Alis­tair Lex­den

The King, the Prime Min­is­ter and the Loss of the Amer­i­can Colonies

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Alis­tair Lex­den

Last June Alis­tair Lex­den hosted a din­ner at the Carlton Club for a dis­tin­guished group of Amer­i­cans, deeply in­volved in heritage and con­ser­va­tion projects, who were in Eng­land on a week’s cul­tural heritage tour with a par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on the late eigh­teenth cen­tury. He gave a brief ad­dress in which he re­ferred more pos­i­tively than is cus­tom­ary to two men whose rep­u­ta­tions were so se­verely dam­aged by the loss of the Amer­i­can colonies.

His­tory has not been kind to Ge­orge III and his faith­ful Prime Min­is­ter, Lord North, who served him loy­ally for twelve years from 1770 to 1782. This is in part — as is so of­ten re­marked — be­cause his­tory is writ­ten by the vic­tors. The losers’ weak­nesses were re­mem­bered, their strengths for­got­ten.

They pos­sessed many virtues in­clud­ing wide cul­tural in­ter­ests, a pas­sion for hard work and con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal tal­ent. Deeply in­ter­ested in sci­ence, music and art, the King amassed a large col­lec­tion of books which be­came the foun­da­tion of the Bri­tish Li­brary. The Prime Min­is­ter was a well-read clas­si­cist and Chan­cel­lor of Ox­ford Univer­sity.

Both were in the prime of life when war broke out in 1775: the King was thirty-seven and the Prime Min­is­ter forty-two. Nei­ther was trou­bled by ill-health; the King’s prob­lems lay in the fu­ture. They both put in long hours. The King was up at 6 am to start work on gov­ern­ment pa­pers which oc­cu­pied him most of the day, dur­ing which he sent clear views in writ­ing on a vast mass of busi­ness to his min­is­ters. He was an ex­tremely ac­tive head of gov­ern­ment, much more so than his two Hanove­rian pre­de­ces­sors. This made him a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure, long be­fore the out­break of war

with Amer­ica. Many ac­cused him — wrongly — of want­ing to weaken Par­lia­ment and con­cen­trate power in his own hands.

The Prime Min­is­ter won and re­tained the King’s com­plete trust, es­sen­tial for ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment at that time. They had known each other well since child­hood. In pol­i­tics, North won much praise on all sides for his eco­nomic acu­men and ste­ward­ship of the pub­lic fi­nances; he cut taxes and in­creased pros­per­ity. His great­est strength was as a Par­lia­men­tar­ian. A con­tem­po­rary de­scribed the Com­mons as his ‘theatre in which he acted the first per­son­age, where he at­tracted al­most all the at­ten­tion…pow­er­ful, able and flu­ent in de­bate,’ he spoke reg­u­larly for two hours with­out notes. He was a mas­ter of wit and hu­mour. ‘It was im­pos­si­ble to ex­pe­ri­ence dull­ness in his com­pany,’ a po­lit­i­cal observer wrote. Up un­til his last months in of­fice he re­tained a com­fort­able par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity over a deeply di­vided op­po­si­tion. After his death he came to be de­scribed as a Tory; in fact he was not a party politi­cian at all in the mod­ern sense, but the monarch’s pow­er­ful par­lia­men­tary part­ner who en­joyed al­most com­plete suc­cess un­til war broke out in Amer­ica in 1775.

The King’s po­si­tion through­out the seven-year con­flict was clear and un­wa­ver­ing. The rebel colonies must be brought to heel. He stressed that he was ‘fight­ing the bat­tle of the leg­is­la­ture’ so that it could pass laws and levy taxes in Amer­ica just as it did in Bri­tain. With­out an Amer­i­can Em­pire and the trade which helped en­rich Bri­tain, the King be­lieved that his coun­try could not be ‘pre­served from a state of in­fe­ri­or­ity and con­se­quently fall­ing into a very low class among the Euro­pean states.’ He re­jected calls from those in Amer­ica who urged him to be ‘the lov­ing father of your whole peo­ple,’ pre­pared to stand up to the West­min­ster Par­lia­ment on their be­half and work with their leg­is­la­ture on one side of the At­lantic as he worked with West­min­ster on the other (one Crown, two Par­lia­ments).

At the out­set of the war the Prime Min­is­ter was in full agree­ment. The con­flict arose, he said, ‘from the de­sire of main­tain­ing the con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity of Par­lia­ment over the colonies’. But un­like the King he was pre­pared to com­pro­mise. In 1778 he pro­posed that the colonies ‘upon

re­nounc­ing their claim to in­de­pen­dency shall be ex­empt for the fu­ture from par­lia­men­tary tax­a­tion,’ thereby re­mov­ing the chief grievance which had pre­cip­i­tated the con­flict in the first place.

Such a Prime Min­is­ter could not pros­e­cute the King’s war with vigour and de­ter­mi­na­tion. Con­cil­i­a­tion was his aim. Though the part­ner­ship be­tween King and Prime Min­is­ter con­tin­ued through­out the war, the Prime Min­is­ter’s heart was no longer in it. He was the most un­suit­able per­son to be a war leader, though even so vic­to­ries were won in Amer­ica (a whole string of them in 1780). The Prime Min­is­ter con­stantly asked to be re­placed, but the King was de­ter­mined to re­tain him be­cause he was so ef­fec­tive a par­lia­men­tar­ian and un­equalled in his par­tic­u­lar sphere of fi­nance. North said he felt ‘un­der such obli­ga­tions to the King that I can never leave his ser­vice while he de­sires me to re­main and thinks I can be of use to him.’ There was no one of com­pa­ra­ble abil­ity to take his place. The two men lost the war not be­cause they were in­com­pe­tent or in­ef­fec­tual or un­will­ing to work hard enough, but be­cause they re­tained their part­ner­ship after they had ceased to agree on what the aims of that part­ner­ship should be.

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