Review: Andrew Beaumont, Colonial America & the Earl of Halifax, 1748-1761

Andrew D. M. Beaumont, Colonial America & the Earl of Halifax, 1748–1761. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Andrew Beaumont has written a provoking biography of George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax (1716–1771) that covers the crucial period between 1748 and 1761. This book offers a re-evaluation of how we understand colonial American politics and, by implication, it forces us to reconsider the origins of the American Revolution.It also reorients our understanding of British figures who wanted to centralize the Empire during the eighteenth century. For Beaumont, we should look less at the familiar cast of characters: George Grenville; the Earl of Bute; William Pitt, later Lord Chatham; and Lord North. There are others, of course. But, we are familiar with these men. We know their stories. We know their contributions. Beaumont does not argue that we should look away from these men. Rather, he argues that we should look at other “ambitious men” and how they affected the British Empire. In this book, Beaumont examines the “Father of the Colonies,” the Earl of Halifax.

George Montagu was born on October 5/6, 1716. He was the son of George Montagu and Lady Mary Lumley. Educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, Montagu became the second Earl of Halifax in 1739. Aged just twenty-three, he entered the House of Lords twelve days later. Within fifteen years, he was redefining how Britain interacted with its colonies.

In October 1748, the Earl of Halifax became First Lord of the Board of Trade and Plantations. The Duke of Bedford, then Halifax’s patron, thought it an appropriate role. He told the Duke of Newcastle the position was “the properest thing for one of Lord Halifax’s turn.” Bedford could not have been aware how right he was.

Under Halifax’s leadership and guidance, the Board of Trade adopted a more important role in colonial affairs. Before Halifax, it lacked power, organization, and efficiency. For years it had adopted a laissez-faire approach to colonial governance. Halifax redesigned the relationship between center and periphery. He would not allow the colonies to function as “little independent Commonwealths” any longer. He wanted to centralize the Empire. If this did not happen, Halifax feared the worst—“a sort of Independency.” He put his plan into action quickly. In Halifax’s inaugural year, 125 meetings were held. He attended most of them. Between November 1748 and 1749, twenty-four of Britain’s Atlantic colonies were discussed. So, too, were its African and East Indian trades.

The majority of this book thus looks at how the Earl of Halifax tried to realize his imperial vision. Its most useful sections are those that examine the establishment of Nova Scotia, Halifax’s colonial appointments, and the Albany Congress of 1754.

Beaumont discusses how Nova Scotia was meant to be Halifax’s “model colony.” That is, it was to be set up and ran as all colonies should be. A central theme of Halifax’s vision was that the colonial governor should have more power than the Assembly. In Nova Scotia, Halifax made sure this was the case. Yet, he knew it was different in other colonies. He wanted to change this. As he wrote in the late 1740s, “it is necessary to revise the Constitutions of the Settlements abroad, and to regulate them.”

Halifax believed that an important way to do this was to appoint men of his “interest.” That is, like-minded individuals who could enact his colonial vision. When the Board of Trade reassumed powers of appointment, in 1752, Halifax selected men to promote his vision. Among these men were Sir Danvers Osborn, Thomas Pownall, Francis Fauquier, Henry Ellis, and Francis Bernard. Beaumont touches on other governors, as well, including James DeLancey (New York), James Wright (Georgia), and Benning Wentworth (New Hampshire), among others.

William Pitt the Elder (1754)Beaumont’s discussion of the “Albany Moment” is equally engaging. For Beaumont, the Albany Congress has been seen “as a pivotal first step on America’s path to independence.” He views it differently. Through a comparative analysis of American and British sources, and an emphasis on the roles of William Shirley and Thomas Pownall, Beaumont shows that “the Albany plan showed a degree of willful premeditation on the part of crown officials.” It wasn’t just an American scheme, after all. There was an American plan and a London plan. To be sure, they were not identical. But, they both agreed that “colonial union would require parliamentary legislation.” The most significant output of the Albany Congress, Beaumont argues, thus related to its establishment of a precedent for British policymakers to create and implement new legislation.

The book’s remaining chapters show how Halifax’s aim “to establish an entirely new pan-colonial administrative infrastructure” were stymied by the French and Indian War, Britain’s commanders in chief, and the rise of the Great Commoner, William Pitt.

Beaumont argues that Edward Braddock’s “contempt for all things American,” William Shirley’s ambition, and the Earl of Loudoun’s thorny relationship with colonial governors undermined Halifax’s vision. Halifax wanted them to “abridge the distance between periphery and centre.” They didn’t.

Worse still, Halifax’s significance was soon eclipsed by William Pitt. Pitt’s “single-minded” approach proved effective in mobilizing support and winning the war. But, as we know, Pitt’s approach proved expensive. Moreover, with the death of key men of his “interest,” and prospects of lucrative money-making schemes decreasing, Halifax’s hopes dwindled. He resigned from the Board of Trade in 1761. William Pitt rescinded many of the reforms Halifax had enacted, undermining the Board’s significance and leaving him in the political wilderness.

Halifax returned to the political stage in early 1762. Yet, he brought about his own demise in the years to come. In 1763, he issued a general warrant against John Wilkes. Two years later, he supported the Stamp Act. He opposed its repeal, as well. This was Halifax’s “political self-destruction.” He died in 1771, but his significance cannot now be understated. Through the Board of Trade, he laid a foundation for the centralization of the British Empire.

This book reminds us that historians of colonial America should not just look at American sources, or the period after 1763. To move our understanding forward, it is imperative that we look at American and British figures and sources for their impact upon the center–periphery relationship. Beaumont has done this. I hope others will follow.

3 responses

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