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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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

“Destroying all party distinctions”

As stated in a passage I quoted a couple of days ago, soon after Charles Townshend died, his post as Chancellor of the Exchequer was offered to Lord North, who accepted it on 11 September. That quick succession made the British government of the time seem more stable than it was.

The leading minister in London was William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. Normally the prime minister was also First Lord of the Treasury, but Pitt had instead taken a peerage and the post of Lord Privy Seal. His ally, the Duke of Grafton (shown here), took the Treasury title.

Chatham promised King George III in 1766 that this government would be based on “measures not men,…destroying all party distinctions.” He would recruit other ministers based on their talents, not their alliances, and thus unite many factions.

That hadn’t worked out. By accepting that earldom Pitt, formerly “the Great Commoner,” had lost a lot of his popularity in London. Then he fell ill with gout and depression. Chatham turned over almost all legislation to the ministers he’d appointed, declining even to meet with them. The result was squabbling and lack of coordination among men with competing ambitions and loyalties.

That situation affected the American colonies. The minister with the most responsibility for administering those colonies was the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, the Earl of Shelburne. He, like Chatham, supported preserving American autonomy. But he couldn’t institute any of his policy choices.

Meanwhile, Townshend gained more power over fiscal policy than preceding Chancellors of the Exchequer, becoming a full member of the cabinet. After losing a fight in Parliament over a higher land tax (never popular with Britain’s big landowners), he turned to a new source of revenue: the American colonies. Townshend focused on import tariffs, thinking those were the sort of “external taxes” that the colonists would accept.

Townshend suddenly died when the Duke of Grafton was struggling to hold together the government for Chatham without Chatham’s help. Soon the First Lord brought in one faction of the Whig opposition, that grouped under the Duke of Bedford, shuffling appointments to make room. In February 1768, the ministry created a new post—Secretary of State for the Colonies—for the Earl of Hillsborough, who favored more control from London.

Britons in America followed all that news, of course, but it was even more confusing at a distance. They still clung to hope that Chatham was in charge, watching out for them.

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