After a mistake so absolute as to require repeal, British policy-makers might well have stopped to reconsider the relationship with the colonies, and ask themselves what course they might follow to induce a beneficial allegiance on the one hand and ensure a secure sovereignty on the other. Many Englishmen outside government did consider this problem, and Pitt and Shelburne, who were shortly to come to power, entered office intending to calm the suspicions and restore the equanimity of the colonies. Fate, as we shall see, interfered.
Policy was not reconsidered because the governing group had no habit of purposeful consultation, had the King over their heads and were at odds with one another. It did not occur to them that it might be wise to avoid provocative measures for long enough to reassure the colonies of Britain’s respect for their rights while leaving their agitators no excuse. The riotous reaction to the Stamp Act only confirmed the British in their belief that the colonies, led by “wicked and designing men” (as stated in a House of Lords resolution), were bent on rebellion. Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.
A new provocation emerged in the annual Quartering Act of 1766 for the billeting, provisioning and discipline of British forces. It carried a clause requiring colonial assemblies to provide barracks and supplies such as candles, fuel, vinegar, beer and salt for the regulars. Little thought would have been needed for Parliament to recognize that this would be resented as another form of internal taxation, as it immediately was in New York, where the troops were mainly stationed. Colonists saw themselves soon being required to pay all the costs of the Army in America at the “dictate” of Parliament. The New York Assembly refused to appropriate the required funds, causing wrath in Britain at such new evidence of disobedience and ingratitude. “If we once lose the superintendency of the colonys, this nation is undone,” declared Charles Townshend to thunderous applause in the House. Parliament responded with the New York Suspending Act rendering acts of the Assembly null and void until it voted the funds. Mother country and colonies were off again in quarrel.
A political upheaval took place at this time when the King, having found cause to quarrel with Rockingham, obeyed the injunctions of Providence “to dismiss my ministry.” Immensely complicated negotiations brought in Pitt at the head of an ill-assorted ministry while the Rockinghams, insulted, moved into opposition. The new government contained more discordant opinions and characters than usual because Pitt, in a position to bargain hard for his terms and determined to command unfettered, deliberately put together a mixed group that he could dominate unbeholden to any “connexion.” The financial cost was high because holdovers had to be given handsome pensions to persuade them to make way for successors.
On the one hand, Shelburne was brought in as Secretary of State with responsibility for the colonies, Grafton and Conway were retained and Lord Camden, another of the Pitt circle, was named Lord Chancellor. On the other hand, the King’s agent, Lord Northington, was named Lord President of the Council, a place was found for Lord Bute’s brother, the unpredictable Charles Townshend became Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Earl of Hillsborough, as unfriendly to the colonies as Shelburne was the opposite, was added as President of the Board of Trade. Hillsborough was a compound of “conceit, wrong-headedness, obstinacy and passion,” according to Benjamin Franklin, whom he had treated rudely. The private disconnections of these people, more apparent then than now, inspired Burke’s elaborate sarcasm about “a piece of diversified mosaic; a tesselated pavement … here a piece of black stone, there a piece of white.…” Burke was, of course, a disgruntled Rockingham follower.
What opened the way to folly was not the mosaic but Pitt’s collapse. With catastrophic effect on his popular standing, he accepted a peerage and left the House of Commons to enter the House of Lords as Earl of Chatham. His decision was owed in part to a desire to avoid, because of his inferior health, the First Minister’s extra task of leadership of the House of Commons. The public reacted as if Jesus Christ had joined the money-changers in the temple. Celebrations of the hero’s return to office were canceled, bunting taken down from the Guildhall and pamphlets and lampoons gave themselves up to abuse. The Great Commoner was seen as having abandoned the people, who felt him to be their representative; as having sold himself to the court for a coronet.
In the Lords, with a smaller, less responsive audience, the new Earl had diminished effect as a speaker and lost his customary base in the larger house. His gout attacked in force; he grew peevish and sullen; his treatment of colleagues became rude and tyrannical. “Such language as Lord Chatham’s,” said General Conway, “had never been heard west of Constantinople.” In chronic pain, hurt by public condemnation and a sense of lost greatness, frustrated by the negative turn of events in America, he sank into depression, attended no Cabinet meetings, remained inaccessible, though not beyond communicating in an unbridled letter his wrath at “the spirit of infatuation that has taken possession of New York.… Their spirit of disobedience will justly create a great ferment here.… The late Stamp Act has frightened those irritable and umbrageous people quite out of their senses.”
Without its master, the tesselated Government fell into disorder. “Continuous cabals, factions and intrigues among the ins and outs,” reported Benjamin Franklin, “keep everything in confusion.” The Duke of Grafton, who had unhappily accepted the Treasury, for which he knew himself unfit, in order to leave Pitt free of administrative office, now at age 32 had to take over as acting chief. Feeling more than ever at a loss in that role, he would come to London “but once a week or once a fortnight to sign papers at the Treasury, and as seldom to see the King.” He postponed a Cabinet Council to attend the races at Newmarket and a second time because of entertaining a large house party at his estate. The vessel of government was left virtually unsteered. Lord Shelburne, who had begun to work through the colonial agents to restore colonial goodwill, fell out with his colleagues. Lord Camden, who apart from the law was something of a dilettante in politics, failed to speak out. There was no one able to restrain the most brilliant, most irresponsible member of the Cabinet, Charles Townshend.
“The delight and ornament of the Commons and the charm of every private society,” according to Burke, Townshend could make a stunning speech even when inebriated and had the intelligence and capacity that might have made him, according to Horace Walpole, “the greatest man of this age,” if his faults had only been moderate. But they were not. He was arrogant, flippant, unscrupulous and unreliable, given to reversing himself by 180 degrees if expedience beckoned. “Will Charles Townshend do less harm in the War Office or in the Treasury?” the Duke of Newcastle once asked when considering him for office. Wanted for his abilities, he had filled various offices at the Board of Trade, the Admiralty and the War Office, interspersed with resignations and refusals to serve. “He studied nothing with accuracy or with attention,” wrote Walpole, “had parts that embraced all knowledge with such quickness that he seemed to create knowledge instead of searching for it” and with such abundant wit “that in him it seemed loss of time to think.” The dazzle of these talents concealed a meagerness of substance, as David Hume, for one, suggested in the phrase “He passes for the cleverest fellow in England.”
The spoiling fault was Townshend’s “immoderate passion for fame,” which may have had something to do with being a younger son and possibly with having notoriously scandalous parents who lived apart. The dissolute and eccentric father, 3rd Viscount Townshend, was in Walpole’s words to a friend, “not the least mad of your countrymen.” A further disability of the son was his being subject to falling fits, now thought to have been epilepsy, though described by Walpole rather casually: “he drops down in a fit, has a resurrection, thunders in the Capitol.…” Emulating Pitt without Pitt’s sense of direction, Townshend was determined “to have no party, to follow no leader, to be governed absolutely by my own judgment.” Judgment was unfortunately his weakest faculty.
While at the Board of Trade, where his several terms of service caused him to be regarded as the most knowledgeable on American affairs, he had been the first in 1763 to propose raising revenue from the colonies to pay for their defense and also to pay fixed salaries to colonial officials and judges, rendering them “no longer dependent upon the pleasure of any Assembly.” This was the bugbear of the colonies, seen as an unmistakable step toward suppression of their rights.
Townshend now revived both ideas, carelessly, almost without planning. When he introduced his budget in January 1767 calling for a continuance of the land tax at 4s., it raised great rumbles of discontent among the country members. Ever eager to be popular, he said the tax could go back to 3s. if the Government did not have to spend over £ 400,000 on the administration of the colonies. At this, Grenville, unmoved by the fate of his Stamp Tax, promptly suggested that the budget could be cut if the colonies were assessed the greater part of the cost of their defense and administration. As if to say “No problem,” Townshend, to the astonishment of his ministerial colleagues, jauntily “pledged himself to find a revenue in America sufficient for the purposes that were required.” He assured the House he could do it “without offense” to the Americans, meaning by external taxes, while at the same time saying that the distinction between external and internal was “ridiculous in everybody’s opinion except the Americans’.” By this time the Americans themselves had rejected the distinction at the Stamp Act Congress and in public discourse, but American opinion was not a factor on which Townshend bothered to inform himself.
Given the prospect of lightening their own taxes, the House blithely accepted Townshend’s assurance, the more willingly because they had been impressed by Benjamin Franklin’s curiously complacent testimony during the Stamp Act hearings that the colonies would not object to external taxes even for revenue. Prodded by the discarded Rockinghams and the Bedfords on the right,* who wished to embarrass the Government, the country members carried a motion to reduce the land tax from 4s. to 3s. in the pound, thus depriving the Government of about £500,000 a year and facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the necessity of making good on his pledge.
Without consulting his Cabinet colleagues or giving them any notice of his intention, Townshend proposed a series of customs duties on imports into America of glass, paint, lead, paper and all grades of tea for the stated purpose not of controlling trade but of raising revenue. The expected return according to his own calculations was £20,000 from the tea duty and a little less than £20,000 from the rest, altogether £40,000, amounting to a tenth of the total cost of governing the colonies and less than a tenth of the loss from the reduced land tax. For this pittance, which would barely reduce and would very likely add to the national deficit by costing more to collect than it would bring in, Townshend was ready to wreck what repeal of the Stamp Act had been intended to gain. As with most follies, personal self-interest paralyzed concern for the greater interest of the state. In Chatham’s absence, Townshend saw a way open to make himself First Minister and, toward that end, a way to enhance his stature in the House of Commons, fame’s “chosen temple,” as Burke called it.
His proposal seems to have dumbfounded his colleagues in the literal sense of striking them dumb. Although raising revenues from the colonies, Grafton admitted, was “contrary to the known decision of every member of the Cabinet,” and the Chancellor’s unilateral action “was such as no Cabinet will, I am confident, ever submit to,” the Cabinet in fact submitted. When Townshend threatened to resign unless allowed to carry out his pledge, the Cabinet, in the belief that his departure would bring down the Government, meekly acquiesced. As it has ever been, staying in office was the primary thought.
Parliament in its prevailing frame of mind was happy to teach the Americans another lesson, no matter that the last one had boomeranged. In May 1767 the Revenue Act embodying the Townshend Duties passed both Houses easily without a division, that is, without need to count votes. As if deliberately trying to be provocative, Townshend wakened America’s phobia in the preamble to the Act, which announced that the proceeds were to be used for raising revenue to help meet the cost of the colonies’ defense and “for defraying the cost of the administration of justice and support of the civil list.” Without this statement, his duties might well have raised no storm. Folly had now set sail.
How could it have happened? Townshend himself was a reckless self-aggrandizer; the real responsibility lay with Government and Parliament. The Duke of Grafton’s excuse in his memoirs that only Chatham had the authority to dismiss Townshend and that “nothing less could have stopped the measure” is frail. A united Cabinet with any sense of the responsibility of government could simply have accepted the threatened resignation and taken its chances of survival. The Parliament of England, Europe’s oldest representative assembly in national experience, could have given thought to possible consequences before rushing into enactment. Even the Rockinghams raised no voice to halt the measure. “The friends of America are too few,” wrote Charles Garth, agent for South Carolina, “to have any share in a struggle with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Irate articles in the press and indignant paipphlets were demanding that the ingrate colonies be made to recognize British sovereignty. Rather than conciliate the Americans, Government and Parliament were in a mood for a rap on the knuckles. The Townshend Duties fitted right in.
Their author did not live to witness the fate of his measure. He contracted what was called a “fever” that summer and after several false recoveries, the inconstant career of such short but momentous import for America ended in death in September 1767 at the age of 42. “Poor Charles Townshend is fixed at last,” commented a fellow-member.
Through these events the great Chatham was beyond reach. The distracted Duke of Grafton kept entreating to see him, to consult him just for half an hour, for ten minutes, and the King added his pleas in letter after letter, even proposing to visit the sick man himself. Replies came from Lady Chatham, the ailing man’s beloved wife and blessing of his tortured existence, who refused for him because of his “utter disability … increase of illness … unspeakable affliction.” Colleagues thought he might be malingering but when Grafton at last, after repeated pressure, was admitted for a few moments’ visit, he found a shattered man, “nerves and spirits affected to a dreadful degree … the great mind bowed down and thus weakened by disorder.”
Isolated at Pynsent, Chatham in a manic upswing ordered the gardener to have the bare hill that bounded the view covered by a planting of evergreens. Told that “all the nurseries in this county would not furnish a hundredth part” of what would be needed, he nonetheless ordered the man to obtain the trees from London, from where they were brought down by wagon. Pynsent was an estate willed to Pitt by its irascible owner, a kinsman of Lord North, who had been so enraged by North’s vote for the cider tax that he had him burnt in effigy and changed his will, leaving his estate to the national hero. To occupy it, Pitt had sold his own estate of Hayes, where he had spent great sums buying up nearby houses to “free himself from the neighborhood.” Now he was seized by an insistent desire to recover Hayes and could not rest until his wife, forced to beg the influence of her brothers, with whom Chatham had quarreled, was able to persuade the new owner to sell it back.
No happier at Hayes, in the grip of gout and despair, Chatham could bear no contact. He refused to see or communicate with anyone, could not suffer his own children in the house, would not speak to servants, sometimes not even to his wife. Meals had to be kept hot at all times to be wheeled in at irregular hours when he sounded his bell. His temper erupted at the slightest defect. For days at a time he sat staring vacantly out the window. No visitor was admitted, but Lord Camden, told of the condition, said, “Then he is mad.” Others called it “gout in the head.”
Gout in the days of heavy diet and heavy drinking of fortified wines played a role in the fate of nations. It was a cause of the abdication of Charles V, Emperor in the time of the Renaissance Popes. A leading physician of Chatham’s time, Dr. William Cadogan, maintained that the disease had three causes, “Indolence, Intemperance and Vexation” (in modern times ascertained to be an overproduction of uric acid in the blood, which, when not absorbed, causes the inflammation and pain), and that an active and frugal life was the best preventive and possible cure. That physical exercise and a vegetarian diet were remedial was known, but the theory of opposites, one of the least helpful precepts of 18th-century medicine, was preferred by Chatham’s physician, a Dr. Addington. A specialist in lunacy, or “mad-doctor,” he hoped to induce a violent fit of gout on the theory that this would drive out the mental disorder. He therefore prescribed two glasses of white wine and two of port every day, double his patient’s usual intake, over and above Madeira and port at other intervals. The patient was also to continue eating meat and avoid exercise in the open air, with the natural result that the affliction grew worse. Chatham took no part in government through 1767 and 1768. That he survived at all under Dr. Addington’s regimen and was, indeed, to recover his sanity represents one of man’s occasional triumphs over medicine.
While sometimes linked to gout, probably through pain, madness appeared not infrequently in the 18th-century governing class. Two central figures in the American crisis, Chatham during and George III afterward, showed symptoms of it, and in America, James Otis, who had been acting wildly for some time, went definitely insane in 1768. Walpole’s nephew, the Earl of Orford, from whom he was to inherit the title, was intermittently insane, as were Lord George Germain’s two brothers, one of whom, heir to the Sackville earldom, cut down all the trees at Knole and was declared mentally incompetent by his family and eventually died “in a fit.” The other, Lord John Sackville, a victim of melancholia, spent a wandering life in Europe in secluded poverty “fighting off madness.” The Duchess of Queensberry was “very clever, very whimsical and just not mad.” The poet William Cowper, as already noticed, was mad and so too was the minor poet Christopher Smart, whom Dr. Johnson visited in Bedlam. Lord George Gordon, who led the Gordon riots in 1780, was generally considered crazed. While occasional such cases mentioned in the memoirs may not represent a high incidence, they suggest the likelihood of others that are not mentioned. On the basis of such evidence one cannot say anything significant about madness in the governing class, but only that if Chatham had been healthy the history of America would have been different.
The Townshend Duties met a delayed reaction in America. Many citizens and future loyalists, disturbed by the mob action against lives and property during the Stamp Act crisis, had begun to fear the “patriotic” movement as the vanguard of class “levelling.” They were not anxious to provoke a break with Britain. The New York Assembly, rather than accept suspension, had soberly complied with the Quartering Act. Friction, however, developed soon through harassment by agents of the new American Customs Board, created along with the Townshend Act to administer the new duties. At the same time, Writs of Assistance to allow search of premises had been legalized. Eager to make their fortunes from the penalties they could impose, the Customs agents, with infuriating zeal, halted and inspected everything that floated, boarding ships in every port and on every waterway down to the farmer ferrying chickens across a river in his riverboat.
While tempers rose, America’s cause suddenly found a voice that made everybody listen. It was heard in the Farmer’s Letters, which began appearing in the Pennsylvania Chronicle in December 1767, written by John Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer of a prosperous farming family and a future delegate to the Continental Congress. The letters laid out the colonies’ case so cogently and convincingly that they joined the historic company of writings that persuade and move people to action. Newspapers throughout the colonies reprinted them and Governor Bernard of Massachusetts sent a complete set to the agent Richard Jackson in London, warning that unless refuted they could become “a Bill of Rights in the opinion of the Americans.”
Dickinson’s theme was the necessity for unity among the colonies to protest against the New York Suspending Act, which he called a “dreadful stroke,” and the Revenue Act. He asserted that any tax raised for revenue was unconstitutional and that therefore there was no difference between the Townshend Duties and the Stamp Tax. The colonies owed no contribution to governing costs since Britain already reaped profit from control of their trade. To apply the duties toward the civil list and judges’ salaries was the “worst stroke,” absolutely destructive of local control, potentially reducing the colonies to the status of poor Ireland. Dickinson’s most telling point was his suggestion that the reason the duties were so petty was that the British hoped to have them pass virtually unnoticed, thereby establishing a precedent for future taxation. Therefore they must be challenged at once.
Readers sprang to action even if Dickinson’s argument supplied Townshend with a more rational motive for his policy than he in fact had. Americans tended to see a conscious plan to enslave them in every British measure. They assumed the British were more rational, just as the British government assumed they were more rebellious, than was true in either case.
The effect of the Farmer’s Letters was to fire up resistance to the Revenue Act, set Sam Adams on the stump with his calls to the mob and elicit from the Massachusetts Assembly a circular letter summoning the other colonies to resist any tax revenue. Britain’s response came from a figure of new consequence, Lord Hillsborough, whom fate seems to have selected to ensure that Townshend’s death would not empty the cornucopia of mischief. Hillsborough had moved into control of American affairs in place of Lord Shelburne, whom the Duke of Grafton, under pressure from the King and from the Bedfords, whose alliance Grafton needed, had been forced to remove. Not a man for the axe, Grafton split Shelburne’s office to create a new office of Secretary for the Colonies, to which Hillsborough was named. Because he held an Irish peerage with large estate, Hillsborough opposed any softening toward the colonies in fear, shared by other Irish landowners, of his tenants’ migrating to America and emptying his rent-rolls. Though he had held many offices, he was not known for tact or reason; even George III, who shared the same deficiency, said he did not know “a man of less judgment than Lord Hillsborough.” This shortcoming promptly made itself felt.
In a peremptory letter, the new Secretary ordered the Massachusetts Assembly to rescind its circular letter under pain of dissolution if it refused and informed other governors that any other assembly that followed Massachusetts’ seditious example was likewise to be dissolved. The punitive tone of his letter and its implication that Americans were to be compelled to accept taxation or have their representative assemblies closed down ignited outrage where there had been little before. When Massachusetts refused loudly and passionately to rescind, Pennsylvania and other colonies that had refused her first call now adopted resolutions on the Massachusetts model in defiance of Hillsborough. Self-interest in preserving the empire was not doing well in his hands.
At the same time the Customs Board, growing nervous, appealed in February 1768 for a warship and troops for protection. The arrival of H.M.S. Romney in Boston harbor from Halifax emboldened the Customs Board to seize John Hancock’s ship Liberty, setting off such a riot that the Customs Commissioners fled aboard the Romney in fear for their lives. Fearful of the mounting disorder, General Gage ordered two regiments down from Halifax; two more arrived from the mother country in November. “To have a standing army! Good God!” wrote a Bostonian, after watching the redcoats parade through the city. “What can be worse to a people who have tasted the sweets of liberty!” It would “hasten that independency which at present the warmest among us deprecate.”
Without any plan or decision, the use of armed force for coercion had entered the conflict. The unwisdom of this procedure disturbed many Englishmen including the Duke of Newcastle, now 75, who had administered the colonies as Secretary of State for a quarter century in his early days and believed that “Measures of Power and Force” should be avoided in dealing with them. “The measure of conquering the colonies and obliging them to submit is now becoming more popular,” he wrote to Rockingham. “I must in conscience protest against it and I hope our friends will well consider before they give in to so destructive a measure.”
The weight of the Cabinet, gradually infused by Bedfords and the King’s friends, was tipping the other way. Conway, who alone had tried to check Townshend and curtail the New York Suspending Act, resigned as Secretary of State, though retaining a minor post. His place was filled by a port-loving lord of small account except as a Bedford “connexion,” Viscount Weymouth, whose specialty was gambling all night and losing so consistently that his house was filled with bailiffs. As Secretary of State, he continued in his habits, going to bed at 6:00 a.m. and rising after noon “to the total neglect of the affairs of his office, the business of which was managed as much as it could be by Mr. Wood, his under-secretary.” Townshend’s empty place as Chancellor of the Exchequer was taken over by Lord North, an equable, comfortable person with a good deal of common sense and few strong opinions, though belonging to the no-compromise side. Two other places were filled by peers of the Bedford faction: Earl Gower when Lord Northington died, and the Earl of Rochford, recently Ambassador to Spain, where in order to leave Madrid he had to pawn his silver plate and jewels for £6000 to pay his debts. He was now named Secretary of State when Shelburne, the only Cabinet member to oppose Hillsborough’s coercive measures, finally resigned—or was pushed—after holding on to the rump of his office for eight months. Informed of his departure, Chatham, on the way to recovery, sent in the Privy Seal, officially resigning his office.
What had once been Chatham’s government now belonged to the Bloomsbury Gang, so called from the Duke of Bedford’s residence in Bloomsbury Square. The Duke himself, aside from great wealth and the many offices he had held in the previous reign and aside from his powers, positions and titles in Bedfordshire, owed his influence to a supremely developed sense of status and self-assurance. He was said to be the only man who could speak openly against Pitt in his great days. He had served as Lord President of the Council and real head of the Grenville government, generally spoken of as the Bedford ministry, but now, afflicted by gout, he exerted his influence through his followers while spending most of his time at Woburn Abbey, his country home. Together with his brother-in-law Earl Gower and his son-in-law the 4th Duke of Marlborough, he controlled thirteen seats in the House of Commons. Though intelligent and warm-hearted, Bedford was hot-tempered, wrong-headed and obstinate. His entourage included masters of jobbing and electioneering and the strongest advocates of coercing the colonies. Six frigates and a brigade, they kept telling the King, would be enough to suppress American insolence.
King George had only one idea of policy with regard to the colonies: that “it was the indispensable duty of his subjects in America to obey the Acts of the Legislature of Great Britain,” and that the King “expects and requires a cheerful obedience to the same.” In the conduct of government, his influence was more pernicious because he was convinced of his royal duty to purify it after the model of his schoolboy idol, Alfred the Great. Through the Bedfords, he now interfered more than ever, appointing and dismissing ministers at will, controlling patronage, accepting no collective policy from the Cabinet but dealing with individual ministers in reference only to their own departments, even suggesting who was to speak in debates in the House of Commons. His choices for office tended to be courtiers of rank who had made themselves agreeable to him but whose talent or training for government was not likely to be greater than his own.
American eruptions at every tax and every measure proved to the Bedfords that the colonists were bent on breaking the mercantilist system and obtaining free trade and would raise the cry of “Tyranny!” at every act of Parliament. If given in to, their protest would soon leave not a shred of sovereignty remaining.
As regards trade, these apprehensions were not misplaced. Breaking the mercantilist yoke while developing home industries was indeed an idea that had taken hold of the Americans, prompted by the success of Non-Importation. By provoking the colonists’ turn to homemade cloth and other goods, Britain had brought upon herself the very impulse toward commercial independence she was most determined to prevent. Even to Pitt, mercantilist regulation had always been the essence of colonial policy. “Not a hobnail or a horseshoe,” he once declared, should the colonies be allowed to manufacture. Now the impulse was reinvigorated. In August and September 1768, the merchants of Boston and New York agreed to cease importing from Britain until the Townshend Duties were repealed. Philadelphia’s merchants joined the agreement a few months later, followed by most of the other colonies through the course of 1769. Home weaving by organized groups of “Daughters of Liberty” had in fact continued since the Stamp Act. The graduating class of Harvard College in 1768 and the first graduating class and President of Rhode Island College (now Brown) in 1769 all appeared in clothes of American homespun.
At home the return of Wilkes reawakened a furor of resentment against the Government when he was re-elected to Parliament from Middlesex, London’s county, and re-expelled by the government majority in the House. At once his cause rallied all opponents of the royal prerogative and invigorated the Radicals’ movement for parliamentary reform to replace the patronage system by genuine elections. All the causes of “Liberty,” including the friends of America opposed to coercion, coalesced, lending one another strength.
The cry “Wilkes and Liberty!” resounded as the protagonist stood again for Middlesex, was defiantly returned by its voters, again expelled, again elected and expelled a third time. He became both a constitutional symbol and a popular hero, focus of the commoners’ discontents. When the Government put up its own candidate for Middlesex and declared him elected by ruling out the votes for Wilkes, tumult and agitation convulsed London. The city “is a daily scene of lawless riots and confusion,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “Mobs patrol the streets at noonday, some knocking down all that will not roar for Wilkes and liberty.” Coalers, sailors, watermen and all sorts of rioters overturned carriages, looted shops, broke into noble residences, while the ministry was “divided in their counsels” and apprehensive of what might come.
By its fatuous suppression of the Middlesex vote, the Government aroused the ever-ready cry of alarm about English liberties. The connection with American liberties, constantly propounded among the Wilkesites by the more active American agents, was confirmed. “The persons who wish to enslave America, would, if it lay in their power, enslave us,” said a linen draper and elector of London during the canvass for votes in 1768. The 236 elected councilmen and 26 aldermen, mainly shopkeepers and self-employed artisans, who made up the London Court of Common Council, condemned virtually every measure for coercion of the colonies.
At the head of the advocates was the Lord Mayor himself, the spirited merchant William Beckford, who, like most partisans of America, reached that position through his advocacy of Wilkes; to oppose the Government on one was to oppose it on both. As the scion of a wealthy Jamaica family of sugar planters and the island’s largest landowner, Beckford enlarged his fortune in English commerce, rose from alderman to sheriff to Lord Mayor and addressed to the King the protest of the city of London against the doctoring of the Middlesex election. Though snobbishly said by Walpole to act from “a confused heap of knowledge … so uncorrected by judgment that his absurdities were made but more conspicuous by his vanity,” he made a bold voice among the critics of American policy. English Radicals reflected the colonists’ view of a ministerial conspiracy to suppress their liberties. Josiah Wedgwood, a leading Radical, believed the Townshend Act was a deliberate effort toward that end, although he thought it would be counter-productive in that it would accelerate American independence by a century.
The London Magazine in August 1768 compared the authors and abettors of “the present impolitick measures against America” to the Crown and its “wretched ministers” of the 17th century. “From our own observations we will venture to say that nine persons in ten, even in this country, are friends to the Americans” and believe they “have right on their side.” Nine out of ten was certainly exaggerated; some journals estimated the proportions just in reverse. Ralph Izard, an American resident in London, judged that four out of five Britons were opposed to America and that Parliament’s support of the Government correctly reflected public opinion. When the opposition regularly produced no more than eighty votes, “you may depend on it, the measure is not thought a bad one, for corruption does not reach that deep.” Public opinion is hard to judge from the contemporary press because many of the pro-American articles were contributed anonymously or under pseudonyms by Americans in London. Nevertheless, English printers would not have given the fair amount of space they did to paragraphs and letters favorable to the colonies if an important section of public opinion had not opposed the Government’s policies.
It should be added that the political concerns of public opinion are often overestimated by posterity. The real interest in 1768 among the governing class was not the Americans or even Wilkes but the scandal caused by the Duke of Grafton in “defying all decency” by escorting his mistress, Nancy Parsons, to the opera in the presence of his divorced Duchess and the Queen. Grafton was at least divorced, which most men who kept mistresses were not, but this did not reduce the scandal. Daughter of a Bond Street tailor and former mistress of a West Indies merchant, Nancy was also known as Mrs. Hoghton, having acquired marital status along her way, but that too failed to palliate society’s scorn. The fact that Grafton “paraded” her in public and sat her at the head of his table excited a peculiar indignation. It was the sensation of the season. Nancy quite blanketed out the obstreperous colonists.
Indignant protests in Parliament from Virginia, Pennsylvania and other colonies showed that resistance to the Revenue Act was spreading and cold figures confirmed the fact. From 1768 to 1769, English exports to America dropped by a third, from £2,400,000 to £1,600,000. New York cut its imports to one-seventh of what they had been in 1764, from £482,000 in that year to £74,000 in 1769. Boston’s imports were cut in half, those of other colonies, where compliance with Non-Importation was uneven, by less. Receipts from the Townshend Duties in their first year amounted to £16,000, compared to military expenditures for America of £170,000. Even Hillsborough, as Secretary for the Colonies, had to admit that the Townshend Act was “so anti-commercial that he wished it had never existed,” while the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord North, said the duties were “so preposterous that he was amazed that they had ever been passed by the British Parliament.” Both gentlemen had voted for the Act they now deplored.
Rather than conciliate for the sake of quickly terminating Non-Importation, the Government’s instinct was punitive. Having maneuvered itself into a situation of challenge from its subjects, it felt obliged to make a demonstration of authority, the more so as it was feared that American protest, if it succeeded, would inspire the spirit of emulation in English and Irish mobs. Hillsborough, like Rehoboam, believed effective demonstration lay in being as rough as possible. He resurrected from the autocratic era of Henry VIII an ancient statute providing for trial in England of persons accused of treason outside the kingdom and this was moved by the Duke of Bedford as a parliamentary resolution with reference to the offenses of Massachusetts. The Commons concurred, the Chathamites of Grafton’s group in the Government seem to have raised no objection and the order was duly transmitted to Governor Bernard in Boston. Reaction was naturally violent. Citizens to be snatched from home and delivered to trial in hostile surroundings 3000 miles from friends and defenders! Here was tyranny unconcealed!
At the same time in England the basic fear of the encouragement being given to American industry by the Non-Importation movement was taking effect. Having recklessly provoked the boycott, Government and Parliament now began to consider how to undo the damage by repeal. The Stamp Act experience was re-enacted as if the governing establishment of Britain were under a gambler’s compulsion to keep placing its chips on the same squares where they had lost before. The process of repealing the Townshend Act took more than a year, from March 1769 to May 1770, during which other measures taken to discipline the colonies were as counter-productive as the one undergoing cancellation.
By now accumulated folly was fully perceived and explicitly and derisively denounced in the year’s debates. Opposition speakers roused to outrage against the Government over the non-seating of Wilkes, which was considered a “violation of the sacred right of election” and an “overturn of the whole constitution,” felt free to castigate the Government equally severely on America. Burke launched his sarcasm, Colonel Barré his scorn; Lord Mayor Beckford observed “that it was a strange piece of policy to expend £500,000 a year to assist the Customs-House officers in collecting £295, which was the whole net produce of the taxes there.” The hero of the debates was none of these but former Governor Thomas Pownall speaking from seven years’ experience in America in the administration of four different colonies. In long, cogent, irrefutable argument and evidence, he was perhaps the only one to speak from genuine disinterest and genuine concern to restore good relations with America. Other critics, with scoffing invective and exaggerated sympathy for the oppressed colonists—whom Barré described as the “honest, faithful, loyal, and till that moment, as subjects, irreproachable people of Massachusetts”—were more concerned to bring down the Government than to reconcile it with America. The Government complacently ignored the criticism, secure in its large majority.
Pownall laid bare the follies. Instead of ordering the billeting and supply of troops by the Quartering Act, which instantly aroused colonial protest, the process should be left “to the people themselves to do it in their own way, and by their own modes of doing business” as they had done during the Seven Years’ War. The commanding officer of any body of soldiers should be empowered to treat with local magistrates to quarter the troops by mutual agreement. In moving repeal of the Townshend Act, he showed how the preamble in announcing the purpose to be revenue for civil government was a “total change” of the system by which the colonies had always controlled public servants by their own legislatures having the grant and disposal of funds for government. In changing that system, the Act was not only unnecessary, since the Declaratory Act already established Parliament’s sovereignty, but “unjust and a grievance in every degree.”
As regards trade, he showed how the Act was “directly contrary to all the principles of commerce respecting your own interests”: it served as a bounty to American manufactures, encouraged contraband and recourse to foreign markets, rendered the colonies “every day less beneficial and advantageous to us and will in the end break off their dependence on us.” If this occasion for rectifying the error were lost, “it is lost forever. If this session elapses with Parliament’s doing nothing, American affairs will perhaps be impracticable forever after. You may exert power over, but you can never govern an unwilling people.” Almost unintentionally, Pownall had formulated a principle worth the attention of all who rule at any time—that government must conduct itself with regard to the feelings of the governed, and ignores them at its peril.
Despite the fact that Pownall’s motion won general agreement (or perhaps because of it), the ministry complained that it was too late in the session to debate a matter of so much consequence for which they were not prepared, and carried a motion to put it off to the next session. This was a fumble because their own desire was to end Non-Importation as quickly as possible. The Cabinet took up the problem during the recess. Grafton and his group, who voted for total repeal, were outvoted by Hillsborough, North and the three Bedford ministers, who insisted on retaining the duty on tea in order to retain the preamble as token of the right to tax for revenue. A resolution of painful straddling was adopted: that no measure would be taken “to derogate in any way from the legislative authority of Great Britain over the colonies”; at the same time it was not the intention to lay “any further taxes” upon America for revenue, and it was the intention at the next session of Parliament “to take off the duties upon paper, glass and colours.” When Hillsborough informed the colonial governors of the intended repeal, he managed to vitiate its effect by omitting “the soothing and conciliatory expressions” which the Grafton group had won consent to introduce. Since the omission of tea indicated that the Act as a whole was not to be repealed, the colonies were not persuaded to call off Non-Importation.
“If you would be but steady in any scheme,” despairingly wrote Thomas Hutchinson to Richard Jackson, “we should come to some sort of settlement in the colonies.… Let me beseech you, repeal as many of the laws now in force as you please,” but implement those that remain effectively. “The longer you delay the more difficult it will be.” He was close to the evidence in Boston, where the press reported that 300 “mistresses of families,” aware that the consumption of tea supported the Customs Commissioners “and other tools of power,” agreed to abstain from tea “until those creatures, together with the Boston Standing Army, are removed and the Revenue Acts repealed.”
Hardly was Parliament reconvened and the debate on America renewed when a crisis emptied the ministry of Grafton, its nominal chief, and his associates. Chatham, returned from the shadows, had risen to express alarm over the Americans’ success in supplying themselves with their own manufactures, and to say, in echo of Pownall’s principle, that “the discontent of two millions* of people deserved consideration and the foundation of it ought to be removed.” That was the only way to stop the “combinations and manufactures” in America. Chatham’s major eloquence, however, was spent on the non-seating of Wilkes, and when he proposed a motion condemning it, Lord Chancellor Camden, with independent courage, voted for the motion, against the Government of which he was a member, and was accordingly dismissed from office. Perhaps he welcomed the result for he confessed in Parliament that often in the Cabinet he merely hung his head in silence to register disapproval of measures which he knew overt opposition could not prevent.
A tragedy was the result. When Charles Yorke, former Attorney-General and son of a former Lord Chancellor, was offered the post that was his life’s ambition in a government that he and his family and friends opposed, and was strongly pressed by the King with promise of a peerage, he accepted against his conscience. That evening, reproached by associates and tortured by ambivalence, he committed suicide. As the man who had offered Yorke the post, Grafton, shaken by the death and dispirited by inability to control policy, resigned, followed by the two generals, Conway and Granby.
The new First Minister, forever to be associated with the American Revolution, was the amiable Lord North, who during his years of increasingly distracted office was to gain a clear idea of what a chief minister’s qualifications should be—and was sure he did not have them. In one of his periodic letters to the King begging to be allowed to resign, he wrote that the office should be held by “a man of great abilities, and who is confident of his abilities, who can choose decisively, and carry his determination authoritatively into execution … and be capable of forming wise plans and of combining and connecting the whole force and operations of government.” It was an excellent prescription and it concluded, “I am certainly not such a man.”
Nevertheless, as the King’s personal choice, North was to last, however unwillingly, for twelve critical years in the office that had had five occupants in the last decade. Fat-cheeked and corpulent, with bulging eyes, he bore a startling resemblance to George III, which was often made the subject of ribald suggestion, referring to the close connection of North’s parents with the household of Frederick, Prince of Wales, father of George III. At the time of North’s birth his father, the Earl of Guilford, served the Prince as Lord of the Bedchamber. North was christened Frederick for the Prince, who was his godfather, if nothing closer. In addition to physical resemblance, both North and George III suffered blindness in their last years.
In temperament, Lord North happily escaped resemblance to the King, being known, in Gibbon’s words, for “the felicity of his incomparable temper.” It was said that only one man, a drunken stupid groom, had ever been known to make him angry; unimproved and always forgiven, the man died still in North’s service. Elected from the family-controlled pocket borough of Banbury with thirteen voters, North entered the House of Commons at 22 and represented the same borough for the rest of his life. When appointed chief minister, he was 38, awkward in movement with weak eyesight and a tongue too large for his mouth “which rendered his articulation somewhat thick though not at all indistinct.” One who profited from education at Eton, at Oxford and on a three-year Grand Tour, he was proficient in Greek and Latin, spoke French, German and Italian, and when wide enough awake, sprinkled his speeches with classical allusions, foreign phrases and flashes of wit and genial humor.
If he could not hide from the harassments of office, he took refuge from them by sleeping on the front bench during debates. Asking to be wakened when Grenville in the course of a ponderous and long-winded discourse should reach modern times, and nudged when the speaker was citing a precedent of 1688, he opened an eye, muttered “a hundred years too soon” and relapsed into somnolence. He carried the habit to Cabinet meetings, where, according to Charles James Fox, who later served with him, “he was so far from leading the opinions of other ministers that he seldom gave his own and generally slept the greater part of the time he was with them.” This did not conduce to firm collective policy.
If seldom voiced, North’s opinions were firmly on the Right. He voted for the cider tax, for the expulsion of Wilkes, for the Stamp Act and against its repeal. Although against compromise with America, he was in practice ready to proceed by conciliation toward a possible middle ground, and “heartily wished to repeal the whole of the [Townshend] law” if he could have done it without giving up “that just right which I shall ever wish the mother country to possess, the right of taxing the Americans.” Though not a member of the Bedford clique, he was acceptable to them or he could not have been named First Minister. His chief disability lay in the extended and tight-fisted life of his father, who lived to be 86, depriving his son of the inheritance of a considerable fortune until he was old and blind and within two years of his own death. The result was that with a large family to support and an important position to keep up, North was in financial straits throughout his political life, dependent on office and obligated to the King, who, however kindly and tactfully, gave his First Minister £ 20,000 to pay his debts. Under such circumstances, independence of mind or action was less than likely.
When debate was renewed from March to May 1770, opposition speakers unsparingly depicted the Government’s record in America since the Townshend Act as a series of infirm policies, contradictory measures, irresolute and in some cases unconstitutional action and judgments contrary to Britain’s interest—in short, as folly. The terrible Colonel Barré excoriated the Cabinet for taking it upon itself to inform the Americans of its intention to repeal the duties before Parliament had acted, thus inspiring them “with a most contemptible idea of the measures of Parliament and the imbecility of those by whom lawful government is administered.” He scolded them further for reviving the statute from “the tyrannical reign of Henry VIII” and yet, “with weakness no less conspicuous than their wickedness … they had not the resolution to execute it.”
Pownall explained that it was the preamble to the Act “which gives the offence and raises the alarm in America”; in order to remove it, the whole Townshend Act must be repealed and exclude tea, and he so moved. Grenville, acknowledging himself the originator of the controversy with America, offered the unhelpful opinion that partial repeal would not satisfy the colonies while total repeal would not “sufficiently provide for the dignity of the nation,” and therefore he would abstain from voting. An independent member, Sir William Meredith, found the Government “so perversely, so inflexibly persisting in error on every occasion” as to cause surprise, in Dryden’s phrase, “that ‘they never deviate into sense’ nor stumble upon propriety by downright accident.” Since the tea duty, he added, would never pay for the cost of collecting it and the deficiency would have to be made up from the “coffers of this kingdom,” the result would merely be “to plunder ourselves.” Although Government majority prevailed over common sense, defeating Pownall’s motion by 204 to 142, common sense made an impression, for the yeas were almost twice the regular number of pro-American votes.
Again Pownall returned to the offensive when the debate turned to American policy as a whole. He showed that the real apprehension of the colonies, apart from taxation, was of a British “design to alter their civil constitution.” They found it confirmed in Hillsborough’s order dissolving their assemblies and in the Townshend Act preamble, which they feared would “render all their assemblies useless.” By this time news had reached England of the so-called Boston Massacre, which had raised local emotions to such a pitch that to prevent further incident, the redcoats who had been sent to cow Boston had to be removed, with less than glory to British arms, to the safety of Castle William in Boston Harbor. The withdrawal gave opportunity for the “infinite wit and raillery” of Mr. Edmund Burke, who of all the speakers of his time is the best known to posterity.
Burke’s ideas had the great advantage of being housed in mastery and felicity of language. Had his ideas been fuzzy, verbal beauties would not have helped, but his political thinking was acute and incisive. Though often prolix and overstated, his remarks became epigrams because they were so well phrased. He had a way of “winding into his subject like a serpent,” said Oliver Goldsmith, who thought him in conversation the equal of Dr. Johnson. Dr. Johnson agreed. “Burke talks because his mind is full.… No man of sense could meet Mr. Burke by accident under a gateway to avoid a shower without being convinced that he was the first man in England.” He often talked at such length as to empty the House and so vehemently that his friends had to hold him down by the skirts of his coat to restrain his passion, but his wit and intelligence prevailed. The bite of his speeches on America, wrote Horace Walpole, excited “continual bursts of laughter even from Lord North and the Ministers themselves.” His pathos “drew iron tears from Barré’s cheek”; his scorn would have excited strangers, if they had not been excluded from a certain debate, “to tear ministers to pieces as they went out of the House.”
Burke had no difficulty in making the Government look foolish with his list of its infirm chastisements of the colonies: how the Massachusetts Assembly, after being ordered to rescind its seditious resolution or suffer dissolution, was permitted to sit again without rescinding; how the other assemblies under the same threat defied the penalty and “treated the Secretary of State’s letter with contempt”; how the pains of the Henry VIII statute “never were, as it was known they never would be, carried into execution”; how a fleet and army sent to Boston to control the situation “are now withdrawn out of the town”; how in sum “the malignity of your will is abhorred and the debility of your power is condemned,” which has ever been the case of “government without wisdom.”
The majority, of course, defeated Burke’s eight resolutions of censure, and the same fate met a similar censure moved in the House of Lords by the young Duke of Richmond, a new and important, if rather too independent, recruit to the American cause who was to become an eminent opponent of Government policy.
Richmond was a glittering personage who personified in many ways the unreality of 18th-century English government. He was so heavily weighted with fortune’s goods that they hampered his thorough performance of any one task. A great-grandson of Charles II by his mistress Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, a brother of the lovely Lady Sarah Lennox, whom George III wanted to marry, he was dignified, courteous, strikingly handsome and together with his wife, also of a ducal family, made “the prettiest couple in England.” Duke at fifteen, colonel of his regiment at 23, Ambassador to France and briefly Secretary of State under Rockingham at 31, he had youth, beauty, great riches, highest rank, military valor, intelligence and capacity for hard work, a network of political connections and “all the blood of kings from Bruce to Charles II.” Not surprisingly, with these attributes, he was tactless, hot-tempered, unable to bend to other men or to political necessities, intolerant of inadequacies in others and given to quarreling with family, friends, subordinates and with the King in the first year of his reign so that he resigned from a post in the royal household and was pursued by royal animosity thereafter.
Intent on exposing abuses, Richmond harassed Army, Admiralty and Treasury with his searching questions, which did not make him popular. He could arrive in town on the morning of a debate, master the issues in a quick study and speak on them effectively the same afternoon. Defeat of his aims and purposes, however, turned him quickly sour, causing repeated threats to retire from politics altogether. He suffered periods of depression, one in 1769 of which he wrote to Rockingham, “I must for some time at least indulge myself in my present disposition which I will give no name to.” At home in Sussex he spent vast sums on new wings to Goodwood House, on dog kennels and race track, yacht, hunting and the local militia and, after inheriting a great estate worth £68,000 with an additional annual income of £20,000 from coal duties, found himself £95,000 in debt forty years later. His interest in government, like that of others of his kind, often slipped below other matters. It was unreasonable of Burke, Richmond once wrote to him, to want him to come down to London before Parliament convened. His opinion carried “little weight,” therefore for him to confer with political associates had no purpose. “No, let me enjoy myself here till the meeting, and then at your desire I will go to town and look about me for a few days.”
Unrestrained in the 1770 debate, he described ministerial conduct in America as that of either “artful knave or incorrigible fool” and either way, “the ministers are a disgrace to the very name of government.” He proposed eighteen resolutions of censure covering all acts and measures since 1768 and concluding that “these many and ill-judged proceedings have been a principal cause of the aforesaid disorders.” Goaded to reply, Hillsborough made the usual defense of the need to establish authority, and added a charge that “our patriots” of the opposition were stimulating colonial protest and “continually throwing obstacles in the way of reconciliation” out of “the patriotic wish of getting into place.… In fact, my lords, their whole patriotism is a despicable avarice of employment … so they can succeed to office.”
While obviously underrating the colonies’ native resistance, Hillsborough had a point about the motives of the opposition. Their “avarice” for office, however, was not as strong as their inertia of political organization. They were ineffectual because, owing to feuds and differences, they could not find common ground to form a solid front. “Dowdeswell [former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Rockingham] was devilish sulky at Lord Chatham,” wrote Richmond to Rockingham at this time, “and Burke is all combustible.” Burke could not take Chatham’s arrogance and Chatham could not endure a strong-minded intellectual equal as an ally. Although Rockingham tried to bring Chatham into a team that would work together under his captaincy, Chatham would accept only on conditions establishing his own dominion. Shelburne, disgusted with the helplessness of being in a perpetual minority, went abroad with Barré in 1771. Richmond and Rockingham were lured by their country acres and, as a contemporary satire put it,
With hound and horn her truant schoolboys roam
And for a fox-hunt quit St. Stephen’s dome*
In America, no heightened protest followed Parliament’s maintenance of the Townshend preamble and tea duty. As often happens, the logical course of events suffered quirks and diversions. Among the colonial propertied class, fear of mobs and social upheaval had begun to erode their support of the “patriotic” movement. Its impetus dwindled. Wearying of Non-Importation, New York proposed a conference of the northern seaports to decide on a common policy. Merchants of Boston and Philadelphia, also eager to resume trade, were prevented by the agitators. When the proposed conference fell through, New York, rather than be cheated while “starving on the slender Meals of patriotism,” abandoned Non-Importation and opened its port in 1772. Separately, at different times, the other colonies followed, agitation subsided and the absence of unity confirmed Britain in the assumption that the colonies would never join in a common front and that loyalist sentiment and economic self-interest would prevail over seditious impulse.
With feelings intense in Parliament over the Wilkes issue, Lord North’s policy was to keep American affairs out of the House of Commons, and for two years, owing to the lull in the colonies, he succeeded. This could have been a period of compromise and possible reunion if a positive effort had been made. The colonies were bent on redress of grievances and autonomy in their own affairs, not on independence. On the contrary, the Stamp Act Congress had asserted that they “most ardently” desired “perpetual continuance” of the ancient tie with Britain. Even the Massachusetts Assembly, the most aggressive in sentiment, had disavowed in 1768 “the most distant thought of independence,” claiming that the colonies “would refuse it if offered to them and would deem it the greatest misfortune to be obliged to accept it.” George III, Lord North, Hillsborough and the Bedfords, however, were not equipped for positive effort or creative government. In the lull, the sails of folly were furled for the moment—until the affair of theGaspéein 1772.