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Reference group
Rockingham whigs (act. 1765–1782) were a faction of whig politicians in the Commons and Lords led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, second marquess of Rockingham. They emerged from the Pelhamite grouping that had been dominant in British politics in the late 1740s and the 1750s. The ‘old corps’ whigs, led by the duke of Newcastle, with able lieutenants like the duke of Devonshire, Lord Hardwicke, Henry Legge, and Charles Yorke, had been revitalized by Newcastle's ‘young friends’, a cadre that included the duke of Grafton, Lord John Cavendish, and George Onslow. In opposition to the Bute and Grenville ministries this party was given a clearer definition and Lord Rockingham inherited the reins of leadership in January 1765. It was often a disparate group, bound more by kinship than ideology, though this does not undermine its status as a significant early parliamentary ‘party’. The Rockinghams voted as a bloc and were recognized as a separate grouping by their contemporaries. However it was in their later incarnation, as the Foxite whigs, that they truly deserved party status. The core bloc of the Rockinghams were the great whig landowners of the eighteenth century, including Rockingham, the Devonshires, William Ponsonby, second earl of Bessborough, William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck, third duke of Portland, and William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, second Earl Fitzwilliam. They were joined by men of business and talent—such as Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles James Fox—who ensured that lack of oratorical ability in the Lords was more than compensated for in the Commons. There were other individuals who drifted into and out of their orbit, and the fluidity of this party should not be underestimated. For example, Lord George Sackville [see Germain, George Sackville] served in the first Rockingham ministry, and Henry Seymour Conway and Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, served in both Rockingham ministries. Yet Conway was never a confirmed Rockinghamite and after Rockingham's death both he and Richmond stayed on to serve in the Shelburne ministry.

The first Rockingham administration

Lord Rockingham became prime minister in July 1765. He lacked administrative experience, and ‘had seemingly been promoted above the level of his ability’, but ‘his charm and integrity made him a good team leader’ (Thomas, George III, 125). Beneath Rockingham the key figures in the party shifted in the period between this ministry, which ended twelve months later, and their return to office in 1782. The duke of Cumberland was a focal point of the first ministry, despite ill health, and he regularly attended cabinet until his death in October 1765. A veteran whig respected by the king, Robert Henley, first earl of Northington, held the post of lord chancellor, Conway was southern secretary, and Charles Yorke, the attorney-general, was another influential figure. In its early years Newcastle remained on the scene as the party's elder statesman and took the post of lord privy seal, though it is clear that his authority had dissipated and that this was a new grouping that had cast off the Pelhamite tag and was developing its own identity. William Dowdeswell, as chancellor of the exchequer in the first ministry, acquitted himself well in this post, and emerged as an able speaker and the Rockinghams' first leader in the Commons. He was succeeded in this role by Lord John Cavendish in 1774, and he in turn by Fox in 1776. From 1765 until 1782 the Irishman Edmund Burke remained a constant. He was not only industrious behind the scenes, but was also a first-class orator, and he made his first major speech on the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1770 his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents became the party's rallying cry. Not only did it attack Lord Bute and secret influence, and laud party loyalty over Chathamite popularity, but it crucially demonstrated that the Rockinghams were the true heirs to the whig creed. Despite this, Burke's relatively humble background prevented him from being considered for high office in either of the Rockingham ministries.

Imperial policy dominated the first Rockingham ministry, and the aftermath of George Grenville's Stamp Act ensured that it was America that absorbed the attention of Rockingham and his fellow ministers. On the surface its imperial policy appeared to reverse the Grenville administration's attempts to tighten control over the colonies. The Stamp Act was repealed and no attempt was made to impose a constantly resident lord lieutenant in Ireland. However the Rockingham ministry's imperial policy was not moulded by any divergence of opinion with the Grenville camp. Indeed its overhaul of colonial commerce ‘represented a continuing assumption in London that the interests of the empire remained subordinate to those of the mother country’ (O'Gorman, ‘Parliamentary opposition’, 98). Moreover as a prelude to conciliation the Rockinghams declared Britain's parliamentary supremacy over the American colonies, modelling the bill on the Irish Declaratory Act of 1720.


Following the collapse of the first Rockingham administration there were signs that the leadership was hardening its views on empire. In May 1767 the Rockinghams berated William Pitt for being too lenient in his dealings with the intractable colony of New York. However, they were also willing to welcome Pitt and even Charles Townshend to their ranks if necessary, and to negotiate with the hardline Bedfords and Grenvilles in order to secure their return to government. During this period the Rockinghams were divided by a number of political issues. The opposition, roused by Rockingham himself, to the Irish absentee tax was resisted by Richmond, Sir George Savile, and William Dowdeswell. In response to the North ministry's American legislation of 1773 Richmond was isolated in his opposition to the Boston Port Bill, and Dowdeswell also stood alone against the Tea Act; although it must be acknowledged that on a number of other occasions Dowdeswell was just as emphatic as his Rockinghamite colleagues in his determination to uphold British parliamentary supremacy over the American colonists. The same could also be said for Edmund Burke, who insisted that ‘this country must have the sole right to the imperial legislation: by which I mean that law which regulates the polity and economy of the several parts, as they relate to one another and to the whole’ (Correspondence, 2.475).

In the period until the Declaration of Independence the Rockinghamites staunchly supported Britain's parliamentary supremacy over America, as had been set out in their Declaratory Act. They would frequently take a stern line with the colonists, and when they counselled more moderate measures it was a question of expediency rather than principle. It was only when war broke out that they abandoned what was essentially the government line and implacably opposed military operations against the Americans, albeit again on the grounds of practicality. The American war also marked a shift in the group seen by Paul Langford as most representative of the views of the wider Rockingham party. In the context of American policy, the three key figures in the period up to 1773 were Rockingham, his closest friend Sir George Savile, and Dowdeswell, leader in the Commons. Burke is accorded a more minor role, though obviously he was important as publicist and policy maker. In the period after the outbreak of war Charles James Fox joined this select group, and as pressure mounted upon the North ministry in the late 1770s other more junior Rockinghamites began to make names for themselves. The attempted court martial of Admiral Augustus Keppel for alleged misconduct and neglect of duty following a naval engagement off Ushant in July 1778 plunged him into the spotlight, and ensured that he was, for a time, the most popular man in the party. To widespread acclaim Keppel was acquitted after the charges were declared to be ‘malicious and ill-founded’. Public opinion sided with Keppel against the unpopular Lord Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty, and London was disturbed by pro-Keppel riots and demonstrations.


In domestic politics the Rockinghams involved themselves in the burgeoning parliamentary reform movement, but not always with any real enthusiasm, and rarely as a united group. John Wilkes was regarded with wary suspicion, if not hostility. Burke noted ‘he is not ours, and if he were, is little to be trusted’ (O'Gorman, The Rise of Party, 240). The Rockinghams were eventually drawn into the Middlesex election controversy, and were happy to see it as another example of court influence damaging the British parliament. Christopher Wyvill's Yorkshire Association was regarded as a threat as it was fiercely independent, and because its moderate programme was likely to be damaging to many of the Rockinghams whose seats or wealth were dependent on the continued existence of the pocket boroughs. The Rockinghams were more enthusiastic about Burke's plans for economical reform. Economical reform originated as part of the opposition's attack on the ‘secret influence’ that allegedly ensured that the true wishes of the Commons were bypassed. The opposition falsely claimed that there was a double cabinet, including John Robinson and Charles Jenkinson, who represented the real power behind the throne. Economical reform was designed to reduce crown patronage by abolishing the minor offices and sinecures it was allowed to distribute in parliament. Charles James Fox was one of the few senior Rockinghamites who lent his support to parliamentary reform proper, and he became chairman of the Westminster Committee, which also contained more radical reformers like John Jebb and John Cartwright. The petitioning campaign for parliamentary reform was eventually supported by Fox and Richmond, but Rockingham himself was not persuadable. In April 1780 Richmond unsuccessfully introduced a parliamentary reform bill in the Lords.

The involvement of Edmund Burke and Sir George Savile in the passing of Catholic Relief Acts in 1778 indicates that at least these two members of the Rockingham cadre were—on occasion—prepared to put principle before pragmatism. Burke persuaded Savile, an absentee Irish landowner, to sponsor a British Catholic Relief Act, which could pave the way for a similar Irish act. It was Savile's Catholic Relief Act that provoked the Protestant Association demonstrations which in June 1780 culminated in the destructive and violent Gordon riots—arguably the worst popular disturbances in British history.

Burke and Savile—along with Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—developed close links with the Irish patriot opposition, whose agenda seemed to mirror that of the American colonists. But the Anglo-Irish whig connection was dependent on circumstances, and for the Rockinghams on not having to deal with Ireland themselves. In the late 1770s Burke had endangered his own political career by standing up for free trade with Ireland, a move that led his incensed Bristol constituents to deprive him of his seat. Yet he quickly became disaffected with Irish patriotism, and when Henry Grattan introduced his motion for Irish legislative independence Burke angrily exclaimed ‘Will no one speak to this madman? Will no one stop this madman, Grattan?’ (Correspondence, 4.31). Worse was to come in 1782 when Rockingham, having become prime minister of the second Rockingham administration, and his Irish viceroy, Portland, found their erstwhile Irish allies to be unwilling to compromise on their constitutional manifesto. Hampered by cabinet divisions, Portland's alienation of the traditional supporters of the Irish government, and strident Irish public opinion, the Rockingham ministry had no choice but to concede legislative independence.

Rockingham's Yorkshire background had ensured that the party was in part influenced by ‘country’ politics. But in the latter years of the American war cliques within the Rockinghams embraced a more metropolitan ethos, with its associated vices: the whigs ‘moved from political failure to social success’ (Mitchell, 9). Fox, Sheridan, and the Devonshires became closely linked with London's fashionable West End. Before his unkempt days Fox had been a leader of London fashion, bringing ‘macaroni’ dress to the capital. Georgiana Cavendish, duchess of Devonshire, was also an early fashion icon, being, in 1777, the first to adopt extravagantly tall ostrich-feather headpieces. The same year saw the male Rockinghamites adopt the American buff and blue as their party colours. Fox and the duchess of Devonshire were also keen, if not successful, gamblers, and Brooks's Club, founded in the mid-1760s by Fox and Portland, provided the party with an unofficial headquarters. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who joined the fray in 1780, showed an equally passionate commitment to the consumption of alcohol, and his nickname Sherry was well deserved. This was a party that was being bound by consumption, leisure, and sociability, as much as by political allegiance.

Return to government

Following the defeat of the British forces at Yorktown the beleaguered North ministry was replaced in March 1782 by an administration that was a coalition rather than strictly Rockinghamite. Rockingham, Fox, Lord John Cavendish, Keppel, and Richmond had to share the major ministerial offices with Shelburne, Grafton, Conway, and Thurlow. The Rockinghams had finally achieved victory, albeit with the crucial help of the independent members, who saw in the opposition the only alternative to the continuation of a disastrous war. However it was surely the resilient party structure of the Rockingham whigs that allowed opposition to attract these independents and finally wear down the government. George III regarded taking the Rockinghams into government as an imposition, and he unfairly thought that they had ‘stormed the closet’. The lion's share of his distaste for his new ministers was reserved for Fox. The king already disliked him for his dissolute lifestyle and strident opposition to government and the constitutional settlement, and Fox's insistence that the ministry should be formed by the most powerful party in the Commons, and led by the head of that group, without reference to the king, sent the monarch into near apoplexy.

In government the short-lived ministry pursued its policies with mixed success. Economical reform measures passed through the Commons in June 1782, notably Burke's Civil Establishment Act which reduced the royal household and removed a number of offices of state, including those connected with the Board of Trade. There were also acts to disenfranchise revenue officers and to exclude government contractors from the Commons. However the effect of these reforms was minimal. There were few government contractors, and the Rockinghams had overestimated the numbers of revenue officers who were also voters. Even the new restrictions introduced by Burke on pensions were probably more damaging to their legitimate function than to their more nefarious uses. The loss of the Board of Trade was certainly not helpful, and provision for the discharge of the crown's debt was also handled incompetently. Elsewhere the ministry made uneasy progress in bringing the American war to a close. This was primarily due to the antipathy and distrust between the two secretaries of state, Fox and Shelburne. Fox welcomed American independence and advocated generous concessions and the removal of the former colonists from the scene before France and Spain were tackled. Shelburne, however, favoured dealing with Britain's enemies as a whole.

Death of Rockingham

On 1 July 1782 Rockingham died, leaving the office of prime minister vacant. The leading Rockinghamites hoped that Portland would succeed him. But four days later Fox handed his seals as secretary of state to the king on hearing that Shelburne had agreed to lead the new ministry. Portland, Lord John Cavendish, Burke, and Sheridan joined Fox in resigning their posts. Most other Rockinghamites followed suit; probably 90 out of 100. By leading this exodus from government Fox was breaking established constitutional conventions. Such action demonstrated the power of the leadership of the Rockingham whigs. Not only were they going against constitutional practice, they were requesting their supporters to give up valuable offices that they had only recently gained, and they were defying the wishes of the king. This clearly indicated that notions of party continued to exist among this grouping. However the hostility exhibited by the rest of parliament and indeed the electorate to their actions demonstrated that the country was not quite ready for party politics; and of course the Rockinghams had never been an entirely unified grouping. The splits within the party immediately became apparent after Rockingham's death, and they increased until the party finally splintered over its response to the French Revolution.

Martyn J. Powell


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