J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stamp Act Approved by King, Leading to a Change of Government

On 22 Mar 1765, the Stamp Act for North America received the royal sign-off necessary before becoming law. However, George III never approved the bill. He approved of it, it’s clear, but in March 1765 when the bill reached that stage he was ill and confined to his room. Therefore, a special royal commission approved the Stamp Act for the king.

That process led to the fall of George Grenville’s ministry—but not because the Stamp Act kicked up so much opposition in America, much as we might like to believe that. Grenville was replaced before those protests became widespread.

Instead, this is how Edward Baines described the situation in his History of the Reign of George III (1820):
This event impressed upon his majesty’s mind the propriety of appointing some individual, who might, in case of the royal demise, exercise the functions of royalty during the minority of the Prince of Wales. The troubles in which the country had been involved by regencies obnoxious to the parliament and the nation, induced the king to desire parliamentary sanction to his appointment; and for the attainment of this object he went to the house of peers on his recovery, and recommended the two houses to pass a bill, enabling him to vest the regency in the hands of some one personage, from any number which parliament might nominate, with a council composed of individuals, whose relationship, offices, or rank might render them fit advisers to the regent.

The house of peers accordingly passed a bill, empowering his majesty to appoint as regent, the queen, or any member of the royal family, by which was meant only the descendants of George II. usually residing in Great Britain, till the Prince of Wales attained the age of eighteen years. The council whom they appointed was composed of the Dukes of York and Gloucester, his majesty’s brothers; the Duke of Cumberland, his uncle; Princes Henry Frederick and Frederick William, his youngest brothers; and the chief officers of state tor the time being.

By these provisions, the Princess of Wales, his majesty’s mother, was excluded from the number of those who might be appointed regent, as well as from the council.
In some quarters, whispers held that the king’s mother [shown above] was already guiding him, on her own and through his former tutor and first choice for chief minister, the Earl of Bute. Some folks even suggested that the Princess of Wales and Bute had been having an affair.

After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Bute’s opponents had complained that he was too lenient on France and Spain. Bute had resigned, to the king’s dismay, and his deputy Grenville took over. Bute and Grenville had basically the same policies, but the king never liked his new prime minister personally.

Back to Baines on the regency bill and the Princess of Wales:
In the house of commons,…Lord Bute’s influence was sufficient to procure her nomination as one of the personages eligible for the regency; but this compliment was paid with so indifferent a grace, that it was not proposed to add her name to the list of the council, and the bill, with its amendment, being returned to the lords, was agreed to and passed.

The conduct of ministers on this occasion was considered by the Princess of Wales as a studied insult towards herself; and the downfall of the administration, which had been long anticipated, became now no longer doubtful.
Here’s the text of the final bill. One lesson from this episode seems to be that if you’re worried about the king’s mother having too much power, you’d better make sure you can cut her off, or else she’ll take you down.

In July, George III offered the prime minister’s job to the Marquess of Rockingham, heretofore the leader of the opposition in the House of Lords. I guess the king figured if he wasn’t going to get along with the chief minister, it might as well be about politics instead of personalities.

That led to five years of Whig reformers sharing power in London. North Americans expected the London government to be a lot more friendly to them, and Rockingham did repeal the Stamp Act. But he and his successors saw the same needs as Grenville to maintain Parliament’s sovereignty and raise money from the colonies.

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