Saturday, April 27, 2024

ARP309 North Government Falls

This week we’re going to look at the British Reaction to hearing the news of the surrender at Yorktown.

The first word of the loss of the army under General Cornwallis came from a ship that heard about the news in France.  On November 25, 1781, a packet ship sailing from Calais to Falmouth arrived with word that officials were celebrating in Paris over a great victory in Virginia.  

Frederick North
A messenger carried the news to Lord Germain, the American Secretary.  Although it was a Sunday, he sent word to the king and met with several other top officials. They personally carried the news to Prime Minister, Lord North, who exclaimed “Oh God, oh God, it is all over!”

That day, word of the loss was still really a rumor. That night, however, the navy ship Rattlesnake arrived carrying Admiral Thomas Graves’ report of the surrender.  For most of the government, officials seemed to share Lord North’s reaction, if not his emotional outburst.  The loss of the army under Cornwallis probably meant that it was time to end the war in North America.

One man who did not share that opinion was George III.  The king had long been the leading advocate for continuing the war, and was largely responsible for maintaining a government that had supported this position.  

Two days after word arrived, the King was due to give a speech before the opening of a new session in Parliament.  The speech had been written well before the news arrived, but called for continued efforts to defend and preserve the empire.  The King, however, addressed the news of Yorktown:  “The events of war have been unfortunate to my army in Virginia, having ended in the loss of my forces in that province.  But I retain the perfect conviction of the justice of my cause.”  Despite the setback, the king wished to continue the war in America.  

The King believed that North America was vital to the British empire.  Giving up there would only mean that other colonies around the world would also push for independence.  For him, the fight for the colonies in North America was a fight for the continuation of the British Empire itself.

The King’s speech helped to rally the Tories, but opposition to the war had been growing long before news of Yorktown.  This loss only strengthened the position of the opposition.

Revised War Plans

George III asked Germain to develop a new plan for the war.  The American Secretary’s response was a proposal that Britain should retain its occupation of New York, Charleston, and Savannah.  The two southern cities were particularly important as support bases for the war in the West Indies.  The recapture of Newport, Rhode Island and establishment of a base in Delaware to block trade to and from Philadelphia could provide valuable bases.

The British Navy would continue efforts to blockade or attack rebel ports, cutting off outside trade and assistance.  Loyalists and Indian tribes would continue to receive military aid that would be used to harass the rebels

Britain would give up on trying to control entire colonies or even large portions of land.  It would simply hold a few port cities, block most trade, and wait for the misery in the colonies to get the enemy to return to their senses and rejoin the British.  

George Germain
Germain’s memo also noted that the rebel governments had essentially put themselves under French control. When the colonists realized their choice would be between serving France or Britain, they would inevitably want a return of British rule. The King reviewed this plan and gave it his support.

In January, Germain began implementation of new plans.  He wrote to General Clinton in New York, telling him that he would not be getting significant numbers of reinforcements, but that he should continue to hold all current areas that were under British control. Those towns would support naval actions along the American coast.

Germain also sent instructions to General Frederick Haldimand in Quebec to continue providing support to loyalists and Indians who wanted to continue the fight with the Americans along the northern border and western frontier.  Haldimand should also work on a diplomatic effort to draw Vermont back into British control.

Despite putting the onus for North American on the navy, the leadership was not prepared to provide more resources for that effort. Instead, the focus was on other parts of the empire. Lord Sandwich, the first Lord of the Admiralty, sent instructions to Admiral Digby in New York to take the bulk of his fleet down to the West Indies to protect British interests there.

Sandwich also deployed a fleet to India, carrying several more regiments of infantry and cavalry.  As I discussed a few weeks ago, the French fleet under Admiral Suffren was attacking British interests in India, with the cooperation of Hyder Ali and the Mysore Kingdom.  Britain had to protect its interests there.

At the ministry’s request, a member of Parliament named David Hartley wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin.  Hartley and Franklin were friends from when Franklin was living in London before the War.  Hartley broached the idea of trying to enter into separate negotiations with the American Peace Commissioners with the idea of calling a ten year truce between Britain and America.  

Franklin’s response shut down that option pretty quickly.  For starters, the Americans were not permitted to seek a separate peace from France.  Their treaty with France obligated them to remain in the war until France also secured peace with Britain.  Further, it didn’t take a diplomatic genius to see how bad an idea a ten year truce would be.  That would only give time for Britain to defeat France and Spain, then rebuild its military, then renew its war in America.  Franklin made clear that the US was not quitting until the war with France ended, and that any conclusion of that war would recognize permanent US independence.

What is clear from these communications, however, is that the North government realized that continued fighting in America at this time would only cause more problems.  The focus was on the rest of the empire, with the hope of keeping the war in America on hold for as long as possible.

British Opposition

Meanwhile, the opposition was moving in a different direction.  On December 12, Sir James Lowther introduced a motion that determined that the British war in North America had “proved ineffectual” and that the government should abandon its attempts to compel obedience in America.  The motion ignored trigger words like “independence” but the intent was clear.  Britain should give up on America, end the war there, and focus on France, Spain, and the Netherlands.  Debate on the bill was heated, but in the end, it failed 220 to 179 - a decisive win for Lord North’s government.

Charles James Fox
One of the opposition leaders at this time was Charles James Fox.  This leader in Parliament had begun his political career at age 19, when his father purchased a seat for him in the House of commons in 1768.  In his early years, Fox was pretty closely aligned with the king on many issues.  He had been one of the leaders seeking to punish John Wilkes.  His break with the king began in 1770 when he opposed the Royal Marriages Act, which gave the king the authority to veto any marriage choice by the royal family.  George III considered this very important and took any opposition as a personal rejection.  Several additional issues, having nothing to do with America drove the two men apart over the next few years.

By 1774 Fox was engaging more with Edmund Burke, another member of parliament and a firm Whig who focused on restricting the king’s authority in government.  Burke became a staunch opponent of government policy in America, supporting instead a negotiated peace that respected American rights.  Over the course of the war, both Fox and Burke recognized the need to accept American independence and led much of the opposition against the government’s war in America.

Burke had also started his political career as secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.  Lord Rockingham had been close to George II, holding the title of Lord of the Bedchamber.  After the death of George II, Rockingham became an early opponent of George III and was removed from most of his government positions.  Rockingham briefly served as Prime Minister in 1765-1766, during which time he repealed the Stamp Tax in America.  The king viewed this as the cause of all the troubles, since it rewarded the rioters in America and gave them the idea that they could win more concessions through violence.  In the king’s view, Rockingham’s accommodationist policies were a disaster.

Throughout the war, Rockingham led opposition to the North Government in the House of Lords.  He had long been a supporter of accommodation, and as early as 1779 believed that the war in America could not be won and that refusing to recognize that fact only created further harm to Britain.

Germain Leaves 

The vote on the Lowther motion to end the war took place at 2AM on the last day of the legislative session before Parliament left for Christmas.  More than 100 members were already gone and did not vote on that matter.  Both sides knew they would have to revisit the issue when Parliament returned in January, so both the North government and the opposition spent Christmas break lobbying for their side.

When I say the North government lobbied, I mean officials in the government led by Lord North. The Prime Minister himself did not do much talking at all.  After Parliament adjourned in December, North met with the King and told him that he believed it was time to recognize American independence. The King insisted that North remain publicly silent on the matter, only discussing it with Lord Stormont and Lord Hillsborough, two of the most pro-war leaders still in the government.  The King likely hoped these two men could bring North back to supporting the war.  In the meantime, he did not want North talking independence with anyone else.

As a way of placating the opposition, the North Ministry decided there needed to be a human sacrifice.  Lord Germain was the most outspoken supporter of continuing the war in America.  The king, North, and others decided he would have to go.  Simply firing Germain or having him quit over the failures in America would not do since that would only highlight the British failures in America.  Instead, they came up with a way to push Germain out quietly.

General Clinton had wanted to resign as commander of North America and return home.  This became more compelling when General Cornwallis returned in January and began blaming Clinton for Yorktown.  

The ministry decided to replace Clinton with General Guy Carleton. You may recall from earlier episodes that Carleton had managed to defend Quebec from rebel occupation at the beginning of the war.  He had been recalled after the loss at Saratoga, but was not blamed for that.  In fact, that loss highlighted the more conservative approach that Carleton had advocated.

Carleton’s main problem was Lord Germain.  Carleton had served on the court martial during the Seven Years War that got Germain kicked out the Army.  Germain never forgave him for that and made it his mission to damage Carleton’s career whenever he could.  So the decision to appoint Carleton as the new commander of North America would almost certainly result in Germain’s resignation as the American Secretary.

The parties discussed this maneuver ahead of time to make sure it had a minimal impact on the war effort.  Germain set the price for his resignation as a new title and a seat in the House of Lords.  After some debate, he received a title as viscount, which entitled him to sit in the House of Lords.

Germain’s replacement, Wellbore Ellis, was a longtime member of Parliament.  He was pushing 70 and was selected primarily because he would be a nonentity who would sit quietly and not rock the boat.  Ellis’ only demand in taking the job was the promise of a pension.

Votes to end the War

Several weeks after Parliament returned, a moderate member of Parliament, former General Henry Conway, put forward another resolution that called for an end to the offensive war in America.  This was a bit less aggressive. Ending the war only meant things went on hold.  It did not mean recognizing American independence. This motion also failed by only a single vote, 194-193.  A week later, Conway tried again with a slightly revised resolution.  North proposed an amendment to have the government “treat with America on the footing of independence.” By introducing the “i” word to the debate, North hoped to increase opposition to the measure.  When that failed, North called for a delay on the vote for a few weeks.

Henry Seymour Conway
The members rejected all these efforts.  The members knew that North was simply maneuvering in an effort to avoid losing the vote.  Parliament remained in session, finally voting in favor of the motion at 2:00 AM on February 28 by a vote of 234-215.  Later that day, the General Advertiser hit the streets with the headline PEACE WITH AMERICA.

This headline may have been premature.  The Crown was not ready to concede.  The following day, the King received the leaders of the House of Commons to discuss the matter. Standing next to the King during this discussion was General Benedict Arnold.  A few days later, the King gave a vague and evasive reply which seemed to indicate that he was not ready to concede the war.

In response, Conway proposed another resolution that said “the House of Commons would consider as enemies to His Majesty and this country” anyone who “advised or attempted to prosecute an offensive war in America.”  This resolution passed as well.

A few days later, things got even worse when news arrived that the British outpost at Menorca had fallen to the Spanish.  The opposition was confident enough by this point that they prepared to call for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.  Such a vote would remove Lord North from office and put a peace candidate in charge of the government.  North began a counteroffensive, reminding members of all the other things the opposition might do once they were in charge.  This went well beyond ending the war. There were a whole bunch of other issues the opposition supported to which many members objected. He managed to defeat the motion by 10 votes, but in doing so, North knew his days in office were numbered.

Opposition coalesced around Lord Rockingham as its leader.  Burke insisted that if he did take office, Rockingham could not let the king veto American independence.  That was the critical change that needed to happen.   Burke was also interested in purging the civil list, that is terminating jobs for a great many government workers, something the King used to reward his friends and manipulate votes in Parliament.

When the King heard all this, he drafted a speech abdicating the crown, turning his office over to his son, the Prince of Wales, and that George III would move back to Hanover and no longer reign over Britain.  Lord North managed to talk the king out of giving the speech and remaining on the throne.  But this gives some idea of where the King's head was.

Still, the king absolutely hated Lord Rockingham.  Although the king normally meets with a would-be prime minister who is seeking to form a new government, in this case, the king refused such a meeting.  George could not stand to be in the same room with Rockingham.

On March 20, the House of Commons prepared to move a vote of no confidence against Lord North.  Before they could do so, North demanded the floor.  Lord Surrey was scheduled to take the floor, to call for the vote of no confidence. So when north demanded the floor, everyone expected him to resign.  The opposition wanted to embarrass the ministry by forcing a no confidence vote rather than a resignation, so Parliament got into a heated argument about who was allowed to speak first.  During the arguing, North just blurted out that they were wasting their time since the entire government had already resigned.  North then moved for an adjournment and went home.

The Rockingham Government

Lord Rockingham already had majority support lined up.  The king still refused to meet with him, instead agreeing to meet with Lord Shelburne.  Rockingham had Shelburne provide the king with a list of new government officials, none of whom the king liked.  Even so, the king had no choice but to approve.  Edmund Burke became the new paymaster of the forces.  Lord Shelburne would be secretary of state for home and colonial affairs. Charles James Fox would be secretary of state for foreign affairs.  The position of the American secretary was abolished.

Lord Rockingham
Most of the new ministers wanted an immediate recognition of American independence.  Shelburne was an exception to this.  He was still hoping the government might negotiate some sort of reconciliation by making other concessions to the colonies.   For this reason, Fox demanded a role on the team that would negotiate with the Americans, preventing Shelburne from dragging out the negotiations.  Burke, even before the new government was created, had written to Benjamin Franklin in France, informing the Americans that Parliament now supported American independence and that it was just a matter of working out the details.

On April 1, the Rockingham Government purged the government of North loyalists, replacing government officials with their own people.  That same month, the ministry sent Richard Oswald to France to open up peace negotiations with the American Commissioners.  It would take months for the negotiations to begin, but the process of ending the war had begun.

We’ll get to those negotiations in an upcoming episode.  In the meantime, we turn to America next week as disputes with native Americans result in the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

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Next Episode 310 Gnadenhutten Massacre

Previous Episode 308 Congress After Yorktown

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Further Reading


Solomon M. Lutnick, and Soloman M. Lutnick. “The Defeat at Yorktown: A View from the British Press.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 72, no. 4, 1964, pp. 471–78. JSTOR,

Lord Frederick North:

Frederick North:

Lord Rockingham:

Charles James Fox:

Edmund Burke:

Rockingham's Second Ministry:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Donne, W. Bodham The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North, Vol. 2, London: John Murray, 1867. 

Keppel, George Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, Vol. 2, London: Richard Bentley, 1852

Lucas, Reginald Lord North, Second Earl of Guilford, London: A.L. Humphreys, 1913. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Hoffman, Ross The Marquis: A Study of Lord Rockingham, 1730-1782. Fordham Univ. Press, 1973 (borrow on 

Mitchell, L.G. Charles James Fox, Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.  

Pemberton, W. Barring Lord North, Longmans, Green and Co. 1938 (borrow on 

Roberts, Andrew The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, Viking, 2021. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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