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.