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18th-Century Britain, 18th-Century British Politics

Molasses Act, unwritten constitution, Sir Robert Walpole, Culloden Moor, patronage system

Following the union with Scotland, the British government functioned according to an unwritten constitution put in place after the Revolution of 1688. This agreement between the monarchs and Parliament provided for the succession of Anne’s German Protestant cousin, George of Hannover, and his heirs. It excluded from the throne the Catholic descendants of James II who now lived in France and who periodically attempted to regain the throne. Their supporters were known as Jacobites, and they rose in an unsuccessful rebellion in 1715. The Church of England remained the official religious establishment, but most Protestants who belonged to other churches enjoyed toleration.

The revolution also resolved the struggle for power between the monarch and Parliament, which had been an ongoing issue under the Stuarts. Parliament emerged as the leading force in government. The Hannoverians ruled as constitutional monarchs, limited by the laws of the land. During the 18th century, British monarchs ruled indirectly through appointed ministers who gathered and managed supporters in Parliament. Landowners eligible to vote elected a new House of Commons every seven years, although membership into the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, remained limited to hereditary and appointed lords and high church clergy. Parliament passed laws, controlled foreign policy, and approved the taxes that allowed the monarch to pay the salaries of officials, the military, and the royal family.

The Hannoverian monarchs associated the Whig Party with the revolution that brought them to power and suspected the Tory Party of Jacobitism. As a result, the Whigs dominated the governments of George I (1714-1727) and his son, George II (1727-1760). Neither king was a forceful monarch. George I spoke no English and was more interested in German politics that he was in British politics. George II was preoccupied with family problems, particularly by an ongoing personal feud with his son. Although they both were concerned with European military affairs (George II was the last British monarch to appear on a battlefield), they left British government in the hands of their ministers, the most important of whom was Sir Robert Walpole.

Walpole led British government for almost 20 years. He spent most of his life in government, first as a member of Parliament, then in increasingly important offices, and finally as prime minister. Walpole had skillful political influence over a wide range of domestic and foreign policy matters. He was chiefly interested in domestic affairs and was able to improve royal finances and the national economy. He reduced the national debt and lowered the land tax, which had slowed investment in agriculture. He secured passage of a Molasses Act in 1733 to force British colonists to buy molasses from British planters and ensure British control of the lucrative sugar trade. Walpole kept Britain out of war during most of his administration. A growing sentiment in Parliament for British involvement in European conflicts forced Walpole to resign in 1742.

Walpole so firmly established the Whigs that the two-party system all but disappeared from British politics for half a century. He created a patronage system, which he used to reward his supporters with positions in an expanding and increasingly wealthy government. Opposition to patronage eventually grew within the Whig Party among those who believed that ministers had acquired too much power and that politics had grown corrupt.

In 1745 a Jacobite rebellion posed a serious threat to Whig rule. Led by Charles Edward Stuart, the grandson of James II, the rebellion broke out in Scotland. The rebels captured Edinburgh and successfully invaded the north of England. The rebellion crumbled after William Augustus, who was the duke of Cumberland and a son of George II, defeated the Jacobites at Culloden Moor in Scotland in 1746.



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