Charles Jenkinson

The Unknown Founding Father

Charles Jenkinson never travelled to the American colonies. Nor did he quite reach the top of British politics, though he was rewarded for his efforts with the Earldom of Liverpool and his son was Prime Minister for almost fifteen years. Yet as a middle-ranking junior minister he had an enormous effect, critical to the progress of American independence, on two separate occasions. For his services to the Patriot cause, for which he probably contributed more than any other single person but George Washington, he deserves to be remembered on July 4 as a Founding Father.

Jenkinson was born into the Oxfordshire squirearchy, cousin to a line of Baronets, the first four of whom all served as MPs for Oxfordshire, generally in the Tory interest. While his first electoral foray was in the Whig interest in the hard-fought Oxfordshire election campaign of 1754, he moved firmly into the Tory camp after 1760, as a new monarch George III ended the Whig one-party state and made Toryism no longer a cause doomed to perpetual opposition. (Indeed, both Oxfordshire’s victorious Whig candidates of 1754 were to support Tory-led governments after 1760.)

Jenkinson’s first ministerial office came in March 1761, when he became under-secretary to the Tory Earl of Bute, appointed as Secretary of State for the Northern Department, following which he was elected MP for the pocket borough of Cockermouth at the 1761 election. In the following year, Bute became First Lord of the Treasury, while most of the Whigs resigned from the Cabinet, and Jenkinson became his private secretary. Then in 1763 Bute resigned, finding he had not the temperament for high politics and George Grenville became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Jenkinson became Senior Secretary to the Treasury, the equivalent (without Cabinet status) to today’s Chief Secretary of the Treasury and the most senior financial/economic appointment below Grenville, who combined the offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Thus from this point on Jenkinson was a key figure in the formation of financial and economic policy.

The reshuffling of party loyalties in the 1760s had unpleasant consequences in the American colonies. With limited loyalty to the Church of England, few natural Tories and strong Whig tendencies, the colonies, which had enjoyed almost 50 years of uninterrupted Whig rule, regarded the new Tory governments as illegitimate. Hence they started acting up and denouncing the “tyranny” of Tory rule – encouraged by breathtakingly irresponsible speeches by William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham and by younger Whigs like Edmund Burke.

Britain had taken on an unprecedented amount of debt to fight the Seven Years War of 1756-63, an extra £70 million to raise the National Debt to around £140 million, and the budget during these years was consequently very tight. The cost of troops and other British administrators in the American colonies had been increased sharply by the war, by the increase in territories which it brought (including what is now Canada but also including Florida) and by the expense of quelling Pontiac’s Rebellion, a 1763 Indian uprising caused almost entirely by the depredations of the colonies’ Western settlers.

Whereas the “American Establishment” had cost £70,000 annually after the 1748 Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, its annual cost had now increased to £350,000. Grenville accordingly resolved to raise some of the additional cost, he estimated about £80,000-£100,000, through a Stamp Act. Stamp taxes were nothing new; they had been used since the time of William III and in England a moderate levy yielded an income of about £100,000. They did not bear especially heavily on the poor, or on any section of the population other than lawyers, who could pass the costs on to their clients, and they were relatively cheap to collect. Henry McCulloh, Clerk of the Crown for North Carolina, originally suggested a Stamp Tax to Charles Jenkinson in July 1763, writing “a stamp duty on vellum and paper in America, at sixpence, twelvepence and eighteenpence per sheet, would at moderate computation, amount to sixty thousand sterling per annum; or, if extended to the West Indies, would produce double that sum.”

The idea seemed a good one, and Jenkinson appears to have proposed it to Grenville. Thus on September 8, 1763 Jenkinson called in Thomas Cruwys, the solicitor to the Stamp Office and instructed him to consult with McCulloh on a plan for a stamp law for America and the West Indies. Cruwys met McCulloh on September 14, and on September 22 the Treasury, led by Grenville instructed Jenkinson to instruct the Commissioners of the Stamp Duties to prepare such a bill. The Commissioners in turn instructed Cruwys, who prepared a draft, under the supervision of Jenkinson.

Grenville stopped Cruwys’s work in March 1764, since it had been decided to pass a Sugar Act and postpone the Stamp Act for that session, to gather further information. Then on July 2 Jenkinson wrote to Grenville: “In the last session of Parliament you assigned as a reason for not going on with Stamp Act, that you waited only for further information on the subject. That having been said, should not Government appear to take some step for the purpose? I mentioned this to you soon after the Parliament was up. I remember your objections to it, but I think the information may be procured in a manner to obviate those objections, and without it we may perhaps be accused of neglect.”

Jenkinson’s own attitude to taxing the colonists was set out at length in a letter on January 12, 1765. “The people of the Colonies have done themselves much hurt by their resistance to the legislature of this kingdom in general; they have thrown thereby all serious men into the scale against them. The oeconomical spirit which has been introduced in consequence of the late law, if it should continue, will do no hurt to the public in general, though it might in a small degree diminish the revenue; but I am convinced it will not last long. And as to the idea of people of the Colonies becoming manufacturers themselves, I see no reason to apprehend it at present. Whenever they can work cheaper than the manufacturers of this country, they will become so of course. That is not the case at present, nor is it likely to be so soon. The present act will not in any respect hasten this event for it lays no duty on British manufactures and consequently cannot raise the price of these.”

He expanded on this theme in another letter six days later: “The several Laws that had been formerly passed on this subject (sugar/molasses duties), though they had always been esteemed of the utmost importance for the commercial interests of this country, had been executed for some time in a most negligent and shamefull manner. … The increase of our Colonies is certainly what we wish but they must increase in such a manner as will keep them usefull to the mother country; and any regulations that are essential to this last object, tho’ they may to a small degree prevent the increase of the Colonies, are founded on true policy and should be complied with.”

Had Jenkinson been correct about “all serious men” in the British political class being in the scale against American obstreperousness, the Stamp Act might well have been held in place, the revenue problem would have been solved and the American malcontents would have been considerably set back. The Stamp Act passed the House of Commons on March 22, 1765 with a majority of 205 to 49, with an effective date of November 1, 1765. To make the tax more acceptable to the colonies, Grenville appointed Americans to the principal stamp collecting posts, with generous salaries of £300 plus 8% of the amounts collected, while Jenkinson drafted a minute for Treasury approval by which all Stamp Tax receipts were to remain within the colonies, being used to pay troops and defer other government expenses in America.

Alas, the new measure’s chances were greatly lessened by the fall of Grenville’s government, and its replacement by a purely Whig government led by the Marquis of Rockingham. Accordingly, Jenkinson had to leave office. Since Grenville fell more than three months before the Stamp Act was due to come into effect, the American colonists knew the law was orphaned and had every incentive to make as much difficulty about its implementation as possible – which they duly did. By the New Year it was clear that the Act was at best expensive and difficult to enforce.

Consequently the Rockingham administration not only rejected in December 1765 a motion proposed by Grenville condemning American unrest, but had no hesitation in proposing the Stamp Act’s repeal , which duly passed the Commons by 276 votes to 168 on February 21, 1766. Jenkinson had moved an amendment to replace the world “repeal” with “explain and amend” but it was rejected. More damaging even than repeal itself was the rhetoric used to justify it. Pitt in particular thundered “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.” This was high-flown nonsense, and given Pitt’s immense prestige in the American colonies, it served to inflame resistance to British rule still further, inspiring the rebels and depressing the loyalists.

In early 1773, Jenkinson was merely a junior Lord of the Treasury and still not a member of the Privy Council (which eminence he reached that February), but his influence was greatly increased by his friendships with both the King and Lord North, who had become prime minister in 1770. Indeed, the Whig Edmund Burke had already accused Jenkinson of being a leading figure in a secret “shadow government” that directed the policies of the nominal Ministers. He had also become an expert in the affairs of the East India Company, leading a parliamentary inquiry into its shaky finances. With his expertise in both finance and India it was thus natural to call him in to address the problem of the surplus of tea which had developed in the preceding year, further endangering the East India Company’s balance sheet.

On January 18, 1773 Jenkinson and a Treasury colleague John Robinson penned a Treasury memorandum outlining a plan whereby the East India Company’s surplus of tea could be on-sold to the American colonies, attracting the three-penny tea duty but still undercutting the massive supplies of smuggled tea, mostly sourced from Holland. Sponsored by North, this plan resulted in the Tea Act of 1773.

Assuming the Americans bought this cheaper tea, £900,000 could be raised for the Treasury and the American tea smugglers could be severely knocked back. Unfortunately, while Jenkinson and Robinson contemplated the tea being sold through the regular London auctions and delivered piecemeal to the colonies, the East India Company decided to supply the tea directly in large consignments – producing the massive, politically prominent shipment that the Boston Tea Partiers would destroy on December 16, 1773.

As protagonist of both the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party, Jenkinson thus bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the germination of American independence. He was also present at the disastrous Privy Council meeting of January 29, 1774 at which Alexander Wedderburn denounced and insulted Benjamin Franklin, thus turning Franklin into an outright opponent of the British connection. When independence finally came, he was a staunch supporter of strong measures against the colonists, and served for four years (1778-1782) as an effective Secretary at War, running the administrative side of British participation in the conflict as well as helping George III to prop up the wittering Lord North.

Philosophically, Jenkinson shared most British disgust at the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and would have agreed that by changing John Locke’s “Life, Liberty and Property” into the French-inspired “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” Thomas Jefferson was essentially constructing a shoplifters’ charter.

Yet Jenkinson’s ideas were not missing in the republic that eventually arose across the Atlantic. While his Royalism died there and his support for property rights was only partially upheld, Jenkinson’s economic principles found a ready echo after 1789 in the administration of President George Washington. Above all, Jenkinson supported sound money – he undertook two notable British re-coinages, in 1774 and 1797 – and he was also sceptical about the extreme free trade position, believing that speculative markets could overwhelm the price mechanism. As President of the Board of Trade from 1786 to 1804, he was to put these principles into effect in combating the domestic famines of the late 1790s, as well as being a notably tough negotiator for British interests in the 1794 Jay Treaty. Across the Atlantic, Jenkinson’s economic principles of sound money and free trade scepticism were also largely put into effect – by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

Charles Jenkinson has received no biography, even in his own country, in spite of his forty years in high office and his inspiration behind his son’s fifteen successful years as Prime Minister. It’s hardly likely that Americans would celebrate him, let alone with the veneration they give to their Founding Fathers. Yet without Jenkinson’s ingenious, well-drafted Stamp Act and his clever scheme to relieve the East India Company of its tea surplus, American independence might never have happened.

April 11, 2015

© 2021 Martin Hutchinson