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 01, 2022

“You then possessed the capital of North America, Boston”

After King George III had opened Parliament on 31 Oct 1776 with the speech quoted yesterday, the House of Commons debated how to respond.

Richard Aldworth-Griffin proposed to thank the monarch with an address echoing all the points he and the government ministers had delivered. George Finch-Hatton seconded that motion.

Then the opposition seized the opportunity to express their views on the American War and how the ministry was carrying it out. At the time, most parliamentary opponents were clustered around the Marquess of Rockingham, who had been prime minister briefly in the 1760s.

The first to speak was Lord John Cavendish, who proffered the opposition’s draft address. His whole speech was longer than the king’s and made several points like this:
Every act which has been proposed as a means of procuring peace and submission, has become a new cause of war and revolt; and we now find ourselves almost inextricably involved in a bloody and expensive civil war; which, besides exhausting at present the strength of all his Majesty’s dominions, exposing our allies to the designs of their and our enemies, and leaving this kingdom in a most perilous situation, threatens, in its issue, the most deplorable calamities to the whole British race.
The Marquess of Granby seconded that. (According to Horace Walpole, Granby was supposed to have offered the motion, “but his youthful diffidence got the better.”) Though both Lord John and Granby had aristocratic titles, they weren’t members of the House of Lords. The first was the younger brother of a duke, the latter the son of a duke. They were thus both eligible to serve in the House of Commons.

George Johnstone, former governor of West Florida (shown above), then got blunt and personal:
The minister’s speech he declared to be an entire compound of hypocrisy. It made his Majesty talk of peace, at the very moment when not only all Europe, but this kingdom, gave the most evident appearances of preparation for war. In short, it was like a deceptious mirror reflecting a false image of truth. That part of it which talked of giving the Americans law and liberty, he conceived to be a mere turn of wit and humour, which would not bear a serious interpretation. It was an insidious hypocritical speech that held out law and liberty at the point of the sword.
George Wombwell, a government supporter and director of the East India Company, replied to one of Johnstone’s points, about sailors being impressed for the Royal Navy, by insisting that “no press was better conducted than the present.” The printed report on the debate stated: “He censured the Americans as a bragging, cowardly banditti, &c.”

The Parliamentary Register for this year was published by printer John Almon, and he leaned decidedly toward the Whigs. One result of that, I suspect, was that opposition speeches were recorded more fully than speeches in favor of the government. Wombwell’s remarks were summarized in four lines and “&c.” while Johnstone’s filled a page and a half.

The next speaker was John Wilkes, and he got six pages. Among his remarks to the government:
Nothing decisive can follow from the late successful affair on Long Island, no more than from the defeat at Sullivan’s Island. New York will probably fall into your hands, but your situation will in that case be scarcely mended since the last year, for you then possessed the capital of North America, Boston. Is that great and important town advantageously exchanged for New York? I forgot that we still possess the fishing hamlet of Halifax.
The Hon. Temple Luttrell, son of an earl, offered a speech full of historical allusions both ancient and modern. He insisted:
It is a very unfair argument to alledge that the Americans fight for independency---You must be sensible, Sir, that the only way to straighten a bow is to wrest it with vigour to an opposite curve: the acts of this legislature affecting the colonists were so warped from rectitude, that their only chance to recover a right line of justice was by proceeding to contrary extremities, to announce disunion and absolute freedom. . . .

If you empower the commissioners in America [Adm. Richard Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe] to propose peace on equitable conditions, offer to restore their charters, and relinquish the unsustainable claim of taxation with a good grace---even now while your armies figure in the field, under hitherto triumphant generals---and I make no doubt, but by so laudable a step, you will obtain from your colonies, through the Howe’s, as fair and magnanimous an answer, as that which was sent from the Falerii to the Roman senate, by the great Camillus---“The Romans in having preferred justice to conquest, have taught us to be satisfied with submission instead of liberty.”
The supporters of the American cause were thus not much better informed about the state of the new U.S. of A. than the government ministers. They believed the Declaration of Independence was just a bargaining position and might yet be withdrawn.

TOMORROW: The debate rolls on.

1 comment:

EJWitek said...

Couldn't pass on the opportunity to mention that George Finch-Hatton's son, also named George, succeeded to the titles of Earls of Wilsingham/Nottingham and fought a rather famous duel with the Duke of Wellington. His great-grandson, Denys Fitch-Hatton, was the big game hunter and lover of Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame.