1  The Obstructed Giant

When George III acceded to the throne in 1760, his English subjects were singing with spirit once more. “Rule Britannia” burst from their mouths—words twenty years old (they originally formed a patriotic poem)—and they went like this:

When Britain first, at heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sung this strain

“Rule Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

The call to rule seemed natural in 1760; a few years earlier it had mocked the realities of British power and influence in Asia and America. For in these years of war with France, British arms took a terrible beating—and so did British pride.

The war had begun with a skirmish in the wilderness between French troops and American colonials led by young George Washington, whose description of the affair revealed that his interest in war lay in the opportunities it offered for honorable and gallant action. Honor and gallantry did not die in the next few years, though large numbers of English, American, and French soldiers and Indians did.

The deaths of the English and Americans were especially galling, for they came in a series of battles marred by ineptitude, stupidity, and, some said, cowardice. General Edward Braddock, not stupid but surely inept and ignorant of his ignorance, lost his army and his life a few miles from what is now Pittsburgh. Colonel James Mercer, brave but incompetent, gave way at Oswego on Lake Ontario to General Montcalm, who pushed across Lake Champlain to Lake George and seized Fort William Henry.

At sea things had gone no better, as Admiral Byng surrendered Minorca in the Mediterranean to French forces, whereupon the Admiralty charged him with cowardice and when he was found guilty in a court-martial ordered him shot. On the Continent disaster followed disaster. Frederick the Great, Britain’s ally, sent armies against French and Austrian forces and absorbed defeat.

The British and Hanoverian army did no better and after defeats in the summer of 1757 virtually surrendered Hanover to the French. In Asia Britain’s prospects appeared dark as the French marched, Calcutta fell, and the entire subcontinent seemed ripe to be plucked by the French.

Up to this point in the war British leaders had squandered their resources; they had no clear idea of how or where to proceed against the French. They had failed to bring their power to bear, to focus it, and thereby make it bring victories. In 1757 these leaders gave up office, and the old king, George II, called William Pitt to head the new ministry.

Pitt was one of the marvels of the century, a leader who dazzled sober politicians and the crowd alike. He drew his peculiar appeal from some inner quality of temperament as well as mind, a quality which allowed, indeed drove, him to disregard both conventional wisdom and opposition and to push through to what he wanted. He was an “original” in an age suspicious of the original. He got away with being what he was, scorning the commonplace and the expected and explaining himself in a magnificent oratorical flow that inspired as much as it informed.

Pitt’s powers of concentration shone from his fierce eyes, as did his belief in himself; in the crisis of war he said, “I know that I can save this country and that no one else can.” He was obsessed even more by a vision of English greatness, a vision that fed on hatred of France and contempt for Spain. Pitt had despised the fumbling efforts of his predecessors to cope with the French on the Continent, and he was impatient with the incompetence of English generals in America. Hence he went to different men—Saunders and Boscawen in the Royal Navy,

Jeffrey Amherst andJames Wolfe in the army in America—and to fresh strategies in the war. Properly subsidized, Frederick the Great would take care of the French on the Continent. The navy’s task was to preventre supply of French forces in Canada, and it was in Canada and the West where Pitt ordered that the main effort should be made.Pitt was fascinated by the New World and captivated by the ideathat imperial power should be forced to grow through trade in a vast arena under British sway. And so he made the fateful decision to play his strongest hand in America while the French were occupied in Europe and held off on the sea.

The strategy worked brilliantly. In July 1758 a combined military and naval force under Admiral Boscawen and Generals Amherst and Wolfe took the French fortress of Louisbourg. Soon after, Fort Frontenac, as the site of what is now Kingston, Ontario, fell to Colonel John Bradstreet and his New England volunteers. George Washington felt the exquisite pleasure of serving with General John Forbes as that commander, retracing Braddock’s steps, took Fort Duquesne after the French destroyed and then abandoned it.

The British soon renamed Duquesne Pittsburgh to celebrate Pitt’s daring leadership. Pitt got an unexpected series of victories in India from Clive, who set about demolishing French power there with a vigor to match Pitt’s own. And on the Continent, Frederick danced and slashed his way through the encircling armies of France, Russia, and Austria.

The greatest triumphs came the following year—the wonderful year—1759. Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s naval squadrons smashed a French fleet at Quiberon Bay southeast of Brest and thereby prevented provisioning of Canada with food and troops. In the West Indies, the rich sugar island of Guadeloupe surrendered to a joint expedition of the British army and navy.

Two thousand regulars and one thousand Iroquois did their bit at Fort Niagara, which Sir William Johnson, who replaced Brig. General John Prideaux killed in battle, captured in July. But the victory that left all of Europe gasping with admiration—and England swollen with pride—was won by Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe died there. So did the romantic Montcalm, and with him French power on the American continent.

Victories were won the next year, but the war continued as George III took the crown. The new king wanted peace, wanted it so much that he was willing to let Pitt leave office. Pitt, far from wanting peace, urged that the war be widened to include Spain. Pitt made the king uncomfortable: he was too flamboyant, too unpredictable, and there seemed to be a bloodthirsty quality in his daring. And so he had to go from office; he resigned in October 1761, and by the end of the following year terms of peace had been arranged.1


Most of George’s subjects probably hated to see Pitt depart; he had given them glory and power and excitement. The rest of Europe felt differently. Europeans may have been awed by Pitt but they did not admire him. Indeed, they felt something rather different from admiration for England and Englishmen. The energy and the power of England had to be respected of course, but Europeans could detect little else that was attractive in those bluff, beef-eating, beer-drinking Englishmen who seemed bent on tearing the civilized world apart.

For all the power of the English, to cultivated Europe they appeared to be only a cut above the barbarians. Granted they had won victories in war, their merchants pushed their ships all over the world, they dominated commerce almost everywhere, but despite all these successes, Europeans could not bring themselves to extravagant praise or unqualified admiration.

The English were after all a people without a culture. No European collected the pictures of English artists or sent his sons to England for education, and the Grand Tour did not include stopovers at English salons.2

France, not England, was the great nation. European aristocrats admired French culture, collected French art and books, and chose French furniture for the well-appointed room. The fashionable wore French clothes and spoke French—not English, unless they happened to be English. French philosophers set the intellectual standard for all in Europe who admired daring and imagination.

Europe found much else in France worthy of emulation: French science as revealed in the Encyclopédie and the Academy dazzled scholars everywhere; merchants and statesmen envied France her modern roads and canals, and especially the growing wealth and population of the nation. Presiding over this strength and culture, this magnificence, was a great monarchy, unhobbled by the limits placed on the Hanoverians in England.3

In the eyes of European aristocrats, English monarchy was indeed a pale imitation of the real thing. A century earlier the English had taken off one king’s head and driven another to flight. In Europe’s eyes they were an unstable lot, obsessed with parliamentary government, with bills of rights and liberty that cut monarchs down to the size of mayors. They were an unpredictable people, apparently abandoned to limited government and wild adventures overseas—at the expense of European empires.

As extravagant as these fantasies about the English were, they contained an important truth: English energies were formidable and bent on finding expression in war, trade, and domination. In the capacity to grow, to concentrate power and energy, to bring force to bear in the service of an expansionist policy, no nation in 1760 could match England—not Germany and Italy.

Which did not exist as modern states but only as hopelessly divided fragments, squabbling powers and principalities unable to pull themselves together; not Prussia, which had a great leader but lacked resources in iron, steel, and coal; not Austria, which also needed industry and commerce; not Spain, once a mighty power, now flatulent, her wealth spent, her energies dissipated, her state in decay; not Portugal, now little more than an English satellite; not the Netherlands, disabled in a paralyzing federal system of government; not Sweden, obviously weak; not Poland, weak, corrupt, and about to endure partition by rapacious neighbors.

And France, for all her cultivation, her taste, her philosophy, art, and style, was in 1760 also weaker than England. Progressive and advanced in many respects, France had not been able to throw off the remnants of vested interests in church and state. A privileged nobility and a self-indulgent church controlled an antiquated government.

The French paid for these ancient luxuries in the war with England, when all Europe came to see that French glories could not be translated into military and political power sufficient to deal with the upstart English, surely the wild men of Europe but—just as surely—the victorious throughout the world.

There was something askew in the condescension of Europe; English culture was not barbarous. It lacked the imagination and daring that gave French culture its brilliant vitality. And yet the apparent cultivation of the French aristocracy was not responsible for the art and literature of France. French aristocrats patronized the arts of course, but so did the English; neither shaped them nor provided standards of taste and appreciation.

French taste was more discriminating than English: one has only to look at the great country houses of English aristocrats to see that size, extravagance, and prodigality charmed the Walpoles and the Pelhams—representatives of the breed—as little else did. Here French sensibilities were surer—more civilized, as eighteenth-century commentators might say.

What English culture lacked was the almost uniform brilliance of the French. The houses of the English aristocracy were usually vast and cold, but Georgian architecture also had beauty and often showed dignity and restraint. French painting established the European standards; the English was confined largely to portraiture. In France, creativity seemed to thrive; in England, Reynolds with his crowd of assistants carefully depicted stolid English faces with stolid artistic conventions.

Gainsborough, who worked alone and who defied prevailing style in favor of his own difference, earned the displeasure of the critics and the public. Hogarth’s savage perceptions went unappreciated. Still, in painting, in architecture, and above all in prose and poetry, the English, if not always breathing beauty, avoided the backwardness that Europe saw.4

If English high culture was not guilty of the barbarism that fashionable Europe attributed to it, society from the meaner sort to the upper classes was. There was still a ferocity to English life that seemed hard to reconcile with the mania for progress and development. Criminals were hanged publicly; an execution often became an occasion for a celebration.

Six months after George III was crowned, an immense London crowd witnessed the hanging of Lord Ferrers at Tyborn for the murder of his steward. Lord Ferrers chose to go to the gallows dressed as he had been for his wedding; all London appreciated the decision, for it was well known that His Lordship had started on the road to the noose on the day he married.

The leading role in such spectacles was not usually played by aristocrats, but the occasions were appreciated nonetheless. And they were widely approved; as Dr. Johnson observed, the people of England had the right to see the penalties of their laws enacted on criminals. Criminals thrived in London and on the roads of the countryside.

Among the populace they excited fear and admiration. Celebrated in popular ballads and transfixed in Hogarth’s sketches—along with every other order in English society—and skillfully rendered in Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, they evaded the hangman more often than not.

No doubt the average citizen rarely encountered a highwayman, but avoiding the filth, disease, and shabby housing was more difficult. English life had its elegance and beauty—in Georgian houses and in the countryside still bursting with flowers, greenery, and woods untouched by highways and developers. Yet there were slums in villages as well as in London—and ugliness in both. John Byng, a thoughtful traveler, described the dark huts of Alderminster as “mud without and wretchedness within.”5

Disease in this unsanitary age was widespread, and not only among the common sort, but among the rich and well-born, who were as ignorant and filthy as any. Understandably, perhaps the rich sought relief in dissipation and prodigal display; the poor, in gin and rioting. The middle classes flocked after Wesley and revivalism and perhaps did not suffer badly at all.

This is a grim picture—a society torn by crime and suffering from inadequate housing, disease, filth, and riot. Social conditions, however, were improving when George III was crowned and had been improving for at least ten years. The underlying reasons were the appearance of industry and the increase in national wealth.

English business had made its way all over the world—to Asia and India, to the West Indies, to the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean. The mechanisms of commerce had also improved, fiscal practices had gradually been rationalized, and banking helped in mustering resources. The importance of good transportation was recognized, and better roads, bridges, and canals were constructed.

In these circumstances industry took hold; the profits from trade could provide a start, and the new commercial practices helped free resources for development. Inevitably, perhaps, the lives of ordinary people were affected to some small degree, but for the most part only a few benefited from the appearance of industrialism.6


And the few continued to run things, especially the aristocratic few, the great landowners. Land remained the key to society, to political power, and to prestige.

Understandably this society of landowners and their servants—accustomed to the slow rhythm of the seasons, annual tasks, one year looking like every other year, familiar and for the most part comfortable relations within the ranks of men—did not value imagination and change highly.

Tied to the land, they trusted their situations, and though not always found easy, were apparently content in, or at worst resigned to, them. They accepted the improvements in transport and communications: bridges and roads made life easier. They did not at first resist commercial development, especially as it seemed to offer new sources of revenue—and perhaps relief from taxes on land.

Progress in transportation and commerce and in manufacturing was appreciated by those whose lives were affected, and perhaps ignored by the mass of men in the countryside who because remote were unaffected. But other sorts of changes and reforms were resisted with an obstinacy that reveals how profoundly traditional, conventional, and conservative English society was in the eighteenth century.

Public measures at the middle of the century afford a variety of examples of the bias against change. In 1751, Parliament had received a bill for naturalizing foreign Protestants; it reached a committee before protests from the City of London and elsewhere persuaded Henry Pelham, first lord of the Treasury, to abandon it. Two years later a similar effort was made on behalf of Jews.

This “Jew Bill” earned an incredible notoriety despite its limited objectives. Its central provisions provided that Jews might be naturalized by private acts from which the words “on the true faith of a Christian” had been omitted from the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, which were still required. A similar statute had been accepted in the American colonies without opposition. The English bill slipped through an apathetic Parliament only to be repealed the next year after an immense public outcry.

A careful Pelham tried to explain that only wealthy Jews would be able to afford a private bill and that the capital investments by this minority would add to public revenue. These restrained and reasonable arguments made no headway against ingrained prejudice and religious conservatism.7

Religious conservatism was surely involved in resistance to another reform at about the same time—the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England in 1752. Before this change the new year began on March 25 in England; and the Julian calendar used in England lagged eleven days behind the Gregorian, long since adopted in continental Europe.

The disparity was awkward for anyone who had anything to do with peoples outside of England, with merchants and diplomats suffering the greatest inconvenience. The Earl of Macclesfield, president of the Royal Society, threw the prestige of science behind the bill which would bring English practice into conformity with the eighteenth century’s, and an uneasy Parliament went along.

The new act remained in force, but not without Pelham and other leaders of Parliament hearing ugly cries about profanation of the saints’ days, which of course were altered by the new calendar. “Give us back our eleven days”—the days between September 2 and 14 had been eliminated—expressed the popular mood and popular enlightenment perfectly.8

Attempts to reduce the consumption of gin ran into another kind of resistance. In 1736 Walpole had forced prohibitive duties on distillers and retailers of gin. Cheap gin had corrupted business, destroyed families, and seriously weakened lower class life.

The Gin Act, well intentioned but poorly designed and impossible to enforce, hardly slowed the rate of consumption and the consequent demoralization of the poor. When Walpole left office five years later, gin flowed as easily as ever. Hogarth’s Gin Lane(1751) provided a bleak picture of its effects on ordinary people in London. Parliament acted again soon after, with more success though with no more popular support.9

Beneath these curious episodes involving naturalization, calendars, and gin was a powerful conservatism that suggests that they were in no way aberrations, but rather characteristic of the deepest instincts of the culture. The excesses of the seventeenth century—antinomianism, fanaticism, and a bloody civil war—had not left a legacy of moral weariness or social fatigue, but they had created a suspicion of inspiration, extravagance, and innovation—especially, though not exclusively, in day-to-day behavior, religion, and politics.

There were, of course, cranks and fanatics in England throughout the eighteenth century, and there were political radicals, but all these sorts were outsiders, butting their heads against a social order resistant to all but the familiar, the known, and the conventional.

For the English air was no longer full of ghosts and sprites, furies and fairies, witches and goblins. It did not nourish the prophets and sectarians who had sought to make the world over in the full tide of the Spirit a century earlier. The process of clearing the atmosphere had begun while it was still full of fancies, and while men still dreamed extravagant dreams of the New Jerusalem incarnate in England.

The dreams had given some men the strength to cut off the head of Charles I and to establish a holy commonwealth. Inspired, others drew up marvelous plans for the new order. But in this heady atmosphere, still others shrank and drew back—none with more skepticism toward romances and delusions than Thomas Hobbes.

Perhaps with more hope than realism it was Hobbes who, in 1651, consigned superstition to the past and who assumed that rationality distinguished the mind of his day. In the past, now happily departed according to Hobbes, men explained invisible agencies by calling up “a god, or a Divel.” Their own mental quirks and events in nature which seemed inexplicable were explained, and men had “invoked also their own wit, by the name of Muses; their own ignorance, by the name of Fortune; their own lusts, by the name of Cupid, their own rage, by the name of Furies.”10

But such explanations had long since lost their power to persuade. Reason and light apparently governed the eighteenth century, along with the down-to-earth, the solid, the dependable, the commonsensical realities.


The general understanding in the eighteenth century about the nature of government and what it should do reflected faithfully the bias of this conservative culture. There was nothing remotely resembling the present-day idea that government ought to promote the general welfare and the public interest. Of course eighteenth-century government was not hostile to these purposes, but something rather different—much more limited—was expected of it.

Government existed to maintain “the king’s peace,” as the common law and ancient tradition had it. This notion implied more than keeping order, more than catching lawbreakers and punishing them; it involved taking action, or remaining inactive if that were necessary, to see that things went on pretty much as they always had. Maintaining the king’s peace constituted the core of domestic policy; foreign policy ordinarily entailed the analogous provision for national security.

In practice, the one abiding problem in foreign affairs before the American Revolution was the question of Hanover, which Britain had taken on when the first of the Georges was crowned.

All government was the king’s. From the lowest official in the parish to the greatest minister, service undertaken was in the name of the monarch; it was personal, not institutional, service, though of course it was in fact institutionalized in an elaborate and clumsy structure of government. At the top the king himself took an active part. He was the leader of the executive, those ministers who exercised the powers of the Crown.

Within limits the king chose the ministers who served him—the limits being essentially the willingness of the leaders of Parliament to combine with others to do the government’s work, and their ability to command the support of the membership of the two houses. No combination—nor individual—could be forced on the king, and great leaders commonly did not refuse the monarch’s request that they put together a ministry to do his bidding, provided, of course, that they could work with others acceptable to the king.

The great source of leadership, and ultimately of power, in government was the House of Commons, a body of some 558 members. Eighty of these were sent from the counties, the universities sent four, and the remaining sat for the cities and boroughs. Why men wished to act in Commons reveals much about English politics.

Few apparently came with great ideas about policy or even with the purpose of serving some organized social or economic interest. Rather, they came for power and status, or to serve some local purpose, or because their families expected them to.

With most members animated by purposes so limited, and with the nation agreed that no fundamental issues existed, it is not surprising that politics usually came down to the question Charles Dickens puts in the mouth of Lord Boodle in Bleak House: “What are you going to do with Noodle?”

Bewildered by the shifting alignments of the day and sorely put to find a place for every deserving man, Lord Boodle saw the awful choices facing the Crown in forming a new ministry should the present government be overthrown, choices which “would lie between Lord Goodle and Sir Thomas Doodle—supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle.

Then, giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council: that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests, that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost and gone to pieces . . . because you can’t provide for Noodle!”11

The Lord Boodles of the political order rightfully attributed great importance to the distribution of offices; the system after all depended upon providing for one’s friends and followers. Boodle, of course, overestimated the size of the catastrophe that would overtake the nation should Noodle go unprovided for—the country would not go to ruin, but the ministry might, and given the myopia endemic to this sort of politics, the temptation to regard the ministry as the nation is understandable.

In fact, if parliamentary government only imperfectly represented the nation, it did manage to contain, if not always to express, the interests of landed society. No matter how severe the shuffling of ministers and governments, this capacity remained intact. William Pitt, one of the rare men of ideas who played the game, entered the government in 1757 and left it in 1761;

Newcastle held various offices over a forty-year period. His departure a year after Pitt’s did not shake the system. The same men, or the same sorts of men, popped up, played their parts, passed off, and perhaps reappeared, but the government continued to do about the same kinds of things, as did the Parliament.

What Parliament did so far as what we would call public policy was not very much. It was not the ruler, nor a source of energy and activity impressing its will upon the nation. The nation was best served when left alone and liberty would flourish if unattended to by meddlers in Parliament. The landed interests took care of themselves and thereby served the nation and the king.


Every British monarch in the eighteenth century accepted this system and worked willingly within it. None admired it more than George III, who in a characteristic statement declared his “enthusiasm” for “the beauty, excellence, and perfection of the British Constitution as by Law established.”12 He wrote these words in 1778 when he had been the monarch for eighteen years, thoroughly experienced in playing his part as the executive in a mixed form of government.

George III had come to the throne unprepared for this role, though unlike his grandfather, George II, he was British-born, and though he had a better-than-average formal education. Yet his incapacity on becoming king did not lie in his education but in his temperament and his lack of understanding of men—or, as the eighteenth century put it, of human nature. Although he learned much of men during his long reign, he was never able to understand the subtleties in their behavior.13

Born in 1738 at Norfolk House, St. James’s Square, the first son and second child of Frederick, Prince of Wales, George III had a difficult and lonely childhood. His mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, was not, as commonly thought, a stupid woman, only a rather frightened one who kept her son cut off from other children on the grounds that they were “ill-educated” and vicious. George’s only real companion in his early years was his brother Edward.

Lady Louisa Stuart, a perceptive observer, remarked that the prince was “silent, modest, and easily abashed.” His parents’ behavior toward him undoubtedly prompted silence and modesty, for they did not conceal their preference for his brother.

George observed the petting of Edward and learned to stay within himself. He was usually ignored, at least in Edward’s company, and when he spoke seems occasionally to have been rebuked with the gentle rejoinder, “Do hold your tongue, George: don’t talk like a fool.”14

If there was a fool in the household, it was Frederick, George III’s father, who at the age of thirty-nine still found amusement in breaking other people’s windows at night. Frederick, however, had much to recommend him: he was a good husband (though a not very sensitive father), a patron of the arts, and interested to some degree at least in science and politics. His interest in politics came naturally to one who expected in the normal course of things to become king.

Frederick did not handle this situation well, quarreling with his father, George II, and going into opposition. A following collected around him at Leicester House, composed of some of those excluded from power who looked forward to enjoying it when the king died and the prince took the throne. They received a nasty surprise in 1751 when Frederick died, not his father the king.

Prince George was thirteen years old in 1751, and became immediately the center of great interest. His education, control of the shaping of his mind and opinions, was recognized as a subject of importance.

The king might have taken the boy from his mother, but he did not. The prince was now even more isolated; his mother feared the king’s intentions and took pains to shelter her son from all but the most carefully scrutinized influences. In 1755 the key influence was John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, a Scot, the adviser—not, as some whispered, the lover—of George’s mother.

Princess Augusta introduced Bute to her son, and for the next five years he served as the prince’s tutor and friend. The friendship seems to have developed easily—in part, we may suppose, because George craved affection and kindness and Bute responded with both.

Yet warm as their relationship was, it was not between equals. Bute held the upper hand: he was twenty-five years older, strongly opinionated, obviously intelligent, and he was in charge of the prince’s education. Although Bute possessed the learning required, he was not a good teacher.

To be sure, he launched the prince on an impressive series of studies and saw to it that George continued those already under way. And George at this time had sampled books and subjects far beyond those ordinarily taken up by an English gentleman.

When Bute became the prince’s tutor the prince was seventeen years of age. He had at least an elementary knowledge of French, German, and Latin, less Greek, some mathematics and physical science. He had read fairly widely, though superficially, in history, and he had, in the manner of those of birth and breeding, studied military fortification.

His previous tutors had not neglected to introduce their pupil to the social attainments necessary to a monarch—riding, fencing, dancing, music. And, of course, the prince had received careful religious instruction according to the creed of the Church of England.

Bute saw to it that his charge continued these studies and personally supervised a more thorough study of English and European history. In the process, the prince absorbed much knowledge of the British constitution and of statecraft and yet did not understand either.

In Bute’s unpracticed hands the prince’s insecure, rather rigid personality grew more rigid and no more confident, though he became proud, and intolerant of others whose views did not agree with his or his tutor’s. Bute himself knew much but did not understand men or human conduct. His pride reinforced the prince’s; his propensity to judge others by abstract principles—he lacked the experience which wiser men rely upon—strengthened a similar tendency in the prince.

Master and pupil then and later commonly mistook inflexibility for personal strength and character. Understandably, George’s studies did not produce the qualities needed by a monarch: good judgment and a capacity to take fully into account the principles and interests of others without giving over one’s own.

George III was twenty-two when he ascended the throne in 1760. For the next few years he clung to his prejudices and to Bute with a tenacity that reflected his and Bute’s miscomprehension of the political world. He would reform their world, he thought, and make virtue his real consort.

Factional politics, which were of course based on interest, not ideology, revolted him—and he would somehow change them. If this dream soon disappeared in disappointment, the king’s rigidity did not, and though he learned to play the game—at times with remarkable skill—his early mistakes and his attachment to Bute bred a suspicion in Parliament that introduced a dozen years of instability to his government.


Instability in Parliament occurred at a most inopportune time—the beginning of the American crisis. Quite clearly, English political arrangements worked better in periods of calm than in crisis.

They reflected the views of the satisfied, of the haves more than the have-nots, and by their inertia protected the liberties of the subject, defined negatively. But how else was liberty to be defined? Fortunately, a static order stood in the way of change, which no one of consequence—that is, no one with land who had connections—wanted anyway.

Had these men who ran things been able to declare explicitly the assumption on which they lived, they would have said that the world was essentially perfect, fixed, and unchanging.

And their world changed very little in the eighteenth century, at least before the American Revolution. Their assumptions were widely shared in the villages and parishes of England, as well as in London. There was a good deal of energy in English local government, but it arose in isolation and it remained uncoordinated from above.

For the most part, the Crown and Parliament ignored government in the municipal boroughs and corporations, in parishes, in the Quarter Sessions of the counties, and in the Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes. Parliament, at least, recognized their existence and over the course of the century passed hundreds of statutes concerning local affairs. But the manner in which this was done reflected the regnant ideas about the proper role of government in the life of the nation.

Parliament had begun early in the seventeenth century to pass “Local Acts,” which applied not to the whole kingdom as a Public General Act did, but to a designated locality. These Local Acts created the Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes—the Commissioners of Sewers, the Incorporated Guardians of the Poor, the Turnpike Trusts, and the Improvement Commissioners (charged with lighting, watching, paving, cleaning, and improving streets).

At the time of the American Revolution, there were over a thousand such bodies; eventually their number would reach eighteen hundred, with responsibilities extending over a larger area and more people than all the Municipal Corporations taken together. These statutory authorities differed from all other types of local government agencies, parishes, counties, and boroughs, for each of them was created by a special act of Parliament to fulfill one function, prescribed by the establishing statute, in a designated place.

Commissioners of Sewers built and maintained in hundreds of localities trenches and drains to carry off storm water; they also constructed drains and other works to reclaim marshes and to keep out the sea. The verdant Midlands of England were in a sense the creation of these bodies, which drained off the water and kept it out, turning marshland into lovely and productive fields and pastures.

Most of the hundreds of statutory authorities operated independently of other local agencies; the Guardians of the Poor, who handled relief of the indigent, vagrants, idlers, and others commonly despised by eighteenth-century society, were a notable exception. They were usually connected by the laws with parish and sometimes county and borough governments.

But they had no ties, neither responsibilities nor claims, to any agency of the ministerial governments: their accounts were not audited, they published no accounts or reports, their actions passed uninspected by anybody, and yet they possessed the power to arrest, detain, and punish the poor in their charge.

This freedom to act irresponsibly came from the form of their creation and from Parliament’s indifference. The special authorities got their bearings not as the result of a considered policy of Parliament or the government, but from the initiative of interested local groups. The Local Acts which set them up did not enter the full debates of either house, but usually were discussed only in small meetings by the members of the counties and boroughs to be affected by their passage.

Thus these special authorities, like the Municipal Corporations and the Quarter Sessions, operated unchecked by the Privy Council or the Assize Judges, and virtually ignored by their parent, the Parliament. In this way the localities were governed—the poor supervised, the streets improved, the marshes drained, the roads built and maintained, and a variety of other essential services provided, or unprovided—all without a governing policy or without a central direction. The result was, in the fine phrase of the Webbs, “an anarchy of local autonomy.”15


There may have been a kind of anarchy in the practices of the special authorities, but virtually alongside them, indeed within the traditional order, a new fiscal and military state had taken hold of a crucial part of public life. That part consisted of war and all that went into making it. The alteration of the state began after the Glorious Revolution and continued throughout the eighteenth century. After 1688, the means by which it transacted business changed in profound ways.

A large bureaucracy took form, the money the state took in grew, military and naval forces assumed enormous powers, and an unprecedented national debt was incurred. The element common in all the changes, of course, was money. Had the people of England heard Benjamin Franklin declaim that the only certainties in life were death and taxes they surely would have agreed. Death might be put off but not taxes, for wars were expensive and demanded payment.16

The tax on land had long provided most of the revenue the state needed without borrowing. But by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, the land tax was no longer enough. Not surprisingly, as the requirements of the state increased, Parliament, dominated by landowners, looked elsewhere for revenues even as rates on land increased.

Excises answered the demand for money, or a part of it, throughout most of the eighteenth century, including the years of the American war. Excises on a vast array of items—soap and salt, beer and spirits, cider, paper, and silk, among other things consumed by ordinary and mighty folk alike—replaced land as the largest source of revenue from taxes.

Such a resort today would be considered regressive, but such levies are relatively easy to collect, and the list of consumables taxed can always be increased. Increased to be sure, but not always without protest, as the riots over cider before mid-century demonstrated.17

Customs, that is, duties on trade, also increased as commerce grew in the century. British merchants sent their ships all over the world long before the American Revolution. What they brought back could be taxed, and was—though if the duties were raised too high, smuggling followed. Money from such taxes ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of naval war. Most of the time the Royal Navy proved itself an able defender of British ships, but on occasion it failed.18

All these efforts to finance the wars of the century proved insufficient. Probably no one in Parliament expected them to yield all the money needed. The government relied more and more upon borrowing, and as it did so, private sources of several sorts, such as banks and stock funds, appeared to take up the financial slack.

The Bank of England was founded in 1694 as a private company and two years later began issuing stock, on which it paid a dividend. The bank proved to be an essential source of loans to the government almost from the moment of its founding. The debt owed to it and other lenders grew in the course of the century; in 1763, when Britain made peace with France, it amounted to £130,000,000.19

All this money, the taxes and loans, went toward the support of the fiscal-military state. Inevitably with the demands of war—Britain after the Glorious Revolution fought wars with France and her allies in three lengthy periods, 1688–1697, 1702–1713, and 1739–1763—an administrative structure evolved. What must have seemed at times to be an inordinate number of departments were created or enlarged; their names had a familiar ring—Customs, Excise, Salt, Treasury, Navy Board, Exchequer.

But their size, the numbers of clerks, scribes, copyists, and bookkeepers were at first surprisingly large. Customs, for example, had 1,313 men in 1690; not quite twenty years later there were 1,839, and in 1770, on the eve of the American Revolution, 2,244. The Excise department went from 1,211 to 4,066 in these years. “Revenue officers”—those who collected taxes—tripled in the years between 1690 and 1782. The wars of the eighteenth century drove this growth as nothing else could have.20

All the organization, the growing complexity of administration, the increase in revenues, the expansive control of the Bank of England, and the growth of the debt underlay a comparable transformation of the British army and navy. For in the hundred years following 1688 both organizations trebled in size.21

Their growth was not steady: not surprisingly it occurred most rapidly in wartime; in peacetime shrinkage took place, especially in the army. But war in the century assumed what was almost a reliable form and the increases in arms and ships seemed to be irresistible.

The ebb and flow in the numbers of soldiers in service over the course of the century exceeded a comparable flux in sailors. Britain had for several generations relied upon foreign mercenaries when it entered the struggles on the European continent, a practice not abandoned in the eighteenth century. Hiring mercenaries entailed paying them for service only; because they did not have to be maintained in times of peace, the army could conserve resources.

The navy in peacetime accomplished something similar by paying off crews and laying up ships. Still, the capital investment made by the navy in ship construction involved a very considerable cost. The army’s expenses included nothing quite comparable.

There was little disagreement in the eighteenth century about the use of these forces. The navy’s purpose seemed obvious to most ministries—to protect the home islands from invasions, usually and properly feared from France. It followed from this mission that the fleet, or most of it, should be kept in “home waters.”

Home waters did not always mean the ports of the English Channel, and almost never did they refer to such ports after 1730. About that time Admiral Edward Vernon, and soon afterward Admiral George Anson, insisted that the “Western Approaches” (the area from Cape Clear on the Irish Coast to Finisterre) provided a much more suitable environment for the purpose of guarding the home country.

Their reasoning recognized how disruptive, sometimes paralyzing, the prevailing winds from the southwest could be for ships in the channel. These winds, and in the winter the storms they brought, blew up the channel scattering and sometimes sinking ships and making defense impossible.22

This traditional function of the navy did not prevent the Admiralty from sending detachments of the fleet to other parts of the world. The British Empire was large and was made much larger with the great triumph in the war with France at midcentury (1756–63). But the fleet’s primary use was not then or afterward conceived to be blessed by what modern historians call a “Blue Water Policy”—the advancement of trade and colonies by naval might. The navy in fact did not think of its mission in terms of any grand policy or strategy.

It is untrue that the navy did not think at all, but the truth was that it did not have the institutional apparatus, or the habit of mind, for long-term planning. While state organizations found themselves transformed, naval leadership, though enlarged, did not include planning staffs. Admirals might have a secretary, and a clerk or two, or perhaps a midshipman to keep their affairs in shipshape order, but nothing more. The Navy Board had more mundane matters to look after, the procurement of ships and men foremost.

The First Lord of the Admiralty represented the navy, or, more accurately, the Admiralty Board, in Cabinet, but neither he nor any board laid down concepts of strategy for the fleet. For the most part no scholarly or professional literature existed to guide thinking about the nature of war at sea. There were manuals of navigation, and others on gunnery, and ship construction, but not much more. The complexity and the changes found so easily in the fiscal-military state clearly had their limits in the navy.23

So also did they in the army. Army life organized itself around the regiment. Leaders of regiments and of the armies they made up were aristocrats, most with only the flimsiest interest or knowledge of the larger contours of war. Officers owned their commissions—they, or their fathers, had bought them—and except for rare individuals and occasions, most confined their interest to the immediate terms of life in the regiment. Because the government relied so heavily on local militia and foreign mercenaries for defense, the regular army only rarely emphasized the kind of professionalism that later became so common.24

By midpoint in the eighteenth century the fiscal-military state had assumed mature form. The resort to the debt and the deep structure of tax collection and fiscal management had proved itself, and the administrative apparatus—from clerks, scribes, revenue agents among a host of others right up to sub-ministers—had entrenched itself into what was now a familiar order. And Britain had learned how to wage war and how to insert the means of waging war within the old political system of patronage and hierarchy.


The Webbs’ phrase also describes the situation of the American colonies before the American Revolution. All but Georgia had been founded in the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century, though all were under the supervision of Britain, they pretty well ran their own affairs.

The general outlines of their formal relationship to the Crown were known, but their objective situation—their virtual autonomy—was not. The disparity between reality and what was imagined in England is not surprising: the distance between England and America was great and communication imperfect, and no very enlightened colonial administration which might have explained each to the other existed.

The colonies had been founded under the authorization of the Crown, and governmental authority in them had always been exercised in the king’s name, though rather ambiguously in the three proprietary colonies, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and tenuously in Rhode Island and Connecticut, the two corporate colonies. What had lasted long apparently seemed best left unchanged.

The administrative structure on which the Crown relied to “govern” the colonies was old and never really adequate to govern the vast holdings in the New World. In England the Privy Council and the Secretary of State for the Southern Department did the actual work of administration before 1768. T

he Privy Council’s primary responsibilities lay elsewhere, or its interests did; and the chief concern of the Secretary of State for the Southern Department was relations with Europe. For advice the Secretary relied on the Board of Trade, an advisory body primarily concerned with trade.25

If this structure made for confusion because responsibility for the conduct of colonial affairs was not clearly placed, the differences among the colonial governments themselves added to it, as did the problem of communication among governments separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The one relatively steady hand in this structure was provided by the Board of Trade, which funneled information received from the colonies to the Secretary and relayed his instructions to governors and other officials in America.

For a time early in the eighteenth century the Board lost influence as certain English officials succeeded in curbing its authority. But in 1748 the Earl of Halifax became its president and increased its influence and his own. In 1757 Halifax was made a member of the Privy Council; his appointment alleviated the confusion in colonial administration, for he remained president of the Board of Trade.

When Halifax resigned in 1761, the Board lost influence and the colonies lost an intelligent administrator. Administrative order never again really attained the level reached at midcentury. The most important effort to establish such order made between Halifax’s retirement and the Revolution was the creation in 1768 of the office of the Secretary for Colonial Affairs, a department charged with supervision of the colonies. Unfortunately, this office aroused the jealousy of other ministers and fell into the hands of inept secretaries.

At another time in British history, administrative inefficiency, even stupidity and an absence of understanding, would not have mattered much. But late in the century it did. Administrative agencies did not make policy on crucial matters, but they contributed to it by supplying information and advice.

And they had a responsibility to keep the colonials and the ministry in touch with one another. A well-conceived structure staffed by enlightened and well-informed personnel could prevent mistakes policymakers might make and could assist in the drafting of successful policy.

The makers of colonial policy included Parliament, though important aspects of its relations with and authority over the colonies were unclear in the eighteenth century. Parliament had of course defined the economic relations of England to the colonies in a series of statutes, most passed in the seventeenth century.

Acts of navigation and trade had confined colonial trade to ships owned and sailed by British and colonial subjects, and they had regulated colonial trade in other ways largely to the benefit of British merchants. In the eighteenth century, before the revolutionary crisis began, Parliament had also attempted unsuccessfully to stop the importation of foreign-produced molasses into the colonies, and it had placed limits on the production of woolens, hats, and iron.

Yet despite these statutes, the extent of Parliament’s authority to legislate for the colonies had not been closely examined by anyone. When it was, it became a center of controversy.

The common presumption in England, wholly unexamined, was that all was clear in the colonial relation. The colonies were colonies, after all, and as such they were “dependencies,” plants set out by superiors, the “children” of the “mother country,” and “our subjects.” The language used to describe the colonies and their subordination expressed certain realities.

The colonial economy had long been made to respond to English requirements; the subordination in economic life was real, though not absolute. Moreover, there was a theoretical basis for the subordination: several generations of writers had analyzed mercantilism, a theory which described state power in terms of the economic relations of the imperial center to its colonial wings.

Mercantilism had evolved over the years from “bullionism,” which had defined power largely in terms of gold, to a sophisticated set of propositions about exchange, balance of trade, manufacturing, and raw materials. Whatever the emphasis, the versions current in England in the middle of the eighteenth century prescribed a distinctly secondary position for colonies on any scale of importance.26

Although political thought offered much less on the colonies, the political realities seemed as clear as the economic. The mother country sent out governors who acted in the king’s name; Parliament legislated for the colonies; the Privy Council reviewed the statutes passed by their assemblies, and the Crown retained a veto. In America the law was English and so were most political institutions.

The sense of superiority and the snobbery that underlay all the theory were far more important than any of the formal statements of mercantile or political thought. For this sense permeated, or seemed to, all ranks of Englishmen conscious of American existence. And it may be that the colonials in America, in the peculiar way of colonials, accepted both the truth of the explicit propositions.

And the unconscious assumption that they somehow were unequal to the English across the sea. Certain it is that the most sophisticated among them yearned to be cosmopolites, followed London’s fashions, and aped the English style. If this imitation did nothing else, it confirmed the prevailing feeling in Britain that the lines of colonial subordination were right and should remain unchanged.

READ  MORE: 2. Children of the twice-born

The Glorious Cause : Robert Middlekauff

Millennial Monitor
Millennial Monitor, Washington, DC
Copyright ©2022 MillennialMonitor.com
Kyle Brown, Publisher
All rights reserved.