The prime minister who lost America

Lord North is sometimes called Britain's worst ever prime minister. But does the man who lost the American colonies deserve this title, or was he a hapless victim of circumstance?

IT’S DIFFICULT to get a sense of who Britain’s worst prime minister was. Since Theresa May’s disastrous electoral gamble, many commentators have been quick to give her that title. This reeks of presentism, ignoring three hundred years of prime ministerial history – good and bad. May’s performance must be viewed in its context: Britain is a nation in decline, with low growth rates, widening inequality, and dangerous political polarisation. With the decision to exit the European Union threatening to tear both the country and her party apart, Theresa May’s weakness is in some ways entirely forgivable. To find a truly terrible prime minister, you have to find one who failed in spite of the most favourable conditions imaginable.

Enter Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford. Lord North’s early career earned him a reputation as a respected administrator and parliamentarian. Parliament at this time was divided between various groupings of Whigs (the Tory party having been wiped out over the previous half century), one led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, and another, the ‘opposition’ led by William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. A third grouping existed, comprised of those paternalistic Whigs who remained obsequious to the increasingly politically active King George III. This loyalty earned them the scathing nickname of ‘Tory’ from their opponents. It was to this group that Lord North belonged.

This foreign policy triumph refreshed a sense of British invulnerability that had existed since the triumph in the Seven Years’ War in 1763.

In 1770, the government of Lord Grafton collapsed after a series of foreign policy failures, most notably allowing France to annex Corsica earlier that year. Lord North replaced him, and immediately won a victory by staving off a Spanish attempt to seize control of the Falkland Islands. This foreign policy triumph boosted North’s popularity, but it also refreshed a sense of British invulnerability that had existed since the triumph in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, during which France was finally ejected from North America. To Lord North, backed by endless Tory backbenchers, there was no power that would dare contest British might, even as a crisis worsened in the Thirteen Colonies across the Atlantic.

Blessed with abundant and cheap land and attracting ever greater numbers of immigrants, the Thirteen Colonies, newly expanded as a result of the Seven Years’ War, were experiencing a boom. It was also a time of uncertainty. A sense of ‘American’ identity had begun to form, and colonists were starting to question the extent of British parliamentary authority over their country. This debate came to a head in 1765, when the government of Lord Grenville passed the Stamp Act, which levied taxes on all legal documents throughout the British Empire. This was met by widespread violent protest, and the assembly of a Continental Congress that threatened to place an embargo on British imports.

Lord North forces the Intolerable Acts down America’s throat, from The London Magazine, 1774

Grenville’s sucessor, the Marquess of Rockingham, repealed the laws immediately, but not before the American protest movement had already crystallised around the immortal slogan ‘no taxation without representation.’ Debate raged in Westminster. To Grenville and his supporters, suspicious of the democratic spirit, the American colonists were disobedient children. The passage of taxes and levies was something like tough love, required to assert Britain’s paternal authority. For Whigs like the Earl of Chatham,  who admired the egalitarian Americans, the colonists were the sons of England, and should share all the rights and privileges of their forefathers across the Atlantic.

The government, inevitably, decided to continue asserting imperial authority over its ‘children’. The wildly unpopular Townshend Acts of 1767, which levied taxes on tea and manufactured imports, drove a new wave of dissidence, particularly in the port town of Boston. Rather than attempting conciliation, Lord North’s response was muddled and aggressive, resulting in the Boston Massacre in which five demonstrators were shot by overzealous British soldiers. Despite this, Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, confirming the monopoly of the East India Company and implicitly reaffirming the taxes levied by the Townshend Acts. The colonists, well aware of this implication, organised a raid on a tea clipper in Boston, in what was later known as the Boston Tea Party.

Tensions finally boiled over in 1774. The Quebec Act passed that year expanded the Province of Quebec (recently captured from the French) over territory previously reserved for Native Americans, restored the use of French law, and guaranteed the status of the Catholic faith. This was anathema to the fiercely Protestant Americans; absurd rumours abounded that the King was poised to force Catholicism on the colonists. The assignment of the Indian Reserve to Quebec hindered the activity of settlers, traders and private companies that were already moving into the Ohio valley; the restoration of French law, meanwhile, angered patriots and loyalists alike as an apparent curb on the traditional rights and freedoms of Englishmen.

The Americans were disobedient children. All they required was some tough love to bring them back into the fold.

This entirely avoidable upswell of unrest was made worse by a serious misjudgment of the mood among the colonists. To North, like Grenville before him, the Americans were disobedient children. All they required was some tough love to bring them back into the fold. Chatham and Rockingham’s Whig factions, meanwhile, highlighted the continued failure of aggressive action, and pressured the government to accept compromise and extend parliamentary representation to the colonies. Their supporters cited the precedent of Calais and Tournai returning MPs in the 16th Century as evidence that Britain’s overseas possessions were entitled to Commons seats. However, North’s loyal and stubborn Tory backbenchers were only too willing to support their government, and the pleas for compromise were rejected.

The King and Lord North were unmoved. For the colonists, this necessitated drastic action, and in September 1774 a Continental Congress was assembled. Still wishing to avoid a break with Britain, the Congress called first for an economic boycott of the motherland. Throughout the colonies, however, armed militias were formed. By new year, King George was convinced that retaliation was the answer, and North and his ministers – ever creatures of the King – agreed. Chatham moved again to facilitate compromise, but the motion he set before the Lords only served to highlight the divisions between hawkish Tories and the more benign Whigs. North, meanwhile, prepared for war.

An 1868 print by Alonzo Chappel depicting the Boston Massacre, 5 March 1770.

Skirmishes first broke out in Massachusetts, when Continental troops saw off a British column looking to secure the arsenal at Concord. War was now inevitable, and North’s government, under pressure from King George III, bolstered the already large colonial garrison and began an intense campaign of recruitment. Even as late as 1776, North still harboured hopes of a negotiated settlement, that the colonists’ bluff could still be called. Indeed, a significant loyalist contingent still existed, and members of the Continental Congress feared that an offer of clemency from British commander Sir William Howe would draw away as many as a third of the colonists, killing the fledgling rebellion in its infancy.

Nonetheless, the growing voice in favour of independence won the argument. On 4th July 1776, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence – signed by people like Benjamin Franklin who were once proud to call themselves British – and put an end to any hope of peace. To the British public, Britain and America were one country, and this betrayal was nothing less than a national tragedy. Lord North’s profound misjudgement of the colonists, and his pigheaded attempts to stave off dissent turned a reparable situation into crisis and revolution. Great Britain was at the peak of its early modern powers, and it had been defeated by little more than the hubris and aversion to compromise of Lord North and his stubborn, paternalistic Tory government.

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