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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

William Pitt the Elder | The Great Commoner

William Pitt the Elder, the namesake of Pittsburgh, was the grandson of Thomas Pitt who was also known as “Diamond” Pitt for discovering and selling a diamond to the Duke of Orléans which established the Pitt family fortune and political influence. William Pitt the Elder was born in 1708 and went to an exclusive school, Eton College in 1719. Eton is the institution that has produced many of Britain’s top leaders. It was here that he began suffering from gout which would plague him for the rest of his life. Gout is an extremely painful condition, and debilitating. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1727 as a “gentleman commoner,” which is a landowner with no noble title, but he had to leave due to his illness in 1728. When he had become able, William then chose to travel abroad and began attending Utrecht University in the Dutch Republic. He then returned home to his brother’s estate in 1730. The experience in Utrecht probably contributed much to his wider understanding of government and the world along with his groundedness.

Out of school, Pitt had to choose a military career, being the second son, --his older brother had inherited his father’s estate. He went into the army, and while his military career was fairly short, it was very important to his political future. He was able to go to France and Switzerland on a grand tour, which widened his experience and his mind. In 1735, Pitt was offered a vacant seat in parliament by his brother, and he entered the House of Commons as a member for Old Sarum, something available to him because of his commission in the military. It was a small seat and he really represented no one, but in a way, he was able to represent himself. This set off the Great Commoner’s surprising political career.

Before we can understand his political career, we have to understand Parliament during Pitt’s time. Parliament was divided into two houses. The House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is the lower house and had most of the legislative authority and membership came through election or having a military commission (this was a hangover from the English Civil War for rebellious districts). The House of Lords is the upper house and you had to have a noble title to get in, with membership decided by the nobles. They had the power to veto. The political faction that dominated these two houses in Parliament was the liberal Whigs. Since everyone was basically a liberal Whig, this created smaller factions within the Whig party, with some who were more liberal than others.

At the start of his political career, Pitt joined a Whig faction known as the Patriots and opposed Prime Minister Walpole’s government along with its ministers. King George II did not take kindly to this. In spite of that disapproval, or maybe also because of it, Pitt started to build a name for himself during this time and he became such a critic of the government that Walpole punished him by dismissing him from the army in 1736. That made Walpole very unpopular, since Pitt was seen as a voice of the people. It also made Pitt ineligible for his seat in parliament. This would officially be the end of Pitt’s military career, but he would go on to do some extraordinary things and become more popular, shifting his seat to another by popular election.

After years of opposition to the government from Pitt, he would finally be given a place in government as the Vice Treasurer of Ireland and Paymaster General through his friend the Prince of Wales who would become King George III. This only made Pitt more popular for two reasons. First, he was able to make use of his oratory gift and deliver speeches that would motivate his people and draw anyone in. Second, he refused to skim money off a commission which so many men did, and this actually earned him the love and respect from the King and the people. This would later help contribute to his nickname “the great commoner.”

Pitt’s political career would go up and down, but he somehow stayed popular. In 1757 he became the Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons. He told the astonished Duke of Devonshire, “My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can.” The King and the Ministry would be unfriendly to Pitt, but he had overwhelming support from the people. This made Pitt the first Englishman to be put into power by the voice of the people rather than the King’s or parliament’s choice.

William Pitt was able to show off his qualifications of leadership during the Seven Years’ War. The war began in 1756 (really it began earlier in the colonies) and Britain struggled against the French for the first few years of the conflict. The British suffered heavy losses and there wasn’t clear guidance at the beginning. There became a major demand for Pitt’s leadership. He was determined that this war should be a national war and that it was in the national interest of the British to dominate it globally. He saw North America as the main component for building a great empire. This led to the “year of miracles” in 1759. The year of miracles was a year in which Britain had seen miraculous victories in North America, Europe, India, and other fronts which became the decisive year of the Seven Years’ War. This was “William Pitt’s annus mirabilis” or William Pitt’s Year of Miracles. The war would end in 1763 with Britain being the clear victor. William Pitt had secured Britain as a new empire towering over the rest. Even though Britain was in a favorable position, the same could not be said for the Great Commoner himself.

In 1760 King George III came to the throne replacing his grandfather, George II, who actually learned to favor Pitt. His grandson, the new King, did not. Even though Pitt’s war put Britain in a favorable position, it broke the country financially. This hurt Pitt’s popularity, and his cries to declare war on Spain didn’t help matters. Being unheeded on such an important issue, Pitt chose to resign. He kept a healthy image in 1761, staying clear of the disaster that befell Britain when his predictions about Spain came true. In the aftermath, he was asked to accept a mark of royal favor and a royal title, but the Great Commoner refused.

While out of government, tensions with the American colonies began to grow. The ministries tried to fix Britain's financial situation and did this through taxation, which angered the colonists. One of these taxation policies was the first Stamp Act in 1765. The Great Commoner opposed this measure arguing that it was unconstitutional. With his support, the first Stamp Act was struck down and Pitt remarked “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, are fit instruments to make slaves of all the rest.” He is saying that if you rule a people despotically, don’t be surprised when they become depostic themselves.

In 1766, the pressure on the King was such that Pitt was entrusted, by the King, to form a new government. He would be “Lord Privy Seal,” which was the highest office in the land, apart from the King himself, and after much time away from government, the Great Commoner finally accepted the call, and, reluctantly, a noble title he was required to assume. William Pitt became the Earl of Chatham. This hurt Pitt’s, or now, Chatham’s popularity, and at the same time his health was failing, and his ministry was unstable. No one was on the same page, people went behind Chatham’s back, and perhaps the biggest factor was his failing health.

After a few years of attempting to govern from this unfamiliar position, he took a more familiar seat in parliament in 1770 and at the same time, Lord North became the Prime Minister of Great Britain. This period of Pitt’s life is very interesting. Tensions became worse with the American colonies after Britain over-taxed the colonists and increasingly took their rights away, as they resisted. In 1773, the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Native Americans and threw British tea in the harbor. This was the Boston Tea Party. While Lord North and Parliament wanted strong measures against the colonies, Pitt remarked “to crush the spirit of liberty among the Americans in general...Laws of navigation and trade, for regulation, not for revenue, I should hope and believe, America once at ease about internal taxation, would acquiesce under, and friendly intercourse be again opened; without which we, not they, shall be undone.” In short, tax the Americans and watch what happens.

Pitt saw what was coming as he took a major interest in the colonies, and he began to predict what was going to happen, in some detail. Pitt argued that he would carry to his grave the principle “that this country had no right under Heaven to tax America.” He believed something that no one else believed. He believed that America did not want independence, but it was capable of separation and that Britain should stop the measures to reprimand the colonies in order for reconciliation to occur. He predicted that British efforts to punish would just exacerbate the situation, but no one listened because they didn’t think that highly of the colonies. However, as with Spain, Pitt was right and the more regulations and measures they placed on the colonies only made it worse.

In order to come up with a plan, Pitt met with Dr. Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania. He talked to Franklin about what the best course of action was in order to keep the relationship between Britain and the colonies. Franklin said, “He staid with me near two hours, his equipage waiting at the door; and being notice of, and talked of as at that time was very little circumstance that man thought might possibly any way affect American affairs.” In 18th century lingo, this says “I was impressed at how well he listened and at his patience.”

Franklin was invited to be Pitt’s guest at the House of Lords debate. This decision did not help Pitt. After Pitt delivered his plan to remove British troops from Boston to restore relations before there was no going back, the House of Lords found his plan to be the work of some American. The House felt as if American separation was unlikely, and that Britain would have its way. Pitt’s bill failed badly, and his prediction later came true. The Americans produced a Declaration of Independence.

He did not favor the war and produced many bills through the remaining time of his life, to discontinue the war and give the colonists their rights back. All his bills failed. He knew that the Americans would never stop fighting. He said “My Lords, you cannot conquer America. Were I an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms, never never, never.” He made another prediction that everyone laughed at. He warned that if they did not adopt any reconciliatory measures, that the Americans would bring the French into the conflict and the British could not afford to fight the French. They laughed because they thought of the Americans as Englishmen and there was no way Englishmen would fight with the French. William Pitt was once again right, and the British had lost the colonies.

Throughout this process, he had been debilitated many times by gout and his health was rapidly declining. In his last speech, he was escorted by his son William Pitt the Younger. About the French entering the increasingly complex war, he said, “Shall a people that seventeen years ago was the terror of the world now stoop so low as to say to its ancient inveterate enemy, ‘Take all we have, only give us peace’? It is impossible.” He took his seat and Lord Temple suggested that he had forgotten to speak of the plan they came up with and after trying to rise two or three times to finish his speech, Pitt collapsed and fainted. He was moved to his private villa at Hayes where he passed on the eleventh of May 1778. He was memorialized and buried by the north door of Westminster Abbey.

William Pitt led Britain to become a global empire. His predictions about the colonies, surprisingly, came true and each one was right. This brings us to today’s question. "Do you think William Pitt’s plans would have stopped American separation and independence?” Let us know if you thought it would have or if it was too late in the comments below.

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