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|William Pitt, Earl of Chatham
Secretary of State, 1756-1761; Prime Minister, 1766-1768
William Pitt was born in Westminster, London, on November 15, 1708, the fourth of seven children born to Robert Pitt and Lady Harriet Villiers. His grandfather, Thomas Pitt, had made the family wealthy by engaging in trade with India, and the family enjoyed some measure of prestige within Britain as a result. William received his early education at Eton, and entered Trinity College, Oxford University, in 1727, but a serious bout with gout forced him to leave in 1728; he resumed his education at the University of Utrecht later that same year, but left in 1730 to join the military. Although he was able to secure a commmission in the dragoons, Pitt never saw the action he hoped for and spent most of the next five years stationed in Northampton; he resigned his commission in 1736.
Pitt entered Parliament, representing Old Sarum, on February 18, 1735, and gave his first speech in that body on April 22, 1735, against the Palace Bill. He spent his first several years in the House of Commons criticizing the administration of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, believing that Walpole's policies were counter to the best interests of Britain and her citizens. After he and his friends convinced Walpole of the necessity of declaring war on Spain in 1739, he insisted that the war should be fought on the seas rather than on land. During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), Pitt openly accused King George II of protecting his homeland of Hanover (in present-day Germany) over the interests of Britain.
Although he enjoyed great popularity and influence in Parliament, Pitt had little power for several years. His strong presence in Parliament finally prevailed, however, and he was named Paymaster General in 1745. Pitt performed his duties as Paymaster General with distinction, but his continued criticism of King George, and especially of the king's payment of subsidies to continental governments in exchange for their carrying on of Britain's interests in the war, led to his dismissal in 1755.
Pitt's loss of power proved very short-lived, as renewal of the war with France led to his being named Secretary of State in 1756, and it was in this capacity that he made his biggest impact on British history. Believing that Britain needed to focus its efforts on conquering French colonies overseas, he expanded and strengthened the navy, made friendly overtures towards Prussia so they would handle most action on the European continent, and paid subsidies to British colonies that supplied troops or supplies. These policies led to great success, as the French were defeated in North America, the West Indies, India, Europe, West Africa, and on the seas, and the British Empire reached its greatest extent ever, but his demand that the war be continued until France was completely defeated led to King George III forcing his resignation in October 1761. As the leader of the opposition, Pitt criticized the Treaty of Paris of 1763, saying that Britain made far too many concessions to France in light of Britain's dominance in the war, and was a vocal opponent of new taxes on the American colonies, making him a popular figure on both sides of the Atlantic.
In July 1766, Pitt became Prime Minister, giving him his first opportunity for complete control of the government. Unfortunately, his ministry lacked unity and Pitt lost favor in the House of Commons when he entered the House of Lords as Earl of Chatham. To make matters worse, Pitt was frequently plagued by bouts of ill health, allowing Charles Townshend, Exchequer, to gain most of the day-to-day power; Pitt resigned in October 1768.
Pitt spent the rest of his life in the House of Lords, where he enjoyed only limited favor. Although he frequently pleaded for sympathetic treatment of the American colonies and publicly rejoiced when the colonists stood up for themselves, he did not believe they should be granted independence. He collapsed in the House of Lords on May 7, 1778, after speaking out against a proposal to address a message to the king praying for peace with the American colonies at any costs (he still did not believe in giving independence), and died four days later (May 11) at his home in Bromley, Kent. He was survived by his wife, Hester Greenville (whom he had married on October 16, 1754) and five children -- Hester (1755-1780), Harriet (1758-1786), John (1756-1835), William (1759-1806), and James (1761-1781).
This page was last updated on May 11, 2017.