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1782 Two Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Ever since the news of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown had reached England late in November, the war government of Lord North had come under increasing attack. Although the prime minister had been against the war from the beginning, and for the past three years had known victory was hopeless, his sovereign, the intractable George III, was determined to keep the Colonies.

Marshaling such allies as he still possessed, the king embarked on a holding action. He provoked the resignation of the highly unpopular Lord George Germain, who, as secretary of state for the American Colonies, was responsible for running the war. (The king wanted him out so badly that, despite his lamentable record, Germain was able to extort a peerage in return.)

George III replaced him with Welbore Ellis, a malleable “hack,” according to Horace Walpole, who combined the “circumstantial minuteness of a church warden and the vigour of another Methusalem.” But getting rid of Germain postponed the inevitable for a few weeks only. On February 22 a motion in the House of Commons against further prosecution of the war failed by a single vote; on the twenty-seventh it was carried. A week later the House passed a resolution condemning as “enemies to the country” all those who continued to promote the war “for the purpose of reducing the colonies to obedience by force.”

George III, furious, refused to give up and even went so far as drafting an announcement of his abdication.

On March 15 a vote of no confidence missed defeating North by a scant nine votes. Soon afterward a group of country gentlemen who had been supporting the war dropped away. With another vote looming on the twentieth, North told the king it was finally over. “Your majesty is well apprized,” he wrote, “that in this country the Prince of the Throne cannot with prudence oppose the deliberate resolution of the House of Commons.”

The king sulkily replied that if North resigned precipitantly, he would “for ever forfeit my regard.” But on March 20 North stepped down.

He was succeeded by Lord Rockingham, whose ministry two days later decided to open direct negotiations with America.

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