Military history

CHAPTER 67

Grenville’s End

MAY-JULY 1765

WHILE GRENVILLE and his associates tried to minimize the damage that opposition members might do to them over the Quartering Act— and simultaneously fine-tuned the previous year’s colonial legislation with a measure called the American Trade Act of 1765—the king was recovering from a mysterious illness. Fevers, chest pains, and a racking cough had confined him to bed from mid-January through March: symptoms his doctors could neither diagnose nor treat, and that put George in fear of his life. This may have marked the onset of a rare hereditary disease, intermittent porphyria, which would later manifest itself in even more alarming ways (delirium, the passing of bloodred urine, insomnia, hypersensitivity to touch, and mental derangement) and convince many, including the king himself, that he was going mad. In 1765 the disease had not impaired his reason, and the king indeed conducted business throughout much of his confinement. But he had plenty of time to contemplate his mortality and rose from his sickbed convinced that he had to make arrangements for a regent who could take over in case he died young (his son and heir, Prince George, having been born only in 1762).1

The king wanted to have the dowager princess of Wales designated as regent, in the event that a regency had to be declared, and to exclude his irresponsible younger brother, Edward, from the office. This was an understandable desire, since the king loved and trusted his mother, but given her continuing identification with the earl of Bute, it was hardly a wise one. Grenville, convinced that Bute had been manipulating the king in his illness, was furious; he lectured George on the inappropriateness of attempting to name his own regent, something no king had ever done before. The members of the cabinet quarreled bitterly among themselves, unable to choose between the desires of the king and the convictions of the prime minister. Finally, after much wrangling, the Commons declined to name a regent in advance and instead established a regency council from which one could, if necessary, be chosen. When the Regency Bill finally passed through Parliament on May 13, no one was happy with the result. The king, fed up to the back teeth with Grenville and his supporters in the cabinet, was ready to sack the lot of them.2

At that moment, to the amazement of a king and ministers preoccupied with court politics, mob violence erupted in London. No one in the cabinet had heretofore concerned himself with the silk weavers of the Spitalfields district, who were suffering severe unemployment as a result of the postwar depression and competition from Italian silk makers. Sympathetic M.P.s had tried to remedy the situation by passing a bill to raise import duties on silks, but the duke of Bedford had responded by opposing the measure in the House of Lords, persuading his fellow peers to kill it. Thousands of weavers responded by trying to kill Bedford. They stoned his carriage, attacked his house, and rioted outside the House of Lords—on the very afternoon that the king had gone there to give his assent to the Regency Bill. The army needed three days to ride down and saber enough rioters to restore order. George, still weak from his illness and frightened at the extent of the lawlessness, blamed his ministers for the breakdown of civil order. He therefore asked his uncle, the duke of Cumberland, to stand ready to take command of the army and, in the meantime, to approach William Pitt to see if he would consider forming a new government.3

The king took no pains to hide any of this from Grenville and his fellow ministers, but he would have been well advised to try. When Pitt spurned the offer and Newcastle declined to form a government in which Pitt would have no role, George found himself forced to retreat. Grenville, jubilant, thought that he had won a great victory. If (as he believed) Bute had been conspiring to destroy him but had made the error of setting his plot in motion prematurely, the king now had no alternative but to reject Bute and to announce his unconditional support for the present administration. As in August 1763, the last time the king had tried to eject him from office, Grenville had ridden out a political tempest only to emerge stronger than ever. Or so he thought.4

In fact, he could not have been more wrong. Bute’s influence lived on more strongly in Grenville’s mind (and in the radical prints) than it did in the royal closet. The king no longer sought advice, let alone took dictation, from his ex-tutor, and Bute had played no role in his decision to change ministers. Thus the humiliation George suffered at being forced to back down only redoubled his determination to rid himself of Grenville. In June he asked Cumberland to make another overture to Pitt. When the Great Commoner, who disdained to deal with a mere monarch through intermediaries, refused once more, George asked Cumberland himself to head a new ministry. In great secrecy the duke searched again among the Newcastle Whigs for men who would be willing to accept office. This time, for two reasons, he found them. First, while some still fretted about the absence of Pitt, Cumberland’s willingness to act as prime minister—while he took no portfolio, he intended to chair all cabinet meetings and guide the formulation of policy—reassured Newcastle (and most others) that the new administration would enjoy the king’s support. Second, Cumberland offered the leading offices to friends and clients, men unlikely to disoblige him. Two of them had no qualification for office beyond membership in the Jockey Club, Cumberland’s racing circle: Charles Watson-Wentworth, second marquess of Rockingham, who agreed to become first lord of the Treasury; and Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third duke of Grafton, who accepted the secretaryship of state for the North. The man whom Cumberland asked to be secretary of state for the South and leader in the House of Commons, General Henry Seymour Conway, had once been his aide-de-camp. Most of the other offices were parceled out to aristocrats, including Newcastle, who accepted a ceremonial position as lord privy seal. Of those whom Cumberland approached, only Charles Townshend—miffed to be offered the chancellorship of the Exchequer but not the leadership of the House—refused him. But Townshend’s scruples were not sufficient to drive him back into opposition, and he walked away with the lucrative, politically inconsequential office of paymaster general.

It was characteristic of this new ministry that Cumberland and Rockingham assigned the duke of Newcastle no role in the management of patronage, and thereby deprived themselves of the most useful service the old duke could still render. In general, the men chosen to hold the most powerful offices had the least political experience. Conway, at forty-eight, was the oldest of the administration’s leaders, and he was the only one to have held prior office (as secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland). Rockingham was thirty-five years old, and Grafton just thirty; neither had occupied even minor posts. Only Cumberland had exercised major administrative responsibilities, but those had been exclusively military. Moreover, the duke was obese, paralytic, and pathetically frail. His close relationship with the king might sustain his administration, but without him it would be a ministry with no center, no strength, and no credibility. Insofar as the ministers had known views, they could be defined solely in terms of their disagreement with Grenville; otherwise they shared no sense of policy or direction. Even the king, at some level, understood what an unpromising cabinet they made. But he was desperate to be rid of Grenville, and therefore offered them his unconditional support.5

The king and his uncle did their best to hide the fact that they were constructing a new ministry, but nothing could stanch the flow of gossip out of the court. By the first week of July, Grenville knew he was finished, and he resolved to quit before he could be dismissed. On July 10, therefore, he attended the royal levee in order to hand over the seals of his office and to lecture the king, one last time, in the pompous style that had made George abhor the sight of him. He chose colonial policy as the text for this last sermon, telling the king that he understood that the plan of his new Administration was a total subversion of the former; that nothing having been undertaken as a measure without His Majesty’s approbation, he knew not how he would let himself be persuaded to see it in so different a light, and most particularly on the regulations concerning the Colonies; that he besought His Majesty, as he valued his own safety, not to suffer any one to advise him to separate or draw the line between his British and American dominions; that his Colonies was the richest jewel of his Crown; that for his own part he must uniformly maintain his former opinions both in Parliament and out of it; that whatever was proposed in Parliament must abide the sentence passed upon it there, but that if any man ventured to defeat the regulations laid down for the Colonies, by a slackness in the execution, he should look upon him as a criminal and the betrayer of his country.6

Not to draw the line between his British and American dominions: there was the heart of it. All Grenville’s efforts to construct a sound imperial relationship had centered on integrating the colonies into the British state system and subordinating the colonists to the sovereign power of the king in Parliament. Its ultimate logic would have welded the colonies and the realm together in a union like that of Scotland and England in 1707, extending the power of the metropolis over an even more distant periphery, forming a greater Great Britain. Grenville did not trust the men who would succeed him to see the issues so clearly and therefore devoted his last moments in office to impressing their importance on the king. George listened as politely as he habitually did—“imputing no blame,” Grenville noted, but also “giving no word of approbation” and promising nothing.7 The king obviously intended to stand behind his new servants. Whether they would adhere to their predecessor’s policies, however, would depend entirely upon the circumstances they encountered, upon whatever unknowable developments lay ahead, upon—for all Grenville knew—sheer accident. As it happened, all of those would very soon put the new ministers, and the king’s faith in their judgment, to the test.

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