Pitt, William, first earl of Chatham [known as Pitt the elder]
- Marie Peters
William Pitt, first earl of Chatham [Pitt the elder] (1708–1778)
Pitt, William, first earl of Chatham [known as Pitt the elder] (1708–1778), prime minister, was born on 15 November 1708 at Golden Square, Westminster, the fourth child and second son of Robert Pitt (1680?–1727), politician, of Boconnoc, Cornwall, and his wife, Harriet Villiers (d. 1736), younger daughter of General the Honourable Edward Villiers of Dromana, co. Waterford, and his wife, Katharine Fitzgerald, Viscountess Grandison.
Family and early years, 1708–1735
Pitt's mother came from notable Irish aristocratic families; his father's family were of lesser English gentry origin until his grandfather Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt (1653–1726), merchant, MP, and East India Company governor of Madras, made the family fortunes. As a young boy William had some contact with his paternal uncle James Stanhope, Earl Stanhope, an experienced soldier and leading whig, and in his schooldays his formidable paternal grandfather saw enough of him to recognize him as 'a hopefull lad' (Fortescue MSS, 1.73). The letters of his young manhood suggest he was more familiar with his mother's side of the family. With his paternal inheritance came 'the Governor's' feuding family relations and something of his tempestuous character—evident occasionally even in the young man's correspondence.
William was educated at Eton College from 1719 to 1726; he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1727, and on to Utrecht from some time early in 1728. Although his tutor at Eton recognized 'good abilities' and a good disposition in him, apparently neither Eton nor Oxford favourably impressed him (Dropmore MSS, series 2, BL, Add. MS 69288, no. 2). Much later he was to comment that 'he had scarce observed a boy who was not cowed for life at Eton', and his own sons were sent to neither institution (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.72). Perhaps at school began the warping of his warm, affectionate disposition. Certainly he had already begun to suffer from the variety of ailments in different parts of the body—limbs, stomach, bowels, head—which were to afflict him all his life and which contemporaries loosely referred to as gout. These were to be associated, possibly from his thirties, certainly in later life, with nervous or psychological disorders which he and his doctor called 'lowness' and which we might call clinical depression or even manic depressive insanity or bipolar disorder.
Of necessity, as an impecunious younger son, Pitt had to look for a career. Only at the end of eight unsettled years from 1726 to 1734 did the young man look to politics. Any thought on his father's part that Pitt might take up one of the family's ecclesiastical livings had been given up by the time he left Eton. There was no obvious vocational purpose behind his studies at Oxford, which were cut short, it seems most likely, by his father's sudden death, or at Utrecht, where he had some financial support from his brother, Thomas. How long he remained at Utrecht is unclear, but by the beginning of 1730 he was back in England, kicking his heels on various family country estates. Then early in 1731 another career was opened for him with the help of a friend from Eton days, George Lyttelton, whose sister Christian his elder brother, Thomas, married about this time. Lyttelton introduced William to his wealthy and influential soldier uncle, Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, in whose regiment of horse William was granted a cornet's commission. The £1000 cost was very probably met by Sir Robert Walpole in an attempt to secure Thomas Pitt's considerable electoral influence, built up by his grandfather. William spent parts of the next two years in camp but in 1733–4 he was off to the continent once more, probably again with his brother's help, for the grand tour which would complete the education of a young man of social standing. Pitt's mini-tour befitted his limited means: seven months in France and Switzerland, but no time in Italy.
The general election of 1734, the first after Pitt's coming of age, opened another avenue to explore. However, not until his brother had secured his own and his sister's husband's return, and had decided to reject an offer to buy out William's claim on a seat at the family pocket borough of Old Sarum, was William returned to represent its electors—all five of them—in February 1735. Even then his political career was hardly determined. His correspondence at the time suggests more the normal pastimes of a not particularly serious young man than political ambition. Furthermore, Thomas Pitt had been a government supporter for some time, and William had expressed surprise that the proposed accommodation at his expense over the seat for Old Sarum was to have been with one 'declared in opposition' rather than someone 'more agreeable to Sir Robert' (Dropmore MSS, series 2, BL, Add. MS 69289, nos. 17–18)—surprise which suggests that he was not thinking of taking a similar stance. Within two months of his return to parliament, however, he had indeed declared his opposition to Walpole in what Lord Perceval called a 'distinguished' maiden speech in support of a bill to remove placemen from parliament (Egmont Diary, 2.171).
Opposition to Walpole, 1735–1742
Although apparently not premeditated, such a move was hardly surprising. Pitt's one patron, Lord Cobham, was now in open opposition, having recently been relieved of his regimental command for his behaviour in the excise crisis of 1733. Pitt's brother had also been secretly moving in the same direction. In any case a young man of William Pitt's ability might well forgo the lure of office for the heady excitement of an opposition which had in the recent crisis so nearly toppled the great Walpole and had won the propaganda battle by its vigorously argued 'patriot' programme. By the summer of 1735 Pitt was enjoying the distinguished company at Cobham's magnificent country seat at Stowe. Cobham's young nephews, Richard Grenville (his heir) and George Lyttelton, also recently returned to parliament, readily adopted Pitt as one of ‘Cobham's Cubs’—the spearhead of Cobham's now implacable opposition.
Soon the cubs, with their patron, began to move into even more distinguished circles. Frederick, prince of Wales, whose relations with his parents were deteriorating in a pattern becoming typical of Hanoverian monarchs, seemed likely to become the potent figurehead of opposition. In April 1736 the whig opposition leader, William Pulteney, provocatively moved an address to George II on the occasion of the prince's marriage, a marriage well known to be displeasing to the king. On this occasion all three cubs made 'very remarkable speeches', aptly summed up by Lord Hervey as insinuating, 'not in very covert terms' (Hervey, 2.553), that the nation owed the match and the dynastic stability it promised much less to the king than to the request of the prince and the voice of the people. Later in the year Hervey told the queen that Pitt was 'perpetually with the Prince, and at present in the first rank of his favour' (ibid., 2.613). In February 1737 all three cubs spoke again on the even more provocative Pulteney motion, only narrowly defeated, asking the king to grant the prince an establishment of £100,000 a year. Meanwhile, Pitt's notoriety had been enhanced when his opposition secured his dismissal from his cornetcy in May 1736. Compensatory reward came after the prince broke openly with his parents in July 1737, when Pitt became groom of the bedchamber to the prince, a position bringing him a welcome £400 a year.
Pitt had begun to discover the power to command attention by his oratory but, in carelessly giving offence to the king, had displayed a recklessness that was to become characteristic. However, for some time, seemingly governed by the prince's fluctuating interests, he played only a sporadic role in opposition. With his young friends he supported the patriot cause in debates on moves in 1737 and 1738 to reduce the size of the army but was silent on other major issues. He was drawn in somewhat more as opposition grew to Walpole's handling of disputes with Spain over trade in the Caribbean. In March 1739, in debates on the convention of the Pardo with Spain—soon after the prince had committed himself to open opposition—Pitt was said to have spoken 'very well, but very abusively' (Coxe, Walpole, 3.519) of the 'national ignominy' of yet another negotiated settlement 'odious throughout the kingdom' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 10, 1737–9, 1283, 1280). His sentiments echoed those of other major speakers. His vehemence, however, brought Walpole supporters to their feet in reply, while Walpole himself made notes on the speech. However, no speeches from Pitt are reported from the next parliamentary session. In 1740–41 he was more active (with Lyttelton), most notably on the famous motion of 13 February 1741 for an address to the king to dismiss Walpole. Then Pitt cited precedents for the removal of ministers on political grounds and, in what William Coxe reported as 'his emphatic language', criticized Walpole's administration for financial improvidence at home, while concentrating on the way in which, abroad (as Walpole himself summarized the argument), 'the system of Europe was totally subverted' (Coxe, Walpole, 1.653). This time the cubs distinguished themselves from other supporters of the prince who, with many tories, left without voting. Yet in the next session—following the 1741 general election, in which Pitt was again returned for Old Sarum—he took part in only the final crucial policy debate in the proceedings which brought Walpole to resignation in February 1742.
War and the path to office, 1742–1746
It is hardly surprising that such an erratic record did not win Pitt a place in the limited ministerial reconstruction which followed. However, he soon reinforced his claim as a rising young politician by two wide-ranging speeches supporting moves to set up a parliamentary inquiry into Walpole's years in power. His outspokenness won him one of the last places on the eventually ineffective secret committee of inquiry.
Very soon Pitt won new notice as a speaker of first rank. As the limited war with Spain of 1739 merged into general European conflict over the Austrian succession from 1740, opposition to the interventionist foreign policy of Lord Carteret became focused, late in 1742, on Britain's recent agreement to take 16,000 Hanoverian troops into British pay. Always latent, anti-Hanoverian sentiment rose sharply, expressing widespread popular disillusionment with post-Walpolean politics. To this anti-Hanoverianism Pitt gave parliamentary voice without thought for the consequences. In November he spoke against payment of the troops, in Richard Grenville's words 'like ten thousand angels' (Smith, 1.19). A little later he argued that their hiring was but another instance of the way in which 'this great, this powerful, this formidable kingdom, is considered only as a province to a despicable electorate' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 12, 1741–3, 1035)—words which compounded his offence to the king while extending it to the prince of Wales, from whom he was already alienated by the prince's reconciliation with the king. In the following session Pitt probed divisions among ministers with a new political sharpness by repeatedly attacking Carteret as 'an execrable, a sole minister', 'a Hanover troop minister', who was establishing 'a Prerogative Administration' (ibid., 13, 1743–7, 136n., 465n., 678n.). At the same time Pitt was developing an alternative policy of limited European commitment. As the war situation worsened early in 1744 he sustained his parliamentary campaign but with a new moderation. Now, independent of Cobham as well as the prince in his views, he was indeed a credible contender for office.
Yet when, in November, the king was forced by the Pelhams to abandon Carteret, now Earl Granville, Pitt was the only leading whig left out of the reconstructed ministry. As these manoeuvres unfolded over the summer he had been isolated in Bath by the first major attack of his complex ‘gout’. Much more significantly the king adamantly refused to tolerate him in the office of secretary at war for which he chose to press. Pitt had to accept his exclusion, softened by promises from the Pelhams. Indeed, his only two recorded contributions to the next parliamentary session showed conclusively that he had cast his lot with them. Making the first of his many dramatic appearances 'with the mien and apparatus of an invalid' (Philip Yorke's journal, Cobbett, Parl. hist., 13, 1743–7, 1054n.), he delivered what Horace Walpole considered a 'very strong and much admired speech' (Walpole, Corr., 19.4)—indeed a striking overview of recent policy—defending an increased number of troops for Flanders. Later he warmly supported the obvious ruse of increased aid to Austria so that at least half the Hanoverian troops that Britain was no longer to employ could be re-engaged. And in March, Pitt at last finalized his breach with the prince of Wales by resigning his household post.
However, as the war situation worsened further in 1745 and Jacobite rebellion seemed near success Pitt grew impatient. When parliament resumed, by supporting a number of embarrassing motions while judiciously advertising his loyalty he brought the Pelhams to negotiate directly with him for the first time. He took a tough stance, imposing three patriot conditions. Negotiations broke down over his demand for a redirection of war policy towards maritime conflict with the Bourbons. Now Pitt publicized these new views by moving for an address to the king to augment the navy. In a striking speech notable for its abuse of Pelham, he claimed 'We are designed by [nature] for a maritime power. Experience sufficiently confirms … when we endeavour to exert our strength by sea we become the dread of the world when by land the contempt of it' (BL, Stowe MS 354, fol. 248). However, in the crisis of rebellion by land Pitt's motion received little support. There was even less for his later spoiling motions.
Thus isolated, Pitt had to take the initiative in renewing contacts with the ministry. This time he put negotiations into Cobham's hands without conditions and had to withdraw his demand to be secretary at war. Only when the issue of his preferment became part of the full-scale showdown in February 1746 between the king and the ministers he scarcely seemed to tolerate, and the king had to submit to the Pelhams, did Pitt at last gain office. At first it was only the sinecure joint vice-treasurership for Ireland. When the chance arose in May he became paymaster-general—an office which required no attendance on the king.
Office under the Pelhams, 1746–1755
His second-rank office gave Pitt some experience of eighteenth-century administration. He took his office seriously; like Pelham before him, he renounced the customary financial perquisites from which others made fortunes. He tackled his duties energetically, not leaving them largely to deputies, and winning the respect of subordinates. In 1754 he successfully promoted a measure of reform connected with his office, an act providing for payment in advance rather than arrears to Chelsea pensioners, thus relieving them from the grip of moneylenders.
Pitt had won office by his parliamentary skills. Yet over the next eight years relatively few speeches are recorded, and most are on foreign affairs; only for 1751 are there records of speeches on a range of issues. There is, however, clear evidence beyond the sparse records of parliamentary debates for his claims that he wielded the 'oar of parliamentary drudgery' (Memoirs and Correspondence of … Lyttelton, 2.467) on routine business and gave his 'most zealous endeavours in parliament, on the points that laboured the most' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32734, fol. 323), notably the annual mutiny bills which the opposition targeted and, above all, foreign policy.
On foreign policy Pitt's muting of his earlier patriot stance in remarkable acquiescence to the ministry's views is most obvious. Very early, in April 1746, to the duke of Newcastle's delight, Pitt defended the year's vote to employ Hanoverian troops as warmly as he had previously attacked it. He did so on political grounds: he 'was now with a set of men with whom he should ever think it an honour to act, and that he should not act with them falsely, hollowly, or coldly' (Ilchester, Fox, Family and Relations, 1.134). When, in February 1750, he defended the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) and was taxed with his formerly more aggressive attitude, he adopted a different defence. Openly admitting his changed views, he acknowledged 'that I have upon some former occasions, by the heat of youth and the warmth of a debate, been hurried into expressions, which upon cool reflection, I have heartily regretted' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 14, 1747–53, 721). Since taking office he had been, it seems, consistently in favour of an early peace. Similarly, the next year, in defending the treaty of Madrid with Spain, which abandoned virtually all the claims that the opposition to Walpole had advanced, Pitt 'frankly acknowledged' the 'error' of his earlier opinions while deploying some substantial arguments (Coxe, Pelham, 2.139–40).
The most fully attested and striking aspect of Pitt's foreign policy views during these years in office is his warm support for Newcastle's increasingly grandiose and eventually abortive scheme to settle German imperial elections. In correspondence over the summer of 1750 Pitt complimented Newcastle on the progress of his plans. In the house in January and February 1751 Pitt publicly 'made a great panegyric on the Duke of Newcastle's German negotiations' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.5), giving them cogent justification. He
applauded the care of his Majesty for the preservation of tranquillity; expatiated on the danger, which must arise from a new vacancy in the imperial throne; and argued that the Bavarian [subsidy] treaty was justifiable, on every principle of sound policy.Coxe, Pelham, 2.140
Subsidy arrangements were justifiable, even in peacetime, Pitt argued, on grounds of preservation of the balance of power against France's attempts at subversion. Although more cautious in private about the treaty with Saxony of 1752, in September 1753 Pitt was happy enough with a projected subsidy treaty with Russia if savings could be made elsewhere.
Furthermore, Pitt did not continue the emphasis on maritime and colonial war which he had adopted in late 1745. Despite historians' claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that he played any part in the plan for an expedition into French Canada in 1746 or was particularly assertive over escalating friction with the French in North America in the early 1750s. Rather, in August 1753, he was concerned about 'clouds' over 'the calm of Europe' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32732, fol. 461).
There were powerful political considerations behind Pitt's attitude. Newcastle was now his patron, having secured his return for Seaford in the 1747 election. In 1750 Pitt was invited to correspond with Newcastle when he went with the king to Hanover and even to mediate in disputes with his brother. However, Pitt had also developed strong arguments for his changed views. He had, it seems clear, become something of a continentalist by conviction.
Defence of its foreign policy made Pitt at times a significant spokesman for an administration not short of parliamentary talent. But, despite Pelham's recognition of him as 'the most able and useful man we have amongst us' (Coxe, Pelham, 2.370), Pitt did not win advancement.
In 1750–51, with the other Cobhamites, Pitt renewed contacts with the prince of Wales, which were cut short by the prince's death in March. These contacts were probably more signs of his concern over the rising influence of the king's younger son, the duke of Cumberland, than of any discontent with Pelham. Certainly, as Pitt flexed his political muscles in the Commons in 1751, such concern came out in sustained public jousting with Henry Fox, Cumberland's lieutenant—which further displayed Pitt's impetuosity and capacity to offend not only the king but the administration's ‘old corps’ whig supporters. For example, in debates on the Regency Act made necessary by the prince's death Pitt not only extravagantly bewailed 'the loss of the most patriot prince that ever lived' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 1.91) but also played offensively on growing prejudice about Cumberland's supposed ambition. Well might Fox exclaim, 'He is a better speaker than I am, but thank God! I have more judgment' (ibid., 1.43).
Pitt's now mature oratory indeed brought him wide recognition as 'beyond comparison' (except for the solicitor-general, William Murray) the best speaker in the Commons (Letters of … Chesterfield, 4.1678). But this reputation—buttressed by neither strength of connection nor amelioration of the king's dislike—was, from mid-1751, gravely weakened by more than three years of virtual silence, enforced by serious illness. So Pitt was hardly in a position to exploit the turmoil into which the political world was thrown in March 1754 by the unexpected death of Henry Pelham. Indeed, Pitt was entirely passed over as the ministry was reconstructed under Newcastle.
Although still beholden to Newcastle's electoral patronage (now as MP for Newcastle's seat at Aldborough, Yorkshire), Pitt was no longer ready patiently to endure royal displeasure while serving under Newcastle's lieutenants in the Commons as he had served under Pelham—especially when that lieutenant was a parliamentary lightweight, Sir Thomas Robinson. Pitt's letters now made his demands quite clear—a place in the cabinet and 'real participation' (Smith, 1.110) in policy-making. In November he began to implement half-formed hints of alternative strategies. At first in uneasy alliance with Fox he returned to his old brilliant form in the house, probing Robinson's inadequacies, embarrassing Murray, and even gibing at Newcastle as 'one too powerful a subject' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.25). When Fox was bought off Pitt went on alone. By April 1755 he had decisively quarrelled with Fox and was making tentative contacts with the alternative court at Leicester House, while further unsatisfactory overtures from Newcastle brought his impatience to breaking point.
Marriage and family
As he began these manoeuvres, Pitt's confidence was reinforced by a dramatic change in his personal life. In September 1754, while on his usual summer sojourns with his friends, Pitt had fallen in love with Lady Hester Grenville (1720–1803), youngest child and only daughter of Richard Grenville (1678–1727), landowner, of Wotton Hall, Buckinghamshire, and Hester Temple, Countess Temple (bap. 1684, d. 1752). Pitt had known Lady Hester from her girlhood as sister to his fellow cubs Richard Grenville (now Earl Temple) and George and James, who had entered parliament in 1742 and were also political allies. In October, Pitt and Lady Hester were engaged; the wedding took place on 16 November 1754, 'the day from which I shall date all the real honour and happiness of poor life' (Smith, 1.128). It was an unusual match: he, at forty-six, was twelve years her senior, and both of them were old by the standards of the time. However, their correspondence over many years amply testifies to their intense mutual devotion and delight in the happy family life brought by the five children born over the next seven years: Hester (1755), John Pitt, later second earl of Chatham (1756), Harriot (1758), William Pitt the younger (1759), and James Charles (1761).
Pitt had very good reason to be grateful to Hester for joining 'part of her best days to a very shattered part of mine' (Dropmore MSS, series 2, BL, Add. MS 69289, no. 39). The marriage must have contributed to the surge of energy which, after years of illness, was to drive Pitt over the next seven years of high achievement. It was, moreover, a political alliance. Greeted ecstatically by all the brothers, it initially strengthened Pitt's ties with them, making him part of the ‘cousinhood’ of Grenvilles and Lytteltons and bringing generous financial support from Earl Temple when Pitt lost office a year later.
Outwardly the marriage conformed to the conventional pattern which Elizabeth Montagu had foreseen at the time of the engagement: 'there is an authority in the character of Mr P[itt] that will secure him the deference and obedience of his wife; proud of him abroad she will be humble to him at home' (Hunt. L., Montagu MSS, MO6720). 'To be your second self is all my ambition', Hester wrote in the early years (Chatham MSS, TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/7, 76). Yet she had grown up in a highly political family, amid constant talk of politics, and in some senses over the years she became her husband's partner in politics. Only very occasionally do hints of her own views surface in correspondence with her husband. But not merely did she copy documents or keep her ear to the ground for political gossip; in later years, at least, she often managed his correspondence and received reports from allies. And certainly, without Hester's unstinting devotion and skills of family management, Pitt's chronic ill health, financial irresponsibility, and personal arrogance might well have wrecked, rather than merely hampered, his later career.
From patriot opposition to Devonshire–Pitt administration, 1755–1757
In the late summer of 1755 Pitt's growing impatience with Newcastle for the first time fastened on an issue of policy. Worsening Franco-British friction in North America led Newcastle to arrange subsidy treaties with Hesse-Cassel and Russia to protect Hanover in the event of the open war which grew increasingly likely. At the same time he sought to strengthen support in the Commons for such divisive measures by negotiations with Pitt. But Hardwicke and Newcastle found that Pitt, while coming 'roundly into' the 'maritime and American war', was hesitant about any 'general plan for the Continent' or 'subsidiary system'. He also now made his demands for office quite clear. He wanted not merely a call to the cabinet, but 'an office of advice as well as of execution'—obviously a secretaryship (Yorke, 2.231, 240, 238). There seems little doubt that he would have fallen into line over policy had his demands for office been met. Instead, Newcastle closed with Fox as leader in the Commons.
By this time Pitt had an openly acknowledged connection with Leicester House. He now began to marshal support for a parliamentary opposition. In the great night-long address-in-reply debate in November, his 'eloquence', in Walpole's words, 'like a torrent long obstructed, burst forth'. Pitt magnificently revived the patriot argument on foreign policy, attacking the subsidies, and the peace he had hitherto defended, and calling for a war undertaken for the 'long forgotten people of America', a British war to be fought by 'our proper force', the navy (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.69–71). The speech was embroidered with the famous mocking comparison of the union of Fox and Newcastle to the confluence of the Rhône and Saône. Pitt reaped his reward in summary dismissal from office.
Pitt maintained his patriot arguments throughout the session, notably in support of George Townshend's Militia Bill, together with attacks on the ministry which was, he said, 'an unaccording assemblage of separate and distinct powers with no system', 'driving a go-cart on a precipice' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.142, 145). But his vehemence aroused suspicion, Fox could readily show up Pitt's hypocrisy, and Pitt won very little support. Over the summer of 1756, however, the humiliating loss of Minorca to the French swelled an intense public clamour. In mid-October, Fox resigned. Pitt, blaming Newcastle for ill success abroad and claiming he could expect no share in the king's favour while Newcastle engrossed it, refused point blank to serve with him. When Newcastle also resigned Pitt refused to serve with Fox. By mid-November the king had been forced to agree to a ministry with the independent whig peer the duke of Devonshire at the Treasury and Pitt as secretary of state.
A now enthusiastic public had high hopes of Pitt's patriot promises. But it is hard to see what Pitt expected to achieve with the odds so stacked against him. Serious illness again confined him, the ministry had been forced on the king, it had no reliable majority in parliament, and it faced a deteriorating situation in the war openly declared in May and now merging into general European war.
The foreign situation was skilfully handled. Pitt brought new vigour, with plans for ambitious reinforcements for America and some ships to aid the East India Company. But he did not alter policy. While the king's speech promised the 'succour and preservation of America' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 15, 1753–65, 772) the need for help to the continent was also acknowledged. When Pitt next appeared in parliament, in mid-February 1757, he asked for extraordinary supplies to fulfil obligations to Prussia under the treaty of Westminster of January 1756. Supplies were granted, despite Fox's gibes at Pitt's earlier declaration that he 'would not have signed [the treaty] for the five great places of those who had signed it' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.145).
Domestic policy was much more problematic. Pitt's illness perhaps conveniently kept him away as another militia bill made its chequered progress to eventual success, and the promised inquiries into losses abroad proceeded lethargically. The ministry's novel and supposedly popular financial measures were miserable failures. Worst of all were problems about the fate of Admiral Byng, the commander sent to relieve Minorca and court-martialled and sentenced to death for his defeat. Not wanting blame entirely diverted to Byng, Pitt, with Temple, the first lord of the Admiralty, pleaded for mercy. But the tide of opinion demanded vengeance and Byng was executed on 14 March 1757.
This apparent confirmation of weakness, together with Cumberland's unwillingness, without a change of ministers, to take command of the mercenary army being put together in Germany, brought the king to dismiss Pitt and Temple early in April. Then followed virtually three months with only a caretaker ministry in the midst of unsuccessful war. The king's action and powerful Foxite attacks in the press saved Pitt from the ignominy of failed patriotism by making him appear the victim of the 'old junto'. Expressions of support came in the press and with the freedoms of thirteen cities, often manoeuvred by Pittites. Pitt could thus make himself appear essential in containing divisive opposition, while carefully not antagonizing potential allies. His restored relations with Leicester House promised reconciliation in the royal family. This brought Newcastle quickly to determine on alliance with Pitt rather than Fox; Pitt's fears of Newcastle's 'engrossing chicanery' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 2.256) did most to prolong negotiations. At last, on 29 June 1757, the Newcastle–Pitt coalition kissed hands, with Pitt again secretary of state.
Pitt–Newcastle coalition, 1757–1761
The new ministry was a very broad coalition. However, Pitt's position in it was initially weak. True, Newcastle was no longer his patron; in 1756 Pitt had been returned by family connections for both Okehampton and Buckingham, choosing to sit for the former; now he was elected by the thirty-member corporation of Bath. Furthermore, Pitt had successfully defended his revived patriot reputation and turned the force of wider opinion for the first time to work for, rather than against, a major politician. But that reputation was vulnerable, especially as he now joined the 'old junto' and faced the chances of war. The king was only grudgingly reconciled; Pitt could well be swamped by the numbers of Newcastle's old corps. The vagaries of his career had made his growing ambition for power much more obvious than any clear perception of Britain's interests abroad. And now novel issues were posed for policy and strategy by a war originating beyond Europe—and to remain focused there—yet including an essential European theatre.
In Germany the early months of the coalition saw Britain's ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia, under severe pressure from all sides, while in the west, in September, Cumberland's army of observation was forced virtually to abandon Hanover to the French in the convention of Klosterseven. Within a year the coalition had responded by shaping a policy that remained in force until 1762. Britain took control of, and paid, the army in the west, and contributed British troops to it. In April 1758 a second treaty of Westminster was signed with Prussia, whereby Britain promised an annual subsidy of £670,000 and both sides agreed not to make a separate peace.
Pitt was as forward as any minister in shaping this dual continental commitment—despite his patriot promises, and although his office as secretary of state for the southern department gave him no formal role in German policy-making. Already he had accepted alliance with Prussia. In July he suggested increased grants to the continent. He was foremost in urging the king to disavow Klosterseven and firmly supported taking over the army of observation, although continental expenditure was thus increased sixfold and was certain to escalate further. In June 1758—after the prorogation of parliament—Pitt himself proposed sending British troops to Germany, despite having declared in December that 'he would not now send a drop of our blood to the Elbe, to be lost in that ocean of gore' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.3).
Pitt was more cautious about Prussia. He was ready from the beginning to grant money, and seized enthusiastically on, and made his own, Frederick's suggestions of coastal expeditions against France. But when others might have compromised Pitt was steadfast, indeed truculent, in resisting Frederick's preference for more tangible commitment—a Baltic squadron and British troops in Germany. Seemingly Pitt feared what he called the 'lurking, diffusive poison' of Hanoverian interests and Cumberland's influence (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32877, fol. 257). Only when, after months of stalemate, Frederick reduced his demands could the treaty be concluded.
Pitt's identification with this dual German policy was crucial to its ready acceptance in parliament. It could be said to have subordinated the German theatre to British interests; certainly, far fewer British troops and a much smaller proportion of total costs were to be devoted to the continent than in previous wars. Equally certainly, in the course of its evolution Pitt had won respect, both in the coalition and among foreign representatives, far beyond his office. By mid-1758, even Frederick the Great acknowledged his dominance.
Meanwhile operations were gathering momentum in much less controversial spheres beyond Europe which were unquestionably within Pitt's domain of responsibility. Here the great British victories were to be won: in 1758 Louisburg, commanding the mouth of the St Lawrence, and Senegal and Gorée on the west African coast; Quebec and Guadeloupe in 1759; Montreal in 1760; Martinique in 1762. The later successes were greatly facilitated when naval victories in European waters in 1759 not only helped to thwart the threat of French invasion of Britain but also established naval supremacy. In India the East India Company won dominance in Bengal and repelled the French challenge in the Carnatic, for the first time decisively getting the upper hand.
The distinctive contribution which Pitt made to the campaigns which won these victories was first illustrated in planning for the North American campaign of 1758, after initial reinforcements agreed on in mid-1757 had failed to reverse setbacks. Pitt's instructions envisaged an ambitious two-pronged attack on Canada and operations in the Ohio. No commander-in-chief replaced the recalled earl of Loudoun; instead, commanders were to communicate directly with Pitt. Their instructions, notable for precise detail, allowed them little discretion. Most novel were the more co-operative relations envisaged with colonial governors, the systematization of the requisition of colonial troops, and the prior promise of recompense of colonial expenses.
These characteristics were maintained, although some discretion was gradually conceded to commanders, as operations evolved in 1759–60 into the eventually successful three-pronged attack on Canada. Meanwhile, Pitt had taken the lead in moving to offensive operations on the African coast and, despite objections about sending so many ships beyond Europe, in the West Indies, where he applied the techniques of the American campaigns. India, seen by all as a subordinate theatre, was a different matter, one of responding to company requests for help. Pitt continued the generous response already recently established. However, although lavishing praise on Robert Clive as 'that heaven-born general' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.4), he did not succumb to Clive's attempts to lure the government into direct involvement in territorial aggrandizement.
The great war minister?
'Our bells are quite worn threadbare with ringing for victories', Horace Walpole wrote late in 1759. 'Indeed one is forced to ask every morning, what victory there is? for fear of missing one' (Walpole, Corr., 9.251; 21.355). Given this remarkable reversal of British fortunes, it is little wonder that Thomas Perceval ascribed the 'glorious success of this year … so[l]ely, and under God, to Mr Pitt' (Kenyon MSS, 496). This opinion, however, although widely shared, was never uncontested. Modern scholarship certainly requires a more sober appreciation.
Pitt did not establish the primacy of the American theatre. By 1756 that was already generally accepted and his later attempts to deny this were rightly 'contradicted flatly' by Lord Barrington (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32932, fol. 81), although, as the responsible secretary, Pitt certainly kept attention focused there. Nor was his gradually evolved strategy for attack on Canada particularly innovative, and his early expectations of it were wildly over-optimistic. Commanders on the spot had to solve the novel problems of fighting over vast, difficult, and largely uninhabited terrains. Certainly, recipients of dispatches were inspired by Pitt's vigour and urgency, while his conciliatory attitude to the colonies helped the immediate mobilization of resources—while aggravating long-term imperial problems. The extension of the war beyond America was likewise a piecemeal process. The nature of eighteenth-century communications and Britain's cumbersome administrative apparatus—which Pitt pushed vigorously but did not attempt to reform—scarcely allowed any worldwide strategy, even had Pitt conceived one.
In balancing the demands of the American against the European theatre, Pitt was later to claim to have had a 'plan' (Liverpool MSS, BL, Add. MS 38334, fol. 34) whereby 'America had been conquered in Germany' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.76). But others had also recognized the connection: Frederick the Great first made the point in this war. Moreover, the particular balance of theatres was achieved not out of strategic vision but by ad hoc adjustment to the war's unique circumstances, in a process frankly admitted by Pitt in 1759, when he declared that 'he had unlearned his juvenile errors, and thought no longer that England could do all by herself' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.78). Furthermore, the 'plan', in its dependence on Frederick the Great's desperately overstretched resources and chequered fortunes, made Britain's victories very vulnerable to his possible collapse. Pitt's most distinctive contribution to strategy were the two coastal raids on France in 1757–8. They failed in their strategic objective of diverting French resources from Germany—although success against Belle Île in very different circumstances in 1760–61 gave Britain a valuable bargaining counter in peace negotiations.
Other ministers made essential contributions to the war effort: Lord Anson at the Admiralty; Earl Ligonier in military matters; probably Granville, still lord president, in policy; and, above all, Newcastle, in raising, often in critical circumstances, ever-increasing financial resources—a matter about which Pitt was plainly irresponsible. He 'drew magnificent plans, and left others to find the magnificent means' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.52). Impersonal circumstances also were important: Britain's population, now beginning to rise significantly, her superior fiscal system, the greater resources of her American colonies, the neutrality of Spain in these vital years, European circumstances which did not demand closer involvement.
Yet such qualifications must not detract from the qualities Pitt contributed. His energy and drive were remarkably sustained in face of ever-debilitating illness. After his resignation Newcastle was to exclaim with good reason, 'With all his faults, we shall want Mr Pitt; … I know nobody, who can plan, or push the execution of any plan agreed upon, in the manner Mr Pitt did' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32931, fol. 46). His greater clarity about British interests was demonstrated in the determined shaping of the Prussian alliance. His spirit—perhaps most evident in the 1759 invasion crisis—sustained others, inspiring John Forbes, for example, to rename the fallen Fort Duquesne Pittsburgh in 1758. Pitt it was who insisted on pressing France to the limits when others might have compromised. To this extent he left his imprint on the war. He gave leadership when Newcastle and Fox had abdicated; with colleagues he often enforced that leadership by hectoring high-handedness and threatening rage; but he did not direct and shape the war single-handedly.
Politician and parliamentarian
Certainly for many contemporaries by 1759–60 Pitt seemed indeed to be the directing minister, in Temple's words the 'Minister of measures' (Smith, 1.405). To foreign envoys in London he was 'the effective minister' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.44), while Frederick the Great put his faith in Pitt's 'true Roman character' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 2.77).
Pitt's dominance was never as great as it seemed. He could never simply dictate or terrorize; he still had to win co-operation for ventures like the Belle Île expedition; without Newcastle he would not have had a parliamentary majority. Nevertheless, his rise to ascendancy had been meteoric. And it was secured by more than dramatic success in war or force of personality and ability. Credit for victories accrued almost solely to Pitt in large part because of the political skill with which he protected his nascent patriot reputation and that independence of Newcastle and the old corps he continued to assert as he had done since Pelham's death.
In 1757–8 Pitt carefully prepared his personal supporters, including the tories he had wooed since 1755, for acceptance of his European moves. Enthusiasm for coastal expeditions helped; he also espoused, or did not oppose, a number of other patriot measures concerning the militia, the better payment of seamen, more frequent parliaments, and, most contentiously, the writ of habeas corpus. The greatest shock, the sending of British troops to Germany, was more difficult to overcome; some supporters were permanently alienated. But Pitt gained further credit from the successful embodiment of the militia during the 1759 invasion crisis and from continued courting of tories over militia issues and the property qualification of MPs in 1760.
At the same time Pitt deliberately distanced himself from his colleagues in other ways, by subverting plans for the year's supply in 1759, for example, in order to support his City ally, William Beckford, in opposing a sugar tax. Time and again he publicly dissociated himself from responsibility for the cost of the war, while blaming the Treasury. Horace Walpole noted the art with which, in some major wartime speeches, Pitt seemed 'to avoid all ostentation of power, while he assumed everything to himself but the disposition of the money' or dwelt on success 'in a manner which excluded all others from a share in it' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.37, 78). Such distancing was reinforced by incidents like his vehement insistence in 1759 on the grant of a vacant garter to his ally Temple—a grant which also recognized his own status. Amply evident in these incidents was the bullying manner, part product of personality and illness, but also part of these tactics. Although by 1760 relations eased and even the old king was mollified in his last months, such tactics meant the coalition never melded into a genuine alliance.
Furthermore, to Newcastle's often intense annoyance Pitt never acted as a conventional leader of the Commons. Yet Pitt's public presentation of the war was enormously valuable to the administration. He carefully shaped perceptions of the German war and alliance with the ‘protestant hero’, Frederick the Great. He dramatized the struggle in both Germany and America, for which, he said, 'heaps of millions must be raised', 'as if he meant … that his administration should decide which alone should exist as a nation, Britain or France'. So 'he taught the nation to speak again as England used to speak to foreign powers' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.37, 52, 1). In 1759 he allowed no respite. 'He thought the stone almost rolled up to the top of the hill, but it might roll back with dreadful repercussion' (ibid., 3.78). The 'least omission in any part might be fatal to the whole' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32898, fol. 223). Such parliamentary service ensured the remarkable unity behind the war and the remarkable ease with which ever-increasing sums were voted. This service was the solid basis of Pitt's dominance, and his reputation.
At the same time Pitt came to enjoy wider and more favourable notice outside parliament than any other contemporary leading politician. This support began from late 1756 among tory populists represented on the City's common council. Its solid core was to remain the City's middling citizens and participants in the American trades. This support was marshalled and protected by Alderman William Beckford, notably through his weekly essay paper, The Monitor. But, although Beckford came to enjoy a remarkable intimacy with Pitt, there is no evidence to suggest that Pitt initiated or directed his efforts. With victories came broader support from mercantile opinion, recognizing the unusual commercial prosperity accompanying this war. An increasingly enthusiastic metropolitan and provincial press amplified unsolicited praise to an audience throughout the country. Thus Pitt's unique reputation, though never uncontested, was enormously enhanced. He became what hitherto had been a contradiction in terms, a 'patriot minister'.
Peace negotiations and resignation
The death of George II on 25 October 1760, however, changed political circumstances markedly to Pitt's disadvantage. The young king, George III, and the mentor on whom he had come to rely, the earl of Bute, were Pitt's former allies at Leicester House. But Pitt had unwisely allowed the strains of war to breach relations. Now he was to George III 'the most ungrateful … most dishonorable of men', 'a true snake in the grass' (Letters … to Lord Bute, 45, 47), while he had rejected Bute's conciliatory overtures on the grounds that 'he must act as an independent minister or not at all' (Elliot, 365). Policy differences added to the threat to Pitt's dominance. The hostility of the king and Bute to the German war was well known, and only with difficulty did Pitt persuade the king to alter an early public reference to the war from 'bloody and expensive' to 'expensive but just and necessary' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.8). Then, in March 1761, despite Pitt's reiterated declaration that 'he would never have anything to do with Lord Bute as a minister' (Cavendish's Debates, 81), Bute became his fellow secretary. As reported by Count Viry, the Sardinian envoy, Bute would 'leave Mr. Pitt master of foreign affairs'—unless 'he goes too far' (ibid., 90).
In these difficult circumstances the first substantial negotiations for peace with France began in May 1761. Hitherto, Pitt had envisaged a peace in which 'we must give up considerably, but we must retain a great deal at the same time' (Yorke, 3.314). Now his attitude hardened, influenced probably by both further successes abroad and frustrations at home. However, while firmer in emphasis, Pitt was not out of line with his colleagues in substance. All agreed on the central importance of security in North America. Once the French had readily conceded all Canada, negotiations came to turn on the European terms and the extent of French exclusion from the American fisheries. British ministers were unanimous in support of Prussia and Pitt had much support for firmness on the fisheries, notably from Bute, until the last stages. Then it was Pitt who allowed some concession, albeit very reluctantly.
Pitt accepted that the substance of negotiations must be collectively decided. He insisted, however, that the execution of decisions was his responsibility. Devonshire described his undoubtedly peremptory manner. He 'flew into a great passion' as he insisted that he 'would not suffer an iota' of a draft to be altered by his colleagues (Cavendish's Debates, 111); his abruptness also offended his French counterpart, the duc de Choiseul. Without Pitt, concessions might have been made earlier and more tactfully. But the negotiations failed not because of Pitt, but chiefly because Choiseul turned his attention from peace to hopes of alliance with Spain in a renewed family compact.
The course of negotiations had revealed an incipient division between Pitt's increasing determination to deliver a crushing blow to France, by renewed war if necessary, and his colleagues' reluctance to continue the war. Deteriorating relations with Spain sharpened this division. It became open in September, when news of the new family compact made the long-recognized threat of a juncture between France and Spain a reality. Pitt, certain that Britain was better prepared than Spain—and further irked, no doubt, by recent attempts to rein him in—came out for a swift pre-emptive blow against the annual Spanish treasure fleet from America. When, this time, he could neither cajole nor browbeat his colleagues into such a drastic extension of the war, he, with his sole supporter, Temple, took the highly unusual but unavailing step of presenting a written dissenting opinion to the king. Pitt's colleagues were now prepared to contemplate his often threatened resignation. On 5 October it became a reality. It was confirmed publicly on 9 October, together with the announcement that the king had granted Pitt an annual pension of £3000 and conferred a barony on his wife. The great war minister was gone.
Pitt's passionate departing declaration to his colleagues reaffirmed the image he had constructed. He had never, he claimed, 'asked any one single employment'; he was called to office 'by his sovereign and … in some degree by the voice of the people'; he had been obstructed in virtually all his plans; nevertheless the war and its success were imputed solely to him. He 'would not continue without having the direction' and 'would be responsible for nothing but what he directed' (Yorke, 3.279–80). Granville's check to such claims to 'infalibility' and rebuke for Pitt's 'withdrawing himself from the service of his country at this crisis' brought Pitt to acknowledge his obligations to 'every one of the Old Ministry' (Cavendish's Debates, 139). The public image remained, however. The tribute of the Annual Register supported Pitt's claim to be the 'voice of the people' (Annual Register, 4, 1761, 47) and acknowledged the splendour and success of the war energetically waged under him.
Patriot in opposition, 1761–1766
Such claims, questioned even during the war, were soon vehemently contested in the three months of public exchanges which followed Pitt's resignation. Debate in the press traversed the validity of his patriot reputation, the merits of his wartime policies, and (less prominently) the constitutional propriety of his role as 'prime minister'. Pitt's public support was thereby 'weakened, divided, and ineffective' (Annual Register, 4, 1761, 45); Beckford triumphantly held London's common council but only eight other cities formally thanked Pitt for years of victories.
Meanwhile, in the first session of the newly elected parliament, Pitt had declared he 'hoped never to be a public man again' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.75). But any intention of retiring from politics was countered by much intensified questioning of war policy, which drew Pitt to justify himself in a series of cogent speeches. Many heard in these defences 'great dignity and temper' (Harris, Parliamentary memorials, 9M73/G708, 6), which 'set a seal upon his character' (Annual Register, 4, 1761, 48). Others heard theatrical self-justification. Certainly there was an underlying political purpose.
The same mixture was to be seen the next session in the debate on the peace negotiated in 1762. Pitt was again seriously ill. He came into the house accompanied by the acclamations of the crowd outside, dramatically borne in the arms of his servants, an invalid with his crutch, clothed in black, swathed in flannel. He spoke for three hours twenty-five minutes, his longest speech yet. By all accounts his speech was 'very tedious, unconvincing, heavy, and immethodical' (Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 1.160). He criticized the peace terms as inadequate to victories won, dishonourable and dangerous in deserting Prussia, and above all insecure because they 'restored the enemy to her former greatness' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 15, 1753–65, 1270). But with these consistent, if not always well-founded, criticisms went disingenuous claims to have stood firm alone in 'his' negotiations and a new projection of himself as protector of 'this lovely Constitution' and of 'revolution principles' of opposition to France (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.179, 181).
Pitt's political intentions were unclear. Parliamentary divisions made obvious a loss of support within as well as out of doors. In the City the court of aldermen and many in the merchant community supported the peace. Pitt's personal party was weakened, especially by a now open breach with George Grenville, who had remained in office when Pitt and Temple resigned, even becoming leader of the Commons in Pitt's place. Pitt's attitude towards Newcastle, who had resigned in May 1762, was unpredictable but generally aloof. And he rejected approaches from Bute, first lord of the Treasury until his own resignation in April 1763 and replacement by George Grenville. Then suddenly, in late August 1763, in brief abortive negotiations sponsored by Bute for a return to office, Pitt acted as high-handed party leader of those he reportedly called 'the great Whig families' (Yorke, 3.526). Pitt's seeming waywardness added to the new instability in ministerial politics.
During 1763 Pitt was offered a major new issue, arousing unprecedented public excitement, on which to renew his reputation. Having failed in the courts, the new administration's case against John Wilkes—whose North Briton had spearheaded virulent press attacks on Bute—was to come before parliament. The immediate issue was whether Wilkes's immunity as MP extended to a charge of seditious libel, but discussion of the questionable general warrant on which he had initially been arrested could hardly be avoided.
Wilkes was a warm personal supporter of Pitt. Yet Wilkes's unsavoury personal reputation meant that too close an association with his rising popularity would be offensive to many. So in the debates Pitt seized on broad issues of principle while (with no little hypocrisy) dissociating himself from Wilkes's person—'the blasphemer of his God, and the libeller of his King'—and his publications: 'illiberal, unmanly, and detestable' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 15, 1753–65, 1364). Libels, Pitt said, should be judged by the courts, not condemned by the House of Commons. He also 'vehemently reprobated the facility with which parliament was surrendering its own privileges' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 2.269n.) and was putting itself at 'the mercy of the crown' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 15, 1753–65, 1363). 'General warrants are always wrong', he declared (despite his own wartime use of them) and, he asked, 'What will our constituents say if we do not ascertain their liberties?' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.294, 301–2).
These ringing stands on principle accorded well with earlier opposition to the cider tax on the grounds of personal liberty from intrusive excise officers. They gave some ideological content to Pitt's redefinition of himself as a whig on revolution principles as party labels were revived in controversy. His 'own first wish', he said, 'had been to crush foreign enemies; now it was to crush domestic' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 1.286). But still he stood aloof from others in opposition, resolved to attend parliament only 'upon any national or constitutional points' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32947, fol. 21) or matters 'of the first magnitude' (ibid., Add. MS 32951, fol. 430) and to 'oppose, or to promote … independent of the sentiments of others' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 2.297). 'Measures, and not men, were his point', the Prussian envoy, Louis Michell, commented to Newcastle, in what was to become a famous phrase (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32961, fol. 187). In marked contrast to Pitt's earlier behaviour he was now convinced that 'all opposition was to no purpose'; he 'never would force himself upon the king' (ibid., Add. MS 32960, fol. 17). And for nearly two years from February 1764 illness was to keep him from parliament.
Illness, however, did not debar Pitt from further ministerial negotiations, as George Grenville's administration tottered and fell under the weight of royal displeasure. In May 1765 Pitt declined to co-operate when Cumberland sought his help on the king's behalf in forming a ministry with Newcastle. In June two interviews with the king himself promised better, until Temple declined to serve, as Pitt wished, as first lord of the Treasury. The Newcastle whigs came in without Pitt, under the youthful marquess of Rockingham. Initially they saw themselves as a mere stopgap for Pitt. But he persistently brushed aside approaches continuing into early 1766.
Pitt's behaviour was less enigmatic than it seemed, and certainly did not point to retirement. He had learned in 1763—when, despite his imperious approach, he seems to have negotiated in good faith—that acting as party leader was not the way to regain the confidence of the king. Nor, even when his policy stipulations were accepted, as in May 1765, would he relinquish control of negotiations to an intermediary. Shelburne believed that, in June, Pitt was set to accept office until Temple's unexpected refusal made him suddenly aware of 'the difficulties that threatened from different quarters' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.331)—in closet, cabinet, and parliament. He feared, as always, for his independence, his ability to dominate an administration. Ill health probably heightened his fears; certainly it contributed to the obscurantism, what Burke called the 'Fustian' (Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 1.194), of his pronouncements. And behind his persistent coolness towards the Rockingham administration ran a shrill crescendo of venom against Newcastle in which deep resentment at not being supported in the post-war years in his 'principles, and system of measures' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 2.343) mixed with memories of pre-war wounds.
In these years Pitt showed little prescience over the solutions proposed for colonial problems highlighted by the Seven Years' War. Indeed, in March 1763 his preoccupation with the supposedly inadequate peace led him apparently to accept the ministers' declared intention to make the colonists pay for a peacetime army in America. By March 1764, when Grenville's programme of colonial legislation was unfolding, Pitt was reported by Charles Townshend to be 'against all taxation' of America (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32957, fol. 239). However, only in January 1766, when the Stamp Act had produced a crisis, was Pitt drawn out of his two years' absence from parliament. Then James Harris heard his 'torrent of eloquence' flow 'like a spring-tide' (Harris, Parliamentary memorials, 9M73/G716, 8) and his views made a considerable impact.
There was little surprise that he called unequivocally for repeal of the Stamp Act, but all were startled by his grounds for doing so: not expediency, but the clearest declaration yet made by any leading politician that 'the House of Commons did not represent North America'; it therefore had 'no right to lay an internal tax upon America'. Britain, he said, had broken 'the original compact' by taxing the colonies. Accused by Sir Fletcher Norton of sounding 'the trumpet to rebellion' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.185–6, 192–3), Pitt retreated somewhat, but he still sought unsuccessfully to amend the clause asserting authority 'in all cases whatsoever' in the Declaratory Act which the ministry proposed to accompany repeal.
The impact of Pitt's views undoubtedly came, as Walpole saw, from 'the novelty and boldness of his doctrines, the offence he gave by them at home, and the delirium which they excited in America' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.185). However, from the beginning Pitt's pronouncements had much more acceptably emphasized the 'high rights and privileges' (ibid., 2.186) of parliament over the colonies, especially in regulating their trade and market for manufactures. These, he was convinced, were crucial to Britain's prosperity and military power. Pitt's sympathy with the colonists and instinct for conciliation were patent: 'will you sheathe your swords in the bowels of your brothers, the Americans?' he asked (ibid., 2.187). But he never satisfactorily resolved the conflict between emphasis on American rights and British authority. His injunction, 'Give up [internal] taxing, but control her absolutely in her manufactures, and her commerce' (Harris, Parliamentary memorials, 9M73/G716, 26) by external duties, suggested a distinction too abstruse to carry weight against the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Moreover, compelling as his exposition of mercantilist precepts of the value of colonies was, it remained conventional. He never developed his hints that the regulations governing imperial trade might be modified to lessen frictions and, indeed, opposed Rockinghamite attempts to do so.
More immediately important than the intricacies of Pitt's idiosyncratic views was the message they sent of renewed energy and ambition for office on his own terms. He advertised repeatedly that he stood 'unconcerted and unconnected' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.185); he detached himself from hostility to Bute simply as a Scot; he expressed his desire 'that there might be a ministry fixed, such as the King should appoint, and the public approve' (Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, 3.333). In April 1766 he 'suddenly turned his artillery' (Walpole, Corr., 22.413) in the house to bring the Rockingham administration to its knees.
Indirect contacts confirmed these coded messages to the king and eventually on 7 July his call went to Pitt. This time Temple's second refusal to serve did not disrupt the formation of an administration with a Rockinghamite core and with the young duke of Grafton at the Treasury. Pitt's ill health shaped his decision to go to the Lords as earl of Chatham and lord privy seal. By the end of the month the great war minister was back, his reputation refurbished by the inadequacies of others.
The Chatham administration, 1766–1768
Acceptance of a peerage provoked another public outburst against false patriotism which was the most severe blow yet to Chatham's popular reputation, shaking even the City. His absence from the Commons, the forum where his strength was proven, was a more substantial disadvantage; to his formidable French antagonist, Choiseul, Chatham was now like Samson with his hair cut off (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.412). But this disadvantage was more than offset by the now absolute and unchallenged confidence of the king. Even when, by the end of the year, Chatham's crusade against ‘faction’ had aborted negotiations with the Bedford group and precipitated Rockinghamite defections, the ministry had sufficient talent to function effectively—provided its leader gave it cohesion. That, however, was not easily given when Chatham's ill health took him to Bath for most of October.
Chatham's priority was not political management but policy—first and foremost, foreign policy. All negotiations for office had made apparent his concern, particularly about Britain's isolation in Europe. He had a grand vision of fixing the 'great cloud of power' (Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, 3.349) he saw in northern Europe into a 'firm and solid system' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.30) around renewed alliance with Russia and Prussia.
Arrangements to send a special ambassador to revive stalled negotiations with Russia began even before the administration was sworn in. Only reluctantly did Chatham accept advice to test Frederick the Great's attitude first. When Frederick showed himself decidedly averse to 'new and stricter connections with England' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.68), Chatham's peremptory voice was clear in instructions to Britain's ambassador to renew the approach. England was not 'asking a boon'; no concessions could be offered until Frederick showed readiness to treat; a 'continuance of hesitation' would be 'looked on as a refusal' which he would 'probably repent, ere long' (ibid., 3.83–4n.).
When such extraordinary language achieved nothing, Chatham's scheme lapsed. He took no further initiatives in foreign policy. He was undoubtedly involved in discussions of disputes with Spain and fears about possible French designs on Corsica, but he apparently had no sustained interest in the details.
Foreign policy had long been Chatham's chief concern. But, while his brilliance of mind might impress a new cabinet colleague, Charles Townshend, listening to his survey of 'the actual situation and interests of the various powers in Europe' (Autobiography … of Grafton, 105), in fact he showed no appreciation of the altered circumstances and changing interests of those powers. His views were backward-looking, narrow, and rigid. Within six months of his taking office British diplomacy had, if anything, been weakened.
Very early, Chatham had declared another matter—the affairs of the East India Company—to him, 'the greatest of all objects' (Autobiography … of Grafton, 102). In the prospect of huge profits from the company's greatly expanded territorial influence in India, Chatham saw the possibility of 'a kind of gift from heaven' (ibid., 110) to the Treasury which would relieve the burden of war debt. He insisted that the issue be dealt with by parliamentary inquiry rather than negotiation with the company. He envisaged a decision that territorial rights in India belonged to the crown rather than the company, followed by an agreement allowing the company to administer the rights in return for a contribution to the Treasury. However, he 'never did open' his ideas to his colleagues fully and so never mobilized support against those—including the brilliant but mercurial Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer—who favoured immediate negotiation with the company. Furthermore, Chatham strangely chose his City friend, William Beckford, rather than a minister, to introduce the issue in parliament.
In early December 1766 Chatham again withdrew to Bath, having spoken only twice in the Lords (autocratically refuting pungent criticism of the administration's embargo on the export of corn). When he was unable to return after Christmas, Beckford's East India inquiry floundered, while the company's offer of direct negotiations was accepted, despite Chatham's opposition. As both inquiry and negotiations went on in uneasy tandem Chatham still refused to give advice on substantive issues, still 'referring the whole determination to the wisdom of' parliament (ibid., 117). He did, however, provide guidance on the procedure of the inquiry. It went on to expose the company's affairs to public scrutiny for the first time, while giving rise to some legislation. Thus Chatham can be given credit for establishing the principle of parliamentary intervention. However, although negotiations resulted in a company contribution to the national coffers, the issue of right was not settled.
Reportedly Chatham had also seen America, with India, as one of the 'two great objects' for parliament (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32977, fol. 41), but there is little indication of what he intended. In early negotiations he promised to secure 'the proper subordination of America', although disavowing 'any violent measures … unless absolutely necessary' (Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, 3.349–51). The cabinet quickly decided to demand full compliance with Grenville's Mutiny Act from recalcitrant New York. But, although Grafton and Townshend, and the earl of Shelburne, as secretary of state, set to work on fundamental colonial issues—including ways of raising revenue other than by internal taxation—nothing was formally approved before the Christmas recess and no comment from Chatham survives.
Then, in late January 1767, the still unfinalized ideas became public when Townshend was provoked in the Commons into a promise to raise revenue from America. At the same time he contemptuously referred to the distinction between internal taxation and external duties—associated with Chatham—as 'perfect nonsense' (Hardwicke MSS, BL, Add. MS 35608, fol. 1). Although fully informed Chatham did not check him. Chatham's comments on American matters were restricted to more specific matters: the continuing defiance of imperial regulation by New York and New Jersey. He bewailed their 'spirit of infatuation' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.188) and, on New York, eventually came down firmly for the strong line on which the cabinet had already agreed. This further evidence of authoritarianism suggests that he might well not have opposed Townshend's fateful scheme to impose external duties on America as it evolved in 1767.
Consistently with his approach to Indian affairs Chatham also advised the cabinet to lay these specific matters fully before parliament. This insistence sprang, it seems, from profound belief in parliament's collective wisdom. But no more in imperial than in foreign affairs did Chatham move beyond immediate issues to facilitate constructive solutions to fundamental problems.
Chatham's inability to return to London after Christmas 1766 was a turning point in the administration's fortunes. The Commons ran out of control. Criticism of Chatham went unanswered; Townshend was openly defiant on Indian as well as American matters. On 27 February 1767 the Commons delivered the administration the humiliating blow of defeating its land tax proposals. Early in March, Chatham, having at last returned to London, made an effort to reimpose his will by offering Townshend's post to Lord North. North declined. With this, Chatham's role in his administration was virtually over. He remained immured in isolation. On 12 March he saw the king for the last time as prime minister.
It was now clear that something more than physical illness ailed him. Walpole reported that a 'word of business' brought 'tears and trembling' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.320). In June, Grafton found 'his great mind bowed down', 'his nerves and spirits … affected to a dreadful degree' (Autobiography … of Grafton, 137). Soon Whateley heard he had sunk to 'the lowest dejection and debility that mind or body can be in' (Lyttelton papers, 6.260). For long the king hoped for Chatham's return. When at last, in October 1768, stung by slights to supporters, Chatham wished to resign, the king insisted he should stay to continue the fight against 'the torrents of factions' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.343). Chatham was adamant. 'His' administration became officially Grafton's.
The rapid collapse of the high hopes with which Chatham's administration began was the strangest and most damaging episode in his career. The king, having so fully supported him, was so disillusioned that never again would he contemplate office for Chatham. Many politicians shared this disillusionment. The City and the press fell silent about the great patriot.
Chatham's chronic illness was the precipitating trigger of collapse. However, the roots of failure were deeper. His conviction of superiority, shaped by wartime experience, was now so ingrained that he believed he could achieve 'his great point … to destroy faction' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.138n.)—and command away obstacles abroad—merely with the king's support and the power of his name. He now despised the arts of management. Even before illness overwhelmed him his anonymously reported conversation suggested a concern only 'to shew, that he had the absolute sole power' (Newcastle MSS, BL, Add. MS 32977, fol. 42). He would not mollify colleagues or even explain his policies to them, or take measures to minimize risks of opposition in the Commons. Grafton sadly commented, 'Lord Chatham, with his superior talents, did not possess that of conciliating mankind' (Autobiography … of Grafton, 103). Mounting difficulties compounded his illness and Chatham collapsed.
United opposition, 1769–1771
On 7 July 1769, just nine months after his resignation, Chatham suddenly reappeared at court, apparently fully recovered. His forthright criticism of recent measures in private conversation with the king made recall to office most unlikely. Soon Chatham was courting the Rockinghamites, whom he reportedly called the 'knot of spotless friends, such as ought to govern this kingdom' (Albemarle, 2.142). When parliament opened in January he launched with them the most remarkable opposition of his career. It quickly helped to bring down Grafton's tottering administration. But when the king found in Lord North a lasting replacement, the united opposition was maintained into the following parliamentary session.
Opposition was directed primarily against the handling of the issue which, in Chatham's absence, had changed the face of politics: Wilkes's repeated election as MP for Middlesex and the petitioning movement which had protested against his unseating by the Commons. This affair gave to the Pitt patriot rhetoric a new populist dimension. Chatham's first two speeches proclaimed the 'internal disorder of the constitution' to be 'the grand capital mischief'. He urged the Lords, whose own privileges, he said, rested 'upon the broad bottom of the people', to defend the 'liberties of our fellow-subjects', regardless of the privileges of the Commons (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.404n., 401n., 373n.). Reckless of offence to the king, Chatham recurred repeatedly to the Rockingham nostrum of 'secret influence' at court, undermining ministers and, he claimed, occasioning 'all the present unhappiness and disturbances in the nation' (ibid., 3.421n.). He continued to seek 'to give the people a strong and thorough sense' of the 'great violation' of the constitution (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 16, 1765–71, 924), and in both sessions, regardless of the royal prerogative, he moved for a dissolution of the parliament which had, he claimed, forfeited the people's confidence.
Meanwhile, Chatham, with the indispensable help of a new aide, John Calcraft, had taken the initiative in fostering links with the City far more deliberately than ever before. He approved a grand dinner planned by his friend William Beckford, once again lord mayor, to seal union with the parliamentary opposition and worked to keep Rockinghamite and metropolitan opinion in line. Most provocatively, he vigorously defended in the Lords the City's outspoken remonstrance to the king over the failure to respond to grievances outlined in the City's 1769 petition. However, although he had recently suggested the need to restore 'a permanent relation between the constituent and representative body of the people' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 3.406n.) by allowing an additional MP for each county, he refused to be drawn into supporting the City's more far-reaching demand for triennial parliaments.
The summer of 1770 provided an issue ripe for exploitation by Chatham: the long expected Spanish expulsion of British settlers from the Falkland Islands. When parliament reassembled, he waxed eloquent on the need 'to save an injured, insulted, undone country' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 16, 1765–71, 1092). But when a settlement was reached over the Christmas recess the bubble burst. Chatham's castigation of 'an ignominious compromise' (ibid., 16, 1765–71, 1339) won few votes.
By this time rifts were appearing in the opposition both within and outside parliament. In the City radicals were taking over. Their resistance to impressment for the navy when war threatened enraged Chatham. Then, in an attempt at reconciliation, he initiated action to secure the right of juries, denied in recent instances, to decide both facts and law in seditious libel cases. However, he wanted a declaration of what he maintained the law had always been; the Rockinghams proposed a bill to clarify the law. In disgust at open disagreement in February 1771 Chatham fell silent for more than two months.
In that time opposition became further divided as City and Commons became embroiled in the famous printers' case over the Commons' prohibition of published accounts of debates. Only at the end of the session did Chatham come out in full support of 'the liberty of the press' against 'bare-faced tyranny'—and, declaring that 'our whole constitution' was now 'giving way', he announced himself 'a convert to triennial parliaments' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 17, 1771–4, 221–3), too belatedly to appease the radicals.
With that, the united opposition was over. Chatham's uncharacteristically sustained co-operation with the Rockinghamites was broken less by issues than by his instinctive fear of ‘connection’—now in the new form of the confident party solidarity preached by Burke. The support in City and press which had sustained his independence now finally escaped him. Tumultuous Wilkites were changing extra-parliamentary politics in directions that even his new populism could not comfortably follow.
Chatham's wholehearted opposition had displayed his 'old brilliant style' (Walpole, Corr., 23.180) of oratory in a new forum. He had gone further than any other leading politician in envisaging an enlarged constitutional role for the people. But his extremism, offending king and moderate parliamentarians alike, was predictably ineffective in its unacknowledged but obvious objective: return to office. At the end of a decade that, with a coherent strategy, Chatham could have easily dominated, he was left more disillusioned than ever by the very political weakness of which he was part cause.
Last years, 1772–1778
By January 1772 Chatham had decided that not 'the smallest good' could come from his attending the ensuing session of parliament (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.187). For more than two years he remained secluded at Burton Pynsent in Somerset, absorbed in the large-scale estate development and family pleasures to which he always turned in private moments. These were probably the Chathams' happiest family years. They saw William, the precocious second son, practising oratory under his father's eye before going up to Cambridge. Soon, his elder brother left to join the army in Canada. In 1774 the family rejoiced at Hester's marriage to Charles Stanhope, Lord Mahon, son of Chatham's cousin.
This time Chatham's retirement was not enforced by ill health and he was kept informed about politics by Shelburne, now his closest associate. Chatham was persuaded into one speech in these years, in 1772, supporting in the Lords, with 'as much oratory and fire, as, perhaps, he had ever done', the newspapers reported (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.219n.), an unsuccessful bill for relief of dissenters from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The 'new-fangled and impudent' Royal Marriages Act of 1772 drew a scathing letter criticizing the 'wanton and tyrannical' powers it gave the monarch (ibid., 4.203). In 1773–4 Shelburne was persuaded against joining the Rockinghams in opposing the right of the Irish parliament to impose a tax on absentee landholders.
Shelburne's most frequent reports were on the still contentious affairs of the East India Company, to which, in the 1770–71 opposition, Chatham had made only passing reference. When the threat of company bankruptcy brought its affairs before parliament in 1772–3, eventuating in the passage of North's Regulating Act, Chatham may have helped to shape the response of Shelburne and his Commons lieutenant, Isaac Barré. Certainly Chatham's letters retrospectively endorsed their stand. He defended the policy of 1767 while clarifying it in new terms of a 'mixed right to the territorial revenues between the state and the Company, as joint captors' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.264). He reasserted parliament's right to intervene, especially to reform abuses of power in India, but expressed fears of intervention at home, particularly if it were to increase the 'secret influence' of the crown with the riches of India.
In 1770–71 Chatham had paid little more attention to American than to Indian affairs. Appreciating no more than others how quickly American opinion was moving, he merely reiterated his 1766 views. Not until May 1774, when the legislative response to the Boston Tea Party was almost complete, did the crisis seem serious enough to bring him to the Lords. Even then, his 'long feeble harangue' merely 'talked high for the sovereignty of this country, but condemned the taxes' (Walpole, Journal, 1.369), and was so confused as to allow contradictory interpretations. Three weeks later, his vehement thunder against the 'Popery and arbitrary power' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 17, 1771–4, 1403) he saw as condoned by the Quebec Act was no more constructive about imperial problems.
Over the summer, however, Chatham energetically sought information from Americans resident in London. News they filtered to him from the first American continental congress simply confirmed his set views. Seizing the initiative in parliament, on 20 January he unsuccessfully moved a conciliatory motion for the withdrawal of British troops from Boston. On 1 February he proposed his 'Provisional Act for Settling the Troubles in America' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 18, 1774–6, 198).
At first Chatham seemed wholeheartedly to affirm the right of Americans not to be taxed without consent as given by 'God, and nature' as well as 'the constitution' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 18, 1774–6, 165). But his proposal made clear that concessions (no longer called rights) depended on prior acknowledgement of subordination 'of right' to the British crown and parliament (ibid., 18, 1774–6, 198–9). The proposal was a constructive attempt to reconcile Chatham's two contradictory long-term aims: 'to secure to the colonies property and liberty, and to insure to the mother-country … subordination' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.407). He never moved beyond it. However, the elements of concession were as unacceptable to most parliamentarians as those of assertion now were to most Americans. No more than North and Burke at this time could Chatham bridge this widening transatlantic gap. His concessions were more generous but his distinctive preoccupation with imperial power was manifest.
Soon illness took hold again and, as America moved towards independence and outright war, Chatham slipped into another two years of often complete incapacitation. Not until May 1777, and again in November, did he re-emerge, to 'thunder and lighten', in Philip Yorke's description (Hardwicke MSS, BL, Add. MS 35613, fol. 315), as French help to the Americans was threatened. In five speeches his effort to prevent an irrevocable breach with the colonies came to its climax. They were, he said, 'the great source of all our wealth and power' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 319). Insistently he called for generous measures of conciliation while he reiterated the impossibility of subduing them by force—'I might as well talk of driving them before me with this crutch' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.433n.)—and its uselessness. 'If you conquer them, what then?' he asked. 'You cannot make them wear your cloth' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 317). In the war's 'impending danger' he saw 'a cloud … ready to burst and overwhelm us in ruin' (ibid., 19, 1777–8, 597). After the startling news in December of defeat at Saratoga, Chatham, in enthusiastic co-operation with the Rockinghams, took the lead in furious criticism of the 'disgraces' of the war—so contrasted with 'the fame and renown' of the last war (ibid., 19, 1777–8, 488–9)—and pointedly returned to the pervasive evil of secret influence.
Chatham's crusade was obviously driven by searing despair about the imperial crisis. Old and ill, he pushed himself to courageous efforts against the tide of parliamentary opinion. At the same time his overweening self-confidence rose again. From 1774 onwards there were hints of hopes that (in Burke's words) 'the closet door stands a jarr' (Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 3.89). The intense activity of late 1777 seemed fuelled by Chatham's belief that 'the vengeance of a much injured and afflicted people' might at last 'fall heavily on the authors of their ruin' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 602).
Hopes of office were thwarted, however, by the king's conviction that Chatham was now simply 'the trumpet of Sedition', 'the merit of his former conduct' 'totally undone' (Correspondence, ed. Fortescue, 3.242). Even when, after the announcement of a Franco-American treaty in March 1778, North's faltering nerve forced the king to allow an indirect approach, negotiations broke down over the unbridgeable gap between the king's determination against 'that perfidious man' (ibid., 4.59) and Chatham's demand to dominate.
Meanwhile, Chatham had suddenly terminated his co-operation with the Rockinghams over their increasing readiness to acknowledge the independence of America. 'I will as soon subscribe to transubstantiation as to sovereignty, by right, in the Colonies', Chatham declared (Bowood muniments, boxes S13, 122). On 7 April, clearly ill, he came to the Lords to defend this view.
Chatham's speech—incoherent to most listeners—was a defiant cry against 'the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy' and 'ignominious surrender' to an 'ancient inveterate enemy' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 1023). When he struggled to rise again he fell in 'a sudden fit'. Camden described the 'hurry and confusion' (CKS, Pratt MSS, U840, C173/30) as Chatham was carried out senseless. The Lords adjourned in respect.
Death and funeral
By evening, after vomiting, Chatham seemed recovered. It seemed the fit was no worse than a similar one of the previous summer. Burke and Walpole—not the closest observers—called it an 'apoplectick fit' (Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 3.427), 'with strong convulsions and slabbering at the mouth' (Walpole, Corr., 28.379). But by the end of April, Camden reported Chatham 'past all hope of recovery, dying rather of weakness than distemper' (CKS, Pratt MSS, U840, C173/31). He died at Hayes on 11 May 1778—'of weakness, spasms and nervous convulsions', his nephew later wrote (Dropmore MSS, series 2, BL, Add. MS 69333, no. 26). The Commons unanimously agreed to a funeral in Westminster Abbey at public expense, while the City vied unsuccessfully for the honour of burying him at St Paul's. The Lords, however, narrowly voted not to attend the funeral. It took place on 9 June, preceded by two days' lying-in-state at Westminster which drew great crowds. It was undoubtedly magnificent. But only a handful of peers attended. The public attention accorded to this long-drawn-out demise was intense, but brief. Chatham had indeed been already 'politically dead', as Walpole put it (Walpole, Corr., 28.379). Only the truly desperate could have expected miracles from him again.
A changing reputation
The mixed responses to Chatham's death mirror the ambiguities of his lifetime reputation. Unquestionably most contemporaries accorded him great stature. It began with that power of the spoken word, enforced by all the arts of voice, gesture, flashing eye, facial expression, and felicitous language, which, in Walpole's view, made him 'the most admired orator of the age' (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 4.23). These arts were enforced by the authoritative physical presence of his 'perfectly erect' tall spare figure described by Shelburne—'with the eye of a hawk, a little head, thin face, long aquiline nose' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.77), often caricatured in political prints. Pitt's rhetorical power gave him command of the Commons. It turned the sarcastic title Great Commoner (The Test, 1 January, 9 April 1757) into a generally recognized honorific—although his oratory was less effective in the more intimate forum of the Lords.
Oratory helped Pitt build his patriot appeal—which won early recognition in 1744 with a bequest of £10,000 from the redoubtable dowager duchess of Marlborough. Hardly significant then, Pitt's reputation was decisively shaped, by chance more than skill, in the crisis of 1755–7, when he seemed to offer renewal of tired Pelhamite politics. That reputation was broadened and entrenched by the astounding victories of war which appeared (if with only partial justification) to be the fruits of his spirit and determination. To many his ambition to be, in Walpole's words, 'the most illustrious man of the first country in Europe' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.2) seemed achieved. Pitt and patriotism seemed synonymous. He became, at least in retrospect, as Elizabeth Montagu considered him in 1778, 'a minister raised by popular favour' (Hunt. L., Montagu MSS, MO4036). And to many, as to Admiral Sir George Rodney, he never ceased to be 'an illustrious example, how one great man, by his superior abilities, raised his drooping country, from the brink of despair, to the pinnacle of glory, and made her … dreaded by the whole universe' (Chatham MSS, TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/54, 236). To this vision of national greatness which he inspired—not least by the projection of a dramatic struggle against the Bourbons which was, from first to last, the most consistent theme of his oratory—Pitt owed his grip on contemporary minds. His heroic image is perpetuated in two famous monuments. In Westminster Abbey he stands in peer's robes, above Britannia flanked by representations of earth and ocean; in the City's guildhall he appears as a Roman senator, while commerce pours the riches of the world into Britannia's lap.
This heroic image, however, ignores Pitt's dismal later record. The shortcomings of his successors might burnish memories of his past glories; but never again was he able to exploit either to full advantage. Moreover, throughout his career there was an undercurrent of criticism, sometimes rising to a flood. Most frequently levelled were charges of inconsistency, which reckless rhetoric invited. They were often unfair. Where not prompted by a learning process forced on everyone by the rapidly changing international situation, they frequently sprang from unrealistic expectations of patriots. The pension and his wife's title in 1761 were richly deserved; chronic ill health made removal from the Commons hurly-burly in 1766 understandable. More pertinent was the criticism that Pitt's patriot stands were too often patently instrumental to his rampant ambition, the passion for power Lord Hillsborough recognized, which was articulated most famously in his reported words of 1756, 'I am sure I can save this country, and nobody else can' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.1). This readiness to wield power was an attribute of leadership too often lacking among Pitt's contemporaries. But in opposition he was never free from suspicions of 'raising a storm' for his own benefit. 'He depended', as Shelburne put it, 'on taking quick turns, which was his forte: example Wilkes' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.76). As Burke saw, 'to the End of his Life', the 'least peep into' the king's closet was to intoxicate him (Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 3.89).
Pitt's was an 'unfinished', almost 'an artificial greatness', said Horace Walpole, 'considering how much of it depended on his words' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 3.2). Contemporaries had no doubt of what Hugh Boyd called the 'persuasive gracefulness', 'the resistless power' of those words (Almon, 3.355), a power seldom dimmed by either age or illness but so difficult to recreate from imperfect written records. But nor was there doubt about the 'bitter satire' Walpole saw as 'his forte' (Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, 1.64), the 'terrible' invectives Chesterfield recognized as intimidating even the most able opponent (Almon, 3.374). An unsympathetic Elizabeth Montagu called him in 1762 'as great a bruiser as any orator whatever' (Hunt. L., Montagu MSS, MO4547), to be subdued only by ridicule. Artifice, too, was a recognized part of his armoury. 'Garrick never acted better', Lord George Sackville said of a speech of 1761 (Stopford-Sackville MSS, 1.86). Sometimes, famously and not always successfully, as in December 1762, the badges of his illness, his bandages and crutch, were so exploited as to make some wonder how much was reality and how much illusion. More significantly, from the beginning, many noticed his weakness in substance and reasoning. In 1763 James Harris could record only 'glowing scraps, or splendid morsels', wanting 'a plan or order' (Harris, Parliamentary memorials, 9M73/G712, 6). Pitt's nephew, Lord Camelford, later wrote 'his matter was never ranged, it had no method' (Dropmore MSS, series 2, BL, Add. MS 69333, no. 28). The earl of Sandwich, answering Chatham in his last year, justly remarked, 'Oratory is one thing, my Lords, and truth, reason and conviction another' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 375).
A keen political sense was strangely combined with ineptitude in political practice. In an able outsider, fearful of condescending patrons, Pitt's fierce independence was natural enough. But his close associates—the Cobham cubs of his youth, Grafton, Shelburne, Pitt's legal friend, Charles Pratt, Baron Camden—were used, attacked, and picked up again, consulted or ignored, as he pleased. The Rockinghams were alternately shunned or wooed, complementary talents like those of Shelburne constrained rather than enabled. Shelburne's experience convinced him that Pitt 'did not cultivate men because he felt it an incumbrance' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.76). But the alternative of 'measures not men', while it might tap widespread disillusionment with mid-century politics, was essentially a mask for claims to sole power. Combined with an autocratic politics of command and extreme tactical swings, it made for political impotence. Even more debilitating were Pitt's relations with kings, which combined reckless insouciance and utter misunderstanding with the exaggerated obsequiousness which led him, so MP Chase Price said, 'to bow so low, you could see the tip of his hooked nose between his legs' (Albemarle, 2.83).
Pitt seemed at his most disingenuous in exploiting party labels. He could assert exclusive whiggism, court the tories, or win praise in wartime for a patriot union of all parties. Nevertheless, behind the opportunism there were consistent ideals according with the 'revolution principles' he avowed in the 1760s. His campaigns identified genuine questions of liberty over general warrants and the rights of electors and juries. The admiration for him of both American and Irish patriots was confirmed by his defence of their right to determine their own taxation. His tolerant religious principles were apparent over measures in the 1750s and 1770s—although never extended to Catholics—while the 'detached sentences' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.538–43) found in his papers witness to a genuine if conventional faith. In all there was a reverence for the constitution, especially for the role of parliament, most distinctively shown in commitment to the efficacy of parliamentary inquiry in deciding matters of policy. Concern for parliamentary authority over the empire in the end overrode sympathy for American rights. Here the manifest concern was imperial power. Indeed, in the last resort, Pitt's vision of national grandeur, with its 'pride of conquest' (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 18, 1774–6, 445), was deeply imperialist rather than libertarian.
Despite Pitt's considerable intellectual power, his often persuasively expounded ideals were very imperfectly implemented. Many contemporaries noted his lack of grasp of practical reality. Burke bitterly remembered the difference between 'the real' and 'the ostensible public man' in 'that grand artificer of fraud', but also acknowledged 'his great, splendid side' (Albemarle, 2.195). 'His views were great and noble, worthy of a patriot; but they were too visionary' wrote Grafton (Autobiography … of Grafton, 91). 'If struck with some great idea, he neither knew how nor had patience to conduct it', Horace Walpole declared (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.259). In Elizabeth Montagu's opinion his 'sublimity' did not encompass the qualities of 'a great civil minister' (Hunt. L., Montagu MSS, MO4036), namely the ability to respond constructively to new circumstances and problems.
The key to this flawed greatness must lie in the recesses of a scarred personality. Growing ambition and the increasing frustration of illness turned the affectionate, sociable young man into one who kept a deliberate protective distance in public dealings. Adulation in the war years fed arrogance and egotism, while a pronounced tendency to histrionics and what Shelburne called 'high pompous unmeaning language' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.77) began to border on self-delusion. Illness increasingly imposed on the difficult personality thus fatally moulded an alternation between intense activity and disillusioned withdrawal. The earldom heightened a conviction of superiority, which began to show itself in the 'wild wantonness and prodigality' Walpole saw (Walpole, Memoirs of … King George III, 2.320), 'a pomp of equipage and retinue quite unequalled in this age' which repelled Elizabeth Montagu (Hunt. L., Montagu MSS, MO4036). Matching the constructed reputation, the artifice of Chatham's public front—as Shelburne described him, 'always acting, always made up, and never natural, … constantly upon the watch, and never unbent' (Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, 1.77)—was now complete.
Behind the mask, however, capacity for warmth remained. David Garrick and Thomas Hollis were friends in later life. The solace and respite from public affairs that Pitt's wife and children brought are reflected in many letters to Lady Hester: from the paymaster's house in Whitehall in the early days, from 10 St James's Square, which Pitt rented during the war years, to the family's home at Hayes, near Bromley in Kent, bought in 1756 and becoming to Lady Hester 'so loved a place' (Chatham MSS, TNA: PRO, PRO 30/8/9, 12). It was sold in 1766 after Pitt had inherited Burton Pynsent from an eccentric admirer unknown to him, only to be urgently repurchased at Pitt's whim in his illness in 1767. Letters to and from Burton Pynsent in the early 1770s—for example, when Lady Chatham took the daughters up to lodgings in Harley Street—provide vivid vignettes of family life with 'an old doting daddy', as Chatham called himself (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.206).
When ill, however, Pitt could not bear the children near him. Family life showed other strains. With none of the wider family except his youngest sister, Mary, were relationships untroubled. Political quarrels with his brothers-in-law forced painful rifts on his wife. Worst of all were the constant burdens placed on her in later years by his financial irresponsibility. A lifelong passion for estate development and landscape gardening at all his properties from the first—South Lodge, Enfield, Middlesex (1747–53)—aggravated the problem. It required the sale on 11 July 1763 of the house he had built in 1754 at 7 The Circus, Bath, and an attempt to sell Hayes again (sale of deeds, 7 The Circus, Bonhams, 27 Nov 2007). Only a parliamentary vote after his death removed the burden of debt.
Pitt's affection for his wife and children was warmly reciprocated. But their uncritical, admiring devotion, enhancing his egotism and accentuating the seclusion enforced by illness, hardly encouraged a realistic assessment of the outside world. They helped to keep Chatham, on his landed estates, with his self-professed 'old-fashioned Whig principles' (Correspondence, ed. Taylor and Pringle, 4.321) and lofty detachment, a man more of the past than of the world of City and press which had so lionized him.
Pitt in historical memory
New perils ensured that Chatham's memory was not immediately celebrated after his death. However, his reputation with his contemporaries was reflected by early biographers, William Godwin (1783), John Almon (1790s), and especially Francis Thackeray (1827). Although Macaulay's essays of 1834 and 1844 cut loose from this adulation, the mainly whig early Victorian historians generally accepted Pitt as a great patriot and war leader, while discovering in him other virtues as orator, defender of liberty, and spokesman of the people. Laissez-faire high Victorians were more inclined to honour his son.
The heroic image of Pitt was reconstructed in the early twentieth century, when challenges at home and abroad encouraged a newly self-conscious imperialism. This trend aptly coincided with the bicentenary of Pitt's birth and the development of professional history to make of him a great imperial statesman, with a clear vision of Britain's worldwide destiny, transcending mercantilism and presaging a liberal empire. While the first substantial biographies, those of Albert von Ruville (1907) and Basil Williams (1913), did not capitulate entirely to this heroic image, it was enhanced and entrenched by most later biographies, through even to Stanley Ayling's deliberately post-imperial study (1976). It is still often reflected in general works.
The image of Pitt the hero, however, is challenged by that of the disruptive politician rediscovered in the more rigorous study of eighteenth-century politics over the last sixty years. The exploration of popular politics has given both light and shade to Pitt's reputation. Only in the 1990s did biographies begin to explain his career in this much richer context. Among lay people, even those in former colonies where scattered places preserve his name, it is doubtful whether William Pitt, earl of Chatham, was ever a twentieth-century household name, or even one known to 'every schoolboy'.
While Pitt's outstanding reputation with his contemporaries must still be allowed, no longer can G. F. R. Barker's view that he was 'pre-eminently the most striking figure on the English political stage during the eighteenth century' (DNB) be maintained without question. Sir Robert Walpole surpasses him as a shrewd and constructive statesman. Figures of lesser renown, like Shelburne and notably Edmund Burke, arguably rival Pitt in insight and even stature.
Above all, comparison with his precocious son is telling. Having some of his father's volatility and much of the self-confidence bordering on arrogance, the younger Pitt inherited superb and carefully nurtured oratorical gifts. These gave him, like his father, unsurpassed command of the Commons and power to embody the national will in wartime. There were, however, significant differences. The younger Pitt's eloquence, unlike his father's, included the force of sustained reasoned exposition. This was perhaps in part expression of his thoroughly professional approach to politics, so unlike his father's, but possibly deriving something from Shelburne. The younger Pitt was continuously engaged in depth with major issues of his day. He regularly and energetically sought the best information. He was genuinely progressive, as his father was not, on parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, commercial policy, and administrative reform. His constructive capacity in his chief responsibility, financial policy and administration, far surpassed his father's record, if it was less impressive and perhaps more equally matched in foreign and imperial policy and strategy. With good reason, his long career in high office was the mirror image of his father's short tenure.
In contrast, only briefly was Chatham able to rise to the challenge of his age. By his last decade time had passed him by.
- TNA: PRO, Chatham papers, first series, 30/8/1–100
- Correspondence of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, ed. W. S. Taylor and J. H. Pringle, 4 vols. (1838–40)
- Cobbett, Parl. hist., vols. 9–19
- BL, Newcastle papers, Add. MSS 32711–32992
- BL, Grenville papers, Add. MSS 42083–42088, 57804–57835
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