Did you know that the city of London supported the American Revolution?
In 1775 London was the largest, most prosperous and economically important city in the world. Though it was Britain’s capital, politically and economically it remained aloof from the rest of the Kingdom. Uniquely governed by an independent Corporation, it had declared itself a “commune” as early as 1191 and held a constitutional position of importance only one place below the Sovereign himself It remained outside the authority of both the King and Parliament and elected its officials and Lord Mayor from a small group of medieval guilds arranged in strict precedence from the “Mercers” at the top to “Cloth Workers” at the bottom. It openly espoused free trade, even when both King and Parliament did not, and steadfastly refused to allow any soldiers to be billeted within its walls. In short, London taxed itself, governed itself and judged itself, and woe betide any monarch who interfered with its ancient rights and privileges.
It was inevitable therefore that this mercantile, cosmopolitan, city would find itself frequently at odds with its proud and obstinate King. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, the corporation was unfailingly antagonistic towards George III and the “American Policy” of his Prime Minster Lord North. For the first twenty years of his reign, it was the centre of opposition to the court and regularly produced “remonstrance’s” or grievances that it expected the King to respond to without delay. Fascinatingly George did so in a way so personal and free from etiquette that contemporary study exposes not just a city and monarch with conflicting views on America almost to the point of treason, but reveals too, much about the personality of the man who brought Britain and America to Civil War.
A proud independent city versus a stubborn King
In an age when communications travelled slowly, “remonstrances” or petitions were the most direct and efficient way that bodies or individuals could air a concern to their king. There was no guarantee, however, that the monarch would reply or even see them. In this crucial regard, the City of London possessed one unique advantage over every other institution in that it insisted on its ancient right to present grievances to the King as he “sat on the throne.” This practice was more than mere civic vanity or empty convention, for a sovereign who received a London remonstrance did so in person, rather than through an aristocratic third-party, many of whom were known to water down petitions or in extreme cases to not present them at all.
Just a few weeks after the opening gunshots at Lexington and Concord, the City of London and King George began an extraordinary three-year public spat that threatened to bring England to the brink of a constitutional crisis. It commenced in April 1775 when her Aldermen and Lord Mayor introduced a remonstrance asking
Leave to approach the throne and declare our abhorrence of the measures now being pursued…[for] the oppression of our fellow subjects in America.
They neatly summed up the economic concerns of the city as fearing
…a deep and perhaps fatal wound to commerce. The ruin of manufactures; the diminution of the revenue; the consequent increase of taxes; the alienation of the Colonies and the subsequent blood of your Majesty’s subjects.
Yet extraordinarily the remonstrance went further when it abruptly shifted from commercial concerns to political ones and claimed:
That the real purpose [of the Government Policy] is to establish arbitrary power over all America.
Startling as this declaration was, the supplication continued with an even bolder attack with the near treasonous assertion that
These grievances have driven your Majesty’s subjects to despair and have compelled them to have recourse to the resistance which is justified by the great principles of the constitution …these measures originate from the secret advice of men who are enemies of your Majesty’s title and the liberties of your people.
In effect, this was Britain’s capital city advocating the taking up of arms by Americans to protect the rights of all Englishmen, in direct opposition to its monarch and his corrupt Ministers!
A more astounding and pointed attack could not have been conceived by even the most radical American Republican, and one can only imagine how George stewed over the impertinence of this memorandum before publishing his reply just a few days later. Clearly incensed, the King did not hide behind any niceties of formal address and, unusually for the age, began without any respectful preamble.
It is with the utmost astonishment that I find any of my subjects capable of encouraging the rebellious disposition that exists …in America. Having entire confidence in the wisdom of my parliament … I will pursue those measures they have recommended for the protection of … my Kingdom.
A king who refused to sit on his throne
That the Remonstrance had perceptibly shaken George, a monarch who valued and expected loyalty above all else, was apparent to everyone when three months later the Mayor received a brief notification from the Kings Chamberlain Lord Hertford that
His Majesty will not receive on the throne any remonstrance … from the Body Corporate of the City.
Both parties realised the significance of this action immediately. At a stroke, George was shutting down the ability of the City to publicly question the policies of his Government. This was a brief and phyric victory, however, for the King seemed ill-prepared to deal with the persistence with which the Aldermen decided to fight this edict. Within days the Corporation replied to Lord Hertford,
… the Livery of London has the undoubted right to take into consideration any matter of public grievance they might think proper. It is beyond dispute that this power is inherent in them.
If this was not a blunt enough warning, they continued with a further thinly veiled threat
… rights and priveledges of the City have been invaded [previously] by despotic monarchs … of the accursed race of Stuarts, but this is no [such] period of our history.
By citing the Stuart Kings, of course, the city was none too delicately drawing attention to a Royal House who had previously challenged the liberties of London and had suffered the consequences of the “Glorious Revolution” – replacement by the rival House of Orange. This allusion could not have been lost on George. Individual Monarchs, even Royal Houses could come and go, but the liberties of the City and its people would remain ever unbroken and inviolable.
The Aldermen were not satisfied however with just pleading their own cause and seemed set on deliberately antagonising the King by openly siding with the American “rebels.” They declared to Hertford,
Important truths were the foundation of our last remonstrance … respecting our brave fellow-subjects in America. The greatness, as well as the goodness of [their] cause and the horrors of an approaching Civil War, justified our approaching the throne … We greatly fear that your Lordship’s letter following on from his Majesty’s unfavourable answer to our remonstrance will be considered as a fresh mark of anger against our unhappy brethren, as well as his displeasure against all the faithful citizens of his capital.
After Harford delivered this candid reply to the king there followed a political game of cat and mouse over the rights of the Corporation to present remonstrances to the King in person. It was against this inflammatory backdrop that the Corporation raised the stakes once again and produced an even more seditious set of grievances about the government’s conduct of the American crisis. On July 4, 1775 they freshly petitioned.
We are ordered by the Lord Mayor … to wait upon your Majesty, and humbly know … when your Majesty will be pleased to receive upon the throne, their humble address.
George, however, was having none of it and in a matter of days replied:
You will be pleased to take notice I will receive [your] remonstrance Friday next at the Levee.
In other words, the Corporation could wait in line with every other petitioner and present its complaint through the Lord Chamberlain. This was completely unacceptable to the Alderman who threatened
The (city) have resolved not to present their remonstrance unless your Majesty is pleased to be sitting on the throne.
A stubborn and proud man, George merely countered with a note as brief as it was scornful.
I am ever ready to receive all addresses and petitions – but I am the judge where.
“The grievous destruction of our fellow subjects in America”
A lesser body of men may have been intimidated by the brevity and terse nature of the King’s admonishment, but the Corporation, on the contrary, seemed to delight in this new opportunity. They quickly reiterated their professed legal position with a motion a few days later specifying
The King Is bound to hear the petitions of his people, it being an undoubted right of the people, and not a matter of grace and favour
and ending with the provocative
Whoever advised His Majesty … to refuse hearing the remonstrance …is equally an enemy to the happiness and security of the King and … the peace and liberties of his people.
Just three days later they backed up this motion with a further Royal remonstrance addressing “The Grievous destruction of their fellow subjects in America.” Only this time they heightened their objections by making it clear that they considered any assault on American liberty a concurrent attack on British democracy, the two peoples being one and the same.
Your American subjects, Royal Sire descended from … ourselves appear equally jealous of the prerogatives of freemen without which they cannot deem themselves happy.
It went on to call the rebels “our American Brethren,” and lamented the “desperate measures” they had been forced to resort to. It ended by exhorting the King to “suspend those operations of force” now being undertaken against them. None of this was likely to find favour with a King who believed the rebellious in America to be a small minority acting outside the same constitutional laws the city was purporting to champion. His reply was swift and hardly nine lines long. Ignoring the pleadings of the Aldermen, he wrote
I am always ready to listen to the dutiful petitions of my subjects … But while the constitutional authority of the Kingdom is only resisted by some part of my American subjects … I owe it to the rest of my people to continue to enforce those measures by which alone their rights can be maintained.
He also could not help indicating that, unlike his capital, the rest of his people has shown nothing but continual “zest” and “fidelity” for his American policies.
“Our American Brethren”
None of this extraordinary quarrel was likely to have gone unnoticed by the Continental Congress. For not only were the remonstrances keenly reported public documents, many of London’s Aldermen also held commercial interests or were tied to America by blood. Indeed, Virginia-born William Lee, a prominent Alderman and London’s Sheriff, was the brother of Richard Henry Lee who in under a year was to propose the first resolution in Congress for independence from the mother country.
Seeing a glorious propaganda opportunity, congressional president John Hancock wrote to the Lord Mayor expressing gratitude and thanks for the “unsolicited resentment” that London had shown for the “violated rights of free men.” He ended,
A cruel war … has been opened against us, and while we prepare to defend ourself like the descendants of Britons, we still hope that … mediation will prevail over despotism.
Though the despot was not named, there can have been little doubt on both sides of the Atlantic to whom the allusion referred.
If George expected the military successes of early 1776 in Quebec to quieten the critics of his government, he was to be quickly disillusioned. In March the City produced its most critical and wide-ranging remonstrance yet. Claiming Britain was left “naked and exposed,” and “drained of native troops.” it openly criticised George for introducing foreign mercenaries “into this Realm,” the “Realm” of course being America. Touching on the taxation issues that had initially ignited the rebellion the remonstrance concluded:
We humbly conceive that no people can be bound to surrender their rights and liberties as a return for (military) protection.
This long and sophisticated petition elicited from George just eleven dull lines that laid all blame on the Colonies themselves and showed absolutely no hint of compromise or awareness that his policy of military coercion was ever likely to prove unsuccessful. He replied
I deplore the miseries … which a great part of my subject in North America have brought on themselves … and I will be willing to alleviate those miseries when Authority is established, and the now existing rebellion is at an end.
It was now evident to the Aldermen that George was unlikely to ever change his strategy or attitude towards America, and that neither plea nor threat would make any significant difference. The City, therefore, tried one last tactic. Flattery.
On November 4, 1777, the Corporation sent an address to the King on the birth of the Princess Sophia. After a dutiful and loyal overture, they expressed “joy upon the happy delivery of another Princess,” which they saw as “further security for the excellent enjoyment of our Constitution and church.” The final paragraph, however, was pointedly vague in its meaning, declaring
Long may your Majesty reign the true guarantor of the liberties of this free country and be the instrument of transferring to posterity those invaluable rights and privileges which are the birthright of subjects of this kingdom.
George, a more intelligent man than is oft given credit, immediately saw through this coded tribute and couldn’t help but issue an equally oblique reply. After thanking the city for their “dutiful address,” he scotched the implied notion that he could ever be anything other than lawful or democratic by ending
It is my … object to preserve … the Constitutional liberties of my people … which I shall ever consider as forming the basis of my government.
A final appeal
By March 1778 the war had reached an exhausting military stalemate. Politically Britain faced a European coalition ranged against it that neither the King nor City could have envisaged at the time of the first remonstrance in 1775. Economically London was suffering from a crippling loss of trade, revenue and prominence. Against this sanguine background, the Corporation tried one last time to persuade the King of the folly of the war and fashioned a remarkable petition nine pages long that expounded in depth its legal, economic, military and philosophical objections to the war. In may ways it was a document as impressive as any produced during the entire conflict, but there was more than a sense of desperation in the way it threw everything into its final entreaty.
Its tenor was set early on by referring to the struggle as a “Civil War,” a term guaranteed to outrage the king who resolutely refused to acknowledge any other idiom but “rebellion.” It then pursued a theme that had been constant throughout previous petitions: that George was being misled by his advisors. There is no sense in any of the remonstrances from the City that its Aldermen suspected George as the driving force behind Britain’s American policies, merely that he was the misguided dupe of corrupt aristocratic ministers.
It continued the previous form by admiring the efforts of the Americans, noting
We have been taught to … despise the resistance of our Brethren (Englishmen like ourselves) who we had no sort of reason to suspect deficient in sincerity and courage which have ever distinguished that race; Their inclinations have been misrepresented; their natural faculties deprecated; their resources miscalculated their feelings insulted.
If much of this George has seen before, this final petition was unique in its appraisal of the military futility of the contest:
We have seen a whole army, the flower of the trained military strength of Great Britain … famishing in the wilderness of America … we have seen another army for two years in almost continual course of victory by which they have only wasted their own numbers without decreasing the strength of the opposing power … your Majestys forces have done all that could be expected … and yet the total defeat of some of these forces and the ineffectual victories of others have conspired to the destruction of your power and the dismemberment of your empire.
If the King was cut by this dispiriting if accurate assessment, one can only suspect the anger he must have felt as they then set about destroying one of his most cherished political notions, that most of America was intrinsically loyal and that only a few deceitful, artful men had led the masses to rebellion.
“We are convinced … that the whole American people is set … against the plans of coercion [and that] a whole and united people cannot be conquered.
The economy of the British Isles was next touched on with the petitioners declaring
Our resources are exhausted while those of our rivals are spared. We are every year … of this war altering the balance … of our strength and riches in their favour.
British diplomacy was scrutinised for the first time, with the City openly mocking the government’s failed attempts to form any kind of european alliance while fearing the powerful coalition that had been set against her.
Their final plea was a constant of all the remonstrances since 1775, an end to the war and an honourable peace:
Less every remaining spark of [American] affection should be extinguished in habits of mutual rapine and slaughter … and less they who have hitherto been great supporters (of Britain) … should become the most lasting allies … to the enemies … of your Kingdoms.
It was as intelligent, candid and prescient a summary of the war as had been produced by either side during the conflict. Addressing political, military and economic concerns, the city destroyed not just the justification for the war but ridiculed its failed execution too.
George, however, was less than impressed. His reply days later comprised a mere ten lines of platitude and banality.
I can never think the zeal of my subjects, the resources of my kingdoms and the bravery of my fleets and armies can have been unwisely exerted ,,, when the object was [that] subordination … which ought to prevail through my dominions and is essential to the prosperity of the whole.
After lamenting the “calamities inseparable from a state of war,” the King earnestly hoped for some “happy, honourable and permanent reconciliation,” but noted it could only be between the “Mother Country” and her colonies.
And with this final trite conclusion to London’s greatest remonstrance, George confirmed not only that had he no intention of ever dealing with America as an independent and sovereign nation, but that through three years of interchange his stubborn and obstinate nature could exhaust even the Empire’s first city.