Military history


The Rise of Wilkes, the Fall of Bute, and the Unheeded Lesson of Manila


IF HUBERTUSBURG was a conventional diplomatic settlement of the eighteenth century—and it was, in every way, typical—then there is no mystery in George III’s desire to detach Great Britain from the quarrels of Europe, no puzzle in his wish to end the long entanglement between the foreign policies of Hanover and Great Britain. To disengage from European alliances and European wars was, so far as he understood it, the absolute precondition for the regeneration of British political life—the building of a new patriotic spirit centered on the monarchy, Protestantism, and the union of British peoples. Bute’s efforts to end the war, awkward as they were, had fully reflected the will of his master. Indeed, insofar as such views stressed detachment from Hanover and embodied a chauvinist nationalism, they were shared by an overwhelming majority of the political nation. But that alone could not save Bute’s political career, nor make the king a popular figure. Within two months of the signing of the most favorable peace treaty in European history, Bute had been driven from office and a London mob had bombarded the royal coach with stones and horse manure. Such striking developments might almost make one wonder if winning a great empire had somehow made the British people lose their wits.

The explanation can be found at the interface of two strata in British society and politics, where sometimes violent interactions occurred between the nation’s political elite and a politically aware but generally unenfranchised populace (especially that of London). On both sides of this class boundary, within as well as outside the closed world of parliamentary politics, imperialists had convinced themselves that Britain was invincible and therefore entitled to retain every conquest. They saw the Peace of Paris as a sellout and a sham, and they despised the Scottish interloper (and secretly, the king) who had sacrificed valuable possessions to obtain a craven peace. The imperialists included Pitt and other brilliant figures but, as the Commons vote on the treaty had shown, they were not numerous in proportion to the rest of the political elite. Unfortunately for Bute, the imperialist illuminati were not the only people who detested him.

Within the ruling class, where ideology generally took a backseat to the politics of personal connection and advantage, Bute had made himself a large number of enemies late in 1762 when he and his new lieutenant in the Commons, Henry Fox, purged Newcastle’s old supporters from office. So ruthless was this ouster of placeholders—in effect, the dismantling of the patronage infrastructure that had sustained the previous administration—that even politicians who approved of the peace treaty came to hate and fear Bute for what he had done. As Horace Walpole described it, “A more severe political persecution never raged. Whoever, holding a place, had voted against the preliminaries [of peace], was instantly dismissed. The friends and dependents of the Duke of Newcastle were particularly cashiered; and this cruelty extended so far that old servants, who had retired and been preferred to very small places, were rigorously hunted out and deprived of their livelihood.” 1

The patronage system that Newcastle had perfected, of course, could not have worked without the threat of dismissal to ensure discipline; but political housecleanings had generally been restricted to leading figures. This “massacre of Pelhamite innocents” seemed in this context a supremely ungentlemanly act, heralding a new, savage era in British politics. Because Bute was thin-skinned and socially vulnerable he would have been an inviting target for abuse, anyhow; because the normal rules of political discourse did not permit attacks on the king, however, his position as royal favorite made him the ideal candidate for vilification as the “Northern Machiavel.”2

The nature of opposition politics had shifted in response to the circumstances of the new reign, and this helped promote a disturbingly violent tone in public life. This change reflected the fact that George III was a young, recently married king with no heir apparent living outside the palace. Throughout the previous two reigns, the household of the prince of Wales had been the natural focus of opposition to the policies of the court. In part this was because of the almost chemical disaffinity between the Hanoverian kings and their eldest sons; in part it was because the heir apparent, as prince of Wales, could dispose of a large number of patronage posts, while as duke of Cornwall he could influence elections to the forty-four Commons seats that represented the county and its boroughs. The prince’s household therefore attracted, as honey does ants, ambitious politicians who found themselves out of office. But when there was no independent prince of Wales, political opposition lacked an alternative court around which to coalesce and fragmented into the personal followings of magnates. This made the opponents of the ministry and its policies infinitely noisier than they otherwise would have been.3

Without a prince to follow into power upon his accession, the most reliable way for an ambitious opposition leader and his followers to gain office was to make such a hullabaloo that the prime minister or the king would shut them up in the only way possible, by inviting them to join the existing administration and giving them offices. To a point, this was well understood in the highest circles of the British ruling class. What made the noisy opposition of the 1760s unusual and worrisome was that it erupted suddenly, after a long period in which support for the government and the war had been essentially unanimous; and it seemed to be getting out of hand. This too represented a shift in the character of British politics.

Traditionally, opponents of sitting ministries had presented themselves as friends of English liberties, defenders of the Ancient Constitution against its would-be corrupters. Ironically, this “patriot” (or “country,” or “real whig,” or “commonwealthman”) rhetoric had been the political mother’s milk of George III at Leicester House, when it had been the center of opposition to George II’s ministries; patriot ideals nourished his desire to rule as a monarch who stood above party. That the men who opposed Bute’s ministry adopted libertarian language, therefore, was not in itself surprising. What made it alarming was the context in which this message could now be heard, for social conditions had changed since the last period of highly charged public opposition (an acute phase that had lasted from about 1727 through 1737–38, tapering off after George’s father had established himself at Leicester House). The most important change had been the rapid growth—especially in London, Middlesex County, and the booming provincial cities—of middle-class groups engaged in commerce and the professions. These aspiring merchants, retailers, lawyers, and other professionals were generally not landed and therefore lacked a political voice in proportion to their wealth and ambition. Yet their exclusion from the franchise only made them readier consumers of political literature, more eager advocates of reforms that would enable men like themselves to participate in the political life of the nation. Thus in 1762 and 1763 the writings of opposition politicians found a larger and more avid readership than ever before, and the press responded to the demand by pumping out torrents of ballads, broadsides, pamphlets, cheap ephemeral periodicals, magazines, and newspapers.4

It was from this striving English middle class, fervently nationalist and deeply supportive of the wars against France, that John Wilkes emerged as the most remarkable publicist of the day. Wilkes’s ability to speak both to unenfranchised middle-class groups and to the plebeians of London made him the most outrageous—and to Bute and the king, the most dangerous—penman of the opposition. Wilkes came from a prosperous distilling family that had given him a genteel education and sufficient means to marry into the Buckinghamshire gentry. There in the mid-1750s he had affiliated himself with the party of Pitt and Grenville, the so-called faction of cousins. Wilkes entered the House of Commons in 1757 and avidly supported Pitt and the war, but he had lacked the social standing and the oratorical skill (not to mention the self-restraint and common sense) to make himself a significant figure in Parliament. His cutthroat wit and skill as a writer of invective, however, opened career opportunities of another sort.

After resigning as lord privy seal in 1761, the earl Temple set Wilkes up to publish a newspaper called the North Briton, the sole purpose of which was to make Lord Bute look ridiculous, or worse. In successive and ever more outrageous issues, the North Briton identified Bute as (among other things) the man who betrayed the nation’s military glory with an ignoble peace, the author of an unpopular excise tax on cider, a schemer against the liberties and property of freeborn Englishmen, a corrupter of Parliament, the illicit lover of the king’s mother, and, worst of all, a Scot whose family name was—Stuart! Ludicrous as it may seem, the identification of Bute with this absolutist, papist dynasty was by no means the least damaging of Wilkes’s libels, for it played to strands of anti-Scottish prejudice and anti-Jacobite fears common to most middle-class and virtually all plebeian Englishmen.5

Wilkes’s influence would be hard to overestimate, if only because he aroused such fear and hatred in the ministry and such ardent support in both the middle classes and the London mob. Reveling in his growing celebrity, Wilkes hounded his quarry through the pages of the North Briton until Bute, at best a neurotically hypersensitive man, lost his will to continue in politics. Long before the Peace of Paris it had become obvious that war-created problems would be extraordinarily difficult to solve. Bute’s first, tentative effort to address the issue—a tax of four shillings on each hogshead of cider produced in Britain, to be paid by the maker— proved to be such a disaster that, by the beginning of March, he was begging the king to allow him to resign as first lord of the Treasury.

It was not so much the strength of the opposition to the new tax itself that posed a problem. Despite the instantaneous protests of the M.P.s from the cider-manufacturing counties, and Pitt’s efforts to portray the measure as an invasion of Englishmen’s liberties, the opposition in the end could never muster more than 120 votes against the excise in the House of Commons, or more than 38 against it in the House of Lords. Rather than an unmanageable political situation, it was the relentless vilification in the North Briton and the rituals of public execration enacted by mobs in the cider counties and London that destroyed Bute’s desire to lead Britain through its difficult transition to peace. At the beginning of April, weary of reading opposition libels and sick of seeing makeshift gallows festooned with top boots and petticoats—the symbols that mobs used to depict him and his supposed lover, the king’s mother—the earl of Bute surrendered the seals of his office to the king.

He would have quit earlier if he could have, but the king had been unwilling to put the Treasury in the hands of Henry Fox, a man devoid of every conviction except the unshakable belief that he deserved to be rich. For a variety of reasons other candidates for first lord (especially Pitt and Newcastle) were equally unacceptable. Finally the king, unable to hold off Bute’s flight from office another day, broke down and offered the Treasury to George Grenville, a move he dreaded. In part it was personal dislike: Grenville not only bored the king, but seemed responsible for dividing the cabinet and forcing him and his “Dearest Friend” into Fox’s odious embrace. Beyond that, however, the king realized that Grenville made a poor choice for prime minister because he was not a politician of the first rank.

Before November 1761, when Grenville had become the government’s leader in the House, he had never been more than a secondary figure in a small but significant parliamentary faction. Thereafter he occupied high office only briefly, but even so had managed to put himself at odds with practically everyone more powerful than he—with Bute and the king no less than with his own older brother (Temple), Pitt, Newcastle, and everyone else who had gone into opposition. Finally, the king knew that Grenville’s political skills were more technical than managerial. Even with Henry Fox bought off with a profitable post and exiled from the Commons by a peerage, Grenville was unlikely to be more than a weak political leader. Had he been blessed with personal charm or oratorical genius, his inexperience in distributing patronage alone would have hobbled him. Unluckily for Grenville, his reputation as a self-righteous, condescending windbag had long preceded him when, on April 13, 1763, he assumed the offices of first lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.6

And yet, unpropitious as it was, Grenville’s advent as prime minister was not without promise. Above all, he was prepared to apply what Bute had not possessed—a seat in the House of Commons, a real grasp of legislation, and the willingness to work hard—to the resolution of those problems that Bute had lacked the nerve to face: the issues of finance and order that were the legacy of the Seven Years’ War. Despite his deficiencies as a manager, Grenville understood and should have been able to address these pressing affairs. Two important factors favored him. First, he possessed an unexcelled knowledge of public finance. Second, because he, Egremont, and Halifax together formed the “Triumvirate” that helped bring an end to Bute’s administration, all three men entered office as a kind of team. Thus Grenville had access not only to Egremont’s connections but to Halifax’s vast experience in dealing with the colonies. For the first time, a man with a genuine grasp of taxation headed the Treasury at the same moment that a man knowledgeable in American affairs was in a position to formulate colonial policy. Had opposition slackened and the Triumvirate been able to attend to the great issues of postwar reconstruction in an interval of relative calm, the next years should have stabilized both British public finance and relations between the metropolis and its colonies.

But there was no calm, nor would there be, for a very long time to come. In May the biggest Indian uprising in the history of North America threatened to erase British control over the Transappalachian west: a rebellion that would take Whitehall as much by surprise as the riotous defiance of British authority that would erupt everywhere from New Hampshire to Georgia in the summer of 1765. Two occurrences during April would frame and limit the ways in which the ministers could perceive and respond to these perplexing events. Neither, ironically, had anything to do with America. The first was the refusal of John Wilkes to shut up after Bute slunk off the political stage. The second was news of Britain’s final victory of the war, the conquest of Manila.

Had Wilkes only known when to stop thumbing his nose, he might have found himself offered some sinecure as a reward for silence. Grenville, no lover of Bute, would surely have preferred it that way. He must therefore have been one of the unhappiest readers of the forty-fifth number of the North Briton, published on April 23. Always before, Wilkes had carefully affirmed his loyalty to the king and attacked only Bute. In number 45, however, he took as his subject the king’s address to Parliament of April 19, and particularly its celebration of the return of peace. Strictly speaking Wilkes attacked only the speech, which, he maintained, Bute had written. His language was so intemperate, however, that the attack seemed an assault on the king himself. By contemporary standards the North Briton number 45 constituted an enormity that no responsible minister of state could ignore. Grenville and Halifax therefore proceeded against Wilkes legally, requesting the issuance of a general warrant, under which he and forty-eight others were arrested and had their households searched for incriminating materials.

While this was in fact a perfectly legal way of proceeding in cases of seditious libel, the use of a general warrant (rather than an ordinary court order that identified suspects by name and authorized searches for specified kinds of evidence) aroused an immediate outcry. Surely, Wilkes’s supporters said, there could be no clearer indication of the government’s willingness to abridge subjects’ rights at wholesale, as a means of crushing dissent. Wilkes did his masterful publicist’s best to turn the uproar to his advantage in the press, but his greatest aid came from the government itself. Unfortunately for the Crown they wanted to serve, Grenville and Halifax had failed to foresee how Wilkes’s status as an M.P. would cloud the legality of the prosecution. Members of the House of Commons were ordinarily immune from arrest for all crimes but treason, felony, and breach of the peace, and it was altogether unclear that to write slightingly of a royal speech constituted anything more than a libel that tended to breach of the peace. Within days the lord chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas had released Wilkes and—to the delight of crowds shouting “Wilkes and liberty!”—dismissed the charges against him as inconsistent with the principle of parliamentary privilege.7

This outcome might only have embarrassed His Majesty’s government, but Wilkes chose to sustain the whirlwind. Capitalizing on his new status as the symbol of liberties threatened by the shadowy crypto-Scottish designs of the king’s ministers, he commenced lawsuits against Halifax and other royal officials, reprinted the entire run of the North Briton in volume form, made public appearances to accept the plaudits of his admirers, and generally cultivated his notoriety like a garden. The government, goaded beyond good sense, fought back, pursuing him in the courts for blasphemy (law officers had discovered an obscene, irreligious poem, An Essay on Woman, in Wilkes’s papers when they searched his house for evidence of seditious libel). At the same time, the ministry opened an assault on him in the Commons, where a substantial majority of M.P.s resolved that the North Briton number 45 was “a false, scandalous, and seditious libel.”

Through the rest of 1763 the London political scene became a vast political carnival over which Wilkes, a prince of disorder if ever there was one, seemed born to preside. Because no legal action against him could be assured of success so long as he sat as a member in good standing of the House of Commons, the government’s hands were tied. In frustration, the ministers and their allies in the House of Lords tried to silence Wilkes by impeaching his moral character as a blasphemer and pornographer. This immediately backfired, since the peer who took the lead as spokesman against Wilkes was the earl of Sandwich, a former friend of Wilkes’s and himself a notorious libertine; as it happened, the opening lines of An Essay on Woman had originally begun

Awake, my Sandwich, leave all meaner things;

This morn shall prove what rapture swiving brings!

Thus Wilkes’s antagonists found themselves more than ever the butt of satire and popular ridicule. So great was government—and royal— irritation, in fact, that there is reason to suspect that when Samuel Martin, an M.P. with ties to Grenville, challenged Wilkes to a duel in November, he was acting as the ministry’s agent in a plot to silence the gadfly once and for all. But Martin succeeded only in wounding Wilkes (significantly, perhaps, with a pistol ball in the groin), and Wilkes fled to Paris once he had recovered sufficiently to travel. Early in 1764, his fellow members voted to expel him from the House of Commons. With the issue of parliamentary immunity thus resolved, the Court of King’s Bench issued writs for his arrest as a publisher of blasphemy and seditious libel. When he prudently decided to remain abroad, the court pronounced him an outlaw. Yet all of these measures to discredit and silence Wilkes only tended to make “that squinting rascal” more a folk hero than ever: a man who, when he finally returned from exile in 1768, would become the preeminent symbol of a radicalism new to Britain, and uniquely worrisome to its rulers.9

The controversies that swirled about Wilkes from April 1763 onward preoccupied the government and escalated the intensity of opposition politics. While Grenville tried to chart the wisest course to deal with the problems of postwar finance, he could scarcely forget the storm that the North Briton number 43 had helped stir up in response to the cider tax. When Halifax pondered how best to impose order on the empire in

North America and elsewhere around the world, he could scarcely ignore the disorders of radical opposition evident in the streets of London— much less the presence, a few doors down Great George Street from his own house, of a neighbor who was harassing him with lawsuits and reviling him as a tool of despotism, John Wilkes. To perform the difficult tasks that faced them in the aftermath of the war would have been challenge enough, regardless of the circumstances, for the ministers of any government as politically weak as Grenville’s. To undertake them in an atmosphere of disorientation and uncertainty like that of 1763, and then to be confronted with the crisis of an Indian rebellion in the heart of the North American continent, posed challenges to which no conceivable government could have responded adequately.

But even as British domestic politics seemed to be pratfalling into chaos, the arrival of news concerning the outcome of Britain’s last military operation of the war carried a heartening message to Grenville and his colleagues. The conquest of Manila had taken place six months earlier, while Bedford was in Paris trying to negotiate an end to the war and Choiseul was devising the settlement with Spain that would make peace possible. From the perspective of the ambassadors this was just as well: if Manila had had to be factored into the settlement, Choiseul’s tricky equations might well have proven impossible to balance. Despite its diplomatic irrelevance, however, this final victory carried great significance, for on its face the taking of Manila seemed to confirm the overwhelming power of British arms. Once the full story of the expedition made it clear that the Spanish had not been pushovers, the conquest acquired even greater resonance. Then it became possible to see how with pluck, audacity, and hardihood Britons could win through in the face of great adversity, in a setting as far from Europe as anyone could imagine. 10

Lieutenant Colonel William Draper, an officer of the 79th Foot (one of the regular regiments that had fought at the Battle of Wandiwash), had been on leave in England in the winter of 1761–62 when he suggested an expedition against the Philippines to Anson and Ligonier. Reasons similar to those that had made them choose Havana as a target disposed them to listen to Draper’s proposal. Manila was the center of trade and administration for the Spanish Philippines and perhaps even more important in the Pacific than Havana in the Atlantic. Nor was conquest an impossible goal, for although the Spanish had built the fort of Cavite to protect the harbor and had enclosed the city’s core within a bastioned wall, they had clearly believed that Manila’s best source of security was its remoteness. That the Philippines took six to eight months to reach from Europe, in fact, only made the expedition more attractive to Ligonier and Anson, for Draper assured them that all the troops he would need were already in India, just six or eight weeks’ sail from the archipelago. Since Spain communicated with the colony via Mexico on the Manila galleon, there was good reason to hope that the invaders might arrive before the garrison even knew that Spain and Great Britain were at war.

Soon after the declaration of war, therefore, the ministers decided in favor of the venture. In February, Draper left Britain with a temporary commission as brigadier general and authority to raise an expeditionary force of two regular battalions and five hundred East India Company troops. By the end of June he had reached Madras. Once there, however, nothing went as planned, and the would-be conqueror of Manila found that the local authorities were willing to release only one redcoat regiment (his own 79th Foot), and a company of Royal Artillery. Draper therefore recruited what men he could—two companies of French deserters and several hundred Asian recruits (“such a Banditti,” he grumbled, as had “never assembled since the time of Spartacus”)—and sailed from Madras at the end of July.

When Draper’s little flotilla of warships and transports entered Manila Bay on September 22, the Manila galleon had yet to arrive. Thus the British sailed unchallenged past the guns of Cavite, landed near Manila, and attacked the city on the twenty-sixth, before the Spanish commander had heard that a state of war existed between their monarch and his own. Despite the tiny number of troops Draper had at his disposal (only about two thousand, including a battalion of sailors pressed into service), and despite the onset of the monsoon, which repeatedly held up siege operations, the British managed to breach the wall and storm the city on October 5. Manila surrendered later that day. Five days later the fort of Cavite capitulated, and on October 30 Spanish authorities throughout the archipelago made their formal submission. The booty captured exceeded $4,000,000—more than £1,300,000 sterling—in value.11

There could have been no more conclusive demonstration of the global reach that the army and navy had acquired during the Seven Years’ War. In the whole military history of Europe nothing quite compared to it. Even as the government faced unprecedented postwar challenges—as Wilkes railed against the ministers and the London crowds roared back their approval—the conquest seemed to affirm Britain’s essential invincibility. Even more than Havana, Draper’s feat was the crowning accomplishment of Britain’s most glorious war, and in it the British people for one last shining moment saw reflected all their nation’s glory. What they did not see (and perhaps would not have understood if they had) was the significance of what happened once the conquerors ran the Union Jack up Manila’s flagstaff.

Unlike Canada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Havana, the people of the Philippines did not turn out en masse to trade with the British. Instead the East India Company, to which Draper turned over the task of governing in November 1762, never did establish control over the archipelago, or indeed over any territory outside the immediate vicinity of Manila itself. Don Simón de Anda, a junior judge of the royal Audencia (supreme court), managed to slip out of the city during the siege and escape to the province of Pampanga, on the north shore of Manila Bay. There, in the town of Bacolor, thirty-five miles from Manila, he established a provisional government and began to organize an army. The highest officers of the Spanish colonial administration hesitated to join him, but thousands of Filipinos did not. Soon Anda’s guerrilla army mustered ten thousand men, and even though more than seven thousand of them lacked arms more formidable than bows and arrows, they still denied the British control over anything outside of Manila and Cavite. Despite news that a treaty had been signed, Anda refused to agree to a truce until orders arrived from London in March 1764, restoring the archipelago to Spanish control. Even then he would not order his men to lay down their arms until the new Spanish governor arrived. On the last day of May 1764, Anda led a column of native soldiers into Manila to receive the city from its British rulers. Any casual bystander would have concluded that he was witnessing a British surrender. 12

Administering Manila from November 2, 1762, to May 31, 1764, cost the East India Company over £200,000 sterling above its (modest) share of the booty and its (negligible) profits on trade. The conquest of Manila differed from other British overseas victories, therefore, insofar as the occupants of the colony refused to be subdued either by force or by commerce. Anyone paying attention to the history of Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines at the moment it ended might well have pondered its implied lessons in the relationship between arms and trade, loyalty and empire. In the Philippine episode more than any other of the Seven Years’ War, the principles of imperial dominion stood out with unmistakable clarity. Military power—particularly naval power—could gain an empire, but force alone could never control colonial dependencies. Only the voluntary allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of the colonists could do that. Flags and governors and even garrisons were, in the end, only the empire’s symbols. Trade and loyalty were its integuments, and when colonial populations that refused their allegiance also declined to trade, the empire’s dominion extended not a yard beyond the range of its cannons.

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