NORTH, Frederick, Lord North (1732-92).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1754 - 4 Aug. 1790

Family and Education

b. 13 Apr. 1732, 1st s. of Francis, 1st Earl of Guilford, by his 1st w. Lady Lucy Montagu, da. of George, 1st Earl of Halifax.  educ. Eton 1742-8; Trinity, Oxf. 1749; Grand Tour (with his kinsman William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth).  m. 20 May 1756, Anne, da. and h. of George Speke of White Lackington, Som., 4s. 3da.  K.G. 18 June 1772; suc. fa. as 2nd Earl of Guilford 4 Aug. 1790.

Offices Held

Ld. of Treasury 1759-July 1765; joint paymaster gen. Aug. 1766-Oct. 1767; PC. 10 Dec. 1766; chancellor of the Exchequer Oct. 1767-Mar. 1782; first ld. of Treasury Jan. 1770-Mar. 1782; Home sec. Apr.-Dec. 1783.

Chancellor, Oxford Univ. 1773- d.; ld. lt. Som. 1774- d.; ld. warden of the Cinque Ports 1778- d.

Biography

Lord North entered the House of Commons at the first general election after he came of age; spent almost the whole of his political life there; and was its leader for nearly fifteen years. As a parliamentarian he ranks among the greatest of the century; yet, forced to grapple with a problem far beyond his statesmanship and indeed well-nigh insoluble, his career was one of disaster. He became first minister at 37, and was only 49 when his Administration ended; but his last years were of increasing impotence and he finished with only a handful of followers, eclipsed by younger men.

Horace Walpole has left a description of North, written shortly after he became head of the Treasury:1

Nothing could be more coarse or clumsy or ungracious than his outside. Two large prominent eyes that rolled about to no purpose (for he was utterly short-sighted), a wide mouth, thick lips, and inflated visage, gave him the air of a blind trumpeter. A deep, untunable voice, which ... he enforced with unnecessary pomp, a total neglect of his person, and ignorance of every civil attention, disgusted all who judge by appearance.

But Grafton writes:2 ‘His lordship was formed for the enjoyment of domestic comforts, and to shine in the most elegant societies’; and Wraxall:3 ‘It was impossible to experience dullness in his society.’ Contemporaries are agreed on the excellence of his wit and humour; he was good-tempered, serene, and void of malice; courteous and easy of access. ‘If they turned out Lord North tomorrow’, wrote Gibbon in 1775, ‘they would still leave him one of the best companions in the kingdom.’4

North was not a great orator, but ‘a consummate master of debate’.5 Intelligent and quick-witted, he was prompt in reply, unruffled by criticism, and rarely lost his good humour. ‘The bitter sarcasms and severe accusations levelled at him’ during the American war ‘seemed to sink into him like a cannon ball into a wool sack’.6 He could open a complicated argument clearly, making essential points with brevity and weight, and excelled at financial statements. ‘His natural affability’, wrote Wraxall,7‘rendered him ... so accessible, and the communicativeness of his temper inclined him so much to conversation, that every member of the House found a facility in becoming known to him.’ Like every head of the Treasury in the eighteenth century he was overwhelmed by solicitations and requests for jobs, and George Selwyn complained of the ‘dilatory, procrastinating manner of what he calls obliging’.8 Similar complaints were made against Newcastle and later against the younger Pitt, and silence was often a minister’s best defence against persistent importuning. But North was notorious for his delay in answering letters, and seemed to care little for the offence he gave. In 1775 he left unanswered for seven weeks an important and urgent letter from Grafton, then lord privy seal, on the Government’s American policy;9 and his Cabinet colleagues frequently complained of his ‘flimsy way of doing business’.10 ‘Damn him!’, Thurlow is reported to have said in January 1780, ‘... Nothing can goad him forward, he is the very clog that loads everything.’11

During the American war North bore a triple burden of responsibility: as head of the Treasury Board, leader of the House of Commons, and first minister. ‘His labours are immense’, wrote Jenkinson to the King on 19 May 1780,12 ‘and such as few constitutions could bear.’ Without the help of John Robinson, his able and devoted secretary to the Treasury, North could hardly have got through his Treasury and patronage business. He also assumed primary responsibility for American, Irish, and Indian affairs. ‘Lord North is a very good Member of Parliament ...’, wrote one of his supporters, John Craufurd, on 17 Feb. 1773,13 ‘but I believe he is not a great minister, and that he has neither the extent of mind necessary to form large views nor the boldness to carry them into execution.’ ‘In critical times’, North wrote to the King on 10 Nov. 1778,14 ‘it is necessary that there should be one directing minister, who should plan the whole of the operations of Government, and control all the other departments of Administration.’ Shortly after taking office in 1770 he is reported to have said that his business was ‘only to take care of the finances’,15 and in 1778 he told George III he lacked the ‘authority of character’ a prime minister must have.16

The conduct of the American war was a sad display of muddle and divided responsibility. Amherst had control of the army but Germain responsibility for its operations in America; and Sandwich directed naval strategy, usually with little reference to Germain. The war was conducted by departments, ill co-ordinated by the Cabinet; and there was little attempt to relate military objectives to political. In the beginning it was never clear whether war or reconciliation was the policy of the British Government; after 1778 whether it was war against the Bourbon powers or America. Sandwich in September 1779 urged North to ‘take the lead at our councils’, which North could hardly do without devolving some of his minor responsibilities. In November 1778 he had suggested to the King, as ‘a measure which would lessen his own fatigues a good deal’, the appointment of Jenkinson as chancellor of the Exchequer, himself remaining leader of the House of Commons. But he ended his letter:

If this idea should please his Majesty, Lord North would hope for his Majesty’s promise that he should quit the Treasury at the end of the session, because, though the public affairs would be greatly benefitted by it, Lord North would in a short time become a cipher at his Board.17

And in August 1779 he complained to Robinson that he had no time to attend to Irish or East India affairs because ‘he was kept so employed in Treasury matters which might be done by other lords’.18

Chronic indecision at critical moments was North’s great defect as a minister. ‘I never could nor can decide between different opinions’, he wrote to the King on 7 May 1778; and Jenkinson on 21 Jan. 1782 described him as ‘in very low spirits, as he always is at this season of the year, when the time for opening the budget approaches’. His ambition was excessive, resulting in frequent self-doubt, frustration, and loss of drive and energy. He could manage a situation only when he could impose a preconceived solution, as in the Middlesex election question of 1769. Unable to adjust himself adequately to outside impressions, he could not respond to a crisis. He would waver between one course and another, and having at last come to a decision would immediately wish to go back on it. There was vacillation between action and flight, and rapid changes of self-confidence. Time and again after Saratoga he implored the King for permission to resign, and as often agreed to remain. ‘I look upon all this’, wrote Jenkinson on 28 Nov. 1779, ‘as nothing permanent, but as a disease of the mind which goes and comes.’ And on 14 Apr. 1780: ‘He is too fond of having it believed that he continues in office contrary to his inclination.’19

North’s progress to the highest office seemed at each stage almost inevitable, yet in retrospect appears surprising. He was six years at the Treasury Board without making himself especially conspicuous, and when the Grenville ministry fell in July 1765 few would have prophesied that within five years North would have been first minister. Diffidence, rather than ambition, marks his early career.

He was invited to take office (apparently a post abroad) by Pitt in 1758, but declined, wishing for a place at home.20 In 1759 he was appointed by Newcastle to the Treasury Board.21 In February 1761 Newcastle counted him as a particular friend and was alarmed by a suggestion that he should be promoted. North, he wrote to Devonshire on 10 Jan. 1762, ‘is coming to belong as much to me as anybody’.22 But North formed no strong political connexions except with his kinsman Lord Halifax, and continued at the Treasury under Bute and Grenville, having refused court office in November and December 1762.23 He was beginning at this time to become known as a speaker in the House. Harris writes that on the motion for an address on the war with Spain, 19 Jan. 1762, he spoke ‘long and well, though with an ungracious person and manners’; and on 21 Mar. 1763: ‘Lord North replied [to Pitt on the cider tax] and (as usual) perfectly well.’ He took charge of the parliamentary proceedings against Wilkes in 1763, and consolidated his reputation as a useful Government man of business.

North left the Treasury Board with Grenville, and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. He did not ally himself with Grenville in opposition, yet twice (December 1765 and May 1766) refused the place of joint vice-treasurer of Ireland from Rockingham.24 In August 1766, after having accepted office from Chatham, he told Thomas Bradshaw that ‘he did not much like things, but that his office had been offered him in such a manner that he could have no reason to refuse it’.25 And on 20 Oct. 1766 Thomas Whately wrote to Grenville: ‘I have a long letter from Lord North, strongly marked with the uneasiness of his situation.’26

During the debate on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, North, wrote Walpole,27 spoke ‘extremely well’ for the Government and ‘began to be talked of for chancellor of the Exchequer’. Charles Townshend was then in complete disagreement with Chatham’s East India policy, and on 4 Mar., two days before the East India inquiry was to open in the Commons, Chatham commissioned Grafton to offer the Exchequer to North. North ‘saw the business too much involved for him to undertake so difficult a post’ and declined, ‘upon a thorough conviction’, he wrote to Grafton, ‘that my acceptance of the seals will not be of any real service to the King’.28

On Townshend’s death (4 Sept. 1767) North was again offered the Exchequer. Grafton found him ‘much disinclined to the office’;29 and Charles Lloyd, Grenville’s private secretary, wrote to Temple on 10 Sept.:30

It was generally understood that he had refused, and yet as generally known that, if forced to the alternative of taking the chancellorship of the Exchequer or of quitting his present office, he would yield. Lord Guilford is said to be in a dangerous way, so as not to be likely to live even a few weeks. This may operate on Lord North’s conduct.

‘In a hurrying moment’ Grafton offered the post to Barrington, who accepted. Then, on 10 Sept., North wrote to Grafton from Wroxton:31

Upon my return hither I find Lord Guilford astonishingly recovered, the cause of his illness removed, and the whole family in spirits. Mine are so much raised by it that if you continue to find any real difficulty in disposing of the seals I shall be ready to obey any call from his Majesty or your Grace, though I own I am better pleased to serve on in my present office.

The King, through Halifax, had tried to influence Guilford.32 North always required reassurance before he could be brought to embark.

North wrote to his father on 12 Oct. 1767:33

The Duke of Grafton did not come to town time enough on Friday to be at the Cabinet himself, and so I was not summoned. But I have seen him since, and he has assured me that he understood it to be the King’s intention that I should always be summoned and considered as a member of the Cabinet. I have not the vanity to imagine that my advice can be of any consequence in the planning of Government, but this I am certain of, that it will be very difficult for me to act in concert with the Cabinet and promote their plans in Parliament unless I am at the meetings at which they are formed.

Townshend had been admitted to the Cabinet because of his parliamentary experience and abilities, not in right of his office. But however disinclined North had been to accept the Exchequer, once there he contended for the same share of power Townshend had enjoyed. In January 1768, as a result of the entry of the Bedfords into office, North succeeded Conway as leader of the House of Commons. His consequence was further increased when the indolent Grafton began devolving on him Treasury business more properly the concern of the first lord. Whately, informed by Jenkinson, wrote to Grenville on 4 June 1768:34 ‘The business [of the Treasury] is almost entirely in Lord North’s hands, who even carries the warrants to the King, the Duke of Grafton trusting in him much more than he did in Charles Townshend.’

North quickly won the esteem and respect of the Commons. Rigby wrote of his budget speech of 10 Apr. 1769:35 ‘During the four and twenty years that I have sat in Parliament ... I verily think I have never known any of his predecessors acquit themselves so much to the satisfaction of the House.’ Of his attitude to the formation of policy Walpole has this story, which he got from Lord Camden:36

At one of the councils held to consider what steps should be taken against Wilkes, when ... some were for violence and some for moderation, Lord North said not a word. At last Lord Camden, lord chancellor, asked him why he did not give his opinion. Lord North answered that he had been waiting for their Lordships’ determination, being perfectly indifferent what resolution they should take, as he was ready to adopt whatever plan they should fix on.

North steered the House through the difficult question of the Middlesex election with an admirable mixture of firmness and good humour, presenting the Government’s case as a matter of law rather than policy.

When Parliament re-assembled on 9 Jan. 1770 Chatham, now restored to health, came out in violent opposition and made common cause with Rockingham. In the Lords Camden joined Chatham, and denounced Administration from the Woolsack; Granby resigned from the Cabinet on 17 Jan.; and further resignations followed of minor members of the Administration. On 22 Jan. Grafton informed the King that he also would resign on the 28th. George III, unable to persuade Grafton to remain, offered North the Treasury.

Here is the account which North afterwards gave to James Harris of the circumstances in which he became first minister:37

He said after he was called back to the office of paymaster, on the vacancy of the chancellor of the Exchequer’s office he was told he must not be inactive and was compelled to go to that last active department, quitting a more lucrative one for it. That there he continued till on Lord Guilford’s illness he was on the point of resigning it, wishing a retreat. That when this was in his thoughts the Duke of Grafton resigned, and then the King insisted on his going into the Duke’s place. The times were then very turbulent, and much talk without doors of the Parliament’s being dissolved. His Majesty insisted as above. Lord Mansfield was consulted: he said it would not do, that Ministry would be beat in the House of Commons two to one. Lord North was determined to try. The clamour without and the fear of dissolution kept people together, and the majority was preserved.

In the division of 9 Jan. Administration had a majority of 116; in that of 25 Jan., when the Middlesex question was renewed, it fell to 44. Opposition were jubilant, expecting the ministry’s early fall, but North, undaunted, held on.

He hoped to widen the basis of his Administration, taking in Grenville, whom he described to Harris as ‘the fittest man of all for the office he held’; but the King ‘did not choose to come into this’.38 Grenville’s death in November 1770 was followed by the accession to the court of almost all his followers. By the beginning of 1771 Chatham and Rockingham were at each other’s throats again, and North’s successful handling of the Falkland Islands crisis in February marked the establishment of his authority as minister. His first year in office had been a triumph of coolness, courage, and determination; and he had revealed qualities of leadership few had suspected.

Yet he seemed ill at ease, and periodically requested permission to resign. Assured by the King that he was indispensable, he would resume his task with apparent equanimity. His relations with his colleagues were easy, though not cordial. In a letter to the King of November 1779 he wrote:39

I have never interfered in any of their departments. I have never clashed with their views, but have promoted their interest as much as lay in my power on every occasion. I have always made common cause with them. I have always defended them when attacked, though they have not always had the same attention to me. I have really endeavoured to the best of my knowledge to gratify them in everything.

Yet throughout his Administration the Cabinet was a collection of individuals, not a team. Except Lord Dartmouth, North had no close friends, and no one on his own level in whom he could confide. On a lower level, Jenkinson and Robinson regarded themselves as servants of the Crown rather than of the minister. Others found, as Wedderburn did, ‘that those who treat him ill and choose to drive a bargain may obtain much better conditions from his difficulties than from his friendship’.40 ‘His nature ... is more influenced by importunity than by services’, wrote Jenkinson to Robinson on 2 Sept. 1780.41 Dissatisfaction with his lead was frequently expressed by junior and ambitious members of the Administration, and the memoirs and correspondence of the period contain many references to cabals against him (how serious these were is difficult to say), but so long as North retained the confidence of the Crown and the House of Commons his position was impregnable.

‘You are my sheet anchor’, wrote the King to North on 7 Nov. 1775; and on 14 Nov. 1778:

From the hour of Lord North’s so handsomely devoting himself on the retreat of the Duke of Grafton, I have never had a political thought which I have not communicated unto him, have accepted of persons highly disagreeable to me because he thought they would be of advantage to his conducting public affairs, and have yielded to measures my own opinion did not quite approve.

‘Where can you repose your undigested thoughts’, he wrote on 2 June 1778, ‘more safely than in the breast of one who has ever treated you more as his friend than minister.’ George III clung to North with disastrous obstinacy, looking to him as a tower of strength. In 1772 he conferred on North the Garter, and in 1777 paid his debts (which came to near £20,000).

I want no other return [he wrote to North on 19 Sept. 1777] but your being convinced that I love you as well as a man of worth as I esteem you as a minister. Your conduct at a critical moment I can never forget, and am glad that ... I am enabled to give you this mark of my affection.42

On the taxation of America North was a disciple of Grenville; and at the Cabinet meeting of 1 May 1769 which considered the repeal of the Townshend duties he had been among the majority who favoured the retention of that on tea. He saw the Boston tea riots of 1773 as an open challenge to British supremacy; and, inadequately informed of the temper and feelings of the Americans, introduced punitive legislation designed to overawe the colonies. Next, faced with a revolutionary situation, North reacted with increased severity and an offer of conciliation: an ambivalent attitude, which marked British policy throughout the war. On 20 Feb. 1775 he brought forward a proposal that any colony which made provision for defence and civil government should be exempt from parliamentary taxation. The maintenance of unanimity at home, rather than the conciliation of America, seemed to be his aim. He wrote to the King on 19 Feb.:43

Lord North hopes for great utility (if not in America, at least on this side of the water) to arise to the public from this motion. He is confident it gives up no right, and that it contains precisely the plan which ought to be adopted by Great Britain even if all America were subdued. He has reason to think it would give great satisfaction here, and that it will greatly facilitate the passing the bill now in the House for restraining the trade of New England.

But the American problem could not be solved by majorities in the House of Commons; and the reply of the Continental Congress—‘The colonies of America are entitled to the sole and exclusive privilege of giving and granting their own money’—was an outright rejection of North’s principles of accommodation. As the war progressed North abandoned all hope of the chances of reconciliation. To secure an American renunciation of independence, at whatever sacrifice of principle by this country, became his aim. In his conciliatory proposals of 1778, brought out under the stress of military defeat at Saratoga, he at first proposed ‘to repeal every Act smack smooth, and even amend and explain the Declaratory Law’, until Robinson convinced him it could not be got through Parliament.44 Still, he was prepared to surrender a great deal hitherto regarded as sacrosanct. He wrote to the King on 29 Jan. 1778:45

The direct proposition which might be successful in separating some colonies from the rest is that the colonies or any of them, upon renouncing their claim of independency, should be exempt for the future from parliamentary taxation. To give up the levying of positive taxes here is to give up in effect nothing, as it is pretty certain that none will for the future be ever levied by the British Parliament.

Even this concession, North believed, would have a doubtful reception in Parliament; while America, on the verge of concluding their alliance with France, would have laughed at it.

Sanguine expectation and utter despair alternated in his attitude towards the war. On 25 Mar. 1778 he wrote to the King:

The condition of this country ... is deplorable. It is totally unequal to a war with Spain, France, and America, and will ... be over-matched if the contention is only with the house of Bourbon ... Great Britain will suffer more in the war than her enemies ... by an enormous expense, which will ruin her, and will not in any degree be repaid by the most brilliant victories.

But on 10 May:

The present situation of the country is arduous, but far from desperate. These troubles may end honourably if his Majesty’s affairs are well conducted.

He ended the letter: ‘Lord North’s apprehensions for the public arise principally from his just diffidence of himself, and it is not possible to expect much exertion from a man under the dominion of such sentiments.’ He might have added: or from a man who has lost all faith in the cause for which he is fighting. ‘I have heard Lord North frequently drop that the advantages to be gained from this contest could never repay the expense’, wrote the King on 11 June 1779; and North himself wrote on 6 Mar. 1780, when submitting his budget proposals to the King:

Lord North will not promise that these taxes will not cause a great convulsion ... especially if people compare too nicely the advantages to result from the dependence of America and the evils to be apprehended from these additional burdens.46

Defeat at Saratoga, and the expected entry of France into the war, forced the Government to reconsider its plans; and reduced North to a state of indecision and doubt. ‘The anxiety of his mind for the last two months has deprived Lord North of his memory and understanding’, he wrote to the King on 29 Jan. 1778. On 15 Mar. he advised the King to send for Chatham—‘the present ministry can not continue a fortnight as it is’; and on 17 Mar. begged for permission to retire—‘capital punishment itself is ... preferable to that constant anguish of mind which he feels from the consideration that his continuance in office is ruining his Majesty’s affairs’. The idea of Chatham as the saviour of the empire became an obsession; and, with his thinking distorted by fear, he imagined Chatham and Rockingham were drawing closer together, when in fact the question of American independence had separated them forever. His ‘avowed despondency’ forced the King to consider a ministerial change, North agreeing to remain until the end of the session.47

On 17 Mar. North had been ordered by the King to inform Thurlow he was to have the great seal and Wedderburn the common pleas—the first steps towards reconstructing the ministry. ‘Unless their departure from the House of Commons’, North replied on 25 Mar., ‘is accompanied by a great accession of strength out of the Opposition, Lord North cannot undertake to conduct his Majesty’s business in that House of Parliament.’ Now that the moment had come, did he really wish to retire? On 30 Mar. he wrote again:

Lord North ... will, if his Majesty should really find it necessary to detain him longer than the end of the session, continue, let his situation be never so weary, till his Majesty is able to arrange his servants in the manner most agreeable to himself and the most advantageous to the public.

The ministry, which on 15 Mar. could not last a fortnight longer, he now envisaged lasting for an indefinite period. Nor did he see Thurlow, though pressed repeatedly, until the King on 16 Apr. precipitated matters by dismissing Lord Chancellor Bathurst. North now explained that Wedderburn would expect to be created a peer with Thurlow, and he would not ‘be able to stand the storm and violence’ which candidates for the peerage would bring upon him. So the King agreed that for the time being nothing should be done—‘which I hope will enable you to spend the next week quietly at Bushey, that you may recruit your mind to carry on the business in the House of Commons for the remainder of this session’.48

In May, when the King went to Portsmouth, North, discouraged by the Government’s defeat on the contractors bill, began again. 5 May:49 ‘my ancient indolence is much increased ... my abilities are sensibly diminished, and my memory grievously impaired’; 7 May: ‘nothing can prevent the utmost confusion and distress but a material change in the ministry ... let me not go to the grave with the guilt of having been the ruin of my King and country.’ The King, on his return to London, replied, 12 May:

This fresh touching upon the wish to retire convinces me of Lord North’s intention at all events to resign ... The sooner he can notify unto me that the road is clear for my nominating a chancellor, the sooner he will be freed from his present uneasy situation.

On 16 May, before anything had been done, Lord Holdernesse died, and North applied for his office of lord warden of the Cinque Ports—‘the favourite object of my ambition’. The King refused his request to grant the office for life, but proposed a salary of £4,000 per annum. North would accept only £1,500, and refused the reversion of a tellership of the Exchequer. The arrangement with Thurlow was soon concluded, and North’s assurance began to return. 23 May: ‘Lord North ... is ready to continue in his present office, as long as his Majesty deems it for his service that he should continue there’; 26 May: ‘Dispose of me, Sir, as you will’; 29 May: ‘determined to go or to remain, as his Majesty shall command’. He had shifted the onus of decision on to the King.50

North faced with resolution the outbreak of war with France, and Robinson, in November 1778, thought him ‘better disposed to go on and act with spirit than he has hitherto been’. The defeat of Administration on the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, caused a temporary relapse, yet on 27 Feb. Sandwich found him ‘perfectly easy and in good spirits’. ‘His weak mind only wants support’, wrote Jenkinson to the King on 15 May, ‘which your Majesty may give it.’51

Difficulties with his colleagues, not the conduct of the war, bore most upon him. The appointment of a secretary of state in the summer of 1779, and the need to placate Wedderburn, led to renewed requests for permission to resign. Robinson wrote about him to Jenkinson on 11 Aug.:52

Indeed, he is the most altered man I ever saw in my life. He has not spirits to set to anything. They are quite gone as to business though full and well as to the table and amusements, and his judgment still good when you can fix his attention, but that is most difficult to do. He writes me from Kent that ‘nothing can be more miserable than I am’ are his words. The appointment of Lord Hillsborough works him to death almost. He sees that it can do little good and may do much harm, and that everything is so disordered in that business, yet he does not see he has any other way to take, for he knows not who there is that could be appointed to give strength to Government.

When in September Gower announced his intended resignation, North, ‘oppressed with a thousand griefs’, requested ‘an immediate dismission from his employment’. After Gower and Weymouth had left, even Jenkinson, by no means given to despondency, doubted whether the Administration could continue. North’s vacillations at this time baffled all observers. He wrote to the King on 24 Nov.: ‘Not by any means intending to desert his Majesty ... Lord North ... is willing to carry on the public business as well as he can, and ... will stand as firm as his health and abilities will permit.’53 But Robinson, in a letter to Jenkinson of 28 Nov.,54 described a conversation with North on the previous day:

He told me ... that he was sensible that everyone was leaving him and were plotting to desert him, disgrace him, and overturn the King’s government ... That he saw clearly that he should be deserted on some question ... it would endanger the King, that the dread of all this and that he should be the cause of it distressed him beyond measure ... and that it preyed on his mind so much as rendered him incapable of anything. He had no decision, he could attend to no business, that his sufferings were only felt by himself but most severely felt, indeed with the greatest torments of mind, but were impossible to be described, and he could not bear to be thought the cause of the destruction of his Majesty’s power and government and perhaps the ruin of his country. He then ... fell into such a scene of distress I assure you as made my heart bleed for him and drew tears from my eyes.

On 1 Dec. Jenkinson wrote to the King:

Lord North begins again to alter his language, and I fear your Majesty will get nothing explicit from him to-day unless you insist upon it. He says that he thought it his duty to lay before your Majesty the dangerous state of your affairs, that you may judge what it may be proper to do, and that he is ready to retire, but that your Majesty insists on his continuing in his present station.

And on 23 Dec.:

Mr. Robinson said he had a conversation last night with Lord North in the usual strain, in which he declared he could not go on, but when he was pushed to come to some decisive resolution and to declare it, he always declined it.

All the world came to know that North wished to retire: he himself said so to Fox in April 1780, and it was widely reported in the press. But during the last two years of his Administration his mind was much more tranquil. Wedderburn and Eden, hitherto his chief tormentors, no longer plagued him; and in the House of Commons Henry Dundas gave him loyal support. Periodically, par acquit de conscience, he requested permission to resign, yet seemed satisfied with the King’s assurance that there was no one else to lead the House. ‘If I had not repeatedly ... advised your Majesty ... to place your affairs in other hands’, he wrote on 21 Jan. 1782, ‘I should take to myself a much greater share of the blame for what your Majesty’s service has suffered by my indecision.’55

The surrender at Yorktown forced the Government to a fundamental reconsideration of its policy, and gradually North came to believe that the war must be ended even if by the renunciation of sovereignty over America. On 21 Dec. 1781 he told the House of Commons ‘that it would not be wise nor right to go on with the American war as we had done’:56 a statement intended to reassure both the die-hards and the doubters on the Government side, and which George III agreed he could not have avoided making. Stormont and Hillsborough, sent by the King to try and make North ‘speak out’, reported on 23 Dec.:

Though he spoke of the reserves of this country as nearly exhausted and held a desponding language, yet he declared strongly against holding such language in public ...
He gave the same opinion with regard to the little importance of such sovereignty as could not be retained over the colonies in rebellion as he had given to your Majesty ... But he did not intimate the least intention of agreeing to give up the sovereignty, and spoke in general of the impropriety of mentioning in public any conditions of peace.57

‘Peace with America seems necessary’, he wrote to the King on 21 Jan. 1782, ‘even if it can be obtained on no better terms than some federal alliance, or perhaps even in a less eligible mode.’ But he did not openly challenge George III’s reiterated declaration that he would not acknowledge American independence. It was the House of Commons, not North, which forced the King to face reality. The passing of Conway’s motion against the ‘further prosecution of offensive warfare on the continent of North America’, 27 Feb. 1782, was a defeat for the King and a relief to North. ‘Lord North submits to his Majesty’s consideration’, he wrote on 28 Feb., ‘that as the House of Commons seems now to have withdrawn their confidence from Lord North, it will be right to see, as soon as possible, what other system can be formed.’ And on 18 Mar., when the King was still not able to bring himself to send for the Opposition: ‘Your Majesty is well apprized that in this country the prince on the throne cannot with prudence oppose the deliberate resolution of the House of Commons.’ North had to go, and the policy with which he was identified had to be abandoned. The King surrendered to the Opposition with bad grace, and with tokens of regard for the fallen minister. ‘I ever did and ever shall look on you as a friend as well as faithful servant’, he wrote on 27 Mar., the day North resigned; and granted him an annuity of £4,100.58

‘Lord North has not the talents requisite for the leader of a party out of office’, wrote Loughborough to Eden on 12 July 1782.59 It would have been the more dignified part for North to have gone to the House of Lords after his resignation, but he had no intention of retiring from active politics. ‘Lord North ... imagines’, he wrote to the King on 22 Mar.,60 ‘that if he can ever be of service anywhere it will be in the House of Commons, and his wish is to be in that situation in which his weak abilities can be most usefully employed for his Majesty and the public.’

The death of Rockingham on 1 July 1782 was followed by a new alignment of parties. Fox and Shelburne were now openly ranged against each other, with North holding the balance. He appears at this time to have had a following of about 100 in the House, and it was clear that whichever side he adhered to would prove victorious.

‘The game is certainly in Lord North’s hands’, wrote Eden to Loughborough on 3 Sept. 1782,61‘if he would play his cards like any other man so circumstanced; but all the old irresolutions, procrastinations, quiescences, and laziness will operate more than ever.’ Fox early began to make overtures to him. ‘He had had intimations and messages from Mr. Fox through John St. John’, wrote Robinson to Jenkinson on 24 July, ‘why not be friends? why not join? etc., and Mr. Fox is certainly at work with every engine.’ North was the centre of a tug-of-war, with Loughborough and Eden pulling him towards Fox, and Robinson and Jenkinson towards Shelburne. His own inertia resisted attempts to move him either way. ‘Hesitation, doubt, indecision prevails’, wrote Robinson on 17 Sept.62

On 7 Aug. the King wrote to North:63

Lord North has so often whilst in office assured me that whenever I would consent to his retiring he would give the most cordial support to such an Administration as I might approve of, that I should not think I ... placed that confidence in his declarations if I did not express my strongest wishes that he will give the most active support the next session of Parliament to the Administration formed with my thorough approbation on the death of Lord Rockingham, and that during the recess he will call on the country gentlemen, who certainly have great attention for him, to come early and show their countenance, by which I may be enabled to keep the constitution from being entirely annihilated, which must be the case if Mr. Fox and his associates are not withstood ... Lord North has long known my opinion of that gentleman ... which has finally determined me never to employ him again, consequently the contest is become personal and he indeed sees it also in that point of view.

‘Lord North has received the honour of his Majesty’s commands’, began the reply,64 but not a word was said about obeying them—insensitive to the King’s appeal, North ignored the King’s remarks on Fox and his request for North’s support. For the rest, he did not know whether he could ask the country gentlemen for their early attendance in Parliament, was afraid of giving offence, but would try to learn their inclinations.

This is ... a very shabby and undignified conduct for a man who has held such great situations [wrote Jenkinson to Robinson on 16 Sept.], and who has received such favours from the Crown. Think what he, his father, his brother and son now receive from the Crown, and that his debts have been paid, a personal favour never before conferred but once on any other subject ... He at least should not be cold and reserved to such a master; he had better give a flat negative, and assign his reasons.65

On 12 Sept. North wrote to his father:66

I really do not see any plan that will quite satisfy my mind ... but support of the general measures of Government and opposition to all innovations of the constitution ... But I wish first to converse with some friends and learn what following I am likely to have. One would certainly wish to appear with as much dignity and importance as possible.

Well before the meeting of Parliament he wrote to his friends ‘to desire their attendance’—‘he wishes to have meetings and communications’, reported Eden, ‘and to act in concert for the public welfare’.67 At the beginning of December he was informed by Robinson of the general outlines of the peace preliminaries. ‘It is nonsense to talk about this subject till we know the articles’, replied North.68‘Then alone shall we be able to see whether this proceeding is ... beneficial or ruinous to Great Britain. I do not like its appearance.’ During the debate on the Address, 5 Dec. 1782, he spoke ‘uncommonly well’, wrote W. W. Grenville, ‘holding off from both sides’;69 and on 18 Dec. opposed Fox’s motion on the recognition of American independence.70 During the recess increased efforts were made by both Fox and Shelburne to win North’s support. ‘Mischief is brewing quickly’, wrote Robinson to Jenkinson on 28 Jan. 1783;71 and on 3 Feb. he sent North a long letter advising him not to vote against the peace preliminaries.’72 But Lady North and his eldest son were in favour of his joining Fox, and it seems that their influence was decisive. On 17 Feb. North, in a long and able speech,73 condemned almost every point of Shelburne’s peace preliminaries; and in the same debate Fox avowed their union.

On the resignation of Shelburne and the refusal of Pitt to form an Administration, the King turned to North. ‘Lord Guilford ... acquainted me’, the King wrote to Thurlow on 3 Mar. 1783,74 ‘that Lord North cannot bring his mind to returning to the Treasury or accepting of any other office, but is not disinclined to be talked to by me on the subject of forming an Administration and of being of the Cabinet.’ North soon showed that he had committed himself wholly to Fox, and was acting as his tool. The King never forgave him for the part he played in the formation of the Coalition, and charged him ‘with treachery and ingratitude of the blackest nature’.75

North at first did not intend to take office himself, but to go to the House of Lords.76 Fox was the real head of the Coalition, and North little more than a sleeping partner. Lord Mountstuart told Jenkinson in October 1783 that North had lost many of his followers during the summer, ‘and that if he was now to go into opposition he would carry only his own family’.77 The principal Government measure, the East India bill, owed nothing to him, though his followers received their share in the distribution of places under the bill. He was ill during its passage through the House, and took little part in the debates.

The dismissal of the Coalition marked the end of North’s consequence as a parliamentary figure. The general election of 1784 almost wiped out his party, and those few who remained were taken over by Fox. ‘He has not five votes in this Parliament’, wrote W. W. Grenville on 23 Nov. 1788.78 He continued a regular speaker in the Commons until 1786, when he began to go blind; although completely blind at the time of the Regency crisis, he re-emerged to take a prominent part in the debates.

He succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Guilford 4 Aug. 1790, and died 5 Aug. 1792.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke

Notes

  • 1. Mems. Geo. III, iv. 52-53.
  • 2. Autobiog. 303.
  • 3. Mems. i. 371.
  • 4. Letters of Edw. Gibbon, ed. Norton, ii. 66.
  • 5. Gibbon, Mems. ed. Hill, 192.
  • 6. Wraxall, i. 367.
  • 7. Ibid. 361.
  • 8. HMC Carlisle, 535.
  • 9. Grafton, Autobiog. 271-3.
  • 10. Hillsborough to Robinson, 18 Mar. 1780, Abergavenny mss.
  • 11. Add. 38213, ff. 79-80.
  • 12. Fortescue, v. 62.
  • 13. Caldwell Pprs. ii (2), p. 217.
  • 14. Fortescue, iv. 215-16.
  • 15. Thos. Whately to Grenville, 5 Oct. 1770, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 16. Fortescue, iv. 221.
  • 17. Ibid. 216-17, 435.
  • 18. Add. 38212, ff. 61-62.
  • 19. Fortescue, iv. 134, 500; v. 43, 335.
  • 20. Guilford to Pitt, 17 Jan. 1758, Hall mss.
  • 21. Chatham Corresp. i. 408-9.
  • 22. Add. 32919, ff. 1-2; 32933, f. 176.
  • 23. Sedgwick, 159; Bute to Fox, 18 Dec. 1762, Henry Fox mss.
  • 24. Add. 32971, f. 390; 32972, f. 95; Albemarle, Rockingham Mems. i. 345.
  • 25. Add. 38205, f. 66.
  • 26. Grenville Pprs. iii. 332.
  • 27. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 298.
  • 28. Grafton, Autobiog. 123; Fortescue, i. 459.
  • 29. Autobiog. 166.
  • 30. Grenville Pprs. iv. 162.
  • 31. Autobiog. 167.
  • 32. Fortescue, i. 505.
  • 33. North American Rev. clxxvi. 787.
  • 34. Grenville Pprs. iv. 304.
  • 35. Bedford Corresp. iii. 408.
  • 36. Mems. Geo. III, iv. 53.
  • 37. Harris’s memorandum, 8 Dec. 1770, Malmesbury mss.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Fortescue, iv. 494.
  • 40. Ibid. 159.
  • 41. Abergavenny mss.
  • 42. Fortescue, iii. 46, 479; iv. 163, 220.
  • 43. Ibid. 177.
  • 44. Add. 38209, f. 240.
  • 45. Fortescue, iv. 27.
  • 46. Ibid. 77, 138-9, 350; v. 27.
  • 47. Ibid. iv. 27, 56, 63, 70, 83, 84-85, 87.
  • 48. Ibid. 65, 77, 88, 114, 115-17, 118.
  • 49. Ibid. 132, misdated by the editor.
  • 50. Ibid. 134-5, 140, 144, 148, 153, 158.
  • 51. Ibid. 223, 292, 342.
  • 52. Add. 38212, ff. 56-60.
  • 53. Fortescue, iv. 443-4, 476, 496.
  • 54. Add. 38212, ff. 248-53.
  • 55. Fortescue, iv. 505, 531; v. 42, 336.
  • 56. Debrett, v. 123-4.
  • 57. Fortescue, v. 312, 324-5.
  • 58. Ibid. 337, 374, 395, 421; T52/70/415-16.
  • 59. Auckland Corresp. i. 7.
  • 60. Fortescue, v. 406-7.
  • 61. Auckland Corresp. i. 33.
  • 62. Add. 38567, ff. 101, 107-12.
  • 63. Fortescue, vi. 97-98.
  • 64. Ibid. 98.
  • 65. Abergavenny mss.
  • 66. E. Hughes, ‘Lord North’s Corresp. 1766-83’, EHR, 1947, p. 236.
  • 67. Auckland Corresp. i. 38.
  • 68. 3 Dec. 1782, Abergavenny mss.
  • 69. Buckingham, Courts and Cabinets Geo. III, i. 79.
  • 70. Debrett, ix. 25-33.
  • 71. Add. 38567, f. 121.
  • 72. Dated 1 Feb., Abergavenny mss.
  • 73. Debrett, ix. 239-51.
  • 74. Fortescue, vi. 258.
  • 75. Courts and Cabinets, i. 303.
  • 76. Portland’s speech in the Lords, 8 Apr. 1783, Debrett, xi. 104-5.
  • 77. Jenkinson to Robinson, 31 Oct. 1783, Abergavenny mss.