Sunday, June 27, 2021

ARP207 British Opposition & French Distraction

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve covered some of the issues that the Continental Congress and Continental Army faced as it entered 1779.  This week, I want to take a look at Britain and France to see what they were planning for the new year.


The North Ministry in London was under siege.  For years, they had been assuring Parliament that they had this whole American rebellion under control and that application of military enforcement would restore order and crown authority.  The opposition in Parliament had countered that the colonies had grown too powerful and that forcibly restoring order while refusing to address colonial demands was a losing proposition.

Lord North

Events over the past couple of years had proven the Ministry wrong and the opposition correct.  The failure of Howe’s massive military buildup in 1776 to disperse the Continentals had been strike one.  The loss of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga in late 1777 was strike two.  The entry of France into the war in early 1778 was strike three.  Only the urging of the King himself was keeping the ministry in place.  All of the opposition’s worst predictions were coming true and all of the Ministry’s attempts to bring a resolution had only seemed to make things worse.

Lord North had wanted to resign for some time.  The King refused to accept his resignation because he knew that any successor would likely be even less resolute about bringing the American colonies to heel.  The King constantly chided North about not pushing the ministry and Parliament hard enough to pursue the war.  North responded to the King, in the most polite way possible, by telling the King he was overstepping his bounds and undermining North’s authority by continually going around North to deal with other members of the ministry directly.  

In short, the King believed that Prime Minister North was too weak and that the King had to do the Prime Minister’s job for him.  North believed that the King’s efforts to act as Prime Minister was undermining North’s authority to get anyone to do anything.

As the military commanders in North America, the Howe Brothers took most of the blame in 1778 as both men were recalled and replaced.  General Howe would face hearings later in 1779, something I will discuss in more detail in a future episode.

But the real target of wrath fell on Secretary of State for North American Affairs, Lord George Germain.  It was Germain who had failed to coordinate General Howe’s attack on Philadelphia with General Burgoyne’s need for support in New York.  Germain had been the face of government policy in America and a leading advocate of everything that had failed.  The Howe Brothers and Burgoyne were pointing fingers at Germain to explain what they had done.  The Carlisle Commissioners had returned by the end of the year and were pointing fingers at Germain for telling them the army would be going on an offensive in 1778 to provide leverage for the Peace Commission, while at the same time issuing orders to General Clinton to evacuate Philadelphia and dispatch much of his army to other parts of the Empire.  Politically, Germain looked increasingly vulnerable.

Lord George Germain

Germain, however, remained in office.  The King had asked Lord North earlier in 1778 whether he wanted to make Lord Germain or General Howe the fall guy for the ministry’s failures.  North had chosen Howe, whose recall had angered powerful factions within the government.  Sacking Germain on top of Howe would have angered a whole different faction within the government and probably would have brought down the whole ministry.  As a result, the King and Lord North stuck by Germain and allowed him to weather the criticism.

William Eden, who was the real power behind the Carlisle Commission, still wanted Germain out.  To pacify Eden, North removed the Board of Trade out of the State Department and made it an independent body.  Eden, who had been on the Board of Trade, became its new head.  He would no longer be working under Germain.  Instead, he held a more prominent role in the ministry.  That, along with a generous no-show job as Housekeeper of Windsor Castle for Eden’s wife, was enough to get Eden to put a muzzle on Carlisle and prevent the Commissioner from raising a public fuss about how the ministry had undercut the commission to negotiate a peace in America. 

Germain was not happy with the arrangement and threatened to resign if North pulled the Board of Trade from his department.  But the ministry knew that Germain had no political leverage on his own, and called his bluff. They took the Board away anyway, and Germain did not resign.  The King also protested that North was effectively giving a lifetime pension to Eden out of the King’s personal funds in order to gain some political cover.  North finally convinced the King that they had to do this to maintain the ministry, and the king got on board with the plan.

The Carlisle failure also benefited from the fact that Parliament was focused more on the disputes between Admirals Keppel and Palliser over the Battle of Ushant, which I discussed back in Episode 194.  On January 7, 1779, Admiral Keppel’s court martial began, running well into February.  That, along with Palliser’s subsequent resignation from the Admiralty, took much of the attention of the government, and the public, during that time.

I should also note that buying off Eden was not a one-off.  The ministry was constantly handing out jobs, pensions, knighthoods, or whatever else would work to get important members of the government or Parliament to support, or at least not oppose, the war effort.  What would be considered bribery today was standard practice in the 1770’s.  All of this allowed the ministry to remain in power and avoid a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Despite these efforts to hold the government together, the ministry was deeply divided into factions.  Everyone had someone else to blame for the failures in America.  Focus had turned to the more pressing war with France and a possible invasion of Britain.  America had become a sideshow to the main event.  As such, the ministry did not really come up with any military strategy in America for 1779.  Instead, they left that mostly to General Clinton in New York to figure it out for himself.

British Opposition Grows

Outside of the ministry, many British leaders grew more prominent for opposing the war and supporting American independence.  By 1779 there were several factions within Parliament who opposed the ministry’s efforts to subdue America and increasingly backed a settlement that recognized independence.  

Opposition members varied in their motivations.  Some were ardent Whigs who thought the colonists shared the same rights as Englishmen and that the crown was working to subvert all of their rights.  Others joined the opposition for more practical reasons.  They accepted that the costs of trying to subdue America was not realistic.  By the end of the Seven Years War, Britain was over £134 million in debt at a time when total UK GDP was only about £91 million.  The majority of government expenditures was interest on the debt.  That was why Parliament wanted to tax the colonies in the first place, to retire some debt.  By 1775, they’d managed to reduce the debt only slightly to £127 million.  The American rebellion, however, made that shoot right back up again to over £153 million by 1779.  

The war with France guaranteed tens of millions of even more debt.  Many members joined the opposition for the practical reason that the colonies were a continual drain on costs, not a benefit.  They argued that a good trading relationship with the former colonies in America, would allow Britain to get the resources it needed, without the costs of trying to maintain them as colonies.  In other words, it was in Britain’s financial interest to accept American independence.

Lord Rockingham

Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Second Marquess of Rockingham, led the largest and most prominent opposition faction in Parliament.  He came from a wealthy family in northern England.  When he was a boy, his father led soldiers at Culloden, putting down the Jacobite Rebellion.  This helped form the young man into a fervent Whig (Whig's teneded to be pro-English and anti-Scottish).  Charles’ father died when he was twenty years old, leaving him lands, wealth, and title.

Lord Rockingham took his seat in the House of Lords shortly thereafter.  He also took positions within the household of King George II.  During the Seven Years War, Rockingham helped to suppress several domestic riots, gaining him more favor with the crown and becoming a Knight of the Garter.

When George, III came to power, Rockingham objected to the new King’s relationship with Lord Bute.  The Scottish Lord was rather anti-Whig and many like Rockingham though the King was being led astray.  Rockingham ended up resigning his position as Lord of the Bedchamber.  The King removed him from several other appointments as Rockingham moved to the opposition in Parliament.

After Lord Grenville became Prime Minister and imposed the Stamp Act on the colonies, Rockingham became a leading opponent.  After Grenville’s government fell, Rockingham became Prime Minister and repealed the Stamp Tax.  He only remained Prime Minister for less than two years before returning to the opposition.  There, he continued to oppose the government on many issues, both in the colonies and at home.  

In 1771 he wrote to his former secretary, Edmund Burke

I fear indeed the future struggles of the people in defence of their Constitutional Rights will grow weaker and weaker. It is much too probable that the power and influence of the Crown will increase rapidly. We live at the period when for the first time since the Revolution [meaning the Glorious Revolution of 1688], the power and influence of the Crown is held out, as the main and chief and only support of Government. If not exert now, we may accelerate the abject state to which the Constitution may be reduced

Rockingham had opposed further efforts to tax the colonies, and to suppress protest in the colonies with military force.  By 1779 had come to believe that American Independence was the best option for Britain.

A second leader in the opposition was Charles Fox.  As the second son of a Baron, Fox would not inherit a title, but his family wealth gave him a top education and access to elite British society.  His father bought the nineteen year old Fox a seat in the House of Commons in 1768. 

Charles Fox
He initially gained royal favor by supporting the crown’s prosecution of the radical John Wilkes.  Fox received several royal appointments, but did not really take them seriously.  He gained a reputation as a gambler and a womanizer.  He served in the North Ministry for a short time, but soon parted ways.  After leaving the ministry, Fox quickly moved to the vocal opposition.

Under the tutelage of Edmund Burke, Fox generally allied himself with the Rockingham faction in government.  Like Rockingham, Fox believed that King George III was undermining the rights established by the Glorious Revolution and was attempting a return to increased royal power over government. 

He became a strong supporter of the colonial cause.  In 1775, shortly after word of Lexington and Concord reached London, Fox took to the floor of the commons to attack Lord North.  He called the Prime Minister “the blundering pilot who had brought the nation into its present difficulties” and said that the ministry, through its policies, had “lost a whole continent.”

By 1779, Fox not only supported American Independence, but he was sponsoring resolutions to censor Lord Germain and calling for investigations into government corruption and other policies that had damaged Britain so greatly.

Another important opposition leader was William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne.  The Irish-born gentlemen held wealth and title.  For a long time, he served as a close aide of King George III and was a supporter of Lord Bute, the man many Whigs had come to loathe.  He served actively in the army and fought under General Wolf at Quebec, where he also made friends with future General Charles “No-flint” Grey.  

Shelburne’s family wealth enabled him to win a seat in the House of Commons.  After his father died in 1761, he ascended to the House of Lords.  He also rose to the rank of lieutenant general in 1772.  He was an establishment guy who supported the King, but fell out of favor after opposing John Wilkes’ expulsion from Parliament.  From there, Shelburne drifted into the faction led by William Pitt, Lord Chatham.  He supported a more moderate position in the colonies and grew to oppose the military crackdown in America.  Following the news of Saratoga, Shelburne joined the opposition members who favored American independence.

These men, and others, revealed a growing movement among the British leadership to bring down the ministry and cut loose the American colonies.

Lafayette Returns to France

Over in France, King Louis and Foreign Minister Vergennes took delight in watching the British government on the verge of collapse.  Although the French fleet had not accomplished much in 1778, France had been pushed into war earlier than it would have liked, and was still building up its army and navy for use in 1779.

Lafayette returned from America, arriving in France on February 6, 1779.  The King promptly arrested the young general.  Remember, Lafayette had left France against orders.  That said, the charges were mostly a matter of principle.  The government was generally happy with the way events had unfolded in America.  Lafayette was considered a national hero.  Lafayette’s imprisonment consisted of house arrest in a large mansion, where he was reunited with his family.  Lafayette wrote a letter of apology and after a couple of weeks, the Marquis saw the charges dropped and was enjoying hunting parties with the King at Versailles. The French captain also received a commission in the King’s dragoons, the equivalent of a colonel.

Lafayette was not content with some cushy military position at Versailles.  He had returned to France in hopes of playing a key role in the war with Britain.  Lafayette began lobbying hard for a full invasion and occupation of Britain, something not attempted since 1066.

Lafayette, 1779

At first, Lafayette teamed up with John Paul Jones, who had been without a ship all winter, but who finally received a new one in March, 1779.  He named it the Bonhomme Richard, in honor of Benjamin Franklin.  The name came from the French translation of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.  

Lafayette and Jones planned a 1200-man invasion of Britain, using a fleet of ships that would slip past the British Navy and land in England.  Several French ministers also worked on the plan, which seemed a bit naïve.  The idea that 1200 soldiers would do much of anything other than cause a fuss before they were killed or captured seems to be a fantasy.  The inability to remove the soldiers from England once the British mustered their armies against them almost assured a disaster. 

Senior members of the ministry scuttled the plan and ordered Lafayette to take up a garrison in southwest France, where he was as far from Britain as he could be while still in France.  At the same time more senior French officials began working on a much larger invasion plan, involving a landing of over 20,000 soldiers.  Consideration of this plan took up most of 1779 and was a major focus for Versailles.

Treaty of Teschen

In Europe though, foreign affairs can get really complicated really fast.  France was focused on having Britain distracted in the colonies so that France could take advantage of Britain’s momentary weakness.  France even hoped to draw Spain into the war so that the two countries could take down Britain as their age-old rival.  They could only hope to do that by devoting the full force of their military against Britain.

At the very end of 1777, Maximilian III Joseph, a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire and Duke of Bavaria, died rather suddenly of smallpox at the age of 50.  He did not have any male siblings or children, meaning control of Bavaria would pass to a distant cousin from another small German State.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II saw Maximillian’s death as an opportunity.  Joseph was married to Maximillian’s sister. While this relationship did not really give any legal claim to the emperor, he decided to make a power play to take control of Bavaria.  He tried to get a different heir to take the throne of Bavaria and as part of the deal, get that heir to cede large chunks of Bavaria to the Austrian Empire.

Over in Prussia, Frederick the Great took one look at what was happening and determined that this would not stand.  If the Austrian Empire took control of Bavaria, it would alter the balance of power within the German states.  Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria were longtime rivals who had been to war many times.  Frederick was not going to let his age-old enemy grow more powerful while he sat around and did nothing.

So when the Holy Roman Empire put a 180,000 man army on the Bavarian border in the spring of 1778, the Prussians assembled their own 80,000 man army and began moving into parts of Bavaria themselves.  The two sides did not jump into an all-out war, but did engage in a series of raids and small skirmishes, designed to prove to the other side that they were serious and that the other side should really back down.  This became known as the War of Bavarian Succession.

Joseph II, Austria
You may ask, what does all this have to do with the American Revolution?  Well, France was bound by treaty to support Austria militarily.  The two countries had signed a treaty in 1754.  The Holy Roman Emperor had sealed that alliance by marrying off his 14 year old sister Marie Antoinette, to the future King Louis XVI in 1770.  The French ministry was not particularly happy about his alliance, but they also could not ignore it.  Failing to uphold a treaty obligation when an ally went to war was not a good way to maintain one’s diplomatic credibility.

If France had to divert most of its military resources to a new war in Europe, its chance to take advantage of Britain’s temporary weakness might be lost.  As you might guess, Britain saw this as a good thing and was doing everything it could to push Prussia and Austria into an all-out war.  The entire continent teetered on the brink of war for all of 1778.

France could not go after Britain until the War of Bavarian Succession was resolved.  Vergennes focused France’s diplomatic efforts on bringing about peace in central Europe so that he could focus on his war with Britain.

Fortunately for France, the full war did not happen. The military aggression came to a halt when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II’s mom told him to stop being a bully and to make nice with the other leaders.  Empress Maria Theresa served as co-ruler of the Empire with her son.  Once she accepted that Prussia was not going to allow her son’s power play to be completed without a massive and costly war that the Empire could not afford, she sent peace initiatives to Frederick the Great in Prussia and forced her son to accept mediation of the dispute by Russia and France.

The mediation ended up giving a portion of Bavaria to Austria, and the bulk to Prussia.  The would-be heir to Bavaria got a cash settlement from Prussia.  The final parties signed the Treaty of Teschen in May 1779 resulting in a restoration of peace in the region, and more importantly to France, freeing it from any potential military obligations that would interfere with its plans against Britain.

Putting that behind them, France was better able to focus on taking real estate from Britain and supporting American independence.  But the kerfuffle over Bavaria had cost the French a valuable year.

Next week, we will return to Georgia as the British attempt to capitalize on their capture of Savannah by capturing Fort Morris and Augusta.

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Next Episode 208 Fort Morris & Augusta

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Further Reading


Guttridge, G. H. “The Whig Opposition in England during the American Revolution.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 6, no. 1, 1934, pp. 1–13. JSTOR,

Charles James Fox, Valiant Voice for Liberty, Sept 1, 1996:


War of Bavarian Succession:

Treaty of Teschen:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Albemarle, George T. Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and his Contemporaries. Vol. 1  & Vol. 2  London: Richard Bentley, 1852.

George III, King of Great Britain The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, vol. 2, London, J. Murray, 1867. 

Lowry, Robert A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, New York: R. Lowry, 1826. 

Temperley, Harold William Vazeille Frederic the Great and Kaiser Joseph: An Episode of War & Diplomacy in the Eighteenth Century, London, Duckworth & Co. 1915. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Aston, Nigel (ed) An Enlightenment Statesman in Whig Britain: Lord Shelburne in Context, 1737-1805, Boydell Press, 2011. 

Bernard, Paul, Joseph II and Bavaria: Two Eighteenth Century Attempts at German Unification, Martinus Nijhoff, 1965.

Cook, Don The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785, Atlantic Monthly, 1995. (book recommendation of the week) 

Hibbert, Christopher Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes, W.W. Norton & Co. 1990.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Yale Univ. Press, 2013

Valentine, Alan, Lord North, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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