“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…
Lord Jeffery’s name is “known to fame,” but it was the five years he spent in America that rescued him from obscurity
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The King’s promises, however, were slow in fulfillment. Not until 1772 was Amherst finally made Lieutenant General of the Ordnance, as compensation for the loss of the Virginia governorship, and he was not made a baron until four years later. Meanwhile, as he fattened with domesticity and planted cherry and apple and walnut trees in the gardens of his expanding Montreal in Kent, the tide was rising across the sea. In 1773 came the Boston Tea Party and the next year, the First Continental Congress. Shortly after this latter event the King sent for his most successful general to beg him to return to America as commander in chief with, as a modern commentator has put it, “an olive branch in one hand, while the other should be prepared to obtain submission.” But Amherst once more refused to cross the ocean. He told the King he would rather resign from the Army.
After Burgoyne’s defeat and the surrender of his army at Saratoga, the King again appealed to Amherst to take up his old post. Twice George held pleading audiences, and twice Amherst refused.
There has always been a certain amount of mystery about Amherst’s declining the appointment as commander in chief of North America. Was it because he did not wish to fight against the Americans? Though it is probably true that Amherst would have found making war on old associates and friends disagreeable, his correspondence with Lord Howe shows how little sympathy he had with the colonials. It seems much more likely that he refused the transatlantic command because he could see no possibility of success. He is said to have told the King in his second audience that it would take a force of 40,000 to conquer America—an obviously impossible number in view of the renewed French threat to the homeland. Why, then, if Amherst did not believe victory possible, did he continue as senior general on the staff, advising the government on the conduct of the war? The enigma remains; the most reasonable explanation is that Amherst stayed on at the War Office because he was then chiefly concerned with the defense of England against her European enemies. Indeed, when France signed the alliance with America in 1778, he entered the Cabinet as actine commander in chief. Great Britain.
Although he had no control over the King’s American policy, he suggested on taking his post that troops be withdrawn from all of North America except Canada, and that hostilities be carried on merely through a naval blockade. At first his was a popular appointment, but his stiff-necked professionalism soon brought him dislike from all political sides.
Characteristically, at the very time, the King developed a belated affection for his hawk-nosed general. In 1778 Montreal was honored by a royal visit. Horace Walpole noted waspishly in his Journal : His [Amherst’s] success in the last war in America, and the partiality of Lord Chatham, had formerly raised his character very high; but his immoderate self-interest and obstinacy (the latter of which proceeded from his extreme slowness of conception, and fear of changing his opinions on what he at last understood for another which he was as conscious he should be as long in comprehending) had much sunk his reputation. He had gained the King’s favour by the most servile deference, and, between flattery and dulness, he pleased nobody else.
Popular disaffection found a turbulent outlet in the Gordon Riots of 1780, which turned out to be among the most savage in English history. Again and for the last time, Amherst took the field with his troops. But for the conqueror of Canada who boasted of the sixteen French battalions he had captured, the victory over a London mob that might in the beginning have been beaten back by a few hundred sturdy constables was a trumpery enough triumph.
Lord George Gordon, who gave his name to the riots, was the twenty-eight-year-old son of the Duke of Gordon; he came from a family in which madness flickered on both sides. Gordon himself was a fantastic figure, a Scottish lord who spoke Gaelic, played the bagpipes, and danced highland reels, who after ten years in the Navy was considered by the Admiralty Board “a damned nuisance wholly unsuitable for promotion,” and who would end his life in Newgate Prison as a bearded convert to Judaism under the name of Israel bar Abraham Gordon.
His chance for glory came with the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1778, a modest enough measure designed to encourage Catholic support for the increasingly unpopular American war. The bill passed unregarded, but as the months went by, it came increasingly to be the target of the emerging Protestant associations whose membership consisted for the most part of lower middle-class nonconformists. Lord George became their champion, the president of the London Protestant Association.
As president he planned to present an anti-Relief Bill petition to Parliament with over 100,000 names collected by the association. It was his madcap idea to assemble thousands of his supporters, deck them in blue cockades, and march on the House of Commons to present the petition in person. On June 2, the prescribed morning, almost 50,000 petitioners assembled in St. George’s Fields. Led by bagpipes, they started out in sober decency, wearing cockades and carrying “No Popery!” banners. By the time they reached Westminster, however, they had been joined by crowds of criminals and mischief-makers eager to exploit any disorder. That disorder came later in the afternoon when the crowd in front of the House of Lords pelted unpopular members with mud and forced them to assume the blue cockade and to shout, “No Popery!”