William Pitt, the Elder

The elder William Pitt, later the first Earl of Chatham, was the driving force behind the British victory in the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in North America. The extensive triumph was instrumental in establishing a truly global empire. Pitt was born in Westminster, England, the son of a prominent family whose wealth had been made in India. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, and entered the House of Commons at age 27. There he joined with other young members in opposing the foreign policies of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. This opposition was embarrassing to the Crown and touched off lasting antipathy between Pitt and George II.

William Pitt

During the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s, Pitt grew in public admiration while serving as army paymaster, where he displayed unusual foresight, honesty and a refusal to enrich himself at public expense.

After warfare resumed in North America in 1755, Pitt lost his government position because of his constant criticism of the prime minister and the government’s war plan. However, the dreadful showing of the British forces soon brought him back to power. Reluctantly, George II named him secretary of state in 1756 and in the following year Pitt joined with the Duke of Newcastle in forming a new government. Never lacking in self-confidence, he declared, “I know that I can save this country, and that no one else can.” By 1758, Pitt controlled the war effort almost single-handedly. His decisive contributions included:

  • He saw North America, not Europe, as the pivotal ingredient in the creation of a great empire. He liberally subsidized the Prussians to handle the bulk of the conflict on the continent, while concentrating on America.

  • He publicly identified France as the prime opponent, a position that won support from leading merchants and the masses, thus cementing popular backing for the war effort.

  • Pitt gained American support for the conflict by paying subsidies to the colonial governments that provided soldiers and supplies.

  • He showed little patience with unproductive military leaders. Lord Loudoun, the successor to Edward Braddock, was relieved of his command after his failure at Louisbourg. Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe, among others, filled the void with startling success.
Despite victories in North America, Europe, West Africa, India and the West Indies, the new monarch, George III, forced Pitt’s resignation in 1761.

The former secretary of state spent the next few years as a leader of the opposition. He was a vocal critic of the Peace of Paris (1763), arguing that the terms were far too lenient in light of the overpowering British victory. He saw no reason for the return of West Indian islands to France, and Cuba and the Philippines to Spain. Pitt gained further adulation in the American colonies by his opposition to government programs for imposing new taxes, particularly the Stamp Act tax (1765).

Pitt returned to power in 1766 as Prime Minister and was made Earl of Chatham and Lord Privy Seal. His ability to mold events had been sharply diminished by declining health, which left him playing second fiddle to Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer. The infamous Townshend Duties were enacted in 1767 over Pitt’s protests. He resigned in 1768.

In the following years, Pitt made occasional appearances in the House of Lords, usually to plead for a more sympathetic treatment of the American colonists. After war erupted, Pitt urged that every effort be made to secure peace, but he — the great architect of empire — would not accept the idea of independence. Pitt died a few days after collapsing in the House of Lords, where he was delivering a speech on the troubled relationship with the American colonies.

William Pitt the elder demonstrated great skills as a wartime leader, particularly in the areas of grand strategy and organization. However, his contributions were limited by inattention to administrative matters and his inability to adjust to the give-and-take of political life.

In an ironic turn of events, Pitt gained great popularity in America during the French and Indian war by lavishing cash reimbursements on the colonists for their military expenses. Those excesses, however, helped to create a massive public debt at home. Post-war efforts to collect a portion of that obligation through taxes in the colonies would lead to estrangement, independence and ultimately the disintegration of the empire.

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