Pitt the Elder

Graham Goodlad reviews the controversial career of William Pitt the Elder, whose ascendancy coincided with Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War.

The year 2008 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of William Pitt the Elder. In recent years his memory has been overshadowed by that of his son and namesake, who led Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars. Pitt the Elder was, however, a dominant figure in mid-eighteenth politics, whose personality and actions evoked strong feelings in his lifetime. His critics accused him of arrogance, inconsistency and self-seeking. Even Pitt’s martyrdom to the Georgian malady, gout, which caused him to appear in Parliament swathed in bandages and leaning on crutches, was frequently interpreted as self-dramatisation. On the other hand, his admirers regarded him as an inspirational, patriotic leader, free of corruption, who placed the nation above the claims of party connection.

‘The Great Commoner’ was associated with Britain’s victory over France in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). This conflict, which witnessed fighting on land and sea in several different parts of the world, laid the foundations of the British Empire in Canada and India. It contrasted markedly with the record of failure in the American War of Independence, a decade and a half later, when Pitt’s successors lost control over Britain’s North American colonies.

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