The Earl of Dartmouth’s First Year as Secretary of State for the Colonies


November 8, 2017
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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William Legge, the second Earl of Dartmouth, had three interests: his family, his estates,  and his religion. He was known by many as “the good Lord Dartmouth.” It is very likely that he would never have entered politics if he had not been related by marriage to Frederick, Lord North. When he became the Secretary of State for the American Colonies in 1772 his appointment was highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic, from King to common man and from Parliament to colonial assembly. During his three years in office, he made several attempts to bring about reconciliation between England and the colonies based on constitutional principles. He was called to understand and respond to many events, from the burning of the Gaspee to the rejection of the Olive Branch Petition that led to the opening of the War. Lord Dartmouth sought the King’s peace, considered the doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy an “unalterable principle,” and believed the developing constitutional divergence between Great Britain and her colonies could only end in reconciliation or in independence.

William Legge was born on June 20, 1731, in Middlesex, England to George Legge and Elizabeth Kaye. Sadly, his father died the following year. In 1736, his mother married Francis North, Lord North and Grey. Lord North had a son, Frederick, who was born on April 13, 1732. The two stepbrothers, close in age, would grow up together and view each other as brothers. At the age of fourteen William’s mother died unexpectedly; fortunately, William had a loving stepfather and stepbrother to support him in his grief. Frederick and William attended Trinity College, Oxford together between 1749 and 1751. While he was a student, his grandfather died; being next in line, he inherited his title, the Earl of Dartmouth.

Following their graduation in March of 1751, he and Frederick began a three-year grand tour of Europe. Aside from developing an appreciation of art, he met the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, the Emperor of Austria, the Duke of Newcastle (Frederick’s uncle), the British Ambassador to France Lord Albemarle, and Louis XV of France. In 1752 Frederick’s father, Lord North and Grey, became Lord Guilford. This meant that Frederick would one day become Lord North. Lord Guilford also remarried; his wife was Katherine Furnese. After returning to England, Dartmouth was introduced to Frances Nicholl, a relation of the Countess Guilford. In January of 1755, they married. Lady Dartmouth was described by a friend of the family as “rather pretty … cheerful, civil, and easy in manner … She is as good as he is.”[1] Besides her noble qualities, she brought a dowry of more than one hundred thousand pounds to the marriage.

Married, financially well off, a member of an influential family, and well-educated, Dartmouth took his place in the House of Lords in 1754, but unlike his stepbrother, he had little interest in politics. He liked living in one of his country residences and devoted most of his attention to family affairs, philanthropy and religion. He was a supporter of prominent Methodists John Wesley and George Whitefield, and directed a fundraising campaign for a school in Connecticut to educate and covert Native American boys.

Dartmouth and Newcastle corresponded on several occasions between 1753-1765. Just before his marriage, Dartmouth informed Newcastle “I have always been honored with particular marks of esteem from your Grace …”[2] It was not until 1765 that he was actively encouraged by Newcastle to enter public life. Under Newcastle’s influence, Dartmouth developed into a Whig. With the fall of the Grenville Ministry, he was surprised when he was invited to join the Rockingham Ministry. By the first week of July in 1765, various lists of the new ministry showed Dartmouth as a member of the Board of Trade or a junior Lord of the Treasury. His initial reply after consideration was, “if the urgency of the case should require an immediate determination I beg your Lordship will consider me as having declined employment.”[3]

Newcastle became concerned when all the junior Lords of the Treasury had been chosen and Dartmouth was still without an appointment. He told Rockingham that he would “write a very pressing letter [to Dartmouth] … to engage him to accept the First Lord of Trade.” In his letter Newcastle wrote,

That in the present state of our plantations, and new acquisitions in America, a man of your Lordship’s most excellent character and known disinterestedness is more wanted at the head of the Board of Trade than in any station in his Majesty’s service; and this makes it in my opinion incumbent upon you to accept it.[4]

On July 19, Dartmouth accepted the position of First Lord of Trade. The Board was not a committee of the Privy Council, but rather an advisory body. Its duties were to examine colonial legislation, to recommend the disallowance of any legislation that conflicted with England’s trade policies, to nominate governors and other royal officials for the colonies, to write instructions to the governors, and to hear and report complaints from the colonies. Shortly after Dartmouth took his seat, he learned of the unrest in the colonies regarding the impending Stamp Act. Patrick Henry was denying the right of Parliament to levy a tax on Virginia, the General Court of Massachusetts claimed the act violated the colony’s charter, and stamp distributors were being forced to resign in many of the colonies. By December Dartmouth was caught between those ministers who wanted the act enforced, those who wanted it modified and those that wanted it repealed. British merchants could not sell their manufactures in the colonies or receive payment for previous shipments. Petitions were sent by the colonies to the King, House of Lords, and House of Commons as well as by merchants from many of the towns and cities in England seeking a redress of grievances.

By the beginning of the new year, Dartmouth was still unsure as to how to meet the demands of the colonists and British merchants and not abandon his belief in the supremacy of Parliament. Then on March 5 a solution was proposed. Parliament would agree to repeal the Stamp Act on the condition that its taxing authority would remain the same in the colonies (“in all cases whatsoever”) as in England. Both houses of Parliament agreed to the bill and on March 18, the Stamp Act was repealed and the Declaratory Act was adopted. When the colonists and merchants learned of the repeal, they expressed their gratitude to Lord Dartmouth for the “distinguished part” he played in it.

On May 6, Newcastle proposed a third secretaryship that would deal solely with the American colonies. In June, the Secretary at War, Lord Barrington, wrote “It was agreed that America should be given to the Board of Trade or to a third Secretary of State [but] this is not done, or at present much talked of.”[5]

By mid-July, the king had decided to replace Rockingham with William Pitt; a new Prime Minister meant a new ministry. On July 25, Rockingham informed Dartmouth that he was not going to be promoted but that Pitt wished him to remain in his current position in the new ministry. Not wishing to remain in the position, Dartmouth chose to retire.

 … I believe there are many [Americans] possessed of sound and sober principles both of religion and government, and … I should always have been happy to have assisted in promoting every wish they could reasonably form consistent with that subjection to the supreme authority of the Mother Country, upon which I think their own as well as our welfare and prosperity much depend. I should have been glad to have continued on any footing that would have put it in my power to be of real use, but after having been refused the only thing that … could have enabled me to be of any service … I thought it best to withdraw … [6]

From 1766 to 1772, Dartmouth held no office, but his stepbrother, Lord North, rose quickly in the government. He became the Chancellor of the Exchequer on September 11, 1767, leader of the House of Commons on October 21, 1768, and First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister on January 28, 1770.

During his retirement, Dartmouth began to move away from the Rockingham Whigs and toward his stepbrother’s ministry. The separation began over the John Wilkes affair. In November of 1769, he disagreed with Rockingham when he supported John Wilkes’ right to his seat that had been denied in the House of Commons. He looked at the effort as “the result of intemperate heat and f-a-c-t-i-o-u-s zeal.”[7] Dartmouth was “very much shocked at the insolence of Mr. Wilkes, and really alarmed at the madness of the mob about him. Let who will call him patriot, I can consider him in no other light than as a desperate incendiary, whose plain object is to excite tumult and confusion in this country.”[8]

In February of 1770, Rockingham asked him to attend a meeting of the party leaders; Dartmouth declined. In April, the Rockingham Whigs were considering a bill that would repeal the tea duty; Dartmouth showed no interest in supporting them. And in the first week of November, John Wilkes convinced the livery of London that Lord North should be impeached. A letter dated November 12 was the last communication between Rockingham and Dartmouth.

On December 12, Lord Weymouth, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, resigned. Lord North asked Dartmouth to fill the vacancy. Similar to six years earlier, Dartmouth asked “for a short time to consider of a step which [the Prime Minister] looks upon as so important to him.”[9] Five days later, Dartmouth refused the appointment. Lord Guilford, his stepfather, wrote to him

The more I reflect upon your refusal yesterday the more I am vexed. To have you appear to the world wanting in duty and regard to the King, love to your country, friendship to Lord North, and affections to me, is what I thought I should never live to see.[10]

The Ohio Company of Virginia had petitioned the Privy Council for a land grant of 2,500,000 acres west of the Appalachian Mountains, that is, west of the Proclamation Line of 1763, in order to establish a new colony in America. Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, opposed the grant. On August 1, when the council supported the petition, Hillsborough resigned. He had been Lord North’s closest friend in the Privy Council. With his departure North immediately turned to Dartmouth.

Will you permit me to mention you to the King as his successor? I can venture to assure you that His majesty’s sentiments towards you are such as will make him accept the proposal with joy. You know the nature of the American Department much better than I do .,, You can not doubt my earnest wish to have within the service of the Crown, in a situation becoming your rank, abilities, and character, and you must be sensible how much I stand in need of your friendship and assistance upon the present occasion. [11]

On August 14, Dartmouth accepted the Seals of the Office of Secretary of State for the Colonies. He told his stepfather that he hoped to “bring either that strength or credit to Lord North which I most sincerely wish him on all occasions.”[12]

Dartmouth dealt with three major issues in his first year. The first was the problem that had caused Lord Hillsborough to resign: the Ohio Company petition. As long as the Iroquois Nation had no objections to the new colony, Dartmouth had no reservations about carrying out the Privy Council’s order. Supporters of Hillsborough on the Board of Trade threw up every obstacle to its execution. It was not until May 6, 1773 that the board under Dartmouth’s direction was finally able to draft a report that addressed the creation and governance of the new colony. In July of 1773, the Privy Council directed Attorney General Thurlow and Solicitor General Wedderburn to prepare a draft of the grant. Their differences of opinion over tenancy, quit-rents and the boundaries delayed the process until October when a compromise was reached, but paperwork and technicalities further delayed the process and extended it into the following year.

When the tea ships that had been sent to the colonies returned to England in January of 1774, the Privy Council turned their attention to what they now believed was a more pressing issue. While Dartmouth was wrestling with the Ohio Company’s petition, he was also faced with the HMS Gaspee incident that had occurred on June 9, 1772. Because of the degree of smuggling in the colonies, the Vice-Admiralty Courts created an Office of Customs. The office needed assistance beyond the ports, so they employed British schooners as revenue ships. The ships’ captains were given the authority to stop any colonial vessel and verify its cargo. Some captains, however, abused their authority and impounded entire vessels under false pretenses. On June 9, the HMS Gaspee, chasing the sloop Hannah, was led into the shallow waters of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island where she ran aground. Twelve hours later a group of citizens rowed out to the Gaspee, boarded her, sent the crew ashore and burned the ship to the water line. Thurlow and Wedderburn declared that the actions of the colonists were high treason. Dartmouth could not condone the “daring Act of violence” and the destruction of property. The king ordered a commission of inquiry to be created with instructions that those responsible be sent to England to stand trial.[13] Dartmouth did not believe that any trial should be held in England and was determined

not to allow of any orders to issue from his office for bringing home for trial one of the prisoners accused of the riot in Rhode Island; that he conceives it legal for the person to take his trial in the country where the offence was committed.[14]

Dartmouth’s position was never challenged because the commission was never able to discover one piece of evidence or find one reliable witness to the incident.

The third problem he faced was the petition presented on May 5, 1773 on behalf of the Massachusetts Assembly by Benjamin Franklin. The petition protested the payment of the governor’s and judges’ salaries by the Crown. Dartmouth responded to Franklin’s petition with caution. He asked Franklin to delay presenting the petition. Tempers were just beginning to cool on both sides of the Atlantic and he thought that presented it to the King and/or Parliament might invoke a negative response. Trusting Dartmouth, Franklin agreed to his request. In the meantime, in the opening speech to the Massachusetts Assembly, Governor Hutchinson acknowledged the supremacy of Parliament over the colony’s right of local autonomy. When Dartmouth learned of this, he exclaimed, “What difficulties that gentleman has brought us all into by his imprudence!”[15] He instructed the governor to “avoid any further discussion whatever upon those questions.”[16]

When Dartmouth presented the petition to the king, it was rejected on the grounds that the grievances were not real and the supremacy of Parliament was not to be questioned.

Dartmouth wrote to Thomas Cushing, Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly, that the supremacy of Parliament was

inherent in and inseparable from the supreme authority of the State [but] … if my wishes and sentiments could have any weight with a British parliament, the exercise of that right … should be suspended and lie dormant till some occasion should arise … in which the expediency and necessity of such exercise should be obvious.[17]

The Assembly of Massachusetts then sent to Franklin a second petition demanding the removal of Governor Hutchinson and Lieutenant-Governor Oliver. Dartmouth again promised to present it to the King and hoped that “every ground of uneasiness will cease.”[18] He said any action on the petition could not be taken until the Privy Council reconvened in January 1774.

At that meeting, the petition was dismissed.

Dartmouth took time off between September and November 1773. He returned home, tended to his estates and spent time with his family. Little did he know that his second year in office would be no easier than his first.


[1] “Mrs. Delany to Mrs. Dewes, 31 January 1756,” in The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, Lady Llanover, ed., (London: R. Bentley, 1861-62), 3:405-6.

[2] Dartmouth to Newcastle, January 14, 1755, British Museum, Additional Manuscripts, 32,852, f. 168.

[3] Dartmouth’s reply Draft to Rockingham, July 8, 1765, Dartmouth Manuscripts 818, William Salt Library, Stafford, England.

[4] Newcastle to Rockingham, July 12, 1765, Letters and Papers of the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments R. 1: f. 246, Sheffield Library, Sheffield, England.

[5] “Barrington to Governor Bernard, 8 June 1766,” in Edward Channing and A.C. Coolidge, eds., Barrington-Bernard Correspondence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1912), 108.

[6] “Dartmouth to De Berdt, 13 August 1766,” in William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 1:46-7.

[7] Dartmouth to Rockingham, November 20, 1769, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 312.

[8] Dartmouth to Lord Guilford, January 6, 1769, North Manuscripts of the first Earl of Guilford, Guilford Correspondence d.12 ff. 47-48, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.

[9] “Lord North to King George III, 16 January 1771,” in John Fortescue, Correspondence of King George the Third, 1760-1783 (London: J. Murray, 1928), 2:208.

[10] Guilford to Dartmouth, 18 January 1771,” Dartmouth Manuscripts, 336.

[11] Lord North to Dartmouth, August 3, 1772, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 373.

[12] Dartmouth to Lord Guilford, October 12, 1772, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 378.

[13] “Copy of the King’s Instructions, 4 September 1772,” Dartmouth Manuscripts, 410.

[14] “Admiral Keppel to Rockingham, September, 1772,” in Thomas Keppel, Life of Augustus Viscount Keppel (London: H. Colburn, 1842), 1:409.

[15] Interview of May 5, 1773, reported in “Franklin to Cushing, 6 May 1773,” in Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (New York: McMillan, 1890-07), 6:48.

[16] Dartmouth to Hutchinson, April 10, 1773, Dartmouth Manuscripts, 596.

[17] Dartmouth to Cushing, June 19, 1773,” Dartmouth Manuscripts, 641.

[18] “Dartmouth to Franklin, 25 August 1773,” The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 6:281.

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