Frederick North

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.

Further Reading on Frederick North

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).