The Age of George III

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The Ministry of William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham: July 1766 - October 1768

Pitt the Elder finally became Prime Minister in his own right in July 1766 and was elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Chatham. He had ruled the Commons by sheer force of personality but once he accepted a peerage he no longer sat in the House of Commons and had much less control over it. The king wanted a stable, positive government and thought that would be the result of appointing Chatham. Chatham had support from the independent gentlemen in the House of Commons, merchants, businessmen, the City and industry: it should have been a strong government. The Americans also trusted Pitt after his handling of the Seven Years' War and because of his anti-Stamp Act speeches. George III politically abandoned Bute and gave Chatham his full support.

Burke said that George III bribed Pitt with the peerage. Chatham said that he wanted to rule through "measures, not men": he wanted his policies to be more important than his ministers. In this, he had the same ideas as the King, who wanted to choose the best policies and form a government from the best people without regard to parties.

Burke commented that Chatham "made an administration so chequered and speckled ... such a tessellated pavement without cement ... that it was, indeed, a very curious show; but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand on". It was an unstable ministry for a variety of reasons:

All this led to further instability. His caretaker was the Duke of Grafton, who also sat in the Lords, with Charles Townshend as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Commons. Many other Cabinet posts were held by men who had served in Rockingham's ministry. Chatham's weaknesses, together with the activities of Grafton and Townshend, caused the collapse of Chatham's ministry. Chatham's ministry mis-handled issues concerning


Townshend unilaterally reverted to Grenville's policy for America. He revived the financial demands on the colonies with the 1767 American Import Duties Act, often known as the Townshend Duties. During the Stamp Act crisis, the colonists had differentiated between internal and external taxation and Townshend made use of this in his policy. Townshend's taxes were 'external' and had the same aim as the Sugar Act: they were intended specifically to raise a revenue from America. He put small duties on lead, paint, glass, paper and tea, goods that were essential to the colonists. All had to be imported from Britain in British ships, and by taxing at source, evasion was impossible. The levying of these duties led to:


Wilkes returned to England in 1768 hoping that his misdeeds in 1763-4 would have been forgotten. By 1768 he had many debts in France. Grafton totally mishandled the affair and it dragged the government down. 1768 was a general election year and Wilkes wanted to take part and become an MP again. There was much discontent among MPs and much discontent nationally. Consequently the electorate was ripe for a reformer:

There was widespread distress in the country but particularly in London. Wilkes stood as MP for a London borough and lost because it was controlled by a magnate, so he moved on to the Middlesex County Election. Middlesex was extremely democratic (given 18th century situation) because most of London's artisans, 40/- freeholders, small landowners and craftsmen lived there. These men were very strong supporters of 'Wilkes the Liberator'. Wilkes won easily on a reform platform and seems to have been intent on provoking the government into action.

George III and Grafton had two choices:

Wilkes pre-empted the government and forced the Warden of the King's Bench prison to gaol him for the poem "Essay on Woman". He said that he wanted to stand trial to:

  1. establish his right to stand as MP
  2. establish his good character

He also wanted to present parliament with a fait accompli. The Court found Wilkes guilty of debts and outlawry, ordered him to pay a £1,000 fine and sentenced him to twenty-two months imprisonment. In Wilkes' case, the judicature supported Crown and parliament. A mob gathered on St George's Fields, outside the prison, because the people thought that Wilkes had been arrested by the unpopular government. Troops were called out to control rioters but were beaten and stoned. Shots were fired and six rioters were killed. The event became known as the "Massacre of St George's Field". Wilkes became became a hero and a 'martyr to the cause' and a defender of liberties because he attacked the government.

The affair was shown in cartoons as Bute attacking liberties of Englishman because the Earl of Bute was a Scot and Scottish soldiers were called out to quell the riots. The Magistrate who had given orders for troops to fire on the mob was tried for murder. This had repercussions during the Gordon Riots in 1780 when the magistrates unwilling to give orders to shoot.

With Wilkes in prison, the Middlesex election was declared null and void and another election was ordered. Henry Lawes Luttrell was the government candidate but the electorate nominated Wilkes as a candidate. There were four elections between 1768 and 1769, all won by Wilkes. On the first three occasions, the government declared the election to be null and void because Wilkes was not entitled to stand for election. On the fourth occasion in 1769, Luttrell was declared to be elected. The results were: HL Luttrell 296 votes, Wilkes 1,043 votes. Since Britain has a "first past the post" system of election, it is clear that Luttrell should not have been declared the winner. There were a number of results from the Middlesex election affair.

  1. The 'perfect' British Constitution looked ridiculous. It appeared to be exposed as weak, corrupt and subject to influence. This was fuel for the Whigs who believed George III was attempting to set up his own government of 'King's Friends' by manipulating elections. In fact, the Middlesex election fiasco was a one-off case, and Wilkes had been imprisoned by an independent judiciary. Legally, he was not permitted to stand for election.
  2. It sparked off the 1769 Petitioning Movement, led by Yorkshire and the Rockinghams, demanding the dissolution of parliament and a general election. By end of 1769, eighteen counties and thirteen cities had petitioned for dissolution. All were ignored by Grafton.
  3. It led to setting up of the first organised radical reform club, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, founded by a Unitarian clergyman, John Horne-Tooke, centred around the Wilkes affair and based on Wilkes himself.

In October 1768, Chatham resigned as PM, in the middle of the Wilkes fiasco. He was still ill, but Grafton and Townshend - who had died in August 1767 - had wrecked his ministry. Chatham denounced everything that had been done by his ministry in his absence. He said that the colonial policy "was impracticable" and that the handling of the Wilkes affair was "highly incompetent".

After Chatham's resignation the king appointed the Duke of Grafton as Prime Minister in his own right.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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