Remembering William Pitt

The Great Commoner

In March of 1763, the Member of Parliament for Bath rose to address the House of Commons on the excise bill for cider. The House was searching desperately for new sources of revenue, because the United Kingdom was nearly bankrupt from a recently ended war, one in which Britain and its German allies had prevailed against the combined forces of France, Spain, Austria, Russia, and Sweden.

Yet this “Cyder Act” earned a series of harangues by the Member from Bath as passionate as any of his wartime speeches. In long and thunderous tirades, he denounced the bill’s invasions on the liberties of English farmers. It was bad enough that apple growers would have to pay a four-shilling-per-hogshead tax in hard currency, which they often didn’t have. Enforcement also required that farmers receive advance written consent from a cider agent every time they made or transported cider and that they submit to unannounced, warrantless searches of their houses, orchards, and barns.

The Member for Bath, speaking on the old and hallowed theme that a man’s home is his castle, thought these things intolerable. “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown,” he declared. “It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”

The member who gave this speech—and who had been dominating the House for three decades with his brilliant orations—was William Pitt the Elder, then in opposition. His speeches on the cider bill were mostly met with bemused indifference, because the other members knew full well that the man addressing them was, by his recent activities while in government, the man most responsible for the enormous war debt that had motivated the bill in the first place.

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”

~William Pitt, the Elder

William Pitt was a man of contradictions. He was a strident populist whose campaigns against corruption and for the rights of the masses won him the nickname of the “Great Commoner,” yet he mainly represented “rotten boroughs,” depopulated districts that could retain original representation with just a few votes, and he did not face a competitive election until late in his career. Pitt has a reputation as one of Britain’s ablest statesmen, yet he floundered during his brief term in his country’s highest office. He is fondly remembered in America as a champion of colonial rights, yet he viewed American independence as an intolerable blow against the British Empire that he had worked so hard to grow.

The story of William Pitt is, in a way, the story of an era—of that long summertime of Whiggery, when the religious bloodletting of the 17th century was part of a faintly remembered past and when the great social agitations of the 19th century belonged to a seldom-imagined future.

“The Whig,” wrote Macaulay, in his Second Essay on Pitt,

is, in an especial manner, the guardian of liberty, and the [Tory], of order. One is the moving power, and the other the steadying power of the state. One is the sail, without which society would make no progress, the other the ballast, without which there would be small safety in a tempest. But, during the forty-six years which followed the accession of the house of Hanover, these distinctive peculiarities seemed to be effaced. The Whig conceived that he could not better serve the cause of civil and religious freedom than by strenuously supporting the Protestant dynasty.

Whiggery, when it prevailed, was a creed of moderation. It was a political expression of the Aristotelian golden mean, in which each virtue is not the opposite of a single vice but a midpoint between two harmful extremes.

Whigs believed in a right of insurrection against tyranny, but they also believed that this right should be used cautiously, and only at the fringes of the party could Whigs be found cheering on the French Revolution. Whigs demanded that Parliament be stronger than the Crown, not because they were opposed to hierarchy in principle but because they recognized that their nation’s laws and customs were more secure under the guardianship of a deliberative body than of a single individual. The Whigs were capable of backing social and political innovations when, in their careful judgment, those innovations seemed beneficial to society, yet the Whigs were also cognizant enough of the limits of human reason to avoid the utopian pitfalls that would soon cause so much trouble on the Continent.

It was among such men that William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham, made his mark on British history.

William Pitt was born at Westminster on Nov. 15, 1708. His father, Robert Pitt, was a member of Parliament for Old Sarum; his grandfather, Thomas Pitt, had made the family wealthy during his time as president of the East India Company’s trading post at Madras.

Of William’s youth, little is known. He had an elder brother and five sisters. At age 10, young William was sent off to be educated at Eton, though he had a miserable time there and upon having children of his own he decided that his sons would be taught at home. After graduating from Eton at 17, Pitt went to Oxford and then to Utrecht, but he completed no degrees. At 22, he obtained a cornet’s commission and spent two years as a cavalry officer.

Then, in February of 1735, he returned to represent the electors of Old Sarum—all five of them—in Parliament. After a few months, it became clear that the 26-year-old had a great gift for oratory, and his career in politics was afoot.

In 1735, parliamentary life revolved around one man: Sir Robert Walpole, Member for King’s Lynn, chancellor of the exchequer, and leader of the House of Commons. Retrospectively, historians have counted him as Britain’s first prime minister. At the time, the idea that the kingdom had a “prime” minister was outré. Yet the peculiar circumstances—under a German-born king who took little interest in Britain’s internal affairs—were ideal for a man skilled enough in parliamentary wrangling to make himself master of every affair of state.

Despite Walpole’s personal acumen, his ego prevented him from coexisting with anyone as skilled or ambitious as himself. Naturally, the young Pitt found himself in opposition, among the “Patriot Whigs”—a faction that had joined the Tories in opposing Walpole on the grounds that his self-importance, his abuse of the patronage system, and his cavalier attitude towards civil liberties were all at odds with the principles of the Glorious Revolution.

Soon, Pitt found a place for himself as one of “Cobham’s Cubs,” the young protégés of the Viscount Cobham. Yet even after Walpole fell from power in 1742, Pitt was slow to reach office. He had a rough relationship with George II, having vigorously opposed the Hanoverian king’s foreign policies; Pitt’s brother-in-law, the Earl Temple, recalled that Pitt “spoke like ten thousand angels” against the policy of paying Hanoverian soldiers out of the British treasury, proclaiming it to be but another instance of the way that “this great, this powerful, this formidable kingdom is considered only as a province to a despicable electorate.”

Pitt finally achieved office in 1746, when he was made Paymaster General of His Majesty’s Forces. He executed his new duties with vigor and diligence, and his timely payment of veterans’ pensions alleviated a great deal of poverty. Meanwhile, he set new standards of public conduct by his refusal to follow the example of most paymasters and make personal investments with the vast sums of money to which the treasury had entrusted him.

Despite his reputation for avoiding corruption, Pitt was still, in most ways, a man of his time. He had nothing against accepting plump annuities as rewards for services rendered to various governing factions or against using public funds (when in government) to purchase rotten boroughs for his supporters. Like most Whigs, Pitt was not of a mind to move by leaps and bounds.

Around this time, Pitt’s health took a turn for the worse. He was plagued with gout, and was often absent from Parliament for long intervals. Yet at moments of great importance, when he felt suddenly called out of seclusion, he would enter the chambers swaddled in bandages and carried by his servants, who carefully unwrapped their master just in time for him to give a speech. Such theatrics were wholly in keeping with his talents of manipulation and persuasion.

Pitt began his term as paymaster during the War of the Austrian Succession, and he surprised friend and foe alike by completely reversing himself on the question of whether British monies should be used to subsidize foreign troops. He was now strongly in favor, insisting that such a thing was wholly in keeping with Patriot principles and with putting the interests of England first.

Pitt’s enemies scorned his acquiescence, but in all likelihood he had simply changed his mind when he began to realize how much the military strength of Britain—a maritime power with a weak army—depended on financial support for foreign armies, or what would later be called the “Golden Cavalry of St. George,” in reference to the mounted figure on the reverse side of British gold coins.

Portrait of William Pitt, 1st Earl
of Chatham, circa 1754. (Studio
of William Hoare, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1754, the 45-year-old Pitt finally married. His bride was Hester Grenville, whose five brothers had all distinguished themselves in Parliament and whose family had been close to Pitt since his days with Cobham’s Cubs. Pitt’s marriage was by all accounts a happy and faithful one. Hester bore him five children, including future prime minister William Pitt the Younger, and remained his close supporter and confidant throughout his life.

Two years into his marriage, in a coalition led by the Duke of Newcastle, Pitt was appointed Secretary of State for the Southern Department. He held that office between 1756 and 1761, and he was immediately tested by the crisis of the Seven Years War.

A border dispute between French and British colonists in North America had turned hot in the spring of 1754. George Washington’s famous skirmish at Fort Necessity sparked what was known in the colonies as the French and Indian War; in 1756, the fighting spread to Europe, where it would last until 1763. A diplomatic reshuffling early in 1756 had left Britain with only one major ally, Prussia. All of the other great powers—Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Russia—sided with France.

From this disastrous beginning, a great deal of brilliant generalship on the part of Prussia’s King Frederick the Great was required to save what looked like a hopeless situation. Yet it would be Britain, and the skillful leadership of William Pitt, that made victory possible in the long run.

Although he was nominally outranked by Newcastle, Pitt managed the war in practice. As secretary of state, it was Pitt who read the near-endless dispatches from the war’s various theaters, Pitt who had the most influence in the selection of commanders, and Pitt who converted the latitudinous decisions of the council-room into detailed orders to be sent to soldiers, sailors, and diplomats all over the globe.

And the victories followed. In 1757, Robert Clive’s victory over France’s Bengali allies at Plassey put India firmly under British suzerainty. In 1759, James Wolfe’s victory over Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham dealt a mortal blow to French rule in Canada. And in Germany, Frederick the Great and his allies, with steady help from the Golden Cavalry of St. George, held the line against their combined foes.

William Pitt, recognized by everyone as the architect of Britain’s strategy, basked in admiration from all quarters. His forceful oratory filled the halls of Parliament, and news of the triumphs of British arms confounded his detractors. The “Great Commoner” became, for a brief time, the most celebrated man in the kingdom.

“An Allegorical Set of Portraits Commemorating the Victory at Quiberon Bay in 1759.” Depicted left to right: King George II, Secretary of State William Pitt, Admiral Edward Hawke, and First Lord of the Admiralty George Anson (unknown artist / British National Trust)

It was not to last. As the years passed, too many people became weary of the war’s costs in blood and treasure. Once it was clear that peace could be made on terms favorable to Britain, men of influence—including the new king, George III—began calling on Pitt to bring hostilities to a close. Yet Pitt would not budge.

Flush with victory and made confident of his own genius by his years of unmixed success, Pitt was determined to press every advantage to the last. He would spare no chance to inflict just defeats on his enemies. He quarrelled with the king and with the rest of the cabinet. He took umbrage with them for calling the war “bloody and expensive.”

Looking only at this stage of Pitt’s career, one can see the parallels with Napoleon Bonaparte in the last heady years before fortune turned against the upstart emperor. But Pitt had something Napoleon lacked: a system of government in which there were men with the power to question his judgment and to make him stop while he still had the chance.

In the fall of 1761, the coalition supporting Pitt finally broke down, and he tendered his resignation on Oct. 5. The war continued, under less ambitious leadership, for a little more than a year before a peace was concluded, leaving Britain as the dominant global power.

William Pitt would never have as much influence in peacetime as he had during the war.

After his fall from office, a number of unstable governments cycled through power. Pitt had some noteworthy moments in opposition: his speeches against the cider tax, his stalwart resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765, and his calling boroughs like Old Sarum “the rotten part of the constitution,” which must eventually be “amputated.”

In 1766, after the governments of Prime Ministers Bute, Grenville, and Rockingham had all ended in disorder, King George reluctantly asked Pitt (whom he had created the Earl of Chatham) to form a government of his own.

Pitt’s supporters hoped for a return of the strong leadership that he had shown during the war years, yet he was not up to the task of forging another lasting coalition. His bad health often confined him to his home; his obdurate and long-winded private speeches to the king left the young monarch bored and irritated; and the thunderous style of oratory that had served Pitt so well in the House of Commons proved unsuited to the more intimate setting of the House of Lords.

After scarcely two years in office, Pitt conceded defeat and relinquished his position to Lord Grafton. He adapted fairly well to being in opposition once again, as he championed freedom of the press, defended the rights of the electorate in the case of the riots over the imprisoned journalist and Radical Member of Parliament John Wilkes, and tried to find common ground with the increasingly restless American colonists.

Around this time, Pitt’s physical health seems to have improved, yet the effect was to make him all the more scrupulous about it, and it became ever clearer that his mind was growing unsound. The earl became very picky about his foods, and he employed armies of cooks to make sure that he could indulge his odd appetites at any time of day or night. He convinced himself that noise from neighboring estates posed a threat to his health that could only be alleviated by surrounding his house with groves of cedar trees. Indeed, he was so intent on having cedars that for a time, it became almost impossible for anyone else in England to get any, as Pitt’s servants scoured the country for young trees to buy up and transplant into their master’s gardens.

Pitt’s political positions were similarly erratic. He had insisted, during the debates over the Stamp Act, that it was unconstitutional for the colonies to be taxed by a Parliament in which they were not represented, and he warned of civil war if the act’s supporters persisted in their course. Yet later on, he agreed with the government that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies’ maritime trade—a meaningless distinction, at least by the standards of James Otis Jr. and Samuel Adams, who put no qualifiers on the dictum that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Pitt’s attitude toward America became only more illogical after the war began. “You cannot subdue America!” he bellowed, as he castigated his peers for unleashing Hessian mercenaries against their kinsmen in a struggle that was already looking unwinnable.

Yet Pitt still insisted that American independence was unacceptable, and even a full year after independence had been declared, he kept believing that if Britain withdrew its forces from the American continent and offered guarantees of internal autonomy, then the colonies would return to subordination. Both Lord North’s faction, which wanted to fight the war through to victory, and the Rockingham Whigs, who saw independence as a fait accompli, dismissed such fantastical hopes, and they were right to do so.

Though Pitt had clearly passed his prime as a statesman, one must not suppose that his final years were unhappy ones. During the decade that followed his premiership, he spent a great deal of time with his wife at his country home, where the children born so late in his life were finally reaching maturity.

Pitt passed many a blissful hour riding about the estate with his daughters and watching his sons as they swam in the sea. He delighted in amateur theatricals, in taking the girls to the opera, in his elder daughter’s wedding, and in his eldest son’s military education.

“The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778” (oil painting by John Singleton Copley / London National Portrait Gallery)

On Apr. 7, 1778, Pitt collapsed in the House of Lords while delivering an impassioned speech against “the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy!” The lords adjourned in respect while he was carried to a nearby house, but there was to be no recovery. For a month he lingered, and on May 11, he died.

In death, all of William Pitt’s less worthy moments were forgotten; the people once more thought of him as a hero, as someone indispensable.

All England mourned for the Great Commoner, and his remains were deposited, with the most solemn rites, in Westminster Abbey, beside kings and queens and the greatest lights of British civilization. In death, all of William Pitt’s less worthy moments were forgotten; the people once more thought of him as a hero, as someone indispensable.

The political legacy of William Pitt has been contested, with many factions claiming him as their own. This is no surprise, for he was not a philosopher; his positions were seldom rigid, and one cannot extract from his surviving orations a systemized body of political thought.

Pitt was a man of great political abilities. While his personal following in the Commons was small, he had a unique talent for channelling public opinion. The masses saw Pitt as a champion for the national weal, and other members realized that his influence could prove crucial at the hustings.

Above all things, Pitt was a patriot. He was a man driven by love of his country, a man who realized that England’s mixed constitution and its unique combination of a high regard for the rights of man with a stable social order where king, nobles, and commoners all had their place, was something rare and precious.

Long after his death, William Pitt is remembered as one of England’s finest statesmen. His life and times are worthy of study by everyone in the Anglo-American tradition, both for his talents and virtues, and for the venerable system of representative government of which he was a part—a system which restrained his shortcomings while allowing him to make the most of his many strengths.

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