Dartmouth, William Legge, Earl of
Dartmouth, William Legge, Earl of
DARTMOUTH, WILLIAM LEGGE, EARL OF. (1731–1801). William Legge, second earl of Dartmouth, was a politician who served as president of the Board of Trade and secretary of state for the colonies. His father having died soon after he was born, he succeeded to the earldom in 1750; consequently he never sat in the House of Commons. Legge grew up with his stepbrother Frederick North, the future prime minister, and they remained lifelong friends. But for a long time Legge seemed more interested in evangelical religion than in politics. By 1757 he and his wife were committed supporters of the Methodists John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and the Countess of Huntingdon (Selina Hastings). Only in 1765 did he accept office as president of the Board of Trade under Rockingham. Confronted with the consequences of the Stamp Act (of which he disapproved), he quickly decided that although Parliament was supreme, colonial grievances could and should be accommodated. Thus he strongly approved of both the repeal of the Stamp Act and of coupling it with the Declaratory Act affirming Parliament's right to tax.
Legge resigned after the Rockingham ministry collapsed in 1766 and returned to his religious preoccupations. During this time he was a supporter of Moor's Charity School, founded by Eleazar Wheelock around 1750 in Connecticut mainly for the education of Indians; the school relocated to New Hampshire and was renamed Dartmouth College in his honor in 1769. He used his patronage to secure ordination and preferment for John Newton and to support other evangelicals. In 1767, when a politician would have been preoccupied with the Townshend Duties, Dartmouth was more concerned with whether he should succeed the ailing Countess of Huntingdon in her religious role.
In January 1771 he refused North's first offer of a cabinet post, but by the following year the prime minister was looking around for a secretary of state who would cause less division in the cabinet than did the incumbent, the earl of Hillsborough. He also wanted someone whom the Americans would find acceptable. With Benjamin Franklin's recommendation in hand, North at last persuaded Dartmouth to accept the post in the summer of 1772.
Dartmouth inherited three problems from his predecessor: resolution of the Gaspée affair; the extent and rate of western expansion; and the issue of representative government in Quebec. He never really came to grips with the first two, and he did not bring the Quebec Bill before parliament until 2 May 1774, almost five months after news of the Boston Tea Party had reached London.
Dartmouth's reaction was predictable: the colonists must pay the legally imposed tea duty. He supported the four coercive laws of 2 June 1774, although he did not initiate them. By an unfortunate association of timing, the Quebec Act (22 June) became associated with these laws as the Intolerable Acts. Yet he did not believe that the underlying differences were beyond reconciliation. He forwarded Franklin's idea of a commission to negotiate with American delegates but was humiliated when George III proved to be downright hostile; within the cabinet even North was lukewarm at best. Fighting began in April 1775, and in November he resigned to become Lord Privy Seal. Although he remained in office until 1782, he took no part in policy making. He died at Blackheath on 15 July 1801 and was buried in Holy Trinity Minories on 3 August.
Dartmouth was universally admired for his integrity and lack of personal ambition. But, as contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic observed, he was ill-suited to practical policy making and to the rough and tumble of professional politics. His very virtues prevented him from seeing when compromise had become impossible. He was certainly not the man to direct operations in the War of American Independence.
revised by John Oliphant