The Fight for Empire: England and Her Colonies
1. George III and the Power of the Crown
When George II died in 1760 his grandson, George III, succeeded, for Frederick, Prince of Wales, had been dead, unlamented, for nearly ten years. Now George III, unlike the last two kings, was born and bred in England. He cared far more, too, about England than about Hanover, which, indeed, he never saw; and he understood English politics. In his eagerness to prove himself no foreigner, he with his own hand added to the first speech to Parliament prepared for him by his ministers the famous words "I glory in the name of Britain."
George was thus an English king: he was, moreover, a king with an unquestioned title, for the Jacobite danger had now died away. Hence he saw no reason for leaving all power to the Whigs, as if, like the first two Georges, he could not do without them. Instead, he resolved to employ men of all parties, so long as they were loyal to the Crown. Further, he would recover for himself some at least of the powers which earlier kings had enjoyed.
He did not, indeed, mean to be a tyrant. He did not mean even to go back to the Stuart plan of governing benevolently but as "an absolute king," that is, by his own will and authority alone. He meant not only to rule well, but also to rule with Parliament. Only, he wanted to be like earlier sovereigns who had understood the English language and English affairs. He wanted to take the chief part in deciding policy, in guiding Parliament, and in all the business of government. He wanted not to be treated like an ignorant and incapable foreigner, who must necessarily leave everything to his English ministers.
At first sight the plan seemed sound and sensible. It was not illegal: the law books said much about the powers of the king and nothing at all about the powers of the Cabinet, which in fact rested not on law at all, but simply on custom and convenience. It was not likely to be unpopular: the sole rule of one party had already been attacked by the most popular man in England, William Pitt. Nor was it wrong: George was aiming not at gaining power for selfish ends, but at becoming the father of his people. He certainly freely used bribery and corruption to form a party of his own—"The King's Friends"—but even in this he did only what the Whigs themselves had done for fifty years, and what too many then thought unavoidable.
Yet there were two fatal flaws in George's plan. First, he was himself unfit to rule and guide a great country. He had, indeed, many virtues. He was brave, hardworking, and patriotic. He had also many sensible tastes. He loved country life and sports: he was so much interested in agriculture that he earned the nickname of "Farmer George." And by sheer hard work he gained a wide and valuable knowledge of government business.
But he was badly educated, obstinate, prejudiced, and in many ways stupid. He was angered by opposition, unable or unwilling to recognize greater ability in others, unforgiving to those who once offended him. Also he was liable, even in early days, to fits of violent excitement, and more and more, as time went on, these fits tended to become attacks of madness.
He mismanaged his own family. He and Queen Charlotte did indeed set their subjects an excellent example of virtuous home life, and their children grew up in a most respectable Court. But the very sternness of the discipline perhaps defeated its own ends: at any rate, most of the sons turned out badly in later years.
In the same way George mismanaged his Empire. In the American Rebellion, especially, he played the part of a stern father to the colonies with the most disastrous results. At home he was not, indeed, generally unpopular, for his dogged courage and bluff honesty were virtues which Englishmen admired, and his failings were such as many Englishmen shared. Even the stories of his simple-mindedness, especially the famous tale of his wondering how an apple could ever get inside a dumpling, made the people like him while they laughed at him. And when he was old, and blind, and ill, pity was added to the general feeling of affection and respect.
But in one way the very fact that he did not differ greatly from his people helped to make him unfit to lead them. For it showed that he was no greater than they in wisdom or virtue or ability. And none of his mistakes were worse than those in which (as in the American question) most of his subjects shared. Yet his jealousy of superior men made it certain that, while his system lasted, no man really fitted to be a national leader would be allowed in power.
Again, even if George had been far cleverer and wiser, his scheme could never have succeeded permanently. For it was now the law in England that "the king can do no wrong"—i.e. that not the king himself, but some minister, must be punishable for every error of the Government. Therefore, naturally, ministers and not the king must decide what the Government should do. The king could not both enjoy power and escape responsibility.
After many struggles George did indeed secure power in 1770, and kept it for over ten years. Lord North, the head of the ministry from 1770 to 1782, was little more than his mouthpiece: George himself managed the whole business of Government, and every minister received orders directly from him. So the House of Commons had good ground for its famous resolution that "the power of the Crown had increased and was increasing."
But the Resolution added that this power "ought to be diminished," and that was soon accomplished: For, when the king's policy caused the loss of the American colonies, the king's system was overthrown. He had dictated the policy, and he had to pay the penalty. He was not, indeed, beheaded like Charles I, or even exiled like James II. But he was forced to put into office ministers whom he detested, and let them carry out a policy which he abhorred.
Presently, it is true, he turned them out, and once more chose his own Prime Minister. Yet even then his power was not restored. For the new Prime Minister was the younger Pitt, and he finally established the rule that the policy of the nation should be guided by the ministers and not the king. George might agree, or argue, or grumble, or even occasionally reject Pitt's proposals, but the proposals themselves were made by Pitt, and George's part was only the secondary one of criticising them. And in everything that Pitt considered essential his will prevailed.
Apart from this question, the reign of George III was remarkable mainly for three things—the revolt of the American colonies; the long struggle against France, from 1793 to 1815; and the "Industrial Revolution." Of these only the first falls within the Age of Chatham. The second was the chief event in the Age of Pitt. The third, beginning before Chatham rose to power and continuing long after his son was dead, belongs to neither Age, but must be treated by itself.
2. Mother and Children
The Seven Years' War brought great gains to England, but left behind it many difficulties. It left France and Spain thirsting for revenge, and building up their navies for this purpose, while England foolishly let hers decay. It left Frederic the Great of Prussia furious at what he considered England's "desertion" of him in 1763, and resolved never to ally with her again. It left the Powers of Northern Europe disgusted by the interference of the English navy with their trading ships in time of war, and determined to prevent such conduct for the future. Above all, it left England herself and her colonies intensely irritated against each other, and likely to become even more so.
The feeling between them was never, perhaps, very cordial. To begin with, they did not in the least understand one another. The distance between them was too great. In those days six weeks was thought a quick passage across the Atlantic: most travellers took far longer, even if they luckily found a ship ready to sail just when they wanted to start. Regular services of mail-boats or passenger ships did not exist: steamships and telegrams and telephones, of course, were not yet invented. Consequently, Englishmen and Americans knew little of each other, and saw less. Further, what little the English Government did hear of American affairs came chiefly from colonial Governors, who were far too often quarrelling with their subjects to represent them fairly.
So misunderstandings were only too likely to arise, and both English policy and American feeling were only too likely to provoke them. Few English statesmen realized that the colonies were, so to speak, no longer children, but grown-up people, with the same desire to manage their own affairs, and pay only taxes to which they themselves had consented, that Englishmen at home had shown for centuries. Perhaps the colonies were treated too much as if they existed only to benefit the Mother Country. At least, their trade was hampered by "Navigation Acts "expressly intended by Parliament to strengthen rather the British Empire as a whole than merely the thirteen colonies themselves.
The Americans, in turn, though still thinking of England as "the old home," were not greatly interested in her doings, especially after 1688. They disliked her interference with their trade. They were unnecessarily afraid that she might some day interfere with their religion. They often heartily disliked the Governors she set over them, and defied her attempts to dictate the methods by which these Governors should be paid. More and more they felt both able and desirous to do everything for themselves. And some at least of their leaders aimed, if not at actual separation from England, yet certainly at practical independence of her.
Two things, however, had long prevented an open quarrel. While France, from Canada and Louisiana, threatened the very existence of the colonies, they needed the might of England to defend them. And, while England winked at the smuggling which defeated her Navigation Laws, those laws were not worth fighting about. But in the first years of George III both these safeguards disappeared. The Seven Years' War destroyed the French power in America, and the English minister Grenville tried to enforce the Navigation Acts. Thus at the very same moment the value of the connection with England dwindled and its disadvantages increased.
Moreover the war itself had caused bad feeling. Englishmen thought the colonists gave far too little towards the cost of a struggle which, after all, was fought mainly for their sakes, and considered them therefore mean and unpatriotic. Americans replied that they had given all they could afford, or more, and that as a matter of fact the quarrel with France was England's and not theirs. Also they were furious at the haughtiness and the stupidity of many English officers.
Lastly, the enormous cost of the war intensified the long-cherished desire of English statesmen to lay upon the colonies themselves at least part of the burden of their defence and government. This desire itself was reasonable, but the difficulties in the way were great. It was impossible to make the colonies join in voting the money themselves. They were far too jealous and too different in character and interests to act together unless driven to do so by some great common danger. Yet they answered every suggestion that they should pay taxes voted in the English Parliament with the cry "No taxation without representation!" As they had no share in electing the House of Commons, they argued, it had no right to tax them. Yet the English Government, seeing nothing else to do, resolved to levy taxes. And the attempts to enforce them led first to rioting, then to war, and at last to a final separation.