Sunday, January 14, 2018

Episode 027: Prime Minister Pitt Falls From Power

Last week, things started looking like they would go the right way for the colonies.  Their hero, William Pitt, now Lord Chatham, had become Prime Minister.  Pitt has always been one of the leading advocates in Parliament for colonial rights.  He had spoken forcefully in favor of colonial freedoms and had been a tireless advocate for colonial rights throughout all the efforts to tax them.  Before that, Pitt had been the man who got the colonies all that money during the French and Indian War, turning around all the problems they had, and getting the colonies to cooperate with the army in making Canada part of the British Empire.

Colonies Unsure about the Townshend Acts

So when the Pitt administration passed the Townshend Acts, it looked like the colonies’ biggest advocate believed these new tariffs were reasonable.  The colonists greeted the Townshend Acts with caution.  They were not terribly happy about them, but also were not sufficiently outraged to march in the streets as they did with the Stamp Act.  There were several reasons for this.

First, as I’ve said, the Townshend duties were not internal taxes.  Even though they were clearly designed to raise revenues, they met the demands of the Stamp Act protesters to keep clear of internal taxes.  Import tariffs had been a part of colonial life for generations.  Even though colonists had found a way to evade most of these tariffs, they had never made any sort of principled objection to Parliament’s authority to impose tariffs on the colonies.

Second, most of the taxed items were luxuries.  You did not have to pay the duties if you refused to buy the covered imports.  The stamp tax had been required for the exercise fundamental rights, like a free press or access to the courts.  You could not avoid that tax if you wanted to avail yourself of those rights.  By contrast, the Townshend Acts were assessed mostly on imported luxury items.  If you did not want to pay the tax, you could just do without those fancy imported goods.

Third, the taxes were not that outrageous.  The stamp tax was going to double the costs of some newspapers.  That was big enough to put people out of business.  By contrast the Townshend duties covered many more items, but only a small amount on each item.  It was not going to make any particular item ridiculously expensive.

Fourth, colonial elites were wary about encouraging mob violence on a regular basis.  Even the most vocal opponents of the Stamp Act were concerned about encouraging the working class to march in streets and destroy the homes and property of those with whom they disagreed.  That sort of thing could get out of hand really fast.

Fifth, many feared pushing things too far with Britain.  Colonists had seen British public opinion turn against them.  They were clearly taxed less than British subjects.  Even their traditional ally and advocate William Pitt seemed to be growing weary of their resistance.  No one wanted to start a full on war with the home country.

Sixth, the other colonies seemed to accept the new laws.  No one wanted to be like New York with the Quartering Act, being the only colony to resist.  That would only result in Parliament focusing its wrath on them.

As a result of all this, the colonies did not seem to have a powerful or coordinated objection to the new laws.  They were simply unsure how to respond to them.

The Duke of Grafton

Even before the Townshend Acts took effect, the Pitt Ministry in London began to fall apart.  In July 1767, only about a month after passage of the Townshend Acts, Prime Minister Pitt suffered what has been described as a mental breakdown and withdrew from all public appearances.  He was not well before this, but now seemed entirely withdrawn from politics.

Although he would nominally remain Prime Minister, Pitt was gone from the scene.  The role of prime minister unofficially fell to his first Lord of the Treasury, 31 year old Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd duke of Grafton.  That man, whom I will now just call Grafton, assumed the duties of prime minister in the summer of 1767, but would not become Prime Minister formally until Pitt resigned in October 1768.

Third duke of Grafton
(from Wikipedia)
Grafton came from a family that held a prominent role in British aristocracy.  He was descended from an illegitimate son of King Charles II.  He came from a life of privilege.  He went to the best schools in London.  At age 12, he received designation as an earl when it became clear that he would eventually succeed to his Grandfather’s title as Duke of Grafton.

Before becoming a duke, Grafton won a seat in the House of Commons at age 21.  Since he served as representative of his family’s district, getting elected was only matter of getting his family’s approval.  When his grandfather died a year later, Henry had to leave the House of Commons for the House of Lords.  His father had died over a decade earlier, meaning that Henry became the third duke of Grafton on his grandfather’s death in 1757.

Around the same time he began his career in the House of Commons, Grafton also got married.  I only mention this because the marriage was not a particularly good fit.  Although the couple had three children, Grafton had numerous open affairs.  His wife decided to have her own affairs, and eventually go pregnant through one of them.  This led to a divorce during Grafton’s tenure as Prime Minister.  At the time, divorces were not easy and required an Act of Parliament.  It was all a great scandal.

In politics, Grafton associated himself with the radical whigs like Newcastle and Pitt.  He even visited John Wilkes in prison after his arrest for sedition in 1763, though he refused to bail him out of jail.  He made his first speech in the House of Lords that same year, opposing Prime Minister Bute’s treaty to end the Seven Years War.  As a result, he incurred the wrath of the King, who took away his honorary title as Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk.  A couple of years later though, Grafton joined the Privy Council as the Pitt faction gained more political influence.

Next, he agreed to join the Rockingham ministry as Secretary of State.  There, Grafton was one of the Pitt loyalists who undermined Rockingham’s leadership.  Grafton supported Rockingham’s repeal of the Stamp Act, but resigned his position in early 1766, thus contributing to the instability of the Rockingham ministry, and Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in July.

When Pitt established the new government, and became Prime Minister, Pitt took the job of Lord of the Privy Seal, rather than Lord of the Treasury.  That was the traditional position for Prime Ministers.  Instead, Pitt offered Treasury to Grafton, who was only 30 years old at the time.  Grafton was not actually pushing for the job.  In fact, he seemed reluctant to take on the role, thinking it above his abilities.  However, he did take the job in the end.

Grafton found himself in a tough situation.  He generally agreed with Prime Minister Pitt’s policies.  But Pitt did not seem to have control of his own ministry.  When Charles Townshend proposed the Townshend Acts that I discussed last week, Grafton opposed them, but could not really openly fight the ministry in which he served.

So by July 1767, after passage of the Townshend Acts, Grafton was unofficially acting Prime Minister, putting him in charge, but with the extent of his authority in question.  Given also his youth, there was not good chance he would become a strong leader who could guide the ministry in a clear direction.

Lord North

In September 1767, the Ministry again experienced an abrupt change.  Charles Townshend died rather suddenly from an illness.  He was only 42 years old.

Lord North
(from Wikipedia)
Frederick North, took over for Townshend in the Exchequer.  He also served as the ministry’s leader in the House of Commons.  Since Lord North will go on to become Prime Minister for much of the later part of this story, it might be worth getting to know him a little more now.

North, the son of an earl, was known as Lord North, even though he was technically without title for most of his life.  He would not obtain the title of Earl of Guildford until his father died in 1790.  North lived the life of privilege available to wealthy aristocrats at the time.  His mother died when he was only two.  Shortly thereafter, his father married a widow whose son was also a baby and would soon inherit his grandfather’s title as the Earl of Dartmouth.  North and Dartmouth grew up together as step-brothers, attending the best schools.

In 1756 North won election to the House of Commons. After supporting the Newcastle ministry against an opposition attempt to mandate annual Parliamentary elections, North landed a position on the Board of Treasury.  He continued in that role, even after Newcastle left office and through the Bute and Grenville ministries.  When Rockingham came to power, he asked North to remain.  North’s family, character, and financial abilities, as well as close ties to the King made him a valuable asset to each of these ministries.

North, though, decided to resign when Rockingham came to power.  When Pitt became Prime Minister a year later, North came back as Joint Paymaster-General.  In December 1766 North received an appointment to the Privy Council.  By early 1767, he began to attend Cabinet meetings.  When Charles Townshend died suddenly in September, North’s background made him an ideal candidate to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Although North considered himself a Whig, he was not an outspoken partisan, nor did he ally himself with the most radical factions of the Whig party.  That was probably how he managed to remain working in the ministries of such widely divergent Prime Ministers.  North was an establishment guy with friends across the political spectrum.  He could be outspoken when he wanted to, but as a member of various ministries, he focused more on running government than on controversial policies.  He had served as the voice of the Government during the 1763 attempt to prosecute John Wilkes for sedition.  North led the effort to expel Wilkes from the House.  He also voted for the Stamp Act in 1765.

So as a moderate Whig with Tory leanings, North could get along well with both sides of the establishment.  Most importantly, he earned the trust and respect of the King.  Eager to get British debt under control, and not terribly obsessed with colonial sensibilities, North, fit well as a good replacement for Townshend.

Earl of Hillsborough

Another big change that took place at this time was a new division in how the ministry handled foreign affairs.  At the time, there were two Secretaries of State.  The Secretary of State for the Southern Department was responsible for relations with Southern Europe, that meant all the Catholic countries like France and Spain, that typically went to war with Britain.  The Secretary for the Southern Department tended to be the more experienced and senior secretary.  Newcastle, and Pitt, among others, had held this position in the past.  The Secretary of State for the Northern Department dealt with Northern Europe, that is Britain’s traditional allies, including the Netherlands and the German States.

Under this organizational structure, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department typically handled any issues related to the North American colonies.  Typically most colonial issues would be resolved by the Privy Council.  The Secretary of State would give the colonies little attention.

Earl of Hillsborough
(From Wikipedia)
Pitt was still technically Prime Minister in 1768, but his continuing illness left Grafton in charge.  With the ministry growing more hostile to the colonies, the current Secretary of State for the Southern Department, was seen as too willing to make concessions with the colonies to keep the peace.  Grafton wanted a firmer hand.

Rather than replace his Secretary of State who was doing just fine handling southern Europe, Grafton decided to create a third Secretary of State, for Colonial Affairs.  The colonies were going to need more attention.  Having a secretary focused on just colonial affairs made sense.

Grafton selected Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough, to be his Secretary for Colonial Affairs.  In his fifties, Hillsborough was appreciably older than many of the thirty-somethings in the ministry at the time. His family held a small estate in England, but held huge tracts of land in Ireland.  Hillsborough was one of those absentee landlords that extracted a fortune from Ireland without spending much time there.

Hillsborough had inherited his father’s lands and titles in 1741.  About that same time, he was elected to the House of Commons.  His title at the time did not entitle him to a seat in the House of Lords, but the lands under his control gave him control over about nine seats in the Commons.  In the 1750’s he served on George the II’s Privy Council among other positions.  In 1756, he received a Peerage and a seat in the House of Lords.

Hillsborough tended to be more of a conservative, though he considered himself a Whig.  He was good friends, and ideologically close to George Grenville. When Grenville became Prime Minister in 1763, he appointed Hillsborough to head the Board of Trade, overseeing enforcement of the Sugar Act and Stamp Act.  Hillsborough left office when Rockingham replaced Grenville in 1765.  Later in life, he claimed he opposed the Stamp Act, but there is no evidence from that time that he spoke out against it.

In 1766, Pitt returned Hillsborough to his former position at the Board of Trade.  About a year later, he replaced North as Joint Paymaster-General, a position that paid pretty well, but did not require very much work or policy making.  In early 1768, acting Prime Minister Grafton tapped Hillsborough to be his first Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs.

It could be as a result of his upbringing, trying to control rebellious Irishmen on his lands, that Hillsborough thought that the uppity colonists needed a firm hand to keep them in line as well.  Hillsborough would be much more confrontational and assertive with the colonies than most of his predecessors.  We’ll get into that more later, but in hindsight, he was not the right man for the job at this point in time.  Hillsborough was not someone who favored peaceful negotiations with the colonies.  He came from the school of thought that held you operated from a position of power and forced your subjects to accept whatever policies you deemed appropriate.

The Vice Admiralty Court Act (1768)

As Grafton began to reorganize the Pitt Ministry to his own liking, he continued to build on the tough policies created by the Townshend Acts.

Some history books combine the Vice Admiralty Court Act in the list of laws that constitute the Townshend Acts.  However, it really was separate.  It was not even an act of Parliament.  Rather, it was what we today would call a regulation, passed by Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury.  Treasury created the regulation on July 8, 1768, more than a year after the other acts, and many months after Lord Townshend died in September 1767.  Still, because it was part of the overall enforcement of trade and customs with North America, it gets lumped in with the other Townshend Acts.  It was a continuation of the enforcement efforts set forth in the Townshend Acts that I discussed last week.

The Act ensured that royal naval courts had jurisdiction over all matters involving customs and smuggling.  Many of these cases were already being moved to the Admiralty Court in Halifax Canada.  Colonists had complained about this, in part because getting witnesses and parties to Canada was a burdensome process.  If there was a dispute in Charleston South Carolina, dragging everyone 1700 miles up to Halifax for a trial seemed a bit ridiculous.

Vice Admiralty Court
Still, the government was not going to turn over trials back to local juries.  They knew the colonists would never enforce the new laws.  Instead, the new Act created three new royal admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston.  This allowed trials to take place closer to home, but also ensured many more of the cases would be tried in an admiralty court rather than local colonial courts.

London ignored colonists’ other objections to trials in admiralty courts.  The primary objection was the lack of juries.  Colonists considered that a fundamental right, while London found that local juries simply ignored laws and allowed smugglers to go free.  When officials in London passed laws which the colonies disliked, juror nullification, that is juries refusing to enforce such laws, was the only legal remedy that the colonies had.  Colonist saw this as a protection for their rights.  London saw it as an impediment to due process of the laws.

Even without juries, local courts had locally appointed judges who were part of the community. Admiralty judges were appointed in London.  Even worse, judges received 5% of any award when finding someone guilty, an incentive the might make judges biased against defendants.

Grafton expected this change would make customs enforcement speedier and more efficient.  Creating these new courts would allow British customs officials to seize more ships used for smuggling and bring in more revenues.

Pitt Officially Leaves Office

With Pitt out sick for most of 1767 and 1768, Grafton had slowly, perhaps even reluctantly, taken on the role of Prime Minister, even though Pitt retained the title.  I’ve seen some arguments that Pitt’s illness was exaggerated, that he was mostly staying away from London because his popularity suffered after the “great commoner” accepted a title to become Lord Chatham.  Others have argued that his isolation was more due to insanity than physical ailment.

Whatever the real reason, Pitt remained out of touch with most of his own government for well over a year.  During that time Grafton replaced many of Pitt’s appointees with his own, and began taking policy in a very different direction.  Finally, in October 1768, Pitt decided he should not retain a position that he was no longer performing and tendered his resignation to the King.  Grafton went from being acting Prime Minister, to actually Prime Minister.

Pitt would continue his self-imposed isolation for another couple of years, finally returning to the House of Lords in 1770.  Meanwhile Grafton would have to contend with enforcement of the Townshend Acts and other efforts to pay off British war debt.  The colonies would not make this easy for him.

Next Week: A Pennsylvania farmer writes some letters that finally galvanize colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts.

Next Episode 28: Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer

Previous Episode 26: The Townshend Acts 

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Further Reading:

Web Sites

William Pitt Biography (includes a good summary of events in England in 1767-68):

Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811):

Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford (1732-1792):

Biography of Lord North:

Wills Hill 1st Marquess of Downshire (1719-1793) (Earl of Hillsborough):

Hillsborough Parliamentary Biography:

Vice Admiralty Courts and Writs of Assistance, by Bob Ruppert (JAR) (2015):

Clark, Dora Mae, "The American Board of Customs, 1767-1783" The American Historical Review
July, 1940, pp. 777-806 (free to read online with registration):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Fitzgerald, Percy Charles Townshend, Wit and Statesman, London: R. Bentley, 1866.

Miller, Marion Mills (ed) Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co. 1913.

Ward, AW, Prothero, G & Leathes, S (eds) Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 6, (18th Century Britain)  Cambridge: University Press 1902.

Wilkes, John. A letter to His Grace the Duke of Grafton, on the present situation of public affairs. London: J. Almond. 1768.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, New York: Macmillan Co. 1943.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

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