Lord North Is Finally Allowed to Resign

Britain’s King George III and Parliament finally put Frederick North — Lord North — out of his misery by allowing him to resign as British prime minister this week (March 20) in 1782.  To say the least, his had been a challenging prime ministry, coinciding as it did with the American Revolution, and when, in November of 1781, news reached Parliament of British General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown a month earlier, Lord North was convinced the war was lost and his time as prime minister was over.  He looked forward to retiring.

Still, despite what the history books say about the British defeat at Yorktown and its significance in ending the American Revolution, in truth King George III, not General Cornwallis, had the ultimate say over whether the war was over, and in November of 1781 he had no intention of admitting defeat or granting the Americans independence.  Which put Lord North in a difficult position.  He thought attempts to prolong the war were futile, yet he was fiercely loyal to his king, meaning he had to remain prime minister as long as George demanded it.

Parliament, by contrast, was beginning to share North’s pessimistic view, and when the House of Commons returned to London after its December break, several votes were taken regarding both Britain’s hard line policy toward America and the future of North’s ministry.  In February a motion in the House to condemn the American war failed by just one vote, and increasingly House members were calling for its end.

One of those members was Henry Conway, who in late February of 1782 proposed a motion to end “the further prosecution of offensive warfare” in America, and when it passed by vote of 234 – 215, it signaled to King George that his support in Parliament for the war had crumbled, and it signaled to North that Parliament had lost confidence in his prosecution of the war.

North accepted the decision, but it angered King George because he thought deciding the war’s ultimate fate was his prerogative, not Parliament’s.   George even considered abdicating the throne, but North convinced him that yielding to Parliament on this matter was neither dishonorable nor an abdication of his authority.  As a result, the king finally asked William Petty — Lord Shelburne — to become prime minister and form a new government.  North’s 12-year reign — 1770 to1782 — was at an end, as was the war.

As the House wrangled over North’s resignation — members debated whether the resolution’s language should “accept” his resignation or “demand” it — North instructed his footman to have his carriage waiting just outside of Parliament so that the instant his resignation was official he could ride off, hastily and very happily, into private life.