William Pitt 'The Elder'
1st Earl of Chatham - Whig 1766 to 1768
William Pitt ‘the Elder’ is credited with the birth of the British Empire. Pitt dominated British politics in the middle of the eighteenth century, although was only prime minister for 2 years. A wildly popular politician with great influence, he effectively served as prime minister throughout the earlier premierships of the Duke of Devonshire and the Lord Newcastle. His appreciated the relationship between war and trading success and chose his military campaigns to increase national trade. Conquering India, Canada, the West Indies and West Africa were all immensely beneficial to Britain’s merchants.
Born in November 1708, Pitt’s grandfather and father were both MPs and his grandfather, Thomas, had been governor of Madras. Pitt was a pupil at Eton from 1719 until 1726. He entered Trinity College, Oxford in 1727 but rapidly moved on to study in Utrecht. His elder brother inherited the family estates and William had to seek other employment. His Etonian friend, George Lyttelton, introduced him to Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham in 1731 and Pitt gained a commission in Temple’s regiment.
William Pitt was elected to the family pocket borough of Old Sarum in 1735. He quickly sided with the opposition to Walpole, joining Cobham’s nephews Richard Grenville and Lyttelton as a member of the group known as ‘Cobham’s cubs’. Opposition to the ministry in the eighteenth century was frequently associated with the heir to the throne and Pitt and the cubs moved closer to Frederick, Prince of Wales. Pitt was very critical of Walpole’s handling of relations with Spain in the late 1730s and spoke strongly in the debates in early 1742 that ultimately led to Walpole’s resignation.
The political situation following Walpole’s departure was fluid. Pitt remained firmly in opposition and spoke out strongly against a policy of European intervention which he associated with the prioritisation of Hanoverian over British interests. Unnecessary expenditure on foreign troops, along with concerns about the size of the national debt, the expansion of the army and the growing power of the executive were central to a ‘patriot’ position from the 1730s onwards. Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle found Pitt’s comments tactically useful in seeking to moderate the interventionist instincts of George II and his Secretary of State, John, Lord Carteret but Pitt’s outspokenness meant that George was initially unwilling to admit him to office.
Pitt’s pressure on Pelham and Newcastle finally yielded dividends in 1746 when he was made Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and then Paymaster of the Forces. Importantly, neither office required personal contact with the King. Pitt was a dedicated Paymaster. He worked hard and refused to take advantage of the opportunities to enrich himself. His parliamentary speeches from this period suggest that he had become more sympathetic to a policy of continental involvement, no doubt helped by his increasing attachment to Newcastle. It was through Newcastle’s influence that he was elected as MP for Seaford in 1747 and then Aldborough in 1754.
Although widely acknowledged as a formidable Commons performer, Pitt lacked a large personal following and George II still treated him with suspicion. He was not promoted to a position of influence when Newcastle formed an administration in 1754. His attempts to form an alliance with Henry Fox, the War Secretary, faltered and Pitt began to drift towards theopposition based in Leicester House, where the future George III, Frederick’s son, held court. Pitt’s connections with the cubs were reinforced when he married Lady Hester Grenville, sister of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, and George Grenville, in November 1754. The marriage yielded five children, including William Pitt the Younger.
The worsening international situation created new opportunities. Pitt was concerned that the tensions between France and Britain in the American colonies might provoke a general European conflict. Reviving patriot arguments in the Commons led to him being dismissed from office. Newcastle’s administration collapsed in 1756. Pitt refused to serve with both Newcastle and Fox and eventually achieved the position of influence he craved as Secretary of State in Devonshire’s short-lived administration. Yet, Pitt’s position was still difficult. He lacked a firm majority in the Commons and his enemies were circling. The Duke of Cumberland managed to force his father, the King, to remove Temple and Pitt in April 1757 and an ‘interministerium’ followed before Newcastle returned as First Lord and Pitt as Secretary of State in June 1757.
The Newcastle-Pitt administration steered Britain successfully through the Seven Years War (1756-63). 1759 was to be a year of military success in Europe, Canada and India and there is some truth to Pitt’s subsequent claim that ‘American had been conquered in Germany’. Like many before him, Pitt discovered the wisdom in office of a foreign policy that protected Britain’s colonial interests with a strong navy but also used Britain’s financial resources to intervene in Europe.
George III’s accession changed things. Pitt had drifted away from the new King and his favourite minister, Lord Bute, since the mid-1750s. They were now keen to pursue a policy of peace. Pitt’s appeals for a vigorous continuation of the war fell on stony ground and he resigned in October 1761.
Precisely because he was a born Englishman, George III felt that he was entitled to conduct the government in a more independent and unrestrained way than either of his ancestors. In the conviction that the time had come for emancipating the crown from its subordination to a Whig coterie, and for elevating monarchy above all parties, George and his counsellor Lord Bute stood by no means alone. A number of highly honorable men rallied round the king, resolved to yield obedience to him alone. These 'Friends of the King' were avowed adherents of an absolute monarchy scarcely limited through parliamentary forms. In this way George III. came to be the last English king that sought to bring a strong personal influence to bear on the course of the domestic and foreign policy of his realm, and was able, in a great measure, to carry out his purpose for a time.
The parliamentary system was too deeply rooted in the spirit of the British nation for any attempt to supplant it by a strong, absolute monarchy to have a chance of success. But Bute did not realize this. He ascribed the revolt in public opinion solely to his unpopularity; and as he professed to be a loyal servant of his princely patron, he of his own motion resigned his office in April 1763.
While the Grenville ministry was busying itself with the taxation of the North American colonies, King George was seized with a severe illness that soon affected his mind. Although he rallied within a short time, yet a recurrence of the malady was all too probable. In his resolute and devout way the king, immediately after his recovery, required the carrying through of an act of regency, providing for the case of his continued inability to attend to business, or his sudden death.
George III., therefore, decided to form a new administration, and offered the leadership of it to Pitt, who, however, declined it. Thereupon the king addressed himself to the coalition of the great Whig lords, from whom he had always been so anxious to free himself, and accordingly an administration of eminent mediocrities came into existence (July, 1765). Its head, as chief lord of the treasury, was the Marquis of Rockingham, one of the richest land-owners of England, but without any special talent except for horse-racing. The inevitable Newcastle received the privy seal. The principal secretary of state was the Duke of Grafton, an indolent man, given to pleasure, but having probity and a natural gift of oratory.
And this most incapable of all ministries now tried its hand with the American colonies. But its weakness in dealing with them induced the king to call Pitt to office. It was too late. Age and, in a still higher degree, sickness had so impaired, not, indeed, the high talent of the great commoner, but his physical strength, that he was incapable of ruling.
First of all, Pitt believed that he must select his colleagues from the different sections of the Whig party, in order, under all circumstances, to be secure of the majority (July, 1766). There was only one possible way of holding these discordant elements together, — namely, their firm guidance through the matchless genius and the paramount influence of the prime minister. But the latter felt himself a miserably sick man, and incapable of constant work. He wished only to act as an adviser, in the last instance, on the most important affairs. He believed he would never again be in a condition to take the lead in the frequent and stormy debates in the Lower House.
Therefore he selected for himself the sinecure of keeper of the privy seal; and for the same reason, he had himself transferred by the king to the Upper House, under the title of Earl of Chatham. Ultimately the people — who up to this time had regarded the great commoner as their trusted and sincere champion, and, at the same time, as their representative in the councils of the crown — saw in Pitt's acceptance of the peerage a desertion of their flag and an act of treachery. The disappointment was immense. And he in no way attained his end. Scarcely had he become minister when he fell such a victim to the gout and nervous prostration that he was compelled to renounce all participation in public affairs. Under such circumstances the ministry could escape neither internal discord nor well-merited attacks from the outside.
In consequence of the long-continued and increasing sickness of Chatham, aggravated at times to temporary disorder of the intellect, the Duke of Grafton had to undertake the leadership of the cabinet, that was soon deprived of its unprepossessing, but gifted, member, Townshend, through his sudden death, in September, 1767. Some months later Chatham formally resigned his office; he was thought to be at the point of death.
In attempts to resolve the American crisis, he was unsuccessful. By October 1768, having failed to achieve his aims, a weary Chatham begged the King to allow him to resign. George III accepted, determined to keep him out of office henceforth. Chatham’s health revived sufficiently for him to act in concert with the Rockinghamites at various points in the 1770s. The Earl of Shelburne slowly emerged as Pitt's chief lieutenant, although Chatham’s instinctive suspicion of political connection meant his personal parliamentary following was small. He died in May 1778 and received a funeral in Westminster Abbey at public expense.
His nickname of ‘the great commoner’ reflected a broader truth: his political career before he took his peerage in 1766 was considerably more successful than thereafter.
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