Modern history



WHEN PITT FIRST JOINED THE MINISTRY AS SECRETARY OF STATE IN November 1756 Frederick the Great declared, “England has long been in labour, but at last she has brought forth a man.”

Nothing like it had been seen since Marlborough. From his office in Cleveland Row Pitt designed and won a war which extended from India in the East to America in the West. The whole struggle depended upon the energies of this one man. He gathered all power, financial, administrative, and military, into his own hands. He could work with no one as an equal. His position depended entirely on success in the field. His political enemies were numerous. He would tolerate no interference or even advice from his colleagues in the Cabinet; he made no attempt either to consult or to conciliate, and he irritated Newcastle and the Chancellor of the Exchequer by interfering in finance. But in the execution of his military plans Pitt had a sure eye for choosing the right man. He broke incompetent generals and admirals and replaced them with younger men upon whom he could rely: Wolfe, Amherst, Conway, Howe, Keppel, and Rodney. Thus he achieved victory.

But Pitt’s success was not immediate. He had opposed the popular clamour for Admiral Byng’s court-martial. He was at odds with his colleagues, and the Duke of Cumberland used his powerful and malevolent influence against him. The City merchants were still suspicious of the alliance with Prussia. In April 1757 Pitt was dismissed by the King. Nevertheless he had already made his mark with the nation. He received from the towns and corporations of England a manifestation of their deep feeling—“a shower of gold boxes.” For three months there was no effective Government, though Pitt gave all the orders and did the day-to-day work. A stable war Ministry was not formed until June, but for the next four years Pitt was supreme.

Pitt did not confine himself to a single field of operations. By taking the initiative in every quarter of the globe Britain prevented the French from concentrating their forces, confused their plan of campaign, and forced them to dissipate their strength. Pitt had fiercely attacked Carteret for fighting in Europe, but he now realised that a purely naval and colonial war, such as he had advocated in the 1740’s, could yield no final decision. Unless France were beaten in Europe as well as in the New World and in the East she would rise again. Both in North America and in Europe she was in the ascendant. At sea she was a formidable enemy. In India it seemed that if ever a European Power established itself on the ruins of the Mogul Empire its banner would be the lilies and not the cross of St George. War with France would be a world war—the first in history; and the prize would be something more than a rearrangement of frontiers and a redistribution of fortresses and sugar islands.

Whether Pitt possessed the strategic eye, whether the expeditions he launched were part of a considered combination, may be questioned. Now, as at all times, his policy was a projection on to a vast screen of his own aggressive, dominating personality. In the teeth of disfavour and obstruction he had made his way to the foremost place in Parliament, and now at last fortune, courage, and the confidence of his countrymen had given him a stage on which his gifts could be displayed and his foibles indulged. To call into life and action the depressed and languid spirit of England; to weld all her resources of wealth and manhood into a single instrument of war which should be felt from the Danube to the Mississippi; to humble the house of Bourbon, to make the Union Jack supreme in every ocean, to conquer, to command, and never to count the cost, whether in blood or gold—this was the spirit of Pitt, and this spirit he infused into every rank of his countrymen, admirals and powder-monkeys, great merchants and little shopkeepers; into the youngest officer of the line, who felt that with Pitt in command failure might be forgiven but hesitation never; into the very Highlanders who had charged at Prestonpans and now were sailing across the Atlantic to win an empire for the sovereign who had butchered their brethren at Culloden.

On the Continent Britain had one ally, Frederick of Prussia, facing the combined power of Austria, Russia, and France. Sweden too had old grudges to avenge, old claims to assert against him. Frederick, by a rapid march through Saxony into Bohemia, sought to break through the closing circle. But in 1757 he was driven back into his own dominions; Cumberland, sent to protect Hanover and Brunswick, was defeated by the French and surrendered both. Russia was on the march; Swedish troops were again seen in Pomerania. Minorca had already fallen. From Canada Montcalm was pressing against the American frontier forts. Never did a war open with darker prospects. Pitt’s hour had come. “I know,” he had told the Duke of Devonshire, “that I can save this country and that no one else can.” He sent back the foreign troops paid to protect England from invasion. He disavowed Cumberland’s surrender. Life began to tingle in the torpid frame of English administration. Before the year was out it seemed as if Fortune, recognising her masters, was changing sides. Frederick, supported by the subsidies which Pitt had spent the eloquence of his youth in denouncing, routed the French at Rossbach and the Austrians at Leuthen.

So the great years opened, years for Pitt and his country of almost intoxicating glory. The French were swept out of Hanover; the Dutch, fishing in the murky waters of Oriental intrigue, were stopped by Clive and made to surrender their ships at Chinsura; Cape Breton was again taken, and the name of the “Great Commoner” stamped on the map at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. France’s two main fleets, in the Mediterranean and in the Channel, were separately defeated. Combined they might have covered an invasion of England. Admiral Boscawen, fresh from the capture of Louisburg, was detailed to watch the Toulon squadron. He caught it slipping through the Straits of Gibraltar, destroyed five ships and drove the rest into Cadiz Bay, blockaded and out of action. Three months later, in the short light of a November day, in a high gale and among uncharted rocks and shoals, Admiral Hawke annihilated the Brest fleet. For the rest of the war Quiberon was an English naval station, where the sailors occupied their leisure and maintained their health by growing cabbages on French soil. Between these victories Wolfe had fallen at Quebec, leaving Amherst to complete the conquest of Canada, while Clive and Eyre Coote were uprooting the remnants of French power in India. Even more dazzling prizes seemed to be falling into British hands. Pitt proposed to conquer the Spanish Indies, West and East, and to seize the annual Treasure Fleet. But at this supreme moment in his career, when world peace and world security seemed within his grasp, the Cabinet declined to support him and he resigned.


It is necessary to examine these triumphs and disasters at closer hand. In America Pitt faced a difficult and complex task. The governors of the English colonies had long been aware of the threat beyond their frontiers. The French were moving along the waterways beyond the mountain barrier of the Alleghenies and extending their alliances with the Red Indians in an attempt to link their colony of Louisiana in the South with Canada in the North. Thus the English settlements would be confined to the seaboard and their Westward expansion would stop. Warfare had broken out in 1754. General Braddock was sent from England to re-establish British authority west of the Alleghenies, but his forces were cut to pieces by the French and Indians in Pennsylvania. In this campaign a young Virginian officer named George Washington learnt his first military lessons. The New England colonies lay open to attack down the easy path of invasion, the Hudson valley. A struggle began for a foothold at the valley head. There was little organisation. Each of the colonies attempted to repel Red Indian raids and French settlers with their own militias. They were united in distrusting the home Government, but in little else. Although there were now over a million British Americans, vastly outnumbering the French, their quarrels and disunion extinguished this advantage. Only the tactful handling of Pitt secured their cooperation, and even so throughout the war colonial traders continued to supply the French with all their needs in defiance of the Government and the common interest.

The year 1756 was disastrous for England in America, and indeed upon all fronts. Oswego, the only English fort on the Great Lakes, was lost. The campaign of 1757 was hardly more successful. The fortress of Louisburg, which commanded the Gulf of St Lawrence, had been taken by an Anglo-Colonial force in the 1740’s and returned to France at the peace treaty of 1748 at Aix-la-Chapelle. English troops were now sent to recapture it. They were commanded by an ineffectual and unenterprising officer, Lord Loudon. Loudon prepared to attack by concentrating at Halifax such colonial troops from New England as the colonies would release. This left the Hudson valley open to the French. At the head of the valley were three small forts: Crown Point, Edward, and William Henry. The French, under the Governor of Canada, Montcalm, and his Red Indian allies, swept over the frontier through the wooded mountains and besieged Fort William Henry. The small colonial garrison held out for five days, but was forced to surrender. Montcalm was unable to restrain his Indians and the prisoners were massacred. The tragedy bit into the minds of the New Englanders. It was Loudon who was to blame. The British were not defending them; while New England was left exposed to the French, the troops which might have protected them were wasting time at Halifax. Indeed, by the end of July Loudon decided that Louisburg was impregnable and had given up the attempt.

Pitt now bent his mind to the American war. Throughout the winter he studied the maps and wrote dispatches to the officers and governors. A threefold strategic plan was framed for 1758. Loudon was recalled. His successor, Amherst, with Brigadier Wolfe, and naval support from Halifax, was to sail up the St Lawrence and strike at Quebec. Another army, under Abercromby, was to seize Lake George at the head of the Hudson valley and try to join Amherst and Wolfe before Quebec. A third force, under Brigadier Forbes, would advance up the Ohio valley from Pennsylvania and capture Fort Duquesne. one of a line of French posts along the Ohio and the Mississippi. The Fleet was so disposed as to stop reinforcements leaving France.

A mind capable of conceiving and directing these efforts was now in power at Whitehall, but supervision at a distance of three thousand miles was almost impossible in the days of sail. Amherst and Wolfe hammered at the northern borders of Canada. In July Louisburg was captured. But Abercromby, advancing from Ticonderoga, became entangled in the dense woods; his army was badly beaten and his advance was halted. The Pennsylvanian venture was more successful. Fort Duquesne was taken and destroyed and the place renamed Pittsburgh; but lack of numbers and organisation compelled the British force to retire at the end of the campaign. In a dispatch to Pitt Forbes gave a bitter description of the affair: “I vainly at the beginning flattered myself that some very good Service might be drawn from the Virginia & Pennsylvania Forces, but am sorry to find that, a few of their principal Officers excepted, all the rest are an extream bad Collection of broken Innkeepers, Horse Jockeys, & Indian traders, and that the Men under them are a direct Copy of their Officers, nor can it well be otherwise, as they are a gathering from the scum of the worst people, in every Country. . . .” These remarks reflect the worsening relations and woeful lack of understanding between British officers and American colonists.

There was little enough to show for such efforts, but Pitt was undaunted. He realised the need for a combined offensive along the whole frontier from Nova Scotia to the Ohio. Isolated inroads into French territory would bring no decision. On December 29, 1758, further instructions were accordingly sent to Amherst. The necessity for cutting across the French line of expansion was again emphasised. “It were much to be wished,” the instructions continue, “that any Operations on the side of Lake Ontario could be pushed as far as Niagara, and that you may find it practicable to set on foot some Enterprize against the Fort there, the Success of which would so greatly contribute to establish the uninterrupted Dominion of that Lake, and at the same time effectually cut off the Communication between Canada and the French Settlements to the South.”

There was also much talk about the need of acquiring Red Indian allies. Amherst thought little of this. Several months earlier he had written to Pitt that a large number of Indians were promised him: “They are a pack of lazy, rum-drinking people and little good, but if ever they are of use it will be when we can act offensively. The French are much more afraid of them than they need be; numbers will increase their Terror and may have a good Effect.” Nevertheless it was fortunate for the British that the Six Nations of the Iroquois, who occupied a key position between the British and French settlements near the Great Lakes, were generally friendly; they, like the American colonists, were alarmed at French designs on the Ohio and the Mississippi.

According to the new plan, in the coming year the Navy would attack the French West Indies, and the invasion of Canada up the St Lawrence would be pushed harder than ever in spite of the bitter experience of the past. Since the campaign of 1711 there had been several attempts to ascend the mighty river. Wolfe reported the Navy’s “thorough aversion” to the task. It was indeed hazardous. But it was to be backed by a renewed advance up the Hudson against the French fort of Niagara on the Great Lakes, the importance of which Pitt had emphasised in his instructions.

The plan succeeded. The year 1759 brought fame to British arms throughout the world. In May the Navy captured Guadeloupe, the richest sugar island of the West Indies. In July Amherst took Ticonderoga and Fort Niagara, thus gaining for the American colonies a frontier upon the Great Lakes. In September the expedition up the St Lawrence attacked Quebec. Wolfe conducted a personal reconnaissance of the river at night, and beguiled the officers by reciting Gray’s “Elegy”: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” By brilliant cooperation between Army and Navy Wolfe landed his men, and led them by the unsuspected path, under cover of darkness, up the steep cliffs of the Heights of Abraham. In the battle that followed Montcalm was defeated and killed and the key fortress of Canada was secured. Wolfe, mortally wounded, lived until victory was certain, and died murmuring, “Now God be praised, I will die in peace.”

But it needed another year’s fighting to gain Canada for the English-speaking world. In May 1760 the British garrison in Quebec was relieved after a winter siege. With cautious and dogged organisation Amherst converged on Montreal. In September the city fell and the huge province of French Canada changed hands. These were indeed the years of victory.

The inactivity of the French Fleet is a remarkable feature of the war. If they had blockaded New York in 1759 while the English ships were gathered at Halifax they could have ruined Amherst’s advance on Montreal. If they had attacked Halifax after Wolfe and the English ships had left for the St Lawrence they could have wrecked the whole campaign for Quebec. But now it was too late. Further English naval reinforcements were sent to the New World. In 1761 Amherst dispatched an expedition to Martinique. The capture of yet another great commercial prize was received with jubilation in London. In one of his letters Horace Walpole wrote, “I tell you [the eloquence of Pitt] has conquered Martinico. . . . The Romans were three hundred years in conquering the world. We subdued the globe in three campaigns—and a globe as big again.”

North America was thus made safe for the English-speaking peoples. Pitt had not only won Canada, with its rich fisheries and Indian trade, but had banished for ever the dream and danger of a French colonial empire stretching from Montreal to New Orleans. Little could he know that the extinction of the French menace would lead to the final secession of the English colonies from the British Empire.


Pitt’s very success contributed to his fall. Just as Marlborough and Godolphin had been faced by a growing war-weariness after Malplaquet, so now Pitt, an isolated figure in his own Government, confronted an increasing dislike of the war after the great victories of 1759. To the people at large he was the “Great Commoner.” This lonely, dictatorial man had caught their imagination. He had broken through the narrow circle of aristocratic politics, and his force and eloquence gained him their support. Contrary to the conventions of the age, he had used the House of Commons as a platform from which to address the country. His studied orations in severe classical style were intended for a wider audience than the place-holders of the Duke of Newcastle. Pitt had a contempt for party and party organisations. His career was an appeal to the individual in politics. His vast powers of work and concentration tired all who came in contact with him. Afflicted early in life with severe gout, he had to struggle with ill-health through the worst anxieties of war government. He hardly troubled to see his colleagues. All business was conducted from his office, except for weekly meetings with Newcastle and the Treasury Secretary to arrange the finances of his strategy, money and troops for Wolfe and Clive, subsidies for Frederick the Great. But his power was transient. There were not only enemies within the Government, stung by his arrogance and his secrecy, but also among his former political allies, the Princess of Wales and her circle at Leicester House. Here the young heir to the throne was being brought up amid the Opposition views of his mother and her confidant, the Earl of Bute. Pitt had been their chosen candidate for the sunshine days when the old King should die. They now deemed him a deserter. They branded his acceptance of office in 1746 as a betrayal. Bute, with his close position at this future Court, was the most dangerous of Pitt’s opponents, and it was he who stimulated opinion and the Press against the war policy of the Minister.

Pitt’s position was indeed perilous. He had destroyed France’s power in India and North America and had captured her possessions in the West Indies. It seemed as if Britain had achieved everything she desired. All that was left was the unpopular commitment to Prussia, and Bute found it only too easy to convert the feelings of weariness into an effective opposition to Pitt. Among his colleagues there were some who honestly and patriotically doubted the wisdom of continuing the war, from which Britain had gained more than perhaps she could keep; a war which had raised her once more to the height at which she had stood after Ramillies. The war had to be paid for. It was already producing the inevitable consequences of even the most glorious war. Heavy taxation on the industrial and landed classes was matched by huge fortunes for the stock-jobber and the contractor. It was in vain that Pitt attempted to show that no lasting or satisfactory peace could be secured till France was defeated in Europe. Making terms before France was exhausted would repeat the Tory mistakes at Utrecht and only snatch a breathing-space for the next conflict. It was with bitterness that Pitt realised his position. His Imperial war policy had succeeded only too well, leaving him with the detested and costly subsidies to Prussia which he knew were essential to the final destruction of French power.

In October 1760 George II died. He had never liked Pitt, but had learnt to respect his abilities. The Minister’s comment was pointed: “Serving the King may be a duty, but it is the most disagreeable thing imaginable to those who have that honour.” The temper of the new ruler was adverse. George III had very clear ideas of what he wanted and where he was going. He meant to be King, such a King as all his countrymen would follow and revere. Under the long Whig régime the House of Commons had become an irresponsible autocracy. Would not the liberties of the country be safer in the hands of a monarch, young, honourable, virtuous, and appearing thoroughly English, than in a faction governing the land through a packed and corrupt House of Commons? Let him make an end of government by families, choose his own Ministers and stand by them, and end once and for all the corruption of political life. But in such a monarchy what was the place of a man like Pitt, who owed nothing to corruption, nothing to the Crown, and everything to the people and to his personal domination of the House of Commons? So long as he was in power he would divide the kingdom with Cæsar. He could not help it. His profound reverence for the person and office of George III could not conceal from either of them the fact that Pitt was a very great man and the King a very limited man. Bute, “the Minister behind the curtain,” was now all-powerful at Court. Newcastle, who had long chafed under the harsh, domineering ways of his colleague, was only too ready to intrigue against him. There was talk of peace. Negotiations were opened at The Hague, but broke down when Pitt refused to desert Prussia. The French War Minister, Choiseul, like Torcy fifty years before, saw his chance. He realised that Pitt’s power was slipping. In 1761 he made a close alliance with Spain, and in September the negotiations with England collapsed. With the power of Spain behind her in the Americas, France might now regain her dominance in the New World.

Pitt hoped that war with Spain would rouse the same popular upsurge as in 1739. The chance of capturing more Spanish colonies might appeal to the City. His proposal for the declaration of war was put to the Cabinet. He found himself isolated. He made a passionate speech to his colleagues: “Being responsible I will direct, and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.” He met with a savage rebuke from the old enemy whose career he had broken, Carteret, now Lord Granville. “When the gentleman talks of being responsible to the people, he talks the language of the House of Commons, and forgets that at this board he is only responsible to the King.” He had no choice but resignation.

William Pitt ranks with Marlborough as the greatest Englishman in the century between 1689 and 1789. “It is a considerable fact in the history of the world,” wrote Carlyle, “that he was for four years King of England.” He was not the first English statesman to think in terms of a world policy and to broaden on to a world scale the political conceptions of William III. But he is the first great figure of British Imperialism. Pitt too had brought the force of public opinion to bear upon politics, weakening the narrow monopoly of the great Whig houses. His heroic period was now over. “Be one people,” he commanded the factions. Five years later he was to hold high office once more amid tragic circumstances of failing health. In the meantime his magnificent oratory blasted the policies of his successors.


Unsupported by the fame of Pitt, the Duke of Newcastle was an easy victim, and the administration slid easily into the hands of Lord Bute. His sole qualification for office, apart from great wealth and his command of the Scottish vote, was that he had been Groom of the Stole to the King’s mother. For the first time since the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham the government of England was committed to a man with no political experience, and whose only connection with Parliament was that he had sat as a representative peer of Scotland for a short time twenty years before. The London mob delivered their verdict on the King’s choice in the image of a Jack Boot and a Petticoat.

Within three months of Pitt’s resignation the Government were compelled to declare war on Spain. This led to further successes in the West Indies and elsewhere. The British Fleet seized the port of Havana, which commanded the trade routes of the Spanish Main and the movement of the Treasure Fleets. In the Pacific Ocean an expedition from Madras descended upon the Philippines and captured Manila. At sea and on land England was mistress of the outer world. These achievements were largely cast away.

Fifty years after the Treaty of Utrecht Britain signed a new peace with France. Bute sent the Duke of Bedford to Paris to negotiate its terms. The Duke thought his country was taking too much of the globe and would be in perpetual danger from European coalitions and attacks by dissatisfied nations. He believed in the appeasement of France and Spain and the generous return of conquests. Pitt, on the other hand, demanded the decisive weakening of the enemy. To his mind there would be no secure or permanent peace until France and Spain were placed at a lasting disadvantage. He could take no part in the negotiations, and he vehemently denounced the treaty as undermining the safety of the realm.

Britain’s acquisitions under the terms of the Peace of Paris in 1763 were nevertheless considerable. In America she secured Canada, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and the adjoining islands, and the right to navigate the Mississippi, important for Red Indian trade. In the West Indies Grenada, St Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago were acquired. From Spain she received Florida. In Africa she kept Senegal. In India, as will be related, the East India Company preserved its extensive conquests, and although their trading posts were returned the political ambitions of the French in the sub-continent were finally extinguished. In Europe Minorca was restored to England, and the fortifications of Dunkirk were at long last demolished.

Historians have taken a flattering view of a treaty which established Britain as an Imperial Power, but its strategic weakness has been smoothly overlooked. It was a perfect exposition of the principles of the Duke of Bedford. The naval power of France had been left untouched. In America she received back the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, in the Gulf of the St Lawrence, with the right to fish upon the shores of Newfoundland. These were the nursery of the French Navy, in which about fourteen thousand men were permanently employed. Their commercial value was nearly half a million pounds a year. They might form naval bases or centres for smuggling French goods into the lost province of Canada. In the West Indies the richest prize of the war, the sugar island of Guadeloupe, was also handed back, together with Martinique, Belle Isle, and St Lucia. Guadeloupe was so rich that the English Government even considered keeping it and in exchange returning Canada to the French. These islands were also excellent naval bases for future use against England.

Spain regained the West Indian port of Havana, which controlled the maritime strategy of the Caribbean. She also received back Manila, an important centre for the China trade. If the English had retained them the fleets of France and Spain would have been permanently at their mercy. In Africa, in spite of Pitt’s protests, France got back Goree—a base for privateers on the flank of the East Indian trade routes. Moreover, the treaty took no account of the interests of Frederick the Great. This ally was left to shift for himself. He never forgave Britain for what he regarded as a betrayal, which rankled long afterwards in the minds of Prussian leaders.

These terms fell so short of what the country expected that, in spite of the general desire for peace, it seemed doubtful if Parliament would ratify them. By some means or other a majority had to be ensured, and the means were only too familiar. All the arts of Parliamentary management were employed. Lords and Commoners known to be hostile to the Government were dismissed from any office they had been fortunate enough to acquire. Vain was it that Pitt denounced the treaty and prophesied war. It was approved by 319 votes to 65. Appeasement and conciliation won the day. But the sombre verdict of the man who endured the deliberate maiming of his work contained the historic truth. He saw in its terms the seeds of a future war. “The peace was insecure, because it restored the enemy to her former greatness. The peace was inadequate, because the places gained were no equivalent for the places surrendered.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!