Monday, October 7, 2013

TRINITY: How 2 Alums Created the USA (Updated Oct. 25, 2015)

Trinity College Dining Hall High Table, behind which is the portrait of
William Pitt the Elder (second from the right). Lord North is on a side
wall, where history would also put him. All photos by JT Marlin.
The following is edited from the article the originally appeared in The American Oxonian, 100:1 (Winter 2013), 37-40.

The portraits of two noted alumni of Trinity College, Oxford are on the walls of its Dining Hall.

  • One made possible the American Revolution.
  • The other made it inevitable.

The two men are judged very differently by history.

One resisted the Euro-centered vision of George II and created the British Empire through clever military strategy focused on the colonies. The other fed the petulance of George III and together they engineered the needless loss of what would be the most valuable part of the British Empire.

Closeup of William Pitt the Elder, Lord Chatham.
  Behind the Trinity High Table.)
William Pitt the Elder

The first of these two noted Oxonians was William Pitt the Elder, the Great Commoner who late in life accepted a peerage and became the Earl of Chatham.

Pitt served as Whig Prime Minister, 1766-1768.
He made possible the Revolution by sending the troops that drove the French out of North America and defeated the Indian tribes that were allied with the French.

So long as the French were in the colonies, the colonials had needed the British army for protection and revolution against the mother country was out of the question.

The great city of Pittsburgh, Penn., is named after Pitt (an Oxford twofer, since Pennsylvania is named after another Oxonian), and so is Pittsfield, Mass.

While a boy at Eton and a student at Trinity, William Pitt suffered from severe gout. For that reason, in later years he did not look back with fondness on the time he spent at either Eton or Oxford.

Pitt was a passionate advocate for using expansion of British power in North America and India to balance retreat from costly wars in Europe during the period that was called the Seven Years War in Europe and was called the French and Indian War in the United States.

The British Army – following some early reverses – cleared out the French all the way up to Quebec, Pitt championed the cause of the colonies and sent over British forces despite George II’s wish that more of them be posted to protect his beloved Hanover.

The war in Europe went badly. George III sent his son the Duke of Cumberland to defend Hanover, but the duke - surrounded by the French at Hastenbeck in Germany - was forced to surrender Hanover to the French. Cumberland escaped with the help of Colonel Jeffrey Amherst, and on his return to Britain "resigned his military offices in disgrace". This story is told well in Walter Borneman's The French and Indian War (HarperCollins, 2006).

Pitt's campaign was immensely popular in the American colonies. But in a true Hegelian dialectic, the cost of the war created financial worries in Britain - and a consequent determination to make the colonies pay for the British troops stationed there - that hardened the attitude of the colonists to their mother country. Lord North became a passionate ally of George III in seeking to make the colonies recognize what they owed to their mother country - a debt both filial and financial.

Before the American Revolution, George III controlled virtually all of North America. After the Revolution, the British Crown retained only Canada as a colony, until Canada’s own independence was granted in spurts–and with a low profile–during the fitful 1919-1938 period.

Pitt was a fierce devotee of the colonies:
  • He vigorously opposed the Stamp Act in 1766 ("The Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England.”). 
  • He argued for removing British troops from Boston and deplored the punitive campaign of Lord North. 
  • Not long before his death, Pitt said that the colonies had given the most brilliant proofs of their independent spirit. 
But even he believed the colonies should defer to the Mother Country.

One thing that the mother country did not fully appreciate is that the French and Indian War taught the colonial militias how to organize themselves for battle. Some colonial officers, like George Washington himself, played significant parts in the war. The outcomes of many of the battles in North America hinged on the strategic sense of commanders in coping with the transportation, weather and supply issues in the wilds of the upper Hudson. Sometimes small numbers of frontier-savvy colonial soldiers overcame larger forces of poorly led French troops.

Sometimes British settlers in the colonies returned home to Britain. But that was not the rule. British  colonizers brought their families with them and built permanent homes. They increased and multiplied. The French more often came as traders and returned home. The resulting imbalance of population favored the British in North America.

The upshot of the Seven Years War was that Europe remained not much different from when the war started. But the upshot of its synchronized French and Indian War in North America was vastly different. Britain not only became lord over all of North America, it became master of the oceans. The British Navy truly ruled the waves. The War created bases for the British – for example, in India – that became the cornerstones of the British Empire under Victoria. Pitt, not George II, understood what was going to be important in the decades ahead.

The British public, however, was not so happy about the colonies having a free ride on the military front. The Stamp Act sought to collect duties (in the form of stamps on bills of lading) on imported goods. The colonial leadership reacted by making imported goods unfashionable. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the colonials "wear their old clothes over again." Pitt in 1766 succeeded in having the law repealed.

Frederick Lord North

Frederick Lord North (Trinity, Oxford
Dining Room, back wall.)
The other alumnus was Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, who made the war of independence of the American colonies inevitable by trying to impose on the colonists the cost of the war and by making the payment of taxes a test of obedience to the Crown. He served as Tory Prime Minister, 1770-1782.

When the Quartering Act billeted British soldiers on the homes of American colonists and the New York legislature voted to nullify it, the British were "aghast". George III was "contemptuous" of the colonials. Pitt's chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townsend, seeing Pitt ailing, moved ahead to do the king's bidding and imposed new taxes on imports into the colonies of glass, lead, paints, paper and... tea. Also, George III claimed the Virginia Territory as his own, thereby alienating many Virginians who had bought land there–Virginians like future linchpins of the new country, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The “Boston Massacre”, which started the bitterness in Boston, was hooliganism. Some soldiers served as strike-breakers. On March 5, 1770, a mob of several hundred youths and men attacked them and one soldier lost his nerve and fired at the mob. Three men lay dead and two were mortally wounded. Pitt, now Lord Chatham, said:
I love the Americans because they love liberty, and I love them for the noble efforts they made in the last war [The French and Indian War]. … I think the idea of drawing money from them by taxes was ill-judged. Trade is your object with them… But … they must be subordinate… They must obey and we prescribe. [Cited in Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (NY: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 200.] 
Lord North came in as Prime Minister in 1770, and for three years after the Boston Massacre, Britain traded peacefully with the colonies. There was a sense in Britain that their Seven Years War was expensive and they were looking for ways to off-load the costs of their military spending. Objectively, it might seem reasonable to ask the colonies to pay for their defense.

But  Sam Adams and other radical leaders looked at it a different way. Why should they be paying taxes to Britain if the colonies were not represented in the British Parliament? It was the Roundhead argument with the additional complaint of foreign taxation. Looking for ways to foment rebellion, they cleverly conceived of the public dumping of tea–the Boston Tea Party being the best-publicized example–to goad the bull-headed George III and his testy Prime Minister into overreaction (Morison, p. 204).

The Crown's response was exactly as the radicals wished - i.e., what were called the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. Pitt had recommended conciliation - withdrawing British troops from Boston (Morison, p. 209). But Lord North supported George III's animosity toward the rebels.

The Acts of course inflamed Bostonians by enacting reprisals for the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor.

But the Quebec Act of 1774 may have been the most disastrous for Britain. It undermined the numerous royalists in the colonies south of New England. The Quebec Act essentially took territory north of the Ohio River away from Virginia (mostly) and the other 13 colonies and annexed them to Quebec, which was seen as more loyal to the Crown.

George Washington and other leading  Virginians had already begin staking claims to these lands as early as 1753. Although they were in 1763 nominally marked as an Indian reserve, Virginia and other colonies had their eye on them for purposes of westward expansion. George Washington, a surveyor by profession before he became a soldier, would have been deeply aware of, and involved in, investments predicated on the Virginian colonial government or other colonies, allocating the lands in the territories that the Crown essentially now claimed for itself. Whereas New Englanders were looking for a fight, the other colonies were not as belligerent, and were not fully committed to rebellion - until now threatened with a huge loss of assets.

George III said smugly to Lord North on February 4, 1774:
The die is now cast. The Colonies must either submit or triumph.
This test was petulant and unnecessary. Britain could have made so much money off their 13 American colonies if George III had shown the strategic good sense that Edward had demonstrated by accommodating to Scotland less than a century before.

The mistakes of the mother country came to a head on April 18, 1775, when the planned signal of  two lanterns ("two if by sea") were hung in the steeple of Boston's Old North Church, launching riders including Paul Revere on their dash to Lexington and Concord with the news: "The British are coming." The minute men freaked themselves for the redcoats and the Revolutionary War was on.

Lord North's tenure as Prime Minister ended in 1782 and he died ten years later. Lord North gives his family name to Guilford, Conn. and that is about it (North Dakota and North Carolina are not named after him).

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