Asleep on the job? Prime Minister Lord North 250 years on

Accompanying the publication of a new collection covering 300 years of British Prime Ministers, the book’s editor compiled a list assessing the 55 premiers in order of their significance. Frederick, Lord North, who became Prime Minister in 1770 and is probably best known as the man who lost America, came towards the bottom of the pile at number forty. Dr Robin Eagles reassesses North’s early response to growing tensions in America and how he was caught asleep on the job in more ways than one…

By the time he finally succeeded to the House of Lords as 2nd earl of Guilford in 1790, Lord North‘s effective career was long over. He had spent his whole life waiting to take control of the family estates, and when they finally came to him he was barely well enough to know what to do with them. Besides, North’s whole reputation by then was overtaken by two things: his highly controversial decision to go into coalition with Charles James Fox in 1783; and the loss of America – a cause that had dominated his premiership of over a decade.

North had been just 37 years old when he became Prime Minister. The circumstances were unpropitious, and like the (even more youthful) Younger Pitt in his first few weeks in office, he faced a turbulent situation in Parliament as he settled into the role. His appointment had come following a period of crisis in government with the king at one point reported to have laid his hand on his sword insisting ‘I will have recourse to this sooner than yield to a dissolution’. [John Brooke, George III, p.158] Unsurprisingly, North had been extremely reluctant to take on the premiership. Despite this, some senior politicians were cautiously optimistic about him. Lord Holland noted in a letter to a friend:

I believe you hear, as I do, a very good account of Lord North of whom, without knowing him, I have a very high opinion; but whether good omens will be follow’d by good events or no, you will not wonder that I don’t guess…

Campbell Correspondence, ed. Davies, p.316

One advantage was that, unlike Pitt, North was able to draw on a lengthy political apprenticeship. He had been returned to the Commons in his early twenties in 1754, and had become a predictably fast friend of the king, continuing the family tradition of loyal dependability. He accepted his first post in government in 1759 and from 1767 had served as chancellor of the exchequer. All of this ought, on the face of it, to have made him well prepared for the task ahead.

All of North’s good qualities – and there were plenty of them – were insufficient for a crisis of the proportions that was about to assail his administration from America. Some were out of North’s control; others stemmed from policies to which he had contributed in previous administrations. Perhaps the biggest problem was that no one ever seemed entirely sure quite what government policy towards the colonies was supposed to be, though there should have been little doubt given the king’s own very clear determination to keep America as a British possession. North’s own response left everyone mildly confused. On one occasion, he was asked what the government plan was, only for him to reply that no one had come up with one. Famously soporific, he was occasionally caught napping (quite literally) and after dozing off in one debate in the House of Commons William Burke suggested:

I wish the noble lord opposite had someone at his elbow, to pull him every now and then by the ear, and give him a gentle tap on the shoulder… to keep him awake to the affairs of America

Thomas, p.71

The early months of North’s administration were dominated by the proposed repeal of the unpopular Townshend duties (which imposed taxes on various goods within America), while maintaining the levy on tea. On 5 March, North set out his stall, criticizing American trade boycotts, but insisting that keeping the levy on luxury items like tea made sense, and generated much-needed revenue to help run colonial government. In his effort to arrive at a compromise position, North warned his colleagues not to ‘imitate the man in the fable, and consent to lose a single eye merely that their neighbours may be wholly deprived of sight’. [Cobbett, Parliamentary History, xvi. 854] Unsurprisingly, North faced criticism from both sides, with some opposed to any alteration to the measures, and others equally convinced that anything short of full repeal would be a waste of effort. One Member, Sir William Meredith noted:

It amazes me not a little to find administration so perversely, so inflexibly persisting in error on every occasion; it is surprising, to use an expression of Dryden’s – “That they never deviate into sense”

In a subsequent debate of 8 May, relating to the recent disorders in America, North’s attitude riled the former Prime Minister, George Grenville, who, in what was to be his final speech in the Commons, criticized the government in no uncertain terms and concluded prophetically:

to his neglect the King may owe the loss of America

Cavendish Debates, II. 36

The debates in the Commons were then mimicked by one in the Lords ten days later, promoted by the duke of Richmond, who, like Grenville, accused the ministry of neglect and how in spite of “the solemn assurances given us at the commencement of the session, like the baseless fabric of a vision, vanish totally into air, and leave not a wreck behind”. Soon after, the session was brought to a close.

Lord North and the Earl of Mansfield stand on a platform addressing a group of distressed patriots
(c) Wellcome Collection,
CC BY 4.0

After the turmoil of the previous session, things looked more positive for North as Parliament reconvened in the winter of 1770. Grenville’s death on the opening day of the session (13 November) boosted the government benches as many of his followers were subsequently absorbed by the ministry. Nevertheless, the king’s speech delivered on the day Grenville died made clear that the state of America remained at the top of the government’s agenda and, although many of the problems were thought to have been alleviated, tensions remained. Just over two years later, the new Tea Act of 1773 precipitated a fresh round of agitation, resulting in the Boston Tea Party and the steady slide into war.

During the early months of his premiership North had declared himself to be ‘a friend to trade and a friend to America’ [Thomas, p.70]. Ultimately, he succeeded in being neither.


Further Reading

The Prime Ministers, ed. Iain Dale (2020)

PDG Thomas, Lord North (1976)

The Parliamentary History of England… Volume XVI

The Correspondence of John Campbell MP… ed. J.E. Davies (Parliamentary History: Texts & Studies 8)

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