A Biography of Lord North (1713-1792)
Lord North was Prime Minister of Great Britain from January, 1770 to March, 1782. His early successes as Leader of the House and his efforts to cut the national debt brought him the confidence of a faction-ridden Parliament and the favor and friendship of King George III. But his failure to subdue the American colonies and the subsequent loss of the Revolutionary War brought an end to his ministry and forever darkened his name in history.
Born 13 April, 1732, he was the son of Francis North, first Earl of Guilford. Francis North was a close friend of Frederick, Prince of Wales--Lord North's namesake. He was a domineering man and North sought his father's advice throughout his life. At two, North's mother died. His father then married Elizabeth Legge. She brought to the marriage a large dowry and a young son, William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth. He and Lord North attended Eton and Trinity College together before entering politics.
In 1756, North was elected to Parliament from the single-member borough at Banbury. His heavy, loud voice and sharp wit in debate made him an asset to the Government of the Duke of Newcastle in an often rancorous House of Commons. In February of 1758, he lead the Government fight against the Opposition motion for annual parliamentary elections. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a position at the Treasury Board in May of 1759. There, North gained expertise in matters of public finance.
The ascension of George III to the throne brought an end to the Pitt- Newcastle government. The King appointed his favorite, the Earl of Bute, to head the ministry. North reluctantly stayed at the Treasury rather than follow Newcastle out of office. Lacking the trust of many, Bute's government fell and George Grenville became Prime Minister in May of 1763. Grenville was a brilliant man of public finances but his clumsy handling of the Stamp Act Crisis and his failure to appoint the King's mother to the Regency Council brought him scorn. Grenville fell from power in July of 1765 and was supplanted by the short-lived ministry of the Marquis of Rockingham. Though he was ask to stay, North resigned.
In July of 1766, George III turned to William Pitt to form a ministry in hopes of bringing stability to his government. Pitt took a peerage as the Earl of Chatham and formed a Cabinet of men of differing interest and influences. He offered North the office of Joint Paymaster-General, which he accepted. In December, North was appointed to the Privy Council and by early 1767, he was called to attend Cabinet meetings. When Charles Townshend died suddenly in September of 1767, North succeeded him as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
From late 1766 to mid-1769, poor health removed Chatham from politics. The Duke of Grafton became the nominal head of the ministry, but he lacked the charisma and leadership necessary to govern. Slowly, the Chathamite ministers resigned--first, Shelburne, then Granby and Camden, then others--and went into Opposition. Grafton was soon surrounded by ministers he could not control and hostility to his ministry grew in Parliament. The crisis over the return of the radical John Wilkes and his subsequent election from Middlesex lead to the resignation of the Duke. The stage was now set for Lord North to become Prime Minister.
By late 1769, George III realized that the Grafton ministry was doomed. He sought out Lord North to become prime minister, but North was at first hesitant. After consulting his father, North accepted. On 31 January, 1770, he become George III's sixth prime minister.
North's replacement of Grafton did not placate the Opposition in Parliament. He was at once attacked by the Opposition over the Wilkes affair and the excesses of the Civil List (the King's debts). As a member of the Commons, instead of the Lords, North was able to defend himself against his opponents first hand. His wit, humor, and loud voice keep the Opposition at bay. By summer, North's held a safe majority in the Commons.
Other problems loomed. The attempted Spanish takeover of the Falkland Islands brought the North government to the brink of war with Spain. The Earl of Weymouth, Secretary of State for the Southern Department, urged war, but North was able negotiate a peace. Weymouth resigned in disgust. The resignation of the Earl of Hillsborough, Colonial Secretary, soon followed, and North replaced both with men more loyal to himself. In particular, he appointed the Earl of Dartmouth, his step-brother but a Rockingham supporter, to fill Hillsborough's office. Controversies arose in Ireland and India as well. Ireland was dominated by the Protestant minority at the time, and they increasingly demanded more favors: constitutional and commercial. North was unwilling to extend to them the same privileges as England. Through patronage, bribes, and other graft, he mollified their demands for a time. India, however, was much more difficult. It lacked a proper political system of administration; instead, it was managd as a business rather than as a colony. North attempted to bring some sort of system to it, but like Ireland, he was only able to paper over a more complex problem.
In matters of national finance, however, North excelled. His years at the Treasury paid off handsomely now. The magnitude of the National Debt had since the end of the Seven Years' War been of great concern to the men at the Treasury; North was no exception. He made use of a lottery to increase revenues without increasing the land tax (and thus not upsetting the Independent Country Gentlemen). Even George Grenville, now in opposition, was often speechless once North had announced his outlay of public expenses before the Commons. Had the American War not occurred, North might have brought the Debt under control and been regarded as a good prime minister.
For the first three years of the North ministry, the American colonies appeared calm. North had stuck by the decision of the Grafton ministry to retain the 6 d. duty on tea imported into the colonies. The salaries of high officials (i.e., the governor, judges) were paid from its revenues. The colonists were of course angered by what they saw as an encroachment upon their own legislatures' prerogatives. Neither protest nor trade boycotts could dissuade North that the tea tax was legitimate as well as a means of demonstrating the supremacy of Parliament over the colonies. By early 1770, resistance had subsided.
Lord North's efforts to rescue the East India Tea Company from bankruptcy lead to the Boston Tea Party. Under the original proposal, the surplus inventories of tea would be shipped directly to the colonies. Consignees would be appointed to sell the tea in America. The 6 d. duty on tea would have been removed. North, however, was unwilling to remove the tea duty; a 3 d. duty would be retained. In May of 1773, the Tea Act passed the House of Commons with little opposition.
As information about the Tea Act filtered into the colonies, public opinion changed from placid to bitter resentment. Radicals vented against the retention of the tea tax. In Boston, the first tea shipment arrived in November. Patriots would not allow the ship to unload its cargo, and the despised governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, would not permit the ship to sail from the harbor without paying the duty. The impasse came to an end on the night of 16 December when Boston patriots, dressed as Indians, boarded the ship and dumped the tea chest into Boston harbor.
Word of the Boston Tea Party reached London on 20 January, 1774. Public opinion turned sharply against the colonists, especially Boston. The news was received bitterly by the North ministry. A policy of coercion was decided upon and Lord North drafted into legislation the Coercive Acts. The Boston Port Act, which would close the Boston harbor until the colonists paid for the destroyed tea, was passed on 31 March, with few objections, even by the friends of America. Additional measures followed: Massachusetts Government Act, 20 May; Administration of Justice Act, 20 May; and Quartering Act, 2 June--all with the intention of punishing Massachusetts, particularly Boston, for its actions.
Lord North intended on making a lesson of Massachusetts with the belief that the other colonies would not support her, but his assumptions were wrong. The moderates in the other colonies pledged their support to Massachusetts and called for a Continental Congress.
Tensions mounted between the colonies and Great Britain. General Thomas Gage, now governor of the insolent colony of Massachusetts, warned in his letters of the impossibility of enforcing the Massachusetts Government Act without additional troops.
By December, North realized that Great Britain was on the verge of war with her colonies. In January, he proposed a peace commission. He offered to eliminate the tea tax so long as the colonies promised to pay the salaries of civil authorities regularly. But it was too late. Events now overtook the hope of a peaceful reconciliation. On 16 April, 1775, a skirmish on the Lexington Green between Gage's troops and patriots transformed the American crisis into the American war. Bunker Hill followed later that summer. Lord North was forced to declare the colonies in a state of rebellion.
North knew he lacked the qualities to carry on a war with the colonies. He offered his resignation to George III. The King, however, was absolutely unwilling to accept it. Neither Chatham nor Rockingham could take his place; he despised them both. North would have to stay. It would be the first of many attempts by Lord North to resign.
In November, Lord George Germain, a disgraced soldier seeking to redeem himself, replaced Lord Dartmouth as American Secretary. Germain would be responsible for the conduct of the war, particularly strategy. He at once set to work, beginning by limiting the instructions of the peace commission so much so that they lacked any chance of reconciling the colonies--just as Germain wanted.
The war brought an increased burden to Lord North. As the First Lord of Treasury, he was responsible for the procurement of equipment and supplies for the army. All the supplies had to be gathered in England and then transported across the Atlantic to America; it was no easy task. He also had to buy soldiers from other countries and hire mercenaries. None of this was cheap and did considerable damage to his debt reduction efforts.
The defeat of Burgoyne's army at Saratoga in 1777 changed what was a colonial rebellion into a wider conflict. France soon recognized American independence and would join the colonies in their fight against her old enemy. North again submitted his resignation to the King and again he refused to accept it. He tried once more to make peace with the colonies through the creation of the Carlisle Commission, which was empowered to offer the colonists every concession except independence. Again, it was too late.
From June of 1778 to May of 1780, the American war stood at a stalemate. Germain had adopted a new strategy during this time--a southern strategy. The supposedly large numbers of loyalists in the southern colonies would be employed to re-establish royal authority in the colonies one by one. On 8 May, 1780, Gen. Henry Clinton's troops began firing on Charleston, South Carolina. The inadequate American forces there surrendered four days later on the 12th. Clinton turned over operation of the southern offensive to Gen. Cornwallis. Cornwallis headed inwards into the backcountry of South Carolina while he returned to the comforts of New York.
News of Clinton's quick success reached London later that summer and gave new hope that the colonies might be made to submit. Meanwhile, North had decided upon new parliamentary elections, in hopes of strengthening his majority in the House of Commons. The returns proved less than a success, but North would hold a majority in Parliament so long as no disaster occurred. Then came word of Yorktown on 25 November, 1781.
The surrender of Cornwallis was an unexpected surprise in London. When North was informed, he exclaimed, "Oh God, it's all over!" The Opposition in Parliament, led by Charles James Fox, turned up the heat on the North government, particularly Germain and the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. They were now joined by some of the governments' backbenchers, who began to cry for "a human sacrifice": Germain had to go. In January, he resigned from office only to be elevated to a peerage in the House of Lords.
North again submitted his resignation to the King. The American war was lost, he argued; the colonies would have to be given their independence. George III stubbornly refused to accept North's resignation or relinquish his colonies.
From February until mid-March, the North ministry was attacked in Parliament by the Opposition in six major votes. On 7 and 26 of February, Fox led censure motions against Sandwich; both defeated. On the 22nd, Henry Conway, a former minister in the Chatham administration, led an address to the throne to end the American war and cede the colonies their independence. It was defeated by only one vote. On the 27th, his reworded resolution passed with nineteen votes to spare. Absentees and defections from within North's own party strengthened the Opposition. On 8 March, they were narrowly defeated in their motion of no-confidence against North's government. The vote of the 20th was even closer.
North realized that his government's end was near. In front of a packed chamber on the 22nd, he rose to be recognized. The Opposition had hoped to vote on its no-confidence measure before North could resign. An hour long debate followed before North could be heard. He resigned: "those persons who had for some time conducted the public affairs, were no longer his Majesty's ministers."
Reluctantly, the King appointed Rockingham to succeed North. Rockingham began the peace negotiations with the colonies until his untimely death later that summer. He was succeed by the Earl of Shelburne, who granted the colonies their independence. North went into Opposition during this time, until he formed a coalition government with his adversary, Charles James Fox. The Fox- North coalition ousted the Shelburne government with the promise of re-negotiating the peace treaty with America on better terms. Fox, as Foreign Secretary, did not make much head way and the Treaty of Paris was signed 3 September, 1783.
George III despised Fox and turned cold towards North for forming a government with him. In 1784, the King persuaded William Pitt the Younger to become prime minister. Pitt detested North and held him responsible for the loss of the colonies.
North's remaining year were spent in poor health. His eyesight began to wane on him and by 1787 he was completely blind. His father died in 1790 and North succeeded him as the second Earl of Guilford. He took his seat in the House of Lords in April of 1791. He died on 5 August, 1792; his name forever remembered as the minister who lost America.
List of works consulted
- Christie, Ian R. The End Of North's Ministry, 1780-1782. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958.)
- Cook, Don. The Long Fuse How England Lost The American Colonies, 1760-1785., (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.)
- Labaree, Benjamin Woods, The Boston Tea Party. (Westford, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1979.)
- Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.)
- Thomas, Peter D. G., Lord North. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976)