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2d Marquess of Rockingham

2d Marquess of Rockingham

The English statesman Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), as prime minister and leader of the Whig opposition, advocated leniency toward the American colonies.

Charles Watson-Wentworth was born on May 13, 1730. He was educated at Westminster School and at Cambridge. In 1745, at the age of 15, he ran away without parental permission to join the Duke of Cumberland's army, which was fighting against Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who was known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender. Between 1748 and 1750, Watson-Wentworth completed the grand tour of Europe.

On the death of his father in 1750, Rockingham succeeded to the family estates in Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, and Ireland, and in 1752 he augmented his inheritance by marrying Mary Bright, a Yorkshire heiress. In 1751 Rockingham also succeeded to his father's offices of lord lieutenant of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, was appointed a lord of the bedchamber, and took his seat in the House of Lords. For the next 15 years Rockingham divided his time between the Lords and his consuming passion for horse racing. In general he entered little into political issues, but in 1762, in protest against the signing of the Peace of Paris, he resigned his place in the bedchamber. In consequence, he was dismissed from his lieutenancies.

During the regency crisis of 1765 Rockingham and the elder William Pitt were approached by the Duke of Cumberland with a view to forming a coalition; and on Pitt's refusal to serve, Rockingham became prime minister. Rockingham was among those ministers inclined to act leniently on the American question. Nevertheless, it was not until the spring of 1766 that the government proposed and carried the repeal of the Stamp Act. The repeal was facilitated by a concurrent statutory declaration of the absolute supremacy of Parliament over the Colonies. George III, chagrined by the repeal of the Stamp Act, was further mortified by the coalition's refusal to grant an allowance to his brothers and by the passage of resolutions condemning general warrants. In July 1766 he dismissed Rockingham, and Pitt returned to power.

Disappointed, Rockingham, took little part in public affairs until the conclusion of the Franco-American alliance. Then he bitterly attacked Lord North's American policy, and in March 1778 he declared for the immediate recognition of the independence of the Colonies. On the fall of North's administration in February 1782, Rockingham again became prime minister in a coalition government. This ministry conceded legislative independence to Ireland, and it considerably curtailed the political power of the Crown, chiefly by reducing the King's household. Rockingham's death on July 1, 1782, dissolved this short-lived administration. He was buried in York Minster.

Further Reading

Rockingham's relative unimportance in 18th-century politics is reflected by the absence of works devoted to his career. The only biographical study is short and deals with his life up to 1765: G. H. Guttridge, The Early Career of Lord Rockingham, 1730-1765 (1952). A later study by Guttridge, English Whiggism and the American Revolution (1963), is important for the political philosophy of Rockingham and his associates. Recommended for general historical background is J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, 1760-1815 (1960). □

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