George II completed his reign of thirty-three years with a decided distaste for English politics. “I am sick to death of all this foolish stuff, and wish with all my heart that the Devil may take all your bishops, and the Devil take your ministers, and the Devil take your Parliament, and the Devil take the whole island, provided I can get out of it and go to Hanover.”62 He found peace on October 25, 1760, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The accession of George III on the day of his grandfather’s death was welcomed enthusiastically by nearly all Englishmen except a few who still hankered after the Stuarts. He was twenty-two, handsome, industrious, and modest. (He was the first English king since Henry VI to omit in his title a claim to the sovereignty over France.) In his first address to Parliament he added, to the text prepared for him by his ministers, words that neither of his Hanoverian predecessors could have spoken: “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton.” “The young King,” wrote Horace Walpole, “has all the appearance of being amiable. There is great grace to temper much dignity, and extreme good nature, which breaks out on all occasions.”63 He added to his popularity by the proclamation that he issued on October 31 “for the encouragement of piety and virtue, and for preventing and punishing of vice, profaneness, and immorality.” In 1761 he married Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; adjusting himself to her charmlessness, he begot fifteen children by her, and found no time for adultery. This was unprecedented for a Hanoverian king.
He did not like the Seven Years’ War, then four years old, and felt that some adjustment could be made with France. William Pitt I, secretary of state for the Southern Department, and the dominant figure in the ministry of the Duke of Newcastle, insisted on continuing the war until France should be weakened beyond any likelihood of her challenging the empire that had been created by British victories in Canada and India; moreover, he urged, no peace should be made except in concert with England’s ally, Frederick the Great. In March, 1761, the Earl of Bute was made secretary of state for the Northern Department, and proceeded with the plan for a separate peace. Pitt resisted in vain, and on October 5 he resigned. George mollified him with a pension of £ 3,000 for himself and his heir, and a peerage for his wife, who became Baroness of Chatham. Pitt (till 1766) refused a peerage for himself, since this would have excluded him from his favorite battlefield, the House of Commons. As he had spoken of pensions with scorn, he was severely criticized for accepting these emoluments, but they were less than he had earned, and others who had earned far less received far more.
On May 26, 1762, the Duke of Newcastle gave up his post after forty-five years of prominence in politics. Three days later Bute succeeded him as chief minister. Now the purposes of the young King took form and drive. He and Bute considered it part of the royal prerogative to determine the major lines of policy, especially in foreign affairs. Furthermore, he was eager to break the hold which a few rich families had taken on the government. In 1761 an old Whig, William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, in an anonymous pamphlet, urged the King not to be content with the “shadow of royalty,” but to use his “legal prerogatives” to check the “illegal claims of factious oligarchy.”64
The majority in the House of Commons held that the King should choose his ministers from the acknowledged leaders of the party or faction victorious in the elections; George insisted on his legal right to choose his ministers regardless of party, with no restrictions except his responsibility to the nation.65 The Whigs had engineered the accession of the Hanoverian Elector to the throne of England; some Tories had negotiated with the exiled Stuarts; inevitably the first two Georges had taken only Whigs into their government; most of the Tories had retired to their estates. But in 1760 they accepted the new dynasty, and came in considerable number to offer their homage to the British-born King. George welcomed them, and saw no reason why he should not appoint able Tories, as well as able Whigs, to office. The Whigs protested that if the King were free to choose ministers and determine policy without responsibility to Parliament, the “Bill of Rights” of 1689 would be violated, the authority of the King would remount to the level claimed by Charles I, and the revolutions of 1642 and 1688 would be nullified. The party system had its faults, but (the leaders argued) it was indispensable to responsible government; it offered to each ministry an opposition that watched it, criticized it, and (when the electors so desired) could replace it with men equipped to alter the direction of policy without disturbing the stability of the state. So the lines formed for the first major conflict of powers in the new reign.
Bute bore the brunt of the battle. Criticism mostly spared the King, but not his mother; lampoons accused her of being Bute’s mistress; this calumny roused the King to uncompromising wrath. Bute concluded a separate peace with France, and to force Frederick’s acquiescence he ended England’s subsidies to Prussia; Frederick called him a scoundrel, and fought on. The English people, though glad to have the war ended, denounced the peace as too lenient to defeated France; Pitt fulminated against it, and predicted that France, with her navy left intact, would soon resume war on England—which she did in 1778. The House of Commons ratified the treaty, 319 to 65. George’s mother rejoiced that the royal will had prevailed; “Now,” she said, “my son is really King of England.”66
Hitherto the new sovereign had enjoyed a reputation for integrity. But when he saw that the Whigs were buying parliamentary votes, and were engaging journalists to attack his policies, he resolved to better the instruction. He used his funds and his power of patronage to induce authors like Smollett to defend the aims and actions of the ministry. Perhaps Bute had such services in view when, in July, 1762, he persuaded the King to give a pension to Samuel Johnson, and he was not disappointed. But no partisan of the minister could offset the clever diatribes of John Wilkes, the savage satires of Charles Churchill, or the anonymous vituperation of “Junius.” “Libels on the court, exceeding in audacity and rancor any that had been published for many years, now appeared daily, in both prose and verse.”67
Parliament took the King’s money and gave him votes, but it disliked his chief minister as a Scot who had not risen to power through long service to some party in the House. Feeling against Scotland ran high in an England that still remembered the Scottish invasion of 1745. Moreover, Bute had given political plums to his countrymen: he had made Robert Adam court architect and Allan Ramsay court painter (ignoring Reynolds); he had pensioned John Home, the Scottish playwright, while refusing a professorship to Thomas Gray. The London populace expressed its feelings by hanging or burning a jackboot (as a pun for Bute), and by attacking the minister’s carriage; he had to hide his face when he attended the theater. A tax on cider alienated the rural population, and left Bute the most unpopular minister in English history. Unable to breast the torrent, broken in health and spirits, and realizing his unfitness for the agitation and intrigues of politics, Bute resigned (April 8, 1763), after less than a year as chief minister to the King.
His successor, George Grenville, suffered three misfortunes: he was attacked in the press by the invincible John Wilkes (1763 f.); he put through Parliament (March, 1765) the Stamp Act that began the alienation of the American colonies; and George III had his first fit of insanity. The failure and resignation of Bute had broken the King’s nerves and resolution; his marriage had brought him no happiness; and Grenville was painfully independent, almost domineering. George soon recovered, but he no longer felt strong enough to resist the Whig oligarchy that controlled most of Parliament and the press. He compromised by inviting a Whig, the Marquis of Rockingham, to form a new ministry.
Perhaps on suggestions from his secretary, Edmund Burke, the Marquis in a year put through Parliament several mollifying measures. The cider tax was abolished or modified; the stamp tax was repealed; a treaty with Russia furthered trade; the agitation over Wilkes was subdued; and apparently no bribery was used to advance this legislation. The King resented the repeal of the tax, and the concessions to Wilkes. On July 12, 1766, he dismissed the Rockingham ministry, offered a peerage to Pitt, and asked him to take charge of the government. Pitt agreed.
But the “Great Commoner” had lost his health, almost his mind. Now he sacrificed what remained of his popularity by accepting ennoblement as Earl of Chatham, thereby abandoning his place in the House. He had some excuse: he felt too weak to bear the tensions and conflicts of the Commons; in the Lords he would have more leisure and less strain. He took a relatively quiet post as lord of the privy seal, and allowed his friend, the Duke of Grafton, to fill the nominally pre-eminent post as first lord of the treasury. His colleagues, however, noted that he determined policy without consulting them, or over their opposition, and many were relieved when he went to Bath to seek some easing of his gout. He achieved this, but with drugs that disordered his mind. When he returned to London he was in no condition to attend to politics. In October, 1768, he resigned, and Grafton became chief minister.
It was in this period of political anarchy (1766-68) that a group known as “the King’s Friends” associated themselves to further the aims of the King. They guided George in his distribution of favors for political support, and used every means to elect candidates, and advance ministers, pledged to the royal views. When Grafton enmeshed himself in difficulties and blunders they compounded his confusion until he resigned (January 27, 1770). On February 10 they achieved their greatest victory when Frederick North (known to us as Lord North, though he fell heir to this title only in 1790) began his twelve years of service as first lord of the treasury.
North was a weak, but not a bad, man. It was his sense of loyalty and pity that kept him in office and earned him so unpleasant a place in history. Born to fortune as son of the Earl of Guilford, he received all the advantages of education and association, entered the House of Commons at the age of twenty-two, and kept his seat there for nearly forty years. He made many friends by his modesty, kindliness, affability, and humor.* But he followed the conservative side too, consistently to please anyone but the King. He supported the Stamp Act, the expulsion of Wilkes, and (until its last stages) the war with America. He defended the policies of George III even when he doubted their wisdom; he considered himself the agent of the King, not of the Parliament, much less of the people, and he seems to have been sincere in his conviction that the sovereign had the legal right to choose ministers and direct policy. Through North, and his tact in managing the House of Commons—and through the use of funds voted by Parliament—George III for a decade ruled England. Through his agents he bought seats and votes, sold pensions and posts, subsidized journalists, and tried to shackle the press. It is a measure of his courage and his obstinacy that it took a combination of John Wilkes, “Junius,” Burke, Fox, Sheridan, Franklin, and Washington to defeat him.