Pitt the Elder: Graham Goodlad Reviews the Controversial Career of William Pitt the Elder, Whose Ascendancy Coincided with Britain's Involvement in the Seven Years' War

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Pitt the Elder: Graham Goodlad Reviews the Controversial Career of William Pitt the Elder, Whose Ascendancy Coincided with Britain's Involvement in the Seven Years' War


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


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The year 2008 marks the Booth anniversary of the birth of William Pitt the Elder. In recent years his memory has been overshadowed by that of his son and namesake, who led Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars. Pitt the Elder was, however, a dominant figure in mid-eighteenth politics, whose personality and actions evoked strong feelings in his lifetime. His critics accused him of arrogance, inconsistency and self-seeking. Even Pitt's martyrdom to the Georgian malady, gout, which caused him to appear in Parliament swathed in bandages and leaning on crutches, was frequently interpreted as self-dramatisation. On the other hand, his admirers regarded him as an inspirational, patriotic leader, free of corruption, who placed the nation above the claims of party connection.

'The Great Commoner' was associated with Britain's victory over France in the Seven Years' War (1756-63). This conflict, which witnessed fighting on land and sea in several different parts of the world, laid the foundations of the British Empire in Canada and India. It contrasted markedly with the record of failure in the American War of Independence, a decade and a half later, when Pitt's successors lost control over Britain's North American colonies.

Pitt's prominence is the more remarkable in view of the fact that he spent the greater part of his career either in opposition or in minor office. His most important period of power was as Secretary of State in the years 1757-61, in a government officially headed by the Duke of Newcastle. Pitt formed only one ministry of his own, after his elevation to the House of Lords as Earl of Chatham, and historians are in agreement that this was not a success. A combination of his own poor health and ineffective management of colleagues culminated in his relinquishing office after two unproductive years. In the final phase of his life Pitt offered a vehement if not entirely coherent critique of government policy towards the American colonies. His position, that it was unjust for Britain to tax the colonies without their consent but that they should remain under British authority, ultimately did not prevail. At the time of his death, as so often in his career, he was an isolated figure, admired for the forceful speeches which had earned him the nickname 'Pitt the Thunderer', but also widely mistrusted and unable to shape the course of events.

The Patriot Minister

Scholarly controversy has tended to focus on two issues: the nature of Pitt's contribution to the outcome of the Seven Years' War, and the extent to which he articulated a clear and consistent view of the importance of imperial expansion. These debates have been closely linked to perceptions of Britain's changing world role since the Hanoverian era. In the half-century after Pitt's death, most writers took a generally balanced view, acknowledging the strength of his patriotism, but not making special claims for him as a military and naval strategist or regarding him as a far-sighted statesman.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian period, however, Pitt's reputation underwent a significant re-evaluation. The growth of the Empire, combined with the appearance of new external challenges at the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged scholars to take a renewed interest in the origins of Britain's global power. As a result Pitt's stature was enhanced and a new orthodoxy emerged, viewing him as the architect of victory in the Seven Years' War and as the prophet of a new imperial vision. The naval historian Julian Corbett, for example, portrayed Pitt as a war leader of genius, co-ordinating British strategy in a highly effective manner. Basil Williams, whose scholarly two volume biography appeared in 1913, largely ascribed British supremacy in Canada and India to Pitt's control of government and described his subject as 'the first statesman to make his countrymen realise the importance of their colonial empire'. …

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