Sunday, June 24, 2018

Episode 050: Britain Prepares for War

Over the summer and fall of 1774, Prime Minister North’s Ministry watched the Coercive Acts unite the colonies and bring at least Massachusetts into an open state of rebellion.  It seemed clear to everyone, that one way or another, open war would begin in the spring.

British Elections of 1774

As colonial discontent grew, Prime Minister North decided it was time to hold a general election in Britain.  Under the law at the time, Parliament could sit for up to seven years without an election.  The most recent one had been six years earlier in 1768.  The King could dissolve Parliament at any time, and usually relied on the Prime Minister for advice on when to do so.  North decided it would be better to get the election out of the way before a shooting war began in the colonies.  Holding elections a year early would also catch the opposition off guard and hopefully give North’s Tory allies an advantage at the polls.

Elections in this era were far different than we think of elections today.  For starters, only adult male property owners could vote.  In 18th Century Britain, before the rise of the middle class, very few people actually owned real property.  Almost everyone rented their home and land from a local lord.  Records are sketchy, but probably only about 5% of the population had the right to vote in elections.

1774 Elections in Shaftesbury (from Dorset Life)
For that 5%, another important consideration was the fact that the private ballot did not exist.  A voter had to register his vote in public.  If you lived in a region where a local lord held not only political power, but also economic and social power, you would feel a great deal of pressure to support him or risk suffering his wrath in ways that might affect your own business or standing in the community.

Election districts varied greatly in size.  The government did not regularly reapportion districts, meaning that some which had grown considerably in the last century or two might have many thousands of constituents, while other had only a handful.  For example, Lord North had 18 eligible voters in his district.  He invited them all over for dinner on the night before the elections and they obligingly returned him to Parliament.

Voting took place over October and November 1774, with each local district setting its own election day.  Holding elections early seemed to go well for the North Ministry.  Although members did not define themselves as members of a political party as strictly as they do today, North was generally considered a Tory leader.  His members won over 60% of the seats.  Former Prime Minister Rockingham led the opposition.  One effect of the election was a drop in moderate members.  Radical Whigs tended to pick up seats in many of the larger cities and industrial areas.  Conservative Tories tended to elect representatives who were ready to take a stronger hand with the colonies and use force to teach them their place in the empire.  So even if North might have been persuaded to take a more conciliatory approach, his members were encouraging him to take a much more militant stand.

No Reinforcements for Gage

Just before elections began, North began to receive letters from Gage back in Boston discussing the Colony’s refusal to accept the Coercive Acts.  Gage had lost control of the colony and following the September Powder Alarms (see Episode 46) was holed up in a defensive posture in Boston. The ministry received his letters calling for 20,000 reinforcements.  This was a very different message that Gage had told them a few months earlier when the ministry had appointed him Governor.  Back then, he had indicated that a firm hand over a few trouble makers would end this nonsense.  Now Gage seemed to be saying that all of New England was prepared for open rebellion.

North and the King both relied on former Governor Hutchinson for a better understanding of the situation.  Hutchinson continued to tell them that the people were simply following a few trouble makers like Samuel Adams.  Taking a firm hand with the leadership would bring the rest of the colony to heel.  That sounded more like the historic precedent that British leaders understood, and even with what Gage himself was saying before he left for Boston. Peasants did not revolt.  Local leaders whipped them into a revolt.  Taking out those local leaders would send the peasants scattering back to their farms.  They simply did not appreciate that New England farmers were dedicated to the idea that Britain should not tax them, not to any particular leader.

Lord North (from Wikimedia)
With that in mind, North seemed to think that Gen. Gage was simply being too cautious.  He was afraid to take decisive action.  Let’s face it, colonies were supposed to benefit Britain.  Soldiers were expensive.  Paying to ship 20,000 soldiers to the colonies, who seemed to be all talk with little action beyond some property destruction, would be a waste of resources.  At the time there were only about 12,000 soldiers in all of Britain.  Such a force would require months of recruitment and training even if the leadership wanted to incur the huge costs.  It certainly was not the sort of expensive project North wanted to announce in the middle of an election. Gage needed to suck it up and deal with this problem with the resources he had, as he said he could six months earlier.

Admiral Graves, commanding the Naval force in Boston, also requested more ships.  While he could block the port of Boston, he needed a much larger force to prevent smuggling up and down the east coast.  He had only 19 ships to maintain the blockade as well as monitor all merchant sailing activity.

The admiralty in London had its own concerns.  King Louis XVI had just taken the throne in France.  Intelligence indicated the new King was rebuilding his naval forces.  Britain would have to be ready to suppress any challenge to its authority on the sea.  It needed its navy nearby.  Graves received three more ships, along with 600 marines available for actions on land.

Even after news that the French economy was so weak that they could not consider starting another war, North decided not to send more military to the colonies.  He reduced the size of the navy, trying to save money and reduce debt.

News of Colonial Arms Buildup

In October, the government received additional disturbing news.  Colonies were buying arms and ammunition in massive amounts.  North got news that colonial ships in Amsterdam were buying all the guns and ammunition that they could find.  This needed to stop.

The King issued an order banning the shipment of all arms and ammunition to the colonies.  British merchants could not sell them and the British navy would search and seize any vessels carrying arms or ammunition from the continent to America.

This would not be easy to enforce though.  Spanish, French and, Dutch merchants could continue to ship arms to their colonies in the West Indies. From there, American smugglers could continue to buy what they needed and sneak them into the colonies.

News of Suffolk Resolves and Continental Congress

By late October, word arrived in London of the Suffolk resolves.  Members of Parliament were in their home districts, still completing the elections.  Lord Dartmouth received the resolves, noting that, if true, the colonies “have already declared war against us.”  As much as the Massachusetts patriots thought they were flirting with the line on treason, officials in London quickly decided that they had easily crossed that line.

Dartmouth had been corresponding with Joseph Galloway, a delegate at the First Continental Congress, trying to see if that body might serve to negotiate a settlement agreeable to all sides.  After word reached London that the Congress had ratified the Suffolk Resolves (see Episode 47), any hope of reconciliation seemed gone.  Now as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the shock of violence from the powder alarms and news of the Coercive acts forced Congress to support the resolves as a means of solidarity.  But clearly the majority of delegates were not ready for such an open break with London.

Lord Dartmouth (from Wikimedia)
 That, however, is the way many in London took the news.  Not only was Massachusetts in open revolt, the rest of the colonies seemed prepared to back them in open rebellion.  Confirmation of this view arrived with Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America. A southerner also agreed with the radical New Englanders that colonists could simply ignore acts of Parliament.

Officials awaited Gage’s assessment of the rapidly changing situation.  His letters following the Powder Alarm did not arrive until late November, traveling on a very slow ship.  When they arrived, they only frustrated the leadership.  Gage informed the ministry that his troops could not control the colony outside of Boston.  He suggested suspending the Coercive Acts to placate the colony, at least temporarily.  His letters said nothing about the state of the colonies outside of Massachusetts.

Both the King and Lord North found Gage’s assessment of the situation inadequate and his proposal to suspend the Coercive Acts absurd.  The King had no authority to suspend an act of Parliament.  It was his duty to enforce the law.  Officials began to think that Gage simply was not up to the job.  He had talked tough in London about restoring order.  Now he was hiding in Boston, afraid to have his thousands of soldiers stand up to a bunch of civilians.

The King also agreed that the time for war was at hand: “Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”  Lord North agreed.  Dartmouth also accepted the idea that military suppression was the most likely option.

When the King opened the new Parliament on November 30, 1774, he deplored what he called Massachusetts’ “resistance to the law” and called for firm measures to restore British authority.  As always, he left the details to Parliament.

By late December or early January 1775, the Ministry received confirmation that Massachusetts had in fact set up its own separate government in the Provincial Congress and that it was preparing for war.  It also received the resolves of the Continental Congress, which indicated that the other colonies would keep solidarity with Massachusetts and support its resistance to the Coercive Acts.

Peace Negotiations Fail

Over the winter, Gage sent Col. Richard Prescott to confer with the ministry, discuss military and political options, and answer their questions about the situation in the colonies.  Also arriving in London were several loyalists fleeing the mob actions in Massachusetts as well as Josiah Quincy, who hoped to work out a peace deal.  Benjamin Franklin, still in London but on the outs with just about everyone, attempted to put out feelers for a peace deal via his friendship with Caroline Howe, the sister of Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe, both Whig members of Parliament and well respected officers.  The parties remained so far apart at the outset though, that they could not even agree on a basis to start serious peace negotiations.

Lord Dartmouth considered the option of sending a peace delegation to America, but Lord North showed little interest.  The new Parliament was not in the mood for negotiations.  That could come after they reminded the colonies who had the power and who had to submit. North focused on preparing for war in the spring.

British Support for War

The notion that the colonies needed some harsh treatment to compel them to remember their place in the empire was not limited to Parliament.  The voting public had just supported the Tories in large part because of North’s tough policies.  A few months after the election, Samuel Johnson published Taxation No Tyranny in response to the petitions and declarations from the First Continental Congress and others.  It was published in several parts in newspapers in early 1775 and also became a popular pamphlet.
Samuel Johnson (from Wikimedia)

His work is most famous for the line pointing out the hypocrisy of the colonists who demand freedom as a fundamental right while owning slaves: “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”  His lengthy discussion goes into much more detail about how the colonies must always be subject to the will of Parliament for all things, including taxation.  Colonial charters are authorization by the British government, but are also subject to amendment and alteration by the government.  Colonists have virtual representation in Parliament.  The fact that they chose to to move to a colony where they don’t have a direct representative was their choice, trading the vote for economic gain.

Colonists receive protection from the empire and profit from the British mercantile system.  So if they benefit from the British government, they must also accept the British taxes that support that government.  The British government needs to man up and stop making excuses for why it cannot enforce British law on British colonies.  If you want to understand the Tory position on the eve of war.  I really recommend reading this document.

The Peace Wing in Parliament Fails

Despite the overwhelming support for war, the Whig minority still attempted to salvage a peace.  They probably knew that their efforts would fail.  But they wanted to be on record with an alternative.  Sooner or later, they believed, North’s provocations would blow up into an expensive and bloody war with the colonies.  The Whigs wanted to be able to say “I told you so” and be prepared to put forth a government to make peace with the colonies when the time came.

In January, Lord Chatham, the former William Pitt proposed again to repeal the tea tax and agree to remove all British soldiers from the North American Colonies.  Pitt, who had recovered from his earlier illness that had led to his removal as Prime Minister, praised the Continental Congress for its fight against tyranny.  Edmund Burke also rose in favor of the bill, pointing out that while Britain likely could use force to suppress this rebellion, it would only be a temporary fix.  Britain would have to spend more and more resources trying to control the colonies militarily.  In the long run, that would be far more expensive than working out a compromise that would maintain an economically profitable trade with the colonies.  Despite his efforts, Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the plan.

Dartmouth’s Dispatch

By this time, many of the hawks in the ministry were questioning not only Gen. Gage’s competence but whether Sec. of State Dartmouth was too weak to keep the colonies in line.  Faced with increasingly desperate reports from Massachusetts and pressure to Act, Dartmouth sent a secret dispatch to Gage on January 27, 1775.  Weather problems prevented Gage from receiving the dispatch until April 15.

Dartmouth told Gage, you are not getting thousands of more reinforcements.  Yes, it sounds like you have lots of angry colonists but they are not an army.  They are a rabble without real military organization.  You have a professional army of nearly 4000 at your command.  If it turns out you need more after making an effort, we can talk about that later.  But soldiers are expensive and we don’t want to incur costs that we don’t think necessary.

It sounds like you are sitting around doing nothing, while the colonists arm themselves, train their militia, and refuse to comply with the law.  That needs to stop.

You should be able to control a large mob with the troops you already have.  Now show some backbone and get out there and enforce the law.  Specifically, we want you to arrest the leaders who are stirring up trouble, disarm the civilians, and prevent mobs from interfering with legal trade.  If necessary, you already have authority to declare martial law

Dartmouth did give Gage a little wiggle room, saying he had some discretion because he was the one on the ground seeing things as they are.  The message, though, was clear.  Gage had the necessary resources to put down this rebellion.  From the view of everyone in London, he needed to start making an effort to do that.

Restraining Act and Conciliatory Proposition

Even while war loomed though, North continued to seek a legislative solution.  In February 1775, North proposed to laws to Parliament: again opting for a carrot and stick approach.  In response to the Continental Congress’ decision to end all trade with Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies, North’s Restraining Act (aka Prohibitory Act) prohibited the colonies from all trade with anyone other than Britain, Ireland and the West Indies.  In other words, if you are not going to trade with us, you are not going to trade with anyone.  The Act also banned fishing off the banks of Newfoundland, which was a big source of revenue for many New Englanders.

At the same time, North also proposed the Conciliatory Proposition.  In his view, the colonies seemed to have this insane phobia over Parliament taxing them.  The colonies did not object to all taxes, as the colonial governments continued to tax and collect from their own citizens without objection.  At the same time, Lord North seemed to have changed his attitude since the Tea Tax fiasco.  Now he did not care so much how he got money from the colonies, as long as he could get money to support the empire.  Therefore, his Conciliatory Proposition offered the colonies the authority to tax themselves, as long as they raised whatever funds Parliament needed from them.  In other words, the colonies would raise the money however they liked, but would make contributions to support the government and military needs from which they benefitted.

It’s hard to say whether such a compromise might have found acceptance in an earlier time under different circumstances.  But this was too little, too late.  After it became clear that the proposals would become law, Benjamin Franklin at long last packed his bags and headed home to Pennsylvania.  Josiah Quincy, Jr. likewise, gave up all hope of a political compromise and headed back to Massachusetts.  Unfortunately for Quincy, he would die on his return trip.

Everyone seemed convinced that fighting would begin in the spring.  The only questions were exactly when, where, and who would start it.

Next Week, Patriots open fire on British Soldiers in New Hampshire.

Next Episode 51: The Portsmouth Alarm

Previous Episode 49: The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

History of Parliament online, elections:

Josiah Quincy's discussion with Lord North:

The Restraining Act of 1775:

Johnson, Samuel Taxation no Tyranny:

Burke, Edmund Speech on conciliation with America, March 22 1775,

Parliamentary Debate on the Conciliatory Proposition:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Donne, W. Bodham (ed) The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, Vol. 1,  London: John Murray, 1867.

Great Britain. Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, Vol. 2, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1887.

Grego, Joseph A History Of Parliamentary Elections And Electioneering, London: Chatto & Windus, 1892.

Laprade, William (ed) Parliamentary Papers of John Robinson, 1774-1784, London: Offices of the Society, 1922.

Lucas, Reginald Lord North, second earl of Guilford, 1732-1792, Vol. 2, London: Arthur Humphreys, 1913.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

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

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

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


  1. Michael, I am absolutely loving the podcasts. Thank you so much for the time you are putting in.

  2. Not sure if you'll see this but episode 097 on Spotify did not load properly.