Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
The city of Pittsburgh was named for William Pitt, a prominent British politician and statesman.
Born in 1708, William Pitt was a prominent British politician and statesman in 18th century England. He gained a reputation as a persuasive and passionate orator. He was known as the Great Commonerfor his opposition to the patronage system. He engineered Britain's success in the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War) and he defended the rights of the American colonies to govern themselves, but refused to recognize American independence. His legacy is indelible and is evident in place names in Pennsylvania.
William Pitt was born on November 15, 1708 in Westminster, England, the second son of Robert Pitt, a Member of Parliament, and Harriet Villiers, granddaughter of the Fourth Viscount Grandison. Pitt owed his political career to his grandfather, Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc. While serving as a governor in Madras, India, Thomas Pitt, or Diamond Pittas he was known, made his fortune and invested it in land in England, thereby establishing a political foothold for his family in Parliament.
Young William attended Eton College from 1719 to 1726. Though he disliked the prestigious boys' school, he excelled in his studies and his tutors praised his achievements. During his stay at Eton, William experienced his first attack of hereditary gout, an illness that would incapacitate him throughout his life.
In 1727, William entered Trinity College, Oxford, expected by his father to prepare for a career in the church, a vocation that William rejected. He left the school after only one year, due to a combination of illness and his father's sudden death. With the help of his older brother, Thomas, and a small inheritance from his grandfather, he continued his education at the University of Utrecht in the Dutch Republic (now called the Netherlands).
William returned to the family estate in Cornwall in 1730. The following year, George Lyttelton, a close friend at Eton, introduced William to his uncle, Richard Temple, First Viscount Cobham, who offered William a cornetcy in his regiment, the King's Own Regiment of Horse. William spent long hours studying military history and tactics, knowledge that benefited him as a war minister later in his career. But he never got to prove his worth in battle. In 1733-34, he took an abbreviated grand tour of the European continent, and then returned home to a career in politics.
Of the three constituencies that his brother Thomas represented, he returned William for the borough of Old Sarum and in 1735 William won election to his first seat in the House of Commons. He soon joined with opposition leaders, including his army commander. Pitt, along with George Lyttelton and Richard Grenville, became known as Cobham's Cubs and aided the opposition with their persuasive speeches. In 1736, Pitt's opposition stance against the Walpole ministry ended his military career, but he had already begun to chart his political destiny.
Pitt suffered three disadvantages that could have hindered his political career. First, his family did not possess the wealth and position equal to some of his peers. Second, his illness kept him incapacitated for long periods. And third, he was opposed to the patronage system that his fellow Commoners used to gain favors and influence. His disapproval of political patronage earned him the moniker, The Great Commoneramong the general populace.
He did possess one remarkable skill—his ability to speak eloquently and persuasively. Thomas quotes some of Pitt's contemporaries who recorded their opinions of Pitt as a gifted orator. Horace Walpole in 1751 noted that Pitt was undoubtedly one of the greatest masters of ornamental eloquence. His language is amazingly fine and flowing; his voice admirable, his action most expressive.Lord Chesterfield admired Pitt's ability to speak, but added that his invective were terrible, and attended with such energy of diction, and such dignity of action and countenance, that he intimidated those who were the most willing and the best able to encounter him.And John Wilkes added that it was not only Pitt's speaking abilities, but also his presence. A manly figure with eagle eye...fixed your attention and almost commanded reverence the moment he appeared.
Besides Pitt's oratorical skill, he was knowledgeable and well-informed and he buttressed his speeches with historical fact. Thomas notes that Pitt studied British history and he was frequently to cite lessons from the past. He was well equipped for a political world that valued tradition and precedent. This learning was deployed to tactical advantage.The combination of effective oratory, indomitable presence and wealth of knowledge made him a formidable adversary on the floor of the Commons.
As one of Cobham's Cubs, Pitt stood in opposition to the Walpole ministry and to the king. On April 29, 1736, in what was probably his first speech, Pitt earned the ire of George II. The king disapproved of his son's impending marriage and Pitt publicly supported the prince, emphasizing that the marriage has at all times been a matter of the highest importance to the public welfare, to present and to future generations.Pitt's allegiance to Prince Ferdinand paid dividends of a grant of ?ú400 a year and the appointment as Groom of the Bedchamber, a position that he held for seven years. But without the king's consent, an appointment in the ministry eluded him.
Pitt courted the king's animosity again with his objections to the Carteret ministry and the king's involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession. (British monarchs from George I through William IV were also hereditary electors and kings of the German state of Hanover) Pitt opposed the payment of Hanoverian troops, decrying in a speech on December 10, 1742, that this great, this powerful, this mighty nation, is considered only as a province to a despicable Electorateand affirming these troops are hired only to drain this unhappy country of its money.Though the speech pleased opposition members, its virulent tone and scorching language barred him from a cabinet post for several more years. Peters notes that Pitt had begun to discover the power to command attention by his oratory, but in his careless giving of offence to the king, displayed a recklessness in deploying it that was to become characteristic.
Persistence paid off for Pitt when the new Pelham ministry offered him an appointment as paymaster-general in 1746. Pelham persuaded the king to approve the appointments of several opposition MPs and Pitt gladly accepted. He held the post for nine years and remained a strong ally and supporter of Pelham and his policies until Pelham's death in 1754. The following year, the new prime minister, the Duke of Newcastle, removed Pitt from office because of Pitt's criticism of his war policies. Pitt's dismissal launched him into the fiercest opposition he had ever exhibited in the Commons.
In 1756, Newcastle was forced to step down and Pitt took over as Secretary of State for the Southern Department (responsible for southern England, Wales, Ireland, the American Colonies and certain external relations) and leader in the House of Commons. However, Pitt faced formidable challenges in office. His supporters consisted only of a small number of loyal MPs, London merchants and financiers, and the public, whereas Newcastle still enjoyed majority support in the Commons. With war against France already begun in the American colonies, Pitt began to implement a bold war strategy that differed markedly from his predecessors. Still, the king continued to resent Pitt and undermined his policies. He removed Pitt from office in April 1757 and reinstated Newcastle.
With neither man able to elicit ample support, Newcastle agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Pitt in June 1757. Newcastle would retain his post as First Lord of the Treasury controlling the purse strings, a post Pitt happily relinquished. Pitt reclaimed his former position as Secretary of State for the Southern Department. The alliance proved remarkably effective.
Pitt resumed his plans for war with France, which concentrated British military forces in her colonies around the world and on the high seas while subsidizing Britain's European allies to engage French forces on the continent. To accomplish his aims, he augmented land and naval power and established a home defense force.
To effectively engage the assistance of the American colonies, Pitt relieved the antagonistic Lord Louden and replaced him with Major General James Abercromby as head of the British forces in North America. He established direct ties with the colonial governments, treating them as partners to earn their trust and their cooperation. He compensated each colony according to their service and accoutered the American volunteers the same as their British counterparts. The colonies responded by enlisting more than the requested numbers of militia.
From 1758 through 1760, the British won key victories in Canada and on the American frontier. Anderson observes, Only Pitt's reversal of policy — his disposition to treat the colonists in effect as allies rather than subordinates, to ask for their help rather than to compel it, and to reimburse them in proportion to their exertions in the war effort — had arrested the decline of British military fortunes in America.For his service, Pitt earned the respect and admiration of the colonists. The fort that replaced Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River was named Fort Pitt in his honor and the settlement that surrounded it was called Pittsburgh (Allegheny County). Other colonies similarly named cities and towns after him.
By 1761, the British seized control of all of North America and secured victories in the West Indies and India. Pitt earned the esteem of the British people for his unrivaled success. He was virtually unbeatable, politically and militarily, because he encountered no organized opposition to his policies. And he finally earned the support of George II.
But by mid-1761, Pitt began to experience a reversal of fortune. He faced increasing opposition due primarily to the ascension of George III to the throne and the appointment of George's tutor, the Earl of Bute, to the cabinet. Facing increased pressure, Pitt agreed to step down in October. Pitt's reward for his service included a ?ú3000 per year lifetime pension and a peerage for his wife, a favor he refused to accept for himself.
Pitt returned to opposition in the House of Commons that situated him to defend the American colonies beginning in 1764 when Prime Minister George Grenville implemented his colonial taxation policies. Grenville proposed the American Duties Act, or Sugar Act, in 1764, which was intended to prohibit colonial trade with foreign powers. The following year, Parliament passed the Stamp Act that levied a tax on virtually every transaction in which the colonies conducted business and legal functions.
The Grenville ministry had one goal in mind -- to compel the colonies to help rebuild the British Treasury recently depleted by the war with France. The colonists saw it as an attack on their sovereignty as Englishmen and refused to comply. More importantly, British merchants opposed the misguided policy because of its detrimental effect on their trade.
Returning from an extended illness in 1766, Pitt joined in the debate in favor of repeal. On January 14, he delivered a speech in which he asserted Parliament's right to act as the supreme governing and legislative powerand that it should retain that right. However, he asserted that Parliament did not have the right to tax the colonies directly without representation in the Commons. He also argued that the growth in commerce in America had brought an exponential benefit to Britain, inquiring shall a miserable financier come with a boast, that he can bring 'a pepper-corn' into the exchequer by the loss of millions to the nation? Pitt concluded by reasserting Parliament's sovereignty over the colonies, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.
How much influence Pitt's speech had over the decision to repeal cannot be measured. York argues that Though Rockingham and his supporters agreed with Pitt on the need to rescind the Stamp Act, they disagreed with him on the issue of parliamentary authorityregarding taxation and that like Pitt they had concluded that the Stamp Act caused undue financial harm and political discontent.It did give the Rockingham ministry further reason to urge repeal, which passed both houses of Parliament in February 1766.
York affirms that Pitt was widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for his role in apparently ending the dispute.The Pennsylvania Gazette on June 5 reported that the citizens of Baltimore raised funds to erect a statue in Honour of the glorious and truly patriotic WILLIAM PITT, esq; as in Acknowledgment for the innumerable Services (not only) done to this Province, and continent, but to the Lovers of Liberty in general.And in the same edition was an excerpt from Boston that hailed the immortal PITTand told of two Boston patriots who mounted An elegant portrait of Mr. PITTin their homes.
Pitt continued in opposition until July 1766 when the king offered him the chance to form his own government. He sought the office of Lord Privy Seal, which required that he accept a peerage as Earl of Chatham. By accepting the peerage, he sacrificed his reputation as the Great Commonerand was roundly criticized by his public supporters. His influence diminished in the House of Commons, which according to Thomas was a forum where his eloquence won support among men in varying respects independent of political connexions [sic]. There were few such votes to be won in the Lords, nor did Pitt's rhetoric suit the political atmosphere of the upper House.Because of the weakness of his government and recurring illness, Pitt resigned his office in October 1768.
After leaving office, Pitt enjoyed time with his family away from politics. His wife, Lady Hester (Grenville) Pitt, whom he married in 1754, and their five children spent leisure time at Burton Pynsent, a residence Pitt inherited in 1765. Some of this time was spent with his second son, William. Eager to follow in his father's footsteps, he accumulated a wealth of knowledge in the art of oratory under the tutelage of his father. Pitt the Younger became a Parliamentary icon during his own tenure in the House of Commons.
Though he missed much of the debates of the early 1770s, Pitt exerted his influence in one last colonial showdown. The renewed hostility to Parliamentary policies in the American colonies brought him back to his seat in 1774. In January 1775, Pitt delivered two speeches regarding the situation in America — one to advocate the withdrawal of troops from Boston, the other to propose a plan for reconciliation. Both proposals were overwhelmingly defeated and he retired to his estate for two more years.
He appeared again in 1777 urging an end to the war with America. In November, he counseled Parliament to recognize the Continental Congress as the representative body for the colonies and the role of the provincial assemblies in raising taxes. In return, the colonies would recognize the sovereignty of Parliament and the right to keep an army in America. All of his attempts to avert a break with the colonies had failed.
Pitt's affection for the empire drove his ambition as he struggled to keep it unified. According to Black, Pitt defended the integrity of the British empire, the political, strategic and economic interdependency of different parts that he saw so clearly.Though Pitt earlier advocated the colonists' rights as British subjects, he opposed separation. Knight notes that because of his lifelong dedication to the empire, he never recognized their independence.
Pitt attended the parliamentary session on April 7, 1778. He arrived wrapped in bandages, weak and frail and supported on crutches. He disputed the Duke of Richmond's motion in favor of American independence. Pitt affirmed his affection for the empire, declaring his stance against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy!He countered Richmond by stating, ...his Majesty succeeded to an empire as great in extent as its reputation was unsullied. Shall we tarnish the luster of this nation by an ignominious surrender of its rights and fairest possessions?
Pitt had spoken publicly for the last time. He rose a second time to rebut Richmond. But as he tried to speak, he collapsed. He was carried from the chamber to a nearby house. A few days later, he was transported to Hayes, his home in Kent, where he died on May 11, 1778.
Pitt's defense of the empire he loved was his last act as a Parliamentarian. Throughout his career, he had made enemies as well as friends and the reaction to his death was as controversial as the man himself. The Commons voted for a public funeral and address, and a monument in Westminster Abbey, on the base of which it says:
Erected by the King and Parliament As a Testimony to The Virtues and Ability of WILLIAM PITT EARL OF CHATHAM During whose Administration In the Reigns of George II and George III Divine Providence Exalted Great Britain To an Height of Prosperity and Glory Unknown to a Former Age Born November 15, 1708; Died May 11, 1778
The Commons also agreed to a proposal to pay his debts and grant his heirs an annuity. However, the Lords voted not to attend his funeral and even expressed some disapproval of the annuity.
His loyal public showed their appreciation of his service. Peters observes 'All England' was brought by Chatham's death to think him essentialbut noted that the mood was briefbecause recent perils left no time or inclination to dwell in vain on vanished glories.By August, news of Chatham's death appeared in colonial newspapers. The Pennsylvania Evening Post on August 26, 1778 eulogized Pitt and celebrated his virtues, claiming all his sentiments were liberal and elevated; his ruling passion was an unbounded ambition, and happy for this country it was so, for that alone supported by great abilities, and great integrity, could make him what he was.
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, died as he lived, in service to his country and in defense of its empire. His fiery words often evoked support and opposition, admiration and animosity, inspiration and even fear. Because of the ferocity with which he sometimes spoke, he exhibited an ability to silence his political enemies, but he did not always succeed in persuading them. His speeches reflected a depth of historical knowledge and an ability to use it strategically. His illness, which he sometimes used to garner sympathy, also left him vulnerable and weak at times. But his impact on the political landscape of his age carved him a legacy every bit as lasting as the monument to his character, his integrity and his influence in Britain and America. He will always be remembered as the Great Commoner.
Sketch of the public character of the earl of Chatham.Pennsylvania Evening Post, 26 Aug. 1778, 1.
Annapolis, May 22.Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 Jun. 1766, 1.
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Black, Jeremy. Pitt the Elder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Boston, May 22, Account of the Rejoicings last Monday, on the Repeal of the Stamp Act, as promised in our last.Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 Jun. 1766, 1.
Knight, Carol Lynn H. A Certain Great Commoner: The Political Image of William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham, in the Colonial Press.Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 123, no.2 (1979): 131-142.