Last week we talked about the efforts by the Continental Congress to bring other European powers into the war against Britain in 1779. This week I want to take a look at the situation, also in late 1779, from the perspective of the British government.
A Difficult Year
For the King, the year had not been a good one. It got off to a difficult start when it was revealed that the government had broken up a plot to assassinate the King in late 1778. Much of 1779 had been spent in divisive hearings. The navy became divide over the the courts martial related to the naval battle of Ushant. Then, Parliament held hearings into the loss of Burgoyne’s Army at Saratoga.
|George III, 1779|
Before they could put those matters behind them, Parliament had also held hearings over the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga. General Burgoyne had returned to London by early 1778 after receiving parole. He was doing whatever he could to protect his reputation. General William Howe also returned to London in late 1778, after the ministry accepted his resignation as commander of North American forces. Howe also wanted a hearing to protect his own reputation. Admiral Richard Howe also returned, having resigned his command in North America, and was also looking to clear his good name.
Generals Burgoyne and Howe both had demanded courts martial, but the ministry did not want to deal with the publicity. Since the ministry did nothing, Parliament formed itself into a “Committee of the Whole” in the spring of 1779 to give both men a platform to state their cases. During the hearings, both generals largely blamed Secretary of State Lord Germain for the lack of coordination and the loss of the army at Saratoga.
Charles Fox, who was one of the leading opponents of the war and of the ministry more generally, tried to use the hearing to go after Lord Germain politically. According to some accounts, Fox met with Burgoyne shortly after he returned to Britain on parole. At that point, Burgoyne had primarily blamed General Howe for leaving him without support in upstate New York. Fox, however, convinced Burgoyne Germain was responsible.
Parliament concluded the hearings in the summer, without reaching any conclusions or assigning any blame. So, the dispute, however, continued to play out in the newspapers and in conversations. Members of the Carlisle Commission had returned from America in frustration that the ministry’s policies had undercut any hope of a negotiated peace. Joseph Galloway, the Pennsylvanian who had thrown in with the loyalists following the First Continental Congress, and who had become the leader of the colonial loyalists in Britain, savaged General Howe for his weak and tepid prosecution of the war.
Howe’s mother, who was related to the royal family, publicly accused Germain of feeding disparaging information about her sons to the newspapers. The whole affair threatened to bring down the ministry for a time. Several lower level officials resigned in protest. The King and Lord North, however, really wanted to keep Germain in his post. They feared that any replacement would be less willing to prosecute the war as aggressively as needed.
The public blame for the failure at Saratoga, and more largely the continuing failures of the war in America, would continue for years. This was the case despite efforts by the King and ministry to put aside the blame and get on with winning the war. By the fall of 1779, the ministry ordered General Burgoyne to return to America and return to captivity with his soldiers, who were still being held as prisoners of war. Burgoyne refused, and was forced to resign all of his government positions. This left him financially ruined. He retained his seat in Parliament, and became an embittered foe of the ministry.
|Parliament Cartoons, 1779|
All of these political fights were playing out while Spain declared war on Britain and a joint French-Spanish fleet was preparing to take out the British Navy and facilitate an invasion of Great Britain in the spring of 1779. In London, various lords were placing bets on when and how large an invasion force would land. Only a smallpox epidemic in the Spanish and French fleets prevented the invasion from happening. While the invasion never materialized, a siege of British-occupied Gibraltar began in June, thus taxing the British Navy’s already diminished capacity.
Amidst all these scandals, and near the end of Parliament’s session in June, Lord North wrote to the King, offering his resignation once again, and suggesting a replacement. The King simply ignored the request and continued on. Like Germain, if North stepped down, his replacement would likely seek a negotiated peace in America so that Britain could end the threat it now faced against France and Spain.
The problems of 1778 led to a consensus developing in London of compromise and cutting one’s losses. Not only was the loss of North America at risk. Valuable sugar islands in the West Indies were under threat. Gibraltar and Menorca were vulnerable, and even Britain itself was a target.
The government was highly unpopular and Prime Minister North seemed to have all but given up. He only remained in office because the King refused to accept his resignation. The last Parliamentary elections had taken place in 1774, meaning that elections would be required again in 1780. Given the tenor of the country, Parliament would almost certainly return from those elections with more members looking to end the war at whatever cost.
King Remains Stalwart
One of the few leaders who remained determined to continue the fight was King George himself. In June of 1779, the King wrote to North stating that:
no inclination to get out of the present difficulties … can incline me to enter into what I look upon as the destruction of the Empire…. The present contest with America I cannot help as seeing as the most serious in which any country was ever engaged … Whether the laying of a tax was deserving of all the evils that have arisen from it, I suppose no man could allege that without being thought more fit for Bedlam [an insane asylum] than a seat in the senate, but the step by step demands of America have risen. Independence is their object, that certainly is one that every man not willing to sacrifice every object to a momentary and inglorious peace must concur with me in thinking that this country can never submit to. Should America succeed in that, the West Indies must follow … Ireland must soon follow the same plan and be a separate state, then this island would be reduced to itself, and soon would be a poor island indeed.
The King saw American independence as the end of Britain as he knew it. Britain could not simply sacrifice a few colonies for the greater good. The colonies were fundamental to the future of the British Empire.
Around this same time, the King called together his top ministers for an informal meeting. Several ministers later expressed fear that they had been brought in for a mass dismissal. Instead, the King wanted to encourage them to remain committed to the cause. He told them that his only regret in the events leading up to the war was his decision to change ministers in 1765 and to accede to the new Prime Minister’s decision to repeal the Stamp Act. The King now saw the repeal as a sign of weakness in the test of wills with the colonies. That is probably what emboldened them to go to war. What was needed in 1779 was no sign of weakness. The ministry would stand firm and resolute in its governance of the colonies.
Besides, the King also believed that holding out a little longer would result in victory. A few weeks later, in another note to Lord North, the King commented that he had “long entertained that America, unless this summer supported by a Bourbon fleet, must sue for peace … but that propositions must come from them to us, no further ones be sent from hence; they ever tend only to increase the demands.
But while peace was hopefully just around the corner, the King did not think the ministry could simply crouch in a defensive position to protect Britain itself. It needed to spread its military throughout the empire and protect its colonies. He was willing to risk an attack on Britain itself if it meant deploying more forces to other parts of the empire that remained in danger.
In a letter to Lord Sandwich, the King noted:
We must be ruined if every idea of offensive war is to lie dormant until this island is thought in a situation to defy attacks…If ministers will take a firm decided part and risk something to save the Empire, I am ready to be foremost on the occasion, as my stake is the deepest; but if nothing but measures of caution are pursued, and further sacrifices are made from a want to boldness, which alone can preserve a state when hard-pressed, I shall certainly not think myself obliged after a conduct shall have been held so contrary to my opinion, to screen them from the violence of an enraged nation.
For the King, victory seemed to be a test of wills. The colonies would not have the will to hold out much longer. The King saw his job as shoring up the will of his government to do everything possible to protect all parts of the empire until the other side broke. Until then, he would keep Lord North as Prime Minister. He would keep Lord Germain as Secretary of State. He would continue to put pressure on opponents of the war and those who thought to bring down the ministry. Most of all, he would continue to push for the use of the British army and navy to advance the cause of the Empire at whatever cost.
Ireland and Free Trade
Another issue that arose that year was discontent in Ireland. With the threatened French invasion and with the fear of attack by American privateers, Britain had grown its local militias to protect the homeland. These men were volunteers who saw the need to organize and be ready to protect their homes against possible attacks. Ireland also faced its own internal threat. Irish Catholics, who were denied even basic rights, such as the right to own property, were ready to revolt whenever possible. Prior to the war in America, Britain kept about 8000 regulars in Ireland to put down any budding rebellions. As the war in America grew, half of those regulars in Ireland were deployed to America, leaving the British particularly weak.
|Irish Volunteers march on Dublin, 1779|
That limited most of the Irish militia to northern Ireland, where most of the Irish Protestants lived. By 1779, 42,000 Irish Protestant volunteers were on the muster rolls. London reluctantly provided arms, but uniforms and other necessities were a local responsibility.
Even Irish Protestants had their complaints. When the war in America had begun, officials in London placed an embargo on the export of Irish food products, or just about anything else needed for the war effort. The reason was to guarantee a cheap source of supplies for the army. The government didn’t want to compete for these items with other buyers throughout the empire. This trade restriction created great financial hardship for Protestant landowners in Ireland who lost markets for their produce.
When the Irish Parliament met in Dublin in the fall of 1779, Britain had already removed some of the most burdensome elements of the embargo, but restrictions still in place made life difficult. Members of the Irish Parliament debated motions demanding free trade rules from London.
The Irish militia volunteers appeared in Dublin as well, demanding free trade for their exports. In uniform and under arms, the volunteers called for action on their demands. On November 4, the volunteers decorated a statue of William of Orange with placards, including one that read “A FREE TRADE - OR Else!!!”. A protest outside of the Irish Parliament a little over a week later made clear that the lack of action on the free trade issue would result in greater trouble.
In the Irish Parliament, opponents of the protests objected that such behavior was unacceptable when Ireland was at peace. In response, Another member of Parliament Walter Hussey Bergh remarked “Talk not to me of Peace. Ireland is not at peace; it is smothered war. England has sown her laws as dragons’ teeth: they have sprung up in armed men.” The Irish Parliament, however, was unable to grant the reforms demanded by the protesters. Those had to come from London.
The King’s Speech
On November 25, the King addressed the opening of the new session of Parliament in London. He began by noting that the French threat to invade Britain had failed “by the blessings of Providence” but still remained a concern.
He also noted that Ireland had become a problem. The King did not recommend a specific course of action but did recommend that Parliament address the issue. Parliament would quickly pass several provisions that allowed Ireland to export first wool and glass. A bit more contentious was a general bill that permitted complete free trade between Ireland and all parts of the British Empire. This also passed, in recognition that Britain could not afford an Ireland that would cause additional problems for the country while at war.
The King also noted that the war was prosecuted with great expense, which was creating hardship. He called upon the “wisdom and public spirit” of the members to continue to provide what was necessary. He also thanked the militia, which had doubled in size in Britain upon the threat of a French invasion.
He ended his brief remarks saying “Trusting in the Divine Providence, and in the justice of my cause, I am firmly resolved to prosecute the war with vigour, and to make every exertion, in order to compel our enemies to listen to equitable terms of peace and accommodation.” In other words, the war would have to remain a burden on Britain in order to bring about an acceptable peace.
While some members rose to speak in support of the King, Charles Fox voiced his concerns. He noted the result of the policies pursued over the past few years that the king found “his empire dismembered, his councils distracted, his people falling off in their fondness for his person.” He then seemed, indirectly at least, to question the King’s legitimacy to the throne, noting that George’s “claim to the throne of this country was founded only upon the delinquency of the Stuart family.” This attack, even obliquely to the legitimacy of the King to sit on the throne of Great Britain, was coming dangerously close to treason. But it was also a reminder that when the King used his status to promote a controversial policy, he risked the entire monarchy on the success of that policy.
|London Cartoon from 1779 |
George III being thrown off the horse "America"
The King relied on the most hard core members of the cabinet to keep the war effort going. The Secretary of State of American Affairs, Lord Germain, was one of those men. As one of the few men who shared the King’s view that the war had to be prosecuted with vigor, he remained in the King’s good graces. This, despite criticism for his failure to order General Howe to support General Burgoyne in New York. At the same time, he became a lightning rod in Parliament for criticism of the war. Later in that Parliamentary session, a vote to eliminate his position failed by only seven votes.
With the war increasing both debt and taxes, many people were questioning the government in ways that were unprecedented. The “out-of-doors” movement developed a political organization that was made up of people who were not in parliament. They questioned, not only war spending, but the government waste and corruption that was hurting taxpayers. They began calling for reforms in Parliament’s representation, closer to actual populations - drawing on rhetoric similar to the calls of “taxation without representation” that had taken hold in the colonies.
So the danger for the King was that the more he tied himself personally to the policies of the government, he risked popular wrath as those policies became more unpopular. Nevertheless, the King would not allow the government to fall and would not allow the ministry to back away from holding onto America at all costs. That was how important he saw British rule in North America.
Next week, we return to America for the Court Martial of Benedict Arnold.
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Herman, Joel Transnational News and the Irish Free Trade Crisis of 1779, Feb. 8, 2021: https://ageofrevolutions.com/2021/02/08/transnational-news-and-the-irish-free-trade-crisis-of-1779
King George III, official correspondence: https://www.rct.uk/collection/georgian-papers-programme/george-iiis-official-correspondence-july-1772-1783
(from archive.org unless noted)
The Parliamentary Register: or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 14, London: John Stockdale, 1802 (reprint) (contains King’s speech to Parliament)
Galloway, Joseph A reply to the observations of Lieut. Gen. Sir William Howe on a pamphlet entitled: Letters to a nobleman : in which his misrepresentations are detected and those letters are supported by a variety of new matter and argument, London: G. Wilkie, 1780.
Howe, William The narrative of Lieut. Gen. Sir William Howe in a committee of the House of Commons, on the 29th of April, 1779, relative to his conduct during his late command of the King's troops in North America, London: Printed by H. Baldwin, 1781.
Galloway, Joseph Letters to a nobleman, on the conduct of the war in the middle colonies, London: J. Wilkie, 1779.
Joyce, P. W. A Concise History of Ireland, New York : Longmans, Green, and Co. 1903.
Murray, Alice Effie A history of the commercial and financial relations between England and Ireland, from the period of the restoration, London: P.S. King, 1907.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cook, Don The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785, Atlantic Monthly, 1995 (or read on Archive.org).
Hibbert, Christopher Redcoats and Rebels: The War for America, 1770-1781, Penguin Books, 2001 (or read on Archive.org). .
Morley, Vincent Irish Opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002.
O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Yale Univ. Press, 2013.
Roberts, Andrew The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, Viking, 2021.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.