The Age of George III
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Lord North was an experienced and competent politician whereas his predecessors had been either one or the other, often neither and never both.
Lord North was the eldest son of the Earl of Guilford. He was 38 years old when he became PM. He and George III had been friends since they were children and consequently North had full royal support. North had served under several Prime Ministers during the decade of Ministerial Instability: Grenville, Chatham and Grafton. North was a Tory: he held office only because of royal support until he was able to form a party of his own.
In his Memoirs, Horace Walpole described Lord North as he was in 1770:
Nothing could be more coarse or clumsy or ungracious than his outside. Two large prominent eyes that rolled about to no purpose (for he was utterly short-sighted), a wide mouth, thick lips, and an inflated visage, gave him the air of a blind trumpeter. A deep, untuneable voice, which, instead of modulating he enforced with unnecessary pomp; a total neglect of his person, and ignorance of every civil attention, disgusted all who judge by appearance, or withhold their approbation till it is courted. But within that rude casket were enclosed many useful talents . . .
Lord North was witty, good humoured, sensible, self-assured and quick-witted. He was a capable financier and a competent speaker. He belonged to no political faction but was able to attract groups to his own support in the House of Commons. He sat in the House of Commons because his father was in the House of Lords.
Problems with America developed into rebellion during his ministry and finally he was allowed to resign in 1782 at the effective end of the war in America (having tried and failed on at least two other occasions prior to that). In all probability, North would have been a better peace-time PM but was unfortunate enough to inherit the American problem. His policies then allowed difficulties to degenerate into war.
North had full royal support and a very real use of royal patronage. His strength as PM was shown early in the passing of three very controversial Acts:
Lord North took office on the resignation of the Duke of Grafton. North was the King's choice as PM and Lord North was the first of George III's ministers to last for any length of time. It was also the first ministry to survive troubles caused by John Wilkes who was released from gaol in 1770 and wanted revenge for being imprisoned in 1768 and having his election in Middlesex nullified and seeing Luttrell installed as MP in his stead. As one result of the activities of Wilkes, from 1770 it was assumed that newspapers had the right to publish debates. The major newspapers began after 1770; for example, The Times was founded in 1785. This episode of the Wilkes affair was a victory for public opinion.
The American Import Duties Act (the Townshend Duties) of 1767 were raising no revenue because the Americans refused to import any British goods. North decided on conciliatory measures and in 1770 he repealed the Townshend Duties except for the tax on tea which North retained to maintain Britain's right to tax the colonies. He commented that the 3d duty was merely "a peppercorn rent". Ironically, on 5 March 1770 - the same day as the repeal of the Townshend Duties - the Boston Massacre occurred. In 1772 the Gaspée incident occurred in America which resulted in a decision being made by North's government that all the judges in colonial courts should, henceforth, be paid out of the custom-house receipts. This further inflamed anti-British opinion in the colonies. The government passed the Royal Marriages Act in this year.
In 1773 a second controversial piece of legislation was introduced into the Commons by Lord North. This was the Regulating Act for India. This was intended to control the activities of the East India Company, which was in desperate its financial difficulties. Because of this, North also passed the 1773 Tea Act in an attempt to increase the Company's sales of tea, especially in America where the colonists had refused to buy British tea because it was still taxed at 3d per lb. Although this legislation had nothing to do with America, the result was the Boston Tea Party on 16 December 1773 which led directly to North's government passing the Coercive Acts.
Lord North's government was also troubled by affairs in Ireland when in 1773 the Dublin parliament proposed to introduce an Absentee Land Tax. The third piece of controversial legislation passed by North's government was the Quebec Act (16 June 1774). This Act is often included as part of the Coercive Acts (especially by Americans) but in fact was completely separate from them. The timing was very poor, however, since it followed hot on the heels of the four Coercive Acts.
There was a general election in 1774 and John Wilkes stood for Middlesex and again won, unopposed. He was allowed to take his seat but by this time he was middle-aged and the fire had gone out of him. He spoke in favour of the Americans, of religious toleration and of parliamentary reform but made no attempt to represent "the people". The Wilkesite movement, the SSBR, disappeared after 1780 when he ordered troops in front of the Bank of England to fire on the mob during the Gordon Riots. Wilkes retired from parliament in 1789, shocked at the events of the French Revolution. He described himself as "an extinct volcano". Wilkes spent the next eight years as an Alderman and magistrate in London, doing much good work to ensure decent accommodation, food and working conditions for apprentices and domestic servants. He died in 1797.
From 1774 the Rockingham Whigs, including Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, led an increasingly powerful opposition to Lord North in both Houses of Parliament. Support for their views grew, especially from the Independent Gentlemen, as the defeats of British troops in America continued. These attacks helped to break North's ministry; North was less and less able to answer the attacks. The first shots of the war with America were fired in April 1775. The remainder of North's ministry was taken up with the war although he had to deal with domestic problems as well.
The traditional scapegoat for Britain's loss of the American colonies has been George III on the grounds that his bungling and arrogance caused the friction in the first place. Then his incompetence lost the war. The accuracy of this view is questionable
In a letter to Burke in 1775 Rockingham said
The violent measures towards America are fairly adopted and countenanced by a majority of all individuals of all ranks, professions or occupations in this country
The pro-war lobby included the country gentlemen, the Universities, the Anglican clergy, John Wesley and the Methodists, Adam Smith, Gibbon, merchants, traders and most ordinary people. The anti-war faction from the very beginning of the difficulties included the Rockingham Whigs and the Chathamites (led by Chatham until his death in 1778 and then by Shelburne thereafter). By 1778 the size of the opposition to the war had increased and continued to do so as Rockingham was proved to be right about the predicted outcome. Fox and Burke spoke in parliament against the American war. North's ministry was the first ministry to face the full force of public opinion, opposition and criticism, as the war slid towards defeat for Britain. 1776 saw the publication of a vast amount of democratic literature in Britain which was increasingly influential. Also in 1776 it became clear that North's ministry was likely to have problems with Ireland. In 1778, the French declared war on Britain, marking the beginning of a global war for the British. North then had to deal with the demands of the English provincial country gentlemen when Christopher Wyvill established the County Association in 1779. In 1780, the Gordon Riots added to North's troubles.
In America things went from bad to worse and North's nerve broke even though he had a majority in the general election of 1780. His ministry fell because of the final failure of the American War, especially after the fall of Yorktown in 1781. North wrote in his diary, "Oh God! It's all over." He was worn out, exhausted, deserted in the Commons and he felt that he could not carry on. In March 1782 George III reluctantly accepted his resignation. North went into the Commons to announce that he had resigned and went straight to his waiting carriage with the comment, "Sometimes, it is good to be in on the secret."
From the end of North's ministry in March 1782 until the beginning of Pitt the Younger's ministry in December 1783 there was a further period of ministerial instability. Once the American War of Independence was over the ministers vied with each other and tried to capitalise on North's failure. The County Associations were still in existence and continued to pressurise parliament. People again were looking for a scapegoat - in fact, "normal" eighteenth-century politics.
George III wanted a PM whom he could trust but who also could control parliament, and politicians with ambitions for high office tried to secure sufficient support to fill the role. There were three PMs in the space of twenty-one months:
The periods 1783-1801 and 1804-1806 saw political stability and national reconstruction under Pitt the Younger but also it saw the French Revolution and the subsequent wars. This period also sees the foundation of the modern party system with Whigs and Tories adopting separate and different philosophic ideologies.
This link will take you to a very thorough American site on the Gaspée incident.
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Last modified 5 January, 2011
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