Will the Real Lord Botetourt Please Stand?


February 26, 2013
by Taylor Stoermer Also by this Author


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The Right Honorable Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Bottetourt, late Governor of Virginia (1774). Source: Yale University Art Gallery
The Right Honorable Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Bottetourt, late Governor of Virginia (1774). Source: Yale University Art Gallery

In the center of the Botetourt Gallery at the Swem Library of William & Mary stands a curious statue, one that time and torment has rendered barely recognizable as the figure of Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, one of the last royal governors of Colonial Virginia.  The inscriptions on its sides capture the laudatory views of his contemporaries just as the revolutionary crisis began to grip Williamsburg’s residents, recalling their hopes that he would “restore Tranquility and happiness to this Extensive continent.”  They also extoll his “many public and Social virtues, which so eminently Adorned his illustrious character” and hoped that they “might Be transmitted to latest posterity.”[i]  The authors of the inscriptions need not have worried, for posterity has retained their celebratory view of the man who spent such a brief time among them.

The view of Botetourt that predominates today is little different from that anyone on Duke of Gloucester Street would have heard 237 years ago: He was the genial champion of colonial rights whose death was so much lamented by Virginians that they commissioned the statue and placed it right in the center of the Capitol building as a reminder to themselves, and to his decidedly uncongenial successor, Lord Dunmore, about what a royal governor should be.  As William Nelson reported to Botetourt’s nephew, the duke of Beaufort, “We think we may venture to say that never was a loss more universally lamented; so large a share had his Lordship, by his many endearing Qualities, gain’d of the affections of all Ranks of people,” a statement that more or less sums up the view accepted by historians ever since, from Edmund Randolph’s early nineteenth-century History of Virginia, to Emory Evans’ work about Virginia’s political elite, published just a few years ago.[ii]

A much different Botetourt has emerged from recent research, however, one that paints a new picture of him that goes beyond the confines of Williamsburg to speak volumes about the myriad ways in which the relationships of the American colonies with Britain were changing in the 1760s and 1770s.  Botetourt turns out to have been much more interesting, and much more sinister, than his contemporaries allowed and historians have made him out to be.  He got away with appearing to be different things to different people on both sides of the Atlantic, informing Virginia patriots, in a telling example, that he was working hard to defend their rights in London at precisely the same time he was calling on the British government to crush them.

In England, Botetourt’s slipperiness was well known by the time he was appointed Virginia’s governor in 1768, displacing the well-respected Jeffrey Amherst and causing a significant social and political kerfuffle in metropolitan circles. Amherst resigned from the army in protest and the famous English political polemicist known as “Junius” criticized Botetourt’s appointment in one of his famous letters, castigating the new governor as “a cringing, bowing, fawning, sword-bearing courtier, who had ruined himself by an enterprise which would have ruined thousands had it succeeded.”[iii]  Junius recalled Botetourt’s political shift from a staunch supporter of the parliamentary opposition to the British ministry, when he was known merely as Norborne Berkeley, to attacking the opposition as a supporter of the government after the approval in 1764 of his claim to a peerage–the Barony de Botetourt–that had been in abeyance since 1406.[iv] Seeing Botetourt shortly after his appointment to the Virginia post, Horace Walpole, one of the eighteenth century’s keenest observers of London politics and people, described him as “a Court favourite, yet ruined in fortune” who, invoking Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, appeared “like patience on a monument, smiling in grief.”[v]  Walpole understood that “the disquiets in America” required leaders of sense to calm them, especially in Virginia, which “though not the most mutinous, contains the best heads and the principal boutefeux.”[vi] He highly doubted that Botetourt, whose genial countenance he thought little more than a screen behind which lay a dangerous blend of avarice and poor judgment, was the right man for the job. Walpole observed, with characteristic perspicacity, that “To Virginia he cannot be indifferent: he must turn their heads somehow or other. If his graces do not captivate them, he will enrage them to fury; for I take all his douceur to be enamelled on iron.”[vii]  One of the royal princesses agreed, telling a friend a day after the appointment that she “does not approve of sending Lord Botetourt to Virginia; She fears he is not equal to the undertaking.”[viii] Botetourt had enough support in London, however, for him to be on a ship headed to the Chesapeake within three weeks of his initial nomination for the office.

Although favorable reports of Botetourt’s character reached Virginia ahead of him, so too did the critical impressions. Richard Henry Lee and his brothers, for example, whose situation in both London and the Chesapeake helped them turn intentional transatlantic political miscommunication into something of an art form, despised the new governor before he ever set foot in Virginia. The less-than-glowing view of Botetourt shared by Amherst, Junius, Walpole, and the princess clearly made it to the Northern Neck well ahead of the governor.  And the Lees in Virginia were not disappointed in their estimations when he arrived. Francis Lightfoot Lee reported to his brother in London that “Ld. Bottetourt is the very man you described, & has practised all his his arts but without gaining a single man.”[ix]

The Lees miscalculated the effectiveness of Botetourt’s “arts,” though. His popularity soared in Williamsburg. Finally, many Virginians thought, with no little relief, here was the right man at the right time, a governor who had the wisdom and the influence to act as a transatlantic protector of their interests against a British parliament that was increasingly inclined to strip them of their British constitutional rights. Even dissolving the Virginia assembly in the wake of its passage of a set of stridently worded resolves could not harm his reputation, as John Page reported to a friend in London in May 1769: “This has not lessen’d him in their Esteem, for they suppose he was obliged to do so; he is universally esteemed here, for his great Assiduity in his Office, Condescension, good Nature & true Politeness.”[x]

What John Page, his compatriots, and subsequent historians did not know was that Botetourt was playing a dangerous game with their constitutional rights and, consequently, helping to ensure, if not accelerate, the process of revolution. Just as Page was writing his letter in praise of Botetourt, the governor took the opposite tack in a letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that would have shocked the Virginians had they known its contents. The governor they depended on to deliver them from the evils of a corrupt parliament was doing nothing of the sort. In fact, his efforts were all to the contrary. He advised Hillsborough “that Opinions of the Independancy of the Legislature of the Colonies are grown to such a Height in this Country, that it becomes Great Britain, if ever she intends it, immediately to assert her Supremacy in a manner which may be felt.” Botetourt observed that parliamentary acts were useless in the face of colonial obstinacy and told Hillsborough “to loose no more time in Declarations which irritate but do not decide.”[xi]

Botetourt’s subsequent announcement to the Virginians that the Townshend Acts would be repealed further aggravated transatlantic misunderstandings with his characterization of the manner in which the troublesome duties would be taken off. In Williamsburg, he pledged “that I will be content to be declared infamous, if I do not…exert every power…to obtain and maintain for the continent of America that satisfaction which I have been authorized to promise this day by the confidential servants of our gracious Sovereign” that the taxes would be removed.[xii] Virginians seized on the statement, enthusiastically responding that “We esteem your lordship’s information not only as warranted, but even sanctified by the royal word.”[xiii]  The only problem with Botetourt’s declaration, aside from the fact that it confirmed rising paranoia that “confidential servants” were calling the shots in Westminster, was that by failing to mention Parliament’s involvement he gave credence to the prevailing myth that the Crown, rather than the ministry or the House of Commons, played any meaningful role in deciding colonial policy, especially in financial matters.

Botetourt’s problematic statements did not go unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic. In Williamsburg, a visiting naval officer, Sir Thomas Adams, wrote to Lord Palmerston that “Tis a pity [the governor’s] Ardent zeal to serve his Royal Master here, should be so ridiculously handled, as we find his last speech to the House of Burgesses has occasion’d much sarcastical Mirths” among those with whom Adams associated, such as the attorney general, John Randolph, and his brother, Peyton, the speaker of the House of Burgesses. Of the less temperate patriots, Adams warned “The repeal of the late Acts by no means has abated their Enthusiastic fury; hitherto the Virginians have been moderate, how long they will continue so I know not.”[xiv]

The most intense reaction to the governor’s speech was heard on the floor of the House of Commons in May 1770 and came from that master of the sublime, Edmund Burke. “I really cannot read this without emotion,” Burke proclaimed as he pointed to a copy of Botetourt’s remarks. “Have we been sent here to see the business of parliament settled by the King’s confidential servants?” he asked. Burke argued that it was ludicrous to praise the Crown for steps that could be taken only by Parliament and correctly pointed out that fostering such misunderstandings of parliamentary authority would only worsen the American crisis. He punctuated his lengthy speech by putting a droll question to Lord North and the other ministers in attendance: “Was it fitting that we should not be let into the secret if your intention?”[xv]  William Burke was even more pointed in his remarks.  He proclaimed that “It was criminal to appoint Lord Botetourt to the government of Virginia. At a moment of confusion, it was not a lord of the bedchamber that was wanted.”[xvi]  Another member of parliament, Thomas Townshend, conceded in the debate that Botetourt was “good-humored, hospitable, and generous” but added that event proved that the “government of a province should not be committed to the care of a man who has neither wisdom nor conduct.”[xvii]

Botetourt died on October 15, 1770, in Williamsburg, less than two years after arrived, still largely beloved by the Virginians who presumed he was their friend. The examples briefly shown here point to the distinct possibility that Botetourt did more harm than good for the imperial relationship by fostering constitutional myths and political misunderstandings. Alexander Wedderburne, in the debate over Botetourt’s missteps, used him as a prime example of “the continued system of contradiction and absurdity in government, that has produced the melancholy situation in which we now stand.”[xviii]  Americans were thinking the same thing.  In 1771, William Palfrey, a Boston merchant, wrote from London to John Hancock that “it would astonish any person to be inform’d of the misrepresentations which have been made for four or five years past to the Ministry by persons on your side of the Atlantic.”  He hoped, in vain, that “it will all come out in time.”[xix]

That Botetourt and only a handful of others were in positions to manipulate public perceptions reveals the problematic state of transatlantic political communication in the 1760s and 1770s.  Historians have pointed out the many ways in which the British Atlantic was becoming more culturally and economically integrated by the middle of the eighteenth century, but Lord Botetourt’s experience suggests that we re-examine the limited nature and extent of that integration in light of the revolution that emerged from it.


[i] Inscriptions on the statue of Lord Botetourt, Botetourt Gallery, Swem Library, College of William & Mary.

[ii] William Nelson to the Duke of Beaufort, 30 October 1770, Baron de Botetourt Estate Papers, Collection of Virginiana, Library of Virginia; Edmund Randolph, History of Virginia, ed. Arthur H. Shaffer (1970);  Emory G. Evans, A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite, 1680-1790 (2009).  Although not published until 1970, Randolph’s History was written in the first decade of the 1800s.

[iii] 5 August 1768, Letters of Junius, vol. 3 (1812), 109.

[iv] Richard Grenville-Temple and George Grenville, The Grenville Papers: Being the Correspondence of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, K.G., and the Right Hon. George Grenville, Their Friends and Contemporaries, vol. 4, ed. William James Smith (1852-1853), 222-223.

[v] Horace Walpole to Henry Seymour Conway, 9 August 1768, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. W. S. Lewis, vol. 39 (1974), 103-104; Horace Walpole to Horace Mann, 13 August 1768, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, vol. 23 (1967), 43-44.

[vi] Walpole to Mann.

[vii] Walpole to Conway.

[viii] Lady Mary Campbell Coke, The Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke, vol. 2 (1889), 440.

[ix] 9 March 1769, Francis Lightfoot Lee to William Lee, Brock Collection, Huntington Library.

[x] 27 May 1769, John Page to John Norton, John Norton & Sons: Merchants of London and Virginia, ed. Francis Norton Mason (1968), 94.

[xi] 23 May 1769, Baron de Botetourt to the Earl of Hillsborough, Virginia Colonial Records Project.

[xii] 10 August 1769, Virginia Gazette (Rind).

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] 1 June 1770, Sir Thomas Adams to Lord Palmerston, Virginia Colonial Records Project.

[xv] Sir Henry Cavendish, ed., Debates of the House of Commons, vol. 2 (1841), 21-22.

[xvi] Id., 24.

[xvii] Id., 26.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] 15 February 1771, William Palfrey to John Hancock, Palfrey Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.


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