What changed for the American colonies when King George III took the throne?

King George III portrait, studio of Allan Ramsay

King George III portrait, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, to the throne of Great Britain on October 25, 1760. When he ascended the throne, Great Britain had been at war with France for a number of years. The new king was the first of the Hanoverian line to be born in England. Though mindful of the restraints on his powers as a constitutional monarch, George III desired to be a strong ruler and wanted to influence government policy. The king used patronage (his personal power to appoint individuals to key positions in the government and the military) and his immense, personal prestige to influence government policy. When George III came to the throne, the Prime Minister of Great Britain was the Duke of Newcastle, and William Pitt served as the Secretary of State in Newcastle’s cabinet. Newcastle’s government soon began to unravel due to differences within the British cabinet on an expansion of the war with France. When it was learned that the kings of France and Spain had entered into a compact of mutual aid, Pitt proposed declaring war on Spain. George III, on the other hand, wanted to avoid an escalation of the conflict with France. When Pitt was outvoted in the cabinet on the expansion of the war, he left his position as Secretary of State on October 5, 1761. Within the year, Newcastle’s government would fall. By May 1762, Lord Bute, a close personal friend and former tutor of the King, replaced the Duke of Newcastle as Prime Minister.

Tobacco Card, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Tobacco Card, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

The king’s new advisors re-evaluated Britain’s trade policies with the colonies. For over one hundred years, Great Britain had regulated colonial trade with a number of navigation and trade laws. These laws, stemming from the economic theory of mercantilism, generally promoted British shipping and commercial interests. Over the years, these trade laws had been essentially negated by the unofficial British practice of salutary neglect, which was the avoidance of strict enforcement of the laws. Lord Bute, and the Prime Ministers who followed him, ended the practice of salutary neglect and moved to aggressively enforce Britain’s trade laws with the American colonies. The substantial increase in the size of the British Navy during the war with France gave the British government the strength to choke colonial smuggling and enforce trade laws more effectively after 1760.

To crack down on smuggling in the American colonies, the British government also increasingly began to use Writs of Assistance. A type of search warrant, the writs authorized government officials to look for contraband, such as smuggled goods, in private homes and businesses. The writs also placed no limits on the time, place or manner of a search. In 1761, sixty-three Boston merchants challenged the legality of the process. James Otis, Jr., an attorney who had formerly represented the royal government, argued the case for the merchants. Though they lost their case, the surrounding publicity fueled anger within the merchant classes of Boston against the British government.