The “World Changing” Motion in the House of Commons, February 27, 1782

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

December 27, 2022
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Two motions had already been brought forth in the House of Commons to end the war with England’s American colonies. The first occurred on December 12 and was defeated by a vote of 220 to 179. The second motion occurred on February 22, 1782 and was also defeated but this time by a vote of 194 to 193. Immediately following the vote, Charles James Fox 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.[1]

That day was February 27, five days later. There were 399 members of the House of Commons present for the first vote; there were 387 members present for the second vote. In this the third vote—449 members would be present.

The Motion

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 renew his attempt to bring the House to agree with him, that, in the present posture of our affairs, it would be inexpedient and improper any longer to prosecute the American war . . . [he] declared that firm as he was in his opinion on Friday last . . . he had this day been if possible more confirmed; for the first trading city in the world had petitioned against war, and they undoubtedly were the best judges of its effect. He had several inducements to renew his motion: he would do it from a principle of duty to his country, to his constituents, and to himself; and so deep was the impression which the calamities and disgraces of this unnatural and cruel war had made upon him, that while he had a mind to speak, he never would relax in his endeavours to point out the necessity of putting an end to it. Another inducement was, that the last question, which he had the honour of submitting to the House, had been lost . . . by so very small a majority; and he had since conversed with so many members, who were absent when that question was discussed, and [they] had assured him that if they had been present when it was proposed, they would have voted for it . . . Two members deservedly of great weight in that House [Mr. Rigby and the Lord Advocate] had, in the late debate on the American war, fairly confessed that they were tired of the war; they had declared themselves converts to the opinion of its impracticability . . . To the motion, which he had the honour to submit on Friday last, he understood there were two objections . . . One objection was, that it was unconstitutional . . . to interfere with its advice in those things, which specially and indisputably belonged to the executive power . . . but if they could have spared a small portion of their time for the reading of the Journals[2]they would have found that the objection which had been made to this notion . . . was founded in falsehoods. [He] then proceeded to give examples of the House giving advice to the Crown, often at the Crown’s request . . . [from the reign of Richard II to and including the reign of Charles II] . . . He would next endeavour to satisfy the minds of these gentlemen who had urged this other objection—that it was obscurely and indistinctly worded . . . The object of the motion was, in his mind, very clearly expressed: it was to give up the idea of conquest and consequently, of an offensive war; but here the ingenuity of some gentlemen had been exerted to render the meaning of the words offensive war unintelligible . . . He knew very distinctly the meaning of these words; an offensive war, was a war in which attempts were made by an army to possess . . . what they had not before; a defensive war was that in which they confined all their exertions to defend that . . . which they were already in possession [of] . . . He had not said a syllable of withdrawing our troops from the places [or posts] which they actually held; he had not advised any such measure . . . He might next be asked, what kind of war could be carried on from these posts? His answer—no kind of war whatever, except for self-defence . . . The changing of posts would subject us to enormous expences . . . If it was a French war, undoubtedly we were doing a most impolitic thing, for we were fighting France at arm’s length with 5,000 troops that did not cost her more than 40 pounds a man-a-year, [and] maintain[ing] the war against us with 73,000 men, at 100 pounds a man . . . He could not sit down without saying a few words by way of pointing out the necessity of coming to a speedy determination . . . Every gentleman knew what burthens had been heaped upon the public, and how very near we were to see our resources exhausted in the pursuit of an object which constantly fled from us, and which we never could attain . . . Our resources in men and money were nearly exhausted; the best blood in the country had been spilt and still our infatuated ministry pursued the war, without even a shadow of hope that success would attend the pursuit. How many more human sacrifices did those ministers look for . . . Nothing could preserve the empire from that ruin into which they were now plunging it, but a vote of that House . . . He concluded, by moving the following Resolution: “That it is the opinion of this House, that the farther prosecution of offensive war on the continent of North America, for the purpose of reducing the revolted colonies to obedience by force, will be the means of weakening the efforts of this country against her European enemies; tends, under the present circumstances, dangerously to increase the mutual enmity, so fatal to the interests both of Great Britain and America”

John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp (MP for St. Albans)

seconded the motion from a thorough conviction, he said, that it was just, and comfortable to the wishes of the people at large, who, wherever he went, were exclaiming against the American war . . . and was astonished to hear it said, “You must make war to gain peace: you must make the Americans feel the calamities of war, to wish for peace.” Would any man say, they had not felt the calamities of war . . . the vast burthen and increase of our taxes, was severely felt at home; besides, our army . . . in America was not only a useless army, but was a means of our navy being neglected, for the men that were raised and sent to be slaughtered . . . would have been of infinite service, if employed as marines, or by becoming sailors

The Debate

Sir Charles Bunbury (MP for Suffolk; he believed more and more that America was invincible and that the American war was no longer justifiable)

said, that he had formerly declared against the independence of America, though he had never concurred in the carrying on the war, because he had thought it impracticable . . . He declared he knew the country had suffered much by the American war . . . Sir Charles said, his sensibility was strong [and] he sincerely wished, that he could but transfer some part of that sensibility to Majesty’s ministers, and teach them to feel those sufferings, which their conduct had brought on the country . . . He [believed] that the war had originally commenced in the extremities, but it had now pervaded to the heart

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

said, that he did not rise to enumerate the many urgent and forcible arguments that were urged the former night in support of this motion; because they had never been contradicted; he delivered it as his opinion, that if the ingenuity of gentlemen on the other side had not been exerted to puzzle and perplex the meaning of the motion made on Friday last, it would have been carried unanimously, or at least by so very considerable a majority, that it would have approached very near to unanimity . . . In the last debate on the subject of the address [3], it had been urged that the object of the address was to recall the troops from America; but it had no such object, if it had, he certainly would have voted against it . . . Nor would he vote for that address, or for the present motion, if he thought that in voting for them, he exceeded the line which the constitution had pointed out for parliament to pursue. He would not encroach upon the executive power . . . he would not pledge parliament to any measure which should take from ministers the responsibility annexed to their offices . . . At present the war in America . . . crippled all our exertions; and therefore he thought it his duty to vote for a resolution, which held out a prospect of a peace, that would enable us the more effectually to carry on the war against out ancient and natural enemies

Nathaniel Newnham (MP for London who bitterly opposed the American war and called for the ministers to abandon their posts an resign their employments)

expressed his hearty assent to the motion, because he hoped it would put an end to the detested and ruinous war . . . he was sorry that he happened to have been deprived of the pleasure of expressing by vote on Friday last, his abhorrence of that war, and his earnest wish to see it terminated; if he thought so desirable an object had been lost through his absence, he should deservedly lose the good opinion of his constituents; nay, he would undoubtedly have lost his good opinion of himself . . . He would [now] undertake to pledge himself in the name of his constituents, that if ministers would make peace with America, and turn the arms of this country against the old and natural enemies of Great Britain, there was no support which they might not expect to receive from the city of London, with the utmost cheerfulness

Sir Horace Mann (MP for Maidstone who was a critic of North’s Ministry and said “the present distracted and trembling system could not go on”)

said, that from principles he had supported the American war, under the idea that it was just and practicable: experience, however, had convinced him, that the object we had set out with was unattainable: his eyes were now open, and he saw that it would be madness to pursue it any longer: it was therefore the best thing that could be done, in our present situation, to put an end to the war, as speedily as possible . . . With these sentiments, therefore, he must proclaim his conversion, and seal it, by voting for the motion

Lord Frederick North (Prime Minister)

rose to oppose [the motion] . . . If the object of the motion was peace, and an ardent desire to put an end to the war could produce that wished for blessing, he made no doubt but unanimity would convey one general sense of the House on that subject. For his part, he would readily confess that peace was the object nearest his heart; the question with him was only how can peace be procured? There were two things to be considered with respect to the war . . . [was it] the war in America [or] the war with America. It was only one of these two objects, that gentlemen seemed to[o] desirous to attain: for, from all that he had heard, no one member had yet ventured to assert, that the troops ought to be withdrawn from America. The end of the war was, indeed, what all parties looked to; but how was this to be brought about? He knew only of two means: by peace, or by withdrawing our troops: the latter was a measure, which so far from having been recommended by any one gentleman, seemed to be completely condemned by all: and how was the former practicable . . . His objection to the motion did not arise from a want of sincere wishes for peace: but from an idea that the motion was more likely to retard than accelerate so desirable an event. No one had suggested any grounds on which peace could be made . . . there was but one other way of convincing the House, that ministers did not intend to carry on the war, . . . and that was, that no army had been, or would be sent out to replace that which had been lost; and that no more troops would be sent to America, except such recruits as might be necessary to keep up our garrisons: if that could be deemed a pledge and satisfaction to the House, he was ready to give it; but if they suspected the sincerity, ability, or integrity of the servants of the crown, it was not by such a motion as the present that the House ought to express their backwardness to trust them any longer with the management of public affairs: they ought to address the crown to remove those ministers, in whom they could not place confidence, and to appoint others in whom they could confide . . . If the House should withdraw their confidence from him, it would be his duty, without waiting for an address for his removal, to wait upon his sovereign, and, delivering up to him the seal of his office, say to him, ”Sir, I have long served you with diligence, with zeal, and with fidelity; but success has not crowned my endeavours; your parliament have withdrawn from me their confidence; and all my declarations to them are suspected; therefore, Sir, let me resign to you those employments, which I ought not to keep longer than I can be serviceable to your Majesty and your subjects; and beg you will bestow them upon some other, who with greater success, though not with greater zeal or fidelity, may give more satisfaction to your Majesty and your parliament” . . . If they were determined to take upon themselves to prescribe in what manner the war should be pursued, let them declare it . . . he had always said, that the separation of America from Great Britain would be a heavy loss to the latter: but it would be a grievous misfortune to the former . . . If, as there was reason to believe, she had only changed masters; and that she had only changed masters was to be presumed; because it could not be supposed that France was a knight-errant for liberty . . . But if France was to be reduced before America could treat, then he would contend, in opposition to the motion, that nothing could tend more to weaken our efforts against our inveterate European enemies, than to keep our army in America, with their swords tied up by this declaration . . . he called upon them to oblige him only by voting according to the dictates of their own judgment, and totally to lose sight of every personal consideration to him: the removal of ministers was no punishment; the king had a right to admit and dismiss from his councils whomever he pleased: and he might, without assigning any cause, or without fixing any guilt upon the person, recall that confidence which he had been graciously pleased to bestow upon any one of his servants: he thanked God that mere disgrace in a ministerial sense was no crime; and as the constitution had given to the King a power to dismiss his servants at pleasure, so it took care that the dismission did not render them criminal

James Wallace (Attorney General)

gave it as his opinion, that . . . nothing but peace with America could restore this country to its former state of splendor and respect; but he did not think that the motion on the table was calculated to produce that desirable object; for there were many obstacles to be removed before it was possible for that House expect to bring the Americans to treat with them. The restrictions in the Prohibitory Act must first be removed: the ports of the country must be opened for the trade of the Americans: the prohibition against the Americans, with respect to trading to foreign ports, must also be taken off . . . It was only by a truce that they could expect to accomplish the object which they all seemed to have in view . . . By a truce with America the old intimacy between the two people would be renewed; the ships of America would fill our ports—our ships would fill theirs; commerce would return to its old channels . . . The learned gentleman urged by various arguments the necessity of a truce, and said that he had prepared a motion for leave to bring in a Bill to enable his Majesty’s ministers to treat on this ground; for without the authority of parliament . . . In order, therefore, that the House might have an opportunity to come to this important motion, on which a moment should not be lost, he would move, “that the debate be adjourned till this day fortnight.”

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)

said . . . he did not believe that there would now be one left unconvinced of the propriety and necessity of that motion. For what had they done? After a great deal of argument needlessly introduced as a preliminary to what was to follow, they had moved for adjourning the present question, in order to bring on one for a truce, thereby hoping to convert a few from their determined purpose, into a delusive vote, which, like all their former promises, would end in deception and disappointment . . . The House could not, with either respect to duty or prudence, place confidence in his Majesty’s ministers. Was there a promise they had not falsified? Was there a plan in which they had agreed . . . No, there was an incessant variation: a shuffling and trifling pervaded their whole conduct, in which parliament could have no trust

John Dunning (MP for Calne; he opposed the ministerial policies towards the American colonies)

made an admirable commentary on the speech of lord North, in which he searched, exposed, and ridiculed the arguments of the noble lord, as the most absurd and unintelligible he had ever heard

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

replied to the remark which had fallen from general Conway with respect to . . . holding a different language in the House and out of it; he assured the right hon. general, that he never did, out of that House, speak of politics . . . He then went into a warm defence of the measure proposed by the learned gentlemen. It was the best, the most moderate, and the only method which the House, in the present circumstances, could take, to agree to the temperate plan suggested by that learned gentleman for bringing back America to her former habits of intimacy with this country.

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

spoke next, chiefly in answer to what had come from the noble lord in the blue ribbon . . . He urged, with the most powerful arguments, the propriety of the motion made by the hon. general, and exposed the paltry stratagems to which ministers were reduced, in the last moments perhaps of their existence, to gain a short week, or a day of breath.

James Mansfield (MP for Cambridge and Solicitor General)

contended, that the motion of the Attorney General was the most likely means of bringing about what was the general desire of the House.

Noel Hill (MP for Shropshire; a Tory, in principle, who voted with the opposition in Parliament from March of 1780 onward)

compared the ministry to Don Quixote, the American war to Dulcinea del Toboso, the new secretary to Pancho, or rather, he said, he would call him the old Rosinante, on which Don Quixote would ride in order to fight the windmill . . . he assured them he had a favourable opinion of him (lord North), wished him well, and hoped never to give a vote against him again, because he flattered himself, the noble lord would, from henceforth, adopt such measures as he could vote for with a safe conscience; but if he put the noble lord in one scale, and peace with America in the other, the latter would certainly preponderate . . . He said, he always wished to support government, for he was educated in Tory principles; but could not support the present system

Sir William Dolben (MP for Oxford University)

said, on Friday last he had voted for the motion, and as he intended this evening to vote against it . . . The Attorney General had, in the course of his speech, mentioned an intention of bringing in a Bill for a truce with America, which, in his opinion, was by far the best mode offered, he should therefore be for rejecting the present question, and for adopting that proposed.’

Thomas Townshend (MP for Whitchurch; he was soon to be appointed the Secretary of War and later Home Secretary, and was the grand-nephew of Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle)

arraigned, with the utmost severity, the inconsistency of the hon. baronet, who, in the course of a few days, gave two different votes on the same question, although there had not been the least change in affairs to warrant such conduct. He desired him, when he laid down on his pillow, to put his hand to his heart to examine his conscience, and ask himself if he was a consistent man.

Thomas Powys (MP for Northhamptonshire who did not accept a position in Rockingham’s, Shelburne’s or the Fox’s administrations)

spoke with feeling and lamentation at the conduct of sir W. Dolben; as a friend he must regret, but as a member of parliament he must abhor his behaviour; he had a great esteem for his character; but how he could look his constituents, how he could look that House, or how he could look his country in the face, he was at a loss to know.

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

spoke also with astonishment at sir W. Dolben’s conduct; he demonstrated to the House that the question on Friday evening, and that of this night, were exactly the same in nature, and no change of affairs could warrant any alteration of sentiment with respect to the motion

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (MP for Stafford who condemned the military and naval incompetence in the conduct of the war)

in a most admirable piece of satire, ridiculed the strange conduct of a man who was a representative of one of our universities, and who from his erudition and character, was supposed to have an influence on country gentlemen. He reprobated the paltry subterfuge of ministers, in their expressing a wish for a truce, and was confident that every thinking man in the House would see through it, and not be led into the snare artfully laid for them.

Sir Gilbert Elliot (MP for Roxburghshire, a friend but no admirer of Lord North; by 1778, he became convinced that the prospect of recovering America by war was certainly at an end)

declared, that he now plainly saw that the nation, the House of Commons, and the ministers, had been for a long time in the wrong; and he could no longer, with justice to his constituents, support their measures . . . he should, therefore, give his hearty assent to the present motion

Henry Rosewarne (MP for Truro who voted against the motion on December 12 and February 22, but would vote for the motion this time)

said, he thought the motion proposed by the learned gentleman was so fair and so candid, that he must wish the present motion was postponed for at least a fortnight, when it might be again resumed

John Rolle (MP for Devon who voted against the motion on December 2 and February 22 but would vote for the motion on this day)

spoke in favour of general Conway’s motion, and thought the two questions [4]were so connected with each other, that every honest man ought to vote for both.’

The Vote

At 1:00 am. the debate came to end and the vote was taken. 215 members of the House were against the motion—234 members of the House were for the motion.General Henry Seymour Conway’s motion was passed by 19 votes.

General Conway immediately followed up the vote with a second motion

That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, most humbly to represent to his Majesty, that the farther prosecution of offensive war on the continent of North America, for the purpose of reducing the revolted colonies to obedience by force, will be the means of weakening the efforts of this country against her European enemies, tends, under the present circumstances, dangerously to increase the mutual enmity so fatal to the interests both of Great Britain and America; and, by preventing an happy reconciliation with that country, to frustrate the earnest desire graciously expressed by his Majesty to restore the blessings of public tranquility.

This motion was agreed to without a division. The next day King George III wrote to Lord North,

Lord North cannot be surprised at my being much hurt at the succession of Mr. Conway’s motion, though in some degree prepared by what he said yesterday. An answer must be given when the House of Commons bring it up. It is highly delicate to find any words not liable to the greatest objections. Ld. North will therefore certainly wish to have the opinion of all the Ministers on the wording of it; wherefore the Address cannot be received till tomorrow. I am mortified Ld. North thinks he cannot now remain in office. I hope I shall see him after the Drawing-room, that I may explain my mind to him.[5]


[1]William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England. . . . (London: T. C. Hansard, 1814), 22:1048.

[2]The Journals of the House of Commons.

[3]“The Address offered by General Henry Seymour Conway” in Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 22:1030.

[4]The ending of the war and the granting of independence.

[5]W. Bonham Donne, The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768—1783 (London: J. Murray, 1867), 411-12.


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