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Lord Frederick North - 1770-1782 Tory

Lord North was long regarded as a failure as Prime Minister due to his association with Britain’s catastrophic defeat in the American War of Independence (1775 to 1783). He was also condemned by opponents as complicit in a reassertion of royal power against Parliament. However Lord North is more justly appreciated as an outstanding parliamentarian and potentially great premier brought low, like so many others, by ‘events’. North, although an admirable character, and a man of clear intellect, allowed his devotion to the king to make him too compliant to his monarch's wishes.

No statesman has ever encountered the storms of political life with a temper which it was more difficult to ruffle, or more impossible to embitter. His almost unfailing tact, his singularly quick and happy wit, and his great knowledge of business, and especially of finance, made him most formidable as a debater, while his sweet and amiable disposition gave him some personal popularity even in the most disastrous moments of his career.

William Lord North and Grey died without issue, 31st Oct. 1734; and on his death, the title of Lord North descended to Francis Lord Guilford, the grandson of the lord keeper of the great seal of England. Lord Frederick North was born in London on 13 April 1732, the son of the future first earl of Guildford, Francis North, then 3rd baron, and the godson – some believed (probably erroneously) in fact the son – of the Prince of Wales. Educated at Eton and then Trinity College Oxford, in 1754 he was returned as MP for the family seat at Banbury.

Despite a dull appearance, his urbanity, wit and good speaking voice, together with an attractive personal character and good connections, ensured a swift upward path to a Treasury post in 1759, an office he retained through three administrations. He took a leading role in the Grenville government's controversial response to the radical MP and satirist John Wilkes in 1763, and his position as part of an emerging ‘right’ was confirmed when he resigned on Lord Rockingham’s appointment as Prime Minister in 1765. Perceived by George III as a safe pair of hands after serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Pitt the Elder and Grafton from 1767, it was to North that the King turned as his new premier when Grafton resigned as Prime Minister (a term North never used of himself) in January 1770.

In Parliament Lord North's amiable, frank, and genial nature, combined with his loyalty, won him many friends. Lord North, and along with him the king, were completely triumphant. In its foreign policy the government attained a creditable success on the question of the Falkland Islands. The prime minister was successful in gaining highly qualified assistants for the leading of the Lower House, among the most notable of whom was the attorney-general, Thurlow, the most dreaded of all the Tories as a debater; as also the solicitor-general, Wedderburn, an ambitious and self-seeking, but very acute lawyer.

North was an exceptionally conscientious first minister. Continuing simultaneously as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he helped establish budget day as a major date in the political calendar. He maintained his supremacy in the House of Commons against a divided opposition, and such was George III’s confidence in his minister that in 1772 North became the first commoner since Robert Walpole to receive the Order of the Garter; the King also paid off North’s personal debts (around £16,000) five years later. North himself reduced the National Debt by some £10 million by 1775; but the impact of the American War of Independence meant that it soon rose by £75 million.

Such talents, along with significant changes in the administration of India, Ireland and Canada, suggested that North would be remembered as a successful premier. That this was not to be was almost wholly the result of the developing crisis around taxation and constitutional issues in the American colonies that North inherited from his predecessors. North’s own instincts were for enforcement and confrontation rather than negotiation.

His personality, principles, and conduct were so important in their bearing upon the American Revolution that no apology will be needed for introducing several characterizations drawn by competent hands. Wraxall, Hist, and Posth. Memoirs, ed. Wheatley, i., 361'04: "In his person he was of the middle size, heavy, large, and much inclined to corpulency. There appeared in the cast and formation of his countenance, nay, even in his manner, so strong a resemblance to the royal family of England, that it was difficult not to perceive it. Like them, he had a fair complexion, regular features, light hair, with bushy eyebrows, and grey eyes rather prominent in his head. His face might be indeed esteemed a caricature of the King. . . . His natural affability rendered him, besides, so accessible, and the communicativeness of his temper inclined him so much to conversation, that every member of the House found a facility in becoming known to him. Never, indeed, was a First Minister less intrenched within the formsof his official situation. He seemed, on the contrary, always happy to throw aside his public character and to relapse into an individual. . . . Lord North was powerful, able, and fluent in debate, sometimes repelling the charges made against him with solid argument, but still more frequently eluding or blunting the weapons of his antagonists by the force of wit and humor."

He belonged to none of the Whig parties, and he possessed in the highest degree that natural leaning towards authority which was most pleasing to the King. Since the beginning of the reign there had been no arbitrary or unpopular measure which he had not defended. . . . He defended the Stamp Act. He bitterly resisted its repeal. Most of the measures which he advocated in the long course of his ministry were proved by the event to be disastrous and foolish, but he possessed an admirable good sense in the management of details, and he had many of the qualities that lead to eminence both in the closet and in Parliament.

In November 1768 he was determined to see 'America at his feet.' "' America must fear you before she can love you,' said Lord North to Alderman Beckford, who recommended a policy of moderation and kindness. 'Punishment,' he continued, 'will not be extended beyond the really guilty ; and if rewards shall be found necessary, rewards shall be given. But what we do we will do firmly; we shall go through our plan, now that we have brought it so near success. I am against repealing the last act of Parliament, securing to us a revenue out of America. I will never think of repealing it until I see America prostrate at my feet.' In uttering this threat the Minister defined his policy throughout his premiership. Courageous, good-humored, and apathetic in temperament, he was devoted to the royal prerogative, and was strict in the performance of his duties. Opposed to reforms, and bitterly against concessions to the Americans, having voted for the Stamp Act and against its repeal, he way exactly the man to blindly pursue the measures of the headstrong King, and thus, under Providence, to bring about the liberty of the Colonies.

When in 1775 he adopted a more conciliatory policy of allowing colonies to tax themselves to fund defence and administration, news did not reach America before war broke out.

North was more responsible for the financing and defence of the war than for its unsuccessful conduct, but after the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 his ministry was on the defensive against a reinvigorated opposition. After another British capitulation at Yorktown in 1781 he clung on only in the vain hope that George III would allow him to negotiate peace, but on 20 March 1782 he resigned shortly after a motion demanding an end to the war in America saw the ministry defeated in the Commons, and before peace was concluded.

Nor were the American troubles the only ones with which this ministry had to deal. The spirit of discontent amongst the lower classes found repeated expression in the mutinies on board the English squadron. The Irish threatened the government quite openly with a general revolt; and, in older to propitiate them, the government, in 1778, abolished some of the most obnoxious penal measures and restrictions affecting the Catholics. These mitigations, much as they were in keeping with the spirit of the times, afforded the English and Scottish populace a pretext for rising against the Catholics. A young Scottish nobleman, whose reason was somewhat affected, Lord George Gordon, put himself at the head of the agitation, whose war-cry was 'No Popery!' Protestant societies were formed in the towns, and the Catholic churches were burned down, while prominent Catholics were maltreated on the streets. The lamentable weakness which the government showed in dealing with the 'No Popery' movement emboldened its adherents more and more. In addition, the discontent of the people grew over the selfseeking, unscrupulous, and incapable rule of the aristocracy.

The exasperated people took the 'No Popery' movement as a pretext for disorder. On June 2, 1780, Lord Gordon led a mob of 50,000 or 60,000 men against the parliament, the liberal-minded members of which were abused and maltreated. Then the populace attacked the houses of the leading statesmen, as well as the Catholic chapels and the prisons, and gave them, in a great measure, to the flames. At the king's immediate orders, soldiers and militia attacked the rioters; and not till more than a thousand of these were killed or wounded was the rising suppressed. It had manifested that among the English people there were numerous revolutionary elements, that a great military disaster could easily rouse and make dangerous.

The claims of the Irish increased in proportion as the government was compelled to strip the island of troops on account of the Franco-American war. Under the pretext of preventing a threatened French landing, over 50,000 volunteers seized arms, waiting only for a leader to enable them to extort the fulfilment of the national wishes (1779). They found him in Henry Grattan (born 1746), an advocate of passionate, although occasionally turgid, eloquence, but truly representing the character of his people. In November 1781, he was fated, as Prime Minister, to hear of the surrender of Cornwallis, which virtually ended the war of independence. Then his self-possession deserted him, and he looked back with horror and chagrin upon the measures of his administration, and, reluctantly yielding to a vote of censure from the House of Commons for his American policy before and during the war, the vanquished peer retired from the Cabinet, followed by the execrations of his countrymen.

In March 1782, the military disasters in America caused the overthrow of Lord North, who was succeeded by a ministry of Whig aristocrats, led by the Marquis of Rockingham and Lord Shelburne. The new secretary of state was the brilliant and eloquent Charles James Fox (Fig. son of Henry Fox, the celebrated antagonist of the elder Pitt.

North forged an unlikely alliance with his former opponent Charles James Fox to defeat Lord Shelburne’s government, the coalition effectively forcing itself on the King as an administration headed nominally by the Duke of Portland, with North as Home Secretary in April 1783. In December, however, the King dismissed his government, whose defeat in Parliament he had actively fomented. For a short period North was an effective critic of William Pitt the Younger’s administration from the opposition benches, but ill health encouraged a gradual withdrawal from public life, marked by some effective interventions in defence of the Anglican church and against the French Revolution.

Shortly after succeeding his father as 2nd Earl of Guildford in 1790, North died in Grosvenor Square, London, on 5 August 1792.

Gibbon dedicated his Decline and Fall to Lord North in these words: "Were I ambitious of any other patron than the public, I would inscribe this work to a statesman who, in a long, a stormy, and at length an unfortunate administration, had many political opponents, almost without a personal enemy; who has retained in his fall from power many faithful and disinterested friends; and who, under the pressure of severe infirmity, enjoys the lively vigour of his mind, and the felicity of his incomparable temper."

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:19:02 ZULU