North, Sir Frederick

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

North, Sir Frederick

NORTH, SIR FREDERICK. (1732–1792). British politician and prime minister. He was born on 13 April 1732 in Albermarle Street, off Piccadilly in London. The eldest son of Frederick North, Lord Guilford, and his first wife, Lady Lucy Montagu, he came of a line of courtiers, politicians, and crown servants stretching back to the reign of Henry VIII. Through his mother he was related to Lord Halifax and young William, second earl of Dartmouth, later became his stepbrother and close friend. Because Guilford was tutor in the household of Frederick, prince of Wales, North was closely connected to the Leicester House interest and knew George III from birth. This connection, alongside his upright character, was to serve North well in later days.

Educated at Eton (the first of his family to go there) and Trinity College, Oxford, young North displayed a curious mixture of conscientious scholarship, sobriety, deep-rooted conservatism, popularity, wit, a generous sense of humor, and a constitutional inability seriously to challenge authority. Because his father refused to make him a generous allowance and died only two years before his son, North was far from wealthy by the standards of his class and needed to achieve and keep office in order to make ends meet. All these characteristics had a bearing upon his long tenure as first minister.

North came down from Oxford in 1751 and, after taking the Grand Tour with Dartmouth, entered Parliament for his father's pocket borough of Banbury in Oxfordshire, a seat he was to hold until his father's death almost forty years later. Thus, although known by the courtesy title of "Lord North," he spent almost the whole of his political life in the House of Commons.

While George II lived, North was confined to opposition by his links with Leicester House, but he nevertheless built up a reputation for honesty, ability, and an almost unrivaled grasp of financial issues. In 1767 he become Grafton's chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1770 the first lord of the Treasury and head of the ministry. Coming to office after a string of unstable and short-lived administrations, his great gift was the ability to keep a parliamentary majority together. Here his popularity, moral character, and dislike of radical change were great strengths. But the real key was to placate the independent country squires on the cross-benches by keeping the land tax down. Given the size of the national debt left over from the Seven Years' War, the need to keep up a significant army in America, and the failure to raise revenue from the relatively undertaxed colonists, this was a nearly impossible task. Economies were essential. That meant keeping the smallest possible armed forces, which in turn led North to take an overly sanguine view of both the Bourbon menace and the situation in America. On these grounds he must take some responsibility for the ultimate loss of the colonies. On the other hand, he kept his ministry together for twelve years, a considerable achievement.


An understanding of North's Tea Act requires a global rather than a transatlantic perspective. Dangerously isolated in Europe since 1763, Britain had good reason to fear a French war of revenge, perhaps in alliance with Spain. Rumors that the French were preparing to intervene in India, rapidly succeeded by the Falkland Islands crisis, led North to reform and tighten government control over the ailing East India Company by the Regulating Act of 1773. The quid pro quo was to be government financial support and permission for the company to market its tea directly to the colonies. The Tea Act of 1773 thus really had its roots in Britain's dangerous strategic isolation. The hope that the tea concession would ruin American smugglers, so forcing the colonies to accept the tea duty and tacitly acknowledge Parliament's right to tax, certainly existed. But it was never the primary purpose of a law intended to mitigate serious financial, naval, and military weaknesses.


In these circumstances, there was a certain amount of wish fulfillment in North's appreciation of the situation in the colonies. The ministry consistently underestimated both the extent of American resistance and the level of force necessary to suppress it. The coercive legislation that followed the Boston Tea Party rested on the notion that the trouble was principally confined to a violent New England (principally Massachusetts) minority. Even after war broke out in 1775 the government at first preferred a largely paper blockade to sending adequate military reinforcements with a view to reconquest. At the same time, North had to watch his European enemies in home waters, in the Americas, and in the East; yet he still would not allow Sandwich properly to prepare the fleet. The situation became critical when France openly entered the conflict in 1778 and desperate when the Spanish fleet was thrown into the balance in 1779. Such a crisis needed a war minister of genius, able to take the right strategic decisions and impose a coherent policy upon his colleagues.

Unfortunately, North—for all his more attractive virtues—was no Pitt. He failed to resolve the ruinous differences between Germain and Sandwich, and even after Germain's departure, he allowed the situation to drift. North, from 1779 without faith in the war, would have resigned but for George III's insistence that he stay. Consequently, the war in America was carried on with inadequate numbers and insufficient naval support until the debacle of Yorktown.


After Yorktown, even North found it impossible to stay in office, and only the king's desire made him hang on until March 1782, when he resigned. However, he was far from finished. In February 1783 he joined with Fox to bring down Shelburne's ministry over the preliminary peace terms. On 2 April, despite his loathing for Fox, the king was forced to accept Portland as nominal first minister with North and Fox as secretaries of state.

It was, however, a short-lived and limited triumph. Alliance with Fox the opportunist seriously compromised North's reputation for integrity, and the king was anxious to get rid of his new ministers at the first opportunity. In the end, North and Fox had to accept the very terms they had just censured in order to avoid charges of warmongering and intransigence. Ironically, North was finally laid low by the old problem of India, when the defeat of Fox's India Bill of 1783 in the Lords allowed the king to immediately sack his ministers. North never held high office again. He succeeded his father as Lord Guilford in 1790 and died two years later in 1792.

SEE ALSO Fox, Charles James; Tea Act.


Thomas, P. D. G. Lord North. London: Allen Lane, 1976.

Smith, C. D. the Early Career of Lord North the Prime Minister. London: Athlone Press, 1979.

Whitley, Peter. Lord North: The Prime Minister Who Lost America. London, Hambledon, 1996.

                               revised by John Oliphant

More From