The Point: William Pitt
William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham BORN: 15 November 1708. DIED: 11 May 1778. BURIED:
From Carnegie Magazine , October 1950, by Rose
To most of us William Pitt is only known as the English gentleman for whom Pittsburgh was named. From his portraits we picture him as a dignified, elaborately dressed person, about to enter Parliament for a genteel meeting of the House of Lords.
Actually his political life was a turbulent and stormy one. He disagreed with the two kings under whom he served, he opposed and quarreled violently with fellow members of Parliament and argued his views with great oratorical powers. He died dramatically defending his stand against fighting in the American Colonies.
He was born near London, November 15, 1708, of a well-known family. He
entered Eton and then Trinity but was soon afflicted with the gout, an
ailment that was to plague him the rest of his life. He traveled on the
continent, had a short term in the army, and by 1735 was elected to
Parliament, where he was destined to become one of the great men of his
age. His colonial policy toward America was far in advance of his time.
The year 1754 was an important one for Pitt as he was again elected to the House of Commons and in November was married to Hester Grenville, of a prominent English family. At the same time in faraway America George Washington was making an important decision affecting his future military career and ultimately the future relations of England and America.
Events were developing in America which made it necessary that England
should take a positive stand on her rights with France. The two countries
were already in active hostilities over boundaries. The advantage in the
fighting was on the side of the French, partly due to the friendly
alliance of the Indian Chief Pontiac and his followers.
Pitt argued in the House of Commons for increased forces for land and sea to secure the rights of the British crown in America. He urged that the English possessions be defended at all costs. This included their claim to the "forks in the river" which the French had named Fort Duquesne.
He called the preparations inadequate for the Braddock expedition made by the Duke of Cumberland, little knowing how prophetic he was. They all heard soon after July 1755 of the shocking defeat of Braddock. The words of Pitt were well timed as he said, "We had provoked before we could defend."
The King invited him to be a member of his cabinet and he accepted the
post of secretary of state, and he was also leader of the House of
Commons. As secretary of state, Pitt was in charge of military affairs
and colonial policy. In 1758 he was re-elected to Parliament and boasted,
"I am sure I can save the country and no one else can."
Saving the country at this time to Pitt meant war with France for American possessions. To accomplish this he raised huge loans for war expenses and planned the next military expedition. He personally selected Brigadier-General John Forbes to head the expedition against Fort Duquesne.
As his plans met with complete success, he was rewarded by having General Forbes rename the demolished fort in his honor on November 26, 1758. The next day Forbes wrote him a letter dated from "Pittsburgh," giving details of the military encounter. Pitt did not receive this letter until the following April 1759, and since Forbes had died and was buried in Philadelphia the month before, there never was a reply.
In 1760 King George II died, and he was succeeded on the throne by his
grandson King George III. A stormy time was ahead for the young king as
the period of the American revolution was near. He opposed many of his
most valuable ministers, including Pitt, but, like his grandfather before
him, he had to acknowledge Pitt's value to the government.
The King never saw through the problems of the American colonies and when he finally had to announce in Parliament their independence in 1782, he said to a friend, "I hope you noticed how I lowered my voice at this point." There are those who claim there would never have been an American revolution if England had followed Pitt in his colonial policy.
In 1766 a new name was added to William Pitt as the King created him Earl of Chatham, thus entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords. His friends and followers were opposed to Pitt's taking a peerage, as they felt he had more influence in the House of Commons. He became just as effective in his new place, however, as the members of the House of Lords were soon to know.
Pitt retired from public life for a time due to ill health, but he
returned to enter into the bitter debate on the Stamp Act which had
recently been passed. Benjamin Franklin was in London to express his
opposition, and Boston answered by open revolt against the collector,
while London merchants complained that trade with America was in grave
All who ever heard Pitt speak in Parliament agreed he could rank with the great orators of all time. His tones were rich and varied, and when he used full voice the house was completely filled with volume of sound as the torrent of words fell from his lips. His theory on the tax question was that increased trade with the American colonies in valuable goods meant more financial gain than a tax.
In one of his notable speeches he said: "This country has no right to tax the colonists. There is an idea in some minds that the colonies are represented in this House. I would fain know by whom an American is represented here?"
He was answered by Lord Grenville: "Great Britain protects America, America is bound to yield obedience. If not, tell me, when the Americans were emancipated!"
Pitt was not moved but continued to propose that the tax be repealed, as he argued, "Trade is your object with them and taxing was ill advised. If you do not make suitable laws for them, they will make laws for you, my Lords."
A part of the desirable and active trade with the mother country was even then taking place in the well-established trading post at Pittsburgh. Entries for all items were minutely recorded as a part of the supplies for Fort Pitt, and the ledgers for 1765-66 list common necessities and even some luxuries, while in exchange the nearby Delaware Indians brought in furs so valuable to London merchants.
Pitt continued to debate eloquently on relations with America and
introduced measures, all of which were voted down. He proposed an address
to the King to recall British troops from Boston, "in order to open the
way toward a happy settlement of the dangerous trouble in America." "You
will be forced to a disgraceful abandonment of present measures and
principles which you avow but cannot defend." He fully justified the
resistance of the colonies and reminded the House of Lords that, "It is
not repealing this act of Parliament, it is not repealing a piece of
parchment that can restore America to our bosom. You must repeal her
fears and her resentments."
Events were moving rapidly to bring a climax to the life of Pitt and tragedy to his government. Lord North was head of the government, and trouble in America increased. The colonists refused to purchase British merchandise, and Lord North grew more stern and harsh in his attitude as he said, "The Americans by their behavior have not deserved any particular indulgence from this country."
When news reached London that a large shipment of tea was thrown into Boston harbor, the ministers in power became more firm and resolute. Pitt remained steadfast as he said: "This tumult in Boston should not be taken advantage of in order to crush the spirit of liberty among the Americans. The intemperate folly of an ill-advised ministry would urge the Americans to demand that which they would not otherwise have thought of for a century to come." While he was making brilliant speeches, and his proposed bills were being defeated, he received the following message from America, "My Lord, The Horrid Tragedy is commenced, there has been a battle near Concord. April 1775."
Two months later George Washington became commander-in-chief of an
army, fighting against the country he once defended.
Pitt tried to arouse his fellow members to his side but his fine oratory was in vain. The King at this time referred to him as a "trumpet of sedition."
Pitt's physical infirmities continued and he was able to make but few public appearances. When he did, admiring throngs gathered to watch him as he entered Parliament. He remained unshaken in his stand on America as he said: "You cannot conquer the Americans. The best-appointed army that ever took the field, commanded by Sir William Howe, has retired from the American lines. We do not know the worst, we only know that in three campaigns we have done nothing and suffered much."
Once more he had to retire due to illness, but when he heard that the
Lords were going to debate on the independence of the colonies, he made a
great effort to attend Parliament. He did not approve of independence. He
thought the mutual happiness and prosperity of both countries depended
upon their remaining united.
Leaning on crutches and supported by his son, he made his last tragic appearance. In a low voice so broken he could scarcely be heard he protested "the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy." While rising to speak he fell back upon his chair into the arms of his son. He was removed to his home, where he died May 11, 1778, in his seventieth year. This scene was painted by John S. Copley, an American artist residing in London.
The memory of William Pitt is kept alive in this city by the interest
the name itself creates. There is a bust of him in the City-County
Building and Carnegie Institute owns one of his noted portraits. The
adopted his coat-of-arms for its seal and
recently added his motto.
The name "Pittsburgh" is a link to the past with a noble figure.