Pitt, William (1708–1778)

William Pitt, British statesman, was educated at Eton and Oxford. Following four undistinguished years in the army, he entered Parliament, where he allied with the opponents of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Pitt first entered American affairs following the War of Jenkins’ Ear (17391743), a conflict with the Spanish in Georgia and the Mediterranean. In a mocking indictment of Walpole’s humiliating peace treaty with the Spanish, Pitt called the agreement a stipulation of national ignominy. His vociferous criticism propelled him through the ranks of the opposition and struck a chord with the public. Pitt was kept from office only until 1745, when King George II was forced to appoint him paymaster of the forces to prevent the resignations of his ministers. After a decade of robust service, Pitt was dismissed in 1755 for disagreements with his political masters over the massive British war against France and her allies. It was at this juncture, at the age of 46, that Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville, with whom he had two daughters and three sons, including his namesake William, who later became prime minister.

As France grew stronger and British defeats became disturbingly more frequent, Pitt, whose calls for rearmament had been ignored during the previous years of peace, was eventually appointed secretary of state in 1756, or prime minister, and he immediately took command of the war effort. For the next four years, he pursued an ambitious, aggressive program of military campaigns designed to deprive France of all her colonial possessions and contain her in Europe. These campaigns, which in America became known as the French and Indian War, were truly global in scope, encompassing India, Europe, the West Indies, and North America.

In the American theater, Pitt concentrated resources on Louisbourg and Quebec, two fortified French settlements that guarded the St. Lawrence River. In July 1758, Louisbourg fell to a force of 14,000 regulars under General Jeffery Amherst, opening the St. Lawrence to the British navy and cutting off interior settlements from French reinforcement. Soon afterward, General Abercromby, using a mixed force of colonists and natives, captured Fort Duquesne, proudly renaming it Pittsburgh. After the fall of Quebec to General Wolfe in the spring of 1759, the remaining French outposts found themselves surrounded and the French governor of Canada soon surrendered. This collapse sealed British hegemony in North America, simultaneously uniting the European territories and opening the vast prairie lands to the west to English settlement.

During these years, news of British victories in theaters across the globe seemed to flood London. In 1759 alone, Pitt’s annus mirabilis, British armies won critical engagements in Minden, Guadeloupe, Lagos, and Quiberon Bay. When George II died in 1760, his son inherited an empire that stretched from Canada to India. But the new king had little respect for Pitt’s achievements and forced his resignation in 1761, filling the cabinet with his own favorites. Confined to the back benches, Pitt nevertheless spoke out against the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, which, he believed, offered too many concessions to the vanquished French.

Pitt never regained real power. Dogged by manic depression, which kept him confined to his home for months on end, his postwar career was a series of minor recoveries punctuated by long periods of absence and decline. But having fought so hard to secure North America, the rising crisis in that region always commanded his attention. In 1766, he publicly denounced the Stamp Act, a duty on commercial goods designed to pay for the cost of the recent war. While asserting Britain’s claim to sovereignty over the colonies, Pitt argued that taxation should proceed only with colonial consent, as Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England.

After a brief return to the premiership in 1766, which was abruptly curtailed by illness, Pitt, now Lord Chatham, was forced to watch from the sidelines. But when, in 1774, the government proposed the closure of the port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party, Pitt boldly protested such excessive retribution and warned that unless friendly relations resumed soon, we, not they, shall be undone.

In January 1775, Pitt offered his own solution to the current impasse. Arguing that the only way to rebuild trust was to remove fear and resentment from the bosoms of the colonists, he proposed the immediate removal of troops from Boston, the establishment of independent judges, and the introduction of trial by jury. He also recognized the colonies’ right to consent to taxation and the utility of the Continental Congress as a political conduit. Despite support from several major figures in Parliament, this Provisional Act was defeated by sixty-eight votes to eighteen. Further proposals met similar fates. The British statesman William Pitt, the elder, known as the Great Commoner, led his nation to preeminent status on the international scene. In the Western Hemisphere, he wrested control of Canada from the French and advocated conciliation with the American colonies. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) The great statesman died on May 11, 1778, at the age of 70. Richard Bell See also: French and Indian War; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War. Bibliography Peters, Maria. The Elder Pitt. New York: Longman, 1998. Plumb, J. H. Chatham. London: Collins, 1953. Sherrard, O. A. Lord Chatham and America. London: Bodley Head, 1958.


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