The Age of George III

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Why was there so much Ministerial instability in the period 1760-70?

There was so much ministerial instability in the period 1760-1770 because of John Wilkes, the rise of public opinion as a major force in politics, Britain's national debt, problems in America, George III, the incompetence of the Prime Ministers, no heir to the throne and the ensuing political infighting, the inbuilt instability within the system, the death of the Duke of Cumberland, Pitt, and the lack of any real external crisis.

The traditional view of the reasons for ministerial instability were put forward by Edmund Burke in 1770, who published his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents which offered reasons for the instability and insecurity. Burke attributed the instability to the politically active George III, whom he saw as an eighteenth century Machiavelli. This view was accepted until the 1940's when Sir Lewis Namier and Herbert Butterfield investigated 18th century political life and found that Burke had been a brilliant propagandist for the Rockingham Whigs and the truth was somewhat different.

One of the main reasons for the decade of ministerial instability was John Wilkes who ridiculed, undermined and abused the Government. He originally did this via his newspaper the North Briton which he and Charles Churchill co-edited to rival the Briton newspaper set by the Earl of Bute. Not only did Wilkes attack Bute and his administration calling Bute "the King's incompetent friend," but he also concentrated on Bute's alleged intimacy with Princess Dowager which would bring discredit the Government. If the Government lost George III's support, then it was almost impossible to hold a stable ministry.

Following the Peace of Paris, Issue 45 of the North Briton attacked the King's speech, claiming that it was Bute's work (although Bute was no longer Prime Minister) he called it "the most abandoned instance of ministerial effrontery", he also criticised the peace as a corrupt shambles without honour. Wilkes was accusing the Government of not acting in the country's best interests, of being corrupt and unable which would turn the readers of the North Briton and public opinion against the Government, thus contributed to the existing pressures and added to the ministerial instability.

This attack provoked the new Prime Minister, George Grenville, in an attempt to discredit the opposition and distract public attention from the controversial peace, to issue a General Warrant for the arrest of the producers of Issue 45. This was a carte blanche for mass arrests, which contained no charges and no names and raised issues concerning the legality of General Warrants, freedom of speech for MPs and freedom of the press. Wilkes had successfully goaded the Government into a fight. Wilkes and forty-eight others were arrested, but Wilkes was released by the aid of Lord Temple and some Whigs who secured a Writ of Habeas Corpus. Wilkes decided to go to trial over the issue of General Warrants and was tried by a judge favourable to his cause Lord Chief Justice Pratt, who set a precedent by outlawing General Warrants, calling them contrary to the Bill of Rights. Wilkes' victory in court not only ensured his image as a symbol of liberty and radicalism, but also damaged the Government by their attacking the freedom of the individual, the unconstitutional use of General Warrants and helped fuel the image of George III as a absolutist.

However, Wilkes was forced to flee the country on charges of debt, illegal duelling and publishing a pornographic poem. He returned in 1768 which was election year in the hope that his misdeeds had been forgotten. Wilkes stood for election as he realised that he "must raise a storm or starve in gaol". A weak Government, disillusioned parliament and economic hardship all aided the return of "Wilkes and Liberty". However, Wilkes was an outlaw and should not have been allowed to stand. That he was allowed to stand showed the Government's apprehension of receiving the same treatment twice. Although Wilkes lost a London Borough election he stood and won four elections in Middlesex, which was very democratic at that time. To stop Wilkes taking his place, Grafton decided to arrest him to stand charge for his crimes, However, Wilkes preempted the Government by being gaoled for the poem which was the weakest charge. But his plan backfired and he was tried and convicted for all of his charges. A mob gathered outside the prison on St George's Fields, the troops which tried to control the rioters were beaten and stoned. The troops retaliated by firing into the crowd which resulted in six rioters being killed: the Massacre of St George's Field. Wilkes wrote a poem called this and became a martyr to the cause. With Wilkes in prison the election was declared null and void. Another election was called which Wilkes won from prison, However second placed Henry Lawes Luttrell was put as the MP. By placing Wilkes in prison the Government was made unpopular; by killing six rioters who were rioting for greater democracy, the Government appeared undemocratic. The 'perfect' British Constitution looked corrupt, weak and open to influence. This was seen as the King manipulating elections to set up a government of 'King's friends' which added to the fears of the Whigs. The Petitioning Movement of 1769 was sparked off, led by the Yorkshire Whigs which demanded a dissolution of parliament and a general election which by the end of 1769 was supported by eighteen counties and thirteen cities. The rise of the first Middlesex Petition saw many industrial disputes rise from Luttrell's election. These included coal heavers, weavers and sailors who were vital to the country's wealth. This all added pressure to Grafton and the Government who could not ignore the demands forever. In addition, the SSBR was set up on 20 February with founder members including James Townsend MP and Robert Vaughan MP. Its aims were to support Wilkes in gaol, organise popular opposition to the Government and the growth of democracy by organised meetings and the distribution of printed pamphlets. Chartism had its early roots in the SSBR, which brought new dimensions in to politics such as issuing instructions to MPs, establishing affiliated societies and making social and political demands of the Government.

In October Chatham recovered enough to resign, in the middle of the Wilkes fiasco and denounced everything done in his absence. Thus, not only was Wilkes, a key figure in the downfall of Grafton and so Chatham, but also Bute through the North Briton and Grenville via Issue 45, and the use of General Warrants.

Following the North Briton, aimed at the middle classes, and the public demonstrations held in protest of Wilkes imprisonment, public opinion was now emerging as force in politics. This was true not only of Wilkes but also of the 'Junius' letters in the Public Advertiser 1768-1772, in which detailed information and criticism of the Government was published which held Grafton and George III up for public contempt.

Another major cause of instability was the national debt which totalled £140 million by the end of the Seven Years' War. Problems arose when trying to pay it off, especially when treating the American colonies as any other British colony which was used to autocratic rule. Following the Peace of Paris, Bute faced the problem of a major national debt. In an attempt to reduce it he proposed the Cider Tax to raise revenue. However, by putting up taxes in the cider counties, Bute alienated himself from other MPs who now faced having to pay extra taxes. This led to riots, effigy hangings, stonings and the smashing of Bute's windows. Although the tax passed parliament, it placed great pressure upon the Government which ultimately resulted in Bute's resignation in April 1763.

In order not to alienate the Independent Gentlemen, Grenville borrowed large amounts of money from the Dutch, merchant bankers, the Bank of England, company loans and individuals. However he left land tax at 4/- in the pound, which upset the landowning MPs and so made the Government unpopular. He also cut expenditure in the army and navy, which was perceived as a sign of great weakness, especially following the compromise of the Peace of Paris. Grenville saw that Britain's national debt was largely due to the defence of the Empire and as such should be reduced by the Empire. To do this the 1764 Sugar Act and the 1765 Stamp Act were passed to raise revenue. However, this led to riots throughout the thirteen colonies and the possibly disastrous effect of the formation of the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765. This was the first time all thirteen American colonies had acted together and as a unit which may have had repercussions as the American War of Independence. The colonial and financial problems faced by Grenville contributed towards his dismissal in July 1765.

Most of the Marquis of Rockingham's first ministry was taken up with having to face the problems of the Stamp Act crisis created by Grenville. The Stamp Act congress imposed a non-importation policy from Britain which led to the Government being lobbied by English merchants, bankers, businessmen and manufacturers who were losing money. Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 to resume trade with America but was forced to appease parliament by passing the Declaratory Act to ensure repeal. However Rockingham was criticised and opposed by politicians including Grenville, Bute and Bedford for making concessions to the colonies.

Following the Earl of Chatham's mental breakdown, his caretaker the Duke of Grafton and Chancellor Charles Townshend reverted to Grenville's policy for America. The financial attack was resumed by the introduction of the American' Import Duties Tax 1767. This led to further riots and cries of 'no taxation without representation' and the non-importation of British goods. The loss of exports to the American colonies turned many against the Government and so added to the increasing instability. In October 1768 Chatham recovered enough to resign criticizing his ministry's colonial policy as 'impractical.'

In 1768, the Duke of Grafton took over and was immediately faced problems with his 'Money Bill' and riots and non-importation in America.

In addition to these problems, the ministries were faced with a politically active King George III. Unlike his ancestors, he said of himself "born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton". After the death of Frederick in 1751, it was realised that George III would inherit the throne at an early age, (22 years old), and so Bute was employed as his teacher. However this had the effect of making George III perceive all politicians and politics as corrupt and so upon accession George III was determined to use his constitutional power to do his duty. He wished to become 'enlightened' like his contemporaries in Europe, but only succeeded in appearing as a heavy-handed, dogmatic, blundering absolutist. This image was supported by his dismissal of the Prime Minister the Duke of Newcastle who had used patronage to keep the Whigs in power and used his own patronage to create a core group of supporters: 'the King's Friends'. He had the power to appoint and dismiss Prime Ministers from either party which he exercised frequently. His first bout of mental illness in 1765 raised the question of a Regency Council, in case he was indisposed for any length of time. Problems over the Regency Bill and Grenville's insistence on economics when George III was extending Buckingham House certainly increased Grenville's unpopularity with George III and probably contributed to Grenville's dismissal as Prime Minister in 1765.

In 1765 George III asked his uncle the Duke of Cumberland to become Prime Minister. He agreed to form a ministry but with the Marquis of Rockingham as Prime Minister. Rockingham was strong in the Glorious Revolution and had a large political following, but George III did not like him , partly because of Rockingham's resignation as Lord of the Bedchamber in 1762. Once the Duke of Cumberland had died, Rockingham lost any Royal support and was viewed upon by George III as a caretaker Prime Minister. In July 1766 Rockingham resigned after discovering that George III had secretly negotiated with Pitt behind his back. George III's conduct certainly led to the downfall of the Rockingham ministry because all of Rockingham's ministry was taken up with problems in America left to him by Grenville and he therefore did not have time to commit any errors.

Although George III was not responsible for his Prime Ministers' actions he is partly to blame for appointing them. However George III gave public support to all of his Prime Ministers and passed all of their legislation. His working within the system and appointment of Whig Prime Ministers should be enough to dispel the myth of absolutism which surrounded him.

Previously, the opposition to the Government had rallied around the heir to the throne (Frederick and Leicester House) because to succeed in Government, the cabinet needed Royal support and patronage. However, until 1762 when George IV was born, there was no heir to the throne which created the problem of who to rally around.

Unlike the American Constitution, Britain's Constitution was never written down. This posed problems of interpretation especially when George III revived his Royal powers. These included the right to appoint and dismiss Prime Ministers which created problems for Prime Ministers who had to remain in George III's favour. Also the system of Government and opposition and septennial elections almost ensured instability unless the Government had a huge majority.

Although many external factors contributed to the downfall of ministries, certainly in many cases it was the incompetence of the Prime Ministers which played a key role in the instability. in Bute's favour was the whole hearted support of George III, however that was not all. His name John Stuart, was enough to suggest Catholicism and absolutism to the Whigs, also he had little political experience and was naive. He was responsible for the massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents 1762, which had the effect of increasing his unpopularity and turned MPs against him. He was responsible for the Peace of Paris 1763 which was criticised for being a compromise. Because of this and his returning to France of Guadaloupe, many MPs criticised him, especially Pitt and the Pittites which ensured John Wilkes's opposition and that of public opinion. He showed his naivety in his advocation of the Cider Taxes which alienated him from the other MPs by taxing the southern counties where cider was made. This led to riots, stonings and great parliamentary opposition. The mounting pressures caused his resignation in April 1763

Unlike Bute, Grenville was politically experienced but was politically limited by Pitt's opposition and his lack of total Royal support. He totally mishandled the problem of John Wilkes and Issue 45 of the North Briton. By his use of General Warrants, Grenville made the Government appear unconstitutional and of attempting to infringe Parliamentary Privilege. His attempts to reduce the national debt resulted in the alienation of his Government from MPs by sustaining Land Tax at 4/- in the £1 and intense opposition from Pitt and the Pittites by reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain appeared weak following the Peace of Paris. The introduction of the 1764 Sugar Act and 1765 Stamp Act caused riots in the American colonies but more importantly gave rise to the Stamp Act Congress and the non-importation policy of America. Problems over the Regency Bill and Grenville's opposition to to King's expenditures Buckingham House all contributed towards his dismissal in July 1765.

Rockingham would not have been Prime Minister were it not for the Duke of Cumberland and so on the death of Cumberland, George III viewed Rockingham as a caretaker Prime Minister. Although Pitt was an able politician with support from the Independent Gentlemen, businessmen, the City and the Americans he became a victim of his own success. His image as the 'Great Commoner' was ruined after accepting his peerage, he was arrogant and autocratic in cabinet. However the biggest blow to his ministry came as his mental breakdown, which allowed the Duke of Grafton and Charles Townsend to take control. Townsend made the blunder of reverting to Grenville's policy when dealing with the American Colonies. The 1767 American Import Duties Act led to more cries of 'no taxation without representation,' rioting and another non-importation agreement. This created great opposition especially from the people who had supported Chatham: the City, merchants, industry and the Americans. Grafton mishandled totally the Middlesex election fiasco which led to the Massacre of St George's Field. This made the Government appear undemocratic and also made the British Constitution look weak, corrupt and subject to influence. However it also had wider connotations in the formation of the 1769 Petitioning Movement led by Rockingham and the rise of the SSBR, which set a precedent for the Chartists. These series of blunders led to the resignation of Chatham in 1768.

The Duke of Grafton took over as Prime Minister in October 1768 but was immediately faced with problems which he had created whilst serving in Chatham's ministry. Unlike Pitt, Grafton was a political lightweight and so was not equipped to deal with the problems of the non-importation agreement in America, the huge national debt and the Petitioning Movement. The multitude of pressures were too much for Grafton and he resigned in January 1770.

Unlike other Prime Ministers, Pitt not only aided the downfall of his own ministry, but also others. Pitt had the support of the Independent Gentlemen, the City, industry and the Americans because of his handling of the Seven Years' War and his anti-Stamp Act speeches. He was praised by Pelham as "the most able and useful man we have amongst us; truly honourable and strictly honest". Following the Peace of Paris, Pitt attacked Prime Minister Bute for giving in to a compromise settlement. Not only did Pitt attack Bute, but also the followers of Pitt: the Pittites. John Wilkes was a disciple of Pitt and Lord Temple, so when Pitt attacked anyone, Wilkes used the North Briton as a platform for Pitt's views. This resulted in the Government suffering not only abuse and pressure within parliament, but also in public. Grenville received the same treatment for serving under Bute which undermined the Government's credibility and created instability. Pitt refused to join Rockingham's ministry not only made the Government unstable, but he later negotiated behind Rockingham's back with George III. Pitt's refusal to join Rockingham proves his jealousy of anyone in power because when forming his own ministry, he used many men who had previously served in Rockingham's ministry.

When Pitt accepted the peerage offered to him by George III, his image as the 'Great Commoner' was ruined, not only did he lose public support but this gave rise to a natural successor or champion of the people in the form of John Wilkes. Although unintentional, Pitt may have inadvertently been instrumental in the rise of John Wilkes who was a great cause of ministerial instability. Once in the House of Lords, Pitt was no longer able to exert his personality in the Commons as before. This was an important factor in the subsequent loss of support and downfall of his ministry. In comparison to may other politicians, Pitt appeared able and talented which made all other Prime Ministers look incompetent, especially when attacked by a popular competent politician such as Pitt.

Unlike previous decades, 1760-1770 faced no real external crises. This had the result that no political groupings were prepared to unite to form a strong stable ministry. This does pose the questions: 'do crises lead to unity V It would appear so, and 'do crises lead to stability through necessity?' Again this would seem to be the case, especially when seen in the light of America uniting to form the Stamp Act Congress.

The main reasons for the decade of ministerial instability were John Wilkes, the growth of public opinion, the national debt, problems in America, George III, the incompetence of Prime Ministers, no heir to the throne, in built instability within the system, the death of Cumberland, Pitt, and the lack of a real external crisis. Although George III's active participation has been seen as amateurish meddling in a subject which he knew nothing about, it is strange that the traditional Whig view of George III conflicts with the usual Whig interpretation of history which favours reform and change. George III's actions were certainly dynamic and broke Britain free of the rut of the Whig oligarchy.


R. PARES: King George III and the Politicians (Oxford, OUP 1953)
G .RUDE: Wilkes and Liberty (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962)
D .MARSHALL: Eighteenth Century England (Singapore, Longman, 1985)
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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