The Age of George III

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Shelburne's Ministry: July 1782-February 1783

When Rockingham died on 1 July 1782, the king asked Shelburne to form the next ministry. Although Shelburne was an earl, it was an Irish peerage so he was unable to sit in the House of Lords. He sat for the family pocket borough of High Wycombe. He had been employed in 1760 to gather a party round the Earl of Bute and consequently gained a reputation for deceit and duplicity that was unwarranted. Shelburne was still unpopular because of these early links with Bute, even though he had served as Secretary of State in Chatham's ministry. Shelburne was hard-working, talented, witty, cultured and rich. He was well informed on diplomatic and financial matters; he was a patron of Price and Priestley (both Unitarians) and of Jeremy Bentham. Shelburne appears to have been a poor leader with few close friends. The king referred to him as the "Jesuit of Berkeley Square" (Shelburne's home was at Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square) and cartoons nicknamed him "Malagrida" (a Portuguese Jesuit who had been convicted of heresy).

Shelburne had great respect for the institution of monarchy, which made the Whigs suspicious of him. On Shelburne's appointment as First Lord of the Treasury, Fox, Burke and other Rockingham Whigs resigned. This weakened Shelburne's position but he did appoint Pitt the Younger (aged 22) as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shelburne hoped to win the support of the Independent Gentlemen in parliament and from the public through his programme of utilitarian administrative reforms.

Shelburne concluded the final peace negotiations at the Treaty of Versailles (1783) which ended all European and American hostilities. The last part of the war (after the fighting in America had ended) had brought British successes:

Government economies were fairer and more honest. Shelburne applied "political philosophy" to politics (Benthamite Utilitarianism and Adam Smith's free trade ideas). Shelburne is thought of as the first Utilitarian politician and his reforms followed the precepts of Bentham's philosophy, aimed at achieving administrative efficiency and preserving national resources. He chose men of talent, not influence. Shelburne planned to introduce a series of measures:

Shelburne did give valuable training to Pitt, whose later achievements owed much to Shelburne - who received no credit whatsoever from Pitt. Shelburne's ministry was defeated by a combination of Foxites, Northites, placemen, courtiers, borough mongers, government contractors and serving officers who feared attacks on the patronage system.

Fox believed that Shelburne was extremely unpopular, and refused to serve under Shelburne because Shelburne was seen as a "Tory" because of his respect for the monarch and because Shelburne looked like staying in office indefinitely and Fox was desperate for power. Fox was annoyed that the Home Secretary, not the Foreign Secretary, had been chosen as PM. Fox does not seem to have realised that George III hated him.

Fox manipulated a coalition strong enough to cause Shelburne to resign because of a series of parliamentary defeats. Shelburne resigned in February 1783 and retired from public life, aged 45. George III had no alternative but to accept a "Whig" coalition ministry.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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