Sunday, March 18, 2007

That anniversary again

A Telegraph review of some interesting books on the slave trade.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Political crisis, 1782-4

How was it that Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister at the early age of twenty-four? See below for the complicated and fascinating answer.

The Rockingham Administration
On 27 March 1782 Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister for the second time, following North’s resignation and the earl of Shelburne’s inability to form a government. After 16 years in the political wilderness, his moment had come. Rockingham was First Lord of the Treasury, and Shelburne and Charles James Fox Secretaries of State. Shelburne was responsible for colonial affairs, Fox of foreign affairs – making him Britain's first Foreign Secretary. No place was found for Burke, who had to content himself with the non-Cabinet job of Paymaster of the Forces. There was no place either for the youthful William Pitt, who raised eyebrows when he told Rockingham that he would never accept a junior post.

Before he accepted this position, Fox had to stand again for his Westminster constituency, where he was challenged on his support for Catholic relief.

The fall of North’s ministry revived the prospects for 'economical reform'. Two bills were passed barring revenue officers and government contractors from Parliament. A more important measure was Burke’s Civil Establishment Bill removing 134 royal household officers, 22 of them tenable with a seat in Parliament and to restrict the Civil List to £900,000 per annum. It was a major achievement to carry this measure in the face of the court’s hostility and it helped to weaken the influence of the monarchy. But these measures were merely appetizers for the supporters of a more general reform of Parliament, three of whom (Shelburne, Fox and Richmond) were in the cabinet, with two younger spokesmen (Pitt the Younger and R B Sheridan) had come into Parliament in the 1780 election.

The Rockingham government was always potentially unstable, because of the king’s hostility and because of divisions within the government. In particular, Fox and Shelburne disliked each other intensely and Fox and Rockingham believed that Shelburne was the king’s spy in the government.

Ministers quarrelled over the peace negotiations. As Foreign Secretary, Fox was negotiating a treaty with France and Spain, while Shelburne dealt with America. This proved a powerful source of conflict. Fox wished to give unconditional independence to the Americans, Shelburne wanted more favourable terms for Britain.

Matters came to a head at a cabinet meeting on 30 June when Fox gave notice that he would resign if the Americans were not granted independence unconditionally in advance of the peace treaty. This move would have put the peace negotiations squarely within his department. This might not, on its own, have led to a crisis, but the moment of decision was forced on the government by the death of Rockingham the next day.

The Shelburne Administration
On the same afternoon that he heard of Rockingham’s death, the king wrote to Shelburne asking him to form a ministry. Fox, now the leader of the Whig party in the Commons (the nominal head of the party was the Duke of Portland) had believed that he or one of his followers might be Prime Minister, was devastated. On 3 July he told the king that he must appoint someone who had the confidence of his group – this was a bold challenge to the royal prerogative and was taken as such by the king. Fox was putting forward the novel constitutional doctrine that the Cabinet not the monarch should chose the Prime Minister. When it was clear that the king was determined to appoint Shelburne, he took his place on the back benches.

The Shelburne ministry was formed on 9 July after nine days of uncertainty. Few Rockinghamites joined his government. The government was to last a mere eight months, for five of which Parliament was in recess. Shelburne’s strongest card was his new chancellor of the exchequer, the 23 year old William Pitt, but Pitt was also a potential rival - an obvious successor to an unpopular first minister.

Fox was now the leader of the opposition in the Commons. He presided over the smallest of the three parties - Foxites, Shelburnites, Northites - and his service as Foreign Secretary had made him deeply unpopular with the king. His main asset was his extraordinary debating ability, only matched by that of Pitt the Younger on the government benches.

But much of Fox’s time was taken up with his raffish private life that centred round Brookes’s and the Prince of Wales’s circle About this time word got about that he was in love with the actress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson, who had been the Prince’s mistress. But between the summer and autumn he abandoned Mrs Robinson for Mrs Elizabeth Armistead, who had also been the Prince’s mistress. By the end of the year it was clear that he was deeply in love with his ‘dearest Liz’.

Shelburne’s government was weak and unstable. He had the king’s support but his government was outnumbered in the Commons by the opposition members. His only asset was the well-known hostility between Fox and North. But early in 1783 it was clear that they were sinking their differences and prepared to combine to bring down the government. North's understanding with Fox was agreed on 14 February and announced in parliament on the 18th.

On 21 February the government was defeated in the Commons by 224 to 208 on the peace negotiations. Like North in 1782 Shelburne took defeat by a Commons majority as a sufficient cause for resignation. On 24 February he resigned and took Pitt into opposition with him. The king contemplated abdication if Fox was brought into government. On 5 March Fox offered further provocation when he declared in a debate that he
‘ever would maintain that His Majesty in his choice of ministers ought not to be influenced by his personal favour alone, but by the public voice, by the sense of Parliament, and by the sense of his people’.
This was a novel constitutional doctrine, but such was the king’s weakness that on 12 March he sent for North and told him that he accepted Fox’s presence in a government that would nominally be headed by the duke of Portland. Fox:
‘The King does this de la plus mauvais grace possible; and there are several unsatisfactory circumstances.'
Once again he had to stand for Westminster and once again he was re-elected.

The Fox-North Coalition
The new government, which was formed on 1 April, was greeted with derision and incredulity – Fox and North had made too many bitter speeches against each other in the past to be credible as a partnership. Reformers were especially outraged. Horace Walpole observed, ‘All parties are confounded and intermixed.’

The Coalition was also the logical outcome of the state of parties at Westminster. Fox had 90 supporters, North 120; Shelburne about 140. From Fox’s point of view a North-Shelburne alliance would undo all hopes of reform and had to be stopped at all costs. But though these were logical calculations, the coalition was seen by contemporaries and by posterity, as an extraordinary piece of political cynicism.

The king was especially outraged and was determined to make life difficult for the Coalition – for example by refusing to create peers. In June Parliament debated the prospect of giving a regular income to the Prince of Wales, now approaching his 21st birthday. When the government suggested £100,000 a year, the king was horrified and Fox began to fear that the dispute would bring down the government. A compromise was agreed £50,000 p.a.from the civil list plus the revenues of the duchy of Cornwall, with the prince to have his own house (Carlton House). But the king could not forgive the coalition and declared that he ‘wished himself eighty or ninety or dead’.

In September the definitive peace treaties were signed with France, Spain and America. In November the government brought in an India Bill, which had been drafted by Burke in consultation with Fox. The most controversial aspect of the bill was the proposal to replace the Court of Directors and transfer the political responsibilities of the East India Company to a body of commissioners sitting in London, appointed first by Parliament and subsequently by the Crown. All the Commissioners were named in the bill – and all were supporters of the Coalition. Even Fox’s modern apologists have trouble defending this partisan bill.

When the bill was debated in Parliament, Fox made eloquent speeches but was condemned as ‘Carlo Khan’ in Sayers’ opposition cartoon. On 3 December the bill passed the Commons. On 9 December the Lords debated the first reading of the bill. Fox watched in torment as his colleagues made a hash of their case.

The king chose this moment to plan his coup against the Coalition. On 11 December he made it known that those peers who voted for the bill
‘were not only not his friends, but he should consider them his enemies’.
This was a bombshell. The king was gambling on his position and if the Lords voted for the bill he planned to abdicate and retire to Hanover. On 17 December the Lords rejected the bill by a majority of 19. In the Commons a furious Fox laid the blame for the defeat at the door of
‘the illegal and extraordinary exertions of the royal prerogative’.
On 18 December the government’s resignation was hourly expected. At midnight, while Portland, Fox and North were in conference, messengers arrived from the king asking them to deliver up their seals of office. On the next day the 24 year old Pitt kissed hands as Prime Minister.

Pitt’s Minority Government
Pitt knew his government would only be temporary – he was outnumbered 2 to 1 in the Commons. He had great difficulty forming a government and his cabinet did not take shape until 23 December. The Whig hostess Mrs Crewe voiced the conventional wisdom when she described his government as a ‘mince-pie administration’ that would be gone in the New Year.

But in the recess, the Crown built up its powers of patronage. When parliament met, the government lost many divisions but Pitt kept his nerve and did not resign. In he meantime congratulatory addresses to the king poured in. The Opposition began to falter and lose confidence. On 1 March the Morning Chronicle wrote:
‘The unshaken firmness of the Ministry under the actual tortures of an experiment which, until these six weeks, would have been thought an idle dream if any man had pretended to foresee it, engages respect.’
On 21 March Pitt decided to dissolve. On 24 March the king announced the end of the session. (The Great Seal was stolen - dirty tricks? - and another had to be made.)

The Election of 1784
Thanks to the usual government pre-election manoeuvres (securing pocket boroughs) there was little doubt that Pitt would win the election. But the result was nevertheless a triumph, with Pitt making 70 gains. But an even more remarkable factor was the number of petitions that poured in supporting the king and condemning Fox. It was a complete reversal of the events of 1769 and 1779 when anti-government petitions had been mounted.

The election lasted five weeks, the last return coming in from London on 7 May. It aroused unprecedented interest with the number of caricatures reaching unprecedented proportions (many paid for by the government). Many Opposition members (notably the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord John Cavendish) lost their seats (‘Fox’s Martyrs’). [Cavendish had held York since 1768 and thought it was a safe seat.] Thomas Coke lost Norfolk. One Whig politician wrote to another:
‘We are cut up root and branch. The country is utterly mad for prerogative.’
Fox only held onto his Westminster seat after the duchess of Devonshire’s controversial canvassing. The election began on 1 April and finished on 17 May. The final result was: Admiral Samuel Hood 6,694; Fox, 6,223; Sir Cecil Wray, 5,998.

In Yorkshire William Wilberforce and Henry Duncombe overturned the mighty Fitzwilliam interest, thanks to the direction and organization of the radical clergyman Christopher Wyvill.

The election brought a decisive end to two years of political instability and set the tone for politics for the rest of the 18th century. Pitt was Prime Minister, Fox (in effect) Leader of the Opposition; the king had become popular and the Prince of Wales was unpopular!

This is the story I shall be taking up in September. I have already begun my next blog, though all it does at this stage is give a reading list. Go to or just click here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Opposition and the American war

From 1775, with the beginning of the war, the opposition had been in a quandary. Chathamites and Rockinghamites were both horrified at the idea of making war on fellow Englishmen but neither wanted to see the empire disintegrate. Their only strategy for preserving the empire was wholesale concession to the Patriots’ demands, which would have yielded de facto independence and been completely unacceptable in Britain. In Britain pro-American radicals used the American terminology and called themselves ‘patriots’. This aroused the fury of Samuel Johnson, who, on April 7 1775 declared (according to Boswell) that patriotism was ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’. In his pro-government pamphlet Taxation no Tyranny, he wrote,
'We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’
Since the beginning of hostilities a radical fringe based in London, had been far more opposed to the war than the much more timid parliamentary Whigs, and they used the issues thrown up by the war to pursue the case for political reform in Britain. In 1776 Major John Cartwright (1740-1824) published Take Your Choice, in which he argued for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, secret ballots and equal member constituencies. In the same year the Unitarian minister Richard Price (1723-91) (right) published his Observations on Civil Liberty, arguing for natural rights both in Britain and America. This radicalism horrified the aristocratically based Rockinghamites.

The news of Saratoga became a rallying point for ‘patriotic’ opinion, and North’s Commons majority began to diminish as many of the independent country gentlemen deserted him. With the entry of France and Spain into the war in 1778, the opposition faced both problems and opportunities. They felt able to criticise the government with more freedom, but could not afford to be seen as the friends of France and Spain. Meanwhile, Chatham suddenly terminated his co-operation with the Rockinghams over their increasing readiness to acknowledge the independence of America:
‘I will as soon subscribe to transubstantiation as to sovereignty, by right, in the Colonies.’
On 7 April, clearly ill, he came to the Lords to defend this view. His speech—incoherent to most listeners—was a defiant cry against ‘the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy’ and ‘ignominious surrender’ to an ‘ancient inveterate enemy’. When he struggled to rise again he fell in ‘a sudden fit’ and was carried out senseless. The Lords adjourned in respect. He died on 11 May, having long since ceased to be politically significant.

The Yorkshire Association
Radicalism received another lease of life in Yorkshire, the largest parliamentary constituency. A grass-roots campaign against political and parliamentary corruption was led by Christopher Wyvill (1740-1822) a wealthy, liberal-minded clergyman. For Wyvill and the Yorkshire gentry, the ultimate cure for corruption in politics was to restore the independence of the Commons from executive influence through a programme of economical (administrative) reform. A large public meeting in York in December 1779 formed a County ‘Association’ of ‘gentlemen, clergy and freeholders’ and a petition was drawn up denouncing the waste of public money, alleging that in this way the crown had built up ‘a great and unconstitutional influence, which, if not checked, may soon prove fatal to the liberties of the country.

Wyvill’s petitioning movement was the first institutionalized extension of radicalism into the provinces. By the early months of 1780 he had obtained 26 petitions from the counties and another dozen from some of the larger boroughs. He proceeded to hold a meeting of delegates of the petitioning bodies in London in early 1780.

The Yorkshire Association was outflanked in its radicalism by the London movement. In April 1780 Cartwright, John Jebb , Brand Hollis and the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (left) founded the Society for Constitutional Information, a standing unofficial ‘parliament’. But these middle-class dissidents and intellectuals were hardly natural allies of country gentlemen whose main concern was to see the land tax fall to a shilling in the pound. But one factor united the otherwise disparate opposition: the fear of excessive crown influence.

Dunning’s Motion

This fear lies behind the attempts of Rockingham and another reformist peer, the Chathamite 2nd earl of Shelburne (left) to use the support of Wyvill’s petitioning movement to strengthen their own campaign (even though there was considerable personal hostility between the two peers). The centrepiece of their attack in the 1780 session was Burke’s plan of Economical Reform, designed to reduce crown patronage and expenditure. On 6 April John Dunning’s resolution
‘that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished’
passed the Commons by 233/215, but Burke never managed to gain majorities for his proposals.

Charles James Fox
Opposition came from another direction: the former Northite Charles James Fox. He had been an MP since 1768 when his father, Henry Fox, had secured for him the pocket borough of Midhurst. He immediately made a name for himself as a parliamentary debater and, ironically in view of his later career, his earliest speeches were attacks on Wilkes. Between February 1770 and March 1774 he served in North’s government – and resigned twice. Both resignations were controversial. His first resignation was in February 1772, ostensibly as a protest against the Royal Marriages Act, which he took as a personal slight on his mother’s Stuart family. His second resignation in February 1774 (from the Treasury Board) seems to have been on a point of parliamentary privilege: against North’s wishes he wanted the printer of an opposition pamphlet sent to the Tower. The motive was likely to have been personal animus against North. His conduct was too much for the king, who directed North to send him a note of dismissal: ‘Sir, his Majesty has thought it proper to order a new commission of the Treasury to be made out, in which I do not perceive your name.’ From this time Fox’s hatred of the king became poisonous and was to have far-reaching political consequences.

Between 1774 and 1782 Fox moved over to the Rockingham Whigs. The issue that drew them together was America. Fox and the Whigs supported American because they believed that if George III succeeded in imposing a despotism in America he would do the same in Britain. Accordingly Fox referred to Washington as ‘my illustrious friend’, and he and his supporters adopted as their colours the blue and buff of Washington’s army. When he debated America, his remarks were often deeply personal – and aimed at North and his ministers.

The American debates brought Fox and Burke together, though Burke’s middle-class moralism did not mix easily with Fox’s ‘macaroni’ aristocratic ways. But from 1774 Burke worked hard to bring Fox over to the Whigs and the two men had a warm and affectionate relationship.

The Election of 1780
During the summer of 1780 the prospects for reform suddenly worsened when Cornwallis captured Charleston (it seemed for a while that Britain might win the war), while the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots terrified the propertied classes into conservatism. North called a snap election in the summer and the Rockinghams, tainted by their association with the Americans, performed indifferently. Burke did not even contest Bristol and was given Rockingham’s seat of Malton. The government kept its majority (though it lost 6 seats) but its fate depended on the war.

Charles James Fox was returned for Westminster. After twelve years in a pocket borough it was a considerable triumph to be elected for a ‘popular’ constituency.

One prominent new member was William Wilberforce who was elected for Hull (topping the poll with 1126 votes). In a by-election in January 1781 William Pitt the Younger was returned for Lord Lowther’s pocket borough of Appleby (having come bottom of the poll at Cambridge University the previous year). He attached himself to Shelburne, who had been his father’s disciple.

The Irish crisis
During the war, long-standing resentment of Ireland’s constitutional and economic subordination was expressed in the aggressively ‘Patriot’ and anti-English stance adopted not so much by Catholics but by members of the Protestant ascendancy in the Dublin parliament. Compared with their English counterparts they had fewer rights: judges were subject to arbitrary dismissal and Habeas Corpus did not apply. Above all, there was great resentment at the 1720 Declaratory Act which reasserted the superiority of the Westminster to the Dublin parliament. The war impacted on the Irish economy and highlighted the existence of legislation restricting the freedom of commerce.

After 1778 landlords raised volunteer militias to repel the threat of a French invasion. They were drawn from the ranks of the respectable (they had to provide their own Irish cloth uniforms) but they were not exclusively Protestant. Once assembled, the Volunteers supported demands being made by Henry Grattan (1746-1820) in the Dublin parliament for an end to commercial restrictions. Militia parades with posters bearing the slogan, ‘Free Trade - Or Else’ combined with a boycott of British imports helped persuade North to allow free access of Irish manufactured goods, including glass and woollens, to both Britain and colonial markets, with which Irish merchants would henceforth trade directly. Concessions merely whetted Irish appetites for full legislative independence. This campaign was supported by county and Volunteer meetings, like that of representatives from 143 corps of Ulster Volunteers at Dungannon on 15 February 1782. Following the pattern of the English political reform Associations the Volunteer Assemblies set up standing committees to implement their decisions and liaise with counterparts across the country. Irish demands were supported by the Rockingham Whigs.

The Fall of North’s Ministry
On 25 November 1781 the news of the surrender of Yorktown reached Britain and broke the morale of the government. Within a fortnight North had come round to the necessity of conceding independence.

In the early months of 1782 the government kept losing votes in the Commons as the opposition MPs – the Rockinghamites and the followers of Shelburne - united in a temporary alliance. On 18 March North told the king that he had lost the support of the independent members. On 20 March the king accepted his resignation. The will of the Commons had prevailed over his wishes. Twelve years of political stability were to be followed by two years of intense instability.

George was very reluctant to contemplate a Rockingham administration. On 21 March he asked Shelburne to form a government, but Shelburne refused, knowing that he did not have enough supporters. He advised the king to send for Rockingham. George reluctantly agreed though he refused to see Rockingham personally and he insisted that Shelburne be in the government as Colonial Secretary, and be in charge of the peace negotiations.

It was one of the king's worst moments. He had to accept a prime minister whom he disliked intensely.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'We the people'

(If you click on the image above, you will be able to read the enlarged text.)

There is a good general discussion of the United States constitution in J. M. Roberts, The Pelican History of the World (1983). Here are some of the points Roberts makes.

Following victory in the War of Independence a handful of American politicians had to thrash out a constitution in the face of huge uncertainties. The colonies were divided over the question of slavery. But they did not have the incubus of an illiterate peasant population, they had ample territory (the extent as yet undecided) and huge potential economic resources. They were also able to draw on the intellectual resources of European civilization and apply them to a new state and a virgin continent.

In 1781 the former colonies had agreed Articles of Confederation in which they took the name United States of America but these articles were judged inadequate to the demands of a new nation. Accordingly delegates from the states met at a constitutional convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. By September they had agreed on a new document drafted largely by James Madison. When nine states ratified it, it came into force in the summer of 1788. In 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the new republic.

The constitution was determinedly republican - something that was not normal in the eighteenth century. Secondly, its roots lay largely in the British political experience. The Americans inherited English Common law principles, the idea of a bicameral chamber and a head of state (though of course the American head of state was elected).

The doctrine of the separation of powers was at the heart of the American constitution. Government was divided between an executive (the President who was to serve a four-year term), Congress (the Senate, six year term, the House of Representatives (two years) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court).

One way in which the United States differed markedly from Britain was in the principle of federalism. There was no central government with strong powers of coercion. This principle was to be tested again and again over the next eighty years.

The Founding Fathers did not intend to establish a democracy but the principle of popular sovereignty was enshrined in the opening words of the constitution: 'We the People'. This was derived from John Locke's principle that governments held their powers in trust and that the people could overthrow governments that abused their trust. But this Lockean principle was hardly mentioned in eighteenth-century Britain. For the Americans to adopt it into their constitution was epoch-making.

In 1791 the first ten amendments to the constitution were added. This was the Bill of Rights (the title taken from the British Bill of Rights of 1689) which established principles of individual liberty beyond the reach of statute law.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The American crisis

The posts on America owe a great deal to the standard histories of the period, notably Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People (Oxford, 1989).

The American Colonies

In 1763 the British Empire in North America had emerged from a triumphant war with spectacular new gains. The whole continent to the east of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay was under British authority. Yet within 12 years hostilities had broken out with the mother country, ans when Britain finally accepted American independence in 1783, all that remained of its North American Empire was Quebec and Nova Scotia. Why?

The thirteen British colonies in America were remarkably diverse, with little sense of unity, though many of them were bound together by a common Dissenting tradition, which differentiated them in many respects from the mother country. There was a general assumption in Britain that the King-in-Parliament at Westminster was sovereign over the colonies and that it enjoyed the right of taxing them. But this right was increasingly challenged by the colonists.

The Seven Years’ War inflicted serious damage on Britain’s relations with her colonies. The war had ensured British rule in Canada but the territorial gains made in the war had to be protected and consolidated; there were 80,000 French settlers in Canada, and an unreconciled Native American presence around the Great Lakes and the Ohio basin. In October 1763 a royal proclamation prohibited the colonists from further settlement west of the Alleghenies in order to prevent Indian unrest – a restriction that was offensive to the land-hungry colonists and was largely ignored. Furthermore, the insecurity of British rule in North America meant that troops were constantly needed. Britain believed that it was only reasonable for the colonists to pay for their protection, but the colonists objected on the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’.

The Stamp Act
When George Grenville took office in 1763 he found that the National Debt had doubled during the war to almost £143 million and that the estimated cost of defending America and Canada amounted to at least £300,000 pa. The most controversial measure of his administration was the Stamp Act, enacted in March 1765 - an impost on legal transactions, newspapers and dice imposed on the American colonies. Though it was to acquire great historical significance, it was a minor piece of taxation (part of a general raft of colonial measures) and would bring in no more than £60,000 p.a at a time when there was no immediate threat either from the French or the Indians. In parliamentary terms it was not controversial and it was opposed by only a handful of opposition MPs. However, it was the clearest possible assertion of the right to tax, and America,was already irritated by earlier taxes. Colonial legislatures promptly protested and their agents in London lobbied against the enforcement of the Act. They were met with surprise and incomprehension. British public opinion was not sympathetic to the Americans’ plea to be spared the burden of taxation. The British were paying an average of 26s a year, and the new taxes would cost the Americans only an extra 1s a year.

In May 1765 the Virginia Assembly passed a series of resolutions condemning the Stamp Act on constitutional grounds. This news was broadcast over the other 12 colonies and imitated by one legislature after another. In August 1765 the Massachusetts Stamp Distributor’s home in Boston was attacked by a mob. In fear of his life he resigned his position and a wave of riotous attacks spread over the northern colonies. The Governor of Massachusetts complained that he was the prisoner of the people and the British Crown proved unable to defend him. The tiny North American garrison (6,000 strong) was situated on the western frontiers and Canada, far from the trouble spots.

In October the Stamp Act Congress met in New York, declared ‘taxation without representation’ unconstitutional, instituted a boycott of British goods and talked about the American people arming themselves to defend their liberties. By this time Grenville had been replaced by Rockingham. The new ministry was slow to realise that it had a major crisis on its hands, but in January 1766 it proposed a twin solution. The ministry presented the Commons with a formula: repeal of the Stamp Act but this to be accompanied by a face-saving Declaratory Act, which uncompromisingly asserted Parliament’s right to legislate for the American colonies. In the debates that followed Pitt (soon to be earl of Chatham) made his last great Commons speech, attacking the Stamp Act and the taxation of the colonies in general (though he idiosyncratically asserted Britain’s right to control the commerce of the colonies). An ingenious campaign of persuasion was mounted in the House. The case was skilfully orchestrated by Edmund Burke, then Rockingham’s private secretary, making his political debut. In the crucial division of 22 February repeal was carried 275/167. This was followed by tumultuous scenes in the lobbies. It seemed to satisfy most of the British political nation: the ending of a damaging dispute, and the reaffirmation of parliamentary sovereignty. But the colonists for the most part chose to ignore the Declaratory Act and the issue of colonial taxation remained unresolved.

The Townshend duties
The Chatham ministry, formed in July 1766, soon identified as one of its priorities how to find some way of taxing America in view of the spiralling costs of the garrison (the estimates climbed to over £575,000 by 1767). Since the Americans had declared that internal taxation was unconstitutional, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, declared his intention to exploit customs tariffs to raise the necessary revenue. This involved the taxing of a number of commodities imported into the colonies from Britain: lead, glass, paint, paper and tea. But the Americans themselves had now moved on and many were now questioning Britain’s right to legislate for them under any circumstances whatsoever. Townshend further exacerbated the situation by taking advantage of Chatham’s frequent bouts of mental illness to alter the purpose of the tariffs from funding the garrison to funding imperial administration in America. They thus threatened to emancipate colonial governors and other imperial administrators from the control of the colonial legislatures which up till then had paid their salaries. The duties were formally enacted in June 1767.

In February 1768 the Massachusetts Bay Assembly protested in the strongest terms against Townshend’s Act and circulated other colonies with a request for joint action. In September 1768 there were new disturbances in Boston. This time the ministry was ready to use coercion and in Boston was occupied by a force of regular soldiers and a small naval squadron. The Americans were taken by surprise and their resistance was temporarily cowed.

In October 1768 Chatham resigned. The new Grafton ministry offered as a magnanimous gesture to suspend the tariffs provided the colonial legislatures explicitly accepted Westminster’s right to tax and legislate for America. This provoked a more militant trade boycott among the Americans. On 1 May 1769 the Cabinet decided by the narrow majority of 5/4 to suspend all duties except for tea in order to assert Parliament's right to tax. The ground for the final clash between Britain and its American colonies was thereby laid out.

Lord North
In January 1770 Grafton was replaced by Frederick, Lord North (1732-92). North has been abused as a stock cliché - ‘the worst prime minister since Lord North’. Yet in 1804, looking over his reign, George III decided that he had been his best prime minister to date. Later prime ministers have envied him his 12 year period of office! Historians more recently have been concerned to rehabilitate him. He was the eldest son of Francis North, 3rd Baron Guildford and godson (and namesake) of Frederick Prince of Wales, and he was to inherit his father’s title in 1790. In the general election of 1754 he entered parliament (unchallenged) for the family seat of Banbury. His parliamentary debating skills and the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle secured his appointment to the Treasury Board in 1759 (under the leadership of his relation, Henry Legge, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and a salary of £1,400, which enabled him to settle some of his debts. During the debates on the Wilkes affair he spoke eloquently and even ferociously for the government in spite of some private misgivings. In January 1764 he moved the Commons vote for the expulsion of Wilkes. With the fall of the Grenville ministry in July 1765 he resigned.

In July 1766 he became one of the two Paymasters General in the Chatham Administration. In October 1767 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the death of Townshend. In January 1768 he became Leader of the House of Commons.

When he became Prime Minister, North was determined to follow Grafton’s policy and not give way on the tea duty - the final token of Britain’s right to tax and legislate for the colonies

The Boston massacre
By 1770 Boston had become the heart of colonial resistance. Five weeks into North’s administration, troops occupying the city fired on rioters, killing five of them, in the ‘massacre’ of 5 March 1770. The real significance lay not in the small number of casualties but in the propaganda gift to the rebellious leaders, notably Sam Adams. Paul Revere was soon selling his colour prints of ‘The Bloody Massacre’ from his print shop in Boston – two other artist-engravers also issued prints that year. However, the British soldiers were acquitted after a defence by John Adams and by 1771 the American situation seemed calm enough for North to declare ‘the American disputes are settled, and there is nothing much to interrupt the peace and prosperity of the nation’.

The Boston tea-party
The tea duties had proved very useful to Britain as they financed the salaries of the governors of New York and Massachusetts, but for this reason they were very unpopular with American ‘patriots’.

In 1773 the government reduced the duties on tea in an attempt to aid the East India Company and to undercut the cost of smuggled goods. The Sons of Liberty saw this as an affront and on 16 December, dressed as Mohawks, they boarded the first tea shops to arrive in Boston harbour, and dumped their cargo in the harbour.

The Coercive Acts
Technically, this act was a breach of the East India Company’s private property. From the British point of view it was the last straw and caused a wave of public indignation. In 1774 North introduced the Coercive Acts (known to the Patriots as the Intolerable Acts) which were carried overwhelmingly in both Houses. Boston harbour was to be closed until reparation was paid and the Massachusetts Charter was remodelled, with the elected council being replaced by a nominated one. This simply convinced the Americans that there was a conspiracy to destroy their liberties. British goods were boycotted throughout the colonies.

Both sides were now locked into a cycle of action and over-reaction.

The Quebec Act
American opinion was further outraged by the Quebec Act (1774) which, among other controversial clauses recognized French civil law and the Roman Catholic establishment in Quebec, and permitted it to collect tithes. North further proposed to extend the Quebec frontier to include the region between the Ohio and the Mississippi, and this aroused the indignation of the colonists who wanted to extend into these territories themselves. This was cited as further evidence of the administration’s malign intent to subvert both Protestantism and the common law.

In autumn 1774 a Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia to coordinate resistance. That autumn in Britain saw a general election with little sense of ideological conflict. But the opposition drew comfort from Burke’s return for Bristol. Did this mean there was popular support for the colonists?

The Outbreak of War
The reports from America were discouraging. In April 1775 continuing unrest in New England caused General Gage, commander in Boston, to attempt the seizure of an arms depot and the arrest of the 'rebels' Samuel Adams and John Hancock. But they were alerted by Paul Revere, who rode from Boston to Lexington Massachusetts to warn them.. The result was the historical battle of Lexington on 19 April (‘the shot that rang around the world’) followed by the engagement at Concord in which ‘Minute Men’ forced British troops back to Boston. In a European setting these would have been minor skirmishes, but the effect in America was enormous. For the first time American blood had been deliberately shed by British hands.

When the Second Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia in May 1775 George Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected commander-in-chief of the Continental Army (15 June). On 17 June after receiving reinforcements, Gage attacked the American entrenchments at Bunker Hill outside Boston, taking them on the third attempt.

On 23 August 1775 the Patriots issued a Proclamation of Rebellion. On 4 March 1776 Washington occuped Dorchester Heights commanding Boston Harbour and the British evacuated to Halifax.

On 4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence was drawn up in Philadelphia.

The British reaction
The Americans had far more to lose than the British. If they lost, they were traitors, if they won, they were entering uncharted territory. Moreover, North’s government continued to enjoy widespread support. Public opinion divided according to existing political positions, reflecting the relative strengths of government and opposition, Church and Dissent. The old Tory language of passive obedience enjoyed a revival, with the Americans portrayed as anarchists and ‘enthusiasts’. On the other side were those that petitioned against war with America, but they were hampered by the Whig ideology of parliamentary sovereignty; the issue did not concern the royal prerogative, but the right of parliament to legislate for the colonies. In 1775 the mercantile interest was solidly in favour of confronting the Americans - it was established economic orthodoxy that Britain could not survive without the captive colonial market. The appearance of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations did not immediately shake their instinctive mercantilism. It was also reasoned that the conflict would be a short one, as Britain had not lost a war for 110 years. What was ignored was the fact that Britain had won her previous wars with the help of European allies, whom she had deserted in 1762-3. In 1775 she was diplomatically isolated, with both France and Spain eager for revenge.

The loss of America

The capture of New York
On 3 July 1776 30,000 British forces under General Sir William Howe landed at Staten Island. In August Howe captured Long Island and in September he gained control of New York City. The Americans were driven across New Jersey and into Philadelphia. The British held New York city and Long Island until the end of the war. The Americans had suffered significant casualties. Washington retreated across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania on 8 December.

The campaign of 1776 also saw Canada preserved from American occupation. By the end of the year it seemed as if North had succeeded in his strategy of keeping New York and Pennsylvania loyal to the empire, dividing the colonies and securing a British stranglehold on colonial lines of trade and communication.

But the British had failed to follow up their victories and they had failed to destroy Washington’s army. On 31 December Washington re-crossed the Delaware by night, attacking a force of Hessians at Trenton and taking 900 prisoners.


In 1777 Howe took Philadelphia. However he was not able to accomplish his plan to join up with Burgoyne, who was advancing from Quebec, and Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga in upper New York province on 17 October 1777. Although not a disastrous defeat, it was a watershed in the history of the war.

Another watershed occurred when Washington's army retreated to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and held out for six months in appalling conditions.

The war becomes a European war
In February 1778 France negotiated a full-scale alliance with the United States. In 1779 Spain entered the war. After this there was no prospect of Congress accepting anything less than full independence. In August 1780 Russia, Sweden and Denmark inaugurated a League of Armed Neutrality against Britain. What had begun as a localized rebellion was now a world-wide war.

Military historians now believe that the British strategy was fundamentally flawed. Under a series of unimpressive commanders the British fought a series of uncoordinated campaigns. They were fighting a European style war in a vast territory. British troops, the German mercenaries and American loyalists won nearly every battle they fought but once the British left an area it reverted to American control.

With the possibility that Britain would lose the war went a worsening of the economic climate. Britain was now faced with a Bourbon invasion threat while at the same time had to maintain control of the Atlantic. Indirect taxes (stamp duties, customs duties, excise duties) increased. Carriages, auctions and male servants were now taxed. Alcohol, sugar, salt and soap, taxed already and very burdensome to the poor, were taxed more heavily. The government also raised money through premiums, loans and lotteries. War profiteers became targets of public hatred.

The surrender at Yorktown
On October 1781 Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown.
They were hemmed in by Washington's men from the north and the French fleet under Admiral De Grasse and had no choice. With this surrender, the war came to an end. 7,000 British troops were taken prisoner.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The debate on Wilberforce (update)

I'm afraid we're going to get a lot more of articles like this in today's Guardian.

Yes, of course due recognition should be given to the many other abolitionists whose names are now far less well known than Wilberforce's. If Wilberforce had been able to read the article he would have completely agreed with this argument and only asked why his brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf incidentally) should have been excluded. It was Stephen who devised the winning strategy that got the abolition bill through parliament.

As for Wilberforce being a member of the 'Tory Anglican establishment'. Well, he never claimed any party label and it is only retrospectively that he can be described as 'Tory'. He was of course an Anglican, as were all members of Parliament in this period. The slave trade could only be abolished by act of Parliament and therefore the bill could only be put forward by an Anglican. In the same way, women could only be given voting rights from a male Parliament!

Yes, Sir Samuel Romilly introduced the bill, but that was a diversionary strategy so that the bill wouldn't be too much associated with Wilberforce. In his speech Romilly paid a glowing tribute to Wilberforce as the man who had done more than any other to bring about abolition. This of course is not to belittle the heroic work of Wilberforce's friends, colleagues and allies.

But there are some letters in today's Guardian (including one from Melvyn) putting a more measured view.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hogarth: francophile?

There's an interesting review in today's Telegraph of Robin Simon's Hogarth: France and British Art. For all his strident John-Bullishness, Hogarth was greatly indebted to French art.