William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801)

Dartmouth, Lord

William Legge, often referred to as Lord Dartmouth, was Secretary of State for the Colonies from August 1772 to November 1775 and the step-brother of the First Minister, Lord North. Justly considered by many Americans as their only hope for reconciliation, yet a staunch supporter of Parliament's constitutional supremacy, Dartmouth found any inclination towards accommodation with the colonies stymied by the Boston Tea Party and then destroyed by the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Unable to fully support a policy of armed coercion against the Americans, Dartmouth resigned his office, which effectively ended his political career.

Dartmouth was born June 20, 1731, in Middlesex, the son of George Legge, Viscount Lewisham, and Elizabeth Kaye. His father died in 1732, which allowed him to inherit his grandfather's title of Earl of Dartmouth in 1750. His mother remarried to Francis North, Lord North and Grey, which made North's son, Frederick, the future prime minister, Dartmouth's step-brother. Their relation turned into a close, lifelong friendship. Dartmouth was educated first at Westminster School, then joined his step-brother at Trinity College, Oxford. In 1751, the two left for a grand tour of Europe, which lasted for three years and during which Dartmouth gained a refined appreciation of art and the acquaintance of major British figures such as the powerful first minister, the Duke of Newcastle. Upon returning to England, Dartmouth married Frances Nicholl, who brought to the union a dowry of £100,000. With such extraordinary wealth at his disposal, Dartmouth had his choice of pursuits, but, unlike his step-brother, politics was not one of them. It appears that religion and philanthropy commanded most of his attention. Although a committed Anglican, Dartmouth and his wife leaned towards evangelicalism and supported prominent Methodists, such as John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. Dartmouth also led a successful fundraising campaign in Britain for a charity school for Native Americans in New Hampshire (in gratitude, the school was renamed Dartmouth College in 1769).

Although Dartmouth had been a member of the House of Lords since 1754, he didn't fully enter public life until July 1765 when the Marquess of Rockingham succeeded George Grenville as prime minister, sparking a new era of hope for political sense in the minds of Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic. Dartmouth's appointment as president of the Board of Trade — the clearing house for colonial complaints about government policy — was especially welcome news to many Americans who knew of his support for repeal of the Stamp Act. Dartmouth's views on imperial politics and its practice were clear: Parliament was sovereign over all the colonial legislatures and no difference of constitutional opinion was so great that it could not be accommodated through the exercise of sense among men of good will. Therefore the passage of Declaratory Act, which did nothing more than affirm the constitutional status quo, was as important as the repeal of the Stamp Act, especially if the former guaranteed the latter. Americans nevertheless focused on the repeal and gave Dartmouth much credit for it, sending gifts such as the pair of wood ducks provided by John Randolph, Virginia's attorney general. Dartmouth remained at the post for a little more than a year, resigning in August 1766 when the Rockingham ministry fell and was replaced by one formed by William Pitt, elevated to the Earl of Chatham. Dartmouth then withdrew again from politics, focusing instead on philanthropic support for Methodists, particularly for their efforts in America, and promoting evangelicals in Britain, such as John Newton, the slave trader turned Anglican minister who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace."

After turning down a number of offers to return to office when his step-brother became prime minister, Dartmouth finally gave in to Lord North's entreaties in August 1772 when he accepted the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies. The main questions facing him were how to respond to the burning of the revenue ship Gaspée by a group of dissident — and unknown — Rhode Islanders in June 1772, protests from Massachusetts over removing payment of the salaries of the governor and judges from their control, the accelerating expansion of frontier settlements, and the prospect of creating a workable government for French Catholic Quebec. The Gaspée Affair proved the most difficult problem on his list, following a report that recommended a commission of inquiry be appointed to investigate the matter and, if necessary, send the culprits to England for trial. Dartmouth disagreed, believing that the trials should be held in Rhode Island. The commission failed to identify any suspects, which rendered moot the practical question of whether to transport them. But the constitutional principle caused an even greater problem when news of the commission's authority reached Williamsburg while the House of Burgesses was in session. Leading radicals such as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson saw in the move an attack on one of the bulwarks of British liberty - the right to a trial by a jury from the accused's neighborhood. They consequently established the first committee of correspondence to promote communication among the colonies. Virginia's governor, Lord Dunmore, reported to Dartmouth that the creation of the committee merely showed "a little ill humour in the House of Burgesses" and "thought them so insignificant" that he "took no manner of notice of them." Dartmouth saw things quite differently, informing the King that the step was "of a very extraordinary nature" and "a measure of a most dangerous tendency and effect."

All of the challenges facing Dartmouth in 1773 paled in comparison to the storm that was created when news of the Boston Tea Party reached him at the end of January 1774. Dartmouth was astonished and bewildered by the unreasonable actions of the Bostonians. He wrote in March that "in the present madness of the people there is no answering for events." North and his cabinet colleagues agreed that coercive measures must be taken but Dartmouth did not wish to go so far as to put accommodation out of reach. He initially hoped, along with his step-brother, that the destruction could be handled as a criminal matter, without involving Parliament in the constitutional questions at stake. The crown's attorneys found that punishing the Bostonians was beyond the authority of the executive, which gave North and Dartmouth little choice but to put the whole matter into the hands of Parliament. Dartmouth hoped that a limited legislative approach that isolated Massachusetts would be sufficient to bring the rest of the colonies to their senses and so he supported the Coercive Acts. That hope was largely dashed in the summer of 1774 when he learned that the Virginia House of Burgesses had not only adopted a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer to protest the closure of Boston's port, but had gone on to call for a continental congress to meet to coordinate American opposition to Britain. He wrote to Lord Dunmore on July 6 that "There was reason to hope from appearances in the other colonies that the extravagant proposition of the people of Boston would have been everywhere disregarded," but "the extraordinary conduct of the Burgesses of Virginia" was likely to "become (as it had already become in other instances) an example to the other colonies."

Even in the face of coalescing colonial opposition, Dartmouth held onto the belief that reconciliation was possible. In December 1774, he secretly reached out to Americans such as Benjamin Franklin to find a common ground on which they could build negotiations to resolve the crisis. When that effort failed, he and North produced the Conciliatory Proposals which were approved by Parliament in February 1775 and distributed to each of the colonies for their consideration. The Battles of Lexington and Concord in April (which were the direct result of overly discretionary orders he gave Thomas Gage to seize colonial military stores and, if possible, arrest radical leaders) put all thoughts of reconciliation out the minds of Dartmouth and his Cabinet colleagues. In the summer of 1775, Dartmouth opposed the Olive Branch petition offered by the Continental Congress and began to plan for military action (such as authorizing the employment of Native Americans against the rebels), but his heart was clearly not into any effort to force the colonies to submit. Consequently, he turned his job over to George Germain at the first opportunity, in November 1775, opting for the position of Lord Privy Seal, which kept him in the Cabinet but far away from any direct responsibility for conducting the war. Dartmouth continued to support his step-brother's government in the House of Lords and did what he could for American loyalists in Britain until March 1782, when news of Charles Cornwallis' surrender brought down North's government. Dartmouth occupied a minor office when North briefly returned to office in 1783 but otherwise never again engaged in public affairs.

The man whose piety and gentleness earned him the nickname of "Psalm singer" died in Blackheath, England, largely forgotten, on July 15, 1801. His final resting place, Holy Trinity Minories, was completely destroyed in 1940 during the Nazi attack on London.

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