The Strange Affair of the King and the Repeal of the Stamp Act

Portrait of George III by Allan Ramsay, n. d. (The University of Nottingham)

“The King had evidently consented to the repeal, and then disavowed his Ministers.”—Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third

In early 1766, in response to American violent resistance to the taxation levied by the Stamp Act of 1765, British leaders were concerned with determining “the best mode of restoring order & obedience in the American Colonys.” A sideshow to that effort opens a window into the character of King George III. It is a strange affair of political intrigue.

The British had three options: enforce the act with the military, repeal the act, or modify it in a way that would conciliate the Americans. The new ministry, led by the Marquis of Rockingham, advocated for repeal; the opposition, led by recently ousted prime minister George Grenville, was for enforcement. The king, whose personal preference was for modification, was unhappy with the repeal option, but found enforcement even less attractive. In line with his proclaimed practice of leaving policy decisions to his ministers, the king did not impose his preference. In addition, he did not intend that his wishes should influence the voting in Parliament; he repeatedly refused to allow his preference to be made public. During a chaotic six-day period in February, however, the king did allow his preference to be known—but did so in an ambiguous manner.

The result was conflicting reports regarding the preference of the king. In addition to gossipy or self-serving anecdotes, “there is much more information, for [the king] drew up a memorandum on this at the time and there seems no good reason to distrust its contents.” Here is the story from the king’s point of view, supplemented with other contemporary material.[1]

The king started with his purpose: an aide-memoire.

The late variety of opinions that have been reported to be mine on the Stamp Act, makes it very eligible that I should whilst fresh in my memory put on paper the whole of my conduct during this very arduous transaction.

He described the basis for his thinking.

From the first conversations on the best mode of restoring order & obedience in the American Colonys, I thought the modifying the Stamp Act the wisest & most efficacious manner of proceeding. 1st. because any part [of the tax] remaining sufficiently ascertain’d the Right of the Mother Country to tax its Colonys & [a modification] would shew a desire to redress any just grievances; but if the unhappy Factions that divide this Country would not permit this, in my opinion, equitable plan to be follow’d, I thought Repealing infinitely more eligible than Enforcing, which could only tend to widen the breach between this Country & America. My language to all ever continu’d pointing out my wish for Modification.

Lord Rockingham, anticipating a crucial division in the House of Commons later in the day (a vote for or against enforcement), went to see the king early on Friday, February 7. Knowing the king opposed enforcement, he wanted authority to make known the king’s preference for repeal.

On Friday 7th of February, Ld Rockingham said to Me that now the two partys meant to push for Repeal, or Enforce. I immediately answer’d in that case I was for the former. He asked my permission to say so, which I freely gave.

Rockingham immediately made it public knowledge that the king’s preference was for repeal. Later that day, the house rejected Grenville’s proposal for enforcement. Rockingham wrote a short letter to the king at midnight that day, reporting voting results of 274 to 134, and “hopes that It will be pleasing to his Majesty, that the Administration in the House of Commons have had so compleat a day.” The king replied less than an hour later (as an annotation to the letter) that the “great Majority must be reckon’d a very favourable appearance for ye Repeal of the Stamp Act.”[2] Rockingham publicly displayed the letter as proof of the king’s support for repeal.

At this point, into the story came Lord Strange: an MP opposed to repeal of the Stamp Act, a friend of Grenville, and a placeman serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. On February 10, Lord Strange met privately with the king on some matter dealing with his office. The king described what took place related to the Stamp Act:

On Monday 10th of February, I saw Ld Strange & opin’d to him my opinion to the following effect: that Modification was my constant, but if the different partys were too wild to come into that, I clearly declar’d for Repeal instead of Enforcing. He said He agreed in both cases with Me, but said it was currently reported that in all cases I was for the Repeal. I therefore authoriz’d him to declare to whoever declar’d that to be my idea, the very words I now acquainted him with.

A secondhand version told by that astute observer of the political scene Horace Walpole provides a gossipy story:

The King said, he heard it was reported in the world, that he (the King) was for the repeal of that Act. Lord Strange replied, that idea did not only prevail, but that his Majesty’s Ministers did all that lay in their power to encourage that belief, and that their great majority [274-134] had been entirely owing to their having made use of his Majesty’s name. The King desired Lord Strange to contradict that report, assuring him it was not founded. Lord Strange no sooner left the closet than he made full use of the authority he had received, and trumpeted all over the town the conversation he had had with the King.[3]

Another version is in “Mr. Grenville’s Diary [of] Memorable Transactions” dated February 10. “Lord Strange told everybody he met of the discourse His Majesty had held to him, which was in direct contradiction to what had been propagated for the last two days by the Ministers.”[4] Yet another account had it that Lord Strange “reported that His Majesty told him, he was for modification and not repeal; and that he (Ld. Strange) was authorized by the King to say so; and that His Majesty’s inclination had been misrepresented.[5]

On February 11, Rockingham was told “that Lord Strange had yesterday morning an audience of the King, who assured him he did not wish for the repeal of the Stamp Act, only wished that it might be altered.”[6] Hearing all these accounts and feeling he had been accused of misstatements (“having himself had the King’s leave to declare that His Majesty was for the Repeal[7]). Rockingham sought a meeting with the king. The king later that day recorded this memorandum:

Lord Rockingham this day came & complain’d to Me as if He was accus’d of having wrong stated my opinion on the Stamp Act. I told him I had on Friday [the meeting of February 7] given him permission to say I prefer’d Repealing to Enforcing the Stamp Act; but that modification I had ever thought both more consistent with the honour of this country, and all the Americans would with any degree of Justice hope for.”[8]

The aide-memoire has a different tone, making no mention of, “I prefer’d Repealing to Enforcing”:

On Tuesday 11th, Ld Rockingham came to express his sorrow that He stood accus’d of having falsely stated my opinion; but on discoursing it over, I found Ld Strange had most correctly reported what I had said, nay that He had assur’d Ld Rockingham his name had never been made use of; yet this Ld Desir’d I would see Ld Strange, & tell him what had pass’d on the Friday.

The controversy stumbled to an end on February 12. First, the king met with Lord Strange:

this I accordingly did on Wednesday 12th because I never would chuse to have any Man unjustly accus’d on my account. Ld Strange & I agreed [upon meeting] entirely in our accounts. I stated to him what had pass’d on the Friday [whereupon] he very exactly saw that my answer was calculated to the propositions then before Me & could not be with either truth or candour supposed to exclude my constant opinion of Modification which I had constantly before & since dwelt on.

Then, Lord Rockingham:

Ld Rockingham had produc’d a note of mine on the Friday night [the annotation written on Rockingham’s midnight letter], wherein He thought I shew’d a wish for the Repeal; but it must appear to whoever reads it with impartiality that what I said on the affair is merely a reflection arising from the great majority that day.

The king gathered together the relevant documents:

I have therefore put up a copy of it [the king’s annotation] with this [the aide-memoire], & also the note I gave Ld Rockingham by way of memorandum of what pass’d on the Friday which entirely must exculpate my conduct in this unpleasant affair.

When the aide-memoire was “put up” (archived) by the king, he added a description: “My opinion on the most prudent method of acting on the Stamp Act and what pass’d in consequence.”[9] This ended the king’s statement, it being clear by now that the purpose was justification of his actions as well as aide-memoire; but the story is as yet incomplete.

The “note I gave Ld Rockingham” was not further described by the king, but is central to the affair; it is the most authoritative representation of what occurred at the Friday meeting.

Lord Rockingham was on Friday allow’d by his majesty to say, that his Majesty was for the Repeal.
The conversation having only been concerning That, or Enforcing.[10]

The archived note (undated, and with no indication of authorship) is annotated by the king, “Memorandum of what passed between me and Ld Rockingham on Friday, February 7th 1766.”[11]

There are conflicting accounts about creation of the memorandum, but several agree that the first sentence of the note was written by Rockingham, while the second was written by the king. For example, Grenville’s diary has this:

Lord Rockingham declared the King had told him he was for the repeal of the Act, set it down upon paper, and went into the Closet to ask if that was not what His Majesty had said to him. The King wrote under it in pencil that he had said so, but it singly was in answer to the two propositions only, of enforcing or repealing, and that of those two he thought the last the best.[12]

What does this affair show about the character of the king? One report from a well-informed observer has it that the king “was not staunch to his Ministers; that altho’ he assur’d them he would support them, yet he had deceived them.”[13] Horace Walpole set out an extreme position, ending his accounting of events with the cynical evaluation, “The King had evidently consented to the repeal, and then disavowed his Ministers, after suffering them to proceed half way in their plan, unless it is an excuse that he secretly fomented opposition to them all the time.”[14] Contrariwise, historian Paul Langford, the most prominent chronicler of the Rockingham ministry, absolves the king of any misfeasance, taking the tack that, “George III’s own view of the Stamp Act problem . . . was quite coherent, but capable of varied interpretations.”

What was accomplished by the machinations? Langford continues: “The ultimate result of the confrontation between Rockingham and Strange, and George III’s efforts to square them, seems to have been to neutralize the King’s opinion as a factor in the decision of Parliament.” And as a historical curiosity, “the Strange affair is probably the most celebrated episode in the history of the First Rockingham Administration.”[15]


[1]Ian R. Christie, Myth and Reality in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), 98. The following text of the king’s memorandum and other correspondence of the king is based on Sir John Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George the Third from 1760 to December 1783: Printed from the Original Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1927), 269-70. I have modernized the king’s punctuation to clarify his meaning, and have corrected the text—particularly off-by-one dates—in accordance with L. B. Namier, Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of King George the Third (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1937).

[2]Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George, 1:268.

[3]G. F. Russell Barker, ed., Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third, Vol. 2 (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1894), 205.

[4]William James Smith, ed., The Grenville papers: being the correspondence of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, K.G., and the Right Hon: George Grenville,Vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1853), 362.

[5]Mary Bateson, ed., A Narrative of the Changes in the Ministry 1765-1767 (London: Longmans, Green, 1898), 51. Described by the Duke of Newcastle, a member of Rockingham’s ministry, on February 27, 1766, as part of his documentation of political intrigues during those years.

[6]George Thomas Keppel, Earl of Albemarle, ed., Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and his Contemporaries, Vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1852), 300. This warning is in a letter sent to Rockingham by a supporter.

[7]Bateson, ed., A Narrative of the Changes, 51-52. This is another assertion by Newcastle.

[8]Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George, 1:268-69. Namier, Additions and Corrections, 51.

[9]Namier, Additions and Corrections, 50.

[10]This item is designated, “No. 242—Memorandum.” Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George, 1:266.

[11]Namier, Additions and Corrections, 52. The king’s phrasing, “also the note I gave,” is vague, but Namier asserts that it “is undoubtedly No. 242.” Ibid.

[12]The diary entry is forFebruary 12, ending with, “This Lord Strange told to Mr. Grenville on Thursday the 13th.” Smith, ed., The Grenville papers, 3:365-66. The copy of that note in the royal archives does not clarify authorship; it “is neither in the King’s, nor in Rockingham’s handwriting.” Namier, Additions and Corrections, 52.

[13]This is a comment by Henry Cruger, Jr., a politically active Bristol merchant, writing on February 14, repeating what he was told by an MP “who is in the Administration.” Commerce of Rhode Island, [1726-1800], Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Seventh Ser.—Vol. 9 (Boston: The Society, 1914), 141.

[14]Barker, ed., Horace Walpole, Memoirs, 2:205-6.

[15]Paul Langford, The First Rockingham Administration: 1765-1766 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 163, 167-68.

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1 Comment

  • An excellent article, perhaps worth adding that the Whigs were largely opposed to the Stamp Act prior to the riots rather than solely in response to them as an entirely pragmatic measure of self-preservation it could be interpreted as otherwise. After all Pitt did famously say to Parliament that he rejoiced that the Americans had resisted it.

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