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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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A New Government in Britain in 1770

As the year draws to a close, I’m looking back on some of the notable events of 1770 that I didn’t discuss on their Sestercentennial anniversaries.

In January 1770, the Duke of Grafton’s government collapsed in London.

The duke had become prime minister in 1768 after William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, retired in a depression and Charles Townshend died unexpectedly. There was a lot of in-fighting among his fellow ministers, and sniping from both the left and right.

On 9 January, the lord chancellor, the Earl of Camden, ticked off all the other ministers but Grafton so much they decided he had to be replaced. Grafton asked an experienced government lawyer long allied with Pitt, Charles Yorke (shown above), to take the lord chancellor’s position. But Yorke had promised another Whig faction, under the Marquess of Rockingham, that he wouldn’t join Grafton’s government, so he declined.

At that point George III got personally involved. He invited Yorke to a private audience on 16 January and urged him to take the chancellorship. The king repeated the advice at a levee the next day, hinting that there would be no second chance. Yorke gave in, agreeing to the post in return for the usual peerage.

Almost immediately Yorke had second thoughts. (Or, given the way he’d wavered over the decision for days, seventh thoughts.) He moved from “the most violent agitation of spirits” to “a fixed state of melancholy.” On 19 January, he vomited blood. On 20 January, he died. Yorke had received the paperwork to elevate himself to be Baron Morden but had refused to put the chancellor’s seal on it.

Soon there were rumors that Yorke had committed suicide, and the debate continues. In the late nineteenth century the Dictionary of National Biography stated:
It was asserted, and came to be widely believed, that, goaded to frenzy by the resentment with which his defection was regarded by his party, the chancellor had committed suicide; and, as there was no post-mortem or other equivalent autopsy of the corpse, the lugubrious surmise remained alike uncorroborated and unrefuted.
As of this week Wikipedia says:
He went to his brother’s house, where he met the leaders of the Opposition, and feeling at once overwhelmed with shame, fled to his own house, where three days later he committed suicide (20 January 1770).
But the History of Parliament website argues:
The extraordinary circumstances of his death made it inevitable that there should be rumours of suicide. Indeed, in his Memoirs of the reign of George III [Horace] Walpole states as a fact that Yorke died ‘by his own hand’, though when he wrote to Mann, 22 Jan. 1770, he had attributed the death to natural causes. It is perhaps suspicious that the letters from Joseph Yorke to Hardwicke which must have referred to these events should have disappeared. But the case for a natural death is strong. Yorke had been in poor health for some time. On 8 Jan. 1770 he had written to Hardwicke that a ‘severe cold’ and ‘feverish heat…disables me from coming to town: I shall hardly be fit to stir before the end of the week’. On the 11th he had received Grafton’s letter asking to meet him. The succeeding days had been extremely taxing. Levett Blackborne passed on to a friend the account he had received from ‘a young lady—a relative of Mrs. Yorke’:
He ate voraciously and beyond his usual manner—which latterly was generally too much. Before the taking away of the cloth he complained of sickness and indigestion ... growing worse, he retired into a back dressing room, where he was heard retching with vehemence. After some time the family in the parlour was alarmed, and he was carried to bed having, as supposed, broke a blood vessel in vomiting.
This agrees in the main with Agneta Yorke’s account of her husband’s last days.
However he died, everyone agrees that the strain of the appointment was too much for Yorke.

Soon the Duke of Grafton resigned. The king pressed the chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons to form a new government, which he managed to do by the end of January. That man was Lord North.

The Duke of Grafton’s government had been widely criticized for not preventing France from taking over Corsica in 1769. In contrast, Lord North’s government faced down Spain over the Falklands later in 1770. That foreign policy victory gave him standing to remain prime minister even as the crisis in the North American colonies got worse and worse.

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