Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Chatham, William Pitt 1st earl of
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(chăt'Әm), 1708–78, British statesman, known as the Great Commoner. Proud, dramatic, and patriotic, Chatham excelled as a war minister and orator. He was the father of William Pitt.

Early Life

A member of a family whose wealth had been made in India, he entered Parliament in 1735. With his older brother he became a member of a group known as “Cobham's cubs” (after their leader Lord Cobham) or the “boy patriots,” who opposed the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole, particularly its foreign policy, and supported Frederick Louis, prince of Wales, in his quarrel with King George II. After the fall (1742) of Walpole, Pitt was the leading critic of Lord Carteret (later earl of Granville) in his conduct of the War of the Austrian Succession.

Years in Government

Although detested by the king, Pitt entered the government as postmaster general of the forces in 1746 and won great popularity by his unusual honesty in refusing the usual perquisites of that office. He was dismissed in 1755, but the early disasters in the Seven Years War gave him such an opportunity to denounce government policies in his eloquent speeches that in 1756 George II was forced to call on him to become a secretary of state. The next year he formed a coalition ministry with Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle.

Pitt wished to conduct the war primarily against the French to win imperial supremacy, a policy popular with the mercantile interests and with the generally anti-French public. His subsidies to Frederick II of Prussia, his efficient handling of military supplies, his shrewd choice of commanders, his insistence on naval expansion, and his ability to raise English morale resulted in the defeat of the French power in India and the capture of the French provinces in Canada.

After the accession of George III, however, Pitt was forced to resign (1761), and he fiercely denounced the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763), by which the war was concluded. He joined the opposition in protesting the prosecution (1763) of John Wilkes and the imposition of the Stamp Act (1765) on the American colonies.

In 1766, Pitt was recalled to office as lord privy seal, accepted the title earl of Chatham, and formed such a broadly based ministry that it was soon impossibly divided. Troubled by increasing mental illness and gout, Chatham exercised little control over this administration, and his chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, not only sabotaged his plans to reorganize the East India Company but passed the ill-fated Townshend Acts (1767). In virtual retirement from 1767, he resigned office in 1768.

In his rare speeches in the House of Lords thereafter, he urged conciliation of the American colonies, and after the outbreak of the American Revolution he favored any peace settlement short of granting the colonies independence. On this issue he broke with the Whigs, and his last speech was a plea against the disruption of the empire he had done so much to build. At its conclusion he collapsed and was carried home to die.

Bibliography
  • See biographies by B. Williams (1913, repr. 1966),.
  • O. A. Sherrerd (1952), J. H. Plumb (1953, repr. 1965), and J. W. Derry (1962);.
  • Winstanley, D. A. , Lord Chatham and the Whig Opposition (1912, repr. 1966).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018