Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, KG, PC (April 13, 1732 – August 5, 1792), best known for his courtesy title, Lord North, who used from 1752 to 1790, was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1770 to 1782.
He led Britain during most of the American War of Independence. He also held other positions in the cabinet, including the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Finance.
North’s reputation among historians has swung from one place to another. It reached its lowest point at the end of the 19th century when it was represented as a creature of the king and an incompetent who lost the American colonies. At the beginning of the 20th century, a revisionism emphasized its strengths in the administration of the Treasury, the management of the House of Commons and the defense of the Church of England. Herbert Butterfield, however, argued that his indolence was a barrier to efficient crisis management; He neglected his role in overseeing the entire war effort.
First years (1732-1754)
Lord North was born in London on April 13, 1732, at the family home on Albemarle Street, just off Piccadilly, though he spent much of his youth at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire. North’s strong physical resemblance to George III suggested to contemporaries that Prince Frederick might have been North’s true father (and the brother of North the King), a theory compatible with the Prince’s reputation but backed by little real evidence. His father, the first count, was at that time the lord of the bedroom of Prince Frederick, who became the child’s godfather
North descended from the 1st Earl of Sandwich and was related to Samuel Pepys and the 3rd Earl of Bute. Sometimes he had a slightly turbulent relationship with his father Francis North, 1st Earl of Guilford, but they were very close. In his first years the family was not rich, although his situation improved in 1735 when his father inherited the property of his cousin. Frederick’s mother, Lady Lucy Montagu, died in 1734. Her father remarried, but her stepmother, Elizabeth North, died in 1745, when Frederick was thirteen. One of his stepbrothers was Lord Dartmouth, who remained a close friend for life.
He was educated at Eton College between 1742 and 1748, and at Trinity College in Oxford, where in 1750 he obtained an MA. After leaving Oxford, he traveled through Europe on the Grand Tour with Dartmouth, visiting Leipzig. He visited Vienna, Milan and Paris, returning to England in 1753.
Early political career (1754-70)
On April 15, 1754, North, then twenty-two, was elected unopposed as the member of parliament for the Banbury constituency, served as deputy from 1754 until 1790 and joined the government as a young Lord of the Treasury on 2 June 1759 during the Pitt-Newcastle ministry (an alliance between Newcastle and Pitt). He soon developed a reputation as a good administrator and parliamentarian, and his colleagues appreciated him in general. Although initially considered Whig, he did not align closely with any of the Whig factions in Parliament and it became evident to many contemporaries that his sympathies were largely Tory.
In November 1763 he was elected to speak on behalf of the government over the radical deputy John Wilkes. Wilkes had savagely attacked the prime minister and the king in his newspaper The North Briton, which many thought calumnious. North’s motion that Wilkes be expelled from the House of Commons was approved by 273 votes to 111. The expulsion of Wilkes took place in his absence, since he had already fled to France after a duel.
When a government headed by the magnate Whig Lord Rockingham came to power in 1765, North left his post and served for a time as a parliamentarian on duty. He rejected an offer from Rockingham to meet with the government, not wanting to associate with the big Whigs who dominated the Ministry.
He returned to the office when Pitt again directed a second government in 1766. North was appointed commissioner of the Forces in Pitt’s ministry and became a private counselor. Since Pitt was constantly ill, the government was effectively run by the Duke of Grafton, with North as one of its oldest members.
Minister of Finance
In December of 1767, he succeeded Charles Townshend as Chancellor of the Treasury. With the resignation of Secretary of State Henry Seymour Conway in early 1768, North also became a Leader of the Commons. He continued to serve when Pitt was succeeded by Grafton in October.
Prime Minister (1770-82)
When the Duke of Grafton resigned as prime minister, North formed a government on January 28, 1770. His ministers and followers tended to be known as Tories, though they were not a formal grouping and many had previously been Whigs. He took over Britain in a triumphant state, after the Seven Years’ War, which had seen the First British Empire expand to its apogee by encompassing vast territories on several continents. Circumstances forced him to keep many members of the previous cabinet in his work, despite his lack of agreement with him. Unlike many of his predecessors, North enjoyed a good relationship with George III, partly based on their shared patriotism and desire for decency in their private lives.
North’s ministry had an early success during the Falkland Crisis in 1770 when Britain faced a Spanish attempt to seize the Falkland Islands, almost provoking a war. Both France and Spain had been dissatisfied with the supposed British domination after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War. The Spanish forces took the British settlement in the Falklands and drove out the small British garrison. When Britain opposed the seizure, Spain sought the backing of its ally, France. However, Louis XV did not believe that his country was ready for war and, faced with a strong mobilization of the British fleet, the French forced the Spaniards to retreat. Louis also dismissed Choiseul, the chief falcon French minister, who had defended the war and a large invasion of Britain by the French.
The prestige and popularity of the British government were greatly enhanced by the incident. They had managed to open a gap between France and Spain, and demonstrated the power of the Royal Navy, although critics suggested that this gave Lord North a level of complacency and an incorrect belief that European powers would not interfere with the British government. colonial affairs. This was contrasted with the inability of the previous administration to prevent France annexing the Corsican Republic, a British ally, during the Corsica Crisis two years earlier. Using his newly discovered popularity, North seized the opportunity to appoint Lord Sandwich to the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.
War of Independence of the United States
Most of North’s government focused first on the growing problems with the American colonies and later on leading the US War of Independence, which broke out in 1775, beginning with the Battle of Lexington. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Lord North proposed a series of legislative measures that were supposed to punish the Bostonians. These measures were known as Coactive Acts in Great Britain, while they were called Intolerable Acts in the colonies. By closing the Boston government and cutting off trade, he hoped it would maintain the peace and disgust of the rebellious settlers. Instead, the acts further inflamed Massachusetts and the other colonies, which eventually resulted in open warfare during the Boston campaign.
North deferred the general strategy of the war to his key subordinates Lord George Germain and the Earl of Sandwich. Despite a series of victories and the capture of New York and Philadelphia, the British failed to secure a decisive victory. In 1778 the French allied with the American rebels, and Spain joined the war in 1779 as an ally of France, followed by the Dutch Republic in 1780. The British found themselves fighting a global war on four continents without a single ally. After 1778, the British shifted the focus of their efforts to the defense of the West Indies, as their sugar wealth made them much more valuable to Britain than the Thirteen Colonies. In 1779, Britain was faced with the prospect of a major Franco-Spanish invasion, but the Armada of 1779 was ultimately a failure. Several peace initiatives failed, and an attempt by Richard Cumberland to negotiate a separate peace with Spain ended in frustration.
The country’s problems were added by the First League of Armed Neutrality, which was formed to counteract the British blockade strategy, and threatened British Baltic naval supplies. With a severe shortage of labor, the North government passed a law that rendered ineffective the previous statutes that imposed restrictions on Catholics serving in the army. This caused an increase in anti-Catholic sentiments and the formation of the Protestant Association that led to the Gordon riots in London in June 1780. For a week the city was under the control of the Mafia, until the military was summoned and the martial law imposed. Despite these problems, Britain’s fortunes in the American War had temporarily improved, following the failure of a Franco-American attack on Newport and the prosecution of a Southern Strategy that saw Britain capture Charleston and its garrison. During 1780 and 1781, the northern government gained strength in the House of Commons.
North was the second British prime minister to be forced to leave office by a motion of censure, the first was Sir Robert Walpole in 1742. Lord North resigned on March 20, 1782 because of the British defeat at Yorktown the previous year. In an attempt to end the war, he proposed the Plan of Conciliation, in which he promised that Britain would eliminate all unpleasant acts if the colonies ended the war. The colonies rejected the plan, since their objective had become full independence.
In April 1782, Lord Shelburne suggested in the cabinet that North should be brought to public trial for his conduct of the United States War, but the prospect was soon abandoned. Ironically, in 1782 the war began to take again the favor of Great Britain through the naval victories, mainly due to the policies adopted by Lord North and the Count of Sandwich. The British naval victory in the Battle of the Saints took place after the fall of the government. Despite predictions that the fall of Gibraltar was imminent, that fortress managed to resist and she was relieved. Britain was able to make a much more favorable peace in 1783 than seemed likely at the time North had been overthrown. Despite this, North criticized the terms agreed by the government of Shelburne, which felt underestimated the strength of the British negotiating position.
Fox-North Coalition (1783)
In April 1783, North returned to power as Interior Minister in an unlikely coalition with radical Whig leader Charles James Fox known as the Fox-North Coalition under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Portland. King George III, who detested radical and republican Fox, never forgave this supposed betrayal, and the North never served in the government again after the ministry fell in December 1783. One of the coalition’s main achievements was the signature of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the War of Independence of the United States.
The new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, was not expected to last for a long time and North, a vocal critic, still harbored hopes of regaining a high office. In this, he would be frustrated, since Pitt dominated the British political scene for the next twenty years, leaving North and Fox in the political desert.
Later life (1783-92)
North was an active speaker until he began to go blind in 1786. He succeeded his father as second Earl of Guilford on August 4, 1790 and entered the House of Lords, at which time he completely lost his sight. Lord Guilford died in London and was buried in the church of All Saints, Wroxton (Oxfordshire), near the family home of Wroxton Abbey. His son George North, Lord North, took over the Banbury constituency, and in 1792 he acceded to his father’s title. Wroxton Abbey is now owned by Fairleigh Dickinson University, ironically an American university, and the modernized Abbey serves as a place for American students to study abroad in England.
- Lord North is today mainly remembered as the prime minister “who lost America“.
- An 18th century preserved door in the Edinburgh Castle shows an executioner’s scaffolding labeled “Lord Nord” carved by a prisoner captured during the American War of Independence.
- Guilford Street in London bears his name.