William Pitt. who served as Prime Minister from 30 July 1766 to 14 October 1768, was born on 15 November 1709, the second son and fourth of seven children of Robert Pitt and his wife Lady Harriet Villiers. The family was not aristocratic and the politicians in the family relied on connections and their own abilities to make their way in life. Between 1719 and 1726, Pitt was educated at Eton and then went up to Trinity College Oxford. He left there in 1728 before graduating and took a place at the University of Utrecht. Pitt then was provided with a Cornetcy in Cobham's Regiment (the King's Own Regiment of Horse) in 1731 but was dismissed in 1736 for a sarcastic speech he made in parliament. Cobham was his uncle. Pitt undertook a foreshortened "grand tour" in 1733-4, visiting only France and Switzerland.
Pitt entered political life in 1735 when he was elected as MP for Old Sarum, the family's rotten borough. In 1737 he was appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. In this period of his life, Pitt opposed Walpole's government and sat on a Committee of Enquiry into Walpole's use of Civil List money. In October 1744 he was bequeathed £10,000 by the Duchess of Marlborough for his opposition to Walpole. The money was well-received because Pitt was perpetually in debt.
In 1746 Pitt was appointed Paymaster General, a post which carried Cabinet status. He worked hard in Pelham's ministry and on the death of the PM (in 1754) expected to be rewarded by the incoming PM and Pelham's brother, the Duke of Newcastle. When Newcastle did nothing to help Pitt, he was indignant and wrote a letter of complaint to the PM. Newcastle then arranged for Pitt to represent the rotten borough of Aldborough in 1754. In the same year, Pitt married Hester Grenville, sister of Earl Temple and George Grenville. Hester was 23 years his junior. The couple had three sons and two daughters: William (Pitt the Younger) was their second son.
In 1756 the Seven Years' War broke out; Pitt was Secretary of State with sole charge of the direction of the war and foreign affairs. During the early years of the war, Britain suffered a number of reversals but late in 1758 the army began to make inroads into French control of Canada including the capture of Fort Duquesne which was renamed Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). In 1759 Quebec surrendered after the death of Generals Wolfe (British) and Montcalme (French) in the battle for the town. Pitt had fulfilled his promise to "save his country". He then wanted to press home Britain's advantage by declaring war on Spain before the Spanish had time to prepare for and declare war on Britain. This was always a likelihood since the French and Spanish royal families were related and had signed the "Family Compact" to provide mutual assistance in time of war. The new king, George III, and his advisers - particularly the Earl of Bute - were reluctant to extend the war. Pitt's position was made untenable and he resigned in 1761.
The king and Bute, pleased to have Pitt out of office, offered him a variety of posts including the governorship of Canada and the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster-offices that would keep Pitt out of parliament. He refused all these offers but hinted that rewards for his relatives would be welcome. He accepted a pension of £3,000 for his own lifetime and for that of his wife and his son. Mrs. Pitt was created Baroness Chatham: she was lampooned as "Lady Cheat'em" for some time.
In 1762, Bute was obliged to declare war on Spain, just as Pitt had proposed a year earlier. However, at the end of the year, Bute had begun negotiations for a peace. Pitt returned to parliament to deliver a scathing, three-hour speech attaching the proposals: the performance was enshrined in Dalrymple's poem, The Rodondo. Bute found the burdens of office too much to bear and in 1763 was replaced by George Grenville, Pitt's brother-in-law who was PM until July 1765.
In January 1765, Sir William Pysent - a total stranger - left his Somerset estate of Burton Pysent to Pitt. The estate was worth about £40,000. In the same year the king made overtures to Pitt for the formation of a ministry. Pitt was in poor health and also was aware that he was the king's last resort for PM so he refused. Rockingham formed a short-lived ministry and in 1766 Pitt became PM in his own right but now elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Chatham. By accepting the peerage he lost all credibility as the "Great Commoner" and was unable to control the House of Commons which he had ruled by sheer force of personality as 'Mr. Pitt'. The king wanted a stable, positive government and thought that would be the result of appointing Chatham. Chatham had support from the independent gentlemen in the House of Commons, merchants, businessmen, the City and industry: it should have been a strong government. The Americans also trusted Pitt after his handling of the Seven Years' War and because of his anti-Stamp Act speeches. George III politically abandoned Bute and gave Chatham his full backing.
Edmund Burke said that George III bribed Pitt with the peerage. Chatham said that he wanted to rule through "measures, not men": he wanted his policies to be more important than his ministers. In this, he had the same ideas as the King, who wanted to choose the best policies and form a government from the best people without regard to parties. Burke commented that Chatham "made an administration so chequered and speckled ... such a tessellated pavement without cement ... that it was, indeed, a very curious show; but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand on". It was an unstable ministry for a variety of reasons:
- Pitt became victim of his own success and tried to 'manage' the King, who saw his ministers as his servants and refused to be 'managed'
- his peerage destroyed his image as 'the Great Commoner'
- he became arrogant, verging on megalomania
- he was autocratic in Cabinet and over-rode Grafton, who ceased to take any interest in affairs
- his ability was waning. Chatham had a mental breakdown in 1767 followed by a long illness during which he refused to see anyone
- he was unable to control the Commons from the Lords
All this led to further instability. His caretaker was the Duke of Grafton, who also sat in the Lords, with Charles Townshend as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Commons. Many other Cabinet posts were held by men who had served in Rockingham's ministry. Chatham's weaknesses, together with the activities of Grafton and Townshend, caused the collapse of Chatham's ministry. Chatham's ministry mis-handled issues concerning
- America and
- John Wilkes
Townshend unilaterally reverted to Grenville's policy for America. He revived the financial demands on the colonies with the 1767 American Import Duties Act, often known as the Townshend Duties. During the Stamp Act crisis, the colonists had differentiated between internal and external taxation and Townshend made use of this in his policy. Townshend's taxes were 'external' and had the same aim as the Sugar Act: they were intended specifically to raise a revenue from America. He put small duties on lead, paint, glass, paper and tea, goods that were essential to the colonists. All had to be imported from Britain in British ships, and by taxing at source, evasion was impossible. The levying of these duties led to:
- more cries of 'no taxation with representation'
- riots and another non-importation agreement.
Wilkes returned to England in 1768 hoping that his misdeeds in 1763-4 would have been forgotten. By 1768 he had many debts in France. Grafton totally mishandled the affair and it dragged the government down. 1768 was a general election year and Wilkes wanted to take part and become an MP again. There was much discontent among MPs and much discontent nationally. Consequently the electorate was ripe for a reformer:
- the country had had weak governments and almost continual ministerial instability since 1760. The electorate was looking for MPs who would strengthen and stabilise government
- Britain had suffered from a period of economic hardship because of the American non-importation agreements
- MPs were disillusioned with the constant changes of ministry
- 1768 was a year of bad harvests, food shortages and high prices. There was severe unemployment and a bad winter.
- the Spitalfields silk weavers had rioted before the election
- seamen had gone on strike in London, Tyneside, Hull.
There was widespread distress in the country but particularly in London. Wilkes stood as MP for a London borough and lost because it was controlled by a magnate, so he moved on to the Middlesex County Election. Middlesex was extremely democratic (given 18th century situation) because most of London's artisans, 40/- freeholders, small landowners and craftsmen lived there. These men were very strong supporters of 'Wilkes the Liberator'. Wilkes won easily on a reform platform and seems to have been intent on provoking the government into action.
George III and Grafton had two choices:
- let Wilkes take his seat (and therefore admit defeat)
- arrest Wilkes for debts, pornography, duelling on the old outlawry charge.
Wilkes pre-empted the government and forced the Warden of the King's Bench prison to gaol him for the poem "Essay on Woman". He said that he wanted to stand trial to:
- establish his right to stand as MP
- establish his good character
He also wanted to present parliament with a fait accompli. The Court found Wilkes guilty of debts and outlawry, ordered him to pay a £1,000 fine and sentenced him to twenty-two months imprisonment. In Wilkes' case, the judicature supported Crown and parliament. A mob gathered on St. George's Fields, outside the prison, because the people thought that Wilkes had been arrested by the unpopular government. Troops were called out to control rioters but were beaten and stoned. Shots were fired and six rioters were killed. The event became known as the "Massacre of St. George's Field". Wilkes became became a hero and a 'martyr to the cause' and a defender of liberties because he attacked the government.
The affair was shown in cartoons as Bute attacking liberties of Englishman because the Earl of Bute was a Scot and Scottish soldiers were called out to quell the riots. The Magistrate who had given orders for troops to fire on the mob was tried for murder. This had repercussions during the Gordon Riots in 1780 when the magistrates unwilling to give orders to shoot.
With Wilkes in prison, the Middlesex election was declared null and void and another election was ordered. Henry Lawes Luttrell was the government candidate but the electorate nominated Wilkes as a candidate. There were four elections between 1768 and 1769, all won by Wilkes. On the first three occasions, the government declared the election to be null and void because Wilkes was not entitled to stand for election. On the fourth occasion in 1769, Luttrell was declared to be elected. The results were: HL Luttrell 296 votes, Wilkes 1,043 votes. Since Britain has a "first past the post" system of election, it is clear that Luttrell should not have been declared the winner. There were a number of results from the Middlesex election affair.
- The 'perfect' British Constitution looked ridiculous. It appeared to be exposed as weak, corrupt and subject to influence. This was fuel for the Whigs who believed George III was attempting to set up his own government of 'King's Friends' by manipulating elections. In fact, the Middlesex election fiasco was a one-off case, and Wilkes had been imprisoned by an independent judiciary. Legally, he was not permitted to stand for election.
- It sparked off the 1769 Petitioning Movement, led by Yorkshire and the Rockinghams, demanding the dissolution of parliament and a general election. By end of 1769, eighteen counties and thirteen cities had petitioned for dissolution. All were ignored by Grafton.
- It led to setting up of the first organised radical reform club, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, founded by a Unitarian clergyman, John Horne-Tooke, centred around the Wilkes affair and based on Wilkes himself.
The Duke of Grafton was First Lord of the Treasury during Chatham's ministry and Charles Townshend was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The budget was overturned by a successful Rockinghamite motion to reduce the land tax to 3/- in the £. Chatham, who had not expected his ministry to have so many troubles, collapsed and spent the next eighteen months out of touch with politics and possibly out of touch with reality. It was Charles Townshend who introduced the American Import Duties Act in 1767 in an effort to raise money from the colonies to pay for their defence even though this was against Chatham's policy. However, with the "great man" incommunicado, the ministers did much as they pleased. Eventually Chatham resigned in October 1768, leaving the Duke of Grafton to form a ministry in his own right. Chatham resigned as PM, in the middle of the Wilkes fiasco. He was still ill, but Grafton and Townshend-who had died in August 1767- had wrecked his ministry. Chatham denounced everything that had been done by his ministry in his absence. He said that the colonial policy "was impracticable" and that the handling of the Wilkes affair was "highly incompetent".
Over the next ten years, Chatham appeared from time to time in parliament to support or attack the government, depending on its policies. He tried desperately to avert open conflict with the American colonies but each time he failed to get his own way he retired to the country, ill. On 7 April 1778 he attended the House of Lords for a debate on the situation in the colonies with the intention of opposing the Duke of Richmond's motion to give the colonies their independence. He spoke against Richmond, who responded. When Chatham rose again to reply, he opened his mouth, clutched his chest and collapsed on the Duke of Portland. Chatham was carried from the House of Lords and taken to Hayes where he died on 11 May 1778. He was 69 years old.
Ayling, S. The Elder Pitt. London, 1976.
Black, J. Pitt the Elder. Cambridge, 1992.
Tunstall, B. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. London, 1938.
Last modified 19 February 2002