Lord North and the American Revolution
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
With the formation of Lord North's ministry, King George's victory in parliament was complete. The most definite dividing line between Government and Opposition was fixed by colonial policy, and the Opposition included the whole of the Rockingham connection together with Burke, the great exponent of Whig political philosophy, Chatham and all those who still revered him, and some even of those whom Charles Townshend had dragged with him more or less reluctantly.
The king had secured the solid support of Toryism, of the group who, by whatever name they called themselves, regarded it as their first duty to carry out the king's wishes, and of the bulk of the Bedford Whigs who had brought the quarrel with America to a head and were rigid in their demands for a firms and uncompromising attitude. The king was not possessed of a merely, accidental majority in the House of Commons; between boroughs whose vote was under direct control and constituencies which had been fairly bought, the majority was secure. There was no risk of the Government being defeated in parliament, and practically none that it would be defeated an appealing to the country. And virtually the majority was pledged to carry out the king's wishes.
There were three questions with which North's Government had to deal between 1770 and 1775. The first has already been discussed in connection with Wilkes. The second was India, which for the present we defer; and the third was the quarrel with the colonies.
The Boston Tea Party
The partial repeal of the obnoxious taxes failed entirely to produce the effect intended. Rioting did not cease, and the worst kind of agitators in America found u help to inflaming popular feeling in the "Boston massacre," an affray between the soldiers and the mob in which three of the latter were killed and a half-a-dozen more were wounded. A Boston jury acquitted the soldiers of blame, but when passions have been excited such occurrences acquire a fictitious colour and a fictitious importance. Still, for some time the agitation only simmered; the colonials, for the most part, contented themselves with refusing to drink tea.
Then in 1772 the royal schooner Gaspee, engaged on preventive service, was decoyed into shallows, where she grounded and was then boarded and burnt; nor could any information be obtained as to the perpetrators. The resistance to the importation of the boycotted goods was more carefully organised; the Americans who supported the home government were subjected to a persistent persecution. Ship loads of tea when they arrived at American ports, if disembarked at all, found no purchasers, and for the most part the ships sailed away again without unloading, At the end of 1773 such a consignment of the East India Company's tea arrived in Boston harbour. The consignees were the sons of the British Governor, Hutchinson.
Hutchinson forbade the ships to sail till they had paid the duties; the Bostonians refused to allow the tea to be landed. One evening, after a great public meeting, a party of pretended Red Indians boarded the tea ships in the presence of an applauding multitude which watched operations from the shore, and emptied the tea chests into the sea. No one revealed the identity of the "Indians"; the entire city of Boston shared the responsibility.
Meanwhile public sentiment had been inflamed on both sides of the Atlantic by the publication of certain letters written to a private correspondent in London by Hutchinson the Governor and Oliver the Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Both men were honest supporters of the British government, and expressed their opinions with the natural freedom of private letters. Those letters, by some means unknown, fell into the hands of Benjamin Franklin, who was in London as agent for several of the colonies.
In America the publication infuriated the colonials against the writers of the letters, while in England it infuriated most people against the men responsible for an entirely unjustifiable divulgence of a private correspondence. A bitter attack was made upon Franklin, which he never forgave. Hitherto he had at any rate believed in the possibility of an honourable adjustment; henceforth he was to be numbered amongst the irreconcilables. The letter incident and the Boston "tea-party" between them had an exasperating effect, which perhaps destroyed the last chance of a peaceful solution.
For now the British Government, with British sentiment behind it, resolved upon penal measures directed against Massachusetts. Boston harbour was closed, the seat of the government was removed from Boston to Salem, the constitution was suspended; the venue for trials of officers of the Crown on capital charges was transferred to England, and troops were ordered to be quartered upon the town, which was required to pay compensation to the East India Company for the tea destroyed.
At the same moment an entirely admirable Act was passed for the government of Canada. It emanated not from the brains of George's ministers, but from the statesmanship of Sir Guy Carleton, afterwards Lord Dorchester, who had for some years been Governor of Canada. While the Quebec Act extended the boundaries of Canada, it secured for the Roman Catholics complete freedom of worship and preserved their endow- merits, nine-tenths of the Canadians being of the religion which was proscribed in Ireland and in Great Britain. It is an extraordinary paradox that Chatham opposed, while King George supported, this surprisingly liberal measure.
But, further, the government was placed in the hands of a Governor and a Legislative Council of Crown nominees, the right of taxation was expressly reserved to the parliament of Great Britain, and the English Criminal Law was introduced while the old French Civil Law was retained. The religious and social institutions of the French population were thus fully protected, and they had no desire for an extension to them of political rights which they had never possessed under the French flag. Nevertheless this excellent measure was an additional source of irritation to their neighbours in British colonies. To the New Englanders in particular, with their Puritan tradition, and to the Virginians with their Anglican Cavalier tradition, the latitude allowed to the Romanists was a scandal; while the political constitution was looked upon as ommious of what the British Government intended to impose upon the old British colonies.
The Continental Congress
Again the assemblies of the thirteen colonies, or of twelve of them, since the youngest, Georgia, did not yet associate itself with the rest, sent delegates to a general "Continental Congress," which met at Philadelphia in September (1774). In that Congress, although there were as yet few who had brought themselves to welcome the idea of separation, the dominant voices were those of the men who had already made up their minds to work for that object, and with them lay the skill of political organisation. The Congress demanded the repeal of the whole series of obnoxious Acts, endorsed a policy of something more than passive resistance to the carrying out of the laws imposed by the British parliament, sanctioned the principle of the boycott, drew up a new Declaration of
Rights, and addressed a petition to the king, and what may be called an open letter to the people of England. They claimed, in short, a return to the position as it was before 1763; but at the same time they expressly repudiated the idea that they desired separation. Congress voted by states, and the states voted solidly together with the exception of New York. It need hardly be remarked, however, that the congress had no legal powers, the sanction for its authority residing only in the Assemblies of the several states.
Massachusetts, which had taken the lead in the agitation and had been singled out for punishment, took the lead also in preparation for armed resistance. The new governor and commander-in-chief, General Gage, refused to summon the Assembly of the province; nevertheless it was elected and met, and was obeyed precisely as if it had been a legal body. Volunteer corps were organised and drilled, and military stores were collected. Gage, who had four British regiments at his disposal, for the most part massed in Boston, urged the home government to send him more troops.
He did not get his troops, and North's Government made a belated offer which was intended to be conciliatory - the offer to exempt from taxation any colony which elected to make such a contribution of its own to the Imperial Exchequer as satisfied the Imperial parliament At this stage the proposal was worse than useless, and it was accompanied by other retaliatory measures against the colonists, closing American ports, excluding all American trade, and voting an increase of troops for Boston. It was in vain for Burke, Chatham, and the Rockinghams to present the case for the colonies to parliament. They were completely out-voted, and the majority in parliament was supported by the great body of popular opinion.