While the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was on holiday in the summer of 1774, his office continued to receive and send communications concerning the political divergence with the American colonies. The general issues were the Quebec Act, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, the Non-Importation Agreement, the dissolution of Parliament, and the Proclamation Prohibiting the Importation of Gunpowder, Saltpeter, and Ammunition into the Colonies. Most of the communications fell into one of two categories: those from unofficial correspondents and those from official correspondents. The former usually emphasized the strength and unity of the colonial opposition. For example, on September 25, Joseph Reed of Philadelphia wrote to Dartmouth,
Unless some plan of accommodation can be speedily formed the affection of the colonists will be irrecoverably lost . . . if blood be once spilled we shall be involved in all the horrors of a civil war. [Such a war] will require a greater power than Great Britain can spare, and it will be one continued conflict, till depopulation and destruction follow your victories, or the Colonies establish themselves in some sort of independence.
The latter came from governors who frequently emphasized the spirit of factionalism and the lack of colonial unity. On August 29, Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire reported that copies “of the non-importation agreement” were sent to all of the towns of the province; “some few generally subscribed, many others totally rejected it.”  On October 6, Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York reported, “I am well assured almost the whole inhabitants in the counties wish for moderate measures. They think the dispute with Great Britain is carried far enough and abhor the thoughts of pushing it to desperate lengths.” And on December 6, Gov. William Franklin of New Jersey reported, “The Proceedings of the Congress are not altogether satisfactory to many of the Inhabitants of the Colonies.” Faced with contrary information, Dartmouth had to decide which to rely upon—he chose the official correspondence. Both the unofficial and official correspondence was out-of-date, but little did he know the official was also inaccurate.
It became difficult for Dartmouth to convince the King and the Ministry about the state of the colonies because the information that Gen. Thomas Gage in Massachusetts sent back was contrary to what the other governors sent back: Civil government is near its end . . . We shall shortly be without law or legislative powers.” “Your Lordship will know from various accounts, the extremities to which Affairs are brought . . . the disease was believed to have been confined to the town of Boston, but now it is so universal there is no knowing where to apply a Remedy.” “The whole country in a ferment—many parts of it, I may say and ready to unite.”  The King insisted that Dartmouth inform Gage that “though the conflict is unpleasant, Great Britain cannot retract.”
Dartmouth, fearing war, was willing to listen to any plan of conciliation. Between October 1774 and February 1775, five plans were brought forth. Two were from America: “The New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania Plan for Commercial Reconciliation,” or Galloway Plan,  and “The New York Assembly’s Petition.” “Hints for Conversation upon the Subject of Terms that might probably produce a Durable Union between Great Britain and the Colonies” was from Franklin who was in England. Two were from Parliament: “A Provisional Act for Settling the Troubles of America, and for Asserting the Supreme Legislative Authority and Superintending Power of Great Britain over the Colonies,” William Pitt’s Proposal; and “The Resolution on Conciliation,” Lord North’s Proposal. The first plan was rejected by a vote of six to five in the Continental Congress; the second plan was denied a reading in the House of Commons on May 15 and in the House of Lords on May 18; the third plan contained seventeen terms of which Dartmouth accepted five, qualified his acceptance on nine, and rejected three; the fourth plan was rejected in the House of Lords by a vote of sixty-one to thirty-two; and the fifth plan was adopted but viewed by the hardliners in Parliament as too lenient, by the Whigs in Parliament as “insincere and insufficient,” and by the Continental Congress as a “proposition altogether unsatisfactory, because it imports only a suspension of the mode, not the renunciation of the pretended right to tax us.” Two other plans of merit were also proposed: Lord Barrington’s Plan and “An Expedient for the Settlement of the American Disputes Humbly Submitted for the Consideration of his Majesty’s Ministers,” or Richard Stockton’s Plan. Unfortunately it appears that Dartmouth gave them little consideration. On November 2, General Gage wrote to Dartmouth,
Your Lordship’s idea of disarming certain provinces would doubtless be consistent with Prudence and Safety, but it neither is nor had been practicable without having recourse to force, . . . I am assured if she (England) continues firm, and a respectable Army is sent in the Field, that numbers will declare themselves and join with the king’s troops.
Two weeks later, he wrote,
The proceedings of the Continental Congress astonish and terrify all considerate men; but I am confident that many of their resolutions neither can nor will be observed . . . there does not appear to be resolution and strength enough among the more sensible and moderate people in any of the provinces openly to reject them.
On November 18, the King confided in Lord North, the Prime Minister, “I am not sorry that the line of conduct seems now chalked out . . . the New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”  On December 15, the King informed Dartmouth,
Nothing can be more provoking than the conduct of the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay; some measures must undoubtedly be adopted after Christmas to curb them, and by degrees bring them to due obedience to the mother country, but reason not passion must point out the proper measures.
On December 21, Franklin and a group of agents, still seeking some avenue of reconciliation, presented the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” that the Congress had passed on October 14 and that had arrived in London on December 17 to Lord Dartmouth. Even though in his opinion the Congress was not a legally constituted assembly, he accepted the Declaration. “After a day’s Perusal, [he] told us it was a decent and proper Petition, and cheerfully undertook to present it to his Majesty.” Three days later, he “assur’d us, [the King] was pleased to receive it very graciously, and to promise to lay it before his two Houses of Parliament.”
On January 4, 1775, Dartmouth instructed all of the Colonial Governors to prevent the election of colonial delegates to the next Continental Congress:
Certain Persons, styling themselves delegates of his Majesty’s colonies in America, having presumed, without his Majesty’s authority or consent, to assemble together at Philadelphia, in the months of September and October last; and having thought fit, among other unwarrantable proceedings, to resolve that it will be necessary that another Congress should be held on the 10th of May next, unless redress for certain pretended grievances be obtained before, and to recommend that all the colonies in North America should choose delegates to attend such Congress. I am commanded by the King to signify to you his Majesty’s pleasure, that you do use your utmost endeavours to prevent such appointment of deputies within the colony under your government.
On January 18, Gage wrote to Dartmouth, “The eyes of all are turned upon Great Britain and it is the opinion of most people that if a respectable force is seen in the field, the most obnoxious of the leaders seized, and a pardon proclaimed for all others, government will come off victorious.”
On January 19, Governor William Tryon of New York wrote to Dartmouth, “[I] believe the Americans will not henceforth accept Parliamentary Taxation in any form, or consume any British articles even if forced to receive them. [I] cannot agree with his Lordship’s idea of holding out the olive branch in one hand and the rod of chastisement in the other. Half measures will not do.”
By this time it was clear that General Gage and Dartmouth did not communicate well with each other. Too often Gage would wait “with impatience for further orders as offensive measures [were] becoming necessary” while Dartmouth would send policy and position statements. The reports that the King and Privy Council were receiving from General Gage via Dartmouth were frustrating, infrequent and raised the question of his competency. The King wanted the “measures” he spoke of on December 15 put in place. This is what led Dartmouth to write a secret dispatch to General Gage on January 27.
The dispatch addressed the wishes of the King, that is, the “further orders” Gage had been awaiting: “The first & essential step to be taken towards re-establishing Government, would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors & abettors in the Provincial Congress;” “It is His Majesty’s Care . . . to send you . . . such Reinforcements of the Army;” “Upon no account suffer the Inhabitants of at least the Town of Boston to assemble themselves in arms on any pretence whatever, either of town guard or Militia duty;” “exercise the Law-Martial;” as well as the policy and position statements of the Ministry. “The King’s Dignity, & the Honor and Safety of the Empire, require, that, in such a Situation, Force should be repelled by Force,” “the Authority of this Kingdom must be supported, & the Execution of its Laws enforced,” and “with regard to the state of America in general, affairs there are now come to a crisis in which the Government of this Country must act with firmness and decision.” Dartmouth also included a couple of “saving clauses” relieving him of any direct responsibility if such action led to a more general conflict: “It is understood, however, after all I have said, that this matter which must be left up to your own Discretion to be executed or not as you shall, upon weighing all Circumstances, and the advantages and disadvantages on one side, and the other, think most advisable” and “the exercise of that power [Law-Martial] is strictly justifiable, but the Expediency and Propriety of adopting such a Measure must depend upon your own Discretion under many Circumstances that can only be judged of upon the Spot.”
Even though the dispatch was composed and approved, it was not sent immediately. Dartmouth had been working secretly with Lord Hyde (an advisor to Lord North), David Barclay, John Fothergill and Benjamin Franklin on a plan for reconciliation. Franklin had been asked “to put pen to paper” regarding those issues that needed to be addressed before any reconciliation could occur. He titled the document “Considerations.” Fothergill, physician to both Dartmouth and Franklin, delivered the document to Dartmouth during the second week of December. Because one week later Franklin was presenting to Dartmouth the Continental Congress’s “Rights and Grievances,” it was decided to let some time pass before seeking a response to the “Considerations.” On February 4, they received a document entitled “Remarks.” It was an evaluation of the seventeen Considerations. Five were found acceptable, nine needed to be modified, and three were found unacceptable. The failure to acknowledge the supremacy of Parliament was the primary stumbling block for Dartmouth. On February 6, Fothergill wrote to Dartmouth
I wish it had been in my power to have informed My Noble Friend that our negotiations had been successful; But it is not. Our difficultys arose from the American Acts . . . as a concession to pay a tax was the sine qua nonon this side, so a rescinding of those acts, or repealing then, is the term of reconciliation on the other.
While Dartmouth had been quietly seeking a plan of reconciliation, Lord North was preparing the way in Parliament so the dispatch could be sent as soon as possible. On February 17, he introduced a bill in the House of Commons to restrict the trade of the New England colonies to Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies and to prohibit the colonists from fishing off Newfoundland banks. It was in response to the Non-Importation Agreement adopted by the colonies as well as to the resistance and civil unrest in the colonies. It would pass in the House of Commons on March 8. When it arrived in the House of Lords, Dartmouth moved that it be sent directly to a committee and read for the final time a few days later. It was passed on March 21. At the same time, the Privy Council had to approve a declaration that the colony of Massachusetts was in open rebellion. On February 2, North introduced a motion in the House of Commons for an address to the king that requested him “to take the most effectual measures to enforce obedience to the laws and authority of the Supreme Legislature.” On February 6, the House approved the proclamation and the next day the House of Lords did the same. All that remained was for the Privy Council to approve the proclamation.
Everything that was stated in the dispatch was now in place or would be in place when the dispatch finally arrived in America. Adverse winds, however, prevented the ship carrying the dispatch from departing for better than a week. The ship, the Falcon,arrived in Boston harbor on April 16. Gage, unsuccessful in his efforts to capture the military stores at Salem, Massachusetts on February 26, could now redeem himself by capturing the military stores at Concord three days later.
On February 20, Lord North presented in the House of Commons his Resolution on Conciliation. North had consulted Dartmouth on many of the points when it was being drafted.
Resolved, that when the . . . Assembly or General Court of any of his Majesty’s Colonies in America shall propose to make provision . . .for contributing their proportion to the common defence . . . for the support of the Civil Government, and the Administration of Justice, it will be proper if such proposal shall be approved by his Majesty and the two Houses of Parliament, and for so long as such provision shall be made accordingly, to forbear . . . to levy a Duty, Tax, or Assessment, or to impose any farther Duty, Tax or Assessment, except only such as it may be expedient to continue to levy or impose for the regulation of commerce.
Parliament approved the resolution on February 27. Dartmouth forwarded copies of it to all of the colonial governors along with a personal note strongly recommending its acceptance.  In his letter to Francis Legge, Governor of Nova Scotia, he wrote
I trust that the firmness which has appeared in the nation to preserve the colonies in a state of due dependence, tempered with that indulgence, in point of taxation, which is so properly held out in the . . . resolution of the Commons, will convince the Americans of the error of their conduct and have the effect to restore the public tranquility.
He viewed the Resolution as “a policy of reconciliation and coercion.”
Lord Barrington, like Dartmouth, was concerned with the direction that things were headed. He asked Dartmouth to pose the following two questions to the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General for their opinions: “As to whether, in the present situation of Massachusetts, the troops may act without direction from a civil magistrate against persons unlawfully in arms,” and [Are they] still of the opinion that the Habeas Corpus Act should be suspended in New England and persons taken up in America for high treason be brought to this country for trial?”
Their response was short and direct: “by virtue of the power already given to [military leaders] by his Majesty’s special commission under the Great Sea,”  their orders in all cases relative to the operation of troops must be obeyed. This position was extraordinary. First, it gave unchecked authority to a military leader in all military matters of operation, and second, military authority was placed over civil authority.
Edmund Burke, a supporter of many of the colonists’ positions but also a supporter of the principle of the Supremacy of Parliament, was the last member of Parliament to put forth a plan for reconciliation. On March 22 in the House of Commons, he presented a plan to “conciliate and concede” to the colonies without making England appear weak.
The Proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war, not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations, not peace to arise out of universal discord . . . It is simple peace, sought in its natural course and in its ordinary haunts … the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again . . . [By the use of force] you impair the object by your endeavors to preserve it. The thing you fought for is not the thing which you recover, but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed by the contest.
His plan involved six propositions; before the day was over each was voted down, one at a time. Between Dartmouth’s letter of January 27, North’s “Resolution” of February 20, the New England Trade and Fisheries Act, and the unsuccessful attempt by Burke, it would seem that Parliament had no other object than to coerce the colonies into submission, even if it resulted in war. On March 29, Dartmouth wrote Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson that he was “very apprehensive that the New England people will resist the King’s troops.”
On April 7, Dartmouth directed General Gage to try “to convince the people under your government of the dreadful delusion they have suffered themselves to be drawn into, and to show them that if they come to be involved in the miseries of civil war, it will be the consequence of their own intemperance and folly.” He stated that “compulsive force, with which every government must be armed for the support of its authority” was to be used as a last resort and only after the failure of “reason and argument.”
Dartmouth would not learn of the confrontations at Lexington and Concord until he received a letter, dated May 6, from William Franklin, the governor of New Jersey. Franklin questioned why Gage precipitated an open conflict and believed that the events at Lexington and Concord would prevent the resolution from getting a fair hearing in the assemblies.
It is highly probable that General Gage must have had very strong Reasons, or he would not have sent out the Party to Concord, and risk’d the commencing Hostilities, at a Time when all His Majesty;s Governors on the Continent had Directions . . . to promote an amicable Settlement of the present unhappy Difference . . . [I] expected that previous to the Commencement of any military Operations, the Assembly of Massachusetts would have been called, and that the Governor would have laid before them the resolution of the House of Commons . . . and explained it in the manner mentioned in your lordship’s Circular Dispatch . . . yet it is greatly to be regretted that the late Skirmish happened at the Time it did, as it has, in its Consequences, proved one of the most unlucky Incidents that could have occurred in the present Situation of Affairs. It will be a Means of retarding, if not entirely defeating the Wishes & Measures of His Majesty for a happy Reconciliation.
Dartmouth wrote back that the “happy moment of advantage is lost and, instead of reconciliation, all North America, except Quebec, Nova Scotia, Georgia, and the Floridas is in arms against Great Britain and committed in rebellion that menaces to overthrow the constitution.”
His response was written three weeks before General Gage’s private letter concerning the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which he wrote, “the number killed and wounded is greater, than our forces can afford to lose . . . the trials we have had show the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be . . . the conquest of this country [will not be] easy, and can be affected only by time, perseverance and strong armies.”
On July 5, Dartmouth wrote “not only the four New England governments are in arms, but that almost every other colony has ‘catched’ the flame, and a spirit of rebellion has gone forth that menaces the subversion of the Constitution.”
On that same day in Philadelphia, one final attempt at reconciliation was made by Congress. It came to be called the Olive Branch Petition. They agreed to strict regulation of trade if England would give up their power to tax them. They hoped to return to the state that existed between the colonies and the mother country before 1763. On July 8, the Petition was formally signed and Richard Penn was commissioned to deliver it to London. While he was en route, Dartmouth expressed to his under-secretary William Knox that
I rather wish than expect a settlement of our differences upon the ground of the terms stated in the article from Philadelphia [reference to a newspaper article]. However, I see no reason why we may not set our feet upon that or any ground that can be given, and though both sides will have a great way to go before they will be within the sound of each other’s voice, it is not impossible that they may come near enough to shake hands at last. If they mean to admit duties for regulation of trade, and will add to the revenue for the support of civil government, and such military force as they shall themselves desire to have among them, I think we may soon be agreed.
Sadly, he did not realize that the time for such aspirations had passed. On August 21, Richard Penn accompanied by Arthur Lee sent an unofficial copy of the Petition to Lord Dartmouth’s office. Dartmouth was out of town but upon learning of the document promised to “return to London in a day or two” and meet with them. Dartmouth did not return to his office to receive the official copy until twelve days later on September 1. In the meantime, on August 23, the Privy Council approved the proclamation given to them by Parliament on February 6 stating that Massachusetts was in a state of open rebellion. When Dartmouth arrived back in London, he still met with Penn and Lee, accepted the formal Petition, and promised to deliver it to the king. While Penn and Lee were awaiting a response from the king, Dartmouth laid the Petition before the House of Lords. During the debate he responded to the Duke of Richmond who wished the Petition to be accepted:
If the silence was construed into a disapprobation of the Petition, it was . . . a very justifiable construction. The Petition, in terms, was unexceptionable, but there was every reason to believe that the softness of the language was purposely adopted to conceal the most traitorous designs.
In other words, Dartmouth, very likely speaking on behalf of the King and Council, stated that there was so little trust and understanding left between the colonies and Britain that the words of the Petition could not be believed.
Dartmouth was entering a stage in the conflict that he had not signed up for. He had entered public service in 1772 to support his step-brother’s administration. His three greatest obstacles while in office were the inaccurate reports that he received from the colonies, the time it took to send and receive communications from the colonies, and the entrenched conservatives in the Privy Council as well as Parliament. He sincerely sought reconciliation, but it could never be at the expense of the Supremacy of Parliament. He did not always agree with everything in a bill, but he did his job and ordered its enforcement by the governors. Lord Dartmouth was not a minister of war or advocate, once war broke out, for the new doctrine of unconditional submission; he was, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, “truly a good man, and wishes sincerely a good Understanding with the Colonies, but does not seem to have Strength [that is, the power and influence] equal to his Wishes.”
On November 10, Dartmouth stepped down as Secretary-of-State for the American Colonies.
“Joseph Reed to Dartmouth, September 25, 1774,” William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: 1847), 1: 77. It took six weeks on average for a ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean each way, and two weeks before a response was secured in London. The dates identified in this article are when a letter or dispatch was written, not when it was received.
“Memorandum on Chatham’s Plan for Conciliation,” ibid., 21: 463. When Lord Chatham was finished, Lord Dartmouth rose and said a “Matter of such Weight and Magnitude requir’[d] much consideration and so [he] was willing to let it lye upon the Table.” Lords Sandwich, Hillsborough, and Gower immediately condemned the plan. Lord Chatham had his supporters, but their voices were not enough. After a number of opinions were aired, Lord Dartmouth rose and said after hearing so many against the proposal decided to change his position.
“Circular Letter from Earl of Dartmouth to the American Governors, January 4, 1775,” The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Library, 2004), 9: 1108.
“Lord Barrington to Lord Dartmouth, February 24, 1775,” Historical Manuscripts Commission, 11th Report, Appendix, Part V, 1: 273; “Lord Barrington to Lord Dartmouth, April 1, 1775,” ibid., 1: 285.