HOWE, Hon. William (1729-1814).

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



1 Dec. 1758 - 1780

Family and Education

b. 10 Aug. 1729, 4th surv. s. of Emanuel Scrope, and Visct. Howe [I], and bro. of George Augustus, 3rd Visct., Richard, 4th Visct., and Hon. Thomas.  educ. Eton 1742.  m. 2 June 1765, Frances, da. of Thomas Conolly of Castletown, co. Kildare, sis. of Thomas Conolly, s.p.  suc. bro. as 5th Visct. 5 Aug. 1799; K.B. 13 Oct. 1776.

Offices Held

Cornet 15 Drag. 1746, lt. 1747; capt.-lt. 20 Ft. 1750, capt. 1750; maj. 60 Ft. 1756; lt.-col. 58 Ft. 1757; col. 1762; col. 46 Ft. 1764-75; maj.-gen. 1772; c.-in-c. in America 1775-8; col. 23 Ft. 1775-86; lt.-gen. 1777; col. 19 Lt. Drag. 1786- d.; gen. 1793; gov. Berwick 1795-1808, Plymouth 1808- d.

P.C. 21 June 1782; lt.-gen. of the Ordnance 1782-1804.


William Howe was returned unopposed for Nottingham in 1758 on the death of his brother George Augustus, 3rd Viscount. During the seven years’ war he served in Canada, and with the expeditions to Belle Isle and Havana. In politics he followed his brother, and generally supported Government; but, like Lord Howe, voted against the Grenville Administration on general warrants, 18 Feb. 1764. Before 1778 there is no record of his having spoken in the House.

In 1775 he was one of the three major-generals sent to America when war seemed imminent, and on the recall of Gage was appointed commander-in-chief. For the next three years he held the crucial post in the conduct of the American war.

On 25 Sept. 1775 Lord Howe (who had not yet assumed his appointment as naval commander-in-chief) informed Germain that his brother considered that an army 30,000 strong would be required to restore peace in America—‘If Government is unable to furnish the force he suggests ... he then thinks it better policy to withdraw the troops entirely from the delinquent provinces, and leave the colonists to war with each other for sovereignty.’1 Every effort should also be made to conciliate the revolted provinces and attract the support of the loyalists. The British Government did all they could to comply with Howe’s wishes; Lord Howe was given power to act as a conciliator, and the troops his brother demanded were sent. Howe wrote to Germain on 8 June 1776:2

I cannot take my leave from your Lordship without expressing my utter amazement at the decisive and masterly strokes for carrying such extensive plans into immediate execution as have been effected since your Lordship has assumed the conducting of this war, which is already most happily experienced by those who have the honour of serving here under your guidance.

Howe ‘showed throughout his command a growing pessimism, a feeling that military achievement, no matter how brilliant, would bring by itself no decisive results in the struggle’.3 His hopes of conciliating the colonists were ended by the Declaration of Independence, and he relied too much on loyalist support. He failed to bring Washington to decisive battle, and would not risk his army in the attempt. His mood varied between pessimism and optimism equally ill-founded; and he pressed constantly for more troops, which the Government found great difficulty in raising. On 26 Apr. 1776, after the evacuation of Boston, he wrote to Germain:

The scene here at present wears a lowering aspect, there not being the least prospect of conciliating this continent until its armies shall have been roughly dealt with; and I confess my apprehensions that such an event will not be readily brought about.

But on 31 Dec. he informed Germain that if France could be prevented from interfering and sufficient reinforcements sent, ‘it would in my opinion put a stop to the rebellion’. On 2 Apr. 1777: ‘My hopes of terminating the war this year are vanished’. 7 July: ‘A corps of Russians of ten thousand effective fighting men I think would ensure the success of the war to Great Britain in another campaign’.4

When after two years of war, and in spite of the capture of New York and Philadelphia, the end was still not in sight, relations between Howe and Germain began to deteriorate. Each blamed the other for lack of success: Howe complained that he had not been sufficiently reinforced, Germain that Howe failed to inform him of his plans. On receiving the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, Howe wrote to Germain, 22 Oct. 1777:5

From the very little attention, my Lord, given to my recommendations since the commencement of my command, I am led to hope I may be relieved from this very painful service, wherein I have not the good fortune to enjoy the necessary confidence and support of my superiors ... By the return of the packet I humbly request I may receive his Majesty’s permission to resign the command.

‘Sir William Howe’s complaint of want of support is very unjust’, wrote Germain to the King on 1 Dec.,6 ‘but his desire of being recalled does not come unexpected.’ On 25 May 1778 Howe handed over his command to Clinton, and sailed for England.

On 3 July Howe had ‘a very long conversation’ with the King, ‘the substance of which was his very strongly declaring that nothing shall make either his brother or him join Opposition, but that Lord G. Germain and his secretaries ... have everywhere loaded him with obloquy, that he must therefore be allowed some means of justifying himself’.7 In the House of Commons on 4 Dec. he spoke about his resignation:8

He declared that it had been in consequence of a total disregard to his opinions, and to his recommendations of meritorious officers. The war had not been left to his management; and yet when he applied for instructions he frequently could not get them. The noble lord at the head of the Treasury had indeed supported; but the noble secretary for the American department had not used him well ... He concluded with saying that whatever orders are sent to America for the conduct of the war he was sure they never could be executed to the satisfaction and advantage of this country while they go through the hands of the noble lord who holds the American department.

He demanded a parliamentary inquiry into his conduct in America, which North, against Germain’s advice, granted. It was opened on 29 Apr. 1779 with a long speech by Howe;9 occupied a good deal of time that session of Parliament; and ended inconclusively. An inquiry on the scale Howe demanded was impossible, nor was the House of Commons a fit tribunal to judge of the conduct of military operations.

On the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, Howe was classed by Robinson as ‘pro, present’. But all his subsequent recorded votes were with Opposition. Like Burgoyne in similar circumstances he repeatedly told the House of Commons the tale of his campaigns; but his criticism of Government was confined to alleged misconduct of the war.

He stood again for Nottingham at the general election of 1780. But he and his brother had aroused strong opposition in the town. Frederick Montagu wrote to Portland on 22 Aug.:10 ‘Half the town abhor them for going to America, and the other half detest them for doing so little there.’ The Political Magazine wrote about this election:11

The most respectable people in the town waited on the brothers, and acquainted them that the electors of Nottingham had formerly ... revered the name and family of Howe; but that reverence had lately been obliterated by other sentiments: they saw the present distresses of their country: they imputed them to the conduct of the General and noble Lord when in America: therefore the General could have no hopes of carrying his election.

Upon this Howe withdrew.

In March 1782, he was appointed lieutenant-general of the Ordnance through his brother’s influence, but saw no further service.  He died 12 July 1814.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 9.
  • 2. Quoted T. S. Anderson, Command of Howe Bros. during American Rev. 123.
  • 3. Ibid. 107.
  • 4. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 30, 54, 63, 71.
  • 5. Ibid. 80.
  • 6. Fortescue, iii. 501.
  • 7. The King to North, 3 July 1778, ibid. iv. 176.
  • 8. Almon, xi. 111.
  • 9. Ibid. xii. 319-50.
  • 10. Portland mss.
  • 11. Quoted I. R. Christie, End of North’s Ministry 1780-2, p. 146.