Custom Search


William Pitt

William Pitt was born on 15th November 1708, younger son of Robert Pitt MP. He was educated at Eton, Oxford and in Utrecht. Entering Parliament as MP for Old Sarum in 1735 he quickly established himself as a formidable if brittle talent, making his name attacking what he judged to be the corruption of Robert Walpole's government. This early part of his career was marked by episodes of acute depressive illness, in 1744, and between 1751 and 1753. Marriage to Lady Hester Grenville in 1754 seemed to help these emotional difficulties, and during the late 1750s William Pitt became an indefatigable force in Parliament.


The policies which Pitt built his strength upon were highly contradictory. He always insisted that Britain's strength lay in overseas trade. In Pitt's view Britain had to be continually ready for war to protect its trade. This was a strange philosophy, and one that Pitt's early enemy Robert Walpole would never agree with. Walpole thought the trade was best defended by maintaining peace. War was expensive and disrupted the business of trade like nothing else. So Pitt's constant war mongering, particularly after the loss of Minorca to the French in 1756, was not entirely logical. For Walpole the economic logic of his position was less important than the popularity of his aggressive patriotism with the public. From as early as 1739 Pitt was "the voice of England". He was tactless in his dealing with the king, George II, which kept Pitt from high office. Nevertheless the public would not stand for Pitt being excluded from government, and he had to be accommodated. Pitt reached the peak of his career as secretary of state, under the nominal authority of First Lord of the Treasury, Duke of Newcastle, between 1757 and 1762. While Newcastle got on with raising money, and acting as a figurehead for government unity, Pitt ran, or at least was a public figurehead for, the Seven Years War against France. He was popular because he seemed to personify the war effort in one man, working endless hours, struggling against physical and mental health problems to ensure Britain's military success - or so it seemed. He was considered to be in personal control of the war effort, and has been credited with that authority since. Stanley Ayling for example writes that: "No detail was too small for his attention. He always delegated as little as possible; he himself must attend to the arrangement of convoys, to the preparation of siege trains, even to the condition of a consignment of ammunition flints... He set an urgent and novel atmosphere of 'action this day' " (Stanley Ayling in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P 144). This is a beguiling image, and I have to admit that I was beguiled by it myself. But in reality we have to be sensible. Any orders sent to far flung parts of the British Empire would take weeks to get there. One man in London could not have personally supervised a global war. This is a point made by Edward Pearce in his biography of Pitt, Pitt the Elder: Man of War. The Seven Years War was a massive struggle, fought by soldiers who out of necessity had to make their own decisions. In Britain you can appreciate the vast scale of the war effort at Fort Amherst in Chatham, Kent. Building of this enormous fortification, eventually the biggest in Britain, began in the 1750s, and was to continue until 1805. The scale of the work is staggering.

Pitt made his name by personifying vast and confusing global events. Perhaps it is revealing that Edward Pearce's book debunking the myth of Pitt's personal control is heavy going and a difficult read. Pitt's job was to give a human face and a understandable scale to the war, to tell a story that was suitable for easy public consumption. This he did very well. What he seemed to lack, however, was the insight of a politician like Disraeli, who put on a show for the public, whilst being completely aware of what he was doing. Pitt actually seemed to believe in his own image, which increased its power, but did nothing for his sense of perspective. Subordinates struggled to cope with their chief's almost demented energy. When one official protested at the impossibility of a request, Pitt indicated the crutches he was using to support his arthritic body, and barked. "Sir, I walk upon impossibilities" (quoted Ayling P144).




Fort Amherst, Chatham

Pitt rode the crest of an historical wave which saw the British winning a huge North American and Canadian empire. And as he did so he continued to believe in the strange concept that trade would be helped by these conquests. Pitt held to a mercantilist vision of economics. In this view, wealth depended on the military conquest and control of natural resources, over which the victor then held a profitable monopoly. Conquests in Canada, for example, had control of the fishing grounds of Newfoundland as a goal. But of course trade suggests a passing of materials back and fore between two trading partners, each giving the other something in return for something else. Pitt seemed to be playing Monopoly where the aim is to knock out all other players, which in the end of course leaves no one else to trade with.


As the years went by Pitt softened his stance somewhat, but he never changed his fundamental position that Britain should be a global power. Pitt was determined to defeat the French in North America. In July 1758 Louisberg, the strongest French fort in America, guarding the St Lawrence Seaway, fell to British forces led by Admiral Boscawen and General Amherst. Then the British took Fort Duquesne on the Ohio, and renamed it Fort Pitt, now the site of Pittsburgh. In 1759 Guadeloupe fell to the British, and General Wolfe defeated the French at Quebec. Admiral Hawke ended the year with a victory over the Brest fleet in Quiberon Bay. By September 1760 Montreal had fallen, and Britain ruled virtually the whole of Canada. Then at this moment of victory, George II died, and a young George III came to the throne. The new king was not a fan of the war, influenced as he was by his tutor the Earl of Bute. With little royal support, suffering exhaustion and ill health, and feeling that after so many victories the job was done, Pitt resigned in 1761. Then for three and a half years he stayed in the background nursing various ailments and a brooding sense of grievance that all his achievements were being thrown away. He looked on in disgust while the Earl of Bute, and then George Grenville and finally the Marquis of Rockingham tried to hold governments together. Eventually it was felt that only the mighty Pitt could save government, and he was asked to form a ministry in 1766. Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, did not want to be First Lord of the Treasury, the traditional position of the first minister. That post involved too much bother with day to day Commons business. Instead the job of First Lord went to the Duke of Grafton, while Pitt became Lord Privy Seal.


By now Pitt was an exhausted and sick man. Within a few weeks of taking office, a trip to Bath was felt necessary to try and improve his health. He came back to London in the autumn, but was back in Bath by Christmas. He managed to return to Parliament in March 1767, but then collapsed again. Pitt remained in a bad state for the rest of 1767, and decided to resign in October 1768. He spent his last years railing against the government, particularly regarding the situation in America. The American War of Independence had begun, and Pitt pleaded for greater efforts to retain the colonies. He was not an advocate of repression of America, and encouraged concessions to colonists, but neither was he willing to see America go its own way. His whole political life had been dedicated to building an overseas empire which he hoped would make Britain rich. Now with the views of economist Adam Smith gaining ground, free trade was more fashionable. Increasingly it was thought that peaceful trade between independent nations was the real way to prosperity. It was also the case that Britain wasn't able to make any money out of America, since it was impossible to levy taxes on increasingly restive colonists. In fact the colonies were costing money, requiring a continual and expensive military presence. War also disrupted trade with emerging markets in America, which caused further financial difficulties. But Pitt hung onto the old vision until the end. In April 1778 the Duke of Richmond put forward a motion that troops should be withdrawn from America. Pitt was apoplectic. He dragged himself to Westminster and with all his remaining strength he spoke in a faltering voice against the motion. He then collapsed in the House of Lords, and died a month later. In many ways Pitt's death was the death of a world view.