A Brief Guide to the British Government

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

September 10, 2015
by Will Monk Also by this Author


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We know the familiar figure of King George III, often portrayed by painters in either military uniform or his coronation robes. He is the central villain in the Declaration of Independence, the unhappy victim of the crowd pulling him down, vicariously, as his statue rides a horse in New York City. Dozens of books portray him as the tyrant who would not let the colonies go. But of course George III did not have the powers that kings had in medieval times. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, which occurred between 1640 and 1688, limited the authority of the crown in relation to Parliament. King George relied on elected politicians, appointed advisors and military officers to help rule the kingdom. These served in a few key positions: the Privy Council, the Cabinet, the Admiralty Board, and the Board of Trade, in addition to the House of Commons and House of Lords. Each of these groups gave a legal foundation to what the king and his government wanted to do.

The Privy Council was a group of men appointed by the King, for life, as his chief advisors. Members of the royal family, trusted nobility, and long serving members of Parliament often served on the Privy Council. It advised the King in private and kept its business secret, yet spoke on behalf of the sovereign. Routine business of taxation, appointments, police matters, and diplomacy were conducted “By Order of the Privy Council.” Each member was allowed to put the phrase “The Right Honorable” before his name, but this distinction became so coveted that hundreds of people lobbied for, and won, appointment to the council. This grew unwieldy, and a separate group, the King’s Cabinet, consisted of those closest to the sovereign. To avoid having hundreds of people demand entrance to cabinet sessions, only those who were directly summoned to attend could do so. The others could boast of being on the Privy Council without knowing what it was doing at a given time.[1]

The Cabinet consisted of a few powerful offices, such as First Lord of the Treasury, the Secretary at War and the Secretaries of State. The First Lord served as presiding officer for a board of commissioners, who supervised collection and spending of all government money, so his chairmanship resulted in considerable authority. The king had once gone to meetings of his cabinet, but no longer did so, meaning the First Lord’s office evolved into the modern Prime Minister. The Secretary at War was immediately subordinate to the King (who was commander in chief), but he was usually a Member of Parliament as well, and subject to its influence. The Secretary at War was sometimes excluded from the cabinet, depending on whether Britain was at war during a given year. Yet, as years went by and the sovereign took less interest in the details of military affairs, the Secretary gained influence among the officer corps. There were two Secretaries of State; the offices were split between a northern and southern department. The northern department handled matters dealing with Protestant countries – those in northern Europe – while the southern department managed affairs for Catholic, and therefore Southern, Europe. The Secretary of State for the Southern Department also dealt with the American colonies, so it retained more status, but the two department’s duties overlapped so much that both men influenced the other’s portfolio. In 1768, the colonial work became so detailed that a separate Secretary of State for the Colonies was established. Lord George Germain held the office for most of the Revolution, from 1775 to 1782.[2]

The Admiralty Board ran daily affairs for the British Navy. Its seven commissioners were Members of Parliament, with one or two career naval officers added. The members were frequently changed after an election, but the board was usually free from political considerations and independent of the Cabinet. The island nation depended on its navy so much that board members deferred to career naval officers, who decided promotions and sponsored younger officers for advancement. The King remained aloof from smaller matters, although he appointed the most senior officers and knew them well. The nation’s respect and dependence on a strong navy meant that the board acted as de facto agents of the officer corps, lobbying in their interest with other Members of Parliament.[3]

When the first American colonies were created, the Privy Council administered their affairs, but the work became too great and King Charles I created a “Commission of Plantations,” and with succeeding decades it became the Committee on Trade and the Council on Trade, until men referred to it by a nickname, the Board of Trade. Its eight paid commissioners, known as the Lords of Trade, served apart from the Privy Council. Its initial function was to collect data on shipping, imports, exports, customs duties and agriculture, and to measure the growth or loss of revenue from year to year. Its functions grew over time, until the board reviewed and approved most, but not all, colonial laws. They rejected five percent of legislation sent from America, and overturned thirty percent of colonial court decisions. The latter rate undermined colonial faith in courts, where men found guilty could go free, thanks to their connections in London.[4]

All of these agencies were overseen by Parliament – split between the House of Lords and House of Commons. The Lords was the older body, dating back to the year 1116, when earls and barons under King Henry I met at Salisbury to hear a dispute between the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. In 1164 Henry II summoned a “Great Council” at Northampton to hear charges against Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and this council judged him to be at the King’s mercy. Successive monarchs asked their land-owning nobles to levy taxes, raise armies and settle arguments. In 1295 Edward I summoned a Parliament which included two knights from each county, two men each from smaller boroughs and two each from certain cities. These commoners far outnumbered the noblemen, and by the middle of the fourteenth century they were meeting separately. Through the following centuries the House of  Commons asserted more authority over government finances, yet the House of Lords retained influence by amending and delaying bills from the lower house.[5]

The House of Lords, officially, had 213 members: 171 hereditary peers from England and Wales, 26 Anglican Church bishops, and 16 elected peers from Scotland. The Scottish peers were those who held hereditary title from the day Scotland, England and Wales merged into one country, Great Britain, in 1707; about a hundred families chose between themselves who would take the sixteen seats allotted to the group. Of the bishopric seats, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York always sat in the Lords, and the remaining seats were assigned by seniority. Some of the English members were appointed with life peerages (to reward them for service to the King or add a few more reliable votes for the prime minister) which allowed them the honor of sitting in the Lords without passing their seat to their sons. This adding and subtracting meant the Lords’ actual membership fluctuated. Only a third of the Lords regularly attended sessions, and, if the house was voting on an important bill, between half and two thirds of its members appeared.[6]

The House of Commons had 558 members. England sent 489 men: forty counties sent two members each, 196 smaller boroughs also sent two members each, London and Weymouth sent four members each, five boroughs sent one member each, and Oxford and Cambridge University sent two members each. Wales had 24 members: one from each of the twelve Welsh counties and twelve more from boroughs. Scotland sent 45 members divided between twenty seven counties, fifteen towns (such as Edinburgh) and three sets of counties which voted together, so a member alternated from one county to the other with each election. In most cases, voters had to have property that could be taxed at 40 shillings per year, which limited the number of eligible voters to a fraction of the population. In England, for example, Yorkshire had about twenty thousand voters; Kent, Lancashire and Somerset had about eight thousand; Cheshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk and five to six thousand, Westmoreland and Bedfordshire had two thousand, and Rutland had only eight hundred. The other counties were scattered between them. In some places, voters were limited to a select rank. The seats for Oxford and Cambridge Universities were chosen by five hundred men who had earned a doctorate or master’s degree; the seat for Edinburgh – historic capital of Scotland – was decided by a council of only thirty three men: seventeen merchants and sixteen tradesmen.[7]

Many constituencies in the House of Commons were created in medieval times, when towns were enclosed by stone walls. Towns which had once been important were now just villages surrounding an old church or inn, but voting districts adhered to these borders long after people moved outside the walls, and the rural population became greater than the original. These old districts kept their names – Bere Alston, East Looe, Fowey, Grampound, Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Plympton Erle, St. Germans – even after they had lost their meaning. Thus, seats reserved for English boroughs had fewer eligible voters than did the counties. For example, Canterbury had fifteen hundred voters, Wareham had five hundred, King’s Lynn had three hundred, Newport and Penwyn had two hundred each, and Haslemere had one hundred voters. Yet these were large compared to the dozens of “pocket” boroughs scattered across the country. Horsham had eighty voters, Petersfield had seventy, Castle Rising had fifty, Tiverton had twenty five, and Camelford had twenty. Old Sarum once hosted a cathedral and Catholic bishop. When the bishopric moved to nearby Salisbury, the villagers moved as well, and over several centuries Old Sarum became nothing but a barren hill – but it retained two seats in the Commons, with seven voters. Gatton, in Surrey, had two voters.[8]

There were no organized political parties, no formal opposition, but society had formed two informal factions: Tories and Whigs. Tories were likely to be Anglicans (members of the official Church of England); Whigs had joined dissenting sects like Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists. Tories were usually from the titled nobility who owned estates; Whigs were usually merchants who owned small tracts of land. Tories supported the monarch’s power over Parliament; Whigs wanted the monarch subordinate to Parliament.  The terms became so well known that colonists in America who supported the King’s authority were called Tories, a nickname which was turned into an insult by their neighbors.[9]

Within the House of Commons itself, an array of allies changed over time. Members might be graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, army or navy captains, sons of former members or the nephew of a dead king’s favorite advisor. A member could vote with merchants one day, then side with military officers and switch to support college classmates, depending on what issue was being debated. Many members came from a safe district and did not have to worry about being re-elected, or raising money for an expensive campaign. Service in Parliament was genteel. With so many seats in the Commons, and so few offices of responsibility, members could pass the time playing whist or drinking Madeira in a local club.[10]

In addition to all these posts, the king had authority to appoint Members of Parliament, or their friends, to archaic sounding jobs within the royal household. The offices to be filled were based on centuries of tradition: Lord Steward, Lord Chamberlain, Comptroller, Earl Marshal, Lord Treasurer, Lord Privy Seal, Lord High Admiral, Clerk of the Pipe, Clerk of the Rolls, Writer of the Tallies, Clerk of the Escheats, Clerk of the Hanaper, Surveyor-General, Auditor of the Imprests, and so on. Each came with a salary and a chance of advancement to some other post, as long as the appointee stayed in the king’s favor. Through this system he was able to influence decisions in Parliament, indirectly, and thus exercise some of the powers his ancestors had wielded on their own authority, centuries earlier.[11]



[1] Sir Thomas Edlyne Tomlins, The Law-Dictionary, Explaining the Rise, Progress and Present State of the British Law, in two volumes (London: J. and W. T. Clark, 1835), Volume 2. There are no page numbers in this series, but entries are listed alphabetically. Information comes from a four page article, “Privy Council.”

[2] Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775-1783 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), 14 – 18; Gerald G. Newman, and Leslie Ellen Brown, et. al., editors. Britain in the Hanoverian Age: 1714-1837 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 302.

[3] Clive Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2004), 12-13.

[4] Hubert L. Smith, The Board of Trade (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1928), 15 – 50; William R. Nester, The Great Frontier War: Britain, France, and the Imperial Struggle for North America, 1607 – 1755 (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 2000), 71-2; John Christopher Sainty, Officials of the Board of Trade, 1660 – 1870 (London: Institute of Historical Research, 1974), 28-37.

[5] Luke Owen Pike, A Constitutional History of the House of Lords (London: Macmillan, 1894), 21-36; Michael L. Nash, “Crown, Woolsack and Mace: The Model Parliament of 1295,” in Contemporary Review, Volume 267, Number 1558, November, 1995, 237-42; G. L. Harriss, “The Formation of Parliament, 1272-1377” (pp. 29-60), and Maddicott, J. R. “Parliament and the Constituencies, 1272 – 1377” (pp. 61-87), both in The English Parliament in the Middle Ages, edited by R. G. Davies and J. H. Denton (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1981), 29-87.

[6] Clive Jones, and David Lewis Jones, editors, Peers, Politics and Power: the House of Lords, 1603-1911 (London: Hambledon Press, 1986), 262, n. 6; F. W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), 349.

[7] Sir Lewis Namier, and John Brooke, The House of Commons: 1754-1790, in three volumes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), I, 2-15, 219-513.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Will Durant, and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 90-91.

[10] Sir Charles Robinson, Chatham and the British Empire (London: Hodder and Stouton, 1946), 1-20.

[11] Sir David Lindsay Keir, The Constitutional History of Modern Britain since 1485 (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1966, 300-302.


  • Enlightening article for us Yanks. I had to explain to my copy editor that when I referred to the “prime minister,” I was talking descriptively, because “Prime Minister” wasn’t yet a title. This puts it all in a big-picture perspective we rarely see.

  • Very useful and succinct summary of British government history and structure. Nice work! Also shows very clearly in your detailed examples of representation in the House of Commons why Americans were not impressed with the argument made by the British that the colonies were “virtually” represented, and didn’t need direct representation in parliament. There was little that was fair about the representation of many British subjects, or regions, at home, either.

  • Now imagine what kind of U. S. Congressmen we would get if some districts had only a few hundred – or a few dozen – voters.

  • Not only was this a great, well-written article, Will, but its an excellent reference resource for any historian or student of the Founding Era for understanding the mechanics of the British government of the time. Bravo! Well done!

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