The Struggle for the Scepter

A Study of the British Monarchy and Parliament in the Eighteenth Century

by Clayton Roberts (Author) Stewart Dippel (Volume editor)
©2020 Monographs XII, 356 Pages


The Struggle for the Scepter offers a richly-detailed narrative history of the relationship between the British Parliament and the Crown during the 18th century. Drawing on extensive primary source documents—including political pamphlets, diaries, and correspondence exchanged by major political players of the period—the book traces the gradual decline of the Crown’s power throughout the century, such that by 1800, political power had shifted to what might be called a modern parliamentary system.
The Struggle for the Scepter persuasively links this significant shift to the British nation’s recognition of five principal truths by century’s end: [1] That unified political parties based on principle rather than personality were here to stay. [2] That this was a good thing, in part because without party organization and party discipline it proved impossible to manage a House of Commons of roughly 550 Members; and, in part because the notion of a loyal Opposition came to be seen as beneficial, both for the sake of overseeing public administration and checking not only royal power but the power of a parliamentary majority. [3] That the Monarch must only appoint as ministers those that commanded a majority in the House of Commons. [4] That with regards to policy the Monarch must accept the dictates of those ministers. [5] That the organization of the parliamentary majority centered on a First, or Prime, Minister who headed a unified Cabinet; that is, a Cabinet based on collective responsibility and a Cabinet which spoke with one voice, through the Cabinet Minute, to the Monarch.
Clayton Roberts brings his shrewd command of British political history to bear on this meticulously researched and fascinating account of a turbulent and transformative century in British politics. The result is an engaging and insightful work that should appeal to scholars, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates interested in the origins of the British parliamentary system and political history more broadly.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Editor’s Preface
  • Editor’s Introduction
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 1 The Rise and Fall of Sir Robert Walpole
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 2 The Reign of the Pelhams
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 3 The Strange Career of Mr. William Pitt
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 4 Lord Rockingham and the Failure of Parliamentary Undertaking
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 5 Lord North and the Failure of Court Management
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 6 The Younger Pitt and the Erosion of Royal Power
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Clayton had wished to thank his brother, David Roberts, who was a professor at Dartmouth, and James Sack, who was a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, for their close and critical read of his manuscript. Additionally, he wanted to thank the Duke of Devonshire for his gracious hospitality in allowing him access to the manuscripts at Chatsworth. He also wanted to recognize the National Endowment of the Humanities, which granted him a Senior Fellowship for the academic year 1987–88, which enabled him to do much of the research for this book.

For my part I need to thank the people at my college, the University of the Ozarks, in Clarksville, Arkansas, where I have taught since 1992. The financial support for this project is due to the courtesy of Dr. Helen McElree, who some years ago generously established a Faculty Enrichment Endowment. Without her endowment, there is no book. As with my last book, my hope is that when she reads this she will not want her money back. Additionally, I thank the college president, Rich Dunsworth, the provost, Alyson Gill, and the special assistant to the president, Steve Edmisten, for signing off on my grant application. Our college librarians, Stuart Stelzer and Doug Denne, have provided their usual help in giving me access to sources and to protecting my carrel in the library’s sacred space. Most especially, I would like to thank NaLisa Brown, my colleague among the faculty. I had asked her to take in hand the formatting for the book, since my ←ix | x→computer literacy borders on the anti-diluvium. This she did, but she did much more. She read the text with an eye to style and content and she cleared up many grammatical and reference mistakes. Without her assistance, there is no book.

This is my second book with Lang. I want to thank them for their professionalism and their interest in my work. Especially, I wish to thank Dr. Meagan Simpson, the Acquisitions Editor at Lang, for her patience and her support.

My wife, Nadezhda, tells me that when I’m putting a book to bed I tend to become even more irascible and absent minded than I usually am. I guess she should know, as this is our fifth book together. So, I thank her for her patience.

Finally, I thank Clayton’s widow, Anne, for trusting me with the manuscript. Clayton had not noted a dedication in his manuscript, so I took the liberty of providing one. I hope and think that he would have approved.

Editor’s Preface

Clayton Roberts was my Ph.D. advisor at Ohio State University more than a few decades ago. Upon his passing the honor of seeing his last book through to publication fell to me. He focused throughout his career on British political history, particularly with reference to the relationship between Parliament and the Crown, during the seventeenth century. This book is in a way a sequel to his two books which concentrated on the seventeenth century. These were The Growth of Responsible Government in Stuart England and Schemes and Undertakings: A Study of English Politics in the Seventeenth Century. Clayton spent a fair amount of time each year in London rummaging among the archives. It shows in his work. Most of the references cited in this book are to manuscript sources. As a result there is a sense, a tone, of immediacy in his work. He wrote as if we were all gathered together; in Parliament, the King’s Closet, the coffee houses and taverns, and the private residences of the politicians.

This sense of immediacy, of being there when it all happened, presents a bit of a problem. Clayton assumed that readers were just as familiar with the particulars of English history as he was. He treated his graduate students the same way. That was both flattering and frustrating; frustrating in the sense that his assumption naturally raised the bar of his expectations regarding the quality of our work. Back in the late 1980s, when he began the research on this book, such assumptions ←xi | xii→may have been partially true. Back then, for example, history departments routinely taught year-long survey courses in English/British history. Sadly, that no longer holds true. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of writing an introduction describing those aspects of eighteenth century British history that pertain to the book’s subject and thesis. I hope that this will make the book more accessible to general readers. The more well informed and specialists in the field, of course, are invited to skip over the introduction.

Readers will soon discover that Clayton took politics seriously. Likewise, they will discover that he favored a rational approach towards politics rather than an emotional and charismatic approach. At heart he was always a bit of a throwback to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. He took the politics of our time seriously as well. To the best of my recollection, he and I had but one serious disagreement, and it was not over interpretations relative to seventeenth-century English history. Rather, it was over the politics of our time. While we were both Democrats, he always voted a straight ticket, whereas I would split my vote on the basis of my feelings for the candidates. Many times he chastised me for being sort of a “cheater” Democrat. Unless you stand with the party as a whole, he argued, you don’t stand for anything. He would tell me that I needed to be less emotional and more rational and disciplined in my politics. In retrospect, he very well may have been right.

On my office door at my college is an old photograph from The Lantern, which is the Ohio State student newspaper. It shows Clayton, dressed in his customary tweed jacket and dark tie and white shirt addressing an anti-war rally back in the spring of 1968. He was encouraging students to support Eugene McCarthy for president. At the same time I was urging people to support the more emotional and charismatic candidate, Bobby Kennedy. At any rate, I keep the photograph there as a reminder to myself that college professors are supposed to stand for things arguably a little more important than the sanctity of tenure. That’s what Clayton Roberts taught me, and at the close of my career I sense that that lesson was more important than any history he ever taught me.

Editor’s Introduction

At the cost of a great deal of blood and even greater misery a few things had been firmly resolved by the end of the long and revolutionary seventeenth century. Perhaps most importantly, disputes between the Crown and Parliament should not end with perpetual dissolutions of Parliament on the one hand or the cutting off of the King’s head on the other. Secondly, England was not to be an absolutist monarchy: Kings and Parliament were constrained by law. Thirdly, Britain and her government were to be neither Roman Catholic nor radically Protestant. Neither Puritan nor Papist would rule. Finally, there were such things as “the rights of free-born Englishmen,” and while those rights might be somewhat ambiguous, and while they were not absolute, they could not be trampled upon with impunity. How all of this would work out in practice was the singular, and singularly unappreciated, task of the eighteenth century. This book chronicles that achievement.

Professor Roberts’ book spans roughly a century, from about 1714 on into the first decade of the nineteenth century. In 1714 the British constitutional framework and practice may be described, charitably, as early modern. Less charitably, it might be castigated as anachronistically medieval. By 1800 theory and practice may be described as modern. That transformation is detailed in this book. To un←1 | 2→derstand that transformation, however, it is helpful to understand somewhat the broader, the contextual, changes that altered British society.

To begin with, it is necessary to consider demographic developments. The population grew significantly throughout the century, and that population became increasingly urbanized, and so prey to the forces of modernization. Between 1760 and 1820 the population of England and Wales almost doubled, from 6.5 million to 12 million. Between 1800 and 1850 the population doubled. This increase led to Thomas Malthus’ dire predictions in his Essay on Population, published in 1798. Moreover, the dispersion of population shifted from rural to urban areas. This was in part due to the effects of further enclosure in the countryside and to the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester, for example, numbered a scant 18,000 in 1750, but soared to over 100,000 by 1800. Leeds grew from 17,000 to 53,000 over the same period.1

An important consequence of these developments was the steady increase in the number of people who took more than a passing interest in politics. Political scientists refer to “the attentive public;” that is to “people who know and understand how the government works” and who tend to “read a daily newspaper, and talk politics with their families and friends.”2 Abundant evidence charts the growth of Britain’s attentive public throughout the century. This was especially true from roughly the 1750s on, when issues relative to the Seven Years’ War, the American colonies, and the French Revolution seized public attention. It should be emphasized that the attentive public here, as opposed to contemporary democracies, included those without the vote. They were active in politics and of course much of that activity was generated towards an extension of the franchise. One of the indications of this growth is the steady increase in numbers and sales of newspapers and political pamphlets. With the end of prior restraint, by the termination of the Licensing Act in 1695, people could publish as they pleased, subject of course to the restraints imposed by the laws governing sedition and libel.3

This facilitated, along with a healthy literacy rate, two thirds of the men and one third of the women, could read, a growing demand for political print. Thus, by 1760 London boasted 89 papers and the provinces another 50. It is difficult to gauge the number of people who read papers. Peter Jupp suggested 25 percent of the population did so by 1760. The hard evidence that would seem to support this supposition would be the 7.3 million pounds the government brought in as revenue by way of the Stamp Tax in 1750, and the 12.6 million pounds garnered in 1775. Press runs for political pamphlets ran on average 500 copies. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France sold over 300,000 copies between 1790 and his death in 1797. Moreover, newspapers and pamphlets need not be bought in ←2 | 3→order to be read. They were readily available at coffee houses, taverns, and reading rooms and libraries. London had 551 coffee houses by 1750. Many of these clearly identified with political parties or interests. Arthur’s was the favorite for the Whigs and the Cocoa Tree for the Tories and many of the independent country back benchers. Moreover, by 1800 there were 112 reading rooms or libraries in London and another 268 scattered among the provinces.4 Professor Roberts discusses some of this literature as it impacts his topic and argument.

There were other avenues of political participation aside from the reading of newspapers and pamphlets. Political scientists speak of these in terms of interest articulation, interest aggregation, and the role of interest groups and political parties in facilitating these processes. Britain in the eighteenth century was fairly prolific in associations. The organizational template for these actually dates from the close of the seventeenth century, which witnessed the emergence of numerous societies and associations targeting the reformation of manners from the standpoint of Christian piety, of either the Anglican or Dissenting variety. Thus, the Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge was founded in 1699. London in that year had 39 associations for reformation of manners. The purpose of the society operating out of St. Giles, Cripplegate, was “to Encourage each other in practical holiness.” There were also a fair amount of provincial societies. The Old Romney Religious Society in 1701 for example required members “to pray daily, morning and evening, to conduct themselves soberly and to behave in a godly manner towards their fellows.”5 In and of themselves these societies impacted politics with their call for moral reformation as a response to the perceived debauchery of the Restoration. As Professor Roberts discusses below, moral regeneration was a reason to despise political parties in favor of ministries composed of virtuous men, sometimes referred to as “broad-bottomed ministries.” Part of the Younger Pitt’s popularity with the House of Commons flowed from his radiant virtue, and part of his rival Charles Fox’s difficulties in the house resulted from his well-known libertine lifestyle. During the eighteenth century the penchant for religious associations carried over into a penchant for political associations.

The Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights devoted itself to preserving the accomplishments of the Glorious Revolution. During the developing crisis regarding the colonies in the late 1760s the South Carolina legislature sent it a donation of 1,500 pounds.6 In the early 1780s Christopher Wyvill founded the Yorkshire Association, which promoted parliamentary Reform and advocated for such things as the reduction of placemen in Parliament, more frequent elections, and the addition of 100 seats to the House of Commons. The Association’s petitions to Parliament garnered some 60,000 signatures.7 In response to the Gag ←3 | 4→Acts of 1795, which looked to suppress radical societies, the Association of the Friends of the People sent to Parliament 94 petitions totaling 130,000 signatures in opposition to the Acts.8 Among conservatively focused groups may be numbered the Reeves Societies and the Loyal Associations, the latter numbering 2,000 branches, which flourished in the 1790s as a bulwark against the radical threats posed by the French Revolution.9 Aside from petitions relative to grievances or reform, associations sent detailed instructions to their Members in the House as to how they should vote. Sometimes these had effect. They were instrumental, for example, in the Government’s abandonment of an Excise Bill in 1733 and in the decision to go to war with Spain in 1739.10

Then, there were the politics of the street. This took various forms: marches; illuminations, which were lit candles placed in windows or on the street, often arranged to spell out a message; burnings in effigy; and potentially violent or mildly violent assaults on unpopular political figures. Lord Bute was a perennial target of assault. The Earl of Bedford was besieged in his London residence and had to be rescued by the troops. Lord North’s coach was destroyed. That unhappy event precipitated an outburst in the House in which he blamed unscrupulous politicians for inciting and manipulating the people. “The drunken and ignorant have been made dupes to the crafty and the factious [read the unvirtuous here],” he complained. They have “signed papers [petitions] that they have never read, and determined questions that they do not know; roared against oppression and tyranny, with licentiousness that makes liberty blush, and staggered home with impunity.”11

From 1763 to 1774 John Wilkes, and what fairly may be described as his Movement, epitomized street politics. In this case the politics of the street significantly intruded upon the politics of the House of Commons. The son of a wealthy London distiller, Wilkes spent 7,000 pounds on his election to Parliament. He did not distinguish himself there. He did, however, carve out for himself a reputation as a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer, and—most importantly—a journalist with few scruples. Owner and editor of and contributor to the North Britain, it was Issue #45 that landed him in trouble. In it he derided George III’s defense of the Treaty of Paris and argued that treaty was dishonorable. He also declared that the King’s mother was Bute’s mistress. Libelous these sentiments certainly were and, if one wanted to stretch the point, possibly seditious as well. On the merits of the case, then, few would have rushed to his defense. Rather, it was the manner of prosecution, some would say persecution, which garnered Wilkes his support.

In the end it came down to two issues. The first involved the search of the offices of the North Britain. The search, and subsequent arrest of Wilkes and ←4 | 5→others, was conducted under the authority of a general warrant. These grants were open ended grans for search and seizure which in effect gave the government carte blanche to engage in fishing expeditions. Names, places, and suspected contraband were not specified. A few years later, under the guise of writs of assistance, the same methods were to be employed in the colonies. Such procedures, of course, were highly dubious in terms of their constitutionality. It was possible to argue so on the basis of precedents stretching back to Magna Charta. Claiming immunity from arrest as a Member of Parliament, Wilkes was released. Audaciously, he then reprinted Issue #45 and fled to France. In 1768, amid a publicity campaign largely orchestrated by himself, he returned to Britain, stood trial, was convicted, and went to prison for a spell. During this time he also stood successfully for Parliament from Middlesex. The House of Commons expelled him in due course. He was elected and expelled three more times over the next year. This, then, raised the second issue; viz., the right of voters to choose whom they wished to represent them.12 While not denying that right in theory, the majority of the Commons responded that they had an equal right, a duty even, to protect the integrity of the House. It was one of those controversies in which sound arguments may be advanced on each side of the dispute. In the late 1960s Adam Clayton Powell was returned by his Harlem constituents to the United States House of Representatives. Under a cloud of suspicion over probable financial corruption the House refused to sit him. He went to court and while the case proceeded his constituents again elected him. The Supreme Court, in Powell v. McCormack, held for Powell and so, a couple of centuries later, vindicated after a manner John Wilkes and the voters of Middlesex.

I do not know how much of his own history Wilkes knew. I suspect he knew but little. But if he did know a little, I am tempted to suggest that he cribbed the playbook from an earlier tribune of the people, John Lilburne. Beginning in the 1630s and continuing throughout the upheavals of the 1640s “Free-Born John” wrote pamphlets denouncing church and state, was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for seditious libel and, upon his release, indeed sometimes while in prison, wrote more inflammatory pamphlets which started the process all over again. He was a master of street politics and street theater. Thousands demonstrated for him and signed his petitions. He used his court appearances as opportunities for theatrical performances in which he lambasted the iniquity of the authorities. The key to his success was his ability to parlay his cause into the cause of Everyman.

So too it was with the cause of “Wilkes and Liberty.” This slogan originated out of his address to the Court of Common Pleas in May of 1763.

←5 | 6→

The Liberty of all peers and gentlemen, and, what touches me more sensibly, of all the middling and inferior class of the people, which stands most in need of protection, is my case this day to be finally decided upon: a question of such importance as to determine at once, whether English Liberty be a reality of a shadow.

John Lilburne himself never put the case so eloquently. Added to the eloquence was the street theater. Supporters would chalk #45 on the pavement, doors, and coaches much as people put the peace symbol out and about during the 1960s. Among the many gifts and tokens of appreciation supporters sent to Wilkes during his incarceration at King’s Bench prison were: salmon from Plymouth, Newcastle, and Gloucester; turkey and tea from Norwich; 45 hams, 45 tongues, and 45 dozen bottles of ale from Stockton; cheese and cider from Devonshire; and 45 hogsheads of tobacco from Boston’s Sons of Liberty. Upon his release from prison, the celebrations included the displays of: 300 candles spelling out “Wilkes and Liberty” at Greenwich, along with 45 canon salvoes; another 45 canon salvoes at Norfolk; and, at York, an illuminated presentation of candles spelling out “no. 45, Magna Charta, and the Bill of Rights.”13

For the political elite, aside from the issue of order, Wilkes’ significance lay in the problem of reform. For many, the issue was not whether reform was necessary but, rather, the questions of what kind of reform, how much reform, and how soon reform should be implemented. Professor Roberts chronicles the various responses by parties and their leadership to these questions below. In general, though, a few observations may be tendered. To begin with, most politicians favored some measure of reform. They divided over whether or not such reform should be in-house or out-of-house. That is to say, should it be restricted to structures and procedures of Parliament or should it include as well as to what Parliament in general and the Commons in particular meant and represented. The more cautious wished to restrain reform to such issues as reducing the number of placemen in the House and perhaps to a reapportionment of seats in which some of the rotten boroughs would transfer their seats to the new cities of urban industry. The more daring advocated more frequent elections. In particular, they wanted the repeal of the Septennial Act, 1716, which extended the life of Parliament before mandatory elections to 7 years, and a return to the Triennial Act, 1694, which stipulated elections every 3 years. The effect of the Septennial Act, as one scholar has observed, was to encourage a “political oligarchy.”14 Even more audacious were those reformers who wanted to broaden the electorate beyond the 40 shilling freeholder; that is, those who owned a freehold that would rent at 40 shillings a ←6 | 7→year. England’s wealth in the early eighteenth century still lay primarily in land, and that landed wealth was highly concentrated. Four hundred families owned 20 percent of the cultivated land, which produced for them incomes ranging between 5,000 and 40,000 pounds per year. Another 750 families held title to 30 percent of the land, which gentry families, then, dominated politics. With industrialization and urbanization producing a different type of wealth, there was a growing sense by many that the political process in general and the franchise in particular ought to be more inclusive. Closely related to the issue of parliamentary reform, increasing the size of the electorate and extending seats to new urban areas, was the collateral issue of greater inclusiveness for Dissenters and Roman Catholics. This focused on the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts along with Catholic Emancipation. Pitt the Younger resigned as First Minister in 1801 in large part because he insisted on Catholic Emancipation against the implacable opposition of George III. During the 1790s Charles Fox and his coterie of Whigs advocated reform at home and opposed war against revolutionary France. In part this was because Fox professed to respect the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state, which the Brunswick Declaration called into question, and which was a settled principle in international law since the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. More importantly, he saw reform and war, quite rightly so, as mutually exclusive endeavors. For the same reason the reformist Populist Party in the United States opposed the acquisition of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the Progressive Movement a decade and so on opposed American involvement in World War I.

This last point raises the subject of British foreign policy during the eighteenth century and its relationship to politics. Henry VIII, in the preface to the Act of Appeals, proudly proclaimed “that this realm of England is an empire.”15 An empire England certainly was not in 1533, but by the time of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 Britain most assuredly was. Among other things, this meant the need for more money with which to administer the empire. The national debt, for example, more than doubled during the Seven Years’ War. More importantly, Britain’s imperial standing meant that she constantly had to fully insert herself in the international system. There never really was much truth to the aphorism of “Splendid Isolation.” In practice this amounted to a continuous foreign policy loop in which Britain had to answer the following questions: who to fight, when to fight, and how to fight. With regards to the first question, the debate throughout the century, especially during the century’s first half, centered on whether or not France presented the most clear and present danger to British security. Other candidates, Russia for example, were occasionally bruited. With regards to the ←7 | 8→third question the perennial question ran as to whether Britain should concentrate her strength on a naval war fought largely in the colonies, or whether she should focus her forces on a continental war. Complicating this question was the lingering affection of Hanoverian kings for what Pitt the Elder, much to the annoyance of George II, kept calling that “despicable Electorate” of Hanover. On this issue the historical record of success and failure, on balance, seemed to favor a peripheral strategy. It was a strategy that the Independent back benchers in the Commons preferred. It was the second question, that of when and how long to fight, that turned out to be the most problematic. In contrast to the other absolutist, or quasi-absolutist, powers, Britain was a constitutional monarchy. That meant that the House of Commons had to vote supply to prosecute wars. In turn, that meant that the House could not vote supply for a war that the nation did not support. The problem here is that the political nation tended to be bellicose in the early days, but that bellicosity tended to dissipate as the wars lengthened. For example, the vote on the Coercive Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party carried without a division and even without debate.16 However, the longer the war, the greater the cost in money and treasure, the more distant victory seemed, meant the greater the opposition. As Professor Roberts describes below, it was his insistence on carrying on the war by attacking Spain, against the opinions of the King and the Cabinet, that brought down the ministry of Pitt the Elder in 1761. It’s a lesson that should strike a familiar chord for those of us who lived through the Vietnam War. After World War II, the top American general, George Marshall, reflected that the one fact he kept constantly in mind during that conflict was the fact that a democracy “could not indulge in a Seven Years’ War.”17 In terms of political will in war, democracies are always running the two minute drill.

With regards to the impact of imperial policy on British politics and constitutional issues, it was the American colonies that turned out to be the greatest challenge. There were two issues here that bore directly upon British politics. As every school child knows, the cry of “no taxation without representation” played a prominent role in the coming of the American Revolution. The problem here is that no one in Britain denied the truth of this aphorism. Rather, the difficulty hinged on what exactly was meant by representation. The debate focused on the difference between actual and virtual representation. The Americans held for the former. For representation to be legitimate individual people and places had to be represented. The British countered that as long as the various interests, construed largely in terms of social and economic identities, were represented then individual people and places, by proxy as it were, were virtually represented. As Britain pointed out, if the American model of representation was to be the standard, then nobody in Brit←8 | 9→ain was represented either. Thus, George Grenville in 1768 observed that it is “the Commons in Parliament assembled and not the Representatives of the Commons.” Reformers in Britain along with the Americans simply flipped this claim and argued that the American system of representation should become the British system of representation. Accordingly, the pamphlet The Political Detection suggested in 1770 that “the cause of America is the common cause of the realm.” Americans, especially those agents who were paid lobbyists representing the interests of their colony in London, made sure to ring the changes on this theme. Arthur Lee, for example, was particularly active. He circulated copies of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania widely among his British contacts. The Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights, naturally, was one of the recipients.18

The debate over representation easily folded over into the second issue impacting British politics; viz., that there was a growing conspiracy to encroach upon the rights of Englishmen at home as well as in the colonies. The argument here ran that since power corrupts there will always be those who would deprive us of our liberty for their own gain. Moreover, this is a process, and not a single event, and so it was even more insidious on account of its hiddenness and its inability to detect. So, general warrants in Britain and writs of assistance in the colonies worked to the same end. The Stamp Act, warned the New London Gazette in the fall of 1765 was but the “first step to rivet the chains of slavery upon us forever.”19 In Britain, the Middlesex Journal made much the same point in March of 1770. “These apparently distinct and independent acts,” it warned, “are all underparts of one and the same concentrated plan of despotism, begun, contrived and now laboring towards completion.”20 This of course is the context for Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence of “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.” It is against this background that the perennial concerns by Ministers and many in the House of Commons over secret advisors to the King, Bute first and foremost, which Professor Roberts discusses at length should be viewed.

The remedy for this evil lay in restoring and preserving the virtue of the mixed constitution. In 1769 The Sentiments of an English Freeholder developed this argument.

It is a good policy to presume that great powers will be abused, wherever they may be placed. The excellence of our constitution is, that there is a check on every power existing in it; and the probability of its continuance depends upon constantly maintaining those checks in their full effect and vigor. This cannot be done, unless there is a constant jealousy, and apprehension of abuse.21

←9 | 10→

The first check against abuse was, of course, the House of Commons. The House, proclaimed the Independent Chronicle in January of 1770, is “the tutular guardian of her sacred constitution, the undaunted avengers of all opponents to lawful authority, the glorious asserters of the rights of mankind against the repeated affronts of despotism and tyranny.”22 But only a reformed House could act as a guarantee of British liberty. Additionally, the King’s Ministers must have the confidence of the House and political parties must be recognized as legitimate when they acted in loyal opposition.

Such, then, is the general historical context for the events Professor Roberts chronicles. He took the reference to the scepter in his title from Daniel Defoe’s The Secret History of the Scepter, which was published in 1715, as he saw the notion of the scepter, administrative power, as emblematic for the eighteenth century. His argument in general terms is that the Crown’s power significantly diminished throughout the course of the century. In particular, his thesis is that political power shifted to what might be described as a modern parliamentary system. By the century’s end the following truths were recognized by the political nation. (1) That unified political parties based upon principle rather than personality were here to stay. (2) That this was a good thing, in part because without party organization and party discipline it proved impossible to manage a House of Commons of roughly 550 Members and, consequently, to carry on the ever increasing business of government; and, in part, because the notion of a loyal Opposition came to be seen as beneficial in terms of oversight over public administration and in terms of checking not only royal power but the power of a parliamentary majority. (3) That the monarch must only appoint as Ministers those who commanded a majority in the House of Commons. (4) That with regards to policy the monarch must accept the dictates of those Ministers. (5) That the organization of the parliamentary majority centered on a First, or Prime, Minister who headed a Cabinet; that is a Cabinet based on collective responsibility and a Cabinet which spoke with one voice, often through the Cabinet Minute, to the monarch.


←10 | 11→

1 David Roberts, A History of England, volume II: 1688 to the Present (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1980), pp. 490, 440; Anthony Wood, Nineteenth Century Britain (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1960), pp. 5, 6.

2 David Magleby, et al., Government by the People (Boston: Longman, 2011), p. 217.

3 Roberts, A History of England, p. 432.

4 Peter Jupp, The Governing of Britain, 1688–1848 (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 96, 98; John Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 142–51; Frank O’Gorman, The Emergence of the British Two Party System, 1760–1832 (London: Edward Arnold, 1982), p. 50.


XII, 356
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 356 pp.

Biographical notes

Clayton Roberts (Author) Stewart Dippel (Volume editor)

The late Clayton Roberts received his Ph.D. from Cornell University. From 1952 to 1991 he was Professor of History at Ohio State University. Among his books are a textbook of English/British history, co-authored with his brother David, and a book on historiography. His scholarly focus, however, was on the political history of England during the 17th century. He published two books on this topic. This book is in a sense a sequel advancing the argument into the 18th century. Stewart Dippel received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University under the guidance of Clayton Roberts. Since 1992 he has been Professor of History and Political Science at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas. Four of his books focus on 17th-century religious history in England.


Title: The Struggle for the Scepter