Charles, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham

1765 - 1766, 1782

Rockingham, (1730-82) whose main interest was horse racing, was as rich as Croesus and had been a precocious protégé of both George II and Newcastle. Consequently, he was the obvious choice when the aged Newcastle felt himself past the office of prime minister, even though he had no ministerial experience, was lazy and an indifferent and infrequent speaker in the Lords.

Rockingham’s periods in office totalled a year and four months. He made one good choice, Burke as his private secretary, who ensured that some business got done. In his first government, Rockingham refused to deal with Bute and his circle, and was consequently defeated by a resurgence of Pitt, allied with the young Duke of Grafton. His sole significant achievement was the repeal of the Stamp Act, accompanied by much inflammatory rhetoric by Pitt and Burke which stirred up the Americans still further.

Rockingham then spent the next 16 years in opposition, thus benefiting when North’s government failed first to pacify and then to defeat the American colonists. North’s defeat after Yorktown brought Rockingham back to power at the head of a government of his own Whig followers including the young Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and those of the deceased Pitt’s lieutenant and former Bute acolyte Shelburne. Burke became Paymaster-General, outside the Cabinet, but a leading Commons spokesman.

This time, Rockingham took office as a reformer, passing several Burke-generated bills restricting “place” appointments and reducing Royal patronage, as well as (also through Burke’s instigation) allowing Ireland a greater measure of self-government. However, he also re-jigged the two Secretaries of State into Home (Shelburne) and Foreign (Fox) but with the Home Office responsible for the colonies and thus for most of the American peace treaty. This resulted in a turf war that brought the government close to collapse within four months, at which time Rockingham died.

Give Rockingham some credit for Burke’s place bills and their Irish self-government (which however failed under the stresses of 1798) but deduct points for his precipitous Stamp Act repeal and the “Secretaries of State” mess. He should still rank near the bottom of the list.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson