Lord Cornwallis: Defender of British and American Liberty?


June 1, 2023
by Douglas R. Dorney, Jr. Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

General Charles, 1st Marquess, Cornwallis remains one of the most recognizable British figures of the American Revolution. Over the past two centuries, he has come to be invariably known as one of the “men who lost America.” This appellation has greatly overshadowed his less heralded service in Parliament, India, Europe, and Ireland. In Parliament, during the 1760s, Cornwallis was one of several lords opposing taxation and the infringement of British and American rights. Governing in India, he reformed civil, criminal, and economic systems that would expand the rights and privileges of its British and Indian imperial subjects there. In Ireland, he sought political rights for the Catholic majority while implementing a political union with England. Broadly speaking, Lord Cornwallis deserves more consideration than merely the general who surrendered an army at Yorktown.

Charles Cornwallis was born in 1738 and, from an early age, had the “irresistible impulse” to be a soldier.[1] After receiving an ensign’s commission in the 1st Foot Guards in 1756, he briefly attended the military academy at Turin before serving in the Seven Years’ War. In 1760, Lord Brome (as he was then known) was elected to the House of Commons for the Eye constituency.[2] While still serving in Germany in June 1762, he learned of his father’s death and his new status as the second Earl Cornwallis.[3] Returning to England, he took his seat in the House of Lords where he generally voted with Lords Shelburne and Temple.[4] Cornwallis’s political associations, at least during these early years, seem to have been a family tradition, his forebears being Whigs going back to the Glorious Revolution.[5]

For most of the eighteenth century, military officers were well-represented in Parliament where about one in eight members of both houses was a career military officer.[6] Among these soldier-statesmen, it was well understood that serving in Parliament was the “known way to military preferment.”[7] Cornwallis was one of the many soldier-statesmen who benefitted from this system. In a one-year period (1765-66), he was promoted to full colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, selected to be Lord of the Bedchamber, and aide-de-camp to the king. Of the nine other men (excepting the king) generally considered to have “lost” America, seven were military officers who served in Parliament and rose to high military ranks before the war.[8] This pattern continued for the rest of the century where “members of Parliament held every major military command in the Empire with one exception.”[9]

Cornwallis’s first substantive parliamentary opposition to legislation was with the 1763 Cyder Act which implemented excise taxes on cider and perry. The small minority of Whigs in the House of Lords who opposed it argued that the act would grant arbitrary power to inspectors, including searches into private homes. A few of the lords deemed the bill an “intolerable oppression . . . destructive of the peace and quiet of private families . . . and [invoking King William III’s opposition to the hearth tax] deemed it a ‘badge of slavery.’”[10] It was the first time in history that the House of Lords would divide on a money bill. Cornwallis was one of several dozen lords to (unsuccessfully) oppose the bill.[11]

Cornwallis further identified himself with the opposition when radical House of Commons member John Wilkes was arrested on seditious libel charges in late April 1763.[12] After Wilkes’ imprisonment, his supporters organized what has been described as “the most classy protest march in history.”[13] The Easter Sunday parade to see Wilkes included his lawyers, members of the House of Commons, printers, businessmen, and fifteen nobles in carriages.[14] Cornwallis was among the nobles, who also included Lord Temple, three dukes, and two viscounts.[15] In November 1763, when the House of Lords affirmed the House of Commons resolution condemning Wilkes’ publications, Cornwallis joined seventeen other peers with a formal 2,800-word protest. They argued that Wilkes’ arrest “does not only infringe the Privilege of Parliament but points to the Restraint of the Personal Liberty of every common Subject in these Realms.”[16] According to one source, this was the only time Cornwallis ever signed his name to a protest in the House of Lords.[17] If there were any doubts about Cornwallis’s attachment to the issue, he was afterward seen walking with the firebrand Wilkes in Hyde Park.[18]

On February 28, 1765, the House of Lords was notified of the American Stamp Duties Bill in the House of Commons.[19] By March 22, the act was ratified with the lords voting in the affirmative without any divisions, amendments, or protests.[20] There is some discrepancy over Cornwallis’s votes (or lack thereof) on the Stamp Act. One Cornwallis biographer has stated that Cornwallis voted against the bill.[21] However, Cornwallis and his political allies (Shelburne and Temple) do not appear on the House of Lords rolls during any of the readings or passage of the bill.[22] The editor of Cornwallis’s letters further complicates the matter by only noting that Cornwallis was “strongly opposed” to taxing the American colonies, making no mention of his vote.[23] As individual votes in Parliament were not then recorded it seems possible, if not likely, that Cornwallis opposed the bill in principle but he and his political allies were not present (or abstained) from voting against it.

Cornwallis was in attendance in the House of Lords when the Declaratory Act and the repeal of the Stamp Act were received on the same day on March 5, 1766. The former was debated on March 11 with passage on March 13.[24] On its second reading, Cornwallis was one of only five lords to vote against the Declaratory Act which codified that Parliament could exert the same legislative control over the American colonies as it did for Britain.[25] Lord Camden, quoting John Locke in his protest, noted the “forefathers of the Americans did not leave their native country . . . to be reduced to a state of slavery. ‘The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent’”[26] The unsuccessful (and small) opposition of Cornwallis and his allies was of enough concern that Lord Rockingham had to specifically request the king to take “no consequence” from the “votes of Lord Camden’s allies.”[27]

For a brief time after the Stamp Act and Declaratory Bill votes Cornwallis and his allies gained some attention in the press and among American colonial supporters. In March 1766, he (with Shelburne and others) was hailed at a celebratory ball hosted by merchants associated with American Patriots. The toast to the men wished swift justice to “false Favourites” and the restoration of “banished Patriots.”[28] On another occasion in late April, “great rejoicings” were made upon hearing of the repeal of the general warrants hailing Cornwallis, “Mr. Wilkes and Liberty” and the “Freedom and Independency” of the town of Lynn.[29]

Cornwallis was generally present in the House of Lords in June 1767 when most of the several Townshend Acts were voted upon. His votes, however, on the acts are not extant. Beginning around 1768-1769, Cornwallis’s personal priorities changed resulting in his very infrequent attendance in the House of Lords until after the American Revolution. One reason may have been the resignation of his ally Lord Shelburne as Secretary of State in 1768.[30] Likewise, Lord Temple retired from politics in 1770.[31] It was also at this time that Cornwallis married and began a family. Lastly, his military duties took him overseas to Scotland, Ireland, Gibraltar, and Minorca.

Concurrent with Cornwallis’s withdrawal from the political scene was what has been termed broadly as “the birth of English radicalism.”[32] He was among a portion of those nominally styled Whigs who began to side more with the king’s more “conservative” interpretation of the 1689 Revolution Settlement. Some, who had generally been aligned with opposition Whigs, were increasingly viewed as becoming more “radical” in their requests for electoral reforms.[33] Cornwallis’s own political evolution offended at least one anonymous Whig who posted a scathing letter in the Public Advertiserfrom March 1770: “where is now his attachment, his zeal for the Whig interest of England, and his detestation of Lord Bute, the Bedfords, and the Tories? . . . The young man has taken a wise resolution at last, for he is retiring into a voluntary banishment in hopes of recovering the ruin of his reputation.”[34] Explaining this bitter public riposte is difficult as Cornwallis’s reputation was quite the opposite of ruined. Also, he had not voluntarily banished himself but rather distanced himself from the front line of opposition politics. Over the next decade, he would focus on his regiment and the coming war in America.

When his army surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, Cornwallis became a prisoner of war but was quickly granted parole. After returning to England in 1782, it was fairly common knowledge that he was not wholly supportive of the war. Horace Walpole, the political observer, remarked in comparing Cornwallis to other principal figures in the war, that he was “dull and brave, and more in earnest in serving the cause than was consistent with his principles, which had utterly opposed and condemned it.”[35] Politically, Cornwallis at least briefly positioned himself as a type of independent, siding with neither the new ministry nor the opposition. He cited a “partiality” towards the opposition but wanted to see what positions they took. His reluctance to join them was that they had tried to “foment a civil war” in their attempts at parliamentary reform. Cornwallis would have nothing to do with men like the “radical” Duke of Richmond and Christopher Wyvill.[36] For the remainder of 1783, he met with no politician and saw no reason to attend the House of Lords.[37]

Problems within the East India Company had long been a concern in Parliament. For a period of several years after his return from America Cornwallis received offers of a governorship in India, eventually accepting the dual appointment of governor-general and commander-in-chief in Bengal. Cornwallis’s directive was the implementation of the East India Act of 1784 which ceded partial control from the company and mandated reforms to the government. After the American War, this new post offered him a leading role in “presid[ing] over the stabilization of the British Empire after its greatest defeat.”[38]

Arriving in India in 1786, he “found a Government rendered contemptible from its imbecility.”[39] Corruption within the company was widespread, the revenue systems were antiquated, civil and criminal codes were inconsistent, and the military forces were unorganized and untrained. These problems existed on a scale scarcely imaginable to Cornwallis who had never been to India nor understood its culture. In Bengal alone at this time, there were approximately 30 million people and an army of 70,000 men, one of the largest outside Europe.[40]

Cornwallis’s first task was to restore the East India Company’s finances which, in part, involved rooting out company corruption and malfeasance.[41] He largely remedied this by reducing the number of tax collectors, forbidding their involvement in private trade, and increasing their salaries. After some deliberation, it was determined that a separation of powers (into judiciary, revenue, and commercial departments) was the best way to address the company’s structural problems. Cornwallis felt that the separation would ensure that “no single member of government or any individual . . . will be able to invade the rights and property of the people.”[42]

Bengal’s criminal code was heavily influenced by cultural-religious customs which resulted in “extraordinary disparities of punishment and approved the most terrible mutilations.”[43] As one example, before Cornwallis’s reforms, those on trial for murder could be pardoned by the victim’s relatives often after receiving a payment. Another law required those convicted of some types of thievery to have their limbs amputated before being crucified and impaled. With new laws outlawing maiming and dismemberment as punishment came a high financial cost of enforcement. However, Cornwallis felt strongly that the cost was worthwhile as they could not “leave the lives, liberty, and property of our subjects unprotected.”[44] This familiar term was likely a reference to John Locke’s work and not the yet unwritten Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The American Constitution nonetheless seems to have had some influence on the laws being formulated in India. William Jones, a close collaborator with Cornwallis on judicial matters and a member of the Supreme Court in Calcutta, held a correspondence with Arthur Lee, American diplomat and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Jones had requested a written copy of the proceedings of the Constitution from Lee in 1788.[45]

Slave trading among Europeans in Bengal and Mughal was widespread until the end of the eighteenth century.[46] Cornwallis had planned to gradually end both the trade and ownership of enslaved people in India but was rejected by his superiors.[47] As slavery was longstanding in Indian cultures, outlawing it would have significantly disrupted the company’s revenue and possible social disorder.[48] Cornwallis noted, ultimately, that outlawing slavery outright would be too “much injury to the private interests [and] . . . offering great violence to the feelings of the natives.”[49] He and the directors of the company felt they could at least end the slave trade, a sizable portion of which included children. His 1789 proclamation legally ended the “inhuman and detestable traffic” of enslaved people in Bengal.[50] While Cornwallis was driven to abolish the trade “by a deep and genuine desire to improve the condition of the Indian people,” it was also clear that the proclamation had as much to do with ending the external trade of enslaved people from India by rival Europeans and native Indians.[51]

By May 1793, Cornwallis (and company officials, directors, etc.) had implemented forty-eight articles of land, civil, and criminal reforms which became known as the Cornwallis Code. While native Indians were given virtually no agency in their own governance, the code instituted a balanced system of European-style governance while respecting Indian customs, religious, and cultural traditions.[52] Overall, the code’s implementation effectively provided the people of Bengal with the beginnings of an informal constitution, which “enshrined individual rights while imposing restraints on arbitrary governance.”[53] For the first time in British India, “a Government Regulation laid down the Principle of the Sovereignty of Law.”[54]

Cornwallis’s next foreign post as lord-lieutenant and commander-in-chief in Ireland from 1798 to 1801 was essentially the same positions he held in India. His most immediate task was the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the subsequent French invasion of the island. Against the advice of many in government, Cornwallis advocated for the clemency of those accused of treason. While some were convicted and executed, Cornwallis saved the lives of hundreds by exiling them to Scotland.[55] It was estimated that he personally oversaw 400 court cases, ensuring fair trials in the hopes of tempering what he called the “eternal war” against the Catholics and Presbyterians.[56]

A political union between England and Ireland had long been discussed and became a necessity after the rebellion. For Cornwallis, building support for and implementation of the union proved to be difficult and unsavory. The proposal called for the dissolution of the Irish Parliament with the seats transferred to the new conjoined Parliament in Westminster. Building the proper support certainly involved coordination, appeasement, and negotiation but also in some instances corruption to gain the support of the various Irish social, religious, and economic factions. At the time of the union, Catholics were a majority but were barred from holding office and voting unless minimum property requirements were met. Cornwallis insisted that the proposed union include Catholic emancipation. He wrote that until the “Catholics are admitted into a general participation of rights (which when incorporated with the British government they cannot abuse) there will be no peace or safety in Ireland.”[57] Despite Cornwallis’s insistence upon emancipation, the Union Act of 1800 passed, officially forming a new political entity known as the United Kingdom of England and Ireland. The king’s pointed rejection of Catholic emancipation was such a sore subject to Cornwallis and Prime Minister William Pitt that both men resigned from their respective offices in 1801.

Cornwallis’s Tomb, Ghazipur, India, Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after arriving in India for a second term as governor in 1805, Lord Cornwallis passed away from what was thought to be stomach or bowel cancer. It is perhaps fitting that while there is a statue commemorating Cornwallis within St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the largest monument to him is in India where the British inhabitants erected a marble tomb housed in an elaborate columnated, domed structure. The monument is now a nationally protected site.

So was Lord Cornwallis a great defender of liberty? In a broad historical context, contrasting his political views to the ideals of the American and French revolutions, the moniker does not seem to fit very well at all. Even more specifically within Britain, comparing him to dozens of eighteenth-century British commonwealthmen and his more radical contemporaries, the answer would also tend toward the negative. But it may be most appropriate to measure Lord Cornwallis by the standards of a different revolution, one a century earlier in the form of the English Revolution of 1688-89. In the words of G.M. Trevelyan, the revolution was a “victory of moderation,” re-establishing parliamentary supremacy, the rule of law, and enhancing religious toleration which resulted in a relatively stable subsequent political century. It was during this “long” political century (1689-1833) that Cornwallis was educated, legislated, fought, governed, and lived his entire life. The relative political stability and ordered progress of the time were wrought, in part, by the ongoing struggle between individual rights and the powers and responsibilities of the state. Broadly speaking, Cornwallis was a fair representative of both sides of this struggle. He was both a proponent of “negative” and “positive” liberties when it sustained the stability of the empire but also a stalwart defender of the state, particularly in a military capacity when order was threatened. Prior to the American Revolution, he objected to the infringement of English and American rights in Parliament which could be seen as precursors to political disorder. In India, he established “positive” rights in civil and criminal codes and aspired to outlaw the institution of slavery. In Ireland, he resigned his office over the lack of progress for the rights of Catholics. Conversely, Cornwallis was clearly not solely a democrat-republican. In his most well-known roles, Cornwallis was an unwavering, stalwart military defender of the empire on three continents. In America, India, and Ireland, once the political process ceased to be effective, once the political process of the constitutional monarchy exceeded its capacity to peacefully resolve itself, Cornwallis always rose to the challenge to defend the king and country.

Despite centuries of scrutiny, Lord Cornwallis, like many men of the age, remains an opaque figure, politically. For a man who was so skilled and competent in maintaining the empire comes a rather remarkable dearth of written reflections on his own massive contributions to it and its future. One must wonder what Cornwallis would have thought of his small and indirect roles in the formation of the world’s two largest democracies, America and India, and an independent Ireland.


[1]Richard Middleton, Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 6.

[2]Charles Ross, Esq., The Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis (3 vols., London: printed by John Murray, 1859), 1:9.

[3]Middleton, Cornwallis, 10.

[4]Ross, Correspondence, 10.

[5]Middleton, Cornwallis,5.

[6]J.H. Broomfield, “Some Hundred Unreasonable Parliament Men: A Study in Military Representation in the Eighteenth-Century British Parliament,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 39, No. 158. (June 1961), 94.

[7]Ibid, 101.

[8]See A.J. O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013). These men (excluding King George III, Frederick (Lord) North, and the Earl of Sandwich) were: Cornwallis, William and Robert Howe, John Burgoyne, George Germain, Henry Clinton, and George Rodney.

[9]Broomfield, “Unreasonable Parliament Men”, 101.

[10]Temple, Bolton, and Fortescue, Protest against passing the Cyder Bill,The Parliamentary History of England(London: T.C. Hansard, 1813), XV, 1314.

[11]Ibid, 1315.

[12]Ross, Correspondence, 10.

[13]Arthur H. Cash,John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 111.



[16]Lords Temple, Cornwallis, et. al., November 29, 1763, “House of Lords Journal Volume 30: November 1763,” in Journal of the House of Lords Volume 30, 1760-1764(London, 1767-1830), 413-429, www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol30/pp413-429.

[17]Ross, Correspondence, 9.

[18]Middleton, Cornwallis, 11.

[19]Journal of the House of Lords, XXXI, February 28, 1765.

[20]The Parliamentary History of England, XVI, 40.

[21]Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 41.

[22]House of Lords Journal Volume 31: March 1765, 1-10, www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol31/pp56-69.

[23]Ross, Correspondence, 11.

[24]H. W. V. Temperley, “Debates on the Declaratory Act and the Repeal of the Stamp Act, 1766,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (April 1912), 565.

[25]P.D.G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 196.

[26]The Parliamentary History of England, XVI, 180.

[27]Middleton, Cornwallis, 14.

[28]Aris’s Birmingham Gazette,March 24, 1766.

[29]Newcastle Chronicle, May 10, 1766.

[30]John Norris, Shelburne and Reform(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963), 54.

[31]William James Smith (ed.), The Grenville Papers: being the correspondence of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, K.G. and the Right Hon. George Grenville (London: Printed by John Murray, 1853), IV, 530.

[32]G. H. Guttridge,English Whiggism and the American Revolution(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 31.

[33]Ibid, 32.

[34]Wickwire & Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure, n397.

[35]Archibald Francis Stewart and Dr. John Doran (eds.), Horace Walpole, The Last Journals of Horace Walpole during the Reign of George III, from 1771-1783(London: J. Lane, 1910), 402.

[36]Ross, Correspondence, 147.

[37]Ibid, 149.

[38]John Bew, “The Case for Cornwallis,” The National Interest, No. 134 (November/December 2014), 60.

[39]A. Aspinall, Cornwallis in Bengal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1931), 21.

[40]Middleton, Cornwallis, 158.

[41]Ibid, 145.

[42]Ibid, 230.

[43]Aspinall, Cornwallis in Bengal, 58.

[44]Cornwallis to Dundas, March 8, 1789, in Aspinall, Cornwallis in Bengal,n63.

[45]William Jones to Arthur Lee, September 28, 1788, in Garland Cannon (ed.), The Papers of Sir William Jones(London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 2:821-22.

[46]Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India: 1772-1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 53.

[47]Ibid, 71, 93.

[48]Middleton, Cornwallis, 181.

[49]Major, Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India, 71.

[50]Franklin B. Wickwire & Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The Imperial Years(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 95.

[51]Major, Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India, 85, 92.

[52]Middleton, Cornwallis, 188.

[53]Ibid, Cornwallis, 240.

[54]Aspinall, Cornwallis in Bengal, 91.

[55]Wickwire & Wickwire, Cornwallis: The Imperial Years, 228.

[56]Ibid, 229.

[57]William Hague, William Pitt the Younger: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 368.


  • Excellent article. Minor point which you may just want to edit rather than leave this as a comment. It was an Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. Wales had been unified with England in 1500s and then there was the creation of Great Britain when the English and Scottish parliaments united in 1707.

    1. Richard-Thank you for the comment. My source on the Union was certainly not as precise in the use of the title of the act. In that regard, several sources on acts of Parliament (I have found in researching this article) use abbreviated or simplified titles. The “Stamp Act” comes immediately to mind.

  • Thank you for this excellent and interesting article. Personally, I had the standard American view of the British (save that I am curious enough to subscribe to this Journal) during our Revolutionary Period, especially concerning Cornwallis. Now, the words springing to mind describing him: iconoclast, humanitarian; dutiful civil servant and soldier.
    I was a civil servant in the US government and my ‘last hurrah’ was working in Jimmy Carter’s agency created to protect employees from reprisals and to police the Hatch Act – the law flouted by the prior White House occupant prohibiting political abuse by government officials. Carter’s law and one effort to update it were too little, too late, staffed by too few enforcers.
    That Cornwallis achieved mitigations, mercies, and reforms of any kind in his assignments around the moribund and corrupt empire is a mark of his talent and determination.
    Too bad we remember him here only as a loser!

  • Norm-Thank you for your comments and civil service. In my personal opinion, Cornwallis received a “pass” on his Yorktown campaign. It certainly helped that he was respected by the king. Conversely, he was the right man to be sent to India, proving himself or rather re-establishing himself there.

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