Lord North and Lord Shelburne Ministries
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Lord North held office from 1770 till March 1782. Throughout that time the king was supreme. North did his bidding, often very much against his own will; and at the general elections which took place the ministry always retained the support of the country. That support had been won by the Crown's appropriation of the old methods by which Walpole and Newcastle had procured their majorities.
Public money, patronage carried through every department, the distribution of sinecures, the ejection of political opponents from every kind of office in civil, military, and naval administration, secured the subservience of parliament and the votes of the electorate. The system broke down in the long run because it produced an inefficiency so intolerable that the king was obliged to place himself in the hands of ministers who declined to look upon obedience to the Crown as their first duty. After an interval he found a minister of a very different type from Lord North, with whom he could work in harmony but whom he could not dominate. He retained enough of his personal power to be able in one critical case to override that minister's will with disastrous results; but the new royal supremacy which operated during Lord North's twelve years was a proved failure and was not again revived.
The Gordon Riots
The North administration, destructive from an imperial point of view, was almost barren in domestic affairs. One measure for the relief of Roman Catholics in 1778 stand to its credit. Their disabilities in the inheritance and purchase of land were abolished, and the celebration of the Roman Catholic rites ceased to be a penal offence in England. Nevertheless, the proposal of a similar measure for Scotland was received in that country with such an outburst of fanatical wrath that it had to be dropped. Even in England it was possible to work up the "No Popery" agitation to such a pitch that in 1780 the half-crazed Lord George Gordon stirred up a frenzy of rioting which the most disorderly elements of the community turned to their own account. Prisons were broken open, much damage was done, and the disturbances were only suppressed when the king himself assumed the responsibility of which ministers were afraid and ordered out the military to deal with the rioters.
The corruption of the existing system was brought home to the Whigs when they found it employed against them instead of in the Interests of the great Whig families. The North administration began to totter at the end of 1777. North himself would willingly have given place to Chatham, but Chatham died; the only alternative to North was a Rockingham administration, and North held on. The Whigs directed their attacks against the system which excluded them from office; Burke brought in a bill for "Economic Reform," which meant mainly the abolition of sinecures and of the expenditure of public money as a means of corruption. But when it came to details so many private interests were touched that the bill failed. Chatham himself, at an earlier stage, had desired a parliamentary reform which would have abolished the pocket boroughs, and would to a considerable extent have anticipated the great Reform Bill which was passed in 1832. But both the king and the Whigs relied too much on the manipulation of pocket boroughs to approve of such a plan. The most notable outcome in parliament of the attack upon the prevailing system was the passing in 1780 of Dunnings famous resolution that "The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished."
The Shelburne Ministry
The disasters of the war, however, culminating in the surrender at Yorktown, made it impossible for the king to maintain his resistance to North's resignation. In March .1782 Rockingham accepted the task of forming an administration, prominent in which were Lord Shelburne, who represented Chatham's personal followers, and Charles James Fox, the son of Chatham's ancient rival, who at a very early stage had identified himself with the most extreme section of those Whigs who advocated the colonial cause in the most uncompromising fashion as the cause of political liberty.
Burke, by far the greatest man among the Whigs, was not regarded as a practical parliamentarian and was given only a minor office. William Pitt, the younger son of Lord Chatham, who had already astonished the House by his precocious talents, declined, though he was only two and twenty, to join the ministry in a subordinate position. Three months later Rockingham died. Shelburne, by the king's choice, became the head of the ministry, and Fox resigned, being followed into opposition by Burke and some others who were personally hostile to Shelburne, who, in his turn, was the minister most in personal accord with the king, with the exception of the Lord Chancellor Thurlow, the one survivor from North's cabinet. Young Pitt took office as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Shelburne ministry was divided by distrust; its main business was the settlement of the terms of peace. Fox with his followers, and North with his followers, joined in attacking the Government, which was deserted by one after another of its members. In February 1783 the two leaders of the Opposition formed an open coalition. Such a junction of opposifes was without parallel, but it was decisive. Shelburne resigned; and after some weeks of despairing efforts to procure a ministry to his liking, George was obliged to surrender to the coalition. The Treasury was given to Portland as the nominal head of the administration, while Fox and North became Secretaries of State. Pitt at an earlier stage had rejected overtures from Fox, which would have involved what he regarded as the betrayal of Shelburne; and he declined absolutely to be associated with North.
The coalition was the most extraordinary on record. For twelve years North had represented the principle of complete subserviency to the king and of an uncompromising resistance to the claims of the colonies. Fox had advocated the cause of the colonies with a vehemence which verged upon treason, and had denounced the power of the Crown in unmeasured terms. There was no single point on which a positive agreement between the two could have been anticipated. A coalition between Shelburne and either Fox or North would have involved very much less strain than the coalition of 1757 between the elder Pitt and Newcastle.
But that combination had been possible for the simple reason that every one concerned saw that nothing else could save the country from immediate ruin. The coalition of 1783 had no principles and apparently but one object, the exclusion of Shelburne. To that end, North consented that the Orowa should be treated with respect but not with deference; and the two groups hitherto hostile presented for the time being a united front.