The Age of George III
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George III became king on 25 October 1760, on the death of his grandfather, George II, and was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 22 September 1761. In the first ten years of his long reign, George III appointed seven Prime Ministers: this period is known as the "Decade of Ministerial Instability".
This contrasts sharply with the Whig stability of 1721–42 and 1754–60, and led to problems. The rapid changes of government created indecision, blunders and weaknesses especially towards America. There was no consistent governmental policy for the colonies, which eventually helped cause the War of Independence.
In this decade, public opinion began to criticise governments, particularly the new newspapers. The most famous attacks were written by a man calling himself Junius, writing in the Public Advertiser. In parliament, personalities clashed, with Pitt (the Elder) possibly being the greatest destabiliser. In the north of England, the Industrial Revolution was starting to create problems; in the agricultural areas the Agricultural Revolution was having an impact on the lives of many.
Instability is built in to the parliamentary system in Britain to some extent. The government always had a 'loyal opposition' with which to contend and septennial elections meant that there could be a change of government every seven years.
The Whig view of the decade of instability was written in 1770 by Edmund Burke, MP, writer, philosopher and secretary to Charles Watson–Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham. Burke was the mouthpiece of the Rockingham Whigs. In 1770, Burke published a book called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent, offering reasons for the instability and insecurity. This was accepted as the truth until Sir Lewis Namier and Herbert Butterfield investigated Eighteenth Century political life in the 1940s. They found Eighteenth Century politics very different from what had been thought, and exposed Burke as a brilliant propagandist for Rockingham.
Burke believed that
These ideas were believed because the King was politically active in the government of the country. This was the first time this had happened since 1714 when George I succeeded to the Crown on the death of Queen Anne. Also, it was the 'Age of the Enlightened Despot' in Europe where the absolute monarchs were all introducing changes. These monarchs were:
Louis XV and Louis XVI
Frederick II (the Great)
Maria–Theresa and Joseph II
1740–65; 1765–80; 1780–90
Catherine the Great
In the 1740s, Frederick the Great said "All European monarchs ought to be the first servant of the state'. He thought that rulers should justify their inheritance by good works and good deeds. George III wanted to be 'enlightened' like his contemporaries but his political activity was seen by politicians as an attempt by the king to be absolutist. George III was rather heavy–handed, blundering and dogmatic and would not be browbeaten by politicians whom he saw as his servants.
Burke was inaccurate in his analysis of events and the book was a propaganda piece for the Rockingham Whigs, defending the marquis' idea of party. James II had made himself unpopular, and only seven men were responsible for inviting William of Orange to become king. These men did not constitute 'the Whigs' as Burke asserted. Although the Bill of Rights did restrict royal powers by limiting the money supply available to the monarch, the Crown still had and used extensive powers. Only because George I and II spoke little or no English did parliament exercise greater power through a first minister.
Burke made a narrow interpretation of the Constitution. The king had the absolute right to choose his Prime Ministers and he merely revived those powers. He did not innovate or try to create new powers for himself. George III did not rule through influence because there were no parties per se. He did use the patronage that was available to him, just as everyone else did. He never had sufficient influence in parliament to control policy and there were never enough 'King's Friends' to upset the balance of power in the House of Commons.
George III maintained a parliamentary system and worked within it. He called General Elections and opened parliament on a regular basis; he appointed his ministers and signed the legislation passed by parliament. An absolutist would not have done that – in absolutist régimes, parliaments do not exist. George III drew attention to the parliamentary system by his activities. Various governments caused problems with the American colonists and for the most part, the king merely supported those governments.
Burke seems to have believed that the King was much more devious than he actually was. It was difficult for anyone to follow Pitt after 1761, and George III appears to have felt betrayed by his ministers, whom he changed regularly. Another problem for the King was that he was criticised directly because there was no heir. Conflict between father and son in previous reigns had allowed opposition groups to form. Under George I and George II, the 'Leicester House Set' had appeared. Leicester House was the residence of the Prince of Wales (the 'king to be') and those men who were out of office tended to form an opposition group to the current monarch, presumably so that they might be appointed to office in the next reign.
There had been a Leicester House set in the reign of George II, based on the assumption that the king's eldest son, Frederick Prince of Wales, would be the next king. Unfortunately for his political allies (and for Frederick too), 'poor Freddie' died in 1751 at the age of 44. His death was caused by a tennis ball: in 1748 he had been hit by the ball and it had resulted in the development of an abdominal ulcer that burst with fatal results. The heir apparent was Frederick's son, George William Frederick, who was only twelve years old. The Leicester House set was unable to focus on the new 'king to be' who did not inherit the crown as George III until 1760. Since George III's heir was born only in 1762, there was no Leicester House set until later in his reign. There was, therefore, no political focus for those opposed to the government from 1751 until about 1780.
It became clear that George III was unhappy with the government that he inherited from his grandfather, George II. The young king manipulated the resignation on Pitt in 1761 and the king's good friend, the Earl of Bute became Secretary of State for the Northern Department in Pitt's place. In May 1762, after being made aware of the king's discontent with Newcastle's policies and person, the Duke of Newcastle resigned his post as Prime Minister and Bute was appointed as First Lord of the Treasury. In the Eighteenth Century, the Prime Minister was not necessarily the same person as the First Lord of the Treasury; neither did the Prime Minister have to sit in the House of Commons.
John Stuart, third Earl of Bute served as Prime Minister from May 1762 until April 1763. He was extremely unpopular and did not enjoy political life. Against the king's wishes, Bute resigned and was replaced by George Grenville.
Grenville faced many difficulties during his ministry. His major problem was that George III disliked him, but his policies were responsible for the start of the conflict with the American colonists. He also made serious errors in his treatment of John Wilkes. In July 1765, George III invited Grenville to resign.
The king asked his uncle the Duke of Cumberland to form the next ministry and although Cumberland agreed to head a government, he suggested that the Marquis of Rockingham should be First Lord. Consequently, Rockingham formed his first ministry. Although Rockingham led the largest group in parliament, he had neither the support nor the confidence of the king. Given this situation, it was unlikely that the ministry would last long. Rockingham was in office for only one year: the king negotiated behind Rockingham's back for Pitt to form a ministry. In July 1766, Rockingham found his position intolerable and tendered his resignation. George III promptly appointed Pitt, now created Earl of Chatham, as his Prime Minister.
In 1766, Chatham was 58 years old and was suffering from poor health. There was a history of mental instability in his mother's family and Chatham had increasingly frequent bouts of depression. During his two–year ministry, he spent little time in parliament, leaving the affairs of state to his First Lord of the Treasury, the Duke of Grafton. After his subordinates had made a series of political blunders, Chatham resigned in 1768, to be succeeded by Grafton.
The Duke of Grafton accepted office from a sense of duty rather than from any real desire to be Prime Minister. He had a great many distractions in his private life and faced problems with the American colonists, John Wilkes and the Irish. He resigned his office in 1770. This completed the Decade of Ministerial Instability and marked the beginning of a period of stability under Lord North (1770–82) and Pitt (1784–1801 and 1804–06). There had been no national crisis in the 1760s and so various political groupings were not prepared to unite. It would be useful to ask:
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