Just prior to the start of hostilities in the American Revolution, and even early on in those battles, last-minute efforts were made in many quarters to reach a peaceful settlement to the differences between the belligerents. One lesser analyzed of these was Lord North’s Conciliatory Resolution, made in February 1775. This proposal, unlike an earlier and more comprehensive conciliatory measure proposed by Lord Chatham, even gained the approval of the British Parliament. American colonial bodies were somewhat less enamored of it and rejected it rather quickly. As a result (no spoiler warning necessary), the Revolution carried on. It is nonetheless worth recounting the thinking that went into, and interpretation of, this Resolution by both sides, as it further clarifies the unresolved disputes that drove the colonial position and how several key people on both sides were viewing them.
Before we look at what happened, it is useful to look at the resolution in its entirety. It was relatively short and was as follows (the bolded highlights are mine):
That it is the opinion of this Committee,that when the Governour, Council, and Assembly, or General Court, of any of his Majesty’s Provinces or Colonies in America,shall propose to make provision, according to the condition, circumstances, and situation of such Province or Colony, for contributing their proportion to the common defence, (such proportion to be raised under the authority of the General Court, or General Assembly, of such Province or Colony, and disposable by Parliament,) and shall engage to make provision also for the support of the Civil Government, and the Administration of Justice, in such Province or Colony, it will be proper, if such proposal shall be approved by his Majesty and the two Houses of Parliament, and for so long as such provision shall be made accordingly, to forbear, in respect of such Province or Colony, to levy any Duty, Tax, or Assessment, or to impose any farther Duty, Tax, or Assessment,except only such Duties as it may be expedient to continue to levy or to impose for the regulation of commerce; the nett produce of the Duties last mentioned to be carried to the account of such Province or Colony respectively.
February 20, 1775
“This Committee” presumably refers to North’s cabinet, though it is unknown how many actively participated in the draft. Upon initial examination of this proposal, the first thing that comes to mind is: Is that all there is?
This proffering could be viewed any number of ways, including: (1) An extremely weak attempt that betrays a serious misunderstanding by the Crown of everything that was in dispute between the two sides; (2) A virtual concession that the disagreement would inexorably proceed to the next level, which was war; (3) A calculated, perhaps desperate, attempt to divide the colonies; (4) An attempt to open the door to a more complete discussion of all the issues at hand; or (5) Simply an attempt to appear reasonable to a world audience, without actually being so. Many of those debating the proposal in Parliament, at least those who typically supported the American cause, had a mix of many of these thoughts.
For context, North’s proposal came soon after a proposal by the ailing Lord Chatham (William Pitt). Chatham’s bill was much more substantial in content and far more favorable towards America, way too favorable for Parliament’s appetite. That proposal provided for freedom from taxation, except by consent, with consent being requested to provide a revenue to Great Britain for burdens it bore on behalf of the colonies. It also addressed a broader range of American issues including recognition of the standing of the Continental Congress, providing for jury trials within the colonies, repeal of the Quebec Act and all punitive measures in effect against Boston and Massachusetts. On the other hand, the Crown would retain the right to maintain and deploy an army anywhere in the colonies.Lord Sandwich, a staunch political opponent of Chatham’s, accused him of trying to pass off as his own a proposal actually authored by Benjamin Franklin, though that appears not to have been the case. It was also clear that Chatham intended this bill more to facilitate discussion between the two sides than to be a definitive settlement. It would never get the chance: the proposal was soundly defeated in the House of Lords by a vote of 61-32.
North’s proposal that followed shortly thereafter was, despite its glaring shortcomings, examined closely on both sides of the Atlantic, by American patriot colonists, friends of America in Great Britain and by various colonial governing bodies, including the Continental Congress, a body defined by the King as extra-legal. The Patriot presence in London was not insignificant and it is a little-known fact that prior to the first meeting of the Continental Congress, more of its members had visited London than had set foot in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin was one of the key patriot figures still in London at this time and there was a strong American-tilting contingent on the British side of the pond to weigh in on the proposal.
North’s Conciliatory Proposal was debated in Parliament on February 20,1775, by members including the likes of former Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall, Charles Fox, Col. Isaac Barré, and Edmund Burke. Except for Pownall, whose views had shifted to supporting the Crown to one degree or another, all were considered friends of America. What is striking is that pretty much to a man, those supporters of America were negative about the proposal. Burke, always a master at a turn of phrase, summarized the proposal by stating, “Revenue from a free people must be the consequence of peace, not the condition on which it is to be obtained. If we attempt to invert this order, we shall have neither peace nor revenue.” He stated that he “came to the House this day, upon the report of a change of measures, with a full resolution of supporting anything which might lead in any way towards conciliation; but that he found the proposition altogether insidious in its nature.” Burke also alleged that the proposal was intended to divide America, not an unlikely possibility.
Barré was generally incredulous, stating “How this new scheme of letting the Americans tax themselves, ever came into the noble Lord’ s head, I cannot conceive.” Barré also picked on the divide-and-conquer aspect of the proposal, and got into a brief debate with North on this point. He stated that “This is to divide the Americans; this is to break those Associations, to dissolve that generous union in which the Americans, as one man, stand in defence of their rights and liberties,” while North countered, “I avow the using that principle which will thus divide the good from the bad, and give support to the friends of peace and good Government.” Burke stated he would not vote for the resolution. It is safe to say, neither did Barre. Incidentally, Chatham’s take, though he was not involved in the debate, was that “The plan will be spurned . . . everything but justice and reason prove vain to men like the Americans.”
Fox ridiculed the North ministry for its inconsistency in wavering between a punitive approach and a conciliatory one, now to the point of doing so in the same document. “What he has now proposed to you, does accordingly carry two faces on its very first appearance. To the Americans, . . . he holds out negotiation and reconciliation.To those who have engaged with him on condition that he will support the supremacy of this country unimpaired, the proposition holds out a persuasion that he never will relax on that point,” sarcastically adding that North “has now been humble enough to give up what he before so strenuously defended.” Fox finished the thought by saying, “I say this upon the suppositions that the noble Lord is sincere; but I cannot believe it.” He ended by predicting that “No one in this country who is sincerely for peace, will trust the speciousness of his expressions, and the Americans will reject them with disdain.”
Because the proposal put forward by North was so narrow, limited to the question of taxation, the notion that the proposal signaled a willingness for further negotiations demands further examination. The evidence is that it did not. Most pointedly, North explicitly stated that he would not negotiate on the question of parliamentary supremacy or Parliament’s right to tax. Further, he ruled out any dealing with a united America (meaning the Continental Congress). He pointed out the end and purpose for which the contributions were to be given, and the persons from whom the grant of them was to originate (the individual state assemblies). Lastly, North framed his proposal in the most rigid terms, saying, “the propositions contained in the resolution, form an express declaration, and [do] not begin a negociation.” As such, it is apparent that North’s proposal was what it said it was, and nothing more. As one writer put it, “North’s proposal seemed more like a statement of the terms for surrender than for negotiation.”
When the question was put to the full body, the vote was 274 in favor, 88 against. The biggest supporters of America were, strangely enough, likely in the “no” column. Many others in Parliament saw North’s offer as a fair one and one which, if rejected by the Americans, would confirm their view that the taxation issue was merely a cover for the ultimate goal: independence. Regardless, the proposal would not fare as well anyplace else.
News of North’s proposal did not reach the colonies until war had broken out in Massachusetts. The proposal was quite thin in that it only addressed one aspect of the colonies’ complaints, the taxation question. While this was one of the more important issues, North’s proposal addressed it in such a clumsy manner that it was easily picked apart in the colonial response. Part of the lack of clarity of the offer was whether it presented an opening to further negotiations or whether it should be taken solely at face value (the Americans were unaware of North’s “do not begin a negotiation” sentiment). We have seen that some in Parliament saw it as a preface to further discussions, but some found it lacking on its face. Aside from appearing to be the potential opening to future negotiations, another motive imputed to North was the desire to exploit divisions among the colonies. His offer contemplates agreements on fulfilling taxation on a colony-by-colony basis. Further, there were some rumors that the State of New York “promised, upon the conditions mentioned in the motion, to defect the American combination,” thus providing the wedge North was seeking. There is significant credibility to this claim; not only did Burke and Barré recognized it as such, but North essentially admitted as much. And on a general basis, the British, despite the existence of the Continental Congress, did not believe the colonies were as unified as they claimed.
Although limited in scope, and unknown to Americans until armed hostilities had commenced, the Americans did take the proposal seriously and addressed it through several different channels: some of the colonial assemblies, still considered by the British government to have standing, responded, as did the Continental Congress.
One of the prominent responses was from the Virginia House of Burgesses. Though officially broken up by the Earl of Dunmore in 1774, it reconvened in June 1775 to consider North’s proposal. As could be expected, Thomas Jefferson played a prominent role in framing the response, though the final draft did not bear the earmarks of the Jefferson-penned document.
The one thing critical to note about the Virginia response was its deference to the power of the Continental Congress in its assertion that
we are now represented in General Congress, by members approved by this House where our former Union it is hoped will be so strongly cemented that no partial Application can produce the slightest departure from the common Cause . . . Final determination we leave to the General Congress now sitting, before whom we shall lay the Papers his Lordship has communicated to us
As far as Virginia was concerned, North’s “divide and conquer” play was a dead letter.
It was not until July 22, 1775, more than a month after the Battle of Bunker Hill, that the Continental Congress convened a committee to consider North’s proposal. On the committee were Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, and Richard Henry Lee. As Jefferson had already been active in working the issue with the Virginia House of Burgesses, they made short work of the response and it bore a great similarity to Virginia’s response. They summarized the North proposal as both unreasonable and insidious (the latter the same word Burke had used in Parliament): unreasonable because they would be signing up for an unknown amount which would be later determined by Parliament, and insidious because it divided the colonies and had them bidding against each other for amounts that would satisfy Parliament.
The crux of their argument against the proposal was that it dealt with the mode of taxation but not the deeper question, “a renunciation of the pretended right to tax us.” Even setting that aside, there was the retention by Parliament of the right to determine how the funds were disbursed, the concern that the funds would be “wasted among the venal and corrupt for the purpose of undermining the civil rights of the givers, nor yet be diverted to the support of standing armies, inconsistent with their freedom and subversive of their quiet.”
Congress also pointed out that other actions by Britain indicated that it had no intention of “discontinuing its injury of American rights.” Specifically, they referred to the New England Restraining Act of 1775, which in addition to restriction trade to be only through Britain and British possessions, also prohibited fishing off the Newfoundland banks and much of the Atlantic coast. North’s proposal left these regulations untouched. In Congresses view, “This proves unequivocally they mean not to relinquish the exercise of indiscriminate legislation over us,” and echoed the criticisms of Fox and others in Parliament about the wild inconsistencies in its treatment of America.
In the same vein, the weak conciliatory proposal left several other disputed items unaddressed. These included a similar litany to that cited by Virginia:
- Extending the boundaries and changing the government of Quebec
- Enlarging the jurisdiction of the Courts of Admiralty and Vice Admiralty
- Taking from [Americans] the rights of trial by a Jury of the vicinage in cases affecting both life and property
- Transporting [Americans] into other countries to be tried for criminal offences
- Exempting by mock-trial the murderers of Colonists from punishment
- Quartering soldiers on us in times of profound peace
- Not renouncing the power of suspending [colonial] Legislatures
Congress perceived two British-favored motives to the proposal. One was the sowing of division among the colonies. The second was to damage the American reputation in the eyes of the world by boiling the dispute among them down to one of the modes of taxation and that “the Parliament having now been so good as to give up this, the Colonies are unreasonable if not perfectly satisfied.” In truth, Parliament “still claim a right of demanding ad libitum [as often as necessary or desired], and of taxing us themselves to the full amount of their demand, if we do not comply with it.”Early drafts of the response of Congress indicate this last point as being a contribution of Franklin to the response.
In the end, it looked like the North Ministry’s heart was not in this proposal, after the more lucrative (to America) Chatham proposal had been discarded. It’s hard to say whether North really believed this could be a workable solution, or he just wanted to (in modern parlance) virtue signal to the world that they could be reasonable and render America as the ones to blame. Perhaps it was some combination of the two. Perhaps history would best go with Barré’s question of: “How this new scheme . . . ever came into the noble Lord’s head, I cannot conceive.”
House in Committee, on American Papers: Debate on Lord North’s Conciliatory Resolution, February 20, 1775, House of Commons V1:1610, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A85151.
“Late Advices from London” (broadside), Digital Collections of the New York Historical Society, digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A161572.
Virginia Resolutions on Lord North’s Conciliatory Proposal, June 10, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0106. The response was re-framed as a formal address, delivered by Archibald Cary.
Resolutions of Congress on Lord North’s Conciliatory Proposal, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffnort.asp.