POWNALL, Thomas (1722-1805), of Saltfleetby, Lincs.

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



4 Feb. 1767 - 1774
31 Dec. 1774 - 1780

Family and Education

b. 4 Sept. 1722, 2nd s. of William Pownall of Saltfleetby, and bro. of John Pownall.  educ. Lincoln; Trinity, Camb. 1740.  m. (1) 3 Aug. 1765, Harriet (d. 6 Feb. 1777), da. of Gen. Charles Churchill, wid. of Sir Everard Fawkener, s.p.; (2) 2 Aug. 1784, Hannah, da. of Rev. Benjamin Kennet, wid. of Richard Astell of Everton, Beds., s.p.

Offices Held

Clerk at Board of Trade 1743-54; sec. to gov. of New York 1753; lt.-gov. New Jersey May 1755; gov. Massachusetts Bay 1757-9, S. Carolina 1760 (did not take up post); first commissary of control in Germany 1761-3; commr. for investigating accounts in Germany 1763-6.


Thomas Pownall arrived back in England in the summer of 1760 at the age of 37. Though he had spent little more than five years altogether in the colonies, and never returned, American affairs were henceforth his main public interest. In 1764 he published The Administration of the Colonies, which he reprinted several times with extensive additions. In it, he argued the need for a special department to deal with American affairs: ‘it must be a secretary of state’s office in itself’; criticized the ‘dictatorial power’ of the commander-in-chief in America; and, defending the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’, suggested that the colonies should send Members of Parliament to Westminster. Of the Navigation Acts, Pownall wrote, that if they were to be enforced ‘without reviewing and considering what the very different circumstances of the colonies now are from what they were when they were first settled ... we must determine to reduce our colonies again to ... mere plantations’.

In February 1767, soon after his investigation of accounts in Germany had been completed, he entered Parliament for Tregony. His career in the House was disappointing. His delivery was poor, and he spoke at excessive length, larding his speeches with historical surveys and philosophical analyses. When the point finally emerged, it was often jejune. In his Administration he laid great weight on sending ‘some very considerable person’ to America to hear the colonists’ complaints and report to the King. Two years later he was still trying to interest people in his ‘project’. Dowdeswell warned Rockingham, 16 Jan. 1766, that Pownall would raise the matter, adding, laconically, ‘I never thought it necessary to give it much attention’.1 On 19 Apr. 1769 Pownall’s advice to the House was ‘take the first occasion which offers to get back to that old safe ground of administration on which the American affairs were conducted’.2

He began as an exponent of the American point of view. On 15 May 1767, in his maiden speech, he attacked the ministry’s Quartering Act as ‘exceptionable and alarming’, and disapproved of the suspension of the government of New York.3 After the general election of 1768 he returned to the attack, insisting that the plans for quartering troops were ‘absurd and impracticable’.4 Sir William Johnson wrote to William Pitkin of Connecticut, 9 Feb. 1769, that Pownall had ‘stood forth nobly and very ably in our defence, and declares he will continue to do so upon all future occasions’.5 In the debate of 14 Mar. 1769 he succeeded in getting an amendment to the quartering bill accepted exempting any colony that had made its own provision, and on 19 Apr. he moved for a committee on American affairs, with the intention of repealing Charles Townshend’s duties:6

The declaratory act was the hoisting of your colours, the fixing of your standard: it was a revocation of those rights and privileges which their assemblies had been permitted to enjoy ... they have humbled themselves to the very lowest point of submission, hoping that as you are stout, you will be merciful ... Nothing remains now to militate against your power.

The motion was defeated on the ground that it was too late in the session for important business, but Pownall’s speech was welcomed in America, where it was printed in the newspapers and distributed in pamphlet form.7

By now Pownall was looked upon, in his own words, as ‘the American partisan in general’.8 In the 1770 session, when North proposed to repeal all Townshend’s duties except that on tea, Pownall moved for a complete repeal. He defended himself against the charge that he was putting American interests first:

I am conscious that in what I must necessarily say, it will be imputed to me that I am stirring up the question of right, and taking part with the faction in America against the sovereignty of this country.

But, he declared, he approved the Declaratory Act, and was anxious for complete repeal of the Townshend duties because of the damage done to British trade. The motion was lost 142-204. On 8 May 1770 he defended the loyalty of the people of Massachusetts, and explained their fears:

They have doubts conceived of designs to alter their civil constitution. The suspension of the assembly of New York because that, as a deliberative body, would not will as we had willed, would not register as their will our acts, has spread an alarming apprehension throughout the continent that their assemblies are no longer considered as what they had always hitherto considered themselves to be.9

In a letter to Samuel Cooper, 11 July 1770,10 he denied reports that he had been appointed a colonial governor:

I would not accept any post whatever in America under the present system of government ... ministry are too well informed of my sentiments, and too angry with me, ever to make me any offer or proposal.

But as the struggle in America intensified, Pownall’s views began to change. The violence of some of the colonists’ actions made it apparent that his earlier views had been facile, and a feeling of hopelessness overcame him. In general he acted with Opposition, and criticized the ministry’s handling of the Falkland Islands dispute, but on American affairs he had ‘determined to be silent’.11 To Sir William Johnson he wrote, 31 July 1772: ‘As to myself my political revolution is nearly completed. I neither feel myself capable of doing any good nor see things or men in a capacity of receiving it. There is a tide in the affairs of men and it will have its course.’12

In the course of 1773 the ministry made overtures to him, and he agreed to accept office: the only thing to be decided, he wrote to Lord Dartmouth, 10 Aug. 1773, was how he could best be employed.13 On 25 Feb. 1774, when he voted against the ministry on the motion to perpetuate the Grenville Act, he was marked in the list sent to the King as one who was normally a friend of Administration. In the debates of 14 and 25 Mar. 1774 he spoke for the ministry on the Boston port bill, adapting his old arguments:

The Americans have a real love for government; they love order and peace (here the House laughed); he said, I do aver that they love peace, for I look upon this to be the act of the mob, and not of the people.

But when, a month later, the Government brought in its bill to regulate the government of Massachusetts Bay, Pownall opposed it strongly:

As to opinions, I shall never trouble the House with mine of the subject. While the affairs of America remained on that ground, that opinions might operate on measures of policy, I never withheld mine, poor as they may have been ... [but] the case at present ceases to be matter of opinion—it is come to action. The measures you are pursuing will be resisted, not by force, or the effect of arms, as was said by an honourable gentleman on the late occasion, but by a regular united system of resistance.14

At the dissolution of 1774, Pownall was still classed by Robinson as a supporter of Government. He found himself barred from Tregony by Lord Falmouth, who accused him of ‘tampering’ with the borough,15 and North subsequently arranged for him to come in for Minehead. Benjamin Franklin wrote of Pownall at this time:16

He had been in the Opposition, but was now about making his peace in order to come into Parliament upon ministerial interest ... He told me, what I had before been told by several of Lord North’s friends, that the American measures were not the measures of that minister nor approved by him; that, on the contrary, he was well disposed to promote a reconciliation upon any terms honourable to government ... From the Governor’s further discourse, I collected that he wished to be employed as an envoy or commissioner to America to settle the differences.

It seems clear that Pownall hoped to persuade North, whom he had known for some years, to make another attempt at conciliation, and he began to enjoy a reputation as a power behind the scenes. On 20 Oct. 1774 Thomas Hutchinson wrote to his son:17 ‘Governor Pownall seemed to be making himself of some importance, but has, unfortunately for him, lost his election’; and on 30 Dec. 1774 William Molleson asked Lord Dartmouth about a rumour that ‘American differences are settled and Governor Pownall given as the author’.18 On 20 Feb. 1775 North moved his conciliatory proposition: if the colonies would make provision for their own administration and defence, the question of Britain’s right of taxation would be dropped. Pownall spoke in the debate, insisting that he was ‘unconnected with all parties’, supported North, and approved the Restraining Acts: ‘it is become necessary that this government should oppose its force to force; when that force is to be employed only in maintaining the laws and constitution of the empire’. In the debate of 8 Nov. 1775, he restated his position:

He had been invariably an advocate for peace; was so at this hour, and ever should be; and yet, circumstanced as affairs now were between this country and America, he should give his vote against our laying down our arms ... our debates were not whether or no we should go to war; we were at war.

The following week he moved and carried the previous question against Burke’s conciliation bill, arguing that the concessions suggested would no longer satisfy the Americans.19

The die was now cast, and Pownall took a less active part in the House, concentrating on writing pamphlets. On 18 Apr. 1777, when he attempted to speak, the House would not listen, and he was ‘obliged to sit down unheard’. But on 2 Dec., just before the news of Saratoga was received, Pownall made one of his best speeches, warning the House that the war was lost:

I now tell this House and government that the Americans never will return again to their subjection to the government of this country ... A people whose affairs are interwoven and so connected as the affairs of the Americans are with several European states, pledging themselves to those states in this solemn manner, are engaged beyond all possibility of retreat ... I now take upon myself to assert directly, and in terms, that your sovereignty over America is abolished and gone for ever ... The House seems unwilling to be told this ... Until you shall be convinced that you are no longer sovereigns over America, but that the United States are an independent sovereign people—until you are prepared to treat with them as such—it is of no consequence at all, what schemes or plans of conciliation this side the House or that may adopt.20

‘The little fat man was given his chance to rant’, was one unkind comment.21 But Pownall’s judgment was soon confirmed, and when he spoke on 6 Feb. 1778, appealing for an understanding with the Americans not to employ Indians, he was heard ‘with almost general approbation’.22 The following month he urged that independence should be conceded in exchange for a federal treaty.23

Pownall was by now a thoroughly disillusioned man. In April 1778 he wrote to James Bowdoin of Boston:24

I had always an idea of returning to America. The event of my marrying fixed me here; every other consideration would have sent me back. Providence has at last mixed in with the present series of events one respecting myself [the death of his wife] that has dissolved every tie and broken every tendril by which my heart held to this country. An unrelenting, unremitted course of ingratitude and ill treatment from the government of it ... has alienated from all wishes of continuing longer here than duty holds me.

He continued, however, to vote with Government, and in 1779 was considered for office should a re-shuffle of the ministry take place.25 Nothing came of it, and by the end of the Parliament Pownall had gone into systematic opposition. His last action was to move for leave to bring in a bill to authorize the King to make peace with the colonies: it was rejected by 50-113.26 He did not stand at the general election, explaining later:27

I think I can dispose of my time much more profitably as a man than I ever did in Parliament as a politician. Nor do I feel myself disposed to take up again matters of politics which are but matters of cabal amongst individuals, of faction amongst parties.

He devoted the remaining years of his life to his economic and archaeological interests.

He died 25 Feb. 1805.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Rockingham mss.
  • 2. Debrett, v. 94.
  • 3. Ibid. iv. 487.
  • 4. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 216, f. 166.
  • 5. Mass. Hist. Coll. (ser. 5), ix. 315.
  • 6. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 219, f. 286.
  • 7. Jas. Bowdoin to Pownall, 10 May 1769, Mass. Hist. Coll. (ser. 6), ix. 142.
  • 8. Pownall to Saml. Cooper, 11 July 1770, printed in F. Griffin, Junius Discovered.
  • 9. Debrett, v. 256, 316.
  • 10. Griffin, Junius Discovered.
  • 11. Pownall to Cooper, 3 Sept. 1771, ibid.
  • 12. Bancroft transcripts, N. Y. Pub. Lib.
  • 13. HMC Dartmouth, ii. 165.
  • 14. Debrett, vii. 101, 223.
  • 15. North to Grey Cooper, 5 Oct. 1774, HMC Abergavenny, 6.
  • 16. Works, ed. Sparks, v. 32.
  • 17. Diary and Letters, i. 265.
  • 18. HMC Dartmouth, ii. 245.
  • 19. Almon, i. 199; iii. 151, 187.
  • 20. Ibid. vii. 123; viii. 89.
  • 21. J. A. Schutz, Thos. Pownall, 247.
  • 22. Almon, viii. 358.
  • 23. Stockdale, viii. 146.
  • 24. Procs. Mass. Hist. Soc. v. 238.
  • 25. Fortescue, iv. 353.
  • 26. Almon, xvii. 716.
  • 27. Preface to Treatise on the East Indies.