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The Age of George III

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The Earl of Bute was a Scottish nobleman who had become a friend of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who is reported to have said: "Bute, you are the very man to be enjoy at some small proud German court where there is nothing to do". After Frederick's death in 1751 Bute became a close friend of the dowager Princess Augusta and was appointed to be the tutor of Prince George. In due course, the prince turned to Bute as a friend and confidante.

When Prince George succeeded to the throne as King George III in 1760 he wanted to have a government of his own choosing but needed to find ways of replacing the government of his grandfather. Bute, who was not an experienced politician, was given Cabinet rank in 1760 and in 1761 the king appointed Bute as Secretary of State for Northern Department (Home Affairs). In May 1762 Bute was made Prime Minister on the resignation of the Duke of Newcastle. Since Bute sat in the House of Lords, he appointed the unpopular Henry Fox as his leader in the House of Commons. Edmund Burke said later that Bute's appointment was nothing short of nepotism. The Earl of Shelburne described Bute as being

proud, aristocratical pompous, imposing, with a great deal of superficial knowledge, such as is commonly to be met in France and Scotland, chiefly upon matters of natural philosophy, mines, fossils, a smattering of mechanics, a little metaphysics, and a very false taste in everything.

George III admired Bute and relied heavily upon his advice even after Bute had left political life. However, he still advised the king privately which led to Burke's suspicions of the 'Minister behind the Curtain' later. It was Bute who taught the king to mistrust politicians.

Bute became PM during the Seven Years' War (1756-63). In 1763, in an attempt to remove the influence of the Duke of Newcastle, Bute ordered that all those men appointed by the Newcastle administration should be removed. The result of this order became known as the "Massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents". Not only were leading political leaders such as the Marquis of Rockingham dismissed but also even minor officials lost their jobs. In consequence, Bute became even more unpopular and was abused in the press as "the Northern Thane" (a reference to Macbeth) and "Sir Pertinax MacSycophant".

Europe in 1763. Click on the map for a larger image

Bute's appointment to head the government came at a time when British successes in the Seven Years' War meant that a favourable peace settlement was highly likely. Most of the people in Britain wanted peace so the government's policy potentially had great support; however, politicians were eager to criticise any peace proposals in order to embarrass the government. Peace negotiations were initiated but Bute found himself isolated in parliament since he appeared to be arranging a peace that would bring less than Britain could have achieved. Because he was not a good speaker, Bute decided to publicise his policies through the press, to gain popular support for his peace policies. He chose Smollett as the journalist who was to write in praise of the government's policy in the periodical The Briton. In opposition to The Briton, John Wilkes set up his paper The North Briton in 1762 in which he attacked the government and its policies.

By the end of October 1762 the government had completed the peace preliminaries with the French, forcing Prussia and Austria to conclude peace also, on the basis of the status quo of 1756. The terms of the Peace of Paris, proclaimed in March 1763 were a recognition of victory for Britain even though some people were disappointed in the gains. Pitt the Elder was a particularly virulent opponent of the terms of the treaty. Having been absent from parliament during the negotiations - because of ill health - he returned to attack the government in typical theatrical style. Pitt, dressed in black velvet and swathed in flannel, was carried in the arms of a servant to the Bar of the House of Commons. Despite his attire and emaciated appearance, Pitt was able to speak against the peace terms for 3½ hours. In a contemporary poem, The Rodondo, Dalrymple described the occasion:

The groundlings cry alas! poor man!
How ill he is! how pale! how wan!
At length he tries to rise, a hum
Of approbation fills the room.
He bows and tries again; but no,
He finds that standing will not do,
And therefore to complete the farce,
The House cries, 'Hear him on his a__e!'
He may break off by grief o'ercome,
And grow pathetically dumb!
He next may SWOON and shut his eyes;
A cordial, else the patriot dies!
The cordial comes, he takes it off;
He lives, he lives, I hear him cough ...

There were several possible lines of attack on the peace terms and the opposition to the government maximised its opportunity. However, the National Debt made the conclusion of a peace the matter of some urgency. The costs of war did not end with the conclusion of hostilities and there had been no innovation in raising taxes to compensate for the additional expenses of war. The land tax, which had been raised during the war, was to stay at 4/- (four shillings) in the £ instead of being reduced to its usual peacetime level of 3/- in the £. The taxes on malt and beer were continued but Bute decided to increase government revenue by introducing a 4/- per hogshead tax on cider and 4/- a bin on wine. Unfortunately, these taxes were within the jurisdiction of the Excise Service, which was hated: no other form of taxation was so likely to lead to massive opposition. Even worse

The government fought for the tax in order to save face; the parliamentary opposition attacked it in order to gain popular support. It was at this time that the myth emerged of the king and Bute plotting to subvert the constitution and introduce a despotism. The opposition used

to blackguard him. Although the Bill passed through parliament, the opposition played on the discontent of the general public.

The City of London petitioned both Houses of Parliament against the legislation; when these petitions were ignored, the king was petitioned directly, to refuse to sign the Bill. Riots broke out and there were hangings of effigies of Bute - mainly boots. Politicians were stoned in the streets and the mob smashed the windows in Bute's house.

The king hoped that Bute would ride out the storm but the Prime Minister was unable to take any more criticism and personal attacks. Bute resigned on 8 April 1763 and was succeeded as PM by George Grenville. Bute remained a friend of the king, continuing to advise him until George III broke with him in 1766.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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