Should the War Continue? The Motion in the House of Commons, December 12, 1781

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

September 1, 2022
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Following the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, the House of Commons began to debate whether or not the war should continue. There were three separate attempts over a period of two and a half months to end the war. This article presents the first attempt, that is, the first motion, the first debate and the eventual first vote, as recorded in William Cobbett’s The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 from which Last-mentioned Epoch it is Continued Downwards in the Work Entitled ‘Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates.’[1] Cobbett compiled the information for his work “from [Parliamentary] Records, the Rolls of Parliament, the Parliamentary or Constitutional History, and from the most reputable English Historians”[2]; it was not a collected from reports published in magazines or from the notes of individuals who sat in the chamber’s gallery. This article contains no analysis or interpretation of the speeches; rather, it represents a factual reconstruction of each side that participated in the debate, the sole editorialization being to condense each argument in the interests of space and clarity.

The Motion

Baron James Lowther (MP for Westmoreland, with estates in Cumberland, Barbados and Whitehaven; when he came of age considered the richest commoner in England)

rose to make a motion[3] to enquire, whether they were to persevere in this war, and feed it with more British treasure, and British blood . . . The country was drained, exhausted, dejected . . . The Speech from the throne . . . shewed them that ministers were determined to persevere in spite of calamity[4] . . . That the surrender of an army only gave them spirit to risk and lose a second; and the surrender of a second instigated them but to venture a third . . . The general voice of the people of England was against them, and still they persevered . . . They would cease to be the representatives of the people, and become the representatives of the minister[5] . . . The war carried on in the colonies and plantations of North America has proved ineffectual either to the protection of his Majesty’s loyal subjects in the said colonies, or for defeating the dangerous designs of our enemies . . . This leads to a second proposition . . . All further attempts to reduce the revolted colonies to obedience are contrary to the true interests of this kingdom, as tending to weaken its efforts against its ancient and powerful enemies.

Mr. Thomas Powys (MP for Northhamptonshire; did not accept a position in the Rockingham, the Shelburne, or the Fox Administrations) seconded the motion:

We had persevered in this war against the voice of reason and wisdom, against experience that ought to teach, against calamity that ought to make us feel . . . The illusion which had filled the minds of some gentlemen with the hope of seeing America reduced to her former obedience to this country was now no more . . . The reduction of America, by force, was impracticable . . . That ministers should persevere in the mad plan of pursuing the phantom of conquest in America was not at all surprising to him; on the contrary, it was extremely natural; because to the war they owed their situations and their emoluments, and by a peace they must lose them . . . It was a war in which every conclusion was against us; in which we had suffered every thing; without gaining any thing. We weakened no enemy by our efforts: We exhausted no rival by distressing ourselves . . . Ministers [claimed] . . . It was not a war of ambition, of avarice, of rancour. We never designed nor wished to reduce America by force . . . [the] Minister had said one thing one day—and with grave faces said the direct contrary the next. It was now a war of this sort, then a war of that sort; now a war of revenue then a war of supremacy; now a war of coercion . . . This was not a time for men to group together, or indulge in the narrow-minded distinction of party, when every honest heart and hand in the kingdom should . . . unite in one powerful body, to avert the wreck with which this unhappy country was so immanently threatened . . . It was time, therefore, for parliament to interfere, and to prevent that total ruin, which the measures of [this] administration could not fail to bring on.

The Debate

Lord Frederick North (Prime Minister)

rose to give his opinion. The motions of the hon. baron were fair, moderate, free from passion, not founded on personal resentment, and therefore, as far as the style of them was in question, perfectly unexceptionable. How far they were just . . . necessary . . . and prudent or politic for the House to accede to . . . were very different considerations . . . Our government is more favourable to our enemy[6] in point of affording them information, than if it were more arbitrary; . . . we proclaim in Parliament how we mean to conduct ourselves in our ensuing campaign . . . He was willing to declare his sincere and honest opinion, that it would not be wise nor right to go on with the American war as we have done, that was to say, to send armies to traverse from the south to the north of the provinces in their interior parts . . . which had failed to producing the intended and the desired effect . . . he [however] would not agree to the motions, for they put an end to the American war in every shape, and crippled the hands of government even in other respects . . . in the first place he observed, that the wording of it was so general and loose . . . The words . . . were to resolve against “all further attempts to reduce the American provinces to obedience by force.” Must [we] not retain any posts in the colonies . . . for that would evidently be said to tend to reduce the Americans to obedience by force . . . If we keep these posts, we must garrison them, and as long as they are garrisoned, we must be liable to attacks, and consequently be under a necessity of waging a defensive war . . . It absolutely prohibited [the] government from acting even against the armed ships and the privateers of America . . . Were we ready to order the British ships to suffer themselves to be insulted, beaten, taken by the American cruisers without striking a blow . . . Without knowing what America would do, we must withdraw our armies, withdraw our ships, give up to them all their ports, open to them all the seas, suffer them to give what encouragement or what assistance they please to the enemies of this country, while we are tied up by a resolution of parliament . . . It was therefore his opinion that to adopt the motions would be the height of impolicy and absurdity.

Sir Fletcher Norton (Former Speaker of the House of Commons)

spoke in answer to the noble lord. He said the motions were made because they could not trust his Majesty’s ministers . . . The noble lord said they were not to traverse, as they had done from the south to the north . . . But what security had the parliament or the nation for any assertion of this sort? Had not these ministers, these very identical ministers, pursued this traversing scheme from year to year, against the voice and against the wish of the people . . . And they now asked the representatives of the people to trust them further . . . All that the hon. gentleman wanted was for the House to declare, that they would no longer pursue the object of the war . . . from the continual decrease of our trade and commerce, ever since it was commenced, from the fruitless expenditure of so many millions, from the loss of so much blood, from the diminished and degraded state of the empire, he had not a doubt left on his mind, and he was convinced every man, who would seriously lay his hand on his heart . . . would coincide with him in opinion, that the constitutional interference of that House was absolutely necessary.

Mr. Wellbore Ellis (MP for Weymouth and the next Secretary of State for the Colonies)

thought that the House, in adopting the resolution, would be guilty of a political suicide . . . As to the withdrawing the troops from America, it was a measure to which he could not consent. It had always been a favourite maxim of policy with this country, to keep the war at a distance from home; this maxim could be pursued on the present war, by keeping the troops in America . . . He could not persuade himself that the gentlemen who supported the motions had maturely considered the consequence that would attend the carrying of them into a resolution of the House . . . if the hands of the executive power were in a manner bound up by a resolution of the House from acts of hostility against America, without any condition or previous negotiation with them for certain pacification, what could possibly prevent them from seizing on our possessions in the neighborhood of the continent? Nothing. On the contrary . . . from so weak a step as this now recommended, would doubtless urge them to direct their utmost force, when left unrestrained, to do us all the mischief they could . . . and we should have the mortification to see the French and Americans joined in the West Indies or perhaps joined in the Channel?

Lord John Townshend (MP for Cambridge University and nephew of Charles Townshend, author of the Townshend Acts)

reprobated in most severe terms, the total misconduct, ignorance, and mad obstinacy of his Majesty’s ministers; and exhorted the House by every consideration of duty and attachment to this country, to agree to the motions as the only practicable means of putting an end to the accursed war with our colonies . . . The noble lord in the blue ribbon, and the noble secretary for the American department, were determined to persevere, in spite of opposition. They were obstinately leagued together, bent on the pursuit of this mad war against their country . . . The noble lords in administration had the presumption to ask further confidence and further supplies from that House, and to expect that a justly exasperated nation would still remain patient under their misfortunes . . . He ascribed the disgraces [to] . . . the weakness and wickedness of [the] administration, who had plunged this nation into an unnecessary war, which they had conducted in so wretched a manner, that it proved . . . their utter incapacity to govern this or any other country . . . He mentioned the petitions and remonstrances of the people, and asked if it was consistent with the duty of that House to act in direct contradiction to the known wishes of their constituents . . . As it appeared to him likely to meet the desires of the people, and answer a good purpose, he would certainly give it his hearty support.

Mr. James Grenville (MP for Buckingham; later appointed Lord of the Treasury by Rockingham and retained under Shelburne)

supported the motion, and quoted some words which the late Lord Chatham had let fall in the House of Peers upon the unfortunate affair at Saratoga, when he called upon parliament to relinquish this mad war: “has some dreadful inundation, has some tremendous earthquake swallowed half the empire, that the nation should stand thus deprived of sense and motion” What would have been the feelings, what would have been the expressions of that eloquent patriot, had he lived to see a second Saratoga business, still more destructive and terrible in its consequences than that which was then before his eyes! His sympathetic bosom, which beat ever in unison with pulse of the commonwealth, would have been too full of utterance on so calamitous an occasion. It would . . . have bade you pursue the measure, which was now so wisely, and after so much melancholy experience, offered to the consideration of the House.

Sir Edward Dering (MP for New Romney and had familial ties with Lord North)

expressed his confidence in the present ministers . . . He considered himself to be an independent man . . . as incapable as any man of giving support to measures of which he disapproved. He thought what the noble lord had said was perfectly satisfactory . . . He considered the commencement of the war to have been just and necessary; and because he had hoped that it was possible to have brought it to a happy conclusion. But as people in general were tired of the expence, and the burthens that expence occasioned, he thought the noble lord had acted wisely in declaring that he meant to change the mode of carrying it on.

Viscount James Maitland (MP for Newport; close friend of Charles James Fox)

said, that, in considering the present question, he should endeavour to forget the numberless disasters which had befallen us during the course of this unfortunate administration, and confine himself merely to views of the present moment . . . These men who had come forward in happier times, and who had flourished in the sunshine of our fortune, would undoubtedly have their regret in observing, that their country like themselves, was in its decay and approaching to its dissolution . . . But what must be the affliction, what the indignation of those young men just entering into life with the warm hopes of enjoying the splendour and the happiness attendant on him who could boast himself the member of the greatest and the freest empire on the earth, deprived in his very outset of this enjoyment of his birth-right, of his privileges . . . he was astonished and confounded at seeing his Majesty’s ministers supported by any man blest with the generous passions, and warmed with the rich ambition of youth; he wondered how a young man could be found so indifferent or so corrupt as to think of the present ministers without abhorrence and indignation . . . The ministers, he said, falsely and wickedly, declared the American war to have been popular in its origin. Was it popular? Did the great body of the people approve of the unconstitutional principle leading to a destructive end? He believed not . . . Whatever doubt there might be of the original popularity, there could be none of the present abhorrence . . . The noble lord said there was a maxim in the British constitution . . . “that the King could do no wrong.” This made the ministers responsible for every measure of government . . . The present administration had reversed this wise maxim. They had endeavoured to change responsibility from where it should lie to where it should not. They had converted acquiescence into counsel, and said the people were responsible for all the consequences of the American war, because they approved of it in its origin . . . The noble lord . . . concluded with a warm appeal to the House, to do that at last which they ought to have done at first, to hold a bold, constitutional language to those ministers, and tell them, Thus far you have gone with our tame acquiescence, but do not dare to provoke us further: if you reject our advice, you may feel our vengeance.

Mr. Calvert (MP for Tamworth and supporter of William Pitt, the Younger)

said, that treaties to be binding, ought to be mutual: in all treaties of peace, there were two or more contracting parties, and if one party in the war was not as willing to make peace as the other, it was next to an impossibility for a safe peace to take place.

General John Burgoyne (the general that was defeated at the Battle of Saratoga)

said, that he [would] make use of an allusion to a practice very common in war, and compare it to the conduct and reasoning of the minister: the practice was to set fire to a great quantity of wet and damaged stores, in order to blind the enemy with the smoke, and make them think that some great works were carrying on behind the fire; but when the smoke was blown away, it often appeared that nothing of consequence had been done, and that it had been merely a maneuvre to cover a change of place or to gain time; so with ministers, they made a great smoke in argument, but it meant just nothing . . . he wished to consider the question . . . whether posts could be kept up in America without an offensive war . . . A place d’armes could be of use only to serve as an inlet into the country: It was in this point of view that New-York was to be seen . . . But were we going to establish such a species of place d’armes at 3,000 miles distance from England, while the most famous place d’armes of the like nature was on the point of being wrested from us . . . Gibraltar . . . that important fortress was left to the mercy of the enemy, while we were pursuing the wildest schemes in America; The impracticability of [the war] was a sufficient justification for supporting the motion . . . I am convinced, upon comparing the conduct of ministers, as time has developed their system, that the American war was but a part of a general design levelled against the constitution of this country, and the general right of mankind.

Sir William Dolben (MP for Oxford University)

said, that the resolutions were moderate, temperate, and senatorial, they criminated no person; they had no retrospect; but, as they ought to do, looked forward: however, he was of [the] opinion that the first contained too melancholy a truth, to go out to the world under the sanction of the House; and the second he thought was premature . . . Gentlemen seemed to differ on the meaning of some particular words in the resolutions; he wished that both sides could come to proper understanding on the subject . . . If he understood the honourable seconder rightly, his wish was to have the minister give the House a satisfactory assurance that government would not persist in prosecuting that mad and frantic war, the War with America, in an offensive manner . . . He said, that the declaration of the noble lord in the blue ribbon appeared to him to be tantamount to an assurance fully answerable to the hon. gentleman’s expectation. The noble lord had satisfied his mind, and had induced him to give his consent to the subsequent motion for the order of the day. If the noble lord had not given that assurance, but had left the House in the dark with respect to the future system, he should certainly have voted for the motions, for he was heartily tired of the American war.

Colonel Isaac Barre (MP for Caine, opponent of colonial taxation and considered the author of the term “Sons of Liberty”)

said, that the arguments used on the other side of the House, and the estimates, were delusive and imposing. The estimates for the plantations were for 6,000 fewer soldiers than for the last year; but then the numbers for garrisons more; and for the East-Indies about 9,000. Now, it is well known, that though these men should be voted for India, the executive power had an undoubted right to change their destination; and, if thought proper, to send the 9,000 to America; and therefore, without such a resolution as had been proposed, there was no security that the American war was not to be carried on to the full extent that it had been for years past.

Charles James Fox (MP for Westminster, former Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)

could not agree with [a] gentleman, who would confine the eyes of parliament to a forward view of matters, neglecting a retrospect. He said he could only judge of the future by a consideration of the past. To those who asserted the impolicy of the motion, on the score of its intention of unconditionally withdrawing our forces from attacking the Americans, he answered, that no other prudent measure could, in the nature of things, be adopted; since the Americans could not make their first overtures to us, without madly rendering themselves suspected by their new allies; whereas if we began the pacification first, it would tend not only to give them a confidence in us, but also to sow doubts and jealousies in the breasts of the French and Spaniards . . . He described, in very strong colours, the misfortunes that must accrue from a war of posts. He said, that if New York, for instance, was made a post, it would require 15,000 men to garrison it, besides a number of ships, for without [the] ships he understood it would not be safe . . . Experience had told us that the garrison could not be supplied with provisions even, much less with stores and ammunition in America. They must be regularly supplied from Europe, and not having the superiority at sea, the whole fleet of Britain must be employed in conveying the transports to and from New York. To do this, and to relieve Gibraltar, would be the great operations of every campaign, and we should have Gazettes extraordinary publishing the triumph of our escapes, and our wonderful success in avoiding, or in brushing past the enemy. Such, alas! Were the triumphs of the present ministry. It was not their boasts that they had brought home conquests to their own country; that they had taken the islands of our enemies; that they had crippled their fleets, or destroyed their operations. No all their pride and their loud triumph was: “we have relieved Gibraltar,” and when this war of posts was instituted, it would be: “we have relieved New York”

Viscount Henry Dundas (MP for Midlothian and Lord (King’s) Advocate)

said, that when the noble lord declared that ministers would no longer pursue the phantom of an internal, offensive war in America, they fully and effectually satisfied his mind. He professed that he would have voted against the noble lord if he had not been so explicit, and if he had seemed to have inclined to prosecute the old system . . . He relied on the noble lord’s declaration; both from the high opinion which he had of his veracity, as well as from seeing that the declaration was confirmed by the estimates on the table. The mode of the war therefore was to be totally changed: but were the House ready to do what the last hon. gentleman advised, to abandon America totally, to give up all our posts, to withdraw all our troops, to deprive ourselves even of the advantages of chance, and in short to suffer America calmly and composedly to rivet her connection with France? He believed the House was not yet ready to go this length. He was willing openly to avow that . . . fatal experience had convinced him of the impracticability of reducing America to obedience by those means which he had pursued. He was for changing the modes but not for relinquishing the object.

Mr. Edmund Burke (MP for Bristol and pre-eminent and most prolific orator of his time)

made some facetious observations on the elegance of the learned lord’s panegyric, and on the unfortunate reception with which it had met. He was sorry, that after having suffered so much under the noble lord’s administration, the House was not in the humour to hear his panegyric . . . He said, that the only alteration which was promised that day, was, that the mode of the war should be changed. An American war you must have; but because you have grown dissatisfied with the manner in which it has hitherto been carried on, we will change the plan, but it shall be the same war; we have squandered 70 millions in one way, we shall now squander 70 millions more in another, we have well nigh ruined the empire in one way, we will complete its ruin in another. Your diet shall be differently dressed, but it shall still be the American war . . . We must prosecute this American war; but no human being could discover what sort of war it was to be. He spoke with great force in favour of the motions as necessary to be adopted for the satisfaction of parliament and of the people; and adverted to the relaxed and shameless system of government throughout every part of the dominions.

Lord George Germain (MP, Member of the Priy Council, Former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, First Lord Commissioner of the Board of Trade and presently, the Secretary of State for the Colonies)

came to a consideration of the question before the House, to which he said, he certainly should object, because it went to a total relinquishment of the American war, which he conceived to be a project equally weak, impracticable and dangerous. He agreed fully with the noble lord in the blue ribbon, that in the present situation of the war, it was advisable to change the mode of it . . . As he regarded the motion as amounting to a resolution to abandon the American war altogether, he made no scruple to avow, that if the House came into it, he would immediately retire . . . he never would be the minister to sign any instrument which gave independence to America. His opinion ever had been . . . that the moment the House acknowledged the independence of America the British empire was ruined . . . he had rather abide the censure of that House than be the instrument of injuring the constitution of this country . . . I wish most heartily, if a change of ministers is aimed at, and thought necessary, that it may be done in the true constitutional way.

Mr. George Byng (MP for Middlesex and served as Rockingham’s Whip in the House of Commons)

was ready to avow and declare his opinion to that House and to all the world, that the noble lord would by the prosecution of his system leave us no country . . . The noble lord said, “impeach me then; why do you not impeach me?” Let the noble lord look round him, and he will see the reasons why he is not impeached. He will see a band of hired men ready to support him, or any minister who will pay them, against all the consequences of the American war. Give us an honest parliament, and then let us see if the noble lord would desire to find his security in impeachment.

Mr. Thomas Pitt (MP for Old Sarum, Nephew of William Pitt the Elder and strong opponent of Lord North’s Ministry)

strongly urged the propriety of adopting the propositions of the hon. baronet, and of giving to their country a convincing testimony that they were determined no longer to support ministers in the ruinous war in which they had involved us.

Sir John Wrottesley (MP for Staffordshire and proposed an end to the war on December 6, 1779)

said, he should vote against the motion in consequence of what had fallen from the noble lord in the blue ribbon. He advised the House to come to no resolution on the subject till lord Cornwallis returned to represent the real state of the country, and give them some authentic information to the practicability of the war.

Sir John Delaval (MP for Berwick on Tweed and Baron of Seaton Delaval)

said, if the noble lord had not given the assurance which he did, he would not have voted for the motions proposed, but he would have objected to the carrying on of the war. He thought the declaration in the motions no longer to continue the war was too indefinite. How, without some force, could our remaining possessions be defended? We might entertain more reasonable expectations of extricating ourselves from our difficulties . . . than by a supine despondency . . . He wished . . . every gentleman would resolve to give his best assistance to the putting an end to the American war, but hoped that the House would not make so timid a declaration, as that we would no longer carry it on. He thought it wise and necessary to abandon it (the war), but imprudent and impolitic to declare it by a vote in the House.

Mr. John Dunning (MP for Calne and opposed the ministerial policies towards the American colonies)

He was not ready, he said, to give up the dependency of America; he thought that the ruin of this country was accomplished when America was acknowledged to be independent: he agreed that it was not possible to tell what posts should be kept, and what should be abandoned. Ministers had the intelligence, and knew best, but he thought that our troops should not be withdrawn without great consideration, and that we should be cautious how we decided upon a measure so big with fate of the empire . . . He concluded with earnestly calling on Lord North to explain his words more fully, as different gentlemen had declared, that they had understood him differently.

Mr. Charles Turner (MP for York, self-described

as an Old-Fashioned Whig and irreconcilable opponent of the American war) ‘spoke in favour of the motion, and said, he had always wished the American success, and was pleased when he heard of Lord Cornwallis’s defeat and capture, as he hoped it would put an end to our further persecuting our fellow subjects. He said the Americans ought to be treated as men treated their pointers. Who ever heard of breaking a pointer by force? Every body knew the only way was to coax the animal, and intice him to do his duty.

The Vote

At 2:00 am. the debate came to an end and the vote was taken. 220 members of the House were against the motion—179 members were for the motion. Baron James Lowther’s motion was defeated.

The next day King George III sent the following letter to Lord North, dated December 13:

I was rather disappointed at the majority not being greater this morning, particularly when I read the question moved by Sir James Lowther. For through I think, as things are situated, it is impossible to propose great continental operations in North America, yet I am certain Parliament shewing a reluctance to them must encourage the rebells, and make them plan offensive expeditions on our posts, which would have been avoided had they not known that our measures would alone be defensive. It seems to me that Lord North could not avoid giving the explanation he did.[7]


[1]William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England(London: T. C. Hansard, 1814), 22:802-31.

[2]Ibid., 1:Preface.

[3]“A Motion was made and the Question being proposed, that it is the Opinion of this House that the War carried on in the Colonies and Plantations of North America has proved ineffectual either for the Protection of His Majesty’s loyal Subjects in the said Colonies, or for defeating the dangerous Designs of our Enemies,” in The Journals of the House of Commons, from October the 31st, 1780, in the Twenty First Year of the Reign of King George the Third to October the 10th, 1782 in the Twenty Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third(London: House of Commons, 1803), 616.

[4]Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 22:634-37.

[5]Lord North.

[6]The colonies.

[7]W. Bonham Donne, The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768—1783 (London: J. Murray, 1867), 395.

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