Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford was born the13th of April, 1732 at Wroxton Abbey and died the 5th of August 1792. Frederick North is more often known by the title, Lord North, which he started using in 1752 and was also known so until 1790. Lord North was a wartime Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782 and confidant of George III (Brougham, 1839).
Frederick North sprang from one of those honorable families that composed the governing class of eighteenth-century England. North had served his apprenticeship under Charles Townshend, a brilliant but erratic Chancellor of the Exchequer, and having won the reputation of being an able and diligent man of business, succeeded to the chancellorship after Townshend’s death. A few years later, in 1770, when the Duke of Grafton “suddenly threw up the seals and retired to his diversions and his mistress at Newmarket,” North became Prime Minister (Dale, 1983).
The head of the government was a stout, hearty Englishman – a beefeater who might have passed for John Bull himself. A contemporary summed up his impression of Lord North in these words: “large legs, walks heavily, manner clumsy, very large featured, thick lips, wide mouth, high forehead, large nose, eyes not lively.” He bore a close resemblance to his master, George III, and gossip did nor overlook that his mother had been a close friend of the father of George III. Like the King, he was a good family man: those who knew him best said that he was “formed for the enjoyment of domestic comforts, and to shine in the most elegant societies.” (Dale, 1983)
Like many fat men, Lord North was easygoing and good-humored -valuable qualifies for a man who, during the twelve years he served as Prime Minister, was denounced by some of the greatest orators in English history: Barré, Chatham, Fox, Sheridan, and Burke. Probably no English Prime Minister has ever taken more abuse over a longer period of time. For the most part, North bore this vilification in silence – he left the speechmaking to the Whigs and, while the storm of words swirled and raged about him, sat like a rock which only at intervals appeared above the froth. He listened to the Whig orators – when he was not dozing -with an equanimity gained from long experience as a butt of masters of invective; and he even learned to admire their flights of vituperation. Appreciative of crack marksmanship even when he was the target, he was known to applaud a particularly telling insult hurled at him. Invective “always seemed to sink into him, like a Cannon Ball into a Wool Sack.” In perfect command of his temper, North seldom gave the Whigs the satisfaction of seeing that he was hurt: they hit him often but rarely drew blood (Brougham, 1839).
North’s habit of dozing quietly through long-winded orations in the House of Commons made him the object of much raillery among the members. Burke, for example, once said that he “hoped that government was not dead, but only asleep. At this moment he looked directly at Lord North, who was asleep, and said, in the Scripture phrase, ‘Brother Lazarus is not dead, but sleepeth.'” The Prime Minister entered heartily into the laugh “as soon as he was sufficiently awake to understand the course of the joke.” Threatened with impeachment and death, he was roused from his cat nap by the thunderous declamations hurled against him, but only to complain that he was denied “a solace which other criminals so often enjoyed, that of having a night’s rest before their fate.” On another occasion, North remarked to Fox after that Whig orator had delivered a particularly stinging attack upon Lord George Germain: ” Charles, I am glad you did not fall on me today, for you was in full feather.” (Brougham, 1839)
To these engaging traits, North joined considerable skill as a party manager: he was at his best in distributing patronage where it would do the most good, smoothing over personal differences between party members, and keeping the King’s followers in Parliament contented. Possessed of only a small estate with which to support his large and growing family, North was seldom free from financial worry; yet, although he practised wholesale corruption in Parliament, he himself was not corrupt. Vast amounts of public money passed through his hands, but even his enemies did not allege that the Prime Minister pocketed any part of these funds. As First Lord of the Treasury, he lived beyond his income, but he eked out by borrowing rather than by resorting to graft. On one occasion, the harassed Prime Minister, bursting into tears, told the House of Commons that “naked he came into the world, naked he should go out of it.” (Brougham, 1839)
Lord North was everything that George the Third wanted in his chief minister. It was a great relief to the King, after the intolerable domineering manners of the Whig leaders, to find a minister who really was a servant and not a would-be master. Lord North was loyal, tactful, courteous, deferential, and at the same time so pleasant and genial. After ten years spent enduring such men as George Grenville, Lord Chatham and the Marquis of Rockingham, the King had attained the peace and satisfaction that comes to any man with the possession of the perfect valet. No better agent to take care of his business could he have found. North’s most important duty was to manage the House of Commons, and this he did admirably. So placid and easy-tempered was he that the bitterest shafts of his political opponents could not ruffle his composure or provoke his resentment; so ready of wit, quick of understanding and facile in speech that he could hold his own in any debate. Versatile, intelligent, scholarly, always polite, he commanded the good-humored respect of all and the affection of many. Honest and disinterested himself, he was pleasantly tolerant of the foibles of his fellows, and especially proficient in the gentle art of managing them. Government in the eyes of his royal master meant primarily the holding together of a majority, and this he knew well how to do, not, as was the way of the Pitts, by means of personal leadership and superior ability, resulting in moral and intellectual ascendancy, but by skillful use of the material resources of the Crown to satisfy the cupidity of his followers (Dale, 1983).
If the American problem bothered him, the Indian problem only bored and annoyed him. He thought he had disposed of it two years before. What could be more vexing than to find the one apparently as refractory as the other? Why did these men have to inaugurate the new system by quarreling? And why, above all, did they have to solemnly appeal to him to decide between them? They had been strongly exhorted to maintain harmony. Surely, then, they should act like sensible men and compose their differences.
Very clear is it that at first Lord North did not want to take sides. The views he expressed to the King on the merits of the first disputes show a real attempt to reach a fair and balanced judgement. Clavering, Monson and Francis, he said, seemed to be in the right with respect to the Rohilla War, in which transaction the Governor-General’s conduct was not quite free from suspicion, but in other matters he appeared to have been a very able and useful servant to the Company, and in particular to have put the finances of Bengal into a much better condition than they had been in before his time. The worst part of the business was, he sadly admitted, that the two parties in the Council appeared too much irritated against one another to act together with any cordiality for the future (The Francis Letters, 1901, pp. 218-220).
Whichever way he looked at the situation it was full of difficulty. Clavering and Monson were the King’s men and their friends were important cogs in the wheel of his own Majority. On the other hand, he felt that the time had not yet come when Hastings’s able services should be dispensed with. He had reason, too, to be afraid of the strength of the Governor-General’s following in the Company. There seemed only one thing for him to do and that was to follow his natural bent and temporize by appearing as the friend of both parties, and hope for the best. It soon became generally known that Lord North’s desire was to cast no more blame upon the Governor-General than it was supposed he could bear, as his resignation would be considered a public misfortune, to treat the triumvirate tenderly that their friends in England might not be disgusted, and to exhort the five gentlemen again to harmony (Forrest, 1910, p. 462). But, alas! his Lordship was soon to find the strain of sitting on the fence too great.
The first reports of the disputes threw public opinion into confusion. Whatever wickedness had been attributed to the Company’s servants in general, an honorable exception had hitherto been made of Warren Hastings. He had many friends who were fervently devoted to him, and they never missed an opportunity of extolling his merits and silencing the slanders of his enemies. Hitherto they had held the fort for him with ease. Now their difficulties began. The ably written dispatches of Francis had their intended effect, especially at the west end of town, and as ship after ship reached port from Calcutta with even more startling news, the disturbance of opinion grew, and with it the anxiety of Hastings’s friends. They urgently wrote him to hold his post. Have patience, said Sulivan. Be firm and resolute, said Sykes. Sykes and Sulivan were not friends: Sykes disliked and distrusted Sulivan and regretted that Hastings had entrusted. his interests to Macleane, a close connection of Sulivan; but they, and all the rest of Hastings’s supporters, made common cause in his behalf.
By some mischance the Majority’s dispatches on the Nuncomar charges arrived ahead of the Governor-General’s report. And such now was the instability of opinion that the charges found almost universal credence and aroused intense feeling against Hastings. He was spoken of as the most corrupt governor Bengal had yet had. Even his most faithful champions knew a moment of sick fear lest the charges might be true. “I would have ventured my life nothing of this kind could have ever been laid to your charge,” wrote Sykes in dismay. Then Hastings’s own account arrived, and at once opinion swung back in his favor. The greatest excitement came with the news of Nuncomar’s trial and execution (Dale, 1983).
By this time General Clavering’s powerful friends were bringing all their influence to bear on Ministers to compel the recall of the Governor-General. It was the kind of pressure that politicians can least withstand, and very reluctantly Lord North prepared to climb down the fence on their side, being greatly helped in this decision by his secretary, John Robinson.
If Lord North was the perfect minister for an ambitious king, John Robinson was the perfect secretary for an indolent minister. He was a practical man of affairs and had a thorough grasp of the practical side of politics. He knew how parliamentary majorities were made and how they were kept, and how the business of the king’s minister should be conducted. If there were delicate negotiations to be handled or some intrigue to be managed, Robinson was the man for the job. But he could make himself still more useful by relieving his chief of a great deal of tedious departmental work. That connected with India, for instance. All the letters and dispatches from the Government of Bengal came to him, and were by him carefully epitomized; for if there was one thing that Lord North disliked more than another, it was reading dispatches, whether they came from America or India. Robinson saved him this trouble, and he also saved him from continuing long in his present state of doubt and uncertainty. As a practical politician it was natural that Robinson should support Clavering against Hastings, and he made it much easier for his chief to come round to the same sensible view by suppressing most of Hastings’s dispatches and coloring his summaries of Indian views by a strong pro Clavering bias. Clavering’s friends were much too strong politically to be antagonized. If they demanded Hastings’s head, Robinson for one wanted them to have it, and it was not long before he convinced Lord North that the gift would be both expedient and proper. The Court of Directors must be prevailed upon to petition the King for the Governor-General’s recall, which meant that Mr. Robinson’s abundant talents for intrigue were to find plenty of scope.
The way had been prepared for this maneuver the previous spring, when another round in the conflict between the Crown and the Company had been fought, ending wholly in the favor of the former. A new Court of Directors had been elected, and ministers had used the resources of the Crown to such good effect that the Court was now a packed body, with a majority of its members taking their orders from Downing street. Lucrative contracts had been given to six of them, and two others had been promised the next vacant seats in the Bengal Council. Among those that had lost their places was Laurence Sulivan. Lord North made no secret of his intention of gaining complete control. The work begun by the Regulating Act would then reach its logical conclusion (Dale, 1983).
During virtually the entire War of American Independence, Lord North, despite the vicissitudes of the struggle, remained in power as Prime Minister and the government was supported by large majorities in both houses of Parliament. While the Whig opposition charged that North was maintained in Dower by means of corruption emanating from the Crown, even the Whigs admitted that North owed his long tenure of office not merely to the purchase of votes of members of Parliament and of the electorate – although the King was indubitably a master of that art – but to the much more powerful force of public opinion. Outside London and a number of the larger commercial cities, the people generally supported the policy of coercing the colonies. Although elected by a small minority of the population, the House of Commons, at least as regards the war with the colonies, was not an unfaithful mirror of the public mind. The empire could not be given up without a struggle: had Parliament tamely yielded to the Americans, it would have forfeited the support of the British people.
The American Revolution, it should be borne in mind, occurred at a time when Great Britain was passing through a period of moral and spiritual letdown. For seven years – from 1756 to 1763 – the kingdom had waged war in both hemispheres against France, Spain, and Austria, and although the British emerged triumphant, they fell victim to the postwar enervation that sometimes overcomes the victors.
The upper classes tended to become soft, pleasure-loving, and indifferent to public affairs; and it was in this atmosphere of lassitude and heedlessness that they lost the fruits of victory. With their empire at the highest pitch of grandeur, all classes wished to relax. Discontent in such “far away regions” of the earth as America came as an unwelcome intrusion upon what had promised to be a long period of peace and prosperity. It was remarked that the British were “almost indifferent whether the French, the Pope, the Pretender, or the Devil, should take the reins of Government.” Lord North they gladly endured (Fiske, 1991).
This indifference or want of vigor could not be alleged against the British squirearchy, by far the most inveterate enemies of the American rebels. It was not necessary to buy the votes of the country gentlemen: staunch and intractable Tories, they voted from conviction on the side of government. Moreover, the squires supported the war not only by their votes but by their pocketbooks, for under the prevailing system of taxation the burden of the war fell upon the land. Sir Robert Walpole remarked, some years before, that “the landed gentlemen were like the flocks upon the plains; they suffered themselves to be shorn without resistance; while the trading part of the nation resembled the boar, who would not let a bristle be plucked from his back without making the whole parish echo with his complaint.” (Fiske, 1991) On the other hand, the squires expected to be the chief gainers by a British victory: upon the colonists would be thrust part of the tax load under which English landowners staggered.
The country gentlemen composed the hard, impermeable core of English Toryism. Rallying round the King in defense of the rights of the mother country, they formed a phalanx of honest John Bulls. To the end, they persisted in coercing the colonies, unmindful of the warnings of the Whigs that the cost of the war would ultimately fall upon landowners of England. Appeasement found no favor among the country gentlemen: they were the last to support Lord North’s peace offers. Any show of leniency toward the rebels disgusted the squires: their only criticism of Lord North was that he was not sufficiently severe. These hard-riding squires halloed the Ministry against the rebels as vigorously as they urged their hounds after a fox. To no avail, liberals raged that the squirearchy was a great dumb beast that fetched and carried for the Ministry. “The most short-sighted of all animals is undoubtedly our country gentleman of the true Tory breed,” said John Wilkes. “He has scarcely the sagacity of his pointer. Formerly he was very stubborn and restive, and would not be driven forward. Now he is perfectly tame, fawns on his feeder, and is easily managed.” (Fiske, 1991) Under this storm of invective, the squires sat dumb; but when the division came, they invariably sided with the Ministry.
Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Lord North had taken two steps – one in the direction of peace, the other towards war – in the hope of averting the impending conflict. Before the battle of Lexington, the Prime Minister submitted to Parliament a plan of conciliation, and at almost the same time he sent three major generals, together with considerable reinforcements of British troops, to Boston. Lord North did not conceal his hope that the use of force might be averted; the three major generals and the British troops who accompanied them were intended chiefly to awe Americans into accepting a peaceful settlement of the quarrel.
Lord North was not slow to perceive that he had blundered into a most unpromising dispute with the colonies, and, as was his custom, he sought to placate the furies he had helped arouse. It had never been his intention, he now declared, “to impose on our fellow-subjects in America any terms inconsistent with the most perfect liberty.” (Fiske, 1991) Fair words, but they sounded to Americans like the deathbed repentance of a hardened sinner against the rights of man.
Lord North’s peace plan – passed by Parliament in February 1775 -offered freedom from taxation by the British Parliament to any colony voluntarily making a fair contribution to imperial expenses. This proposal, it is plain, did not go to the heart of the dispute between Great Britain and its colonies: instead of receiving exemption from parliamentary taxation as they demanded, Americans were simply permitted to convert their colonial legislatures into taxgatherers for the British Parliament. Moreover, this scheme left unaltered the question of fundamental right. “An armed robber who demands my money,” exclaimed an indignant American, “might as well pretend he makes a concession, by suffering me to take it out of my own pocket, rather than search there for it himself.” The Continental Congress was pointedly ignored in Lord North’s peace plan.
Despite these objections, the government’s plan was accepted by the legislature of Nova Scotia and might have made headway in the thirteen revolted provinces had it been proposed ar a more opportune time. But Lord North was never happy in the timing of his peace offers: Conciliatory Propositions of 1775 reached New York the day after news of the battle of Lexington. With the colonists in this warlike frame of mind, it required greater art than Lord North or the British Parliament was capable of to calm the tempest produced in America by the fighting at Lexington. Doomed to failure, the peace plan of 1775 served to indicate that the British government, although not bent upon war with the colonies, was determined to retain intact the right of taxation which was the ostensible cause of the quarrel between Englishmen and Americans.
Among Lord North’s own followers, more good was expected from the three major generals than from the Prime Minister’s peace overtures. Much difficulty was experienced in persuading the Tory members of Parliament to vote for North’s peace plan – in striking contrast to the enthusiastic support they accorded the proposal of sending the major generals to America.
As the King’s political manager and as leader of the House of Commons Lord North unquestionably was a great success. No one who is Prime Minister of his country for twelve consecutive years can be lightly regarded, and it was no small achievement for him to hold his post despite the constant failure of his measures. His failure was, indeed, the measure of his success. A good politician, he was a bad statesman. He could manage Parliament, but he could not manage an empire. And it was his misfortune to be minister at a time when it was the Empire rather than Parliament that most needed managing, if the nation’s and not just the King’s personal interests were to be served. His attempts to regulate the two branches of the Empire were disastrous; one rebelled, the other was flung into chaos. And all his blunders returned again and again to plague him, until at length they overcame his adroitness and ended his long reign of power.
Brougham, Lord Henry. (1839). Historical Sketches of Statesmen Who Flourished in the Time of George III. Vol. I. C. Knight.
Dale B. J. (1983). Randall, Baron Dudley North. Gentle Flame: The Life and Verse of Dudley, Fourth Lord North (1602-1677). Duke University Press.
Ed. Francis, Beata and Keary, Eliza (1901). The Francis Letters. Vol. II, N.D. pp. 218-220
Fiske, John. (1991). The American Revolution Vol. II. Houghton Mifflin.
Forrest, G. W. (1910). Selections from the State Papers of the Governor-General of India. Vol. II, Warren Hastings.