Prime Minister 1770 - 82
People like to think that someone, somewhere is in control of things. Even if control is dark and ominous it is still better than no control at all, hence the popularity of conspiracy theories. Lord North was first lord, or prime minister as the office is now called, when Britain lost the American War of Independence. The fact that North "lost" America left him with the reputation of being one of the worst prime ministers ever. Events taking place on a world stage, reflecting powerful historical trends, were blamed on one man. But the terms of judgment have now changed. Empires are no longer fashionable, and we are much less likely to condemn a man who apparently lost part of one. In fact a decision to let America go its own way would now be looked upon favourably. As Lawrence James points out in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire the decision of Britain to retreat peacefully from empire following World War Two is contrasted favourably with France and Portugal's violent attempts to hold onto the last of their empires in Angola, Mozambique and Indo China. History is often seen in terms of judgments, which once again gives the sense of human control over affairs. Someone did a good job, while someone else did a bad job. Many a school child has been obliged to see history in these terms. But there are some who see history differently. Tolstoy, for example, felt that history has no final destination against which to judge a leader's actions in getting us there. Conceptions of a worthwhile destination change with time, as do judgments of our leaders. In Tolstoy's view history is a vast range of forces, with leaders simply riding along on the crest of historical waves, or being washed away by them. Tolstoy I think would have been interested in the story of Lord North.
Frederick North was born 13th April 1732, educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, and became MP for Banbury in 1754. He rose quickly through important positions at the Treasury, to first lord in 1770, a position he would hold for twelve years. The early years of North's administration have usually been judged as successful. He took over when the Duke of Grafton resigned, and immediately confidence in the government improved, as reflected in parliamentary votes. North was a tolerant moderate, who allowed the reforming MP John Wilkes to take a seat in Parliament in 1774. Previous administrations had expelled Wilkes twice for his reforming views. Initially North's administration also coincided with a calming of tensions in America where colonists were calling for independence from Britain. North removed all taxes on Americans except for a small one on tea. The contemporary commentator Horace Walpole was to suggest that "the session of 1773 had been the most triumphant ever known" (John Cannon in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P175). But North was not to know that the tea tax would be seized on by Americans as a symbol of their oppression. The Boston Tea Party was to take place in 1773, with colonists throwing tea from British ships into Boston harbour to demonstrate their objection to British taxation. By the end of 1774 America had called its first continental congress to coordinate resistance. From a British perspective the situation quickly deteriorated. By December 1777 General Burgoyne had been forced to surrender to American forces at Saratoga.
The Declaration Of Independence - this image is copyright free
North considered Saratoga the end of his career. It didn't matter that it was impossible to compel the Americans to submit to British rule if they did not want to do so. Hugely repressive and expensive measures could have been put in place, but these would have required heavy taxation to finance, leading to more resentment, and more resistance. The British situation was hopeless. Nevertheless it was North who was apparently to blame for a massive defeat. Leaders are supposed to represent success, even if they do little to achieve it themselves. They also represent failure when they have little to do with it. With North now representing failure, resignation appeared the only option. But it was to be four years before George III accepted this, and a prime minister could not leave office without royal approval. North begged on dozens of occasions to be released, but the king foresaw the collapse of government if he agreed. In the king's opinion, North, drawing for a while on the credit of sympathy and loyalty he had built up in his good natured career, was the only man to hold government together in a time of crisis. But if there was sympathy and loyalty left towards North, it wasn't always easy to see. Threatened continually with impeachment and even execution, North bravely struggled on, suffering acute depression at times. "In between parliamentary sessions his subordinates Jenkinson and Robinson worked with the king to keep him going, like seconds trying to get their man into shape to last a few more rounds" (John Cannon P180). Release finally came in November 1781 with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis's army at Yorktown. Finally the parliamentary majority that North had still been able to command fell away, and the king had to let Lord North go.
North was an honest, decent, moderate man who was caught between the expectations of a former age, and the hopes of a new one. It is futile to judge him on the course of global events. But he can be perhaps judged on the way he endured through vitriolic attacks that came his way from people looking for a human agency to blame for events. For four years after Saratoga, North could still command majorities in parliamentary votes, and George III's judgment that North was the only man to hold government together was justified. In his final speech as prime minister North thanked all his supporters, who in being there had condemned him to painful years in office. But there was no sense of bitterness in the speech. Instead he acknowledged "the very kind, the repeated and essential support he had for so many years received from the Commons of England, during his holding of a situation to which he must confess he had at all times been unequal" (quoted by John Cannon in The Prime Ministers Vol 1). North may have been unequal to the task of dictating the fate of millions of people in different continents. But no one is equal to that job. North was equal to the task of surviving in the House of Commons, and remaining as a symbol of unity through a difficult period.