On December 12, 1781, a motion to end the war with the American colonies and to grant them their independence was introduced in the House of Commons. In the debate which followed, twenty-three men spoke. The debate did not end until 2:00 in the morning. A vote was then called; the outcome was 220 against the motion and 179 for the motion. Later that day (December 13), the pro-American members in the House of Commons were already working on another motion that contained different wording but the same objective. How the pro-Americans advocated for the new motion is unknown but it must have been difficult because the House of Commons was in recess for a majority of the interim. The new motion would be introduced on February 22, 1782.
The single source for the entirety of this article is William Cobbett’s The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Cobbett compiled the information for his work “from [Parliamentary] Records, the Rolls of Parliament, Parliamentary or Constitutional History, and from the most reputable English Historians”; it was not compiled from reports published in magazines or from the notes of individuals who sat in the chamber’s gallery. The author of this article offers no analysis or interpretation of the speeches. He has included everyone who participated in the debate and has abridged the arguments of each.
General Henry Seymour Conway (MP for Thetford, former Secretary-of-State for the Southern Department, former Secretary-of State for the Northern Department, and former member of the Privy Council):
rose to make the motion of which he had given notice . . . “That a humble Address be presented to his Majesty, that taking into his royal consideration the many and great calamities which have attended the present unfortunate war, and the heavy burthens thereby brought on his loyal and affectionate people, he will be pleased graciously to listen to the humble prayer and advice of his faithful Commons, that the war on the continent of North America may no longer be pursued for the impracticable purpose of reducing the inhabitants of that country to obedience by force . . . In the present moment, when there were certain indications of a design to continue that war . . . When, as he had been credibly informed, there were preparations making for the next active, offensive campaign; in this moment he thought it necessary to ask of the new Secretary, what was the design of government, not with regard to particular operations, but to the general system . . . He wished to know what were the principles, what [were] the sentiments of this new minster respecting the American war? He trembled . . . lest he should another phoenix, sprung from the ashes of his predecessor [Lord George Germain]; and from him the American war should be renewed in all its former vigour . . . Were we with a new conductor to have a new plan, or were we to go on in the same manner as we had begun and continued so long, in the obstinate rejection of all advice which we could derive either from experience or disaster.
Lord John Cavendish (MP for York, soon to be named Chancellor of the Exchequer and a member of the Privy Council in the Rockingham administration)
seconded the motion, and, in a warm appeal to the honest and upright feelings of gentlemen, conjured them to take up this matter with seriousness now . . . though they might not presume to advise his Majesty what form of war to pursue, they might surely say what ought not to be pursued. The war with America not having originated in laudable ambition, or in just policy, had been conducted without the dignity that became the British nation . . . It was begun and carried on in . . . disgust, rancour, and narrowness . . . The House had been told, that when no demand was made of a greater supply of men from parliament than had been voted last year, it was clear that the war was to be carried on upon a much more confined plan than hitherto; because in the estimates for the year, the force under Lord Cornwallis was included, which being captured, could not act; but as the right hon. general had observed that the army had never been any thing like what it was declared to be in the estimates, it was obvious, that by making up the deficiencies, and rendering the army completely effectual to its nominal amount, we might have a greater force there this year than ever we had at any former period of the war . . . therefore it was the indispensable duty of parliament to call upon the servants of the crown to say whether they did not still intend . . . to carry on the mad and absurd project of reducing America to obedience by force.
Wellbore Ellis (MP for Weymouth and the recently named Secretary-of-State for the Colonies):
As to the American war, it had always been his firm opinion, that it was just in its origin; nor could the events that had since occurred, make him change that opinion; but he never entertained an idea, nor did he believe any man in that House ever imagined, that America was to be reduced to obedience by force: his idea always was, that in America we had many friends; and that by strongly supporting them, we should be able to destroy that party or faction that wished for war . . . and assist our friends there in that desired object, was, in his opinion, the true and only object of the war. Whether that object was now attainable, was matter fit to be considered. That our friends in America were still numerous was a fact, for the truth of which, he would not indeed pledge himself to the House; but he would nevertheless assure them that he believed it to be a certain fact . . . As to peace, no man could have a more earnest desire to see it restored, than he had; and whenever it could be made with safety and honour to this country, he would most cheerfully concur with his Majesty’s ministers in establishing it . . . If the House wanted a test of the intentions of ministry, respecting the future conduct of the war, a test had been already given, and that test was the vote that passed for the army of the present year: an army was lost last year, and no application had been since made to parliament for another to replace it . . . he could not call the war in America, the American war; its true name was the French war; for, if he was not greatly mistaken, the army under general Washington . . . was fed, clothed and paid by France; so that it was France, not the Congress, that was fighting in America . . . Now, if France might be fought in other countries as well as in France; if she was fought last war in Germany, he could not see any solid objection against fighting her this war in America.
Edmund Burke (MP for Malton, and an Irish-born, pro-American who preferred peace to a civil war; author of On Taxation and On Reconciliation with America and the finest orator of his time in Parliament):
This hopeful contest, though it was to be continued, was no more to be considered as an American war. Its locality was nothing; its being carried on in the colonies was nothing . . . The American war was to be considered as a French war; and we were to go on persecuting the Americans, not for the purpose of reducing the Americans to obedience by force, but for the purpose of reducing the French. What was the absurdity rather what was the wickedness of this idea? In the beginning of the present session, the effect which the loss of earl Cornwallis’s army produced, forced the ministers to give assurances to the House that they must contract the scale of the war, and that it would be conducted, in future, on a very different plan from what it had been . . . we will no more prosecute the American war – we will drop that entirely – we have no further intention of reducing the Americans to obedience by force [but instead] here is the fine ministerial distinction and the new plan of delusion . . . We must prosecute the French war which now rages in the fields of America . . . that under this pretext, every hostile and offensive operation that can be contrived for the distress and persecution of the people will be continued . . . From this new minister we were to receive exactly the old system . . . Indeed, it might with truth be asserted, that the late secretary-of-state for the American department, though called up by a patent to the other House, was still to be found in effigy in his old seat. There he sat with all the plans of the American war thick upon him . . . On his political death he hath bequeathedto the right hon. gentleman all his plans, projects, and measures, nay, his ideas, after language, and words . . . Not one scrap had he suffered to go into other hands, but all had devolved on this new minister . . . At this day, after a seven years’ experience of the absurdity and impracticability of the contest, to be told that we were to go on! Not one ragged nor tattered fragment of an excuse to cover the design; that, at least, if men were to be seduced, there might be the grace of delusion in the business; no cover, no disguise – none but the miserable and ridiculous stratagem of giving a new name to the old story . . . to be persuaded that we had many and numerous friends in America – [Secretary Wellbore Ellis] did not know it, he had no personal knowledge of the fact . . . What had the American war produced? What but peerages and calamities? What but insults and titles? Was there anything to give hope? O yes, we must not only have hope but confidence in ministers. Confidence! Could we have confidence in the men who still determined to prosecute this mad and impolitic war? It was impossible. Could we have confidence in this new minister, who seemed determined to tread in the footsteps of his predecessor? He had heard nothing of propositions of peace. He had found no traces of any thing like negociation for peace in his office: Oh! No.
William Adam (MP for Wigtown Burghs, Scotsman, Treasurer of the Ordnance and advocate for strong measures against the colonies)
considered himself then in a very different light from what he had appeared . . . before; in the last debate, he was exercising his judicial authority, vested in him as a member of parliament, by the constitution, in scrutinizing the past conduct of a minister; but this night he was called upon to act in a very different capacity, in a capacity which he did not derive from the constitution, namely, that of advising, or rather pointing out the different measures, which the executive power was then to pursue . . . the House had an indisputable right to examine into the past; but they could not dictate the measures to be adopted, without encroaching on the rights of the executive power. Gentlemen seemed apprehensive, lest the army in America should be recruited up to the full complement, or number stated upon paper; but he thought the character of sir Guy Carleton, who was to command that army, took away all grounds for such apprehensions . . . his talents were acknowledged to be of the first magnitude, both in offensive and defensive war; but still if there was any one part of the military profession in which he excelled more than in another, it was undoubtedly in defensive war, of which he had given so brilliant a proof at Quebec.
John Baker Holroyd, the Earl of Sheffield (MP for Coventry, and a Peer of Ireland was married to Lady Anne North, the daughter of Prime Minister Lord North)
was against the motion, and urged that it would be impolitic to withdraw our troops from America, as the Americans then might annoy our West India islands . . . If we had not a force in America which should be able to act as occasion might require, we must lose every post in detail . . . We must either fight France in America, or we must fight her in the west, in the east, or at home, in the rich fields of Britain.
William Wilberforce (MP for Hull and an independent that became an opponent of North’s Ministry in the summer of 1781)
was much in favour of the motion, and declared, that while the present ministry existed, there were no prospects of either peace or happiness to this kingdom. He said, it tended to hold out wise advice and direction to ministers for their future conduct . . . their career hitherto had rather resembled the career of furious madmen than the vigorous and prudent exertions of able statesmen. He declared, from a part of what the new Secretary had said . . . that it was intended to pursue the ruinous war in the former cruel, bloody, impracticable manner.
Thomas Townshend (MP for Whitchurch, soon to be appointed the Secretary of War and later Home Secretary, and the grand-nephew of Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle)
spoke strongly in favour of the motion; it had been thrown out in the debate, he said, that it was not now an American war, but a French war; that America was become dependent on France . . . France, with 3,400 men in America, had done more than England had with 73,000.
Charles Turner (MP for York who believed that Lord North should be expelled from the House)
said, that the people of England, especially the poorer sort, were so reduced by the American war, that the farmers in the country were glad to sell their corn as fast as they could thrash it, merely to support themselves. He declared that he differed from those who looked to parliament for the salvation of the nation; he had trusted to them too long.
Isaac Barre (MP for Caine, opponent of colonial taxation and considered the author of the term “Sons of Liberty”):
the many burdens and grievous oppressions which it was stated that great trading town [Bristol] laboured under, by this destructive and pernicious American war, were not peculiar to it; they were common to the whole kingdom; he was confident the city of London had similar sentiments with regard to the war, and the reason that their table was not loaded . . . with petitions of the like nature with that just read, was, that the nation did not look up to parliament with that respect which they were formerly wont to do . . . the situation of our country is unprecedented . . . From what has fallen from the new Secretary of State, he could plainly perceive that the same wretched argument and folly which had hitherto promoted and carried on the accursed war, still influenced the conduct of ministers; he said, we had many friends in America, and it would be cruel to abandon them to the merciless hands of the Congress. It was an entire delusion; we had no friends in America; and ministers had been duped into the idea of the contrary by the falsehoods told them by refugees here . . . To contradict their lying reports to government, we needed only to refer to lord Cornwallis’s public letters. In them he told us, he met none of those many loyalists he was made to believe he should in North Carolina . . . he found them timid friends and inveterate enemies . . . From this account of the disposition of the Americans, must not every man, endued with any degree of reason, see the impracticability of subduing America by force? . . . To shew the deceit and the inconsistency that ministers had shewn in the whole course of this war, he would read a paper, written by the secretary [Sir Grey Cooper] of the noble lord in the blue ribbon, and at his express desire, in order to be shewn to the Congress. It mentioned, after stating several particulars of the power of this nation, and the great disadvantages that would attend the perseverance of America in this war, that so high was the spirit of the nation, that ministers had not influence to procure them any concessions from parliament . . . at the vary same time that this paper was written for the inspection of Congress, the noble lord proposed to this House offers for a reconciliation with the colonies. Then, was it possible to suppose, that America, who had seen so much duplicity in the conduct of the servants of the crown, would ever have faith in any propositions which might originate from them, without . . . a confirmation of the sincerity of their wishes by a vote of this House.
Charles Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool (MP for Cockermouth and Secretary of War from 1778-1782)
remarked, that if an end to the American was what [the] gentlemen wished for, the withdrawing our forces would by no means have that effect; for America, when she had no force in that country to cope with, would certainly attack us in her turn . . . He said, gentlemen wished to be informed what [the] government meant by war of posts. His idea was, that we were to keep no regular army in the field, but in keeping those posts we had, we might add others to them whenever they should be found advantageous to us, thus affording us the means of attacking the enemy if an opportunity served of doing it with success; he said the address now moved for was not explicit enough, the terms of it were too obscure, nor could he see any possible benefit could arise from it.
Charles James Fox (MP for Westminster, former Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)
was exceedingly severe on [the] administration, and was glad to find that he had discovered who that evil spirit was that conducted all our mischiefs; it was a person higher than the noble lord in the blue ribbon [the Secretary at War]; for the noble lord was only his puppet, and acted as he was told . . . The other persons on the same bench with the right hon. gentleman, though ostensible ministers, were only secondary kind of beings compared to him . . . He said, it was now evident, that the war was to be pursued in America in the same mad manner in which it had been conducted hitherto. He talked of the distinction of carrying on a war with America, and in America . . . The war in [the] future was only to be continued with America . . . He declared, if the learned lord did not vote for the present motion, what he had said before the holidays would bear the construction of having arisen from personal animosity, otherwise how was his speaking against one minister, and supporting another for pursuing the same measures in the same manner, to be accounted for?
The Secretary of War “thanked Mr. Fox for the very elevated situation to which he had raised him, but declared, he was not entitled to any such honour, and assured the hon. gentlemen, that he was not actuated by any other spirit than his own.”
Lord Charles Mahon (PM for Chipping Wycombe who in his first speech in the House declared his outright opposition to the North Ministry and their efforts)
read a part of a declaration of Congress dated July 1775, which was highly complimentary to the late earl of Chatham, his father-in-law. He said, that lord Chatham had expressed himself highly flattered by the compliments paid him in Congress, and after reading it, he held it up, saying, “They do me too much honour, but they are ill advised, for this is a sin which will never be forgiven.”
Lord Frederick North (Prime Minister)
took notice of the very high rank which Mr. Fox had thought proper to confer on the Secretary of War, and the very low rank to which he had been pleased to degrade him. He rose . . . for he was called upon to give the House satisfaction, and told at the same time, that let him say what he would, he was not to be believed. Under that difficulty he would nevertheless repeat what he had said before the holidays. He wished sincerely for peace; in 1775, when he made the proposals of conciliation he wished for peace. Government, he solemnly assured the House, had no intention whatever of pursuing the American was as before. The army estimates were the strongest proof of this. No new corps were to be sent over, nothing but recruits . . . He assured Lord Mahon that Lord Chatham’s remarks on the Congress declaration were not founded. He did not recollect having heard of that paper before; certain he was it had not he smallest influence on the conduct of ministers. Had the present motion proposed a total removal of the troops, he would have had a clear, definite, distinct idea of it, and should have known how to have treated it. But as it stood, it was neither one thing nor another, it was in his mind dangerously inexplicable; he should therefore vote against It.
William Pitt (MP for Appleby, the son of William Pitt, the Elder, future Chancellor of the Exchequer, future 1st Lord of the Treasury and future Prime Minister)
urged the necessity of putting a speedy end to the war. It had been, he said, remarked in the debate by the new secretary, that to make peace with the Americans, you must make them feel the calamities of war. Surely we ought to pay some respect to the calamities of our constituents at home.
Henry Bankes (MP for Corfe Castle and believed the Americans were justified, on principles of self-defense, to take up arms)
was much in favour of the motion, and shewed that it was truly constitutional for that House to interfere, and the only proper means of bringing about the desired object, a peace with America.
Thomas Pitt (MP for Old Sarum, nephew of William Pitt, the Elder and strong opponent of North’s Ministry)
was in favour of the motion, and traced the American war with much accuracy and precision, as well as the different conduct of the minister at different periods of it.
Thomas Powys (MP for Northamptonshire – did not accept a position in the Rockingham, the Shelburne, or the Fox’s administrations)
moved that the Journals of the 6th of February, 1775, be read, which was done, shewing the Address to his Majesty to prosecute the American war; he then argued that it was not now necessary for the House to agree to the present motion, as they perceived that the war was no longer practicable.
Richard Rigby (MP for Tavistock, former a Lord of Trade 1755, former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1758, former Vice-Treasurer of Ireland 1765 and presently the Paymaster of the Forces)
said, he undoubtedly was of opinion some time back, that the American was a just one; he still continued to think so; but he was also of opinion that the complexion of the times had altered, and that it was no longer practicable to pursue it; yet he should vote against the present motion, as it interfered with the executive power, and left ministers in a situation not knowing what to do.
Gen. Henry Seymour Conway (MP for Thetford, former Secretary-of-State for the Southern Department 1765-1766, former Secretary-of-State for the Northern Department 1766-1768 and former member of the Privy Council)
explained the nature of the motion, said it was necessary for the House to come to the resolution proposed, as a basis to treat upon, as it would show the world that the house of Commons were in earnest. The right hon. general reviewed all the arguments that had been urged against the motion, and gave them clear and forcible answers.
At 2:00 am. the debate came to an end and the vote was taken. 194 members of the House were against the motion, 193 members were for the motion. Gen. Henry Seymour Conway’s motion was defeated by one vote.
Charles James Fox immediately made it known “that as the question had been decided against his side of the House by the majority of a single vote only, he thought it necessary in that full House to give notice, that the same question would be brought forward again. He did not doubt it would then be carried, It was highly necessary that the voice of the people should be effectually heard, before the noble lord in the blue ribbon opened the budget.”
The third and final vote would be held five days later on February 27.
“Debate on an Address to the King upon the Disturbances in North America,” Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 18:221-265. In the words of Lord Cavendish, “it was fraught with so much mischief.”