Lord North: the British Prime Minister Who Lost the American Colonies

Frederick North, commonly known as Lord North, was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1770 to 1782. His premiership was marred by a bloody conflict between Great Britain and its 13 diminutive American colonies. His inability to fully stay on top of the issues that cropped up resulted in Great Britain losing its American colonies. By the time Lord North had tendered his resignation in 1782, the American revolutionary fighters had handed British forces a severe blow in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). In 1783, Britain was left with no other choice than to recognize the independence of the United States of America.

Lord North (1713-1792), the British Prime Minister who led Great Britain through most of the American Revolutionary War.

Frederick North: Fast Facts

Title: 2nd Earl of Guilford, Baron Guilford

Date of birth: April 13, 1732

Place of birth: Piccadilly, London, United Kingdom

Died: August 5, 1792

Place of death: London, England

Aged: 60

Burial: All Saints’ Church, Wroxton, England

Parents: Francis North, 1st Earl of Guilford, and Lady Anne Finch

Spouse: Anne Speke

Positions held: Prime Minister of Great Britain (1770-1782), Chancellor of the Exchequer (1767-1770), House of Commons (1754-1790); House of Lords (1790-1792)

Political party: Whig (1754-1770), Tory (1770-1790)

Most known for: Intolerable Acts of 1774; role in the American Revolution

Birth and early life

Frederick North was born into an English noble family. His father, the 1st earl of Guilford, was a member of the Tories (the Conservative Party in Britain).

For his education, North went to Eton College in Berkshire, England. He later proceeded to Trinity College in Oxford, where he earned a master’s degree.

Entry into politics

His big break in politics came when he was 22. The young North was elected to the British Parliament to represent Banbury. North would go on to be the member of parliament (MP) for Banbury for the remainder of his political life, which lasted for around 40 years.

In 1759, he was appointed by then-British prime minister the Duke of Newcastle to serve as lord of the treasury. About seven years later, he was appointed as one of the members of the Privy Council of the King.

He also served as the paymaster general in the years that followed.

In 1767, then-Prime Ministers Augustus Henry FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, appointed North as Chancellor of the Exchequer (the equivalent of Secretary of the Treasury in the United States). He was filling the big shoes left behind by Charles Townshend who died in September 1767.

A year later, he rose to the position of the Leader of the Commons, replacing Henry Seymour, the secretary of state who had resigned.

Prime minister

In February 1770, North rose to the highest office in Great Britain. He had succeeded Grafton and become prime minister of Great Britain. Lord North was known for being a skilled debater in parliament. This trait of his made him very popular among MPs.

Lord North was a big supporter of sweeping fiscal reforms that were aimed at preventing Great Britain from going off the cliff so to speak. As a result, Lord North was praised for his apt financial administrative powers.

In the first three years of his premiership, he was able to keep tensions down in the American colonies. However, things would spiral out of control following Parliament’s passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774.

The American Revolutionary War breaks out

In the early 1770s, there was no event in the world that could rival the situation that was unraveling in the Americas as resent from American colonists, especially those from Boston, Massachusetts, started reaching epic proportions. At the heart of all those issues was none other than Lord North. The prime minister of Britain at the time had inherited the problems in the American colonies from his predecessor, Prime Minister Grafton.

At the time, American colonies were pressing Lord North and the British Parliament for the Tea Act of 1773 and other British imposed restrictions to be repealed. Led by local politicians and merchants from Boston, the American colonies were in the formative stages of joining forces the policies of Lord North.

Lord North stood firm and maintained the tea duty. He and the Crown completely disregarded the cries of the American colonies for the granting of some kind of representation and autonomy in their affairs.

Why did Lord North pass the Intolerable Acts?

Incensed by the Boston Tea Party (1773), an incident many MPs in London saw as a flagrant defiance of Britain’s rule, North proceeded to pass a series of punitive measures called the Intolerable Acts (also known as the Coercive Acts) in 1774. North and his colleagues in the House of Commons believed that those acts would allow Britain to reassert its control and authority in the American colonies. All in all, the Intolerable Acts numbered four, which primarily targeted the Bostonians since the city had become a hotbed for colonial resistance. The four Intolerable Acts that Lord North passed were:

  1. The Boston Port Bill – a measure that forced the Boston Harbor to close.
  2. The Massachusetts Government Act – a punitive measure that removed local elected politicians and replaced them with appointments by Great Britain. This act also widened the powers of the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, in order to rein in on dissenting voices in the colony.
  3. The Administration of Justice Act – a measure which removed the prosecution of British officials charged with a capital offense from the colony where they committed the offense to another colony or to England.
  4. The Quartering Act – this was perhaps the most “intolerable” of the acts. The act forced American colonies to open their homes to the housing of British troops. This act brought back memories of the Quartering Act (1765), an act that colonists completely loathed.

Basically, North and the British Parliament were trying to set an example of Boston for its outrageous actions in December, 1773, when several tons of British tea were thrown into the Boston harbor by irate colonies protesting the Tea Duty. Lord North was counting on the British military governor in Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, to swiftly implement those acts following their passage in the summer of 1774. It must be noted that Parliament had also increased the powers of Gage so as to ensure that there were no hiccups in enforcing those acts.

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Reaction to Lord North’s Intolerable Acts

North was in complete support of the banning of town meetings that did not receive the approval of the military governor. The prime minister firmly believed that those measures would best serve the Crown. He was also hopeful that the measures would result in the dampening of the spirits and resolve of the colonists. As it turned out, Lord North was completely wrong because he had severely underestimated the fighting spirit of the colonial local leaders, particularly the likes of Samuel Adams and other members of the Sons of Liberty in Boston.

It will be an understatement to say that outrage, protests and indignation became the order of the day in Massachusetts and the 12 other British American colonies. Those punitive measures were seen by the American Revolutionaries and Rebels (i.e. Patriots) as tantamount to stripping them of their rights and self-governance.

It took less than four months before the Patriots banded together and formed the First Continental Congress. From September 5 to October 26, 1774, they met at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to coordinate colonial rebels’ resistance to Lord North’s Intolerable Acts.

Did you know: The Intolerable Acts passed by Lord North were referred to as the Coercive Acts in Great Britain?

Lord North’s handling of the breakout of the American Revolutionary War

Lord North and King George III were taken aback when news reached them that the colonists had decided to boycott British goods. The Patriots also petitioned King George to intervene and have those acts repealed in order to alleviate the suffering of the American colonists. Their appeals fell on deaf ears of both North and George. Therefore, the colonists kicked up their resistance a few notches up.

At the Second Continental Congress, which was convened in May, 1775, the colonists agreed to collaborate and put up a firm defense against British troops.  A month prior, Lord North had had to contend with Massachusetts’ rebellion against the British government. North had ordered more than 650 British Army regulars in Boston to hunt for and destroy military supplies that were held by the colonists at Concord. Thus marking the beginning of the first military engagements of the American War of Independence.

At the start of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, eight militia men were killed, versus one British soldier. By the time the battles were over, many more casualties were recorded on both sides.

North’s failures during the American Revolutionary War

North has been criticized for not taking a hands-on approach to dealing with the Revolutionary War. It’s said that he delegated much of the decision making to his ministers, particularly the Earl of Sandwich and Lord George Germanin, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Initially, those men were able to secure some very key victories against the American Patriots. However, the British forces simply could not find that blow that would knock out a resilient Continental Army led by General George Washington.

The coming of France into the fray changed everything for North and his ministers. With France’s support, the American forces were able to turn things around and put British forces under immense pressure. Ultimately, it all came crushing down for Lord North when British forces (under the command of Lord Cornwallis), surrendered to his American counterpart in October 1781. The Continental Army of the United States had vanquished British troops during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

When news of Britain’s surrender following Yorktown, Lord North is said to have exclaimed “Oh God! It is all over!”. Portrait of Lord North by Pompeo Batoni (1753)

Lord North’s Conciliatory Resolution in 1775

In the year that the American Revolutionary War broke out, Lord North came out with a Conciliatory Bill that would basically allow the colonies to tax themselves. North proposed the resolution before the House of Commons on February 20, 1775. The provision of needed funds to Great Britain would no longer be mandatory; instead colonists could give on a voluntary basis. The Conciliatory Proposition also came with the New England Restraining Act, which forbade New England colonies from trading with any other nation other than Great Britain. Colonists were also prohibited from fishing off Newfoundland.

North sent the conciliatory resolution to the various American colonies, intentionally ignoring the Continental Congress. By doing this, the British Prime Minister hoped he could somehow fracture the unity that existed among the 13 colonies.

At the same time, North had earlier sent British forces, under the leadership of Gen. Thomas Gage, to find and destroy weapons stockpiled in Concord, Massachusetts. The British forces were also tasked to apprehend colonial leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

In effect, the Conciliatory Resolution by Lord North did very little in resolving the crisis. Thus it was too little, too late. In a report written by a committee of Congress (which included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson) on July 31 that year, the Patriots vehemently rejected Lord North’s conciliatory resolution.

The American Patriots seemed bent on the creation of the United States as a new nation. And there was nothing that Lord North and George III could do to stop them.

The no confidence vote that ended Lord North’s premiership

As expected, British parliamentarians and even George III were far from pleased with the loss of the American colonies. Lord North, in spite of his best efforts in the war, had lost one of Britain’s most revered overseas colonies. Fingers were pointed firmly at North. So MPs voted to have removed via a no-confidence vote. The long-serving prime minister tended his resignation on March 20, 1782.

His departure paved way for the United States and Great Britain to enter into peace negotiations in Paris, France in 1783.

Later life and death

In 1783, North aligned himself with some Whig members such as Charles James Fox and formed a coalition government under the leadership of William Henry Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Portland. North served as the Home Secretary. It was during his time as the Home Secretary that the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

On August 4, 1790, he took his seat in the House of Lords as the 2nd Earl of Guilford.

In his later years, his eyesight deteriorated very fast, leaving him completely blind.

Lord North died on August 5, 1792. He was 60.

Other interesting facts about Lord North

  • Lord North’s father, Francis North, was an aide to Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son and heir apparent of King George II. Frederick was the father of George III. Prince Frederick even served as the godfather of Lord North.
  • His mother, Lady Anne Finch, was the third daughter of Heneage Finch, 1st Earl of Aylesford. She died when Lord was around 13 years old.
  • By his wife Anne Speke, Lord North fathered seven children, including his first son and heir George Augustus North, 3rd Earl of Guilford.
  • It’s often the case that people wonder why Lord North refused repealing the Tea Act. The truth of the matter is: North maintained the tax on tea in order to keep the financially struggling British East India Company alive.
  • His 12-year service as prime minister makes him one of the longest-serving in Britain’s history.

Lord North and the Falkland Crisis

Following Great Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, the kingdom emerged as perhaps the most dominant imperial power at the time. It had also acquired so many territories to reach its peak at the time. However, Great Britain’s success did not go down too well with the Spanish, who seized the Falkland Island. Great Britain was set on a collision course with Spain. Fearing the might of Britain, Spain asked France for support. The French however were not ready to engage in a war with Britain. Therefore France managed to convince Spain to back down. This played perfectly into the hands of Great Britain. At home, Prime Minister Lord North and his government was praised for the manner in which they handled the crisis.


Some scholars have noted that Lord North was not so keen on punishing the colonies with the greatest of punishments. It’s said that he began to backpedal on the matter following strength shown by the colonist at the First Continental Congress in 1774.

Lord North was not bold enough to convince his fellow MPs and even King George into adopting a more reconciliatory tone towards the colonies. Instead, he just went along with the flow and did exactly as he was instructed by the Crown. He was tasked to use all kinds of force to bring the colonies back into the orbit of Great Britain.

His time as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1767-1770) was also very beneficial, as he was able to keep a heavily indebted Britain financially solvent. Unlike France that had been bankrupted by the wars of the decade, Britain was able to manage its high national debt.

Lord North was also known as a great orator and a hardworking member of parliament of his time. History may not look at him as favorably as a prime minister, but there was no doubt that he was a great MP, one of the greatest in the 18th century.

Read More: 10 Famous Figures of the American Revolution

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