Pontiac’s War brings a new sense of urgency to George Grenville’s efforts to deal with American affairs. The future of the army and the demand for revenue. The need for a coherent Indian policy and the Proclamation of 1763. The American Duties Act of 1764 and the dual necessity of taxation and control. The significance of the Currency Act. The colonists, confronting depression and political unrest, react ambiguously to Britain’s reforms, while Gage prolongs Pontiac’s War into 1765. The lessons of a pan-Indian rebellion.
THE LONDON PRESS broadcast the first news of Indian rebellion in July 1763, further clouding a political atmosphere heavy with the smoke of Wilkes’s fires. The Triumvirate of Grenville, Halifax, and Egremont groped through the murk, recalling Amherst in the hope of averting more military calamities and accelerating plans for imperial reform in order to preserve order once the Indians had been pacified. As the news from the colonies worsened during the first three weeks of August and the London mob grew steadily more obstreperous, the ministry weakened and wavered. The king made no secret of his readiness to hand the government over to another leader, should a suitable candidate present himself. It was not until the morning of Sunday the twenty-first that George’s fears of aggravating the crisis overrode his desire to give Grenville the sack. Summoning the prime minister to the palace at nine, the king announced that he had chosen not to alter existing arrangements. Whatever relief Grenville felt, however, lasted only until he reached Egremont’s door and discovered that the earl had just suffered a heart attack. By nine that night he was dead.1
The secretary of state for the Southern Department could hardly have found a less opportune time to die, and not only because he was responsible for formulating colonial policy. The necessity of replacing him raised questions of patronage requiring royal assent, and that gave George III a fresh chance to eject Grenville from office in favor of a patriot minister capable of rising above party. The king’s unsteady compass now swung toward Pitt, and he spent another week making overtures to the Great Commoner while consulting Bute for advice. He had every right to do these things, of course, and given the ordinary pace of eighteenth-century British politics, a week was not a long time to take. But a week was long enough to destroy the last vestiges of confidence between monarch and prime minister. When George at last understood that Pitt’s terms for accepting office included giving the Treasury to Grenville’s odious brother, the earl Temple—the man who had paid for John Wilkes’s press—he decided once more that he would have to trust the incumbent. Grenville, for his part, decided that he could never trust the king again.
Two more weeks passed before the shuffling of offices finally ended. The earl of Halifax moved into the position for which his experience and preferences suited him, secretary of state for the South. John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, took over as secretary for the North. The earl of Shelburne, president of the Board of Trade, had been so embarrassingly implicated in a plot to supplant Grenville with the duke of Bedford that he was forced to resign. This allowed Halifax to hand the presidency over to a protégé with an interest in American affairs, Wills Hill, earl of Hillsborough. Shelburne, with nowhere to go but the opposition, gravitated into an alliance with Pitt; Bedford, too powerful to be ignored, became lord president of the Privy Council. By mid-September sufficient equilibrium returned to the high politics of place and honor that the ministers could turn again to questions of imperial policy and order. That was none too soon. While the ministry sorted itself out, America had been turning into an issue no one could ignore.2
The previous ministry neglected the colonies until an Indian uprising had practically destroyed Britain’s hold on the interior of North America, but from the fall of 1763 through the following spring Grenville and Halifax attended to reforming imperial relations with an intensity rarely seen before. They set out to create a secure and financially stable empire: to institute political order within the conquests, restore peace in the west, and use the prosperity of the older colonies to strengthen the empire as a whole. These were innovations, but Grenville and company were not making up a program out of whole cloth. The king himself had set the priorities according to which they acted. The pivot on which the new imperial relationship would turn, the army, was already in place. Since the beginning of the year the Board of Trade had been drafting plans for colonial reorganization. Every measure that Grenville and Halifax would propose reflected a consensus, broadly shared in Whitehall and Westminster, on the nature of the empire and Britain’s power to control it. Halifax, who had been thinking about the colonies for fifteen years, was arguably the best man in Britain to direct reforms in the imperial relationship, and nobody knew more about taxation than Grenville.
And yet, for all that, the program that Halifax and Grenville proposed, which Parliament would pass into law and which the king would approve, would prove more energetic than coherent, setting the stage for disasters beside which the Indian insurrection would seem trivial. The reason why was simple. Down to virtually their last detail, the reforms reflected the legacies and the lessons of the Seven Years’ War as construed at the highest levels of metropolitan power. Grenville and Halifax, in that regard, responded to current problems not on an ad hoc basis, but with a firm sense of historical context. Unfortunately for the empire’s future, they had no equally well considered sense of how their reforms would interact with postwar conditions, nor—given those—any clear idea of how their initiative might appear to colonists whose understandings of the war and its lessons differed significantly from their own.