Edition of 1900.

644877Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography — Chatham, William Pitt

CHATHAM, William Pitt, Earl of, British statesman, b. in Boconnoc, Cornwall, England, 15 Nov., 1708; d. in Hayes, Somerset, 11 May, 1778. His grandfather, Thomas Pitt, was governor of Madras, and brought from India the celebrated Pitt diamond, which he had purchased for £24,000. The Regent Orleans bought it of him for £135,000, and it was esteemed the most precious of the crown jewels of France as long as the monarchy lasted. Gov. Pitt used his wealth in buying rotten boroughs until he acquired for his family a vast parliamentary influence. He sat in the House of Commons for the famous rotten borough of Old Sarum, which had no inhabitants. His son, Robert, who afterward represented this same borough, married Harriet Villiers, and had two sons, of whom the older, Thomas, inherited the estate. The younger son, William, was educated at Eton, and entered Trinity college, Oxford, at the age of seventeen. He already began to feel the tortures of gout, so that he left college without taking a degree, and travelled in France and Italy for his health. On his return home he obtained a cornetcy in the Blues; but in 1735 his family interest gained him a seat in parliament as member for Old Sarum. His first speech, in April, 1736, made a profound impression. He was in the opposition during Walpole's ministry, and during that of his successor Carteret. He fiercely denounced the prevailing custom of subsidizing with British gold petty German states for the benefit of the German dominions of the Guelph family. This earned for him the enmity of George II., who seems to have cared more for Hanover than for Great Britain; but it won the patriotic heart of the old Duchess of Marlborough, who, on her death in 1744, left Pitt a legacy of £10,000 as a testimonial of her admiration for his conduct. In that same year Henry Pelham became prime minister, and would have had Pitt in his cabinet but for the king's opposition. Pelham made an issue of this, and in February, 1746, in the very crisis of the Jacobite rebellion, the ministry resigned, and the obstinate king found himself suddenly deserted by the whole party that had placed his family on the throne. Carteret, now Lord Granville, tried in vain to form a ministry; he could not count on more than thirty lords and eighty members of the lower house. The ministers therefore returned in triumph, with Pitt as vice-treasurer of Ireland, and shortly afterward as paymaster of the forces. In this office one of Pitt's leading traits of character soon showed itself. The salary was small, but the various perquisites made it the most lucrative office in the gift of the government. Pitt refused to take a farthing beyond his stated salary, thus setting an example that proved to be of great effect in purifying English politics. Such conduct was considered idiotic by the politicians of the time, but it won the hearts of the English people. In 1754 Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville, sister of Earl Temple and of George Grenville. In that year the death of Henry Pelham threw the government into confusion. His elder brother, the Duke of Newcastle, became prime minister, and Pitt remained for a time as paymaster; but in the following year, as war on the continent was threatened, the king became alarmed for Hanover, and proposed to subsidize the Hessian princes and to bribe the Russian government to browbeat Frederick of Prussia. Against these stupid measures, which might have ruined England's chances for victory, both in Europe and in America, in the great war that was coming, the far-sighted Pitt most resolutely set his face, and was accordingly turned out of office. War began in 1756 between England and France, and it began with disasters for England. The vast ability and the lofty character of Pitt had already won such recognition that there was a popular demand that he should enter the cabinet as secretary of state for foreign affairs. He refused to serve with Newcastle, who was a political intriguer of the worst type. Newcastle then resigned, and the Duke of Devonshire became nominal prime minister, with Pitt as secretary of state and wielding the real power. During this short ministry occurred the judicial murder of Admiral Byng for his error of judgment in failing to relieve Minorca. At the risk of his power and popularity, Pitt thundered against this wickedness, and did all that he could to save the gallant Byng, but in vain. The ministry lasted only five months. In April, 1757, Pitt and his brother-in-law, Lord Temple, were dismissed by the hostile king, but the great cities took pains to express their disapproval of this action and their unbounded confidence in Pitt. For eleven weeks, in the midst of one of the greatest wars of modern times, England was without a government, while the Duke of Newcastle was vainly trying to form a ministry that should not include Pitt. At length the king was obliged to give way, and in forming the new ministry Pitt dictated the terms upon which he would consent to serve with Newcastle. The latter became prime minister, with Pitt for secretary of state, but for the next four years “the Great Commoner,” as he was now called, was the real ruler of England. These four years were the most glorious in English history. They decided the contest for supremacy in the world between the French and English races, and between despotic and liberal ideas in religion and politics. They laid the foundations of modern Germany, of the British empire in India, and of American dominion over the Mississippi valley. They made England mistress of the sea, and at the same time prepared the way for the independence of the United States. In the combinations that led to these magnificent results, Pitt showed himself the greatest war minister and one of the greatest statesmen that ever lived. The year 1757 was made illustrious by the victories of Frederick at Rossbach and Leuthen, and of Clive at Plassey. The following year saw the capture of Louisburg and Fort Duquesne, and the naval victories of Basque Roads and Carthagena. Next followed in 1759 the capture of Guadeloupe, the overthrow of the French at Minden, the naval victories at Lagos and Quiberon, and the memorable triumph of Wolfe at Quebec. Finally, in 1760 the great victory of Wandiwash completed the downfall of the French power in India. In October, 1760, the king died, and was succeeded by George III.; the ministry disagreed on the question of war with Spain, and Pitt resigned in 1761. The next year Newcastle followed him, and Lord Bute became prime minister, to be succeeded after a year by George Grenville. In order to raise money toward defraying the cost of the war, Grenville's stamp-act was passed in 1765, and troubles with the American colonies began. In July of that year the king quarrelled with Grenville, and offered the premiership to Pitt, but he declined it. The Marquis of Rockingham then took the government, and repealed the stamp-act. In the debate on the repeal, Pitt made the famous speech in which he rejoiced that the Americans had resisted. In July, 1766, the Rockingham ministry fell, and Pitt formed a government under the nominal lead of the Duke of Grafton. As he was now much broken in health, he accepted the earldom of Chatham, and passed into the house of lords. For a moment this diminished his popularity, as it was feared that he was surrendering his independence; but the fear soon proved to be groundless. In 1767, while Chatham was very ill, his chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, passed the act for taxing tea and other American imports, and devoting the revenue thus obtained to establishing a civil list in the colonies. As soon as he heard of this, Chatham tried to dismiss Townshend and have the act repealed; but his illness increased so that he was unable to do anything. Townshend died, and was succeeded by North, and the next year Chatham resigned. His malady had assumed a singular form. When he ceased to suffer from gout, he became melancholy and nearly insane; when, after many weeks, the excruciating pain returned, his mind became clear again, and he was enabled to attend to business. In 1770 Grafton resigned, and Lord North became prime minister. The king, through his influence over North, now had everything as he wished, and pushed on the measures that drove the Americans to armed resistance. In these critical times Chatham was the steadfast and eloquent defender of the liberties of America. In a brilliant speech in 1775, alluding to the Boston port bill and the regulating act, he exclaimed: “You must repeal these acts, and you will repeal them. I pledge myself for it that you will repeal them. I stake my reputation on it. I will consent to be taken for an idiot if they are not finally repealed.” Soon after this he withdrew his eldest son, Lord Pitt, from the army, that he might not be called upon to serve in the wicked war against America. In 1777 he made the famous speech against the employment of Indian auxiliaries and German mercenaries, in which he boldly declared, “If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, so long as a foreign foe remained upon the soil of my country, I would never lay down my arms, never, never, NEVER!” In February, 1778, the ministry repealed the acts that Chatham had denounced three years before; but it was now too late. The Americans were already completing their treaty of alliance with France. The Rockingham whigs were in favor of conceding American independence, but Chatham was not ready for such a step, especially just after a declaration of war with France; it would look too much like humiliating England before the house of Bourbon. Chatham would have withdrawn the British troops from America, and endeavored to bring about something like a federal association between the colonies and the mother country. There was now a strong popular demand for Chatham as prime minister. Men of all parties, beginning with Lord North himself, were desirous that he should take the reins of government and pacify America while punishing France. The task of pacifying America without conceding full independence might probably have proved impracticable; but if there was any man then living who could have undertaken such a task with some hope of success, it was Chatham. The king raved and stormed at the idea of calling him to the head of the government; but the popular pressure was so strong that, but for Chatham's sudden death, a few more weeks would undoubtedly have seen him prime minister. On 7 April the Duke of Richmond moved that Great Britain should recognize the independence of the United States. Chatham had got up from his sick-bed and come to the House of lords to take part in the discussion. While speaking, he fell in a swoon, and was taken to his home at Hayes, where, after lingering several weeks, he died. Although he never came to this country, Lord Chatham must be regarded as one of the foremost figures in American history. It was he that drove the French from America and won for us the valley of the Mississippi. Besides this, he was the first British statesman whose political ideas were of an American type. He was pre-eminently the man of the people. He was the father of parliamentary reform, and the advocate of every liberal measure. Alike in public and in private life, his purity was spotless. He was a man of intense earnestness, and fond of grand and stirring thoughts. These qualities, joined with his commanding presence, his rich and powerful voice, and his warmth of temperament, gave to his eloquence its peculiar character. As a master of the English language he was inferior to Burke and Webster; as a master of debate he could not be compared with Fox or with his own son; yet for power of moving an audience he must probably be counted the greatest orator since Demosthenes; while among those men of action who have shaped the destinies of nations he will rank with the foremost.