William Pitt the Elder

By Black, Jeremy | History Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

William Pitt the Elder


Black, Jeremy, History Review


Jeremy Black takes a fresh look at the complex and controversial career of the First Earl of Chatham, the `great outsider' of Hanoverian Britain.

William Pitt the Elder (1708-78), First Earl of Chatham, was a statesman whose personality and views greatly affected British politics from the mid-1740s until his death. He was particularly important as the great war leader in 1756-61. He was, at this time, one of the two Secretaries of State, not obviously the leading minister in the government but someone who dominated it by ability, determination and force of personality. Personality is, indeed, the key to Pitt's rise. Despite appearances to the contrary, he was in part a political outsider, although this was more a matter of temperament than birth. His paternal background offered an instructive example of the flexibility of the English ancien regime, its ability to absorb new wealth and rising men. Pitt's father was an MP, and one of his uncles by marriage, James Viscount Stanhope, a leading minister.

A Political Outsider

In many significant respects, Pitt was an outsider. In a number of ways, both subtle and obvious, his position in the `establishment', however defined, was weak. Every ruling order, though presenting the appearance of a monolith to the unperceptive observer, has in reality many fine distinctions. Pitt's note was not one that would readily be heard naturally, his orbit not the most spectacular. Crucially, Pitt was a second son, and one with little money. He was dependent on the patronage of others in order to get into parliament in 1735, 1741, 1747 and 1754. In the first two cases he was elected by Old Sarum, a family pocket borough with five voters. In 1747 he was elected for Seaford, a constituency substantially influenced by Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, and in 1754 for another Newcastle seat, Aldborough. In 1756, Pitt was elected for the Grenville pocket borough of Buckingham and his own family's seat at Okehampton. He never sat for a county seat, the common aspiration for those with social standing.

Politically, Pitt had no secure base within a coherent group. He suffered from his lack of a large parliamentary connection. His career was based on standing in the House of Commons, especially on his oratorical vigour, not on connections. He came into high office without major obligations to any patron, and this independence ensured that he was very much his own master when it came to the crucial decisions. His ability to take a major role in the Commons depended on his ability to pose as the politician of conviction and argument, not the dispenser of loaves and fishes to backbenchers. As a tactic, it could work well. Pitt had a pre-eminence that in some respects was greater than that of Sir Robert Walpole, because Walpole could not take advantage of `Patriot' rhetoric and pose as a man totally and selflessly dedicated to the good of his country.

Pitt's rigorous criticism of government, whether from outside, when in opposition, or of ministerial colleagues, when in office, was not simply a tactic designed to gain attention and to encourage others, not least the ministry, to use his support. He was happier criticising than defending and this aggressive position was best presented by attacking government, even from within. Pitt pushed his views without moderation. He had a sense of his own ability that he felt was most challenged by governmental complacency protecting ministerial mediocrity. He did not feel at home in the world of court society.

Many contemporaries saw him as a megalomaniac determined to bend national politics to his will. In 1761 Earl Granville remarked that Pitt `was taking more upon himself than any man had a right to, approaching to infallibility'. Earlier that year, Bussy, the unsympathetic French envoy, reported:

   `This minister is the idol of the people, who regard him as the sole author
   of their success, and they do not have the same confidence in the other
   members of the council. … 

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