The Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Second Year: November 1773 – August 1774

The able doctor, or, America swallowing the bitter draught. (Library of Congress)

During the three months that the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was on holiday from August to November 1773, the Secretary of State’s office received only routine dispatches from the colonies. Shortly after he returned in November, he was faced with another colonial issue -the Boston Tea Party.

In 1772, the East India Tea Company was on the verge of bankruptcy partially due to corruption and mismanagement and partially due to the Dutch merchants who were selling their tea in the colonies at a much power price. The directors of the company claimed that if they were allowed to sell their tea in the colonies without paying an export tax, the company could become solvent.

Parliament not only agreed to this but also allowed the company to sell its tea directly to colonial merchants, bypassing the wholesalers. It is important to note that many members of the House of Lords as well as the Royal family were stockholders in the company.

Lord Dartmouth was not consulted regarding the plan because it was considered a revenue matter and it fell under the purview of the Treasury. After learning of the Tea Party, he believed those who destroyed the tea were attempting “to spread alarm and to create fresh disturbances” and acted from “self-interested motives”.[1] As more dispatches arrived at his office, Dartmouth realized that he was receiving conflicting information regarding the motives behind the colonists’ actions. Government officials such as Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and New York Gov. William Tryon, and military officers including Gen. Frederick Haldimand and Gen. Thomas Gage, believed the resistance in the colonies was instigated by a small group while the colonial leaders proclaimed any resistance had the backing of not only Massachusetts but also the other colonies. Dartmouth chose to accept the information sent to him from the former. In a letter to Gov. Francis Legge of Nova Scotia he wrote, “The people [who committed] themselves in acts of violence were weak and contemptible … and such a conduct would not be passed over with impunity.”[2]

In January of 1774, the colonists of Boston began to raise money to compensate the East India Tea Company for its losses. Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, a British officer, wrote that “there remains still some fear of the consequences of their late frantic behavior.”[3] A sense of calm appeared to have settled over Boston for the first couple of months of 1774 – “contrition seemed to have succeeded violence.”[4]

If the tea had been paid for shortly after its destruction or if communication across the Atlantic was faster, the ministry might not have reacted as hastily as we shall see it did.

Dartmouth believed that the colonial situation had changed completely when the tea was destroyed. Instead of the supremacy of Parliament, the issue now involved the premeditated resistance to lawful authority. In a letter to Joseph Reed of Philadelphia, he wrote, “The question then is whether these laws are to be submitted to? If the people of America say no, they say in effect that they will no longer be part of the British Empire.”[5] He wrote to his friend, John Thornton, a trustee of the Indian school in New Hampshire, that the people of Boston must be aware

How fatally and effectually they have now shut the door against all possibility of present relief for any of the things they complain of, and how utterly vain it must be to expect that Parliament will ever give it to them till there appears to be a change in their temper and conduct … It would be madness if I was to say a word or repealing the Tea-Duty now, and yet I don’t give up hopes of seeing it done at some time or other.[6]

He hoped along with his stepbrother Lord North that the destruction could be handled as a criminal matter and not involve Parliament, but when Solicitor General Wedderburn and Attorney General Thurlow found that seeking justice from the entire town of Boston was beyond “the effect of the Crown,” they had no choice but to put the matter before Parliament. Lord Chancellor Apsley advised Dartmouth on March 6, “It is very desirable … to mark out Boston and separate that town from the rest of [the] delinquents.”[7] The bill presented in the House of Commons on March 14 did just that; it was entitled The Boston Port Bill. It ordered the closing of the port of Boston until the town had paid the company for its losses. The direct result would be a halt to the city’s commerce; the indirect result, a number of colonists would be out of work. In a letter to Reed, Dartmouth wrote,

You observe that if neither Parliament nor America will recede, the most dreadful consequences will ensue … If the submission be duly paid, things will return into their ancient channel, and peace and harmony be restored to this at present most unhappily divided and distracted empire.[8]

Dartmouth did not believe that the Act brought an end to conciliation, rather he felt it served only as a respite until the respect for law and order returned. The Port Bill passed without dissent in either house and the king gave his royal assent on March 31.[9] It was to go into effect on June 1. Parliament, unwilling to wait and see what results it would produce, introduced additional bills to punish not only the city of Boston but the entire colony of Massachusetts.

The second bill, The Better Regulating of Government in Massachusetts, was given royal assent on May 20, 1774. It revoked the charter of the colony of Massachusetts, dissolved the Provincial Assembly, and granted the governor the power to appoint or dismiss judges and magistrates and to use troops to put down rebellion.[10]

On the same day, Joseph Ward of Boston wrote to Dartmouth, “The violent measures which are adopted to subject the Americans will never prosper and are pregnant with ruin to the nation.”[11]

The third bill, The Impartial Administration of Justice in Massachusetts, was also given royal assent on May 20, 1774. It permitted the trials of civil or military officials to be moved to other colonies or to England.[12]

The fourth and final bill, The Quartering Act, was given royal assent on June 2. It permitted the governor to billet British troops in uninhabited buildings and houses.[13]

Dartmouth did not speak against any of these acts because he insisted that “the constitutional authority of this Kingdom over its colonies must be vindicated and its laws obeyed throughout the whole Empire,”[14] but he hoped that General Gage would never have to use the authority granted to him by the acts. On July 3, the Earl of Hardwicke congratulated Dartmouth “on so happy a beginning to his American plan.” He warned against insisting on an express acknowledgment of the right of taxation; he believed a general recognition of legislative power was more than enough. By mid-summer, Dartmouth realized that Parliament’s haste in bringing forth the additional acts did not promote conciliation but rather a more determined opposition. He also hoped that a limited but firm response that isolated Massachusetts would be sufficient to bring the other colonies back into the fold.

It remains to be seen whether the measures adopted by Parliament will or will not have the effect to restore peace and harmony between Great Britain and her colonies. The proceedings of the Burgesses of Virginia do not encourage me to hope for a speedy issue to the present disunion and we have seen too much of the prevalence of the example they have set to the other colonies not to be justly alarmed at what may result of the unconstitutional meeting [the First Continental Congress] they are endeavoring to promote.[15]

On August 3, Dartmouth wrote to General Gage

It is evident that although the measures adopted respecting the Province of the Massachusetts Bay have not yet had, and will not perhaps for some time have their complete effect, yet they have so far exceeded as to encourage many good men to stand forth in opposition … The conduct of the [Assembly] … was no more than might have been expected. Their dissolution was a very proper measure.[16]

In September 1774, delegates from twelve of the colonies convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and voted to refuse British commerce until all of the Coercive Acts were repealed.

The final issue that Dartmouth had to deal with in his second year was the Quebec Act. Because it was given royal assent on June 22, three weeks after the Quartering Act, most colonists believed that it was part of the Coercive Acts – but it never was. Shortly after taking office in 1772, Dartmouth informed the lieutenant-governor of Quebec that the ministry was considering “everything that concerns the state of Quebec with regard as well to its civil as to its ecclesiastical constitution.”[17] On August 4, Lord Chancellor Apsley wrote to Dartmouth,

The Chancellor takes the liberty to send him some Papers relative to Canada, which together with the Reports of the King’s-Advocate, the Attorney General & the Solicitor General will, he believes enable his Lordship to form a Plan of Government for that Province, fit to be laid before Parliament: & the Chancellor is happy in having received assurance from his Lordship that he means to undertake it.[18]

Three weeks later, Francis Maseres, the Cursitor Baron of the Exchequer, sent the following:

Mr. Maseres begs leave to acquaint his Lordship that … he had the honour of waiting on Lord North … to confer with him on the affairs of Quebec and that Lord North seemed fully determined to do something towards the settlement of that province in the next session of Parliament, and particularly with respect to the establishment of a revenue and a legislature. His Lordship was clearly of the opinion that this ought to be a legislative council and not an assembly; and he liked very well the proposal that they should not be invested with the power of taxation.[19]

It was not until December of 1773 that Dartmouth informed the lieutenant-governor,

The arrangements necessary for the adjustment of whatever regards the civil government of the colony are now actually under the immediate consideration of His Majesty’s servants and will probably be settled in a very short time.[20]

It is important to note that the date of the communication was fifteen days before the Tea Party, two months before news of the destruction of the tea reached England, and almost three months before talk of the coercive measures began.

The principal framers of the Quebec Bill were Dartmouth, General Carleton (the governor of Quebec), and Alexander Wedderburn (the Solicitor General). The southern boundary of the area would be the Ohio River and the western boundary the Mississippi River; the Great Lakes region would be exclusive Indian hunting ground, French civil law would be combined with English common law, a governor and council would be appointed, and Catholics would be guaranteed the free practice of their faith. All of these were reversals of the Proclamation Line of 1763. In another letter to the lieutenant-governor, Dartmouth explained the reason behind the changes.

There is no longer an hope of perfecting that plan of policy in respect to the interior country, which was in contemplation when the Proclamation of 1763 was issued; many circumstances with regard to the inhabitancy of parts of that country were then unknown, and there is a variety of considerations that … induce a doubt both of the justice and the propriety of restraining the colony to the narrow limits prescribed in that Proclamation.[21]

Hillsborough, Dartmouth’s predecessor, objected to the new policy; his three principal reservations were the expanded boundaries, the treatment of Indians and the potential migration of colonists. On May 1, Dartmouth informed him that it was the unanimous opinion of the Cabinet that

The extension of the province to the Ohio and the Mississippi is an essential and very useful part of the bill; it provides for the establishment of civil government over many numerous settlements of French subjects, but does by no means imply an intention of further settling the lands included within this extension, and if it is not wished that the British subjects should settle that country nothing can more effectively tend to discourage such attempts.[22]

The most contentious provision in the Bill was the religious toleration:

Be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid that His Majesty’s subjects professing the Religion of the Church of Rome … may have hold & enjoy the free Exercise of the Religion … as far as the same is not inconsistent with the King’s Supremacy as established by an Act of parliament and that the Clergy & other Religious of the said Church may hold, receive & enjoy their accustomed Dues & Rights.[23]

Dartmouth a couple of years earlier had come to the conclusion that toleration of Catholicism was necessary

To conciliate [the French Canadians] affections and to create that attachment to and dependence on the British government upon which the safety and prosperity of the colony depend.[24]

The bill faced significant opposition in Parliament and in the colonies. William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and member of the House of Lords, argued that the bill made Catholicism the established religion of the colony, that the governor could appoint Catholics to government positions and that it repealed much of the Act of Reformation under Elizabeth as it related to the Oath of Supremacy. Isaac Barre, a member of the House of Commons and one of the most notable defenders of the colonies, condemned the bill as “Popish from the beginning to the end.”[25] Joseph Reed, wrote to Dartmouth,

The idea of bringing down the Canadians and savages upon the English Colonies is so inconsistent not only with mercy but justice and humanity of the Mother Country, that I cannot allow myself to think that your lordship would promote [it], or give it your suffrage with such intentions.[26]

Even John Jay, the future Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, was stunned that the Ministry would consent to establish “a religion that has deluged [England] in Blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”[27]

Dartmouth, however, would not waver in his support the bill; to him it was “necessary and humane.” The bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Dartmouth on May 2; it passed in that house on June 13 and in the House of Lords on June 21.

Similar to the end of his first year, Dartmouth took time off between September and November 1774. Little did he know that during his third year his efforts at conciliation would fail, war would break out, and he would step down disillusioned.


[1] Dartmouth to Gen. Haldimand, January 8, 1774, Haldimand Papers, Public Archives of Canada (PAC), 35:64.

[2] Dartmouth to Governor Legge, January 7, 1775, Nova Scotia Papers, PAC, 75-6.

[3] Dalrymple to Dartmouth, January 29, 1774, Dartmouth Manuscripts 801, William Salt Library, Stafford, England.

[4] Matthew Brickdale to Dartmouth, April 4, 1774, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 878.

[5] “Dartmouth to Joseph Reed, 11 July 1774,” in William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia, 1847), 1:73.

[6] Dartmouth to John Thornton, February 12, 1774, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 827.

[7] Lord Chancelor Apsley to Dartmouth, March 6, 1774, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 849.

[8] “Dartmouth to Joseph Reed, 11 July 1774,” Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, 1:72-4.



[11] Joseph Ward to Dartmouth, May 20, 1774, Dartmouth Manuscripts.



[14] Dartmouth to Gage, June 3, 1774, Thomas Gage Papers, English Series, XXV, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[15] Dartmouth to Governor Dunmore of Virginia, August 3, 1774,” Colonial Office 5/1352, 134, British National Archives, Kew, England.

[16] “Dartmouth to General Gage, 3 August 1774,” in Clarence E. Carter ed., The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage, Vol. 1, (New Haven, Yale university press, 1931), 364.

[17] Dartmouth to Lt. Governor Cramahe, September 2, 1772, Dartmouth Papers (Quebec), 12A,108, PAC.

[18] “Lord Chancellor to Dartmouth, 4 August 1773,” Adam Shortt and Arthur G. Doughty, eds., Canadian Archives relating to the Constitutional History of Canada 1759-1791 (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1907), M385, 326.

[19] “Maseres to Dartmouth, 29 August 1773, ibid., M384, 194.

[20] “Dartmouth to Lt.-Governor Cramahe, 1 December 1773, ibid., 12A, 127.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Dartmouth to Hillsborough, May 1, 1774,” Dartmouth Papers, VI, 2343, PAC.

[23] Shortt and Doughty, Canadian Archives, M385, 311.

[24] Dartmouth to Lt.-Governor Cramahe, December 9, 1772,” Dartmouth Papers, 12A, 115, PAC.

[25] Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1837-1853), 4th Series, 1:184.

[26] “Reed to Dartmouth, 25 September 1775,” Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, 1:79.

[27] Journals of the Continental Congress, W.C. Ward, ed., (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1904), 1:34.

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  • You neglected to mention that offers by Boston and New York merchants to compensate for the claimed damages (which were excessive because the low-level black Bohea tea was rotten) were refused because the citizens of Boston refused to give up the names of the participants and the leaders. The blockade was intended as a long lasting punishment.

  • Outstanding article, esp. concerning the Earl’s involvement with the Quebec Act. I’d love to eventually see an article that dives into the Parliamentary opposition to the Quebec Act, and how it passed irrespective of those concerns. Thanks for an informative article—excited for part 3!

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