18th October 2021

Book in Focus

The Grenvillites and the British Press

Colonial and British Politics, 1750-1770

By Rory T. Cornish

During the twentieth century, British and American historians began to differ in their explanations concerning the origins of the American Revolution. Whereas many American scholars continued to blame British ministers, especially George Grenville, for blundering into the policies which provoked Americans into eventual rebellion, British historians began to reassess the motivations behind the British attempt to bring order to an enlarged British transatlantic empire after 1763 and deal with the vastly increased national debt following the Seven Years’ War; a development which tended to begin a re-evaluation of the Grenville administration. British politicians were increasingly required, it was suggested, to react to the largely unexpected American resistance to imperial regulation within a political culture which still venerated precedent and continuity rather than innovation. The resulting limited options open to ministers were further narrowed, revisionist British historians added, as the ideological differences between British political factions were at best minimal. Consequently, the impact political journalism may have had on British politics was also downplayed as being rather irrelevant.   

This present study incorporates and elaborates upon this recent scholarship, but it also questions some of its conclusions, especially concerning the role the press played in British politics. The notion that Grenville was somehow the lone author of all the troubles with the American colonists is firmly refuted. Indeed, this examination of Grenvillite press activity suggests it was effective in influencing British reactions to the colonial impasse as many of the political arguments employed were mainstream, traditionally based, and were shared by the reading public. The press activities of Grenville’s followers undoubtedly helped reinforce a growing British belief that firmness was perhaps the only answer to increasingly radical American demands. The Grenvillite pamphleteers also strengthened their narrative by emphasising how the long-dormant spectre of colonial independence would economically damage Britain, and official documentation, often supplied by Grenville himself, was skilfully utilized to bolster their case. In six linked chapters, a key concept of continuity is emphasized to illustrate how Grenvillite journalism helped shape and reinforce an acceptable conservative alternative to the rising political turbulence then developing on both sides of the Atlantic. 

As Grenville will always be linked to the attempt to directly tax the American colonists, one chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis of some fifty pamphlets generated by the Stamp Act crisis. Grenville, of course, was not only concerned with colonial affairs, and a broad range of political topics including the Cider Act, East Indian affairs, and domestic political issues, including Irish affairs, together with the controversy surrounding the activities of John Wilkes, are also discussed. In the penultimate chapter, the short-lived influence of the Grenvillite publication The Political Register is used to highlight the impact this journal had on British public opinion. Overall in this study, 300 contemporary political, economic, and constitutional pamphlets are discussed, as are nine contemporary magazines, including The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Monthly Review, and The Critical Review. An additional fourteen contemporary manuscript collections are also referenced to underscore the research completed for this study.

The motivation to complete such a book grew out of my dual interest in the careers of secondary British political figures, men Franklin B. Wickwire termed ‘sub-ministers’ in 1966, and the development of British colonial theory itself. This led by necessity to link colonial theory and sub-ministerial activity to domestic British politics. A year after completing my PhD, the editor of a projected series on great British statesmen approached me to complete bibliographical studies of three British politicians: Lord North, William Pitt the Elder, and George Grenville. It took five years to complete the Grenville bibliography as I had, by the time of its publication, relocated to the United States to begin a demanding teaching career. Although I declined the offer to complete the other two books, many of my later research trips to the British Library in London were still directed towards investigating George Grenville. One was particularly struck by the hostility Grenville inspired amongst some of his contemporaries, which warranted scrutiny as it seemed unlikely that any politician could be so detested yet complete such a long public career. This paradox deepened my interest in his career, Grenville’s place in history, and especially his influence on his loyal followers, especially William Knox, Thomas Whately, and Charles Lloyd.

The end result is this new study, one which includes an original analysis of all the pamphlets written by Whately and Knox before 1770, together with contemporary review articles and all known pamphlet replies. The political context which generated the journalism of Augustus Hervey, John Almon, Dr James Scott, and Earl Temple, Grenville’s elder brother, is discussed in detail, and, in two chapters, the nine pamphlets attributed to Charles Lloyd, Grenville’s private secretary, are finally and fully examined for the first time. This review of Lloyd’s work includes all the pamphlet replies and magazine evaluations of these pamphlet exchanges. Grenville’s role in supporting Lloyd’s legal altercations with Frederick Hindley over a tellership at the Exchequer is also investigated. This hitherto largely unknown aspect of the Grenville-Lloyd relationship refutes the previously held assumption that Lloyd had deserted Grenville for office in 1767. Grenville’s own role in aiding his followers to complete their pamphlets, despite his numerous public statements denying such activity, is also explored. Historical learning can only advance by a process of discussion and argument, but how does this study enhance our understanding of Grenville as a politician and re-evaluate the role the press played during the often passionate political disputes of the 1760s?

A key premise in the introductory chapter is that Grenville has remained for too long something of a one-dimensional figure. This is partially due to a willingness by many previous historians to unquestioningly repeat the many well-worn clichés about Grenville first circulated by Horace Walpole and later elaborated upon by nineteenth-century Whig historians such as Thomas Erskine May and Lord Macaulay. Grenville could be aloof in public, tedious in his speeches (as he was no orator), and somewhat obsessed with detail, yet his penmen were very successful in presenting his message to a wider audience. Their accomplishment was assisted by a widely shared British opinion that the American colonial relationship needed to be better regulated. Indeed, as illustrated in the second chapter, this pre-dated the formation of the Grenville administration in April 1763, and it should be noted that Grenville’s later fall from office was due to his worsening personal relationship with George III, and not because the king, or even a parliamentary majority, actually disagreed with any of his  policies.

If he came to the premiership as an experienced politician, Grenville also proved to be an effective leader in opposition as his pamphleteers proved to be more active than those supporting later administrations. Undoubtedly such increased pamphleteering helped fuel the political controversies which plagued the first unsettled years of George III’s reign and signified, whether myth or not, a contemporary belief that there existed in both Britain and her American colonies a growing struggle between authority and liberty. Grenville has often been unfairly portrayed as an authoritarian who attempted to muzzle the press while in office, and his role in the use of general warrants to initially arrest John Wilkes is extensively discussed here. His later and somewhat paradoxical opposition to expelling Wilkes from the House of Commons is also explained and the reasoning behind why his speech opposing Wilkes’ expulsion was finally published in 1769 is documented, possibly for the first time.

This study will hopefully stimulate some further discussion of Grenville as a pivotal British politician and add to the historical debate on the importance of the press in eighteenth-century British politics. The study also questions, perhaps somewhat controversially, the time-honoured notion that Grenville’s colonial policy was actually innovative. My research has greatly impacted my own previously held opinions on the origins of the American Revolution; to paraphrase Albert Beveridge, an early biographer of Abraham Lincoln, the examination of the source materials has astonished me “since they revealed the truth to be exactly the contrary to the teachings of my youth”.  

Dr Rory T. Cornish studied at the University of East Anglia, UK, and, Davidson College, USA, and was one of Professor Ian R. Christie’s graduate research students at University College London. Relocating to the United States, he became chair of the Department of History and Government at the University of Louisiana, and was later the Chair of the History Department at Winthrop University, South Carolina, which appointed him Emeritus Professor of History following his retirement from teaching in 2013. The author of George Grenville, 1712-1770: A Bibliography (1992), he was a contributor to 15 other joint publications, including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). He co-edited Thomas Francis Meagher: The Making of an Irish American (2005) and later wrote a biography of the Irish-born Confederate general Joseph Finegan for Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol.III (2011). Dr Cornish is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

The Grenvillites and the British Press: Colonial and British Politics, 1750-1770 is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.

Read Extract