Childhood & Early Life
William Pitt was born on November 15, 1708 in Westminster, London into a politically influential family. His grandfather Thomas Pitt was the Governor of Madras and father Robert Pitt served as a Member of Parliament from 1705 to 1727. His mother Harriet Pitt nee Villiers also came from a leading family.
William had six siblings. His elder brother Thomas Pitt, who inherited his father’s estate, was also a Member of Parliament. Besides, he had five sisters; Harriet, Catherine, Ann, Elizabeth, and Mary.
In 1719, William was admitted to Eton Collage. He did not enjoy his stay there. Moreover, he had his first attack of gout, an affliction that would remain with him for the rest of his life, sometime during this period.
In 1727, William was admitted to the Trinity Collage as a ‘gentleman commoner’. However, he had to leave his studies in 1728 due to a violent attack of gout. He then spent some time travelling around in Europe and ultimately got admission in the Utrecht University in the Dutch Republic and finished his education in 1730.
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William Pitt started his career as a commissioned officer in the British army. He obtained a coronet’s commission with the help of his friends. However, his military career was short lived and in 1735, he entered the Parliament as a representative of Old Serum. He was at that time 27 years old.
During that time, Sir Roberts Walpole of the Whig Party was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Pitt joined the opposing faction known as the Patriot Whigs and swiftly became one of its prominent members. The faction offered effective opposition to Walpole. *Pitt gave his maiden speech in 1736. Although the speech was of little historical importance, it helped him to gain the attention of the house. Very soon, he began talking about more relevant subjects and criticized the government on several occasions; especially for its non-intervention in the war in Europe.
As a retaliatory measure, Walpole had him dismissed from the army. However, the loss of commission was compensated by Frederick, the Prince of Wales, who appointed him as his Groom of the Bed Chamber. This solved his financial problem and he could concentrate on his political career.
Pitt continued his attack against both the government and especially Prime Minister Walpole. He spoke in favoUr of war with Spain and against subsidies to Hanover and Austria. He also supported the motion for an enquiry into Walpole’s last years of rule. Ultimately, Walpole had to resign. That was in 1742.
Although Walpole resigned from the post of the Prime Minister, he remained the real source of power until his death in 1745. By that time, Pitt had also antagonized King George II for his views on Hanover. Many Whig leaders were also against him and therefore, he could not benefit from this change of power.
By this time Pitt had also made many friends. When Dowager Duchess of Marlborough died in 1744, she left him a legacy of ten thousand pound as an acknowledgement of his service to the nation. It boosted his financial position to a large extent and allowed him to concentrate on his job.
Wiser now, Pitt changed his ways and made constructive effort to mend his ways with the King. In 1746, he became the Vice Treasure of Ireland and then in May, he became the Pay Master General, a lucrative post that had been misused to gain personal wealth by the previous Pay Masters.
Pitt won many hearts by his honest and transparent actions. In addition, the post gave him a berth in the Privy Council. He then continued to work closely with government and at the same time, criticized the leadership for its failure to take prompt action in a number of matters as well as for its war policies. Consequently, he was dismissed in 1755.
In 1756, Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, was forced to step down. It was alleged that he had deliberately left the Island of Minorca inadequately defended so as to prove that it was in the interest of England to sign peace treaties with France. Pitt next formed the government along with George Grenville and the Duke of Devonshire.
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Pitt became the Leader of the House of Commons and the Secretary of State for the Southern Department while the Duke of Devonshire became the Prime Minister. However, Duke of Newcastle was still very powerful and the King George II was still antagonistic towards him.
Pitt and Grenville disagreed over a number of issues. Pitt, for example, opposed the government’s continental policy and also criticized the court-martial and execution of Admiral John Byng. Consequently, he was removed from the office in 1757, but reinstated very shortly.
Pitt now formed the government along with the Duke of Newcastle. By that time the Seven Year’s War between Britain and France had started and Britain had suffered a number of military defeats at the hands of France. While Newcastle looked after the domestic affair, Pitt concentrated on war efforts.
Until then, Britain’s war policies had been a failure. Pitt set out to correct that. He strengthened the navy and sent fleets to block French ports. He also started the practice of Naval Descents and urged countries like Prussia to fight on the side of Great Britain
His strategy was to tie down France in Europe while superior British navy captured French ports around the world. His strategy resulted in British victory in North America and India. He wanted tocontinue with the war until France was totally defeated.
1759 was a significant year for Pitt. Under his guidance, the British troops came out victorious in every field and a lot of the credit went to him. By 1760, Britain also captured Montreal and Pitt’s popularity as well as his power reached its peak.
However, he met opposition from another end. King George III ascended the throne in 1760. He had his own ideas and put in his own men. Very soon a conflict started. While Pitt wanted to declare war against Spain, others believed that it would make Britain look like an aggressor. Many of his ideas were rejected by the cabinet.
Pitt resigned from his post in 1761. For next five years he was in the opposition criticizing government policies. When Britain signed treaties with France, he found it to be too lenient. He also disapproved of the government policies as regard to America. These made him very popular both at home and abroad.
In 1766, Pitt was once again asked to lead another coalition government. This time, he entered as a member of the House of Lords and to do that he had to accept the title of ‘Earl of Chatham’. The ordinary people who loved him for his refusal to take any title were disappointed and he lost their support.
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He was not very successful in other aspect as well. He did not have any direct control over the administration and proved incapable of governing. He disapproved of the Stamp Duty imposed on America, but could not provide any solution that would be acceptable both to Britain and to America.
His loyal ministers began to resign one by one. In 1768, he too resigned from his post; but continued to visiting the Parliament; speaking on various issues until his death at the age of sixty nine.
Personal Life & Legacy
On November 16, 1754, William Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville, the daughter of the 1st Countess Temple. At the time of their wedding Pitt was around 46 years old while Hester was thirty four. By that time, they had known each other for twenty years.
The marriage was a happy one and produced five children; Hester, Harriet, John, William and James. Among them, William was known as William Pitt the Younger and served as Prime Minister several times.
William Pitt the Older died on May 11, 1778. He used to visit the Parliament regularly even at this old age. On April 7, 1778, while making speech against the government for withdrawing troops from the colonies he collapsed in the House of Lords. He was taken to Hayes, where he breathed his last just one month after the incident.
Although he had many critics, historians have described him as ‘the greatest statesman of the eighteenth century England’. After his death, everybody united to pay homage to him and petitioned the king for a state funeral.
Today, his mortal remains lie in the Westminster Abbey. A public monument has also been erected over his grave. An inscription on the grave describes him as a man ‘by whom commerce was united with and made to flourish by war'.