North, Frederick, Lord, 2nd earl of Guilford
North was the eldest son of Francis, 1st earl of Guilford, but in some ways his life resembled that of a younger son with a career to make. The family was not wealthy, nor his father generous, and since he lived to be 86, North inherited only two years before his own death. He did not use his position to enrich his family and ran into debt: when the king gave him £18,000 to clear it, it established a personal obligation that made it difficult for North to resign, though he admitted openly that he was not the man to wage war.
Returned to the House of Commons in 1754 for the family seat at Banbury, at the age of 22, North soon began moving up the ladder. He was a useful man of business, hard-working, fat, and cheerful. Almost the whole of his life he spent in the Commons, defended its privileges with tenacity, gauged its temper skilfully, and, according to Gibbon, became ‘a consummate master of debate’. He was brought onto the Treasury Board in 1759 by his cousin the duke of Newcastle. He remained in office when Newcastle went out in 1762, mainly because he needed the money. He went out with Grenville in 1765, declined to serve with the Rockinghams, and came back into junior office in Grafton's administration in 1766. His great chance came in 1767 with the sudden death of Charles Townshend, whom he succeeded as chancellor of the Exchequer. He was now the main spokesman for the government in the Commons and conducted the difficult debates on the Middlesex election issue. When Grafton resigned in January 1770, North took over as 1st lord of the Treasury at the urgent entreaty of the king. He was 37.
His first few years in office were impressive. Government majorities were restored, the Wilkes issue receded, North's reputation climbed. His relations with the king were excellent—he was given the Garter in 1772—and his mastery of the Commons undisputed. An acknowledged expert in finance, his budgets were received with scarcely a dissentient voice. He handled his first test—the dispute with Spain over the Falkland Islands—with skill and judgement. In his Indian legislation, he tried to co-ordinate activities under a governor-general, and it has been called ‘a revolution in policy’. His Quebec Act in 1774 was an important concession to the catholics and helped to persuade Canadians in 1776 not to throw in their lot with the American rebels. Horace Walpole, no easy critic, wrote in June 1770 that North was ‘sensible and moderate’ and in 1773 that opposition was almost at a standstill. The American question, which ultimately brought him down, had its roots deep in the past. (See American War of Independence.) Once the French had been expelled from Canada during the Seven Years War it was not hard to perceive the possibility of American independence. The British, heavily burdened after the war, resented the colonists' refusal to pay taxes. Grenville's Stamp Act and Townshend's duties brought in little revenue. North's first action was conciliatory—to abandon all of Townshend's duties save that on tea, retained more as a token of authority than a source of revenue. It is doubtful whether any prime minister could have gone further. The American response was the seizure of the revenue cutter Gaspée, the intimidation of customs officers, and the Boston Tea Party. Coercive measures against the colonists were inevitable. But once fighting began, North was marginalized and the military men took over. His conciliation proposals came too late to affect the issue. Repeatedly he begged to resign and warned the king that a stronger minister was needed: time after time the king refused, understanding the value of North's parliamentary skill in presenting government policy. Only after the surrender at Yorktown in 1781, with his majority down to single figures, was North allowed to go.
The last ten years of his life were largely a postscript. He returned to office as home secretary in the spring of 1783 in the coalition with Charles Fox, but was unwell for several months and content to let his more vigorous colleagues make the running. Dismissed in December 1783, he slid gracefully into the role of a premature elder statesman, defending the Church of England from dissenting attacks and the constitution from dangerous innovation. His parliamentary following dwindled with the years and from 1786 he was blind and had to be led into the House. Too unimaginative to be a great statesman, North's significance is as an extraordinary parliamentarian, whose sure touch in the House stayed with him to the end.
J. A. Cannon
Cannon, J. A. , Lord North: The Noble Lord in the Blue Ribbon (1970);
Thomas, P. D. G. , Lord North (1976).
The administration of the English statesman Frederick North, 2d Earl of Guildford and 8th Baron North (1732-1792), is associated with Britain's loss of the American colonies.
Frederick North was born in London on April 13, 1732. He was educated at Eton and Oxford and after leaving the university traveled for 3 years in Europe. In 1756 he married Anne Speke, the daughter of a Somerset squire, by whom he had seven children.
At the first general election (1754) after he came of age, North entered Parliament. Diffidence rather than ambition marked his early career. Between 1759 and 1767 he occupied a series of state offices without making himself particularly conspicuous. In 1768 he became leader of the Commons and quickly won the respect of the House.
Horace Walpole described North about this time: "Nothing could be more coarse or clumsy or ungracious than his outside. Two large prominent eyes that rolled about to no purpose … a wide mouth, thick lips, and inflated visage, gave him the air of a blind trumpeter. A deep, untunable voice, which … he enforced with unnecessary pomp, a total neglect of his person, and ignorance of every civil attention, disgusted all who judge by appearance." Though not a great orator, North was intelligent and quick-witted, prompt in reply, and unruffled by criticism. "The bitter sarcasms and severe accusations leveled at him seemed to sink into him like a cannon ball into a wool sack," wrote one commentator.
Perhaps it was these qualities that persuaded George III to offer North the office of first minister in January 1770. North's administration was distinguished by the loss of the American colonies, an event for which his policy was at least partly responsible. On the taxation of America, North was a disciple of R. T. Grenville. He saw the Boston tea riots of 1773 as an open challenge to British supremacy and, inadequately informed of the temper and feelings of the Americans, introduced punitive legislation designed to overawe the Colonies. Next, faced with a revolutionary situation, he reacted with increased severity and an offer of conciliation, an ambivalent attitude that marked British policy throughout the hostilities.
As the war progressed, North abandoned all hope of reconciliation. To secure an American renunciation of independence, at whatever sacrifice of principle, became his aim. Sanguine expectation and utter despair alternated in his attitude toward the war. Defeat at Saratoga reduced him to an agony of indecision and doubt. Repeatedly he implored the King for permission to resign, and as often agreed to remain. Chronic indecision at critical moments was indeed North's greatest defect as a minister.
But despite his anxieties, further setbacks in America, and the outbreak of war with France, North continued in office. The surrender of Yorktown, however, forced him to a fundamental reconsideration of his policy. He came to believe that the war must be ended even if by a renunciation of sovereignty over America. "Peace with America seems necessary," he wrote to the King in January 1782, "even if it can be obtained on no better terms than some federal alliance, or perhaps even in a less eligible mode." But he did not openly challenge George III's reiterated declaration that he would not acknowledge American independence. It was the Commons, not North, that forced the King to face reality. The passing of the motion against the "further prosecution of offensive warfare on the continent of North America," on Feb. 27, 1782, was a defeat for the King and a relief to North. A month later he resigned.
North remained in active politics, and in April 1783, on the resignation of Lord Shelburne and the refusal of William Pitt the Younger to form an administration, he effected a coalition with Charles James Fox. The dismissal of the coalition in December marked the end of North's consequence as a parliamentary figure. He continued to speak regularly in the Commons until 1786, when he began to go blind. In August 1790 North succeeded his father as 2d Earl of Guildford. He died in London on Aug. 5, 1792.
Alan Valentine, Lord North (2 vols., 1967), is an exhaustive biography. I. R. Christie, The End of North's Ministry, 1780-1782 (1958), is a specialized study. Essential for background reading is L. B. Namier, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930; 2d ed. 1961). Also useful are R. Ritcheson, British Politics and the American Revolution (1954), and Bernard Donoughue, British Politics and the American Revolution: The Path to War, 1773-75 (1964). □
North, Frederick, Lord