Chapter IV. The King's Minister: The Rockingham Administration, 1765-1766

                   Chapter IV. The King’s Minister: The Rockingham Administration, 1765-1766

In May 1765 opportunity finally knocked for the Whigs in opposition. George III had been displeased with his ministers for months, and Grenville’s difficulties over the Regency bill were only the last straw. At the same time the King was reconciled with his uncle, the patron of the opposition, and after the passage of the Regency Act, he asked Cumberland to find a new set of men. The Duke naturally turned to his old friends. Tales of Grenville’s insolence in the Closet, serious rioting in and around London, and the remembrance of lost places combined to make the Whigs willing to assist the King in this crisis. Nevertheless, everyone believed that the country could not be quieted, nor a stable administration formed without William Pitt, Cumberland’s old enemy. In May, and again in June, the Duke opened negotiations with Pitt, but in the end the great man refused to come in.

Conway’s intimacy with Cumberland brought him into the midst of these negotiations. The Duke consulted him and expected him to participate in any new arrangement, and his name was variously mentioned as Secretary of State, Chancellor of the Exchequer, or War Secretary. [1] Conway appears to have been moved by the King’s distress, [2] and George III, seemingly willing to forget old differences, received him graciously at Court. [3] In these circumstances personal duty to the King and the Duke overcame Conway’s aversion to politics. [4] In addition, he came forward in the hope that an end could be put to the ministerial instability of the past few years, and believed like many of the Whigs, that a union of Pitt and the great Whig families together with the destruction of Lord Bute’s influence would create a lasting ministry and restore peace and tranquility to the country. His best judgment told him that any system which excluded Pitt or bore the least trace of Bute’s influence was impracticable, and after the failure of the first negotiation with Pitt, Conway refused to have anything to do with a plan built around Lord Lyttleton and Charles Townshend. Both were respected friends but he agreed with Horace Walpole that such an administration could not last for the “Opposition would be said to join Lord Bute.” [5] If Pitt and the Whigs could have been brought together, Conway would have been War Secretary, which was in his beloved military line. [6] However, Pitt’s second refusal forced him onto center stage.

On June 29 Cumberland called Conway and the Marquis of Rockingham to his side to discuss the possibility of forming an administration without Pitt. [7] The Duke argued that the King could not go on with Grenville and Bedford, and that a Whig refusal would throw administration into Bute’s hands. Only a few days before Conway had pressed trying Pitt again, [8] but now he agreed to try going on without him. Horace Walpole upbraided his cousin for joining in the “wild proposal,” but Conway professed that “if the Duke of Cumberland laid his commands upon him to accept, he would not flinch from the enterprise.” [9] On June 30 a large group of Whigs met at the Duke of Newcastle’s country home to discuss the proposal. The majority were in favor of going on without Pitt, a course strongly supported by Conway although he recognized danger in it. [10] Opposed were those whom Newcastle called ‘young men,’ Whigs most closely associated with the club at Wildman’s. They admired Pitt, distrusted Cumberland, and their views had a radical tinge. Hearing of this division among the Whigs Cumberland thought of giving up, but Newcastle, Rockingham, and Conway persuaded him to persevere. [11] Accordingly, plans were made for a new administration. Rockingham was to be First Lord of the Treasury, and the Duke of Grafton one of the Secretaries of State. However, great difficulty lay in finding spokesmen in the House of Commons. At first it appeared that Charles Townshend would be the other Secretary and take the lead in the House. In this hope Cumberland persuaded Conway, whose aversion to finances and jobbery made him extremely reluctant, to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. [12] But when Townshend declined, Conway kissed hands as Southern Secretary of State, and William Dowdeswell took the Exchequer.

The new government could well have been called the Cumberland administration. The Duke recruited the new ministers and continued to guide them until his death in late October. In the initial scheme of things the principal ministers, Rockingham, Grafton, and Conway, were all ranged under the Duke in separate but equal status. After Cumberland’s death Rockingham rose somewhat above the others from the nature of his office and increased strength in the Close, but since leadership in Parliament fell to the two Secretaries, the administration never knew a prime minister. In matters of patronage important appointments were discussed among the leaders, but no one controlled the rest. Each man generally handled what belonged to his own department although Newcastle was given ecclesiastical patronage, and Cumberland controlled military. Conway, therefore, was not only able to make his brother Lord lieutenant of Ireland, and his near relation the Duke of Richmond Ambassador to France, but he also held the very considerable patronage that came to the Secretary in charge of the colonies.  Connections also tended to make the administration a triumvirate. Rockingham had Old Corps ties and was intimate with Cumberland and Newcastle, but Grafton, an admirer of Pitt, was never close to Cumberland or Rockingham. Conway occupied a central position between the two Lords. Although not personally connected with the Marquis, they were linked by mutual ties with Cumberland and the Cavendishes. On the other hand, the Seymour Conways had long been connected with the Fitzroys although Conway did not share Grafton’s commitment to Pitt. In short, he was not and never would be a Rockingham Whig or a Chathamite. Some of these men were, of course, close friends but he was never dependent upon them. It is more accurate to say that they all looked up to him. He was more than ten years the senior of both Rockingham and Grafton and both held him in considerable respect. [13] As a result, Conway possessed great strength in the ministry and his views were never disregarded either in the distribution of places, or in the determination of policy.

No one, especially the new ministers, regarded this arrangement as satisfactory. The Whigs believed Pitt to be essential but they came in without him. They had not even been able to gain Charles Townshend, the only other man they regarded as capable of leading the Commons. They insisted on the exclusion of Lord Bute’s friends yet they got no real satisfaction on that point. The pressing need to pick up the fallen reins of administration and free the King from Grenville’s insolence forced them into a situation which most regarded as weak and temporary. The ministers could only hope—the session being far off—that Pitt and Townshend would eventually come around, and that Cumberland’s influence would keep the “king’s friends” in line. Certainly, Conway shared these feelings. On a number of occasions he insisted that he had been forced into office by circumstances, and that he was perfectly willing to step down or out for the sake of ministerial strength or stability. Indeed, he shared a vague commitment with many of the Whigs to make room for Pitt whenever the great man should choose to come forward, and over the next year he tried as hard as any man to place him at the head of affairs. There is no evidence that in July 1765 he had any intention or ambition of leading or managing the House of Commons. He was committed to serving in this administration but for him that meant doing the business of whatever office he might hold, and speaking in the House on matters that pertained to that department. [14] It was impossible to foresee that Pitt and Townshend would hang back, or that great trouble was brewing in the province of the Southern Secretary of State.

Even as the new ministers were kissing hands, the news was speeding across the Atlantic of trouble in America. Accounts of the Virginia resolutions in opposition to the Stamp Act appeared in England in early August. The news came out of the blue and only in mid-September did the ministry respond. A council was held and Conway sent a circular letter to the colonial governors advising them to employ gentle means in dealing with any opposition to the Act, but by no means to sacrifice government. A few weeks later the much more serious news arrived of rioting in Massachusetts, but again the ministry advised a mixture of leniency and vigor. They believed that the better sort of people in America had not been involved in the agitation, and trusted that the violence of the mob would bring the colonial leadership to support government. In late October their expectations seemed to be realized as letters from America spoke of the restoration of tranquility. [15] This good news, however, was not sufficient to dispel the gloom cast over the administration by the death of the Duke of Cumberland (October 31).

The Duke had been the cement that held them together and their only guarantee of the King’s support. Newcastle wrote that Cumberland had been looked to,
as the only person who would, who could interpose, to keep the court steady to these men and those measures which he had brought them to, upon any appearance of a disposition to change. [16]
Many felt that this great loss of strength could only be made up by Pitt. On November 4 Grafton recommended that he be sounded, and with Cumberland out of the way Pitt did not seem unwilling. Next day Thomas Walpole received a message from Pitt, which he immediately communicated to the ministry, expressing a willingness to support the Whigs in administration. Initially, all agreed that Grafton should write to Pitt but for reasons that remain obscure the letter was not sent. Instead, the King assured the ministers of his support and allowed them to seek other help in the House of Commons. Some doubted the wisdom of this course and believed that Rockingham had been gulled by the King’s promises. It was feared that giving up on Pitt and turning to the likes of Lord North, Charles Townshend, and Lord George Sackville would force the administration to compromise on such great national points as repeal of the cider tax, and the illegality of general warrants. [17]

Conway was staggered by the death of his old patron and joined in supporting the overture to Pitt. He thought of resigning and returning to the military, and he was not happy when no one but Sackville would join administration. Writing to Horace Walpole in Paris he suggested that they journey together to Naples, a proposal to which Walpole replied:
Go to Italy! For what? —Oh! to quit…Pray stay where you are, and do some good to your country…You have engaged and must go through, or be hindered. Could you tell the world the reason? Would not all men say you had found yourself incapable of what you had undertaken? [18] 
Conway’s letter has been lost but Walpole’s reply hints at more than his cousin’s characteristic complaints about the nature of politics and the rush of business. What reason could the world not be told? Perhaps Conway shared the suspicion of the King’s promises and the fear that Whig principles would be sacrificed. In any event even before he received Walpole’s advice, he had decided to stay on although subsequent events did not make him easy.
In December it finally became clear that tranquility had not been restored in America. With only a week remaining before the opening of the session an already shaken ministry was stunned by the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress protesting Parliament’s right to tax, by renewed disturbances, and by colonial non-importation agreements. The ministers had not planned to mention America in the King’s speech but now they had no choice, especially with Grenville and the Bedfords threatening harsh resolutions. They had no policy although a majority of the Cabinet was opposed to enforcing the Stamp Act. After an informal meeting on December 10 to read the American papers, Lord Chancellor Northington complained to the King,
Their politics seemed to be fixed unanimously to yield to the Insurrections and clamors and not to support the Stamp Act… [19]
No formal decision, however, was taken at that meeting and when Parliament met, the administration asked that consideration of America be put off until after the holidays. George Grenville objected but the House readily agreed considering that Conway and Dowdeswell still had to be re-elected. During the recess the administration began to work out an American policy. Ministers had been considering a reform of trade regulations as the ultimate solution to American grievances, but now they had to focus on the Stamp Act. Eventually they decided upon what Rockingham called a plan of “authority and relief:” a declaration of Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies in all cases, coupled with a repeal of the Stamp Act and trade reform. [20] Conway’s role in forming this policy and in securing its passage has never been explained.
As Southern Secretary the great business of the session was bound to fall on him. Given this responsibility and the respect in which he was held by the other ministers, it is inconceivable that an American policy could have been adopted without his approval. The policy which the ministry reached was a compromise and while it can be described as a compromise between views expressed both in Parliament and in the Nation, most of these views had their advocates in the Cabinet where the decision was hammered out. It was Rockingham who achieved the compromise by steering between two opposing views. On the one hand, some were strong for asserting England’s authority. They supported either the enforcement of the Stamp Act or its modification, and a firm declaration of Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Within the ministry Attorney General Charles Yorke was the most ardent supporter of this position. On the other hand, some saw the conciliation of America as the great object. They favored an outright repeal of the odious tax, and regarded any declaration of Parliament’s right as an unnecessary and dangerous provocation of America. [21] Conway was in this camp.

Bred up in the school of Sir Robert Walpole, whose admonitions against taxing America were remembered during this crisis, Conway was not one to insist on abstract rights at the expense of public tranquility.  When a “right” was disputed, Old Corps’ practice saved it by not insisting upon it. Conway had done so in Ireland in 1755 when native politicians had turned both the Parliament and the Protestant populace against a British attempt to wrest control of Irish government from them. [22] In this power struggle the very concept of imperial rule had been called into question as the Irish parliament spoke of its “rights” and talk of independence spread through the Nation. Conway and the Duke of Devonshire restored tranquility in Ireland by putting aside the question of right—viewing it as factious cant—and doing what was necessary to conciliate the various Irish parties. Whigs like Conway believed—to paraphrase James Madison—that factionalism could never be eliminated but that the effects of faction might be controlled by involving them all in government, and playing them off against one another. The country, whether England, Ireland, or an American colony, was strongest whose government was securely in the hands of its leading families and interests. There were, however, those in the eighteenth century who sought to extirpate faction, and who believed that the creation of a party loyal to King and Country was possible and desirable. By a strange coincidence, Devonshire and Conway were succeeded in Ireland by the Duke of Bedford and Richard Rigby, both supporters of this Tory view, who criticized their predecessors for surrendering British authority, just as they later attacked the Rockingham administration on America.

Conway applied his principles to America in the debates over passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. He had been one of the few to speak against it arguing that while Parliament had the right, “the Circumstances of the Colonies, and the fatal Consequences that may attend the imposing of this Tax,” made it a dangerous and imprudent innovation. [23] His position on America was a public one and it would have been personally and politically impossible for him to switch ground a year later. In fact, as the ministry began its discussions, he opposed those determined to press Parliament’s authority.  The decision not to enforce the Stamp Act, finally taken at a meeting on December 27, was owing to the “opinions previously delivered by some members of the administration.” [24] At the same time, no decision was taken on whether to repeal or modify the Act although it was decided to bring into Parliament several resolutions concerning the American disturbances. One of these resolutions, Charles Yorke’s for declaring Parliament’s right to tax, was strongly opposed by Conway who was certainly aware that it would provoke not only the Americans, but also many of the friends of the administration. [25] Newcastle, for one, complained that in order to gain the friends of the previous administration, the ministry was deserting its most ardent supporters. In particular, they ran the risk of alienating Pitt and those Whigs who had looked to him all along. Conway and Grafton pressed for an overture to Pitt in order to keep the friends of the ministry together.

With reluctance Rockingham and the King gave in to the two Secretaries, and Thomas Townshend was sent to Pitt on January 1. It was hoped that Pitt in one way or another would lend his support to the ministry, but this overture almost broke the administration. Pitt expressed regard for Rockingham, Grafton, and Conway but declared he would never sit in Cabinet with the Duke of Newcastle. Moreover, he would only join if the ministry was re-fashioned, which apparently meant Rockingham’s surrender of the Treasury. For the King and the Marquis these conditions put an end to further discussion, but Grafton, who felt bound in conscience to make room for Pitt, threatened to resign if they were not accepted. In this impasse Conway stood between the two Lords. Initially, he had agreed with Grafton in complying with Pitt’s wish. He always believed that Pitt was essential, and since Rockingham and Newcastle had often expressed their willingness to step aside, he took them at their word. Some feared he might resign although the King, who had a low estimate of his ability, saw little reason to bemoan either his or Grafton’s loss. [26] Most onlookers, however, were aware that Conway’s resignation would be “instantly fatal” to administration. [27] The ministry might survive Grafton’s loss but never Conway’s. Newcastle’s nephew and Conway’s old friend George Onslow, who as a Treasury Lord and regular at Wildman’s managed to keep in touch with every element among the friends of the ministry, attested to Conway’s importance during this ministerial crisis:
If Conway will but stand it, we may certainly weather this. But without him I have no notion of it. I know his consequence and I know how our people look up to him, and how ill they would hear Charles Townshend. [28]
Conway owed his seat in Parliament to Grafton but “thinking himself bound to support the King,” he would not necessarily have gone out with the Duke. [29] Duty had called him into office and with Parliament about to reconvene in the face of a crisis in America he would not desert the King. Still, it was a very bitter pill to swallow for duty now required that he take on the very responsibility he had shrunk from over the past six months. He never wanted to take the lead in the House and now, without any guarantee of Pitt’s support, he would have to face an extremely stormy session. No wonder he asked that the pill be coated. When the King refused to accede to Pitt’s terms, Conway urged a compromise. [30] He asked that the King see Pitt hooping that such an audience would get him off his obnoxious terms, or at least keep the administration together by showing that everything possible had been done to gain the great man. Onslow, after a long conversation with Conway, explained his reasoning to Newcastle,
In order to make him act with any Spirit he begs and intreats there may be this conference in the Closet. Without it he shall be unable to answer anything Mr. Pitt may say in Parlt, --with it, he is more of opinion than anybody that we can, and he will defend the total refusal of Mr. Pitt’s terms. [31]
The King, however, still refused to see Pitt but he did allow Rockingham and Grafton to sound him further. That overture failed as well but Conway stayed on, as did Grafton, to steer the King’s business through Parliament.

Sharing in the general indictment of the Rockingham administration as inept and inexperienced, Conway has usually been regarded as incapable of leading the House. This view had its origin in Horace Walpole who, pointing to “the disgusting coldness” of his cousin’s manner, believed he would not be able to deal effectively with Members. [32] Moreover, some of Conway’s contemporaries did not regard him as a man of business, a belief nourished by his lack of ambition and his known preference for military affairs. On the basis of such opinions the Earl of Albemarle, in his Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham, described Conway as “a better soldier than he was an officer, and more of an officer than a statesman,” an epigram applied to him ever since. [33] Nevertheless, the real weakness of the Rockingham administration did not stem from its management of the House of Commons. Conway “was to prove himself the ablest member of the Cabinet,” [34] and by 1767 he was regarded as the only man, besides George Grenville, capable of leading the House. [35] what have often been regarded as Conway’s liabilities were really assets.  

It is true that he was no Pitt or Townshend. Nevertheless, their abilities were not necessarily appropriate in a Commons-manager since great parts were not always appreciated by Members who tended to place their trust in solid rather than brilliant men. Essential in management of the House was the ability to inspire confidence, and in 1765 few men stood higher in the esteem of the House than Conway. He was handsome and struck a fine figure while his Old Corps connections were perfect. He was a brave and honored soldier whose dismissal in 1764 made him appear a martyr to the independence of both the Army and Parliament. Indeed, his reputation for independence and honesty was his greatest asset, and his disclaimers of ambition were bound to appeal to a House which had no reason to doubt his sincerity.

Although he did not strike men as a politician, Conway was no mediocre parliament man. By 1765 he had sat in the House for over two decades, and he had never been a backbencher. His speeches show that he was skilled in the procedures of the House and versed in its precedents. As a speaker some complained only that he lacked warmth or passion or that he refined too much. On the whole this appearance sprang from his tendency to see both sides of a question, and to seek workable compromises, something the House did not dislike. Still, he retained the reputation of a man of principle, no doubt due to the warmth and rigidity he could display on great constitutional points like general warrants. But was he a man of business? Conway disliked politics but his statements to that effect have obscured his considerable political skill and experience. He was extraordinarily diligent and hardworking and on undertaking a task could not help but become its master. [36] In the summer of 1765 he was one of the few ministers who did not carry his office to Newmarket [37] and he apparently handled the enormous load of business that fell to the Southern Secretary extremely well. [38] His sense and ability impressed no less experienced a hand than the Duke of Newcastle who assured the King, as the session approached, that Conway would be “a considerable man of business.” [39] It is true that like the other leaders of the administration Conway had never before held a Cabinet office, but he had spent his life in the highest circles of British politics. Of great importance was his experience in Ireland as Secretary to the duke of Devonshire. Unlike most managers of Parliament Conway came to his position with actual experience in that sort of management, and although it was in the Irish House the problems were similar, especially since the Irish crisis of 1755 bore some resemblance to the American crisis of 1765.

As a politician Conway lacked only the ambition necessary to become “the Minister.” He had come into office reluctantly and always expected to return to the Army. He certainly did not enjoy the more sordid aspects of politics and was temperamentally averse to trafficking over jobs and places. In August when Newcastle sought to offer the government of a castle as an inducement to some of his parliamentary friends, Conway objected,
I am a military man and…think these things should sacredly be preserved for Military men, wounded or worn out in the service. [40]
Newcastle agreed but pointed out that ‘practice’ and ‘parliamentary conviency’ dictated otherwise. [41] Conway’s objections, however, arose from principle for he knew what was required. He pressed successfully for a regiment and a Green Ribband for his wife’s Campbell relations arguing that if the Duke of Argyll could be gained, the administration would make a substantial dent in Lord Bute’s following. [42] Nevertheless, as we have seen he never insisted, as Commons-managers inevitably did, that all parliamentary patronage flow through his hands. In ordinary times a ministerial leader who was content to stick to his own department and refused to draw all possible patronage into his own hands would not do. But in 1766 the unusual situation in the House of Commons made Conway just the man.

As the session reconvened on January 14 ministers lacked the usual or traditional means of achieving success in Parliament. The failure to gain Pitt and the decision to declare Parliament’s authority over the colonies left them unsure of many of their own friends. Moreover, many placemen were preparing to desert administration if it proved weak on the Stamp Act, and ministers soon learned that the King would not give them the support necessary to keep the placemen in line. Finally, the ‘country gentlemen,’ normally props of government, had voted for the Stamp Act in the previous session, and a reversal of their vote was asking a great deal of them. Indeed, their sympathy seemed to lay more with the late administration whose leaders planned a vigorous opposition. This situation was so unusual that the ministry almost resembled an opposition, especially in its efforts to rouse sentiment out of doors. Success depended upon keeping their friends together while at the same time winning the independents. This was no easy task and it depended mainly on the measures they proposed and the skill with which they steered them through Parliament. In Conway the administration found a man who could inspire Pitt, its own most ardent friends, and the independents with confidence.

The first step for the ministry was to gain or disarm Pitt for the last thing they wanted to see was Pitt at the head of an opposition. Pitt’s refusal to commit himself led some to fear that he might even join Grenville. Pitt on their side would be an effective counter against Grenville since he had considerable respect among the independents. In addition, he was the best guarantee of the support of the more radical friends of the ministry. Conway’s presence in the House was instrumental in gaining Pitt. When Parliament reconvened on January 14, the House witnessed a heated exchange between Pitt and Grenville during which Pitt finally declared himself. He gave his opinion against Parliament’s right to tax the colonies (although Conway’s report to the King stated that Pitt “did not quite decide  it”) [43] and called for the repeal of the Stamp Act. He refused, however, to give his full confidence to the administration because of influences he did not approve. In reply, Conway gave his own opinion in favor of “most of Mr. Pitt’s principles,” but declined to commit the ministry. [44] More importantly, he disclaimed any hidden influences and declared that he had come into office reluctantly and would willingly surrender his station to Pitt. [45] This deference had its effect on Pitt, and while the administration or its position had not been exposed, the groundwork had been laid for gaining the great man. Edmund Burke noted that “Conway and Dowdeswell did just what was necessary and no more, leaving Pitt to do Grenville’s business.” [46] Conway’s remarks, however, struck some as weak and three days later Richard Rigby accused him of timidity and cowardice and called him “a minister malgre lui.” In defending himself Conway made a great impression on the House. Burke wrote,
Mr. Conway never shone so much; he was attacked on every side and supported himself with so much spirit, energy, and good humor as to draw more and sincerer applause from the house than ever I knew a man to receive.[47]

In short, Conway was able to ingratiate Pitt but still keep the respect of that part of the House which found Pitt’s extreme views on America distasteful.
After Pitt’s declaration Rockingham was able to gain a majority in the Cabinet for repeal, and Pitt in his turn drew closer to the administration, although he opposed their declaratory bill. It is easy to say now that since repeal was the great object, the supporters of repeal must have cooperated, but that was not so clear to men in the midst of this highly charged session. Little incidents tended to disrupt cooperation and careful management was always necessary. On January 27 George Cooke, Member for Middlesex and a follower of Pitt, asked the House to receive the petition of the Stamp Act Congress. Knowing the aversion of the House to the Congress and its petition, Conway had previously talked Cooke out of his motion. When Cooke changed his mind and presented the petition without notice, the ministerial bench was thrown into a quandary. Pitt was down to defend the petition and many of the friends of the ministry who were warm for the petition urged Conway to accept it. But he told the King,
I thought the temper of the House was much against the Petition and that it would be a bad question to have our first division upon, I at last in concert with Mr. Dowdeswell declared against the Petition; at the same time wishing we might not reject it or have any division upon it.
Tactfully, they moved and carried the order of the day, and the whole thing passed over without “any ill humour on the part of Mr. Pitt.” [48]
In February the administration finally introduced its American measures. They planned to begin with the resolution declaring the authority of the British legislature over the colonies, go on to repeal of the Stamp Act, and then to a reform of American trade laws. Most of the difficulty in effecting this plan came in the House of Lords, and it was steered through the Commons with great ability. In the first week of February the ministry introduced the five resolutions concerning the American disturbances. The first of these eventually became the Declaratory Act, and the others either condemned the riots and resolutions, or called for the punishment of offenders and the recompense of those who had suffered as a result of the riots. These resolutions had been drawn up in Conway’s office, and though they were stronger than he, Rockingham, and many of their friends desired, they were agreed to in order to aid the repeal. Even so, Charles Yorke was for harsher words but he was overruled by Rockingham and Conway in the interests of “conciliation and softening.” [49] Many, including the King, felt the ministry would not survive the debates on these resolutions, and in the Lords government was indeed beaten twice. By this time the desertion of the ‘king’s friends’ was apparent, but it had little effect in the Commons where administration gained a great victory. Pitt played a leading role but Conway, who wisely let Pitt take the lead, was no less impressive.

He introduced the resolutions on February 3 and although he did not “pledge himself for future measures,” declared himself a “friend to the Americans.” “He thought them to blame; but he thought them pardonable.” He opened a theme, which he reiterated throughout the American debates, by speaking of a country where “all had been peace and harmony” until “late Acts of Parliament” coming as “so many repeated blows” reduced it to misery and despair. Calling the stamp Act “false in its principles, and dangerous in its policy,” he declared he “should never be for internal taxes, and would sooner cut off his hand, than sign an order for sending out force to maintain them.” [50] Coming from a respected general this statement was bound to have some effect, although it is difficult to assess the importance of individual speeches. Certainly, Conway’s flexibility and judgment were more important at this point than his words. The bare outline of debates hardly shows more than words spoken, but in this crucial week we can visualize Conway reading the mood of the House, going with it as far as possible, and avoiding divisions. Believing repeal to be the great object, he was not about to risk that for any other point. On the floor of the House he gave up one of the resolutions at Pitt’s suggestion, and even accepted some minor amendments from Grenville rather than have the House divide on some minor point. Thus, the whole week passed without a division until Friday, February 7, when Grenville moved, in effect, to enforce the Stamp Act. The House voted 274 to 134 against Grenville, a truly remarkable victory for the ministry.

The defeat of Grenville’s motion was the first sign of how the House would finally act on the Stamp Act. Much remained to be done, however, especially after the King allowed it to be said that he was for modification rather than repeal, and refused to punish placemen who opposed on this issue. Rockingham did his best to mitigate the effect of the King’s declaration but the damage had been done. Conway told his brother,
It was very mortifying to us, and very unhappy…being under a necessity of carrying on a great public measure against his majesty’s declared sentiments, and with great numbers of his servants acting against us. [51]
Nevertheless, he saw no choice but to press on. In the next two weeks the House continued in Committee hearing the American evidence, and Burke, who was instrumental in organizing the sentiment of the merchant community, gave Conway a large share of the credit for presenting “the fullest, most impartial, and least garbled body of evidence that ever was produced to this House.” [52] This evidence was of no little importance since, as many saw, the greater part of the House decided this case on its merits. Burke remembered that eyes were opened, ideas were enlarged, prejudices were removed, and opinions were conciliated. [53] Finally, on February 21 with merchants crowding the lobbies of the House, Conway asked for leave to bring in a bill of repeal. His speech emphasized the Stamp Act’s disastrous consequences, and pointed out the impossibility of enforcing it. He said,
we had but five thousand fighting men in three thousand miles of territory: the Americans an hundred and fifty thousand fighting men. If we did not repeal the Act, he did not doubt but France and Spain would declare war, and protect the Americans. [54]
The debate was not lively but after the House divided overwhelmingly for repeal, Conway was mobbed gratefully by the merchants. Burke described the scene:
When at length you had determined in their favor, and your doors thrown open showed them the figure of their deliverer [Conway] in the well earned triumph of his important victory, from the whole of that great multitude there arose an involuntary burst of gratitude and transport. They jumped upon him like children on a long absent father. They clung about him as captives about their redeemer. All England, all America joined in his applause. [55]
Conway’s basic achievement in these debates had been to inspire the friends of repeal with the confidence needed to pass the measure. Dispatches from the floor of the House to Rockingham and Newcastle reveal the mixture of hope and anxiety pervading the supporters of repeal. They could not be sure how things would turn out after the equivocation of the King. It was Conway who day after day took Grenville’s worst but gave back more than he got. This personal battle led Horace Walpole to change his opinion of his cousin’s ability
In all these debates, nothing was more marked than the acrimony between Grenville and Conway. The latter appeared to be a much abler man of business that had been expected. [56]
Burke was of the same opinion. Conway, he wrote,
Is the most virtuous man in every particular…and he has ability for anything. If he could stick a little more steadily to his points he would be by far the best leader of an House of Commons I ever saw. [57]
Burke and Rockingham separated from Conway in later years but Burke never failed to do justice to Conway’s role on this occasion. In the Speech on American Taxation he recalled,
We all felt inspired by the example he gave us, down even to myself, the weakest in the phalanx. I declare for one, I knew well enough (it could not be concealed from anybody) the true state of things; but, in my life, I never came with such spirits into the House. It was a time for a man to act in. [58]
For Conway the repeal of the Stamp Act marked the high point of his activity in this session. Thereafter, he did little in the House and the revision of the Cyder Act, the resolution against general warrants, and the American trade reforms were steered through by others. He regarded most revenue measures as outside his department, and when the House turned to the budget, Dowdeswell and other Treasury officials took the lead. Moreover, in late March Conway fell ill and was forced to leave town to recuperate at Park Place, his country home near Henley-on-Thames. He appears to have had a rheumatic ailment which he made worse by exercise. He did not get back to town until April 25, by which time the administration had suffered a near-fatal blow.

With the great victory over the Stamp Act the uncertainty and despair of many friends of the ministry gave way to confidence and exhilaration. The ministry’s growth in popularity combined with the strength it had demonstrated in Parliament raised hopes of a “strong complete Whig administration.” [59] After all Pitt was on their side, and victory had been won despite Lord Bute and the ‘king’s friends.’ The flimsiness of these hopes was exposed in mid-April when Pitt broke with the administration. He disagreed with some of the ministry’s trade proposals and complained that they had been lax in communicating with him. Using a cut in the militia budget as a pretext he lashed out at the ministers in the House. This attack prompted Grafton to resign and precipitated a ministerial crisis. The Duke blamed Rockingham for not treating with Pitt, and argued that without Pitt the ministry could rely only on a King of whose confidence they could not be sure. These developments, all of which took place during his illness, left Conway in a cruel predicament.

He was pulled in two directions. What was the use of going on? How many times had he deferred to Pitt and expressed a willingness to make way for him! Though he blamed Pitt for breaking “on so slight an occasion, and with so little reserve or candor,” [60] he asked Rockingham to treat with him again “that we might appear consistent.” [61] Grafton’s resignation was even more serious for the Duke had brought Conway into Parliament in 1761. Pulling him in the other direction was he obligation Conway felt to King and Country. He told Grafton,
For my own part, I know not what to resolve; my desire on a thousand accounts is to be out of this office, how much more now! Yet I own I do not know how to say we will break up and leave things [in], or rather throw them into, their ancient confusion, or a worse; it is such a dilemma as I can satisfy myself in neither way. [62]
If he went out with Grafton on this occasion, surely the ministry could not go on. To desert the King in the midst of a session was bad enough, but in this situation it would have been even worse. To whom could the King turn? He would have either to humble himself and submit to the “Family” (Pitt and the Grenvilles), or, what was worse for the public, rely on Lord Bute’s friends. Conway had no choice but to stay on. He tried without success to change Grafton’s mind, [63] and remained a minister.

The King, who never had confidence in the ability of his ministers, hoped that they would hold together until the end of the session and allow him to gain time. He asked his friends, who were really disaffected with the ministry, to avoid anything which might induce the leading ministers to resign. On May 1 the ministers met at the Chancellor’s to consider whether they could or should go on. All agreed that the ministry required strengthening in order to continue but there was a basic disagreement on the source of the weakness. Northington and Egmont, the only ministers in whom the King now confided, pointed to the insufficiency of the present leaders and blamed their refusal to gain strength by treating with Bute’s friends. Rockingham and Newcastle, however, argued that the ministry appeared weak because of the King’s obvious lack of confidence, the same view Grafton had given for resigning. In one sense Conway’s determination to stay in as long as the King needed him played right into the King’s hands. A few hours before the meeting the King informed Egmont that,

Conway had spoken very handsomely he declares against all measures that may encrease heat and wishes rather to conciliate. [64]
Although Conway would not quit, he agreed with Rockingham and Newcastle on the weakness of the ministry. He was willing to give a place to Stuart Mackenzie, Bute’s brother, but he would not hear of any treaty with the Bute party as a whole, believing that the ministry need only find a replacement for Grafton. [65] For the time being the King had no choice but to go along with Rockingham and Conway. The ‘king’s friends’ were talked to and things went smoothly in Parliament.

With this apparent new lease on life the ministry began to look for a Secretary of state. Conway especially liked Newcastle’s idea of raising Charles Townshend to the peerage and bringing him in as a third Secretary for America. [66]  It was in the Lords that they needed speakers and Newcastle told Conway: “In the House of Commons you will do very well without him.” [67] Moreover, Townshend was a reputed master of colonial business while Conway was little interested in trade and preferred the Northern department where his military and diplomatic connections were of value. The plan also had the advantage of bringing Lord Hardwicke in as Southern Secretary, thereby tying the Yorkes more firmly to the administration. Indeed, the plan had so many advantages that it raised great expectations until Townshend, who felt the ministry could not last, refused. [68] In the end Conway took the Northern department, and the young Duke of Richmond took the Southern with the understanding that much of the American business would go to Lord Dartmouth at the Board of Trade. This appointment the King made with great distaste, not considering Richmond, who had quarreled with him early in the reign, as fit to be a Secretary of State. His Majesty saw too an impropriety in two Secretaries being so closely related, a scruple which Conway himself shared. [69] Conway agreed to Richmond’s appointment only when it became clear no one else would take the place. The Duke’s appointment and the comparative ease with which the revenue measures went through Parliament led many to believe that the ministry had weathered the storm.

One last event, however, showed that it had only entered a temporary calm. During Conway’s illness Rockingham promised the King that the settlement of the late Duke of Cumberland’s parliamentary grant upon the King’s two brothers would be introduced during the session. On his return, Conway balked at the measure because of the lateness of the session. If sometimes his duty to the King made Conway appear almost a tory, nothing illustrates his Whiggism more than his refusal to take the lead in a measure so close to the King’s heart. He refused out of respect for the House of Commons. Members would complain that it had been pushed through an empty house, or that they had not been given an opportunity to share in a measure so pleasing to the royal family. Moreover, although Conway had battled Grenville in the previous three sessions, he would not introduce a measure with the leader of opposition out of town. [70]  If the King had not already been disposed to change ministers, this refusal would have decided him. Soon after the House rose Lord Chancellor Northington complained to the King against the ministers. Rockingham told Newcastle, 
The Chancellor’s declaration of our having the appearance of being a weak administration, was in fact confirming what we ourselves had humbly laid before his Majesty more than once. [71]
Indeed, as long as the King would not allow them to punish enemies or reward friends, they would appear weak. They were refused this power not because they lacked ability but because they were not the type of ministry the King wanted. In early July His Majesty summoned Pitt to the closet and commissioned him to new-model the administration.  


[1] See the lists drawn up in May and June in the Newcastle papers. Add. MSS 32966-7, passim.
[2] Cumberland was certainly moved and so was Horace Walpole, whose vivid accounts of Grenville’s insolence probably came to him by way of Conway. See George Selwyn to Lord Holland, [Aug. 24, 1765], Letters to Henry Fox, 215.
[3] Walpole to Hertford, May 20, 1765, Toynbee, VI, 243.
[4] “He thought himself obliged in honour to obey the King’s and Duke’s commands.” Walpole, George III, II, 148.
[5] Ibid., 122.
[6] Ibid., 139.
[7] Earl of Albemarle to Newcastle, June 29, 1765, Add. MSS 32967, f. 155.
[8] George Onslow to Newcastle, June 27, 1765, Add. MSS 32967, f. 140.
[9] Walpole, George III, II, 135.
[10] Ibid., 124.
[11] Newcastle to the Duke of Portland, July 1, 1765, Add. MSS 32967, ff. 186-7.
[12] Rockingham to Newcastle, [July 7, 1765], Add. MSS 32967, f. 278.
[13] Rockingham would not have taken the Treasury without Conway’s support in the Commons. Rockingham to Newcastle, ibid., and Walpole, George III, II, 142. Grafton wrote, “with General Conway I had long been connected in cordial friendship and great intimacy.” Autobiography and Political Correspondence of Augustus Henry, third Duke of Grafton, ed. William r. Anson (London, 1898), 70. In 1761 Grafton brought Conway into Parliament for Thetford.
[14] The inner history of the Rockingham administration has not been fully told. The basic sources for the account in this chapter are the papers, both manuscript and printed, of the King and the ministers. Of particular importance are the Newcastle papers. Though only Privy Seal, the Duke could not be inactive and corresponded with all of his colleagues, badgering them for news and information while loading them with advice. D. A. Winstanley, Personal and Party Government (Cambridge, 1910), used the Newcastle MSS and his account of the administration is still valuable. Walpole’s absence in Paris from the summer of 1765 to the spring of 1766 makes his Memoirs less valuable than usual although he did take pains to be informed of the debates in Parliament.
[15] Accounts of the American business of the administration deal mainly with the actual repeal of the Stamp Act, and attention has usually focused on the efforts of Burke and the merchant community. Newcastle’s papers are again the best source for the deliberations of the Cabinet on America. Even when the Duke was not present at meetings on America, he made his colleagues supply him with reports. In addition, he was supplied with all the papers which passed to and from America, and his secretary duly transcribed them. See Add. MSS 32969-32972.
[16] Newcastle to John White, Dec. 3, 1765, in A Narrative of the Changes in the Ministry, 1765-7, ed. Mary Bateson (London, 1898), 38.
[17] Ibid., 41.
[18] Walpole to Conway, Nov. 29, 1765, Toynbee, VI, 362.
[19] Earl of Northington to the King, Dec. 12, 1765, Fortescue, I, 429.
[20] Rockingham to Newcastle, Jan. 2, 1766, Add. MSS 32973, ff. 12-13.
[21] See Rockingham to George Dempster, September 13, 1774, Albemarle, Rockingham, II, 255, for a retrospective summary of the differences in the Cabinet.
[22] For the Irish episode see Chapter II above.
[23] Prologue to Revolution, 35.
[24] John Adolphus, The History of England from the Accession of George III to…1783, (fourth edition, revised, London, 1817, I, 187. Adolphus based his opinion on “private information, and minutes of the conference.”
[25] Newcastle to Rockingham, Jan. 1, 1766, Add. MSS 32973, f. 3.
[26] George III to Northington, Jan. 8, 1766, Fortescue, I, 213-4.
[27] George Onslow to Newcastle, Jan. 10, 1766, and Newcastle to Rockingham, Jan. 8, 1766, Add. MSS 32973, ff. 90 and 61.
[28] Onslow to Newcastle, Jan. 10, 1766, ibid., f. 91.
[29] Onslow to Newcastle, Jan. 11, 1766, ibid., f. 104.
[30] Conway and Grafton saw the King on January 8. George III to Northington, Jan. 8, 1766, Fortescue, I, 213. Newcastle to White, Jan. 9, 1766, Newcastle, Narrative, 44.
[31] Onslow to Newcastle, Jan. 11, 1766, Add. MSS 32973, f.104.
[32] Walpole, George III, II, 139.
[33] Albemarle, Rockingham, I, 224. See also D.N.B., s.v. Conway, and John Brooke, The Chatham Administration 1766-68 (London, 1956), 11.
[34] Winstanley, Personal and Party Government, 244.
[35] Grafton to Northington, July 18, 1767, Grafton, Autobiography, 148. Richmond to Rockingham, Oct. 4, 1767, Albemarle, Rockingham, II, 61. See also Pitt’s opinion in Chapter V below.
[36] Some years later Horace Walpole wrote that Conway “could not enjoy so insignificant an office as the Board of Ordnance without making it slavery…” George III, II, 228. See also Walpole’s comparison of Conway and Charles Townshend in George II, I, 341,
[37] Conway to Newcastle, Oct. 5, 1765, Add. MSS 32970, f. 181.
[38] Newcastle to Rockingham, Dec. 10, 1765, Add. MSS 32972, f. 193. Walpole, George III, II, 223.
[39] Memorandum for the King, Dec. 10, 1765, Add. MSS 32972, f. 186.
[40] Conway to Newcastle, Aug. 21, 1765, Add. MSS 32969, f. 135.
[41] Newcastle to Conway, Aug. 21, 1765, ibid., f. 137.
[42] Conway to Newcastle, docketed Dec. 1, 1765, Add. MSS 32972, f. 100. See also Newcastle to Cumberland, July 15, 1765, Add. MSS 32967, f. 432; and Walpole, George III, II, 142.
[43] Fortescue, I, 225. For Conway’s authorship of this report see L.B. Namier, Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of King George the Third (Manchester, 1937), 47.
[44] Fortescue, I, 224.
[45] James West to Newcastle, Jan. 14, 1766, Add. MSS 32973, f. 134. West was reporting from the House during the actual debate. See also, Walpole, George III, II, 186. For a review of the accounts of the debates in this session of Parliament see Lawrence Henry Gipson, The British Empire before the American Revolution (12 vols.; New York, 1936-65), X, 387, n.3. Gipson also printed a large portion of Nathaniel Ryder’s account in “The Great Debate in the Committee of the Whole House of Commons on the Stamp Act, 1766, as reported by Nathaniel Ryder, “Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Jan. 1962. In addition to the sources mentioned by Gipson, see the reports of the debates sent to Newcastle by West and George Onslow in the Newcastle MSS.
[46] Edmund Burke to Charles O’Hara, Jan. 18, 1766, Edmund Burke, New York Agent, with his Letters to the New York Assembly and Intimate Correspondence with Charles O’Hara, 1761-1776, ed. Ross J.S. Hoffman (Philadelphia, 1956) 329. Hereafter cited as Hoffman.
[47] Ibid., 330. See also Walpole, George III, II, 134.
[48] For the report of this incident see Conway to the King, Jan. 28, 1766, Fortescue, I, 246.
[49] Charles Yorke to Rockingham, Jan. 25, 1766, Wentworth Woodhouse MSS.
[50] Walpole, George III, II, 197.
[51] Conway to Hertford, Feb. 13, 1766, Charles Knight, The Popular History of England (London, n.d.) VI, 343.
[52] “Speech on American Taxation,” The Works of…Edmund Burke (Boston, 1839), I, 470.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Walpole, George III, II, 210-11.
[55] Burke, Works, I, 472.
[56] Walpole, George III, II, 219.
[57] Burke to O’Hara, April 8, 1766, Hoffman, 343.
[58] Burke, Works, I, 472.
[59] James West to Newcastle, [Feb. 7, 1766] Add. MSS 32973, f. 377.
[60] Conway to Grafton, April 16, [1766], Grafton MSS, Bury St. Edmunds and West Suffolk Record Office.
[61] Conway to Grafton, April 20, 1766, Grafton MSS; and Conway to Rockingham, April 21, 1766, Wentworth Woodhouse MSS.
[62] Conway to Grafton, April 23, 1766, Grafton, Autobiography, 73.
[63] Conway to Grafton, April 22, 1766, Grafton MSS.
[64] George III to Lord Egmont, May 1, 1766, Fortescue, I, 296-7.
[65] Egmont to the King, May 1, 1766, Fortescue, I, 297-8.
[66] Conway to Newcastle, May 7, 1766, Add. MSS 32975, f. 102.
[67] Newcastle to Conway, May 7, 1766, ibid., f.104.
[68] Lewis Namier and John Brooke, Charles Townshend (London, 1964), 144.
[69] Walpole, George III, II, 230.
[70] Ibid., 233-4.
[71] Rockingham to Newcastle, July 6, 1766, Add. MSS 32976, f. 19.

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