On this day in 1792, John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute and advisor to the British king, George III, dies in London.
Although most Americans have never heard his name, Lord Bute played a significant role in the politics of the British empire that spawned the American Revolution. A wealthy Scottish noble, educated at the prestigious Eton College and University of Leiden, Bute became Prince George’s tutor in 1755. He also befriended George’s mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the dowager princess of Wales. This relationship, although never proven to be sexual, resulted in a tremendous scandal when it was written about by radical English pamphleteer John Wilkes. Wilkes abhorred Bute and named his newspaper North Briton, a synonym for Scot, as a direct reference, and insult, to Bute’s Scottish origins.
Prince George became King George III in 1760, while Britain was in the midst of the Seven Years’ War with France. The king, along with Bute, who was now his advisor, worried that the tremendous expense of the war in North America and around the world would drive Britain to bankruptcy. William Pitt, whose military strategy and political finesse had transformed the American branch of the war, known as the French and Indian War, from disaster to triumph, argued for a preemptive strike against Spain in 1761 to prevent them from aligning with France. The king, with Bute’s guidance, not only rejected Pitt’s idea, but forced him to resign. In January 1762, Spain joined the war on the side of France, as Pitt predicted. Despite a resounding victory in North America, the king followed Bute’s advice to end the war on other fronts as quickly as possible, returning substantial portions of land. (They might even have returned Canada, if the French had asked for it.) Lambasted by the British press for his poor decision-making, most famously in John Wilkes’ 45th edition of the North Briton, Bute finally lost the king’s trust and resigned upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763.
The squabbling between Bute, Pitt and Wilkes had a lasting impact on Anglo-American politics. In 1763, the new first lord of the treasury (or prime minister), George Grenville, attempted to prosecute Wilkes for questioning the king’s integrity in North Briton No. 45. Meanwhile, Grenville began a program of taxation in the American colonies to help refill Britain’s coffers, drained by the expenses of the Seven Years’ War. Wilkes’ arrest and eventual banishment to France made him a martyr for liberty in the eyes of many Britons at home as well as in those of the American colonists as they strained under the taxes and other costly measures imposed by Grenville’s ministry.