June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Given the necessities of the times, the prevailing mood of the country, and the configuration of political power in Great Britain, the selection of Frederick, Lord North, as prime minister to His Majesty George in was no surprise. In 1770, when the king was forced to call for a general election, he sought a man who would execute his policies and pull the government together, and he turned to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and eldest son of the first Earl of Guilford. “If you don’t accept,” he informed North, “I have no one else,” and from that moment forward—for twelve destiny-laden years—the management of events was largely in the pudgy hands of a man who gave his master utter subservience and loyalty.
In nearly all respects the creature of his king, North also bore a striking physical resemblance to him. Roundshouldered, fat, with a puffy, sleepy, piglike face and an oversize tongue that thickened his speech, North was hopelessly shortsighted, and his large, bulging eyes, wide mouth, and thick lips gave him what Horace Walpole called “the air of a blind trumpeter.” But within this graceless exterior was a remarkably capable individual—cultured, charming, quick-witted, shrewd, and honest—a man possessing infinite patience, a delightful sense of humor (frequently at his own expense), and an even temper that infuriated his opponents. Of particular value to the king was the fact that he had never headed any political faction nor made powerful enemies, and his conciliatory disposition and mastery of politics enabled him to command a majority in the House of Commons. As a practical matter the cabinet, consisting of George III’s principal ministers, made or approved policy; North presided at meetings, which were conducted weekly over the dinner table at his house unless some emergency demanded quicker action. In order to survive and achieve real stability in that day, an administration had to be led by a politician who held the confidence of the king and the support of Commons, and it was North’s peculiar talent to succeed at both.
By all odds the largest bloc in Commons consisted of independents mostly country gentlemen beholden to no man for their seat or their source of income—and for almost the entire course of the war they formed a solid, silent majority that supported the king and North unquestioningly, enabling the ministry to overwhelm the opposition with ease. Edmund Burke, who so often opposed North and his policies, thought him nevertheless “a man of admirable parts … fitted for every sort of business,” but Burke perceived the fatal flaw in the man: the trouble with North was that “he wanted something of the vigilance and spirit of command that the time required.” North, in short —for all his political dexterity and loyalty to the Crown—had neither the stomach for war nor any real optimism that it could be won. He admitted to this “indolence of temper,” but the king, knowing he had no alternative, clung to him through thick and thin, preferring lethargy and indecisiveness and a man he could dominate to the difficulty of replacing him. At times, under the opposition’s withering criticism, North offered to resign (one such gesture produced the reply by Colonel Isaac Barré that if he found the office so burdensome, thorny, and wretched, the country would happily release him from it, since he had “given the world the most perfect demonstration that he could neither make war, nor establish peace”). Burdened with immense responsibilities, temperamentally unsuited for war, North became more despondent and worn out by his duties as the conflict dragged on. He kept threatening to retire, but no one could tell if he meant it or not, for he always coupled this with the statement that loyalty and a sense of obligation to the king prevented him from abdicating “till the storm had subsided.” But as the years passed and he abandoned hope that a victory or a negotiated settlement would produce a miracle, North buried himself in the routine of departmental work—a gloomy, inaccessible figure, conducting affairs out of sight in order to avoid the problems and crises which exposure would bring.
A the end of the war he had been unable to win, North defended his program in the House of Commons. Denying that it had ever been a war of the Crown, waged against the wishes of the people, he maintained that it was “the war of Parliament,” and thus of the people as a whole. “Nor did it ever cease to be popular,” he reminded the Members, “until a series of the unparalleled disasters and calamities caused the people, wearied out with almost uninterrupted ill-success and misfortune, to call out as loudly for peace as they had formerly done for war.” When news of Yorktown reached him, he took it “as he would have taken a bullet through his breast,” an observer said, agitatedly walking up and down the room repeating, “Oh God! It is all over!” several times. And when in fact he did submit his resignation, his capacity for passive obedience at last exhausted, the king greeted it with reproval and dark threats, treated him as if he were a traitor, and was persuaded only reluctantly to grant North a pension for his untiring but fruitless labors.
After the war North remained in Parliament until his eyesight failed entirely, and there is a glimpse of him, just before his death in 1792, greeting his old Parliamentary adversary, Colonel Barré, in Tunbridge Wells with all the customary charm and wit. Both men were blind, and North remarked, “Well, Colonel, whatever may have been our former animosities, I am persuaded there are no two men who would now be more glad to see each other than you and I.”