Pitt the Elder

William Pitt the Elder (1708-78), First Earl of Chatham, was a statesman whose personality and views greatly affected British politics from the mid-1740s until his death. He was particularly important as the great war leader in 1756-61. He was, at this time, one of the two Secretaries of State, not obviously the leading minister in the government but someone who dominated it by ability, determination and force of personality. Personality is, indeed, the key to Pitt's rise. Despite appearances to the contrary, he was in part a political outsider, although this was more a matter of temperament than birth. His paternal background offered an instructive example of the flexibility of the English ancien regime, its ability to absorb new wealth and rising men. Pitt's father was an MP, and one of his uncles by marriage, James Viscount Stanhope, a leading minister.
A Political Outsider
In many significant respects, Pitt was an outsider. In a number of ways, both subtle and obvious, his position in the 'establishment', however defined, was weak. Every ruling order, though presenting the appearance of a monolith to the unperceptive observer, has in reality many one distinctions. Pitt's note was not one that would readily be heard naturally, his orbit not the most spectacular. Crucially, Pitt was a second son, and one with little money, He was dependent on the patronage of others in order to get into parliament in 1735, 1741, 1747 and 1754. In the first two cases he was elected by Old Sarum, a family pocket borough with five voters. In 1747 he was elected for Seaford, a constituency substantially influenced by Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, and in 1754 for another Newcastle seat, Aldborough. In 1756, Pitt was elected for the Grenville pocket borough of Buckingham and his own family's seat at Okehampton. He never sat for a county seat, the common aspiration for those with social standing.

Politically, Pitt had no secure base within a coherent group. He suffered from his lack of a large parliamentary connection. His career was based on standing in the House of Commons, especially on his oratorical vigour, not on connections. He came into high office without major obligations to any patron, and this independence ensured that he was very much his own master when it came to the crucial decisions. His ability to take a major role in the Commons depended on his ability to pose as the politician of conviction and argument, not the dispenser of loaves and fishes to backbenchers. As a tactic, it could work well. Pitt had a pre-eminence that in some respects was greater than that of Sir Robert Walpole, because Walpole could not take advantage of 'Patriot' rhetoric and pose as a man totally and selflessly dedicated to the good of his country.

Pitt's rigorous criticism of government, whether from outside, when in opposition, or of ministerial colleagues, when in office, was not simply a tactic designed to gain attention and to encourage others, not least the ministry, to use his support. He was happier criticising than defending and this aggressive position was best presented by attacking government, even from within. Pitt pushed his views without moderation. He had a sense of his own ability that he felt was most challenged by governmental complacency protecting ministerial mediocrity. He did not feel at home in the world of court society.

Many contemporaries saw him as a megalomaniac determined to bend national politics to his will. In 1761 Karl Granville remarked that Pitt 'was taking more upon himself than any man had a right to, approaching to infallibility'. Earlier that year, Bussy, the unsympathetic French envoy, reported:

'This minister is the idol of the people, who regard him as the sole author of their success, and they do not have the same confidence in. the other members of the council. The court and its partisans are obliged to have the greatest regards for the fantasies of a fiery people, whom it is dangerous to contradict. Pitt joins to a reputation of superior sport and talent, that of most exact honesty... With simple manners and dignity, he seeks neither display nor ostentation... He is courageous to the point of rashness, he supports his ideas in an impassioned fashion and with an invincible determination, seeking to subjugate all the world by the tyranny of his opinions. Pitt seems to have no other ambition than to elevate Britain to the highest point of glory and to abase France to the lowest degree of humiliation.'

Although the desire to bend politics to their will is common to many politicians and political circumstances, few politicians possessed this aspiration to the same degree as Pitt. The hostile Charles Townshend remarked that 'that animation of language and sentiment, which is allowed to the orator in political conflicts ...has no place in a sober discussion'. Henry Harris wrote of Pitt's parliamentary performance in 1755 that he would 'keep any administration in fine breath - he was born for opposition - more excelling in his manner, in his language, and in high invective, than all the public speakers I ever heard of. Pitt was helped by the weakness of several ministries.

The Patriot Minister
Pitt did not come to office until 1746 when he became Paymaster General, not a major post. Secretary of State from December 1756 until September 1761, he was Lord Privy Seal in 1766-8. For the rest of his life, he was without office. His last political cause was the conciliation of the American Colonials, not a popular cause in governmental circles. Thus, for most of his political career, he did not hold major office, a situation very different from that of Walpole, Newcastle, and those other second sons, Henry Pelham and Pitt the Younger. Being without office, Pitt could more easily lend himself to the nexus of dissatisfaction, populism and radicalism generally known as 'Patriotism'. Thus, in the 1730s he attacked Walpolean corruption, in the 1740s Hanoverian subsidies, in the 1760s peace with France, and in the 1770s policy towards America. In each case, Pitt appealed to the notion that the government was betraying national interests. Politically potent and charged, this was part of a process by which he identified himself with such interests. This process was eased by the junior status of the paymastership, by the less controversial nature of politics and government in 1746-53, certainly compared to the period 1738-45, and by the degree to which Pitt in office was associated with war. He was thus less publicly tarnished with the exigencies and compromises of office than other leading politicians, while he also avoided, for much of his career, the difficulties of opposing government during a period of success in war.

Other politicians could not have expected anything like the public support that Pitt received in April 1757 when he was dismissed as a result of George II's hostility. The circumstances of his departure led to the so-called 'rain' of golden boxes, the presentation to him of the freedom and compliments of thirteen cities. The Common Council of London thanked Pitt for his attempt to 'stem the general torrent of corruption' and for his 'loyal and disinterested conduct'. Such motions were the consequence not simply of a spontaneous outburst of public zeal, but also of manoeuvres by Pitt's supporters, but Pitt benefited greatly from being able to present himself as the spokesman of opinion 'out of doors'. This was a particular skill as most politicians were not taking part in politics to such a public extent: the political milieu of the Dukes of Newcastle and Devonshire was very different from that of Pitt and, partly as a result, his potential importance was highly rated, possibly overrated. In many respects he benefited from being able to act as an apparent link between the world of the royal court and high politics, and that out of doors, an ability that owed much to his being in many respects temperamentally a political outsider. Pitt's apparent indispensability in the House of Commons led to his return to office in June 1757.

War Leader
It is with war that Pitt is most associated, with British success in the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the conflict known in the USA as the French and Indian War (1754-63). In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this success was closely associated with Pitt. In and after World War Two, comparisons were made with Churchill. Since then, there has, however been a process of revision, most obviously with Richard Middleton's book The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years' War, 1757-1762 (Cambridge, 1985). Middleton argued that Pitt's role in strategy, especially naval strategy, was limited and that it was necessary to disentangle reality from myth. There is much in this analysis, but Middleton underrated the importance of Pitt's political role in maintaining public support for the war and in providing an impetus to government. The contrast between the stormy years of the War of the Austrian Succession (with Britain involved in 1743-8) and the less contentious political situation during the Seven Years' War owed something to the greater success of the latter and to the lesser importance of Hanoverian issues, but much was also due to Pitt. He had to 'sell' the idea of sending British troops to Germany in 1758, and to persuade Parliament and the public that this was in order to help Britain's ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia, rather than to serve narrow Hanoverian purposes. In addition, in the initial stages of the war, there were few successes. Montcalm, the French commander in Quebec, successfully took the offensive in 1756-7, capturing a number of forts in New York, including William Henry. The British expedition sent to capture Louisbourg in 1757, the major British initiative of the year, was unsuccessful, as was the attack on Rochefort. There was no major naval victory until 1759.

Pitt's presence in the ministry during this period of disappointment was critical. He helped to maintain the initiative both politically and strategically. Pitt's determination had helped to free Britain from the mesmerised state of 1756, when the prospect of French invasion had led to an essentially reactive strategy. He was determined to maintain substantial forces in North America and to send sufficient troops to Germany to prevent the French from attacking Frederick the Great. To secure these ends, he actively pressed for the raising of fresh troops in Britain and refused to be distracted by the prospect of French invasion in 1757. He was against withdrawing any troops from America to Europe.

Pitt reaped his reward in 1759, the 'year of victories'. British forces took Quebec, defeated the French at Minden in Germany and their fleet at Lagos (on the coast of Portugal) and Quiberon Bay (Brittany). He became even more popular with contemporaries and was, thereafter, closely associated with national triumph.

Loss of Power
However, Pitt's ability to capitalise on these advantages was limited as far as contemporaries were concerned. A new king, George III, who came to the throne in 1760, was determined to break with the personnel and policies of his grandfather's government. In particular, he wished to include Tories in the ministry and to negotiate peace. War-weariness, and concern about the cost of the conflict, was also rising within the government, especially on the part of Newcastle.

In this context, of a general British desire for peace, Pitt was politically foolish to hinder attempts to avoid war with Spain in 1761. Charles III of Spain was, in fact, moving closer to France and war might have been difficult to avoid, but Pitt was regarded as unnecessarily provocative, to Spain and France in abortive peace talks in 1761. He outraged his colleagues by demanding that he get his own way over war with Spain. On 2 October 1761, when Pitt attended the Council and argued that Britain must attack Spain in the face of opposition from his colleagues, he delivered a valedictory assessment of his years as Secretary of State. Newcastle recorded,

'Mr Pitt in his speech recapitulated his own situation, called (as he was without having ever asked any one single employment in his life) by his Sovereign, and he might say in some degree by the voice of the people, to assist die State, when others had abdicated die service of it... that he was loaded with the imputation of this war being solely Ms; that it was called his war; that it had been a successful one, and more than hinted that the success was singly owing to him... That in his station and situation he was responsible, and would not continue without having the direction; that this being die case, nobody could be surprised that he could go on no longer; and he would repeat it again, that he would be responsible for nothing but what he directed.'

Resigning, Pitt became a symbol of opposition, both to George Ill's favourite, John, 3rd Earl of Bute, and to the return of some colonial conquests to France and Spain in the Peace of Paris of 1763.

Later Years
Pitt was also under acute pressure. Never robust, and frequently very ill, in the early 1750s in particular, Pitt in the 1760s displayed increasing signs of mental illness. His gout was marked by severe bouts of depression, characterised by withdrawal from the world. In this context, Pitt's return to office in 1766 was an unhappy experience. His administration lacked cohesion and his decision to go to the Lords, as Earl of Chatham, revealed a loss of political sensitivity. The ministry drifted with Chatham increasingly ill and unable to provide direction. More generally, in the 1760s and early 1770s, he lost his way. Marie Peters, his most recent biographer, noted that 'he developed no coherent strategy to cope with new circumstances, swinging rather from extreme to extreme'.

In his last years, Chatham was happiest as a Cassandra figure, warning first of the dangers of conflict with the American colonists and, finally, pressing the need to concentrate on the French threat rather than on war with the former colonists. In the Lords debate on 20 November 1777 he aimed, as he put it, 'to save America'. He pressed for peace with America, which he declared could not be conquered, for the recall of British troops from thence, and preparations against the Bourbons. His speech included bitter criticisms of the use of Native Americans (Red Indians) whom he accused of atrocities, and of German (Hessian) mercenaries. Chatham claimed that his suggested policy would lead the Americans to a 'happy and constitutional reconcilement' with. Britain. However, he was still opposed to independence, the course that the Rockinghamites were increasingly urging. Chatham pressed for Americans to enjoy the same rights as the inhabitants of Britain, but argued that Parliament must still regulate the trade of the empire in order to preserve its prosperity.

Politicians like Pitt generally attract the criticism of scholars. It is easy to point to inconsistencies, to puncture their rhetoric, challenge their achievements and criticise their character. Academics tend to be organisation men, suspicious of achievers, let alone individualists. Instead it is the intellectuals and bureaucrats of the past, if not the women, peasants, criminals and rioters, that attract favourable attention. As a result, academics frequently fail to understand the dynamics of politics. Pitt rose to power thanks to the failures of a political system that tolerated mediocrity and was characterised by complacency. War cruelly exposed its limitations. As a talented maverick, Pitt was never happy with himself or with others. He was not by temperament a compromiser. Such individuals are never easy as colleagues and can be difficult as leaders. However, the ability to grasp situations, see problems and point out solutions is more valuable than that of being a grey man of office.

Pitt brought qualities and determination to politics. The record of his achievements was not a mere list of the posts he held and the committees he sat on. Instead, Pitt had a clear vision of national greatness. His determination to confront France in the maritime and colonial sphere and his conviction that Britain must make substantial territorial gains was of material importance in global history for it was in his period of power that Britain became the most important power in the world. He was a man with whom the national interest could be associated, not simply because he made the claim, but also because he seemed apart from the world of court and connection. His funerary monument in Westminster Abbey included the passage

During whose Administration
In the Reigns of George II and George III
Divine Providence
Exalted Great Britain
To an Height of Prosperity and Glory
Unknown to any Former Age.

Pitt the Elder
Pitt the Elder Portrait
Further Reading
Pitt the Elder
by Jeremy Black

Pitt the Elder: Man of War
by Edward Pearce

The Elder Pitt (Profiles In Power)
by Marie Peters

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by Stephen Luscombe