Thursday, September 20, 2012

OXFORD IN AMERICA 3: Making Independence Inevitable

Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, Tory Prime Minister
 (1770-1782). "Disastrous." But the Tea Act of 1773  was
a bipartisan mistake. Photo by JTMarlin.
The painting of Frederick North, Earl of Guilford, hangs on the same wall in Trinity College, Oxford as those of the College Founder and Pitt the Elder. But while Pitt is viewed by history as a model executor of foreign policy, Lord North is ranked at the other end of the spectrum.

Pitt captured what became Canada from the French. North lost what became the USA to the colonists.

Sir Arthur Norrington, former President of Trinity and then Oxford's Vice Chancellor, said to me once: "Pity about Lord North. We could have made so much money from America."

The official site of the British Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t mince any words in summarizing North’s 12 years as Prime Minister: 
Best known as the man who lost Britain’s American colonies, Lord North served for a disastrous twelve years as prime minister.  A hard-working and sound administrator, North had served in the governments of Newcastle and Chatham, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. 
Boreas, god of the north wind.
The clever nickname his colleagues gave Lord North was Βορεας (“Boreas”, the winged Greek god of the north wind, pronounced BORE-ee-ass).

Horace Walpole in his memoirs describes North's appearance and déshabille in gross terms, but then admits to his having significant administrative talents. In a peacetime era he might have been a greater success.

The entry for Lord North in the Dictionary of National Biography is sympathetic. For example: (1) Lord North was a highly competent Chancellor of the Exchequer, (2) He did not want the Prime Minister job, did not use the title and asked his family not to use it, and (3) The need for the infamous tea tax was bequeathed to him by Grafton's administration. 

Taking office at the end of the long period of anti-monarchical Whig dominance going back to Lord Stanhope and Robert Walpole, North led the Tory allies of King George III in the Parliament. George III liked North's middle-of-the road policies and dragooned him into forming a government in 1770 after the Duke of Grafton was blamed for France's annexing Corsica and the Whig era ended. Ironically, Grafton was opposed to all of the five Townshend taxes on the colonies, but was outvoted by his own party on the threepenny-per-pound "peppercorn" tax on tea, because the income was needed to pay British officers in the colonies; so North's Tea Act of 1773 was bipartisan in origin.

The taxation issue was for neither side about the money - it was primarily a test of the power of Parliament and the King. North  overplayed Britain's hand to enforce the tax and led it into the War of Independence, with the backing  of George III. North made errors that led to serious British losses at Saratoga in 1777. Opinion began to turn in 1778 and after Britain's defeat at Yorktown in 1781 North exclaimed "It's all over." George III would not let him resign till the war effectively ended and Parliament voted no confidence in North in 1782.

Whereas Pitt the Elder has many places named after him in the United States, to my knowledge North had none - neither North Carolina nor North Dakota is named after him. However, Guilford County, NC is named after North's father, the 1st Earl of Guilford, who was also a Trinity College, Oxford alumnus. The seat of Guilford County is Greensboro, NC.

The present alumni relations officer at Trinity College, Oxford is related to North - his gggrandmother was North's great-niece.

Lord North's co-conspirator in the runup to the Tea Act was Charles Townsend, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the short Prime Ministership of Lord Chatham. He was educated at the University of Leiden and reportedly at Oxford, although he does not appear in the standard alumni list. According to his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:
...[in May 1787] he introduced his measures for dealing with America. The legislative functions of the New York assembly were to be suspended; commissioners of customs were to be established in America to superintend the execution of the laws relating to trade; and a port duty was imposed on glass, red and white lead, painters' colours, paper, and tea. The Americans received the news of these proposals with a burst of fury; anti-importation associations were formed, riots broke out, and the loyalist officials were reduced to impotence. Townshend did not live to see these developments. ... [O]n 4 Sept. he died, at the premature age of forty-two, ‘of a neglected fever.’ Townshend was one of those statesmen whose abilities are the misfortune of the country they serve. He impressed his contemporaries as a man of unrivalled brilliance, yet to obtain a paltry revenue of 40,000 shillings he entered a path which led to the dismemberment of the empire.

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