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The Age of George III

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The first Ministry of Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham, July 1765 - July 1766

In 1765, George III asked his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland (the 'Butcher' Cumberland of the Battle of Culloden in 1746) to form a ministry. Cumberland agreed to head a ministry in name but suggested that Rockingham should be First Lord of the Treasury. Rockingham led the largest group in the Commons and was a friend of Cumberland. Against his own wishes, the king agreed to appoint the marquis to office.

Rockingham was one of the leading Whig nobles, strong in the ideals of the Glorious Revolution. He was extremely wealthy and had a strong political following, but George III did not like him. In 1762, Rockingham had resigned as a Lord of Bedchamber to the king after the Massacre of Pelhamite Innocents. Immediately after his resignation, the king had removed the marquis from all his county offices. Rockingham's appointment therefore reflects the lack of absolutist tendencies on the part of George III.

Rockingham was honest, able and a good man with many years of political experience in Yorkshire and House of Lords, but he had never held high office. He had some problems in putting together a Cabinet because

Consequently, he had fewer men from whom to choose.

Rockingham took on the job of PM from a sense of duty and was not really interested in holding power. He was far more contented at his family home of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, or at horse-races where he conducted much of his political business. He suspected Bute's influence on George III and felt he did not really have royal support. This worsened in October 1765 when Cumberland died at the age of 44. George III looked on Rockingham as a 'caretaker' PM thereafter.

The High Tory groups saw Rockingham's ministry potentially as the start of another Whig oligarchy. It seems that in this period, party identity was being re-introduced. Tories supported the principles of "Crown, Church and Constitution", and believed that the monarch should be able to exercise the royal prerogative freely. The Whigs supported parliamentary supremacy, the Bill of Rights and religious toleration. They wanted to limit royal power and introduce economy in government. There was a great deal of factional opposition to Rockingham's ministry, although he had some successes and has been much under-rated.

So far as the problems in the American colonies were concerned, Rockingham inherited the Stamp Act crisis. There had been riots in many colonies, starting in August 1765 although the Act was not due to become law until November. In October 1765 the Stamp Act Congress enforced a non-importation policy and stopped the colonists from buying British goods. It soon became clear that English merchants, bankers, business men and manufacturers were losing money.

Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766 but was forced to pass the Declaratory Act at the same time, to ensure repeal. The Declaratory Act said:

The British parliament had, hath and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever''.

Rockinghamites differentiated between having and exercising a right. Because of his conciliatory approach, the riots stopped in America, but many politicians, particularly Grenville, Bute and Bedford, opposed Rockingham making concessions to the 'rebellious' colonies. Most of Rockingham's first ministry was taken up with American affairs and in trying to formulate a new system of legislation for America which failed to go through the Commons.

In July 1766 Rockingham resigned from office because he discovered that the king secretly had been negotiating for Pitt to form a ministry. Rockingham formed his second ministry in March 1782.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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