Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire (1719-1793)

Hillsborough, Lord

Lord Hillsborough was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1768 to 1772, during the crucial years following the introduction of the Townshend Acts. His obtuse, heavy-handed approach to colonial affairs, particularly in Boston where he authorized the use of regular troops to suppress opposition, so fueled further American unrest that it might well be said that very few British leaders did more to undermine the imperial relationship in such a short amount of time as did Hillsborough.

Wills Hill was born May 30, 1718, in Fairford, Gloucestershire, the son of Trevor Hill, 1st Viscount Hillsborough, and Mary Rowe. By the time he was 24-years-old, Hill had inherited his father's title and vast estates in Ireland, which gave him control of five seats in the Irish parliament. In 1741, he was elected to the House of Commons from Warwick, and in 1743 he entered the Irish House of Lords. Known as Hillsborough, for the rest of his life he continued to advance in the peerage, becoming Earl of Hillsborough (among other titles) in the Irish peerage in 1751 and then Earl of Hillsborough in the British peerage in 1772. In 1789, he was elevated to Marquess of Downshire. His close ties to Ireland led to his persistent support for a union between Ireland and Britain, along the lines of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707.

Surprisingly for someone who held such high office in the British government, nothing is known about Hillsborough's early life and education. His activity in Parliament was regular but not notable, although his parliamentary colleague Horace Walpole reflected approvingly in 1751 that "he was a young man of great honor and merit" and later recalled him as one of the finest speakers in the House. As a supporter of the Duke of Newcastle's government, Hillsborough was added to George II's Privy Council in 1754 and given minor offices in the royal household. He relinquished those in 1756 when Newcastle's government was succeeded by a ministry led by the Duke of Devonshire and William Pitt. Hillsborough was rewarded with an English peerage (Lord Harwich) and a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster.

Hillsborough entered the government when Bute's ministry fell. His friend, the new prime minister George Grenville, placed him at the head of the Board of Trade in September 1763, a position he kept until Grenville's government was replaced by Rockingham in July 1765. While he almost never missed a meeting of the Board, there is no record that he had any influence whatsoever on American policy during the period that saw the development of the plan to raise a revenue in the colonies, although he did later claim to have advised against the Stamp Act. That perhaps is as much a reflection of the Board's role in colonial affairs as it is of the man who led it, given that the Board had no real authority of its own and served primarily as an agency to gather and disseminate information about the colonies, which was especially important in the decade following the end of the Seven Years War when there was much to learn about the newly obtained American territory. Hillsborough returned to the Board in 1766 when the ailing Pitt, elevated to Earl of Chatham, once again took over the government, but he hoped for a marked reduction in the Board's responsibilities so that he could lead an easier life. That was not possible at the Board but it did happen for Hillsborough when he was shifted to the post of joint paymaster-general at the end of the year, a position with very few actual duties.

He thereby missed participating in Charles Townshend's plan to impose new duties on a range of products exported to America in 1767, which he personally opposed.

Hillsborough's hopes for a quiet, easy existence were dashed in January 1768 when the Duke of Grafton, at the head of yet another new ministry, made the monumental mistake — driven almost entirely by expedience (Hillsborough was the only acceptable person available for the job) — of appointing him to the newly created Cabinet position of Secretary of State for the Colonies, with primary responsibility for American policy. The transatlantic mess that the Townshend Duties created fell to Hillsborough to sort out and his narrow frame of reference would not admit any sort of accommodation. When John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which denied Parliament's authority to tax the colonies, were published in London, most members of the government and Parliament were astonished at Dickinson's temerity. A circular letter sent by the Massachusetts assembly calling on the other colonies to adopt Dickinson's non-importation associations further eroded American support in London. In April 1768, Hillsborough sent a circular letter of his own; after demanding that the Massachusetts legislature rescind its call for unified action, he then ordered the governors of the rest of the colonies to dissolve their assemblies if they refused to disown it (none of the colonies did so). Later that year he authorized British Commander-in-Chief Thomas Gage to move regular troops to Boston to quell unrest there, which laid the foundation of the Boston "Massacre" not two years later. Even his announcement to the colonial governors that the Townshend Duties (except for that on tea) would be repealed was poorly handled. Nevertheless, as a close friend of Lord North's, Hillsborough remained in office when North's government took over in 1770. By then, Horace Walpole had dramatically changed his opinion of the man, calling Hillsborough "a pompous composition of ignorance and want of judgment." His resignation in 1772 appears to have been brought about by a matter of land policy in the western territories, when he opposed and then mishandled the politics surrounding the creation of a new interior colony called Vandalia so badly that Hillsborough earned the undying enmity of the George III. Hillsborough was succeeded by North's step-brother, the thoughtful and pious Lord Dartmouth.

Despite George III's belief that no man had less judgment than Hillsborough, he was not long out office, returning in 1779 as Secretary of State for the Southern Department (which no longer had anything to do with American affairs). Characteristically, he appears to have had very little impact on the matters that fell within his office, leaving almost all responsibilities to his undersecretaries. In the House of Lords, he continued to support aggressive action against the Americans in the War for Independence, declaring as late as November 1781 (after news of Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown reached London) that he hoped American independence would never be agreed to by the Lords. He lost his office when the North ministry fell a few months later.

Hillsborough concentrated primarily on Irish affairs during his remaining years, continuing to argue for union and accruing debts in Ireland in increasingly unsuccessful attempts to maintain his influence there. On October 7, 1793, Hillsborough died at Hillsborough Castle (which is now the official residence of HM Queen Elizabeth II when she's in Northern Ireland).

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