PITT, William (1708-78), of Hayes, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



18 Feb. 1735 - 1747
1747 - 1754
1754 - Dec. 1756
7 - 11 Dec. 1756
11 Dec. 1756 - July 1757
9 July 1757 - 4 Aug. 1766

Family and Education

b. 15 Nov. 1708, 2nd s. of Robert Pitt, M.P., of Boconnoc, Cornw., and bro. of Thomas Pitt sen.  educ. Eton 1719-26; Trinity, Oxf. 1727; Utrecht.  m. 16 Nov. 1754, Lady Hester Grenville, da. of Richard Grenville, M.P., of Wotton, Bucks., sis. of Richard, 2nd Earl Temple, George, Henry and James Grenville, 3s. 2da.  cr. Earl of Chatham 4 Aug. 1766.

Offices Held

Cornet, Cobham’s Horse 1731-6; groom of bedchamber to Prince of Wales 1737-45; P.C. 28 May 1746; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Feb.-May 1746; paymaster gen. 1746-55; sec. of state, southern dept. Dec. 1756-Apr. 1757, July 1757-Oct. 1761; ld. privy seal July 1766-Oct. 1768.


When Henry Pelham died on 6 Mar. 1754 two men stood out of sufficient stature to succeed him in the leadership of the House of Commons: Henry Fox and William Pitt. Pitt was then forty-five and had been in Parliament for almost twenty years. He had begun as a violent opponent of Sir Robert Walpole and soon made his name as an aggressive and forceful speaker. After the fall of Walpole, the King’s dislike of Pitt prevented his obtaining office, but in 1746 the Pelhams forced his appointment as paymaster general. There he had remained, a dormant volcano, in an office of rank and emolument, but not in the Cabinet and without any real share in the determination of policy. His closest associates in politics were his relatives the Grenville brothers and Sir George Lyttelton. He was on bad terms with his elder brother Thomas, who had adhered to the Prince of Wales, and in 1754 was dependent upon Newcastle for a seat in Parliament. With only a handful of followers in the House, his support was however indispensable to the new Administration to be formed on Pelham’s death.

Pitt was at Bath, ill of the gout, when Pelham died. On 7 Mar. 1754 he wrote to Lyttelton and the Grenvilles, outlining the strategy they should adopt.1

My own object for the public is to support the King in quiet as long as he may have to live; and to strengthen the hands of the Princess of Wales as much as may be, in order to maintain her power in the government in case of the misfortune of the King’s demise.

Pelham’s death had created opportunities of long-cherished advancement, which should be exploited warily. ‘Too much caution, reserve, and silence cannot be observed towards any who come to fish or sound your dispositions, without authority to make direct propositions.’ Pitt expected that one of their group (obviously himself) should be called to the Cabinet and ‘to a real participation of councils and business’, but deprecated the threat of resignation to enforce this demand. In subsequent letters he emphasized and elaborated these points:2 ‘I wish to see as little power in Fox’s hands as possible’; Newcastle and the King should be left ‘under the impressions of their fears and resentments, the only friends we shall ever have at court’; and Temple should cultivate as many Members of Parliament as he could.

Consideration and weight in the House of Commons arises generally from but one of two causes: the protection and countenance of the Crown, visibly manifested by marks of royal favour at court; or from weight in the country, sometimes arising from opposition to the public measures.

Pitt rejoiced that he had left off opposition in 1744, but regretted that he had not yet found ‘protection and countenance’ from the Crown.

In these letters Pitt’s political conduct over the next three years is foreshadowed. To profess all duty and respect to the King but to take care also to be in favour with the heir apparent (George II was seventy); not to resign, but to exploit the needs of Administration; and in the last resort to appeal to the nation at large against the King and his government. Was this strategy suddenly improvised on the news of Pelham’s death? Intensely ambitious, conscious of his weight in the House of Commons, and chafing at having so long played a secondary role, he marked out the path to supreme power. The aggressive element, always strong in him, now came to the fore. In the struggle between Pitt, Fox, and Newcastle, which absorbed the House of Commons for the next three years, Pitt was the subtle politician, strengthening his hand from every quarter and exploiting every weakness of his opponents.

The King set his face against Pitt’s promotion and Fox refused the seals on Newcastle’s terms. The lead in the House of Commons was put into commission between Robinson, Murray, and Legge, with Newcastle reserving to himself the power of patronage. When Pitt learnt that Robinson and Legge had been promoted over his head, he opened his batteries against Newcastle. ‘An indelible negative is fixed against my name’, he wrote to the Duke on 24 Mar.3 ‘... In my degraded situation in Parliament, an active part there I am sure your Grace is too equitable to desire me to take, for otherwise than as an associate and in equal rank with those charged with Government there, I never can take such a part.’ Then came a singular forecast of the future: ‘Indeed, my Lord, the inside of the House must be considered in other respects besides merely numbers, or the reins of government will soon slip or be wrested out of any minister’s hands.’ To Hardwicke he professed resignation to the King’s veto and a wish to retire:4

The weight of irremoveable royal displeasure is too heavy for any man to move under ... I succumb under it and wish for nothing but a decent and innocent retreat ... In this view I take the liberty of recommending myself to your lordship’s friendship, as I have done to the Duke of Newcastle. Out of his Grace’s immediate province patent offices of this kind arise, and to your joint protection and to that only I wish to owe the future quiet and satisfaction of my life.

Such, however, was not Pitt’s mood when Parliament met. On 25 Nov. 1754, in the debate on the Berwick election petition, he hurled a thunderbolt at Newcastle. Speaking of the need to maintain the dignity of the House, ‘he called on all to assist, or else we should only sit to register the arbitrary edicts of one too powerful a subject’. ‘Displeased, as well as pleased, allow it to be the finest speech that ever was made’, wrote Fox, ‘and it was observed that by his first two periods he brought the House to a silence and attention that you might have heard a pin drop ... I just now hear the Duke of Newcastle was in the utmost fidget, and that it spoiled his stomach yesterday.’ Murray, wrote Horace Walpole, ‘crouched, silent and terrified’; and Legge replied for the Administration ‘with great humility’. That same evening Pitt and Fox joined forces and ‘mumbled poor Sir Thomas Robinson cruelly’.5 In one day Pitt had routed Newcastle’s lieutenants in the House of Commons; and, to add to Newcastle’s misfortunes, Fox had joined him.

On 12 Dec. Fox was admitted into the Cabinet (but not to the lead in the House of Commons), and Newcastle’s Administration gained a fresh lease of life. In the summer of 1755 Fox and his patron the Duke of Cumberland were appointed to the council of Regency which was to act while the King was in Hanover. Pitt was mortified at his rival’s increase in consequence and apparently genuinely puzzled as to why the King proscribed him. ‘If I have flattered myself in vain with the hopes the royal mind must relent’, he wrote, ‘... I may take my final part as reason will warrant, according to the necessity imposed on me.’ He told Lord Hillsborough ‘that all connexion between him and Mr. Fox was over, that the ground was altered, that Fox was of the Cabinet and Regent and he was left exposed, that he would be second to nobody’. He now turned to the heir apparent and negotiated an understanding with Bute. ‘The substance of the treaty was’, wrote Waldegrave, ‘that Pitt and his friends should to the utmost support the Princess and her son; that they should oppose the Duke [of Cumberland] and raise a clamour against him; and as to the King, they were to submit to his government provided he would govern as they directed him.’ Assured of the Princess’s ‘protection and support’, Pitt stepped forward as the leader of a new Leicester House opposition.6

The King would have dismissed him, but Hardwicke counselled prudence. War with France was imminent, and in the summer of 1755 George II negotiated subsidy treaties with Hesse and Russia for the defence of Hanover. Newcastle, anxious about their reception in the House of Commons, sent Hardwicke to try to win over Pitt. At their interview on 9 Aug. Hardwicke stressed how much he and Newcastle had tried to soften the King’s resentment towards Pitt ‘till he had put it out of our power by his own conduct’. Pitt disclaimed any intention of forcing himself into the secretary of state’s office—all he desired was that Newcastle should tell the King it would be for his service. Then Hardwicke outlined the government’s policy: ‘the support of the maritime and American war ... and the defence of the King’s German dominions, if attacked on account of that English cause’.

The maritime and American war [wrote Hardwicke] he came roundly into, though very onerous, and allowed the principle and the obligation of honour and justice as to the other, but argued strongly against the practicability of it; that subsidiary treaties would not go down, the nation would not bear them; that they were a chain and connexion and would end in a general plan for the continent which this country could not possibly support; that the maritime and American war would cost six millions a year beside the increase of the navy debt, and he supposed more troops must be raised for the defence of this island; that by this alone you would run in debt two millions per annum.7

In short, Pitt objected to the subsidy treaties because of their expense, and did not as yet conceive a continental war as a diversion of French strength from America.

Under pressure from Newcastle and Hardwicke, the King agreed to call Pitt to the Cabinet. Pitt now demanded the lead in the House of Commons: ‘he would support the measures which he himself had advised’, he told Newcastle on 2 Sept. 1755, ‘but would not, like a lawyer, talk from a brief’.8 He said ‘the business of the House of Commons could not go on without there was a minister ... which should go directly between the King and them’, and, wrote Newcastle, ‘very plainly and honestly told me that he should expect to have voix en chapitre both as to the recommendation of employments and the determination of measures’. (Many years later Pitt told Shelburne ‘that the world were much mistaken in thinking that he did not like patronage’.) He was prepared to accept the subsidy treaty with Hesse ‘as a mark of the affection of a ruined nation, to save the honour of its King who had entered into a rash engagement’, but would have nothing to do with the Russian treaty. ‘He would support a naval war to the utmost’, he said to Dodington, ‘but by no means a continental one; the nation could not support both ... ’twas bankruptcy.’

On 9 Aug. Pitt had asked Hardwicke ‘very observably, what do others of the King’s servants think of subsidiary treaties?’ While negotiating with Newcastle, he was building up a party against him. Legge refused to sign the warrant for the payment of the subsidy to Hesse. Pitt talked to the Duke of Devonshire who was known to dislike the treaties, tried to win over the Duke of Bedford, hoped for Lord Egmont’s support, etc.9 He even tried to win over Bubb Dodington:

He ... expressed himself strangely as to me [wrote Dodington]; that he thought me of the greatest consequence; no man in the country would be listened to in and out of the House, etc.; that he was most desirous to connect and unite himself with me in the strictest manner; he ever had the highest regard for my abilities; we had always acted upon the same principles ... He added a great deal more that surprised me very much considering the treatment I have met with for years past ... from him.

To the Prince of Wales he professed the strongest attachment, writing to Bute on 31 Aug.:

I had determined not ... on any account to see the Duke of Newcastle till I could have an ample conversation with your lordship, and learn from you that final will and pleasure which shall entirely dispose of me and all my actions. All my ambition is to devote myself truly and sincerely (that is, by and with my dear Lord Bute) to the same great and truly respectable objects.

Hardly the way to win the King’s favour, but admirable for frightening Newcastle.

Even so Hardwicke, who loathed Fox, would have preferred to take in Pitt, but Newcastle thought it would be useless to propose it to the King. In October Fox was made secretary of state, and when Parliament met on 13 Nov. Pitt came out into open opposition. That debate, which lasted till near five o’clock in the morning, was one of the most memorable of the century. Pitt did not rise until after midnight, when the debate had been in progress ten hours; and his speech, writes Walpole, ‘like a torrent long obstructed, burst forth with more commanding impetuosity’.10 ‘The present war’, he said, ‘was undertaken for the long-injured, long-neglected, long-forgotten people of America.’ The subsidy treaties were not British measures, they would provoke a continental war, and ‘within two years his Majesty would not be able to sleep in St. James’s for the cries of a bankrupt people’. But on the division Administration had a majority of 206, and of the minority James West reckoned only 30 were followers of Pitt.11 On 20 Nov. Pitt was dismissed. ‘Good-night, my dear Lord’, he wrote to Bute, telling him the news. ‘I believe I shall sleep very quietly and wake as happy as any minister now in England. Heaven defend and prosper the great cause we have the glory to serve.’

With the vast majority of the House of Commons against him, but secure in the confidence of Bute and the Prince of Wales, Pitt set out to rouse the nation for war. ‘He wanted to call this country out of that enervate state’, he said in the Commons on 5 Dec. ‘... The maxims of our government were degenerated, not our natives. He wished to see that breed restored under which our old principles had carried our glory so high.’ He pressed for increases in the army and navy; for more troops to be sent to America; and for the establishment of a national militia. He opened his plan, wrote Walpole, ‘with a plain precision, and went through [it] with a masterly clearness. His memory in the details was as great as the capacity he showed for business. He had never shone in this light before.’12 Fox and Newcastle, panic-stricken at the loss of Minorca, fell out amongst themselves; in October 1756 Fox resigned, and when Murray insisted on leaving the House of Commons for the judicial bench, Newcastle’s political edifice tumbled about his ears. ‘The whole system of the House of Commons was at once entirely changed’, wrote Waldegrave,13 ‘ ... Pitt standing without a rival, no orator to oppose him, who had courage even to look him in the face.’ He refused to take office with Newcastle, and the Duke was compelled to resign. In December 1756 Pitt became secretary of state, with the Duke of Devonshire as first lord of the Treasury.

His tenure of office was on a precarious footing. The House of Commons was still loyal to Newcastle; the King and the Duke of Cumberland detested what they regarded as a Leicester House Administration; and Temple’s arrogance and discourtesy offended the King. Pitt was hampered by declarations made while in opposition: his demand for an inquiry into the loss of Minorca and his denunciation of the employment of Hanoverian troops in Britain. To recede on these points would antagonize his only supporters—Leicester House and the Tories; to press them, would rouse the hostility of Newcastle and the King. ‘If he Hanoverizes, or checks any inquiries’, wrote Horace Walpole,14 ‘he loses his popularity, and falls that way: if he humours the present rage of the people, he provokes two powerful factions. His only chance seems to depend on joining with the Duke of Newcastle.’

In truth, if Newcastle and the King could not do without Pitt, he could not do without them. ‘Mr. Pitt won’t do my German business’, said the King to Newcastle in October 1756; to which Newcastle replied: If he comes into your service, Sir, he must be told he must do your Majesty’s business.’ Pitt was quick to recognize this. While professing the most devoted loyalty to Leicester House, he tried to ingratiate himself with the King through Lady Yarmouth. When on 18 Feb. 1757 he moved for a subsidy to Prussia, Walpole saw it as ‘the greatest instance of courage and capacity’ which ‘promised stability to Mr. Pitt’s administration’. ‘The measures, as declared and explained by Mr. Pitt’, wrote Barrington, ‘differ in nothing from those of the last Administration.’15 But there was a new vigour in the conduct of the war, a courage and resolution which promised success. Pitt’s dismissal in April 1757 convinced him that Newcastle must be given a share of power; but the ministry formed in July was a coalition between two men neither of whom had much liking for the other and was accepted by the King only because there was no alternative. Its stability depended on its success in making war.

Shortly after the formation of the Pitt-Newcastle Administration, Lord Waldegrave wrote about Pitt in his Memoirs (pp. 15-17):

Mr. Pitt has the finest genius, improved by study and all the ornamental parts of classical learning ...
He has a peculiar clearness and facility of expression, and has an eye as significant as his words. He is not always a fair or conclusive reasoner, but commands the passions with sovereign authority; and to inflame or captivate a popular assembly is a consummate orator. He has courage of every sort, cool or impetuous, active or deliberate.
At present he is the guide and champion of the people: whether he will long continue their friend seems somewhat doubtful. But if we may judge from his natural disposition, as it has hitherto shown itself, his popularity and zeal for public liberty will have the same period: for he is imperious, violent, and implacable; impatient even of the slightest contradiction; and, under the mask of patriotism, has the despotic spirit of a tyrant.
However, though his political sins are black and dangerous, his private character is irreproachable; he is incapable of a treacherous or ungenerous action; and in the common offices of life is justly esteemed a man of veracity and a man of honour.

Shelburne, in later years Pitt’s closest political ally, describes him as ‘a complete artificial character’.16

What took much from his character was that he was always acting, always made up, and never natural, in a perpetual state of exertion, incapable of friendship, or of any act which tended to it, and constantly upon the watch, and never unbent ... I was in the most intimate political habits with him for ten years ... and necessarily was with him at all hours in town and country, without drinking a glass of water in his house or company, or five minutes conversation out of the way of business ... I never found him when I have gone to him, which was always by appointment, with so much as a book before him, but always sitting alone in a drawing room, waiting the hour of appointment, and in the country with his hat and stick in his hand.

Probably the most marked trait in Pitt’s character was his aloofness: he was a solitary man, and erected a barrier between himself and the world which few penetrated. Burke, referring to his unsocial habits, called him ‘the great lord who never dines’; and Robert Wood, his under-secretary, said that ‘no man has less feelings of friendship or less desire to make or serve friends’. ‘He lived and died without a friend’, wrote his nephew Thomas Pitt junior.17 The need to be isolated from people was such that both at Hayes and at Hampstead he bought property adjoining his house so that he should have no neighbours, and he could not bear his children living in the same house. Shelburne’s remark that Pitt did not cultivate men because he ‘thought that he could act to more advantage without the incumbrance of a party’ is a rationalization. Pitt did cultivate men, but he dropped them when they were no longer of use to him. ‘He had ... every talent to please’, wrote his nephew, ‘when he thought it worth while to exert his talents, which was always for a purpose, for he was never natural.’ Politically his isolation meant that he was not a party man and could not work well in a team.

Sir John Barnard described Pitt as ‘the most overbearing man in the House of Commons that ever he knew’; he ‘could only attack’, wrote Horace Walpole.18 The aggressive instinct in him was so strong, that he could not do without opposition: when in 1766 his authority was unquestioned, he broke down. In debate he browbeat his opponents and knew instinctively their weak points. ‘His invectives were terrible’, wrote Chesterfield, ‘and uttered with such energy of diction and stern dignity of action and countenance, that he intimidated those who were the most willing and the best able to encounter him.’ His commanding presence compelled attention. ‘He was tall in his person’, wrote Shelburne, ‘... with the eye of a hawk, a little head, thin face, long aquiline nose, and perfectly erect.’ Walpole thought ‘his greatest failure was in argument’, and ‘he spoke too often and he spoke too long’. The account by James Harris of Pitt’s speech of 15 Nov. 1763 seems typical: ‘His words, his phrases, his tone of voice, his humour, his sublimity and tone were in their turn most excellent and striking, nothing wanting but a plan or order, of which there not being the least trace ’tis impossible to record anything but glowing scraps or splendid morsels.’

Pitt had courage of the highest order—a rare quality in eighteenth century statesmen. He was not afraid to assume responsibility for the conduct of the war, provided he were given full powers: ‘I know that I can save this country and that no one else can’, he said to the Duke of Devonshire in 1756. When he took office in July 1757 there was no unified conduct of the war, but Cumberland’s resignation in October enabled Pitt to make himself virtually minister for war. Assuming an authority which had never been formally granted to him, he was contemptuous of his less resolute colleagues. Sir George Colebrooke wrote of this period:19

I had frequent opportunities of knowing how despotically Mr. Pitt governed his ministerial colleagues, and how much he was dreaded by the Duke [of Newcastle] ... More than once I was summoned to the Treasury to give an account of the state of the provisions and of the money for the army, Mr. West [secretary to the Treasury] giving for reason that Mr. Pitt threatened the Duke that if at any time a want of either should be found he would impeach him in the ensuing session ... West ... always looked frightened; and well he might, for Mr. Pitt would have been as good as his word.

Pitt showed little sympathy with Newcastle’s difficulties at the Treasury. Thomas Orby Hunter, who served as a commissary with the allied armies in Germany, told James Harris in 1763:20

Mr. Hunter in talking over the German war said as usual that Pitt opened the flood-gates of expense, gave Prince Ferdinand powers to call for what men and money he pleased, that Pitt ... did this to make his court to the old King, contrary to the sentiments and endeavours of the Duke of Newcastle, who would, if he could, have been a better manager.

Harris called Pitt ‘an Inigo Jones in politics, a man of great ideas, a projector of noble and magnificent plans, but architects, though they find the plan, never consider themselves as concerned to find the means’.21 Similarly, Horace Walpole:22 ‘Ignorant of the whole circle of finance ... he kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and left others to find the magnificent means.’ Pitt, who in 1755 had told Hardwicke that a continental war would bankrupt the nation and who in 1757 had refused to reinforce Cumberland’s army in Germany, in 1761 was spending more on subsidies than Newcastle would ever have dared to ask. He spoke of Frederick the Great more in the style of a Prussian than an Englishman; and his well-known defence of the continental war—that he conquered America on the plains of Germany—was a debating point not a reasoned statement of policy.

Pitt’s greatness as a war minister was that he invigorated the nation and imbued it with his own confidence and resolution. He roused it from ‘ignoble lethargy’, wrote Walpole: ‘he had asserted that our resources were still prodigious—he found them so in the intrepidity of our troops and navies’. The Tory country gentlemen, who distrusted Newcastle and hated Fox, rallied to his support; and in the militia he provided them with a focus for their patriotism and eased the process of their return to court. He was the idol alike of the American colonists and of the city of London. But the older George II grew, the less secure became Pitt’s position. His alliance with Bute and the Prince of Wales could not last when Pitt became the servant of the King and adopted the policy of a continental war. In the eyes of Leicester House Pitt was now ‘the blackest of hearts’, who had abandoned Bute and the Prince for an alliance with Newcastle and the favour of the King. ‘Indeed, my dearest friend’, wrote the Prince to Bute in December 1758, he treats both you and me with no more regard than he would do a parcel of children. He seems to forget that the day will come when he must expect to be treated according to his deserts.’23

The best hope of a stable administration in the new reign lay in a union between Pitt, the minister of the House of Commons, and Bute, the minister of the King. In April 1760 Bute approached Pitt through Sir Gilbert Elliot with a view to a reconciliation: Bute wished to take the Treasury, but was anxious not to be burdened with the responsibility for the conduct of the war or for making peace. Pitt said, according to Elliot’s notes of the conversation:

I have ... carried on the war on its plan, armed the country, even Scotland, when every other minister threw out suspicions on that quarter ... I have not waited for direction and approvation, but seized the moment when I could to secure these measures ... I will not be rid with a check rein ... I know it is impossible for me to act in a responsible ministerial office with Lord Bute ... I can’t bear a touch of command, my sentiments in politics like my religion are my own, I can’t change them ... The rights of my office are not enough to me if I am to be in a responsible situation. I cannot be dictated, prescribed to, etc.24

He would not join Bute but offered to stand aside in his favour in the new reign. And on 25 Oct. 1760, the day George II died, he told Bute ‘that he must act as an independent minister or not at all ... that if the system of the war was to undergo the least change, or shadow of a change, he could no longer be of any service’. Bute’s advancement ‘to the management of the affairs of this country would not be for his Majesty’s service’.25 In effect, Pitt vetoed the reconstruction of the ministry in terms of the new reign.

George III could not begin his reign by dismissing the man who had led Britain to victory. Instead, he tried to separate Newcastle from Pitt, and with Newcastle’s compliance secured Bute’s admittance to office as secretary of state. Pitt, now isolated in the Cabinet (except for his brother-in-law Temple), was disgusted at Newcastle’s failure to stand by him. Resolved to maintain the alliance with Prussia and to prosecute the war until France had been rendered innocuous as a colonial power, he did not appreciate that the nation was becoming weary of the struggle nor did he recognize that it might be dangerous to humble France too much. In September 1761, having learnt of the Franco-Spanish alliance, Pitt demanded a declaration of war against Spain. Only Temple supported him in the Cabinet, and on 5 Oct. they both resigned. Pitt was granted a pension of £3,000 per annum and his wife was created a peeress, a reward his services had well merited but which cost him a temporary loss of popularity in the City.

Pitt resigned, in his own words, ‘in order not to remain responsible for measures which I was no longer allowed to guide’.26 His conduct was dignified and honourable: James Harris, who had entered Parliament the previous year, described Pitt as speaking in the debate of 1 Mar. 1762 ‘with great temper, great recommendation of candour and unanimity, etc., which has been always his language ever since I have heard him’. When Bute and Newcastle were forced to declare war on Spain, Pitt did not exult that his predictions had been proved right, but disclaimed all thought of opposition and ‘hoped never to be a public man again’.27 Yet he remained the key figure in the House of Commons, and much of the confusion in politics during the next five years was the result of his wayward and incalculable conduct. While acknowledging the right of the Crown to choose its ministers, he would not support the measures of the Crown; neither would he join wholeheartedly in opposing them.

In the autumn of 1762 Newcastle and Cumberland tried to secure Pitt’s support for their opposition to the peace preliminaries. Pitt professed his willingness ‘to concur in measures with the Duke of Newcastle’, expressed himself strongly against Bute, but made it clear that he would not be used merely to bring Newcastle back into office.28 He himself ‘would accept of no office whilst the King held the opinion he had conceived of him’. When it came to discussing in concrete terms how the Opposition was to be conducted, Pitt was evasive, said he ‘must do it in his own way’, and no agreement had been reached when the peace preliminaries came before the House on 9 Dec. 1762. In the middle of the debate Pitt, who had been ill with the gout, made a characteristically flamboyant and theatrical entry.

The House was alarmed by a shout from without [wrote Horace Walpole29]. The doors opened, and at the head of a large acclaiming concourse was seen Mr. Pitt borne in the arms of his servants, who, setting him down within the bar, he crawled by the help of a crutch and with the assistance of some few friends to his seat ... He was dressed in black velvet, his legs and thighs wrapped in flannel, his feet covered with buskins of black cloth, and his hands with thick gloves.

His speech lasted three and a half hours and was moderate in tone. He criticized the articles which related to the Newfoundland fisheries, the return to Spain of Havana and to France of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and hinted that had the war been continued another year France would have been stripped of all her colonial possessions. He condemned the abandonment of Prussia, contrasted the Franco-Spanish alliance with Britain’s isolation, and declared ‘we ought to have made a family compact with the King of Prussia’. He spoke, wrote Walpole, ‘in so low and faint a voice that it was almost impossible to hear him ... this was not a day on which his genius thundered’. ‘He never made so long or so bad a speech’, wrote Lord Barrington;30 and Harris: ‘All people I spoke to of all sides confessed a languor and tediousness in this speech, to which they had not been accustomed.’ Perhaps its most important sentence was his disavowal of any connexion with Newcastle, and his declaration ‘that he should attend Parliament very little this session’.

In fact Pitt did not attend the House again until March 1763. Meanwhile the Opposition, disjointed and leaderless, floundered on as best they could without him. ‘We all agree’, wrote Newcastle, ‘that nothing can be done without Mr. Pitt.’ Pitt told Devonshire he would attend ‘upon any national or constitutional points, but to enter into direct opposition was what he could not do’. Still, on 8 Mar. he dined with the Opposition leaders: ‘Their countenances are quite cleared up’, wrote Rigby, ‘since they have put themselves under Pitt’s management.’31 In August 1763 Bute persuaded the King to open negotiations with Pitt, and at his audience of 27 Aug. Pitt advised the King to form a new ministry from the Opposition.

There is a good deal that is difficult to explain about Pitt’s attitude during the August negotiations. He came away from his audience of the 27th apparently convinced that the King would accept his advice, sent for Devonshire and Rockingham to town, the next day spent five hours with Newcastle discussing the new ministry, and seemed genuinely surprised when on the 29th the King broke off negotiations. Yet he was in effect advising the King to capitulate to the Opposition, and it is hard to believe that had he really wished to come into office he would have done so under Bute’s auspices or with the unstable and unreliable Charles Townshend as his deputy in the Commons. Anyway he soon abandoned the idea of uniting with the Opposition. When Newcastle asked him in September ‘what plan we should follow this session’, Pitt ‘desired to be excused’, said ‘that he never liked a plan of general opposition’, and thought ‘the subversion of the Administration was not to be brought about by Parliament’.32 Referring to Bute, ‘he said he would not, in a cruel and arbitrary manner, join in banishing a man his country before anything had been laid to his charge’; and, writes Newcastle, ‘spoke with much less respect of the City and regard for popular applause than I have ever heard him before’. He would speak in Parliament ‘when his health permitted him and oppose what he thought was wrong’, and would not force himself into office against the King’s inclination.

The arrest of Wilkes and the question of parliamentary privilege was one of those ‘national or constitutional points’ which Pitt had said he would attend. In the debate of 24 Nov. he stigmatized Wilkes as an ‘impious criminal that sets at defiance his God, his King, and his country’, but strongly opposed the curtailment of privilege—‘privilege [was] not to screen crimes, but to preserve liberty’. ‘He spoke two hours’, writes Harris, ‘leaning on two crutches, with both his legs and both his arms in flannel, and seemed to suffer much fatigue and pain.’ He also spoke in the debates of February 1764 on general warrants, but the Opposition tried in vain to get him at their head. Lyttelton in June 1764 found him ‘full of despair and complaint ... that all opposition was to no purpose, that ... he would never force himself upon the King’. In October 1764, when invited by Newcastle to support the plan of union with the Tories against the cider tax, he replied:

Having seen the close of last session, and the system of the great war in which my share of the ministry was largely arraigned given up by silence in a full House, I have little thoughts of beginning the world again upon any new centre of union ... I have no disposition to quit the free condition of a man standing single.

Still the Opposition leaders continued their fruitless pilgrimages to Hayes. On 19 Mar. 1765 George Onslow reported to Newcastle a visit by Rockingham to Pitt:

I find he still harps upon the nonsense and falsehood of his being given up on the subject of the German war last year, and is not without his complaints of the American tax being not sufficiently objected to this year. In short, upon the whole I think it is clear he wishes nothing had been done this year; which, with some hints from him that the ministry were broke among themselves, proves to me that he thinks such a breach the better dependence for him than a general opposition, in which he will never join with people who (in essentials and principle I do believe) he does not agree nor mean the same as we do.33

When in the summer of 1765 George III determined to rid himself of the Grenvilles, both he and the Opposition looked to Pitt as the only possible leader of a new Administration. Pitt received very coldly the Duke of Cumberland’s outline of the new ministry. ‘He ... did not see a possibility of his being able to be of any service, for as yet he had heard nothing that gave him room to hope the Closet would be propitious to him. On the contrary, my Lord Bute, whose influence was as strong as ever, and whose notions of government were widely different from his, would disincline the King to his system.’34 The King was compelled to take back the Grenvilles and to agree to their terms for remaining in office, but in June he reopened negotiations with Pitt direct. Pitt, now that Cumberland had been set aside, was much more accommodating, and his audience of 19 June seems to have convinced him that Bute was no longer the power behind the throne. He was accommodating with regard to the King’s wish to retain certain men in office, and the only proposal which the King seriously contested was Pitt’s demand for an alliance with Prussia. Even this, a cardinal point in his foreign policy, he was prepared to modify in accordance with the King’s wishes; and at a second audience on 22 June the King agreed to offer Temple the Treasury.

Ostensibly it was Temple’s refusal to take the Treasury which caused Pitt to decline office, and this explanation has been generally accepted by Pitt’s biographers. Yet Temple’s arrogance and resentment at having so long played second fiddle to Pitt were well known to contemporaries, and Pitt must indeed have been remote from reality not to have reckoned with them. His conduct since his resignation in 1761 had made it clear that he was not prepared to resume office without the favour of the King and with no intermediary between himself and the throne. He no longer feared Bute’s influence (else he would not have agreed to Stuart Mackenzie, Bute’s brother, resuming office). But there was now another adviser about the King, to whose influence Pitt had long been opposed. The King had deputed the Duke of Cumberland to form the new Administration: it was to him that Pitt had first talked and it was through him that Pitt had been invited to see the King. During the June negotiations Pitt had ignored Cumberland, but in forming an administration he could not have dispensed with Cumberland’s friends. He was prepared to accept them as his own, but not as followers of Cumberland.

On Pitt’s refusal Cumberland formed an Administration with Rockingham as first lord of the Treasury. This, a mere substitute for the one Pitt had declined to form, from the very beginning looked to him as its main source of strength in the Commons. ‘The plan of Administration’, Newcastle wrote, ‘should in general be made as palatable to Mr. Pitt and as agreeable as possible to his notions and ideas.’ Conway and Grafton in particular were anxious to have Pitt’s approval, but Pitt deliberately kept himself aloof. ‘I move only in the sphere of measures’, he wrote to Thomas Walpole, and to Grafton professed distrust of Newcastle and a wish for retirement. ‘The world is now fallen into the Duke of Newcastle’s hands’, he wrote to his solicitor Thomas Nuthall on 10 Dec. 1765, ‘the country is undone.’35

‘Mr. Pitt ... remains in clouded majesty aloof’, wrote Walpole on 5 Jan. 1766. On 2 Jan. the ministers had sent Thomas Townshend junior to Bath ‘to learn Mr. Pitt’s thoughts on the present state of America’ and whether he was willing to return to office. Pitt declared that he would not take office with Newcastle (in effect, in the King’s words, he ‘would not come to assist Administration but expected to form a new one’); on America, he said he disapproved of Grenville’s policy and would deliver his opinion in the House.36 This he did during the debate on the Address, 14 Jan.37

It is my opinion that this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies. At the same time I assert the authority of this kingdom over the colonies to be sovereign and supreme in every circumstance of government and legislation whatsoever ... We may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

The Stamp Act should be repealed: taxation was no part of the governing or legislative power, and the distinction between taxation and legislation was essential to freedom. This followed logically from the doctrine of the separation of powers between executive and legislature, but doctrine no longer corresponded to reality, and Pitt seems never to have realized that to allow the colonies the power of taxation must inevitably mean to allow them separate sovereignty.

On American policy only a hairsbreadth separated Pitt and the Rockinghams. Both agreed that the taxation of America was justifiable as a means of regulating commerce but not for raising a revenue; but the Rockinghams, to placate Charles Yorke and Charles Townshend, insisted on the expression of an empty right which they intended should never be exercised. Yet it was not the policy behind the Declaratory Act which separated Pitt from Rockingham. On 15 Jan. 1766 Rockingham wrote to the King:38

That your Majesty’s present Administration will be shook to the greatest degree if no further attempt is made to get Mr. Pitt to take a cordial part is much too apparent to be disguised. That the chance of Mr. Pitt’s cordiality to Administration appears very doubtful after what passed with Mr. Townshend is also very true. That the events of yesterday in the House of Commons have shown the amazing powers and influence which Mr. Pitt has whenever he takes part in debate.

Rockingham and Grafton, authorized by the King, saw Pitt on 18 Jan.; but his conversation was disappointing and ambiguous.39 Others, as well as Newcastle, must be removed from office, yet ‘if a single man was discontented the whole could not efficaciously take place’; Rockingham, Grafton, and Conway must be the foundations on which a new Administration would be built, yet Temple must again be offered the Treasury; if Temple accepted but demanded a place for Grenville, Pitt could not take part; and he refused to declare what he would do if Temple did not accept. Further attempts by Rockingham to secure Pitt’s co-operation were of no avail; he withheld from the ministry the strength they so much needed, and, when they had completed the repeal of the Stamp Act, turned against them.

Influenced by his friend Beckford, Pitt opposed the ministry’s proposal for a free port in Dominica. The matter was to have been debated in the House on 14 Apr. 1766, but was postponed owing to the illness of Dowdeswell, chancellor of the Exchequer. James Harris writes:

Common business went on, when Onslow moved a clause about adjutant’s half-pay in the militia, a matter which no one thought of disputing ... Pitt, that he might not lose his labour, took this opportunity to fall on the ministry for some regulations which Onslow had proposed before Easter, but which had been withdrawn as not acceptable to the friends of that institution. Pitt said that during his absence he had heard of this, and that he thought those regulations evidently tended to whittle down the militia to nothing, and that he never could or would act with any ministers who were enemies to so salutary and so constitutional a scheme.
Conway got up to humiliate himself and soothe Pitt ... By-standers ... laughed to see such a scene of magnificence and humiliation, of which one part so highly contrasted the other.

Pitt, according to Thomas Walpole’s account of a conversation with him, ‘thought himself greatly slighted by the Administration’; he told Burke that he had not been consulted about the free port in Dominica, yet again refused to talk with Rockingham about his taking office—‘I will open myself upon that point but to the King himself’. He was growing impatient for office, wrote Walpole; his attack was provoked, wrote Burke, ‘because Administration ... would not submit to such terms as no man with a drop of blood in his veins would hearken to’.40 The Rockingham Administration had outlived its purpose, and Pitt set out to destroy it. On 21 Apr. Rockingham told Grafton that he would never again advise the King to send for Pitt (one can hardly blame him), and Grafton resigned. In the Commons on 26 Apr. Pitt said that he wished to see ‘such a ministry as the King himself should choose, the people approve, and who should be eminent above others for their ability and integrity’, and through Camden and Northington let the King know that ‘he was ready to come if called upon, [and] that he meant to try and form an Administration of the best of all parties and an exclusion to no descriptions’.41 It was the knell of the Rockingham Administration. On 7 July the King sent for Pitt.

Pitt was at last given a chance to form an Administration, united under his lead and backed by the full confidence of the Crown; and a sad mess he made of it. He set out ‘to dissolve all factions and to see the best of all parties in Administration’, and he succeeded only in ranging all the political groups against him and in driving faction to its highest pitch. His health would not allow him to assume regularly the lead in the House of Commons, but his acceptance of a peerage showed a fatal misunderstanding of the source of his political strength. ‘He ought to have kept the power of superintendency, if not of direct management of the House of Commons, in his own hands for some time at least’, wrote Burke, with a far finer sense of political reality.42 Deprived by his aloofness and arrogance of loyal and reliable colleagues, he had to fall back on Grafton, lazy and inexperienced, Conway, weak and unfitted to lead the Commons, and Charles Townshend, treacherous and vain. In the field of policy, his schemes were stillborn. The East India inquiry was opposed in the Cabinet and never carried out in the form that Chatham intended; in projecting an alliance with Prussia Chatham had failed to take into account Prussia’s eastern orientation, and nothing came of it; and, under Townshend’s inspiration, the Government’s American policy became a reversion to Grenville’s plan of raising a revenue from the colonies. Early in 1767 ill health compelled Chatham to be absent from the Cabinet and Parliament, and he had no reliable deputy to weld his diversified Cabinet into a team. Finally, in the spring of 1767 he succumbed to what appears to have been an attack of manic-depressive insanity, and for over two years played virtually no part in politics.

The last ten years of Chatham’s life are well-nigh tragic. He returned to politics in the autumn of 1769, resolved to oppose the Administration of his erstwhile deputy and successor, the Duke of Grafton. But the nemesis of his character had overtaken him. For a time he co-operated in Opposition with the Rockinghams, but there was deep distrust on both sides: the Rockinghams could not forgive the past, and Chatham was as difficult to work with as ever. The death of Beckford in 1770 and the rise of Wilkes, deprived him of influence in the city of London. Only Shelburne of his former colleagues remained consistently faithful to him, and Shelburne had but a handful of followers in the Commons. In 1771, no longer a force in politics, he practically ceased to attend Parliament.

The outbreak of the American war re-awakened something of his old vigour. But North did not fear the Earl of Chatham as Newcastle had feared William Pitt; a new generation had entered politics since the days of Chatham’s greatness, and those who opposed the American war looked rather to Charles Fox for inspiration and leadership. Chatham fought to the last to preserve the colonies for Great Britain, but the tide of opinion both in this country and in America was against him.

He died 11 May 1778.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Grenville Pprs. i. 106-10.
  • 2. Ibid. 110-14; Phillimore, Lyttelton, 449-55.
  • 3. Add 32734, f. 322.
  • 4. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 215.
  • 5. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 408-10; Waldegrave, Mems. 150-4; Walpole to Mann, 1 Dec. 1754.
  • 6. Chatham Corresp. i. 134-7; Dodington, Diary, 319-20; Waldegrave, Mems. 39; Grenville Pprs. i. 432-3.
  • 7. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 230-3.
  • 8. Ibid. 234-5, 237-44; Dodington, Diary, 370-4.
  • 9. Sedgwick, ‘Letters from Wm. Pitt to Bute’, Essays presented to Sir Lewis Namier, 110-12; Dodington, Diary, 374-7.
  • 10. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 55-60.
  • 11. Add. 32860, f. 471.
  • 12. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 85, 89. 98-100.
  • 13. Mems. 82.
  • 14. To Mann, 13 Nov. 1756.
  • 15. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 321; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 314; Add. 6834, f. 8.
  • 16. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 58-61.
  • 17. Jas. Harris’s memorandum, 13 May 1767, Malmesbury mss; Rosebery, Chatham, 491-2.
  • 18. Add. 32867, f. 390; Mems. Geo. II, ii. 148.
  • 19. Quoted Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 62-64.
  • 20. Harris’s memorandum, 20 May 1763, Malmesbury mss.
  • 21. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 12 May 1762.
  • 22. Mems. Geo. II, iii. 173.
  • 23. Sedgwick, Letters Geo. III to Bute, 18.
  • 24. Quoted Namier, England in Age of American Rev. 105-7.
  • 25. Elliot’s memorandum, quoted ibid. 120-1.
  • 26. Annual Reg. 1761, p. 300.
  • 27. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 75.
  • 28. Add. 32944, ff. 277, 307; 32945, ff. 83-92.
  • 29. Mems. Geo. III, i. 176-82.
  • 30. Add. 6834, ff. 41-42.
  • 31. Add. 32949, f. 50; 32947, f. 21; Bedford Corresp. iii. 219.
  • 32. Add. 32951, ff. 201-2.
  • 33. Add. 32960, ff. 17-19; 32962, f. 347; 32966, ff. 69-70.
  • 34. Albemarle, Rockingham Mems. i. 193, 202-3, 211; Grafton, Autobiog. 51.
  • 35. Add. 32967, f. 120; Grafton, Autobiog. 58-59, 61; Chatham Corresp. ii. 345.
  • 36. Grafton, Autobiog. 62-63; Sedgwick, 241-6; Fortescue, i. 212-14, 216-17.
  • 37. Parlty. Hist. xvi. 97-99.
  • 38. Rockingham Mems. i. 270.
  • 39. Fortescue, i. 238-9.
  • 40. Add. 32974, ff. 417-23; Walpole to Mann, 20 Apr. 1766; Burke to O’Hara, 21 Apr. 1766.
  • 41. Harris’s ‘Debates’; Sedgwick, 251.
  • 42. Burke to O’Hara, 29 July 1766.