GRENVILLE, GEORGE. (1712–1770). British politician and prime minister. Grenville was born at Wotton, Buckinghamshire, on 14 October 1712. His contemporaries often spelled his surname as "Greenville," and this may have been the accepted pronunciation. He was educated at Eton from 1725 and from 1729 at the Inner Temple, one of the major London law schools. Called to the bar in 1735, he handled family and estate business until about 1744. Through the patronage of his mother's brother, Richard Temple, Lord Cobham, Grenville became member of Parliament for Buckingham and so—along with young William Pitt—joined the group of Walpole's opponents dubbed "Cobham's Cubs" or "Boy Patriots." His marriage to Elizabeth Wyndham, sister of the later second earl of Egremont, and Pitt's own marriage in 1754 to Grenville's sister, cemented and extended his political connections.
In 1744 Grenville became a lord of the Admiralty. In 1747 he moved to the Treasury Board and over the next seven years became expert on the problems of the national budget. Treasurer to the navy and a privy councillor from 1754, he returned briefly to the Admiralty Board in 1756. Even so, resentful of Pitt's extravagant spending on the Seven Years' War, he kept up connections with the Leicester House faction around the future George III. The year after the new king succeeded in 1760, Grenville became leader of the House of Commons under Bute in addition to his post at the Admiralty. In May 1762 he became secretary of state for the North; in October first lord of the Admiralty (exchanging with Halifax); and finally, in 1763, first lord of the Treasury (prime minister). Narrowly surviving an attack on the general warrants used against Wilkes, Grenville turned his attention to postwar finance and colonial questions.
The decision to tax the colonies (not just the American ones) had already been taken in principle by Bute's ministry, and it fell to Grenville, the financial expert, to devise the means. The reasoning was simple and not at first controversial. Britain had incurred a massive national debt during the war, and the ministry could only keep its House of Commons majority by undertaking to reduce it while lowering the land tax. Moreover, there would have to be a large and expensive peacetime garrison in the American colonies, which had benefited from the war and, compared with the British Isles, were grossly undertaxed. The troops were partly to patrol the Indian frontier but principally to guard against a Bourbon descent on Canada or Florida, which would in turn threaten the other colonies. It therefore seemed perfectly logical and fair to make Americans bear not the whole, but at least a proportion, of the cost.
Grenville's means, the so-called Grenville Acts, were meant to raise the money in ways that Americans would accept. The Sugar Act actually lowered the duty on foreign molasses but at the same time sought to make sure that it was collected. Stamp duties had long been levied in England, so from London's perspective it hardly looked like a tyrannical innovation. Moreover, Grenville had no intention of imposing an unpopular tax; when Americans complained of lack of consultation over the Stamp Act, the ministry delayed its implementation so that their views could be heard. It was not until resistance became violent and widespread that Grenville insisted on going ahead with the duty in order to establish Parliament's right to tax. This provoked some parliamentary opposition, not to the principle but to the wisdom of the measure; but the colonial assemblies' response to the Quartering Act seemed to justify his attitude. Though his ministry fell in July 1765, in opposition Grenville strenuously opposed the repeal of the Stamp Act.
Grenville should not be dismissed as the accountant who set off American opposition in order to balance the books. He was an energetic prime minister and introduced a range of domestic economies and administrative reforms. Nor was there such a thing as a "Grenville program." Grenville actually opposed the frontier boundary line policy adopted in 1763–1764, and the Quartering Act was requested by General George Gage, who was anxious to end the use of private billets. Above all, Grenville understood that Americans were opposed to Parliament raising a colonial revenue by any means and made no distinction between internal and external taxes. For this Pitt mocked him, but the subsequent fiasco of the Townshend duties showed that Grenville had been right all the time.
SEE ALSO Grenville Acts.
revised by John Oliphant
Lawson, P. , George Grenville: A Political Life (Oxford, 1984).