The Age of George III

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Account for the ministerial instability in the first decade of the reign of George III

George III became King of England in 1760 on the death of his grandfather George II. The First Lord of the Treasury at that time was Thomas Pelham Holles, first Duke of Newcastle (1693-1768). Over the next ten years a total of seven Prime Ministers would come to power, face many problems and then resign in the due course of time. This was partly due to the king's opposition to his PMs, his lack of political experience, his attitude to politics and his immaturity. Other reasons for the ministerial instability were built into the government and parliament. The British Constitution had instability built in the running of the government. It only served in making the country insecure. Because of the many changes in ministries during this period there were no consistent policies regarding any matter especially the problem of America with which three ministries - Grenville's, Rockingham's and Chatham's - were specifically concerned and deeply involved with initially in the form of the National Debt. The Wilkes affair also contributed towards the ministerial instability between 1763 and 1764 and 1768 to 1769, undermining and finally wrecking three ministries. Also it was because of the Wilkes affair 1763-64 that the rise of public opinion and more importantly the press came to be. To add to the ministerial instability most of the PMs during this period were in the House of Lords which was a disadvantage. Because 1760-70 was a period of peacetime and changing sociology in the form of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions this also caused instability. Pitt the Elder, later Chatham, did appear through the whole decade as a destabiliser. He ruined many ministries including his own. This was a major cause of instability. Burke, in his book Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), gave reasons for the decade of ministerial instability from the Rockinghamite point of view and was believed until the 1940s when proved by Sir Lewis Namier as nothing but a brilliant piece of propaganda.

Much of the ministerial instability was caused by George III himself. He came to the throne in 1760 as a young man full of ideals. He was naive and politically inexperienced. He had visions of changing corrupt politics and changing the country's political framework. Because of this he wanted to change the 'party' system of the political framework. This caused instability as the 'party' way of running parliament was the only way politicians knew. Because of George III's immaturity and lack of political experience he chose the wrong men to be PM Even when he chose competent able men he made absolutely no concessions to them and made their lives difficult and this caused instability. His immaturity showed in his first choice for PM, Bute. Bute was his confidante, friend, tutor, mentor and political adviser. Because Bute had taught him not to trust any minister, he trusted only Bute so asked him to become PM Bute caused instability because of his incompetence and his Peace of Paris treaty. This was described as "Peace without honour" and because it made the country look weak it caused instability. Also the king's choice caused instability in parliament as many people disliked Bute because he was openly George III's favourite and this caused people to feel insecure. Because George III did not trust his PMs it caused instability as it was not the most reassuring thing to know that the king did not trust his ministers. George III's taking back of the royal patronage and other royal powers also caused instability because people thought that he was inventing royal powers. They could not remember, due to short life expectancies, about any patronage or royal powers. People thought that what the king was doing and his demands that he should have an active role in the running of the country was illegal and unconstitutional. Ministers thought that he wanted back his patronage and other royal powers so he could return or try to make the country return to a regime of royal absolutism. Also because the king wanted to be 'enlightened' ministers thought that he wanted to be 'despotic'. This and his reclaiming of patronage and royal powers made them feel very insecure. This caused instability because the ministers were in a state of chaos. What would become of them it this did happen? The Whig ministers had been running the country for over 50 years. They now knew no other way of life.

Because of the vast changes in the ministries instigated by George III it also caused instability as no-one knew how long they would be in ministerial office and because of the changes there were never any consistent policies.

It was not what the king did that caused ministerial instability, it was how he did it. Also it was the first time in 50 years that a monarch had demanded a role in the running of the country. It caused instability because people were not used to this, and George III did not make it any easier on people. As Pares notes, "his idea of firmness was extremely simple: flat refusal to make any political concessions to anybody".

John Wilkes was also a cause of ministerial instability from 1763-4. In April 1763 during Bute's ministry, Wilkes published an article in Issue 45 of his newspaper North Briton which criticised the speech the king had made during the State Opening of parliament. In his speech the king had described the Peace of Paris as "Honourable to my Crown and beneficial to my people". Wilkes in his article specifically stated the Bute had written the speech and denounced it as "the most abandoned piece of ministerial effrontery". However, by this time Bute had resigned and Grenville was now the PM He sent out a General Warrant for the arrest of everyone who was connected with Issue No. 45 of the North Briton. Wilkes and 48 others were arrested and then released on a writ of Habeas Corpus which protected innocent people which everyone was until they were proven guilty. Wilkes took the issue over General Warrants to court where they were found to be illegal and unconstitutional. The government and Grenville were made to look ridiculous and a laughing stock and they lost much face over this incident. Also it looked as if the government, especially Grenville was against free speech. The electorate did not like this. The Wilkes incident contributed towards the fall of Grenville's ministry.

Also it was because of the Wilkes incident that the rise of the press and public opinion came about. From here on in it was assumed that the press had the right to publish anything, including the goings-on in parliament. Also it was assumed after the Wilkes incident that the public had a right to know what was going on in parliament. Because of its new found freedom, the press publicly lambasted the government making it open to public hatred, causing more ministerial instability.

The problems in America did account for quite a lot of ministerial instability especially during the time when Grenville, Rockingham and Chatham held office. These problems were initiated by Grenville who was in office from April 1763 until July 1766. Grenville was faced with the formidable task of having to pay off the national debt which stood at £140 million. Grenville, so as not to upset the Independent Gentlemen, imposed taxes on America in order to pay off the debt: firstly the Sugar Act in 1764 which taxed all molasses entering America, although at a cheaper rate than that fixed by the 1733 Molasses Act; then the Stamp Act in 1765 which extended the British Stamp Act and taxed all legal documents, newspapers, licenses, dice and playing cards in America also. The results of the Stamp Act were the Stamp Act riots and the non-importation policy imposed on Britain by the Stamp Act Congress in America, which meant that America would buy nothing from Britain. This caused much instability as Britain rapidly began to lose money as America was a very large customer. It also caused instability because the trading classes who owned industry who were the electorate were demanding and putting pressure on the government to resolve the issues. Also the Independent Gentlemen were demanding that the government should show the colonists who was 'boss'. This was the final straw to Grenville's ministry (besides the friction with the king regarding the redecorating of his new home). He resigned in July 1765. This resignation was the last thing Britain needed on top of rebellious colonies. Another unsuccessful ministry meant a new ministry which imposed new policies which increased ministerial instability. The situation needed to be resolved because 13 rebellious colonies were a sign of weakness to aggressive foreign countries. From July 1765 to July 1766 the second Marquis of Rockingham was PM In order to stop the friction in America, Rockingham, repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. He also passed the Declaratory Act which differentiated between having the power to tax and exercising that power. However the debates on the repeal had split his cabinet and weakened the confidence of his supporters. Also the king disliked him so he asked Rockingham to resign and Pitt, now Chatham, took his place.

It should have been a stable ministry because the problems with America had been resolved and trade with America had been resumed. However, Chatham fell ill and the Duke of Grafton was de facto PM Chatham's chancellor, Charles Townshend, passed the American Import Duties Act in 1767 which levied external taxes, part of the system for regulating trade which the colonies accepted; lead, paint, paper, glass and tea sent to America were taxed in Britain. The result of this was more riots and the second non-importation policy which lasted until 1770. Pitt, now Chatham, dragged himself out of illness in October 1768 and resigned. This caused much instability as the trading classes were once again pressuring the government for a resolution because they were losing money. It was also a sign of weakness to foreign countries and also parliament was very disillusioned. Chatham had failed to live up to his expectations and if Chatham could not deal with the problems Britain faced internally and externally, who could? This caused major ministerial instability as it was the fourth resignation of a PM in six years.

In 1768-9 Wilkes again was the root cause of ministerial instability. It was during the middle of the American problem and Britain was going through a ministerial crisis. Grafton had taken over from Chatham as the PM in October 1868 and the electorate was desperately looking for someone who would bring stability back to the government. They were seeking desperately when who should turn up but none other than John Wilkes - the symbol of liberty - and Wilkes definitely went hand in hand with liberty. He stood for election at one of the London boroughs which was owned by a borough monger. He lost and moved on to the next place which was Middlesex. He won. Wilkes decided that he wanted to stand trial for his past offenses of an illegal duel and pornography. He was fined £1,000 and given a 22 month gaol sentence. After the sentencing a riot broke out and troops were called in; six people were killed due to the shots fired. This caused instability as it was a bad publicity for the government and it enhanced Wilkes as the hero, the symbol of liberty of the working classes. During his imprisonment there were re-elections at Middlesex where each time the public put up Wilkes against the government candidate, Henry Lawes Luttrell, and each time Wilkes won. Finally the government announced Luttrell as the winner even though Wilkes got more votes. This caused instability because there was an uproar in the country. The press slated the government. The so-called 'perfect' British constitution as described by John Locke and Blackstone was exposed as a shambles, corrupt, and subject to influence. This along with the troubles in America, the 1768-9 bad harvests (Britain was a harvest economy), the riots in England and general discontent about the state of parliament, government and the British constitution were in, and the numerous changes of PMs led to more instability.

1760-70 was a decade of peacetime as well as one of ministerial instability. This fact did not help matters much. It was well known that Britain was at its most stable during warfare. Everything boomed whether it was the economy and industry through increased demands for goods to supply Britain's forces with, or socially. Everyone stuck together during warfare and this was when everybody including ministers were at their most supportive and patriotic best. Because it was not a period of war ministers had no need to be supportive so were using the 'party' system at its most effective.

George III was putting increased pressure on his PMs for them to conform to his ways and this caused instability as they thought that if they did not do as he (George III) wished they would be ousted from office. The ministers only had to deal with internal affairs which was quite complicated because of one did not please the electorate then one would be ousted from office by way of a general election. This was an inbuilt instability in the British constitution, in the running of the country. The present PM would always be in fear of being changed via a general election. Having to sit in the House of Lords if one was titled was also an inbuilt instability. Most of the PMs during the decade of ministerial instability sat in the House of Lords and this fact also caused instability. It caused instability because the most successful PMs always sat in the House of Commons where they could defend themselves, their actions and their policies to the Independent Gentlemen on whose support they very much depended, and without which it would be impossible to remain as PM. The PMs who sat in the House of Lords had to find themselves good ministers to represent them in the House of Commons, and more often than not the representatives did not do a good job, causing the Independent Gentlemen to be displeased, causing further instability. For example, Pitt (later Chatham) was successful during the Seven Years War because he was a member of the House of Commons where he ruled by sheer force of personality. In 1766 when he was given the title Earl of Chatham and was elevated to the House of Lords, no-one knew who Chatham was; he could not defend himself to the Independent Gentlemen and his ministry was a failure.

Right through the decade of ministerial instability Pitt posed as a destabiliser. This was partly due to the fact that even though the king forced him to resign as Secretary of State for War because he was a snob and disliked Pitt because he was a commoner, talented, able, successful and popular, he still admired him and could find no-one to match up to the ability that Pitt showed during the Seven Years War. This caused instability because ministers were constantly trying to live up to Pitt's image. Normally they could not do this and made a total blunder of things causing more instability. Even Chatham could not live up to Pitt. Pitt also caused instability because from the day he resigned as Secretary of State for War in 1761 up to 1770 he was continually critical of everyone's policies and generally destroying their self-confidence, splitting their cabinets and causing further instability.

The ministerial instability was caused by all the factors mentioned. These factors were connected in many ways. However, George III was the root cause; he instigated the causes of the instability. He did not do it purposely and the decade of ministerial instability cannot be pinned wholly on him but quite a lot of instability occurred due to early decisions that he made and actions that he took. For example if it had not been for George III choosing incompetent men to start off with they would never have made the disastrous decisions they made which led to their resignations and instability, and then the king choosing more incompetent people who made blunders which led to more instability.

However, it was not what George III did that caused ministerial instability so much as how he did it. His taking back of patronage and other royal prerogatives instilled fear and insecurity in many people. It must be taken into consideration that it had been over 50 years since a monarch had had an active political role in Britain. People understandably were very wary, insecure and this led to instability. If George III had had more political experience and had been more politically subtle, using gentler tactics instead of acting like a bull in a chinashop and demanding his rights and had tried negotiating then much instability could have been avoided.

It was only towards the end of the decade of ministerial instability did the king realise that he had to rule within the same political framework that had been in existence during his ancestors' reigns. It was also only towards the end of the decade of ministerial instability that George III realised that stability had to be brought back to the country and in order to do such a thing it was imperative that he got along with his ministers.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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