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Parliaments, 1754-90

Wilkes, America and Reform

When this period opens George II had been on the throne for nearly 27 years; and Henry Pelham, first lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons, had held these offices for nearly 11 years. The nation was at peace; Jacobitism no longer menaced the Hanoverian dynasty; and no deep-seated party divisions disturbed the House of Commons.

On 6 March 1754, a month before the fourth Parliament of the reign was due to be dissolved, Henry Pelham died; and a new era opened. Pelham was immediately succeeded as head of the Treasury by his brother, the Duke of Newcastle, but the question of who was to hold the key office of leader of the House of Commons remained unsettled and occupied the attention of politicians for the next three years. Connected with this were problems of foreign policy. In 1755 fighting broke out between the British and the French, on the seas and in North America, and after war had been declared Britain was forced to undertake further campaigns in India and Germany. The conduct of the war and the making of peace were complicated by the death of the King in 1760 and the accession of George III, only 22 years old, immature for his age, and untried. The search for a stable Administration in terms of the new reign did not end until 1770; rapidly changing ministries, the growth of personal parties within the House of Commons, and of urban radicalism outside, are symptoms of the disturbed state of politics in the first ten years of George III’s reign.

After 1770 Parliament was faced with momentous issues concerning the government of two sub-continents, India and North America. The problem of Britain’s relations with her American colonies dominates the period, not only because of its consequence for world history but also because it arose out of claims made by Parliament and was to have important repercussions on the life of Parliament. The American war stimulated a movement to reduce the influence of the Crown and led to demands for parliamentary and administrative reform; and the years after 1782 are largely taken up in the House of Commons with the working out of these themes. The period ends when the outbreak of the French Revolution was about to lead to a new alignment in Bri