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Reference group
Chathamites [Chathamite whigs, Chatham whigs] (act. 1766–1782) were the members of parliament who formed the personal following of William Pitt the elder, first earl of Chatham, from the early 1760s, during his period in office as prime minister (1766–8), and until his death in 1778.

The name arises from the title Pitt took upon his elevation to the peerage on becoming prime minister, but Pitt enjoyed a personal following in the Commons before that date. This had been derived from the faction within which Pitt had first made his mark in parliament, Cobham's Cubs, the followers of Richard Temple, first Viscount Cobham. Cobham's Cubs, so called from their youth by comparison with their leader, Cobham, had opposed the government of Sir Robert Walpole as morally and financially corrupt, and presented themselves as the leaders of the ‘patriot’ cause, which would supposedly eschew the subjection of British interests to those of Hanover, defend Britain's maritime trading interests, and above all uphold the principles they associated with the revolution of 1688: opposition to an increase in the prerogative powers of the crown, and the supremacy of parliament and the ‘ancient liberties’ of the Englishman. Although in the 1740s, after the fall of Walpole, the cubs were tempted into government, they could reasonably argue that they were there as patriotic servants of the king, moderating the tendencies of Walpole's successors, the Pelham brothers and their supporters, the ‘old corps’. Pitt was careful to avoid ministries which he associated with corruption—in the Pitt–Newcastle administration, between 1757 and 1761, Pitt was comfortable leaving the treasury, and patronage, to Newcastle. This led some contemporaries to regard Pitt as dishonourable, as he seemed to have no regard for connection; for example he did little or nothing in the period from 1757 to 1761 to promote the career of his able brother-in-law George Grenville. Pitt wished to demonstrate that he was not reliant on the support of dependants, but, in consequence, when he left office in 1761 he had few friends in parliament to fall back on, though this was balanced by a substantial popular reputation.

The frequent changes of ministry in the 1760s contributed to the emergence of a group of young politicians whose identification with patriot principles echoed Cobham's Cubs in the 1730s. During 1763 Pitt intervened in the debates over the Grenville ministry's prosecution of John Wilkes, concentrating on the legality of the government's use of general warrants, while distancing himself from Wilkes's actions. He fluently articulated patriot views in these debates while also, during negotiations over the reorganization of the ministry that year, arguing for a ministry based on ‘revolution principles’ that would not seek to extend the royal prerogative at the expense of parliamentary privilege. The negotiations, conducted partly in public, confirmed Pitt as a viable and principled political force in the eyes of radicals in the City of London, and won the support of former members and adherents of the administration. These included William Petty, second earl of Shelburne, and his allies John Calcraft and Isaac Barré. Shelburne's allies would provide the core of the Chathamite party. Pitt's schoolfriend, the former attorney-general Charles Pratt, who as chief justice of common pleas had condemned the use of general warrants and briefly become a radical hero, was also close to Shelburne and Pitt.

For some years both Pitt and Shelburne opposed the ministry from retirement. At this stage the possibility of an invitation to form a government was ever-present, and during the debate over the Regency Bill in April 1765 it was Shelburne in the Lords and the City politician and West Indies planter William Beckford who led Pitt's group through their calls for greater parliamentary supervision of a future regent. Suspicion of a government led by old corps whigs, and formed under the auspices of the king's uncle the duke of Cumberland, encouraged Pitt and his followers to stand aloof from the Rockingham ministry formed in July 1765.

If ‘revolution principles’ made up the first part of the platform of the Chathamite cause, a second emerged during the Rockingham administration: sympathy for the American campaign against taxation imposed by the British parliament. This cause grew out of the first: both Pitt and Shelburne thought that taxation of the Americans without their consent violated their liberties—how this could be reconciled with parliamentary sovereignty was never resolved.

Most politicians in the mid-1760s took the view that no lasting ministry could be formed without Pitt's involvement, but Pitt's reluctance to lead a ministry placed a special burden on his supporters. His brother-in-law Richard Grenville, second Earl Temple, had left government with him in 1761. Placing Temple, the head of the Grenville family and the nephew and heir of the patron of Cobham's Cubs, at the head of a Pitt-guided ministry would have emphasized Pitt's self-representation as heir of the patriot tradition. However, twice, in 1765 and 1766, Temple refused to lead a ministry, as both George III and Pitt were unwilling to have George Grenville, Temple's brother, as a minister. Thus when Pitt came to form a ministry, in July 1766, one of the outermost circle of his admirers, Augustus Henry FitzRoy, third duke of Grafton, whose chief political allegiance had been to Rockingham, became first lord of the treasury.

Pitt's wish to combine political ascendancy with rural retreat compromised his goals and his following. His decision to leave the Commons to become earl of Chatham blunted his patriot credentials. Chatham, with the king's approval, had sought to break down party loyalties and create a patriot-spirited, defactionalized administration, but his absence from day-to-day business exposed the practical limitations of his ideology. Shelburne, though secretary of state, was unable to prevent a series of decisions that were not Chathamite in character, including renewed attempts to tax the American colonies and further confrontation with Wilkes. Chatham's withdrawal from business through ill health in 1767 left his party without inspiration. Pratt, now lord chancellor as Lord Camden, deserted, declaring Grafton to be his leader. Chatham eventually resigned in 1768, in protest at attempts to remove Shelburne from the secretaryship; Shelburne and Barré then resigned as well. The episode weakened the party, as former and potential allies remained in office under Grafton. Some Chathamites remained in the ministry, including the commander-in-chief of the army, John Manners, marquess of Granby, as well as John Dunning. Parliamentary supporters of Shelburne outside the ministry, such as John Sawbridge and James Townsend, maintained Chathamite connections with the Wilkesite movement in the City through activity in the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights.

The Chathamite party was brought back into meaningful existence by the return of Chatham to active politics in January 1770. His speech on 9 January attacking the ministry led Camden, Dunning, and Granby to join the opposition. Grafton resigned that month but there was no Chathamite apotheosis, as George III turned to Lord North, whose administration excluded both the Chatham and Rockingham groups.

The Chathamites, reunited, proceeded to a new period of opposition, at first in alliance with the Rockinghams. Their hopes of providing an alternative basis for an administration failed through personal tensions and ideological differences based on their experience of the 1760s. The split came in February 1771, when Chatham refused to support the Rockinghams' bill to establish that juries could decide both facts and law in seditious libel cases, on the grounds that all that was needed was a declaration that this had always been the case.

Shelburne remained loyal, but the size of the party fluctuated. Calcraft died in 1772. Some Chathamites proved fairweather friends, for example James Townsend, who was returned as lord mayor of London in 1772 with the backing of North. Some Chathamites brought family connections, but the loyalty of each such group was to its patron: after Granby's death in 1770 his followers at first voted with Chatham but by 1774 at least one prominent member, Granby's agent Thomas Thoroton, was listed as a supporter of North. The Manners family interest regrouped as a wing of the Chathamite party once Charles Manners, the new marquess of Granby, later fourth duke of Rutland, made his maiden speech in the Commons in praise of Chatham in April 1775.

The collapse of the united opposition led again to Chatham's retirement. The Chathamite response to the administration's India policy was mainly the work of Shelburne and Barré. Chatham returned to active politics when he was among the first of the British political élite to realize how serious the American crisis had become. The personal relationships he established with American agents in London, including Benjamin Franklin, and a series of initiatives, including a ‘Provisional Act for Settling the Troubles in America’ in February 1775, made a Chatham-led ministry seem a viable alternative should North's policies fail. The main objection was Chatham's ill health; this and the outbreak of war between Britain and America sidelined him, perhaps to good effect as Shelburne was able to take the lead and establish areas of co-operation with the Rockinghams. The defeat of British forces at Saratoga in 1777 prompted some government supporters to join the opposition, some of whom aligned with Chatham, including Sir Philip Jennings Clerke, who repeatedly introduced a bill to exclude government contractors from the Commons between 1778 and 1782.

Chatham died on 11 May 1778, with the opposition again disunited as Chatham and Shelburne argued that the Americans were sovereign by right, to which the Rockinghams could not agree. The faction led by Shelburne remained ‘Chathamite’ until it was incorporated in the second Rockingham administration in 1782, and perhaps until many of its members helped provide the basis for the administration of William Pitt the younger in 1783.

Eighteenth-century factions were generally loose groupings of individuals, and it is often difficult to ascertain who could be described as a Chathamite. Chathamite ideals were appropriated by the Rockinghams once Chatham had died; but though they eased the peace settlement with America, concluded under the auspices of Shelburne's premiership in 1783, they were probably impractical as a basis for government in eighteenth-century Britain.

Matthew Kilburn


HoP, Commons, 1754–90 · M. Peters, Pitt and popularity (1980) · M. Peters, The elder Pitt (1998) · P. D. G. Thomas, John Wilkes: a friend to liberty (1996) · J. Black, Pitt the elder (1992) · J. Norris, Shelburne and reform (1963)