In the mid-1700s, the British Empire was at an inflection point. The nation had just fought two wars without a clear strategy. The War of Jenkin’s Ear bled into the War of Austrian Succession and accomplished little to improve the lives of British citizens or grow the empire. The population had become sick of adventurism abroad and ushered in a class of isolationist and pacifist politicians. Prime Minister Walpole, who oversaw a myopic foreign policy for nearly two decades, was followed by a series of Prime Ministers who either dispatched troops only under haphazard circumstances or avoided wars altogether. This reluctance to confront Britain’s enemies in a deliberate manner ceded power to her adversaries and ultimately encouraged a system of anti-British alliances in the lead-up to the first true world war, the Seven Years’ War.
William Pitt the Elder rose to prominence through his opposition to Walpole and the corrupt, erudite politicians running the empire. Pitt became known as “the great commoner” for his reluctance to use titles and his opposition to bribery. But Pitt’s most relevant contribution for modern policymakers was his reforging of Britain’s foreign policy. He championed British exceptionalism and advocated for aggressive actions against her adversaries. He funded allies on the continent to keep Britain’s adversaries bogged down in costly land wars and strategically maximized the use of naval and amphibious operations abroad to assert influence and control, growing the empire and establishing British dominance of the seas for nearly two hundred years. Roughly 260 years later, as America sits at a similar inflection point in an era of great power competition, policymakers have much to learn from the methods of one of Great Britain’s most successful statesmen.
In 1756, after nearly a decade of serving as the Paymaster of Forces and fighting against the pacifists in his own party, William Pitt became the leader of the House of Commons. He was swept into office after a series of British defeats at the hands of France. The British navy’s retreat at the Battle of Minorca and subsequent loss of the island to France caused rioting in London. Shortly after, the French captured Madras from the British East India Company, gaining control of most of southern India. By 1757 Pitt pushed his nation to adopt a new strategy of occupying French forces in Central Europe by subsidizing an ally on the continent. As Prussia’s Fredrick the Great went to war with all three of Britain’s adversaries, funded by British pounds, the return on investment became clear. With French and Spanish troops diverted, the British navy began a series of operations to increase British influence and control abroad.
Throughout 1758, Britain conducted raids and landings around the globe, striking strategic locations in Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. In Canada, then controlled by France, the British navy sailed up the Saint Lawrence River and deployed amphibious forces to scale the cliffs outside Quebec City, successfully capturing it. The force moved on to Montreal and then Fort Niagara while a separate force moved up the Ohio River Valley, utilizing local militias and colonists, retaking Fort Duquesne (establishing what would eventually become Pittsburgh). While hundreds of thousands of French soldiers fought in Germany, a small contingent of 3,200 British regulars, supported and sustained by the British navy, began recapturing outposts across India. British raids then captured Havana and Manila, which were later traded for Florida.
By the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Britain had become the dominant power in North America and South Asia. The strategic investment in Prussia had successfully weakened France and Spain’s ability to project power abroad. Pitt would later say of his strategy, “Canada was won on the banks of the Rhine.” His aggressive foreign policy, successful financing of allies, and strategic use of naval engagements and amphibious landings established the greatest empire the world had ever seen. As a testament to his achievement, his longtime adversary, former Prime Minister Walpole, said Pitt, “exceedingly altered the appearance of our fortune. He warded off the evil hour that seemed approaching, he infused vigor into our arms, he taught the nation to speak again as England used to speak to foreign powers.”
In a piece of lasting advice to Britain several years before his death in 1778, Pitt urged the government to accept the demands of the American colonies and keep them in the empire. He proposed the Provincial Act in 1775 to recognize the Continental Congress and warned that the colonies could never be conquered. Pitt’s understanding and appreciation for British exceptionalism apparently extended across the Atlantic to America.
America, like Britain in the 18th century, is facing increased calls for isolation and pacifism as the nation recovers from two wars that often lacked a coherent strategy. Just as in the 18th century, there is a war in Europe involving a major adversary. The prescriptions of William Pitt to invest in allies, rebuild and revitalize the navy, and ensure the strategic capability to land military forces around the globe may be exactly what’s needed to reinvigorate the sentiment of exceptionalism in our nation.