Treaty of Paris by France and Spain, tension between American colonists and the mother country, the status of the East India Company. Choosing for himself freedom from the routines of office, as Lord Privy Seal he made appointments without regard for connections but perceived merit. Charles Townshend to the Exchequer, Shelburne as Secretary of State, to order American affairs. He set about his duties with tempestuous energy. Yet in October 1768 he resigned after a catastrophic ministry, leaving such leadership as he could give to Grafton, his First Lord of the Treasury. What had gone wrong?

By the acceptance of a peerage, the great commoner lost a great deal of public support. One significant indication of this may be mentioned. In view of his probable accession to power, preparations were made in the City of Londonmarker for a banquet and a general illumination to celebrate the event. But the celebration was at once countermanded when it was known that he had become Earl of Chatham. The instantaneous revulsion of public feeling was somewhat unreasonable, for Pitt's health seems now to have been beyond doubt so shattered by his hereditary malady, that he was already in old age though only fifty-eight. It was natural, therefore, that he should choose a sinecure office, and the ease of the Lords. But a popular idol nearly always suffers by removal from immediate contact with the popular sympathy, be the motives for removal what they may.

One of the earliest acts of the new ministry was to lay an embargo upon corn, which was thought necessary in order to prevent a dearth resulting from the unprecedented bad harvest of 1766. The measure was strongly opposed, and Lord Chatham delivered his first speech in the House of Lords in support of it. It proved to be almost the only measure introduced by his government in which he personally interested himself.

In 1767, Townshend produced the duties on tea, glass and paper, so offensive to the American colonists whom Chatham thought he understood.

His attention had been directed to the growing importance of the affairs of India, and there is evidence in his correspondence that he was meditating a comprehensive scheme for transferring much of the power of the East India Company to the crown, when he was withdrawn from public business in a manner that has always been regarded as somewhat mysterious. It may be questioned, indeed, whether even had his powers been unimpaired he could have carried out any decided policy on any question with a cabinet representing interests so various and conflicting; but, as it happened, he was incapacitated physically and mentally during nearly the whole period of his tenure of office.

He scarcely ever saw any of his colleagues though they repeatedly and urgently pressed for interviews with him, and even an offer from the king to visit him in person was declined, though in the language of profound and almost abject respect which always marked his communications with the court. It has been insinuated both by contemporary and by later critics that being disappointed at his loss of popularity, and convinced of the impossibility of co-operating with his colleagues, he exaggerated his malady as a pretext for the inaction that was forced upon him by circumstances.

But there is no sufficient reason to doubt that he was really, as his friends represented, in a state that utterly unfitted him for business. He seems to have been freed for a time from the pangs of gout only to be afflicted with a species of mental alienation bordering on insanity. This is the most satisfactory, as it is the most obvious, explanation of his utter indifference in presence of one of the most momentous problems that ever pressed for solution on an English statesman.

Those who are able to read the history in the light of what occurred later may perhaps be convinced that no policy whatever initiated, after 1766 could have prevented or even materially delayed the United States Declaration of Independence; but to the politicians of that time the coming event had not yet cast so dark a shadow before as to paralyse all action, and if any man could have allayed the growing discontent of the colonists and prevented the ultimate dismemberment of the empire, it would have been Lord Chatham.

The fact that he not only did nothing to remove existing difficulties, but remained passive while his colleagues took the fatal step which led directly to separation, is in itself clear proof of his entire incapacity. The imposition of the import duty on tea and other commodities was the project of Charles Townshend, and was carried into effect in 1767 without consultation with Lord Chatham, if not in opposition to his wishes. It is probably the most singular thing in connexion with this singular administration, that its most pregnant measure should thus have been one directly opposed to the well-known principles of its head.

For many months, things remained in the curious position that he who was understood to be the head of the cabinet had as little share in the government of the country as an unenfranchised peasant. As the chief could not or would not lead, the subordinates naturally chose their own paths and not his. The lines of Chatham's policy were abandoned in other cases besides the imposition of the import duty; his opponents were taken into confidence; and friends, such as Amherst and Shelburne, were dismissed from their posts. When at length in October 1768 he tendered his resignation on the ground of shattered health, he did not fail to mention the dismissal of Amherst and Shelburne as a personal grievance.

Later life

Soon after his resignation a renewed attack of gout freed Chatham from the mental disease under which he had so long suffered. He had been nearly two years and a half in seclusion when, in July 1769, he again appeared in public at a royal levee. It was not, however, until 1770 that he resumed his seat in the House of Lords.

Falklands Crisis

The same year when Britain and Spain became involved in the Falklands Crisis and came close to war, Pitt was a staunch advocate of taking a tough stance with Madrid and Paris (as he had been during the earlier Corsican Crisis) and made a number of speeches on the subject rousing public opinion. The North Government was pushed into taking a firmer line because of this, mobilising the navy, and forcing Spain to back down. Some had even believed that the issue was enough to cast North from office and restore Pitt as Prime Minister - although the ultimate result was to strengthen the position of North who took credit for his firm handling of the crisis and was able to fill the cabinet with his own supporters. North would go on to dominate politics for the next decade, leading the country until 1782.

American War of Independence

As he realised the gravity of the American situation, Chatham re-entered the fray, declaring that 'he would be in earnest for the public' and 'a scarecrow of violence to the gentler warblers of the grove'. They, moderate Whigs, found a prophet in Edmund Burke, who wrote of Chatham that he wanted 'to keep hovering in the air, above all parties, and to swoop down where the prey may prove best'. Such was Grafton, victim of Chatham's swift swoop on behalf of 'Wilkes and Liberty'. Pitt had not lost his nose for the big issue, the smell of injustice, a threat to the liberty of subjects. But Grafton was followed by North, and Chatham went off to farm, his cows typically housed in palatial stalls.

Chatham's warnings on America went unregarded until the eve of war. Then brave efforts to present his case, passionate, deeply pondered, for the concession of fundamental liberties - no taxation without consent, independent judges, trial by jury, along with the recognition of the American Continental Congress - foundered on the ignorance and complacency of Parliament. In his last years he found again words to express the concern for the rights of British subjects which had been constant among the inconsistencies of his political dealings. In January 1775. The House of Lords rejected his Bill for reconciliation. After war had broken out, he warned that Americamarker could not be conquered.

He had now almost no personal following, mainly owing to the grave mistake he had made in not forming an alliance with the Rockingham party. But his eloquence was as powerful as ever, and all its power was directed against the government policy in the contest with America, which had become the question of all-absorbing interest. His last appearance in the House of Lords was on 7 April 1778, on the occasion of the Duke of Richmond's motion for an address praying the king to conclude peace with America on any terms.

In view of the hostile demonstrations of France the various parties had come generally to see the necessity of such a measure. But Chatham could not brook the thought of a step which implied submission to the "natural enemy" whom it had been the main object of his life to humble, and he declaimed for a considerable time, though with diminished vigour, against the motion. After the Duke of Richmond had replied, he rose again excitedly as if to speak, pressed his hand upon his breast, and fell down in a fit. His last words before he collapsed were: 'My Lords, any state is better than despair; if we must fall, let us fall like men.' James Harris MP, however, recorded that Lord Nugent had told him that Chatham's last words in the Lords were: 'If the Americans defend independence, they shall find me in their way' and that his very last words (spoken to his son) were: 'Leave your dying father, and go to the defence of your country'.

He was removed to his seat at Hayes, where his son William read Homer to him: the passage about the death of Hector. Chatham died on 11 May 1778. Although he was initially buried at Hayes, with graceful unanimity all parties combined to show their sense of the national loss and the Commons presented an address to the king praying that the deceased statesman might be buried with the honours of a public funeral. A sum was voted for a public monument which was erected over a new grave in Westminster Abbeymarker. In the Guildhallmarker Burke's inscription summed up what he had meant to the City: he was 'the minister by whom commerce was united with and made to flourish by war'. Soon after the funeral a bill was passed bestowing a pension of £4,000 a year on his successors in the earldom. He had a family of three sons and two daughters, of whom the second son, William, was destined to add fresh lustre to a name which is one of the greatest in the history of England.


Horace Walpole, not an uncritical admirer, wrote of Pitt:

It were ingratitude to him to say that he did not give such a reverberation to our stagnating councils, as exceedingly altered the appearance of our fortune.
He warded off the evil hour that seemed approaching, he infused vigour into our arms, he taught the nation to speak again as England used to speak to foreign powers...Pitt, on entering upon administration, had found the nation at the lowest ebb in point of power and reputation...France, who meant to be feared, was feared heartily...They were willing to trust that France would be so good as to ruin us by inches.
Pitt had roused us from this ignoble lethargy...The admirers of Mr Pitt extol the reverberation he gave to our councils, the despondence he banished, the spirit he infused, the conquests he made, the security he affixed to our trade and plantations, the humiliation of France, the glory of Britain carried under his administration to a pitch at which it never had arrived—and all this is exactly true.

Dr. Johnson is reported to have said that "Walpole was a minister given by the king to the people, but Pitt was a minister given by the people to the king", and the remark correctly indicates Chatham's distinctive place among English statesmen. He was the first minister whose main strength lay in the support of the nation at large as distinct from its representatives in the Commons, where his personal following was always small. He was the first to discern that public opinion, though generally slow to form and slow to act, is in the end the paramount power in the state; and he was the first to use it not in an emergency merely, but throughout a whole political career.

He marks the commencement of that vast change in the movement of English politics by which it has come about that the sentiment of the great mass of the people now tells effectively on the action of the government from day to day–almost from hour to hour. He was well fitted to secure the sympathy and admiration of his countrymen, for his virtues and his failings were alike English. He was often inconsistent, he was generally intractable and overbearing, and he was always pompous and affected to a degree which, Macaulay has remarked, seems scarcely compatible with true greatness.

Of the last quality evidence is furnished in the stilted style of his letters, and in the fact recorded by Seward that he never permitted his under-secretaries to sit in his presence. Burke speaks of "some significant, pompous, creeping, explanatory, ambiguous matter, in the true Chathamic style." But these defects were known only to the inner circle of his associates.

To the outside public he was endeared as a statesman who could do or suffer "nothing base", and who had the rare power of transfusing his own indomitable energy and courage into all who served under him. "A spirited foreign policy" has always been popular in England, and Pitt was the most popular of English ministers, because he was the most successful exponent of such a policy. In domestic affairs his influence was small and almost entirely indirect. He himself confessed his unfitness for dealing with questions of finance. The commercial prosperity that was produced by his war policy was in a great part delusive, as prosperity so produced must always be, though it had permanent effects of the highest moment in the rise of such centres of industry as Glasgowmarker. This, however, was a remote result which he could have neither intended nor foreseen.

It has been suggested that Pitt was in fact a far more orthodox Whig than has been historically portrayed demonstrated by his sitting for rotten borough seats controlled by arisocratic magnates, and his life-long concern for protecting the balance of power on the European continent - which marked him out from many other Patriots.

Historians have described Pitt as "the greatest British statesman of the eighteenth century."

Family and personal life

Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville (bef. 1727-3 April 1803), daughter of the 1st Countess Temple, on 16 October 1754. They had five children; Hester, Harriet, John, William and James:

Titles from birth to death

  • Mr. William Pitt (1708–1735)
  • Mr. William Pitt, MP (1735–1746)
  • The Rt. Hon. William Pitt, MP (1746–1766)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Chatham, PC (1766–1778)

See also


After British General John Forbes occupied Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War, he ordered the site's reconstruction and named it after then-Secretary of State Pitt. He also named the settlement between the rivers "Pittsborough", which would eventually become known as Pittsburgh.

The correspondence of Lord Chatham, in four volumes, was published in 1838–1840; and a volume of his letters to Lord Camelford in 1804. The Rev. Francis Thackeray's History of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (2 vols., 1827), is a ponderous and shapeless work. Frederic Harrison's Chatham, in the "Twelve English Statesmen" series (1905), though skillfully executed, takes a rather academic and modern Liberal view. A German work, William Pitt, Graf von Chatham, by Albert von Ruville (3 vols., 1905; English trans. 1907), is the best and most thorough account of Chatham, his period, and his policy, which has appeared. See also the separate article on William Pitt, and the authorities referred to, especially the Rev. William Hunt's appendix i. to his vol. x. of The Political History of England (1905).


  1. Brown p.15-16
  2. Black p.2
  3. Black p.5-9
  4. Black p.5
  5. Black p.4
  6. Trench p.180
  7. Black p.12-13
  8. Black p.31-32
  9. Brown p.31-82
  10. Black p.37-39
  11. Brown p.44-45
  12. Woodfine p.90-91
  13. Woodfine p.200
  14. William Pitt, The Speeches of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chatham in the Houses of Lords and Commons: With a Biographical Memoir and Introductions and Explanatory Notes to the Speeches (London: Aylott & Jones, 1848), pp. 6-7.
  15. Rodger p.237-37
  16. Simms p.278
  17. Simms p.274-81
  18. Trench p.218-24
  19. Brown p.54
  20. Brown p.81
  21. Browning p.198-200
  22. Brown p.98
  23. Anderson p.86-107
  24. Brown p.116-18
  25. Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George II: Volume III, (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 1.
  26. Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-60, (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 375.
  27. Walpole, Memoirs: Volume II, p. 251.
  28. McLynn p.95-99
  29. Anderson p.211-12
  30. Rodger p.268-269
  31. Brown p.174-76
  32. McLynn p.99-100
  33. Anderson p.308
  34. Brown p.176-77
  35. Anderson p.302-03
  36. Anderson p.344-68
  37. Anderson p.477
  38. Rodger p.284
  39. Brown p.231-43
  40. Dull p.194-200
  41. Corbett Volume II p.188-89
  42. Corbett Volume II p.204-07
  43. Simms p.561
  44. Jeremy Black, Pitt the Elder (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 299.
  45. Walpole, Memoirs: Volume III, p. 1, p. 51, p. 53.
  46. Simms
  47. Caleb Carr, “William Pitt the Elder and the Avoidance of the American Revolution,“ What Ifs? of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley (New York: Berkley Books, 2004), 17.


  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Faber and Faber, 2000.
  • Black, Jeremy. Pitt the Elder. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Brown, Peter Douglas. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham: The Great Commoner. George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
  • Browning, Reed. The Duke of Newcastle. Yale University Press, 1975.
  • Corbett, Julian Stafford England in the Seven Years' Waw, Volume I. London, 1907,
  • Corbett, Julian Stafford England in the Seven Years' Waw: Volume II. London, 1907.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and the Seven Years' War. University of Nebraska Press, 2005
  • McLynn, Frank. 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World. Pimlico, 2000.
  • Robertson, Sir Charles Grant Chatham and the British Empire [Teach Yourself History Series], (London: The English Universities Press, Ltd., 1946, 1959).
  • Rodger N.A.M. Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. Penguin Books, 2006.
  • Trench, Chenevix Charles. George II. Allen Lane, 1973
  • Woodfine, Philip. Britannia's Glories: The Walpole Ministry and the 1739 War with Spain. Boydell Press, 1998.

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