CHATHAM (ChetraM), WILLIAM PITT, EARL OF (1708 1778). " I know that I can save the country and that no one else can," proudly boasted William Pitt the Elder, in 1757, when England was losing battle after battle in the great Seven Years' War.
What reasons, you ask, had Pitt for making such a seemingly arrogant statement? He did not belong to the great noble families of England which had long governed that country. He had studied for a time at Eaton and Oxford, but had been obliged to leave the university before he obtained his degree because of his life-long enemy—gout. He had served for a time in the army. Then in 1735 he had entered Parliament for the " pocket borough" of Old Sarum, which the Pitt family owned.
Here he soon won notice for his opposition to the governing clique then in power. He possessed ability, determination, patriotism, and eloquence, and was finally given a minor office. This was against the wishes of George II, whom Pitt had angered by his course. Now the statesman tried to win the favor of his royal master. One of his enemies declared he bowed so low before the king that his crooked nose showed between his legs.
But it was the favor of the people and not of the king which elevated Pitt to the position he coveted.
As paymaster-general he had won the public confi dence by refusing to accept anything beyond the salary attached to the office. As a result, when things went badly at the beginning of the war the people demanded Pitt so loudly that the king was at last obliged to yield.
" Sire, give me your confidence," said Pitt when he assumed the office of prime minister, " and I will deserve it." " Deserve my confidence," replied the king, " and you shall have it." On both sides the promise was fully kept. Pitt put his whole heart into his work, and soon stirred up all departments of the government to great activity. He appointed officers in the navy and army not for favor or because of their family connections, but solely on account of their ability. He sent Gen. James Wolfe to Canada and won that vast empire for Great Britain. He encouraged Clive in India, and sent aid to England's ally on the Continent, Frederick the Great of Prussia.
Before the war was over George II was succeeded by his grandson, George III, who was resolved to " be king." He undermined Pitt's influence over the cabinet, and as a result Pitt resigned in 1761.
The episode in Pitt's life best known to Americans occurred a few years after this, in 1766, when as a private member of the House of Commons he upheld the American colonists in their opposition to the Stamp Act, and "rejoiced that Americans had resisted." Would American history have been different if Pitt had still possessed his old ability in 1766, when he again became prime minister? It is hard to tell, for at that time he was suffering so from the gout and from a nervous disorder that for many critical months he left all to subordinates.
Pitt's period of greatness was past. He had lost support among the people by his acceptance of the title of Earl of Chatham, in 1766, and his transfer to the House of Lords removed him from the larger arena of the Commons. He was even too feeble to appear often before that small body. His last speech was in 1778, when he opposed a motion to make peace with America upon terms of independence, protesting against the loss of this great section of the empire and the implied humiliation before France, England's hereditary foe and America's ally. At the end of that speech he collapsed and was carried to his home, where he died a few weeks later.
The Great Commoner was one of the most powerful ministers England ever had. True, he was at times overbearing and his language bombastic; but he built up the British Empire and he made Britain respected at home and abroad. He was among the greatest figures, in English history. Says an English historian: " He had not merely done great things—he had inspired England with confidence in herself." Chatham's younger son, also named William Pitt, won even greater fame for his statesmanship in the trying days of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. (See Pitt, William, the Younger.)