George Grenville (1712-1770)

Grenville, George

George Grenville, best known as the driving political force behind the Stamp Act, was born October 14, 1712, the son of Richard Grenville, a Buckinghamshire member of Parliament, and Hester Temple. His elder brother was Richard, Earl Temple. He was educated at Eton; Christ College, Oxford; and the Inner Temple. He was called to the London bar in 1735 and actively practiced law until his election to Parliament in 1741. There he became, with William Pitt and others close to his mother's family, one of the "Boy Patriots" in opposition to Sir Robert Walpole's administration. Grenville entered the Pelham ministry in 1744 as a member of the Admiralty board. He was shifted to the Treasury board in 1751, where he remained for seven years and became an expert on national and imperial finances. The personal and political bonds between Grenville and Pitt became even closer in 1754 when Pitt married Grenville's sister, Hester.

Grenville was in and out of office during the shifting administrations that marked the end of George II's long reign and the beginning of George III's. What also shifted were Grenville's political alliances as he drifted away from Pitt and closer to those allied with the household of the Prince of Wales in the 1750s, a process of changing allegiances that continued after the prince's accession to the throne in 1760. In 1762 Grenville entered Lord Bute's ministry as Secretary of State for the Southern Department, with responsibility for southern Europe and the American colonies, a position that put him in direct opposition to Pitt. Although his tenure in the office could hardly be considered a success, Grenville took over the ministry when he succeeded Lord Bute as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1763, mainly because there was no one else acceptable to the King.

Grenville's name began to acquire a negative sheen in America in 1764 when he waged war against John Wilkes, a member of Parliament, in the House of Commons for Wilkes' publication of The North Briton No. 45, which virulently and personally attacked the King. For Grenville and his secretaries of state, the issue was one of libel against the King, for which Wilkes deserved to be prosecuted. For Pitt and many others in and out of Parliament, the question was the legality of the general warrants used by the secretaries of state to arrest Wilkes, his printers, and their assistants, along with the seizure of Wilkes' papers, personal and public. While Grenville battled Pitt in the Commons over Wilkes' privilege as a member of Parliament and his expulsion from that body, the courts declared general warrants unconstitutional. This combination of events made Grenville's once considerable majorities in the house dwindle to double figures when it came to votes regarding Wilkes.

Grenville then turned his attention to the matter that would make his name anathema in the colonies: the imposition of colonial taxes to finance the army stationed there for the Americans' protection. He first passed the Sugar Act in April 1764, which was intended to raise a money by increasing enforcement of the duty on the importation of foreign molasses to the American colonies while at the same time cutting the six pence per gallon duty in half. In Massachusetts Bay, where merchants believed it would hurt Boston legal (and illegal) trade with the West Indies, political leaders were furious. Samuel Adams and James Otis argued that it invaded the colony's charter rights to govern themselves, that "no parts of His Majesty's Dominions can be taxed without their consent," and "that every part has a right to be represented." (James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved). On the other hand, Virginia's interests in London appear to have not cared less about the question. One of them reported back to the Chesapeake that "Mr. G[renville] cut your throats with a feather" in the Sugar Act debate.

Grenville's next step was the introduction of an American Stamp Bill, under consideration since September 1763 and first introduced in the Commons in March 1764. Grenville had the measure withdrawn when an objection was raised that the colonies should be consulted. He therefore postponed the measure to give the colonies time to respond and propose alternatives. Although colonial agents in London, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Mercer, assured him that Americans would accept a stamp tax on newspapers, legal and shipping documents, and a few other items (which had been paid in Britain for a century), Grenville's plan was greeted with protests. In the summer of 1764, the Virginia legislature's Committee of Correspondence directed their agent in London to "insist on the Injustice of laying any Duties on us and particularly taxing the internal Trade of the Colony without their Consent." Paying the duty would also be a heavy burden to the people because they were "already laden with debts." In January 1765, Grenville made an offer to the Americans: the stamp duty would be laid aside if they proposed another mode of contributing the funds. Colonial agents in London rejected the offer out of hand, following the instructions of their assemblies to question the right claimed by Parliament to tax the colonies at all. Without an alternative, Grenville re-introduced the bill on February 6, 1765. Except for a memorable exchange between William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, and Isaac Barré, the bill passed the House of Commons the next day "almost without debate" (according to a contemporary historian), by a vote 205-49. It was ratified by royal assent on March 22, 1765.

Grenville was no longer in office when the howls of Americans reached London ears. By 1765, the relationship between Grenville and George III had deteriorated to the point of discord. Grenville was dismissed from office on July 10, 1765, and he almost immediately went to active opposition to both the King and to American defiance of the Stamp Act, comparing it to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. He remained in Parliament until his death in London on November 13, 1770.

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