Stuart, John, third earl of Bute
- Karl Wolfgang Schweizer
John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713–1792)
Stuart, John, third earl of Bute (1713–1792), prime minister, was born at Parliament Square, Edinburgh, on 25 May 1713, the elder son of James, second earl of Bute (1689/90–1723), and his wife, Lady Anne Campbell (1692–1736), only daughter of Archibald, first duke of Argyll. His paternal grandfather, Sir James Stuart (1651–1710), represented Buteshire in the Scottish parliament from 1685 to 1693, when he had to vacate his seat, having failed to take the oath of allegiance to William III. He was re-elected in 1702, and in the same year became a member of Queen Anne's privy council. On 14 April 1703 he was created earl of Bute, viscount of Kingarth, and Lord Mount Stuart, Cumra, and Inchmarnock. He was also named one of the commissioners to consider union with England, but eventually opposed the measure, and absented himself from the stormy parliamentary session of 1706 when the Union was debated and carried. He died at Bath on 4 June 1710. His son, the second earl, was born in 1689 or 1690. He was lord lieutenant of county Bute from 1715 and served as lord of the bedchamber from 1721 until his death, at only thirty-three, on 28 January 1723. John Stuart succeeded to his father's titles and lands in January 1723, under the guardianship of his Campbell uncles, the duke of Argyll and the earl of Ilay, who were both strong supporters of the Hanoverian succession. A great bibliophile, Ilay strongly influenced his nephew in passing on his interest in astronomy, mechanics, and natural history.
In 1724 Bute was sent to Eton College, where he remained until 1728. He then studied civil law at the University of Leiden, and received his degree in 1732. He returned to Scotland and spent the next four years at Mount Stuart, his ancestral home on the Isle of Bute, where he attended to domestic affairs and the improvement of his estates. On 24 August 1736 he married Mary Wortley Montagu (1718–1794), only daughter of Edward Wortley Montagu of Wortley, Yorkshire, and his wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, née Pierrepont, the eldest daughter of the first duke of Kingston. The marriage ultimately brought the immense Wortley estates into the Bute family, and was by all accounts a happy union. Lady Bute seems to have been a woman of prudence, loyalty, and tact, greatly devoted to her husband and family. The couple had five sons and six daughters, of whom perhaps the most accomplished was the eldest child, John Stuart, first marquess of Bute, politician and diplomatist, who succeeded to the earldom on the death of his father (1792) and was advanced to the marquessate of Bute on 21 March 1796. Two other sons, James Archibald Stuart (1747–1818) and Frederick Stuart (1751–1802), played minor roles in British politics; a fourth, Charles Stuart, pursued a distinguished military and diplomatic career, while their last son, William Stuart, was archbishop of Armagh. All their daughters contracted marriages except the youngest, Louisa Stuart, a poet, who died on 4 August 1851, at the age of ninety-four.
In August 1737, through the influence of his uncles, Bute was elected a Scottish representative peer, but he appeared only occasionally in the House of Lords and took no part in the debate. In the same year he was appointed one of the commissioners of police for Scotland, and on 10 July 1738 was invested with the Order of the Thistle. Having failed to secure re-election in the parliament of 1741, he retired for five years to the Isle of Bute, where he devoted his time to reading, agriculture, and his lifelong passion, the study of botany.
The Leicester House period
Soon after the outbreak of the Jacobite rising Bute moved to London, and in 1747 made the chance acquaintance of Frederick, prince of Wales. It was an encounter that proved to be the major turning point in his life. He became a favourite at Leicester House, the prince's London residence and centre of opposition politics, and on 16 October 1750 was appointed by Frederick one of the lords of his bedchamber. Upon the prince's premature death in 1751 Bute remained the confidant of his widow, Princess Augusta. Their friendship subsequently led to his appointment as tutor and principal adviser to her son, the future George III. In this capacity Bute not only directed the prince's formal education but also gained his respect and confidence, becoming, in George's own words, 'his dearest friend' (Letters … to Lord Bute, 6).
This relationship developed rapidly. The impressionable young man's emotional dependence upon his mentor ensured a ready acceptance of Bute's personal ideals and political principles, portrayed in written assignments that combined formal instruction in history, constitutional theory, and finance with ambitious plans for future governmental reform. To instruct George in the principles of the constitution Bute is said to have obtained from William Blackstone a major portion of the manuscript of the Commentaries on the Laws of England, the first volume of which was not published until 1765. Elaborated further in daily letters, their ideas comprised a blend of traditional Leicester House themes and ‘country’ party precepts—a composite, idealistic political creed advocating an isolationist foreign policy, the abolition of party distinctions, the purging of corruption, and the enhancement of monarchial control over policy and patronage. These ideas, however conventional an opposition ideology, were taken seriously by Bute and his pupil, and emerged as their shared vision of Britain's future, to be implemented whenever George ascended the throne. Their relationship would thus profoundly affect the reconfiguration of politics commonly associated with George III's early reign.
Bute first became active in the political world following the death of Henry Pelham in 1754. On behalf of Leicester House he enlisted the support of William Pitt in opposition to the Fox–Newcastle connection, and together Bute and Pitt formed an alliance based on a common hostility to George II's pro-Hanoverian policy in the face of impending war with France. This arrangement unravelled during 1757, as Pitt joined forces with Newcastle, acquired the position of secretary of state, and then reversed his stand on the German war and continental subsidies. Pitt's actions, taken without the approval of his former political allies, severely offended Bute and the prince, and created a rift between the Great Commoner and Leicester House that was never repaired. Bute, though without formal political office, had meanwhile emerged as one of the leading public figures in the kingdom. Both the advanced age and uncertain health of George II made the prince and ipso facto Bute principal figures in all future political calculations. Important individuals both within and outside the confines of Leicester House looked to Bute for patronage, asked for his intervention at the highest levels, and sought his advice on their strategies for political advancement. His unquestioned dominance at the prince's court secured him the position of groom of the stole (5 November 1756), and he was widely considered a prime candidate for high office once Prince George became king.
Bute and George III
The long-awaited moment arrived with the death of George II on 25 October 1760. The event wrought an immediate change in Bute's situation: within two days of George III's accession he was sworn of the privy council, and on 25 March 1761 he received the seals as secretary of state for the northern department and a cabinet seat. These appointments were made to the manifest displeasure of Pitt and other senior ministers, who questioned his ability, feared his ambitions, and resented his influence with the king. On 3 April 1761 Lady Bute was created Baroness Mount Stuart of Wortley in the peerage of Great Britain; in May Bute himself was elected a Scottish representative peer and the following month was appointed ranger of Richmond Park.
From the outset Bute's rapid elevation created confusion, strife, and misunderstandings not warranted by the actual course of events. Despite a new atmosphere at court, existing arrangements continued. Newcastle retained control of Treasury affairs, Pitt's management of the war proceeded unchanged, and the main contours of Britain's overall military/diplomatic strategy remained intact. Moreover, Bute proved to be a competent secretary of state, performing his duties with a diligence and efficiency that surprised many. As events were to show, Bute had a sound understanding of European developments and was quite capable of pursuing coherent policies with intelligence and resolution. He swiftly acquired self-confidence once in office and won both the respect and the loyalty of his subordinates, among them the veteran under-secretary Edward Weston, with whose collaboration he greatly enhanced departmental efficiency. He also made a good impression on the foreign envoys in London as being industrious, perceptive, and capable—qualities considerably greater than his historical reputation suggests.
Indeed, during the important Anglo-French peace negotiations in the summer of 1761, it was Bute rather than Pitt who proved the decisive force in devising the proposals submitted to France and maintaining the political unity that made effective negotiations possible. Bute sided with Pitt on most of the key issues but could not sanction his proposal for a pre-emptive strike against Spain, which was then joined to France in alliance. This refusal hastened the cabinet crisis leading to Pitt's resignation on 5 October 1761, the first important turning point of the new reign.
Bute after Pitt's retreat
Pitt's departure from office was not politically coerced: unable to compromise or share power, he defied united cabinet opinion and so made his retention impossible. Nevertheless, popular perception considered him a victim of court intrigue. The result was a highly volatile situation in which the remaining ministers, and Bute especially, came in for bitter press attacks and popular protest [see King's friends]. Bute attempted to calm tensions by continuing Pitt's military policies and by pursuing firm measures against Spain, a policy that resulted in Spain's open defiance and Britain's consequent declaration of war. Simultaneously, in response to growing war weariness, Bute secretly renewed the lapsed negotiations with France and, concerned about the financial implications of conflict with Spain, gradually curtailed Britain's European commitments. This resulted in the progressive dissolution of the Anglo-Prussian wartime alliance, dating from 1757, a breach traditionally considered instrumental in the nation's prolonged post-war diplomatic isolation.
What ultimately fostered this outcome, more than Anglo-Prussian antagonism, was the emergence of new alliance patterns that seriously diminished Britain's diplomatic options and influence after 1763. International diplomacy in the 1760s no longer revolved around France's diminishing threat to European security but around emerging issues in the eastern half of the continent: the Polish question and Austro-Russian relations with the Turks. These developments undermined the traditional basis of British foreign policy, which was to manipulate European powers into anti-French coalitions by exploiting the dangers of France's unrestrained preponderance. Prussia's primary aim following the war was to secure the alliance of Russia, and once she had achieved this (by 1764) agreement with Britain became both unnecessary and a liability, since it could only involve Prussia in Anglo-French disputes, issues that did not concern her. Hence Frederick the Great's coolness towards Britain after the Seven Years' War owed more to reasons of state—the desire to avoid needless and costly complications—than lingering resentment at his dealings with Lord Bute, as his rebuff of even Pitt's overtures in 1766 was to demonstrate.
From this perspective Bute's diplomacy was effective in difficult circumstances. There has been increasing recognition that on many diplomatic issues Bute merely brought to successful completion those policies previously initiated by the Newcastle–Pitt administration. Even in the military realm Bute's leadership in retaining and supporting the essential elements of Pitt's wartime strategy yielded further triumphs, including the capture of St Lucia, Martinique, and Havana, the key to Spain's West Indian possessions. This suggests that the contrast between Bute's ministry and that of his immediate predecessors was less drastic than has often been assumed, an important conclusion with wide implications for Bute's historical status.
Nevertheless, Bute's severance of the connection with Prussia, part of his anti-continental orientation, fostered deep divisions within the cabinet over the general direction of government policy and culminated on 26 May 1762 in Newcastle's resignation as first lord of the Treasury. The following day Bute succeeded him and was invested with the Garter, having previously resigned the Order of the Thistle.
Bute as prime minister
Now the head of government, Bute accelerated the pending negotiations with France. These were tortuous and plagued with endless complications. On three issues—the future of St Lucia, the possibility of a separate peace without Spain, and the question of compensation for Havana—he encountered bitter resistance from his cabinet colleagues which required all his authority combined with royal intervention to overcome. Uncertain of the ability of George Grenville, the leader of the Commons, to defend the peace, Bute had him transferred to the Admiralty and replaced with the able but unscrupulous Henry Fox, who could secure the required parliamentary support. He then appointed the duke of Bedford as special ambassador to Paris with instructions to finalize deliberations. The resulting preliminaries were signed at Fontainebleau on 3 November 1762.
Although the terms of peace were vehemently attacked by Pitt as inadequate, most historians now agree that the treaty, considered by Bute himself to be his major achievement, was an honourable, advantageous settlement: rich compensation for Britain's global victories and a serious blow to French power. George III called it 'a noble peace' and the consensus of political opinion concurred. The preliminaries passed in both the Lords and the Commons by decisive majorities, and received formal ratification on 10 February 1763. What opposition there was to the peace derived primarily from personal antagonism towards Bute by political rivals who fanned public hostility against him and his policies. This steadily gathered momentum until by the spring Bute was the most unpopular man in the country. Maligned, insulted, and manhandled wherever he went, he suffered threats of assassination, incurred the wrath of brilliant polemicists such as John Wilkes and Charles Churchill, and was lampooned in over 400 prints and broadsheets. In addition, Bute's emblem, the 'jackboot', was regularly burned alongside that of his reputed lover, the 'pettycoat', Princess Augusta.
The uproar was compounded by the unfortunate proposal from Sir Francis Dashwood, Bute's chancellor of the exchequer, for a cider tax, the collection and enforcement of which would have threatened personal liberty through the intrusion of inquisitorial officials into private dwellings. The measure was portrayed by Bute's opponents as part of an odious scheme to introduce a 'general excise' similar to that envisaged by Walpole in 1733. Despite its intense unpopularity, Bute ably defended the bill in the House of Lords and it received royal approval on 1 April 1763.
Eight days later, physically ill, weary of politics and politicians, and unnerved by the savage attacks against him, Bute resigned from office, and recommended George Grenville as his successor. The king reluctantly accepted the decision but, retaining confidence in his favourite, continued to seek Bute's advice on important political matters over the next few years: the overtures towards Pitt and the Bedford connection in August 1763, the Stamp Act, the Regency Bill, and probably the negotiation with the opposition in early 1767. Inevitably this gave rise to the notion of 'secret influence', the belief prevalent well into the nineteenth century that even in retirement Bute directed the wheels of government from behind the scenes. As a powerful and persuasive theme the myth of Bute's secret influence provided many with an explanation for the incessant political convulsions of the 1760s, and eventually broadened into an all-encompassing conspiracy theory that defined the ideology and manoeuvres of leading opposition groups well into the age of Lord North.
Hence successive administrations attributed their misfortunes to Bute's covert machinations and persistently demanded that the king cease to consult his favourite on public affairs; indeed, the Grenvillites made this a condition of their continuation in office. In response to these feelings Bute agreed to leave London in September 1763. He resigned his last post, of keeper of the privy purse, and withdrew to Luton Hoo, the country home in Bedfordshire that he had purchased the year before. There he appears to have kept up a correspondence with the king, though gradually their contacts lessened as the latter acquired more experience and self-confidence. When, in the summer of 1766, George III formed an alliance with Pitt that excluded Bute and most of his friends, the earl wrote a bitter letter of reproach that effectively ended their relationship, and thereby Bute's intervention in matters of state.
Aside from travelling for three years through Italy (1769–71), Bute spent the remainder of his life at Christchurch, Hampshire, where in 1771 he built a villa, Highcliffe, overlooking the Needles and the Isle of Wight. There, in melancholy grandeur, he conducted his botanical studies, collected prints, books, and scientific instruments, and devoted himself to the patronage of literature, science, and the arts. He was by now one of the richest men in Britain, having acquired immense wealth upon the death of his father-in-law, Edward Wortley Montagu, in 1761. The sole inheritor, Lady Bute, was left a life interest in the Wortley estates in west Yorkshire worth £17,000 per annum, while her personal fortune was estimated at over £1 million. This wealth enabled Bute to play a leading role in promoting the intellectual life of his day.
Of note is Bute's enlightened patronage of several of Scotland's leading universities and colleges. At Edinburgh he established the chair of rhetoric and belles-lettres, appointed John Hope, an accomplished scholar known for his taxonomic studies, to the professorship of botany and materia medica, and secured the new regius chair of natural history for David Skene, a distinguished Aberdeen botanist. He was also active in establishing the Royal Botanical Garden at Edinburgh, and at Glasgow he secured John Miller as the regius professor of civil law and supported William Leechman as professor of ecclesiastical history. In 1786 Bute donated his private scientific library of 1300 volumes to Marischal College, Aberdeen (of which he was chancellor), made additions to the college's museum, and supplied money to improve its observatory together with telescopes and other instruments of the highest quality. These gifts were to be of prime importance in the emergence of Aberdeen as a centre of practical astronomy and medical education.
Bute was a patron of literary merit; his beneficiaries included Samuel Johnson, Tobias Smollett, Thomas Sheridan, and John Home. The painter Allan Ramsay, the architect Robert Adam, and the historian William Robertson were others who benefited from his generosity. He recruited the likes of John Shebbeare, Philip Francis, Arthur Murphy, and David Mallet to defend the peace negotiations in the press. Contrary to widespread belief at the time, Bute did not show undue partiality to Scots but dispensed his patronage according to proven ability rather than national or personal considerations.
A gifted scholar himself, deeply interested in floriculture, Bute published—at the cost of some £12,000—a splendid nine-volume work, Botanical Tables Containing the Families of British Plants (1785), which contained 654 hand-coloured plates. Another privately printed work, The Tabular Distribution of British Plants, in two parts—the first containing the genera, the second the species—is sometimes attributed to him. Two of the groups classified by Linnaeus and Sir William Jones, Stewartia and Butea, were named after him, and Albrecht von Haller's valuable Bibliotheca botanica (1771) and John Hill's Vegetable System (1759–75) were inscribed to him. Other authors who dedicated botanical works to him included William Curtis, George Edwards, and Samuel Pullein. His best-known role in botany, however, was in connection with the development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which were first laid out as a private garden by Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1730, and then after his death were remodelled into a botanical centre by Princess Augusta with Bute's assistance. In 1755 Bute leased a house on Kew Green, expanded to accommodate his botanical library, from where he supervised the garden alterations. Sir William Chambers was commissioned to design new buildings, including the orangery, the pagoda, and numerous temples. In 1759 Bute appointed William Aiton head gardener, and charged him with establishing the herbaceous plant garden on the Linnaean system. Bute closely co-ordinated these operations, as well as procuring trees and plants through his contacts from around the world. In this work he created the foundation on which his successor Sir Joseph Banks would subsequently build.
Bute's place in the history of science is further consolidated by his enlightened patronage of such noted figures as the anatomist William Hunter, the naturalist John Strange, and the mineralogist Peter Woulfe. There is ample evidence of Bute's active interest in mineralogy, and of a sound acquaintance with current theories of the earth and the experimental arrangement of minerals based on chemical analysis. It was due to the depth, seriousness, and durability of his commitment to virtually all aspects of natural history that, for his contemporaries, Bute stood out among other noble patrons and amateur scholars, and as such should be remembered by posterity.
Bute died at South Audley Street, London, on 10 March 1792, from complications following a fall at Highcliffe, and was buried on 2 April at Rothesay on the island of Bute. He was survived by his wife, who died at Isleworth, Middlesex, on 6 November 1794, aged seventy-six.
Historical standing and importance
Traditionally an elusive and misunderstood figure, Bute has gradually received recognition for his contribution to British politics as well as his achievements as a patron of artistic, literary, and academic merit. His reputation now is that of a hard-working, competent statesman with a genuine concern for king and country that commands admiration.
Bute's importance derived largely from factors beyond his control, namely the interaction of domestic and external developments that would eventually reshape the pattern of British politics and institutions. It was his misfortune that he assumed office amid the crisis conditions of war and following the accession of a new king whose quest for enhanced executive power proved politically destabilizing. It created bitter conflict with a political establishment devoted to the status quo and quick to raise the alarm over an apparent constitutional crisis in which Bute became the central focus. Enjoying power and status through court favour alone, Bute was a disturbing presence for the ruling élite: disliked and distrusted, he fostered ministerial instability as those directing government policy had to confront the threat to their political security he represented.
Personifying the changing agenda implicit in George III's accession—that of ending party distinctions and reasserting royal independence—Bute undermined the whig oligarchy by challenging the premises on which this hegemony was based. As a royal favourite, opposition to whom the king considered a personal affront, Bute embodied an unacceptable form of politics, which in its erosion of the distinction between king and minister was to some reminiscent of tory notions of personal monarchy. Determined to preserve this distinction, the crown's opponents observed constitutional propriety and maintained that it was Bute, not the king, who was responsible for a system of government that disregarded the precepts of political responsibility. In this way, regardless of the facts of the case, Bute became a political scapegoat, held culpable for the conflicts between George III and the country's political leaders. Moreover, his nationality—Scots then being much disliked in England—made Bute a prime focus for disparate social and economic grievances, which enabled the opposition to mobilize public hostility against him, and to add popular disapprobation to their own indictment of his political involvement.
From these conflicts there emerged new political alignments and doctrines, culminating in the evolution of an organized party system and the concomitant legitimization of opposition. The constitutional questions explored in this process—notably those of ministerial responsibility and the parameters of royal power—expanded into an evolving public debate, which resulted in important innovations in contemporary political arguments that were of crucial significance for the long-term development of the British constitution. The widespread controversy surrounding Bute's career provided a focus for a variety of social and political discontents, which in turn fostered the growth of extra-parliamentary radicalism dedicated to political change and reform. The importance of Bute to the historian, then, lies partly in the fact that he was a potent if unwilling catalyst of these developments.
The discordant currents introduced by Bute's appearance on the political scene were further intensified through his initiatives in the sphere of foreign policy and diplomacy. Here the earl's negative reputation stems mainly from the shift, successfully executed during the years 1761 to 1763, away from his predecessor's continental interventionism. Unlike politicians solidly committed to a system in Europe with strong attachments to particular powers, Bute took a more prudent line on the necessity of alliances, the desirability of particular allies, and the expenditures and concessions involved in securing or retaining an alliance. This explains his opposition to anything that might have favoured Hanover, long a contentious issue politically, with the result that after 1760 British diplomacy was far less affected by European commitments than it was before the Seven Years' War. Thus Bute personifies what has been called a tory or country view of international relations—a view traditionally hostile to continental connections but strongly favouring maritime and colonial objectives. Whatever its ideological roots, this policy was shaped in large measure by Bute's sensitivity to domestic pressures and the need to reconcile diplomatic imperatives with fiscal exigencies and parliamentary requirements.
The desire to harmonize the conflicting needs of government economy and American security similarly prompted the Bute administration to impose the cost of post-war defence upon the colonists. This was a decision that led to an imperial crisis that ended in revolution but was probably inevitable given the state of British finances in 1763 and the Bourbons' known plans for revenge. Bute's awareness of the transitory nature of peace, and the appreciation that an enlarged empire demanded new fiscal and protective provisions, was a sound response to altered realities, though one much criticized by historians. Such criticism, as with so many aspects of his career, was invariably influenced by the long-standing controversies over the reign of George III, another example of the extent to which partisan dimensions have shaped Bute's historical reputation.
Ultimately, however, Bute is more than a symbol of the aberrations conventionally associated with George III's early reign. Though brief and turbulent, his tenure as secretary of state and as prime minister was not without success. While his plans for political reform remained unfulfilled, Bute showed himself generally capable of leading a ministry in time of domestic stress and international conflict. For all his limitations, he implemented a coherent political strategy, one that consolidated Britain's imperial achievement and projected a minimalist continental policy at a time of intensifying national concern over the financial consequences of war. Altogether, he was a responsible, cautious minister who maintained his concentration on the most important issues and had a clear sense of political priorities.
This accomplishment commands all the more respect when one remembers Bute's psychological aversion to governing and the multitude of problems that confronted him from the outset. As with Pitt, his political woes can be ascribed in part to his personality. Although an affectionate friend and devoted family man, in public he appeared invariably cold, distant, and haughty, probably more from shyness than arrogance. Happiest in scholarly seclusion, Bute was ill at ease and insecure on the political stage. His entire ministerial career is the tragic story of a man called into politics in middle age to assume a position he initially feared and eventually came to detest. His limitations, ultimately, were not ones of achievement as of personality and will—an inability to kindle enthusiasm among his colleagues and the public at large, and failure to convince others that he was an effective minister.
The lack of support from cabinet colleagues, his personal unpopularity, bitter factionalism within the whig ranks, a hostile press, and an inherently complex political situation might all have unsettled a more experienced minister. That Bute's concern for king and country prompted him to struggle on reveals qualities of courage, dedication, and loyalty not always associated with the trade of politics. 'I follow one uniform system', he wrote to Henry Fox shortly before his resignation, 'and that is founded on the strictest honour, faith and duty' (BL, Add. MS 51379, fol. 160). It is no mean epitaph for any public figure.
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