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William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham (1708-78)

William Pitt was born on 15 November 1708, the second son and fourth of seven children of Robert Pitt and his wife Lady Harriet Villiers. The family was not aristocratic and the politicians in the family relied on connections and their own abilities to make their way in life. Between 1719 and 1726, Pitt was educated at Eton and then he went up to Trinity College Oxford. He left there in 1728 before graduating and took a place at the University of Utrecht. Pitt then was provided with a Cornetcy in Cobham's Regiment (the King's Own Regiment of Horse) in 1731but was dismissed in 1736 for a sarcastic speech he made in parliament. Cobham was his uncle. Pitt undertook a foreshortened "grand tour" in 1733-4, visiting only France and Switzerland.

Pitt entered political life in 1735 when he was elected as MP for Old Sarum, the family's rotten borough. In 1737 he was appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. In this period of his life, Pitt opposed Walpole's government and sat on a Committee of Enquiry into Walpole's use of Civil List money. In October 1744 he was bequeathed ?0,000 by the Duchess of Marlborough for his opposition to Walpole. The money was well-received because Pitt was perpetually in debt.

In 1746 Pitt was appointed Paymaster General, a post which carried Cabinet status. He worked hard in Pelham's ministry and on the death of the PM (in 1754) expected to be rewarded by the incoming PM and Pelham's brother, the Duke of Newcastle. When Newcastle did nothing to help Pitt, he was indignant and wrote a letter of complaint to the PM. Newcastle then arranged for Pitt to represent the rotten borough of Aldborough in 1754. In the same year, Pitt married Hester Grenville, sister of Earl Temple and George Grenville. Hester was 23 years his junior. The couple had three sons and two daughters: William (Pitt the Younger) was their second son.

In 1756 the Seven Years' War broke out; Pitt was Secretary of State with sole charge of the direction of the war and foreign affairs. During the early years of the war, Britain suffered a number of reversals but late in 1758 the army began to make inroads into French control of Canada including the capture of Fort Duquesne which was renamed Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). In 1759 Quebec surrendered after the death of Generals Wolfe (Br.) and Montcalme (Fr.) in the battle for the town. Pitt had fulfilled his promise to "save his country". He then wanted to press home Britain's advantage by declaring war on Spain before the Spanish had time to prepare for and declare war on Britain. This was always a likelihood since the French and Spanish royal families were related and had signed the "Family Compact" to provide mutual assistance in time of war. The new king, George III, and his advisers - particularly the Earl of Bute - were reluctant to extend the war. Pitt's position was made untenable and he resigned in 1761.

The king and Bute, pleased to have Pitt out of office, offered him a variety of posts including the governorship of Canada and the Chancellopship of the Duchy of Lancaster - offices that would keep Pitt out of parliament. He refused all these offers but hinted that rewards for his relatives would be welcome. He accepted a pension of £3,000 for his own lifetime and for that of his wife and his son John. Mrs. Pitt was created Baroness Chatham: she was lampooned as "Lady Cheat'em" for some time.

In 1762, Bute was obliged to declare war on Spain, just as Pitt had proposed a year earlier. However, at the end of the year, Bute had begun negotiations for a peace. Pitt returned to parliament to deliver a scathing, three-hour speech attaching the proposals: the performance was enshrined in Dalrymple's poem, The Rodondo. Bute found the burdens of office too much to bear and in 1763 was replaced by George Grenville, Pitt's brother-in-law who was PM until July 1765.

In January 1765, Sir William Pysent - a total stranger - left his Somerset estate of Burton Pysent to Pitt. The estate was worth about £40,000. In the same year the king made overtures to Pitt for the formation of a ministry. Pitt was in poor health and also was aware that he was the king's last resort for PM so he refused. Rockingham formed a short-lived ministry and in 1766 Pitt became PM in his own right but now elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Chatham. By accepting the peerage he lost all credibility as the "Great Commoner" and was unable to control the House of Commons.

The Duke of Grafton was First Lord of the Treasury in this ministry and Charles Townshend was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The budget was overturned by a successful Rockinghamite motion to reduce the land tax to 3/- in the £. Chatham, who had not expected his ministry to have so many troubles, collapsed and spent the next eighteen months out of touch with politics (and possibly out of touch with reality). It was Townshend who introduced the American Import Duties Act in 1767 in an effort to raise money from the colonies to pay for their defence even though this was against Chatham's policy. However, with the "great man" incommunicado, the ministers did much as they pleased. Eventually Chatham resigned in October 1768, leaving the Duke of Grafton to form a ministry in his own right.

Over then next ten years, Chatham appeared from time to time in parliament to support or attack the government, depending on its policies. He tried desperately to avert open conflict with the American colonies but each time he failed to get his own way he retired to the country, ill. On 7 April 1778 he attended the House of Lords for a debate on the situation in the colonies with the intention of opposing the Duke of Richmond's motion to give the colonies their independence. He spoke against Richmond, who responded. When Chatham rose again to reply, he opened his mouth, clutched his chest and collapsed on the Duke of Portland. Chatham was carried from the House of Lords and taken to Hayes where he died on 11 May 1778. He was 69 years old.

See also the poem in praise of Chatham

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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12 January, 2016