The Age of George III

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What impact did affairs in America have upon British politics?

Affairs in America during, leading up to, and subsequent to the War of Independence, impacted on British politics in several areas. They led to the downfall of the administration of Lord North and forced George III to accept both policies and ministers to whom he was totally opposed, whilst uniting the opposition, led by the Rockinghamite Whigs, for the first time behind a principle with which they could oppose the government. The conflict in America led to the airing of Irish commercial and constitutional grievances, the forming of the Irish Volunteer groups and to the eventual granting of legislative independence for the Irish parliament. The war with America also led to war in Europe, with Britain facing France, Spain and Holland at a time when she was least able to rally her forces behind a European conflict and, at home, discontent with the war triggered of the emergence of the Yorkshire County Association.

The impact of affairs in America on the government of Lord North was to be completely devastating. On the eve of the war with America, the North administration seemed to be in a strong position. Stanley Ayling, in his biography of George III, praises North's skill in 'gauging the temper of the House of Commons'. Besides being adept in handling the Commons, North had been able to strengthen his administration during its early years by the recruitment of men such as Edward Thurlow and the Earl of Sandwich. The Earl of Suffolk and his followers also joined North after the death of George Grenville, and North was able to command a comfortable majority in the House. He also had the confidence of the King, who demonstrated his regard for his Minister by conferring on him the Order of the Garter in 1772. Indeed, as John Brooke tells us in his biography of the King, George III felt that he could 'now afford to relax and take his ease, free from worry about politics or the House of Commons a until the advent of another war'.

When the Americans first began to defy British authority, the government had the support of the majority of members in both Houses in taking punitive action against the rebels. Although the opposition spoke out against such measures as the Boston Port Bill and the Massachusetts Bay Regulating Bill, these Acts were passed with overwhelming majorities (239 to 64 in the Commons in the case oaf the Massachusetts Bay Regulating Bill). George III fully supported his ministers' firm stand against the colonies, commenting (after the Boston Port Bill) that 'the feebleness and futility of the opposition' in his opinion showed 'the rectitude of the measure'.

After the battle of Saratoga in 1777 the political situation began to change. Although the king seems to have been able to view the defeat in perspective, calling it 'very serious, but not without remedy', North began to have serious doubts both about the possibility of a successful outcome to the war and about his own abilities to direct the war. North's strengths as a 'House of Commons man' were a liability in the situation in which he now found himself. Although he could lead the House, he did not possess the qualities of a great War Minister - the ability to define a strong policy and to force the House of Commons to follow it. North recognised his limitations, and began to plead with the King that he might be permitted to resign. On 11 November 1776 he wrote to George III,

the whole of the operations of government, and control all the other departments of administration so far at to make them co-operate zealously and actively with his designs even the contrary to their own. Lord North ... is certainly not capable of being such a minister as he has described, and he can never like a situation which he has most perfectly disliked even in much better and easier times ...(British Historical Documents)

However, it seems that North was ambivalent about his wish to retire, wanting, as John Brooke says, 'at the same time the pleasures of office and the pleasures of retirement' and, when pressed by the King, he always allowed himself to be 'persuaded' to remain in office. One could speculate as to the extent to which this reluctant Minister was attempting thus to put any subsequent blame for the failures of his policies at the King's door.

The King, of course, had nobody with whom he could replace North in the event of his resignation. He also knew that, if the Rockinghamite Whigs were to take office, they would conceded independence to the Americans. He therefore made every effort to reassure North and to persuade him that 'with activity, decision and zeal, things may soon wear a very different appearance' (George III to North, 2 November 1776).

North, then, remained in office, but began to retreat into indecision and inaction from the arduous talk of leading the government's war policy. George III began to have to cajole and importune him in order to persuade him to take any action at all, complaining in one letter that, although North had promised to produce a plan for 'procuring a handsome Attendance on the opening of the Session', yet 'the Week has elapsed without your producing it'. After the death of North's son in 1779, his mental state seems to have deteriorated even further and, on 21 June 1779, the King took the extraordinary step of summoning the Cabinet to the Queen's House and speaking to them for an hour on the current state of affairs. He defended the actions of himself and his government, urged his ministers to stand firm in the face of 'external danger' and declared his determination to hold his dominions together. Indeed, in the face of the crisis caused by the lack of success in America the King seems almost to have been acting as Prime Minister.

Towards the end of 1779 North's administration began, in the words of J.H. Plumb, 'to crumble under the weight of its own incompetence'. Gower and Weymouth resigned, and Wedderburn refused to have any further dealings with North. Germain was blamed for the army's defeat at Saratoga, and Lord Sandwich, particularly after Keppel's court-martial, took the blame for the navy's problems, although he had made every effort to improve the state of the neglected navy he inherited at the Admiralty.

Although some successes in America seemed to give grounds for hope in 1780 - for example the taking of Charlestown - this was only a brief respite. News from America in November 1781 of the defeat at Yorktown proved to be the final straw which broke the back of North's government. After Yorktown, the House of Commons could see no point in prolonging military action in America. On 27 February 1782 a motion was carried against the further prosecution of the war, and on 28 February North introduced a Bill to allow peace negotiations to commence. In March, North's ministry narrowly avoided defeat in a motion of censure against them. Later that month, North was approached by a group of independent ministers who told him that they could not continue to support the government. Without their support North had no hope of continuing in power, and he duly informed the King that he intended to resign.

George III had, from the outset of the conflict, stood firmly against both the granting of independence to America and the possibility of a Rockingham ministry. Although he had written to Thurlow that to accept a change of party at this stage 'would be to give up my principles and my honour, which I value above my Crown', he was now in the position of being forced to accept both the party and the policy to which he had been implacably opposed. Although he was able to include Shelburne in the new administration it must have been a harsh blow to George to have to deal with Rockingham and Fox. The prospect appears to have driven the King to at least consider the possibility of abdication, since he went so far as to draw up a resolution resigning the Crown to the Prince of Wales, although this was never submitted to parliament.

Affairs in America had thus destroyed the administration which had started out so strongly, and in which the King had placed so much confidence, and with it the King's determination to hold his dominions in America intact.

If affairs in America had been the downfall of the government, it could be argued that they were the making of the opposition. At last they had been provided with a principle on which they could stand united against the King and his ministers. The opposition did, however, fall into two camps who, though they jointly attacked the government's handling of events leading to the war, and the handling of the war itself, did so for differing reasons.

Chatham's interest in America was long-standing. After the triumphs of his strategy during the Seven Years' War, culminating in the Anno Mirabilis of 1759, he felt, as Dorothy Marshall tells is in Eighteenth Century England, that 'if, through other men's mishandling, this great prize of empire which he had helped to bestow on Great Britain were lost, then his life-work would be destroyed'. Although Chatham felt that the Americans had legitimate grievances over the government's handling of their affairs, he did not support independence for the colonies and his last speech in the House of Lords before his death was in opposition to the Rockinghamites' pro-independence views.

Rockingham, on the other hand, had inherited the problems caused by the Stamp Act when his first administration took power in 1765. His repeal of the Act in 1766 was prompted to a large degree by considerations of the effect the Act and its repercussions in America wire having on the British economy and, since he accompanied the repeal of the Stamp Act with the Declaratory Act of the same year, he clearly had no intention at this time of surrendering any part of British sovereignty over the colonies. Indeed, he sought Chatham's support, however informally, before he even introduced the Bill, However, the repeal of the Stamp Act did tend to place Rockingham in a 'pro-American' position.

The Bill for repeal did however face strong opposition in the Lords, and this helped to strengthen Rockinghamite fears that a 'secret cabinet' of politicians existed, through whose influence the king could sabotage proposals of which he did not approve. In 1767 this conviction led the Rockinghamites to refuse to join Grafton's administration unless they had complete control i.e. unless Rockingham was appointed First Lord of the Treasury. Their continuing political opposition to the king, who was in favour of a strong policy to refuse concessions to the American colonies, also placed the Rockinghamites in a position where they would be inclined to support the colonies.

In 1774 the Boston Tea Party led to the introduction of a Bill to close the port of Boston until she had made restitution to the East India Company. Burke protested in vain that 'burning Boston to ashes would be more Just and more moderate than this measure'. Both Chatham and the Rockinghamites also resisted the subsequent Coercive Acts that were designed to bring the colonists to heel (the 'Intolerable Acts' as they became known in America), but at this time their views represented a small minority in parliament. They were joined by Charles James Fox after his dismissal by Lord North in 1773, but they were still unable to dent the government's strong position. After the battle of Saratoga in 1777 however, the tide of opinion began to turn in their favour.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga caused ministers to reconsider the course of the war. For the first time, as Dorothy Marshall says in Eighteenth Century England, 'the certainty of a long struggle, and the possibility of ultimate defeat, faced the Commons'. Lord North himself began to have doubts as to the possibility of a successful conclusion, and began to consider resignation. The opposition on the other hand, must have felt that here, at last, was justification for their relentless criticisms of the government's handling of relations with America and of their conduct of the war. In Wars and Revolutions, Ian Christie dates the Rockinghamites' reconciliation and commitment to the idea of American independence to this period, early 1776. It was George III's hostility to any suggestion of independence for America that led him to insist on North's remaining in office long after he had ceased to believe in the war, in order to prevent the Rockingham opposition from coming to power.

The opposition continued to put pressure on the government using the growing unrest in Ireland, itself triggered by affairs in America, and the war in Europe, also closely bound up in the American war, as weapons with which to attack Lord North's administration. At the government lurched from crisis to crisis, the opposition began to win support for their views, and, after the defeat at Yorktown, they had succeeded in detaching enough independent MPs from the government's side to force the resignation of Lord North and his administration.

Thus affairs in America allowed the opposition to mount a sustained and long-lived attack on the government and eventually to force George III to approach them, with a view to their forming a new administration.

The revolt of the American colonists also had a marked effect on Anglo-Irish relations. The Irish felt some sympathy for American grievances for they too were subject to trade restrictions, for example trade in wool and cloth was restricted to England and, as was affirmed by the 1719 Declaratory Act, the British parliament claimed the right to legislate for Ireland. The American protest that they were being denied their constitutional rights encouraged Irish politicians to press their own claims more vigorously and demands were made for concessions such as the passing of a Habeas Corpus Act for Ireland.

In addition, when war broke out, an embargo was placed on Irish trade in provisions with the colonies. The Irish also lost a profitable market for their linen goods. When France and Spain entered the war, Ireland lost part of her European market and trade routes to other parts of Europe were disrupted by the war. Affairs in America thus focused Irish attention on their constitutional grievances and in turn created economic problems for Ireland herself.

In an attempt to ease the situation, North proposed measures to alleviate some of the commercial restrictions, but some British commercial interests felt themselves to be threatened by these concessions. The measures were eventually reduced to the inclusion of Irish-built ships in the provisions of the Navigation Acts, which did not appease Irish protests. The Irish, as Ian Christie explains in Wars and Revolutions, went on to imitate the example of the Americans by, in early 1779, agreeing to a non-importation agreement directed against British manufacturers.

The British government's concerns in Ireland were exacerbated by the entry of France into the American war. Fearful of a French invasion, small groups of protestant Irish began forming Volunteer companies for local defence. Since the sympathetic Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Buckingham, did nothing to suppress this movement, the numbers of Volunteers grew steadily, reaching some 40,000 by early 1782. Their existence was seized upon by the opposition as a sign of impending revolt. Dorothy Marshall tells us in Eighteenth Century England that Rockingham, in a debate about Anglo-Irish trade on 11 May 1779, suggested that, without careful handling, the Volunteers might turn from resisting French aggression to resisting British oppression. It was perhaps only natural that, having espoused the cause of the American colonies, the Rockinghamites should also take up the Irish cause.

Although the opposition continued to press the claims of the Irish in parliament, and the Lord Lieutenant informed the government of increasing discontent in Ireland, North and his ministers at first did nothing. North was preoccupied with the threat of French invasion, and his nervous state was by now deteriorating rapidly as he lost confidence in his ability to handle the war. In November 1779 the Irish Commons decided to vote supplies for only six months, instead of for the usual two years. The opposition, Fox in particular, then renewed its attacks on the government and North finally gave way. In early 1781 a series of measures was passed removing many of the constraints on Irish trade, and the Irish were granted the right to trade with British colonies on equal terms with the British.

Although North's ministry also passed legislation to reduce discrimination against the Catholic majority in Ireland, neither this nor the concessions of 1780 addressed the constitutional issues which the Irish had been inspired to raise by the example of the American rebels. Ironically, it was the second Rockingham administration which, in 1782, had to face the possibility of a protestant revolt in Ireland. Henry Grattan, the leader of the reformers in the Irish Commons, gave notice that he intended to propose a motion for the legislative independence of Ireland, and Rockingham's government could see no alternative but to grant their demands. The Declaratory Act of 1719 was repealed, the Irish parliament was granted full legislative powers and the Irish House of Lords was confirmed as the supreme court of appeal. In 1783, backed by the Volunteers, the Irish demanded definitive renunciation of British legal authority, and the British government duly passed a Renunciation Act.

Triggered initially by the airing of American grievances, and encouraged by the American Declaration of Independence, the Irish had successfully forced the British government to grant their commercial and constitutional demands. Indeed, as Ian Christie says,

In this period of weakness, the British had conceded to the kingdom of Ireland the sort of constitutional relationship which Wilson and Jefferson had demanded for America nearly a decade before and to preclude which the British had unavailingly fought the American War of Independence.

The conflict in America provided Britain's European rivals with a period of weakness of which they could take full advantage. France, in particular, was still seeking revenge for the losses she had suffered after the Seven Years War. The French minister Choiseul had in 1765 prophetically stated, 'Only the revolution which will occur some day in America, though we shall probably not see it, will put England back to that state of weakness in which Europe will have no more to fear from her'. The battle of Saratoga convinced the French that the time had come to act and, in March 1776, France formally recognised the United States.

France was England's traditional political and economic enemy, and the British parliament had more stomach for a war of this kind than for one in which, in effect, they were fighting fellow Englishmen. However, in order to conduct a successful campaign against the French it would be necessary to recall much of the naval strength then dedicated to the war in America. Clearly, the Rockinghams argued, it was time to negotiate with the American colonies and secure peace, even at the price of granting full independence to the rebels.

The entry of Spain into the war, when she signed to Convention of Aranjuez in 1779, increased the problems facing the British government, since Spain threatened Gibraltar and Minorca. In 1780 another European threat appeared. Britain, since France had entered the war, had insisted on the right to search Dutch ships carrying Baltic naval stores to France. The Dutch resented this, and in an attempt to gain protection from the British, began negotiations to join Catherine the Great's League of Armed Neutrality. The threat of facing the whole League, should the Dutch join it, forced the British government to declare war on the United Provinces, on the pretext that the Dutch were negotiating with the Americans. Although there was some documentary evidence for this, it was sufficiently flimsy to provide the opposition with more ammunition for their attacks.

Britain was now in the position of being at war with a large part of Europe as a direct result of the war with America. Almost inevitable the effort of trying to conduct such a war, with large parts of the navy tied up in America, whilst also attempting to press on with the war against Europe and facing opposition attacks on both fronts at home, did nothing to alleviate Lord North's despairing view of his prospects. The growing war in Europe also helped to persuade independent MPs that the only realistic course to follow was to negotiate for peace with the Americans.

Between 1779 and 1761 discontent at home amongst landowners over both the government's lack of success in the colonial war and also over the amount of money being spent on pursuing the war, provided the impetus for the growth of a political reform movement. For the first time, however, this sprang from the provinces, not from the City of London.

The Reverend Christopher Wyvill organised a meeting of the Yorkshire freeholders for 30 December 1779 at York. The meeting was attended by Rockingham in his capacity as a great Yorkshire landowner, and at the meeting it was decided to send a petition of protest to the government. This was the start of the County Associations which was taken up in other parts of the country as a means of voicing discontent. Although the movement was relatively short-lived, it did serve to increase the pressures on North's administration. The petitions had to be considered by parliament and this allowed Dunning to propose his famous resolution that 'the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished' which caused the government and the king some anxiety. The defeat of Dunning's subsequent resolution for the extension of parliament effectively silenced the opposition however, and very little more was heard of the Yorkshire movement after this time.

Charles James Fox's involvement with the County Associations was more significant. Based on his involvement with a Wiltshire petition, he was appointed Chairman of the Westminster Committee of Correspondence, which subsequently gave him a forum in which to air his radical views - views that went a lot further than anything countenanced by his Rockinghamite colleagues. Fox's espousal of radical ideas for political reform were eventually to cause a split between him and Burke, who stood only for economic reform.

Affairs in America, then, affected numerous areas of British politics. One is tempted to speculate, however, on the question of whether, after the battle of Saratoga, if Lord North had displayed the firmness of purpose and strength of character demonstrated by the king at this critical moment, the subsequent course of events might not have been materially different.

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Last modified 5 January, 2011

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