Pitt, William, 1st earl of Chatham
Pitt, William, 1st earl of Chatham
known as Pitt the Elder. In 1735 Pitt launched his belligerent political career by insulting King George II over his son's marriage and was dismissed from the army commission he had held since 1731. Thereafter Pitt quickly established himself as a leading speaker against Walpole's ministry and its policy of support for Hanover.
Walpole's fall did not immediately bring Pitt into the government, but after turning his oratorical fire on Carteret, he was given the post of paymaster‐general in 1746. The king's enmity ensured, however, that he remained outside the cabinet. Henry Pelham, the prime minister, kept Pitt quiet, but upon Pelham's death in 1754, Pitt entered the great struggle between leading politicians. When the Seven Years War began with the loss of Minorca and defeats in America, Pitt was seen by many as the country's only hope. With great reluctance George II invited him to form a government with the duke of Devonshire nominally at its head in December 1756. It soon became apparent that no government would have the combination of skill and numerical strength in Parliament necessary to prosecute the war unless Pitt and Newcastle acted together; thus, in July 1757, Newcastle was appointed 1st lord with Pitt as secretary of state for the southern department.
Pitt unquestionably acted as leader of the war effort. He inspired the military and the country at large and won the confidence of Britain's major ally, Prussia. Pitt's goal was colonial expansion, and by 1761 Britain had driven the French from Canada, India, and most of the Caribbean.
Pitt had won George II's respect, though never his affection, by the time of the king's death in 1760, but when George III's reign commenced his position was less secure. The new king, encouraged by his tutor Bute, wanted peace. Pitt disagreed, and after another year of military success, he resigned over the cabinet's refusal to permit attacks upon the Spanish in October 1761. War with Spain soon followed. In the Commons, Pitt condemned the peace settlement but Fox's managerial skills ensured that the treaty was overwhelmingly approved.
The 1760s was a decade of political instability due in no small measure to Pitt himself. He refused to ally with any political faction, uniformly support the king, or retire. His strongest feelings were reserved for America and he bitterly attacked his brother‐in‐law Prime Minister Grenville for passing the Stamp Act. However, he would not agree with the Rockingham faction either, who repealed the Act.
The king persuaded Pitt to form a ministry in July 1766. Pitt (hitherto popularly known as ‘the Great Commoner’) took the title of earl of Chatham and the office of lord privy seal (with the duke of Grafton as 1st lord). Within months he had plunged into a state of virtual insanity. Chatham officially resigned in October 1768, but did not regain his senses until late 1769. The final decade of Chatham's life was divided between illness and dramatic appearances in the Lords to attack North's American policies. He was against American independence, but believed, as late as 1778, that an imperial settlement could be reached. In April 1778 Chatham was escorted to the Lords by his favourite son, William Pitt the Younger, but during debate collapsed and died on 11 May.
For a man with so many problems, in office for such brief periods, to be regarded as one of the country's greatest premiers testifies to the scale of his achievements.